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Monday, November 7, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #30: There is but One Enemy


Zefir had never been so exhausted in his life. Every vein was on fire, his pseudo-metallic bones rattling inside as if they would burst from his body; even his feet and hands throbbed to the tip of his claws; he held sail-foil tail held at an awkward angle, because it was too much effort to keep it in place. Valin kept him afloat, cleverly redirecting cooling flows, and readjusting power from the core in Zefir's body to every bit in his wings.

Already it was midmorning, and he hadn't paused in flight, though he worried about how Valin's suppuration fared. At least the tablets in the med-pack had cut down some of the fever, but Valin's hand on his panel was still too warm.

In the distance, he spotted something, something only a matter of flight-minutes away from the Wheelteeth mountain. Even from this distance it was massive, its unmoving wings blotting out the disk of the sun. Its silhouette against the backdrop of the sundisk made it appear even more beastly.

This was the end. Their last flight.

Smaller shapes of the Wing guarding it flitted about in maneuvers to cover a large swath of the sky, and Zefir knew that they would soon spot him.

Valin gave no direction through the panel. He didn't need to.

Zefir craned his neck around to peer at his Navigator. Valin's eyes held a strange luster, too bright, his lips dry and cracked despite the water in the med-pack. The look in his eye...Zefir had seen it Nyru's gaze before she made the last sacrifice for her squad. Her face flashed in his memory, before the explosion—

Zefir slowed his wingstrokes, even though he knew he should be hurrying his pace. He should be desperate to catch up to the beast of a flyer, and he was...but he needed this single, brief moment. For Valin.

Valin met his eye, and nodded firmly. He made the signals for engage and fight.

Zefir nodded, and wished there was time to embrace him. Instead, he said over the roar of the wind, "To the end with you, my Navigator."

Valin's sad, windswept smile was response enough, but he began to sign. Not using the sharp, quick signals for direction in the air, but rather the more delicate sign language the Navigators used amongst themselves: If we fly to the sundisk together, then so be it. Valin hesitated, perhaps wondering what more to say. Zefir himself didn't know what words could match what he felt soaring in his heart-mind.

Finally, Valin signed with graceful motions he had never seemed to acquire. But now they had attained such beauty. You will always be my kin, my blood, my friend and brother.

"First flight always," Zefir said in response.

Valin's expression firmed in resolve. Now we engage. Fight.

Zefir returned his attention to the Beast flying ever onward. From deep within, he found some inner reserve of strength, something as yet untapped. He arced his wings in great powerful strokes, timing his breaths to add to his speed. Valin kept a running stream of information on the Wing's locations in their sweep pattern, hawklings on the outside, the larger bomber dragons closer in escort to the great fixed-winged Beast.

There was no use trying to mask his intent; he couldn't hide. Closer now, he spotted the familiar mark on the side of the hawklings proclaiming them of the Third Wing—what had been Zefir's own Wing. He wanted to curse the gods—all of them damn it—but he knew it wasn't luck. Likely, Mother's design. Even if she didn't know Zefir would fly against them, she thought perhaps that Valin would.

The nearest hawkling came flying toward them, its small body and precise wingstrokes giving him momentary pride—the Wing of his squad were masters of the air. But when it came within sight, the hawkling Nav lifted his hand to flash the universal sign for surrender.

Zefir didn't have time to fight each individual. And certainly couldn't take down—he cringed at that—all ten of them. No, I can, but they're not the target.

He inhaled, feeling his insides heat. He moved into position to sear the poor hawkling from the sky, only for the heat to instantly dissipate. Valin's move, channeling his heat levels to extinguish the fire. So his Navigator didn't want him using flame, because—

Because of the firebomb.

The hawkling's beak opened to reveal the dark maw of its flechette gun. Valin directed him into a thirty degree downslide, before indicating the arc upward in their old divebomb maneuver. Zefir tucked his wings in tight and fell out of the hawkling's firing range, but others now were converging in a standard attack formation—the V, some of the bomber dragons splitting off from the Beast's side.

A flechette bolt whizzed by his tail, searing across the top of his flesh. He hit the lowest point of his U dive, before he began to climb upward. Shots whizzed by him, humming like angry bees. He heard Valin scream, but Zefir couldn't stop to see if his Navigator was alive. I would know, I'd know if I lost him. 

The directions still came through his panel. Urging him upward. Zefir barely had time to feel relief, when he heard Valin returning fire; he didn't know if it deterred the Wing. But flying higher than they were capable would. The first puff of a cloud tickled his sides when the hawklings broke off from their pursuit. Upward. Faster. He spied the Beast below him as he reached the apex of his arc; he was so high up now that his target was a mere speck. His diaphragm-ballonette was now able to handle such a climb, but it wasn't high enough. Higher. He stretched every fiber of his mechanical muscles, forcing himself to gain altitude, to kiss the clouds of the sky. His lungs stuttered just as they had so long ago. But now he knew his limits, he knew to listen to his Nav—and Valin waited.

He sucked in a difficult breath, forcing three more wingstrokes into that single moment of air.

And the direction came through his panel: DIVE. Eighty degree downslide.

Zefir turned on tail and began to fall. The glorious feeling of descent tickled at his insides. He held his wings tight to his side, narrowing his gaze at his target. Distance—he read it from his Nav—one thousand meters. The Beast plodded on in the sky, and Zefir could hear the awful roar of its engines, see the strange rotating wings in a blur beneath its belly. Too late he noticed the top of the thing opening to reveal a large flechette gun. Five hundred meters. He thought perhaps he could see a flight-masked Nav aiming the gun from within the Beast's head. The Nav was fully contained inside its head—how was that possible? The flechette gun rotated in his direction. Mother? Could she fly and shoot? Would she dare to shoot at him? Two hundred meters.

The massive flechette gun barked, and Zefir saw the bolt barely in time. In his dive he couldn't extend his wings, so he forced open his foil-sail tail and darted to the side. The bolt sizzled through the sky, crackling like lightning; it hissed as the man-sized flechette soared passed him. One hundred meters. He thought maybe Valin cried out the same directions he sent through the panel, though he couldn't be sure, "Now!"

Zefir opened his wings, and one of the edges of his wing-membrane began to tear; he clamped down on a scream—he needed all of his air. But it arrested his downward plunge only enough to reach out with all of his limbs, to catch the head of the Beast in his arms. He slammed into the hard metal body. Pain exploded in his arms, as he tried to pull it from the sky. He released a sound that was half defiant roar, and half enraged scream. The Beast tottered, its Nav trying to compensate as Zefir's claws tore through its metal head; the glass shield of its eyes cracked. He saw the gun rotating toward him, but he heard pistol-fire from Valin's seat; the pistol bolts pinged against the open flight seat.

Zefir knew he couldn't let the Beast crash, not with its dangerous cargo. Already he could see the open fields around the Wheelteeth's mountain home, the cremation pits...the Post.

That's when he heard her voice. I come, Zefir-sibling!

More shots from Valin flew into the Beast's head, making the Nav within duck from it. He extended his wings as wide as they would go; agony speared through him when more of his membrane tore, gaping holes in the brass flesh of his wings. He knew he couldn't hold it to land safely, but there was nothing else to—

The slight weight from his back disappeared as Valin leaped down on to the Beast's head. Zefir tried to steady the Beast, gritting his teeth as he screamed from between them.

Valin let off more shots, and leapt down into the Beast's head.

#

Mid-flight Navigator changes are forbidden for a reason, Valin remembered his dragon saying long ago.

And yet he knew Zef couldn't hold the Beast, nor could he dare to tear it from the sky. The sharp tearing sound of brass flesh made Valin redirect some more power to Zefir's wings—the last bit left his friend had. But Zefir couldn't continue to fall.

Timing it, he leapt down on the massive flyer's blunt head, aiming for the hole there—how the Nav had been sealed inside. The Nav ducked from his shots, and with his heart in his throat, he leaped down inside the bomber beast's head. He blinked, seeing the familiar controls, a huge panel almost exactly like Zef's. And the Nav barreled toward him, flight mask hiding her expression. Her arms were outstretched to catch him. He ducked, but her fist caught against his ribs; he lifted the pistol without thought, an automatic response, and pulled the trigger. Three bolts speared through her flight jacket, and blood blossomed down her chest. With a heavy thunk, the Nav—is it Mirena?—slumped to the floor.

Valin reached up a hand through the hole and flashed the sign at his dragon: Retreat. Upslide.

Zefir let out a roar that seemed to encompass all of his pain. His quicksilver eyes glinted, and Valin prayed Zef would follow his direction.

Running to the Nav panel, Valin began to send it to a more even descent, and strapped himself into a padded chair bolted to the ground. But the wings spinning beneath it, only one of them was spinning, causing it to roll off center. He tried to vent the heat from the spinners, but nothing happened. The ground was rapidly approaching, and his only thought was how many times can a techworker Nav survive a crash?

He glanced up to see Zefir scream, his claws scrabbling at the bomber as its heavy form began to tumble; but in an effort to avoid being struck by the flyer itself, Zefir detached from the bomber, and rapidly began to fall at a slower rate. At least one of us won't crash. Like the gryph he'd crashed all he could do was try to even it out, and hope that the wheels would take some of the impact, that he would slide rather than—

He heard another sound. A roaring shriek that pierced through his eardrums, a decidedly siren screech. When he peered through the glass face of the flyer to the west, there was another flying speck closing the distance between them. Maddeningly long, graceful wings arced toward him. Innari!

Valin glanced up to see Zefir's claws puncturing through the body of the bomber. From beneath, he spotted the smaller dragon placing her shoulder against the wing braces without the working spinner, Ferrei's masked form strapped firmly to the dragon's back. The bomber began to stop its roll, pitching for a moment before Valin wrestled it under control. Two hundred meters to the ground. But he couldn't land with Innari beneath the wing. Wishing he could close his eyes, he instead forced them not to blink and jerked on the controls, forcing it into a side roll away from Innari's body. The working spinner hit the ground, churning up earth, and the wing caught, snapped, and sent the bomber into a spin, end over end. The nose slammed into the earth, only for it to fly upward and the tail slammed into the ground. Valin squeezed his eyes shut, screaming as his body was thrown violently against the flight straps; his bones protested, and he felt one of his clavicles snap against the force. His world was a whirling chaos.

And then it stopped. 

He tried to unhook the flight straps, but with his throbbing hand, and broken bone, the release latch didn't want to work. Slowly, he realized he was hanging upside down, the blood rushing to his face, burning in the X gouged in his cheek.

The underside—what was his ceiling—was peeled back, the screech of metal like a sharp needle through his temple. He saw Zefir's face, thank the Forge Gods. And the dragon's huge hand entered his sight. With one claw extended, Zef sliced through the straps and caught him as he almost fell on his head. Righted now, he had to close his eyes against the wave of pain, before opening them again to make certain his dragon was alive and well.

The pain etched into his expressive dragon brows made Valin step toward the Navigator's slumped form. Zefir inhaled to still his breath when Valin tore the flight mask from her face...

A woman he recognized as the First Leader of the Fourth Squad.  

Zefir made a pinched sound.

But Valin heard something that made his lurching heart leap into a gallop. He glanced behind him, seeing the large cargo hold containing the firebomb...and it was hissing, expelling a tiny bit of its load through its gaseous sprayers. Valin coughed at the caustic stench emanating from it, and tried to bellow at his friend to flee as he waded into the mist. He had no techworker tools, but the firebomb was crude, simple enough that knobs held the key to its heart. Valin twisted it, and a panel fell open, exposing the tanks of liquid. He had to stop the flow to the sprayers, but here—here was the Inventrix's madness made plain. The hoses were complicated devices made to spray a little of each mixture at exacting times, so as not to overlap and blow before igniting most of the sky in fire. And how little time  he had...

"Valin!" came the cry from a voice he recognized. His Second.

He worked without looking up to see Ferrei. "Second Leader, get Zef and Innari away from here. Get everyone away. Whatever Wheelteeth—"

"Damn it, Valin," she said with her commander's voice, "heed and listen to your Second. There's another firebomb."

Valin inhaled and it pained him; sweat trickled off his nose tip. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Innari's slender form dart down through the hole to come toward him, Ferrei on her back, his Second's flight mask dangling down so he could see her face.

"Curse Mirena to the ten hells," Valin spat, his mind still calculating how quickly he had before the sprayer continued. "She's mad. You never would've betrayed our Clan, Second. I know that with all my heart."

If possible, the X gouged in Ferrei's cheek was even deeper than his own, but the stitching was crude, perhaps her blood-cousin's work. "Our Clan, no. But I also know my ancestors would deny me entrance to the sundisk if I thought there was any blood honor in killing children, Elders, and invalids." She grasped his shoulder, and he nearly cried out as the bone shifted. "You must believe me, Valin. Trust me as your Second Leader. As squad. As kin and blood."

Valin's eyes watered and he told himself it was from the mild fever. Or the broken bone."Always at your side, Ferrei."

Her dark eyes were shinning with the same feverish determination he'd seen among his fellow Navigators before plunging headlong into a maneuver they knew meant death for them, but survival for the Wing, for squad. "This firebomb here is a weaker decoy. If you hadn't taken it down the Wheelteeth would've spent their squads in trying to stop it. The real threat is in another fixed winged flyer. It was mere flight-minutes behind this one." She grasped both his shoulders and looked into his eyes, before raising her face up toward Zefir's quicksilver eyes above. "Both of you can stop it. Jarre's in a hawkling above and will help escort you. Leave this firebomb to me. And Innari."

Could his Second stop this thing? Or would they burn?

"Go, Valin," she said softly. "Besides, you make for an admirable techie Trainer. I'm a techworker now. Let me do this."

He let out a sharp bark of a laugh, before he called to his dragon friend. Zefir's hand reached down, and Valin hopped into that brass palm; his dragon lifted Valin, and peering down into the torn head of the bomber, Zefir said in his baritone rumble, "We are the shield, Ferrei. Always and forever."

Valin leaped into his accustomed perch and touched Zefir's Nav panel, seeing all of the warnings—holes in the membrane of his wing leaking cooling-liquid and some of his muscles needing repair, but his breath was even enough now to launch.

Without hesitation Zefir leaped skyward.

#

You can fly as fast as me, came Innari's thought-voice. I know you can.

Part of him wanted to laugh, but instead her words spurred him on. Such innocent belief in him, and Zefir could feel it blossom in his chest, that simple statement. He was the fastest thing in the sky. Even though his wings were afire, throbbing in pain so fierce that his chest felt tight, even though the hole in the pseudo-metallic membranes caused him to slow, he had to be the fastest, most agile flyer in the sky. He had been built as a battle dragon, to sear enemies from the sky, but today he had but one enemy. Perhaps, there had only ever been one enemy. He had never hated the Wheelteeth. Anger, yes, but hate, no. He had wanted to hate Kirwen, and many ways he thought he did, but he understood her all too well. She was Wheelteeth too, and he didn't hate the Wheelteeth anymore than he hated his own Cog Clan.

But now he felt hatred toward his enemy. This firebomb that would ignite the sky, this firebomb that would burn them all to ash. The fury blossomed so fully inside of him that he felt it added power to his wingbeats; he clamped down on a fearsome roar, swallowing it inside so that the roar rattled around in his heart-mind, powering it anew. The pain of his body didn't fade. If anything it intensified, made his world narrow to his wholly single goal. Valin had explained to him the tempering of normal metal once, not pseudo-metallic flesh, but he felt he understood how the metal felt.

He would stop his enemy.

Even if Mother was flying the firebomb.

Ahead of him he could see what he should've guessed. This Beast of a flyer, a match in every way to the one he and Valin had taken down, was escorted by three full squadrons. And now, the Wheelteeth took their gryphon squads to meet it. As he flew onward, Jarre's hawkling struggling to keep up with him, he knew he would have to plunge into the middle of the fighting, to quickly take down any fighter in his way be it Cog or Wheelteeth.

Valin signaled him to slow. And he saw Jarre—odd to see the big Third in such a small flyer—flash him battle commands. Make path for you. Come up from below. Fly vertical, ninety-degree upslide.

The hawkling could never match such a vertical flight. And neither could any other flyer in the sky, be it Cog or Wheelteeth. And he thought he knew why his Third would suggest such a maneuver—Zefir didn't have time to take down the flyer, but when it opened its tail to release its deadly cargo...Zefir could grab the massive firebomb.

Zefir gestured an affirmative, and he listened to Valin's directions, the constant stream of information on the location of the flyers darting through the sky around the Beast. They would dart through the mass from below, focus only on dodging maneuvers, not on engagement. Jarre was already plunging through the middle, carving a swath so the middle would be free; even from this distance Zefir could hear the hiss-clatter of the hawkling's flechette gun through its open mouth.

Fear trickled through his determination, not of dying this time, but of failing all the others in the mountain below him. He felt Valin's hand pat his shoulder, great affectionate slaps. And he knew his Navigator felt the same way.

He began his dive, knew plunging downward would be the easy part; flying nearly vertical would not be easy. Easy, Nyru had once said, is the descent. Hard and painful is the climb back upwards. And now he knew she meant more than flying.

A single gryphon broke off from its fellows—damn it to the ten hells what did I tell them about solo maneuvers?­—and it came toward him; it could never match his speed, or his plunge. But it hesitated. It flew toward him, but there was no bolt-fire.

"Valin," he said, though his breath was already coming in great gasps. "Signal to the gryph our intent."

His Navigator hesitated, he was certain of it. Cog flight commands were different from the Wheelteeth's. Zefir flashed a few signs he remembered from his training with the gryph squads. But a moment later the lone gryphon signaled back: Understood.

The gryphon stayed on its present course as Zefir reached the bottom of his dive. But he watched as the other gryphons quickly communicated between themselves. Zefir saw that a small line opened in the middle, those closest to his future flight path fighting hard to make certain they either took down the Cog's larger bomber dragons, or retreated to make the Cogs take chase. And then he saw her in the middle of the chaos, the Wolf in her mask, swooping in circles around the path he would take.

As Valin signaled, Zefir spread his tortured wings wide, feeling the pull as a sharp, intense pain. And he pointed his nose toward the sky, toward the sundisk, toward the Beast. The signal came from his panel—dart right—and he twisted in midair, feeling the buzz-hum of a bolt sizzling over his nose. Ever upward he climbed, feeling his back muscles wrench, his whole body threatening to betray him; he threw everything into the ascent, pounding at the air, forcing it to his will. More membrane began to tear, but it spurred him onwards. The fight around him retreated to mere shapes and shadows; the Beast loomed closer now.

A bomber dragon dived toward him, but all he saw was it bursting apart at the seams, and Jarre's hawkling twisting to avoid the debris, his Third throwing more flechette bolts through the sky.

Another wing runner from his own Clan came at him to broadside him—sacrificing himself—but Kirwen's gryphon intersected its flight path; she used her pistol to take the Nav, and then cut her own engines to fall, avoiding a collision herself.

It was why Zefir didn't see a hawkling barreling toward him from the opposite direction.

But Valin did.

Valin cut some of the power to Zefir's wings, giving him more breath, but causing him to dip a mere half-degree; but that wasn't enough. The hawkling crashed into his side, and he could feel himself falling—no, no, no! Zefir twisted to plunge his claws into the flyer, and in a desperate twist he tore the machine in half—and its Nav fell from the sky. To kiss the ground.

Zefir felt pain; everywhere. He didn't dare look to see if the hawkling had torn his flesh. Or caused more damage. For a brief moment, he thought about giving in. Just closing his eyes and awaiting the inevitable crash into the ground, so, so far away now. It would all be over. But he felt Valin's hand on his shoulder again, felt the burning flesh of his Nav's wounded palm as his own. And he arrested his momentary downward fall, screaming, allowing the roar that had built within him to stream out in a fiery jet.

Upward. Everything ceased to matter but flying. The pain increased, his sides heaving. The Beast was no more than—and the signal came: Three hundred meters. And again that steady hand on the agony of his shoulder.

The Beast's tail was opening. Three men were pushing it on wheels, and it hung suspended on the edge of the ramp for a breath. And then the firebomb, equipped now with its own set of blunt, ugly wings, fell from the sky. He felt Valin's signal before it even came through the panel, the redirection of his fading energies. Fifty meters. And Zefir held out his arms, like he'd seen fathers do when tossing their laughing children in the air to catch them.

The firebomb fell into his outstretched arms, slamming into his chest. He used his legs and back feet to grapple the unwieldy thing, using his teeth to snap its crude wings from its body. I'm the only wings you'll need now, enemy. Already he heard sounds inside of it, the rumbling of chemicals stirring. He still flew upward, up beyond the Beast itself. Higher. He knew that the firebomb would be safer if it went off at an altitude far, far higher than any flyer could fly.

He heard Valin's distant yell, almost stolen by the wind. "Crimp the nozzles shut!"

He used his teeth against the metal, feeling the pipes and nozzle close shut with the force; he couldn't get to the sprayers farthest away from his teeth, and he scented their payload spraying into the air, the deadly chemicals already shooting from inside. Some of it coated him, his arms, his chest. But he had to fly higher.

Something beyond fear drove him. He touched the clouds and flew higher. Just as he had that day with Valin so long ago, forcing himself beyond his tested limits. Only his Navigator didn't stop him this time. But Valin couldn't help now. No redirecting of energies would matter. He blocked out of the sound of the wind, the acrid smell of the liquid on him, of everything but flying.

The clouds caressed his sides. He breathed in their cooling vapors. 

Zefir closed his eyes.

And Valin signaled—force enemy away.

He held on longer. Higher, higher! And he heard his Navigator's voice as if the wind ceased around them, "Let it go, Zef. Let it go now."

With a heaving breath, Zefir threw the heavy firebomb up above his head. And he knew what he had to do, even as Valin ceased the flow of cooling to his body, forcing the heat inside of him to its utmost. He inhaled the largest breath he was capable of; the fire built inside until he thought he would be immolated.

Zefir aimed his mouth toward the firebomb, toward the thin spray coming from it. And he released flame from his body, so scorching that it glowed white-hot. The flame caught against the mist trailing from the firebomb. He watched as it ignited, as the flame licked hungry against the chemical trail and flew inside of the firebomb's heart.

He tucked his wings against his body, suspending himself in the air for a single whirr-tick of his own heart. The explosion blossomed through the air, the sound piercing through him, the light searing his eyes. The heat of it flickered against his body as he began to fall. He felt the chemicals on his body ignite, and the flame ate into his flesh.

All he could hear was the sound of his own screaming.

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