Jay just sat. His mind was like the empty yellow sky. Then he stood and looked down either side of his rust-red dune. Clouds brushed daunting slopes below him. He was miles high.
Rather than descend either side of the dune, Jay ran along its crest. Each step cracked a vertebrae in the dune’s back. Sand collapsed in hot, coarse rivers. His feet sank until the current swept him away.
He fell through a cottony cloud. The sand sloped to roll him along the desert floor. He shot up an opposing dune and sailed like a skeeball.
As he spun, he counted his fingers. “One, two, three, four, five,” he counted on his left hand. “Six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen—” He was asleep. He was dreaming. He could fly like the Heart of the Mountain, that steam-powered bird.
The dunes grew into great sand-walls but he blasted above them. Below, the sky melted into golden honey and poured around the red mountain like heavenly syrup. Jay smeared the sunset thin like a masseuse oiling a back. Soon the dunes were dark with night.
Jay opened his eyes. His head rest on the window of an airplane bound for New Zealand. Outside, the sky was black and starry; most of the passengers slept. Jay shook his limbs awake as best he could in his cramped seat. It would be morning when he arrived in Sheridan.
“Couldn’t sleep, huh? Me neither.”
Jay tried to smile at the man on his right. He wore a loud red Hawaiian shirt frumpishly buttoned all the way to his neck, which was equally red. He wore dark sunglasses even at night on an airplane.
“Yeah, it’s hard sleeping on a plane,” the man went on. “Way too noisy, am I right?”
“I was actually asleep for a while.” Jay counted his fingers. “Now I’m awake.” He unzipped his backpack and opened a bag of chips from Chile. “Breakfast?”
The man ate a fistful of chips. “Going to New Zealand?”
“I’m hopping off when we refuel.” Jay ate one chip at a time. “Sheridan.”
“Ah. Me too. The ol’ ball-and-chain Eva drags me and her kid back every year to look at birds.” He jerked his thumb at his wife and her daughter across the aisle. “Chicks, am I right?” He sighed. “How about you? What’re you here for?”
“I’m not a bird-watcher,” said Jay. “I’m a people-watcher. I hope to photograph religious activities on the islands.”
“Religious, huh?” He pronounced the word with a smug smile. “I see how it is.”
“I’m not religious per se,” said Jay. “I’m curious how Sheridanian religion interacts with psychoactive bugs.”
“Yeah?” The man leaned close. “Now you sound like my kinda guy.”
Jay turned to the window and crossed his arms.
“Hey, it’s okay. Don’t tell me anything I shouldn’t know!” The man laughed. “Guys like us gotta stick together, am I right?”
Jay didn’t ask what he meant. “Do you like anime?”
Each seat’s headrest held a screen for canned TV including a surprising selection of anime. “I’m impressed. They’ve got LuLu’s Space-Time Acceleration.” Before the man could interject, Jay donned headphones and hummed the opening theme.
“It’s a big one,” thought Nakayama to the Galaxy Zephyr’s Hurricane Armor. She sailed through the yellow desert sky on a column of steam toward the Zephyr summoned by the Chain. The Zephyr drifted with a hundred clumsy wings. Nakayama’s blue tentacles ensnared it and slung it through the sky toward the red mountain.
The mountain’s summit crumbled into a caldera which caught the Zephyr and dragged it into the deep.
ZAP’s bird-pilot saluted with its right wing. “Commander Lucille, the new Zephyr is entering our armor!”
“About time!” Lucille glared defiantly at the Enemy Hurricane enclosing them all like a bubble. “Will our controls be more responsive, having another pilot?”
“Many more pilots, depending on how you count them. To be fair, much of the data in our new Zephyr represents bacteria, arthropods, and reptiles, but I estimate 54% of humanity’s variation can be expressed as linear-combinations of the minds merged with our Hurricane Armor. In this sense, our armor has billions of pilots.”
“They’d better be self-starters, ’cause I’m not gonna micromanage them!” Lucille watched white light flow from the green Wheel into the Galaxy Zephyr’s purple flesh. “Is that them?”
“Hai.” As the light flooded the Galaxy Zephyr, Lucille’s ten thousand pilots gasped. Lucille didn’t know why they gasped until the white light reached her in ZAB: it carried warmth which bathed her like a hot-spring. The purple flesh relaxed to subdued silvery blue.
“Don’t get too comfortable,” said Lucille. “We’re still in trouble.” The Enemy Hurricane’s bubble contracted. As their prison shrank, its walls thickened. “Charlie, Daisuke, Eisu, Fumiko, report!”
When Daisuke pressed buttons, the Galaxy Zephyr’s left hand twitched almost instantly. “Significant improvement to extremity responsiveness,” said Daisuke. The twins concurred, wiggling the Galaxy Zephyr’s toes.
Charlie blinked his eye in the harsh white light. Sweat soaked his eye-patch. “The new guy’s a little bright. It’s a sauna in here! Can we turn them down a tad?” Thousands of Lucille’s pilots signaled agreement with Charlie on their touchscreen monitors.
“Jya, bird-thing,” said Lucille, “does our new Zephyr have a thermostat?”
The bird-pilot typed on ZAP’s control-panel. “I have just the idea.”
White light collected on either side of the Galaxy Zephyr’s spine. With a blare of Gnostic archons’ trumpets, sixteen white wings erupted, each longer than the Galaxy Zephyr was tall. Every feather was a jet-engine. The warmth subsided.
Lucille snickered. “Not a bad look.” She flipped her hair back and the Galaxy Zephyr grew a silvery blue ponytail like that of her late mother, Princess Lucia. “Charlie, Daisuke, Eisu, Fumiko, each of your teams will take the four nearest wings. Learn your controls.”
Eisu directed the flapping of wings from right glute to mid-back. “How will this help us, exactly?”
Daisuke bade the wings from mid-back to left shoulder to bend in sequence. “We’re still not large enough to cut out of this bubble.”
“We don’t need to be large,” said Lucille. “We’ve got sixteen wings made entirely of jet-turbines. We’re surely fast enough to slice right through!”
“I hope you’re right,” said Charlie. The Enemy Hurricane closed in around them. Its red surface taunted them with jeering eyes and mouths and tentacles. “On your order, Commander!”
“Go! No turning back!”
The Galaxy Zephyr fired all cylinders. The new wings swiftly accelerated them. They raised the Wheel and flew for the ceiling of their confinement.
Tentacles had no time to react before the Wheel sliced them and dug into the Enemy Hurricane’s flesh. The Galaxy Zephyr dove into the wound to cut deeper and deeper.
The wound bled giant teeth all around them. “What the hell!” shouted Charlie. The teeth crunched each other into sharp shards which shanked the Galaxy Zephyr’s Hurricane Armor. “Aaaugh, that noise!” He piloted with his pedals, freeing his hands to cover his ears. “These teeth!”
In his wheelchair, Daisuke couldn’t pilot with his pedals. Instead he committed his four wings to shielding the Galaxy Zephyr from teeth, and the noise abated. “Eisu, Fumiko, daijoubu?”
“No teeth down here!” said Fumiko. She redirected spare power from Daisuke’s wings to her own. Eisu did the same as Charlie moved his wings into protective position. “Maximum thrust!”
“Ora!” Lucille ignored the teeth cracking all around. “We’ve almost bust out!”
“I doubt it,” ZAB said to Lucille on a private audio-channel. “There’s no telling how thick—”
“Ora ora!” Lucille ignored her robotic partner. “Just a little more!”
The Enemy Hurricane squealed and shrieked at the penetrating pain. When it grasped with tentacles, the Galaxy Zephyr’s legs were free to kick them away because the wings took the role of propulsion.
After inexpressible duration, the Galaxy Zephyr burst through the bubble. “Oraaaugh!” They pulled tooth-shards from their armor and let the wounds flood with gold.
Behind them, the Enemy Hurricane’s bubble deflated. The fistula they’d burst through flooded with teeth and shouted like an awful maw, audible through space-vacuum because of steam from the Galaxy Zephyr’s wings. “Look at the anguish you’re causing me! Can’t you see that I’m human, as much or moreso than you are?”
“Pfa!” Lucille beamed so broadly that Daisuke worried blood would drip from the corners of her smile. “Don’t fish for sympathy! The only human who could possibly pity you was my mother, Earth’s shining princess, but she died protecting us from you!” At the mention of Princess Lucia, all ten thousand pilots of the Galaxy Zephyr regained their grit from the grueling task of burrowing through the bubble. “You discarded your chance for salvation!”
“Aaaugh!” The Enemy Hurricane contracted into a blob. “Then I’ll dash your hopes as well!”
Thunderbolts cracked from the Enemy Hurricane. The Galaxy Zephyr was too close to dodge them. Lightning struck the Wheel, which warped.