Jay just sat. His mind was like the empty yellow sky. Then he stood and looked down both sides of his dune. He was miles high. Clouds brushed daunting slopes below him.
Rather than descend down either side of the dune, Jay ran along its crest. Each step cracked a vertebrae in the dune’s back. Sand collapsed in hot, course rivers. His feet sank, slowing him 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 red walls but he blasted above them. Below, the sky melted into golden honey and poured around the 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 in an airplane at night.
“Yeah, it’s hard sleeping on a plane. 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.” He jerked his thumb across the aisle. The man’s six-year-old daughter slept beside her mother, who slept by the right window separated by a seat and an aisle from her husband. “The ol’ ball-and-chain Eva drags me back every year to look at birds. 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 drugs.”
“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 LLSTA 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 called by the chain. The Zephyr was ten times the size of a blimp and drifted with a thousand clumsy wings. Nakayama’s blue tentacles ensnared it and threw it through the sky toward the 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, which enclosed 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 until the light reached her in ZAB: the white light carried warmth which bathed her like a hot-spring. The purple flesh relaxed to a subdued, silvery blue.
“Don’t get too comfortable,” said Lucille. “We’re still in trouble, dayo.” 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 like a sauna in here! Can we turn them down a tad?” Thousands of Lucille’s pilots signaled agreement by concurring on their touchscreen monitors.
“Jya, bird-thing,” said Lucille, “does our new Zephyr have a thermostat?”
The bird-pilot typed on a keyboard in ZAP. “I have just the idea.”
White light collected on either side of the Galaxy Zephyr’s spine. With the blare of Gnostic archons’ trumpets, sixteen white wings erupted, each longer than the Galaxy Zephyr was tall. Every feather was a jet engine. With added distance, 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 takes the four nearest wings. Learn your controls.”
Eisu directed the pilots of the right leg in flapping the wings from right glute to mid-back. “How will this help us, exactly?”
Daisuke bade the wings from left shoulder to mid-back 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 flesh taunted them with jeering eyes and mouths and tentacles. “On your order, Commander!”
“Go! No turning back!”
The Galaxy Zephyr fired all cylinders. Their new wings swiftly accelerated them to maximum speed. They raised the Wheel and flew for the ceiling of their confinement.
Tentacles couldn’t even react before the Wheel sliced them and dug deep into the Enemy Hurricane’s flesh. The Galaxy Zephyr dove into the wound to cut deeper and deeper.
The wound bled teeth all around them. “What the hell?” shouted Charlie. The teeth crunched each other into sharp shards which speared the Galaxy Zephyr’s Hurricane Armor. “Aaaugh, that noise! ” He covered his ears and piloted with his pedals. “These teeth!”
In his wheelchair, Daisuke couldn’t pilot with his pedals to free his hands and cover his ears; instead he committed his four wings to shielding the Galaxy Zephyr from the teeth, and the noise abated. “Eisu, Fumiko, daijoubu?”
“No teeth here!” said Fumiko. She used power leftover from Daisuke’s wings to double the force from her own wings. Eisu did the same as Charlie moved his wings into protective position with Daisuke’s. “Maximum thrust!”
“Ora!” Lucille ignored the teeth cracking around her spaceship. “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 kicked them away, freed because the wings took the role of propulsion.
Finally, after inexpressible duration, the Galaxy Zephyr burst through the surface. “Oraaaugh!” They pulled tooth-shards from their armor and let the wounds flood with gold.
Behind them the Enemy Hurricane bubble deflated. The fistula they’d burst through flooded with teeth and shouted like an awful maw, whose voice was audible through space-vacuum because of the steam from the Galaxy Zephyr’s wings. “Look at the anguish you’re causing me! Can’t you see that I’m humanity, as much or more so than you are?”
“Pfa!” Lucille beamed so broadly 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 you killed her!” 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 at salvation! You murdered your opportunity to return to Earth!”
“Aaaugh!” The Enemy Hurricane contracted into a blob. “Then I’ll dash your hopes, as well!”
Lightning cracked from the Enemy Hurricane. The Galaxy Zephyr was too close to dodge. It struck the Wheel, which warped.