Despite how close the northern mountain range appeared from Uriel, it took two days to reach it in Zeppelin, and two days afforded me more than enough time to get lost in my own mind. As I leaned against one of the gondola’s walls, I studied my comrades with mild fascination. Together, we had survived things that even my beloved Bald Eagles would have respected. From our journey’s beginning in Junction City, to the liberation of Loftsborough from Raze, and finally the massive battle to protect Uriel, each of my companions and I had faced and survived challenges we never would have imagined in the old world.
At last, using information from Izuma, the brother of the Storm Duo, we flew toward what we hoped would be our journey’s end. Far to the north, someone named Chronicle waited with the answers to all my burning questions. Finally, I would avenge Donovan and the Bald Eagles. Finally, I would stop Bradich and E Pluribus Unum from running free in the broken world they forced upon us. I should have felt relieved; I should have felt a sense of approaching closure. At the very least, I should have felt bittersweet expectation, yet I felt none of those things. Instead, a strange, implacable tightness gripped my chest. What exactly waited for us on the other side of those mountains?
“Ihlia?” Elsa approached me with her head tilted to one side. “Are you okay? You’ve been feeling weird, lately…”
Normally, I would have twisted my face at the idea of someone else informing me of how I felt, but in Elsa’s case, I could do little but nod at her. “I’m fine, little one.” I flashed her a grin.
Two days in the sky had also taught me quite a few things. I learned that sleeping in the gondola’s cramped quarters was easier for some than for others. I, for example, found the constricting walls to be pleasantly reminiscent of the many sniper nests in which I took repose during my days as a Bald Eagle. Oftentimes, missions would force Larz and I to remain all but motionless for more than a week in an area no larger than a closet. Unfortunately, while I found the enclosed tin box quite comfortable, most of my comrades expressed more than moderate distaste at the arrangement.
I learned that Elsa’s insatiable curiosity and youthful exuberance proved the word “boundless” to be more than a vague idea. She spent her every waking moment plastered to one of the windows; I feared her eyes might sink into her head given the ferocity with which she leered down at the ground beneath us. I learned that despite its seemingly close proximity, the deadly fallout cloud filled with rogue nanites actually floated quite high overhead. Despite our altitude, we had yet to reach the fallout’s belly.
My comrades and I debated a long time whether or not to attempt ascension through the dangerous fallout blanket. The risk was great; while it required little effort to adjust the hydrogen levels and cut the engine off until we cleared the film of rogue nanites, there was no guarantee the nanites would not adversely effect us in some way. I especially worried for Crelyos; the last thing he needed was rogue nanites aggravating his affliction.
In the end, it boiled down to whether or not the tactical advantage outweighed the underlying risks. Our enemies undoubtedly knew we would pursue them, but we hoped they would not know our method. E Pluribus Unum likely owned their fair share of Hoverbusters, but as Syd and Richter had pointed out, not even Hoverbusters could brave a journey through rogue nanites. If we used Zeppelin’s ability to float above the fallout cloud, we stood to gain the elements of stealth and surprise. In the end, we decided to risk it. We agreed to wait until we reached the mountain peaks that separated Uriel’s territory from the mysterious lands to the north; then, we would ascend.
Of the things I learned over the two days aboard Zeppelin, however, I considered the knowledge of how frequently Crelyos suffered from one of his attacks to be the most pragmatic. Every two hours, give or take fifteen minutes, Crelyos sank into one of the gondola’s corners and clutched the sides of his head in torturous agony. During that time, the scowl on his face almost frightened me. Elsa watched him during each of his episodes. She peeked at him from behind my dark cloak’s oversized collar, the one I had wrapped around her back in Uriel.
Elsa often glanced between Crelyos and Richter with a question in her eyes; Richter steadfastly ignored it. I gathered that Elsa perceived his silence as a resounding “no,” since she would drop her shoulders with a defeated sigh. Despite being so consistent, Crelyos’s suffering drove me crazy. When an attack jolted him from sleep, I woke as well and watched over him until his grunts subsided.
I took solace in the fact that his condition remained stagnant. Neither the frequencies nor the duration of his episodes increased over the time we spent sailing the skies toward the northern mountains. I allowed myself the naive hope that Oswald was correct when he speculated that Crelyos’s condition might not worsen given the unique nature of its origin. So the time passed in such a manner, and before I realized it, the mountains loomed before us like daunting gates barricading the night sky.
“Wow, they’re so big!” Elsa exclaimed excitedly and pointed toward the endless stretch of sharpened peaks. Despite the enormous distance separating Zeppelin from the ground beneath us, the jagged mountaintops still threatened to scrape us off the dirigible like prey caught by fingers desperately clawing toward the heavens. As Elsa pulled Magnolia tight against her chest, I quietly took my place at her side behind Richter. He twisted knobs and adjusted levers; the dark circles beneath his eyes betrayed his exhaustion. Aside from a basic understanding of the craft’s mechanisms, no one knew how to operate the airship save him. It was no surprise Richter suffered from sleep deprivation; in fact, I was surprised he had not yet passed out on his feet.
Crelyos mumbled as he stumbled to my side. I offered him a sidelong glance; a strange, faint flutter started in my stomach and worked toward my chest. Crelyos leaned forward and used his cybernetic right arm to lean against the aluminum panel above the window; together, we admired nature’s craftsmanship. Despite his hunched position, Crelyos still towered over me at least a foot; he dwarfed poor Elsa. “Damn, those things look vicious,” he said.
“Quite.” Oswald stood at Elsa’s left with his arms folded. “It’s humbling to think that despite our most earnest efforts, science only achieved the shameful capability to destroy a world and its mountains.” The old codger barely spoke above a whisper; his eyes glistened with a deep philosophical sorrow I dared not analyze. “I would rather that we had learned to create a single hill instead…”
“Hah, what are you talking about, Fancypants? I could kick up some dirt and make you a hill, no problem! Maybe all this flyin’s starting to mess with your head.” Crelyos chuckled beneath his breath.
“That’s merely transferring dirt. Where is the creation, there?” Oswald lifted a hand and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. After we all shared a moment of silence in recognition of Oswald’s strange mood, I laughed. Oswald reached back and scratched the back of his neck. “Ah, just the ramblings of an old man. Forget I said anything, dear boy.”
Crelyos stood silently contemplating the old codger’s disheartened statements. The spark of thought brightened the natural, beautiful blue hue in Crelyos’s eyes, but black swirls spiraled within them. I smiled and lifted a hand toward his back, but as my lips parted to offer him sarcastic words of encouragement, Richter spoke.
“Hold on to something. It’s time,” Richter said. With fingers that moved like lightning bolts, his hands danced across the aircraft’s electronic panel. The clicks and hisses that shivered throughout Zeppeliin formed a delicate chorus orchestrated entirely by Richter’s purposeful movements.
For a moment, Richter’s steel blue eyes focused on a single button that stood out larger than the ones around it. The airship’s horizontal motion shifted, and the aluminum frame beneath the leathery, oblong exterior groaned before rising through the clouds at an alarming rate. The electrifying jolt reminded me of a rickety elevator’s sudden ascent.
Elsa squeaked and stumbled forward, but two hands blurred through the air to save her from an uncomfortable fall. The moment those hands reached her shoulders, Richter slammed his palm atop the button over which it hovered. The engine’s hum abruptly ceased; the soft, incandescent light situated in the center of the ceiling died; and darkness flooded the gondola. I activated my night vision.
Elsa whimpered faintly and recoiled back toward the two hands tenderly embracing her shoulders. The first belonged to me; the second belonged to Crelyos. As I helped her regain her balance, she whispered quietly, “Thanks, but why is it so dark? Did Richter break it already?”
I laughed. “No, I think he just cut the power so we can float up through the fallout.” When Elsa stared at me quizzically, I placed a hand atop her head. “The big gray cloud that’s always in the sky,” I amended.
“We’re going up through that? But… what’s up there?” Elsa’s voice carried a tone of genuine interest and wonder.
“Hopefully, the sky,” Crelyos said with a chuckle.
“There’s more than one sky?” Elsa tipped her head to one side.
Oswald joined the conversation. “You could put it that way. Though I must say I’m a touch confused, do you not read minds? Surely people have thought of the sky before the Titan Crisis while in your presence.” I was relieved; the old codger rarely spoke to Elsa. Perhaps his response to her inquiry indicated that he had finally accepted her.
“Hm…” Elsa tipped her chin down and rested it atop Magnolia’s head. “Maybe? There are lots of things I see that I don’t always understand. People’s thoughts are mostly sad, though. This sky seems like something happy. Maybe it gets lost with all their other happy thoughts?”
“Well, then this will be quite the experience for you, little one,” I said with a smile.
“For all of us, right?” Elsa chirped merrily. “You all feel weird, but you’re so excited you’re about to explode. I don’t get it, but it makes me excited, too!” Elsa swung Magnolia back and forth in her arms.
“She’s right.” Crelyos laughed. “I’ve never been so jittery before… what’s it going to look like after ten years? I mean it should be no big deal. It’s just the sky, but… I just can’t explain it.”
“We’ll be experiencing some turbulence,” Richter said.
He was right. While my comrades conversed, the gondola rose higher into the sky, and the darkness we had grown accustomed to changed. I noticed the plummeting temperature first; it bit through my black tank-top and even my cargo pants’ heavy synthetic material. I glanced at Richter; if the temperature plummeted too low and froze the machinery, our trip to the north would abruptly end. He nodded at me reassuringly.
Outside Zeppelin, the fallout cloud enveloped our gondola, and it sent a shiver down my spine. Unlike the clouds that tumbled through the sky beneath the fallout, the irradiated cluster of rogue nanites were ominous as though the sky itself suffered from a hellish cancer. Each time a sickly wisp coiled against the glass, I drew back from the palpable sense of malice it exuded.
Streaks of static electricity flashed like fleeting serpents across the distorted black clouds, and the soupy clumps of fallout drew toward each spark as though pulled. The rogue nanites lapped up the latent electricity produced by those cracks of lightning only to disperse in grainy puffs with soundless explosions. Though the rogue nanites and static electricity completed their transactions in silence, a perpetual rumble shook the fallout cloud. Zeppelin rattled all the way to its aluminum skeleton.
What the hell is this… I thought.
Elsa jerked back when the first flash briefly illuminated our surroundings. Without nightvision, the nightmarish image of black tendrils clawing at our vessel likely appeared as ethereal specters to her. I placed my hand atop her head and offered it a few consoling pats. “It’ll be all right, little one,” I cooed gently. “We’ll pass through soon enough.”
“It’s so dark… is this the sky? I don’t like it at all…” Elsa whispered.
“Nonsense, child,” Oswald retorted. “We certainly would not have become so excited for this disgusting display. But…” Though blind in the dark confines of the gondola, Oswald stared down at the portable holocom on his wrist. A smile toyed at the corners of his lips. “But sometimes we must rise above darkness to reach that which is truly beautiful.”
“Damn, Fancypants, that was corny as hell,” Crelyos chortled teasingly.
“Hm, but you agree with him, Crelyos!” Elsa exclaimed and blindly swung Magnolia in Crelyos’ direction. The playful blow connected with Crelyos’ extended left arm, and he boisterously laughed as though to overpower the dismal scene outside the gondola.
“All right, you little squirt, now you’re gonna get it!” Crelyos roared and stepped in front of me; after some blind feeling in the dark, he plucked Elsa from my left side like a rag doll and immediately dropped to his rear on the aluminum floor. Elsa squealed uncontrollably as Crelyos coiled her against his chest and bombarded her with merciless tickling. I grinned; Crelyos was trying to alleviate her fear. Despite his affliction, Crelyos still possessed his soft spot for children.
A scorching hot white light invaded my nightvision, and I instinctively deactivated it. Zeppelin had broken through the fallout, but it seemed more like the revolting black clouds parted like curtains to reveal a stage. I inhaled for the first time above the fallout cloud in a decade, and a freezing blast of air filled my lungs. I sucked it in so vigorously that I found myself gasping. My knees nearly buckled, and I instinctively placed my hand against Crelyos’s shoulder. My first breath of air that did not reek of rust or acid in over a decade left my voice with little more than a hushed whisper to offer my comrades. “Crelyos, Elsa… look.”
My whisper was the only sound in the gondola. Elsa’s boisterous laughter and Crelyos’s teasing grunts had ceased. Elsa silently stood up in front of Crelyos’s enormous body; he stood behind her. The frigid breeze that leaked through the gondola’s cracks and crevices lightly tossed the ends of our clothes and shook the loose strands of our hair, but few of us noticed, and none of us cared.
A network of lights unlike any that dotted the dim, gray world far below us sparkled like glistening diamonds in the sky. The full moon stared down at us as if to say, “Long time, no see!” Its searing white light put the strongest incandescent lantern to utter shame. All at once, I realized I had forgotten what it meant to recognize color; not the bland, artificial color of our decrepit world that we stained with dirt, rust, and blood but the colors of the universe as they were intended to be seen. With the world’s light pollution tucked away beneath the fallout cloud, the distant spirals of our Milky Way galaxy stretched across the night sky like a glittering scarf.
The highest of earth’s clouds congregated like a council above the rogue nanites. The uppermost cumulonimbus clouds formed silken, fluffy hills that rose from the base of the fallout, and wispy cirrus clouds resembling birds’ wings dotted the sky beneath the stars. The most amazing clouds only sparsely decorated the horizon like miracles. The faint blue noctilucent clouds stretched across the far reaches of the horizon like tendrils; the moonlight gleamed off them as though they were crystalline.
Breathtaking, I thought.
“This… this is the sky?” After several moments of awestruck silence, Elsa spoke first.
“Yes, little one,” I whispered loud. “This is the sky.”
I stepped past Crelyos and Elsa to the large window at the front of the gondola next to Richter who stood motionless, captivated by the same scene as the rest of us. I reached forward; my fingerless leather glove groaned against my palm as I flattened it against the window in awe. I slowly turned to face my allies; a steady stream of quiet tears cascaded down Elsa’s cheeks like rivulets, and even Crelyos’ tainted eyes shimmered as though ready to burst.
Richter and Oswald both stood with their arms folded and their eyes forward, unmoving. Oswald’s glasses sparkled in the starlight. Richter seemed lost in thought as he stared into the sea of stars, and from the corner of my eye, I noticed him glance at Elsa from time to time.
I looked at Crelyos and Elsa, who both sniffled. “Oh, you two…” I shook my head.
“It’s just so pretty… why don’t we get to see it all the time?” Elsa’s tears did not seem to affect her voice.
“We screwed up. The Titans that blew up ten years ago took it away from us,” Crelyos said as he cleared his throat.
“No, Bradich screwed up. Bradich took it away from us,” I pointed out.
“Maybe, but humans still built the warheads in the first place,” Richter said.
“Indeed, one cannot completely blame Bradich for all the follies of man. We must all take responsibility,” Oswald chimed in.
I sighed; they were right, but knowing that failed to assuage the bitter taste in my mouth.
“Do you think everyone will be able to see it again one day?” Elsa looked at me expectantly.
“I hope so, little one. I had forgotten how soothing it is. How beautiful.” I twisted my head toward the window to glance outside once more. Near the window, where the cracks and air leaks were most potent, the breeze fanned long silken strands of my hair behind me. It was liberating.
“Ihlia, your hair… wow, it’s so pretty right now!” Elsa gasped softly.
“Hm?” I turned to face the wide-eyed child. With one of my leather-clad hands, I lifted a sheet of my damaged hair up to the moonlight. The ebon locks spilled over the side of my hand, but as they fluttered back to their proper positions, the moon’s silver light glinted off them. I stepped up to Elsa with a soft smile and gingerly took hold of her golden hair and pulled it in front of her face. The lunar illumination filtered through her hair and cast a golden sheen across each thread; as the ends floated down, her hair appeared to glow. Her sea-hewn eyes shot wide with disbelief.
“See? Your hair, too…” I chuckled softly and turned to Crelyos. To my surprise, he gawked at the two of us. His mouth hung partially opened, his eyes remained unblinking, and his cheeks were filled with a flush of red made far more prominent in the ghostly moonlight. “Crelyos?” I asked.
Several seconds passed; our eyes were locked. As Crelyos jaw moved in what might have passed for words, his face contorted in agony; he clutched the sides of his head and slid away from us. In all the splendor of the starry sky and haunting moonlight, I had completely forgotten about his approaching episode.
“Crelyos!” I called out as I leapt toward him. Crelyos scurried backward until his shoulders collided with the far corner of the gondola with a heavy thud. He curled into a ball and growled steadily. Every fiber of his body fought his hyperaugmentation’s pain, but how long would his resistance hold out? As I approached and extended my hand, Crelyos twisted away from me with a swift jerk and faced one of the side windows.
“Stay back!” He cried aloud.
“Stop being so stubborn!” I yelled back.
“I can’t stand bein’ seen like this…” He murmured through his groans. I cringed but understood.
“Fine,” I stated plainly. I maneuvered directly behind him and sank to the gondola’s floor. I leaned back until my shoulders pressed against the middle of his back. I looked across the space we had shared for two days; Oswald stood in the same position he took when we began our ascent. Elsa looked longingly at Richter and fidgeted with Magnolia; Richter stared at her with his usual disapproving expression. I tipped my head back against Crelyos’ shoulders. After a while, his trembling ceased and the tortured grunts and groans faded to slightly labored breath. When the episode finally passed, the two of us sat in silence, back to back.
“I find it most puzzling that we are not experiencing a shortness of breath at this altitude,” Oswald said and turned expectantly toward Richter.
“There are tanks that utilize stored oxygen byproducts from sludge burning on board,” Richter said as he thumbed back toward the rear wall where a bulge in the steel suggested something hid behind it.
“Intriguing,” Oswald quipped.
“Is it so surprising? Zeppelin was originally created to soar above the fallout cloud. I would lose all respect for Sydney if she did not incorporate at least that much into its design,” Richter offered the old codger a rare smirk.
“And what about the propeller icing?” Oswald slid his glasses up his nose.
“Also taken care of. In fact…” Richter trailed off as he flipped a few switches. The familiar sound of the engine roared to life with a deafening whine. The soft hum of the propeller followed, and the gondola lurched forward when Zeppelin resumed its horizontal journey. When Richter relaxed in front of the controls, I noted with a faint smile that he left off the artificial light. I imagined Richter saying, “Only for efficiency’s sake,” but I wondered if, perhaps, he possessed a sentimental side of his own.
Elsa, detecting my thoughts, giggled and shuffled toward Crelyos and me. She promptly lifted the bottom of my cloak and took a seat between my knees. When she leaned back against me, her long blond hair fell across my lap like a yellow curtain glowing in the moonlight. I smiled.
“Thanks, girly,” Crelyos managed to say after fully recovering from his episode.
“No problem.” I lightly bumped the back of my head against his shoulder a few times. My eyelids grew heavy. I turned my head to stare out the gondola’s front window once more, and as I sat comfortably against Crelyos’ back with the warmth of Elsa pressed against me, I began nodding off to sleep. The surreal twilight twinkled behind the moon, and with the myriad of clouds drifting across the horizon, I thought about Bradich.
If Bradich could see this now, would he regret what he did to the world? Would he regret what he did to his brother? To the Bald Eagles? It was my last coherent thought before I drifted off to sleep.