Such Great Heights
There had never been enough money for birthday presents. Twelve orphans, plus himself and his sister to clothe, house, and feed left precious little extra for celebrations of any sort. Still, determined not to forget the children who so often were forgotten by the world around them, Billy Lee did his best.
An item of clothing, cast off or outgrown from somewhere, would be held until the special day so at least one thing could be wrapped up in crinkled, reused brown paper. Primera, a hoarder of every scrap of yarn discarded or unraveled from fraying socks, would stitch on the recipient's name in careful block letters of unpredictable colors. Once the item was outgrown and passed to someone else, the stitches would be picked out and redone. Practical for laundry concerns, it nevertheless gave the children something that was their very own, indisputably and brightly marked.
But not even Prim's meticulous embroidery could best the one thing every orphanage child looked forward to on birthdays: riding tall in the cockpit seat of Renmazuo for its daily run. This was a once-a-year treat, long anticipated and dreamed of. Billy found it easy to give; the Ethos provided the gear fuel and the Aquvy island was Billy's assigned territory, to be patrolled daily for infestations of Wels or wild beasts. Billy would point out all the blinking lights on the console, sharls per hour, ammunition stores, fuel remaining, navigation. Certain buttons were able to be pressed by small hands or paws: firing a test round of ether bullets, checking the flight boosters, deploying the solar-cape. And for one day Billy did not scold or instruct or moralize, but let his passenger press close to the canopy glass, watching the grass and trees whizzing by as the tiny green bit of their world dropped away beneath them and the sky held out welcoming arms. And when begged, "Go faster!" Billy never said no, until the still air of the island was rent asunder by the passage of an avenging angel of blue steel.
It had been an easy thing to give when there was nothing else, Billy thought now, sitting back on his heels to mop the sweat from his brow. Not so much now.
A year away from that small island and the person he had been there, Billy worked doggedly on the panel array of an omnigear that just as stubbornly refused to move. Even in Nisan, the climate of Ignas was too warm for his comfort and taste. He had protested the loan of Bart's clothes as long as he possibly could, until the threat of heat prostration made him dizzy and he had grudgingly traded his thick flannel shirt and lined coat for one of Bart's tank tops and a frayed pair of jeans the King of Aveh had clearly outgrown years ago. Billy grimaced at a flange bolt that came loose in his grease-stained fingers, and added a new stain to the many already collected on his thigh. He wasn't used to being the one getting the hand-me-downs.
"Changing the charger route isn't going to help it, you know," Bart called up, from somewhere around El-Renmazuo's ankles. "the power's gone."
Billy's grip on the wrench slipped, he barked his knuckles hard on a bristling collection of thermal bolts and swore with quiet indulgence. He hadn't even heard Bart come in. "What do you know about it?" He retorted, giving his dirty clothes an artful blot of bloodstain. "You can't even program your own alarm clock."
"No," Bart said, swinging up onto the access ladder uninvited and clambering towards the cockpit. "But I know when something's busted. And Billy, these things are, to use the technical term, kaputski. Unless you've got a Zohar in your back pocket."
"So you're not even going to try," Billy snapped, dragging a hand across his face and making a clean spot. "If you've just stopped by to tell me it's impossible, do me a favor and get lost. I'm working here."
Bart showed no signs of getting lost, leaning both his arms on the open cockpit lip and peering down at the visceral mess of gear-guts strewn across the metal flooring. Billy had taken the seats out before he even started.
"You try poking the little green things?" Bart suggested, in a manner intended to be helpful.
Billy glared. "Those," he said, with utter contempt, "are the stereo controls. Are you sure you used to ride one of these every day?"
"All the time, baby!" Bart looked across the dim storage hangar to where Andvari sat, subdued and hung with shadows, in one far corner. In the darkness, the gear's red paint looked like a badly-healed wound. Bart's voice and one blue eye became soft as he studied that blank metal face, eyepatch mirror of his own. "...All the time."
For a long time Billy didn't say anything, watching Bart remember. At last he turned back to the task at hand, unraveling long ropes of wires and incomprehensible circuit boards. Bart leaned his cheek on one tanned forearm, watching as the former etone checked and rechecked systems that would be in perfect working order if there was only a source of power for them.
"S'not like we need them that bad, Billy," Bart said at last, quietly.
Billy plugged a loose console into the main array, flipped the panel switch. No response, from either the system or the young man in the cockpit.
"You've been at this for weeks."
Billy switched the intake toggles, applied the battery backup. Not so much as a blip. Billy's expression didn't change as he performed the diagnostic check for the umpteenth time.
Bart sighed. "Why's it so important, anyway?"
"Because it is!" Billy said, with more edge than he meant, and looked away from Bart's sympathetic curiosity to the mishmash of parts in his hands. "It just is."
Bart didn't answer, standing up on the access ladder and leaning precariously out into open space. "Anyway. Jessie wanted to know if you were planning on coming back sometime tonight."
Billy looked at Bart, then at the blank face of the chronometer on the main console. He brought his fist down on the display and it weakly coughed up a bleary set of numerals.
"Dammit!" He clambered to his feet and unhooked his gunbelt from the disconnected steering shaft, swinging over the lip of the cockpit and catching the rung just under Bart's boots. Bart watched him taking the steps out of the hangar two at a time, holsters flapping loose as he hastily buckled his gun belt around his hips.
"Yeah well, I guess we all have things we keep trying," Bart muttered, and slowly began the descent from Renmazuo's chest cavity.
Billy stopped long enough to plunge his hands in a spigot of icy water, coaxed reluctantly from the pump behind the house. How he had managed to lose track of time so badly, he had no idea. He had intended, successful or not, to be home by mid-afternoon. Now the sun was sinking behind the Nisan mountains, turning the sky a brilliant purple-red beyond the spires of the cathedral.
Already evening chill was sinking into the town, the day's heat draining quickly from the thin mountain air. The water was a cold shock to his face as he scrubbed at it with a lumpy bar of harsh yellow soap. He needed a proper bath, but there wasn't time, and he had promised Prim he would be back in time for dinner. Shivering, he flung the soap back in the bucket and clomped up the back steps.
"You'll break that girl's heart, being late for dinner," Jessie said by way of greeting. One side of the scarred kitchen table was occupied by Billy's father and a generator component in several dozen pieces, the other with a bowl of stew, still almost warm. "She's already in bed."
"At least I'm not eight years late for dinner," Billy shot back, hanging his gunbelt on one of the mismatched pegs by the door.
Jessie grunted something, possibly admiration, as Billy flung himself down in the chair and tugged his bowl forward. "Just be on time tomorrow, is all."
"I don't feel obliged to take lessons in etiquette from the likes of you," Billy said, flicking a stray generator bolt away from the edge of his plate. "I'm not the one letting her down."
"The hell you aren't," Jessie said, without the least amount of heat, his scars softened by the light of the table-lamp. "That girl doesn't want any ride in a gear, you know. She wants her brother."
Billy prodded a potato angrily. "Doesn't seem like it, with a father instead." He glared across the table, knowing how petulant he sounded and hating himself for it. "sometime I'll have to ask her if she just has a short memory, or a vast capacity for forgiveness."
Jessie's eyes gleamed blue and narrow in his tanned face, undeniably the same color as Billy's own. "Or maybe she knows it's not her you're trying to fix that gear for," he countered. "Just because you don't have a big rocket to run around blasting Wels in, you're acting like you can't get it up--"
"That's it," Billy said, shoving himself away from the table and his uneaten dinner. "I'm not staying here to listen to this."
Jessie shrugged, turning back to his disassembled generator. "Fine, if you'd rather run away than listen to the truth."
"And aren't you the expert on that." Billy yanked his gunbelt from the wall so roughly that it dislodged the peg. He stormed down the steps, out the door, and right past one Citan Uzuki standing on the stoop, hand still raised to knock.
Citan coughed, a tiny, genteel sound after Billy's retreating fury. "I can leave if now's a bad time?"
Jessie flung his wrench down. "Is there ever a good time, with that one? Come on in, Hyuga, I'll get you a drink."
Citan stepped up into the modest main room of the new Black domicile, peering with polite interest at Jessie's project. "Ahh, I see the piston circuit has failed."
"And the flange hood, and the capacity overflow, and the main flux monitor." Jessie pressed a bottle of dark brown Nisan beer into the doctor's hands, ignoring Citan's protests that tea was more than sufficient. "God damn, I'm not exactly sorry Etrenank is a charred spot in the ground, but I wish the hell there had been more to salvage."
"Actually, that's what I wanted to ask you about," Citan seemed to permit himself a modest smile. "It seems that solar combustion unit I've been working on finally decided to function after all. It's too small for gears, of course, though something may come of it later." Citan sat down on the edge of the table, idly reassembling the generator's innards as though it was nothing more than a tavern peg-puzzle. "I did hook it up to one of those skiffs Sigurd so cleverly has been modifying, and it looks like a good fit. It won't carry much, but it will cross sand and water, almost as fast as a good gear in flight, with some extra wind to help it." Citan tapped the top of the generator array; it lit up and whirled to life obligingly. Citan's glasses reflected the bleeping lights and his own delight. "Ah, there, you see?"
Jessie arched one shaggy pale eyebrow, holding up a rather vital-looking bolt that had neglected to find a way back into the generator. Citan looked at the generator, at the bolt, and sheepishly plucked it from Jessie's hand.
"Well. Yes." Citan jogged the bolt in his hand. "I don't think it really needs this bit, do you?" He chucked the offending item out the half-open window, and Jessie rolled his eyes.
"And you wonder why if something blows up, people blame you." Jessie switched off the gadget, settling in one of the chairs and taking a long pull off his beer bottle. "So go on, what do you want me for?"
"No one to take the thing out for a test run," Citan answered. "I mean, I could, of course, but after working on it so long, I'm not sure I would be quite impartial. It would be better if it was someone who's never handled one before, to give us the best feedback." Citan took a polite sip of his beer. "Young Bartholomei offered, of course, but Sigurd and I would both prefer it to come back in one piece."
Jessie rubbed his chin, scratchy with a day's worth of stubble. "I'm not the one you're looking for," he said, after a long thoughtful pause that involved half of the contents of his bottle. "But I know who is."
Halfway through the night, Billy woke up cramped and cold on the floor of Renmazuo's cockpit, shaking away dreams of flying. He considered going to find the house Bart's people were using, but while staying with Bart promised a warm place to sleep, it also promised a few other things Billy didn't feel prepared to deal with. Sighing, he stretched out his sore legs and kicked a stray lump of electronics out of the way, trying to settle comfortably back down into the spare blanket that had still been stowed in Renmazuo's hatch. It smelled like woodsmoke and a tiny clapboard house a world away, and only made Billy more homesick.
It wasn't just the longing for a place, no matter what he might try to call it. Instead, Billy felt as though he had lost himself along with his gear, in spite of a war they had won. Most of his friends had been glad to lay down the obligation of gear fighting, glad to shake off the shackles of countless centuries of oppression. And Billy had been glad too, at first. Glad to see his orphans with new homes or thriving under the care of the sisters of Nisan. Now they had more than Billy, for all his efforts, had been able to give them on his own. He had been glad for the neat little house on a quiet side street in Nisan, glad for the sound of his father's boots on the wooden floor, glad for the sound of Prim's few words, like forgotten church bells.
But then the days had grown shorter and the notch in the doorway higher, and Prim needed the hems let out of her pinafores. With every passing day that drew nearer to her birthday, Billy had felt himself becoming more and more futile, incapable of giving even the one thing that had once been so easy. He snorted resentfully, looking at the dismantled console and thinking about Jessie's words. Too close to the mark, that implication of impotence.
Without his gear, what was he? At the very least he still had his guns, always kept within reach. But here in the city, there was precious little need for them. With no more Wels being born in Solarian labs, even Billy's first sworn duty was obsolete. Still, he kept the guns with him, his shotgun mounted carefully over the fireplace as though the house was still in the wilds of Aquvy, not two blocks form the great Nisan Cathedral. He tried not to tell himself the guns were all he had left, as his orphans settled into new homes, his sister clung happily to their father's shadow, and Renmazuo sank deeper in silence. Even the anima relic was mute, as his sister had once been.
He told himself he wanted to give Prim her birthday ride, but deep down Billy knew what he wanted to give, and to whom. He just didn't think he knew how anymore.
Shivering in the lifeless breast of his metal partner, Billy wrapped up in his blanket and his memories, and hoped not to dream.
"There you are! Good morning!"
Billy jerked awake, blinking in the blinding sunlight behind Citan's head. The main doors of the hangar had been opened, and cool morning air blew into the musty area, rippling Renmazuo's solar cloak with a sound like distant thunder.
"Unghk." Billy said, less than coherently. "Whr'm I?"
"I can't tell you how much I used to fall asleep inside gears," Citan said, appallingly cheerful as though Billy had chosen his current locale for the sake of comfort. "Especially in my university days. Sometimes it was the only quiet place, when Sigurd and Kahr were in the upper bunk and--"
"Doc," Billy said, hoping his tone conveyed how much he really did not want to know, "what are you doing in here?" He tried to rub feeling back into his legs, and his back was a very stiff lost cause.
"Looking for you, naturally." Citan tsked at the pile of mangled parts that covered Renmazuo's console. "There's something we'd like to borrow you for, if you're not too busy."
Billy's first instinct was to stay back and sulk, but to actively be needed for something was appealing. "It's Prim's birthday," he cautioned. "I've got to be done early."
"Which is exactly why I took the liberty of inviting Miss Black along. Do come down." Citan's shoes rang on the metal ladder as he descended and Billy, curious in spite of himself, followed.
Parked just outside the open hangar doors was a desert skiff, a slow-slung creature with solar sails, frequently used by tribes like Sigurd's to get goods from place to place in the vast desert. This one, unlike the others Billy had seen, had a large energy unit welded to its aft end, enough to tip the prow into the air as the levitation cells struggled to compensate.
"You sure you don't want me to take it?" Bart was saying to his brother, as Sigurd prodded a few connectors into place on the sails.
"I'd rather not have to put it back together again anytime soon," Sigurd replied.
Bart was spared further indignity by Citan's triumphant arrival with Billy, the latter looking somewhat dubious at the proposal he had just heard.
"I really don't know anything about flying a skiff," Billy said, eyeing the controls.
"Neither will most of the people who need to use them," Sigurd replied, shaking out the last of the sails. The small panels of gold film glittered in the light. "But the control panel is much like a Solarian basic transport, and I know those were in service in the Ethos."
Billy nodded, recognizing the levitation controls, the speed gage. "I'm used to those."
He was at the pilot seat with Sigurd giving a rundown on the console when Jessie arrived, nothing in his manner giving any indication of the previous night's fight. Primera was in tow, her hair bound tightly under a kerchief and wearing a flight jacket Billy recognized as part of a Gebler special forces uniform. She was bright-eyed and rosy-faced with excitement, but not willing to say anything in front of such a large crowd of people, hanging onto Jessie's fingertips.
"If it isn't the birthday girl!" Bart said, giving her a bow that would have brought a tear of pride to Maison's long-suffering eye. "You want to go for a ride, princess?"
Prim hugged a little closer to her father's leg but nodded, her eyes flickering to the glittery sails.
"Provided you taught my kid how to drive this thing," Jessie said, stomping over and peering down at the skiff as though it was some sort of large dead animal of a type he had never seen. He kicked the side lightly, sniffed, and put his hands on his hips. "Looks all right," he admitted.
"Thanks," Sigurd replied with the barest touch of sarcasm, climbing out of the skiff. "Remember, Billy, we need records of any power dips or spikes, and any unusual handling or slow response time. If these work, we'll need to get them out and running as soon as possible."
"Cross the channel and run her around the desert a little too," Citan suggested. "I'd like a full report of the environmental challenges."
Prim had wandered from her father's side and curled small hands along the top of the skiff, peering down inside it. Billy, knowing that quiet attention as well as any spoken greeting, looked up and smiled. "You gonna help me out, Prim?"
Prim nodded solemnly. Billy stepped across the center platform and picked her up, swinging her into the copilot seat and strapping her in.
"Okay, but you have to hold on tight. No jumping up and down or yelling or stopping to pick up boys..."
Prim giggled, and Billy felt something stretched tight inside him suddenly go slack. Her feet too short to reach the floor, she swung her legs in a happy staccato against the seat and clung to the dashboard, eager to get going.
Billy primed the engines, listening to the rush and gurgle of supplemental fuel and the whooshing intake valves. The skiff shivered like a living thing and Citan urged the others away from the vehicle a bit too hastily.
"You ready?" Billy said to prim, or mouthed slowly at her, as the noise now meant there was no way he could be heard. Prim's small hands went white on the dash as she leaned forward, anticipating the wind. The potential for speed did not leave Billy unmoved, and he could not suppress a thrill of delight as he reached for the yoke, and nudged the dampeners free. Loose at last, the skiff plunged out of the darkened hangar and into the into the morning with a speed that took the breath from Billy's lungs.
It was nothing at all like piloting a gear. In a gear, the cockpit was controlled, sealed against dust and water and wind, a bubble in a vacuum. The skiff was far more immediate, sending up a spray of sand as they curved around Nisan's green foothills into a patch of desert, small animals scattering. Billy wasn't sure who had control of whom, as the skiff careened out of Nisan and down to the water with a stomach-lurching drop. The gravitational controls kicked in just before the craft hit water, but not fast enough to keep them from sending a splash of cold seawater up in a sparkling plume that left them wet to the skin.
Prim clearly didn't care, her kerchief already lost, wind blowing her hair wildly about, grin infectious. She caught Billy looking and leaned over to touch his arm, his mind hearing the small words the wind snatched away.
The skiff responded eagerly to the surge in power from the generator Citan had jury-rigged onto the back, and the small craft plowed a white rift across the shining blue surface of the sea. Gulls veered and screamed out of the path, and in the waves below the shapes of leviathans moved and shifted, but could not keep up. Roaring along the path of a wave, Billy nudged up the throttle as the skiff glided up a strip of beach not far from Bart's old hideout, and soared into the ocean of sand. Bledivik was a shimmering mirage on the horizon, and sand sharks crested the dunes just beyond the prow.
Billy did not know how long his sister had been holding on to the copilot yoke, her hands in imitation of his own as the yoke moved under Billy's control. It was at least as long as it took her to realize she was flying the skiff alone, Billy taking his hands off the grips and watching as Prim banked and veered, doubling back across their own path in an instinctive knowledge of how to handle the craft.
In a flicker of realization, Billy remembered his father's face as it had been in days of childhood, teaching him the respect and usage of guns, the unsurprised approval as Billy bullseyed his targets with perfect ease. After so many years, he had forgotten how his mother had always been the one with the gift for making fidgety mechanical things obey, how she had earned their money making repairs on small fan-boats and landcrawlers. Jesiah, it was worth noting, rarely drove.
Prim glanced over at last and saw she was controlling the skiff all alone. She released the yoke with a cry of sheepish alarm, and Billy grabbed for his own controls as the skiff floundered in the dunes.
Billy kicked the engines to idle.
"Sorry," she whispered, barely audible over the purring engines. She put her face in her hands. "Sorry."
"This one," Billy said without explanation, pointing at the gage on the console, "Is our power meter. See how it goes up and down when the accelerator is pressed? And this one is the pitch and yaw. On a gear, it would be the altitude gage, have you got that?"
Prim lifted her face and opened her mouth as though she would apologize again, but Billy only repeated his question. Prim nodded.
"Good," Billy said, tightening his restraints a little. "I'm going to key the power, and I want you to take us back down to the shore. You think you can do that?"
Prim looked nervously at Billy's steering yoke, and Billy wrapped his hands on the grips. "It's okay," He assured her. "I'll keep my hands on if I need to take over."
"...Okay," Prim said, her hands white-knuckled on the grips that were too big for her. Billy revved the obnoxiously loud engines until it made her laugh, and then shot them forward like a buntline projectile.
The land unraveled beneath them, and Billy thought for an instant that gear cockpits had always been stuffy, with two. Further from the land, you couldn't see the shifting motion of sand, or the dolphins playing in the spume kicked up by the exhaust. Everything that had been above the sky in his world had fallen down, he thought, as Prim gleefully put the skiff through a set of swerves that would have pushed the limits of any test-pilot. There wasn't anything up there anymore, nothing that needed gears. Everything he needed was here. He looked up at the blue sky, empty except for clouds, and then at the delighted smile of his sister, waiting for his approval.
Billy took his hands off the yoke, and grinned back at her. "...Go faster."