I sprinted towards Sarah as hard as I could. In my mind, I could see her face the look of determination; her eyes narrowed, her mouth a thin line and the muscles on her neck standing up a little. Even after a year and a half, I could still picture her so easily. And she could read me — nobody had told her that we needed to kick things over the top, but she’d read my own body language, and adjusted herself to match me.
I missed her so bad that it hurt.
At the last possible moment, I jumped, tucking my legs up before kicking them back down. The explosion under each of my heels rocketed me upwards, threatening to make my knees buckle. She hadn’t pulled her punches, and just the strength of them before activating her power would have been enough to make me airborne. Had this been before Riley had operated on me, my knee would have been useless after that.
Unfortunately, our time apart had lead to some skills degrading — I wasn’t going up at the right angle. I was being driven back, and there was nothing that I could do to prevent it. If–
That line of thought was shut down instantly as I was snatched out of the air. The flyer grabbed me in a bear hug at almost the apex of my unpowered flight. He startled a little as his sudden bear hug brought my spear closer to him, but didn’t let go. Excellent. That gave me a horrible idea, and horrible ideas seemed to be the rule of the day. Before I could say anything, though, I looked up.
I got my first real view of the Simurgh in the distance.
A primal tingle of fear ran through my body like an electric shock. Seeing pictures or film of her was one thing. Seeing her in person, even this far away, was something else entirely. There was something unearthly about her, more than Valkyrie. Even from this distance, far enough that I couldn’t make out the details, she was overwhelmingly wrong. It was simply the profile. I could make out the humanoid form, but the wings.
Two wings made sense, and even if the wings would have been symmetrical, it would have made more sense. But the Simurgh had wings that made no sense. Wings of different sizes, wings growing out of wings growing out of wings, to the point where you couldn’t tell which wing was the original. Multiple sets of wings growing out of her back.
It was disorienting to watch them gently move in the distance, being able to see the largest move of their own accord without rhyme or reason. Had someone told me that just looking at her could drive a person to madness, now I might almost believe it.
My heartbeat was starting to rise, and the layer of my armor against my skin cooled to compensate for the sweat that wanted to form. This was suddenly getting a lot harder than I’d originally envisioned, and I hadn’t even done anything yet.
If the flyer felt the same way, he didn’t say anything. He had to feel it, too. I couldn’t be alone in feeling this. This was simply freakish.
More motion caught my eye. The Dragon’s Teeth were already taking to the air, moving into position to trail behind the Simurgh, hopefully beyond her radius of madness. If we even knew what that radius was, they probably had it marked on their displays. With a word, I probably could have found out. I was honestly afraid to ask, though.
I glanced down at my arm, and I found the outline of the obscured control panel on my forearm outlined on my vision. As I focused on it, text appeared, lines moving to point out the individual controls to tell me what each one did. That was helpful. I wasn’t sure if I’d like this helmet or not, but so far, it was working out pretty well.
As best as I could from this bear hug, I moved to touch one of the controls. “When were you planning on doing the switch?” I asked in my fake accent. My words were echoed from the armband on his forearm — my voice sounded very strange to my ears.
“Huh?” He looked down at me. “Holy crap, I can hear you!”
Seriously? Here we were, doing something that was both incredibly stupid and dangerous, and he was focused on the fact that he could hear me?
Then again, we were flying at a pretty good pace. Being able to hear me over the rushing of the wind was probably unusual to him. Our armbands were probably compensating for us, running at special frequencies and directed sound so that he could hear it, and editing out the interference of the air rushing past so that I could hear him clearly.
“I, uh… I dunno? Whenever feels right? But, uh, you’re pretty heavy, so whenever.”
I let go of the button, taking a chance. “Computer, display a waypoint showing the halfway point to the Simurgh and where our armbands came in close contact to each other.”
After only half a second, a blue outline of a triangle showed in the distance, with a set of numbers next to it. I wasn’t sure if those numbers were in metric or imperial units — Dragon was Canadian, but Armsmaster was American. I was fine with either one, but with this new display method, I was still unfamiliar enough that I couldn’t tell which was which, or get a good idea as to where it was in relation to me. I’d just have to wait until the numbers reached zero.
I hit the button again. “Computer, display another waypoint at…” I frowned. “Eighty percent to the first.” As it popped up, I decided that it worked. I wanted to keep the workload for them even, or as even as possible. If I was that heavy, then I didn’t want to be a burden on either of them.
And, as I watched those two triangles get larger in my vision, I had to start believing that I was. It started simply, with his breathing becoming more labored. Halfway to the closest triangle, he started to slow down. Not good. Even worse was when his arms began to shake slightly.
Great. He was going to drop me.
“Computer, connect me to the Warden Mover in the air.”
“Invalid query,” the mechanical female voice said.
Brilliant. That’s what I got for not reading the users manual before now. Alright. “Computer, display all Mover and Mover equivalent units currently in the air.”
A map filled my vision, with various indicators. I could make out which one was the Simurgh by the white icon, which was a grimly cute touch. As I looked over the various icons, though, I saw a name and affiliation pop up. I didn’t have to look at the orange triangles — by how they were positioned, they were the Dragon’s Teeth, ready to nab me. The red squares were the two Wardens. I mentally filtered those out.
I couldn’t tell what the Sons of Bitch or myself were — we were too close to make out, overlapping each other. Which left the green hexagon. I looked at it, and the name popped up. Sergeant Mary Morgan, US Air Force. For some reason, that struck me as funny. It would have been even funnier if the arms around me weren’t weakening even faster.
“Computer, connect me to Sergeant Mary Morgan of the US Air Force.” There was a chirp in my ear, then silence. Did that mean we were connected, or that it was simply acknowledging the command? “Sergeant Morgan?”
Oh, thank goodness. “He has me in a bad hold, and I am likely slipping soon. Prepare yourself.”
I looked back at the map, getting a better view of the blue triangular waypoints. Honestly, I wished that I knew what number system they used. A more sad tone chimed in my ear. Had it severed radio connection? It seemed logical. “Computer, clear map.”
The map cleared from my vision, letting me see the Simurgh in the distance again. She was closer now, less like an action figure. I could see more detail, but I looked away quickly. I didn’t want to. Not now.
“Not sure,” my carrier grunted. “Not sure how much further I can…”
“Keep going,” I barked, surprised to hear it echoed from his armband.
“We aren’t even halfway to the dropoff point,” I lied. We were over three quarters of the way there now. “You keep going until you can’t anymore, and then go further!”
“Gonna… Be soon…”
I forced anger into my voice. “This is the best that the Sons of Bitch can offer me?! They made it sound like you could carry me all the way to the Simurgh and back by yourself!”
His arms tightened a bit. Good. I’d injured his pride. “Remember, if you drop me, then we are all fucked. The Simurgh will roll right over Bitch and everyone else she brought. Everyone that you know who is here will be quarantined for the rest of their life. Keep going!”
It wouldn’t last, though. Moments like these were good for the short term determination, but they never lasted. They couldn’t — I’d given him a shot from the adrenaline gland. Which was great for the short term, granting increased strength and stamina at the cost of fine manipulation. However, it sapped reserves far more quickly than in other situations.
If he’d been scared for a while now, the gland would have been running for some time, so he’d probably been burning through energy before we’d even taken to the air. If that was the case, then all that I’d done was fan some flames that had already burned through the logs. Once adrenal fatigue set in, he’d lose all of his strength, and that would be it.
Which was exactly what I wanted right now.
I blinked a few times, and suddenly the Simurgh was displayed right in front of me. The onboard computer had magnified her image. The multicolored robes that she wore were strange, allowing brief glimpses of skin underneath. Skin that was as white as alabaster. Her facial feathers were refined, her eyes the same color as her skin. Her mouth moved to the tune of the song that she sang, still that perfect unblemished hue as the rest of her skin. Her hair flowed out from her, defying both the wind and the direction of her movement.
She was hauntingly beautiful. Perhaps the most beautiful figure that I’d ever seen.
Her asymmetrical wings, though, ruined that beauty. There was something so utterly wrong with them. The way that they jutted out from each other, growing almost randomly out of others. And it wasn’t merely two wings that grew out of her back — some were large, some were small, but how they formed almost seemed to make no sense at all. The way that they all flapped, not like a bird or anything that you would expect to propel someone forward… They moved of their own accord, to their own design.
Beautiful and terrible in equal turns. And yet, I’d have to fight her.
I didn’t let myself feel fear, though. I didn’t let myself feel anything, despite the growing desire to feel revolted somehow. A part of me wanted to accept the beauty in front of me, but another part rejected her utterly and completely. And I knew that I wasn’t even taking in her true majesty and horror. This was only an image, no different than watching the videos. No, I’d know what she was truly like soon enough, when I was on top of her.
Emotions would be handy later. I’d be able to harness them, use them to get the maximum impact for everything that I did. For now, though, they’d just be a waste of energy. I had to keep everything locked down tight, tight enough to keep my body from reacting. My heart rate was close to normal, my breathing was slow and steady.
And then, my carrier’s strength gave out.