Hashira reflected the sun’s light blindingly in Toke’s eyes as he gripped the steering wheel tightly with both hands. The Terracaelum was bobbing up and down in the air, shaking with each explosion, but still holding a steady course towards the floating city. He had hoped that, with its battery destroyed, the ship would simply fall out of the sky, but to his dismay he found that the remaining kaosuryo coursing through the Terracaelum’s innards was enough to keep it flying in a somewhat straight line. If Toke was going to stop Navras’ attack, he would have to turn the ship out of the way himself. Hashira was looming closer by the second. He estimated that he had maybe five minutes before impact.
Even though his body was already threatening to shut down from the punishment Navras had inflicted on him, the Juryokine gave a mighty heave on the steering wheel. The Terracaelum pivoted on its side, throwing Toke into the window, but it didn’t seem to be turning anywhere.
“What?” Toke exclaimed in disbelief, pushing himself up to take hold of the wheel again. “If that’s not what turns it, then what—”
Yet another explosion tore a hole in the Terracaelum’s hull right in front of the cockpit, and the blue flash blinded Toke through his hood’s visor. When his vision cleared, he threw his weight on the wheel again, righting the vessel. At the speed it was going, the wind pressure made even the smallest adjustments difficult. It would have taken a Sorakine to steer it with any degree of efficiency. That, he realized, or somebody wearing kaosuryo powered armor.
“Where is it, where is it, where is it?” Toke muttered under his breath, frantically scanning the dozens of switches, knobs, levers, and buttons laid out in front of him. Having been the one to build the machine, Navras hadn’t needed to label a single one of them. “It’s here somewhere. How else could he have flown the smiting thing?”
Hashira was getting even closer. He had three minutes now, at most. Putting his hand on a lever at random, Toke pulled on it. The Terracaelum’s gears groaned under his feet, rattling the entire ship, but other than that it didn’t move an inch. Trying another approach, he began hammering on every button he could reach. A loud hiss came from the control board, followed by a shower of sparks, and Toke jerked his hand away.
“Come on, think!” the yelled at himself. There was a way to control the ship, he knew that. He just had to figure out what it was. Another glance showed him that he was close enough to see tiny specks of yellow light flitting about the city in front of him. The Sorakines, undoubtedly trying to investigate the incoming projectile. They couldn’t save themselves from this. Toke had to do it for them…
The void. He needed the void! It was the only way he could focus hard enough to figure out how to steer the Terracaelum. Even though he had precious little time left, Toke forced himself to let go of the wheel and closed his eyes.
Breathe, he thought to himself, folding his hands in front of his face in a calming pose. Don’t panic. Focus. Think!
Almost to his disbelief, it worked. The world around him faded away, leaving nothing but Toke and his thoughts. He couldn’t hear the Terracaelum breaking down, or feel the tremors beneath his feet. He even forgot about his pain. Nothing existed except him and the problem.
When I open my eyes, he told himself, I am going to find the answer.
And sure enough, the minute Toke opened his eyes he spotted a pedal coming out of the floor beside the steering wheel, similar to what would propel an autocarriage. In his panic, he had completely overlooked it. There was a loop of metal in it, just the right size for somebody’s foot to fit through…
Toke put his foot on the pedal and pushed it down to the floor. The Terracaelum immediately responded by going into a nosedive. The change was so sudden that the shift in gravity almost made Toke go flying out the rear window, but he managed to keep his grip on the steering wheel. He raised his foot again, and the loop of metal brought the pedal up with him. The Terracaelum arched out of its dive, and began to climb again.
“That’s it!” Toke yelled.
Hashira was directly in front of him, less than a minute away. The yellow specks he had seen before had grown into people, and Toke imagined he could even see the terrified looks on their faces. He was already so close. Even if he turned now, it might not be enough.
Once again, Toke threw himself against the steering wheel, causing the Terracaelum to pitch onto its side. Then he raised his foot, bringing the pedal up as high as it would go. The ship began to tilt upward.
“Come on,” Toke muttered under his breath. “Faster!”
The Terracaelum began to shake again, but this time it was because the wind was hitting it dead on. Flying on its side like this took away the ship’s aerodynamic design, and instead turned it into a gigantic wind catcher. It struggled to keep turning as the wind battered it from the side, threatening, Toke realized, to turn the entire things upside down.
Inch by inch, the Terracaelum changed its course.
“More!” Toke yelled, and fought to turn the wheel even further. Another section of the ship’s hull exploded, and the sudden motion jerked the wheel out of Toke’s grip, throwing the ship out of his control. He grabbed the wheel again, but the city was so close now that it filled his entire field of vision. With a sickening lurch in his stomach, Toke realized he wasn’t going to make it.
I’ve… failed, he thought.
His hands fell from the steering wheel and his eyes opened wide with a vacant stare. There was nothing else he could do. He had failed his mission. Navras had won after all…
Suddenly, everything turned blue. Another explosion burst free of the Terracaelum’s power source, right in front of the cockpit. The shockwave threw Toke backwards again, and a deafening ringing filled his ears. And yet, in that blue light, Toke saw someone standing in front of him. He wasn’t sure if it was real or in his head, but he swore he could see…
“Zashiel!” he yelled, coming out of his stupor. With a cry of desperation, Toke picked himself up off the floor and grabbed the steering wheel again. Her image vanished as soon as his head cleared, but he didn’t care. He had promised her he wouldn’t let this happen. He couldn’t just lie down and give up. Not while he was still alive! His body screamed in pain as he fought to turn the Terracaelum even further, and he screamed back at it. He had to save Hashira. It wasn’t a matter of choice. He just had to do it.
Hashira was five hundred feet away. Toke could feel the tendons in his arms popping under the strain of forcing the steering wheel to turn, but he ignored the pain. Four hundred feet. The Terracaelum continued to arch away from the city, but it wasn’t fast enough. Three hundred feet. The ship fought against his commands. How much strain was he putting on his body? Two hundred feet. A series of alarming snaps filled the cockpit, and Toke realized they were his bones beginning to break.
Two hundred feet!
With one last effort, the greatest he had given in his life, Toke bent his knees and pushed against the wheel. It moved. The bones in his arms shattered. The Terracaelum turned. The Sorakines who had gathered to look scattered just as the flying metal behemoth careened towards the city…
And it missed.
It was close, so close that the Terracaelum’s belly scraped against the city’s outer wall, throwing up a firestorm of sparks in its wake, but then it curved upwards and was flying parallel to the city. A few seconds later, it left Hashira behind, and only the wide, open plains of Yasmik were in front of him. The perfect place for the ship to crash.
“I did it,” Toke whispered, and finally let go of the wheel. It spun on its own accord, and the Terracaelum righted itself. Toke slumped backwards against the wall of the cockpit. He felt like he should be jumping up and down, celebrating his victory, but all he could feel was an overpowering sense of relief. He’d done it. Navras was defeated. The Terracaelum was diverted. The Sorakine city was safe.
Toke couldn’t move his arms, and whenever he tried pain would lance through his entire body, so he stopped trying. It didn’t matter now anyway. As the Terracaelum’s momentum finally began to die, the ship’s nose tilted down toward the ground. It wouldn’t be long now. In a minute, maybe less, the pain would stop for good.
The Terracaelum began to fall.
Toke watched the ground come rising to meet him, and he smiled in satisfaction.
“Not bad,” he whispered to himself, “for a puny little inventor.”
The cabin turned green, and Toke looked around in confusion before realizing what was going on. The kaosuryo was finally escaping. For half a second, Toke was lifted up into the air— and then the entire Terracaelum collapsed in on itself. Suddenly, Toke was wrapped up so tight in a cocoon of steel and glass that he couldn’t move a muscle. He could still feel the gigantic ball of machinery falling out of the sky, but he could no longer see anything.
Mom, Dad, he thought. I wish I could have given you a real goodbye. And… and told you I loved you.
And you too, Zashiel.
Toke’s eyes shot open, but he couldn’t see anything in the darkness. Had he really just heard that? He couldn’t have. That was imp—
A crack of bright white light appeared in front of him, and Toke had to squint to keep from being blinded. A moment later, with an earsplitting noise, it grew wider. Had he crashed? Was that the light at the end of the tunnel everyone talked about?
“Toke!” a familiar voice shouted.
“Zashiel?” Toke asked in utter disbelief.
The Sorakine girl’s head appeared in the opening, and she reached in towards him. “You’re still alive!”
She couldn’t quite reach him. Digging her hands into the metal, Zashiel screamed in exertion as she opened the gap even further. Toke gaped in amazement. Even for a Sorakine, bending solid steel with their bare hands was unheard of!
“Hold on,” she grunted. “I’m going to get you out of there!”
“Zashiel, you don’t have time!” Toke yelled. “Get out of here!”
Zashiel paused to breathe, and then pushed on the metal again. The jagged edges were cutting into her palms, leaving bloody handprints everywhere she put them.
“You just saved my entire race,” she yelled back. “I’m not going to let you die after that!”
With one last grunt, Zashiel tore the sheet of metal off entirely and threw it away. Reaching inside again, she grabbed Toke by his jacket and pulled him free. Countless bits of metal cut at him all over his body, and his arms exploded with pain again, but he didn’t complain. And then Zashiel, just like she had so many other times, hugged him to her chest and took off.
For a few seconds the two of them spiraled uncontrollably, but then Zashiel righted herself and turned around to watch the enormous hunk of metal go tumbling into the distance. It struck down, and exploded in a bright green flash— the last Gravity Storm there would ever be.
In awed silence, Zashiel flew them to a small rocky outcropping where it would be hard for anyone flying overhead to spot them and laid Toke down. Without waiting for him to say anything, she immediately tore his jacket off and began rubbing Chiyuka ointment all over his body. He cried out when she got to his arms, but let her do her work anyway.
“It’ll take a long time for those breaks to heal,” she said, looking down at the ground. “They’re… they’re really bad.”
Taking a deep breath, Toke sat up and put his back against the cliff. “What about your wounds? Navras stabbed you.”
Zashiel’s hand self-consciously went to her stomach and shook her head. “It’s fine. It’s completely healed.”
They were quiet for a few minutes, content to watch the Sorakines go flying back and forth between the crash site and Hashira.
“Thank you,” Toke said at last. “I thought I was going to die inside that thing.”
The look Zashiel gave him was alarmingly sharp, but then she grimaced and broke down into tears.
“Don’t you dare thank me!” she cried. “I owe you so much for this I’ll never pay it back. The entire Sorakine race does!”
Before he could stop her, she lunged forward and wrapped him in a hug. She slipped her arms underneath his so that it wouldn’t hurt him, but she still squeezed him so tightly that he thought she would break his ribcage.
When she finally released him, they both turned and looked toward Hashira.
“You don’t owe me anything, Zashiel,” Toke said.
“I didn’t do it for a reward,” he interrupted her. “Truth be told, I didn’t even do it because you’re my friend. I did it because it was the right thing to do.”
Zashiel looked at him again with teary eyes.
“Then you’re a greater warrior than I am,” she said. “Greater than I’ll ever be.”
“You know that’s not true,” he shot back.
Toke knew Zashiel wasn’t convinced, but that wasn’t important.
“So, what do we do now?” Zashiel asked. “We’re wanted criminals to both the humans and the Sorakines.”
Toke shook his head and looked toward the crash site. “Not anymore. Toke Gnasher and Zashiel Kal’Brynden both died when their flying machine crashed.”
Zashiel’s lip quivered, but she didn’t object.
“Let them think we were the bad guys,” Toke went on. “It doesn’t matter how many times we tell them we’re innocent, they’ll never believe us.”
“We died in that crash,” Zashiel agreed, sadly. “So from this point on, we’re two entirely different people.”
Toke bowed his head to look at his lap. That meant no more Wayli and Boam, no more school in Jerulkan, no more inventing. His parents would have to disappear with them, but that was less comforting than it was depressing.
“It won’t be easy,” he said. “But the two of us have been through worse, right?”
Zashiel finally cracked a smile. “Way worse,” she agreed.
Tentatively, Toke extended his hand. His arms were still aching, but he could tell the Chiyuka ointment was already healing the broken bones. His fingers brushed Zashiel’s, and for a second his heart stopped in anticipation.
Zashiel opened her hand, and took his in her own.
Happiness exploded in Toke’s heart, even brighter than the Gravity Storm. Suddenly, the prospect of leaving everything else behind didn’t seem quite so scary.
“We’re partners,” he whispered, just loud enough for her to hear him. “As long as we’re together, we can do anything!”
She looked at him with her brilliant blue eyes.
“More than partners,” she agreed.
NEXT TIME: …?