S1| Ep04: The Bones of the Sea (上)
January 12, 2011
“You don’t deserve to be here,” crackled the wireless.
Intan stuck her tongue out, though she knew the other girl couldn’t see her. Kikue Sunagawa of Azalea had been heckling her all morning, as if intent to prove herself the better pilot. Thanks to her, they’d gotten separated from their fellow Dragons.
Not that Intan minded much. Weeks now had passed since the king’s surprising announcement. This was the first chance she’d had to fly since the incident with the rogue Dolls, and she was determined to make the most of it, especially now that she was away from the watchful gaze of the instructors. She shifted her controls, guiding her Doll into a fancy flip in the air. Unlike the Doll from the junkyard, these Dolls were the newest training models. Intan exulted in the freedom of her Doll’s movement, though she had to confess that she had felt more comfortable in the older model.
But she did not like to think too much about that earlier excursion.
“You don’t even pilot properly! I have never seen anyone handle a Doll with such — such disrespect!”
Intan was tempted to switch off the wireless. But despite the fair skies at the moment, dark clouds had been gathering all morning, and for safety reasons, they were forbidden to cut communications under any circumstances. Then again, no one else was in range at the moment, and what could a few minutes hurt?
“Hey! Are you even listening?”
In response, Intan flipped again, this time slamming her Doll’s foot into the back of her fellow first year’s Doll.
The wireless spouted a stream of incoherent and rather unladylike curses. Intan grinned and decided to keep it on after all.
Then danced away as the other girl unleashed a barrage of paintballs.
They missed due to a surge of wind and splattered onto the forest below. Intan laughed.
“Ooh, now you’re asking for it!”
Intan waved cheerfully. Away she zipped, the other Doll hot on her heels.
* * *
Intan supposed it had all started at the secret meeting after the king’s announcement. Miss Singh, Headmistress Liow, and the Brigadier General had gathered the Nine Dragons and informed them privately that they were to take part in the king’s ceremony as extra security.
“Pity. I suppose that means we won’t get to be candidates for His Majesty’s attendants,” Rusli had said, half joking.
The Brigadier General had looked him coolly in the eye. “No, Cadet,” she said. “Your duties lie elsewhere.”
“How will the candidates be chosen, anyway?” asked Tuyet from Hibiscus.
“Who knows?” said the general. “By lottery, perhaps. Or perhaps he will receive another vision from the gods.”
“Now, now, Irina,” purred Miss Singh. “I’m sure the king has his reasons.”
But the general said nothing more of the matter, and a few days later Intan heard whispering among some of the other students regarding the uproar that had ensued at court after the king made his intentions known to the wider public.
From that point on, their training intensified, though they were still not allowed to touch their Dolls. By the time summer break rolled around almost three months later, Intan was looking forward to a month of lazing around and staving off the heat in the cool depths of the lake while everyone else was gone.
Then Rusli had told her about the annual Nine Dragons training camp. Intan might have despaired, but when she found out that they would be flying their Dolls at last, over to a smaller, deserted island off the northwestern coast of the kingdom, she’d brightened up straightaway.
Hadil, whom Intan saw only at meals or in passing now that their garbage duty stint was over, had been gloomier. “I wish we could just stay in the dorms,” she’d said, shoveling curry into her mouth.
“You don’t like going back home?”
Hadil fidgeted. “Maybe I’ll just find a place to stay in the capital instead…”
“If you do, say hi to the lions at the plaza for me!”
The other girl didn’t seem to hear. “But after everyone pooled their money together just to get train tickets for me…”
In the end, Hadil boarded one of the two Academy airships to the capital, train tickets in hand. Most of the other students followed suit, though a few of the richer students were shuttled off in smaller, private transports. Intan and her fellow Dragons boarded the same airship and pretended to disembark at the capital with everyone else. They’d even stayed the night at the magistrate’s office. Before dawn broke the next morning, they slipped away and boarded another transport, this time a battered old Hummingbird that belonged to the medic division.
They’d been taken back to the lake then, to the base at the east end, and assigned to individual training Dolls. Intan’s mood dampened only when the pixie-elegant first year from Azalea gave her a cold glare before they stepped into their cockpits, though their interactions had been previously limited to mutual disregard. But even that did not keep her down for long. Glaring was, after all, a step up from outright ignoring.
Intan hadn’t realized just how much she’d missed flying until the Doll whirred to life at her touch and the seven of them, accompanied by two instructors, rose glimmering into the morning light.
* * *
Intan’s stomach rumbled. It was getting close to high noon, if the position of the sun in the sky was any indication, and she had been too excited to eat much at breakfast earlier. Now she was beginning to wonder if the instructors had even noticed their absence. (She was pretty sure they’d have noticed the two Dolls in the back “accidentally” colliding soon after they passed the first deserted island.) Perhaps they had their hands full with the other Dragons. If they were anything like Kikue Sunagawa, Intan wouldn’t be surprised. But she could not say for certain. Even after three months of sharing the same lectures and extra training sessions, Intan wasn’t sure she could even remember her fellow Dragons’ faces. (Except of course for Rusli and Tuyet, who were nice.) At least she could mostly identify her own classmates’ faces successfully, though she still tended to mix up their names.
She’d certainly be able to add Kikue to the list of people she knew now, though.
“I am a Sunagawa! I refuse to believe I was outscored on the entrance exams by a buffoon like you!”
The other girl had been jabbering on about some such nonsense for some time now. Despite her initial amusement, Intan was beginning to tire of it. She reached out to turn off the wireless.
Just then, a huge gust of wind threw her Doll off course, tossing her into a canopy of trees.
Kikue’s ensuing laughter broke off with a shriek as her Doll too was caught in the gust.
Intan looked up at the swiftly darkening sky and realized they had been so distracted by their games that the storm clouds had crept upon them unnoticed. She shook off fronds and broken branches and urged her Doll skywards, toward the fading pinpoints of sunlight in the distance. Even the sturdiest Doll could not survive getting caught in a typhoon. And this one was bearing down on them, fast.
As rain began to batter the Doll’s body, Kikue’s voice crackled again over the wireless. “Something’s wrong.”
“What? What’s wrong?” said Intan, glad now that she hadn’t turned it off after all.
“My Doll will not respond to me.” The panic underlying the other girl’s haughty formality grew more apparent with every word. “This was not supposed to happen!”
“Hold on. I’ll come and get you.” Intan tried to turn back, but the wind made it difficult to maneuver.
“Blow, winds, blow,” she sang. “Still, winds, still. Though you uproot our homes, though you flood our fields, still we ask safe passage through your domains…”
Kikue swore again. Intan was surprised the girl knew such colorful language.
“Blow, winds, blow. Still, winds, still. Calm thy anger, o great dragon lords –” Intan managed to grab onto a swaying tree trunk, and reached out her Doll’s free arm to clasp the other Doll’s arm. She tugged hard, dragging the other Doll behind her.
“You’re too heavy,” Intan said at last. “I don’t think we can get airborne. Even if we could, we won’t be able to outrun it.”
“Then what do you suggest? Just sit here and sing stupid songs while we wait for the storm to blow us all the way to the mainland?”
“We need to find the eye.”
“We’ll be wrecked before we reach it!”
“Calm thy anger, o great dragon lords,” Intan sang again with a slight smile, and bent her Doll down into a crouch.
One step. Another. Intan could hear the storm roaring in her ears, furious at these strange metal trespassers. The rain poured down in slanted sheets of gray. Intan studied their constantly fluctuating directions.
“I swear, if I die with you here in a place like this –”
“There!” Intan urged her Doll forward with a burst of power. As the winds tossed them back and forth, threatening to rip them from limb to limb, and Kikue screamed and cussed her lungs out, Intan decided it was a good thing she hadn’t eaten breakfast. Her stomach would otherwise be protesting quite strongly at the moment. She hummed another few lines of the typhoon song. Then she stepped down on the pedal, adding a second burst of power, hoping it would be enough to break through the wall of rain.
They hurtled on for a few moments longer, helped along by the buffeting winds. Soon enough Intan glimpsed a patch of blue through the clouds. “See?” said Intan, grinning. “We’ll be fine!”
Spoken too soon, perhaps. As Intan tried to steer her Doll to the right, she realized that the controls had stopped responding to her as well.
“What are you doing!” crackled Kikue.
The winds swept them away again, sending them spinning into the worst of the storm. Intan jabbed desperately at the controls. Surely her Doll’s head had not been hit? And yet these were the newest models, with full backup systems in place.
Another gust of wind, and her hold on Kikue’s Doll came loose. Intan’s own head jerked back, slamming against the back of her seat.
The roar of the storm faded steadily into the distance as darkness overcame her.