Cheery Note: Any mechanical engineers reading this may find aspects of the Highwind's construction counter-intuitive, implausible, or even outright humorous. This is because they are, in fact, purest bullshit. The Highwind's anatomy is based on an unholy marriage of sailboat and Joint Strike Fighter, which I'm convinced is what Square was aiming for in the first place. Happy reading!

Chapter 1

The goddamn coolant conduit had rattled loose again. And if the goddamn coolant conduit ever came off its track it would bust in half and if it busted, then he'd have a cabin full of vaporized hadylene. That would pretty much kill everybody. If it didn't kill everybody, they'd get it when the rear turbines melted and the whole mother-loving airship went straight to hell in a ball of hot metal and chemical flame. And if anybody managed to live through that, somebody'd have to summon a meteor onto the unnatural sonofabitch. Much easier just to tighten the bolts on the damn thing now.

Cid pulled a screwdriver from its holster on his toolbelt, slotted the right head into it, and tried to wipe the oily grime off the big driveshaft. It connected the engines under the cockpit to the turbines, running the length of the cabin in a fat, waist-high tube casing. Grease and greasy dust blackened the top of it, with a smeared place from the last time he'd had to straddle it to reach the goddamn coolant conduit. The grime didn't come off, but he swung a leg over anyway, and braced his feet against the sides for leverage. Sure enough, a whole swath of congealed muck came off on his ass and the backs of his legs. He didn't mind, really. He wasn't one of those fancy clean pilots. He liked to touch his girl.

He'd never try to do this sort of repair while she wasn't grounded, though. When the big gears spun up, the driveshaft and the whole damn casing vibrated. It was supposed to do that. But when it did that while a man had one leg on either side of it, that man could come pretty close to embarassing himself through no fault of his own. It had happened once. ONCE. Never again. He liked to touch his girl, but…eh. No point letting things get all complicated.

Looked like it was a whole line of screws that needed a twist. He raised the screwdriver over his head and got to work, whistling. Maybe if he put some caulk in there afterwards, it would soften up the vibration so he didn't have to crank it down again every month.

He didn't hear the fore hatch open.

One second he was getting a screw really torqued down, the next second was a blur of motion—when the colored spots swam out of his vision, he was face-down on the driveshaft with what felt like a broken nose. The wind had been knocked right out of him, and the pressure of a heavy hand in the center of his back didn't help.

"Get off-" he wheezed, flailing the screwdriver behind his back. The angle sucked, but if he got lucky he could get a hit in and then he'd be up. There'd be hell to pay. He was sure as shit going to hurt somebody.

There was a flash of black to his right, and the screwdriver was gone. Then he felt his shoulders wrench down, around the shaft, and something wound too tight around his wrists, whip-quick.

"What the happy green fuck is this?"

The hand still on his back gave him a couple of rough pats. More like thuds, really. "We're taking the ship," a deep, genial voice informed him. "We need it more."

"Like hell you do, get off—what are you doing?" He couldn't see a damn thing, facing toward the rear of the ship like he was, but he could feel somebody pushing his legs apart. Nobody was going to bugger him on his own ship, he'd figure out how to climb out of his own ass and kill them for it. "That's not for you, god damn it! Off!" He kicked out, but didn't connect.

Someone laughed back there. Someone different. He really didn't like the sound of it. Didn't much like it when whoever was back there twisted hell out of his knee to tie his ankles together under the driveshaft either, but at least his pants stayed on. Finally the hand on his back lifted. A trickle of blood drooled out of his nose across the casing as he yanked—nothing for it, he was trussed fore and aft. God damn it, this was insulting. He was the captain.

"Where's Kadaj?" That was the deep-voiced one. Why the hell couldn't either of them stand where he could see them?

"Outside. He's coming." That must be the snickering bastard who tied him down.

"Hey!" Cid snapped. "Get over here. We gotta talk."

The deep-voiced one made a rumble that was probably a laugh, but they took a few steps aft and he got a good look finally. Apparently he'd been hijacked by the Big White Nasty's brother and sister. Creepy pieces of work, all white hair and black leather. The skinny one in a skirt crouched down to check him out.

"You're bleeding." He shook a glove off and flicked a knuckle sharply across the bridge of Cid's nose. It made a hollow, gristly click and spat out a gobbet of half-clotted blood.

Cid restrained the urge to hawk a gob right across that smooth, blank face—that was something girls did. He swallowed the mess trickling down the back of his throat and mentally resolved to do what guys did. Guys drop-kicked their enemies out the rear hatch.

"Get off my ship, you dogfucking arsewads. She doesn't fly for crap like you."

"She's not going to fly for me." The skinny one stood up. "Loz, go find the controls. I'll watch him."

"Nah, Loz, stick around!" Cid stuck his chin out defiantly, about the only gesture he could manage in his current position. "Gimme a fair fight, I'll take you both!"

"Can we?" Loz looked up and across the pipe at the other one. "Yazoo? We could give him a weapon."

"Don't. You'll break him." Cid didn't see Yazoo's mouth move, which meant there were three of the bastards. Light footsteps clomped down the deck toward him. "Did he tell you how to start it yet?"

"Not yet." Yazoo stepped back and Cid saw the third one, a smirking little brat with hair hanging over most of his face.

He didn't look old enough to buy a dirty magazine, much less go around stealing people's ships. He bent down to Cid's eye level, the way the other one had. Didn't touch the nose, though. Good thing: it stung.

"Hello," said the kid, cheerfully enough. "How do I start this ship?"

Loz made an indignant sound. "Kadaj, you said I could drive-"

The smirk dropped right off the kid's face. His eyes swiveled over to Loz, and his eyebrows hitched upto disappear under the hair. "I did?"

Cid got a good look at irises the color of the Highwind's coolant. It wasn't natural, no question about it.


"I have no idea why. I'm driving."

"It's called flying," snapped Cid, "And you're not fucking doing it."

He didn't see the skinny one next to him—Yazoo—move. He didn't see a damn thing. He felt his head damn near come off, though, and heard the kid squawking something about not breaking him, the ship wasn't off the ground yet, and then he had to concentrate hard on not throwing up as his brain turned into a wad of scrambled hurt and more blood from his nose ran down his throat.

The kid bent down again. "Captain," he said, all sugar, "How do I start this ship?" He poked a finger between Cid's lips and pulled one corner up into a half-smile. "Tell me or I'll pull your spine out through your mouth."

"That doesn't even make sen-" Cid cut himself off as Kadaj flicked a look up at Yazoo. Hell, just because it was physcially impossible to pull a man's spine out through his mouth wouldn't keep somebody from trying. He figured these three would probably give it a whirl anyway. Shaking his head free of the kid's nasty molesting finger, he explained.

"Hold down the red failsafe button and turn the cipher keys on the left of the console, bottom to top."

He hoped that glove in his mouth hadn't given him anything—was the creepy-white-bastard thing contagious? "And quit fucking touching me."

Kadaj disappeared behind him at once, footsteps headed straight up to the cockpit. Cid wasn't worried. When it came down to it, telling them how to fire up the Highwind wasn't going to do a damn thing. Getting her started was nothing. Getting her off the ground was the real trick, and long before they figured that out he'd have thought of some way to get off the driveshaft, fight off the other two, and take back his ship.

Yup. Any second now, he'd figure something out.

Sure thing.