A Gift of Clouds

Sheryl squealed as Alto accelerated the Valkyrie through the cloud canopy and burst spiraling into brilliant sunlight and a bluebird-colored sky. Island One appeared as a vast dome-shaped mountain on the horizon behind them. Spires of white clouds were piled high all around them, and Alto gently swerved around each cloud formation, sometimes just dipping the wingtips in the clouds and spraying the Valkyrie with a fine mist.

"Come on!" she crooned. "Where's all the fancy flying I've seen you do?"

Alto turned his head to look back at her from the pilot's seat. "This isn't a combat situation, you know. Besides, you'd just throw up or pass out from all the g's."

"I was in the same pilot school as you, remember?" she said, crossing her arms in a pout. "I can handle myself just fine."

Alto's helmet and his position hid the snarky look on his face. "Yeah, for one whole semester." He decided to leave out the fact that her one opportunity to pilot a Valkyrie ended disastrously.

"Who do you think I am, Princess?" she asked, using Alto's nickname to indicate her scorn. "I'm Sheryl Nome!"

Alto rolled his eyes. "Thank you for reminding me. I might have forgotten since I got your helmet stenciled last week."

Sheryl stroked her fingers across her helmet. He'd had it decorated after her glamorous sense of style, with "Sheryl" and "Nome" stenciled in elaborate cursive on either side.

"It was a nice gift, but remember that under this silky exterior is a heart of gold and a stomach of steel!"

"I rather like what's between those, to be honest," said Alto with a smirk.

Sheryl leaned forward and slapped his helmet. "I hope the radio's off, pervert!"

"It is."

"Good." She paused and sat back, licking her lips. "Tell me more."

"In a minute," Alto said as he banked smoothly around a large cloud bank. "Wanna take over?" he asked.

"What's this? The great hero of the war is letting me fly his precious plane?"

"I never did see if you learned anything at school. Why not show me?"

Sheryl snapped her fingers. "Piece of cake! Sheryl Nome conquers hearts and aircraft alike!" She placed her hands on the controls and braced herself.

"Just try a few simple maneuvers. No need to get fancy on me."

"Don't treat me like a baby."

"Except in bed, I know."

"Hey!"

"Switching control to you."

The plane dipped slightly as Sheryl's controls took over. She hastily pushed the throttle forward and the plane shuddered with the extra acceleration, then wobbled as she instinctively pulled back.

"Having fun?"

"Shut up!" She bit her lower lip and took a deep breath as she tilted the flight stick to the left and pulled back, guiding the plane into a gentle bank. She brought it back and leveled out, aiming the aircraft at a distant mountain range.

"Good one," Alto coached. "Speed up a little and try to go around that cloud bank," he said, pointing a few degrees starboard.

"Nnh," she nodded and brought the plane to bear on their target. The clouds, sparkling white and serene in the distance, now rushed past them at blinding speed as the Valkyrie's twin engines rocketed the two of them through the air. They rounded the first cloud bank and another loomed in front of them like a tower of cotton.

"I'm going around that one, too," she announced, focusing all of her energies into keeping the plane going the way she wanted it to.

"Go for it."

As she approached the cloud, the plane hit an air pocket and dropped without warning. Sheryl panicked and pulled back sharply on the flight stick while accelerating. The plane exited the air pocket almost as soon as it entered, and the extra input from the pilot caused the plane to flip in the thicker air and destroyed Sheryl's fragile sense of direction.

At this point the best thing she decided to do was slam her feet into the pedals, which in a car was a good idea, but in a Valkyrie this caused the thrust vectoring system to send the plane into a wild spin, which in turn sent the aircraft plummeting towards the ground. Alarms sounded in the cockpit, adding to Sheryl's confusion and causing Alto to burst into laughter.

"What's so funny!?" she screeched as each new input sent the plane even more out of control.

"You, of course. What's that you said about conquering aircraft as easily as you conquer hearts?"

"Aren't you going to do anything?"

"We're four kilometers up still. There's plenty of time for you to get control."

"That was a whole kilometer ago, you idiot!" Sheryl continued wrestling with the controls, which seemed to be making the plane do the complete opposite of what she wanted. Alto continued to laugh as the ground rushed up to meet them.

"I swear to God, Saotome!" she roared over his laughter and the cockpit alarms. "If this crash doesn't kill you I most certainly will!"

"Well that would be inconvenient," Alto said nonchalantly.

The entire world flickered around her like a nightmarish kaleidoscope of green, blue and white, with the back of Alto's helmet forming a calm mockery of her hysteria. Sheryl flustered. "In...inconvenient!? Is that all you can say? AREN'T YOU GOING TO DO ANYTHING?" Her pitch was now somewhere between glass breaking and a screech owl's call.

"Oh hey, the ground's getting close."

Sheryl let go of the controls and covered her eyes. "Let me know when it's over so I can torment you in the afterlife."

She felt the plane stop spinning, level out, and then felt like a Zentradi was sitting on her as the engines roared and the plane flew like a bullet back towards the clouds. It burst through the clouds and leveled out, back into the serene landscape of cloud and sky. Sheryl tentatively opened her eyes and looked about.

"I always thought this is what heaven would be like," she said with a venomous edge in her voice. "It's kind of nice."

Alto laughed. "It's not heaven, but it's pretty close."

They cruised for a few minutes, letting the clouds drift by at what seemed like a leisurely pace, despite the fact the instrument panel told Sheryl they were cruising at over 800 kilometers an hour.

"Sheryl?"

"Yes?"

"I wanted to apologize."

"For what?"

"I know you wanted to throw a big deal for my birthday and make it really special, so I-"

"It's okay," she said, cutting him off. She rested her head against the canopy. "The SMS is deploying this weekend, right?"

"Yeah."

"When will you be back?"

"I don't know."

They cruised a few more minutes. It was true that Sheryl had every intention of making a huge fuss over Alto's first birthday under a blue sky. She'd been planning it all month, inviting some fellow entertainers, their friends and family, and arranging the venue and catering. She couldn't remember how he'd convinced her to come to the SMS hangar, don her flight suit and take off in his Valkyrie, but here they were, and right now a lot of people were probably wondering where the guest of honor and their hostess was. She reasoned that sex and alcohol must have been involved, but the past week was hazy to her.

"It's not that I didn't appreciate the gesture," Alto started.

"Hmm?" she said, raising her head.

"It's not that I didn't appreciate the gesture," he repeated, "but...the fact is, the day after tomorrow we're going off into space to fight. When I woke up this morning, I realized I might not see this sky again. I was scared."

Sheryl folded her hands together and gazed softly at the back of Alto's helmet.

"So you just had to ditch my plans and take off."

"Yeah, sorry. I couldn't bear living without you, but I couldn't bear living without this sky we fought so hard for, either."

"I understand," she sighed, and after a moment said, "It is very peaceful up here."

"I feel like my head is clearest when I'm flying like this. I never felt this way in space."

"So why bring me along?" she teased. "Isn't it distracting having a beautiful woman so close to you?"

"Only when you try to fly the plane," he retorted, which Sheryl answered by striking the back of his seat.

"Thank you for bringing me along, though," she said at length. "I never got to fly with you, did I?"

"I'm glad you came. I've always wanted to share it with you. You're always so busy."

"I know. I'm sorry." Sheryl reached forward and touched his shoulder. "Happy birthday, Alto Saotome."

He touched her hand. "Thank you, Sheryl Nome."

"Hey," she said after a moment. "How much fuel do we have?"

"This thing's nuclear powered. It can run for months."

"So there's no hurry to get back?"

"Not today, no."

"Good." She sat back and returned her gaze to the clouds. "Let's keep flying, then. Show me some more of your sky. Oh, and Alto?"

"Yeah?"

"You will come back. You're too good a pilot, and you've got me waiting for you here, remember?"

Alto turned his head to look back at her, started to say something, but decided to just smile instead.

The sun glittered across the Valkyrie's frame as it cruised under an endless sea of blue. For just a little while longer.