By Desmond White
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
We yell beneath the winds, in trenches plowed quickly by shovel. We yell, cloaks flapping like flags. We yell by the knees of the mountain where scouts unearthed it, scouts executed by dragon fire, survivors by firing squad.
When I try to tell them it's not a dragon, they mutter darkly. I tell them it's a hovership. Grendel class, US Military. Back when the States were around. Looks more like a botfly with a big black cargo hold? I've never seen one but I've seen the schematics. They aren't sure. Probably were crawling in the muck while the hovership flew over Homer, burning up its timber walls, its mud-scale and columns and rag-scavenged people. No scales gleaming, just black-metal, windows. The scream of motors.
Someone shouts about wings. Sure, it's got wings, but do they flap? No, they don't, they're fixed, with little strips that shift in the wind, and four fans that flit so fast they sound like mosquitos. More synth than salamander, more machine than myth. A hovership. Not dragon.
They've lit a forest of iron poles on fire, green and blue and cackling, giving our faces the unholy color of bruises. Most are in the caves, but these are the chieftains. They brave the mountain. They might not go up, but they will (bravely) hire the man who will.
That's what you unearthed, I say.
They don't believe me. Dragons aren't so difficult in a world full of biotech. But no one's been able to put up a flying machine in centuries. Seems more legend than lost tech.
They're tired of discussing ontology. Yeah, I'll kill it, I say. I'll kill it. The money they're offering is enough to know I'll probably die trying. No one offers this much to the undoomed. But I'm looking at their skin, melted into shapes, missing limbs. And behind them, the city of Homer, now plains of green and blue. Bruises.
I know it's safer to stay down by the Sea, hunting the biotech that crawls out. I know biotech. Creatures born with cunning spun into their DNA. Creatures born in that acid-froth we call the Sea. Creatures tired of water-living. I know biotech spreading like moss, releasing spores like paratroopers. Biotech that's rats with fireless hides, or biotech screeching like a person, that's the worst, when it's people. An injured girl crawling up the coastline. Children rotten below the skin. But every incarnation has things it can't shake. Biotech always comes from the Sea. And it only eats flesh-meat-us. The programming won't breed it out. Doesn't want to. Easy protein.
But the hover is something older. Metal with a spirit trapped. Artificial intelligence in an aircraft. Blastproof. Fast. Solar panels that whip up invisible beams of heat. The hovership is good tech, and it can afford to fly by day, to let you know its nest, because it has something gene-spawn doesn't.
Biotech is perverted vegetables and animals in a ceaseless froth. But the hover is of older minds, of an age that knew permanence. Less guns and germs, more ships and steel. Hovers were something rare-final. Maybe they fought the biotech, too, and some mush must have hidden deep, because dragons burned the world.
Maybe that age is coming again. This hover destroyed Homer. What if it hits Patron? New Garrison? What if we unearth more?
Before I go, I return to the Sea and take biotech from the filters. A lizard with blue fur, little legs like a centipede, small, wrong, not dangerous, not yet. I take a pistol and knife and a hack key stole from a store near the Fault. The schematics. I circle back. Homer. The mountain.
Not much to say about the climb except it's slow. I crawl up rocks, looking a rock myself, and a few times I hold the mountain when the hover slips by. It's still ignoring Homer-the fire fields are working. I think it goes to the forests behind the Spine and burns them. Gods, I wish we'd go back to thinking mountains are sacred.
There are bright green plants crawling up with me, rich from radiation and char. This should have been dragon-sign but scouts have the souls of scavengers. I check my lizard. Its formed a chrysalis like a blue sticky tumor. Need to hurry.
Up there's a cave-the mouth of an old military base-and I find the hover pushed up against a rubble of fallen computers, snoozing. Ground control that lost control. I pass a row of buttons red as rubies, glass crowns rising from cracked monitors. I pass it all until I'm by planes and panels, mirror black. The hover looks more dragonfly than dragon, but it's sky-steel and thunder. I step wisely over a confluence of cables, over the hum of lost songs, and find myself beneath its belly, searching for white bars. There. A latch. In my fingers is the hack.
Behind the latch is a firmament of wires and lights blinking wickedly. I part them like a surgeon maneuvers cables still pumping blood, remove them like a surgeon hangs organs on hooks. Behind-a blue orb, wrapped in veins. The battery. If I'm not careful, its defense system will spray my face with acid and streaks of electric heat. I'll melt and fry and asphyxiate.
I slowly peel the veins from the orb.
Near my head, a black-lit window glows like an eye cracking open. I hear the hum of internal engines, and the battery goes dim from use. The lights must be an old habit.
I remove the last strand and poke the orb from its cradle, then roll beneath a fallen cabinet as the hover erupts in the air.
Green fogs, blue gashes of light. I bite my lip, quiet. The cabinet is reduced to goo, burning my arm. I crawl below others, below rows of brittle iron. The hovership rises, its nose whipping around the room. Reserve power. Should have known. The blur of its fans sound less like bugs, more like screeches. Rage, a metal rage. Heat rays fry computers and dust colored manuals and sear the walls.
And there are spiders. Teeth-metal things, dropping from its auxiliary ports. Searching. If they find me, they'll return the battery after they cook my corpse.
The thing is nosing nearby, not seeing me yet, and I know the las in my holster would do nothing but put on a fireworks display. The spiders are crawling over the terminals, and I've seconds before they trace my breath signature.
The window lights. Are they dimmer? In the shadows of wood and steel I think I know why. Battery level. Insufficient. Heat rays don't charge themselves. The hover needs sunlight to recharge. My hand slips to my belt, to a jar, to a lid I slowly turn.
The biotech flits out of its container, now a bird with blue scales, and darts for the cavern's mouth, where yellow light waits like a diffused mist. The hover turns. This is my great risk. To bring biotech behind the filters. To expose it to the world of men.
Then the air is hot and heavy, wavering like a current of water. The lizardfly drops, char. And the dragon-- the hovership falls, rolls on its side, one wing sticking in the air like it's been spit by a sword.
My las howls, taking the spiders. Any one of them could kill me. But I have watched their movements-I even take the one leaping at my back.
A moment of relief, collapsed on the floor. The people of Homer will pay me. The cave will be picked clean like scalers eating every part of a fish. The hover will become the walls of homes and the shields of security guards; these cables will be ropes and laundry-lines. And I will be forgotten among a people who care little for undoomed men.
The hack key takes time, and all the while I feel this eerie pressure, like there are men inside whispering. Finally, I open the hatch and drop down into old rooms, unused organs. There are parts here. The brain of it, the heart of it, the liver and pipes. Everything but its soul will sell. I'll buy my way off the filters, claim some trailer on the west side of the Fault. Early retirement. And Homer? Screw them all. They can have their lizard.
It's not until I'm on the trail that I think about what lies behind me. A corpse in shadow, entrails spilled in the dirt. Solar panels left to green with age. Two wings, flightless.