A long time ago, rain used to be pure water. It poured out of the clouds and filled up the lakes and the rivers and the oceans. It cleansed the world, watered the plants, and made everything bright and clean afterward. People would walk in the rain without fear.
This is not a fairy tale. It was true. That’s what everyone said, everyone claimed, the stories passed down from great-great-great-grandfather to great-great-grandmother to the ears of little children listening in rapt attention as someone shook a glowstick to light and carefully recited from the etched metal pages in the Book of Days. Days, because that was how they measured time. Not years, not even months. Days. Each and every precious day had to be used to its fullest, because at any minute it could all come tumbling down.
It could dissolve.
Somewhere in the Book were etched pictures of high buildings standing proud in the cities, man-made mountain ranges that stabbed the skies. Whoever had made them had never thought that one day the skies would stab back.
The hunter awoke, the scent of baking grasses in her nose, the drone of flies and the distant cries of birds echoing in her ears. The leather tent left her in deep shade from the hot sun, and the softness of her pallet of skins and dried grasses cushioned her from the earth. She breathed deep, tasting a faintest hint of blood on the wind, and raised her head, her smile a sharp and feral thing. She looked out to where the plains gave way to teeth of stone, biting at the sky, and crawled forth to stand, scanning the horizon for the prey. The omen that they’d been sent to find was surely here, where the easy hunting of the grasslands would give it plenty to eat. She raised her face to the sun and shouted out loud, drawing the notice of the spirits to this place. Eagerly, she grabbed her spear and thrust it to the sky, the other hunters rising as their prey winged out of hiding in the mountains, darkening the sky as it soared.
Gee woke up with her entire body tense, like she was a second away from striking, all her strength put towards making that killing blow. She mentally shook her head as she strapped on her breathing mask and tightened the suit-skin she had loosened for sleep. Killing blow, she thought, snorting. She’d never killed anything in her life. Never held a pointy stick, never run over a plain of growing plants, and certainly never had her nearly-naked body exposed to the environment. That way lay death. She double-checked her suit-skin, settled her goggles, and finally unsealed her sleep tent. All around her everyone else in the band was stirring, sleep tents making odd bulges and ripples, like currents in the sludge flows, before people finally began to emerge, goggled and suited, breathing masks in place. She checked them automatically, the drill routine, looking for gaps, for flaws in anyone’s protection.
Seeing none, she cast her eyes to the ceiling, hunting for any hint of brightness that would mean a possible gap in their cover. None there either. Finally she felt safe enough to shove herself upright and close her sleep tent, her breath rasping across her breathing filter.
She turned her head to see Dad, suit-skin already tightened down for outside work, skimmer and air-scoop already clipped to the webbing on his back. His sleep tent was already sealed up, the teardrop symbol painted on the outside in a glowing orange prominent in the dim light. Gee grabbed her own tools and went to join him, looking over at the tall, curving metal ribs being assembled over on the far side of the building.
“They need more,” Dad said softly, noticing her interest. “They’re going to need a lot more than we thought. No rest for the wicked, not today, m’gal. We’re working the west passage today, seaward side.”
Gee felt her face go bloodless, and Dad put his arm around her shoulders, the warmth penetrating their suit-skins. “Hey. Who’s the best skimmer in this band?”
“Vac,” she said, tapping the orange teardrop painted on his shoulder.
“And who’s going to be the best skimmer in this band once she learns how?” he said. Without waiting for an answer, he hugged her, their suit-skins squeaking as they touched. “Gee is, and we both know it. Come on; you’ll never be able to find what we need without braving the Sea.”
Gan waited for all the skimmers at the door, her hands locked around the heavy latch that led to the tunnels that honeycombed the ruined city. She counted heads as the skimmers assembled, and shouted out the number to the entire band, already busy at the endless work of survival.
“Twelve go out!”
“Twelve come back,” they all responded automatically.
With a heave, Gan slammed the latch open and hauled the door up, touching each person on the shoulder as the skimmers marched out, confirming each person leaving. The counting wasn’t because they were expecting them all back. The counting was so that someone would remember them when they didn’t. Gee sucked in a breath nearly deeper than her filter would allow, and felt Gan’s hand on her shoulder as the band’s leader watched her vanished into the depths behind her father. The door slammed shut behind her with a thud more felt than heard, the ratcheting of the latch a scream echoing in the depths.
Patches of the usual phosphorescent smears of unknown origin gave the only consistent light, showing the river of sludge that ran below the walkway, a turbulent dark flow that drained from the acid rain-washed surface. Everything they dissolved ended up down here in the flows sooner or later, studded liberally with whatever chunks of surviving material had slid down here with it.
A crude walkway of shattered and half-melted concrete made a splash barrier, painstakingly crafted over the generations to protect returning skimmers from surges in the flow. But Gee knew, they all knew, that where they really needed to go, there were no barriers. The other skimmers disappeared up and down the tunnels, turning off one way or another, each trying to find their own patch where the detritus of the old world had left something useful behind.
Wisps of vapor danced in the dim light as footsteps faded into the background beat of sludge against the tunnel walls. Dad turned back to her and nodded once. Gee grabbed her air scoop and brought it out in front of her, and followed him towards the Toxic Sea.
The horn sounded out, an echoing scream that rang across the pass, and the hunters surged forward, a rising tide of armor and leaf-bladed spears and cruel sharp javelins, pungent sweat and the iron tang of blood. Uncut tresses flagged out behind them, flogging backs covered with the hides of a dozen other kills, talismans clinking and chattering against each other. The hunters began their blood chant, a rough, pounding, driving beat that emphasized their running pace, every strike of their feet making the ground rumble like thunder, a rising storm.
Gee shook off the odd daydream as the growing sound penetrated her trance of walking and watching. Ahead of her, glimpsed only in the moments when the vapor cleared, was an endless roiling plain of viscous green and purple, writhing like a living thing. It was enormous, mesmerizing, the graveyard of all the world, so the storyteller said.
The thick waves crashed into the ruined shore, making the air vibrate and the flows surge. Clouds of vapor thickened, curdling into a nearly palpable mass that Gee had to force her way through with some effort, using the air scoop on her staff to carve a path. The remaining vapor slid greasily along her suit-skin, looking disgusting, but harmless to the material. It was horrible disfigurement or death if it touched her bare flesh, but that only made it one step worse than anything else she or Dad had to work with.
The froth-laden river of sludge near her feet surged and gurgled with the force of the surf, audible even a hundred yards away. It revealed its treasure little by little, a metallic glint suddenly catching her eye. Gee had spent ages helping Dad pull little blobs of surviving ore-globules from the flows, but here at the edge of the Sea, the metal had clumped into bigger balls, tougher than anything else they could find.
“Dad!” she called in excitement. He turned and dipped in the skimmer where she pointed, activating the magnetic lifter at the same time. Once the fibers touched the metal, the entire pole would vibrate, showing it had made solid contact. Dad grinned at the sensation, his eyes crinkling up in pleasure through his goggles, and carefully lifted. The whole chunk of reheated and cooled metal slowly pulled free from the flows, opposing magnetic fields from the skimmer letting him manipulate the two-hundred-pound blob of unknown alloy as if it were made from foam, pulling it from the floes and finally settling it on the shore.
“Good catch, Brighteyes,” Dad said, patting the metal and absently wiping off the smoking bits of fluid that still clung to its surface with flicks of a stone whisk. “This’ll make the builders proud.”
Dad pulled out the shield, a half-bubble of protective plastic, clouded with countless runs, and fixed it over the close end of the skimmer, big enough to cover them both. Gee felt her breathing go harsh for several breaths before managing to get ahold of herself. They only used the shield if they were going out of the protective tunnels, trying to shelter themselves from dissolving in the rain should it happen to fall. Dad caught her look and smiled, his eyes crinkling behind his goggles.
“Too awkward to take this through the tunnels. If we get hung up, then it’s both of us in the soup,” he said, chin jerking in the direction of the foaming, surging flow of acidic sludge. “This is what it’s like to work near the surf.”
“You’re sure?” she asked, eyeing the thick green sky just barely visible through the vapor, and shoving the worst of it aside with her air scoop.
“Sure. You know how much we need,” Dad said, his tone gone very serious. Gee nodded, seeing the huge metal ribs in the band’s shelter in her mind’s eye, the first part of their escape. Six hundred tons in total – that was the goal every skimmer was working towards. Six hundred tons of usable, acid-proof metal.
They could do it by finding lumps of one or two pounds in the safest, most protected flows. Or by something like this, claiming bounty from the edge of the Toxic Sea.
“Let’s do it,” Gee said, white behind her mask. Eyes crinkling with a smile of encouragement, Dad led her out into the open air.
A shadow cut over the plain, the sun blotted out by flying death. Howls of incipient violence, shrieks and wordless screams of triumph filled the ringing empty space around the hunters, seeming to press the shadow upward, forcing it to fly to the exposed ledges of the mountain. The hunters ran for the foothills, then clambered over the rocks with careless ease, spears glinting in their hands. The sun burned everything with its pure white light, hot enough to redden skin and blister feet, but the hunters ignored it, ignored everything but the prize.
“Movement!” Dad whispered harshly, and Gee pressed herself into an alcove, hiding herself from view, heart pounding from the echo of her daydream. From the shelter of the shield, she could see more survivors passing in the distance, acid-scarred and awful. Their suit-skins looked patchworked and tattered, their shields small, with melted edges. They nearly blended in with the sides of the corroded buildings, only their darting from cover to cover giving them away.
“What do they want?” she breathed. They were close to the band’s shelter, far too close for comfort, not with others creeping around, looking to scavenge.
“Our tanks, if they can get them,” Dad said, and Gee shivered. Their band had four whole tanks, two of the savory, nutritious brew, and two of the sweet, hydrating quench, to feed and water all of them. The tanks held precious algae and bacteria that had been cultivated from the few living plants of the toxic jungles that had remained edible. One filtered and held nutrients, and the other was able to recycle fluids into a drinkable liquid. The tankers carefully tended to the brew and quench with the reverence of parents looking after their children, knowing there was only so much they could produce in a day. Without the tanks, the band would starve and die.
“They either lost theirs in an accident or let them die through lack of tending. Either way, we can’t let them follow us back. Quiet, Gee. Quiet.”
Gee stayed quiet until the winds shifted again, thickening the vapor in the street until it was almost too much to push through. Dad tugged on her arm with his free hand and Gee started to move again, watching his back wordlessly as they circled back to the shelter. Billows of thick vapor shoved against the buildings, and occasionally there was a soft thud as something finally detached and fell to the ground. When the next acid rain would come, those pieces would be washed into the flows, to be dissolved and sorted until only the strongest alloys remained. Dad led them along the faces of the buildings, created by their ancestors long ago when having a wide window wasn’t tempting death. What they’d been made for, no one really knew. Whatever work had been done or lives led in these buildings, it bore no resemblance to how their band lived now.
Dad paused every few moments, waiting and listening for footsteps, for breathing, for anything that let him knew they’d been caught. Gee listened as hard as she could, hearing nothing but the soft susurration of the tide, and nodded tentatively. They circled around the valleys of buildings before coming back to the shelter, eyes flicking up towards the sky every few moments, looking and listening for any hint of impending rainfall. As they waited for someone to open the outer door, Dad smiled at her and put the skimmer in her hands.
“Take it in, Brighteyes.”
The hunters were stalking through the peaks now, waiting for the dragon to come out of hiding. It was dangerous here, the rocks waiting to turn the feet of the unwary and tumble them down to their deaths. The lead hunter had taken only the best with her, the strongest, the bravest, the most skilled of all the clan’s hunters. Their markings proclaimed their prowess, gained over years of successful hunts. And she had fought the hardest of them all to lead the hunt after the great beast had been sighted. For this, she had been born!
Gee felt her breath, too hot, too harsh, rasping against her breathing mask like fire. The skimmer vibrated almost violently in her hands, the same fierce buzz that had distracted Dad for a crucial moment. At the end of the long pole bobbed a ball of ore that defied description, shot through with streaks of brilliant gold and glittering silver, winding around a core of dead black, the entirety several tons.
Tons. The flows never yielded tons. Most things were battered to bits before getting to the Toxic Sea, broken down to whatever components could actually survive there. A few hundred pounds here and there, that’s how Dad and the other skimmers had been getting the metal needed for the band to forge their escape.
Gee choked back a suffocating sob and looked up at the boiling cloud-cover above, acid green and purple, sluggish semisolid vapor ready to rain down upon her. Suit-skin would protect her from light vapor and casual acid rain contact, but a downpour would melt her where she stood. But the metal would never fit in the underground passages.
She stumbled on the uneven ground, broken chunks of artificial rock and what melted metal remained aboveground, and just tried to keep moving, keep her hands tight on the skimmer, tried to not think too hard that she was alone. Tried not to remember Dad bringing the metal out of the dammed flow with a shout of triumph, tried not to see the pain on his face as his hands, weary from endless days of labor, old from teaching her over days and days and days, tried to grasp the skimmer to steady the bounty he’d found. It had been so very long since her first time, so long since she’d brought her first large ore-chunk to the band from the edge of the Sea. She hadn’t realized how old he really was; she’d though he’d live forever. She tried not to cry when she remembered him shoving the skimmer pole at her, the weightless mass nevertheless having enough momentum to knock her down as the edge of the flow crumbled under Dad’s feet and his hands didn’t have strength to save him…
No, she was remembering. Would always remember. But she had to keep that memory from killing her.
“We’re going to escape from here, Brighteyes.” He’d said that every day he was alive, pointing out the growing shape the builders were making. “We’re going to help make those wings, and we’re going to get out. We’re going to see what it’s like above those clouds, over the rain.”
Gee didn’t stop, couldn’t stop, just kept trudging until she fell against the band’s hideout. Pra opened the door for her, her slim hand going to cover her breathing mask as Gee hobbled in alone, the metal bobbing behind her. She stomped over to the builders’ area, nearly throwing the metal at them before returning to her father’s sleep tent. Each breath ripping her throat, she grabbed a slurry sponge and made two broad wipes over the orange teardrop, erasing it. Then she tossed the sponge away, looking at the remnants of orange paint on her hands, staining the dark green of her throbbing hands like blood. Abruptly Gee’s knees gave out, and she collapsed on the ground, ripping off her goggles and mask in a frenzy before the sobs came bursting out of her like a storm.
The rest of the band, seeing the confirmed death notice in the erased marking, came to shelter Gee from the tempest.
The hunter looked up at the sky, cut off here and there by the mountain peaks. She could feel her own heart beat through her contact with the ground, the bones of ancestors who dwelt there, echoing out to the fires in the skies. If all went well, if the great beast fell to her spear, they would know it, feel it. She would live forever in the stories of the clan.
Hal knelt down in front of her, the pots of paint across his chest and the engraving tools at his belt a mute testimony as to his role in the band. Historian and tale-teller, recorder of facts and designator of new ones, he was the namer of names. Gee’s father had been mourned, Vac had returned to the sludge where they all would one day. But this day was Gee’s day, her name day. She had lived enough days to pick what she was ready to do. Mutely, Hal held up the orange pot of paint in front of Gee’s eyes.
“No.” She shook her head violently. “No. That metal was the last I’m ever getting. I want to see what we’re going to do with it.”
She had no experience. But she had skimmer’s hands, the implacable grip and unrelenting strength needed to break things down and build them up again. Hal put away the orange and brought out the red instead. With careful strokes, a tongue of flame now licked its way up her shoulder, across her tent.
She was in the lead, a wild storm, a beast of the mountains, avatar of gods and demons. Nothing would stop them, stop her, from completing her hunt. The gods demanded it, the creature would die. Under brilliant sunshine, she leapt, the others following her, spears shining like glints of rain as they fell.
“Why is it that way? I thought it was supposed to be a-- a plane,” Gee said, hesitating over the unfamiliar word. “Ribbed cylinder with skin-sheet metal, pointed at both ends. This is… irregular.”
“It’s what it has to be,” Cam said, and crooked his fingers for her to come closer. Cam was the first amongst the builders, and along with Heb and Cle, were the ones teaching Gee her new life. “Look, you bring us the stuff from the flows, and we fire it up, and we start to pound it out and then this just happens. The metal only bends so far, only goes so straight. I wrestle it smooth, and when it cools, it curves again. I try to make a ring, it makes an arc. I’m not fighting it, Gee. I’m tired of fighting.”
“But it won’t fit!” Gee opened her mouth to protest further when Cam brought up a rod and socket, swooping, organic-looking things that looked precisely nothing like the blueprints. With care, he fitted them together, and they locked in place as if they were the opposite ends of a magnet.
“They want to,” Cam said, and took the scrap of metal ore from Gee’s hands before she dropped it and tossed it in the furnace. “Let’s see what this one wants to become.”
Gee looked from one builder to the other, not ready to believe quite yet, and picked up the hammer.
Gee pulled the metal out of the quench-fluid, frowning at the graceful organic curve. It should have been a perfect half-circle. She’d made it so, labored over it for three days to make it perfect, but somehow it had warped out of true. She made a disgusted sound deep in her throat, and Heb chuckled behind his mask. In the time she’d been learning the builder’s skill, they could fault nothing with her work ethic, but she still had the frustrated drive for perfection that marked the young.
“Welcome to our world, skimmer,” he said. “Bring that here.”
Gee grabbed it with gloved hands and followed Heb to the tapering cargo chamber skeleton, muttering quietly in irritation.
“There,” he said, and she placed it where he pointed and started when the imperfect curved end fitted neatly and snugly into the connector point as if it had been molded specifically. Gee gaped at it, then back at Heb.
“How?” she demanded.
“Let me show you,” he said, and pulled her to the work table. He elbowed Cam and Cle, and nodded at Gee. Cam began to rummage through a stack of odds and ends until he found what Heb had wanted.
“You see, we started with an idea for a plane.” Cam rolled out the metal sheets that the plans were etched on, pointing to a diagram probably painstakingly copied from the fragile wood pulp plans of ages past. It showed a pointed cylinder with rigid, tapered wings, a tall, pointed tail on the end. Round propulsion units hung from the wings, and Gee put a hand to her throat in fear. She’d seen what acid fog could do on the ground, and in the upper sky… Trying to suck the semi-solid vapor in through those huge vents could kill them all. Air scoops couldn’t work fast enough to push the vapor aside, not at the speeds they’d need to spin.
“How?” she demanded, frightened.
“We figured with the strongest alloys the skimmers could bring us, we had a chance. Except…” Cam nodded at the skeleton.
Gee turned to look at the scaffolding again, and went pale. The struts didn’t conform to the plan. By no stretch of the imagination, artistic license, or poor reading of the diagram did they even come close. The builders had been working on the escape since she was a child; what was going on?
“What are we doing?” she asked.
Heb looked at Cam, at Cle, at the other apprentice Mic, and finally nodded decisively. “The question is, what is it doing? We’re just its hands. It’s the one calling the shots.”
Gee stared at the plans, then rolled them up decisively. Fat lot of good they were. They were building without a plan, with parts that twisted themselves into an unknown configuration. If it was going for some greater plan, some unknown miraculous vehicle that would get them all out of here, that would be wonderful. But…
“What if it stops calling the shots? We need to know what we’re going for.”
Heb looked nervous, and Cam stared at the floor while Cle’s jaw moved, clenched tight.
“That,” Heb said, very grave, “is our greatest nightmare.”
Gee closed her eyes for a second, and tried to think, tried to imagine what it was supposed to look like when it was done.
The dark shape flying against the sky, illuminated by the blazing sun. Its wings pumped against the pull of the earth, its head turning to find a safe place to land. The hunter snarled silently as it banked and turned, diving down the gorge and then back up the other side to a sheer, inaccessible peak. Not for long… The hunter gasped as the dragon unfurled its wings and pushed off, leaping for distance as it pulled itself into the upper air, deeper into the mountains, farther than anyone had gone before. The hunter stood and shouted into the air, a thrill of challenge overcoming everything else.
Her eyes flew open, and Gee knew her face was flushed and hot behind her mask and goggles. “It’s a dragon.”
“That doesn’t look like a cockpit,” Pit said warily. The skimmer’s eyebrows were furrowed behind his goggles, his eyes scrunched up in concern. Gee got that; the skimmers had the second-most proprietary interest in their escape, and they needed to know that they weren’t risking their lives for nothing.
The control module was roughed out at the front of the vehicle, and it was no featureless pointed cone. It would have nostrils that could flare to seek out toxin pockets and ears that could swivel to listen for rainfall, eyes that could adjust the input of light and protect themselves, spikes and horns for defense, all in an organic-modeled detection and defensive system unlike anything they’d ever seen or heard of, at least in their experience.
“It’s better. Don’t you see? It’s better,” Cam said.
“We can’t see, not like this. There are no monitors in the cargo space for us to view what the sensors see. Everything’s self-contained in the computer. We’d be completely at its mercy. At most we’ll be able to see a little of where we’re going from the lower panels, but….” Pit shrugged helplessly, and flicked his eyes briefly over to a tent marked with a bright green outline of a head. Gan’s tent, their leader. She was too savvy to voice concerns publically, and Gee was grateful she’d asked her questions through Pit.
“Better protection,” Heb said. “It is!”
“Not from rain, not if we can’t see.”
“We don’t know what we’re going to find. We’re trying to find a way out, aren’t we? We don’t know what’s out there. Isn’t that the point?” Cam said.
Gee stepped up next to Pit, and casually picked up his shield, the scarred, clouded polycarb similar to the viewing portals in the lower cargo chamber. The portals that would be beneath the protection of the wings and the bulk of the body, and out of contact with the worst of the vapor of the upper air.
“How long does it take your shield to get cloudy?” Gee said, making the others stop to consider her non-sequitur.
Pit opened and closed his mouth a bit, jaw working behind his mask, and shook his head. “One excursion, but I haven’t had a new shield in… since I started skimming.”
“Why bother putting polycarb portals on the cockpit, then? We won’t be able to see through them after fifteen minutes or the first time we hit a vapor-field.” Gee held Pit’s eyes until he looked away, nodding slowly.
“And it’ll be mobile. Moreso than anything we could construct from the old plans,” Cle added enthusiastically, pointing to the layout of the long connector passage, one that could allow the cockpit to swivel in any direction to look for danger.
Mobile. A head a long neck, like etchings in the Book of Days of animals long gone.
“If we have to,” Pit said, shuddering a bit in uncertainty.
Gee understood. “We do.”
The hunter led her people along a new path, scouted out from peak to peak, following the scraped rocks and hints of spoor that showed her where the dragon had gone. Not even a creature of the air could hide there forever. They were hot on its trail, and despite the grumblings from the others, she knew they were getting closer with every step.
“Wait, just-. You want to switch from the blueprints we have, the plans the band spent forever researching to-.” Gan cut herself off, keeping her voice from rising, a few small strands of brittle, gray hair escaping from the hood of her suit-skin. The green head outline on her shoulder seemed to gleam in the phospheen lights over the builders’ area. Her shoulders consciously relaxed as she let her temper flare out, replacing it with the stoic calm she used every day. Gan had been the one to propose escape in the first place, to bring up the possibility that there was a place beyond the Toxic Sea or the equally dangerous jungles, a place where there was cleaner air and the possibility of death was more distant.
But in all her time, she’d never considered this. That was why she’d sent her concerns in Pit’s mouth before coming herself. If the band saw Gan standing against the builders, then all the effort they’d put forth, all the people who had died, had all been for nothing. And they all lived on too narrow a margin for that.
“To build something better! The ones before us had planes too, and look what happened.” Cam pointed a finger towards the scarred viewing portal near the door of the shelter where the sky was just barely visible as roiling banks of sinister green murk. “Look! The planes melted. The skies ate them up. Even if we have the strongest alloy left, I don’t think we want such a bad-luck design. The planes didn’t save our ancestors, and it won’t save us.”
“You… From your sketches you’ve made, it looks like you’re trying to create something based on a complex life form, something no one has records of. How are we going to build that? How is that better?”
“It’s better because it’s stronger, it had defenses, because it’s the toughest damn thing I’ve ever heard of,” Cle added enthusiastically.
“And we’re going to build it because it’s going to tell us how,” Heb said, fire in the older builder’s eyes.
Cam nearly opened his mouth, but stopped himself, unwilling to give voice to the impossible.
“Because of the dreams,” Gee said. Gan turned her gimlet stare on the youngest builder, daring her to explain.
“Does it matter?” Gee said. “Does it really matter where the plans come from? No one here’s ever seen a plane, in the sky or anywhere else. Maybe that was never the way we are going to get out of here.”
“She’s right,” Heb said unexpectedly. “Planes didn’t get our ancestors out. They had plenty of time to build strong planes back when people remembered how.”
“They didn’t have sludge-tested alloys,” Gan said.
“They wouldn’t have needed them.”
“The acid falls started slowly, first barely enough to burn the skin. Then our skies wept angry tears as all that had gone before returned to the earth, and flesh, wood, stone, and steel dissolved in the force of its fury,” Hal recited, holding up the Book of Days. “We did not comprehend, we did not understand, and so we lost what had been our world to the anger of the old ways.” Heb started at Hal’s appearance behind him, but nodded enthusiastically at the tale-teller’s words.
Gan put her hands over her face, her gloves pressing into her goggles and mask. “These dreams are worth the lives of our entire band?”
“Yes.” Gee could see, out of the corner of her eye, the orange stains on her skin-suit under the red symbol of her chosen profession. Gan stared at them too, at the skimmer who’d chosen to build, who’d taken everything she’d seen outside their walls and put it into their one hope of escape.
“Child,” she whispered, “you better have some damn good dreams.”
The hunter had drawn close now, still too far away for a spear thrust, but close enough to see the dragon sleeping, silver in the moonlight. She took the time to study it, memorizing the length of its claws, where its wings joined its body, and where the scaled looked worn or cracked. She would learn it better than she’d learned anything, better than she knew herself.
Something moved. Gee automatically looked upward, searching for flaws in the ceiling, then dragging her eyes downward to seek gaps in the walls, hunting to see if anything had eaten through their protections. There was nothing. No drips, no hissing, no melt-smoke, just the bulk of the dragon looming over them, eyes glimmering in the light of the forge-fires. Gee waited and watched, seeing if whatever moved would reveal itself. Then she shrugged and turned back to her work.
Pounding, pounding, pounding, knocking the latest part out of it mold to clatter with a crash, sleek and gently curved in the style she’d given up trying to fight a while ago. She tugged it free and heaved it down the length of the table to Cam, who fired off the rasper to take off the mold lines. Gee whirled in place, something catching her eye again. The eyes of the dragon were half-closed. She looked over her shoulders. Cam, Heb, Cle, all the other builders were all at their stations, and no one else in the band was close enough to touch the dragon.
Not that they would.
She turned back and went close, touching the eyelids, the ridiculous, pointless eyelids, a fillip of effort and materials that Heb had spent three weeks making and for what? Well, she knew what, for protection, but still. So much for so little. Gee’s fingers reached out, stopping just short of the refract-optic eyes. They were sensors of course, and they’d planned for them from the beginning, but not like that. Not in that form.
Her hand settled on the lower curve of the socket, warm from the proximity of the forge, and she reached up to see if the retraction connections had slipped. The pupil of the eye constricted, then expanded.
“Sensitive, aren’t you?” Gee said absently. They had the sensors hooked up to minimal power for testing purposes. She felt for the eyelid connection and it slid up immediately.
“There we go. You have to be able to see, right?”
The pupil expanded again as Gee nodded to herself, patting the dragon absently.
“No teeth in the mouth! The last thing we need are razor-shards on the entrance and exit!” The words were no sooner out of Cam’s mouth when Heb pulled a shim slab from the pile of extras and tossed it down on the table, nodding absently in agreement. As it struck the metal table, it shattered into dozens of perfect, triangular, razor-edged shards.
The builders stared at them. The dragon raised its head, its lower jawbone lawing gaping on the floor. It raised its head with no one at the controls, and its pupils moved, tracking them.
The dragon roared against the white moon, its teeth gleaming as it leapt for the agile mountain goat that thought itself safe on the nearly sheer cliff face. With a crunch, the hunter watched it pluck its prey loose, and toss it down its throat with a single motion. Ah, such teeth would make her spears unstoppable once she had them. Nothing could stand up to a dragon’s fangs. Her own teeth gleamed in the moonlight as she grinned.
“Give it teeth,” Gee said, heart in her throat.
“So it’s not a fixed-wing craft, not anymore. It’s more of an ornithopter,” Cle explained, having Mic help him tug the first of the flat wing surfaces into position. “We’re looking at a fairly sophisticated wiring and computing system to control it. Someone found the right programming modules some time ago, but we’re going to have to wire it in blind, because we don’t have any frame of reference. Not that we ever do, but we’re not even going to be able to see it in motion.”
“Do we have enough power for that?” Heb said uncertainly. He eyed the small generators and the stores of fuel that had been collected. Beside the behemoth of the dragon, they looked pitifully tiny.
“We’ll have enough, or it’ll kill us. We…” Cam looked away, unwilling to give voice.
“We always have enough,” Gee said. She curled her hands around a wing-vane and pushed it at Mic, helping him carry it over to be placed correctly. “You found that module before you knew you’d need it, we find ore when we need it.” She pushed the wing-vane down into position, the end sliding into its slot like a dislocated joint sliding back into its socket. She looked pointedly back at the others as the wing moved just a little under its own direction, like a restless muscle tremor.
Gee took the rasp and climbed up on the small ladder until she was even with the dragon’s horns.
“I see you,” she said quietly, reaching out slowly. “When I’m dreaming. Is that weird?” She had faced down the others earlier, projecting supreme confidence in the fact that the dragon could move on its own, but had her own… Not doubts, but something. A need perhaps, a need for a sign that didn’t come unbidden from behind her own eyes.
The dragon just lay there, a slow rumble coming from the trickle of power they were using to test its systems.
“Your horns are supposed to be sharper, aren’t they? Just a little.”
The ears, sonic receptors, abruptly folded down, giving her easier access to the horn.
“You can hear me!”
A sound, almost a snort. Then silence again. Gee smiled into the quiet, and began to make things perfect.
The hunter pressed herself against the rock wall, her fellow hunters following her lead as she signaled a warning. Below the ledge where they were stalking their way up the mountain, a cave lion was pacing, huge and dangerous, though nothing compared to the prey that was their ultimate goal. The hunter felt a triumphant snarl cross her face; she had prepared to seek out the most dangerous game to ever exist. Next to that, a lion was unworthy. With the silence of the great cats themselves, the hunters moved past, climbing upward with great speed. Unworthy a lion might be, but to fall to its fangs while hunting a dragon? Such shame would not be lived down.
“Why give it teeth? Why in the name of days would it need teeth?” Heb said, his voice mocking. His hands were steady while Gee got the hoses into position, hooking up hydraulic power they’d redirected from some of the positioning cranes. Mic was already on the controls, ready to give the dragon movement its own form could not supply yet as soon as the elder builders fixed the connections.
“Shut up,” Cam said, cinching them down tight. “I was wrong. I’m not too proud to say I’m wrong!”
“It knew we’d need them,” Gee said, her teeth clamped tight on a spanner while she pulled the hose tight.
“You’re… creepy when you say things like that.”
“You know what’s creepier? Starving to death. Or getting eaten.”
Cam grimaced but didn’t say anything. Protein was protein, and those of the band that died under shelter fed the tanks in solemn ceremonies of thanksgiving. Those few survivors left who were less cautious (or more desperate) used their dead directly despite the dangers of the toxins they’d been exposed to all their life. Only the brew and quench algae-bacterial complexes could cleans the component parts, letting the dead still care for the living. It was the cycle of life, and one they had to defend now.
Fen had given warning less than an hour ago of what Gee and Vac had seen a long time ago – other survivors, scarred and cruel-looking, ready to grasp and tear away whatever little was left in the world. They might even be the same ones, just more twisted and desperate from time spent dodging from shelter to shelter, instead of ever taking time to reinforce one of their own. They were in the tunnels and moving towards the band’s shelter, and fast.
Gan had taken the news calmly, looked straight at the builders, and nodded once. “We have one chance.”
They’d all nodded, hearts in their throats, knowing that tools were the only real weapons the band had, and that tankers, skimmers, suit-skin makers, shelter repairers, air purifiers, and a tale-teller were no match for the violence of survivors that had lived their lives by destroying others. The only thing strong enough was the dragon.
It was why they were bantering even as they prepared the dragon to move, to give it the life it wasn’t quite ready for yet. Because that banter kept them from being too terrified. Gee put the last of the hoses in position, and crawled on the protrusions of the spine until she was near the head, the controls for the jaw still exposed pending a new influx of ore.
“Please work,” she whispered. “Please.”
There was a humming everywhere Gee’s body touched the dragon, and she could see the other builders tense at their controls, the hoses hooked up to its claws and half-finished wings. With a shout, Heb and Cam activated the feet, and the whole of the dragon, still missing panels and parts, hauled itself over to the door to the sludge flow passageway, where the survivors were waiting. The rest of the band were huddling behind a bulwark of a few chunks of unprocessed ore and what tools still remained, leaving as much of the shelter free as possible.
Something banged ominously on the door, solid hits that sounded like metal, punctuated by a few rough shouts in a nearly incomprehensible language. The builders waited, hoping against hope that the door might just hold. Then something long and thin and jagged slid up between the halves of the door and sliced at the latch. Gee gripped the controls on the head, her hands sweaty within her gloves, and the dragon’s mouth gaped, its teeth oddly shiny with an overflow of hydraulic fluid. Its claws tensed as Cle and Mic raised them, while Heb and Cam took over the wings.
The door flew open. Rangy figures boiled up from below, surrounded by sludge vapors and screaming murder.
The hunter ducked down, a lock of her hair fluttering free as the dragon swept past her, missing her by a handbreadth. The spike of hot pain on her head where it had nearly gotten her, its speed tremendous, its movement uncompromising, faster and stronger than anything that had ever lived. It was perfect.
Gee didn’t remember moving her hands, but Gan told her later the head bit twice and the claws slashed once, while the wings kept the carnage contained. The only thing she did remember was one clawed arm lashing out to slam the door shut against the sight of the remains sinking into the flows, while Mic and Cle’s hands were limp on the controls.
Hal recorded it in the Book of Days.
No one spoke about it.
Or against it.
“We don’t…” Heb looked at the generator and shook his head. It was a sad, slow shake, that the dragon was nearly finished, within days of being done, and there was always one more obstacle. “We don’t have enough power for a standing start. With the mass of the dragon plus the band and the tanks, we won’t be able to get enough height or speed.”
Gee remembered her dreams, the dragon leaping off the clifftops, wings spread to the sun.
“Gravity assist,” Gee said succinctly. Cam blinked, and then lit up.
“Put it atop the tallest thing standing and the height is already there. It can use kinetic motion to kick-start the second-tier generators and gain flight speed. Gee, you’re a genius!”
Heb swallowed, and Gee knew he was thinking of what would happen if they failed. It would be instant death to fall from those heights. And that would be preferable to slowly dissolving. Wasn’t that why they were doing this in the first place?
“Right,” Heb said, and sighed. “Now how do we get it up there?”
“Skimmers,” Gee said. “And whatever power we have left. It helped protect us from the survivors, and it damn sure is not going to let us down now.”
“Skim-.” Cle paused, then looked over at Pit, where he was carefully lowering a small ball of ore to the ground with the gravity-assist of the skimmer. “Yes… yes. We could do it!”
They could. They could do it with Gan having to rally the entire band, with every hand on every available skimmer, lightening the gravity on the dragon so it could walk with what power remained in the first-tier generators. They could do it while leaving the shelter, most of the band so terrified they cried every step across open ground, and they could do it while losing three of the band to a sudden downpour of acid rain they had been too slow to escape.
It was the first real test, the only one that counted, a full acid rain that would either prove the dragon could shelter them or dissolve their dreams. They were sheltered, the acid rain falling like pure quench-water on its surface. That gave the entire band hope, enough fearful, fragile hope to help the dragon through the skeleton of the tallest structure they could find, scrambling up with it, their precious tanks of food and drink already in its belly. Enough hope not to scream when sometimes the dragon moved a wing or claw not under their direction.
Enough hope, finally, to be ready to push the last of the power to its limits, to be ready to complete the dragon entirely. Enough to be ready to see if it could fly.
“Come on, Gee,” Pit whispered. “Come on!”
Gee ignored Pit’s nerves and the taught urgency she could feel straining the air behind her as she crept in. The new gear was wrapped in greasy rags, clutched in her hand like a talisman. She smiled tightly behind her breathing mask; the truth was it might as well be. Seeming acres of flat flexible metal vanes were spread out over the uneven surface of the skyscraper roof, looking like gleaming waves on the Toxic Sea. In the midst of those waves was a craggy island, tapering out at the north and south to spiky promontories, the whole center dominated by an intimidating iron spine.
Iron… that was wrong. Steel was closer, steel mixed with whatever melted alloys and chemicals had bonded to it, riveted to the sides in seamless harmony. Those sides heaved like bellows, slow and regular, as Gee put her foot along the balustrade and began to spiral towards the head. The cement was crumbling from the acid rains, but it was the only way to get around to the front without stepping on those gleaming wings, sharp enough to cut through the smog and solid clouds that would have crashed a plane in minutes.
Gee felt the stone shift beneath her feet as she walked, but kept her eyes on her goal, the head with its toothy maw and spines, the eyes gleaming with the fires that powered it from within. A flicker of movement attracted her eye, and she made a sign of welcome to the other builders. This far into the project, they were the only ones who dared to get so close to their salvation while it was under full power. All were silent and stealthy, silhouetted against the burnt orange moonlight peeking through the thickening clouds, knowing their special status wouldn’t save them if they were careless. Each one of them had something in their hand, or strapped to their back, a rod or piston, wiring array or circuit, controlling node or gear – something to help breathe life into the slumbering behemoth. Something to help it fly. Something to wake it up completely.
Gee breathed out slowly, knowing that behind her Pit was dancing with impatience and worry, wanting her to go faster before the rains could catch them all, and ignored both his unseen dance and the gathering clouds. She reached up to touch the melted, insensible scars that marred her cheek and neck above and below her mask. The roof had leaked one day, and a lot of people had paid the price. There were few in the band who were scar-free. Back then, long ago, the dragon had been only half-finished, a hollow skeleton being built from the ground up. But it had stayed strong, protected from the corrosion that was eating their world.
“We can do it. We can get away.” That had been the mantra once everyone had seen how the metal bones survived, how the new alloy performed. That had been the dream of the elders when they’d begun the task with one single hope, to get away. But it had become so much more than a dream.
Somehow the dragon knew just as much as they did. It knew this land was dying, and it knew Gee’s band wanted to get away. The difference between living and merely animate things was nearly a quaint idea of the past, the blurred definition frightening for the older generations. Life wasn’t always born from a woman, or hatched from an egg. Sometimes, now, it just happened. And sometimes it needed help.
Gee eased herself down from the balustrade onto the rough surface of the roof, in one of the few places not covered by wings. She scarcely dared to breathe through her mask. The front of one wing loomed, and if the dragon twitched in its sleep, she would be crushed. She held the gear out in her gloved hand, hoping it would sense she meant to help wake it up.
“Please,” she whispered. Life wasn’t safe, not even not-quite-awake half-life like this. She’d known that since Dad had been lost in the sludge flows. Life took work, sacrifice, and couldn’t be rushed, no matter how much the acid rains threatened. The wing didn’t twitch, and Gee moved up, clutching the gear hard enough to make it impress on her hand through her glove. She could tell where it had to go, even though the blueprints were… inexact at best, drawn from dreams. Right there at the junction of the jaw, that was her goal. Just like Heb’s rod went to support its left wing, Mic’s circuit into its ear, and Cle’s node into the corner of its eye.
Gee’s hand tingled when she came in contact with its skin, and sought the joint in the dim light like her fingers had eyes. The gear sunk into place, and Gee nearly felt it as her own joint popping back home. She knew without looking that Heb and Mic and Cle had succeeded at the same time. The builders were the only ones who worked on the dragon directly, the ones whose blood was mixed with the steel and circuitry, those who’d lost family or limbs to the dream the dragon represented.
“Please,” Gee whispered again, with all of Pit’s urgency. The clouds were gathering, thickening, but she cared less about adding to her scars than seeing sense in those glowing eyes.
The dragon moved. Its eyes opened, sulfur yellow and glowing in the dim light, powerful and amused and terrible. She fell back as it reared up, the long neck stretching above them, its wings rising to form acres of shelter proof against the rains. It opened its jaws and fluted a thin, metallic cry, echoing the guarded joy of those who clung to the edges of the roof. A faint scream sounded as at least one person lost their grip and fell through the acid fog to the unyielding ground below. Fear chilled Gee’s hands as it lifted its wings, terrified it would sweep them all away, or worse, fly away without them. Not safe. Dad’s words echoed in her ears as he’d skimmed the bounty out of the flows, pounded the dragon into life on her anvil. Life is never safe.
“Please!” Gee cried out loud. The dragon’s head whipped down to spear her with a heated glanced, its glittering teeth visible. Then the head came back down and lay upon the roof, the jaws opening up wide. The way to freedom was open to them, paved in a metallic tongue and hemmed by steel teeth, possibly warmed by toxic fire.
Gee stepped forward, hearing the bellows of its lungs as she drew closer. Heb and Mic and Cle were right behind her as she drew level with it. And stepped inside without hesitation. Behind her, she could hear the faint crunch of the band’s feet touching down off the balustrades and following. They’d put their lives into its hands- claws, it and the people who’d put their blood into it, an idea for freedom in flight now finally given form.
The passage down the dragon’s throat was low and dark, but protected on every side, a far better home than anyone had ever had. The throat opened out into the huge hollow belly, somehow different now despite all of them having helped the builders put it together piece by agonizing piece. Gee reached up for the straps Cle had put there some months before, just exactly far apart enough for her and the others to grip them, and clung tight as the dragon lurched up. A panel Heb and Mic had installed slid open, showing the wreck of the roof through crystal clear polycarb alloy as the wings opened to their fullest extent at the desperate grip of dozens of hands.
They were perched on the edge, nothing before them but the half-melted and shattered stubs of a world slowly dissolving into the Toxic Sea, thick clouds hemming them all in.
“Fly!” Gee screamed, knowing that it wasn’t safe, that they didn’t know even as much as they thought they had about the dragon, but more than willing to cling to life.
“Fly!” came the ragged chorus from the others, the Builders’ voices rising clear and strong amongst them. Gasps sounded as the dragon lurched, the world tilting crazily as the plunged from the skyscraper, fell, free-falling… and soared, the steel wings cutting through the solid clouds, the roar of the dragon the voice of the true survivors.
Nothing and no one was meant to fly this high, to see the world like this. This was where the clouds lived, the vapor that descended to burn them, ground them, that had melted their world and was taking them one life at a time. Gee closed her eyes for a moment, not sure she should be seeing the tops of the clouds, not like this, and opened them again. They were flying past so fast, faster than anyone was able to track, faster than anyone had ever gone, faster than any instrument they had.
The dragon banked, throwing the band against its sides as it turned over the clouds, and climbed again, the belly nearly skimming the tops of other buildings, unfamiliar ones that still bore the acid scars of rain. It was not home.
Home isn’t safe. Home was killing us.
Cle looked at her wildly, and Gee realized she’d said that out loud. He nodded at her, his eyes crinkling in a wild, crazed grin. The dragon was heading… somewhere. Rumors had painted the west as a place free from rain, where a person could walk around without a suit-skin and breathe without a mask, but no one could say for certain. There had never been anyone willing to put metal into a vehicle rather than a shelter, to risk being caught in an acid storm rather than hiding in a bunker. Not until they’d had the dream of leaving, of taking all that they’d skimmed and pouring into a chance instead of a certainty, looking to the future instead of surviving the present.
They’d had hope. They’d died for hope. Gee grinned too behind her mask, feeling more than a little mad. And more than a little alive.
The hunter stood atop the slain carcass, her spear dripping with heart’s blood, her face red with the fresh kill. She threw her head back and screamed a victory cry, hearing the others echo her over and over again. Looking down at the creature, she smiled savagely at its proud, broken form, and saluted it in a testament to its skill. But it hadn’t fought hard enough to keep itself from being taken. Those that didn’t fight to live deserved to die. She turned her face to the sun and felt the warmth falling down on her, a promise of all the good things to come.
Gee started awake as someone made a tiny, strangled scream of surprise. Looking down, she could see what was wrong. So, so wrong. Wisps of white cloud, only the smallest fragments of vapor, and all the wrong color, were visible through the clear underbelly. And below that the ground was covered with green. Not the bright toxic green of acid, or the muddy sludge green of decay, but a verdant shade she’d never seen.
The dragon banked again, and she could see gray stone rising up in the distance. Her mind automatically said “concrete heap,” but she tried again, seeing the random rise of actual uncut rock, rather than a huge pile of worked artificial stone.
“It’s a mountain,” Cle said with awe. “It’s a real mountain!”
Someone screamed a little louder this time as the mountain came close, closer, until with a crunch of claws and a jolt strong enough to wrench everyone’s hands loose, they were down on the earth again. No one moved, faces set in a mask of fear, but the dragon apparently had other ideas. With a shake and a sudden flare of light, the mouth opened, and the dragon tilted itself forward. Scrabbling at the walls, the members of the band found themselves trying to hold themselves back against gravity. But one by one, or sometimes in groups, grips were lost, and they slid down the throat, over the deadly fangs, to sprawl on the rocky hillside.
“Don’t leave us,” Gee whispered. “Please.” The dragon abruptly settled, and Gee took the hint, walking out under her own power. She turned to face the metallic head as she was free of its teeth, and it regarded her without a blink. “Please don’t leave us,” she said. Its sides expanded and contracted as it flushed air through its system, sighing. Then it moved so fast Gee was on her back, breath whooshing out of her as claws she had forged settled heavily over her shoulders. The rest of the band was silent, the kind of palpable stillness that happens when you don’t want to attract the monster’s attention. No one moved. Gee barely dared to breathe.
The dragon’s head lowered twisting to the side so one huge orange eye, glowing with inner fire, could stare right at her. “Please,” Gee whispered again. A single talon lifted from her body and touched the insensible scarred skin on her face. She could feel pressure as it moved down, and gasped in shock as it ripped the breathing mask from her face. Gee expected to feel the immediate burn as toxicity ravaged her inner tissues, and tried to hold her breath against the pain and horrible death that she knew was coming. The dragon waited until spots danced in front of her eyes, and Gee took a single desperate breath. And then another. And another. Clean, free breaths, devoid of the acrid stink and acidic pain she’d felt every time she had to do a quick filter change in the field. With trembling hands, she reached up and put her goggles on the top of her head, blinking away tears as she looked around with eyes unclouded by plastic for the first time in her life.
The dragon rumbled and pulled back, finally letting her free.
People were down there, people running across the plain of grass with glittering spears in their hands, their hair streaming out behind them. A woman was in the lead, her body powerful, her stride confident, her shouts filling the air, urging on the flying creature barely keeping ahead of them. Somehow she knew that it had been flying for a long time, been chased for a long time, and for all its power, all its skill, for all that the little creatures below it couldn’t reach it with their tiny weapons, it couldn’t fly forever. Nor would it kill them, for that was not in its nature.
Gee shoved her hand in her mouth, muffling a shriek as the creature, the dragon, crashed into the mountain slopes, exhausted and spent. She turned to look at the thing she’d helped make, and it nodded slowly at the stony, scaled hide of the beast on the slope below. The hunters, too focused on their prey, didn’t even look up to see Gee’s dragon watching them. They began to climb the slopes, never hesitating, eyes only on the prize before them. They were too short-sighted to see…
The great beast falling to her spear, a symbol of her prowess, her tribe’s skill, given back to the earth as a gift to the spirits. Its body lying there, sacrificed to their pride, wasted and alone, rotting and dissolving back into the rock.
Gee gasped as the tail end of her dream flashed across her mind, tears welling up as she saw the face of the woman leading the hunters.
“This isn’t some other place in my world,” Gee said. The dragon nodded. “But it was,” she said, the statement half a question. The dragon nodded again. Gee reached out and touched the metal scales and bones and wings she had spent so long making, forming them out of metal touched by tragedy eons ago and forged in the crucible of mistakes that had all led from this one careless act, this time, this single thrust of the spear that showed what she was willing to sacrifice.
Gee ran down the slope, the skimmer alive in her hand, screaming her own song of acid and pain, uncertainty and loss, of riding the wave of surviving a continuing apocalypse only to scrape out a living hell of a life, its bright points diminished to the glow in the dragon’s eyes. Her father’s eyes.
The hunter looked up, her spear pulled back from the fatal plunge as Gee leapt over the living body of the dragon. The skimmer thrummed as she powered it up, connecting with the hunter’s spear and hurling its point away from its fatal mark.
“No!” Gee screamed, and cast her body over the shuddering sides of the dragon, its stony hide digging into her back. “Let it live! Please, please, you have to let it live!”
The hunter stared at her, their faces mirror images, one roughed by wind, the other burned by acid, but sharing the same eyes, the same mouth. She stooped stiffly, and pressed one hand to the dragon’s heaving sides.
“Let it live,” Gee said, her voice ragged.
Gee stared at the other with a curious sensation building in her chest. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing, could not credit it, but couldn’t deny her senses. The hunter was tall, her skin darker, her hair longer. She bore the lithe muscle of a lifetime of running, jumping, freely moving under a clear, safe sky. Gee was shocked at the paint and deliberate, symmetrical scarring on the hunter’s body. Her band fought just to remain intact, and every scar showed where they’d lost that battle.
Gee pulled her mask completely away, letting it fall, set her goggles on her head, and pushed down her hood with a gloved hand. The hunter hissed, her eyes going wide. Gee was pale as a bloodless grub, acid-scarred down one side of her face, stunted and small from poor food and no sun, from endless ages underground living in fear of the very air she breathed.
But their faces… twins. A primitive hunter with her spear and long limbs and clay paint. A woman from the end of the world, using every bit of innovation and invention of a thousand generations to cling to life. They were the same. The dragon looked down at Gee, and she swallowed, terrified.
The hunter shook her spear and shouted to the sky, a primal cry of victory, bravado. I am not afraid of you. She was not afraid, secure in her strength and skill, confident in a way Gee had never been. Life was not safe for either of them, but for the hunter, it was about risk and reward. For Gee, bare survival.
The hunter pointed her spear at the stone-hided beast on the mountain, its form one Gee knew all too well. She’d hammered out its wing-vanes, honed its claws, sharpened the horns on its head. She’d forged his bones, bolted together his form, and started the fires in his belly. She’d made him, she and the other builders.
“What are you doing?”
The hunter thrust her spear into the air, ending Gee’s bewilderment as to her motives. Dead, its bones moldering into the hills, becoming one with the rock, the last refuge of wonder destroyed for the hunter’s trophy.
Gee maintained her stance between the hunter and the dragon. “You can’t. You mustn’t.”
The hunter shouted and lunged her spear, coming within inches of Gee’s head. What’s stopping me?
A snarl of contempt.
“We lost something,” Gee said. She pointed to her dragon, gleaming dully in the sun. “We need that.” Wonder. Awe. Uncertainty. The frisson of the unknowable. Taken down, slaughtered and crowed over and for what? Even if the world had gone a different way, ended up overrun with growth instead of acidic decay, even if the sky had remained this sunny blue instead of clouded toxic green, they had lost something they could never get back.
The hunter was proud. They all were. But Gee had learned to believe in a creature who’d formed under her hands, who was capable of taking her band away from death. She’d learned to believe in the unknowable.
The hunter looked at her curiously, the point of her spear dropping. Gee moved back slowly, reaching to touch the stony hide, sun-warmed and rough under her hands instead of the smooth polished metal she’d labored to make. The dragon snorted out a breath, the sulfur stink a familiar friend.
It was not enough to survive. Gee had survived for her entire life. So had the hunter. But they needed to do more than survive. Gee had begun when they began building something according to no plan.
“We can change,” Gee said. Pleaded. And waited for the hunter’s answer.
Gee knew patience. She’d had the patience to wait for the storms to pass, to time the surges of the Toxic Sea near the sludge flows, to beat out nearly every single bone, scale, and wing-vane in a creature that would save them all. Even the hunter didn’t have that patience. She had the impulse of youth, Gee had the hard-won experience of age.
Killing the dragon had shown them they could conquer anything, impose their will on the world. Saving it would mean they could connect with anything, and learn to let go. Who knew what they could do, then?
The hunter looked at the dragon, at Gee, then at the hill behind her, her eyes widening. Gee turned to see the dragon she’d help create rising over the crest, its claws crunching as it descended the stony slope. The hunter looked back and forth between the metal dragon and the one of rock-hard flesh, and her flesh went pale. The metal dragon came and put its neck under Gee’s hand, looking down at her proudly.
The hunter’s spear clattered to the ground as she moved forward, her hands outstretched to touch the living scales of the dragon she had been hunting for days. They heaved under her hands as the dragon breathed, and the dragon quieted, looking up at her with a bright and wary eye. She held her breath, muscles tense, waiting for it to turn on her, to hunt her as she’d hunted it. Its claws moved slowly, circling one of her arms like immovable shackles, and she could feel the true strength of the dragon for the first time.
The hunter looked terrified, but stayed, reaching out her free arm to touch its face, running her finger along a scar near its eye. Her hand was shaking, and Gee leaned over to touch it, to press it to the dragon.
“We’ll be all right. We’ll live.”
The hunter looked up at her, then at the dragons, and bared her teeth in a fierce smile mixed with her, their, fear of survival, now assuaged. Gee didn’t need a translation.
So will they.
She woke up, the bellows-like breaths near her ear as familiar as her own heartbeat. The dragon reached out with a single claw, touching the metal cuff on her right elbow. She stretched out her left arm and felt her hand touch his nose.
“Hey,” she said in a teasing tone. “If you want wings, we better get cracking, mister.”
The dragon snorted, hot, sulfurous breath, washing over her, warm on the flesh of her face and left arm, heating up the cuff on her right, where her arm stopped at the elbow. Another cuff circled her left knee, where a crude metal rod helped her stand. The dragon helped nudge her to her feet- foot and peg, his own metal-cuffed wing stumps rising, truncated, from his back. One ear was pointed at her, the other a metal stump, awaiting completion. Neither of them were complete yet, but together, they would be.
They’d learn, they’d build each other until they were complete. She looked out the open window to the land below, thick forest and stone spires and a glimpse of shining sea. A few winged forms could be seen banking above the trees, alighting on the gleaming spires. A fresh scent rode the breeze, bringing with it the welcome promise of rain. The dragon sighed with longing, and nudged her with a bit of impatience. She grinned and turned back to the forge, took the bits of metal pried from the earth, and waited for the dragon to join her.