515th year of the true gods
25 years after the Cleansing
The electromagnetic-shield that protected the dead city of Taral flared blue where the dragon skimmed across its surface.
When he saw the beast, Avril’s wrench slipped on the bolt he was working loose, and he mashed his hand into one of the laser-cannon’s struts. The wrench clattered as it struck the metal stairs that led up to the dead city’s wall where the heavy weapon stood.
Avril jammed stinging knuckles into his mouth to cut off the involuntary curse. He crouched in the shadow of the laser-cannon, putting it between himself and the dragon.
Did it see me? Avril wondered. It must have heard the wrench. Shit.
The dragon circled above him. Its wings spread wide, and its shadow stretched from one side of the street below to the other.
Avril had powered down the laser-cannon before he started dismantling it. From his crouched position, he reached up to the console, gritted his teeth and flicked the switch to restore power.
The laser-cannon came online silently, and Avril watched the console display to check the power readings.
He glanced toward the dragon, and started when a golden eye the size of his head stared back at him. The dragon was closer now and glided in a gentle curve along the wall, maintaining eye contact from the other side of the electromagnetic-shield.
Avril’s vision narrowed on that single golden eye, and he felt an unexpected sense of calm. Dragons were unstoppable predators that could kill in more ways than Avril could count, and he knew if he were to survive the next few minutes, he had to act and any mistakes would be fatal.
The dragon turned and glided back along the wall toward Avril.
Watching it approach, he realized, You’re not here to hurt me.
He straightened and stepped forward from the shadows into the bright afternoon light of the sister suns.
“Incredible,” Avril breathed the word, awed by the beast’s cruel beauty and elegance.
His hands dropped to his sides, and he stood exposed on one side of the shield as the dragon passed by on the other side.
I should be terrified. Why aren’t I? Avril wondered, his mind calm when it had no right to be.
The dragon beat its wings and blinked, and whatever spell held Avril snapped.
His heart jolted in his chest, shocking him into action. He stumbled and ran back to the laser-cannon.
Abyss! Hypnosis? How were they ever defeated?
The dragon climbed away from Avril, its talons skimmed the electromagnetic-shield like the surface of a still lake and carved stark blue lines behind it as it crossed the city.
Avril scanned Taral. He’d hidden the assault vehicle he called home in a garage a short distance away, but as powerful as the car was, he didn’t think it could do anything against the dragon if it broke through.
The shield will probably hold, Avril thought, but he scanned for telltale flickers that revealed weak spots where the dragon might break through.
He didn’t see any, but that didn’t mean there weren’t any.
When people had populated Rasa in the hundreds of millions, they’d built their walled cities in the deserts and connected them with roads and protected both with AI controlled shields. The AI could tell humans from dragons and a hundred other predators and allowed people to come and go but kept everything else outside the shields.
Tech degraded over time, and dozens of failures might have occurred in the decades since maintenance crews checked the shields along the roads or on the city walls. Electronics deteriorated beneath the glaring suns, cars crashed into critical systems, software glitched, power supplies failed, and salvagers with questionable ethics took parts for trade.
The way the dragon dragged its talons against the surface of the shield suggested it knew how to probe for weaknesses.
The beast crested the dome of the shield and descended toward the far side of the small city.
Avril climbed into the gunner’s seat attached to the ancient laser-cannon. The power gauge was full, and the machinery clunked and whirred as it jolted Avril up into the firing position. Accustomed to voice-controlled AI, Avril fumbled for the controls to zoom in on the dragon and track its path.
He’d been salvaging tech in Taral for two days, and for most of that time, he’d been alone.
Taral had been home to maybe ten thousand people before the Cleansing, but in the last two decades, it was unlikely the population had exceeded more than a handful of transient squatters, salvagers, or vultures.
Earlier that afternoon, he’d heard the distinctive boom-boom, boom-boom of vulture music announcing unwelcome rivals in Taral. As the dragon approached the part of the city where the vultures were, human shouts and howls joined the music.
“Crazy bastards,” Avril muttered.
When the vultures had entered the city from the north, Avril considered returning to his vehicle and making a run for it south, but if the vultures’ scanners spotted him, they’d make sport of him, and who knew what they’d do after a chase with their blood up. Vultures were obnoxious, and they treated the wastelands like their own personal playground and involved everybody they met in their often deadly games.
With his true salvage already stowed in his car, Avril had rushed to the wall to use the laser-cannon as a diversion for the vultures, even as he hoped they’d pass him by without incident.
He resisted the temptation to climb down the wall and sprint back to his car. First, he wanted to see if the vultures and the dragon would occupy each other and give him a chance to slip away.
Come on. Vultures and a dragon, you’re a match made in… Avril trailed off as he tried to finish the thought and eventually settled on, “This fucking place.”