515th year of the true gods
25 years after the Cleansing
The electromagnetic-shield protecting the dead city of Taral flared blue where the dragon skimmed across its surface.
The unexpected flash of color followed by the dragon’s silhouette, its wings extended and casting the wide street below into shadow, made Avril’s wrench slip on the bolt he was working loose. His right hand mashed into one of the laser-cannon’s struts, and the wrench clattered as it struck the metal walkway on the dead city’s wall where the heavy weapon stood.
Avril jammed stinging knuckles into his mouth to cut off the involuntary curse. He darted into the shadow of the laser-cannon, putting it between himself and the dragon, but when he looked up, a golden eye the size of his head stared back at him. The dragon glided in a gentle curve around Avril, maintaining eye contact from the other side of the glowing shield.
Avril wanted to retreat further into the shadows, but his vision narrowed on that single golden eye, and his body refused to move. Around the whites of that eye were thorny, jagged scales that suggested the rest of the dragon’s form. The creature had evolved, or was designed, to be an unstoppable predator. Strong and quick, its body was a weapon to be wielded in a frightening number of ways, and whether it crushed its prey beneath its bulk as it ripped them apart with piercing scales, cut them with talons or teeth, burned them with fire, or carried them into the sky and dropped them, the results would be the same.
Rather than seek cover, Avril straightened and stepped forward from the shadows into the bright afternoon light of the sister suns. Echoes of his startled heartbeat thudded in his chest, shoulders, and throbbing right hand. He turned, so he faced the dragon as it circled him.
“Incredible,” Avril breathed the word, awed by the beast’s cruel beauty and elegance.
His hands dropped to his sides, the thuds of his heart subsided, and he drew an easy breath, still staring at the dragon’s golden eye.
“I have nothing to fear from you,” Avril said as he realized the truth in the words.
The dragon beat its wings and blinked, and whatever spell held Avril snapped.
His heart jolted in his chest, shocking him into action. His body contracted into a crouch, and he sought the scant protection of the laser-cannon.
Abyss! All that and hypnosis. How were they ever defeated?
The dragon leveled out then climbed away from Avril, its talons dipped into 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 hold, Avril thought, knowing it was the only thing protecting him. It won’t break through.
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.
It won’t break through, but even as Avril repeated the reassurance, he knew it might.
All 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 dragon 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 and found the controls to activate the weapon. It clunked and whirred as it came online and jolted Avril up into its 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 travelers, 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 entered the city from the north, Avril had 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.”