by Fel (James Galloway)
(Chapters 1 – 30)
He didn’t like all the attention.
The commuters were usually numb to most anything as they made their way back to work, but even the biggest Ipod Zombie was looking at him as he walked by, mainly because he was more than a head taller than the tallest of them, towering over the commuters, able to see as far down the street as he wanted because the only things in his way were the lamp posts. The trench coat and large hat concealed his form, and a pair of large visor-like sunglasses covered the entire upper half of his face. He knew he looked exotic to them, but he couldn’t afford their attention, because everyone looking at him would attract the attention he did not want, the surveillance cameras on almost every corner. Those cameras were mainly used by the DC police, but they were also tapped by the federal agencies, and it wouldn’t take them long to catch him if they were using the updated facial recognition software. They knew his face, but he was the best suited for a job like this, so they decided to risk it.
A pitched battle in one of the most heavily covered cities for the media would not endear him very much to Ferroth when he got back.
He moved with certain confidence past the Foggy Bottom metro stop, as an endless line of federal workers stepped off the escalator on their way to the federal office buildings that dominated that part of the city, returning to work after lunch, and while they looked at him, few of them noticed the fact that the ground shivered with every step he took, as if he were carrying a piano on his back. It was no piano he was carrying, only a rather old, ratty-looking briefcase, swinging lightly by his side as he moved towards the headquarters building for the Department of State. The damn techheads they’d been hiring lately were just too good, and had closed down most of his backdoors, so it forced this, a personal visit to get past the formidable firewalls they’d put up so he could undermine all their computer security and let them back in.
He was of a mind to find whoever they’d hired to redo their computer security and either strangle him or take him to dinner. He hadn’t had any serious competition from anyone out in the world since that Chinese hacker found his way into their system.
A dead Chinese hacker.
If only they’d let him bring some real tech out here, he wouldn’t have to do stuff like this. But the rules were quite clear about that…out in the world, he could only use what they used. The laptop in his briefcase could be bought in just about any store, and it was his curse that he was both good enough with their anachronistic tech and software to do the job, but also young enough to actually be able to go out into the outside world without attracting too much attention.
Not for much longer, though. He figured that in ten more years, he’d be too big to pass the feasibility test. By then, he’d be upwards of eight feet tall when out in the world, and that would just be too much attention. He was pushing it as it was, but he couldn’t trust something like this to the other youngers.
His cell phone chirped, and he touched the bluetooth in his ear. “Stone.”
“ETA?” a deep, gravelly voice asked.
“Two minutes. Are the goods ready for shipment?”
“They’re boxed and ready for pickup.”
“Watch for the delivery truck,” he said, then he killed the call without another word. But that too was the rule; no cell phone communication from home could last more than 27 seconds, else they might be able to put a trace on it. The phone would have cut off automatically at 27 seconds, and he wouldn’t be able to call back for another 17 minutes, until the automated sniffers and trackers the CIA and NSA used reset back to standby.
He moved with the flow of foot traffic past several office buildings, until he was where he needed to be, the State building. It was old and had intriguing architecture like many buildings in D.C., but it was also surrounded by a stout wrought iron fence behind crash barrier pylons to prevent a speeding car from trying to ram the fence and slam into the building. Armed guards flanked the main entrance, and there were cameras everywhere. The man called Stone passed by the main entrance and walked down to the corner of the building, catching a glimpse of the White House down Pennsylvania Avenue, then crossed the street to a tiny spot of green, a low concrete wall holding a little grass and a tree, which was used by many as a seat. Several suited federal employees were there, sitting or leaning on the wall, talking, smoking cigarettes, or reading from newspapers or tablet computers. He couldn’t sit on the wall like they were, it would crack if he tried to sit on it, but the area was well known enough as a place to sit and be idle that he wouldn’t attract any undue attention if he paused there. He set his briefcase on the low wall and opened it, then opened the laptop nestled inside. Long, slightly strange-looking fingers spread over the keyboard, only three fingers and a thumb with large knuckles and thick, narrow nails, and they moved with flowing grace as he leaned over the wall and typed out lines of raw code, basic commands that governed the laptop trying to access the internal wireless network of the State Department, which just barely reached that particular corner. It was a slight flaw in their system, a wifi transceiver placed just a bit too close to one of the windows in the ground floor office facing the wall and tree, which just allowed the transceiver to pick up wireless when facing that particular window, a window that didn’t have a wifi-absorbing coating like most of them did.
They hadn’t updated their internal security yet, he saw as his laptop started negotiating with their network. Good. They probably hadn’t thought that one of them would actually dare to come to Washington and try to invade their system in person.
As it were.
It took him all of nineteen seconds to crack their security protocols and gain access to a standard login prompt, and since he had the login ID and passwords for 248 different State employees, he had his pick of which to use. He selected a GS-9 secretary’s login ID that happened to work in the IT section of the building, and would have access rights to where he needed to go.
Lines of code flashed back and forth across the screen in the form of alphanumeric symbols as the man called Stone quickly gained access to the part of their computer system that handled the transmission and reception of top-level cables and communications, the protocols that ambassadors and high-ranking State officials used when communicating the most sensitive information.
They had upgraded their security. Accessing the part of their system he needed demanded that he use a hard terminal, a computer inside the building and physically connected to the network via a hard line, and only certain terminals had permission to access that area. If any other terminal tried, it would set off an alarm.
Easily thwarted now that he was inside the system using their own network.
It took him six minutes to dance around their security protocols, eventually fooling the system into believing that his wireless-connected laptop was actually terminal I5-715, one of the 15 computers that had permission to access the part of their network that he needed. In reality, he was I5-715, since he’d hacked that particular machine using their network and was using it as a zombie, as a proxy through which his commands were being relayed. It had taken a bit of work to get there, since the 15 computers that could do what he needed to do were supposed to be isolated from the main network, but like any large, complicated network, there were always small holes that could be exploited by someone who was patient and careful. That one particular computer was the only one of the 15 that had a sync program for an Ipad3, and that was the hole he needed to slip through and gain access to it. Hacking one of their floating, wifi-enabled Ipads got him within reach of that particular box, and he seized control of it.
Once he had access, he uploaded a rather innocuous little program that attached itself to the core code of their main communication system’s pending updates and then wrote itself into the next scheduled security patch, appearing for all intents and purposes to anyone who looked at it that it was simply a part of the regularly scheduled update it used as a piggyback. State updated their system via a hotpatch every three days, changing their codes and keyset protocols for their formidable Liberty Six encryption algorithms as a soft update rather than a hard one, which would force the program to shut down and restart. They utilized a hard patch every month which forced a program restart, and other than that, the computers that ran the communication software was up and running at all times. He’d carefully timed his upload so the patch would be sent out before they had a chance to check it and find his addition. In fact, the patch was scheduled to push out in four minutes. Since no computer on earth could crack Liberty Six, the only way to get around it was to hack the computers that governed the keysets used to decrypt it, giving them the decryption codes along with everyone else. Ironically enough, they couldn’t use Liberty Six to defend the main computer that handled all the security updates that told the State computers out in the world which keysets to use. Liberty Six was purely a data encryption algorithm, which let invaders like him thwart the computer security they employed to protect their computers, attacking it the only way they could, and in the only place where it could be done.
That done, he went back and covered his tracks by wiping out every trace that he’d been there, backtracking through every computer he’d hacked in their network to erase all traces that he’d accessed them. He then introduced a virus into their main server that would cause it to infect their logs and erase the record of his wireless computer accessing their network, covering the flaw he’d used to gain access to their system. He may need to use it again someday. After he finished that, he zeroed out the hard drive of the laptop using a datawipe utility so it eradicated any trace of what he had used it for, and turned it off. It had served its purpose, and he’d just drop it in a trash can or something on the way back. He had no more use for it.
And that was that. His addition to their patch would give them access to State’s top-level cables again, letting them monitor American communications to ensure that nothing about them was being discussed. The hack patch included a new spider he designed would point out cables containing pertinent keywords which would be of interest to them. He ran the wipe program on the laptop to zero out the hard drive and wipe out all traces of the programs that had been on it, and after it was done, he turned off the laptop, closed it, then closed the briefcase and picked it up. His mission was accomplished, and now he had to get the hell out of Washington before something bad happened.
Or…something bad was already happening.
He noticed the guards by the front gate suddenly look around, a finger to their earpieces, and he knew that something was going on. He didn’t move swiftly or jerkily, he simply turned and started down Pennsylvania Avenue with some tourists, making no sudden moves that would draw a trained eye or a camera to him. His size already drew attention to him, but if he moved like he was doing something wrong, people would notice it. He padded along, glancing over at the Washington Monument and the metal framework of scaffolding surrounding it, ongoing repairs from the two earthquakes that had damaged it, one six years ago and the second one just last year. He cross the street, stumbling a little when the edge of the curb cracked under his foot, and he silently cursed and fell in behind a family of Japanese tourists, chattering away in their language on their way to the White House most likely. That was the last place he wanted to go, camera central on top of the surveillance from all the Secret Service. He noticed a black SUV roll by fairly quickly, one of the “no, I’m not really government!” types, then he crossed Pennsylvania at the corner and reached the edge of the Mall that led from the White House to the monument. He paused at the edge of the sidewalk, looking at the gravel pathway and all that grass with a bit of trepidation, but he had little choice. He couldn’t cross in front of the White House else the Secret Service would pick him up—if they weren’t watching him already—and he had to stay out in the tourist areas. Gritting his teeth, he moved away from the gravel and instead started down the grass, where at least he wouldn’t leave quite so obvious a trail. The green grass would partially conceal that dirty little secret.
The secret that behind him, he left deep divots in the ground, his feet sinking almost to the ankle in the soft earth before he pulled it up and took another step.
It would have been worse on the gravel, where he’d have left a trail so obvious that the cameras would pick it up, and then he’d have hell to pay if he managed to get back home. But the soft earth also made it slow going, almost like walking through mud, and he had to be careful not to drag his feet to plow up the grass and leave brown tracks behind him that would look unusual enough to attract attention. The trench coat was helping hide his high-stepping gait, which would have earned him undue attention due to anomaly-tracking software in the programming that governed the automated functions of the cameras. They tracked anything they deemed strange automatically, letting a pair of eyes at a monitor determine if the unusual movement or behavior was normal or a potential risk. It was all part of the security upgrades after the foiled terror attack in 2014, when that maniac anti-abortion nutcase tried to run into the Capitol with a suicide vest he’d built using plans gleaned off the internet. He’d been stopped at the security checkpoint, but it still killed 14 people along with him when he blew himself up rather than be captured. Now, the cameras would notice behavior their programming deemed anomalous, like pacing back and forth, looking around too much, or standing in one place staring at one location for too long before moving. They would even take notice if someone took too many pictures of the same place. Now he had to fool those cameras, who would zoom in on him if he high-stepped his way across the Mall like some soldier on parade.
It took several minutes of careful stepping to get to the area of the Mall around the monument, where he mixed in with many more people, both residents and tourists alike. A group of youths were playing frisbee on one side, and a family was moving from the monument towards the World War II memorial on the other. He stopped to adjust his hat, blew out his breath, then put his free hand in his pocket and turned towards the sidewalk that led up to the monument, getting concrete back under his feet so he didn’t leave a trail behind him.
And then one of the kids playing frisbee tripped and fell behind him.
He glanced back and saw that the kid had stepped in one of his footprints. He was on his stomach, rolling over and grabbing his ankle, then the others trotted over and teased him in a good-natured manner. But then one of them saw the hole, saw another, then another, then looked back the way he had come.
“What the hell?” he mused, then he looked back the other way. The man called Stone started walking, but he knew that those holes led right to him. “Jesus, mister, why are you punching holes in the grass?” he called.
The man called Stone didn’t acknowledge him, just kept heading for the sidewalk, but he glanced at a police officer that was hurrying over to the fallen teenager, and he uttered a sibilant, hissing sound.
“You okay son?” the aged, brown-skinned man asked, reaching down.
“Fine, officer, just stepped in this hole.”
“Yeah, there’s a bunch of them,” the same young man that called after him said, his voice sharp to Stone’s ears. “They’re like footprints or something. That guy there made them. He must be carrying a freakin’ safe under that trench coat for his feet to sink into the ground like that.”
He frowned just as he reached the sidewalk, stepping up onto it and feeling it hold his weight. He turned towards the monument and started towards the very gentle hill upon which it was built.
“Hey! Hey you, hold on a minute!” the officer called. Then he heard those words he did not want to hear. “Officer requesting backup, north walkway,” the man said in his radio, low enough for just about anyone but him not to make it out from that distance.
He debated for a furious minute. The teenager had planted the seed of doubt, had noticed that he was much heavier than he looked, and had attributed it to him hiding something under his coat…just like the Capitol Bomber had done. If he was stopped, he’d be searched, and neither he nor whoever searched him would like that much at all.
He didn’t have to get very far. Better a mystery and them dredging the river for a day or two over being discovered. He exploded into a swift run, his long legs carrying him far from the officer in just a matter of seconds, startling him enough so that by the time he thought to call again on his radio, Stone was nearly a hundred yards away and opening that distance with every step. He ran up the hill and around the ring of flagpoles, staying on the paved sidewalks and walkways, then down the far side, heading for the street.
And another black SUV screamed around the corner to his right and down that street, moving to cut him off.
He frowned deeper and moved even faster, a ground-eating lope that would make an Olympic sprinter hard pressed to keep up with him, racing the SUV to get past it before it get in front of him. The driver sped up as well, and for a second he wasn’t sure who was going to win. But the driver slammed on the brakes to try to slide to a stop in front of him and misjudged the distance, allowing him to turn just slightly to the left and get around the Expedition. The door of the SUV opened just as he neared it, and he saw a young woman boil out, a face he knew, carrying a high-powered rifle.
“It’s Stone!” the female barked suddenly.
All semblance of normalcy was shattered when the woman lowered her rifle and took a shot at him as he hurtled in front of the SUV, dashing out into the street. The red-hot round spiraled just inches in front of his face, which both surprised and amused him that they’d actually try to shoot him. But, that particular woman was relatively green as they measured things, and was reacting out of reflex. Tourists and pedestrians just enjoying the sunny May day scattered in every direction at the sound of that gunshot.
The SUV screeched, and he glanced out of the corner of his eye to see it jump the curb and race after him as he ran out over the grass. The soft earth slowed him down, making it like he was running through sand, which let the SUV start gaining ground in short order.
Tossing the briefcase aside, he lunged forward as if diving into a foxhole, but instead of falling to his hands he put his foot under him, stretching his leg almost impossibly forward, and then launched off of it like an uncoiling spring. In three bounds, he was moving faster than any human could possibly run, tearing divots out of the earth with each pace, starting to pull away from the SUV, weaving back and forth to prevent them from lining up another shot at him. He leapt up and over a group of startled tourists, half of which were trying to get out of the way of the approaching SUV and the other half all but rooted to the spot in morbid fascination.
But his goal was denied when three more SUVs sped towards him from ahead and to the left, seeking to cut him off from the river. They’d had other units ready…they’d known he was there! He turned to the right, immediately changing his plan, angling for the street he knew led to the onramp for I-395, which crossed the Potomac at the 14th street bridge.
He reached the street and sped up even more once he had something other than soft earth under his feet, with four SUV’s hot on his tail, all of them flashing blue and red lights like police cars. He slipped around a sedan in front of him, skipped aside as a truck cut him off as it changed lanes to give right of way to the police cars he thought were behind him. The suit-clad man in the truck gaped when he charged past, moving faster than the truck, and the man glanced down at the truck’s speedometer and realized he was going 27 miles an hour. Ahead, two police cars screeched to a halt in the intersection, trying to block him, and that just made him smile darkly.
The two DCPD uniforms were halfway out of their cars with guns drawn when he bore down on them fearlessly, then he hurdled the hood of the left car with the grace of a gazelle jumping a fallen log. The SUVs behind him were slamming the brakes, blocked by their own backup, and that let him open enough of a lead on them to be confident he was going to reach the bridge first.
Then a bullet smashed into the back of his knee.
The bullet did no harm, bounced off his hide without penetrating, but the shot was perfectly placed, absolutely precise, unlocking his knee just as he came down on it and causing him to tumble to the ground. A shot like that? Price had to be in one of those SUVs, few others had that kind of accuracy. He slid and tumbled down the pavement wildly, tearing his hat away, breaking his visor, scouring holes in his trench coat from the friction of being pinned between the asphalt and his weight. He slid into the back of a car that had stopped for a traffic light, crushing a deep dent in the back bumper and trunk hood, shattering the brake lights. His weight drove the car forward into the car in front of it. He shook his head to clear the cobwebs, and realized that he heard screaming around him. Two pedestrians were pointing at him and screaming, and a third was pointing a cell phone’s camera in his direction, hitting the button in a frenzy.
Damn it all, Ferroth was going to peel him out of his hide one little strip at a time. Not only had he blown cover, but now what happened was going to be all over their news and media. Twelve military-garbed people carrying high power rifles were charging towards him, trying to reach him before he got his senses back after the collision, trying to capture a prize like him alive.
Manhole cover. There was a manhole cover not twelve paces to his left, right in the middle of the street, even with yellow lines painted over it. Of course! That was just as good as the river! He rolled to the side, kicked off with his feet, the slid across the asphalt right up to the steel disc. He slammed his fist into the edge, making the other edge pop up, then he grabbed hold of it and flipped it aside like it weighed almost nothing. He gave the twelve government agents a dark smile, then he dove headfirst into the hole.
He landed in ankle-deep water in a narrow circular drainage pipe, and he saw a flaw in his brilliant plan…the pipe wasn’t all that big. If it narrowed down on the way to the river, he was going to be stuck in there. A shadow in the entry above told him they were debating coming in after him, and that spurred him on. The downslope would lead to the river, since storm drains used gravity to empty out, and he ran as fast as he felt safe in the narrow confines of the drain pipe, which was so cramped he couldn’t even hunch, he had to all but scamper on all fours. Behind him, three gas grenades bounced down into the bottom and started unleashing their contents with loud rushing sounds, and that just made him go faster. Bullets were no problem, but gas was another matter.
The man called Stone was all but chased down the pipe by a cloud of dark green gas billowing behind him, expelled at high pressure by the three gas grenades and having no other way to go in the narrow confines of the pipe, channeling it right to him. The only upside was that the gas had to be pouring from the open manhole cover, preventing the agents from chasing him themselves. He could easily kill them all outside of the view of the cameras and the tourists and civilians and they knew it, but it would not have been the first time they did something silly in their zeal to either catch or kill him. They considered a few slaughtered units of agents a fair price to pay for getting their hands on him.
Oh yeah, this would be his last field mission, that was for sure. Ferroth was going to all but chain him to a console after this. What was left of him, anyway.
Almost as if thinking about him brought him forward, his bluetooth chirped. “Stone!” Ferroth’s voice called, the transmission garbled due to him being underground. “What happened?”
“It was a trap,” he replied. “They somehow knew when and where I’d be. They have the entire Hunter team here, and they boxed me in.”
“They are broadcasting you live, you idiot!”
“Not at the moment they’re not,” he replied in a dry manner, turning in a junction to continue moving downslope.
“This is no time for jokes! You do whatever you have to—” his voice cut off, having hit the 27 second time limit.
Well, he could take that to mean that he could completely blow cover if he had to in order to escape.
Good. Maybe the Department would back off if they had an idea of what they’d really been chasing for the last six years.
Something hit the water in front of him, and there was an explosion of green gas ahead. They’d figure out where he was going and cut him off! He turned back to the junction and went the only way he could, two clouds of green gas joining in the junction box behind him, and he moved into a much larger pipe, oval instead of circular, large enough for him to stand erect. It moved downslope as well, a major drainpipe that emptied out into the river, and he raced down it before they could reach it up above ground and block him off.
He was right to worry. He heard a gas grenade hit the water not five steps behind him as he ran down the pipe, heard a froth of water as it expelled its pressurized payload underwater, but now he could see the daylight at the end of the pipe. It had a grate over it…like that was a problem. He lowered his head and charged through the water with the gas billowing out behind him, then jumped up and turned, then struck the grate with both feet. The grate shuddered and then tore free of its mounts, spinning out into the water of the Potomac River with him just behind it. He turned in the air, rotated towards the shore, and saw Price, Wilson, and Juarez all at the edge of the cherry tree path, rifles in their hands, looking at him. Price had his rifle up, pointing it at him. He hit the water on his back and bounced like a skipping stone just as Price pulled the trigger, then felt the bullet strike him just under and between his collarbones.
That fucking Price and his unnatural aim! He’d shot his amulet, and those things weren’t as bulletproof as he was!
The instant the crystal in the amulet was shattered, he felt himself being released from the confines of the form which it was designed to enforce on him. His wings exploded from the back of the tattered trench coat, his tail snapped out behind and between his legs, his neck started elongating and his head changed shape even as he tumbled backwards. His body elongated, enlarged, ripped through the trench coat so fast that the sturdy material shot away from him like a snapped rubber band.
A human had hurtled out of the pipe, but it was no human that hit the water and plowed a deep frothing furrow in the surface of the Potomac. It was a reptilian creature with mottled scales in asymmetrical, camouflaging patches and lines of brown, black, and tan, membranous wings similarly mottled, and a long tail capped at its top with long, slender, blood red crystalline spikes.
Kell the Earth Drake, known by his alias Stone to the humans who chased him, quickly sank under the surface, more furious than anything else. The agents in the NSA department that specialized in catching hackers and cyber-terrorists, called the Hunters, really didn’t know what he was, since they’d never seen him outside of his magically induced form, but they knew he always wore that amulet, and Price had probably decided to shoot it to either make him mad or see what it did. All they knew about him and his organization was that it was some kind of ultra-secret, ultra-exclusive group that tapped the surveillance and security of other nations and organizations, leeching intel off of them for their own, unknown goals. Naturally, the government wanted them stopped, tried to find out who they were and why they did what they did, so they became a primary focus for the ultra-elite computer counter-espionage team, the Hunters. They did know, however, that the four field agents of that shadowy group were all extremely strange, almost unnatural to their thinking. They were all very tall and had nearly superhuman physical traits…which they actually did, since they weren’t human. They’d shot at the four agents and seen their bullets do nothing at all. They’d chased them in cars and found that they could run on foot at nearly 45 miles an hour, which, on crowded city streets, was more than enough to escape from them. They knew that they were unnaturally heavy and supernaturally strong, since Stone had shouldered one of their SUVs in Dallas last year and knocked it on its side. They even knew the codenames they used; Stone, Shale, Onyx, and Jasper.
He turned towards the middle of the river and pushed his wings against the water, using them like flippers the way that the water dragons did, but a bubbly line zipped by his head, another shot from Price. He knew that they knew that bullets wouldn’t hurt him, they’d learned that lesson years ago, and it was one of the main reasons that only the earth dragons were allowed to go out into the human world. Earth dragons couldn’t be harmed by anything of their own element, and that meant that metal bullets, metal of the earth, would do them no harm. The Hunters didn’t know exactly why bullets wouldn’t hurt him, but they knew they wouldn’t. They’d shot him enough times to learn that it wasn’t some kind of body armor they’d never seen before.
He didn’t have long. He was no water dragon, he couldn’t breathe water, but he could get a long way away from them before he had to surface. Kell was probably the best swimmer among his kind that wasn’t an earth dragon, taught by the water dragons in how to swim fast and efficiently, and he used that training to flee the scene beneath the muddy waters of the Potomac River. His wings weren’t much use anywhere but in the water, where he’d learned how to use them like flippers, letting him swim with some impressive speed. Some earth dragons were very bitter about having wings but being unable to fly, were even more bitter about being the only dragons without any innate magic, but Kell—or Stone, as he was called in the department because that was his codename as a field agent—wasn’t one of them. Magic was the past, it was history. It had some uses, but technology was the path to the future, and it was why he and the other earth dragons had embraced it. Without their technology, the colony would still be in the stone age, lacking both creature comforts and necessary fallbacks like food storage, which made them more secure and less vulnerable to some kind of disaster that might wipe out their food production. He turned into the sluggish current and fanned his wings as if he were flying, which propelled him through the water faster than anything but a high-performance speedboat could manage. There were three scions close to Washington, and the closest of them, the one used for emergencies, was at the falls upriver. It was actually behind the falls, placed in case this exact kind of worst case scenario happened, a field agent losing his transformation amulet, letting them stay in the river and out of sight but still reach a scion to get back home. It was magical, one of the few real uses for magic, but he wouldn’t snub his nose at it. It was either a scion or a two month swim to get back to Draconia.
He wondered just how many had seen him change form. He knew that the three Hunters did, but it had been so fast, he’d dropped into the water so quickly…would they believe what their eyes told them? They were usually of a habit to wear minicams with their headsets, so did those cams catch his transformation? If they did…shit. Nobody out in the human world knew about the dragons, and if it turned out that they saw him, well, maybe he shouldn’t take that scion back home. Maybe he should just hide as far from anything he could find and eke out what existence he could until they forgot about him.
After six minutes of steady swimming against the sluggish current, he had to come up for air. He ghosted up to just under the surface and pushed his snout out, exhaled sharply and inhaled deeply, then dropped back down, letting his one and a half tons of weight drag him down without resisting. He’d sink like a rock straight to the bottom if he didn’t swim. And it turned out that his move was a good one, for not five seconds after he started sinking, a pair of propellers shot right over where he’d been, the kind used in the fast-response boats the Coast Guard kept in the Potomac since 9/11. There was also a sonar net in the river to try to catch minisubs, but he didn’t make the kind of noise they’d be looking for when he was in the water.
It took him nearly an hour of careful swimming and cautious breaths to reach the shallower water near the falls. The water was clearer but the current was faster, and he walked along the bottom as he felt the presence of the scion up ahead. He reached a deep section just in front of the waterfall and paused to look out above the water’s surface, bringing just the top of his head out like an alligator, though his curved, backswept horns and the bony spikes along the center of the back of his head would make him a but more ostentatious than an alligator. He saw no people on the rocks overlooking the falls, since it was a national park and was a destination for locals. He submerged his head and pushed out into the deeper water, using his wings to keep himself steady against a current that first tried to push him to the surface, then tried to drag him down. He sank his claws into the rock at the base of the falls and pulled his head out, then he saw two Hunters appear at the top of the waterfall and to the left. Wilson and Edwards.
He dropped back down, debating. They weren’t moving, he could see just through the water, and they were going to see him when he climbed out of the water and into the waterfall; the waterfall wasn’t so thick to let him climb up into the downstream without being seen. But he couldn’t try to use one of the other scions. This was the only one that would let him reach it via the water, and if he tried the one in Woodbridge or the one in Bethesda, he’d have to get out where he could be seen. And waiting underwater for nine hours wasn’t going to work. He could swim, but spending that much time underwater was going to make him so tired that he might not be able to make it to one of the other scions. His only viable option would be to get in the shallowest part of the rapids here at the falls where his body was under but he could stick his snout out to breathe from time to time and wait it out…and that didn’t seem all that appealing. Having to hold himself against the current was going to be tiring, and if they had Hunters here, then they might bring more, and they might spot him. Even with the turbulence in the water, they might spot his silhouette or notice the disrupted water flow as he displaced the natural current.
Well, there was one other option. If they were going to see him no matter what, then he may as well make it count.
Yeah, that appealed to him. Besides, he rather liked Edwards. She was an alright human despite being a Hunter.
He drifted back to the edge of the deep water pool, set his hind legs against the rock lip, then pushed off with all his might.
The sudden eruption of white water at the far end of the drainage pool got the two humans’ immediate attention. They both flinched as he leapt out of the water and drove his claws into the wet rock, then scampered up the rock face so quickly that the two barely had any time to react. In mere seconds, he went from underwater to launching up and over Edwards and Wilson, spraying them with water, then he landed behind them, cutting them off. He turned before they could reach for the pistols in their web belts, and snapped his wings out and brought his tail around, bringing to bear his main weapon.
The two of them were almost trembling, staring at him with utter awe, and not a little fear. He was the size of a large car if one discounted the tail, standing just over seven feet at the shoulder, his body from nose to tail nearly 24 feet long, sleek and muscular, built like a panther rather than a heavy, plodding animal like a rhinoceros. His lines were graceful, sinuous, making him appear to be agile and fast, not heavy and bulky. His hide was a series of camouflage-like patches and lines and streaks of browns, blacks, and tans, though his face had more symmetry, and the only color about him that wasn’t earth-toned were the red crystal spikes that grew from the flattened top of the tip his heavy, muscular tail. His backswept onyx horns glistened from the wetness, and his glowing amber eyes regarded the two soberly. He slowly folded his wings back and took a less aggressive posture when neither of them drew their weapons, the tall, burly black man and the willowy blond woman staring at him in shock.
“Jenny, you’re looking well,” he said sibilantly, using their language through his very differently-shaped mouth.
“S-S-Stone?” she gasped.
He gave a single nod, sitting on his haunches sedately. “I’m never going to see any of you ever again, so I decided that if I’m going out, I may as well go out in style,” he said ruefully. “I’ll be chained to a computer terminal for the rest of my life, if they don’t just throw me in a cell and forget I ever existed.”
“What are you?” Wilson asked.
“I’m an earth drake,” he answered honestly. “A dragon,” he elaborated after they looked at him blankly. “It’s been quite an eventful six years, hasn’t it? Dallas. London. And we can’t forget Mexico City,” he chuckled. “I’m the one that sent your team the case of tequila.”
“We thought so,” Edwards said, getting over her shock faster than Wilson. “Are the other three like you?”
“I will say nothing on the matter,” he
replied with a wolfish smile. “All I
really have to say is this. Though we do
things you might consider to be hostile, we have no hostile intent. Everything we do revolves around making sure
we stay a secret. The dragons
disassociated themselves from humankind over a thousand years ago, and it’s
probably the one thing on which all the dragons agree. I’m technically supposed to kill both of you
since you’ve seen me, but I’m not going to do that,” he told them
honestly. “We may be on opposing sides,
but I’ve never had any malice towards any of you, and I will not kill a
defenseless creature. Besides, I used to
have fun playing cloak and dagger with you.
You made boring assignments much more exciting,” he said with an impish,
yet chilling, grin. A grin that was
nothing but ivory fangs and long, sharp teeth.
“You came here for extraction,” Jenny reasoned, her mind starting to work again.
“Something like that, though they’ll remove the doorway once I use it since its location is compromised,” he said honestly. “So. It was a pleasure getting to know you, in our special little way, and I wish both of you well in the future,” he said. Wilson flinched and almost went for his pistol when Stone stood back up, then stepped up until his head was just in front and above them. “Keep an eye on your facebook page, Jenny. I might drop you a line from time to time, at least if I’m not thrown in prison when I get home,” he winked, reaching out with his taloned forepaw and patting her lightly on the shoulder.
“You—You could stay here,” she blurted. “We wouldn’t throw you in prison!”
“No, you’d have very noble intentions, and your bosses would make all sorts of promises, but we both know I’d eventually end up in some lab on a dissection table,” he replied bluntly. “The dragons disassociated themselves from humankind for a good reason, and despite a thousand years of separation, those reasons are still just as valid as they were the day the decision was made. You have changed, grown, matured, but you haven’t matured enough. When you do, we will approach you as friends. Until then, we will remain hidden, and as long as you don’t search for us and leave us alone, we will cause you no trouble.” He ambled past them, and they turned to watch him. He paused and looked back, his expression sober. “But if you do look for us, then don’t be surprised when the hand you stick in that hole gets bitten.”
He then launched himself off the rock face, his wings snapping out for just a moment to alter his path, then he landed right in the waterfall. He knew they were watching, but he there was no help for it. He pushed his head into the gateway of the scion, a magical portal between the human lands and Draconia, and he was sure they got a great view of him looking for all the world like he was wriggling into a cave behind the waterfall.
He’d just broken about fifty different rules, but hell, maybe some good would come of it. The humans were almost ready for them to approach them…maybe knowing they were there might help them take those last few steps.
“Are…you…out of your mind?” Ferroth raged the instant he got through the scion, in the portal aerie over the main headquarters. Stone shook the water off himself, then gave the larger earth dragon a cool, distant look, the rising sun backlighting Ferroth’s mottled tan hide and backswept gray horns. “You revealed yourself to two bipeds! They could execute you for that!”
“If someone other than you knew, probably,” Stone replied, folding his wings back. “They had a trap set. They had the entire Hunter team there, and Gaia knows who else I didn’t see. How in the hell did that get past us, Ferroth? I thought we had the entire city under surveillance!”
“Don’t push this back at me, whelp!” he snapped as Stone started towards the ramp that would lead down to the main headquarters. Above-ground draconic architecture was short on walls and large on open flat places, but since headquarters held most of their computers and other equipment, it was an enclosed building to protect all their gear from the rain, and built on the slope of the volcano by compromise with the council. They didn’t want the department to be underground, and besides, it needed to be as close to Scion Aerie as possible, so they built it directly under the aerie. He came out from under the sloped roof and looked down at the lower half of the south side of Draconia. Dragons and drakes were soaring through the air, fire and sky dragons with a few water dragons heading either to or from the water, and the water in the bay teemed with water dragons going out for their daily fishing expeditions.
It was the way of things. The five orders of dragons each had a role, a part they played here on the island. The water dragons were fishers and providers, bringing them the bounty of the sea. They also chased away the boats and nuclear submarines that sometimes ventured too deeply into their territory Earth dragons raised crops and tended large numbers of domesticated livestock, but the earth dragons were also the only connection the colony had to the outside world, for they were the only ones permitted to leave Draconia and venture into human lands. Since they lacked magic, didn’t even have a breath weapon, the earth dragons had embraced technology, advancing it past the humans in many respects. Fire dragons were the soldiers, the defenders, the claws of the Council, and the sky dragons hunted wild game from the air when and where they could, staying far from human territory, and searched the skies and the seas for potential enemies as well as manipulating the weather to help hide their island and deter ships that got too close. Chromatic dragons considered themselves the ruling class of dragons, the nobility, and really didn’t do much of anything. Technically they were the magicians, the most highly magical of the dragons, and they also taught those with more than basic aptitude in the magical arts. Earth dragons didn’t get along very well with the fire, sky, and chromatic dragons, who looked down at them as barely dragons, but if they came close to being friendly with anyone, it was the water dragons. They worked with the water dragons more than anyone else because both kinds were providers for the island, worked with some sky dragons when it came to surveillance, but barely interacted with the fire and chromatic dragons at all…and they liked it that way. Earth dragons did not get along with fire dragons, for a myriad of reasons, and they had even less reasons to get along with the chromatic dragons.
“Well, I’m gonna look at someone,” Stone replied tersely. “I walked right into a trap, Ferroth. Can you blame me for doing what I did? What, you wanted them to capture me?”
“That doesn’t explain that stunt at the scion! Our cameras caught every word!”
“I’ve known them for six years, Ferroth,” he shrugged his shoulders as they walked. “I had to say goodbye, at least in my own special way. And they would have seen me anyway, they were stationed there to see if I came up and over the falls.” He looked up at the older drake. “Besides, I thought they might appreciate just what they’ve been chasing for six years,” he chuckled.
“This isn’t a game, whelp, and that was not your decision to make!” Ferroth snapped. “I knew I should have sent Jasper!”
“Jasper doesn’t know their computers as well as I do,” Stone said simply.
“Jasper wouldn’t have revealed our greatest secret to our potential enemies!”
“Think about them as enemies, and that’s what they will be,” Stone said calmly as they came down the curved ramp. “I never thought of the Hunters as enemies. They were just doing their job, the same as I was. The humans aren’t the blood-crazed violent psychopaths the fire dragons think they are, Ferroth, you know that. There are some reasonable ones among them. Many reasonable ones, actually. I think it’s about time we started trying to reach out to those reasonable ones.”
“That’s not your decision to make, whelp!” Ferroth raged, stomping a foreleg down and making the ramp shudder. “The Council itself is demanding an immediate report. Now what should I tell them? Huh?”
“I’d be honest if I were you,” Stone noted. “I’ll just go back to my terminal and wait for the hammer to fall.”
Ferroth glared at him, his glowing amber eyes narrowing. “You’re a little too calm about this, Stone.”
“I did what I thought was best at the time,” he replied. “If I didn’t have confidence in my abilities, you wouldn’t send me out in the field. Sure, I shouldn’t have talked to Jenny and Wilson at the end, but I had to say goodbye to my worthy foes,” he chuckled. “Given the trap they set for me, I think it’s just blind luck I managed to escape.”
“What did happen? We didn’t see everything, just some jittery images from their media.”
“They were waiting for me,” he replied grimly, then he described what happened. “When they forced me across the ground, it did me in. A teenage human tripped over one of the holes my feet left, and it alerted the police. Once he called it in, the Hunters converged on me like a pack of wyverns. They had all of them there, Ferroth. They knew I was coming and they sat waiting like a hunter sitting behind a blind. I’m still trying to figure out how they knew where I was going to be.” He looked up at his superior. “Did they see me?”
Ferroth glared down at him. “Yes,” he replied. “A news chopper caught you falling into the river, and they’re doing frame by frame analysis of it on every major news network as we speak. There’s this wonderful still image of you flat on your back, wings out, just before you went under. How the hell did that happen?”
“Price shot my amulet,” he said, pausing to tap his empty-socketed amulet still chained around his chest. “He’s got the aim of a bloody elder wyrm, Ferroth. He dead centered it.”
Ferroth grunted, nodding his serpentine head. “I thought they were supposed to be sturdier than that.”
“I don’t think sky dragon magic is quite up to the task of repelling a fifty caliber sniper round, Ferroth. It shattered my amulet with no trouble.”
“Did you cover your tracks other than that?”
“Laptop zeroed, and the disposable cell is at the bottom of the Potomac,” he answered. “And what’s more important, the program was inserted. It should have updated out to all their servers by now.”
“It did,” he growled, almost reluctantly. “We have access again.”
“Then at least I accomplished the mission,” he shrugged as a sky dragon descended down and hovered with her talons just over the floor, just in front of the archway leading inside, shivering her wings before folding them to her sides. Like most sky dragons, she would not put her feet on the ground unless absolutely necessary.
“Chief Ferroth, the Council wants to see you. Now,” she declared, looking down at Stone with hard, glowing azure eyes. Stone had always distantly admired sky dragons for their beautiful scales and sleek bodies. Whip-thin and long, with large, beautiful wings and shimmering scales that could change color to make them all but invisible in the air, sky dragons were the masters of the air. They were like dancers in the air, agile and beautiful, and could fly at supersonic speeds thanks to their magic. They were technically allowed to leave Draconian territory, since they were allowed to hunt on uninhabited islands and some few sections of South America, and they often did aerial reconnaissance for the earth dragons, but they rarely came down lower than 60,000 human feet when they did so to protect themselves from fighters; few fighters could operate at that altitude. They were very different from the fire dragons, who were hulking brutes, burly and powerful, and had tempers to match their brutish appearance. Where sky dragons embodied the beauty of a dragon, the fire dragons embodied their brutish ferocity.
“Don’t get too comfortable in front of your terminal, Stone,” Ferroth growled. “I have no doubt you’ll get your own summons in short order. In the meantime, start on your report, and don’t leave anything out.”
“I will await it with bated breath,” he replied dryly, using a human idiom he knew that only Ferroth would understand. The sky dragon floated up and put her forepaws on Ferroth’s shoulders, then she picked him up and carried him up into the air. It was the only way an earth dragon could fly, carried by a sky dragon. Their wings would let them glide for short distances, but they were incapable of ascending because they were just too heavy, and they had no magic that countered that weight and allowed them to fly.
But Stone was working on a solution to that little problem. If their wings couldn’t generate lift, then they just needed something to generate that lift for them. And human technology had advanced the science of jet engines to where a small engine generated sufficient thrust to get much heavier objects into the air than an earth dragon.
The door, a large steel construction, opened as he stepped onto the pressure plate…and it would only open for an earth dragon. The technology in the door made sure that only earth dragons could use certain entrances, and in a way, it was part of the inferiority complex that many earth dragons possessed. If they were relegated to using the ramps and using doors, then only they would use them. Besides, not every dragon was allowed in headquarters, and the door intimidated the younger flying dragons from thinking to try to see what was in the building. He stepped into the main entryway and past the two burly fire dragon guards, who gave him wicked, black-toothed smiles as he stepped on the ID sensor, which read the unique scale pattern on the palm of his right forepaw.
“We heard you’re in serious trouble this time, earthy,” one of them sneered.
“And yet I’m still here,” he replied blandly. “And I’ll still be here long after you two jackwagons get fired.”
The two fire dragons turned and glared, but the door closed before they could think to say anything. Good old fire dragons, their brains were always about two steps behind their muscles.
“Kell! Kell, it’s all over headquarters!” a young water dragon said with a playful expression on her rounded muzzle, bounding up to him with her glowing emerald eyes narrowed with amusement. “Did you really talk to the humans?”
“At that moment, I figured what the hell,” he shrugged as she fell into step beside him.
“What happened? How did your amulet fail?”
“It didn’t fail, it was shot out by one of the Hunters,” he replied, tapping it as they ambled by several large desks, where earth dragons sat on their haunches, reared up at desks and studied monitors. “Someone blew it big time, Sella. I got sent into a trap. It’s just luck I got out in one piece.”
He nodded. “They had the entire Hunter team there,” he told the very young water dragon, one of his few friends outside the earth dragons. She wasn’t sleek like the sky dragons, but she had a kind of smooth symmetry about her that made her body slide through the water like a shark, and unlike any other dragon species, she had no horns, no spines, and no visible scales. Her scales were tiny, making her hide look like skin, and she had a cartilage fin-like crest that started just over her eyes and trailed halfway down her neck, horizontal flukes on the end of her tail, and webbed feet to help her in the water. Water dragons had smaller wings than other dragons, even earth dragons, but they could fly. Not very well, but they could fly. They were much more comfortable in the water, however. They used their wings primarily in the water, where the rounded edges of the wings pushed them through the water with effortless grace, letting them swim with unparalleled speed and agility. Sella was the only water dragon that worked in headquarters, and the two of them had known each other since they were little hatchlings, since the farm his sire and mother owned was right on the coast, and they’d been friends with Sella’s family pod who cultivated kelp and oysters in the little cove just off the shore from their farm. Because they’d known each other since they were hatchlings, she was about the only dragon in the department that called him by his name rather than his work alias. “Are the others back?”
“They got recalled when you got spotted on TV,” she replied, looking up the slight difference between their heads with a sly smile. “Why are you even in here? We thought they’d take you straight to the Council.”
“They called Ferroth, so odds are I’m next,” he replied. “Besides, they probably have to give the fires time to calm down else they’d try to roast me right there on the aerie.”
“Not that it’d do much good,” she winked. That was another reason the fires really hated the earth dragons, their fiery breath weapons didn’t do much to them at all. Earth dragons were highly resistant to heat, and on the ground, in fang to claw combat, a fire was no match for an angry earth dragon. And they knew it. Earth dragons were smaller than all the other dragons and significantly smaller than fire dragons, but when they were riled, they were worse than enraged wolverines. Every dragon knew that when an earth dragon turned and brought that tail into play, it was over. The only protection they had was staying way out of range. The spikes on an earth dragon’s tail were as hard as diamonds and would go right through just about anything, and they could launch those spikes, whipping their tails around and releasing them like a trebuchet launching a boulder. A tail spike was like a thirty pound spear or javelin, complete with a point and razor-sharp edges. Stone could fire his tail spikes nearly a hundred yards and have enough behind them to punch them through the sheet metal of a car, and it was a skill that every earth dragon practiced until they were deadly accurate. The old myth of the manticores from human legend was actually derived from earth dragons and their tail spikes.
“I’m sure they’d try anyway,” Stone said blandly as they entered a long, wide passageway on the far side of the main office, leading to a second room filled with earth dragons. Sella worked out in the main chamber, but this second chamber was where the higher security data was analyzed and where Ferroth and the other supervisors and managers had offices, and the rest of the building was filled with their computers and other technology. The lower floors were where earth dragon scientists experimented with new ideas and theories, and the upper floor was where all the communications for Draconia were handled, as well as monitoring all human satellite communications. Those dragons literally watched TV all day. The building was the nexus of the use of technology on the island, where technology was analyzed and studied, where the technological ventures of the earth dragons were directed and controlled, and where they maintained surveillance and observation of the humans. Stone and the other three field agents also had offices off the sensitive data room, way down at the end, and that was where he was headed.
Dragons other than earth dragons scorned technology as a rule, but if you took their TVs away, there’d be a general revolt all over the island. Dragons thought very little about humans, but they loved their entertainment media. TV shows, movies, even Dancing with the Stars, they were hits all over Draconia.
“I’d better get back to my desk before they miss me. See you later?” Sella asked.
“If they let me live,” he grunted, which made her smile reassuringly, nudge him with her head, then turn and amble back towards the main room. Other dragons weren’t as graceful on their feet as earth dragons…but then again, walking around was all earth dragons did. Practice made perfect.
No other drake or dragon was brave enough to talk to him as he moved through the sensitive information chamber, where analysts and observers went over intelligence gleaned from the human governments, where the first chamber went over more general information and monitored the internet for any possible hint that someone knew about Draconia. The island itself was about as remote as remote could get, deep in a void of empty trackless ocean in the South Pacific, nearly a thousand miles south of Hawaii, the closest land to it. It was a volcanic island about the size of Guam, with a subtropical climate, fertile soil, and rich seas that supported the dragons completely. Magic kept the island hidden, even from satellites, but technology kept them in the know about what was going on out in the human world, as well as supplying certain luxuries like TV, internet, and electric lights to dens and burrows all over the island.
If only Hawaii knew that 10% of their internet traffic actually came from Draconia, using them as a gateway. And that was all thanks to the earth dragons.
His office was tiny, with a small window that looked out over the south bay, and it was cluttered with pieces of equipment, computers, and several experiments he’d been working on in his spare time. Like most earth dragons, Stone was intensely curious and inquisitive, and that curious nature made them naturals when it came to dealing with technology. Nothing was ever good enough for an earth dragon. They were forever tinkering, trying to improve things, and that endless search for the nebulous goal of perfection drove them to expand their technological skills beyond the humans who had introduced them to the very technologies they used. Even the humblest earth dragon farmer was forever studying his land, tinkering with his tools, trying to come up with a better, more efficient way to plant and harvest, constantly seeking to improve himself in his chosen profession. Dragon field agents like Stone brought technologies back to the island, and there they were taken apart, analyzed, then duplicated and improved. Dragon computers were a good twenty years ahead of human computers, built on the north side of the island in the factories—a major issue of contention with the other dragons—with all of their equipment, and the coveted TVs that every dragon on the island owned. Dragons hated those smoke-belching factories, but failed to appreciate that their TVs and computers came out of them.
That was probably one of the reasons earth dragons didn’t see humans quite the same way most other dragons did. Earth dragons went out there, interacted with the humans on a direct level. It let dragons like Stone see that while humans still had many of the unfavorable traits that caused dragonkind to remove themselves from human interaction a thousand years ago, there was still something about humans that earth dragons admired. In a way, they were kindred spirits, nonmagical beings with a nearly overpowering curiosity about things.
He started on his report, speaking to his terminal and allowing it convert his words into a text file, describing everything that happened with as much detail as he could muster. He described everything as it happened, even what he was thinking or feeling, from the moment he exited the scion in Woodbridge to the moment he wriggled through the emergency scion in the waterfall. After he finished his report, he then began his own analysis of his mission, stressing the fact that he’d walked right into a trap, how the Hunters had been ready for him, had effectively boxed him in, forced him into the sewers, then even had a means to smoke him out…literally.
A sky drake stepped to the open archway leading to his office. In the building, they had to walk. It was a rule, and they didn’t like it all that much. “The Council has summoned you, Stone,” he declared, quite haughtily.
“Fine, I’m done with my report,” he replied, saving it and putting it on the main server.
“I’ll take you to them.”
“I’ll walk, thank you very much,” he replied immediately.
“I was told to take you to the Council,” the sky drake replied indignantly.
“Then you can either walk with me, or I’ll pin you to my tail and drag you,” Stone answered coolly. “If I can’t walk, I don’t go.”
“I’m going to make sure the Council understands that you are responsible for us being late,” he retorted.
“That’s fine with me,” Stone replied.
The haughty sky drake didn’t walk with him, but he did hover in the air near the ramp as Stone set out for the council building at the top of the extinct volcano, one of two volcanoes on the island. The north volcano was active, and erupted quite often, but had never erupted violently. Like Mount Kilauea in Hawaii, it was a steady, consistent volcano, sending the occasional lava flow down its slope to expand the northern side of the island a little bit. The older lava flows were where they’d built their factories, so they weren’t covering over any farmland or housing. Stone wasn’t afraid as he walked up the rarely-used ramp to the council building, but he wasn’t looking forward to what he knew was coming. The Council would be looking for blame, and they wouldn’t want to look any further than him.
The council met in an open aerie at the top of the extinct volcano, with graceful arches around the circular platform where the nine dragons that made up the Council sat. Two of each element were represented, one a drake and the other a wyrm, with one of the chromatics because chromatics didn’t have drakes, only wyrms. The chromatics were the most haughty, snobby, obnoxious, and arrogant dragons of them all…at least to earth dragons. Chromatics were the most magical of all the dragons, and they looked down on the earth dragons even more than the fires did. Chromatics also didn’t do anything, they just sat around and congratulated each other on their superiority while demeaning the elemental dragons.
The sky dragon landed and bowed his long neck gracefully. “Esteemed Council, Kell of the earth drakes. Many apologies for our tardiness, but he refused to allow me to carry him.”
“Some earth dragons don’t like to be carried,” one of the earth dragon council members chuckled. Her name was Anthra, and like any elder wyrm, she towered over the young earth drake. She was the oldest and largest of all the earth dragons. Stone was barely half the size of a fully matured wyrm, but he would never be as big as she was. She was a wyrm, and he was a drake. They were entirely different kinds of dragons. “And I’m one of them. I’ll keep my feet solidly on the ground, thank you.”
“We’re not here to discuss earth dragon peculiarities,” one of the fire dragons said haughtily. “We’re here to get to the bottom of this catastrophe and ensure it never happens again.”
“If you don’t want it to happen again, try sending us out with amulets that can take a bullet,” Stone said, tapping his empty-socketed amulet. “Mine got shot out. And here you go, one self-caused catastrophe.”
“Don’t foist your failure on us, little drake!” the sky wyrm, snapped, his long neck swinging down from his dais to glare at Stone.
“We earth dragons just get to the point, esteemed council member,” he replied bluntly, looking up at the large, sleek dragon fearlessly, staring him right in the eyes. “I’m not blaming the sky dragons, because I can’t think of any magic short of a water dragon’s strongest protections that could have saved my amulet. You did your best, but things just went perfectly wrong. These things happen. But if you want to know what happened, the simple truth of it is that my amulet was hit by a bullet. It shattered the crystal, and its magic failed. No amount of talk or dancing around that matter is going to make it anything other than what it is.”
“And just why were you being shot at, earth drake?” one of the water dragons asked, the water wyrm. “Isn’t the point of the field service to be discreet?”
“I walked into a trap, esteemed council member,” Stone admitted. “I had absolutely no idea they had figured out where I was going to be. In that respect, the fault is squarely on me and the intelligence service. We thought we had better intelligence on their movements and were completely unaware that they’d pulled all their Hunter units in to one place, and once I was there and performing my mission, I hadn’t considered the fact that they knew I was there, so I took no extra precautions. But, be that as it may, the simple fact of the matter is that they somehow figured out that I’d have to go to the State Department in Washington and they set a trap for me there. And it was a good one,” he chuckled ruefully. “My worthy foes among the Hunters may be human, but they’re not stupid.”
“Then explain what happened, my young drakeling,” the earth drake Geon asked. “As completely as you can.”
Stone nodded, then used the computer there in the aerie to bring up his report. He went over it in detail, explaining, describing, telling them everything, all the way up until he reached the scion.
“And what earthly explanation do you have for revealing yourself and us to the very humans who hunt you down?” the chromatic dragon snapped in a sneering voice, the feathery antenna-like growths beside his horns swaying as his head jerked. “You should have just entered the scion and taken the risk that they might see you, not climb up there and introduce yourself in your natural form!”
“That was my decision, council member, and I take full responsibility for it,” he said simply. “They may chase me, but they do it because it’s their job. They don’t take it personally, just as I didn’t take it personally that they chased me. They had their orders, I had mine. And I’ve interacted with them enough times in the past to understand them a little bit. There’s been more than a bit of witty banter going on back and forth between the field agents and the Hunters, and I’m not the only one that does it. Hell, we even post on each other’s Facebook pages. They know us, we know them, and we don’t take it personally. Out there it’s a job, but when it’s over, it’s over.”
“Shooting you isn’t taking it personally?”
“They know they can’t hurt me with bullets,” he shrugged. “Most often, they shoot at us to slow us down. Hit me in the knee when I’m running and I’ll drop like a felled ox, which is exactly what Price did. Odds were, when he shot me at the river, he was trying to slow me down so they could catch me.”
“So why did you talk to them, drakeling?” the earth drake asked curiously.
“I really can’t answer that rationally,” he said honestly. “I’ve known the Hunters for six years, esteemed council member. I knew I would never be allowed off the island again after I got back, so, well, I just wanted to say goodbye. Face to face. Not all of them are bad. Hell, I’d probably bite Price’s arm off for all the times he’s shot me, but that’s more out of irritation than anything else.”
“So you have emotional attachment to the bipeds?”
“More like a respect for the worthiness of my adversaries,” he replied. “The Hunters have been a thorn in the side of all the field agents, but there’s not one of us who doesn’t respect them and their abilities.”
“That’s not an explanation,” he pressed calmly. “What emotion caused you to abandon a thousand years of tradition and stern law and reveal our existence to the humans, drakeling, knowing that we could have you killed for doing such a thing?”
“Well,” he said, then he sighed. “I think the law’s too strict,” he admitted. “I think that with the advancement of the humans and the maturation of their societies, it might be time to start talking to them. We should do it very slowly and very carefully, but it’s time to open the doorway, if only just a little. And since I knew I was going to all but be chained to a terminal in the office after this no matter what, I figured what the hell? They were going to see me when I entered the scion, they were right there. So I finally told them why we do what we do. I told them that we don’t mean them any harm, we just want to make sure they don’t find us, and like any other intelligence organization on the planet, one way we do it is by monitoring the human governments. And I didn’t want them to see us as monsters,” he sighed. “That me being a drake didn’t change who they thought I was. They were going to see me no matter what, so I didn’t want them to draw the worst conclusion, to see a big scary monster climbing into the waterfall. I know them, esteemed council member. We may be on opposite sides, but I know them very well, and I’ve never seen them as enemies. I’ve seen them as, as, opponents. Friendly rivals. I just wanted to say goodbye, I wanted them to understand that we never meant them harm, and I felt they deserved receiving that face to face. My real face,” he added, then he looked at the floor.
The nine dragons of the Council were silent a long moment. “You are dismissed,” the chromatic said shortly. “You are under house arrest until we decide this matter.”
“As you decide,” Stone said, bowing his head, then he turned and started out of the circle of raised daises, moving much slower than he did when he came in.
They never thought to escort him there or put him under guard, because dragons were a very orderly lot. He would wait in his burrow until they told him what they were going to do…because what else was he going to do? He couldn’t hide from them, and since he couldn’t fly, he certainly wasn’t going anywhere. He was no sky dragon, able to fly off, or a water dragon, who could slip into the sea and vanish, or a fire dragon, who might fight if faced with punishment. Stone launched from the side of the aerie and used his wings to glide down to the southwest side of the island, landing with a short hop on the ancestral farm of his line. His sire and mother still farmed that land, but he had a small burrow on the edge of their farmland, on a little knoll overlooking the cove that held Sella’s family pod and their small but successful kelp farming operation. Like all dragons, he lived underground, but the expanse of his burrow was no cave. The walls were squared off and lined with concrete, dug out by his own claws when he reached the age of adulthood, forming a spacious four chamber burrow that was big enough for him and all of his equipment. Like every burrow on the island, he had electricity and running water, fans that circulated the air in the back chambers to keep them from getting too dank, and he employed dehumidifiers in his computer room to keep the dampness and saltwater air from adversely affecting his equipment. His burrow was a bit cluttered, experiments and gadgets laying on most surfaces, including a half-built General Electric GS-300 turbofan jet engine in his workshop, built with parts he was producing one at a time with the help of a couple of friends of his. It was something he played with when he had spare time, thinking to see if a jet engine could give an earth dragon the thrust needed to fly.
It was a spur of the moment decision, a very un-dragon thing to do, but it was in the past, and now he had to live with it. He sighed and sat on his haunches in front of his computer and turned it on, then put his forepaws on the modified keyboard to take his draconic hands into account. Since his thumb was completely reversed on his paws, he could only effectively type with three fingers. He did all his computer work in English, something of the common accepted language of the internet, and utilized a modified English language keyboard. “Access TV, on,” he called absently, which caused his television to turn on. “Channel one fifty,” he added, changing it to CNN. And of course, there was a picture of his tan underbelly in a still image with the bold letters MYSTERY ANIMAL IN WASHINGTON SEWER underneath it. They had a zoologist droning in the background, then a hand pointed at parts of his thin stomach, trailing up his body.
“Clearly this is a reptile of some kind, but this reptile is nothing like anything I’ve ever seen,” the woman said. “It’s hexapedal, something absolutely unheard of.”
“What does that mean, doctor?” the reporter asked.
“It has six limbs, not four,” she answered tapping the large TV monitor deliberately. “Back legs. Front legs, and over its front legs are a second set of limbs, which are clearly wings. The only animals with more than four legs are insects and arachnids. This is an entirely unseen branch of the reptile family. Not just a hexapedal reptile, but one evolved for flying. It almost looks like a dragon,” she mused.
Stone grunted. “Access TV, Channel two ninety-six,” he called, turning it to something a little less educational…Cartoon Network. Johnny Test was on, and a little zany, mindless chaotic fun would do much for his mood. He found that they hadn’t shut him out from the internet, so he surfed around absently, almost mechanically checking the usual sites for new information, mainly about computers and programming. Stone had a knack for their archaic computer architecture, one of their best when it came to their computers, which was why he was almost always sent on the most technically difficult assignments.
But his mind wasn’t in it. He left his computer and laid down in the entrance to his burrow, looking out over the kelp beds of Sella’s pod, watching as her family tended their plants with care and attention. Sella’s mother, Shii, waved to him before going back under, and he nodded to her. He kept pondering just how the humans were going to react to a picture of something they’d never seen before, and in a place they’d never believe it would be. The government would know much more, since he’d talked to the Hunters, revealed certain truths to them, and he wondered if they’d be honest or if they’d cover it up. Probably cover it up. He still couldn’t exactly figure out what possessed him to talk to Wilson and Edwards. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but now, looking back on it, it was about the last thing he should have done. Earth dragons weren’t known for making such hasty decisions. Methodical and organized, that was an earth dragon, always with a plan and almost never surprised.
Almost never. He sure as hell didn’t expect to be facing the entire Hunter corps. And that little fact had gotten past the intelligence they had in Washington.
He seriously doubted they’d have him executed. No dragon had been put to death for over six hundred years, even when they did things far worse than what he had. Odds were, they’d sentence him to penance…which meant not all that much to earth dragons. He grew up on a farm, he wasn’t afraid to push a tiller, and being denied magic was nothing but a big joke to an earth dragon. The punishments they invented were to make other dragons live like earth dragons for a while; no magic, no flying, working on a farm with nothing but your own forepaws and muscles.
He supposed that it said much about how the other dragons really saw the earth dragons. If their punishment was to make misbehaving dragons live like an earth dragon, he supposed that they felt that the life of an earth dragon was an eternal punishment. They certainly didn’t think much of them. Ferroth had contacts in the council, and the other council members treated Anthra and Geon like afterthoughts. One of the earliest memories he had was his parents telling him and his clutchmates how to handle the comments and teasing from the other dragons, that earth dragons were above acting like them. Keep to your own kind, do your work and be proud of the work that you do, and answer the prejudice of the other dragons not with anger, but with pride. But, the instant it went past words, use your tail spikes and don’t hold back. If they’re willing to do you harm, then you fight to kill.
The greatest cause of death of juvenile fire dragons was tail spike injuries.
His sire ambled up the knoll towards him. Keth was a mature drake, sensible and grounded, a very practical dragon with an uncluttered view of life that served him well. He was a farmer, it was all he ever wanted to be, and he was proud to be one. Keth sat on his haunches by the entrance to his burrow and looked down at him with parental care. “So, Kell, you really got yourself in trouble this time,” he noted lightly, using Stone’s given name. Keth never called him by his work name.
“Just a little bit, sire,” he replied, putting his head back on the grass at the entry to his burrow.
Keth chuckled. “You always were a little hot-headed, my youngling,” he noted, patting him on the hindquarters with the underside of his tail. “What exactly happened? We’ve only heard rumors.”
“Pretty much what the rumors said. My amulet got shot out and human news cameras caught me out of my disguise. Didn’t you see that picture of me on their TV?”
“I’ve been out in the fields today, youngling, I haven’t had time for TV.”
“Well, it’s not a very flattering picture. I was on my back about to fall into the river. And, there’s more to it than that,” he sighed. “I actually talked to a couple of humans, let them see me, and I didn’t kill them.”
Keth clicked his teeth. “Isn’t that against the rules of your department?”
“Just slightly,” he snorted. “But it certainly seemed like a good idea at the moment.”
“Decisions made rashly often do, but once you have time to think them over, you find out that they were actually very poor ones,” he said sagely. “Ten seconds of consideration can save you months of regret, my youngling.”
“I know, but I was looking at the end of my career as a field agent,” he sighed. “I knew it was over as soon as Price shot out my amulet. I knew they’d never let me off the island again.”
“You like it out there, don’t you?”
“I guess I do,” he said, rising up onto his elbows. “The humans are a very curious species, sire. They’re walking contradictions, and I find myself both repelled by their base natures and intrigued by their capabilities, often at the same time. Going out among them is dangerous, exciting, and it always seemed much more interesting than sitting in the office hacking government and corporate computer networks. They build such beautiful things, but also do such horrible things to each other. But then again, we can’t really talk much about perfection in our society either,” he grunted.
“We are who we are, Kell. We’re earth dragons. We shouldn’t be bitter at what we don’t have, but proud of what we do.”
“It’s too bad the other dragons can’t act like that,” he said pointedly, looking up at his sire.
“The problem is them, Kell, not us. Eventually they’ll come to understand that. Until then, we carry on and do what we do best.”
“And spike anyone who touches us,” he finished.
“Of course,” Keth said with a lazy smile, then he sat down. “Now tell me what happened.”
Again, but much less mechanically, he described what happened, spending much more time talking about his conversation with Wilson and Edwards. “I still don’t entirely understand why I did it, sire,” he sighed. “I just…just wanted to talk to them. Just once. Let them see me for who I am and not be afraid of me, because they were going to see me anyway. I know it sounds weird, but I’d spent six years sneaking around them, and I’d come to know them from our taps and surveillance. They weren’t really all that bad.”
“An odd position to take. Haven’t they tried to kill you several times?”
“I’m sure they meant it, but since they couldn’t, I guess I didn’t take it personally,” he chuckled. “They were never enemies to me. They were people, people just doing a job.”
“And of course, they would think that you were no less for having no magic,” he said sagely.
Stone blinked and looked up at his sire.
“Let go of your resentment, my youngling. It will make your life much less irksome. You are an earth dragon. Embrace who you are. Rejoice in what you can do, don’t pine over what you can’t.”
“I never really thought of it like that,” he sighed. “I guess the humans do take me seriously, when here, I’m just an earth dragon,” he reasoned.
“You feel important out there, but what you fail to understand is that you’re just as important here, my youngling,” Keth said sagely. “Our talents lie in different directions than other dragons. They may not be as flashy or impressive, but they’re no less important. Believe me, if the earth dragons left, the other dragons would miss us in short order. We can do without them. They cannot do without us.”
“They don’t believe that.”
“And that’s one reason why we’re better than them,” he said lightly, giving Stone a toothy smile. Stone chuckled and sat back up on his haunches.
“Thanks, sire. I do feel a little better now.”
“Then my work here is done, and I have other work that needs me. I’ll have your mother bring you something to eat after a while.”
“I’d appreciate it.”
“See you later, my youngling. Be well.”
“Be well,” he replied as Keth stood up, turned, and started down the knoll.
Maybe that was why he loved field work. Out there, there wasn’t magic, there wasn’t every other dragon over his head looking down at him and scorning him for what he was. The humans took him very seriously, respected him, had even formed an elite government agency to hunt down him and the other field agents. That made him feel…important. Where here, he was just another grounder plodding along on his ramps, doing those things that the other dragons felt were far beneath them, both figuratively and literally. Out there, he didn’t have to always keep an eye above him for things the other dragons dropped, usually on purpose. Out there, he wasn’t sneered at by any dragon that decided to come down off the volcanoes and mill around on the lowlands like a dirty grounder, their version of slumming, but more like them looking for trouble. Outside of Sella and her family pod, he didn’t really even associate with dragons outside his species, but the relationship between Keth’s family and Shii’s pod went back four or five generations.
Out there, he didn’t feel…lesser, even when he knew that he was more than equal to other dragons despite what they saw as his limitations.
But, his sire was right. If the earth dragons left, it would leave a gaping hole in Draconia. The other dragons didn’t appreciate how much their lives and lifestyles depended on the very grounders they scorned. The howl of anguish would be monumental if the TVs went dark. Even the snooty chromatics loved their TV.
For him, though, there was nothing to be done but sit, wait, and worry.
At least Sella hadn’t abandoned him.
She visited him that evening and sat with him at the entrance of his burrow. The relationship between him and Sella had always been complex, maybe a little too close as other dragons reckoned things, since relationships between the species was highly frowned upon. But with them, it was just friendship. They’d been best friends since they were both hatchlings, meeting when Sella and her clutchmates used to climb up onto the shore to be brave and adventurous, and Kell and his clutchmates used to jump off the little cliff there behind the south field and swim around in the deeper water, but still well away from the kelp beds. They played together as hatchlings, and when they matured, Sella decided to go work in the intelligence building at her parents’ suggestion, since they wanted at least one of their brood to understand the technology that the earth dragons were bringing back to Draconia. She’d been there ever since, starting out as one of the TV watchers and report filers before the computers became commonplace, then moving on to become one of the many analysts that searched the internet for any hint that someone knew about them. Sella’s job was to literally sit in front of a terminal all day and look at websites their spiders flagged, looking for any indication that someone out there knew about Draconia, or had managed to infiltrate the island’s computer network. Her family couldn’t really use any of the computers, but at least the earth dragons had figured out how to get some waterproof lighting down for their undersea den. But, Shii was a wise dragon in understanding that even if the water dragons couldn’t really use the computers or much of the technology underwater, it was still wise for them to know how it worked. After all, they didn’t live their entire lives under the waves.
Water dragons were the only ones that even came close to appreciating the earth dragons, because water dragons weren’t quite as arrogant as the others. They had much in common in their belief in the family unit, loyalty, the value of hard work and the pride in a job well done, and the knowledge that they were the providers that kept the rest of the island fed. Hatchlings grew up healthy and strong because of the earth dragons and the water dragons, never wanted for food, and a healthy body fostered a healthy mind. Since they both occupied the low coastal areas, they were neighbors as much as the fire, sky, and chromatic dragons were neighbors up on the volcanoes, them favoring their high caves while the earth and water dragons favored burrows and sea caves under the ground and below the waves. But, there was still a bit of haughtiness. Since water dragons had magic and could fly, they saw their ground-bound earth dragon neighbors as the runts of the litter, to be watched over and protected because they lacked what all the other dragons possessed. Earth dragons, naturally, resented being treated that way, and it was one of the only real points of contention between the two species.
But Shii’s pod never treated them that way. The two families had been friends for nearly as long as the dragons had been on the island, trading gifts on the solstice days, celebrating the day of Gaia together, often basking on the sandy beach just down from the family burrow and talking of affairs. It was Sella and her siblings that taught him how to swim so well, taught him how to use his wings like flippers, and made him probably the best swimmer on Draconia that wasn’t a water dragon. It was Shii’s pod that had come to mourn when two of his clutchmates died in an accident, had helped them through the hard times when a fungal infection wiped out their crops, and the crops of nearly half the earth dragons.
Now that he recalled, that was one of the few times that the other dragons took any notice, when they suddenly found themselves on rations to get them through until new crops could be harvested. And of course, it was the earth dragons’ fault that it happened. Why the crops failed didn’t matter as much as the fact that the earth dragons were the ones that tended them.
Sella had went back home to rest through the night, and Stone worried his way through the night, still laying just at the entrance of his burrow along the earthen ramp that led down to his concrete floor, a little drainage grill at the edge to catch any water that managed to get down that far. Tending the ramp was one of the little chores, almost a daily ritual for many earth dragons, filling in the divots and smoothing it out, sometimes bringing fresh earth in. The smell of the fresh earth on the ramp permeated the burrow and brought a peculiar contentment to earth dragons. That smell was the smell of home. The mist of the morning that gave their part of the island its name settled in just before dawn, casting the sea in steely grays, and then the sun rose around the volcano and burned it away. It was quite lovely in ambient light, but it was the swirls of heat in the water as a warm water current mixed with a cold water current just off shore that was even more interesting to watch at night, when it was dark enough for his eyes to shift into the thermographic spectrum. Earth dragons could see heat just like the monster from the Predator movie, but it tended to get overwhelmed by visible light, so it was really only useful in low light or darkness. And in a bit of rare species pride, earth dragons were the only ones with thermographic sight. It would do water dragons no good in the water, fire dragons even less in their superheated dens, and sky dragons even less than that high up in the air. Chromatics were the only ones that might still find it useful, but they spent too many years in the light, reading their books, and the ability was all but bred out of them.
Earth dragons had even adapted it into monitors that used heat instead of light, monitors that only they could see. Any computer that displayed sensitive information used infragraphic monitors, to keep other dragons from getting too curious. Earth dragons were very secretive, and old habits died hard. Besides, only earth dragons had that much interest in technology and the outside world.
He was honestly surprised when a sky dragon and two fire dragons landed not far from the entrance of his burrow. He didn’t expect them to come to a decision that fast. Usually it took the council a week to decide when they’d next meet. For them to make a decision in a single day was almost unheard of. He stood up and regarded the much larger sky dragon, and the even larger fire dragons, with a calm stare.
“Kell, son of Keth, of the farming clan, the Council of Nine demands your immediate presence,” the sky dragon declared.
“Well, this was too fast to be good,” Stone grunted, shivering his wings.
“Don’t get any ideas, grounder,” one of the fire dragons sneered. “We’re here to make sure you get there, even if we have to drag you out of your hole like a scared rabbit.”
“You’re going to look awfully cute with one of my spikes in your forehead, ashtongue,” Stone retorted in a cold voice, bringing his tail around and showing him the seventeen slender blood-red spikes of crystal, just waiting to be used.
The two very large fire dragons bristled, one of them actually roared, but it didn’t phase Stone in the slightest. He was half the size of the fire dragons, but like most earth dragons, he wasn’t afraid of the fire dragons, and he made sure they knew it.
“Were they absolutely necessary?” Stone asked the sky dragon, who was glaring at the two fire dragons.
“The fire dragons on the council demanded it,” she replied with a grunt. “I will take you there, drake.”
“I’ll walk, thank you. I don’t like to be carried. Feel free to come with me. If anything, you’ll keep those two alive.”
Both fire dragons snorted out a gout of flame.
“I can see that,” she replied dryly, putting her delicate feet on the ground.
The sky dragon was clearly annoyed at the slow pace, but it wasn’t because Stone was hedging or dragging his feet. He started up the series of ramps that led to the Council Aerie with a confident, steady gait, but even his steady walk was too slow for a sky dragon, who could be there in a matter of seconds. The two fire dragons stomped along behind him, and Stone made sure to snap his tail back and forth randomly, keeping their attention firmly affixed that most dangerous part of an earth dragon’s anatomy. Like any earth dragon, the muscles that governed that tail were some of the strongest in his body, and would give the spikes he launched some formidable power.
“Any idea of what they decided?”
“I wasn’t there when they discussed the matter,” the sky dragon answered. “But they spent almost all night debating the issue.”
It took him nearly an hour to climb up to the aerie, where the nine raised platforms formed a circle around the center. Several aides to the council were present now, sitting or standing by their benefactors, and he was a bit surprised to see Shii sitting between the two daises holding the water drake and wyrm. She gave him a steady and strangely reassuring look. He ambled out to the middle of the circle and bent his neck low. “I report as summoned, esteemed Council,” he said calmly.
“Kell of the earth drakes, we have spent many hours in debate over what is a suitable punishment for your actions,” the chromatic declared, peering down at him with a dark expression. “And while some of us entirely disagree with the decision that was made, it is not our place to go against the will of the majority.”
Well, if the chromatic didn’t like the decision, then it might not be as bad as he feared.
“The short of it, my drakeling, is that while you broke our laws, you didn’t do so with malice in your heart,” Geon said, causing him to turn to look in that direction. “Your action was the rashness of youth, and it is thus that we often let the rashness itself serve as part of the punishment. I am sure that you have considered what you have done and realized, after having time to look back at things rationally, that you were wrong.”
“Yes, esteemed Council member,” Stone said with honest regret. “I should never have done it.”
“So while there must be punishment, the punishment, like the crime, will not be done with malice,” the water wyrm continued, causing him to turn slightly. “Your job is highly dangerous and puts much pressure on you, young drake. We understand this, as much as we understand that because of the limitations of magic, only the youngest adult drakes may undertake the dangerous tasks for which you are responsible. It would be cruel of us to thrust such young drakes into such dangerous tasks and then be harsh with them when their youth finally catches up with them, and they do something rash.”
“Which is exactly why I have advocated from the start that we not use earth drakes,” the fire wyrm said harshly.
“Only earth drakes have the skills and temperament to perform the dangerous tasks of which we ask them, Hirrag,” the water drake retorted in a calm yet authoritative voice. “If we were to send a fire drake out into the human world, I have no doubt that we’d be counting the dead by the time he returned.”
“Until this incident, the four earth drakes we task to send out into the world have performed with excellence,” the earth wyrm declared as the fire wyrm puffed out his chest. “Forty-three years of perfection! And only now, in a moment of crisis, do we question the abilities of the earth drakes who made only one poor decision in forty-three years of thinking quickly and in situations nearly as dangerous? And let us not forget that the core of the matter is that the events that revealed us to the human world were not his fault,” she declared, stamping a foot down on her dais. “His transformation amulet was broken, and that was beyond his control! If anything, his quick thinking and calm reaction to such a drastic situation was commendable!”
“It was in his control to put himself in the position where they could break it!” the fire drake retorted.
“We will not rehash old subjects!” the chromatic barked, slapping his tail on the dais loudly. “Kell, son of Keth of the farming clan, you will face open rebuke by the Council, to be read openly at all monthly circles of all communities so that all Draconia may know your shame,” he declared, fluttering his iridescent, multicolored wings. “You are also hereby removed from field service,” he declared, giving him a slight, malicious smile. “You will be reassigned to other duties within the intelligence department. Such is our decision, in a vote of five for, four against.”
“That’s it?” Stone blurted, then almost immediately bowed his head.
“Do you want more punishment, drake?” the chromatic wyrm said icily. “I will gladly give it to you!”
“Uh, no, esteemed council member. I just wasn’t expecting something so…lenient,” he said honestly, which made the earth dragons smile slightly.
“You will report to Chief Ferroth and be briefed on your new duties,” Anthra told him in a gentle voice. “Do us proud, my drake.”
“Yes, esteemed council member,” he said, bowing his head to her. That was a dismissal, so he turned and started towards the ramp with as much speed as dignity would allow, before someone dragged him back in the middle of that circle and decided to give him what he was expecting, like being chained on penitent’s aerie where young juveniles would harass and torment him for amusement, or being locked in a cell for a few decades, or even something drastic like having his wings cut off or even public execution. But as he walked, he pondered just why they had been so lenient. In honesty, they shouldn’t have been. He was expecting something much worse than that, but they let him go with what was barely a slap on the wrist. A public rebuke didn’t mean all that much to an earth dragon, since they were at the bottom of the social ladder anyway. And he already knew that his time in the field was over, he knew that the instant Price shot out his amulet. Odds were, nobody would be going out again for a few years, until they made sure that never happened again and gave the humans time to calm down a little bit.
Shii landed just behind him and rumbled up, then nuzzled the side of his head fondly. “I’m glad to see you, my young friend,” she told him, looking down at him with her glowing green eyes. “I’m sure that’s quite a relief.”
“You spoke for me, Shii. Thank you,” he said honestly.
“Of course I spoke for you, my young one,” she smiled gently. “Are our families not friends?”
“What…what were they really going to do?” he asked.
“You were always the clever one, Kell,” she said soberly. “The debate was raging between execution and losing your wings down to a year chained on Penitent’s Aerie, though the chromatic and fire dragons felt that nothing short of execution was real punishment for an earth dragon,” she snorted.
“And what changed their minds?”
“Something you said yesterday,” she answered. “Elder Anthra was quite eloquent. It seems that the council has been debating opening some discreet diplomatic channels with the outside world for some time. She also drove home the point that the main issue, them getting a picture of you, was beyond your control. Your speaking to the humans wasn’t exactly a smart thing to do, but by then the damage had already been done, and in a way, your words to the humans helped assuage some of the damage. When you told them that you tried to show the humans that you weren’t a monster, that they had no need to fear you, it resonated enough to sway the sky drake to voting for you rather than against you. Your acts were rash, but your heart was in the right place, and that mattered very much when it came time to decide how to punish you for it.”
“Well, that’s something, I suppose,” he grunted, looking up at her as his mind worked. If they were that close to killing him, then this “new job” of theirs was probably going to be something on the far side of suicidally dangerous. After all, he was now expendable. “And what new job do they have for me?”
“Something I think you’ll like,” she winked, then she leaned down and nuzzled him with her muzzle. “I’ll let your boss explain things to you, my young one. I have to get back to the kelp beds. You know how Surral makes a mess of things when I’m not there.”
“Thank you, Shii. It’s always good to know who your real friends are.”
“Any time, my young friend. Good luck to you.” She turned and spread her wings, then vaulted off the platform and turned west, heading home.
They took him straight to Ferroth’s office when he got back to headquarters, which was a large room with a big window looking out over the bay. It was neat, spotless, two computers on his desk and lines of archived data in shelves along one wall, in black boxes and all neatly labeled by date and location. “Chief, what the hell is going on?” Stone asked as he closed the door with a flick of his tail on the button, causing the steel door to lower down.
“Whelp, you have no idea how close you came to the jaws of a fire wyrm,” Ferroth told him with a dark growl. “And they’d have fought over the chance to get to kill one of us without fear of retaliation.”
“I figured that out already. So, if they spared me the execution, what hare-brained idea do they have that’s probably going to get me killed anyway?”
Ferroth gave him an amused look. “You always were a smart one, Stone,” he said as he ambled over to his desk and sat on his haunches, the reared up enough to put his forepaws on the keyboard. “You’re going back out in the field.”
“What? They said I was pulled from field service!”
“As a field agent, yes. I promoted Girk. And I guess I should stop calling you Stone, that’s his alias now.”
“Girk? He doesn’t know Pascal from Java!”
“He’ll learn,” Ferroth replied. “And he’s not that bad. Anyway, we’re sending you out on a special mission.” He tapped his keyboard, and an infragraphic emitter dropped down from the ceiling and the lights dimmed along with the window darkening, letting them shift into thermographic vision. The emitter painted the blank wall in the colors of heat, blues and greens, reds and whites, and it was as sharp and detailed as anything he could see in ambient light. “Stone—Kell, your mission is going to be very dangerous, and you’re not going to get any help or backup from us, so you’re going to be on your own. As you can see on this map, this human dwelling is your primary objective,” he said, using a pointer that placed a black dot of cold on the thermal image. “This is the listed address of Jenny Edwards.”
“They want me to kill her?” he asked, his stomach dropping a little.
“They want you to make contact with her,” Ferroth replied. “You have said that this particular human seems most approachable, so we decided to start with her. You are to go out, rendezvous with her, and make official contact. Your mission is to bring her back here.”
“Do what?” he gasped, snapping his head to Ferroth.
“Bring her here. The council wants to speak face to face with a human, and they have selected Jenny Edwards. They want to discuss what happened in Washington with someone from their side and make certain assurances. They want to open at least one diplomatic channel to the outside world,” he said, glancing at him.
“Alright,” he said, shivering his tail a little. “When do I go in, and what do I have?”
“You leave at three o’clock local time, and you get no tools or backup,” he replied. “You go as a drake. It will be night there, so you have to cross sixteen miles from the Woodbridge scion to Annandale without attracting undue attention, make contact, then bring her to the waterfall scion and use that, since she already knows where it is.”
“I don’t even get a hider?”
He shook his head. “They don’t want to risk anything falling into human hands, not even a hider amulet,” he replied. “Since you singled her and Wilson out, there’s a good chance that they have security presence at the least, military present at the most near or at their dwellings. You very well may be walking into a trap. We do know that she’ll be home at the estimated time of your arrival. Her debriefing is done and all the Hunters have been granted leave as their bosses discuss the issue, and she has a husband and child. That fact makes us almost positive she’ll be home.”
“Well, have the sky dragons done any reconnaissance?”
“Of course they have, and they’re still doing it,” Ferroth snorted. “They haven’t reported anything, but we know they’re not infallible. And there are no civilian cameras in Annandale we can hack and access, so you’re going to do this more or less blindly.”
He looked at the map, a little intimidated. Cross sixteen miles of heavily populated territory without detection, reach Jenny’s house, convince her to come with him, then bring her back to Draconia? And do it with no hider? It was…it was…it was insane! “Well, why can’t a sky dragon drop me off there?”
“We asked, they won’t risk a sky dragon coming that close to the ground in human territory,” Ferroth growled. “They have no problem with you getting caught as long as they don’t get caught.”
“So I’m the sacrificial lamb,” Kell grumbled, looking at the map.
“You opened you mouth, now you live with the consequences,” Ferroth said simply. “Once you get her back here, you are completely and solely responsible for her welfare, her protection, and responsible for her actions,” he added. “You will be the liaison between the Council and her. She will stay in your burrow while she’s here, and when the time comes, you will return her to her dwelling unharmed.”
“We’re going to let her run around and see everything?”
“We are,” he replied simply. “The Council feels that if she sees how we live, it might foster some good will between us and the humans. After all, nothing in our home or our lifestyle is overly militaristic, and they feel that if they see your family’s farm, it might foster a sense of similarity with some human cultures. They don’t want her to think of us as monsters, Kell, and it’s hard to see earth dragons working the land as overly dangerous or frightening, unless you’re a weed.”
“Wait a second. If they won’t drop me off on the ground, will the drop me from the air?” Kell asked.
“Fly you from here halfway across the world? What do you think they’ll say?” Ferroth asked caustically. “They won’t come close to the ground to pick you up at the scion, so if they’re going to carry you, they’d have to pick you up here. And if they’re carrying you, they have to fly low and slow, which lets every radar from here to Washington pick them up.”
Kell grunted, slapping his tail against the floor lightly in irritation. “Alright. You say I have two hours?”
“You leave at three our time. That will make it nine at night over there.”
“Alright,” Kell said, nodding his head. “Let me go study the maps of northern Virginia and get ready.”
“I’ll call you when it’s time.”
“I’ll be ready.”
He’d never felt so exposed in his life.
Kell stepped out of the scion gateway into a small clearing surrounded by forest, which was just off U.S. Route 1 and only a half mile from the onramp of Interstate 95. He was stepping out into a murky, surprisingly chilly May evening, the sun down and the moon yet to rise, which caused him to see everything around him as varying shades of green, blue, and yellow. He shivered a little, which had nothing to do with the cold. He’d never felt so vulnerable before out in the human world, and it was strange that he’d feel much more secure when the amulet forced him into a much smaller body.
He already had his route planned out. It was a series of back roads, utility access roads for power lines, nature trails, and open farmland that would take him all the way to Annandale, leaving him two major problem areas. The first would be crossing Interstate 95, and the second would be in Annandale itself, when he’d be forced to cross 236, which was a heavily traveled thoroughfare, the main artery linking Annandale with Alexandria and the interstate. The rest of the time he’d be on back roads, which were not lit for most of his route. That darkness, along with his camouflage coloration, would help him avoid detection from passing motorists.
He was a little annoyed…they could have just moved a scion gateway to Edwards’ house, but noooo. That did require some effort on the part of the chromatics, some time, and they wanted this done with almost shocking, un-dragonlike haste. To move the scion to an unresearched location would have taken them a couple of days to accomplish, and they weren’t willing to wait a couple of days. They wanted to talk to a human as quickly as possible, before ideas started getting out of control or they humans started doing something rash or silly. The dragons were moving with haste to prevent the humans from moving with even more haste, and they trusted their ability to react quickly to the situation far more than they trusted the humans’ ability.
There was no point stalling. He had a long way to go, and he had to get there at a reasonable hour. He didn’t want to have to wake her up. It wasn’t like he could walk up to her front door and ring the doorbell.
The moonless night made his trip much easier. His mottled hide blended with the dark shadows and the roads he’d chosen when he had no choice but to use them were the least traveled, turning 16 direct miles into a 33 mile journey that sent him as far west as Manassas so he could maximize his time in the woods, out of direct sight. He occasionally had to stop and get off the road as cars approached from in front, but he had little trouble with cars from behind, since an earth dragon could easily run 60 miles an hour on the ground and sustain that speed for hours at a time. He could sprint at upwards of 100 miles an hour, but he couldn’t hold that pace for more than two miles. If anything, in those rare instances he was on a road, he had to be careful to keep a certain distance from cars in front of him. The majority of the time, he was on forest pathways, along the cut-down access areas for power lines, skirting backyards where they abutted the woods, doing anything and everything in his power to stay out where he’d easily be seen. It was why his chosen path was so roundabout, so he could maximize the cover the woods provided, and despite the area being a major suburb of Washington, there were stretches of woods almost everywhere and most of them were connected. Only in those rare instances where he had to cross from one wooded area to another or fences forced him on a road did he move out in the open.
The darkness of the night only worked in his favor, for he could see anyone else far before they could see him. Earth dragons may have no magic, but they had some tricks, and one of them was the ability to see heat. It wasn’t the infrared scope vision the military used, it was more like the old Predator movie. The world around Kell was painted in the colors of heat, reds, blues, whites, yellows, oranges, and it was so clear that he could make out every blade of grass in the clearing, every leaf on every tree. His thermographic vision, a necessity for a species of dragon which preferred to live underground, was his ace in the hole, to use a human saying, his advantage that would let him see any humans long before they got close enough to see him. The occasional bright light or headlights from a car would interfere with his thermographic vision, though, so he had to be careful. Light didn’t blind his heat-seeing ability, but seeing in visible light tended to overwhelm the heat signatures, force his eyes into the visible spectrum. As long as the light was dim enough, however, he could see both light and heat. His thermographic vision had a range of nearly half a mile, and that was more than enough to see anything coming at him, since mammals stood out in a cool May night like beacons.
Getting across 95 turned out to be far easier than he feared, since he crossed over it on a bridge, but getting across 236 was as hard as he feared it would be. The road was heavily traveled, and their headlights would outline him if he crossed with a car anywhere near him. He was forced to wait behind a closed restaurant for nearly half an hour until there was enough of a void in the traffic for him to scamper across and head down the road that led to Jenny Edward’s house.
He reached it about twenty minutes later, a rather nice colonial with a big yard, sitting on an intersection between two rural roads about a mile from 236. There were no cars in the driveway, the garage’s two doors were closed, and there were lights on both downstairs and upstairs. He crept over the yard’s fence and went around to the back of the house, then reared up on his back legs and stretched up just enough to look into one of the upstairs rooms that had a dim light on. He saw a bedroom of a child past the window, a young boy sitting on the bed playing with a stuffed animal, dressed in pajamas…and most likely awake when he was supposed to be asleep.
The boy gave him an idea. Children were often much more receptive to the unusual than adults.
He reached up and rapped his talon on the window gently. The boy looked around, and when he rapped again, the boy turned to the window. He couldn’t see much but Kell’s horns, since his eyes barely came over the bottom of the window, but the young blond boy ambled up to the window and looked at him, his mouth agog. “Hi,” he said in a calm tone. “Is your mom home?”
He nodded mutely.
“Could you go find her and ask her to come to the back door please? I need to talk to her.”
The boy stared at him for a long moment, then turned and ran towards the open door. “Mooooom!” he screamed as he hurried around the corner and out of sight.
Kell stepped back and dropped back to the ground, then sat down and turned towards the door. Not twenty seconds later, it opened hurriedly, and Jenny Edwards almost jumped out. She had a pistol in her hands, then she whipped it up to a firing position and scanned it across the back porch, peering out into the darkness. She stared out for a few seconds, then slowly lowered her weapon.
“Hello, Jenny,” he called.
She gasped and brought the weapon up again, then lowered it as she turned towards him. “Stone?” she gasped.
“It’s me,” he affirmed, stepping up enough into the light coming from the open back door so she could make out his head. The light caused his eyes to start to glow. “I see you’re alright.”
“What are you doing here?” she said in a strained voice, looking up at him.
“I…came to make you an offer,” he said, stepping more into the light, folding his wings back, then he sat down in front of her. “Because of what happened, the council wants to speak with a human. They asked me to come to see if you’d like that chance.”
“Me?” she gasped. “Why me?”
“Because, in a strange way, I trust you,” he replied calmly. “You’re also a very intelligent human who has the guts to stand up to what will be a very strange situation, I’ve seen how you handle yourself out in the field. You have the courage to do this. And because you’re a high ranking member of your government, what we tell you will go straight to them..”
“What, what do they want to say?”
“I’m not sure, but I’m pretty sure they’ll explain a few things to you,” he answered. “And you can take those words back to the government. When you tell them, they will listen.”
She looked at him in shock for a long moment, then he saw that her mind was starting to work. She pondered furiously for another moment, then she let go of her pistol with her free hand and lowered it all the way, the barrel pointing at the red tiles of her back porch. “You’re taking me there?”
He nodded. “I figure you’ll be gone for about a day or so,” he answered.
“Not absolutely right now, but soon would be good,” he replied. “I really only have until sunrise. I’m going to be just a little noticeable when the sun comes up.”
She looked up and down, her brows furrowing. “Why aren’t you, you know? Stone?”
“Because they weren’t sure if there would be a few dozen army soldiers hiding around the house,” he replied. “I talked directly to you, and we didn’t know if they’d take precautions to see if I’d do it again, to try to kill me. They didn’t want me to come with anything they might take from my corpse.”
She swallowed and looked up at him. “Seriously?”
He nodded. “They sent me here expecting a trap. Part of my punishment for breaking the law when I spoke to you,” he said ruefully. “Now, I’m the sacrificial lamb.”
“Can, can I warn someone that I’ll be gone?”
“Warn everyone you want,” he replied. “This isn’t exactly a secret. I’m not going to kidnap you, you know. Tell the people who need to know.”
“Jenny, what are you—holy god!” her husband cried as he stepped up to the door. He looked to consider running back into the house, but after a flinch, he just stared past his wife and at Kell with shock all over his face.
“As you can see, I wasn’t lying, Greg,” she said with a nervous chuckle. “This is him.”
“Greg Edwards,” Kell said calmly, nodding his head. “I am Kell of the earth drakes.”
“So that’s your real name,” she mused.
“Stone is my alias. There’s a new Stone now,” he shrugged. “I got fired.”
“Sorry,” she said with a rueful, sheepish smile.
“It’s Price’s fault, not yours. Now if it was him they sent me to, I’d be doing my best to make him wet his pants.”
Jenny burst out in helpless laughter.
“So, Jenny, what do you say? Want to see something no human has ever seen before?” Kell asked lightly.
“Can I call my boss? Warn him? Tell them that your, uh, people want to talk?”
“Just don’t take all night. I have to take you to the scion, and it’s going to be a long and nervous run for me. It’s best if you take your car and meet me there, I don’t think you’d like to walk, and trying to ride on my back when I’m running that fast may be even less fun.”
“Run? Why not fly?”
He looked her right in the eyes. “Earth drakes can’t fly.”
“But, but, you have wings!” Greg blurted.
“So do ostriches,” he replied offhandedly.
“Fair point,” Jenny mused. “Where are we going?”
“I’ll tell you where you’re going when you’re in your car and ready to go,” he replied. “I trust you. I don’t necessarily trust anyone you talk to not to have something waiting for me at our destination.”
“Let me put this up and get my phone,” she said, then she hurried past Greg and into the house. The human looked at him nervously, gave a quavering chuckle, and took a step back.
“So, uh, I, uh, think I’ll help Jenny find her phone,” he stammered, then he turned and fled back into the house.
Kell chuckled and laid down on his belly. He really couldn’t do anything but wait. He laid there for about a minute, then the little blond boy from upstairs peeked around the doorframe, gawking at him. “Hello again, little one,” Kell said gently, which made the boy hide behind the door. “It’s alright.”
He peeked around. “Are you weally a dwagon?” he asked.
Kell nodded. “I’m an earth drake.”
“What’s a dwake?”
“It’s another word for dragon,” he replied.
“You’re weally big.”
“And you’re really small,” he said, putting his head down on the red tiles, close to the door. The move put his glowing eyes more at a level with the young human. “What’s your name?”
“My name is Kell,” he replied. “Now that we know each other’s names, there’s no reason to be afraid of me, youngling,” he called gently. “I don’t bite, I promise.”
He giggled and stepped out from around the door, but didn’t come out onto the deck. “Mommy and Daddy say I can’t go outside after dark.”
“Then you should stay inside, youngling. Always obey your parents,” Kell told him. “How old are you?”
“Four,” he answered, holding up his hand.
“Four, eh? Wow, you’re quite the little man, aren’t you?”
“How old aw you?”
“I’m sixty-two in your years. Among the dragons, I’m barely considered an adult,” he replied.
Jenny came into the kitchen with her phone at her ear, then hurried over and nudged Davie out of the doorway. “Yes, I’m looking right at him, Yancy,” she replied in a hurried voice. “He said that his, uh, they have asked for one person to go talk to them, and they chose me. I don’t know why, you’ll have to ask them!” she barked at the phone. “He said I’ll be gone about a day or so.”
“I think. If it’s longer, we can let them know,” Kell amended. “We’ll just leave a message on a facebook page somewhere.”
She repeated that. “Of course I’m going, dickhead!” she blurted, which made Davie giggle.
“Mommy said a bad word,” he relayed.
“Upstairs, pumpkin,” she told him, swatting him on the backside. “So, warn who needs to know that they’re trying to open diplomatic channels, and I’ll give a full report when I get back.” She closed the phone without listening for a reply, then handed the phone to Greg, who had come up behind her. “What do I need to take?”
“Two changes of clothing would be wise, as well as something nice to wear when you talk to the council,” he replied. “You’ll be staying in my burrow, and I don’t exactly have a human bed, but we’ll think of something.”
“I’m staying with you?”
“I have complete responsibility for you,” he replied calmly. “As long as you’re there, you’ll be with me. It’s my duty to provide you hospitality.”
“Uh, I’ll get the hiking backpack, honey. And the sleeping bag,” Greg offered, glancing out the door at him.
“That sounds like a good idea,” she agreed. “Just wait here, let me get what I need.”
“Where else am I going, silly?” he asked, which made her laugh.
She was gone about fifteen minutes, and he had no doubt she was packing her backpack with cameras, bugs, anything she could think of that would help her gather as much intelligence as possible…not that they’d do her much good. She’d be in for a nasty shock when she tried to use them: trying to take anything electrical through the scion rarely turned out well for the device if it was turned on, and the scion destroyed the battery anyway unless it was placed in a container hardened against EMP, so it would be useless on the other side. She eventually returned to the back door, a sturdy metal-framed backpack slung over one shoulder. “Alright, I’m ready. Where am I going?”
“I told you, I’ll tell you in your car,” he said, standing up. “I’ll meet you around the front.”
He padded around the house, and saw the garage door open. She backed her car out of the garage and stopped, and he curled around her hood and looked in from the driver’s side. “Alright, meet me at the walkway where they have all the cherry trees, over by the Jefferson Memorial,” he told her. “I’ll take you to the scion from there.”
She nodded. “I should be there in about half an hour.”
“It’s going to take me longer, so just wait for me,” he told her. “I can’t just run there down the streets, you know.”
“That’s true,” she agreed with a chuckle, putting her car in gear. He watched her pull out and into the street, then she started off. Kell looked into the garage and saw Greg standing there, holding Davie, looking both amazed and nervous. “Watch her facebook page, Greg Edwards. If she’ll be late, a message will be posted there.”
“A-Alright. Take care of her. She’s the love of my life,” he said, his heart in his eyes.
“I promise you, I will bring her home safe and whole,” he replied soberly. He then turned and bounded off into the darkness, his body melding into the shadows thanks to his camouflage coloration, and he was gone.
It took him nearly an hour to get there, again using wooded tracts and rural areas, passing to the west of Arlington and reaching the river. He slipped in and swam down past Roosevelt Island and under the bridge, then he approached the walkway along the tidal basin, where the cherry trees were planted. She was standing on the walkway, near the rail, looking out into the river. “You’re smart to look this way,” he called quietly form the dark, lapping waters.
“I figured your only way across was to swim, and you’ve proved you can swim,” she replied with a nervous tilt, trying to be light and playful.
“Well, you’re about to get wet, Jenny,” he warned. “Now you’re going to ride on my back.”
“We’re going back!” she gasped.
“I’ll let you decide where we’re going. We’ll get you dried off when we get there, so don’t worry.” He climbed up enough to get his head over the rail. “Climb over and do your best to get up in front of my wings.”
“Alright,” she answered, snapping the buckle between the armstraps on her backpack in place. She climbed up and over the rail, then put a hand on his neck and stepped carefully from the rail to his shoulder. She showed some agility as she swung her leg over around his neck, then leaned down and grabbed hold just behind his head.
“Mind my horns,” he said as he slowly climbed back down into the water, then he heard her gasp. “What?”
“It’s fucking cold!” she complained.
“Sorry. I never considered that you might be cold. Well, we shouldn’t be wet for long,” he promised as he turned upriver. “I’ll swim fast.”
“Please!” she agreed.
He kept his head and neck above water as best he could as he swam upriver, using his wings to propel him as fast as a boat. Jenny was quiet as he carried her, felt her hands shift on his neck, her legs shift over his shoulders. “I never thought in my life I’d be doing anything like this!” she told him.
“Well, Alice, the rabbit hole goes down much further,” he told her.
“I’m surprised you know about that book!”
“I loved it. I read it some ten years ago,” he replied.
“Why can’t you fly?” she asked.
“I weigh too much,” he replied. “My wings can’t generate enough lift to get me off the ground. I can glide short distances, but that’s about it.”
“I never thought about that.”
“Even dragons obey the laws of physics, Jenny,” he chuckled.
It took him about twenty minutes to get to the shallow, faster-moving water near the waterfall. It was pitch black, but to his eyes, he could see the forest to each side of the rocky gorge, saw the heat of birds…and saw four human-shaped heat signatures on the Virginia side. They were huddled together, one of them looking around with what were probably thermo goggles or low-light. If they were infrared, they wouldn’t pick him up very easily because of the water and his thick hide and scales, which were highly resistant to heat, either external heat coming or his internal heat escaping. To thermo, an earth drake was only slightly warmer than his surroundings, but it was enough for earth drakes to easily see each other, their thermograhic sight was that sensitive. If they were low-light, they had a pretty good chance of seeing him. “Your friends are persistent,” he told her.
“Four, on the left,” he replied as he approached the deep pool, the sound of the waterfall loud in his ears. “Now we get very wet, Jenny. Hug my neck as tightly as you can, stay under the sweep of my horns no matter what.”
“Alright, I’m ready. Let’s do this!”
He slipped across the pool and climbed up the rocks under the waterfall, then put his nose into the scion. He felt the portal open, the rock turn insubstantial around his snout, so he climbed quickly into the passage with Jenny clinging to his neck and his wings folded over her to protect her from the heavy, pounding cascade of water. He heard her gasp as they got fully into the passage, and then they were out, standing on the aerie platform with bright, warm sunshine pouring down around the covered platform. “Oh…my…god,” Jenny breathed from behind his head, no doubt looking around.
“Welcome to Draconia, Jenny,” Kell told her. “You can climb down now.”
Almost immediately, two sky dragons alighted at the edge of the platform and approached, their steps a bit uncertain with their paws on the ground rather than in the air. Kell curled his body a little around Jenny, almost defensively, as she gawked at the two sleek, elegant sky dragons, who happened to be much larger than he was. “I’ve brought her,” he told them in the language of the dragons. “Could you ask a water dragon to come and help her dry off? The water’s a bit cold.”
“It will be done,” one of them replied, then he turned and swept into the air with a single beat of his wings, quickly diving out of sight.
“This is a sky dragon, Jenny,” he told her in English. “Most likely here to make sure you arrived safely, and then tell the council that you’ve arrived. The other sky dragon went to fetch a water dragon to help you dry off.”
“Good, that water was fuckin’ cold,” she said, her teeth chattering a little.
“Are you alright other than cold? Any trouble coming through? A human has never used a scion before.”
“It made me a little dizzy, but I’m okay,” she answered. “Where is this place?”
“It’s an island, somewhere in an ocean,” he told her simply.
“Well, that’s fair enough. Sorry I asked.”
“Ask all you want, you’ll only get the answers we want to give you,” he chuckled. The sky dragon returned, and a water dragon ascended up over the platform and landed. He gave Jenny a startled look, but then he approached. “And this is a water dragon,” he told her. “He’ll help you dry off.”
“How is he—“ she started, then she gasped when the water dragon gestured, and all the water in her clothes, pack, hair, and on her skin was pulled away, along with the dirt that had been suspended in it, leaving her immaculately clean and as dry as she’d been before getting into the river. “Amazing! How did he do that?”
“Water dragons have innate magic that controls water,” he replied calmly. “Yes, I said magic, Jenny. Magic is a very real thing, and the dragons still practice it.”
She gaped at him, then laughed ruefully. “I was about to say that there’s no such thing as magic, but I’m sorta standing her talking to a dragon,” she said.
“Keep an open mind, Jenny. It’ll take you far here,” he replied with aplomb.
“You are to take the biped back to your burrow and give her time to rest,” the larger sky dragon told him. “The council will see her at two hours before sunset.”
Kell nodded as Jenny shifted her backpack a little, doing the conversion. It was a little after 4:00pm local time, and the sun would set around 9:20. That gave them around five hours or so. “They want me to take you home so you can get some rest, and I can prepare you for dealing with the council,” he told her. “It’s going to be quite a hike, and most of it will be downhill. Are you going to be alright?”
“I’ll be alright, I don’t own this pack to keep it in a closet,” she answered. “Besides, you’ll carry me if I get tired, won’t you?”
He chuckled. “I guess I would at that,” he agreed, carefully moving away from her before turning towards the ramp. “Let’s go.”
Jenny was looking in every direction as they climbed down the ramps leading to the ground, staring at the many aeries along the slope of the volcano, at the few buildings, at the many holes in the side of the volcano that he told her were the dens of dragons. He pointed out the other kinds of dragons to her, the fire and chromatic dragons, then he pointed down the ramp to the lowlands, which were a thousand feet below. “My family lives down there, near the coast,” he told her. “We earth dragons like to live down there, where we have earth under our feet.”
“I see farms down there,” she breathed, shielding her eyes from the sun as she peered down.
“We do have to feed ourselves, you know,” he told her lightly. “My sire and mother are farmers, and I still live on our family farm. You’ll meet them pretty soon.”
“Your family’s a bunch of farmers?”
“What else should they be doing, Jenny? Stomping around roaring at each other?” he asked lightly, which made her laugh.
“I hadn’t really thought of it.”
“We’re just like the humans that way, Jenny. We have our farmers, our factory workers, our bureaucrats, and so on and so on. In reality, our society isn’t all that different from yours outside of the fact that we don’t have money.”
“You don’t? How does that work?”
“We barter for our goods,” he replied. “A factory worker receives a food allotment for his day’s labor, which he can trade for other things he needs. The harder the job, the more food a dragon earns for his labor. When you get down to it, food is our primary source of currency, because it’s the one thing any dragon will accept as part of a trade.”
“So farmers are rich here, eh?”
“Not as rich as you think,” he grunted. “But I’ll explain that later, if you want.”
“Oh, I want. I want to know everything!” she said with exuberance, almost jumping up and down.
“We can’t tell you everything, but I’ll tell you what I can,” he chuckled.
It took nearly half an hour to get down to the ground, after they stopped twice to give Jenny a chance to rest. A very young sky dragon came down and hovered about twenty feet over them before darting off, something that Jenny noticed quickly. “How do they stay up like that?” she asked him.
“Magic,” he replied.
“Oh. Ohhhhh,” she breathed. “So they can levitate?”
“Something like that,” he nodded.
“What do you do?” she asked. “Is that thing where you looked like a person what you do?”
“Earth dragons don’t do anything,” he told her, looking her in the eyes. “We have no magic.”
“But all the other dragons do.”
He nodded simply.
“Well, that sucks,” she blurted.
“You share that opinion with quite a few earth dragons,” he said blandly as he stood back up.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to insult you,” she said quickly.
“I’m not insulted,” he replied. “Unlike most, I don’t see the allure to magic. Technology is the way to the future, not magic. Besides, as my sire always says, be proud of what you can do, don’t pine about what you can’t do.”
“Sounds like he’s a smart man—er, dragon.”
“He’s very wise. You’d never think he’s just a common farmer if you met him off his land,” he chuckled. “I think you’ll like him, Jenny. I know he’ll like you.”
“I’m going to meet him?”
He nodded. “I told you, I live in a burrow on our farm. I don’t live with my parents, but they’re close by. They like to keep me close so they don’t have to travel far to visit.”
“How long have you been here? On the island, I mean.”
“Since we withdrew from human lands,” he answered as a small group of young earth dragons rushed up, gawking at Jenny, then they ran off. “We stayed to ourselves until we started seeing the airplanes flying overhead. That got us curious about what the humans were up to, so we’ve been keeping an eye on things ever since.”
“Ah, I wondered what brought you out.”
“Seeing something not a dragon in the air was a bit of a shock,” he chuckled. “I remember the first time I saw one. We had no idea what it was, and since I was barely a hatchling, I had nightmares about it for a month afterward. For someone that young, it was a bit traumatizing, like you taking Davie to a horror movie.”
“How old are you?”
“Sixty-two in your years,” he replied calmly. “Among the dragons, I’m barely considered eighteen. I’m a very young adult, but I am an adult. We’re still about ten miles away from our farm. Are you going to be alright?”
“That far? Wow,” she breathed.
“Then I’d better carry you,” he chuckled, leaning down. “Up where you were when I got you wet.”
“You don’t mind?”
“Better than baby-stepping along so I don’t leave you behind.”
She laughed as she uncertainly put her foot on his upper leg, then hefted herself up and threw a leg over the base of his neck. She took a more proper position, sitting astride like he was a horse. “I never thought I’d be riding a dragon.”
“Trust me, they’ll be talking about this for years,” he told her as he started at a much faster pace.
“I hope they won’t make fun of you.”
“Not if they want to live, they won’t,” he replied in a voice that made her burst out laughing.
It took him about twenty minutes to get back to the farm, coming up the little knoll and to the entrance to his burrow. “Well, here we are,” he told her, laying down. “This is where I live.”
“In there?” she said, looking down.
“Dragons like living in caves, or underground in the case of earth dragons,” he told her. “We’re like the hobbits from Lord of the Rings. Just really, really big hobbits. My first act as an adult was to dig out my own burrow. The builders came along behind me and installed concrete because I rather like it, and the amenities like power and water, but it’s the drake’s responsibility to do the actual digging. It’s a rite of passage of sorts. Until I dug out my burrow, I wouldn’t be considered an adult.”
She laughed ruefully. “You have quite a view,” she said, looking out over the cove, then she flinched when something broached the water, just a single wing of a water dragon. “What was that?”
“A water drake,” he replied. “I think it was Ralla, but I’m not sure. A family pod lives in that cove, where they farm kelp for a living. They’ve been friends of my family a long time, for generations.”
“Interesting,” she breathed, shielding her eyes to look out over the water.
One of the water drakes broached the water and landed on the edge of the little cliff that formed the coast, and he saw that it was Shii. She ambled up towards them confidently, and Jenny impressed him by holding her ground as a much larger drake than him approached. “Jenny, this is Shii, the matriarch of the pod.” He then switched to the language of the dragons. “Shii, this is Jenny, the human the council asked me to bring here.”
Shii leaned down on her front legs, bringing her head down and within maybe a foot of Jenny’s body. “Tell her welcome for me, my young friend,” she told him as Jenny stared at her fin-like crest on her head.
“She bids you welcome, Jenny,” he told her. “I know, she looks much different, doesn’t she?”
“Yeah,” she replied, reaching out a tentative hand. Shii just closed her eyes and nudged her nose forward, and let Jenny touch her snout. “It’s smooth.”
“Don’t pull your hand the other way or you’ll lose your skin,” he warned. “Water dragon hides are smooth in one direction, but like a cheese grater in the other.”
“Like a shark,” she mused, stroking Shii’s nose.
“Exactly like a shark,” he affirmed.
Shii rose up a little, then she reached out with her taloned forepaw. Jenny didn’t flinch as Shii touched her shoulder, then patted her hair very gently. “It’s not like I expected it to feel,” she mused.
“She likes your hair,” Kell told her. “Most dragons are fascinated by hair, since we don’t have any.”
“They’ve seen humans before?”
“On TV,” he replied. “TV’s all the rage on the island right now.”
“Seriously?” she asked, looking at him.
“I’ll show you mine,” he chuckled. “They may not speak English or the other languages we hear on the stations, but that’s what closed captioning is for.”
Shii patted Jenny’s shoulder again, gave her a fanged smile, then carefully backed up a few steps. “Tell her to be well, my young one. I have to get back to the beds.”
“She says goodbye,” he relayed.
“Bye,” Jenny said, waving her hand. Shii mirrored her move with her forepaw, then she turned and bounded back to the edge and dove in.
Jenny was wildly curious he brought her down into his burrow and saw that thing were both wildly different and strangely similar. His greeting chamber was bare, with only designs etched into the concrete to serve as decoration, but his living chamber had a TV in it, several of his computers, and a refrigerator and counter for preparing food, with a trapdoor in the floor nearby that led to his storage cellar for food. “That’s one seriously big TV,” she noted as she set her pack down. “Nowhere to sit.”
“Drakes don’t need couches or chairs,” he told her lightly as he ambled past. “You can sit on your sleeping bag if you need to.”
“I think I need to,” she said, carrying her pack over in front of the TV, near his desk, set it down, and got on her toes and looked over the top of it like a toddler, though the desk wasn’t that high for her. It was about five and a half feet off the floor, and Jenny was about 5’9”, fairly tall for a human female. “What kind of computer is that?”
“We build them here on the island,” he told her. “Part of those factories I mentioned. When we find human technology that works for us, we adopt it.”
“Naturally. You could post on facebook if you want. In fact, you should let Greg know you’re alright,” he mused. “Computer, wake up,” he called in dragon, which caused the monitor to blink on. Jenny gasped as she looked at the home page for CNN.
“If you want to surf the web, knowing English helps,” he mused as he came over.
“Seriously?” he asked lightly.
She laughed. “I guess a webcam wouldn’t be a good idea,” she admitted. “What were you doing on CNN?”
“I like to read up on the news,” he told her. “Remember, up until yesterday I was a field agent. Knowing what’s going on in the human world was a vital part of my job.”
“True,” she agreed, looking down at the keyboard. “English, but not qwerty.”
“I can only type with three fingers, a qwerty isn’t very ergonomic,” he replied, coming over and putting his paws around her waist, then hefting her up onto the desktop. She sat daintily on the edge, leaning on a hand and looking back at the monitor as he sat on his haunches in front of it. “This computer is based on the new octocore dual-channel AMDs, but we use a locally developed operating system that’s heavy on graphic interface and is fully customizable, like a GUI-based linux,” he told her with a chuckle as he brought up Facebook, then her own page. “Alright, go ahead.”
“But you use an Android-based browser.”
“Hey, it works,” he shrugged. “If something already works, why make something else?”
She looked down at the keyboard, then used two fingers to a key to slowly punch out a post, having to pause often to look for letters. At the hotel. Fantastic view and very friendly locals, she typed. Will have my meeting later today. Not sure when I’ll be home, but I’m doing fine.
“Nice and vague,” he said with an approving nod.
“I doubted you’d let me get specific,” she chuckled.
“You’re right. So, we have a few hours. Want to rest a little, eat something, or go over what to expect?”
“How about you show me what channels you get on that,” she said, pointing at the widescreen 80” TV hanging from his wall.
“Any channel that comes off a satellite,” he told her. “Access TV, language English,” he called, and its indicator light blinked. “It’ll react to you. Just say the words ‘access TV,” then a channel name or number.”
“I just realized something,” she said, looking around. “Power!”
“Of course. How do we run our computers and TVs without electricity?”
“How do you generate it?”
“Geothermal,” he replied.
“Praise Iceland, not us. They gave us the plans for it. Not intentionally, but we thank them all the same,” he replied.
“Be glad they don’t sue you,” she chuckled.
“If they only knew,” he said dryly as she slid down and dropped to the floor.
“Access TV, uh, Fox News Channel,” she called, and the channel popped up on the TV immediately. She pulled her sleeping bag off the top of her pack and dropped it on the floor, then sat on it and looked up at the TV for a while. “So, not to sound nasty, but how are we handling the bathroom situation?”
“You’ll have to use mine, which is basically a hole in the floor in that chamber over there,” he told her, pointing with a clawed finger. “Toilet paper, well, that’s going to be a problem. I have some dust cloths, I guess those will work.
“What’s in that room?”
“My workshop,” he replied. “I tinker with the technologies we find in our field work. And that other door is the room where I sleep. Feel free to look around,” he assured her.
“After I rest a minute. That was a long walk, and I didn’t realize that downhill was even more tiring than uphill, until you gave me a ride and I didn’t have to walk anymore.”
“You either pull yourself up or keep yourself from going down too fast,” he replied as he stepped over to her, then laid down with his head about even with her. “So, what do you think so far?”
She leaned back on her hands. “I’m not sure what to think. Magic dragons that watch TV and surf the web. This is pretty high up on the freak-out meter,” she replied, which made him rumble with a chuckle.
“We’re not the dragons from your legends,” he told her lightly. “I don’t slay knights and eat damsels in distress. I hack top-secret and encrypted networks for a living,” he said dryly, which made her splutter.
“That just seems so wrong,” she admitted. “So, why did you pick me?”
“Because you’re not a politician and you’re not a diplomat,” he repeated. “You’re a real person, and I want the council to see a real person, not someone groomed to be as smooth as possible or as glib as a snake oil salesman. I wasn’t blowing smoke when I told you that, Jenny. You’re smart, observant, and you don’t scare easily. You’ll be able to handle speaking to the council, and since you are a government agent that they’ll take seriously, that’ll let you take what you learn straight to them and file a report in person. You can take what you learn with you and tell them everything you’ve seen here and assure them that we’re not an enemy. We just want to be left alone, Jenny. We’re not interested in money, or power, or prestige. We just want peace and quiet.”
“So, everything you and the others do is just about being left alone?”
“More like making sure the humans didn’t know about us,” he replied. “If you didn’t know we existed, then clearly you wouldn’t try to bother us. But now some of you do know about us, so I guess the council wanted to make sure we put the best foot forward, as it were. The field agents will still be out there hacking your networks, but they’re not doing it to take anything over or steal anything. We do it to make sure your encrypted, top-secret communications don’t have anything about us in them. No more, no less.”
“They will now, though.”
“And we’ll be watching to see what the governments have to say where they don’t think we can see it,” he said simply.
“Not if we stop you,” she said lightly.
“Good luck with that,” he snorted derisively, which made her splutter and then laugh.
“Hey, we weren’t that bad,” she protested.
“Not at all, but like any team playing defense, you could only react,” he told her with a slight smile. “How many times did you catch up to me? Nine?”
“Ten,” she corrected.
“And how many times do you think I’ve gone out there?”
“Probably way more than ten,” she admitted with a slightly rueful look.
“Way more,” he agreed. “But we didn’t just write you guys off, Jenny. The field agents have a hell of a lot respect for the Hunters. Enough that we were under orders to immediately abort our mission and return if we knew you were in the same city. But sometimes, for critical missions, we had to stay, and that’s when you’d track us down and that merry chase would begin,” he noted, giving her a light look. “So, how did you know I’d be in Washington?”
“Sherlock Holmes,” she replied with a smile. “We eliminated all other possibilities, so what was left was the truth, despite it seeming implausible. We figured out what you’d been trying to do in Brussels, and realized the only other option you had was the State building. We weren’t sure if you’d actually try it, but since it was the only place it could be done, we decided to stake it out and see if you were that brave.”
“Thank you,” she said, bobbing her head a little. “We spotted you on a street camera just outside the White House and mobilized.”
“I knew I shoulda went back to Foggy Bottom,” he grunted.
“Nah, you’d have walked right into Juarez and Holmes,” she told him.
“I coulda just rolled their SUV over like in Dallas,” he shrugged, which made her laugh.
“That scared the piss out of them,” she told him. “We just could not figure out how the hell you did it. We even brought in those guys from Mythbusters to see if they could figure it out.”
“Now you know.”
“I surely do,” she nodded.
“Hello!” Keth called from the entry chamber, which made Jenny sit back up and look in that direction.
“My sire,” Kell told her. “In here!” he called.
Keth ambled into the living chamber and paused as he saw Jenny sitting by him, then he nodded. “I see the rumors were true,” he said in English as he came in. “Welcome to Draconia, madam. I am Keth, patron of my family and humble farmer of the earth drakes.”
“Lieutenant Jenny Edwards, nice to meet you,” she replied.
“So, what do you think so far?” he asked as he came in and stood on the far side of Kell.
“I think I haven’t seen nearly enough to draw conclusions,” she replied.
“Very wise, young miss, very wise. Watch, listen, and learn, then decide. It prevents rash decisions that you may come to regret later.”
“He always talks like that,” Kell grunted, then he wheezed when Keth thumped him on the hindquarters with the bottom of his tail, which made Jenny giggle uncontrollably.
“You’re not so grown that I can’t still spank you, whelp,” Keth warned with a smile.
“I may be little, sire, but I’m mean,” he replied blandly, which made Jenny laugh.
“What do you grow, Mister Keth?” she asked.
“Call him Patron, not Mister,” Kell injected.
“Just Keth will do,” he smiled. “And I grow most anything I can get seed for,” he replied. “My current crops are potatoes, eggplants, pumpkins, and radishes, I have seed back for cabbage, lettuce, squash, and sunflowers, and I’m getting ready to sow some carrots and wheat.”
“Dragons like carrots?”
“Earth dragons do,” he smiled. “We eat plants more than meat.”
“Sire doesn’t grow food to sell outside the village,” he told her. “So he raises crops only for other earth dragons.”
“Call it my one shortcoming, dear,” Keth said lightly. “When the other dragons treat us as equals, I’ll gladly plant crops for them.”
“And you’re the one that always tells me to let go of my resentment,” Kell accused.
“My protest to the way things are is more subtle,” he chuckled.
“So, now we’re getting down to the dirty underbelly,” Jenny noted. “The other dragons don’t like you?”
“We’re smaller than the other dragons on the average, we can’t fly, and we have no magic, so some of them don’t really even think of us as dragons,” Kell said sourly.
“It’s a prejudice, my dear,” Keth said calmly. “They only see what we can’t do, and that prevents them from truly understanding what we can do.” He sat on his haunches. “Often, a prejudice born of a perceived difference is the hardest to overcome, especially when that perceived difference makes you feel like you are more than one you’re comparing yourself to.”
She gave him a long look, then nodded soberly. “That’s quite profound, Keth.”
“A drake has nothing but time to think while he’s tending his crops,” he smiled. “As long as we earth dragons are content with who we are, then the problem lies with them, not with us. We forgive them their petty prejudices, though that doesn’t mean we have to be sociable with them. The earth dragons are far different from the others, and magic is but one aspect of it. Life walking on the ground and tending crops and livestock with our own forepaws lets us see things more clearly than they do. While they ponder matters important to them, we ponder matters important to us, and most of the time those things have nothing to do with one another.”
“But, aren’t you friends with those water, uh, water drakes?”
“Oh yes, but that’s because of years of interaction. Shii’s pod understands earth drakes far better than other water dragons because of the bonds between our families. Shii and her pod respect us for what we can do, they don’t pity us for what we can’t do. They understand.”
“That’s what Kell said. Be proud of what you can do, don’t pine over what you can’t do.”
“Something I’ve had to tell him at least once a day since the day he hatched,” Keth noted, which made Kell flick his tail in irritation. “What you may see as a handicap, others may see as a blessing,” he told her.
“I can understand that. My cousin is deaf,” she nodded. “And it doesn’t cause him much trouble. He has a good job, a wife who loves him, great kids. He’s got a good life despite that.”
“Then you understand, my dear,” Keth smiled, then he stood up. “Now, you must come meet Kanna!”
“My mother,” Kell supplied. “We can’t stay long, sire, Jenny needs to rest and prepare to meet the council.”
“I think I’d like to meet Kanna,” she said, standing up.
“First off, if you want to be formal, call her Matron Kanna. Second, bring your sleeping bag, mother will talk you into a coma,” Kell warned.
“I’m going to tell her you said that, youngling,” Keth warned with a light expression.
“I’m sure she’ll expect to hear it,” he retorted blandly.
The two earth drakes walked very slowly to allow Jenny to keep up, as she looked around as much as she walked forward. They skirted the edge of the potato field, close to the coast. “How do you deal with the saltwater ruining your crops?” she asked.
“You’re a farmer, my dear?” Keth asked brightly.
“My grandpa was,” she answered.
“We use soil treatments we’ve devised over the years to leech the harmful salts out of the coastal tracts between harvests without damaging the earth’s fertility,” he told her. “This is volcanic soil, though, so it has a lot of natural compounds that help break down the salt as well, so we don’t have to treat the soil often. Crops we plant after a treatment don’t have any problems with the salt before we harvest. Then we just treat any salt that builds up from storms and such during a fallow cycle and replant.”
“I was wondering. You usually don’t see farms this close to the ocean. I could throw a rock into the cove from here.”
“The island is only so big, so we have to maximize available space, my dear. Besides, this is only the edge of my farm. We farm all the way up the slope, and quite a ways to the north,” he pointed back towards the volcano. “Those tracts are in a fallow cycle. Most of the radishes are up on the north slope, about a half a mile past the burrow.”
It took them about ten minutes to reach the burrow of his parents, which was much larger, and also had more than just his parents in it. The burrow was very old, passed down over four generations, and where Kell’s burrow was lined in concrete, their burrow was hewn out of natural volcanic rock. Three hatchlings, chest high to Jenny, boiled out of the entrance, jumping and bounding, then they saw Jenny and almost fell over gawking. “My younger siblings,” Kell told her. “Kav, Kitta, and Konn.”
“Hatchlings, this is a most special guest,” Keth said gently in dragon as they scurried over and looked up at Jenny with undisguised awe. “You will treat her with your best behavior, and you will not be rough with her. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sire,” the three said in almost perfect unison.
“Jenny, this is Kav, this is Kitta, and this is Konn,” Keth introduced. “They don’t speak your language, so be patient with them.”
She leaned over a little, hands on her knees, and smiled down at the three awestruck hatchlings. “Hello there,” she crooned in a motherly voice. They didn’t understand her words, but they did react to the timbre of her voice, losing some of their fear. She took a hand off her knee and reached out to Kitta, who flinched a little when she touched her fingertips to the top of her head, between her small horns. “It’s nice to meet you all.”
“She looks like the things on the TV,” Kav said.
“She’s a human, Kav,” Keth nodded. “She’s just like the people on the TV.”
“See, I told you they were real!” Konn said triumphantly, reaching over Kitta’s neck and pushing his brother.
“Boys,” Keth warned before they started rough-housing; juvenile earth drakes were extremely rambunctious. “Now all of you go bring in the baskets, and then you can go play,” he ordered.
“Aww, can’t we talk to the human?” Kitta protested.
“Work always comes first, young lady. Now hop,” Keth ordered.
“Yes, sire,” they said in unison, and Jenny pulled her hand up just in time to keep her wrist from getting caught between Kitta’s horns and broken as the three drakelings turned and headed for where the baskets from harvesting radishes were sitting.
“Where are they going?” Jenny asked.
“They haven’t finished their chores, so they’re back on the proper path,” Keth said simply, patting Jenny delicately on the back with a finger. “Now come in, come in! Kanna will make you something to eat, so you’ll have the strength to face the council.”
“You know, I’m surprised you speak English, Keth,” Jenny noted as they walked down the ramp. “And you speak it very well.”
“Thank you. When Kell won his position in the intelligence division, he had to learn English as quickly as possible. We helped him study, and it sort of rubbed off on us,” Keth chuckled. “Trust me, my dear, we’re very much the minority on Draconia. But, I admit, it makes watching TV easier. No reading subtitles,” he laughed.
“Do you study other languages?”
“Me? No, I barely had the time to learn English,” he said dismissively. “Kanna! Kanna, come greet Kell’s guest from the human world!”
Kanna ambled out into the greeting chamber. She was slightly smaller than Keth, and unlike most earth drakes in that she was almost all one color, a slate gray, with just a dark streak down her spine and a wedge of dark scales over her eyes that narrowed to a point at the base of her snout. “Oh, hello there,” Kanna said in accented English, bobbing her horned head. “I’m Kanna, matron of the burrow.”
“I’m Jenny Edwards, ma’am, it’s nice to meet you,” Jenny replied.
“Such a darling little thing,” Kanna smiled. “You humans are cuter live than you are on the TV.”
“Well, uh, thanks, Matron Kanna,” she replied, a bit uncertainly.
“Just Kanna dear, no need for such formality with one not familiar with our ways. I heard you’re going to talk to the council,” she urged.
“That’s why Kell brought me here,” Jenny replied.
“Well, you absolutely cannot go stand before those brutes without a full belly!” she declared. “Come with me, dear, and well fill you up in short order!”
“Mother feeds anything and anyone who wanders in. It’s bait for the trap so she can talk you to death,” Kell said lowly to her, which made Jenny smile.
“I can still hear, youngling,” Kanna barked as she ambled away.
“Well, I’m not all that hungry, but I’m curious to see what dragons eat,” Jenny said.
“You’re going to disappointed,” Kell warned as they started towards the feeding chamber.
Kanna was halfway into the pantry when Kell and Keth led Jenny into the room, which had a long counter on the side, the pantry in the back, and a ramp leading down to the cellar. A refrigerator stood by that entrance, the bow to human technology. “That’s one big refrigerator,” Jenny noted. “Another idea borrowed from us?”
Kell nodded. “For meat and dairy. A few earth dragons make a killing making cheese and butter.”
“Now, I have about any vegetable you’d care to eat, Jenny,” Kanna called from the pantry. “And we have half a cow left in the refrigerator if you’d prefer meat.”
“I wouldn’t open that if I were you,” Kell warned as Jenny approached the refrigerator. It was about eight feet tall, but the handles were more than within her reach. “When mother said half a cow, she was being literal.”
“It’s not butchered?”
“Earth drakes don’t cook their food, and bones and fur are just flavoring,” he told her.
She shuddered a little and gingerly took her hand off the handle. “I…think I’ll stick with the vegetables.”
Kell again picked her up and set her on the table as Kanna carried a basket of assorted vegetables, the handle between her teeth. Inside were onions, potatoes, radishes, eggplants, and pumpkins, and the root vegetables still had clumps of damp, dark earth clinging to them. Jenny turned and sat cross-legged by Kell on the table, then picked up a potato and brushed some soil off of it. She looked at Kell as he reared up and put his forelegs on the table. “You don’t peel them?”
“Earth dragons eat things as they are,” Keth told her. “And as our name suggests, a little earth on our food only makes it taste better,” he winked. “Now, if you want to deal with gourmet dragons, then you want to speak to the chromatics. They adore the food made from those cooking shows they show on TV, though they won’t watch it themselves. Chromatics have a revulsion to the human technology.”
He nodded. “They won’t even let the builders run power lines to their dens and libraries. I find it a little amusing that they hate technology and human things, but they love the food made from cooking shows on the TV.”
“I guess the fires cook their food…if charring it half to ash counts as cooking,” Kanna mused, which made Kell chuckle.
“And water dragons eat it raw too, if they live in the water,” Jenny reasoned.
“So, did you eat human food out in the field?” she asked him.
“Enough to get used to it,” he replied. “I love french fries, but meat tastes funny when it’s cooked. I was a Subway veggie delight kind of drake.”
“Bread, now there’s something I can eat cooked,” Kanna agreed. “Kell brought some back after one of his missions, and he almost caused a riot. There wasn’t enough to go around.”
“And now several earth dragons raise wheat for milling, and bakeries have popped up in every earth dragon village on the island,” Keth finished.
“Huh,” Jenny mused, no doubt filing that bit of information away for her report. She pulled a pocket knife from her jeans and started peeling one of the potatoes. “Maybe you should learn how to make it, Misses Kanna.”
“Oh, I do, but flour is very expensive,” she said, clicking her teeth a little bit. “We’ll have all the bread we want once Keth manages to barter some wheat seed.”
“I’m still working on it, lifemate,” he said absently. “I only need maybe another barrel full and we’ll have enough for a starter crop.”
“So, what do you do out in the human world, Jenny?”
“Oh, my job is to chase him around,” she said lightly, pointing at Kell.
“She’s one of the agents the government put on us field workers,” Kell elaborated.
“And they picked you to come talk to us. Interesting,” she hummed.
“Kell picked me,” she said. “I still don’t entirely understand why myself.”
“You will once you’re back in the human world,” he replied.
“Our little Kell is a good judge of character,” Kanna said confidently. “If he thought you were suited for it, then you are.”
“We’ll see, I guess,” she said, cutting a piece of potato away and popping it into her mouth. “I’m not sure what the council will be like, or what they want to say.”
“They take themselves far too seriously,” Kanna sniffed.
“There are nine dragons on the council, my dear,” Keth explained. “Each race of dragon is represented by one council member.”
“Nine? But there’s only five kinds of dragon.”
“There are nine kinds,” he smiled. “Among the elemental dragons, there are drakes, and there are wyrms. We look exactly the same, but we are different.”
“Wyrms are larger,” Kell added.
“The chromatics have no drakes, only wyrms, so they only have one council member,” Keth continued. “They spend most of their time sitting up on Council Aerie discussing matters, and they more or less allow the dragons to look after themselves. We know what to do, so it gets done.”
“So you don’t have much of a central government.”
“Not really,” he nodded. “We have a village council that handles affairs within the village, and among the water dragons, the pod matriarch and patriarch have authority in all matters concerning the pod.”
“The fires are more like a dukal fiefdom,” Kell continued. “The biggest, meanest fire dragon rules his territory, and he holds it by force. Any dragon living in his territory bows to his rulership or they get run off.”
“And the chromatics think they rule everything,” Kanna snorted.
“Well, what happens if the fire dragon starts stealing things?”
“Then its up to the dragons living in his territory to do something about it,” Keth replied. “More than one fire dragon has been ganged up on and chased out of his own territory. The fires play a dangerous game, since they have to use force to hold their territory, but if they use too much, they’ll be run off by the dragons living there.”
“No, I mean, what if a fire dragon came down here and tried to steal your crops?”
All three earth drakes chuckled. “That is something they dare not do, and they know it,” Keth smiled. “Fire dragons may have the reputation for being the bullies among the dragons, but no dragon wants to anger an earth dragon. We can be extremely nasty when we’re angry.”
“Despite you having no magic.”
“Magic isn’t a universal defense,” Keth said with a vicious little smile.
“But, they could just fly away.”
“They have to land eventually,” Kell said darkly.
“Anyway, this is just my guess, but odds are the council will give you an accounting of themselves,” Keth said, popping a giant onion into his mouth. “And try to explain our position to you. The dragons don’t want to meddle in human affairs, but we also don’t want humans to meddle in ours. They will most likely offer you the bargain of you leave us alone, we leave you alone.”
“Oh, you meddle, alright,” Jenny said, looking at Kell.
“Only to make sure you don’t meddle with us,” he replied. “Besides, every nation out there spies on every other nation. Why should we be any different? Because we’re not human?”
“Well, it makes it a lot more ominous for you being dragons,” she said. “I mean, up until yesterday, we didn’t even know you existed. Now, it’s like you know everything about us, but we don’t know anything about you.”
“The mystery is always feared until it is solved,” Keth nodded. “Which is why you are here now. It’s why they sent you with Kell instead of bringing you straight to the council. They want you to see real dragons in our real lives, so you understand that at the ground level, we are not that much different from you,” he told her.
“And the council is going to see a real human, not a diplomat groomed to look as good as possible. Your answers will be honest, genuine, and that will let them see the truth of things,” Kell added.
She took another bite of her potato. “We’ll see,” she noted. “What are the ones on the council like?”
“Far too full of themselves,” Kanna repeated disdainfully. “Even the earth dragons, may Gaia forgive them.”
“That describes just about every politician alive,” Jenny mused.
“Some things cross species boundaries. Arrogance in politicians is one of them,” Keth nodded, which made Jenny laugh.
“So, what’s a day in the life of a good old common earth dragon like?” she asked, looking at Keth.
“Much like any farmer, my dear,” he replied with a fanged smile. “I get up before dawn and tend my fields. But, it’s not so strenuous that I have to toil all day, so I have time to visit the neighbors, run errands, give the hatchlings their lessons, and so on. Would you like to see the farm?”
“Sure,” she replied. “At least after I finish this.”
“I’d better carry you, it’s a lot of land, and you can’t wear yourself out before going to the council,” Kell reasoned.
Kell carried her after they finished their snack as Keth showed her the farm. They had five different major tracts spread out with the burrow in the center, and Keth was quite elaborate describing the land, its fertility, the best crops that grew in certain tracts. “It’s the second largest farm in Dawnmist,” he said proudly. “Held by our family since we came here.”
“Where’s the village?” Jenny asked.
“We’re in it now, dear. Dawnmist is the name of the twelve farms around us, which forms the village. We have no collection of houses or shops like you might expect. We don’t like living all piled up against each other. We have four shops in our village. The toolmaker, the baker, the builder’s shop, and the general store. They’re not together. Each one is on the farm of the family that started it.”
“So, what do dragons have in their general store?” she asked curiously.
“It’s not far from here. We can show you.”
“Yes!” she said immediately.
“You’re going to be disappointed,” Kell warned.
“Oh hush,” she retorted, slapping his scaled neck lightly.
Like most earth dragon architecture, it was only architecture in that it was underground. The general store was a large chamber dug out deep enough to be under the rock, lit with flourescent lights in four rows on the ceiling. Jenny stayed on Kell’s back as they walked along the four aisles, where assorted common items dragons used in their daily lives were. Some of the items Jenny could identify, but some she couldn’t. “What’s that?” she asked, pointing. Kell looked back at her and then in the direction she was pointing, then he chuckled.
“It’s what you’d call a scratching pad,” he told her. “Keeps the talons clean and sharp.”
“Do you purr too?”
“I eat cats, you know,” he said darkly. “They taste like chicken.”
Jenny laughed. “Do dragons keep pets?”
“We have some domesticated livestock, but not pets in the way humans keep them,” he answered. “Most small animals are terrified of us, for obvious reasons, and really small animals like dogs and cats wouldn’t last long in a dragon’s burrow. One wrong step and you’re scraping your pet off the floor with a spatula.”
“What kind of livestock do you keep?”
“Cows and pigs, we brought with us when we came here, but there’s also an indigenous animal to this island that’s something like a giant sloth that we started to manage once we got here, they live in the forests on the northeast side of the island,” he replied. “Since we started moving around in the human world, we’ve added Asian water buffalo, emus and ostriches for their eggs, and saltwater crocodiles, which are mainly the water dragons.” He turned into view of Gev, the shopkeeper, who gaped at Jenny like she was some kind of monster. “We’ve just managed to get our paws on some buffalo, and they seem to do alright on the island. They haven’t started breeding in numbers yet, but they like the grassy plain on the southeast side of the island. We weren’t sure if the climate would be too hot for them, but they’re adapting much quicker than we expected.”
“They taste way better than cows. If we can sustain the herds, we’ll probably keep the cows for milk and eat the buffalo.”
“Is that a human?” Gev asked in a nervous voice as they approached his counter.
“Invited by the council,” Kell replied immediately. “They want her to see common everyday aspects of dragon life.”
“It, it doesn’t have any diseases, does it?” he asked, getting a bit jittery.
“None you have to worry about,” Kell replied, switching to English. “Jenny, this nervous drake is Gev, the shop owner. Don’t make any sudden moves or you’ll scare him back into his burrow.”
“He’s afraid of me?” she asked with a laugh. “He must be twelve feet high and thirty feet long!”
“To the average earth dragon, humans are as much a mystery to us as we are to you,” he told her simply. “I work out in the human world, Jenny. Very few earth dragons understand humans the way I do, and like sire said, when something’s a mystery to you, sometimes you’re afraid of it just because you don’t understand it.”
“I didn’t think of it like that.”
“Aren’t human women afraid of mice?” he asked lightly.
“Not this human woman,” she retorted.
“But the principle is the same,” he chuckled.
“Alright, I’ll give you that. So, dragons are afraid of people?”
“Some are,” he admitted. “But they’re losing it, because of TV. Then again, some things on TV make dragons more afraid of people,” he grunted as they passed Gev’s counter. “But those are the ones that haven’t figured out that all the violence is just fictional, that the average human isn’t running around with an assault rifle in his hands, shooting at anything that moves.”
“Dragons are drawing conclusions based on what they see on TV. We’re doomed,” Jenny grunted.
Kell chuckled. “Only the silly ones. Would it surprise you to know that the most popular show among dragons is Dancing with the Stars?”
“Actually, yeah, that does surprise me.”
“Now, we’d better get you back to my burrow so you can rest a bit. It has to be like midnight for you, and the council wants us to be there in about three hours, and an hour of that is going to be the climb up to Council Aerie.”
“Yeah, but I’m used to going without sleep,” she replied. “Sometimes a stakeout requires some long hours.”
“Be that as it may, there are some things we need to talk about so you’re not walking in there blind,” he told her.
He said goodbye to his parents and carried Jenny back to his burrow, setting her down in front of the TV as he pondered just what to tell her…mainly because he really had no idea exactly what the council wanted to say to her. She took off her sneakers and leaned back on her hands, sighing and wiggling her socked feet as he laid down beside her so his head was just to her left. “I hope I didn’t tire you out,” he said.
“I don’t wear sneakers often. I knew I should have worn my boots. I’m gonna like what’s in the backpack even less.”
She shook her head. “A pant suit. The best I have, rolled up so I hope it won’t wrinkle. Complete with heels,” she grunted.
“That’s gonna be fun wearing hiking up to the aerie.”
“I might just have you carry me, if you don’t mind. I’d be limping by the time I got up there.”
“So, what did you think of the store?”
“I think I didn’t see half as much as I wanted to,” she replied, then glanced at him. “You hustled me out of there pretty quick. I almost thought you were trying to hide something.”
“I wasn’t sure how Gev was going to react if you did anything that might startle him,” he grunted. “I don’t think bringing your impaled corpse up to the aerie would put me in very good standing with the council.”
“Impaled? Your horns face backwards, how would he manage that?”
“Spike you,” he replied, bringing his tail around. “Other dragons have magic and breath weapons, but we have these,” he told her.
“They certainly look intimidating,” she chuckled, looking at the seventeen individual spikes of edged crystal growing from the flattened top of the end of his tail, slender like javelins but strangely jagged like crystals, all of them blood red.
“It’s why the other dragons don’t mess with us,” he told her, sliding his tail back behind him. “That and our reputation on the island as being mean as a rabid wolverine when we’re angry. It’s not entirely true, though.”
“I can’t really imagine you acting like that,” she mused, looking at him. “Then again, with everything we did to make you angry, well, I couldn’t believe you’re that bad.”
“It’s a reputation we cultivate,” he chuckled. “It also prevents most foolishness. Just about every earth dragon is taught from an early age that you meet any kind of violence brought on you from one of the other dragons with deadly force, even violence started just to bully or taunt us. A bully will continue to bully until you drive four or five spikes halfway through his gut. After a few fatalities among each new generation of fire dragons, the survivors learn to leave us alone. That’s given us a reputation for being barbaric and savage, but we let them think that because it saves more lives than it takes in the long run. Not even fire dragons are as quick to kill as an earth dragon, but the equalizer is that an earth dragon will never attack to kill unless they’re attacked first. We actually hate violence.”
“Seems like your society isn’t as harmonious as I first thought.”
“Not even close,” he admitted with a nod. “At least when it comes to being down here on the lowlands. Up on the mountains, it’s nothing but harmony and self-congratulatory patting on the back over how superior they are compared to us.”
“Your father was right, you do have to be told that saying at least once a day,” she chuckled.
“Persecution syndrome runs deep in the earth dragons,” he grunted.
“But you’re the ones that do the electricity, aren’t you?” she asked sagely. “And the computers.”
He nodded. “They have their magic. We embraced technology, and even though they won’t share their magic with us, we share our technology with them.”
“It sounds to me like you’re the better people, not them,” she said, rocking back on her hands a little.
“And you’ve just earned the instant and eternal hatred of the majority of the council,” he chuckled darkly. “If you said that to them, the fire wyrm would probably roast you where you stood. So, you’d best keep those kinds of opinions to yourself when you’re in front of them. Don’t go up there and show favoritism just because you’ve spent the day with me. Hell, the only reason they had you go with me is because I speak English and I understand humans much better than most any other dragon because I’ve done field work.”
“I’ll be neutral and objective,” she promised. “Now, I think I’m gonna have to brave using your bathroom.”
“Just be careful. You can literally fall into that hole,” he warned. “Let me fetch my dust cloths from the workshop.”
She was gone for about five minutes, then came back laughing. “Okay, that was nervous,” she declared. “I didn’t realize you have a sewer system.”
“We earth dragons do,” he replied. “We recycle the waste as fertilizer for our fields at a processing plant over on the peninsula.”
“Power, running water, sewers, you earth dragons have it all,” she mused. “What do the other dragons do when they need to go?”
“You don’t want to know,” he said dryly, which made her laugh.
She pulled out her pantsuit and laid it out so it could unwrinkle, and he used the smallest container he had to bring her some water. It was the size of a bucket for her, but she had a canteen in her backpack, which she filled using the bucket. “You thought ahead.”
“When you said you didn’t have human beds, I figured you wouldn’t have human dishware either. I have an entire camping set in the pack. Alright, tell me about the council.”
“It’s much like sire described. Nine dragons, and they sit on raised platforms forming a circle. You’ll stand in a gold circle in the middle. It’s considered polite to turn to face whichever dragon speaks to you. Council isn’t all that formal, and the members will often talk over each other and even argue in front of witnesses. Expect them to be pretty snarky to you.”
She laughed. “Snarky. You really are fluent in English.”
“Thank you. They’ll tell you whatever it is they want you to know, and probably ask you a whole bunch of questions. I really don’t know what they want to say, so your guess is as good as mine.” She came over and stood by his head, which put her head over his. He raised his head so they were eye to eye. “Most likely they’ll be fishing for what you think the humans will do now that they know about us, and since you’re a government agent, what the government might do. Feel free to be as honest or as evasive as you feel necessary. We won’t tell you everything, so don’t feel like you have to tell us everything. And expect a few of the dragons to try to intimidate you,” he warned. “The fires and chromatic especially. They’ll think you should just fall down and worship them because they’re dragons and you’re not.”
“I don’t scare easily.”
“Which is why I picked you over some of the others,” he nodded. “I once saw you kick Price in the groin. That made me like you immediately.”
She laughed brightly. “He brought that on himself,” she winked. “Alright, so, I’ve seen what earth dragons do. What do the other dragons do?”
“Water dragons are a lot like us,” he answered. “They farm underwater plants and do a lot of fishing and fish farming. The earth and water dragons basically feed the island, and if there’s any other dragon we earth dragons can get along with, it’s the water dragons. They live right next to us earth dragons and we have a lot of common interests. The sky dragons used to do a lot of hunting, like giant raptors, but it’s so far from anywhere that has game large enough for them to hunt from here, they had to stop when we moved to the island. They keep their hunting skills sharp by going on hunting expeditions in places we know are uninhabited by humans and conducting competitions and such, but when it comes to doing real work, they spend most of their time doing a lot of aerial reconnaissance, keeping an eye on the ocean around the island looking for ships, and sometimes they fly out over human lands and check things out for us when we can’t get a good enough image using satellites or a field agent can’t get close enough to get good ground-based intelligence. The fire dragons are what you might call the army. They’re very aggressive and love to fight, so if there’s any fighting that has to be done, they do it. They’re also the claws of the council. If the council has to intervene in a matter or arrest a dragon for crimes, it’s the fires they send to apprehend the perpetrator. They’re like the military and the police rolled up into one. The chromatics don’t really do much of anything,” he snorted. “They spend almost all their time studying magic, and they don’t really contribute anything to the island. I mean, at least the fires do something, but the chromatics don’t do anything.”
“Almost like a caste system,” she mused.
“We do what we’re good at,” he shrugged. “Earths farm, build things, and play with human technology. Waters farm and fish. Skies fly, fires fight, chromatics, well, they read. That’s draconic society boiled down to stock.”
“That does make it easier to remember. Do the other types like each other?”
“There are some frictions, but nowhere near what they have for the earth dragons,” he replied. “About everyone thinks the chromatics are snobs, for example. Fire dragons only really get along with their own, because their idea of recreation is to beat each other over the heads with their tails,” he snorted, which made her giggle “The fires love to watch human sports on TV, especially football, like totally obsessed with it. They once tried to organize a football league of fires and adopt the rules for dragons, but…it didn’t go well. The football field burned for days,” he mused, which made Jenny laugh. “The fastest way to get on the good side of a sky dragon is to complement them on their coloration. They can change it at will, like a chameleon, so it says you like the work they put in to look attractive. They’re rather vain. Water dragons are the most laid back of all the dragons, just letting things flow by, and it takes something truly incredible to make a water dragon lose his temper. And as you’ve seen, earth dragons have a love for socializing and conversation, but at our hearts we’re creatures of the land. We farm, we build, we endlessly tinker to try to improve things. There’s not a day that goes by that sire doesn’t go up the slope and look down over his tracts and try to come up with a way to make them more efficient. And he’s been doing that for a good hundred years,” he chuckled.
“What about chromatics? Do they have any little quirks I should know?”
“Never, ever, even pretend that you believe you’re as good as they are,” he said with deadly seriousness. “Approaching a chromatic as an equal will earn you that chromatic’s eternal and undying hatred. They are the vainest, most conceited, stuck-up, overbearing, obnoxious, and arrogant living beings on the face of this earth, and I’m not exaggerating in the slightest. They’re also extremely petty, and will take revenge over the slightest insult, either real or imagined. The chromatic on the council will be forced to treat you with respect because you’re a guest, and you’ll see the strain of it on his face and in his voice every time he has to be nice to you. If you forced him to give you a complement, he might spontaneously combust right there on the aerie,” he said, which made her laugh again.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” she said. “Alright, so, tell me about a day in the life of Joe Dragon when he’s not a farmer,” she urged. “Just a typical day on the island. What’s life like here? You know, just life.”
“Well, I’ve always had something of a unique job, but I’ll tell you what it’s like for me,” he told her as she sat down. He spent over an hour describing just another day to her, from waking up to helping Keth with a few chores before work, then heading to work and spending his day either searching the web or news for hints that humans knew about dragons to preparing for missions out in the human world. He then expanded it by telling her about the dragons that did the monitoring, then telling her about the evening gathering of the twelve elders of the village every day so they could discuss the day and spread any news of importance. He told her about the regular visits from Shii’s pod of dragons, how the hatchlings played together on the beach, how the water hatchlings taught the earth hatchlings how to swim, and made Keth’s family the best swimmers that weren’t water dragons on the island.
“For me, it’s all about the job,” he told her. “I really enjoyed being a field agent, because I got to see new things, investigate possible new technologies and ideas we could adapt for use here on Draconia, and of course, for the last six years I’ve had to dance around you guys,” he smiled, nudging her with the side of his head. “You humans have that saying, married to your job. In a way, I’m married to the intelligence department. It’s all I ever wanted to do. Even now that I’ve been exposed and removed from field work, I still look forward to going to work just to be there. That, and I have the feeling that they’ll put me in charge of training new field agents, since I’ve been out there and I have personal experience. After all, now I’ll have plenty of time,” he chuckled ruefully. “What about you? How long have you been married?”
“Eight years,” she replied. “Greg doesn’t entirely understand my job since its so classified that I can’t even tell him about half of what I do, but he’s very giving in his support for me. He’s a good man and a wonderful father for Davie, and I love him very much.”
“Was being a spy what you wanted out of life?”
“I’m not a spy, I’m counter-intelligence,” she smiled. “I hunt spies.”
“How did you end up there?”
“The same way most of the others did, at least sort of. Most of the guys are ex-SEALs, ex-Rangers, you know, elite special forces. I got there through the Marines. I was a computer specialist in the Marines, where my main job was either conducting or defending against cyber warfare,” she told him. “They offered me the job on the Hunter team while I was in because of those skills. Well, technically, I’m still in. I was never discharged, and my time in the Hunters counts towards my enlistment where retirement’s concerned. They had to train me in the small unit tactics they use, but since I’m a Marine, they don’t think I’m a fifth wheel. I’m one of the computer specialists on the team, but I can still shoot a gun.”
“I’ve seen you do it,” he chuckle.
“Anyway, I’ve spent the last six years of my life chasing you around,” she told him, nudging him on the jaw with her hand. “There were some times when I wanted to hang you from a yardarm by your toenails and lower you into a vat of acid.”
“Then I was doing my job,” he chuckled, then he looked up at the clock on his TV. “It’s about time for you to start getting ready,” he told her. “By the time you get dressed and we walk up there, it’ll be just about time.”
“Alright,” she said, climbing up onto her feet. “Where can I change?”
“Anywhere you feel comfortable,” he replied. “I’ll wait here for you.”
She looked rather smart when she emerged from his sleeping den wearing a sober gray pantsuit with a white blouse and tack tie under the blazer. She reached down and adjusted one of her low heels, then pushed her bangs out of her eyes and regarded him. “So, do I pass the test?”
“You could show up naked and they’d never really know the difference,” he chuckled. “But you do look rather impressive.”
“I’m glad I brought that sleeping bag now,” she said, looking back at his sleeping den. “You sleep on a pile of dirt!”
“I’m an earth drake, silly,” he told her with a chuckle. He came over and laid down, putting his head on the floor. “Now up with you, so I can throw you off the ramps halfway up.”
“I’m gonna be watching you now,” she replied teasingly as she put her heeled foot on his shoulder, then swung her leg over and settled herself on the base of his neck.
He came up out of his burrow and turned for the ramps that would take them up the mountains, and again, Jenny did nothing but look around, looked up, studying, watching everything. Other earth drakes, having heard of Jenny through the rumor mill, had gathered at the edges of Keth’s farm, and they all but followed them from a discreet distance as Kell made his way to the first ramp, pointing and whispering. The sky too got populated as sky dragons drifted down and looked at the human, then zipped back up into the air. Even a single chromatic did a lazy pass at low level, his scillinting eyes locked on the human, then he turned back towards the mountains and the thermals that would let him regain altitude more easily.
“I’m suddenly very popular,” Jenny mused.
“The rumors have hit the general population,” he replied absently as he put his foot on the base of the ramp. “And you’re the first human they’ve ever seen. Of course they’re curious.”
They curled around the base of the mountain for a while, then switched to another ramp that turned back the way they came, then reached the landing for the intelligence building, which Jenny didn’t miss. “That’s the only real building I’ve seen. What’s in it?”
“The intelligence department,” he answered honestly. “We decided to build walls and everything so rain couldn’t damage our equipment.”
“Too bad I can’t go in there.”
“I could take you, but you’d be a little disappointed. And you’d cause a riot,” he chuckled. “It’s just a few big rooms where earth drakes either watch TV or surf the internet, searching for any indication that humans know about us. But now they’re seeing what the humans say now that they do.”
“There has to be more than that.”
“Of course there is,” he murmured, which made her laugh and pat his neck.
Everything wasn’t all smooth, however. About where he’d switch to another ramp, a fairly large red wyrm landed heavily just in front of them, making the ramp shake, blocking access to the ramps. He snapped his wings back aggressively and narrowed his glowing red eyes. “They did bring a human here,” he growled. “How could they!”
“Move,” Kell said in a steady and dangerous voice. “Now.”
“Don’t order me about, you filthy grounder!” the red barked, smoke billowing out of his nostrils. He flinched, however, when Kell quickly turned sideways, the spikes on his tail extending out nearly a foot and spreading wider to ready them to be launched, and cocked his tail back threateningly. “You wouldn’t dare!”
“I’ll pin you to the mountainside if you don’t get out of my way, ashtongue,” Kell hissed.
The fire dragon growled menacingly, head low and wings tight against his sides to protect them. But when Kell shivered his tail, the fire flinched again, then turned and launched himself off the edge of the ramp.
“What was all that about?” Jenny asked, a bit quaveringly, from behind his head.
“He took issue that the council brought a human here,” Kell replied shortly, retracting his spikes and pulling them back into a resting position.
“And you scared him off?”
“I told you, earth drakes have a very nasty reputation,” he told her with a dark chuckle. “And we don’t threaten or grandstand. I told him I’d spike him if he didn’t move, and he knew I meant every word.”
“But he was all the way over there.”
Kell relaxed a single spike, then turned and whipped his tail to the side. There was a crimson streak across the platform, then the spike drove almost halfway into the side of the volcano with an audible thok.
“We have a long reach,” he said dryly as Jenny gawked at the spike embedded in the mountainside.
“Wow!” she gasped, then she laughed. “Who needs a breath weapon!”
“And that’s why the other dragons don’t mess with us,” he said simply as he started up the last ramp leading to the aerie. “Even a juvenile earth dragon can kill the largest fire wyrm if he has good aim. I may be small, but these are the equalizer,” he told her, bringing his tail around and shaking the tip ostentatiously.
“How far can you shoot them? Do they grow back?”
“About a hundred yards for me, and yes, they grow back,” he replied. “I’ll grow a new spike to replace that one in a few hours, since I only lost one. And we don’t shoot them. We use our tails like a catapult and launch them. It’s a practiced skill.”
“That’s one hell of a catapult,” she said, looking back as they passed the embedded spike.
“Gotta love physics,” he mused.
“That smoke I saw means that fires breathe fire?”
“Naturally,” he answered.
“What do sky dragons breathe?”
“Lightning,” he replied. “But they can also breathe out a cloud of water vapor that looks like a cloud if they want to hide themselves. Water dragons breathe a jet of pure water, but the way more dangerous way they do it is as steam.”
“Steam. And don’t discount it. It’s a jet of pressurized steam hot enough to melt lead, and it’ll scour the flesh off your bones if you take the full force of it. Not even an earth drake hide can stand up to it, and we can take a full blast of fire from a fire dragon and just shrug it off like it was rain. Water dragons have the most dangerous breath weapon of them all.”
“What do chromatics breathe?”
“Energy,” he replied. “They call it pure magic, but it’s more like a cone of concentrated radiation.”
“Huh. Well, the old myth about dragons breathing fire is partially true,” she mused.
“All that fire in them cooks their brains and makes them stupid, some of us think,” Kell grunted, which made her laugh.
The confrontation with the fire wyrm must have gotten back to the council, for two sky drakes darted down and took up positions behind and to each side of Kell as he ambled his way up the curving final ramp that led to Council Aerie. Jenny kept glancing back at them, he could tell from the way she kept moving on his neck. Their presence kept them from talking, for some odd reason, so it was with silence that he saw Council Aerie slowly rotate into view as he ambled up the curving ramp. “There it is,” he told her quietly. “We’ll wait on the edge until they call you up. Until they do, we just wait quietly.”
“Okay,” she said, then she took a deep, cleansing breath.
“Just relax. They won’t hurt you. But remember what I told you,” he said seriously.
When Kell brought her up to the landing of the aerie, all nine council members turned and looked at them. He leaned way down on his forelegs and allowed Jenny to climb down, then he sat on his haunches and curled his tail almost protectively around her, thumping the flattened tip against the stone floor absently.
“You are early, Kell,” Anthra called.
“It’s a long walk, esteemed council member, and I wasn’t sure how long it would take for a human,” he replied. “Better early than late.”
“You let her ride you like a common beast of burden,” the fire drake snorted disdainfully.
Before Kell could respond, Geon cut in. “It’s an even longer walk for a human, cousin,” he said urbanely. “That Kell would carry her was simply showing good manners and hospitality, as is only proper. Besides, should she have to walk it herself, she would have been exhausted by the time she got here, and that would be quite rude of us.”
“We should have offered a sky drake to carry her,” the water wyrm noted.
“Carry a human? You would never have found a volunteer!” the sky drake retorted indignantly.
“At least it shows that the earth dragons understand the responsibilities of hospitality,” Anthra noted lightly.
“Being beasts of burden suits you, grounder!” the sky wyrm shot back.
“Order!” the chromatic barked sharply, and it was a good thing he intervened, else Geon and Anthra would have charged across the aerie and filled that sky wyrm with so many holes he’d look like a pasta colander. Being called a grounder was an insult, and for a council member to throw it in open council, well, that was almost unheard of.
“What’s going on?” Jenny whispered as the dragons started arguing despite the chromatic’s attempts to restore order.
“The sky wyrm almost got his hide perforated,” Kell replied in a low tone. “He called the earth wyrm a grounder. It’s a very big insult to an earth dragon.”
“What started it?”
“Me carrying you,” he replied. “It seems a couple of them thought it was below my dignity.”
“I’d have passed out halfway up the mountain if you hadn’t,” she replied.
“They don’t understand that,” he nodded.
“Are they always like this?”
“Some days they’re worse,” he answered honestly with a sigh, which made her grin like a little kid.
After the shouting died down, the chromatic sat on his haunches and looked back over at Kell and Jenny. “If you would forgive us,” he said in perfect English. “But council for us is somewhat rough and tumble. We speak freely and speak our minds, and it often leads to such…outbursts. If you would stand forth, honored guest, we would most eagerly wish to discuss with you matters of great importance.”
“Go ahead, I’ll be right here,” he whispered, patting her on the shoulder with his forepaw. “Remember.”
She nodded, tugged on the tail of her blazer, then started into the circle of podiums holding the nine dragons of the council. She stepped into the gold circle in the middle, then, unsure of what else do to do, she snapped to attention like a Marine, then bowed at the waist like a Japanese businessman. “My name is Lieutenant Jenny Edwards, uh, esteemed council members,” she began. “I’m a member of the Hunters, a special division of the National Security Agency of the United States, tasked to protect American interests against computer criminals and cyber terrorism. Up until yesterday, I was one of the people who were actively hunting your field agents, because their actions were perceived as a threat by my government. And now I’m here, though I’m not entirely sure why I was picked.”
“Kell picked you, honored guest,” Anthra replied gently in perfect English, which made Jenny turn towards her. “He felt that you would be best suited for this grave task, for your bravery in the face of the unknown and your status as a ranking member of the American government. Your words would be heard by the right ears when you return.”
“That we wished to speak to you is not much of a stretch,” the fire wyrm declared haughtily, which caused her to turn again. “With the bumbling of the earth dragons causing a field mission to go awry that led to our secret being discovered, now we must at least introduce ourselves discreetly to the humans, which we will do through you and your government.”
Anthra narrowed her eyes at the fire wyrm, but said nothing.
“The greatest thing we wish to tell the outside world, honored guest, is that we mean you no harm,” the water wyrm said sedately. “In fact, what we wish for is isolation. We only watch the human world to ensure they don’t know of us. But now that they do, we want them to know that we will leave them alone if they leave us alone.”
“It’s not that we wish to be rude neighbors, but our past history with the humans has been very contentious and violent,” Geon told her. “We withdrew from human lands to protect both sides and avert a war that would have been horrendous and ghastly. We’ve lived apart from humans for a little over one thousand of your years, and we have come to decide that continued separation is best for both sides. There is a great deal of fear and uncertainty on both sides, dear guest. The earth dragons know much of humans and their society, but the other dragons don’t. So, we wish to maintain the situation as it is, with us being on our island and the humans free to rule the rest of the world.”
“It would please us greatly if you would explain this to your government, and allow them to spread our words to the others,” the water drake continued. “We are willing to talk, but it must be as it is here and now, done carefully and in a controlled situation, and only when it is absolutely needful.”
“You have spent the day with earth drake Kell of the intelligence division, honored guest. What did he show you?” Geon asked.
“He took me to his family’s farm and let me meet his parents,” she replied, looking up at the earth drake. “We walked around his family farm, and he took me to a store in his village, though he didn’t let me stay long. The shopkeeper was afraid of me,” she said with a rueful chuckle.
“And what did you learn of us while you talked with his family?”
“That I see a lot of similarities,” she answered honestly. “Kell’s sire, Keth, he reminded me of my own grandfather in some ways. He’s very wise.”
“But there are also differences. Did they frighten you?”
“At first,” she replied honestly. “But as I learned more, they didn’t seem quite so frightening.”
“And what would you find frightening about us?” the fire wyrm said in a booming voice, stamping his feet on his dais. Jenny turned to face him, and she didn’t flinch or recoil when the wyrm’s head came down quickly, stopping not five feet from her.
“Well, you’re much bigger than we are, for one,” she replied without showing fear. “And you look really different, and a little scary. Forgive the observation, but since you look like big, scary animals to us, my initial concept was that you wouldn’t have, well, a society. Not one I’d recognize. I thought it would be completely alien to me, something I wouldn’t even imagine might exist. But when I looked down from the ramps for the first time and saw farms, I was amazed. I think that was when it hit me that I was being too hasty about drawing conclusions.”
“A wise young biped,” the sky drake nodded in complement. “What did he tell you of our culture?”
“About anything I asked about,” she answered, turning to the drake. “He showed me what an average dragon does during his day, and he described the five orders of dragons, and what each one does here on the island.”
“Done from the perspective of an earth dragon, and their many prejudices against the rest of us,” the chromatic snorted.
“Well, he is an earth dragon, so what point of view do you expect him to have?” she countered, which made Anthra grin. “What I’ve seen here on the island is while we look very different, we actually organize our societies in much the same way. There’s some commonality here, and it might be the way we can talk with each other. When I was walking around Keth’s farm, I realized that if I just replaced the dragons I saw with people, and replaced the burrow with a farmhouse, I could be walking through farmland in Iowa. Keth’s concerns and cares and worries are no different from the farmer in Iowa, since they do the same thing, raise crops. And if you’d have brought a farmer from Iowa here instead of me, he’d probably still be down on the farm talking with Keth, comparing farming techniques and learning from each other.” She pointed at Kell. “I understand Kell because, in a way, we both have the same job. We both work with computers, and that gives us a lot of common ground we could use to build a relationship. His job was to invade our computer networks, and our job was to stop him, but it was still basically the same thing. I’m sure there are many other points of commonality between us and you we could use to get to know each other better. And as Keth said to me, once the mystery is solved, the fear of the mystery will fade.”
“And his personality doesn’t scare you?” Geon asked.
“Not at all,” she replied. “Though he looks different, he acts in a way I completely understand.”
“Well, Kell is a field agent, trained to understand human society and be able to socialize effectively with humans. Did you feel the same way about Keth?”
“Not at first. He seemed…different. I wasn’t sure what to expect. But after talking with him a while, I came to like him. Like him a lot. He’s very smart, and I learned a great deal about more than just dragons after talking to him.”
“But, her point is a good one. There are some common points between us and the humans we can use to cultivate a relationship,” the water wyrm murmured, shivering his wings. “After seeing our island after a day, what do you think of it, and of us?” he asked gently, leaning his head down.
“I think that what I’ve seen isn’t even scratching the surface of what’s really here,” she answered, which made the water wyrm nod sagely. “But from what I’ve seen so far, I’m encouraged that we can find a way to talk to each other.”
“Do we seem to be a threat to your people?” the chromatic asked.
“One on one, maybe,” she replied honestly. “You’re very intimidating face to face. But you wouldn’t really scare a guy in a tank. Besides, I haven’t seen all that many dragons. There are way more of us than there are of you.”
Anthra nodded. “And thus why we seek to talk first,” she said honestly. “We are actually a very small nation compared to your America, or China.”
“The fact that you guys can do magic might frighten some people, though,” she noted. “Some human religions consider magic to be evil.”
“Magic is not evil,” the chromatic snorted. “It is a proud and noble tradition practiced since the dawn of civilization. It was even practiced by the humans. It might still be, we are not entirely sure.”
“If they do, they don’t tell anyone,” Jenny replied. “I’ve really only seen one instance of magic, when a water dragon dried me off when I first got here, but it would be enough to scare the pants off some people.”
“What do you think of magic, Lieutenant Edwards?” the water drake asked.
“I think I don’t know enough about it to form any kind of real opinion,” she replied immediately.
“But it doesn’t frighten you?”
“Not really, no,” she shook her head. “What it does do is make me wildly curious. I have no idea what it can do, and though we don’t believe in magic, there’s a little kid in me that used to daydream about magic and amazing and fantastic things.”
“Your religious beliefs do not scorn magic, as you said some human beliefs do?”
“Well, I guess they’re supposed to, if I were to take them literally,” she said after a moment. “But I’m not that religious.”
“And other humans might accept the idea of magic despite their religion?”
“Probably. There’s a bunch that would accept the idea of it no matter what.” She paused a moment. “Exactly what is magic?” she asked. “I saw what the water dragon did, but Kell said that it can do a lot more.”
“Magic is the harnessing of the energy of Gaia to perform tasks and services otherwise impossible to do,” the chromatic replied, almost like a professor.
“What is Gaia?”
“She is the earth, honored guest,” he replied. “The earth is a living thing, and she will grant us her power if we ask it of her the right way. It is both a skill and a natural talent. Only those with the talent may draw forth the magic, but anyone can learn of magic and understand the skills required to harness and channel those energies.”
“What exactly can it do?”
“That depends on the natural aptitude of the user,” he replied. “Among the dragons, each have certain natural talents concerning magic. Sky dragons excel in magic that enacts change or confuses the senses, and a group of sky dragons together can influence the weather. Fire dragons excel in the use of magic as a weapon, raining destruction down up on their foes. Water dragons excel in the use of magic as protection, invoking its power to protect them from harm. Earth dragons have no magic,” he declared a bit haughtily, looking right at Kell with a slightly malevolent look. “We chromatics are highly attuned to magic, and can use it in a variety of ways unreachable by the others.”
“So, that trick with the water was some kind of protection?”
“There are other natural abilities dragons have concerning magic that depend on their species,” he told her. “All water dragons can control water itself in a minor way, as fire dragons can control fire, and sky dragons can control the wind. And any dragon can study the ways of magic and learn to use it in ways not dependent on their species, expanding beyond their racial abilities, up to the limits of their natural talent.”
“Oh, okay. I understand,” she nodded.
“I am very glad that you do, honored guest,” the chromatic nodded. “Magic is, in its own way, who we are. If you cannot understand the magic, then it will be very hard to understand us.”
“Well, Kell didn’t tell me that, but then again, I didn’t ask,” she mused. “When he told me he had no magic, I was a little reluctant to ask him more questions. I thought it might offend him.”
“Earth dragons are different than the rest of the dragons,” the fire wyrm sniffed. “Full of strange ideas and of a contrary disposition. They are very un-dragon in some of their exotic notions.”
“It’s merely a different point of view, Hirrag,” Anthra murmured. “Since we don’t have to study magic, it gives us time and opportunity to examine other things. And the electric lights and TV that we installed in your den are a couple of those exotic notions you decry in public, yet enjoy in private.”
The fire wyrm glared over Jenny’s head at Anthra.
Jenny looked about to say something, but her glance back at him told him that she was taking his warning not to show bias seriously. “Now, honored guest, tell us truly. How will your people and your government react to knowing of us?” the chromatic asked intently.
“The people, I can’t really tell you,” she replied. “Not precisely. Different people are going to react different ways, I guess. It’s all going to be about how you’re presented to them, and that’ll depend on the media. The media has a lot of influence over the opinions of the average citizen. If they paint you as friendly, most people will accept it. But if they paint you as dangerous enemies, that’s how they’ll see you. So, as far as Joe Everyman is concerned, controlling how the media presents the idea of the dragons is going to be critical as to how the people accept the idea of you. As far as my government goes, I have a pretty good idea. First they’ll act like you’re some kind of enemy, because they know absolutely nothing about you and it’s pretty evident you’ve been spying on us for a long time. But then, after you and them talk a little, they’ll calm down a whole lot. Once they realize what I’ve seen here, that the dragons really have no desire to conquer anything past your island, they’ll realize you’re not a threat, at least in a military manner. They won’t be too happy if the earth dragons keep sneaking around hacking our top secret computer networks, but that’s like any other country spying on its neighbors, I guess. China does it, Russia does it, they all do it. Even my country does it, they just won’t admit it.”
“Will your report to them assuage some of that initial hostility?”
“Some of it, I think so,” she nodded. “It’ll make them more curious than afraid, but that won’t stop them from drawing up potential battle plans for fighting a horde of dragons.”
Anthra and Geon laughed. “Horde of dragons,” Geon repeated with amusement. “I know you meant it with all seriousness, honored guest, but the very idea of it is highly amusing to us earth dragons.”
“Us as well,” the water wyrm smiled. “The only time we form a horde is when the currents bring the sardine schools back each year.”
“That’s alright, I don’t mind,” Jenny assured them. “The one thing they will do no matter if they like you or not is try to find this island,” she told them. “They won’t be able to stand not knowing where you are, or how you’ve gone so long without anyone finding this place.”
“We can handle that,” the chromatic told her. “They haven’t found us yet, and our magic will ensure they never will.” He smiled down at her. “And I’m sure you’ve discerned at least a rough idea of where we are,” he noted lightly.
“Somewhere in the Pacific, if I don’t miss my guess. Probably south Pacific.”
“We will neither confirm nor deny that observation,” Anthra said with a slight smile.
“The time is growing late, and I think we have explored the intent of our meeting sufficiently,” the chromatic decided, looking towards the sun, which was heading for the horizon. “You may stay until morning if it is your desire, honored guest, or return to human lands at any time you wish. Either way, Earth Drake Kell has been commanded to return you to the human lands, as we have promised you.”
“I’ll stay for a little while, I’d like to ask Kell more questions about things that I don’t think the council would find very interesting,” she replied, looking over at him. “Shop talk.”
“Then by all means, enjoy your time here, honored guest,” Geon told her warmly. “You may leave any time you wish up until sunrise.”
“I declare this council to be concluded. Is there objection?” the chromatic called. When there was silence, he slapped his long, feathery tail on the floor. “Then we are concluded, and will meet again at noon tomorrow. Gaia go with you, council members.”
The nine dragons turned and stepped down off their platforms and then scattered into the air, launching off the edges of the platforms. Geon and Anthra, however, ambled up behind Jenny as she walked back towards Kell and slowed down to match her pace, and Anthra lowered her head down close to Jenny’s left. “Kell prepared you well, honored guest,” she said lightly. “You handled yourself with dignity and courage. That will even impress the chromatic.”
“He told me what to expect. He was pretty much well right about everything,” she replied.
“We’re not quite as majestic as you expected, are we?” Geon asked. “Bickering like hatchlings right in front of you.”
“That surprised me a little, but he warned me about that, too,” she answered.
“Kell is a very clever young drake, much smarter than his short years suggests,” Anthra said, smiling towards him. “But his years have yet to teach him wisdom or restraint. Those can only come with time and experience.”
“Do you require anything for the rest of your stay, honored guest? Is Kell’s burrow sufficient for you?” Geon asked.
“It’s fine, esteemed council member,” she replied. “Outside of having nowhere to sit, it’s just fine.”
“We’ll have to attend that matter. Get some human furniture in case we invite another human here,” Geon noted. “Perhaps build a more suitable dwelling for a biped so they feel more comfortable.”
“It’s a good suggestion, cousin,” Anthra nodded. “I’ll have the building department look into a suitable location. Somewhere close to the ramps. The field agents will know what to put in it to make a human comfortable. And maybe some conveyance so they don’t have to rely on us. Perhaps a golf cart,” she mused.
Kell lowered down on his front legs when Jenny reached him, and she put her foot on his elbow and upper foreleg and pulled herself up and onto the base of his neck. “You show much consideration to carry her, my drakeling,” Anthra said to him.
“It’s not a bother, esteemed council member,” he said dismissively. “I’d be a poor host if I made her walk all the way back down. For a human, that is a very long and exhausting walk.”
“You could always glide down for me,” Jenny said hopefully.
“Absolutely not,” Kell said instantly. “If you fell off, there’s no way I could possibly catch you, and I won’t risk your life that way.”
“I’m not going to fall off,” she protested.
“You have nothing to grab hold of and my neck’s too thick for you to lock your legs around,” he stated bluntly. “The only reason you haven’t had any trouble is because I’ve been careful not to move in a way that might throw you off, and I don’t have half that much control over it when I’m gliding.”
“He’s right, Lieutenant Edwards,” Anthra said with gentle adamance. “It’s far too much of a risk to your life.”
“Then I seriously need to get a saddle,” she declared, which made Anthra and Geon both laugh.
“Oh, they’d love to see me wearing a saddle,” Kell grunted darkly. “I wouldn’t be able to grow my spikes back fast enough.”
Jenny patted him on the neck. “But I’m a guest. Aren’t you supposed to go out of your way for me?”
“It’s a long way to the ground from here, Jenny.”
She laughed brightly. “That’s the Stone I know and love,” she said teasingly, patting his neck.
“I’m surprised you’re basing off the octocores,” she said as they reached the knoll holding his burrow. “They’ve only been out for two months, and yet you said they’re the baseline for your in-house chipsets. You couldn’t set that up in two months. How did you pull that off?”
“I stole them,” he admitted. “A small box of them, actually, when they were still in prototype stage, so we’ve had more time to baseline off them. AMD never admitted that some corporate spy stole some of their cutting edge prototypes.”
“They told us when it happened,” she noted. “We thought China did it, like when they hacked Apple and stole the source of their Mac OS. We’ve been on the lookout for pirated copies of the chips.”
“There won’t be any,” he told her lightly as he stopped at the entrance and leaned down so she dismount. “We don’t use anything we steal for anyone but ourselves, so you can assure AMD their patents and profits are safe.”
“Sounds like you did a lot more out there than just hack government networks,” she chuckled as she climbed down.
“I was a busy little drake,” he said with aplomb.
Jenny changed in his sleeping den as he poured out more water for her. “You must have quite a chip factory to be able to manufacture CPUs,” she reasoned.
“It’s mostly automated, and can’t make more than a couple dozen a week,” he replied. “And most of the equipment in there we stole,” he admitted with a slight smile. “Our mission when they started the intelligence division and we started adopting human technology was to be as self-sufficient as possible with the technology we adopt. We build everything here on the island, for obvious reasons. It’s not like we can import them.”
“Actually, that might be useful to you, and you could settle some fears out in the world if you opened yourself up to some trade deals,” she mused.
“What would we trade, Jenny? All we have here is food, at least as far as a human would care.”
“No natural resources? Coal? Gold?”
“Not that we’d trade,” he replied. “Besides, this is a volcanic island, Jenny. Unless the volcano spews it out or the water dragons can salvage it from shipwrecks they find, we don’t have it. Hell, most of the metal and steel we use in our factory buildings came from shipwrecks the water dragons salvaged. We have plenty of food and volcanic rock types, but coal, iron deposits, and so on, zippo. But if there was a market for lava rocks, we’d have that cornered.”
“Dunno, tourism, maybe. Some people would pay a fortune to be where I am now, walking around with dragons,” she chuckled.
“Please,” he snorted.
“Well, water dragons could make a killing salvaging gold coins from old shipwrecks,” she mused. “The law of the ocean is you find it, you own it.”
“They won’t approach that close to the continental shelves, mainly because of the sonar nets they have set up, and that’s where most of those kinds of shipwrecks are,” he told her. “Not that they make the kind of noise the sonar nets look for, but we take no chances. The same reason the sky dragons won’t overfly human territory without explicit permission, the water dragons stay only to the open deep ocean and some uninhabited islands nearby. The wrecks they find are in deep ocean.”
“They can dive that deep?”
“All the way to the bottom of the Marianas trench,” he nodded as she sat on her sleeping back again. “Water dragons are completely unaffected by water pressure. They can even dive and ascend rapidly without killing themselves.”
“So we are in the Pacific,” she smiled.
“I won’t confirm or deny,” he replied lightly, putting the bucket down beside her.
“Hmm. I have a strange question.”
“If we asked very nicely and made some serious concessions about security, would the water dragons be interested in helping us with some underwater projects?”
“Well, that would depend, I guess,” he replied, sitting beside her. “I guess a water dragon could do things no human diver could do.”
“I could imagine the oceanographers having a fistfight over who got to talk to one of them first,” she laughed. “They probably know way more about the ocean bottom than we do.”
“They do,” he replied with a nod. “Sella’s told me about some things down there even I don’t believe.”
“She’s been down there?”
“It’s a dangerous place, but she’s old enough,” he replied. “She has her job that keeps her from going out too far, but just about every water dragon goes on expeditions out to the deep water a few times a year. They hunt giant squid and sperm whales and some other things down there, and they’re always on the lookout for shipwrecks they can salvage for the steel. She once brought back a starfish that was about twenty feet across. She still has it. It died coming up due to the pressure change, but it didn’t explode, so she dried it out, had us encase it in plastic, and now it sits in her sleeping den. Underwater, of course,” he chuckled.
“Where did you get the plastic?”
“As many water bottles are floating in the ocean? It’s not hard,” he snorted. “We scoop it up from the water and recycle it. There’s a massive trash float out in the ocean that’s mostly plastic bottles and such, and the water dragons go out there when we’re low on plastic and harvest it. A few days of work nets several tons of plastic you humans just toss away, and that lasts us for a few months.”
“Well, glad someone’s both cleaning it up and using it,” she mused. “How do they see down there? Magic?”
“Sonar,” he replied. “They’re like dolphins that way, they have a sonar-like ability, but it only works in the water. It’s as sharp and detailed as sight is. Nothing can sneak up on a water dragon in the water.”
“Water dragons are very adapted to their element,” he chuckled. “Just like we are.”
“Oh? How so?”
“Well, as you’ve seen, we live underground,” he replied, motioning around at his concrete-lined burrow. “We can dig out anything. Our claws are harder than steel, can tear right through steel for that matter, and we can dig through the basalt and lava rock here on the island without any problems. You saw the rock walls of my parents’ burrow?” he asked, and she nodded. “My burrow’s a little shallower and in an area with deeper soil, so the builders lined my burrow with concrete for me after I dug it out. They didn’t have to, I could have fortified the earthen upper areas myself, but I kinda like the concrete. Our department’s all concrete, and I like my burrow to remind me of work. Anyway, our village council chambers and what you’d consider to be public buildings and infrastructure, it’s all underground, and some of the older farms have tunnels leading to them, like our own farm. Keth has a tunnel just by our main storage chamber that leads from the farm right to the council chambers, because he’s on the council. Our power transformers, power wires, network nodes and splitters and switches and a few control computers, everything, it’s all underground. There’s a village of sorts under our feet that you can’t see, five main galleries holding the council chamber, the water works, the main power substation, an emergency storage silo for food, and the node for this part of the island’s computer network. Add those to drainage tunnels and escape tunnels, several natural lava tubes and natural volcanic-created voids and caverns, as well as quite a few dead-end dummy tunnels meant to confuse and trap invaders, and there’s quite a honeycomb of tunnels under us. All those chambers and most of the tunnels are interconnected, and they’re up under the north slope, going under the volcano. The computer node chamber is right under our farm, so I have easy access. I’m the one that maintains it for the department,” he told her. “We like to leave the ground above as open as possible for our farms, but besides that, we’re a subterranean species of dragon at our core, and if we’re not working the land or building something, we like to be under the ground, far more than any other dragon,” he explained, looking down at her. “Other dragons just sleep in caves and dens, but we live under the ground. It’s who we are. We originally came from the caves and tunnels under the earth, and that part of us is still in here, yearning for the dark places and the feel of earth and stone all around us,” he said, patting his chest meaningfully.
“We are the earth, Jenny. We are the children of Gaia in a way that the other dragons can’t understand. They respect her and revere her, but she is our mother, and we yearn to be close to her. Earth dragon legend says that all dragons originally came from the earth, came from under the ground, but the open spaces and bounty of the land above brought us out into the sun, and over time, we started diverging, split into the five species as dragons explored the world and found value in other aspects of the world Gaia provided to us. But while we earth dragons reveled in the bounty that Gaia provided us above ground, found that we had ties to the land the other dragons had lost over time and had a special knack with the plants and animals around us, we could still hear the song of the earth, and didn’t stray far from our mother. Legend says that Gaia granted the other dragons magic when they abandoned the earth to help protect them, since they’d left the cradle of Gaia and her protection. And while she didn’t give us magic, we kept the blessings she granted us to allow us to be one with her. We still have our claws, which can tear through solid steel and give us the ability to climb virtually anything, and our jaws, which can shatter solid rock, and our thick hides that can resist the heat and pressure deep under the ground as well as the breath of a fire dragon, and our tail spikes, which protect us against enemies. According to our legends, the other dragons had those things as well, but when they strayed away from our mother and stopped listening to her song, she granted them other means to protect themselves, Gaia took the blessings of the earth and replaced them with magic.”
“Sounds like quite a legend,” she said. “What about the other dragons? Do they have legends like that?”
“Of course they do,” he smiled. “Each dragon species has a different legend of creation, and most of them think they were the first dragons. The sky dragons believe that we originally were all sky dragons, for example, and that we lived high in the clouds. But the allure of the earth seduced the other species, caused them to put their feet on the ground, and the different aspects of the earth below called to certain dragons, to form the other four species. The fire dragons believe that we came from a giant volcano, and the other species were the weaker dragons who couldn’t hold their positions in the caldera. The further away we were driven from the heat of the volcano, the more we changed, until we diverged into the other four species. The water dragons have the most interesting legend. They believe that the dragons have always been five different species, and that the water dragons were called up from their original homes on the ocean floor by the coaxing of Gaia to look over, protect, and provide for the other dragons, mainly those incapable of providing for themselves. As to what the chromatics believe, we have no idea. If you think we’re secretive, you haven’t seen the chromatics in action. They won’t even tell us their names.”
“Hmm. Is that why your eyes glow?” she asked. “You said that dragons came from underground, all of them. Does that glow light up the caves deep underground?”
He shook his head. “The glow is a reaction to the light, like shining a light in a cat’s eyes in the dark. No light, no glow,” he told her. “If it were dark, you wouldn’t be able to see my eyes. We earth dragons can see in what you’d call a thermographic manner, seeing heat as various colors, like infrared goggles. It’s how we move around in the tunnels, down in areas where we haven’t installed lights. Since we’re a subterranean species by nature, it’s more or less natural for us to be able to see down there, where natural light will never reach. Like the other blessings of Gaia, though, our legend says that the other dragons originally had our vision, but over time, the other dragons lost their thermo vision. It doesn’t do sky dragons any good high in the clouds, it’s no good for water dragons where the water is all the same temperature, and since fire dragons surround themselves with fire and magma, heat vision would burn out their eyes, so they lost it over time,” he chuckled. “But we never lost it.”
“But you do use lights,” she said, looking around.
“We can’t read by thermographic vision unless the book generates heat in the form of letters,” he pointed out.
“Oh. Well, if you read a lot, that’s a problem.”
“Some burrows don’t have lights, but sire and mother prefer them. Then again, it’s a little uncomfortable for earth dragons to watch TV when the TV’s the only light source. It monkeys with our thermographic vision in a way that gives us eye strain. As a matter of security, though, the village beneath has lightning but only turns it on when there’s a need to read. The other dragons are afraid to venture into the tunnels because even their magic doesn’t let them see far, but we can see them from far away.”
She chuckled. “Eye strain in dragons, now I’ve heard everything.”
“It’s not the only reason. Since we’re smaller than the other dragons, we don’t build our tunnels with them in mind. The fire wyrms won’t even fit in our entry tunnels. They’re sized so Anthra, the largest of us, can just barely squeeze through. Down there, the claustrophobia gets to them, cause they’re in long tunnels with no side passages that are so small they can’t turn around. They’re effectively helpless until they reach a chamber, so they won’t come down there for any reason. And that’s exactly why we built them that way.”
“Thank you. When they treat you the way they treat us, you take precautions.”
“Hmm,” she mused. “If you came from underground, why do you have wings?”
“We’ve always had wings,” he shrugged. “It’s possible that our legends are wrong, though. I mean, we earth dragons do believe in science. It’s entirely possible that the earth dragons could fly at some point, but gave up the ability in exchange for becoming subterranean. But, since our wings are handy for gliding, we never lost them,” he told her. “And underground, in natural caverns, being able to glide is a lot more useful than you think. Down there everything’s in three directions. Sometimes you have to glide over a chasm to reach a different tunnel mouth, and that sure as hell beats climbing down one side and climbing up the other.”
“So, why can the other dragons fly? They’re just as heavy as you are. Hell, they must be even heavier, since the other dragons are bigger than you are.”
“Magic,” he replied. “Magic negates some of their weight, gives their wings enough lift to pick them up. In the case of the sky dragons, that magic is so powerful it lets them levitate, makes them effectively weightless. Since earth dragons have no magic, there’s nothing to counter our weight, so here we are.”
“Well, that does explain it,” she chuckled. “I really should tell Greg I won’t be back until tomorrow,” she noted.
“Sure,” he said. They went over to his desk, and he again picked her up by her waist and put her on the edge of the desk.
“What time is it in Washington?”
He looked at the clock. “About four in the morning,” he replied.
“Hmm, that puts us in the same time zone as Hawaii,” she mused, giving him a slight smile.
“That’s an awful lot of real estate you’re talking about there, Jenny.”
“Just getting confirmation,” she winked.
“Kell!” Sella called from his entry chamber.
“It’s Sella,” he told Jenny as she started typing using a single hand, making a Facebook post. “In here!” he warned. Sella ambled in seconds later, and she took notice of Jenny, punching keys on his keyboard as she leaned on one hand over it.
“I thought you’d went home already, honored guest,” she said in English. “I’m glad I got a chance to meet you.”
“This is Sella, the only water dragon that works in the department,” Kell introduced. “And my oldest and best friend.”
“We’ve been nipping at each other since we were hatched,” she smiled lightly as she came up to the desk. “I thought you might like to have a swim before it gets dark, Kell. Since your guest is still with us, she might enjoy it as well.”
“Well, what do you say, Jenny? Feel like taking a swim?”
“I didn’t bring a bathing suit,” she objected.
“You don’t need one here,” he shrugged. “As you might have noticed, this is a clothing-optional island. Dragons don’t wear clothes, you know.”
“You mean go naked?”
“Who’s here to see you that’s going to care?” he asked pointedly.
She looked at him, then burst out in rueful laughter. “Alright, I’ll give you that one, but I’ll care,” she told him. “But I have a spare pair of panties and a bra, I guess I can wear those.”
“I’ve always wondered why humans wear clothes,” Sella mused.
“Custom, I guess. Maybe way back when it was to stay warm,” Jenny replied as she went back to the keyboard.
Jenny finished up and posted it. She’d been vague once again; Meeting over, it was very productive. Will stay for a while to visit with an old friend, got an invite to the beach. Be home this afternoon. Love you, baby.
“I hope you like the water, honored guest,” Sella grinned as Jenny dropped down to the floor. “Else we water dragons will have nothing to do with you,” she finished airily.
“I love to water ski, so I’m not afraid of the water,” she replied.
“You will be after she’s done with you,” Kell warned.
“Don’t warn them, you’ll ruin my fun!” Sella gasped, thumping him with the flared end of her tail, which had flukes on the sides. Like whales, she flipped her tail up and down for propulsion.
Jenny came out of the burrow with them in a pair of beige panties and a bra, then Sella put her clawed forepaws around her waist, spread her wings, and then launched into the air. Jenny gave a scream of surprise as his friend floated just high enough to clear the shore, then she dropped Jenny unceremoniously into the deep pool by Kell’s knoll. “Sella!” Kell protested as he bounded up to the edge, and saw Jenny broach the surface, whipping her hair over her head, then she shook her fist at Sella.
“I’ll get you for that!” she warned, which made Sella laugh as she turned, folded her wings, then dove into the water about thirty feet from where she’d dropped Jenny. But Jenny gasped when Sella came up under her, quickly finding herself straddling Sella’s neck.
“Sella, no!” Kell barked. “You’ll flay the skin off her!”
“Oh! Oh, that’s right,” she said quickly, turning still. “I totally forgot that your hide isn’t as tough as an earth drake’s, honored guest. Let me sink under you, just be very careful. Try not to slide forward.”
Sella submerged again, leaving Jenny treading water in the pool, and Kell dove in from the little cliff at the base of his knoll. “How long have you known each other?” Jenny asked as Sella’s head emerged from the water.
“Since we were hatched,” she replied. “We used to play on that beach right there,” she added, nodding her snout towards the beach behind Keth and Kanna’s burrow. “Me, him, my clutchmates, and his, Gaia keep them,” she sighed.
“They died in an accident, long ago,” she replied sadly. “I still miss them. They were very dear to me and the pod.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Kell,” she said with honest emotion, patting his head when he reached her.
“It’s why my parents keep me close,” he told her. “I’m the only one of the three of my clutch that lived to adulthood. So they’re maybe a little protective,” he said lightly. “But I indulge them. They’re my parents, after all, and I understand why they do it.”
“We used to play whenever work didn’t keep us away. We teach his family how to swim properly, and show them things that most earth dragons never see,” Sella grinned. “Kell is the best swimmer on Draconia that’s not a water dragon,” she said with a bit of pride. “And he can hold his breath long enough to dive pretty deep, deep enough to see many of the sea’s secrets.”
“I’ve seen him swim, I do no doubt it,” Jenny agreed.
“We almost don’t think of him as an earth dragon,” Sella said, a bit airily. “We think of him as a mud dragon.”
Kell whacked her on the snout with the underside of his tail, which made Jenny explode in laughter, sink down too far, then cough as she almost inhaled a mouthful of water.
Jenny turned out to be a good swimmer. Kell carried her along with him as he dove to the bottom of the deep pool, a natural harbor of sorts in the cove where it was twenty feet down right on the shoreline, and Sella helped her pick at the oysters lining the bottom that her pod cultivated, using her water magic to open the oysters in search for pearls. Jenny actually found one, a pretty large one, and she held onto it as Sella brought a large warm water lobster over from the channel where they liked to stand and feed, watching it scurry over the oysters. Sella showed off maybe a little bit, swimming fast circles around them, using her water magic to carry Jenny along, even let her sit cross-legged on the surface, which surprised her a little bit. Kell then put her on his back and carried her as they swam out of the cove and out into the open water, swimming faster than just about any boat could go, easily keeping up with Sella as she slapped her tail on the surface and occasionally leaped out of the water like a playful dolphin. They stayed out for about an hour, until the sun was brushing the sea in what was turning out to be a spectacular sunset, then they took her back and sat on the beach with her as they watched the sun go down.
“This place is beautiful,” she said quietly as she leaned against Kell’s flank. He was all but curled up around her, his tail wrapped around, and Sella was half-laying over his wings, her head close to Jenny. “You should build a hotel and charge people ten thousand dollars a day to stay here.”
“That would be far too nervous for us,” Sella chuckled. “But yes, this is a beautiful island. We’ve lived here so long, though, sometimes we don’t stop to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us.”
“That’s about true for anyone anywhere they are,” Jenna replied. “I’m just surprised I’m not still shaking like a leaf. I mean, here I am using a dragon as a backrest.”
“One reason why I picked you,” Kell chuckled. “Could you imagine Juarez where you are?”
“He’d have fainted about six hours ago,” Jenny grunted, which made Kell chuckle. “What do you do in the department, Sella?”
“I inspect websites our spider bots flag for possible evidence someone out there knows about us,” she replied. “But since yesterday, my job got very hectic. The picture they got of Kell sets off the spider, and it’s all over the internet.”
“I can imagine. You’re famous, Kell.”
“Please,” he snorted, which made Jenny laugh.
“I can guess that my job is going to change now that our secret is out. I’ll most likely be inspecting sites to see how much they know about us.”
“You’re all still a complete mystery. All we have is that picture. Me and Wilson are probably the only people that know more than that,” Jenny replied. “And I doubt the government’s gonna declassify the report I’ll give them anytime soon, so that’s all they will know for a while.”
“What do you intend to say?”
“Everything I’ve seen, heard, and witnessed, as well as my own assumptions and observations,” she replied honestly. “The people that make decisions have to know as much as they can so they don’t make ones based on bad opinions. Kell’s sudden appearance scared the pee out of quite a few government people,” she admitted. “To keep them from acting in fear, I have to make you as little of a mystery as I can.”
“Wise,” Sella nodded, looking down at her.
“It’s what Keth said that’s sticking with me,” Jenny said. “That a mystery isn’t quite so scary once you solve it. So I have to bring the solution to the mystery to the government to keep them from doing anything stupid.”
“Stupidity isn’t restricted just to your people,” Sella told her. “I’m sure you’ve seen how they treat Kell, and the other earth dragons.”
“I’m starting to get a pretty good idea of it,” she grunted with a nod.
“It’s a sad thing,” Sella sighed. “But, to be fair, the earth dragons don’t help the problem. They’re so secretive and defensive,” she said, nudging Kell. “If they were a little more open, maybe some dialogue could be opened, and the others would understand the earth dragons a little better.”
“They don’t like us, so we’re not about to go around and tell them everything,” he replied immediately.
“But if you talked to them, maybe they wouldn’t dislike you so much.”
“We’ve tried that, Sella, and it didn’t work. As far as they’re concerned, whenever we try to open that dialogue, all they do is marvel over the talking livestock,” he grunted.
“I think that you only fail at something when you stop trying,” she pointed out.
“Then we failed,” he growled. “When you beat your head against a rock long enough, Sella, either you break the rock, or the rock breaks you. We stopped beating our heads against that rock long ago, to save our own skulls.”
“Well, we’ll leave that for another time, I’m sure we’re boring our guest,” Sella said, patting Kell on the belly.
“I’m thinking more along the lines of that sleeping bag,” Jenny said with a yawn. “I didn’t realize how tired I was until we sat down.”
“You’ve been awake for over twenty-four hours,” Kell told her.. “I think the adrenalin has faded.”
She laughed. “That’s no lie,” she agreed.
“Then I’ll let Kell take you to get some sleep, Jenny,” Sella said, turning her head down and nuzzling Kell fondly. “See you in the morning, friend.”
“Rest well, friend,” Kell returned.
“It was nice to meet you, Jenny Edwards,” Sella declared, reaching down with a forepaw and holding out a taloned finger to her. Jenny chuckled and took hold of her talon and then shook it, then Sella turned and headed back for the water.
“I like her,” Jenny declared as she hopped over a wave, then submerged.
“I’ve known her almost my whole life,” he said with gentle warmth.
“So, are you and her…?”
He shook his head. “We’re just friends,” he replied. “But if she were an earth dragon, then she probably would be.”
“What difference does that make?”
“It makes a huge difference,” he told her as she got up. “We’re not like the different races among the humans. There are fundamental differences. If other dragons ever found out about it, the entire island would go up in flames. Even our parents would heavily disapprove.”
“Huh. I didn’t think they’d be that way,” she said. “Keth and Kanna seemed very wise and mellow.”
“It’s not that they disapprove of Sella, it’s just that there are some traditions that don’t change, Jenny, no matter how much we do. If dragons of two different species became lifemates, it would be the equivalent in your society of finding out that the pope is secretly married to a muslim mullah.” They started for his burrow. “Besides, where would we live? I can’t very well live underwater, and she can’t live for extended periods of time out of the water. Water dragons need to be in the water or they fall ill. And most importantly, we could never have children. The differences between the dragons are far more than skin deep, Jenny. We are five separate and distinct sub-species of dragon. Nine, actually, but drakes and wyrms of the same type can interbreed. That’s a taboo as well, though. Drakes stay with drakes, wyrms stay with wyrms.”
“Hmm,” she mused. “So, is there some lucky earth dragon girl out there that has your eye, Kell?”
“I’m married to my job, Jenny, I told you that,” he chuckled lightly.
“Uh, you do have a social life, right? I mean dragons in general?”
“It’s a little more formal than human dating, but yes. Earth dragons pick their mates themselves, and we have extended courtships as we get to know each other, see if we’re compatible for being lifemates. It can take decades to finally formally bond, and all dragons take picking a mate very seriously, Jenny. We mate for life, and if our mate dies, we never rebond. For us, til death do us part is literal.” They turned down the ramp to his burrow. “A widow might have a romantic relationship after the mate dies, but it’s what you might call casual. There’s only room in our hearts for one mate, and once a mate takes up residence there, they never leave.”
“That’s beautiful in a way,” she said, looking up at him. “Are all dragons like that, or just earth dragons?”
“All dragons are to a certain extent,” he answered. “Fire dragons are a bit more casual about mates, often cheating outside the bond, and their relationships are very contentious and sometimes violent. Most of the incidents of violence on the island are a fire dragon husband and wife fighting.” Jenny laughed. “I know, but despite all the hostility and clawing, the bond is true. And the fighting is just a form of reinforcement of their bond, in a strange way. The mates continually demonstrate their worthiness by showing their bravery and fighting prowess.”
She yawned and stretched as they entered the living chamber, and she picked up her pack and sleeping bag. “Alright, I’m really sleepy,” she said. “I’m starving too, but I’ll eat when I get up.”
“You should have said something,” he said. “I have several loaves of french bread in my pantry.”
“One of the perks of being a field agent?”
“I can go to the supermarket,” he chuckled. “I attract a hell of a lot of attention when I do, but hey, I had the money.”
“Where did you get it?”
“The water dragons salvage more than steel off the ocean floor,” he replied. “The department keeps gold, gems, paper money we manage to recover and clean off, those kinds of things. We try to buy what we need first, but if we can’t buy it, we steal it instead.”
“I wondered if you thought about doing that when you told me about the salvaging.”
“Like I said, we try to be as self sufficient as possible,” he said. “Alright, do you want to stay in here?”
“No, I’ll sleep in your bedroom. I’m curious to see how you do it,” she smiled.
He chuckled. “You’re going to be very disappointed.”
Jenny did go to his bathroom to change into fresh clothes, then she brought her pack and bedroll to his empty sleeping chamber. It held nothing but a large mound of earth, dug out in the center to form a hollow, and Kell was already curled up in that depression. Jenny laid down her mat and bag, then she climbed into it. “Kell? Thank you for a very eventful day,” she called.
“You’re welcome, Jenny. I hope it helps both of our races.”
“I think it will. I came here wildly curious and a whole lot of afraid. I’m not afraid anymore, not in the slightest.”
“And that’s exactly what we were hoping,” he said. “Lights off,” he called, and the electric lights fixed into the ceiling blinked out, as did every light in the entire burrow.
“Voice recognition software?”
“Based on, appropriately named, the Dragon speech to text program,” he affirmed. “We tweaked it a little bit.”
“So, you have a computer program that understands dragon language.”
“We do,” he agreed. “Don’t get any ideas, though, they probably won’t give it to you.”
She chuckled. “Game on, Kell, game on. I know you’re here now, and I know you have internet access. I will find a way in.”
“I hope you enjoy disappointment,” he murmured as he put his head down.
He expected a snappy comeback, but the change in her breathing told him she’d already dropped off. She’d crashed hard after getting off her adrenalin-induced active phase, and now she desperately needed sleep. He closed his eyes and remained still, so as not to disturb her, using the quiet time to organize his thoughts and consider the monumental import of the events of the day.
Things were going to change after day, change drastically, and not just for the dragons. A quantum shift in the fundamental thinking of mankind, their belief that they were the only intelligent species on the planet, was going to be challenged when Jenny got back to Washington and started telling them about what she’d seen.
He could only hope that she convinced them that that quantum shift in their lives could be a good one.
Jenny slept completely through the night, so much so that Kell had to wake her up just before sunrise. She jumped a little when she first saw him, startled in her half-awake daze when she saw him. He made her some bread and potatoes for breakfast as she went to the restroom and changed into jeans and a tee shirt, then packed up her backpack and set it by the entry to the welcoming chamber and sat with him and shared bread and potatoes with him, set on a cloth spread on the floor like a picnic.
“So, how is this going to work?”
“You don’t need me to go through the scion with you,” he told her “And it’s about noon in Washington right now, so you should be just fine. When you get back, find the closest phone you can. Nothing electrical you brought with you is going to work,” he warned with a slight smile.
“You tell me that now?”
“I figured you’d have tried taking pictures by now,” he chuckled.
“Nope. I didn’t bring anything but my phone, and it’s in my pack. You showed me a lot of trust bringing me here, I didn’t want to violate it.”
“Well, your phone is fragged, so I guess we owe you a new one,” he told her.
“The scion destroys electronic equipment if it’s turned on,” he told her. “Now if your phone was off, then just replace the battery and it should work just fine, unless is has a plasma screen. If it does, your screen is burned out and you’ll have to replace that too.”
“I’m not sure if I turned it off or not.”
“Good luck,” he chuckled as he bit off the majority of a loaf of french bread. “Anyway, we’ll drop you off in a clearing in some woods just off U.S. one in Woodbridge, so you won’t have to go far to find a phone. There’s a Seven Eleven just a block to the north. I’m sure they can let you use theirs. And just to warn you, once you exit the scion, we’ll move it,” he told her. “So any agency that decides to camp that clearing is going to be in for disappointment.”
“Exactly what is a scion? I figured that it’s some kind of magical gateway.”
“That’s exactly what it is,” he replied. “The chromatics create and govern them. It’s highly advanced magic, though, so it’s not like we have scions behind every rock. There are three scions near Washington, but that’s only because of how important Washington is and how dangerous it is for us to work there, so we have to have multiple escape routes if things go bad.”
“I’ll keep it a secret.”
“Liar,” he teased, which made her laugh.
“You don’t eat much, do you?” she noted as he picked up the handle of the platter in his teeth and carried it to the counter then reared up on his back legs and took it in his forepaws to set it down.
“Not much,” he replied. “But we’re earth dragons. Fire dragons are pigs. It’s where most of our food goes,” he grunted. “I eat about two loaves of bread for breakfast. A fire dragon would eat about twenty, and still be hungry.”
“Well, there’s how you put them in their place,” she chuckled. “Stop feeding them.”
“It’s been done before,” he nodded as he came back to the cloth. “The food riots of 1760 were a violent and tumultuous time on the island. The earth dragons and water dragons decided to hold their harvests back from the fire dragons after a fire dragon torched an earth dragon farm, and the council refused to punish him for it. The fires tried to take the food by force, and it got very bloody in a hurry. The water dragons helped the earth dragons defend their farms, and it was just too much for the fires. They sulked about that defeat for decades,” he grunted. “They were going to push it even further, but then the water dragons stated that they’d stop feeding the sky and chromatic dragons as well if they didn’t put the fires back in their place. That stopped it immediately. That’s an instant voting majority on the council.”
“Why didn’t they punish the fire?”
“Because at that time, just about anyone could do just about anything to an earth dragon, and the council wouldn’t do anything about it,” he said darkly. “It always came down to a seven to two or five to four vote, depending on if the waters felt that it was a real crime or just something blown out of proportion. After the food riots, the council started taking crimes against earth dragons much more seriously, but only because the waters had put their foot down and told them to put an end to it. By ourselves, we can’t do much of anything here,” he growled. “Geon and Anthra may be on the council, but they’re powerless because of the voting block formed by the fire, sky, and chromatic dragons. We need the water dragons to support us in about anything we do, and that means that virtually all votes concerning earth dragons come down to a five to four split, and always against us. I’m honestly amazed they didn’t pass their original punishment for when I broke the law. It was five to four against my punishment. I came one sympathetic sky drake away from summary execution, or having my wings cut off and chained to Penitent’s Aerie for a few years so anyone who had the urge could fly over and torment me,” he told her.
She whistled. “I had no idea.”
“I all but owe my life to Anthra, Shii told me that she convinced the sky drake that what happened wasn’t my fault,” he told her. “I instead got a public rebuke and turned into bait when it came to making contact with you.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re alright,” she said honestly, looking up at him.
“I’m glad I’m alright too,” he said ruefully, which made her chuckle. “Now, it’s close to sunrise, so we’d better get going. It’s a long climb up the ramps.”
She shouldered her pack and came out with him, then he leaned way down on his front legs and presented his leg so she could climb up. She didn’t catch it in the gloom of the predawn, but then climbed up on his neck. He turned and started for the ramps in relative silence, with only the sound of the waves crashing on the beach and a warm, gentle breeze. “I’m going to miss this place,” she sighed. “It’s beautiful.”
“I take it that means you didn’t mind the company?”
“Not one bit,” she replied, patting his neck. “You need to get Skype or something so we can talk.”
“I have it. And I’ll even get a webcam, just for you,” he promised, which made her chuckle. “But I’ll just make it fun and hack your home computer some day.”
“I’ll be waiting for you to try,” she replied with friendly swagger.
“Then let the games begin,” he declared, which made her laugh.
Once they reached Scion Aerie, the platform over the intelligence department building, he let her get down and pointed out the swirling gateway of magical energy that she’d be using. “Remember, a block north, you’ll find a Seven Eleven,” he told her.
“I’m surprised they’re not here to see me off.”
“They’re watching every move we make, and don’t think they’re not,” he replied. “Besides, they wouldn’t bring themselves to showing you that much consideration. As far as they’re concerned, when they dismissed you on the aerie, that was that. They’ve had sky dragons watching us the rest of the time.”
“I never saw them.”
“You won’t. When a sky dragon doesn’t want to be seen, you won’t see them…unless you’re an earth dragon,” he chuckled. “They can’t see into my burrow, but any time we were outside, they were telling the council everything we did.” She turned to look up the foot or so difference between their heads. “I hope that things go well for you, Jenny,” he told her. “I’ll keep in touch.”
“I learned a great deal, Kell,” she said, reaching up and patting him on the snout. “About you, the dragons, about everything. And I’m not afraid of you.”
“That’s more than we could have ever hoped for,” he said simply.
“You’ll say goodbye to Keth and Kanna and Sella for me?”
“Of course,” he promised. “Keep your eyes open, my friend. I’ll keep in touch, but it won’t be obvious. Only someone like you will catch it.”
“You bet I will,” she smiled, then she buckled her pack straps. “Alright, let’s do this.”
“Just step into it, and the next step you take will be on the other side,” he told her.
“I couldn’t just back up into it?”
He shook his head. “Only a dragon can activate the scion from the other side, it wouldn’t react to you,” he told her. “But on this side, it’s an open doorway.”
“Oh, okay. Goodbye, Kell. Take care.”
“Gaia embrace you, my friend, and keep you safe and healthy.”
She leaned forward and kissed him on the nose, turned, and then stepped into the gateway of magical energy. Her body quickly shimmered and vanished, and he knew that she was already in Woodbridge.
It was good. The council wanted to show the humans that they didn’t have anything to fear from them, and he felt that they had done just that. With Jenny’s report to her superiors, he hoped that a discreet dialogue could be opened between the dragons and the United States, which might be the first stone in the bridge that would close the gap between them. The humans were wondrous creatures, a paradox in some ways but intriguing and fascinating in others, and he felt that more open channels between their two races would lead to prosperity for both sides.
But that hinged on the humans, and how they digested what Jenny had to tell them. For the dragons, it was back to business as usual until the humans made the next move.
It was almost surreal coming out of the scion and ending her almost dream-like expedition to the most exotic place in the entire world.
Jenny blinked against the bright sunlight, found the day a bit chilly compared to the tropical warmth from which she had just come, going from sunrise to afternoon in two steps, and turned quickly to see the magical swirl of light fade behind her, and then wink out. Almost automatically, she reached out behind her and found that Kell had been honest about the scion, that it wouldn’t open for her, but she just had to give it a try.
Kell…he seemed so, so, so…normal. She knew she shouldn’t attach anything like that to the dragons, that Kell had been extensively trained to be capable of socializing with human beings due to his field work, and that odds were he acted completely differently when humans weren’t around. But it made him so approachable. She had found him highly intelligent, charming, friendly, and funny in a way. He had a definite personality, and that anthropomorphized him far more than the simple fact that he could talk did. She was confident that once just about anyone got past the fact that he was about seven or eight feet high at the shoulder and some twenty-odd feet long, they’d lose their fear of him after they talked to him for a little while, just as she had.
But, she had a mission to complete. She saw the cars on U.S. 1 through a thinning of the trees on the far side of the little wooded lot, which were actually quite commonplace in the Virginia suburbs, and started for it. She stepped through about five yards of trees and came out along the side of the road, and to the north, right where he said it would be, was a 7-11 convenience store. She walked along the side of the busy road as her mind whirled over what she’d seen and how she needed to organize it for her report, and that distracted her enough to be surprised when she was in the parking lot. Phone booths and pay phones were almost a thing of the past, so she went into the store and approached the counter. “Excuse me, my phone broke and I’m a little stranded at the moment. Could I use your phone to call for a ride?”
“As long as it’s local,” the teenager behind the counter said.
“I’m calling Arlington, is that local from here?”
“Yup,” he said, handing her the phone sitting behind the counter.
She dialed up the headquarters for the Hunters, the direct contact number for her supervisor, Yancy. Yancy was a grizzled veteran of the CIA and NSA, was once an actual spy, but now rode a desk as he wound his way down into retirement. That didn’t make him a bad boss, however. He was sharp as a tack and knew the ins and outs of the political jockeying in the intelligence bureaus like few others, and when Yancy prepped them for a mission, it was always thorough and exact. Yancy had never sent them into a situation where they didn’t know exactly what they were doing and exactly where they were going. “Yancy,” she said immediately when he heard him pick up.
“Thank god!” he exclaimed. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine, boss,” she replied. “I’m in Woodbridge, in a seven eleven on U.S. one. I need a ride.”
“I’ll have someone there in three minutes, probably a local police unit, depending on what we have where,” he said immediately. “They’ll bring you straight to the office.”
“Got it, boss. I’ll be waiting. Boy, do I have a lot to tell you.”
“Save it for when we’re secure,” he said quickly.
“Thanks, hon,” she said to the teenager. “They’re sending someone to get me.”
“Hope everything’s okay,” he said to her.
“Just fine,” she smiled.
Not two minutes later, a Woodbridge PD squad car screamed onto the lot with lights flashing and siren wailing, and one of the two officers inside jumped out and rushed into the store. “Mrs. Edwards!” he called.
“Right here, officer. They told you where to go?”
“Yes ma’am,” he said quickly, offering for her backpack. “We’ll get you there as quickly as possible.”
“Then let’s get going.”
The lone police car turned into a procession of a dozen cars, local police and federal unmarked units, all with lights and flashers blaring, getting her to the NSA annex building in Arlington where the Hunters had their office as fast as they could. Cars blocked intersections so they could pass, and once they were on the interstate, they screamed down the left lane at nearly 100 miles an hour. Jenny sat in the back with her pack, still organizing things in her mind so she could write her report, and quite certainly give an oral report to someone important sometime soon. There had been a lot of information to absorb, and the training they’d given her when she joined the Hunters in observation had served her well on the dragons’ island. She’d seen much more than Kell had showed her, and all of that was going to be passed on to her superiors.
They had her in front of the unassuming office building about 25 minutes after picking her up. It was about three blocks from the national cemetery, one of the many office buildings along that stretch of Arlington, close to the river and with a view of the monument and the scaffolding surrounding it. It was a white building with a rounded front, dark glass in four stories along the curve, and a large parking lot behind a wrought-iron, seemingly decorative fence. It was actually a high security building, filled with the offices and headquarters of several branch offices within both the NSA and CIA, and the two guards armed with MP-5s at the checkpoint gate made that abundantly clear to any onlookers in a hurry. Yancy and half her team were already out by the curb when the police car pulled up to the front, and Wilson opened the door for her.
“Am I glad to see you, mookie!” he said, giving her a rough bear hug when she got out.
“Whuff! Ribs, Tom, ribs!” she wheezed.
“Thank you, officer. But you were never here,” Yancy told the officers in the front. “Understand?”
“Yes, sir!” the driver nodded. “Good luck, ma’am,” he added, then his partner rolled up the window and the car headed back for the gate.
They herded her into the building quickly, Wilson carrying her backpack for her as she was all but surrounded by her team. Juarez kept a hand on her shoulder and Price was sweeping anyone out of their way as they headed for their offices, which were on the second floor and not far from the entry. They had a dedicated part of the underground garage where they held their vehicles, but they carried their weapons and stored most of their gear in their offices. Nobody in the building would give them a second glance to see a unit of armed, combat-dressed people moving through the halls…not in that building. Yancy swiped their door open, then they moved into the main office, filled with computers, surveillance equipment, and other things they used in their job as counter-espionage against computer criminals. Jenny had a desk out in that open area along with most of the others, but hers was covered in computers and printouts of computer activity, since she was one of four computer specialists on the team. They did the technical work, and the other 8 members of the three four-man Hunter teams did most of the chasing and shooting. Most of the combat members knew a lot about computers themselves, necessary for the job, but Jenny, Derringer, Michaels, and Petrovski were the four dedicated computer experts, the eggheads, on the team, and it was to them that the most difficult or perplexing problems were brought. All four of them held doctorates in computer science. Though Jenny was well versed in small arms tactics and they wouldn’t bat an eye over sending her into a combat situation, Wilson was her partner and primary bodyguard, the muscle to go with the brains. He was a very big, athletic, and almost monstrously strong black man with a wide but attractive face who was grizzled and professional, but he had a nearly big-brother attachment to Jenny. Sometimes he was a bit too protective of her. Price and Juarez were the other members of her squad, they also had 6, 8, and 10 man Hunter squad configurations depending on the perceived difficulty of the mission at hand, and there were also times when the entire 12 members of the elite team were mobilized…such as for when what happened just a few days ago.
“Back off, you mugs!” Yancy barked. “Price, get her class A’s out of the closet. Jenny, get yourself a shower and clean up, because you have to be at the White House as soon as you’re in uniform. You’re going to be briefing the President.”
“But I haven’t even written my report!” she gasped.
“They don’t care,” he replied. “They want you there now.”
“We’ll get you ready, mookie,” Tom Wilson told her, patting her on the shoulder. “Let’s go, people!”
A bit surprised, Jenny hurried through the side door to their locker room, and the showers just past them. The locker room itself was unisex, but they had separate showers and dressing benches where they could go back out to the lockers in panties and bras…or at least she did. Petrovski often paraded out there naked, much to the appreciation of the guys. There were only two women on the team, and that wasn’t enough separate the locker room, but it was enough for them to cordon off two showers behind a wall for them to use. She and Petrovski had their own personal showers, where she had her shampoo and body wash, and she quickly washed the Pacific salt off of her as she more seriously organized her thoughts, with a little nervous trepidation. Now she was going to brief the President. With no preparation, with no slideshow or Powerpoint presentation or visual aides, no script. Just get up there and talk about what she saw in front of a dozen or so of the most powerful people on the planet. Petrovski brought her Class A’s out when she stepped out of the shower, and put a towel around her. “We can’t wait to hear about what you saw,” she said with a grin. Petrovski was the daughter of Russian immigrants and was almost unnaturally tall for a woman, 6’3”, but she was a genius when it came to computers on top of being built like a brick house and with a face that could be on the cover of Elle. Instead of becoming a supermodel or an actress, she had instead earned a Ph.D. from USC in computer science and now was a Hunter, chasing down cyber criminals, when she wasn’t torturing the guys in the locker room by walking around naked. She enjoyed making them cover their groins to hide the erections after she finished getting dressed; she was a very salty and slightly sadistic woman that way..
“It was amazing,” she replied. “Absolutely amazing!”
“Don’t start, or I won’t be able to sit down til you get back,” Petrovski laughed.
“I can’t believe they’re not even giving me a chance to write a report,” she fretted as she dried off.
“The whole government’s been in a tizzy since you left,” she replied. “Every agency is on high alert.” “It’s all for nothing, they aren’t any real threat,” she said calmly as she took the bra Petrovski offered.
“No, nothing, nothing, not til you can tell me everything,” she protested.
“It’s not like we can’t talk while I dress.”
“But you can’t tell me everything in ten minutes,” she countered.
“More like three hours,” she mused.
“Then hush. We’ll be here waiting til you get back.”
It took her maybe ten minutes to get into her Marine uniform, and they had her in an armored limousine and on the road five minutes later. Two Secret Service agents were in the front seat, and they had two police cars both ahead and behind with two motorcycle units at the ends, a full motorcade. All other traffic was cleared out as they came over the bridge and into the district, and not four minutes after that, they were pulling up to the White House. She gawked a little when an agent opened the door for her, then a man in a suit hustled her right inside. “Bob Reeves, chief of staff,” he said hurriedly as she was hustled into the door. “You’ll be giving your report in the situation room. We have some still images of the animal ready on the overhead in case you need to refer to them, but outside of that, I’m afraid we have little in the way of a prepared presentation. I’m afraid you’re going to have to wing it, Lieutenant. I know it’s a bit unfair, but the President demanded your immediate report as soon as you got back, powerpoint be damned.”
“I think I can manage it, sir,” she said as they hurried down elegantly decorated hallways, filled with rich woods and antiques, moving so fast she could barely appreciate where she was. An aide handed her a visitor’s badge almost as an afterthought, which she clipped to her jacket.
“There’s a remote on the podium ready, just hit the on button and an image of the animal will come on the screen behind you.”
“I got it, sir.”
A pair of elaborate double doors opened, and what she expected was in front of her. It was a long table, and at the end of it sat the President of the United States, Jack Walker. A republican just into his first term, he won election on a platform of moderation and fence-mending after the highly chaotic eight years of Obama, eight years of complete gridlock and some of the most poisonous, dirty, even personally destructive politics ever seen. Jenny hadn’t voted for him, but from what she’d seen so far, she wasn’t unhappy that he won the election. He’d already calmed down the political vitriol, mainly by lambasting his own party over the dirty tactics they used against the former president. That soothed democrats who were preparing to do the exact same thing to the republican president, gearing up to turn Walker’s first term into a slugfest of complete Congressional gridlock, and had fostered some bipartisanship in Congress. Walker was trying to mend fences, and for that, she highly respected him. She saluted smartly after coming into the room, and then was immediately ushered over to the podium by the chief of staff. She paused and looked at the members of Walker’s cabinet, two four-star generals, and dozens of aides and staffers standing along the walls behind the table. A spotlight came on, making her blink a little bit, and she picked up the remote control.
“I’m Lieutenant Jenny Edwards, Mister President, a member of the Hunters, a computer counter-terrorism and cyber crime investigation unit attached to the NSA.”
“We know who you are, Lieutenant,” Walker said in a calm voice. “I’m sure you can understand that we are just slightly interested in what you have to say, so the floor is yours.”
“Uh, yes sir,” she said, turning on the projector, showing the image of Kell splashing into the Potomac. “I’ll do my best to be linear, sir, but forgive me if I jump around a little. As you might expect, this creature is called a dragon,” she began. “His name is Kell, and he’s what they call an earth dragon. Just as I’m a part of the intelligence community, he is a member of their intelligence community, specially trained to enter our society and conduct missions of observation, and sometimes espionage, against assorted targets, both governmental and corporate. The primary mission of these dragon operatives is to discern the level of knowledge we have of them, ensuring that they stayed a secret, as well as investigate human technologies in search of ones that they could adapt to their own use.”
“My first question, which is fairly obvious, Lieutenant, is how did something like that run around without us knowing?” Walker asked.
“Well, this may sound outlandish, sir, but the simple answer is magic,” she replied, using a laser pointer to highlight the fuzzy picture, the amulet chained around his chest. “This device here is what they call a hider amulet, which cloaked him in an illusion that made him appear to be a human being. One of my teammates shot out the amulet by sheer luck, which caused him to be revealed.”
“Magic?” someone called.
“I saw it for myself, sir, and it’s very real,” she replied soberly. “The dragons can do magic. It’s how their agents hide among us, and it’s how they transport their agents back and forth from their home, and how they’ve kept their home hidden all this time. Anyway, sir, as you know, they reached out to us. Kell was sent to my home by their government to invite me to their home island, so they could explain their actions to us. They picked me because I’m a Hunter, and they felt that the government would listen to me when I got back…which it seems they were correct about,” she mused, looking around. “I spent a little over a day on their island, sir. They didn’t try to hide anything from me. They were very open and honest, so much so that they had me stay with Kell in his home, and I also met his parents, siblings, and some of his friends.”
She turned off the projector. “I spent over a day observing the dragons in both formal and informal situations, and the insight of Kell about the other dragons proved to be highly accurate when I spoke to others. In a basic overview, their society is divided into five major sections, almost like a caste system, which are racial. There are five basic races of dragon; earth, water, fire, sky, and what they call chromatic. Within these five major divisions are a further division into two types of dragons, drakes and wyrms. Kell is an earth drake. A wyrm looks exactly like a drake, but is larger. These dragons look very different from one another and have very different capabilities and outlooks. I only really got to observe the daily life and social customs of the earth dragons because my host was an earth dragon, but I learned that the five species don’t interact overly much, each staying to their own. And there are some inter-species frictions between the dragons that I’ll explain in more detail later. Each dragon has specific talents that they use within their society. Earth dragons are builders and farmers, what you might consider the main labor force. Earth dragons are also the only dragons in their society who are trained in modern human technology. Water dragons are primarily farmers and fishers, providing food. Sky dragons are hunters and watchers, keeping aerial reconnaissance over their home island. Fire dragons are their primary military presence, the dragons that do the fighting. And the chromatics are apart from the others, pursuing purely scholastic goals. The earth and water dragons feed the entire population, the earth dragons provide infrastructure, the sky dragons keep watch over the ocean for human ships, and the fire dragons train for combat. The chromatics contribute to their society only with their magic.
“Their government is very weak and decentralized. They have a council that represents the five species of dragons that serves as their central government, but it is fractured and divisive. I personally witnessed their members arguing with each other. Supplementing this central government is a series of local councils and such where dragons in a locality more or less govern themselves. The council of dragons oversees all aspects that affect all dragons, but all other issues are handled at a local level. Law enforcement is split between local governments and the council. Local and minor matters are handled locally, but severe or egregious acts are sent to the council to decide punishment.
“Societally, the dragons are much like us. They organize themselves by their species and each species has its own culture, much like the different cultures between human nations. I spent my day with the earth dragons, and from my observation, if you dropped an earth dragon on a farm in Iowa, he’d have absolutely no problems associating with the farmers he’d find there. Earth dragons organize themselves around their labor pursuits, builders, farmers, factory workers, intelligence gatherers, but they consider themselves a singular society despite these specializations. They farm, they build things, and they are highly intelligent and well versed in our technologies, which they observe, copy, and even steal as necessary. They have a power grid on the island provided by a geothermal electric plant, a sewer system, and factories that produce durable goods such as televisions, computers, and refrigerators for local consumption. They share these technological comforts with the other dragons. The earth dragons are solely responsible for the intelligence department that sends their field agents into the human world. The earth dragons are also the only ones that speak any human languages. If we are to open channels with the dragons, Mister President, we have to go through the earth dragons. They aren’t the ones in control, but they’re the ones that have control of the door. It would behoove us to ensure we keep them friendly and amenable to us.
“The water dragons are family based and solely devoted to fishing and farming underwater plants and marine animal husbandry. They have little interest in things outside of these pursuits. Physiologically speaking, they have diverged from the other dragons to where they have no horns, no scales, nothing like the earth dragon you’ve seen. They almost look like sharks with legs but with the tails of dolphins. Of note for this briefing is that the water dragons scour the ocean floor for shipwrecks, which they salvage for the steel and whatever the ships might contain. They bring them back to the island, where the earth dragons recycle the materials for island use. Most of their steel comes from shipwrecks, and they scavenge plastic floating in the ocean for their use.”
“Exactly where do you think this island is located, Lieutenant?” the President asked.
“I know for a fact that it’s in the same time zone as Hawaii, sir,” she replied. “I would place it somewhere in the south Pacific, south of the Hawaiian islands. The island’s climate is tropical, and the island is mountainous and holds an active volcano. According to Kell, the dragons use magic to hide the island from us, and can even fool satellites.”
“Thank you. Proceed.”
“Yes, sir,” she nodded, taking a moment to regain her train of thought. “The water dragons and earth dragons have something of an informal alliance,” she continued. “Since both are providers, they have more things in common than with the other dragons. In fact, the earth dragons are highly dependent on the political power of the water dragons for basic protection and rights. The earth dragons are seen as second class citizens among the other dragons because they’re incapable of flight and have no magical capabilities. The water dragons are their only protection against the other dragons from a political standpoint. Without the support of the water dragons, the earth dragons would be at risk of exploitation from the other species.
“The sky dragons are completely organized around their ability to fly,” she continued. “Their bodies are evolved for it, and everything they do in their society revolves around it. Their primary mission is aerial hunting of wild game and keeping watch over the ocean around their island for human incursion. Kell told me that they also organize hunting expeditions into uninhabited territory, probably in South America. Of note is that the sky dragons are forbidden to overfly human-inhabited territory unless on specific reconnaissance missions. According to Kell, they can alter their coloration to make them all but invisible from the ground, and I would assume they have some kind of magic that defeats radar, since that seems to not be an issue for them. From what I observed, they seem to be somewhat independent from each other, more a collection of individuals rather than a collective whole, but with certain customs and observances that bring them together for specific reasons. They’re like eagles, solitary and proud, but they’ll gather in some instances in a common interest.
“Fire dragons are large, heavily built, and possessed of aggressive instincts and a volatile temperament,” she continued. “They exist only to fight, be it each other, other dragons, or whoever the council tells them to fight. They double as police in certain situations, sent to apprehend dragons who break their laws. Their entire internal society is based on the subjugation of other dragons to their dominion. A fire dragon rules a section of volcano like a gang boss, and he rules purely through strength and intimidation. The fire dragons have an extremely hostile relationship with the earth and water dragons, to the point where there has been conflict between the two groups in the past. I only saw three fire dragons up close while I was there, and I’d rather not get that close to them again,” she said honestly, putting a hand on her stomach reflexively. “They were very belligerent and openly hostile to the other dragons. One even threatened me. If we open ties to the dragons, sir, we should be very wary of the fire dragons.
“The chromatic dragons exist somewhat outside the structure of the other four,” she continued. “Their only function is to study and perform magic, and from what I observed, they are highly arrogant and conceited. From a social standpoint, they think themselves akin to nobility, and they contribute nothing concrete to the island’s society outside of their magical services. Kell described them as, and I quote, the most obnoxious, conceited, self-centered, arrogant living things on the planet. From what I observed from the only chromatic dragon I interacted with, this was an astute and correct observation. They see themselves as the rulers of all the other dragons, and are highly hostile to anything or anyone who challenges this view. Much like the fires, sir, if we interact with the dragons, I suggest we be very careful around the chromatics.” She cleared her throat, and before she could say something, and aide brought her a bottle of water. “Thank you,” she said with a nod, taking a drink, then continuing.
“Overall, my impression of the dragons was very favorable. Their island wasn’t very large, and from my observations, there can’t be more than perhaps ten to twenty thousand of them. From a military standpoint, they’re not much of a threat. They don’t have huge numbers, and while an individual dragon could kill the average soldier, he’s not going to be walking all over a tank or a fighter. From what I learned, dragons are immune to harm from their own element, so that means that bullets will kill anything but an earth dragon just as easily as it’s going to kill a human being. In a military confrontation, an individual dragon poses a threat to a small unit or a unit without armor or heavy weapons, but they’re no match for organized and armed infantry.
“They were very open with me, almost shockingly honest, and the one thing they wanted me to relay to you, sir, is that they’re not looking for trouble. They conduct their field operations mainly to keep a passive eye on us, to see if we know about them, and if so, how much we know. That’s changed now that they’ve been exposed, but the core of it is basically the same. They offered a simple bargain, sir, and I quote: ‘you leave us alone, we leave you alone.’ Their primary interest is in isolation from human society, and while the earth dragons have a keen interest in human technology, the other dragons have little or no interest in us outside of ensuring that we don’t bother them.”
“You said yourself that they conduct espionage against us. That’s not exactly a friendly act,” one of the generals said.
“Every nation conducts espionage, general, even our own friends,” she said simply. “The worst crimes they’ve committed is the theft of technology. For example, it wasn’t the Chinese that stole the prototype octocore CPU chips from the AMD research facility, it was the earth dragons. They copied the design and started producing them for their own use. They’ve also stolen the plans Iceland used for their geothermal electric plants, and some other things. The one thing I can tell you, mister President, is that the earth dragons are just as intelligent and technologically savvy as we are,” she said, looking at him. “I spent a couple of hours debating computer issues with Kell, and he taught me quite a bit. He knows more about computers than I do, and I have a doctorate in the subject. We have an honest opportunity to learn from the dragons, mister President. If we can approach them the right way, we could establish some permanent diplomatic ties…but it will have to be through the earth dragons, since they control the means by which we can communicate with them. If there’s one type of dragon I suggest we try to cultivate a friendship with, it’s them. From a social standpoint, the earth dragons are the most like us. There are some pretty big differences in culture and personality, but an earth dragon and a human in the same room would be able to strike up a conversation, where the other kinds of dragons would not. They either don’t care enough about us to try, or don’t feel that we’re worth their time.”
“And what threats did you see from them while you were there, Lieutenant?” the President asked.
“From a military standpoint, very little to none, sir,” she replied. “As I said, they’re too few in number, and outside of the earth dragons, they have almost no interest in our technology. A fire dragon would attack our infantry by breathing fire on them, or landing to attack with fangs and claws. That’s not much of a threat to a man with a heavy machine gun, as long as they keep the dragon at range, sir,” she surmised. “From an intelligence standpoint, the earth dragons are very formidable in that their interests and ours coincide. The other dragons are highly intelligent, but their dismissal of technology as below their notice more or less removes them from any worry from our point of view. The earth dragons are the ones interested in our technology, so they’re the ones we’d have to watch, at least from the counter-espionage perspective. I spent six years chasing them as a Hunter, sir, even though I had no idea what they were. They are intelligent, patient, methodical, and thorough. They have a greater understanding of some aspects of our technology than we do, taking our initial ideas and improving them, building on them, surpassing us if they have enough time to study it. From a political standpoint, we should keep ourselves well clear of them, sir,” she said honestly. “Their society is fractured and volatile, unstable, and from what little I saw while I was there, there’s tremendous potential for the whole thing to go up in flames at the slightest provocation. The earth dragons are highly resentful of their treatment at the hands of the fire, sky, and chromatic dragons, and despite the danger involved in provoking them, it’s just a matter of time before one of the other dragon races does exactly that. The last time it happened it sparked bloodshed between the earth dragons and the fire dragons, which required the water dragons to intervene and end it by using their underestimated political power to all but put the sky and chromatic dragons into a headlock and make them do what they wanted them to do. Were it not for the water dragons, there would have been an open war between the fire and earth dragons. We really don’t want to get involved in the middle of something like that, sir, it would get very messy very quickly.
“In my humble opinion, sir, we should accept their offer of we leave them alone they leave us alone, but try to establish discreet and possibly clandestine contacts among the earth dragons. I came to learn while I was there that while the earth dragons are an oppressed part of their population, the earth dragons are the most formidable of them all, because they are open to new ideas and adapt quickly to changing situations. They also have an honest curiosity about humans and an appreciation of our accomplishments that make them far more amenable to us than other dragons. If we want any allies among the dragons, mister President, it’s with the earth dragons. But to garner those relationships, we run the risk of inciting the wrath of the other dragons, who see earth dragons as something only slightly better than the livestock they manage. They would see us courting the friendship of the earth dragons as either a betrayal or proof that humans are no better than the earth dragons, which might permanently poison any future attempts to negotiate with them. But in my opinion, sir, that’s a risk worth taking. If we could learn anything from the dragons, or gain any permanent friendships or alliances, it will be with the earth dragons. They have the most value to us if we seek to gain anything from the dragons.”
President Walker was quiet a long moment. “Can you describe their magic?”
She paused a moment. “I only saw two active instances of it, mister President. A water dragon used a magical control of water to dry me off after I got there, and of course, there’s the scions, the magical gateways they use to travel between their island and our civilization. Kell said that they can move the doorways of the scions as needed, but I counted the scions when I was there, and there were only nine of them. So they only have nine doors, but they can move the doors where they need them to go. The dragons were quite liberal about explaining the magical powers of the dragons when I was at their council, when I professed curiosity. According to them, the water dragons have a natural talent for magic that protects, the fire dragons have talent in magic that destroys, the sky dragons have talent for magic that changes things or hides them from the senses, and the chromatics study more advanced forms of magic that exceed the others. It’s the chromatics that created and govern the operation of the scions, for example, and I would assume that they’re the ones that keep the island hidden from our satellites and from passing ships, using advanced magic.”
“But you got no solid information on the exact capabilities and limitations of this magic?” one of the generals asked.
“No sir, they didn’t go into that much detail,” she shook her head. “But magic’s not something we have to worry about as long as we’re only dealing with the earth dragons. They can’t do magic at all. Kell was rather scornful of magic, which leads me to believe that he thinks that technology is more useful than magic. However, Kell demonstrated a strong bigotry against magic and the magical dragons, nearly open hostility, so it might be his personal prejudice talking. In this case, I can’t depend on his observations. I’d honestly have to get more information to answer that question with any precision, General.”
The President talked under his breath with one of his cabinet members. “Alright, Lieutenant, what other observations did you make? I don’t care how minor they are, go over absolutely everything you remember.”
“This might not be very linear, mister President,” she said, looking up at the ceiling as she gathered her thoughts. “I might jump around a lot.”
“Just take your time, Lieutenant, we have all day, and you have complete control of this briefing. Take as little or as much time as you need, nobody’s going to pressure you. And if you repeat yourself, that’s fine too, sometimes you remember a little more after you think something over two or three times.”
She nodded with a grateful smile.
For nearly four hours, Jenny stood before the President of the United States and told him absolutely everything she could remember from her trip, from things as important as their architecture to things as minor as the beauty of the island and the smell of the air. She tried to describe her conversations with Kell as exactly as she remembered, even bringing in a whiteboard so she could make rough drawings of their architecture, Council Aerie, the outside of the intelligence department building, even a rough diagram of the chambers in Kell’s burrow. She even attempted very crude and poorly done sketches of the dragons to demonstrate how they looked different from one another, but then a google search of paintings and drawings of dragons let her equate some of the images with the actual dragons. She told them about Kell coming a whisker from being executed for being the one that exposed the secret of the dragons to humanity, then elaborated with the tale Kell told her of the food riots to further explain the social situation on the island concerning the earth dragons and to further explain the political and cultural ties they had to the water dragons. She described her interactions with the two water dragons that knew Kell, Shii and Sella, and spent nearly an hour describing Keth and Kanna, and impressing upon the President that Keth was like a wise old grandfather, filled with good advice and astute observations, and the single most un-scary dragon that lived. She even used several of his sayings in her presentation. She even told them about her cavorting around in her underwear and swimming with Kell and Sella, blushing a bit as she did so, then described laying on the beach with them to watch the sunset. “I know it sounds strange, Mister President, but I was entirely at ease with them by then,” she finished. “I had absolutely no fear of Kell or Sella, and I don’t think I ever will. They were bigger than me, and could have killed me with a single bite, but I’d actually laugh at myself if I even tried to imagine either of them doing that now that I know them. I felt completely comfortable with them, and I think anyone would have after talking to them a while.” She then remembered the confrontation with the fire dragon, and she acted that out with a surprised staffer, then drew a rough sketch of one of Kell’s tail spikes in their three rows of five, seven, and five. “He flicked it off his tail like a catapult, and it sank a good three feet into the side of the mountain, solid volcanic rock,” she told them. “He said it was an earth dragon’s primary defense, their most dangerous weapon. After seeing him do it, I have no doubt that it is,” she chuckled. “At close range, I think he could punch one of his spikes through tank armor, but that’s a moot point. The earth dragons are pacifistic by nature, at least up to a certain point.”
“What point is that, Lieutenant?”
“They believe in doing no violence until violence is done to them. But, if violence is done to them, then they react to that violence with immediate deadly force. When I heard him say that, it reminded me of President Roosevelt and his saying of speak softly and carry a big stick, mister President. That is the mentality of the earth dragons. Incite no violence, but when violence is brought to you, fight to kill. Kell explained that it was that reputation that kept the other dragons from harassing them. The other dragons are honestly afraid of the earth dragons in that respect. They may believe they’re superior to the earth dragons, but when they’re face to face with one, they are very careful not to provoke them. When the fire dragon threatened me, Kell chased it off, and I saw it for myself. Kell was not even half the size of the other dragon, but a single ultimatum and threatening posture made the fire dragon turn and run away. The other dragons consider the earth dragons to be barbaric, savage, and in a way, it festers the enmity they feel for them. It’s hard to feel superior to someone that you know can kill you if you make them angry. They’re like little wolverines,” she smiled. “Smaller than the other dragons, can’t fly, no magic, but if a dragon tries to assert his sense of superiority over them with physical violence, that dragon gets ventilated in short order.”
That made the President chuckle.
“It seems that they’d only have so many shots with them,” the general mused, looking at the rough sketch Jenny had made of Kell’s tail.
“Kell said they grow back, sir,” she answered his unspoken question. “When he gave me that demonstration, he said the spike he used would grow back in a matter of hours. Exactly how, I didn’t ask. But later that night, I looked at his tail and saw that it had indeed grown back, and looked no different than the other spikes on his tail. I didn’t notice up until that point because I was still preoccupied by my conversation with the council.”
She went back over several points, repeated herself quite a few times when she went back over some of the nuances she remembered when she was before the council, then described for the second time the sense of wonder she felt looking down from the ramps that first time, seeing dragons flying in the sky above and level to her, looking down and seeing the orderly farm plots, the waves lapping against the beach a thousand feet below, and the warm wind caressing her, and realized that every preconception she had drawn about what the dragons might be like was wrong.
It was there that President Walker interrupted her. “I think we can take a break now, Lieutenant,” he said. “I don’t know about you, but after four hours, I’m ready for a cup of hot coffee, a bearclaw, and a trip to the bathroom.”
She laughed despite herself, then immediately blushed and gave him a contrite look. “Sorry, Mister President.”
“Even I like to joke from time to time, Lieutenant,” he chuckled, standing up. “Let’s take fifteen, everyone. And nobody get between me and the men’s room!” he warned as he cut a fast pace towards the door. Jenny hurried down to the Ladies’ room herself, then was surrounded by the President’s cabinet members and staffers, asking them questions they couldn’t really ask during the briefing, more trivial things than anything else, then one asked if she’d thought to bring anything back from the island.
She laughed ruefully. “I have to admit, it never once crossed my mind,” she admitted. “I didn’t –no wait! I did bring something back!” she said quickly. “I found a pearl in an oyster and I put it in my backpack!”
“Not a very big one. It was in an oyster bed that the water dragons cultivate. Sella, the water dragon, she sorta urged the oysters to open and I found it.”
“Lucky you,” one of them noted.
“I totally forgot about that pearl,” she chuckled. “I never thought I’d go diving for pearls with dragons on a tropical island when I woke up yesterday morning,” she laughed. “It was as beautiful as any Hawaiian beach, but they didn’t have any palm trees. Hmm, I just now realized that,” she mused. “It was more than warm enough for them. Maybe they cut them all down or something.”
“Maybe they just don’t like coconuts,” a staffer noted.
“Or maybe palm trees are poisonous to them,” another mused.
“Anything’s possible, really,” Jenny said as the President returned to the room. “I guess those are those little things I’m supposed to remember. Kell said they had forests on the north and east sides of the island, but I never saw them. I really only saw his family’s farm and the view going up the ramps to the aeries, which are on the south side of the island.”
“Was the dragon warm to the touch?” one asked.
She nodded. “I seriously doubt they’re cold-blooded,” she replied. “His hide was really tough but not hard, you could see his scales but they were strangely smooth to the touch, like a snake’s scales, and you could tell by touching him that he was solid as a rock, all muscle. But it was his horns I liked best. They really made him look, well, majestic.”
”What was it like to ride him?” someone asked.
“Like riding a horse with no saddle,” she replied, taking a huge bite of the bearclaw they’d put on her podium while she was gone, finding herself suddenly ravenous. “He didn’t bounce around, his gait was smooth, so it made it real easy to stay up there without sliding around. But then again, he knew I was up there, and he said he wasn’t moving in a way that might make me fall off,” she remembered. “Even when he faced down that fire dragon, I never so much as wobbled on his neck. He even managed to turn sideways and threaten the fire dragon with his tail without me falling off,” she chuckled.
“Was that frightening?”
“Not til after it was over, since I had no idea what was going on until he told me,” she replied. “They weren’t speaking English.”
“Remembering a few more things, Lieutenant?” President Walker asked.
“A few, sir.”
“Then we should open it for general questions, I’m sure someone has thought to ask something that we haven’t already,” he said as everyone took their seats again. “So, anyone at all, any question. Nothing is too small or trivial. If you thought of it, it’s a question worth asking and answering.”
Jenny spent three more hours answering a barrage of questions from the two dozen or so people in the room, often making new drawings, answering everything as best she could, even to strange questions like how did she feel when Kell told her about his relationship with Sella and how it could go no further than it had. She answered everything as thoroughly as she could, often taking long moments in thought before offering a response. Eventually, however, it was pretty evident to everyone there that she was getting tired, and paused more and more to drink water, and then coffee, and the questions had turned repetitive. The President sat up and patted the table to get everyone’s attention. “I think that about covers the questions,” he said. “The Lieutenant looks a little tired, and we could use a break to go over the tapes and audio. So, let’s call it a day. Lieutenant, damn fine work,” he complemented. “I’d like as detailed a written report as you can muster as quickly as you can get it done, if you don’t mind.”
“I’ll get to work on it immediately, sir,” she said with a nod.
“Take her down to the cafeteria and give her anything she wants,” he told one of his staffers. “She’s got to be starving, and a good meal always gets my energy back up for those long nights.”
“With all due respect sir, I need to get back to my office so I can start my report as fast as I can, while everything’s fresh. I’ll just order a pizza or something. But I’m truly flattered by the invitation sir.”
He chuckled. “That’s what I like to see, real work ethic,” he smiled. “Alright. I’ll make sure you have all the pizza you can eat by the time you get there. Good work, Lieutenant. Very good work.”
“Thank you, sir,” she said. She snapped to attention and saluted along with the generals when the President stood up and left the room, then his aides descended upon her as others carted the four whiteboards out of the room; they hadn’t allowed her to erase anything, not even her mistakes. They wanted everything left inviolate for further analysis. They didn’t hustle her back down the halls, but they didn’t dally about either, and she didn’t want to. She needed to get started on her report as quickly as she could.
There was an entire stack of pizzas from Pizza Hut sitting in the office by the time she got back, and not one person had left. “When they delivered the pizzas, we figured you were about done,” Price grinned as Wilson clapped her on the shoulders. “How did it go?”
“Long and exhausting, but I don’t have time to rest. They want my written report yesterday.”
“Well, grab a slice and then get to work on it, Edwards,” Yancy told her, his weathered old face cracked into a smile. “And you’d better call Greg, but remember that this is all classified.”
“He already knows about Kell, since he sorta saw him at the house,” she said. “I already told him he’d better not say a word or I’d shoot him myself,” she added, which made them laugh. “But yeah, I need to tell him I’m back, and I probably won’t be home tonight. I have a lot to do.”
“I can’t wait to hear about this,” Juarez said eagerly.
“Later!” Yancy barked. “Where’s that report on the hack of UBS by Anonymous, Juarez? It’s not on my desk!”
“I’ll finish it, I’ll finish it,” he grumbled, grabbing a slice of pizza and heading for his desk.
At her own desk, which faced Wilson’s, she wolfed down a couple of slices of sausage pizza, composed herself, then started writing her report. Like any good geek, she could type very fast, so the pages started stacking up quickly as she started with a general overview and summary, then got more into the meat of each subject as she went back through it. The briefing to the President had actually helped her a great deal when it came time to do the report, since it let her really think everything through, organize it, classify it by importance, then put it all down in her word processing program with efficient speed. More and more slices of pizza found their way to her desk, the coffee pot filled, emptied, and refilled again, and the others ran out of endurance and headed home, leaving her and Yancy alone in the office. Wilson had replaced the battery in her phone and she found to her delight that it hadn’t been burned out by the scion, so she called Greg before she started and ensured him she was back and well, then called him every couple of hours as she did her report to update him on when she might be home. She said goodnight to Davie after it was past his bedtime, still typing page after page of her observations, with only the TV in the background and Yancy’s voice droning from his office as he talked to person after person on the phone, all of it over special encrypted lines.
At one in the morning, she did the final edits on her report, leaned back in her chair, then sighed in relief as she saved it, copied it to a thumb drive, then got up and headed for Yancy’s office. The leathery old man was still in his chair, a phone glued to his ear and cigar smoke wafting from the half-smoked stogie in the ashtray by his workstation. “I’m done, boss,” she called.
“Good, cause it’s the White House on the phone,” he told her. “She’s finished, Mister Secretary. I’ll have the thumb drive sent immediately by courier. It’ll be there as fast as the courier can run the red lights.” He pressed a button on a little console at the back of his desk, a summons for one of the government couriers that were stationed down in the lobby. They got a lot of use in their office building, since many of the things they and several other tenants did would never be sent out by phone or by the internet. Only by courier, using nothing but hard copies, would that information be secure. It was also why Yancy and every other agent in the office had two computers on his desk. One was “hot,” connected to the internet, where the only sensitive work they did on them was work that required internet access, such as tracing hack attempts and other similar work. The other computer was “cold,” which had no internet access, no wifi, no wireless, and even had a hardened outer case to isolate the internal boards from any and all EM radiation. They used those computers for everything that didn’t absolutely require internet access, which protected all the data on them from external espionage attempts. “You look wore out, Jenny. Go on home, Greg’s probably worried sick.”
“I’m alright, boss,” she said, then she yawned. “What time do I come in tomorrow?”
“You don’t,” he replied. “A car will pick you up at your house at nine-thirty sharp. Be ready for it, and be in uniform. They’re taking you to John Hopkins for a full physical and probably a thousand needles stuck in you,” he grinned.
“Standard operating procedure,” he said with a dark smile. “After that, you have a three o’clock appointment in the Pentagon for a briefing with the joint chiefs. And then back to the White House for a follow-up briefing immediately after you’re done at the Pentagon.”
“Suddenly being the one he picked isn’t feeling as exciting as it did a day ago,” she grunted.
Yancy gave a grating chuckle. “Welcome to the downhill side of that once in a lifetime assignment, kiddo. The debriefings. Lots and lots and lots of debriefings. You’ll feel like a wrung-out sponge when they’re done. Expect a couple of weeks of this shit, then things’ll settle down some. But at least you’ll get driven around like a bigwig as long as they need you,” he grinned. “Enjoy those limos while you can, you’ll get the full treatment until they wring everything they want out of you. Then it’s back to rush hour traffic.”
“Oh joy,” she grunted.
He chuckled gratingly. “So go home, get some sleep. You’ll have a long day tomorrow.”
“Sounds like it.”
She was exhausted.
Jenny flopped down into the chair behind her desk, remembering why she loved the Hunters so much now…no Class As. Marine Class A uniforms looked very sharp and impressive, but they were not comfortable, not in any way. The slacks were much worse than the skirt, so she’d opted for the skirt today, but that meant wearing hose, and she hated hose. But hose weren’t as bad as the scratchy Class A slacks, so it was the lesser of two evils.
She’d barely got three hours of sleep last night, then she was off to the races. Greg had taken the next few days off because she was going to be too busy to keep her appointments, like picking Davie up from preschool, and that was a load off her mind as she was whisked off to John Hopkins for a four hour physical, where they did absolutely anything and everything they could think of. CAT scans, tests, tests, and more tests, they stuck a needle or a camera just about anywhere they could find room for it. They even gave her tests that had absolutely nothing to do with anything, like a pap smear, searching for anything that might be anomalous compared to her last documented physical. Her job required some pretty extensive physicals every six months, including psychological tests, so at least they had a lot of records to study.
The others were all done for the day, except Yancy. Price, Juarez, Michaels, and Douglas were out on a mission over in Los Angeles, doing some on-site inspections of the L.A. Federal Reserve computer network, searching for holes or exploits that hackers could use to gain access to the system, one of the jobs they did. They weren’t only counter-espionage and hunted cyber criminals, but they also conducted security inspections of critical and highly sensitive government computer networks to ensure they couldn’t get hacked. Everyone else was in the office, working on various crimes that required their rather special touch, usually revolving around elite hacker groups like Anonymous and the People’s Brigade, a government-sponsored Chinese hacking ring. But unlike other government agencies, the Hunters went out and captured the offending hackers…or killed them. Price wasn’t the team’s sniper just to impress them on shooting ranges. He’d killed 14 targets in the 8 years she’d been on the team, and all of them were government-backed hackers who had protection from their sponsoring government, shielding them from arrest or prosecution.
What a day. Four hours of needles, then four hours in front of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, more or less rehashing what she’d gone over the day before. Then three more hours in the White House, this time with powerpoint slides that had artist’s remakes of the rough sketches she’d drawn, and more talk about magic.
Magic seemed to be the one thing they were most worried about. She hadn’t really seen what it could do, but the fact that the dragons had magical capabilities that were unknown to them really worried both the President and the Joint Chiefs. They wanted to know exactly what it could do, what limits it had, and what potential threat it posed to America. That the chromatics could open gateways that bridged thousands of miles and hide an entire island from both ships on the water and satellites in space, it really concerned them. Admiral Yates showed personal concern for the abilities of the water dragons, and the safety of America’s naval fleet should they somehow get into conflict with the dragons. That a water dragon could conceivably attack and sink a billon dollar nuclear submarine or an even more expensive aircraft carrier was of major concern to him, even more so than the possibility that water dragons could salvage highly sensitive technology from sunken vessels. They’d lost two nuclear submarines in the Pacific, one public knowledge and the other kept secret, and it was possible that the water dragons had found those wrecks, giving the dragons some weapons-grade nuclear material and a nuclear reactor to study, disassemble, and possibly copy for themselves.
She wasn’t sure what to think about it. Kell had been highly scornful of magic, even though he used it in his job as a field agent, but Kell also had a prejudice against it. It had to be fairly strong if they could hide the island, create the scions, and of similar concern were the potential magical powers of the fire dragons, since any conflict with the dragons would be primarily fought against the fire dragons. If it gave the capability for the fire dragons to fight at range, it might not be quite so easy to battle them with a conventional army.
She scrubbed her face with her hands, looking at the clock. She really should go home, but she had a couple of follow-up reports to write for the Joint Chiefs and the President. Poor Davie hadn’t seen her more than once in the last few days.
But, the brand new Major’s oak leaves on her shoulders were at least a little compensation for all the hard work. By order of the President himself, special field promotion straight to the rank of Major, effective the instant she set foot before the Joint Chiefs. Marine Corps General Brad Tanner had been the one to pin on her oak leaves, which was a high honor for her. It was a pleasant surprise, letting her completely skip Captain, which she was in line to get before the field promotion. Her job didn’t let her rise through the ranks as fast as other officers, since she couldn’t devote time for the promotion tests and was theoretically outside of military command while attached to the NSA, but at least now she was only slightly ahead rankwise of where she would have been if she hadn’t joined the Hunters. Most officers with her time in service were Captains by now, with just a rare few reaching Major below the zone, and officers like her who were still First Lieutenants due to either incompetence or no time to devote to their careers. Now she didn’t look like a bad officer, behind in rank compared to her time in service. It was something of a silly vanity, but some vanities weren’t rational.
She still glanced at the gold flashes on her shoulders…it was going to take time to get used to it.
She was typing out the report for the Joint Chiefs as Yancy barked at someone over the phone, probably the L.A. team, when her hot computer woke up from sleep mode…without her touching it. She glanced at the screen and saw her usual linux desktop, WINE icon blinking indicating it was running a couple of Windows processes in the background, then a new window popped up of its own volition. She stopped typing and looked at the window, lines of raw code scrolling down the screen, then a new window popped up.
She gasped. It was Kell! His symmetrically colored face appeared in the window, with a modified headset mic close to his fanged maw. She could see that he was in a room she’d never seen before, a room with walls, reared up in front of his desk, with his brand new webcam. There were two shelves behind him holding books about computers and programming, hardware manuals, and boxes…it must have been his office at work.
She snatched up the headset and mic for her hot computer and gawked at the screen. “How did you do that!” she gasped.
“Magic, of course,” he said dryly, which made her laugh. “How are you doing?”
“Fine, but there’s no way you could hack my work box!”
“Really? What are we doing now?”
She spluttered out a laugh. “I’m gonna figure out how you did it!”
“Please,” he snorted. “They want to know how things went. Your side is keeping it so hush-hush, not even we can find anything. So, I was ordered to give you a call, in our own special little way.”
“I really can’t tell yet. I haven’t finished with all the briefings. But they are listening, Kell. They’re listening very hard. They took me straight to the President himself when I got back, and I briefed him personally.”
“Good, that’s exactly what we hoped would happen,” he breathed in relief.
She glanced towards Yancy’s office. “They seem amenable, Kell, but some of them are very nervous about your magic,” she told him. “I spent three hours with the joint chiefs today discussing the possible ways your side could use magic if we had armed conflict. Since I didn’t really see any magic while I was there and I don’t know what it can do, they’re acting like you guys have nukes.”
Kell chuckled. “Magic can’t do that much. Only the chromatics can do anything you might call flashy. The average dragon’s magic isn’t so strong that they’d favor it over their own breath weapon. Magic is the fallback after they use up their breath weapons, not the first choice.”
“Anyway, how about you? What are you doing now?”
“At the moment, not much,” he replied. “I’ve been doing spider duty with the other grunts while they decide what to do with me. Ferroth is considering me as a field trainer, but the council is starting to meddle in the department. Before, Geon oversaw the department, but the chromatic is starting to butt his snout in our business. They’ve never done that before, and Ferroth’s not the only one that doesn’t like it one little bit. By the way, Sella says hello, and both she and sire are already trying to lobby to allow you to come back for a visit.”
“I wouldn’t mind at all,” she smiled. “So, things are settling down?”
“Just entering wait and see mode, that’s all, outside of the council starting to put their snouts in our business,” he replied. “They’ve suspended all field work until further notice, and naturally, the other field agents blame me,” he snorted. “But, it’s giving my replacement time to get a little better training. He was not the one I’d have chosen to take over my job. Not only is he a klutz at programming, but he’s an annoying little suck-up.”
“So, the new Stone is a weenie?”
“Cataclysmically so,” he grunted, which made her laugh.
Yancy came barreling out of his office, and before Jenny could react, he was looking over her shoulder. “I knew it!” he proclaimed. “Well, it’s nice to see the dragon face to face, Mister Kell,” Yancy said.
“My boss, Yancy,” she smiled, patting the hand he put on her shoulder. “The mastermind behind us almost catching you sooo many times.”
“I know who he is,” Kell said, nodding as he shifted his head slightly. Those glowing amber eyes made it hard to tell exactly where he was looking. “You should lay off those cigars, Yancy.”
The leathery old man laughed. “When I’m dead,” he retorted, which her mic picked up. “What brings you by?”
“They wanted to know how things were going on your end,” he replied, his deep voice rumbling through the speakers. “Needless to say, it’s the only thing they can talk about right now. In fact, it’s the only topic of debate at every council circle on the island, not just the council. Oh, and they read my public rebuke. Like I care,” he snorted, which made Jenny chuckle.
“Not much to say, and we probably shouldn’t tell you if there was,” Yancy replied easily. “What about your side?”
“Waiting to see what you do,” he replied. “And you get a vacation. No field work until further notice, so you can concentrate on those guys you can actually catch.”
“Now you just went and made this a personal challenge, Kell,” Yancy said in his gravelly voice, which made Jenny laugh and Kell narrow his eyes in amusement.
“We might make a deal or two about that,” Yancy smiled darkly.
“You can send me a gift basket,” Kell noted. “Speaking of gift baskets, congratulations on the promotion, Jenny. Reward for good work?”
“I guess. The President gave me a field promotion this morning,” she said, rather proudly. “The Marine Joint Chief himself pinned on my oak leaves. I was really flattered.”
“You’re moving up in the world.”
“As long as she doesn’t get a big head,” Yancy growled, which made her laugh.
“Well, I’m glad you’re getting your due, friend,” he smiled. “I’m gonna have to cut it short, I’m about to lose my uplink hack.”
“Satellite? Damn you, evil drake!” Jenny said lightly. If he was using a hacked satellite uplink, it was going to be impossible to trace him. His trail would end at that satellite, and all they’d have would be a map of the earth’s surface that the satellite was covering at that particular time. His signal could have come from anywhere under its coverage.
“I’ve been doing this for a while, silly,” he grinned, showing off all those sharp teeth. “I’ll leave you to tear your box apart trying to figure out how I did it,” he winked. “That’s my promotion present to you.”
“Bastard,” she teased, but she was grinning.
“I’ll be in touch. Gaia embrace you, my friend.”
“Good luck at work,” she replied, and the chat program shut down of its own volition. Then, just to tweak her nose, she supposed, the speakers started blaring out that old, old Michael Jackson song, Somebody’s Watching Me.
“Isolate that box and run a scan, I’ll start a sweep of the building network,” Yancy said quickly. “I want to know how he penetrated our security right now.”
“You got it, boss. But I have to finish my reports,” she fretted.
“I’ll call in Petrovski to go over your box,” he said as he hurried into his office. “But get it off the network and snapshot it in case he left a disk bomb in it.”
“Yes sir,” she said quickly. She unplugged it from the network, then used a laptop to take an image of the computer’s hard drive and current RAM contents, then she disconnected it and carried the box into one of the work rooms and placed it in a hardened steel box to protect it from any wireless signals, which might trigger a virus or other program left on the computer when it was next turned on. Petrovski would go over the computer drive sector by drive sector and its logs when she came in, searching for how Kell hacked her box, while Yancy studied the traffic logs for the building’s network to search for how he got past the building’s firewalls and other security.
If anything, it proved that Kell and the earth drakes were every bit as formidable as she portrayed them to be, if he could hack her personal computer behind a network security layout that was considered top-secret, a layout even Anonymous couldn’t crack…and they’d tried. The Hunters didn’t control the building’s computer security…but after this, Yancy would probably demand they take it over.
Kell’s hacking of her box and the information she brought him went straight to the White House, Yancy warning them over the phone even as he ran a scanning sweep of the building’s internal network. Jenny could hear him both typing and talking to someone over there over the phone as she came back and returned to her report, but her mind wasn’t on it now. What Kell said tickled at her in a curious way, so much so she stopped typing and made of bridge of her fingers over her keyboard, leaning her chin on it. The council was starting to meddle in the department. The dragons that scorned technology and probably had absolutely no idea what the department did and how it worked were starting to interfere with its operation.
That was a sign to her, a sign that things were about to deteriorate on the island in a hurry. She remembered what Kell said about his punishment, that he came a whisker from execution. She also remembered what he said about how they used to treat the earth drakes…and that meant to her that they were going to be far harsher with both the earth dragons and the fact that they’d made a mistake than they needed to be. It seemed to her that the other dragons had finally realized that the earth dragons were doing a lot more than they realized they were doing, that it was more important than they first thought, and they were starting to think that they didn’t like it, didn’t like it one little bit. The chromatic had probably stepped back and realized that the earth dragons were the only ones that understood the technology, understood what they were doing, and his arrogance would lead him to believe that they weren’t capable of doing anything on their own, not something important, something that would impact more than just the earth dragons. The little bit of trust he’d shown the earth dragons had been destroyed when Kell had been exposed. At the worst, he’d think that everything the earth dragons were doing was part of some earth dragon plot of some kind, since he’d be naturally suspicious of them the same way the whites were suspicious of the blacks during the civil rights era. The secret being exposed had been an error by the earth dragons, Kell had been discovered, and now that they’d made a mistake, the other dragons on the council wouldn’t trust them to do anything without direct supervision. They would insist on worming their way into the department, probably into the builders, maybe even start nosing around the earth dragon farming operation, because their prejudices were going to run away with them.
They were overreacting.
The earth dragons had erred, and now the other dragons would insist on subjugating what were once earth dragon operations under the control of dragons who “knew what they were doing,” which was just political speak for “we don’t trust you because you’re so inferior to us.” That was going to piss off the earth dragons harder and faster than just about anything else the council could have done, and the earth dragons wouldn’t stand for it. They would resist the council’s attempt to take them over, and that was going to make things ugly in a hurry.
She had her hand on the phone before she realized what she was doing, business card out they gave her, and she was direct-dialing the White House chief of staff. “Reeves,” he called.
“Sir, it’s Lieu—Major Edwards,” she said. “I think Yancy told you that Kell made contact, but what he said is setting off all kinds of flags in my brain. I think we need to talk.”
“I’ll send a car immediately.”
Kell wasn’t the only one that was storming around the office in a huff.
Ferroth was livid. There was no other way to describe it. The mature earth drake was biting the head off anyone that looked like they weren’t doing their job to his satisfaction, storming and stomping around both main offices, which was just his version of walking it off. Just about every department worker now had an eye on the clock, waiting for quitting time so they could escape Cyclone Ferroth.
The sky dragon who had floated into the sensitive office had been quite terse about it, that the council wanted to see Ferroth immediately, and of course, the chief headed straight for the aerie. He returned two hours later in something almost approaching abject rage. It took Kell and Jasper to drag it out of him, and when they heard it, they were just as furious.
The council had voted, five to four, to effectively remove Ferroth as the chief of the intelligence department. They were sending a chromatic dragon to replace him, and he was demoted to deputy chief.
That was, by far, the absolute worst thing that they could have done. For one, Ferroth had built the department from the ground up, and he knew it like no other dragon. For another, this chromatic they were sending would have absolutely no idea just exactly what the department did or how it worked. The dragon probably didn’t even speak English, and his magic would not translate written English into draconic…and if he couldn’t read English, he’d be effectively useless as the department chief. And that know-nothing jackwagon was going to waltz in here and try to change everything around.
And what was even more infuriating, at least to Kell, was that he’d have to take orders from an arrogant jackwagon like that.
Kell ambled out of his tiny office and into the dimly lit sensitive data room, where it was just light enough to see, but not so bright that their thermographic vision was blinded by the light. How was this chromatic going to even read the monitors? All important information was only displayed on infragraphic monitors and wall emitters, part of the security protocols that Ferroth had instituted when he started the department. It was because at that time they had fire and sky dragons in the main rooms who were doing work for them, and the idiots would spread everything they saw and overheard all over the island. Intelligence was about two things: learning what was important, and keeping what was important away from those who had no need to know. Even back then, Ferroth understood the need for security, even on the island, because as the earth dragons started exploring human civilization, those damn fire dragons spread all kinds of rumors about what they were discovering that were utterly wrong and often fabricated to make the humans appear to be barbarians or demons. Ferroth got the fire dragons out of the analysis rooms and into the entry rooms and put the wrath of Gaia down on the sky dragons that did the recon flights, telling them to keep their mouths shut about what they saw until they understood exactly what they were seeing. Ferroth had built them up into the operation they were now, with 127 earth dragons and Sella gathering information, studying human technology, monitoring human activity, and filtering what they learned out to the building dragons when they adopted a new technology.
Just what did this chromatic think he was going to accomplish here? He had no idea how anything worked. He had no idea what they did. He probably couldn’t even use a computer. He’d be useless, worse than useless, and his uselessness would infect the department like a disease.
“Kell,” Jasper called. Jasper was one of the four field agents, a small but wily and highly capable young earth drake. Her real name was Kammi, and she was the most capable of the three other field agents—well, four since he wasn’t an agent anymore—but so long as she was a field agent, she would go by the name Jasper both out there and in the department.
“Jasper,” he said as she bounded up to him, a dragon’s version of a jog. “What’s going on?”
“That chromatic is here,” she told him. “He’s out in the low security room now.”
“Maybe we’ll get lucky and he’ll stay there,” Kell grunted.
“I wish,” Jasper agreed, looking towards the hallway leading to the low security room. Jasper was a very petite drake, small for her age, but that was an advantage as a field agent. Under a hider amulet, she was only 6’3” tall, and she attracted very little attention, unlike Kell, who had been pushing 7’4” under a hider amulet, and knew his career as a field agent had had only maybe two more years before he was just too big. At least before Price came along and shot out his amulet, anyway. Kell had always admired Jasper’s coloring, since her camouflaging pattern was much more symmetrical, almost like tiger stripes, and she had an adorable black band over her eyes, like a raccoon. “When do you think we’ll be doing field work again?”
“I really don’t know, Jasper,” he murmured as several dragons came down the hallway. Two fire dragons were leading the chromatic wyrm, and Ferroth was walking beside him. The chromatic was very small, meaning he was rather young, but he was still larger than Ferroth, who was fairly large for an earth drake. This chromatic had shimmering green scales on his head and neck, which turned turquoise at his shoulders and then shifted into dark green at his tail. Like all chromatics, his wings’ leading edges were covered with prismatic scales that shimmered and refracted rainbow colors of light. Like all chromatics, he had those feathery growths over his eyes and beside his horns, like ostrich feathers, and a row of several of them at the end of his tail like a little fan, which gave the chromatics their somewhat derogatory nickname fluffies among the earth dragons.
“This is the sensitive information room,” Ferroth said in voice Kell knew was very reluctant. “If it deals with important human events, current field work information, current technologies we’re studying, or major events on the island, it moves through here. These workers help the field agents prep for their work by doing research for them, and they also keep all the research timetables organized. And there’s one of our field agents. Jasper,” he called.
She looked up at Kell with a scathing look, then padded over. Kell followed her. “This is Jasper, one of our four field agents.”
“She’s barely a hatchling,” the chromatic snorted.
“We can only use young drakes for field work, due to the limitations of the magic that conceals them in the human world,” Ferroth told him, almost shortly. “These drakes are highly trained for their jobs, however. They apply before they’re even released from their parents, and we vet them thoroughly before one’s selected.”
“Clearly your vetting process is flawed, for it to fail so utterly,” the chromatic said haughtily. “Oh, and so I finally meet the rebuked face to face,” he said, looking at Kell. “I’m glad you’re here. As my first act as the new department chief, you’re fired.”
“What?” Ferroth snapped.
“He failed utterly as a field agent, is the direct reason humans now know of our existence, and I will not suffer incompetence in my department,” the chromatic sniffed. “Maybe you can tolerate surrounding yourself with failures, Ferroth, but I will not.”
“Now hold on one second!” Ferroth raged.
“Would you like to be next, Ferroth?” the wyrm asked, fixing the earth drake with a challenging stare.
“He won’t, but I will,” Jasper snapped. “I quit. I won’t serve under a know-nothing gas sack who’ll run this department into the ground and then blame everyone else when it’s all on fire. Chief, you can hire me back once he’s gone,” Jasper snorted, turning and marching back towards her office. “Because as sure as Gaia embraces us, he won’t last long,” she called loudly.
Kell laughed, which caused the chromatic to fix him with a nearly unholy stare. “I’ll clean out my office, and wait for you to hire me back, too,” Kell s