Military policy required two coachmen for Carriages in those days, and it’s a good thing they did; otherwise, Aja Skytoucher would never have survived the crash.
In a blink of plasma and dancing electricity, she lost AI navigation. Her control panel’s lights went dark.
The Carriage spun out.
“He got us! He got us!”
That was the second coachman, Emalkay. The numbskull didn’t try to recover. He just screamed and thrashed in his five point harness, face plastered against the viewport to see when the next plasma blast was coming.
Aja seized the reins in one hand and tossed repair film to Emalkay with the other. She kept the film under her console, right between her feet, so she could find it even when smoke flooded the compartment. “Get to the rear quarter, Em!”
He stared at her with baffled eyes. Drakor III pinwheeled orange and red behind him, its jagged-edged ice cap growing nearer at a terrifying rate. “The rear quarter? Why, Aja?”
She wanted to say, Because I told you, idiot, but even with her heart clawing at the inside of her ribcage the words came out cool. “The fireball must have hit on the left. We’ll be venting oxygen. Patch it.”
Clearly, all Emalkay heard was “venting oxygen.” His eyes got wider.
“We’re going to get sucked out!”
“Patch it.” Aja’s biceps strained as she hauled back on the reins.
Emalkay’s hands flew over the control panel. There was no response. He banged his fists into the buttons for the communication device—the mochila—which should have given them instantaneous contact with the rest of the fleet. “Why aren’t they connecting with us?”
Because the mochila had gone down with the navigation, of course.
Everything had gone down with the navigation.
Aja’s patience frayed. “Patch the rear quarter, Emalkay! That’s an order!”
She kicked the latch release for the harnesses. Both she and Emalkay floated free from their seats. They continued to rotate with the Carriage, drifting slowly.
Another plasma ball struck.
The Carriage shuddered, panels rattling, emergency lights flickering. Without the harness latched, Aja was shaken from her chair. Still, she clung to the reins, braced the rubber treads of her boots against the panel, and she pulled back.
Manual control on those Carriages were a fine art—a careful dance of tiny microwaves that could tweak their trajectory this way and that, assuming the coachman’s hand was fine enough. Most coachmen weren’t good at it. They relied on the automation that Aja had lost when the rear quarter when up in a ball of fire.
Aja had cut her teeth on older vehicles, though. She’d had a Chariot XIV, for the love of Thal, and those had been fashioned in the days when artificial intelligence hadn’t been able to assemble paper airplanes, much less steer space vehicles.
She hadn’t manually steered a Chariot since she was too small for the driver’s harness. But her muscles remembered the movements and she’d always had a cool head. She could do this now, even as they plummeted toward the surface of Drakor III. The enemy stronghold.
Aja needed to do this.
Leathery wings flashed past the viewport. Aja only glimpsed shimmering gold before it was gone again—a color that reminded her of the glittering hide dresses her trapper mother used to wear.
“He sees us!” Emalkay wailed. “He’s coming back again!”
Aja gritted her teeth, clutched the reins, and kept pulling. Harder. Harder.
The bucking Carriage whined. Drakor III spun. Her wrists trembled with effort.
“The patch,” she said.
He listened this time. Emalkay’s hand flashed through the air, seizing the film, and he kicked off his chair to drift into the rear of the Carriage.
Lords, but Drakor III was growing fast.
Fresh plasma splattered over the viewport. It pushed them into a faster spin. Shoved them out of orbit.
Gases whipped through the compartment, blasting Aja’s hair free of its ponytail. It obscured her vision but she didn’t need to see. She only needed the tension in the reins, the feel of the yoke on the other end. She could have steered it without any sense but touch.
She pulled. Microwaves pushed. The Carriage stabilized and then overcorrected.
Aja’s stomach lurched as her view of the planet below centered, and then began rotating again in the opposite direction. Her hair whipped over her eyes again.
Emalkay shouted over the hissing. “You’re right! It’s the rear quarter! Oxygen’s venting!”
Yes, Aja knew that. They’d lost the feed on the surface sensors in the heartbeat before they lost the rest of navigation, which meant that those sensors had been struck first, and they were situated inside the elbow line on the rear quarter.
Eyes shut, hair tickling her nose, she steered.
Aja didn’t see their enemy swoop past again, but she felt his passing wings clip the belly of the Carriage. She twisted the reins to the right to compensate.
She heard repair film torn by the dull belt knife Emalkay was carrying. She could tell that he hadn’t sharpened it recently just by how many cuts it took to get through. He probably hadn’t charged his plasma rifle, either. Lazy Emalkay, stupid Emalkay—yet she needed him. If he didn’t patch that hole, they would both be dead.
She couldn’t keep steering through the force of the venting oxygen. Not under the plasma barrage, not with the thin upper atmosphere they were entering, not without navigation.
“Got it!” Emalkay cried.
She already knew. The Carriage was calming under her hands.
Their spin stabilized.
Aja had control.
“Yes,” she breathed, eyes opening.
The Carriage’s spin had ended when it was oriented to face away from the surface. The Drakor system’s single red star glowed at the upper edge of the viewport, painting Aja in the foul light depicted on so many propaganda posters.
Other Carriages in higher orbits glimmered. At this distance, their slow dance through space was beautiful. She couldn’t see the fleet’s insignia. Couldn’t tell which Carriages belonged to members of her unit, which ones were strangers, which had been licensed from private companies. The only way to tell that any of them were still working was the occasional flare of thrusters. They were slow as seeds drifting on the surface of a pond, confined by orbital mechanics and basic, clumsy physics.
Unlike the enemy.
The enemy was agile. Tireless. Capable of moving outside of orbits. Propelled at unimaginable speeds.
And the residents of the Drakor system had responded to attack in full force.
The raid should have caught them by surprise. Their army should have been deployed elsewhere that day, distracted by defending outposts in other systems. But they were there at the home world, prepared to receive the Allied forces, so the Drakor must have known the fleet was coming.
There were thousands of them above Drakor III.
They looped around the Carriages, tailed by The Fog—a force that Allied scientists barely understood, though it seemed to be something similar to fire that their bodies generated. Nobody was certain if the fire’s origin was magical or biological. That Fog flashed behind the dragons in colors even brighter than Drakor’s sun, and the clouds of writhing plasma chewed through the fleet like it was nothing.
Many Carriages were succumbing to attacks similar to the one that had disabled Aja and Emalkay.
And now the attacker that had knocked out Aja’s systems was descending on her Carriage.
It moved faster than she did, even though gravity had caught the Carriage and dragged her toward the surface. She was pinned between a dragon and Drakor III. Death under the claws of a dragon, death on the surface of the planet—the odds of survival either way were poor, very poor.
Especially since she was watching the fleet getting pulverized far above them.
“I think I can fix the mochila.” Emalkay clattered in the rear of the compartment, banging off of the walls and ripping open panels. Hope tinged his panicked tone. “You’ve just got to maintain low orbit long enough for someone to save us.”
Nobody was going to be able to save them.
A crack slithered from the lower right quadrant of the viewport, inching its way toward the center of the glass. It wouldn’t take much pressure for that to shatter. The crack bisected the dragon’s cruel face as it undulated through space to close in on them. It was bare moments away from catching the Carriage now.
There was no time for a rescue.
Aja swallowed hard. “No, keep off the mochila. Redirect everything into the microwave engines.”
“The manual controls?”
“Yes,” she said.
“What about the AI?”
“Forget the AI, Em!”
Gravity tugged. They entered atmosphere. The exterior panels on the Carriage heated with the friction. Flames streaked on the edges of the viewport, blotting out Aja’s view of the fleet’s distant and serene demise.
The dragon plummeted with them, folding his wings to catch up.
“But how will the fleet find us if I don’t fix the mochila?” Emalkay asked.
Aja didn’t reply.
The Carriage’s manual controls became stiffer as the atmosphere’s density increased. Microwave propulsion took much more thrust to be effective in the atmosphere. But it was all they had—they couldn’t do a hard burn in atmo, not when they were already heating from the scrape of air, not when plasma was still crawling over their paneling.
They’d be incinerated.
Sweat rolled down Aja’s hairline, dripped into her collar. Her palms were slick.
But she twisted the reins, the Carriage obeyed her command, and she felt the moment that Emalkay put all of the power into the microwave engines. The entire vehicle bucked in protest.
“Come on, girl,” she whispered.
The engine roared. Acid clouds billowed around the Carriage.
The dragon blazed toward them like a hawk closing in on a rabbit.
Aja tangled the reins around one arm, steering with a single fist. She fumbled with her belt. Grabbed the plasma rifle, loosened the strap, propped it against her shoulder.
The plasma rifle was a new invention. They had gotten a living dragon specimen and somehow procured Fog from its organs—she didn’t know the specifics—and repurposed it into a weapon that could penetrate even the thickest, scaliest of dragon hides. The raid on Drakor was the first field test, so Aja wasn’t sure the gun would work. The men in the armory had said it would, but they’d also said the fleet’s arrival would be unexpected.
The crack on the viewport spread.
Aja manipulated the reins as Emalkay fed every terawatt of remaining power into the engine, slowing their descent, allowing the dragon to converge upon their location. The Carriage cried out. The exterior panels flamed. Mountains appeared at the edges of Aja’s vision—hostile alien terrain that made her heart beat with sheer panic.
“What are you doing?” the other coachman roared. “Why aren’t you evading him?”
Aja didn’t want to evade him. She wanted to land as soft as possible.
She wanted to get out of the Carriage alive, even if it meant being stranded on Drakor III.
It was getting so hot inside the Carriage. Sweat drenched her uniform. But her grip on the rifle was sure, and she was as steady aiming at the dragon’s heart as she was in steering the Carriage down to their death.
Dragon claws glimmered, huge and sharp.
Only meters away.
She fired directly into the viewport twice: once to finish shattering the glass, and once to deliver a shot of plasma directly into the heart of the dragon.
Her bolt drove into the chest of her enemy.
She didn’t see what happened after that—because that was when they finally crashed.
Aja Skytoucher had a headache and Emalkay was screaming.
Realistically speaking, both of these were good signs indicating survival.
Consciousness scrabbled through Aja’s skull. She was on hands and knees before her senses returned, shoving twisted metal off of her body, seeking the shape of the plasma rifle. Her fingers curved around a handle.
She felt a trigger. Good enough.
Angry red light bathed Aja as she stood, squinting across the harsh landscape.
There was wreckage at her feet. The air smelled sulfurous and her body felt strong despite the ache. Drakor III was low-gravity with a thin atmosphere, which made it feel like she was breathing on top of Mount McKinley, but it was habitable for humans and dragons alike.
With her eyes blurred, everything looked to be red and indistinct.
Everything but the wrecked Carriage.
That was never going to fly again.
Lords, the men weren’t going to be happy when they saw what she’d done to such a recent vehicle. Yet she hoped she would have an opportunity to be punished for it. Punishment, like her headache, would mean that she hadn’t been killed yet. It would mean that the fleet had enough Carriages surviving the dogfight in orbit to retrieve her.
It would mean Aja might see her family again.
Emalkay was still screaming, the shrieking made her headache pulse. She kicked wreckage around to search for him. If not to save him, then to put the whiny thing out of his misery.
Her eyes had relearned to focus by the time she found him crushed under the rear quarter, where he had still been working when they struck.
Though the blood was profuse, it seemed to originate from a single cut on his forehead. Other bruises had yet to develop. Aja had slowed their fall enough that both coachmen had survived—miraculously.
But what of their attacker?
“Shut up, Em,” she said, hauling him to his feet.
“I can’t see! I’m bleeding!” He clutched his face.
Aja yanked a rag out of the wreckage, pressed it to the wound, guided his hand to hold it in place. “You’ll survive if the dragons don’t get us.”
The reality of the situation settled over Emalkay. He paled under all the blood.
“We’re on Drakor,” he said. “We’re on Drakor!” He spun to look wildly around the harsh landscape, became dizzy, grabbed Aja to steady himself. “Where’s the beast that tried to eat us?”
“I was wondering that myself.” She found Emalkay’s plasma rifle among the wreckage, tucked it into his free arm. He remained standing when she released him. That was good: she needed to be able to use both hands when the dragon attack came.
And the dragon attack would surely come soon.
Now that Aja could see, it was possible to estimate the length of the crater the landing had carved into Drakor’s surface. It must have been at least a mile. The smoke was impressive. It would act as a beacon for rescuers as well as the enemy.
There was a second crater alongside theirs. A trail of Fog and blood led away from it, toward the mountains in the distance.
That was where the dragon would have landed.
How long had Aja been unconscious in the wreckage of the Carriage? Could the dragon have gotten far enough to notify reinforcements of their landing?
One thing was certain: she needed to find the dragon and terminate it before it could bring all kinds of chaos on her head.
It was her only chance of survival now.
“Move,” Aja said.
She leaped lightly across the surface. She had enough low-gravity experience to quickly adjust to the movement; it couldn’t have been significantly lower than the Station’s 0.5g. A single push of her legs vaulted her over the Carriage to the dragon’s trail.
“Wait for me!”
Emalkay was clumsy behind her. She decided to be generous and attribute that to his head trauma.
Though movement should have been effortless, Aja’s breathing quickly grew thready, her chest laboring to inhale. It was impossible to tell if her dizziness was from injury or because of the strange atmosphere. Her eyes burned in it.
She squinted to keep the blood in her sights, plasma rifle lifted, avoiding The Fog with her boots. She’d seen that melt through Carriages as though it were candle wax. If it contacted her body, she might as well resign herself to an amputation.
As the trail continued, the blood grew in quantity. It tinted the iron-rich dirt brown.
That, and the fact that the trail continued on the ground at all, suggested to Aja that the plasma rifle had done its job against the dragon.
They moved into the foothills without finding a body. She must have been unconscious longer than she realized for it to have traveled so far, even with the minimal gravity on Drakor III. Aja was not moving quickly now, either. Emalkay held her back, slow and cautious from fear.
She grew increasingly fatigued as she hunted.
Just when Aja felt like she might collapse, she saw it.
The dragon that had attacked them loomed out of the crimson darkness, sprawled between two jagged rocks overlooking a crater. It seemed even larger now that she didn’t have the Carriage as a protective shell. The arch of its spine was three times her height. The feet were each long enough that they could have gripped her with toes overlapping.
Her heart leaped into her throat. She gestured to stop Emalkay halfway down the slope and prepared to fire.
But the dragon didn’t move.
Aja held her position halfway behind a rock. She watched for any signs of breathing or the faintest glimmer of active Fog.
She proceeded forward slowly, muzzle trained on the center mass of the body.
Still, it didn’t move. Not even when the rubber treads of her soles ground against gravel and her uniform’s straps scraped against the metal of the rifle. Aja was too exhausted to be silent, yet the dragon didn’t react in the slightest.
She rounded the body.
Her enemy was dead.
The monster had collapsed in a puddle of its own fluids, its massive head resting on one arm, the other hand stretched toward the top of the crater. The eyes were shut. A black tongue lolled from its open beak.
Now that Aja got a good look at the wound she’d inflicted, she was impressed by how far the dragon had traveled on the surface. The hole was large enough that Aja could see all the way through from underneath its breastplate to the world framed by fragments of its spinal cord.
She never would have expected their modified version of Fog to be so deadly against dragons, but she thanked the lords that it was.
Aja had never seen a dragon so close, dead or alive. Now that her adrenaline was dropping off, she could admire the bulk of its form, huge yet graceful, almost more feline than serpentine. It was as elegant as the surroundings were harsh.
“It’s safe,” Aja called.
Only then did Emalkay proceed.
He startled at the sight of its head, mouth open to expose fangs. His forefinger twitched. The plasma rifle in his hands clicked without firing.
Yes, Emalkay had forgotten to charge his sidearm.
“What are you doing?” She ripped the rifle out of his hands. “These things make noise like thunder. Do you want to draw every dragon within a hundred miles on us?”
“It didn’t fire,” he said.
Only because you’re stupid. She still discarded his gun. Her superior officer would be angry that she’d lost such a valuable new weapon, but she was so angry at Emalkay that it didn’t seem to matter.
More than anger churned within Aja. She felt no satisfaction at the sight of one of those great beasts killed. They were frightening, yes, and if all the propaganda were to be believed, then they would happily have murdered the entire human race. But they were still majestic. And Aja’s mother had taught her to honor all lives; when they’d been hunting deer in New Dakota, they had prayed over the carcasses of their victims before cleaning them.
Was it possible she regretted killing the dragon?
It would have killed her if she hadn’t.
“The good news is that we might just win the fight in orbit,” Emalkay said. He was bolder now that he realized the dragon was dead. He walked up to the hole in its chest and stuck his whole fist in. “Every Carriage up there has one or two of these plasma rifles. If folks suit up, open the sash, and start firing, we’ll be able to rip them apart!”
Aja’s mouth tipped into a frown. “Don’t touch the body.”
“I won’t get any Fog on me.” He pulled a fragment of rib out. “I’m gonna show this to my girl. She’ll be so impressed, her panties will vanish.”
“If we ever get home,” Aja said.
His confident smile faded.
“I’m gonna get high,” he said. “See if I can spot any of the fleet. If they’ve started using the rifles instead of the cannons, it wouldn’t take them long to beat back the dragons.”
He ignored her.
Emalkay scrambled up the slope to peer over the edge of the crater.
Aja set her hand on the dragon’s beak. It was leathery, pebbled, and still warm.
“Oh my—Aja! You have to see this!” Emalkay shouted.
She followed him up.
At first, she thought that the volcanic crater was filled with some kind of strange mushrooms. It was peppered with clusters of swollen white spheres, too organic to be rock. Many of them were covered with dust the color of paprika. Those that were clean glistened.
But the longer she looked at it, the more she realized that there was deliberation to the placement. They were grouped in handfuls all throughout the crater. There were footprints leading from cluster to cluster as though dragons had been patrolling them.
It was a nest.
“Thal be blessed,” Aja hissed.
There was clicking inside the nearest eggs. It was easy to imagine the tiny beaks and claws that were bumping against the inner surface, attempting to tear away the membranes, devour the yolk, and break free of their warm home.
Hundreds of dragonets.
How many human lives could the inhabitant of a single egg terminate?
“Lords,” Em said. “Give me your rifle.”
She was so stunned that she handed it to him automatically. Only when he began clambering down the slope did she think to ask, “Why?”
“You saw the fleet,” he called back to her. “We’re losing the fight up there. We’ve got to keep them from making reinforcements.”
He was going to destroy the eggs.
Aja understood little about dragon biology. To be fair, nobody understood a thing about them aside from the fact that they wanted to kill all humans, probably to seize the Allied Colonial States for resources.
It was assumed that dragons would nest like many lizards did.
But nobody really knew.
Now Aja knew. And her mind spun at the sight of the nest, which Emalkay approached with at a rapid clip, leaving dust trailing in his wake.
They had expected the dragons to be attending to the outpost raids, but instead, caught them by surprise at the home world.
The dragon Aja killed had obviously been struggling to return to this nest.
“Oh no,” she said.
The fleet had caught the dragons when they returned home for the breeding season. All those enemies fiercely defending their world—they were also trying to defend their young. It must have hurt for them to abandon the nests.
Aja’s heart hurt at the sight of the dead dragon lower on the slope.
“Stop, Em,” she said.
He rapped his knuckles against one of the eggs, then stooped to listen for a response. “Stop what? Do you think they’re going to hatch and eat me?”
“They might. We don’t know. Be careful.”
“I’ll be careful all right,” he said, swinging the rifle to aim. “I’ll be so careful that they won’t even see me coming.”
Aja was only a few steps into the crater when he fired.
The modified Fog emerged in a plug the size of her arm. It consumed the entire cluster of eggs with shocking speed.
She had been unconscious instants after firing upon the first dragon. She hadn’t seen the damage wrought by the plasma rifle. Now she had the luxury of watching the eggshells melt, the fluids sizzling, small bodies within devoured as though dropped into acid.
It struck Aja that the dragonets were roughly the size of her childhood dog, Beetle.
“Stop it,” she said again.
Emalkay didn’t hear her because he was shooting another cluster of eggs.
They really did sound like thunder.
Aja stood over the first nest that he had destroyed. Only moments had passed since he fired, but there was already no more motion within the wreckage of eggshells and leathery bodies. They had been making such a lively clicking when she’d approached. They must have been near to hatching.
Emalkay sprinted to a third nest.
She reached it first, putting a hand on his shoulder. “What are you doing?”
“There are hundreds of these things here,” he said. He fired again. Aja flinched as more eggs melted away. “It only took ten dragons to wipe out all of York Prime! This many of them could kill us all!”
That was probably true, and Aja had been thinking something similar.
She hadn’t grown up anywhere near York Prime. Emalkay had. Perhaps she’d be the one firing on all the nests if she’d had to attend a school in the shadow of skyscrapers wrecked by dragons. If her family’s water supply had been poisoned by Fog, then her rage could have been equally fierce.
It was easy to think that he was doing the wrong thing when she had grown up out on a farm untouched by the war.
But watching Emalkay move to the next group of eggs sickened her.
Another gunshot, and she shut her eyes so she wouldn’t have to see.
Each discharge of the plasma rifle shook the crater. The untouched eggs shivered with inner motion, as though the dragonets within could hear what was happening and grew afraid. The walls of the crater looked like they were threatening to break as well, and rocks were sliding down the surface.
Surely dragons would hear them and come save their nest.
They couldn’t be that distracted by the fight in orbit.
Emalkay destroyed another, and another, and nobody came to defend against him.
“I think I missed one of the dragonets back there,” he said, jerking his thumb a cluster he’d already passed. His cheeks were flushed red with excitement. He must have been imagining how many panties he could drop once he told stories of his heroism against defenseless eggs. “Want to go stomp the survivor for me? Bet it’ll go down easy! You could take some claws home!”
Aja reached the broken eggs with a single leap. She felt strange descending upon them now, her motions slowed by the weak gravity, as though she were an angel of death.
He was right. There was movement within that cluster, writhing under shattered shells that dissolved slowly.
Emalkay had encouraged her to stomp it.
She kneeled, flicking aside a few pieces of eggshell. Despite their large size, they were very light, almost paper-thin.
The dragonet she exposed was not quite the size of her childhood foxhound—maybe half that. It was more immature than the others. The size had probably been what saved it, since there had been more amniotic fluid to provide cushioning, and the modified Fog had burned out before melting all the way to the hatchling within. Lucky dragonet. Unluckily, such a small thing seemed to have no chance of survival after such a premature birth.
Stomp it, Emalkay had said.
What little Fog remained stung Aja’s hands as she reached in to scoop the dragonet out.
It was heavy in her arms, though not as heavy as she would have expected. The scales had yet to take on the ridged edges of an adult dragon. Its soft body smelled almost sweet, as though coated in maple syrup.
Lords, the eyes weren’t even open yet.
It didn’t look like a potential mass murderer now that she was holding it.
Emalkay destroyed another cluster of eggs. He was on the far end of the crater, having destroyed more than half of its inhabitants, and there was still no sign of defense from the dragons.
“Aja! Look!” he shouted.
His finger thrust toward the sky.
She followed it up to see gold sparkling in high orbit. Those were the telltale glimmers of Carriages on the approach, accelerating toward their periapsis in order to drop toward the atmosphere.
If they were moving in, then they must have killed most of the enemy dragons.
The Allied fleet had realized what deadly weapons the plasma rifles were.
Humans were winning, at long last.
Aja caught herself stroking the dragonet’s pebbled flank. It was a glorious shade of dark blue, like the sky in paintings of the First Earth.
It stirred at the touch, and she couldn’t help but think that this touch should have come from the hand of the dragon she had killed. It would have murdered her, yes, but this dragonet was harmless, innocent. Its future wasn’t written yet. Maybe it would have been the creature who convinced its brethren to end the war. They would never know now. Emalkay was bent on killing them all.
One of those slitted eyes opened. The dragon’s long neck draped over her arm as it focused up on her face, stretching its beak toward her chin.
Instinctively, Aja ducked her head to greet it as Emalkay fired yet again a few hundred feet away.
“Hello,” she said. Her voice hitched on the second syllable of the word.
The dragonet brushed its forehead against hers.
Electricity jolted through Aja.
For an instant, she had no thoughts, no sense of her body, no sense of time. The crater vanished around her.
She could only feel the dragonet.
It was such a powerful sensation that she almost thought that she had made a mistake picking up this little newborn to cradle it as she had cradled calfs while bottle-feeding them. It certainly felt like her skull was folding inside-out. Like her brain was going to spill onto the ground.
Memories of her entire life flashed through her.
Aja’s childhood at the Skytoucher farm. Her rejection from the Academy. Enlistment with the Allied military when she’d been only fifteen years old. Boot camp, followed by cross training in driving Carriages, and then the war.
Then she regained all her senses, and she was still holding that dragonet, neither of them injured. Its faceted silver eyes gazed at her.
Help us, it said.
The words entered her mind directly.
Aja was certain that it was the dragonet speaking to her. She had never heard of dragons speaking before—there was no way to communicate with him. But she knew that the plea had come from the dragonet, and she somehow knew that it could understand her as well.
She set the dragonet on the dusty ground a safe distance from the Fog still devouring its nestmates. She turned to look for Emalkay, who roved at the far end of the crater.
“We’re enemies,” Aja whispered to the dragonet.
It only looked at her. There were no more words. Their moment of connection had passed.
Maybe such a little thing simply couldn’t speak more than once.
Emalkay was about to shoot the last cluster of eggs. Aja leaped smoothly through the air, heart pounding.
There was a lot of debris on that side of the crater. All of the resonating gunshots had shaken rocks loose from the nearby walls. Aja found one the size of her fist and picked it up.
“Want to shoot this last one?” Emalkay asked, turning to greet her.
Before he faced her, she struck.
The rock cracked against the back of his skull.
Emalkay was probably still hurting from the crash. It didn’t take much force to knock him out. His slow collapse was graceful, and there was plenty of time for Aja to scoop the plasma rifle out of the air before it struck, risking an accidental discharge.
He stirred when he landed, so she kicked him again, just to make sure he would stay down.
The plasma rifle was warm from being fired, taking so many dragonets’ lives.
“Thal forgive me,” Aja said.
The fleet was landing nearby, lighting up the sky with the blaze of their propulsion. She hastened to return to the surviving dragonet.
It was barely alive on the ground, struggling to breathe. Its skin was cold when she picked it up again.
This little killer, this larvae that could become a mass murderer, wouldn’t survive once the fleet landed. If premature hatching didn’t kill it, then other coachmen who shared Emalkay’s sentiments would take care of it once they reached the crater. Aja could already hear them approaching. Their distant voices echoed over the barren mountains.
Help us, it had said.
Now it said nothing. It was sleeping, curled against her for warmth.
There was nothing Aja could do about the other eggs. They were at the mercy of the Allies.
But she knew what she needed to do about this lone dragonet.
Nobody seemed to understand why Aja Skytoucher, highly decorated survivor of the Battle at Drakor III, would have resigned from service the instant she returned to the Station. The coachmen who had been at Drakor III were guaranteed promotions for each dragon they had killed. Since she and Emalkay had slaughtered an entire nest, they would probably get to pick their next deployment.
They never needed to see battle again. They would have more money than any coachman knew what to do with.
Yet resigned she did, and she returned to New Dakota a hero.
She watched the parting message Emalkay had sent to her on the mochila while riding the space elevator to the surface. It was a lengthy message. The man didn’t know when to shut up.
Emalkay told her she was nuts for leaving the service. He said that he never wanted to be deployed with another coachman. Aja had saved him twice, after all: once from crashing on Drakor III, and once when a rock had broken free of the crater and nearly killed him. He was still in the hospital recovering from his concussion.
But even though he claimed that he wouldn’t work with anyone else, he hadn’t resigned. He was staying in the service to enjoy the salary.
She turned off her mochila. She had no interest in what he had to say.
The elevator landed smoothly. Aja was greeted by the yellow plains of New Dakota, the colony covered in swaying grass and rimmed by jagged mountains not unlike those on Drakor III. She lifted her duffel bag carefully and went to the transport.
“Aja!” her mother greeted, wrapping her in a tight hug. “You look so thin! I’m glad I made bone broth for you. I expect you to drink a liter of it as soon as we get home.”
She gave a shaky laugh, drawing back so that her mother’s embrace wouldn’t crush the duffel bag. “I have been craving your broth.”
“Of course you have! I still make the best broth in all of the Colonies.” Her mother was convinced of this even though she’d never been off of New Dakota. Aja didn’t correct her.
It was nice to be home after so many years, watching the farms rush past their speeder. Little had changed since she left. Everything looked so small now.
The Skytoucher farm had been repainted recently, and its blue paneling gleamed in the sunlight. The corn stood as tall as Aja. The cattle grazing in the pasture were fat. The farm was clearly doing well, which her mother was eager to reinforce as she babbled on about how many new clients they’d gotten. They were going to be rich, she said. And richer still now that they would enjoy all of Aja’s retirement bonuses.
“Not that I’m unhappy to have you, but I am a little surprised you’d want to come back to this,” her mother said, watching from the doorway as Aja set the duffel bag on her bed. It was the same tiny mattress she had slept on as a girl. The sheets were patterned with pink flowers. “You must be used to so many more glamorous places after your deployments!”
Aja forced a smile. “Yeah, but there’s no place like home.”
Her mother planted a kiss on her forehead. “I’ll let you unpack.”
She left. Aja shut the door behind her.
In truth, no matter how beautiful it was, the farm did seem terribly small. But it was several hundred acres in reality. Their property extended beyond the land where they could plant crops into the inhospitable, cruel mountains. It was quite spacious, really.
And very much like Drakor III.
The planet was now inhabited by human forces, which had wiped out most of the population in the weeks since Aja’s battle there. They would spend years hunting the surviving dragons throughout their various outposts. It might be generations before humans managed to kill them all. The battles would be messy. Countless families would suffer for it—both human and dragon.
The violence might never end unless someone figured out how to communicate with the dragons.
Aja unzipped her duffel bag. A head the size of a terrier’s popped out from among her uniform, blinking sleepily at her.
The dragonet reached its beak up to touch Aja’s forehead.
Welcome home, Aja thought to it.