Tag Archives: dragons

We Dragons

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Calvin inhaled deeply through his nose and held the air inside his lungs for a few seconds before slowly releasing it, trying to force his heartbeat to slow to a normal rhythm. Be calm, he instructed himself. Cool. Collected. Sure, you’re about to step onto the surface of a planet that has never before been visited by humanity, but hey, you’re an expert. You’ve got a wall full of diplomas that say so hanging in your office. Of course, that office is sixty light years away right now…

Be calm.

“Everything okay, Calvin?”

“Everything’s fine, sir. Just, uh, giving my equipment a final check.” Calvin tightened the straps of his backpack, adjusted the attached oxygen tank, and lifted the mouthpiece to cover his lips and nose. He sucked in a quick breath. “Good to go, sir.”

Mel Yung smiled, and a network of wrinkles spread out from behind his pale brown eyes, drawing a roadmap of experiences across his leathery face. Yung only really looked his age when he was smiling. Calvin wished he wouldn’t do it quite so often.

“We aren’t in the office today, kid,” said Yung. “Out here in the field, you can call me Mel.”

“Okay. Mel.”

“Is this your first field deployment, Calvin?”

“Yes, sir. I mean, yes, Mel. To tell you the truth, I’ve been dreaming of this day since I was a kid, watching you do it on TV.”

Mel smiled again, and Calvin cringed inwardly. “Hey, relax,” said the older man. “It’s just a job.”

“I don’t think that’s how the millions of settlers on the three habitable planets you’ve identified feel about it.”

“Three? Oh, you’re including that oversized moon in the Delna system, aren’t you? I don’t really deserve top billing for that one. Herman Nerole did most of the work. I was just the one who made it back alive.”

“Still,” said Calvin, not willing to let his idol off the hook so easily, “you’re living history!”

“The funny thing about history,” said Mel, hoisting his own oxygen tank backpack, “is that it’s all old news.” He flashed another wry smile and palmed a large, flat button beside the airlock. The hatch swung open, revealing a mountainous, rust-colored landscape that fell away from the narrow plateau they had landed on by leaps and bounds, descending to a series of rocky plains that extended for miles until they curved away into a fading horizon. Above it all was a dimly monotonous grey sky.

“Now, before we head out there,” Yung continued, “a couple of reminders. Don’t waste your oxygen until it starts getting tougher to catch your breath. The oxygen from the geyser up here should provide us with plenty of breathable air until we’re about halfway down the mountain. After that, we go to our tanks. The atmosphere on Glyna isn’t poisonous, so you can drop your mask whenever you need to talk, but try not to inhale too much of the local air all at once.”

Calvin nodded. He’d read the briefings and gone over all of the data from the probes. In fact, he was the one who had sent out the probe that found the oxygen geysers on planet Glyna in the first place, and it was that discovery that had earned him a place on this exploration alongside his childhood hero.

“This is your baby,” said Mel. “Why don’t you go first?”

Show him you deserve this, Calvin encouraged himself. Be calm. Cool. Collected. He wiped his sweaty palms on the rubbery fabric of his thermasuit, set his teeth, stepped out onto the powdered, burgundy dust of planet Glyna, and sucked in a lungful of alien air.

Yung followed him out and closed the hatch of their shuttle behind him. Written on the hatch in bold, friendly letters was the shuttle’s name, Peace III, a reminder that wherever they went, the Explorer Corps “came in peace”.

“Well,” said Mel, “let’s go scout an alien landscape!”


Calvin let Yung lead the way as they began their descent of what they’d come to call New Faithful. The mountainous oxygen geyser was the key feature that had brought them to Glyna: it was the clue that had revealed the immense stores of oxygen beneath the planet’s surface that were gradually escaping all over the planet, slowly transforming the atmosphere into a human-breathable environment. New Faithful was the largest, and probably the oldest, of these geysers, and probes had identified the accelerated growth of certain species of local organisms and plant life around its basin, suggesting that parts of Glyna’s ecosystem were already prepared to respond favorably to the planet’s evolution. At the current rate of release, Calvin and his research team had estimated, it would be a thousand years before enough oxygen would be released to make Glyna broadly habitable by humans, assuming the other elements of the ecosystem evolved appropriately.

Humanity didn’t have the luxury of quite so much patience, however, so Calvin had been trying to gather support for a proposal to artificially widen some of the largest oxygen geysers, drastically speeding Glyna’s transformation. Part of what he was here to discover was whether there were any sentient locals who would be negatively affected by Glyna’s oxygenation. Humanity might be desperate for living space, but thanks to the work of Mel Yung and others like him, it wasn’t xenocidally desperate. Not anymore.

Glyna’s gravity was about half that of Earth’s, and Calvin found himself enjoying the freedom of movement as he leapt and bounced down the mountainside. For the first hour, he and Mel kept up a light banter, pointing out interesting formations in the rocks or stopping to cut samples of the various oxygen-friendly brown grasses they came across. The further they went, however, the thinner the air seemed, the sparser the vegetation grew, and the less breath they had to spare for conversation.

Eventually they paused, panting, under an outcropping, and Mel signaled to put the oxygen masks on. Fresh, cool, breathable air flooded into Calvin’s lungs, and he gave a thumbs-up. After swallowing a bit of water, they continued on, sucking on their mouthpieces and surveying the red landscape around them in silent wonder.


Soon the explorers arrived at the foot of the mountain. Calvin stopped to take a scraping of a delicate brownish mold growing on the underside of a boulder. At this distance from the geyser, oxygen levels were low enough that only the most basic oxygen-friendly molds and fungi could grow.

Within a few miles of the base of New Faithful, plant life almost entirely ceased to exist, replaced by dry rocks and dust. The explorers spent half an hour traversing the dead terrain before Calvin spotted more vegetation, in the form of scraggly bits of bluish grass and moss growing in cracks and crevices. “Non-oxygen-dependent species,” Calvin explained. “The dead zone we’ve just passed through suggests that too much atmospheric oxygen may be poisonous to these plants. That’s one strike against my proposal.”

“Only if we find sentient species that are the same way,” Mel pointed out, “and we haven’t seen any sign of that.”

“Not yet,” Calvin added.


As they continued on, Calvin watched as the moss and grass gave way to scrub brush and small trees, all tinged with the same shades of blue amid the browns and reds of the soil. He had stopped to pull a branch from a twisted, shoulder-high tree with a wrist-width trunk and thin, veiny blue leaves when Mel said, “Look!”

Standing several yards away were a dozen knee-height, hairless, two-legged creatures with wide, terrified eyes, bulbous noses, tiny mouths, and six-fingered, two-thumbed hands. They were wearing clothing made out of some type of fabric that was similarly colored to their pale, reddish-brown skin. Some had brown, crusty paint smeared on their broad faces. One of the aliens, a relatively tall one with a swirling pattern painted on its chin, was holding a thin wooden staff with a pointed tip. The same swirling pattern was painted onto the garment that covered its chest.

Most of the aliens were holding rocks that they had picked up from the ground. Several had their arms cocked, apparently ready to throw at the first sign of danger.

“Try to appear non-threatening,” Mel whispered.

The two men knelt, making themselves small.

The creatures came a little closer, and a few began to speak back and forth. Their speech was a high chittering noise, a cross between the sounds made by a squirrel and a chimpanzee.

The loudest conversation seemed to be between the alien with the spear and a short, squat one with a diamond shape on its forehead and a loud, gruff voice. The squat alien was gesturing excitedly with its hands, speaking very quickly and beating its thin torso with a rock.

Finally the tall alien–Calvin thought of it as the chief–stomped its foot on the ground and the rest of the creatures, including the loud, squat one, all fell silent.

The chief turned to the explorers, raised its arms towards them, and launched into a speech that lasted for several minutes. Yung seemed bemused by the situation, but Calvin couldn’t help sneaking glances at the rocks held in the rest of the tribe’s hands. He had no interest in finding out how strong their arms were…

At length, the chief concluded its speech and stood expectantly, awaiting a response.

“These little guys seem pretty primitive,” Mel said. “I’m not sure we’re going to be able to learn anything from them through direct communication.”

“So what do we do?”

“How about a little experiment? You think the oxygen levels of the planet have been steadily increasing over hundreds of thousands of years, right?”

Calvin nodded.

“So what if these guys, and whatever animals they make those clothes out of, have evolved to function on whatever trace amounts of oxygen their lungs can filter out of the air?”

“Why wouldn’t they live closer to the geyser, then?”

“Superstition, maybe. Mountains are highly symbolic to the tribal mindset. Or there might be another, smaller geyser nearby.”

“They might also breathe something else entirely,” Calvin said, “like nitrogen, maybe, or CO2. Oxygen could even be harmful to them.”

The aliens were beginning to whisper to each other as they watched the humans talk. Calvin saw a few of them mime the way the humans removed their oxygen masks whenever they spoke.

“I’ve been to a lot of planets,” said Yung. “I haven’t yet come across anything that breathes nitrogen.”

“Maybe not, but…”

“Listen, kid. One thing I’ve learned is that in the field, you’ve got to rely on your instincts. I’ve got a hunch.” Yung took a deep breath from his mouthpiece, then gently, carefully held it out in front of him, offering it to the chief.

The chief took a few cautious steps towards them, and the squat alien chittered at it ferociously. Turning to the squat one, the chief barked a few short, angry words, then strode determinedly up to Mel, lifted its face to the mouthpiece, and applied its tiny mouth to the valve. Mel thumbed the manual discharge.

The chief’s eyes widened, and its swollen nose wrinkled.

“I think he likes it!” said Mel.

Then the chief choked, retched, and collapsed.

The aliens burst into a cacophony of chittering and the squat one leapt towards the humans, its gruff voice raised above all the others.

“Is it dead?” asked Calvin.

Yung shrugged. “So much for that hunch.”

“Sir, did we just murder an alien? That’s against all kinds of regulations!”

“Relax,” said Yung.

The aliens were getting louder, and coming closer.

Calvin was livid. “We could lose our jobs for this!”

Yung was staring intently at the approaching aliens. “Hey, it’s just a job.”

Suddenly Yung pulled his mask from his face, thumb on the manual discharge, and sprayed a long burst of oxygen towards the nearest creatures. They recoiled in panic, and a few dropped to their hands and knees, retching.

A stone whizzed past Yung’s ear. The explorers leapt to their feet, and Yung shouted, “Run!”

The humans bounded away across the plain, setting their sights on the distant peak of New Faithful. The aliens raced after them. Despite their short legs, the aliens were better adapted to Glyna’s gravity, and they easily outpaced the explorers. As they ran, they hurled rocks, bruising the humans’ legs and backs and pinging shots off the oxygen tanks. Some of the braver aliens grabbed at their feet or hammered at their knees.

Between breaths, Yung sprayed oxygen in the faces of any aliens that got close enough. The aliens retched and gagged, and a few that swallowed direct bursts collapsed and didn’t get up again. Calvin kept his mask on his face, but fought back with his feet and hands, kicking the aliens away and dodging their missiles, doing his best not to hurt them too badly.

After several minutes of running, the aliens fell back and chittered angrily after them. Looking over his shoulder, Calvin saw a few of them kneeling beside one of their fallen friends who had taken a blast of oxygen from Yung’s tank.

The humans slowed their escape, but continued to jog towards their ship at the fastest speed they could maintain.

“Can’t stop,” said Yung between gasps at his mouthpiece. “They’ll follow,” gasp, “they always follow.”

“How do you know that?”


Calvin tried to put himself in the aliens’ place. “Sir,” he said, “they must think we’re dragons.”

Yung looked at him quizzically, and kept on running.

But Calvin couldn’t get the thought out of his mind. To these aliens, the oxygen geysers probably symbolize supernatural dangers. To us, hell is a place of fire, like a volcano. What if their version of hell is a lake of poison instead of brimstone? We came to them from the poison mountain, breathing poison. That would make us dragons, or worse… Demons.

“The geysers are accelerating, Mel.” Gasp. “These aliens are going to get wiped out, and soon.” Gasp. “We can save them!”

“Forget them,” retorted Yung. “How about saving us?”

Calvin ran on, newly motivated. We can’t seal the oxygen geysers permanently, but maybe we can buy them time to build their civilization and technology to the point where they can save themselves.

Of course, before they could do that, they had to make it back to the Peace III and off the planet.


The explorers’ pace had slowed almost to a walk by the time they finally reached the feet of New Faithful. Even in the lower gravity, they couldn’t run forever.

Calvin collapsed in fatigue. Yung’s chest was heaving, and the redness in his face highlighted his wrinkles. In this state, he did indeed look dragon-like. “Can’t afford to stop,” he rasped, but he, too, allowed himself to sit and rest on a moss-covered rock.

A minute passed while they sat, gulping oxygen through their mouthpieces and staring at the ground, heads between their legs.

There was an eruption of chittering.

Calvin whipped around to look behind him. Less than half a mile away, the ground was teeming with what looked like hundreds of the beige aliens, approaching fast. Where did they come from? Calvin thought. Why didn’t we see them coming?

“Camouflaged!” growled Yung. “Run! Run!”

Calvin scrambled back to his feet and took off up the mountainside. The veteran explorer was right: even now, Calvin could only see the aliens because of their movement. Their skin and their clothing blended in to the colors of the landscape. They must have been following at a distance, waiting for their quarry to slow so they could catch them by surprise.

The humans dove uphill, putting every ounce of remaining energy into their legs. Behind them, their pursuers were gaining, gaining. The explorers’ only hope, Calvin realized, was to climb high enough that the atmosphere became too poisonous for the aliens. Even now, it must be having an effect on them… Was it enough?

A stone thunked into the ground ahead of Yung, followed closely by another. One caught Calvin on the hand, and he cried out in pain from behind his oxygen mask.

“Gotta fight it out!” roared Yung.

Calvin spun around just in time as the first wave of attackers reached them. Leading the pack was the squat alien with the diamond on its forehead. It was brandishing the chief’s painted wooden spear in its many-fingered hand. With a blood-curdling screech, it leapt towards Calvin and thrust the spear out in front of it.

Desperately, Calvin pulled the mask from his face and fired off a long burst of oxygen from his tank. The stream of oxygen caught the creature in its open, snarling mouth, and it dropped, gagging and wheezing, to the ground. A dozen more took its place, flinging rocks and jabbing with spears.

Five or six of the aliens gripped Calvin by the knees and held their breath as Calvin doused them with oxygen. Closing their eyes and puffing out their cheeks, they struggled to topple him. Two others dove at his chest, knocking him to the ground. Some of the aliens turned from their assault on Yung and piled on top of Calvin, beating and pounding and piercing.

Calvin fought for his life, lashing out with all his limbs, adrenaline surging, blood flowing from the many places he had been stabbed. “Let me go,” he howled, “or you’ll all be dead in 500 years!” Only as he heard the words pass through his lips did he realize that they sounded like a threat.

Suddenly Yung emerged from a press of bodies, spraying a broad swath of oxygen over Calvin and driving the attackers back for a few seconds. Yung grabbed Calvin under his arms and hauled him to his feet. Together, they ran again.

“Almost,” gasp, “there,” said Yung. His mask was dangling from his face now. The air was oxygenated enough to breathe.

Calvin limped and stumbled. The pain in his legs was too much. He could feel blood oozing out into his suit from dozens of different wounds. He collapsed.

Mel stood over Calvin, taking stock of the younger man’s injuries. “I can’t carry you, kid,” he said. He looked up, and started to back away.

“Mel, please!” Calvin choked. He saw the aliens a few hundred meters down the hill, panting and gasping in the poisonous air as they tried to come up with some way to reach the humans and finish them off.

“You’re a hero, son,” said Mel. “Fifty years from now they’re gonna name this rock’s first human city after you, I promise.” Then he turned and jogged towards the ship.

“Mel, no!” Calvin cried. He tried to stand, fought with every scrap of strength he had left, but the damage was too great. He could only lie on his face and wait to bleed out, as the man he had once called his idol abandoned him and condemned an entire fledgling civilization to death.


Leon Makes a Friend

Leon and Emma, as captured in felt by Tally Heilke.

One afternoon Leon the dragon was wandering around in the forest looking at the trees and the flowers and singing a happy tune to himself. It went something like this:


I’m a dragon, big and strong

My wings are wide, my tail is long

Yes I’m a dragon, strong and proud

And when I roar it’s very LOUD!


Leon jumped up in the air and shouted the last word at the top of his lungs. A little puff of flame shot out of his mouth and lit a branch on fire. “Whoops!” he said, covering his mouth. “I’d better put that fire out!”

Flapping his wings as hard as he could, Leon rose into the air and grabbed onto the branch. He bounced up and down, and finally the branch broke off the tree and he fell to the ground. Then he stomped on the fire until it went out.

“Phew!” said Leon, sitting down against the tree trunk. “That was a close one. I should be more careful with my fire breath!”

Just then, Leon heard someone sneeze: “Ah-choo clink clink.”

“Who is that?” wondered Leon. “And why did their sneeze go ‘clink clink’?” He got up and walked around the tree.

There, on the other side of the tree, was a big, icy igloo.

Leon scratched his head. “What is an igloo doing in the middle of the forest?”

“Ah-choo clink clink clink,” said someone from inside the igloo.

“Hello?” called Leon. “Who’s there?”

“It’s me,” replied the person inside the igloo. “I’m Emma the dragon! Who are you?”

“I’m Leon. I’m a dragon, too,” said Leon. “What are you doing inside an igloo?”

“I don’t know!” said Emma. “My mother was taking me to the doctor who lives in the woods, because I have a cold and I can’t stop sneezing.” She sneezed again: “Ah-choo clink clink. I saw a butterfly and I wanted to try to catch it, but I got lost and couldn’t find my way back to the path. I looked all over trying to find my mother back, and I was so tired, so I decided to take a nap. The next thing I knew, I woke up inside this igloo. Can you help me get out?”

“Hmm,” said Leon. “Why don’t you just breathe fire and melt all the ice?”

“But I can’t breathe fire!”

“Maybe you just have to learn,” said Leon. “A mudge helped me learn. All you have to do is take a deep breath, swallow a tickle in your throat, and blow out as hard as you can.”

“No, no, no,” said Emma. “I mean I can’t breathe fire because I’m not a fire-breathing dragon.”

“What kind of dragon are you?” asked Leon, confused.

“I am an ice-breathing dragon!” said Emma proudly.

“Oh,” said Leon. “I’ve never actually met an ice-breathing dragon before. All of the dragons in my village breathe fire.”

“My whole village breathes ice. I met a fire-breathing dragon once. He was very old and grey, but his fire was purple. Is your fire purple?”

“No,” said Leon. “My fire is green. You must have met Grandfather Joseph. My dad says Grandfather Joseph is the only good dragon who can breathe purple fire. He told me Grandfather Joseph’s parents were bad dragons, but Grandfather Joseph ran away from home when he was little and was raised by a family of hopps.”

“How could a hopp raise a dragon?” wondered Emma. “That would look pretty funny!”

“Sometimes Grandfather Joseph even acts like a hopp,” said Leon. “One time I saw him bouncing up and down on his legs, like hopps do, and he wiggles his nose around like a hopp, too!” Thinking about it, Leon laughed.

Emma laughed, too. Then she sneezed. “Ah-CHOO! Clink clink clink.”

“Why do your sneezes go ‘clink clink’?” asked Leon.

“I think I’m sneezing out ice cubes. Maybe that’s how I got stuck in this igloo. Maybe I was sneezing in my sleep, and all of the ice cubes made an igloo around me!”

“Is it cold in there?”

“Yes, but ice-breathing dragons like the cold,” said Emma. “We don’t like to be trapped, though.”

“Well I’m going to get you out of there!” promised Leon. He tapped on the igloo with one hand. “I’m going to melt the igloo right here. You’d better get to the other side.”

Leon stood back, stretched out his wings, took a deep breath, swallowed the tickle in the back of his throat, and blew out as hard as he could. A big ball of green fire burst out of his mouth and melted a hole right into the side of the igloo. A puddle of water soaked into the grass.

“Thank you, Leon!” said Emma. She crawled out through the hole and shook the drips of water from the igloo off of her wings. She was blue and white and a little bit smaller than Leon.

“You’re welcome,” said Leon.

“Ah-choo!” sneezed Emma. Two little ice cubes shot out of her nose and hit Leon on the chest.

“Ha ha!” laughed Leon. “I guess you really do need to go to the doctor.”

Emma looked sad. “I need to find my mother, first!”

“Let’s fly up and look for her,” suggested Leon.

“I can’t fly,” said Emma.

“That’s okay,” said Leon. “I can fly, but only a little bit. Here, I’ll go look.” He flapped his wings as hard as he could and flew up to a high tree branch, where he perched to let his wings rest. Holding on tight, he looked all around.

“Can you see my mother?” called Emma. “She is dark blue with some white spots, like me!”

Leon looked left, and slowly looked around to his right. “Ah ha!” he said. “There she is!” He had spotted a big blue and white dragon hurrying down the path not far away. “I’ll get your mother’s attention with a signal.”

Taking a big, deep breath and stretching his wings back with all of his strength, Leon swallowed a mighty tickle and WHOOSH! He made a big, long line of green fire through the air. His flame was so big that it knocked him over backwards and he fell off of his branch and tumbled towards the ground.

Leon tried to flap his wings, but they were still tired from getting up into the tree, and he had lost his balance too much to catch himself.

“Oh no!” shouted Emma. “Leon!”

Just as Leon was about to hit the ground, a strong pair of wings swung underneath him and caught him. Emma’s mother lowered Leon gently to the forest floor.

“Phew!” said Leon. “You saved me!”

“You shouldn’t fly so high!” said Emma’s mother. “Your wings haven’t grown big enough yet.”

“I won’t,” promised Leon. “Thank you!”

“You’re welcome. And thank you for finding Emma and showing me where she was with your fire. That was a smart way to get my attention, even if it did make you fall!”

Leon beamed with pride.

“Now come along, Emma. We still have to get you to Doctor Gon’s clinic. Leon, can you find your way back home from here?”

Leon nodded.

“Mother,” said Emma, “can we go visit Leon’s village some time? I want to see more dragons that breathe fire!”

“Maybe,” said her mother, “but not until you’re well again.”

“Okay,” said Emma. “Goodbye, Leon. See you again soon, I hope!”

Leon waved goodbye and made his way back home, humming a happy tune and being careful not to yell the last word too loud.

Plush figures by Tally Heilke, available through her Etsy store.

Darla, Dragon Hunter

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My “friends” think I’m a paralegal. I do my best to keep them believing that idea: I live downtown, a short walk from all the big office buildings; I dress the part, during the day, in grey pantsuits and overstated lipstick; and I join in all the mindless complaining about workplace stresses and romantic endeavours. I amuse myself, during our regular group lunch dates, by wondering what the other girls would say if they found out that a couple of times a month I hop into my SUV, head out of city limits, meet up with a tall, handsome man (whom I have no romantic interest in whatsoever), exchange my pantsuit for camo gear and a high-tech sniper rifle, and hunt dragons.

They’d probably think I was joking. Fine by me.

Today we’re in a café on the ground floor of a tower built by some bank or another. There are five of them, sipping at their lattés and pecking at their side salads like hens while I take big bites out of my clubhouse sandwich and try to tune out their inane banter.

“How’s work going for you, Darla?” says Connie.

I apologetically cover my mouth and keep chewing. Sometimes this works to deflect the conversation away from me. Not today.

“You’re really scarfing that sandwich down!” Connie titters, waving her tiny plastic fork at me. “Do you have somewhere to be? Some man waiting for you in a private cubicle back at the office?” She breaks into a Cheshire grin and a couple of the others lean forward, hoping to hear something juicy that might stimulate their underdeveloped brains.

I swallow. “No, nothing like that,” I say. “I just… slept in this morning and didn’t have time for breakfast.”

“Oh, I never eat breakfast!” says Betty, the thinnest (and most sickly looking) of the bunch. “Unless you count orange juice and a Vitamin D pill, I guess.”

“I usually have one of those pro-bacterial yogurts,” says Connie.

“I’ve thought about that,” says Betty. “What brand do you buy?”

And now they’re off on that tangent, so I gratefully take another bite of my sandwich.

Soon Betty and Julie have to head back to work, and Annie accompanies Parvati to the restroom, leaving me as the only target of Connie’s prying conversationalism. I know I won’t escape so easily this time. My sandwich is gone now, but I hold my coffee close to my face, staring into it and taking frequent small sips.

“So, seriously, Darla, any interesting romantic developments lately?” she says, leaning forward and resting her chin in her hand.

“No,” I say, “not since Nicholas moved away.” Nicholas is a guy I made up about a year ago so they’d stop bothering me about how I never seemed to be interested in any men. It turned out to be counter-productive: they kept asking so many questions about him that I would forget what I’d said he did for a living, or the colour of his hair, or whether we’d had our first kiss yet, and eventually they were pressing so hard to meet him that I said we’d broken up because of a job offer he’d received on the other side of the country.

“Do you two ever talk these days?” Her tone is a bit too sympathetic, a bit too friendly, a bit too disingenuous. Connie is the only one who ever seemed to suspect that Nicholas might not be real.

“We kept up for a few weeks,” I say, “but you know how it is. We’ve just grown apart, I guess.”

“Sure,” she says, pouting her precious little lips in mock pity. “Don’t worry; I’m sure you’ll find someone new before long.”

“Uh huh,” I say, and reach for a newspaper someone has left behind on the table next to ours. The cover story is a big spread about a report that was just released on the number of dragon-related deaths over the past two years. I don’t want to show too much interest—I’m not supposed to be the kind of person who cares about that kind of thing, after all—so I casually flip past it.

Connie catches the cover as it falls open, though. “Ooh, I was waiting for this article to come out.” She holds the page up and puckers her forehead as she starts to skim through the paragraphs. I let her read. “Wow,” she says. “Did you know that three people from this area die every month, on average, from dragon attacks?”

“Really?” I say mildly.

“They’re poachers, a lot of them,” she continues. “I don’t know what kind of person would go out on their own and track down a dragon. Seems like a pretty stupid thing to do. That kind of thing should really be left to the professionals.”

“Yeah,” I say, with as much false conviction as I can muster.

Connie looks up from the paper with her I-have-a-secret face. “I bet you didn’t know my brother-in-law is in a Dragon Patrol.”

“Kiefer?” I say. I’ve met him once before, at a New Year’s Eve party. “Since when?”

“He just joined up a month ago, part-time. He’s on call, just for when they need an extra set of hands because one of the regulars can’t make it.” Her voice lowers conspiratorially, and she glances around us. “He actually went out on his first call this morning. I’m not supposed to know that, but my sister told me.”

This is information worth having. I put on an impressed expression. “So there’s been a dragon spotted, you think?”

“Must’ve been,” she says.

“Where do you think it was?”

“I don’t know.” She shrugs. “My sister said he was just told ‘east’ somewhere.”

It isn’t much, but it’s enough. I deflect the conversation to something more mundane again, and as soon as Annie and Parvati return from the restroom I excuse myself, saying I have to return to the office. I leave some money on the table and speed-walk down to the parkade, where my SUV is waiting. There’s no need to stop by home or check the back of the car. I always keep my rifle and a good stock of ammunition under the floor in the trunk, and a set of equipment stashed underneath the seat.  I have everything I need.

I use my SUV’s Bluetooth connection to speed-dial Fritz.

“There’s something happening to the east,” I say. “I’m already on my way.”

“I’m on it,” he says. “I’ll have it narrowed down as soon as possible.”

“Keep me updated.” I hang up. There’s no need to be more specific than that. Dragons are the only thing Fritz and I ever talk about. He’s my Spotter: he tracks down the dragons and flushes them out for me. I do the shooting.

It’s rare that I get a tip before Fritz does. He’s the one who really has his ear on the ground. I can’t afford to stick my neck out tracking down leads like he does. I’m the Shooter: I’m public enemy number one. If the government ever even suspected who I was, I’d have a SWAT team breaking down my door with their guns drawn.

It’s kind of funny, really, the war they wage against me and the other dozen or so Shooters I’m aware of across the country. On the surface, you’d think the government would appreciate our efforts. We do what the Dragon Patrols are supposed to do: we kill dragons. But despite that, the government labels us poachers and does everything it can to shut us down. They say they’ve criminalized our hunts because they’re too dangerous. They talk about all the deaths and publicly beg us to stand back while they handle the reptilian menace.

But those numbers in the report Connie was reading are a pretty twisted version of the truth. I only know of three hunters who have ever been killed by dragons, while I know of at least seven or eight more whose deaths were blamed on dragons when really it was Dragon Patrol bullets, not draconian teeth or flame, that ended their lives. The rest of those tragic deaths? Sure, some of them are civilians, but more of them are actually Dragon Patrollers. The patrols have an astonishingly high attrition rate.

We soldier on and protect ourselves the best we can. It would be futile to go to the media: the government controls those outlets. No one would believe us if we told them that when the Patrols are out hunting their dragons, they never shoot to kill. Most people don’t even know about the diamonds.

In ancient myths, dragons hoard gold, silver, and jewels in their mountain caves. Those stories come from historical misinterpretations: explorers found abandoned dragon nests, lined with diamonds and diamond dust, and exaggerated their discoveries until everyone was convinced that each dragon nest was a veritable treasure trove. The relatively mundane fact of the matter is that the dragons couldn’t care much less about diamonds: they literally crap them out.

We’ve known for decades that dragons’ digestive systems operate in what seems like a uniquely impossible way. They’re saxivores: they eat rocks and coal, and by some process which science is so far unable to explain, their feces come out as finely ground gravel and diamonds. What would you do with information like that?

Dragon habitat has been disappearing for centuries, leading to more and more encounters between dragons and humans. Like any other animal, a dragon will lash out if cornered or threatened. The number of “meteor strikes” being reported across the country started to grow rapidly about twenty years ago, as the government tried to cover up what was actually going on. In the meantime, they were sacrificing the lives of their soldiers to capture dragons for research. Eventually cover-ups became impossible, though, so they went public with the dragons’ existence and adopted their new strategy, employing civilians to fill the holes in the ranks of their Dragon Patrols, criminalizing any “unregulated” contact with dragons, and claiming their goal was to eradicate the dangerous, unpredictable beasts.

The first independent dragon hunter was a government employee named Hyatt. He saw what was happening, saw the number of deaths among the patrols and the amount of damage being done to our farmland, and decided he’d had enough. He made it his personal mission to kill the dragons off and stop the cycle of death.

Hyatt was the one who manufactured the first diamond-tipped bullets. He created the tactics and technology that the rest of use today. Funding his efforts with money he made selling dragon diamonds on the black market, he began to recruit and equip others and teach them about the government’s lies. Fritz and I were two of his earliest students.

Four years ago the government caught Hyatt slipping poison into the coal that was being fed to a captive dragon, so they locked him in the cage with it and claimed there’d been an “accident.” That’s what we’re up against.

The government wants its diamonds, and for that it needs dragons. The politicians have no interest in seeing the dragons killed off. They don’t care how many innocent ranchers and college kids like Connie’s brother-in-law have to die.

Fritz and I and all the rest of us aren’t prepared to accept that, so we take the dragons out every chance we get. Some of the hunters think we should be turning our scopes on the government research teams and leaving the dragons alone, but that was never Hyatt’s vision. If there were no more dragons, there’d be no more research teams, no more capture attempts, no more needless civilian deaths. We’re in this to save human lives, not to take them.

It’s raining today. The deluge pounds down, and my wipers sweep back and forth like pistons as I navigate through traffic to the highway. I notice a long, thin crack in my windshield where yesterday there was only a chip. I’ve been meaning to go to a glass shop and get it repaired, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Probably need to replace the whole thing, now. Oh well. I’m not exactly short on funds; no dragon hunter is. If the government started cracking down on the black market for dragon diamonds, they’d only be making it more difficult to move their own supply.

I’m about half an hour out of the city when Fritz calls me. “I’ve got it,” he says. “I picked up some D Patrol radio chatter. Head for the old black-rock seam in the Highlands.” We never say words like “coal,” “dragon,” or even “government” on the phone. There are too many computers listening in for those kinds of keywords.

“Didn’t we pick one off there two months ago?” I say.

“The Ds are probably searching out new ‘restaurants’ since the Patrols started staking out that gravel pit. I can text you the GPS coordinates.”

“No need. I remember where it is,” I say. “I’ll be there in twenty. Let me know when you get eyes on.”

I take an exit heading northeast. Ten minutes later I get caught behind a semi truck. I’m waiting for an opportunity to pass when a rock kicks up and smacks into my windshield. The existing crack instantly spiderwebs out across the entire pane of glass, obscuring my vision. I peek between the cracks and manage to negotiate my way onto the side of the road. I slam my hand on the dashboard in frustration.

The first thing I do is call Fritz. I’m close, so if he’s by his car there might be time for him to come get me, and I can call in a tow truck afterwards.

The call goes straight to voicemail.

Suddenly my car troubles are the least of my worries. If his battery was dying, he would’ve said something, and Fritz is far too conscientious to let that happen, anyways. The cell network is way too good these days for him to have just lost reception: he’d have to be sixty feet underground before his phone wouldn’t get a signal. So either his phone is broken, or he’s turned it off. I’ve never known Fritz to break anything by accident, and when we’re meeting up for a hunt we always keep our phones on, in case one of us has to call the other off.

There’s only one circumstance that might cause Fritz to turn his phone off, or maybe even to smash it: he’s been found by a Dragon Patrol.

A pit forms in my stomach. I can’t bear to think of what they might do to him, what they might be doing even now. If it was me they’d captured, I’d be dead in about as much time as it took for someone to pull a trigger. A Spotter, though, is worth more to them alive than dead. The Spotters are the ones who run our organization. They know our entire network; they know how and where to find all the Shooters. That information is far too valuable for the government to lose. It means torture, if Fritz won’t talk, and I know he won’t. He’s too strong for that.

I know what I’m supposed to do next. If I suspect that Fritz has been captured, I have to report it to my backup contact, go straight home, pack up everything, and head to a Safe House until one of the other Spotters gets in touch with me.

I already know that’s out of the question. I can’t leave Fritz in their hands. I won’t allow him to be taken back to the city and tortured for days, or even weeks, until they either extract everything they can from him or give up and let him die. He’s more than my Spotter: he’s my friend. I won’t abandon my friend.

If he knew what I was about to do, he’d be furious. I can picture his face right now, his blond eyebrows knitted together in consternation and his strong hands gesturing emphatically as he lectures me. “Call a tow truck, right this minute,” he’s saying. “Or leave it behind and hitch-hike back, if you have to. You are worth way too much to throw yourself away for me. If they have me already, then they know you’re on your way to meet me. Don’t be a fool.”

But I’m not listening. Fritz can vent as much fury as he wants on me next time I see him. At least it’ll mean he’s alive.

So I reach under the back seat, unzip my bag of gear, take out my sleek black hunting mask, and settle it onto my face. Then I slip off my flats, tug on my boots, and lean back as far as I can in my seat. The windshield is too shattered for me to see through it, and if I can’t see, then I can’t drive. I brace myself with my left foot, rear back with my right, and hammer it into the glass.

It takes three kicks for the windshield to shatter into pieces, and I take a few seconds to clean out the jagged edges with the thick rubber of my boots’ heels. Rain is pouring into the car now, but I don’t care. I’m going to get wet one way or another, and after this I’ll probably need a new car anyways, and a new address, too.

I drive. My mask only covers the upper half of my face, so the raindrops smack into my cheeks, stinging my skin. I use the sleeve of my jacket to wipe the shield of my mask clean every few seconds to maintain visibility. No matter what I do, it’s hard to see, but I speed up, faster and faster, thinking only of what Fritz might be going through. I almost miss the turn-off, but I see the sign just in time and squeal on the brakes to make the corner. Now I’m on a dirt road, climbing up the foothills of the mountain, churning through mud and bouncing recklessly across the potholes. Lightning strikes the mountainside.

I recognize a landmark in the near distance, a tall, dead tree standing out among a copse of firs. Last time Fritz and I met at these coal mines we used that tree as a signpost. I pull off the dirt road and jump out of my car. I throw on my camo jacket, as much for warmth as anything else, but leave on my suit pants. There’s no time to worry about that. I tear up the floor of the trunk so I can get at my rifle and a spare clip of ammo. I leave everything else behind.

As I sprint towards that stand of firs, good sense manages to make itself heard over my inner frenzy. I slow down and start to pay attention to the noise I’m making. It won’t matter how quickly I get there if they hear me coming.

It takes me ten minutes to work my way through the woods to a good vantage point where I can scout out our meeting spot. I look through my sniper scope, because I left my binoculars in the SUV. I don’t know if he was intending to choose this same rendezvous, but I have to hope he was. Otherwise I have an entire mountainside to comb.

I see something: there’s a tear in the grass and two branches have been broken off of one of the smaller trees at about shoulder height. Signs of struggle? No, it’s too subtle for that. These marks were left intentionally. Maybe Fritz left them as a signal for me, so I’d know he’d been there.

Then another interpretation occurs to me: Fritz wouldn’t have wanted me to try to rescue him, so why would he have left me signs? It’s more likely that the Dragon Patrol left the marks as a way to trap me.

I ask myself what they will expect me to do if they think I’m going to come looking for Fritz. What kind of trap might they set? The patrols always bring a big truck along to transport the dragons they capture. They use it a sort of mobile headquarters on their hunts. That’s the most logical place for them to have brought Fritz. The question is whether they’ll try to ambush me here by the rendezvous site, or whether they’ll centre their trap on the convoy. If I were them, I’d leave the rendezvous point clear and set a wide perimeter around the convoy to catch me on my way in. That’s the setup I’ll have to count on defeating.

The first piece of information I need, then, is the location of the convoy. This kind of thing is usually Fritz’s job. I try to think of how he would go about getting a sightline on a landed dragon. What’s that thing he always says? Right: “Need to see? Climb a tree.”

I sling my rifle onto my back and pick a tall, thick fir with strong, spoked branches. I begin to climb. How does Fritz do this so quickly? He’s bigger and heavier than I am, but still far nimbler. He’d get to the top of this tree in a minute or two. It takes me much longer. The branches are wet and slippery, and the rifle on my back makes it awkward to negotiate my way under, over, and between them. My thin pants catch a few times and tear. The leaves and branches scratch at my face and hands.

I finally reach a perch above the main tree line and take a moment to catch my breath. The rain is still falling, but it’s lighter now. I can’t see as far as I’d hoped, but there are gaps in the approaching clouds. The sun is starting to burn through.

Making sure that I’m secure in the crook between two thick branches, I bring my scope up to my eye and scan the forest, starting with the dead tree below me where I believe Fritz was taken and sweeping back and forth across my range of vision, in a broader arc with every pass. There’s a hill on the far side of the tree that rises a hundred feet or so and falls into a valley on the other side. As I follow the curve of the valley the rain stops and the sun begins to warm my face. I realize how cold I’ve been, without noticing. I try to stop noticing again.

Some colour and movement catches my eye in the valley. It could be the transport truck, or one of the patrol’s other vehicles. If their trucks are moving, they may not even be bothering to trap me. Maybe they’re just taking Fritz, forgetting about the dragon that’s supposed to be out here somewhere, and returning to the city. If so, there’s nothing I can do. I can’t take on a moving convoy on my own. I hold my breath as the movement approaches a gap in the trees.

It isn’t the patrol; it’s the dragon. She’s a massive specimen, black and silver with a long neck and sleek, scaly wings. She is old, beautiful, and terrible. The afternoon sun glistens on the diamond dust encrusted into her underside from years of nesting amid her own feces. These dragons are creatures of filth, but also of majesty. It’s a pity, in some ways, that our world can no longer be theirs. Out of habit, I find my scope wandering to the weak spot in her skull, just below and in front of her ear, where I know my diamond-tipped bullet could lay her to rest. I wonder idly how many humans she has killed.

I react to the sound the same time she does: the crack of a gunshot cuts through the air, followed shortly after by an echo off the mountains. The dragon raises her head swiftly and looks up into the trees. My heart pounds in my ears. Who was on the other end of that shot?

I swing my scope in the direction of the sound and find a clearing, hidden before by the mist of rain, only a kilometre or two up the road from where I left my SUV. The transport truck is parked there, along with two vans painted in drab military green.

There’s movement in my scope, in the form of several ant-sized bodies. I reach up and adjust the zoom, enlarging the scene. Black-clad Dragon Patrol squad members are scrambling, diving behind their vehicles. I hear more gun shots and see sparks fly off the bumper of one of the vans. A motionless body is lying on the grass, the recipient of the first bullet, I assume. But where is the shooter?

I find him crouched behind a tree. Fritz is holding one of the patrol’s rifles, peppering their hiding spots with suppressive fire. Now they are fighting back, and the echoes of their gunshots boom off the mountainside. Run, Fritz! I think. Why don’t you run? They outnumber him at least ten to one. It will only be a matter of seconds before they realize how easily they can flank him.

I steady my rifle and settle my sights on the edge of one of the vans, where I’ve seen one of the patrollers hiding. Fritz has no chance to make it out on his own, but he does have me. From this distance, wind and elevation will make any shots I take extremely difficult, but I have years of practice. I settle my finger on the trigger and wait for my target to show himself.

I see a curve of black, then the patroller swings out from behind his cover. He readies his rifle inexpertly, and I bring my sights up to his face.

I recognize his features: this is Connie’s brother-in-law, Kiefer, the one I met once in passing at a party. He’s just a child, really, a 21-year-old student looking to pick up some extra cash. He has no idea that only a quarter-inch movement of my finger separates him from death. Can I do this? Can I take a human life?

These thoughts flash through my mind in less than a second before I find myself adjusting my aim from his head down to his arm. Just as I’m squeezing the trigger, the patroller takes his own shot, and the recoil from his weapon makes him stumble. My bullet drops less than I expected and smacks into and through a tree in line with where his head had been. He scuttles back into cover.

My heart catches in my throat. I just nearly killed a man. It surprises me what effect that idea is having. A shiver runs over my body, some mixture of shock and adrenaline. I lift my eye from my scope and take a deep breath to settle myself. My conscience is blaring, but I try to tune it out. Fritz needs me.

Then I realize I haven’t heard any shots fired since my own. Instantly I turn my scope on the place where Fritz had been. At first I don’t see him, but I bring my gaze down to the base of the tree. He’s lying there, sprawled backwards on the grass, eyes wide and unblinking. Bile leaps into my throat, and the blood drains from my head. I nearly lose my balance, but grab at a branch and resettle myself in my perch. Tears are springing into my eyes, fogging my vision. I lift my mask and wipe it clear, blinking the tears away. I go back to the scope and zoom in on Fritz’s face and chest, searching desperately for any signs of movement that might tell me he’s still alive, that the shot taken by Connie’s brother-in-law hasn’t ripped the only person in this world that I really care about out of my life.

A roiling howl penetrates my panic, and a wash of orange and yellow catches my peripheral vision. The dragon has entered the fray.

The gunshots start up again, in earnest, and the dragon’s flames flow. The vehicles are all alight in seconds, and I see the Patrollers fleeing into the trees. They are not prepared for this onslaught. Their tactics are centred around surprising a dragon, surrounding it, and pumping its hide full of dozens of tranquilizer cartridges. Their standoff with Fritz has left them unprepared. Their guns are probably still loaded with the wrong ammunition. I wonder if they fear punishment from their government masters if they shoot to kill the dragon instead of capturing it.

Some small flame deep in my chest burns brighter as I watch the futile efforts of the Dragon Patrol to escape the destruction. The black beast is wreaking justice on my behalf. If Fritz is dead, I begin to think, then I hope they die, too.

I look down to Fritz again and take in the details of his face. His hair is mussed up and his eyebrows are raised as if in surprise. The damp, rough skin of his forehead and cheeks gleams softly. His beautiful blue eyes stare into empty space, and his strong, square jaw hangs open. Just above his collar I see a tiny puff of red. The feathers of a tranquilizer dart.

Something in his throat twitches.

Hope surges up inside me. He’s alive! Breathe! I command him, with every ounce of energy that I can put into the thought. Live!

I swing my sights around to the dragon. She’s peeling back the roof of a van with her jaws as bullets and darts ping ping ping off her hide. A few lucky shots appear to have found chinks in her armour, but not yet enough, not by far. These patrollers have neither the skill nor the equipment to kill a dragon quickly. The forest is beginning to burn.

The side of the dragon’s head is turned towards me, and her soft temple is exposed. Having seen Fritz alive, I don’t think twice: I line up my sights, adjust my aim based on the trajectory of my previous shot, and squeeze the trigger. The dragon reels, chokes out a massive gout of orange flame, and collapses amid the wreckage of the vans.

There are several seconds of stillness before the patrollers step out of the trees. They advance cautiously, but soon discover that the dragon is well and truly dead. A few of the patrollers yank a hose out of the side of the transport truck and start to spray fire-retardant foam on the burning vehicles and trees.

I train my sights on one of the patrollers who has a red stripe around his helmet. He is kneeling by the dragon’s head and frowning. I could kill him, even more easily than I have just killed the dragon, but something inside me makes me watch and wait. He stands and says something to a woman near him, who hands him a pair of binoculars. He raises them to his eyes and starts to scan the tree line. I keep my scope centred on his forehead.

He sees me and freezes in place.

I could put a diamond-tipped bullet right through the lens of his binoculars, but still I don’t. I whisper, “You don’t have to be my enemy.”

He lowers his binoculars slowly and takes off his helmet. I watch him close his eyes and put his hand over his heart. He stands that way for three seconds, six, ten, gritting his teeth as he waits to die.

Eventually his eyes flutter open, and I see him exhale. The grimace on his face melts away. He turns his eyes in my direction, his eyes narrowed in consternation, then raises his hand to his forehead in salute.

Taking a radio from his belt, he begins to speak into it. He yells towards the rest of the Patrollers in the clearing and they turn towards the transport truck. One of them climbs into the cab and a puff of exhaust signals the starting of the engine. The trailer is damaged, but the cab is mostly unharmed. The Patrollers, including their leader and Connie’s brother-in-law, pile into the trailer through the rear doors. After a minute, four others—they must be the perimeter watchmen who were waiting to ambush me—jog in from the forest. They, too, jump into the trailer, pulling the doors shut behind them. The truck wheels around and chugs down the dirt road towards the highway.

I watch them go for several minutes, wary of some deceit. They may again be trying to trap me. My patience can only hold for so long, though, and then I’m scrambling down out of the tree and sprinting through the woods towards the place where Fritz lies. As I get closer, I follow the sounds of the still-burning vans.

He’s still lying as I saw him, but his head has dropped to the side now, and his eyes are closed. He’s breathing evenly. I drop my mask to the ground, pluck the tranquilizer out of his neck, and lift him in my arms. The rain begins to fall again, lightly. I’m shaking with the release of adrenaline and tears are streaming down my face, more tears than I’ve cried in the past fifteen years combined. I don’t care that my car is trashed; that my thin pants are a lattice of rips, and my legs are torn and bleeding beneath them; that Fritz and I are both going to have to go into hiding, probably for months, maybe for years. He’s alive. He’s alive.

Eventually I recover enough to drag Fritz into deeper cover, and I take out my phone to call in help from another Spotter who can evacuate us covertly. As I relay the details of our position, I wonder what Connie would think if she knew that after lunch I had hopped in my SUV, driven for an hour, covered up my pantsuit with camo gear, come inches from murdering her brother-in-law with a high-tech sniper rifle, and thrown away the secure, comfortable lifestyle of my false identity in order to save the life of a man who was clearly much more than a friend to me, after all.

She’d probably think I was joking. Fine by me.