A rough voice asked the question, more than a hint of amusement and disbelief in its rumbling tones.
There was an answering laugh that sounded like a small eruption in the twilight of the setting sun. “He does. He thinks she can be trained.”
Two largely human forms held their discussion on the small fortified bank of a mountain’s edge, their golden catlike eyes scanning the horizon of the planet that would soon be theirs. They wore no clothing, their nakedness a point of pride rather than shame.
They had much to be proud of. Their physiques were chiseled, their faces sculpted in intense expressions that remained elegant at rest. They were burly and bulky with powerful shoulders narrowing to fit waists. They were warriors. Every inch of them had been created for battle. Cast in the low light of the setting sun, one would have been forgiven for mistaking them for young gods.
“Is training the same as mating her?”
“That is how humans learn, so General Vyktor says,” the warrior laughed. “Makes you curious what she must feel like around your rod.”
“He’ll tear your throat out if you try to find out,” his comrade replied. “He’s more possessive of her than he is of his jewels.”
A deeper, gruffer voice interrupted the warriors’ salacious discussion of their commander as the very man they had been talking about had stepped out onto the mountainside ledge.
General Vyktor was an impressive specimen in either of his forms and he commanded their respect easily, no simple task. His golden eyes seared into them both, their postures changing instantly as he walked toward them. Where they had stood tall, heads high, now they bowed them in an unmistakable show of respect.
Their commander was a handsome man. He had a broad face with high cheekbones, strong nose, and a powerful jaw. He looked upon his men with great golden eyes, surveying them with a knowing stare. He was far from the oldest among them, but Vyktor had made his mark upon the war band early and had risen to one of the highest ranks before most dragons his age were considering leaving their parents’ nest. He had defended that rank ably for many years, and there were few who would cross him. Certainly not these two warriors with their eyes now fixed at his feet.
Dragon warriors respected one thing: strength. Every inch of the young general’s body was powerful. He had a bearing that spoke to the strength he had shown in many battles both in this simple realm and in their own lands. He was naked as they were, his manhood swinging heavy between his thighs.
“I will be presenting my pet for her discipline momentarily,” he announced. “If you would proceed to the chamber, I wish to have a full audience.”
The warriors did not need a second invitation. They thanked the general and made their way into the chamber that had been prepared for the purpose of displaying the general’s pet. There was a raised platform, encircled in bars that would not have stopped a dragon for a moment, but against which Vyktor’s pet was helpless.
As they filed in and took their places, the naked young human woman looked at them with a spirited glower. She was captured, but she was far from broken. Her arms were chained above her head, her feet shackled to the ground, not so tight that she would be in pain, but more than tight enough to ensure that every inch of her beautiful body was bare to their gaze. Humans were so soft and so curvy. The flare of her hips, the swell of her bottom and her breasts drew their eyes inexorably. Her legs were slightly parted, and a keen eye would have noticed the sheen of desire marked high on her inner thighs.
The dragon men looked on with curiosity and desire. No prisoners had been taken before this one. It had been forbidden. Of course, General Vyktor was above such decrees. He was free to take anything he pleased. And this human had pleased him. They watched as he stepped into the cage with her, saw how she reacted to him with a soft quivering sigh.
“My pet has misbehaved,” Vyktor declared, laying a slap on her bottom. She gasped, biting her pink lower lip as she squirmed naked on the spot. “She believes that her obedience is contingent upon her desire to be obedient. We are here to prove otherwise to her.”
He landed another hard slap and the pretty human hissed, squirming in her bonds.
“That hurts,” she complained, her pout aimed at Vyktor.
The dragons exchanged smirks. This human had no idea who she was truly dealing with. Vyktor was first among his legion. He was one of the bravest warriors to ever enter battle—and he was not known for his mercy. He was being incredibly gentle with her, and she did not seem to know it. The little love taps that left her cheeks blushing were delivered at a fraction of the intensity he was capable of, and they were doing little other than stimulating her body to bloom beneath his palm.
The soft curves of her body flowed in a slow squirm as Vyktor slid his hand from her bottom and caressed her flank, hip, and breast. His eyes were locked on hers, demanding her attention, commanding her will.
“You forget your place, pet,” he said in soft censure.
Again, the dragons raised brows at one another. Had she ever truly known it? Humans were headstrong at the best of times, but the one Vyktor had taken as his pet was truly willful. He should have known she would be; she was one of the few humans who had taken to the skies in an effort to do battle with them—as unequal a fight as could be imagined, except perhaps for the battle of wills taking place before them now.
She strained at her chains as the dragon general caressed her body, his touch making her react in a thousand little ways, many of which were entirely involuntary. She could not stop her breath from quickening. She could not stop her pupils from dilating. She could not even seem to stop the natural arch of her hips and the spreading of her legs—an undeniable invitation to mate.
The dragon cohort had been skeptical at first when Vyktor told them of his plans to take and train a human, but there could be no denying it now. She was utterly in thrall to him, as much as she might want to resist it at times, even outright disobey, she could not stop herself from reacting precisely as he intended.
The general’s fingers dipped between her thighs, found her hot, wet tightness, and once again the dance of discipline began…
One month earlier…
High over the Mojave Desert, a fighter jet sliced through the air leaving two trails of white vapor in its wake. Its pilot was a young woman named Aria Thomas-Jones, a slim figure strapped securely into the cockpit of the powerful bird. She had taken off from Edwards air force base almost seven hours ago on a solo patrol around the aberration that had forever changed the course of human history.
California blue sky gave way to a dark swirling mass that spread across miles of once pristine sky. It was centered above a building erected in the middle of nowhere, a scientific military installation now entirely abandoned. There were still tracks on the desert floor marking where people had fled, their tires digging in here and there. One or two vehicles were abandoned, broken down from the storm that had been raging for several weeks.
To Aria, it looked like what a tornado might look like if you extracted its soul. Green and gray and full of perpetual rain that burned everything beneath it. This was the fruit of a scientific advance gone awry. Humanity had been predicting disaster at the hands of advancement from the moment steam engines managed to transport a person faster than a horse could ride. It had been a long time coming, but finally those people had been proven correct in the most terrifying way possible. The sky had fallen, and it had brought with it a hell so real that churches across the world were packed to the brim day and night.
The storm had not brought demons, however, and it was not a storm. It was, simply put, a hole.
“And they thought the hole in the ozone layer was bad,” Aria muttered to herself as she steered her plane in a patrol around the very outer perimeter of the thing. There were eyes on the anomaly at every hour of the day and night. It was all the military could do to monitor the situation as it developed—the ‘situation’ being a chasm in the very fabric of reality through which creatures that could only be described as dragons were being birthed into the world.
They came angry, and they came destructive, wreaking havoc on everything in their path. It was fortunate that many had evacuated when the experimental fusion plant that had created this monstrosity first showed signs of malfunctioning. Previous disasters had given people a healthy respect for energy gone awry and the panicked evacuation had no doubt saved many lives.
So far casualties were relatively few and mostly secondary to the damage caused by the dragons, rather than the dragons themselves, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t increase in time, and it didn’t make the dragons any less dangerous.
Aria adjusted her heading slightly, taking her off the patrol trajectory and toward the portal proper. High winds buffeted her plane, sending it through a torrent of turbulence. At first it had been stomach churning, but she was starting to get used to it now, fighting the elements that were so disrupted and twisted near the center of the thing. She wasn’t supposed to get this close, but curiosity always drew her past the official perimeter. Ordinarily that would have gotten her ass kicked, but in the middle of a battle unlike anyone had imagined possible, there wasn’t time to kick her ass.
She saw the flash of a dark wing in the clouds, the rise of the curved line of some unnatural body giving her a reaction much like a swimmer seeing a fin slicing though water. Here be dragons. Hundreds of them. The sound of the Earth’s atmosphere raging at the wound dealt to its very core served to block out their roars and the sound of her engine as she rocketed through the billowing clouds.
It was dangerous to be this close. She was relying on the cloud itself to keep her obscured from the monsters roiling in it. If they were to catch sight of her and pursue her, her craft would do nothing to protect her. What drew her on in spite of the danger, what had called her from the beginning was the calm she knew must be at the center of the chaos—the point at which two worlds met. Some said that if you flew right to the eye of the aperture, you could see the other realm and even pass through it.
Aria wanted that so badly she could almost taste it. She rode the highs and the lows, her stomach rising and falling, clinging to consciousness as she pulled high gravitational forces in the quest for the very center of the portal through which Earth had been invaded.
“Trouble! Return to base!”
Her radio crackled to life.
Aria swore as her plane began giving her orders in her commander’s voice. “You are beyond the perimeter. Return to base immediately!”
He sounded pissed. Even so, Aria thought about disobeying the order. The turbulence was enough to make her sick, or would have been if she’d had anything in her stomach, but she was on the cusp of seeing something very few people would ever see. A single pilot had flown through the portal. He had not returned. Nobody knew what had befallen him on the other side, but Aria wanted to find out.
She was getting closer to the core of the thing and the dark pea soup cloud was beginning to clear. The shadow of a creature many times more powerful than herself cast over her cockpit as one of the dragons passed above her head. It took several seconds to clear her cockpit, reminding her just how much she was up against.
“This is insane,” she muttered to herself, peeling off to drop back and below the cloud. She reset her heading to the base, feeling a tinge of regret and a little bit of self-recrimination at her cowardice. She’d sneaked into the cloud many times before, but she never seemed to get the courage to go to the very center of it. The fear always became too great before she could push her plane past that final barrier.
In some respects, what she saw once she was outside the dragon-infested cloud was worse than the shadowy creatures inside it. For miles around, the land bore the marks of their invasion. Vehicles were broken down along the roads, tires melted into the road from the breath of dragons. Small towns were razed entirely, foundations and basements all that remained of the simple little settlements. There were great tracts of scorch marks where nothing had ever been, but the dragons had decided to unleash their fire there anyway, leaving nothing standing.
And then there were the forests, which had also caught fire in places and were burning out of control. Emergency services were hard pressed to get enough fire retardant in the air, and though the air force was focused on that too, it was an additional danger nobody needed to be dealing with. From the air, Aria could see plumes of smoke extending up and down the coast.
Fortunately for her, the base itself was defended heavily by anti-aircraft armaments that were as effective against dragons as they were against planes. But the world could not be covered in heavy artillery and there was so much of it left completely unprotected. Much of California was already lost, but the battle continued nonetheless. Armaments and planes from all over the continent were being sacrificed at the dragon front, holding back the invasion to a certain extent.
Aria set herself into a holding pattern above the base and radioed down.
“This is Trouble, requesting permission to land.”
Aria’s radio crackled with the controller’s response.
“You’re clear for landing, Trouble. Bring her down.”
Less than a minute later, the Tornado jet came screaming down onto the runway, thrust reversers screeching with the effort it took to stop her from jetting off the end and into the side of one of the hangars. Aria flew an older plane, but her Tornado was doing hard duty and holding up her end along with the newer, shinier models the top guns flew.
There weren’t many of those planes left. The dragons were incredibly efficient at taking down aircraft when they wanted to. Aria was still in one piece only because she had never had a direct confrontation with them. Her encounters in the portal cloud were never aggressive because the cloud prevented her from getting a lock on any dragon in it, and possibly because it shielded her from their aggression in the same way.
The base was a ghost town compared to what it had been before the war. Attrition rates were so high that most fighters were now stationed a whole lot further to the east. Truth be told, California had all but been written off by command. Aria and a few other stoic souls had remained to hold the front, a front that was already lost.
It was a relief to pull the oxygen straps from her face and open the cockpit—at least until she caught the scent of smoke that permeated the air almost constantly now. It was hot inside her flight suit, and she was slicked with sweat, exhausted from an eight-hour solo run over California. It had been such a depressing, angering experience, seeing the cities smoldering at the edges like overbaked potato chips, the countryside crisscrossed with those dark flaming tracts of land.
She pulled her helmet from her head and swore, “Fuck.”
“That rough, huh?” Her commanding officer met her on the tarmac. Chief Master Sergeant Rory Wetherstone. Silver-haired and wearing the marks of his service on his face, the only guy who’d been willing to have her in his unit, and the closest thing Aria had left to a father figure.
“If this is my debriefing,” she said, wiping her face on the sleeve of her uniform. “Then I can officially report: Fuck. That.”
Rory snorted. “We might need a little more detail than that, airman.”
“Everything from here to Vegas is fucked,” she said bluntly. “The forests are still burning, and some of the towns. I counted at least a hundred lizards from there and back, and dropped a few aid packages over LA in case we’ve still got civilians holed up there.”
“None of the lizards tried to engage you?”
“I didn’t see any of them,” Aria said grimly, omitting the shadows and shades she’d seen in the storm cloud. “I saw what they’ve been doing though. I’d give anything to put a missile right through the middle of one of those things.”
“You’ll have your chance to do that soon enough. Go get cleaned up,” Rory said, slapping her on the back. “And get some rest. You’ve earned it.”
Aria didn’t know if she’d earned it, but she sure needed it. She was bone tired from the run. The adrenaline from heading to the portal had woken her up some, but that was fading fast now that she was on solid ground. Breathing a smoky sigh of relief at the prospect of some kind of rest, she made her way to the barracks and slumped down in the common room.
There she pulled the net holding her long, thick, dirty blonde hair in place. The long missions made her think about cutting it short, but it was the last thing she had that reminded her of the time before she joined the military. Things had been more simple then. She’d been more simple.
Flying had always been Aria’s passion. She had begun lessons with her father when she was just five years old. Her father had passed when she was fifteen, and she had never known her mother. For several years following his passing, Aria had been denied the opportunity to fly. She’d been sent to live with her aunt, a woman who had decided that Aria had been raised all wrong and spend the next miserable three years trying to change everything about her and despairing at Aria’s inevitable rebellion.
At seventeen, Aria had stolen a plane out of sheer desperation to see the sky. Fortunately for her, it was from a small Kansas airfield and the owner had been surprisingly understanding. Instead of pressing charges, or reporting her to the aviation authority, he’d encouraged her to go into military training. The rest was history—a checkered history that involved more notes, comments, and marks on her record than seemed possible. She’d seen her file once; it looked like a copy of War and Peace. There was absolutely no doubt in Aria’s mind that she wouldn’t have gotten to fly for the air force if it wasn’t for the invasion. That call sign ‘Trouble’ said it all. Whether she was getting into trouble, or if it was simply happening in the vicinity, mischief tended to follow Aria wherever she went.
She flicked the television onto the news channel and watched the only thing that was on TV these days: the war.
They were doing another one of their retrospectives, showing footage of crowds cheering and clapping in the Mojave, clustered around that now wrecked building in their bright colored buses and tribal clothing with their bands and acts. Like Burning Man, but for a power plant. Power Man, they’d called it. The reason for the excitement was obvious and had touched everyone. The hyper-fusion plant promised a source of never-ending entirely clean power. There would be no more need for oil, or gas, or windmills. Even nuclear was unnecessary. They’d found a way to turn the space between atoms into pure energy, so they explained on every news channel in the world.
Some people had protested, but some people always protested and nobody paid any attention to them. The news footage showed a few of their dark signs with coffins and verses from various books inscribed upon them, but they had not stopped the party, which raged for three days before the activation.
The entire world had held its breath as the switch was thrown on the new reactor. And then it had let that breath out in a scream.
The station had powered up as intended, but instead of sending energy coursing through the thick cable connected to the California grid, it burst forth to the sky above and tore a hole in the very fabric of space and time. Scientists would later explain that it was a rift to a sister dimension, but it didn’t matter by then, because the dragons had arrived. Pouring through the tear on great leathery wings, bringing fire and destruction to the revelers below. The festival erupted in flame and fear as news cameras caught sight of creatures that looked like they belonged in a movie. They were the demons of humanity’s super-consciousness and they were every bit as fearsome as the legends had made them out to be—more so for being real.
Aria had been in jet pilot training at the time. She was a skilled—some even said natural—pilot, but her tendency to get on the wrong side of superiors was holding her back. If the dragons hadn’t come, she would probably have been discharged as surplus to requirements. Instead they had slapped a pair of wings on her uniform, made ‘Trouble’ her call sign, and put her in the air. The only effective way to combat the dragons was in the air, and every pilot was essential. Even civilian pilots had been taken into the service as commercial flights were grounded. It was far too dangerous to be in the skies unless your plane was loaded with missiles.
“This is a shit show,” she muttered to herself, flipping between stations to watch talking heads in bunkers argue over the situation. Some were saying diplomacy hadn’t been given a chance to work and that the government should be making greater efforts to contact them in search of peace. Others were saying that the only way to stop the dragons was to build a giant plug. Others were insisting that the dragons would never have been able to come through at all if it weren’t for people using their microwaves so much. People were panicking and the world was on the verge of economic collapse thanks to the domino effect of the stock markets.
Even if they got the dragons under control tomorrow, this mess was going to take years, if not decades to clean up. And if they didn’t get the dragons under control… well, none of it was going to matter.
Pounding footsteps outside the door heralded the arrival of her very flustered-looking commanding officer.
“Aria, I need you back in the air! We’ve got a rogue lizard crossing the Los Angeles threshold and the main defense wing scrambled to the south an hour ago. Get out there and get that lizard away from the city!”
Suddenly, Aria wasn’t tired anymore. The very concept of fatigue was forgotten as Aria ran to her plane and jumped in. It had been refueled, flight checked and was ready to go. She was in the air before she even gave a clear thought to what she was going to do about the dragon. The air-to-air missiles were on board. They’d proven to be effective on some of the lizards in the past, though Aria had never used them herself.
She headed for Los Angeles on the necessary vector, hoping to intersect the dragon. During the initial invasion, the dragons had swarmed the sky so thick that they cast their shade for miles, but some had returned to the portal, and it was said that others were setting up bases or burrows in remote areas. There was no real intelligence as to where they were or what they were doing. Drones sent after them usually ended up melted and crispy.
The only spark of hope was in the dragons’ flight range. It seemed to max out around a thousand miles, which meant that they hadn’t made it to the main continent of Europe thanks to the oceans. The Alaskan route was out, due to their apparent inability to withstand the freezing temperatures of that region. Right now they were contained by the winter weather to Central America, which was good news for the rest of the world, but very bad news for the United States in particular, where most of the activity was centered.
Checking over her weapons system, Aria made sure everything was in order and ready to go. Maybe she should have been afraid, but she was almost excited to do battle with a dragon up close and personal.
“Imma run you right out of town,” she promised under her breath, her eyes scanning the sky for signs of trouble.
If her commander hadn’t sent her out, she would have volunteered for this mission anyway. Aria was itching to engage one of the dragons in an air battle. It was dangerous, but nothing could resist an air-to-air missile. Of course, that was only half of the equation. The dragons had fearsome offensive capabilities, flaming hot discharges that would melt the electronics and make the plane spiral out of the sky in a plume of smoke.
The military scientists were working on heat-shielding technology, but that wasn’t going to do a thing for Aria. She was going to have to throw her plane around hard to avoid the discharges while still getting close enough to get a decent lock on the dragon. It was dogfighting on steroids, and she was ready for it.
A confirmed kill would earn her a dragon slayer patch—there weren’t many of those, and they meant something. Aria was desperate to prove herself as more than trouble. She was desperate to do something that would show everyone that in spite of the fact she wasn’t always easy to command, she was worth her wings.
More than that though, these dragons had to be dealt with. Every kill counted. Summer was coming and vast swathes of the country currently protected from the lizards by snow and freezing temperatures would soon lose that advantage. There was even the possibility that the dragons would start walking among humans without being detected. They had human forms; that much was for sure. There was footage of a dragon dying, turning almost human as it went. It wasn’t pleasant to look at, but it proved an important point: there had never been an invasion like this. They were dealing with creatures capable of breathing fire and taking a fighter jet down with their teeth and claws—and who could also shift to walk among the human population. On close inspection they did look different. Their eyes weren’t quite right for starters, and their skin had scales in some places, but all of that could be potentially hidden.
“That’s got to be bullshit,” she swore to herself. She’d seen the footage herself, but it still didn’t seem real to her. Dragons were huge. Bigger than buses, most of them. Closer to blue whales. Blue whales with huge wings and fire breath. How could they possibly take human shape? And why would they? And what other forms could they take, if human shape wasn’t the only option they had?
There were so many questions, and Aria couldn’t answer any of them. Maybe that was why she felt so drawn by the portal. Even she had to admit that it was weird to hate dragons and simultaneously be tempted to fly into the very heart of a world that must be filled with them.
As she drew closer to Los Angeles, Aria turned off her inner dialog and focused on the matter at hand. Sure enough, just as her commander had said, there was a dragon messing around on the outskirts of the city. It didn’t seem to be taking hostile action—yet, anyway.
Aria was flying near the Tornado’s top speed, covering twenty miles every minute. Her speed made the dragon seem to loom out of the sky, as it flew in sinuous motions, twisting about like a winged snake. Unlike the dragons in the portal clouds, she could see this one clearly, and the sight caused a deep existential horror that made her stomach feel like lead. That thing couldn’t be real. It moved through the air as if the air were water, its powerful body streamlined back from a ferocious head containing teeth that could pierce a tank.
At a distance it had been a dark figure silhouetted against the burning skyline, but she could see now that it was a burnished red hue marked with streaks of black along its eyes and down the length of its spine. The closer she got, the closer it got. It had seen her and was moving toward her, wings spread wide, mouth open. She had to be damn careful now with the range. Too far and she might miss it with her weapons. Too close and she’d be toast.
Aria flipped open the catch over the button for the air-to-air missile and held her finger over it for a second. A prayer appeared in her head almost spontaneously, some part of her responding to the enormity of the act she was about to undertake.
The missile sped from the belly of her plane. It was a dead lock, straight for the beast’s heart. Aria counted the seconds until the dragon would explode into charred meat, but it twisted gracefully at the last moment with one of those easy smooth motions that made her almost envious, and the missile headed off into the wide blue.
They were so close now, and Aria was on a near collision course with the monster. She threw her plane to the side as the dragon flew past. For a brief moment, Aria and the dragon looked at one another, her stunned face hidden by the mask as she stared into the eyes of the powerful beast that was matching her mile for mile. A tremor went through her, a recognition of something. A deep instinctual knowing, the same kind a mouse has when it meets its first cat.
She peeled off, the plane curving sideways through the sky to slip down and under and then rise up behind the dragon. Another missile lock. Another launch. Another miss.
“Fuck!” Aria shouted in frustration. Two failures did not bode well for this mission. In war, you didn’t usually get a third chance. And now the dragon was on the attack.
It came for her hard, spearing through the sky. Aria yanked the control column and the plane spun out of the dragon’s way, earth and sky switching places several times before she righted herself again. Los Angeles was coming into view, and she had an idea. While she had technically been told to get the dragon out of the city, maybe she could follow orders by disobeying them.
She was glad she was in her Tornado. Some of the other pilots had given her hell for it, but unlike their newer birds, her plane could fly anywhere at almost any speed. Low flight was a specialty of the model. And that meant she had some chance of escaping the thing behind her if she used her brains rather than the throttle.
Arcing around, Aria headed for Los Angeles. The city had been evicted when the dragon attacks began to spread. There were a few die-hards in the hills and perhaps holed up in bunkers, but her plan wouldn’t put them in harm’s way, though it would give them a hell of a show.
She came screaming down the remains of Sunset Boulevard, the dragon in hot pursuit. Its wingspan and need to keep flapping at slow speeds made it impossible for the creature to catch her down a windy canyon of what had once been a glittering array of shops, offices, hopes and dreams.
The city proper was big enough that she figured she had some chance of losing the dragon if she used the Tornado’s superior maneuverability by slotting in between the buildings, losing it in the maze of the city.
She twisted the controls and the plane turned sideways, sitting on a blade of air as she came roaring between gleaming glass towers. Behind her, the dragon rolled with her and slid through just as easily.
“Dammit! Get off my ass,” she growled, clenching her teeth.
The dragon drew closer, its speed impressive as it managed to keep pace with her through the turns and twists. It occurred to Aria far too late that she had made the wrong decision in attempting to lose the beast at low speed. If anything, it was more agile than her. She should have gotten high and fast.
Sweeping out from her last turn, Aria drew the control column back and sent the Tornado into a steep climb. She was pulling several Gs, but that was the cost of outrunning a dragon. She had to clench her muscles to stay awake and not black out as the force tried to drain the blood from her head. There was an unholy juddering as the plane stalled. And then the worst sound a pilot could ever hear: silence.
There was a moment of weightlessness as her ascent stopped—and then she began to fall, dead engines doing nothing but weighing her toward Earth.
“Fuck! No!” Aria went through all the checks and systems to reactivate dead engines. Nothing worked. Something was wrong. Something was stuck, or sheared, or… something. It didn’t really matter what in the moment because there was nothing she could do about it.
The mechs who usually performed maintenance were stretched at the moment, so it was possible some fault had gone undetected. The Tornado was nineteen years old, only a couple of years younger than Aria. A lot could go wrong in nineteen years. The what and the why of the fault didn’t really matter as the plane began to nose down into a dive that could only end in one result.
Cursing, Aria hauled back on the control column, desperate to get the nose up. Lack of power didn’t mean a crash, but diving and spinning did. She looked at the ejector button, but decided against using it. She was already too low to eject safely, and ejecting could easily cripple her if the canopy didn’t open, or the mechanism didn’t fire right.
Over the next thirty seconds, Aria fought with her plane against the very real and very deadly forces of physics that were threatening to end her life. She’d forgotten about the dragon entirely as she speared toward the earth.
“Not like this,” she pleaded with the plane. “Come on, girl, just one more miracle.”
Impact was seconds away and though the plane had leveled out some, she was still going too damn fast. The reverse thrusters were out of operation and the Tornado didn’t have any chutes. She was done. She closed her eyes, said her prayers, and waited for the end.
Huh. So that was how death sounded.
It took Aria a moment to realize that she had not hit the ground. The plane shuddered and the nose tipped a little higher. Aria opened her eyes to see that the dragon had her in its talons. They had sunk through the skin of the craft and taken hold of the support struts. Above her, she could see the beast’s powerful wings beating hard, providing just enough lift to turn the crash into a survivable landing.
The Tornado hit the desert hard enough to jolt every bone in her body, but left her otherwise intact.
Aria couldn’t believe it. She had come to a halt on the ground and by an unholy miracle, she was alive. She was unharmed. She’d probably bruise, but what were a few bruises when by rights she should have been a smear on the Mojave.
A heavy shuddering heralded the dragon landing in front of her, its body curled in curiosity as its impossibly large head cast a shadow over the cockpit.
“Oh. Fuck. Me,” Aria cursed. Her celebratory joy dissipated into fear as the dragon’s head rose high and peered down at her. It moved toward her, slow and waddling on the ground, but no less fearsome for it.
One large dragon foot landed on the very nose of the plane, holding it steady as the dragon’s arms came toward her. There was a brief flash of time where Aria almost believed that maybe the canopy of the cockpit would still save her. But seconds later it was torn open by powerful claws and she found herself looking into the face… or rather, nose of the dragon, its fearsome head inches from hers, hot sulfur breath making her gag. So this was how it was going to end, a one-bite morsel for a demon lizard.
Aria drew her sidearm and unloaded it at the beast, shot after shot making her ears ring as most of the projectiles simply bounced off the creature’s plated body and landed harmlessly in the dirt. Only one made any kind of impact—the one that went up its nose. The dragon reared back, snorted, and then sneezed, covering her in a thick, gelatinous mucus.
“Ugh!” She swiped the dragon-y discharge off her helmet’s visor. “You’re gross, you know that? And ugly!”
“It’s not very polite to speak that way to the one who just saved your life.” A heavily accented, devastatingly deep voice replied.
She had missed the moment of transformation while covered in goop, but the dragon was suddenly gone. In its place was a man, of sorts, standing next to the open cockpit. It was a very tall, very broad, very naked man with hard plating around his shoulders, biceps, and chest. He was handsome. She wasn’t surprised. The dragons who had been spotted in their human forms had all been pretty attractive by human standards. Like most of his kind, the planes of his face were hard and quite angular. He looked like he had been carved rather than born. His eyes had a golden hue and those catlike pupils sent a chill through her.
Her eyes lowering out of an undeniably natural instinct, she looked down and saw his cock, thicker and plated at the base. Essentially, everywhere humans had body hair, this dragon seemed to have plated scales. His hair was shaggy and almost fell to his shoulders, dark and laced with fire-red streaks. His skin was similarly tinted in parts, tan and then a deeper red hue where the scales plated his body.
“Like what you see?”
Aria looked back to his face to see him looking at her with a cocky smirk. He was enjoying this.
“I wasn’t…” She trailed off. She didn’t need to explain herself to him. He was the enemy. The enemy who had just saved your ass, an unwanted part of her mind reminded her.
“Fuck you,” she swore at the… thing. She kept her gun raised and pulled the trigger several more times. It was useless of course. There were no magical bullets in the chamber. She was out of ammunition, and out of luck.
“Are you done?” He cocked his head and smirked at her, enjoying her struggles.
“I won’t be done until you’re dead,” Aria hissed.
“Brave words from a brave little warrior,” he acknowledged. “But you do not have it in you to kill me, human. So put that useless piece of metal down and step out of the machine.”
The wreckage of the Tornado was the last protection Aria had left. No way was she getting out of the cockpit, no way was she getting anywhere near that damn lizard.
“Hell, no,” she refused.
The dragon man raised his eyes to the sky in an expression she found very reminiscent of human exasperation.
“I have to insist,” he said. “It would be a waste of time saving your life simply to see you die moments later.”
“What are you… hey!” Aria screamed as he darted forward, grabbed her, and physically hauled her out of the wrecked cockpit, slicing through her straps with his bare fingers as if they were nothing at all. He carried her kicking and screaming across the desert, running at a good pace.
Thirty seconds later, she understood why.
What was left of the Tornado caught on fire, ruptured gas from the tanks hitting an open electrical line, probably. She should have thought of that. Would have thought of it if she hadn’t been confronted by a fucking dragon—who now held her cradled in his arms in a way she found very disconcerting.
“You must be terrified,” he mused. “To be prepared to burn in your craft rather than come with me—or extremely stupid.”
Aria narrowed her eyes at him, but did not speak. She had nothing to say to the lizard. These monsters were not to be talked to. They were to be wiped from the face of the planet.
He set her down and she brushed herself off, as if a little dust was the most of her problems.
“What is your name, human?”
Her name and rank she would give. “Aria Thomas-Jones, First Airman.”
“Well, Aria Thomas-Jones, First Airman,” he said. “My war is not with you. You will not come to any harm with me. I give you my word.”
His word was not worth very much as far as Aria was concerned. He was the enemy and she was now a prisoner of war—and the dragons never had signed the Geneva Convention. She was fair game to these reptiles.
“Liar,” she hissed at him. “Go back to your nest… be glad you lived through an encounter with me.”
The dragon threw back his head and laughed, a deep throaty sound. “Oh, your delusions of grandeur,” he chuckled. “Really quite something, the arrogance your kind possesses.”
He shook his head, momentarily distracted by his amusement. Aria took the opportunity to flee, running across the dusty ground as fast as she could. She didn’t have a solid plan for her escape, she had pure instinct and the sense to get away from the dangerous lizard. If she could find some cover, if she could hide, perhaps she could escape and make her way back to the base, perhaps…
A great shadow passed over her and a moment later great talons wrapped around her, capturing her in their grip. They could easily have crushed her, but instead they held her secure as the dragon soared high into the air. Aria held onto the talons tightly, terrified of the long fall that awaited her if the evil creature were to let her go.
The military had drilled her in what to do in the event of being taken prisoner. They had trained her to resist interrogations. They had taught her to survive in difficult conditions, endure pain and even torture. But they had never taught her what to do when she found herself swept several miles into the air by a beast bigger than a 747.
The speed increased until Aria was sure they were matching, if not outpacing the speed of most jetliners. The dragons were fast, she’d seen that for herself in the dogfights. This one was fast enough to chase a Tornado down. The wind buffeted her face, making it difficult to breathe. She had to hide her face in her arms and take short gasps of the thinly oxygenated air.
They wheeled about and headed across state lines… toward Wyoming and the heights of the Rocky Mountains. She’d heard rumors that the dragons had established bases in the Rockies. It was genius, really. Places too inhospitable for most humans to get to, but easily accessed via flight. Places with natural caves that could serve as storehouses for the resources they were pillaging.
Caught in a hopeless position, Aria could do nothing for herself besides try to survive. She did not know what awaited her in the dragon’s lair. She didn’t even know if she would make it that far. Consciousness was difficult to maintain with her levels of stress and exhaustion and the low O2.
Finally, after what seemed like an endless journey, the dragon began to swoop down for landing at an obvious roost. Part of the mountains had been carved away to make a large flat area perfect for landing a helicopter—or a ten-ton dragon.
Her watch revealed that they had been in the air just shy of three hours. It wasn’t long in terms of flight time, assuming you had a plane, but it was close to forever when you were sailing through the sky seated in a dragon’s clenched claws.
The dragon’s powerful hind legs made land first, his great wings folded behind him and he placed her gently on the ground. She collapsed to the rocky surface, her knees too weak to support her weight. She closed her eyes and said a prayer. Whatever was to come next was unlikely to be pleasant.
“Come,” he said, those deep tones resonating inside her chest. The great dragon was gone again, to be replaced by the thing that looked almost human. There was no fanfare when these things shifted from one form to another. It was just like breathing to them, or maybe blinking. One moment they were one thing; the next, the other. Her mind, addled from fear, found refuge in the question of how that was even possible. It was as if they, the dragons, did not have a body like humans did. It was almost as if they were more the suggestion of a form, and that suggestion could change at any time. The dragon reached down and grabbed her arm. He didn’t feel like a suggestion. He felt like a command.
She tried to pull her arm out of his hand, not wanting any aid from her captor. He had her firmly though, and he drew her up to her feet in a smooth, easy motion.
“Easy,” he chuckled. “You don’t have much fight left in you, pet.”
“Fuck off,” Aria cursed. Swearing at her captors was not part of the training, but she was exhausted and angry and it felt as if all she really had left was her defiance. It was going to take some time for air command to realize that she hadn’t perished with her plane, if they ever found out at all. Someone would have to check the wreckage for her remains, and sending a pilot out to do that would risk another casualty. Odds were that she had been declared MIA, along with hundreds of other pilots. Odds were that nobody was coming for her. Even if they wanted to, coming into the dragon’s den meant certain death. Aria wasn’t sure why she was alive, but she wasn’t counting her blessings just yet.
The frown on his face told her that he really didn’t like the cursing—weird, given that he could only have been speaking English for a month or so. How the hell the lizards had figured out their language so quickly, Aria really didn’t know.
“That’s right,” she said. “You can fuck right off.”
This time the punishment was more than a stern look. The lizard held her in one hand while his other hand came around and dealt a hard slap to the seat of her flight suit, landing hard enough to bring her up to her toes.
“Behave yourself,” he warned her as she cursed again. “You are in my territory now.”
“You don’t have territory here,” Aria seethed. “Earth is for humans.”
“Humans, hmm?” He raised his thick, dark brows at her. “By our reckoning, this planet is home to almost nine million species. What about them?”
“They don’t count, for this argument,” Aria spluttered. “We are the dominant species.”
“Were the dominant species,” he corrected smoothly. “You’ve fallen from that position. And you’re not taking it very well, I must say.”
Aria stared at him, very much wanting to argue back, but her mind was blank. The impartial, logical, smart part of her brain she would have immediately disavowed if anyone had been able to hear it, told her that he was right. The dragons were superior in a lot of ways, but that didn’t mean they were going to win this war. Humans had clawed their way out of evolution to get to the top of the food chain, and neither she nor anyone else was going to take slipping down a link in that chain lightly.