“Touched By Fire”
TOUCHED BY FIRE
By Terry D. England
The dragon in Anson Caldwell’s sights either didn’t know or didn’t care about the souped-up P-51D Mustang climbing rapidly beneath it. The huge wings flapped lazily as if the beast were out on a Sunday spin. Anson heard the krump-whumps! of rockets streaking from the other planes, but he held his aim steady until the yellow, scaly belly streaked with dirt completely filled the sky.
Two Banshee rockets, each carrying HD-4 shaped-charge warheads and coated in hex signs of ancient pedigree, rocked the plane as they flashed away. Anson immediately pulled to the right in an awkward loop, G-forces pressing him hard. Two sharp explosions buffeted the plane as it passed close to the beast’s side. By the book—swoop in, release, swoop out, nice and smooth. Just like the practice runs with the paper-and-wood models towed by C-47s over Texas.
Except these dragons, unlike their paper counterparts, weren’t falling.
“Re-form, Red Squad, watch out for the thirty-eights, they’re having a merry time,” said Capt. Rob Wharton, breaking radio silence.
Anson noted his target’s head swiveling around as if looking for something, but otherwise unhurt.
“Maybe what they need is a booster shot, Red Six.”
“Roger that, Red Four.”
Mitch Wheeler positioned Glory Hole off Anson’s right wing and the two planes again climbed toward the beast. Neither pilot spoke as they aimed their craft at the same scaly yellow spot. “Now.” Four rockets flared, streaked, hit in almost perfect cluster. Anson banked left, Glory Hole right. Movement above caught Anson’s eye.
“Mitch! look out! The head—”
A sudden flash of bright light arced toward Glory Hole, catching the tail. The plane whipped around and over, then straight down in a spin.
“Plane’s gone crazy, can’t control—” He grunted as if something hit him. “Gotta go.”
Anson banked, keeping Glory Hole in sight. Mitch tumbled out; seconds ticked by before his chute blossomed. Glory Hole was lost in the smoke below, but Anson kept Mitch in sight until he saw s tiny splash in the gray water. Anson pulled up, climbed. Their target remained in flight, unhurt, head snapping at another plane. Anson yanked the stick over as Joe Carlson in Blue Magic roared by close enough to see the pilot’s jaunty white scarf. The dragon formation loosened slightly, allowing more maneuvering room, but every pilot seemed to aim for the same hole.
“He’s on your tail, Fox Three—”
“Got ’im! Boom!”
“These bastards aren’t fallin’—”
“Shit! My engine’s gone. Really gone! Bastard bit it right off!”
“Get out! Get out!”
“Tryin’, man, these suckers don’t fly so good minus—”
Anson looped over a green dragon, aiming for the next forward, a red beast with blue tail and light red belly. It coasted without effort, the dragonfly-like double wings stretched tight, stringy sinews connecting the long, thin bones showing under the tough surface skin. The dragon kept its head in constant motion, neck muscles stretching and relaxing. Anson always thought the long snouts, bony ridges and sharp, swept-back ears formed an almost wise face, but the mind behind the face would kill him in an instant. Despite the awkward angle, his one shot hit dead-on. The head jerked around, so Anson pulled left, hard. An all-brown beast suddenly loomed before him, so he sent his last rocket into the base of its throat almost in a reflexive action. The dragon didn’t even twitch. Anson yanked the stick over, G-forces again having their way with him as flames danced around the canopy to the sound of whooshing gas. Anson dived, aiming to get out of the stream of fire as soon as possible.
“Red Squad, Red Squad, re-form at a thousand.” Capt. Wharton’s voice cut through the background chatter. “Red Squad … what the he—” The sound of high-velocity fire roared over the radio, then a scream. Anson caught a bright explosion in his peripheral vision. He turned to see burning pieces of plane falling toward St. George’s Channel.
“Jesus!” someone shouted. “Full blast right on him!”
“Red Squad, Red Squad, this is Red Two. Main—damn!”
Anson forgot about Red Two, Crossland Hooley, second in command, because an Me-109 dived straight at him. He nearly stalled his Mustang pulling up as the German missed by inches.
“Easy, man, take a breather” said a deep, resonant voice over the radio. “I’ll get ‘im.” A double-motor P-38 flashed by.
“You can have him,” Anson muttered, trying to get his nerves under control. He leveled the plane and found himself looking into a yellow eye set deep into the craggy head of a gray dragon. And the dragon was looking back.
A cold blast of fear shot down his spine and his groin clenched until the muscles cramped. The looming face blotted everything else out, the darker pupil fixing Anson with an unbreakable gaze. A mouth like a cavern opened, huge black teeth reflecting sunlight, the thick, red tongue rippling like an obscene snake. Suddenly, the plane shook. A second passed before Anson’s numbed mind reacted to the shaking and rattling of six Browning machine guns firing a constant fusillade. The dragon flinched as bullets arced into its face, breaking the gaze. Anson’s hands jerked the stick back again; he could see individual scales in the snout as his plane swooped by. Getting his thumb to move off the trigger took a heavy dose of concentration.
Below, a Red Squadron plane began lining up for a shot on a smaller, mottled dragon that had slipped behind the formation. Anson banked, gunned the engine and flew close to the dragon’s head. The beast turned toward him, giving the other pilot a clear shot. The rockets hit home, again just like in the book, but the dragon snapped around and sent a fireblast after the attacker, who zigzagged desperately trying to avoid the flames.
Anson continued to dive, climb, bank between flapping wings and streams of fire and blank, unsettling glances from unfathomable eyes. Without rockets, he concentrated on strafing and flying interference. A 109, fire engulfing cowl and cockpit, smashed into a dragon’s broad back square between the wings and exploded. The dragon simply rolled left until the burning debris slid off, then straightened and flew on.
“Red Squad, break off, break off, head for home.” Hooley’s voice again. “If you can’t make it, find a friendly RAF base.”
Anson looked at the gauge. Not enough for the long flight back. He flew low, trying to match map locations with real terrain. A river and a railroad track formed a familiar pattern, leading him to field lined with parked fighters, all P-51s wearing British colors. He landed, taxied toward a figure in khaki waving at him, stumbled out and slumped against a wing.
“You all right, Yank?” a chipper voice said.
“We failed,” he said to the lanky figure wiping his hands on a cloth. His insignia was of an RAF lieutenant, but Anson couldn’t tell whether he was a pilot. A coverall-clad ground crewman wrestled a fuel hose into place.
“Don’t take it so hard–”
“We were supposed to stop them!” Then, softer, “Sorry. It’s just … right now, Cobh, or Cork, or wherever, is being destroyed because we failed.” Anson shook his head.
“Cobh, eh? ’Bout time those Micks got … no, bloody hell, that’s not right. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. I do see their precious neutrality coming down around their ears, though. Your problem, chappie, is that you Americans think you have the answers for everything. We’ve tried our level best, too, and haven’t done much better.” He shook his head. “Looks like the old soothsayers might be right, Yank. The world will end in fire.”
During the flight back to his base near Basingstoke, Anson contrasted the green land sliding beneath with the arid brown of his native New Mexico. His father’s ranch, which he’d named the plane after, would encompass most of the farms below.
Spine Ridge, an unusual rock formation in one of the far corners of the ranch, came to mind. The small pond looked completely out of place nestled among the high cliffs. A spring bubbling out from under the tallest formations kept clear, cold water flowing in. In mid-summer, sunlight heated the surface water, but diving took a body to the colder depths. The boy Anson spent as much time as he could at the place, climbing the formations between dips.
“Folks say it ain’t natural,” Dad had once said during a family dinner, speech just this side of a drawl. “A dragon did die there, that’s whose spine you see sittin’ up there, and the old Indian tales have their ancestors doing the deed. It was a long time ago and the only thing that remains is the creature’s backbone, hence Spine Ridge. Local Indians won’t go up there and neither will any of the hands I hire around here. One reason I got so much land at such a good price.”
“The old tales are best left to die, you know that, Cy,” said Mom, resting her hands, knife in right, biscuit in left, beside her plate. “They’re about the old, dark religions. I will not have them told in this house. We are Christians, and we will not have truck with the old magicks.” She resumed buttering the biscuit. “I don’t think you boys should go up there any more.”
Anson and Mike, his next-up brother, exchanged glances. Jeremy, the oldest, didn’t react, but Dad rolled one shoulder, his version of a shrug.
“The evil is gone, Sara,” he said. “The boys are in more danger of falling than being hurt by a dragon.”
“Four dead, including our most experienced field officer, three knocked down and rescued but one with injuries so severe he’s out of action. Ninety-six rockets expended and not one dragon taken out.” Lt. Col. Paul Gregor sighed, leaned both arms on the table. “And Cobh now a burning ruin. What went wrong?”
“The attack went as planned, sir.” Hooley, made captain and squadron commander as soon as they’d returned from their first raid the day before, sat directly across from the colonel. “Nearly every hit was perfect, just as we had been trained. Everything went like clockwork, especially at the beginning. The Nazis stuck with their strategy of keeping the dragons at five-hundred feet, making attacks from below difficult. Still, we made perfect hits. A lot of perfect hits.”
To Anson, sitting three down from Hooley at the conference table, both men looked aged. Hooley’s slicked-back hair shone in the sunlight from the windows, but Gregor’s close-cropped brown looked more like a helmet.
“Then to what do you attribute the total failure of the mission?” Gregor asked. “Munitions? No. Those planes and rockets are the best American industry can turn out.”
“Maybe the hexes aren’t strong enough to break through the dragon-control magic,” Hooley said. “After all, it’s been hundreds of years since mage-magic has been needed, maybe they’re the wrong type, or just faded with age.” He spread his hands. “But how can we tell?”
“The British are desperately trying to find out on the two downed dragons they’ve got. We, meanwhile, have to find a method of attack that works.”
“You’ve seen the combat films–”
The gazed up at the ceiling. “Yes, I have seen the combat films. Those rockets should have blown holes in those things. Big holes.”
Anson stirred. He’d been one of four pilots picked to attend the meeting, but the others had been like him, willing to let the senior officers carry the debate. “Sir? I saw a 109 crash directly into one of the dragons. The dragon shook it off like it was a leaf.”
“And do you have any ideas on how we can get past that?”
“Uh,” he fumbled with his tongue, “not really, sir.”
The colonel rubbed his jaw. “Thought so.”
After the meeting, Anson wandered toward the flight line. He found Sgt. Lopez, his ground crew chief, closing a tool box in the back of a truck.
“She came through fine, sir,” he said, throwing a snappy salute. “A little scorching, nothing that’ll affect her performance. You might check on Spencer, though, sir, he’s up to something.”
Pvt. Spencer stood on a ladder, touching lightly with a paintbrush in his left hand at an image of a falcon.
“Sir,” the artist said, twisting and saluting with his free hand. “The British have an old, old tradition. When a soldier goes into combat against a dragon, they say he’s been touched by fire. Gets to wear a badge or somethin’. I’m just following through, sir, adding some flames to the images.”
“You doing this for everyone?”
“Oh, yes, sir. Did Hooley’s plane, being that now he’s top dog. I’m doing yours now ’cause I’m kinda proud of my birds.”
Anson walked around to the opposite side of the aircraft where the eagle, talons forward, wings splayed back, dove on unseen prey. Anson had been struck by the details in the feathers, each delineated in the wings and tail, and the proud, predatory look in the bird’s eye. Now flames streaked backward from behind the bird, coiling in the slipstream with light yellows and reds, but not so garish as to hide the delicate lines and shading. Anson stepped back around, watched the artist’s delicate brushwork on the flames tracing the Peregrine falcon gliding majestically across the cowling. Each bird took up so much space the plane’s name, EagleFalcon, had had to be printed in small letters near the propeller.
“Sign it, Spence,” Anson said after a moment.
“I usually don’t, sir, but I can if you want.”
“I want. At least one of us will make a mark here.”
In the slanted light of early morning, the segmented rocks of Spine Ridge always stood out in sharp three-dimensional relief. To a fifteen-year-old mind, it was a place of mystery and fascination, the rocks in precise order from the small at the northwest end, growing larger around the top of the ridge, then shrinking again, stopping abruptly at the east end.
From his favorite cave above what he thought was the head end, the pond was just a blue splotch below. Beyond, his father’s land stretched to the horizon.
That summer, Anson had discovered the hidden trail. He followed it up, emerging on a small ledge at the top of the jutting cliff, more than a hundred feet higher than he’d ever gone. He’d had to steady himself against the sudden fit of giddiness. Stepping carefully, he followed the ledge into a notch. On the south-facing wall, he saw something that took his breath away: Drawings etched into rock—petroglyphs. Their existence was a total surprise. He counted seventeen, all carved deep enough to withstand the elements for ages. A dragon flew on these rocks, sinuous body with outstretched wings frozen forever. In other scenes, man-like figures with animal heads attacked the dragon, but with great losses. The last three, however, told a different story, sending a new chill up Anson’s spine. He dashed over to the edge, looked down at the formation. Some questions suddenly had answers.
Like how stone-age people armed with only axes and spears could kill a dragon.
Over the weeks, he carefully documented the find with the camera his uncle had given him Christmas three years earlier. Three more months passed, though, before his father had enough reason for the long drive to Albuquerque. Anson had written to the Anthropology Department at the University of New Mexico, and a Dr. Sam Chee had responded. With a shyness that nearly made him flee before knocking on the door, Anson presented the images to the youngish, slim man with his long hair pulled back and held in place by a beaded holder at the back of his neck. He’d never seen a man with long hair before. To the young Anson, this made him exotic.
Dr. Chee examined the images without a sound, making Anson cringe inwardly with the thought he was wasting the professor’s time.
Finally, the man leaned back, fixed Anson with his dark eyes. “A real find, my young friend. We know of this formation, of course, but I do not recall off-hand any record of these particular ’glyphs. They’re old, perhaps Before the Mogollon period. Plus, their location. High on a cliff, as if someone had to have had a need for making sure they were found eventually.” He tapped one of the photos. “Very graphic description of how this dragon was killed. Pragmatic, these ancestors of mine. See? Just wait long enough and drop a rock that weighs what, two tons at least, maybe three for four, on the beast as it sleeps.” He slid another photo toward Anson. “These marks, the ones that puzzled you on the edge of the cliff, were made by stone chisels. I’d bet you’ll find the same kind of marks on the large stone below.”
Dr. Chee tapped the desk with a thin stick, then looked at Anson again. “Imagine it. You’re being attacked, and your villagers are being eaten, by a rampaging dragon. You can’t fight the accursed beast, everything you do it counters. You’re desperate. You stalk the dragon, find out where it lives, sleeps. You hide up there for days, maybe weeks, chipping slowly at the boulder’s base, but only when the beast is not there. You have to be very careful. If you go too fast, you’ll lose the best weapon, maybe the only weapon, you’ve got, but you must be ready when the time comes. So you’re sitting up there, night after night, not making a sound, or a smell, that could give you away. Then the fateful moment comes, and you still must be ver-r-r-y careful, and chip away the last fragments holding the rock in place. Wait! The dragon is moving! Now his head is in the wrong place. Go back to waiting, and worry because the boulder base could crack at any second and send the rock crashing down to miss and tell the dragon you’re there. Finally the dragon’s head moves back. Quickly, now, you carve out the last chocks. The boulder moves slightly, stops. More muffled chipping. The boulder rolls, hits something, takes a slightly different trajectory than planned. You hold your breath for an eternity, but then hear a dull, crunching thump. The dragon’s body arches, the wings slap the earth, sending dust, rocks, plants flying everywhere. Eventually, though, the body slumps back, lies still. The dust has nearly settled before you realize you’ve succeeded.”
Anson blinked. “That’s how it happened?”
Dr. Chee smiled. “Possibly.” He gestured at the photos. “These petroglyphs are boasts. Well, I’d boast, too, if I killed a dragon.”
“Wouldn’t there be another? A book I read said they traveled in pairs.”
“Perhaps, but with the loss of its mate, the other likely left on its own. Or, perhaps,” he tapped the stick on the desk again, “this was the last, or nearly the last. Dragons in this part of the world were all gone before the Europeans got here. We know of a dozen such sites of dragon deaths. Maybe they were slaughtered in such numbers they couldn’t reproduce fast enough to survive. But that’s Roger Hillson’s department.” He turned his head, looked out the window a moment, then sat up. “Well, definitely worth studying, no doubt about it, but I’m sure you, or at least your father, are aware of these economic times. Serious examination will have to wait for better budgets. You will be credited with the find.” He gazed over the photos. “This place definitely needs to be studied.”
Professor Chee fixed a look on Anson.
Lord Ha-Ha mocked the DragonScourge—“Dragonflies more like it, to be swatted down with the merest flick”—almost all night after the first raid. “We’ll have a special raid for you boys tomorrow. Please come, it won’t be the same without you.”
The meeting came over London. What Anson saw when the squadron arrived appalled him. The dragons raked huge bursts of fire into buildings, streets, people, all of which fell under the onslaught. Dragon bodies, huge and massive and protected by ancient magic, battered buildings until they cracked open and fell, then claw and fire raged, turning the broken shells into heaps of rubble. Bomb shelters offered no protection—dragons just dug out the hiding humans like predators ripping into termite mounds. Only dragons, though, roasted their meal before swallowing.
“Reds Seven, Eight, Four, Three, Six and Five, follow the Thames,” Hooley said on the radio. “Rest of you, with me.”
The six turned in the direction of the river’s flow. Within moments, “Enemy ten o’clock.” But the six dragons weren’t coming for them. Three aimed for the Houses of Parliament, smashing right down on top of the already ruined buildings as if playing in a familiar sand dune. Big Ben, still standing sentinel alongside the river, now became the target for the other three dragons, who slammed into the tower. The landmark cracked, split apart, clock mechanisms tumbling into the river.
“Shit!” someone shouted. “Let’s get these bastards!”
“Right. Red Four and Five, Seven and Eight, together, Six, you’re with me.”
Anson and Rankings looped toward the trio now setting new fires in the rubble. The British government long before had fled to Edinburgh. The King had been harder to persuade, but when the dragons turned Oxford turned into a smoking ruin, he’d taken the hint and retreated to Balmoral Castle.
Anson’s and Steve’s first volley again was a textbook example of precision flying. The target barely paused, then continued its destructive rampage. The two planes circled, again took aim at the beast, but this time it beat them to the punch. Its head snapped up and a stream of fire shot out. Anson pulled right hard, gunning the engine.
“Mayday! Mayday! Red Four hit and going down!”
Anson caught sight of him, right wing and tail blazing, heading over the river.
“No time to bail. Looks like I’m going for a sw–” The message ended in a grunt as his plane smacked the water, bounced, hit again, spun around tail first and landed flat on the river. Anson flew in low, saw Steve wave even as he struggled out of his sinking airplane. A boat headed in Steve’s direction, so Anson returned to the dragons still thrashing in the ruins. This time, he flew straight for the head, cutting loose with two rockets. One hit just behind the eye, the other in the mouth. A stream of flame crackled by very close as he turned away. More scorch marks. He looped back, studying the dragon. It followed him with glowing green eyes, but didn’t seem hurt. Anson cursed, but in the next second, the dragon leaped, wings flapping hard until they bit air. The dragon’s gaze never wavered.
This is novel, Anson thought as he climbed. He tried to remember the information about dragon speed versus P-51 speed. A dragon could fly a long time over many miles of terrain, or it could fly very fast in a short spurt. Either way, it could not possibly catch him. Conventional wisdom said so. Conventional wisdom also said the way to slay a dragon was through its stomach.
The dragon rose on an intercept course. Anson pulled left in a dive, and the dragon switched directions. OK, Ha Ha, have it your way: P-51s are like flies. He looped back, imagined himself a house fly dodging a swatter-bearing human. He had the maneuverability, but the enemy had the power. He ignored the book an took aim at what had to be vulnerable: the wings. Two rockets, trajectory converging on a point in the center of the right wing, hit perfectly. No dragon-flinch, no perceptible damage. Anson blurted a string of obscenities that would make his mother faint but had to cut it off as the dragon loomed ahead, glaring right at him. He decided not to test the theory of dragon speed, instead diving toward the water. He recognized Tower Bridge ahead as he goosed the throttle. He zoomed underneath the road bed, then snapped into a hard right turn. The engine whined in protest and his shoulder slammed painfully into the side of the cockpit, but he hung on, taking it as close and fast to the rooftops as he dared. After passing over half of London, he eased the throttle and climbed to five hundred feet. Nothing pursued him.
He sighed, let his body relax. Then he cursed out loud, immediately followed by a silent apology to his mother.
“Red One, Red Six going for reload.”
His anger simmered all the way back to base. He watched silently as the ground crew topped the tanks, reloaded six more rockets. A mage-novitiate in dark cloak and long, red scarf hurried over from DragonBuster, Davey Cochran’s plane, and touched each rocket, closing his eyes and muttering. Anson watched until the man had reached the last, then signaled. Surprise washed across the novitiate’s face, but he climbed up on the wing.
“Are those spells strong?”
“Uh, yes, sir, the best.” The novitiate looked at him from a freshly scrubbed face, red hair blowing around the green eyes. “Very strong. The power emanating around the rockets can be felt yards away. The Elders studied long to find the magic that has the power. Uh, sir.”
“You’d stake your life on it?”
The face changed, becoming still, a new light shining in the eyes. “I would.”
Anson looked at the novitiate another moment. “All right.” He reached back to close the canopy.
Within twenty minutes, he’d expended all his rockets. All hit home. All exploded. All did nothing, especially the last two, fired in desperation to distract a red dragon closing in on a falling Billy’s Girl. No use; the dragon didn’t even blink and hit the other fighter with a stream of fire. A scream, cut off by an explosion, burning debris hitting the Thames. Anson cursed again, then had to pull up abruptly to avoid the dragon lurching to take aim at him.
Almost at the same moment, the dragons took flight, formed into formations, headed south. The American and British units followed for a while, harassing them constantly, but not one dragon broke ranks. Hooley and the other commanders eventually ordered them to break off.
The colonel called Anson into his office after the briefings. Hooley already was there.
“Crossland says you broke ranks.” Col. Gregor sat immobile behind his desk, the epitome of a commanding officer: piercing eyes, grim, set mouth, fingers interlaced, hands resting on the dark wood of the desk, back so straight not a wrinkle wrecked the line of the starched shirt.
“I tried to blow a hole in a wing. Dragon-wing, sir.”
Anson glanced down, then back. “Nothing, sir.”
“You broke the rules. But even with the rules, nothing is all we get no matter what we try.” The colonel’s muscles relaxed, although if he hadn’t been looking straight at him, Anson would’ve missed it. “In two missions, we’ve lost eleven men killed. The P-38 squadrons are cleaning up, but then they’re up against humans. Two missions, eleven people. And God knows what the Brits have lost by now.
“Six British Squadrons are now fully equipped with Banshees. More planes, more rockets. Somebody’s bound to get lucky. One flier out for a while isn’t going to matter.”
“I’m sending you off on a little assignment. Before you ask why you, I’ll say you broke ranks, so you must be punished. Truth is, you’re as qualified as anybody.”
Anson stood a moment, stunned. “Uh, how long?”
“A few days. Wing wants at least one pilot to attend this gathering, and I picked you. Nothing personal.”
Anson clamped his hands together. “What’s the assignment, sir?”
The colonel unlaced his fingers, spread them in sort of shrug. “You’re going to Kent. That’s where the latest dragon fell, about three weeks ago. The British will brief Americans on what they have learned about what brought it down. Major Jasper is going as the official representative of our squadron, you as the battlefield knight.” Gregor smiled a grim smile. “See if you bring back something that will help us turn the tide, Caldwell.”
The morning chill of Kent did little to cool Anson. Major Jasper, the company’s executive officer, must have sensed his dour mood and had pretty well left him alone during the drive down.
“Over there, you can see the tent.” Sydney McMartin, who’d introduced himself as a university liaison, was a short, heavy-set man with hair the color of the gray stones of the building behind them. “This is about as close as you want to get. The stench will knock you flat. Staff must wear protective clothing and gas masks. Tomorrow we start burning the corpse. We’ve learned all we will from it.”
“Including what brought it down?” Major Jasper surprised Anson by beating him to the question.
McMartin gave a short smile. “You Americans, always wanting the answer yesterday. Come. The briefing is just about to begin. Perhaps you’ll find what you seek there.”
McMartin led them into the building through a pair of wood-framed glass doors, down a carpeted hallway where wooden tables of probably expensive lineage stood at regular intervals, each holding a white vase painted with flowers holding bouquets of real ones and into an ornate paneled room. Large paintings lined the walls. To Anson, the paintings seemed to be landscapes, but he’d never be able to say whether any of them were important. A long, polished wooden table took up most of the floor, surrounded by equally polished and handsomely styled chairs with high backs. No one sat in them, though. Instead, officers of various nationalities stood in small groups, some sipping from porcelain cups. Anson quickly realized he was the lowest-ranking soldier in the room.
“Aloysius! Good to see you again, you old walrus.” A beefy full-bird American colonel grabbed Major Jasper’s hand and gave it good pumping.
“Good to see you, too, Mike, you blathering idiot.”
“Oops, I mean Al, right? Sorry.” He chuckled like a man who wasn’t sorry at all.
“Aloysius?” Anson said as the colonel strode off.
“Caldwell, you tell a soul in the company and you’ll be peeling potatoes until the day you die.”
A British officer invited everyone to sit. The officer, one General Smithton, introduced three other people, all in civilian dress. Dr. Edgar Brummer, a biologist from Oxford, looked the part, being tall, thin, with a mustache and patches on his coat elbows. Max Heath, short, dark with barrel chest, worked for the government as a forensic pathologist, while Dr. Lydia Grey, a slim, dark-haired woman, was introduced as a paleontologist.
“I thought paleontologists dug up dinosaur bones,” someone said.
“Dragons go back at least that far, perhaps even pre-dating dinosaurs.” Dr. Grey spoke with the BBC clipped-English accent. “I got sidetracked into dragon origins.”
“Her findings might touch on our problem,” said Gen. Smithton, “but for now, let us review the more current findings. Dr. Brummer?”
“The dragon that fell here is one of eleven that have fallen since the war began.” Dr. Brummer fiddled with a pipe as he talked. “Two just fell, we don’t know why. Nine of the others were brought down in battle. Unfortunately, all but four have fallen into enemy occupied territory, including the two mystery deaths.” He set the pipe down. “We almost had a fifth, one that fell after an air battle onto an uninhabited island three hundred miles northeast of the Shetlands. We raced to get there first, but we forgot about Jerry’s U-boats.”
“You mean the Nazis packed an entire dead dragon aboard a sub?” an incredulous Navy captain asked.
“No.” Dr. Brummer smiled slightly. “The crew blew it up. It was a grisly scene when we flew over in the flying boat. We didn’t bother to land.
“Two of the downed dragons fell into Russian territory. The Russians at first didn’t share any information, but then the DrachenBlitz hit Leningrad. We intercepted Wermacht communications to Berlin saying there wasn’t enough of Leningrad left to bother with.” The biologist rubbed his eyes. “After Leningrad, the Russians begged for help. So far, we haven’t been able to give them much, I’m afraid.”
Dr. Brummer told them one of the Russian dragons and the two British dragons died approximately the same way, by being near powerful explosions. The second Russian dragon had been on the ground, attacking a munitions dump, when a huge blast nearly tore it apart.
“The Russians said there wasn’t enough left of that one to examine,” Dr. Brummer said “We’ve tried to emulate the strength of the explosions on our armaments, but the RAF have been hamstrung by lack of proper delivery systems. The American Banshees solve that problem, thank you. All we have to do now is find the key to vulnerability.”
“What was the cause of the deaths?” The Navy captain asked.
“Cause of death for the one Russian and the two Brits is the same for any organism caught near an explosion.” Dr. Heath folded his hands across his ample stomach after he stood. “Trauma to the body, penetration of shrapnel into vulnerable points, that sort of thing. What we’re having trouble deciding is exactly which wound delivered the death blow. Once the magic controls are lost, dragon bodies decompose rapidly. Direct examination must be done quickly and under extreme conditions.”
“What about the other British dragon?” the Navy captain said.
“It fell near Plymouth toward the beginning of the war,” Smithton said. “The dragon was pretty much destroyed by the residents of the area before we got there. However, it died pretty much the same way.”
“In battle?” Anson said.
“Oh, yes. Quite a fierce one, we understand.”
“No one saw how it died?”
“Not specifically, Lieutenant. No one actually saw what happened, just that the dragon fell. This was before we launched our study effort, so we lost valuable information.”
“What you’re saying, though,” Major Jasper said, “is that they can be killed. In other words, we’re not sending air crews to do battle against an invulnerable foe.”
“I understand the feeling, Major,” said a lanky British colonel directly across the table. “RAF command sometimes feel we are throwing men’s lives away, sending them to certain death against an implacable enemy. The only thing that keeps us ordering the missions is this vulnerability we’ve heard so much about.”
“It’s not the belly?” Anson blurted. “I mean, St. George and all.”
The colonel shifted in his seat as if trying to keep his initial reaction bottled. “The St. George story isn’t a myth, Lieutenant. He did kill a dragon, and he did go through the belly.”
“It is possible,” Dr. Grey quickly cut in, “that the German researchers found a way to adjust the magic protection to shield this one-time vulnerability. What we are hoping—no, no, beyond hoping, we know, from these other deaths—is that there is another point of vulnerability somewhere.”
“These explosions, where were they?” Anson asked. “I mean, in relation to the dragons.”
“Close by, but we haven’t been able to pinpoint it.”
“Something on your mind, Lieutenant?” Dr. Grey’s eyes were blue, Anson suddenly noted.
“Uh, just a conversation I had with a, an anthropologist. About falling rocks.” He related the gist of the afternoon with Dr. Chee.
“Interesting analysis.” Dr. Grey shuffled some papers.
“American Indian legends notwithstanding, I believe we should concentrate on what we have learned from that beastie over there stinking up the place,” Gen. Smithton said. “Colonel Ashton will fill us in on what we’ve learned through the intelligence network. I must remind you what you are about to hear is privileged information, please be circumspect on who you discuss it with.”
Col. Ashton turned out to be the man across the table from Major Jasper. “Hitler’s mages have ensconced Munich, the Drachenhorst, or dragon’s nest, in a magic shell that several agents have lost their lives attempting to penetrate—”
“Why only Germans?” an American general asked.”Why do we not have any?”
Both Dr. Grey and Ashton quickly erased the look of exasperation that had started to form. “Only one strain of magic exists that can control the dragons,” Grey said with the patience of a schoolteacher. “The Nazis snatched every mage in the world sensitive to that strain, a process that predates the actual Nazi party formation by nearly a half-century. These mages have no choice. Some do it willingly, others … let’s just say trying to refuse participation results in excruciating torture. Which feeds dark energy to dragons and boosts their power two-fold for each beast. The records about all this are easily available—”
“That mix of dragon and human-pain magic is what the Nazis used to conquer Europe and all of North Africa from Casablanca to the Nile,” Ashton said before the colonel could explode. “It creates and sustains the dragons, allows the Germans to control them, and Hitler has used it to smash the Russians and eventually enter a conquered Moscow boasting he had accomplished what Napoleon couldn’t.” The colonel took a deep breath. “But then, Napoleon didn’t resort to reviving the ancient black magicks, either.
“Anyhow, Hitler is toying with his remaining enemy the way a cat toys with a mouse.”
“Why don’t they stay?” Anson said before he could stop himself. “Why do they come only to harass? There’s plenty of fuel around. Why do they bother going back?”
“That’s been—” Gen. Smithton began but was cut off by Col. Ashton.
“As the dragons move farther away from the home nest, the operand magic loses punch,” he said. “Like electricity, the farther you get away from the source, the weaker the power unless you boost it. To keep the magic strong across their conquered territories, the Nazis establish secondary nodes. They haven’t yet conquered any of the British Isles, so no node. Yet. The dragons must go back or lose energy. That might be what happened in the mysterious deaths.”
“And they have to keep advancing through new territory to keep the dragons fed.”
Col. Ashton regarded Anson a moment. “Intelligence reports say the Jewish populations in Europe are disappearing. The Warsaw Ghetto, for instance, is practically abandoned. We have not yet found positive correlation, but I think you can infer the obvious conclusion.”
Anson sat quiet a moment. “What happens if the Nazis lose control of the dragons?”
“Believe me, we’d love to know the answer to that one.”
“I guess I sounded like a schoolboy in there.”
“I shouldn’t worry about it. As one who has to face this enemy close up, you’re entitled to a few questions.”
Anson and Dr. Grey walked along a stone path between trees, bushes and flowers planted in precision behind the stone house. A bit too tidy for Anson’s tastes.
“We learned in school that dragons had been beaten to extinction.”
“They were,” she said, gently touching a leaf overhanging the path. The light filtering through the branches gave her face a soft glow. “They were hunted mercilessly in the Old World, and the New World, too, it seems, but some of their eggs have survived, hidden by nature and by intent. We believe the German effort to resuscitate began with a small group of dragon-mages before Hitler came to power. As Tom, Colonel Ashton, said, Hitler fell back on the old Germanic and Norse legends to unify the people and dieDrachen fit right in. Look at the films of the rallies in Munich. Man and dragon together bringing a new world order.”
“So science in the end serves the ancient beliefs.”
“And the other way around. Hitler’s combining them has taken him almost to being master of the world.” She plucked a blue flower from a bush. “Tell me more about this Dr. Chee. Has he studied the old cultures at all?”
“He is of the old culture. But he has to tread carefully or he’ll be thrown in jail.”
She stopped, looked at him. “Why?”
“Did you hear about the arrests at the Hopi village last week?” Dr. Chee sat back in his chair, sunlight flooding the room of his university office.
“Uh, yes,” said the young Anson, uncomfortable at this turn of conversation. “Some people arrested—”
“They were arrested because they were practicing their ancient religion. Unfortunately for them, the white man, and his government, never has learned the difference between what they call the Earth-oriented religions and dragon worship.” He leaned forward in his chair, fixing the boy with a look. “Dragon magic, dragon power, comes from the evil inherent in the world, the universe. Earth-oriented beliefs, the beliefs of the Hopi, and of my people, the Diné, come from the spirits in the earth around us. They are not the same. Anathema is the white word used to describe the difference. But the government, bowing to the hyst—oh, let’s call it insistent, preachings of the Western churches, assumes our religion is the same with that of the dragon source. We’re forbidden to practice our beliefs, we have to send our children to schools that take away our culture and make us look like white people.” He tapped the photos. “And yet, here’s proof our own ancestors fought—and killed—dragons.” He sat back. “We offer the government the benefit of our own ancient wisdom, but the government spurns us. Perhaps one day …” He gave an elaborate, white-man style shrug.
“That’s a lot to lay on a teen-ager,” Lydia Grey said.
“I never told my father about that part of the conversation. A big portion of the ranch, including Spine Ridge, had been part of the Navajo reservation, but because they had been caught holding underground religious ceremonies in the early Twenties, the government took away a big chunk. Some of it ended up in Dad’s hands, and he’s real sensitive about it.” He inhaled, the scents from the many flowering plants around him almost making the air too sweet. “And Mom, the ever-faithful and deeply believing Presbyterian, would have a fit if she saw me wielding rockets covered in mage hexes.”
“I understand. The poor-weapon excuse for RAF inability is just part of the picture. The Church of England and the Roman Catholic church have been fighting tooth and nail against the mage religions. Both churches were so convinced their God was all that was needed to defeat the pagan weapons they prohibited having anything to do with the old mage faiths.” She shook her head. “It was the Jews who finally broke through the impasse. The Jews, whose bodies are being used as dragon fodder, made the convincing arguments that you have to fight the ancient black magic with ancient opposing magic, the so-called white magic, and it will take the combined effort of everyone, Jew, Christian, scientist, rationalist, mage, Buddhist, Islamicist, Taoist, to band together to defeat this utterly terrifying threat. History is full of bloody and terrible wars between the Earth-oriented and the one-god faithful, but that all has to be set aside. Hitler used that schism to overrun most of Europe and destroy much in this country before the monotheists and mages could overcome their loathing for each other.” She stopped, turned her head away.
“Anything I can do?” Anson said softly.
“No. I’ll be all right.”
“You lost someone.”
She turned back to him, smiled. “I know.” She dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief she pulled out of a jacket pocket. “Where were we?”
Anson watched a moment as she regained control of herself. “Doesn’t China have a history of dragons? Why don’t they revive some for our side?”
“Dragons don’t come out for ‘our side.’ Dragons are for dragons no matter what culture they reside in.”
“Then how do the Germans control them?”
“The answer to that is hidden in the Munich dragon nest. Hitler and the Nazis signed some kind of pact with some kind of devil in gaining that control. Somehow, they found a key, one that had been sought by kings and dictators for eons. Who knows what the final payment is going to be?” She looked at the battered flower in her hand, then tossed it aside. “Well. Where can I contact this Dr. Chee?”
“Um,” Anson stammered, realizing the moisture in her eyes intensified their blueness, “is he in trouble?”
“Oh, no, quite the contrary. We’ve formed a coalition of researchers all over the world to tackle the dragon problem. I believe he could add something.”
Anson still remembered the mailing address. After giving it to her, they exchanged a few pleasantries, then he and Lydia went in opposite directions. Anson returned to the house, found Major Jasper on the terrace fiddling with a cigar.
“Nice woman.” He struck a match, pulled on the cigar until the tip took the flame. “Take advantage of the situation, Lieutenant.”
“She’s a scientist, a bit older than me—”
“So? These are not normal times.” He puffed three more times, sending fragrant smoke curling into the air. “Seize the day. Or in this case, seize the woman.”
Anson looked at the man. “Aloysius Jasper, adviser to the lovelorn.”
Jasper chuckled into his cloud of smoke.
When they returned to the base the next afternoon, Anson found Steve Rankings and Mitch Wheeler at the officer’s club toasting each other.
“Well, the missing flier returns,” Steve shouted. “Come enjoy a beer with a coupla heroes.”
“Sure. Where are they?”
“Don’t be a wise ass,” Steve burped.
“Good to see you guys back safe and sound.”
“Yeah, the docs let me out yesterday,” Mitch said. “Met ol’ Steve when they brought him in covered in oil and river water like some ol’ fish someone’d caught.”
“’Propriate. Wuz a fishing boat that fished me out.” Mitch gestured at Anson. “Beer? I’ll buy, even though you got y’feathers clipped.”
“Thanks for checkin’ on me. After I hit the drink.”
“You hit pretty hard,” Anson said as the bartender placed a mug of dark stout near his elbow. “You weren’t hurt?”
“Docs say I’ll feel the effects for a while. Can’t spare me though, so I’m still flyin’.”
“They can spare me,” Anson muttered into his beer.
“Lopez says they cannibalized my plane for parts while I was gone.”
“Tough luck,” Mitch said. “But the real reason is, you’re an asshole, Caldwell,” Mitch said.
“I’ll drink to that.” Steve waved his drink.
Anson stared at the grinning pair, then raised his mug. “So will I.”
He felt ill the next morning as he stood in front of ops watching the squadron take off to meet the “thousands” of dragons spotters reported heading across the channel.
“You have a plane?” Anson had asked Steve after the briefing.
“Uh, yeah, Jeff Gatebell’s. He’s still laid up, so until the spares come in, I’m in Lady Luck.”
“Hope the names bodes well for you.”
“Yeah. Sorry there ain’t another spare. Keep the beer warm, willya?”
After the last shape faded against the clouds, Anson yawned, suddenly overcome by an odd lethargy. On top of the hangover, it dragged him down like weights.
“I’ll be in my quarters,” he told the duty sergeant, “if anything comes up.”
“Yes, sir,” the sergeant said.
Anson kicked the door shut and fell across his bunk, almost immediately falling into a deep, but not dreamless, sleep. Pulling himself out of it took real effort, and as he sat groggily on the edge of the bunk working to get his limbs responding, he tried to remember the dream images. A dragon seemed to be the centerpiece, head snapping and teeth flashing, and men fighting, not with planes but with spears and axes. He shook his head. In a half-state of consciousness, he studied the rectangle of sunlight at his feet. He frowned, looked at the clock.
“Christ!” He jumped up, ran out. He’d slept seven hours.
A curious silence had fallen over the base. The light, too, seemed odd. Anson turned east. A huge column of smoke obscured the horizon.
“Hell.” He didn’t find anyone until he looked into the day room.
The officer looked up. “Anson.”
Anson sank into the next chair. “Bad?”
Steve took a deep breath. “Mitch got it. Second go-round. Big, ugly, blue dragon swatted him like a fly. Mitch managed to bail out. Dragon saw that. Hit—” He looked down at his hands twisting in his lap. “Hit him full blast as he drifted. Parachute flared like one of those dandelion seed things. Mitch’s body fell … fell burning.”
Anson fell back into the chair, stared at the wallboard ceiling.
“London is on fire,” Steve said, so quietly Anson almost didn’t hear it.
“It’s burned before.”
“Not like this. Hitler must’ve sent every damned dragon he had. They scoured the city. Christ. They lost none, of course. We lost eight. Others lost more.”
When the sun went down that evening, they could see the glow from the fires of London.
More dragons infested his dreams that night, but they all faded away with the dawn. An air of expectancy, or fatalism, hung over the base, mixing with the smoke that still filled the eastern sky. Silence shrouded breakfast, if any breakfast got eaten at all, and continued as the men wandered away, as if isolation could offer solace. The radio had been kept off so they wouldn’t hear again what Steve had told Anson the night before.
The morning progressed but no man mentioned what he knew was coming. Except it didn’t come. Slowly, inexorably, time passed, but no scramble alarm sounded. Hooley even had the communications section double-check, but no other squadron reported activity, either.
“Hitler, I believe, wants us to digest this latest attack carefully,” Col. Gregor said at a briefing he’d called at 1300 hours. He’d marched in straight to the stage but seemed to deflate as he paused before speaking. “Firestorms are raging over the heart of London. Thirty square miles of the central city are aflame. Windsor Castle no longer exists. St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, London Bridge, the British Museum with its great reading room, Tate Gallery, the Natural History Museum, Victoria and Albert Mus—” He rubbed his eyes. “All are gone.” His eyes focused on something far beyond the back wall. “Almost every road out of London is jammed with refugees.” A moment passed, his eyes remaining on that far-off spot.
“Caldwell!” The word snapped out so sharp and unexpected Anson’s muscles propelled him to his feet almost before his brain could register the movement.
“The Brits have scrounged some parts for us. You’re back on flying status.”
“Sir!” He sat down.
“We don’t know when the next wave is coming. There’s not much left of London, so we don’t think it will be the target. Blue and Red Squadrons, because of their losses, will merge into the Combined Squadron. Captain Hooley will take over-all command, Captain Martin second. Be prepared to scramble at any moment. Dismissed.”
Anson pondered his split reaction about being back in the fight as he headed toward the day room. Exhilaration tinged with terror, he decided. Time fell back into its slow pace, passage marked mostly by the shifting shadows and the changing odors from the mess hall.
As the sun set and the glow from the eastern sky brightened, Hooley had communications check again. No other squadron in England saw any action that day. Or the next. The squadron went to bed (some members loaded with alcohol, but Anson avoided that), then arose the next morning not to the blare of alarms but the gentle knocking of stewards.
“Hitler’s playing a strange game,” Steve said around a mouthful of eggs.
“But an effective one,” Anson said, tearing a bran muffin apart. “Three fights last night, one this morning. He’ll have us so ragged we won’t be able to hit the broad side of a barn.”
“The English farmers’ll love that.”
More waiting, sitting around, reading every magazine that could be scrounged, playing endless billiard matches. The colonel challenged the ground crews to a baseball game on behalf of the pilots, which he might have regretted because the enlisted men beat the officers 21 to 10 after three hours of play.
Late in the afternoon, Anson got a break when a corporal showed up in the day room saying he had a visitor. “A visitor?” Anson struggled to get out of the overstuffed chair.
“Yes, sir, in the officer’s club.”
Lydia Grey sat at a table, toying with a pen as Anson approached. She said hello as he sat, but seemed nervous.
“Oh, it’s … I just … feel uncomfortable.”
“Uncomfortable?” He sat a moment, realizing the usual raucous sounds of the club were muted. He glanced around, understanding dawning. He stood up.
“Hey, what’s with you guys anyway? Haven’t you ever seen a paleontologist before?”
Two seconds passed in utter silence, then the whole room burst into laughter. Anson sat down, giving a little shrug. She smiled.
“They’re not a bad sort, they’re just uneasy.”
“And cut off from females.”
“That, too. Is this a social visit?”
She cocked her head slightly. “I wish it were, but I couldn’t get here if it was. No, I came because of some interesting news. From your Dr. Chee.”
“You talked to him already?”
“We have the highest priority and get what we want. Your visit to Dr. Chee has had repercussions. He and a Dr. Roger Hillson published some interesting papers.”
“Hillson. That name sounds vaguely familiar.”
“He a biologist at the same university—”
“Ah. Dr. Chee mentioned his name.”
“Yes. Unfortunately, they published only in obscure journals because they’re going against the norm.” She put both hands on the table, leaned forward. “Dr. Hillson’s been studying dragons for many years. He makes a convincing argument that the line of Old World dragons, that is, Europe and Asia, evolved first, then spread to the Americas, much the way humanity spread across Asia and Europe, then across the seas. Origins lost in the mists of time, but the differences in terrain had a definite impact on their survival.”
“Like any other organism.”
“Anyway,” she slid her drink across the table, leaving a track of moisture, “the Euro-Asian dragon evolved with the vulnerable underside, which the ancient peoples took advantage of. However, Hillson suggests one strain of dragons gradually developed stronger protection underneath. For some reason, most of these emigrated to the New World. Soon, however, the dragons started dying there, too, because—”
“American aboriginals learned to drop things on them from above.”
“Especially the tribes living in the mountainous areas. Evidence of this stretches from the Canadian Northwest all the way down to the tip of South America.”
“And because the mountains are seen as homes of the gods, the people tended to defend their beliefs.”
“And,” she leaned forward again, blue eyes glittering, a definite distraction, “the Germans, the world’s best taxonomists, realized there are two genera of dragons with different vulnerability points. They’ve force-adapted the belly defense through biologic and magic-field manipulation.”
Anson sat back, mind working. “But why didn’t the belly-defense evolve in Old World dragons? I mean. You have big mountains, too, the Alps and the Atlases—”
“They might have. St. George’s story is so pervasive, contrary evidence is ignored. This suggests a closer look is necessary in those mountains you mentioned.”
“Attack from above.” He toyed with the ashtray. “And what would be the exact point of … of … hmmm.”
“Yes. Spine Ridge.”
“With a three-ton rock sitting square on the beast’s head. I can’t carry a three-ton boulder, though.”
“So you’ll have to make do with what you’ve got.”
Anson dreamed about more dragons that night, in full color and sound. He’d tried to get Lydia to stay for dinner at the club, but she demurred, saying she had to catch a plane to Oxford University-in-exile in Edinburgh. She did give him a quick kiss on the cheek. As he thought about Lydia’s conversation–-and a lot about Lydia–at breakfast, the sirens blared.
“Another DrachenBlitz, at least a thousand, possible targets Manchester, Liverpool.” Gregor looked old in the morning light, shoulders slumping. “Or, possibly Edinburgh. RAF is on alert all the way to the Shetland Islands. If you can’t bring them down, try to keep them from getting to target. Gentlemen, this is it. Hitler’s final push. If we can’t stop them now, Britain is finished.”
Anson pushed his way through the departing pilots to Gregor.
“Your visitor was from the British dragon group?”
“Uh, yes, sir. She had some new information—”
“Do what you have to, Caldwell. Keep us informed.”
Anson wondered if that last comment meant Gregor already has an inkling of the new findings as he flew next to Steve Rankings, still in Lady Luck. He decided it didn’t matter. As they turned south, the sun glared through the canopy, glinting off the glass covers of the instruments.
He feels sunlight warming his face, smells the clear, crisp air of dawn, watches the light pour over the pond. June 21 and the old tales were right: The sun rises directly across from the head boulder. An accidental placement of the rock, his father said.
In EagleFalcon, Anson shook his head. The memory had popped in so clear, so overpowering, for a moment he actually started to lean against the boulder. He shaded the fuel gauge and altimeter with his hand, mostly to be doing something to anchor himself in reality.
The squadron passed over the coast. Anson gritted his teeth, forced his eyes, ears, all his senses to take in the cockpit, the propeller spinning before him, what the instruments were saying, the planes flying on his left. He stared ahead until dark shapes gradually formed into recognizable features.
“Target sighted. Combined Squadrons prepare for attack.”
Anson acknowledged. Then, “Red Four.”
“Stay with me.”
“And why should I do that?”
“I have an idea.”
“All right, but I just hope it’s a good one.”
So do I. Anson climbed, rising almost into the layer of the Drachenflieger escort. He picked a dragon on the outermost edge, a smaller green beast, perhaps a juvenile. As he aligned his flight path, Anson wondered just how old a dragon had to be in order to join battle. Not very old, apparently, because they continued to rise out of the Munich Drachenhorst like mayflies in a mating flight. He peered through the aiming sight, knowing in his gut the shot had to be perfect. A calmness settled over him as the dragon’s bulk grew, radio traffic fading into background noise, field of vision narrowing to just this flight path. The rockets shot out swiftly, elegantly, obediently. As the plane roared past the head, the warheads buffeted him with a shock wave. He banked the plane into a turn, then watched the green dragon tumble utterly ungracefully toward the Channel like a stuffed animal tossed out of a window. It hit the water in an explosion of steam and frothing liquid.
“Red Six, what—”
“Red Six, look out, look out! Bandits! Six o’clock!”
Anson yanked the plane into a roll, then into a dive.
“He’s on your tail, Red Six,” came a new voice, “and he’s madder’n hell!”
“All points!” Anson yelled into the microphone he juggled with one hand. “Back of the head, try the back of the head, where skull meets neck. Make the shots precise!”
Anson pulled out of the dive, rolled left, then glanced over his shoulder. The 109 was just a shape, a deadly shadow mimicking his every move. He rolled right, but heard thumps around him: the 109’s bullets were finding their marks.
“Back of the head!” He called again as he pulled into another climb, but something tore through the cockpit at knee level, filling the cockpit with smoke and the sharp smell of burning wires. His heart pounded and sweat dribbled from underneath his helmet as he again yanked the stick over.
I found the key and am going to pay for it … A flash and explosion blasted from behind. He glanced back, expecting to see his plane billowing smoke. Instead he saw the 109, encased in a shroud of flame, flip over and dive. Farther behind, he saw another shape, this one with two engines and a center cockpit.
“Red Six, Fox Six,” drawled a familiar voice over the radio, “the bandit’s gone.”
“I’m on your wing.”
“Roger. Going in now.”
This time, he targeted the lead dragon, a black monstrosity with a wing span at least three times that of a Flying Fortress. Again, all distractions fell to the wayside as he dived. He armed all four of his remaining rockets, figuring the massive head had thick armor. All four hit home and the blast buffeted him harder. He came around in time to see the dragon careening toward land. The fight had taken them back over the coast, he realized, as the black beast crashed into the ground.
An explosion below him caught his attention. A great gray beast, wing flapping uselessly, flipped completely over and headed down.
“Eeee-hah!” someone shouted. “It works! It works!”
“Combined units, move in, move in,” Hooley said instantly. “Let’s get some dragons! Red Six, you’re out, right?”
“Get back to base, reload. Anyone else?”
“Red Four and Three heading that way.”
“Combined Leader, Fox Six also. Need gas.”
“Roger, Fox Six, Reds Four and Three.”
Anson gunned the engine, heading out as fast as possible without losing his guardian angel. He slammed the canopy open before the plane had stopped. “Reload, rearm. Fuel for the 38.” He pointed to the P-38 as it taxied up, Cordelia’s Courage painted on the nose. Anson waved at the pilot, who waved back.
“You got it,” a burly sergeant replied.
Anson tapped his foot on the floor, his hand on the canopy edge as ground crew raced to attach new rockets. He spotted the red-haired mage-novitiate, gave him a thumbs-up. The novitiate returned the gesture with a grin.
A Jeep screeched to a stop and Major Jasper jumped out, climbed up on EagleFalcon’s wing.
“Communication lines are burning with the news,” he said. “SHAEF already is sending word to Russia. How did you tumble to this, Anson?”
“All the evidence pointed to vulnerability from above, it just was a matter finding where. Lyd-Dr. Grey’s report yesterday cemented the whole thing for me.”
“You’ll be court-martialed, of course, for disobeying orders.” Jasper grinned. “A joke, Caldwell. For Christ’s sake, lighten up.”
“You have a very strange sense of humor. Sir.”
Jasper laughed and jumped off the wing. “Good flying!” he shouted as he climbed back into the Jeep.
“Ready, sir,” the ground chief barked.
“Sure, quick, so you can slay more dragons.”
The dragon formation had come apart by the time they got back. The dragons now fought as individuals, all pretense of formation forgotten. Anson swooped in, but his first target rolled at the last second and the rockets hit harmlessly at the base of the neck. The second jerked its head aside and the rockets headed for a farm below. Please don’t hit anything he prayed as he pulled out, searching for another target. To starboard, a dragon tumbled downward. Anson’s last opportunity didn’t come until later as a purple dragon chased one of his squadron mates below him. He just waited, letting the dragon position itself, then he fired. The dragon dropped from view. Hours later—it seemed, but it couldn’t have been very long—Hooley barked over the radio.
“Break off, break off. They’re retreating. We don’t have the fuel to follow.”
“Retreating, did you say?” someone asked.
“That’s an affirmative, gentlemen. Let’s go home.”
At the base, every surviving flier, every wounded flier that could hobble out of the infirmary, nearly every officer and every enlisted man on the base jammed into the briefing room or hovered outside, all jabbering excitedly. Four more planes had been lost, but a triumphant atmosphere prevailed. Finally the colonel called for silence, face and body a complete opposite of the defeated man of a few hours ago.
“All dragon units have retreated. Retreated, gentlemen. All turned tail and fled without achieving target. Except for thirty-six which are not going home because we knocked those fuckers out of the sky!”
The room exploded into cheers.
“Dragon silhouettes, just like those for planes,” Spencer said, standing back and giving a critical look at the three purple outlines aligned under the canopy. “A little star above the first, just a teeny one so the Krauts don’t know what it’s for, designating the very first dragon to be shot down on purpose.”
“Very nice, Spence. Steve, Joe, Carl, Dave and Captain Hooley each got one, too. Done their planes yet?”
“Next. Had t’get yours done first, ’cause you were the first, Ace.”
“Ace. Huh. If it hadn’t been for the real ace, Fox Six, I’d be dead.”
Spencer regarded Anson. “You still would’ve been first.”
Anson shrugged. “It had to happen eventually, Spence. I was just lucky.”
A corporal approached. “Colonel Gregor wants to see you, sir.”
“On my way.”
He followed the corporal through the late-afternoon sun, the afternoon of the same day they’d finally gotten a kill. Seems like a lifetime …
“Lieutenant Caldwell, well done.”
“Thank you, sir. I’m just glad I could figure it out.”
“Major Jasper told me what you said about Dr. Grey’s report. Was that the clincher?”
“Yes, sir. Plus the Kent briefings and what Dr. Chee at New Mexico said. Looks like the alternative duty assignment paid off, sir.”
The colonel laughed shortly, rubbed his chin, sat silently for several seconds. “Out of the past comes redemption,” he finally said, softly.
The press clamored for an interview with Anson, but he was kept out-of-touch on full readiness at the base. He did see photos in the local papers of villagers surrounding the dead dragons, building huge pyres and burning the bodies to ash. “Just desserts,” a Church of England minister was quoted as saying.
Hitler got the news, too.
Two days later, he skies darkened with thousands of dragons and hundreds of bombers. The Allies scrambled to assemble a defensive force, now armed with Banshees and the Caldwell maneuver, as it came to be called. Every flyable American P-51, as many of the Thunderbolts hurriedly fitted with rocket brackets as could be found, took to the air. The British not only sent their own P-51s, but had added the rockets to as many of their Spitfires, Tempests and Hurricanes and even their new Mosquitoes as they could.
The first casualty was the disintegration of the vaunted dragon discipline. The beasts snapped and turned in every direction, defending their vulnerable points with a ferocity that made the aerial battles a mass of dragon bodies diving, twisting, dodging, flapping their huge wings and sending out fireblasts that sometimes took several planes out. In between all of this were the Allied fighters, doing their own diving/climbing/banking maneuvers, cutting loose with rockets that sometimes found the wrong mark and knocking a friend out of the sky. Chaos grew in every battle to such an extent many German escorts often got hit by fireblasts (and the German pilots screamed, too, said Luftwaffe frequency eavesdroppers). Some pilots developed the fishbait strategy, where one plane would zoom in to catch the dragon’s attention while the other pilot aimed for the kill. Sometimes, though, the worm couldn’t get away.
The day Anson got his fourth kill, Irish squadrons roared in to join the fray, filling the radio with Gaelic war cries. This raid also marked the third in four days, and stress and exhaustion began to take their toll.
The day after scoring his fifth and sixth kills, Major Jasper came striding into the officer’s club waving an envelope.
“Hey, Caldwell,” he shouted. “Got a love letter from your bone-hunting girlfriend. In the courier pouch, real confidential stuff.” He winked.
“She’s not my girlfriend,” Anson retorted, snatching the letter from the major. “It’s an official communication.”
“An official love letter?” Steve said to general laughter.
“Screw you guys. She’s just telling us how they think hitting the vulnerable point kills a dragon. The shock wave propagates right through their heads, often knocking back teeth out. More important, the spinal cord is severed, cutting off the main pipeline for the magic energy. Death is instantaneous.”
“And how did she close the letter?” Steve said. “Perhaps with little Xs for kisses?”
“With a sincerely yours, signed Dr. Grey.”
“Sincerely yours sounds a little personal for a so-called ‘official communication’, don’t you think?” said Davey Cochran.
“Oh, Christ, you guys.” Anson felt his face reddening, causing him to get mad because of it, making it go redder. “Just get off my case, will you?”
“Sure,” Cochran said, pouring his beer over Anson’s head. Which, of course, spurred everyone else to follow suit.
Just before the mission where Anson got his seventh and eighth kills, Col. Gregor, grim-faced again, made an announcement.
“A dragon-backed invasion fleet is headed toward Hawaii. The chaplain will lead us in prayer for our fellow warriors facing a terrible battle ahead. Then we’ll go out and get as many God-damned dragons as we can in their name.”
That night, the British launched a daring raid against Hamburg with nearly three hundred bombers and seven hundred dragon hunters. They lost nearly two hundred bombers and three hundred fighters, but for the first time in the war, fire touched a German city.
“There will be more, has to be,” Gregor said the next day. “There must be. Hitting ’em hard, hitting ’em with everything we’ve got before their mages perfect a new protection-spell.”
In the war of attrition, Anson lost count of how many Allied fliers went down before the dragon onslaught and how many dragons fell before the defensive formations. Enough to become a serious problem for the Brits. All those dead dragons falling, landing in villages, on farms, in ponds and lakes. Disposal fell far behind and (Lydia wrote him in another letter) special Royal Engineer units had to be formed to handle the problem. He thought about this for a second as his ninth kill spun groundward. He whipped the plane up, took aim at a great golden dragon, scales sparkling in the sun, double wings outstretched in a long, steady dive toward a disabled Spitfire. Anson dived from an angle, a difficult shot in the best of times. The dragon’s head snapped up, but in the wrong direction. The Banshees hit perfectly behind a bony ridge, but the dragon still managed to make a last, desperate lunge. Fire hit EagleFalcon and something struck the left wing, spinning the plane around and dropping it into a dive. Anson fought the stick, managed to regain control, but the best he could do was to continue a more controlled descent. The cockpit filled with smoke, burning his eyes, and acrid fumes filled his nostrils. He dropped the wheels, determining to land wherever he could find a flat spot. He didn’t realize he was over an RAF bomber field until he nearly landed on one of their Lancasters. He hit he ground hard, slammed the brakes and came to a rough stop. Almost immediately someone yanked the canopy open and several hands unhooked his harness and hauled him out. Fire extinguishers hissed in the background.
“You OK?” a voice asked, but before Anson could answer, someone else said, “Blimey, do you know who this is?”
The bomber officers gave him the royal treatment, presenting him with a sumptuous meal and drinks of a fine wine. Fire crews saved his plane without much damage and mechanics worked all night getting EagleFalcon ready for flight.
“Look at this, Yank,” said Lieutenant Bluestone the next day as he and two other officers accompanied Anson to his plane. Two gouges marred the left wingtip, one ending in a bent piece of metal. “One of the beasties tried to eat your plane.”
EagleFalcon flew a little rough, but without problem. A soon as he’d stopped the engine and got out, Hooley stepped forward.
“Yeah, just a little shaken up. The Brits put out the red carpet for me, thinking I was celebrity or something.”
“You just might be. The Colonel wants to see you.”
“Now what?” Anson muttered under his breath.
Instead of taking him to the office, though, Hooley led him to a grassy knoll near a runway. Col. Gregor returned Anson’s salute slowly, studied him, looked away, then back.
“You’re going home.”
“What? Why? I’ve only been here four months, been in what, four, five battles—”
“Tomorrow, one hundred and thirty-five American pilots will arrive at bases all over England. Planes by the hundreds are arriving daily, including sixty P-38s with new rocket-cluster brackets. And Banshees by the thousands. The British, the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish are sending more than their share to the battle. Your absence will not make such a large hole, Lieutenant—”
“I’ve heard that before—”
“There are other priorities.”
Anson looked at Hooley, who took a sudden interest in scuffing the ground with his heel. “Sir, my place is here.”
Gregor lifted his cap, ran a hand over his short hair. “Your place in war changes according to need. You definitely were needed here, God know where we’d be if you weren’t. Now, however, you have a value elsewhere. In this case, back home.”
Anson gestured in frustration. “As a propaganda tool?”
“Call it a morale booster instead of propaganda. Lieutenant, the people at home are facing a bleak future. For the first time, dragons are ravaging Americans cities. Honolulu, other Hawaiian cities, one attack in Seattle. The people need a glimmer of hope, something they can see, touch, and more importantly, believe in. They need a hero. And they’re getting one. Congress is awarding you the Medal of Honor. President Roosevelt will give it to you personally. You will go and receive this honor the nation is bestowing upon you, Lieutenant Caldwell, and you will accept with grace and dignity. You will do this not just because you are ordered to, but because this is essential for the country no less than your flying missions here.”
“I’ll take it to Headquarters, to Wing, to Eisenhower—”
“The orders are signed by General Marshall himself. Besides,” Hooley pointed, “look.”
Anson saw ground crews pushing a P-51 toward a hangar.
“Yours. They’re preparing it for shipment. It’s going with you.”
In September, the sun flowed through Spine Ridge at an angle, casting sharp shadows on the pond. The air still felt hot enough to make the water look inviting, but Anson remained at the edge of the cliff high above the boulder that had crushed the life out of a dragon. He wondered if there was enough head left to make moving the rock worthwhile, but he had a sudden vision of the bones taking on flesh and the dragon reviving with a blast of fire.
He hefted a red bundle, cloth wrapped around a heavy object, thinking about the long journey back to this spot. It had started with a detour to Edinburgh where the British Prime Minister presented Anson with a medal he called a special version of the George Cross.
“His Majesty wanted to honor you,” the gravelly voice rumbled. “We settled on this because it is named for St. George, our patron saint. See here, he’s slaying the dragon. Apparently with the wrong method, but the intent is still good.”
Upon arrival in New York, a Life photographer insisted upon a portrait with the P-51, now carrying dummy rockets. Spencer had retouched some of the artwork, but the dragon’s teeth marks had been left in the wing. Anson, still irritated at being sent away from battle, at first was short with the man, someone called Eisenstaedt, but the photographer had charm. Anson had to admit the resultant photo, on the cover of the next edition, didn’t turn out too bad.
A tearful mother and stoic but proud father also met him in New York, but quickly they headed to Washington. Aides on either side held the President up, but Anson still was impressed with how Mr. Roosevelt made it all look perfectly normal. His throat caught as the president looped the medal over his head, then offered his hand to the young officer.
“Thank you,” the President said.
“Just doing my job, sir.” It sounded so trite.
On to Chicago, Indianapolis, St. Paul, Des Moines, Oklahoma City, Dallas—the names of the cities ran together (except Los Angeles, where he stood on a stage between Betty Grable and John Wayne), but the faces of the people crowding around him always affected him. Many came to him with tears in their eyes, speaking of friends, relatives lost under dragon onslaughts, or sons, husbands, fathers lost fighting the scourge, all so painfully grateful to the young flier. Then came word that Davey Cochran had perished in a fireblast.
It almost was too much to bear.
Home at last. Dinner with Mother and Father and Jeremy, helping run the ranch on a draft exemption, and Michael, still recovering from his wounds suffered at Pearl Harbor. A good, home-cooked meal, a night in his own bed. The next morning, though, dawn found him on the ridge.
He began unwrapping the bundle. It had been given to him by a delegation from Heathton—the mayor, Mr. Percy Bridger, and two townspeople, Mr. Thomas Pulliam and Mrs. Gladys Bancock—right after the Prime Minister’s presentation. Each of them had tears in their eyes—something he’d see often but never get used to—as they presented him with the object. Back on Spine Ridge, he gazed at the object that gleamed blacker than any obsidian—a dragon’s tooth, taken from his second kill.
He looked around at the cliffs around him, the blue, cloudless sky, the still pool clear as glass far below. The same sky, the same sun, the same rocks the petroglyph carvers had seen.
A shaft of sunlight fell on the tooth, reflecting back with sharp flashes. A wisp of breeze stirred from behind, whirled around him. The warrior touched by fire slowly reached out and placed a hand over the image of the slain dragon.
Out of the past comes redemption.
Copyright 2011 Terry D. England