That one, yes, the red one, hand it …”
” … Philatus needs one too, and I will … “
” … Junitius says that Amoxio is coming up. I need to get ready …”
The common room buzzed with activity as young acolytes and resident assistants moved in and out, carrying food and ointments, medicines, clothes, pillows and various other aids and comforts. Molli sat on a stone wall and watched, bemused and befuddled.
The pace at the Department of Animal Reconnaissance had picked up dramatically in the last twelve hours. Molli had been working there as an adjunct to a regional dragon squad for seven months and had never seen so many people in the building at one time. Then had come the news of the crash of the Constant Vision, and the whole place sprang to life.
Molli only knew a few people that had left with the great airship, and they had returned after the first bad storm. It had been a small flight of dragon riders with their mounts. After the first storm, two of the younger dragons had proved too unruly and were sent back. They were from her squad. Still, the idea that the ship had gone down was distressing. She had spent the last eight hours coordinating between the Whind adepts in the Department and her squad as they made high-altitude flights in an attempt to establish contact with the downed ship. The effort was exhausting, as she had to switch back and forth between what she thought of as her human mind and her dragon mind.
The small scout dragons were very odd creatures. Based on a six-limbed body plan, she knew from her classes that they had a more distributed brain than the four-limbed creatures on Kethrios. Their bones were lighter and harder, although once broken they healed much slower. They had many small hearts distributed throughout their bodies, and their method of reproduction was complex to say the least. Their eyes were more like the eyes of insects than the eyes of humans and their skin had both hair and scales. Communicating with them was possible, but it required special training, and special treatment. Molli had been chosen while young for her particular empathy with the creatures. A long regimen of instruction and medication had allowed her to hear their thoughts, and to send them instructions from a distance. Even with the training and treatments, such an effort required great concentration. She had summoned one from the squad’s aerie, and was now resting.
“Molli!” The call came from an older woman who stood at the door. “Thellon needs you.” Without another word, the woman turned and left. Molli got up and followed, leaving behind the busy room and heading up the narrow stairways to the room above. That room was darker, quieter. Molli stood a moment, allowing her eyes to adjust to the darkness. In a circle sat seven adepts, their blue skin making them almost invisible in the gloom. Several of them wore bandages across their blind eyes. One woman wore a shawl around her shoulders, and one man wore a turban on his head, but otherwise they were nude, to allow a more free flow of the Whind to penetrate them. It reminded her of the Great Defenders in the park.
“Molli.” She turned to see the woman gesturing from another door on the other side of the room. Molli picked her way across, weaving around scattered personal effects. She reached the woman and passed into another room, smaller and better lit. As the woman closed the door, Molli recognized her as Administrator Jerra, assistant to the Department head. Also inside was a female adept named Thellon, and two dragon riders that were outfitted for flight. Thellon looked pale and tired; rivulets of sweat traced down her blue tattooed skin from shoulder to shin.
“Molli, we need you to go up to the aerie and settle the dragons,” Thellon said, turning her blind eyes towards Molli. “All these flights, and the use of the adepts is making them restless. Fights are breaking out, and some of them have started regurgitating.”
“Are the riders not able to settle them?” Molli asked.
“We can settle our own mounts,” replied one of the riders, a young boy named Keli. “But not the others.”
“What about the adepts?” Molli asked. “Can they have any influence?”
“They have tried,” Thellon said. “It seemed to work for a while, but then then it became hard to communicate with the animals. We’re not sure why. We need you to go up and settle them all down.”
Molli nodded. “I’ve summoned one just now, Pretty Wings is her name. She’ll be here in a few minutes. I can take her up.”
“No,” Jerra countered, “we still need Pretty Wings to take Keli up. The cell has tuned into him.” She nodded at the door, indicating the adepts in the room beyond, “They’re ready to take their next reading.”
“Have we gotten any more news of the downed crew?” Molli asked.
“None since the first word,” Jerra replied. “We’re seeing things, but no actual contact has been made. There’s something blocking our communications there also.”
Molli looked over at Thellon, who shifted her weight from one foot to the other. The day was not an especially warm one, but the thin woman was covered in sweat. Molli knew it had to be from the exertion of using the Whind. The blue hue of her skin had paled almost to normal human tones, and her hands shook. Molli thought at first it was a chill, but then realized that the poor woman was so overwrought with fatigue that she was shaking. Not for the first time Molli was glad that her own training had taken her down a different path than that of an adept. Molli had no desire to see her own skin turn that color, or to subject herself to the rigors of an adept’s life.
“I will summon another dragon down, Administrator,” Molli said. Jerra nodded while Molli took a moment to concentrate. “I feel Pretty Wings nearby.” Molli nodded at Keli. “She’ll be landing soon.”
“Thank you for your help, Molli,” Jerra said. “I know this isn’t exactly your usual role.”
“I enjoy going to the aerie,” Molli said. “It’s scary, but it’s exciting too.”
“Come back down when you have the situation under control,” Jerra said and headed back into the council chamber. Thellon followed unsteadily.
“Let’s go,” Molli said to Keli. He nodded and followed Molli out of the open room and onto the flight platform outside. The other rider, a girl inexplicably named Horse, followed. Like all dragon riders, both were still young, just into their teens, and small even for their tender age. Their gear was minimal to save weight. Both wore thin leather gloves and a short leather coat with a high collar. Over the coat was a sturdy leather harness. The harness had a pair of straps with spring-loaded hooks used to secure the rider on the steed. Below the waist they wore open chaps. Molli knew that part of the reason was so that the riders could have skin-to-skin contact with the dragon. There was another reason as well; Molli didn’t want to think about that. Each rider was equally slender and undeveloped. Except for the modest dab of their different genders they could be identical twins. When trio reached the flight platform the two riders stood hand in hand and watched as the great lizard approached. Molli hung back, not as bold around the big animals as the riders were.
Pretty Wings was named for her rainbow-colored wings. The animal was not strictly a “she”, as the dragons rotated through three different genders during their lives, but the riders usually picked a gender for the mounts as a matter of convenience. She swept in, her wings ballooning out as she slowed and landed. Horse patted Keli’s backside familiarly as Pretty Wings settled onto the stone floor, then Horse cupped her hands and made a step for Keli as he vaulted up onto the dragon’s back. Pretty Wings crouched as the boy snapped himself to the dragon’s harness. Molli felt the mind of the dragon push into hers, and they exchanged a greeting. As always when she was close to the dragon, Molli’s mouth salivated involuntarily, her eyes watered, and she tasted a metallic tang on her tongue. Then Keli urged Pretty Wings on, and the dragon sprang over the edge of the platform. Rider and steed vanished from sight for a moment, then reappeared in flight, swooping away and climbing. Molli watched for a moment, then turned to go back.
“Are you going to call another dragon?” Horse asked as they re-entered the room.
“Yes,” replied Molli. She had already begun the simple mantra in her mind to help her prepare for the task.
“Are you flying up there?”
“Yes. Would you mind going and getting me some gear?”
“OK.” Horse left on the errand, and Molli began to chant quietly. She went to the edge of the room, where a low wall with pillars looked out to sea. She looked out across the waters, wondering what was happening out there, so far away at the crash site. The open sea helped her calm her mind, and she began to hear the thoughts of the dragons in her mind. She had been bonded to the dragons of a particular aerie, and unless she was physically close she would not hear any others. She asked which of the dragons were in the aerie, and listened to the answers. She thought about which dragons were bigger and which were healthier, and chose one that she felt could carry her weight. She negotiated with it, asking its indulgence, feeling its amusement at her impertinence and feeling grateful when it agreed to come. She could feel the wind under its wings as it leaped out into the open air. She savored that feeling, feeling the beat of its wings.
So enraptured was she that Horse had to take her hand and turn her around when the girl returned. Knowing the thick dullness that always followed communion with the dragons, Molli silently gestured to Horse and held her arms out to her sides. Horse had brought another rider back with her, a boy named Josck. Together the two of them undid Molli’s belt and vestments, carefully laying the blue fabric aside before beginning to dress her in the riding leathers. Molli patiently allowed them to minister to her as she waited for her mind to clear and for language to return. The feeling of their gentle hands on her skin helped her focus.
Once they were done she pulled on the harness, the goggles, and the gloves. By that time the dragon, Sir Maxim, was near. She let each rider take one of her hands and lead her to the platform. Sir Maxim was an older dragon with dark green wings. It had been male when named, but was now in the bearing phase, the carrying pouches on its throat puffy and engorged. It pushed into her mind and tears flowed down her cheeks. She felt two hands on her bottom, pushing her forward, and Sir Maxim crouched for her. The two teens helped her up, and she settled onto its back. Its body was hot between her thighs as she hastily hooked onto the harness and seized the handles. She was no rider, and had to rely on the dragon to get her safely to the aerie. One mighty surge and they were falling. Her heart skipped a beat, and then they were flying.
The first few moments of flight were paralyzing, as always. Once her mind took control, however, she quickly began to enjoy the flight. It was always a thrill to see Selkwyth spread out below her. She could not look straight down, because of the dragon’s width, but she could see much of the landscape below: homes and businesses, temples and factories, parks and roads. There were carriages, both drawn and motorized. She could see people, although they were indistinct dots from that height. And she could see the ships.
As a member of the dragon corps, Molli had never really been in line to serve in either the navy or the air corps. She had gone on a ship once, just to learn how a dragon squad worked aboard on of the great iron warships, but the cruise was only a two-day shakedown and she spent most of it working. As such she still had a great curiosity about the workings of boats and ships, and especially of the airships. She cast about now, looking for one of those great dirigibles. She quickly spotted one, then another, and another. The air over Selkwyth was seldom empty, as the great airships were constantly coming and going, connecting the diverse parts of Selkwyth’s empire. The closest airship was probably a mile distant. If she listened carefully she could hear the thrum of its engines.
Molli looked next for the great shipyards. Located near the coast, they were where most vessels started their lives, and rested when not at sea. The dragon’s flight would not take them close, but she could see the various ships, from the small corvettes to the great battleships. She allowed herself the luxury of just staring at them as the beast dragged their weight higher and higher into the air. Next she cast about for the airfield, and the huge hangars where the airships lived. They were further inland, and in fact they were flying over them. The first thing that caught her eye was a great, long vessel she knew had to be called the Righteous Victor.
Almost immediately after hearing that the Constant Vision had gone down, Molli heard that another airship was being sent to rescue the downed aviators. It wasn’t long before a name emerged: Righteous Victor. This airship was well-known. The second of the Victor-class of vessels, it was over 800 feet long. Not as large as the Constant Vision, the Righteous Victor was designed to optimize two aspects of airship performance: speed and firepower. With four nacelles it could easily outrun weather and enemies. As for firepower, Molli had read the accounts in the papers and in the official reports of the vessel’s prodigious output. In a recent battle, the Righteous Victor had reduced an enemy stronghold to rubble in less than a day.
Molli shivered suddenly, clutched harder to the saddle. Sir Maxim sensed this and stiffened just for a moment before resuming his labors. Molli watched as the scene below slowly scrolled by. Far below she could see a steady stream of small carts moving in and out of the waiting airship. Smoke billowed from the rear two nacelles, and faintly heard the whine of the giant fans. She tried to picture the scene where this massive warship was headed, but could not. In fact, she wasn’t sure she really wanted to try. That would only make her feel more vulnerable.
For many minutes she watched the landscape below slowly change from heavy industry to light industry to campus to residential to farms and finally to forest. They were over the mountains now, and were approaching the aerie. She looked ahead and tried to determine which one it was. The mountains were pockmarked with caves, and many were dragon aeries. Of those, most were inhabited by wild dragons and smaller species. Others held private or commercial liveries. Of the ones in use by the government, some few were the redoubts of great dragons, either retired or on medical leave and separated from their clans. Even with all those other caves set aside, though, there were still many caves in use by the Corps, and she had not been to her own assigned aerie often enough to recognize it from a distance.
Once they reached the mountains she saw more airborne travelers. Most of them were on dragons, but a few were in gliding rigs. These small aircraft were unpowered vehicles that were held aloft by the updrafts created when the ocean winds hit the mountains and flew upwards. Fragile as a rule, they were unreliable and risky, and as such attracted a particular audience. She watched a few as they negotiated a distant slope. She hoped fervently that her job never took her so far afield as to need one of those. Also in the air were a few odd-looking vessels. She saw a personal blimp or two, but more unusual were the crabships: strange flying craft held up by plates of levitating stone. They moved unlike any flying vessel she had ever seen elsewhere. All these other craft fell behind, however, once she entered the valleys and hills of the dragon aeries. Here the animals ruled.
Sir Maxim slipped down a narrow valley suspended on a mountainside, his wings moving constantly to adjust their course. She smelled the fragrance of the forest below, and felt humidity climb. She had forgotten how dry the air aloft could be. In her mind she felt the faint probings of many dragon minds as they passed aerie after aerie. She began to dread what she knew would come soon. Her eyes scanned the walls of the canyon, but it wasn’t until Sir Maxim began to flap harder that she spotted the entrance. The hillside became a high wall of stone coming inexorably closer, and she could feel the muscles under Sir Maxim’s hide moving like steel cables under her thighs. The sound of his wings came echoing back from the canyon walls. Sick anticipation twisted her insides and made her heart hammer in her chest. The entrance rushed up at them, and they went in.
The heat of the aerie was the first thing she experienced, followed a moment later by the musky smell. Sir Maxim skimmed the entrance area, gliding just a handsbreadth above the stone for meters before landing lightly on his feet. Molli braced herself for what she knew would come next. She knew that other dragon talkers had similar experiences, but it wasn’t talked about openly. As soon as Sir Maxim cleared the threshold of the aerie she unclipped, before he even touched down. As his claws clattered on the stone she swung her legs over his side and dropped to the ground, dancing aside to miss his great wings. She stepped up to the wall of the aerie, facing it, already feeling the pressure of so many minds pressing in in her. She steeled herself, but the sudden presence in her mind of so many dragons nearby was overwhelming.
The experience of having an alien mind in her own was always a challenge. Having so many come in at once was just overwhelming. Her eyes watered as if she had been slapped, and she had to swallow rapidly to keep her mouth clear of the saliva. Her nose began to run. Experience had taught her not to try and fight what came next, and she felt a moment of gratitude that riders wore only open chaps. Her legs locked, and her womb convulsed as an involuntary orgasm wracked her body. Before that even finished a blast of gas preceded a shower of urine that splashed at her feet. Her stomach heaved once, and again, but she successfully held back the vomit. Her vision went dim, then black as over a dozen minds crowded into her own, each one thrusting in a greeting. Her hand on the cave wall was all that held her upright as she swayed in place, trying to cope with the assault.
When she came back to her senses, she was being led by the hand, while someone walked beside her. In a moment her vision returned, and she knew that two dragon riders were escorting her into the human-occupied space of the aerie. She was led to a small chair and a cup was pressed into her hand. She sipped, steadying the cup with two shaking hands.
“How are you feeling?” a thin, reedy voice asked. Molli looked for the source. To her right stood a tiny woman she knew as Romina. Romina wore a heavy cloak; Molli realized that she was now wrapped in one as well. To her left another rider stood, a boy named Jayk. He wore only an undershirt, so she assumed it was his cloak she was wearing.
“Better,” Molli replied. “That arrival is always hard on me.”
“Yes, I remember the last time you came. This one was better,” Romina replied. She pulled up a stool and sat. Molli remembered that Romina was the second oldest rider in the corps, a woman of thirty-eight. She had an exceptional skill as a teacher, so she had persisted when others had retired or moved up in the ranks. She was also known as a bit of an eccentric.
“I’ll go clean the entrance,” Jayk said and left. Romina watched him for a moment, then turned back to Molli.
“Are you here to calm the dragons?” Romina asked. Molli nodded, her eyes watering again at the idea of having to talk to the dragons so soon after arriving. Romina noted her tears and also nodded. He put a hand on Molli’s shoulder. Just then came the sound of angry squawking from the aerie. “I have to go see who’s biting who now,” Romina said, rising. “Do what you can. And hurry.”
Molli nodded. She settled herself down into the chair, which was actually rather comfortable, though shabby. It was essentially a set of wooden slats tied together with twine and covered with blankets, cloaks and pillows. The entire room was the same. It was a ramshackle affair, grown over time as generations of riders came and went, their personal effects accumulating to form an uneven layer on the walls, floor, and ceiling. It was terribly unmilitary, but officers didn’t tend to come to the aerie. Indeed, no one did, because almost no one could. The dragons didn’t tolerate non-riders well, and access to the high caves was both regulated and very difficult. Even supplies didn’t come often, so what artifacts there were in the cave were either small and light or made up of things that were small and light, bound by well-knotted twine. Still, the smell was not too bad, and it was warm. Molli took another sip, set her cup aside, wrapped the cloak tighter around herself, and closed her eyes.
The first dragon she reached out to was Sir Maxim. It had moved on into the general population of the aerie and was busily making its greetings with the others, reinserting itself into the inevitable pecking order. She scanned across the surfaces of the minds she felt in the aerie until she felt its. She touched it lightly until it welcomed her. She began to commune with the dragon, showing her own self to it and acknowledging it as it showed itself.
The dragons were not a verbal folk. They did not use abstract symbols for the most part. The more analytical part of Molli’s mind accepted that the dragons were a less complex species, mentally, and did not have the higher brain functions of abstraction that humans had. There were a few symbols that were used for abstract concepts, such as for the passage of time and for species-specific things such as sex, which was very different between the two species. By and large, though, communication was through sensory memories and emotions.
Sir Maxim was feeling relatively calm after a good flight and some time away from the aerie, but there were others in the flight that were very agitated. Molli’s own human ears heard the screeching squawks of a dragon wronged, and the warning honking of a dragon guarding its own space. Sir Maxim supplied more information, showing that a dragon named Left Foot had encroached on the roost of another dragon named Ima Queen. Other dragons were weighing in on the bad behaviour of both, and tempers were flaring. This minor faux pas was not the underlying cause, though. All of Sir Maxim’s memories and thoughts were much more fleeting than usual. Molli chased them around in his head for a minute before giving up and moving onto Left Foot and Ima Queen. Sure enough, the incident was already fading in their minds, their shifting feelings not allowing anything to take hold. And there was something else, a blank spot in their minds that she had touched in Sir Maxim’s mind that she had no correlation for and so had ignored. Here it was again, a brief flicker of a thought or feeling that she had no symbol for and had never actually experienced herself. She chased it through Ima Queen’s mind, and she chased it through Left Foot’s mind, but could not catch it. In fact, as soon as she could begin to understand it, the dragons seemed to pull away for a moment, almost breaking the mental connection.
Molli moved on to another dragon, Royal Glory. Royal Glory was an older dragon that had never left the female phase and that often served as a focal point for the flight. She opened her mind to Molli easily, actually using the symbol of love as a greeting. Molli repeated the same social exercise with Royal Glory that she had used with Sir Maxim, and was rewarded in kind. Royal Glory was more sedate and relaxed, but even so her thoughts were moving fast. That same blank spot appeared. Molli was able to feel it better. It wasn’t truly blank, of course, but rather unknown. It had a definite feel, however. Molli probed the thought, and Royal Glory pulled back, closing her mind. Molli pressed in, and Royal Glory produced one of the more complex symbols that the dragons could use: Why? Molli replied back with memories of bonding and flight and food and the various sorts of ways that the humans and dragons interacted positively. She probed again. Oddly, Royal Glory replied with two more complex symbols, Good and Bad. Molli tried to probe again, but Royal Glory flashed back a very strong image: Thunder Eye.
Thunder Eye was the flight’s most senior dragon. Normally this would make him the master of the aerie, a force even the humans would have to reckon with, but a recent accident had left him with a broken leg. It was healing at the usual slow rate, but while he convalesced the aerie was somewhat leaderless. He did still played an important role, though, apparently. Molli cast about for the feel of his mind. He came up abruptly. It was as if he were in the room, staring at Molli with those great odd eyes. She was momentarily taken aback.
Thunder Eye was a bearer now, but during his time as a male he had created a legacy. From the egg he was dominant. As a male he had fathered a number of the flight, and as a female he had conceived a number as well. As a bearer he had carried only two, preferring to remain more aloof. He was both the oldest and the largest dragon. His mind probed Molli now, interrogating her. She allowed him to do so, responding as best she could. He was mostly wanting to know why she was bothering his dragons. She showed him her own images of the Constant Vision and the council and tried to follow his thoughts around. He was impatient, and when she got close to gathering an impression of his thoughts he would switch topics. It was frustrating. Molli relaxed and just tried to listen to his thoughts. To her surprise, Thunder Eye also relaxed, and centered on one thought: the ‘blank’ one.
Thunder Eye was probably the smartest dragon, a result of long life. Molli used her symbols to ask what this idea was. The response was a flood of images and symbols. Molli could feel the answer was there, forming, but she still couldn’t read it. Her human mind wanted to label and analyze the idea, and her dragon mind needed to see the whole pattern. She ran through the memories of the Constant Vision and the council again, adding in a mental image of the airship crashed. Again came the jumble of memories and symbols. She got a fleeting impression of something large, something powerful, something old, something dragon. Thunder Eye was acting restrained somehow, acting towards this blank idea in a way almost like how the others acted towards Thunder Eye.
Acting on a hunch, Molli conjured up an image of Thunder Eye’s bearer, an old dragon named Kite, now deceased. Thunder Eye replied with a lightning quick and amazingly concise genealogy of the entire flight, including hatchlings that had not survived their first flight and some dragons Molli didn’t know. The came the flood of information again, hard and fast, insistent and repeating, over and over. Other dragons joined in. Molli could feel her eyes and mouth watering again. Her stomach heaved. She clamped down on her sphincter and felt her clitoris pulse. She jammed her hands against her ears, as if to drown out the mental shouting. Then in a shock, it all crystallized. She had it. The dragons seized on her recognition, and poured out their explanations. Molli passed out.
It was almost six hours later that Sir Maxim again touched down on the landing platform at the Department of Animal Reconnaissance. Administrator Jerra was waiting, having been warned by an adept that Molli was returning. When the long, green dragon landed it crouched, but the form on its back did not dismount. Jerra came to Molli’s aid, helping her unhook herself and dismount. Sir Maxim brayed at them both in concern and then lept away. Jerra helped Molli to her feet and led her inside and wrapped her in a blanket. It was over five minutes before Molli could speak.
“It’s an outside force,” Molli explained, a draught of spirits in her hand. Jerra sat nearby with Thellon, with a few riders hanging back at the doors.
“Explain,” Jerra said.
“I couldn’t recognize it at first. I had no frame of reference,” Molli said. “Royal Glory tried to explain, but I couldn’t understand, so she turned me over to Thunder Eye.” Molli squirmed a bit at the memory, drawing the blanket tighter around her shoulders. “Royal Glory, one of our dragons, and other dragons too, had a thought in their head that I had no … no translation for. Thunder Eye is the boss dragon the aerie, and he tried to explain it. At first I thought that there was some other dragon in the area that was causing problems, or maybe one of the great dragons from Artillery. It’s not that. It’s … it’s all the dragons. At once. Or some other thing outside the dragons that’s tapping into something about them, using them somehow.” She saw the alarm in the others eyes. “Our dragons know that we are their friends, but somehow that have to do what this other tells them.”
“What is it telling them?” asked Thellon.
“It’s mostly asking for more information, information about the crash. It … it’s not interfering, but it’s controlling them, somehow. It’s almost like it doesn’t quite want us to know about the crash, but doesn’t want to stop the dragons from telling us.” Engrossed in the memory, Molli sat up, the forgotten blanket slipping off her bare shoulders. “It’s … it’s very complex.”
“What is it?” demanded Jerra.
“They don’t have a name for it,” Molli explained, pushing away the blanket from her bare torso and freeing her arms to gesture. “It’s too much a part of them. It’s more of a description …”
“Describe it,” prompted Thellon.
Molli considered for a moment, then her eyes widened. “It’s a great … no, it’s the great old wyrme,” she said. “Not a dragon … more like what dragons came from?” Her voice rose on the last word in uncertainty. “Very old, and with great … reach. It is of dragon kind, but not a great dragon, and not a riding dragon. And it is distracting the dragons, and agitating them. And it knows about the Constant Vision!” Molli sat still for a long moment, her arms limp across her torso and lap. “I remember … I remember that it knows about our crew out there, and it is trying to stop us from finding out more.”
Thellon put her hand to her own temple. Molli recognized this as a tic, one that indicated that Thellon was telepathically w’hispering to other adepts. Jerra also watched the blue-hued woman silently. After a moment Thellon nodded, slowly, unhappily.
“It is true. We see it now.” She looked hard at Jerra, her lips set in a grim line. “We have an enemy in our midst.”