Dragon beneficence and black-magic love
There weren't always dragons in the Valley.
They were summoned at the start of the Apocalypse.
Somewhere in Middle America, 12 June 2038
Becky and Jeff Nelson sat on the deck in their family’s backyard on a warm summer night. Their parents were away for the weekend, visiting friends. Fireflies darted to and fro, a silent symphony of light playing a movie against a jet-black screen. In Stanton, the city lights ruined the effect, but out in the sticks, the fireflies faced no competition.
Jeff and his father, Clyde, had spent about a month building the deck in early spring. Depending on whom you asked and the day of the week, either Jeff had done all the hard work on the deck while his father ordered him around, or Clyde had done it all while his son stood around, moving his arms around aimlessly from time to time. In the end, the dispute was goodhearted and only mentioned when father or son wanted to irritate the other. The deck had become a hit with the family and several neighbors (“and some of ’em don’t have the good sense to bring beer when they visit,” Clyde had opined several times).
“Beck, what’s that?”
“Those lights. Look. West toward Crystal Lake.”
“I don’t—whoa. What the hell is that?”
“It’s looks like the aurora borealis. But it’s blinking and getting brighter than any aurora I’ve ever seen.”
Yellow, orange, violet, and blood red shot from the sky in streams. At about halfway to earth, the streams converged into a spinning disk shooting out specks of blue, pink, and green (more of a chartreuse, really). The fireflies had vanished.
Jeff pointed his phone at the light display. “I’ve gotta film this. Man, I wonder who else is seeing this.”
Becky was about to record the lights but stopped short and blinked her eyes—hard. “Jeff, you see those weird dots shooting out of that lighted merry-go-round thing?”
“Are they getting bigger?”
“I think you’re right. What are they? Oh, shit. Oh, no.”
During the civil war, the Nelsons had upgraded their storm cellar, lowering the entrance by about three feet, replacing the walls with twelve-inch-thick concrete, rebar, and sleeves of ballistic steel. The whole structure was set beneath a live plasma bioscreen. From above, drone heat maps only showed insects.
Standing next to the house, Becky placed her thumb against a spot on its decorative wood trim. After a brief whirring, a square patch of grass broke cleanly from the rest of the lawn, merely the headpiece to what came next, a box much like an elevator. Becky and Jeff got in. Jeff pushed a button on the wall of the car, and they descended to the bunker. Once inside, they cut the power to the rest of the house, killed the property’s exterior lights, and activated the perimeter detectors.
They looked at the bank of computer screens. Outside, the dots had become saucers, hovering in the sky. Ladders had dropped from many of them, and some of the saucers’ passengers were rappelling to the ground.
“Soldiers?” asked Jeff.
“Nope. Those look like UFOs. And those” (she pointed at the people on the ladders) “look like slammers to me.”
[Slammers, a paramilitary group, had colonized a manufactured planet in 2032. The planet was named SLAM (Searching for Love And Money) by its first inhabitants. Numerous violent events had been blamed on the slammers over the years, but such exploits had been fabricated. Sadly, all the slammers had died in a bizarre grilling accident that had set SLAM ablaze for a short but particularly hot moment. Particularly heartbreaking were cryogenically preserved slammers who woke from suspended animation just long enough to be annihilated by flames. The only relevant fact, however, was that virtually everyone believed the slammers were still around, somewhere, doing bad, bad things.]
“So much for our storm cellar.”
“Let’s wait and see what happens.”
As the slammers hit the ground, they spread out in formation across the fields, heading for houses. This included the Nelson residence. They reached the border of the Nelson property, hardly pausing as they passed through the perimeter lasers and continued toward the house.
Neither sibling spoke. Becky pointed at the perimeter defense monitor, then turned her palms up and mouthed “What. The. Fuck?” The perimeter defenses were green and armed, indicating no breach.
Jeff mouthed, “How?”
“Not real. CGI.”
“Let’s find out.”
Once online, Jeff and Becky discovered that “slammers” had invaded Earth. All World Citizens were advised to remain in their homes with the doors locked. Martial law (more like Martian law, thought Jeff) and curfews were in effect.
Jeff tapped the monitor that showed the front door. “Hey, does the bunker have martial law override locks like the house does?”
“No. No one knows this place exists except you, me, Mom, and Dad.”
“Good. Okay, we don’t leave here until we have a plan. And whatever we do, we don’t go in the house. It’s a trap.”
A Brief Aside
The Apocalypse was a natural extension of devolution, the unique ability of humans to be absolutely wrong while believing they were infallibly right, at exactly the wrong time. This had not always been the case. Bénédict Morel first theorized the concept of devolution in 1857, but it was the seminal work of Gerald Casale and Bob Lewis at Kent State University that led to the constructive, scientifically validated recognition of human backsliding. They subsequently formed the band Devo to celebrate humankind’s impending doom through music.
Nelson Farm, Continued
Becky and Jeff watched as several TV networks continued to report on the slammer attack:
“Citizens are reminded that outdoor and nondesignated areas are extremely dangerous. Slammer colonizers have been seen attacking people, especially those traveling alone. Experts theorized that the slammers’ most likely plan is to abduct persons with particular characteristics and ship them to SLAM to perform in circuses and as clowns at birthday parties. Less ‘useful’ humans will likely be exterminated.”
“Seriously? Does anyone believe this shit?” asked Becky.
“Apparently. Every network is reporting the exact same thing. Word—for—word.”
“Really? So unoriginal, broheim. Lazy, lazy.”
“Look, something new.” A couple channels reported the murders of several people who had wandered from their homes past curfew:
“It’s terrible, Natalie.” The monitor showed a couple dozen bodies strewn through a shallow ditch. “These poor folks chose to disregard the curfew and ventured from their homes only to be mercilessly cut down by the slammer swarm.”
“Slammer swarm? Are you kidding me?” Jeff wondered aloud. "Hold on. Zoom in on the dead people, Beck.”
“Already on it.” Becky had zoomed in on a still shot of the dead. “Notice that? Look at their collars.”
“Blue Eagle insignia?”
“Yep. Every one of them. Can’t really see them without magnification. Still, pretty lazy not to have that fixed before it aired.”
“Keep it zoomed and let it run. Let’s see how long it takes for the bots to fix it.”
Becky hit PLAY with the image still zoomed. They watched the blue eagles. After a few seconds, the blue eagles faded away.
“I guess they flew south for midsummer,” said Jeff.
“Holy fuck. What was that? Twenty seconds?”
“Let’s recap, Brother. The slammers are fake, martial law has been declared, and members of the Blue Eagles, the rebel group the government considers its greatest threat, spontaneously decide to wander around outside and get leveled by ‘slammers.’ ”
“They weren’t just murdered. They were executed.”
“Looks like it’s time to fight again. But the stakes are much higher than before. Now we have the One World Government to contend with.”
“I guess we’ll see how committed they really are.”
“We have at least a year’s worth of rations down here. But I wouldn’t count on our farm surviving that long. We need to move out and connect with a larger group for protection and more options. We need to find the Ghosts.”
“The Ghosts? We don’t even know if they’re real.”
“Mom and Dad say they are very real. And that they are the ones we should find if there’s trouble.”
“Speaking of Mom and Dad—”
“No. Nothing. But they won’t contact us if it’s too dangerous. They’re probably fine.”
“I hope so.”
Somewhere Else in Middle America, 14 June 2038
McAllister “Mac” Boomgarten rode shotgun while Bob (who had no last name he was willing to share) did the driving. Bob was a crack IT engineer and surprisingly (at least to Mac) quite a shark at tavern darts. Persephone, a spiritual “liaison” (who also used only one name) rode in back with Sarah Justice, a decorated military veteran and munitions specialist. Seven other vehicles followed them at irregular intervals. Some called them rebel forces, others called them anarchists and criminals. But among those in the underground, they were known only as the Ghosts. It was 2:30 a.m.
Bob believed having Sarah in their command group was a tremendously good idea, as he preferred that people who made things go boom worked on his team rather than the enemy’s. He was not as enthusiastic about Persephone, but Mac trusted her, and truth be told, Bob was the one who advised Mac that having a spiritual liaison in the group was probably better than not, statistically speaking, anyway. He turned slightly toward the back seat. “Where are we going again, Persephone?”
“We are on a quest to find two chosen ones. They are near, and we are getting closer. Our ultimate destination, as I’ve indicated several times, is Castle Valley, Utah.”
“Uh, sorry for asking again. Just wanted to make sure. Our schedule has changed a few times already, so—”
“Fair enough. Although our intermediate and final stop have not changed since we began our journey.”
Whatever, lady. That’s as far as he took that thought. As much as he was skeptical of “spiritual” grifters, Persephone had never seemed the type, and he thought it best to hedge on whether she could read his mind.
They were heading west on East Bremer Avenue in Waverly, Iowa. East Bremer connected with Highway 218 about five miles farther west, which was currently their planned route.
“Slow down, Bob!” shouted Persephone. “Make a left. That street. Third Street Southeast.”
“Are you sure? This is the most direct way to get to 218.”
“We’re not going to 218 any more.”
Bob glanced at Mac, and Mac nodded once, just enough for Bob to catch it. Bob hooked a left onto Third Street Southeast. They passed over the Cedar River on the Third Street Bridge, and its hundred yards of metal grates made the car sound like a freight train. Mac had grown up near a bridge like this, though it hadn’t been nearly as long. As they reached the end of the bridge, Persephone put her index fingers to her forehead and let out an “Ah!”
“What is it?” asked Mac.
“We’re much closer now. Much, much closer. A few minutes away. Just keep driving.”
A half-hour later, they arrived at a farmhouse outside Stanton. Of the other vehicles, six continued on the planned route, while one stayed behind and shadowed Mac’s group. The trailing car’s occupants included Bindy Justice, Sarah Justice’s little sister. They followed the lead car at a distance putting them barely within eyesight but easily within sniper range, as Bindy, a former Navy SEAL, noted with some degree of pleasure.
Nelson Farm, 14 June 2038, 3:05 a.m.
Becky was on sentry duty. The system was completely automated and would sound an alarm if anything untoward was detected, but she, unlike Jeff, had little trust or faith in automated technology, or as she liked to call it, “fucking sadist robot crap.”
On Cam three, she saw four people approaching. “Jeff! Wake up!”
“Oh! Where?” Jeff rubbed his eyes and looked at the bank of computer monitors.
“Cam three. Four bogeys.”
“What are they doing? Why are they just standing there?”
“Maybe they were waiting for you to wake up. How the hell should I know?”
“Hold on a sec. Is that a laser scanner?” Jeff’s question was answered as one of the would-be intruders pointed a gun-like device at the edge of the property and pulled the trigger. Four laser panels lit up bright red for a second or two, then faded.
“Now what?” asked Jeff.
“Less talking, more observing,” advised Becky.
A woman in the group stood slightly apart from the rest, holding a Negev NG-5 machine gun across her body. She pointed toward the storm cellar door, then raised her hand, indicating “two” with her fingers. She tapped on one ear of her headset, then signed three, seven, six, paused, and repeated twice.
“Turn on band three-seven-six,” Becky told Jeff.
“On it, Beck.”
Jeff turned the radio dial and pulled the microphone from the wall. “That laser fence is fully activated and set to ‘kill.’ ”
The woman spoke into her headset. “Nice to meet you, too. Lieutenant Colonel Sarah Justice, US Marines, retired. Yes, we picked up on the lethal nature of your electronic wizardry. That’s why we’d like you to turn it off and let us in.”
“Ah, like vampires. Why should we do that?” Jeff glanced at Becky and said, “Scan their comms.”
“We’re here to rescue you, in a sense.”
“But we don’t need rescuing.”
“OK. I guess we’ll just head along then and let you wait for the drones to start dropping radiation bombs or lighting up the countryside. I know you’re old enough to remember the war. Living in a free zone won’t do shit for you now. As if it ever did.”
Becky turned to Jeff. “Clean, scrambled, no satellites. It’s all local ground. And if someone’s trailing them, they’re not talking.”
“Look,” Sarah continued, “things are about to get nasty. The slammers aren't real, but the sliders are. They'll be coming for everyone this time and won’t stop until you’re dead or working for them. We have more power in numbers, and like I said, it’s not like you have a lot to look forward to here. Besides, my friend Percy says you’re some kind of tech genius and your sister can channel energy or some sort of mystical mumbo-jumbo. Anyway, come with us. We’re on a road trip. We’ll have fun. You can even sit beside me in the car.”
“With the gun pointed at me, I’m sure.”
“Suit yourself, man. No safer place to be than right next to me.”
“Who are you, exactly? And how do you know about us?”
“You know who we are. We are everywhere, and nowhere. At all times, and never. We are the ether. As for how we know, I’ll let Percy fill you in.”
Persephone turned one ear of the headset toward her mouth. “I dreamt it. I saw both of you in a dream. The dragon said I needed to bring you with us to the valley, or the dragons will not come.”
“Say what? Beck, a little help?”
“I heard her. What do you mean, you dreamt it?”
“For several weeks, a dragon has appeared in my dreams. He says the time is nigh, and the sky is dark. Soon the counterfeits will arrive, but they won’t be real. The real danger is on the inside. Then he said to find the chosen ones, then go to the Valley of Blood and Kings to summon the dragons.”
“You guys really need to work on your marketing strategy.”
“Quiet, Jeff. Persephone, does the dragon have a name?”
“Yes. He says his name is Shogun Kyūseishu.”
Jeff thought he saw Becky’s eyes widen a bit. “And how did you know we were here?”
“Kyūseishu told me to channel the chosen ones and follow the path. I focused my mind energy on that, and here we are. I don’t always know exactly how it works; it just comes to me.”
Becky looked at Jeff. “Let’s go with them. I believe her, and we have nothing to lose.”
“Except our lives.”
“Why would they make up some preposterous story when they could just come in here guns a-blazing? And of all the places to ransack, why some little farm in Iowa and its two young adult inhabitants? Fuck if I’m going to die in this cellar. At least I could go down swinging.”
“Beck, I know three things. One, I love you, Sis. Two, arguing about it is a waste of time, because eventually I’ll lose. And three, which you already figured out long ago but wanted me to decide for myself—they’re Ghosts. Let’s go.”
They left the bunker and joined the group. Jeff waited until Becky and Persephone were in the car, then said to Sarah, “Guess I’m stuck with you after all.”
“I love it when you flirt.” Sarah got in, with Jeff close behind.
Castle Valley, Utah, 14 June 2038, Early Evening
The group arrived in Castle Valley with the sun still slicing through the shriveled trees and heating scorpions on hard sand. Perhaps the scorpions understood what the humans did not, that life, despite assurances from all quarters of a “design,” a “plan,” an “overwhelming structure and order,” is nearly entirely random. Life, death, whether you end up with a first-row seat at the movies—these are things largely outside one’s control unless one lives near a really fancy movie theater.
Dragons were real. Most humans did not believe this and never had. The Rebels knew that dragons had once existed and maybe still did. They knew this for one reason—Persephone.
Persephone knew that dragons were real because she had seen them in her dreams. They told her to find them in the valley. And that is how the Ghosts found themselves camped beside a decrepit potash mine in Castle Valley, Utah. Perhaps more because the valley provided the best cover from whatever might come next than from an overriding belief in dragons. But in the end, the result was the same—Ghosts, a valley, and Dragons.
Some were motivated by the fight, others by the will to survive. Some found solace in dreams and truth and the sanctity of a shogun dragon named Kyūseishu. And one member was silently but immovably motivated by his profound love for another. Mac believed in Persephone because he was in love with Persephone. Maybe it would be enough.
They pitched their tents. The sun surrendered to the void but pulsed hot from the parched ground and radiated like an infinite, eternal cosmic thread that connected beast and savior, good and evil, the past and the present.
“Well, Persephone,” Bob asked, “where the hell are your dragons?”
As if on cue, the entrance to the potash mine started to glow, a dull orange that quickly lit up like lava. I should have kept my mouth shut, thought Bob. A roar spun up from the mine like a supersonic jet. The main shaft collapsed, dust filling the sky. As the dust drifted downward, a glowing mass remained, motionless in the sky but not seeming to touch the ground.
More dust cleared, and the image resolved itself. The dragon hovered in the sky, floating without moving his wings or by any other visible means. Everyone in the group could hear him, but he did not speak aloud. “I am Kyūseishu. And these are my friends.” He waved his giant claws and bellowed. A thousand voices, far in the distance, bellowed back.
About the author
I edit STEM books. I like writing, cats, and wine, though not necessarily in that order.
I was raised by wolves in a small forest somewhere in Middle America.
Why don't ketchup bottles squirt correctly? All or nothing seems grifty to me.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Original narrative & well developed characters
Zero grammar & spelling mistakes
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme