“Are you a hunter, Brother?”
This is the fourth time in as many days that Carmichael has been asked this. He supposes its a reasonable question – hunting is the only reason that a sane man visits these wind-blasted steppes.
The old shepherd does not wait for Carmichael’s answer. He raises his staff, making animated gestures as he yells, “I can guide you! I can take you hunting. I know this place very well, Brother, and I charge cheap.”
Carmichael shakes his head, raising his own voice above the shrieking winds. “I’m not a hunter. I’m just passing through.”
“Where are you headed? I can still guide.”
“I don’t thinks so.” Carmichael sighs. “I’m headed to Asgard.”
The old man slumps, visibly dejected. “Asgard!” he cries. “What do you hope to find up there?”
“Dragons,” Carmichael says, shaking his head. “I’m looking for dragons.”
Carmichael speaks of Dracobatis, the enigmatic Edenite predators that early settlers took to calling dragons, but the look the shepherd gives him tells him that he may as well be looking for the fire-breathing sort. For a long time, the only noise is the gentle bleating of sheep, and the perpetual howl of the wind as it whips across the endless plain, tracing silvery patterns in the ultramarine grass
“The dragons are gone, Brother,” he says at last. “Been that way for decades.”
He’s not the first person to tell Carmichael this. Neither is he the second, nor the fiftieth for that matter. People have been telling him this for fifteen years. Carmichael responds as he always has. He gives a weary shrug and walks on, leaving the shepherd and his flock behind.
The story goes that Dracobatis all but vanished within thirty days of humanity’s arrival on the planet. Isolated reports persisted for the next decade, and by the time Carmichael was born, they had been declared extinct for nearly a decade more.
But fifteen years ago, in a remote corner of Asgard, Carmichael watched as an animated sheet of the sky dropped to the earth and plucked a stiltrat from the ground like a mouse. It was fifteen meters from tip to tail, pitch black, and dotted with a thousand stars. He did not see much more in that instant of shadowy movement, but it was enough to know what he had seen. Dracobatis imperator – Eden’s long lost apex predator. It was not a near-eagle or a scorpion bat, like others suggested. It was not a shadow or a hallucination. It was a dragon.
Carmichael does not care that few believe him. He has seen ten thousand scorpion bats and spent half a decade studying near-eagles, and it was neither.This is his fourteenth expedition to these mountains. Fourteen journeys with nothing.
Carmichael’s leg aches with every step. His expedition three years ago cost him two fingers on his right hand and part of his kneecap. He recovered, though he never regained full use of the joint. This trip will be his last. With his injuries, he does not have the strength to come here again.
As he walks, his body lulls into a numbness born of exhaustion and cold. His mind falls numb too, as hour after hour, under a featureless gray sky, he crosses an endless plain of aquamarine grass as flat and featureless as any ocean. The only landmarks on the whole of the plain are a handful of lonely sod houses, the occasional flock of sheep, and of course, the towering peaks of the Asgards on the horizon, jagged and snow-peaked, never seeming to come any closer no matter how long Carmichael walks. Yet they do draw nearer, however imperceptibly, until fifteen days later they loom in front of him. The altitude rise leaves Carmichael out of breath even walking, and a raging headache plagues his oxygen-starved brain. Carmichael rests for a day and goes to sleep bundled in insulated clothing, mentally preparing himself for another day of grueling cold and exhaustion.
He wakes weary and aching. The wind has reached a deafening howl, and the temperature has dropped nearly thirty degrees. He rises in the predawn dark and siphons off a tiny portion of his precious fuel to warm his hands in the pale yellow light of his mountaineers lamp. Squatting in the dark tent with the fabric walls snapping around him he gulps down scalding hot tea, more for the warmth than the caffeine. For breakfast, he chokes down crushed noodles dry and frozen. He massages the sensation back into his fingers and toes, holding them to the lamp until the yellow light sputters out and it is time to go.
He steps out of his tent and has just enough time to process the mile-high wall of yellow dust rushing across the plains, and then it is upon him, engulfing him in a tidal wave of sand. Carmichael’s own scream is lost in the banshee shriek of the wind. He drops faced own into the frozen grass, clutching the ground with one hand, shielding his face with the other, as the wind shrieks past, bearing with it a storm of harsh, alkaline dust that cuts across his skin like sandpaper, filling his throat, his nose, his ears. His tent is torn out of the ground. All he can do is lie there, barely able to breathe, and wait for the sandstorm to end.
It takes him four days to recover. He finds the tangled remnants of his tent strewn across the plain, two, three, six miles away, and painstakingly repairs what he can. To his relief, he finds his gun, his only defense against hungry predators. He recovers perhaps half of his fuel, a third of his food. He does not ever see his video camera, GPS, altimeter, camera traps, or journals again.
Four days later, wearier than he has ever been, Carmichael rises before dawn once more and heads for Asgard. He will not be able to stay for as long as he had hoped, but he cannot turn back now. He tightens his grip on the barrel of his gun, painfully cold as it is. He has been called insane more times than he can count. And as Carmichael stands on that sand-blasted plain, shivering to his bones, he resolves to be the first to study the body of a dragon.
He will only have a few precious days to examine it, to answer a few of the ten thousand questions left unanswered when the dragons vanished. What are they, for one? They don’t fit anywhere into the framework of zoological classification on Eden. What do they eat? How do they drink? And of course: how in hell do they get off the ground? Unless they have the density of styrofoam, it should be physically impossible for something so large to fly, more so on Eden’s 1.5 Gs of gravity – and they don’t just fly, they dance in the sky.
Carmichael climbs through the loneliest environment of an already desolate world. Gone are the sheep and sod houses. Here there are only frozen jumbles of rock half hidden in fog and the occasional hunting guillotine-crest, lean, hungry, prowling through the rocks like liquid. Carmichael keeps his gun in hand. Guillotine-crests have a taste for man. The air here is even thinner than the steppes below, and Carmichael’s headache fades away, leaving only a perpetual haze of drowsiness and blurred vision that somehow is even worse. The cold is a constant companion, stabbing like knives into his fingers and toes. His lungs burn every waking moment, yet Asgard lies far above, where the air is colder and thinner still.
Carmichael tries to distract himself from the pain by constructing a thousand hypotheses about how exactly dragons might fly. Perhaps they contain hydrogen and float like balloons. Perhaps they propel themselves with gases, like aeroplanes. Perhaps something else, unimagined. It is out there still. It must be. One last dragon, soaring alone over Asgard. It is okay, he tells himself, if he does not find it. He is only a mortal man; if he goes on, he will soon be a dead man. But still, he sits there, shivering in his bed of snow, refusing to get up and turn around. At last he stands, planting his exhausted legs under him, and climbs once more.
Three days later, frostbitten, shivering, starving, a half-dead Carmichael drags himself up three hundred meters of knife-edge ridge to the edge of the top of the world. He stares up at the weak, pale sun, set high in an empty, robin’s-egg blue sky. Below him, the Sea of Clouds stretches out for miles, broken only by the jagged peaks of the other Asgards. He has four days, he estimates, taking stock of his remaining supplies. Then, he must go or die here.
Four days later, he is nearly out of food, even lower on fuel. He is coughing, half-delirious with cold, two of his remaining fingers black with frost. He has not slept, not once, in these four days. Every hour of every icy day and every frigid night he has spent perched on the rocks at the summit, oblivious to wind and snow and cold. Watching. Waiting. Staring down at the empty sea of clouds below with unblinking gray eyes, waiting for movement. A hundred and one hours, in total, staring into this sea of gray, convinced that in one more hour, one more day, his dragon would return. One hundred and one hours of empty skies. It is time to turn back. Yet still Carmichael sits, his gloves all but frozen to the stock of his gun. Waiting for dragons or waiting for death, whichever comes first.
He loses all stock of time. Night falls. He wakes, perhaps hours later, and berates himself for falling asleep. Morning comes again with a pale, wan sun poking above the western horizon of the Sea of Clouds. Carmichael waits.
It appears without warning.
The clouds below part like water, and suddenly, the dragon is there, cruising low over the clouds like an angular shadow. It pulls up sharply, scattering the clouds in wisps of mist, and blasts skywards, pirouetting with all the elegance of a dancer. Up and up it goes, unbelievably high, until it is nothing but a speck in the endless blue. And then it falls, its long, sleek wings tucked as it accelerates, faster and faster. Carmichael sees the vapor cone form first, and then, half a second later, he hears the crack of a sonic boom as it breaks the sound barrier.
“There you are,” Carmichael whispers, as a shiver runs down his spine. He recalls that first day, when the dragon came rushing out of the sky above his head. It was only a glimpse then. A shadow. But now, a decade and a half later, here it is, in all its sleek, predatory glory. Breathtaking. Breathtakingly, stunningly beautiful. He feels a slow smile spread across his face. The icy sting below his eyes, he realizes, are tears freezing on his cheeks.
This time, she comes so close that Carmichael flinches backward to avoid the trailing edge of a long, sickle-shaped wing. He tracks the dragon with the barrel of his gun as it spirals out once more.
She is the last, and even dragons die of old age. Killing this one will make no difference.
Pull the trigger, he thinks. Show them that they are all wrong.
The dragon screeches, skimming the clouds. Drinking, he realizes. Sucking moisture from the air.
He lowers the gun as the dragon performs one last sweeping circle and shoots downward back into the clouds. This time, it does not reemerge.
Carmichael shoulders his rifle and begins his long journey home. He navigates three hundred meters of wind-blasted, knife-edge ridge, until he stands on the edge of the Sea of Clouds. Just inches down the slope, the clouds lap at his feet, as thick as water, an impenetrable ocean of gray. Above, the vast and empty sky stretches, brilliant blue. Carmichael stops there for just a few seconds and scans the Sea of Clouds one last time for some hint of motion, but of course, the sky is empty once more.
Carmichael smiles as he steps into the mist and out of the world of dragons.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.