A short story by Eric G. Swedin
Handau enjoyed sunning herself while stretched across a small hillock, eyelids half-closed, her wings spread to catch every last particle of sunlight. As a junior member of her clan, only six hundred years old, she got the hardship duty–thirty years patrolling the airless, lifeless void of Luna.
Endless plains of gray dust and rock made life here so boring. Without air, she couldn’t fly, and what’s worse, the lunar dust clung to her scales. She looked like a dragon too aged to groom herself anymore. With no water to wash with, she practiced patience. Only three other dragons patrolled Luna and on those rare occasions when they came across each other, they pretended to not notice each other’s deplorable hygiene.
She spent a lot of time stroking her memories of places where air existed. The thin atmosphere of the red planet made flying a continuous struggle, but the joy of seeing a massive dead volcano from the air or skimming along the biggest canyon in the solar system, riding the rising warm air along the rugged escarpments in the late evening, made the effort worthwhile. Her mother had taken her and her créche siblings to the second planet when they were still young, before their wing tips acquired the hard edges of an adult. Flying through such dense clouds made visibility a problem and only screeching loudly and listening for returning echoes kept her from running into her brothers and sisters. They avoided landing on the surface, since the pressure down there was too strong, even for a dragon. Perhaps the finest place to fly was in the atmospheres of the gas giants, soaring among the multicolored clouds from one dragon city to another, hunting the fat-bellied wildebeests that floated like balloons.
On Luna she had only rocks to eat.
The two-legged ones are coming. They will land on the flat land near the crater named by Jouldau. Follow our plan.
Handau knew the ways of her people from birth, the memories of her ancestors imprinted on her by her mother. Though Jouldau was no ancestor, her great-grandmother had known her, and so the knowledge of the crater was part of Handau. Jouldau had named the crater after herself when she was only forty years old, just on the cusp of becoming full grown, and already embarked on her famous career as an explorer. Even now, Jouldau continued to push the boundaries on a journey that would take centuries among the clouds of ice balls that surrounded the sun, so remote that the sun appeared merely as the brightest star.
Pulling her wings in, Handau stood up on all four legs and stretched, holding her leg muscles rigid and letting out little puffs of smoke from her nostrils. The slowly burning cauldron in her chest stoked itself, warming her muscles and limbering her up. She flexed her talons, enjoying the feeling of digging into the dirt. Finally having something to do, other than inventing silly games that she played with abandon, or trolling through memories, made her feel positively giddy.
She bent down and took a mouthful of gritty dust, shaking her head to make the pebbles slide down into her belly. Not the best diet, but it was enough; still, she yearned for the taste of real flesh, even a sand grub from the red planet.
Her destination lay many leagues towards the south, so she bounced forward, firmly thrusting with all four legs, propelling herself up and away. About ten body lengths later, she gently came back down onto the lunar surface. Landing neatly, she maintained her momentum up by thrusting with all four legs again. In this manner, she bounded across the landscape, making good time.
After many leagues, she paused to rest, the scales on her chest glowing from her caldron. As was her habit, she looked up at the blue and white ball hanging in the sky. It was one of the few things that changed during her time on Luna, waxing and waning over the course of the month. The white clouds changed shapes in ways that endlessly fascinated Handau. She particularly liked it when a great storm bestirred itself into a giant vortex and swept across the ocean until it hit land and spilled into scattered clouds.
That world was the original home of dragons, the source of many of her ancestral memories, but thousands of years ago, the land, sea, and air grew too crowded with too many clans. Emperor dragons had preferred the high atmosphere, flying for months at time when not sleeping in their mountain fastnesses. The yellow rock dragons chose the path of repeated dwarfism in their breeding, until they were no larger than a coyote, and just as dumb. The feral swamp dragons bred like mammals, lacking self-control and spreading everywhere, provoking the other dragon clans to band together to cut down on their numbers in awful hunting expeditions. Cave dragons burrowed through the ground and ocean dragons fought with strange denizens of the deep. Life on the home world had teamed with such a up a wonderful variety of dragon clans.
Then the two-legged critters came along, with their fire, their chattering talk, and their industrious hands. The two-legged critters liked to make things, tools and machines that gave them more power; not like the dragon folk, who needed no machines. When dragons wanted to do something different, they thought about it, and their next egg contained a new kind of dragon. That was how space dragons had been born.
The longer she sat still and looked at the blue world, the more the slits in her eyes narrowed into sharper focus, until she could see the cities of the two-legged critters. Memories from other dragons reminded her that the cities had grown rapidly in just the last couple of hundred of years and were often now obscured by brown smudges, caused by the fires inside the machines.
All the dragons on the home world had either been killed or driven into deep hibernation. Only the space dragons flourished. Now the two-legged critters had made machines that could leave their planet. Some of the machines had recently arrived on Luna, descending on a torch of flames, landing on four spindly legs with wide circular pads for feet. These machines didn’t have two-legged critters in them, but they had machine eyes that looked about and relayed what they saw back to their masters on the blue planet. Handau and the other three dragons in her patrol had been told to avoid them.
Now the Grand Council had changed the rules and so Handau resumed bounding across the lunar landscape.
With hatches closed and seals checked, the lunar lander Eagle broke away. From the outside, their new home looked like an awkward four-legged spider. Limited bursts of thrusters moved the two spacecraft apart. For a moment, the only sound came from cabin fans pushing the air through the scrubbers, then the voice of a controller from Houston interrupted with instructions.
The lander controls were strictly utilitarian, with switches, gauges, and levers all in gray metal, fastened together by numerous screws and rivets. A row of indicator lights at Armstrong’s left shoulder showed all systems performing correctly.
The men passed into the shadow of the moon, blocking both the sun and Earth from view. Now stars were visible outside their two small windows. When the sun reappeared, its brightness drowned out the starlight and they only saw blackness.
Coming out of the shadow of the moon, the two astronauts found their radio contact with Earth turning patchy. The three-second lag when talking was bad enough without chancy communications. Without a good link, Houston might call off the landing. More than anything, the two men wanted that landing to happen, even if the risks became insanely high. One of the astronauts back at mission control suggested that the Eagle yaw slightly to the right to get a better angle. The radio signal came in clearly.
The men spoke rarely, concentrating on their mission, rehearsed so many times in simulators on Earth that they moved with the familiarity of muscle memory.
The computer turned on the descent engine. At first, the rocket ran so gently that only moving dials on a meter showed that the liquid fuel was being properly mixed and burning. After a few minutes, the rocket added more thrust, sending a vibration though the cabin. The lander was flying with the men facing upwards, their windows framing Earth, as the engine continued to slow them down.
At 40,000 feet, the landing radar began to feed information into the computer. The little brain did its math and regularly fired the maneuvering jets. Armstrong felt apprehension at how often the jets nudged the lander back and forth, much more than when they had used the simulator.
An alarm went off. The computer flashed an error code. Rapid consultation with experts back at Houston found that the computer was trying to juggle too many calculations at once. The computer stopped complaining and Houston decided not to abort.
At 7,500 feet, the computer pitched the lander upright, so that the men were looking down through their windows at the Sea of Tranquility as they flew past, named hundreds of years ago when the lava flows looked like the surface of a gentle sea in a weak telescope. Craters flickered past. The landing had been timed so that sun was only ten degrees above the horizon, casting long shadows and making it easier to see the terrain below–especially any boulders that might topple the spider as it landed.
Armstrong took control of the lander from the computer for a moment, test firing the maneuvering thrusters, making sure that he would be in charge when the final moments came, a decision beyond the capability of simple electronics.
Capcom back in Houston gave the final word. “You are Go for landing.”
The lander slowed even more, with the computer regularly buzzing its complaint about working too hard. Armstrong leaned forward, and saw that they were heading straight for a small crater surrounded by a field of boulders, only a thousand feet below them. Going too fast to stop before the crater, Armstrong overrode the computer, tilted the lander, and passed by the boulders.
Aldrin stood at the computer keyboard, crisply reciting altitude, descent speed, and forward speed, all in feet. “Three hundred ten, down to two, fifty forward. Three hundred, down to one and a half, forty-six forward.”
Armstrong shared control of the lander with the computer, anxiously looking for a clear space to land. Capcom said nothing, knowing that they no longer had any way to influence the outcome.
It was all up to Armstrong.
He moved a bit to the left, careful to not build up too much horizontal speed. Too many boulders just waiting to kill them.
“How’s the fuel?” he asked.
“Eight percent,” Aldrin replied, not having to add that they had never run that low in any simulation.
Down to one hundred feet, only ninety seconds of fuel left, and finally a smooth place beyond a crater. The DESCENT QTY light glowed its objection to the dwindling fuel.
Armstrong fixed his vision on a single point, to judge when he had killed all forward velocity. Not doing so might mean the lander tipping over when they touched down, like a child stumbling onto her face, and there was no one to help them right the spacecraft if that happened. The rocket under their feet disturbed the lunar dust, making it hard for Armstrong to keep his eye on his reference point. He switched his focus to a rock above the blowing dust.
Sixty seconds of fuel.
The lander stopped moving forward and began to drift backwards, frustrating its pilot. Only twenty feet left. Dust became a storm below them.
Armstrong carefully settled the lander into the dust.
“Contact light,” Aldrin said, failing to keep the surprise out of his voice. The probe on the bottom of one of the landing pads had reported contact with the ground. The landing had been so smooth that the men failed to feel it through their boots.
Armstrong stabbed the ENGINE STOP button. “Shutdown.”
Only twenty seconds of fuel left.
“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,” Armstrong reported.
The flight plan now called for a four-hour nap, but that certainly wasn’t going to happen. The men put on their moon suits, double-checked their hoses and seals, vented the oxygen from their cabin so that they now shared to vacuum of the lunar surface, and opened the hatch.
A little past six hours after landing, Armstrong exited the cabin, and slowly backed down the ladder to the lunar surface. He had already memorized the words that would make him immortal.
Reaching the bottom rung, he hopped onto the moon and turned around.
“Oh, crap, a dragon!”
There was another two-legged critter inside the machine that had just landed. She scratched at the surface, pulling off a bowl-shaped object, but leaving only streaks on the metal shell. This was a challenge like cracking open one of the hard shelled fish on the largest moon of the ringed planet. The fish swam in an ocean under a mantle of ice, and hunting them took great skill, wiggling through the water like water dragons of long ago. Rising on her hind legs, Handau pushed with her forelimbs and toppled the machine over onto its side.
The first rock that she found crumbled when she used it to pummel on the machine. The second rock proved much sturdier and she pounded on different parts of the machine, making dents, but not breaking through. She found a place where she could look inside the machine and see that the other two-legged critter was doing something with his hands. She pounded this metal that she could look through and it cracked on the second blow. A third blow and she had a hole in the machine.
Sticking her forelimb through the hole, she swept around with her talon until she found some soft stuff. She dug at it with her finger for a few moments then decided that the other two-legged critter was dead too. It was hard to believe that such squishy creatures, so weak and pathetic, had driven her cousins into extinction on the home world.
She looked up at the blue and white world above and grunted with satisfaction.
That would teach the two-legged critters a lesson. When they looked at Luna, they would say: “There be dragons.”
(Previously published in Abandoned Towers Magazine.)
Posted: 31 August 2013