Quantum Dragon Sci-fi/fantasy hybrid ~ 6,000 Words

“If I don’t get out of here, most of the population of the Earth will be sacrificed.” ‘Sacrifice’ is the word FUS Corporation would use anyway, as if their death had purpose or glory. Why won’t anyone listen to me? There is glory in life, not in death.

If I had known I would be saying those words in less than twenty-four hours, I wouldn’t be taking so long with my hair this morning.

I didn’t know though, so I emptied the rest of the jar of hair gel into my short grey hair. I would have gotten a haircut if the chief financial officer had given me more than a couple hours’ warning that he was visiting the laboratory. He would be here any minute now. That man gave me the creeps. He always looked around with his damp fish-eyes as though he was mentally assigning a dollar value to every tool, article of clothing, and person he saw. When he stared at me I felt that number wasn’t very high.

I looked anxiously in the bathroom mirror one last time. My suit and tie were fitted and clean. The white lab coat over them was white and spotless. My glasses didn’t quite conceal how tired my eyes were, but there was no fixing that. Did I always have that many wrinkles? I certainly didn’t match my ID badge anymore, but that photograph was taken almost twenty years ago when I started working for FUS Corp.

“What good news do you have for me, Dr. Martin?”

I shuddered. “Coming, Mr. Hankers.”

I opened the bathroom door. He was already in my office, sitting in my swivel chair, his fat hands folded demurely in his lap. It was the only chair.

“How is your little vanity project coming along?” Mr. Hankers asked. Was he sneering, or was that just his face?

“I would hardly call it a vanity project, sir. The implications of harvesting undersea currents to generate energy could revolutionize–”

“Will it be done in a month?” I studied his face, looking for clues as to whether his stupidity was a jest. His sagging jowls gave nothing away.

“I see you haven’t read my reports,” I responded flatly.

“Oh, I have. Another year of the virtual model testing, then a deep sea expedition scheduled in 2064, with construction crews able to begin by 2066 at the earliest. A very time consuming and expensive project–you have made that very clear.”

“Then, with all due respect, why would you think it could be done in–”

“Because a month is all the time we have left,” he cut in. I hated being interrupted, especially by someone suffering from an illusion of superiority.

He leaned back in my chair with the satisfied air of a chess player declaring ‘check’. It would be worth losing the chair if he broke it and fell.

“Are you trying to cut my project?” I asked.

“Oh, excuse me. When I said ‘we’ I didn’t mean your laboratory, or even FUS Corp, for that matter. I meant ‘we’ as in the human race. We have about a month left.”

He smiled, as though the satisfaction of shocking me outweighed the discomfort of the human race being extinguished.

“I don’t follow,” I said.

“Of course you don’t. You scientists are always so focused on the little picture you lose sight of what’s really going on. Are you familiar with fusion reactors?”

“How could I not? FUS Corp wouldn’t exist without them. I helped design the very first model in Chicago before I began this project,” I replied. “Power plants replicating the model of the sun which utilize fusion to convert hydrogen into helium and harness the energy produced to–”

“Skipping the mumbo jumbo,” Mr. Hankers jumped in, “it seems that the energy we’ve been producing has not been as stable as anticipated. In fact, it’s deteriorating so quickly now that we don’t even have time to dispose of it before it implodes. Seventeen people were killed in Turkey last night, and this is only the beginning.”

“That’s impossible.” I leaned against the wall. Air stubbornly refused to enter my lungs. “Have the rest of the fusion reactors been deactivated?”

“They will continue to run until meltdown.”

“How is meltdown even occurring?” My mind was racing through my years of study with the fusion process. “The only unstable step is when the radiation begins to dissipate, but the containment chambers should be completely impenetrable–” I swallowed hard as realization dawned on me. “The containment chambers were installed, weren’t they?” I added, dreading the response. “I did read that suggestion, yes–”

“The containment chambers were not a suggestion.” It was my turn to interrupt him.

Mr. Hankers picked at his fingernails in a dispassionate gesture before continuing.

“I read your suggestion,” he repeated, “and weighed the potential dangers against the cost of installment. It was unanimously agreed by the board that the risk was acceptable in non-essential countries. The point is, experts in the field have decided we have less than a month before reactors all over the world begin going critical through an oversight that no one is responsible for.” “If you want forgiveness, you should be asking God, not me.”

“Forgiveness? Goodness no, what a defeatist attitude that is. I came to tell you that your area of study is going to change immediately. The fusion reactors are only a single division in the FUS Corporation, and while this one is suffering, it will be the salvation of our new colonization efforts.” “The space program? How could that possibly be related–”

“People have been afraid to go into space for as long as they’ve looked up at the stars at night. You have no idea how many times I’ve been laughed at for proposing large-scale expeditions. In fact, FUS Corporation is the only company to have invested sufficient capital to have the capabilities of a mass exodus from our world. All that was required to conquer fear is an even greater fear: and that has come in the form of a global catastrophe.”

“Please stop talking.” My fists were clenched. I couldn’t look at him.

“But I haven’t gotten to the best part!” Mr. Hankers chuckled. “A life raft is only valuable when a leak appears in the boat. Here is where you come in, Dr. Martin. I need you to convert your virtual model system from underwater to our proposed Mars colony. You can input your environmental conditions or whatever you do, and show that the colony is perfectly safe. As one fear grows and the other diminishes, our shuttles will be the clear choice for anyone who is able to afford them.”

“And those who can’t?”

I really should learn not to ask questions I didn’t want answered.

Mr. Hankers smiled and stood up. “We are a business, Dr. Martin. Our responsibility is only to our potential clients. Have the virtual Mars colony ready by the end of the week.”

I should have punched him. I should have screamed. I should have thrown myself from the building and given up. What’s the point in saving a species that creates individuals like him? But if I gave up now I wouldn’t be killing him; I would be killing everyone else. Whatever I did, he would survive. His type always did.

I hung my head and didn’t meet his probing eyes. Out of the corner of my vision I saw him lift a hand to shake mine. My fists did not unclench. He waited for a second, then shrugged. I heard the sound of my chair being pushed back, and the footfalls of his metal-shod dress shoes clipping out of my office. I sank into my chair, closed my eyes, and wished for sleep that would not come.

After all, I had never been a man of action.

I opened my eyes.

I was never the one to force a man to his knees, even when he deserved it.

I clicked on the virtual modeling system on my computer.

I was only a man of thought, and there was work to be done.

When I was a child I read stories about heroes. They would strap on their steel and swing upon a horse and do battle against villains. I always thought that could have been me, if only I had come face to face with a villain. But the world had been filled with petty evils and frustrations and misdirections, and somewhere along the way I stopped believing in good and evil. All I had ever known was the practical and the impractical. And now, for the first time in my life I was confronted with naked evil–and I bowed to it.

But I would never be a knight.

And I would never wield a sword.

My fingers trembled over the keyboard. I wiped my damp eyes and created a blank world. I opened a website with information on the environmental statistics of Mars.

And I would never slay a Dragon.

But I was looking into a virtual world where I created the rules, so why not become the Dragon? He needed me, and that gave me power. There was work to be done, but it wouldn’t be for Mr. Hankers.

I locked my door and worked while the world silently mourned around me. One by one I heard knocks upon the door as my employees asked to leave for the evening. My eyes were fixed upon the screen, and I neither moved nor made a sound. One by one the lights died out through the rest of the building. My lights burned through the oppressing night that willed me to succumb. By the morning my eyes were fire and my fingers ached into talons. My back was curved and splitting with pain. My feet were clawed as my toes clenched the ground in restless energy.

I felt like the Dragon that stared back at me from my monitor. A virtual virus; given life by my life, will by my will, and fire by my fire. I was a man of thought, but I had created a beast of action. It appeared as a golden serpent with long white whiskers trailing from its face. Its eyes were as old as time, and its body was strong and lithe. It swam through light in my virtual world as a fish swims through water, and cascading reflections poured off it in waves as it writhed. Two great wings raked the Mars skyline and lifted it into flight, and claws like swords cut into the red soil from its four mighty legs.

I entered the last few lines of code while the morning light grew strong. Below the finished programming I named my creation.

Aranai, my Dragon. Destroy the destroyer, and save us from ourselves.

Aranai would infect the system computers of each and every fusion reactor and force them to shut down. There wouldn’t be any more casualties from our corporation’s greed. All it would take to cool their fire was a little fire of my own. I couldn’t wait to see Mr. Hankers’ face when he finds out that no one will be fleeing in his shuttles. As the numbing pressure of my weariness closed in around me, I let myself drift off to sleep. The last thing I saw was the sight of my Dragon lifting into the sky and departing into cyberspace.

“Wake up, you’re coming with us.”

I slowly opened my eyes, but I didn’t startle. One jumps when they awaken from a bad dream, but I woke into one. The sun was high above my window, and I squinted against the power of nature that mocked our attempts to duplicate it.

Four armed security guards were standing around me. They were wearing FUS Corp ID badges. I never knew we issued semi-automatics to our staff. If the security was already here then Mr. Hankers must have already traced my virus back to me. There was no use denying the proudest moment of my life.

“How is Aranai doing? What has my Dragon been up to while I slept?” I mumbled.

One of the guards grabbed hold of my shoulder and pulled me to my feet. I rubbed my bleary eyes and looked at him. His grip was iron, and his face was carved from stone. I knew that punishment would follow my crime, but I didn’t know what that meant. I’ve never done anything wrong or stood up for anything right before in my life.

“Sam! I know you,” I said. “You’ve always been a reasonable man. You must understand what I’ve done, don’t you?”

He spat on the floor and gave me a shove.

“You created a monster,” he said.

“It only looks like a Dragon for dramatic effect.” I flinched more from his words than the pain of the impact.

“Dramatic effect? Maybe I was wrong. Maybe you’re the monster.”

I looked to the faces of the other guards. I knew those looks! That sneer of disgust, that simmering boil of anger; they looked at me the way I had looked at Mr. Hankers last night.

“I was only doing what I thought was right!” I said louder, pulling away from them.

Powerful hands landed on my shoulders which were already stooped from weariness, and I did not resist any longer. They treated me as though I were fighting tooth and claw however, and pushed me roughly down each step out of my office.

There! Out in the hallway. Members of my research team were standing outside their offices and cubicles looking at me. Men and women I’ve treated with dignity for years. They wouldn’t let this happen to me, would they?

Were they sneering at the guards? Then why were they looking at me?

Why was I suddenly afraid to meet their gaze?

A deafening clamor rise from their throats as I emerged. I lifted my head proudly. At least they would see I was accepting my punishment with dignity. They would know I was a martyr, sacrificing myself to save the rest of my people.

Something heavy slammed into my left temple. A stapler fell to the floor beside me. My dizzy head throbbed as though my own body were reprimanding me. A dozen other objects began flying through the air, and the security bent me over double to hurry me out from the building. Those sneers, those shouts; they had been at me. I would have hung my head now even if there weren’t objects flying at it.

I was rushed from the laboratory into an armored van waiting outside. Here I was bodily lifted and hurled onto the floor in the back. Sam and one of the other guards climbed in with me to sit on two benches that lined the walls. I lay where I was thrown on the steel floor between them. The doors were slammed shut from the inside.

“I’ll admit, I didn’t think you had it in you.”

God damn it. Not him.

“Mr. Hankers? What’s going on?”

I was on my hands and knees on the steel floor. A pair of gleaming, metal-shod dress shoes were grinning at me. Mr. Hankers was sitting on one of the benches against the wall of the van.

“He already admitted to releasing the Dragon,” Sam said. “Don’t let him pretend he doesn’t know.”

“His name is Aranai, and yes, I created him,” I said.

I began pushing myself to my feet, but a boot caught me square in the ribs and I collapsed onto the floor heaving.

“Sure you know its name,” the other guard growled. “What about the people in Chicago? Or Dallas? Or God-damned Australia? Do you know all of their names too?”

“What on Earth are you talking about?”

“Thank you, let me handle it from here,” Mr. Hankers said. “Go up front and leave me with the doctor.”

“Are you sure, sir? He’s a dangerous man.”

Mr. Hankers laughed. “His Dragon is, but he isn’t. Go, I’ll be fine.”

The two guards exited through the rear of the van, closing the door behind them. I scrambled to put my back against a wall so I could face Mr. Hankers directly. The wall lurched as we began to move, but I didn’t surrender my position this time.

“Didn’t think you had it in you,” Mr. Hankers repeated. “Who knew that fire could burn in such an insignificant mouse of a man?”

“What the hell is going on?” The thought of hurting the fat creature leering over me flitted through my mind, but then again, I never was a man of action.

“Your Dragon attacked every fusion reactor on the globe. Whatever you programmed it with, it bypassed our security systems overnight. Each and every core has gone critical with a blast radius of almost four miles.”

“A blast radius … was I too late? They were supposed to have been shut down!”

“They were–for a few seconds,” Mr. Hankers replied. “Apparently it was the same story in every location. All the system computers crashed and the reactors went offline. Then a Dragon appeared on the blank screens, roaring some kind of cryptic message, and the meltdowns initiated.”

“What message?” I asked. I did my best to keep my voice steady, but my fingers trembled where the clenched the cold steel beneath me.

“I will destroy the destroyer, and save you from yourselves,” Mr. Hankers said. He looked at me sternly for a moment before shrugging. “I assume this was some petty personal thing for re-prioritizing your undersea project? I’ll admit that our time frame has been a bit skewed, but it hasn’t changed the essence of our business plan. Power, water, and transportation services have been disrupted globally. Enough casualties have been generated to cause mass panic, and our space shuttles are ready to begin populating the new colony. I suppose I should thank you for giving us a scapegoat.”

“That’s not–I didn’t intend–that wasn’t me!” My tongue flopped meekly in my dry mouth. I didn’t care about convincing Mr. Hankers. I needed to convince myself. The weight of all that hatred from the guards and my staff couldn’t have been created by a simple computer virus. Had I flung myself too recklessly into the battle between good and evil? Had I become what I had sought to destroy?

Mr. Hankers simply shrugged again. God I hated that shrug. Wasn’t anything sacred to that man?

The next voice to speak didn’t belong to either of us. It was slow and deep as though the Earth itself were speaking. Each syllable was uttered with such perfect grace and serenity that its word was command without escape, as sure and unquestionable as the laws of physics.

“You are correct. It was I who breathed fire last night.” The voice was coming from Mr. Hankers pocket. For the first time a look of fleeting terror crossed his face, and in spite of myself I grinned to see it. He reached into his pocket and slowly withdrew his cell phone. The screen was black but for the swaying head of my Dragon.

“You gave me form, and asked that I save you from yourselves. You have built towers to pierce my sky, and cut into my Earth so deeply I bleed metal. You have burned my forests, and poisoned my air, and somewhere along the way you have forgotten that you need me more than I need you.”

“Did you create–” Mr. Hankers stammered.

“Yes! I mean, no–did I?” I asked.

“You created a vessel for my fire, but the fire already existed,” came the deep voice from the phone. “You gave my fury a path, but it is I who walked it.”

“This is some trick,” Mr. Hankers said. “I know you’re a hacker, Dr. Martin. You hacked my phone’s operating system too, didn’t you? What is this, some sort of escape plan?”

I didn’t pay him any attention. I knew what my virus was capable of. I wrote every line of its code. This was beyond my creation.

“What are you then?” I asked.

“You have named me Aranai, so that is who I am. I have walked the Earth as a shadow before man lit his first light. I flew over the world as it slept before man ventured into the sky. Now I live inside your machines, built to hide from the natural world that gave you life. You called me Dragon, and that is what I am: a forgotten force of nature left over from the old world. The destruction last night is only the beginning of my purge.”

“But you can’t destroy–don’t do this–” How could I tell it to stop? It felt as futile as telling the world to stop turning or asking the sun to bow before its time.

“I will destroy the destroyer. I will save the Earth from man.”

“But who will save man from the Earth?” I asked.

No answer came. Mr. Hankers had continued to grow more pale and fearful as Aranai spoke. He clutched the phone desperately to his chest with white-knuckled fingers like a drowning man holding onto a life-raft. He was trembling so badly now that he could barely hold onto it and threw the phone on the floor to stomp it with his metal-shod heel. The screen was crushed and the voice fell silent. Mr. Hankers and I stared at one another, but neither spoke. I saw him half-form a dozen words, but no sound came out. He sneered and twisted his heel over the fragmented phone.

“All of that in one night? Or have you been preparing this trick for a while now?”

The van slammed to a stop. I tumbled over, and Mr. Hankers toppled out of his seat. The sound of passing sirens infiltrated my steel coffin. Then there were doors slamming, and pounding feet. The back of the van was thrown open, and Sam the guard stood there wide-eyed.

“What is this nonsense?” Mr. Hankers snapped. “I said don’t stop until we’ve reached the shuttle bays.”

“You’d better see this,” Sam said. He looked frozen in shock, as though he would have said more if he could believe what his own mind was telling him.

Mr. Hankers clambered out. I followed him, and Sam didn’t stop me. Wasn’t he worried I’d make a run for it? As soon as I stepped outside, that thought was banished. There wouldn’t be anywhere to run to. Aranai was everywhere. Electronic billboards flashed with his image. His voice was speaking from every car stereo, every cell phone, and every headset. The pounding of his wings filled the air in every direction, and the howl of his roar echoed on every street. It was a cry of sadness, and remorse, and bewildered incomprehension; a mother holding her dead son.

The chaos intensified.

Fire hydrants burst in rhythmic explosions to the pulse of that strangled howl. Electrical wires whipped free of their housings to launch waves of sparks into the air. Screeching crashes echoed from the nearby subway entrance followed closely by great tongues of flame. And then he appeared.

I couldn’t have created that.

A burst of fire filled the air and lingered like an explosion moving in slow motion. The omnipresent cacophony of beating wings resolved itself into a single direction to draw my gaze. A flurry of movement, and then golden talons sank into the stone balcony of a nearby restaurant. Light flowed around them and up the shimmering body of the spirit. Long teeth filtered the polluted city air. And those eyes! They stared right at me now, shining with infinite wisdom, and age, and a sorrow that could not be contained within a single creature.

My Dragon sat no more than a hundred feet away. It stood about a story tall, with wings stretching several bus lengths. Aranai, in the flesh and blood, looked into my eyes.

“In the van, now! We’re moving!” Mr. Hankers barked orders.

Sam gazed in blank dumbfounded amazement at the creature. Mr. Hankers gave him a shove and he toppled face first into the ground, completely taken by surprise. The guard leapt back to his feet and scurried back into the driver’s seat. I took a few hesitant steps towards my Dragon, but Mr. Hankers grabbed me by the back of my now-wrinkled lab coat and hurled me into the van with him. I was too dazed to resist. The door was slammed, and the engine kicked back into life.

No one spoke as the van hurtled down the road. The sound of Aranai’s howl echoed through the car stereo up front a couple more times. I heard pounding as they tried to shut it off. It howled again, and I heard a gunshot. There was some cursing, and the howling stopped. Stubborn minutes of noisy silence lasted forever. What could be said in the face of a crumbling world?

The doors were flung wide when we arrived. A series of massive aircraft hangers housed the FUS Corporation headquarters and the colonization project. There were ten-foot concrete walls surrounding the perimeter, although they looked insignificant compared to the force that lay beyond. Barbed wire crowned the concrete: needles jabbing vainly at the empty sky.

“I want the municipal police forces delaying that monster–”

“Dragon,” I corrected.

“What?” Mr. Hankers was spitting fury.

“It’s a Dragon, not a monster.”

I would at least enjoy this part. The sight of such destruction made me sick, but there was something liberating about my complete helplessness. Watching him act as scared as I felt gave me courage. Mr. Hankers scowled and turned away.

“Get the governor on the phone, and tell him to mobilize the National Guard and bring them here. If our power sources are becoming unstable, we have to secure the shuttles and depart before that monster arrives. You two–whatever your names are–get every manually powered electrical generator you can find and bring them into the compound.”

“Destroy the destroyer …” I mused. “All of our technology, all of our civilization, hasn’t that been the story of our salvation? Are those gadgets and conveniences all that separates us from animals?”

“Someone get that doctor inside and lock him up,” Mr. Hankers said, flying spittle accompanying his words. “You there–get a hold of the nearest power plant. Find the radius around that creature where things go to hell.”

A couple of hands grabbed me and I slouched into their grip without resisting. I was never a man of action, and whether or not I moved now wouldn’t alter the path of destruction I had initiated. I looked into the eyes of one of the guards. Cold determination. Fear. Anger. Sadness. Didn’t he know that my Dragon was born to be his savior? Didn’t it matter that my intentions were good?

There was no understanding the Dragon’s wrath from any individual’s point of view. There weren’t many of us who had a real hand in the destruction our progress had caused. Was there guilt in simply enjoying the benefit our advance has given us? Were the ones who ate stolen food as guilty as the one who stole it?

No. There could be no justification for what Aranai was doing. And yet when he spoke I felt the world speaking. How can the world be stopped? How can the world be reasoned with?

The security hauled me through the building lobby. So much marble. So many velvet drapes and crystal chandeliers. My mind couldn’t process whether the height of man’s achievement was beautiful or decadent. A hallway came and passed, and I was stopped in front of a blank steel door. One of the guards punched a series of numbers into an adjacent keypad and the door swung open. FUS Corporation didn’t have jail cells–right?

Inside rows of vacuums and cleaning supplies greeted me. Janitor closet. I was shoved inside and the door closed. I heard a buzzing-click, and complete darkness descended over me except for the sliver of light that mocked me from beneath the door. I let my back press against the cold metal and slowly sank to my knees.

Is that it? Are Mr. Hanker’s favorite lackeys going to board a shuttle and leave Earth behind? Have we destroyed the Earth so thoroughly that it’s easier to start over than fix? Or will we find a way to stop the last guardian of Earth? Even if Aranai was stopped, FUS Corporation will just continue their plan. They’d use the Dragon as a scapegoat, and make sure the rest of the planet was unlivable to drive up business for their colonization. The Earth is to be destroyed and abandoned either way.

There had to be another option. The Dragon seemed to have taken my words to heart. Somehow that primordial spirit had latched onto my shout in the darkness and become an avatar for my words.

Aranai, my Dragon. Destroy the destroyer, and save us from ourselves. How would I approach this problem if it were just another obstacle in my research?

My heart skipped a beat. Occam’s Razor. The simplest explanation is usually right. The Dragon is living by my words, but those words can mean more than simple destruction. I stood and began banging on the steel door with my hand. I felt each individual bone rattle as they fought against the unsympathetic barrier. I hit it again and again, daring myself against the pain to be louder each time. I tried yelling.

“If I don’t get out of here, most of the population of the Earth will be sacrificed.” Silence and the echo of my fists joined together to laugh.

I pressed my face to the floor and tried to peer under the crack in the door. There wasn’t even a flickering shadow to indicate anyone stood on the other side. When the Dragon arrived, I was going to die alone.
While no one responded to my shouts, a voice did penetrate my desperate cell. It rolled as deep as the ocean across the intercom.

“Run, my children. Run and play with your toys. They are hewn from my Earth and given life by my spark. They have only one master, and he is not you.” My Dragon. An odd surge of pride and regret filled my chest. I slammed my fist against the door and felt something break in my hand. I didn’t care. I hit it again and again until my fingers became wet with blood. I slammed my shoulder near the handle where the lock was. I have designed some of the most sophisticated equipment the world has seen. I’ve looked into the heart of an atom and understood the subtlest secrets of nature.

Now a locked door, the simplest piece of engineering in the world, has defeated me.

“When the forest has grown too thick, a fire will clear the ground. The ashes will make fertile soil, and life will begin again,” boomed the voice on the intercom. “Do not despair that it is your turn to make space for spring’s next bloom.”

My tiny sliver of light that snuck beneath the door was extinguished. My heart tightened in my chest as perfect blackness descended around me. Aranai must have unpowered the building. There was nothing left to stop him. I slumped in defeat once more, leaning my back against the cool steel to rest my bloody hands. Click.

The door swung open behind me and I toppled into the dim hallway. The digital lock must have lost power with the building! I gingerly pushed myself up with my elbows to spare my throbbing hands and sped down the hallway I had come.
Big greasy black clouds of smoke poured past me. I lifted my coat over my nose, squinted my eyes, and stormed through it. It didn’t take an engineer to know that where there’s smoke, there’s likely to be a Dragon.

“Walls will not stop me. They are carved from my bone. Bullets will not harm me. They are drops of my blood. The factories that made them have hurt me enough. Lie still!”

The intercom speakers rattled with their volume, but I heard a truer source of the sound. Aranai was close. The smoke was beginning to lift, and I was able to find a door leading in the direction of the voice. I staggered through it, and found the air immediately clear.

I stood in the massive shuttle hanger. Several dozen bulbous vessels were perched awkwardly on spindly metal frames. The ceiling was a dome so high that clouds drifted through the open skylights. Beside the skylight a gaping hole had been savagely torn through the roof. Below the hole stood several rows of armed guards with their guns raised. Before them stood my Dragon.

He reared beside the overturned shuttle with his four legs planted firmly on the ground. His claws dug into the concrete floor where they rested. His long neck was curved gracefully over his body to stare proudly down at the men facing him.

“Aranai!” I screamed to be heard over the clamor of panic and shorn metal. “Stop this!”

Aranai turned his head toward me. Light poured over him and washed the floor around me.

“Destroy the destroyer, and save us from ourselves,” he responded. “You cannot have one without the other.”

“Man isn’t the destroyer,” I said back. I didn’t have to yell this time. Every eye was on me.

Steam and billowing flame slithered from Aranai’s nostrils. He snorted in derision.

“Man cuts me,” the Dragon drawled in a slow and dangerous growl. “He disrespects me. You–more than most, little one–have seen how man destroys himself. He must be stopped before his self-destruction spreads to us all.”

“Yes, we destroy ourselves,” I replied. “But we don’t do it in the name of a destroyer. We are creators from the first. We seek to understand the world and to change it, to make it better.”

“Does it seem better to you now? Did it seem better to you when your reactors were burning chasms into the Earth?”

“No,” I smiled sadly. “Somewhere along the way we reversed the order of our progress. We became so excited with our power to change the world that we didn’t stop to ask ourselves whether we should. Our power to change has increased faster than our understanding, and that has been our destruction. When you are weeping for the damage we have done, you must know that there are those of us who wept with you. That is why you were born. You were born to slow our progress and give understanding a chance to catch up with it. And that is exactly what you have done.”

“I am purging the planet,” the Dragon said. “I will remove both the power to change and the capacity to understand.”

“But you are a lesson, and we are learning,” I pressed. “Yes, it is easier to change than to understand, but it is a thousand times harder to destroy understanding than it is to destroy change. You may break our homes and our tools and our lives, but the knowledge that these things have passed will never be destroyed. Our destroyer is the difference between our knowledge and our power, and you have destroyed him already. We have learned from you, and you have saved us from ourselves.”

The Dragon paused in thought. He reached out one long claw and, with an ease that defied the incredible size of the fallen shuttle, he set it back upon its framework. I now saw that Mr. Hankers was sitting within, coated in a thick blanket of broken glass and fuming anger.

“Has your understanding caught up with your power, little one?” Aranai asked.

Mr. Hankers didn’t look as sure anymore. His fine suit was torn. His face was bleeding from a thousand small cuts. His hair was almost as frayed and wild as his eyes.

“Shoot it! What on Earth are you all waiting for? Shoot that creature!” Mr. Hankers bellowed before ducking back behind the control panel of the shuttle.

The Dragon’s claw folded around Mr. Hankers and the shuttle alike. It crumpled like a soda can. Guns were raised higher, but no shots rang out.

“His understanding did not increase, and so I decreased his power to change. If this balance is maintained, then I will concede that my duty has been fulfilled,” snorted the Dragon. “I have done much damage already. Will you really still choose understanding over rebuilding your way of life?”

“It doesn’t have to be a choice,” I said. “The unstable fusion reactors have already been destroyed. After the damage they have caused, the people will not allow them to be rebuilt. I already have designs for a project that will harness the ocean currents for energy. If we are to rebuild our way of life, we will do so only through understanding.”

The Dragon bowed its head in acknowledgement. A jump, and then one, two, three beats from its powerful wings, and it was already at the ceiling. Light scattered from its scales and bathed everyone watching. As the Dragon disappeared into the sky, the speaker system crackled to life one last time.

“If you do not forget the curse I have brought, then I will not have been a curse. Move with care, my children. I will be watching.”

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