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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Chapter 8 - Ding, Dong, the Dragon's Dead!

Hey, look - there's a dead dragon strewn across the woods.   That's pretty disgusting.  Not to mention the smell.  Oh, yeah...these things really are the size of an airliner, in case you were wondering.

8 – Ding, Dong, the Dragon's Dead!  (And, yes, he smells bad, too!)

                The dragon’s head was the size and shape of a Volkswagen Beetle.  It sprouted from the serpentine sequoia neck with the menacing angles of a Gila monster – the long line of the lips wrapped all the way around the pointed face, and the thick, fleshy folds of scales around the neck couldn’t hide the knotted cords of muscles.  Even with the lower jaw imbedded in the mud, the dragon’s teeth came up as high as Jonathan’s knee – the teeth themselves were huge, each on as long and as jagged a beer bottle broken at the neck.  The canines were larger still – nearly as long as his forearms, and bigger around at the base than his thighs.  And the eyes – the eyes were as big around as used tires.  And now they stared out blankly, like the slimy black pupils of a dead fish.
                Jonathan leaned in for a better look, careful not to touch the sagging ridges of the jowls.  He could make out his reflection in the slick of the cornea – behind, staring at the pupil was like peering into the yawning depths of a cave.   A cave framed by the foot-wide hoop of a golden iris.
                Farther on, past the neck that came up to Jonathan’s hips, the bulk of the beast rose like a small hill.  If not for the smeared lumps of entrails strewn out from the creature’s belly, it could have been a monument planted in the landscape, like that life-sized T-Rex model looking out over the highway out in Texas.  And then there was the matter of the wings.  The near wing lay flat across the ground – he couldn’t be sure, but Jonathan guessed it was at least as long and as wide as the wing from a C-130.  He swallowed, gauging the size of the thing.  He could even imagine where someone might have attached propellers and extra fuel tanks.  He hadn’t been airborne for long enough for more than a few jumps, but he knew the size of a cargo plane.  The body of the beast was narrower than the planes he had jumped out of, but the neck and the tail added enough length that the creature could have easily taken on fully-laden aircraft – size-wise, at least, maybe even pound-for-pound.
                Jonathan stepped around the steaming ring of entrails.  The grass sagged under the gobs of coagulating blood.  The smell alone was enough to keep him back.  It was an oppressive fume that consisted partly of skunk, carcass, and  the mustardy-vinegar smell of scorched piss.  And intestines – for what else could the twisting line of muscular sack really be? – were thick and coiled like pale duffle bags lumped end-on-end.  In places where the entrails had popped open from the force of impact, the innards hissed with steam, even in this heat – he couldn’t imagine how hot that made the dragon itself.  Had it been running a fever?  Or was the slow hiss some kind of acid eating through the ground?  He was afraid to guess – there was no way in hell he’d touch it to find out.
                Digging around in his pockets, he found his Rite in the Rain notebook.  Grimacing at the thought of wasting a sheet of the waterproofed paper, he tore off a fresh leaf, twirled it into a narrow straw, and stabbed it into a patch of the brownish goo pooled around a torn sack of offal.  He half expected the paper to curl and melt.  But nothing happened.  The paper dampened to a dark shit-brown around the edges, but the waxy surface itself simply held the goo as a thick droplet on the surface.  Bringing the stuff just a touch closer to his face for a careful sniff made him even more nauseous than he already was.  Giving up the idea of taking samples, he held the curled paper out as far over the lumps of blood and viscera as he could and dropped it in, having never once removed his gloves.
                If the smell or the steaming bothered the girl, she showed no sign.  Her sneakers were already stained pink-and-brown from where she had squished through the mess, taking time only to hold up her abaya as she sidestepped the thickest lumps.  She took hold of the curved toe-talon emerging from the leading edge of the wing and hoisted herself up onto the leathery surface.  Jonathan watched her as she made her way up the slope of the wing to the ridged spine.  She turned her head to take in the dragon from head-to-tail, as if she was looking for something.  He couldn’t imagine what that might be.  The creature, so far as he could tell, was completely dead.  Unless she wanted to pull out one of the teeth for a souvenir or maybe cut into the gullet for the branching limbs of a wishbone, there was nothing to claim.  And yet she seemed so intent.
                He almost called her down off the dragon.  But there was no point – the thing was dead.  And someone, he figured, would want to know.  Hell, if Hollywood was right about the world, the Pentagon no doubt already had a specific office established for the sole purpose of combating large avian lizards.  it would be only a matter of time before men in dark suits driving black Escalades would pull up, explain to him that he’d seen nothing, and then set to work loading the carcass onto flatbed trucks for covert disposal.
                The very thought gave him a chuckle.  But then he remembered Grimes being sucked from the turret.  And then there was Higgins – what the fuck had happened to him?  Was it the sight of the flames alone that had burned him like that?  Jonathan rubbed his own face, wishing he could get that image of bloody tears pooling from the man’s sockets – but then he winced in pain.  Reaching up again to his cheek – gingerly, this time – he made out an uneven curl of sunburn curving down the left of his lower jaw.  But he hadn’t been in the sun – not that long, he hadn’t.  And then he looked down at his sleeve – his right sleeve, the one he had held up to shield his face from the glare.  Under the damp from the water and the mud, there was a line from where the fabric had faded from desert tan camo to the worn dull beige of a uniform that needed to be DX’d.  It was as he had left the underside of his sleeve turned up to the desert sun for a year.  But then, the whole front of his uniform looked like that.  Staring down at himself, he seemed less like a soldier and more like a ghost – except, of course, where the shadow of the two-four-nine was imprinted on the front of his chest in a strip of darker – albeit dusty – fabric.
                Seeing that, he rubbed his eyes.  What the fuck was going on?  Then he hit on the thought of Hiroshima, of the shadows of people left as streaks of ash on the ground.  That wasn’t a good thought – not a good thought at all.  He still felt queasy from being thrown to the ground and the vinegar-piss stench – was that all it was?  Or was there more to that flame than heat?  Would he start dissolving in his own stomach acid like that guy from Fat Man and Little Boy?  He suddenly had images of John Cusack swelling and bleeding from the inside out for the three days it took for radiation poisoning to kill a man.  Not good.
                He had to snap himself out of it. This was war.  People died.  Even if  some of the pink stains on the beer-bottle-shard teeth were probably leftovers from Grimes.  No, he didn’t need to think about that.  He didn’t need to think about bits of Grimes being caught below the gum line, like those bits of Easter ham that get caught between your teeth until you pluck them out with dental floss.
                No.  That wasn’t helping.  He had to focus.  There were dead people.  And there were the injured.  Higgins was alive.  Hirsh would be commanding a clean-up.  Wherever the hell the dragon had flung him, he had to get back to his unit.  They’d be waiting for him.  Maybe even looking for him.
                Thinking about that, though, made him realize just what they’d be thinking.  The last person to see him was Captain Hirsh.  And the captain had watched him charging off toward the jaws that came up higher than his knees.  Yeah, if they were looking for him, it was only because they expected to find pieces of him lodged somewhere along the thirty-odd feet of the creature’s throat.
                On the plus side, the Army would notify his parents in no time.  They’d probably list him as “missing in action” rather than “killed in action.”  So long as the dragon’s corpse was missing, he figured they wouldn’t do anything too rash.  Nothing to attract CNN or Al-Jazeera, at any rate.
                Somehow, none of those thoughts reassured him much.

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