ENTERING UNMAPPED AREA
Here Be Dragons.
The alert flickered on the screen, green over black, accompanied by a sprite of a long-necked, serpentine creature with two wings.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed movement: Lieutenant Tom Kitts turned his head to look at me, lips pressed together to suppress a smile. He must have expected some kind of reaction from me, since after a moment of silence his face took on a disappointed expression, and he typed a command to remove the alert from the screen.
I waited for a few moments, hoping he might want to explain himself. That didn’t happen, so I had no choice but to ask:
“What was that, Kitts?”
“Uh.” His eyes were already focused on the data running across his screens. “We left the mapped sector.”
“The other message.”
No response. I let out a silent sigh and asked, resigned:
“Is that an Earthborn thing?”
The silence took on an even more awkward tone. Even without looking, I could see him confirming my guess with a small nod.
The ability to perceive reactions without seeing them was one of the many weird talents you developed after countless hours of watches in the navigation chamber, where you were supposed to always be looking at the screens, and never at each other. Just now, Kitts broke that rule to watch my reaction to a weird message. I supposed it must have been important to him for some reason.
“It’s a joke from Earth,” he admitted, his voice miserable. “It’s simple - I thought you’d get it.”
I nearly rolled my eyes.
Kitts is fine, all things considered. Among the few other human crew on the Prism, he’s not the worst choice for a long shift together: he can hold a conversation, he’s quite responsible, and his humor doesn’t get much worse than, apparently, hacking the interface to display obscure jokes.
The only real problem with Kitts is that he’s one of those Earthborn.
Despite the fact that the Scattering happened ages ago, some Earth folk still think that all humans are the same - that everyone who looks like them, also thinks like them.
I was born in Colony Six on Cetri. There were only a couple of other human families in the entire settlement, and I wasn’t very close with any of them. I spent my childhood with friends who were tripedal and got their energy from the sun, and I’m pretty sure the things we got up to were different from whatever Kitts did for fun back on Earth, but good luck trying to explain that to him.
In that moment, keeping silent would guarantee that the rest of my watch would be peaceful and quiet, my partner too miserable to talk. I considered the possibility and decided I had better plans for the next two hours.
That meant I would have to cheer Kitts up.
“Alright,” I said. “So what’s dragons?”
“I really can’t believe that you’re asking me.”
Appalled as he was, I could hear excitement beginning to creep into his voice. The only thing Kitts loved as much as his home planet was talking about his home planet; the more ignorance I would show, the happier he would be.
I saw-without-seeing his posture straightening a little bit as he prepared his lecture on the wonders of Planet Earth.
“Is that an animal?” I tried my luck.
“Not really,” Kitts said. “They’re mythological creatures.”
“What do they do?”
“Anything you want, basically. Different cultures described completely different dragons. I grew up with the version that looks like a giant, awesome reptile with wings, but some dragons look more like lions - ” he hesitated. “Wait. Do you know what lions are?”
“...Four-legged carnivore with a mane?”
“Good enough,” he said, relieved. I might have missed a fascinating lecture about “lions”, but I was already invested in dragons. “So some are like lions, and there are sea dragons, and they can be good or evil or - ”
“But they do have something in common?”
“Yes - they’re dragons.” A rustle of fabric against the back of a chair: Kitts shrugged. “There’s no shared form to them. I think the idea is what’s important: a dragon is a powerful and often mysterious creature. It represents something beyond our capability; a human who bested a dragon, or befriended one, becomes more than a human.”
I thought about that for a moment.
“You know,” I said, “That’s surprising.”
“I thought Earthborn don’t like the idea of things that are beyond them.”
Something about my words made him laugh.
“Is that the reputation we have? Oh, no. Giselle - when we’re done with dragons, remind me to tell you about God.”
The word was faintly familiar; I remembered hearing it from the captain, a stern-faced Earthborn with silver lines in his dark beard. Like Kitts, he said it in a way that suggested it was meaningful, using the third accent of the Intergalactic Code - although Kitts used positive third, while the captain used neutral third.
That could be an interesting conversation; I made a mental note to ask Kitts about “God” the next time I need to distract him from something else.
“Sure,” I said. “So… dragons?”
“Dragons,” Kitts agreed. From his voice I could hear that he was still smiling. “With all the power and the mystery, dragons are a good symbol for danger, or for the unknown. There are ancient stories of sea serpents who sank ships, and, while it’s controversial, I also consider them to be dragons. It’s said that when Earth wasn’t fully mapped yet and maps were drawn on paper by hand, cartographers would draw dragons in areas that were dangerous or unexplored.” He stopped for a moment, thinking about something. “That’s what the phrase ‘Here Be Dragons’ references. I think there’s also a map, or a globe, something like that - that actually has the phrase hic sunt dracones, or ‘Here are dragons’, in Latin. It’s an ancient Earth language that - ”
“I know about Latin.”
The sound I heard next was almost definitely Kitts banging his head on the back of his chair.
“You know about Latin and you don’t know about dragons?”
“I took a class on Earth mathematics once. They also told us about Greek and Arabic. Didn’t mention any dragons, though.”
The navigation chamber fell into silence again. My attention, which was split between the conversation and the screens until this moment, returned fully to the data in front of me. For a couple of minutes now, our sensors have been tracking a foreign object above us - probably an asteroid or a piece of debris. These were the top two options in the list of interpretations the system suggested to me, but in the last few seconds, the option “Spacecraft” began a steady climb up the list.
“Kitts,” I said, watching the interpretation creep into the top five, “Show me Camera 8.”
The camera I requested was facing the direction the Prism interpreted as “up”. The transmission was mostly black empty space with scattered bright dots, but in the corner of the screen there was something else: a bright shape enveloped in white mist, cut into a triangle by the camera’s field of view. It wasn’t moving, which meant the foreign object was traveling at our speed.
“Is that a glitch in the corner?” Kitts said.
“The sensors think it’s a ship. Look at Camera 9.”
Just as I finished the sentence, a new wave rippled through the list of interpretations. The probability score of every option except for “Empty space” went to zero. I looked at the readings; the sensors weren’t detecting the object anymore. It was gone.
“I don’t see anything,” Kitts said after a moment. I looked; Camera 9 wasn’t showing anything except for the Prism’s rear, and the bright triangle was gone from Camera 8.
“The sensors don’t, either. Maybe they jumped,” I said, without much confidence. I didn’t like the idea of another ship evading our cameras; our blind area was too small for them to stumble into it accidentally. Besides, except for scouts like the Prism, there weren’t supposed to be any ships in this area.
I reached for the comms to report the incident to the captain.
“It still could be a glitch,” Kitts said. The end of his sentence was swallowed by a sudden uproar of alarms, as if every single sensor on the ship was tripped at once.
I switched the comms on; not the captain’s private channel, as I intended to do originally, but the public channel.
“Code Three; vessel under attack. I repeat, Code Three; vessel under attack.”
Just as I repeated the announcement, another tremor shook the chamber and my hand slid off the button.
I knew that later, if I was asked to justify my decision, there would be no arguments in my favor, and Kitts could confirm that. By the data we’ve seen, I should have declared Code Two, contact with foreign object. The thought worried me for exactly two seconds - and then I managed to focus my eyes on the data again, which confirmed, in full certainty, that something has landed on the surface of our ship.
With a considerable delay, the navigation chamber’s stabilizing mechanism kicked in, which would prevent us from shaking with the rest of the Prism’s body as the encounter went on.
I pulled my seat closer to the terminal. Kitts has already cleared all of the surveillance data from my screens, and pulled up an interface showing the attacker’s position in relation to us. The rest of my screens were filled with information about our movement vector.
I was typing before a coherent thought could form in my mind. In regards to getting us from Point A to Point B, the systems would do most of the thinking for me; my job, as a pilot, was to set their priorities.
“Pull up all of the top cameras,” I commanded. “We need to identify the craft.”
Kitts obeyed silently. We were of the same rank, but in the navigation chamber, the pilot always had seniority.
“It landed between cameras,” he said a moment later. “We can only see the edges. Bright surface, maybe metallic. The shape is unclear.”
“Life signs? Crew?”
“Faint signs of life. No crew visible.”
Through the entire exchange, the systems were hard at work calculating our new movement vector. The first few seconds were always slow, but we were getting there.
The Prism dropped straight down, as if someone had suddenly turned gravity on. On my screen, I could see the distance between us and the other ship increasing rapidly.
I changed our vector again, sending us flying forward; a group of processes I’ve left off to the side prepared the engine for the sudden change, so this time there was no delay in the execution.
“Kitts, all cameras back! Look at all the rear sensors, analyze its movement - ”
“Yasoira!” another voice rang out in the navigation chamber, growling at me through the comms. “What are you doing to my ship?”
“We’re evading, Captain,” I reported.
“We’re finding out, Captain.”
“Find out faster!”
The comms fell silent, and, for a moment, the horrible idea that I was wrong crept back into my brain.
It’s then that Kitts made a weird, choked-up sound, and said:
“Giselle - uh, Pilot - ”
“It’s after us.”
I could see that myself. The graphic interface showed the other ship following us on the three-dimensional grid representing our surroundings, closing the distance at an alarming speed. In a voice that was still shaking a little, Kitts reported the analysis results: it was smaller and faster than us, and, from the trajectory it has chosen, its pilot’s intent was to ram us. Our maneuverability was good enough to get out of their way in the last moment, but if their maneuverability was good, too, we wouldn’t be able to shake them off at close range. I got the sense that my drop only worked because it took them by surprise.
If we wanted to get away, this was the time.
I started typing.
“Kitts, comms - give me the captain.”
Off to the side, I heard the button click.
“Captain,” I said. “Lieutenant Giselle Yasoira, permission to jump.”
“Negative,” the captain’s voice came through, sharp, but not as menacing as before. “Not with this beast on our tail.”
There must have been something truly impressive about the pursuing ship, but the captain’s refusal concerned me more. Still, I had to follow the orders I was given.
The next move required all of my concentration. I intended to dodge the other ship at the last moment and fall back, making us chase them rather than the other way around. Since most ships aren’t very good at moving backwards, they’d have to choose between wasting time on a turn, opening fire, or fleeing: all much better options for us than colliding with them.
Another voice came through on the comms; not human this time, the rustling tones of Cetri well audible in their speech.
“Pilot, artillery captain Miu Dengak speaking. Are we jumping?”
“Negative; we’ll try to avoid collision.”
“We won’t make it,” Kitts said. “It’s going to latch on.”
“I agree with Kitts,” Miu said. “I suggest we let the weapons handle it.”
I watched the data. To me, it seemed that there was still space for a maneuver, but there was a reason I wasn’t sitting in the navigation chamber alone. Kitts saw things I couldn’t afford to look for; there was no time to ask him to elaborate. I decided to trust him.
“We’re keeping straight.”
I cancelled the maneuver computations and put all of our resources into speed.
In the soundproof navigation chamber, we didn’t hear the weapons fire. Kitts, who was watching through the cameras, described to me what was happening. Almost all of the shots from the first volley missed, and only made our opponent more determined to close the distance. I wondered why they didn’t fire back.
At this point, collision was inevitable; with the little time and resources left for maneuvering, all I could do was tilt the Prism to meet the other ship at an angle, preventing a head-on collision that our shields wouldn’t be able to handle. Our protective field took the brunt of the blow; the attacker was skidding on it, trying to break through. They were able to pierce the field in a couple of spots (my screens confirmed that), but damage to the hull was minimal: some scratches and a few cameras lost. It was a small price to pay for stripping our opponent of momentum.
Then, the second volley came in; Miu’s team did better on this one, and it was enough to send the attackers running. They fled in the direction they came from.
Shortly after, the captain gave an order to jump. Our destination was in a mapped section, close to one of the Fleet’s bases.
After the jump. I relinquished control over our movement vector, allowing the navigation systems to take over once more.
Returning to the base shortened the time of our watch by more than an hour. We paid for that with a violent encounter, but I wasn’t going to complain.
Only when I finally leaned back, my eyes burning from staring at screens, did I remember the captain’s comment about the other ship. What was so impressive about it?
“Kitts, did we recognize that other craft?”
His answer was preceded with a longer silence than I expected.
“What craft?” Kitts asked.
I had to physically turn and look at him to make sure I didn’t imagine that.
“What craft? Where were you for the last five minutes?”
He stared at me. We were incredibly lucky that nobody walked in right then; neither of us were looking at the screens.
“You mean the dragon,” Kitts said.
And just like that, all of the little weird things about the encounter suddenly had an explanation. The captain calling it a “beast”; how the attacker never returned fire; the captain’s refusal to jump. If an organic creature latched on to the outer hull or even just got too close before we jumped, the consequences would have been unpredictable.
To confirm this version of events, I needed only to glance at Kitts’ screens. Some of them were still showing the last moments of transmission from the destroyed cameras, and there I could see, from several angles and in different poses, the beast.
The creature had a long, scaled body, with the neck and the tail making up about two thirds of the length. It reminded me, weirdly, of the creatures that lived in the deep lake outside of Colony Six - except for the silver scales, the triangular head and the taloned limbs, which differed from the smooth, dark skin, round heads and flat flippers I sometimes saw on the shore.
It had wings as well, or something that looked like wings, since in open space they couldn’t be used for flight. The main suspects for the means by which it propelled itself were the spiky growths all over its body; in several shots, I could see bursts of white steam escaping from them, probably some sort of gas released under high pressure. Those growths could be seen on the limbs, on the torso and even on its “wings”, which maybe were used for defense or maneuvering.
But what drew my attention the most were the eyes. Small, round and milky, they were barely visible from most cameras, except for Camera 21, the last one to break. The dragon didn’t crush it under its body like the other cameras; it has already managed to stop itself by the time the camera was in reach. The last few seconds of transmission showed the triangular head leaning towards the camera, and the empty-looking eyes staring straight at it for a moment, before the creature opened its mouth, and in a mess of teeth and blue tongue and dark throat, the transmission stopped.
Maybe I’ve imagined that, but it seemed to me that there was a strange intelligence in that one moment of staring, as if the creature, which was fighting the Prism with blind stubbornness until then, suddenly understood something about the nature of its opponent. I wondered if it really was the second volley that made the dragon leave.
I forced myself to stop looking at the recording and lean back again, watching my screens, where a steady stream of data indicated the Prism’s recovery from the sudden burst of activity.
“Well,” I said into the silence that ensued, “Congratulations, Kitts. You were right: here are dragons.”
Kitts let out a short, forced laugh. I imagined he was more shaken by the discovery than I was.
The rest of our watch was spent in silence, accompanied by the dragon’s visage on the screen, which Kitts cleared only when the command came in to prepare for landing.