Winds of Aerathiea

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Chapter 48: The Way Home

Liam didn’t see which crew member saw them first, but he pointed to an area of the sky. “There they are. Incoming at nine o’clock- lots of them.” Liam quickly counted and lost track after fifteen.

“Everyone spread out. Don’t let them get us all with one pass.”

The dragons drew closer and began to circle the ship. Even though the ship completely outclassed them, the dragons were still magnificent to look at. Mostly black, their scales had markings like snakes or lizards. There was a mixture of different species that appeared to resent each other’s presence. If the earlier encounter with a dragon was any indication, these dragons were probably younger. They were between twenty and thirty feet long, but some of them probably peaked at a little over forty feet.

Their scales were iridescent. Some reflected blue, some red and some green. Some had spots and some had stripes. At the moment, they were largely ignoring the humans in the funny little suits. They seemed to be more worried about each other. They began to posture and intimidate each other. Two of them dropped down to the deck, landed and began to circle and feint to each other. One of them rushed the other and hit the other one broadside, knocking him down. They rolled, a flurry of wings, fire, and scales. To Liam, it looked like one of the fights between rival gangs, back home on Clover Street.

Many of the other dragons were starting to get bolder and began touching down on the surface of the ship. Liam looked around and asked through the commlink, “Jules, how many now?”

Jules replied, “There are over seventeen in the local environment. There are some trying to find a perch or balance or whatever dragons do on the lower side as well.”

“Well, have bravo team keep track. Everyone, no hostile moves while they are not damaging the ship. If they are just posturing, let them. Every minute we delay is another few miles closer to home.”

Every one of the twenty-five people that made up alpha team circled around to get behind the dragons on the ground. This was exactly like watching one of those old 3D movies about fighting dinosaurs.

Over the commlink, someone said, “Anyone else get the idea we’ve seen this before?”

Another crewman replied, “Yeah, I think I saw this on PBS a few times.”

There were now about a dozen dragons physically on the ship and Liam could see three full-tilt fights going. It was starting to get warm. Suddenly, one of the men that near the back of one of the smaller dragons got whacked with its tail as it postured against a much larger, darker dragon. The crewmember hit the dragon with the business end of the electric spear. Lighting erupted from the contact with the dragon. The suits were well protected from electricity as well, but apparently the dragons were not. The smaller dragon was more surprised than hurt, but he took to the sky and whirled around to face his new opponent.

Finding nothing there other than a queer-looking little man, the dragon turned back to his first opponent. He should have never broken his concentration. The larger dragon was on him in a heartbeat and the younger one rolled, barely missing the crewmember which sunk his electrified spear deep into an area of the underbelly of the dragon between two of it scales. The spear must have unloaded its full charge into the dragon. Liam knew better, but he could swear he smelled bacon. Dragon was officially on the menu. However, the other dragons noticed it too.

All the dragons stopped fighting. There was a long, pregnant pause as they sized up their new aggressors. Liam could swear on that day he heard a sharp tinny grinding sound that started to reverberate all around them. It permeated the air and chilled them to the bone. At the time, he didn’t know if it was a call to arms or just the screech of a wild animal. Later, he would discover it was laughter.

The dragons surged forward. Two of them took a deep breath and suddenly the entire area was engulfed in fire. Thankfully, the suits held. They were made from a form of aerogel that could withstand a welding torch point blank. The men moved forward. Liam was among the ones that had the electrified spears. They got in a couple of good hits before the dragons realized they could simply take flight to avoid the stingers. They flew around a little disorganized for a couple of minutes and then regrouped into the behavior Liam had witnessed before.

“Incoming” yelled Liam. The dragons swept in with that powerful surge of dragon fire and strafed the ground where the men were. “Spread back out men, don’t give them only one target!” Liam looked to the left and saw Zak line up on one with an RPG of some kind. He fired and the dragon swerved. The concussion knocked him backwards, but it also tore the wing of the dragon, breaking one of its powerful arms. The dragon careened sideways and his momentum carried him sliding across the surface of the deck and off the side. The scream was distinctly different as the dragon disappeared out of view, on fire and falling in a death spiral to a pin prick below. A cheer went up.

Jules interrupted the brief celebration. He said, “There are a number of these creatures trying to gain access at the other end of the ship.

“We’ll be right there, Jules.” It was very hard to see what was going on through all the fire and smoke, but Liam thought he could see a group once again trying to gain access through one of the observation windows. “Ethan and Zak, to me.”

“On our way!” Zak had to reload, but Ethan was charged, primed and ready for action. He had one of those smart weapons that fired a 30mm grenade right into the midst of the dragons. The blast blew about five of them back and apparently injured one, but the five just flew out of range and regrouped. They had obviously played this game before. Zak had reloaded and tracked a pair of the creatures and let his RPG fly where the dragons appeared to land. The explosive round struck one on the side and it stumbled off but was replaced by three more.

“Jules, this is getting us nowhere. How long until we begin our descent?”

“Even if we cut some corners, it will be an hour before we reach the point of descent.”

“An hour? Dammit, we aren’t going to last half that time. How many people have we lost?”

Jules replied. “There are two from your company that aren’t reporting in. Either their transponders are broken or they are gone. There are currently three from Bravo Company not reporting.”

Liam thought to himself. Five good men. Five people have given their lives for this. Liam didn’t know the rules anymore. This was too much for one person. Selfishly he had to know. “Who were they, Jules?”

“Jake Cramer, James Knight, Nathan Marke, Martin De Paul and Joyce Richards.” Most of them he didn’t know. He was sure he would have liked to, though. They just gave their lives to get the rest of us home, he thought to himself.

“Give me some options, Jules. If we retreat into the ship how long can we hold on against their assault?”

“Maybe twenty minutes. These creatures seem to know exactly what they are doing. This is not their first battle. I’m sure it’s not their first airship either, but I’m very hopeful that this is their toughest challenge.”

“Me too, Jules, me too. So, if they breach in twenty minutes, is there anything we can do to get them off of us before we descend? We can’t take all of them with us. Can you imagine a group of these creatures loose on earth? Dragons over New York?”

“I see your point, Liam. There is a possibility, but you aren’t going to like it.”

Liam listened to the plan. Jules was right. He didn’t like it. It was possibly the worst plan he had ever heard, but dammit, five people had died so far. What choice did they have? “Ok. Patch me into Sydney and Zak. They aren’t going to like this either...” Zak was experiencing the same fight and agreed with Liam. Sydney listened to them and consigned himself to the decision. At that moment, Liam saw the doorway he and Rebekah had exited when she first gave him the grand tour. Had someone then told him that in a few short weeks he would be fighting dragons in another world, he would have laughed himself silly. Into the commlink “Ok Alpha Company retreat. Follow me. Bravo Company retreat also. Get somewhere safe. Rendezvous back at the theater.”

Everyone on the top deck shored up their defenses as they made a retreat towards where Liam, Zak, and Ethan were standing. Liam pointed at the door and they all made a hasty run for it. Three of the dragons maneuvered with wings and fire to block their path. He had to get them out of here. Grabbing the reloaded RPG from Zak, he fired it at the group of dragons blocking their path. The one in the middle had been just about to unload his fiery payload when he found himself choking on an RPG round instead. The other two were so startled by being covered in dragon bits that they erupted from the deck in yet another piercing screech of rage. The blast had also blown the doors right off their hinges. The men all filed in and basically fell over each other to get away from the enraged dragons.

Liam looked around frantically and saw the nightclub where Beka had first used the props to explain the ship. He peeked in and still saw the Giraffe still floating on the ceiling. Suddenly, he had another really stupid idea. This would be perfect. “Men, grab those boxes. Quick!” Five or six men grabbed the boxes. “Stack them over by the entrance, maybe about ten feet in.”

Zak was the first to catch on. “Do what he says. I think I know where he’s going with this.” All in all, they stacked about twenty boxes. The dragons were circling around for another pass.

“Ok, men retreat down the hall.” Liam looked at Zak. “What, about fifty feet?”

Zak looked at the boxes. “Maybe seventy-five. Everyone back further At least seventy-five feet.”

Others repeated the orders. “You heard the XO. Retreat seventy-five feet, men.”

They all ran to the next bulkhead and crouched behind it. Zak reloaded his RPG with his last remaining shell and pointed it at the boxes. Again, right as the dragon was lining up and began his run, Zak squeezed the trigger, the boxes of novelties erupted in a conflagration. When the smoke cleared, the entire hallway was filled with an impenetrable barrier of Aerolon. Caricatures of giraffes, palm trees, and other assorted novelties were expanded and smashed into a knot that resembled a hallway sized block from a car crusher. Nothing was going to get through that. On the outside, they could imagine several of dragons choking to death from party balloons explosively expanding in their throats.

They all dropped from exhaustion. Zak turned to Liam, “That was some incredible thinking, Liam.” He said into his commlink. “Jules, did everyone from Bravo get to safety?”

“Everyone is present and accounted for except, I’m afraid, for the five I mentioned before.”

“Duly noted, Jules, please mark them missing in action for the time being. How long now?”

“They will breach in ten minutes. You had better all get to the theater and at least bar the doors. It will give you a little time.”

“We are on the way, Jules.” They passed by the doors that said Reactor Room and Liam felt a pain of guilt. What am I thinking? He was second guessing himself already. No, dammit, it’s the only way. No one else is going to die today. “Ok, men, let’s get to that theater. How much longer, Jules?”

“They are almost through. Maybe seven minutes.”

“Well keep them busy the best you can.” They rounded the corner and barreled into the Theater. He saw members of Bravo Company coming in from the other side. When they were all in, Gus and Marcus barred the doors. They all stripped off their smoking clothes and heaped them in the corner. It made a rather large pile that started to smoke even more. Tom Foley, who was sitting in the seat closest to the pile got up and grabbed the fire extinguisher from the wall, sprayed down the smoldering pile with foam and sat back down and buckled up.

Liam collapsed into this seat between Jonathan and Rebekah. They were both looking at him.

“What?” He looked from one to the other.

“What do we do now? Those dragons will be inside the ship in just a couple of minutes!” Rebekah cried in alarm. Her dad, on the other side of her, was incoherent- almost a basket case. Liam looked at him as he was staring at the big screen, watching the progress.

Zak said, “Jules, turn off the main display, please.”

“Hey!” The uproar came from multiple people. “What did you do that for?”

Zak replied “It’s just raising anxieties. I’m looking around and some people are almost catatonic. We are not going to have someone dying of a panic attack while we sit here waiting.” He looked down at his own display. All around them, they heard an unworldly groan and wrenching and tearing of metal. Someone in the room screamed. The dragons had penetrated the hull.

“How long now, Jules.”

“They are almost there.”

Jonathan looked alarmed at Zak. “You are not going to detonate that reactor inside the ship are you?”

Liam looked incredulously back at his dad. “Do you honestly think Jules would even carry out an order that would endanger everyone like that? Give Zak some credit, please!” Turning to the display. “How long Jules. Are we go?”

“We are go. We have a window of maybe five minutes. The dragons are almost there.”

Jonathan looked at the screen and then looked back at Liam. “You can’t be serious?” He had finally figured it out. Rebekah looked at Liam’s screen also.

Rebekah screamed, “Liam, No! Computer, priority override!”

Zak said, “I’m sorry, Rebekah, it is the only way. And you can’t override another override that comes straight from the captain.”

She looked back at Sydney and Zak and then back to Liam. “Please, there has to be another way!”

Sydney steeled his lip. His lips, his hands and his legs were quivering with what he was about to do. “Status report, Jules.”

Jules replied, “The dragons have breached the reactor room, you are go.”

Sydney grimaced and said, “Ok, Jules, execute plan B.”

“Plan B in progress.”

“You might as well turn the screen back on.” The screen flickered back on just in time for everyone to see the flash of exploding bolts. The dragon that was crawling over the reactor looked right into the camera as the rockets ignited. Even that was not enough to incinerate him and he literally rode the reactor as it was ejected out of the gaping hole left from the blown access hatch in the bottom of the ship. The rockets propelled both the dragon and the reactor out of sight into the swirling vortex in a matter of moments.

The camera view changed angles, All the dragons that could still fly, lifted away from the ship and tore after the exposed reactor. After what seemed like an eternity, there was a brilliant burst of light from the abyss. The charges that had been set on the reactor exploded and exposed the raw amber to the breach. The rockets easily overcame the headwinds and pushed the reactor much quicker than normal to the center of the breach. With the combination of gravity and the rockets, the reactor only needed about ten minutes to reach its destination. Jules had to make sure the ship was in transmission range to send that final signal to the reactor and then he hit the main engines with every ounce of thrust they could manage. They just barely passed the other lip of the hole when there was an even larger flash from the hole and pressure wave that threatened to send them into the mountains ahead.

Liam looked at Rebekah. Her face wasn’t as ashen as he had expected.

Jonathan broke the silence as he unbuckled his safety harness. “Well, that’s that. We are officially stuck here.”

Liam looked down at his feet. “Five people died out there, dad.”

“Yes, I know.”

“Nobody else had to die. There was no way we were going to hold off that horde of dragons for another whole hour. There was just too many of them.”

“Yes, I know. Welcome to my world, Son.” Jonathan reached over and drew his son in, hugging him.

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