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I don't even realize we're under attack until the dragons blow the fuel dump. The explosion hits our hangar - situated nearly a quarter mile down the airstrip - with enough force to rattle coins off the stack of ammo crates we're using for a table.

My gunner, Dakk, meets my gaze above the creased, torn cards in our hands. His tongue flicks out to swat a bead of sweat sneaking out of his scraggly mustache.

"It's happening," he whispers, smiling. The hunger in his eyes is almost feral. But all I can think is that this isn't what I signed up for.

We throw our cards down and start toward the hangar door. It's already grumbling open, filling the chamber with near-blinding early morning light reflected off the mountain snow. A sudden gust brings in the heavy scent of burning fuel along with a shower of loose snowflakes, and for once, I'm glad the commissars make us sit around in our insulated flight suits all day.

I can already hear the chaos around the base: distant explosions, men shouting, the steady thoonk thoonk thoonk of the flak cannons. Not that they'll do anything besides aggravate the dragons, of course. If you want to kill one of the firebreathers, only a Yellowjacket will do: a turbocharged biplane bristling with specialized guns firing even more specialized ammunition. Our own little plane sits on the tarmac, miraculously unscathed amidst the carnage.

I’m four steps out of the hangar when the real cold hits me. I double over as frost-laden air sears my lungs, and for a brief, insane moment I feel like I'm drowning in ice. I spare a glance down the runway. The dragons are already retreating, their forms outlined by the rising sun. Fires burn out of control all around the base, sending heat up in shimmering waves that distort the shadowy figures in the sky. Still, I can see their massive wings pumping, heaving them up into the thin air where they can move fastest.

"Hraska!" Dakk cries, thumping my shoulder. He’s still grinning like Christmas came early. "What are you staring for? We’ll see them up soon close enough. Come on!"

Excitement mixes and churns with terror inside me as I realize he’s right - I’m about to have my first dogfight with a dragon.

For most of our history, the dragons had kept to themselves: aside from the odd missing farm animal, they only ever made their presence known as shadows in the clouds. Attempts to seek out their dens met with failure or destruction. If it was not harmony, there was at least no real enmity between us.

My grandfather’s generation had been the first to face their wrath. The official Party stance was then, and remains today, that the dragons’ population was growing unsustainably, and that they were seeking new territory. Provocative untruths that the attacks were due to our own expanding borders, or somehow caused by mining operations, are always circulating, but only a fool or a dullard would believe such nonsense. In any case, there are few families now within the State who have not been touched by the conflict. My own father bravely gave his life in service to the Party shortly before my birth.

I only pray I will not have to be so brave.

I take one last breath to steady myself, then sprint over to our plane and kick the chocks out from beneath the wheels. Dakk leaps up, grabs the propeller, and yanks it down. The engine turns over on the first try, chugging and sputtering smoke as black as the columns rising up ahead.

As I clamber up and into the pilot's seat, I wonder if Dakk’s enthusiasm has somehow infiltrated our plane, which doesn’t usually cooperate until the fourth or fifth attempt to start it. I don't have long to consider my notion, though: he thuds into the gunner's seat behind me and pounds the fuselage with a gloved fist.

“Let’s go, Hraska! Wheels up!” I release the parking brake, and before long we're roaring up and over the draglines sitting idle on the far side of the mining compound we've been assigned to guard. I briefly recall the charred mining machinery and heat-warped airfields our troop transport passed on its muddy slog through the late autumn foothills to our current base. Those remnants of long-abandoned mining sites dotted the landscape like monuments to the relentless march of the Party’s glory and progress.

"Do you have a visual?" Dakk's voice crackles over the two-way radio stitched into my cap.

"Da." I can see the dragons up ahead; small dots against a copper-drenched horizon. I realize then that we're the only plane in the sky. Had the firebreathers really succeeded in destroying everything else? I grimace, wringing my hands on the flight stick’s smooth-worn handle, then push the throttle forward. The biplane's engine rattles eagerly in response. I tell Dakk we'll be in range soon. He grunts.

My gunner is the right man for his job. He is most comfortable expressing himself with violence, and he's not afraid of heights.

He grew up a bumpkin like me, but the tales he'd told me of his youth made the blister-bursting chores of my uncle’s farm seem as blissful as kartoshka and rugelach. A hardscrabble upbringing on a quickgrass co-op out past the Rim, where feral dragons posed a constant threat to life, limb, and prosperity, had steeled Dakk against the beasts in a way Party propaganda never could.

He'd come here to kill dragons. Nothing more, nothing less.

Suddenly uneasy, I refocus my gaze on the pod ahead. Three of the four dragons are unremarkable except for their erratic wingbeats, which become more pronounced as we drew closer. The lead dragon, easily twice the size of our plane, is the only one that appears uninjured.

Dakk tells me it's a female. I have no reason to doubt him. Her scales shimmer in the morning sunlight, refracting a multitude of colors back at us with every flap of her leathery wings.

"Magnificent," I murmur before I can stop myself. Growing up, I'd watched, enraptured, as their attacks played out on grainy newsreels. I devoured survivors’ accounts in the papers. I hated the dragons for everything they took from us, and yet I was drawn to what they stood for, at least to me: ultimate freedom and ultimate power, all in one.

So, in a way, it’d been the dragons who inspired me to take to the skies in the first place. I'd earned my wings dusting Uncle Javka's crops. He trained me just well enough to keep me from crashing his plane, but as soon as I got my first taste of the sky, of true freedom, I was hooked. By the time I was conscripted, I'd graduated to barnstorming. When my commissar overheard me bragging to my fellow cadets, he duffed the back of my head, asked me why I hadn't said something sooner, and had me reassigned to flight school. At graduation, I was offered a cushy posting as an instructor, but I still yearned for the endless azure promise of the sky.

"Come again?" Dakk's voice crackles in my ear once more. I say a silent prayer of thanks for our Yellowjacket's roaring turboprop.

"I said our magnetometer is off," I lie.

"Forget about that! Are the autocannons ready?"

“Of course.” I thumb the controls for our forward guns, and the flight stick rattles as a feeder mechanism catches the ammunition belt. I center the lead dragon in my sights.

"Damned firebreathers," he growls, racking the slide on our tailgun, chambering a round with a meaty clang. I picture a broken father on his knees in front of a blazing field, and a small, hard-faced boy standing behind him, resolving never to be powerless against the dragons – or anyone else - again.

"Do you think they know we’re up here?" I ask the question to myself as much as Dakk, but it's the lead dragon who answers.

She turns her head and meets my gaze through my crosshairs, her goldenrod irises simmering with unmistakable intelligence.

"What are you waiting for?!" Dakk's question erupts in my ear. I've barely registered the query before I hear the frantic pop, pop, pop of his sidearm as he fires wildly into the pod.

The lead dragon screeches and peels off from the group, whipsawing toward us, a polychromatic blur emblazoned in violent relief against the snow-covered mountains. As she closes the distance, I wonder whether in some other world we could have barnstormed together.

The ridiculous notion melts away beneath the fury of her gaze as her eyes meet mine once more. But beneath the anger is unwavering resolution and profound grief. I nearly give in to mourning before instinct and training take over.

I squeeze the trigger.

Nothing happens.

I realize the forward guns are jammed just as the dragon blows a stream of fire toward our craft. My scream intermingles with the Yellowjacket's engine as I bank us away, catching a glimpse of the burning liquid as it spatters onto the mountainside below. I think Dakk's screaming, too, firing the tailgun with reckless abandon, spitting silver-coated murder at the dragon as she roars by our flank.

He twists the machine gun around and brings it to bear just as the dragon comes up behind us, close enough to snap at our tail. I wonder if she even cares about the bullets tearing chunks out of her hide.

I bank and twist, trying to keep the dragon off her guard long enough for Dakk to bring her down. Another gout of flame roars past, catching the tip of our wing, but our speed smothers it before it can spread.

I push us into a deep dive and the dragon follows, determined to drive us into the crags below. The erratic clatter from the machine gun reverberates against the dead rocks all around us. My flight suit is heavy with sweat.

The mountain's jagged teeth rush toward us. I yank back on the stick, push the throttle so hard it bends in its mounting, and black out.

Dakk's screams bring me back. I scramble to straighten the Yellowjacket before we enter a terminal descent, and the little plane complies. Dakk's still screaming even after we level out.

"What's wrong?" I ask.

"You did it, Hraska!" He reaches forward, banging his fist on the fuselage once more. "Look down there!"

I glance over my shoulder, scanning the rocks below. For a moment I'm not sure what he means, then I see the smoke plume rising from the mountainside. The dragon, which only seconds ago had met my gaze with an intelligence that likely surpassed my own, lay strewn in the snow like a discarded toy.

"Ubiytsa drakona! Well done, comrade," Dakk says. "One down, three to go, eh?"

Ubiytsa drakona. I roll the words around in my mind. Dragon killer.

But without drakona, all you're left with is murderer.

It takes everything in me to tear my gaze away from the shattered creature below, but I manage. Ahead, the remaining dragons are mere dots on the horizon. I don't even need to look at our fuel gauge to know we don't have enough in our tank to attempt pursuit. I tell Dakk, doing my best to disguise my relief.

"She sacrificed herself for them," I add. My tongue feels thick in my mouth.

"Nonsense. They're beasts. They don’t think like us." Dakk's tone indicates he's not interested in further discussion. "But now that you say it - bring us around once more."

"Why? If she's not dead already, she will be soon."

"You can never be too careful with dragons." Dakk's response is accompanied by the gentle tinkling of an ammunition belt as he reloads the MG. I glance over my shoulder and see that blank, mindless hunger in his eyes. His sidearm is back in its holster, but he hasn't re-clasped its button. I wonder if he'd really shoot me and doom himself if I refused him.

His vacant smile is all the answer I need.

"She was strong," he continues, and I can't tell whether it's respect or hatred in his voice. "We need to be sure."

I want to scream, to turn the plane upside-down and dump us both out, but I do neither. Instead, I bank the plane around for another pass, because I finally understand.

The dragon's smoldering body crumpled on the mountainside below is a blood tax levied by the Party against my commodified, transactional, and neatly outlined freedom.

This is, in fact, exactly what I signed up for.


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