Here There Be D. R. A. G. N. S.
“Well, obviously it caught me, or I wouldn’t be here.” My niece stared at me in awe.
“How?” Her little five-year-old self was settled amongst a nest of neon and princess wrapping paper, the remnants of her Christmas present massacre. It was the first time I’d been able to be home for Christmas in four years. I’d spent the past week with my sister’s family, soaking up all the time I could with my niece and baby nephew before my next deployment.
“How what, Nugget?” I asked.
“How’d it catch you, Aunt Harry?” She still couldn’t quite say ‘Harriet.’
“It was very smart, baby,” I said. “It was a Dragon!” I made a growling noise at her, aiming clawed fingers playfully at the coppery birds nest of her hair.
She giggled and swatted at my hands. “Did it breath fire?” she asked, eyes wide and sparkling.
“Not that kind of dragon, baby,” I told her, smiling a bit. She was always willing to sit and listen to my stories, though I promised my sister that I’d keep the most graphic parts from her.
The dragon that I fly when I’m on deployment is part of a surveillance program called D.R.A.G.N.S.S, Detection Radar Airborne Guide and Naval Surveillance Squads. Now that I thought about it, the Dragons were my entire reason to join the military.
My mom couldn’t believe my decision. I’d never been interested in the military. In high school, I was the smart one, often clutching a mug of coffee like a lifeline while I studied until three A.M. I was in all AP classes. I’d followed my mom’s guidelines, learning to be the best without isolating anyone. If I stared a bit too much at the art courses or hungrily listened to my friends talk about adventurous vacations with boyfriends, no one noticed. I wasn’t supposed to want those things. By my senior year, I was on track to attend an Ivy League college and follow my mom’s footsteps into the world of shoulder pads, business meetings and company cocktail parties. And then He showed up.
‘He’ was six-foot-three, broad shouldered, perfect posture, nice face, and standing in the middle of the group of presenters for career day when all of us filed into the school auditorium right before winter break started. Eighteen-year-old me really liked guys with dark hair and jawlines you could grate cheese on, not to mention he was in uniform, so I paid very close attention when he stepped up to the podium.
“My name is Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez, and I’m here to discuss a new program the United States Navy has set in motion. We’re looking for dedicated men and women who are willing to fight for their country.”
I only half listened when he started talking about the Navy, and I could tell a lot of other students were falling asleep. We were at a private girls school for arts and academics for Christ’s sake, and a majority of us were planning on going the Ivy League route, or to an arts university. The army was the last thing on a lot of our minds. Do you want to know what the most athletic pursuit our school participated in was? Hint: it was golf. There was also a swim team, but I couldn’t remember the last time they’d been to any sort of competition.
No matter how cute he was, I wasn’t paying attention to the Army spiel. Unfortunately for me, all I’d be seeing of the world involved Mom’s business, a million-dollar pharmaceutical company, something she’d raised from my grandparents small time US production base into an international corporation. I’d carry on the family tradition, be the new CEO after a few years of footwork, make us more money, then marry someone respectable and eventually die of boredom while sitting in my office chair. Vice Admiral Lopez and his jawline weren’t going to throw a wrench into that plan. As boring as it was, it was a plan. That was what I was thinking when he pulled out a little remote and booted up a slideshow. Someone really should have bet that I would change my mind.
The video that played first showed a man in what looked like navy camouflage motorcycle gear, helmet included, sitting on the back of a huge, mechanical animal somewhere between a lizard and a bird.
“This is the newest model of Naval surveillance equipment, replacing the 2033 year’s experimental model,” Vice Admiral Lopez said. “It is known as a Detection Radar Airborne Guide and Naval Surveillance ship, or D. R. A. G. N. S. Many call them Dragons. These machines function as a personal unit for pilots to act as guides and aerial surveyors out in open waters.”
As he talked, the guy in the video plugged something into the machine behind its ‘head.’ The mechanics moved so fluidly as the ‘dragon’ woke up that I could hardly believe that it was a machine. It moved like it had a mind of its own and the pilot was just directing. With sharp, powerful movements, it unfurled legitimate wings from its back and began running down a take off strip, flapping as it went. I held my breath as it took off and flew into the air.
“The Dragon is designed to process everything about its rider,” Lopez said. “Each pilot has a chip implanted into their arm that matches the frequency of the Dragon. Using Smart Tech, the dragon is able to make limited decisions regarding the safety of its rider.”
I watched the videos and pictures that clicked by with an intense desire of want rising in my chest. These people in the images were getting to see a world I’d only dreamed of. These ‘Dragons’ were every fantasy that I’d had as a kid of flying through the air and touching the clouds, but it was so much more. They were every take off when we took a plane to visit my dad in England after the divorce. Every time that I’d stared out at the clouds and watched the earth drop away beneath my older sister and me, I wondered if the silence I felt when we’d reached cruising was anything like what the dragons would feel like.
Even after he moved on from the D. R. A. G. N. S. program, my mind was still floundering at the images. I don’t know why I’d never considered becoming a pilot; it just hadn’t occurred to me. My brain flashed between a future of meetings and one where I could be paid to be in the clouds. It was worth a try.
As soon as the doors opened and students flooded into the hallways in a mad dash for the cafeteria and lunch, I jogged as fast as I could to the career tables. A brilliant gold sign reading, “Class of 2085 Career Day” smacked into my shoulder on the way to the Navy’s table. Vice Admiral Lopez seemed surprised to see me.
“Can I get a Data Stick?” I panted.
The data stick was better than any birthday present I’d ever gotten. A simple click to the top of the slim wand had the holo-screen zipping out and lighting up with info, everything from where to sign up to the finer mechanics of the dragons themselves. Three hours later, I’d read through the entire manual, down to what kind of training I’d have to do. Apparently the Dragon program was part of a three-year process, starting with standard Navy basic and then intensive training with the machines themselves. Looking at the manual, I got the sense that they were trying to sell me the idea that this would be easy. Knowing what I did about aerodynamics and human physiology, I didn’t quite believe them. But, God, I wanted to be on one of those things.
The dragons themselves were incredibly geometric looking up close. All sharp angles and ball joints that fused together in a way that was almost invisible, even up close. Despite the sharpness of the machine, it still looked sleek and deadly, deep blue on the top and white on the stomach area and arms. Two guns were stored in the body, the metal barrels just visible under its chin. I stared up at my ceiling, its glow-in-the-dark stickers of stars and suns surrounded by midnight blue paint and fluffy white clouds that had been painstakingly created while standing in front of a ‘how to-‘ video on Mom’s data pad projector. Mom would definitely freak when I told her.
Mom did freak out when I told her. Questions like, “What where you thinking?” and, “Who’s going to take over the company?” flew out of her mouth one after another. Finally, she came back with, “No you won’t, young lady!” To which I responded, “I’ve already got the paper work taken care of and I’ve told Dad and Grandpa that I’m doing it.” Maybe I didn’t sound that calm, but that’s definitely what I said. A few months of cold stares and passive aggressive comments from Mom and exasperated but proud sighs from my sister later, I was accepting my diploma and prepping to head to Basic.
It only took me a few weeks to appreciate the way Mom had pushed me to exercise when I’d been in school. I could keep up with the conditioning and the early starts better than some of the other guys and girls. My bunk-mate, Marina, told me I could screw myself after a mile-long jog left her panting and me laughing at her crumpled form on the ground. Mari was cool. A lot different from the girls I’d known at school, but still interesting. Her family apparently had a tradition of the men joining the military, except they were always either Air Force or Army. Mari had made it perfectly clear that she was joining the Navy out of spite.
She and I made it through Basic together, then ‘Balto,’ or Gerald Callahan joined our little group for the final leg of training. ‘Balto’ was six-foot-three and the most unassuming guy you’d ever meet. He looked like a giant puppy, all soft eyes and kind smiles, and he fed every animal that came across his path. Hard to believe a guy like that had been in and out of foster homes his whole life. He big-brothered our whole unit, taking care of people left and right, with kind words and a soft voice. It wasn’t until we did combative training exercises that we all realized it was the exact opposite. Balto was the little brother, and it was terrifying how quick we all were to guard his back. Regardless of his size, or the amount of damage he could do with the intense level of physical strength he had, Balto was ours, our responsibility, our baby brother.
When we finally got to see a Dragon up close, I felt like I had been waiting forever. The chip hurt going in. We’d all toughened up through months of training, but the feeling of something foreign moving under the skin of our arms still felt weird. Mari kept poking at the raised bump while Balto was doing his best not to look at it. We each got a keycard that synched to our chips and were led to our Dragon. Mari was running a callused hand over the exterior and mumbling about the design. Balto was tossing out code names for his. I wasn’t sure how to react to my dragon yet. The only thing I could feel was awe.
It was big, almost as big as a car, and in sleep mode it was completely still, unnaturally so. It almost felt like the statues of Greek gods and Pharaohs, the ones that had a presence so strong you almost thought they’d wake up and start giving commands.
“Mount your Dragons,” the trainer yelled. After a year, I was getting used to people screaming at me. Instead of arguing and continuing to drool over the magnificent machinery in front of me, I mounted up, settling into the saddle-like seat and attaching the belt to my harness.
“Insert your Personal Key Identification card!”
Once the Key was in, the dragon woke up. Ball joints began shifting fluidly and the metal moved without a creak, sitting up to full height and opening the wings to flight position. Our helmets were put on, equipment there to assist with breathing in high altitudes and communication software to contact our unit. The screen also showed the current physical position and health status of our teammates, down to their heart rates, all of which were slightly elevated.
“This is so cool!” I squealed. The commander yelled some more and we complied, moving the dragons through a systems check and equipment evaluation. Finally, finally, we were able to lift off. Oh my God, it was amazing.
You know that feeling when you’re on a roller coaster, midway through and you finally hit the top of the big hill at full speed? Imagine that you’re in the seats, and you’ve been whipped around and twirled over oblivion for almost a minute now. You’ve gone upside down and sideways and every other way in between, but it’s fun because you’re safe, held back by that bar that keeps you seated. But when you hit that hill, that really big one, for a moment you rise out of the seat, just an inch or two. Part of you thinks that maybe you’ll fall, the other part too shocked that you’re airborne to register anything else. You’re flying for only a second, then you fall again and the moment’s over and the roller coaster is taking you to the end. That’s what it felt like on the Dragon, that one second of weightlessness, but drawn out over hours.
Eventually, our test flight had to end and we had to settle on code names. The names would be how both the rider and the Dragon were identified when out on patrol or on missions. Mari chose ‘Azul’, Balto chose ‘Cardinal.’ It took a while, but I finally settled on the name, ‘Zephyr.’ Those names would become interchangeable with our own over the next few years.
It took another year for an incident worth mentioning to occur. A foreign military ship that had been reported missing months ago was discovered on the west coast drifting closer to the southern hemisphere. My unit was assigned to handle the situation. By that time, we’d all gotten pretty familiar with our dragons, and Zephyr had become something like a friend or a companion. On some days, I forgot she was just a machine. You could tell that Balto and Mari thought the same thing. Every once in a while I caught the two of them slipping up and saying things like “Good girl/boy” after a patrol. In a year, we’d all been saved at least once by the Dragons’ interference. A brief jolt to the side or a quick drop had kept us from getting injured or worse. It was easy to forget they weren’t real.
We’d been warned about the distinction. The Dragons weren’t live animals, they were machines, and to think of them any differently would be dangerous. I tried to remember that, but it was hard when Zephyr would automatically correct herself whenever I got close to sliding off, or would adjust the heat output on the saddle when the temperature dropped. It was even harder when I could feel the metal torso expand and contract between my legs, like it was breathing, whenever the wings moved.
Anyway, we drifted down to the ship and tried to send out a message. All we got in return was static. Mari and I assumed that the communications were down. Balto immediately thought the crew was dead. Ignoring him we decided to get closer, surrounding the ship the way we’d been trained. From the outside the ship looked abandoned. No one was moving around on deck, and there wasn’t any sign of activity. I’d have thought that it was a ghost ship if it wasn’t obvious that the motor was propelling the ship forward. It was moving fast too.
“Hold position!” Our squad leader commanded through the earpiece in the helmets we had to wear. “Azul, notice anything?”
Mari’s voice reported what she’d found at the helm. “Nothing here, Ranger.”
“I’ve got signs of a struggle, but no bodies or anything else suspicious.” One by one Poseidon, Zeus, Cloud and Aris reported. There were signs of struggle, nothing big though. The surrounding waters were clear as well, and there weren’t any heat signatures on the ship.
“Zephyr? Anything to report?”
“Chief, there’s someone on this ship. It’s moving fast and in a straight line. Evidence suggests a struggle so I’m thinking they were either taken over or they mutinied.”
Chief seemed to think it over. “Understood, proceed with caution, case the ship and attempt to make contact.”
Like magic, the ship seemed to come alive. Men and women poured out from under the deck and began manning their stations. Missiles headed our way, causing everyone to scatter, and then the snipers on board began firing on those of us that were close enough to hit. My unit fought back, firing on the ship as best they could with the guns equipped to their Dragons. It wasn’t enough though. We were meant to be surveillance, but Dragons weren’t exactly battle ready.
“Call for backup!” Chief screamed. “Retreat, we are not equipped to handle this level of attack.” Everyone yelled an affirmative. We’d back off and radio to Base requesting reinforcements all while following the ship from a safe distance. We’d run this scenario before a dozen times; we knew what to do. I knew what to do. Apparently, the universe had other plans.
A stray gun shot, that we now know was from a sniper rifle, knocked into my dragon near my seat, exploding on impact with enough force to throw us off to the side. Zephyr was fine barring a bit of superficial damage and a bit of stiffness from the wing joint getting hit, but we were out of formation and the ship had suddenly decided we were it’s new target.
“Zephyr, evasive maneuvers, get out of there now!”
“Thanks, Chief,” I muttered. “I hadn’t thought about that.”
I didn’t care that I was being insubordinate, I was in pain and scared. I couldn’t identify exactly what was wrong, but I knew something was off with my body. I didn’t know that when the missile exploded, bits of shrapnel had blown out, grazing my right thigh and stomach and shredding my harness attachment. It was still in one piece, but it was close to falling apart. When we began the evasive maneuvers, tight twists and turns and whirling upside down, the harness decided it had had enough. I didn’t feel it break, but I felt the weightlessness. It was almost dreamlike as I watched myself lift out of the seat and begin to fall backwards. Zephyr turned, just as she’d been programed to do, and for a moment, I thought everything would be fine. Then the wing, the one that had been hit, locked up.
I’d never been more aware that Zephyr was a machine. A highly advanced, high tech machine, but a machine nonetheless. One that could suffer from dings and scratches and errors.
There I was, a few hundred feet above the open ocean, free falling. I could tell when Zephyr auto corrected to account for wing damage and began to dive towards me. She was still slow, but now there was at least a chance she would catch me.
That hope was dwindling fast though, because as quickly as Zephyr was diving towards me the ocean was coming to get me just as fast. For the first time, I doubted my Dragon. Mari and Balto were screaming my name through the headset but I couldn’t hear them. The only thing I could think was what if I died that day? What if Zephyr couldn’t catch me in time? What if—