Fire Breather

by Porter Goodman

by Porter Goodman

“Jake. Jake. Jake. Jake. Jake.”  Jake wasn’t responding even though Odi was increasing in volume at a constant rate. Maybe Jake was just pretending to still be asleep because he already knew it wasn’t important. Odi could never tell what Jake would think was important, and he couldn’t remember if dragons were a good thing or a bad thing. This dragon seemed to be playing a game with him though, so maybe it wasn’t important.

Odi kept his eyes locked on the dragon. It was part of the game. The morning sun was shining on the dark red scales on it’s back, which were visible over the top of the grass that it was trying to hide in. Odi turned away for just a second before whipping back to see that the dragon had moved considerably closer and was now holding still partially behind a tree. It made Odi laugh and smile every time. He had first spotted the dragon when it was very far away, and it took a little while before he realized that it was playing a game with him. He was amazed that the dragon could hold so perfectly still as long as he was watching, and then move so far in the brief moments that he looked away. Odi was slightly troubled though. He had seen a painting of a dragon before, so he knew what it was when he saw it. He always remembered things that he saw, but he had a hard time remembering all of the other stuff. And now he was having trouble imagining how this game would end.

“Jake. Jake. Jake. Jake…”

“What!?” Jake groaned, now half awake and grumpy.

Maybe it was a mistake, Odi thought. Maybe he shouldn’t bring it up directly. Jake was usually only annoyed by questions, but when Odi made wrong assumptions Jake would make him feel like an idiot, and Odi didn’t like feeling embarrassed and stupid. Questions were safer. The problem was, Odi wasn’t exactly sure what to ask.

“Jake, are dragons important?” Odi tested.

Jake, eyes still shut, wrinkled his forehead, “Is this question important?” Jake already seemed irritated.

“It might be. I don’t know.” Odi was already regretting bringing it up.

“Well, if you figure it out, let me know.” Jake rolled onto his side to fall back asleep, then added, “Unless you figure out that it isn’t important. Then let me keep sleeping.”

Odi had been looking at Jake while they talked, but then he remembered the game. The surprise of seeing the dragon so close almost made him fall backward. It was crouched low to the ground only twenty feet away and it’s wings were half spread as if it had been preparing to pounce when it had frozen still again under Odi’s gaze. Odi laughed again, delighted at the creature’s skill, and marveled at it’s beauty and elegance. Now that it was closer, though, he noticed that the dragon’s expression didn’t appear playful. It stared straight into Odi’s eyes with a perfect stillness that seemed to require too much focus for a game. Of course, how would he know if a dragon’s facial expression looked playful or not? Still, it made him uneasy.

He thought of asking Jake again. Odi really didn’t want to feel like an idiot again, but ignoring the dragon didn’t seem like something normal people would do. On second thought, maybe it was normal. Odi could imagine people ignoring a dragon just as easily as he could imagine them reacting any other way to a dragon. How was he supposed to predict whether or not Jake would think it was important?

For now, Odi enjoyed seeing the dragon in greater detail and, for the first time, he saw the dragon move. It flashed it’s tongue, like a snake tasting the air. Odi thought about looking away again, so that it would come closer, and he could get an even better look at it. But first he really needed to ask one last question, just to be sure. He decided to risk it. “Jake. Would you want to know if a dragon was in our camp?”

Jake’s eyes popped wide open.

 

Disraeli Gears

by Chris Lyke

by Christopher Lyke

There were signs of the British wars in that part of the country. One hundred and twenty year old markers. Maybe the Afghans on television had changed, the rich ones that schooled at Oxford and Cambridge. But there, in the mountains in the east, not much had changed. There were the sabers and the donkeys and rocks and wicker baskets. There were the goats and the shit and the painted boys. And then we arrived and added annoyance, and sometimes horror and death. But we would leave and whatever we had brought and built would bury over with sand and bones a year after we were gone.

I have memories of a moment when I became separated from the main. It was only for a few minutes, and there are memories of worse things that keep buried most of the time. But this one comes whenever it wants. Just for a second, electric jolts while I’m driving, or in a moment to myself, and then I shiver and exhale and forget the feeling for a couple more days.

It was in the pitch hours between midnight and sun up. We’d walked for a few hours, through the Mayl River, over the plateau, up and through the craggy foothills of the mountain. We’d started around midnight, and a few hours later we finally crested the last and highest hill on our route. Once over it the valley opened beneath us and we could see a light here or there, a twinkling hearth, marking the villages that dotted the ridgeline. They were stepping stones that led to the Dowlat Shah and beyond, to the truly lawless place. We weren’t going there yet though, that morning it was for the first village after the crest. It was for Bumby.

We’d split into two groups, looking for the passage down the mountain to reach positions over the town by dawn. My group swung like a gate down and across a section of the hillside, through the sparse trees, and over the rocks that rolled with booted feet. I was trying to be quiet and then: separation. I turned back and there wasn’t anyone there. It was too dark on this side of the mountain for my night vision to work that well. Every shadow became the enemy, and they knew I was there, smelled me, could see in the dark like cats that padded from tree to tree waiting to grab me and drag me down to be lost forever, pin cushioned like the British stragglers racing for Jalalabad more than a century before.

A few months before this, before the night patrol to Bumby, we heard a bad man named Fazil Rabi was near our outpost in a place called Kanday. We surrounded the village while our comrades in arms, the Afghan National Army, along with our lieutenants, searched the buildings. We’d missed Mr. Rabi -“the Lion,” the people called him- he’d slipped out as we got into position, but the search of the village paid off. There are pictures of the smiling lieutenants with stacks of rocket launchers and light machine guns, hundreds of rounds in boxes strewn about, a Russian automatic grenade launcher most of us had never seen before and there, in the center of it all, a Martini-Henry rifle. The imperial rifle. The British pilum. Rusted and wood-scuffed, the century-plus-old-action still worked, ready to fire the ugly, blunt-nosed rifle rounds they were used to firing back in the days of Victoria and Disraeli.

How is it possible, I thought later, that it had all led to me, alone on the way to Bumby, separated and in the trees, trying not to breathe and shrinking around my rifle?  All of the time and calamity that traversed these mountains: the Persians, the Macedonians, and the Sassonids; the Hephlalites, the Khwarazmians, the Mongols, the Mughals, and the Brits and their damned Martini-Henrys. Then the Russians and the slaughter; there was a tiny graveyard on our outpost, next to the LZ, the product of a Soviet purge. All of it, all of time in those mountains grinded out, stopping and starting again throughout the ages had unraveled to me, and I was at its breakwater, I was the prow, alone. Kneeling as all of this reverberated, I put my rifle to my cheek and began turning from side to side, listening, scanning with the safety off. Searching.

It’s all time travel anyway, and it seemed like I was there on the shale leaning against that thin tree for an hour-maybe a millennia-but it hadn’t been. It was only after a few moments that I saw an Infra Red signal. There was a flash in the dark, then two flashes, I sent back three, and that was it. The other section had found the passage in the direction they’d been sent. I walked back up the hill and linked up with the squad, the squad that I was then supposed to lead through the night to the town of Bumby to surprise some man or another.

I know He was there though. Maybe He was scared of me as well. Maybe I was so close I could have dashed His brains out with my rifle. As it was I’m glad I didn’t piss myself. We were all brave when next to one another; even with only one other, we could be brave. As long as someone would be able to bolster you with love, or shame, or brotherhood, or whatever, then you could be brave. But alone is a different story. There were nights at the outpost that I could swear He was crawling up on us. I knew it, crawling up and cutting the wires while we huddled, freezing in guard shacks, all together, periodically staring at the mountains. Crawling up the stairs to the outpost while we dozed at the guns, fighting off sleep till morning. The tide would always come in.

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