The End of All Things – Chapter 1 – The Dragon’s Descent

The End of All Things – Chapter 1 – The Dragon’s Descent

The stench of burnt flesh and charred brick stuck in Gaia’s nose for weeks, while the crash and shriek of rending metal echoed in her skull. But those weren’t the most horrifying things about the day her life fell apart.

It wasn’t the gout of fire that spilled from the weapon’s mouth. Nor the doom-filled shadow that fell across the sun. It was the awful grace with which the metallic dragon moved through the sky over Prague. The mesmerizing way its neck dipped just before it unleashed the first killing blast, and the tight curl of its tail following in its body’s wake like something out of a dream.

She stood on the balcony outside her study, hands gripping the protective rail so tightly her knuckles turned white, her jaw hanging slack as she watched the weapon’s descent. She couldn’t hear the horrific screams until someone grabbed her shoulder and dragged her inside.

“Gaia! What the hell are you doing? We have to get out of here!”

“That’s the thing they’ve been talking about on the news, Shanice,” Gaia replied, too numb to register her companion’s urgency. “The near-Earth object approaching at high speed.”

Scientists had spent the last three days debating whether or not the object would strike Earth, but they hadn’t been able to get a clear look at it. She would have heard about it being dragon-shaped.

Shanice gripped Gaia’s shoulders, her dark fingers digging deep into Gaia’s flesh as she gave her another savage shake. “Snap out of it! We can speculate on that thing’s extraterrestrial origins later. Right now, we need to focus on surviving.”

As if to punctuate her words, a harsh blast tore across the street outside. The answering explosion sent a wave of heat through Gaia’s open doorway, driving both women deeper into the room. Gaia yelped, the gravity of the situation finally eroding the shock that held her motionless.

It’s going to tear the entire city apart.

She grabbed Shanice’s wrist, pushed her long, silver curls away from her face and ran.

Chaos greeted them in the hallway as scientists abandoned their labs, carrying binders full of notes as they scrambled toward the nearest escape routes. Discarded papers littered the floor like new-fallen snow.

“This way!” Gaia and Shanice said at the same moment, each trying to walk in the opposite direction. They stopped when their arms reached full extension, unwilling to let go of each other.

“Where the hell are you going?” Shanice demanded. Her ebony cornrows whipped over her shoulder as she snapped her head in Gaia’s direction. “The stairwell is this way!” She pointed in the direction of the fleeing crowd.

“But the array is this way,” Gaia insisted, tugging Shanice’s arm, though she didn’t manage to budge her more than an inch.

“Have you gone mad?” There was an edge of panic in Shanice’s voice. “We’re gunna die if we stay here. And the array is too big for the two of us to manage.”

“But-” Gaia protested, sure a team must have already gathered to dismantle the delicate piece of computer equipment. If there was one thing the world could not afford to lose today, it was their most powerful deep space communications array. Especially if deep space really was where the dragon came from.

Shanice didn’t have to interrupt this time. A muffled explosion rocked the building, sending a wave of screams through the hallways as scientists threw themselves to the floor, bracing for the worst. Gaia wrapped her pale arms around Shanice. It took several seconds to realize they were on their knees, clinging to each other like frightened children.

Their wide-eyed gazes locked and each silently agreed never to speak of this moment again. They rushed to their feet and scurried down the hallway, darting around overturned chairs and shards of broken glass.

“Here!” Gaia tugged Shanice’s arm again as they rounded a corner and came upon the elevator bay. It was shockingly empty. Gaia rapidly tapped the call button, as if that would summon the mechanical hulk faster.

“You can’t use an elevator in an emergency,” Shanice protested.

“You want to run down thirty flights of stairs?” Gaia countered. “The elevator will get us to the ground faster!”

“And if one of those explosions hits this building, it will dump us into the shaft at speed and flatten us into pancakes. No way, honey.” Shanice pushed her toward the stairwell, but Gaia dug her heels into the floor.

“If one of those explosions collapses this building we’ll be as dead in the stairwell as in the elevator. I’d say speed is more important than-”

Another bang set the building shimmying, and Gaia was suddenly glad she wasn’t in the elevator. Especially when the fluorescent lights overhead flickered and went out.

“That answers that,” Shanice muttered, seizing Gaia’s arm and dragging her toward the stairwell.

By the time they reached it, the knot of terrified scientists choking the hallways had already filtered down. Somehow, Shanice managed to push the stragglers out of the way, clearing a path down the inner spiral. The pair managed two flights, their heels clicking harshly against the concrete floors, before they paused to abandon their shoes in unison.

Gaia tried not to wonder how much research was destroyed while scientists abandoned their labs in a hurry. Not to mention the projects they’d lose if that dragon destroyed the entire building. What the hell was that thing? Where had it come from? And why was it here? Why did it have to target Prague first? Twenty-four hours was all the notice they would have needed to evacuate. But no one expected this.

They made it down the first nine flights of stairs before they needed to stop. Both women hung their heads over the railing while they fought to catch their breath. Screams echoed upward from the lower sections. Some of them involved fear and pain, but most seemed to be instructions. Someone had gotten control of the situation, it seemed.

But what will we do when we reach the ground floor? We won’t be any safer in the streets with fire raining from above.

Gaia shuddered. She had barely regained her breath when Shanice motioned for them to continue. Down they pounded, grasping the railing at the base of each section of stairs, rocketing themselves around the corner landings and using that momentum to carry them down the next flight of stairs.

Seven more stories they descended before they once more came to rest, grasping their sides as their chests heaved to relieve their aching lungs. Until this moment, Gaia truly believed she was in decent shape. Now she supposed regular workouts would have been more helpful than occasionally taking three flights of stairs instead of the elevator.

They were lucky; this particular stairwell was located on the exterior of the building. Sunlight poured through wide windows on each landing, lighting their path. Gaia tried not to focus on the growing orange and red tint, nor the occasional flash of shadow across the sky.

“Halfway,” Shanice gasped between rapid breaths. “We’re halfway there.”

They were halfway between the tenth and eleventh floors when every window in the building shattered. Gaia had no idea what caused it, but the crack and tinkle of glass filled her ears as shards rained from their former housing. Throwing her arms over her head, she skidded onto the next landing and crouched, waiting for the flood of glass to subside.

When the echo of the last clink died, the two women reached for each other, groping through the air until their fingers brushed. Slowly they rose to their feet, stepping more carefully now to avoid the myriad of sharp obstacles in their path. Both were shaking badly, and Gaia thought she would have fallen if not for Shanice’s poise and perfect balance.

Even moving at a reduced pace, they caught up to the crowd on the eighth floor. The entire building was devoted to various scientific studies, and most of the people who lived and worked in it were at least familiar with each other. While they waited to file through the designated safe escape route, people stood in tight clumps, murmuring about the day’s events and offering what comfort they could.

Tracing the line down both the stairs and the adjoining hallway, Gaia determined they weren’t going anywhere soon. She took the opportunity to glance out one of the broken windows and instantly regretted it.

She had spent most of her life in this building. She had been raised here, educated here and worked here since her graduation. She knew this block of the city like the back of her hand, its twists and turns, its subtle quirks. But the world outside the broken window looked nothing like the one she knew.

Twisted scraps of metal littered the wide street — the remains of cars that had crashed into poles, light posts and each other. Across the cluttered asphalt, where smaller skyscrapers once basked in the glory of this one, a wide swath of open sky hung framed by melted metal slag.

Fires burned in the distance, sending plumes of inky black smoke toward the sky, blocking what little sun still penetrated the haze. Sirens screamed like banshees come to claim the souls of the dead. Gaia thought she caught a hint of light glinting off metal as a graceful figure swirled through the sky, but Shanice drew her away from the window before she could be sure.

Numb with shock and horror, Gaia followed her companion across the landing and through an open doorway, moving as though newly awakened from a trance. How could this have happened? Who could build a weapon capable of such destruction? Our first contact with the stars was supposed to be like one of those boring, intellectual movies, not all those dumb action flicks.

This was a dream. Any moment now, she would wake up in bed, gasping for breath. She would run to the window, throw open the curtains and stick her head outside. Everything would be as she remembered it; the steel facades of the buildings across the street would gleam, slick with dew in the early morning sunlight. Everyone would laugh when she told them what she dreamed.

The side of her foot grazed a stray shard of glass, and pain shot up her leg. She bent to brush the glass away, and a thin line of red marked her fingers. Not a dream. Though she had experienced pain in dreams before, this was different, more visceral.

“Gaia! Shanice!”

The call made both women jump.

A tall, thin man shouldered his way through the crowd. The rumpled state of his hair wasn’t unusual, but the disheveled nature of his suit shook Gaia to the core. In all the years she had known Leon Roth, he had never allowed a wrinkle to mar his appearance.

“Thank God,” he said, throwing his arms around Gaia the second he reached her. She clung to him, much as she had clung to Shanice, a little lost puppy in a sea of unfamiliar circumstances. “I was worried sick. Are the two of you all right?”

“We’re fine,” Shanice said, though Gaia could only nod her agreement.

Leon drew back, his eyes scanning each of them in turn. Then he stepped aside and waved for them to follow. The crowd gave way for him, recognizing their head of operations, the founder of their organization and the man who signed most of their research grants. “From what I understand, the upper floors are in bad shape,” he said, though he kept his voice low. “We’re trying to get everyone out before the structure gives way. But a single direct hit…” He shook his head.

Gaia shuddered. “What’s going on?” she asked, her voice barely more than a whisper.

“No one knows for sure.” Leon sighed, wrapped one arm across her shoulders and drew her close, a familiar and comforting gesture. “None of the local news crews are broadcasting anymore, and you can’t trust anything people post on social media these days. Rumor has it the military has engaged the beast, but that doesn’t seem to have slowed it down.”

“I’m surprised no one has authorized a missile strike,” Shanice muttered. “They ought to knock that damn thing out of the sky.”

Leon’s expression was grim. “I don’t want to spread misinformation. But let’s just say, I hope no one has tried.”

What kind of metal must the dragon be made of if it could survive nuclear missiles unscathed?

“The array!” Gaia gasped, suddenly recalling her earlier concern.

Leon squeezed her shoulder. “I sent a group to move it into one of the storage bunkers, though I’ve not heard back from them. My main concern since we organized this evacuation has been finding you.”

Heat filled Gaia’s cheeks. In all the chaos, she had forgotten the array would be useless without her to activate it. “But where will we go? We don’t dare go outside while that thing is still in the sky.”

“That, at least, is easy to solve,” Leon replied, and the strength of his confidence instantly put Gaia’s mind at ease. “There are plenty of reinforced underground shelters littering the city. Left over from World War Two, and many of them well-maintained as a result of all these recent terror scares. We’ll get everyone down there, tend to the wounded, then organize the next step.” Leon patted Gaia’s arm. “Don’t you worry; humans are a resilient species. If that dragon means to kill us, it’ll have an awfully hard time.”

Gaia didn’t reply. She walked in silence, trying not to note the number of people they passed, none of whom complained about their small group jumping the line. It was hard to be strong after what she’d seen. It was harder still to be brave when even the simple act of navigating familiar corridors seemed to sap all her strength. She wanted to go back to her apartment, curl beneath the covers and wait for the madness to pass. But for all she knew, her room was already in ruins. Returning would be a death sentence.

How did this happen?

They took an L-shaped path to the far corner of the building and made their way down another stairwell, this one lined by a security team holding flashlights. Since it wasn’t located on an outer wall, it was free of pesky glass shards, allowing Gaia and Shanice to move more quickly.

They had just reached the landing of the third floor when a deafening explosion tore through the structure. The shockwave knocked everyone off their feet.

They all fought to regain their footing, bumping and jostling each other as the floor continued to buck beneath them. It took several seconds for the ringing to clear from Gaia’s ears and, when it did, she wished it hadn’t. A terrifying series of crashes and roars sounded overhead. If the dragon hadn’t struck their building directly, it had knocked one of its neighbors into it.

The crowd surged, propelling Gaia forward before she realized what was happening. Dust and pebbles brushed her shoulder as the stairs above began to crumble, but she flew through the doorway moments before the ceiling gave way.

She stumbled to a clear patch of floor and pressed herself into a cubby beside a storage locker, both hands clasped over her head until the thunder passed. For several seconds after the cacophony subsided, she huddled, breathing heavily, believing she had died and just needed to accept it.

Hands clasped her arms and drew her upward. She didn’t resist, too drained to fight. She coughed as coarse dust filled her mouth and filtered into her lungs. Glancing around, she saw Shanice rising from a corner across the hall, swiping grit from her hair and shoulders.

“Leon?” Her voice cracked, causing the call to sound like a croak. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Leon!”

Rubble blocked most of the doorway, save for a single pale hand, stretched in her direction. The same hand that propelled her away from danger. Gaia rushed to it, pressing her palms against a fallen beam that blocked the entry.

Strong arms drew her away from the doorway. “We have to go,” a familiar voice chided when she struggled to break free. It wasn’t Shanice; she stood to one side, her eyes wide and her mouth hanging open. Instead, the voice, and the hands, belonged to a technician she had worked with before. But try as she did, she couldn’t summon the memory of his name.

“Not without Leon,” she insisted, trying again to break free of his grip.

But she was trapped between two stronger bodies now and they hefted her off the floor, dragging her down the clear passage. “There’s no time,” the technician said. “The rest of the structure could give way at any moment.”

“He’s already gone,” Shanice choked. “Please, Gaia, don’t let his sacrifice be in vain.”

For the first time, Gaia screamed. It ended in a sob. Her hand shook as she stretched it towards the blocked stairway. Leon was the closest thing she had to a father. He couldn’t be dead. The only way she could handle this whole crazy day was to receive his reassurances at the end of it.

Her newly appointed guardians dragged her around two corners before they set her back on her feet, too tired to carry her farther. Gaia walked after that, stunned numb again, clinging to Shanice’s hand the entire way.

They wove through three more corridors before ducking into a storage room and traversing a wide, sloping ramp. Gaia recognized the sign indicating the ground floor as they passed it.

Here the corridors were dark, lit only by dim emergency lights that burned red in their sockets. Red like the fire outside. Red like the eyes of the dragon swirling across the sky. Red like the splash of blood that adorned Leon’s pale, dead arm.

They hurried through the wide corridor past several pieces of large machinery locked into storage bays. They made their way up a ladder and emerged from a service tunnel next to an emergency exit. A small knot of people waited for them there.

The air outside was thick and acrid. Gaia coughed and covered her mouth, though it did little to alleviate the smell. She tried not to look up. She didn’t want to know how little of her lifelong home remained. She tried not to look to the side either, terrified she’d find the road littered with dead bodies.

But their journey through the outdoors was brief. They sprinted down a narrow alley and paused beside an open sewer hatch. Gaia descended first; her companions insisted. Cool darkness closed around her as she lowered herself, arm under arm and foot under foot.

She waited at the bottom for Shanice. Then their guardians activated flashlights and led them deeper underground. Gaia crossed her arms in front of her chest and hugged herself as they moved through the sewers, shivering from something far deeper than cold.

Here, at least, the sounds of death and destruction were muffled. Life — what remained of it — filled the dark corridors. All they had to do was follow the survivors.

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