The Dragon and the MiG-21

by Tim Gibson

          Ivan Yanchenko was not a poor pilot – he just had the misfortune of falling in love with the Russian Premier’s daughter. That awful woman – whom he secretly still had feelings for – slept with him once then left him, her father transferring Ivan to Siberia at her request. So who ran the Russian Frontal Aviation Personnel department? The Premier’s daughter? She had not been voted in. Of course the Premier hadn’t either.

          Arriving at the snow-swept, icy base in his summer clothes – in Russia you go to work with the equipment they give you, not the equipment you need – he hurried inside to find everyone drinking. Ivan loved flying and turned down the alcohol. It was a MiG-25 base, charged with intercepting bombers that would fly in over the North Pole during a war. Ivan knew how to fly every aircraft in the Russian arsenal and only needed a quick refresher course, maybe a 30 minute hop with a good instructor.

          It was not to be. Ivan was in charge of training new students on the MiG-21, a machine that had been superseded decades ago by newer jets. And there were no students to train. Thus he found himself hopping into an old jet every morning – at least he got air underneath him every day – and flying around at subsonic speeds while the heavier Foxbats flew past him at Mach 1.2, buzzing him and making rude comments over the radio. He was an instructor without students, without a future and without much hope.

          At least he got to fly up and down the windswept mountains, feeling the cushion of air under his delta wings as he flew parallel to and 40 feet above the rocky slopes. Ivan knew where the limited Russian radar coverage was and stayed out of it. Most of them were down for maintenance and the new sets were to arrive next month, next year or never. As long as no Foxbat pilots saw and ratted on him he was free to fly up one side of the mountain and down the other.

          Armed with wingtip missiles and 60 seconds worth of internal cannon ammo he ranged about, soaring on the updrafts, flying through snow-covered valleys and exploring the glacier-strewn seas of the arctic north. It was pleasurable flying and it helped him forget the failed romance that had led to this freezing, desolate, icy wasteland.

          While flying 1,000 feet above sea level and taking occasional pictures of the icebergs – one of them looked like a castle of blue ice – he saw what sure looked like a yellow dragon flying just above sea level.

          It was a yellow dragon and her name was Selluraphon. On Imtrund dragons were about as intelligent as men and Selluraphon – a young female dragon from the Desert of Isolation – was one of the new breed of reptile capable of learning math, sorcery, air-to-air dragon combat and just about anything else she set her mind to. While drifting above the surface of Imtrund, the desert heat helping keep her aloft, she spotted something with her infrared vision she did not understand. It was a vortex.

          A naturally occurring rectangle about 12 feet tall and 6 feet wide, the vortex hung in the air, invisible to anyone except when viewed through a quartz lens ground to the most exacting specifications. Dragons, however, had infrared vision – all she had to do was drop her nictitating membrane and she could see the difference between hot and cold – and while searching for animals to eat with her infrared vision she saw a cold spot hanging in the sky. She couldn’t see the vortex – just the cold air pouring out of it. Always curious, she flew over and nosed it gently. Instantly she was transported from Imtrund – a war-torn world of fiercely combative gods, demons, reptiles and wizards – to another world pretty much just as bad.

          Windswept snow rushed past her. Blue glaciers, which she had never seen before, littered the sea. Her infrared vision spotted nothing but fish just under the ocean’s surface. She hovered away, not cold yet, and glanced back to figure out what had happened. Being one of the more educated reptiles – Imtrund had an illustrious history of books, literature and artwork – she remembered reading about vortices in a natural phenomena book taken from a wizard she had killed. Guessing rightly that she had jumped to a new world – she didn’t know it but she was on the other side of the galaxy where the laws of physics were very different – she explored a bit. The vortex home was easy to spot in her infrared vision as Imtrund’s heat poured out of it.

          Selluraphon flew low over the ocean, snapping up fish and swallowing them with pleasure. If she stayed she might become lord of this new planet – dragons had done that before after passing through vortices to unprepared, high-tech planets – but she would miss out on the coming war. Back home gods walked the surface of Imtrund, gathering knights and soldiers, persuading and promising while they preached. Everyone knew that war was coming and she didn’t want to miss it.

          On Imtrund the food chain was orange dragons (known as god killers), then other dragons, then gods, paladins, octopi magicians, knights, wizards, priests, Saurians, minotaurs, men, pixies and mice, in that order. Yellow dragons were powerful and could change their shape, depending on their lineage and whom their ancestors had interbred with. Selluraphon could turn into a yellow-skinned human woman and often did so by accident while she slept. There was a humanoid god somewhere in her family tree, giving her good access to magic spells and heightened intelligence. Although she secretly hated being unable to spit lightning or fire like the blue and red dragons, her arcane scream was lethal.

          This world was too cold. She was cold-blooded – both literally and figuratively – and wouldn’t survive much longer. Time to return to Imtrund and take her anger out on a giant squid or a whale, taking the corpse back to her cave in the desert to consume at her leisure. Selluraphon had dreams of assembling an army and forcing them to build a more suitable habitat for her. The plan was to menace the nearby cities, Ashilo for starters, and tell the inhabitants to draw up the plans for and then build a massive castle in the desert if they wanted to live. The one time she had made a power move a wizard of Ashilo had driven her off with a Surging Electricity spell, one of the most painful things she had ever experienced.

          Flying away and returning for a low altitude, high-speed pass at the electro-wizard – her breath indrawn in preparation for a good arcane scream – the mage had cast Column of Hoar Frost. The stream of ice, snow and frost injured her shoulder and she was barely able to return to her desert cave to nurse her injury and sleep the pain away.

          Now, flying above an icy sea on a strange, cold world, she had a choice to make. Vortices usually didn’t last long – she knew that from reading old books on Imtrund’s natural history. The fish she plucked from the iceberg-strewn ocean were fatty, rich and wonderful but it was time to flee the cold air and return to Imtrund. Selluraphon turned around and lowered her second eyelid. The transparent membrane let her see in the infrared spectrum and the vortex showed up as a rectangle of heat in the cold air. Saying goodbye to the tasty fish she flew toward it, her yellow wings beating faster as she accelerated.

          Ivan Yanchenko saw the strange yellow beast turn and rapidly accelerate away on a heading of 270 degrees. He nosed down and slid into an easy turn, standing on one wing, to fall in behind it. What was it? An American stealth fighter designed to hit the Russian with a few seconds of buck fever? Buck fever was that moment of hesitation when a hunter saw his first deer of the season, a few seconds of excitement wherein the hunter drops his ammo, or stares for just long enough for the animal to escape. It was harmless in the woods but fatal if one felt it upon seeing an enemy jet for the first time. That had been part of the American’s Red Eagle program. Using captured and stolen MiGs the American pilots experienced those several seconds of hesitation for the first time over the Mojave Desert, not in real combat.

          Was it an alien from another world, something dropped off by the flying tic-tac that the internet community was abuzz about? Was it a drug-induced hallucination? If so, checking his instruments would do no good since his drug-addled brain would make them consistent with what his lying eyes were seeing. That was unlikely as any drugs that would cause such a vivid hallucination would wreck his flying skills. His best guess was that global warming set some dinosaur free from an iceberg and it would soon die in the cold. Ivan slid in behind it as it winked out of existence. He didn’t know it but it was already on the other side of the galaxy. Dark matter strings of the famous string theory linked the vortices.

          Ivan couldn’t see the vortex and guessed that the flying dinosaur had flown through a snow cloud – visibility was poor over the arctic. Setting his Fishbed up on the same flight path he too struck the vortex. The instant his nose cone touched it he was on the other side of the galaxy. A lot of the science had to do with quantum entanglement. Every small particle had a counterpart somewhere else in the galaxy and when one received its charge – either by being measured or in this case by being touched – the other took the opposite charge. That and other strange phenomena meant that when enough quarks came together a pair of vortices was formed, the quantum entanglement ensuring instant transit.

          All around him was desert. At that moment he knew his theory of the dinosaur-in-an-iceberg was wrong. Two burning suns hung in the sky. Yellow-orange sand and rock spread to the horizon. Weird statues, a hundred feet tall, dotted the landscape and slid under his MiG – they had been built in an earlier age of Imtrund, before mankind had emerged, when demons forced reptiles to build monuments to them. Ivan flew past a statue of Lord Ixo, a reptilian monstrosity that dreamed of conquering the world, kept in check only by the hard work and machinations of Imtrund’s only lawful god, Lord Obeliskos.

          The yellow dragon looked back and its eyes bulged at the silver clockwork dragon behind it. Selluraphon’s eyes took in everything – the brain bulge at the top, the mouth at the very front for gulping in air, the red stars to denote its position in the hierarchy of the Firmament, the trail of heat behind it as its magic engine propelled it on its rigid wings. No mechanical dragon was going to beat Selluraphon. Usually made by artisan mages, clockwork dragons were a shadow of the real thing. Selluraphon was going to make this one suffer before she broke it. Then she would find the wizard that sent it after her. Then she would carry him across the sky and drop him in the ocean from a very, very high altitude.

Exploring The Desert of Isolation

          Ivan Yanchenko had buck fever, vertigo, shock, excitement and super discombobulation at the same time. He was in another world. He only snapped out of when the dragon turned hard, its evil green eyes locked on him. Ivan’s body responded by instinct – the veteran of Russia’s Top Gun program, he had trained in Fulcrums for over a decade and his muscle memory took over. He throttled forward, raised the nose and climbed. His instructor had always said to never go vertical unless you could own it. That meant against the high-thrust F-15 Eagle, the Russian pilot would lose with that tactic. Against a slower jet or an American bomber, for example, the Fulcrum could outclimb it, stall-turn at the top and dive upon it. There was no way a reptile would outclimb a good Russian jet on afterburner.

          The reptile outclimbed him. “Ok Ivan”, he thought to himself, “pretend you’re fighting an Eagle. You were never afraid to fight an Eagle.” It was a bit of an inside joke. During the long years of the dissolution of the Soviet Union most of the pilots had been afraid of the F-15 Eagle. It had an 82 to 0 kill/loss ratio and training to fight it was like working the heavy bag prior to going up against an undefeated boxer. A boxer that would kill you if he won. As good as the Russian ejection seats were, modern planes were flying fuel tanks and tended to blow up after unwanted contact with an enemy missile. The MiG’s performance in the Middle East had only made the situation worse and the consensus in Frontal Aviation was to never go up against an Eagle unless it was 2 vs 1.

          Ivan peeled away from the dragon and increased the separation between them. The yellow dragon turned hard and got on his tail. With a bit of afterburner he peeled around in a wide arc, barrel-rolling around the reptile in a vain effort to slide in behind it. The dragon turned hard, closing the distance between them and slid in behind him.

          The only thing that saved him was the constant practice at Russia’s Center of Combat Application, their equivalent of America’s Top Gun. He gave it full right rudder with the foot pedal and rolled his jet through a Spiral Helix, a complicated aerial maneuver that the dragon couldn’t copy. Rolling out and getting some decent separation between his jet and the dragon he opted for a head-on gun kill, wanting to end it quickly before other dragons jumped in and before he ran out of fuel. Unfortunately the dragon was faster than his jet and he could not get a dominant nose position on it, his jet straining at its 8G limit.

          There was no way he was going to die on whatever forsaken world he had been sucked into. He hauled back on the stick and entered a tight horizontal turn while the dragon flew up and over. Recognizing a high yo-yo when he saw one, Ivan rolled his jet toward the dragon and climbed. The beast nosed over and the two opponents came at each other head-on. Before he could get a gun solution the beast flashed past him, clawing his jet and ripping access panels off his wing.

          Ivan executed every bit of trick flying he knew. He pulled a Curving Afterburner-Assisted Skid and the dragon countered it. Ivan did a basic stall turn and the dragon looped up and over, falling neatly behind him. Knowing the end was near unless he cleared his six, Ivan forced his jet through a high-angle of attack Slice Turn. The dragon broke off pursuit, flew off and re-entered the fight from Ivan’s 3 o’clock position.

          With his MiG-21 lighter now with half his fuel gone Ivan pulled a Cobra maneuver, kicking his nose up and standing on his engine, the front of his jet swaying side to side like a dolphin impressing the ladies at Archangelsk Sea World. The dragon overshot him and Ivan dropped his nose, returned to controlled flight and pursued. The yellow beast climbed impossibly fast – even a Foxbat would not have been able to follow – and returned to the fight in another head-on slashing attack, this time leaving a deep furrow in the MiG’s other wing. Time to bug out.

          Ivan fled, dropping his jet into a dry river bed and flying about 30 feet above the sand. The dragon followed and the wake from his MiG kicked a plume of sand in its face, buying him a few extra seconds of life. Even if it killed him, at least he got to kick sand in the bully’s face.

          The dry river bed turned into a ravine and he flew along the bottom, passing skeletons of dragons much, much larger than the one that pursued him, his wingtips passing within a few feet of the rock walls as he rolled through one turn after another. The canyon forked and Ivan faked a right turn then rolled and entered the left fork, making sure to fly ultra-low to send some more sand backward.

          The dragon wiped a claw across its face and was forced to take the right turn. For now, the MiG was safe. Ivan throttled back, following the turns of the canyon, his analytical brain flipping through options and discarding each one. Soon he went feet wet – past the interface between land and water – and flew over the ocean. He planned to climb to max altitude, throttle back and loiter. The Fishbed’s maximum cruise distance would be in the thin air above. Hopefully the dragon wouldn’t be able to reach such high altitudes and he could radio for help. Then he realized he was probably on another world and a 1970’s era radio wouldn’t reach across the stars.

          The ocean spread to infinity and he didn’t like what he saw. In the distance, 100 foot long tentacles slapped the surface, nothing of the creature’s body above the surface except bony-ridged squid eyes. A weird pterodactyl sort of creature with a massive lizard’s head skimmed the surface of the ocean, snapping fish out of the water. Farther off a giant sea turtle floated on the surface, easily 500 feet wide. Winged reptiles sat on its back, probably unnoticed.

          As he flew on some prehistoric sea-reptile heads broke the surface, looking like larger versions of the old plesiosaur from Earth’s ancient past. Ivan throttled back and looked down, rolling his jet slightly to make it easier to see. Beneath the surface of the water was a magnificent castle, a jumble of turrets, towers, ramps, walls and staircases. The water was so clear he could see everything. The tops of the towers just broke out above the surface.

          It was no place to punch out. He turned and headed back to land. He had a degree in math and was going to think his way out of this situation. First he would figure out what happened. Then he would figure out where he was. Then he would figure out how to get home.

          His mistake was in not writing down his coordinates when he entered the world. Trying to find his way back was hopeless – his compass was freely floating and of no help. Then the yellow dragon came back, wings tucked against its body, head lowered against the slipstream. It made a single high-speed pass, staring with those baleful eyes and then it was gone. Flying around till he ran out of fuel would accomplish nothing. A glance at his gage showed 30 minutes of flight time left – enough to get home maybe if he figured this out.

          Ivan Yanchenko found a flat spot in the desert, lowered his gear, set the throttle to 70%, raised his nose and settled in for a smooth landing. Russian jets handled rough-field and muddy strip better than their American counterparts and his jet slid to a stop, orange sand as far as the eye could see, the monotonous scene only broken by the castles just barely seen in the distance, half-hidden in the heat haze.

          Again the yellow dragon flew overhead, staring down at him. On impulse he tried to call friendly forces but the radio offered nothing but static. The yellow dragon flew around then stopped and hovered, feet outstretched and wings flapping. Slowly it settled down beside his jet. It stood there, its yellow scaled head and green eyes about level with his, the two rivals staring at each other. The dragon mouthed some words he couldn’t hear through the canopy and changed shape as if by magic. Over a period of about 5 seconds the dragon changed into a woman, stark naked, her skin the same yellow as before and her eyes the same lime green, bright and evil.

          He raised the canopy and the thin metal ladder automatically extended outwards from the jet. The heat was oppressive, only a light wind making it even bearable. Ivan unstrapped, climbed down the ladder and faced her.

          Her eyes glowed. Her hand clenched into a fist. A forked tongue flicked out of her mouth, the tip undulating up and down faster than the eye could follow. Ivan slid his hand to his pistol, discreetly slipping off the restraining cord. When she eyed his gun he knew what was coming.

          He drew – like any good Russian he liked guns and knew how to handle them – and despite his impressive hand speed she knocked it out of his grasp with an open hand chop. Normally he would never hit a lady – his 3 rules were no girl slapping, no baby shaking and no mouth breathing – but this was an exception. Russian Tae Kwon Do was a mix of Korean martial arts and World War 1 trench combat and he went all out. She blocked his attacks, kicked his feet while he was in mid-kick, struck him hard enough in the chest to wind him and threw him down. Soon his hands were tied behind his back.

          She resumed dragon form, flew off and returned with a heavy chain, all while he baked in the sun and provided a meal for some weird insects that looked like praying mantises with iridescent dragonfly wings. She tied one end of the chain to the MiG’s nose gear. He was forced to march alongside her while she hauled his MiG through the desert – the wheels digging furrows in the sand the whole time. Once in her cave he sank down on a bed of coins and rested his aching body – the brief fight had not gone well.

          His MiG-21 sat outside the cave, some lizardmen guarding it, while he remained in the blessedly cool darkness inside, worming his way over to a water-filled urn to drink his fill. When he was done she untied him and provided him with a raw steak. Still in human form, she got dressed in a white velvet robe and cinched it around her waist with a yellow sash. From the wall she selected a sword and belted it around her waist, then watched him as he looked around.

          The cave was opulent. Coins of gold, silver, copper, brass and a metallic light blue littered the floor. Multi-tipped quartz deposits grew from the walls. Stalactites and stalagmites protruded from the ceiling and floor, occasionally meeting in the middle. Swords of every description hung from pegs driven into the limestone walls. Urns of water sat everywhere and he found wine in glass amphorae and small copper barrels. Lizardman guards stood with their backs to the wall, silent and immobile, only their eyes moving. Curved swords hung at their sides and most wore shiny brass chainmail and a few carried elaborate silver shields.

          The lizardmen fascinated him. Their bodies were green and scaled, muscular and heavy-shouldered. Their heads looked like those of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, heavy and sullen with oversized eyes. They were about as tall as him and somehow he didn’t think karate-chopping one on the neck would allow him to escape.

          A frog-headed biped came in and traded a round silver shield for a handful of coins and she gave the shield to one of her guards. Ivan Yanchenko wanted to live, if only to tell someone what he saw there. The baleful gaze of the guards, the glittering hoard of coins, the jewels, rings, goblets and marble eggs – this dragon woman lived like the tzar himself. Ivan swore to himself that one day he would find a way back to Moscow, tell someone and maybe get locked up.

          The yellow-skinned woman put a finger under his chin and tilted his head back. “Tell me,” she hissed in a deep feminine voice, “did you make the clockwork dragon?”

          “No,” he said, smiling and realizing he had a chance. All he had to do was think his way out. “My friend Mikoyan made it, while Gurevich stood around and smoked. Like it? I can get you one if you help me find a way back home.”

          “It lacks thrust,” she hissed. “It can’t fold its wings back as I can for higher speed.” She slapped him across the face, staggering him. “Does it spit lightning?” she asked. “Fire? I out-turned you in the sky because I can flex my body. Your mechanical dragon is rigid and unable to adapt.” She grabbed him by the flight straps as he was about to fall and gave him another few slaps.

          “Well now my feelings are hurt,” he said as she let him go and he fell. She kicked him in the ribs, probably just to iron out his will to resist – he had seen her drag a MiG several miles through the desert and figured she could have killed him with one kick. “Can we make a deal?”

          “Why yes, we can,” she said while 2 of her lizard-headed guards propped him up. “I need a bodyguard, a wingman if you will.”

          “Sure I can do that,” he said, wiping blood from his mouth. “Stay in formation with your wingman, clear her 6 o’clock of enemies and pick her up if she gets shot down. I can do that.”

          “Very nice,” she said, straightening his flight suit and slapping him again. “Can you serve a dragon?”

          “I would love to. No male dragons will get within 10 miles of you, unless you want them to. Like only if they are really wealthy.”

          She laughed, a rich baritone that filled the cave, and her lizard guards laughed as well. “I will repair your clockwork dragon. You will fly alongside me and we will wreak havoc. War comes to Imtrund. A massive build-up occurs on the surface and in the Firmament. A blue covets my cave and I cannot slay him alone. I will leave orders for my guards to tear you to pieces in the event of my death. That will make you a vigilant wingman. You and I will slay Kroloc the Abomination and then you will be free to return home, with a considerable amount of treasure, of course.”

          “This Kroloc you speak of,” he said. “He is a dragon?”

          “His mother is a blue ocean dragon and his father is the demon lord Ixo. His breath weapon causes internal bleeding. He has never been defeated in air combat so we shall set a trap set for him. Come.”

The Lithic Plains

          They walked to the side of the cave. There she had a low table set up with what looked like a sand-filled aquarium loaded with miniature buildings carved out of wood. The tiny windows were of crystal and the fake trees around them appeared to be all handmade. Stuck to the sides of the glass were what looked like floating islands, gorgeous natural rocks dripping with vegetation and with a tower or 2 perched on top. It was one of the best dioramas he had ever seen.

          He smiled at her, trying to put her at ease. “That looks like a nice hobby.”

          She slapped him hard. “It is a new world, fool. Pay attention and when I am Reptile Queen of Imtrund I will find some excuse to keep you alive.” She smacked him again for flinching.

          The only time he got a smile out of her was when he called her queen Selluraphon. It turned out she was a great magician. With a minor summoning spell she summoned a metal golem from a nearby world and he worked the MiG over with his tools, repairing the damage and fabricating new parts as needed, just simple items like hoses, gears and rivets. The golem smoothed over the damaged edges of the MiG where her claw had dug into it. The Fishbed’s wing was mostly internal fuel tanks with stressed aluminum skin pressed over them and some internal honeycombing as the load-bearing structure.

          It was a very simple plane and easy to repair. With his math and engineering background Ivan explained what needed to be done and the automaton did it. Fuel was a different problem and not one she could fix. He had 30 minutes of flight time left and he was very honest about it. A deal was struck – he would help her kill her rival and she would bring him home. At his request she sent a Saurian out to retrieve his pistol. With relief he slid it back into its holster.

          He worried that the guards were going to beat him that night. They surrounded him – heavy-shouldered lizardmen, green and scaled like the lizards of Ural steppes, the vast plains where Cossacks once roamed on horseback before technology rendered them all obsolete. Ivan wondered if the same thing would happen to this world, if gunpowder would one day replace their swords and chainmail. Until then he had bigger things to worry about.

          The tyrannosaur-headed guards stood around him, tapping him gently with their clawed feet. He rose to his feet, tactics flipping through his mind. What good would Tai Kwon Do be against reptiles with vastly different physiologies? He would soon find out. No matter what happened, no matter how bad the violence, he was going to make hurtful lizard wise-cracks as he went down.

          “Yeah?” he drawled, getting ready to take one for the motherland. Instead the guards parted and a female walked up. From the neck down she was human – thin waisted, voluptuous, smooth-skinned, pink and perfect. From the neck up she had the same Tyrannosaurus Rex head as the others, emerald green and scaled. There was no beating – they knew he was their queen’s flying partner and one of the Saurian females wanted to mate with him, purely to gain favor.

          He excused himself, mumbling about an old war injury and they left him alone. He went over to the aquarium, the lovingly and carefully hand-crafted little world. Was it a way for the dragon to pass the time in her cave? Unlikely. What was it? He stared, and stared, and stared. Wind rushed over his body, cooling him, while a smattering of raindrops fell from a stormy sky. Wet sand extended as far as the eye could see. The cave was nowhere to be seen. Instead he stood under a wind-lashed sky, storm clouds overhead. Lighting flickered from cloud to cloud. Above him were floating islands, covered in jungle vegetation and vines.

          A yellow hand yanked him backward and he was again in the cave, water sliding down his face and flight suit. Queen Selluraphon had him roughly by the arm, her beautiful yellow face angry. “I told you to stay away from that,” she hissed, slapping him so hard water droplets flew from the impact. “Dragons don’t believe in arts and crafts.”

          A few days passed and they went over the plan. Her rival was an angry blue dragon of great power. Solitary and hostile creatures, dragons of Imtrund generally fought for territory. Their dragon-sized egos made it difficult for any of them to work together. Early the next morning Queen Selluraphon, Ivan and the Saurian guards stood outside and received the retinue of their rival.

          Centuries ago a female blue dragon had made a power play, an attempt to conquer Imtrund. Dragons could not control their appetites. The logical action would have been for her to quit after half of Imtrund fell under her control, since her army was mostly gone and she had suffered grievous injuries, but to a primeval reptile brain the concept of restraint was too complex. On she marched, her army of spine trolls and Saurian mercenaries at her side. She too had chosen 9 knights – itself a dangerous undertaking. On Imtrund 9 was a sacred number that had to be respected.

          Years earlier an amphibian god – one of the first gods and one of the founders of Imtrund – took 9 knights and sent them into battle. One of his knights was lost and presumed dead in the Swamp of Farsais. Years later, figuring that the knight was long gone, the amphibian god took another knight, transforming one of the Imtrund’s first human females into a powerful hero. Sadly for the amphibian god, the previous knight was not dead – merely imprisoned by some renegade Saurians. Taking 10 knights was fatal, as was breaking 10 oaths, having 10 children or telling 10 lies in one day, etc. The amphibian god died on the spot and the human female knight roamed the land on her land shark, righting wrongs and killing those that needed killing.

          The female blue dragon knew all that and kept careful watch on her 9 knights. They fought for her, slaying her enemies and helping her conquer Imtrund, which in those prehistoric days was mostly reptile and amphibian. Humans were a new race and on shaky ground, only their skill with magic and courage in battle giving them a chance to survive against the older, stronger races.

          With half of Imtrund under her control the female blue dragon and her army banged up against the demonic Lord Ixo and his army of Gibbering Slimes, Rotting Horrorghasts, Murder Chameleons, Vampire Crocs and Insanity Snakes. The 2 armies faced each other for all of Imtrund – swords ready, arrows nocked and shields up. Lord Ixo, for all practical purposes the embodiment of evil on Imtrund, struck a bargain with the blue dragon. If she would become his mate they would join forces and conquer Imtrund together.

          She agreed and all havoc broke loose. Imtrund would always be in a state of balance – the overall power of the good gods would be the same as that enjoyed by the evil gods. There being only one good god on Imtrund, that was the day Obeliskos, god of law and knowledge, gained his greatest powers. Soon he crafted weapons for himself – a helmet, breastplate, sword and gloves, all of silver metal. The biggest change in him that day was his charisma – to look at him was to fall in love with him, at least for most mortals. For that reason he would always wear a helmet in his dealings with mortal men and women. As Lord Ixos felt about wanton killing and rivers red with blood, so Obeliskos felt about peace, solitude and quiet evenings in his divine library.

          Eventually, after years of war, the female blue dragon laid a single egg and the world held its breath in anticipation. The laws of nature were different on Imtrund and the offspring of a dragon and demon could have been either a demi-god or a great dragon. They would not know until the egg hatched. The mother kept it warm, her anger cooling for the first time in her life, and a year later the egg hatched. A metallic blue dragon emerged – no demi-god, no demon. Just a dragon.

          They named him Kroloc, the old dragon word for bloodthirsty. He emerged from their cave ravenous and curious about the world, soon displaying great powers and, in the reptilian way, no interest in his parents. Finding an underwater cave – all dragons on Imtrund could breathe underwater with their gill-lungs – he slept there during the night, wreaking havoc in the ocean and on land during the day.

          As humanity sprawled about Imrund, defying the odds and multiplying, the gods gained strength and fought the Dragon-God war, divine beings against the massive reptiles. The result was cratering all over Imtrund, destroyed cities, earthquakes, new magic spells, new weapons scattered about and new opportunities for mankind. While Kroloc the Bloodthirsty lived in his underwater cave the terrible war raged on. His parents, soon on opposite sides of the war, learned to hate each other. The female blue dragon was killed by some of mankind’s new gods and her body fell to the ocean, a feast for an army of rainbow squid. Lord Ixo suffered a temporary setback and retreated to the underworld, a vast cavern near the center of the planet.

          Kroloc slumbered for several centuries, occasionally emerging from his cave to wreak havoc and destroy cities before returning to the sweet bliss of sleeping underwater. He even killed the aquatic saurian god, although prayers eventually spawned a new one to lead them.

          Deep in the Desert of Isolation, in the hottest part, a yellow dragon laid a clutch of 3 eggs. They came to fruition and 3 beautiful female yellow dragons emerged. One became an acolyte of a powerful human magician and helped form mankind’s first city, Xonda, in the far north. Another went through a vortex to a high-tech world and vied for control of it against jets, artillery guns and helicopters. The last sister, an exceptionally smart dragon named Selluraphon, found a cave in the desert and collected treasure to sprawl upon while she dreamed of one day conquering Imturnd. Whispers of her deeds reached Kroloc in his undersea cave and he woke, emerging to challenge her in aerial combat. Kroloc defeated her and flew back to his undersea cave, leaving the yellow dragon half-dead.

          She retreated to her desert cave to brood, plotting his downfall. That was when the clockwork dragon piloted by Ivan Yanchenko – whom she figured was some sort of artisan mage, or at least friends with one – came into her life. She would use his talents to dispose of Kroloc and pave the way for her Dynasty to begin.

          Ivan Yanchenko stood at attention in front of the cave, his flight suit dry and his lips burned from the arid desert and hot sun. A resplendent chariot of wood and brass came first, pulled by two desert lizards, pack animals bigger than any Russian horse. In the chariot stood a blue-skinned human with a leaf-bladed spear in his hand, a haughty and proud tilt to his head. That was the human form of the metallic blue dragon Kroloc the Bloodthirsty.

          Behind him strode Octopoid Paladins, a group of armored cephalopods armed with golden swords and helms. Behind them came some fallen clerics of Obeliskos astride their large red salamander steeds. No longer serving the god of law and knowledge, they sold their dirty souls to the dragon Kroloc yet still retained the healing powers granted to them by Obeliskos during happier times.

          Next came tall, majestic human women with monarch butterfly wings protruding from their backs. Those were the result of pixies mating with humans, a rare and infertile breed. Their feet never seemed to touch the ground despite the gentle beat of their wings.

          Last came 2 Emerald Snake-men, as tall as a human, their tails trailing behind them. Born of the union between a snake god and a human female paladin, the race of snake-men lived on the other continent of Imtrund. Looking like a snake with 2 scaled arms, they slithered about, easily keeping pace with the retinue. Each had a gold chain around its waist that held a cruel gladiator sword.

          The blue-skinned humanoid bowed. “I am Kroloc, eternally bloodthirsty and ready for combat at all times. I have killed 13 dragons in single combat, 41 humans and uncountable numbers of monsters. Bend your knee or die, Selluraphon.”

          The yellow-skinned woman – still beautiful to Ivan, even if she was a dragon – bowed first then spoke. “I am Queen Selluraphon, rightful ruler of Imtrund. I have killed 17 humans in single combat and vast numbers of spine trolls, Ravenous Hallucinators, Frogosaur Knights, a Nightmare Chimera and a Philosophy spider. Once I killed a human woman for combing my hair improperly. My mate and I, the sky-lord Ivan Yanchenko, challenge you to single combat. He in his clockwork dragon, you and I in our true forms.”

          “I accept.” Behind him the host of Kroloc cheered, raising their weapons and issuing a raucous cacophony. The blue-skinned human dismounted from his chariot, transformed into an immense, huge, muscular metallic blue dragon and ran through the desert, picked up speed and leaped into the air.

          “Remember the plan?” Queen Selluraphon asked Ivan.

          “Yes,” he said. “Remember our deal?”

Flying Over the Dragon’s Lair

          She smiled, showing sharp reptilian teeth. “If we prevail I send you home.” She clapped him on the shoulder and transformed into a dragon, once again the sinuous yellow reptile that he had caught fishing in Russian coastal waters. Which technically was illegal.

          While the yellow and blue dragons circled each other in the sky Ivan ran to his MiG. Pre-flight checks would have to wait for another day. If the yellow dragon died without him it would be a 1v1 and he wasn’t looking forward to that. A button at the top of the main gear raised the canopy and cycled the engine up. Lights came on in the cockpit as the canopy lowered and he strapped himself in. Lucky for him Russian jets excelled at rough airstrip take-offs – wider tires and less air pressure. If it had been a Tomcat that had chased the dragon through the vortex it would have been stuck in the desert until someone built a concrete runway.

          Ivan throttled forward, released the brakes and moved his eyes as far forward as he could, to see obstacles as soon as possible. With minor stick adjustments he went around a few rocks and then he was airborne, sand spraying out behind him like a rooster’s tail until he gained altitude.

          The 2 dragons circled each other and something told him if he lost there would be no mercy from a reptile. Ivan flew in, keeping his continuously computed impact point – a circle on his HUD showing where his bullets would land – on the blue beastie. At 1 mile out he squeezed the trigger, 23 mm shells spraying out at Mach 2. The blue dragon arched his back and flew upwards, curving his body in the direction of the turn. The yellow dragon was in hot pursuit and it looked like the good guys were going to win.

          The blue dragon entered a Spiral Climb, expanding the diameter of his turn with every rotation. The yellow tried to keep up but couldn’t and fell back. Wanting to keep up the pressure – half of his time in the Russian Airforce had been training in 2v1s where it was 2 Fishbeds against 1 simulated Eagle, either played by a Flanker or an Iranian Tomcat – and he knew what to do. When one Fishbed fell away the other had to drag his nose against the enemy to prevent the Eagle from getting a gun solution or sidewinder growl. At that moment Ivan liked the blue demon dragon less than the American jets.

          Ivan got a growl in his headset – his heatseekers had an infrared lock. He released one and watched it fishtail a few seconds through the air and then fly true. Sadly, the blue dragon saw it coming and rolled right, doing a snap barrel roll and the missile missed. The blue dragon came straight at him, growing larger in his windscreen and moving neither right nor left. Left unchecked it would be a collision.

          Ivan fired off a few more seconds of cannon fire and hauled the stick back at the last second, leaping over the dragon and narrowly missing a mid-air collision. The yellow beastie was at his rescue, flying at the blue and breathing a shimmering cone of noise. Capable of knocking down armies of human knights, it deafened the blue for a few seconds and disoriented him. He shook it off and wheeled around in pursuit.

          The yellow tried to land on his back and claw him to death. She got in a couple of bloody swipes but the blue dragon rolled over on his back – both reptiles moving at over 500 miles an hour – and clawed back, leaving deep cuts in her face and neck. With a tail swipe he smacked her hard and she departed from controlled flight, tumbling down as if injured.

          Ivan engaged afterburner and surged forward, the acceleration pinning him in his seat. He loosed a second heat seeker and while it was in flight he fired his cannon, the shells spreading more than they should have because of excessive barrel wear. In Russia, politically connected pilots received new barrels and integrated circuits. Pilots on the way down did not. Only a handful of cannon shells hit home but blood spurted from the impact points and the blue dragon screamed like a wounded banshee. The heatseeker looked like it would have hit had the blue dragon not rolled over and dove toward the ground, the missile flung out of the fight when it could not match the hard turn.

          The yellow dragon recovered and pulled up, barely avoiding the desert surface. She got back into the fight, moving fast, rolling slightly to keep her target in front of her. It was a standard bracket fight – the blue dragon could only attack one target and the other would attack him. It was the only way 2 Fishbeds could defeat an Eagle in a fair fight but it worked.

          The blue demon dragon went after the yellow and chased her through a horizontal 2-circle fight. Ivan waited until the right moment and fell in behind the blue, opening up with his internal cannon. He fired until the chamber was empty, getting a few good hits in, blood spattering out from the impact points. The blue dragon tumbled for a bit, out of control, curling up into a ball and rolling forward. Ivan throttled back but his MiG overshot the dragon. Grabbing the towel rack along the right side of the cockpit, installed for that purpose, Ivan turned around to see if it was dead.

          It was not. The blue dragon uncurled, straightened up and pursued him, accelerating hard. Ivan pulled a Double Cuban-8 and the dragon followed him through the loops. With his afterburner engaged, burning his precious fuel at 5 times the normal rate, the accomplished Russian pilot – winner of the Hero of the Soviet Union award – entered a post-stall turn, hoping that the dragon knew nothing about advanced aeronautical theory and would not be able to follow him through it. Sadly the blue dragon used a lag pursuit – pointing his nose behind the MiG’s tail, not in front of it. That ensured the dragon, with his superior speed, would eventually be on the MiG’s 6 o’clock position and heading in the same direction.

          Ivan put his MiG-21 through every airshow trick he had ever learned, looping and stall-turning and pulling out of an Immelmann so close to the ground he kicked sand out behind his jet, frustrating the pursuing blue for a few seconds. Again the yellow dragon landed on the blue’s back, grabbing his neck and trying to rip it off. Dragons were so strong, second only to gods on Imtrund’s food chain, that much dragon-on-dragon violence had been solved that way. The blue dragon rolled over again and grabbed the yellow’s hind leg, throwing Queen Selluraphon forward. She departed controlled flight and tumbled to the ground, hitting the sand hard and coming to a stop.

          Ivan surged upwards, trying to remember everything he could about reptiles. Dropping flares to blind its infrared vision and cut his throttle to zero at the top of his arc, rolled over, pointed his nose at the blue and throttled forward, his cannon empty and a controlled collision his only chance. It was done routinely in The Great Patriotic War – why did the Americans call it World War 2? History was full of wars. Who got to decide which were world-spanning and which were not? His grandfather had given his life ramming a Luftwaffe bomber over Moscow and now it was Ivan’s turn to join him.

          He was a good pilot. Executing a rapid barrel roll, the blue dragon’s sonic breath weapon missing him by only a few feet and still screwing up the electronics in his cockpit, Ivan straightened up at the last second and flashed past the dragon, the Fishbed’s wing colliding with the dragon’s torso. Ivan had expected his jet’s wing to cut into the dragon’s body, slicing through muscle and bone. Not on Imtrund. Dragons existed to maintain the balance – as the gods grew stronger, so did the dragons. As the gods weakened, the dragons became less fertile and fewer in number. Thus balance was maintained.

          Ivan’s wing was torn off, liquid fuel spilling out and forming a vaporous, watery cloud. The wounded MiG rotated down at high speed, about to auger its way into the desert like a drill bit cutting through sand and dirt. Swallowing his bitter disappointment he pulled the ejection handles, the canopy blowing off and the seat rockets kicking him upwards. The seat fell away and he drifted downwards under his parachute, the boom from his jet’s collision loud in his ears and painful in so many ways.

          The yellow dragon had staggered to her feet and was wiping at her head with one claw. Ivan landed about a mile away and ran toward her, a plan forming as he fell into a jog. Russia made sure its pilots were in good shape – the Americans were always getting into trouble somewhere and had the best fighter pilots in the world. Russia pilots were trained to eject, return to base and resume the war in a new jet as fresh MiGs came off the assembly line. Ivan had not been trained to be a quitter.

          By the time he reached her the yellow dragon was on her back. The blue dragon stood over her, one foot on her chest, blood sliding down from the interface between each of the blue toe talons and the yellow’s chest. The blue dragon had one arm cradled against his chest where part of his rib protruded from the mid-air collision. “Wait,” said the Russian, barely breathing hard.

          “I kill you next,” growled the muscular blue dragon. “I rip your organs out and feed them to you until you stop twitching.”

          “I know where her treasure is,” said Ivan.

          “In her cave, idiot?”

          “No,” said Ivan. “I’ve watched her leaving at night. Alone. Even her guards don’t know where it is. If they did they could steal it. I trailed her once and I think I can find where it is buried. She mentioned a couple of thousand gold coins.”

          “I will tear your head off and mount it on a decapitated sinraptor. If my cleric’s Chain Healing spell works you will spend the rest of your life in the forest, an abomination even to the bleeding spine trolls. Or you can tell me where it is, without bargaining.”

          “It’s there,” said Ivan, pointing behind it. The blue dragon turned and Ivan – one of the quickest draws in his battalion – drew and fired his Makarov, emptying the whole clip into the back of the dragon’s head. As his empty pistol clicked a few times the blue dragon turned, raised a clawed limb and fell backward, dead. A sinuous, insubstantial lizard ghost rose out of the corpse and into the sky.

          The yellow dragon returned to her human form and rose to her feet, wiping blood from her mouth. “Well done human. You may pick any of the Saurian females to mate with. Several of them hovered over you while you slept, whispering about whom would mate with you first.”

          “No thank you, my queen,” said Ivan, bowing.

          “The male Saurians then?”

          “I’d just like to return home. I believe we had a bargain, your majesty?”

          “Yes of course. Can you build another clockwork dragon?” she asked.

          “No, your majesty. Nor can I see these vortices you speak of. I do not have infravision, as the majestic dragons do.”

          “Come into the cave, brave human, and take your reward.”

          Together they walked back into the cool darkness of her lair, thousands of coins glittering in the few rays of sunlight that slanted in. Saurian guards milled about, discreetly taking up positions to block the exit. “Come,” said the Queen, stretching out her yellow arms, her snake’s tongue flickering out of her mouth. “Let me show you my prized possession.” She brought him over to a tall glass amphora – a long-necked vase with a fattened bottom half. There seemed to be a diorama inside it. Ivan leaned in to get a closer look.

          Ivan stood before a great castle, blue sky all around him. Gone was the cave and the oppressive desert heat. Of the treacherous yellow dragon there was no sign. He was in a new world. To the left was a vast forest. To the right some tree-sized ferns and an ocean shoreline. He explored on foot, figuring that no Russian Hind was coming to pick him up this time.

          As the hours turned into days he explored the vast castle, its rooms full of tools, coins and weapons. The nearby forest held peaceful woodland creatures – butterfly-winged women, bookish chameleon-men, water elementals and thousands of rabbits and other game suitable for human consumption. As the days turned into months he slew the occasional barbed troll and rescued some of the butterfly-winged females, more than one of them showing great appreciation later in the evening.

          As the months turned into years he took a butterfly-winged spouse, forgot about the yellow dragon, forgot about his military training and focused on keeping his kingdom intact in the face of spine troll incursions and sporadic attacks by a band of adventurers composed of minotaurs and screaming land squids. He smiled after each battle – his wounds healed up without the benefit of medical technology and every time peace came to his kingdom an Aquatic Horror would clamber out of the ocean, looking to challenge his rule or just to kill his butterfly-winged peasants. The Aquatic Horror looked like a Portuguese man-o’-war but with lobster claws dangling beneath it instead of tentacles. It also sang poetry as it fought. As he thrust his sword into them the Aquatic Horrors usually thanked him for ending their horrid existence or composed a nice Haiku commemorating the moment. Ivan came to enjoy killing them.

          Once he took some guards and explored to the edge of his kingdom, finding only desert. He returned home and had to finish a minor war between his castle guards and a pack of serpentine lightning-magicians. It was a hard fight and even his wife came out in her silver chain mail to fight alongside him. The serpents were killed and the last one begged for its life, becoming his advisor and saving his life a few times in the next war.

          His wife bore him a daughter – a beautiful butterfly-winged girl – and Ivan taught her all about leadership, loyalty, kindness, courage and logic. He made a board and taught her chess to prepare her for the military campaigns that lay ahead. For perhaps the first time in his life, as he grew old, Ivan was happy.

          Back in the cave of Queen Selluraphon, she and one of the female Saurians stood in front of the glass amphorae, staring. Inside was a miniature castle, a forest of tiny trees made of dry grass and scrub, a pool of water and some sand. “The human is stuck in there?” asked the Saurian female. She had had a crush on Ivan.

          “Yes,” replied the yellow dragon, still in human form. For her the battle against Kroloc the blue dragon had taken place only a minute ago. “The vortex he came through winked out a few hours after he came to our world. I looked for it at night and there was no sign of it. This world in a bottle was but a simple spell. I gave him a castle, a large world, some randomly generated oceanic enemies and a forest full of loyal peasants.”

          “Why did you put him in there?” asked the Saurian.

          “I could not break my oath,” said Queen Selluraphon. “So I made him a home and sent him there.”

          “What happens if the bottle breaks one day?” asked the Saurian. “He will come tumbling out, angry at being trapped in a bottle.”

          “No, my daughter,” said the dragon. “With these bottle worlds a minute in our reality is a decade in theirs. I hope he is happy.”