Emerging as an adult dragonfly was more painful than Ollo had anticipated. His new tail whipped out like a bamboo shoot, its nerve endings raw and overstimulated. His wings sprung as four wet twigs, blistering with sensation. As he pulled off his previous skin, the world arrived blank — a vast, white landscape completely lacking in depth and shape.
Oh no. Did my eyes not form?
His first breaths of air escaped in a stuttering cough from his new, mandible-framed mouth. Ollo reached close, trying to feel for the new compound eyelets he was promised. He rubbed, and brushed.
Ollo climbed away from his molt, searching for a horizon. The reed he had chosen for his ecdysis was tall, but despite reaching its bushy top, he could not spot any sun. Nor any shadows. Nor any variance in the all-pervading white.
Oh no, no, no.
He began to slap his eyes, hoping to puncture through the white haze to find some hint of color. After a dozen hits, a minuscule bruise appeared in his vision, purple in hue. He slapped harder, and the bruise stretched into a diagonal slash. After countless more strikes, Ollo could feel his claw pierce the top layer of his broken eye. The pain was excruciating. He screamed, moaned, and eventually rejoiced.
The sun flashed back into existence, exposing surrounding greenery. The pond of his childhood shone like a divine mirror, illuminating the air filled with his tribe. Countless dragonflies zipped and soared above him, embodying the adulthood he had long been promised. Oh, thank you, Lady Meganeura, dearest Ancestor. I will treasure this gift of sight forever.
A yellow-tipped tigertail landed to greet him, shaking the reed Ollo clung to. The shiny chitin across her abdomen was paralyzing to behold; it put his mono-colored plating (common for a red darner such as him) to shame. Her slender, plant-like antennae were the most beautiful things Ollo had ever seen.
"Hello?" The tigertail eventually asked, slowly tilting her head. "Ollo? Is that you?"
Ollo fidgeted out of his spell. "Yes. Yes, I am Ollo. How did you know?"
"Because I can see your old skin right there," Her antennae gestured to the larval coat that still dangled from his tail. "I could recognize your stumpy old self anywhere. It's me. Imura."
Ollo was aghast. This wondrous female had been one of his companions in the pond. A survival partner. They had eaten waterscum, chased diving beetles, and shared pond-lores. "Wow. I would have never have … Imura, hello."
She brought her mandibles to a smile and did a small spin on the reed's tip. "Welcome to adulthood! I heard you might be eclosing today and thought I'd see for myself."
"Oh, yes, I eclosed a few panels ago." He turned to hide his wounded eye. "It was all very easy: just a matter of shedding the babyskin." Ollo tried to shrug in an attempt at nonchalance, but the movement sent a wave of crinkles across his new tail. The fresh pain made him squeal.
"Stop." Imura grabbed his limbs. "You want to avoid moving until you're fully set; your skin isn't dry."
The tingling made him wince.
"It'll be over soon. And once you're ready, I'd be happy to give the grand tour."
"Grand ... tour?"
She gestured toward the sky. "You won't believe how high this place is. There's food, flying, sunbathing, and today" — she arched her spine, displaying a black ornament saddling her back — "I'll be joining my second official race! Isn't that exciting?"
Ollo smiled, trying his best to mask his pain and embarrassment; this was all so new to him. He wiped his damaged eye with one arm and then realized Imura still held the other.
"Don't move too fast," she said. "Let your body fully harden. It's easy to get over-excited."
He gently retracted his arm, appreciating the sight of her closeness. She didn't even mention the wound that crossed his eye.
After the sun passed two more panels, Ollo was able to lift off and follow Imura. He learned much about his new body by studying hers. She fluttered four mighty, translucent wings, each blessed with flexible, intricate veins. Her eyes were so pretty they embraced each other, forming a gorgeous spherical helmet. Do all adults emerge this smitten?
Imura explained that all of the exercises they had practiced as pond-nymphs — the circuit swimming, the stroking, the diving — it all still applied as an adult. Only instead of arms tiredly paddling through water, they now had wings, effortlessly slicing through the air.
"The longer you fly, the warmer you might feel, so if you ever get too hot" — Imura dove down, skimming the pond water across her tail — "you just go for a fly-by."
Ollo was ecstatic. The boundaries of life had been so limited by their tiny pond, and now what limits were there? He was finally free to soar wherever he wished, free to explore countless ponds and feed upon all-new prey.
"I'd like to thank you, you know," Imura said, guiding their flight upwards. "Back in the pond, I never did figure out how to snare diving beetles. I might've starved if it weren't for your scraps. And then I never would have experienced all this."
Ollo rubbed his head, returning to his memories from their youth. "Those scraps? Oh, that was nothing. I just shared what the pond shared with all of us."
Back then, he had been a natural, and he hoped his underwater propensities would translate to his adult world. But even if they didn't, the joy of untethered travel was all he could ask for.
She guided their flight higher, towards the overcast sky. "Come, every new adult should see this — the panels up close."
Ollo looked up. He had always been intrigued by the latticework of those heavenly lines. In the pond, they would count the panels as the sun went by to determine the time of day. He assumed they were part of the clouds somehow.
"See? The panels coalesce together, forming the ceiling of our dome."
"Ceiling?" Ollo asked. "What do you — " THUD. An invisible force smacked Ollo. A curved coldness of calcified air. He faltered in his flight, his wings knocked off-rhythm, until he could correct enough to hover next to Imura.
"I mean this," she said. "The ceiling. It's made of something the elders call glass."
Ollo skirted around the smooth material, looking to see how each panel linked to form a larger whole. "But wait a moment. I thought … I thought that …"
"I know." Imura skittered along the panel — the glass — edges. "It's a common misconception that we could reach out there." She pointed beyond the glass, towards a vastness of fields and rocks. "But, as it turns out, you have to earn your entry to The Outside."
"The Outside?" Ollo rubbed his eyes, trying to process the information.
"The pond elders don't teach this to nymphs." Imura sighed. "It's too difficult to explain something that must really be seen to understand." She scratched the cold surface. "As it turns out, adults mostly live beneath the glass, inside this dome."
Ollo focused his new eyes for the first time. With their wider periphery, he could make out the curvature of this glass world. It enwrapped everything spherically, end-to-end. How very small. "So wait ... What happened? When was The Outside taken away?"
"Taken away?" Imura smoothed her antennae in confusion. "You don't understand: we were given The Outside. It's not a punishment. It's a reward." She walked the edge of a silver panel. "The Great Ancestor Meganeura first gave us the pond so that we may condition ourselves to the dome. And once we mastered the dome, she awarded us The Outside."
Ollo had always assumed that beyond the pond was freedom, not another enclosure. He looked beyond the glass again, at the beautiful openness. "So then, how do we get there?"
"Oh, we get tastes of it," Imura said. "Every seven days, The Ancestor sends Envoys. Those of us who qualify for the next race are selected to compete Outside."
Ollo scratched his head, flabbergasted.
Imura smirked. "You never did listen during pond-lores, did you?"
He turned away his scarred eye. Remembering teachings was not his strength.
"If you see anyone with this signet, it means they've qualified to compete Outside." Imura arched her spine, flaunting the strange, black ornament between her wings. "I myself have worked very hard, and seven days ago, an Envoy selected me, you see — planted this right on my back."
The obsidian thing looked like a long additional limb to Ollo. An absurd spine-antenna, like a parasite.
"And if you train the same," Imura continued, "and prove yourself a worthy racer, you'll get one as well."
A feeling of discouragement stabbed Ollo. As if something wonderful had just been spoiled. Adulthood was supposed to be bliss. Where dragons could freely roam and engage in pleasure, not some never-ending gauntlet of work and training.
"Was it always like this?"
Imura tilted her head. "The Ancestor has always wanted her dragons to be as fast as her. We race to prove our best."
Ollo flattened himself against the glass, feeling its containment. Had he been pining for a life that never existed?
"I have this strange memory," he said. "Only it's not really a memory, because it hasn't happened. More of a feeling. That we were supposed to live Outside, and exist there with no expectations. Just roaming about. A paradise unbound."
"I don't know where you get such ideas." Imura readied her wings. "But don't worry Ollo; it's not as difficult as it sounds. If you start your flight training now, you'll qualify for racing in a few short days."
They flew to a grassy meadow beneath the dome. The area was peppered with mushrooms and rotting wood. Imura slowed to glide above a shiny mass of fractal shapes. It was a confusing, indistinguishable blob to Ollo's eyes. But upon coming closer, he understood it was just a large crowd of dragonflies, their legs and wings shuffling in an amoeba-like crowd.
After some searching, they found standing room on some flat wood. Ollo realized their kin were all trying to squeeze onto the surface of a very small tree stump.
"As you can tell, this is a popular vantage point," Imura said. "Here, you can watch the fastest practice course in all the dome. It circles this pecan stump and that far tuft of broomsedge; do you see it?"
Beyond the many dragonfly wings, Ollo spotted a distant plume of yellow grass. Its fronds shook, and a set of shimmers bolted through. The shimmers blurred into fast-approaching shapes. Racers.
They moved like beams of light; Ollo's eyes could barely resolve the swerving palette of green, purple, and brown blurs. The audience turned as one as the colors rounded the stump's curve. Up close, Ollo noticed each of the cross-shaped racers had the same black signet wedged to their backs.
"So … they've all been outside?"
"That's right," Imura said. "I've faced many of them before."
The crowd shifted as the speeding dragons whipped back into the broomsedge. The grass swayed with sharp, technical movements.
"I've spent just as many days training as I have observing," Imura said. "You catch that green emperor in the lead? He's our current champion. Gharraph."
Ollo readied his eyes on the broomsedge and watched as the blades split apart, releasing a massive green blur. He was a giant, three times the size of anyone else. No wonder he's so fast.
Ollo watched as this Gharraph entered a slow, decorous landing on the first place mushroom. His body weighed down its white cap, and his wings layered neatly at his sides. The other competitors spared no such dignity, crashing aggressively upon the remaining fungi and fighting for the lower ranks. The audience applauded with buzzing and snapping. Ollo couldn't help but join in.
"Exciting, isn't it?" Imura watched the crowd members flutter off toward the racers. "Well, this is where we part," she said. "I'm entering the next wave."
Ollo stopped his cheering.
"I recommend you fly by the fern." She pointed behind them. "You can enter the novice trials there. It's a great place to learn the basics."
Ollo focused all attention on Imura. Is this it then? Tour over?
"You'll want to train among those at your level," Imura said. "In time, you'll progress to here."
The last thing Ollo wanted was for Imura to leave, but he could not display weakness. He rubbed his face, turned his damaged eye away, and put on a cheery look. "Of course, yes … that's all good advice. Thank you, Imura. Thank you so much."
"Perhaps we'll cross paths again, old pond-scum, when we're both elders, recounting our glory days."
They exchanged some laughter (though Ollo's was forced), and then the most wonderful creature he'd ever met lifted her wings and flew off towards the mushrooms, leaving Ollo feeling alone amongst a crowd of hundreds.
It was odd that he probably knew many in the crowd from his pond-days, but with their adult forms, everyone was unrecognizable. A stranger in my own tribe, he thought. How does everyone go through this?
He tracked Imura for as long as he could, honing his new sight as she flew to congratulate the previous racers, brushing by their backs and antennae. The last racer she visited was a mud-brown damselfly, who appeared to be missing a leg ... or two?
Hold on. Ollo scratched his head for memory. He had trouble remembering pond-lores, but pond-friends he could never forget. Missing front claws? Could that be Four-Legged-Flax? Ecdysis would not have regrown his limbs. It might be the only friend he could recognize.
"Hey!" Ollo called. But a volley of wings obscured everything again.
"Next Wave! Next Wave!" The crowd was growing impatient. By the time Ollo could see again, Imura stood alone on the mushroom, with the new racers close by, their wings spread apart.
Tails beside Ollo began drumming excitedly, and as the drumming grew faster, Ollo felt compelled to contribute his own. The volume increased, and soon the sound of the drumming resembled the buzzing of flight, as if the pecan stump were about to lift off.
Gharraph, sitting on the stump's edge, leapt upward, waving his arms. "Under Meganeura's light, may the fiercest win, and may the next wave … BEGIN!"
The new line of racers broke off in a closely-bumping pack. Ollo carefully discerned the black-and-yellow stripes and tracked their particular tigertail shine.
In moments, the racers bolted around the broomsedge, brushing the grass in all directions. They returned as a group, their arms grappling and pushing each other. Ollo studied the flight formations, the way their wings angled during turns, and the way they aligned themselves sideways. It was mesmerizing. She was mesmerizing. The sun managed to slink past several panels while he watched. Ollo wondered if Imura would ever see him as a viable mate, or if he'd spend forever catching up, stuck as a dimwitted novice.
Even if I started now, trained without stopping ... would I ever match her rank?
The relay was on its last lap, with Imura in third place, but a single cry interrupted everything.
"Envoys! Envoys from The Ancestor!"
A unifying gasp surged through the crowd. Heads and tails turned from the broomsedge to the commotion at the southern end of the stump. A darnerfly hovered, pointing at a trio of large, alien somethings in the distance.
Ollo came late to the crowd's shift and tried to understand what everyone saw, but by the time wings and tails lifted, his vision became a fractal blur of shadows and excitement.
In all of Sergeant Teresa Zhao's twenty-year career, this was the most ridiculous vendor she'd ever met. She had assumed upon arrival that the gimmicky nature of "insect reconnaissance" would soon wear off; but instead, through every grating minute of the tour, she found herself biting her tongue, chewing her lips, or digging into the softest part of her palms. Never before had she needed to fight the urge to scoff so vehemently.
"You see them flying in circles like that?" The facility director, Devlin Diggs, pointed. "They're trying to impress us."
Teresa observed the oval of dragonflies loop between some stump on the ground and a bunch of dead straw. It wasn't impressive; it was absurd. It felt absurd to be standing in a billion-dollar greenhouse designed exclusively for bugs. It felt absurd to have flown all the way here for such a childish thing.
"All the insects in our Entodome have been sprayed with nootropic since they were larvae." Diggs pointed at sprinklers along the glass ceiling. "It allows us to train them, tame them, and make them our own." He pushed his silver cart ahead, beckoning his skittish assistant to take over.
"Cesar here has been studying dragonflies for years," Diggs explained, patting the odonatologist's back. The young man accepted and gave Teresa a quick, wordless nod.
"It's Cesar who decides which flyers get our next set of transceivers." Diggs smiled. "I'm proud to say our company's been able to help direct his 'Dragondrone' program from theoretical to practical applications."
Practical. That's a strong word, Teresa thought. If all her years of R&D — all that arguing for nickels and dimes — had taught her anything, it was to choose your investments wisely. Defend your opinions. And in her opinion, right now, this experimental prattle was the exact opposite of practical.
Cesar brought the barbecue-esque cart to a halt and flipped open its top. The curved lid squeaked to one side, and the dragonflies swarmed over it.
"Once a week, we've been visiting these flyers and selecting a few for field tests. It's why they're so eager to land on our docking tray."
Cesar stepped back as row after row of dragonflies lined up on the steel platform. The young scientist drew a silver pair of forceps.
"Cesar studies the dragonflies' motility and makes note of which specimens are ready," Devlin's gloved hand pointed as he spoke. "We only want the best to become drones."
Teresa searched past her derision for a compliment; no matter who the vendor was, she did represent the Air Force and had to maintain some degree of composure. "Well, for a bunch of insects, I'll say they seem to obey your nudging quite well."
Cesar nodded, gently separating them into straight columns.
"Yes, well, Cesar's been following this protocol every week now." Digg's voice had turned professorial. "The dragonflies expect this. They've gotten familiar with our little uh…" He flicked his hands as if commanding an orchestra. "Program. Each week, Cesar adds around a dozen new pilots to our fleet by equipping them with a transceiver. Show her, Cesar."
The young man held up what looked like a black grain of rice that jutted with pins and antennae. He gave one to Teresa. She squeezed it between thumb and forefinger, testing its durability. It would not break.
Cesar then used a combination of forceps and fingers to attach a transceiver to a reddish dragonfly, ensuring the pins were properly set into the tiny back of the insect.
"Once the packs are on," Diggs said, "We're set. GPS, radio control, the works."
Cesar extended the small antenna on the dragonfly's pack with a small tug. He pulled it side-to-side, testing for stability.
"So the packs do what, exactly?" Teresa asked. "Drill into their brains? Convert them into RC planes?"
Diggs laughed. "No, no, nothing as extravagant as that." His pudgy fingers pointed at one of the insect's spines. "Along their backs are light-sensitive steering neurons. Our packs merely output light into their spines, which in turn stimulate neuromuscular circuits in their wings, directing them wherever we want."
"So it's what … some kind of guidance system?"
"To borrow a military phrase: we're giving orders."
Teresa didn't appreciate this borrowing. "Orders can be disobeyed."
"Oh yes, and some of the earlier breeds were disobedient. But we've spent a long time narrowing down to the species who follow orders like eager air cadets." Diggs produced a salute, almost losing balance for a moment. "The ones you see before you are just this case."
Teresa didn't know if her palms could withstand any more clenching.
Oh no. Oh no. Oh no, no, no.
Ollo froze in panic, afraid of tarnishing his valuable new body. Shadows had immobilized him with dark metal. What's going on?
Moments ago, he had spotted Imura and dove after her, landing on the bright, shining platform she and the crowd had dove toward. But before he could crawl closer to her, powerful gloved worms grabbed him and applied something sharp to his back.
It felt tight. Uncomfortable. A blare of ultraviolet colors invaded his vision. He tried to move, but the lights blared with increasing intensity.
There were other dragons all struggling with the same befuddlement, except instead of being shocked and horrified, they became inexplicably overjoyed.
"Thank you, great Ancestor," he heard someone murmur.
"Bless you, Lady Meganeura, for selecting me!" said another.
When the dizzying lights settled, Ollo realized the dragonfly next to him was being granted a signet.
Oh no, Ollo thought. He reached and grazed his spine. He felt a pebble-like bump with a wire jutting from its centre. He had been selected for racing. Like Imura.
Oh Lady Meganeura, Great Ancestor of the Sky, I don't know what I've done to be selected as worthy. But I … I will do my best to honor your decision. I swear. I'll try!
The Envoys produced a roof for the landing platform, and in an instant, all went dark. Thanks to his magnificent new eyes, Ollo could make out the scores of outlined racers from the light seeping through the edges of the container.
There came a rumbling, which caused the thin cracks of light to dither and strobe. We're moving. But Where? Oh no. Oh, Great Ancestor. You're taking me out? Beyond the glass? Already?!
Several occupants lost their footing amidst the rumble. Ollo collided with the faint, mud-brown color of someone with four legs.
"Watch where you're tripping."
"Hey… Flax? Is that you?"
The damselfly turned, tilting his head.
"Yes, thank you; and no, I don't need consolation for losing the practice relay. Keh."
"No Flax, you don't understand: it's me! Ollo!"
"Ollo? As in ... the dullard?" Flax came to peer closer "How in Mega's name did you survive the pond?"
Ollo smiled, happy to be recognized.
"You were the dumbest nymph I knew," Flax said. "When did you eclose?"
Flax laughed, "Keh. Right. Of course; you eclosed today, and now you're about to Race."
"I know. It's hard to believe."
"You're being serious?"
"Is that a problem?'
"Ollo. You're going straight from the pond to The Outside?"
"It appears so."
"You dullard! You're going to be annihilated!"
Ollo shrugged, his smooth skin no longer crinkling like before. "Well I don't expect to come in first, but — "
"No, you don't understand." Flax's eyes somehow bulged wider. "You will be exploded if you're too slow."
"What do you mean?"
The damselfly shook his head. "Keh. Heh. Elder Desmik tried to teach you. 'Brain of a gnat,' he said. I'm surprised you didn't kill yourself during ecdysis.'"
Ollo turned to hide his scar.
"You poor dullard." Flax sighed. "Mega knows how you got this far. Listen, As soon as the gates open, grab my tail. We'll fly tandem."
"What do you mean? Does that work?"
"We'll be a little slower, but it'll work."
"What about your rank?"
Flax spewed laughs. "Keh. Heh. Were you watching the stump relays? I fly like a winged termite. My rank is awful. I'm more concerned about your life, dullard. You're going to get exterminated."
The fleshy centers in both of Teresa's palms were starting to bruise. Diggs' spiel had somehow transported them outside the Entodome, out to an open field not far from the facility parking lot. He was now directing her attention to the mobile "Dragondrone hangar" (which still looked more like a barbecue than anything else), where Cesar held his hands above the latch.
"Now this. This is one of my favorite parts." Diggs smirked, his arms held behind his lab coat. "It's what fills seats at every expo."
Teresa fought the urge to groan. Oh, just get on with it. She watched as Cesar opened their little "hangar" and unleashed a cloud of bewildered dragonflies into the air. It was a mass of confused movement.
Well, here goes. This is where they all fly off. Bye Bye.
But to Teresa's surprise, The dragonfly horde swirled into one precise shape, unifying and shooting forward like a directed puff of smoke.
Diggs stepped in front of the now-empty barbecue. "You see that pole they're aiming for?" He pointed at a metallic pylon in the distance. "They'll be upon it shortly. We program their transceivers to fly back and forth between these two points." He motioned again to the barbecue. "It allows us to perform some baseline inspection. You know: quality control."
Teresa nodded slowly, not really in awe, but in a bemused sort of devastation. How on earth could this be sustainable? The enemy might as well release children with fly swatters. Or frogs. She tried to think of something to ask, to convince herself this afternoon hadn't been a huge waste of her time. She turned to Cesar with an open palm. "So … how long do they live for?"
The assistant clearly hadn't been expecting to talk. "Um. Well, it depends," he said. "Most of them? Twelve months."
Only a year? Teresa bit her tongue. "Can they handle extreme climates?"
"Well, it depends." His eyes stared at the ground. "What kind?"
She fought the urge to face-palm. We're fighting in the arctic, what kind do you think?
Devlin quickly intervened. "We can breed them to survive near anything. And the beauty is, they'll always feed themselves! Infinite battery power."
Teresa's mind kept finding more holes to poke. "And if there isn't any food? What then?"
"Oh, they'll hunt anywhere," Diggs said with a certainty. "Flies and mosquitoes exist on every continent, which makes our Dragondrones extremely versatile. All terrain."
Is he trying to sell me a car? She turned before her annoyance could show and pretended to watch the line of insects returning from the shiny pylon.
On second thought, a car wouldn't be so bad. I could drive it straight to the airport, instead of waiting for the courtesy vehicle after this flea circus.
"Use your wings!" Flax yelled, swaying the tail that Ollo gripped. "It only works if you flap in tandem with me!"
Ollo tried, but he was having trouble synchronizing his muscles. He panicked as they sputtered awkwardly, beginning to plunge. The shadows of the three Envoys stood tall and still in the distance: judging on behalf of The Ancestor.
Oh no, oh no, oh no, no, no.
Ollo focused and very quickly discovered his panic doubled as an effective metronome.
Oh - no. Up - down. Oh - no. Up - down.
"Keh! That's more like it!" Flax yanked them toward the tail-end of the racers. They lined up behind a pair of large duskhawkers, whose freckled wings cut through the air. Suddenly, the endeavor became much easier.
"Oh wow," Ollo said, "have I gotten better?"
"No, we're in their slipstream, dullard. They're breaking the air for us."
Ollo raised his feeler and could indeed feel a displaced draft.
"Just don't tail them too closely," Flax said, "or they'll switch and slipstream us."
They kept at a following distance, and Ollo used the moment to catch his breath and admire this new universe. He couldn't believe it. He was here. The Outside.
There were rocky immensities in the distance and vast fields of green. The atmosphere contained a breeze that contoured all flight, and an open humidity that filtered freshness into his being. Ollo took a deep inhalation. This is what adulthood is supposed to be.
"It tastes good, right?" Flax said, mostly gliding now.
"It does," Ollo admitted. "It's incredible."
"For me, the racing doesn't matter half as much as just being out here," Flax said. "That's all the reward I need."
"You've never ranked well?"
"How can I? See these hairs on my thorax?"
Ollo looked beyond the tail he gripped. There flailed hundreds of tiny black fibers.
"Too much drag. Not to mention an entire body frame that's off-balance." Flax flexed his front two nubs. "No, I've accepted that I'll be bringing up the rear for the rest of my life. But there are advantages to last place; you'll see. Plus, it's better than being stuck in that pond, am I right?"
Ollo nodded, though he was unsure if he agreed. Suddenly, the two duskhawkers ahead of them shifted.
"You want to stay away from where their wings shed air," Flax said. "Especially during this turn. It's easy to get caught up in vortices."
Ollo watched the duskhawkers pull a U-turn around the shiny pole ahead of them.
"Steady," Flax said. "Steady …"
The lights in Ollo's vision swam, beckoning him to turn. The lights gently abated as he rounded the beacon carefully.
Dozens of small air cyclones dithered around Ollo. The shed vortices felt weak where they were in last place, but Ollo saw one of the duskhawkers spin out of control.
The poor duskhawker's wings had twisted the wrong way, and he spiraled down to the earth. Ollo wasn't sure what had happened, but he could swear, in the periphery of his vision, that something exploded.
"What was that?" Teresa asked. Blue sparks popped among the line of dragonflies like a firecracker.
"Oh yes: if they swerve too far from alignment, we can self-destruct their transceivers." Diggs whirled his hand around a touch device. "It's a quick way to weed out any mistakes before the mission starts. It's also how we prevent valuable flyers from getting into the wrong hands." He shot Teresa a look that said: bet you didn't think of that!
She didn't like his bizarrely jovial attitude, especially considering these bugs were meant to be used for conflict areas. His whole sales approach seemed to forget that she was with the Air Force, not Amazon.
"Now, I know what you're thinking." Diggs walked backwards, pocketing his device. "These flyers are all very well and efficient, but how can I see them in action? True recon missions travel great distances over several days, do they not?"
Teresa didn't say anything, She followed at half speed towards the parking lot, where Cesar now sat inside a golf cart.
"Well, in honor of your visit, Sarge, we've prepared a little surprise." Diggs gave a thumbs-up, and Cesar bumbled the vehicle over the curb, pulling it onto the grass.
Good lord. What more is there to see? Theresa tried to think of something to end this joke. This carnival ride. But her mind was too encumbered by annoyance. A military rep could not be seen as weak.
She sat in the rear two seats, wondering if Diggs could read her resentment. The director leaned in from the front. "We'll be going uphill, so buckle up!"
She grabbed a ceiling handle. He can't read me at all. Or maybe he just doesn't care.
The car throttled up a knoll, and the lack of shocks became evident as the wheels bounced over every pebble and crack.
Christ, what was the Major thinking when he sent me here?
She could hear his old, French cadence jabbering in her head. "It's a showcase of living drones, Zhao! Made a huge splash at the expo. One of us should be there — and I think it should be you. It's the forefront of its industry, and it needs someone of your expertise." But all Teresa could see at this 'forefront' was glorified gnats: bird food. How could he have taken this all so seriously?
Then it occurred to her. Maybe he hadn't.
Maybe she had been sent here as a farce. The more she thought about it, the more the whole visit began to reek of the same passive-aggression that had lingered since her days as a drone pilot: where lieutenants would assign her the latest night shift, or somehow leave her with the rattiest equipment or chair.
Could they be pranking her now? Some petty jab for becoming sergeant in place of someone else? Christ almighty. Even now, at the turn of the 22nd century, the military is a petulant boys' club.
She watched the two scientists navigate their golf cart, its two-wheel-drive struggling. How much longer am I expected to sit through this? All afternoon? All night?
Being senior air force, Teresa did have access to an evac order. It was something she could theoretically request. But calling it here would be absurd. Wouldn't it?
No more absurd than being sent to watch bug theatre.
She considered the idea. Wouldn't it be funny? If they were going to waste her time, she could waste theirs. With her cellphone's GPS, dispatch could locate her without a hitch. The request would only be a text away. A twenty-year official should be treated with respect.
The golf cart wheezed to the top of the neighboring hill to reveal a large, stylish-looking gazebo. Cesar pulled the E-brake and stopped in front of its glass entrance.
"What's this?" Teresa stared.
"Oh, you'll see." Diggs stepped off the cart and lit a long, thin cigarette. "We're just getting started."
Upon approach, the doors slid open, revealing blue-glowing screens. A padded interior ushered comfort, and Teresa could soon hear the familiar hum of something refrigerating. The room contained several monitors that hung below a beautiful, three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view of the valley. It felt newly renovated but old enough to have a few mugs lying around.
Diggs smoked outside as Cesar rapidly began tapping on the screens, activating icons and plotting lines across some kind of map. The map kept resizing across the monitors, and as Teresa glanced back and forth, she could faintly see the shine of other metal pylons across the valley. Their placement corresponded to the markers on-screen.
"What is this? Some kind of watchtower?"
Diggs faced away, taking a drag with one arm on the door to prevent it from closing. "Well, you saw our little NASCAR warm-up where we started, right?"
Teresa looked at the field they had left, where a thin oval of dragonflies still circled.
Diggs exhaled. "Well, let's just say from now on, we'll be watching Formula One."
His ember pointed at the cushy seats in the center. Teresa gawked at the chairs but couldn't bring herself to sit. Just when the bar on absurdity has been set — it somehow manages to skyrocket further.
On their fourth lap, the lights in Ollo's head began to shimmer, beckoning a new trajectory. Before the colors turned piercingly bright, Flax broke from their path, pulling Ollo to the right.
"Finally," the damselfly said, "prelim's over." In front of them, the linear plume of racers all travelled north, away from the established circuit.
"Wait … what's going on?"
"Can't you sense her lights? The race has officially started, Ollie. And it looks like a new course."
"It's only started now?"
"That's right. We've never flown north before. Lady Meganeura has carved us something special."
Ollo gripped Flax's tail and focused on his tandem wing-work. They had entered a steady rate of acceleration, with their wings fluttering in near-perfect opposites.
"Keh. Keep this up, and we won't need to rely on slipstreams."
Ollo's mandibles flashed a smile. He enjoyed seeing the grass blur quicker than before. Perhaps this racing does hold some purpose...
The lights guided them far away, towards a strange dirt field. It was strange because it was home to dozens of evenly-dispersed pillars, all about the height and size of an Envoy. They were white, square-shaped, and as Ollo passed the first row, he noticed a beaten, wood-like texture to them. They were full of dents and scratches, as if the pillars somehow rose and bumped each other from time to time.
"What are those things?" Ollo asked.
"Like I said, new course. No idea what Mega's thinking."
They flew straight and trailed behind the plume of racers, watching their shimmering wings toss blades of light. As they flew in deeper amongst the white pillars, a muffled buzzing grew louder from all directions. Ollo noticed the hairs on Flax's thorax grow stiff.
The shimmers up front stopped progressing, and instead oscillated in circles. The distant racers then dispersed around the monoliths.
"Slow down," Flax said.
"What's going on?"
"Something's not right."
Out from the pillars came flying blue shapes, all buzzing loud and fierce. Thick streams of them gave chase to the racers ahead.
"We need to disengage," Flax said.
As Ollo let go, they both witnessed one of the racers return their way: it was grey flatwing. The poor dragon was screaming, chased by two blue insects who dove in and out, taking bites of his tail.
"Get offa me! Get off!" The flatwing rapidly turned, tossing vortices at his assailants. The spinning air was powerful enough to sway Ollo and twist the blue bugs' wings.
"Scramble!" Flax revved his thorax and dived into the cover of the weeds below.
Ollo watched the blue flyers steady their flight, lifting their black-and-blue striped bodies. Each of their abdomens ended in a long, black barb. Ollo had seen a few of these above the pond: bees.
*"You're making them fly through your bee farm?" From the window, Teresa could no longer make out the drones, but she saw the little hives in the distance. Like tiny white Lego blocks.
"Yes, well, earlier you were asking how they might feed." Diggs rose from his seat and opened a mini-fridge. "I thought I'd let the drones snack on some of our other products. Like our signature blue bees."
He grabbed some glass bottles that contained a gold-ish liquid and placed them on the side. "This makes for a nice segue, actually — I'd like to introduce some of our artisanal mead, derived from those very bees. It's smooth, not-too-sweet, with a unique, tangy aftertaste."
The sergeant glanced from the off-topic drink to the screen Cesar was manipulating. This hive complex was labeled Marker Two on the very large map.
Marker two out of thirty. Good lord.
"The bees are the lifeblood of our company." Devlin raised his glass and offered the others to Teresa and Cesar. "We are a self-sustaining business, after all, and invested in pollination, which, as you may know, is an extremely profitable endeavor. Our bees are among the few that can still do it."
So he's pitching his bees now? It seemed like this Diggs truly lived in his own reality.
"I know you probably assume some grants might've paid for our facility" — Diggs giggled — "but grants wouldn't allow for such extravagance." His fingers drummed along the gazebo walls, the tops of two monitors, and then the on-screen hive icons.
"It is our bees — which we've bred to be a bit more aggressive than others — that ensure we stay on top of the market. It's what funds our dragonflies, our silkworms, our termites..."
Teresa could not handle whatever this was turning into. There was no way she could stomach hours of this derailed demo and keep a straight face.
Damn you, Major. Never again.
With her hand in her pocket, Teresa sent the text she had prepared. Screw it.
Emergency evac requested. If she was going to have her leg pulled all day, she might as well pull back.
Diggs continued to sip and gasconade, mead swirling in his hand. Teresa nodded along, grabbed her own glass, and allowed herself to drink.
Ollo slipped through the low weeds, weaving around everything in sight. He learned he could turn quite fast, so losing his pursuit was simple: the blue bee was no match for the constant, sharp swerves he made along every monolith edge.
The whole escape may have actually been fun if Ollo hadn't seen what happened to the other racers who get caught.
It was a clubtail, pleading for mercy as a dozen bees clipped his wings and bit off his antennae that killed Ollo's spirits. There was also a racer who'd been de-limbed. Bees airlifted his worm-like body, pinching if he resisted. That sight almost made Ollo crash.
He continued to swerve, focusing on maintaining speed. The Ancestor had softened her light-flares, which allowed Ollo to better take in his environs and track the distant brown form of Flax.
His guide was right about last place being advantageous: if they had been up with the main plume of racers, they'd be evading hundreds of bees instead of just one or two.
Ollo turned a corner of another set of pillars Flax had rounded moments ago. The brown damselfly zoomed past a patch of grass, sputtered for a moment, and then turned around, suddenly chased by a blue blur.
Oh no. Ollo slowed down.
He focused his eyes and deduced that Flax was flying backward, trying to shake something off his front. As he approached, Ollo could make out the bee clinging to Flax's eye, sinking its jaws deeper and deeper.
Oh no, no, no. Ollo didn't think he could tackle a foe without harming himself. Should he go for its abdomen? It's throat? He recalled his days in the pond, chasing beetles. How much simpler it was then. All he had to do was barrel forward and disorient them.
I guess that's what I do now.
Colliding with the bee's side made the insect vibrate. Before it could get away, Ollo sank in his mandibles, biting down until he felt the tips of his jaws meet through flesh. With a swift yank, Ollo ripped off two limbs and half a belly, causing the bee to freeze, choke, and let go of Flax's face.
"Oh, praise Meganeura!" The damselfly pulled free, bleeding from his eye. "I thought I was food!"
They were each into their second glass of mead. Diggs pointed at red numbers on-screen, which sporadically increased.
"You'll notice we've lost a few drones in these hives, but a culling is necessary. We need only the tough to remain. If the military wants a fleet of drone-soldiers, we need to ensure they're Navy SEALS. Right, Sergeant?"
Teresa ignored his pseudo-army babble and sipped her mead. She had to admit, as ridiculous as this was, the dragonflies at least seemed capable of defending themselves. Considering that many conflict areas now had regular bouts of locust swarms and blackflies. Oh, how the world has changed.
Diggs then whispered something to Cesar and leaned against a monitor. "Now, this being a reconnaissance mission, Sergeant, I'd like to show you just how expertly our little guys can observe a target. You see that scarecrow over there?" He pointed out the windows at what looked like a strange tree in the distance. "Go ahead and watch that for a moment."
Once they left the grid of monoliths, the lights in Ollo's head began to spark. Magenta and pink created a ribbon to fly along, with bright blue hoops to soar through.
Flax and he resumed their tandem flight, cruising over patches of bushes, saplings, and increased foliage.
"I've flown three other races Ollie. Sometimes there's an odd mosquito, maybe a horsefly or two, but never a ... bee horde." Flax's voice quivered. "Why would The Ancestor have us go through such a thing? That was too cruel. Something feels wrong."
Ollo couldn't speak from any previous experience, but he agreed that it felt like a violation. He continued combing his vision grid until he finally spotted dragonflies ahead.
The neon colors brought them both to where everyone else had reached, forming a perfect loop of remaining racers around a frozen envoy.
"Well, it looks like we're still in last," Flax said. "But why another circuit? Seems very strange."
The Ancestor's lights forced them into the centrifuge, looping a motionless (dead?) Envoy that stood on one foot. No matter what rank you were earlier, everyone broke even here.
"Is this normal?" Ollo asked.
"Not during a race."
"Should we … try and break out?"
"We have to obey her lights."
They stayed tandem in this slow-moving circle, flying behind a tattered-looking narrow-wing. Ollo got a clear view of the other racers and could see that many were now missing limbs or parts of their wings. He may have been one of the lucky unscathed.
The signet on his back then started to heat up, making brief, delicate clicking sounds. Is it a sign? Does the Ancestor want me to notice something?
The photographs were clear and admirably hi-res. Teresa was impressed that so little was obstructed by the dragonflies' own wings.
"Imagine wanting to get a picture of a target," Diggs began, "but he's being held in a cell, with window slots too tiny for a human hand to get through. Or, maybe he's being moved, protected by countless guards, each on the lookout for cameras or spies. Well, the solution to both scenarios is sending a tiny, inconspicuous dragonfly."
The screens were tuned to display various angles of the scarecrow. A hay torso. A beekeeper mask. Wooden stake arms.
"Naturally, you couldn't send a swarm like we have now into a more intimate operation," Diggs said, "but you could send clusters, break them off into groups, and have them follow multiple suspects. That sort of thing."
Teresa nodded along, and decided she wanted to see them enact a request of her own.
"Can they take aerials?" she asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Bird's-eye views. Sometimes our satellites can't penetrate cloud cover."
"But of course."
Ollo realized what the Ancestor's clicking meant. She wants me to seek my companion. I'm supposed to find Imura.
His incredible eyes searched for those familiar black-and-yellow stripes. He was very good at discerning nearby kin, spotting pondsitters, a duskhawker, and various types of reedling. But a tigertail was nowhere to be seen.
Instead of stripes, Ollo soon winced to see crimson and violet strings that beckoned upward. Lady Meganeura's lights had returned, growing brighter by the moment.
"Are you feeling that?" Flax slowed their momentum.
"Yes," Ollo said, "we need to rise."
They engaged their wings and fluttered upwards, following the threads of purple and red. The racers around them did likewise, and as a group, the insects formed an imperfect halo of shifting wings, ascending far higher than the glass dome would ever have allowed.
Soon it became cold. Harsh winds buffeted Ollo and Flax. With each rise in elevation, the air grew emptier, sharper. The damselfly shivered. "Where could she p-p-possibly be taking us? And why?"
There was nothing above, save for a deeply-hazed sun and ragged clouds. When the race reached a height where no one could refuse shivering, the lights finally faded.
For a moment, all the racers stared at each other, observing this hazy troposphere, horrified at how far below the earth that stared back was. If anyone were to stop their hovering counter-strokes, a simple breeze could spell the end.
Then Ollo's signet began to heat up, making the same delicate clicking as before. I need to find Imura.
He tapped his partner's tail. "Flax, we've got to move. I think The Ancestor's giving me a sign."
"A sign?" Flax wheezed. "Keghhh. Heghhh. Ollie, I don't trust any signs right now. I'm telling you, something about this is really off."
But Ollo searched anyway, scanning for those stripes. He slowly let go of Flax's tail. "If you won't come with me, I'll go myself."
"Are you deranged — you want to travel alone?"
A cloud form encroached with menacing slowness, whispering of icy chills. Below it, the lights re-emerged as spikes of cyan and jade. But they weren't directing downwards, back to safety like everyone hoped; instead, they urged them to the east, along a long, horizontal track across the grey sky.
"Oh, Lady Mega..." Flax's shivering briefly stopped. "She wants us to race at this altitude?"
Despite his complaint, the majority of racers had already taken off, slowly following the lights against the clouds and turbulence.
Ollo let go of Flax. "Are you not going?"
"No, I'm not going!" Flax said, shivering again. "If disobeying lights is going to p-p-pop me, then so shall I pop, but I'm not flying out there to die in a broken race any longer! You'd be an even bigger dullard to try."
A frigid draft briefly seized Ollo's muscles. He shook them awake.
"These obstacles are cruel," Flax continued. "Look at these fools, breaking their wings. And for what, Ollo? Come back down. Save yourself."
Ollo inspected the race ahead, hoping to agree, but then he spotted them. Those black and yellow stripes. They were diving just ahead between hoops of cyan.
He took off alone. Flax yelled something, trying to turn him back. But he couldn't, not when Imura was so close.
The aerial views were equally impressive. Dragondrones could be commanded to take long, sweeping scans of the geography below, and unlike satellites, they could penetrate cloud cover.
Teresa swiped between the photos, getting a full lay of the land. She paused on the hexagonal roof of their gazebo; next to it stood the cheery form of Diggs, halfway through his second cigarette.
"Like what you see?" Diggs asked, stubbing his ash outside.
Teresa continued swiping. "It's nice that there's a large fleet; guarantees decent coverage."
"It does! And the pilots are so cheap to reproduce! Hundreds of eggs from a single mating, each one containing a design that's been refined over three hundred million years. Where else can you find a deal like that?"
Only by gaming nature, Teresa supposed.
The screens all began to flash with a cloud icon in the upper right.
"Rain incoming," Cesar mumbled.
Diggs glanced at the screens, and his smile widened even further. He stretched a hand outside the Gazebo, twiddling his fingers. "Looks like we'll get a firsthand glimpse of weather hazards."
"Is that a problem?" Teresa asked.
"Oh my, no. But bear in mind, under extreme weather conditions, we're bound to lose a couple," Diggs said. "That's why we send so many. The beauty of dragonflies is that they'll take care of themselves. They're able to hide and recoup their energy. Real drones would be out of luck in the field."
Teresa considered this. He's not wrong.
"Now, you might think it impossible for an airborne creature to avoid such a wet sky, but insects are different. Their tiny brains dilate time. A speeding water droplet to you is just a slow, avoidable drip to them."
Ollo's whole body trembled with fear. He tracked as many liquid meteors as he could. Other racers nearby began to break off from the Ancestor's lights, returning to a more comfortable height, but Ollo refused to give up. He wanted to see the track through the clouds to the end — the mission was his own now.
He navigated the downpour, following the jade thread as it zigged and zagged. Further ahead, a faint tigertail pattern descended gradually.
The course goes down. That's a relief.
Then a droplet smacked Ollo's blindspot: his eye scar. It felt like a wet reckoning. His vision flashed. Epilepsy. Oh no, no, no, no.
He spiralled down, spinning like a whirligig. Jade and cyan flared through his mind. Ollo saw the earth rise towards him in bursts, like the bottom of the pond. For a moment, it felt like he was diving. Swimming. Paddling.
No. Stay sharp. Must stay sharp.
He shook as he plummeted, shedding as much water as possible, and did his best to avoid more rain. Ollo prayed to The Ancestor. Begged. And with a sudden glint, her blinding lights abated. Ollo's senses returned.
He alternated his wings, fore and aft as Flax had shown him, and by some miracle, the wind contoured his flight, levelling him out — but just barely.
There came a crash, and sharp things thrust their way into his space: pinecones and needles. Instinctually, Ollo thrust his legs out and cushioned against impact. His face smacked a tree.
Moments passed. Lifetimes.
Ollo wheezed and groaned, feeling his voice echo around him. Only it wasn't an echo. The whole stream of remaining racers were now here, using this pine tree as shelter. They were coughing, shuddering, and fighting for space on the wood.
Ollo wiped his eyes, shocked to see he was still among the competitors. He looked around to orient himself, trying to spot a familiar form. The first he encountered was Gharraph.
"YES!" the green emperor howled. "Finally!"
The power of his voice came with an aftershock. Ollo watched him move along a pine branch, needles snapping beneath his wings. "Deliverance draws near! This is it, my fellow dragons — the race we've been waiting for!"
A couple of racers rallied in coughs and shouts, supporting this sudden zeal.
"The Ancestor has been testing us, and the moment has come where we reach her final light."
More shouts. The remaining morale seemed eager. Ollo gazed down among the cries, having heard a familiar pitch. He crawled past others until he reached a scant little broadleaf by the pine's roots. There he saw them. The black and yellow stripes.
"Glory to The Ancestor! Her greatest race yet!" Imura lay half-obscured by the leaf, echoing Gharraph's call.
Ollo tentatively approached, appreciating the richness of her colors. Excitement boiled away all his weariness; it felt as if he were molting. Eventually, his mandibles managed to align words. "Imura. Are you … all right?"
Her wings were sopping. One antenna was apparently gone. "Who is that? Ollo?"
There was no use containing himself. "Oh, thank Mega! You're alive! You're okay! This is good! This is so good!"
She stared at him, jaws agape. "How are you here? Shouldn't you be back — "
"I was chosen! An Envoy chose me! I was destined to compete. To find you. To make sure you're safe." Ollo spoke faster than he could think. "I learned to fly tandem: Flax showed me. I know how to save us. I know how to fly us back!"
Imura looked at him, wiped rain off her head, then withdrew beneath the leaf. "I don't understand; what are you talking about?"
Ollo folded his wings and followed her. "This race, it's not heeding any of the usual rules. It's twisted and dangerous."
"Of course," Imura said. "She's pushing us. This is the race where she'll offer it."
"The next reward: beyond Outside."
The two bugs observed each other beneath the leaf, neither believing the other was there.
"But, you're hurt," Ollo pointed at her feeler. "And you're wet. You don't actually plan on continuing?"
"What? Ollo. We need to keep going." Imura wiped her eyes in small circles. "Can't you feel that? Her lights?"
A pinging re-emerged in Ollo. Tiny white dots, venturing out, urging them still further east. Their pull was faint now, but he knew that would soon change.
"I don't think that matters," Ollo said. "What's important is that we're alive. That's why she wanted me to find you."
"But Gharraph — he's right." Imura grazed Ollo's wings, testing their pliancy. "A new prize awaits. Beyond Outside. What could that even be?"
Ollo thought back to the adulthood he envisioned: the simple life among unadulterated nature. The childhood myth. He came to a realization.
"I know what the prize is."
He tapped the moist bark beneath them, inhaled some of the fresh air. "It's living here."
"Back in the pond, I saw flashes, images of what I thought adulthood would be like. It's supposed to be a return to living outside. Not just in glimpses, or races. But living here. A paradise unbound."
Imura froze, she grabbed her one remaining feeler, wringing it as she thought. "By Mega's light … you're right."
The tigertail began to pace, massaging her head. "We race to prove our best. We're proving we can live out here. That must be what comes next. Settling down in life beyond the dome!"
Her enthusiasm enlivened Ollo; it made his whole harrowing journey worthwhile. This is why they were meant to reunite. A mutual swoon. A harmony. And now, together, they could figure out the rest of their lives.
"You're completely undamaged." Imura held Ollo's tail, wiping what little moisture still clung to it. "It's a miracle you've made it this far. You know what I think?" She wiped a droplet off his antennae. Its receptors sent a warmth so soothing that Ollo's legs nearly buckled. "I think it's no coincidence the Envoy selected you, fresh-bodied and determined. You knew of our future first. You foresaw the prize."
"I mean, maybe, but I don't think I'm all that special ..."
"Of course you are!" She held him now, brought her eyes against his. Two worlds of ultra-wide vision overlapping. "When I was in the clouds," Imura whispered, "I glimpsed her waiting. Do you understand? I glimpsed Meganeura."
"She's close. Here, returned to us in physical form. Awaiting her champions. You must be among them."
"Me? But what about you, what about — "
"I'll be fine; I must recoup. It's obvious that she's placed me here, right now, so that I could convince you."
She let go of Ollo, but even afterwards, he could still see her silhouette in his eyes, a beautiful afterimage.
"Go." Imura lifted the leaf, pointing outward. "Go up now; follow Gharraph with the others. Promise me you'll obey the lights, and that you'll reach her."
Ollo looked at Imura through her own afterimage. He wanted to retract his theory, to wail against this decision. They couldn't separate again, not after all the effort he'd put in. He wished he could remember an adage from the pond-lores, some statement to prove he should stay ...
"And tell her about the memory you had," Imura said. "You're one of the signifiers, Ollo; a key to the adulthood we've always deserved. By the glory of every rank I've ever earned, I thank you. You might just be the herald of a new age!"
The surveillance journey of the drones had gone from scarecrow to an aerial sweep to the cover of a pine tree. Now, they'd been sent off again to a road crossing. But instead of waiting or gaining slight altitude, one particular green Dragondrone had the audacity to simply dodge traffic.
The car had been coming at him head-on. It seemed as though the bug was either going to become a bumper sticker or a windshield splat. Then, at the last possible moment, the camera feed leapt up, and the blue of the Tesla's roof whizzed by underneath. The little pilot turned as if observing the car disappear and acknowledging the near-death encounter and then continued flying as if nothing had happened.
Teresa watched this on repeat, studying the stabilization and frame rate, both of which were quite decent (considering the compression), but what really impressed her was the physical reaction time.
"I see you found him," said Cesar, peering over Teresa's shoulder.
"Our strongest specimen."
Cesar helped Teresa swap to the feed of a trailing drone that had witnessed the stunt. From a couple of meters back, the large, green dragonfly played chicken, hovering at road-kill height. But as soon as the vehicle entered the frame, he shot up in a flash, performing a quick spin at the end.
Teresa replayed the footage from this new angle on repeat, analyzing the movement — that is, until a clapping came from the mini-fridge.
Diggs had been pouring the remains of the mead into the last two glasses, ensuring they were even. "I was hoping he'd show off!" The director squeezed between Cesar and Teresa, cheering as if this were some sporting event. "Amazing, isn't it? He's an import from Tasmania, you know. Anax papuensis. An Australian Emperor. The species has been proving to be the preferred choice in our program. I'm so glad you got to see him flaunt!"
"Flaunt?" Teresa said, trying to understand how the term could apply.
"Yes, well, the nootropic enhances their cognizance." Diggs handed Teresa one of the glasses. "It makes them better flyers, but I'm starting to suspect it also adds a bit of personality. An edge, if you will. It's what allows us to steer them into environments they would naturally avoid."
Teresa gave her temples a small rub, trying to brush away her incredulity. A real drone certainly doesn't come with any 'Tasmanian reflexes.' She took her drink and stood, giving her eyes a break by observing the valley.
"You know, Sergeant, I was thinking my proposal would consist of chiefly Australian emperors." Diggs leaned back in his chair. "Your first Dragondrone squadron needs to be exceptional, don't you think?"
It had taken him so long to start talking business, Teresa figured he had been saving it for once everything was over. "You're talking about the package you'd offer me?"
He stood up, almost matching her height. "Yes. Just so you get a sense: I would offer you a starting fleet of, say, two hundred pilots — seventy percent being Emperors — along with your own dronehangar. You would need one of our operators on site, of course, and I'd be happy to reserve one of our experienced interns. Cesar has been training a few."
The assistant busied himself nearby, likely pretending to ignore their discussion. Teresa wasn't sure what her answer was, anyway. As intriguing as some elements of the proposal were, at the end of the day, the technology still seemed too strange. Too ridiculous. But perhaps that's how genius always germinates? From a seed of absurdity?
Then her phone rang. Its screen flashed with coordinates, indicating her incoming freedom. She stared at it, first for her own benefit, then as a double-take for Diggs. "You know what? I'm so sorry — I've been summoned, apparently. For a 'Code R4.'
'A code what?" Diggs asked.
"Arctic stuff. Immediate. Confidential. I'm sorry, but we'll have to cut this demonstration short."
The director settled his glass with a tiny frown. He turned to Cesar, who stared back, silently bemused. "Well, that's too bad," Diggs said. "I guess I should have prepared a contingency. There's still another Gazebo I wanted to show you … some nocturnal capabilities you know nothing about …" he ran his fingers along the side of a monitor. The map indicated that they had reached marker ten out of thirty.
"I'm afraid duty calls." Teresa gave him a wan smile. "We'll have to reschedule for the rest."
Diggs put a hand on Cesar and began whispering something quickly. They were rerouting map markers, cancelling dozens of icons.
Escape was definitely the right call, Teresa thought and took a long sip of mead.
A newfound determination blossomed in Ollo, one born of finality and understanding. The sooner he met with The Ancestor, the sooner freedom would reach them all. And then he could exist with Imura as he had always wanted: in a paradise unbound.
He surged behind Gharraph and a dozen other dragons still willing to compete. He wasn't all that fast, of course, and lacked their days of dome-training, but Ollo had managed to decipher the code that enabled safe passage through the rain and obstacles. Trust Meganeura.
His latent realization had finally been brought to a head by Gharraph. The champion had impressed everyone as he defied a giant rolling beetle, screaming The Ancestor's name. It was at that moment Ollo understood the power of devotion. An unconditional obedience to the Great Lady allowed racers to push forward and rank high. Follow her lights. Trust Meganeura.
As long as Ollo stuck as close as possible to the blinking white track, it felt as if he were truly invulnerable to any whim of The Outside. The race crossed several small fields, another flatworm of granite, and a copse of trees. At one point, it went over a roiling stream; its torrents of white foam reminded Ollo of the bubbles that diving beetles released when they had nothing else to lose. It had all been going remarkably well until Ollo reached the obstacle that had caught everyone else: a buffet of air too strong to overcome.
The elite dragonflies were being continually spat back. No one was able to beat the countervailing wind, which grew tenfold at the base of a knoll. Even the unstoppable Gharraph was being tossed backwards.
"We must hold the line!" The champion yelled. "Grab a stalk if you have to! We can't fall back!"
Arriving late, Ollo avoided getting tousled and joined the rest as they dove into the grass, gripping the thickest sheathes available. The plants whipped viciously back and forth, forcing everyone to snap their wings down into tight folds.
How is the air so fierce?
The lights still pulsated and beckoned towards the knoll. She's testing us now, more than ever, Ollo thought.
Then came the roaring: a dense, low, thunderous cry. Ollo swapped fearful looks with a ringtail. Neither of them knew what was coming.
It was the loudest sound Ollo had ever heard. As it neared, the wind began to wane. Ollo took a few breaths to relax his hold, trying to steal a glance at this loud thing — and that's when the vortex seized him.
All four of his wings suddenly bent in the wrong direction, and his whole body spun out of control. His vision blurred, the only thing he could clearly see being the purple division of his scar. His body tumbled about like he was being chewed and swallowed by billows of air. And then he saw something. A silhouette: a being. It was her.
His deity approached, drawing all the air towards her. The pull was inescapable. Ollo gazed up and beheld her empyrean presence.
She was a dragonfly, except colossal. Sleek, black, and large enough to swallow an Envoy whole. Ollo spotted Gharraph and at least two other elite racers, all subjected to the same immense pull as he. No one could escape.
"We beseech thy ancient reverence!" the green emperor yelled, his own wings completely askew. "It is I, Gharraph, longest reigning champion there has been!"
Meganeura drew nearer and roared. From behind her, the sun fired a prism of ultraviolet rays.
"On behalf of my kin. I implore you. It is time. It is time we were awarded the next stage of our lives!"
Yes. Ollo wanted to shout. Break this cycle of racing. A life of forever Outside.
Their deity roared, ripping the air itself with the blur of her wings, shredding the droplets of rain that fell and surrounded them.
"We wish to roam new lands," Gharraph continued, "to see what else there is."
"That's right!" Ollo added. "How it once must have been!"
The vortex had altogether ceased, creating a sense of utter tranquility. Instead of being pulled, Ollo's body was allowed to float in a bubbly effervescence.
"We have passed thine divine trial," Gharraph boomed, flexing his four, now-steady wings. "Offer us the final promise, O Great Meganeura! Usher in a new age!"
The green emperor flew close and bowed, showing deference to the almighty.
As he likewise approached, Ollo began to notice the strange appearance of Meganeura when seen up close. Her skin was matte, holding no shine. And her wings: they fluttered in a way that made no sense as if spinning on one axis.
"O Great One from times beyond past. We've come now, to pay homage — " Gharraph was stuck by the Ancestor's wing. His paltry form was cast into a thousand pieces across the luminous sky.
Ollo froze from shock. He watched as Meganeura's massive black wings continued to chop the air, mincing everyone and everything. A new scar split his vision, dividing his world in two. Then it split him again. And again. And again. And again.
Diggs's mouth had lain open for almost a whole minute. He half-covered it with his hand. Then uncovered it. "That's pretty neat."
They had all stepped outside to observe the Black Hawk grow against the horizon, its propeller whirring louder and louder.
"Your facility here is actually not too far from our base in Whitehorse." Teresa said. "There wasn't a jet available, so they had to pick me up like this. I hope you won't mind an improvised landing."
Both men gawked at the sight. The chopper looked like it was emerging from the sunset, light appearing to melt around it.
"Land it anywhere," Diggs said, his smile slowly fading. He began to whisper something, an angry something, into his assistant as if he were at fault. Cesar nodded, his blank look still unwavering.
Teresa watched the odonatologist walk dejectedly to the Gazebo and decided to try something.
"Director, what if I had a small counter-proposal?"
Diggs lit up immediately, "A counter-proposal?"
"What if" — Teresa glanced at her chopper, and then at Cesar walking off — "what if I took Cesar with me? For a kind of trial?"
"What do you mean?"
"It would be difficult to commit to a whole new fleet. But I think my Major would be open to a small selection. Cesar could come and demonstrate how your drones would operate around the arctic base."
Diggs gave a her peculiar look, as if he were near-sighted. "I would have to think about it … Mr. Costales is crucial to our process here. I can't have him missing for long."
"Not long," Teresa said. "Just a few days. All I would need is to demo a fraction of what you've shown me. We could potentially skip a whole year of bureaucracy and invest in a fleet sooner."
Diggs gripped his chin. His eyes were questioning, almost leering, asking her one word: Why?
But Teresa couldn't pin down exactly why. Perhaps it was that dead, defeated look on Cesar. A look that spoke of jaded hopes, long nights, and unwarranted exploitation. Maybe it was the mead, but Teresa had been struck with sympathy. If she could help someone else avoid the hell she went through during her early years, then maybe this whole charade could have a positive outcome after all.
"Well, think about it anyway," Teresa said. "I wouldn't have to grab him now — "
"But if you did" — Diggs smiled again, his hands rummaging through his pockets — "it might heighten our chances of a complete investment?" The director produced a tablet and stylus.
"I'd be shuffling a lot of work here, so I'd have to cover Cesar's absence. But I could offer him. At a premium."
Teresa glanced at Diggs' device; the man was not afraid to test military spending. His figure wasn't far off from the cost of her summoning this evac. Should I just double down? Turn my escape into a rescue?
"That looks fine," she eventually managed. "The major would be pleased."
"Stupendous," Diggs said quietly. He jotted a few more things to his device. "Let me find some documentation; give me a few moments."
She turned away from the megalomaniac and ventured into the Gazebo. She found Cesar and explained what was being arranged.
"So … I'm going with you?" He only half-stood, his neck still mostly hunched over a screen.
"Only if you're able to."
His eyes had a habit of getting stuck in one expression, and now it appeared to be shock. He fiddled with a screen, then beckoned Teresa over.
"Well, I mean, are you sure you want me now? It looks like your helicopter may have impacted some of our drones. I only have about twenty in operation that I could bring with us."
"Twenty sounds plenty."
"Okay ..." Cesar said, still having trouble meeting Teresa's gaze. "You really think your boss would want this?"
Teresa offered a smile. "When he finds out I returned in a chopper with you, he's going to be ecstatic."
Or furious. But that's fine with me.
Imura never did know what happened to end that fateful race, but whatever it was, it had worked. There truly was a reward beyond just racing Outside: it was racing Outside...of time and space.
She and all the survivors of the final trial had been transported across dimensions. They were ushered into divine chambers of pure metal, adorned with calming scents and sounds. They travelled to realms of fluffy, white rain and unparalleled vistas. They explored through the tropics, soared past forests, and flew above a vast, limitless stretch of pond with no lilies in sight.
It was admittedly a very strenuous lifestyle, one with as many dangers and mysteries as a dragon racer could expect. The Ancestor's lights and Envoys were demanding, but it was nothing Imura's clan couldn't handle. Everyone agreed that this was a dragon's proper existence, not the shameful depravity they had experienced in the dome.
Among Imura's favorite new realms was the dry-world of sand. Here they had spent the last several days, exploring numerous tracks and following Envoys inside armored beetles. It was beneath the desert heat that she became a mother, a proud matriarch that reflected the spirit of Meganeura. Her children were as strong as she could have hoped for. Her offspring would all be little green emperors mixed with tigertail stripes.
She laid her first batch in a pool warmed by the open sun and pondered names. They had to be called something strong, of course, to tough out the new life of moving between worlds, but they also needed poise.
Although he was somewhat dotty, she had always liked the name of that red darner who had been so warmly precocious. He had such a strange vision, that one. Imura swirled her tail in the pond, remembering what he had said about an aimless adulthood outdoors. About life untamed. How unappealing it now sounded. Still, it was him, Gharraph, and the others who had met Meganeuara and brokered their future. Those lucky few could be in some even higher, more ethereal plane than me, she thought. Where could you be, Ollo? Somewhere of pure mirth?
Mirth. Now that's a pretty name.
Ripples formed across the pond as Imura's tail swayed. The gentle movement dispersed her eggs throughout the pool, sinking them to all corners. She waited patiently to witness which of her children would first reach the surface, whether by accident or curiosity.
It all starts here: life's earliest race.