Chapter 1: The Fall
This is a story of what it is to be young in a very old world.
Even before the dragons came, our city was crumbling. It was as though this place was a dream we’d dreamed together, a dream gone to tatters in the morning light. Dull-eyed humans drifted past boarded storefronts, walking all kinds of animals on leashes. Vultures perched on sick trees in the park. A man clad in garbage bags sang his song in the middle of a bleak avenue as a single taxi sputtered past. Young girls dressed as if for the grave in Sunday dresses and secondhand shoes. Couches appeared on the curbs, were joined there by beds and rugs and tables; whole rooms assembled piece by piece, and the shadows of people occupied these rooms. It became the fashion to speak of oneself in the past tense. Wine flowed from dusty casks into dusty glasses. Chaw regained its popularity; dream-candy, some called it, mutant psychotropic moss mashed up with molasses and additives whose names we’d never know. We chewed it up and spat it out. Neon words went dark, leaving orphaned letters behind. Sometimes we heard laughter in our unfinished apartment complexes, though no one else was renting the units on our floor. We lived in a ruin.
The dragons were old when they were born, or else always had been. In the fall of 301970 AF, they rose out of the waters at Nereid Bay.* The first to see them was a little girl who sat in a clanking basket at the top of the Wonder Wheel. The motor had stalled, and she, the only rider, waited patiently for the firemen to raise their ladder. The sky, gray with thunderheads, hung low as a blanket over the world. Out past where old men with metal detectors prowled the shore, an island breached the sea’s frothy waters. An island with a pair of eyes. She pointed, but no one turned to look.
There are two dragons, the yellow and the green. One would be an aberration, a hundred would be a proliferation, but two: two is a species, either dying off or just getting started. Two is a threat. Some think they hatched from moon rocks or nuclear waste the government dumped into Nereid Bay, or that the hands of God shaped them from the bountiful putty of our sins. These explanations are as good as any. The fact is, we know little more about them now than that day, fifty years ago, when they rose from the silver waves with dripping wings. Here is what scientists have learned:
1. The dragons never land.
2. The dragons never eat.
3. The dragons never sleep.
4. Ballistics, rockets, stun guns, paratroopers, lassos, toxic sprays, nets, high-pitched sounds, mass hysteria, and prayer do nothing to deter the dragons.
5. The dragons will not let us be.
We cannot name them. We cannot grow accustomed to them. Even those who cannot remember a time before they filled our skies cannot look at them with anything like calm. They are very large and very wild. When they pass overhead, they cast our skyscraper canyons into dusk. Eclipses confuse animals, and the animals of the city are deeply confused. Most of those animals are us.
Sometimes the dragons quarrel with each other. At those times, they seem like a single creature, a snake biting its tail, the helix of DNA. They twist together in a mass, tooth and eye and claw. At other times, they work together, moving over the city in parallel lines, a destruction patrol. They’ve torched the billboard that said KEEP SHOPPING. They’ve torched the building shaped like a lip-gloss tube. They’ve torched every bridge at least once, and Torchtown, the prison colony in the hardest-hit reaches of the lower city, has been en flambé in one place or another fifty years solid, to the day. Dragon fires start at the roof and work their way down. Often they fizzle out of their own accord. Sometimes they catch and spread. But for the most part, the fires are little love bites on the city’s face, not too big to extinguish but too frequent, too persistent, to ignore. We’ve developed slang for all the different kinds: a sparkler, a smoker, a powder keg, a belch—that’s when the gas tank blows. We make light when we can. It’s not in us to think the worst. Even that little girl said the island winked.
Empire Island is a winking island too, an island full of eyes. We used to watch one another through its windows, to catch glimpses of ourselves in the mirrored windows as we strolled past. Those windows, cracked or hollow, watch us now, slogging through the cinders on the streets. They watch the skies for more bad news.
It’s late afternoon in the death of summer. The dragons are flying low today, churning the air over Torchtown. A cloud front’s rolling in, gray and muddlesome. High in the vacant blue stretches a thin white line, a crack in the dome over everything: a teenager in a HowFly, trailing out exhaust.
Duncan Humphrey Ripple V. Heir to the Ripple fortune. The dying city’s final prince, in everything but name: his grandcestors never bothered to pony up for a title. But Ripple’s got princely looks anyhow, even tousle-haired today in a hooded sweatshirt, pinkened from a deep-pore acne scrub. It’s something around the eyes, too long-lashed and dopey for a boy’s. Something dreamy, destined. Late Capitalism’s Royalty, that was the name of his Toob series, printed in bling at the start of each episode. The recappers thought it was all scripted, but nope: Ripple played himself, enacting the most intimate details of his own life, from ages six to eighteen, for an omnipresent camera crew he called the Fourth Wall and spoke straight at on occasion during shooting. It was like imaginary friends. They couldn’t talk back or else they’d have to join the actors’ union.
Then, three months ago, Ripple flunked underschool and his dad had to contribute the place into graduating him. It was then Ripple’s parents decided he didn’t get to be a celebrity anymore. In fact, his whole life changed, and not so much for the better. Ripple was pretty fucking jarred. He doesn’t understand delayed gratification or compromise, he’s never seen the point. He doesn’t want to want; he’s never wanted for anything. It’s not in his nature. He’s been spoiled to perfection. He has foie gras for brains.
Ripple rubs condensation from the driver’s-side window with his sleeve and squints down at the dragons. The two creatures move in tandem. The green one spews out unending ropes of cursive flame, the yellow one shorter blasts, as if punctuating. Printed in bling. Down there in the streets, the fires seem random—unnatural disasters, crap luck. But from way up here, the fires look like graffiti.
Ripple cranes his neck, moves his lips to sound out the words. Who do these poon loogies think they are anyway? They can’t even spell. He twists the knob of the HowFly’s stereo. Thrumming bass fills the cabin of the air car. He’ll show them how a man leaves his mark.
BOOM. BOOM. Wicca wicca whoo. BOOM. BOOM. Wicca wicca whoo.
Ripple pumps his fist. His knuckles graze the HowFly’s padded roof as his song pounds out of the speakers.
The name is Ripple—fuck with me, I’ll fuck you up triple
Any torchy lookin’ twice end up cripple
Think I don’t own you?—Yo’ girlfriend showed me her nipples
Nasty-ass slag that she is with her pimples
Cock pocket, you think I’m just drunk
Drunk, yeah with power—that’s why they call me the Dunk
Fuck with me, you end up in the trunk, punk
This city is mine, that’s one test you can’t flunk
When the female vocalists come in for the chorus, he sings along.
Ohh I’ll lick you up and down
Cuz I’m the Dunk
Ohh I’ll lick you up and down
Cuz I’m the Dunk
Ohh . . .
His parents commissioned it from his favorite artist, DJ S-Carggo, almost three years ago for his sixteenth birthday, and he’s never gotten tired of it. Now he pulls up on the throttle. The music is giving him an idea. He toggles the steering, presses the gas. A bag of bacon crisps tips over onto the HowFly’s floor mat; his LookyGlass slides off the dashboard. Ripple ignores it, checks the rearview scope, the pale exhaust streaming in his wake. Nobody can stop him from being famous. He’ll write his own name in the sky.
Ohh I’ll lick you up and down
Cuz I’m the Dunk
Ohh . . . AAAH!
Ripple shrieks, still in falsetto. He desperately slaps at the various levers surrounding the steering column as first one pigeon, then another, then a third, splatters against his windscreen: a red, feathery Rorschach blot he can barely see past. He finally flips a switch marked VIB, and the glass rumbles, shaking the bigger chunks loose. Ripple peers through the bloodstained glass, the light in the HowFly strangely rosy now. The left engine gulps and belches black clouds, tail feathers.
“Rut-row,” Ripple wheezes. The cabin fills with the fumes: it’s a smell somewhere between burnt hair and roast turkey. He paws at the ignition switches, finds the knob, and kicks the left engine off. It blows a prolonged metallic raspberry. The HowFly lists to the right, but stays in the air. Next time he takes this rattletrap up, he’s bringing the manual.
The HowFly is a recent purchase, an early wedding present from his parents, and maybe a consolation prize of sorts. Ripple is still working out the kinks. One thing for sure: the commercials get it wrong. Since he was a kid, he’s been watching the gleaming images of candy-colored HowFlys zooming up, past the deserted cranes, the sooty streets, the cracked and blackened windows of skyscrapers, and then into a clear blue, oddly dragonless sky. As the ad world HowFly emits its trail of exhaust in a clean white line, CGI clouds shape a heavenly city around the vehicle, one with intact bridges and a puffy amusement park in the place of Torchtown. The view cuts to a close-up of the windscreen: “Rise above,” whispers a throaty blonde, her head sliding down into the lap of the contented driver, a handsome youth about the age Ripple is now. He’s seen it all a million times on the Toob, enough times to make it seem as real as his own heavily edited life.
But what the ads don’t say, and what Ripple now knows, is that a HowFly can only go so far in taking him away from it all. There’s nobody up here to come pounding on his door, demanding that he turn down the woofers, but there’s also bug guts on the windscreen and crunched-up Carbon8 cans on the floor and the constant bleeps and whirs of the control system where something’s always flashing EMPTY. And worst of all there’s a notable lack of anybody to blow him; he’s probably even farther from the nearest damsel here than back in his room. It’s a sweet ride, but he’d rather be parking.
What the commercials also don’t say, but what everyone knows, is that only the very rich even bother with HowFlys anymore. Their slogan—“The Sky Is Yours”—got outdated at least two decades ago, when it became apparent that the dragons actually owned the shit out of the available airspace. Since then the brand has acquired an air of willful disregard, of proprietary eccentricity, as during the celestial registry boom a few years back, when it became chic to buy up the stars. Ripple usually takes his wealth and privilege for granted—he saves the bragging for his fame. But taking off in his HowFly from the mansion’s sixth-floor battlements, his parents below waving goodbye, he felt, for the first time, something suspiciously like family pride. It occurred to him then that everything—the city, the sky—belonged to the rich, not just because they were born powerful but because they’d die before they’d give it up.