I was supposed to be executed.
I was up on the scaffold, arms tied behind my back, with everyone all gathered around to watch the beheading of Flats McBrady. I’d never been so popular. The executioner—Rucks, his name was; nice guy really, he and Mabel had three kids—said God-be-with-you and reared back with the axe, and I closed my eyes.
Then the mechoid fell out of the sky.
It was a VX9 Combiner, though of course we didn’t know that at the time. It came high over the steeple at the end of town, managed to clear the square (thank God for that, otherwise we’d have lost a LOT more that day) and smashed into the town hall and half the block on the far side. The energy locks just gave out, and the whole thing just fell apart—arms, thighs, calves, chest, head… VX9’s have a lot of component mechoids.
There was only one living pilot left in the whole thing—he must’ve been using unilateral drive; never found out what had happened to the others. I was still lying in the ruins of the scaffold—one of the VX9’s legs had clipped it and smashed it all to hell; poor Rucks was lying a few feet away with his head caved in—and I saw the pilot clamber out of the escape hatch. He stumbled into the square, half-dazed, while everyone else was screaming and running for cover. I remember wondering why he would leave the mechoid and go out into the open like that.
Then the dragon crashed down, right in front of him. Big Greenie, we called him–he’d been around the area, off and on, for the better part of a year. Actually he was only about 20 tons, a Class 3 firebreather, but he was the biggest we’d ever seen. I’d only ever glimpsed him on sacrifice days, from a distance, but that day, his left foot landed two inches away from my head. The sheer force of it sent me sprawling over the cobblestones. I just lay there—I don’t know why. I guess I sort of was still expecting to be executed.
That execution’s been a long time coming.
There’s this image I have in my head—couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds. Maybe never even happened at all. But I can still see the pilot, standing on the cobblestones of the square. The dragon is looming over him, all green and ugly, smoke pouring from his mouth, fire in his eyes. And the pilot is just standing there, one hand slightly raised toward the dragon as if to touch its snout, the other hand pulling off his helmet.
Pulling it off.
The next second was all fire and smoke, and there wasn’t even a charred skeleton left when I blinked, just some half-melted sections of armor fused together. Horrible smell. The dragon sort of nosed them around and looked satisfied, then gave this huge roar.
I suppose he would have destroyed the village next, except that was when the Recruitment Protocol kicked in. The little mini-mechoids just picked themselves off the ground and zipped off in all sorts of directions. I barely even knew what was happening before one of them sucked me into its cockpit and registered me as its pilot. Everyone else must have had a pretty similar reaction—there was a lot of panicked running around before someone accidentally bumped their “Combine!” button.
And we slew Big Greenie.
There wasn’t much left of the village. Made the decision easier, in a way. Plus we were all on an adrenaline high after killing Big Greenie and looking to kill some more village-burning beasties. There was some dispute about me being the Head, but the gene codes couldn’t be changed. Dumb luck, I guess.
Heh. Luck. Not much good it’s doing me now.
It was weird. I mean, our village wasn’t anything special. In a couple more years, it probably wouldn’t even have been there—we’d already sacrificed most of the womenfolk to the dragons, and the rest of us were at each other’s throats.
But dragon-slaying—I mean, it started out as just a job, a way to earn a living, but after you get a certain amount of people looking up to you, thinking of you as this angelic savior—well, you start to sort of… fill the role, I guess. You become a hero.
Or you become a total asshole, like Bruce and Tomas. I wish we hadn’t had to kill them. Or at least we’d been able to replace them afterwards—turns out the Recruitment Protocol only kicks in after ALL the pilots are dead.
I mean… I was a criminal. A condemned criminal. But by the time the Class 7 attacked Rigelion and we joined forces with the Protectorate, heck, I was as noble as any paladin in the ranks. Even gotten together with Mabel. How did I deserve that?
God, I hope she’s okay. And the kids. Good thing none of them are here.
Really, how did I deserve any of this? I mean, not this specific situation—we were asking for it, really, going this far out from the Protectorate, attacking an occupied system with a skeleton crew. Not really a surprise, to find myself hurtling toward a planet, systems rebooting, multiple components unresponsive, heatshields failing as the atmosphere burns up the VX9’s backside on re-entry.
No, this—I deserve this. I have for quite a while. I just don’t know how I got all those wonderful years in between.
That blue acid-breather’s probably chasing me down to the planet. Could probably see her, if I swung the magnascope’s viewfinder around. But this planet that I’m falling toward… it’s so beautiful. The computer’s already calculating my point of impact—too far to make out from this distance, but those features look artificial enough. Looks almost like some sort of town.
And it looks like there’s going to be an execution.