“No more coal for the boiler—it’s all gone!
“No more oil for the burner—it’s all gone!
“Dragons charged up in the sun—come get one!
“You’ll get hiss hiss hisssss STEAM HEAT!”
I’d waited so many years to turn on a television again. When there were hundreds of channels blaring day and night, I never watched. Now we have only one channel. You’d think people would get bored with it, but they watch just to see my commercial.
To see the dragons dance. Who knew? But I gotta tell you, when they spread their wings and claws, it gives you a whole new appreciation of jazz hands. The first time I saw Laroux and the Leaping Lizards perform Cell Block Tango, I wept for joy.
When it became clear the fossil fuels were about to run out, I was one of the elite who shut themselves up in think tanks to survive the social ruin we knew would come. While the masses went about beneath the smog-blackened skies, blissfully unaware of the doom awaiting them, we stockpiled in secret, figuring to emerge some years later. After the masses had thinned themselves out and would be easier to deal with.
We assumed that once the cost of fuel skyrocketed, the economy would crash quickly and completely. Those who could no longer obtain coal would have to turn their dragons loose. Why feed the beasts when there were no fires to keep burning? We need only sit back until the starving dragons and starving humans destroyed each other.
I awoke from a sound sleep to a racket in the courtyard. Under cover of darkness, the dragon we’d kept in the boiler room to light the fires was being pushed out the gates.
The beast didn’t want to go outside. Throwing on some clothes, I went down to watch the fun. It wasn’t a very large dragon at all, but it was getting the best of the guys who’d volunteered for the job. As one of them landed on his butt at my feet, I asked him the frightening question hammering at my sleep-addled brain.
“Have we run out of coal?”
“Nah. This dragon has run out of fire. Can’t even light a candle anymore. It happens. We don’t know why.”
“But how will we get another dragon?”
“We can’t. It’s too risky. Besides, we’re gonna need the food. Why don’t you have a go at it? I’m beat.”
I walked toward the gate, where the dragon was standing quietly. The problem was obvious. My colleagues hadn’t opened it wide enough for the dragon to get through. They grasped the edges, peering fearfully out into the world we’d left to fend for itself.
Even the dragon had its snout at the crack, hissing and huffing.
“Smell your breakfast out there, buddy?” I asked it. The dragon rolled an eye at me, so I turned to my colleagues. “You know, he might walk right on out if you’d actually open the gates.”
“Don’t you see that light out there? The whole city must be burning. If we open the gates, we’ll be overrun by hordes of refugees!”
Stepping up beside the dragon, who showed no interest in any of us, I looked at the odd orange-pink glow on the horizon. The dragon seemed to be watching it too, and making a rather melodic humming sound.
Pulling out my chronocompass, I checked the reading. 0500 hours, due east. “I don’t believe it,” I whispered. “That’s not fire. That’s sunrise!”
I pushed the gate open wide, so I could see. The dragon jumped through, knocking against me as he half ran, half flew out of the compound. The momentum carried me beyond the gate, which my colleagues promptly slammed shut behind me.
“Hey! Open up!” I pounded, to no avail. They had barred the gates behind me and retreated into the compound.
So there I was, out in the apocalypse. It didn’t look very apocalyptic, at the moment. In fact, I was gawking over the sunrise. Instead of a dull red ball barely visible through the thick haze of coal smoke, this was a golden fireball in a marbled backdrop of rose tones. I stood, staring through watery eyes, unable to believe the brightness, the sky turning shades of blue I’d only seen in ancestral paintings.
I stumbled down the street, the dragon far ahead of me, both of us intent on that wonderful light. I, for one, was also following my nose. The scent of roast mutton, generously seasoned, led me along, my stomach agreeing that this was the right direction. I broke into a trot, and soon caught up with the dragon.
It had stopped in a small park, and was sniffing at a rose bush. I didn’t remember this place, a grassy, flowery oasis. I ought to have been surrounded by factories. The dragon wandered along a wide path, pausing to savor other roses along the way. I did the same, the fragrance almost intoxicating. Upon reaching the lawn, the dragon joined several others. As the sun rose higher, they all flopped down and sprawled on their backs, the light reflecting off their white belly scales in iridescent flashes.
I’d always thought the rumbling in the cellars was the boilers or other machinery installed to provide our comforts. Now, as I heard it multiplied tenfold, I realized the dragons were snoring. Sleeping in the sunshine without a care.
A horrible thought struck me so hard I sat down right on the grass. We’d only used the dragons to light our coal fires and oil burners, yet we never let them out of the cellars until they couldn’t flame anymore. We’d enslaved them, thoughtlessly. Then we’d put them out to starve when we couldn’t use them anymore. Yet they had not destroyed us.
We’d done that ourselves. Now, in the absence of smoke-belching human factories, the sun shone in the clear blue sky. A sky with dragons flying through it. I watched a small group not far away, doing turns and loops in perfect formation, even their flapping wings synchronized.
I heard applause, human shouts of admiration, coming from that direction. The same direction as the smell of food. My stomach got me on my feet, moving even as my mind tripped over what my eyes saw.
I remembered this area as a factory district. Blackened brick boxes, their windows opaque and sealed shut with decades of soot. Most of that was gone now, yet I was not looking at the destruction I’d expected. I was looking at the results of organized dismantling and reconstruction.
Whole blocks of buildings were simply gone, replaced by gardens of all sorts. Vegetable gardens, flower gardens, even kindergartens, where children played amongst the sunbathing dragons. The one time I tried to sneak into the cellar to see the dragon, my mother came down with fainting spells and was sent to a spa. My father treated his disapproval of my unorthodox behavior with a generous dose of brandy.
The remaining buildings were remodels, the repetitive blocks replaced by sculpted, rounded corners, the tiny square windowpanes now floor to ceiling arches. The doorways also were soaring, scroll-trimmed arches, big enough for dragons to use along with humans. The old dark brick gleamed with whitewash, splashed with bright trims. I had awakened from a dark, claustrophobic nightmare into a bright new day.
How was it possible? Society depended on a consumer economy, which in turn depended on power to keep the factories running. Own the factories and you owned the economy. Own the power, and you owned the world.
We barricaded ourselves from the masses, convinced that only our leadership could rebuild society after our way of life collapsed. As the city awakened around me, more and more people engaged in barter, making verbal agreements for goods and services as they moved along the streets or strolled the gardens. Not once did I see a signed contract change hands, or anything resembling money or promissory notes. I reeled to a bench and sat down hard.
Society hadn’t collapsed when we lost our hold on it. I was walking through a city whose common folk had healed it, and themselves, from the blight we’d caused. I checked my chronocompass again.
We’d let five years go by, isolated within our enclaves. Convinced we were right, but arguing amongst ourselves about how best to rebuild our financial empires. We didn’t want to admit that we didn’t know how to rebuild the economy. We didn’t know what to base it on. I sat in the warm, bright sunlight, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.
I’d become what I’d been taught to abhor. I was now poor and homeless. I was now free, and a great sense of liberation shivered through me. Or maybe that was just my stomach growling. I could still smell that roast mutton, and I’d just realized I had no means of obtaining any of it.
An old man sat down next to me. “You look a little pale, son. You break outta one a those compounds? Leave the coal barons up there chokin’ on the dust?”
I looked back the way I’d come. Smoke still rose from the chimneys of the mansions behind the fortified walls. “That obvious, huh?”
The elite, my family and colleagues amongst them, still huddled in fear of the changes they’d precipitated by hoarding the last of the fossil fuels for themselves. If I went back now, they would shoot me on sight, convinced I now carried some sort of plague.
The old man laughed a rumbly laugh, ripe from years in the smog. “Sure. Pasty skin, soft hands, tailored clothes in drab colors. Not to mention that fancy contraption on your wrist. Now don’t get yer back up. There’s lotsa you young ones busting out. Got no interest in the family fortunes, seein’ as how there ain’t none no more. Oy! Dragon! Give us a light, will ya son?”
The old man held up a hand rolled cigar, waving it at the approaching beast. The dragon was none other than the one who had knocked me through the gates.
“Wait,” I told the old man. “We put this dragon out this morning. They told me it’s out of fire.”
“That,” the dragon rumbled in reply, “was because you shut me away from the sun. I am recharged now.”
I fell off the bench. “You speak?”
Both the dragon and the old man laughed. “Course they speak, son. But only to those who can hear. Now how about that light?”
The old man held the cigar out at arm’s length, and the dragon gently breathed the tip to glowing life. After a few satisfying puffs, the old man smiled at the dragon.
“Now then, my scaly blue son, what can I give you for this favor?”
The dragon considered this for a long moment, which included giving me a once over with his cat-like green eyes. “Can you direct me to the food stand of the human Ravi?”
“Oh sure,” the old man chuckled. “Smell that spicy mutton? That’s Ravi. Just follow your nose—and the air show. Ravi feeds the flyers, and the flyers draw the crowds of customers.”
He gave me a sly nudge in the ribs. “Too bad you can’t do a loop da loop, son. You look like you could use a hot meal.”
“I will take him with me,” the dragon replied. “One of my cousins helps fire Ravi’s grills. He will help, when I have explained why Lazlo is with me.”
“And why is that?” I was apprehensive now, not sure about being beholden to a dragon.
“Because I got you locked out of your home.”
Ravi’s Halal Grill proved pretty easy to find, but rather difficult to get to. The mouthwatering scent led us straight to it, but the stunt flyers had landed. The stand was surrounded by a throng of customers.
“Let’s wait till this mob thins out a bit,” I suggested.
The dragon gave me a sideways look. “We can stay at the end of the line, if you wish.” Its green eyes roamed around, slid over me again. “Yes, that might be best, and also if you stay close to me.”
“I don’t think anyone will dare to hurt me.”
“I doubt anyone would bother. But I don’t want you getting lost.”
I opened my mouth to protest, feeling offended, then realized the dragon was right. I was a stranger here, and I needed his help. So we waited until Ravi had served his customers. This was when I finally saw slips of paper being exchanged for food, as well as things Ravi could use, like fresh vegetables, plates and skewers. If something offered had more value that the food ordered, Ravi gave a credit slip. It seemed the credit slips themselves could also be used for barter, as I saw Ravi accept slips for services other than his own.
I was trying to figure out if I had anything to offer that might be worth a sizzling lamb kebab or three, while the dragon introduced himself to Ravi.
“I am Laroux, a cousin of Lenali, who is there firing your grill. I’ve just been released from one of the compounds, and Lazlo here broke out with me.”
I started to say I’d been shut out by accident, but Laroux gave the barest wink of an eye, and I kept quiet. How the dragon knew my name, when I hadn’t known his, was a question burning hotter that the iron grills being loaded with more food.
Ravi flashed a white smile in a brown, bearded face. “Welcome Laroux. Lenali will show you how to fire the grill. Have a haunch of mutton while you both charge up for the lunch rush.”
“Payment in advance?” I queried, intrigued. I was watching Ravi’s nimble fingers loading the kebab skewers. He had not slowed or missed a beat while talking to us. He grinned some more and shrugged.
“Why not? There are two kebabs left, there, from the last batch. Ease your hunger while you examine my little establishment. Then, in exchange, you may give me your thoughts on how to improve it. Do you know anything about electrical transformers?”
“For stepping voltages up and down? Sure. Pretty simple, really, if you follow the proper precautions.”
“Excellent!” Ravi wiped his hands on his apron, then led me over to the back corner of the stand. Pulling a canvas tarp from a bulky object, he gestured toward it. “I think we can hook a dragon to this. With the right transformer.”
I stared at the generator. Ravi had built something that looked like a high school Tesla science fair project, but with some major components missing. “We’ll need to rig up a boiler,” I explained, wondering how much space that would take up, and where Ravi would keep enough water to supply it for even a single day.
Ravi laughed. “Not at all! You misunderstand, young Lazlo. We do not need steam to drive the turbine. We can take the power right from the dragons, if we can devise the transformer.”
“But you can’t transform fire into an electrical charge.” I spoke slowly, looking him in the eye, as if explaining physics to an infant.
Ravi only laughed again. “That is true! But an electrical charge can be transformed into fire. Did you never wonder why you had to change dragons, after keeping them in the dark? I believe we can take an electrical charge directly from the dragons, but I don’t have time to experiment with transformers. I would much rather experiment with food, anyway, which I know more about.”
Now I stared at Ravi. He grinned like a mad scientist, nodding encouragement even as he slapped fresh kebabs on the grill. “You eat. Watch the dragons. You’re a bright young man, yes? You’ll figure it out.”
I sat down next to the generator and started in on the lamb kebabs. I watched Lenali show Laroux how to lay on his back beneath a grill, and breathe fire to cook the kebabs, steaks, chops and vegetables Ravi rolled on, around, and off the grills in a magical rhythm.
Laroux had been put out of the compound because he could no longer light our fires. Yet he had lit the old man’s cigar, and here he was flame-broiling mutton chops to perfection. I was missing something here, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
The events of the morning, the long walk here to the marketplace, and the shock of my change in status combined with the warm sun and my full stomach to make me sleepy. Unable to keep my eyes open, I crawled out of the stall and joined Laroux and Lenali, already sleeping, bellies up, in the sun.
Laroux had been sleeping in the park when I’d caught up to him. As I had done then, I watched the sunlight reflecting off their iridescent belly scales. No matter what color a dragon was, its belly scales were always white. The sun made shimmering rainbows with every breath the snoring dragons took. Mesmerized, I didn’t know where my analytical thinking left off, and my dreaming began.
The dragons were recharging their fires, laying belly up in the sun. Something about those white, glittering scales, which lifted gently as the dragons breathed deeply in sleep. The underside of the scales, and the skin beneath them, were black. I had quickly shed my black jacket, for the dark color held the heat of the sun while my white shirt reflected it.
White on top, black beneath…
I awoke with a start, alone beneath the shade of the canvas tarp. Rising in excitement, I nearly fell over the generator. Grabbing a steel brush, I joined Ravi in scraping the grills, needing to do something at once.
Ravi greeted me with his trademark grin. “Ah, you have had a revelation.”
“The dragons. They’re not only solar powered, they are natural solar batteries. That’s why they sleep in the sun. Why they have to recharge more often when using their fire all the time. Since we only used them to light fires, instead of being the fire, we could keep them in the dark for months. Years, sometimes. They know our speech. Why didn’t they tell us?”
Ravi looked me up and down, his grin gone. His deep dark eyes held mine. I wanted to look away, but could not. Not until he spoke.
“Would you have listened, young Lazlo?”
Staring at my scuffed, uncomfortable shoes, I sighed. “No. We’d have thought it a parlor trick. Like a hound mimicking the sound of its master’s voice.” I went back to scraping the grill, intent on earning my own way in this new world. “I think I know what type of transformer you need to make that generator work. But tell me this, sir. What will you do with it, when I’ve built it?”
“I will power strings of lights with it, so the marketplace can stay open after dark. The dragons like to make other sorts of entertainments besides stunt flying. I want to help them do so.”
“You’d just give the power away?”
Ravi sensed my struggle. “It is hard for you to grasp the concept, yes? That instead of working for personal gain, we work for our collective welfare. You think you are the only young intellectual to break away from your silly walled communities? The only one who could build a transformer? Look at that one, over there.”
I followed Ravi’s line of sight to a furtive shadow shifting in the other evening shadows. His once fine clothes were ragged, his face hard and bitter. “May I have that leftover chop, and some of the vegetables?”
Ravi put them on a paper plate, and handed them to me without a word. I took them over to the lurking fugitive. I had to snatch the plate out of the way when he lashed out to knock it from my grasp.
“I don’t need your charity, fool! Don’t you know who I am? You’re not one of these rabble! You should know me!”
I took a step back, looking at him. Looking at what I might become, if I let the old ways encumber my mind. “I know who you used to be, before our families ruined the world. Have some food. You look like you need it.”
“I don’t need anything from a man who would betray his own kind.”
I plucked a grilled tomato from the plate, ate it slowly. “What we used to think of as wealth, our money, our social status, all that is gone. What did you think to find when you left your fortress? A pitiful rabble, as you call them, more than willing to make you a king? You did, didn’t you? And our colleagues are still squabbling amongst themselves, putting off the day they come out into the world again, each of them trying to wait until they have the upper hand. You look like you’ve been out here for months. Haven’t you figured it out yet? Take the food. Pay me with answers to my questions. Why are you alone and hungry? You must have something with which to barter.”
“Barter? I will not demean myself with such barbaric crudities. I wish I had never come outside. I’d sooner starve to death in civilized company than live like this.”
“Come on, stay behind the walls when you could walk in the sunlight? Sunlight, man! Did you ever even think to see it in your life?”
“Don’t you know what it does to you? Radiation poisoning! Everyone out here is going to die of burns!” Having given me an answer, he grabbed the plate from my hand.
I let it go, marveling at this answer. “But that isn’t true! You know it isn’t! Our own advertising departments created that story to stop people complaining about the smog. To keep them dependent on fossil fuels.”
“How else are we to maintain our rightful places, if the rabble don’t buy coal and oil?” This spluttered around a mouthful of mutton chop and onion.
I shook my head. “We didn’t create the coal and oil, only the markets for it. If we’ve lost our way of life, it’s because we refused to change, even when we knew the end was upon us.” Another ringing truth hit me. “Anyone can harness solar energy. We can’t monopolize it, control the flow of it, and sell it by the increment. But there are ways, oh yes! There are ways for everyone’s needs to be met.”
Over the next few days, one of Ravi’s sons helped me barter for the makings of the transformer. By the end of the week, I had what I thought to be a working model. The only way to find out was to test it. I voiced my doubts to Laroux, but he only cocked his head to one side and remained silent, a habit I was becoming annoyed with.
On the evening of the test, however, Laroux came to the food stand with no less than half a dozen dragons, of various sizes. All had volunteered to test the transformer, but it was a gnarly old fellow who stepped up first.
“No offense to the youngsters, but we don’t know what that contraption will do.”
Then he took the leads away from me, and attached them to his belly scales himself. The transformer hummed. The generator whirred to life. I flicked a switch, and the string of lights so carefully hung around the top of Ravi’s food stand glowed.
A cheer went up from dragons and humans alike. Laroux and some of his friends launched into a wild circle dance. I watched the old dragon. He sat comfortably on his haunches and tail, munching a leg of mutton.
While the celebration continued, I sat watching the machinery, thinking. After a couple of hours, the old dragon lay down on his side so as not to disturb the cables, wrapped a wing over his head to block the light, and went to sleep.
A few hours later, the lights began to dim. The old dragon woke up, crooked a beckoning claw at a younger, larger dragon. The fresh volunteer removed the cables from the old dragon and attached them to his own scales. The transformer changed frequencies, and the lights stabilized. The larger dragon, I realized, gave off a higher voltage. This sent me off in a direction I hadn’t taken since school. I started thinking about Tesla coils.
The rest, you might say, is history. Ravi’s sons built the generators and transformers. I organized the dragons and started an agency, providing anyone who had a generator with a regularly scheduled, solar powered dragon to keep it running. The dragons themselves were freelance, working when they wished. I soon found out they were taking turns on the evening shifts, and some, like Laroux, only worked early mornings.
When I realized Laroux had stopped coming in all together, I went down to the market one night to seek him out. I thought to find him at Ravi’s Grill. Instead, I found Lenali handing over firing of the grills to a fresh pair of dragons.
“Where are you off to?” I asked him, surprised. “Where’s Laroux?”
Lenali winked, and snagged a leftover kebab for me. “Come along. I’ll show you.”
We strolled through the brightly lit market, munching our snacks. I saw we were in a general drift of people moving toward a sound of many voices singing in harmony. I soon found myself sitting in the front row of a musical review.
All singing! All dancing! All dragon! Laroux & The Leaping Lizard Review!
The Tesla coils had restored broadcasting capabilities, so televisions, radios, and the entertainers behind them were working again. Most programs were live broadcasts of performances going on in various markets and theaters. Watching Laroux and his chorus line, I got the idea for advertising my agency.
And for starting up a new one. Right now, as I’m watching my commercial on television, I’m drawing up the first of what I hope will be many contracts for my new agency.
Dragonfire Theatrical Agency. Laroux is my first client. My fee? I don’t charge a fee. I don’t need to. In fact, most of the goods I receive in trade for the power agency, I distribute to those who are no longer able to work. Like Ravi, who will give out a meal in exchange for a smile, I have found what makes real wealth.
One winter day I went with Laroux back to the old compound. I called and pounded on the gate, but no one answered. Laroux took to the air, circling high above for some time. He returned shaking his head. “If they’re still alive in there, they’re hiding far inside. I can’t even smell them.”
“No smoke from the chimneys, so they must be out of coal at last. They must surely be out of food. Why won’t they come out?”
We were turning to go when I heard a noise behind me. The creak of the gate. A rustling, a whisper. “Hurry, run, catch up, don’t look back. Don’t be afraid of the dragon, it won’t hurt you. Hurry!”
I turned, and saw a line of ragged children running from the gate. A few teenagers pushed it wider, following, helping the little ones. A scream of rage echoed from some deep place within.
Then a shot rang out. I saw a woman fall through the narrow opening. Laroux rose into the air, putting himself between the children and the compound. I heard him flame, heard the gate crash in ruin. He came along the road in a rear guard position, carrying the fallen woman. I barely recognized her, but I knew we had rescued a treasure almost as great as the children.
“Laroux, any of your dancing lizards got a knack for teaching?”
“Well, I’ve taught some, and Grendle gives free lessons on the market stage. You’ve got that look in your eye again, Lazlo. What are you up to?”
“We need to start a school, my friend. I’m thinking that old textile mill, by the river. The one that used to be water powered until one of the compound families bought it and put in steam looms.”
“Why that one?”
“The sky lights. It’s a big, open floor plan, and the roof is almost all glass. Big enough for kids and dragons to get plenty of sunlight.”
“And if the dragons powering this school happen to learn right along with the children?”
I cocked my head at Laroux, and winked. Sure, I could invent solar panels and storage batteries, and I expect someday some other clever fellow will do just that.
But why would you want such things, when you can have a dragon? And why make the dragon breathe fire all day, squandering its power, when you can hook it to one of my new, closed loop recycling radiator systems with an electric coil boiler that will give you, you guessed it.
Hiss hiss hissss! STEAM HEAT!