Dragon Scales

by Eduard Schwan


Friday, finally.  The workload this week was unbearable, and I was just getting over a cold that had me wiped out all week, stupid viruses, but I was feeling much better today,   and I was really looking forward to this weekend break.  It would be great to do something different, to escape on a quiet peaceful camping trip far from the techno-buzz of the city.  I had packed up my camping gear and was heading out to the nearby desert.  Several workmates had suggested it as a good place to relax and unplug from reality for awhile.  Sort of funny, really, since I had always seen these trips more as an escape to reality, where I got to leave behind the facade of civilization we had constructed around ourselves, that sheltered us from the beautifully harsh truths of nature.  I personally enjoyed the rivers, the trees, the eagles, the fish.  But I was sure the desert would offer me similar enjoyment: the cliffs, the cactus, the hawks, the scorpions.  I smirked at this half serious half-joking thought and finished packing.

I had driven off the main highway for over an hour, on what was sometimes a dirt road, sometimes a river, depending on the time of year.  It snaked through tall sandstone cliffs, finally opening out onto an old forgotten lake bed on the desert floor.  There were huge boulders scattered around the dusty bed, and I set up camp behind several of these large rocks, in case the wind picked up later.

Evening swept in quickly.  After a quick dinner, I climbed up one of the boulders and watched in quiet amazement as the light of the sunset caught the cliffs on fire with brilliant streaks of yellow and orange.  The hawks circling overhead glided off to the nearby cliffs.  Trotting quietly through the brush and rocks below was a slender grey coyote, probably looking to sate himself with a few rodents.  This rock gave a perfect view of the desert (and I was up away from the night-crawling scorpions) so I hopped down to retrieve my sleeping bag, and set it up on the flat spot of the rock for the night.  I lay there for a long time, letting the sounds of nature wash over me.  Now this was reality.  This was the world I knew and loved so well.  Content, reassured and tired, I drifted off to sleep.

I awoke slowly, and rubbed the dark haze from my eyes.  The desert air was cold today.  It should have been daylight, but instead, a black shadow hung in the air.  Looking up, I saw that the sky was almost completely blacked out, crawling with thousands of swirling shapes.  As I focused and my vision cleared, I could make out the unmistakable silhouettes, and my heart stopped... Dragons!  In all my life I had seen only one, and that was a quick glimpse while exploring the cliffs as a child.  I also remembered old legends and descriptions of the dragon, a fierce powerful creature who could appear suddenly in our reality, and with a single thought, bring death, life, order, or chaos.  Dragons were rarely seen by people unless one of these events was about to take place.  As I thought about this fate, and now multiplied it by thousands, a hideously helpless feeling began to come over me.  The dragons had now aligned, and were gliding together in a large circle overhead.  Half in fear and half in awe I watched, as inside the circle, a huge dark rip began to open in the middle of the sky.

Now, some huge round object was slowly pushing itself through this widening hole.  This was quite a bizarre sight!  I was seeing it, but I was having trouble understanding exactly what it was that I was seeing.  The sky was no longer the atmosphere gently melting into outer space as I had been taught to think of it, instead it seemed to be a protective shell that was being opened and breached by a swirling cloud of dragons and a monstrous ball.  The skin of the ball was slightly out of focus, and it seemed to shimmer and ripple.  Its shape was vaguely familiar, but I couldn't remember where I had seen it before.

The dragons circled wider now, giving the ball room to descend, and as it lowered overhead, I could see it now and recognized its shape.  It was definitely some kind of geodesic polyhedron, and its surface resembled a translucent liquid, but it faded in and out like a mirage.  Where had I seen this shape before?  It seemed so familiar.

The dragons had paired up now, each pair flying so close that their wings touched as they pumped the air.  Possibly due to this friction, their wings began to sparkle and glow a deep cobalt blue, and occasional discharges of lightning began to jump between groups of dragons.  The arcs became more frequent as the dragons spread out to open the circle around the ball, and it soon turned into a solid ring of bluish-white fire.

The ball had now pushed itself down close enough that I could see its surface more clearly.  It was not solid, but was instead made up of millions of miniature balls, each just like itself.  As I watched, the ball expanded and start to break apart, with each little ball drifting out in its own direction.

With a jolt, my mind connected the shape to a memory!  In a high school biology class, I remembered attending a lecture on the human immune system, and I saw a geodesic shape like this on a 3D video that discussed microscopic viruses.

I focused back on the surreal scene.  The little balls drifted out toward the dragons.  As if triggered by some unspoken cue, every dragon suddenly folded up its wings and disappeared.  Their ring of electrical fire quickly imploded on itself, ripping through all the little escaping balls as it collapsed.  The shards and dust left behind got trapped in the implosion and swirled back up toward the rapidly closing rip in the sky.  The fireball and rip both stretched up and shrank, and winked out overhead.

As I strained to scan the sky, I noticed one small speck up high, slowly drifting down toward the mountains on the far side of the lake bed.  As I watched it float down, I tried to assemble the events and make some sense out of what I just saw.  Had I witnessed a thwarted attempt at some kind of Earth invasion?  Was that  giant ball some kind of spaceship (or group of ships)?  It still seemed like I was missing something crucial.  And what was this descending speck headed for the mountains?  Had one of the invaders escaped?  Would that be bad or good?  Or did it even matter now?

My speculations stopped.  The speck was no longer drifting down, but was now growing larger.  I scrambled back down behind the boulders... it was heading straight for me across the desert floor.  It was too late, the unmistakable silhouette had spotted me somehow... it knew right where I was.  As the lone dragon approached, I wasn't sure whether to be relieved or deathly afraid.

The dragon flew up and gently perched on the boulders just in front of me.  I gazed at the sleek iridescent body, and noticed that each of its scales was a miniature version of this same dragon.  Every move the dragon made, its scales reflected identical movements.  It was mesmerizing.  The dragon cocked its head and looked down on me with piercing eyes of brown and electric blue.

It didn't speak, but I could feel words swimming and forming in my head, words that were not my own.  Like a stream of whispers, they came to me:

"Shapes are more than shapes..."

"Size does not matter, results do..."

"Some things are the same size and behave very differently... some things are vastly different in size, and are identical..."

"We are built of each other, we live inside each other..."

"Our goals are all the same, to survive and grow stronger, we just have different ways to accomplish it... some protect by destroying, some destroy by protecting..."

All of these thoughts stopped as soon as they had started, save one last whisper:

"This you were not meant to see."

I awoke slowly, and rubbed the dark haze from my eyes.  The desert air was cold today.  It should have been daylight, but instead a black shadow hung in the air.  Looking up, I saw that the sky was almost completely blacked out, crawling with thousands of swirling shapes.  As I focused and my vision cleared, I could make out the unmistakable silhouettes, and my heart stopped... storm clouds!  Lightning was already jumping between the clouds.  I knew that within an hour, this sandy road was going to transform itself back into the river it was meant to be, and I needed to quickly pack up and return, back to the fantasy life of jobs and TV and crowded freeways that we had invented to enrich our lives.  Looking over my shoulder as I left, I knew he desert trip had indeed relaxed me, and I'd love to find that place again sometime.  I was just a little disappointed that the trip was so short and uneventful.