I already told you,” Pembroke said. “One of your so-called dragons attacked my bomber while we were returning from a raid on Britain, and I was the only one who survived.”
“Yes, about that,” said Hauptmann. He paused for a few seconds, and Pembroke began breathing faster and faster, trying his best to hide his fear. “As I was saying, we requested an analysis of all recent air-raids over Britain departing from Dusseldorf in the past 12 hours. There was no mention of a crew member named Joachim Dieter on any of them.”
Pembroke said nothing. Anything he said at this point would be used against him, and he was under heavy suspicion as it was. Unfortunately, Hauptmann did the talking for him. “You are a British spy, and a traitor. I do not know who you are, but your name is not Joachim Dieter.”
“Got it in one,” Pembroke said, in English this time. “Send my regards to Hitler.”
With a single, swift motion, he reached into his uniform and pulled out the Welrod, squeezing the trigger and shooting Hauptmann in the head at close range. The Welrod only held five bullets in its magazine, and Pembroke used two of them. One struck Hauptmann in the throat, and the other hit him in the left eye. Hauptmann choked and coughed up a splatter of dark blood onto the concrete floor, before letting out a final shudder and collapsing completely.
As Hauptmann’s body fell to the ground, Zimmerman and Dittmar both ran out the back door of the building. At the sight of Hauptmann’s body, lying prone in a pool of his own blood, both of them raised their rifles and pointed them at Pembroke.
Pembroke raised his Welrod again. The tiny pistol had only three bullets left. One for Zimmerman, one for Dittmar, and one, if things went really badly, for himself. No, he thought. I didn’t come all this way to go out like this.
“I must give credit where it is due,” said Zimmerman. “You were quite persistent. The British never do seem to know when to give up. Now, come with us. The high command is going to want you alive.”
Pembroke’s eyes met with those of Zimmerman and Dittmar. He held his Welrod up, level with their rifles. Hours seemed to pass, even though only seconds had gone by according to his watch. The only sound was the dragons, still gnawing and ripping at the raw meat they had been fed. Pembroke felt sweat building up on his forehead. In front of him were two men who wanted to either kill him, or hand him over to an enemy government that would almost certainly kill him regardless. Behind him were cages full of vicious beasts that, just a day ago, he had no idea existed.
The choice was obvious.
Pembroke placed his hands and feet on the barbed-wire fence, and began to climb. The barbs dug deep into his hands— he felt the warm, wet sensation of blood soaking his palms— but he stubbornly continued climbing.
“The fool! He’s trying to escape through the dragon enclosures! After him!” Zimmerman shouted. He raised his rifle and prepared to fire, but Dittmar held him back.
“Don’t shoot!” said Dittmar. “You might injure the dragon. The orders were for none of them to come to harm! Then we would both be in trouble! Besides, if he’s in the dragon enclosure, chances are he’s not going to make it out.”
The barbed-wire fence was about four meters tall, but it seemed much taller as Pembroke climbed it. The wires were spaced about twenty centimeters apart, and were thickly lined with sharp metal spikes that dug into his hands.
“He’s at the top,” said Zimmerman. “Should we shoot him before he jumps, or let the dragon do it for us?”
“I say let the dragon do it,” said Dittmar. “If we shoot him and we miss, or we hit the dragon instead, we would be in serious trouble. But he is not going to make it out of this alive regardless. The orders were to capture any spies alive, but if he is killed by the dragon, then we can plead ignorance and not be punished for our failure.”
Jumping from the top of the barbed-wire fence was jarringly hard on Pembroke’s legs, much like the parachute jump that had delivered him there. Pembroke had no choice but to brace himself with his hands as he landed, ignoring that his sliced-open palms stung as they touched the dusty ground. As he pushed himself to his feet, however, he came face to face with the creature on the other side of the fence.
The dragon was six meters long (by Pembroke’s rough estimate— it seemed to be about three times as long as he was tall) and covered from snout to tail in metallic black scales. It walked on all fours, its lizard-like hind legs and bat-like forelimbs supporting its heavy body on the ground. A forked tongue, like a snake, emerged from its mouth, tasting the air around it, no doubt detecting the scent of this particularly foolish human that had stumbled into its enclosure. One of the dragon’s hind legs bore a heavy iron shackle,connected by a long chain to a post in the center of the enclosure.
Pembroke brandished his Welrod again, hoping the dragon would recognize the gun for what it was and retreat.
That was not what happened. As Pembroke stood his ground, the dragon reared onto his hind legs, flaring open its nine-meter-wide wings to reveal a pair of brightly colored eye-spots on their undersides. It let out a deep, guttural hiss, a sound like nails grinding across a blackboard that raised goosebumps all across Pembroke’s body. Pembroke felt an inexplicable, primal fear welling up in his mind, a fear that, for all his experience in combat, he could not place. He supposed it was some sort of atavistic revulsion, lodged deep in the human mind as an instinctive response to giant reptiles.
On some level, Pembroke understood that the dragon was only trying to scare him. Like a cat arching its back and hissing at a dog, it was trying to make itself appear larger and more menacing so the intruder would stand down. And Pembroke had already backed down as far as he could. He was pinned tight against the barbed-wire fence.
Left with no other option, Pembroke pulled the trigger on the Welrod. In rapid succession, two bullets flew from the muzzle. The first bounced harmlessly off the enclosure’s concrete floor, but the second struck the dragon in its right leg. The animal shrieked in agony, giving Pembroke enough time to run to the other side of the enclosure, and to reflect on his dire miscalculation.
“Shit. Only one bullet left.” Pembroke grumbled. The dragon was still moving, but its crippled leg was caused it to limp. I could use my last bullet to kill that thing, he thought. Finish the job. And then what’s in it for me? A private cell in a Nazi prison, that’s what. And that’s if I’m lucky. Colin Pembroke, agent of the SOE, the man who discovered that the Nazis were creating dragons, dying in prison. How’s that for life’s little ironies?
Meanwhile, Dittmar and Zimmerman were watching the events unfold with fascination.
“What do you want us to do now?” Zimmerman asked.
“Nothing,” said Dittmar. “He said he had only one bullet left. He’s either going to use it to kill himself, or kill the dragon. If he kills himself, we’re saved the trouble. If he kills the dragon, we can go in and arrest him.”
“But then we would be punished for allowing one of these creatures to die, would we not?” asked Zimmerman. “Surely there would be a way to distract the dragon from the prisoner, so we can retrieve him?”
“Only if you would like to do the honors personally,” said Dittmar, glaring at Zimmerman and holding the barrel of his rifle against his chest.
Pembroke frantically surveyed the dragon’s enclosure for anything that he could use as a makeshift weapon. The floor of the enclosure was strewn with dried blood and rotting pieces of flesh, attracting swarms of buzzing flies, but not a single object that Pembroke thought he could use to defend himself once he ran out of bullets.
The dragon, meanwhile, seemed irritated that its threat display had failed to achieve the desired results, and began pawing at the ground with its good leg. Its damaged leg dragged on the ground like an umbrella that had been shredded by a strong wind, but for some reason the dragon was ignoring it. It shifted from one side of the enclosure to the other, never taking its eye off of Pembroke.
Before Pembroke could do anything else, the dragon spat a jet of fire at him— a crackling, blazing pillar of sulfurous flame that covered the entire length of the enclosure. Pembroke threw himself flat onto the ground, just as he had been trained to do under enemy gunfire, the flames only inches above his back. He had never had a flamethrower used against him before, but he had seen photos and films of them, and he could only imagine that this was what it must feel like to be in the path of one. Pembroke closed his eyes hoping that, if he was going to die, it would at least be quick.
Five seconds later, Pembroke could still feel himself breathing, and he knew that the flames had missed him. Pushing himself to his feet, he placed his Welrod back in his pocket. The dragon was pacing back and forth on the other side of the enclosure, occasionally hissing to itself in what Pembroke was tempted to call frustration, and glaring at him. The chain on its back leg dragged against the concrete floor with a loud scraping sound, as the dragon paced about the enclosure. Of course, Pembroke thought, it knows I’m dangerous now. It doesn’t want to take any more risks.
“Do you think we should kill him now?” asked Dittmar.
“Who? The dragon, or the spy?” said Zimmerman.
“Either one works,” said Dittmar, “The orders were to capture any spies alive. What we have to lose by allowing him to escape pales in comparison to what we have to gain from capturing him. To that end, any sacrifice is justified. The dragon is a costly asset, but there are others we can breed more. The spy. . . we will never have another chance to capture him.” He raised his rifle, his fingers twitching anxiously on the trigger. Privately, the thought of having to kill one of Project Jormungand’s dragons was a disturbing one, but if it had to be done so a British spy could be captured, then so be it.
The clicking of the trigger focused Pembroke’s attention, as though a switch had been flipped somewhere deep in the recesses of his brain. Desperately, he scanned the dragon’s enclosure again, searching for anything that he could either use as a weapon or as a means of escape. The results were just as discouraging as they were the first time. The only thing he could see was the half-eaten remains of the beef carcass the dragon had been fed. That, and the iron chain attached to the dragon’s hind leg to keep it from flying away.
Pembroke unclipped the magazine of the Welrod, shaking out his last remaining bullet into the palm of his hand. He held the bullet up to his nose and sniffed at it. It smelled metallic, with a hint of sulfur.
“What on Earth are you doing, Tommy?” Dittmar shouted. “If you want to throw away your last bullet and surrender, then surrender! You have one minute to comply, or else we will kill you.”
Pembroke said nothing. He unscrewed the bottom of the bullet, and sprinkled a pinch of the gunpowder inside into the palm of his hand. The dragon was still pacing back and forth on the other side of the enclosure, its chain attached to a heavy concrete post. This was what Pembroke focused his attention on. Tearing a piece of his uniform off, he wrapped it tightly around the gunpowder from the bullet. The sensation in his hands reminded him of rolling a cigar— Pembroke had never smoked, but he knew what it felt like to roll a cigar. Once he had a compact about the size of his little fingernail, he held it up to his eye and inspected his work. “This better do the trick.” he said to himself under his breath. “If it doesn’t, I probably deserve whatever’s coming to me.”
“You have thirty seconds until we use lethal force!” Dittmar barked. “Whatever you are attempting, stop immediately.” Dittmar and Zimmerman maintained a tight grip on their rifles, staring into the enclosure. In all of the time Pembroke had seen them, neither of them had shown any sort of emotion, other than a sort of cold, detached arrogance. This time, though, they looked different. Pembroke wasn’t sure he could put his finger on it, but somehow they seemed apprehensive in a way they hadn’t before. Apprehensive and, he might even go so far as to say, nervous.
Pembroke stuffed the ball of fabric and gunpowder into the first link of the chain, and let out an audible sigh of relief that Dittmar and Zimmerman had either not noticed or simply ignored what he was trying to do.
“You have ten seconds. . .” Dittmar began. He never finished. He and Dittmar were both caught off guard by a loud clattering sound, and a subsequent irritated growl. It did not take long at all for them to realize what happened. Pembroke had thrown his empty gun at the dragon and woken it up.
The dragon reacted to this the only way it knew how. After hissing in anger, it spat a jet of fire in the direction of the object that had just been thrown at it— a jet of fire that came into contact with the gunpowder Pembroke had stuffed inside the chain. When the fire hit the gunpowder, the result was the same as if a hand grenade had gone off in the enclosure. The chain shattered.
“He tried to escape! Prepare to fire!” Dittmar shouted.
“And risk killing the dragon?” Zimmerman asked. “Each of these dragons costs over 5 billion reichsmarks to breed. They must not come to any harm outside of combat unless absolutely necessary.”
“Well,” said Dittmar. “This is absolutely necessary.” With that, he raised his rifle and motioned for Zimmerman to do the same.
Now free from its chain, the dragon flexed its wings, and began stalking towards Pembroke in a manner that reminded him unnervingly of a tiger or a panther. Its tongue flicked in and out, and he could smell its breath, all rotten flesh and sulfurous gas. Its wings opened and closed quietly, never quite fully unfurling, and its hind leg was still bleeding from where he had shot it. Under most circumstances, Pembroke fancied himself a pragmatic, logical person. This was not one of those circumstances. Instead, he ran headlong toward the dragon, and threw himself at it. The dragon had no time to react before Pembroke landed directly on its back.
The dragon let out a screech of astonishment, and opened its wings— huge, leathery wings, as wide as those of a small airplane, extending six meters on either side of its body. Without any further hesitation, it catapulted itself into the air, with Pembroke still desperately clinging to it. The only thing Pembroke could think of that this reminded him of was when the Vulture’s Delight had crashed— there was the same sensation of utter helplessness, the same feeling that he had no control of what would happen to him. The dragon shook itself wildly from side to side, frantically trying to dislodge its unwanted hitchhiker, but Pembroke clung on with the tenacity of a bulldog, digging his fingers into its scaly skin.
The dragon climbed higher, its burden barely seeming to impede its ascent as it soared away from the compound. Pembroke could feel a flurry of emotions rushing through his head, exploding like so many cannon shells. Fear that he would be recaptured. Relief that he had found a way to escape. But the one that he felt most of all, one that he had not dared feel since he had landed in this bizarre place, was hope.
Pembroke had no idea where the dragon was going, or even if it was intending to go anywhere at all. As far as he knew, it had spent its entire life in its cage, chained to a post. It simply continued to fly off to the south, with Pembroke still clinging to its back. As the dragon continued to fly, any hope that had been rising in Pembroke’s mind began to fade and was steadily replaced by cloudy feelings of doubt. Where would the dragon land? What would it do if—or more to the point, when– it remembered it had a potential meal riding on its back?
Finally deciding that there was no point in leaving anything to chance, Pembroke released his grip on the dragon’s back, and allowed himself to fall away. He had timed his release as accurately as he could, as the dragon glided low over a copse of oak trees. Am I insane? he thought to himself, cracking a smile for the first time since he had left England. Escaping from a Nazi base on the back of such a monster. . . it’s the sort of thing the boys back home would never believe even if I was allowed to tell them.
The silence of the crisp spring afternoon was broken as Pembroke fell through the branches of the trees, and landed with a reverberating thud. He stared up at the sky, just in time to see the dragon’s silhouette receding into the distance. Pushing himself to his feet, Pembroke felt a sharp, stabbing ache in his right leg, one that sent a spasm of electrifying pain up his spine and into his head. He was fairly sure he had broken his leg. “Bloody hell. . .” he cursed out loud, momentarily not caring if anyone heard. The pain racked through his body again, and Pembroke lay down.
When he awoke, Pembroke was neither in the Jormungand base nor in the forest. He was in a bed, in a small wooden house, and his broken leg was bound in a cast. He wondered whether he was alone, until the door opened and a young woman entered. She was tall, with a full figure and long blonde hair done up in braids. “Ah, Oberleutnant Dieter, I am glad to see that you are awake,” she said, in German. At first Pembroke was confused, but he realized she had looked at his uniform with his false identity.
“How long have I been in here?” Pembroke asked. “And what is your name?”
“About a day,” said the woman. “My name is Gerda Scherfling. My husband is a Luftwaffe pilot, just like you.”
“Small world,” Pembroke chuckled, trying his best to make light conversation. “Do tell me, how is he doing?”
Schlerfing laughed. “Funny you should mention that. I just received a letter from him yesterday. He claims that he saw a dragon from the cockpit of his airplane, while he was flying over the Rhine. But I put no stock in such silly stories… do you?”
Gray Stanback was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, and ever since has been fascinated by storytelling. Some favorite authors include Stephen King, H. G. Wells, and Japanese manga writer Mohiro Kitoh. Gray graduated Guilford College in 2016 with a major in biology and a minor in environmental studies. He has been writing original works of science fiction, fantasy, and horror since middle school.
Follow Gray on his website.