The altitude gauge was dropping at ten feet per second before frost encrusted the glass panelling.
“That’s not good,” the strangely calm fret was torn from the professor’s lips by the churning, raging storm as he yanked back on the joystick and struggled to surf the gyrocopter through the chaos.
“Professor!”Leroy pointed a shaking hand as a brilliant tongue of lightning tore through the darkness.
“It’s alright, boy!” the professor turned to him with a mad grin, the icicles cracking from his moustache and goatee, the light reflecting off his flight goggles adding a hint of madness to his glee, “The gyrocopter is insulated!”
“I don’t know what that means!” Leroy was pretty sure insulated didn’t mean being exposed to the elements while flying through the biggest storm cloud in the world. Why did he even dive into it?
“The storm is showing no signs of dissipating though,” the professor’s grin scrunched into a frown, “The other storms all faded away around this point. Something must happen when the front hits the badlands, we’ll try and get ahead of it and observe from an external . . .”
Another tongue of lightning tore through the chaos, a rupturing fork of deafening, blinding brilliance. Leroy blinked through the afterimage burned into his retina as the professor wiped fresh frost from his lenses.
“Did you see that?” Leroy kept blinking, the silhouette of a great, flying beast refusing to leave his mind’s eye.
“It couldn’t be a . . .”
Another rupture, another great tongue of power lashed out at the skies, and from behind it, the drake swooped into view.
It was . . . giant . . . a behemoth of the air. The storm cloud spun in torrents beneath its great wings, dragging the gyrocopter into its wake as it flapped with a whump that overpowered the rumbling thunder.
The professor gripped the stick with both hands as the aircraft smashed into the underbelly of the dragon. Copper fittings sparked against bronze scales and the copter spun away into the darkness with its two screaming occupants.
Leroy was choked by his harness, the centrifuge of a spiralling aircraft pushing him against the edge of his seat as he screamed, buffeted by ice and rain and lightning. The professor cackled next to him, he drove the stick to continue carrying the gyrocopter downwards until they erupted from the bottom of the storm clouds and fell towards the flooding earth below in a corkscrewing nose dive.
“Professor!” Leroy had to scream over the whistle of air past their fuselage.
“Not now!” the professor pulled a lever and the barely perceptible hum of the engine cut out. The gyrocopter’s rotor blades folded back upon themselves, forming a tail that stabilised their spin and he aimed them towards the lip of a waterfall.
They plummeted past the cliff tops from which great torrents spilled over the edge, their path cutting a hissing swathe through the deluge. They were oriented in their dive with the bottom of the craft facing the waterfall. The professor pushed the lever back. The rotor blades unfurled into position and spun with the rattling sound of a failing engine.
“Come on, come on!” the professor muttered as he struggled to activate the rotors.
Leroy watched the river rush towards them as they fell with hopeless acceptance and then shut his eyes.
“Gotcha!” the gyrocopter rumbled into life and the rotors spun, cutting a swathe from the waterfall and pushing them forwards. The professor yanked hard on the joystick and the gyrocopter pulled up moments before impacting the river, skimming upon it like a stone before bouncing back up into the air. “Ah,” the professor sighed, “textbook! You can open your eyes now, Leroy.”
Leroy risked peeling one eye open, the grey light of the world filtered into view as the weather died down to calmness and the gyrocopter hovered over the canyon that they had nearly crashed into. He let go of his harness, his knuckles white, his fingers blue, his neck worn red by the belt cutting into his skin . . . and he fumbled for a tiny amber scale that was wedged into his console.
“Ah you managed to get a sample, capital!” the professor cackled as he turned the gyrocopter to watch the storm.
As he theorised, it hit the border of the badlands and started to dissipate, the storm cell shrinking in a whirlwind—sucked into the maw of the mighty dragon. It flapped its wings in the now still air and pirouetted, far too gracefully for something that would rattle the earth when it landed. It turned back over the flood plains and spewed the water into the rivers and gullies.
“Ah you see,” the professor pulled out a damp note pad, licked the nib of his pen, and scribbled with running ink. “The badlands never get any water because the Drake redirects the precipitation.”
“So how do we stop it?”
The professor stopped scribbling, his script mottling on the wet page. “You think we’re here to kill the thing?”
“There are people in the badlands, they need water.”
The professor sighed and removed his goggles, “My boy, the people on those plains live quite happily I can assure you. What if we killed that beautiful beast and the storms then flood out their plains and their homes? Did you think of that? What if the people who live downstream from these flood plains then desiccate because they aren’t used to living without the constant water flow? I know it’s easy to see a noble solution here, but their might not even be a problem to deal with.”
“Then why build this contraption? Why fly around the world studying these things if not to make them better?”
The professor smiled, “Leroy, I once thought as you do now. In all of my years and in all of my studies I realised you can make improvements, yes. But I realised that we don’t have to change the world, sometimes it is simply enough to understand it.” He gestured towards the magnificent Drought Drake as it swooped over its domain, and he sighed again. “Paradoxically, we can make things better by adapting to the world, rather than adapting it to us. There is some greater work at play here with the drake, we have to discover it. Ultimately, we are observers. And that is enough.”
Leroy did not reply, but he looked down at the jagged, bronze scale in his hands. He once had family in the badlands. While the professor watched the drake with awe, Leroy’s grip hardened around the scale, so much so that blood dripped from his palm . . .
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