Prosperity City’s corrupt mayor never guessed his greatest opponent would be a fire-breathing dragon and her unconventional platform…
Liza exited the south tunnel just in time to see the launch. Missiles roared into the sky and then ripped across the harbor, carving paths of smoke as they arced down toward the city. Liza had a moment to wonder before their trajectory became clear and the weapons came whining down at her. Yeah, the city was trying to kill her again.
Before this volley could strike, she stretched up from the train tracks and belched. Flames sprayed the horizon, melting the missiles’ shells and bursting their payloads over Jocelyn Bell Burnell Avenue. The mayor and his paramilitaries were stationed there, and she liked reminding them that she knew it. If she’d had wings, she would have flown over there and devoured them. Grounded, she kept her thousand feet on the tracks and waved her two-hundred-yard silver tail at them, daring them to approach her domain.
How did they always know where she was? She guessed her heat signature was easy to track. And she always came out of the south tunnel at 2:10 on weekdays. It was part of a routine so deep that she didn’t question it.
She charged along the train tracks, heading southwest and away from the harbor. These trails led everywhere and went on forever, in circuits through Prosperity City and three headings out of it. Not that she ever headed out of it. This was her city; she’d lived here as long as she could remember, traveling along the steel rails. The rails were pleasantly cool below her feverish feet, and she always felt feverish since, as best as she could tell, she only had fire for innards.
As a warning not to shoot at her again, Liza belched a three-story-high plume of fire as she passed Cesar Chavez Elementary. Then she paused beside the chain-link fence separating her rails from the jungle gyms of the school playground, hoping to spot some fans. Sometimes kids cheered her on. She waved her tail at the building, flashing her 2247 “tattoo,” black letters on silver scales.
Sirens rang across the vacant playground, and yellow buses screeched away from the front of the building. Kids didn’t cheer today. They evacuated, leaving her with a hollow feeling.
Figures in black body armor ran across rooftops lugging shoulder-mounted rocket launchers. Dozens of people were still working behind the windows of those buildings. They hadn’t evacuated yet, which meant either incinerating them all, or fleeing. She’d never felt lonelier than when she fled.
Rovere Station was the best shelter. It was a sprawling transportation hub of Gothic architecture and ribbed domes networked into stained glass ceilings. Giuliano della Rovere Station was a holdover from when Prosperity had an alchemy market, back before the tech boom. It turned out that internet venture capitalists were better at producing gold than a bunch of alchemists.
She inhaled deeply, hoping to catch a whiff of wealth. Sometimes bankers tried sneaking express trains through here, and if there was anyone she wanted to eat, it was the people who ran the stock market. Mayor Waddington and those bankers were responsible for all the paramilitary strikes. She lowered her snout to the tracks, listening for the hum of train engines.
She was so absorbed that she didn’t hear the human leaping off the platform and onto her back. She reared up to devour what she expected to be another black-ops asshole, but instead found a man with deep brown skin and a frizzy beard, one hand holding a taqiyah to his scalp, the other grasping one of the spines on her flank.
The human stared directly into her burning eyes. “How much to get to Verbiest?”
Ferdinand Verbiest Lane was on the far east slope of Prosperity, at least forty minutes away. She was so flustered that she calculated an answer before thinking to do anything else.
She was going to snap him up, when he opened his wallet. “Look, my neighborhood’s been suffering for years and we can’t get one phone call with the mayor. When you blew up those missiles you destroyed the only major freeway we had left, so we can’t drive to city hall. But that also means his office isn’t getting nearly as many visitors. This may be my one chance at a face-to-face. So how much do you want? This is my last forty dollars.”
He released her spine and fanned the bills in the sweltering breeze of her breath.
For curiosity’s sake, she asked, “What would I want with money?”
“It’s paper. All you do is burn things. What’s the difference to you if I sit in economy class while you run around the city like you were going to anyway?”
It was such a strange question that she had to think it over. She looked at the stained glass ceiling, with its grand image of an underwear model touching index fingers with a bearded man. The bearded man above looked like he got shit done.
She asked, “Forty dollars in singles?”
This man was named Asif. She dropped Asif off at Verbiest, then watched him sprint to pester the mayor about police reform. Bipeds were so weird. They ran so inefficiently. She was debating whether to wish Asif well or set him on fire, when she felt three more people climb onto her back.
These were white twentysomethings clearly under the influence of narcotics and poor group thinking. They begged Liza to take them to something called “Tad’s apartment.”
From what they said between bouts of vomiting and scream-singing popular music together, Tad had cheated on one of them with her own mother. It was atrocious. It was also something Liza wanted to see play out.
While two of them scream-sang a song that sounded like a belabored euphemism for regrettable sex, the third climbed around Liza’s spines and approached her head. The white woman pointed at Liza’s tail and asked. “What does 2247 stand for?”
Those numbers were tattooed on her backside, but she hadn’t thought about them in a while.
“I don’t remember. It must have been forever ago.”
“Benders. I get it.” The woman licked her lips like she needed to remember what they were. “If fighter jets bounce off you, how’d you get tattooed?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Was it with lasers?”
If Liza could have shrugged, she would have. She didn’t remember any laser relays.
“Can I take a selfie with you?” she asked, already filming herself and trying to get Liza’s head in frame. Then she collapsed into sobs. Apparently Tad had bought her that phone.
Something about her capricious anguish resonated with Liza. She got carried away and decided to melt Tad’s apartment. She didn’t merely burn it with her fiery breath but brought it to a temperature that liquefied its cement foundations. The threesome hugged Liza’s spines and cheered. Their gratitude was oddly appealing.
Maybe that was why she let the group of Black Baptist pantry workers ship their food on her that night. They were mostly terrified, but still a tiny percent grateful. Mrs. Robinson said a blessing and kissed one of Liza’s spines before dismounting to hand out canned goods behind a mechanic’s garage. Being blessed gave her a warm feeling inside—a different warm feeling than usual from her typical raging inferno. This warmth was nice.
Shining tanks lined up along six city blocks, but not one of them fired. That was the advantage in carrying hundreds of people, hundreds of passengers. She wished she had proper fingers so she could flip all those cannons off.
After a few stops, a fight broke out on her ass. Some college kids wrestled and slammed each other into her spines, yelling about sports. She curved her head around, wondering if she could get away with incinerating just a few passengers.
Then a man pushed his way between the brawlers. It was Asif in his white taqiyah, speaking faster than any of the students could. His face was sunken and severe, and whatever he said got them all to shake his hand before they parted ways for opposite ends of Liza’s back.
Liza let Asif sit up front near her head. She decided that was how dragons thanked someone.
She asked, “Aren’t you supposed to be running a business?”
He rubbed his temples with the heels of his palms. “Mayor Waddington’s people wouldn’t even let me through the front door. When I said I’d wait and sat outside, he snuck out the back.”
“Well, you got a face-to-face with me and lived. Got to be happy about that.”
Asif smiled when he should have laughed, and Liza realized she wanted him to laugh. He said, “I’m raising two girls on my own here, and man, this city? Things have to change. There are no damned jobs for anyone besides police and security guards.”
“So you need money?” As Liza turned the fork onto Verbiest, she glanced back at the passengers. Most sat docilely, watching Asif chat with her. No further fights had broken out since he’d intervened. “Well, I can charge these passengers whatever I want. How would you like to help keep them in line for me?”
Three days after Asif took the job, a passenger climbed up to her head. He was a broad-shouldered white man in a fine black suit, carrying two gas cans.
“I’m Lewis Valerio, assistant deputy to Mayor Thaddeus Waddington,” he introduced himself, setting the cans on one of her silvery scales. “The mayor heard you like burning things.”
His foolishness was endearing. She said, “I might have burned a thing or two.”
“Do you remember the morning of December 12?”
“Did I burn something that day? I don’t own a calendar.”
Lewis played with the buttons of his expensive suit jacket. “Do you remember a train derailment that day? It occurred near Rovere Station.”
“I’ve derailed a few trains. They’re like vending machines full of people.”
“Mayor Waddington had special cargo on that train. It was two stops shy of its destination when we lost contact with the agents on board.”
“So go fish it out of the wreckage. I don’t eat cargo, except that one time with all the cattle cars. Was your precious cargo a heifer?”
“See, we’ve sent people into Rovere, and we can’t find the train.”
“Heifers are much larger than you. You couldn’t miss them.”
“This is cargo that Mayor Waddington believes could revitalize the alchemy industry. We’re not even sure how to make more of it.”
“A dragon hiding precious treasure? Way to stereotype.”
“It’s not exactly treasure. It’s a red liquid distilled from philosophers’ eggs.”
“You’re losing me. Is your stop close?”
The man was back to fiddling with his button. “A single droplet got on a power cable and transformed it into an electric eel. Mayor Waddington thinks it can bring inanimate objects to life. Bring out their essence, their hidden spirit. We were going to experiment on transportation. Maybe give smart cars actual minds, you know? It would be huge.”
“The market on magic red juice.” Liza snorted smoke. “I like the picture of that bearded guy on the Revere ceiling. Squirt some on him and see if he comes to life.”
“That was actually Mayor Waddington’s plan, you see. And he’s upset it didn’t unfold that way.”
“You are silly people.”
They were passing the Lorraine Waxman Pearce Museum, and it was then that Liza’s nostrils flared, unintentionally setting all their advertising banners for French Revolution Week ablaze.
Despite her perfectly good exhibit of power, the man kept speaking.
“You see, the bigger is the missing train. It was train number 2247…”
She said, “Wait a damned minute. Are you calling me a metro liner, you miserable middle-management biped?”
“Your roar does sound similar to a commuter’s engine…”
She roared not at all like a commuter train, and bucked, sending hundreds of passengers careening into one another. It was only by her good will that they weren’t all thrown to their deaths against the wall of the French Revolution exhibit. Lewis was dispatched, though, into a nearby hotdog truck.
“Me? A train?”
She could have devoured him, vehicle and all, but her real anger was with Mayor Waddington for sending him. The gall of that man.
She reached out over the gravel beside the tracks, and her claws scraping just a few inches of stones made her body shudder. She drew her limbs back to the rails for comfort. Staring at the ground, she realized she’d never even tried to climb off before.
She couldn’t fight city hall—the railroad didn’t run anywhere near it. The closest point was the station at Katharine Wright Haskell International Airport, still several miles away, where city hall’s red steeples were visible poking out between modern concrete-and-glass buildings. It looked like pine trim. She bet it’d burn like a politician covered in gasoline.
Imagining that, she set her front left foot on the asphalt beside the tracks. Her ankle and knee trembled before she put any pressure on it. Soon most of her left legs trembled, and her shuddering rattled windows for blocks in both directions.
Liza closed her eyes and focused on exhaling smoke through her nostrils to calm herself. Behind her head, Asif bravely petted the base of her neck. After she’d told him about the red liquid and the mayor’s schemes, Asif had bought a sensible Kevlar and carbon-foam suit and come out here to help her. He was coaching her in how to go off the rails.
Liza wondered if this was a panic attack. Or was this a natural anxiety event, akin to an adult having to swim for the first time?
Or was she a goddamned train that was too attached to her rails?
She blew a plume of smoke, trying to get some of the turmoil out of her guts. “I’m going to get the mayor for this.”
Still in his flame-retardant suit, Asif patted the top of her head. “We don’t know that the alchemy story is true. It sounds a little ridiculous.”
She rumbled. For the first time she recognized her rumbling did sound locomotive-adjacent. “Is the magic red liquid story really any more ridiculous than me appearing out of nowhere? I don’t really know where I came from. Why don’t I make sense?”
“Many great things don’t make sense. The origin of the universe is absurd, and we accept that.”
She cast her glowing eyes up at him. “Is that wisdom you got from your religion?”
“Actually my kids got that from the internet.” Asif descended from her head to stand on one of the wooden beams between her rails. He looked right up into her fiery visage. “Still, consider gravity. The Earth is so massive that everything falls into it. Consider that every solid is made up of mostly empty space you cannot push through. Evolution itself suggests that things kept fornicating until the world was populated with trees and jaguars and flounders.”
She loved how his husky voice thickened when he held court like this. It was as though he’d been a smoker long ago, and the rasp only came out in these times. She was kind of a smoker, too.
Still she had to disagree. “I’m not a jaguar or a flounder. I don’t have a family tree. I might just be the result of a chemical spill on a commuter train. A mistake the mayor made and has been trying to blow into oblivion ever since with the military.”
She pawed at the earth beside the left rail again and her body quivered so hard that she collapsed against the tracks. It took all her willpower not to spew hellfire and destroy something in her outrage. That wasn’t what she needed, though.
Asif squatted down, drawing his fingers over the earth where she’d scratched. He hummed to himself for a moment, then looked up again. “If you really want to get back at Mayor Waddington, I have an idea. You’re not the only one he’s hurt.”
Filing for office was easy since Asif found her a team of lawyers willing to do the legwork in exchange for a two-month rail pass. There was prestige in riding the world’s only dragon express, so desirable that she found she was able to trade rides for political endorsements from all sorts of inane celebrities that didn’t deserve close to the sway they had. She got an advertising team purely by inertia of the chatter in her tail section.
Their ads were fierce. They questioned how much taxpayer money Waddington had wasted on failing to kill a giant dragon instead of trying to talk to her. And they established that the oath of office would naturally prevent her from eating any further citizens—a clearer path to ending hostilities than anything Mayor Waddington proposed. And before he could mount a “no negotiating with terrorists” defense, anonymous sources exposed that he’d cheated on a waitress girlfriend with her own mother. The scandal would tie him up for a minute.
Liza and Asif graciously offered a Lincoln-Douglas-style debate at any train station of Waddington’s choosing.
Waddington responded with a white phosphorus attack. Not an attack ad, but an actual early morning strike just before she picked up her first commuters. If she’d had more biology to her than combustion, it might’ve ruined her day. The white phosphorus felt like trying on someone else’s contact lenses and left her faintly nearsighted as she chewed the strike team.
Pedestrian videos of the failed assassination actually propelled her two points ahead of Waddington in the polls. Liza nearly derailed laughing at that.
Then the Waddington campaign scaled back the assaults, and instead began to question her citizenship.
“She has no rail license and no birth certificate. For all we know, this dragon is an illegal immigrant,” said Mayor Waddington. It was her first time seeing the chiseled features of this tall white man. He leaned over his podium with a calloused fist over his heart and told the world how irresponsible she was.
Liza demonstrated her newfound political tact by not destroying the store, rather dispatching a campaign aide to buy the television and place it on the tracks so she could trample it like a civilized being.
Civilized as she tried to be, her temper and the city’s attacks had cost her many riders. The mayor sent assassins from a safe distance, knowing she couldn’t hit back at him. She was forced to listen to his sound bites on every radio band:
“She’s stealing jobs from thousands of local metro workers.”
“She’s an undocumented worker who has never filed taxes despite filling Rovere Station with troves of gold.”
“She entered our borders without a conductor. Is she from Miami? Toronto? If she won’t disclose where she came from, how can you trust where she’s going to take us?”
Their campaign was more harmful than any of the paramilitary strikes. Bereft of riders one midnight, she snuck into a train depot. She nuzzled an abandoned commuter train, its windows first dark, and then illuminated by the flame of her eyes, revealing how empty it was inside. Row after row of seats, littered with coffee cups that lazy commuters had left behind rather than throwing away. Trash that would burn to nothingness if the train randomly turned into a fire-gutted dragon.
She nuzzled up against the commuter train’s tail—or whatever it would have called its hindmost car, were it sentient. It was cold to her touch, its metal so soft that it dented against her snout’s touch. She sighed smoke and closed her eyes, trying to imagine herself as a locomotive. One that could belong beside this one. Having a fleet of a family.
It felt damned ridiculous. She felt no kinship with these trains. This wasn’t what she was, not anymore, if ever.
A flash went off on the far side of the yard. She reeled up, expecting another paramilitary attack.
There were black-suited goons out there, aiming at her. Aiming cameras. They were photographing her. She was so confused by these photo ninjas that they got away.
“MAYORAL CANDIDATE MOLESTS COMMUTER TRAIN”
Asif showed her the headline from the city’s biggest news site. Apparently it was all over social media. The photographs ran alongside documents, anonymously disclosed, that outed her as being an alchemized train.
She could have kaiju’d the entire city. She broke down sobbing at El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz Station, her tears burning through gravel and igniting fires in the sewer. Asif actually talked the crowd out of filming her crying fit. At least that wouldn’t go viral.
Huffing raw heat that made all the air shimmer, she pushed herself up and stared in the direction of city hall’s red steeples.
Asif asked, “Do you still want to go through with it?”
She growled like an engine revving to life. “If they want to mock my nature, let’s show them all of it!”
Campaign aides dug up the construction manifest for Commuter Train 2247 and released copies to the media. Its steel was a domestic alloy. The factory yard where it was constructed lay right on the coast of Prosperity.
“I’m more American than anyone in this city,” Liza told Jenny Savage, a popular streamer. They had a tearful sit-down interview under the stained glass in Rovere Station. “Prosperity is supposed to be a better place. We have Ferdinand Verbiest Lane and the Richard Wright Public Library because we respect everyone from everywhere. So why am I unwelcome?”
Resting her head on the station’s concrete platform, Liza told the story of how Waddington had secretly siphoned public funds to alchemists and created her as a distraction from his numerous sex scandals. She was a disowned child he’d done nothing but try to murder. Which of them was really the villain?
“I’ve never attacked a living soul that wasn’t attacking and terrorizing me,” she said, blowing her nose too hard and accidentally melting Savage’s trailer. Savage waved for her to keep talking anyway. “I don’t hate him. Waddington is a broken shell, corrupted from what likely once was an idealistic thinker. Myself? I’m still a bit of an idealist.”
As far as polling was concerned, the interview was a monster. By the following morning, half her back was covered in advocates and protestors. Their support warmed her, but she kept her mind on the greater goal.
By noon, Waddington’s people accepted a debate—one debate, with the possibility of more—if Liza swore not to devour or burn anyone, conceded to allow trains back on the rails, and signed their pledge to avoid negative campaigning.
It was the biggest non-sporting night in Prosperity’s history. The highways were packed bumper-to-bumper for miles even though metro service was operating again. Anyone who rode the rails, though, had to get off a stop before Giuliano della Rovere Station since it was the site of the debate. The moment Lewis Valerio sniffed about taking the debate off the rails, Liza’s people threatened anti-discrimination lawsuits. Liza’s reliance on rails was a legitimate disability.
Waddington arrived in a shiny motorcade, with his strong chin and gelled hair, and a tailored suit. He strutted around Rovere Station like he was the dragon that haunted it, only pausing once beneath the bearded figure in stained glass. By then Liza knew it was supposed to be the Christian God and thought, honestly, Waddington’s plan to animate it with the red liquid had been ambitious. But gods worked in mysterious ways.
Her scales were polished and buffed until she could see her reflection in her own tail. She winked to Rovere Station’s stained glass ceiling as she sauntered her hundreds of legs toward her podium. She was the animated one. She’d do the work down here.
Whoever had run setup had given her the same four-foot-tall podium as her human opponent, and she had to loom from the tracks and over the platform to address the mic correctly. She was going to make a show of it until Waddington walked halfway across the platform between their podiums, a hand extended to shake with Liza.
Reporters from every channel that could fit in the station trained the world’s attention on her. All the flashes from cameras and phones made her shine like a metal statue. She could have been a statue of a dragon for the long photogenic moment of her head pointing down at the handsome mayor, offering a fair fight.
But statues didn’t bite handsome mayors in half, and Liza did.
It was fun listening to all the reporters screaming for their lives as Waddington’s innards dripped from her maw. Part of Waddington snapped free and thudded wetly against the tracks, eliciting a funky reverb from his microphone. It was his only rebuttal.
Everyone else fled Giuliano della Rovere Station, which was melodramatic of them. They had nothing to worry about from Liza. No one else was under threat, even if the reporters made dissenting accounts throughout the night. She’d gotten the man she wanted, and he tasted of butter and lavender.
“Maybe I went too far,” Liza said as Asif’s children bounced on her tail. They’d come to show her all the animated GIFs of her devouring the competition the night before.
While most of Prosperity was terrified, the internet loved a good mutilation. Young people were creating online petitions for her to eat other government figures. She had hundreds of appeals from countries across the world.
She said, “But popularity seems so fickle. I bet I can win my riders back. And I’ll do it on my terms, in my own time.”
Asif sat on a bench up on the platform, as though awaiting the next train. “No one’s going to run against you. Not after Waddington.”
“You do it, Asif. Tell them I’m pulling out of the race.”
“Why give up the chance to make real change?”
“Hey,” she said, fixing him with as gentle a stare as eyes made of fire could muster, “I used to be a train. I’ve had all the real change I can handle.”
She basked in the morning sun that filtered through the stained glass overhead, breathing easier than she had in weeks. This was the big change: to feel like it didn’t matter if she’d ever been anything else. Being flippant about it was such a release.
Asif was the only human who reliably looked her in the eye. This morning, this time, he looked past her, to his daughters. They squealed as they rode down her tail like she was a living playground slide.
When they slid down, Asif looked her in the eyes. “Will you help me run? This city needs reform. Infrastructure. Good jobs instead of paramilitary nonsense.”
“You think you can control this city?”
“You don’t think I can?” He laughed short and shallow, what struck her as a perfect politician’s laugh. “I managed you.”
“That’s going to be your platform, isn’t it? That you can keep me in line?” As she asked, Asif’s kids climbed up one of the arches of her back so they could slide down her again. She tilted her snout over them, exhaling smoke suggestively in a way only Asif could see. “People love a dragon slayer.”
He rolled his eyes at her threat. He knew her too well to believe in the threat. The man said, “I met a lot of good people on your campaign. We’ll make it work.”
She actually believed him. It gave her a different kind of warm feeling inside. “I look forward to seeing what you do. Although from here, I don’t have a good view of city hall.”
“The Three O’Clock Dragon” copyright © 2023 by John Wiswell
Art copyright © 2023 by J Yang