The Remainders

The Remainders

Delaney Howard

There weren’t always dragons in the Valley. Anthony Tucker pulled his black cloth cloak closer as he reminisced. Tonight, his memories were about his youthful aspirations in another valley filled with silicon chips, people biking to work, computer code, and electric cars. Hard to imagine that where he now crouched was barely ninety miles north of there.

His eyes never stopped surveilling the scorched and nearly barren land below him as he remembered. Finally, his eyes settled on the large, interconnected group of buildings nestled together in the deepest part of the Sonoma Valley, where his children, his friends, and their animals slept without a sound while he kept watch. Even the animals had learned to keep quiet at night. Not a single stray whicker or lowing could be heard. He scanned for any irregularities in the landscape. Once, wine grapes grew on stately, twisted generational vines, and the ground trembled, sometimes violently, several times a week. One of those quakes, a major one, caused this hell he now lived.

The compound’s shiny metal walls and roofs glinted in the moonlight, breaking him from his reverie momentarily; he thought he saw movement. Tense, he stretched his neck to get a better view. What would he do when the time came that he would need glasses? He shook off the thought as he saw a pair of rabbits in the moonlight. Rabbits were too small to be in any danger except from humans, so they proliferated. He felt, rather than saw, his partner smile in the dark, a soft spot for animals, despite the necessity of killing them for nourishment occasionally. She took no part in that work.

Calm again but alert, Anthony knew they’d done everything they could to secure what belonged to them. He and all of the Senior Watchers would keep it safe every day until they retired and the next generation took over. His eldest child, Sabrina, with her unruly black curls trailing down her back and her deep green eyes so like Jenny’s, was already preparing. She was in her late teens. She’d begged on her last birthday to be allowed to begin training. That day he’d idly wondered what day or year it actually was but had learned to give that thought up immediately after it came to him. It did him no emotional good to dwell in what had been or might have been, yet occasionally he allowed himself the luxury of memory. He must have made some sound because he found emerald eyes boring into him with worry.

“I was just thinking about the day Sabrina and the others take this job from us,” his rich baritone quietly replied to her unstated question. Anthony saw his wife’s expression flash some combination of happiness, fear, and sadness.

“I always hoped they wouldn’t have to.” She tripped over something on the ground, righted herself immediately, and bit back a curse.

“Are you okay?”

“Of course. Just my usual graceless self.”

Anthony sighed quietly at her self-deprecation as they moved along their patrol route. He never dreamed he’d be doing this as a regular part of his life. Overnight security shifts. Sometimes it seemed like yesterday that he sat laconically in a lecture hall, studio, or computer lab so sure that his passions and ability would lead him to create glorious games of fantasy for others to play. Knights, damsels, castles, and gorgons. Zombies, survivors, apocalypses. Soldiers, missions, attacks, extractions. His heroes always sought glory. His coding and artistic talents would lead him to his own kind of glory. Anthony had been recruited to one of the top gaming companies in the world directly from his seat in the senior-level “Hackathon” at Stanford. A signed six-figure contract, a beautiful girlfriend, an antique diamond ring in a safe, hidden spot in his apartment, graduation just a week off…his life was on track to be as impressive as his parents had always dreamed it would be for him. More so, in fact.

“Let’s move higher,” he said quietly to his companion, who wore a dark cloak like Anthony’s and carried a large staff. The staff could be used for hiking, defense, and a whole host of other requirements in this world. Ironically, Anthony was now the main character in one of his fantasy games. Except it wasn’t a game, it was life and death, and one wrong move could ruin their tenuous grasp on life, such as it was now. No replays.

As they walked silently in tandem, Anthony shifted the crossbow’s weight on his back and continued his musings as his eyes remained clear and aware. He took in every dip and crevice of the landscape, every emerging blade of grass that stubbornly continued to sprout. Knowing they’d created this haven together. Protected it together. Now that the children were older, they often patrolled together. He longed to take her hand, but that gesture could make them both too vulnerable, too easy to strike.

So to pass the time and squelch the urge for her touch, he reflected, thinking of the Previous. Always with a capital P. Much like humans used to invoke BC or AD. In the Previous, his life had been fluid and perfect. Then the rift opened, and everything changed.

First, the plague. It seemed to spill from the fault like invisible primordial ooze. Hundreds of deaths in mere hours. And in the weeks that followed, a crisis exponentially worse than the pandemic of the 2020s. New rifts opened all over the world. In the first weeks, scientists on television said climate change was wreaking irreversible havoc at last. Then there was no more television. But when the world’s billions of souls were reduced to a few million scattered here and there, the “Remainders,” as they called themselves, found a way to use shortwave radio to communicate.

Their group of Remainders in Northern California finally found a permanent refuge. It was in the buildings that had been a successful vineyard and bed and breakfast for almost a century. The buildings that endured time, plus after the rifts, the loss of power, the looting, the riots, and more. Then, when the dead had been buried or burned, the people and the buildings in the Sonoma Valley survived the sky unfurling with sounds unlike any those still alive had ever heard. The screeching cry of dragons. The rhythmic pulsing of gigantic wings that spanned two hundred feet or more. Their exhalations, scorching flames able to ignite almost everything they touched, were more terrifying than wondering if you were next to die of the plague. It was as if nature had fashioned the beasts out of whole cloth. They sprang from the rifts into the sky, fully formed, to terrorize an already tormented and terrified people. A veritable rainbow of mythical creatures came to life as if birthed by the planet’s molten core. The old fables clearly had some truth to them. How the original dragon populace was sent to the bowels of the Earth was a story lost to time. Now, just a few million comparatively diminutive humans were fighting a thousand times as many gigantic reptilian creatures worldwide. The dragons were reborn.

After some incalculable time, for neither calendars nor clocks had meaning in the Wake of the Rifts, the dragons settled into a predictable, reliable pattern. As the sun burned off the night, the fearsome beasts slept in their makeshift roosts on the cities’ oldest skyscrapers, avoiding the modern, glassy buildings or in citadels of their own creation in the nearby Sonoma mountains. They hunted for food in the dusky twilight, lighting the bruise-colored sky with their fire. Stealing farm animals, wild animals, and unlucky humans. Yet, some of each of those groups managed to survive and thrive. The Northern California Remainders farmed, worked, built, communicated, and did everything they could between the hours after sunrise and the hour just before dusk.

Anthony was a man of forty now, at least as close as he could figure. The rift had grown in the Sonoma Valley for seventeen years, as had the other rifts worldwide. His promising career and his graduation, each a memory lost along with his posh apartment in San Francisco and his Tesla. He’d heard some of his heroes, tech giants, fell one-by-one, among the first to succumb to the plague, and was disappointed, then astounded, then awake with the realization that the money he’d chased and coveted couldn’t buy you survival in this new world. Only resistant genes, good fortune, and sharp wits could do that.

On this brightening morning in early spring of the seventeenth year, by the new count, Anthony Tucker looked over at his wife and smiled briefly. They were the Senior Watchers of that morning. They were two of “the elders” at forty years old. Gray peppered his tousled black curls, but she remained so fiercely, youthfully beautiful. Bright hair as shiny and golden as ever, covered now to stay hidden in the shadows. Green crystalline eyes were still able to light with humor and mischief and see directly into his mind and heart. The hand on her staff still wore that antique ring he’d carefully hidden and then hastily retrieved when they left San Francisco for the mountains to wait out the plague in her family’s cabin. But, most importantly, she was also still alive and still brilliant.

With no insight into his reminiscing, Jenny Tucker looked back at her husband, still lean and handsome, and quietly said into his ear, “I want to reinforce the animals’ keep and grazing field in the next few days. I saw some good reflective scrap metal the last time I went with the Seekers to town, and I think we can get it back here without risking an overnight.” She pointed to what she considered a weak spot in the keep. Her training in architecture and engineering at Stanford had come in handy over the years and had helped build them a shelter that housed well over three hundred people and animals at this point and had saved their lives repeatedly.

Anthony and Jenny were together for over twenty years by the old counting and had five children. Four of whom were still alive and quickly headed to their own maturity. Anthony refused to think about the one they’d lost early in this catastrophe. Before they understood the dragons’ patterns and habits. Before they understood precisely what it meant to survive, protect, and defend against the fire-breathing flying menaces. Jenny had lost a child and her brother that day; he’d lost a son and a brother-in-law. It was still a pain so deep and so hurtful he could only think about it if he was alone. Anthony was proud of the four children they still had and what they contributed to their community, even as young as they were. He concentrated on that happiness and pride to stem the pricking of tears behind his eyes. He knew if they were going to restart society in a meaningful way, his children and the other children of the compound they’d built would be integral to the future.

The doctors who had survived theorized that Remainders had a genotype that allowed them to survive the plague, which they had passed on to their children. So the new race of humans was healthy, strong, and resilient. According to communiqués from other regions around the globe, other scientists had drawn the same or similar conclusions. So it was protecting the young from their own inexperience to help them survive to adulthood that was the primary objective in their community of New Hope. That and slay dragons, repopulate the Earth.

Jenny was now teaching others her skills. It was very much the apprentice system of old in their community. Doctors were training new doctors, teachers training new teachers. Anthony, his work skills rather irrelevant in this new world, found that his planning and organizational skills, which had made him a great game creator, now made him a natural leader. Thankfully, they’d had to fight significantly few other humans over the years. Unlike old movies and video games, Remainders mostly banded together instead of turning on one another. Maybe that was genetic, too. They collected people like people used to collect stamps. That wasn’t to say they didn’t have rivalries and outright enemies in this world of scavenging and survival of the fittest, but thankfully it wasn’t a battle against other humans daily.

Something caught his eye, a reflection off one of the perimeter mirrors. He nudged Jenny without a word, and she took note and nodded. The Remainders learned that the dragons fear their own reflections more than any military-style offense they’d ever mounted. The information had been discovered by accident, as many great things in science and history always have been. Anthony’s two sons were helping move books into the newly finished “library” building they’d created when a juvenile dragon, separated from his thunder, flew low over the community of New Hope.

Young Nicholas Tucker happened to be holding an old mirror the Seekers had brought back to decorate the new Library door. The aubergine and black scaled dragon flew in close, apparently looking for a pint-sized meal. Nicholas, startled, held up the mirror in defense, his only choice; at seven, he wasn’t that well-versed in self-defense against dragons, even juveniles. It turned out he didn’t need to be, for as he shouted, “Help!” The dragon caught a glimpse of itself in the mirror and collapsed dead in a heap at Nicholas’ feet. By the time Anthony, Jenny, Kara, the librarian, and Nicholas’ older brother, August, came on the run, each with staff raised, it was over.

The five stood around in awe, and as he put a hand on his son’s shoulder, Anthony asked, “What happened, Nicholas?”

“I don’t know exactly. This dragon seemed like he was separated from his thunder, like in the Eragon book.” Thunder was the name for a group of dragons coined by fantasy author Christopher Paolini in the early twenty-first century for his Inheritance books. Anthony had read the series in his youth, but the dragons in those books had nothing in common with the frightful monsters they now faced daily. Yet, the name “Thunder” stuck and became common parlance in all global Remainder communities. Randomly, Anthony now wondered if Paolini had survived to see real dragons. He dipped back into his memory.

“Go on,” Jenny urged.

“I didn’t have my staff,” the boy replied, “because I was carrying the mirror inside for Miss Kara.” The librarian smiled gently at him, then took the mirror that was still clutched in his hands.

“Thank you, Nicholas. I love it. But what happened to this juvenile?” Kara looked over at the carcass, aubergine and black scales, with some of the iridescent feathers from its nestling stage still poking up here and there on the head, neck, and spine. The Remainders had learned you couldn’t even gender the dragons at this age. When maturity hit, the males grew exponentially larger and developed a sizable silvery diamond-shaped section of scales on their chests, no matter their scale color. Those silvery scales were a natural protective breastplate—impenetrable and impervious to arrows, bullets, and other projectiles.

“I don’t know, Miss Kara. He saw himself in the mirror, and then next thing I knew, he was on the ground.” He gestured with a nod of his bright towhead and turned his chocolate eyes up to his father. Anthony ruffled his soft blond hair, the very texture and color of his mother’s. His soft, worried brown eyes were all Anthony. They all examined the dead beast and determined it needed to be burned before its parents came looking for it. Parent dragons were as protective over their young as human parents. Except they’d let loose a stream of fire and burning steam without asking any questions; even if the humans had meant that particular juvenile dragon no harm, it was best to practice self-preservation. In this case, a dead juvenile meant burning the carcass and burying the ashes before the adult dragons rose and looked for their offspring.

After completing that task, the adult witnesses took the reflection information to an emergency council meeting. There it was decided that mirrors would be added to the items the Seeker parties would claim and bring back to New Hope on every foraging trip. From then on, all groups traveled with mirrors, wore mirrors in their cloaks, and the perimeter of their community was lined with upward-facing mirrors. In addition, they scavenged two-way mirrors from former police departments to put over their solar array. These allowed the sun in and kept the dragons away from one of their more precious assets. It had worked well, and over the years, they saw more dragons fall down dead this way and kept their community and the communities they exchanged information with safer than without the knowledge. A completely happy accident. This also gave the Remainders insight into why the dragons only nested in old buildings and avoided the modern, shiny, mirrored buildings.

Over the years, the lists of items that the Seeker parties went in search of varied, but core items remained. Thinking to save the history of the world in more than oral stories, now that the Internet no longer existed, they picked up any books they found, no matter if they were fact or fiction, in good condition or not. Mirrors, of course. Canned, non-perishable food items from the Previous. Some of that stuff lasted forever. Medicines. Even expired ones were better than nothing. One of the side effects of a much smaller world population was much more stuff left behind. So although the world was essentially an apocalyptic version of itself even before the dragons emerged, the Remainders managed to live with basic necessities for a long time until they could start making their own necessities again. Clothes, food, and medicine were sought and procured fairly easily. Even now, nearly two old-count decades later.

In the present, Anthony and Jenny crept slowly toward the perimeter mirror that had drawn their attention.

“Holy fuck!” Jenny whispered sharply. Despite her remarkable command of the English language and her lilting British accent, the depth and breadth of her command of profanity, for someone so educated, was equally remarkable. She could cuss with the best of them, and she knew just when to slip one into a conversation.

They approached with wary unease. Lying at the foot of the mirror was Jenny’s long-lost, long presumed dead brother, Phillip. He was obviously unconscious, and in his hands was an open rucksack with the most dangerous of all things—an iridescent dragon egg.