The following is an excerpt from Cherry Pickett’s Riding the Dragon. It is the second book in the Flirting with the Zodiac series. You can read more about the book here.
Basking in the last dusky glows of sunset, watching the stars dot the night sky one by one wasn’t something Cad often indulged in. After all, the rhythm of farm work rarely changed—sunrise to sunset, he hardly had a moment to breathe—but there were a few occasions when he made an exception: the solstices, the equinoxes. Out here on Librae, the seasons still changed, much like they did on Earth.
It was probably one of the reasons, out of all the scattered planets they knew about, they’d picked this one as their first extra–solar system colony, why they’d flung him and the other volunteers trillions of miles from one floating space rock to another. They could have picked something closer to home—the planet near Barnard’s Star, which was called Martinia after the first human to visit it; the oceanic Piscea; Scorpius, with its endless desert dunes; slow-turning Rasalas—anywhere, anywhere at all really.
And they’d picked Librae, because it seemed a lot like home.
Cad snorted as he plonked himself down on the porch, stretching his legs out in front of him. “Home.” As if Earth were home. He hadn’t seen it, talked to anyone there for almost a decade.
No, this was home now. He uncorked his bottle, poured himself a half glass of whisky. He stoppered up the bottle again, then peered at the sky, now brilliant red and pink as the sun sank beneath the horizon. A soft breeze wafted through the trees, their leaves fluttering and rustling, a whisper of the dead, dry things they’d wither into soon enough. The fading light tinged them amber and orange, another hint of oncoming autumn. Cad could smell spice on the air, felt the nip of frost against the tip of his nose.
He tossed back the alcohol, set the glass aside. He wasn’t usually one for spirits—of any kind—but there was something about the changing of the seasons that bore marking, or so he thought anyway.
Some kind of normalcy, tradition from a planet he wished he could forget.
The sheep bleated softly in their fold behind the barn; the chickens clucked and crowed as they settled in their roost for the night. Cad closed his eyes, inhaled deeply. Tomorrow was Sunday, which meant a trip to town for supplies. Soon enough, he’d have to think about stocking up for winter; the roads out this way became impassable for months on end. He wasn’t entirely alone—the Johnsons lived about five miles on, but he rarely fancied venturing out in the snowdrifts and the driving wind for a ten-mile round-trip stroll. And when things got scarce, people got stingy. The Johnsons had always been neighborly enough, but that was in the summer when there was plenty to go around. This far out, they could never rely on there being enough anything, even if the government kept promising to send seeds and cattle and steel to make equipment. They’d been promising that for years, but they always had some bullshit excuse—it was too heavy, fuel too precious, and did they really need tractors anyway?
Not that Cad could have afforded it if he’d been able to get his hands on one anyway. Some of the other colonists, they had their life savings behind them, good credit, a wealthy family, a job. Something, anything.
A nudge at his feet alerted him to Rover, who looked up at him with sorrowful eyes, as though he were sorry for disturbing him. Cad smiled at the dog, ruffled his ears, noted the gray in the hound’s coat.
It was a reminder of how long they’d been here. Rover had been just a puppy when they left Earth. Ten years was a long time, and yet no time at all.
With a sigh, Cad flopped back, stretching his arms above his head. He could feel the ache in them from a long day of threshing. Tomorrow’s drive to town, the coffee at the local diner would be a welcome treat, a relief from the grind of the week.
He let his eyes slip shut. In just a moment or two, he’d head in; it wouldn’t do to fall asleep on the porch. He’d wake up as stiff as the boards he was lying on. But the cool breeze, the chill of night falling, made him linger just a little longer.
He might have dozed; the light was completely gone when he opened his eyes next, the farmyard cast in deep shadow. The sky overhead was the hue of midnight, strewn with bright blue dots, twinkling in their unearthly constellations.
Blue streaked across the sky. Then another light, and another. “A meteor shower, Rover. Shooting stars.” He glanced at the dog, who barely lifted his head from his paws. “Make a wish, hm?”
Cad turned back to the canvas of the sky, eyes scanning for the next streak and—
The yard lit up like a floodlight was on it. The trees bowed and swayed, aching and complaining, and Cad scarcely turned in time to see the meteor—at least, he hoped it was a meteor—flash by him with a deafening roar. He tried to blink stars out of his eyes, brilliant pops of light bursting across his field of vision like fireworks, then whipped about to watch the light smash into the forest with a horrific crash. The light disappeared, and an unholy wail rent the still night air. Cad’s blood seemed to curdle in his veins; his chest constricted, so tight he thought his ribs crossed, and he couldn’t dare draw a breath.
The noise seemed to rattle around in his head, knocking loose things he’d thought he’d forgotten, memories he’d tried to bury so, so deep—
Fangs and claws, great glowing eyes, that maw opening wide, swallowing up the entire universe, until there were no stars, just endless—
He screwed his eyes shut, forcing color to burst behind his eyes.
“C’mon,” he snapped at Rover when he could move again. He kicked over the empty glass, the whiskey bottle. He grabbed the dog by the collar, hauled him inside, just as another beam of light came hurtling by the door—this time from the direction of the forest. Cad slammed the door, closed his eyes as he listened to that howling again. It died away, and slowly, slowly, Cad unfurled from where he was plastered against the door, heart still racing between his ribs.
He locked the door—not that he thought flimsy wood would protect him from whatever the hell was out there—then crept to the bed. He didn’t light the fire, but he drew the drapes, as though it would keep the horror out there from killing him in his sleep.
He dragged the blankets over himself, pinning himself to the bed, stiff as a board, every limb strung with tension. Rover curled up around his feet, whimpering softly, both of them straining wide eyes into the dark. Neither of them dared to so much as twitch until dawn.
When the cockerel crowed, Cad reluctantly tiptoed from bed. Horrific monster or no horrific monster, the animals had to be tended. If he was lucky, whatever it was had been wounded by falling from that height. Or maybe it had died during the night.
Still, if there was one thing he knew, it was that he could never be too cautious, so he tucked his knife into his belt and went about the morning chores.
Everything seemed eerily normal. The hens clucked and pecked each other, and Cad had to lure them to opposite sides of the yard with corn. Then he collected the eggs. He slopped the pigs, who grunted and squealed.
The sheep were all safe in their fold, some lying down, others roaming about, nipping at bits of still-green grass. He’d take them down to the meadow for grazing later this afternoon, once he was back from town.
He went to get water from the well, and there was nothing along the path to even suggest anything had been disturbed the night before.
Cad was beginning to think he’d hallucinated it, dreamt it. Wouldn’t have been the first time.
’Course, that meant he couldn’t say anything to anyone. They’d roll their eyes, ask if he’d been sticking all his earnings in his arm again. Pretty much everyone knew he’d been shipped out here as a “second chance.”
Nobody’d ever bothered to ask what led him to that point; nobody seemed much to care beyond the fact he’d had a drug habit, and they all knew old habits died hard.
Another reason he couldn’t rely on the charity of neighbors. Once you were branded, you were branded, and as far as most of the other colonists in town were concerned, any messes he got himself into were likely of his own making.
The only thing that seemed strange this morning was Rover, who kept his head down and whimpered, following at Cad’s heels like a lost pup. He kept looking toward the woods on the far side of the lea and whining. But there was nothing there—Cad was sure he’d seen the meteor or creature or whatever it was crash into the trees, but there were no holes, no fires, no scorched earth. There wasn’t even a downed tree or a mess of leaves.
He tied Rover up in the yard, then headed into town. Despite the fact autumn hadn’t officially started until today, they’d had the first of the wicked fall storms last week. The road had washed away in parts, and the gravel path was pitted with deeper ruts and grooves. Cad held his rusting, second-hand pickup steady as he drove the fifteen miles into town, past meadows and farms and thick woodland, his teeth gritted, his knuckles white on the wheel the entire time.
It wasn’t that he was afraid of losing control of the truck. No, he’d handled far worse; that was the problem. He’d handled machines much larger, more dangerous, dealt with recoil, steered through explosions and literal minefields—
But that wasn’t exactly helpful to remember, not while he was trying to stay on the road.
At last, he crested the final hill and descended into the village, gravel crunching under the tires as he nosed the truck into an empty space near the general store.
He spotted Johnson’s gleaming black vehicle—much newer, less rusty than his—parked in front of the diner. With a sigh, he swung himself down from the cab and made his way into the store.
It wasn’t that he didn’t like his neighbor. It was more that he was hoping not to run into—
“Good morning, Mr. Lewis.”
He backed up against the door and nearly tumbled back outside as Betsy Johnson crowded into his space. He took a deep breath and nodded to her—he’d left his hat at home. “Miss Johnson,” he returned curtly, hoping she’d leave it at that.
He wasn’t so lucky. She tucked her hands behind her back and trailed him around the store—at a respectable distance, of course. He did his level best to ignore her.
It was better not to indulge her, he figured. He knew Betsy was just twenty-two, and there weren’t many people considered eligible bachelors out this way. Cad didn’t really count himself in that category, but they were neighbors, he was older, and he wasn’t married.
That probably made him one of the better prospects a girl like Betsy had out here.
And it wasn’t anything about Betsy, per se; it had more to do with Cad. Betsy wasn’t the kind of girl most people would call a beauty—square jaw, flat nose, two small eyes that burned bright with intelligence. She was a farm girl, too, hardly the sort of waif that most people would consider fashionable or even pretty. No, out here, nobody needed or wanted a pretty wife.
Cad didn’t want a wife at all, which was a bit of a problem when it came to Betsy’s probable designs on him. She trailed him around the shop now, keen gaze pinned to him, like she found him particularly fascinating for some reason he couldn’t even begin to fathom. Like he was some science project or something, like men were some totally foreign species that had just piqued her research curiosity.
The silence was about to veer into awkwardness when Jerry, the shopkeeper, bustled out of the back.
“Ah,” he cried, adjusting his spectacles, “Mr. Lewis. Good morning.”
“Mornin’,” Cad replied, then fished a scrap of paper out of his pocket and laid it on the gleaming plank that served as a counter. Jerry picked it up, scrutinizing it. A frown marred his face.
“Awful lot of salt, Mr. Lewis.”
Cad shrugged. “Slaughtering season.”
“Winter’s coming. Don’t want to run out like last year.”
“You could always just ask us,” Betsy interjected, draping herself over the counter. Cad pulled away.
“Well,” Jerry said, setting down the paper, “I’ll see what we have. How will you be paying?”
“Credit,” Cad said, shuffling down the plank as Betsy scooted closer.
Jerry squawked in indignation. “Credit? I beg your pardon, Mr. Lewis, but this is a store, not a charity—”
“You know I’m good for it,” Cad rebutted, and Jerry frowned.
“I also know you got a mint for selling barley to the army—what of that? Spent already?”
Cad eyed him warily. “I’m a farmer, sir. I run up credit all year, then pay it down. My tab here’s hardly the only one—and, well, sheep don’t stud themselves.”
Jerry huffed again, grumbling something about illicit pleasures. Cad was about to retort that there weren’t any “illicit pleasures” on Librae—certainly not in this shithole town—but Jerry slammed into the back, yelling loudly for Tristan and Andreas, his sons. He poked his head back into the main room and said, “Half an hour.”
Cad sighed, taking that as his cue to leave. Betsy had gone strangely silent beside him, but she followed him across the way to the diner nonetheless, her lips pursed.
“You don’t really spend your money on …” She trailed off as they perched on barstools at the counter.
“Sex and drugs?” He snorted, watching her turn fire red. “No.”
She pursed her lips and considered her hands in her lap. Cad reached for a coffee-stained newspaper—today’s, but already worn and rumpled.
“Some folks say you’re a good-for-nothing,” she mused, and Cad rustled the paper loudly, pretended not to hear her, ignored the way her gaze lingered on him, critical and forgiving at the same time.
He didn’t care what “some folks” thought of him. He didn’t care what she thought of him, for that matter.
“What can I do ya for?”
Cad glanced up at Ryan, the proprietor and head cook (the only cook, actually), who beamed down at him. Ry was a few years younger than him, perpetually jovial. People flocked to him. Cad glanced at Betsy, then back at the brunet.
Ryan was probably a better prospective husband, he reasoned—he owned a flourishing business, had a good attitude, and was closer to Betsy’s own age. Plus, he was easy on the eyes and didn’t have a shady past dabbling in drugs.
Problem being, Cad supposed, that Ryan was much in the same boat as him—not in want of a wife.
Cad was fairly certain Ryan would dally with him if he offered, but he wasn’t much inclined to get involved with people these days.
“Coffee and the paper,” Cad said, lifting the sheets, and Ryan nodded.
Betsy scowled at him. He rustled the paper. Ryan bustled back with the coffee. “And perhaps,” she said as she leaned over the counter and smiled, “something sweet?”
“A sweet for the sweet,” Ryan said with a wink, then darted off. “Coming right up, doll.”
Cad turned the page, brow knitting together in annoyance. Betsy had another thing coming if she thought he was going to pay for her. He didn’t necessarily think he should be rude, but he also didn’t want to give her any ideas.
He paused, peering at the headline and the photograph: “Night Sky Lights Up with Rare Draconid Meteor Shower.”
Ryan set down a small china plate, which clinked on the countertop. “Apple pie,” he said, “fresh from the farm yesterday. Heard it’s a good crop this year.”
“Thank you,” Betsy said, but her voice sounded far away, as though the words on the page had caused reality to recede.
The Draconid meteor shower usually happened later in the fall, which the article acknowledged. Getting one so early was strange.
Cad felt bile rising in his throat—meteors from Draco, on an unusual night, a meteor screaming past his house, and the howling—
“Fuck,” he spat, then darted off the stool, knocking over his coffee in the process.
“Hey!” Betsy cried.
“Cad?!” Ryan called after him, but he’d already dashed out the door, the bell tinkling after him. He charged across the gravel lot, to where Andreas and Tristan were loading a barrel of salt into the truck. Cad ripped open the door and hoisted himself into the cab.
“Hey!” Tristan cried over the engine. “We’re not done here, give us another fifteen—”
“Get down!” Cad snapped back. “Get down—never mind. I’ll get the rest next week—close the gate!”
Tristan hopped down, and Andreas slammed the gate into place. Cad wheeled the vehicle around, then took off up the hill as fast as he could.
[…] researching Riding the Dragon, it became apparent there was enormous overlap between dragons and serpents in mythology. We can […]