Today, we have the annotated first chapter of Sean Grigsby‘s latest novel, Ash Kickers — the sequel to Smoke Eaters. Published this week by Angry Robot Books, the author has added some commentary about the story and his writing. First, though, here’s the synopsis:
With ex-firefighter Cole Brannigan in command of the Smoke Eaters, the dragon menace is under control. Thanks to non-lethal Canadian tech, the beasts are tranquilized and locked up, rather than killed. But for Tamerica Williams, this job filled with action and danger, has become tediously routine.
When a new threat emerges, a legendary bird of fire – the Phoenix – it’s the perfect task for Williams. But killing the Phoenix just brings it back stronger, spreading fire like a plague and whipping dragons into a frenzy. Will it prove to be too much excitement, even for adrenalin-junkie Williams?
And now, on with the excerpt!
My give-a-damn was busted.
I have a passion for first lines. For me, a first line has to do a few things. It has to give a sense of character. It has to make the reader perk up with interest. But, most important of all, it has to give the reader a question they want answered. “Whose give-a-damn was busted? Why?”
Now, if my mama had been standing beside me on the top of that Slayer truck, she would have said, “Tamerica Janeese Williams, why are you just staring at that dragon? Don’t you have a job to do?”
I was staring at the dragon – this golden-brown bastard with a wingspan the length of two hover-buses – but I was also following it with the barrel of Slayer 10’s non-lethal, Sandman laser cannon. Gliding twenty feet above the ground, the scaly circled us like a buzzard, and I spun the cannon on a swivel to keep it in my sights. I could have shot the dragon half a dozen times, blasted a laser into its neck and sent it tumbling into the ash-covered ground, unharmed and unconscious.
But that would have been too easy. Boring.
I love starting in the middle of a scene, and here it’s interesting because Tamerica is complaining about not getting enough action. That’s… going to change.
All I kept thinking about was how I hadn’t had a good dragon fight in over a year. Smoke Eater Division’s updated standard operating procedures, effective January 1st, 2123, didn’t give a damn about my feelings, though. They specifically instructed me to take this scaly alive. Any dead dragon, unless it was beyond our control, would result in every responding smoke eater crew to be fined. Headquarters couldn’t afford to suspend us – they needed the manpower – but they could hurt our wallets. More captured dragons meant more dragon blood for the needy.
A quick injection could work miracles.
Even before I joined up, before found out I had the ability to breathe dragon smoke, I knew that “smoke eater” was just another word for “dragon slayer.” I think what pissed me off more than anything was that Chief Brannigan had written the new SOPs, and he’d been the most dragon slaying mofo out of any of us.
I hate infodumps. Here, I wanted to give a little background on what happened in the previous book, and what’s happened since, while using Tamerica’s feeling about it as a way to show both characterization and worldbuilding at the same time.
It was sunset and one of those days where twilight shone blindingly blood red, so, other than the dragon, there wasn’t much to look at that far out from Parthenon City, except ashes darkened by shadow and the distant, red-painted wall of smoke rising from where the dragon had burned a fledgling settlement. Most of the citizens had gotten away without any injuries and no one had died. That was good. There’d be no wraiths.
The small town had their own firefighters who could tackle the blaze while we handled the scaly.
“Williams!” my captain, Jack Kiesling, shouted from Slayer 10’s front bumper. “Shoot the damn thing already!”
“I’m working on it,” I hollered back.
The circling dragon craned its neck, locking its eyes on me as I kept the Sandman’s sights trained on its middle. The gold of its eyes glowed like a laser sword. The scaly gave a quick roar that sounded like someone dumping a jug of gasoline on a campfire, then flapped its wings a couple times, cutting the air with a deep whoosh as it circled closer. Close enough to throw a rock at.
Captain Kiesling slapped both hands on top of his helmet. “Williams, Goddamn it!”
My captain was wearing a power suit and helmet, same as me and our driver, Zhao, but the captain’s headgear always looked too big on him, like a little boy wearing his mother’s fire helmet. My helmet fit great, thanks to my thick hair – my daddy always says our family originated from the Nubia region and that’s where we get our good looks and even better hair. The smoke eater helmets were different from firefighters in that ours also had cheek guards, like Roman centurions wore way back when.
“What’s taking so long up there?” Zhao asked through my helmet radio. He’d stayed in his seat at the wheel.
“Just trying to get a good shot.” I swallowed at a dry mouth. The lie had already left my lips.
The propellerheads, the scientists working with us smoke eaters, had called this particular type of dragon a smaug. As we’d been driving out to the settlement it was attacking, the propellerheads radioed that it was a run-of-the-mill, four-legged, fantasy-type dragon. Nothing a single company couldn’t handle.
Now, I’m not saying this dragon wasn’t dangerous. Fire breath, slashing claws, and jaws that could snap a redwood in half is nothing to thumb your nose at. But I’d dealt with scalies in the past that shot gooey wads that would pin you to the ground before they ate your face off, and aqueous types that boiled the water within ten feet around it.
All I’m saying is that this dragon was within my comfort zone to battle, and I wanted some action. Wanted? Hell, I craved it. The smaug must have had the same idea, because its circular pattern was getting smaller and smaller, and it never stopped glaring at me. It even flexed its brow, bunching the muscles underneath its horns in a “Let’s do this, motherfucker!” sort of way. All I had to do was wait for it to land and charge me. Then I’d tear it up with the laser cannon fixed to my power suit’s right arm.
“Come on, bitch,” I whispered to the dragon.
“What did you call me?” Zhao asked.
“End cast,” I said, cutting our radio connection. This was none of his business. This was between me and the smaug.
One of the simple joys with this series is coming up with different kinds of dragons and naming them.
“Williams.” Captain Kiesling stomped around Slayer 10, trying to get my attention. “If you don’t shoot that dragon right now, I’m going to write you up.”
Shiver me timbers. What a threat.
As Kiesling finished his grand ultimatum, the smaug suddenly raised one wing, turned away from us, and soared off into the sunset, its pronged tail flicking at the wind.
Kiesling crunched across the ashes toward the fleeing dragon, as if he’d take flight himself and chase after it. He stopped and yelled toward the dying red sun. “Just great. Now we have to start over.” He turned and pointed up to me. “Get down from there, Williams. What the hell is going on with you today?”
Truth be told, I’d been feeling this way for over a month. I thought I could get used to being, basically, a scaly dog catcher, but I missed the feeling that flooded my body after a successful dragon fight – like orgasmic, hot ice. It didn’t matter how exhausted I was after the effort. Actually, that just made it even better. It put me in a trance-like state, where I could relive the fight without leaving the couch.
I’d forgotten what it meant to truly be a smoke eater. We were born with the ability to breathe dragon smoke and resist heat. Now we drove around sniping scalies without any of the fun, without any dragonfire warming my face. Things had changed and not for the better.
A lot of this stems from my own frustrations about the fire service. We don’t fight as many fires as we used to. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a good thing! But medical calls are the majority of what we go to, and when you’re job’s very title is different from what you do most of the time, it can be exasperating.
I began to make my way off the top of the Slayer, but Kiesling wasn’t done grilling me.
“When we get back, we’re going straight to Chief Brannigan’s office.”
I hadn’t decided if I was going to apologize and play the supplication card or if I was going to smart off. I didn’t get the chance to do either.
First came the blazing roar of the smaug. Then there was the distinct whiz of air, the sound of something flying very fast and speeding toward us. I only had time to say, “Oh, shit!” and hit my power suit’s jump button before leaping off Slayer 10 as the smaug plowed into it headfirst. My suit’s thrusters lowered me to the ground and I turned to see what had happened.
Slayer 10, black-painted with purple emergency lights, rolled several times across the ground. Its windows shattered and tossed pieces of glass everywhere.
Zhao’s voice screamed into my helmet. “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!”
Firefighters are trained to radio this when we get into trouble. Everything shuts down and all focus is directed toward helping the downed crew member.
He was trapped inside.
Captain Kiesling was flat on his stomach, having hit the ground as the smaug sailed over him. The dragon shook its head like a dog drying itself off and leapt back into the air. It flapped its wings to hover just above Slayer 10, which had stopped rolling and now lay overturned on its side. When the smaug inhaled deeply and stretched its jaws open, I knew what was coming.
“No, no, no!” I ran toward the Slayer; I had to get Zhao out of there. I would have power-jumped, but I’d just used it and would have to wait until my thrusters were charged again.
The smaug loosed its breath, engulfing most of the Slayer truck in a cone of flames. Even from where I was running, I could feel the heat. The average dragon can breathe fire continuously for up to twenty seconds at a time, and that was twenty seconds Zhao didn’t have.
“It’s burning me! It’s burning me!” Zhao screamed, over and over again.
I pumped my legs as fast as they’d go. When my thrusters dinged to signal the power was back, I leapt into the air – just as the dragon finished its fiery assault. Slamming against the side of the smaug’s head, I grabbed hold of its horns. My body covered its eye on that side, and the dragon thrashed its head to and fro, trying to figure out what kind of big fucking bug had flown in to pester it.
The smaug raised one of its claws, moving in to swipe at me. I climbed onto its snout as the claw scraped past where I’d just been. Both of the dragon’s eyes looked forward and crossed a little as it spotted me on top of its nose.
Now, the maneuver I performed was extremely dangerous. I wouldn’t ever recommend it to anybody if they were in the same situation. For the average Jane, getting hit with a claw is much better than getting a mouth full of teeth. But what I did was a move smoke eaters do all the time – or did, before going soft. We called it the widowmaker evolution.
As I expected, the smaug opened its mouth, at first trying to snag me in its teeth. I held tight to the top of its snout and dodged the bites. When the scaly figured it couldn’t get me off the old-fashioned way, it opened its jaws wider and inhaled hard, like someone who’d been underwater too long. Being this close, I could hear the high-pitch squeal at the back of the dragon’s throat, the ignis gland revving up to shoot flames.
I’ve always been fascinated with dragon anatomy. I mean, how the hell do dragons breathe fire? So I came up with some biological explanations.
What the dragon didn’t know was that I wanted it to breathe fire, or at least try to. When it opened its mouth, I dropped onto its bottom lip and shot a sticky white stream of foam down its throat with the gun on my power suit’s left arm.
“Spit or swallow?” I said, and jumped onto the side of the overturned Slayer truck.
Yes, I am having fun.
The smaug hacked and scratched at its throat, stomping away backwards. It wouldn’t be breathing fire any more. Not for a few minutes any way.
With the smaug distracted, I bent over Slayer 10’s driver’s-side window and looked down. Zhao was out of his seat and lying on his back across the broken window resting on the ground. His skin was a little red, but he looked okay as far as I could tell.
“Can you move?” I asked.
“It hurts,” he croaked. “Got as far away from it as I could.”
I nodded. “I know it hurts, Zhao. But you’re a smoke eater, you’ll be fine. We have to get you out of here quick.”
Zhao winced when he tried to raise his arm and then dropped it back across his chest.
“Come on, man. You better get moving or I’ll shoot you with a laser long before the dragon gets you.” I shook my gun arm.
That got his ass climbing.
After crawling over the truck’s doghouse, Zhao stretched his arm up to me. I had to lean through the window to grab his hand. I pulled and he screamed – louder than the hacking dragon a few feet behind me. I had to use two hands to do it, but I managed to pull him out.
Zhao rolled onto the top of the Slayer truck, groaning and breathing heavy.
I stood and nudged him in his side with a boot. “Hey, we ain’t done yet. Power jump down and get somewhere safe if you can’t fight.”
His red cheeks jiggled as he nodded. Several grunts later he got to his feet, power jumped to the ground, and ran for cover.
When I turned around, Captain Kiesling stood in front of the dragon with his laser sword extended. The dragon was still dry heaving from the foam in its throat, but it was no longer in a tizzy. Now it had its sights on Captain Kiesling.
I’d never seen Kiesling in a fight. He’d just been promoted and I’d been forcibly transferred to his crew so Captain Jendal could train a new rookie. The way Kiesling was trembling in front of that dragon told me all I needed to know.
“Williams get over here,” he called through my radio.
“I’m coming, Cap,” I said. “Don’t attack it straight on. You saw what its head did to our Slayer. It’s got a thicker skull or something.”
Not to mention the teeth and claws were still in use.
Kiesling ran to the left, his laser sword thrumming through the air. The smaug got down on all fours and pounced in the same direction. Was it toying with him? Skidding to a stop, Kiesling turned and ran the other way. The dragon followed again.
“Quit trying to fake it out,” I said, huffing as I ran toward them. “You’re just getting it excited.”
Kiesling stopped, but turned his head to the overturned Slayer truck and smiled. “I see the Sandman,” he said. “I’m going for it.”
“No!” I shouted.
I believe it was Blade who said something about folks always wanting to ice skate uphill. There’s always someone who thinks they know more than everyone else.
But he’d already started running. The dragon roared and bent its chin down. With another quick pounce, it flung its head forward, ramming Kiesling with its skull and sending my captain twirling through the air.
The captain landed in a heap. His groans echoed inside my helmet as the smaug used its wings to sail over to where he lay.
“Hold on, Cap!”
Snatching one of Kiesling’s legs in its teeth, the dragon rose to sit on its ass, lifting the man – upside down and completely limp – ten feet off the ground. I had about two seconds before the smaug tossed Kiesling into the air and swallowed him on the return trip. Dragons like to do that playing-with-their-food shit.
But the smaug didn’t do that. Instead, it spread its wings and raised them as if it was about to take flight. I’d never heard of a dragon taking its meal on the road before, but I’d also learned in my two years as a smoke eater that scalies can do all kinds of unexpected things.
Captain Kiesling woke from his stupor and screamed, squirming in the dragon’s teeth.
I shot my laser at full blast, focusing the shots on the dragon’s closest wing. The shots flew wild as I ran, streaking through the air in a barrage of pew, pew, pew. That sound always got my blood pumping and, I’m only a little ashamed to say, it felt goddamned amazing to fire my gun at a live scaly again.
In Smoke Eaters, Brannigan wielded a laser sword. In this book, I wanted to show more about the laser and foam guns.
A few of the lasers hit the ash at the dragon’s feet, but it got the smaug to flinch and turn toward me, providing a better target. The other lasers bit into the waxy flesh of the dragon’s wing, ripping big, unsymmetrical holes through it, reminding me of bleeding Swiss cheese. While it still tried to fly, the scaly quickly found it was going nowhere.
“You need both wings to fly,” I shouted.
I like to talk the dragons while I fight them. Just ’cause.
The smaug dropped Kiesling. He landed with an “Oof!” and power jumped to the other side of the Slayer. He was limping before he leapt, but our thrusters don’t necessarily need our legs at full function to work.
Now it was just the smaug and me. I planted my feet and readied my laser for a killing shot. The dragon whimpered – or as close a sound as I can describe it – as it looked over its damaged wing. I almost felt bad for the damned thing. It was just an animal after all. It wasn’t sentient. Nor evil. It was just following its nature. Then again, before cancer was wiped out fifty years ago, it had been following a natural design, too.
My compassion sizzled away when the dragon snarled, its nostrils trembling and puffing out smoke. It gave me goose bumps. The good kind.
“Come on, baby,” I said. “You know you want it.”
The smaug inhaled and puffed out its chest. When it tried to breathe fire it hacked against the foam still stuck in its throat. I laughed and put my hands on my hips, where I remembered my new toy was holstered in a container on my power suit. The device, what the propellerheads had dubbed a “haymo” after some famous dragon slayer, was round and the size of a tomato. I pulled it out as the dragon growled and kicked ash away with its hind claws. I pressed the button on the top of the haymo and charged toward the dragon, hollering as hard as my lungs would let me.
This excited the dragon. It sprayed spit with another of its roars and galloped for me at full speed. Claws kicked up ash. Golden eyes flickered with hunger. Teeth, dripping with drool, spread wide before surrounding me on both sides.
I chunked the haymo into the smaug’s mouth and power jumped away before the jaws clamped down. But I hadn’t properly directed the jump and was soon pointing headfirst toward the ground. My helmet took most of the impact, but that didn’t mean much to my aching body, especially my neck and back. It felt like a herd of scalies had done the cha-cha right on top of me.
And then the smaug was right on top of me. The haymo hadn’t worked. All I could do, as the scaly reared back to chomp, was lay on my back and say, “Fucking propellerhea–”
Fierce blue rays of light shot from the smaug’s neck. The dragon froze mid-bite and remained motionless as the blue rays began to spin… just like a propeller.
Nice touch, I thought, rolling out of the way.
With a heavy and wet flop, the smaug’s head fell to the ash beside me. Its golden eyes were no longer glowing, replaced by the stare of a dead fish. The scaly’s body stayed upright for a second longer before tipping over and landing harder than a drunk white girl at a club.
“That’s how we do it,” I said, but it came out sounding too tired to be cool. Besides, there was no one there to high five.
As I got to my feet, the haymo plopped out of the dragon’s severed neck, rolling across the ground and collecting ashes in the sticky blood. It stopped at my power suit’s right boot. I picked up the device and turned to my approaching captain and driver. Kiesling, guarding an arm across his chest, limped and frowned. Wincing from his burns, Zhao was wide-eyed and looked at the scene as if he was on another planet.
I held the haymo above my head. “I love this thing!”
I wanted to bring in some cooler toys for the smoke eaters to use. There are more to come later. The haymo was named after an ancient dragon slayer and I thought the image of laser propellers would be awesome, and a tip of the hat to the ones who built the grenade — the propellerheads.
Flames erupted behind me.
I spun around, grunting against the pain in my neck, ready to shoot more lasers. How the hell could a decapitated dragon could breathe fire?
The smaug was still dead. Flames sprang from its body and severed head. I had to back away from the blaze as it grew and hungrily ate away at the dragon. I’d never seen such a thing. Night was pretty much upon us and the bright flames seemed to be the only thing that existed. After a few seconds, the smaug had been reduced to a pile of glowing yellow embers.
Then Kiesling spoke.
“You’re in so much damn trouble, Williams.” He tried to point at me with the arm he’d been coddling, then cried out in pain. “I think I broke my arm.”
I bent over to look. “I can make you a sling for the ride back. I’ve seen Yolanda fix worse in a day or two.”
“Ride back?” Zhao said. “The Slayer is trashed.”
I turned and looked at our apparatus. It looked like a crushed and burned can of soda. “I guess we’re going to have to radio for someone to come get us.”
Kiesling’s voice trembled with a serious heaping of anger. “If you think you can do whatever you want, that you can’t get fired because we need smoke eaters, you’re dead wrong. We can make smoke eaters now. You almost got us killed today, and I’m going to have your badge for it.”
“Fuck all that,” I said, turning to Kiesling and hiking a thumb over my shoulder. “Did you not just see that dragon burst into flames?”
And that’s chapter one! Obviously something is up with those dragon ashes. But you’ll have to pick up a copy of Ash Kickers to find out what. If you loved the action in this first chapter, believe me, it gets even wilder.
Sean Grigsby’s Ash Kickers is due to be published this week by Angry Robot Books in North America and in the UK. Sean is also the author of Daughters of Forgotten Light (also published by Angry Robot Books).
Also on CR: Interview with Sean Grigsby (2018)