Dragonback 02 Dragon and Soldier

BOOK: Dragonback 02 Dragon and Soldier
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DRAGON AND SOLDIER
TIMOTHY ZAHN

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Sable—
who has taught me
what it means to be a symbiont

 

 

 

Table of Contents
CHAPTER 1
CHAPTER 2
CHAPTER 3
CHAPTER 4
CHAPTER 5
CHAPTER 6
CHAPTER 7
CHAPTER 8
CHAPTER 9
CHAPTER 10
CHAPTER 11
CHAPTER 12
CHAPTER 13
CHAPTER 14
CHAPTER 15
CHAPTER 16
CHAPTER 17
CHAPTER 18
CHAPTER 19
CHAPTER 20
CHAPTER 21
CHAPTER 22
CHAPTER 23
CHAPTER 24
CHAPTER 25
CHAPTER 26
CHAPTER 27
CHAPTER 28
CHAPTER 1

The screams of the dying K'da and Shontine in the
Havenseeker's
engine room were growing louder. Draycos tried to
shut out the sounds—tried to cover his pointed ears with his paws. But
nothing helped
.

He could see them now, back there in the engine room. Which was
odd, because Draycos himself was up in the
Havenseeker's
control
complex, all the way at the other end of the ship. He could see outside
through the navigation bubble as the unfamiliar enemy ships sent the
all too familiar violet beams of the Death twisting and sweeping across
the
Havenseeker
's hull. The Death was coming closer to him . . .
closer . . . closer
. . .

With a jerk that sent his claws scratching across the soft plastic
coating of the floor beneath him, Draycos woke up.

"Bad dream?" a soft voice came from across the room.

Draycos blinked his eyes, clearing away the last images of the
nightmare. The room was mostly dark, but there was enough light for him
to see the narrow cot built into the wall at the other end of the small
cabin. His new companion, Jack Morgan, was propped up on one elbow, his
hair sticking out in a dozen different directions. "Yes," Draycos told
him. "I apologize for waking you."

" 'S okay," Jack said, yawning. He ran a hand through his hair
without making any noticeable improvement in the mess. "I'm just glad
you weren't on my back when you started twitching. What was it this
time?"

"The same," Draycos said, the tip of his tail curving into a K'da
frown. Odd; he
had
started out the sleep period pressed against
Jack's back in his two-dimensional form. When had he jumped off and
become fully three-dimensional again? During the terrible dream? "I saw
again the destruction of our advance team."

"I don't suppose you happened to notice any markings on those
Djinn-90 pursuit fighters this time," Uncle Virge put in.

Draycos glared over at the monitor camera. Uncle Virge was the
Essenay
's
computer, with an artificial personality designed by Jack's late Uncle
Virgil. A personality, Draycos had discovered, that often seemed to go
out of its way to be irritating. "No, I did not see any markings," he
told the computer stiffly. "I saw no markings when they first attacked
our ships. I do not expect to see any now that I am merely dreaming of
them, either."

"Okay, okay, keep your scales on," Uncle Virge said in a huffy
tone. "You're the one who's so hot to track down these pirates or
smugglers or whoever."

"They were mercenaries," Draycos said firmly. "Military units of
some sort. I have told you that before."

"Yeah," Uncle Virge said. "Whatever."

"And it's not just Draycos who wants to find them, Uncle Virge,"
Jack said. "I do, too."

"Then let's get serious about it," Uncle Virge said. "Face it,
Jack lad; we simply haven't got the resources for this kind of
nickel-in-Nevada search. Not even with our noble K'da poet-warrior
standing brave and true at our side. Watching us do all the work."

"We have only just begun our task," Draycos reminded him, ignoring
the implied insult. Uncle Virge had made it abundantly clear that he
didn't think much of the K'da warrior ethic and its strict emphasis on
doing what was right, whatever such actions might cost. He considered
such behavior to be impractical, a waste of effort, and fundamentally
stupid.

"We've been chasing data for ten days and have come up dry and
poor each time," Uncle Virge countered. "I vote we chuck the whole
thing and drop it into StarForce's lap where it belongs."

"We cannot do that," Draycos insisted. "Until we know who was
responsible for the attack, I cannot risk revealing myself to anyone
else. The lives of my people depend on it."

"Oh, come
on
," Uncle Virge said, and Draycos could almost
see a scowling human face behind that voice. "It wasn't StarForce that
attacked your ships. The Internos government doesn't go in for
genocide."

"Yet someone in StarForce or the Internos may have made a private
arrangement without official consent," Draycos pointed out. "I cannot
take that risk. We must do this ourselves."

"And what if we can't?" Uncle Virge shot back. "In case you hadn't
noticed, friend, the Orion Arm covers a lot of territory. We are one
very small frog in one very big pond. Maybe the whole thing makes for a
great heroic poem, but we could search from here till geepsday and
still not come up with anything."

"What we need is a break," Jack muttered. "Just one. Something to
point us in the right direction."

"Don't you think I want that, too, lad?" Uncle Virge asked, his
tone suddenly turning earnest and soothing.

Draycos felt his crest stiffen with frustration. In point of fact,
Uncle Virge
didn't
want a break. Uncle Virge wanted Jack to
turn his back on Draycos, and on the millions of K'da and Shontine
refugees who were even now fleeing to the Orion Arm from the threat of
the Valahgua and their unstoppable Death weapon.

Uncle Virge, in short, wanted Jack Morgan to go back to the simple
day-to-day business of looking out for Jack Morgan.

But he didn't dare point that out. Jack's Uncle Virgil had been a
criminal, a con artist and thief, a man who had spent his entire life
thinking only of himself. He'd programmed that same self-centered
viewpoint into his computerized alter ego before he'd died, and he'd
done his best to hammer it into Jack, as well.

Jack had a good heart. Draycos could tell that much. But the boy
was only fourteen, and this was an awesome task that Draycos had laid
before him.

And even a good heart required training and discipline. Draycos
had had only a month to work with him, while Uncle Virgil and the
computer had had the past eleven years. If Draycos pushed too hard, the
boy might well back away onto the path of long habit.

Besides which, down deep, Draycos had to concede that Uncle Virge
wasn't being entirely unfair. With the lives of his people at stake,
Draycos perhaps
was
pushing a little too hard.

But what else could he do?

"I know you want this to work, Draycos," Jack said, running his
fingers through his hair again, still without improving the mess. "But
face it. This approach just isn't working."

"I agree," Uncle Virge said. "And frankly, I can't see how it ever
will. There are just too many Djinn-90s flying around the Orion Arm for
us to hunt down the records of all of them. More to the point, there
are too many that have changed hands under, shall we way, unofficial
circumstances. No matter how many manufacturing records or registration
listings we dig up, we still won't have them all."

"Then we need a different approach," Jack concluded. "Draycos, you
seem convinced they were mercenaries. How come?"

"I saw them function in battle," Draycos reminded him, the tip of
his tail making slow circles as he studied Jack's face in the dim
light. The boy's expression was tense, as if he was screwing up his
courage toward an unpleasant decision he didn't want to make.

But if that decision was to back away, this was an odd way of
leading up to it. "Twice, in fact, both in their attack on our ships
and later during our escape from the planet," he went on. "Their
maneuvering and tactics were quite professional."

"Doesn't mean they're necessarily soldiers for hire," Uncle Virge
argued, his voice gone suddenly cautious. Perhaps he'd picked up on
Jack's expression, too. "Maybe they're someone's official military.
Maybe some planet has made a deal with your Valahgua enemies."

"An official military would have had backup forces ready," Draycos
pointed out. "Our escape would have been far more difficult than it
was."

Uncle Virge sniffed. "So maybe they're a stupid military. What's
your point, Jack lad?"

"My point is that mercenary groups probably keep close tabs on
each other," Jack said slowly. "Including what kinds of pursuit
fighters all the other guys have. You think?"

"I suppose," Uncle Virge said. "But I can tell you right now that
getting hold of encrypted mercenary files is going to be a lot trickier
than pulling up Djinnrabi Aerospace Corporation manufacturing records.
I thought we were trying to make this job easier, not harder."

"We're trying to make it work any way we can," Jack said. He
paused, and Draycos could see him brace himself. "And you're right. The
only way to get merc records will be from the inside."

"You must be joking," Uncle Virge said, his voice sounding like
he'd suddenly been hit with a small tree. "Come
on
, Jack lad.
Jump up and say 'surprise,' and let's get on with our plans."

"What, you think I can't do it?" Jack snapped. "Fourteen-year-old
kids are indentured to mercenary groups all the time."

"And you know what happens to them?" Uncle Virge countered
harshly. "They get sent off to war."

Jack seemed to shrink a little in his nightshirt. "I'll be all
right," he said, sounding like he was trying to convince himself of
that. "There aren't any big wars going on anywhere right now."

"Mercenaries don't hire teenagers just to polish their boots,"
Uncle Virge insisted. "And you can get just as dead from a little war
as you can from a big one."

"I'll be all right." Jack peered across the cabin at Draycos.
"Draycos? You're a soldier. You tell him."

"Yes, tell him, Draycos," Uncle Virge demanded, an almost frantic
undertone to his voice now. Small wonder: as a computer, even a
computer that controlled the entire ship, he had no physical power to
make Jack do anything he didn't want to do. All Uncle Virge could do
was persuade.

And unless Draycos was misjudging Jack's expression, the boy's
mind was already made up. Not enthusiastically, but definitely made up.
"Tell him what it takes to be a soldier," Uncle Virge went on. "Tell
him how old
you
were when you went into your first battle. Tell
him how many friends you've seen die."

"In many ways, Uncle Virge is right, Jack," Draycos said. "If it
were for anything less important I would agree that this was too
dangerous for you.
But
."

"Don't say it," Uncle Virge warned. "Draycos, don't say it."

"I am sorry, but I must," Draycos said. "The fate of the K'da and
Shontine races hang by the edge of a single torn scale. With only five
months remaining until they arrive, we have no choice but to take
chances."

"Maybe
you
have to take chances," Uncle Virge snapped.
"But why does Jack have to?"

"Because I promised to help him," Jack said.

"And I will be with him the whole way," Draycos added.

"Wonderful," Uncle Virge said sarcastically. "A golden dragon
plastered flat across his back. That gives me
such
confidence."

"Oh, stop being melodramatic," Jack scolded. "It's not like I'm
making a career of this. I'll get in, scam their computer and find
their records on their competitors, and get back out. Piece of fudge
cake."

BOOK: Dragonback 02 Dragon and Soldier
7.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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