Dragonback 06 dragon and.., p.1
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       Dragonback 06 Dragon and Liberator, p.1

           Timothy Zahn
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Dragonback 06 Dragon and Liberator



  To Anna—

  For all you do, and for all you are

  Table of Contents

































  One month.

  The words echoed through Draycos's mind as he lay in his two-dimensional form against Jack Morgan's back, arms, and legs. One month.

  One month left until the refugee fleet carrying the remainder of his K'da people and their Shontine symbionts arrived here in the Orion Arm of the Milky Way galaxy. One month until their long, wearying journey would be over.

  One month until they flew into the ambush that Arthur Neverlin and the Valahgua were preparing for them.

  Or perhaps even less than that. After two years in hyperspace, they could easily be a week or two early for their rendezvous.

  Draycos raised his head a little from Jack's shoulder, his eyebrow ridges and spiny crest pressing up against the boy's shirt. Through the windshield of the car Jack had borrowed from a used-vehicle lot, he could see the Brummgan town of Ponocce City laid out in front of them. Its ugly color scheme, thankfully, was shrouded by the darkness of night and the city's mediocre streetlight system. Three miles straight ahead, its lights reflected against the low clouds, was the spaceport where some of the enemy forces were even now being gathered together.

  Draycos swiveled his head around, lifting his eyes over the back of Jack's shirt. Directly behind the car, rising over the low houses around it like a breaking ocean wave, was the tall ceramic wall that surrounded the Chookoock family estate.

  There were some very unpleasant memories tied up with that wall and the evil people who hid behind it. Draycos could imagine how Jack must be feeling right now as the memories of his brief time as a Chookoock slave were forced back upon him.

  Draycos? Jack's thought flowed into the K'da's mind along the strange telepathic link the two of them had somehow developed. You okay?

  Yes, Draycos replied. Why do you ask?

  You're twitching your tail against the back of my knee, Jack told him. I thought maybe you were nervous.

  Draycos hadn't even realized he'd been doing that. My apologies, he said, bringing his tail to a halt.

  No problem, Jack assured him. It tickled, that's all.

  In the distance behind them, Draycos caught a flicker of reflected streetlight from the gate set into the white wall. "The gate's opening again," he said aloud.

  "Got it," Jack said, picking up the portable sensor he'd brought from the Essenay and pressing it against the side window. "Geez, how many soldiers have they got in there, anyway?"

  "Well, we've had around three hundred come through here, if that helps any," Alison Kayla's voice came from the comm clip attached to Jack's left shirt collar.

  "Yes, thank you, I can do basic math," Jack growled. "You want to keep it down?"

  "Relax—they can't possibly hear me," Alison said. Her tone managed somehow to be reassuring and sarcastic at the same time. "We're all the way up at the top of the hangar on one of the loading-crane supports."

  "Good," Jack said tartly. "Keep it down anyway."

  They'll be all right, Draycos assured him. I know, Jack said.

  But the boy's words couldn't hide his tension. Especially since it was the same tension Draycos himself was feeling.

  Because it should be him and Jack skulking around the Chookoock family's main shuttle hangar. It should be him and Jack watching the Brummgan mercenaries gathering for transport to the ambush point. It shouldn't be Alison and Taneem.

  Especially not Taneem. The young female K'da was intelligent and likable, and she'd certainly shown herself willing to put herself at risk for Draycos and his people.

  But she'd spent most of her life as little more than an animal. Her transformation to full, sentient being was less than two months old. She still needed more learning and experience before she would be ready for even a normal K'da life.

  And the circumstances she and Alison were in right now were anything but normal.

  Restlessly, Draycos lashed his tail. He should have put all four feet down right from the start and insisted that he and Jack take this part of the plan.

  The problem was that Alison was just as stubborn as Draycos was. And, unfortunately, she'd also had logic on her side. She and Taneem had already successfully opened one of the K'da/Shontine safes, and that experience was worth more than any coaching that Alison could give Jack. Even Jack had admitted that. And to be fair, she had proved she was capable of handling herself.

  But all the logic in the universe didn't help. Draycos's emotional core was still tied up in knots of frustration and concern.

  "Here they come," Jack said. "Looks like just three vans in this convoy. Uncle Virge?"

  "Ready, Jack lad," the voice of the Essenay's computerized personality came from the comm clip.

  The first van reached their position. Jack held the sensor steady against the window as it rolled past, followed closely by its two companions. "Okay," he reported as the vehicles' taillights continued down the dimly lit street. "Uncle Virge?"

  "First one seems to be all personnel," Uncle Virge said slowly as the computer sifted through the data Jack's sensor had sent it. "Looks like our standard fifteen armed Brummgas."

  Draycos grimaced. Alison's theory was that the Patri Chookoock's role in this conspiracy was to supply Brummgan soldiers to crew the ships that would be attacking the K'da and Shontine refugees. Apparently, she'd been correct.

  The Patri Chookoock was donating the soldiers and crews. Arthur Neverlin, once chairman of the board of the megacorporation Braxton Universis, was supplying the planning. Later, when the K'da and Shontine were all dead, he would probably also provide the marketing system they would use to sell the technology from the looted refugee ships. The Valahgua, deadly enemies from the K'da and Shontine's own far distant part of the galaxy, were providing their horrible and unstoppable Death weapon.

  That left only the attack ships themselves. Presumably, Colonel Maximus Frost of the Malison Ring mercenaries would be supplying those.

  And all that the unsuspecting refugees had standing between them and genocide were Jack, Draycos, Alison, and Taneem. Two young humans, and two K'da.

  And a single month of time.

  "Bingo," Uncle Virge's voice cut into Draycos's thoughts. "Second van has five armed Brummgas, plus one very big chunk of metal."

  Draycos felt Jack's muscles tighten beneath him. "How big?" the boy asked.

  "A little shorter than you and quite a bit wider," Uncle Virge said. "And I'm getting an unknown on the particular alloy."

  "That's it," Alison said positively. "That's the safe."

  Draycos lifted his head again to look at the vans' retreating taillights. Each of his advance team's four ships had had one of those safes aboard, a safe that had contained the location of their planned rendezvous with the
incoming refugee fleet.

  But Neverlin's ambush of the team had killed all the K'da and Shontine except Draycos, leaving all four safes in his hands. Two had been wrecked when Neverlin's men attempted to open them. Alison, under threat to her life, had opened the third for them.

  Three safes down. One still left.

  And the final safe had at last been brought out from behind the protection of the white wall and was heading toward the hangar where Alison and Taneem were waiting.

  "Don't sound too eager," Uncle Virge warned. "The third van has another fifteen Brummgas."

  "Not a problem," Alison said. "I've got enough sopor mist canisters planted to blanket the whole hangar. I just need to make sure all three vans are inside before I trigger them."

  "Just make sure they don't have gas masks on before you do it," Jack warned.

  "You want to walk me through it, just to make sure I do it right?" Alison asked tardy. "Relax, will you? I know what I'm doing."

  "I hope so," Jack muttered as he set the sensor on the seat beside him and started the car.

  They'll be all right, Draycos reassured him as the boy pulled out into the Ponocce City traffic. We'll be only a few minutes behind this last group. If there's trouble, we'll be in position to help.

  Sure, Jack said. Help me watch for cops, will you? I'm going to see if I can get a little more speed out of this crate.

  There was a distant, muted thunk. Across the hangar from where Taneem and Alison crouched on the wide crane supports, the large doors on the north wall began to roll up. "This should be them," Alison murmured.

  Taneem didn't answer. Her heart was bearing rapidly, a cold sense of dread twisting like morning chill through her. Very soon now, the waiting would be over.

  And she was terrified.

  She'd been in dangerous situations before, certainly. Several of them, in fact. But never had she found herself facing the sheer numbers of Brummgas wandering restlessly around the hangar floor below them. There were twenty-three of the aliens—Taneem had counted them five times—all of them carrying guns and wearing thick body armor. If Uncle Virge was right, the vans outside those opening doors carried another thirty-five of the aliens.

  "You all right?" Alison's soft voice asked into her thoughts.

  With an effort, Taneem lifted her silver eyes from all those guns and focused on Alison's calm face. An odd thought ran through Taneem's mind: a girl of Alison's mere fourteen years had no business being so calm in the middle of this much danger. "Yes, I'm fine," she said, trying to keep her voice from shaking.

  "The waiting's always the hardest part," Alison told her. "But try to relax. If this goes down like it's supposed to, neither of us will have to do any fighting."

  And if it doesn't go down like it's supposed to? Taneem wondered. But there was no point in bringing that up.

  The doors below finished opening, and three vans pulled inside. They rolled past the milling Brummgas and pulled up behind the two shuttles waiting by the much larger doors at the south end of the hangar. There had been ten such shuttles when Taneem and Alison had first arrived, which had left the hangar in pairs as each group of new passengers arrived and was loaded aboard.

  At first Taneem had hoped the shuttles might provide the answer to their problem. Alison had brought along the transmitting device that Colonel Frost had used to track the Essenay to Rho Scorvi, and Taneem had hoped she and Alison could plant it aboard one of the shuttles and find the refugee rendezvous point that way.

  But Alison had explained that the shuttles would simply be taking the Brummgas to another ship or group of ships waiting out in deep space. Those ships would then continue on, while the shuttles returned to Brum-a-dum.

  Across the hangar, the doors closed again with another thunk. On the floor below, the van doors opened and the Brummgan soldiers began filing out. "Okay," Alison said, getting a grip on her remote trigger. "Here we go." Flipping up the protective cover, she pressed the button.

  Nothing happened.

  "Alison?" Taneem asked anxiously, looking down at the Brummgas still filing out of their vans.

  "It's okay," Alison assured her. "This is a Type Four sopor. Takes longer to start working, but also keeps them asleep longer after the mist dissipates."

  Taneem flicked her tail. Certainly Alison ought to know how her own weapons worked.

  And then, all across the hangar, the Brummgas went limp and collapsed onto the floor.

  "See?" Alison said as she pulled on her full-helmet gas mask and tossed a coil of rope over the edge of the track. "Here we go. Stay here until I call you." Getting a grip on the rope, she rolled off the support and started sliding down.

  Taneem watched her go, scratching her claws nervously against the metal of the track support. If the Brummgas down there were faking . . .

  But no one moved or opened fire, and a few seconds later Alison was safely down. Drawing her small Corvine pistol from its holster, the girl dropped the backpack off her shoulder and pulled it open. "Clear," her muffled voice came from the comm clip fastened to Taneem's ear. "I'll get the MixStar started."

  Alison headed toward the middle van. Taneem watched her go, thinking about her MixStar safecracking computer. She'd seen the device in action, and it still amazed her that such a powerful device could be concealed inside a belt and a pair of shoes. Alison reached the van, peered into the open door, and disappeared inside.

  "Taneem?" Draycos's voice came softly. "Are you all right?"

  "I'm fine," Taneem assured him. "The sopor mist seems to have worked properly."

  "Keep an eye on the Brummgas anyway," Draycos said. "Watch for twitching or movements like someone might make in their sleep. If you see anything like that, let us know immediately."

  "They'll be fine," Alison said before Taneem could answer. "Okay, the MixStar's running. I'll go find a spot for the tracer." She reappeared from the van and jogged over to the rear of the nearest shuttle, ducking beneath its engine section.

  This was the part that Taneem still didn't quite understand. The tracer would do them no good attached to the shuttle. Jack, Alison, and Draycos all knew that. So, presumably, would Colonel Frost.

  Yet Alison seemed to think Frost might not think Jack and Alison knew that. She had tried to explain that Frost might therefore believe that was the reason why she and Taneem had invaded the hangar this way.

  It would be simpler if they never knew Alison and Taneem had been here at all. But Taneem had to admit that was probably impossible. Not with the Brummgas having been put to sleep this way.

  There was so much she still had to learn.

  "Alison!" Jack's voice snapped with sudden urgency in Taneem's ear. "More traffic heading your way."

  "I thought Uncle Virge said there were only twenty-five vans on the Chookoock grounds," Alison said.

  "These aren't vans, they're cars," Jack gritted out. "Four of them, loaded to the gills with humans."

  "And," Draycos put in tautly, "Frost and Neverlin are among them."


  Alison felt her stomach tighten. Frost and Neverlin were here? She'd assumed both had slipped out during the Malison Ring raid on the Chookoock estate twelve days ago and escaped off-planet.

  If she'd only known. But it was too late to worry about that now. "ETA?" she asked.

  "Maybe two minutes before they pop the door and see your handiwork," Jack said.

  "Taneem, get down to the hangar floor," Draycos ordered. "And hold your breath—the sopor mist may not yet have completely dissipated. Alison, the west door won't be visible to them as they enter. Go out that way and head south—we'll circle around and pick you up."

  Alison looked back under the shuttle's drive nozzles toward the three vans and the north door beyond them. Draycos was right—two minutes would be enough for her and Taneem to make their escape out the west door.

  But if they left now, they'd never get another crack at that safe.

  "Alison?" Jack asked. "You copy that?" Alison came t
o a sudden decision. "We're trying the safe first," she said, getting out from underneath the shuttle and sprinting for the van. The rope hanging from the ceiling twitched violently as Taneem finished her slide onto the hangar floor. "Come on, Taneem."


  "We've got a minute and a half," Alison cut him off as she reached the van and climbed inside. "Maybe more if Frost sees the carnage and decides to take it slow."

  "Are you crazy?"

  "Probably," Alison conceded, crouching in front of the safe as Taneem crowded into the van beside her. "Now shut up and let me work."

  The MixStar was nearly finished. "Let's check out the fail-safes," Alison said, holding out her hand.

  Taneem touched the hand with her paw and went two-dimensional, vanishing up Alison's sleeve. As she did so, the comm clip popped off her ear. Alison caught it in midair, stuffing it into a pocket as she turned around and pressed her back against the door of the safe. The K'da had a special trick in their 2-D form for looking "over" walls that would let her see into the safe.

  She felt the subtle wriggling as Taneem adjusted herself. A moment of stillness, then a second wriggle, and her head slid around over Alison's right shoulder. "The third and fourth indentations," Taneem whispered.

  "Got it," Alison said, glancing at the display strip on the inside of her mask. "Don't worry about breathing—the mist has dissipated."

  The MixStar had finished its work. "Combination is three-seven-twelve-nine-twenty," Alison said. "We're opening it now. Taneem?"

  Lifting a paw from Alison's forearm, the K'da stuck two of her toes into the third and fourth indentations in the safe's sidewall. "Hurry it up," Jack said. "They've reached the door and stopped. Probably wondering why no one's opening it for them."

  "Fifteen seconds," Alison promised. She keyed in the combination and pulled the break bar.

  To her relief and satisfaction, the door swung quietly open. "Got it," she announced. Reaching in, she scooped up the handful of data diamonds lying on the safe's floor and shoved them into her side pocket along with Taneem's comm clip. "And we're out of here," she added, getting a grip on the break bar and starting to close the heavy door.

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