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Dragonback 04 dragon and.., p.1
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       Dragonback 04 Dragon and Herdsman, p.1

           Timothy Zahn
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Dragonback 04 Dragon and Herdsman



  For Jack and Marna—

  For their help in the care and feeding

  of our own personal herd

  Table of Contents





























  A light breeze was blowing softly through the streets of Avrans City on the world of Bigelow, making the cold night air feel that much colder. Huddled in a darkened doorway, Jack Morgan shifted restlessly in his sleep, pressing himself a little deeper back against the ancient stonework here at the edge of the city's Old Town.

  Draycos, pressed in two-dimensional form against the boy's back, arms, and legs, felt yet another shiver ripple through the skin beneath him. Reflexively, he lifted himself slightly away from the skin, turning part of himself three-dimensional. That would at least create a thin insulating layer to protect Jack from the wont of the cold.

  "Uh-uh," Jack murmured.

  So he wasn't asleep after all. "Sorry," Draycos murmured back as he lowered himself flat again. He was a poet-warrior of the K'da, and part of his job was to protect his host as best he could. It bothered him terribly that he hadn't been able to lift a claw to ease Jack's discomfort these past few nights.

  But as usual in these matters, Jack was right. If he was going to play the part of a homeless street kid, he had to play the part completely. Huddled against the night in the shadow of a mercenary recruitment center, they couldn't take the chance that someone with sharp eyes would notice something odd. And a fourteen-year-old boy sleeping all warm and peaceful in thin shirt and slacks would definitely be odd.

  Shifting his position on Jack's skin, Draycos peered out through the open shirt collar toward the recruitment center, a one-story white building across the street and two doors down. If the pattern of the past six nights was repeated, two men wearing the uniforms of the Malison Ring mercenaries would arrive soon to get the center ready for the morning's activities.

  Three nights ago, Jack had begun shambling over to them as they arrived, trying to beg some spare change. The men had, naturally, told him to get lost. Last night one of them had added to the script by aiming a kick at Jack's rear that had nearly connected.

  Tonight, the script was going to change completely.

  Draycos shifted his gaze back down the street, marveling yet again at the delicious irony the universe had played. For the past three months, ever since this unlikely partnership had been thrust upon them, he had been trying to teach Jack the way of the K'da warrior. The way of honor, and service, and trust.

  It hadn't been easy. Jack had been raised by his uncle Virgil since the age of three to be a thief and con man, taught to care only about himself. The concept that there were standards of right and wrong that didn't change with mood or situation was completely new to him. But Draycos had kept at it, showing in both word and deed that a true warrior tried always to do what was right, whether it gained him anything or not.

  Down deep, Draycos knew Jack had a good heart. But eleven years of habit were hard to break.

  Making it that much harder was the presence and influence of Uncle Virge, the shadow personality that Uncle Virgil had left imprinted on the Essenay's computer before he died a year ago. Uncle Virge had the same me-first philosophy as the real Uncle Virgil, and he'd been fighting Draycos's efforts every step of the way.

  And then, even as Jack began making his first genuine progress in the K'da way of thought, the universe had handed them a gift. In the midst of Jack's ordeal as a slave on the planet Brum-a-dum, a small and nearly forgotten act of mercy had unexpectedly paid off. It had paid off big.

  Now, at last, they had all the pieces of the puzzle. It was members of the Malison Ring mercenary group who had intercepted and destroyed Draycos's advance team of K'da and their symbiotic hosts, the Shontine. They were working with the assistance and financial support of the powerful Brummgan Chookoock family, with the whole conspiracy under the direction of the renegade Arthur Neverlin, once second-in-command of the megacorporation Braxton Universis.

  And lurking behind them all were the Valahgua, the deadly enemies whom the K'da and Shontine had left their homes to escape in the first place.

  Neverlin wanted to destroy Cornelius Braxton and take over Braxton Universis. The Malison Ring and Chookoock family presumably wanted a share of the plunder from the approaching refugee ships.

  All of them wanted the K'da and Shontine dead. And unless Draycos and Jack could find out where the refugee fleet was supposed to rendezvous with the now-destroyed advance team, the Valahgua and their allies were going to get their wish.

  In the distance down the street, a pair of headlights winked into view. "Here we go," Jack said. "Uncle Virge?"

  "Ready at this end, Jack lad," the computerized voice replied from the comm clip fastened out of sight beneath the boy's shirt collar. Uncle Virge didn't sound exactly happy, but he sounded much less frustrated than he had for most of the past three months. He hadn't liked Jack signing up to be a soldier with the Whinyard's Edge mercenary group. He'd absolutely hated the boy's brief taste of slavery.

  This time, Jack was only going to have to be a thief. For him, that would be like a walk in the park.

  "Draycos?" Jack asked.

  Again, the K'da shifted around on Jack's skin, slithering down his right leg. He touched the two items stuffed into the boy's sock, confirmed they were ready to grab and throw. "Set," he said.

  "When I tap my toe," Jack reminded him, getting a little unsteadily to his feet. Maneuvering himself to where he could peek out from beneath the right-leg cuff of Jack's slacks, Draycos saw the approaching car come to a halt in front of the Malison Ring office. Still moving like someone weak from hunger, Jack headed across the street.

  The two men saw him coming, of course. "Oh, great," Draycos heard one of them mutter.

  "Spare coins, mister?" Jack asked as he reached them.

  "Listen, kid—"

  Inside his low boot, Jack tapped his toe.

  Lifting one front paw slightly from Jack's ankle, Draycos plucked the money clip from its hiding place inside Jack's sock. He flicked it outward from beneath the cuff, sending it to land in the grass beside the mercenary office door.

  "—if you don't get out of my sight in the next two seconds—"

  "Holy—" Jack broke off in a strangled gasp and started to duck around behind the men.

  He didn't get far. He'd barely made it around one man's side when there was the sound of a hand on cloth and the boy was jerked to an abrupt halt. "Hey, hey, hey," the mercenary growled. "Where do you think you're going?"

  "Hey, Chips," the other man said. "Look."

  "I saw it first!" Jack snarled, and from the movement of his arms Draycos could tell he was beating his fists weakly against his captor's shoulder. "Get away. I saw it first."

  "How much is in there?" Chips asked, ignoring both Jack's protests and his attack as he dragged the boy over to where the other man was examining the money clip.

  "Gotta be at
least three hundred," the other said. "Make that four hundred."

  "It's mine," Jack insisted. "Come on—I saw it first."

  "Don't be ridiculous," Chips said severely. "Four hundred auzes? Somebody's gotta be missing this."

  "It's got an ID plate," the other man said. "Shouldn't be any trouble to get it back to its proper owner."

  Draycos felt a surge of disgust. There was no ID on the money clip, which meant the mercenaries had no intention of giving the lost money to anyone. A quiet fifty-fifty split, and they would go about their business with no feeling other than satisfaction over their unexpected bonus.

  "But I saw it first," Jack repeated plaintively. Shifting his stance, he moved his right leg right beside the door and tapped his toe.

  Again lifting his front paw from Jack's skin, Draycos plucked the small button-shaped sensor from inside Jack's sock. With the mercenaries' full attention on the money clip, the K'da risked pushing his paw out from beneath the cuff. A flick of his claws, and the sensor sailed upward.

  Because he was listening for it, he heard the soft clink as the sensor's magnet connected it solidly to the lower part of the door.

  "Get lost," Chips ordered. There was the sound of a light slap, and Jack staggered back a couple of steps. "Or I'll tell the cops you were the one who stole it in the first place."

  "It's not fair," Jack muttered as he shuffled away. "Not fair."

  He crossed the street again and headed toward his doorway. But instead of settling back down for what was left of the night, he continued on along the street. "Uncle Virge?" he asked softy. "Did you get it?"

  "I got it," Uncle Virge said with dark satisfaction. "Even with Draycos's sensor a little lower than where I'd wanted it."

  Draycos grimaced. That was Uncle Virge, all right. He never missed a chance to try to make the K'da look bad in Jack's presence. "The low weight of the sensor makes it difficult to throw very far," Draycos pointed out stiffly.

  "And I'm sure Uncle Virge was able to compensate," Jack soothed. Fortunately, he'd long since figured out what the other was trying to do. "Right, Uncle Virge?"

  "I already told you I got it."

  "Good," Jack said. "And for the record, Draycos, that money clip toss was perfect. Right where I wanted it."

  "Thank you," Draycos said, feeling somewhat mollified. "Where exactly did you put the third sensor, if I may ask?"

  "I slipped it up onto the back of Chips's holster," Jack told him. "So now the big question, Uncle Virge: can you code me a data tube that'll match their key well enough to get me inside?"

  "Absolutely," Uncle Virge assured him. "And as a bonus, I can also make a blocker to get you through the cavity-wave alarm system just inside the door. Unless you'd rather disarm that one yourself."

  "No, that's all right," Jack assured him. "Package deals are good."

  "I just thought you might enjoy the challenge," Uncle Virge said. "It's clear you've still got the magic touch."

  "Thank you kindly," Jack said dryly. "Just don't forget that that touch goes into retirement the minute Draycos's people are safe."

  Uncle Virge gave a theatrical sigh. "I understand," he said. "Just a moment . . . ah. They've taken the money and dropped the clip into a wastebasket."

  "Perfect," Jack said. "We'll be able to eavesdrop on the whole office."

  "At least until they empty the trash," Uncle Virge said. "I presume you want me to get started coding the key?"

  "Right," Jack said. "We'll spend the rest of today getting organized, and tonight we do it."

  "You make it sound so easy," Draycos said.

  "This time it will be," Jack assured him.

  "That'll be a first." Uncle Virge muttered.


  During the long nights Jack had spent outside the Malison Ring office, the two mercenaries had always arrived between four-fifty and five-fifteen in the morning. Jack made sure he and Draycos were there at three-thirty sharp.

  "Okay, buddy," he murmured to Draycos as they approached along the office's side of the street. "There are three security cameras covering the area around the front door, built into that low parapet on the roof. You think you can handle them?"

  "I shall do my best," Draycos said. With a surge of weight, he leaped out the back of the boy's collar, his front paws pushing down on Jack's shoulders to give himself some upward momentum. There was a second, harder surge as his hind paws pushed down in the same places, and Jack looked up in rime to see a flicker of gold scales disappear up onto the roof of the building they were passing.

  He crossed to the far side of the street and continued on, rubbing briefly at his shoulders where the dragon had pushed off. In his early days with Draycos, that maneuver would probably have knocked him flat on his face. Now, he was so used to it he hardly even noticed. No doubt about it, he and Draycos were becoming a real team.

  Just when that team might be about to dissolve.

  Jack shivered, this time not from the cold night air. Only a couple of weeks ago, near the end of his time as a slave, Draycos had been doing his look-over-a-wall trick in two-dimensional form when he'd suddenly fallen completely off Jack's back, ending up on the far side of the wall he'd been looking through.

  Fortunately, he'd come out in proper three-dimensional form on the other side. But that hadn't made the whole thing any less scary. By Draycos's own admission, no other K'da had ever managed such a trick before with their regular Shontine symbiotic hosts.

  The fact that Draycos hadn't accidentally slipped off Jack's back since then wasn't any real comfort. Neither was the fact that the dragon insisted he'd never felt better in his life. The bottom line was that something unexplained had happened.

  And if there was one thing Uncle Virgil had made sure to hammer into Jack's skull, it was that the unexplained was always something to worry about.

  Was Jack's body somehow rejecting Draycos? That was the simplest possibility. It was also the most ominous. A K'da couldn't live away from a host for more than six hours at a time. If he tried, he would go two-dimensional anyway and disappear off into death. The rest of the Shontine refugees were on their way, but they were still almost three months out from the eastern edge of the Orion Arm. If it turned out that human beings like Jack could only act as temporary K'da hosts, Draycos would most likely be dead long before they arrived.

  Ahead was the doorway that had been Jack's second home for most of the last week. He paused there, peering across at the Malison Ring office, determination settling into his stomach like a lead weight. If Draycos was going to die, there was probably nothing either of them could do to prevent it. But whatever happened, no matter what it took, Jack would see to it that the rest of the K'da and Shontine made it safely to their new home. He owed Draycos that much.

  Across the street, a gold-scaled dragon head lifted into view over the roof parapet, the long snout turning sharply upward in silent signal. Peeling himself away from the wall, Jack hurried over.

  Draycos dropped from the roof as Jack approached, landing in a crouch beside the door. "The cameras are disabled," he reported quietly. "There was also a fourth, hidden from the street, guarding the approaches to the other three. I dealt with that one first."

  "Thanks," Jack said, pulling out the key he and Uncle Virge had created that afternoon. Mentally crossing his fingers, he slid it into the lock.

  With a quiet snick, the lock popped open. "One down, one to go," he said, holding out his hand.

  Draycos put a paw on his palm and melted back onto his skin, slithering his way up along his arm. Jack waited until the dragon had maneuvered himself into his usual position with his head curving around Jack's right shoulder, then eased the door open.

  Even without Uncle Virge's warning the previous night, he would have known from the distinctive hum that a cavity-wave system was operating. Without the counterlock they'd put together, disarming it would have been tricky. With the counter-lock, it was a piece of cake. Keying the device, he waited patiently until
the hum faded into silence. "Uncle Virge?" he murmured.

  "It's off," the computerized voice confirmed from Jack's left collar. "Watch yourself, lad."

  "Right." Keeping alert for laser tags and other more subtle security traps. Jack headed in.

  The office was similar to the Whinyard's Edge recruiting office he'd been in on Carrion a couple of months back, consisting of a single large room with several smaller offices opening off the side and back walls. Unlike the Edge recruiting office, though, each of the rooms here was decorated with a gold plate identifying its occupant. On the theory that mercenary leaders were as vain as the business and government types he and Uncle Virgil had scammed over the years, Jack picked out the door with the most elaborate plate and headed toward it.

  He encountered two more barriers along the way, one a laser alarm, the other a pressure plate hidden beneath the rug. Both were easily avoided.

  "Okay," he muttered under his breath as he examined the lock. It looked straightforward, but this was no time to get sloppy. "Draycos?"

  "I am ready."

  Turning around. Jack pressed his back against the door, feeling the subtle shift across his skin as Draycos curved his two-dimensional form to look "over"—the dragon's preferred term—the wall. Jack held his breath as the other moved around a little, wondering if he would lose his grip and fall off again.

  But a few seconds later the dragon returned safely to his original position. "There are no extra locks or traps I can find," he reported.

  "Good," Jack said, pulling out his lock pick. "This'll just take a second."

  Two minutes later, Jack settled himself into a very expensive desk chair facing an equally expensive computer system. "Bingo," he said, switching on the machine. "Human designed, and with a modern operating system. This will do nicely."

  The computer finished its start-up procedure. Leaning forward, Jack punched in the "sewer-rat" program Uncle Virgil had created for breaking into other people's computers.

  It would be nice, he reflected, if Neverlin had been considerate enough to load the rendezvous information into the general Malison Ring computer network where anyone could get at it. But even if the conspirators hadn't been that careless, there were other tricks he could try.

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