Dragonback 02 Dragon and Soldier, p.1Timothy Zahn
DRAGON AND SOLDIER
who has taught me
what it means to be a symbiont
Table of Contents
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
"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."
"Unless they catch you," Uncle Virge said. "You ever think of that?"
"I'll be fine," Jack insisted. "Anyway, like Draycos says, he'll be with me the whole way."
Uncle Virge didn't answer. "So that's settled," Jack said, flopping back flat onto the cot again. "If you want to be helpful, you can find us a good merc group to try. Something not too big, but with jobs all across the Orion Arm. We don't want someone who just works locally. And make sure it's someone who hires a lot of kids my age—"
"And isn't too fussy about who they take," Uncle Virge cut him off grudgingly. "Yes, yes, I know what to look for."
"And when you find one, put us on ECHO for their nearest recruitment center," Jack added. "No point in wasting time."
"No, of course not," Uncle Virge muttered. "Good night, Jack lad."
Jack pushed himself up off the cot again. "Draycos, you getting back aboard? You're going to need to do it sometime before morning anyway."
Draycos focused on the clock built into the wall beside Jack's cot. Yes; even if he had broken contact with the boy just before his dream began, he would still come close to his limit before the sleep period was over. A K'da could only go six hours before he needed to return to two-dimensional form against a host's body. If he stayed away longer than that, he would still become two-dimensional, and ripple away into death.
But he had time. And his body always gave him plenty of warning. "I will join you later," he decided, standing up and stretching all four legs. "I believe I will go watch Uncle Virge work through the mercenary information."
"Going to be some awfully big words there," Uncle Virge warned sourly. "You may not be up to third-grade reading level yet."
"I can use the practice," Draycos assured him calmly. After only ten days of study, he had already made good headway in learning to read the humans' written language. His progress had pleased him, amazed Jack, and no doubt irritated Uncle Virge. A worthwhile accomplishment on all three counts. "Rest well, Jack," he added as he headed across the cabin.
"Sure," Jack said, already starting to sound sleepy again. "By the way, how old were you when you were in your first battle?"
Draycos paused in the doorway. "I was younger than you," he said quietly, turning his long neck to look around behind him. "And the K'da and Shontine lost that battle."
"Younger than me," Jack repeated, his voice sounding odd. "You had loose rules, didn't you?"
"We were fighting for our survival," Draycos reminded him. "We still are."
Jack didn't say anything. For a wonder, neither did Uncle Virge.
The planet Carrion was, in Jack's opinion, a very appropriately named world.
Or so it seemed as he paid the taxi driver and joined the stream of pedestrians hurrying along the wide sidewalks. Even just glancing around, he could spot the uniforms of a half dozen different mercenary groups among the crowds. The men and women inside the uniforms were rough-looking types, all of them with small areas of empty space around them as they strode along. Like arrogant vultures gathered to feed on their prey, he thought darkly, with the ordinary citizens trying to keep as far away from them as possible.
Or maybe he was imagining the citizens' reaction. Maybe he was just projecting his own feelings onto the people around him.
What in the world was he doing here, anyway?
"Is that it ahead?" Draycos murmured from his right shoulder.
Jack made a face as he focused on the plain white building half a block down the street ahead of them. "That's it," he confirmed. "The main Carrion recruitment office of the Whinyard's Edge."
"A whinyard was a Scottish name for a dagger or short sword," Uncle Virge put in from the comm clip fastened to Jack's left collar. "It dates back to—"
"Thank you, Professor," Jack cut him off. The last thing he was in the mood for right now was a history lesson. "Unless you've got something useful to say, everyone just shut up. Okay?"
"Have the young people from the spaceport arrived yet?" Draycos asked.
"I don't see them," Jack said, craning his neck to try to look over the crowd and slowing down a little. He didn't want to reach the recruitment office before the group he and Draycos had spotted being gathered together at the spaceport. The idea was to blend in with them when they went in to sign their enlistment papers, not to be the o
"A bus also implies they're expected, Jack lad," Uncle Virge warned. "That means the Whinyard's Edge will know how many of them there are supposed to be."
"Maybe," Jack said. "I can handle that."
"It's not too late to back out," Uncle Virge went on. "We could try to put together enough money to simply buy the information we need from them."
"And if they refuse, it'll just put them on their guard," Jack pointed out. "Hang on a second."
Ahead, a sleek bus pulled to the curb in front of the white building. "Okay, they're here," Jack confirmed as a boy his age got rather hesitantly off the bus. "I'm shutting down," he added, reaching for the comm clip. "Wish me luck."
There was an electronic sigh. "Good luck," Uncle Virge said.
Jack clicked off the clip, unfastened it, and slipped it into his pocket. The first kids off the bus had gathered into a little group by the curb, hanging back instead of going directly into the building. Either they were nervous, or else they were waiting for someone who was still behind them.
"You have not yet explained this indenture process," Draycos said from his shoulder.
"It's sort of like an apprenticeship," Jack said. An adult was getting off now, a woman wearing a Whinyard's Edge uniform. Not only were they expected, but the mercenaries had even sent a babysitter to the spaceport to herd them in. "Parents hire their kids out to different merc groups, usually for two to five years."
"And what do they receive in exchange?"
"Cash," Jack told him. "Lots of it."
"It is a form of slavery," Draycos declared, his voice dark. "Your people permit this?"
"Not exactly," Jack said. The woman was striding toward the white building, the kids following like scared but obedient ducklings. This was probably the first time most of them had ever been away from home, he suspected. "The Internos government officially condemns it, but there are plenty of human worlds that sort of wink at the whole thing. Mostly the poorer ones where the people don't have any other way to make a living."
Dragonback 02 Dragon and Soldier by Timothy Zahn / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes