The Dragonwing Effect

Chapter 10

"Innocence does not find near so much protection as guilt."(Francois de La Rochefoucauld )

(October 15th, 2090, UNEC Ranger Base, Alladale Highlands, Scotland, 20:20 BST)

Sam stepped out of the shower in his quarters, feeling orders of magnitude better. He wrapped himself in a robe, sat down at his desk, and tapped a speed-dial button on his phone. One last check to see how those scaly menaces to mental stability are doing...

It was answered on the third ring, but not by the voice he expected. "Treatment Six, Doctor Abshier" said a male tenor with just a hint of Texas twang.

Sam blinked. "Doctor Shay here. Could I speak to Doctor Ericsson, please?"

There was a pause, then: "No one by that name here, sir. Are you sure you called the right room?"

Must have gone off-shift. "I must have just missed her" he replied. "No matter. I brought in a pair of... rather unusual... patients a little after noon. I just wanted to see how they're doing."

"Unusual?" There was a longer pause. "Doctor Shay, we're pretty busy here" came the voice, unmistakably harried. "I don't mind giving you a status, but I'd appreciate it if you'd be a little more clear what you're talking about!"

Sam was puzzled, but he knew all too well what 'pretty busy' meant in reference to a veterinary clinic. "Sorry to bother you" he replied, just as someone knocked on his door. "I'll check back later."

The only response was a terse "Right" and a loud 'click.' Sam chuckled, and called out "Enter!"

In walked Lt. Dashiell, in casual civvies, carrying two glasses and a bottle of fifty year-old Scotch.

Sam knew that bottle all too well. He'd gotten it from his barkeep of a brother and given it to Dashiell when he was first promoted to Lieutenant. Ignoring the fact he was still clad in nothing but a deep-blue bathrobe, Sam came to parade-ground attention and snapped off a salute (though he had trouble keeping a straight face).

Dashiell eyed him for a moment, then carefully put down the bottle and glasses on the desk and blew a juicy Bronx cheer. "You can hold that salute until you freeze, you clown!"

Sam turned the salute into a silly gesture, reminiscent of an old Mel Brooks film – 'Spaceballs,' yes, that was it – and sat back down.

"I take it, Lieutenant Dash, sir, that this is a social call?"

For answer, Dash uncorked the bottle and poured them both a healthy shot. "You take it correctly, Ranger Sam" he said, dropping into a spare chair, drink in hand. "I don't give a flying monkey what the med-techs say, there's nothing that can't be cured by a hot shower and a cool scotch. To Honor!"

"Honor it is" Sam replied, slightly puzzled, as he matched the toast. The drink left a trail of soft flame in its wake all the way down to his stomach, flame which became a warm glow. "I thought you were saving this stuff for a special occasion" he said, eyeing the glass with appreciation.

Dash promptly refilled them both. "So traveling over a thousand years through Time itself and bringing back two living examples of a species believed mythical isn't 'special' enough for you? Saint Blaise Above, Sam, you're getting picky in your advancing years!"

This drew a snort. "Speaking of, Dash" he said, "I just tried to reach Dr. Ericsson to find out how those two were doing. Someone else was on duty, a Dr. Abshier, and he had no idea who or what I was talking about."

"No surprise" came the quick reply. Was it Sam's imagination, or was it a little too quick?

"Kate's a specialist. She was passing through, on her way to Geneva from Bergen, and I asked her to help out once we had some idea of what you were bringing in. Doc Abshier's on the swing shift, and as far as I know they've never met."

Sam took another swig of the scotch. "But even so, there's no way he or anyone else would have missed a pair of dragons in the recovery bay! I don't think even finding a live Dire wolf would top it."

Dash nodded. "All too true, but he can't miss what's not there. Kate was just leaving with the both of them as I was on my way to see you. She said to tell you they're both doing fine, and thanks for the help."

He chuckled. "The blue one – Nalu? – He'd wrapped himself around her neck like an oversize scarf with scales. I pity anyone who tries to separate them."

Sam downed what was left in his glass and frowned, as his friend promptly refilled it. "Dash, I don't get it: My ship is perfectly airworthy, but I get told to stay where I am until Rescue can get there.

"Everybody who sees that colorful pair of winged troublemakers is plainly curious, but never one single question about them and no one's taking any pictures. Finally, my report is accepted without question, even though there's enough in there to put me in a rehab facility for the next decade.

"Now you're here, with a bottle of vintage scotch, doing your best to see we both down it like there's no tomorrow." He put down his glass, and stared hard at his commander. "Sir, to put it bluntly: What the bloody blue blazes is going on?!"

Dashiell was silent for nearly a minute. They knew each other well enough so Sam could tell he was struggling with something.

"Tell me about the black one you met – Skye? Tell me more about her" he urged. The bottle was over half-empty, but Sam could hold his liquor just as well as his boss. It was clear there was something bothering Dashiell. Sam, despite his impatience, decided to keep playing along.

"She... was probably the most amazing being I've ever met" he said. "You could get lost in those eyes of hers. They were like flawless opals with an obsidian core. And the intelligence, the sheer power in them! Dash, I don't know if dragons had royalty, but if they did she was a queen among them.

"She had this way of commanding instant respect, but never at the expense of putting down whoever she was looking at. It was more like... you could see yourself in her eyes, as she saw you, all your strengths and weaknesses at once."

He downed half his glass, and continued. "After the initial shock, I knew, beyond any doubt, she just wanted me to achieve whatever goal was most important to me – getting home, in this case – even if it meant never seeing each other again. Knowing her was... well, inspiration. Hell, she got me over my fear of heights! Name me a human shrink who could even get close to the subject without putting me in a panic!"

Dash grinned. "Not even UNEC's best. If she managed to get you over that particular hump, she's done us all a big favor and she must have been one very special lady." He refilled both glasses, then downed his in a single toss. His expression turned serious.

"Sam, as far as believing you, it wasn't an issue. Within an hour of your ship's arrival, we had the entire set of flight recorder and onboard camera logs downloaded. Even if that wasn't enough, you shot enough holovid footage to convince any skeptic. I... can't tell you anything more. Not just yet. If you've ever trusted me before, please, trust me now!"

Sam was more than a little surprised. He'd never seen the man so deeply shaken. "If not now, when? We both know the protocols for discovery and reporting of a previously undiscovered species and none of them involve any of this cloak-and-dagger crap."

To his credit, Dash winced. "How well I know! Sam, all I can say right now is there's much more in what's happened to you than anyone, myself included, ever guessed. Again, I have to ask: Trust me. Please!"

Sam eyed him steadily for a long moment, then finished his own drink. "First thing in the morning" he said, firmly. "Oh-seven-hundred, sharp. No argument, no fancy dances. You, me, breakfast, and you fill me in on everything!"

Dashiell got up, collected the empty bottle and glasses, and headed for the door. Just before he went out, he turned back with a look Sam hadn't seen since they were both first-year recruits: Fear.

"Remember Skye" he said. "If nothing else, focus on your memory of her!"

With that, he was gone. Sam rolled his eyes, then went to brush his teeth and shave. He'd just finished drying off when there was another knock.

Puzzled, he pulled the door open to find one of the med-techs holding out a small cup with three pills in it. "What's this?" Sam asked, taking the cup and eyeing the contents.

"Doctor Weaver's orders, sir" the tech said, respectfully. "One of your test results showed some imbalances in your nervous system which might prevent you from sleeping. These will correct the imbalance, and help you rest. Everything else looks fine, so you'll be cleared for regular duty in the morning."

Sam nodded. "Thank you" he said, as he closed the door. He downed the dose with a swallow of water, then stretched out on his bed and killed the lights.

His head buzzed slightly from the scotch, but he didn't feel drunk at all. He mulled over the day's events, and wondered once again why UNEC, with its reputation for transparency and fairness, would be indulging in silly spy antics with its own people.

Or maybe not so silly he mused. Something sure had Dash on edge, and it's nearly unheard of for the Secretary to personally review a Ranger's report.

Then again, the happenings of the last month had been 'nearly unheard of' and then some. He resolved to start, after breakfast, by tracking down Kate Ericsson. I don't care what kind of 'specialist' she is; she's seen dragons before, and she knows more than she's telling...

Fatigue suddenly hit like an ocean wave. He had just enough time to turn over and pull the covers into a comfortable position before sleep claimed him.

A spot of emerald green swirled into being at the bottom of a whirlpool of blue-gray mist. The spot grew rapidly, filling his entire field of vision with a scene of rare beauty.

Vine-draped trees, in full bloom, moved slightly in the breeze around a crystal-clear miniature lake. It was late in the day, by the angle of the sun, and the few clouds in the sapphire sky were lit with soft gold and brilliant orange. The breeze, just starting to turn cooler from the day's heat, was filled with birdsong.

Very nice Sam thought. Reminds me of... of where...

Odd. His memory was, normally, excellent. Ah. That's it he thought. This is where I saw that purple heron.

He looked around towards the narrow end of the lake. Sure enough, a purple heron stood calmly in the shallows, one leg tucked up under its body. It regarded him with a penetrating gaze – and one of its eyes closed briefly in a sly wink.

Sam chuckled. And just what are you up to? He thought.

The last thing he expected was an answer, but there it was, suddenly, a soft whispering in his mind: You'll see it said. Listen!

Under any other conditions, Sam would likely have checked himself into the base infirmary if he thought herons were speaking to him. Now, it didn't feel in the least surprising. He did as the bird said, stretching his hearing as hard as he could.

The voices filtered in from behind him, faintly at first, then gaining strength. There were two; male and female, young-sounding.

Teenagers, he thought, as he turned towards the source. He felt his eyes widen as he took in the pair and his point of view drifted closer. I know these two! He thought, as he moved towards them. But... from where? Frell, what's wrong with my memory?!

"–in trouble for skipping out on the Howling?" the girl said. She was tall, pale blonde and, despite her slender build, Sam knew this one was all muscle and sinew. The boy she was with was just as slender and sported deep green eyes in a freckled face topped with reddish-brown hair. He was clad in what looked like leather breeches and a green vest.

Splashing sounds came from behind him, coupled with deep-toned grunts and snorts, but he didn't really want to turn and look just yet. Something about the conversation between these two was fascinating beyond words.

The boy shrugged. "No more than usual" he said. "It helped that my dad saw Toothless and Skye all but carry me off. He knows better than to try and argue with a pair of Night Furies, once they're set on doing something."

Sam's thoughts went into a whirl. Strange names... Toothless? He had a flash of dark, in the center of which a pair of yellow-green eyes blazed. The flash vanished as quickly as it had come.

The other name, though... Skye! That one brought a different flash, of gray eyes flecked with rainbow sparks, like opals, and a sense of longing so sharp it hurt. And what in blazes was a 'Night Fury?' Frustration flared. Why couldn't he remember? It was as if there were a thick wall of cobwebs hiding the answers.

He turned his attention back to the conversation, hoping for more clues. "I wish I could have seen it" the girl said, scuffing one foot on the ground. "What did it look like again?"

The boy leaned up against a rock, and tossed a couple of loose pebbles into the water. "Imagine a lightning storm" he said, "all stuffed into a tankard. Stir it like you would a mug of tea and imagine the lightning and clouds all swirling together. He went right into the center of it, Astrid. One second, he was there, the next it looks like he's getting stretched out as thin as a bone needle, over this huge distance..."

He clapped his hands together, sharply. "Then – nothing. The sun started to come back, and the stone ring looked as empty as it always has." He sighed. "I just hope he got to where he was going."

"Time to wake up, sir."

He looked around, startled, unable to tell where the new voice had come from. The splashing behind him ceased, then changed to heavy footfalls. Two slender black winged shapes ambled into his field of view, moving with a fluid grace he rarely saw. What in all that's holy are those?! Again, the feelings of 'familiar' and 'utterly unknown' collided.

"Time to wake up, sir."

"Not yet!" He heard himself snap, though his voice sounded oddly muffled. In that same instant, one of the dark shapes whipped around. He found himself suddenly transfixed by storm-gray eyes, flecked like opals. Just as the image began to break up, a familiar voice rang in his head:

You will find me again.

He sat up with a jolt, pulse racing, his breathing quick and shallow. He glanced around in the dim light, unaware of where he was.

"Time to wake up, sir."

The voice, feminine and mechanical, was emanating from the clock on his nightstand. It read 06:01 in red flashing digits. "Time to wa–"

It cut off abruptly as his palm slammed down on the 'Acknowledge' button. For another minute or so, he sat still, waiting for his breathing and pulse to slow down.

He was in his quarters at Alladale base, and there was something he'd meant to do this morning... yes! Check with Dr. Ericsson, that nice redhead, about... what? Something to do with...

It was gone. He growled in frustration, then winced as a pulse of headache made itself known. Vague memories of the infirmary flickered through his mind, coupled with visions of Dash and an old bottle containing a bright amber liquid.

That's it he thought, as he flung the covers off, got up and stretched. Dash and I had a bit of a bender last night, yeah. Nice of him to share out that scotch, even if it did spark weird dreams!

Instinct and habit took over, leading him through shaving and getting ready for the day's patrol. A glance at the weather forecast – partly cloudy, high temperature around 14 Celsius, moderate breeze – prompted him to add a light jacket to his duty gear before heading for the cafeteria.

It was crowded, as usual, with the graveyard-to-morning shift change. However, he had no problem securing lean ham, scrambled eggs, mixed fruit and strong green tea.

Along the way, he found himself the recipient of considerably more greetings and wishes for good health than usual. After the fourteenth or so 'Welcome back,' he started to wonder if he was missing something.

Granted, there was a blank spot in his memory. He was having trouble recalling what, exactly, had happened yesterday. There had been the eclipse, chasing that hideously-colored smuggler's ship...

Nothing. It was as if he'd run into a mental wall. Puzzled, he settled at a corner table, picked up the newspaper – and felt his jaw drop as he saw the date.

"Sam! Good to see you up and around!"

A tall figure in a white lab coat sat down opposite him, smiling a greeting. Dr. Ed Weaver was the base's chief medical officer. He stood a skinny six-one, clean-shaven, with a complex of laughter-lines bordering jade green eyes. His own tray held a large bowl of mixed fruit and a mug of steaming coffee. "How do you feel? Any headache? Nausea? Do you remember anything about what happened?"

Sam blinked, confused for a moment. "Ah... just a little, Doc. Headache, I mean. It's almost gone now." He gestured at the paper. "What did happen? I seem to have lost some time. Last thing I remember, Gerry and I had taken down a smuggler. He was on the ground, I was flying cover, and–"

The wall again. Sam shivered. "Doc, what's wrong with me? I don't remember a thing, and that's not normal!"

Weaver took a gulp of his coffee, made a face, then speared some cantaloupe on his fork. "It can be, in situations like yours. Traumatic short-term amnesia.

"According to the official report, and your onboard cameras" he continued, "one of the smugglers you and Ranger Hoshino were chasing hit you with a modified plasma rifle. Your stun charge took him down in the same instant, but the bolt hit your ship square in the nose. Pretty much fried all your avionics. It's a good thing you were just shy of landing height when you went down!

"As it was, you caught a nasty electric shock and a concussion. You've been in a coma for two weeks, and you finally woke up yesterday." He smiled again, then clasped Sam's free hand. "You're clear for duty, but take it easy for a couple of days. And stop by the infirmary tonight, for a checkup. Open Sky!"

With that, Weaver gathered up his remaining fruit and coffee and made a beeline for the exit. Sam just gazed after him, open-mouthed, then shook off the feeling of weirdness and went back to his food. As he lifted the next fork-full towards his mouth, he froze, staring in disbelief at the white-yellow conglomeration.

His stomach lurched suddenly, prompting him to drop the fork. Egg scattered across the tray. What in blazes is going on now?! He thought, eyeing the mass with a mix of horror and disgust. I can't stand eggs!

But the pile was visibly smaller than it had been when he'd picked up the tray. As if this weren't evidence enough of a minor gastronomic disaster, the aftertaste chose that moment to kick in with a vengeance.Appetite gone, Sam scooped up the tray, dropped it on the cleaning belt and made a dash for the men's room.

Fortunately, the reaction wasn't strong enough to require a change of uniform though it left him somewhat shaky. "You've got a funny definition of 'clear for duty,' Doc" he muttered to himself, as he headed for the squad room.

The day's briefing was blessedly short, no more than ten minutes, then he found himself handed another surprise.

"A new ship?" he said, with a smile, eyeing the transfer papers Lt. Dashiell handed him after the others had left.

Dash nodded. "You know the plasma bolt took out the avionics on your old boat, right?" Sam nodded. "Well" Dash continued, "this is proof positive there's a bright side to everything. While I'd rather not have had you flat on your back for the last couple of weeks, it seems replacing and upgrading your ship's innards would have been more expensive, in the long run, then simply issuing you a new ship."

He grinned broadly, and offered a hand. Sam took it, still a little dazed. "Welcome back, Ranger Shay. Take an hour or so to make sure everything's where it should be, then handle whatever comes your way as usual. If you need to retrieve anything personal from your old ship, it's in the maintenance hangar, bay 15-B."

"Thank you, sir" Sam said, uncertainly, as Dashiell hurried off. It was normally the duty of the flight-support crews to transfer a ranger's tools and personal items between ships. Why is he telling me where the old one is?

Still, a new aircar was nothing to sneeze at. Sam hurried out to the main hangar, full of anticipation despite a persistent feeling of something being just slightly off.

The feeling vanished as he rounded a corner and saw his new craft. He froze in place for a moment, a soft whistle of surprise escaping his lips, then started a slow walk-around.

This wasn't just a 'new ship;' this was the latest of the Phaeton-class craft! A Mark IV, to be exact. In short Sam thought, running a hand over the curve of the nose fairing and feeling it glide over the liquid-smooth surface without leaving a mark, the latest and greatest off the assembly line. "And I thought they were still in final trials" he said to himself.

"Which were completed just last week" came a new voice from behind. He turned to see a tall, slender man in the Navy-blue jumpsuit of a UNEC aircar mechanic, bright yellow chevrons decorating the shoulders. He had a narrow face with a devil-may-care grin, topped with a neat bowl of black hair just beginning to gray around the temples, and gray-blue eyes.

"She's a beauty all right" the man continued, as he stepped forward and offered a hand. Sam returned the firm handshake. "Ranger Shay, I see? Tech Sergeant Jarod Lee, at your service. Welcome back, sir! Everyone in the group's been rooting for you, ever since we saw what happened to your other ride." A look of sadness crossed Lee's face, and he shook his head. "Worst plasma-strike I've ever seen."

Before Sam could utter a word, Lee's grin was back. "Climb aboard! I'll give you a quick run-down on the new gear."

Somewhat dazed by the tech's mercurial mood changes, Sam climbed up the boarding ladder and dropped into the left seat. New-ship smell permeated the entire cockpit, and he gazed in admiration at the updated avionics and controls.

"Same basic controls, for the most part" Lee said, climbing up and standing on the ladder. "One difference is we've improved the master-slave relationship between the thrust and lift throttles–"

Sam listened with half an ear, touching controls here and there, noting a much higher percentage of touch-pads as opposed to physical switches. An odd thought tweaked his mind as Lee was saying something about water-landing capability, and the fact the thrust turbines could now operate even when flooded. "What about SONAR?" Sam asked, as the sergeant paused for a breath.

Lee grinned, leaned down, and touched a section of display screen just above Sam's right knee. The display promptly lit in a familiar pattern, though there was no return-echo indication and TEST MODE glowed in the upper right corner.

"No more SONAR, sir" Lee said, in a smug tone. "Pulsed millimeter wave imaging all the way, using the new Hall-Dempsey return sensor array. About six times the resolution and accuracy of the best SONAR, and no more ear-shattering pulses to bother the local marine life!"

Sam nodded appreciatively, and touched the same spot. The display went dark. "Keep the Scauldrons happy, too" he said.

Lee blinked at him. "Keep the what happy, sir?"

Now it was Sam's turn to look puzzled. "Scauldrons. They hate SONAR. Drives 'em nuts, and they're big enough to let you know about it! Don't be surprised if you've not seen one, though. They're found only–"

He broke off. The blank wall in his mind was back, and he growled in frustration. "Never mind" he said. "Chalk it up to the weird morning I'm having. What about weapons?"

Lee looked at him a little uncertainly, but continued with a detailed description of the ship's armament. Finally, he ran out of steam. "Any questions, sir?"

Sam shook his head, secured his safety harness and slid his new helmet into place. "Not at the moment" he said, feeling a sudden urge to be out and about, as far away into the wilderness as he could get. "Thanks for the briefing."

He started the main power-up sequence. Lee, taking the hint, flashed a smile and a salute, and slid neatly back down the ladder. Moments later, Sam had lift clearance. He eased his craft out the hangar doors and into the cloudy skies, reveling in the sensation of flight once again.

And yet, even with a craft which seemed almost to respond to his thoughts in terms of where and how to fly, he couldn't shake the feeling there was something missing. His legs kept twitching in the oddest way, as though he were shifting his weight in order to stay balanced against his seat, even though no aircar worth its salt required such maneuvers.

Back at the main hangar, Sergeant Lee found himself equally puzzled. The Ranger had seemed quite confident about the strange word – 'Scauldron,' it was – but had brushed it off moments later.

One thing Sergeant Lee did not lack in the slightest was curiosity. It had gotten him through his A&P certification in record time, just as it had gotten him in trouble more often than not. Still, as his grandfather had been fond of saying, it was much easier to ask forgiveness than permission.

With that comforting thought firmly in mind, Lee resolved to do some judicious poking around, starting with the Ranger's old ship. He hadn't been kidding when he'd told Sam it was the worst plasma damage he'd ever seen. That was part of the problem: The severity of the damage was something you just didn't see from portable weapons.

The rest of the week was a busy one, though the weather improved. Sam found himself dropping gratefully back into a comfortable pattern. Nothing too serious, nothing too routine; just the right balance.

In fact, if anything, he was finding it easier than ever to diagnose various animal ailments and deliver the right treatment. If he did get puzzled, it took only seconds before he heard an 'inner' voice, guiding him firmly to where the problem was faster than a deep scan with the Gauntlet could.

Some vets, under similar conditions, would be second-guessing themselves to distraction, if they weren't putting themselves on the sick list and checking in for psych counseling. Not Sam. He took it all in stride, dispensing pill, potion or patch as needed.

For all the pleasure he took from his work, though, he still couldn't ignore a persistent knot of tension in his guts. It wasn't anything physical; more like a sensation of something missing, something forgotten, something which was terribly important.

The worst part was the feeling simply wouldn't go away! Every time he tried to pin it down, the memories fled like a chipmunk fleeing a hawk.

This is one hawk with a lot of patience Sam thought, grimly. You can run, but you can't hide forever!

One prominent fragment did surface, towards the end of the last day of the work week. As Sam was climbing back into his ship, after treating a mountain goat with an injured knee joint, he had a sudden flash of a standard-issue UNEC field notebook, bound in blue Duraplastic, with his name and badge number on the inside cover.

Realization and relief hit him in equal measures, and he dropped into his seat with a rueful chuckle. His notebook hadn't been collected from his old ship. That was it! And, with my luck he thought, I'll need the thing soon enough.

He put in a call to the maintenance crew as he lifted off. Sergeant Lee was on duty, and nodded when Sam made his request.

"Your old ship's still there, Doc, but you'd best check it first thing when you get in. It's going out with the rest of the month's load of scraps tomorrow, when Fleet Surplus comes by. Do you want me to go see if I can find your book? I can drop it in your box in the squad room."

Sam shook his head. "Don't trouble yourself, Sergeant. This was my mistake, my responsibility. Thanks for checking, though."

Lee nodded and signed off. Sam, spurred by rising excitement, throttled his speed up to just under the limit for non-pursuit status and continued towards Alladale. He was five minutes out when the TLC alarm sounded, its display lit with a flashing red symbol in the shape of a large bird. Sam's eyebrows shot up as he read the details.

WHITE-TAILED SEA EAGLE, KWL-62042-N62054, DOWN AND INJURED it read, along with a set of GNSS coordinates. A heartbeat later, a line connecting the bird icon with a blue triangle, indicating Sam's current position, flickered to life.

Sam tapped the 'ACCEPT' flag on the screen, changed course, and accelerated further. The 'KWL' in the TLC code indicated the bird's territory as Kirkwall, an island community eighty kilometers south-southwest of Alladale's northern patrol border. The embedded 'N' told him the bird was one of a mated and nesting pair, along with the mate's serial number.

The screen filled in more details as he drew closer. The downed bird was female, eleven years old, no previous problems. However, the current readings showed heart rate, blood pressure and respiration all dangerously high.

Fifteen minutes later, as he landed near the bird and jumped down, he saw why. She was tangled in a large scrap of fishing net, eyes glazed and chest pumping frantically. Spatters of bright red stood out against the grass and the bird's feathers, coming from a very visible gash on her right leg where the mesh was wrapped tight. The sight had Sam swearing very creatively as he gathered his equipment.

Upset as he was, he was quick to rein in his emotions as he approached the bird. She eyed him with a mixture of defiance and fear, but made no sound. "Easy, big lady" Sam said, softly, as he sidled closer and eased down to a kneeling position, parallel with the bird rather than facing her head-on.

Not too bad he mused, studying the way the net scrap ran. Have that mess off in about five minutes.

Working quickly, while the bird was relatively quiet, he reached into his bag, brought out a square of black cloth and placed it over the eagle's head. Tiny magnets sewn into the edges clicked together, forming an effective hood.

Other than one indignant squawk, the eagle made no further protest, for birds-of-prey are even more sight-oriented and sight-dependent than humans. If they couldn't see what was going on around them, they perceived no threat and remained calm.

Sam was taking no chances, though. The feet of a white-tailed eagle, close cousin to the American Bald eagle, could exert a gripping force of over five hundred kilograms!

Such strong feet, with their needle-sharp talons, were capable of inflicting considerable damage on whatever – or whoever – their owner was mad at. With this in mind, his next step was to uncap a small squeeze-bulb and spray two shots of Tiletamine-4 aerosol in under the blinding cloth. A few moments later, the rapid movement of the bird's breast slowed. "That's better" Sam muttered.

With his hands now safely encased in protective gloves, he made short work of the mesh with a pair of bandage snips. Once the offending material was cleared away, he went to work on the injured leg, cleaning away the blood and spraying the wound liberally with Dermiseal. The chemical bandage would serve as a local painkiller, antiseptic and protective barrier, keeping the injury dry and clean as it healed.

Next, he exchanged one shield glove for his Gauntlet and scanned the bird's vital signs: Pulse, blood pressure, temperature, respiration, neural activity – all were normal, allowing for the anaesthetic. Nodding with satisfaction, he reached down and pulled away the blinding cloth.

Bright golden eyes blinked, then settled on him with a glazed look. Sam backed away a bit farther, giving the bird plenty of room, but he stayed on his knees. A few minutes later, the eagle chirped to herself, then lurched to her feet and started looking around.

She's a beauty Sam thought, admiring the alternating patterns of golden brown and dark brown on her wings and leg feathers. The patterns shaded to a more consistent light brown, with just a few flecks of white, on her neck and head.

Her tail, as the name of her species implied, was white as new-driven snow. The Gauntlet had given her weight as six kilos, but Sam would have sworn she couldn't be over five.

His breath caught as the bird stretched one enormous wing, then the other, and made a couple of experimental flaps. You are magnificent! He thought.

The bird froze in mid-flap and stared at him – hard – with one eye, then the other, before folding her wings. She held his gaze long enough to make him blink, then lifted her injured leg. Powerful talons flexed as she examined the now-sealed wound.

Finally, she put the leg back down and walked over to one of the discarded pieces of mesh. She subjected the section to the same intense gaze, pecked at it, then looked up at Sam.

Another fragment of memory stirred. He met the bird's gaze, and spoke softly. "Yes, you were all tangled up in that stuff. I freed you."

The bird's next move caught him completely off-guard.

With one wing-assisted hop, she sprang into the air and landed on the ground directly in front of him, less than a meter away. Her expression, far from the wild fury Sam usually associated with large raptors, carried something he'd never seen in any bird before: Was it... could it really be... gratitude?!

Before he could think, move, or speak, the eagle delivered her next surprise. Crine feathers extended, in the manner of a bird who is relaxed and confident, she reached up with an open beak – and started preening Sam's beard.

The vet was too dumbfounded to do anything more than hold absolutely still. Yes, allopreening was common practice between birds showing affection to each other, and by some captive hawks and falcons to their falconers, but this was a wild eagle! All six kilos and two-meter wingspan of her, sitting calmly in front of him, doing her level best to make sure his beard was arranged properly!

After a couple of minutes, when the eagle seemed satisfied with her work, she turned around and hopped out to where she had wing-room for takeoff. As her wings opened to their full span, the bird looked back at Sam with one bright gold eye. Suddenly, two words echoed in his mind, as clearly as if someone standing next to him had spoken:

Fly well!

The wings descended, carrying the bird swiftly into the darkening sky. All Sam could do was sit there, gaping, stunned into silent wonder.

After a minute or so, he shook his head and climbed to his feet. "That last bit is not going in my report" he muttered to himself, as he stowed his equipment and got ready to leave.

Murphy wasn't done playing with him, though. As he closed the cargo compartment door and started up the boarding ladder, a loud chirp made him pause. He looked around, paying close attention to the tree line.

Suddenly, a shaft of the setting sun revealed an iridescent surface of chalcedony blue, moving swiftly through the lower branches. Sam held perfectly still, waiting for whatever it was to realize he was no threat.

He didn't have to wait long. The movements stopped for a moment, then – something – popped out into the open air, its wingbeats sounding like a toy helicopter. Once again, Sam's jaw dropped. "What in the name of all that's holy are you?!" He gasped.

Even as he spoke, he was startled by a strong feeling of familiarity. He'd seen creatures like this before, but – that was impossible! No winged lizards existed in the present day. Even if they did, the energy required to sustain flight would require any such creature to be endothermic, and any first-year vet student could tell you reptiles were exothermic.

And yet, there was the impossible, hovering barely three meters away, chirping at him excitedly. The chirps seemed to take on a pattern, the sounds echoing in his head until they became intelligible:


A sharp, deep sound suddenly split the air. Sam twitched violently, nearly losing his grip on the ladder.

Now what? He wondered. It had sounded like a cross between an annoyed Stellar sea lion and a very large wolf – and yet, once again, it was maddeningly familiar!

The effect of the sound on the blue flying lizard was much more dramatic. It flinched all over, a look coming into its bulbous eyes which made Sam think of a naughty child, caught with their hand in the candy jar.

The thunderous bark sounded again. The blue lizard squawked a reply – and then hurtled forward to land right next to Sam, clinging to the edge of the cockpit and meeting the startled vet's gaze head-on.

Once more, words popped into his head: Nalu find you, now you find us! The edge of one leathery wing brushed Sam's arm, then the little blue was darting away towards the forest.

By now, Sam's mind was completely frazzled. Just before the blue disappeared, though, enough of his Ranger training leaked through to make him snatch up his pocket holocamera and start recording - only to have the tiny unit flash a LOW BATTERY warning at him and shut itself down.

Cursing himself for a fool, he dived into his ship and powered up the drive. Seconds later, he was flying a search pattern over the forest canopy, watching for the slightest hint of movement or flash of color which was not part of any tree.

Murphy decided to do an encore. Just as Sam finished one leg of his pattern, and turned in the opposite direction, two heads popped out from under the dense canopy behind him. One was chalcedony blue, with darker blue iridescence down its back.

The other was much larger, black as obsidian. The last of the sun's rays reflected briefly off a pair of storm-gray eyes. Both dragons waited, barely visible, until the craft was well out of sight, then lifted into the sky and vanished towards the north and home.

It was 20:40 when Sam finally returned to Alladale, over two hours past his official end-of-shift. This, in itself, was not unheard of, though he'd have to explain himself to Dash after the weekend.

He headed for the maintenance bay immediately, heeding Sergeant Lee's earlier advice. His old aircar was still there, a red SURPLUS DISPOSAL tag dangling from its nose gear. It took Sam less than ten minutes of searching to realize his notebook was not in it. "Damn" he muttered, slapping his hand on the pilot's seat in frustration. "Cleaning crew got it."

He looked down at where his hand had landed, startled by the feel of a rough edge where there should have been nothing but smooth velour. He lifted his hand, staring in confusion at the burned patch, then frowned. "When did that happen?" he muttered.

Fragments of images flickered through his memory. Something about a feather, and staying out of the way of – what? – when it sneezed...

It was gone. He grunted in frustration, and headed back towards the main hangar. Much to his surprise, he found Sergeant Lee waiting for him. The tech was in civvies, and he wore an expression Sam could only describe as 'thoroughly disgusted.' "Problem, Sergeant?"

The tech gave a weary wave. "Jarod, please, when I'm off-duty. Yeah, problem, but not one with you or your ship. You live in Belfast, right? Out near the airport?"

Sam nodded. "Up in the hills off the southeast end of the runway. Why?"

Lee jerked a thumb in the general direction of the staff parking lot. "Lift impeller let go in my car, and you're the only other person on the day shift who lives anywhere close to where I'm staying – Raven Manor? Off Church Road?"

Again, a nod. "Could I hitch a ride home with you? I ordered the parts I need, but they won't be here until Monday."

Sam stifled a sigh. He was tired, and frustrated with his fruitless search efforts. Still, Lee had been very helpful that morning. And I was going to eat at my brother's place tonight, anyway.

"Sure" Sam said, presenting a cheerful front. "Raven's not far out of the way at all, at least by air. Let me get changed, and we'll scoot. Have you eaten yet?"

"Just snacks" Jarod replied, anticipation drawing a grin from him. "Didn't I hear someone say your brother owns a pub?"

Ten minutes later, they were in Sam's Volkswagen Cloudsplitter, speeding south-southeast on autopilot at a tidy 300 kph. By the time they'd crossed over the Island of Mull, and turned due south for Belfast, they were chatting as easily as if they'd been friends from birth.

Sam was pleasantly surprised by how much they had in common, including an interest in mythical animals. Jarod was curious as to how far Sam had been able to share this particular interest with other co-workers.

"Not very" he said, giving him a brief version of the toy T-rex incident. "I came close with Gerry Hoshino, but it never really went beyond 'drinking buddies' and speculation. We just don't have enough in common. Just as one example, he's heavily into snow sports – loves to ski, snowboard, and the like – but I get the shivers just looking at the white stuff!"

"Then why" Jarod asked, "did you ever pick a duty station like Alladale? You have to know what winters in this part of the world can be like."

Sam shrugged. "Best I could get at the time. By the time my class lot was drawn, after I finished Ranger Basic, all the warm spots had been spoken for. Funny, though... I always meant to apply for a transfer, but the place kept growing on me a little at a time.

"If I had to point to one thing which changed my mind about being anywhere but here, I'd have to say it was about fifteen years back. I was on holiday leave, visiting my parents. It was just turning from winter to spring, and I'd had trouble sleeping the night before, so I got up a bit before dawn and just hiked around for a while, critter-watching."

Jarod nodded. "That's one big reason I've stayed here. Hard to beat the variety of wildlife. What happened then?"

Sam shook his head. "To this day, it still amazes me to think about it. I was feeling pretty miserable that morning because it had been a rough winter. I was all set to file my transfer request the minute I got in. Suddenly, out of the blue, a raven lands square on my shoulder. No hesitation, no fear, just... well, plop!"

Jarod's eyebrows crept up. "Someone's pet?"

"Not this bird" Sam replied, emphatically. "No leg band, and we didn't know anyone else in the area who had more than a dog or cat. Anyway, it surprised me so much all I could do was just freeze in place. Here's this huge bird, with an equally huge beak, just staring calmly at me from centimeters away!

"After a moment, he did something I've never seen or heard another raven do since, outside of trained show birds: Started whistling the chorus from an old Kate Crossan song, 'Come by the Hills,' which also happens to be a favorite of mine!"

"Whoa!" Jarod replied, grinning widely. "I know ravens are champion mimics, like most of the corvid family, but what are the odds?!"

"It gets better" Sam said, matching Jarod's grin. "The bird gets all the way through the first chorus – and then starts singing the last part of it! As in vocalizing! 'And the cares of tomorrow must wait 'til this day is done.' Oh, it was gravelly; that's just the way the bird's vocal cords are built. But it was clear, Jarod, as clear as you're hearing me right now, and on key!

"After that, the bird leans over, nibbles at my hair for a moment, then takes off. That's when I decided it'd be worth staying around, and to blazes with the weather."

They sat in companionable silence for a moment, gazing out the windscreen into the star-speckled night. Finally, Jarod spoke, his gaze fixed on the half-moon. "Sam... you know as well as anyone how quick gossip gets around, especially among us lowly techs–"

"Lowly?!" Sam replied, gazing at his passenger in astonishment. "Jarod, it's people like you who keep us in the air! That's not something I'd call 'lowly' at the worst of times."

Jarod waved one hand. "Granted, and I thank you for recognizing it. Not everyone does. What I wanted to say is I had a look at your old aircar anyway. I found your notebook, but I also found a couple of other things. I'm not quite sure what they are, or what their significance is, but I think you'll find them... interesting."

The Cloudsplitter had begun its descent into city traffic lanes, its autopilot responding smoothly to commands from the Belfast Regional ATCC. Sam eyed his passenger with a jaundiced look. "No more cloak-and-dagger, please!"

Jarod's expression was neutral. "I'm not calling them anything more than 'anomalies'" he said, calmly. "Do you want to know, or not?"

The car's onboard computer dinged at them. "Destination reached" said a female synthesized voice, with just a trace of Austrian accent, as the craft settled neatly into an open space on the roof of the pub's building.

"No, it's all right! I mean, I want to know" Sam said, hastily, as he went through the shutdown sequence.

He sighed. "It's just... It seems like ever since I woke up, people have been acting like they're walking on eggs whenever they're around me. Now I'm on edge because of it."

He grinned sheepishly. "Honestly, Jarod, you're the first person who's treated me as 'normal' this entire week. If you've found something even close to explaining what's going on, I would love to hear about it!"

The tech relaxed, collected his backpack, and climbed out. "Over dinner, then."

The indoor stairs were closed for repair, so they had to use the outside ladder to descend to street level. Jarod was startled to see Sam take to the rungs like he'd been born to them.

He even jumped from the last few, when he was about a meter above the sidewalk, and landed in a neat crouch. "I thought you were afraid of heights, outside an aircar?" The tech said, as he made his own way down. "Everyone on the flight line knows it."

Sam looked confused. His gaze flickered between Jarod and the open-air ladder, and he took a slow breath. "I... thought I was, too!"

Experimentally, he climbed back up to almost two meters height, then turned halfway around and gazed fearlessly down. Not the slightest twinge went through him. He was simply a short distance above the ground, like he'd been every day for almost two decades on his normal patrol runs.

Puzzled, he went down a couple of rungs and jumped off again. Far from being afraid, he found the brief sensation of free-fall to be exhilarating. He landed with a grunt next to Jarod, and shrugged. "I guess I'm over it" he said, as they entered the pub.

A few minutes later, they were comfortably settled in a larger-than-normal booth Sam's brother kept reserved for family. Sounds of singing – sometimes off-key, but never less than enthusiastic – permeated the pine-and-ale scented air, and LED floodlights cast a warm yellow-white glow over the entire place in stark contrast to the clear, cool night.

They'd barely started looking at the menus when a strong Irish alto boomed out over the rest of the room's noise: "Welcome back, little brother!"

Sam braced himself for the shoulder-slap he knew was coming, then returned it as best he could. "Thanks, Paddy! he replied, with a huge smile. "This is Jarod Lee, our lead aircar tech at the base."

Patrick Shay, or 'Paddy' to family and friends, didn't lose a hint of his smile as he gave Jarod a bone-crusher of a handshake. "And top of the evenin' to you, Jarod Lee! Sure, and you must be desperate for company if you're hangin' around with this loser!" He glanced at Sam.

Jarod gave as good as he got. His hand flexed slightly, and Paddy – much to Sam's surprise – winced. "Careful, lad, I'll need that hand later!" He exclaimed, making a show of examining his fingers for damage. "For someone who looks like they're in desperate need of a decent meal, you've got an Irishman's grip!"

The tech grinned back at the huge, bear-like redhead. "It's all the work I have to do to keep your brother, and his buddies, in the air. The way they treat their ships, you'd think they were in an aerial demolition derby!"

Paddy roared with laughter at this, and delivered a shoulder slap to Jarod. "You're all right, lad! So, gents, what'll it be tonight? Ronin's got a fresh batch of Shepherd's Pie, just out of the cooker."

"I'll go for that" Sam said. "And mead, please."

The barkeep looked surprised. "Mead, Sam? I thought you didn't fancy the sweet stuff."

"Tastes change, bro" he replied, then frowned slightly. "Though darned if I can remember when I started liking it."

Jarod ordered the same, and the two were soon happily munching and drinking the evening away.

"This is great stuff" Jarod said, setting the unfinished half of his pie aside. "I can tell what I'll be taking home for breakfast."

Sam nodded, and took a swallow from his mug. "Ronin always had a thing for cooking. Learned from his mom, who learned from his grandparents." He eyed his drink thoughtfully. "Not bad at all. Not quite as strong as the stuff I had on Berk, but... still..."

He trailed off, a faraway look in his eyes. "Sam?" Jarod said, worriedly. "Are you OK?"

The spell broke. "Now that was weird!" Sam said. "I just had this flash of a huge party, and someone announcing I was now 'Of Berk,' whatever that means.

"Dammit!" He slammed his mug down, sending droplets onto the table. "It's gone again! If I were to wish for one thing tonight, it'd be for an answer to what in Saint Blaise's socks is happening to my frelling memory!"

Jarod nodded, and lifted his backpack onto his seat. "Funny you should ask. I think I can help with that."

He unzipped the middle compartment, and started pulling things out. The first was a familiar notebook, somewhat the worse for wear around the edges, which he handed to Sam with a flourish.

"This, oddly enough, was wedged in the space between the inner bracing and outer hull of your primary cargo door" he said. "That's why the edges are beat up. I almost missed it, and had a hell of a time getting it out."

While Sam examined the book, and started flipping through the pages, Jarod dug deeper and pulled out a clear Duraplast cylinder about half the length of a cigar tube. Small flakes of blue, white and green, varying from a couple of millimeters to a few centimeters in size, were sliding around inside.

"What in blazes...?" Sam muttered, taking the tube and peering at the flakes.

Jarod didn't reply right away, as he was still digging. Finally, he came up with a standard-issue storage case for holocamera memory cards. Inside was one such card, blackened on part of its surface, with signs of melting around the edges.

"Looks like its been through a fire" Sam said. "It was in my old ship?"

The tech nodded as he zipped the compartment closed, and put the pack back on the floor. "Caught in one of your seat springs" he said. "Must have happened during your... well, the official word is 'crash,' but..."

"But what?" Sam pressed.

He sighed and eyed the vet carefully. "Before I go any farther, I need to warn you: What I've found out is likely to make you question how seriously UNEC takes its ethics."

Sam looked startled, then snorted. "Oh, posh" he said. "Ethics is probably the one thing UNEC takes more seriously than anything else."

The tech gave him an odd look, a mixture of surprise and... was that pity? Finally, Sam waved a hand. "Go ahead, then. I'll reserve judgment."

Jarod nodded. "From the moment I saw the damage to your old ship, something didn't seem right. Oh, it was from a plasma charge, right enough, but what surprised me was how far the damage went."

He reached for his portable computer, tapped a few commands into it, and held it out to Sam. "The top image is a narrow-focus metallurgical scan of your old ship's nose. The bottom is of similar damage on Hennessy's ship, taken just after you two tangled with those raiders a couple of months back. Notice anything odd?"

Sam gazed at the display for nearly a minute. "I'm no tech" he said, slowly, "but, if I'm understanding this, the damage on my old ship runs too deep for a hand weapon to have made, even one which was overcharged."

"Right you are" Jarod replied, retrieving the handheld. "Even stranger, there's no sign of impact damage at all, anywhere in the ship's structure. Now, you were flipping through your notebook a moment ago. What do you make of it?"

For answer, Sam flipped the book around and opened it. "I never thought I'd say this, but I don't know what the blazes to make of it" he replied. "Look at this... an archway of some sort, symbols around the perimeter..."

He kept flipping. Suddenly, he stopped and flipped a few pages back. His lips moved slightly as he mouthed his way through the formulas and notes on the page. "Why in the world did I need to cook up a batch of Brevenol-D by hand?" He muttered. "CME-2 works far better."

His eyes widened as he flipped over the next few pages. Suddenly, he stopped on one, his jaw dropping. "Saint Blaise Above" he breathed.

Jarod nodded. "I hope you'll forgive me, but I took the liberty of looking through it before you got back. Any idea why you would have written 'DRAGON SPECIES' at the top of the page, along with notes on their common names and physical characteristics?"

An icicle substituted itself for Sam's spine. His hands tingled, and his pulse pounded in his ears. It was all so familiar, but every time he read one of the strange words (clearly in his handwriting), and tried to push beyond the word itself, he ran up against a mental wall.

Finally, he closed the book and looked at Jarod. "I have not the slightest idea" he said, softly. "Dragons are mythical, though. Maybe I was thinking of writing a fiction story?"

He picked up the sample tube and looked over the contents again. Sapphire iridescence sparkled across what he now recognized as scales. "These look just like the ones on that flying lizard I saw this afternoon" he muttered. "And you also found these in my old ship?"

The tech nodded. "Caught in the carpeting below the rear seat. Took a sampling vac to get them out. I wouldn't have seen them at all if I hadn't been using a flashlight."

Sam nodded, dazedly. His thoughts were whirling in tight circles, and he didn't like any of the implications popping out of the chaos.

"Here's the clincher" Jarod said, holding out his portable computer again. "These are your ship's Hobbs meter readings from just before and just after its supposed 'crash.' Notice anything?"

Sam gazed at the readout, first in confusion then with growing outrage. "If it were out of commission for two weeks, as I've been told" he said, tightly, "there would be no difference in the timestamp between the last 'Shutdown' flag and the next 'Startup' flag. According to this, the ship was operated for around fifteen hours after I supposedly crashed!"

"Bingo" Jarod said, downing the last of his mead. "Sam, what you've been told so far just doesn't match up with what I've discovered. I don't have any more facts than what I've shown you, but I do have some ideas. Want to hear them?"

The vet nodded. "OK" Jarod continued. "I think someone – and it'd have to be someone very high up in UNEC – is covering up your crash, or incident, or whatever else really happened to you in those two weeks.

"All the official reports say one thing, and they seem to check out to the Nth degree on paper, but you can't hide facts from a good tech."

"It must have been pretty nasty if I can't remember it" Sam replied, over steepled fingers. "But I've never been one to run from trauma before. I'd never have become a vet if I did."

"Couldn't agree more" Jarod said. "But, in case you still need convincing, take a look at your arms. Pretty well tanned, aren't they? Kind of unusual for this time of year."

Sam blinked, then looked each arm over, his expression growing more puzzled by the second. "If I'd been out for two weeks, I wouldn't be anywhere near this dark."

"Right again" said Jarod. "Now, couple all these little things together and tell me what you get."

"Too damn many anomalies" Sam grumbled.

Jarod nodded. "One of my favorite quotes from Arthur Conan Doyle's works is 'When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.'"

Sam looked at him, startled. Jarod held the vet's gaze firmly. "Sam, I think the 'truth' in this case is someone's deliberately tampered with your memory."

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