The Dragonwing Effect

Chapter 12

"And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic nor popular - but one must take it because it is right."

David Levithan, 'Wide Awake'

There were times, much later in his life, when Sam found himself amazed at his assumptions about the learning program at Tesla's Basement. At first, he thought it would be just like college; lectures followed by lab time, lather, rinse, repeat.

He quickly found the staff considered them one and the same. Lab time was mixed with impromptu lectures, often sparked by someone's success or (in some cases, spectacular) failure with a given exercise.

Nor was there any guarantee a lecture period would be all lecture. More often than not, there would be a demonstration of hardware or software which, despite its age or claimed state of obsolescence by the world at large, accomplished the task at least as well as (and sometimes, better than) modern equipment. At other times, the subject of the lecture or lab would switch abruptly in mid-stream.

This tactic nearly drove him to distraction at first. He didn't realize until much later it had a very specific purpose: To encourage multi-tasking.

For the first few days he tended to keep to himself, observing more than participating. This was a consequence of two factors. One, he couldn't shake the feeling of being out of place among the crowd, most of whom were barely half his age.

The second was a startling discovery he made about himself. Though he was comfortable using nearly any kind of technology, he found he had always been somewhat fearful of working 'under the hood,' as it were. UNEC taught all its Rangers to do basic maintenance checks on their aircars, but those checks were designed to be simple enough for anyone.

Once he realized this, much of the fear vanished and he found it easier to follow the ways of electrons.

Some doubts remained, though. He felt comfortable enough, on the evening of his fourth day, to mention them to Bryan and John during what had become a nightly get-together.

"It's like with the old internal-combustion cars" Bryan said, after Sam explained his troubles. "Plenty of people could check their oil or coolant level, or do simple things like replace a radiator cap or light bulbs."

"But the minute you presented them with something they felt was more 'complicated,' even something as simple as actually changing their engine's oil" John continued, "It'd be a case of immediate panic and off to the mechanic."

Sam sighed, and nodded uncomfortably. "Every time I'm poking around in something electronic, even with a multimeter, I feel like I have to get everything exactly right the first time, or I'm going to blow something expensive halfway down the block. I'm constantly second-guessing myself, even after one of the instructors has given their blessing."

"I think I see where the issue is" Bryan said, after a moment's thought.

"In veterinary work, an animal's life depends on what you decide to do. Mistakes can be lethal, just as in human medicine.

"I think you're trying to apply your veterinary instincts to electronics work. It's good you're being cautious, but there is such a thing as being too cautious and it's holding you back.

"Don't worry if your probe slips, or you hook up something backwards! There isn't a techie alive who hasn't made a destructive error, usually more than one."

"Putting it more simply" said John, "there are exactly two kinds of techs in the world: Those who have blown something up and those who will blow something up. It's as unavoidable as breathing. Bryan and I have had it happen plenty of times. Doesn't matter if you have three days or three decades of experience. You never get completely immune."

"What's important" Bryan continued, "is what you learn from the experience. Electronics aren't alive, advances in AI notwithstanding–"

"Artificial Insemination?" piped up John, with a grin. He ducked, laughing, as Bryan chucked an oversize Nerf brick at him. The brick overshot and bounced off Kenya's rump where the caracal was stretched out on his shelf, star-gazing.

Apparently used to such shenanigans, the cat's only reaction was to give all three humans a look he normally reserved for small, annoying prey.

"See what you've done?" Bryan said, disgustedly. "Go apologize to the nice caracal."

"You threw the brick!"

"Yes, and you had the unmitigated gall to duck, knowing full well Kenya was right behind you. Now go apologize, before he decides your leg would make a good scratching post."

John rolled his eyes skyward and turned his chair around to face the ruffled cat. "Sorry, bud" he said, softly, smoothing the fur where the brick had struck. Then, in a loud whisper, he said "Bryan made me do it!"

Yellow-green eyes held John's for a moment. Then the cat gave a disgusted-sounding chuff, got up and stretched. Sam raised an eyebrow at the sound of vertebrae popping softly into place.

Seconds later, both his eyebrows shot skyward as Kenya leaped down from the shelf, loped easily across the room – and settled right next to him on the beanbag chair, using the vet's side as a pillow. "Whoa" he whispered, as he ran a tentative hand along the cat's side. A deep purr filled the room.

"That's a first" John said, eyeing the scene with considerable surprise.

"You're not kidding" Bryan added, equally amazed. Sam looked up, his expression one big question mark.

"Kenya normally takes at least a week to warm up to anyone new, and at least two before he'll even consider sharing parking space with them" Bryan explained. "And he's taken to you after just four days?!"

Sam didn't reply right away. Kenya had tilted his head upward to meet the vet's gaze. Gorgeous eyes Sam thought. Just like Toothless–

He froze, a chill wending its way down his spine as the name associated itself with an image: A black reptilian face, finely scaled to the texture of soft leather, with piercing yellow-green eyes, floated up from the depths of his fragmented memory. It was quickly joined by another, identical except for storm-gray eyes in which rainbow flecks danced.

For the first time since he'd realized something was wrong, a name appeared to go with the face:


"Sam? Are you OK?"

He blinked, startled. The images vanished and he growled in frustration. Kenya tensed at the sound, eyeing him quizzically. A single word popped into Sam's head: Angry?

The frustration cooled immediately. "Not with you, Kenya... relax, it's nothing to do with you at all" he said, petting the caracal's silky fur. Reassured, the cat relaxed and started purring again.

"Sam?" Bryan repeated. "What's up?"

"Another memory fragment" the vet said, describing what he'd experienced. "Damn, I feel like I'm so close, and then it's gone again!"

The phone on John's desk beeped twice, then a soft female voice said "John? Are you available?"

"Sure am, Nancy" he called back. "What's up?"

"I've rebuilt the memory card you brought down" she said. Then her voice went very soft indeed. "I really think you'd better take a look at this..."

John frowned slightly, then said "On my way" and headed for the door, the words "Back in a few" floating in his wake.

Sam's pulse quickened. "Was that the memory card I gave you?"

Bryan nodded. "Nancy Chen is the best microelectronic forensics tech we've come across. Her initial report said it was just the interface circuits on the card which were fried. She was going to transfer the chip itself to a new interface so we could try reading it. Here."

He held out a steaming mug, smelling strongly of peppermint. Sam accepted the tea, gratefully. Even the aroma was enough to start calming the crop of butterflies which had, apparently, taken up residence somewhere near his spleen.

John was back a few minutes later, waving a small ESD shielding bag. His face was flushed with excitement.

"Jackpot!" he said as he dropped into his chair, pulled the bag open and slid the restored card into his computer's reader.

Bryan snorted. "Gee, try being more cryptic," he said, as he got up and came around to John's side of the workstation. He studied the screen for a moment, then continued. "You been sniffing Rubber Re-Nu again? How is a bunch of what look like standard UNEC field photos a 'jackpot?' I mean, yeah, the wolf pups are cute, but–"

John grinned, smugly, and pressed another key. Bryan's eyes bugged, his jaw dropped, and his face went two shades paler. "Holy... Frelling... Cow!"

This was more than Sam could take. He extricated himself from the beanbag, much to Kenya's annoyance, and came over to join the other two. "What's so startling about wolf cu–"

The subject of the image was as far removed from wolves as fish were from birds. Sam blinked as he recognized himself, in his uniform jumpsuit, standing in front of his old aircar, right next to–

His own jaw followed Bryan's. Sitting to Sam's right was a lean, black reptilian shape, longer from nose to tail tip than he was tall, sporting rainbow-flecked gray eyes. She had one bat-like wing draped comfortably over Sam's shoulders, matching the arm he'd wrapped partway around her neck (and how he knew he was looking at a female was an utter mystery).

The shot looked like it had been taken from on top of a rise, as the tops of oddly-shaped buildings were visible in the background. Farther away, Sam thought he could make out the silvery gleam of ocean.

"What else is in there?" he asked, his voice barely above a whisper.

Obligingly, John paged through the other images. There were many of what Sam now recognized as a quaint-looking village, constructed along Old Norse lines. It was a good match for the people, all of whom were clad in rough leather and hand-woven cloth and had the demeanor of those who could survive nearly anything.

Some sported helmets with, of all things, horns mounted on them. Viking culture recreation he thought. Must be some outlying community...

Even as the thought drifted across his mind, he discarded it. How he knew it was wrong, he couldn't say, but every instinct he had screamed this was something entirely different.

His eyes flickered to the last thumbnail in the row, drawn by a flash of familiar color. "Bring that one up" he said, pointing.

John did so. The photo was of two much smaller reptilian shapes, one turquoise blue with a darker stripe of azure down its back, the other green with yellow highlights on its wings.

Both were, apparently, curled up in the back seat of his aircar, eyes bugging comically at the camera and tails entwined. "The blue one" he said, tapping the screen. "That's the same one I saw just a few days ago. I know it! He called himself 'Nalu–'"

He stopped, suddenly aware of what he'd said.

The reaction from Bryan and John, however, was anything but the laughter, derision, or questioning looks he expected. Instead, John asked, in a perfectly serious manner: "Was this verbal, or was it like a voice in your head?"

"Ah... a little of both, actually" Sam replied, startled at being taken seriously. "I heard him, in the same way you're hearing me right now, but all he did was chirp and squawk."

Encouraged by their apparent acceptance, he described the entire encounter; how he'd seemed to have gained an 'inner voice' telling him exactly what was wrong with whatever animal he was helping and concluding with his encounter with the eagle.

"Whoof" Bryan said, leaning back against one of the bookshelves. "That's a rare gift, Sam. Cherish it!"

Much to Sam's surprise, this was the last either of them said about it. They returned their attention to the photos. "Copied to–" Bryan said.

"–secure archive. Already done" John replied. He glanced up at Sam. "Want any prints?"

"Just the one of me with the black... dragon" he replied, the last word coming reluctantly.

Bryan nodded. "'Dragon' is correct" he said. "In fact, seeing these pictures raises some new questions for us."

"How so?" Sam asked.

"Well" Bryan replied, "the basics are something you're going to get soon enough, but I'll give you a head start."

He sat back down at his desk. Sam, taking the hint, picked up his tea and settled back on the beanbag chair. Kenya opened one eye, then sighed and went back to sleep.

"You don't always need direct information about something" Bryan continued, "to know it exists. For example, from what you've seen, you would be right in guessing John and I have spent a fair amount of time learning the ins and outs of exotic animals. It provides a nice counterbalance to tech work which, although fascinating and fun, can be pretty sterile."

"Personally, I keep racing pigeons" John added. "Bryan's the cat person."

"Granted" Bryan said. "Though I still like just about any critter with feathers. Did some basic falconry a few years back.

"Anyway, about six years ago, we both noticed some odd things about a stretch of land in northern Norway. Have a look at this."

He punched some commands into his computer. A holographic map glowed to life in the center of the room. An irregular red line lit up, surrounding a large island a few kilometers due north of Bangsund. A tiny thread of highway, marked RESTRICTED, linked the island's northwestern edge with the mainland north of Namsos. Sam recognized it immediately.

"Hard to pick a more isolated spot outside of the antarctic" he said. "That parcel doesn't even have an informal name. It's in the UNEC catalog as FWA-7G3. Fallow wilderness area, fully protected, no human presence including UNEC Rangers in or out except under specific authorization from the Norwegian government. It's their land, and they take care of it. Nothing there except plants and small critters. I could name you at least four other spots in different countries, all with the same status."

"So says the official story" Bryan said, with a sly smile. He keyed in more commands.

The map zoomed out and bright yellow spots appeared over the city of Trondheim and the town of Namsos, closest to the island. Population and other data appeared in columns next to them.

"What you're seeing is a summary of publicly-available data, mostly from the World Almanac Online with supplements from the NSA World Fact Book" Bryan said. "The population of Trondheim is around 200,000. Namsos is much smaller, with 13,000 as of the last census two years ago."

A pair of color graphs appeared. "These show the total Internet traffic for a ten-day period through the regional network hubs serving each spot. Notice anything unusual?"

Sam leaned forward and eyed the numbers. He'd learned enough over the past few days to spot the anomaly right away.

"If I'm reading this right" he said, frowning slightly, "Namsos had seventy-four percent of Trondheim's network traffic volume in the same period?!" He glanced at the other two for confirmation.

John nodded. "Awful lot of bandwidth for a small population, wouldn't you say? And forty-two percent of that traffic was encrypted with military-grade ciphers."

"Which, in turn, has led us to believe there's more to that part of the world than meets the eye" Bryan finished. "Google Earth won't get lower than ten miles altitude, and none of the geo-survey services give out anything of higher resolution either. They claim 'international agreements' keep them out. It all adds up to 'Strike One,' as it were."

More keys clicked. Another overlay lit up, covering the island itself. White fuzzy spots of varying sizes appeared all over it.

"Do you know who AMSAT is?" Bryan asked.

Sam nodded. "Jarod mentioned them. They're the group who puts up amateur radio satellites?"

Bryan nodded. "Four years ago, AMSAT-VK, their Australian branch, launched VO-70. It was the first amateur-built bird to carry infrared cameras. The idea was to do studies of ocean warming and compare the results with those from commercial weather satellites.

"Those white blots are heat blooms from live bodies. I know your first reaction is going to be to write them off as local wildlife, and some of them probably are. But take a look at how that group in the upper right corner is positioned before you make a conclusion."

Sam did so. His eyes suddenly widened. "That's an awful lot of hot-spots in a small area" he mused. "Can you time-lapse it?"

Bryan did so. The heat clusters moved significantly, but all within the same general area and in astonishingly straight and smooth patterns. "That could well be human presence" Sam said, softly. "Lots of it!"

"In an area which, supposedly, is protected wilderness" John said. "AMSAT, thinking they'd uncovered an illegal settlement within the preserve, dutifully turned the data over to the Norwegian government. Said government thanked them for their diligence and ingenuity and said they would 'investigate promptly.'

"Two days later, the cameras on VO-70 stopped working. No indication of what happened. The comm transponders still worked, so AMSAT simply wrote it off as equipment failure and got on with their lives. No way to tell what really happened short of physically retrieving the bird and going over it with a fine-tooth comb."

The map blinked out. "I get the feeling you don't believe the 'failure' angle" Sam said.

"Oh, we believe the failure was real" John replied. "It's the cause we're questioning. The end result is the same: Strike Two."

A 3D video clip blossomed to life, one of a cloudy gray sky with the overcast just starting to break. Suddenly, across a tiny gap between the clouds, a red-and-tan winged shape sailed by, out of focus and indistinct. Sam's first thought was of a large bedraggled bird.

"This clip was taken by a tourist on the passenger ferry in Stjordal, in late July of this year, using their phone's camera" Bryan explained. "They posted it to Flickr, Photobucket, and a couple of birdwatching sites asking for an ID.

"The kicker, as I'm sure you've realized, is there aren't any birds of this apparent size, with red plumage, in any part of the world.

"There was lots of buzz and speculation all over the 'net for quite a while. Someone finally got tired of all the wild guesses – which, by the way, ranged from an oversized heron to an extraterrestrial bat – and submitted the footage to the Norwegian wildlife people. Their response was... interesting, to say the least."

Keys clicked. A newspaper clipping from the English translation of 'Bellona' appeared next to the image. The story said the Norwegian government had declared the picture an elaborate hoax or publicity stunt, along the lines of the allegedly 'authentic' photos of the Loch Ness monster.

Sam was not convinced. "If you're showing me this, you must have a different opinion" he said.

"You could say that" John replied. "Watch what happens when we run the footage through Forevid. It's an open-source video forensics package."

The footage restarted, advanced to where the winged shape was clearest and freeze-framed. The image shimmered, zoomed in, refocused and broke into a series of tiny squares before finally resettling into–

Sam gasped. Enormous leathery wings supported the creature, their ribs visible as gracefully curving shadows through the translucent scarlet membrane. The legs were dark red, with formidable claws sprouting from four-toed feet in a three-forward/one-back configuration similar to birds-of-prey. The tail was long and thin, well equipped with what looked very much like spines.

Once again, Sam felt an odd prickle of Deja vu. "Strike Three" he murmured.

"Exactly" Bryan said. "And there have been numerous other aerial sightings in the same parts of the world, all within a hundred miles of these 'fallow' areas. Far more than can be accounted for by the stock UFO stories.

"Taken as single events, these pieces are just random noise. Take them together... well, I'm sure you can see the same pattern we did."

Sam nodded, then yawned suddenly as the combination of fatigue and high-quality mint tea did its work. He got up carefully, trying not to disturb Kenya, bid John and Bryan good night and made his way to his assigned room.

He drifted off to sleep easily enough, though his thoughts were very much on FWA-7G3 and how he might wangle clearance for a low-altitude flyover.

The new information gave Sam a renewed sense of purpose. He threw himself into his studies vigorously enough to draw surprised approval from his coaches and startled looks from the other students. He learned more than he ever thought possible in the time available, including a deep understanding of what Jarod had termed 'gray areas.'

As he'd said, none of it was outright illegal – just unusual for a typical person to be interested in. His confidence grew almost as rapidly as his paranoia. He found it ironically amusing to be learning tricks of the intelligence field which would have shocked him to his core a month ago.

What shocked him more was just how much personal data he'd been 'leaking' over the years, simply by doing little things he'd taken for granted: Using a 'member privilege' card when shopping for groceries, leaving his smartphone on, filling out the so-called 'warranty registration' cards for equipment he'd bought, using ATM cards, even participating in social networking sites.

Some of the coaches were as fascinating as the material they taught. One of his favorites was a stocky dark-haired lady of Scottish ancestry, Danielle McLean, barely a meter and a half tall. She taught (among other things) pattern recognition and computer forensics.

It wasn't until he'd seen her using a white cane that he realized she was blind; her manner in the classroom, the first time he'd met her, hadn't given him the slightest hint.

He found out later her blindness was not total. Though her center vision was gone, in the manner of a camera with an ink blot in the middle of its lens, her peripheral vision was very much intact. As a result, she tended to look at people sideways instead of straight on. It gave her an air of sly appeal which made her classes all the more interesting.

She'd started simply enough. "It's pretty much impossible these days to do without some kind of computer, or communications hookup, unless you plan on taking up residence with the Amish." The class had laughed at this, Sam included.

"This, however, is where it gets complicated" she continued, amusement lighting her hazel eyes. "Every time you access a computer, anywhere, for any purpose, you leave a trace. If that computer is networked to others, the trace can spread. If it's connected to the Internet, the trace can leak and spread halfway around the planet in less time than it takes me to finish this sentence."

She then proceeded to demonstrate, with the help of Duck-Duck-Go, Dogpile, Ixquick, Bing, and a few other search engines Sam had never heard of, just how much information she could pull up about several of the students.

They were all shocked when she was able to find things like their birth dates, shopping history, income level, likes, dislikes, and even a few Citizen ID numbers, all with a few keystrokes. Stunned silence reigned after she'd finished.

"Fortunately" she continued, with a wicked grin, "keeping yourself well protected is easy, if you keep just two things in mind: Always be aware of what information you're giving out, and who or what you're giving it to. Just asking yourself 'Does this feel right?' or 'Is this really necessary?' before you give up any personal info can save you a lot of grief."

Even more fascinating were her lectures on computing security and 'social' engineering.

"If you have physical access to any computer or network, no matter how secure it may be from the outside, and you have the right tools, you own it" she'd said. "A competent tech, under such conditions, can have the machine spilling its guts in minutes.

"Best of all, the vast majority of the software tools to do such things are freely available, while many of the better ones are very affordable. Why? Because network admins and computing security people use these same tools to test their own equipment!"

Someone had chipped in with a question about the morality of using – or misusing – such technological trickery. "You're right to be concerned" Danielle said. "You are responsible for your own actions.

"Perhaps the best way I can say it is: Technology is nothing more than a tool, and a neutral one at that. It can serve the forces of 'Good' or 'Evil' at the drop of a hat. It's completely up to whoever's doing the dropping and in what context.

"Remember: This is your information we're talking about! It came from you, it is specific or pertinent to you. Wouldn't you want to know, for example, what information a government agency might be keeping about you, outside of the normal things like income and tax records? FOIA requests can only take you so far."

There was a low rumble of agreement. "This is one area where you have to allow your conscience free reign" she said. "In general, don't go fishing at random; pay attention to collecting data pertinent to you or your life and leave the rest alone, no matter how intriguing or tempting it may look. This way, even if you get caught, you've got a pretty strong defense.

"In short, don't make the same mistakes Gary McKinnon did in the early part of the century."

"But if it's our information, or pertinent to us" another student asked, "why would we need to fight to get it? Why would we even need to resort to any means which may be illegal?"

"Because there will always be people or organizations looking to gain an advantage – power, if you will – over other people" Danielle replied. "Simple human nature, no one's immune. There will always be those who will grab at any advantage over others.

"Collecting personal data is a prime means of doing so. What you've chosen to learn here is nothing more than a form of self-defense against a world which will cheerfully eat you alive if you let it." She grinned. "Any more questions?"

There hadn't been.

Sam learned, practiced, learned more, practiced again. Like the others, he slowly accumulated his own customized tool pouch; a collection of small hardware, hand tools and USB drives. The latter contained, between them, enough diagnostic and maintenance software – all perfectly legal, free or purchased – to give any IT security specialist nightmares.

As he neared the end of his second week, he found himself looking back in astonishment at his own naivete. Certainly, UNEC was a valuable organization with a noble mission. However, it was no more immune to human foibles than any other bureaucracy.

It was all too clear to him now; the chain of events following his 'rescue'– award of a new ship barely into the 'deployment' phase, overly-quick disposal of his old craft, hustling him back into duty – had been little more than an effort to distract him from thinking about anything other than his normal work.

Then, almost before he knew it, 'graduation' was upon them. The informality of it astonished him; he received a certificate of completion, a hearty "well done!" from all his coaches, and an electric blue polo shirt with 'Tesla's Basement' embroidered in bright yellow above the breast pocket.

Far more valuable to him was the personal send-off he got from Bryan, John and Kenya as he was getting ready to catch his flight home.

"We've not been able to dig up anything more on the island" John said, as they were driving him to Moffett Field. "Which, honestly, comes as no surprise. If there really is something there, you're going to have to find it at your end."

"You can't just ask for flyover clearance" Bryan added. "Not without attracting attention you probably don't want. Had any more memory flashes?"

"A few" Sam replied. "I remember meeting at least four dragons, the two small ones and two of the black ones. I remember their names, except for the green, and I also feel like one of the black dragons is very important to me. Outside that..."

He shrugged helplessly. "What I can't understand is why keep such an amazing new species so secret! Transparency is one of UNEC's founding principles. How many species have been nearly wiped out over the last century because of misinformation? Sharks, just as one example."

They both glanced at him, their expressions confused. "Wiped out? Hardly" said John.

"Predator Preservation Act, 2053" Bryan added. "Among other things, it restricted divers to non-lethal shark repellants. Thanks to Keller and Swanson at Bell Labs, and their work in underwater sound propagation, it's easy enough to get a widget which keeps toothy scavengers at a comfortable distance."

Sam was startled. "I've never heard of them" he said. "Or the law you mentioned."

Bryan shrugged as he pulled the van into the drop-off lane. "You've been hit with so much over the past couple of weeks, I'm not surprised. Look it up later. Fascinating stuff, being able to focus sound in a tight beam! You've never heard of a SASER?"

Sam could only shake his head in bewilderment as he collected his bag.

Just before he pulled himself out of his seat, a large pair of golden-furred paws landed on his right shoulder. He turned to see Kenya peering at him intently. As the caracal held his gaze, two words popped into the vet's head: Hunt well!

He smiled, and reached up one hand to scratch between the cat's elegantly tufted ears. Kenya purred thunderously, eyes half shut. "Thanks" Sam said, softly. "I will."

"One more thing" Bryan said, as Sam climbed out. "Send Jarod our greetings, of course, but ask him to show you his fishing spot."

The vet thought this over. "I'm not much of a fisherman–" he began.

"Don't worry about that" John said. "Just get him to take you. Think of it as a post-vacation break. Trust us."

This produced a knowing grin from Sam. "You two are probably the only people I can trust right now" he said. "Thanks. Seriously. You've given me a lot to think about."

"Come back any time" Bryan called as he pulled away, one arm out the driver's window in a now-familiar gesture from an ancient (but classic) science-fiction series: The second and third fingers parted to form a 'V,' thumb extended to form a smaller 'V' with the forefinger.

Sam responded in kind, chuckling. "Peace and long life indeed" he said, as he went inside.

He spent half the flight back at one of the onboard computer terminals, researching the law Bryan had mentioned and catching up on news. What he found raised as many questions as it answered.

Yes, numerous shark species had become threatened or endangered, but legislation restricting indiscriminate hunting had been passed at least a decade earlier than he remembered. There was no record whatsoever of the near-extinction event involving Bluefins and Hammerheads in 2060.

There were other quirks as well, minor by themselves but forming a bizarre pattern Sam had no explanation for. As one example, he was stunned to find all the oceanariums he'd thought closed, or converted to research centers, still fully operational as tourist attractions.

Worse, he could find no mention of the Herman Institute's cetacean communication breakthrough he knew had happened in 2055. In fact, the Institute itself seemed to be in dire straits, going through all kinds of gyrations just to stay minimally funded.

Granted, no orcas were being kept in captivity, but the continued presence of dolphins in the aquatic circuses bothered him deeply. He made a mental note to look deeper into the issue later on, with the help of the UNEC Archives.

About the time he discovered the unexpected IUCN 'Least Concern' status of purple herons, a species his own memory told him should have been listed as 'Extinct in Wild,' fatigue caught up with him in a sudden rush. He shut down the terminal, found an open bunk, and stretched out. For once, his sleep was deep and dreamless.

The workweek was, if anything, quieter than normal, though Sam made deliberate efforts to exercise his newly-discovered talent for 'speaking' to animals. He found it worked best if he spoke what he wanted to say aloud, as if whatever animal he was working with could understand the actual words. Every so often, he'd 'hear' a reply; usually something simple like good or pain gone.

As his gift developed further, so did his skill in diagnoses and treatment. An unexpected backlash became apparent to him when many of his coworkers started grumbling about 'brown-nosing' and 'bucking for promotion,' despite Sam's protests of simply wanting to do a good job. He didn't dare mention his mental talent, though it bothered him to have people he'd previously gotten along with start pulling away.

Worse, he had never been one to make friends easily. With Gerry gone, and Dash attending some sort of 'Leadership Workshop' in Geneva, it was a lonely week. He was only too glad when Saturday rolled around, despite having to be in the air (at Jarod's insistence) at 05:00 local.

Chill pre-dawn light revealed a dense low overcast, the air heavy with humidity but without the sharp scent of rain. Sam was all too grateful to clamber into the warm cabin of Jarod's forest-green Volvo Helios, even if Jarod insisted on keeping the drive running and the craft hovering a few centimeters above the ground.

"What's your hurry?" Sam asked, as he closed the door and fastened his safety harness.

For answer, Jarod grinned and shoved a stubby throttle lever forward. Sam yelped as the Helios's drive system roared, sending the aircar hurtling skyward fast enough to all but bury him in the padding. Within seconds, they were enveloped by gray overcast, moisture trails streaking across the windows.

Ten seconds more and they burst into clear air. The rising sun painted the cloud layer below them with a hundred different shades of orange, peach, and pale gold shading to eye-searing white. The entire scene hung perfectly poised on the sky's canvas of bright blue.

Sam started to relax as the beauty of their surroundings wrapped him in a familiar and comforting feeling of isolation, despite the fact he wasn't piloting. "Wow..." was all he could manage.

Jarod chuckled, a wide grin splitting his features. "That's what happens when you replace the factory turbines with P&W SC-E sixties, add a high-density fuel cell and cargo-class TQ lifters. Flat-out, she'll almost match your VetMed ship for speed. The only thing stock about her is the interior and most of the avionics."

Sam nodded absently. His attention was flipping between the outside view and the navigation display. It showed them climbing to one of the long-distance traffic lanes at 4800 meters ASL on a northeasterly course, passing just north of the Isle of Man and over Alladale Heights. It didn't take them long to leave the clouds behind, as the craft sailed along above the blue-gray expanse of the North Sea.

"So where is it we're going?" Sam asked, more than a little puzzled. "Your car's not amphibious, is it?"

"Nope. Emergency flotation only. Don't need wet-running where we're going."

"Which is?" Sam prompted again.

Jarod took his time replying. "You already know I like to explore, especially remote areas. Last year, I found this neat little grotto, tucked away on an island just a bit northwest of Bekkjarvik. The island itself was declared a historic site by the Norwegian government some time ago, but they do allow limited visits. I'm not saying any more than that – you'll just have to settle for being surprised!"

He leaned forward and tapped a multicolored label, about three inches square, applied to the top center of the windshield. Thanks to his newly-minted tech skills, Sam was quick to notice the shadowy outline of an RFID chip embedded in the material.

"Norway National Parks season pass" Jarod said. "Runs only about a hundred Euros a year, and the proceeds all go toward maintaining the sites."

The Volvo leveled out and Jarod set the autopilot. "So – Tell me about your break! How did you like Tesla's Basement?"

It took Sam most of the flight to fill Jarod in. He laughed out loud when the vet described Kenya's antics. "I got to see him when he was still a half-grown kitten. Give him a laser pointer to chase and you'd get a couple of hours of free entertainment with very little effort. No guarantees on what the room would look like afterward, though!"

The navigation computer dinged, then announced: "Sixteen kilometers to destination – Bergen Center clearance received for normal approach at pilot's discretion. Assume manual control within thirty seconds."

Sunlight sparkled off gentle swells as Jarod brought the craft down to their approach altitude of two hundred meters. Sam watched the approaching island with considerable interest.

"I'll do a flyover before we set down" Jarod said. "It'll help you orient yourself, especially since we'll have to hike in from the landing site. It's about a half-kilometer or so."

Sam nodded, taking in the details. The island sported a natural horseshoe-shaped harbor, its coarse-sanded beach liberally decorated with driftwood and flecks of volcanic rock. A small dock, its boards bearing the distinctive honey color of waterproof Trex decking, poked out into the low surf. A switchback series of ramps, made of similar material, was secured to the cliff face.

"It's possible to sail here" Jarod said, as he flew slowly inland. "In fact, they still run tours from the mainland during peak season."

"Tours? Here?" the vet said, clearly surprised.

Jarod nodded. "Remember, Berk is a historical site. Apparently, this island and its former residents were a major hub for trade in the area a thousand or so years ago."

Shock coursed through Sam. He grabbed Jarod's arm and demanded "What did you just say?!"

Jarod looked startled as he guided the craft over the wooded part of the island. "Hey, take it easy! I said it was a historical site, maybe a trade hub–"

"No, before that!" Sam snapped. "The island's name!"

"Berk" Jarod replied, concern in his eyes. "Have you been here before?"

Sam suddenly realized what he was doing. He took a deep breath, let go of Jarod's arm, and settled back in his seat. "I... didn't think so. But it seems familiar. I have no idea why!"

He said nothing more as they touched down on a grassy rise lined with multiple landing markers. Jarod shut down the craft's systems and they both climbed out, collecting the fishing gear from the cargo compartment and dividing it between them.

Sam took a long, hard look at the rise, frowning to himself. Something's missing he thought. I could have sworn there was a house here...

This and other thoughts kept his mind occupied as he followed Jarod into the forest. The air was just starting to get warm, a gentle breeze carrying the scent of pine, Douglas fir, ferns, wildflowers and moss. Birds chittered and trilled all around them, darting crazily through the shafts of sunlight seeping through the canopy.

"We're almost there" Jarod said, after about ten minutes of steady hiking. "We turn left by that boulder up ahead, go down–"

"–the rise, climb down about four meters of rock wall" Sam continued, "and it opens out into one of the nicest grottoes you could ever hope for, miniature lake and all. Yes, I know!"

He surged ahead with absolute confidence, leaving Jarod momentarily open-mouthed. "Hey, how'd you know?" he called, racing to catch up. "I thought you said you'd never been here before?!"

Sam ignored him as he ran, flashes of memory starting to form coherent patterns for the first time since his 'accident.' He scrambled down the last set of rocks, nimble as a chimp, dropped to the ground, ducked between two low-lying boulders–

–and fell to his knees in shock, the fishing gear dropping from his limp hands.

He knew this place. Intimately!

The lake, the scent of the water mixed with grass and flowers, the moss-hung trees, the oddly-shaped boulders, even the purple heron standing serenely in the shallows, one eye catching his before closing in a slow wink as two words sounded softly in his mind.

Welcome back.

The mental wall he'd been battering at for so long crumbled and broke apart like so much wet sand. The flood of memories it released threatened to overwhelm him.

The archway. Getting pulled into the past. A Viking village, one he'd taken at first for a modern isolated community. Sick dragons and their human friends, torn apart because of something they had no knowledge of.

A hastily-improvised cure, once he learned the truth. The gratitude of an entire village. Thinking he was stranded in the past, then discovering the secret of the gateway. Ingrid, the village healer and wise-woman. Two scaly stowaways on his return trip.

And one particular Night Fury who had set him free to soar with her, his decades-old fear of heights melted away like leftover winter ice.


"You've been holding out on me!" Jarod complained, as he popped out from between the last two boulders. "When were you here–"

He broke off, alarmed by Sam's kneeling position and his very visible trembling. He stepped forward, dropping his own fishing gear to the ground, and knelt next to his friend. "Hey, are you OK?" he asked, one hand reaching out to grip the vet's shoulder.

Sam turned slowly to regard him, his eyes bright with unshed tears. "I'm fine" he said, in a confident tone Jarod had never heard him use before.

"Or I will be, soon enough." He reached up a hand to clasp Jarod's. "Yes, I have been here before – about twelve hundred years ago, to be exact. It looks very much the same. Thanks for bringing me."

Jarod was so surprised, his mind didn't even register the part about 'twelve hundred years.' "Your memory!" he said.

"Everything's back" Sam replied, as he let go and stood up. "Even the purple heron over there–"

He blinked. The bird was gone, not so much as a ripple disturbing the spot where it had been and no sound of wings to herald its departure. "What heron?" Jarod asked, puzzled.

Sam didn't answer right away. He walked over to the closest spot on the shore to the bird's former position and started poking around. "He was there a moment ago... Ah! Yes!"

He reached into the reeds and plucked out a single contour feather, snow-white with purple iridescence.

Laughter bubbled up from deep inside him, joyful and full-throated. He felt like he'd spent the last month wandering underground, trapped, with only occasional glimpses of the open sky before finally emerging into clear sunlight. Jarod just stood there, staring at him like he'd finally come unhinged.

Still chuckling, he brought the feather back to show his friend. Jarod studied it with considerable interest. "Never seen that shade of iridescence outside of a crow or pigeon" he said. "Certainly not on a heron, no matter the common name." He looked back up at the vet, puzzled.

"Come on" Sam said, clapping the tech on one shoulder. "Let's get the gear set up, and I'll tell you all about it."

The sun was high overhead by the time Sam finished. They hadn't caught so much as a minnow between them, but Jarod was too fascinated by the vet's tale to care.

Finally, he looked back up at Sam and sighed gustily. "Time travel. A Viking village. Sentient fire-breathing dragons." He shook his head slightly.

"If it weren't for the photos, and the fact you got through the course at Tesla's, I'd already have called in the division shrink!" He shook his head. "It fits, though. Crazy as it sounds, it's the only thing I've heard which ties all the weird crap from the last month together." He started reeling his line in, slowly. "So what's next?"

Sam smiled a little, as he cast his own line out again. "As much as UNEC Command would, apparently, like to keep this quiet" he said, slowly, "I can't pretend I still don't remember. No matter how hard I try, sooner or later, something's going to slip."

"So?" Jarod said, casting his own line back out. "You can't just go showing those pictures around and telling people about the two small – dragons? – you brought back either. You don't know if it's the time travel or the existence of dragons Command wants kept under wraps."

"Probably both" Sam replied. "Though I'm far less interested in the time travel aspect than the existence of dragons. As for the latter, I think it has to do with conclusive proof of a sentient, non-human species. The idea alone would scare a lot of people pretty badly, to say nothing of what it would do to the very foundations of most religions."

"The old 'God made us in His image' thing?" Jarod asked.

"Exactly," said Sam. "Though how anyone can believe such a powerful and creative entity would limit themselves to one image is beyond me, especially when the same belief system says the same entity created everything, and put a spark of themselves into that same 'everything.'

"The crazy part of this whole mess is, in the past, I remember, dolphins and whales have already been proven sentient! And yes, the discovery scared a lot of people and rocked the Catholic Church back on its collective knees. But they got over it! Everyone did. And it opened up a whole new series of ideas and questions no one had even thought of before."

Jarod's grip on his fishing rod went limp, and his eyes practically bugged out of his skull as he turned to stare at his friend. "They're sentient?!" He gasped. "As in self-aware?!"

Sam returned his gaze steadily. "Just as much as either of us" he said. "That's why I was so surprised to find oceanariums still running as tourist attractions.

"In the past I remember, Jarod, the proof came when the Lou Herman Memorial Institute developed a working synthetic language in 2055. They opened the first verbal communication ever with dolphins.

"No matter the first exchange was... well, a bit bawdy, to put it politely. The point is, they did it!

"Some pretty radical changes followed in the next twenty years. All the places holding captive dolphins or whales of any species were eventually required to offer them a choice: Release into the wild, or permanent residence at one of the protected open-water preserves, like the big one near Grassy Key in Florida, in exchange for advancing the research. Only about a quarter of the dolphins chose wild release, but the changes still spelled the end of cetaceans as a tourist attraction.

"Next came renewed interest in space exploration. Or maybe 'renewed' is too soft a word. Interest ramped up so fast, the schools were having trouble turning out engineering and life sciences graduates fast enough."

He grinned. "First Contact had already been made right here at home. All of a sudden, an awful lot of people were interested in trying for Second."

For a long time after Sam finished, the only sounds in the hollow were lapping water, wind, and birdsong. Finally, Jarod spoke again.

"I always suspected" he said, softly, staring out over the lake. "Ever since Bryan and John introduced me to some of the dolphins at a nature preserve in Mexico. The first time I touched one, the first time one looked me straight in the eyes, I couldn't shake the feeling there was a lot more there than anyone had ever imagined..."

Suddenly, he looked back at Sam, his gaze puzzled. "Wait... You said 'in the past you remember...?"

Sam nodded. "Things are different from what I remember before I got sucked through that portal" he said. "If it was just little things like, say, the Golden Gate Bridge painted blue or the Sphinx having an intact nose, I wouldn't even break a sweat about it.

"Instead, I find major differences." He explained about the other anomalies he'd learned of.

"The only connection they all share is my presence in the past. I don't know what I changed, Jarod, or how, but my little jaunt obviously had some unpleasant side effects. It's my responsibility – Frell, it's my duty – as a Ranger to do my best to fix it!"

Jarod laughed. Sam thought it sounded a bit forced. "In short, you need to change the world. Hey, no problem! First thing to do is visit the Herman Institute, give them all the funds they need for a new supercomputer, and point them in the right direction. They'll be so grateful for the donation, they won't even ask who you are!"

"Your sarcasm is touching" Sam growled, with a glare which would have curdled milk. He waited for the tech's hilarity to die down, then continued.

"My first step will be to lay low, pretend this was just a weekend getaway. Thanks to Nalu finding me, after I treated that eagle, I know he and Niho are still Out There.

"I'm also fairly certain the call I heard the same evening was a Night Fury. Coupled with what I learned from Bryan and John, it points to at least a couple of dragon species still living to this day. I'm going to find them, no matter what it takes!"

Jarod eyed him uncertainly, startled by his sudden vehemence. "Sam, are you sure about this? You've got your memory back. Isn't that enough without rocking the proverbial boat?"

"Where's Gerry Hoshino?" Sam countered. "And do I just let whoever screwed with my head get away with it?"

The reel buzzed like an angry hornet as the vet pulled his line back in. He cast it back out hard enough to draw a whistle from the rod's tip. When he spoke again, his voice was tight with barely-controlled rage.

"They tried to take away part of my life, Jarod! We are, as a species, the product of what our memories and experiences teach us. There's already been more than ample proof of the saying 'Those who fail to learn from History are doomed to repeat it.' Take away memory, and you're stuck repeating old mistakes. No one has the right to do such a thing to someone else!"

"Even when doing so stops harm to others?" Jarod shot back. "Don't tell me you forgot that psycho arsonist, back in 2081?"

Sam's gaze wandered out over the lake, his expression bleak. "The 'Fireman' they called him. A sick joke, considering how much damage he did before they finally caught him."

He sighed, then looked back at Jarod. "But my point holds. Some combination of factors made him into what he was, prompted him to act as he did. How can we be certain some part of our culture was not to blame?"

His companion had no ready answer. Encouraged, Sam forged ahead.

"A topic for another time" he said, firmly. "It's not just the question of an illegal memory wipe. UNEC's Charter calls for transparency and disclosure about every living species discovered. It has to be that way! How can anyone safely visit a wilderness area without knowing what they might encounter or whether it's dangerous? How can anyone respect another creature's habitat if they don't even know the creature exists?!

"Given this, UNEC Command has violated its own Charter by not making it clear dragons exist. As a commissioned officer of UNEC, I swore an oath to uphold and defend that same Charter against, and I quote, 'All enemies, foreign and domestic.' Seems to me 'All' means 'All,' even if the enemy is UNEC itself."

Jarod was a lot of things. 'Slow' was not among them. His eyes bugged as he realized what his friend had in mind.

"Sam, you can't! Not with a few photos and circumstantial evidence. No court in the world would back you with so little to go on!"

"You're absolutely right" Sam agreed. "Which is why I need to find the real record of my debriefing. Next, I need to find a way into FWA-7G3, permission or not, and see if I can convince one or more of our scaly friends to show themselves."

Jarod froze in mid-cast, staring at Sam as though he'd suddenly grown wings. Then he burst out laughing.

"Sure, Sam, sure" he gasped, around his merriment. "Just fly your ship on in and set down in the middle of the island. Ignore the fighter craft from the Norwegian military, they're just window dressing. And never mind how you'll get taken apart by Dash, if he doesn't throw you out of the service on your ear. It's all worth it!"

He rolled his eyes skyward and finished his interrupted cast. Sam stared at him, suddenly conscious of one glaring fact. He doesn't get it. For all his smarts and skills, he doesn't understand why I have to do this.

The tech's next words confirmed it. "I know you well enough to see you're going to bull on ahead. I said I'd help you get your memory back, and that's what I've done."

Sam's guts clenched for a moment. "So what, exactly, are you saying?"

Jarod didn't meet his gaze. "I'm saying my part in this mess is over. The rest is up to you. I value my pension too much!"

The vet considered this, fighting down the impulse to lash out. Though his voice trembled a little, his next words were steady. "UNEC lied to you as well" he said. "They faked the damage to my old ship–"

"–And found a record of the deep metallurgical scan I'd run later on" the tech replied. When he finally looked over at Sam, the vet was startled to see real fear in his eyes. "Yes, I got grilled about it. No, it wasn't routine. No, I didn't mention anything about our dinner meeting or my findings."

His gaze turned pleading. "Sam... Whatever we've stepped into, it's deep! I found a keylogger plugged into my workstation the day after I was questioned. If Command is pulling stunts like that, and going as far as dorking with your memory, there's no telling what they might try next.

"I value you as a friend, so I'll give you one last bit of advice: My transfer request for Yorkshire Regional HQ was accepted last Monday, and I report there this coming Monday. My sister lives in the area, so I had a good solid excuse.

"For your sake, I strongly suggest you content yourself with your restored memory and do your own transfer, preferably to another continent! We can get together in a couple of years, after all this has blown over, and swap stories."

The news startled Sam. "Why regional? If they're already suspicious of you, they'll – Oh!" His expression suddenly registered understanding.

Jarod nodded. "Hide in plain sight. Works every time."

Sam considered this. His mind went through a crazy whirl of options, even to the point of thinking about what posts might be open in California.

Cool, clear purpose suddenly settled around him like a comfortable cloak. Jarod saw the change in his eyes, and turned away. "I was afraid of that" he said, his voice barely above a whisper. "Sam, for the record: I think you're bonkers. Period."

The vet laughed. "Have to be, in this line of work" he replied, as he started reeling in his line again. "Are we done here?"

Jarod nodded. "In more ways than one. But I'll still treat you to lunch."

A few minutes later, the grotto was, once again, deserted.

Continue Reading Next Chapter

About Us

Inkitt is the world’s first reader-powered book publisher, offering an online community for talented authors and book lovers. Write captivating stories, read enchanting novels, and we’ll publish the books you love the most based on crowd wisdom.