The Dragonwing Effect

Chapter 13

"First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win."

Mahatma Ghandi


The Sunday morning sky was a sullen dark gray as Sam set his ship down on the transient parking apron. A blast of cold wind hit him as he climbed down the boarding ladder, heralding the incoming storm. He winced and pulled the hood of his jacket firmly into place.

Be raining before noon he thought, as he slung a well-worn day pack over his shoulder and hurried towards the nearest personnel door.

What was once known as Wheldrake Base had started as a small add-on to the Yorkshire Air Museum. Over time, it had grown tremendously; Besides housing a Ranger force large enough to handle eight wildlife preserves, its centralized location and proximity to larger cities had made it the obvious choice to house UNEC's regional data center and archives.

Another of Danielle's lectures drifted through Sam's mind, as he showed his ID to the guard at the reception desk and walked to the bank of elevators: Exhaust all possible sources of publicly-available information before you go digging any deeper. You may just get lucky and find what you're after without ever having to bend any rules.

Well, he'd exhausted those sources, and more, starting with the WAC and Sectional aeronautical charts for much of Norway. Given what he'd already learned, it had come as no surprise to find a large section of restricted airspace (labeled MOA – Military Operations Area) covering FWA-7G3.

What had surprised him was the degree of the restrictions. Most MOA's, which were not over areas critical to national security, required only a routine radio contact with the appropriate authorities.

With 7G3, all flights, no matter if they were civilian, routine military or law enforcement, were required to maintain a minimum altitude of 3,050 meters AGL within the zone. Even then, there was a very explicit requirement for prior clearance from the RNAF base at Ørland for any type of flyover, a requirement which called for 24-hour advance notice.

Entering or landing within the area, outside of a life-threatening emergency or special clearance, was strictly forbidden and would draw a prompt military response.

It was painfully obvious that any attempt to enter the area by stealth was a lost cause. Even if he could disable the telemetry and transponder on his ship or personal car, without raising all kinds of uncomfortable questions, radar invisibility was not among their capabilities.

Part of what he planned to do today was see if there were other options available. Code Eight status ("Self-guided, Command-approved research and training, vehicle use authorized, subject to emergency recall") was ideal for such purposes.

The elevator's chime broke into his thoughts as its doors slid open. Sam sighed and stepped in, scratching idly at his newly-shaved chin. He had, with some regret, shed his goatee earlier that week, and darkened his hair color. To any who didn't know him well, his current appearance would add a layer of anonymity essential for what he had in mind.

A few minutes of maglev shuttle travel and another short elevator ride put him in the lobby of the Archive and Library complex. The high-ceilinged room, with its warm-toned wood paneling, granite floor and enormous chandelier, never failed to carry a faint musty scent of paper.

Sam smiled slightly as he walked towards the reception desk, his footsteps echoing in the cavernous space. Even with the advances in computer storage and electronic books, the printed page still held an allure which all the flashy technology in the world had yet to match!

The desk attendant, a skinny dark-haired youth in the dove-gray uniform of Information Technology Services, barely glanced up from his E-book reader when Sam showed his ID and asked for the use of a private workstation. "Take any open spot you want" he said, jerking a thumb towards the short stairway to the reading room. "You're the only other one here today."

Sam swallowed a burst of annoyance – he'd been hoping for solitude – thanked the youth, and made his way through the first set of doors and up the steps. He froze just inside the second pair of doors, startled by his first sight of a facility at dramatic odds with what he'd imagined.

To his left, floor-to-ceiling windows ran the entire length of the hundred-meter long room, providing a breathtaking view of the entire complex and the surrounding country. The colors visible through the glass were slightly muted, a characteristic of the variable-density tint the windows were coated with. Depending on the pulses fed into each window's electrodes, it could go from practically invisible to dark enough for arc welding.

On his right, row upon row of book and optical media shelves stood as tall as he was. He knew the shelves went on for three floors up and two more down, all sharing a common support structure. In the space between the windows and the shelves, neat rows of high-walled work cubicles alternated with couches, open study tables, and even a few beanbag chairs.

The whole room was done in peaceful shades of blue and green, with gray trim here and there. Part of the back wall sported a series of dumbwaiters, through which material on the lower floors could be supplied to the reading or conference rooms as needed, and there was a station for a pair of reference librarians (currently empty) in the far corner.

The only sounds were the rush of air conditioning and the soft clicking of keys from one of the cubicles. Sam could just make out a pair of blue-uniformed legs, sticking out to the rear of the cubie's chair.

I could get used to this he thought, as he moved to a vacant cubicle. The other Ranger didn't even stir, keys clicking away at a steady pace.

Probably under headphones Sam thought, as he sat down and brought the cube's workstation to life. Moments later, he was logged on and searching the crash report files.

It didn't take long to find what he was after. He smiled grimly as he skimmed the 'official' report and its finding of no-fault on his own part, then slowed down as the log dumps from his old ship's 'Black Box' started scrolling across the screen.

Everything looked fine until he got to the point just after the eclipse had gone total and the smuggler's rifle had triggered the portal. The logs promptly degenerated into some of the most intricate truth-twisting and outright fabrication Sam had ever come across.

Here, for example, was an entry which showed his old craft on the receiving end of a huge energy strike, characteristic of a plasma charge. However, the numbers for his comm equipment showed perfectly normal right up until the recorder claimed a multi-G impact.

Any plasma bolt that strong would have taken out every comm system onboard he mused. Considering the entire structure of the flight recorder is designed to prevent tampering, it would have taken a master's touch to accomplish this kind of alteration and still make it pass muster. I wonder how deep this rabbit hole really goes?

His watch beeped. He glanced at it, swore softly, and requested a permanent copy of everything he'd just read. A couple of minutes later, the disk writer built into the table spat out an eight-centimeter optical disk and a matching jewel case for it.

He snatched them both up, stuck the disk in the case and shoved it into a pocket, then logged out and headed for the men's room. The other Ranger was still typing away, utterly oblivious.

Although every instinct screamed at him to run, he deliberately held his pace. Short of a base-wide emergency, running might attract attention he really didn't care for. Besides he thought, as he entered the restroom and ducked into one of the stalls, they'll have enough to worry about in just a few more minutes!

He grinned wickedly as he changed. Off came the jacket, revealing an IT Services shirt identical to the one the desk attendant had been wearing, except for the addition of blue supervisor's stripes circling the sleeves. He stuffed the jacket into the pack and pulled out several other items.

Ranger-blue Xenylon was quickly exchanged for faded denim jeans, while black Velcro-closure work shoes replaced boots. IT Services, being on the civil-service side of UNEC, was not subject to anywhere near as strict a dress code as commissioned officers, and Sam meant to take full advantage of it.

A pair of faux prescription glasses, aviator-style, completed the ensemble. Sam unlocked the stall door, stepped out, and checked himself in the mirror. Not bad at all he thought, tilting his head slightly from one side to the other. Good thing I don't have to keep this look, or I'd have to get a new ID photo!

Seconds later, with his bag and boots tucked into the dark recesses of a supply closet, he was in the stairwell and heading down. A rumble of thunder filtered through as he passed the ground level exit.

Outstanding! he thought, as a flicker of lightning dotted the clouds. They'll be inclined to blame the storm...

He slipped quietly through the door at sub-level two, and glanced out into the corridor. It was utterly deserted, dimly lit, and filled with the steady hum and whoosh of machinery. The air felt warm, and more than a little muggy.

Down the hall to his left, about ten meters away, was his goal: A sparsely-windowed room, thirty meters square, with an assortment of conduits and ducts varying from finger-size to meter-plus running from its far wall into the building's labyrinthine interior.

He glanced again at his watch, and felt his stomach tighten with anticipation. He was about to find out just how well he'd learned what Tesla's Basement had to teach. Ten seconds...

Ten became five. Five went to zero.

Nothing.

Motors hummed, fans pushed air around, relays clicked, compressors purred. All was, apparently, right with the HVAC world. A minute crept by, agonizingly slow to Sam's adrenaline-charged time sense, then another.

"Frell!" he snapped, the sound lost in the mechanically-noisy atmosphere. Four-plus hours of work, wasted! Essence only knows what really–

The lights went out. Seconds later, the battery-powered 'EXIT' lights and safety floods sprang to life. Klaxons blared a warning, causing Sam to jump nearly a half-meter, and a recorded voice echoed over the annunciator speakers: "INERGEN RELEASE, SUB-LEVEL TWO. ALL PERSONNEL, CLEAR THE AREA. INERGEN RELEASE, SUB-LEVEL TWO. ALL PERSONNEL..."

A sense of giddy triumph surged through him as the sound of multiple footsteps hurried towards the stairwell door. He took a deep breath and stepped out into plain sight, waving authoritatively at the exit and using his best 'command' voice:

"Let's go! Everyone out... yes, that's it, straight up to level one, out the nearest exit... no, no idea what happened... Hey! What's more important, your lunch or your life?! Get moving!"

He waited ten seconds after the last of the techs had gone, then pulled the stairwell door shut and dashed towards the server room. Its only door, normally protected by a retinal scanner, had automatically unlocked in response to the fire alarm trigger. He pulled it open and yelled "Anyone else in here? Fire alert! Let's go, everyone out!"

Buzzers and the flicker of strobe lights were the only response. Sam grinned fiercely, charged inside, and closed every window blind he could get to.

It took only a few moments to find the rack and server he was looking for. He muttered a prayer as he slipped the USB drive into place: "Saint Vidicon of Cathode, do your stuff...!"

The jump-drive's access light blinked uncertainly a couple of times, then settled down to a steady pulsing. On the front of the rack, the access lights on the SSD RAID banks went wild, as the search-and-retrieve script Sam had labored so diligently over did its work.

As he waited for the drive to fill, his mind flashed back to something John had told him during their nightly get-together at Tesla's Basement:

"System admins are as fundamentally lazy as anyone else, Sam. Do you have any idea how many of them simply walk away, leaving a server logged in with an administrator-level account, especially if they're in a supposedly secure data center?"

Such certainly seemed to be the case here, judging from the amount of activity his toy was kicking up. His only other means of getting to the server's guts would have been to shut it down, connect a data-forensics USB stick, and power up again.

While possibly a little faster, such tactics would have required far more involved preparations, such as waiting for a normal maintenance window when the system in question would already be shut down.

However, such events were as tightly orchestrated as a performance of the Nutcracker. Short of actually transferring to IT, a move which would have raised far too many questioning eyebrows in any case, Sam's chances of being alone with the system long enough to get what he wanted would have been nearly nil.

The klaxon suddenly cut off in mid-blare. A series of loud metallic clangs and clunks echoed outside the server room, followed by a roar not unlike that of an old Hercules C-130 as the emergency ventilation fans whirled into action.

Purge cycle Sam thought, eyeing the jump-drive nervously. Its access light was still flashing red. I've got maybe three more minutes...

He didn't get that lucky. Forty seconds later, the fans shut down and their louvers closed. The lights blinked back to normal and the annunciator sounded again: "CLEAR, SUB-LEVEL TWO. ALL PERSONNEL, RETURN TO YOUR STATIONS. CLEAR, SUB-LEVEL TWO. ALL PERSONNEL..."

"Bloody hell!" Sam muttered. He crouched lower behind the rack, his gaze flicking rapidly between the door and his USB drive. His hands felt damp, and his guts churned. Footsteps clanked on the walkway outside, coming closer by the second. Saint Vidicon, it's now or never...!

The door's retinal scanner hummed, followed by the buzz of the lock. Sam jumped to his feet, placing his body between the back of the server and the doorway. One hand moved deftly around the drive, pulled it free, and dropped it into his pocket just as the door was pushed open.

Five people entered. Two made a beeline for their workstations with the single-mindedness only programmers could muster, while the other three gathered just inside the door.

"–years of work, you'd think they could come up with a false-proof alarm" announced a male voice in an Aussie accent. A moment later, the same voice rose in unmistakable annoyance. "And who closed the fecking blinds?! Fergie!"

The owner of the voice, a stocky fellow with sandy brown hair just starting to go gray around the edges, was wearing a supervisor's shirt identical to Sam's. He turned to glower at one of the younger techs, a pimply red-headed youth as thin as a rail, with the most prominent adam's apple Sam had ever seen. It bobbed like a superball as the teen replied.

"It wasn't me, Colin" he announced, in a tenor that all but squeaked. "I was right on Janet's heels when we left!"

"You can say that again!" Declared the only female in the group, a brunette as tall as Sam, with a scattering of freckles. She planted both fists firmly on her hips as she eyed the unfortunate Fergie, her gray eyes flashing. "All but ran me down, so 'e did!" She complained, in a rich Cockney accent. Suddenly, her gaze settled on Sam. "'Ello, ello'" she continued. "And who 'ave we 'ere? Didn't you 'ear the alarm, mate?"

All five of the techs were now eyeing the vet, question marks practically popping out of their heads. For a few frantic seconds, Sam found himself unable to think, speak, or move.

Sudden calm descended on him like a comfortable cloak. He relaxed, and stepped clear of the rack.

"Of course I did" he said, altering his voice slightly. He stepped boldly forward, and extended his right hand to the supervisor. The man took it, a little uncertainly, though his grip was firm. "I also heard the all-clear. Colin, is it? Sam Walsh, out of the London depot. I was just on my way out when the alarm went off.

"We've had problems in our own data center with bad smoke sensors giving false positives, so I thought I'd check the ones in your subfloor while I was here. I was just about to start when you got back."

He nodded towards the bank of racks he'd been behind. "Now you're back, with your crew, I can leave the details to you. Best of the day to you." He gave what he hoped was his best 'charmer' smile and moved towards the door.

"Just a moment... Sam?" Colin said. Sam stopped, tried hard not to sweat, then turned calmly around. "I don't know what kind of setup you've got in London" Colin continued, "but there's quite a few sensors in and around this room. Think you could lend us a hand, seeing as how you were going to start checking them anyway?"

Sam was so relieved, he nearly fainted on the spot. "Wish I could" he said, pulling open the door. "But I'm running late getting back as it is. Top of the day to you!"

Colin stared at the door, frowning, for several seconds after it had snapped closed. "Dennis" he called to one of the programmers, without moving an inch, "break out the smoke sensor test kits. You and Janet start with the outer units, then work your way in here. Fergie, you and Simon check the servers in racks 4A through 4E, make sure there's nothing dodgy going on."

Fergie and the others raced off as though they'd been hit with cattle prods. Simon, who had been around the IT world nearly as long as Colin, hesitated a moment, then said softly: "Your spidey-sense bugging you, boss?"

For answer, Colin stepped over to a wall phone, scooped up the handset, and dialed four digits.

"If you have to ask" he replied, a humorless smile twitching his lips, "I think you know the answer–Hello, Ben? Colin here... no, everything looks fine on the hardware side, but we may have a situation. Would you check the access log for our door for the last hour, please? Yes, I'll hold..."


Sam started running as soon as he was in the stairwell and out of immediate sight. He'd have to have been dead to miss the body language radiating off the IT supervisor... Kevin? No, Colin. That was it.

Not that it matters now he thought, as he reached the ground level and started up the next flight. His breath was starting to come in gasps; No matter the risk, he'd have to take a moment to rest if he expected to clear out without arousing any more suspicion than he already had.

If I've got five minutes, it'll be a miracle!

He stopped at the second floor, panting. I really need to work out more he thought, disgustedly. Time was I could do six flights without breaking a sweat...

The door to the main library reading room, one floor above, opened with a metallic bang. The sound of heavy boots descending the stairs echoed off the hard concrete walls, seconds before a face as black as midnight looked over the railing from above, spotted Sam and bellowed: "Security! Put your hands on your head, step slowly away from the rail, then hold still!"

The demand was promptly backed up by the muzzle of the guard's Glock.

Dammitall! Thought Sam, as he followed the instructions and stood motionless in the middle of the landing. He tilted his eyes down, measuring the distance to the first floor and emergency exit, wondering if he could jump the rail...

The exit door banged open and a second guard stepped through, a burly blond with his Glock drawn and leveled. "Kano, you good?" He called, in a classic Texan drawl.

The first guard grinned widely, his teeth blazing white against his face. "More than good, mtani" he replied. Sam thought his accent was either Tanzanian or Kenyan. "I think we have caught ourselves a nice tapeli today!"

The two converged on him. Sam was smart enough to know when his options were exhausted; one guard, he might have been able to bamboozle. With two, he'd be stunned – or worse – before he could so much as twitch. He grunted in frustration. So damn close!

A series of muted thunking sounds emerged from near the third-floor door. Sam glanced up, along with the guards, and caught a glimpse of multicolored streaks bouncing every which way. One streak ricocheted off the metal rail with a muffled bong like an asthmatic church bell, caromed off the wall farther down the stairwell with another solid-sounding thunk–

–and connected solidly with the Texan guard's nose. He yelped in surprise, and staggered back, one hand across his face. The first guard, by now recovered from his own surprise, swung around and aimed his weapon back through the access door. Sam heard a soft puffing noise, like a soda bottle being opened.

His jaw dropped as the first guard collapsed. An instant later, the blue glare of a stun charge zipped upward past his head. It expended itself against the third floor door frame in a series of buzzing, snapping arcs like a Jacobs Ladder gone insane.

From below, the second guard was all but shouting into his radio: "–Code five, officer down, west stairwell, main archives, shots fired. Get us some backup, dammit...!"

A shadowy shape appeared in the third floor doorway. All Sam could see was a dark, hooded silhouette. "Move it, mister!" A voice yelled. It sounded familiar.

The vet was not inclined to argue. He moved, pounding up the rest of the stairs with newfound energy. Behind him, the guard yelled at both of them to stop. He emphasized the demand with another stun charge which left Sam's right shoulder tingling with the near miss.

"Nice reflexes," his mysterious rescuer commented, without looking around, as they fled down a service corridor. All Sam could see was a short figure in Ranger blue, the hood of his jacket secured firmly over his head. "If you hadn't ducked when you did, we'd both be cooling our heels in the local lock-up."

Where had he heard that voice?! "Thanks" Sam panted. "The other guard... you didn't..."

"Knocked out only" came the prompt reply. "Airgun. Sedative. He'll wake up in a couple of hours, feeling like he's been on a weekend bender at the officer's club, but he'll be fine."

One fire door and a short trot later, they were in the men's room Sam had left earlier. The vet leaned against the wall, trying to catch his breath.

"Don't get too comfortable" the other said, as he opened the door just far enough to watch the corridor. "You've got, maybe, a couple of minutes before this place is crawling with angry security."

Sam nodded, took another half-minute, then reached into the janitor's closet for his bag and boots. He slipped into one of the stalls and changed, quickly. The IT Services shirt, casual shoes, denims and faux glasses all went down the recycling chute.

He was just running a comb through his hair when he heard loud voices and heavy footsteps outside. With a silent prayer neither guard had gotten a good look at him, Sam stepped out of the stall and slung his pack over his shoulder. He was now clad, the same as his rescuer, in standard Ranger work blues, though minus the full gunbelt: The only personnel authorized to carry weapons within the archives were Security.

His rescuer turned around, and Sam got his first good look. He froze in place, fighting a feeling like he'd been sucker-punched, then gasped; "Gerry?!"

His friend grinned, pulled his hood down, and started running his own comb through glossy black hair. "Nice to see you, too, Sam" he said, as casually as if they'd just gotten off work and were going out for dinner.

Before Sam could do more than work his jaw a couple of times, the main door was pushed open to reveal a stern-faced security sergeant, chevrons decorating both sleeves.

He took in the two Rangers and the rest of the room in one swift glance, then stepped inside. They could both see another guard in the corridor, H&K MP-8 in hand, looking very tense indeed.

"Gentlemen" the officer said, in clipped tones a Marine drill instructor would have envied. "Is there anyone else in here with you?"

Sam and Gerry glanced at each other, then shook their heads. "We were just cleaning up before leaving, sir" Gerry said.

Sam spoke up, almost without thinking. "One young fellow did lean his head in about five minutes ago" he said, managing to put a look of profound confusion on his face. "Gray shirt, glasses, looked like he'd been running all day. Took one look at us, then bolted back out as if he had a banshee on his heels. I think he went towards the reading room."

The sergeant turned and snapped orders at his companion. "Morton, you heard: Get the word out! I want this building checked from roof to foundation. Scram!"

Morton scrammed. The sergeant turned back to them, one hand extended. "We may have had a security breach, gentlemen. May I see your badges, please?"

Both Rangers handed over their ID cases without any hesitation. Sam tried hard not to fidget as the officer's gaze flipped between the photo on Sam's commission card and his current appearance. "Did you do something with your hair, Ranger Shay?"

Sam swallowed. "Yes, sir" he replied, jerking a thumb towards Gerry. "I... lost a bet. To him."

Gerry developed a sudden cough. The sergeant's eyebrows went up. His gaze flicked back and forth a few more times.

Finally, he handed the ID's back. "I get the feeling" he said, with a ghost of a smile, "the less I know about that, the better. Good day to you both."

He turned neatly on one heel and marched out towards the reading room. Sam took a breath to speak, but let it go as Gerry held up a commanding hand. "Wait. Talk later" he mouthed.

Sam nodded, and the two walked out, occasionally dodging clusters of glowering guards. A few minutes later, they were in a maglev shuttle headed for transient parking. Sam let out a long, shaky breath as the car accelerated into a tunnel, then eyed his friend.

"Thanks for the help" he said. "Now, would you mind telling me where in Saint Blaise's back yard you've been?! And, for that matter, what you're doing here?"

Gerry chuckled. "Same as you, Sam. Research. This may surprise you, but I think we've been working towards the same goal from different directions. Congrats on getting your memory back, by the way."

The vet grimaced. "Thanks, I think. Seems to have gotten me nothing bu–WHAT?!"

This time, Gerry laughed out loud. Sam felt like smacking him, then relaxed as his friend got his mirth under control.

"Easy, Sam" he said, holding up one hand. "It wasn't hard to figure out. You wouldn't have come here unless you wanted to research something without leaving a trace on your terminal at Alladale. The only major event I can think of which qualifies for that kind of attention is your alleged crash.

"As for where I've been, let's call it 'special assignment.' I can't tell you–"

Sam rolled his eyes. "–Any more at the moment" he finished. "Saint Blaise's Bloomers, Gerry, do you have any idea how sick I am of hearing that line? Why even bother?!" He started pacing back and forth, waving his hands for emphasis.

"Listen to yourself! You disappear under circumstances which could only be called 'unsettling' at best, not a word to Dash, myself, or the rest of the unit!

"Then you show up a month or so later, doing some sort of mysterious 'research,' you tell me we're working on the same goal from different sides, and you don't even have the decency to tell me what the banshee-damned goal is?!"

"If I tell you, here and now, it could kill a whole lot of people I care about!" Gerry snapped back. "This isn't just about you any more, or a single illegal memory wipe. Thousands of lives are at stake, Sam, human and otherwise, all over the planet!

"If you're ready to stand here right now, look me straight in the eye, and tell me you're ready and willing to take full responsibility for all those lives, then I'll tell you everything."

Gerry stepped back and folded his arms across his chest, his gaze still locked with Sam's. "Be bloody damned sure about your answer!"

The look in his friend's eyes startled Sam. There was something much older, much more harsh, in that amber gaze than he'd ever seen before. Weariness, a bit of cynicism, yes, but tempered with a fierce joy, an absolute belief in the rightness of what he was doing and why – and an unquestioning willingness to fight for it.

The car started to slow. Sam sighed, and dropped his gaze. "So what now?" he asked. "Do we just part ways and pretend we never saw each other?"

Gerry's good humor returned in a flash, as the car glided to a smooth halt. "Hardly. If you'd let me finish what I was saying, before so glibly assuming my next words were going to be 'Any more at this time,' you'd have learned something. You always were the impulsive type."

Sam snorted. "This from someone who never moves slower than a startled hare?"

The doors opened, and the pair quickly made their way towards the elevators. "Touche" Gerry said. "What I was going to say" he continued, in a low voice, "is I can't tell you exactly what my assignment consists of. What I can tell you is three things. "First: You're on the right track. Keep digging, and keep an open mind.

"Second: It's dangerous for us, others you've already met and care about, and a whole bunch of people you've yet to meet if we're seen together beyond this point.

"Third: Don't be surprised if those above you in power cannot be trusted, but it doesn't mean everyone's your enemy, either."

Three elevators slid their doors open almost simultaneously. Gerry stepped into one, but waved Sam on to another when he attempted to follow. "We'll see each other again" Gerry said, with a cheery wave, as the doors slid closed. "Oh! And don't forget to reset your ship's entry–"

The closing doors cut off the last word. Sam grunted, then stepped into the next car. When he reached the lobby level, there was no sign of Gerry inside or on the flight line. It was raining steadily, though the wind had slackened somewhat.

A couple of wet minutes later, he was settled into his ship's cabin and bringing its systems online. As he waited for takeoff clearance, a flash of color from the document holder caught his eye. He reached over, and pulled out a slightly dog-eared travel brochure for, of all places, Trondheim.

How did this get here? he mused, flipping it open. Granted, I've never been to Trondheim, but there's not much to draw my interest...

Gerry's parting words repeated themselves, especially the chopped-off bit about 'ship's entry.'

One query to the computer later, he had his answer. It took him only a moment to reset his ship's outside-entry code from the default '43210,' cursing his own stupidity the entire time.

"Ranger nineteen, Yorkshire tower, wind zero-eight-eight at six, gusts to fifteen, clear for liftoff. Squawk four-four-one-niner, tops eighteen hundred fifty meters. Climb at pilot's discretion, and safe flight."

"Nineteen, copy and thanks" Sam said, advancing the throttles.

Within minutes, he was cruising in clear sunlight, the clouds stretched out below like a gray and white patchwork carpet. He set the autopilot, and turned his attention back to the brochure.

It was a typical tourist blurb, of a type which could be found at nearly any airport or hotel, hyping the supposed benefits of choosing Trondheim For Your Next Family Vacation.

Someone had circled an area about six kilometers, as the crow flies, southeast of the city, a place called 'Dragvoll.' It was at the top of a hill, just south of the town of Reppe and, from the elevation figure, high enough to have a phenomenal view of its surroundings. The area was, among other things, home to a branch campus of the University of Norway, Life Sciences department.

What intrigued Sam most, though, was not the town: It was the note which fell out of the brochure into his lap when he flipped to the last page. The handwriting carried another surprise. It was not, as he'd expected, in Gerry's elegant script, but in the somewhat rough printing of Lieutenant Dashiell!

Sam,

Thought you might like to visit here over the weekend. Great food, fun nightlife, and the view from the University's hill is nothing short of stunning. Great for clearing your head!

Let me know if you decide to go. I might want to tag along, and dinner's on me if I do. Think of it as a kind of sideways apology for being so anti-social the past month or so.

Safe flying,

Dash.

Sam's paranoia went into high gear. He leaned back in his seat, his thoughts spinning like a whirlwind. His restored memory was quite clear regarding his 'rescue' and subsequent debriefing; Dash and the Secretary had seemed very much in sync with each other.

Then again, Dash had made it a point to ask, in detail, about Skye, and had urged Sam to focus on his memories of her if nothing else.

He knew, or suspected, what was coming. It may have been his way of warning me.

The thought prompted him to dig out the jump drive he'd used on the server. He docked it with his ship's computer, and started searching the contents. He nearly fainted with relief when he saw the search routines had, apparently, finished in time; Among the numerous files were the raw flight recorder logs from his old ship, footage from his onboard cameras of Skye doing her 'farewell' aerobatics, and – best of all – treatment records and chart notes for Nalu and Niho, signed by Kate Ericsson.

There was only one piece missing. Though he searched the drive from end to end, there was no trace of his debriefing recording.

Dammit! Maybe Dash kept a copy... but how do I know if he'll share it, or simply hand me off to the MP's?

Inspiration struck. "Computer" he said, "MEDLINE search. List all drugs used in the last ten years for human memory suppression, include experimental."

The search was quick, and the list was short: Six common, two experimental. Sam didn't recognize any of them, but this didn't bother him. Psychiatry was hardly his field.

"Computer, display dosage instructions for line items one through six. Include contraindicated substances."

A few moments later, he had his answer, and he felt ashamed he'd ever doubted Dash. He cleared the results, then called Alladale Base.

"Lieutenant Dashiell's on Code Eight status, sir, same as you" the comm officer told him. "He left word he could be reached on his portable phone. I can transfer, if you'd like."

"No, thanks, I'll call him myself" Sam said, then switched off and reached for his personal phone. Much less likely to have ears flapping over a direct connection he thought, as he dialed.

It was answered almost immediately. "Sam! How's the research going?"

He paused a moment before replying. Dash's tone was just a little too casual. "Just fine, sir" he said, choosing his words carefully. "The line I was following opened up more questions than answers, though, and I did want to talk to you about it. Where are you?"

"U of N annex, near Dragvoll" came the airy reply. Sam's eyebrows shot up. "Why not meet me here? I think there's enough material on hand to have a good chance of answering your questions."

Sam knew a blaring hint when he heard one. He switched the phone to his left hand while his right tapped a new course into the autopilot. "Just turning that way now" he said. "ETA, about two and a half hours, so we'll have a bit of time to play tourist as well."

"Excellent. See you in a couple of hours, and you can give me a ride back to Alladale afterward. Saves me a night's layover. See you soon!"

The connection dropped. Sam didn't need to be a mind reader to know the more he could shave off his ETA, the better. He quickly climbed to an altitude reserved for long-distance flights, and opened up the throttles. His ship gave a smooth surge of acceleration, the airspeed indicator settling at 500 knots.


Just over two hours later, thanks to an unexpected tailwind, he landed at the annex under cloudy, cold weather. A familiar figure was waiting for him, clad in Ranger winter uniform with an overnight bag in one hand. "Welcome to the cool blue north!" Dash called, as Sam started down the ladder. "Throw this in the back, would you?" He continued, holding up the bag.

Sam did so, secured the canopy, and dropped to the ground. "'Cool' is putting it mildly" he said. He pulled his hood up as a gust of wind hit. "I'd be shocked if it's a degree over six C."

"And I'd be equally shocked if we didn't see snow by tonight" Dash replied. "That's why I wanted out of here early."

They eyed each other uncertainly for a moment. Sam was startled to see prominent dark circles under Dash's eyes, as his expression flickered between relief, embarrassment – and a cold anger which he'd seen only twice before, though he was fairly sure it wasn't directed at him.

"Sir, with due respect" he said, carefully. "What in the Seven Hells is going on?!"

Dash snorted. "'The Time Has Come, The Walrus Said, To Talk Of Many Things'" he quoted, then shook his head. "Sorry, Sam. Lewis Carroll's always been a favorite of mine."

"Along with Kipling" Sam replied. He eyed his friend and CO closely for a moment, then said "You knew. From the moment I brought that pair of scaly menaces back, you knew all this would happen. That's why you brought down the bottle of scotch. You knew alcohol would blunt the effects of Axonase-B.

"You wanted me to get my memory back. Why? You ordered it wiped to begin with!"

"No!" Dash snapped. He reached up and gripped Sam firmly by both shoulders. "I did not order it, nor would I have. Ever! In fact, I tried to stop it. Messing with a man's memory is not how I operate! If you believe nothing else, believe that!"

UNEC Ranger training included in-depth techniques for seeing the 'tells' when someone was lying. Dash's dark eyes held none of them.

"I believe you" Sam said, after a moment. Dash nodded his thanks, and let go of his shoulders. "So who did order it, then?"

Dashiell's eyes flashed with anger. "The Secretary himself, Sam. Subrata Gupta. Worse, I've since found out he did it on his own. No Crown Court order, not even so much as a Council directive."

Sam's jaw worked up and down as his mind tried to process this. A moment later, rage washed through him, adding a red haze to his sight.

A stream of Celtic curses, as creative as they were potent, hissed out from between his clenched teeth. Dash simply stood by, waiting for the verbal storm to pass. Pass it did, though it took two-plus minutes.

"Feel better?" Dash asked, grinning slightly. "You know, I didn't think such a thing was anatomically possible for a unicorn. Unless, of course, he got some help from–"

"Never mind!" Sam shot back. He took a long, shaky breath, then his eyes widened.

"Wait a minute... Dash, if you didn't know Gupta had gone rogue at the time, it means you disobeyed a direct order and took one hell of a risk, by getting me tanked up..." He eyed his boss with new respect.

"Oh, meadow-muffins!" Dash snapped, his ears turning a bit redder than normal. "Not once did the Secretary or anyone else order me not to visit a friend. I was off the clock, and what I choose to do with my off-hours is none of UNEC's business!"

Sam chuckled. "Might be more believable if you weren't grinning so much."

Whatever reply Dash might have made was abruptly cut short. Warbling sirens heralded the arrival of two white Volvo groundcars, both decked out in vivid red and blue reflective stripes, the word POLITI in bold black lettering on each side. Eye-searing red and blue LED strips flashed in their overhead light bars, bright enough to reflect clearly off the outer hull of Sam's ship, as they pulled into flanking positions and stopped.

Before either man could blink, they found themselves neatly boxed in by six troopers, weapons leveled.

"Both of you, place your hands behind your heads and step slowly away from the aircar" the closest officer called, in clear English with barely a trace of accent.

"I'll handle this" Dash said, softly, as he put his hands behind his head. "Under who's authority?" He shouted, stepping forward. "We're both UNEC officers, out of Alladale Base–"

Two sharp pops echoed across the field. Sam froze in horror as Dash, a look of utter astonishment on his face, collapsed to the ground.

Heedless of the sudden rush of troops, Sam was beside him in an instant. "Didn't... think... go this far" Dash gasped, through clenched teeth.

"Don't try to talk!" Sam said, as he unzipped Dash's jacket. He winced at the sight of the dark stain spreading rapidly over his friend's shirt, then tried to put on a brave front. "The nearest hospital's just down the hill" he said. "We'll get you there in two shakes..."

A ghost of a smile flickered across Dash's face, even as the light started fading from his eyes. Suddenly, one arm reached up and gripped Sam's shoulder like a vise.

"Zero-zero-two-zero" Dash whispered, urgently. "Article fourteen..."

The light went out. Dash's hand dropped limply to the ground as his entire body slumped.

Strong hands suddenly gripped Sam's shoulders from behind, and pulled. He started to resist, then stopped as he felt the barrel of a gun against his neck. He turned slowly to face the trooper who had spoken first, a stocky blond man with sergeant's stripes on his epaulets. "We'll take care of him, Ranger Shay" he said, calmly. "Come with me, please. Secretary Gupta's orders."

Note to self Sam thought, bitterly, as he was led away. When on Code Eight, in the future, always carry a backup weapon!

He let his fury build for a few moments, then glanced back at his captor. "And was it also Secretary Gupta's orders to kill my commander in cold blood? He was unarmed, dammitall!"

"You know better, sir" the sergeant replied, his tone utterly calm. "The officer who fired did so without authorization. He will be disciplined."

Sam snorted, but said nothing more. Then he started to think.

He'd met many different police and soldiers over the years, undercover and uniformed alike, along with the civilians who aided them in supporting roles. No matter what a person did in such an environment, there were tiny changes which crept into their body language: How they carried themselves, what they carried, how they looked at their surroundings, how they spoke and acted; all were 'tells' which could identify their true role, no matter how they might try to hide it.

As they reached the nearer of the two groundcars, Sam suddenly faced the trooper and said "You know, it's interesting... I thought the only time Norway's police carried anything but stunners was when they were on anti-terrorism missions."

He was rewarded by a brief widening of the sergeant's eyes.

"You're not Norwegian police" he continued. It was not a question. "I'd guess UN Special Forces."

The ersatz sergeant shrugged. "You're very observant, Ranger Shay" he replied, in the same dead-calm tone. "Not that it matters, now." He opened the rear door. "Into the car, please. Watch your head."

Sam hesitated. The barrel of what he belatedly recognized as a nine-millimeter semiautomatic pistol never wavered, and the cold wind took on an eerie rising whistle like a demented flute.

Something bright, blue, and fast struck the second groundcar. It blew apart, scattering the other troopers and knocking Sam flat on his back. For a moment, he simply lay where he'd fallen, dazed by the blast, wondering if the black shape which was now just a speck against the clouds had been an attack drone...

Black shape?!

Instinct drove him before conscious thought could catch up. He struggled to his feet, wincing at a sharp pain across his forehead, then sprinted as best as he could for his ship and swarmed up the ladder. He risked a quick glance back as he keyed in his entry code.

It was a scene straight out of an old air-disaster movie. The edge of the field where the faux police had parked was swarming with people sporting the University's logo, trying to get a leg up on the fiercely-burning wreck. More sirens wailed in the distance as medical crews and – Sam hoped – the real Norway Police converged on the scene.

The canopy locks clunked open, the dome slid back. Sam climbed up the last step, ready to drop into his seat – and froze at the sight of a body, covered head to foot by a black tarp. He gulped, fighting down a mix of nausea and rage.

Dash...

Then he spotted something else: A stocky figure, face rendered unrecognizable by the large piece of metal shrapnel which had buried itself in his skull, right between the eyes.

Even through the singe and blood, Sam could tell the fellow had been blond. He grinned fiercely to himself.

"You... stop!" Someone yelled. He glanced hurriedly around and spotted one of the faux troopers staggering towards him, trying to keep his pistol steady.

"Téigh tarraing ar elf!" Sam yelled back as he dropped into his seat, hands flying over the controls. He winced as a couple of bullets ricocheted harmlessly off the outer hull.

Seconds later, he was in the air, turbines roaring as he put his ship into a near-vertical climb. He clenched his eyes shut as the G-force pushed him back into his seat, trying to make sense of what had just happened.

He shivered as the whole scene replayed itself, repeatedly, in his head. The look of utter surprise on Dash's face had been the worst part.

He'd been right to wear such a look. Lethal force was rarely used these days, outside of the military, thanks to the development of directed-energy stunners. This means he thought, as a chill went down his spine, Dash knew more than he had a chance to tell me, and Gupta wanted him dead from the start because of it!

Feelings of betrayal, indecision, and isolation washed over him. It was clear, now, that UNEC's problems went all the way to the top.

I can't go back to Alladale, and just pretend nothing's happened. Even if Gupta doesn't want me dead, he'll be waiting with brain-bleach in hand.

His ship suddenly stopped its headlong rush for height, the G-force easing off as the craft leveled out. A two-tone chime sounded, and the computer's voice announced: "Warning: Service ceiling reached, position hold engaged."

Startled, Sam checked the altimeter: 12,500 meters, and holding. His radar showed nothing else in the area for at least a hundred kilometers, and the only thing visible at this altitude was clear sky.

He took a long, shuddering breath and cradled his face in both hands. For the moment, he was as safe as he was likely to get, though he wished for radar invisibility now more than ever.

He shoved the thought aside and tried to focus on his options. It wasn't easy; The sight of Dash's face, as his life drained away, haunted his vision. This, too, got pushed aside with some effort.

He was never big on pity Sam thought. The last thing he'd want me to do is wallow in it while I sit around making a target of myself!

Sam knew if Gupta was operating on his own, he would be keeping it as undercover as possible. He's probably got his own core of loyal little sycophants among the Guard he thought, disgustedly. It doesn't matter whether this attempt went bad – he'll just try again, and he'll keep trying, probably until he can make it look like a nice accident!

Two things came out of this train of thought, and both shocked Sam to his core:

First, he was truly a fugitive now. It would be trivial for someone as highly placed as Gupta to alter the facts, make it look like Sam had been the murderer.

Second, no matter what he did, his career in UNEC was effectively over. Even if he could, somehow, cast doubt on the web of lies Gupta would likely spin with all the tools at his disposal, there would still be enough suspicion to make sure of a dishonorable discharge. No one would ever hire so much as a vet tech with that kind of background he thought, bitterly.

Options came next. One was to, simply, disappear. Even in a 'wired world,' he had learned plenty of ways to simply drop off the grid and vanish into the noise, as it were. His classes at Tesla's Basement had been nothing if not thorough.

He grumbled in frustration. Sure. I can save myself. I can abandon everything I've ever known, fake my death, and vanish. I can never see Paddy or any of the family again, and I'll have to forget about the dragons, give up vet medicine and learn a new trade. He snorted. I'm sure one of the Apple stores could use another 'genius!'

His thoughts calmed, slowly. The ghostly image of a blue-scaled face, eyes bugging comically at him, drifted up out of his memory, bringing seven words with it: Nalu find you, now you find us!

Something else came out of the calm as well. Suddenly, Dash's last words made complete sense.

On the one hand, the idea was nearly as bad as simply dropping out of existence; assuming it worked, he might never be able to leave his new country of choice again without inviting sudden death.

On the other, it wasn't a new idea. It was one borne of people throughout history who had done nothing more than speak their minds against evil and injustice, often to the embarrassment (or even overthrow) of those in power. He was nearly certain he'd be among friends, human and otherwise, some of whom just might be able to pull the right strings at the right time...

The decision was made for him as his radar beeped an alert.

Three aircraft were closing on his position at Mach two. His computer promptly identified them as RAF Viper-class fighters, sporting ID codes from Yorkshire. An instant later, an unfamiliar male voice with a well-cultured British accent sounded in his headset.

"Ranger Nineteen, this is Paladin One, do you copy?"

Suddenly, the utter absurdity of the entire situation hit Sam full-force. All his fear vanished like so many startled cats, leaving cool determination in its wake.

Acting as though he had not a care in the world, he wheeled his ship around to a southwest heading and throttled up to a leisurely 200 knots. "Paladin One, Ranger Nineteen, copy you five by. What can I do for the RAF this fine day?"

The reply fairly dripped confidence. Sam wasn't surprised. One Viper-class craft carried enough weaponry and ECM to take out anything up to and including an old-style aircraft carrier.

"Ranger Nineteen, this is Paladin One, Group Captain Travis Alden commanding. By order of the Secretary-General of the UN, the Honorable Subrata Gupta, you are hereby relieved of duty. You are further ordered to consider yourself under arrest, and you are to accompany us to Yorkshire Base. Please acknowledge."

Sam nearly choked at the title. He fought down a burst of anger, and keyed his transmitter. "'Honorable,' Group Captain?" He replied, in tones of icy calm. "Oh, I could tell you some stories about Secretary Gupta, none of which are anything close to 'honorable.' Yes, indeed I could."

As he spoke, he started a slow descent, still holding his course. One hand slid aside the guard cover over two red-and-black striped rocker switches. Despite their relatively neat installation, even a junior mechanic would have questioned if they were standard equipment.

They weren't. Sam had, with Jarod's help, secretly installed them and the equipment they controlled shortly after their fishing trip There had been no opportunity for any testing.

Alden's reply had all the personality of a depressed undertaker. "You will have ample opportunity to speak at your trial, Ranger Shay. The charges against you are numerous, with treason topping the list. There is also dereliction of duty, impersonation, sabotage, theft of classified data... do I need to continue?"

Sam's thoughts raced. The fact they weren't coming in shooting argued strongly for the idea Gupta wanted him alive. This further implied he still had something the Secretary wanted, though he couldn't imagine what it might be. His debriefing recording hadn't been among the data he'd recovered–

Multiple turbines thundered from outside as the three fighters settled into a triangle formation behind him.

Sam cranked his head around to take a look. As he did, he also caught sight of a Navy blue overnight bag lying on the rear floor, the late afternoon sunlight sparking iridescent reflections off something attached to the main zipper.

Puzzled, he looked closer. Tucked neatly inside a decorative key fob was an unlabeled Micro-OD memory card.

Alden's voice broke into his thoughts again. "You're doing fine, sir. Maintain your current course, descend and maintain three thousand fifty meters. Upon reaching, throttle up to four hundred fifty knots. There's no reason to drag this out any longer than necessary."

"Nineteen, copy" Sam replied.

"And you're absolutely right, Group Captain" he added to himself, as his attention darted between the altimeter and the two switches. "No reason at all..."

Minutes and height ticked away, the gray carpet of clouds growing closer and more prominent by the second. Sam started to sweat; the maneuver he had in mind would either buy him precious time to get away, or leave him walking on clouds. Four thousand... three-eighty... three-sixty...

He pressed the switches. On his upper hull, two half-meter wide vents flipped open, discharging a dense cloud of multicolored flakes into his slipstream. There was no way the fighters could avoid passing through the artificial cloud.

The results exceeded Sam's wildest hopes. The two ships on either side of him shuddered – just before whipping around in uncontrolled wing-overs, smoke and debris streaming from their turbine exhausts!

Within moments, they were spiraling down through the clouds, their pilots concentrating fully on emergency landings.

His luck didn't hold where the third ship, at the top of the triangle, was concerned.

Alden Sam thought, grimly, as he cut both lift and thrust to zero and slammed open his spoilers. The Group Captain's ship shot by just overhead, buffeting Sam's craft in its wake. His radio came alive with Alden's voice, tight with surprised rage: "What in bloody hell was that?! WHAT DID YOU DO?!"

"Nothing they can't recover from" Sam said, airily, as his ship continued its free-fall tumble, the altimeter counting down at a frightening pace.

"Tell me something, Group Captain. What do you think happens to a well-balanced precision machine, like a thrust turbine, when it ingests a few thousand low-density polyresin flakes? Why, they'd soften up right away in the first stage, then glue themselves all over the inner blades as they cooled.

"It'd throw the rotor balance all to hell and back again, so it would, and when that rotor's spinning at five-plus figures of RPM, well..."

Silence, broken only by the whistle of wind. Then: "You're dead, Shay!"

"Have to catch me first!" Sam shot back as, with a silent prayer, he shoved the lift and thrust throttles forward and hauled back on the stick.

His ship shook like a leaf in a hurricane, his vision blurred as the G-forces drained blood from his head, structural and engine alarms blared–

–And then he was thundering along, barely eight meters above the treetops, rain lashing his canopy and throwing up a rooster-tail of spray in his wake. He had just finished setting his transponder to 0020, and was dialing in the contact frequency for Ørland Air Base, when his EM detector shrilled a warning.

He flipped his ship onto its edge by reflex, barely avoiding the blue-white ball lightning of an EMP charge. He's faster, but I can maneuver better Sam thought as he keyed his transmitter once again.

"Ørland Center, UNEC Ranger Alpha Lima Nineteen, Sam Shay, declaring an emergency. I'm on approach to FWA Seven-Golf-Three, squawking zero-zero-two-zero. Under Article Fourteen of the UDHR, I request asylum–"

The weapons-lock warning shrilled. Sam banked sharply, but not quick enough. His ship bucked and stressed metal shrieked as Alden's laser struck a glancing blow.

"Warning" the computer spoke. "Outer hull breach, area VA-2. Secondary GNSS signal loss."

Sam slammed a palm down on the audio cutout. "Thanks for the timely warning, you overpowered vacuum cleaner!" He shouted, then continued on his radio:

"Ørland, be advised: I am being fired upon by the RAF! Do you copy?! Request immediate asylum and any assistance you can render!"

Even as he spoke, his ship's computer was doing its best in the way of evasive action. Sam's stomach lurched as his craft suddenly spun 360 degrees on its long axis, then went into an inverted loop.

Behind him, the top of a tall pine tree burst into flames from a second laser bolt. Suddenly, a deep resonant voice filled his headphones.

"UNEC Ranger Nineteen, Ørland Center. Emergency acknowledged, radar contact at eighty kilometers south-southwest of Bangsund. Turn left heading zero-two-five, clear to enter seven-golf-three at pilot's discretion. Stand by for the base commandant."

Sam quickly adjusted his course, chafing at the delay, and pushed the thrust throttle full forward. His ship surged ahead – then started vibrating in metallic spasms. Must be the hole he shot in the hull he thought, grimly. His radar showed Alden's Viper a half-kilometer behind him, shadowing his every move.

The problem was none of Sam's weaponry was designed to fire rearward, except for the now-depleted 'stop-cloud.'

Alden's voice crackled in his headset: "You can run, but you can't hide, Shay. Three more Vipers are already en route. One way or another, you're coming back with us. Whether it's on your own power, or in the back of a Med-Evac ship, is entirely up to you. Why not make it easy on us all, and turn around? Here's something which should help."

Two roiling blue spheroids shot from the Viper's nose. Sam reflexively banked away, as they passed by close enough to light up the cabin.

"Turn back to course two-six-zero now, or the next one goes straight up your tailpipes" Alden snapped. "You have ten seconds to decide!"

Sam glanced at the GPS display. He was still twenty-five kilometers out of Bangsund, thirty-five from the wilderness area border. Ten seconds wouldn't get him half that distance. Where in blazes is the base CO?!

Inspiration struck like the proverbial lightning bolt. He might not be anywhere near Alden's equal in terms of air combat training, but he had one advantage the fighter pilot didn't know about. Given a little luck, it just might be enough.

Alternatively, it might turn his ship into scrap metal.

Sam keyed his transmitter as he started a standard-rate turn to the right. "All right, Alden, you win" he said, putting as much resignation into his voice as he could. "Turning about now..."

"Smart move" the officer replied. Sam thought he sounded vaguely disappointed. "But I won't forget the two you knocked down, count on that!"

Sam didn't reply. He was too busy watching his heading. He started to level out as the numbers reached 255 –

Then, with a crazy twist of throttles and joystick, he threw his ship into an end-over-end flip-and-roll, just like the one Skye had unexpectedly demonstrated for him one afternoon long, long ago.

And she said she learned it from Toothless...

His ship was quick to complain, in its own way, that it was no Night Fury. Structural alarms honked, the entire craft vibrated like a well-struck gong, and the computer practically yelled at him:

"Warning! TQ generator tolerance critically violated, abort maneuver!"

"Not... yet...!" Sam gritted, nervous sweat streaking down his forehead, as he fought the controls to roll the ship right side up again hopefully in time to–

Yes! He was now front-broadside to Alden's Viper, his momentum literally causing his own ship to fly backwards just long enough for the sweet tone of laser lock-on to sound in his headphones.

He fired.

An eye-searing spot of green appeared near the curve of Alden's port turbine housing. A heartbeat later, the Group Captain's ship was descending in a slow spiral, a corkscrew of black smoke and multicolored sparks trailing behind it.

Wow! Sam thought, as he brought his own ship around and took up his original north-northwest heading. I can't believe that worked! I must have gotten one of his lift coils...

Before elation had time to set in, his radar hooted a warning. Just as Alden had promised, three more Viper craft were closing fast.

"Not this time!" He muttered, as he pushed his thrust levers hard forward, past the detent and into redline.

The turbines howled, and his ship started an unnerving, steady vibration, punctuated by random metallic groans. He kept one eye fixed to the drive's internal temperature gauge, which was just starting to edge into the yellow.

Nothing to lose Sam thought. Even if I have to bail, I may get far enough to eject in the right spot. I just hope the magnetic bearings hold together...

As if on cue, his radio came to life once again. The voice was as strong and confident as it was feminine.

"UNEC Ranger Nineteen, this is Colonel Renata van Huse, commanding officer, Ørland Airbase. Provisional asylum is granted, and you are cleared to land within seven-golf-three. Do you still require assistance? We have only your own craft on radar at this time."

Saint Blaise be praised!

"Ørland Base, Ranger Nineteen. That's affirmative on assistance! I have three RAF Vipers on my tail, closing fast. You'll probably pick them up momentarily. I'm currently running on full emergency thrust, turbines at one hundred fifteen percent."

He took a deep breath, then continued: "Thank you, Colonel, no matter what happens!"

"Thanks can wait" came the firm reply. "Please focus on getting yourself down, safely. Assistance is en route, we will see you soon. Ørland out."

Six Vipers in tight formation zoomed past Sam thirty seconds later, giving him a bad moment until he saw their markings were Norwegian, not RAF. The fact they were following his back trail provided further reassurance.

He suddenly felt giddy from all the adrenaline his body had been producing, enough so that he didn't immediately notice a rarely-heard alarm. Fortunately, the computer had something to say about it:

"Warning: Primary fuel cell pressure breach. Estimate two minutes power remaining."

Sam gaped at the rapidly-dropping gauge for a moment, then cut loose an oath which would have startled a longshoreman. Hastily, he throttled back the thrusters and started shutting down everything he could and still fly.

"Ørland Base, Ranger Nineteen. I have a fuel cell breach, and am losing power..."

His entire panel chose that moment to go dark in a shower of sparks. The cabin glowed a soft red as battery-powered emergency lights cut in.

The overworked turbines whined down, and the ship dropped precipitously as the TQ field died. A moment later, a whining noise issued from under the floor, felt as well as heard, and a bright yellow light went on next to the joystick. In the same instant, the ship bucked, its descent slowing.

Emergency glide vanes, their control surfaces powered by a much smaller fuel cell than the mains used. Sam grabbed for the joystick, still muttering an extensive litany of curses in both Celtic and Norse, and tried to stabilize the ship's awkward glide.

Oh, sure, he'd practiced this kind of 'dead stick' landing plenty of times – in the simulator!

The ship's fall slowed significantly, though the craft pitched about in the uncertain winds. Barely visible ahead, in the fading daylight, Sam could just make out a spit of forested land jutting into the waterway he was crossing.

Had this been summer, he'd have considered ditching to be a safer choice. However, a glance at the outside temperature gauge squashed that idea. If the air was only four C, he didn't want to think about what the ocean was down to!

He tried tacking against the wind as his ship sank lower, his eyes flicking rapidly between the pressure altimeter and the strip of land. It was going to be close–

It was. For one horrible moment, he thought he'd have to ditch after all, as the ship bounced off the ocean's surface. Saint Blaise must have intervened, for the bounce sent the crippled craft back up just high enough to catch an errant gust. The playful wind tossed the craft up – and then, as suddenly, dropped it onto solid ground.

From eight meters.

The impact nearly buckled the starboard landing strut. As it was, the ship's tail slewed around and slammed into a pine tree with a resounding CRACK! Sam's safety harness was all that saved him from a concussion as the ship finally came to a stop.

For nearly five minutes, all he could do was sit perfectly still, marveling at his luck and not quite able to believe he was still in one piece. Finally, he managed to unstrap himself and fumbled for the manual canopy release, shoving the stubborn plexalloy dome back into its niche.

Fresh air flooded in, heavy with humidity and scented with pine, salt water, decaying leaves, moss, and all the other smells of a northern forest in early winter. Cold it was, yes, cold enough to turn his cheeks pink and frost his breath, but blessedly so after the stench of overloaded engines and fried circuitry.

He raised his head, listening, looking around. His ship ticked and hissed as its structure cooled. Water lapped gently against the shore... clearly, this beach wasn't facing open ocean, as the 'waves' were scarcely more than oversize ripples.

Wind rushed and rustled through the trees, blowing drifts of cool mist against his face. Looking up, he could see the cloud cover just starting to break, stars shining through the gaps like backlit diamonds against black velvet.

The gaps widened as he watched and the drizzle tapered off to nothing. Then, as if a giant hand had impatiently cast them aside, the clouds parted. The land and sea suddenly sparkled under the ethereal glow of a full and brilliant moon.

"Whoa" Sam muttered, with a smile. "Nice timing!"

Carefully, wincing at bruises and scrapes he hadn't known were there, he reached into the back seat for his jacket. As he pulled it on, the bulk of Dash's overnight bag, now somewhat the worse for wear, caught his eye.

His breath caught in his throat; Had the chip survived? He grabbed the bag, pulled it upright, checked the zipper – yes! The key fob, with its precious silicate cargo, was still there.

He detached it and tucked it carefully into the breast pocket of his flight suit, making sure to close and secure the zippered flap. Pulling on his jacket, he clambered wearily to the ground. A faint, persistent hiss drew his attention to his ship's underside, near the main landing struts.

Examining the spot with a flashlight, he found a neat three-centimeter hole, blackened around the edges. A small circle of blackened hull metal, riddled with tiny holes, still clung to the inside edge of the puncture.

Sam didn't need his Ranger training to recognize a partial laser strike. "Bastard must have tagged me at the same time I got him" he muttered.

Abruptly, full realization of what could have happened hit. His knees turned to rubber and he slumped to the ground, hands over his face.

A laser needed time to burn through any surface. Aircar hulls were no exception. Any surface hit by a weapons-class laser would get very hot, very quickly, especially titanium alloy. This particular shot had struck practically in the middle of his craft's primary hydrogen fuel cell.

If it had stayed on the spot long enough to fully breach the cell, and deliver enough heat as the escaping hydrogen and outside air combined...

Breathe, Shay, just breathe! He told himself, firmly. In, out, in, out, one, two... that's it... you're still alive, and you're safe.

Slowly, he stood up again, brushing absently at the debris clinging to the seat of his jumpsuit. Good thing it's water-repellent he mused.

Sam nearly jumped out of said water-repellent suit as something scrabbled across the top of his ship, chittering like an excited squirrel. Before he recovered enough to look, it was gone. "What the–"

Something landed heavily on his back. He yelped, spun frantically in place for a moment, then found himself gazing into a pair of wide amber eyes framed in a rounded, blue-scaled face. Those eyes fairly shone with mischief and humor, as two words echoed in his mind:

Found us!

"Nalu! You little demon!" Sam cried, reaching up to scratch the dragon's neck. "You gave me quite a turn–"

He grunted as another familiar shape, green with pale-gold eyes, slammed into his front, almost hard enough to knock him over. She clung to his jumpsuit, chirping excitedly.

"Niho! Saint Blaise Above, don't crash into me like that..."

They both chirped, airily, and pressed against him. Their combined purrs nearly rattled his teeth. "Well" Sam said, as he welcomed the pair with more caresses and scratching. "I guess it isn't that much of a problem."

He had to keep blinking to clear his vision. Something seemed to be making his eyes water more than normal.

Suddenly, the forest surrounding the tiny beach was alive with rustling, footsteps, flashlight beams, voices calling to each other, and assorted hisses and grunts. A half-dozen people emerged from the tree line, dressed in variations of rough-hewn cloth and leather. Some bore hand-worked decorations of metal and polished wood.

One man turned back towards the forest, his voice rising in a shout. "They're here! All three!"

Sam blinked. The yell had not been in English, but Old Norse. An answering shout, this one clearly female, responded. Moments later, another familiar figure walked out from the tree line. She grinned impudently at him, moonlight glinting off her brilliant red hair.

"Doctor Shay! What took you so long?"

He gasped. "Doctor Ericsson?!"

"Kate, to my friends" she said, still grinning. "And I'd certainly like to count you among them, if you don't mind."

"Asz would I" said a new voice. It was also feminine, but very deep, nearly into the baritone range. It bore an odd resonance Sam had never heard before, the 'S' sounds being drawn out in short hisses, and it came – from above his head?!

He looked up. His jaw dropped, and he lost a few kilos as Nalu and Niho quietly took themselves elsewhere. A long, black shape, the moonlight bringing out a pattern of charcoal colored rosettes on the mid-body and wings, glided easily down over the trees and landed precisely in front of him. Silvery-gray eyes, full of intelligence and power, studied him intently.

"Ssam Sshay" the Night Fury said, in clear English. "Welcome to New Berk. We have much to disscuss, ssince I believe you knew my ancesstor."

For only the second time in his life, Sam fainted.


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