The Dragonwing Effect

Chapter 14

"I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I need to be."

Douglas Adams

It had been a long time since Sam had seen his brother's tavern this crowded. The fact not all of the patrons were human only added to the festive atmosphere.

He cast a glance around the warmly-lit room, his gaze lingering on a pair of brightly-colored Nadders. One was cobalt blue with yellow highlights, the other coppery red, with Navy-blue stripes forming a raccoon-like mask across its face. They were giving their human companions a serious run for their money at an oversize dartboard.

As he watched, one of the humans managed to sink a trio of darts in a tight cluster near the center of the board with three quick throws. He grinned broadly, raised his mug in ironic salute to the blue Nadder, and said "Top that one, scaly!" His voice held a hint of Texas twang which was a good match for his denim jeans, plaid shirt and well-worn boots.

The dragon let loose a hissing chuckle. "Gladly, ssmooth-sskin" came the reply, in a clear feminine tone. "Firsst, though, a ssmall detail."

The dragon turned around so her back was towards the board and raised her tail. Tiny points of light glinted off the slender needle-sharp spines. "Paddy" she called, "would you aid me, pleasse?"

His brother lumbered into view, grinning. Sam watched in growing disbelief as the Nadder rested her head on the bar and closed her eyes. He blinked in surprise as Paddy carefully covered each eye with a ham-like hand. "No way!" he gasped.

Evidently, many of the other humans agreed. There was a sudden rush of movement as a broad path was cleared between the dragon's well-armed backside and the dartboard. An expectant hush descended on the crowd, broken only by an occasional cough and mutters of disbelief. Somewhere in the background, a drum roll started.

"Never challenge a Nadder where ssharp objectss are concerned" came another voice, directly across from him.

Startled, he turned back and found a Night Fury seated – or crouched, it was hard to tell – on the other side of his table. Silvery eyes full of amusement met his, over an old-style wooden bowl filled with something golden-brown, steaming, and smelling of honey and alcohol in equal measure. "Few have bessted Ssaffyre's sskill, evenn amonng dragonss."

Sam nodded absently, his attention returning to the blindfolded Saffyre. Suddenly, her tail whistled through the air.

Two of the three darts the Texan had lodged in the board were split neatly down the middle. The third fell to the ground, intact but knocked out of its hole by the Nadder's third quill.

The drum roll ended in a rim-shot. Astonished gasps filled the room as Saffyre stood up, opened her eyes, and trotted over to the board. A disappointed snort sounded as she noted the errant dart. "Sshardss" she hissed. "Misssed one."

Applause thundered through the room. Even the Texan was joining in. Far from dying down, the sound kept building. Sam wondered how even one of Paddy's legendary crowds could keep clapping this loud and long as the sound deepened into a boom which shook the now-roofless walls.

Rain began pattering down, though he stayed perfectly dry. "Wait!" He yelled as he stood up, the scene dissolving like a watercolor. "I wasn't done...!"

No, you're not said a Voice, from all around him. That's why you need to wake up. You've got a lot of work to do!

Thunder boomed again. Sam came abruptly awake, his heart racing. He glanced around, completely disoriented. Where in blazes...?!

He sat up, wincing as sparks of pain rushed through his right shoulder and arm, and took stock of himself and his surroundings.

He was lying on a low air mattress, fully equipped with clean sheets and blankets, in the middle of a large room with a vaulted ceiling. Small LED fixtures on the beams provided warm light. A cheery blaze crackled and hissed in an oversize fireplace while rain drummed heavily on the roof. The air, fresh but not chill, carried scents of wood smoke, seawater, roasted fish, and a sweet-smokey odor he couldn't identify.

His flight suit was gone, replaced by flannel pajamas, and he felt as though he'd just showered. Injuries from the crash had been neatly cleaned and bandaged, and the coffee table next to his makeshift bed held his watch, phone, multitool and other assorted things from his pockets. His gaze sharpened as full consciousness – and memory – returned in a rush.

Both his jump drive and the data chip from Dash's bag were missing.

He bit back a curse, flung the covers aside and pushed himself up to a sitting position – or, rather, tried to. His equilibrium had other ideas, sending him sprawling back onto the mattress, as his temples throbbed with a renewed headache strong enough to make him grunt with pain and slap a hand over his eyes.


Scraping sounds came from the rafters above his bed, followed by a rush of wings and a pair of querulous chirps. Seconds later, he felt a pair of small, familiar, scaly shapes land on the bed and nudge him.

"Hey, you two" he said, reaching out to give them both a reassuring scratch. "Take it easy, I'll be fine..."

Whatever else the crash had done, it hadn't affected his gift for mind-speech. Hurt! Nalu sent, reinforcing the word with a skeptical trill. Bad landing added Niho.

Sam snorted at this. "Dragon's got a gift for understatement" he muttered. "Who knew?"

Footfalls sounded from across the room, drew rapidly closer. A familiar voice said "Sam? How do you feel?"

He moved his hand aside and blinked. Kate Ericsson, dressed in soft blue sweats and light slippers, was looking down at him, concern etched across her face.

"You were out all last night and well into today" she continued as she knelt down, nudged his two self-appointed watchers aside and touched a portable med-scan to his wrist.

Sam's gaze flicked back and forth between her and the scanner. "Dizzy" he said. "And one mother of a headache. Other than that..."

His stomach growled audibly, reminding him he'd been living on ration bars and adrenaline far too long.

"I thought you were a vet" he continued, eyeing the scanner. It was a standard Exergen LifeTest, a type used by paramedics, clinics and hospitals the world over – if you happened to be human.

She smiled as she helped him sit up again. "Double degrees" she said. "In New Berk, you never know whether you'll be working on a dragon or human from day to day. Besides, healing is healing, no matter what species your patient belongs to."

Sam's eyes widened. "Ingrid said almost the same thing."

Kate nodded. "I'm not surprised. Just as Silence can trace her ancestry back to Skye, Ingrid Ericsson was my great-to-the-something-power grandmother. Her journal was just as well preserved as Hiccup's."

Sam pondered this while she stood up and put the scanner on the table. "Don't try to get up just yet" she said, heading for the kitchen area. "I'll get us some munchies."

"Wait!" Sam called, as the two Terrors arranged themselves on either side of him. "There was a jump drive and a micro-OD chip in my things–"

"–both of which are safely docked in my computer's reader" Kate replied, airily. "You didn't think I was going to sit around twiddling my thumbs until you woke up, did you?"

She was back in a few minutes, balancing a tray loaded with sandwiches, various fruits, pretzels, raw fish for the dragons and two steaming mugs of something which looked amazingly like the contents of the Night Fury's bowl in his dream. These turned out to be the source of the smokey-sweet odor he'd caught earlier.

"Mead tea" Kate said, picking up a sandwich and devouring a quarter of it in one bite. "Very popular among humans and dragons alike. Good balance of alcohol and caffeine, lots of antioxidants." She looked at him expectantly.

Sam shrugged, retrieved his mug and took a cautious sip. Flavors of honey, citrus, and a dash of peppermint flooded his senses. The liquid left a gentle warmth in its wake as it worked its way down, the warmth spreading throughout his body a few moments later and banishing at least half the headache and nearly all the dizziness.

"Wow!" He said, taking a larger gulp.

Kate grinned, knowingly. "Another convert. Don't forget to eat."

He didn't. The only sounds in the room for the next few minutes were those of contented consumption, followed by a surprisingly resonant belch from Nalu. Niho eyed her mate disgustedly for a moment – then produced a belch of her own, strong enough to include a brief flame about the size of a pocket torch.

Sam jumped as the edge of the eruption brushed his elbow. Fortunately, all it left in its wake was a 'hot spot' which quickly cooled.

"Hey!" Kate snapped, giving the green Terror a sharp rap on her nose. "Not inside! If you're going to roast each other, take it outdoors."

Somehow, Niho managed to look both rebellious and sheepish. "Yeah, right" Kate said, not buying it for a millisecond. "You really want to help? Find Silence. Go on! Both of you!"

She stood up and made shooing motions towards the pair. "More fish and mead tea if you do" she added with a grin, rocking her mug slightly.

The two were off the bed and across the room as if catapulted. Sam watched, bemused, as Nalu attached himself to the door and worked the lever with his jaws. It swung open, letting in a gust of cold air and rain as Niho darted out. Nalu, moving with the assurance of a gecko, scuttled around to the other side of the door and used his tail to pull it closed as he took to the air.

"Did you teach them that?" Sam asked, as the rest of his headache faded away.

Kate shook her head. "Some of the other Terrors did. Considering those two came from a completely different time and culture, they caught on pretty quickly. More tea?"

"Please" he said, holding out his mug. Kate refilled them both and, as if anticipating his next question, said "Silence is the Night Fury you saw when we found you. On that topic, what in Helheim's Gate happened? Lieutenant Dashiell was supposed to read you into the program, as it were, then guide you here himself. Instead, you end up barreling in with the RAF hot on your tail, all ready to set off an international brouhaha just to knock you out of the air!"

Sam's throat clenched. His knuckles went white as his grip on the mug tightened. "Dash" he said, his voice just above a whisper. "Kate... I'm sorry..."

Strong hands covered his, gripped hard. He looked up, barely able to meet her gaze. "Tell me what happened" she said, softly.

Tell her he did. Haltingly, at first, then in a rush like a shattered dam. She was a good listener, helping him over the rough spots and asking incisive questions which pulled out details he hadn't even been aware of at first. He thought he heard the door swing open again, as he was recounting the details of Dash's death, but he ignored it and went on.

"And the rest, you know" he finished.

Kate nodded, then leaned back in her chair with a deep sigh. "Dammitall... Dash deserved better than this!"

"Sso he did" came a new voice, deeply resonant but feminine-pitched.

Sam glanced up, startled. There, standing near the door, Nalu and Niho to either side, was the silvery-eyed Night Fury he'd seen last night.

With the room's brighter light, he could see her eyes bore a hint of jade green over the gray. A beautifully-worked leather harness, bearing several inlaid semiprecious stones and a series of Nordic runes, done in fine silver thread, crossed over her shoulders and met just below her throat, in a setting which supported a flawless ten-centimeter opal.

The dragon paced slowly over, sat down like an oversized cat next to the bed, and nodded politely. "Fair Windss to you both" she said. "I came in jusst as he wass telling of our Liaisson'ss death. Did I misss anything elsse of importance?"

Kate started to reply, but was interrupted by Sam's exclamation of "I didn't imagine it... you can speak!"

The dragon eyed him curiously. "And thiss iss a ssurprisse? Afterr what you have experienced?"

The corners of her mouth twitched, as she continued in Old Norse: "Would you feel more comfortable with the sspeech of our ancesstorrss?"

Kate laughed as Sam's expression grew even more startled, then made introductions (in English). "Guardian Silence" she began, formally, "this is Healer Sam Shay. Sam, this is our Guardian of Memories, Silence."

Now it was Kate's turn to be surprised. Sam, without any further prompting, bowed his head and extended his hand, palm open and fingers up. Silence, just as smoothly, extended her head and pressed her muzzle firmly against the vet's hand.

"I am honored" Sam said. Though he didn't know what 'Guardian of Memories' meant, Silence bore the same air of royalty and command as Skye had.

"The honor iss mine" Silence replied, as she straightened back up. "Asz unlikely asz it may sseem, you were Companion to my ancesstorr, Sskye. I wissh to hear more of your time with her, later. For thiss moment..." She paused, glancing significantly at Kate.

"For this moment" Kate continued, "you've probably got more questions than Silence did as a hatchling. Would you settle for hearing our side of the story first, and then you can ask anything you like?"

Sam nodded, eagerly. "Honestly, right now, I don't think I'd know what to ask first!" He said, with a rueful chuckle.

Kate grinned back. "First and foremost, know that you are more than welcome to remain here, in New Berk, for as long as you like, even for the rest of your life if you so choose. No one will stop you if you try to leave, but no matter what happens you will always have a safe place among us."

As little as six months ago, Sam would have leaped at such an offer. Now, though, he hesitated. "Thank you, and please don't think me rude for asking, but... what's the catch?"

Now it was Kate's turn to hesitate. "He hasz earned the right to know" Silence prompted.

"Fair enough" said Kate, with a sigh. "The catch, Sam, is you'll be dead to the outside world. As far as anyone else you've ever known is concerned, you will have died when your ship crashed. This will likely be the official story from UNEC, complete with a funeral. You would never be able to leave our borders without a disguise."

Sam's jaw dropped. "Are you telling me" he said, slowly, "I could never see my family or friends again? Not Paddy, not my cousins, no one?!"

"No one you've known who's not aware of Berk and the dragons" she said. "We certainly do have outside helpers, and other enclaves, as you now know, but any outside contact you make would have to be strictly limited to them and those they designate as trustworthy."

She held up a hand at the look on his face. "It's for your protection as well as ours. Do you really think Gupta risked an international brouhaha just for the hell of it? It's painfully obvious he thinks you're the biggest threat since Hitler. You show your face outside our borders, at least for now, and it'll likely be your last living act!"

Sam let his gaze wander from human to dragon and back again. Bitterness flooded over him, betrayal right on its heels.

"That's a hell of a choice!" He said, between clenched teeth.

Suddenly, something Kate had said replayed in his head. He latched onto it like a stooping falcon. "Wait... You said 'at least for now.' So there may come a time when I won't have to worry about getting perforated by a laser?"

"There is always hope" Kate said, carefully. "An awful lot depends on what you decide. Let us tell you a little more of our history, and we can go from there, OK?"

Sam considered this, as the quiet grew thick enough to slice. Finally, he nodded.

Kate produced a small smile. "Thanks. Now, as you may have already guessed, nearly all of the dragon species have survived to this day, although Scauldrons have dropped considerably in numbers – no one's quite sure why.

"In fact, there's been a permanent family group living in Loch Ness for the last few centuries. They tend to keep to themselves, and the locals have done a good job of giving them cover."

"'Hide in plain sight?'" Sam asked, remembering the multitude of 'Nessie' stories he'd read.

Kate nodded. "Exactly. In any case, Hiccup set quite the precedent. Not only was he the first Viking ever to make friends with a dragon, he and his descendants were the first to show others what could be accomplished through friendship with them.

"Sadly, not very many outside the archipelago Old Berk was part of saw things that way. I'll spare you the – literally – gory details, but suffice to say the spread of Christianity across the world was not particularly kind to anyone, especially dragons."

"The Crussadess were among our darkesst timess" Silence added. "Thosse among your people, who claimed leadersship in matters of the Sspirit, ssaw uss asz 'Demonss' to be sslain at every opportunity."

A bitter note crept into her tone. "There wass no mercy given; adultss, hatchlingss and egg-bearing motherss alike were killed, ssimply for being who and what we are. We were forced into ever more remote areass, jusst to ssurvive."

"The good news" Kate continued, "was Hiccup's descendants kept their word. The groundwork for living peacefully with dragons was never completely lost. In fact, our museum has the original journals from Hiccup, his son, Eric, and others. This island was first chosen as a refuge for dragons, and those who chose to share their lives with them, in the early part of the fourteenth century."

"And here we have been, ever ssince" Silence said. "Living our livess as we choosse, bonding with humanss or not, as we choosse..." She trailed off, her gaze turning outward.

Sam was a lot of things. Slow on the uptake was not one of them. "What are you not telling me?"

Silence fixed him with the same unwavering gaze Skye had used when she wanted to drive a point home. "Our kind are dying" she said, after a lengthy pause. "Even with the work of Lance Hussa, and hisss mate, Roana, we can only grow our numberss sso far. Human over-fisshing iss only one of many reassons."

Sam nodded absently, then looked startled. "Wait... you said Lance Husa? Isn't the last name a Norse translation of 'Hyse,' in English?"

The dragon nodded, once. "You have heard of him?"

"Heard?!" Sam replied, with a laugh. "His work in exobiology was required reading at vet college. The man was, to genetics, what Tesla and Queller have been to physics!" He turned back to Kate. "Was it the same when you were still training?"

"Yes, but it goes a little beyond that. His grandson, Benn, and Amira, Roana's granddaughter, are still with us. In fact, Benn taught me most of what I know about dragon biology. As for Lance, he was once our chieftain, along with then-Guardian of Memories, Substance."

"My grand-dam" added Silence. "Windss blesss her memory... my mother wass the lasst of her hatchlingss before sshe passsed."

The dragon's eyes took on a far-away look as she spoke, prompting Sam to reach out and touch her neck. "I'm sorry I didn't have a chance to know her" he said, softly.

She leaned against his hand, briefly. "Her lack of eyessight rarely sslowed her down. I cannot be certain, but I think sshe would have approved of you." She shook herself, wings rustling, then continued. "But enough of the passt for now."

"Yes" Sam said, pulling his hand back in. "Did you say you can't grow your population outside this island?"

"Or our other enclavess" Silence continued. "To do sso would mean revealing our people to yourss, on a broad sscale" she said. "There iss much debate whether ssuch a decission iss wisse.

"It iss ironic, iss it not? Given time, yourr people will learn of ourss regardlesss of choice."

"How?" Sam asked. "You're in an isolated wilderness area, access strictly limited by Norway's government for anyone going in or out. Seems to me that's pretty good protection"

"Up until the Internet became as big as it is now" Kate said. "Tell me, Sam... How did you first learn of this area? What, in particular, drew you to it?"

"Well, some people I visited in California, where I took some... special training... helped me figure it out."

He explained about his early efforts to regain his memory, including the evidence his hosts had shown him.

"Bingo" said Kate. "The world is getting too wired. I would guess, within another century or so, there's not going to be a single spot on this planet which hasn't been photographed, surveyed and mapped, with the possible exception of the deep ocean trenches."

"Dragonss are deeply curiouss, jusst as you are" Silence said. "No matter how many timess we sspeak of the dangerss of contacting humanss who are not... accusstomed... to uss and our wayss, there are alwayss thosse who will pussh the limitss, tesst the boundariess, even at the rissk of their livess. Thiss explainss the imagess your friendss sshowed you."

"Our long-term plans" Kate continued, "have always held the framework for revealing ourselves to the rest of the world. We've all known there will come a day when we can no longer hide, anywhere on the planet. In fact, we came damn close to blowing the lid off, as it were, about thirty years back. When wolves were first driven into extinction–"

"What?!" Sam yelped. "Wolves... extinct?! When in bloody blue blazes did that happen?!" His thoughts flashed back to the female he had treated, just before getting dragged back in time. Extinct!

Now it was Kate's turn to look puzzled. "You didn't know? How could you not, as a UNEC Ranger? Bronson's 'The Last Wolf War' is required reading at the Academy.

"In any case, the dragons fit neatly into the predator's niche left by the wolves' absence. Better, in fact; they won't hunt livestock herds on ranches."

Sam covered his face with his hands, shivering all over despite the warmth of the room. Finally, he looked up again, and explained about the old mother wolf he'd treated. "I'm guessing" he said, dully, "that 'extinction event' you mention is another effect of my little jaunt back in time, though Saint Blaise only knows what I might have done – or not done – to cause it."

Kate winced. "I never was much good at chaos theory" she said, softly. "But I do know this much. If you start blaming yourself for every little thing that's different from when you left to when you got back, you're going to drive yourself right off the edge of a cliff."

He snorted and gave her a sour look. "What makes you think I haven't already? Essence Above, Kate... dolphins are still used as performers in marine circuses, while orcas only recently got full protection! Can you even imagine the shock I had when I found out?" He shook his head, sadly. "We should be working with them by now, not throwing them dead fish in exchange for crazy stunts!"

She eyed him curiously. "There's been speculation about cetacean intelligence since the 1800's. Are you saying dolphins are sentient, as in self-aware? And smart enough to do something with it? Sam, what haven't you told us?"

"Very much so!" He gave them a quick history of the Herman Institute's breakthrough. Their expressions went from astonishment to wild enthusiasm as he described his early work with the dolphin team at Yokohama's Tanjii Research Station.

"The best way I can put it" he concluded, "is it was like working with a bunch of well-disciplined pranksters. They had the most ribald sense of humor you could ever imagine, and enough energy to run down a hyperactive five-year old, but they were also fanatics about the quality of their work."

Kate and Silence traded looks. "It iss ssaid" the dragon offered, "that Sscauldronss can sspeak with whaless..."

"Wouldn't surprise me in the least" Sam said. "I'd wager it was much easier for them than it was for Jumbe to figure it out."

Kate's expression was, if possible, even more baffled. "Who?"

"Professor Kanja Jumbe? Originally from Luanda, in west Africa? Brilliant linguist. He pioneered interspecies communication with dolphins. Developed the computer algorithms which led to the Herman Institute's initial translation breakthrough and, expanding on Herman's early work with an artificial sign language, created a synthetic audible language both sides could deal with."

He trailed off as he saw the utter lack of comprehension in Kate's eyes, then sighed and waved a hand. "Never mind" he said. "Obviously, another difference in timelines." He looked back up at Silence. "So what's stopping you from showing the world dragons are real?"

"Human arrogancce!" Silence growled, then looked pointedly at Kate. "You tell him. I do not trusst mysself to sstay calm."

With that she backed away and curled up near the hearth, gazing steadily into the flames.

"She means it" Kate said, her tone sad. "Sam, you already know Secretary Gupta was responsible for screwing with your memory. What you may not know is it was only his latest in a long series of nasty stunts. Give me a moment..."

She got up and walked over to her desk, returning moments later with a data pad. A few taps and a vocal request brought up a series of articles, primarily from public news sources. Others were reports from various science foundations.

"Read through these" Kate said, handing him the device. "They're in digest form, but you can call up the full article by double-tapping whichever one you want."

Sam nodded, accepting the pad. As he went through the entries, a pattern started to emerge. Here, an article about the European Space Agency and their unsuccessful efforts to get funding for FTL drive research.

Another article, a few years more recent, from Scientific American, went on in depth about the Tesla Institute's abandonment of a project which could have quadrupled the range and resolution of existing radio telescopes. The reasoning given was 'Too expensive given current technology.'

There were many other entries, but the last one made Sam's jaw drop. It was a thirty-five year old extract from the proceedings of the University of Hawaii's Board of Regents, regarding a rejected doctoral dissertation from none other than Kanja Jumbe, on the possibility of interspecies communication using synthetic language.

The one thing every article had in common: Subrata Gupta was listed as a voting member of whatever group had been holding the purse-strings, and had voted against each proposal.

"I don't get it" Sam said, handing the pad back to Kate. "The Subrata Gupta I remember was one of the most forward-looking people I ever met. This one–" He gestured at the pad, "–if the articles are right, he's a raging xenophobe!"

"It's worse than that" Kate said, setting the device aside. "He's surrounded himself with a bunch of cronies among the UN Special Forces and the Guard. The Norwegian government, though in theory the head of a sovereign nation, has been told, in no uncertain terms, any attempt to reveal the presence of dragons to the rest of the world will be met with 'a strong military response.'"

Sam went white with shock as his worst fears were confirmed. "...No..."

"Yess" put in Silence, still gazing at the flames. "If we attempt to sspread beyond our enclavess, we cannot help but reveal oursselvess. If we reveal oursselvess, no matter how we are sseen by otherss, we may all be ssent home on the Sspirit Windss. By forsse."

Utter quiet ruled the room for several minutes. Finally, Sam spoke up. "But you must have allies outside the island" he said. "There must be some way you can let the public know you're here. Once they're on your side – and it's almost certain they would be, once they know the whole story – there's no way Gupta could–"

"The hell he couldn't!" Kate interrupted. "Any verified information about our community which leaks to the public, and we'd all be wiped out before the public was fully aware of what happened. The whole thing could be swept under the rug as a misunderstood 'military exercise.'

"But you've got hard evidence!" Sam almost shouted. "You've got everything you need to plead your case before the World Court in Geneva–"

"We don't!" Kate snapped back, just as emphatically. Then, more calmly, "Sam, it's hard to explain just how far Gupta's poison has seeped into the UN. Even with what you've brought us – the records of what happened to you and your ship, the alteration of official logs – it can still be explained away under 'National Security.' No one who matters would bat an eye about it.

"As for Nalu and Niho, they're biologically indistinguishable from the rest of the Terror population. There's no conclusive difference we can point to and say 'See, they came from a different time.' Believe me, I've looked!

"What we need is evidence so solid, so impossible to ignore, that it gives the General Assembly the leverage to unseat Gupta. That's why I've been looking through your data so closely."

Sam dropped back on the bed, an arm thrown over his eyes, as his mind whirled.

This is insane! Dolphins as circus performers, wolves wiped out, another sentient race held prisoner on an island in the middle of nowhere, a xenophobic madman at the top of UN Command... Saint Blaise Above, why didn't I stay in Old Berk?!

He flinched as a callused hand gripped his arm and pulled it gently away. Kate gazed down at him as Nalu and Niho pressed themselves hard against his sides, purring hard enough to make the entire mattress vibrate.

A moment later, Silence added herself to the group, her gaze like a cool cloth on a fevered brow.

"No one" she rumbled, softly, "human or dragon, blamess you for what hass happened. The Sspirit Windss blow where they will. All we can do iss ssteer within them."

"That's Silence's flowery way of saying there is always hope" Kate added, with a grin, drawing a huff of mock annoyance from the Night Fury. "I've only worked through about half your data. Also, Gupta's not immortal, and he's no spring chicken. As long as we keep a low profile, Time itself may well manage to do what we can't."

She smiled. It lit up the room. "The important thing, Sam Shay, is what you decide to do next. You're free to leave, if you want, but as I've told you there's no guarantee Gupta will just leave you alone."

"Or, you are free to sstay with uss" Silence added. "Our warm sseasson iss asz pleassant asz our winterss are cold."

"And we can always use a good, multi-talented vet" Kate added, then raised a hand as Sam took a breath. "No... don't answer yet. Stay with us for a few days, get to know our village and our people, human and scaled alike. Then decide."

For the first time in what seemed like forever, Sam felt a smile creasing his face. "Well, if nothing else, I want to see what data you've recovered. I barely had time to glance at it."

He sat up, carefully. Nalu and Niho chirped at him, then moved aside, though they didn't leave the bed. "It's all right, you two" he said, chuckling, as he scratched them both under the chin. "Thanks for the support."

A sense of calm determination swept through him as he gazed at Silence and Kate. In that moment, he made a silent pledge:

Whatever else happens, I will find a way to make Gupta answer for what he's done!

"Yes" he said, firmly, as he stood up. His equilibrium was better, but he still swayed a bit. A massive black head was instantly at his side, providing support until the dizziness passed. "Thanks, Silence" he said, as she and Kate guided him towards the desk.

He couldn't suppress an appreciative whistle as he sat down in front of the neat array of computer hardware. Four virtual screens hung in midair, just above the desk's surface, a product of the system's four-way holographic display. One displayed a newscast, though the sound was muted. Another, apparently in idle mode, was displaying a new image every ten seconds or so. The pictures were a fascinating mix of landscapes, humans, dragons and birds.

"Just some 'Life in Berk' shots" Kate explained, as she sat down next to him on a short stool. "Your data's on the lower pair. So far, I've only been able to go through what was on your jump drive. The OD card needs a retina scan to unlock it. It didn't like mine, so I'm guessing Dash coded it to himself."

"Maybe, maybe not" Sam said. He double-tapped the optical drive icon, then pressed the retinal reader against his left eye. One bright green flash later, the target screen displayed:


"Crap" Kate muttered, as Silence huffed irritably. She'd been following the proceedings over Sam's shoulder. "Our liaisson could be too cautiouss" she hissed.

Sam nodded absently as he tried a likely password, then a second. "Frell!" He said, as the screen flashed a bright red warning about this being the last attempt.

He stared fixedly at the screen, thinking hard. Something we'd both know, something memorable to us alone, but unique enough to be hard for anyone else to guess...

Inspiration struck. "Couldn't be that simple" he muttered, as he reached for the keyboard once more.

Kate's grip on his wrist stopped him. "Sam, if you've got the slightest doubt about this, leave it. We can get the card to your friends in California. They might be able to break the lock without losing any data."

He shook his head. "I know this type of card, Kate. Any kind of tampering, outside of the right password, and it'll wipe itself cleaner than new snow. There's no way to try and read it with a laser interferometer either, because the casing itself has light shielding embedded."

"Any encrypted device can be cracked" she said, firmly. "But not if it's erased!"

"True" Sam said. "But it's a matter of time, effort, and tools. Tesla's Basement certainly has no shortage of effort or tools, but time is another thing. Maybe I'm getting more paranoid than I should, but if Gupta wants me dead badly enough to risk an international incident, we have no way to know if he'll stop at one attempt, no matter where I am!"

"Thiss iss a good point" Silence said, surprising them both. "Try again, Ssam. We have very little to losse, even if you fail."

Kate sighed and raised both hands in surrender. "Who am I to argue with a Night Fury?"

Sam nodded, then reached for the keys. After a moment's hesitation, he tapped out his final attempt and hit ENTER before anyone could change their mind. The screen blanked for five long seconds–

–then flashed back to life with a video recording of Dashiell in his office. He looked tired, more so than Sam could remember, but the look was tempered with a fiery commitment he'd seen only twice before.

Kate's jaw dropped. "How...?"

"Dash's last words to me" Sam said, with a sad little smile, "were 'zero-zero-two-zero,' a pre-arranged transponder code, and 'Article 14,' which refers to the asylum provisions in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That's how he coded the password. Let's see what he has to say..."

He clicked the 'PLAY' tab.

"Sam, if you're seeing this recording, chances are pretty good I'm fish bait by now. I'm sorry it worked out that way – I really wanted to see your reaction when you met the folks at New Berk, and I don't mean just humans!

"You know I'm no good with flowery speeches, so I'll keep it short. Your debriefing recording follows this one, along with some extra pieces I kept. I hope they help. I know what I'd like to see you do next, but it'll be what you choose that's important. I trust you to do the Right Thing... Always have, always will.

"Give everyone on the island my best. Dashiell out."

The recording blinked off, then the screen lit once again. Sam shivered with Deja Vu, as he watched and listened. After a few minutes, he began fast-forwarding.

"Hey!" Kate protested. "There might have been something important earlier on. Go back!"

"Not yet" Sam said. "Nothing during the debriefing itself will be of much help. Dash said he'd kept some extras. I think he might have left the recorder running after I was dismissed. If he did, and Gupta didn't realize it..."

He tapped two keys in quick succession. The recording froze after the point where Sam had left the office, then started forward again. Both Kate and Silence drew sharp breaths as Gupta, after arguing with Dash, picked up the phone, dialed and said "Martin, forty milligrams Axonase-B along with whatever else Ranger Shay is being given..."

"That's it" Kate said, softly. "Fifteen-plus years we've been waiting to catch him in a capital-class screw up, and he does it on camera!"

She jumped out of her chair with a delighted whoop. "Axonase has only one purpose, he named you and the drug in the same sentence, and he had no Council or Crown Court order to use the stuff! Oh, Sam, we've got him by the balls!"

Before he could so much as take a breath to reply, Sam found himself pulled into an enthusiastic bear hug – followed by an equally enthusiastic kiss.

"Saint Blaise Above!" He gasped, as she finally let him go. "Don't you ever come up for air?!"

The expression in his eyes caused Kate to pause in her antics. "Sam, what's wrong? We've got evidence no court could ignore!"

"And the court's first question is going to be 'Where did you get the recording?' Kate, I'm sorry to break this to you, but UNEC debriefing recordings are not public record in any sense of the word. This means whatever we've got here wouldn't be admissible as evidence by itself."

Rarely had Sam seen anyone go from the height of elation to the depths of despair so quickly. "So, we're back to square one? Is that what you're saying?

"Dammitall, Sam, we are being slowly suffocated! I don't care if that recording is public, private, or ends up on the Jerry Springer Memorial Network. We need to get it Out There!"

"You're absolutely right" Sam said, calmly, just as Kate took a breath to continue her tirade. The breath went back out with a whoosh as she eyed him quizzically. "But you said it wouldn't be admissible by itself."

"Yes, Doctor," he agreed, grinning slightly. "That is exactly what I said." He crossed his arms over his chest and waited.

Kate's eyes suddenly widened. "But what else do we have? Are you holding out on me?"

"Not a bit" Sam said. "But as for 'what else' you have, they're staring at you right now." He nodded at Silence and the two Terrors. "Better yet, coming up in March of next year, there's a very special meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission. It'll be their 86th anniversary, and there's likely to be a pretty big media party..."

Kate's jaw dropped as she realized what he was thinking. "You can't be serious! Sam, who's side are you on?!"

Sam raised both hands. "I never said it would be easy, or risk-free. But look at how you're living now, Kate. You, Silence, the rest of the village and all the other dragons. Gupta and his cronies have made you all prisoners!

"And do you really think it's going to get any better if you just sit around and wait? How do you know Gupta isn't already grooming someone who's just as bad as he is, if not worse, to replace him when his term expires?"

"You sseem very certain yourr worrld will accept uss" said Silence. "How can you be sso ssure? How can you know there are not more like the Dark One in powerr?"

"I could never be one hundred percent certain" Sam replied. "No one could. But, I've got one thing going for me which no one else does; memories of how things can be, before my little jaunt through Time tossed a spanner into the gears."

"Sstop" Silence said, as she stood up and headed for the door. "I have hearrd enough to call for a village-wide Council. All musst hear whatever plan you have come up with. Resst now. We will talk more tomorrow."

With that, she was gone, pulling the door closed with her tail just as the Terrors had. Sam felt a sudden rush of weariness. He was startled to see nearly four hours had passed.

"Do you really have a plan?" Kate asked, as he got ready to go back to bed. "Or just half-baked ideas?"

"Yes" Sam replied, as he flipped the covers back and sat down on the mattress.

Kate shook her head. "You're nuts, Shay. You know that? Pure nucking futz!"

"But in a good way" he shot back, as he settled into place. Nalu and Niho promptly took up positions on either side, purring softly.

"Kate, I've been lied to, betrayed by my own people, drugged, shot at and generally treated like a pariah simply because I know about another sentient species on the planet. That's just wrong on so many levels, I don't know where to start!

"I wasn't kidding when I said my memories of what can be could help. Essence Above, I've already worked with dolphins! Even the Church came to grips with the fact they were sentient, no matter what kind of mess it made out of their Holy Scriptures. I don't see why dragons would be any different."

"I hope you're right" she replied, softly. "I really do. I also hope you're not afraid of public speaking, because whatever scheme you cook up, you get to explain it to the Council!"

With that, she got up and went back to her desk. The lights in the living room went off a moment later.

Sam turned over and willed himself to relax, at least in body. His mind was going like a runaway bullet train, sifting one idea after another. He snorted, softly, as the memory of one of his favorite SciFi first-contact novels (Foster's 'Nor Crystal Tears') crossed his mind: Now I know how Ryozenzuzex felt!

An hour of tossing and turning later, he muttered a curse and rummaged for his personal book reader. The screen flickered to life with a list of titles; a generous assortment of veterinary reference texts, balanced with another section composed entirely of science fiction and fantasy.

He frowned as he saw the two indexes had, somehow, gotten merged. Must have gotten knocked around in the crash he thought.

He started to make the necessary adjustments to separate the sections – then froze, as one particular author and title, tucked neatly between Howl's Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones, and Uhura's Song by Janet Kagan, caught his eye.

Jumbe, Kanja, Ph.d: 'Elements of Cetacean Communication' 2nd Ed., Copyright 2053, University of Hawaii Press.

Hands trembling slightly, hardly daring to believe, Sam double-tapped the entry and started paging through it. It was all there: Full mathematical descriptions of Dr. Jumbe's algorithms, details on the hardware used during initial attempts at communication, and a full description of the synthetic language which had been developed as a result!

He scrambled out of bed, ignoring the dragons' protests as they were suddenly buried in top covers, and stumbled toward Kate's desk. She had, apparently, gone to bed a while ago, but that didn't stop him from linking his reader to her computer and making two backup copies of Jumbe's book, one to a spare optical storage card and the other to her desktop.

As he did so, an idea took root and began to grow. The eventual result was a bizarre mix of common sense and uncommon insanity. It would take time, careful planning and every single Outside helper the island community could muster, including some they likely didn't know about. Yet.

If it went bad, most if not all the remaining dragons could be wiped out within a single day, assuming Gupta's xenophobic reach extended as far as Kate thought it did. But if Gupta was bluffing and Sam's idea worked...

If it works he mused, as he put the reader carefully away and went back to bed, the human race is in for a major New Year's surprise and Gupta's little empire will crumble down on top of him!

Sleep claimed him moments later.

The day dawned bright and clear, the sun's rays turning leftover rain puddles into diamond-bright sparks. The air was refreshing, though chill, and Sam was grateful for the hooded parka he'd been given. He walked briskly along, Nalu perched comfortably on his shoulder, exchanging greetings with other villagers as he passed.

This was his fifth day in New Berk, and he still found himself amazed at the balance of ancient and contemporary the community had achieved. Fishing, for example, was done the same way the village's Viking ancestors had, with hand-woven nets and longboats. The nets were made from locally-grown hemp, as were most ropes.

The community had an abundant supply of livestock, including goats, sheep and cattle. These provided milk, cheese and butter (all hand-made), meat, wool and leather. Well-tended crops provided potatoes, onions, and various other vegetables.

Conspicuous by their absence were horses and donkeys, but Sam quickly found out why. Who had need of a ground-bound mount when a dragon could offer much faster (and smoother) air transport? The villagers who lacked a draconic companion large enough to carry them had no shortage of friends who could accommodate them.

As agrarian as the community clearly was, modern conveniences were not absent. Solar-powered tractors took care of farming needs. Electricity was provided by a combination of geothermal taps and ocean wave-driven generators. Each home had running water, some form of centralized heat and indoor plumbing. The compact wastewater-treatment plant was every bit as contemporary as Sam had ever seen, while network connections were provided by a redundant mix of well-concealed microwave radios and long-distance fiber optics.

This was a community which could, in theory, sustain itself nearly indefinitely.

It was also a community in severe danger of stagnation.

Humans are, by nature, social creatures, as are most dragon species. Many of the island's residents had never been beyond its borders, yet they were becoming increasingly curious about the outside world, made so by the vast amount of information available on the Internet-connected terminals in the island's community center.

Details of Sam's arrival, and the fact he was to present his proposal to the ruling Council today, had spread like wildfire in a dry forest. Though he walked amidst a steady stream of villagers, all headed for the Council Hall, he also seemed to walk in the midst of an invisible three-meter barrier.

Every dragon passing overhead slowed to study him with curious – and, in many cases, oddly hopeful – eyes. He gulped, trying to ignore the fresh crop of butterflies taking wing somewhere near his liver.

Nalu suddenly stood up on his shoulder, chirping excitedly. At the same instant, a familiar voice yelled "Hey! Sam!"

He glanced around, startled. "Up here!" Called the voice, from almost directly overhead.

Shading his eyes, Sam looked up to see a brilliantly-scaled Nadder, cobalt-blue with yellow highlights, doing a slow circle barely five meters above him. He nearly stumbled as he recognized the dragon's rider: "Gerry?!"

The dragon stopped circling and glided down to land beside him, nodding a greeting. Gerry Hoshino hopped down to grab his former partner in a bear hug.

"None other!" He said, with a grin which threatened to split his face apart. "I would have come to see you sooner, but I got in late last night and I didn't want to wake you."

Sam was rendered speechless. His friend was dressed just like a typical Berk islander, in the greens and browns of dyed linen and leather, though he retained his Ranger-issue boots.

"Come on" he said, taking Sam's elbow as they started up the gentle slope towards the meeting hall, the Nadder keeping easy pace beside them. "We'll walk you up. This, by the way" he continued, gesturing to the blue dragon, "is my draconic partner, Saffyre. Saff, this is Sam Shay, who I'm sure you're tired of hearing me blather about."

The Nadder nodded once again, and extended her muzzle for Sam to touch. Her large eyes were the same brilliant yellow as the highlighting on her wing edges. "Fair Windss and good hunting, Ssam Sshay" she said. "I am mosst curiouss to hear what you have to tell uss."

"In that case" Sam said, "I hope I can keep everything straight in my head." He eyed the Nadder thoughtfully. "Saffyre, do you play darts?"

The dragon tilted her head to one side, her expression turning quizzical. "What are 'dartss?'"

Sam and Gerry took turns explaining. As they did Sam found much of the tension in his guts was draining away, thanks to the presence of a familiar face. Saffyre swished her well-armed tail for a moment, a thoughtful expression on her round face.

"It ssoundss like a good challenge" she said, finally. "Gerry, will you and Ssam sshow me?"

They both laughed. "After the meeting, Saff" Gerry said, giving her an affectionate slap on the neck, then eyeing Sam with mock annoyance. "Look what you started!"

"Blame it on a dream" he shot back, then changed the subject. "So, I'm guessing you're another Outside Liaison, like Dash was?"

Gerry nodded. "Helpful to have at least one in the UNEC Command chain as well as the field" he said.

His face turned more serious than Sam could ever remember seeing it. "We all heard about Dash, Sam. I'm really sorry... I know you two were close."

Sam dropped an arm around the smaller man's shoulders. "Thanks. It's going to take me a while to get over it. I'm guessing Gupta's framing me as the killer?"

"Not directly" Gerry replied. "Though one of those asinine charges against you was 'Negligence leading to the death of a fellow officer.' That's what the 'official' report says, along with attributing your desertion to insanity."

He eyed his friend with a mixture of admiration and shock. "You sure stirred up a hornet's nest! UNEC's demanding the remains of your ship, and the Norwegian government's agreed."

Sam snorted. "Let 'em have it. Silence and I are getting along just fine."

Gerry eyed his friend, surprised. "This from someone who wouldn't even get up on a horse as a kid? Who's always insisted that anything built for riding needs an engine and air conditioning?"

Sam just smiled. Gerry shook his head in amazement. "Saint Blaise Above, Sam, that's great! I knew you had it in you. And you're not afraid of heights any more?"

"Thank Skye for that" he replied. "I certainly do, every time Silence and I go up!"

They entered the hall. Kate intercepted them almost as they came through the door, and guided them to a front tier of seats reserved for those who would be speaking.

"Gerry, you're giving your report first, then we'll have Sam give his proposal" she said. "Assuming" she continued, her tone taking on unmistakable warning, "he has it ready?"

"Oh, ye of little faith" Sam muttered, as he unzipped his parka and produced a thick folder from an inner pocket. Kate nodded, and ushered them both to seats near the podium.

The room itself was enormous, easily half the size of an indoor football stadium, with multiple tiers of seats and perches suspended from duralloy cables for the dragons who chose not to sit with their human counterparts.

Sam's newly-trained technician's eye picked out the details of a first-class sound system, as well as a holoprojector. Lighting was provided by numerous LED fixtures and a full set of stage lights. Microphones were scattered throughout the tiers, accommodating anyone in the audience who might have questions of any given presenter.

The stage itself was ranked in two tiers. Arrayed within these tiers were six humans, and six dragons of varying species; Two Nadders, a Zippleback, two Monstrous Nightmares and one Gronckle. They were alternating between talking amongst themselves and watching the audience.

One of the humans in particular caught Sam's eye. Tall – nearly two full meters, with a slender build and chestnut-brown hair topping clean-shaven features. He wore an elaborate sash, decorated much the same as Silence's, and carried an air of quiet authority at odds with his youthful appearance.

"Benn Hyse, village chieftain" came Kate's voice, softly, from his left. "Lance Hyse's grandson and our lead vet. His dragon companion is the Nightmare on the left – Mystiske."

Sam blinked. "Translates as 'mysterious'" he said. "Is there a reason behind the name?"

A familiar black form settled down to his right. "Becausse" Silence said, just as softly, "we rarely ssee him outsside of gatheringss ssuch asz thiss. It iss ssaid hiss grandssire, Arvekni, wasz much the ssame."

"Hardly anyone dares argue with him, though" Kate added. "He's one of the wisest heads on the Council. Don't be surprised if he asks you some pointed questions. The best advice I can give is answer directly and honestly, no matter how you think the answer may sound!"

Three resonant chime notes sounded throughout the hall. The noise level dropped abruptly as everyone took their seat, perch, or portion of floor. Benn Hyse took his place at the stage podium, then touched a switch on his headset and spoke.

"People of Berk" he said, his voice a pleasant tenor. "As you are likely aware, there are several issues important to our entire island to be discussed and, later, voted on.

"To start, the Council recognizes Outside Liaison Gerald Hoshino, Alladale Base, UNEC."

A spotlight highlighted the podium to Sam's right, placed on a raised platform facing the council assembly at stage center. Gerry climbed up to it and positioned the mic. "Thank you, Chief Hyse" he said. "My report will be brief–"

He went on, describing much of what he and Sam had already talked about on the way to the meeting. "In summary" he finished, "UNEC Command has agreed to Ranger Shay's asylum, provided he remain in Berk for the rest of his life, and the remains of his aircar are returned to Alladale base. He will be listed in their public record as 'missing, presumed dead,' due to an aircar crash."

Sam squeezed his eyes shut. Though he had half-expected something like this, after what Gerry had told him, it still came as a shock. There's a big difference between thinking you might be a virtual prisoner and knowing it he thought, bitterly.

"In addition" Gerry continued, "the death of our former Liaison, Lieutenant Robert Dashiell, will be listed as accidental, in the line of duty, due to injuries suffered while caught in crossfire. The choice of his successor has not yet been formalized, but the indications are Sergeant Thomas Madden will soon be promoted to Lieutenant and take over in Dashiell's place."

Sam winced, and felt a few moments of relief he would no longer be a part of UNEC. Madden was a good enough Ranger, but also very much a micro-manager. Worse, he was as 'By the Book' as a raw recruit. Just the kind of stooge Gupta probably adores he grumbled to himself.

He was not alone in his feelings. Muttering, and quite a few curses, rippled through the crowd as Gerry closed his folder. It seemed Dashiell had been well-liked.

"With that said" Gerry concluded, with a wry grin, "I believe Ranger Shay has a proposal to put before you, which is not bad for a supposed corpse." A low ripple of laughter went through the room. "Chief Hyse, I yield the floor."

"Thank you, Liaison Hoshino" came the amplified reply. "The Council recognizes our newest arrival, Ranger Sam Shay, under protective asylum, formerly of UNEC."

Sam took a deep breath and stood up, clutching his folder tight enough to turn his knuckles white. As he passed Gerry, on his way to the podium, he hissed "Smart-ass!"

"And proud of it!" Hoshino shot back. "Go get 'em, tiger!"

Sam did exactly that. He thanked the chief, opened his folder, and began laying out his plan.

The hall went progressively more silent as he continued, to the point where it seemed his voice was the only sound in the room. He felt the weight of hundreds of eyes on him; many supportive, thankfully, though others felt neutral or outright hostile. Though it took just fifteen minutes to run through the entire presentation, it felt more like fifteen hours to Sam.

"In summary" he concluded, "I don't see how you can do anything else. The world is getting smaller, metaphorically speaking, every day. There is no doubt New Berk and its secrets will, eventually, come to light. It's merely a question of when, and who is in control when it happens."

His gaze swept the room. "If you do this now, it is yourselves and your draconic friends who will be in control. If someone else puts two and two together, all you'll be able to do is react to someone else's actions. Granted, Time is on your side at the moment, but there's no guarantee it'll stay that way."

He closed the folder. "Chief Hyse, I thank you and the people of New Berk, and I yield the floor."

The room exploded into verbal chaos.

Even the Council members, human and dragon alike, seemed shaken. Finally, unable to restore order with the room-filling chimes, Chief Hyse murmured something to Mystiske. The Nightmare nodded, then reared up and let loose with a roar which shook the rafters.

"Thank you, Ranger Shay" the chief said, into the sudden silence. "Would everyone please sit, perch or crouch, whatever the case, and quiet down? We'll all have a chance to discuss this proposal, and there will certainly be both popular and Council votes before any course of action is chosen!"

Sam watched in amazement as the entire audience did indeed settle down. Not without much muttering, hissing and rumbling, but settle they did. The UN General Assembly could learn something from these people he mused.

"Thank you" the chief said. "In light of this new information, I call for a one-day recess. We will reconvene tomorrow, same time. The Council will then present its recommendations, followed by a community-wide vote. Any objection or further comment?"

More muttering, but no one spoke up. "Very well. This meeting stands adjourned. Ranger Shay, please remain for now."

A single chime reverberated throughout the room, heralding the most orderly mass exit Sam had ever seen. It helped, of course, that the hall's doors were nearly as wide and high as barn doors, to allow for draconic passage. This meant nearly a dozen people could exit, side by side, at one time.

Sam waited until the front row started to clear, then climbed down from the podium and settled shakily into the nearest seat.

He felt drained, the wild energy which had fueled his presentation now a distant memory. Silence paced over and laid her head in his lap. "Well sspoken" she said.

Right now, that tiny bit of support meant more to him than a Nobel Prize. He smiled, and reached down to scratch behind an ear flap. "Thanks" he said, then tensed as the chief and Mystiske approached. "I hope they agree with you."

"Ranger Shay" the chief said, nodding. "Would you and Silence walk with us, please?"

"Certainly, sir" Sam replied, as Silence moved aside to let him stand.

All four of them headed slowly for the nearest door. "I'll make you a deal" the chief said, smiling slightly. "Don't call me 'sir,' and I won't have to keep calling you 'Ranger Shay.'" He extended a hand.

Sam took it, shook firmly. "Deal. Please, call me Sam."

"And you can call me Benn. Two N's, never found out why. Perhaps a private joke on the part of my parents. My dragon companion is Mystiske." He nodded at the Nightmare as they moved outside and halted on a wide knoll, overlooking the village's natural harbor. The sun was just past its noon position and, though the air had warmed, it was still what Sam considered nippy.

Sam extended his hand as the huge dragon extended his muzzle for a greeting touch. His skin, though just as smoothly scaled as Silence's, felt much warmer.

"'Mysst,' to my friendss" he rumbled, a sound like a pile of rocks sliding together. Sam wondered if the extended 's' sounds were characteristic of any dragon who learned human speech. "May I count you among them, Ssam?"

"I would be honored if you did" Sam replied, a little awed by the 'gentle giant' effect the Nightmare projected.

"Sso I sshall, then" Myst replied, settling into a comfortable crouch. Silence parked herself just behind Sam, clearly inviting him to use her as a backrest. He did so, grateful for the Night Fury's warmth even with his parka zipped up. "I'm guessing you have some questions for me?"

"Myst more than myself" the chief said, relaxing against the Nightmare's side. "He's good at ferreting out things I might miss."

"You are too modesst" the dragon rumbled, with a hint of what sounded like a chuckle, before turning his full attention to Sam. He met the lantern-yellow gaze steadily, though his innards quivered.

"Of all you have told uss thiss day" Myst said, slowly, "there iss one quesstion I musst have an ansswer to: Are you, Ssam Sshay, driven by vengeansse or compasssion?"

Startled, Sam sat bolt upright. His mind whirled frantically, caught completely off-guard. Myst continued "Conssider. Look deep within yoursself, for that iss where Truth iss found."

It took a few minutes, but Sam was finally able to calm his thoughts and dig deep. He was startled to find much of his motivation was indeed fueled by his anger at Subrata Gupta, and a desire to see him fall in disgrace.

And yet, there was something deeper. He reached for it, felt as though he was reaching through an inky black pool where he couldn't see anything below the first inch or so of surface...

There it was. Past the anger, past the hurt, past the betrayal, it came to him as clear and welcoming as a light in the window of shelter on a stormy night.

He looked up, blinked, caught Silence's gaze, saw her own recognition of what he'd just realized. She dipped her head at the same time he wrapped his arms around her neck, holding on, basking in both physical and emotional warmth. A moment later, she covered him with a wing and purred just enough for him to feel.

Finally, they pulled away and Sam started to speak. No one else had so much as twitched.

"Humans" he said, slowly, but with growing confidence, "have, for thousands of years, held ourselves above other species. We've isolated ourselves on a high cliff and let no others approach, for fear of losing what we thought was superiority.

"The problem is this 'superiority' itself is an illusion, a man-made concept. Why do the labels of 'superior' and 'inferior' even have to apply? Isn't it enough to simply be?

"Such isolation isn't natural. It has, over time, caused a longing, a loneliness in each and every one of us. If you don't agree, ask yourself: Why do most people keep pets of one kind or another? Why have we spent billions of dollars and decades of time hunting for extraterrestrial radio signals? Why is there still an expedition to Mars in the planning stage? Why are there people who keep wondering 'Is this all there is? Is this all I am? Is there nothing more?'

"In my time, one man grew up enough to believe there was more. His work ended that racial loneliness for any who were open to leaving it behind, even though the species we found couldn't speak as we did, never built things as we did and lived completely differently from us.

"All of a sudden, none of those things mattered. The best way I can put it is we had, for the first time, a non-human race which could hold up a mirror up to us and say, 'Take a good look: Is this really what you want?'"

His gaze wandered out across the harbor. "In the time I've come back to, that never happened. With very few exceptions, the human race has managed to hang on to its isolation. Whatever I did, or didn't do, in the past, obviously had some pretty drastic effects on the way things are now."

He looked back, locking gazes with Myst. "Ending this isolation, just as Professor Jumbe did, would be 'vengeance' enough. I don't ever want to deny anyone else the opportunity to share what you and Benn, what I and Silence, what anyone who has come to know another intelligent being, can share. How's that for an answer?"

Myst's yellow eyes seemed to glow brighter. Benn was grinning as wide as Gerry had earlier. "Ssam Sshay" the Nightmare rumbled, warmly. "You are truly of Berk. Welcome home!"

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