The Dragonwing Effect

Chapter 15

"The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking."

Albert Einstein

Sam Shay was many things. A politician was not one of them. He'd had more than enough exposure to UNEC bureaucracy over the years to know major decisions were usually not made swiftly, nor necessarily in a manner which made the most sense to address a given problem.

So, his beliefs were rattled once again when the Berk Council reconvened, discussed his proposal in depth and put it out to the village and the other enclaves (via encrypted satellite link) for a popular vote the same day.

The results: Eighty-one percent in favor, ten percent opposed, nine percent abstaining.

Most definitely 'his' proposal. Although Chief Hyse was clearly in charge, and several others were assigned the details, it was equally clear responsibility for the plan's results would fall squarely on Sam's shoulders.

Such a load would have sent him screaming for cover barely four months ago. Now, cut loose as he was from UNEC and his former life, he found himself looking at it with Zen-like detachment.

After all, as a long-dead but very wise musician named Jimmy Buffett had put it; 'You've only got two choices, having fun or freaking out.'

He much preferred 'having fun' – even if Silence's idea of it put his newfound courage in the face of heights to some serious stress-tests.

Days passed, became weeks. Sam's wrecked aircar was quietly hauled off by a UNEC double-R team, its members blissfully unaware of the exotic creatures only a few kilometers away.

Kate, despite his protests, insisted he remain lodged in a spare room at her home. "Quit complaining" she told him. "I'm almost a quarter through with Dr. Jumbe's book, and I want you around if I have questions."

Deep down, Sam suspected it was more than that. He was finding it increasingly difficult to keep their relationship on a 'professional' level. Kate was intelligent, attractive, and (except for her own draconic companion, another Night Fury, currently off-island), still single.

He'd gotten up the nerve to ask her about this, one night over dinner. She'd arched her eyebrows and eyed him with a downright predatory grin: "Why, Doctor Shay, are you proposing something?"

He stuttered, trying desperately to ignore how hot his ears suddenly felt. Kate laughed, and squeezed his hand. "Relax, Sam! I just haven't found the right guy yet. You might be the one, or not. I'll let you know either way when I'm good and ready."

The days grew shorter, and colder, though the temperature never dropped much below zero degrees C. "Climate change is still very much with us" Benn Hyse told him, one day over lunch. "Ocean levels are expected to rise another thirty centimeters over the next century, thanks to the polar melts. Don't be surprised if our snow season doesn't last more than a couple of weeks."

It didn't, which turned out to be a good thing for the first phase of what was now dubbed 'Sliding Scales.'

It began on a cloudy moonless night in January, the week after the New Year. A large assortment of aircars and hydrofoils, most of which had brought specially-cleared guests and their families to the island for the holiday celebrations, all departed in different directions.

To outward appearances, they were carrying those same guests back home.

This was true. However, each vehicle also carried at least two dragons.

The larger craft were able to take as many as four. As each craft neared its destination, the dragons slipped out into either air or sea, and made their own way to arranged meeting spots, set up in advance by Berk's Outside Liaisons.

In some cases, this was nothing more than a comfortable (for dragons, anyway) sea cave. In others, the attic or basement of a large building. Still others made their way to tiny airfields, to be whisked away in secret by innocent-looking cargo aircraft.

The exodus of dragons and their human companions continued over the next few weeks, always under the cover of night, until the island seemed nearly empty. All were volunteers, thoroughly briefed by the Berk Council and Sam.

Their instructions were simple: "Settle in, stay out of sight. Wait for word from your companions."

That word came near the end of February, once the 'seeding' was complete. In small isolated towns and villages all over the world, most of which were as near to being 'off the grid' as possible for a wired world, word-of-mouth started spreading about strange (but clearly friendly) lizard-like creatures and their human companions.

In the coastal town of Norden, Germany, an outside Berker spent a sunny afternoon in a public park, tossing Frisbees for a pair of Terrible Terrors. The audience he attracted, though unusually large for a late-winter day, was very well-mannered and utterly enthralled by the antics of the two dragons.

Their human companion was equally well-mannered, more than happy to talk about his scaly friends – and about the situation on a certain island several hundred kilometers to the north.

By the time he finished, and word had spread through the crowd, he was given ample warning when the local police stopped by to see what was going on.

All the officers saw, when they finally managed to tunnel to the front of the crowd, was a crazy foreigner doing silly stunts with a pair of garish plastic discs. They retreated to their vehicle with much muttering about how people would stop to look at darn near anything these days...

Hamoa Beach was one of Maui's most secluded. It was also one of the most popular, with locals and visitors alike, for sunset-gazing.

What no one expected, on one particularly nice evening in early March, was a huge scarlet dragon, tucked comfortably into the sand and gazing out over the water with every sign of utter contentment.

Alarm quickly gave way to curiosity, a transition aided in large part by the presence of two swimsuit-clad humans, a man and a woman, who gave off a strong impression of 'married couple.' They were both golden-haired, stocky without appearing fat, and bore the lighter brown of a 'tourist tan' as opposed to the caramel-tinted locals.

Had it not been for the fact they were both leaning comfortably against the dragon's chest, they wouldn't have attracted a second glance.

Questions were asked, and readily answered – both by the humans and the dragon, much to the surprise of the growing crowd. Contrary to what many expected, the dragon's voice, though deep and resonant, bore none of the roaring or growling overtones popularized in so many movies. In fact, close your eyes and you could almost imagine it was a deep-voiced human speaking (if you ignored the drawn-out sibulants).

Once again, the wonder of discovery sent fear screaming into the shadows. By the time the local constabulary came by to investigate garbled reports about something "big as a house and bright red" on the beach, there was nothing to be found except some oddly-shaped depressions in the sand, rapidly disappearing under the rising tide.

The encounters continued, becoming more frequent and lasting longer, always following the same pattern: Various species of dragon would appear in seemingly random locations as if conjured, always in the presence of at least one human companion.

Those curious (and adventurous) enough to approach would be warmly welcomed, their questions answered, and they would be asked to do nothing more in return than listen to a story about a certain island just off the northern coast of Norway.

All listened. Most believed, and understood, particularly when the dragon involved did some of the talking. They were as outraged as any sane person would be over the situation, and agreed to help in any way they could.

Some refused to listen and fled in terror. They wasted no time in notifying any authority or news media who would listen.

While most such reports got no further than the desk sergeant of the local police or the head producer of a given news outlet (along with much commentary about 'full-moon specials'), a few triggered keywords in Internet monitors and were forwarded to certain high-ranking UNEC officials.

These officials, in accordance with their standing orders, passed them up to UNEC HQ, flagged for Secretary Gupta's attention.

It was at this point the proverbial excrement collided with the rotary impeller.

Encrypted messages started flying between Gupta's private terminal and Benn Hyse. The Secretary was most diligent in reminding the island's chieftain about the terms of the current treaty, particularly the consequences of breaking it.

The third such contact, coming in March, took the form of a video call. "We must have gotten him pretty riled" Benn told Sam, Silence and Kate, as the time for the call approached.

"He hates using anything but E-mail, or working through his flunkies, where we're concerned. Watch, and you'll see what I mean. Stay out of camera range, though." His grin was more than a little wicked. "Myst and I are going to give him the full treatment."

Kate laughed, and clouted the chief on his shoulder. "You're vicious. Both of you" she said, though her gaze was full of amusement and anticipation. Sam traded a look with Silence, who rumbled her own amusement.

"You will ssee" she said. "It iss not the firsst time our human leader and Mysst have done thiss."

As they entered the meeting hall, Benn and his crimson companion took center stage in front of a meter-wide monitor with an incongruously small camera lens at the top. The call began precisely on the stroke of 13:00, local, a high-def image of Gupta seated at his office desk flashing into being on the screen.

Contrary to his normal dark suit, and much to Sam's surprise, Gupta was wearing a UNEC flag officer's uniform. It presented a garish, almost comical, contrast against the simple greens and browns of Benn's tunic and trews, the only sign of his rank a gold wrist band bearing an intricately-worked dragon's head with citrines for eyes.

As the call progressed, Sam found himself fighting to keep from laughing out loud. Though Myst spoke only a few words of formal greeting, apparently required by protocol, his huge lantern-yellow eyes remained locked, unblinking, on the screen. He stayed so still he could have been a statue, his only movement the flexing of his chest muscles as he breathed.

The effect on Gupta was far more pronounced.

Barely a couple of minutes into the call, his brow was glistening with sweat and he'd developed enough muscular tics to make a Tourette's patient look placid. Despite this, he managed to keep his voice steady.

"Chief Hyse" he said, carefully, shuffling several papers into a folder. "I must remind you the number of these reports is growing. I have received repeated assurances, in times past, the... beings... you choose to live with are capable, with human assistance, of understanding the restrictions spelled out in your country's treaty with UNEC."

His gaze flicked briefly to Myst, who showed no reaction whatsoever, then back to the chief with a barely-suppressed shudder. "Has a problem of understanding developed in spite of these assurances?"

"Not to my knowledge, Mr. Secretary" Hyse replied, apparently oblivious to the man's discomfort. "I must remind you, however, of several scientifically proven facts.

"First and foremost, while our draconic friends–" Sam nodded at the emphasis. "–certainly are capable of understanding the restrictions you refer to, they are not our slaves, nor are they dependent on humans in any way.

"We cannot make them do anything they truly do not wish to do, nor can we prevent them from exercising their own free will. Their association with us exists due to mutual curiosity, trust and affection."

Gupta paled visibly at this, but Benn didn't even pause. "I have noticed no unusual absence of dragons from our island, nor have their been any reports of such from the other enclaves.

"Second: I would like to remind you of a large volcanic island, near Old Berk. It is still, according to intelligence which your office provided, home to a very healthy population of wild dragons who, apparently, up until now, have been perfectly happy to stay put and have as little to do with humans as possible.

"This island was, in fact, ceded to the dragons themselves as a private reserve, by a secret treaty executed in the late 1980's between Norway's monarchy and Berk's leaders of that time."

Sam's gut clenched. He hadn't expected Hyse to play their 'hole card' so soon.

"My third point: Dragons are naturally curious, as you well know. If they become curious enough about environments other than the one they were hatched in, they will start to explore and, like migratory birds, they are capable of covering enormous distances.

"They're not dangerous unless threatened. Is not the same true of other large and potentially dangerous creatures, such as horses and elephants?

"If one approaches a wild dragon, openly, without threat, the chances of surviving the encounter are very high. Indeed, the chances of making friends with the dragon involved are just as high. If the dragon isn't interested, they will simply fly away."

Gupta's tone was brittle. "So what you are telling me, Chief Hyse, is you believe these... events... are due to wild dragons which Berk has no control over?" He scowled fiercely. "I find that as difficult to believe as they idea these... things... are as harmless as you claim!"

A soft growl issued from Myst's throat at this. The skin along the Nightmare's neck and head glistened for a moment, then shimmered with bluish flame which went out almost as quickly as it flared, leaving a few wisps of white smoke in its wake.

The Secretary flinched, visibly. "That is precisely what I refer to!" He shouted, as he pointed squarely at Myst. "How does one defend against something which can set itself on fire without harm, yet incinerate all around it?! Shiva Herself could not do worse!"

"If one does not threaten, there is no need for defense" Benn replied, calmly, resting a hand on his companion's neck, then holding up the same hand towards the camera, palm out. "Do you see any burn or injury, sir?

Gupta shook his head. "That is not my point, Chief Hyse, and you–"

Hyse's voice and manner suddenly changed, taking on a note of command which reminded Sam so much of his Basic Training drill sergeant, he snapped to attention. "Answer the question, sir! Do you see any burn or injury?"

Stunned into silence, eyes widening, Gupta shook his head.

"Among these so-called 'incident' reports" Hyse continued, in the same tone, "has there been a single one which reported harm to anyone?"

Gupta's mouth worked, but no sound emerged.

"I'll take that as a 'No'" Benn said, his voice dropping back to normal. "Mr. Secretary, it is certainly true humans can be injured or killed by animals, including dragons. Many people have been attacked by sharks, mauled to death by lions or tigers, gored by bulls or bitten by toxic reptiles and insects.

"However, many more people have been interacting peacefully with wild animals for millennia. Look at the natives of Micronesia and various other Pacific islands, who depend on the sea for food: They've had their fishing helped by pods of dolphins for longer than I think anyone has kept track of, and dolphins are certainly among the animals which can injure or kill a human.

"If that's not enough, look at the mahouts in Thailand and your own native country: How many centuries have they been working with elephants, creatures which could kill a human as easily as you could squash a mosquito? How many people, Mr. Secretary, are hurt or killed every year by taking a fall in the bathtub or down a flight of stairs?

"Even in this age of personal aircars, how many pedestrians or bicyclists are hurt or killed through collision with ground vehicles? How many suffer because of abusing alcohol or other drugs? How many still use tobacco?"

Sam had never seen the Secretary go from pale to enraged so quickly in his life. His skin darkened perceptibly, and his mouth tightened.

Still, Benn wasn't done with him. "You are right to be concerned about these incidents, sir. I am as well. Our outside contacts have standing orders to try, as best they can, to persuade any wild dragon they may encounter to return to their island, New Berk, or the nearest enclave.

"Failing that, their orders are to do whatever they feel necessary to protect public safety. By necessity, that means educating the public about dragons, especially what not to do around them. How can we insist humans stay clear when the dragon may not want to? Our credibility would be destroyed, increasing the chance of injury on both sides.

"No matter what you may personally believe, Mr. Secretary, you are dealing with creatures who have free will, and who can think and reason at least as well as humans."

Myst suddenly moved. He parked his massive head directly over Benn's, and opened his mouth.

"Mosst humansss" he hissed, eyeing the Secretary as if he were a bothersome insect.

Gupta spluttered with outrage, and a vein above one eye throbbed visibly. "You... dare...!"

"No disrespect whatsoever intended, Mr. Secretary" Benn replied, in the blandest tone Sam had ever heard. "If there's nothing else, sir, I have pressing business I must attend to. Good day to you."

Benn tapped a switch on the monitor. It went dark, then displayed the New Berk Coat of Arms with the legend 'CONNECTION TERMINATED' blinking below it in yellow letters.

Kate started applauding. Silence let out a triumphant roar which all but shook the rafters. Sam couldn't decide whether to join the applause, look worried, or laugh, while Benn got up from his stool and eyed Myst with an exasperated look.

"Was that really necessary?" He asked, hands on hips. "Yes, the man's a pompous ass, but he's a powerful one. Get him mad enough, and he may do something rash!"

The Nightmare snorted, twin wisps of steam curling up from his nostrils. "I, for one" he said, slowly, "am tired of hiding, of flying only in 'ssafe' sskiess. Thiss iss why I overflew that boat lasst year. It iss alsso why I agreed to Ssam'ss plan – asz did you."

He looked straight at his human friend. "The ssmallesst of our people, the oness you call 'Terrible Terrorss,' are fearrlesss and cunning when protecting themsselvess or thosse they care about, even if their opponent iss many timess their ssizze."

He flicked a forked tongue at the now-darkened screen. "He iss nothing more than our many-timess-larger opponent. If we are fearlesss and cunning, we will conquer him."

Benn sighed and leaned against the dragon's head, idly scratching the soft hide on Myst's lower jaw. "I know, big stuff, I know... it's just this particular opponent is armed with things I think even a pair of nesting Terrors would think twice about challenging."

The dragon flipped his tail-tip back and forth, his equivalent of a shrug, and purred. Sam spoke up as realization dawned. "Benn, he can't do anything more than bluster. That's probably part of why he got so steamed!"

The chief looked at him, doubt mixing with hope in his eyes.

"It's simple" Sam continued. "I may never have gotten past Acting Sergeant, but I was with UNEC for a good many years. No matter what he's told you, not even the Secretary-General can order a military strike without running it past the Security Council and General Assembly, unless there's a direct and immediate threat to human survival. He'd have to prove such a threat exists, and he can't do that without hard evidence."

"Evidence which doess not exisst, and which he cannot create without letting the hatchlingss out of the nesst" Silence put in.

"Exactly" Kate added, seeing the logic of it. "Even if he can call in a few favors from the RAF, or whoever else he's got in his pocket, what, exactly, are they going to strike at without risking civilian lives? And where? Sliding Scales has put our people in key spots all over the world.

"UNEC's jurisdiction is global only within the wilderness reserves they're responsible for, dealing with poachers and illegal hunting, and only where protection of endangered wildlife is concerned. He'd have to make a convincing case the dragons were a dangerous and 'invasive' species to make anyone else sit up and take notice."

Ben produced a sad smile. "You've all got good points" he said. "And it's probably true he wouldn't try to take a poke at New Berk or the other reserves. We have our own friends in high places, otherwise we could never have put Sliding Scales into operation."

"What you're forgetting" he continued, the smile fading, "is Dragon Island. It has no human population outside of the occasional observers we send there, with permission from the dragons themselves.

"It's nearly impossible to approach by sea outside of a single, twisting, rock-bound channel. It's marked on the charts as a restricted nature preserve under Norway's sole jurisdiction and volcanically active. This gives us leverage to keep outsiders away on all fronts.

"Here's the problem: It's also so far off the beaten path, no one would think twice if a military squadron had, say, a 'training accident' there with live ammunition. If Gupta becomes convinced his problems are all coming from there..."

He let the words hang for a moment, then continued. "I felt I had to make a quick decision, divert his attention away from the idea Berk was involved." He winced and shook his head. "I may have done it too well."

A loud snort from Silence startled them all. "Humanss!" She said, eyes flicking skyward. "For all the yearss we have lived together, you sstill underesstimate uss."

Benn looked at her, clearly puzzled. "What do you mean?"

"I'll second that" Sam added, his gaze flicking between Silence and Myst. "Is there something you're not telling us?"

"Nothing you need to worry about" Silence replied, smugly. "It iss enough to ssay we know the Nesst-Home and itss ssecretss better than any human."

"For now" Myst added, his tone suddenly as commanding as Benn's had been, "you musst move quickly into the next phasszze. The gathering Ssam sspoke of iss ten ssunss away. Consscentrate on that, and leave the Nesst-Home to uss."

Hyse's expression still held doubt, but he nodded. "If you say so..."

Tuesday, March 27th, 2091 dawned gray, mild and partly cloudy over Geneva. The air warmed quickly as the sun climbed higher, despite the persistent cloud cover, and the humidity rose just as quickly from 'tolerable' to 'stifling.'

The unseasonable heat, towering clouds and gusty winds caused much comment among the steady stream of delegates, observers and newscasters filing into the huge lobby of the Palace of Nations building for the 86th Assembly (and, just as important to many, the post-assembly anniversary party) of the UN Human Rights Commission.

However, talk of the weather took a poor second to the topic of 'giant multicolored lizards.' A few even dared to use the 'D' word, though they did so out of range of sharp-eared reporters.

It seemed as though everyone had a story from their particular country. The Australian delegate went on at length to his UK counterparts about 'clones of Nessie herself,' who had kept a surfing competition shark-free – and then cavorted in the waves right along with the contestants, before vanishing as quickly as they'd appeared. "I think the judges were ready to give them a medal or two" he said, with a chuckle.

The United States delegate had her own tale. An airboat tour operator in the Florida Everglades had discovered some unexpected additions on his normal route, in the form of a pair of young Night Furies. The pair were so close in color and pattern to black leopards that the boat's pilot had mistaken them for such at a distance.

The misconception was quickly dispelled when the boat came within ten meters of the mangrove tree where the pair were perched. Nearly thirty seconds of stunned silence ensued while humans and dragons traded curious stares, broken only by mutters of "What the hell are they?!" "Are they real?" and "Why's Disney putting animatronics in the Everglades?!"

Astonishment soon gave way to frantic activity. Cameras clicked and whirred like hyperactive castanets. Even the pilot, as experienced a swamp-crawler as anyone who had ever called the 'glades home, was too enthralled to notice an overly-curious alligator, leisurely swimming straight towards them.

One of the dragons was more alert. Startled shouts and a scream or two sounded from their audience as the youngster spat a small blue fireball across the airboat's bow. It landed squarely in front of the 'gator, erupting in a cloud of water and steam and causing the huge reptile to rear halfway out of the water in a frantic effort to escape. It beat a hasty retreat, leaving a very visible wake.

Any lingering doubts the boat's riders may have had about the reality of the pair were blown away when they leaped from their perch and glided over to the boat. Fortunately, being a retired rescue craft, it was easily large enough for the two to land comfortably on the bow.

The one who'd chased off the 'gator sat up on his haunches, stared straight at the pilot and said, into the second round of utter silence, "You sshould be more careful."

After two of the female passengers had been revived from their fainting spells, the draconic pair had been – cautiously – welcomed aboard. The remaining social ice was broken quickly enough by the human children, all of whom were immediately on their best behavior and thrilled to meet the objects of many childhood stories.

The boat headed home without further incident, the dragons taking wing and disappearing back into the 'glades just before it docked.

No matter what the story, no matter what country it came from or which dragons were involved, the same questions were on the mind of every delegate: Who? What? Why? Where? Which? When? How?

So intense were the discussions, hardly anyone noticed when thunder rumbled through the air, nor when the rain started down in torrents.

A couple of people did a double-take at the arrival of the Norwegian delegation, given the size of the entourage and the overly tall cloaked-and-hooded figure in their midst, but no one bothered them as they made a beeline for the elevators.

Had anyone been within range to hear, they might have caught an Irish-accented voice in the group, muttering "...can't believe that worked..."

"The Assembly" intoned Tendai Jenko, the president of the Human Rights Commission, "recognizes the Honorable Frida Nerison of Norway. Ambassador Nerison?"

A lean, silver-haired woman stood up from behind the table bearing the NORWAY placard and made her way to the podium. Although clearly of advanced age, she moved with the grace and confidence of someone barely into their third decade. Her ice-blue eyes, bearing more than a hint of good humor and mischief, swept over the room as she ascended to the stage.

"Thank you, Mr. President" she began, with a courteous nod in his direction as he took his own seat towards the back of the stage, along with the Secretary-General. Her expression grew serious as she turned to face the room.

"On what should be a truly happy occasion" she said, letting her gaze roam over the crowd, "I regret I must bring you news of oppression from my country, not of one but of two indigenous peoples.

Muted sounds of surprise accompanied raised eyebrows. "These acts of oppression" she continued, "are made worse by their source, and by the fact those oppressed have done nothing more than champion the cause of peaceful coexistence since the ninth century."

More surprise rippled through the room, accompanied by baffled looks. One could practically see question marks boiling out of the Assembly's collective heads.

"I have been empowered to speak on behalf of the oppressed" Nerison continued. The sparkle in her eyes was back, as a muffled commotion started at the stage's rear entrance. "However, I believe we all know there is no one better qualified to speak of such things than a properly-vetted member of the oppressed. She is with us today. Let the record show she has my country's full sponsorship and authority to speak.

"Assuming, of course..." And she turned to face the President and Secretary-General with a gentle smile. "There is no objection?"

The President looked puzzled, but open. "The floor is yours, Ambassador. Let your representative speak."

Secretary Gupta's gaze, however, bore more than a hint of suspicion – and warning. However, as he couldn't think of any way to publicly override the President without raising more questions than he wanted to answer, he merely nodded.

"Thank you, gentlemen" she said, her smile growing as she turned back to her expectant audience. "I present to the Assembly, Silence, Guardian of Memories for her people."

A soft rumble of expectant muttering rose as Nerison stepped back a pace or two.

A tall, figure, cloaked and hooded, made its way out of the shadowed entrance and onto the stage. The figure moved with a slow, shuffling gait, as though it were suffering from some long-borne illness, though there was nothing hesitant about its steady progress.

The figure reached the podium, held still for a long moment – and, with a whoosh of displaced air, threw off the cloak with her wings.

Large pewter-toned eyes in a rounded, black-scaled head surveyed the audience, riveting every person they caught to their chair.

Gasps of astonishment and a few hastily-muffled screams sounded throughout the room as Silence braced her forepaws on the podium and neatly refolded her wings. And yet, there was no panic, no mad rush for the doors (although a squad of UN Security guards suddenly made their presence known in the background, hands on the grips of their stunners).

Gupta's voice rose above the muttering as he stood up, his face pale and tight. "Mr. President" he said, in a flat voice. "This commission addresses human rights issues! No court in the world has ever established any precedent of similar rights for animals!"

He practically spat the last word. "Sir, I must ask that Ambassador Nerison be declared out of order and removed from this meeting, along with her... pet..."

Silence's gaze locked on him. There was no hostility or disgust in it. If anything Nerison thought, I think she actually feels sorry for him...

"If what I have learrned in my time among humanss iss corrrect" Silence said, "we arre all 'animalss' in one form or another. Have not yourr own sscholarss proven humanss arre desscended from the Great Apess?

"Even if you werre not, the matterss I musst bring before your Counsscil consscern all your people aszz well aszz mine, no matter where we live."

Gupta's face darkened. "I will not" he said, tightly, "argue human origins with a raakshasa!"

"Then it iss fortunate I am a dragon" Silence shot back.

Nerison barely stifled her laughter. Jenko's eyebrows went straight up, though he managed to keep his expression neutral.

Every other delegate immediately fell silent. Their expressions ranged from shock and disbelief to the broad smile of a child who has just had their fondest dream come true. It got so quiet, Nerison could hear whispers in multiple languages, all coming from the delegates' earpieces as Silence's words were translated. She suppressed a second chuckle as several whispered urgently for repeats.

As the first shock wore off, delegates started muttering among themselves. The muttering soon swelled into a noisy debate. Nerison couldn't make out all of it, but she quickly realized who would be 'dragon friendly' and who would need more work.

For starters, the Italian delegates looked horrified, and were arguing back and forth with increasingly wild gestures. The Chinese, in stark contrast, were all wearing broad smiles and sat as still as statues despite the growing chaos.

The President tried restoring order. His efforts, though sincere, achieved little. Finally, Nerison whispered something to him and nodded towards Silence.

The Night Fury promptly lifted her head and spat a small bright-blue fireball towards the ceiling. It exploded against a concrete-shrouded steel beam with a shower of multicolored sparks and a bang which rattled the windows and sent at least a dozen water glasses tumbling.

A small cloud of scorched dust drifted down from the otherwise-intact beam, falling mostly on the Italian delegates who were now – silently – looking back and forth between the podium and the ceiling, mouths agape.

"Now that I have your attention once again" the President said, firmly, "I would remind you all of the fact there is nothing in our charter which requires a speaker be of any particular species to address this body. Nor, in all fairness" he continued, holding up one hand as several delegates started to protest, "is there anything which specifically allows it. I believe it is safe to say this... appearance... is without precedent.

"However" he continued, raising his voice to override the few remaining dissenters. "The human race as a whole has made multiple efforts, through agencies such as NASA, ESA and NRAO, to seek out and invite other intelligent races beyond our own to visit our world and meet us. How many of us, in this room and around the world, have looked up and wondered 'Are we alone?"

He smiled, ruefully, and nodded at Silence and Nerison. "I believe, based on recent events which we are all familiar with, and the... evidence... standing before us at this moment, this question has been most emphatically answered in a most unexpected manner! In any event, Ambassador Nerison has followed our governing procedures, with regard to guest speakers, to the letter.

"Her speaker of choice, no matter her species, has clearly demonstrated intelligence, rational thought, and a very adequate command of our language. With this in mind, I ask the Envoy Silence–"

"Guardian Silence" Nerison said, softly.

The President nodded. "With this in mind" he repeated, "I ask the Guardian Silence to please continue."

The Night Fury bowed her head to the President, then turned back to the now-silent delegates.

"Humanss of all tribess" she began, her rich bass voice filling the hall even without the aid of the sound system. "I greet you and thank you for lisstening. I wissh to sshare with you a sstory of my people, one which hasz been passsed down frrom the time of the human tribe you knew asz 'Vikingss.' It iss a tale of one young Viking, all but outcasst frrom hiss own home, who wasz not afrraid to aszk quesstionss otherrss would not–"

With all the attention focused on the first non-human species ever to address any UN Assembly, no one noticed when Secretary Gupta motioned an aide over and whispered urgently in the man's ear. The aide's expression remained utterly neutral as he nodded and slipped out of the room.

It took a little over an hour. Not a single voice was raised in question or protest the entire time, though Nerison noted several delegates squirming more than once at mention of the Crusades and Spanish Inquisition.

Silence, though, was as near to the Perfect Speaker as was possible, given the obvious difference in species and culture: Her words gave simple, clear facts, neither pulling punches nor delivering judgment, yet riveting every person in the room to their seats with the tale's depth and clarity.

Her closing words, though, sent another ripple of unease and outrage through the room:

"Ourr community attempted to reveal our exisstence once before" Silence said, a note of sadness in her voice. "Desspite all the work of our passt human leader, Lannce Hysse and hissz mate, Roana, of my grand-dam Ssubsstance and her mate Rökkr, Lannce'ss adopted Night Fury sson, Sspring, of the passt leaderss of the country you call Norway–"

She dropped from the podium, suddenly, and spun to glare at Gupta.

"Desspite all," she continued. "You have allowed thiss one human, Ssecretary Gupta, to turn you from the truth of what can be, and condemn my people to a sslow death!"

The Secretary-General paled, but did not look away. The President's eyes widened. Sounds of shock and disbelief rippled throughout the room as Silence turned and leaned against the podium once again.

"Dragonss exisst. We have exissted at leasst asz long asz humanss, for even our oldesst taless tell of your people. We aszk nothing of humanss other than to acssept our pressencsse and let uss lead our own livess.

"You already know, through your own Guardianss of Memoriess and... what iss the word?" She glanced over at Frida Nerison, who stepped quickly forward and whispered to her.

"Thank you – 'newss media' – that our two peopless can and do become friendss. I would not be before you now were it not for the help of my own human friendss.

"Other human leaderss of Hysse's and Ssubsstancess' time recognizzed uss asz friendss, alliess, even equalss, and ssought peaceful coexisstence for all.

"Iss it sso very difficult for you to do the ssame?"

She bowed her head once again. "Thank you for lisstening. Ambasssador Nerisson and I will now ansswer any quesstionss..."

Before anyone else could so much as take a breath, Jenko spoke. "Guardian Silence" he began. "You have made a very serious accusation against a UN official. Do you understand what this means?"

"Clearly, ssir" Silence replied. "Ambasssador Nerisson will agree, asz will my other human friendss."

Jenko turned to Nerison. "I do agree, Mr. President" she said, eyeing Gupta distastefully. "There is considerable suspicion among my delegation that Secretary Gupta has been waging a secret and private war of oppression–"

"Lies!" Gupta roared, jumping up from his seat. "I have upheld the duties of my office faithfully, without falsehood or misrepresentation! I cannot believe anyone in this room would believe this... this... chicanery over my own word as Secretary-General!"

The room lights suddenly dimmed. "Ladies, Gentlemen and Dragon" a voice boomed over the sound system. "Please direct your attention to the main screen for some special material..."

The screen in question glowed to life with a test pattern. As one, every eye in the room, human and dragon alike, turned to look. An old-fashioned film countdown appeared, flickered from '5' down to '2' and vanished with a single beep–

–and was promptly replaced with a ten-meter high image of Lieutenant Dashiell and the Secretary General in Dashiell's office, arguing, the sound of their voices filling the room with all the clarity of the best audio address system money could buy:

"Let Sam keep his memories" Dashiell was saying. "He's been fascinated by the possibility of dragons since before his first year at the Academy..."

The silence grew thicker as the footage progressed to its inevitable end. It was replaced by still images of the same news clips Kate had shown Sam months ago, Gupta's name and the story's outcome highlighted in each one.

The unseen voice, with a note of wry humor, added: "Copies of this material are available on YouTube, Wikileaks and, by now, probably every news desk from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe..."

The muttering started again. It grew swiftly into outraged voices calling, almost universally, for Secretary-General Gupta to step forward and explain himself. President Jenko, with some effort and many soundings of the room-filling electronic gong, managed to restore some semblance of order.

"I assure you all" he said, firmly, "this matter will be promptly investigated! There will be a two-hour recess at this time."

The amplified sound of a gavel striking wood echoed through the room as Jenko turned to Nerison and Silence, who were standing calmly to one side. One figure, though, was conspicuous by its absence.

Jenko was not one to waste time on rhetorical questions. He raised a hand and signaled to the leader of the guard troop which had appeared earlier. The man hurried over and saluted, his glance flickering nervously over Silence. "Sir?"

"Seal this building, then find and detain Secretary Gupta" Jenko said, urgently.

Then he turned back to Nerison and Silence. "Ambassador and ... Guardian: With due respect, why did you not alert me when the Secretary left? He knows the emergency exits as well as any of us."

Silence rumbled her amusement. "Have you never hunted?" Silence asked.

Jenko shook his head slightly, still a bit bemused at conversing with a dragon. "You ssaid it yoursself, Pressident Jenko" the Night Fury continued. "'We are not alone.' When prey doess not know it iss being hunted, it growss overrconfident."

The 'prey' in question was, at that moment, hurrying down a long, hot, corridor, lit only at intervals by LED 'limpets' and the green glow of EXIT signs with directional arrows. Smells of ozone and machine oil filled the humid air, along with the sounds of blowers, motors and relays.

Sweat streamed down Gupta's face and his breath came in gasps, but he brushed aside the discomfort. There was no shame in retreat when faced with impossible odds. Yes, he may have lost a battle today, but it would be no less than a Pyrrhic victory for his enemies!

Rage filled his vision with a red haze as he ran. Shiva take Dashiell's soul! Gupta had not had the slightest clue the rebellious officer had left his recording system on after Shay had been debriefed. Worse, the footage had, somehow, gotten 'into the Wild,' as the IT techs liked to say.

Heavy footfalls echoed through the corridor behind him, accompanied by shouts of "UN Security! Stop where you are!"

Smirking, Gupta sped up and activated his wrist comm: "Mohinder! Status!" he barked.

The voice which replied was vastly reassuring in its utterly calm tone, the voice of his most trusted assistant and pilot.

"Throwback is proceeding on schedule, sahib. One hour."

"Excellent! Be ready for immediate departure! I am almost at the exit!"

And not a moment too soon he thought, as the footfalls and shouts got louder behind him. The green-and-red glare of the EMERGENCY EXIT sign was just ahead. Thirty meters, twenty, ten...

Daylight blinded him as he crashed through the door, heedless of the ear-piercing alarm set off by its opening. The rain had stopped and the air was cool, fresh and damp, heavy with humidity.

Barely twenty meters ahead, a sleek black air limo, doors emblazoned with the UNEC crest, hovered just above the ground, its running lights throwing garish reflections off the wet pavement. He bolted down the wide stairs towards it, yelling into his wrist comm for Mohinder to open the door.

Something hard and rope-like caught him neatly across the back of his knees. His legs promptly buckled and, had it not been for the safety rails bordering the stairs, the fall could have been a lot worse.

As it was, he landed hard enough to knock himself breathless, pain searing along his left hand and wrist where he'd grabbed the railing.

He forced himself back to his feet, cursing under his breath at the sharp complaints from his injuries, and limped towards the car as fast as he could manage. A squad of UN guards emerged from the tunnel exit, pointed, and started towards him.

"Here, sir, let me get the door for you" said a half-familiar voice. A firm hand caught his arm a moment later.

"Thank you" he gasped, as he straightened up to get a better look at his helper–

And froze in utter shock at the sight of an all-too-familiar blue-eyed face, framed by russet hair and a neatly-trimmed goatee. "Shay" he gasped.

Pain exploded in Gupta's skull as he went sprawling all over again, blood streaming from nose and lips.

"That, sir" Shay said, ignoring his own bleeding knuckles, "was for Lieutenant Dashiell. With all due respect, of course."

Suddenly, there came a blur of motion from the driver's side of the car as Mohinder sprang out, leveled his gun at Sam and fired. The Ranger howled with pain and went down, one hand clutching at his right side.

Mohinder, quite properly, wasted no more time on the man, but ran around to help his employer up and into the limo. "Hurry, sahib" he said, as he reached out to open the passenger door. "They are–"

What they were and what they were about to do, neither man found out. A two-meter long streak of mottled green shot past Gupta's head and collided solidly with Mohinder's face, sending him staggering back, the gun falling from his hand.

All Gupta could do was watch, bemused, as Mohinder struggled to dislodge the Terrible Terror, jaws clamped firmly to the man's substantial nose and growling for all she was worth.

The next few moments went by in a pain-filled haze for Sam. His side felt like it had been slammed with a baseball bat, and his shirt was soaked through with blood.

He managed to pull himself up to a sitting position with his good arm, watching with considerable satisfaction as two guards handcuffed Gupta and led him away. Three more surrounded Mohinder and his scaly assailant, looking uncertain. Finally, one of them pulled out his stunner.

Sam took a deep breath, wincing at the flare of pain it caused, and shouted "Niho! Enough!"

The Terror froze in mid-growl, blinking.

Then, much to the relief of guards and victim alike, she released her hold and shot towards Sam. She scurried up the stairs and half-leaped, half-flew the last couple of meters to land on his chest, chirping with concern and sniffing cautiously at his wound.

Sam stifled a yell as her paws pressed into bruised ribs. "Ow! Easy, Niho, it's not bad" he said, trying to protect the most painful spots from her investigation.

This drew a long, measuring look from the little dragon, followed by a derisive snort. The word Hurt! echoed through his skull, followed a moment later by No move! All delivered in a no-nonsense tone any doctor would have envied.

More guards arrived, followed by at least half the delegates, President Jenko and Silence. The Night Fury bounded quickly to Sam's side, eyeing him worriedly.

"Who hasz harmed you?" she hissed, looking around furiously for the vet's assailant. Before he could take a breath to reply, Niho trilled and chirped, motioning with her tail to where a paramedic was tending to Mohinder's face. Silence's ear-flaps rose as she rumbled a reply, then turned back to Sam.

"It sseemss" she said, the corners of her mouth twitching upwards, "your ssmall guardian hasz lived up to Mysst's desscription."

The guards had a crowd-control perimeter set up in record time. A pair of ambulances were let through moments later, carrying more paramedics.

Sam found it odd to be on the receiving end of a diagnostic scan, for a change, though he was very grateful when the young (and very attractive) golden-haired medic declared the bullet wound to be through-and-through.

"Clean entry, clean exit" she said, as she applied Dermaseal patches to both wounds and administered painkiller and antibiotics. "You were lucky, sir, but you do have a cracked rib. Follow up with your regular doctor, and avoid any heavy labor or exercise for at least the next two weeks."

Silence, who had been carefully observing the whole procedure, startled the medic by asking "Doess that mean no flying?"

The girl blinked rapidly, took in Silence's stature and partly-extended wings, then stammered "I... flying? By aircar?"

Sam tried to laugh, then ended up half-choking as sore muscles made their presence felt. Silence snorted in disgust, then carefully lowered herself almost flat to the ground. "Ssam. On." she said.

He eyed her uncertainly. "Without a saddle?"

The Night Fury's expression spoke volumes. Sam's memory flashed back to an old two-D movie he'd seen in his teen years, automatically paraphrasing a famous line about not needing any 'steenking bodges.'

Although the flight lasted less than two minutes, it left a certain medic with what she would, for the rest of her long life, call "the most inspiring thing I've ever seen."

The peace gained from the flight was, unfortunately, short-lived. President Jenko and Ambassador Nerison intercepted them as Silence landed precisely in the same spot she'd taken off from.

The President looked downright grim, while Nerison looked nearly as pale as driven snow. "What?" Sam asked as he got down.

Jenko sighed, heavily. "It seems former Secretary Gupta had a back-up plan.

"He called it 'Throwback.' A single Viper, carrying a Coldfire-class fusion bomb, lifted off from Yorkshire Base a little more than an hour ago. The pilot was ordered to fly under Code Black conditions: Radio silence, no transponder or telemetry, and radar-invisibility. Sealed orders, as well, which means the pilot would not know his target himself until the orders were opened."

An icicle substituted itself for Sam's spine. Code Black meant more than stealth flight: Orders issued under the code could not be countermanded, even by the person who issued them.

Before he could breathe a word, though, Silence asked, sharply, "What iss thiss weapon? What can it do?"

"Plenty" Sam muttered, through clenched teeth and tightly-shut eyes. "Silence, imagine your biggest, most powerful fireball. Now, imagine that same fireball about ten thousand times stronger. That's what a Coldfire bomb can deliver."

Silence's eyes all but bugged. She turned away, hissing and rumbling up a storm in her native language, tail lashing, ear-flaps tight to her skull.

Sam felt an odd sort of relief that he couldn't understand her words as he turned back to the President. "Sir, where in blazes did he even get a Coldfire?! Those things were all supposed to be scrapped years ago!"

Jenko made a small, ironic smile. "Even if you had not provided us your debriefing recording, Ranger Shay, possession of an illegal fusion device would have been enough to remove Gupta from office. My guess is he gathered the parts, a few at a time, over a number of years."

Sam blinked, his thoughts stumbling over each other for a moment. "Sir, it wasn't me who provided the recording. Honestly, I have no idea who did. I didn't think it would be admissible in open forum, so I didn't bother to give a copy to the AV techs."

It was Jenko's turn to blink in surprise. "Then it was Ambassador Nerison?" He said, glancing over at her.

His eyebrows went straight up as she shook her head. "It wasn't me or any of my aides, sir" she replied. "I wasn't even aware of its existence until it was projected for us."

Jenko rolled his eyes skyward. "Another question among many" he sighed.

"Sir" Sam continued, getting his thoughts back in order. "The Viper carrying the bomb – Do we know its target?"

Nerison nodded, unhappily. "Dragon Island. More specifically, straight down the throat of its volcano!"

Sam felt suddenly sick. "Saint Blaise Above" he finally managed to gasp out. "The man's completely bonkers! That kind of blast would take out the whole island! Don't even get me started on how big a tsunami it could cause!"

"Worse" Nerison said. "There's better than a forty percent chance the resulting shock wave could wake up the Pacific Ring of Fire."

Sam paled.

The Ring of Fire was a huge string of interlinked ocean trenches, volcanic belts and geologic plates. It stretched over 40,000 kilometers, in a rough horseshoe shape, beginning at New Zealand.

It continued northeast from the island, then jogged sharply west just north of the Tonga Trench. It turned northeast again in Indonesia, at the Java Trench and Krakatoa, and continued in an east-northeast arc through Japan and into the Aleutians.

Around the mid-point of Alaska, the Ring turned southeast and continued all the way down the western side of the North and South American continents, ending in the ocean a few hundred kilometers west of Argentina's Higgins National Park.

"We are making every attempt to contact the pilot" Jenko added, hurriedly. "Three more Vipers have been scrambled to intercept, but it is not likely they can reach him in time–"

A sudden whoosh of wind nearly bowled them all over as Silence leaped into the air. Before Sam or the others had recovered their senses, she had landed on the building's roof. A moment later, two colorful streaks zoomed by as Nalu and Niho flew to join her.

All three dragons appeared to confer for a moment. Then, as one, they turned to face north-northwest, sat up on their haunches, touched their wings together and closed their eyes. "What are they doing?" Jenko asked, looking back and forth between Nerison and Sam.

"Not a clue, sir" Nerison said. "Prayer? Meditation? Honestly, I wouldn't blame any of them if they were planning a counterattack. A Night Fury's fireball packs quite a punch. That little demonstration she gave earlier was the dragon equivalent of, say, a popgun."

Sam didn't think it was possible for the President to look more worried. Somehow, he managed it. "Ambassador" he asked, his tone flat and utterly calm, "Are you trying to tell me we may be going to war with these... beings?"

Nerison's silence spoke volumes.

Suddenly, the vet was distracted by other matters, namely a soundless roar which seemed to swell up all around his head. He staggered, his balance fleeing for cover, as the not-sound washed over him like the mother of all ocean waves... No, more like the mother of all rugby crowds, all cheering at the top of their collective lungs as their team scored the winning goal... then again, perhaps it was like the roar of a thousand thrust turbines at full power inside an echo chamber...

Outside the maelstrom, he was dimly aware of hands catching him as he slumped over. Urgent voices called his name, called for medics, but none of that mattered. There was only one thing which mattered at this moment: Warn the others! Images flickered through his mind too quickly to follow, though he thought he saw the outline of a Viper fighter, followed by a rocky cavern lit with a sullen orange glow, a glow which brightened abruptly into eye-searing brilliance–

As suddenly as it had hit, the pressure was gone. His ears still rang with the aftereffect, but his balance returned quickly enough. "Sam?" Nerison asked, anxiously. "Are you OK?"

He nodded, a bit shakily, then managed to get to his feet. A leathery flapping noise alerted him to the presence of the three dragons as they landed nearby. They were all panting, as if they'd flown a marathon. Silence met Sam's gaze and said, "What can be done, hasz been done."

Jenko frowned, then looked at Sam. "What does she mean?"

"I think, sir" the vet replied, hope beginning to peek out from behind what had been a thick wall of gloom, "she means it's time for the hardest part."

Nerison got it first, and nodded. "Waiting."

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