The Dragonwing Effect

Chapter 2

"You become responsible, forever, for what you've tamed" (Antoine de Saint Exupery)

(1-Mar-840 AD, 08:33 UTC, east beach, island of Berk)

It was the sun's heat that woke him. It beat mercilessly through the clear plexalloy canopy of the aircar, making its occupant feel like he'd been trapped in a dry sauna.

Sam groaned and tried sitting up. Every muscle he had felt as though it had been stretched out, pounded flat, then thrown back together again and he had a headache the likes of which made his few college benders look like a Sunday-school picnic.

His right hand fumbled with the visor release on his helmet, and the polarizing lenses promptly snapped up. "Ow!" he muttered, as he got a face-full of sunlight. "Computer" he croaked, "Full status report!"

The machine's voice was calm as ever. "Vehicle status: Landed and idle. Automatic landing procedure performed due to temporary incapacitation of pilot. Navigation, propulsion and weaponry all nominal. Fuel: Nominal. Warning: Primary and secondary GNSS signal loss, all bands. Rubidium backup clock nominal. Communication status: Primary and secondary commsat signal loss, otherwise nominal."

"Whoof" Sam muttered, as he pulled off the helmet and looked around at his landing spot. "'Incapacitation' indeed!"

Although it was definitely a large beach, it looked nothing like the one he and Gerry had grounded the smuggler's craft on. "Computer, current position of Ranger fourteen and unidentified smuggler craft?"

There was a long pause, then: "No other craft in scanner range."

Sam snorted. "Like hell. Computer, scanner diagnostic." He reached down and touched the canopy release. The locks opened with a solid clunk and there was a hiss of equalizing air pressure as the clear dome retracted smoothly into the rear body of the craft. Sam took several deep breaths of air that were considerably fresher than he expected. Downright invigorating, in fact, if a bit on the cool side. Something teased at the edge of his mind, something just slightly wrong with the way the world looked...

Then he had it. It had been early evening, with a total eclipse looming. Now, the sun was clearly just rising. I must have been knocked out by whatever that ... thing ... was he thought. But even if I was, Gerry should have pulled me out, and even if he didn't there should have been search craft out since I didn't report in–

"Diagnostic complete. No faults detected" the computer said, startling him out of his reverie. Not willing to take the machine at its word, Sam put his helmet back on without strapping it and keyed his transmitter. "Ranger fourteen, this is nineteen. Gerry, are you OK?"

No reply. Not even a noise burst. "Ranger fourteen, respond!" Sam called, more sharply. Still nothing. Grumbling, he changed to the pursuit channel and tried again. "Alladale base, Ranger nineteen."

It took Sam only a few minutes of switching through all the standard UNEC frequencies, and repeated calls, to get exactly what he had gotten on the intership channel: Nothing.

This is nuts! He thought, as he pulled his helmet off once again and glared at the unresponsive communications panel. No GPS, no GLONASS, no GALILEO, no commsats... they can't all go down at once!

A sudden inspiration hit him. "Computer, TLC tracker" he commanded. The screen obligingly changed, and he continued "Scan for any signature."

He waited nearly two minutes. The screen showed nothing more than the concentric range circles. Sam glanced up, saw several seagulls in the area, then looked back at the screen. It remained as blank as a freshly-formatted jump drive.

No way! He thought, by now thoroughly confused. At this range, I should see the signal from every bird on or above the beach, clear as day! "Computer, confirm TLC scanner status?"

"TLC system nominal, no faults detected" came the prompt reply.

"We'll see about that!" Sam muttered, as he pulled the chip-injector hypo from one of his jumpsuit's pockets. He reached his right hand over his left shoulder, held the hypo's tip against his scapular muscle and pressed the trigger. A brief burst of cold and a slight sensation of pressure told him the tool had done its job.

A second later, the signal from the chip flared up in bright yellow against the screen's dark-blue background, dead-center. Sam looked it over – yes, his own vitals were clearly displayed, along with the chip's unique serial number. But no others. And no GNSS coordinates!

A chill started to work its way down his spine. What in the name of sweet Saint Eligius is going on here?!

Then it hit him. The eclipse! It must have started a bubble!

One of the less-understood atmospheric phenomena, in recent years, was the sudden appearance – and, usually, equally swift disappearance – of what physicists and meteorologists called 'Incongruity Bubbles' or simply IB's. These were areas of varying size which could appear nearly anywhere on land or over water.

They were nothing less than electromagnetic 'dead zones.' They acted like a Faraday Cage, damping out any kind of EM signal, communications and GPS included. Even simple magnetic compasses spun in circles under their influence.

The best theories so far had fingered sudden changes in the solar wind, interacting with the earth's natural magnetic field, particularly over areas of water with a high mineral content. The Bermuda Triangle was a hotbed of the things for decades Sam mused.

IB's also had a nasty tendency to expand or contract, seemingly at random. The best way to deal with one was simply to wait for it to dissipate. This could, Sam knew, take anywhere from five minutes to five days. There was no way of determining, from the earth's surface, how large an area had been affected without entering or leaving it.

Gerry knows I was right there with him, and he will certainly have reported in long since Sam thought. I'll just have to wait until the bubble clears, and I get my GPS back.

Then he heard the pulse of helicopter rotors.

Startled, he climbed out of the aircar and dropped to the sand, looking around for the craft. 'Copters weren't common these days, as they and most other conventional aircraft had been replaced by the far more efficient TQ-drive vehicles. A few were still in private hands, though.

Mostly collectors he thought, listening attentively as the sound got closer. Probably an old Huey, with that low a frequency...

Suddenly, from over the top of the high cliff to the west, two dark blots appeared coming straight for him. Sam started to wave – then stopped, his right arm halfway in the air. Something about the approaching objects looked... wrong...

Puzzled now, he leaned back into the cabin and retrieved his binoculars. Selecting normal day vision, he focused them on the approaching pair.

He blinked. Hard. He pulled the viewer away from his eyes, rubbed them, and shook his head. Then he looked at the pair again and zoomed in.

It was no hallucination. The leftmost object had a near-cylindrical body, with four stubby but well-clawed legs held against its sides, and bore a mottled pattern of color in tans, grays, and blues. The body tapered sharply into a knobby tail, just behind the rear pair of legs.

Two large, close-set, bright yellow eyes, jet-black pupils slitted vertically against the sun, roved back and forth as the creature flew slowly but smoothly along. Its wings were a hummingbird-like blur, and Sam suddenly realized their motion was the source of the pulsing noise.

Most astonishing, though, was what – or who – the creature had on its back. A portly youth, not much older than seventeen, dressed in a dark-brown shaggy-furred shirt and matching pants. The boots were leather, and bore a fringe of gray-black fur around their tops. The youth also wore a helmet, ridiculously small compared to his head, sporting a short pair of black-striped horns. Despite his obvious bulk, it didn't look like his mount was having the slightest trouble carrying him.

Sam swallowed hard, his mouth suddenly bone-dry. Hands trembling, he focused his lenses on the rightmost object. Despite his nervousness, he couldn't help but admire the other: A slender, jet-black body, with brilliant highlights of iridescent green along the spine and a handsome expanse of charcoal-gray spots everywhere else. Bit like a black leopard he thought.

The eyes were phenomenal! Large, round, bright yellow-green, with the same black-slitted pupils as the other creature, they were set well forward in the spade-shaped head. He looked further back, noting the broad, six-fingered, bat-like wings, the two smaller quarter-fins just behind them and the bifurcated tail fin, one half black, one red with a white skull painted on it...

Red with a white WHAT?!

More curious than afraid now, Sam set the lenses for maximum zoom and looked again. Sure enough, the left rear tail fin was clearly man-made, two leather straps holding the framework supporting it to the creature's tail stock. He saw a couple of thin ropes leading from the fin and followed them forward to where they looped into an intricate pedal arrangement, the pedals being worked by the creature's rider.

Sam zoomed out slightly and focused on the black one's rider. Another youth, as slender as the other was portly, brunette haired with just a hint of red, and a scattering of freckles framing a clean-shaven face with eyes which shone a startling shade of emerald. He wore a green shirt, matching breeches, and a brown leather vest-like arrangement which, despite the decorative touch of a gold-colored disc of metal in the center, reminded Sam of his own craft's safety harness. His eyes widened again as he saw the youth's left leg ended just below the knee, the remainder taking the form of a crude prosthetic of leather and metal.

His mind reeled. The binoculars dropped from his hand, and his knees went rubbery. He slumped down against the hull of his ship, still trying to assimilate what he had just seen. Suddenly, a clear memory of the morning's briefing flashed through his head, particularly of a certain color map bearing an elegantly-printed legend.

Here be Dragons!

"Whoa" Fishlegs murmured, eyeing the sleek but odd-looking craft with considerable interest. In shape, it resembled a cross between the letters 'U' and 'V.' It looked to be almost as long as a Monstrous Nightmare, and perhaps twice the width of a Gronckle.

About a third of the way back from the rounded-off point of the nose, an oddly-shaped window rose up in a half-dome, while the back of the craft was squared off on either side with what looked like iron-mesh screens over two gaping holes. Three tapered fins stuck out from the top and sides of the craft, forming a triangle, and the top fin bore writing and markings on its side in a language the youth didn't recognize.

Its colors were equally fascinating: The top half was a dark blue-green, while the bottom was pure white. A narrow emerald-green stripe separated the two colors around the craft's middle and it rested nearly the height of a man above the sand on three rectangular skids. "How did it get so far up the beach?" he called across to Hiccup. "It looks way too big to drag, and there's no marks in the sand."

"I'm more curious as to how it got on the beach at all" came the reply. "Hoark swears he saw it flying!"

This drew a snort of laughter. "Fat chance" Fishlegs replied, with a grin. "It doesn't even have wings." Suddenly, he tensed and pointed. "Hey! Look! Whoever that is, they just collapsed! Maybe they need help!"

Hiccup had seen the same thing. "Down, Toothless!" he said, tilting his body slightly forward on the saddle. The Night Fury grunted assent and dropped quickly towards the beach, Fishlegs and his Gronckle close behind.

Sam was a lot of things. 'Practical' was definitely on the list. Although a part of his overloaded mind continued screaming about the impossibility of what he'd just seen, not to mention the fact said impossibilities were now landing on the beach a few meters away, he shoved that part ruthlessly to a convenient corner and told it to shut the frell up.

He took a series of slow, deep breaths. The dizziness faded, and he managed to stand up more easily than he expected. I'm still alive, I'm here, and no matter what I may think, I believe the evidence of my own senses. Those are dragons, with human riders. Deal with it!

The two teens had stopped within speaking range, eyeing each other uncertainly. The slender one turned towards the vet and spoke what sounded like a question. Sam frowned. The language was vaguely familiar, but he couldn't quite place it. "Can you try again?" he said, in English. "I didn't understand."

The youth may not have understood the words, but he got the gist of the question. He spoke again, more slowly, and this time Sam got it. The lad was speaking Old Norse! Sam closed his eyes a moment, and muttered a hypnotic trigger word to himself.

All UNEC field agents were required to be at least bilingual, and he was no exception. In fact, hypno-learning had made him passably fluent in no fewer than six languages, though the technician administering the sessions had been utterly baffled as to why a field vet would want to speak Old Norse. Now, Sam thanked his patron saint he'd thought of it.

"That's better" he replied, haltingly. "Can you understand me now?"

The slender one's eyes lit up, while those of the portly youth widened in surprise. "Yes" the slender one replied. "I asked who you are and if you need any help?"

"Doctor Sam Shay" he replied, cautiously offering a hand. The closest word in Norse for 'doctor' was 'healer,' but he barely stumbled over the word change. "United Nations Environment Corps, out of Alladale Base in Scotland." He decided diplomacy was better than clinging to titles. "Call me Sam."

The slender youth stepped forward confidently, and took Sam's hand in his own. His grip was a lot stronger than the vet would have believed. "Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third" he replied. "Son of Stoick the Vast." He let go of Sam's hand, and gestured to the black dragon. "That's Toothless, he's a Night Fury. Ever seen a dragon before?"

Sam had to grin at that. "Can't say as I have" he replied. "Just heard stories." He let his gaze roam over the black one again. The creature had curled up on the sand like a giant cat, and was watching the proceedings with considerable interest. "Magnificent!" Sam muttered. He was torn between a desire to examine both creatures close-up and natural caution about approaching a creature he'd never seen before.

Before he could decide, the portly youth stepped forward and offered his own well-fleshed hand. "Fishlegs Ingermann" he said. "Welcome to Berk." He nodded towards his own mount, who was sniffing curiously at the aircar's landing struts. "That's Meatlug. She's a Gronckle. Plus-eight jaw strength, six-shot limit, speed–"

"Fishlegs" Hiccup said, in a warning tone. The portly youth flushed, and let go of Sam's hand. "Oh... right. Sorry." He glanced over Sam's shoulder at the sleek aircar. "What kind of boat is that?" he asked.

Despite the difference in culture, Sam knew the look of a would-be tech when he saw it. "Make you a deal" he said. "You tell me where Berk is, in relation to Scotland, and I'll give you a tour."

Fishlegs nodded enthusiastically, and rattled off "Twelve days north of Hopeless, a bit south of Freezing to Death, and square on the Meridian of Misery." He nodded firmly, as if confident this explained everything.

Sam blinked. "Uhhh... could you put that into latitude and longitude, lad?"

Fishlegs looked pained. Hiccup laughed, and said "He needs a map."

Fishlegs brightened. "Oh! Yeah! There's a big one in Mead Hall!"

"Mead Hall?" Sam asked.

Hiccup nodded. "Sure. It's in the middle of our village. Just a few minutes away as a dragon flies." His gaze sharpened, suddenly. "Did you say you're a healer?"

Sam nodded. Some stray impulse made him add "for animals." He didn't bother trying to translate 'veterinarian' into Norse.

"Including dragons?" Hiccup asked, his tone hopeful.

The question caught Sam completely off guard. "I... I'm not sure." He gazed thoughtfully at the black dragon again – 'Toothless,' he'd called it.

No, not 'it,' Sam quickly amended. 'He.' The intelligence in the dragon's yellow-green orbs was undeniable, even if the huge cranium hadn't been enough of a clue. He glanced over at the other dragon – a 'Gronckle,' Fishlegs had said. Meatlug's eyes didn't have quite the same power as Toothless's, but Sam could still see more than just 'animal' in them.

He knew he'd have to proceed carefully. Here were creatures with, at first glance, the intelligence of at least a wolf, possibly as high as a dolphin in Toothless's case.

"As I said" he continued, tearing his gaze away and back to the teens, "yours are the first dragons I've ever seen. Do you have another that's sick?"

Hiccup's expression turned much older for a moment, his eyes reflecting a pain which Sam sensed as clearly as if the teen had shouted it out loud. "You... could say that" he said, slowly. "Actually, quite a few of them in the village are sick, and our healer can't understand why. None of the usual herbs or cures have worked."

Sam blinked at this. Folk medicine he thought, with an inward groan, though he was careful not to show any outward sign. No one's going to believe the report on this one.

The tightly-controlled panic and hope on the faces of both teens, coupled with the fact he still couldn't get hold of anyone or anything on the radio, convinced him. "I would be happy to help" he said, with a smile. "I can't promise anything, but I'll certainly try my best. How far away is your village?"

The relief on their expressions was just shy of comical. Hiccup pointed due west. "Just the other side of that cliff. We have some space in the harbor where you can tie up your boat."

Sam eyed the distance. It was at least five kilometers, over rough terrain, and the idea of hiking it with his equipment was unappealing at best. "Fair enough" he said, picking up his binoculars and stepping up to the small ladder protruding from the aircar's hull. "You lead, I'll follow."

He scrambled up the rest of the way, dropped into his seat, and slipped his helmet back on. No need to seal the canopy for this short a jaunt he thought, as he went quickly through the prestart checklist.

It was only after he was reaching for the main drive switch that he realized the two youths were still on the ground, staring up at him like he'd completely lost it. "What's wrong?" he called down.

"Don't you have to put your boat in the water, first?" Fishlegs asked.

Sam grinned. There were still some isolated settlements, and the first practical use of the gravity-bending TQ field was only about forty-two years old.

"Trust me" he said. "You and your beasties lead the way, I'll follow." He closed the main drive switch. The TQ generator purred promptly to life, accompanied by a whoosh from the propulsion turbines.

The teens both jumped back a pace, as startled by the noise as by the small clouds of sand blown away from the back of the craft. Meatlug came tearing out from under the landing gear, her short legs a blur and her eyes all pupil. She made a beeline for Fishlegs, who had to spend a few moments comforting the startled dragon.

Toothless's response was much calmer, but no less interested. He watched in apparent fascination, his head tilting from one side to the other, as Sam advanced the 'Lift' throttle and the craft rose smoothly into the air. He stopped the ascent at thirty meters AGL and hovered, waiting patiently for his escorts.

The two teens watched in open-mouthed astonishment as their visitor's craft lifted smoothly into the morning sky. "What in Thor's name is holding it up?!" Fishlegs muttered. Fright suddenly crossed his features. "Magic!"

"No, no magic" Hiccup replied, putting a hand on his companion's shoulder. He felt a twinge of fear as well, but it was quickly masked by fascination. "It's just a machine, Fish. Like a catapult or a wagon."

This drew a derisive snort. "Find me a catapult or wagon which can do that" he said, pointing straight at the hovering shape, "and I'll show you a Monstrous Nightmare who likes boiled cabbage!"

"No bet!" Hiccup said, with a chuckle, as he called to Toothless. "Let's go, bud!"

The Night Fury needed no further urging. He sprang up out of his curled position and bounded over. Fishlegs had already settled into place on Meatlug. The Gronckle, now back in her usual easy-going good humor, huffed impatiently as Fishlegs secured his safety straps. "You guide our visitor in, I'm going to go alert my dad and the village" Hiccup said. "Take it slow – I don't want anyone getting scared enough to take any potshots."

"On it!" Fishlegs called, as he gave Meatlug two taps on her right shoulder. The stocky dragon chuffed again, and her wings burst into their characteristic blur.

Somewhat to her rider's surprise, Meatlug opted to take off straight up, just as their visitor had. She stopped as she came level with the craft, then lurched forward into a lazy, weaving course which Fishlegs estimated would bring them to the village in about six minutes. Hiccup and Toothless were already nothing more than a dark blot far ahead.

'Observant' was another of Sam's basic traits. It didn't take a great deal of observing to know his escort was not flying in a direct course, nor at a particularly high speed.

This puzzled him, until he reminded himself this was likely one of the isolated communities he'd thought of earlier, one which was clearly of Nordic descent and, as such, had held on to at least some traditions. Such places usually tried to keep their contact with modern technology to a minimum. Hiccup and Toothless, he assumed, had gone ahead to announce company was coming.

As he followed Fishlegs, Sam could clearly see their destination: A cluster of quaint but sturdy-looking wood-and-iron houses, set on the slopes of a hill above a natural half-circle of rock which formed a harbor.

He whistled in amazement at the sight of the ships tied up to the piers. Viking Longboats! Whoever's in charge of this place really has gone all-out in the realism department – those things must have cost a small mint to build!

As they drew closer, Sam was already formulating his game plan: Determine what the sickness was, clear it up, take preventive steps to avoid a repeat, determine where he was and fly back to Alladale. Assuming no serious complications, he didn't see why he couldn't get back in time for dinner.

His thoughts turned to the odd names the teens had introduced themselves with. Odd, at least, until he remembered a bit of trivia about Viking culture: Children were often given bizarre-sounding names because their parents believed it would frighten off evil spirits. I wonder if those two have more normal names as well?

His escort suddenly turned a sharp right, heading for one house which stood apart from all the others at the top of a rise. Hiccup and his black companion had already landed, and Hiccup was conferring with a great bear of a man, red-haired, red-bearded and in full armor. Must be the chieftain Sam thought.

Just before cresting the rise, his escort pointed at the house and flew off to the left, guiding his dragon to a somewhat bumpy landing. Sam circled once, noting the best spot to set down and trying to ignore the fact every eye in the village (dragon and human alike) was on him.

The feeling was mutual! He gazed around in amazement as he circled, marveling at the variety of dragons and the exquisite craftsmanship of each building.

How in Saint Blaise's blessed bloomers could we have missed this settlement?! Especially one with so many unique species?! No one at Alladale knew, or they would have made sure I knew about it much sooner!

Still mulling the discrepancy, he guided his craft down to a soft landing on a flat grassy knoll next to the house. He shut everything down, hung his helmet on its holder, then climbed over the side and dropped to the grass.

The moment he hit the ground, a startled squawk, sounding like a cross between an annoyed macaw and a much-amplified lynx's purr, drew his attention downward. Sam froze, jaw dropping once again.

The creature peering at him from behind the nose-gear strut was about the size of a young Komodo dragon, but much more brightly colored. Its body was a deep green on its back, shading paler towards its belly, with a series of interlocking red diamonds down its spine. The half-raised wings were coppery-red with brighter red streaks, the eyes a pale gold and the well-defined claws on all four legs a milky white. Two tiny brown horns, spiraled like a goat's, poked out of the forehead.

The creature tilted its rounded triangle of a head to one side, eyeing the new arrival with an expression of cautious curiosity, and let loose a softer trill. The sound rose in pitch at the end.

Entranced, Sam slowly dropped to one knee. And dragons come in all sizes, too he thought, remembering McCaffrey's fire-lizards. He extended one hand, palm out, and tried to match the creature's trilling noise.

His eyes bugged as the little creature promptly skittered closer, sniffed at his palm – and then shoved its head against his hand like a scaled green cat. Its entire body vibrated with the force of its purr as Sam tried a gentle scratching, and the double eyelids closed halfway.

A stronger rumble, that of a large throat being cleared, broke the spell, much to the small dragon's disgust. Sam stood up, turned and found himself facing a wall of armor and a huge red beard.

Eyes the same deep blue as his own gazed impassively down from above the bulbous nose. Sam's nostrils twitched slightly at the mixed aromas of smoke, sweat, and well-tanned leather. The aura of authority the man radiated was so palpable it made the vet do a hasty examination of his conscience.

A querulous chirp made him glance down. The tiny dragon had taken refuge right behind him, and was peering out nervously.

Sam turned back to the one-man wall, still at a loss for words. Mother Machree and Saint James the Greater! What have I let myself in for now?!

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