The Dragonwing Effect

Chapter 9

"An idea is something that won't work unless you do." (Thomas Edison)

The eastern horizon was getting lighter by the moment, though the western still held a generous assortment of stars. A gust of wind disturbed the otherwise-still air, creating tiny whirlwinds in the dust and sand on the plateau's surface and carrying the scent of salt and seaweed with it.

Sam glanced at his watch for what felt like the hundredth time, then drew his Glock from its holster and set it for CW laser mode. A quick burst of vibration from the grip told him the weapon's processor had recognized his palm print and was ready to fire.

"You're really sure you want to try this?" said Hiccup, from where he stood with Toothless to Sam's right. "You showed me what that lightning-thrower of yours can do; how do you know it won't do the same to the arch?"

A good point Skye added, from Sam's left, eyeing her companion as though she were uncertain of his sanity. No one knows how the Builders opened these Doors. It seems... unwise... to simply strike it with lightning. It may strike back!

Sam sighed, and explained once again. "As near as I can tell, whatever this arch is, it collects solar and heat energy. Absorbs fire and lightning" he added, seeing the look of confusion on Hiccup's face at the unfamiliar terms. "It doesn't seem to have any way to 'strike back,' according to my studies."

He shrugged, and looked from one dragon to the other. "If you two are really worried about this, then get clear and I'll try with just my gu... uhh, 'lightning-thrower.' You'll know quickly enough – hell, so will I – if things go sour. Besides, that bit of odd poetry says, right up front: 'When Dark embraces Light, as the Three dance as One, the Traveler may offer Fire.' That's all I plan to do – offer my own form of 'fire,' and see what happens.

"The only problem is, I don't know if my kind of fire will work. Since dragons seem to have some sort of connection with these 'Builders,' the words might mean 'dragon fire.'"

His gaze settled fully on Skye. She stared back without the slightest flinch. "This is the only thing I've come across so far which holds a clue to how I got here, and it may hold the way home as well. You said you wanted to help me..."

She looked away for a moment, then turned back, her expression resigned and fierce all at once. I can see you are committed to this wind-twist no matter what. Beware! If you manage to kill yourself, I swear by the Bright Lady I will follow you into the Silent Winds, bring you back and kill you all over again!

Sam produced a sound somewhere between a pained cough and a chuckle. "I'll consider myself warned" he said, then turned to the other two. "I appreciate you coming along, but this isn't your challenge. Are you sure you want to be around when I try to activate that thing?" He nodded at the archway.

Toothless snorted, then paced over to Skye and twined his tail around hers. She is my mate, as I am hers he sent, firmly. The risks in this life are ours to face, together.

Hiccup shrugged, and added "Where Toothless goes, I go."

The eastern sky brightened further, especially at one specific point. Sam nodded, then turned to face the archway and raised his gun, putting the sighting beam squarely in the middle of the top glyph. "On my signal, then. And... thanks. No matter what happens."

The first rays of the morning sun struck the arch, turning it the color of molten metal in the forge. "Now!" Sam shouted, as he squeezed the trigger. The Glock whined and, on the spot where the sighting beam was centered, a circle of eye-searing green light flickered before vanishing into the arch's surface as though soaked up by a sponge.

The two Night Furies spat balls of their hottest flame. They impacted squarely on either leg of the archway where it met the plateau. Sam, Hiccup, and both dragons braced themselves for the shock wave from the inevitable backblast–

–which never came. Just as Sam's laser shot was being absorbed in full (something he'd never seen any other surface do without getting a nine-millimeter hole bored through it), the fireballs clung briefly to the arch's surface, flared brightly for a moment, then shrank in on themselves and vanished leaving nothing but smoke in their wake.

The reaction from the archway, though, brought a gasp from Sam. Just before the Glock chirped an overload warning and shut down its beam, the air inside the perimeter of the arch went hazy with blue-grey mist. A few random electrical discharges snapped weakly into the gap, then fizzled out with pops no louder than an old-fashioned cap gun.

The hazy effect died away. The arch, which bore not the slightest sign of being hit by a high-power laser and two plasma-class fireballs, presented nothing more than its usual vista of the cliff face.

Sam closed his eyes and holstered his pistol. Silence reigned for nearly half a minute before he turned and strode towards Skye. "Get me out of here" he said, in a fierce whisper.

Twelve minutes later, they were back in Berk. Sam quickly stripped the saddle and flight harness from Skye, gathered the gear under one arm, and strode away towards his ship without a single word.

Skye started to follow, then froze as Toothless stepped into her path. A silent exchange passed between them, then Skye nodded and leaped into flight again, heading in the general direction of Raven Point.

Hiccup looked as though he couldn't decide which way to go. Toothless settled the matter by giving him a firm nudge. You can take off my saddle and false-fin now.

The teen did so, almost as mechanically as Sam had, casting frequent glances in the vet's direction. His upper torso had disappeared into one of the many compartments his flying ship had, only his legs visible as he manipulated some unknown part of the machine. This is something he must fly through alone Toothless added, after Hiccup had stowed the flight gear. The dragon urged his human companion towards Mead Hall. Come. We both need breakfast.

As often happened when Sam became absorbed in something technical, no matter if it was veterinary medicine or keeping his aging ship in top condition, he lost all track of time. His disappointment warred with something he hadn't expected: An odd sense of relief.

I did my level best to find a way home, and couldn't he thought, as he went through the inside of the port turbine housing with a small vacuum cleaner. It was a good idea to do so at least once a week. Although the superconductive motors which drove the blades were well sealed, and the shafts supported by frictionless magnetic bearings, one could never tell when a rock or some other hard matter might get in past the baffles and cause hidden damage.

This thought, and half a thousand others, circulated through his mind as he gave both turbines a thorough cleaning and started inspecting the TQ coils for fatigue. I've done my duty to UNEC, and now it's time to think long-term he mused, tightening the connection on a power coupling and checking the hydrogen level in the fuel cells. It could have been a lot worse... I could have been stranded alone, in the middle of nowhere. Instead, I've got friends, food, shelter... everything I need to survive. I just have to be damn careful not to do anything which might disrupt the future...

The last thought stopped him cold, and he hissed in frustration. And how in Saint Blaise's Blessed Blivets can I ever be sure I haven't wrecked something?! It's enough to drive a man batty!

The reference to the flying mammals brought a sudden image of Skye, rising from an oversized coffin, outfitted neatly in a Dracula-style cape complete with collar and bow-tie, her mind-speech coming across in the cheesiest imaginable horror-movie vampire accent: Vere is my vish? I vant itz blood...

The image started a fit of laughter, distracting him enough so he had to lay down his tools and let it pass. As he reached for the spanner and multitester once again, a sudden scrabbling on the outer hull made him jump.

Unfortunately, the engine housings of UNEC VetMed aircars are not built with sudden movements in mind. Sam's laughter died abruptly, replaced by some potent Celtic curses, as his head discovered the TQ field regulator housing.

Still muttering, he extracted himself from the compartment and looked around. Right on cue, two familiar draconic heads, one green and one blue, popped up over the cockpit rim and chirped cheerful greetings at him.

"You two!" he said, shaking his head and reaching out to give them both a good scratching. They were both damp with seawater, their bellies bulging, so it wasn't hard for Sam to guess they'd just come from fishing. "So what is it about my ship you find so attractive, hmm?"

He hadn't really been expecting an answer. Then again, he hadn't expected to discover he could 'hear' dragons, either. As it was, his jaw dropped as he got two words, followed by a matching rush of emotion, one from each Terror.

Nest! the green female piped up. Sleep! the blue added, his mind-speech carrying a distinctive male overtone.

Before Sam could so much as blink, the two had dropped back down to the rear seat, curled up against each other, and drifted off to whatever served dragons as dreamland. He chuckled, the last of the morning's frustrations fading, as he watched the pair. "Can't keep calling you two 'Hey' or 'You'" he mused. "You need names."

He thought about this as he watched them breathe, their tails or legs twitching every so often. There had been plenty of opportunities to observe all the dragons, this pair included, and it was clear their personalities were as individual and varied as any human.

His mind flashed back to a few days prior, when he'd seen the male body-surfing as enthusiastically as any dolphin, and memories of a long-past vacation in the Hawaiian Islands suddenly supplied a single word: "Nalu" Sam said, nodding. "Means 'surf' or 'wave.'"

The female was harder. Sam had always gotten the impression she was as fussy and proper as a queen, but the Norse translation for 'Queen' or 'Leader' just didn't sound right. Suddenly, he remembered how the green had awakened her boyfriend the first time he'd seen them together. "Niho" he said, softly, eyeing the sleek green form. "Means 'teeth.' Nalu and Niho... yep! Perfect!"

"What's perfect?" came a familiar female voice from below. Sam turned to see Ingrid gazing up at him. "You certainly seem more relaxed than when you returned this morning."

Sam grinned back, closed the engine housing and dropped down the boarding ladder. He explained about the names he'd come up with for the pair, names which Ingrid, after a few tries, managed to pronounce without any problem. She nodded.

"Very different from Norse, but it was your responsibility to name them, since they've so obviously chosen you as their human Companion." She smiled. "Perhaps you can show me these islands you speak of some time."

He started to object, then stopped. He had time, now. Nothing but. I should leave a 'time capsule' somewhere it'll be found he thought. Vacuum container with a full report on what happened, logs and holos included... at least it'll give my brother some closure.

"Perhaps I can" he said, smoothly, accepting the water-skin she held out. One long swallow later, he glanced at his watch. "Wow! I've been working for over four hours!?"

Ingrid nodded. "You needed the time. Have you decided?"

Sam didn't need his newly-developed mental abilities to know what she meant. He took a deep breath before replying. "Yes" he said, firmly. "It's obvious to me getting home is simply not possible until – and if – I figure out the entire puzzle of that gateway" he said. "Until then, there's no point in worrying. I'm here, now, in this time and place, and I will do what I can to give a good accounting of myself."

The healer flashed a brilliant smile. "You see? You really can learn!"

He returned her smile. She really is quite the looker he thought, as he offered his arm. "Would you join me for lunch, my lady?"

She was quick to accept, and they started walking arm-in-arm towards Mead Hall. The day had taken on a whole different quality, somehow. The air seemed fresher, the sounds of village life cheerful and hearty, the sunlight starting to dim slightly, providing some relief from the glare on the ocean...

Dim slightly?

Puzzled, Sam slowed and looked towards the sun. Sure enough, a tiny sliver of shadow was starting to creep across its lower edge. Hmm... must be a solar eclipse.

He was jerked to a halt as Ingrid stopped in her tracks, her gaze following the same line his had. Her expression turned deadly serious as, from near the docks, an eerie chorus of howls arose. The chorus spread quickly, until Vikings all around them were baying like wolves. He glanced at Ingrid, his entire face a bearded question mark.

She pointed upward. "Skoll, the sky-wolf, comes to catch the sun" she said. "If we do not make enough noise to distract him, he will devour it and we will be forever in darkness!"

He gaped at her for a moment, then chuckled. "Ingrid, no... It's a natural occurrence. Every so often, the moon moves in front of the sun for a few minutes. It's called an 'eclipse,' and they've been happening since before humans ever walked the earth. There's no 'sky-wolf' or any other kind of wolf up there."

Her gaze was iron-hard. "You have your beliefs, Sam Shay, and we have ours. Do not disrespect them!" She tilted her head back and joined the howling. "Ingrid!" Sam said, raising his voice. "Come on! It's a natural thing! They happen in my time, too. In fact, one happened the day I ended up here–"

Sam froze, his memory suddenly clear for the first time since he'd come to Berk, and his mind putting together all the pieces in a moment of crystal clarity.

The stocky pirate who had fired a plasma bolt.

The eclipse going total just as the bolt had flown past his ship.

A loud cracking sound he hadn't even registered at first, a mere second after the plasma bolt had streaked past.

And a blue-gray vortex swallowing him and his ship.

"Saint Blaise Above!" Sam yelled. "THAT'S IT!"

Before Ingrid could protest, he wrenched his arm free and ran back up the hill to his ship. He made it up the ladder in two enormous leaps, and threw the master switch for the onboard systems.

"Computer!" he gasped out, trying to catch his breath. "Arc... archive search. List total sol... solar eclipses for year AD eight-forty!"

The pause was less than five seconds. It felt to Sam like five hours. "One total solar eclipse found for the time specified. Date of occurrence, May fifth. Time of totality, twelve fifty-seven and six seconds, GMT. Duration of totality, five minutes, zero seconds."

He gasped, then added "Computer, current GMT and date, based on modified programming?"

"Twelve-forty and ten seconds, May fifth, eight-forty AD."

"Thought so!" He hissed, as he jumped from the top rung of the ladder and hit the ground in a clumsy roll. Scrambling back to his feet, he went charging into the house and started gathering his supplies and bedroll.

Just as he got everything bagged, or at least tied up enough to travel, a black streak banged through the door, opaline eyes flashing.

What is going on?! Skye sent, as he leaped right over her and headed out the door. Sam! Wait! She continued, turning in place and charging out after him. What is wrong? Tell me! I felt your excitement all the way out at the hollow!

He crammed the armload into the rear cargo compartment and shoved at the door. It resisted for a moment, then clicked shut as he slammed his shoulder against it with a grunt.

"It's the eclipse!" he yelled, as he dashed around the front of the craft and vaulted up the ladder once again. "That's the missing piece! That's what those three circles, one above the other, meant! Sun, Moon, Earth, all lined up! 'When The Three Dance As One!' That doorway will only open during a total eclipse of the sun!"

He dropped into the pilot's seat and secured his harness. His hands raced across the panel, bringing the engines to life–

STOP!

The mental shout froze him in place. He blinked at the sight of Skye, clinging to the forward section of the cockpit, her eyes holding his as one of her forepaws pressed him firmly into his seat. Three more words came into his mind, each one carrying far more meaning than any dictionary could possibly lend them: Are... you... sure?

Every sound, from the still-howling Vikings to the aircar's engines to the bleeps and pings of instruments coming online, faded away. Sam gulped as his whole world narrowed to one set of opal-flecked eyes staring into his, hoping, wanting, needing him to stay, yet willing to let him go, but it had to be his choice alone...

He reached up suddenly, arms going around her neck, his eyes blurring with tears. She reached down a wing to caress his cheek.

I thought so she sent. Go well and fly free, Sam Shay! As you promised to remember me, and tell others, I can do no less for my hatchlings. All will know of you, no matter what the future may bring!

With that, she pulled away, gently but firmly, and leaped down as gracefully as a winged black leopard. "Tell the others?" he called, his mind and voice working as one as he secured his helmet. "Let them know... I'm sorry I couldn't stay...?

She let loose a full-throated roar, the first Sam had heard from her since they'd met. I will! She sent, with the impression of a skyward shove. Now GO!

Turbines whined as Sam opened the throttles. The last thing he saw, before the canopy closed, was Skye leaping into the air and performing the most amazing rolling loop he'd ever seen. Quickly, he snapped on the exterior cameras, hoping he'd caught at least a part of it.

Then, before he had a chance to think about it, he turned his ship's nose due south and pushed the engines to full thrust. Acceleration slammed him back against his seat as the craft thundered across the darkening sky.


Skye leveled out and drifted back towards the ground, saddened but pleased. No matter what happens, I think his path will never be dull.

Suddenly, her thoughts were filled with memories of the morning's experiments and the results (or lack thereof) the portal had produced without one specific influence...

The connection hit her so fast and hard, she nearly stalled. She folded her wings and dove for the ground, turning her forward momentum into a full gallop and charging into the outdoor shelter where Toothless slept during warm weather. She grabbed his saddle and tail-rig in her mouth and whipped around, scattering leaves and dust in her wake as she charged down the hill towards Hiccup and Toothless.

GET READY TO FLY! She shouted at the top of her mental voice, adding a full-throated audible roar for emphasis. Hiccup broke off in mid-howl, startled as much by the sound as by the non-verbal command echoing in his head. Skye skidded to a halt, and fairly flung the gear at the teen's feet. Move your tails, both of you!

Hiccup blinked. "But Skoll... the Darkening... we need all the noise we canOWW!" He glared at the female Night Fury, stunned by the sudden slap from her ear-flap. "What was that for?!"

Neither he nor Toothless was expecting what came next. Skye reared up on her hind legs, planted both forepaws firmly on Hiccup's shoulders, and spun him around to face south.

He is leaving and he needs our help!

Hiccup's jaw dropped at the sight of the aircar, visible now as a rapidly-moving speck, the bright flashes of its anticollision lights like shooting stars against the darkening sky. "Leaving as in..."

Using the Doorway Toothless confirmed, picking up the saddle in his jaws and shoving it at his friend. Trust me when I say there is no sky-wolf, and the sun will reappear no matter how noisy or silent the village gets. Skye is right – We must fly NOW!

The one thing Hiccup had in abundance, where dragons were concerned, was trust. His hands moved in a blur as he secured the flight gear and leaped into his normal position.

Although, as the dragons lifted off and made top speed south, he couldn't help but wince at the sense of disapproving eyes aimed in his direction. "One change at a time" he muttered, slitting his eyes against the wind as Toothless picked up speed. "One change at a time..."


It took Sam four minutes flat to make it to the tiny island. He throttled back and circled, looking for any sign the gate might have gone active: Nothing. "Fine" he muttered. "'The Traveler May Offer Fire,' I'll offer as much as the ABL can generate!"

He backed his ship off to five hundred meters, lined it up so its nose was pointing squarely at the center of the archway, and set the autopilot for position hold.

One hand danced over the weapons console, bringing up the craft's laser. It took no more than a glance through his helmet's visor to align the target bug on the top center of the arch, and lock it in place. He glanced at the clock display: 12:50:06.

He nodded to himself, then spoke. "Computer, set laser for timed firing. At twelve-fifty-seven and six seconds, fire a ten-second burst, full power, then release laser to manual."

The machine repeated the instructions back and finished with "Confirm?"

"Confirmed."

Two beeps sounded in his earphones, followed by "Timed weapon sequence engaged. Six minutes, ten seconds to firing."

Sam put the time to good use. The memory of what had happened to his instruments when he first passed through the portal drove him to do a mass download of his ship's entire log memory to a jump-drive.

This, along with memory cards from his holocam, went into a shielded vacuum container secured under his seat. He swore as one card slipped out of his hands to vanish under his seat, then shrugged it off. Screw it, I've got more than enough already. Dash is going to have kittens when he sees this stuff he mused, with a wicked grin. No more rubber T-rex's in the squad room after this trip!

The computer dinged at him as he secured the container's holding clips."One minute to firing. All systems nominal."

An odd sense of Deja Vu gripped Sam as he sat back up, one hand now on the throttle and the other on the joystick. He shook it off, concentrating on the portal, but Doubt wasn't done with him. You're not committed yet a tiny part of his mind said, suddenly. You can turn around now, go back to Berk, and live a perfectly happy life with Skye and your other friends.

The sky grew darker still, shadows doubling up and losing sharpness as the eclipse progressed, and Sam suppressed another shudder.

From what he had been able to recover of the original flight recorder data, the violent bucking his ship had experienced on its first passage was a result of conflicting wind-currents around the perimeter of the portal. Entering at a high enough speed to keep those currents from grabbing on was the only way to avoid losing control.

The bad news was, if the portal didn't open, there wouldn't be enough time for him to pull up and avoid the cliff face, though he was fairly certain he could eject in time. If he was wrong...

"Thirty seconds to firing."

He blinked and looked up at the sky. Stars were appearing, and the positions of the constellations served only to reinforce his theories about the would-be gate: Every group in those glyphs is visible, Dark and Light are certainly dancing as one, and this 'Traveler' is more than ready to offer Fire. It has to work!

"Ten seconds" the computer said. "Nine... eight... seven..."

Sam's lips moved in a whispered prayer.

"Two... one..."

There was no shrieking hum, no sharp crack or solid rope of intense light, as had entranced science-fiction movie makers since the idea of "ray guns" had first cropped up. The only sound in the aircar's cabin was a sharp tick, followed by a spot of intense green blossoming on the portal's surface, just as the sky turned midnight black.

The green spot, too bright to look at with unshielded eyes, suddenly spread out. Moments later, the archway's entire surface glowed the same color, a cloud of blue-gray mist swirling into being in its center. The mist expanded quickly, filling the entire opening seconds before the laser shut down.

Sam's eyes widened, and his jaw dropped. "Saint Blaise be praised!" he gasped.

In one smooth motion, he disengaged the autopilot and shoved the 'Thrust' throttle full forward. The turbines roared, sending his ship tearing through the sky and pressing him firmly into his seat.

The archway's flickering mists grew larger by the second. "Approaching commit point" the computer said. Sam's grip tightened on the controls. He knew ejecting after the commit point gave him no better than a fifty-fifty chance. Even if he survived, his ship most certainly would not.

"Four... Three..."

A loud squeak of complaint startled him, and he looked around frantically for the source. "What the–Bloody Hell!"

"Two... One..."


Hiccup's stomach was in knots as they flew on. Night during day just isn't natural! he thought. Odin Above, I hope Toothless is right about no sky-wolf...

The trio had no problem at all spotting Sam's ship. It hovered perfectly still less than fifty meters below them, farther out from the island than they were, its red anticollision strobes lighting up the sky and ocean surface every few seconds.

Before Hiccup could do more than wonder why Sam was just sitting there, a spark of eye-searing green winked from near the nose of the craft, followed by the same color of spot appearing at the top center of the archway.

The teen's jaw dropped, and both dragons rumbled in surprise, as the archway absorbed the shot and lit up with fire the color of flawless emeralds. Seconds later, a misty vortex of blue-gray swirled to life in the middle, expanding quickly to fill the entire arch. Blue-green arcs of lightning pulsed in its depths, and the trio could feel the change in winds even from their height. Instinctively, both dragons veered to stay well clear of the tugging air currents.

A roar of displaced air and a rising whine diverted their attention. Sam's ship had given up its stationary position, and was now racing towards the archway at a speed Hiccup doubted even a Night Fury could match. Not enough salmon in the ocean to make me want to try Toothless sent, wry humor in his tone.

Just then, the emerald glow dimmed and went out, taking the vortex with it. Hiccup was slammed against his safety lines as Toothless immediately went into a steep dive. Skye met him in mid-air, wingtip-to-wingtip, and it was all Hiccup could do to pull himself forward and flatten himself to his friend's back. Lie down, false-fin full out when I say, hold on and shut up! Toothless sent in the same instant. This is going to be tricky...

The teen gulped. "What in Odin's Name are you–"

As quickly as he finished the thought, the two dragons leveled out, rocketing along barely ten meters above the ocean's surface, still in perfect side-by-side formation. Suddenly, they both spat fireballs. Each one struck precisely at the base of each leg of the archway, just as they had earlier.

This time, the archway's substance flared with fire the color of a summer sky, the vortex swirling back into being nearly twice as fast as it had before. Sam's ship was ahead of them, still accelerating. Between its wake turbulence and the conflicting pull of the vortex, Hiccup wondered if they were all about to make an early departure for Valhalla. Skye's mind-voice boomed out, in perfect sync with Toothless's, loud enough to set Hiccup's head ringing.

YOU'RE WELCOME!


"Bloody Hell!" Sam exclaimed, as a familiar green-scaled bug-eyed face gazed reproachfully back at him. A quick glance over his shoulder confirmed it: Both Terrors were still with him, though Nalu was simply blinking sleepily, apparently wondering what all the fuss was about.

The archway's glow faded and died, taking the vortex with it.

His guts clenched as he reached for the ejection handle. Nothing to lose now he thought. His only regret was his two stowaways were likely to die with him–

Two brilliant blue flashes, and the gateway flared back into life, its vortex in full swirling fury. Sam's jaw dropped, and his head suddenly rang with two very familiar mental voices.

YOU'RE WELCOME!

Then a giant hand grabbed his ship, his unexpected passengers, and his consciousness, and spun them all into oblivion.


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.

He fumbled for the canopy release, found it, pressed it. Locks clunked, and the clear dome retracted smoothly into the rear body. The air was cool, though far from chill, and the sky clear with just a scattering of cirrus in the distance. Seagulls screamed and cormorants chattered, providing a counterpoint to the rush of waves as they curled up the rocky beach. "Computer" he croaked, pulling off his helmet. "Status report!"

After a lengthy pause, the machine started speaking. "Drive systems, idle and nominal, following automatic landing procedure due to incapacitation of operator. Communications, nominal. Weapons..."

The computer droned on, but Sam barely heard the rest of it. His mind was too busy repeating the two blissful words: "Communications, Nominal," an indication he would not have gotten if the GNSS and commsat signals had been absent.

Ignoring the headache, he tapped a key below the main display, bringing up a tactical map of the area. A rush of giddy delight swept over him as the screen promptly showed his own position – and the position and status of all the TLC-tagged birds in the immediate area.

He was home.

He let out the breath he hadn't known he was holding, and unsnapped his safety harness. Another glance outside told him he was back on the same beach where he and Gerry had grounded the pirate craft. He could still see splotches of garish yellow paint on the rocks above the high-tide line.

He couldn't keep the grin off his face as he picked up his helmet, held the microphone near his lips, and keyed the transmitter. "Alladale Base, Ranger nineteen."

The response came almost immediately, sounding more than a bit surprised. "Unit calling Alladale, say call sign again?!" Sam didn't recognize the voice, but he didn't really care. Essence only knew what changes there had been in his absence.

He keyed his mic again. "Alladale, Ranger nineteen reporting back in. Clearing from the Shetlands, enroute Alladale in the next five minutes."

The response took longer this time, and Sam was surprised when the next voice over the air was Lieutenant Dashiell's. "Ranger Nineteen, Alladale. Sam, advise if you're injured?"

"Only a headache, sir" he replied. "Both myself and my ship are, otherwise, nominal."

Another pause, then: "Sam... listen to me very carefully. Do not attempt to lift off, or leave your current position! We have your GNSS fix, and a Double-R team is enroute. We will come to you. Stay put! Is this understood?"

He blinked. Rescue-and-Recovery enroute?

"With due respect, sir" he replied, slowly and carefully, "I say again: My ship is functional, and I am not in any way incapacitated. I see no reason to waste Double-R resources. In light of these facts, sir, do you still wish me to remain where I am?"

The response was as immediate as it was curt. "Stay put, Ranger Shay! That is a direct order. Acknowledge!"

Sam would have argued further, except he knew Dash rarely used the words 'direct order.' When he did, though, he meant it.

"Acknowledged, sir" he said, in his best officer's tone. "Ranger nineteen, holding position, awaiting Double-R pickup."

He put the helmet down, then turned around so he could check on his unexpected passengers. "Well, you two" he said. "Looks like we're getting the royal treatm–Oh, damn!"

Niho, the green Terror, was collapsed on her side on the rear seat, Nalu eyeing her worriedly. Her eyes were glazed with pain, and her left wing hung at an awkward angle.

Sam didn't need his veterinary degree to know at least one of her wing ribs was fractured. The blue seemed all right, though there was a mottled spot on his chest which Sam took for a bruise. Soulful gold eyes locked with Sam's, and a single word popped into his head: Help?

Instinct took over. He vaulted out of the cockpit, down the boarding ladder, and popped open the cargo compartment holding his diagnostic Gauntlet and field kit.

A few minutes later, he had the break (a clean one, fortunately) straightened and immobilized in a gel-splint, and fluids and pain meds administered. He smiled as Niho blinked at him sleepily, and gently scratched her neck.

"You'll be just fine in a few weeks, little one" he said, reassuringly, then sighed. "Though I'm going to have a devil of a time explaining you and your boyfriend to my boss."

Her soft purring was the only response as she drifted into drugged sleep. Nalu, who had watched the whole procedure from Sam's shoulder, seemed relieved as well, though he flinched and chirped a protest as Sam reached up to scratch him and accidentally hit the bruise. "Sorry!" he said, eyeing the spot. "Laser therapy'll take care of that..."

Further thoughts were interrupted by the hum and roar of a UNEC rescue barge touching down on the beach. Sam stood up and waved at the nearest rescue tech, gaudy in their reflector-striped jumpsuit. "I have a patient!" he yelled. "Get me a type-four carrier!"

The next hour or so was a flurry of questions, answers, and sometimes-confusing orders. Sam insisted on transporting Niho personally, with Nalu still clinging firmly to his shoulder (much to the consternation of all present) to the base's animal infirmary.

As he settled into one of the jump-seats in the rescue craft, Niho's carrier secured in the spot next to him, his mind finally had time to relax and start sorting out impressions.

There had been, he realized, some decidedly odd things about the rescue. Although everyone who saw the dragons was clearly astonished, and more than a little curious, no one asked any questions about them, specifically.

His ship, rather than being checked and flown back to base separately, as was standard procedure if the craft in question were still airworthy, was promptly loaded into the barge and sealed. At one point, as he was boarding the heavy carrier, he overheard its captain muttering something about 'Code Delta' to his comm officer.

Sam had never heard the term before. When he had asked what it meant, later, he had received a blank look.

"You must have been mistaken, sir" the captain said. "There is no such code in UNEC. You do look very tired, though. Why don't you try to rest, and we'll have you and your... friends... back at base very shortly."

Sam was, in fact, too tired to argue about it. He chalked it up to his mental state, and settled back in his seat. At least nothing major seems to have changed he thought. Though I think I'll reserve judgment until I see more and check a newscast or three.

The drone of the heavy TQ drive, coupled with the whine of the quad turbines, made an excellent hypnotic. He drifted off, Nalu's mental voice whispering Rest. I guard!

Guard he did, though it seemed like mere minutes passed before Sam was startled awake by the absence of engine noise, the presence of multiple claws gripping his shoulder and side, almost tightly enough to punch through the tough fabric of his jumpsuit, and a menacing growl he had never heard Nalu make before.

A sudden sizzle, like water hitting red-hot metal, coupled with startled shouts and the cough of a fire extinguisher, brought him fully conscious.

He gaped at the scene. One of the rescue techs had, apparently, tried to take Niho's carrier. Nalu, judging by the scorched spot on the far bulkhead and the fear in the tech's expression, had taken exception to the idea.

The rescue tech, a young blonde-haired lady who couldn't have been more than a year out of the Academy, looked nervously at Sam. Two other techs hovered behind her in the corridor, one carrying a CO2 extinguisher. "Sir!" She gasped, with obvious relief. "We tried not to wake you, but the Terror... I mean, your... the..." She trailed off, gesturing at Nalu.

Sam stretched, suppressed a yawn, and smiled as he stood and picked up the carrier. Nalu's growls faded, though he continued to keep a wary eye on all present.

"As you were, people" he said, trying his best to project an air of easy confidence. "You just scared him a bit. Make a hole, please?"

The passageway cleared as if by magic. Sam sauntered out, trying hard to keep from wincing as Nalu's claws continued to grip, and headed for the main hatchway. "Easy, youngster" he said, softly, reaching up to scratch the Terror's neck while being careful to avoid the bruise. "Nalu, relax! No one's going to hurt you or Niho."

The blue rumbled uncertainly but, much to Sam's relief, eased his grip. Bad people! he sent.

"No, not 'bad'" Sam replied absently, checking on Niho through the carrier's door. She was still oblivious to the world, but her breathing was strong and steady. "They just don't know you yet. Once you spend some more time here, you might like them."

Sam wasn't certain how much raw brainpower a Terrible Terror had, but Nalu's snort spoke volumes.

He got another surprise as he reached the main hatchway. The rescue barge had already been brought into the main hangar, and barriers had been set up along the entire length of the entry ramp and across the hangar floor, forming an impromptu tunnel.

He peeked out through the gap between two of the screens, and saw his aircar being swarmed over by a half-dozen technicians. Outside of them the entire hangar, normally a beehive of activity, was eerily quiet.

"This way, sir" said a deep voice behind him, as Nalu let loose a warning growl. He turned to see the rescue ship's captain, gesturing him towards the stairs.

"They're waiting for you and your... patient... in the infirmary, Treatment Six." He eyed the upset Terror calmly and, after a moment, Nalu stopped growling and relaxed with a nervous chirp. The captain smiled. "You'd best hurry, sir. Lieutenant Dashiell wants you in his office as soon as you're done."

Sam gave him a long, searching look before turning to go. "Thank you" he said, simply, before descending the boarding stairs and walking quickly across the hangar floor.

What in blazes is going on? Six is equipped for full quarantine! If they were that worried about contamination, everyone would be in Type One HazMat suits.

His tension eased slightly as he remembered an additional detail. Treatment Six also held the most advanced of Alladale's diagnostic and analytical equipment.

Makes sense for a previously-unknown species. They'll likely have already downloaded the logs from my ship and the PortaLab, but field equipment can't match the base's resources.

He kept these thoughts foremost in his mind as he walked, using them as a shield against a bizarre feeling of unease. Just as the hangar had been eerily silent, so was the corridor outside the treatment rooms. Nalu twittered nervously, picking up on Sam's mood.

Finally, he reached the double door for Treatment Six, pushed through–

–and stopped cold at the sight of a tall, slender, familiar red-haired female figure, clad in UNEC veterinary whites. His jaw dropped. "Ing... Ingrid?!" he gasped.

She frowned slightly. "No, I'm Doctor Ericsson – Kate, to my colleagues." The frown switched back to a bright smile as she stepped forward and offered her hand.

"You must be Doctor Shay. And who is this handsome fellow?" She nodded at Nalu who, much to Sam's surprise, displayed no sign of suspicion or hostility. Quite the contrary: His head was tilting back and forth, eyeing Ericsson curiously.

Sam shook hands, then said "That's me. Sorry for the slip-up. You look very much like someone I met just... well, recently" he corrected, hastily. "The blue one is Nalu, and the green lady with the fractured wing is Niho."

His confusion deepened as Ericsson chirped at Nalu. He chirped back, clearly surprised. Then, as Ericsson extended her arm, he transferred himself smoothly from Sam's shoulder to hers.

"That's a good fellow" she said, scratching along his back as though she'd had dragons clinging to her all her life. "We'll fix that bruise of yours soon enough."

She turned back to Sam, gesturing to the carrier. "Let's have a look at Niho's wing, shall we?"

Sam handed over the carrier without a word, still stunned at his colleague's obvious skill with dragons. The insignia on her lab coat gave no clues: Standard UNEC issue, with the veterinarian's Caduceus and UNEC patch on each shoulder. Under the coat, he could see the pale green of scrubs, matching her pants.

"Kate, if you don't mind my asking" he said, as she reached into the carrier and deftly transferred a sleepy-eyed Niho to the exam table. "You seem... well, comfortable with dragons. Have you seen them before?"

She shrugged. "I've worked with large reptiles all my life. Doesn't matter if they can fly, or if they're endothermic. They work pretty much the same, no matter what. You seem to have discovered as much, judging from your work. I see you used a gel-splint... what did you give her for pain?"

"Zero-point-five Epibatidine-C, five milligrams, just before we were picked up" he replied. "Sorry, but I've lost track of time. I don't know how many hours it's been since–"

"About two and a half" she said, examining his work. "Nice job, all around. This young lady will be flying again in a little less than a month, thanks to you.

Sam was dumbfounded. "How can you possibly know that?!" He burst out. "This is a species no one else has seen for millennia! For that matter, it's one which was, until now, thought to be a myth. You haven't even scanned the injury! What kind of doctor are you?!"

Her smile was as bright as it was genuine. "The kind who, apparently, has more confidence in their skills than you do in yours."

She scooped Niho up, and transferred her to one of the recovery cubicles in the next room. Sam didn't know whether to follow her in and demand an explanation, or just go with it.

"Relax, Sam" she said, as she came back into the treatment room and washed her hands. "You did great. Now, I know the Lieutenant's waiting for you, and I've got to start laser therapy on Nalu's bruise. Do you know if he sustained any other injuries?"

All Sam could do was shake his head. "I'll look him over anyway, just to make sure" she said.

The phone picked that moment to warble, and she scooped it up in a heartbeat. "Treatment Six, Dr. Ericsson... Yes, sir, he's here. Just a moment."

She offered the handset to Sam. He accepted it, still trying to wrap his mind around this stranger of a doctor who seemed to know at least as much as he'd learned about dragons. "Ranger Shay" he said.

"Sam, are you done taking care of your patient?" Lieutenant Dashiell asked. There was a note of impatience in his voice. "If so, get yourself up here!"

His jaw worked a few times, but he couldn't seem to find any words right away. "Ah... yes... yessir!" he finally stammered. "She seems to be in good hands. I'll be right there."

He hung up, looking helplessly at Kate, clearly torn between following Dash's orders and wanting to observe. "Scram!" Kate said, pushing him towards the door with a chuckle. "I'll call if I need you." Nalu reinforced this with a contented chirp. Go now, find later! he sent.

Sam went. Two minutes later, he was standing in front of Dash's desk. One other man was present, dark-skinned and clean shaven, but with a pair of the bushiest jet-black eyebrows he'd ever seen.

They provided a startling contrast to the golden amber color of the man's eyes. Though he wore a civilian coat and tie, he bore a silent air of authority which commanded instant respect. The vet thought he looked familiar, but he couldn't recall why.

"I'm sure you know the Secretary-General, Subrata Gupta" Dashiell said.

Sam's eyes widened slightly, but he managed a smooth bow. "Mr. Secretary, this is an unexpected honor."

Gupta inclined his head. "The honor is mine, Ranger Shay" he said, in the familiar clipped tenor Sam now remembered from past speeches. Gupta had been blessed by the kind of voice a person could listen to for hours without tiring of it; a considerable asset for the leader of a league of nations.

"No doubt, you have many questions." He smiled, his teeth brilliant white and perfectly aligned.

Sam nodded slightly. "That... would be quite an understatement, sir."

Gupta nodded. "And, no doubt, there is much you have to tell us." He waved towards the other chair.

"Please, Ranger Shay, be seated and at ease. Tell us all you have experienced since you and your ship went missing last month. In your own words, please, and leave nothing out."

Sam hesitated. Gupta smiled again, and lifted his arms. "Pretend I am nothing more than an old friend of your family, one who has been concerned about what has happened to you. I, in my turn, will explain all I can of what has happened in your absence."

Once again, Sam found himself at a momentary loss for words. Treat the Secretary-General of the UN as if he were speaking to an old friend?! He looked over at Dashiell, who simply nodded and silently mouthed 'do it.'

So he did. It got easier as time progressed. He quickly found Gupta to be as outstanding a listener as he was a speaker, encouraging Sam to go on over the rough spots and, oddly enough for a semi-official report, seeking his opinions and speculations as well as the facts. The only thing he left out was his experiences with mindspeech.

Once again, he found himself losing all track of time. There were two meal breaks during the session, but no one else disturbed them.

"...and I came straight from the clinic to this office, sir. You know the rest." Sam said, stretching. Curious, he glanced at the wall clock – and gasped. It had been just past noon when he'd returned to Alladale; it was now 19:45. Fatigue washed over him in a rush, and the room seemed to tilt slightly. "Whoa..."

Gupta eyed him with concern, then turned to Dashiell. "Robert, I think we have everything we could ask for, yes?"

"Absolutely, Mr. Secretary" Dashiell replied. "It's all recorded in any case." He seemed much more relaxed than when they'd started.

"Sam, you look like you're about ready to drop, and after what you've been through, I'm not surprised." He pushed a button on his phone. Moments later, the door opened to reveal one of the on-site dormitory staff. "Hawkins, see Ranger Shay to the infirmary for a checkup, then to his usual quarters."

The orderly nodded. "Certainly, sir. Ranger Shay, if you're ready?"

Sam stood up, still shaky, but able to navigate. "Sir... Mr. Secretary... that's it? You believe me?"

Dashiell eyed him. "Is there a reason we should not?" Gupta asked, curiously.

Sam's mind was going in circles. Dully, he shook his head. "Ah... no, sir. It was all the truth, as I remember it."

Dashiell nodded. "Very good, Sam. You're in no shape to continue, and I can hardly blame you. We'll pick this up tomorrow. One thing: You are not to discuss these events with anyone outside this room without express approval from myself or the Secretary. Is that clear?"

Sam had to smile at this. "Very clear, sir. I doubt anyone else would believe me in any case." He saluted and wobbled out, following the orderly.

After the door had shut, both Dashiell and Gupta collapsed back into their chairs. "Sir, if Sam didn't have a reputation for complete honesty..."

The Secretary nodded. "I know, Robert, I know. You would throw him to the head-shrinkers and be done with it."

He sighed, gustily, interlacing his fingers. "It is just so amazing! It is a shame we cannot risk reproducing such... experiences. Time travel, accidental or not, is far too dangerous.

"Just as one example, we have no way of knowing what, if anything, his visit to the past has changed in the present because we would have no memory of anything being different. Sam is the only one who would know, and that is why we must proceed as planned. His story, combined with the artifact we found, only confirms the necessity!"

Dashiell winced, clearly disturbed. "I know, but I don't have to like it! Strange as they are, those little dragons... what are they called? Horrors? They're anything but. In fact, they're endearing little cusses. I hate the thought of just ripping them away from Sam, especially since they seem to like him."

Gupta smiled. "'Terrors,' according to my contacts. Either 'Table Terrors' or 'Terrible Terrors,' as the beholder chooses. Both names are accepted. They will be in transit to the reservation before Sam wakes, and he will not remember them any more than he will remember anything else which has happened to him for the past month."

"You're sure this drug won't affect his skills? What he knows about being a vet and a UNEC Ranger?"

"Not at all" Gupta assured him. "The time span and degree of erasure can be very precisely controlled. As for this archway at the Shetlands, I have dispatched a scientific team to find a way to destroy it, or at least permanently conceal it.

"From Sam's description, it requires a total solar eclipse and considerable energy to activate, so we are not time-stressed. One cannot use what one cannot access, even if my team is unable to destroy it.

"My technical crew have also recovered his ship's logs. The data will be altered appropriately, and Ranger Hoshino has been fully debriefed." He shrugged. "Traumatic, short-term amnesia is very common in such events. There will be no embarrassing questions."

Dashiell gave him a sour look. "You certainly seem to have thought this through, right up to putting your own captain and crew on the rescue barge. If I didn't know better, I'd swear you were enjoying this!"

The Secretary returned his gaze calmly. "What would you have of me, Robert? Do you wish me to say I am wrong? That I am a monster for taking control of an honored Ranger's affairs in this way?"

He sighed softly. "To answer your question, no, I do not enjoy acting in this manner. However, I do what I believe I must, in the interest of UNEC and the world.

"If what I must do includes altering a person's memory, when the alternative is to risk mass panic and unrest, then I will do it. This is my duty as Secretary-General. I will let no one but History become my judge."

Dashiell's glare, if anything, got stronger. "Sir, I really don't like messing with people's heads, especially where Sam is concerned! We are, each and every one of us, the product of what our memories and experiences make us. To deliberately take any of it away, well, we've no clear idea what the long-term effects are, no matter how tightly controlled or 'safe' it is!

"If 'mass panic' is what you're worried about, look at what happened after SETI discovered their first artificial extraterrestrial signal, and the IMC built that huge machine from the data the signal carried.

"Sure, the religious orders went a little bonkers over the whole thing, especially after Dr. Arroway's story went public, but the general population took it pretty well. Why would they react any worse to dragons? The Chinese have revered them for millennia!"

Gupta eyed him with shock. "Do you truly consider a year of civil war among the religious orders 'a little bonkers?' And do I need to remind you of what happened to the first Machine, and Doctor Drumlin?"

"Do I need to remind you, sir, of the advances in our science and social structure which came after that year?" Dashiell shot back. "What happened was certainly tragic, but so was the explosion which destroyed the old 'Challenger' space shuttle. What would have happened if all the people behind that project had simply decided the risk was too great, and buried their collective heads in the sand? New Berk and its branch enclaves have been in place, hidden from the public, for centuries! Given our current state of technology, how much longer do you think they can remain hidden?"

The Secretary's expression turned thoughtful. "Let Sam keep his memories" Dashiell pleaded. "He's been fascinated by the possibility of dragons since before his first year at the Academy. Let's read him in to the program and talk to the village's ruling council. Hell, he could be another liaison to UNEC!"

For a moment, it seemed as though Gupta might agree. Then he closed his eyes and shook his head, sadly. "It is not my decision, Robert. My orders come from the highest authority. I cannot ignore them without endangering all our civilization has achieved. I am passing those orders on to you. You must interpret and act on them in accordance with your own position and duties."

Dashiell grumbled something under his breath, then added "Let the record show, sir, that I protest. I will obey my orders, of course, but there is nothing in the regulations which says I must like any of them!"

Gupta rose, a sad smile on his well-tanned face, picked up the phone and dialed. He gave his orders, then hung up and turned back to Dashiell. "Indeed there is not, Robert, and it will be so noted. May such acts not reflect badly on our Karma."

Dashiell stalked out without another word.


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