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Timothy Zahn

Dragon And Soldier

Chapter 1

The screams of the dying K'da and Shontine in the Havenseeker's engine room were growing louder. Draycos tried to shut out the sounds—tried to cover his pointed ears with his paws. But nothing helped.

He could see them now, back there in the engine room. Which was odd, because Draycos himself was up in the Havenseeker's control complex, all the way at the other end of the ship. He could see outside through the navigation bubble as the unfamiliar enemy ships sent the all too familiar violet beams of the Death twisting and sweeping across the Havenseeker's hull. The Death was coming closer to him ... closer ... closer...

With a jerk that sent his claws scratching across the soft plastic coating of the floor beneath him, Draycos woke up.

'Bad dream?' a soft voice came from across the room.

Draycos blinked his eyes, clearing away the last images of the nightmare. The room was mostly dark, but there was enough light for him to see the narrow cot built into the wall at the other end of the small cabin. His new companion, Jack Morgan, was propped up on one elbow, his hair sticking out in a dozen different directions. 'Yes,' Draycos told him. 'I apologize for waking you.'

' 'S okay,' Jack said, yawning. He ran a hand through his hair without making any noticeable improvement in the mess. 'I'm just glad you weren't on my back when you started twitching. What was it this time?'

'The same,' Draycos said, the tip of his tail curving into a K'da frown. Odd; he had started out the sleep period pressed against Jack's back in his two-dimensional form. When had he jumped off and become fully three-dimensional again? During the terrible dream? 'I saw again the destruction of our advance team.'

'I don't suppose you happened to notice any markings on those Djinn-90 pursuit fighters this time,' Uncle Virge put in.

Draycos glared over at the monitor camera. Uncle Virge was the Essenay's computer, with an artificial personality designed by Jack's late Uncle Virgil. A personality, Draycos had discovered, that often seemed to go out of its way to be irritating. 'No, I did not see any markings,' he told the computer stiffly. 'I saw no markings when they first attacked our ships. I do not expect to see any now that I am merely dreaming of them, either.'

'Okay, okay, keep your scales on,' Uncle Virge said in a huffy tone. 'You're the one who's so hot to track down these pirates or smugglers or whoever.'

'They were mercenaries,' Draycos said firmly. 'Military units of some sort. I have told you that before.'

'Yeah,' Uncle Virge said. 'Whatever.'

'And it's not just Draycos who wants to find them, Uncle Virge,' Jack said. 'I do, too.'

'Then let's get serious about it,' Uncle Virge said. 'Face it, Jack lad; we simply haven't got the resources for this kind of nickel-in-Nevada search. Not even with our noble K'da poet-warrior standing brave and true at our side. Watching us do all the work.'

'We have only just begun our task,' Draycos reminded him, ignoring the implied insult. Uncle Virge had made it abundantly clear that he didn't think much of the K'da warrior ethic and its strict emphasis on doing what was right, whatever such actions might cost. He considered such behavior to be impractical, a waste of effort, and fundamentally stupid.

'We've been chasing data for ten days and have come up dry and poor each time,' Uncle Virge countered. 'I vote we chuck the whole thing and drop it into StarForce's lap where it belongs.'

'We cannot do that,' Draycos insisted. 'Until we know who was responsible for the attack, I cannot risk revealing myself to anyone else. The lives of my people depend on it.'

'Oh, come on,' Uncle Virge said, and Draycos could almost see a scowling human face behind that voice. 'It wasn't StarForce that attacked your ships. The Internos government doesn't go in for genocide.'

'Yet someone in StarForce or the Internos may have made a private arrangement without official consent,' Draycos pointed out. 'I cannot take that risk. We must do this ourselves.'

'And what if we can't?' Uncle Virge shot back. 'In case you hadn't noticed, friend, the Orion Arm covers a lot of territory. We are one very small frog in one very big pond. Maybe the whole thing makes for a great heroic poem, but we could search from here till geepsday and still not come up with anything.'

'What we need is a break,' Jack muttered. 'Just one. Something to point us in the right direction.'

'Don't you think I want that, too, lad?' Uncle Virge asked, his tone suddenly turning earnest and soothing.

Draycos felt his crest stiffen with frustration. In point of fact, Uncle Virge didn't want a break. Uncle Virge wanted Jack to turn his back on Draycos, and on the millions of K'da and Shontine refugees who were even now fleeing to the Orion Arm from the threat of the Valahgua and their unstoppable Death weapon.

Uncle Virge, in short, wanted Jack Morgan to go back to the simple day-to-day business of looking out for Jack Morgan.

But he didn't dare point that out. Jack's Uncle Virgil had been a criminal, a con artist and thief, a man who had spent his entire life thinking only of himself. He'd programmed that same self-centered viewpoint into his computerized alter ego before he'd died, and he'd done his best to hammer it into Jack, as well.

Jack had a good heart. Draycos could tell that much. But the boy was only fourteen, and this was an awesome task that Draycos had laid before him.

And even a good heart required training and discipline. Draycos had had only a month to work with him, while Uncle Virgil and the computer had had the past eleven years. If Draycos pushed too hard, the boy might well back away onto the path of long habit.

Besides which, down deep, Draycos had to concede that Uncle Virge wasn't being entirely unfair. With the lives of his people at stake, Draycos perhaps was pushing a little too hard.

But what else could he do?

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