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Timothy Zahn

Dragon and Slave

For Pam and Barry: For their faith and trust in the midst of their own battles

CHAPTER 1

With a slight change in engine pitch, and a small ripple of vibration through the deck, the Essenay came off the ECHO stardrive.

They had arrived at the planet Brum-a-dum.

Stretched out on his belly on the dayroom floor, Draycos hunched himself up onto his front paws and looked around. Over by the wall, fourteen-year-old Jack Morgan was seated at the narrow table, his elbows on the edge, his chin propped up in his hands. He was peering down at the table's surface, moving his lips silently. Concentrating on his studies, the boy had apparently missed the fact that the Essenay had returned to normal space.

Draycos turned his attention toward the camera/speaker/microphone setup that allowed the ship's computer to monitor the room's activities. In the dark lens of the camera he caught a distorted glimpse of his own long, triangular head and the spiny crest starting between his glowing green eyes and extending down his long back. Like a dragon the size of a small tiger, Jack had said at their first meeting.

The description had intrigued Draycos, and he'd spent several hours over the past two months researching the topic of dragons in the Essenay's library.

Some of the stories he'd found had been rather flattering. Others had definitely not been. 'Well?' he called toward the camera.

'Well what?' Uncle Virge's voice came back, sounding grumpy.

'I thought perhaps you would like to announce our arrival,' Draycos said mildly.

Jack looked up from the table. 'We're here?' he asked. 'Uncle Virge?'

'Yes, we're here,' the computerized voice confirmed reluctantly. 'Don't get excited—I'm still scanning the area. That could take a while.'

Jack threw a knowing look at Draycos. 'Come on, Uncle Virge, quit stalling,' the boy said. 'We already know where the Chookoock family estate is. Just plot us a

landing course and take us down.'

'It's not that simple, Jack lad,' Uncle Virge protested. 'There are airway lanes to be located, arrival procedures to be observed, Brummgan customs documents to be filed—'

'And you can do all of that with your eyes shut,' Jack interrupted. 'Just take us down, okay?'

There was an audible sigh from the speaker. Uncle Virge was a sort of ghostly echo of Jack's Uncle Virgil, the conman and safecracker who'd raised the boy after his parents' deaths when he was three. Before Uncle Virgil's own death a

year ago, he'd somehow managed to implant a version of his personality into the Essenay's computer. With only that personality to keep him company, Jack had continued on, taking odd shipping jobs to support himself as he flew alone between the stars of the galaxy's Orion Arm.

Alone, that is, until Draycos, poet-warrior of the K'da, had crashed unexpectedly into his life.

Uncle Virge didn't like Draycos. He didn't like Draycos's warrior's ethic, or his continued presence aboard the Essenay, or the fact that he had dragged Jack into his private mission.

And he certainly didn't like this plan. 'Jack, lad, really now, this is just plain crazy,' he said, his voice soft and earnest. 'Even by my standards.

Can't we take just a little more time to think about it? There has to be a better way to find these mercenaries of yours.'

Jack looked back down at the tabletop, his eyes avoiding Draycos's. He was trying hard to hide his feelings, but Draycos could see the tension in his face.

Jack didn't like the plan any more than Uncle Virge did.

Which made it unanimous, because Draycos didn't much like it either.

But they were running out of choices. More importantly, they were running out of time. In four months the main fleet of K'da and Shontine refugee ships would reach the Orion Arm after their long, weary voyage across space. Their final goal was the uninhabited planet of Iota Klestis; but first they would be stopping at a rendezvous point known only to the fleet and the commanders of the advance team.

Except that all of those advance team commanders were dead. Their ships had been attacked as they arrived at Iota Klestis, and everyone aboard except Draycos had been killed by the unstoppable Death weapon of their enemies, the Valahgua.

The attackers had then taken control of the ships, and by now had surely discovered the location of the upcoming rendezvous.

All Draycos and Jack had to go on was the fact that the Valahgua had picked up some allies among the various human and alien beings of the Orion Arm. A

mercenary group, almost certainly, one which they already knew employed Brummgas. If they could identify that group, they might have a chance of locating the rendezvous point themselves before the refugees arrived.

If they couldn't, the fleet would fly straight into an ambush... and the K'da and Shontine peoples would cease to exist.

'Maybe there is a better way, Uncle Virge,' Jack said. 'But I'll be stripped, sanded, and varnished if I can come up with one.'

'You could still take this to StarForce,' Uncle Virge said.

'We've been through all this,' Jack reminded him sourly. 'StarForce, the Internos, and every other government agency is out because we don't know who we can trust.'

'Then how about Cornelius Braxton?' Uncle Virge persisted. 'He owes you big-time for pulling his marshmallows out of the fire the way you did during Arthur Neverlin's big power grab.'

Jack shook his head. 'You don't create a megacorporation like Braxton Universis without a lot of brains and a lot more ruthlessness,' he pointed out. 'Grateful or not, ten to one he'd try to twist all this to his own advantage.' The boy's lip twitched. 'Besides, I don't think Neverlin's given up, and I'd rather not be standing anywhere near Braxton when he makes his next move. No, for right now it's got to be just you and me and Draycos.'

'But to throw yourself into a slavemaster's lap?' Uncle Virge protested.

'What if he doesn't go for it?'

'He will,' Jack assured him. 'Slavemasters are in the business for the money.

All we have to do is make sure the offer is too good to pass up.'

'And if you can't get out afterward?'

'What, with my trusty K'da poet-warrior at my side?' Jack threw a strained smile at Draycos.

'I'm sure he'll be a big help,' Uncle Virge said, his tone making it clear he wasn't sure of that at all. 'But why go in as a thief? Why not as a soldier looking for work?'

'I've tried being a soldier,' Jack said. 'You saw how well it worked.'

'You lived through it,' Uncle Virge countered. 'That says a lot.'

Jack snorted. 'Not really,' he said. 'Anyway, what do you suggest I use for references? Ask them to get in touch with the Whinyard's Edge?'

'Besides, the Chookoock family already has many mercenaries to hire out,'

Draycos put in. 'That is why we chose this particular slave dealer, after all.'

'Yes, I remember the logic, thank you,' Uncle Virge said icily. 'I just don't think it's going to be easy for a slave to get into their personnel records.'

'It'll be a lot easier from in there than it would be from out here,' Jack said.

'Look, it's not that big a deal. A quick flip-and-dip into their computer, you swoop the Essenay in, and we all fade together into the sunrise.'

Uncle Virge sniffed. 'You make it sound so easy.'

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