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The Far Side of the Stars: Chapter Nine

       Last updated: Tuesday, September 9, 2003 00:02 EDT



    4795-C wasn't any more prepossessing from orbit than it'd seemed from Surveyor Austine's handheld photos of years before, but at least the Princess Cecile's new imagery gave Adele a way to distract the Klimovs while the corvette roared downward.

    Daniel had said the landing would be a little tricky because they'd be setting down on land instead of in the water. 4795-C had no lack of open water—ponds, lakes, and broad meandering rivers were evident to the naked eye, despite the mist that covered the entire planet—but since there was no dock to tie up to, the Sissie would drift with the wind.

    From the Klimovs' expressions, either the prospect worried them or they were simply uncomfortable because of the thrusters' bone-shaking snarl and the additional half their body mass weighing them down in their couches as the vessel braked. So far as Adele was concerned, she trusted Daniel's skill implicitly—and sixteen days (Daniel had shaved two days off his estimate) in the Matrix with only a few hours total taking star-sightings in sidereal space had been quite enough for her. The chance of Daniel flipping the Princess Cecile onto her back because he'd misjudged the way exhaust would reflect from solid ground was vanishingly slim, but Adele wasn't entirely sure she'd regret death if that were the alternative to additional uninterrupted star travel.

    "Captain Leary is landing here," Adele said calmly over the channel she'd set aside for herself and the Klimovs. Her wands drew a red cross on the gray-brown image. For an instant she showed an entire planetary hemisphere, but she quickly reduced the scale until it was a ten-by-ten kilometer square with the X still in the center.

    As an afterthought, she added thin grid lines. "You'll note—"

    And to make sure they did, she circled the sites in red.

    "—that he's put us within three kilometers of a pair of pyramids."

    "And the dragons?" asked the Count, proving that Adele had successfully distracted him. The Klimovna seemed altogether less flighty than her husband, though Adele wasn't ready to say she liked the woman. In fairness, neutrality was about all Adele felt regarding most human beings.

    "We'll need to be on the ground to determine that," Adele said. "The source suggests that they're not uncommon, though; or at any rate, they weren't uncommon ninety years ago."

    The Princess Cecile was a small general-purpose warship, not a dedicated reconnaissance vessel. Her equipment could probably locate some of the creatures from orbit, but that'd appeared to Adele to be a waste of time. Daniel had taken her recommendation to go straight in.

    The Klimovs had taken their meals at a combined mess of the Princess Cecile's officers and warrant officers. This was a change from normal RCN practice, but Daniel felt it was the better idea on a vessel as small as a corvette.

    Adele smiled; her ideologically egalitarian parents would've approved, though in their hearts they'd have viewed Pasternak as a mechanic, Purser Stobart a mid-level servant, and Woetjans as a strange and possibly dangerous performing animal.

    The common mess and the very strain of an unusually long run without reentering normal space had brought the Klimovs and the Sissie's company together. Class aside, the Klimovs had more in common with warrant officers and even common spacers than they did with commissioned officers who were almost invariably members of the Cinnabar upper classes. The Count wasn't stupid and his wife appeared to Adele to be quite intelligent, but in terms of education and the general understanding of human civilization neither of them could match the corvette's two midshipmen.

    "We have the aircar," Klimovna said, perhaps a trifle artificially bright. Planning a voyage to the untraveled parts of the universe wasn't the same as watching yourself rush down toward a foggy mudhole with the ship keening a high-frequency buzz of plasma thrusters running at high power. "Surely in a fifty-kilometer radius you'll find something to shoot, Georgi."

    The Princess Cecile paused in the air. She wasn't quite hovering, but her rate of descent had slowed to a crawl. "Ship make ready for landing," said the general channel. Lieutenant Chewning was speaking from the Battle Center, though Daniel had the conn. "We will touch down in ten seconds."

    The thrusters roared anew, but the corvette was settling again. "The Captain's increased mass flow but flared the thruster nozzles," Adele said quickly, because the dichotomy of more sound but falling faster disturbed her every time she felt it. "If he needs to lift suddenly, it's quicker to—"

    Steam billowed around the Princess Cecile, rocking the hull from side to side. We should be on land! Adele thought; but of course the bath of ions from the thrusters would vaporize the boggy soil and soft-bodied vegetation into a plume.

    "—close the nozzles than to feed more reaction mass—" she continued, without a pause or even a stammer to suggest that her own heart had leapt when something unexpected occurred.

    The thrusters shut off abruptly. The sudden silence was as stunning as a gunshot in a library. Adele hadn't realized they were actually down; the feel of the outriggers compressing their struts had been lost in thumps and shuddering as the exhaust hurled baked sod against the Sissie's underside.

    "Ship, this is the captain," Daniel said, rising from the command console to stretch his torso backward with his hands on his hips. "We've made a good run and a clean landing. May we make many more together."

    He turned and surveyed the bridge. Sun had already begun to unlock the dorsal turret, lowered into the forward hull to avoid serious buffeting during descent from orbit; Betts was focused on his attack board, though if he launched missiles in an atmosphere their backblast would destroy the corvette herself.

    Daniel met Adele's eyes and grinned. "Chief of Ship," he continued, still using the general push instead of speaking to Pasternak on the Power Room channel. "Let's open her up and see what the landscape looks like with our own eyes. I dare say more of us than just me are looking forward to being on solid ground. Captain out."

    The clanks and whines of hatches undogging merged with the hisses and bell-like notes of differential cooling within the vessel's hull. Daniel bent close to Adele's ear and said without going through the commo system, "Mind, I don't know just how solid what I see outside really is."



    "Well, I've mucked out cowyards that didn't stink so much," said Hogg, sliding a pair of loading tubes for his stocked impeller down the neck of his shirt. Each tube held twenty projectiles and a capacitor charged to accelerate them down the coil-wrapped bore. "But I wouldn't say this is riper'n the Sissie was getting after so long recycling the same atmosphere. The filters aren't good for sixteen days."

    Daniel Leary sniffed. When he shifted his weight, the baked ground crunched beneath his bootsoles.

    "Part of the way this smells is that the exhaust burned everything when we set down," he said judiciously. "The mud's mostly organic. Though . . ."

    He sniffed again and added, "I'll admit that the touch of sulfur is special."

    Hogg chuckled grimly. "You haven't been in the crew's quarters when Lamsoe and Dasi're having a fart contest, I guess," he said. "But it's good to see the sky, again, I'll say that. Even—"

    He looked around the horizon with a sour expression.

    "—this sky."

    Count Klimov watched with great interest as a team of riggers drew his aircar from the hatch forward on C Deck. They'd hung a winch from Antenna Port B; Woetjans was riding the half-extended mast, clinging by her legs and left hand as she kept eyeball contact with the vehicle that'd been lifted from the hold on the level below. Ordinarily D Deck was underwater, so access to the bulk storage there was through the deck above.

    Valentina Klimovna gave the proceedings a cursory glance, then walked purposefully to where Daniel and Hogg stood twenty yards from the Princess Cecile. Leary's concern over the Countess' wardrobe had been misplaced: during the voyage she'd worn coveralls of tough, drab moleskin that seemed every bit as practical as RCN utilities. Now that they'd landed she'd changed into a loose, many-pocketed hunting outfit which again seemed functional, for all that it was probably very expensive.

    The same could be said of her impeller. The stock and fore-end were of some lustrous wood with a swirling grain, and the metalwork was scrolled and inlaid with hunting scenes in gold and platinum. Daniel didn't doubt it'd hit just as hard as the pair of service weapons he and Hogg had taken from the Sissie's armory, though.

    "So, Daniel?" she said. "You are coming with me to the pyramid, yes?"

    "Yes, I thought Hogg and I should accompany you," Daniel said. "You and your husband, I believe?"

    "Georgi thinks we will find a dragon for him to shoot," Klimovna said. "He likes to shoot things."

    She grinned; the expression made her look a decade younger. "I like to shoot things too, but not so much."

    Her eyes appraised Hogg. "Your man here can drive an aircar?"

    "Sure!" said Hogg. "You bet—"

    "No," Daniel said firmly. "Hogg can't drive an aircar any better than he can sing hymns, and he's got more experience singing hymns. If—"

    "Well, if somebody'd give me a chance to practice, young master . . . ," Hogg muttered with a hurt look on his face.

    "—necessary there are spacers aboard who can drive, though I was thinking that it'd less than a mile to the pyramid there—"

    He pointed to the glitter on the rise to the west. Even with the sun at zenith, the surface of 4795-C had the feel of misty twilight.

    "No matter," Klimovna said, brushing aside the suggestion of walking before Daniel got the words fully out. "I will drive; I planned to anyway."

    Daniel had landed the Princess Cecile in a maze of meandering streams rather than among separated ponds. Hiking—even a moderate distance—probably wasn't a good idea, though he was uncomfortable about being in an aircar to hunt prey that flew.

    He was uncomfortable about the Klimovs, also. Until you'd seen how a person behaved with a gun in his hand, you really couldn't judge how safe they were to be around. Adding the variable of an aircar was bothersome.

    Low sedge-like vegetation grew in shallow water and up the banks besides. Daniel found it difficult to be sure where the margin was until he noticed that the stalks rising from the water had a touch of gold overlaying the dark green of their fellows rooted in land.

    On a settled planet, he'd have an overview from the Sailing Directions and perhaps detailed supplements on the local natural history. Well, when the Princess Cecile returned to Cinnabar, he'd copy his logs to the Publications Bureau of the Navy Office. There they'd be available to spacers who knew they'd be landing on 4795-C in the future.

    If there were such folk, ever in the future history of the Republic.

    At a distance from the streams, thumb-thick tubes lay awkwardly across the mud like tangles of hose. Every foot or so, the horizontal stems sent up jointed vertical shoots that got no more than six inches high. Cilia burrowed into the soil from the sides of the stems; if there were substantial roots as well, they were lost in the surface muddle.

    At intervals "trees"—bare spikes, leafless like the tubes—rose. The ones nearby were ten or a dozen feet tall, but some on the slope of the hill in the near distance were possibly double that. A few of them split into a double stalk at the midpoint, but Daniel could only conjecture whether they were simply genders or if he was seeing different species.

    "Oh!" the Klimovna said. She clutched Daniel's arm to demand his attention, pointing with the gun in her other hand. "Look! It's alive!"

    "It" was a ball about the size of a commo helmet, standing on two sharply-bent legs and browsing in the knot of tubes across the creek. Its head was small with long, narrow jaws; instead of eating the whole plant, it nipped off the tops of the vertical shoots with surgical precision.

    Its hide was a shiny gray-green, similar to the algae-covered mud. Daniel had seen the creature and three other members of its . . . flock? herd? when he scanned the landscape on infrared from the Sissie's hatch, but the Klimovna hadn't noticed it till it hopped to a new location after cleaning its immediate surroundings.

    "Yes, they seem quite harmless," he said, forbearing to add that the vegetation and for that matter the bacteria-rich muck on which they were standing were also alive. Differently alive, he supposed. "There's a pair of much larger animals—"

    He extended his right arm, managing in doing so to detach the woman's hand. "There, in the middle of that slough?"

    Klimovna snatched a monocular out of her breast pocket and focused on the pair of creatures, each the size of a brood sow, which lay half submerged in the water as they ate arcs out of the sedges along the bank. Daniel wondered if her instrument had as many modes as the RCN goggles he was using. Thermal imaging—infrared—was a great deal more useful for finding animals in this foggy landscape than straight optics were.

    "Umm . . . ?" the woman said. She shook her head and put the monocular away. "Not a good trophy, I suppose."

    "I shouldn't think so, no," Daniel said austerely. He grimaced, imagining the problems involved in dragging a half-ton carcass to dry ground and then caping it. That wouldn't concern the Klimovna, since she—correctly—assumed it would be somebody else's problem.

    "All right, release it!" Woetjans bawled. "Now, get the cargo net unwrapped so somebody can fly the bastard off it. Or—"

    She turned, poised on the antenna like an extremely large ape, and looked at Daniel. "Sir, do you want us to lift the aircar off the netting 'stead of flying it off? I guess the right six people could do it, though I'll use more with this muck so slick."

    "No, we will fly off now," Klimovna called, striding toward the vehicle with an enthusiasm that splashed mud onto the legs of the jodhpurs bloused into her high boots. "Come along, Daniel."

    Hogg snorted and said something under his breath, but the woman's brusque order didn't bother Daniel overmuch. The RCN was a good school in which to learn the art of obedience to the whims of your superiors. Valentina was his superior, so long as she didn't interfere with the good governance of the Princess Cecile. He had no justifiable complaint.

    "Ship, this is the captain," he said as he followed at a cautious distance from his employer's side. "Hogg and I will accompany the Klimovs in the aircar to the pyramid at a vector of 132 degrees,. Lieutenant Chewning is in charge till my return. Continue second level maintenance. Six out."

    A patter of "Rogers" answered. Pasternak, standing with his head in a thruster, waved.

    Klimovna slipped behind the driver's yoke as soon as she reached the open aircar. Woetjans ran out ten feet of cable, riding the hook to the ground just ahead of Daniel. The Count started to get into the front passenger side but his wife waved him away. "No, you in back with the servant, Daniel in front. For balance, Georgi."

    Hogg snorted again, but this time with what Daniel suspected was appreciation. Before Hogg or the Klimovs could say anything further, Daniel said, "The lady wants us kitty-corner, Hogg. Sit behind her."

    Hogg obviously thought the lady was flirting—which she hadn't done while the Princess Cecile was under weigh, thanks be to a benevolent God. That might well be correct, but he and Hogg were each forty pounds heavier than the Klimovs. Daniel wasn't comfortable in aircars to begin with, and he was perfectly willing to believe that a vehicle built on Novy Sverdlovsk might not adjust automatically for an unbalanced load the way it ought to.

    At any rate, the Count didn't object. Klimovna glanced behind to make sure her passengers were settled, then ran up the fans and hopped the vehicle forward twice before getting enough velocity to stay airborne.

    They passed low over the stream, spraying the peat-black water into tiny droplets that glittered like flung diamonds. The surface plopped as scores of animals, many more than Daniel had observed, hurled themselves into it.

    In contrast, a dozen hog-sized beasts lurched out of a marsh. They moved in disjointed hops which nonetheless covered a good deal of ground in a short time. The Count saw them and pointed.

    "Later, perhaps!" his wife said, shouting over the intake rush and the thrum of the fans. "We want a dragon."




    The Klimovna drove well, but the aircar seemed underpowered even though none of the four passengers was unusually heavy. Daniel frowned, wondering if he should've shipped an RCN utility vehicle. He could've wangled one, he was sure—and for that matter, the Klimovs hadn't shown themselves tight-fisted—but that wouldn't have solved the problem of stowage. Finding room for this light runabout had been difficult enough.

    The air a hundred feet up was noticeably clearer than at ground level. The pyramid's glittering outlines sharpened; its hilltop base floated on a cushion of mist that concealed enough of the muck below to make the landscape more attractive.

    "Look, there's many more of them!" the Count said, leaning forward between his wife and Daniel. He waved his left arm. "They're all around us!"

    The hills, though unimpressive in themselves, were high enough to bring many of the pyramids into the sunlight. They sparkled from horizon to horizon like sun-struck icicles on a winter morning.

    That was precisely what Adele had predicted and the orbital imagery confirmed, but especially to a layman the real thing had an impact that intellectual knowledge lacked. Aloud Daniel said, "Yes sir. And I hope the dragons will be easy to find as well."

    "I seen two of 'em so far already," Hogg said. "I guess when you're ready, that won't be a problem neither."

    "What?" said the Count. "Where?" He and Hogg fell into a private conversation, the servant pointing across the seat with his left index and middle finger while Klimov leaned dangerously—and pointlessly—over the side.

    Klimovna slowed the aircar in a broad S-curve as they approached the pyramid, giving herself time to pick a landing place. She didn't hover; perhaps the vehicle couldn't hover with its present load.

    The best choice, virtually the only choice unless they wanted to land at the bottom of the hill and hike up the slope, was directly in front of the structure. Which wasn't a good choice if the dragon who lived there happened to be home.

    "Hogg, watch the outside," Daniel ordered as the aircar slanted in. That was the other risk, something thirty feet long with talons and a dismembering beak diving out of the sun onto nest-robbers. But he didn't want to slither a hundred feet up slick mud either. . . .

    Klimovna landed neatly, fishtailing but not hopping. Daniel'd been sitting on the edge of the cab with his left leg out. Even before the vehicle'd halted, he jumped clear with his impeller mounted on his shoulder, aiming toward the triangular opening six feet above the ground.

    "How do we get inside?" the Count said, holding his weapon at the balance as he walked past Daniel. "Little heart, can you fly us—"

    "Stop!" Daniel shouted. The stench should've warned Klimov even if he didn't bother looking at his feet! "Sir, please—there may be a dragon inside. The remains of its meals are all around us."

    One of the stripped carcasses had been of what looked like the larger species they'd seen. A calf—a shoat?—no doubt, but it still had weighed as much in life as the Count himself did.

    "Is it inside, then?" said Klimov. "Shall I shoot to bring it out?"

    "Sir," said Daniel, his mouth dry as his mind reviewed the ways the immediate future could very quickly deteriorate. "I think if you'll just brace my right foot, I can get high enough to see into the cave. Thermal imaging will tell me if there's anything inside. If not, you and your wife can—"

    "Yes," said the Klimovna. She went down on her left knee in the mud, bracing her arm against the smooth crystalline side. "But here, step on my thigh. It will hold you."

    Hesitant only in his mind—an RCN officer shouldn't show doubt when he knew he had to act—Daniel set the arch of his boot on the woman's leg just back of the knee. He rose, lifting his head, shoulders, and rifle muzzle over the lip of the opening. He scanned the interior with thermal imaging, then switched to light amplification.

    The passage reached straight back into the pyramid without bends or bulges. It contained nothing save scraps of previous meals—and not many of those. The resident was a messy eater, but it apparently swept its den with some care.

    Daniel stepped back. "Thank you, Valentina," he said with a nod that approached a bow. Her leg trembled, but she hadn't flinched; he could've shot accurately if he'd needed to.

    He leaned his impeller against the face of the pyramid, made a stirrup of his hands, and went on, "May I lift you inside in return for your greatly-appreciated help?"

    "Here, you," the Count said, plucking Hogg's sleeve. "Kneel down. I'll step on your back."

    "Not bloody likely," Hogg said, continuing to search the sky. "And if you jiggle me again while I'm watching for flying snakes, you'll be down on the ground yourself."

    "I'll lift you in a moment, sir!" Daniel said quickly. "If the dragon isn't at home, it may be coming home."

    The Klimovna smiled, stepped onto his hands, and caught herself neatly on her hands and knees at the mouth of the passage. She'd left her weapon beside Daniel's; as soon as her weight lifted, he took the impeller by the balance to hand to her. She'd gone inside instead of waiting.

    "Sir," Daniel said, leaning the weapon back and interlacing his hands. "May I help you mount?"

    Above them Valentina remarked something. The angled walls distorted the words beyond understanding, but she didn't seem worried.

    "Yes, yes," the Count said. He wasn't angry about the rebuke. Despite the cultural overlay, Klimov seemed quite a decent fellow. "But can you get me higher? I'm not as supple as my wife."

    "Certainly," Daniel said. He waited for the Count to position himself, raised him to waist height, and then pitched him up and forward as he would've done with a log he'd lifted on end.

    Klimov hurtled into the cave with a startled cry, his weapon clattering on the crystal. It was only then that Daniel realized he should've checked to make sure the safety was on.

    Valentina stepped into view, sidling to get around her sprawling husband. "There is nothing in here, Daniel," she said. "Do you suppose it was a tomb, or what? It certainly isn't natural, and it's all one piece."

    Daniel looked up the slope of the structure. This one was just under sixty feet high. He'd used the laser rangefinder to measure all the pyramids visible from the Princess Cecile; they ran from a little over fifty feet high to a touch under seventy-five, all of them perfectly regular tetrahedrons which—save for the opening in one side—could've been tossed randomly onto the ground.

    "Ma'am," Daniel said. "Valentina. I'm sure I don't have any idea. Except as you say, that it isn't natural."

    As he spoke the words, he felt a sudden doubt. Couldn't they be natural? He'd seen regular crystals, none nearly so large but—

    Realization struck him. He scuffed the ground with his bootheel, then scraped sideways at the dimple he'd kicked.

    "There's an apron of the same crystal here in front," he said, loud enough for all three companions to hear. "The mud's splashed up and covered it over the years, I guess."

    "Faugh, there's nothing here," said the Count, stalking to the front of the tunnel where he stood by his wife. "It is time that I shoot my trophy, yes?"

    "Yes, all right," said Valentina. She sat on the edge of the opening with her legs dangling, then half-jumped, half slid to the ground. "Hogg, you will direct me," she added.

    "There's one over that way about half a mile," Hogg said, pointing with his extended left arm. "He's eating something, it looks. See him?"

    Daniel dialed his goggles' magnification up to x32, bringing the dragon into sharp focus against the reed-choked water beyond. It was eating beyond question—its beak dipped and rose repeatedly, each time ripping up a rag of flesh which it tossed its head to swallow. The beast's victim was hidden in the vegetation, however.

    "Very good!" Daniel said with honest enthusiasm. "It has a bright red crest. Perhaps it's a male in breeding plumage?"

    "A trophy," the Count said. "That is enough."

    Before Daniel could offer to take his impeller, Klimov slid down the face of the pyramid. Daniel grabbed him so that he didn't pitch over on his face when his feet skidded on the mud. The weapon slanting out in front of him didn't go off—again.

    They piled hastily into the aircar. Daniel and Hogg continued to scan the skies; the dragon they'd spotted might not be the one which laired in this pyramid.

    Valentina spun the fans up. "Don't fly us too close, please!" Daniel said, regretting that the Klimovna wasn't wearing a commo helmet. He had to shout to be heard over the intake roar, but instinct read loud voices as anger or threat. "Three hundred yards is as close as I think—"

    Valentina slid the aircar over the lip of the apron, using the drop-off to bring them up to flying speed smoothly. She drew back on the control yoke, lifting the car to its original altitude and scrubbing off velocity at the same time. Daniel doubted the little vehicle would be controllable at much over seventy or eighty mph. By God, they should've walked despite the mud!

    The dragon undulated forward. For an instant Daniel thought the movement was an optical illusion. Then the creature's powerful hind legs thrust back with spray of mud, and the sinuous body lifted like a flatworm planing.



    The dragon curved toward them, climbing swiftly. Daniel got a good look at the membranes extended on both sides of its body. Adele's book said they were individual "feathers" and so they might be, but from this distance they looked like seamless membranes so thin they were almost transparent.

    The wings rippled in strokes driven by the muscles of the dragon's whole powerful body. Their total area was considerable, though they stretched lengthwise instead of sticking out from the torso like other wings Daniel had seen.

    "Set us down!" Hogg was screaming. "Set us down!"

    The Count aimed over the side. When Valentina banked starboard, heading for the ground fast, her husband tried to follow the dragon; the impeller's barrel whacked Daniel's helmet.

    "Not in the air, by God!" Daniel shouted, reaching back blindly and managing to grab the weapon ahead of the fore-end. If Klimov fired, the hot barrel would raise blisters across Daniel's palm and the inside of his fingers. That was still better than getting a slug through him, the driver, or the forward fan. . . .

    The dragon curled away, gaining altitude rather than attacking. Its wings formed paired shimmering helixes as they rose above the mist.

    Valentina pancaked in, jerking the throttle open at the last instant when she realized how hard they were going to hit. The back of the car came down in a tangle of the tube plants which hid something solid—a rock or the stump of a large tree. The rear fan disintegrated; the front, on overload power, flipped the car upside down.

    Daniel bounced out over the bow, skidding through a clump of fern-like tendrils. The liquescent soil kept him from breaking ribs, but he'd had all the breath knocked out of him. He probably would've drowned except for the protection of his helmet visor.

    Rolling onto his back, all he could manage for the moment, Daniel ripped his helmet off. The faceshield's static charge was supposed to keep it free from dust, but there were limits.

    Where's the dragon? and there it was, arrowing down out of the sun. Daniel's impeller was still in his left hand. He sat up, ignoring the pain, and threw the gun to his shoulder. He didn't aim after all because what looked like a pound of mud was clumped over the muzzle. It filled the bore just as sure as that dragon was going to eat them all if somebody didn't have a bright idea fast.

    The aircar's front fan howled and bucked, shoving its intakes down into the soggy soil. Each time it stalled and unclamped, then repeated the cycle as soon as it sucked in another gulp of air. Hogg was caught underneath, only his head and torso free. From the curses he was shouting he hadn't even had the breath knocked out of him, but he'd lost his gun.

    Valentina was on the ground behind the aircar, unconscious or at least unmoving. She'd had the yoke to cling to so she hadn't come loose when Daniel did. Instead she'd been flung a good twenty yards in the opposite direction when the vehicle flipped. Where the Count himself was remained beyond immediate conjecture, but Daniel hadn't had much hope there anyway.

    Which left Daniel Leary without a bright idea to his name. He stepped forward holding his impeller by the barrel and wheezing, "Come here and let me bash your head in, snake!" Creatures with compound eyes saw motion more easily than shapes, so the dragon ought to ignore the remainder of the aircar's passengers.

    The dragon had been stooping on the overturned vehicle. Sure enough it twisted in the air, supple as an earthworm, and kicked out with its powerful hind legs to clutch its victim. It overshot Daniel, unused to its prey coming toward it.

    The dragon's feet had three toes, two forward and one back, each armed with a glittering black talon as long as a man's hand.The left dew-claw caught the back of Daniel's tunic as he lunged into the club he was swinging. The hook jerked him into a backward somersault before the tough fabric parted.

    Daniel rolled to his feet. The dragon tore great divots as it hit the ground and twisted with the supple grace of a strangler's noose. It'd folded the wings on its neck and torso, but the back portion remained fully spread; it was using its tail as an oar to brace the striking beak. Adele was right: they're individual feathers. . . .

    Daniel swung the gun at the creature's head. It was too quick for him: the beak, a foot long and sharp as a meathook, clamped on the receiver.

    The dragon gave a quick jerk, probably intended to break what it thought was the neck of the creature it'd grabbed. Daniel didn't lose his grip on the weapon's barrel, but the dragon's strength whipped his feet off the ground before slamming him down again. He continued to hold the gun, but only by instinct. The last impact had knocked all conscious will out of him.

    Still with the gun in its beak, the dragon took a deliberate step forward. Its breath had the enveloping stench of anaerobic decay. Its fist-sized, multi-lensed, eyes glittered like jewels a few inches from Daniel's face as it prepared to place its other foot in the middle of his back and pull him apart.

    Steel flashed in the air. The hilt of Hogg's folding knife stood out from the center of the dragon's left compound eye. The five-inch blade was buried in the bundled optic nerves.

    The dragon launched itself skyward. The wing on the creature's left side flared stiffly, but feathers on the right half fluttered without strength. The dragon curved in the air and smashed down, splashing the wet soil. Its left leg was kicking and its beak gnashed the air.

    The whack!whop! of a powerful impeller firing into a nearby target startled Daniel more than he'd thought he had the energy for right at the moment. The dragon's skull deformed, half the upper beak and a splash of brains flew off in the humid air.

    Daniel turned his head. Count Klimov held his gun to his shoulder. He fired three more times, the recoil of each round rocking him back. He was walking the slugs down the dragon's spine, breaking it into segments which trembled in separate rhythms. The creature was no longer a danger, even by accident.

    Klimov lowered his impeller; waste heat from the projectiles it'd accelerated made the barrel glow dull red. He looked at Daniel. "I decided I didn't need that trophy, Captain," he said.

    Daniel tried to get to his feet. He used his gun as a pole, but it folded under the stress. The dragon's beak had sheared halfway through the aluminum receiver.

    "Very good shooting, sir," Daniel said. He braced himself on one knee, then lurched fully upright. Klimovna leaned on one elbow, so at least she hadn't been killed.

    "Somebody want to get this fucking car off me?" Hogg demanded.

    Daniel walked to the vehicle, bent, and switched off the power; the fan slowed with a peevish moan. "I'm very sorry, Hogg," he said. "I'm afraid lifting the car will have to wait for the crew I see coming toward us from the Princess Cecile."

    He waved to indicate matters had settled down. Raising his arm sent a line of jagged pain all the way to the toes of his left foot.

    Had the knife Hogg threw survived the Count's shot? Pray God it had, because you could never tell when you'll need something like that again.

    "Captain Leary?" the Count said. "What is the next port on our itinerary?"

    "Todos Santos, the capital of the Ten Star Cluster, sir," Daniel said. "How long would you like to remain here before we lift ship?"

    "I don't want to remain here even as long as it will take me to walk back to the Princess Cecile," the Count said, giving Daniel a wintry smile. "That long I must wait, I know. But not much longer, all right?"

    "Aye aye, sir," Daniel said. "I know exactly how you feel."

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