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|What if dragons actually existed on Earth? What if something of them remained? What if they could be brought back? An exobiologist at Cornell University is about to find out the answers...and get more than he bargained for. This story was for an Expository Writing class in High School.||
by Chris Rosenbaum
The package arrived in the X-ray holographic microscopy lab of Cornell about three weeks following excavation from a site in Britain. If the tests in the metallurgy lab ran true, it dated approximately to the time of the dark ages. Whatever reason being, it ended up here. Question, wondered Dan Drake, head of the holoscopy lab. This is a biology department, so why in hell is this being sent here without prior authorization? Use of the X-ray laser microscope was open to anyone from the biology department providing they booked time on it in advance. Anyone else had to get prior approval, namely anyone working with metals--metals would create a health hazard by scattering high-frequency X-rays.
Darn, Drake thought. He picked up the loosely-wrapped brown paper. The markings on it were adressed to this lab. There was a letter attached detailing where it had been--first from the site in Britain to the archaeology department at Oxford. From there it went to the metallurgy department of the physical sciences department at Oxford. Then it was sent to Cornell.
Cornell was one of the three university sites in posession of a high-power X-ray laser transmittance holographic microscope, otherwise jokingly referred to as an X-light-ham by the students. The other two sites were Princeton and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Most other places in posession of the hardware were also in the US. The microscope was a Rhodes Technology XR-1, one of the earliest models. It was only about a few months old. Thus the recent emergence of the hardware helped to explain its location. Oxford apparently needed something checked NOW. Question: why?
He rolled his swivel chair over to his workstation and popped the machine from it's screen saver inert state into life. Flying toasters were replaced by the desktop, and he opened up his internet link software through the Apple menu. They wanted information now. So he wanted information now.
The system granted his access and he logged into the telcom grid. This was much like telnet, allowing realtime text transmission. If the computer was on on the other end and logged into the internet, it would ring like a phone. It was quick and dirty, and it saved on his phone bill. Unlike his phone, however, the computer on the other end had to be on and logged in for him to establish contact.
He read the letter's return adress, punched it up on the Internet directory, and found the adress.
The system rang for a few minutes, and then the telcom window opened.
ddrake: Yes. It's me.
dmcullogh: Did you get the package?
ddrake: Yes. I need some info.
dmcullogh: What info?
ddrake: Namely, why you sent it here. What is it, and what am I looking for?
In the moment he waited for the system to carry the response, he unwrapped the package. Inside, he found something slightly perplexing for a holoscope sample.
It was a sword, about four feet long, heavy metal, worn from age. The hilt and pommel were ornately decorated with the scene of a man putting a sword through a dragon's neck.
dmcullogh: What, you don't know what a sword looks like?
ddrake: Dammit, I know what a sword looks like. But I can't put this through the X-ray microscope unless I have a good reason to.
dmcullogh: Calm down.
ddrake: Look, X-rays reflect from metal.
dmcullogh: I'm not asking you to examine the sword. There's something on it. Look near the joint of the hilt and the blade.
He did. There was a tracing of green around the seam of hilt and blade.
Odd, metal shouldn't corrode like that.
ddrake: Okay. It's corroded.
dmcullogh: No, it isn't. If it was corroded it'd be brown or red or orange.
ddrake: All right. What's so special about this sword?
dmcullogh: I hope you know that you're in posession of a priceless relic.
ddrake: I'll say this again. What's so special?
dmcullogh: Ever hear of the legend of Saint George? I was told I could send this to you straight away because that was protocol for biological material. I want an analysis of that stuff on the seam.
ddrake: What am I looking for?
It was too late. The other user had logged off.
All right, fine. Let's see what this thing has.
He pulled on some latex gloves and pulled the sword from the plastic sheathing. Then he placed the sword on a sample bed and tightened the vise gently. Then he started the holoscope up.
The holoscope assembly consisted of a clamp-shaped apparatus on a robotic arm. One side of the clamp contained a high-frequency X-ray laser. The other side contained a holographic detector and another X-ray laser. The two components would take a holographic image of the sample with resolution down to the molecular level, without destroying the sample. That was, if he could angle the beam right.
The computer targeted the laser near the edge of the blade. Drake pushed the fire button and an electrical pop told him the machine had taken its picture. A second later, the computer resolved the image.
One thing was for sure. It sure wasn't corrosion. Corrosion was more granular and ordered than this. The structure on the screen was that of many shriveled blob shapes bound in fraying threads. The threads were fibrin. That meant that he was looking at a blood sample.
Wait a minute. Blood doesn't turn green. Even after several hundred years. This has to be moss or something. But moss doesn't look like that at this power.
He kicked up the magnification. These were definitely cells, albeit dead ones. Partially intact, too. But why?
"Wow," he muttered. This stuff was wierd. He blew up the image. It definitely looked like a blood clot.
He queried the computer, for a listing of the chemical elements. One of the things he found was a higher-than-normal concentration of copper. Copper chloride? Then he asked for molecules. The listing he came up with was long, but he found several things that sparked his curiosity. Adenine, cytosine, guanine, thyamine. This stuff had DNA. In fact, every cell had DNA.
This can't be. He looked at the blowup carefully. Something made him bring the scope down a few microns and zap the sample again. He had the computer slice it up into two-micron layers, and resolve them.
There were intact cells. Intact and complete in every way. At least as far as he knew. But what was this? He linked the holoscope's computer into the genomic archive of the Cornell biology department and queried the database for records on known genomes. The computer would run a generalized search for identical chromosome numbers, or, failing that, matching sequences. Drake rotated the image around. It looked like the chromosomes were all there and intact. This was wierd. Normally DNA degrades when the cell's outside of the body.
The computer responded: GENETIC MATERIAL DOES NOT MATCH ANY KNOWN SPECIES. CLOSEST MATCH: KINGDOM ANIMALIA.
Oh, that's a close one. Then he remembered something that the user at Oxford mentioned.
Ever hear of the legend of Saint George?
"It can't be." He frowned. "Not in a million years. No way in hell is this…" Still, he picked up the phone and dialed the genetics lab.
"Yeah, Smith, this is Drake up in the holoscopy lab. Just recieved something from Oxford. It's a blood sample. Ran a check on it with the archives and nothing came up. I need you to do something. According to the micrographs, this sample is somewhat intact underneath. Can you amplify it? Oh yeah, and we have a complete protein makeup of the cell membrane and interior, too. Chemistry included. No match on that anywhere, either. Yes, it's intact. I'm looking at it now. I need you to run a confirmation against the computer's data to make sure this thing is something unheard of."
He smiled, looking at the monitor. "If this is what I think it is, I may be looking at the world's only intact draconic blood sample. Don't laugh. If you knew what I'm getting this sample off of…well, dammit, that's why I want you to confirm this notion! Get someone up here with a sample vial and some precision tools, will you?"
He hung up the phone. Sixteen hundred years later, and I'm looking at dragon blood. Maybe actual, honest-to-God dragon blood. Straight from the dark ages. No wonder there was nothing recorded during that time. I wouldn't believe me either.
Two years later…
"Exobiology has a running joke attached to it's meaning. Well, actually two. One is that it is a science without a subject matter. Another is that it is half biology, and half comic books."
Dr. Richard Gleigh managed to elicit a slight laugh from the group of students attending his class. Gleigh wrote the word EXOBIOLOGY on the board behind him and continued. "Essentially, Dr. Carl Sagan, for those of you not fortunate enough to be taking the astrophysics class, is famous for starting this science. So, once again, if you're looking for him to get some firsthand information, he's the office without the nameplate on the door. Or, if someone copied my little prank when I was a student under him, he's the office without the door, period." More laughter. If he affected his Irish accent right now, the class would be in hysterics if he did something clever. It wasn't a secret that Gleigh was Irish-born, but his family came to the United States when he was ten. He'd developed a perfect American accent, but he could affect his old one. He'd had practice doing that. If he tweaked his accent a little, he could to scottish--which was excellent for a Star Trek impersonation, which was not only relevant to the class, but hysterical as hell if he timed it right. He was in his late twenties, remarkably young for a university professor. But then again, he was a prodigy in his class, and he studied under Dr. Sagan himself. He had a very strong background in his field.
"Anyway, what we do in general is ask ourselves, if a planet has this and such an atmosphere and this and such a landscape, what are the adaptations of the lifeform? Sometimes we ask ourselves the opposite, with the lifeform as the known."
He unrolled the map from the overhead rollers. "This is the known. Planet Earth. There are, of course, many different possibilities of what a life form could look like if you were, say, an Andromedan. You'd have to theorize what sort of life could construct the tech that exists, or what sort of life could live here, period. If you saw L.A., you'd probably consider this place uninhabitable for any life with a carbon base."
"Anyway, back to the subject at hand. The Earth has a distinct biospheric tracer for whatever timeframe or region you happen to be studying. If the impact is significant enough, maybe you can trace a species. This is what I happen to be researching. For those of you who went on my field expidition to the British Isles a few weeks back, you'd know better than those who didn't."
He took notice of a new arrival to the classroom, a woman in her early forties, dark hair, and glasses. He hardly noticed her enter. She didn't appear to be a student, so he went on. He rolled up the screen and went over to his computer, punched a few keys, and the projector at the back of the room shone on the markerboard up front. It was a complex set of data tables, including gas cromatographs and chemical breakdown analyses.
"From the data we've recorded, we've been able to determine exact quantities of chemical compounds in the soil dating back for x number of years. You'll notice I'm also showing data from Arctic ice cores and soil cores from the Montana badlands. What we have is a chemical diary, if you will, from the Earth itself. Every species present leaves an imprint by the changes in the chemical quantities. For instance," he said, using a laser pointer to indicate the Badlands chromatograph, "You'll notice that samples dating before the extinction show increased quantites of oxygen. At extinction, carbon spikes, due to the lack of consumers and increase of decaying matter. After, the carbon drops again. Coming back to the Britain samples, you'll notice a similar pattern, though not as dramatic, in the samples dating around 400 AD. It seemed that there was a major consumer of organic carbon during that time, and it went extinct. Since few records were kept of an objective type, we have no idea what in bloody hell that consumer was."
"We do know this. From the depth of the trough, the consumer was definitely predatory. It was consuming enough carbon to cause a significant decrease in the complex carbon skeleton content because it was farther down the energy pyramid from the sun." The energy pyramid was a biosphere model, indicating the sun as the source of energy, which was used by plants, which were consumed by herbivores, which were consumed by carnivores, and so on down the line. At each step, however, there was a marked decrease in energy present, and the farther one was down the line, the more one had to consume. "This is where the exobiologist does his work on Earth. We have no idea what in hell this predator was!"
The class giggled at his display of humorous vehemence. "Thank you. Now back to the program. What we have is a predator that's consuming more carbon skeletons than the human population. However, it's very infrequent that one of these consumers exists. Otherwise the trough would be wider. This trough seems to span the dark ages. So we have no idea what caused it. So now you're going to see this thing as the exobiologist should. And to do this, I ask you: what's the consumer?"
The class was remarkably silent. Then, wryly grinning, he wrote in black pen over the projection one word.
The class giggled. "It's an idea," Gleigh said. "That's how exobiology begins. With an inane but feasable idea. Next question: how did I come up with this?"
One of the students, a blond-haired junior, stuck up her hand. "According to legend…"
"No, no no. We don't use that word in this class. I want to hear ideas, not legends. If you read my essay, you'll find I used several models, including the McCaffrey-Cohen model and the TSR model. These may be made-up for all intents and purposes in fiction and RPG, but these dragons--particularly those in the McCaffrey-Cohen model--were biologically feasable. What we're looking at, hypothetically speaking, is one evolutionary quantum leap that ended up getting hunted to extinction. Now why did I come up with this of all ideas? Please continue," he said, motioning to the student.
"Well, according to the TSR model, the dragon needed to consume large quantities of protein in order to sustain its being. If it was consuming all of the complex proteins, it would excrete them back as simpler carbons. Hence the graph."
"Good. What else could this be?"
"Ever thought of wolves or tigers on the British isles during this time?" another student suggested. "Take the geological land bridge during the ice age. Enough of a species could survive to cause the shift in the graph."
"Ah. Good. But as you see, the evidence suggests a consumer that consumed a lot more than that. Wolves wouldn't consume enough to cause the spike, and tigers wouldn't have built up the population."
The blond stuck up her hand again. "If I may use the forbidden 'L' word? There are multiple occourences of the legend of the dragon occouring in many different variations in different areas. But mostly the occourences are around the Eurasian continent, concentrated on areas close to water or inland in countries with a border on the ocean. And more in-depth study of chemical tracers shows that the places where the occourences centralize have the spike."
"Yes! Good point. Exactly. The idea, therefore, is sound. But, this is the realm of the exobiologist because there is no evidence. The puzzle has a gaping hole. If the dragon existed, there have been no bones unearthed. Then again, nobody's excavated where the legends have occoured. And if you look at the dragon from the perspective of the fairy-tale knight in shining armor, you'd see this thing as a winged serpent from hell. Probably, the knight would probably cremate the remains to get rid of the evil presence, if not to get rid of several tons of rotting flesh." He looked at the clock.
"All right, class is over. One more thing. I want you to take a look at some more of those models from chapters seven and twelve of Fictional Biological Species Models, and I advise you to rent the movies that the book refers to. Tomorrow we'll be doing the Giger Biomechanoid model."
When the students departed, the woman in the back was still standing there. Gleigh began gathering his papers. "If you want to speak to me in private, my office hours are from two to six, other times by appointment. Otherwise I'm with the kids on a Marathon tournament."
"Computer game addict, I see." She said. Lovely voice, albeit slightly dry. She walked up to the desk at the front of the room.
"All work and no play makes Richard a dull boy. I'm still on call even then, but I still stick to my rules if you're not administration or a student I'm helping with a project or something. Besides, most of the people I play against are my students."
"Dr. Gleigh, I presume." She extended her hand. Gleigh shook it and went back to gathering his papers.
"Aye, 'tis my name." He said, affecting his Irish again. Dropping the accent, he asked, "and you are?"
"Charlene Ludlom. I'm a doctor in reproductive biology, currently working with the government on a project."
"Ah. Well," he looked up. "What interest does the government have in me?"
"Quite a lot, since they read your thesis on the different biological models of fictional organisms. I did say I was working on a project didn't I?"
"Beats me, you weren't listening either?"
"Very funny, Dr. Gleigh. I'm here to make you a proposition. I'm head of the project the government has me working on, and I read your thesis as well. I also read some of your articles on exobiology applied on Earth to determine missing consumers in the food chains of the biosphere at close time spans."
"That's nice. Few people are seriously interested in exobiology."
"Doctor, I'm proposing to provide you with a piece of the puzzle. A very big and important piece."
Gleigh stopped gathering his work and put the papers down on his desk. "You have me listening. Go ahead. What's your proposition?"
"Evidence, Dr. Gleigh."
"Evidence? Of what?"
"I can't say here. There are reasons I can't tell you here. But I can show you."
Gleigh put his hands on his hips. "What good is evidence," he said, "if I can't use it?"
"You can," Ludlom responded. "But you have to do some things. Start some research going in the right areas. Stuff that's way out of our league but well within yours. What we need to know is what we're dealing with on this project."
He raised an eyebrow. "What exactly have you done?"
"Like I said, I can't say here. First of all, I'm trying to keep this project slightly low profile. Second of all, I'm afraid you wouldn't believe me unless you saw the evidence first."
"I'm an open-minded guy, but if security is your issue, fine. Tell me where and when."
"Got a free weekend?"
"One coming up this week."
"Fine. I've got your fax number from the University directory. I'll send you the map to where to go. It's not far from campus."
"Okay, so let me get this straight. The deal is, I help you get your act together on this project, whatever it is. In exchange, I get to reveal the details when you have the project under control. Is this more or less right?"
"More or less."
He smiled. "Well, then. You have an appointment. I'll see you saturday."
Gleigh began puzzling to himself on the way up to the facility that Saturday, the thrum of the engine of his Explorer the only thing keeping his mind on the road. Missing piece, huh? His eyes followed the tree-lined road as he pushed his way up into the woodland areas of New Jersey. Kind of a long way from Cornell, this place was. To go this far to find me, I must've written something pretty good. Question: what?
The first thing that stuck up in his mind was the least likely. Something to do with dragons. The most inane idea that he came up with was that they had made one in a genetics lab. Well, great. Question was, how? There was the possibility that maybe some genetic material may have existed somewhere, but that still didn't allow for a complete clone of a multicellular organism. One needed a cell for that. An intact gamete, a sex cell. Once you have that, then the rest is easy.
There has got to be some other explanation. Why would they bring me up here? Exobiology was a versatile field. His field was working on creating species that worked in a terran biosphere. Basically, he did a sort of "fill in the holes" type of work. What could have existed, based on what environment existed at the time in question, what species could have been the predecessors in the evolutionary scheme, what resources were available to sustain the life, possible causes of extinction, and the like. It required a lot of imagination to do this.
It would have been easier if he had some more pieces to the puzzle, admittedly. The rain began to spatter on his windshield as he cruised the road looking for the entrance to the facility. Whatever this facility was, it was supposed to be guarded, but Ludlom had apparently left a clearance for him at the gate.
Okay, how about this. Maybe a dinosaur survived extinction and managed to hang out during the time of the spike on the graph. Around 400 AD or so. If that was so, then it would be a major consumer, and it would either die off or be hunted down. And it offers some basis for the legends. He turned on his windshield wipers. If this species survived in multiple areas, then that would perpetutate legend if this same species had an arrested evolution, which would mean it could survive the cretaceous extinctions in an ecosystem powered by chemoautotrophs. The facility loomed up into view. It was a large concrete building, no windows, but one door in the front, and a chain-link fence surrounding it. The fence was topped with barbed wire, and as Gleigh approched, he could see the sign that read CAUTION: ELECTRIFIED FENCE.
This is it.
The guard in front cleared him and let him go through, and he pulled into a parking space next to a Technical--a jeep fitted with a .50 caliber machine gun. He got out and locked his truck, then went to the front entrance where another soldier let him in.
What interest does the military have in this project? Better yet, what is this project? Then he saw Dr. Ludlom.
"Doctor, hi. So when can we begin? First, let me rephrase that. What are we beginning on?"
The doctor gave a wry smile. "Well, I'd tell you now, but I'd have to kill you."
"Well, tell me now."
"Okay, but I'll have to kill you first."
Gleigh sighed. "What is going on here? What's the big secret?"
"If you'll follow me, I'll tell you once we're in the secured area. But first, are all of your innoculations up to date?"
"What?" He was shocked, then puzzled, then he thought. "Yeah, last time I checked."
"Good. Follow me, please. Take this, by the way. You'll need it to get past security."
She handed him a badge key. It had a holographic strip on the bottom. at the top, it had the words CORNELL UNIVERSITY. So the university was funding this project, huh? Again, the question. Why the military?
Along the way, they were stopped by a guard bearing what looked like an M-19 autmatic rifle. Only where the grenade launcher would be, under the barrel, was a thinner tube, more like a paintball gun. The guard asked them for their badge cards, which they relinquished. The soldier slid them into a scanner, then handed them back to Gleigh and Ludlom. Then he waved them on.
"So, what's the big secret?" Gleigh persisted. "I mean, what could an exobiologist like me do here?"
"Doctor, what was your major in graduate school?"
"Biology, but I took physics in college."
"You studied under Carl Sagan?"
"For a while. He taught me about exobiology. What's this have to do with what you're showing me?"
"Just interested. Actually, I was more interested in your class last Wednsday."
"Oh yeah. That class. We were talking about…"
Ludlom finished his sentence. "The McCaffrey-Cohen exobiological model. Fiction meets reproductive biology and produces a viable model that could logically exist in the terran biosphere, even though it supposedly never did."
Gleigh caught the wording easily as if it had been on a paper he graded. "What do you mean, supposedly never did?" He stopped. "I mean, there's enough evidence to say it could work on Earth, and there is evidence to support the existence of a major predator during the dark ages. But no way am I going to believe that that predator was a dragon, unless I see some hard evidence."
Ludlom regarded him wryly.
"Come on, Ludlom, you're holding out on me."
"Okay. Let me tell you a story. This story begins about several million years ago. At this time, the dinosaurs existed. We're talking about the late Jurassic. At this time, one species of dinosaur evolves out of what we know as saurians. Maybe a different gene-timing sequence arose during its developmental stages over the evolutionary period. You've heard of the hox genes?"
Gleigh thought a moment. "Those are developmental genes that control limb develpment. If you keep the hox genes on long enough in a fetus, what would be a fin in a fish would develop a hand-type skeletal structure, as in terrestrial species of vertebrates except snakes, and cetaceans."
"Exactly. So you know what I'm talking about. Let's say now that over the evolutionary period, the physiology of this species changed dramatically, as well as the morphology. Six-way limbic skeleton, instead of four or two. And the limbic pair that falls between the arms and legs develops the first chiropterean wings. The species completes evolution about the same time as man is halfway through his. And for some reason, it survived the Cretaceous extinctions."
"Take it to about ten thousand years ago, the dawn of man. Soon man passes through prehistory, the stone age, and the bronze age. Then Babylon, Mesopotamia, Sumeria, pardon me if I don't have these in the right order…"
"Doesn't matter. History wasn't my strong suit unless I could relate it to science."
"Right. Anyway, after some climactic changes, this species separated into two populations. One resided in East Asia, the other in Western Europe, particularly the British Isles. Sound like the dragon so far?"
"There's your shift in the concentration of massive carbons. There is a consumer that lies about level with the human on the food chain with a very efficient physiology. In either case, the evidence does not exist. It's hidden. We know that there was a massive consumer somewhere, but we don't know what that consumer was. And we know that it lived at the same time as man. It wasn't a big deal in paleobiology until we made a breakthrough."
They continued down the hall. Ludlom continued. "Well, now that we're in the secured area, and you're so insistent, we can talk freely. You ever read a novel by Crichton called Jurassic Park?"
"Yeah, and I've heard that there's a project going on in the genetics lab to actually clone Jurassic DNA and produce a viable beast. However, there's just one small problem. You need an intact cell to get the right membrane composition and internal composition. In order to make a baby dinosaur, you need the mother."
"Well, that's for DNA about one hundred and sixty million years old, if you can get it intact. And trying to get a cell that old is a royal pain, if not impossible. But, a few hundred thousand millienia can put wear and tear on a cell. Meanwhile, two millenia, give or take about six centuries, doesn't do too much."
"What do you mean?"
"Remember that evidence you were talking about?" Ludlom stopped in front of an open elevator. Gleigh followed her inside.
"She's sitting in our lab downstairs."
They left the elevator to enter a brightly-lit corridor. Occasionaly there was a soldier here and there, and there was a labcoated tech strolling the halls with another clipboard. Gleigh was still trying to puzzle out what Ludlom said. He could have made anything of it, but his mind jumped to a single conclusion.
"I hope you're not trying to tell me..." he began, "That you have a dragon in a lab here."
"That's exactly it. Like I said, you wouldn't believe it unless you saw it."
"I'll believe it when I see it. Like I said."
"That's why I brought you here. Ah, here we are."
They stopped before a large viewing window. The window allowed a view of a room beyond, clinically white, but with many things lying around. A few toys, but many books on shelves. Against one wall was a computer, set up with one of those pressure-plate keyboards, the kind used with quadraplegics. But Gleigh wasn't looking at that. He was looking at what was standing next to the tech in the labcoat.
It was impossible. It had to be a hoax. Yet something from Gleigh's long carreer, as well as a gut feeling, told him that it couldn't be.
The dragon stood about four feet tall on its hind legs, with its forelimbs on the arms of the tech. Its hide was golden, shimmering in the flourescent lighting. On its back were two great wings, chiropterean by morphology...batlike. This was very close to the McCaffrey-Cohen model. The eye was catlike, and green...the deepest and most beautiful shade of emerald green Gleigh ever saw. The physical aspects almost matched the model, but where there should have been ridges along the vertebral axis, there was a crest that started at the head and tapered about two-thirds of the way down the neck. From the way it moved up and down, it appeared to be muscled underneath.
Gleigh was stunned into silence.
"Remember Jurassic Park? We managed to get past the problem."
"We got lucky. Come on. I'll show you the lab."
Gleigh was full of questions. And this time, Ludlom answered.
"Her behavior suggests intelligence, and a lot of it. Though we haven't figured out a method of communication, we've been able to observe her adaptation. For example, the computer in there."
"How's her proficiency with that?"
"Amazing. Her learning curve is stunning. She's practically a hacker. She can program, render in 3-D, and work on the internet, though she hasn't done anything that involves communication. We've seen lots of figural skills, but so far, nothing semantic. She's a puzzle."
"How'd you determine gender?"
"To be honest, we had to do some scanning. We used a high-resolution MRI to get a body structure layout. But we did identify female sex organs."
"Well, let me hear more on the behavioral aspects."
"She's quite friendly. But, she's also getting quite large. We mapped some growth spurts, but she seems to have slowed down here. We don't know what to expect. We're keeping the guards well-armed, should the worst happen."
Gleigh winced. That could get messy.
They approached the lab, a well-spread out biology lab, cluttered with advanced hardware. Gleigh managed to identify a holographic laser microscope, like the one in the holoscopy lab at the university. This scope was probably the same one. There were lots of computers. What caught Gleigh's eye was the presence of the clear-front cryogenic freezer. In it, point down in cryoalloy supports, was what Gleigh could easily identify as a sword.
"That," Ludlom began, "was our source. An archaeologist identified it as the sword of St. George."
"The mythical dragonslayer," Gleigh remembered.
"Exactly. What's more, we know he existed. One of the techs at the microscopy lab found a trace sample of cellular matter in the seam of hilt and blade. Composition unknown. But, we could get a sample of the tissue, and found it to be intact. Not viable, but intact. Cells. We subjected the sample to every battery of tests we could use, and built a chemical model. Basically, we put the model into the computer and played with it until we got something viable. Then we worked with viable possibilities until we got something reproductive. We took the original genetic sample and put it in a custom membrane of 50% avian/reptillian egg cell, 50% human egg cell. Once we cut it by about 20% with some cetacean egg cell, split the DNA in half and put it back together again to simulate fertilization…well, that's grossly oversimplifying the process, but you get the idea. We got it to divide. We cloned the cell, put a copy on file in liquid nitrogen, and grew the other clone. To be honest, we didn't know what we'd get until we grew it. But we had an idea that this would be it."
"Well, the legend had to start somewhere. I mean, the whale was the subject for stories of sea monsters…Cetus and Perseus. I guess the whale would become a creature of myth if it were hunted to extinction and evidence could not be located to prove its actuality. Speaking of the myth, does she have any, er, defensive mechanisms?"
"If you're asking if she breathes fire, we don't know. Preliminary evidence suggests that she might, as there are some augmentations to her lung structure, as far as we can tell on the MRI. We took some samples of any matter that may be inside. We found some trace phosporus and methane. But whether this is vestigial or not is unknown. Here."
She led him to one of the computers in the lab. Ludlom punched up a graphic, apparently a side view of the dragon in the lab enclosure. "Here we see the integumental layer." She pressed a key and the skin came away. "Now we see the muscle tissue. It's green on this graphic. We think it's a copper-based heme group in her blood, but the samples we have are sort of reddish-green. So, maybe it's a copper and iron mix."
"What's her food intake?"
"She eats in spurts. And she's definitely carnivorous. Look at the digestive tract." Ludlom brought up the graphic for the GI image. "It's built for carnivorous activity. Little or no appendix, and there's a lot of small intestine."
"How can you be sure of the accuracy of the MRI?" Gleigh inquired.
To answer his question, Ludlom led him out of the genetics lab, down a hall, past a set of security gates. They were open. They were entering the secured area, so Ludlom explained. The boundries of the secured area surrounded the enclosure area. They entered a lab with a long, thick-walled tube. The magnetic-resonance imager.
Ludlom was well-versed in the use of the MRI, and she knew her way around the console. She booted the machine's startup routines and brought the tubular beast to life.
"Stick your arm in there." She indicated the tube. "Any angle. Maybe stick out some fingers."
So Gleigh did. Ludlom pressed a few keys. There was a hum, a whirring, then he was instructed to remove his hand. He went over to the console area, where a twenty-inch high-res monitor showed an exterior view of his hand. He had his index and ring finger stuck out.
"No, that's magnetic resonance. It may not resolve molecules, but this thing is powerful enough to produce a three-dimensional plot of your neural network, right down to the shape of each cell." She got up from the console. "This is no hoax, Dr. Gleigh. This is the real thing."
"So when do I get to see the real thing in the flesh?"
They left the MRI lab and went further down the corridor to a door in the wall. It was solid steel plate. Ludlom ran her keycard and the door slid up into the celing. "We keep her in here, but not always. There's a jaccuzi down the hall where she likes to bathe, and we have a theater built into the conference room. She has a partiality to Indiana Jones. We don't know why. Like we said, she's a puzzle."
They passed the guard room, where there were two armed soldiers. The rifles they had had underbarrel-mounted trank tubes, so Gleigh guessed by the points jutting from each barrel. One guard swept him with a metal detector, and then did the same thing with Ludlom. He checked the keycards, and then let them into the first barrier lock. They passed through, and it hissed shut behind them.
"Anything I should remember?" Gleigh said.
"If anything, don't be afraid. Else, if in doubt, ask me."
The inner barrier slid open.
The golden dragon, her wings barely extended, tapped away on the keypad. From the looks of it, she was working at a furious pace. The computer, Gleigh noted, was a Powermac G4. Not a cheap computer, more like the kind of computer a pro would use for three-dimensional rendering or high-speed number crunching. Figures they would do that. If the dragon had an aptitude for computer using, it's a way to find an intellectual prowess.
A moment after Ludlom crossed the threshold, the dragon's crest extended a bit, as if in alertness, and she turned her head to regard the biologist. Gleigh then took a few steps inside. The dragon stepped away from the computer and approached Ludlom.
"And how have you been today?" Ludlom asked. The dragon cocked her head and made a throaty rumbling sound.
Gleigh came up right next to Ludlom, and the dragon turned her head to regard him as well. He knelt down so he and the dragon were at the same eye level. She spread her wings a bit more.
"Can I touch her?" Gleigh asked, part skeptical, part cautious.
He reached out and put a hand on the neck. It felt like a smooth fabric. No scales. No roughness. It was something like silk. No question. This was an adaptation for flight. Cut the air resistance any way.
"And what were you working on over there, huh?" He asked, taking a glance over her right shoulder at the Powermac. The dragon stepped over to the computer, trailing her tail across Gleigh's leg. He followed her to get a view of the screen. On the way over, he caught a look at the shelf next to the desk on which the computer lay. There were some toys, a few children's books, but a lot of software boxes and manuals. Most of them were for high-end programs the likes of which could be purchased at the university bookstore. Strata StudioPro. Painter, HyperCard. Code Warrior. There were some games, like 7th Guest, Phantasmagoria, and Descent. He took a look at the screen. The program that was up displayed a scene of rolling hills, some trees, but lots of green hills, with a slightly overcast sky and the horizon just beyond. It looked like Ireland. If it was, he couldn't pin down where, but it still looked familliar.
"Photoshop," Ludlom commented. "She's fond of artwork. Some of it she writes programs to display and integrate it dynamically. She's fluent in C, Pascal, and HyperTalk. She knows cause-effect but she’s either very reclusive or she’s not operating on our semantic level."
"Does she have a name?"
"Not that I know of. If we can figure out a semantic bridge, we thought that maybe she'd pick one out that she likes. If we can figure that out, it would give us some insight into her mind."
Gleigh stroked the neck gently, feeling vertebrae, running his fingers down the back. There was skeletal structure under there. This wasn't a costume. This was living flesh. He could feel body heat, a pulse.
"What do I have to do with all this?"
"I'll tell you, but first, I think we'd better go."
Gleigh got up, and as he did, the dragon cocked her head wistfully to look at him. He couldn't help but keeping his eyes on her until they were into the barrier lock.
"Your research into ecological exobiology thus far has been extensive, Dr. Gleigh." She poured him a cup of coffee from the machine on her desk. "What we need are some more ideas and theories."
"Well, suppose our dragon managed to get outside. What would be the ecological implications of that? Or supposed she managed to reproduce? I mean, it's unlikely, but living things that we know of can do some pretty wierd stuff when faced with near-extinction. We need to know if what we're dealing with is in fact a possible ecological danger."
"And if she is?"
"Don't get too attached, Gleigh. She may be pretty to look at, but we may need to look at a bigger picture sooner than we think. We're responsible for her creation, and that makes us responsible for her destruction if we have to destroy her. I don't want to, but like I said, it may be a necessity."
Gleigh sighed. He'd have to be very objective when he did this. On one side of the scale lay the life of a potentially intelligent being. On the other hand was the biosphere of the planet. "I'll need every piece of research you have to the present with monthly updates as you get them. And computer data files. CD, Zip disk, anything. How old is she thus far?"
"About a year to date."
"Jesus, she grows fast. All right. Then I'll appreciate the info."
"If you can hang around for a while, I'll have the lab burn you a CD."
Cornell University Network Access (UNIX/LINUX)
Login> Sallaeah Draco
Welcome, Sallaeah Draco.
User Sallaeah Draco does not have access to enter Admin.
It was later that night at the compound. In the enclosed room, nobody would really notice if the dragon got up from her little beanbag nest and logged on to the computer. Not that anyone would notice. She started pounding away at the keys.
The dragon didn't have access.
Sallaeah would soon have access.
Yes, she picked a name. Her name. It sounded good, though she never said it. Not here. It just seemed too clinical. Especially since they let her have that Grolier's Encyclopedia, as well as some access out to the internet.
Let's see what happens when we slip in a nice trojan horse.
Cornell University Core Server: Admin
Welcome, Admin 1.
>Access level change: Sallaeah Draco: Superuser
Enter password for confirmation of access level change.
Uh oh. There were two things she could do at this point. Assault the password from the front, or try to slip in another prybar and try to dig out the password. Then loop it back into the front end. She decided on the prybar.
Welcome, Sallaeah Draco.
Access level of Sahllaeah Draco is Superuser.
Cornell Experemental Compound Server: Compound
WElcome, Sallaeah Draco.
>Show accessible subnodes
Guardian seemed the likely place for the security server. The security server contained the recording system for the vidcams around the compound. She used to be able to hack in and look at anything around the lab, until they changed the passwords as they supposedly did every month or so. So she wrote the prybar, a tricky little piece of code designed to act as a sort of covert virus, slipping into the servers and monitoring the bitstreams to see where the machine code was that operated the security. She fed a bogus password to the machine, and the prybar would see where it went, what the computer used to check to make sure the password was okay, retrieved the correct password, and popped it in at the top of the event loop again to open security. It only worked because most of the Cornell servers used the same security software.
Guardian security server, Compound.
The thing cracked like an eggshell. She was in.
Now she had access to digital versions of the security camera films, taken from the cameras that day. All films were constantly updated, but she could get a copy from any time to any time, provided the flying-write flying-erase system wasn’t working so fast that security only watched half a day’s movies or so. But that would be bad practice. After all, she reasoned, why record something if you’re not going to see it later?
After searching through the file archives, she pulled the first tape she was looking for. This one had that man standing next to her, kneeling down, one hand on her neck. She liked him. But she didn’t have time for things like that now, she had work to do. Starting with that point, she followed the film until he left. Then she looked through the security server’s file system until she found a graphic of the floorplan, including camera locations. Next camera was ENCLOSURE: LOCK and after that, ENCLOSURE: SECURITY.
Working her way along the hall, she went all the way to the doctor’s office. When she got there, she played the tape with the sound.
We're responsible for her creation, and that makes us responsible for her destruction if we have to destroy her…
The words ran over and over in her head while she tried restlessly to get some sleep. She tried curling up like she always did, her tail wrapped along her neck. But it just didn’t help.
That makes us responsible for her destruction if we have to destroy her…
Her destruction. Was she really that dangerous? She’d never hurt any one of these people. They helped her survive. So what if her species was the symbol of so much trouble during a time called the dark ages? She could get out on the Internet, and she learned a lot.
When she finally got sleep, what Sallaeah found was a dream. In it, she saw what was the classic depiction that she read about in so many literature sites on the web. She was the stuff of legends. The virgin in the cave with all of the plunder…but in those sites, the woman was a prisoner. Here, Sallaeah had no clue…then the woman spoke…
“Please, don’t let him hurt me…”
She snapped awake. It was that same recurring dream all over again. What she was, or should be, or just wasn’t. If she read the info on the web right, she shouldn’t even exist. In one year she had assimilated semantic language. In another she’d figured out the computer. And now this. It had been going on for too long, this living nightmare.
It had to end. And not with her.
Sallaeah got up and made her way to the computer. Carefully, she started the machine up. She had to get out. She had to get out, learn, live. And not worry about anyone suddenly deciding to end her existence.
Okay, do your thing… She thought. Her claws went to the keypad.
“She’s up again,” one of the armed soldiers in the security section spoke. “Want me to call the night doc?”
“Nah, she’s just plugging away at that machine. Probably just rendering something else. The doctor gets kinda pissed when you call him on false alarms.”
“I’ll make a note for Ludlom then.”
The claws flashed over the keypad as fast as a hacker’s hands over a keyboard. And Sallaeah was, in fact, hacking her way through the security web. At each step, she’d have to plot her way from point A to the outside. All the way to the fence. Then what? Well, anything was better than staying here. She’d have to trust herself. While running two apps at once, she checked the security through her UNIX access while opening holes in the mainframe and writing a virus. This virus would execute a series of steps that would get her to freedom, if she executed it right.
Now or never.
“Hey, what th…” The soldier in the enclosure lock booth went for his rifle when the lights in the sector went out. “Power’s down. Now what could go wrong?”
“Don’t worry, the locks are all powered. The dragon isn’t going anywhere if the power’s dead.”
Open security lock: Enclosure
PRYBAR running…Open security lock: Enclosure
Opening security lock: Enclosure
The doors to the inside hissed open. With reflexes of supercharged lightning, she bolted for the door. The guard ahead of her only had a brief flash of golden skin before being knocked out cold on the floor. The second guard in the booth fired his dart launcher, but the shot went wild and stuck in the wall. He got to the alarm. The alarm would secure every lock from here to the perimeter. But all it did was sound the klaxon. When he looked at the board, he saw every door from here to the permeter was green.
“What the…!” He picked up the microphone and turned on the PA channel. “All security stations. All security stations. We have a break. Our dragon is loose in the enclosure sector. Repeat. The dragon is loose in the enclosure sector. Confine her.”
If this is the way they want to keep me here, I definitely want out, she thought as she plowed down another rather surprised guard. She should be close to the elevators by now. Elevators! She remembered. That was a detail, in her hurry to encode a virus that would blow security wide open, that she overlooked. As she hung the turn, she saw the steel doors. They looked like the doors that were on elevators…or they could lead into other security locks. But if she remembered the floorplan right, these marked her first objective. Now how did they work?
Sallaeah didn’t have time to think before she heard the shouting. With strength she was unaware of, she tore through the plate steel of the doors. These were flimsy compared to the alloy steel of the locks. From there, she looked up. Nowhere to go but there…so she jumped.
That hurt! She realized as she penetrated the celing.
Ludlom, having not even gone home yet, was livid. “What in bloody hell do you mean? How can all of our security systems have gone down? What about your men?!”
McClellan, a no-nonsense Colonel who led the soldiers guarding the facility, watched the main security board as he followed the progress of the dragon outside. The motion sensors of the area were tracking soldiers and a genetically-engineered biologic. “She’s fast. Boy, is she fast. Andreson, cover the perimeter of the enclosure bl…”
The grunt over the radio cut him off. “Andreson’s down!” There was gunfire. Things had to be getting worse. “She’s still co…”
Sallaeah didn’t want to hurt anyone on her way out, just incapacitate them. Throwing herself at the soldiers in her path seemed to do the trick. Knock them out, keep on moving. But they shot at her. She’d taken several darts and moved on, but she was starting to feel the effects. What did they put in those things? And there were gunshot wounds. They hurt, but she could keep moving. The wounding was only through her left wing. She saw the entranceway. Glass. No, Lexan. Not even a bullet could penetrate that. But a virus could. She was relieved when they slid open. When she got out, she saw forest! Cover! But there was a fence in the way…
No! Not now! She couldn’t stop now! If only she could just clear that…
If it were instinct or just a wild guess, she wound up her hindquarters and spread her wings.
Rogers wasn’t about to lose her. The tough Lieutenant ran for the exit, weapon at the ready. He saw her all right. And when he cleared the door, she sprang skyward. He put his rifle to his shoulder and pulled the trigger, firing burst after burst, trying to aim carefully enough. He didn’t hear anything, he just knew one thing. Kill that sucker now. Drop it before…
“Rogers! Drop it before you hurt someone!”
He let go of the trigger and spun to face McClellan. “Sir?”
“We’ve got other men out there.” He picked up the radio. “Get some choppers aloft with some infra-red gear. Now.” He turned back to Rogers. “Rogers, she’s out of range.”
“I’ll get her, sir.”
“No you won’t. You’re staying here. I’m sending a track and recover team to bring her back. Don’t play the hero on me.”
McClellan held up a warning finger. “Lieutenant, that’s an order.”
Sallaeah didn’t know she was flying until she did it. Ahhh! The cold air played serious hell with the gunshot wounds in her wing, but she could fly stable over the wooded area…behind her, she could hear rapid-fire whipping sounds…oh no. They sounded familliar, yet…
Yet she suddenly became too tired to figure it out. She rolled left, then right, the horizon suddenly becoming very hard to keep level, and then the tree line rushing up at her. Then the trees became a bed of spikes, and they were all running toward her, going to impale her. She tried to keep her wings steady. She wanted to keep herself balanced, but then she wished she could just make herself invisible, just hide herself and avoid all this. The tranquilizer from those darts must be affecting her now. She wanted out. She wanted out by some means, but she wanted out. But as a dragon, she was just too obvious…
Then all her lifting power went away, and she fell into the trees. The ground, a black abyss, hit her with a painful smack.
“What the hell do you mean, you’ve lost her?! For crissake, this isn’t a manhunt, we are looking for a dragon! Geez!” McClellan didn’t realize how crazy he sounded…how crazy the idea sounded, of looking for a dragon at all, in fact. “We are looking for a biologic. A very large biologic. With a very large heat signature. Now if that doesn’t bring the concept a little more down to Earth, soldier, I suggest you turn your tail around and bring that chopper back! Now find her! That’s an order!”
Jesus Christ, I took a special op for security on a collegiate project. Next thing I know, I’m chasing dragons. Whether genetically bred from six hundred year-old blood or not, the whole thing still sounds like insanity!
He switched frequencies on the radio. “Any luck on the computers? Did you find out what happened yet?”
“Nothing so far. The whole database has gone whacko. It’s gotta be a virus or something. If it is, we’re trying to fish out the data now.”
“Well hurry it up. One break in security and this project’s gone all to hell.”
“Problems may be bigger than we think,” Ludlom said. She was walking up to him with a large stack of files. “If my suspicion is right, she may end up growing again.”
“She grows in spurts, Colonel, at least as far as we can tell. Once about every month or so, she goes into a feeding frenzy. She’ll eat as much meat as she needs. Then she stops for another month.”
“Is that a problem? I thought eating humans went against her behavioral profile.” He switched back the channels. “Dawson, any luck on the aerial surveillance?”
“McClellan, she may not eat humans, but she will eat. And we’re also talking about survival instincts here. And breeding instincts.”
“She’s only one female. She can’t breed. Or did you cut the DNA with some frog stuff like in that movie?”
“No, but we don’t know what we have here. She’s smart. She won’t kill, at least she hasn’t. Any fatalities in the escape?”
“No. I see your point.”
“She’s intelligent, but even intelligent beings have instincts. We don’t know how much of a danger she poses. Remember that to the Europeans of the Dark Ages, dragons were magical. We have a living specimen…had a living specimen in the lab. And she may have some adaptations that we don’t know of, that back then were considered magic and today would be considered very well evolved. The methane in that part of the lung, for example. Methane’s a combustible fuel. Mix it with some phosphorous and expose it to oxygen. Wham! Fire. Now if the enzymes exist for methane and phosphorous production and the lining of the throat is resistant enough to the right elements, then a fire-breathing dragon isn’t exactly that infeasable.”
“Colonel, sir!” A voice came over another channel.
“Yes, Henry, what is it?”
“There’s something you should see, sir. And I don’t believe it myself, but I think you should have a look.”
The tape was resampled to grayscale with the help of the newly resurrected computer. With it, the security detail managed to piece together the outdoor surveillance tapes. This image was shot on the infra-red bandwidth. On it, the vague shape of a winged biologic was visible.
“Okay, now we enhance it,” Henry said. The datajock was hot on the keys, given the right hardware, he could turn any blurred image into what it really was. Most of his work was debunking a lot of UFO pictures. Sure, he found a couple that defied explanation, but most he resolved down to enhanced pixels to find out that a floating blob was just a piece of reflective tape someone set up to make an image he couldn’t have concocted better with a PhotoShop program.
“The image is definitely that of our dragon. But watch what happens later over these frames.”
He advanced the tape. The outline shrank.
“Given her flight speed, she shouldn’t reduce in size that much on the screen. And, look at the ratios of body part sizes. She’s lost wingspan.”
“What in God’s name…”
The tape was advanced a few more frames. “Less wingspan now. And look at the tail.”
Ludlom stared in shock. “Bloody hell…the tail’s almost gone! She’s polymorphic!”
“What?” McClellan looked at her.
“She’s changing shape, Colonel. Don’t ask me how she’s doing it. But she’s losing physical size. Maybe rearranging the structure of her skeleton somehow, using muscle contractions. Like I said, we don’t know much more than what we’ve got.”
“What’s the end form?”
“Well, this is the last possible shot we got before she went out of sight. I can’t see much, even with enhancement. But I can tell you this. We’re looking for a smaller area in terms of signature size.”
“All right. Henry, radio the chopper. Tell him to look for anything. If anyone’s out in those woods, I want them questioned if they’ve found anyone or anything out of the ordinary. Tell Rogers to get some search teams organized for said persons.”
Sallaeah awoke. Painfully. The bed that she lay on–-what was it? Oh, she couldn’t think right now. Her head hurt so much, and her shoulders ached. It hurt to move herself. And her bed…it was so porous, and moist…she wasn’t in her comfortable beanbag nest at the facility.
She tried to escape. Did they get her? She tried to get up, awkwardly. Then she caught a glimpse of her forearm and fell over again in shock. Was this hers? She looked at the arm for a moment, then the other arm, turning them over, studying the contours. Whatever happened, she was dimly aware of. But whatever it was… Her great wings were gone. She could feel them, but they weren’t physically there. And the arms were unmistakably human. So were the legs. So was the rest of her.
How she managed to pull it off was one thing she couldn’t understand. She subconciously reversed it over her arm, sending golden hide to replace the skin, and forcing the extension of her claws. Then she worked it back into human shape again. Her whole body seemed so pliable. As easy as flexing a muscle, she had radically altered her shape.
Sallaeah wanted camoflage. Well, this was a way to go. If dragons were myth, who’d suspect her if she stayed human for awhile, until she knew she was safe?
Suddenly, she heard the whip whip whip of helicopter blades. They found her? But how? A voice boomed from the helicopter. Humans didn’t have such loud voices, but she read about devices of amplification that would make sounds louder…
No time to think about that. She heard the voice say, “Stay where you are. A team will be there to…hey! I said stop!”
She ran. Fast.
“This is Dawson. We’ve got someone running. We’re in pursuit.”
“Forget that one, Dawson. Did you get a visual?”
“And a picture, Colonel.”
“Fine. We’ll post it and try to get him later. Keep searching. Let this one go.”
By the time Gleigh got back to his house, it was nearly eleven. Well, he thought he'd stop by his office and grade a few papers--he finished off his class's last assignment and lost track of time. He unlocked the door and entered the room, almost tripping over the FedEx package that someone slipped through the mail slot. He put down his laptop and picked the package up. No return address.
Gleigh's house looked like the dorm room he had than the house of a professor. He had a degree in the sciences with a masters in biology. Yet his house had the motif of a heavy-metal teenager's room. On one wall, the poster for The Ultimate Doom dominated over a small photo. The kitchen was surprisingly clean given the decor…Gleigh didn't eat in much.
Upstairs, in his study, it was a completely different story as opposed to his kitchen. Gleigh didn't use much paper, but what he didn't have in paper, he made up for in manuals, floppy disks, data cartridges, and other miscellaneous bits of electronic and computer related media. On one wall was a poster for Marathon. Another wall held a poster for Marathon 2. The latter was set up next to his degrees.
Gleigh sat down at the computer, a 604-150--a Powermac clone. He unzipped the FedEx and shook out a plastic jewel case containing a gold circle, a writeable CD. He stuck this in the drive and opened it up on his desktop.
The volume contained some miscellaneous QuickTime clips, a couple of HyperCard stacks, and an Adobe Acrobat file. The last of these was usually the executable item that integrated the rest, so he opened this one first.
Project Draco v.1.0
The Following information is CONFIDENTIAL.
Do not copy or reproduce in electronic or other form.
Following is EYES ONLY.
PLEASE PASSWORD PROTECT NOW
Must be a wierd version of an encryptor. The document included a decryptor utility, so Gleigh threw a password in and the machine went to work.
Draco 1.0 history:
Around 1600 years ago the civilized region of Europe experienced what we know as the Dark Ages, a 'hole' in the historical record that has little or no verifiable fact. It is around this time that the legendary figure of St. George existed.
St. George is the supposed dragonslayer. The meaning of this legend has been analyzed by literary scholars for centuries. They conclude that the dragon is a symbolic unification of the four elements, an embodiment of power, or a symbol of something more malignant. Biology has not taken the legend seriously enough.
Here is why. A legend as such would tend to spread throughout civilized regions. The Arabs, for instance, would have recorded and preserved it (Arabia being between Europe and China, the greatest centers of this legend). The depictions of the dragons in China differs greatly from that of Europe, not only in significance but in physical shape, as is shown by some graphic depictions in texts produced during the Dark Ages. The locations of the prevalence of the dragon are too local to suggest a spread by trade route or a confinement by isolation.
One hypothesis to this end that may be feasibly presented is that the dragon is not legend, but was an actual organism that was hunted to extinction. The problem is that nobody has taken the idea seriously enough to even disprove it.
Two years prior to the date this document was written, an archaeological excavation in the rural region of Great Britain unearthed the tomb of a knight, so evidenced by the contents of the find. Some of the items were corroded green, which was odd considering that the metal of the armor and sword was steel. The evidence suggests the "corrosion" is in fact organic.
Samples of the substance covering the armor were analyzed to reveal amino acids and metal accessory pigments, much like blood. The armor was retained at Oxford, while one of the items, a sword (supposedly the sword of George the knight) was sent to Cornell University X-ray holoscopy lab.
The holoscopy lab analysis revealed something totally unexpected--full and complete DNA samples. The samples were resolved and analyzed by computer to determine a base-pairing sequence. The DNA, was, in fact, similar in chemical composition to terran nucleic acids, so it could be synthesized. Version 0.1 is the complete reassembly of the DNA.
Attempt in reconstruction of a gamete cell membrane. This attempt failed.
Second attempt at 0.2. Also failed.
Growth occoured, but stopped at the blastocyst stage.
Attempted again. Produced an intact but non-viable organism. The physical structure of the organism is definitely what we're looking for. No question. Two-way axial skeleton with six-way limbic skeleton. This is definitely our dragon.
This attempt was the success of this project. The organism produced was a viable organism.
They've developed the dragon like a piece of organic software. Well, so be it. Just so long as they don't go up any other versions, I don't have any qualms.
Gleigh closed the application and opened up his E-mail system. He'd go over the rest of the info later, but he had to check his mailbox.
While the modem was dialing, he tried to put the image of the dragon he saw in the Cornell lab out of his head for the duration of his online session, lest he slip. Bloody hell. He'd just been teaching a class during the past week about the possibility of a large predator forcing a decrease in the amount of complex carbons present in the biosphere. He used a hypothetical dragon as the predator, but it was only hypothetical! The relation between his class and what he saw was pure coincidence, but the fact is that this dragon existed once, and it was probably hunted to extinction.
Hey professor, are we still on for paintball this weekend?
Answer: Hell yes! If he could put his mind on something that was known, something not so secret and theoretical, he could probably get a grip on things.
But denying what he saw would not be getting a grip on things, would it? He decided to review the disc again.
General notes w/text links to details:
Starting with the DNA of previous versions, the chromosomes are divided by homologs, much like gamete production. Each homolog set is plugged into a corresponding sperm or egg of the appropriate synthesis for reproduction, using the previous trial's model.
After recombination, the cell commences division. Rate of growth is slightly slower than human. (This may seem very anthropomorphic, but it establishes some standard by which we may make a comparison.)
The cell's nutritional requirements are not avian nor mammalian, rather it runs the gamut between the two with some slight variation. Oxygenation is accomplished using a standard artificial incubator technique.
We could be taking a chance with assuming that this species is oviparous, but we have a few other cloned embryos for another trial run if necessary. When the fetus reaches sufficient development (we think) for an estimated laying time, the fetus is transferred from the breeding unit to a porous plastic egg which is then sealed on the outside. Care must be taken at this step not to contaminate the interior fluid with epoxy.
Development is completed in 10 months. Heart rate 76, BP 190/50. Temperature around 32ºC.
Gleigh read the info until his eyes couldn't take it, and then he shut the computer down. He got up and went to a cabinet on the other side of the study, from which he produced a semiautomatic paintball gun. He worked the action, pulled the trigger, and picked up the cylinders to feel their weight. Still charged. Good.
Sallaeah had been hiking for what seemed like days. She’d been walking for the past night or so, keeping a human morphology so as to be inconspicuous. The problems were numerous…oh, how she’d love to fly again! Just take off like she had before--back then it was only for a few moments, but what a feeling!
Or, as I might have read somewhere on the web, ‘what a rush!’ She stepped on something sharp which punctured her foot. Nothing major. On her next step, she reformed her left foot, exposing claws and golden hide again, and then restealthing it. It was easy to do once she made it practice throughout her trek, but the bumps and bruises she suffered from disorientation--as she was a different shape--as well as three bullet holes in a wing that wasn’t physically there but still felt there, made her skin feel tired.
She decided to stop and rest in a small clearing. Laying herself out, she let the tension she was putting on her physical form out and let everything go, filling out spaces in her sensory world with physical parts.
“Sir!” Henry called from the computer station.
“Did you get those systems up?” McClellan asked as he strode up to the terminal where Henry was seated.
“Not yet sir, but I’ve got something better. I’ve got our satlink up and running, and look what I’ve got on the thermal.”
On the screen was a mass of dark green and blue shapes, a thermal-imaging map of the terrain of most of the eastern seaboard. Cities showed up as lighter greens and blues with specks of yellow. Henry zoomed a part of the map close to the area marked by a red X, the compound’s location.
A greenish speck expanded to reveal yellows and reds. This was a hot area. And it was a hot area with wings.
“Recognize the shape?”
“Can you pinpoint it, Henry?”
“Give me five seconds. I’m on it.”
Henry punched a few keys, and a green crosshair appeared over the thermal image, along with numbers showing latitude and longitude. “Got her. She’s right between us and Massachusetts.”
“Good work, Corporal.” He shouted out to everyone in earshot. “All right, team, we’ve pegged a location for our lost dragon, I want two choppers ready and gone in two minutes. Move!”
Sallaeah thought she rested enough by the time she awoke. That was a good rest. No bad dreams, nothing to interrupt her. And this was the first time she’d done it well since she got out of the lab. She got up on fore and hind limbs and stretched out every part of herself, neck to tail and across the wingspan. Oh, that felt so good! She yawned.
Then, off in the distance, she heard them. The sudden rapid-fire whipping of flying machines. Had they managed to track her here so quickly? How had they done it? She’d had to have escaped detection somehow since she bolted from that first helicopter. Or maybe they weren’t after her. But she couldn’t chance that. She was so far. So far.
“Snoopy to Doghouse. We have the Red Baron acquired.” Rogers was riding the weapons chair of the Apache, a chopper they had at the compound. This was just one more element of the contingencies they had if the worst should happen.
“This is Doghouse. All right. Tag her, trank her. Let us know, and we’ll bring in the airlifter.”
“Roger.” Rogers put the designator on the dragon’s back. Like spearing fish in a barrell, the dragon put out such a heat signature that she was sightable from an orbiting satellite. Easy target to put a designator on with the thermal or IR system. Of course, trying to approach her at long-distance at 200MPH, which was the max speed of the Apache, wasn’t easy. She could take off, and tranking her in the air wouldn’t be easy. Fortunately, the 30mm rockets had excellent range. And as per parameters, the rockets were stripped of warheads and fitted with tranquilizers for long-distance high-accuracy hits.
“Target lit,” Dawson said.
“Take ‘er down.”
The rockets, being unguided, had to be aimed. The pilot had a good shot. With or without the designator, he could target the dragon with a thermal scanner. Dawson lined up designator, recticle, and vector sight, and pulled the trigger.
Sallaeah couldn’t have picked a better time to reshape herself. Good thing she was so pliable. As she removed herself from her previous position in a humanoid shape, she heard a loud hissing and then a crack as something streaked through the foliage at very high speed and struck down where she was lying earlier.
No time to rest now. Time to move. And as long as she stayed under cover of trees, she reasoned, she’d be all right. She started at a quick jog and sped up.
“What the hell is happening, people?” Ludlom paced the conference room where the assembled scientists were. Also among the group was McClellan. “First she’s there, then she’s not. Then she’s back again.” She stopped pacing. “What do we know thus far?”
“She’s polymorphic. Obviously, from what we’ve seen on the tape, she can alter her form. And that other form looks definedly humanoid,” one of the genetecists said. “Suppose it’s camoflage.”
“Good point. Maybe we’ve got our hands on something that can camoflage itself morphologically.”
“Might explain why she’s managed to evade our thermal sensors,” McClellan said. “The imaging system was set up to scan for something large and hot. Not human. We can recalibrate it. Next time she pops up, we’ll lock her and then track her. But that’s assuming she takes dragon form again. If she doesn’t, we could be in a bit of trouble.”
“Sir!” Henry called from the doorway.
“Corporal, whaddya got?”
“We’ve just questioned anyone who’s been in those woods for a fifty-mile radius from the compound during the escape. We’ve found twenty-four. Twenty-three are accounted for.”
He handed McClellan a black-and-white printout. “This is twenty-four. Aerial surveillance found her and shot off a photo. According to them, she bolted.”
The photo was of a woman, age twenty-one to twenty-five, blond hair, and naked. Wierd, considering it wasn’t even spring break.
“Blow the face up. I want some search units out. Small groups, don’t want to alarm the general population.”
“We’ll need that expert, won’t we? Dr. Gleigh? He knows about the dragon, and we won’t have to compromise security.”
Sallaeah hiked northward for hours. She had been doing so, stopping to take some water from a stream on the way. She walked on, until she heard the sounds of shouting.
She went for cover as soon as she saw movement. Concealing herself, she watched. And then she froze.
There were humans there. More of them. Their hides were of the same markings of those that tried to capture her, the ones that shot at her. Sallaeah, from herhiding place, watched them. These humans didn’t have the rifles that the others had. They carried things that looked like rifles, but the barrels were bigger. She frowned. What could they be doing?
Their faces were colored up, too. Did all humans have such diverse coloration? They must all be born for some different task. Then she threw the notion away. That’s silly, Sallaeah. Why would an intelligent species be like that? Curiously, she took a closer look and saw a familliar face.
That was that man that she saw while she was still at the compound! Dr…Dr.…who? She thought for a second. He wouldn’t recognize her in this state. She could get close to him. But somehow, looking at herself, she could see it wouldn’t be that easy. She was in the human sense of the word, naked. It was fine in her natural state. Now it wouldn’t do at all. She’d have to clothe herself…or better yet, adapt herself.
She carefully examined what he was wearing…fatigues, boots, facial makeup. She couldn’t do the hat or the facemask, but she could get the armband. She concentrated on applying it to herself. She could feel her hide working like clay.
“Okay, Dietrich. The flag has four guards and is mined on all sides. We can’t get to it that easily.” Gleigh popped the new gas cylinder on the paintball pistol. “We’ll need some kind of diversion. One of us will have to sacrifice himself and open an opportunity for either of the other two to get the flag.”
“Doc, we can’t do that. The mines. I did a little recon, and those things are dense. I almost popped one off myself.”
“Charleston, we can’t do any more. My guess is, there will be snipers along the clearing. We’ll have to move in, grab the flag, and sprint, and hope that someone among us three is fast enough to get the flag back without being pegged.” Dietrich dumped another tube of paintballs in the magazine of her rifle.”
Gleigh caught movement. “Dietrich! Duck!” He brought up his semiauto to put the sights right between the eyes of another player. Had he not seen the deep blue armband, he’d probably have pulled the trigger. He lowered the barrel as Dietrich stood up. “What the hell are you doing out here without a facemask?”
The new arrival opened her mouth and started to speak, but couldn’t.
“Well, what is it?”
“I…I’m new ah…at this.”
“Aw, didn’t anyone tell you anything?”
“Dietrich,” Gleigh started, “Cut her some slack. All right, look. We’re in a bind. Half our team’s been splatted, and we need to get the flag. We’re down to this last tactic. You a good sprinter?”
Charleston helped out the apparently nervous newbie. “Can you run fast?”
“All right. We’re looking for their flag,” Gleigh began. “You know where that is? It’s about a hundred yards north of where we are. We’ll set up a diversion. Here.” Gleigh shucked his facemask and gave it to the new paintballer. “You go with Dietrich and Charleston. Put this on. I’ll go back to home base and stay there. I can’t get too exposed without safety gear. When you get that flag, run like hell towards home base. You’ll need this.” Gleigh handed her his paintball pistol. Then he unslung his semiautomatic rifle. “Use the ammo sparingly. Good luck.”
With that, he jogged off. “Think we got a chance?” Charleston said.
“Hell no,” Dietrich complained. “These guys were division champs last year. And I don’t think they’ll let up for a casual game…Hey, where’d she go?”
Sallaeah, dragon in human form, ran her way over branches, shrubs, and twigs, darting here and there to avoid the potentially entangling obstacles. She could see movement everywhere, but none in her direction so far. She guessed at about one hundred yards, and then slowed to slink to a place where the heat of three or four individuals was apparent.
Three or four was right. She could see three, yet there was enough heat around for four. They hadn’t seen her, but she could make out several boxy and tubular shapes rigged together by thin strands. Apparently, they were camoflaged visually. But they were cold. These, she reasoned, must be the mines. Then she realized that she didn’t know what a mine was. But she knew the paintball guns. And she reasoned that like the equivalents that threw real bullets, she didn’t want to be on the wrong end of one.
She raised the pistol. The barrel must be for the direction of the projectile, so she aligned the possible path of the projectile with the first one and pulled the trigger. A bright pink splat appeared on the camo.
“I’m hit! Someone’s here!”
Quickly, she aimed and fired at the next nearest target, and then the next.
“Aw, man, we’re down. All right, we’re out.”
Sallaeah was overjoyed! She did well…but she still felt the heat of four individuals. Where was the fourth?
Carefully, she emerged from hiding. Approaching carefully, she avoided anything that looked unnatural. She found claymores and tube mines. Three were surrounding the flag…
She stopped. Of course! She took a look at the tube in which the flag was set. It was a thin metal tube, the kind that resembled the barrel of a paintball gun! This must be a sniper. And that must be the fourth heat source! She looked for a part of the body on the other end of the tube, which was somewhere in the brush…
“Yow!” She heard when the paintball struck its target. She pulled the flag as the barrel moved while the sniper got up.
She ran as fast as she could, sprinting hard, taking the flag along with her. If she could release her form…no, she had to stay inconspicuous. She ran, ran to the clearing. A paintball flew behind her, another one went over her head. She ducked and rolled, picking herself up and charging south. Home base. She ran. And she didn’t stop until she got in and saw the face of the man she knew.
“Team blue,” he said into a radio, “This is Doc. We have the flag. Repeat. We have the flag.”
It started to rain again as Gleigh pulled out of the parking lot of the paintball field that Sunday. That day he was taking someone with him. The new player that he met in the field didn’t have a ride. When he found out that she resided at Cornell, he obliged. Besides, it wasn’t that far out of his way. He got a good look at his passenger. She had blond hair and the loveliest green eyes he’d ever seen. Somehow he’d seen them before.
“That was some stuff you pulled off out there,” he said.
“Capture the flag. You managed to get the flag of one of the toughest teams we’ve ever played. Those guys were regional champions.”
“Thank you,” she said shyly.
“Richard Gleigh,” he said, by way of introduction.
“Sallaeah,” his passenger said.
“Sallaeah? Sallaeah who?”
“Ah, sounds like you got a bit of de Irish in ye,” Gleigh said, affecting his old accent. “Is that were ye be from, lass?”
“No. I’m from…somewhere around the New Jersey area.”
Gleigh switched accents. “Okay. So what do you do at Cornell?”
“Actually, I’m a genetecist.”
“A genetecist, huh? I assume the university’s got you on a project?”
“Well, you’ve seen project Draco?”
Sallaeah was glad that she managed this little façade. It had to be so easy…she’d been at the core of the project for so long, and she’d gained access to every file that’s ever been written on her. She could remember anything and everything she saw. And she was a fast learner. So why not pose herself as a human in a human role on her project? She knew all about it, and she wouldn’t have to guess at many of the details.
“Draco one-point-oh? Yes. You’re on that, I assume.”
“Well, I came up with the breakthrough that allowed us to re-create the draconic embryo. It worked.”
“Boy, did it work. You know, I didn’t get as far as some parts on the dragon, and I was wondering if on the way back you might be able to fill me in.”
“What’s her growth rate?”
Growth rate? This was going to be a hard one to answer. Should she not answer? But wait, she knew something. When she rested in the clearing earlier that day, she must have felt twice as big as last time. And if she was resting…
Gleigh laughed. “Well, that’s one way to put it. Fast.”
She got out at a place that was marked by a sign: CORNELL UNIVERSITY: STUDENT HOUSING. She looked around. Many tall buildings and lots of humans milling about. She looked at all the many hide colorations they could take…it must be that fabric integument. Clothing. But they had different colors in their own skins as well. She flexed her hide to give herself a T-shirt and jeans. Then she went away fast when the student she was modeling dropped her books and stared at her.
Mental note: don’t do that in public.
She worked her way across campus to the university library where she found what she was looking for…a computer. This would be useful. What she needed to do was establish an identity. From her experiences in hacking, she learned about elements of identity that gave humans official evidence of who they were and what they had access to. She sat down at a computer and got to work.
First, a license. She couldn’t drive, but what would the DMV know? All she needed was an identity. As long as she could put one in the DMV database, that was all that mattered. From there, she worked her way into other areas. She established a bank account for herself…empty, of course, but it existed. If she put money in it, the bank would notice a hacker. Then she established credit records in different banks. Her fingers flew over the human-sized keyboard as fast as they did over the one at the compound. Nobody knew what she was up to, as she learned the secret of working fast to stealth yourself.
When she left the library,she noticed the uniformed soldiers. At first she mistook them for paintballers, but she tried to look inconspicuous when she saw that the weapons they carried were real live firearms. She had to get outof there. No, wait. She had to find Richard.
She suddenly felt her arm slip. She realized that there must be hide exposed, so she flexed it back again. What was happening? Why couldn’t she hold her form?
Gleigh answered the urgent knocking at his front door. He’d put a Total Carnage game of Marathon 2 on hold. He was making significant progress…why did he have to get interrupted now? Ah well. He answered the door.
“Sallaeah?” He said. He had on a black T-shirt, but still had his camoflage pants on. “What…”
“We’ve gotta talk, Richard.”
“What’s going on?”
She entered the house and shut the door just as two soldiers rolled up in a Jeep.
“We have problems, Richard.”
“Look, I don’t know what’s going on. But I think the military wants a heavy stake in project Draco.”
“I’ll bet, that’s why they were fronting the security…”
“No, I mean a heavy stake. They want the prototype.”
“You mean they want the dragon?”
“Yes. I think they want the dragon. And if they can’t get her, they’ll come after me. I’ve got the gene sequence.”
“You do? Where?”
“You might say that. Look, I need someplace safe to stay.”
“We’ll, here’s as good a place as…”
“No, Richard.” She turned desperate. “Not here. They’ll find me here.”
“Look, I’ve got classes to teach. I can’t just drop everything and run…”
“They may be coming after you too.”
Richard stopped. “Me?”
“The dragon’s out. And they’ll be looking for you as a consultant. But they’ll be looking for information to hunt her down and trank her. Maybe even kill her.”
“But isn’t that…necessary? I mean, we’re talking about a species that’s been extinct for sixteen hundred years…suddenly thrown back into the terran biosphere…”
“We’re not talking about a million years evolution. If she’s dangerous, she’d be a threat by now, and we’d have high-profile mobilizations of the national guard. But until then, they’ll want to find us.”
Oh man, what have I gotten into? Gleigh thought. “Stay here. I’ve got to call someone to cover my classes. Then I’ve got some stuff to pack. Do you have anything?”
“Just cover your ass, and we’ll be out of here. Look, I’m sorry I dragged you down in this…”
“No, don’t blame yourself.” Gleigh started upstairs. “If it helps, you’re not at fault. I didn’t know what I was getting into.”
“Snoopy to Doghouse.” The radio in the Apache crackled. McClellan switched his headset on to respond.
“This is Doghouse. Whatcha got?”
“We’ve found one Possible matching the description of the photo. She’s left a house at a residence not far from the university with some guy who looks like our doctor…”
“Where were they headed?”
“Apparently towards the New York area. We’re following them now.”
“Good. Stay in touch.”
“Yes sir. Snoopy out.”
McClellan switched channels. “Doghouse. We need two vehicular units and two more aerial units. One vehicular unit should be an APC. We are in pursuit of possible lead, so keep everything as low-profile as possible until we’re sure what we have.”
The Explorer hummed along the freeway at a good clip. Gleigh took a moment to wonder what in bloody hell was going on. Why in the world did he just suddenly cut and run? Well, simple. The military was on his ass for some reason. Ludlom said that if there was a danger posed by the dragon’s existence, they’d be responsible for its termination, if it came to that. But if the dragon in fact was out, it might either be reclusive or elusive. In the former case, they could probably find it with the right gear. In the latter case, if the dragon was dangerous, it would have posed a definite high-profile danger, and the national guard would have mobilized to deal with it. “These species have no idea what century they’re in, and will defend themselves, violently if necessary.” That was one line that came to mind from the movie version of Jurassic Park, which Crichton also wrote. Science fiction or no science fiction, that fact was real.
Let them deal with it. It’s not my project, it’s not my problem.
Sallaeah, meanwhile, was looking around nervously.
“What’s wrong?” Gleigh asked.
“We’re being followed.”
Gleigh looked up in his rear view mirror. There was a military technical five cars back.
“Are they following us?”
“Only one way to really find out. Got a computer?”
Funny question to ask, but Gleigh told her he had a laptop in the back seat with a cellular modem. If he went paintballing, he could send his work back into his office through the E-mail system. “Just don’t rack up the charges too much.”
“Don’t worry,” Sallaeah said, undoing her seat belt and climbing in the back. She rooted through the pile of camoflage gear and pushed aside Gleigh’s paint rifle, until she found the case which included his laptop. She opened it up and found it was an AST, one of the new ones with the built-in CD-ROM unit. She booted it up, and found a color screen that displayed the logo for…
Windows! This isn’t good. Still, she found what she was looking for. She found the cellular modem and switched it on, then started the terminal program.
Okay, let’s see what you’re up to.
She worked her password and access into the outgoing string, and with ease, slipped her way into the Cornell network. Then she worked her way into the Compound security system. Her heart sank when she gained access. The virus program that she used must have been defeated enough to get the system back up. The security mainframe was also running other pieces of communication software.
What are you up to? She opened up one of the programs. The system paused for awhile while the system uploaded the visual output to the laptop. The modem was good and fast, so it was only moments before she had a realtime image of the highway. A green designator lay on a boxy shape on a long ribbon of blue thermal false-color. She examined the placement of the vehicles around it, and looked at the cars around the explorer.
“They’re tracking us!” Sallaeah called urgently.
“We’re being tracked! They’ve locked us with something. Some down-looking imaging system…”
“A sattelite? Oh no…”
Okay, if this is an excuse to run, this is it, Gleigh thought. He tried to get to the fast lane. In his rearview mirror, he saw the technical accelerating.
Sallaeah wasn’t about to lose now. If she could get access to the Guardian node, she could get access to her old node in the enclosure. A few keypresses, and she was in. She started her compiler and a debugger program. The latter she slipped into the background of the Guardian node. “Hold on. We may not have to worry about them much longer.”
“Just drive!” Sallaeah worked furiously at the keyboard, trying to get the feel for the compressed key layout and work the compiler program based on the info that she was getting from the debugger. She found the routine that gave access to the sattelite. Cellular phones used sattelites, so if she could hack the repeater that the modem was on…The system began to drag on the work load. She had to do something, so she wrote a quick routine and ran it.
She realized that she forgot to install a set of command codes. She’d have to do this part manually. At least she had access to the sattelite. She watched the debugger for a few more seconds, then fell over when Gleigh swerved. Regaining herself, she punched in a few more commands.
She switched apps and found the designator had moved. If she figured out the satellite routines correctly, the satellite would follow a moving object. However, the side of the road didn’t move. They’d lose the technical if it was using the sattelite.
Gleigh swerved, moved into the lane for the off-ramp, and drove sixty miles per hour into a turn designed for thirty-five mile per hour turns. Sallaeah, Gleigh’s computer, the paintball rifle, and anything else that was in the rear slid sideways as the Explorer threatened to tip. The ramp merged with the flow of traffic, and the centrifugal force left the Explorer to land hard on its right side again.
They looked around for the jeep, but it was nowhere to be seen. “We’ll pick up the highway further along,” Gleigh said. “We’ll get a room in New York. Nice urban area, should buy us some time, if any.”
“I don’t understand it,” McClellan said. “We have the most advanced technology at our disposal, and we’ve gone through everything we know of to track this thing. Whatever she is, she’s so far beaten our best systems and techniques.”
“Sir,” Henry interrupted. “This gets wierder. When I lost the vehicle, I got a notice from the satellite that it had been retasked. Only I didn’t retask the sattelite. I checked over my keystrokes, but I didn’t make a mistake. That satellite had to have been controlled from somewhere else.”
“Somewhere? Where? Don’t people know that we’re using this thing right now?”
“Sir, when a sat gets retasked, there’s an identifier as to who did it. This command that I checked out had no identifier. Someone hacked the satellite.”
Ludlom picked that time to cut in. The timing couldn’t have been better. “I think this would be the best time to mention that our dragon is a hacker.”
McClellan chuckled. “You’ve gotta be kidding me. You said, ‘practically a hacker’ when you told me about her. I didn’t think she was, literally. And you didn’t tell me that.”
“I told Gleigh that she was practically a hacker as well. But nevertheless, the fact still remains. She is capable of defeating security countermeasures, and she can access outside systems. She learns fast. We give her a computer, she learns how to hack in time. Only we didn't know to what extent her capacitites had progressed.”
“So our security systems were hacked from the inside?”
“Probably a virus of some kind. And the sattelite was another hack.”
“We’re going to have to redo our tactics,” Rogers muttered. “We should blasted her out of the sky when we had the chance.”
“Lieutenant, that’s enough,” McClellan cautioned.
“Meanwhile, I think you’d better know something about our friend Gleigh,” Rogers continued. “The guy is an R.O.T.C. scholar. And he’s Irish-born.”
“So, he lied on his application and we got two years of service in exchange for his college tuition,” McClellan said. Not that it happened before, but what was the sense in bothering with that detail now, when it was all water under the bridge compared to the issue at hand.
Rogers continued. “Well, he stayed in because his service record was exemplary. He put in four years work, not two. Three of those years he’d done work at USAMRIID, working on hot viruses like Ebola, as well as some of that stuff we uncovered during the Gulf War. One year he took an appointment at NASA and finished off his service. He worked in exchange for college and grad school.”
“So he’s got experience in the military hot labs. Anything else?”
“That isn’t all, Colonel.” Rogers looked down at the file again. “He’s trained for field work.”
“How well trained?”
“Some basic training, plus he’s adept at using most small arms and a few heavy ones…M-16’s, M-19’s, service pistols, grenade launchers, rocket propelled grenades, and some guided ordinance like Stinger missiles and Dragon Antitank missiles.”
Ludlom was puzzled. “Why would you train a biologist in the use of missiles?”
“Well, when you work with hot viruses, you want to be able to get rid of them with minimal danger.” McClellan explained. “Incendiary rockets, fuel-air bombs. But that’s in extreme cases where the bug is so dangerous that the area is expendable. That’s why we’re well-armed here. In the event that our dragon is dangerous to the population, we’re authorized to capture and/or terminate it using necessary techniques.”
“Look, why don’t we just shoot it and be done with it?” Rogers insisted.
“Lieutenant, our job isn’t to hunt and kill, in case you’ve forgotten. Our job is to control this dragon, if possible, using necessary means. If we can’t control it, we prevent it from being a menace to society. If not that, well, we kill it then.”
“Colonel, maybe there’s one thing you’ve not considered. The legends of the dragon have always depicted a malicious critter. Don’t you think there might be some reason for that?”
“I have. Human fear. Remember our orders, and that’s all I’m going to say.” McClellan picked up the radio. “Henry, I want to get the paperwork through ASAP. We need to put a lookout on Dr. Richard Gleigh. I want to see credit card transactions, electronic transactions, everything, from now on until we find him. I don’t want to be reading his mail, but I do want to know from where he logs on to check it. We have to find him. He’s with that dragon and doesn’t even know it.” Then he turned to Rogers. “All right, here’s what I want you to do. Organize a team. Get yourselves armed and equipped. Remember, the key word here is necessary. Use the parameters we’ve been training with. But I want to see this team put together. Understand?”
“Boy, Sallaeah, don’t you do anything but eat?” Gleigh said. They’d just pulled out of the local McDonalds. He’d ordered a twenty-piece Chicken McNuggets, a large order of fries, and a large drink. Supposedly fattening, but he worked off his cholesterol and fat intake on the paintball field every week. Sallaeah ordered the same thing Gleigh did, times five. She was up to box number three.
“Sorry. I’m just very hungry,” she said happily as she chewed on the next piece of fried chicken. “It’s just this thing I have.”
“Look, not that its any of my business, but there are places you can go that help people with eating disorders. This looks like binge and purge.”
“Is there something wrong?” Sallaeah asked, startled by the sentence.
Gleigh gave Sallaeah a quick look before putting his eyes back on the road. She looks fine to me. I’ve seen some students with eating disorders before. And she doesn’t have the symptoms. “No. Never mind.”
They drove in silence for a few minutes. “So where’s this safe place you told me about?”
“Oh, it’s nothing special. The Embassy Suites in New York City. I called in earlier and booked us a room. Nothing special. But it’s a nice urban area, so it’ll be difficult for them to start sending major military units out to get us. Maybe I can get them to talk first instead of just taking action.” He smiled. “And I got a little protection for us. Just in case. It’s in the glove compartment.”
Sallaeah, curious, opened the glovebox. In it, she saw something that looked very familliar--and very frightening. A pistol. A real pistol. Gleigh reached over and closed the glove compartment. “Not that we’ll need it now. Sorry, maybe I should mention this. I was in the military for a while. The U.S. Army. I have a license for that pistol. I should lock it up in the house in case the car gets stolen, but now I’m glad that I forgot about it until now.”
Sallaeah stared at him. Do I have one of them on my side? Then hunger got the better of her and she went on devouring the chicken.
They arrived at the Embassy Suites hotel, New York City, later that day. The sun was just beginning to set over the tops of the buildings from where they stood. Gleigh put the pistol in his pocket and gave his valet key to the valet as he led Sallaeah inside. Nobody noticed the fact that his companion had a left wing of gold hide. She reformed it back just in time.
This is getting tiring, she thought.
Sallaeah was absolutely astonished. Her face broke out in a smile of pure joy as she took in the lobby and atrium alone. Gleigh wasn’t looking…he had other things on his mind as he got up to the desk.
“Reservation for Richard Gleigh plus one,” he said, sliding his ID and his credit card to the clerk. “Also, I’d like to see the manager.”
“Yes sir. I’ll have your room ready. What should I tell the manager?”
“I’d like to let him know that I’m carrying a concealed weapon, and that I am licensed to do so.” He withdrew his Concealed Weapons Permit and Military Identification. “I want to let him know this so that nobody gets alarmed should something happen. Just so he knows that everything’s legal and nobody panics and calls the police.”
Once that matter was straightened out, Gleigh found Sallaeah lying back on a couch in the lobby, smiling with delight at the surroundings.
“I take it you’ve not been out of the lab much.”
“You could say that,” she said wryly.
“Come on. Let’s get our room.”
The room that was “nothing much” as Gleigh had mentioned earlier was, in fact, the most impressive thing in the world to Sallaeah. Was this how humans lived? Oh, she knew she should live differently. Much differently. But this was incredible compared to what she’d lived in in the lab.
“Richard,” she began, lying face up on the bed. “That place I met you at… is that where you live?”
“Nope, I don’t live at the paintball field,” he said from the bathroom.
Sallaeah giggled. “Not that, I mean that other place.”
“Oh, the house. Yep. It’s my place, the walls are soundproofed, and I can crank my Marathon games and movies as loud as I want. It’s good to have your own place. How about you?”
She grimaced. “Well, I’ve lived a lot at the lab at the Compound.” She paused. How would that make sense. “The dragon’s taken up a lot of time.”
“I’d imagine. With a breakthrough like that, I wouldn’t sleep at home either. During college, I set up a cot in the chemistry lab to sleep the night with an experement I had running.”
He’s the man I met at the Compound. And he’s a human. But I don’t know…he’s shown me so much more that’s real since I’ve been out of that place…I don’t want to leave him…
“Sallaeah? Um, I’ve gotta call the Compound. I’ll…”
“Wait. I haven’t been out of the lab in a couple of years.”
“Sounds like my time in the military.”
“No, I mean, I’ve literally been living in that lab. This dragon thing has been a big deal. I’m glad to get out of there, and I was wondering…well, could we just go out and have a little fun?”
Gleigh looked out from the bathroom. “Hmmm. Well, I wouldn’t suggest going out. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun.”
Embassy Suites New York, fortunately, catered to a lot of tates. Gleigh didn’t mind spending extra for room service over those weeks, providing the security was an issue. The hotel rented movies and video game machines. So, Gleigh decided to show Sallaeah a good time with a friend. He rented a Sega Saturn and some miscellaneous titles, as well as a couple of movies. Sallaeah suggested Raiders of the Lost Ark… she said she hadn’t seen that one in a while.
Sallaeah found that she liked the competitive two-player games such as Virtua Fighter and Mortal Kombat. She beat Gleigh almost every time in Virtua Fighter. Gleigh came back, beating her almost every other time in Mortal Kombat. She said she’d never played either, and Gleigh was a hardcore gamer. They laughed, they had pizza, they laughed some more and beat each other up in virtual space again.
Then Gleigh put in Panzer Dragoon, and Sallaeah was amazed. First, she’d never seen a dragon rendered so well before…of all the time that she’d been in the compound, she’d never done a rendering of herself. Maybe it was because she knew that the techs were watching her, looking for clues that would give them a channel into her soul.… In this game, the dragon looked so real…moved so real. It carried a human on its neck, which fired a small pistol-type device. The dragon fired guided projectiles. And this whole thing moved so smoothly, so gracefully…she didn’t care much for the way the game played, but she could watch that image…
Gleigh couldn’t get past level three. Sallaeah beat the game. She was also a hardcore gamer. They went on to watch Raiders. At the scene where Marian asked Indiana Jones if he’d like a drink at the end, Sallaeah and Gleigh looked at each other. Sallaeah lost control, and she kissed Gleigh passionately.
“Thank you,” she said to a very shocked Richard Gleigh.
“That’s one hell of a way of saying thanks, Sallaeah!” He said, astonished. Then he took another look into those green eyes again. Those emerald-green eyes.
“I’ve seen those eyes before…” He said. “You have one hell of a way of leaving your mark.” He thought he was referring to the eyes on the dragon he saw in the lab…from what he knew, one could engineer parts of an organism to specifications…but what he didn’t know didn’t hurt him. He knew it. Sallaeah knew it. And he took another look into her eyes again…
“Got him!” Henry shouted from the terminal. “Credit card. Visa. Gleigh, Richard. Checked into an Embassy Suites at six-forty-five P.M. with one other guest in the same room.”
Rogers heard first. “All right. We’re on it.” He shouted out into the hall. “Let’s move!”
Gleigh got up that morning early and took a shower. He’d hope his clothes didn’t smell too bad after paintballing and the past day’s experiences evading the military. Sallaeah wanted to know if he had a computer with a cellular modem when she saw the jeep. That led him to believe she could hack. He didn’t have any ethical qualms about hacking, but if her first impulse was to go to a computer, she probably used it to give them some breathing room to get away from that jeep. She had two years experience in the Compound. Gleigh had less than twenty-four hours.
Now the question became, what did she do? If she was messing with their communications rig at the compound, that might have given them some space. Then again, they’d probably be careful to isolate the central tranciever from phone lines. Of course, it wouldn’t do them any good if they were using a sattelite communications rig. Given the right software, a cellular phone could be rigged up in a pinch to use the cell repeater as the uplink.
If they were using a sattelite for communication, why did the soldiers lose them so quickly? Unless they were depenent on that sattelite for some reason…
Infra-red false-color imaging, shot from a satellite. A good way to pick out a hot zone…look for the cold spots or crematorium pyres… It was a rarely-used technique at USAMRIID. A downlooking satellite could be set to pick out anything, a human, a body of heat--even Gleigh’s Explorer.
They’re hard pressed to find us. The question is, why, and to what extent are they pressed?
Sallaeah was up and dressed in a hurry. She was in a rush to start the day, but where would she go? Where would Gleigh go? Well, down to business. He popped his cell phone off of the laptop and pushed the power button. The batteries were dead.
He found his .45, racked the slide, and uncocked the hammer. It made sense now to have it loaded with a round in the chamber, but it didn’t make much sense to have it cocked and ready to fire. He thumbed the clip release and checked the strip of tape he had on the side of the magazine. Blue. This was his clip of nonlethal rounds, beanbag rounds that would hit like a hammer but not go so far as to shred the innards of the target. If he had the .45 as a defensive piece, he’d better have ammo to match. Still, he couldn’t count on the chambered round being a beanbag, nor could he count on a beanbag not killing. So he chambered the round first, then thought about what it would be later. Treat every gun like a loaded gun. Or in this case, loaded and lethal.
Gleigh went to the window. The floor they were on had a view of the building across the street, as well as the street itself. He couldn’t see the sidewalk on this side of the street, but he could see the parked APC.
Suddenly, two things happened. He heard a loud click from the door lock and the lights in the bathroom suddenly went down.
Sallaeah was the first to say anything in the next moment. “Oh no.”
“They’re securing the building,” Gleigh said as he hurried to throw his cellular into his laptop case. “They’ve found us.”
“Credit card, most likely. But these guys wouldn’t look up a credit card transaction unless they really want to hunt me, you, or both of us down.” He gave the cord for the blinds a yank, shutting out the inside light. “And they wouldn’t kill us in an urban area. So something’s up. Right now, the most important thing is to stay here. The less attention we draw to ourselves, the…”
Sallaeah didn’t listen. She ran up to the door and threw her shoulder against it. It shattered under the impact.
“What the…” Gleigh said, tearing after her. Now things were getting truly wierd. Hotel room doors were usually built stronger for security reasons. A sharp kick to the door might break the frame, but not splinter it completely. He ran out into the hall and saw Sallaeah running towards the stairwell. He ran after her. “Sallaeah, wait up!” He quickened his pace to a sprint and found that he was only slowly catching up.
Panting hard, he hung a turn on the stairwell door frame. She was going up, and she’d stopped on the landing for the next floor.
“All right, what the hell is going on?” He demanded, pointing his gun down the way he came with both hands. “I’d suggest you tell me on the way up, because if they’ve locked the place down, they’ll be coming up the stairs.”
They moved at fast-pace upstairs. The hotel had close to twenty floors. “Sallaeah, I’ve only had slight contact with this project. Maybe I’ve seen some stuff, and even if it weren’t secret, nobody’d believe me anyway if I told anyone. Could you maybe have done something that made these people mad?”
Sallaeah had to think on the fly for this one. So what do I tell him? “You know the dragon that we’ve bred?”
“It’s escaped. They’re looking for both of us.”
“Why would they want you? I mean, they could want me because I’m good at exobiology, but why would they want the geneticist?”
“Figure it out.”
They ascended a few more flights of stairs, and then Sallaeah heard the clanging of footsteps on the metal stairs. She broke into a fast run, which made it hard for Gleigh to catch up--a full sprint wasn’t exactly possible for a human on stairs.
He stopped for a second to take a glance down the center of the spiraling rectangular stairwell to look at the progress of the oncoming soldiers. He ducked when he heard the rattle of machine gun fire and saw sparks from the ricochets. If he couldn’t sprint before, the adrenaline now present in his blood allowed for a significant burst of speed which carried him up to the roof access. It must have been locked, because there was a very large hole in the steel plate.
He stopped for a second in shock. She punched a hole in a steel door?! He went through the hole, still mildly warm from the twisting of metal from sudden impact. He saw Sallaeah leaning on the edge, looking down.
“Sallaeah, what the hell are you doing?” He ran as fast as he could to get to the ledge before she did anything foolish…She’s probably dosed up on PCP or something…people on PCP could break handcuffs like they were made of tissue paper, they could probably go through a steel door…but if she thinks she can fly…
“Sallaeah, what is going on here?” He said. “Look, we can negotiate with these guys. I’m a reserve officer, they should listen to me.”
Sallaeah continued to look over the edge at the traffic below.
“Sallaeah, please look at me.”
She did. She turned her head. Gleigh took a look at those green eyes. The same green eyes he saw on the paintball field…he knew where they came from when he saw the pupils distort, sharpen off at edges, forming a vertical slit in each eye. He saw her right arm, clothing and all, suddenly become more fluid, the fingernails elongating and filling out, and her skin suddenly turning a bright, smooth gold.
The soldiers began to come through the hole in the door…
Before he had time to even say one word, that same right arm shoved him over the edge.
He couldn’t even scream, he was so terrified. Plummeting down twenty stories to hit the pavement put his mind on hold. He held onto his Colt, as if his fingers wouldn’t loosen to let it go. The wind screamed in his ears as the parallel lines of sidewalk spread apart and the street got very big. Time slowed down as he approached terminal velocity.
What unlocked his mind was the familliar, firm grip of a hand on his left thigh, and the alien yet familliar grip of a clawed hand on his right. He saw the blond hair come up between his legs.
Sallaeah, going on instinct to guide her planned wish, let the pliability of her form go. She seemed to feel larger than the last time she was normalized. Her head formed out, her neck elongated, and that wonderful tapering crest that felt so good in the wind the last time she flew was back once more. She flexed her shoulders, found her wings were back, and spread them fast. She screamed her battle cry which came out a roar in her normal body, as she beat her wings to accelerate their descent. Then she mustered her strength to power herself into a turn that nearly dislodged Gleigh before she levelled out at four floors above ground level.
On the roof, Rogers ordered his men to fire. The rifles clacked rapid-fire bursts as the soldiers tried hard to aim at the fast-moving target. Sallaeah broke into a hard right to fly the turn at close to fifty miles per hour.
Rogers picked up his radio. “Snoopy one and two, this is doghouse. Ground has lost Red Baron. She’s moving fast. Eastbound”
“Copy,” he recieved from Snoopy one.
“Got it.” Snoopy two.
Gleigh’s mind spun as he tried to get a handle on the situation. What in bloody hell just happened? Well, let’s see. I’ve just been seduced by someone I think is an important part of project Draco. Then I find out that this person is project Draco. Then I get pushed off the roof and saved by said project in the same fifteen seconds, and I’m now cruising over third avenue in the middle of New York City on top of a dragon, I’m in big trouble with the military, and I’m probably exceeding the speed limit by, oh, twenty.
“Hang on,” he heard the dragon say. Yes, the voice was the same. Almost identical, but slightly deeper and more powerful, like it had been spoken out of an amplified speaker.
“I’m not doing anything else…whoaaa!” Sallaeah broke into a sharp left now. Below him, cars were honking. He heard some crash. He was surprised to see he was still holding his pistol. The buildings streaked by at high speed. “Sallaeah, slow down!”
“I can’t slow down. I’ll fall. You’ll fall. And it’ll hurt when we hit the cars.”
Gleigh still couldn’t believe he was doing this. He squeezed harder with his legs, hoping to stay on better. “Sallaeah, this isn’t what I had in mind by negotiating. I meant that I’m a reserve officer, and there are certain regs to be followed.”
“They don’t want a reserve officer. They want someone who’ll tell them whether I live or die.” She stated this very plainly. “Now hold on!”
Sharp left. “Well, geez, you could have killed me before this…”
“Did it ever occour to you, Richard, that maybe I don’t like killing?” She rolled a little to account for a bit of drift. “Did it ever occour to you that maybe I like humans for something other than food? Or have you too, become seduced by the fairy-tale stereotypes that I read about on the web?”
Geez, I just made a slight observation on your tactics, no need to bite my head off…figuratively speaking.
“Anyway,” she continued, “I needed someone I thought I could trust.”
“Look, can we talk about this later? I need a phone or something. I gotta call someone and get this straigtened out.”
“Are you nuts?” Sallaeah said. “With all those troops around, geared up to trace you wherever you go? You need a new personal identification number on your cell phone, Richard. They’ll find you if you don’t.”
“How’d you know about stuff like that?”
“Richard, I lived my life around a computer. I learned everything about it and then some. I know what I’m doing. Hang on.”
Gleigh did, again, as she pitched up and beat skyward. Then Sallaeah’s crest rose like the hair would on a cat when it gets agitated.
“Helicopters,” she said.
Gleigh looked around his field of vision, turning his head to look left and right, then he looked over his shoulder and saw them. Two helos, apparently approaching at high speed. From the winglets on their sides and the underside-mounted chaingun, he could make them out to be AH-64’s. Apache helicopters. From this distance, it looked like they carried two rocket pods and two missile racks.
A puff of smoke came from one of the tubular rocket pods on one of the Apaches, and Gleigh was sure he could hear something whizz past his ear.
“No!” He screamed, waving his arms to get their attention. “You idiots! Sallaeah, could you just bank left and right? Get their attention?”
“What for? They’re shooting at us!”
“What for? They’re firing at us over a populated area!”
Another shot barely missed Sallaeah’s left wing.
Sallaeah took a sharp inward turn toward the Apaches. She beat her wings energetically, and they rushed at the oncoming choppers. She rolled out of the sights of the chaingun as it started firing. Gleigh grabbed the sheer crest on her neck and held on, nearly dropping his .45.
“What the hell are you doing?” He yelled over the roar of engines. Sallaeah was half-hovering, beating to keep aloft at such a slow rate of speed. Gleigh yelled and waved his arms, hoping to get the attention of the pilot. Sallaeah was about twenty feet from the nearest Apache, and she couldn’t get any closer or her wings would get chewed up in the main rotor.
Not that Gleigh’s yelling would have mattered anyway. The pilot swiveled the chopper around. Sallaeah raised her head and without knowing what she was doing until she did it, belched a small fireball into the face of the pilot. Then she dove under the chopper towards the skyline again.
“Aw, did you have to do that?” Gleigh said.
“I didn’t know I was going to do it until I did it,” Sallaeah replied, angling her approach so she wouldn’t clip herself on a building.
Gleigh had to admit, however, that her move wasn’t entirely stupid. The Apaches had an infra-red sighting system in the nose that enabled targeting for the rockets and machine guns. The missiles the Apache took were Hellfire missiles, which were also heat-seekers. A small blast of flame in front of the cockpit wouldn’t necessarily damage much, but it would render them blind long enough for them to get away.
Meanwhile, the choppers, capable of flying at two hundred miles per hour, took off after them. New York City had wide streets, which meant that if Sallaeah had room to manuver, so did the choppers. And these guys weren’t going to stop to negotiate.
One of the Apaches fired off another rocket. Gleigh kept a mental track. Between the two helos, they had about eighty-four rockets and sixteen missiles, as well as twelve thousand rounds of ammunition. Gleigh had about fifteen shots. He decided to use a couple of them. He felt around in his pocket for an unmarked clip. This one contained normal .45 explosive-point rounds. Armor-piercers. Illegal on the open market but they can be had by active military personnel. Gleigh still had a stash at his house.
He ejected the clip into his hand, shoved it in his pocket, and put the armor-piercers in. He racked the slide, fell backwards onto Sallaeah’s shoulders, and rolled over so he was prone.
“What are you doing?” Sallaeah asked.
“Trying to make them blind,” Gleigh replied. “Just don’t roll too hard. I’m trying to go for their sights without hitting something that would bring the choppers down.”
The helos were flying straight. If they were using rockets or missiles, they could only hit Sallaeah or Gleigh from a narrow angle. That meant Gleigh had an easier shot than he thought. He lined up post and bead and put the sight on the front of the first Apache. Sallaeah jolted suddenly as he pulled the trigger. He saw the left front landing wheel deflate. He swore and aimed again at the nose, where the sighting systems would be. He pulled the trigger.
“Ground, this is Snoopy one. Snoopy two’s just lost his sighting. Looks like Gleigh’s shooting back at us.”
Rogers swore and barked into his radio. “Then have Snoopy two use his missiles! You have hellfires, use those!”
“Sir, we’re in the middle of…”
“That’s an order! If you get a clear shot, use the missiles!”
“One down. One to go.” Gleigh lined up the next one in his sight.
Meanwhile, Sallaeah kept her flight path steady until she saw that the street she was on would be ending very soon. She’d have to turn left or right to avoid the building up ahead. She swore as she rolled for the turn. Gleigh, who was already precariously positioned, rolled towards the low wing, dropping his .45 and grabbing for something fixed. Sallaeah rolled out of the turn, and Gleigh found himself rolling back the other way, over her shoulders again, looking for something to stop on before he ran out of wing. As he rolled over the edge, he found a grip on a finger bone of the outward part of the wing.
The Apache that Gleigh didn’t hit fired another rocket. Gleigh could see this one, despite the fact that it was moving so fast. It shot between his legs. Gleigh’s eyes went wide and he tried to pull himself up.
Sallaeah was having a difficult time of things. With Gleigh out on her left wing like that, maintaining her path wasn’t easy. She had to flap her right wing, then roll to counter the turn. Flap, roll. Flap, roll. And the choppers were gaining. She rolled over and nosed down, climbing for a while, but flipping Gleigh over from a position hanging off of her left wing to a position on top of it. She stalled herself at the top of her climb and throwing her tail to the sky, flipped herself over. She dove, but it wasn’t a powerful enough dive to build up speed. She was heading for the chopper from above. She rolled again, Gleigh rolled in towards her shoulders, and she felt fire across her chest. She roared. Gleigh managed to right himself and put himself back on her neck as she beat higher. She swung her head to look at her chest and saw it was slashed up. Probably from those rotor blades.
“We’ve gotta land,” he said.
“We can’t. We’ll be easy hits.”
Gleigh thought a moment. In his years at USAMRIID, working in the hot zones, working in the field, the choppers could land most anywhere. In this situation, the dragon was about as big across in terms of wingspan, if not more so, so he couldn’t chance a spot where Sallaeah could land but the Apaches could not.
But where could the Apaches not go?
“Airport!” Gleigh said. “I’ve got an idea. Go to the airport. Give us some air.”
“You got it,” she said, and ascended.
“Off to your right there. You see that big field with all the strips on it? That’s it.”
“All right. We go there. Then what?”
“Let’s get there first.” They flew out to the airport, the choppers hot on Sallaeah’s tail. While en route, they fired off a couple of rockets. Then one apparently thought he had a clear shot and fired a missile. Gleigh ducked and Sallaeah dove. The missile was designed to seek heat and strike down airplanes, not dragons. Sallaeah was too manuverable for a missile to hit, so Gleigh found, as she jinked to lose the flying bomb.
“Remind me to talk to McClellan about his personnel,” Gleigh muttered.
The helo was close. Maybe one or two hundred yards. With their weapons, they could easily hit them…but not while one was blind and both were restricted to dumbfire rounds. Another shot flew over Sallaeah’s wing.
With an apocalyptic roar, an L-1011 jet plane nearly missed them as Sallaeah spun and rolled in the wash it left behind. The helo held back, unable to enter the restricted airspace.
“Find a hangar,” Gleigh said, and pointed to indicate the row of hangars. “Preferrably an empty one. If you can do that little trick where you turn yourself into a human again, we can lose them.”
“Then we get the hell out of here. Get on a plane for somewhere. Anywhere. Maybe out of the country. My military ID will work for a passport if I can get it activated. For you, however…it’ll be tricky. We’ll have to get a computer somewhere so we can deal with that. How fast can you do identities?”
“I’ve got myself a DMV record already.”
“Fine. I hope my computer access still works, because we’ll need to get my stuff activated again. And I’ll need to be on a special op if I’m going to make this plan work.”
“Special op? What’s the plan?”
“Special operation. A mission. You know, like saving your hide?”
Sallaeah snorted, then resigned herself to the truth. She had to admit, having a human on her side was an advantage, to say the least. “You do have a point. Think it’ll work?”
“Long enough for us to get to a safe place, I hope.”
|The Selkie and the Blacksmith||Unicorn, M.D.|