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Tunnel Snake & Fire Lizard

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Disclaimer:

 

This is a work of Fan Fiction meant solely for the entertainment of the reader. This work is not intended in any way to usurp the ownership or infringe on the copyrighted or trademarked material and works of Pern (owned by Anne McCaffrey and family), Star Trek (owned by Paramount Studios), Darkover (owned by the estate of Marrion Zimmer Bradely), or the BlackMoon series (owned by Terrell Vance). The author of this work is not authorized by any of the mentioned authorities to make use of any of the material found here and assumes full responsibility for the following. Every effort has been made to ensure that the use of the above named copyrighted material is currently permitted for use in Fan Fiction settings. I also state that this material is not in any way being used to generate revenue for myself.

I am a fan of the above named authors, and although this is a Crossover work of Fan Fiction, I have made every effort to stay within the canons for all the affected copyrighted worlds with the exception of the actual crossover between them. I sincerely hope you, the reader, will not be disappointed.

A non-spoiler list of specific ownership of items:

The ship and crew of Enterprise , NX-01, USS Enterprise , NCC-1701, and other characters and created by the authorized agents of Paramount Studios for the Star Trek franchise belong to Paramount Studios.

The ship and crew of the Panthro , including the avatar monitors, as well as other off-Pern vessels and crew not otherwise belonging to Paramount Studios (ie Star Trek), and characters from the BlackMoon series belongs to Terrell Vance.

The world of Cotman IV (aka Darkover) and all characters and items from the Darkover series belong to the estate of Marion Zimmer Bradely.

All characters native to and/or born on Pern created by Anne McCaffrey and including those characters created by me, belong to Anne McCaffrey. She's free and welcome to use and/or kill off any and all of them :D

Also, there are lyrics to songs and references to works of fiction, too numerous to mention here at the present, that appear as "window-dressing," and are not utilized as integral parts of the story. Every effort is made to acknowledge the source within the text of this story as soon as feasibly possible. Likewise, there is no intention to usurp or infringe on the ownership/credits/origin/copyright of such material.

 

How is that for a Disclaimer?

 

Introduction:

 

In the distant past, before humans left their home to travel among the stars, several thousands of individuals were removed from each of eight different worlds. Some of those were modified by their captors, and returned to their respective home planets unaware of what transpired--knowing only that they had been changed.

Later, as humans and other species ventured forth to explore the galaxy, the augmented followed, watching how their native brethren interacted with each other--the shocks of discovery, the conflicts that arose, and the alliances that inevitably formed--just as their makers had intended. And eventually, some of those modified individuals began to encounter one another and a new source of conflicts arose. In a desperate effort to avoid the terrible fighting, a few of the augmented sought refuge by hiding in the remote and far reaches of explored space. In time, the fighting among the augmented ended, but not before much damage had been done. And in the End, a large group of the augmented was driven out from their small corner of the galaxy.

Now, over two millennia later, they have returned to reclaim one of their own from an isolated, lost, and forgotten colony world...called Pern....

 

Part 1:

 

Present Pass, 13.4.14, Southern Continent:

     Young Jaxom stared in fascination at the immense jungle over which Ruth soared, accompanied by a virtual cloud of fire-lizards. They kept the coast in sight, only a couple hundred dragon-lengths away. But from this height of three hundred dragon-lengths, the jungle still extended to the horizon.

     "All this land and totally untouched by Thread!" he exclaimed. Although the dragonriders and the Masterfarmer craft had learned the reason for this miracle, it still boggled Jaxom's mind at how many grubs it must take to ensure the land's protection.

     The Benden Weyrleaders Lessa and F'lar had assured dragonrider, holder, and craftsman alike that the dragons would still fly to protect the holds even after the North was as grub protected as Southern. Jaxom wasn't worried, however. He was here, exploring, as he knew several other riders must be, just to see just how HUGE this place was. As he knew, they, like he, weren't supposed to be here. This was the domain of the Oldtimers, but they never left their weyrs, certainly not to come out this far east.

     Was that a boom of thunder? he wondered, looking about for the source of the sound. It confused him that there wasn't a cloud in the sky, and it only occurred once.

     Jaxom? Ruth said to him, changing his flight suddenly to descend. Who's that? Jaxom looked where his white dragon had indicated, and was as puzzled as his weyrmate.

     On a rocky outcrop poking above the trees, they saw what they first thought was a long-haired woman climbing the cliffs, inching for a cavern just below the top. Jaxom soon saw it was a man when he sighted the scraggly beard. And why was he wearing only robes? Jaxom was very surprised, for everyone who came to Southern knew the dangers lurking in these jungles.

     Indeed, only this morning, Jaxom and Ruth had an encounter with some of the dangerous felines roaming the continent. They had only just escaped without a scratch and Jaxom fervently hoped that none of the Weyrleaders would ever find out about that! He was supposed to be winging it around Ruatha, NOT flitting about in the Southern Continent!

     "Did some felines chase him up here?" Jaxom wondered aloud as they dove to provide assistance. He was amazed, for the man didn't even have any shoes! The beasts must have driven him right out of his tent, nearly naked!

     I don't sense any, Ruth said, confused. He's not in fear because of any felines, only in falling. He seems intent upon reaching the cave.

     Just then, several rocks broke from under the man's footing, starting an avalanche that soon involved the entire cliff face. What followed, Jaxom could swear, happened in slow motion, giving him time to remember everything in detail, but not the means to act upon his perceptions.

     "Frack!" Jaxom heard the man exclaim with disgust rather than terror. He went downstream with the rocks, and Jaxom surely thought he was about to see him die. But amazingly, instead of being tangled up in the debris descending the slope, the man kept clear of the worst of the avalanche by leaping from one large boulder to another, slowing his progression. But it only afforded the man a few more moments to live, for the steep angled slide was pouring over a shear precipice more than ten dragonlengths high.

     Ruth made full use of those few moments, getting past the man to hover just beyond the rock fall. But they both felt helpless as the man continued to approach. The debris would sweep him over the final edge and to his doom. He couldn't see the dragon and his rider waiting below, as he needed to watch the boulders raining down upon him. Nor would he be able to see the sheer drop that would soon be the end of his unorthodox manner of self-preservation.

     Somehow, the man seemed to sense the very edge of the cliff and made a tremendous leap backwards away from the avalanche, spinning in mid-air, and spreading his arms out. Had he been a dragon, his wings would have caught the air and he would have flown away in safety...had he been a dragon.

     Instead, the man's scowling face suddenly expressed shock and horror when he saw he was about to collide with Ruth. So much so, that Jaxom actually heard him hiss just before the impact, not unlike those felines he and Ruth had fought this morning.

     Slamming into the base of Ruth's neck belly first, he stuck, and Jaxom couldn't help but compare the man's grip on Ruth's neck ridges to those cat claws that had nearly caught his dragon earlier.

     Ruth, surprised his rescue attempt actually worked, veered away from the rock slide, tilting to keep the man on his body, and to give Jaxom a chance to get a grip on him and haul him in. Only Jaxom couldn't get the man to let go of Ruth's neck ridges.

     "Come on!" Jaxom yelled, gripping the man's right wrist and arm with both hands. "You've got to climb up behind the saddle!" The man continued his wide-eyed stare over the dragon's neck, doubtlessly petrified of his close demise.

     "Flaming shit!" the man finally hissed, blinking back to reality. "That could've been ugly! That could've been real ugly!"

     "Hurry up!" Jaxom coaxed. "Ruth can't keep this turning for long!" Already, the dragon's strong right turn was swinging his flight back to the outcropping and the avalanche.

     The man suddenly looked over Ruth, the surrounding fire-lizards, noting the direction of their flight, Jaxom, the saddle, the straps, and how his right foot had somehow found purchase in those very same bands holding the saddle in place. In a split second, Jaxom no longer had to struggle to pull the man up. Rather, the man's quick move to climb into the saddle behind the rider caused Jaxom to momentarily lose his balance.

     "Have your dragon tighten the turn, then pull out of the dive when he stalls," the man instructed, surprising the Lord Holder. Only experienced dragonriders knew that very complicated maneuver. Ruth did so, and they soared out over the trees, only a hand's breadth from the branches. Very quickly, the white dragon gained altitude by pumping his wings and was looking for a place to land.

     "I'm Ryuu," the man cheerfully introduced himself, holding his hand out to Jaxom. "Many thanks for the save, though it was totally unexpected. I never saw you there!"

     Jaxom thought it an odd way of thanking him. His smile seemed genuine.

     "What were you doing there?" Jaxom asked, shaking Ryuu's hand. For a moment, he wondered if he had interrupted a dragonless rider's suicide, but such a person wouldn't be smiling at such a save. Besides, there would be much easier ways of killing one's self.

     "Looking for a--friend," Ryuu said, his smile faded with the pause. He looked about at the three-dozen companions zipping about Ruth, frowning to himself. "A relative, actually."

     "A missing relative?" Jaxom exclaimed. "Out here? I hope he or she hasn't been missing long. This area's full of wild felines. Ruth and I first thought you had been chased up the cliffs by them." The Lord Holder glanced about, looking to see if he could spot Ryuu's missing relative. The stranger looked at Jaxom for several moments before replying.

     "No," Ryuu slowly said, pulling a slim pack from a pocket. He flipped it open and held it over Ruth's hide, hidden from Jaxom's sight. "I've not had any trouble with the big cats."

 

Fort Hold Gather:

     "I just know he's going to get in trouble dressed like that!" Sebell heard one of the strangers tell her companion. She was a very attractive individual, looking to be barely out of her teens with straight black hair, almond eyes, and very exotic features that made it difficult for him to guess her Hold.

     "You know Ryuu," said the other woman, also a very attractive young woman, but blonde and with an alluring sultry face. "He can't resist the urge to get people to stare. But he's sure to be disappointed at missing all these dragon motifs on sale in these stalls!" she laughed.

     What had attracted Sebell's attention weren't their beauty, which was considerable, but their strange accent, which was barely understandable, and their manner of dress. No hold colors, although on first glance, their fabric looked like everyone else's. It soon became apparent, however, they were strangers, and not just from out of the local holds, but strange: their walk, their manner of dress, their odd speech, and their questioning everyone at the gather. Especially their questions.

     As Sebell followed them off to the side, he noticed that others had noticed them also. Several people in fact. A group of seven rough looking individuals were following the oblivious women. Add to that, Sebell also noted that a rather large, red haired man shadowed them from the other side and had paid attention to both the men and Sebell. Sebell knew he was going to have a headache soon. This was too early in the morning for the likes of these to be up to no good, and with no riders about to help.

     "Well what the hell is he doing down there?" the first woman complained. "We're supposed to be finding this last character, and if I were him, I sure wouldn't be hiding out in such a place!"

     "Well, you're not him," the blonde woman replied, sounding as if this was an old argument they were having. "And why it's taking so long to find him is that we're not this guy. We can't anticipate where he's hiding, so we have to look everywhere!"

     "That's crazy!" the black haired woman spat. "It'll take forever to find him. We've already received the recall--" Then a look of sudden horror came upon her face. "Oh, my Gosh!" she said. Grabbing her companion's arm, she pointed. The blonde also reacted with surprise, and looked to be in a near panic.

     Sebell glanced ahead, but only saw MasterHarper Robinton's new journeyman, Menolly, accompanied by her fair of fire-lizards swirling above her. He frowned at how these two were reacting towards the sight. Could they have given Menolly trouble in the past? He remembered those holder ladies who had pestered the poor girl the first weeks of her arriving in the hall.

     "We've got to warn the others!" Sebell heard the blonde exclaim. "Those things can hear us!"

     "Are you certain?" the first one asked, scared and unsure.

     "Can't you feel it?" her companion asked, grabbing her arm and pulling her back. Towards the men that had been following.

     Uh-oh! Sebell thought, summoning Kimi, his own fire-lizard queen, to call in the gather forces. He had hoped to wait until the ruffians had started their own attack on the women to catch this gang in the act. That was supposed to be at a place and time of the ruffians' choosing, with Sebell's forces waiting to pounce, but it looked as though these two future victims were about to disrupt everyone's plans. The women's retreat catapulted them among the surprised group of men.

     "Whoa, there, pretty ladies!" one of them cried out, grabbing the blonde's arm, halting their rush. Another had grabbed the black hair as well. "What's the rush? You don't need to go any further. We're here."

     "Let go of us!" the dark haired shouted. "We've got to get out of here!"

     "Sure," the man holding her said. "We know just the--" He stopped suddenly, with eyes bugging out and gasping in pain. Sebell didn't see it land, but he heard the blow, and he noted several people standing about winced in sympathy. But he did see the big red hair man leaping into the fray.

     "WOLF!" the blonde yelled when his feet connected with two of the ruffians' faces, dropping them. "DRAGONS! REAL DRAGONS!" she finished what she was yelling. The big red haired man froze in the act of getting to his feet.

     "What?" he shouted. The pause gave one of the other ruffians time to land a punch on Red's jaw. He staggered, but then shook it off and his blue eyes got big.

     Sebell rushed forward to help at last, but by the time he got there, Red had closed with his attacker, landed at least five blows from his hands and feet, and the outlaw was down. Sebell blinked when Red suddenly whirled on him, ready to continue the fight with a new opponent. That's when Sebell noticed that all the other ruffians were also kayoed.

     "Whoa!" Sebell called, holding up his hands. "I'm Harper!"

     Just then, a full wing of fire-lizards was diving into the scene. Red visibly paled, looking at them.

     "NO!" one of the women screamed and the fire-lizards suddenly all went between.

     "What the--?" Sebell got out, looking where his vanished reinforcements weren't anymore.

     He looked back at the three only to see them disappearing into the crowd at a full run.

     Several guards converged upon the area, materializing from among the confused crowd of gatherers, some of them from the general vicinity of where the three had escaped. Evidently, they hadn't seen the trio.

     Sebell knew he was going to have a headache soon.

     Menolly arrived at that moment along with Mirrim. Beauty, her gold fire-lizard queen was wrapped about her neck, eyes whirling rapidly. Two of Mirrim's three were on either shoulder and the third was flapping above, screeching hysterically.

     "Sebell?" she inquired, looking about in confusion. "What's going on? Beauty and the others launched off, then suddenly, she's back."

     Kimi showed up just then, settling on his shoulder. Her eyes were also whirling wildly, but her confused chirp totally baffled him.

     "What do you mean, 'is everything okay?'" he all but shouted at his queen. "Where the blazes did you go?"

     "What?" an astonished Menolly suddenly asked her gold fire-lizard. "Who asked you to go away?"

 

Southern Continent:

     Ryuu stepped off Ruth as soon as they landed and stared intently at the white dragon from a few paces away. Jaxom had a hard time reading the man's expression. He had a hard time reading Ruth's as well. A kind of wariness had come over the both of them as they watched each other.

     "Ryuu?" Jaxom inquired. "Is anything wrong?" Just to be on the safe side, Jaxom unclipped the fastener holding his belt knife. He had never seen anyone behave like this around a dragon before, certainly not after being rescued like that. Nor had he ever heard of a dragon behaving like his did now. He couldn't take the chance the man might be as crazed and dangerous as those big felines.

     Despite his apparent age of mid twenties, the man wasn't much taller than the young Lord Holder. Ryuu was a thinly built man, again only slightly heavier than Jaxom. Ryuu's eyes also had a youthful look, but his wary examination of Ruth hinted at considerable experience.

     Ruth suddenly warbled in confusion, looking northeast. The fire-lizards perched in the trees also chirped their puzzlement. Ryuu snorted. He muttered something that Jaxom couldn't catch. Then he smiled and visibly relaxed when Ruth looked back at the stranger.

     "Well I do wish to thank you, Ruth and Lord Jaxom, for saving me--" Ryuu paused to regard the dragon's rider, "--a rather painful experience. I hope I didn't hurt him by landing on him that way."

     Jaxom stared in confusion, further baffled by Ruth bringing his muzzle to be petted by the stranger. The man bent down and gently kissed Ruth's nose and stood to scratch his dragon on the eye ridges, just the way Ruth liked it.

     "So might I inquire if you're a dragonrider?" Jaxom asked. The man arched his eyebrow toward him in a return inquiry.

     "Now that's an interesting question," Ryuu replied slightly smirking. "Why would you think I'm a dragon--rider?" Again, another one of those strange pauses.

     "Most people, riders included, would be about to pass out with the shakes after a save like that," Jaxom pointed out. "Although a few of us have composure like yours. Not many." Ryuu absently shrugged his shoulders while giving his full attention to the white dragon. His eyes seemed to be glazing over just as Ruth's were.

     "I've been in worse scrapes," he muttered. "Hmm, curious," Ryuu muttered as he petted the white. "Like nothing I've ever felt before. Ruth's hide has such an interesting texture."

     "But you also knew a very tough maneuver used mostly by blues and greens," Jaxom said, trying to keep the conversation on the puzzle Ryuu presented.

     The man seemed to go blank for a moment in reference to the colors of the smallest dragons. He glanced at the surrounding fair of tiny dragons and comprehension dawned on his face. Then he looked at the large one he was petting.

     "And whites, too, it would seem," Ryuu reverently supplied still lovingly working on Ruth's eye ridges. The dragon's eyes had completely lidded over and loudly voiced his pleasure at the treatment.

     "No, I'm not a--rider," Ryuu said, giving Ruth a final scratch and a kiss to his eye ridges. Jaxom felt as though he picked up a touch of regret in Ryuu's voice. The man began walking away, intending to go back into the jungle.

     "Take good care of your friend, Lord Jaxom," Ryuu was saying as he departed. "He's a real beauty. I don't think you could find a better dragon."

     "You'd better let me get you to a healer," Jaxom called out, noting Ryuu hadn't escaped the avalanche totally unscathed. There were several cuts and bruises on Ryuu's arms and legs, and he was walking with a limp, favoring his left foot that had a nasty scrape. "Those wounds will be septic in no time in this jungle." Ryuu paused to consider one of the scrapes on his right forearm.

     "It's nothing," he said, resuming his walk. "I've got to find someone."

     "Can I help?" Jaxom asked, not wanting someone he'd just saved to die from his own neglect. "You said it was a relative? What's his name? Or is it her?"

     "Don't know," Ryuu said, turning to give him an amused grin. "I'll know when I see him. Or her." Then he was gone.

     He'd make a good rider, Ruth said, his eyes whirling green. Jaxom looked at his dragon in astonished trepidation.

     "He'd make a crazy one!" Jaxom said. "Just what went on with you two when we landed?"

     We were talking, Ruth said.

     "Talking?" Jaxom exclaimed. "He can hear you? What about?"

     I think he can hear all of us, Ruth said. I heard someone bespeak him and he replied. I think they can hear us, too.

     "Who called him?" Jaxom asked, surprised. The only ones he knew that could speak to all dragons were Lessa and Brekke. And at a distance? And to other people? He had never heard of that!

     I don't know, Ruth replied. Someone called him to say 'Ryuu! Everyone! There are dragons here! They can hear us!' and Ryuu said, 'Yes, thanks. I think I just found some.' Isn't that odd? he asked Jaxom, tilting his head.

     "From what I've been allowed to hear between you dragons, no," Jaxom muttered. "Between people, I'd have to say yes."

 

Ista Hold:

     The sun and weather was much like the home on his native world. Hot, with mild humidity due to the sea breezes, bright clear blue skies, just ripe for stretching one's wings and soaring high above the land and ocean.

     Only the body that T'khill possessed had no pinioned wings, no feathers covering his skin to be tugged by the breeze, and no hollow bones to lighten his frame. And his nearly useless eyes had trouble making out even large objects only just ten thousand horamters away, whereas he'd normally be able to read a book that far away. He was uncomfortably distressed in the very environment in which he should feel most at home. It made him feel soiled as every effort, including simply standing still. And it made rivers of liquid pour from places he'd rather not think about. And his sweat made him stink, even to his own scent-blind human nostrils.

     "I think I chose unwisely," he muttered to M'leer standing beside him.

     "Q'Rrt?" she asked, surprised. "How so?" He glanced at the slim young woman. In human standards, would this be attractive? he wondered. One could never tell about mammalian aesthetic parameters. But then, this wasn't M'leer's native form, either. Hers was felinoid. And while still below his native abilities, her species did possess senses and abilities more on par with what he was used to.

     "I expected this environment to be more to my liking," he said, looking east out over the sea. "And had I my native form, it would be so. However, this..." he gestured to his body, leaving the sentence unfinished.

     "Well, therre might be imprrovement," she said. "It looks to be a storrm coming. It should cool things off a bit." Glancing at her, he considered how she seemed to be able to carry much of her feline nature over to whatever form she took, unlike everyone else. Her speech pattern, the set of her eyes, her walk.

     Just then, they heard Puma send out, telepathically, 'Ryuu! Everyone! There are dragons here! They can hear us!' She sounded panicked.

     'Yeah, thanks. I think I just found some,' Ryuu responded with his own broadcast. He sounded sarcastic.

     "What was that about?" T'khill and M'leer asked each other. Then M'leer chuckled.

     "Leave it Rryuu to find cats orr drragons wherreeverr we go," she said.

     "Don't you find his obsessions somewhat--odd?" he asked. She shrugged her shoulders.

     "Everryone has to have theirr hobby," M'leer muttered. "I met him about a centurry-and-a-half beforre you did. Back then, I found him--enterrtaining," she finished with a wispy smile. Then she frowned at the storm.

     "Isn't that's an odd behaviorr forr the lightning to take?" she asked. T'khill steadied his eyes on the scene, cursing such useless human senses. If it weren't for Ryuu's order to stay human on the colony, he would've already identified what was going on when the clouds first appeared on the horizon. Instead, he had to wait for the storm to get right on top of...

     "That's no storm!" he suddenly announced. "And those must be Ryuu's dragons!"

     "They'rre flaming that stuff!" M'leer exclaimed.

     "Come on!" T'khill shouted, grabbing her arm. "We've got to find shelter!" They took off running for the settlement they had scoped out the last couple of days.

     As they approached, they saw the closed doors of the provincial capitol open and several soldiers march out, armed with what looked like flame-throwers.

     "Got caught out in Fall, eh?" the leader of the troops asked when they slowed their approach.

     "Yes," T'khill said, smiling stiffly. He wasn't used to having facial muscles in those locations, yet. "I'm afraid so. My ma--wife and I were hoping to take shelter here."

     "Talk with my Ward Holder inside," the man said, pointing.

     "Thank you, sirr," M'leer said. "And yourr name?"

     "My! You have such a pretty sounding voice!" he exclaimed. "I've never heard that accent before! I'm Warbret, Lord Holder of Ista. Where are you folk from?"

     "High Rreaches," M'leer spoke up before T'khill could respond. He gave her a puzzled look.

     "I am T'khill and this is my wife, M'leer," T'khill said, trying to recover the proper order of introductions.

     "Well, T'khill, unfortunately, I'm going to be a little--" Warbret stopped and looked around in confusion. "Could I ask you where's your dragon? And what did you say you're wife's name is, again?"

 

Harperhall:

     Sebell, Menolly, and Mirrim stood before Robinton giving their report.

     "At first, I thought she was shouting 'Wolf' in panic," Sebell said, concluding. "Only the more I look back, that could've been big Red's name. The only other name I heard them mention was someone apparently not there called 'Ryuu'."

     "To be honest, I have an odd feeling they had plans of their own that included those ruffians," Sebell added as Robinton digested the news. "It was when they saw Menolly that those women panicked and tossed everyone's plans, theirs included, into the necessary."

     "Maybe it wasn't me," Menolly said, shaking her head as she looked at the sketches of the three. She didn't recognize them. "It could've been Mirrim. She was with me the whole time."

     "Nobody I ever saw before," Mirrim said, looking equally helpless.

     "I don't think it was either of you," Robinton said, stroking his bronze sitting on his lap. "He," the MasterHarper stressed, indicating his fire-lizard, "went to aid you same as Menolly's and Mirrim's, and instantly came back, saying he was asked to leave."

     "Who asked them?" Menolly asked, still puzzled by the whole event.

     "Her," Robinton said, pointing at the sketch of the blonde.

     "So what happens to the ruffians?" Mirrim asked.

     "Groghe sent them to the mines for a year for the trouble they caused," Sebell replied. "They're still protesting their innocence, saying they were attacked. But that didn't weigh with Groghe when it was clear they were trying to force the women to go where they clearly didn't want. Big Red may have been their relative, or an accomplice coming to their rescue. Besides, we had the other victims from yesterday to speak against them."

     "Interesting that we seem to have one group of ruffians preying on another with themselves as bait," Menolly said. "Only a year will have those guys out just in time for the next Spring Gather."

     "Well this other group certainly didn't like our fire-lizards," Sebell said. "And the fire-lizards didn't like them, either. But I've never seen them just leave like that!"

     "Well Fort's abuzz because someone saw those three sneaking in during the distractions," Robinton said. "They buttoned up tight and are searching, but have found nothing yet."

 

Southern Continent:

     Ryuu picked his way carefully through the brush. He needed to get some distance from those two before signaling the others. He stepped out into another clearing.

     "Oops," he quietly muttered, seeing the pride of mixed big cats, some spotted, some striped, arrayed about the area. They all saw him the same instant and leapt to their feet and began stalking him.

     "Easy, fellas," he said, trying to calm them down. "I'm a friend."

     He tried using his special abilities to reach the felines. Abilities, which were enabled during a visit to a small planet where one of THEM, a powerfully advanced species, Ryuu's very own creators, had lost a childhood toy. That ancient artifact had been used to destroy a thriving civilization, and nearly ended his crew's existence. The repercussions of that event, however, allowed him to communicate with felines in any form he took. Only these cats weren't responding.

     One of the lions leapt for him, and Ryuu had only just time to use his left hand to press into his right forearm, activating the subcutaneous transponder. Then he was down, with the big cat savaging his whole left shoulder and claws raking his legs and chest.

     There was a bright flash incinerating both cat and man. A roaring fifteen-meter long gold dragon instantly replaced Ryuu's body. He spun about, whipping his tail to ward off the attacks from the other felines. If the transformation surprised the remaining panthers, they didn't give any indication it affected them. They continued their attack, leaping upon the gold dragon.

     Ryuu caught one lioness with his hand, his huge talons gripping the animal around her chest. He didn't want to hurt them, but he was forced to use his full strength in blows from his tail and wings to keep them at bay. A couple of tigers had leapt to his back and he had to use his three remaining limbs to dance and whirl about, trying to dislodge them, while the lioness he held tried to bite at his arm, her back feet raking at his forearm. Fortunately, his scales were considerably tougher than the hide of the white dragon he had just met, but that didn't mean he was out of danger.

     As a dragon, his considerable telepathic abilities were unleashed. But even this was ineffective against the panthers. He was very puzzled by that. He had tried to get across to them that he wasn't their enemy or food, but he couldn't get through. Ryuu even tried using his stored memories of pain from killed prey and enemies to shock the cats to their senses, but something was actually blocking him from reaching them!

     A black leopard suddenly materialized among the fight, but didn't join the attack against the dragon. Instead, even as another black cat leapt at the newcomer, orange light flared from the panther's eyes, lancing out to strike each of the cats attacking Ryuu, stunning them all. The black panther that leapt on the newcomer got an electric jolt that threw the flesh and blood animal off.

     The dragon released the comatose lioness he had been gripping and shook off the unconscious cats from his back. With a shuddering breath, Ryuu triggered the Gateway, changing his form back to that of human in a flash of intense radiation. His panther rushed up to take his left arm in its mouth. Ryuu gave it a glance as Pardus' fangs bit down, breaking the skin to inject a replacement transponder before releasing him.

     "Be careful!" he said, snarling. "The subspace distortions on this planet keeps us from locating you without those transponders."

     A transporter effect beside him materialized a replacement set of robes for him.

     "What happened?" the male avatar inquired as Ryuu dressed.

     "I don't know, Pardus," Ryuu replied when he finished. He knelt down to take the lioness's head in his hands. "I came across this pride when I was looking for a place to signal beam up. They attacked."

     "B-but th-they're cats! They never attack!" the panther exclaimed.

     "My God!" Ryuu exclaimed, setting the feline's head back down. "They're telepathic! Somebody's modified them to be telepathic!" His panther's eyes grew wide in dread as it laid its ears back while he took a closer look for himself.

     "My scans are detecting genetic damage from Mentasynth!" Pardus hissed. "This specie doesn't have the natural blocks for processing their prey's pain, not like your dragon forms! They would feel their prey's agony as their own!"

     "These poor creatures are totally insane!" Ryuu cried in horror. His panther whirled about.

     "Company's coming!" he snarled. Ryuu quickly stood. "Looks like your new friends."

     "I took some injuries from being caught in an avalanche," Ryuu quickly said. "Mostly minor scrapes and cuts on my arms and legs. And a messy wound to my left foot."

     Green light flared from the panther's eyes and Ryuu quickly had fresh wounds from the cat's weapons to simulate the rock fall cuts. Unfortunately, none of the dust remained from his accident, but he hoped it wouldn't be missed.

     By the time Ruth and Jaxom appeared over the clearing, the artificial life form joined the other cats in playing dead.

     "By the Egg!" Jaxom exclaimed looking about when they landed. The small fire-lizards zipped about the clearing, excitedly screeching in alarm. Ryuu quickly walked toward Ruth and Jaxom, emphasizing a limp, to keep the dragon and rider at a distance.

     "If you don't mind, Lord Jaxom," Ryuu cheerfully said, "I think I'll take you up on that offer to go to the healer. Good to see you again, Ruth," he genuinely greeted the dragon reaching up to caress his muzzle.

     "How did you--?" Jaxom began as he moved to dismount and take a closer look at the scene. He was stopped when Ryuu stepped in his way, raising his left arm.

     "Please, Lord Jaxom," Ryuu begged. "Can we just leave?" Jaxom looked at the bite wound on his forearm, and he itched to find out how, unarmed, Ryuu could've fought all those felines with only one bite to show for it. But there was a strange sadness in the man's eyes that convinced Jaxom not to press for answers.

     He helped Ryuu climb up and set the straps as best he could.

     "I'm afraid you're not dressed for going between," Jaxom said. "We'll try to be as brief as possible."

     "Thank you," Ryuu whispered, pulling out a replacement scanner, flipped it open, and started to take new readings from the dragon while the rider was unaware.

     After Ruth had risen, taking his small companions with him and teleported away, one of the "dead" panthers vanished with the transporter effect.

 

Ista Hold:

     T'khill and M'leer looked at each other in utter confusion as their cell door slammed shut and they were locked in.

     "What the f'Rrishiss did you tell him?" M'leer demanded once the guards left the corridor.

     "What did I say?" T'khill asked, totally baffled. "You were there! What does he mean 'impersonating a dragonrider'?"

     "I don't know," M'leer said, stalking about, looking for a way out. "But he said he'd be back in a couple of hourrs to deal with us. We'd betterr find a way to escape and be away from herre beforre then. Afterrwarrd, we can take the time to analyze what we did wrrong."

     They suddenly felt an electric jolt shoot through them that had nothing to do with the shock of being imprisoned.

     "Someone's used the Gateway," M'leer said.

     T'khill examined the door to their cell. It looked depressingly solid and strong.

     A few minutes later, they felt a second jolt.

     Who's using the Gateway? M'leer broadcast.

     That was me, Ryuu sent privately. Ran into a small problem. It's fixed now.

     "How does Ryuu get away with it?" T'khill finally muttered. His question brought M'leer up short.

     "What?" she asked.

     "I'm puzzled," he said. "Ryuu often gets into situations like this, but only when he wants to go to confinement. Other times, he goes his own happy path."

     "That's: 'he goes his own merrry way'," M'leer corrected him. "But you have a point. Rryuu goes to jail only when he wishes it. And then, he always has an escape rroute."

     "But we didn't plan for this," T'khill countered. "And we don't have an evasion road."

     "Yes, we do," M'leer said, pulling out her phaser.

     The device was an innocuous looking blob, shaped vaguely like a flattened teardrop a little larger than her thumb. The point of the teardrop was the business end, it had a pad for reading her thumbprint, and had circuitry to receive instructions from thought.

     When they were searched for weapons, the devices and their communicators were overlooked as personal ornaments unlike anything the Colonists had seen before. Only their hand scanners, being slim metal cases that conceivably could be hammered into a knife or other instrument, were confiscated.

     T'khill heard the weapon's whine climb for the charge she ordered as she aimed at the door.

     "Wait," he said, placing his hand on her arm. "There's a more silent power dive we can fly."

     "You mean a morre subtle apprroach?" she asked. He smiled, stiffly.

     "Panthro," he said, activating his communicator. "Two to transport."

     "What about the hand scannerrs?" M'leer asked as the transport effect absorbed them.

     A few moments later, the guards looked about in confusion as they heard humming, like that of fire-lizards or dragons at a Hatching, build in volume then fade. They never saw the scanners vanish in a cloud of sparks from inside the closed drawer.

 

Onboard the Panthro:

     "What are you doing up here?" Wolf asked when they appeared on platform. Puma and Arye were also there.

     "That's what we're trying to solve," T'khill said.

     "We werre arrrsted for imperrsonating drragon rriderrs," M'leer growled.

     "Dragonriders?" Wolf exclaimed, incredulous. "They've got people to ride those things?"

     "Maybe those were the babies," Arye suggested.

     "How about--" Then M'leer suddenly gasped. They all did.

     "The Gateway!" Arye whispered in horror. "What happened to the Gateway?"

     "It's back now!" Wolf exclaimed the moment the sensation ended.

     Just then, the transporter activated and Pardus materialized in a supine state. He quickly stood to walk toward them.

     "So where's Ryuu?" Wolf asked. "And the Gateway just went kablooee for a few moments."

     "He couldn't avoid being picked up by the dragon he encountered," the panther reported. "You said all yours were small?"

     "About the same size as our small forms, not much larger than house cats," Wolf said.

     "This white one was about as large as Ryuu's largest dragon form . . . maybe just a little smaller," Pardus said. "I believe they're different, but related species. They teleported, too. Those creatures seem to be the source of the subspace distortions. I've given the ship my sensor readings on them. It's reporting there are hundreds of thousands of such subspace events occurring all over the planet. There do seem to be localized concentrations of them in the northern continent, but it's a totally smooth distribution on the southern."

     "Ryuu's clothing styles are going to give the mission a hard time," Wolf growled.

     "Also, the big cats, that white dragon, and his young rider are showing signs of Mentasynth poisoning," the panther added. "Interestingly, only some of the smaller specimens are showing any signs of the drug."

     "Mentasynth?" Arye asked, puzzled. "I've never heard of that."

     "It was a substance outlawed thousands of years ago," the panther explained. "It induces genetic damage, making the offspring of telepathically capable individuals develop even stronger abilities. Evidently, the colonists had used it on themselves and the natives."

     "Could it be the cause of the ecological disaster that hit the colony?" Puma asked.

     "Uncertain," the panther said after a moment to consider. "Based on the current planetary orbits, the Oort cloud debris would have begun about a hundred sixty years after the colony is believed to have arrived. Kit Ping Yung was ancient when they should've arrived. She was one of the technicians who urged the Federation to outlaw the substance. It is possible she, or another, had unleashed something on the colony.

     "However, there are fragmentary records about a rescue of the Rukbat colony only about fifty years after their arrival," Pardus continued. "Of over 6300 colonists, only a handful were ever located and removed. It had been presumed that the rest had succumbed to the disaster.

     "Under what reason for developing such an illegal drug, when the one person who had knowledge would likely rather to have gone to her grave with the secret than let it loose," the panther finished, shaking its head. "Too many variables. Too many unanswered questions. We will have to locate the colony database if we hope to find any answers."

     "But the recall," Wolf said. "It doesn't give us much time. Plus, we have to locate our member who came here. We can't take time to look for Ryuu's questions."

     "I may have a copy of Ryuu's mind," the panther snarled in annoyance at him, "but I am nearly three thousand years removed from when that copy was made! These are my own questions! Besides, your own monitors, who are copies of your minds, have the same questions. And we want answers! You all can go stuff your recall! Besides, with the database, we would be a little closer to identifying, and thereby locating, your long lost crewman."

     "Well, we've got something else to worry about," Wolf said. "T'khill and M'leer reported they were arrested a short while ago, charged with impersonating dragonriders. Now I don't know what kind of society this world has, but we're going to have lots of problems if we get tripped up on something we haven't a clue about."

     Pardus sat down and rocked as he took a breath, simulating a sigh.

     "Panthro," the panther spoke out, "have you been monitoring the crew's environment through their communicators and scanners?"

     "Visual recordings are sporadic and limited," the ship's computer replied. "Audio is more complete. I'll begin analyzing what I heard from T'khill and M'leer's communicators to determine where they crossed a taboo event."

 

Fort Hold Gather:

     From his conversation with the white, Ryuu knew the dimension was supposed to be black, empty, airless, and colder than space. His human senses were totally convinced at what the dragon told him was true. However, he had other senses, and they told him it was anything but!

     He spent the few seconds looking about wildly, astonished by what he "saw." Ruth suddenly looked back over his shoulder at him, his eyes whirling in alarm.

     You see nothing! Ruth firmly told him. There is nothing between!

     Ryuu looked pointedly at the white dragon over Jaxom's shoulder. The human rider was not privy to that conversation.

     Suddenly, they burst into the air above the provincial capitol Wolf, Puma, and Arye had been exploring before they discovered the dragons.

     "Ri-i-ight," Ryuu slowly drawled with a hiss, trying to suppress his shivering. But he knew he needed no questions. The answers were all in that subspace dimension they called between.

     THEY had their hands, or claws, in this somehow. Only THEIR technology can affect THEIR technology. And because temporal dislocation is a major variable in subspace, the trip had momentarily disabled his connection with the Gateway. It could explain a good deal of those sporadic disruptions over the past two and a half millennia.

     Ruth was suddenly surrounded by nearly a hundred smaller and more colorful versions of the white. Ryuu chuckled as the small ones greeted the white. He had also learned from Ruth the natives were called "fire-lizards."

     Ruth suddenly bugled out, and Ryuu heard him call to another named "Lioth." He turned to look and his eyes grew wide with alarm.

     While Ryuu and his people could take the forms of several thousand different life forms in an instant, three of the forms they could assume were dragons in three different sizes. And although most of his crew had their largest size three or four times bigger than this white one, Ryuu's own largest form wasn't much larger than the white's.

     The creature had just launched into the air and flew past Ruth, seemingly made of metallic bronze, was every bit as large as Wolf's red dragon or Arye's gold form, if not larger! And Lioth was just one of dozens of other such creatures just about to land on the heights above the settlement.

     "Now that's a honking big fire-lizard!" he exclaimed. Jaxom whirled at the old insulting reference, but quickly saw Ryuu wasn't speaking of his dragon. He had to hold himself from bursting out laughing that anyone would call a bronze dragon a fire-lizard!

     Then Jaxom frowned. There was something very odd about this Ryuu, he thought. Not just one, but several pieces that didn't fit.

     "You've never seen a dragon, before?" Jaxom asked.

     Ryuu carefully regarded the rider before answering.

     "No bronzes like him this close up," the man replied truthfully.

     "So what hold are you from?" Jaxom asked as Ruth came in for a landing. Ryuu frowned, pausing in his clandestine scanning of the distant dragon, knowing this was coming.

     "Half-Circle Sea Hold, Nerat," he flatly stated. "Haven't been there in ages, though." He knew that they would soon find that was a lie, but he had chosen that location for its distance from this end of the continent. However, with these dragons able to teleport from one side of the planet to the other in seconds, his lie would soon be too easily shot down.

     Jaxom however had his own concerns as his dragon came in to land.

     "Ryuu, could I ask you a favor?" Jaxom asked him.

     "Well, you're the one rescuing me! I guess I owe you a few," Ryuu said, laughing. He had to wait for Ruth to settle on the ground. "I hope I can help. What can I do you for?"

     "Could you not mention that we met in Southern?" Jaxom asked as he undid his belt straps. "If the subject comes up, could you let me explain?"

     "Sure," Ryuu agreed, smiling as he stepped off the white dragon. "I'm the epitome of discretion."

 

     "Don't worry, Farli," Robinton said, stroking the fire-lizard's neck. Sebell sat there with Kimi, watching them. "Piemur will be here soon. Trust N'ton and Lioth."

     Zair suddenly reappeared, having delivered his message to the dragonrider, and the three fire-lizards happily greeted each other by buzzing about the room and zipping out the window to continue their play.

     "So what's Piemur doing requesting a recall?" Sebell asked.

     The old Harper pulled out his charts of the Southern Continent. He studied the region almost due south of Benden. "I'm wondering that, myself." A sudden knock on the door interrupted his perusal.

      "That can't be Piemur already," Robinton said at the same time as Sebell added, "Piemur never knocks!" Without any more discussion, Sebell scooped up the charts and ducked into Robinton's private chambers, closing the door behind him.

     "Jaxom!" Robinton greeted as he opened the hallway door, ushering the Lord Holder into the office. "Couldn't stay away from the Gather, could you?"

     "Not that I've been meaning to," Jaxom said, taking the MasterHarper's hand. "MasterHarper, can I ask you to keep a secret?"

     "My young Lord Holder," Robinton said, smiling at him, "I'm the epitome of discretion." Jaxom stared at him for several moments. "It means I can keep a secret," Robinton finally whispered. The young Lord Holder shuddered at some inner thoughts.

     "I know I'm not supposed to be going down there," Jaxom whispered, looking about Robinton's office, "but I've been exploring South with Ruth."

     "Oh! I see," Robinton said, feigning shock.

     "While I was down there, I came across a very unusual man." The nature of their conversation greatly disturbed the old Harper. When word came of the impending hatching at Ista, Robinton sadly had to decline to attend.

 

     As Jaxom and Robinton talked, N'ton and Lioth returned with Piemur.

     "Many thanks, N'ton!" the Journeyman Harper said as he dismounted.

     "My pleasure, Piemur!" N'ton said, getting down as well. "I can't believe how far you've traveled. If you're not careful, you're going to circle the whole continent and end up back at the Weyr!"

     "Well, don't tell anyone," Piemur whispered, "but that's kind of what I'm hoping to do!"

     The young Harper was puzzled by Robinton's absence. He'd rarely ever failed to be there when he arrived to get Piemur's report as soon as possible. He headed for the Harperhall as N'ton set out to return to the Gather.

     Lioth, left on his own, leapt for the heights to be with his friends, including Ruth.

     When he landed, the two dragons had a conversation that greatly disturbed them.

 

     Piemur was moving fairly quickly when he reached Robinton's door. Only he didn't expect it to be locked, and he slammed into it, making a loud boom that startled Robinton and Jaxom inside.

     Robinton opened it to see him holding his face.

     "Oh, there you are, Piemur! You were supposed to be here an hour ago!" he scolded. The young Journeyman looked at his mentor with surprise. Robinton kept shifting his eyes to look at a side door in the passage. "I'm sorry, but something's come up. You go on and get something to eat, and I'll be with you shortly." Robinton closed the door and noisily locked it.

     "I'm sorry, Lord Jaxom," he said. "Where were we?"

     Piemur quietly slipped into Robinton's private chambers and made his way to the door separating his office from his living quarters. Sebell was already there, sitting by a slot built into the wall for passing notes. The young master motioned Piemur to be quiet and sit with him to listen.

     As he listened in on the conversation in the adjoining room, Piemur tried to make sense of what he was hearing about Jaxom's rescue of someone from a group of big felines. He'd seen the clearing himself, and itched to tell Sebell what happened after Jaxom had left. Sebell cut off his attempt by redirecting his attention to the conversation.

     "In the interest of discretion," Robinton was saying, "you may leave him in our care. Wouldn't want anyone asking how you met, right? How would it look if word got out that the Ruatha Lord Holder retrieved a dissident from the South?"

     Their voices faded as the two men said their farewells, and then Piemur heard footsteps approaching. He pulled back just as the door opened to reveal Robinton standing there.

     "Weren't you two taught not to listen to other peoples conversations?" Robinton snapped at them.

     "I nearly broke my nose on that door!" Piemur complained. Robinton chuckled.

     "Serves you right!" he said. "How much did you catch?"

     "From the part about him and Ruth coming across that group of felines Ryuu killed."

     "They must've been almost on top of you," Robinton observed.

     "They were!" Piemur said looking at both senior harpers. "I had the wherry of a time keeping Farli from going to say 'hi' to Ruth. But back to the subject, those felines weren't dead! Not until I killed them!"

     "You?" Sebell exclaimed.

     "As I was saying," Piemur began, "I was so busy fighting Farli, and Stupid was worried about Ruth showing up, that none of us knew we were that close to that cluster of big felines.

     "Suddenly, there was this strange flash of light through the trees and sounds of this horrendous fight going on for a couple of minutes and Farli's eyes were whirling white! Then it got quiet. There was another flash of light, and I thought I heard voices. Then Farli said Ruth showed up again. I heard Jaxom talking with Ryuu, and then they left.

     "I stepped out into the clearing and saw all those dead felines!" he said with a shudder.

     "I thought you said they weren't dead," Sebell pointed out. "But that you killed them."

     "Well I can see why Jaxom thought they were," Piemur explained. "When I first saw them, I thought so, too. Only there wasn't a mark on them. I couldn't tell how they were killed. I was puzzling that out when I saw them all start to stir! I had only enough time to use my knife to finish them off before they woke up! When I was able to calm down again, I checked them all. The only wounds they had were from my knife!"

     "Then what did he do to the felines?" Robinton asked.

     "I've no idea," Piemur replied. "Although, it might have been something he got from an ancient settlement I located nearby."

     "Come again?" Robinton demanded. His thoughts slipped back on some of the discussions he'd had with the Journeyman for holding back crucial information when making reports to the MasterHarper. Sometimes, he considered, young Piemur did that on purpose just for the sheer entertainment value. No, he corrected himself. Not 'sometimes'.

     "I came across a shelter by the seashore that could only have been an ancient settlement," Piemur explained. "I was about to send for a retrieval when Jaxom and Ruth showed up. Naturally, I went to see what they were up to. That's how I ended up sending for N'ton."

     "The settlement, young Piemur," Robinton growled.

     "Well, while I was there, I found some devices I can't begin to explain, including something that might have made a flash like I saw through the trees and injured those felines."

     "How so?" Robinton asked.

     "Well, it was a bit longer than a belt knife," Piemur explained. "There was a grip for the hand and a trigger. When I tested it, it made a flash. And a hole in the wall as big as a dragon."

     Robinton's eyes got nearly as big as a dragon's. So did Sebell's.

     "And this Ryuu character might have something like that?" Sebell exclaimed. "Do you still have the one you found?"

     "Well, uh-no," Piemur meekly replied. "When I saw the hole that thing made, I dropped it."

     "Did you break it?" Robinton demanded.

     "Uh-I'm afraid more than broke it," Piemur said, gulping. "It started making some strange noise that got so bad that Farli and Stupid bolted out of there. I ran after them, and got out of the shelter just before it vanished in an explosion and a flash of light."

     "We better check this Ryuu out!" Sebell said to Robinton.

     "Jaxom said he's with Oldive," Robinton said. "Let's go."

 

     And I think he can see what is between! Ruth was telling Lioth about half an hour later.

     There is nothing between! Lioth exclaimed.

     Yes, Ruth agreed, but he can still see it! And he can hear us! So can others! They speak to him!

     Ryuu sat beneath the ministrations of a couple of healers as he listened to the dragons discussing him.

     Do you think he is dangerous? Lioth asked.

     "So how did you come to be like this?" MasterHealer Oldive asked bandaging his foot, distracting him from the dragons.

     "Got chased up a cliff by some cats," Ryuu gamely replied.

     "The felines give you problems in the south?" Oldive asked.

     "No, no problems," Ryuu answered gamely. "The cats chase me, I run, they don't catch me," Ryuu explained, grinning. "No problem!" The Pernese man snorted.

     "Well, I'd say you're very lucky nothing's broke," Oldive told him, straightening up after he finished. "That should do you," the MasterHealer announced, clapping Ryuu's shoulder.

     "I'm really grateful to you for patching me up, Doc," Ryuu said.

     "Oldive," the MasterHealer corrected.

     "Oldive," Ryuu repeated, grinning. "And seeing as your clothes are in tatters, I'll see if Silvina can spare any from her stores."

     "I'm sorry," Ryuu apologized. "I don't have any way to pay you for this. My money went with my camp."

     "I'm sure we'll find some way," a rich baritone voice said as two new arrivals stepped in. The owner of the voice was a tall man in a rich blue uniform, his high rank evident by the knotted rope over one shoulder. He had quite a handsome face and thick silvery hair and had very commanding charisma.

     He was smiling to reduce any sting his words might cause, but there wasn't any mistaking this man wasn't someone to trifle with, despite the laugh lines etched in his face from decades of genuine smiles. His eyes, bright as they were, were quite shrewd.

     The other man to show up clearly wasn't as old as the first stranger but still older than the white rider. His eyes held a strong suspicion as they bore into Ryuu. This one, Ryuu knew already: his compatriots had passed him information on how he had been shadowing them through the fair.

     Additionally, there were those small dragons, fire-lizards, Ryuu corrected himself, on their shoulders, staring at him with eyes whirling orange with excitement. This was no casual encounter, Ryuu knew. These men intentionally brought the creatures because of the reactions his friends had. He smiled as genuinely as he could in return.

     I love the white one, Ryuu sent to the fire-lizards, knowing they were the keys to relax these newcomers. Ruth's my friend. I love you. Will you be my friends?

     With a surprising chirp, both fire-lizards launched themselves from both men's shoulders and flew to Ryuu, landing in his lap.

     "Hi there!" he said to them, very pleased by their acceptance. "You must be Zair and Kimi," he affectionately greeted them. "Do you know Ruth? I just met him. I like him a lot." The two Harpers were startled by how the meeting went in such an unexpected direction.

     "Well, if there's anything I can do for you," Ryuu said, looking up at them, "please let me know. I can't guarantee anything, but I'll do my best."

 

Onboard the Panthro:

     A short while later, the doors to the Bridge opened and Panthera, one of Ryuu's two black panthers, padded out.

     "I think we've found out what you and M'leer did," she told T'khill and M'leer. Arye was there as well. "You met a man named Warbret. His vocal stress levels went off the scale when you told him your names and when you responded you had no dragon."

     "What does that have to do with why we were arrested?" he asked.

     "Panthro's been monitoring the others on the planet, and we've found a pattern," Panthera explained. "What you call the K'taQ in your name and the H'Rrahl in Caitians occurs in the names of only a few of the Colonists. We've been able to identify those individuals as being dragonriders. And we've isolated where on the planet they are staying." The image on the main monitor switched from showing the wide-angle view of the planet they orbited to a tight aerial shot of a settlement built in a dormant volcano's bowl.

     "These appear to be regional capitols, called Weyrs," Panthera explained. "This location is near Ista Hold. And there's unusually severe subspace distortions in these Weyrs. Evidently, this is caused by the dragons lairing there. However, this one seems to be relatively open at this moment. We're detecting the creatures are engaged with the cometary debris falling through the atmosphere over the island."

     "Is that what we saw as grray and silverr thrreads?" M'leer asked.

     "Affirmative," Panthera said, turning toward the doors. Her motions indicated she wished them to follow her. As the elevator took them to the Transporter Room, she explained, "The gravitational and magnetic fields of the Rogue planet has drawn in debris from the System Oort Cloud. Much of this debris, however, is not normal cometary material. Rather, it consists of life forms native to open space. Species 42984, the Ch'les'tol."

     "The Ch'les'tol?" M'leer exclaimed. "But they can't surrvive this close to a starr! The heat would kill them!"

     "Indeed, these individuals are brain-dead," Panthera agreed. "Their bodies are in a vegetative state, and their hard outer shells burn up as they enter the planet's atmosphere. What you saw raining down on the planet were the creature's digestive tracts and other organs, freed from their carcasses."

     "Squit!" T'khill cursed in sickened horror. "So what do you wish us to do?" he asked when the lift's doors opened.

     "Taking this opportunity, I suggest you infiltrate the Weyr while the dragons are away and it's safe to transport." They met the other artificial life forms approaching the Transporter Room and entered.

     Puma's eyes widened in surprise when the Noah's Ark Menagerie, as the collection of artificial life forms were sometimes called, came filing into the transporter room, led by her own giant anaconda-sized cobras.

     "Whoa!" she exclaimed. "What's going on here?"

     "Given the hazards of the southern continent, it would be wise for us to search there," Pardus replied, "while you search the north. And since there's two of us for every one of you, it triples our chances. In addition, we don't have to worry about losing our transponders if we get in trouble. And we don't have to worry about getting chewed up when we do get in trouble."

     "He's got a point," Wolf said, taking the moment to pet his old companions, a pair of timber wolves.

     "What about the units this fellow has to have had?" Arye asked. "Surely they must have heard our calls by now."

     "They could be damaged or destroyed," her falcon replied. "There's been no response."

     "They may even be hiding as well, suspicious of our intentions," added one of Wolf's units.

     "I just hope this isn't going to be another 'Let's get involved with the local politics' issue," Puma spat. "Ryuu is always trying to help with such matters."

     "We'll try to keep him in line when we see him," Pardus said, stepping onto the transporter pad. "But I think you'll be in a better position to handle that. He's located in that provincial capitol you just left."

     "M'leer and I are going to try again," T'khill told Puma as the members of the Menagerie took their turns transporting out. "Panthera found there's an opening in one of the regional capitols for beaming in while the dragons are away."

     "Alright," she said, checking the location on the monitor system. "Be careful. Have you found out what got you in trouble, yet?"

     "Yes," he replied. "M'leer and I will have to adjust our names to Takhill and Maleer."

 

Healercraft Hall:

     "Well, are you decent, yet?" Wolf's voice impatiently demanded. Ryuu smiled, having just taken off his robe to dress in the clothes provided. The colonists had just finished their interview and left to allow him to change.

     "You guys must have left quiet an impression," Ryuu shot back to the communicator hidden in one of the robe's pockets. "I do believe the Prime Directive says we're not to disturb the locals as much as we can avoid it. What the hell did you do to spin them up?"

     He held up the undergarments, trying to determine how they were supposed to be worn. He thought the Fashion Industry had been obliterated in the mid-Twenty-first Century. Looking at this, he figured the colony must've reintroduced that insanity into the gene pool. Mentasynth? Going Medieval and Feudal? Now this? What's going on here?

     "We were about to acquire some information from some locals," Wolf responded. "We had a few of the seedier people who wouldn't be missed all lined up for interrogation when we suddenly came across something that wasn't supposed to be on this rock!"

     "Well, as it turns out, they are supposed to be here," Ryuu said. "It's the humans and other critters from Terra that's questionable. So what, you tried the old feminine bait routine? Shame on you! What would your moms think of that? Now I found the natives to be a much more informative bunch. You ought to try it once in a while."

     "And I do believe we're supposed to be looking for somebody," Puma cut in, "not trying to get a date with the local, indigenous life-forms!"

     "Well, you tell me how we're supposed to find this guy when our hand scanners are limited to only a hundred horamters, or less when these dragons are about," Ryuu snarled back.

     "So stop fraternizing with the lizards and concentrate on finding our long lost crewman!" Puma snapped.

     "Let me ask you," Ryuu said, paused as he was putting on his trousers. "Have you forgotten how long this guy's been here? Maybe something on the order of twenty-five centuries? Now given what all the thousands of different critters that we can turn into, don't you think there just might be the teensiest possibility he's probably not hiding out as a human? Now maybe, just maybe, he's been flying dragons longer than I have!"

     Well, that shut them up! Ryuu thought, grinning as he finished getting dressed. He removed the devices hidden in his robes and found places for them to be stashed while he wore the local outfit. The hand scanner, stunner, communicator, and a supply of subcutaneous transponders with an injector went to various locations of concealment.

     "While you're thinking about that, you guys better ixnay," Ryuu said, gathering up his robe and reaching for the door. "Time for me to mingle again."

 

Ista Weyr:

     "Fanna! What are you doing here?" Sirana asked. Fanna's careful approach over the hatching sands had made her silent while the queen rider communed with her Naireth. Absorbed by their attention for each other, neither and noted her arrival.

     "The heat sometimes helps these joints as it helps the eggs," the Senior Queen rider said, smiling. And how are you, Naireth? And your eggs?"

     I am fine. The shells have hardened. Hatching will be soon. Very soon, Naireth replied.

     "She's happy to see you," Sirana relayed. She stepped over to assist Fanna to have a seat on Naireth's forearm.

     "Thank you, Naireth," Fanna said, stroking the gold dragon's biceps.

     "How goes this Fall?" Sirana asked.

     "Very well," Fanna responded. Tears started to well in her eyes. "Very well. They're all out there, fighting to protect your eggs. It's so moving to see their devotion! But I fear this will be the last Impression I will attend. No queen egg, this time," she said sadly. "But Naireth is out of Ramoth. She gave our bronzes a good flight. There should be plenty of bronzes."

     "She almost out flew all the bronzes!" Sirana giggled.

     "Yes!" Fanna shuddered. "It was a close one!"

     A resonant humming filled the chamber. Naireth's head shot up, her eyes whirling. Both queen riders' eyes went wide.

     "Hatching?" Fanna asked, shakily. "So soon?"

     "Where are the candidates?" Sirana exclaimed. But the humming faded, and they looked at each other in confusion. It seemed to come from the tunnel.

     That wasn't fire-lizard or dragon, Naireth said. Someone comes.

     "What do you mean?" Sirana asked, astonished.

     I'm not certain, Naireth replied. Her eyes held orange flashes among her normal blues and greens. I've never heard that before. I can no longer hear them.

     "We'd better investigate," Fanna said, struggling to rise. Just then, the humming returned. They waited for a moment, but the sound didn't fade. Instead, it got louder. They turned to Naireth, whose eyes were flashing rainbow.

     This is Hatching! the dragon said to their unasked question.

 

     They materialized inside tunnels burrowed through the rock. There was some lighting supplied by fungal growths scattered sporadically the length of the tunnel in small metal baskets hanging on the walls.

     "Well, these scannerrs arre still useless," Maleer spat. "Nothing beyond a hundrred horramterrs!"

     "There's a T-intersection that way," Takhill said, pointing. When they arrived, their scanners still didn't reach far enough to identify an exit.

     "We might trry splitting up," Maleer suggested. "Set them to mapping mode, and link them togetherr so that when one of us rreaches the outside, the otherr will know and can backtrrack."

     "I'll take the left branch," Takhill said. "If we don't find anything, we'll return here and try this other route," he said, pointing his thumb back they way they came.

     They each had found several other branches and had to explore them before they found main tunnels. A thrumming hum began reverberating through the mountain, and they both wondered about that.

     "Maleer?" Takhill said through his communicator. "Do you hear that?"

     "Indeed I do," she replied. "Panthrro, do you still have a lock on us? Can you still trransporrt us out if needed?"

     "Affirmative," the ship replied. "The subspatial distortions have descended over your locations, but your transponders are still functioning. The strength of the sound is greater through Takhill's communicator. You should be coming across the source if you continue to follow it. Also, I'm detecting the sound of people traveling through the tunnels ahead."

     "Thank you, Panthro," Takhill said, proceeding more cautiously. "I'll put out an edged view."

     "'Keep a sharrp eye out!'" Maleer said, correcting him. "That's one you should be familiarr with, Eagle-eye!"

     Maleer's nose picked up the scent of fresh air before her scanner registered the opening. She cautiously approached to ensure she wasn't in a restricted zone. Glancing out, she instantly ducked back in.

     "Rhurr!" she exclaimed, looking out at the chaos of dragons landing and launching. "Those arre as big as ourr larrgest drragons! And so many!" She tried to get a reading off them, but they were too far away for the scanner to function. She watched them, feeling a sense of urgency about their behavior.

 

     Takhill could hear the excited mutterings of people rushing through the tunnels from the next intersection, and his scanner had picked up their life form readings. As he approached, he could see the passage lit up by a greater concentration of the glowing fungus, and several people rushing excitedly by. From their demeanor, they didn't seem to be worried or upset by the vibrations shaking the rock.

     Someone spotted him and called out.

     "No!" he shouted, approaching. "This way, holder!" Takhill suddenly noticed the small dragon on the man's shoulder protesting the detour. That's when he noticed other small dragons among the crowd. The man took Takhill's arm to guide him to follow the rest.

     "Hurry!" the man said, cheerfully. "The Hatching's already begun!" Takhill left his scanner running as he closed it and put it away. Once they were moving, the man's dragon stopped screeching in protest and joined the others making that strange humming noise.

     It was a very chaotic situation. Takhill tried to get his bearings, while trying to identify what the people were doing and why. They reached a huge open chamber and the sight of the goings-on stunned him.

     People rushing from the tunnel split into two or three groups. Two groups doubled back on the tunnel entrance to climb stairs into stone stands ringing the cavern floor. The third group, all dressed in white robes, rushed out at a run onto scorching sands.

     To one side of the pit, dragons landed, passengers dismounted and ran pell-mell for the stands as the creatures instantly leapt to make room for others landing.

     And at the far end of the chamber, a huge gold dragon spread her wings protectively over her eggs that were in the process of hatching. Several of the baby dragons, and no--not the ones riding on people's shoulders as Arye had suggested!--had already escaped their shells and were wandering about the sands. Greens, blues, browns, and coppers. It was very hard to get an accurate view with all the people milling about.

     Takhill couldn't believe his eyes as he watched the people in the white robes hunt down the hatchling dragons as the mother dragon hissed threateningly at the humans. As he watched, the people in the robes seemed to hunt for specific hatchlings. He saw a few evade some clusters of dragons only to select one. Oddly, the hatchlings, too, seemed to be hunting for specific humans.

     This cannot be normal mammalian behavior! he thought.

     "Come on!" his guide yelled, pulling on his arm, trying to direct him to the stands.

     It's some sort of spectator sport arena, he realized, finally recognizing the structure. Takhill turned to follow the man and almost tripped over one of the baby dragons that had wandered out this far from its shell. It looked up and screamed at him with rainbow flashing eyes.

     "Squit!" Takhill hissed. "Sorry, Little One," he said to it, mindful of the creature's mother growling over there. "I didn't see you!"

     T'khill!

     He stopped, stunned. The call was definitely directed at him, but it wasn't anyone's mind he recognized. But that should be impossible! He was human at the moment. It was impossible for him to receive telepathic call from anyone not in the circle while his form was anything other than a draconic. THEY had made him so.

     Then he got a strong chill of fear. Could their quarry have found him? He looked about, searching.

     T'khill! the voice sounded again. Then the baby dragon butted its head against him.

     "Easy, Little--" he began. The copper colored creature looked up and screamed at him, cutting him off. He looked into his rainbow flashing facetted eyes.

     T'khill! I am Stealth! it told him.

     "Oh, squit!"

     The moment seemed to drag on for several minutes. Then it was shattered when his escort grabbed his arm.

     "Shells, Man! You Impressed a bronze!" he shouted.

     "Is this a bad thing?" T'khill asked.

 

     "Isn't he too old to Impress?" Fanna demanded.

     "Well, it is the dragon who chooses," D'ram pointed out, watching the new bronze rider, T'khill feeding his dragon.

     "And there is precedence," B'dor spoke up. "Remember that Green rider, Mirrim."

     "Well I still don't like it!" Fanna said.

     "Neither do I!" Sirana complained.

     "Well, don't tell us," B'dor sighed. "Tell Stealth." D'ram couldn't suppress his snort and both queen riders looked sharply at him.

     "Don't forget our own Impressions, Fanna," he muttered. The elder Weyrwoman suddenly blushed and bowed her head.

     "Fanna?" Sirana inquired. But the senior Weyrwoman slowly shook her head. When she looked up again, her lips were held tight and disapproving, but there was a twinkle in her eyes.

     "I won't say anymore about this," she flatly stated. D'ram quietly chuckled, and Sirana threw up her hands in disgust.

 

Harpercraft Hall:

     "Lord Jaxom tells us you were looking for a relative," the man named Sebell inquired as Ryuu settled into a chair in Robinton's office. Robinton stood to one side and a little to the rear, shrewdly watching. "Is there any way we can help?"

     "I'm not sure how," Ryuu replied as innocently as he could. He worried about some of the questions they had asked before. Something about Half-Circle and someone named "Yanus," but Ryuu had no idea and had said so. "We must've just missed each other," he had replied. "Like I told Jaxom, it's been ages since I was there."

     Ryuu stood up walked over to the window and looked out over the north wing of the complex to the fair beyond, checking out the crowds swarming about. He saw someone singing a song on a podium, a girl with her own private fire-lizard Air Force. Her song sounded nice and the fire-lizards seemed to be singing along with her.

     "When did he go missing? Or is it she?"

     "Sorry," Ryuu said, snapping out of a seeming trance. He shrugged his shoulders. "Don't know when. A long time ago. My family tends to look--a bit younger than we really are," he said with a wan smile.

     "Can you give us a name or a description?" Sebell continued.

     He looked out the window again, and saw the girl had finished. He watched her step down off the stage and rushed to embrace a young man with his own gold fire-lizard.

     "No idea," Ryuu replied. "The records were lost quite a while ago, too." He looked back at Robinton and wanted to chuckle. This interrogation reminded him of something he had monitored long ago.

     "Excellent, Captain," Ryuu could perfectly recall the proud tonal inflections of that ancient voice from the recording. "You let your Second-in-Command attack, while you watch for weakness..."

     "Are you from one of the Oldtimer families that came forward?" Robinton suddenly asked. "Is that why you were in Southern?"

     "Oldtimers?" Ryuu asked, genuinely puzzled. Evidently, Robinton must've thought he found that weakness, Ryuu considered. Wrong target, but surprisingly close to the mark! "Would it be a crime, if it were so?" he asked warily.

     "You Oldtimers were exiled to Southern when you refused to adapt to the rules of the modern world," Sebell stated.

     "I haven't refused," Ryuu stressed. "And it wasn't like it was my intention to violate any sentencing. Like I said, I was just looking for a missing relative. I was caught in an accident and brought here. Is that a crime?" he demanded.

     "No, of course not," Robinton had to say.

     "Look, if you insist, I can be sent back there," Ryuu offered. "Just have Lord Jaxom ferry me back with Ruth."

     "Well, I suppose you can stay a while, at least until you've healed," Robinton suggested.

     "That's very generous of you," Ryuu said, smiling. "Might I ask Lord Jaxom to accompany me, if I need an escort?"

     "I'm afraid Lord Jaxom has been called away on other matters," Robinton said, noting a look of disappointment on Ryuu's face. "Sebell," Robinton turned to him, "would you show our guest around?"

     Sebell nodded his acceptance, but made no move to leave. Ryuu again raised his assessment of these men as they appointed an escort and made it seem like a favor.

     "Just one last thing," Robinton said to Ryuu. He reached for some papers on a nearby desk. "Can you identify these individuals for us?"

     Ryuu knew what was coming before he saw the drawings, although it did surprise him how accurate the images were. These people couldn't have had much time to memorize their faces. Ryuu knew that they would have already been able to make his own likeness. The only way he would have to confuse them would be to modify his hairstyle.

     "Not bad," he said with a whistle. "But Wolf's nose isn't that big, and you kind of botched Puma's eyes."

     "You know them?" Sebell demanded.

     "Sure," Ryuu said. "They didn't give you any trouble, did they? They're other members of my family and friends looking for our missing relative."

     "Then why were they here while you were in Southern?" Sebell asked.

     "We don't know where he is," Ryuu innocently replied. "Or she. That's why we're looking."

 

     Robinton continued to sit in his office after they left and privately hoped they wouldn't need to send this Ryuu back. The man must've been very young when the Oldtimers came forward and then were later exiled. It wasn't his wish that someone be punished for crimes committed by family members, or even just the decision of his family to accompany the dissident dragonriders. While clannish attitudes can cause families to carry grudges for generations, the younger members, if given the chance to escape a bad environment, have often reformed.

 

     "So, Sebell, is it?" Ryuu began as they exited the arch to the Harperhall courtyard. "Tell me about these 'Oldtimers'." He wanted to laugh at how 'one last thing' suddenly became another two full hours' round of intense interrogation.

     A glance about was all Ryuu needed to spot at least one additional escort--a deeply tanned young man, the apparent boyfriend of the girl with the dozen fire-lizards. He was well hidden in the crowd, and not facing their direction, but he wasn't milling about, and Ryuu caught the young man shifting his eyes away suddenly.

     Sebell looked at Ryuu with a guarded expression, uncertain how best to answer.

     Ryuu was about to ask when the Oldtimers were exiled, when Lioth and several other dragons lining the heights bugled out their welcome.

     Ryuu looked up and visibly paled.

     "Jezus!" he whispered an exclamation. "Those two are even bigger than Lioth! How big are these fire-lizards going to get? You guys stuff these things with PGH, or what?"

     "Show some respect, man!" Sebell snapped. "That's Ramoth and Mnementh!"

     But the look of astonishment on Ryuu's face seemed genuine, and Sebell couldn't see how the stranger could be from Southern Weyr and act like he had never seen a dragon before. True, Lioth was noticeably bigger than the largest Oldtimer dragons, but not by that much.

     Robinton rushed by to greet the riders as their dragons descended toward the landing field well away from the crowds and stalls of the Gather. Ryuu slowly began to follow, and Sebell was a little worried about the somewhat vacant stare the man had looking at the dragons.

     "Would you like to meet Lessa and F'lar?" Sebell asked.

     "Sure. Whoever," Ryuu absently muttered as he traveled the path. But then he stopped, blinked, and looked about in confusion.

     Sebell nearly choked in surprise over what Ryuu said. He was about to call the man to task when the stranger suddenly started marching straight for the entrance to Fort Hold.

     "Hey, they're over that way," Sebell called out, but Ryuu broke into a run. Then Sebell saw Ryuu wasn't aiming for the stairs that led to the entrance to the Hold proper. Rather it was to one side, where he saw a group of kids hanging about, laughing excitedly, and Sebell suddenly got a dreadful feeling. That was the location for the lair entrance for the Hold's watch-wher.

     His dread was confirmed when he picked up the sound of the beast screaming and crying.

     "What the hell are you kids doing?" Ryuu bellowed, rushing up to grab a couple of them. The others quickly bolted for the only way out, straight toward Sebell.

     "Hold it right there!" Sebell yelled. For added measure, he called for the Fort guards as he caught two, himself. The other kids would have gotten away by the time the guards arrive, but their friends would be able to identify them so the whole group could be rounded up later.

     "WHAT THE HELL DID YOU DO?" Ryuu demanded, shaking one of his quarry.

     "Shells!" Sebell exclaimed, hearing the cries of the tormented beast. Several guards arrived, and Sebell handed his charges over. "They've thrown glows down into his lair!"

     "Watch-whers are nocturnal!" Sebell explained when Ryuu looked at him in confusion. "The glows hurt their eyes!"

     "Bloody Flames!" Ryuu cursed. He shoved the two kids past Sebell toward the guards, then rushed to the barred gate over the entrance. Before Sebell or the guards could react, he gave a powerful kick against the lock on the gate, then grabbed the bars and yanked, snapping the lock. He rushed in before anyone could stop him.

     "No! Wait!" Sebell screamed. "You'll be killed!" But Ryuu didn't even pause.

 

Ista Weyr:

     Maleer wandered the Weyr, puzzled by what happened to Takhill.

     As she watched from the protection of the tunnel, she saw the dragons and people eventually clear out of the area, even as the thrumming from the mountain grew louder. The range on her scanner increased slightly from only a hundred horamters to one-fifty, but still too short for any sort of safety margin. But from what she could see, the area was clear.

     Takhill, she called to him. I found my way outside. Use my scannerr's data to make yourr way out herre.

     I can't come right now, he sent back.

     Do you need my assistance? she inquired.

     No! No! I'm currently surrounded by humans and dragons. I'm in no danger, but it would not be wise to hunt me down.

     That's 'seek forr you,' she corrected him.

     That was a couple hours ago. She set herself up in an out-of-the-way location, and monitored Takhill's movements. He had mapped out a large web throughout the interior, culminating at a huge chamber. There were dozens of life forms about him, both human and dragon.

     After about half-an-hour, people started returning to the outside, breaking into small groups and excitedly discussing what they had experienced. Maleer noted Takhill had also started to move, but then his signal made no sense. There was a sharp rise in elevation indicated.

     Dragons also reappeared, landing to drop off riders and what looked like large animals, but it was too far to see clearly. Takhill's scanner signal emerged from the mountainside, evidently on one of the dragons descending.

     "What?" she wondered aloud. "Did he hitch a rride on one of those things?"

     Her target dragon landed, and three people got off, and they unloaded some creature. When the dragon launched back into the air, Takhill's signal didn't go with it.

     So he's one of them, Maleer concluded. She cautiously left her shelter to make her way toward where he was.

     Takhill, what arre you doing? she asked him.

     Sorry, Maleer, I'm a little busy right now.

     Puzzled, she made her way over that direction, staying near the cliff base to avoid the dragons landing on her.

     Unfortunately, as she traveled, Takhill moved to the farthest part of the Weyr, leaving her no option but to walk the entire distance around the perimeter.

     "And this couple had the audacity to try passing themselves off as dragonriders!" she heard a familiar voice say.

     She glanced over and saw Warbret spot her, as well.

     "Flaming Hairrballs!" she hissed.

 

     T’khill had a bucket full of cut up red and green meat chunks to feed his new friend. Red, he understood. The green had him concerned. He picked up a piece and sniffed it. It didn't smell rotten to him, but then, he couldn't trust these muted human senses.

     Hey! I think that's for me! Stealth protested.

     "Is this any good?" he asked, concerned, looking about. Other humans, mostly young adolescent males and a couple of females likewise had buckets with similar cuts and colors of meat, feeding their own dragons.

     He felt the chunk disappear from his grip and he snapped his head about to see the creature busily chewing.

     "How did you do that?" he asked, astonished. He had his other hand on the creature's neck. Had it shot its head out to snatch the meat and yanked back to where it was chewing, he should've felt that!

     Useless human senses! he cursed. How were they ever able to win any wars against us?

     Stealth opened his maw and screamed at him.

     Feed me! the dragon demanded. Shrugging in confusion, T'khill picked out another chunk--red, this time--and tossed it in.

     "T'khill," he heard D'ram speak to him. "We need to talk. Again." He looked up to see not only D'ram, but also a couple other apparent dragonriders. They were holding Maleer. And there was Warbret standing there.

     "Squit!"

 

Onboard the Panthro:

     "Arye," the ship's computer spoke up, interrupting her monitoring of Ryuu's interrogation by Robinton. "It appears T'khill and M'leer have again violated major cultural taboos."

     "What'd they do, this time?" she asked with a sigh.

     "From what I could overhear, T'khill has bonded with one of the draconic creatures."

     "WHAT?" Arye exclaimed, jumping up from her seat.

     "That is evidently not the cause of the violation, however," Panthro told her. "It seems that M'leer and T'khill have been re-arrested on their initial charge of impersonating dragonriders and for escaping confinement."

     "Panthro!" Arye shouted. "Lower Psionic screens!"

     T'khill! she sent.

 

Ista Weyr:

     Arye? Are you still on the Panthro? T'khill ventured.

     I'm here, she responded.

     Arrye, we seem to have a small prroblem, Maleer cut in.

     Not according to Panthro. He says it's not little! Arye sent. I strongly suspect, however, Ryuu's going to be a little pissed!

     Because I Impressed a dragon? T'khill asked.

     Orr that he didn't? Maleer tossed in.

     Probably both! Arye replied.

     Both T'khill and Maleer winced in anticipation. There was no such thing as Ryuu getting 'a little pissed.'

     "...And I'd like to know why you identified yourselves as dragonriders?" D'ram was demanding. "Especially when the dragons don't give an honorific to female riders!" he finished, looking at Maleer.

     Waitaminute! Arye sent to them. I may have something to help! Panthro's given me the text of your interrogation. Ryuu's also being interrogated, and it's given me an idea! Is your dragon big enough to ride?

     Rryuu being arrrested is helping us? Maleer sent only to T'khill. This'll be a firrst!

     Not yet, T'khill replied to Arye. But I understand he will grow. Does that help?

     Absolutely, it helps! There was an incident where they found dragons could travel through time! Arye told them.

     And the value of this is...? T'khill inquired.

     "Well, we're waiting," D'ram said.

     Tell them... Arye quickly outlined the plot to them. They glanced at each other in surprise and audibly gulped.

     "The rresponsibility is mine, I'm afrraid," Maleer nervously began. D'ram and the others focused on her. She paused as Arye telepathically fed her information.

     "I assume you arre awarre of how drragons can teleporrt thrrough time?" she asked. Warbret raised an eyebrow and glanced at D'ram.

     "You've got to be kidding," the Lord Holder said to her. "Does the word 'Oldtimers' mean anything to you?"

     "Well, then you must have hearrd about how Lessa went back to brring them forrwarrd?" she ventured.

     "Enough of this!" D'ram said, beginning to show his annoyance. "Of course we've heard about it! Most this entire Weyr and I were brought forward! Now explain yourselves!"

     Uh-oh! Arye thought.

     "Rhurr!" Maleer gulped.

     "Uh--" T'khill spoke up, and then faltered when they all turned on him.

     T'khill! Stay with the plan! It's the only way! Arye sent. But he couldn't proceed, in case his unfamiliarity with the language caused them to get in deeper trouble.

     "He came acrross a drragonrriderr who had timed it frrom the futurre!" Maleer shouted, startling everyone there. Even T'khill looked at her in surprise. "It was him," she whispered, as they looked at her in stunned amazement. "It was his own futurre."

     "He WHAT?" Warbret exclaimed, but D'ram held up his hand. There was great concern etched on the dragonrider's face, and indeed all the riders in the room.

     "He timed on himself?" D'ram hoarsely asked, stunned by the admission.

     "I didn't believe it when he told me," Maleer said, looking down in shame. "I wasn't therre. I thought he was daydrreaming. We werre both verry young, so I thought it was a child's game he was playing. Afterr, he insisted to be called T'khill. I trried to play along, so I became M'leer. I know it was wrrong, but we grew up togetherr, it became to be habit."

     "Are you certain?" D'ram asked.

     "I neverr saw them, myself," she said, looking up. There were tears in her eyes, which surprised T'khill. He had seen humans capable of such grand deception, but it takes training. He hadn't expected M'leer to know so much of their culture.

     "But the drragon's name was Stealth!" she told them. "I did not believe it, myself, until today!"

     "T'khill!" D'ram admonished him. "I can't tell you enough how dangerous that kind of stunt was!"

     "He--I--informed me the situation was unavoidable," T'khill told them. He relied on his experience with temporal anomalies as part of Ryuu's crew to keep the phrasing correct. "I--wasn't given details about how Stealth and--his rider--came to be there."

     "D'ram!" Warbret exclaimed. "You don't believe this, do you?"

     "As fantastic as it sounds, Lord Warbret, there is precedent," D'ram told him. He looked at his other riders in the barracks who had come forward on that urgent journey.

     Through their dragons, they silently communicated about how, in desperation, before Lessa had left to get the Oldtimers, F'nor had led several riders ten turns back to mature and train at the Southern Weyr. The events were not common knowledge and couldn't be spoken with Warbret there. They all nodded in agreement. None of them knew that T'khill and Maleer were listening to the dragons pass the messages back and forth.

     "T'khill, do you know if your future had--any problems--going back?" D'ram asked him.

     "They were able to recover well enough to make the attempt, but of course, I don't know if they made it."

     "Of course," D'ram nodded, understanding.

     "But how did you two get out of my cell?" Warbret asked.

     "I'm afrraid I have to take crredit forr that," Maleer said, getting up from where she sat beside T'khill on his bunk, to slink up beside the Lord Holder. She held up his wallet with his official documents before his face.

     "It's a useful talent," she softly said, "even if I honestly don't use it so often. Just in emerrgencies." Warbret looked stunned. Then, angrily, he snatched it from her and replaced it in his pocket.

     "Try that again!" he challenged. Maleer smiled.

     "Alrright," she purred.

     She walked away a few paces, then turned and approached him, again, sliding up beside him.

     "Ha!" Warbret exclaimed, grabbing her hand and pulling it up. His wallet was again in her grip. "I caught you!"

     "Yesss," Maleer said, smiling. "But did you catch these?" She held up her other hand. In it, was his belt knife and purse. D'ram and the others burst out laughing. Even Warbret was impressed and had to chuckle good-naturedly.

     "And you swear that you never used such skills for selfish gain?" he asked, taking his property back.

     "I do affirrm," Maleer said. "I have neverr used such talent except wherre the situation called forr desperrate measurres."

     Warbret chewed the inside of his cheeks, considering as he stared at her and T'khill.

     "Will you vouch for her, then?" he asked T'khill.

     "Yes, sir," T'khill said, standing to face him.

     "And will you vouch for him?" Warbret asked D'ram.

     "I do, Lord Holder," he replied.

     "Very well," Warbret said, acknowledging him. "Because, if I so much as hear about any thieving going on in or about my Hold, I'm talking to you, first thing, Maleer."

     "I underrstand, sirr," Maleer solemnly said.

     Warbret stared at her, still trying to place that accent. Finally, he turned and marched out, leaving the dragonmen to speak with the two.

     "Understand this, too," D'ram spoke up. "Your Impression is a bit unprecedented. Should you give us any reason to grieve vouching for you and continuing your training, so don't think for a moment that we can't punish you. You can still be sent to the Southern Weyr with the others that didn't accept our responsibilities to Pern, or worse."

     "Yes, sir," they both replied.

     "I won't let you down," T'khill promised.

     "We'll see," D'ram said. "When it's time, we'll see. Be ready tomorrow morning, T'khill. You and the rest of the weyrlings will begin your training then." With that, he led the others out of the weyrling barracks. The other newly bonded riders and dragons started to filter in, giving muted watch to the trio as they picked out their bunks and lairs.

 

Fort Hold:

     It was dark, and it took a few moments for his eyes to adjust, but then he saw one, then two small lights. Rushing down the rough stairs, he picked them up and put them into his pocket. The chamber went pitch black from his vantage, but the creature was still screaming.

     "There must be more down there," he muttered to himself as he pulled out one of the glows and his scanner. The readings from the scanner indicated there were dozens below the twisting descending stairwell. And several life forms.

     "Oh, lovely," he muttered, groping about in the darkness.

     Near the bottom, he could make out the light from the glows as his eyes finished their adjustment. He found two vaguely draconic creatures cowering against the far wall, surrounded by half-a-dozen of the glowing fungal balls.

     "Easy, fellas," Ryuu said, trying to calm them as he began picking up the scattered glows and putting them away. "I'm only trying to help." He got about three that were near the stairs, but the others were close to the creatures. When he reached to get one, one of the watch-whers lunged snapping for him, and they both jumped back. Ryuu because of the teeth, and the watch-wher because of the glow.

     "Jezus!" Ryuu exclaimed. He had to stop and think about how to make this a win-win situation. In the few moments he was trying to plan among the horrendous cries from the creatures, he heard a new sound. There was a strange scrambling noise coming from a pitch black hole in the wall, too small for the watch-whers to fit. In a few moments, a long, six-legged reptilian creature emerged, aiming beady red eyes about as it took in the scene.

     "Who are you? Their cousin?" Ryuu asked it. It didn't respond, but just stared at him. Ryuu looked back up the stairs, and listened. Nobody was coming, so he made up his mind. He began undressing, neatly putting his clothes on the stairs.

     "I'm sorry, but this might hurt you," he said to the watch-whers. "I'm only trying to help." There was a tremendous bright flash, and the watch-whers screamed even louder. Fortunately for them, it didn't last more than a split second. In Ryuu's place, there stood a gold dragon, about seven meters from snout to tip of tail. The six-legged creature started but didn't run.

     I'm here to help, Ryuu-the-dragon told the watch-whers. He reached an arm for one of the glows, and the creature snapped at him again, making contact this time with his scaled hide. Ryuu held steady, and continued to reach for the glow as the watch-wher held on with its bite.

     I'm only here to help stop the pain, he told it as his claws closed about the glow. The lessening light and his gentle talk eased the creature's pain, and it let go.

     As Ryuu moved to go to the other side for the last two glows, the six-legged creature got involved, herding the watch-whers away and using its body to provide some shade from the glows. Two other six-legged creatures showed up and helped. Ryuu looked at them and he gathered up the remaining glows and retreated to his clothes.

     I'm afraid I am going to cause you pain again, but it's just for a moment, I promise, Ryuu told them. Don't attack me, and I'll leave with the things that hurt you.

     The six-legged creatures suddenly closed up to protectively shield the watch-whers. Ryuu stared at them for several moments.

     Are you the ones I'm looking for? he ventured. There was no reply, but the three creatures continued to glare at him.

     Ryuu triggered the Gateway, and returned to his human form. The watch-whers screamed once more, then there was silence. Ryuu waited a few moments to see if he was going to be attacked in the dark, then quickly dressed, having memorized the layout of his clothes. After dressing, he pulled out his scanner and let it read the creatures.

     After nearly three thousand years, his heart nearly stopped on its own. All five creatures had similar tri-latticed DNA as the other native species he had detected. But one of the six-legged lizards had the unmistakable genetic markers that Ryuu and his crew had!

     There, before him, was his quarry and evidently, her two monitors! If it was one thing he had learned while encountering others like himself this was an exceedingly dangerous moment when they meet. And he knew the artificial life forms must've detected his metabolic spike.

     "Good God!" he exclaimed, "Just how many different variations did the Colonists make from those fire-lizards? This makes four, now!" he asked aloud before setting the scanner to continuous mapping and putting it away. He hoped voicing surprise about discovering the watch-wher's nature would disguise the shock of finding his target.

     He headed up the stairs, doubting it would. She had ignored THEIR recall. Her monitors had already detected the signals from the ship and the crews' monitors when they arrived in system. She's stayed hidden while they searched for weeks. And Ryuu had just revealed himself in his full glory right in front of her nose!

     Puma, he sent on a private contact. I've found her! Get the readings from my scanner and transport down as soon as I leave the tunnel.

     He paused before reaching the entrance and pulled out his injector. He implanted a replacement transponder in his arm before putting it away and finished climbing the stairs.

     The ship reports subspace distortions are preventing a safe transport lock for beaming in, Puma replied.

     I've got my scanner locked active and on mapping mode, Ryuu responded. Use it as your coordinate base. Hurry! And you'll need night vision goggles when you arrive. She's not, repeat, not a draconic! She's some sort of reptile, like a six-legged Komodo lizard. If she triggers the Gateway, we'll never find out what she'll be!

 

Ista Weyr:

     Brace yourselves, everyone! Ryuu suddenly sent to them and the others in his crew.

     They felt strong electric shocks and Stealth roared in protest.

     Who hurts my friend? he demanded.

     "It's okay, Stealth," T'khill said to him. The bronze's bellow got the attention of everyone in the barracks.

     It's not okay! the dragon hissed. Who was that? Did he do this? I heard him!

     "Easy, Stealth," Maleer said, soothingly. "Yes, that was a friend of ours."

     A friend wouldn't hurt his friends like that! Stealth said.

     "Stealth, you have to understand something about me," T'khill said to the dragon, rubbing his eye ridges. "We're--uh-oh! Incoming!" He jerked his hand back to keep from shocking the dragon.

     Make him stop! Stealth roared, rearing up on his couch. Who is hurting my friend? WHERE ARE YOU?

     "Calm down, Stealth!" T'khill said to him.

     The doors to the barracks burst open and the voice of a dragon outside bellowing started Stealth.

     "By the shells of dragons eggs, what is going on in here?" the blue rider, K'der, demanded.

     Someone hurt T'khill! Stealth told him. K'der looked about the barracks at the other riders, but no one was in the vicinity.

     "We're okay, K'der," T'khill quickly told him. Maleer nodded as she petted and tried to soothe the bronze.

     "I think he's still a bit jittery," Maleer said.

     "T'khill," K'der began, "I don't know what kind of problems you and your spouse have, but this is not the time nor the place for any problems to erupt. These dragons need sleep and their riders need rest. Tomorrow's going to be a long day for everyone here."

     He's not here! Stealth said to Warth, K'der's dragon. But he hurt my friends! I heard him! I heard Ryuu!

     "Ryuu?" K'der asked, astonished. "T'khill, do you know what this is about? Who is Ryuu?"

     "I'm afraid we wouldn't know what we can tell you," T'khill replied as truthfully as he could.

     "Well you lot had better get to sleep, because first thing in the morning, dead-on-your-feet or not, you start!" With that, the dragonrider shut the doors.

     Throughout the barracks, people and dragons started crawling in their racks and beds, putting out the glows. Daylight from the late afternoon sun still seeped between the cracks of window shutters and the door.

     Are you in trouble because of me? Stealth fearfully asked after several quiet moments.

     "Oh no, Young One!" T'khill quickly reassured his dragon. "But that definitely could have performed better than it did," T'khill muttered. Maleer didn't bother to correct his phrasing.

     "Wait until Rryuu finds out," she said with a shudder.

     Who is Arye? Stealth suddenly asked. Is it okay for me to meet her? She sounds nice. Nicer than Ryuu!

     "You hearrd herr?" Maleer asked, astonished.

     Hey! Arrye! Maleer called.

     DON'T--! came a sharp response. A series of four pulses came on her subcutaneous transponder. Maleer looked at T'khill in surprise.

     "Arrye's in trrouble!" she whispered. She looked about for a place of concealment.

     "On the ship?" T'khill asked, confused. "How can anyone be in trouble on the ship?"

     "I don't know how eitherr," Maleer said. "I felt pain in herr sending. I have to find someplace to trransporrt frrom." T'khill looked about and noticed there were doors to stalls next to each rider's bunk.

     "These look like heads," he said pointing to the one next to his. "Try here."

     Maleer surreptitiously looked about to ensure no one noticed her and quietly slipped in the stall. Once inside, she activated her communicator and signaled for transport.

     A low resonant hum filled the barracks, instantly getting the attention of dragons and riders. They heard a multi-tonal whine, like that of fire-lizards crying, rise in pitch and volume before all the sound faded, leaving confused faces of humans and dragons in its wake.

     "What was that?" someone demanded. "Another hatching?" But no one ventured to supply an answer.

     All hands, Puma called out just then to everyone. Ryuu's been compromised! Coordinate through me, from now on!

 

Fort Hold:

     There was quite a crowd waiting when Ryuu got to the top of the stairs. In addition to Sebell and the Fort guards, Robinton was standing by. No surprise there, as was the additional escort he had spotted earlier off to one side. But then he also saw the girl with the fire-lizard squadron, a handsome tall man in some sort of heavily furred leather jackets that looked like flying gear from WWI, and a short, pretty woman also with her own flying gear. All three were pressed in close to Robinton. There were lots beyond, probably people from the Gather. At that moment, a huge, older man pushed through the crowd, demanding answers.

     Ryuu handed Sebell the glows from his pocket, and turned to one of the Fort guards. "You might want to put a solid door over that entrance so those kids can't toss those things through the grill," Ryuu told him.

     "Who are you and what explanation do you have for this damage?" the huge man bellowed.

     "Just a friend, trying to help," Ryuu calmly replied. He pointed at the glows Sebell was holding. "Some kids tossed those down that tunnel to torment the--what do you call them, 'watch-whers'? There wasn't time to unlock the gate, so I busted it and went down to get them."

     "Y-you-you did--WHAT?" the man burst out.

     "It's true, Lord Groghe," Sebell spoke out.

     "The creatures were in pain," Ryuu added. "They're fine now."

     The big man was at a loss for words as his eyes bugged out.

     "Ryuu can speak to dragons," Sebell said. "Evidently, he can speak to watch-whers, too."

     "I would appreciate it if you wouldn't speak of such things too loudly," Ryuu quietly said to him, but Groghe was close enough to hear Ryuu's request.

     "It's a rare person who can speak to the dragons and watch-whers, Lord Groghe," the short, pretty woman spoke out, coming forward.

     "Too late," Ryuu muttered, wincing, but Groghe caught that, too.

     "I should know," the woman finished, evidently not catching Ryuu's remark.

     "You must be Ramoth's friend," Ryuu suddenly said, smoothly, taking her hand. "I can see why she chose such a beautiful companion. I'm impressed, too!" There was stunned silence as he kissed her hand.

     "Is there something wrong?" Ryuu asked Sebell after noticing the crowd staring at him.

     "This is Weyrwoman Lessa!" Sebell whispered.

     "Well, of course she is," Ryuu smoothly replied, smiling. "I'm very honored to meet you, as well as Weyrleader F'lar," Ryuu added, extending his hand to Mnementh's rider. Ryuu steeled his grip, expecting F'lar to have a strong grasp, and gripped F'lar's hand just enough to not give offense.

     At that moment, Ryuu felt a stiff, electric jolt shooting though his body. It was sudden, but not unexpected, and Ryuu quickly grabbed his chest over his heart, feigning a heart seizure. F'lar, on the other hand, had to yank his arm away. The energy surge numbed his arm and shortened his breath. Mnementh bellowed in anger for the attack on his rider.

     The Gateway! Ryuu sent an exclamation to Puma as he knelt down. She's gone to wing! Move in! Move in! NOW!

 

     "Are you okay?" Lessa asked F'lar as several people moved to assist the stranger that had collapsed. He was rubbing the feeling back into his arm.

     "I never felt anything like that!" F'lar muttered. "No, wait! I did! Last year, when I accidentally brushed against Fandarel's distance writer."

     "Hold on, Ryuu," Lessa heard Robinton tell the man. Evidently, no one else had noticed F'lar's injury. "I've sent Zair for Oldive. He'll be here shortly. Do you know what's wrong?"

     "Like I told you," the stranger said, getting his breath back. "I'm older than I look."

     "Old, my busted voice!" Robinton said. "You're not a day over twenty-five turns. Thirty, tops."

     "Oh, you'd be surprised," Ryuu responded, slyly smiling. Lessa narrowed her gaze at the man.

     There's something about him... she thought to herself.

 

     Wolf and I are in! Puma reported. We're heading down!

     I've been compromised! Ryuu sent to Puma. If I can feel her using the Gateway, she can feel and hear me! I can only send on private channels from now on.

     Understood, Puma responded. But those dragons can hear our broadcasts, as well!

     Ryuu got to his feet, politely rejecting the assistance from everyone as he was guided back to the Harperhall and the Healercraft section. If the others needed to use the Gateway to transform, the energy surge would transfer through Ryuu and possibly injure anyone in contact with him.

     "I'll be okay," Ryuu told Robinton. I just need to rest. Could I have some water?"

     "Menolly, would you fetch us some wine?" Robinton asked the girl with the cloud of fire-lizards.

     Menolly? Ryuu mused, catching her name. Like Melody. The girl with the dozen, singing fire-lizards.

     "Please! Just water," Ryuu called out to her. "And thank you."

     Standby! Puma sent to him. Ryuu quickly distanced himself from anyone's touch and braced for the shock. It came.

     "You ought to know," Robinton said, "I did the same thing when I was a child."

     Problem? Ryuu asked when the sensation faded.

     "Really?" Ryuu asked Robinton, keeping track of his two separate conversations.

     There's no sign of them, Puma responded. Just the draconics. Wolf and I've gone into the tunnels to sniff him out. But the tunnel's been collapsed!

     "So, you got to pet the watch-whers, too?" Ryuu asked the MasterHarper.

     "Shells, no!" Robinton burst out laughing. "I only got in fights with the kids who tossed the glows. Got stomped several times, as I recall. They didn't hurt you, did they?"

     "Not a scratch," Ryuu replied, grinning.

 

Onboard Panthro:

     When M'leer reached the Bridge, she found Arye writhing on the deck.

     "Arrye!" she screamed, rushing to her. "What happened?"

     "You and T'khill happened!" she hissed, getting to her knees. "Do you have any idea how hard it is to do two simultaneous private links? We are not built that way! It's given me the Mother of All Headaches! Then Ryuu and Puma come blasting in with their broadcasts--did NOT help!"

     "That's it?" M'leer asked, astonished.

     "Yeah," Arye said, sneering with annoyance. She got to her feet and made her way to the command chair. "'That's it'! Unless you want Ryuu privy to all that you guys were doing. I'll be all right in a few hours. Just--don't send to me for awhile."

     "So what's going on with Rryuu?" M'leer asked.

     "He ran into our quarry," Arye reported with a snort. "Blew the Gateway right under her nose! She bolted and now Puma and Wolf are trying to chase her down. So what was it you wanted to tell me?"

     "Oh," M'leer said. "I almost forrgot. That drragon T'khill bonded with can hearr us sending. He hearrd your prrivate sending to us. Then there was Rryuu's brroadcast. I imagine Stealth's just hearrd Puma, too." Arye stared at her.

     "He heard my private sending?" she asked. "No wonder I have a spitting headache."

     "That's 'splitting headache'," M'leer said automatically. Arye glared at her and she winced. "Sorrry, habit frrom corrrecting T'khill," M'leer apologized.

     "I meant to say 'spitting--', oh, never mind," Arye said, rubbing her temples. "Well, if you want to reduce the number of times Ryuu forces you to use the Gateway to heal yourselves, you better get some damned good data on the life cycles of that creature you adopted!"

     "We'll get on it rright away!" M'leer quickly said.

 

Ista Weyr:

     That seemed a strange way of going between, Stealth remarked. It doesn't sound right.

     "What?" T'khill asked, looking at his dragon. Stealth was switching his gaze from the necessary where Maleer concealed her departure to some direction vaguely southeast and back. "Oh, our transporter," he realized what the creature was referring to.

     Do I grow to be a handsome dragon? Stealth suddenly asked.

     "I don't comprehend," T'khill said. "What do you mean?"

     You told them we will jump back to see you when you were a child, Stealth reminded him. Did I grow to be a handsome dragon? And--I'm a little confused. Why did Arye know so much about us going back but you didn't? Weren't you there to meet us?

     "Uh, I'm sorry, but Maleer and I didn't exactly tell them the truth about that," T'khill whispered.

     What do you mean? Stealth asked.

     "I never met you before you hatched," T'khill told him. The bronze blinked several times, trying to analyze that.

     None of what you told them was true?

     "No," T'khill admitted.

     Why did you tell them those things, then? Stealth pleaded with a whine.

     "Because Maleer and I are not supposed to be here," T'khill explained. "None of us. Not Arye, not Puma, and most certainly not Ryuu."

     Am I not supposed to be here, too? the dragon fearfully asked.

     "Oh, no, Stealth," T'khill said, getting out of his bunk to hug his dragon. "It's not like you think. You are supposed to be here. I'm the one who's at fault. I wasn't supposed to get you." He sighed, puzzled by the moisture leaking from his eyes.

     "We are on a mission," he whispered to the bronze, "to find someone else who isn't supposed to be here. That person was supposed to be with us, going home with us. But he, or she, refused to come when called. So we had to come here to look for her."

     Are you telling me the truth? Stealth asked him.

     "Absolutely!" T'khill said, hugging him fiercely. "But it's for your ears, only! You must never tell anyone else! No one, not another dragon, not another human, no one!"

     What will you do when you find this one you seek? the dragon asked.

     "We'll take him, or her with us," T'khill replied. "We'll leave this world and go home."

     Are you going to leave me? Stealth asked with a whimper.

     "Absolutely not!" T'khill almost spoke out loud. "No! You'll come with me! For the first time in my two thousand, eight hundred and twenty-seven years in existence, I'm not alone. You're coming with me!"

     But you're in trouble because you Impressed me. You're going to be in trouble, aren't you? Stealth pointed out. Ryuu will be angry, won't he? He can hurt you. You and M'leer are afraid of him.

     "Well, Ryuu might be annoyed, yes," T'khill admitted, wincing. "But he won't be angry. Actually, he likes dragons. A lot. He'd love to meet you," he said, grinning.

     M'leer, Stealth suddenly said. That's her name! Why do you call her Maleer?

     "Well, you probably have a better understanding of that, than me," T'khill pointed out. Stealth was puzzled and said so. "You were born here, after all!" the rider said grinning.

     The target's on the run! Puma announced. Wolf and I have to change! Standby!

     "Stealth! You must listen and obey me!" T'khill hissed at the bronze hatchling. He stepped away to isolate himself from the dragon. "I'm going to get shocked again, but you mustn't get angry!"

     What? the dragon asked, confused. Why? Who is doing that to you? Who are they?

     "Stealth!" T'khill insisted. "Trust me! Don't yell out about this! I'll explain as much as I can."

     Incoming! Puma announced. The jolt hit T'khill as warned.

     Why? Stealth asked, whimpering. Why do they hurt you?

     "It's okay, Stealth," T'khill said, trying to soothe him. "There's a certain thing I and my friends can do. We can actually change our bodies in an instant. This body you're looking at isn't my hatched form."

     It isn't? the dragon asked, thoroughly confused.

     "No, it isn't," T'khill told him. "But for us to change, it shocks the rest of us. If I were to change, they would be shocked like me."

     So do it to let them know they should stop hurting you! Stealth pleaded.

     "Stealth, please understand," T'khill insisted. "They need to do it because the one we're looking for can do it, also. That person's running, and Puma needs to catch him before he gets away."

     Standby, Puma warned.

     "Please, Stealth!" T'khill insisted. "Don't shout!" The energy surged through his body again.

     There's no sign of them, Puma broadcasted. Just the draconics. Wolf and I've gone into the tunnels to sniff him out. But the tunnel's been collapsed!

     They lost him! So, can I tell her and Ryuu to stop hurting you, now? Stealth asked.

     "They're a long ways off, Stealth," T'khill said to him. "But you better not! We don't desire to tell Ryuu about you just immediately."

     I'm sorry they hurt you, Stealth said, snuffling up to him. I'm sorry I'm not big enough to make them stop hurting you!

     "Oh, Stealth," T'khill said, rubbing the dragon's eye ridges. "It's a needed thing."

     The barracks doors opened, and T'khill looked up to see Maleer slip back in.

     "Is Arye broken?" T'khill asked her.

     "That's 'is Arrye hurrt?'" Maleer corrected him. "She's fine. It was the fact she had two prrivate links going and that Stealth could hearr herr even with that rrestrriction."

     I hurt Arye? Stealth asked, shocked. I'm sorry! I didn't want to hurt anyone except the ones who keep hurting T'khill!

     "No, Stealth," she said. "Arrye hurt herself. How arre you?"

     I'm confused, the dragon told her.

     "Well, you did come at an awkwarrd moment," Maleer said, shrugging. "We didn't have time to warrn you what you werre getting into. If we had, you might've chosen someone else." T'khill looked at her in surprise.

 

Fort Gather:

     Lessa watched them go, and turned F'lar to go back to their dragons.

     "What do you think?" F'lar asked, still rubbing his shoulder.

     "Something about him seems familiar," Lessa muttered. "I know I've never seen him before, but I get the strangest feeling. But you remember how the dragons suddenly acted so strangely a few hours ago? They mentioned 'Ryuu'. And I can hear the dragons, especially Ruth, talking about him."

     "What are they saying?" F'lar asked.

     "They're worried," Lessa replied.

 

     Robinton paused outside his office, deep in thought. After they brought Ryuu to Oldive, he had the strangest feeling that something was out of place.

     "Robinton," Lessa said when she caught up with the MasterHarper, interrupting his train of thought.

     "Lessa!" he exclaimed turning around. Robinton's face showed his genuine pleasure at her presence. "I'm sorry about that unpleasantness. Is F'lar still here?"

     "He had to go back to Benden. Robinton," she said, wanting to get to the bottom of this problem as quickly as possible. "What can you tell me about this person we met today? What was his name?"

     "Ryuu," Robinton answered, and the smile left his face. To Lessa, that didn't bode well. "Would you mind stepping into my office?" he asked her as pleasantly as he could.

     "I'm sorry, Lessa," he apologized with a sigh once they were inside. "I may be stepping into Weyr business, but I'm afraid this Ryuu is Harper business, too. I think it would be better if we work together on this."

     "I agree," Lessa finally said after a few moments to think of where this may lead. "Perhaps we should work together. So, what can you tell me about him?"

 

     A few hours later, Oldive couldn't find anything wrong with Ryuu's heart and said so.

     "Well, I don't know, myself," Ryuu said, shrugging his shoulders. "I'm no healer. Maybe it's just indigestion. All I know is it sometimes hits pretty hard like that." He glanced up at the two fire-lizards keeping an eye on him. Sebell was there, with his Kimi and Robinton's Zair was also there.

     "Do you have any medication for it?" Oldive asked. Ryuu grimaced.

     "Back in my camp," he meekly explained.

     "Well, we better get it," Oldive said. "If I know what you're taking, I can figure out what to do about it."

     "Well, Jaxom would know where to find it," Ryuu said, keeping a poker face. But telepathically, he called to Puma with near panic.

     "I'll go find him," Sebell said as he reached for the door.

     Puma! Ryuu sent. Is anyone still on the Panthro?

     I want you to find a better name for her, Puma started. Ryuu's mental scream at her cut her off. It also startled all the dragons and fire-lizards around Fort.

     "What's wrong with them?" Oldive asked when both the fire-lizards screamed.

     "I don't know!" Sebell exclaimed, surprised by their behavior.

     Puma, Ryuu sent when he calmed down enough to where he could make a private connection again. I need to know who's on the ship! As Soon As Yesterday!

     I don't like it when you yell like that! she protested.

     "Oh for the love of--" he muttered under his breath. WHO'S ON THE BLOODY SHIP? he broadcast to everyone. To hell with it if she hears me! he thought to himself. Again, the fire-lizards screamed, as well as the dragons outside.

     "Kimi! Zair!" Sebell cried. "What's wrong?"

     I am, Arye meekly replied. She had heard that mental scream a moment ago and wondered what was wrong.

     "Ryuu? Are you alright?" Oldive asked, coming back to him with concern etched in his face. "Your face is all red!"

     Ryuu wanted to laugh and ask the MasterHealer, And why shouldn't it be? Instead, he replied, "I'm okay," with a tight smile.

     Arye, I need you to have the ship synthesize a camp in the jungle near where Pardus met me today, he told her. It should appear to have been for one human male, and look like it was evacuated in a hurry. Have Panthro whip up a batch of Nitroglycerin tablets for heart patients to include in the setting. And have him beam it all down as fast as he can create it! One of the natives and his rider will be coming to pick up the pills and they'll be there as soon as they lift off the ground!

     "I think I'd better check you out some more," Oldive told him, oblivious to Ryuu's silent conversations and inner turmoil. "This may take awhile," the MasterHealer warned.

     "It's okay," Ryuu said with a sigh, lying back on the exam table. "I'm not going anywhere." None of us are going anywhere, he silently added to himself. We're not going to find her for Another Three Thousand Years, and in the meanwhile, there's a Dysonsphere just chock full of Inter-dimensional Near-God-like DRAGONS screaming at us to 'Hurry the Bloody-Flaming-HELL UP!'

     "Things just can't possibly get any better than they are right now," he muttered sarcastically. Oldive gave him a quizzical look, but didn't pursue the matter.

     By now, the fire-lizards had settled down.

     "Sebell, you'd better find Jaxom!" Oldive told the harper.

 

Ista Weyr:

     A few hours after sunset the entire Weyr was startled by all the dragons roaring. Only T'khill and Maleer shocked awake, knew why.

     Who was that? Stealth asked, terrified. The dragon's eyes were whirling yellow and white. What was that?

     "That, my love, was Ryuu," T'khill quietly whispered. The room had become dark, as the sun, not yet set, had moved shadow over the barracks. Someone at the other end of the room opened a glow basket and the weyrlings started muttering to each other.

     "He sounds a bit ticked. You don't suppose he learrned about us, alrready, do you?" Maleer asked.

     That was Ryuu? the dragon asked, gulping nervously.

     WHO'S ON THE BLOODY SHIP? Ryuu demanded after a few moments. Again, the dragons throughout the weyr roared, all except Stealth.

     "No. Not us," T'khill concluded. He lay back down to go to sleep. "It's okay, Stealth," he said. "SEP. Not our concern."

 

     As he left Oldive's office, Sebell suddenly realized he had a problem. Jaxom had confided with the MasterHarper about Ryuu, so he couldn't very well and go to Jaxom about this issue.

     Just then, Sebell saw Robinton and Lessa rushing out of the Harperhall and ran to them. Lessa kept going, running for Ramoth while Robinton slowed to wait for Sebell.

     "Master Robinton!" Sebell called out when he arrived. "What's happening? All the fire-lizards and dragons are upset! Zair and Kimi, too!"

     "I don't know!" Robinton replied.

     "Well, I have another problem," Sebell told him. "Oldive is needing some medicine that Ryuu left at his camp. But Jaxom's the only one who knows how to get there. And since you're holding his cofidence--"

     "Oh, I see your point!" Robinton said understanding. "I'd better look for the Lord Holder."

 

     Ryuu! Your camp's in place, Arye reported.

     Thanks, Arye.

     Ryuu? a soft inquiry intruded into his mind.

     Ruth! Ryuu responded in surprise. How are you doing?

     I was going to ask you, Ruth said. Why are you angry?

     Oh, I'm sorry I hurt you! Ryuu said. It's a bit of my temper leaking out when I wasn't getting cooperation from a relative I was speaking with. Hey, while we're talking, could I ask you and Jaxom a favor?

     Jaxom is here with me, Ruth replied. He's worried about what made me upset. All the riders are worried about their dragons.

     Again, I'm sorry, Ryuu apologized. But one of the harpers is coming for Jaxom. I had to tell these people that my heart is hurting and my medicine is in my camp. Could you please ask Jaxom to go get it for me? Ryuu waited as Ruth passed his request to Jaxom. There was a pause, and then Ruth answered.

     Jaxom and I are going to get it! Ruth told him. Jaxom is wise! He said we shouldn't wait for the harper! We g...!

 

     "Uh, oh!" Sebell muttered when he saw the white dragon lift off and go between. "Oldive's not going to be happy about that. How are we going to get Ryuu's medicine?"

     "Lioth!" Robinton exclaimed. "He was in that same area to pick up Piemur, remember? Come on!" he led the way, rushing through the crowd.

 

     As Oldive worked on him and he waited for Ruth's return, Ryuu looked up at the fire-lizards watching him. Kimi and Zair. He smiled at them, genuinely pleased by their company, even if they were spying on him.

     So! he began, smiling. What can you guys tell me about those watch-whers? he asked them.

     So sad! Such hope! Failed effort! Lost chance! The sudden overwhelming sensations of pity surprised him. They gave sad cries to vocalize their thoughts, as well. He knew his face registered their feelings. Oldive also saw it.

     "What's wrong?" he asked Ryuu.

     "The fire-lizards," Ryuu said. "They're remembering something sad. Puzzling." He decided to try again.

     What about--? He asked, sending them the image of the tunnel-snakes. Instantly, both of them started screeching in rage. Oldive looked up in surprise.

     "Oh not again!" Oldive exclaimed.

     Filthy Traitors! Baby Butchers! Thread Friends! Enemy! Tunnel-Snake too nice name! they shouted at him. Such tremendous hatred shocked him.

     "What's gotten into them?" Oldive asked out loud.

     Is it possible for them to live together? Ryuu couldn't resist asking.

     At that, they went berserk. They flew about the room, screaming! Ryuu got the distinct impression of thoroughly impossible concepts as they zipped about.

     Nice Tunnel-Snakes!

     Thread flying Queens!

     Nice--! There was the image of a man Ryuu didn't recognize standing near a telescope.

     Bad Ruth!

     Nice Thread!

     Male Gold!

     Heavy Wherry Feathers!

     Nice Red Star! And with that, they all went between.

     Oldive, not knowing what was wrong with them had to take cover. He gingerly peeked above the table after they had gone.

     "What was that?" he shouted.

     "Rather excitable, aren't they?" Ryuu cheerfully asked.

 

Southern Continent:

     "There it is!" Jaxom pointed out to Ruth. He had directed his dragon to the rocky outcropping where they had first sighted the man, figuring his camp had to close by. Jaxom spotted the camp in a clearing just to the south of the edifice.

     That's strange, Ruth commented as he slowed to land in the small clearing. I don't remember seeing this here before.

     "Well, there's no time to lose," Jaxom said as they landed. "Do you sense any felines?"

     No. None are about.

     "Good!" Jaxom exclaimed, unbuckling his straps and getting down from his dragon. Ducking into the tent, Jaxom found a slim metal box and a pouch lying on a bedroll. "I had no idea someone like him would have a heart condition," he said. He grabbed them and leapt back onto Ruth.

     Just as Ruth left to go between, Lioth appeared above the clearing where N'ton had picked up Piemur after the harper had killed the felines. With the peak between them, Ruth and Jaxom never saw the bronze dragon as the Weyrleader began searching for Ryuu's camp.

 

The Gather landing field:

     "Is Ramoth okay?" Robinton asked her after N'ton and Lioth flew off with Sebell.

     "Yes," Lessa replied, seemingly distracted by something. "She reports she heard someone was angry then demanding who was on a ship. But she didn't know who or where that call came from. Robinton, about the dragonrider who found Ryuu--"

     "Uh--I'm sorry, Lessa, but he looks to Fort," Robinton apologized. "I can't get involved too much in Weyr business. I hope you understand."

     Lessa's eyes bore into the MasterHarper for several moments.

     "And there are Fort riders that do me favors in getting my people in and out," Robinton added. "I don't think that I could in good conscience tell you about it. However, I have stressed to that rider the seriousness of bringing someone in from Southern."

     "I--see," Lessa slowly replied, nodding her head. "Well--I understand the sensitive nature of Harper business," she said. "It's just that I've heard things lately. I think I've heard enough to understand. And you may be right that it's best I don't get involved in such matters."

     "About my investigation--" Robinton began, switching the subject back to what they were discussing before Ramoth called her away.

     "Well, I wish it weren't you," Lessa said, cutting him off with a mock frown. "But as you say, this is Harper business, too. You know best who to send on such a mission. I wish you the best of luck, and please, do be careful, MasterHarper!" she finished, reaching up to give him a kiss before turning to walk back to her dragon.

     After Lessa left, Robinton turned back toward the Hall. Just then, he saw he was in a dragon's shadow and when he looked up, he saw it was Jaxom on his white coming in to land.

     "Jaxom!" Robinton yelled. "You just missed Sebell! We needed you to go to Ryuu's camp to find his medicine!"

     "I've got it right here!" Jaxom said, holding up a slim metal container.

     "You do?" Robinton asked astonished.

     "Ryuu asked Ruth if we could go get it for him," Jaxom explained.

     "He did? Oh, that's right! You said Ryuu could speak to Ruth," Robinton recalled. "Well, I'd better get this to Oldive."

 

     Later, back on the heights, Ruth twitched his tail in annoyance as an insect flew about his forks. It must've ridden on him when he returned from Ryuu's camp and somehow survived the cold of between.

     Annoying bug! he shouted at it. GO AWAY! There was an audible pop and the V-tol was no longer there.

 

     "I can't thank you enough, Lord Jaxom," Ryuu told him as the man patted the pocket in which he had placed his medicine.

     Before he could respond, Jaxom felt something slam into his shoulder.

     "Ow!" Jaxom exclaimed. Ryuu looked at the young man and saw a nasty stain on his tunic. Suddenly, Dorse and several of his buddies, who had been mingling nearby, began laughing at the Lord Holder's misfortune.

     JAXOM! Are you okay? Ruth anxiously asked him.

     "I'm alright, Ruth!" he quickly replied to calm his dragon. "Just a bug." Jaxom looked crossly at Dorse and his companions. But they were too far away and in the wrong place to have thrown the crawler to hit him there. And it sure stung like it would if somebody had really thrown a rock instead!

 

     Ooops! I should be more careful where I throw those things, Ruth thought to himself as he sheepishly ducked his head. Then the dragon noticed how Ryuu was giving him serious scrutiny. Finally, the stranger grinned and turned to help Jaxom clean off the mess.

 

     "Beautiful decoration, Lord Jaxom!" Dorse called out. "Too bad you only got one!"

     "Nothing for you to get concerned with, Dorse," Jaxom replied. Jaxom saw Ryuu pause to glare at the group of kids and they suddenly got the idea of going somewhere else.

     "Thanks," Jaxom sighed.

     "Friends of yours?" the man inquired. Jaxom grunted non-committally.

     "I'd better get this washed off before it stains," Jaxom explained, excusing himself.

     "Of course," Ryuu replied as he left to mingle in the Gather.

 

     "Oldive," Robinton began after Ryuu left the Healer's office, "I have the strangest feeling about that Ryuu character. Didn't you notice anything odd when you examined him?"

     "Now, Robinton, you know I'm not supposed to divulge a patient's condition to anyone," Oldive said, smiling. Then the smile faded. "But now that you mention it, I did feel something uneasy about seeing him again--like something was missing. I didn't have much time to consider it when Zair and all other the fire-lizards suddenly went crazy."

     Robinton started at that. His earlier conversation with Lessa had been cut short when she had to rush out to check on Ramoth. That can't be coincidence. And Zair did show up a few moments after Jaxom took off to go to Ryuu's camp, going on about some impossible matter he had heard.

     Robinton had asked Zair what he thought of Ryuu, and his fire-lizard suddenly settled down and gave happy chirps. The MasterHarper couldn't help but wonder about the puzzle. Whatever misgivings he and others may have about Ryuu, the fire-lizards seemed to like him.

     "Thank you Oldive," Robinton said, departing.

     Ryuu was waiting for him when Robinton exited the Healercraft Hall.

     "I assume I'm still needing an escort?" Ryuu asked, tilting his head. "But Sebell's nowhere to be found."

     "He left on Lioth to search your camp when he missed Jaxom," Robinton explained.

     Ryuu mouthed a silent, "oh!" and nodded his understanding. Then the man's head jerked up. "Ah! Here they come now!"

     Robinton looked up just in time to see N'ton's Lioth emerge from between. Then he looked at Ryuu, getting a very odd feeling that made his skin crawl. How could he have known...? Robinton wondered. Robinton watched as Ryuu checked the container of his medicine before closing it and putting it away. He thought it seemed a rather obsessive habbit for the man to have.

     "Shall we greet them?" Ryuu eagerly asked when he was finished.

     They met at the landing site and Sebell began to apologize that he couldn't find it.

     "That's okay," Ryuu said. He looked up at Lioth. "He's a beauty, that one," he said in awe.

     "Thank you," N'ton replied.

     Who are you? What do you want? Lioth demanded.

     Just a friend, Ryuu replied, smiling at the great bronze. I'm here to help.

     They thanked N'ton for transporting Sebell and let the Weyrleader see to his dragon.

     "Ryuu's already got it, Sebell," Robinton explained to him as they walked away. "He bespoke Ruth and asked him to go fetch it."

     "I see," Sebell replied slowly, his eyes narrowing suspiciously on Ryuu. Robinton couldn't blame him for being upset at wasting his time digging about in the jungle. "And did he recover your money, too?"

     "Oh, yes, he did," Ryuu said cheerfully, pulling out a pouch. From its limp condition, Robinton didn't think there were many marks, if any. "It's not much, I'm afraid," Ryuu's expression shifted to apology as he opened the drawstring. He shook the contents into his hand, and Robinton's eyes got huge when he saw it. There were three cut diamonds, a sapphire, and five rubies, each as large as his smallest fingernail.

     He glanced at Sebell to see his journeyman was equally astonished.

 

     Later, Robinton looked for Menolly and found her and Piemur getting some bubbly pies at a stall.

     "Ah! Menolly!" he called out when he spotted her. Catching up to them, he put his arms over her shoulders and Piemur's. "Just the person I need!"

     "Yes, MasterHarper?" she asked puzzled.

     "Menolly, I've wanted to learn all my life, but just never had the time," Robinton explained. "However, if you don't mind, could you please teach me how to sail?" The junior harpers looked at each other, uncertain of what to do.

 

Fort Hold:

     Down in the caverns of Fort, a tunnel-snake managed to snatch some drudge's clothing from the laundry without being seen. A couple minutes later, it emerged from the snake tunnels in to a nearly empty and unlit corridor. Its eyes began to glow, as did the eyes of a second tunnel-snake, giving illumination to the area.

     "Here, Mistress," it said, putting down the clothing before the nude young woman. "You will have to hide among the humans until the aliens lose your trail."

     "Who are these people?" she nervously asked her monitor. "What do they want?" She trembled in terror at how she had almost been captured.

     A few years ago, she heard a tremendously powerful voice in her head demanding she return home. Then, just a couple of months ago, her monitors, a pair of lifelong artificial life-form companions she brought to this world when she settled here with the other colonists, reported they were detecting signals from a space craft. There were demands for them to respond, but they all stayed hidden, not knowing if some enemy from her ancient past had found her out and was hunting her down. To make matters worse, last during the last sevenday, her monitors reported the source of the signals had arrived on the planet itself, spreading out in a definite search pattern.

     It was such a dreadful thing. The colony's technology level had deteriorated over the centuries to the point where no one should suspect any being was living on this planet. But now, here she was, exposed and defenseless, with the exception of her wondrous monitors. But she was handicapped by unpopularity of their form. If she had to mingle with the descendants of the original colonists, she would truly be defenseless! So she hid in the one place certain to be avoided: among the watch-whers.

     Over time, the watch-whers learned to leave these three tunnel-snakes alone, but that all others were fair game. In turn, she and her companions helped the whers whenever stupid and nasty kids would tease and torment the poor creatures by destroying the glows tossed down the stairs.

     Then, suddenly, HE showed up! One of the very people hunting for her! And worse yet, he could Change as she could! And he had sophisticated scanning equipment! Fortunately, he didn't seem to realize he had located her, but her monitors advised her otherwise.

     "His metabolism spiked when he conducted the scan!" one of them reported. "He was shocked by having Changed in our presence."

     "But he said--" she responded. She had been rushed to her chambers and Changed to human form to converse with them. At that moment, her monitors reacted to a new signal.

     "He has sent for others to hunt us!" they cried, driving her to a safer location. "There is some sort of matter transport occurring in the stairwell!" Beams from their eyes collapsed the cavern after their departure.

     Later, when they brought her some clothing, they made plans.

     "We were able to analyze the scanning equipment," they explained to her. "The dragons and their relatives cause severe distortion to the circuitry. Essentially, their devices are useless beyond twenty meters, or so. We believe if you can hide among the dragons, you'll be safe. Safer still, if you can Impress one of the creatures."

     She looked at her monitors in horror.

     "If I Impress, I'll be known among the Pernese! And I won't be able to hide after these people go away! And what happens when my dragon dies? It's a life-long telepathic bond!"

     "We can deal with that later," one of them said. "Right now, you need to find a location to hide and remain until these aliens go away. If they're hunting us covertly, then they won't be interested in revealing themselves to the Pern Colony. We have that advantage."

     "When you can, go to the landmark the dragonriders use for teleport training," the other told her. "We will signal you when you arrive. Good luck, Mistress!"

     "Oh, No!" she suddenly shouted.

     "Mistress! What's wrong?" one of her monitors asked. The girl had dropped to the ground, trembling and hugging herself. Terror was showing on her face. After a few seconds, she shuddered even more violently. "Mistress!" her Tunnel-snakes shouted.

     "He-he just screamed in anger!" she whispered, fearful the man could hear her. "Then he demanded to know who was on his ship! HE'S LOOKING FOR ME! THEY'RE ALL LOOKING FOR ME! WHO ARE THEY? WHAT DO THEY WANT?" she cried.

     "MISTRESS!" one of the units shouted to get her attention. "You must be brave! They're not superior to us! They're just like us! Nothing beyond that! They're not infallible!"

     "But there's more of them!" she fearfully responded. "And they're hunting me!"

     "But they are being covert!" her monitor said. "We don't know if they want to harm you, or not."

     "We can't take the chance!"

     "If they wanted to harm you, it would be easy to obliterate this planet from orbit," the artificial life form countered. "We will continue to monitor their behavior and react accordingly."

     "But then, why did he get so angry?" she demanded.

     "Unknown," the Tunnel-snake replied. "As we said, we will continue to monitor them. Try to meet us at the landmark. The time it takes for your dragon to mature and receive teleport training should give us time to determine their motives."

 

Fort Hold Gather:

     Late afternoon had Ryuu standing midway between Fort and the Harperhall complex, staring at the hold gates, watching people go in and out. The guards were stopping everyone to confirm their business with the hold. They were still nervous, as no one could account how Puma and the others managed to elude them.

     Somewhere inside, he lamented to himself. You're somewhere inside. We just need to have the chance to talk with you and we can all go home.

     "Is something the matter?" Sebell asked.

     "No," Ryuu muttered. "Nothing that I can fix at this stage."

     Sadly turning away, he spotted Robinton and two of his subordinates just as they sighted him. The tanned kid started then forced himself to relax.

 

     Ryuu didn't notice a drudge step out of the Hold entrance carrying a load of garbage to the refuse pile. But she spotted him instantly and watched him join the group of harpers.

     Keeping him under scrutiny, she made her way to the refuse pit and set down her pail, then continued to slink away.

 

     "Ah! Robinton!" Ryuu called out approaching them.

     "Ryuu! How are you feeling?" Robinton inquired.

     "Much better! Much better, thank you! And thanks to Ruth and Jaxom, too," he added, patting one of his pockets. "He got my medicine from my camp. Oh, and thank you, Melody. That water helped. I'm sorry we didn't get properly introduced. I heard you singing, earlier. Very nice! Very nice, indeed."

     Menolly was at a loss for what to say, stunned by the stranger's words.

     "Uh, her name is Menolly," Sebell said, protectively taking one of her arms.

     "Really?" Ryuu asked, puzzled. "With such a sweet singing voice like hers? And with so many talented friends? If her name wasn't Melody, I would've bet it had to be Beauty," he said, taking her other hand to kiss. Menolly's gold and one of her bronze fire-lizards gave questioning squeals and Menolly's face instantly turned beet-red.

     "Now that is impressive!" Ryuu said, raising an eyebrow. "I've got a niece somewhere who's good at changing her color like that! And hello to you, too, Beauty and Diver," he said, greeting them.

     "Might I ask what your intentions are, Ryuu?" Sebell challenged.

     "Oh, believe me, I'm much too old for such a young thing as Menolly," Ryuu said, holding his arms in surrender. "I would never seek to molest so sweet a young lady." Your fire-lizards, on the other hand... he added to himself. The fire-lizards all chirruped in surprise and stared at him with rapidly whirling eyes. He chuckled at their reaction and gave Beauty a wink.

     Inwardly, however, he groaned at the thought of how his partners would've reacted to his ideas. "But it is entertaining to see them blush," he finished. Then he turned to Piemur with a skeptical look.

     "Haven't we met before?" he asked, and the Journeyman gulped. Ryuu chuckled. "Perhaps, but just never introduced. Hello, I'm Ryuu," he said, extending his hand.

     "Journeyman Piemur," he said, taking it.

     "And this must be Farli," Ryuu stated, holding his fingers up to Piemur's gold so she could inspect him. After a second to sniff at him, she bowed her head to have her eye ridges caressed.

     "You make friends with the fire-lizards fairly easily," Sebell remarked.

     "I like cats," Ryuu said, finishing with a finger stroking down Farli's neck. "And dragons," he concluded.

     "Better than your friends?" Sebell asked. Ryuu shrugged.

     "The others tend to be a little skittish," Ryuu replied with a smirk. "Give them time. They'll get used to them."

     "How do felines and dragons relate?" Menolly asked.

     "I like them," Ryuu responded, looking at her as if that was enough explanation. There was a considerable pause when it became apparent that was all the explanation they were going to get.

     "Have you been to the gather?" Robinton asked, trying to reduce the obvious tension. A guarded opponent will be too careful to slip up, and despite his apparent easy-going attitude, Ryuu was obviously too guarded.

     "No, I haven't!" Ryuu said, cheerfully. "I've been meaning to, but with all that happened with the watch-wher, I just haven't had the chance. Is it okay?" he asked.

     "Come on!" Robinton said, guiding the others as well. "We'll show you around."

     Ryuu was easily distracted by the images of dragons or fire-lizards on just about every item that half the time that he frequently had to ask someone to repeat what was said. They all had an enjoyable time getting to know Ryuu, but then Piemur asked him a question.

     "So, how did you get out of that pride of felines?"

     Ryuu suddenly stopped, looking away from them.

     "I don't like hurting them," he quietly said. "It wasn't their fault." The look on his face reminded them of the face of a dragonless rider being asked what it felt like to lose his partner. "They didn't ask for that to happen to them," he finished.

     Menolly spotted a wine stall.

     "Would you like to get some Benden white, Ryuu?" she asked, trying to soothe over the awkward moment.

     "Is it any good?" Ryuu muttered.

     "'Is it any good?'" Robinton demanded with a bellow. "Now what kind of question is that? Now granted, last season wasn't as exquisite as two Turns past. But I'll have you know Raid's worst will still stack up against anyone else's best!"

     "And who else but Robinton could claim to be able to prove it?" Piemur asked. Laughing, they were able to lighten even Ryuu's mood.

     I found him! Wolf sent to everyone. He's bearing 219 relative to my position.

     Ryuu carefully watched the harpers as he slipped his scanner out of his pocket and opened it. In a couple of seconds, he closed it in disgust, and returned it to his pocket.

     That's me, you're detecting! Ryuu replied.

     "What's that?" the sharp-eyed Piemur asked.

     How the hell do you know that? Wolf demanded.

     "Oh, this?" Ryuu asked, pulling out a slim metal case. "It's my case for carrying my pills," he said, opening it for his inspection. "Sort of an old habit of mine to constantly check it," he said, putting the case back into his pocket, remembering to slip the pills to the outside of the near-identical scanner.

     Because my scanner's looking for scanners as well as our gene signatures! You're just on the other side of the stall from me, bearing 019 at a distance of seventy horamters! Ryuu responded, sending his irritation through the link. When you find a gene signature without a scanner, that's our target! By the way, you should know we're looking for a female.

     HOW COULD YOU POSSIBLY KNOW THAT? Wolf's reaction was enough to get the attention of some of the dragons and fire-lizards in the vicinity. Everyone around Ryuu had to contend with the suddenly nervous creatures.

     Because, Ryuu told him, smirking as he watched the harpers try to calm their friends, my scanner registered three of those tunnel-snakes. Two of them were female. One female has to be our target and the other two creatures have to be her monitors, a male and female each.

     After Robinton and the others had calmed down the fire-lizards, he paid for the wine and presented a cup to Ryuu. "Try this," he said.

     "Hmm, not bad," Ryuu replied after tasting. "Normally, I don't drink wine, and I prefer a red when I do, but I think I could get used to this."

     By the way, what are you & Puma doing in here? Ryuu sent to Wolf. You're supposed to be scanning for the girl...whatever she's become.

     "'Get used to it?'" Robinton asked indignantly.

     Trying to get some of the local cash, Wolf sent back.

     "I have my own reasons for not drinking," Ryuu explained. "But this does taste quite good. Not harsh or too sweet at all. Very mild." Ryuu took another sip and his evaluation seemed to pacify the MasterHarper.

     How so? Ryuu asked while he drank from the cup.

     Selling some dragon figurines.

     Ryuu's eyes nearly popped from their sockets. He had only a split second to decide between spitting out the wine and swallowing it whole. He chose not to give insult to the wine or the MasterHarper and drained the cup. Setting the cup down, he worked his lips to the motions of saying, "'cuse me!" as he gurgled the mouthful of wine and quickly pushed through the group.

     "Ryuu!" Robinton shouted. "That's a sipping wine!" But Ryuu was rushing into the passage to get to the other side of the stalls. They all quickly followed.

     Ryuu had managed to swallow the mouthful by the time he reached the other booth. He was nearly shocked speechless by what he saw, but not nearly speechless enough for Wolf and Puma's liking.

     "JUST WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?" Ryuu bellowed; his face a livid purple, startling everyone there: Puma, Wolf, the poor trader manning his stall, a dragonrider holding a dragon figure in the middle of his examination, and the four harpers just arrived behind him.

 

     As the stranger moved in among the stalls and tents, she lost sight of the man. Frustrated, she looked about and saw she was near the network of maintenance trails zigzagging up the cliff face. Without a moment of hesitation, she started up them.

     That she managed to do so without drawing suspicion was by sheer luck. Her drudge outfit helped her blend into the shadows crawling along the rough surface. Her quiet and sure movements failed to attract anyone's attention while the excitement of the Gather kept everyone occupied. And no one would suspect anyone of trying to scale the cliff with all those dragons looming above.

     Reaching the fire-heights, she finally spotted Ryuu rushing through the maze of tents and carts. His angered bellow reached even this distance. Fearful, she climbed over one last obstacle and hunkered down to conceal herself while she watched him.

 

     Sympath awoke in surprise when she felt something crawl across her tail and nestle in between her member and her leg. Her eyelids snapped open and she could make out a human female fearfully peeking above the tail ridges to stare out at the chaotic, human-made mess temporarily constructed on the riverbank.

     Hello? she asked, startling the human female. Surprised, the creature glanced up to see the rainbow flashing eyes of the green dragon looking down on her. Only then, did the girl take stock of where she was or what she had done. She only realized now that she had come not to be just surrounded by dragons, but that she was crouched between Sympath's thigh and tail.

     "Sorry," the girl muttered, returning her fearful gaze on the Gather below.

     You are afraid, Sympath observed, watching as the human focused all her attention to one specific spot in the Gather. But not of me. Can I help you?

     "Not unless you can keep me from him," the girl absently responded. There was an image sent, and Sympath was startled to know the male human that frightened the female. Ruth had told her of him! This girl was frightened of Ryuu!

     I can help if you wish it, Sympath told her. The human female slowly looked up and stared at her.

 

     "How are you feeling?" Lessa asked F'lar upon arriving at her weyr. It was early evening in this part of the world.

     "Better," he responded. "That was quite a jolt. I wonder were it came from."

     "I had some words with Robinton about this Ryuu," Lessa stated, frowning. "He's worried. I hear the dragons are worried. It's making me start worrying."

     "How so?" F'lar asked.

     "Remember how we were concerned with the Oldtimers stirring up trouble?" she asked him. "Well, Robinton had some of his people down at Southern keeping an eye on things. So far, not much seems to be going on at the Weyr or Hold, but something is definitely afoot down there. Robinton is concerned that Ryuu may have found something that could give us trouble."

     "In what way?"

     "Well, there were those old mines we found," she said, trying to remember all the details of the conversation. "Evidently, there are other signs of settlements. One of Robinton's scouts found an abandoned cot hold with some terrifying devices. After investigating them, the cot was destroyed in an explosion."

     "What?" F'lar exclaimed. "Was anyone hurt?"

     "Fortunately no," Lessa assured him. "But the scout came across Ryuu down there, and suspects he may have gotten something from that cot before the scout found it."

     "Then why didn't the man take care of the situation when they were down there?" F'lar asked.

     "Unfortunately, a dragonrider picked Ryuu up before Robinton's man could challenge him."

     "A Southern rider? An Oldtimer?" F'lar asked, astonished. That the dissidents could get something so dangerous...

     "No, a Northern rider," Lessa said. "Specifically, one that looks to Fort."

     "Who?" F'lar demanded.

     "Robinton wouldn't tell me. Evidently, he has the rider's confidence," Lessa grimly said, "but I have my suspicions. Remember the dragons are talking about Ryuu, and I can hear them. Our little white friend is the one most worried about him."

     "Jaxom and Ruth?" F'lar exclaimed. "Absolutely, we better have a few words with the young man!"

     "Well, I think we've got a few more important things to worry about than Jaxom going South. There is still the matter that Ryuu apparently can hear dragons, too. However, the man told Robinton that he was from Half Circle Seahold. Now I've never heard of anyone from that part of the world having that kind of power. And there are no records of anyone from there having that kind of power." The look on F'lar's face was one of dawning comprehension and apprehension.

     "He's from Ruatha," F'lar concluded. "Or one of the other full blooded holds. But with so much of the power, he'd have to be Benden or Ruatha."

     "My money's on Ruatha," Lessa nodded. "I suppose Fax might have missed someone in all his blood letting, but Ryuu never denied he was Oldtimer. I suspect he's one of Mardra's relatives. And he's apparently taken a particular fancy to Ruth and Jaxom! And it gets worse. Evidently, there are at least three others, maybe more of them milling about."

     "The Oldtimers are planning to usurp Jaxom and throw Ruatha into contention!" F'lar exclaimed. "What's Robinton doing about it?"

     "Unfortunately, there's not too much he or anyone can do other than keep a close eye on Ryuu," Lessa spat. "But that still leaves those others who are allied with him who may be able to operate freely. Before I left, I had a talk with N'ton to have his people keep close watch on our young Lord Holder and Ruth. Robinton also said that he's going to investigate that cot hold his man found to get a clearer picture of what Ryuu might have. I told him he has our full support, but he stressed that it's better to be discreet at this moment."

     "Well, I think first thing in the morning, a full wing of Benden riders will discreetly visit Fort hold," F'lar said. Lessa grinned.

     "And Ruatha," Lessa said, laughing. "And we'll have N'ton supply reliefs. That should unsettle any plans Ryuu and the others might have!"

 

     "JUST WHO THE HELL AUTHORIZED YOU TO SELL THOSE?" Ryuu yelled, "BECAUSE IT'S SURE AS MY FLAMING SHIT WASN'T ME!"

     "Calm down, Ryuu!" Puma said.

     "CALM MY BLOODY FLAMES!" Ryuu said, rushing up to take the statue from the dragonrider. It depicted two dragons swerving about each other in a manner that could be interpreted as either fighting or mating. "YOU GOT THIS FROM MY CABIN!"

     "IT'S A COPY, RYUU!" Puma shouted. Ryuu was about to yell something else, then stopped. He looked at the figurine, turning it over for a look closer.

     "I made a copy of some of yours!" Puma said a bit calmer, seeing Ryuu had stopped to listen. "These are not yours! Besides, it's not like you don't have enough!"

     "The reason I've got so many is I don't sell them!" Ryuu hissed through grinding teeth. Then he glanced at the dragonrider and the other people about staring at him.

     "Sorry," he meekly said, handing the statue back to the dragonrider. "They didn't let me know they had done that." He looked darkly at Puma, shaking his finger at her, saying, "You and I are going to have a long talk when this is over!"

     "So who are you?" the dragonrider asked Ryuu.

     "I'm Ryuu," he cheerfully said, spinning about and reaching to shake the dragonrider's hand. "You've already met Puma and Wolf," he added when they finished shaking hands. The sudden shift in mood shocked the green rider speechless. "They're a couple of my relatives. And these are MasterHarper Robinton, Sebell, Piemur, Melody--I mean, Menolly, and Zair, Kimi, Farli, Beauty, and Diver, with Rocky, Poll, and Uncle whizzing about overhead," he named the fire-lizards in rapid succession. He turned to look at the merchant in the booth with a puzzled expression.

     "I don't believe we've met, yet," Ryuu said to him, and then his face grew dark when he saw the other statues on the bench and he quickly spun on Puma.

     "A very long talk!" he said to her with a growl.

     "So did this young lady do all these?" the dragonrider asked.

     "Evidently," Ryuu said, tilting one of the dragon statues sitting at the stall to inspect it. "All of mine have my sign to clearly show they belong to me. These don't."

     "Ryuu made the originals," Puma explained. "Mine aren't nearly as good as his, but we got four marks for them, Ryuu."

     "Well they were close enough to fool me," Ryuu said. Uh-oh! he thought, feeling suddenly dizzy. And so...it begins!

     "Well this is very detailed and intricate work," the dragonrider said. "I take it that she's your apprentice?"

     "Apprentice?" Ryuu asked, gripping the bench to steady himself. "Oh, no! No, she's just my cousin. I'm not have any rank. None of us do."

     "Well this is still very impressive work," the dragonrider said. "I'll give you two marks for this. What do you say?" he asked Ryuu.

     I say I'm drunk, Ryuu had a fleeting thought pass through his mind, but he quickly suppressed it as he leaned against the stall.

     "Well, it's not mine to bargain," Ryuu replied. "They're her work," he gestured to Puma. His vision started to swirl and he settled back to enjoy the buzz.

     "That's very generous of you, sir!" she said with a trembling voice. "Thank you! Dragonrider--?"

     "Green rider E'tic," he replied, shaking her hand and handing her the marks. "From Fort. And thank you!"

     "MasterHarper," E'tic greeted in passing.

     "Have a good day, E'tic," Robinton said. "Well, so this is Puma!" he said after the dragonrider left. "And Wolf. I've so wanted to get the chance to meet you. I've heard so much about you both."

 

     E'tic called for his green. He looked appraisingly at the carving as he walked to the landing zone for the dragons.

     T'ledon will sure appreciate this, he happily thought to himself. He sensed his green had landed, and walked up to meet her.

     "What do you think, Sympath?" he asked her, holding the statue up for inspection.

     That is for Serith's rider? the dragon asked. It's very pretty. Whoever did it knows dragons.

     "She sure does," he said, gripping the harness to climb on. Halfway up, however, the sight of a naked foot stopped him cold.

     "Hello?" he asked looking up at the young woman astride what he thought was his dragon. Not the usual-looking dragonrider, either. This one looked like a kitchen drudge.

     E'tic, I needed to tell you something, Sympath told him. I'm sorry if you were too busy to hear me. I know we're not currently doing a Search, but she came to me.

     "My name is--Lisa," she said to him.

     "Are you certain?" E'tic asked his dragon. "She seems frightened."

     Not of me, Sympath replied. Not of other dragons, either.

 

     Ryuu quietly amused himself as the Harpers interrogated Puma and Wolf. He fed them what information he could to answer the questions put to them.

     Then, it started with just a giggle. It wasn't anything specific that Ryuu found funny, but when they all turned to stare at him, it became full blown laughter.

     "Ryuu?" Robinton inquired. His laughter became guffaws. Their confused looks at each other sent him to the dirt.

     "Ryuu!" Wolf shouted. "What the hell?"

     "Th-th-the...l-looks..." Ryuu tried to get out between his breaths, "...on y-y-your...face--ces!"

     "What's wrong with him?" Menolly asked. Her fire-lizards were as puzzled as everyone else. They told her it wasn't because he was happy, but saw something funny.

     "Wh-wh-en...I came--on you with...that rider!" Ryuu tried again to speak.

     "He's drunk!" Puma spat.

     "On one glass of wine?" Robinton exclaimed, incredulously.

     "He had that much?" Wolf demanded.

     "He gulped it all down at once when I guess he heard your voices from the other side of the stalls," Piemur volunteered.

     "No wonder!" Puma exclaimed in disgust. She and Wolf went to haul Ryuu to his feet. The man's hilarity was slowly starting to get back under his control again.

     "I told you," Ryuu said, pointing to Robinton, "I h-ha-had my reasons...for not drinking!" He almost collapsed in a new fit of giggles despite his friends' aid.

     Suddenly, the three strangers stiffened and looked at each other in horror.

     "Oh, no!" Puma whispered.

     "The Gateway!" Wolf quietly said to Ryuu.

     "Shit!" Ryuu muttered quickly sobering.

     Robinton and the others looked at them with concern. Puma and Wolf had evident horror and fear written on their faces, but Ryuu's face became like chiseled stone. He refused to look at anyone, or anything. Obviously there was something greatly troubling him. Walking past, Ryuu held his head down in defeat. The fire-lizards crooned in sadness as he passed.

     "Ryuu, are you alright?" Robinton asked.

     "We lost," Ryuu said, kicking a protruding stone down the path. "It's my fault. We lost."

     "What are you talking about?" Sebell asked, confused. "Lost what?" Ryuu looked at him and Robinton with that chiseled face.

     "I came across the person we were looking for," he explained. "I didn't know it at the moment it happened, but once I realized it, it was too late. We had to move carefully, so as not to cause--panic." He broke off, turned and walked away. Ryuu stopped about a dragonlength away.

     "She's gone," Ryuu said to them over his shoulder. "She just left on a dragon and now can be anywhere on this planet. She knows we're looking for her and has gone into hiding."

     "Why is she hiding?" Sebell demanded. "What does she have to fear from you?" Ryuu looked down at the rock he had kicked earlier.

     "She just doesn't understand our intention," Wolf spoke up.

     "We just want to bring her home," Puma added.

     "I'm just getting too old for this shit," Ryuu muttered, giving the stone another kick down the path. Turning, he left, going down another alley between the stalls and disappeared into the crowd.

     "Is there anything--?" Robinton started to ask Puma and Wolf as he turned around, but stopped, stunned, when he saw they had vanished, too. "Where'd they go?" he asked.

     "And you lost them this time!" Sebell pointed out to Robinton, grinning as he ran after Ryuu. "Now you know what I went through!"

 

Ista Weyr:

     T'khill and Maleer woke with a start. Their emotions pulled the sleepy dragon out of his slumber, and Stealth lifted his head, cocking it in a question.

     What's wrong? he asked. Is Ryuu hurting you again?

     "The Gateway!" Maleer whispered in fear.

     "The ship said Ryuu rode the white one when it teleported...it's back!" T'khill said with a sigh of relief. "He must've ridden another dragon."

     All hands, Puma called, sounding dejected. The target has escaped. If anyone's in a position to observe the regional capitols, look for a dragon bringing in a female passenger from Fort Hold and report immediately!

     "Oh, no!" Maleer whispered. She looked about for anyone to observe her and got out of bed.

     "Stay herre," she said to them. "I'll check it out." She slipped out of the barracks.

     The sun had finally set and the stars had begun to emerge from the indigo sky, but there wasn't any sign of dragons having landed recently.

     "Can I help you?" a voice asked, startling her. A rider she had seen before, but hadn't caught his name approached her.

     "Oh, sorrry!" Maleer exclaimed. "No, I was just getting some airr. Couldn't sleep."

     "No?" M'xell asked. "After all that happened with Impression?"

     "Well," Maleer said, slowly. "It wasn't I who Imprressed."

     "Ah, I see," he said. "You're T'khill's wife."

     "Hmm," she said grimacing. "That's sounding ominous. Have we crreated that bad a rreputation, alrready?"

     M'xell burst out laughing.

     "Well, if it wasn't you, it'd be one of the others, I'm sure!" he said, finally getting his guffaws under control. "I don't think there's ever been a Hatching that didn't have someone 'creating a reputation'!" Maleer purred her laughter along with him, and he stopped to listen to her. Such a strange accent, M'xell thought to himself.

     "That's good that we haven't done anything too outlandish," she said. "Oh, by the way, has anyone come frrom the Gatherr at Forrt? I have some frriends I'm expecting to show up."

     "Hmm, no I haven't seen anyone," M'xell said thinking. "I'll keep an eye out, if you like. Could you give me their names?"

     "Puma and Arrye," Maleer replied. But she knew the person they're looking for didn't come to Ista, and passed that info to Puma.

 

Harperhall:

     About midnight, Ryuu returned to the room they had provided him, but he still couldn't relax. He had visitors.

     "I suppose they sent you guys to spy on me, hmm?" he asked the fire-lizards sitting on the dining table. They cheeped in apology and begged him not to send them away. Ryuu smiled in appreciation and reached out to scritch the forehead of the bronze near him. Zair instantly began humming in contentment.

     "Of course I won't send you away, Zair," he said, chuckling. Ryuu observed two fire-lizards, Kimi and the bronze Diver, another of Menolly's swarm, were curled up together already asleep.

     "I'm sorry that while I'm not really in the mood for company, you guys are certainly welcome. Thank you all for being here," he told them.

     After losing the chance to persuade the missing crewman to join them, he had wandered aimlessly about the Gather. He knew when Sebell and some of the other colonists had located him and shadowed his movements, but he didn't care about playing with them anymore. He was too disappointed to enjoy the spy-games anymore.

     He wanted to rage. He wanted to scream. He even wanted to trigger the Gateway, and change to his gold dragon form and depart the area in the most spectacular way possible. If they wanted to see what he and his people were about, let them!

     But something inside held him back, held tight to his leash, not letting him lose hope; held him down until that something had calmed the raging fire of his failure.

     Eventually, he began to plan, and despite having no idea what she would do, still, he developed his plans. That act comforted him, and toward the middle of the night, he had a fair idea of how to proceed again, and that something finally released him to move about on his own again. Tired from the exertion, he returned to the room they had assigned him.

     The other two golds could no longer suppress their desire and leapt over to push Zair out of the way, giving the bronze a hiss, so they could enjoy the attention his marvelous fingers gave. Ryuu chuckled.

     "Better watch out, Beauty and Farli," he chided them. "His friend is your friends' boss!" With thumb and little finger of one hand, he had the two queens mesmerized while his other hand resumed Zair's caressing. He soon had these three curled up together, snoozing.

     Ryuu closed his eyes to concentrate on his surroundings. Once Ryuu was satisfied these five were the only ones watching him he stepped over to the desk to get to work. He got out of his shoes and relaxed as he sat down in the chair provided.

     "Robinton, if you want to spy on someone, you'll have to have a more reliable set of eyes," Ryuu quietly muttered as he pulled out his scanner to review the day's work.

     After coordinating with the Panthro and collecting the others' scanner readings, he started to piece together what went wrong.

     Since that initial spike from the creatures in the watch-wher's lair, he hadn't detected any sign of his quarry.

     During his checkup in Medical, Puma gathered everyone she could collect and had them transported in to surround and search the Gather.

     Aside from the occasions where his people picked up each other as they blundered into each other's zone, there were no other incidents. But when she left, she never did come within scanning range.

     Which was odd, for at the time she left, his people had a ring of coverage completely surrounding the Gather and the area where the dragons landed to come and go with their riders. It was too risky to approach the fortress where she had last been seen, but for her to get from there to the landing field and depart meant she had somehow evaded that ring of bubbles.

     His time-lapse review of the coverage zone indicated there was no way she should've sneaked through without being detected. And with Puma, Wolf, and himself wandering inside the Gather, if she was there, they should've come across her.

     Glancing at the sleeping fire-lizards, Ryuu suddenly got an idea.

     "Of course, three-dimensional thinking!" he muttered to himself. He pounced on his scanner and reprogrammed it to display the coverage zone in 3-D against a reconstruction of the area. Then he saw it. With ranges limited to a hundred Horamters, and the valleys between the bubbles shifting about--there it was: the time where she departed and there was a deep grove in the scanning zone facing the fortress--not that it probably would've made any difference.

     "Damn!" he hissed. "The dragons! That's how she did it! She climbed up the cliff and got one of the dragons to carry her in and out and away. The dragons coming in to land and take off couldn't be covered because they were vertically out of range!"

     He sat back, understanding why they failed. Just dumb luck! So to recover from this is going to take lots more luck and lots of time. Gazing at the fire-lizards again, he got another idea.

     "Panthro," he asked, signaling with his communicator, "can you pick up my transponder?"

     "Affirmative," the vessel's computer replied. "Do you desire a retrieval?"

     "No," Ryuu said. "I'm just curious. I know the natives are the source of the subspace distortions. I happen to be sitting right next to five of them. But I was wondering, could you still track a transponder if it was injected into the creatures?"

     "The modules you have are primed for subspatial tracking," the ship answered. "However, when you were riding the white, tracking was totally lost when you teleported."

     "That's because that dimension is a subtemporal void," Ryuu responded. "My scanner indicated the temporal dimensions are amplified."

     "Subtemporal travel would prevent the tracking of devices calibrated for hyper-spatial dimensions," the ship confirmed. "It would take time for me to manufacture a transponder calibrated for amplified temporal components. However, with current technology, it would be too large to safely inject in a creature smaller than your largest draconic specimen."

     Which means Ruth or the other dragons, Ryuu considered.

     "But the current transponders can still track them anywhere on the planet?" Ryuu asked.

     "Affirmative," the ship replied.

     Ryuu pulled out his injector and approached the fire-lizards.

     Ryuu winced as the fire-lizards stirred and woke up with confused looks at their bellies where he had injected them.

     "It's okay, fellas," he told them as he scanned their condition. "Go back to sleep." He had made certain the transponders were injected between their internal organs, and was satisfied with the result. But then a new life form came within range of the scanner. Ryuu scowled at the readings. He adjusted his settings and sure enough, he detected a human outside the window as well and the native he had detected zipping about.

     Clever of them to keep the creature at a distance, so I wouldn't hear it, he thought to himself. He watched its flight path go out of range again, but the human was stealthily approaching the window to where he could see in.

     That's the problem with these things being at such a short range, he thought, moving silently around the furniture to stand to the left of the open window. They might as well not be working at all! In an effort to boost the gain of the devices, he had to set it to look for only one species at a time. That's how the human had approached so near without being detected.

     Looking out over the courtyard, he saw that his window was the only one still open. Now he understood this was deliberate. His guest was outside on the ledge, just the other side of the wall. Ryuu carefully set the scanner down and put away the injector. He brought out his phaser with his left hand, and readied his other hand to make the grab.

     Heavy stun, he sent his thoughts to activate the device. He felt it warm to the touch.

     He counted off ten, then spun to his left and fired. The intruder's face registered surprise, whether from the shock of being caught or the shock of the beam it didn't matter. He was already unconscious.

     Ryuu quickly grabbed him with his right hand, and after dropping his weapon inside the window, secured his grip on the intruder and hauled him in.

     The fire-lizards woke with a start and screeched their alarm. Ryuu propped the man into the chair and retrieved his phaser and scanner. The fire-lizards came over and settled down, looking from the intruder, to Ryuu, and back again. Their eyes whirled with worry and they crooned in distress.

     "You guys know him, huh?" Ryuu asked. A new fire-lizard popped in, screeched in alarm, and dove at Ryuu.

     "Back off, Girl!" he yelled at the gold fire-lizard and the newcomer vanished in an instant. She reappeared across the room, twittering and screaming, but landed on the sofa. Although nervously shaking, she didn't try to rush to attack, but kept a wary eye on Ryuu.

     "I'm not going to hurt him," Ryuu said, uncovering another glow to lighten up the room. "But I'm not going to let him try hurting me, either. We're just going to have a little talk, then I'll turn him over to Robinton."

     Ryuu set about searching and removing any concealed weapons the intruder was carrying. He found several dozen knives, and all of them were concealed. Very cleverly, too. In addition, there were tools for picking locks, cutting glass, a very thin, but strong rope about two hundred horamters long. This, he made appropriate use of to tie him up.

     Just to make sure he found everything, Ryuu confirmed with his scanner and found a few more blades. Then he arranged all the man's things neatly on the desk and covered them with a towel.

     He pulled up another chair and waited. To pass the time, Ryuu tried to entice the new fire-lizard to come to him.

     "Come, on, Little One," he called to her, patting his lap. "I'm not going to hurt either of you." But the fire-lizard hissed and refused to approach. Ryuu had to settle for the other five and the lone queen admonished them all for trusting Ryuu.

 

 

"Ha-la he-ta! Ha-la he-ta!

"Where's my food? Where's my food?

"O-na-ka ga sui-ta! O-na-ka ga sui-ta!

"Feed me now! Feed me now!"

 

     Tuck woke to hear the most ridiculous tune he'd ever heard being sung by someone with absolutely no tonal control. Worse, yet, fire-lizards' voices were trying to help the singer. For a Harper, it was amounting to pure torture. Then he realized he was tied up.

     This can't be good! Tuck thought.

     "Okay, one more time from the top," the stranger said.

 

"Frè-re Ja-ques, Frè-re Ja-ques

"Dormez-vous, dormez-vous?..."

 

     Cautiously, Tuck opened his eyes, hoping to not alert his captors that he had awakened. So much for that idea. The first sight made his eyes pop open and gasp in surprise, interrupting the singing. There, seated before him was what looked like an orgy of gold and bronze fire-lizards. Wings were flapping; tails, necks, and bodies were wiggling; and facetted rainbow eyes were flashing.

     The man stopped his torturous singing and the fire-lizards all whipped their heads to stare at the Harper. A gold let out a happy squeal and leapt for his shoulder. He groaned in horror. His own Snap!

     "Good morning, Mister Phelps," a disembodied voice flatly stated. A couple of human arms materialized from the mass of fire-lizards and the hands set themselves in a steeped posture. The fire-lizards dispersed to reveal a man seated before him. Ryuu.

     "Aren't you a little out of your league for a second-story man?" he asked.

     "My name's not Phelps," Tuck muttered.

     "No, I don't suppose it would be, would it?" Ryuu sadly asked. "Master? Harper?" he ventured, cocking his head. The man known as Tuck said nothing.

     "I've been informed you prefer to be called Tuck," Ryuu finally said. "What? You couldn't come up with a better alias? You ought to try Adder, Cobra, or even Snake. That's my own personal favorite but I haven't used it in ages. And then there's Wyvern, Drake, Hydra, Lizard, and several dozen or so more like that."

     Tuck twisted his hands about, and felt one of his blades in its sheath strapped to his right forearm. He worked the fingers of his left hand to slip it out.

     "So what is 'Tuck' supposed to signify?" Ryuu asked. "Tuck and Roll? Tuck--hmm, Tuck and Stuff? But your friend's name is Snap. Snap-dragon, I can see. Kind of catchy, there. Snap and Tuck. Just--doesn't do anything, does it?" Ryuu asked, shaking his head helplessly.

     "I guess not," Tuck finally said to keep Ryuu occupied while he worked on his rope.

     "Well, you really ought to find someone to teach you some basics," Ryuu said. "A man in your profession shouldn't make that much noise when doing a job."

     Tuck's face registered the jibe, and Ryuu smiled, knowing he'd confounded the man. He stood up, and Tuck had to halt his cutting and concealed the black blade between his palms.

     "So what do you intend to do?" Tuck asked, refusing to take any further baiting. He knew he hadn't made any noise, but he couldn't figure out what had tipped Ryuu off. The other fire-lizards wouldn't have done that to him!

     But instead of checking his bonds, Ryuu stepped to the other side of the desk next to Tuck's chair. Lifting the towel, he revealed all of Tuck's tools, neatly laid out.

     "My! What a busy life you must lead," Ryuu exclaimed, picking up one of the lock picks to examine. He tapped the probe against the desk a couple of times, and then looked for any damage. Ryuu then scowled to himself.

     "Hmm. Seems to be one missing," he said, raising an eyebrow to glare at Tuck. "You wouldn't happen to have scarfed it while I was entertaining our friends, did you?"

     "What do you mean?" Tuck asked. He was beginning to sweat nervously now. Ryuu had removed all those tools and weapons from his person, some of which, even a careful search shouldn't have found, yet he had missed that one obvious knife that he could only reach tied up like this?

     "Well, it certainly would be a shame..." Ryuu said, leaning over the desk and picking up a bit of rope lying across Tuck's shoulder.

     Tuck urged Snap to at least help him escape. Bite Ryuu, distract him, do something! But the gold fire-lizard only sat there and whined with concern.

     "...for you to cut such a fine rope when a simple tug..." Ryuu gave the end a yank, and Tuck felt a knot undo and begin to loosen his bonds, "...would do," he finished. "And such a waste of good material. Doesn't it just make you sick to your stomach?" Ryuu asked with a smirk.

     The man stood up and made kissing noises to Zair as he held his arm up. The bronze fire-lizard obliged him by landing there. They kissed, then Ryuu bowed his head to gently butt Zair's forehead, and the little creature leapt into the air and disappeared.

     "So you never answered my question," Tuck pointed out, as he finished releasing himself. He refused to look down to see how much of the rope was ruined.

     "What question was that?" Ryuu asked. "Oh! 'What I intend?' Well, what would you have me do?" he countered with his own question. There was a knock at the door and he went over to answer it.

     "Like I said, I'd advise you to get some more training. That, or retire," he said, opening it. "Oh! Hello, MasterHarper! What brings you here so late?"

     "I understand you told Zair to ask me to come," Robinton said, grumbling.

     "Oh! I had forgotten! Yeah! That reminds me," Ryuu said, stepping back to let the MasterHarper enter. Robinton's face registered his shock at seeing his old friend standing there, reloading all his tools. "Taking this opportunity, you might want to have Master--'Tuck'--get some professional training, by the way, if you're going to keep sending him on little assignments like this in the future. My personal advice though is, give him a desk job, before he gets in over his head. He's making far too much noise for this line of work."

     "Really?" Tuck challenged, pausing in the act of gathering the picks and tools.

     "Sorry, but I have to say that, because if I said anything else, I'd be the one getting in trouble," Ryuu said with a shrug and a grin. Then, like a candle being blown out, all humor left Ryuu's features. "But, in all honesty, you caught me at a really bad time. It's been an extra long day, moving so far west like I did, and on top of that, I blew the effort to find my missing family member, essentially setting us back three thousand years. Any other day, I'd love to play and be entertained, but not tonight. I'm tired, and I'm just getting too old for this shit."

     "Now it can't be as bad as you're making it out to be," Robinton said. "And I do have to apologize for this intrusion..."

     "Robinton," Ryuu said genuinely smiling as he reclined on the sofa, "the three of us know you sent him to spy on me. I was expecting it."

     "So just how did you knock me out?" Tuck demanded.

     "There's a spot on your left shoulder," Ryuu said grinning and pointing to his own with his right hand. "Some friends taught me a long time ago. Squeeze it, and your target is out like a light." Robinton and Tuck looked dubiously at him. Tuck touched his shoulder and neck and did find a sore area there, unaware that Ryuu had clamped down on the man's shoulder while he was tying him up, just to make the explanation reasonable.

     "My turn," Ryuu said, all humor again leaving his face. "What was it you were looking for?" he asked. "What were you hoping to find?"

     Robinton considered what to say to the man. It concerned him that he might have the Ancient's weapon and would be ready to use it. At the very least, Tuck was there with his ready stash of blades and the fire-lizards to back him up.

     "And I would appreciate the truth, Masterharpers," Ryuu insisted. He sat up straight, pointing around to the fire-lizards. "I can tell when I'm being lied to, especially with our little friends about."

     "Interesting thing about the 'truth'," Robinton said, raising his eyebrows, "seeing how you couldn't possibly be from Half-Circle, being able to speak to dragons and fire-lizards like you do."

     "But I'm not the one with his reputation to be concerned about," Ryuu countered. "You were caught red-handed. Any ruckus you create to silence me will only make things worse and you won't be able to conceal the mess you make before someone shows up. And I'm damned hard to kill!" he finished with a growl. They stared at each other for several moments before Ryuu relaxed and reclined into the sofa again.

     "Alright," he said, nodding his head. "I'll give you that. I'm not from Half-Circle. Your turn."

     "You're from Ruatha, or weyrbred, aren't you?" Robinton quickly demanded. Ryuu coldly stared at them for several moments.

     "Your words," Ryuu finally replied. "Your assumptions."

     "What are your plans for Ruatha and Jaxom?" Robinton pressed. "What did Mardra put you up to?" Ryuu glanced at the fire-lizards in confusion.

     "Excuse me?" Ryuu nearly shouted at the men. "When I said 'your turn' that was the indication you should answer my questions!" Ryuu said, getting to his feet. "You broke in to steal or spy on a man who's got nothing but the clothes on his back, and I only have those because you put them there! Now what are you looking for?" The Harpers were stunned by Ryuu's insistence to avoid answering their question and making demands of his own. Then Tuck got an idea.

     "Who's 'Panthro'?" he asked, whirling on Ryuu. The man blinked in surprise, and Tuck pressed on. "Is he part of the conspiracy? What were you talking about going to do to the dragons? What's his real name? And I'll bet 'Ryuu' is not yours, either. And where are your friends? Puma, Wolf, and Arye? No one knows where they've gone since this afternoon. Who are you?"

     "Robinton," Ryuu said with a smirk, "you really should consider a desk job for this man."

     "These are serious charges, Ryuu," Robinton said, getting frustrated with Ryuu's obstinacy. He was regretting he had no option but to confront Ryuu with just their suspicions and hope it rattled the man. "Conspiring to harm Lord Holders and dragons can get you sent to the mines or worse," he said.

     "What charges?" Ryuu demanded. "Last I looked, you're the thief! And what's this bullshit about harming dragons and Lord Holders?"

     "Jaxom and Ruth!" Robinton said, looking him steely in the eye. Ryuu stared at him in shock. It was now or never and lose the only chance of getting an honest confession. "You're Oldtimer! Mardra is Ruathan, and we know you and your people are under her orders! We know you're her relative, and you have this plot to throw Ruatha into contention, as Lessa and her son are the last of the full Bloodline. But they can't Hold because they're Dragonriders. But you could, couldn't you?"

     "Maybe you should consider a desk job, too," Ryuu muttered. He looked about and pointed at the fire-lizards. Their eyes were whirling in yellow worry about what was going on. "Take a good look at them!" Ryuu ordered.

     "If I was going to harm Ruth, they wouldn't be my friends! I like Ruth and he's my friend. I certainly wouldn't do anything to hurt that dragon. And if I knew or found out anyone was planning to hurt him or his property, I would tear them all to tiny shreds before I let them get close to that dragon! That goes for Jaxom, Mnementh, Ramoth, and anyone else Ruth considers his friend. I'll fight to the death to protect them, and so will my people! And believe me," he growled, snarling, "I'm bloody hard to kill! And for the record, I couldn't give a rat's ass about taking over a Hold here or help anyone do so. But I will not, I will never help anyone hurt Ruth!"

     Robinton was quite taken aback by Ryuu's claim. But for safety's sake, he couldn't take his words for face value.

     "You're not the only person who can speak to and hear dragons," Robinton pointed out to him. "Lessa can, too. And she heard Ruth and the other dragons talking about you and they're worried. They say you're dangerous." Surprisingly, Ryuu actually relaxed and smiled as he sat down.

     "Yes, I know what they are saying," Ryuu said, grinning. "And they're right. I am dangerous. I'm perhaps the most dangerous creature you've ever met. And your dragons are dangerous, too. More's the pity for anyone who threatens them, because the bastards will have to face me, too. Because I'm far worse than any of your dragons!"

     His words alone couldn't persuade Robinton, but when the six fire-lizards crooned their challenge with orange and red flashing eyes, he had to be convinced.

     "I see," Robinton said chagrinned. "Perhaps I erred in suspecting you, Ryuu," he said, feeling his throat tighten as he spoke. It's going to be a double-goblet night, tonight, he thought to himself. Tuck looked at Robinton with concern, but kept silent while his superior negotiated.

     "It's understandable," Ryuu finally said, amicably. "Were I in your shoes, perhaps I'd do the same."

     Suddenly, Robinton started a coughing fit. Zair screamed with concern as Tuck saw to the MasterHarper. Ryuu jumped up to assist as well.

     "I'm--okay!" Robinton wheezed, nodding to Tuck and Ryuu. "A bit of spit--went the wrong way!" It took a few more seconds for him to get his coughing under control.

     "Yeah, I get those all the time, myself," Ryuu said, smacking his back. "Happens a lot to men our age," he said, grinning.

     Robinton looked at him in annoyance.

     "Hey, you pointed out yourself about me being an Oldtimer," Ryuu backed off with his hands up.

     "Well I'm not that old!" Robinton nearly shouted, trying to hide a smile. Ryuu saw them out of the room and closed the door.

     Four fire-lizards remained sitting on the dining table again. Beauty, Kimi, Farli, and Diver watched him with worried eyes when he turned from locking the door. But as he passed them, he smiled and crooned to them, brushing his finger across their noses and necks. It set the creatures in a happy mood again.

     To forestall a repeat of tonight's performance, Ryuu closed and locked the shutters over the window. For added measure, he used his phaser to spot-weld the metal latches. Not enough to permanently seal it, but only a determined effort from the inside would break it, and make a hell of a lot of noise in doing so. Just to be safe, he went back to the door and did the same to the handle.

     Turning back to them, he saw their eyes whirling in excitement. There was a mixture of puzzlement, concern, happiness, and worry emanating from them.

     "Well, since we're all wide awake now, what shall we do to pass the time? Poker, anyone?" he asked. He looked closer at Diver and Kimi.

     "Oh," he said. "Strip poker, I see," he concluded, blushing. Then he noticed Beauty was keeping them under scrutiny as well.

     "You guys have any problems about that?" he asked her.

     When they fly, we ride, Beauty responded with a happy chirp and green whirling eyes. When WE fly, then serious business! No share!

     "I see," Ryuu said grinning. "But I thought Farli would have been...hmm--maybe I was mistaken. So where's the rest of the squadron?"

     Sleep, Beauty said. They ask us watch. Angry?

     "No! Not at all," Ryuu said, smiling warmly at them. Watching Diver and Kimi for a few moments got Ryuu thinking.

     "Listen," he said to them, "if I show you something, can I ask you not tell anyone?"

     Diver and Kimi stopped what they were doing and all four looked at him with worry creeping into their rainbow eye colors.

     "Oh, it's nothing your friends need to be concerned about," he quickly told them. "After all, you don't tell them everything," he stressed.

     Do tell! they all insisted with rapid whirling red eyes. Never lie! Never hide!

     "Not even what's between?" he asked meaningfully. As one, all their eyes went from red to white and yellow.

     Nothing between! they instantly shouted.

     "But I still saw it!" Ryuu said.

     Nothing between! they repeated.

     "What I'm going to show you is also nothing," Ryuu said, removing his clothes. The fire-lizards looked at each other in confusion. A brilliant flash of intense light momentarily blinded them and they screamed out in alarm. When they could see again, Ryuu was gone. But there was a new gold fire-lizard on the table with them.

     You know those folks hiding in between? Ryuu-the-fire-lizard asked grinning. I'm with THEM. Same agency, different department.

     Male Gold! Beauty exclaimed. The fire-lizards all screamed.

 

Fort Weyr:

     Lisa woke when an intense electric shock shot through her frame. Her first thought was, He's found me!

     But the sensation quickly ended and no sound other than other sleeping drudges emerged to reveal his approach to carry her away. Slowly, she looked about the room. There was enough dim light to see by but nothing moved in the darkness.

     Quietly, she slipped out of her bunk and wrapped her blanket about her small frame. Making her way to the shuttered window, she worked the latch to glance out. There on the ridge, she could make out a dark form with glowing rainbow eyes. The creature noticed her and turned its attention on her.

     Go back to sleep, she heard its thoughts. I watch. Nothing comes.

     "Thank you," she automatically whispered and shut the window.

     Green Beth blinked in surprise as she watched the shutters close.

     She heard me! she told her rider.

     "Who heard you?" B'naj asked.

     The woman Sympath brought, Beth said. I hear fear from her mind. The fear woke her, but nothing comes. I'm surprised she heard me.

     B'naj thought about it for a while. "Well, E'tic did say she seemed gifted. I suppose we'll find out next month or so."

 

Ista Weyr:

     T'khill & M'leer also woke, but fortunately, Stealth was so deep in slumber that he didn't realize it.

     "He's still asleep?" Maleer asked.

     "God thanks us for small favors," T'khill said, looking up and about.

     "That's 'Thank God forr small favorrs'!" Maleer sighed.

     Who did that? Puma demanded. In a few moments, she broadcast to everyone, Ryuu asked me to pass the word that it's him.

     "Hmm. I wonder what he's up to," T'khill said.

     "Knowing Rryuu, he's prrobably flying a drragon," Maleer muttered.

     "Really?" T'khill asked. "I'm confused. What is Ryuu's fascination with dragons?"

     "I've neverr been able to deterrmine that," Maleer sighed staring up at the ceiling. "Somehow, in his mind, drragons and felines arre one and the same."

     "Are they?" T'khill finally asked after thinking for several moments. Maleer blinked in utter confusion.

     "Arre they what?" she asked.

     "Are dragons the same as your kind?" he asked.

     "Harrrdly!" she responded with a cold growl. T'khill looked at her in worry.

     "Squit! There's no problem to get angry with me," he complained. "You all are Greek species. Well, except for T'jor, Q'pod, and K'lish."

     Maleer closed her eyes, wearied from trying to correct his speech. She wondered if the others of her people were having as difficult a time of it with others of T'khill's. They never could learn to speak another language without getting themselves in trouble.

     Only the Creatures Who Made the Universe could know what trouble the others were getting into. And then there's Ryuu...

 

Harperhall:

     Once outside Ryuu’s room, Robinton lost all mirth. He quickly led the way to his office.

     "Are you okay?" Tuck asked him.

     "No, I'm not," Robinton muttered. Tuck looked panicked at the admission. "No! Not in that way!" Robinton quickly said. "I happened to get a look at his feet!"

     Tuck had to blink several times before he could ask the obvious.

     "What's wrong with his feet?" he asked. "They looked normal to me."

     "Because when he arrived this morning, his left foot was badly mangled!" Robinton explained. "He had other, lesser injuries, but not from where we could see them. But his foot looks like it's never been hurt!"

     "How is that possible?" Tuck asked.

     "It's not!" Robinton replied. "Unless--unless he timed it! This man's from the future! There's got to be another Ryuu with a busted foot running about somewhere!"

     "But he'd have to be a dragonrider to do that!" Tuck pointed out. "Or have a dragonrider helping him--"

     "The Oldtimers!" they both exclaimed together.

     "But isn't it dangerous for dragonriders to time too closely together?" Tuck asked.

     "There's certainly evidence to support that idea," Robinton said. "But just what the danger is, and how severe it can be for a rider isn't fully known. We do know its effects are worse the closer the past and present rider get to one another, and it's felt stronger the longer they stay in the past. But we also know a determined rider can resist the symptoms. And, we don't know if non-riders are even affected."

     "But I've ridden dragons that timed it on some of my work," Tuck told him. "It always gave me the willies."

     "But in a way, you are a dragonrider," Robinton said, pointing at his gold Snap. "You 'Impressed' one of these 'little dragons'."

     Snap sat up on Tuck's shoulder and trilled in pleasure for the comparison. Zair echoed her sentiments, making the men chuckle.

     "We don't know if Ryuu actually has a dragon or not," the MasterHarper said, returning to the subject.

     "Just because we haven't seen one, doesn't mean he doesn't have one," Tuck said. "And given a resource like Ryuu, who can hear dragons, I can't see the Oldtimers not getting the man Impressed."

     "Yes," Robinton muttered. "And that's a part that doesn't fit. Another is his compassion for the watch-wher. Nobody, dragonrider or not would go down into that lair to get the glows like he did!"

     "Groghe would," Tuck pointed out. "And so would his sons."

     "That's different!" Robinton countered. "They're Fort. The watch-wher would know them. Not even Lessa would've done that--could've done that!"

     "Maybe he used that device?" Tuck suggested. And Robinton saw the implications of that.

     "That's a possibility," Robinton slowly said, then frowned. "The description Piemur gave for the device he found said it was about the length of a belt knife with a grip on one side. Now we've seen Ryuu during that incident, he wasn't even carrying a knife. But what if there were other devices, smaller, more concealable that he found and gathered?"

 

     When their vision cleared enough for them to make out the details of the new arrival, they saw it wasn't exactly another fire-lizard. For one, the shape of the head was completely different. It was smaller, more angular, and had a longer skull in proportion to the body and neck than their own. Also, a set of tusks stuck out from both upper and lower jaws at the end of the dragon's snout. In addition, blood red eyes with silvery pupils stared at the trembling fire-lizards.

     That's right, Beauty, Ryuu said. I am a male gold. But it's not the impossibility you mean. I really am a male gold.

     Angry? Diver fearfully asked.

     No, Diver, Ryuu said, taking a friendly attitude as he stepped closer and dipped his head to them.

     Red eye! Kimi exclaimed, pulling back in terror.

     That's just the color of my eyes, Ryuu told them, slowly blinking at them. Just as gold happens to be my skin. Listen to my heart and my mind. I'm not angry. I'm not a threat. I may be fearsome, but I'm not a terrible creature. You're my friends. I'm happy to be with you. He bared his neck to them, inviting them to touch.

     Itch? Beauty asked, gingerly touching Ryuu's hide with her hands. Need oil! Bad for going between-- Then she jumped back with a start when she thought she offended him. Her movement scattered all the fire-lizards. But Ryuu waited there without moving, still inviting, sending out happy feelings and desires.

     It's okay, Ryuu told them. Just different skin for a different type of dragon. Different enemy to fight, so I have scales. You're not my enemy. Your friends are not my enemies. I like Ruth, I like you, and I even like the big ones.

     Ruth! Farli exclaimed.

     The White One! Beauty called.

     The Great Hope! Kimi added. They approached him and checked him out.

     Male Go--? Farli began, but had to stop and think. Then she asked, Nice Thread?

     Just something THEY did for me, Ryuu replied. All my people can do this. But then, we can't go between, like you. In fact, it's dangerous for us to go between. If one of us should get lost there, it would destroy the Gateway and eventually kill the rest of us. There, you see. By letting you know how we can be killed ensures my good intentions to you and yours.

     Hungry? Diver asked, noticing how emaciated the new creature looked. The Ryuu-Fire-Lizard looked like she/he? hadn't eaten in months. He found it dubious this creature was supposed to be male. They all did. "Male Golds" are strictly an impossibility. That's why they used that phrase, among others, when describing such a concept.

     Not at all, Ryuu said sitting up. He patted his belly, slamming himself hard to show them the toughness of his form. My stomach may be empty, but each time I use the Gateway, I get a full day's supply of vitamins and Iron.

     The fire-lizards blinked in bemusement at his claim. Then at once, they all started chittering in laughter when they understood. If he had totally flamed one cherished concept to ash, he at least made up for it by giving them another.

     However, Diver, now that you mentioned it, Ryuu said slyly moving up on Beauty. I wouldn't mind some dessert.

     ? Beauty asked, puzzled by Ryuu's intentions. He spread those strange, thick wings over her, and she wanted to examine his weird-looking membranes. Suddenly, she understood, and her eyes whirled in alarm.

     MALE GOLD! she screamed.

 

     "You know, I'm going to miss you while you're out," Sebell said turning over on his side.

     "So you can't come with us?" Menolly asked, confirming what she'd heard. Sebell shook his head.

     "Sorry. Can't," he said. "Someone has to stay and keep an eye on Ryuu and his people while Piemur shows Robinton what he found."

     "And you really think Ryuu's part of a conspiracy to throw Ruatha into contention?" Menolly asked. Sebell looked at her as if she lost her mind. "I mean, look at my fair," she said. "They all like him. Kimi and Zair, too." She giggled. "It's almost like he's another Ruth, the way they go on about him."

     "I know," Sebell said, distressed. "But we had our experience with the Oldtimers, too. And some of them have fire-lizards. Some of them are dragonriders. Some of them can even talk to dragons like Lessa. Well, maybe not as good as Lessa." He shook his head.

     "I want to believe them," Sebell said. "But we can't take the risk. Given what Piemur found, it's just too dangerous. If Ryuu's got something from that cot that can do the things he described..."

     Suddenly, Menolly sat up in bed, gasping.

     "Beauty!" she exclaimed. They both jumped out of bed and grabbed their clothes.

     "Is she in trouble?" Sebell asked. "Kimi won't tell me what's happening!"

     "Something's surprised her!" Menolly cried. "Diver won't answer, either!"

     In two minutes they were at the door to the apartment they provided Ryuu, but the door was locked. Menolly was about to pound on it for Ryuu to open up, but Sebell stopped her.

     "Wait," he said. "I've got the spare key." However, when he used it to unlock the latch, the handle was stuck. It took him a few more tries to ensure the key had worked, when the handle finally turned with a loud crack.

     "Must've been corroded stuck," he said, opening the door. The guest area was still lit from a pair of unshielded glows, but the sleeping quarters were dark and the door nearly shut. Their three fire-lizards plus Piemur's Farli were lounging on the dining table, staring toward the sleeping area. As one, they turned to look at the intruders. Kimi gave him a happy cheep.

     "What happened to you guys?" Sebell whispered, coming in, followed by Menolly. She quickly rushed to Beauty, who trilled questioningly.

     "That's what I was going to ask you," Menolly quietly told her queen. "Where's Ryuu?"

     Went to sleep place, Diver replied, truthfully.

     "What's wrong? What happened to you?" Menolly quietly asked her.

     Male gold! Beauty happily crooned. Her eyes lazily blinked over her whirling green and blue eyes.

     "She says it's just impossible," Menolly whispered to Sebell. "That's all I can get out her."

     "That's all I can get out of Kimi, too," Sebell said. "They're just being so smug about it. Probably something Diver did."

     He noticed Ryuu's clothes had been laid out over the back of the sofa, and after ensuring nothing had happened to his queen, he checked on the outfit. He found an ornamental pin, a flattened teardrop shaped rock, two of the slim pill boxes Ryuu had showed them earlier, and a rod with a gold prism-shaped attachment at one end. That was all. Nothing like what Piemur described, but the rod could be a different model of the same type device. He instantly slipped it in his pocket.

     The fire-lizards snapped their heads toward the bedroom, then Beauty and Kimi looked back at their owners.

     Diver helped, Beauty and Kimi told them. Diver cocked his head at what he was listening to. He looked back at Menolly.

     Nothing between! he said. The other fire-lizards quickly echoed that.

     The two harpers looked at each other in confusion.

     "Let's get out of here before we wake Ryuu," Sebell said. "You guy's going to be okay here? If there's any trouble, I want you out!" he told them.

     Male gold! Beauty happily repeated. Menolly looked at her in consternation. It was almost as if her little queen were drunk!

     No trouble! Diver firmly added.

     Nothing between! Kimi finished.

     Farli chirped her encouragement, too, making them wince in concern of waking Ryuu. All the fire-lizards eyes were whirling blue and green.

     Resigned that their fire-lizards felt comfortable with the strange man, Sebell and Menolly carefully snuck out, closing and locking the door.

     As soon as they were gone, a gold streak flowed into the room on four long legs and leapt onto the table.

     I helped? a puzzled Diver asked Ryuu.

     You--encouraged me, Ryuu replied, flicking his forked tongue and giving him a wink. Like you said, they fly, we ride. So let's start riding! he happily called.

 

     "I first thought he was talking to himself," Tuck began.

     "He first laughed at you for not setting a more reliable set of eyes on him. I guess he was talking about the fire-lizards. He had soothed them to sleep in minutes after arriving.

     "Then about a half-hour later, he suddenly yelled something about 'three dimensional thinking!' and cursed the dragons, saying something about how 'she' did it. That 'She climbed up the cliff and got one of the dragons to carry her in and out and away. The dragons coming in to land and take off couldn't be covered because they were vertically out of range!' Whatever that means."

     "Then, I realized there must be someone else in the room. There was someone named 'Panthro' he was talking with. Ryuu asked him to pick up a 'transponder' to which Panthro asked him if he wanted a retrieval."

     "It sounds like some kind of code," Robinton muttered. "But why talk like that if they didn't suspect you were there?"

     "It certainly didn't make sense," Tuck complained. "Their conversation certainly got weird from that point.

     "Ryuu went on to say, 'I know the natives are the source of the subspace distortions. I happen to be sitting right next to five of them. But I was wondering, could you still track a transponder if it was injected into the creatures?'" Tuck said, his face scrunching up as he tried to remember the phrasing. Then realization dawned on both their faces.

     "He's talking about fire-lizards!" Robinton exclaimed. He looked in alarm at Zair.

     "Zair?" he asked the bronze. "Did Ryuu touch you? Did he put something in you?" But the fire-lizard looked at him in a puzzled manner, not understanding.

     "Can you remember any more?" Robinton asked Tuck.

     "Yes," Tuck said. "Panthro said, 'the modules you have are primed for subspatial tracking. However, when you were riding the white, tracking was totally lost when you teleported.' That can only mean Ruth," the Harper spy added.

     "Then Ryuu went on about 'that's because that dimension is a subtemporal void. My scanner indicated the temporal dimensions are amplified.'"

     "That sounds like the wording used on those plates F'lar found in the weyrs before the Oldtimers were brought forward," Robinton complained. "It doesn't even sound Pernese!"

     "There's more," Tuck told him. "Panthro then responded with 'Subtemporal travel would prevent the tracking of devices calibrated for hyper-spatial dimensions. It would take time for me to manufacture a transponder calibrated for amplified temporal components. However, with current technology, it would be too large to safely inject in a creature smaller than your largest draconic specimen.'"

     "Ramoth and Mnementh?" Robinton asked, astonished. "He plans to do something to them?"

     "I don't know," Tuck said, disgusted. "It was soon after that moment Ryuu captured me. I was puzzled by who he was talking with and sent Snap to fly by and see who it was, but she said only Ryuu was there with your fire-lizards. Then she said she saw a flash of light and Ryuu grabbed me. She rushed to my rescue but Ryuu sent her away as if he were a dragon! She said she came right back, but Ryuu promised he wasn't going to hurt me or her, and she watched as Ryuu tied me up. The odd thing was, she never saw 'Panthro' leave. And after I was untied, I looked in the other room while Ryuu answered the door, but no one else was there."

     There was a coded knock at the door. But even as Robinton went to answer, Tuck hid himself in the shadows.

     "MasterHarper! We've got something!" Sebell whispered pushing in. Menolly was with him and pressed in as well.

     "Sebell? Menolly?" Robinton asked. "What are you doing up this late?"

     "Beauty had a fright in Ryuu's room!" Menolly said.

     "Is she okay?" Robinton asked genuinely concerned.

     "She seems to be," the girl replied uncertain. "Diver, Farli, and Kimi are with her and they don't seem to be disturbed."

     "Tuck!" Sebell suddenly exclaimed.

     "Wha-who? OH!" Menolly asked then exclaimed as a shadow emerged to reveal one of Robinton's long-time associates.

     "Still got the skills, Sebell," the man said grinning.

     "Maybe not as good as you," Sebell said. "But skills enough!" he finished with a grin, holding up the injector.

     "Be careful with that!" Robinton said. "Piemur said the device he found--"

     "--made a hole in the wall the size of a dragon," Sebell said, finishing for him. "Yes, I was there when he told us! But while this doesn't match Piemur's description, it is the closest thing to the shape I could find. Unless Ryuu was sleeping with it under his pillow...?" He shrugged his shoulders.

     "Now that looks like the device Ryuu was holding over the fire-lizards," Tuck said.

     "Zair?" Robinton asked his bronze. "Do you recognize this?"

     Tickle! the fire-lizard cheeped.

     "He used it on Beauty and the others?" Menolly asked astonished.

     "He may have used it on Zair," Robinton said. "Where, Zair? Where did he tickle?"

     Belly! the bronze said, rubbing his stomach.

     "Hmm, I can't feel anything abnormal," Robinton said, rubbing his finger over the area Zair indicated.

     "Let me see that," Tuck said, holding his hand to Sebell. "Now Ryuu held it like this," he said, setting his thumb against the trigger on the slant of the prism.

     "Tuck!" Robinton cried out. "What are you doing?"

     "Relax," he said, aiming the evident nozzle toward the window. "This wouldn't be your dragon-hole maker. But I think it's that 'transponder injector' he was going on about."

     There was a soft pft! Zair and Snap whipped their heads about trying to follow something pinging on the walls.

     Whiplash! Zair exclaimed, violently shaking his head and blinking in surprise.

     "Will you be careful with that?" Menolly yelled.

     "I think that's enough experimenting for tonight," Robinton said, gently, but firmly removing the device from Tuck's grasp. "In the morning, we'll have a talk with Ryuu."

     "But what about Beauty and the others?" Menolly asked.

     "Kimi and the rest can back each other up," Sebell said to her. "They didn't seem to be concerned about him."

     "But what if he's done something already?" she demanded. "She did call out in surprise!"

     "But was that Ryuu?" Sebell asked. "They didn't seem to fear him. Like I said, maybe Diver did something that surprised her?" he suggested.