The dragon dropped from the sky. The buck threw up his head in alarm, and leaped for cover. Antlers raked across the dragon's down thrust wing-hands. The dragon flinched back and snarled, thumping ungracefully down in the tall meadow grasses.
The scout had frozen in place, camera in hand. She'd gotten a rather more spectacular shot than the idyllic grazing deer she'd been planning. The Chief Biologist did say to take pictures of the native wildlife. So it's about time I found something that doesn't look like it came straight from Earth. Although a dragon may surprise him. She gagged as the faint breeze brought a carnal house stench from the dragon.
The dragon leaped and flapped a dozen meters to a stream and splashed down in the middle of it.
The dragon was long, a bit snake-like, not massive. The deer had been small, perhaps fifty kilos. The scout wondered if a dragon could still fly if it ate close to half its weight. Of course it might not eat it all of its kill at once.
There was enough splashing that she dared click off another picture. The dragon looked almost birdlike, splashing and fluttering in the water. It was amazingly flexible, twisting and bending as it started scrubbing itself down with sand. It climbed out of the stream, shook its wings and leaped into the air. It disappeared over a rocky bluff.
The scout sighed happily. Dragons!
She wiggled her jaw to turn the comm network back on. <<Magana. Large predator warning. A flying reptile, perhaps a hundred kilos. Very definitely going to name this one a dragon, and I don't care what the Biosci's say.>>
She recognized Major Bryon's snort. <<Right. Everyone keep your eyes up. Scarlet, any other information?>>
<<There was only one, and it swooped down on a deer like a hawk, and missed. It flew off to the east, presumably still hungry.>> She headed on downhill, while the rest of the team checked in. Two of them had had large fliers in sight, but hadn't gotten a good closeup.
Scarlet hit a cleared trail and picked up the pace. According to the satellite photos, she ought to cut a road in another five miles, then she could wait for a native to come by. The remote they'd slapped together had overheated coming down; the pix it had sent before it died had been blurred. But the blurs could have been human. Certainly bipedal. She needed a closer look. Some language samples, if they could be collected without endangering the scouts.
She stopped and listened. Voices. She eased into concealment and waited. Two men walking. "Dom Drakans, no respyk fer de law. He mot still been aroun, ef it dent eat deholl thing."
"Yeah, Jake, you kip thinkin dat."
The men were both large and black haired with olive complexions. They wouldn't have gotten a second glance back home, other than people asking if they were twins. And she'd understood what they'd said. Their clothing wasn't anything startling. Khaki shirts and green pants, patches and stripes. Park Rangers, first guess. Police second.
She activated the comm again. With all these Earth Animals, we thought that we'd found a lost colony. I can confirm that, now. The scout cast a last look up where the dragon had disappeared. Obviously some native biota has survived.
Scarlet wandered casually down the street, window shopping and people watching. She'd had clothing that was a fair match to the local style in her pack. Major Bryan's teeth had been audibly gritting as he ordered her to take a stroll through town. They were all hovering around the outskirts, planning a late night raid on garbage bins for discarded reading material.
The people watching was giving her goosebumps. The black-haired olive-skinned type she'd seen before made up the majority of the people on the street. There were people with lighter hair and skin as well, all shades, all sizes . . . But the darker group bothered her. It wasn't just the coloring. Their features all bore a family resemblance. Same arched nose, the face was convex, not flat, attractive, in a rather wolfish way. The broad jaw, heavy lower face. Long muscular arms, legs a bit short, giving them a slightly ape-like build. They weren’t ugly, nor really ape-like. The spooky part was just that they all looked so much like each other.
She listened carefully to the bits and pieces of conversation flowing around her.
If the ship hadn't hit whatever it had hit, hadn't lost every single satellite, damaged the antennas . . . The scouts’ comm network was encrypted for privacy. It wasn't designed to pick up ordinary civilian broadcasts. And she was willing to bet that they were there to be heard. Bet we will—eventually—get plenty of language samples. She stopped and watched the silent pantomime of a two dee show on a rack of display units. The display was bright as the late afternoon light dimmed toward twilight. Crystal, plasma or old fashioned led? Broadcast or cable? We need to pick up the language fast, so we can talk to people about the tech. I'd say it is quite close to ours in consumer electronics. Oh, a few generations back in tech, but the TV is obviously common here. The cars are clunky, old fashioned, completely recognizable, the controls so similar, they even have old fashioned license plates with numbers and letters on them. Even with the weird accents around me, I feel like I'm back home, in my childhood. Well, my grandmother's childhood, but . . .
The Major's voice whispering over her ear insert interrupted her study. <<They've fixed the main antenna, and are picking up communications now. We're being recalled, in anticipation of them managing a quick hypo-learning program for the language changes. Then we'll be able to tackle the big city.>>
Scarlet turned away from the window and strolled back the way she'd come.
The attack took her completely by surprise, one young man shoving her into the alley, the one already in the alley grabbing her around the head, hand muffling her mouth. He pulled her toward the open door of a car, the first man following quickly.
This wasn't the kind of opportunity I wanted, but I suppose you have to go with what you've got . . . She rolled the grabber over her hip and dropped him on his back, turned and kicked the first man in the solar plexus. Removed the weapon from his hand—pistol of some sort—she used it as a club to knock the grabber flat and out, turned back and pulled the retching man toward the open door of the car. She hit him behind the ear as she shoved him in.
"So, Major, you said something about needing some better samples?" She dragged the first man—scrawny teenage boys, both of them, now that she had the leisure to study them—to the car and heaved him on top of his friend. Now all she needed to do was figure out the controls.
They only kept the boys for a few hours. Kept them dosed with a memory inhibiter. Listened to them chatter, tried talking to them, finally got some grasp of the cadence and the changes to the language. They learned some of the more common people's names. The names of the towns, around here, and the nearest large city, Sa Nafro was the capital of how ever large this polity was.
The boys were eighteen and seventeen, the paler more varied type, and were happy to tell them all about the money, both paper and coinage, they had on them. And whining about not having enough to impress girls with.
"Oh, is that what you were trying to do?" They looked blankly at her scathing tones, the memories of the alley already lost.
It was a precarious tiny bit of information on which to venture into the nearest big city. They sent the boys away and spent the next day listening to the radio in the car while the shuttle fabber produced clothing. The Captain approved their plan. Major Bryan had argued that they should grab this opportunity while it lasted, and the Captain had postponed their recall.
They'd fabbed a new license for the car, in case the pair of muggers reported it stolen, or had stolen it themselves. Scarlet tromped hard on guilt feelings. After all, they'd abandon the car close to this town in a few more days. Dressed in new clothes, based on the muggers' and what she'd seen around town, they piled into the car and headed for Sa Nafro.
The traffic was light, giving them plenty of time and room to get used to the car. They eased onto one of the major roads, no sign of any sort of remote control system in evidence.
Herc was driving. "They let people control their own cars at these speeds?" Scarlet could see his grin spreading in the faint reflection off the front windscreen. "I like this place."
Major Bryan, riding shotgun, nodded. "It's got just the right mix of electronics for entertainment, but it apparently skipped the nuclear threat and avoided the Nanny State."
Scarlet shifted. "I think it may be revving up for some religious wars, though."
They'd been reading newspapers—printed on real wood pulp paper—for two days now. The little fab in the shuttle had produced plenty copies of the coins and paper money the muggers had been carrying. The pale people, the normal looking ones, were apparently an immigrant minority, poorly educated and generally taking the low end jobs. Highly religious, and prejudiced against the dragons. Or demons, as they apparently preferred to call them. The darker people were referred to as wingless, or slangily, wuss.
"It's the hints that they consider the dragons intelligent that spooks me." John was cramped into the middle of the back seat, the last member of the team, Carry, was on his other side.
"I like the idea of the dragons." Carry was going to fit right in with the wusses, with her South American complexion and black hair. The Major, with his African roots, might have trouble going unnoticed.
Herc fell in with the pace of the rest of the cars, as traffic thickened. There were three distinct clumps of tall buildings ahead. More clumps of moderately tall buildings, ten floors or so. In between, shorter buildings. Apartments, stores, shops, and several districts with houses, both large and small.
"You can tell they're human by the inner city blight," Bryon murmured.
They worked their way around the city, noting the names of the major streets and how they ran. Reading signs written with neon tubing. Official signs. Business District. Hospitals. This and that Plaza or Theatre.
Government buildings: Palace, Treasury, Parliament.
They descended from the elevated motorways to the ground level in the Theater District. Without ID, they had to be careful to not come to any official notice.
"And right next door to the Theater district, the nightclubs." Herc slowed further, and they avoided the trendy clubs with the lines, and finally picked a nice but not too busy bar to try their accents on some of the locals. It had a small parking lot around the side and they walked in separately. Two women chatting at the bar stopped to glance at Scarlet as she walked in, then they returned to their conversation. There was music, and a dance floor, but the ambient sound level was low enough for conversation. The door opened again, and the women both sat up and looked attentive.
"Oh, you're a dierk one! How handsame!" One of them oozed off her stool and all over the Major.
Scarlet hid a smile at his startled expression. It appeared that dark skin tones were not going to be a problem.
"Hi, Blondie. Buy you a drink?" Scarlet turned to find she'd gather an admirer all her own. One of the dark haired variety, who held out something that looked like a martini. She took it, nerving herself to say something. She took a sip.
And gasped as it burned all the way down and exploded.
Powerful didn't begin to cover it.
"That's, that's . . . "
"Ha! I detect an accent. You must be just up from Crease. Let me welcome you to Freer with a dance."
Anything, so long as she didn't have to try another sip.
"Call me Herod." He swung her out onto the floor with something waltz-like, and as she followed easily, he started getting elaborate. She was sweating and panting for breath by the time he led her back to a little table. She took a swallow of the killer martini before she remembered that wasn't a good idea.
The man laughed at her. "I see you're going to be a cheap date."
She eyed his hands, the fingernails were a bit odd, so thick and heavy he nearly had little hooves on the ends of his fingers, or fat talons, with the little hook at the end. In fact, his hands were large, the fingers long and thick, the ring and little fingers freakishly large.
"Wow maybe there really are aliens." She swayed.
When he laughed it seemed like he had big canines, and rather a lot of them.
"You are so handsome." She tried that 'melt all over him' thing the dark woman had done to the Major, and nearly wound up on the floor.
She was totally plastered, and walked out the door with him.
"Do you have a car?" Oh his voice was soooo sexy . . .
"Yeah. It's over . . . "
<< Scout Lieutenant Scarlet Magana, ATTENTION!>> Full volume on her ear bug.
She swayed upright, as close to attention as she could manage. "Oops, have I been ignoring someone?" She turned her head enough to see the Major, and spotted the others behind him. She looked back but the handsome devil had disappeared. "No matter. There's three of you. Hi Carry, you wanna play too? I’ll share." She wrapped her arms around the Major's neck and was hauled off to the car.
She kept trying to get fresh with one or another of them for the whole drive, while the Major muttered about drugs. Then she switched to the shuttle pilot and was hastily removed.
"Swear to god, Magana, I'm going to handcuff you." Major Bryan was sounding a bit hot.
"Oh, I didn't know you liked to play those sorts of games." She giggled at his expression, then they were docking, and she got to kiss the Captain. He had the medics in tow and they grabbed her. About time! But they just stuck her full of needles, and strapped her down when she still tried to kiss them.