With a slight change in engine pitch, and a small ripple of vibration through the deck, the Essenay came off the ECHO stardrive.
They had arrived at the planet Brum-a-dum.
Stretched out on his belly on the dayroom floor, Draycos hunched himself up onto his front paws and looked around. Over by the wall, fourteen-year-old Jack Morgan was seated at the narrow table, his elbows on the edge, his chin propped up in his hands. He was peering down at the table's surface, moving his lips silently. Concentrating on his studies, the boy had apparently missed the fact that the Essenay had returned to normal space.
Draycos turned his attention toward the camera/speaker/ microphone setup that allowed the ship's computer to monitor the room's activities. In the dark lens of the camera he caught a distorted glimpse of his own long, triangular head and the spiny crest starting between his glowing green eyes and extending down his long back. Like a dragon the size of a small tiger, Jack had said at their first meeting.
The description had intrigued Draycos, and he'd spent several hours over the past two months researching the topic of dragons in the Essenay's library. Some of the stories he'dfound had been rather flattering. Others had definitely not been. "Well?" he called toward the camera.
"Well what?" Uncle Virge's voice came back, sounding grumpy.
"I thought perhaps you would like to announce our arrival," Draycos said mildly.
Jack looked up from the table. "We're here?" he asked. "Uncle Virge?"
"Yes, we're here," the computerized voice confirmed reluctantly. "Don't get excited--I'm still scanning the area. That could take awhile."
Jack threw a knowing look at Draycos. "Come on, Uncle Virge, quit stalling," the boy said. "We already know where the Chookoock family estate is. Just plot us a landing course and take us down."
"It's not that simple, Jack lad," Uncle Virge protested. "There are airway lanes to be located, arrival procedures to be observed, Brummgan customs documents to be filed--"
"And you can do all of that with your eyes shut," Jack interrupted. "Just take us down, okay?"
There was an audible sigh from the speaker. Uncle Virge was a sort of ghostly echo of Jack's Uncle Virgil, the conman and safecracker who'd raised the boy after his parents' deaths when he was three. Before Uncle Virgil's own death a year ago, he'd somehow managed to implant a version of his personality into the Essenay's computer. With only that personality to keep him company, Jack had continued on, taking odd shipping jobs to support himself as he flew alone between the stars of the galaxy's Orion Arm.
Alone, that is, until Draycos, poet-warrior of the K'da, had crashed unexpectedly into his life.
Uncle Virge didn't like Draycos. He didn't like Draycos's warrior's ethic, or his continued presence aboard the Essenay, or the fact that he had dragged Jack into his private mission.
And he certainly didn't like this plan. "Jack, lad, really now, this is just plain crazy," he said, his voice soft and earnest. "Even by my standards. Can't we take just a little more time to think about it? There has to be a better way to find these mercenaries of yours."
Jack looked back down at the tabletop, his eyes avoiding Draycos's. He was trying hard to hide his feelings, but Draycos could see the tension in his face. Jack didn't like the plan any more than Uncle Virge did.
Which made it unanimous, because Draycos didn't much like it either.
But they were running out of choices. More importantly, they were running out of time. In four months the main fleet of K'da and Shontine refugee ships would reach the Orion Arm after their long, weary voyage across space. Their final goal was the uninhabited planet of Iota Klestis; but first they would be stopping at a rendezvous point known only to the fleet and the commanders of the advance team.
Except that all of those advance team commanders were dead. Their ships had been attacked as they arrived at Iota Klestis, and everyone aboard except Draycos had been killed by the unstoppable Death weapon of their enemies, the Valahgua. The attackers had then taken control of the ships, and by now had surely discovered the location of the upcoming rendezvous.
All Draycos and Jack had to go on was the fact that the Valahgua had picked up some allies among the various human and alien beings of the Orion Arm. A mercenary group,almost certainly, one which they already knew employed Brummgas. If they could identify that group, they might have a chance of locating the rendezvous point themselves before the refugees arrived.
If they couldn't, the fleet would fly straight into an ambush ... and the K'da and Shontine peoples would cease to exist.
"Maybe there is a better way, Uncle Virge," Jack said. "But I'll be stripped, sanded, and varnished if I can come up with one."
"You could still take this to StarForce," Uncle Virge said.
"We've been through all this," Jack reminded him sourly. "StarForce, the Internos, and every other government agency is out because we don't know who we can trust."
"Then how about Cornelius Braxton?" Uncle Virge persisted. "He owes you big-time for pulling his marshmallows out of the fire the way you did during Arthur Neverlin's big power grab."
Jack shook his head. "You don't create a megacorporation like Braxton Universis without a lot of brains and a lot more ruthlessness," he pointed out. "Grateful or not, ten to one he'd try to twist all this to his own advantage." The boy's lip twitched. "Besides, I don't think Neverlin's given up, and I'd rather not be standing anywhere near Braxton when he makes his next move. No, for right now it's got to be just you and me and Draycos."
"But to throw yourself into a slavemaster's lap?" Uncle Virge protested. "What if he doesn't go for it?"
"He will," Jack assured him. "Slavemasters are in the business for the money. All we have to do is make sure the offer is too good to pass up."
"And if you can't get out afterward?"
"What, with my trusty K'da poet-warrior at my side?" Jack threw a strained smile at Draycos.
"I'm sure he'll be a big help," Uncle Virge said, his tone making it clear he wasn't sure of that at all. "But why go in as a thief? Why not as a soldier looking for work?"
"I've tried being a soldier," Jack said. "You saw how well it worked."
"You lived through it," Uncle Virge countered. "That says a lot."
Jack snorted. "Not really," he said. "Anyway, what do you suggest I use for references? Ask them to get in touch with the Whinyard's Edge?"
"Besides, the Chookoock family already has many mercenaries to hire out," Draycos put in. "That is why we chose this particular slave dealer, after all."
"Yes, I remember the logic, thank you," Uncle Virge said icily. "I just don't think it's going to be easy for a slave to get into their personnel records."
"It'll be a lot easier from in there than it would be from out here," Jack said. "Look, it's not that big a deal. A quick flip-and-dip into their computer, you swoop the Essenay in, and we all fade together into the sunrise."
Uncle Virge sniffed. "You make it sound so easy."
"Easier than the job we did aboard the Star of Wonder," Jack said. "At least here I'll have you and the Essenay on hand to back me up."
"Maybe," Uncle Virge said ominously. "Maybe not. Slavemaster estates aren't the easiest places in the world to break into, you know. When push comes to shove comes to a poke in the snoot, I may not be able to do much from theoutside. In which case, you and your K'da poet-warrior will be on your own."
"We've been on our own before," Jack reminded him. Still, Draycos could see the boy's throat muscles tighten a little more. "Quit stalling. Let's get to it."
Uncle Virge sighed. "If you insist," he said. "I suppose you'll want a look at the place before we land."
"That would be nice," Jack said dryly. "Pipe it back here, will you?"
The display screen on the dayroom wall had been showing a pleasant, peaceful scene of a sunlit mountain pass. Now it changed to a view of a cloud-mottled, bluish-green landscape far below. "How soon till we can see something?" Jack asked.
"Give me a chance, Jack lad," Uncle Virge huffed. "We've only just reached the planet."
"Okay, okay, don't pop a port," Jack said soothingly. "I can work on this awhile longer."
"What help may I offer?" Draycos asked, padding across the room to Jack's side and looking down at the table. Jack had turned the surface transparent, and on the displays beneath it were rows of what looked like wiggled tracks made by extremely startled worms.
"It's a group of common Brummgan words, written in Brummgan script," Jack said. "Most Orion Arm computers have automatic translators built in, so I shouldn't have any trouble reading their data lists once I'm in. But there might be other stuff along the way I'll need to be able to read."
"Very likely," Draycos agreed. "How may I help?"
"That screen over there shows the translations," Jack said,pointing to the far end of the table. "I'll mix these up and then try to read them. You see if I get them right."
They went through the drill twice, with Jack missing only seven words the first time and four the second. By the time they were finished, the dayroom display was showing a high-resolution image of the ground below them.
"You'll have to settle for an angled view," Uncle Virge said as the image shifted direction a little. "We're heading for the Ponocce Regional Spaceport, at the southern edge of Ponocce City and about three miles from the Chookoock estate itself. Given our current vector, it would look suspicious for us to fly directly over them."
"Just do the best you can," Jack said.
"Right," Uncle Virge said. "Anyway, that's it coming up on the left, pressed right up against the eastern edge of the city. That white line there--see it? That's the estate's outer wall:"
Stretching out his long neck, Draycos studied the image scrolling slowly across the display. The estate was a huge one, covering nearly as much territory as the city alongside it. The ribbon of white that Uncle Virge had identified as the outer wall snaked across the landscape, disappearing here and there behind low hills or tall bushes until it finally vanished completely behind the trees of a thick forest. Along with the forest, the estate also included neat rectangles of cropland, areas of bushy undergrowth, a rock quarry, several ponds, and a small river.
The wall itself was deceptively plain and simple-looking, with no signs of guard towers or patrolling aircraft. It was almost as if it was there just for show.
Draycos didn't believe it for a minute. Neither, obviously, did Jack. "So what's the story on that wall?" the boy asked.
"Some kind of hardened ceramic, looks like," Uncle Virge said. "Shape-wise, it seems to be a sort of X cross section. That means you have an overhang to deal with no matter which side you start climbing from."
"That ought to discourage casual visitors," Jack commented. "What about non-casual ones?"
"Not sure," Uncle Virge grunted. "It looks like there may be a set of lasers running along the groove at the top, nestled down into the center of the X and aiming upward. There may be some flame jets mixed in, too."
Draycos felt the tip of his tail making slow circles. Lasers and flame jets, firing straight up out of the top of the wall. The Chookoock family was serious about keeping people out.
Or, perhaps, serious about keeping people in. "How many slaves do they keep inside the estate itself?" he asked.
"Hundreds," Uncle Virge said grimly. "Humans and several other species. A lot of them are working the cropland and quarry, plus there's a big group in the forest."
"Logging?" Jack asked.
"I don't know," Uncle Virge said. "Most of that batch are gathered around a particular line of bushes. Don't know what that's all about."
"What about buildings?" Jack asked.
"There are several." On the display, a red rectangle appeared, outlining a group of brown-and-green-speckled buildings that blended smoothly into their surroundings. "The long buildings here and here are probably slave quarters," Uncle Virge said, marking them with red blips. "We've also got service buildings--kitchens, laundry facilities, washrooms."
"A complete community within the wall," Draycos commented.
"Two communities, actually," Uncle Virge said, sounding disgusted. "The slaves' area; and this." The image shifted again, centering on a huge brown-roofed building. "The Chookoock family mansion."
Draycos leaned a little closer to the display. The mansion was set about half a mile back from the western edge of the estate, with an extensive parking area in front and a long, winding drive connecting it to a wide gate in the white wall. On both sides of the drive were formal gardens, complete with flower beds, shrubs, and occasional clumps of small trees.
To the north of the mansion was a large open area where the grass had been marked with a series of lines and circles. Some sort of sports ground, probably. A tall grandstand sat facing the field at the south end, with tall flagpoles at its corners. Further to the north, between the open ground and the slave areas, was a thick line of brown and green that was probably another wall.
He turned his attention to the mansion itself. The structure was four stories high, judging from the window placement. It was composed of a central section with a number of small wings jutting out at odd angles. There was no particular symmetry to the design, but the final result was nevertheless not unpleasing to the eye.
The structure was built of irregular pieces of stone in shades of brown, tan, and gray. Probably stone from the estate's own quarry--he'd noticed similar shades of rock there. Overall, the whole thing reminded him of a rocky section of cliff from which the soil had been scraped or eroded away. Perhaps that had been the designer's intent.
"Cozy," Jack said. "Ideal for you and three hundred of your closest friends. So, back to the perimeter wall. Any idea how high it is?"
Draycos looked at the wall. By comparing its shadow to that of the house, which he'd already estimated to be four stories tall ... "I would say about thirty feet high," he offered.
"It's actually thirty-two," Uncle Virge said.
Draycos felt his tail twitch with annoyance. Typical. With access to the Essenay's sensors, Uncle Virge had probably had that number several minutes ago. But instead of saying anything, he'd let Draycos make his own estimate first.
And had then showed him to be wrong. Not very far wrong, but enough. Just one more subtle attempt to sow seeds of doubt and distrust toward Draycos in Jack's mind.
From the very beginning, Uncle Virge had tried to get the boy to see things in his own, self-absorbed way, to persuade him to wash his hands of the K'da poet-warrior and this mission to save a people Jack didn't even know. Clearly, he hadn't given up that effort.
"Well, we already knew we weren't going to go in over the wall," Jack said. "Anything outside the wall that can help us?"
"Precious little," Uncle Virge said. "There's the gatehouse, of course--"
"Gatehouse?" Jack asked.
"To the left of the main entrance," Draycos said, flicking out his tongue to touch the edge of a small shape almost hidden beneath the wall overhang.
"Right," Uncle Virge said, sounding a little annoyed that Draycos had noticed it. Another small red rectangle appeared to mark the image. "Probably someone in therechecking passes and invitations and keeping the riffraff out."
"Though the actual defense positions are here and here," Draycos added, indicating a pair of camouflaged and virtually invisible huts nestled into two groups of trees in the formal gardens flanking the drive. "The guard outside is merely for show."
"And there are bound to be more guards inside the house, as well," Uncle Virge said. "You sure you don't want to try a different plan?"
"What about the employees?" Jack asked, ignoring the question. "They don't all live in the mansion, do they?"
Uncle Virge sighed. "No, I'm sure there are some with homes in the city."
"Good," Jack said briskly. "Get busy and find one."