|The Transformation Story Archive||Mythical Beings|
If You Can't Beat 'Em
Part. I: "Missing--Presumed Lost."
She was rusting, she had a triple-expansion steam engine, and was one of the most advanced ships we had. We'd fallen that far, and in consideration of that, it was amazing that the drakes hadn't exterminated us immediately. Of course, they hadn't thought to do anything more than manage us, at first. That attitude had bought us some time.
I imagine that our colony was as successful as could have been hoped. Certainly we were happy enough. Sufficiently happy to forget more than we had any excuse to do. It was a big, fertile planet. 60/40% sea/land, warm and stable, atmosphere close enough to Earth's to pass. We'd rediscovered that much when we started going through the old records, with the haste made of desperation. We'd been so complacent--like grazing cattle. Two centuries of successful farming and water-powered industry, just enough to feed everybody and keep us as comfortable as we thought we needed to be. There had been no reason to keep in touch with Earth, no reason to keep the machines repaired. Even the archive equipment had been allowed to fall apart. THAT I would have cursed even if it hadn't been for the drakes. They'd left the first settlers complete records of the whole of human accomplishment - on six gleaming cylinders that we no longer knew how to access.
"I'm going below, dear. Will you be down, soon?"
"I'd like watch the sunset, Sarina. You go along, and I'll join you."
It was still late afternoon, but I didn't want Sarina on her feet too long after that dinner. The food wasn't bad, or at least it had gotten better once I'd made friends with some of the officers and they'd heard about Sarina's condition. It had been quite nice of the captain to let us use the bridge promenade.
Mind you, the resentment that Sarina and I were on board at all had faded once they understood why we were important to the war effort. I hadn't built the ship, or her sisters, but it had been our research that had allowed her construction. If Johnson hadn't found that "war buff's" personal fiche archive, and Reynolds hadn't tracked down Sikorski's library, the drakes would have cleaned us out before we got to even this level of technology. Steam engines - riveted hulls - wireless telegraphy - and precious little metal to use for it. Canvas-and-dope airplanes. The lack of heavier elements had been the price we'd paid for a large planet and low gravity, but what was killing us now had been no impediment to a bunch of idealists who'd wanted a pre-industrial world.
"Damn the Ancestors," I muttered again.
"What's that?" The mate.
"Too damned idealistic, Mr. Andrews. They've left us without the means to survive a war their ancestors could have settled in twenty-five minutes."
"Oh, I don't know. Your sort's done well enough giving us this."
His hand caressed the drum of the Lewis Gun mounted on the corner of the railing.
"And we've got the forward 5, and the stern 3. The drakes won't give us any trouble on this run."
"The Terrans who founded this colony could destroy a planet from orbit, Mr. Andrews. They had weapons that could ignite a sun. The most advanced gun we've got was declared obsolete twenty years before the Atomic age."
"It'll stop a drake."
He left me to brood alone. The War College had found some information, enough from the stuff we still could read to build that Lewis--and the "pom pom" automatic cannon we had mounted on the lower forecastle. We'd done well enough by extrapolation to develop an engine as efficient as the one powering our ship. We could sail far enough to give us access to the continents our ancestors hadn't seen fit to settle when they'd landed here. The drakes would have destroyed anything like a sailing ship. MAYBE there was metal there, and perhaps the base camp we were to build on the Western continent would allow us to find it. We'd cobbled together three battleships for the war with most of the metal we had already. I doubted if they'd be enough. We hadn't even equaled the Dreadnought, fossil that she was - couldn't manage a turbine. Calling our first the Michigan had been one of my bitter little jokes.
You don't so much hear an artillery shot as you feel it--at first. The noise of the blast takes a moment to reach you. The Merchant Guard were brave and dedicated men--colleagues of the Coast Artillerymen who had first repelled a drake attack ten years ago. They'd seen it before I had, before even Andrews had seen it. That wouldn't save us.
It was the biggest dragon I had ever seen, coming out of the evening sun, and he had burned the gunners at our stern three-inch before they had time to get off a second shot. The forward five-inch crew was frantically going through their shell racks as they sought to keep a circling formation of smaller drakes at bay above them. I could hear the cursing of the gunlayers. That wouldn't help. The monster attacking from behind had already landed on our deck.
The siren went off even as the ship listed with the impact of his landing. Andrews lept for the hatchway leading into the bridge, while I could hear the screams of the crewmen aft dying under the claws and teeth of the advancing dragon astern. Even as I turned to follow Andrews below hatches, a set of fangs around a forked tongue came snapping at me from over the rail. Whatever breed of drake it was, it had come OUT of the sea - a first, to my knowledge - and grabbed us amidships as it clambered up our hull.
I had time to get to the Lewis gun. .303 Rimmed hadn't been terribly effective against flying drakes, but at this range, it was more than enough to blind this particular monster. I swiveled the coughing machine gun after the bleeding head as it sank back into the water. I was still coughing in the cordite fumes as I staggered away from the empty gun, slipping on the rolling cartridge cases that had come spilling out of the breech. Ordinarily, we'd be trying to save those for reloading.... No time to think about that, now.
My own long burst had deafened me a bit, but I could still hear the light cannon on the bow half of the ship firing. This was an OLD drake--the two pound shells were NOT stopping him, even though the gunners had made the correct decision to shoot through our superstructure for a chance at hitting him. I could hear the sound of Mills Bombs and the occasional dragon's roar.
I never found out how it had ended. The Captain had undoubtedly tried to keep headway on her before one of the smaller dragons had crashed into the bridge. It must have slaughtered the steering crew before dying itself. I never heard us blow off steam, which means the engineers and stokers had stayed at their posts to the last. They must have ferreted us all out, one by one. This was my day to see the previously unseen. Smaller dragons were dropping some new species of wingless drake down upon us--about human size, but with an armament of fangs and claws that no human could counter in close combat.
I saw one of the officers go down after emptying his Webley-Fosbery revolver into the face of the lizard that had killed him. The crewmen with fire axes were doing as well as those with the Enfields, and that wasn't well at all, given the numbers of enemy landing every minute. They were going to get us, although we wouldn't, of course, surrender. We'd first found out that we shared this bloody planet with the drakes when they "harvested" North Hampstead. No one left--men, women, children, gone. Just picked bones....
Sarina! She was as doomed as the rest of us. We'd fought after Hampstead, and Gravesend - founded the War College, where I'd taken my degree and got this appointment as Tactical Advisor/Mission historian--and permission to take my wife. They'd kill her. The drakes didn't discriminate in what they ate. Their tactics had proved their intelligence almost immediately, but if they had a moral code, it didn't extend to other species. It had only been contempt for us that had made them wait until we reached a "manageable" population. The Oregon had given them a lesson in our "manageability." Time to go out like the proverbial cornered rat.
I'd been pulling myself up and to my feet while my brain tried to make that much sense of the situation. One of the lizards was waiting for me as I stood, hissing, claws extended. That was bad enough - he was wearing ARMOR, of some sort. They could forge metal! Oh, bloody hell. If we could find their ore, mind, the possibilities...
But I wouldn't be telling anyone.
John M. Browning was a brilliant man--there was a whole department at the College tracking down references to his designs. We hadn't been able to back-engineer the .50 caliber heavy machine gun - yet - but the Remington Model 11 had been a last-minute addition to our expedition's arsenal. This one had probably been the bosun's.
It took the lizard's head off, as I came up with it and fired from the crouch. The recoil-action self-cocked the shotgun and left me with a second shot to send at the lizard behind my first kill. This one took the hint by hoisting itself over the railing and down to the main deck. I fumbled for more of the brass shells needed for the Remington as I lowered the weapon. The screams were growing fainter.
I scrabbled through the door and slipped in the horrible mess left by Andrew's disemboweled body. No time to think.... I ran toward our cabin and pounded the Remington's buttplate on the hatch.
"Is that you?!" I heard Sarina's hands on the dogs securing the access into our quarters.
"Yes, dear! I'm fine. DON'T OPEN THE HATCH! I'm going to come through the ventilation ducts 'tween decks! We'll have the drakes driven off soon, and I don't want you at risk!"
Facile liar. You could get through the ducts - the drakes undoubtedly would. I wouldn't have time to get into them. Already two lizards and a smaller, winged dragonet had approached from the bridge area. Behind me I heard a rustling. Three shots emptied the Remington in both directions before something came crashing down on my head. The dragonet was hissing something articulated as I collapsed.
I'd hoped she wouldn't be afraid for long...
"Lift the male for my inspection."
That was no human voice. The sight of the armored lizard had implied that the drakes had language--technology--everything they'd need to defeat us in my rapidly-dimming perspective. Why English? And why hadn't I been eaten already?
I was on the foredeck. The barrels of the pom-pom looked like two broken fingers among a welter of cloth belts and expended shell casings. Four lizards held me spread-eagled on my back before the monster I'd watched land upon our stern. I flicked my eyes and saw that the housing had collapsed over the remains of the forward capstan. They'd stopped us by releasing the anchor. Above my head stood the silver-scaled dragonet I'd seen in the corridor before our cabin.
The head was massive, armored in reddish plates, and two feet above me. Certainty of death has one advantage - I didn't care enough to shiver.
"And the female."
THAT got a reaction out of me. They had a sadistic streak, we'd known that. Listening to the large dragon chuckling to itself when he saw my reaction got me angry enough to struggle. No use, of course.
"A mated pair, then. Excellent, Tarcon."
The dragonet's upper body came down into my vision as it inclined its head in some species of bow.
"It wass obviouss... Lord Ember... from the malesss' ressisstancsse."
I was opposite the large dragon's slitted eye again. I didn't have enough saliva to spit into it.
"You... ape... are in for some changes. A shift of... perspectives, for a food animal. You will soon be shedding your previous existence like a used skin. You are most fortunate."
The head swiveled for a moment, then came back to stare at me. His articulation was excellent, a product, I think, of all that mouth and all that tongue. And all those people reported missing since the war had begun....
"You will serve me well, whatever this does to you. We have learned much already. The process will be... informative. You will teach us more... whatever we wish to know."
Suddenly the dragonet - Tarcon - wrenched my head sideways with his foreclaws. They'd stripped Sarina. I knew enough about them to know that at worst their interest was clinical, but did they know enough for the sight of her to tell them - it told me - how much she and I had lost? One of the smaller dragons came forward. I was pleased to see that it was missing a wing. It held some sort of box, and opened it. Something leaped out of it and fastened onto Sarina's extended arm. They didn't keep me waiting for my own turn. The casket soon came into my own circle of vision, as Tarcon's grip and the claws of my guards tightened upon me. It held some species of adder - a mugger, I think, with huge venom sacks within its swollen jaws. Strange reaction - that poor snake was as frightened and mistreated I was. Whatever they'd done to it, mad with pain, it attacked the first thing it could.
"He will soon be past all things human. Take him below and report his progress. Feed before the meat cools."
Part. II: "Waking Up."
The first thing I remember after it hit was my feet feeling cool, and wet, along with a rhythmic, slippery warmth that kept sliding against the sole of my foot and between my toes. When I opened my eyes, Tarcon lay crouched at the foot of my bunk, his soft forked tongue working over my feet where they protruded from the blanket.
I looked down at him. He'd been lurking behind me on deck, and they must have put him in charge of me when they'd finished. If Ember had been telling the truth, I wouldn't be using this bunk for much longer. Something major had happened.... What had it been? Strange.... I was hungry.
I fell back on the mattress and noticed that the room was dimly lit. This was curious. Our 'tween decks lights were in series, either on or off. Had the emergency lights come on for some reason? I stretched and was trying to get up when I snagged my finger in the covers.
It took me some time to get loose. When I pulled my hand free, I found that at the tip of each finger a black and shiny curved talon had emerged from what had been covered by my fingernail. The finger tip was sensitive where the claw had broken through my skin, but when I flexed my hand, the talon hinged closed. I found myself working my new equipment like a nervous cat as I began to inspect the rest of my body. My toes were longer and likewise taloned, and I noted a "dew" claw beginning to appear high up on my calf. Another claw was emerging from my elbow as well.
What was going on? The dragonet at my feet made no objection as I pulled myself upright and staggered off to find a mirror. Several things had definitely rearranged themselves inside of me. I was leaning further forward when I walked, and the bones of my feet were not supporting me as they used to. My breath rasped. When I reached the end of the compartment, my claws scratched on the bulkhead as I groped along. I finally managed to flip the auxiliary toggle and found myself flinching and ducking from what seemed to be a blazing light.
"What's the hell's happening to me?" My voice sounded different.
Tarcon moved before me and stretched out one shimmering silver wing. In the smooth surface of his inner skin, my distorted reflection looked back at me. My quivering image showed that my eyes were now as draconine as Tarcon's, silver, with a slitted, vertical pupil which widened, then contracted as I gasped and shrank back. The room had been completely dark before. The light had been off since the engine had shut down without any humans left to tend it. I found myself having difficulty in blinking as my hand went to my cheek and jaw. They felt bigger, as did my eye sockets--were they moving to the side of my head?
I flexed my fingers again and regarded myself in Tarcon's wing. Other things felt wrong... better? Twisting my head half around, I noted two curious bulges beneath my shirt, above my shoulder blades. My feet, apart from the claws, looked a bit longer, and I was standing with my legs spread far apart. Otherwise I was the same - as far as I could tell. My sense of touch seemed dulled, in spots.
The dragonet kept me fixed in his own unblinking gaze, slowly lowering his pinions. When I looked up again, he escorted me down to where they'd put Sarina. What had they done to her? When I reached her side, she lay still and naked, but that was not what drew my attention. She was further along than I was. Her entire ventral area was covered in soft, platinum scales, bordering long overlapping ridges of a lighter color running from her chest down. As I ran my hand over her flanks and abdomen, I felt how smooth and warm the scales were. I tried to imagine her covered in them. My reaction was not what I might have expected... before. I gingerly opened one of her eyes, and sure enough, the pupils had turned into vertical slits--like mine.
Other guards closed in--lizards in metal mesh armor. With Tarcon, they marched me down the gangway and ladders into the ship's hold, where the lead dragon now waited alone. I found myself getting giddy at times and had to stop and put my hand to the railings to steady myself. Ants kept crawling over my skin. Was I getting taller? When Ember saw me, he smiled and thrust his head forward.
"Having fun?" he asked.
Something reacted that knew more than the rest of me did.
"Are you sure you know what side I'm going to take? Even YOU don't know how either of us will turn out. You admitted that. What if you..."
I caught myself staring at his two feet or more of gleaming teeth. My own were feeling strange.
"...have bitten off more than you can chew?"
Ember flexed his wings and shoulders in a serpentine shrug, his eyes narrowing as he looked at my shifting anatomy. He'd ripped out most of our cargo and built a throne room for himself... or was it a nest? His stench was stronger than it had been on deck.
Sarina was walked out between two more of the lizards. She must still have been fighting on the subconscious level. They held the ends of her chains firmly until she was directly next to me and in front of Tarcon, even though she moved as if she was still half asleep. She was definitely taller than she'd been, and her legs had stretched into something still human, but longer, thinner, stronger? Her skin look2ed tight over bones that seemed to be in the wrong places.
The dragon was not above sneering - nervous? He shifted his glance to my left.
"You are progressing, Sarina. Perhaps I will keep you for my own.... Bring them both forward."
I felt a rush of air from behind as Tarcon spread his wings and wrappedus both in a crushing embrace, pushing us toward his master. There was no point in fighting - not yet. I remained there, crushed closely against my wife, sandwiched between her and Tarcon's neck and shoulders. The dragonet's surprisingly warm and soft wings had surrounded us both. I felt enclosed in the membrane as if it was a hammock made of soft warm silver skin. They couldn't see us - I kissed Sarina, just for a moment. She moved her lengthening mouth and responded. Her tongue was forked.
Tarcon returned us to her quarters after the dragon had seen whatever he was looking for. I supported Sarina as gently as my claws and continuing disorientation allowed. My neck was definitely longer, and hers... was beautiful. It wasn't human, though. Neither were either of us. When I lurched against the bulkhead, my skin rasped, and a row of somethings were ripping through the back of my shirt, already tenting above my budding wings. I lay her down on the pallet they'd placed on the deck.
She slept on, with Tarcon and I keeping vigil - and me watching him, as much as the ongoing changes allowed. The night passed slowly, and my spells of nausea and dizziness came and went. When our jailer looked away for a moment, I moved closer to what had been my wife. The scales now covered her whole belly, back, and breasts, only the nipples remaining uncovered, and the nubs on her back had grown larger, as had mine. A row of spikes were pushing outward from her neck, running down along her spine. What would be the final size of our wings? When he noticed me looking down at her, Tarcon again extended his own.
I reared my head back and found myself bobbing reflexively, with my jaws gaping open at my own reflection as I inflated my throat and hissed. I was surprised to see that my own teeth were now sharp fangs, interlocking in my mouth. Had my nose joined my upper jaw? My muzzle was well along, and by this time I could watch my own forked tongue moving around the edge of it, and could feel it darting back inside to press against the roof of my mouth. It felt natural. Among other things altered or missing were my ears - gone - and no python would have found anything unusual about the row of scutes running from my chin to below my chest. There were horns, or something, growing out from my upper head and stretching back along my neck. My jaw hung open - or was it my jaws, now? I felt like I'd opened up half my head when I'd first seen what I'd just become.
I staggered back against the bulkhead, where I had one last surprise. Underneath my own covering of scales there was a large and sensitive bulge at the base of my spine, where what had to be my tail had begun to emerge - while other things had receded into a tight slit in my lower scutes. I found myself standing in a permanent crouch, and drew my head back at the sound of Tarcon undogging the hatchway behind me. Sarina's own tail suddenly showed itself long and shapely as she tossed at the sudden noise, with her own muzzle thrusting itself towards the overhead. Tarcon looked down.
"I sshall bring a goat."
"You do that."
I watched him go as I tried to get used to moving on what were now obviously my haunches. Both my thighs had much more muscle, arranged differently than I was used to, and I seemed to be bending more at the ankle than I was at the knee. My arms were likewise on their way to becoming my forelegs, and at the end of all my limbs were what looked more like talons than hands or feet.
I was a raptor.
It was all coming back, now. Would I do what the dragon said? Would I forget what I was - had been - and become as obedient to his will as Tarcon? And what of Sarina... and what was going to be our child?
Sarina woke when Tarcon closed the hatchway behind him and drew herself up on the pallet - on all fours. Her neck swiveled her graceful head until her glowing, lovely eyes rested on me and she could flicker her tongue in my direction. She smelled anxious. I found myself lurching over to her, until she reared up and wrapped her own neck around mine as she twisted, and pulled me down.
"You are beautiful," she hissed, with a mouth no longer suited to the words, "and they sshall never part uss."
My wings burst through and shredded my shirt, then stretched to cover us. Soon the first wisps of smoke mingled from our nostrils.
Part. III--"The More Things Change."
They were better at flying than I was.
I'd been fairly sure they'd track us. Tarcon had allowed no illusion. Sarina and I had still been entwined on the floor when he'd undogged the hatch and brought back the promised goat. I must have shed my modesty along with my hair, but he still drew back when he found us both drawing into a fighting crouch. It might have been the goat, or it might have been rage at what the drakes had done to us. By the night of my awakening, the two of us had about the same mass as Tarcon, and I had noticed no vapors coming from his nasal passages. Not that I knew what to do with mine...
"Sstay. Eat. We have much to disscuss."
I think it was her pregnancy. Sarina continued to stay several steps ahead of me on the road from what we'd been to what we were becoming. She'd pulled down and efficiently hamstrung the terrified goat while I was still glaring at Tarcon, Sarina using my half-spread wings as cover to get behind him. By the time she'd suffocated the cowering animal, Tarcon had re-dogged the hatch and sat down on his tail, expectantly.
I seemed to be as comfortable on all fours as on my haunches. I could walk either way. The length of my neck allowed me to keep my glare fixed on the dragonet as I worked my way over to Sarina's kill. I had to eat - and the scent of the blood overcame any rational inhibitions. Sarina and I had cleaned the carcass down to the hide and rib cage before Tarcon spoke again.
"Matterss are... difficult. You will make a choicsse the nexsst time he summonss you."
I looked up from the pile of bones on the floor, somewhat distracted by the changes in the way I ate. We didn't chew what we tore off the goat's body, but gulped it straight past our jaws and down our throats. As my left eye moved over Sarina I could see her neck bulging as the muscles on the sides forced the meat into her belly. Everything had changed... she was beautiful, that way. She joined me in two unblinking stares at our jailer.
Tarcon continued. "Your machiness. They give you an edge in the war. Your sship was sseized becausse we hoped for sslavess. You are not what we hoped for. You have already sshowed ressisstansse."
"I'm not even the Engineer. I'm a historian along for the ride!"
The one thing I wasn't doing was hissing. My muzzle was somewhat longer than Tarcon's.
"Then he will kill you. He will take your mate."
"No, he won't." That was Sarina. I shot my eyes back toward her, crouched, facing Tarcon with the intent hostility of an angry cobra. She was still weak from what she'd been through, but no one else had ever made her choices for her... except possibly what was causing that bulge beneath the scutes of her extended rib cage.
Tarcon drew his head back. He was hiding something, what, I wasn't sure. His tail was telling me a little, his neck something else, and the position of his wings more. None of us had changed - could change - expression, although Sarina's tongue had begun to flicker furiously.
"Why are you telling us this? Won't you anger your master?"
Now Tarcon's tongue flickered.
"Ember is ssomewhat obssessed with thisss plan. He hass already failed. He will kill you both to hide hiss embarrassment."
"I offer you a chancsse at life. The hatch above you hass been weakened. In a week, you will be sstrong enough to break through it."
"Do we have a week?"
"He will give you that long to obsserve the processs. You musst eat and cooperate. You are not yet developed to the sstage dessired."
I dropped down to all fours and drew my head back, then thrust it ahead, low and parallel to the deck. Smoke was drifting into my forward fields of vision, but not enough to blind me as I gaped my jaws and advanced upon our captor. I was going to kill him. Something had made the decision for me, and my splayed claws were beginning to gouge parallel furrows in the deck.
"I offer you life."
By this time I was almost upon him, my hind legs tensing for the spring that would knock him backwards and give my teeth and foreclaws access to this throat and belly. He reared his head back and in his half-spread wings I saw my own extend, then retract into the fighting posture I'd seen among the drakes when they'd taken the ship.
"Ssshe will die..."
"Talk, damn you!"
"The war... it iss not advantageouss. The final confrontation of our speciess with the humanss can be delayed."
I was too obsessed with disemboweling him to note on which side he'd placed me.
"There are among uss ssome who wissh negotiationss. You may ssucceed for that purposse."
Sarina suddenly thrust her shoulder against my breastbone, pushing me back upon my tail as her nearer eye obscured my view of the dragonet.
"Hear him out. We can alwayss kill him later."
Our understanding changed along with our bodies in the following few days. Tarcon was a double-agent, working for a council of drakes that was willing to end the active fighting and try to work out a settlement with the human population. Ember's side controlled the military, with the support of the sschassk - wizards? scientists? - who'd done this to us. Ember's project had been risky enough, and the only survivors of his first capture were unsuited for what his side had intended. The opposition was willing to arrange our escape for a chance at ending the war. The battleships had hurt the island rookeries badly....
In a week, we were still further from what we'd been when the drakes had hit the ship. By this time, I was several times larger than Tarcon and taller at the shoulder than Sarina, who spent much more time on all fours than I did. Both she and I had powerful forelegs and talons, but her hind legs were not developing as mine had. Rather, proportionately, she was growing rounder in girth all along her lower body than had I, most of it her large and powerful tail. The ridges on both our necks were similar, but from our "waists" down it was difficult to tell that we'd once been the same species. My scales had become a deep bluish-tinged silver, while she was a darker green on her upper body, her belly scutes bleaching into a lighter shade than they'd been at the start. We'd at least quadrupled our weight, and the goats of the first two days had given way to the bison we knew the drakes hunted and herded along the coast of the southern continent. Tarcon, looking more diminutive by the day, stood next to Sarina with his unblinking attention.
"Sshe is gravid. You will have to lair ass ssoon as you esscape. Ember will kill her at oncsse if he ssees thiss."
Sarina, the bulge now visible from all sides between her hind legs, returned his stare with her usual defiance. I knew - when I'd felt her shiver beside me in the darkness - but she was nothing but terrible to the drakes who had so altered both our lives. She had made it perfectly clear that she was not going to survive me. What she'd been wanted me to remember that before I let my new impulses get the better of me.
I began my daily ritual of straining at the hatch cover. We'd have one chance to get out before Ember could destroy us both. Neither of us, despite the flexibility of our lengthening backbones, could get through Tarcon's door, again. I could see why the larger drakes weren't that particular about the dragonets they took into their service. Ember's own guards would remove the hatch cover over us and string a cargo net before we were summoned. We'd have to make our break between the removal of the crossbeams and the arrangement of the net. Tarcon would signal by arranging for the second beam to be dropped into the nearer ventilator as soon as it was removed.
If we failed, I'd have to fight Ember. No hope there, although I'd certainly mark him before the end. He was larger, more thickly scaled (more bone in his diet), and knew what to do with the anatomy. A dragon born would know how to breathe, as well. I'd watched our Merchant Guard gunners burn under Ember's breath, and Tarcon could not help me ignite my own. Worse, Sarina's flame had apparently flickered out - normally so, Tarcon said. I was the combat unit - and would have to get my wife to safety before she became the mother of our brood.
The good part was - it worked. One of Tarcon's plans had included doubling our food ration, at Ember's expense, he'd noted. When the steel bar fell into the hold, bouncing off my hide with only the impact sensed, I quickly tore through the hatch covers and burst my head and neck through into the fading sunlight. It was late evening. The lizards adjusting the net had not expected the hissing, striking monster they got, and I managed to fight the impulse to swallow while I was seizing the slower ones in my jaws; shaking them like rats before releasing their bodies for Sarina to finish off below. I could hear Ember's bellow from the main cargo hold, and a roar of my own returned the challenge before I found sense enough to help Sarina up onto the deck.
Ember alone could stop us - but we were lighter and therefore faster than he. With a gasp, Sarina thrust herself clumsily into flight. I lurched midships and pushed over the funnel. Ember would take a little longer to climb out of his own section of the hull.
His guards, however, had done what I knew they would do. Tarcon had pointed to a line of mountains visible from the deck. There were caves there, where Sarina could await her time. She would make for a lair where I could (quite literally) sniff her out. As the three smaller drakes sent to track us followed Sarina's straining wings through the air, I had headed up and directly into the sunlight. I had talked to human aviator, once, before.... He'd been killed the following year. Altitude... the sun... would it be enough?
Tarcon had warned me about what would happen. A dragon in combat has two battles to fight - the one with his opponent, the other between his raging instincts and the intellect that had allowed the drakes to withstand the tool-using biped I had once been. Chasing a fleeing, lumbering female had excited our pursuers. They had forgotten the male.
I hit the first one from above, striking with my talons clenched where his neck joined to his wishbone, snapping both. The other two broke in opposite directions - as we'd timed it, just as Sarina dived into the shadows surrounding the approaching mountains.
Altitude.... I was strong, but I had to fight for breath and every pump of my wings. The new body needed instinct to function at all, but willpower was the final component in the mix of impulses forcing me skyward. I saw a flitting shadow beneath me. I don't know what that poor devil of a pilot would have called what I did, which was to throw myself onto my back and swing around and down on top of the smaller dragon below. THAT was a jaws kill. My teeth had grown quite developed during that week in the hold, and I watched the head and body separate and fall in two different directions.
Sarina bellowed below me - so tired! Over, up - glide... wherewherewhere... Flame! Ember?!!? A body, falling, into the clouds....
She lay, stretched and half-curled on the still-warm stone. The head rose and swiveled towards me as I clumsily skidded to a landing beside her. There was a gleam in her eyes, behind her sooty nostrils.
"Didn't know I had it in me..."
Her smoke went out, for the second, and final time.
"There's a cave on the other side of this ridge. We'll get you into it. I believe it's the male's obligation to furnish the nesting material?"
Her eyes twinkled through the gathering darkness as we made our way together up the trail.
Part. IV: "End of the Beginning"
When you are, in fact, to all appearances a reptile, you shouldn't be surprised to find yourself acting like one. I was basking in the last light of a long summer's day, watching the sun setting over the ocean. I was standing as I'd seen the little lizards stand around our lair - my legs spread far apart, and my jaws gaping open as I soaked up the heat. At other times I'd coil myself on the ledge, and bury my muzzle under my wing, but only when I'd "banked" my fires for the day.
The fire--that had been the first thing. Sarina had saved herself, our child (children, rather, but that's getting ahead of the narrative), and me, too, I suppose, with that last, lethal burst of flame. She'd incinerated Ember's guard just as her strength had given out and she'd crashed onto the cliffs above the cave we inhabited now.
"How'd you do it? I STILL can't figure out what to do."
"It was very simple, dear. It's a natural reflex. The problem with you is that you tend to think, too much."
"All right, then. Teach me! How did you learn to breathe?"
She had stopped hissing as her own muzzle had finished growing out. At this stage, her snout was longer and thinner than my own. If you'd watched the process, as I had, you could still trace her original features beneath the slitted pupils, scales, and glittering teeth. Her neck was longer than my own, by now, and the ridges on her neck more prominent. The gentle girl I'd married so long ago was now a lithe and lethal reptilian monster with a flickering forked tongue - and I loved her more than ever.
"It's an instinctive response to the proper stimulus. Here - turn around and face the opening of the cave. Good. Now gape your jaws until they start to block your eyes. Better. Wait - you'll burn your tongue. Stop being so nervous and try to relax. Now...."
I shot a reddish-green gout of liquid flame at least thirty-five feet in front of me. It fell hissing into the sea as I bent myself into a curve and bellowed at Sarina.
"THAT WASN'T FUNNY AT ALL! Why didn't you tell me you were going to bite into me like that?"
She calmly let my tail fall and half-closed her jaws demurely.
"It's how I learned, dear. When I felt the pain, the reaction was automatic. I do hope you'll be able to learn how to duplicate what you just did without my help. Otherwise I'll have to operate you like a piece of artillery."
She shuffled back into the darkness.
I was able to do it again, with growing control, although thirty-five feet did seem to be my maximum range. I'd seen Ember shoot further when the drakes had taken our ship - captured us - and converted us into two large versions of their own species. I was now about the same size as Ember himself, if a little less massive, a dark bluish green on my upper scales. Sarina herself had changed more drastically still - which brings me to the second point.
She had had a hard time walking even when I brought her into our cave. I'd thought it was the pregnancy, and I was worried enough about that. While we were still on board the ship, I'd had time to make plans with Tarcon. The dragonet had told me that his side would come and find us - he knew my scent - while if Ember's side, the military, could find out where we were, we'd be hunted down and destroyed as an experiment gone bad. We'd made good our escape, and I'd gotten Sarina housed safely, more than I think we had any right to hope.
Her condition had left me to take the role of the hunter and provider literally. I had ended up building Sarina a nest, if you wanted to call a rough mat of pine boughs and ferns I'd plucked and scrabbled together by that name. I still had a fair amount of manual dexterity, but I doubt if I could have made a decent job of it when I still had hands. Even getting the nesting material had been a matter of nocturnal stealth. I'd had to creep out after sunset, and be careful not to take too much vegetation from any one place, and none from near our lair. The fact that I could see as well as I could by night meant that the enemy could do the same. What's more, at times I noticed that I was able to pick out some objects in the darkness by how warm they were, which helped to no end in hunting. They could do the same looking for me, the warmest thing wherever I went. I didn't know if the drakes would still be looking for us, or if Ember would conceal his failure by announcing that we hadn't survived the transformation. Tarcon was certainly going to suggest that line, but if his role in our escape had been uncovered, Sarina and I had better consider our furtive way of life permanent.
Feeding us both, mercifully, had only gotten easier as I progressed. The bison didn't sleep at night, but a slow glide from upwind and a few pumps of my wings after a strike had gotten the meat we needed, and furthered our growth without driving the animals away. I hadn't liked it, but I'd made a point of killing all other large predators I'd come across. Sarina and I seemed to be tapering off our increases in size, but there were still changes coming or in progress. My wings were much larger and stronger than they'd been even during my "dogfight" over the sea. My head and jaws were immense--I'd caught myself striking at my own reflection when I'd gone down to our brook for a drink. Likewise, my legs, all four of them, were more muscular than they'd been, the exertions of flying and hunting doing much along those lines, I'm sure. Sarina had changed further still.
"I'm blind, dear."
It had been just after sunrise, which you get to watch and wake up to when you haven't any eyelids. When I saw Sarina's head and neck raised and pointing unseeing and straight into the sun, I had lurched up onto my haunches and taken her head gently into my talons. She WAS blind - the transparent scales over her lovely eyes had turned milky-white. She was trembling again. I coiled myself tightly around her as I tried to explain what was happening in my calmest voice.
"You're going to shed, Sarina. You've lost your appetite, lately, and we've both been worried about that. I think your outer scales have stretched as much as they're going to, and you're going to be getting rid of them. There's nothing to be worried about, and I'll be right here to watch over you until it's done with."
I could have used some of that false confidence, myself. I'd shed twice previously, but not in that fashion. Bits and pieces of my outer hide had flaked off, a section at a time. Much the same thing had happened every now and then when I'd been human! It looked as if Sarina was going to lose her entire outer epidermal layer in a single process, and that worried me. Were we still the same species? Why the increasing differences between us?
The worst part was that she couldn't watch herself when her time finally came. I'd stayed coiled around her, even after I'd helped her back into our cavern and gotten her comfortable upon the nest. It may have been as much as two days later. Time didn't seem to move the same way, now. I heard her gasp, and pant, and felt something touch the base of my own tail before I realized what it was.
"You've dropped an egg, Sarina. Are you all right?"
"I was wondering...," she gasped, "if we were viviparous or not."
"Remind me to tell it to the War College."
It was still glistening with the slime from her body as I gently moved it to one side and then into the center of the nest. It was a long, pebbled whitish-grey cylinder. The end of another soon appeared in her cloaca.
"Here it comes... have you got it?!"
"I've got it. Twins! Are you hurting?"
"No... it's more than twins...."
Quadruplets, in fact, if you can call a clutch of eggs that - two of them whitish-grey, two of them greenish-white. Once I had placed the last of them against her belly, she instinctively coiled tightly around them and let her head fall down against her tail - longer and heavier than ever. Her hind legs had seemed to wither under all that weight, and I'd worry about that, when I'd had the time. Now I couldn't stand and watch her. She was blind and exhausted, and she'd need food.
She'd raise her head, nuzzle me, and accept whatever I'd brought - I made a point of eating previously, so that she'd not worry if I was getting enough of the kill. I finally found a biological justification for a dragon's ability to spew fire. No good for combat within the species - too lethal. When I saw Sarina shiver in the morning chill, however, I'd sprayed a nearby rock before I knew what I was up to. I always felt a little ill after doing that, and consequently had not found Sarina's joke about "Male Morning Sickness" as funny as I should have. I did NOT tell her that it was also a way of dealing with the necessity of "fewmet" disposal during her brooding. It was much easier to keep the lair clean that way, and the resulting smell explained where the dragons on the ship had acquired their own peculiar stench. We spent our days on the nest, her coiled around the eggs, my larger body enfolding her until it was time for me to hunt again.
Bringing her that first drink had been one of the stranger experiences in the transition. I'd worried about exploding when the cold water in the brook met whatever was generating the heat within my lower body. My epiglottis, or whatever, was more than equal to that challenge. What it also allowed me to do was to fill the length of my neck with water and regurgitate that into Sarina's open jaws. It was an incredibly loving moment. The monkey I'd once been had definitely been deprived of one of the most tender aspects of matrimony.
Watching his children hatch was also something no other human father had yet had the privilege of doing. Sarina was STILL in her shed - I was suffering more than she was, or so she told me, but it fretted at me constantly and kept me from sleeping. Consequently, I was the one who saw Alfred's egg tooth suddenly tear through the whitish membrane that encased him. He tore his way through the leathery shell and uncoiled himself as he crawled over to his mother's warm ventral scutes.
"He's the spitting image of his father... now, dear," was my answer to Sarina's anxious query. I had noticed that the resemblance had extended to all aspects of our shared anatomy. It was Adana who gave us both the big surprise. She had BOUNDED from her shell--propelled upwards and out by a thrust of her own powerful tail. In an hour, the end of it had unfolded into a broad fin which stiffened even as I watched. She did not have hind legs. Neither did her sister, Aura. Arthur was an exact duplicate of his brother, if just a little smaller. They all huddled against their mother, but it was to me they turned and opened their jaws, hopefully. Time to hunt, again. Wonderful. This, I could do.
The final unfolding of the matter came out, or rather, off, when Sarina at last crawled out of her old skin and left her own hind legs attached to it when she did so. I watched her own caudal fin extend and harden after she'd slithered out to the ledge for her first look at the sun in a month. The whole truth of dragon biology was clear. The dragon I'd blinded with the Lewis gun when they'd attacked our ship had been an aquatic female--just mobile enough to come out on land to lay and brood her eggs. That explained why we'd been able to find, shell, and destroy their young on the islands, and get away with it before the swimming mothers could reach the retiring ships. The males had to range more widely, and hence were better fliers, and land animals - like I was. Sarina's long and shapely snout was meant for fish, and she had asked me, wistfully, once or twice, if I'd been able to catch any. I still insisted on doing the hunting, though, until she'd recovered her strength and the children didn't need her so much. Dragons don't nurse their offspring, but Sarina's maternal instincts were satisfied by the intense and loving labor of rendering my kills edible for our young. She'd take to the sea in her own time, and take the girls with her - but my lovely and loving mate made it very clear that she was going to be sharing my lair until the final chapters of our story are known.
We've become a bit more active in daylight, as the years have passed with no sign of any dragons in the vicinity but ourselves, and I've had time to inscribe this record on these bark sheets in between teaching the boys to fly and playing with Sarina and the girls on the beach. They ought to last, and reach you, once I get the raft constructed and Sarina pushes it out into the current. You'll want to get it to the War College - they'll have records of me there. I wish I could end the account on a happier note, for you who read this. I've had a great deal of time to think, and I believe that I finally do understand the entire picture.
You'll remember that I was puzzled when Ember and Tarcon had been speaking English not only to Sarina and I, but also to the human-sized lizards who'd been the instruments of our capture. Tarcon let a few things slip, during the time on the ship, and what's happened to Sarina and I has provided all the empirical confirmation of the situation for which anyone could reasonably ask. We never found the bones from Gravesend, and the fate of those "Missing: Presumed Lost" in the course of the war was quite clear. The lizards, as I called them, had had a somewhat weaker version of the treatment that has so changed Sarina and me. And again, there were Tarcon's remarks. The dragons themselves had not invented what had altered us, rather, some agent from the planet itself had that property - a disease, perhaps, which they had cultured in the venom sacks of the snakes that bit us both. No wonder the lizards had understood English, or fought so hard. They'd had no choice, once they'd changed. And I don't think, my dear reader, that you do, either.
I wonder what the dragons themselves were when they arrived here? No way of knowing - I'm sure they've forgotten it, themselves. Already, my new body and new way of life have changed my mind to match my altered body. I suppose, if I still were human, the prospect of what is going to happen to you all would be terrifying. But it isn't. The agent that altered my mate and myself is alive, and active. Sooner or later there will not be dragons and humans on this world, but rather, dragons with two differing groups of ancestors. I'd suggest that you, my former friends and colleagues, abandon the War College, and your rush to build weapons and new machines. They won't save you. Accept the change with the grace Sarina and I have learned to share, and force the Drakes to accept you as equals when the time comes. When it is that time, you will find us, and our descendants, ready and able to assist you:
"Calm Dragons, that still cherished what they were" - Ovid, the Metamorphoses
Inscribed by my claw and deed on this day _th August, in the year ___.
Dr. Thomas Venturer, Late of the War College, Naval History Dept., and of the West Continental Expedition
If You Can't Beat 'Em copyright 1997 by unknown.
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