We Value Your Privacy

This site uses cookies to improve user experience. By continuing to browse, you accept the use of cookies and other technologies.


Excerpt: Dragon and Thief, by Timothy Zahn

Now the host of a strange dragon, Jack learns about the K'da species and the doom awaiting them.

timothy zahn dragon and thief




Dragon and Thief

By Timothy Zahn

He caught his breath. There, angling across his chest and stomach, was a wide golden band. It wrapped around his rib cage at both the top and bottom, disappearing around toward his back. Like a tuxedo cummerbund that hadn’t been put on straight, he thought, or maybe the formal sash he’d sometimes seen military leaders wearing. There was texturing to it, too, he saw. A golden fish-scale pattern, with a sliver of red at the edge of each scale.

The same pattern as the vanished dragon.

A horrible thought struck him. Pulling the shirt free from his jeans, he slid it all the way off his right arm so that it was hanging on his left arm and shoulder. Twisting his head around, he looked down at his right shoulder.

To find himself gazing directly into the dragon’s face.

“Ye-oup!” he yelped, jerking his head back and jumping three feet to his left.

It was like trying to jump away from his own body, and about as successful. The picture of the dragon didn’t disappear or slide off or anything like that. It was still there, as if it had been painted on him.

Then, to his utter astonishment, the face rose slowly out of his skin, like the top of an alligator’s head rising up through the surface of the water. The long upper jaw opened slightly, giving him a glimpse of sharp teeth—“Don’t be afraid,” a soft, snakelike voice said.

Jack screeched loud enough to hurt his own ears. His tangler was in his left hand, though he had no memory of having drawn it, and with all his strength he slammed the short barrel down on the dragon’s head.

But the beast was too fast for him. It sank flat onto his skin again, and Jack’s screech turned to a howl of pain as his attack succeeded only in bruising his own shoulder. Ignoring the pain, he struck again and again, stumbling sideways in a useless attempt to get away. Through the noise of his own panicked babbling, he was distantly aware that there were two different voices shouting at him.

He ignored them. Voices didn’t matter. Nothing mattered but to somehow get this thing off him.

Related: 10 Best Dragon Books in Fantasy Fiction 

He was still flailing around when his foot caught on something and he toppled over onto his side.

Or rather, he should have toppled over onto his side. But even as he tried to get his arm around to break his fall, the feeling on his skin shifted, and something somehow broke his fall, setting him more or less gently onto the broken control board he’d been tumbling toward.

But gentle landing or not, the sudden fall snapped him out of his mindless attack on himself. Gasping for breath, he half sat, half lay there, his shoulder throbbing with the multiple blows he’d just brilliantly hammered down on it. In his left ear, he could hear Uncle Virge’s voice shouting from the comm clip on his shirt collar, demanding to know what was happening.

In his right ear, the snakelike voice he’d heard earlier was speaking again.

“Everyone … shut… up,” he ordered between gasps. “You hear me? Everyone just shut up.”

Both voices went obediently silent. Jack took a few more breaths, trying desperately to calm down. His efforts were only a limited success. “All right,” he said at last. “You—Voice Number Two—the one who isn’t Uncle Virge. Who are you?”

“My name is Draycos,” the snake voice replied from somewhere behind him, the sound tingling strangely against his skin. Jack twisted around to look, but there was nothing there. The dragon head had disappeared from his shoulder, but out of the corner of his eye he could just see the tip of the snout further around on his back. “I am a poet-warrior of the K’da. Who are you?”

“I’m Jack Morgan,” Jack said, his voice starting to shake again. Now for the big question. “Where are you?”

“Tell me first how you came to be aboard my ship,” Draycos said. “Are you an enemy of the K’da and Shontine?”

  • camera-icon
  • Photo Credit: Samuel Scrimshaw/Unsplash

“I’m not an enemy of anyone,” Jack protested, scrambling back to his feet. “I saw your ship go down, and I came to check it out. That’s all.”

“Did you see our attackers?” The voice, Jack noted uneasily, moved with him, still tingling his shoulder.

“Well …” Jack hesitated, wondering how much to say. “We saw the battle,” he said. “It looked like the guys in the little ships went aboard the big ones afterward. Are there more of your people up there?”

There was a soft sigh, even more snakelike than the voice. “They were my people,” Draycos said. “They are all dead now.”

“We don’t know that,” Jack said, feeling an obscure urge to be comforting. “Those Djinn-90s can’t have had that many soldiers to put aboard.”

“There is no one left to fight them,” the dragon said sadly. “The K’da and Shontine were already dead.”

All of them?” Uncle Virge’s voice asked, sounding surprised.

“All of them,” Draycos said. “The weapon that was used against us kills all that it touches. It does not leave survivors.”

Jack thought back to the purple tornadoes he’d seen playing against the freighters’ sides. A weapon that killed right through hull plates? “What about you?” he asked. “You survived.”

“An unintended mercy,” Draycos said. “We were already falling, and they thought merely to save themselves further effort.”

Jack took a deep breath. It was pretty obvious by now what was going on. He still hoped he was wrong; but right or wrong, it was time to take the plunge and find out for sure. “You’re on my back, aren’t you?” he asked. “Wrapped around me like a—well, like a thin sheet of plastic.”

“Yes,” Draycos said.

Related: Are Dragons Real? A Scientific Exploration 

“You’re what?” Uncle Virge demanded. “You’re where?”

“It’s like he’s a picture painted there,” Jack said. “Or a full-body tattoo, like you see sometimes on Zhandig music stars.”

“What do you mean, like a tattoo?” Uncle Virge said, sounding every bit as bewildered as Jack felt. “How can something alive be like a tattoo?”

“What, you think I know?” Jack shot back. “Look, if I could explain it—”

“Please,” Draycos cut in. “Permit me.”

Jack looked down. The dragon’s head had slid back into view on his shoulder and was turning back and forth as if looking for something. “There,” Draycos said. “That data reader.”

“Where?” Jack asked, frowning at the debris.

A second later he jumped again as a sudden bit of extra weight came onto the back of his right arm, and a gold-scaled limb unexpectedly rose up out from that spot. A short finger or toe or whatever it was extended from the paw, pointing to a small flat instrument about three inches square lying among the debris on the deck. “There,” Draycos said. “Go and kneel down beside it.” Swallowing, Jack obeyed. This was the very spot, he noted uneasily, where the dragon had been crouching when he came in. Could this thing be a weapon? “Now what?”

“I will give you a picture of what I am,” Draycos said. “Do you see how the reader lies on the deck? Where they meet, the reader is a two-dimensional object. Do you agree?”

“Well, no, it’s three-dimensional,” Jack said. “It has length, width, and thickness.”

“But it is two-dimensional where it meets the deck,” Draycos repeated. “At that meeting, it has only length and width. Do you agree?”

Jack shrugged. “Fine. Whatever you say.”

“It is not a matter of what I say,” Draycos said, sounding impatient. “It is a matter of whether you understand. Consider the deck to be a two-dimensional universe, with the data reader as a two-dimensional object existing within it. There is no thickness there, only length and width. Two dimensions only. Do you understand?”

“I am still three-dimensional,” Draycos said. “As with the data reader, most of my body is now projected along a fourth dimension, outside the bounds of this universe.”

“I understood before,” Jack said, a little impatience of his own starting to peek out through the heavy curtain of weirdness hanging over this whole thing. Having not been killed and eaten on the spot, he was starting to lose some of his initial fear, and he had better things to do than play word games with this Draycos character. “So what?”

“Very well,” Draycos said. “Now lift the data reader so that one edge remains on the deck.”

Jack did as instructed. “Okay. So?”

“In this picture, the data reader is still two-dimensional,” Draycos said. “Yet to an observer within the two-dimensional universe of the deck, it now appears as a one-dimensional portion of a line. It has length only, but no width. The part that would give it width has lifted away along a third dimension.”

Jack stared down at the reader, a funny tingling sensation creeping across the skin at the back of his neck. Was Draycos saying what he thought he was saying? “Are you trying to tell me,” he asked slowly, “that you’re really three-dimensional, but that you somehow became two-dimensional? Just plain flat? And then that you somehow pasted yourself across my back?”

“I am still three-dimensional,” Draycos said. “As with the data reader, most of my body is now projected along a fourth dimension, outside the bounds of this universe.”

On Jack’s left shoulder, the comm clip had gone silent. Apparently, even Uncle Virge couldn’t think of anything to say to this one. That was a bad sign. “No,” Jack said. “Sorry, but this doesn’t make any sense at all.”

“Yet I am here,” Draycos reminded him.

“No,” Jack said firmly. He turned his eyes away to the left, away from the dragon head staring up at him from his right shoulder. “This isn’t real. It can’t be real. It’s some kind of trick.”

“Why would I wish to trick you?” Draycos asked, sliding around Jack’s back to his left shoulder and again looking up at him. “What purpose would it serve?”

Related: High School Heroes: 7 Sci-Fi Books for Teens 

“Stop doing that!” Jack snapped, twisting his head back the other way. Reaching around, he pulled the hanging sleeve back around and got his right arm into it. “I don’t know why. What purpose does anything serve? What do you want?”

“I want that which all beings desire,” Draycos told him. “Life.”

“And what, you can’t live anywhere except my back?” Jack demanded sarcastically.

“No,” Draycos said. “I cannot.”

Jack had been about to fasten his shirt’s sealing strip again. Now he paused, frowning down at the gold scales on his chest. “What do you mean?”

“The K’da are not like other beings, Jack Morgan,” the dragon said. “We cannot run freely for longer than six of your hours at a time. After that we must return to this two-dimensional form and rest against a host body.”

“Or?” Jack prompted.

“If we do not have a host, we fade away and die,” Draycos said. “I was nearly dead when you appeared. Your arrival, plus the fortunate fact that your species is able to serve as a K’da host, has saved my life. For this I thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Jack said automatically. “Not like I had a choice. So, what, you’re some kind of parasite?”

“I do not know that word.”

“A parasite is something that feeds off its host organism,” Jack explained. “It takes food or something else it needs from the host.”

“I take nothing from my host,” Draycos said. “I must use the surface of my host’s body, but that is all.”

“You take away his privacy,” Jack pointed out.

“I offer companionship and protection in return,” Draycos said. “For that reason, we consider ourselves to be symbionts with our hosts, not… parasites. But perhaps you do not consider that a fair exchange. Does your species require more loneliness than I understood?”

“We all like to be alone every so often,” Jack said gruffly, trying to hide the sudden pang of emotion. Loneliness. Whether he’d meant to or not, the dragon had touched a painful nerve with that one. “So why me? Why didn’t you wrap yourself around a tree or something?”

  • camera-icon
  • Timothy Zahn is also the New York Times bestselling author of several Star Wars and Terminator novels.

    Photo Credit: Alchetron

“It does not work that way,” Draycos said. “We must have a proper host. I do not know what it is that makes one species acceptable and another not. Perhaps none of the K’da do.”

“Oh,” Jack said, for lack of anything better to say. “So … what now?”

“That is your decision,” Draycos said. “Do you wish me to leave?”

The obvious answer—yes!—unexpectedly got stuck in Jack’s throat. “If I said yes, where would you go?” he asked instead. “I mean, there’s no one here but me.”

“After six hours had passed, I would die,” Draycos said softly. “But I am a warrior of the K’da. I will not force myself upon you if you do not wish it.”

“Yeah,” Jack muttered, hunching his shoulders with indecision. Intriguing though this might be, he still had troubles of his own. The last thing he could afford right now was to take on passengers.

Especially a passenger who looked like a bright gold dragon. That was definitely not the way to keep a low profile. “Look, Draycos—”

“Before you decide, I must add one other piece of information,” the dragon said. “The reason we are standing amid the wreckage of my ship is that my people were attacked. Moreover, we were attacked by the ultimate weapon of the Valahgua, our mortal enemies.”

Jack shook his head. “Never heard of them. Uncle Virge?”

“No reference on the books,” the other said.

Related: 52 Star Wars Quotes from a Galaxy Far, Far Away 

“I would not expect you to know of them,” Draycos said. “Like us, they live a long way from here. Our voyage took nearly two years, human measure, and carried us across a great void of space.”

“You mean like from another spiral arm?” Jack hazarded, trying to visualize the map of the Milky Way galaxy from the limited and highly informal schooling Uncle Virgil had given him between jobs. All of explored space, both the human-colonized regions as well as all the other known alien species and planets, lay along the broad band of stars called the Orion Arm. To get here from outside that band would be quite a trip.

“That is correct,” Draycos confirmed. “We came in hopes of fleeing the Valahgua and their terrible weapon. Yet the weapon was here waiting for us.”

“They must have followed you.”

“Impossible,” Draycos said. “As I said, their weapon was here ahead of us.”

“And on human-designed ships, too,” Uncle Virge pointed out. “Unless your Valahgua fly Djinn-90s.”

“The only explanation was that we were betrayed,” Draycos said. “You have to help me find those responsible.”

“Oh, no I don’t,” Jack retorted. “Look, I’m sorry your people got nailed. But this isn’t any of my business.”

“You are wrong,” Draycos said firmly. “The Death chooses no favorites, be they Shontine or K’da or human. There is no defense against it, and there is no bargaining with the Valahgua. If they have formed a secret alliance with one of the species in this region, all of your people are in deadly danger.”

“What do you mean, no defense?” Uncle Virge asked.

“There is no material that can block the weapon,” Draycos said. “Its range is short, but all within that range die. We must bring warning to your people.”

Jack made a face. “Yes, well, that might be a little difficult,” he said. “You see—”

“Quiet!” Draycos cut him off suddenly.

“What?” Jack whispered.

“Footsteps,” Draycos whispered back. “Someone is coming.”

Want to keep reading? Download Dragon and Thief, by Timothy Zahn.

This post is sponsored by Open Road Media. Thank you for supporting our partners, who make it possible for The Portalist to continue publishing the stellar stories you love.