The World Today

The World Today
Earth in 2013

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Stardust: Towne, Chapter 4

Chapter 4

One morning later, Andreas parked the Steelhorse near a guardrail on one of Autoway Two’s bridges. Beneath was not a river, though the savanna they now passed through had many, but one of the Sevestapoli Plains’ many wildlife corridors. Beneath flowed something stronger than water. A herd numbering in countless thousands headed north. Never before had Andreas, or Katrina, seen such a massive show of life.

Never before had either seen so many four-legged birds in one place. Towneforms were predominantly avian in form. A majority were just like the Terraform birds, bipedal, but not all. The Lambei was a well known exception. The rhinoceros size birds thundered across the plains. Just like a rhino, each sported a horn on their nose. Unlike the rhino, whose horns were clumps of modified hair, the lambei horn was solid bone. It gave their beak a distinct pick-axe appearance.

Aside from the horn, they appeared rather inconspicuous. Each were coated in orange fathers, with black splotches on the males. Studies proved that black was no really black. Those patches reflected light from ultraviolet bulbs. Since human eyes could not see it, it only appeared black. Seemed odd to Andreas for a towneform to use ultraviolet; the sun was reddish-orange after all. One might think they would lean towards infrared.

“Wish I had a camera,” Katrina said.

“Certainly postcard material,” Andreas admitted. “I wonder how many are in this herd.”

Katrina shrugged. “The herds can number into the millions. Whomever thought of these corridors did us a great favor.”

Andreas grunted in agreement. He could only– no, he did not want to imagine the backup in traffic a million-member herd crossing the freeway would cause. That sort of snarl was likely visible from orbit; or at least the horizon. After another minute of watching, Andreas kicked up the kickstand and turned over the engine. “I could watch this all day, but I have a ship to catch.”

Katrina frowned. Must feel good to have a place to go. She literally had nothing better to do than watch the lambei, or the wildebeest that they resemble. “How much longer?” She knew the distance on maps, but was so unaccustomed to driving, she had problems gaging the duration.

“Three days,” Andreas told her. “Assuming we don’t stop along the way. Let’s just try to avoid any further distractions.”

Katrina leaned over his shoulder. “You’ve done a horrible job at avoidance thus far.”

“Why thank you. You’re vote of confidence strengthens my resolve,” Andreas replied dryly. “Now I shall endeavor to do my best, if you stop playing tourist.”

Katrina hissed back at him. Not that he was entirely wrong; Katrina did want to take a look at the lambei. She never seen large animals in the wild. The largest she ever seen where the odd paracophant working the field in place of a fuel-starved tractor. Benzine was pricey and rationed, fish in the river were not. “Then you better avoid such natural beauty.”

Andreas sighed. If there was a way to drive way clear of Florastadt, then that was a good idea. However, that would require a couple more days. He was not expert on ship schedules, but he knew a ship sailed from Port of Dreams to Tropico City every tenth day of the week, twice an astro– astronomical year– sometimes three. Failure to arrive in three days, and he would have to wait half an astro. “It’d be easier if you’d just sleep the rest of the way. Cuddle up and I’ll make sure you won’t fall.”

Katrina scoffed loudly at him. “Just shut up and drive!”

With a laugh, Andreas complied.

Andreas hit his blinker and took the next offramp. After an hour of nagging by his passenger, he had little option but to delay his trip. Half way through the State of Aleppo, they came across the most famous of all Marasuania’s parks, Yarasov National Park. The park, second oldest in the nation, centered around the hundred kilometer long Lake Yarasov, along with the Yarasov Ridge. On a savanna cris-crossed by farms and settlements, Yarasov was the largest ‘unspoiled’ segment. Unspoiled if one did not count the lodges and rest stops dotting the park’s trails.

The city of West Florastadt greeted them like a fresh breeze across the plains. The air around the long lake, and the Green River was several degrees cooler than the open plain, albeit muggier. Unlike the open plain, traffic snarled through the city, most of it tourists. Florastadt was the gateway to Yarasov after all, and the natives loved their park– almost to death. If not for the five dragons living around the lake, the place would likely have turned into a giant, tacky, tourist trap.

Or a massive refugee camp.

Katrina pointed out several gobli with a shriek. She never seen the– creatures– before, certainly never wearing sunglasses. Black shades and big flappy green ears clashed. To this, Andreas set her straight. These gobli were of the gremlin species. Their photosensitivity went well beyond any human’s range. Most shocking of all, at least to Katrina, was that these little green men walked out in broad daylight, and mingled with the humans.

“Crying out loud, Katrina,” Andreas grumbled. “They live here.” Her intolerance never ceased to amaze him.

Katrina considered this for a moment, before noting Andreas’s calm demeanor. “You don’t act surprised.”

“I’m not. Seen plenty of goblins and gremlins before,” Andreas told her. Along with Marasuania, Tropico was the only other place were gobli were openly welcomed. Most other places simply tolerate them, while a few try to exterminate them. He tried to explain this to her closed off mind.

“How can the Reds call them citizens?” she asked.

Andreas chuckled. “Same way they do with me; taxes.” A bit of an exaggeration, considering that state-owned monopolies fund much of the country.

Katrina snorted with heavy skepticism. “Oh and I’m sure you report every dinar earned to the treasury.”

“The Golden Hammers report every legitimate dinar earned,” Andreas told her, and simply left it at that.

“Uh-huh,” came Katrina’s dry reply. No doubt they did report their honest income, but how much could that possibly be? The whole system reeked of corruptness. Gangsters cheat their taxes and in return, the government looks the other way since they smuggle Tropican products into prohibited areas.

Andreas returned his full attention to the road, which was now quite crowded. They drove down Florastadt’s Lakefront Drive. It was quite a unique road, as it sits precariously on steep sloops. Meters below lay the currently calm waters of Lake Yarosav. Above it– above it were slopes to, but unlike the cliffs, these were long ago cut away and dug into.

Scenic downtown West Florastadt was built right into the hillside. Store fronts looked the same as anywhere else in the world, but that was about all. Their roofs were covered in sod and shrubs. Their interiors melded into the sandstone slopes. Katrina could look up and see the rest of the city almost on top of the downtown. A few more centuries of build up, and this might be underground.

All along the drive, Florastadt’s namesake hang from every lamppost. Multi-colored baskets of various flowers gave the city more cover. In a way, they matches the mis-matched colorings of shops. One was blue, its neighbor red and the next green. Little color coordination was given in building this part of town. The locals dressed in a rich diversity of color, not unlike their favorite shops. All walked on the store-side of the road, on a sidewalk nearly as wide as the street itself.

Traffic moved at a crawl. Andreas cursed the layout, wishing the locals would have made downtown with a four-lane road like any normal city. He directed some of his silent curses towards Katrina. She was adamant about seeing this park. Though Andreas explained it would add a day to his trip, and he might just miss his boat, she refused to listen. How could one drive through Aleppo and not see Yarasov? She was not about to be the first.

Andreas would not have minded traversing the park and viewing the wildlife if he had more time, but another time. He wanted to rejoin his comrades. If one kept the Golden Hammers waiting, then one might find oneself in the crosshairs of a bounty hunter hired by said organization. They trusted him, as much as any pygmaeus could trust a sapien, but they would not take any chances of Andreas’s capture. He would sooner die than give The State a single bit of information, but the Golden Hammers could ill afford to take the chance of their trade routes being revealed. Still, Andreas was confident he could return home before the hitman ever found him.

“As colorful as I imagined,” Katrina said, derailing Andreas’s train of thought.

Andreas slammed on the breaks to avoid hitting the vehicle in front of him. He had a few different choice words to describe this city. “Stupid birds,” he muttered, watching as a family of quail appeared from the eclipse of the forward vehicle. This city had as many quail as humans, perhaps more.

If not for feral cats, and bird-cats, this city would be overran by the delightful little bubble-brains. Andreas had yet to see any bird-cats. The quadrupedal towneforms looked much like a cat with a beak, covered in feathers. They hunted the same way too. They lacked the strong, solid tail; instead had something that was more at home on a pheasant or peacock.

“I use to watch all sort of newsreels about Yarasov,” Katrina said, to no one in particular. “It was so captivating, the wilderness, safaris, and the thrill of exploration.” It captivated her much in her youth, before The Party decided that all foreign media perverted The People’s minds and was thus banned. “Andreas, do you remember the Natural Warrior?”

Andreas smiled, not hearing that name in quite some time. “Who doesn’t?” He was one of the boldest of naturalist, unafraid to get into the thick of things. Poisonous snakes, prides of lions and cranky elephants. He even managed to land a short interview with a dragon. Grant it, the dragon in question was a very social red, but still–

“I used to go into the theater every week to watch his latest adventure,” she did until the Marasuanian’s shows were banned. That was a few years before he retired. News was so hard to come by back home. “Is it true he retired?”

Andreas nodded. “Yes. Spends his days managing his zoo, but one of his children took up the mantle of Natural Warrior. Been a few astros since I last watched it.”

“Then you’ll just have to stop at the next theater, won’t you?” Katrina’s tone was more commanding than inquiring. Just because Andreas was the one who wrecked her life did not give her the inherit right to treat him as a servant.

Andreas ignored her, not wanting more delays. Traffic offered more than enough. They were wading through a sea of Mark Twos. The box shaped auto, were pumped out by the Celeon Iron Works by the millions, all of them black. Andreas wondered how the drivers told their vehicles apart. He felt disorientated just looking at it. Ahead and behind, the roads were clogged with nothing but the same. Glimpsing in his handlebar mirror, Andreas easily spotted another exception.

His eyes went wide and his face turned grim. It was not a MK-Two, not by a long shot. It was an AMC, one that certainly seen better days. The auto was covered in dust and mud. Its bow was so dented, it amazed Andreas that the radiator still worked. Andreas glimpsed the driver, whose focus was directly ahead. Andreas was starting to really loath the MK-Twos; a Steelhorse stuck out like a lighthouse in this sea.

“Don’t look now, but we’re being followed,” Andreas told her. He felt her shift on her seat. “I said don’t look.”

“How can you tell?” Katrina asked. All she glimpsed were a bunch of those ugly box autos, well except one AMC.

“Since you ignored my advice and looked, did you notice something out of place?” Andreas asked coolly.

Katrina frowned. “Kind of sticks out.”

“And did you notice it looked a little beat up?” Andreas continued.

Katrina shook her head. “No. I’m not suppose to look after all.”

Andreas sighed. “Take a peak in the mirror, you see it. See how it looks beat up, like it was driving off road, and spent a little time in a ditch?”

Katrina tensed. “You don’t think its that Knight–“

Andreas snorted. “Who else would drive such rundown auto. Hopefully its engine’s just as battered; make it easier to lose.”

“Lose it?” Katrina asked with wild skepticism. “This bike is more obvious than any AMC.”

Andreas glared in the mirror, right back at her reflection. “If we’re so obvious now, you yelling like a hysterical maid who saw a mouse isn’t help us blend in.”

“Then do something.” She snapped, not even trying to keep her voice down. A few locals did offer the Steelhorse curious glances.

Andreas looked down at the fuel gage. He just filled it up in a little town some twenty kilometers west. He hoped fueling their would give him no reason to enter Florastadt, but Katrina saw it differently. With a four hundred kilometer long main trail, driving it will be stretching his fuel budget. “Will do.”

When Andreas passed two streets without attempting to turn, Katrina began to wonder. “Well, are you going to do something today?” When Andreas nodded, Katrina added. “What then?”

“You wanted to see the park, then that’s what we’ll do.” If anything, it might shut her up for a while.

“That’s your plan!” Katrina started to feel a sense of doom creep up behind her. “Hoping an elephant will trample him?”

“That’ll work too.” His fuel reserves were high, but was the Knights? A Steelhorse could outrange a normal AMC, but he was unsure about the modded ones.

“Great, just great,” Katrina muttered. “This is worse than when you made me jump from that auto.”

Andreas smiled. “Only if it fails.”

Andreas spent most of the day driving through the scenic Yarasov National Park. He lost his opponent several times, only to meet up again. Each time, they never managed to get close enough to cause worry. If not for the threat behind, he might have enjoyed the drive. Plenty of life, both Terraforms and towneforms, roamed to capture ones attention. Both hoped one herd or another would separate them from their pursuer.

No such luck. Not even the boldest of animals would approach the road. The animals of the plains learned to fear the animals of the road long ago. The numerous species intermixed as they roamed the park. Andreas spotted quagga, oryx, addax, bison and even fleet footed gazelle. Out of all those, the bison seemed oddly out of place with their shaggy heads, as opposed to the shorter hairs of the rest. One half expected them to overheat and collapse beneath the hot, pulsing sun.

Thus far, only Terraforms were spotted in the orange grasses. The feathered beasts were oddly quiet. Andreas was thankful. No towneforms meant no roadwalkers. At fourteen meters in length, and four meters at the hip, these scaled up roadrunners were the most feared animal in all the Sevestapoli (after the dragon, and naturally other humans). The giant birds did resemble the small roadrunner in many aspects, though were far more muscular. Unlike the smaller namesake, roadwalkers never had to worry about flight. Their wings were little more than dinky arms tucked into their sides.

Andreas peered ahead across th open plains, keeping his eyes open for any giants. The earlier hours were spent navigating the wooded hillside. Far easier to lose a Knight there than on the open plains. It was an odd case of deja vu. Open plains, somebody following them. Perhaps Andreas should take the bike off-road and try to ditch him again. It sounded good on paper, but this land was home to a Blue, and they had little tolerance for apes who left the road.

Those hazards would turn to his advantage. Andreas stopped his bike off the side of the road just long enough to tie a long leather strap to his left handle. “What are you doing?” Katrina asked. “He could catch up at any moment.”

Andreas did not think that the case. “When I tell you to grab the handle, grab it,” Andreas instructed her as he waved the leather in his hand.

Katrina nodded. She glanced back again, waiting for signs of approaching vehicles. “Ok, but aren’t you going to get moving?”

“Not yet,” Andreas told her. He reached down into the saddlebag, fishing for a bottle of water.

“No? And why not?” She gave him the same tone she would have given a student– no, not student, that lose still stabbed deep into her. The same tone one might use with a defiant child. “If we just sit here, he will catch up.”

“I’m counting on it,” Andreas replied, gulping down a mouthful of water. “Trust me, I got it all worked out.”

Plank leaned forward in his seat, his eyes narrowing to dagger-like points. There, up ahead, he found them. They must have stopped for a quick break, thinking they lost him. The Knight smiled. That little break cost them dearly. They obviously spotted him, because the Steelhorse was on the move again, this time off-road. Did they think to run him into another ditch? The same trick would not work twice.

Plank swerved his auto onto the same access road. It was a well worn dirt road, one used by game wardens and field researchers. It was also a dead-end, that much was certain. That mobster would not be walking off this road. Plank reached over and patted a twelve millimeter revolver in the passenger seat. He was through with trying to catch him. The woman was a must, for she would know the names of any other dwarven sympathizers within The State, but the man– who would miss another thug?

Foot crushing accelerator, the AMC raced forward. A stream of dust kicked up behind him, sounding a beacon to distant eyes. No matter, his quarry already knew he was in hot pursuit. There was no escaping him on the open plains. While the road was bumpy, the general area remained flat. No stones bigger than fists littered the ground, and not a ravine cut through it. The grasses around here were short, perhaps a herd consumed the plants before moving on. The field hid no obstacles, and only a few trees dotted the landscape.

Various small creatures, quail, rabbits and such, scurried to avoid the speeding auto. Plank ignored them, focusing on catching the Steelhorse. He worried not about fuel, he just filled the tank at a little rest area a hundred kilometers back. That offered him enough leeway to safely return to Florastadt. He was in a hurry. Not only was he not about to give them another chance to flee, but he wanted to go home. Marasuania was a foreign and disturbing place. Non-sapiens were allowed to roam freely, as were the gobli. Worst of all, elves lived here. Many who escaped relocation and processing made their way across the mountains and plains.

What sort of scum were these Marsuanians? Not only did they allow elves to enter their land, but they did not even segregate them. They are truly not The People. As soon as the war is won in the west, it must turn east to purge mutations and defects from the genome. Like all the Knights, Plank believed in The People, and its right to rule the world. All others were inferior, to be pushed aside like a lion would a cheetah. The People were strong and would win the struggle, just as Plank was strong and would win this race.

Andreas glanced into his mirror, watching the Knight grow closer. Yes, he was gaining, but did he not think it was too easy? Who knows. Perhaps he was like a cat, so caught up in the chase as to be oblivious to the dangers ahead. Andreas knew it dangerous, but he had to wait until the AMC pulled up right along side of him. No doubt the Knight was armed, but he was not the only one.

“Now what!” Katrina snapped, sensing the Steelhorse slowing.

“Grab the strap!” Andreas told her.

Katrina did not argue. She reached forward, grabbing the leather strap. “Now what?”

“Just pull on it, I’ll keep it stable,” Andreas told her as his free hand went into his dusk covered jacket. He felt the familiar grip of his ‘957. “You got it?” When Katrina nodded, Andreas drew his pistol and tapped the breaks.

Katrina did exactly as Andreas said. She pulled on the strap, offering resistance to an otherwise loose control. She felt Andreas turn the bike, maneuvering to let the AMC drive up along side them. It did not take her intellect to figure out his plan. He was going to shoot the Knight. She glanced over her own shoulder and spotted that very AMC rapidly approaching. Instead of pulling along side, the auto hit the bike. Katrina squealed as the bike started to loose control. She tightened her grip on both strap and Andreas.

Andreas hissed and cursed the Knight. He regained control and swerved wide. He managed to maneuver along side the auto’s passenger side, at a distance of three meters. He glared at the Knight, whose expression of rage was as clear as the reddish sky. The face was so stern, it did not even flinch as Andreas took aim. Nor did it change when Andreas fired off a round.

The bullet his the window, leaving a spiderweb crack running across it. Andreas growled, firing again. Another web, but no penetration. Andreas swore at the Knight. Bulletproof. He should have guessed. The Knight smiled back at Andreas, gloating over his immunity. That and the revolver he picked up. Bigger than ten millimeter by Andreas’s guess. If his pistol could not break the glass, then neither could the Knight’s.

Andreas fired another shot, keeping any ideas from his enemy’s head. He would have to roll down his window to fire clearly, and Andreas was not about to let him. He glanced at the battered front end of the auto. It must be armored as well, otherwise the last time he ditched this Knight, the radiator should have cracked. Andreas might even be impressed by the combination of armor and speed, that is if a Knight was not behind the wheel.

“Ok, I’ll just have to try another tactic,” Andreas muttered. His eyes slowly slid from the radiator to the unprotected wheels. Where they self-sealing? Perhaps, but then he will just have to shoot all of them. He pulled further away from the AMC, and unleashed two rounds into the front tire. If it was self-sealing, it would do little good now. The tired ruptured, showering the Steelhorse in shreds of rubber. The AMC swerved wildly out of control.

Andreas pulled back while shooting the second right tire. The rounds hit, but it did not explode. Two blowouts would take the auto out permanently. If the Knight had a spare, he would be back on the road in no time. Instead of escaping and making the most of the delay, Andreas accelerated and pulled in front of the skidding auto. The Knight lost any control over his AMC, and the squeal of breaks echoed across the plains.

Andreas began his assault on the left side, starting with a couple of shots at the driver’s side window. The Knight still gripped the wheel and made no attempt to reach for his weapon. His concern was not to roll. Andreas gave him assistance by taking out the other two tires. Neither exploded, but with those popped, the auto ground to a halt.

Andreas used that as a signal to escape. He fired the last of his rounds at the auto, keeping the Knight pinned behind the safety of shielded glass. Big revolvers had little range, so getting clear of the danger zone took seconds. That did not stop retaliation. The sharp pang imitating cannon fire boomed behind the Steelhorse. Katrina glanced back to see the Knight standing beside his auto, firing frantically at the escapees.

Andreas did not bother to take a final glance. Four flat tires, one of which destroyed– this was one Knight who would not be following them any more. Even if he was rescued, how would he explain being well over a thousand kilometers inside Marasuania. If found, the game wardens would detain him just for leaving the trail. More over, if found– the local dragon would not be pleased.

Plank kicked the flattened tire of his AMC as he threw the revolver to the ground. He cursed the gangster and offered a string of oaths as the Steelhorse retreated back to the road. He had them, and just had to wait until he exhausted his own ammunition before dropping the driver. Would the woman survive the crash? Plank was beyond caring. Forget capture, he was going to eliminate both of them. No matter what it takes, he would take both of them down. So what if he returned back home, at least neither of them would.

Plank lost most of his steam, and looked down at the damage. The windows were nothing, but four flat tires– he had only one spare, and that would replace the shredded one. After that, he would just have to drive back to the road and flag down some assistance. It disgusted him to have to rely on help, but what choice did he have. Surviving the open plains was a slim bet, so no choice really. At least he had sense enough to leave his uniform back in Shownastadt. There was no way he could explain his presence. Sure, he was on official business, but Marasuanians cared not for The State.

Plank walked back to the trunk and prepared to open it. He patted his pants pocket and realized the keys were missing. He was in such a haste to take parting shots, he must have left them in the ignition. It was a trivial matter and he would simply retrieve them. One more inconvenience in a day full of them. Plank gave a tug on the door handle and did not move. The door would not open. He gave it another tug. Plank swore out loud. The door was locked.

Plank rushed to the next door, then the next, trying all of them. The Knights of The State were not in the habit of leaving doors unlocked. He never remembered locking it. He picked up his empty revolver and began to club the already fractured window. Hit after hit, and not a chip broke free. He cursed with ever hit, quickly tiring the anger from him. With one final hit, he slumped up against the auto.

Terrific, just terrific. No wheels, no ammunition, not even any water. He was stuck, and stuck good. He was unsure how far from the road his pursuit took him, but it was a several hour hike. The sun was overhead, and night just a few hours away. It was going to be a long walk, and a lot of hassle. Too many question will be asked, and too many answers will be divulged. Back home, he would simply commandeer the vehicle and pick up his pursuit. It was going to be a long night, and he might not survive. But if he was to die in Marasuania, he will die after getting his revenge.

Katrina looked out the window at the plains below. It was nice to be indoors after a long day on the road, air condition running and food on the table. Her trip in the park was not as delightful as she hoped. Constant chase really ruined the day. Now, nearing nightfall, she received the only pleasant view of the plains. Several giraffe grazed the nearest acacia grove, wary as night crept up upon them. Katrina shared their concern.

“I still say this is a bad idea,” Katrina said in a low voice, as if someone might overhear.

Andreas swallowed another bite from his turkey sandwich before replying. “Relax, we’ll be fine. We left him a good ten kilometers from the road.” He said nothing else before indulging in the luxury restaurant. Plenty of small cafes and tacky stores in the park, and Andreas wanted one with a little class. Thus he pulled into this thatched roof restaurant overlooking the park.

Katrina poked around her salad with a fork, still a little nervous. “How long will it be until he’s after us again. He’ll chase us all the way to the Port of Dreams.”

Andreas smiled. “Then we have nothing to worry about. I have– associates there. If the Knight comes in looking for a fight, he won’t be walking out.” It was not a gloat, it was a guarantee.

Somehow, that did not comfort Katrina. Nor did the prospect of landing in Port of Dreams. She was still unsure what she would do there. She knew Andreas planned to sail south, but she just could not bring herself to goto Tropico. What would she do in a city with no friends, no contacts, and no help. Not that she had any friends anymore. A couple of days ago, she would have blamed Andreas with all her heart– but now, what was the point. He was the only human she knew in a thousand kilometer radius.

And here she was, stuck eating food he paid for. Without him, she would be cast into the wind. She took another look out the window, deciding to change the subject. “It’s a beautiful view, isn’t it?”

Andreas looked up at her, the red light illuminating her face, perfectly framed by her darker red hair. “Certainly is.” As annoying as Katrina could be, he could not deny that she was a fine looking woman. Perhaps under different circumstances, some other sparks would fly between them– other than the electric ones of tension.

Katrina sighed. “I would have loved to see more of the park.”

“Don’t worry,” Andreas told her. “You’re still alive, plenty of hope that you can come back one day.”

Katrina looked at him, for once with a smile on his face. “You know, that’s the most positive thing I’ve heard you say. Here I thought you were just some bitter thug.”

Andreas snorted. “What are you talking about, I am some bitter thug. Ah, just eat you dinner so we can get out of here. I’d like to make it to East Florastadt before night fall.”

Plank drug his feet forward, one after the other. How many hours has he spent walking. Too many, and not enough daylight remained. It was not likely he would make the road by then. Even if he did, so what. Scavengers roamed the roads at night, looking for any creature hapless enough to run out in front of traffic. Now ravens and crows did not concern Plank, but much larger hyena would prove problematic, especially if he could not bluff them away.

The plains were quiet. He spent the past hours realizing just how quiet Yarasov was. He was use to urban life, to constant noise, whether it be traffic or air conditioning. Curse that gangster. Had he never stepped foot in Shownastadt, Plank would not be in this mess. Curse him twice for flattening all the tires and leaving him stranded. And curse him eternally for making Plank lock himself out of his own auto. How could he catch him now? Plank was not sure, but he knew he would. The hours of exhaustion might have dulled enthusiasm, but would not extinguish his resolve.

His automatic marching stopped for only an instant. A sudden drop in light caught his attention, bringing Plank back to the real world. He glanced around, yet spotted nothing tall enough to block the sun, or even obstruct it. Plank shrugged it off and continued, just as a thud resounded behind him. Again he stopped, and this time his eyes did spot something. A pair of bird-like eyes glaring back at him. Around those eyes were not a familiar feathery body, but one with pebbly skin. A long narrow snout filled with pointy teeth emitted a very cat-like hiss.

Plank’s black heart nearly stopped. The local Blue, a long slender dragonette ruling the largest of territories, stared down the bipedal intruder. Plank was no dragonologist, but he could read mad. Arikara stalked forward, part bird and part leopard in grace, her head parallel and ear flaps flattened.

“What business do you have here, ape?” she said with a snarling accent.

Plank’s eyes went wide. He heard stories about dragons, who had not, but never imagined one would speak.

Arikara cocked her head. “Do you not understand me? You are trespassing. Give me a reason not to kill you now.” To illustrate her point, she held her hand up, talons extended.

What could he say to a dragon? By the look she gave him, reminiscent of the look he gave lower humans– or even rodents and bugs– made him think her mind was made. This dragon was going to kill him where he stood, and there was not a thing he could do. Nothing except die like a Knight. He braced himself for the impact, standing at attention and gathering as much dignity as he could muster.

Arikara mused at his actions. What was this little ape doing? She was no expert on humans, but this appeared to be a combative stance, kind of like when two males try to stare each other down. If she were a Red, or even a Black, she might be curious. But she was not, she was a Blue, and Blues did not tolerate intruders. She was about to dispatch this vermin when a familiar scent tickled her nostrils. She lifted her head to take in a deep breath. Yes, very familiar.

Plank watched in amazement as the dragon gave him a vicious smile, just before leaping into the air. Apparently all the stories about dragons were false. They were nothing but display and threats. He had little time to gloat. He turned back towards the road and started his march. He only managed three steps before laying eyes on an even more terrifying sight.

Ahead of him, no more than a hundred meters, stood a giant bird. The bird’s head reached over four meters above the ground. It reminded him of so many road runners that cross the road, only bigger, buffer and meaner. The giant’s beak were lined with sharp teeth. The creatures tail, along with orange, had long lines of blue and black.

Plank took a step back, and frantically looked for an escape. No rocks, no trees, and little cover. Long grasses would do little to hide him from a giant bird. No matter, it was too late. The thoughtful eyes of the giant locked onto Plank. He now understood why the dragon left. It was not his bravado, but the sight of an even more fearsome predator. Was the monster even hungry? Perhaps it simply saw him as a toy. Plank knew cats played with mice. Plenty of uncertainty in his future, with one exception. His goal was no longer vengeance, but survival, and that goal now appeared a million kilometers away.

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