Chaos Calls 03: the Dragon Dilemma
Chapter 01

Copyright© 2011 by Ernest Bywater

Ready

About an hour after Saturday’s breakfast I’m ready for my next trip to Chaos. I’m a bit nervous because there’s been so many changes in the last two weeks. The five new portals are ready and set up in the vault area Small and Little built in my ‘Work’ section of the main house. All of the workers are confused by the set of vaults. They’re six high security rooms like walk in bank vaults. Each is ten feet on a side with the entrance secured by a vault door. Only one is set up with shelves for the secure storage of valuables. They open off a fifty foot by thirty foot room just like them, but with two more vault doors: one opens to my office and the other is an external exit which only opens from the inside. All of the doors need codes to open them for entry and exit. All of the rooms and doors are monitored from a security centre. Five have portals in them. Both Joe and I will use my new portals because they provide good security against external trouble from the Brotherhood and their friends.

Sharon found a Chinese couple in their late twenties who want to get away from modern life. Lin grew up on a farm in a remote province of China. Zhu grew up working in his father’s construction business in the same province. They were relocated as government adult forced labour. A few years later they ended up as domestic servants in Hong Kong after its return to China. When the family they worked for left China they took their servants with them in order to delay the report of their unapproved departure. After arriving in the US, almost two years earlier, the couple got married. She knows all about growing and harvesting rice while he knows all about using bamboo for making furniture and construction. Both know how to cook rice in a wide range of recipes.

Bridget found two staff members who want to opt out of modern life. Warren grew up on a horse ranch so he knows how to breed and train horses. Carla is a student of history with an interest in the use of horses in the military and cavalry tactics. They also want to get married.

Frank sent up initial breeding stock for me: two stallions - Gaza and Nek; and four mares - Beersheba, Megiddo, Rafa, and Romani; so I pay the company for them. Having a good trainer and a tactician I want good horses too. The horses’ names let me know Frank has a romantic streak in him because they’re all named after places where the Australian Light Horse fought in the First World War, many of the ALH rode Walers.

I inform the four transferees of the dangers and they still want to go. They’ve been training in the basics of Chaos style warfare. Bridget isn’t ready for Chaos yet, but Kira wants to see what it’s like. Her sword skills are much improved. I’d like to take Tora, but an oriental as my sidekick will stand out too much and it’ll increase the dangers of detection by the enemy because she’s very visible while I can keep the Chinese couple in the background and out of sight until I get them to Grassy Meadows.

All of the gear is checked for unapproved materials and is ready. The horses have their tack and full saddlebags, including bamboo armoured horse blankets. All travellers have basic clothing with bamboo armour and backpacks of gear. I’ve a new set of armour since I’ve been putting on some muscle. My set on Chaos can be given to someone else. I’m taking a lot of plants, wooden mallets, quality hemp rope, denim cloth, high carbon sand, plastic dish-ware, and six machined wooden tubes for the telescopes: each of them is three tubes that slide inside each other to make a smaller package to carry. All will be very useful to me on Chaos.

I make a last check of everyone waiting in the main vault area because there’s not enough room in the portal vault. We form up in a continuous chain of contact with each of us having an arm over the neck of the horse we’re leading and those behind have a good hold on the tail of the horse in front with their hand resting on that horse’s rump. Sharon will lock the vault behind us. I smile at her as I approach the portal since I can’t think of anything else I should do before we get started.

Crossroads

Arriving in the earth portal room of my quarters at Crossroads I find Merry holding open a new door to a stable. With a large grin I lead my horse, Gaza, through the door. I wonder how they knew I’d need a stable. Looking back I see Kira with the next horse and Warren behind her with his mare halfway through the portal. A few minutes later all of the horses are comfortable. Their tack and packs are on tables set on the other side of the stable. Merry leads us through another door and into the main lounge of my Hero’s suite.

Entering the lounge I smile while I watch the display change to show Mac is present as well as Jeeves. Merry is quick to organise drinks and snacks while I introduce everyone to her: Lin, Zhu, Kira, Warren, and Carla. I explain everyone’s role and skills when I introduce them. Very soon we’re all chatting while we have a drink and eat a snack.

A little later Merry and I leave. While we get reacquainted the others stay to study a program about Chaos society and its rules. A few hours later we re-join them for a late lunch. We take a long time over lunch as Merry and I answer questions about Chaos while we expand on what they’ve seen in the program. Following lunch Merry takes them into the training room to evaluate their skills with sword, knife, crossbow, and bow while I have a private talk with Mac at his request.

I’m more than a bit worried when I enter what I call the Data Centre. I call it that because it has several computer consoles in it.

A Special Request

I sit down at the centre computer console of five units and lounge in the chair. Mac says, “Al, I’ve got a very difficult rescue I’d like you to look at and consider for me. All of the other Heroes have examined this task and refused it because they can’t see a way to effect a rescue!” This has me sitting up straight as fast as a whip. “Sid Jones was most upset at having to refuse it, so were Malcolm Chandler, Cameron Richards, and a dozen other top Heroes. It breaks them up to refuse, but they can’t see any way of making a rescue work.”

“Damn! What makes it so difficult? With all of their experience what makes you think I can do this?”

“Al, I’m not sure you can but you’ve a few skills they don’t, due to your ninja training. Also, while they all think ‘outside the box’ you think outside the packing room containing the box. It’s my hope you can see or think of something that no one else has.” Stunned, I simply ask him to continue. “We’ve had a Damsel captured by a Dragon every now and then, but in the last six weeks there have been seven Damsels taken prisoner by the same group of Dragons. Their danger isn’t critical yet, but if no one can effect a rescue they will die in about eight weeks. The Dragons take people as a source of fresh food for their young for when the young hatch out of their eggs. That’s eight weeks away.”

“OK, I can see the concern. Since we’re talking eight weeks of Chaos time it’ll be ancient history by my next trip. What’s so difficult with it?”

“The main problem, Al, is Dragons are a protected species. Any plan calling for the killing or harming of Dragons is vetoed by the safety overrides and the Hero isn’t allowed to go on the mission. Add in the physical size and capabilities of Dragons and you can see why the others see it as a fancy way to commit suicide. I checked the records, and there’s no record of a Hero ever saving a Damsel from a Dragon!”

I slump back in the chair while I digest this. Something about this does not feel right to me. I’ve no idea why, but it just feels off kilter. I look up when Mac puts a picture of a Dragon on the computer screen in front of me. I gasp while I stare at an image of a huge green scaly monster that’s a weird cross between an elephant and a crocodile with two sets of wing pairs. A list of figures at the side of the image shows an average adult is twenty-seven feet long from nose to tail. It can lift its front half off the ground up to twelve feet. It’s ten feet wide with a wingspan of thirty feet and a weight of about a thousand pounds.

My first thought upon looking at the data is, That can’t be true. The figures don’t fly. I’m in shock while I stare at the monstrous image, and I can understand why the others feel the task is beyond their abilities. How do you deal with a monster like that without killing it? I plan to stay silent while I think on this, but I hear myself say, “It can’t fly!”

Mac replies, “All our record reports say it does fly.”

Having voiced what my subconscious is telling me I realise it’s right, and declare, “Mac, that bloody thing can’t fly!! It’s not physically possible for it to fly. Something is not right here.” Mac starts to speak. I cut him off, “Mac, activate a program on aerodynamics. Work out the wing size needed to provide the lift for that weight on Chaos. Then tell me what you think. Without a rocket up its arse it can’t get into the air!”

A few minutes silence, then, “Al, you’re right. It would need ten times the stated wing area to get enough lift. Also, I doubt the muscles and wings would be strong enough. Why didn’t I see that before?”

“Don’t worry, Mac. You have to assume all of the data entered has been checked and verified. Otherwise you’d spend all of your time checking fine details that have already been checked. I probably wouldn’t have noticed, except I’ve recently been learning how to use a hang-glider. I had to calculate lift and load capabilities to ensure I didn’t overload the wing I wanted to use. Even then it was my subconscious that did the figures and said it wouldn’t lift that load with that size wingspan.”

Sighing, I lean in to have a closer look at the photo. “Mac, can you do a scan of this image to see if the pixel size and amount of data per pixel is the same across the whole image?”

“Yes, I can.” A slight pause. “The amount of data per pixel varies a lot. What does that mean? I’ve not seen that before.”

“Aha. Things are a bit clearer now, Mac. On Earth we have a term ‘Photoshopped,’ this is derived from a software program used to adjust and repair images. If you alter an image to add something that doesn’t belong in it it’s been Photoshopped. This photo’s been altered. Check your databases for information and procedures relating to computer forensics and image manipulation. Then see if you can work out what’s been changed and change them back. Hand that over to another AI to deal with if you can, since it’ll take some time to give it a close look.” I smile when Mac acknowledges my orders. “OK, let’s see if we can find the truth about this Dragon. Move that image to the left-hand screen and place all you know about Dragons on the screen beside it.” The image is moved to the screen on my left, the one between the picture and the central screen now shows the very little information about Dragons they have. The basics we have, the image, the date it was declared protected, but nothing on habitats or habits. This lack just adds to my suspicions.

“Al, I can’t believe we have so little data on this animal. All of my other files on protected animals have a lot of data on their eating and mating habits with maps of where they live. But almost nothing is here.”

“Mac, do you have an idea of how long ago you think people started messing with the databases? If so, double that and search for an old archive of back up data from that time. Access the old data and check it against what you’ve got now. Your current databases should have more, but they should also include all of that old data. Then check the updates.”

“Al, we do have a date we believe is correct. To go back as far you ask we’ll have go back about four levels of technology. It’ll cost a lot to recreate the systems needed to read and transfer the data. I’m not sure I can get that approved by those in charge of the funds.”

“Mac, would that be dearer or cheaper than having to go back to the source data and recreating all of your databases?”

“Point taken. The Administrators aren’t happy, but they’re doing it.”

“Good, let’s see if we can get a better handle on these Dragons. I gather there is such an animal on Chaos!” This is an angry statement.

“Yes. It’s not like either of the Dragons of Earth folklore, but it fits close enough and it’s on Chaos. That’s confirmed. I’m surprised I don’t have a live recording of them. I’ve checked my systems and found there are two satellites not recording images in their areas. The Damsels are located in one of these areas. I’ve lodged a repair order for the satellites and I moved a spare to get me some live recordings of the rescue area.”

“OK, that gets more data for later. In the meantime, let’s see what we can find. I want you to create a list of every type of living thing on Chaos. Once that’s done you can filter out the following: plants that don’t pull up roots and move; water creatures that can’t breathe the air; anything less than a dog in size; any known domesticated animal that’s seen in a town, farm, or city every day; anything that has only two limbs other than wings unless the wings have hands on them; and anything that’s a herbivore for all of its life. That should cut out a lot of the chaff. We can look for the wheat in what’s left.”

You don’t want much, do you! Go practice with your sword. This will take some time to get sorted.” I spend the rest of the afternoon in sword fights with the others. The evening meal is a nice set of selections from the menu Jeeves provides.

As we finish the meal Mac says, “Al, it’s taken some time and work, but I’ve got that list sorted for you. There’s five hundred and twenty-seven items on it. I’ve listed them from the biggest to the smallest. The list is on the centre computer console for you to view. I scanned it and I couldn’t spot anything useful to our search. What are you looking for?”

“Thanks, Mac. I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for. I’m looking for any suspicious gaps in the data. It’s one of those weird searches where you don’t look for something but you look for what doesn’t fit or seems to be wrong. Once I’ve found it I then have to check and verify it. I’ll probably find several possibles before we find the real one. OK, let’s get on with the detective work.” I really don’t know what I’m looking for. As I said, I’m looking for what doesn’t fit, for anything that seems off kilter to me. Thus Merry can’t help me search. Though she does sit by me to provide drinks and snacks when I need them.

It takes a couple of minutes for me to call and scan the file on each animal. So when I break for the night, about four hours later, I’ve only reviewed one hundred and twelve files. Of those I’ve asked for a check of information on two, and I got confirmation they aren’t what I’m after. Off to bed for a good night’s sleep. Plenty more work in the morning.

Research Reward

The morning is like last night, and the afternoon is more of the same. I enjoy the short meal breaks discussing Chaos life with the others, but then it’s back to the computer screen. It’s almost time for me to break for dinner when my subconscious sends me back to reread the last file again. This file is on a long and thin bird that’s nine feet long, two feet wide, has two feet, two hands, two wings with a total wingspan of fifteen feet, and weighs one hundred pounds. The photo is poor quality, the habitat data says the birds live in damp closed valleys. One of the areas marked is very near where the Damsels are being held. The animal is listed as unintelligent and it’s called a Kukul.

I sit there staring at it. I wonder at the name. It rings a bell, but why?

Grinning, I turn to Merry and ask, “Merry, please run a search on all your databases for a Kukul. Also run a search on Earth databases for the same word, look for any close match. I know I’ve seen that name or something very similar before today.” She nods yes and starts work on the next computer console while I mark the entry and move on to the next animal in the list.

A few minutes later Merry says, “Al, I got a close hit in our database of a race called the Kukulka. They’re a winged thin humanoid race covered in feathers with an Intelligence Quota a little lower than that of humans. An average adult is between eight and ten feet tall, about two feet wide, with a wingspan of thirteen and sixteen feet. It has two hands with opposed thumbs, two feet, and two wings. They’re fast on the ground, slow to climb in flight, but very fast and agile in a dive. They fly only short distances and they don’t travel far from their home grounds. They live in caves along the sides of river banks or damp valleys. They prefer places they can seal from invasion. One person described them as a feathered serpent type of humanoid.”

Bingo! That’s it! The ‘feathered serpent’ did it. Some time back I was reading about the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. The article said he was like the older Mayan god Kukulkan, which means Feathered Serpent in their language. The Mayans portrayed Kukulkan as a cross between a man and a feathered serpent. I now wonder if a member of this race had ever visited earth.

With a huge grin I turn to Merry, “Get me all you can about them and their behaviours. I especially want to know where they live on Chaos, what they eat, and how far they can fly.” Turning to Mac I ask, “Mac, the place where the Damsels are being held, is it a sealed valley? And what’s the area around it like? I’ll need a way to translate speech between me and the Kukulka, can you do something about that?”

Naturally Mac had kept an ear on us and says, “You seem very sure that what we call Dragons on Chaos are the Kukulka! Why?”

“An intelligent race, that’s why they’re protected. Bloat the image, turn the feathers into scales, and you get a sort of match. The entry on the Kukul as an animal is so close to that for the race that it’s not funny. Key points have been changed enough to stop an exact match, but I’m sure this is the answer. I need to find out why they’re taking people and how to stop it from happening again. This is now a diplomatic mission to negotiate a rescue and to stop the kidnappings.”

“That all sounds good. I’ll double check everything and see how we do. I’ll ask for permission for you to get a universal translator implant. The downside of that is it will be a permanent implant. It cannot be removed without severe damage to the brain.”

I’m not sure what that will involve, but if it saves several lives it’s worth the trouble. “OK. Organise that when you can, if they approve.”

I’m too wound up to do any more research. I’m off for a personal discussion with Merry before dinner while the computers gather the data I requested.

Special Interests

After dinner that evening I take time to call a team meeting and ask Mac to be involved too. Mac and Merry wonder what’s up, but most of my people are expecting something like this. We sit sipping on hot teas, chocolates, and coffees as I ask, “Mac, what’s the penalty imposed when a Companion breaks the rules?” It’s clear the question has caught Merry and Mac off guard.

Mac replies, “Al, I’m not sure why you ask, but there are two levels of punishment for a Hero and three for a Companion. Two of them are the same. Do something on Chaos that’s really bad and you get stranded there. The portals won’t allow you back through. You can still use the banks and do all of the other things the locals can do, but that’s it. Do something not quite so bad and you may get back here from Chaos. You may also get sent home, but you will not be allowed back to Crossroads or Chaos. Those are the two penalties that apply to both. There’s a level of penalty for a Companion that’s between them. The Companion can do something that will stop them from being a Hero, but they can continue as a Companion. The rules are quite clear, but not so plainly stated. Why do you ask?”

“Kira is going as my Companion, the rest are going to Chaos to stay. They wish to opt out of Earth’s modern life and they want to live on Chaos. I just want to make sure they know where they stand. I’d hate to see them get hurt because they felt they had to keep to all of the Companion’s Rules if just setting them aside allows them to stay there.”

“I see. That makes sense. If they initiate any action or respond before they should as a Companion ought to they’ll be barred from returning from Chaos. If they’re on Chaos and don’t return with you they’ll just stay there until a Hero brings them back. So there’s no punishment for anyone intending to stay on Chaos. I must let the other Heroes know of this, as I’m sure some are having similar thoughts about associates.

“That would be a good idea, because I’m sure a few will know people who are interested in withdrawing from modern life on Earth.” We discuss the matter for a little longer then we break up for the night.

Rescue Plans

The next morning is spent in training the others in Chaos combat skills while I mull over what I learned about the Kukulka last night and before breakfast this morning. After reading all that’s available about them I feel it should be possible to negotiate a truce plus the handover of the Damsels.

The main problem arises from a reduction in their local natural food resources. I’ll need to secure an area near them I can seed with food animals. I’ll also have to find a way of keeping the locals away from the seeded area. The biggest problem will be caused by the attitudes of the Kukulka because they’re listed as a very stubborn race. My backup plan is to climb the mountains, enter their valley, and steal the Damsels back. Kira’s training and skills as a climber and gymnast will be useful in such a task, so will the good hemp ropes I’ve brought along for use at Grassy Meadows. I may need them for this as well.

After lunch Merry, Kira, and I sit in the data Centre to discuss the rescue with Mac. We go over what we know of the Kukulka, their valley home, and the surrounding area. Their valley is much further down the same mountain range as Grassy Meadows and is just inside the western edge of the range. Grassy Meadows is well outside the hunting range of the Kukulka, but it won’t hurt to get on friendly terms with them. The closest point of approach is a small open plateau a little way up the mountain. It’s level with the southern end of their valley and only a few days ride south of Summer Ford. There’s a small human settlement about half a day’s walk further south of the road’s closest point to the plateau. The area between the road and the mountains is light forest.

Mac has live recordings of the valley now. It’s clear we’ve the right location since the recordings show some Damsels working in the valley. Their overseers are Kukulka. This is a major concern for the Crossroads Administrators because they can’t find any record of the Kukulka being on the planet. This causes them to put a very high priority on finding and converting an old backup of the databases. They thought they’d cleaned up the databases in the wake of the staff clean-up after the Shiloh and Jimmy MacDonald Affairs, but they keep finding cases of interference and they want to put this issue behind them as finally fixed.

Kira and I study the cloth maps of the area Mac provides to us. We also study the blown up maps shown on the computers and the Map Project’s three dimensional display. The 3D projection is very useful as we can move into it to look at something from below or above or from in front of it. All of this study helps us to plot a safe pathway to climb up the mountain on the outside and to get down into the valley.

We’ll have to worry about being spotted by the Kukulka while we climb, but I think we can avoid that by moving at night. The climbing will be harder and with a higher risk level, but safer from observation. The Kukulka are only active during the day as their eyesight isn’t good because their home planet is much brighter. They stay inside at night since they’re at risk to night predators, nor do they fly at dawn or dusk.

It’s a good thing we’ve got some weeks to get organised as I’ll have to make some special gear while at Junction. The negotiations with the Kukulka will take quite some time as well. I won’t leave Junction until I’m ready to deal with the Kukulka, the local humans, and climbing the mountain. All three of the things are going to take a lot of preparation.

We spend another two days going over our plans and training in Chaos style fighting while waiting for an answer about me getting a universal translator. Merry is not happy with it. It’s an organic implant into the brain itself. Her main worry is I may be the one in ten thousand whose body rejects it and they die because they can’t get it out. I never do understand the insertion method, despite having it explained to me several times. The interesting thing is it will also work on Earth because there are Earth based communications and database links. Merry has another concern as the universal translator has been known to have odd effects on a few people who’ve had it installed. The effects aren’t uniform and the ones affected rarely talk about what happened. However, about a tenth of those few who are affected soon go mad and kill themselves.

Due to these low probability problems we discuss the matter a lot while we wait for a decision from the Administrators. The downside is I can’t see how we can negotiate a truce or the release of the Damsels without it, nor can the others. Kira offers to have it installed instead, but the decision from on high is they’ll let me, and only me, have it.

I end up spending three days recovering from its painful insertion. Then four more days learning how to use it and getting familiar with it.

For the first six days after it’s insertion I’ve a major headache, it goes away on the seventh day. They tell me it’s due to my system having to adjust to the unit being where it is, and the headaches are normal. I’m told it’ll look like a small brain tumour in any x-ray or brain scan, and I’m warned not to let them probe it at all.

The translator is always on. It’ll automatically translate everything said near me and it’ll allow me to answer in that language. Lin and Zhu are very surprised when I start speaking their local dialect of Chinese with them when they use that instead of English. At first I’m a lot more surprised than they are. The hardest part about using the translator is learning how to activate it in another language before the other person speaks to me in that language. On hearing a language it’ll activate and work in that language. However, I need to know a few words of a language before I can initiate the translator to use it to talk first. Thus I have to learn a few simple phrases in the Kukulka language, and it’s not easy. It makes learning Klingon, or German, or Russian seem simple and easy to pronounce.

Planning and training move along and we’re soon ready to head to Chaos. Kira and I are confident we’ll get this done, but we’re concerned as to how we’ll get through it. There are so many variables outside of our control we have to worry about. The day to leave on the rescue arrives and we all dress for Chaos. We get the horses packed and ready. I notice the horses look fitter and in a better condition than when we arrived, so I wonder if they’ve been given a physical of some sort. The stable area has a new doorway going into the Chaos portal room, so we soon set up as we did to come to Crossroads. When we’re ready we pass through the portal.

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