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Prince of Sunset
By Steven White
Baen BooksCopyright © 1998 Steven White
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNyjord (Nu Phoenicis IV), 3889 C.E.
Afterwards, Basil Castellan was always certain that it had all begun the day he'd been rescued by the dragon.
Oh, it hadn't been a real dragon, of course. So he hastily assured everyone to whom he told the story. Only... it had been a real dragon. He would never share that particular knowledge with anyone but Sonja and Torval.
* * *
His feet started to slip as he mounted the trail, such as it was, and he scrambled to compensate, grabbing at the slender trunk of a sapling. He felt a sense of kinship, for its species was a Terran import like his own; and the tree evidently agreed, for it held. He pulled himself upright and regained his footing, then resumed hiking uphill.
The ridge line couldn't be too much further. Not that he could see it yet, for he'd walked upward into a low-lying cloud that enveloped this region of the Kraaken range, into an enchanted world of pearly mist made subtly iridescent whenever the afternoon light of Nu Phoenicis came streaming through the occasional rift.
Then, abruptly, he was above the clouds, and the ridge line was just ahead. He hastened his steps and soon was at the summit, standing under a crystalline blue sky in which Nyjord's small, intense white sun rode serenely with only a few fleecy high-altitude clouds for escorts. He stood breathing heavily, but only for a moment. He was a healthy young man of fifteen years (local years, of course; eighteen of the standard years of faraway Earth in which people's ages, as well as history, were generally measured), and exertion in this thin mountain air was more exhilarating than exhausting. He turned slowly in a circle, automatically shading his eyes against a slightly more ultraviolet-rich sunlight than they'd evolved under.
Below and to the east, whence he'd come, the wooded mountainside sloped down into the clouds that rested against it like an ocean lapping against a breakwater. But elsewhere all was dazzling clarity, and he could see forever through air that had never known large-scale burning of hydrocarbons. Northward and southward the mountains curved away into infinity, while to the west a whole series of upland valleys spread themselves verdantly at his feet. Beyond them the further ranges of the Kraaken rose, range piled upon enormous range. Dark forests clothed the lower slopes, but above the timberline the peaks rose through snow and glaciers to altitudes where no life could exist.
After a while he dragged his eyes from those god-remote titans and gazed down at the valleys below, checkerboarded with fields and dotted with curious little towns where a few pure-blooded Old Nyjorders still spoke the language their ancestors had brought from a part of Earth called Scandinavia. The sun was warm, but his jumpsuit's molecularly engineered material responded to his sweat by breathing more copiously, and no discomfort distracted him from the view. He was still in familiar territory, for he'd come to this crag many times in the course of his youth, sometimes in the company of friends but more and more often alone. Here, with what seemed like the entire continent on display far below, he'd always felt an irrational but nonetheless real sense of isolation; his problems were down there in those distant valleys and plains, and couldn't touch him. Which was why he'd come today, for what would probably be the last time. He'd already taken a long look through the window of his old room at a familiar panorama that had suddenly seemed strange, and disposed of certain objects which he'd somehow never quite gotten around to throwing out; but this seemed the right place to complete the relinquishment of boyhood.
He shook his head, irritated with himself. It must, he decided, be the thinness of the air. His mother, a planetologist by profession, had explained it long ago. "Nyjord is a relatively massive world, compared to Old Earth," she'd clipped, in lecture mode.
"Is that what they mean by 'one point thirteen gee'?" he'd piped up, eager to display his precociousness. How old had he been that day?
"Don't interrupt. And yes, that means that our gravity is stronger than Earth standard. At the same time, our atmosphere is somewhat thinner. That's all right at sea level, or even on this plateau. But the gravity causes the atmospheric density to drop off faster with altitude-you might say the atmosphere is shallower and 'harder.' Anyway, that's why the higher peaks of the Kraakens are lifeless; they're in near-vacuum." She'd indicated the distant pale-blue mountains to the west that seemed to float above the cityscape beyond their back garden. "And it's why you and your friends have to be very careful hiking, even on the established trails. As you climb higher, the air can get dangerously thin before you know it."
He'd stopped listening, for his eyes had followed her finger toward the mountains and stayed there. "Is it true," he'd asked softly, "that a Luon lives up there?"
"Well," she'd replied, slightly ill at ease, "there are always stories. Nobody knows how many Luonli are left on this world, if any-certainly not more than a very few. Some people claim to have seen one in this part of the Kraakens. But they were probably just imagining things. Luonli are hardly ever seen unless they want to be seen."
"Why? I mean, if they're so big...?"
Her unease had deepened. "It has to do with telepathy."
All his resolve to seem grown-up and sophisticated had fled, leaving him alone with the childhood fears that were part of his culture's legacy. "You mean... you mean they can control your mind...?"
"Don't be silly! The theory is that they can, ah, implant certain suggestions... including the negative one that you haven't seen something." She'd taken a deep breath and turned severe. "Don't bother your head with such things! Even if there are any Luonli left on Nyjord, they keep to themselves just as they do on all the worlds where they live."
"But," he'd protested, "if nobody ever sees one, how do we know they even exist? My friend Ivar says they don't." But Ivar hadn't said so very loudly.
"Oh, they exist," she had said, smiling and nodding slowly. "If they didn't, we wouldn't be living here."
Later, he'd learned what she had meant. And whenever he'd walked this trail he had strained his eyes against the intense sunlight, hoping for just a glimpse in the royal-blue sky. But none had been granted him. And, it seemed, none was going to be today.
He stretched and rubbed a finger across the sun-browned skin of the back of his left hand. The imprinted circuitry glowed to life and showed him the time. He really shouldn't go any further, not if he wanted to return the way he'd come. But he could always summon the aircar he'd parked down below-it was quite capable of flying itself and seeking out his wrist communicator's homing beacon. Normally, neither he nor any of his friends would be caught dead taking advantage of any such unworthy expedient. But now, on the eve of his departure for Sigma Draconis, he was above all that. Wasn't he? He sighed. Maybe he should start back now. He began to turn, then paused for a last look at the vista which, like so much else, he was leaving behind.
It was then that a metallic-seeming glint of reflected sunlight in the high deep-blue vault of heaven caught his eye. It didn't register at first; surely it must be a high-altitude aircraft, although few such flew above this region. But no, the glint wasn't really metallic, for it was not quite coppery and not precisely golden, and as he focused on it he could make out the impossibly slow beat of vast wings....
"A Luon," he breathed, fearful to shatter the crystalline fragility of the moment. Then, as he watched, the Luon caught an updraft and snapped its wings out to full extension, swooping into a southward glide, and was gone from sight.
The lateness of the hour was forgotten. He had to get another look. He looked to his left. The trail led upward as it followed the ridge line to the south. Perhaps the Luon was headed to its home among the higher crags. Nobody really knew where they lived, but it was well known that they liked mountains, and his imagination conjured up a titanic eyrie where the Luon perched-or whatever-in lonely majesty. Without hesitation, he started upward. It was steep, and the trail seemed little used. He paused to pick up a fallen limb that was the right length to make a walking stick. He made good time with its aid, leveraging himself up the increasingly steep trail and dismissing his occasional, annoying dizziness with a headshake and a deep breath. In his eagerness, he didn't notice that he was having to do so more and more frequently.
The woods were thinning, leaving the view obstructed only by a few stunted trees. Soon, surely, he must catch another sight of the Luon. The thought made him glance upward, and he momentarily lost his footing. He muttered a word that even now would have drawn a rebuke from his mother, irritated by the way his head spun as he steadied himself. Then, up ahead, he saw that the trail narrowed as it skirted the righthand side of a crag. To the right of the trail, a sheer cliff fell away. There'd be a matchless view from there, he thought as he resumed his heavy-breathing progress.
The trail was rough as well as narrow as it wound around the crag. Fortunately, he'd never been afflicted by a fear of heights. And the view was even more spectacular than he'd expected. He rested his back and looked around for a sight of the Luon.
There was no flash of reflected sunlight anywhere in the sky. But maybe the Luon had left some trace of its habitation nearby. He leaned forward, using the stick to support his weight, and peered southward.
With a sharp crack, the stick snapped.
His oxygen-deprived brain responded with nightmarish slowness as he began to topple forward. He tried to throw himself back and regain his balance, but then his feet began to slip and in a timeless instant of terror he was over the edge, scraping his back against the lip of the cliff as he fell. He flailed his arms wildly, seeking something to grab. As he did, his left wrist smashed into the cliff face, and he felt a stinging pain. Then he was in free fall... but only for a sickening moment. With an ankle-wrenching impact, he landed on a ledge. Then he began to slide off it, but this time his windmilling arms caught the stunted trunk of one of the dwarf trees-not of Earthly origin-that grew through cracks in the rock at these altitudes.
For a time he simply hung there, feet dangling above the abyss, breathing in great gasps. Then, slowly and painfully, he pulled himself back up onto the little ledge. Only then did he yield to the shakes.
At last he could think clearly, if somewhat sluggishly. All right. No problem. Call the aircar. He brought his left hand up to speak into the wrist communicator... and then he remembered the pain in that wrist.
The communicator's plastic casing should have held. He must have hit it against the rocks in exactly the right way-or, rather, in exactly the wrong way. For a while he just looked at the shattered device, ignoring the cuts made by jagged little fragments. They were the least of his worries. Finally, for lack of anything better to do, he tried to activate the communicator. The result was precisely what he'd expected: a brief crackling sound and a flicker of dying molecular circuitry seen through the breaks in the casing, then nothing.
After a while he became aware that the sun was almost touching the peaks to the west as Nyjord's 19.3-hour day drew to a close. His jumpsuit would compensate for external temperature changes, up to a point. But in this thin air the nighttime drop in temperature was extreme, and a slight chill was already invading him. He looked up and saw that the trail from which he'd fallen wasn't too far above his ledge. Given anything at all to get a handhold on, he would have tried to climb the cliff wall. But there was only sheer stone.
He tried to think constructively, if only to avoid leaving a vacuum for despair to fill. But all that came was resentment of the Luon for having lured him into this. He rejected it angrily as the irrational petulance he knew it to be, but it wouldn't go away; he couldn't get it out of his head....
And as he thought about it, something else came into his mind, something he had never felt before, something that seemed to swell like an expanding sun until for a moment its glare filled his consciousness, filled the universe....
Then he was warily approaching the edge of the rock outcropping on all fours. (Odd, he'd never been afraid of heights before.) He looked down the sheer cliff at the wooded valley below. And all at once he forgot to breathe.
He'd only gotten the briefest, most distant glimpse of the Luon before. Now, in all its immeasurable splendor, it swept along almost skimming the tops of those trees so far below. Then, in a maneuver that its thirty-meter wings couldn't account for, it banked and flung itself upward, all that mass arrowing straight up toward him at a velocity that must surely carry it past and on up into the darkening sky.
Then it was level with him, and thrust its wings outward in a violent braking motion that brought it to a sudden stop with a thunderclap sound that flung him physically back from the edge, stunned. He scarcely noticed, for he was face to face with a visage conjured up from myth, gazing into enormous amber eyes in whose depths he saw the source of that which had seemed to burn its way into his mind....
The cold wind brought him back to consciousness. Then his situation began to register, one impossible impression at a time.
The sun was setting and he was above the corrugated landscape of the eastern Kraakens, headed south. He would surely have yielded to hypothermia had it not been for the warmth emanating from the great flying body against which he was being held. What was holding him was one of the four specialized arms between the wings and the head. Aft of the wings, he knew, would be four more limbs: the legs and two that could function as either legs or arms. All these limbs, including the two that specialized as wings, were arranged in pairs. The Luonli might not be vertebrates-evolution had produced something far more flexible than a spinal column on their unknown homeworld-but they were bilaterally symmetrical.
Just ahead of him was the great head that a native of Earth might have characterized as vaguely crocodilian in a lighter-jawed sort of way until he saw the eyes. One of those eyes-their settings were wonderfully flexible-turned to gaze at him.
"Ah, you are conscious."
Excerpted from Prince of Sunset by Steven White Copyright © 1998 by Steven White. Excerpted by permission.
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