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Old Feb 18 2014, 04:34 AM   #1
Kath
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Default Beginning in the dragon

This is a story written for the 1 million words community's randomly assigned title challenge. It's also something I've been meaning to write about for a while now - David Catarel's life prior to Impression.

Obviously, not all of that is good. Bear that in mind if you're of a sensitive disposition. Also, I've extrapolated heavily for the scenes that take place off-Pern, and given Lucy more characterisation than just a name and a means of death, which is all that Anne left us with. Standard fanfic stuff really - the blanks are there to be filled in.







He's old enough, just, to remember the war. Long hours spent deep beneath the ground, clutching Louis-the-Lion close to his chest through the uneasy minutes and hours until he was finally lulled into sleep by his father's voice. Queueing for food-vouchers at the Centre, and the sting of each new round of inoculations. Picking over the strange, twisted debris that lay scattered in amongst the rubble of his best friend's home. His mother, weeping, on the day when she finally returned to them, after losing her wingman and the use of her legs.

Darkness, sour water and smells, deep underground, leavened only by the Governor's constant reassurances on the tri-d. It was to be a last stand and a first, she'd promised. Benden's fleet were ready, the trap was set, and the heroism of those who'd volunteered as bait would never be forgotten. They would start again, make a better world, beginning in the embers of the old one.

He remembers the faith of the Firsters, faith that was rewarded with a victory that could so easily never have been, though it's only with hindsight and the wisdom of his meagre age that he can see it. At the time, it was different. Boll kept them strong, and safe. She promised, and delivered. She was a hero like his mother, strong and steadfast like his father. And when the rebuilding was done, when human nature turned its back on the hard-earned unity that had saved First Centauri little more than a decade earlier, when his parents asked him if he'd be willing to give up everything he knew to carve out a new beginning in a far-off, rural exile, there was no doubt of his answer.

The Governor was going, and that was good enough for him.

++

The early years were everything he'd hoped for. High-tech entertainments were gone for good, but the joy to be found in song and exploration -- and often both at once -- were surprisingly good substitutes.

And then there was Lucy.

She wasn't pretty. She wasn't even striking. She had something of her father's focus, and more than a little disdain for the other kids their age who dreamed more of what they'd lost than what they could make. She could be warm and generous at times, but her personality was best described as abrasive, at least in the company of her peers. David had disliked her greatly at first.

But she was also a Firster. She remembered the taste of gilberries and the fresh-bread smell of swarms of butter-roaches as they fed on the catkins of imported birch-trees. She'd grown up with the same playground chants and games, and could quote Tracy Train and Worm vs. Walpoth with the best of them. That was the first spark of what later grew between them: all of those shared experiences and memories.

He was standing at a table, peering into a large, clear dish, filled with brine and all kinds of different native species. Half a dozen large bugs were trying to climb out the far side, the smaller ones clinging to the larger one's rear end. They managed it, too, building a weirdly inverted ladder out of their own carapaced bodies.

A slender hand promptly scooped them up and dumped them back into the water. "Not so fast, minions!" the girl declared.

The two earth-born girls working alongside them gave her a blank look, but David answered without a second thought. "But we have to find Walpoth!"

She smothered a laugh, and continued filling out her survey sheet in silence. But after that, they often found themselves working together. Not an accident, that, David was sure -- Felicia Grant, their teacher during those early months, was one of the botanists who worked under Lucy's father. He couldn't care less that he'd practically been forced into the role of the girl's designated friend. Being with her, it was almost like he'd never left First at all. The good bits of First, anyway. It was just like the Governor had promised. Pern was a new world, but it was founded on the best parts of the old ones. First and the Firsters weren't lost to them forever, even though none of them would ever see them again. They'd live on and grow right there on Pern, beginning in the future that he and Lucy would one day build for themselves.

++

Peace, Boll had promised. Safety. A happy future earned through hard work, dedication and unity, all the things that the Firsters excelled at. A future that no external agency could destroy or tear away from them.

David had believed it with all of his heart.

Lucy had, too.

++

David hadn't been the slightest bit surprised when Lucy had announced her intention to follow her father's interests and specialise in the microbiology of the Pernese ecology.

He had, naturally, teased her rotten when she first started focusing on Pernese invertebrates...specifically the many different vermioids. "Worms, Worm? Seriously?"

"Get lost, Walpoth!"

"But of course!"

Joking aside, he couldn't help but be fascinated by her research...at least the bits of it he understood. Understanding the inner workings of the sandworms' digestive tract might have been well beyond him, but even he couldn't fail to see the potential in what she was doing. Programmable silkworms, that was the analogy Lucy used; creepy-crawlies that could safely and naturally manufacture all the chemicals and synthetics that couldn't usually be made without toxic by-products that the Pernese had vowed to avoid polluting their planet with. And so he kept her company in the lab, hauling her out for a jaunt in the fresh air whenever she became too silent or too overdependent on klah.

They were some of the best hours of his life, those. Cantering across the empty plains of Pern, hunting wherries or straying sheep. Talking about nothing of consequence while their campfire burned down to embers, then delighting in their shared silence through the star-lit nights. Small tactile gestures that spoke louder than words, and the full-bodied promises of their future.

++

"Walpoth. I think we're lost again, and it's all your fault."

"Nonsense, Worm!" David turned to Lucy and gave her an apologetic shrug. "Only it is, this time, isn't it," he said, putting the rest of his half-remembered misquote aside. "So... backtrack to where the river forked?"

"Ayup!" Lucy kneed her horse in the ribs, setting it into a trot, before guiding it back the way they'd came. "Come along, minions!" she called to her fair of dragonets.

David followed at the same pace, his eyes tracking their fair of dragonets as they darted hither and thither between them, without ever choosing to venture ahead. The dragonets had seemed reluctant all day -- unwilling to hunt, unwilling to let them go up the left-hand river-fork that Lucy had been right to prefer, and now they seemed remarkably uneasy about taking their usual place in the air ahead of Lucy's gelding. "You heard her, Trace, Jet, Stupid!" he yelled at his three. "You can't lead us astray all day you know."

Jet darted down to his shoulder and clung on for dear life. David winced as the claws sunk nearly all the way through the leather pad and started pressing into his skin. "Do you have to?"

All he got back was a strange and increasingly uncomfortable sense of fear and anticipation. It lasted until his gelding rounded the next bend, at which point Jet let go, leapt away and blinked between. He looked around for the others, but they'd all decided to bugger off as well.

David shrugged and kept on riding.

++

They paused to water the horses and themselves at the river's fork. David took off his boots and waded out into the stony shallows, wondering whether it might be a good place to go fishing with Paul H and Paul L. That was where Jet found him again, along with the rest of the fair. Wherever they'd got to, whatever they'd been up to, they'd certainly come back reeking. David had half a mind to strip there and then and go for a quick swim in one of the deeper meanders upstream, if only to tempt the lot of them into a much needed bath. "Think we've time to stay here a while?" he yelled up to Lucy, who was still scanning the horizon from up on the bluff.

"You should come up here and see this!" she called back without turning around. "Weird clouds to the east. Silvery, and kind of pretty."

David had seen plenty of pretty sunsets on Pern, but hadn't ever noticed Lucy taking much note of them before. "How weird?"

"You know the stories where it rains fish, or frogs?" she asked.

"Yeah..."

"I think it's raining worms. Big ones."

"Really?"

"Yes!" Lucy turned to look at him with a smile, batting away one of her dragonets who seemed intent on getting into her face. "This is something new, David, I'm sure of it!" Her dragonet squawked, and she raised her voice to compensate. "And its coming right for us! Isn't that amazing?"

"Well, sure!" He started back towards the shore, curious to see it for himself. "Worms, you say? Walpoth as well?"

"Hungry worms," she said then, backing away towards him, and there seemed to be a note of uncertainty in her voice. "Very hungry. Not... not friendly."

"How can you tell?"

She started scrambling down the bluff, her dragonets shadowing her closely. "Trust me, David, you don't want to know? Did you see any shelter nearby? Anything at all?"

He turned to look around, but Jet and Trace were on him before his eyes made it even as far as their tethered horses, tugging and nipping at his clothes. All of them were agitated, and very, very scared -- for them, he belatedly realised. "The water," he muttered, finally sensing what they were trying to tell him. "We need to get to the water!"

David waited until Lucy was down on solid ground before he started running, certain that she'd reach the river just as quickly as he did.

And then the first worm hissed into the ground beside him, missing him by inches. He stared at it, uncomprehending, as it briefly began to bloat before Stupid spat out a tongue of flame and burned it away to nothing.

"Run!" Lucy yelled as she passed him.

And he did.

And she did.

And the worms fell, and missed them both, until the moment when they reached the water's edge and one of them...didn't.

There were other worms, after that. Worms that struck him and seared and burned his skin, that drowned in the river-water and crisped away to nothing under the unexpected flames of his own dragonets and his beloved Lucy's minions...but none of them stayed in his mind.

Not like the one that took Lucy from him forever.

++

He stopped believing in very much at all after that. Lucy's death was the beginning of his new life, and his new purpose. To fight for their world, and to destroy each and every last one of the worms -- the Threads -- that threatened it. He threw himself into it with the same single-minded intensity that he'd always admired in her. She'd been right, to be like that. And if he'd simply let her be the way she was, the way she was most happy being, neck deep in the exploration of Pern's invertebrates... If he'd left her to her work that day, she'd probably still be alive.

He didn't talk to anyone except his dragonets, and hers, not unless he had to. They'd stayed with him, the minions. Apparently, not all of the mentasynthed dragonets had -- most, when their human friends died, were simply never seen again.

Wind Blossom told him that that was the main reason why he was chosen -- not because he was fit and healthy and bang in the middle of Bay's age-bracket, not because he was more dedicated to ridding his world of the pestilential stuff than almost anyone else he knew...but because Lucy's dragonets still looked to him.

They were all there, waiting and humming, just like they did when any babies were born. David couldn't honestly see the point. If a dragon decided to look to him, great, he'd be a more effective fighter because of it. If not, so what? The sleds still worked, and flamethrowers would still make flames just as well as any of Kitti's creations would. So he sat on the sandy floor, elbows on knees, waiting to get it all over with...until a stern glare from Pol had him standing with the others. A new beginning for Pern, blah blah blah.

The first egg breaking open caught him quite by surprise. The bronze shook his wings and stumbled free, squawking in seeming surprise at his surroundings. David stood his ground as the awkward hatchling's stumble towards him ended in a face-first heap on the ground.

Not much use yet, was he? David thought to himself.

Help me then? the hatchling seemed to ask. I just need help, David. Your help. Please?

"He wants me!" David exclaimed, wonderingly, as he helped the little bronze back onto his feet. Why would Polenth want him?

"Then accept him!"

Pol's shout was loud, but David was no longer listening. Polenth was talking to him, in his head. Telling him how amazing he was, how he was just what the dragon needed, and that he was also very, very hungry.

++

Later, when Polenth was asleep, Governor Boll herself came to speak to him. "Sorry about the last time," he said before she could speak.

The Governor rolled her eyes. "Pah! You were grieving. And you were hardly the only person to yell at me that week, and with better cause than most." She extended a hand towards him, her eyes twinkling. "Congratulations, David," she said as he gripped her fingers. "Your mother would have been proud."

"Yeah. My Dad said the same."

"Striking creatures, these dragons. But not at all like I expected."

"Nothing on Pern's what we expected," David muttered.

"No, I know. Sometimes I think we must be the unluckiest folks in the entire Sagittarian Sector."

"Nah," he said. "Those would be the colonists who don't have Firsters with them to teach them how to start over."

"Indeed!" The Governor's face lit up in a broad smile. "A new Pern, beginning in the hopes carried by these fine young dragons. And the Firsters and Earthers who partner them!"

David stretched out his hand and stroked Polenth's smooth, warm flank. Boll spoke truer than she knew. It wasn't just Pern that might find a new beginning in Polenth and the others. If he was lucky, he might have found one for himself as well.
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Old Feb 18 2014, 10:22 AM   #2
mawra
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Default Re: Beginning in the dragon

Very nice. I like how you talked about Lucy's death.
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Old Feb 18 2014, 11:46 AM   #3
Kath
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Default Re: Beginning in the dragon

Thanks, Maw. It's easy to forget that all of these throw-away, one-line characters would have been people with lives and goals of their own, even if they never got to be a part of the main story. I do love playing with ideas of who they might have been.
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