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 DRAGONSECRET part 2

Alan's boots crunched in hot cinders around the crater. The crater
itself was strange in that it was not circular, but elliptical. He stood at
the edge. The bottom was shallow with a spate of dirt and ash, perhaps one
and a half meters deep. He hopped in and sank a little. The edge was almost
chest-high. The dirt at his feet shifted. It shifted again.
"Uh, oh," Alan thought. "If any debris from the meteor was hot, volatile
gas trapped in it--"
Alan grabbed for the edge of the pit. Before he could pull himself up,
he felt something slide around his foot and clamp down like a vice. Gritting
his teeth against the pressure, he glanced down. There was a HAND gripping
his foot and a skeletal, sooty figure lifting itself from out of the ground.
The gaping maw in its bald head poured sandy dirt. Vengeful revenant. Horror
from the grave. Its other bony arm flung up and grabbed Alan at the knee. It
slammed Alan down, and he thudded in the dust. His breath woofed out of him,
and his helmet was torn from his head from the impact.
He could not breathe. He clawed at the sides, fighting for air,
suffocating with dirt. He rolled onto his back and saw the horror standing
over him, gaunt and dread. Ice-cold fear rammed into Alan's belly. The thing
raised its spindly arms and tilted its head upward, beseeching the boiling
sky.
Alan's lungs finally caught hold, and air rushed into him. It was a
dirty, clinging wind, but to him it was a brief paradise. A coughing fit
threw him into a convulsion, pounded his face from the inside, and
constricted his muscles into useless granite. Amid his coughing, he became
aware of a terrible rasping that grew louder and longer, on and on... Fear
hit home again in Alan, and it quelled his coughing, for that awful noise
was the sound of a parchment rattle in the chest, of lungs sucking at breath
it couldn't reach fast enough. That noise came from the gigantic nightmare
standing beneath the daylight sky.
It jumped and was gone from the pit. The retching of wracking sounds
reached Alan's ears. Then there was silence, except for the ragged pounding
of his heart. And the incessant beeping of his commlock.

John, Helena, and Tony sat on a large, flat rock a short distance from
the Eagle, in urgent contact with Moonbase Alpha. They had explained their
situation, and Victor was informing them of the strange life-reading at the
site of the meteor crash.
"What are you saying, Victor? That there was some kind of life form in
that meteor?"
"Appears so... Wait! Sandra's in contact with Alan."
"Plug me in," John barked.
Alan appeared simultaneously on Command Centre's and John's commlock
screens. "Commander!" Alan hissed. "There's some kind of creature! Out of
the meteor pit."
"Where's your helmet?"
"Knocked off in the scuffle."
John snapped, "Describe!"
"Uh- huge. Humanoid. Skeletal."
"Intelligent?"
"Couldn't tell. It grabbed me, let me go. Seemed like it was in serious
trouble, hurt, something."
"You all right?"
"A bit shaken up."
"Be careful and get back here, now. Victor, Sandra, keep monitoring that
alien's life readings."
"We're on it. Out."
Koenig turned to the others. "We can take the helmets off. Apparently,
we don't need them."

Alan peered out of the pit, helmet in one hand, stun gun raised in the
other. It was set for heavy stun. The thing that threw him down may have
worse troubles than him, but the scare it gave him was plenty big, and he
was taking no chances. Bony prints were scuffed in the dirt, and about a
metre off there was a grey, sticky mass that reflected the grey sky. He saw
the creature nowhere. He padded to the Eagle nose cone, limping slightly on
his hurt leg, barely breathing. His shooting arm extended, he jumped into
the hatch of the nose cone. Not there.
He slithered into the pilot's seat, closed the hatch, and contacted
Alpha. Sandra's worried face appeared.
"I'm going back to the others."
"We read you, Alan. Proceed."
The co-pilot's port imploded and a startled Sandra blinked out. Alan,
stun gun in hand, fired at the creature on the floor. It looked up at him.
He fired again. It started to get up. He set for kill and fired a searing
beam. It didn't flinch and didn't fall. It stood and drew in a deep breath.
It regarded him askance, as if trying to classify him. A smile scrawled
itself across the emaciated face. It didn't seem to Alan to be the death's
head that it was before.
A hoarse chuckle clucked from its throat, chiding and deadly. "Alan
Carter. What a resounding surprise!"
Alan's mouth dropped open. Alan could see minute changes happening all
over the naked body- the form filling in, regenerating, hair sprouting.
Starting to look familiar... that FACE!
The creature resumed savagely with a hawking laugh. "How nice. Even in
my changed condition, you still remember me. How like a dog. Be a good
mortal dog and take me to John... Koenig." He relished over the name. "You
must have already known that's who I'd want to see. But then, you have no
conception of how immensely I wish it."
As Alan numbly worked the controls and the nose cone lifted into the
sky, one word, one name, repeated in his brain in a thunderous monotone:
BALOR. BALOR. BALOR. BALOR. BALOR.

"Commander Koenig!" Sandra shrilled at him over his commlock.
"Yes, Sandra. What is it?"
"We just had contact with Alan. While he was on, something smashed its
way into the cockpit--"
"So he may or may not be arriving here in a few minutes. Are those
Eagles--?"
"Within twenty minutes."
"Await further instructions, out. Damn, damn, DAMN!"
He paced as he shouted into the commlock. "Alan! Alan, are you all
right?! Answer me!"
"John, look!" Helena cried. She has sighted the nose cone coming into
view well over the deadly trees. As it approached, they could see the gaping
hole in the co-pilot port.
"Alan, do you read me? What's happened? Alan! Why won't he respond?"
"We'll know momentarily, Commander," said Tony as the pod hovered over
them and settled into a docking position with the main body of
Reconnaissance Eagle One. Once the docking was complete, they ran over to
meet Alan as he came out of the Eagle's main side hatch.
"Are you okay? What happened? We heard from Alpha that something smashed
its way in!"
"Commander John Koenig." The voice was clear, full of hatred, and
familiar.
Balor appeared from behind Alan. Alan, not lifting his eyes to John,
said quietly, "I'm sorry, Commander. There was nothing I could do."
"Enough, Alan. I understand."
"What a pleasure it is to see you, John," said Balor. "May I call you
John?"
"As you wish," John said, casting his eyes skyward as if to indicate he
did not really care one way or the other, and did not much care for Balor's
transparent inquiry. Balor would call him what he pleased. He pleased
himself, and no other.
Balor bowed his head in reference to his naked body. "You'll have to
forgive my rather impolite state of undress. Very discourteous, I know. But
you see I've had a rough day."
"Anything we can do to improve your mood?"
"Answer a few questions. Humor me. After that, I can think of much, much
more that would improve my mood. You are probably wondering how it is that I
am here."
"The thought had crossed my mind."
"Flippant, are we?"
"Very. I assume you were on that meteor we saw falling. Or in it. Was it
the asteroid we found you in?"
"Commander, you surprise me. You were doing so well for one of a slow-
witted species."
"The slow-wit who outsmarted you?"
"I notice you did not use the word, 'defeat'. After all, I am here. I
was that meteor you saw burn across the sky."
John started in spite of himself. "You-?"
Balor smiled slightly. "Let me say that I have more respect than ever
for the forces of nature. But there is unfinished business. First thing's
first. How long has it been?"
John shrugged. "Fourteen months, perhaps. One moment." He plucked his
commlock from his spacesuit belt. "Alpha."
Sandra answered, "Receiving you, Commander."
"Put Kano on."
Kano's face appeared on the screen. "Here, Commander."
"How long since the encounter with Balor of Progron?"
"Checking." A momentary silence. "252 days."
"Stand by." He tossed a hand at Balor. "There you have it."
"I was only curious. It was the first good sleep I've had in eons. I
imagine I drifted along in the gravitational field of your planetoid." He
smiled. "You never checked, did you?"
Tony broke in, exasperated. "Balor, what is it you want?"
"Why, John. I don't believe you've introduced us. Such a breach of good
Terran manners. It is your custom, yes?"
"Don't mock the Commander." Tony stepped forward.
Balor's face clouded. "I only wish to know who it is I will kill first."
"Balor, leave them be!" John commanded. His shout was imperious and sent
a chill through the other Alphans. "I know it's me you really want."
"Yes, you're right. I do want you." His tone was nearly one of lust
rather than hatred. "But you are my prize, and I am not saving you for
death. Oh, no. I want you to endure torture. TORTURE. Of a kind you have
never known. You can't be mortal for that, and I don't want you to kill
yourself as you watch the rest of your Alphans die in bloody, freezing
terror."
Twisting, silvery lines of light appeared in the air, swaying
hypnotically. Within seconds, the ground detonated beneath them, and a
shrieking wind pulled at them as a pair of luminous-eyed, fiery-mouthed
Dragons shambled up from below. John yanked his axe from the strap at the
leg. "Tony! Alan!"
Helena quickly handed Alan's axe to its assigned user, and Tony stuffed
Helena in the Eagle past a startled Balor. Within seconds, Alan deduced what
was going on and what he was supposed to do. From what he had heard of the
combat between John and Cellini's monster in a spaceship graveyard, he knew
the Achilles heel of the Dragons.
"They tunneled their way to us," John said.
Alan lept into action, wielding his axe at the closest of the two
Dragons. A tentacle of its partner grabbed John and lifted him toward tooth-
ringed jaws lit from inside with supernatural fire. John's eyes were feral
slits. This was a familiar foe, which he had vanquished in a prior battle
with a catch-as-cats-can axe blow to the eye. "You I know how to deal with."
Tony had emerged from the Eagle and was waiting to aid whichever of his
friends most needed assistance, and at this juncture, it appeared to be
John. Tony rushed to help his Commander, but one of John's opponent's
verdant arms hit Tony with unexpected violence. Tony reeled backwards and
fell, somewhat dazed, to the ground.
Helena watched the gruesome spectacle from the passenger section
monitor. Her mouth fell open in horror as she saw John's axe lift and fall
against the ropy coils grasping at him. He was shouting, "The eye! I can't
reach the eye!"
Balor's face twisted. "NO!" He bounded forward. "Foul thing! He is
MINE!" He grabbed John, wrenched him away from the Dragon, and grappled with
it himself. "Mine! Mine!" He ripped two tentacles from their roots as other
ones slid around his torso.
Alan had the advantage and was chopping away at the cyclopean eye of the
Dragon he was fighting. John and Tony joined him. They only spared a glance
in Balor's direction to see which threat would triumph. Alan's Dragon bucked
and screeched, but already its effort was enfeebled.
Balor struggled on. He did not shout for help. He had no illusions about
being aided by the Alphans, and none whatsoever as to with whom their hopes
of victory lay in his fight with the monster. To them, he was the true
monster.
The light faded from the eye of the other Dragon at last and it lay
dead. "Quickly, into the ship!" John shouted. They scrambled up the stairs
as Helena opened the door for them. Holding at the entrance, they turned and
watched as the jaws of the remaining Dragon snapped shut over Balor.
Silence descended. Suddenly, the Dragon's tentacles shot out like stiff
spines. The emotionless eye blazed blinding-bright as nuclear fire. The
Dragon's hypnotic glamor whirled, now crazed and pinwheeled, psychedelic
with imploding color.
Those watching shielded their eyes against the glare yet couldn't look
away. "What's happening?" Tony exclaimed.
The roar of Eagles grew in the silence. The men's heads snapped up, and
they raced to where the rescue ship would land. Helena ran aside them then
stood frozen with realization, between fear, excitement, and the weirdly
exultant light played over the scene. She spoke low, mostly to herself. "It
feeds on life-force, and Balor's is limitless." John grabbed her and resumed
running with her to the spot where Booster Eagle Three was moving in for a
landing.
Inside the Dragon, Balor trembled. His eyes widened as he found himself
propelled into a whirlpool of inferno. Energy like lightning poured from his
body, tremendous bolts of life-force which he felt being replenished as
quickly as it was drained. At the bottom of the flaming vortex, he saw the
moving silver lines of light. As he was sucked into the center, it opened to
him a world beyond insanity. Non-elclidean chaos. Time-space hovered in his
eyes. Misshapen equation. The scent of color surrounded him. Cold and heat
clanged and thundered through his body. His consciousness expanded and split
like a dividing cell. He now saw and felt two worlds.

Hot flesh quivered around Ghostly, plasmic bubbles
him, a stifling shadow that observed him like eyes of
contracted and imprisoned him in instinct that reflected the
heat and pressure. dancing webs of light.
He put his hand against the He reached up and out of the
pulsating moistness. plasmic eyes, which rippled
His hand tore through and undulated around him,
living flesh. uncomprehending animals.

The echoing scream of the Dragon spanned two universes.

Booster Eagle Three was almost on the ground. Booster Eagle Four hovered
nearby, cables attaching to the framework of the damaged Reconnaissance
Eagle One.
"Eagle Four! Get back to Alpha!" John yelled into his commlock. Once the
cables were secure, it rose into the air, its cargo in tow, and the sound of
its engines dwindled.
Helena, who hadn't stopped watching the Dragon, shouted, "John, LOOK!"
Balor's hand reached obscenely toward the sky out of the creature's
back, covered with thick, black blood. They stared as Balor emerged from the
back of the convulsing Dragon in a perverse birth. Above the roar of the
landing Eagle, they could barely hear the squawling as the Dragon twitched
and doddered away across the clearing.
They all huddled together as Booster Eagle Three's main airlock opened.
Balor's head swung around to face them. "KOENIG!" His eyes blazed with
light and his mouth spit flame.
John scrambled into the airlock behind the others. The hatch closed just
before a powerful suction struck the ship. Balor was trying to pull it
toward him. "DO YOU SEE WHAT I CAN DO? I PERCEIVE IN WAYS YOU CANNOT
COMPREHEND!" He walked slowly toward the Eagle, his arm still raised,
evoking the sucking torrent. "I am in their world now, an existence that
spans two universes! I have what you do not- immortality. I also have what
these creatures do not. Consciousness!"
Racing into the Booster Eagle Three pilot section, John shouted in
desperation to pilot Bill Fraser, "Lift off! Lift off!"
Alan sat in the co-pilot's chair. And together, he and Bill activated
the Eagle's lifting rockets. As the Eagle shot into the air toward the
boiling sky, Balor lifted into the air as well. "You won't escape." He
gestured and streaked to the edge of the clouds well ahead of the Eagle.
There, lightning caressed him and thunder empowered him. He grew and became
transparent. He began to laugh.
John was standing square between the two pilots in the Eagle cockpit.
Bill's face took an expression of stunned surprise. "Commander! Port ahead."
John lurched to the fore, grim. "I want the controls." He pushed the
rising Bill aside and thudded down in the chair, his eyes locked on the
gigantic Balor. He brought the ship around to head straight toward the
figure, straight up. He spoke quietly, forced and deadly. "So, your reality
expanded. You've entered their world. You've gained this much power, usurped
as always. You've taken on Dragon strength, but I know their weakness. I
know the secret."
He rammed the controls full ahead. Sudden G-forces threw the displaced
Bill against the cockpit door and sent those in the passenger compartment
scrambling for their seats. Wind and lightning battered at the Eagle. John's
eyes and arms were hard with the force of pure hatred and absolute
determination, hard as--
"Steel. May it take you."
The arrowing Eagle punched through Balor's face. The burning eyes
splintered like crystal and their glow vanished. Balor's titan image
writhed, shrinking and falling in the wake of the shockwave as Booster Eagle
Three smashed the sound barrier. Balor's body hit the ground below and
crumpled. The air left the lungs in a sigh with the all-releasing finality
of death.
John regarded the grim sight on the pilot section monitor. Helena and
Tony came through to join him.
"You did it, John!" Tony pronounced exultantly, patting his Commander on
the shoulder. This was the first time he called Koenig by the first name.
Koenig looked over at Tony appreciatively, then sighed in relief.
"That should be the last we see of Balor."
"A fitting demise, I must say," Helena added.
Looking over to Bill, John said, "Well, our task here is done. Get us
back to Alpha."
"Check, Commander."
John rose and turned the pilot's seat back to Bill. Then, flanked by
Helena and Tony, he went back to the passenger section, unzipping his sweat-
drenched spacesuit.
Back in the cockpit, Alan made the standard call to Alpha. They would be
home in twenty minutes. Booster Eagle Four, with Reconnaissance Eagle One in
tow, would touch down shortly after.

John, Helena, Victor, Alan, Sandra, Tony, and David gathered in Command
Centre as they summarized their reports of the "Phantasm Planet" encounter,
which was how they referred to it. Sandra was just finishing her report on
base activities and responses during the landing party's venture.
"...no breakdown of command structure even in the presence of unforeseen
circumstances. The usual. Commander?" She looked down at the seated Koenig
and smiled at him, indicating that she was finished.
John nodded and looked around the Centre. "Right. We've concluded that
steel aberrates the protective energy combustion of the Dragons and that
Balor's becoming part of that energy was what made him vulnerable. Any other
comments? Questions?"
David spoke. "What kind of planet shall we classify it as, sir? It never
registered on our sensors."
Victor answered. "The Phantasm Planet is one that totally confounds any
attempt at classification. Both the life forms and the planet itself are so
alien to our instruments that they just don't read. It's very probable that
this planet somehow emerged in this universe by some freak accident. A space
warp, most likely."
John smiled at the scientist's characteristically thorough account, then
rose from his chair and said, "All right. We've learned again that space
contains utterly alien and hostile worlds and life forms. But we've
confronted what has been until now two of our most fearsome menaces, the
Cellini Dragons and Balor of Progron, and defeated them. I'm very proud of
all of you for your part in this. I'd be inclined to say that we've scored a
victory against some of the darker forces of the universe, and for that we
should be grateful that we'd attained the knowledge and wisdom that gave us
the edge in the battle. This experience has taught us to be vigilant, to be
curious but wary of strange, new worlds. For now, Alpha is our home. It is a
good home. It has seen us through many perilous situations, and we can
expect more of them."
Everybody nodded in agreement. More adventures were ahead for the
wandering Moon and its Alphan population, closer than anyone on the Moonbase
now suspected. Another space warp was in their path, just a few days away,
and after it, Psychon.

 

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