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H-853...

"It's one of those tablets again. The 'destiny stones' that humans put up on hyperspace lanes. For a moment there, I thought that it was something serious."

The Cockatrice was perfectly happy with the resolution.

"H-853 calling Jaril the Igniter."

An image materialised of a Wyvern.

"Got everything ready over there?"

"Yes."

"Well, we will be ready to draw out the hydrogen soon."

Spencer, slightly unaware of the situation asked "Don't stars use hydrogen as fuel?"

"I will be back soon, Jaril."

There was a quite unsatisfactory explanation which hinged on Spencer being an idiot.

"Anyway, you never used that Slate of yours."

"I couldn't turn it on."

"A battery, if you know what that is, comprises of two different metals-" He held up what Spencer had previously regarded as mysterious plugs. "and an electrolyte. Your tongue."

"Ah."

"It may sting the first time, but after that your brain will actually enjoy being repatterned."

"Repatt-"

The probes were in his mouth with astonishing speed. After a few seconds, a light went green and they were removed.

"Now, what is a Scalar Field in Hyperphysics?"

"Er, a field where..."

"Yes."

"The product of the determinable non-zero vector matrices..."

"Yes?"

"Is a scalar?"

"Brilliant! You almost learnt something."

Klystrom decided to interrupt.

"Alternately, you could realise that there was a large clue in the name. I did when I joined in 2235. You could remember that as Some Proclaim-"

"Enough of that. That reminds me. You got second prize in the Magfusion contest, didn't you?

"Well-"

"Not quite the holiday, but the valet service."

The Cockatrice ran his claw along a seam in the metal. It came out an imperceptibly different shade.

"Machines always miss that. Oh, and don't put your feet on my panel."

"Ah-"

"And don't bother joining us, because the planet is hot enough without a Flamer. Have fun genuinely cleaning the instrument panels."

With that, it passed into the descent vehicle with a literally speechless Spencer.

Devilworld...

"OK Spencer, don't stop walking."

Spencer, seemingly swathed in tinfoil, wondered how to start. Stepping out onto the burning surface they neatly ran, grabbed the stone and fled to the cooling ship. Giving off clouds of steam in the merely desert-like temperature of the airlock, Spencer asked a question which again seemed a little obvious.

"Why do you dislike Hanna?"

"No, no Spencer. I generally object to having to share my Hydra with others. Do you know why I am here?"

"Why?"

"Long ago, in about 2850, it was found that my venom extracts had cost Magfusion one million credits in lost customers. As such, I have to fly that number of missions, being re-cloned if I am killed, until approximately the year 98,000. You gain astonishing amounts of cynicism."

"Really."

"I mean, this 'Artefact' stuff."

Mercifully, a Marsupial Dragon opened the airlock door for them.

H-853...

The Cockatrice headed, still slightly smouldering, to the control panel to run a claw along the seam. It came out grey.

"Is this comprised of small diamonds? Salt perhaps? Or my shed skin?"

"The skin."

"I'm buying a machine."

Spencer laid the stone on the table.

"There's some sort of coating on it."

"Yes, leave that on."

"It is just ash."

"Put it down."

He did. To annoy the Cockatrice (a worthy sport) he decided to talk to Klystrom.

"So", said he, trying to remember the glimpses of Vampireology that he had caught, "which bloodline are you?"

"Well, guess."

This wasn't promising. He had only seen the pages on Vlad the Impaler. What was it again. Ba'lioch-something? She reverted to her real form. No strange horns or wings appeared but watching something shapeshift was always horrific for the first time. Spencer clutched at his eyes.

"Spencer?"

Let's see... Violet eyes. They all have them. Pronounced canines. This was useless! Think of anything!

Through a haze of retinal agony he muttered: "All of them?"

What?

"Yes. Fourth Bloodline."

Still in shock, partly from getting it right, partly from the pain and partly from the fact that she was still beautiful in "default mode" (though his vision was limited to light and dark) he sat down heavily.

"The original Vampires. No garlic problems, able to appear in mirrors even at the brink of starvation and, though this may be limited to me, no fear of religion."

"Any downsides?"

"Well, some of us suffer from the sun and we need an electrolysis machine if we are killed, but apart from that it is fine. We could possibly be completely unrelated to the other three."

No one noticed the Cockatrice peeling away layer after layer of the so-called 'destiny stone' to reveal the true contents.

H-853 Cockpit...

The contents were the book Xenology and an empty chip. Xenology. You said it, you touched unbibium, and you said never again. The panels were quite small, though there was room for three people here. Even if they had to lean to look out of the window. The Cockatrice absent-mindedly turned a page.

Don't react, because the People at Draco will notice.

Each page had, instead of numbers, a small symbol. Old High Dragonish. The Language that none spoke but all knew. It was suprising as Dragons seldom wrote books and those who did stuck to terrestrial matters. He flicked to the end, remembering Joshua Kraik's problems when he had failed to do this.

Oh look, a guide to the symbols. Great. Except the guide was added later and they now started: Scalar Celestial Merlin Assumption... The rest made less sense. Halfling holograms? What is a Halfling? Can't we have physical ones? Ah, good old EMP detonators. The size of suns. OK, send the rock to Draco. Let them call it another false lead.

The Cockatrice shuddered with cold. The book, suddenly warm, glared at it through the two gems on its seamless black cover. It put the book in the overhead compartment and teleported the book out.

That stupid vampire girl was still going on about her problems. The white noise was successfully distracting Spencer though.

The tickertape ran out of the machine.

"Next mission is to the galaxy of Thule. We will investigate reports of rebel miners in one of the arms."

"Which one?"

Klystrom could be incisive sometimes.

"Er, they don't have names yet. I actually made the Thule part up."

Draco...

The Being at Draco would have been Khazak, were he alive. As he was not, the Protector took his place through seemless repatterning. It caressed the rock, and then struck downwards. He picked out the chip. After some thought, metal fangs sprouted and he bit into the rock in rage.

"Mr Lizst?"

Recovering, he turned around.

"Yes?"

I have re-routed the Hydras H-800-through-900 to the galaxy you requested."

"Good. I might join them."

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