Chapter 3

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Chapter 3 

The call for Beta team came within the next twenty four hours. The men assembled quickly and efficiently in front of the shuttle which would take them down to Xamo, the continent near the middle of the planet Bao, which was the home of the desert dragons. 

Second Officer Wilson had scanned the continent, looking for any evidence of the smugglers especially buildings or tracks and had located a site that he thought would be worth further investigation. The shuttle would land at least sixty kays away and most of Beta team would travel the rest of the way by small flier. A small force, including Michael Banner, would stay with the shuttle until Stewart gave them the all clear to join the team. 

Red. The colour of the desert sand was orange red, unlike the red brown rocks of Burra or the rich dark brown soil of Tian. Sand covered the ground in every direction, interspersed with wiry reddish orange plants which spread for meters but were only a couple of centimetres high. Twisting gullies furrowed the land, metres deep in places, providing the only real shade from the sun and shelter to purple red shrubs but promising to make any progress by foot extremely slow. The two fliers, each with three men on board were skimming only a few metres above the surface, getting a feel for the environment.  

The shuttle had spotted what looked like a small temporary construction on the surface now ahead of them, a sort of hut made out of camouflaged material. One flier continued at the low height, flying in a wide circle to come around from behind the makeshift camp. The other flier went up into the sky, high above the target, out of range of any normal weapons. It was ready to monitor any activity on the ground and draw the attention of anyone in the camp. Third Lieutenant Sykes scanned the area with a heat sensor and sent a short message to Stewart in the other flier. "Lieutenant? Only two people in the building, nobody else within a half kay." 

Stewart acknowledged the report and landed the flier about thirty metres from the makeshift hut. The crew stayed inside the flier while he broadcast a request to the two on the ground.  

"This is the Patrol. You are on Xamo without permission. Please come outside with your hands on your heads. Now. You have ten seconds." 

Before he had counted down to four, two men came out dressed in red camouflaged clothing and with hands on their heads as he had requested. Stewart relaxed a fraction. The men might be poachers but at least they had the sense not to start a fight with six patrol officers. In a few minutes Klee had them secured while he and Huynh checked out the hut. Huynh confiscated two laser guns, and spared a moment to be thankful the men had not tried to fight their way out. Laser guns were deadly. He also found a couple of stunners which had likely been used to bring down the dragons. 

In the room behind the living quarters, Stewart was coldly angry to find the skins of two dragons being processed and five already dried and ready for sale. The men would be facing several years in prison at least. He let Sykes know what had happened and gave the all clear to the shuttle to join them. 

Banner was first out of the shuttle. "You might like to start with what's in the hut," Stewart suggested, smiling a little at his enthusiasm. "There are seven skins in there and what looks like a pile of dragon bones to me, but you'd know more. I can give you two hours, will that do?" 

Banner hid his disappointment, he'd been hoping for more but he realised the Lieutenant was giving him as long as he could. It would hardly take the rest of the team that long to investigate and then demolish the site. "Thank you sir, I'll get started immediately." He went into the hut, already relieved to be out of the hot sun which beat on him in the few moments he had stood outside. 

Banner recorded what he could see first, and then proceeded to pack as much as he could into the specimen bags he had brought, taking care with any pieces of skeleton which were still connected to each other. Although on one level he was sad that the dragons had been killed, the scientist in him was excited by the find, especially the two skulls which were still intact. He was dimly aware of other men packing up everything else in the hut around him. He had almost finished when he heard the Lieutenant call him urgently. "Banner, out here, you'll want to see this!" 

He dropped what he was doing and dashed out of the hut. Stewart and Klee were staring at a spot on the outskirts of the camp, their weapons poised. Stewart lightly touched his arm, "Over there, behind the flier." A large desert dragon was motionless, watching them. It was the same orange red colour as the desert sand and must have been two metres long from nose to tail, with spines along the length of its back. Banner was enthralled. Very slowly he brought his camcorder up. Stewart signalled the other men to hold fire while Banner recorded the animal, they wouldn't fire unless it charged them and even then, everyone had his weapon on the stun setting. Almost faster than the eye could see, the dragon darted towards Huynh as he stepped out of the shuttle. Stewart and Klee both fired their stunners and Huynh leaped backwards, the dragon's teeth snapping the air where his foot had been a second earlier. The dragon fell to the sand, stunned. 

Banner approached it cautiously. Stewart followed, weapon still drawn. Two more dragons appeared behind the body of the first. Two tongues came out, testing the air, then they went straight for Banner, their tails whipping from side to side. Stewart only just shot them in time. 

"Thanks!" Banner said, looking down at the two unconscious dragons, only centimetres from his foot, the adrenaline still rushing through him. "That was a little close for comfort." 

"They don't have any fear, they just keep coming!" Stewart replied. "I think we should pack up and go, we don't want to disturb them any more than we have." 

Banner nodded in agreement. "They don't have any natural predators, well, not until humans arrived. I'll get my samples from the hut." 

"I'll keep an eye on them, everyone else finish up and be ready to move out as soon as possible." Stewart stayed to keep watch over the fallen dragons, his men didn't need him to tell them what to do. In five minutes the last of the hut was pulled down and stowed in the shuttle, they wanted to leave as small a trace behind as possible.  

Soon everyone was aboard and the shuttle lifted off, leaving a red cloud of dust behind. Banner was holding one of the dragon skulls, marvelling at its construction. He saw the Lieutenant looking at him and came over, bringing the skull to show him. "See here sir? It doesn't have what we would call teeth. They have pieces of bone shaped like teeth but actually they're part of the skull, just like the Tuatara on Earth." Their fingers touched as Banner put the skull into his hands. The other man seemed oblivious but Stewart had to fight to keep his breath even, he couldn't believe the effect Banner had on him. He looked down at the smooth black head, so near to his. He made himself concentrate on what Banner was showing him. 

"They had their own order, Sphenodontia. Of course there are differences between them and the dragons but that point of similarity is fascinating to a biologist. I'm hoping to be able to reconstruct a whole skeleton from the bones I've collected. Thank you so much for letting me come with you," he turned to smile enthusiastically at the Lieutenant. As if he had only just realised how close they were, he drew back, suddenly looking a bit uncomfortable. "Sorry to bore you sir." 

"I'm not bored," Stewart replied, his voice even. He handed the skull back, careful not to touch him again. This man was off limits, he didn't usually have to beat himself over the head with that fact so often. Banner challenged all three of his hard and fast rules, he was straight, he was crew and he was at least ten years too young, probably not even thirty yet. 

He had to get a grip.

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