Bryce stepped out of the car, leaving his door between himself and the armed soldiers. Phyllis pulled the dune buggy up behind the car and stepped out, unafraid.
"You speak English," Bryce called to the soldier.
The soldier replied slowly. "Yes and no." He pointed at a device lodged in his right ear—small and black, like a bluetooth earpiece. The soldier mumbled to himself, then out loud to Bryce. "We've met others who speak your language. Your language has been..." he muttered for a moment and then continued. "We have catalogued your language, and I carry a translator."
"Well that's handy," Bryce said.
The soldier continued to speak in two parts, first muttering to himself, then speaking the English translation out loud. "Why do you stop... so far away?" asked the soldier.
"Because you've got guns, and we don't know you."
"We've got guns... because we don't know you. It's city security. You understand."
"I guess I do. So what do we do now?"
"Do you intend to enter Graden?"
"Then you will need to be... processed."
Phyllis stepped forward. "Processed?" She turned to Bryce. "What does that mean?"
Bryce shrugged. "What's that mean?" he called to the soldier.
"Nothing bad, I assure you. We must interview all... refugees. We must make sure you carry no... weapons. Our duty is to... understand your intent."
"Our intent is to unload a dragon rider. I hear there's a reward for anyone who captures one."
"You have a dragon rider?"
"In our trunk."
The soldier muttered to his companions. They exchanged a few words, then he turned back to Bryce and the others. "I will see. Pull forward, please."
Bryce turned to Phyllis and Syd. "You ready to commit to this? I don't know what this 'processing' is all about."
Phyllis scowled at the soldiers, but Syd nodded. "I came here to gain their trust. I need to trust them in return."
"But Syd," Phyllis protested. "They've got guns. I don't like it."
"They're protecting their city. It will be fine."
"I guess you don't need translators after all," Bryce said. "You can do diplomacy without us."
"Are you kidding?" Syd waved a hand at the city. "I'm not going in there without someone who can handle a place like this."
Bryce shrugged. "Okay."
They returned to their cars. Bryce followed the soldier's directions, pulling to the side of the road into a well lit parking area. A row of canvas tents lined one side of the lot, and a few military green jeeps sat alongside them. Two tanks rested at the far end. Soldiers milled about, most armed. About half of them wore the red beret's matching the one their greeter wore.
"All of you step out of your vehicles," said their escort in the beret.
They complied, Phyllis keeping an eye on all the soldiers. She stayed close to Syd, keeping herself between him and the soldier. Eddie drew Kai out by the hand. "We need to talk to someone so we can go into the city."
Kai glanced at the bright lights of the huge urban area. She frowned and huddled next to Eddie.
A wide canvas canopy stood at the end of the tent row. Beneath it, a woman in military green waited sitting at a card table. "This way," she called. "We will... (mutter)... get you started."
They gathered around her table. A portable electric lantern hung above, casting them all in eerie sodium light.
She was a heavyset woman with a disdainful, bureaucratic expression. She jotted notes with a stylus on a clear glass tablet. "I am Sergeant Ardinne, and I'm here to catalog you," she said without looking up. "We'll start with your names."
They each told her.
"And where do you come from?"
She frowned as they told her, as if places like "Rapid City, South Dakota" and "Subterranean Intercontinental Turnpike District 678" disgusted her, but she recorded the information without comment. She pointed at Kai. "The little girl doesn't answer. Does she not speak... your Anglo Frisian?"
"Our what?" Bryce asked.
"We speak English."
She swiped at her tablet, made a note, then swiped back. She looked up expectantly.
Eddie searched his mind. What was Kai's language? His memory was dangerous territory, and he feared if he plumbed the depths of that abyss, he might get lost in bizarre tangents. "Vayna," he answered. "She speaks Vayna, and her name is Kai."
"Vayna," Sgt. Ardinne repeated and swiped through pages on her tablet. She stopped on a page and tapped her screen. "Our scouts have encountered Vayna. Our language record is incomplete." She looked Kai in the eye, who huddled closer to Eddie's leg. "Welcome," the woman said in sharply accented Vayna, her saggy face showing no hint of friendliness.
Sgt. Ardinne jotted a note, then asked, "Do any of you know... any other languages?" Eddie was about to answer when she muttered in her own language under her breath, " You resource sucking refugee bastards. "
Eddie's mouth froze open. He glanced at the others, then said, "No."
Bryce gave him a puzzled expression but didn't correct him. The others looked confused.
Eddie thought about his answer, then added, "I mean, I can speak to the dragon rider. He speaks... Starrik Common... and Ordish."
This was another nugget of knowledge Eddie had dredged up from his mysterious memory. He felt only a moment of surprise. Starrik Common? Where did that come from? And the people in Graden? They spoke Reformed Hadish, but they referred to it simply as Hadish. There was more to remember if Eddie put his mind to it. Like the red berets on some of the soldiers. They signify something. What is it?
"Starrik Common," Sgt. Ardinne repeated, writing.
"Yeah," Bryce said, inching closer to the desk. "And we've captured him. We want the reward."
"The $25,000 reward. For the capture of a dragon rider."
Sgt. Ardinne looked confused. She glanced up at the soldier in the beret.
"It's on the radio," the soldier confirmed. "Because of the abductions."
"Ah, yes," she said. "The abductions." She continued writing. "You heard this broadcast?"
"Someone told us about it," Eddie answered.
Sgt. Ardinne jotted these facts. "Very well," she said. She set the tablet aside and lifted a metallic gadget by its handle. "I'll give you all your processing numbers now."
"So we can go into the city?" Syd asked. "I need to locate someone from your merchant's guild. I've got a business proposition that..."
"You can do that when... you're done being processed."
"Wait," Bryce said. "Isn't that what you just did?"
Sgt. Ardinne sighed. "Processing is handled at the refugee center. I'm only here to catalogue you. Hold out your hand..." she glanced at her tablet... "Mister Bryce Gerrard."
"What refugee center?" Phyllis asked. "What happens there?"
Sgt. Ardinne glowered. "At this hour, it's a place to sleep and... in the morning, a place for breakfast. Then processing."
Phyllis shook her head, but Syd gripped her shoulder, reassuring. "Sounds fine."
Sgt. Ardinne stamped each of their hands. She asked for their right hands, but the stamp only smeared on Phyllis's prosthetic metal. The woman consulted her tablet for a minute, then declared that the guidelines allowed for a left-hand stamp in certain extenuating circumstances.
She swiped to a new page on her tablet. "You may follow Lieutenant Barinks now," she said without looking up.
The soldier behind them nodded. "Yes, please follow me. I understand you have a gentleman in your trunk?"
"Uh, yeah," said Bryce. "The dragon rider. The one who abducts people. The one worth $25,000."
"Show me." The smile never left Lt. Barinks's face.
Bryce opened his trunk. Kardhoom lunged out, hitting Bryce in the chest with his bound fists. Everyone backed up a step, except for Phyllis, who yanked the man out of the trunk with her mechanical arm and dropped him on the sodden ground. Kardhoom struggled to regain his feet.
"He's pretty beat up," said Lt. Barinks.
"He deserves more than he got," Phyllis said.
"Where's his dragon?"
"We annoyed it, so it went away," Bryce said.
"But how do I know this man is... an actual dragon rider?"
"Have you ever seen a dragon rider?"
The soldier shook his head. "I've seen footage, but it's not clear."
"Well, he's one," Bryce said, pointing.
Kardhoom stood. "I will crush you puny—" he began, shouting in his own language, but Phyllis jabbed him in the solar plexus. Kardhoom doubled in pain.
"That wasn't very nice," said Lt. Barinks.
"It's best this way," Bryce said. "He can curse and claw for hours if you let him."
Lt. Barinks nodded to a pair of soldiers waiting at the side. "Take this man for processing," he said in his own language. "He's code yellow, hostile but manageable. They claim he's involved in the aerial abductions. Cuff him."
As the soldiers gripped Kardhoom by both arms and led him away, Bryce moved in to stop them. "Wait, what about our reward?"
"If he is who you say he is, you will get your reward. I'll give you a receipt for him." Lt. Barinks drew a notepad out of his pocket, jotted a quick note in Hadish and handed it to Bryce.
"Now, if you'll follow me, I'll lead you to the refugee center."