By Kate Thornton
When I asked Vincent Cardoza to sit in as co-pilot for a single
shuttle-run from Mare Tranq on the moon to Toshiba on Mars, I
didn't think it would turn out to be such a pain in the rump.
For one thing, it was a routine shuttle run of supplies from
the big lunar city to the newest mining outpost. For another,
Vinnie was a fully-qualified pilot with an up-to-date license
and everything. How was I to know anything would happen?
My usual co-pilot, N'doro, was enjoying a well-earned vacation
and little plastic surgery, the result of a bar fight and subsequent
lawsuit at Big Red's Palace of Pleasure in Mare Tranq. I missed
him - he was more than a co-pilot, if you know what I mean. Hell,
I don't even know what I mean, but I missed him anyway. It's
tough enough being a female shuttle-rat.
I could have made the run myself, but the new Company regulations
were being strictly enforced, and one of them said that if you
left the Earth-Lunar runs for any of the outposts, you had to
have a co-pilot.
So I got Vinnie.
I had seen Vinnie around the usual hangouts - he was tall
for a pilot and a little better-looking than most of the men,
but he seemed to be a sober, hard-working sort. That alone should
have been a tip off.
Anyway, he wasn't my type, but I couldn't really be choosy
and it was just for the one run. After all, I didn't want to
date him, just get to Toshiba and back.
My shuttle, the 'Linda Rae,' was not exactly a state-of-the-art
cruiser. It was more like a rust bucket with a semi-functional
navigation system and no creature comforts at all. But it was
cheap to run and all mine, so every gold credit I made was mine,
all mine. Except when I had a co-pilot, of course. Then it was
We took on a cargo of supplies at Mare Tranq and I started
to get antsy. It was almost lift-off and Vinnie still hadn't
shown up. If he didn't arrive soon, I would have to choose between
subletting the cargo at a loss to a competitor or running the
risk of flying without a co-pilot.
At the very moment when I began securing the hatch, having
decided to take my chances and go without a co-pilot, Vinnie came
sprinting up the dock with a suitcase and a grin. Well, it was
okay for him to grin - he didn't have to make the big decisions.
All he had to do was sit in the co-pilot's chair, make nice conversation
and read "Shuttle Monthly."
We got through strap-down and lift off and I set the autocourse
Vinnie had carried his suitcase onto the shabby, peeling anteway
we called the bridge and it was resting at his feet. "So
what's in the suitcase?" I asked him. Our shuttle flight
was what they called a demon run, a six six six - six hours out,
six hours at the outpost, six hours back. A change of clothes
or a nightie was hardly necessary.
"Uh, nuthin'," he answered.
Now if he had said drugs, guns, booze, or even if he had claimed
boys, women or Martian sex toys, I wouldn't have been curious
any more. He was allowed to smuggle whatever he could carry,
and that suitcase was clearly within those limits. But "nuthin"
got me curious. Nobody carries an empty suitcase.
"For real, nothing?" I asked.
He nodded. "See? Empty."
It was indeed empty. Vinnie-boy was taking an empty suitcase on a shuttle run when
a full suitcase of just about anything could have netted him a
couple of gold credits.
Okay, I had to know. "Uh, Vin, why?"
He looked at me with that crafty look the less-than-intelligent
get when they think they're about to put one over on you but they
haven't quite figured out how. "Maybe I wanna bring something
back." He was a man of few words, one of his good points,
"But, Vin, you could have filled the suitcase with something,
sold it in Toshiba, then brought back whatever you wanted in it.
Oh, jeeze, he saw, but it was too late - we were half an hour
into the trip. His pretty face fell. "Uh, I didn't think
of that," he admitted.
I have heard it said that men do not consider intelligence
a factor when deciding if a woman is attractive. They go strictly
on looks. Women, however, need the reassurance that the person
they have chosen to find attractive is also intelligent enough
to be worthy of the designation. This idea is only one reason
why Vinnie and I did not have anything going on between us, not
the most important one, but a deciding factor if we had been the
last two people in the universe. One look at Vinnie's handsome,
empty face would have convinced any woman that the species deserved
"Uh, don't worry, Vinnie, you'll know for next time."
He brightened visibly. "Yeah," he agreed with
another engaging smile. "Next time!" He sat there
smiling and pretty. His jumpsuit, the ubiquitous uniform of nearly
all independent shuttle rats, fit him superbly, and did I mention
that he had muscles in places other than his head? I sighed.
"So," I pressed on to remind him that conversation
was the chief duty of a co-pilot, "what are you bringing
"It's a secret," he said. He closed the case and
I noticed that he had poked a few holes into it. Air holes?
"Okay," I said, "I don't have to know on
this leg of the trip, but you know you're going to have to tell
me on the way back." It was the law, written or not, that
you didn't smuggle anything on a shuttle without the pilot knowing
about it. There was usually no difficulty, as anything could
be smuggled, but it was custom and courtesy to let the pilot know
what it was. You didn't have to share the profits or the cargo,
just the info.
Vinnie got the stubborn look of a little boy who has been
ordered to play nice and doesn't want to. If I had been more
interested in him or his mystery cargo, I would have poked at
the situation until he gave me some kind of reaction. But I wasn't.
I went back to my book, an epic about a portable wormhole or
some such nonsense. Those late twentieth-century writers were
really a trip, and I loved what was affectionately known as "The
Golden Age of Science Fiction," even if they did have most
of the science backwards.
We were there before I finished the book, but only because
I fell asleep in the middle of everything for about an hour. Vinnie
was snoring like a disturbed freight train, his little suitcase
clutched to his bosom like a favorite teddy bear, and the voice
of traffic control came through the crackling radio set.
I flew past the main Martian port at Gernsback and kept on
to Toshiba, a small domed outpost in the central mining region.
I set down at the simple spaceport, got out my paperwork and
woke Sleeping Beauty from his slumber. He snorted and grumbled
and in general made all those disgusting noises that endear men
to the less discerning.
"C'mon, Vinnie," I said, "we've got less
than six hours. I'm going to arrange for a nice bit of return
cargo. You can go play, but be back here with an hour to spare.
That's an hour before lift-off, got it? If you're not back on
time, you don't get paid." Sometimes you had to put it in
terms they could understand.
He nodded and clutching the suitcase, wandered off in the
general direction of the mining operations.
I spent an hour or two negotiating for a small batch of refined
pilium ore from a couple of independent miners and then had a
pricey dinner in the Company casino. I could have gambled away
a year's pay in there, but I wisely kept my wallet shut once I
saw how the tables were rigged. I figured the food was enough
of a gamble for one trip.
An hour before our scheduled departure, I ran all the maintenance
checks, put a couple more items on the "fix it when you get
rich" list, and wondered idly if Vin had loaded his suitcase
with anything dirty or dangerous. Whatever it was, he probably
got gypped, I thought.
At precisely fifteen minutes to lift-off, a mere forty-five
minutes late, Vinnie came loping toward the shuttle, lugging his
little suitcase with both hands as though it were very heavy.
He grinned sheepishly as I held the hatch open for him. "I
hope it was worth it," I said. I didn't really intend to
dock his pay, but damn it, we had agreed on a time.
"Oh, it was," he said. "I guess I won't really
need the pay." He carefully placed his suitcase in a little
recess on the bridge and patted it protectively.
I had never, ever, heard a shuttle rat say they didn't need
the pay. If Vinnie had come down with Martian fever or something,
he was still damn well going to help me pilot back to Mare Tranq.
I eyed him suspiciously. He didn't look sick. He didn't look
anything but pretty and vacant.
I sighed. I did a lot of sighing that trip.
Once we cleared Gernsback and were on auto, I woke Vinnie
up and asked him what was in the suitcase. I had a right to know,
it was my ship, after all.
He took the suitcase out of the recess and carefully opened
it. An egg the size of a football was nestled in an old towel.
It looked like an ostrich egg, only there weren't any ostriches
at the Toshiba outpost. There weren't any ostriches on Mars at
"What is it?" I asked. It had a peculiar pattern,
an intricate lacy swirl of pale blue on its creamy shell.
"It's an egg," Vinnie announced proudly.
"Yeah, Vinnie," I said, not bothering to sigh.
"An egg of what? What thing laid this?" It looked
porcelain. I touched it and it was cool to the touch. It did
not feel alive at all. In fact, it felt exactly like a piece
of soapstone or maybe ceramic. I had the feeling I was looking
at someone's Easter decoration.
"I bought it," he said. "I paid a lot for
it, but it's really gonna be worth something when it hatches."
He was smiling and fondling the egg in its suitcase nest.
I had a sudden vision of someone paying way too much for magic
"Okay," I said, this time coming very close to
sighing. "What's supposed to hatch out of it?" It
looked pretty solid, like the only thing on the inside of it was
more of the outside. "And don't you have to sit on it or
something? You know, incubate it?" If I was going to participate
in Vinnie Cardoza's pathetic attempt at smuggling, I was at least
going to have some fun with it.
He looked at me with those beautiful brown eyes, the ones
in which comprehension was generally absent, batted those perfect
lashes and said, "Uh, I don't think I have to with this one,"
implying there might have been others in the past which required
his incubation skills.
The egg, or whatever it was, sure was pretty. I didn't want
to know how much Vinnie had lost on it, though. Whatever he paid
was his business, bad business though it may have been. I was
about to ask him where exactly he had purchased the little treasure
when the little treasure began to change color.
"Wow!" I said, "Look at that!" The
creamy background was a pulsating red now, and the blue tracery
looked more and more like veins. I heard a humming noise coming
from it and I reached out to touch it. I could feel the vibrations,
but it was still cool, almost cold. It did not feel alive. I
wondered if it might be an electronic instrument of some sort,
or maybe a decorative or ceremonial item.
Or maybe a bomb.
"Oh, shit, Vinnie," I squealed. "Is it a
bomb?" I was a little nervous and excited, but since no
one had ever attempted to blow up a cargo shuttle - ever - and
since if there was gonna be a first time, it would probably be
me blowing up my own shuttle for the insurance, except I didn't
have any, but that's a different story, I wasn't exactly panicked.
The egg cracked in a long, jagged diagonal fracture. The
noise was crisp, brittle, thin, like the snap of fresh potato
chips, and something whitish stuck out of the crack, something
sharp. "What is it?"
"I told you," Vinnie said with his dazzling grin.
"Look! It's coming out!"
It was coming out. The sharp whitish thing was a tooth.
"Vinnie!" I shouted, "What the hell is it?"
"Uh, it's a baby," he said. "I told you."
He hadn't told me squat, but that didn't matter. What mattered
was that the tooth had broken through the colored, pulsing shell
and was making its way up and down the crack, enlarging it. Finally
a piece of the shell broke away to expose a snout. The tooth
appeared to be growing out of the top of the snout. Weird. It
waved back and forth as the snout worked its way out further.
Then a little head appeared. I knew it was a head because,
in addition to the snout with the weird tooth on top, it also
had two little eyes, lidded with translucent, knobby eyelids.
They blinked and the little eyes looked like shiny black beads.
A comb or wattle or something grew up from the head, pink and
wobbly as the head thrashed around.
A skinny neck stretched out and revealed patches of iridescent
green and bits of pimply purple. This was the ugliest baby chick
I had ever seen.
Vinnie made little clucking noises at it. The thing turned
to look at him, and I swear it gave him a look of exasperation.
Then the shell cracked all the way in half and the creature was
completely exposed. It looked tiny and helpless and not too chicken-like
after all. I wondered if it was some kind of exotic baby crocodile,
another species not found on Mars.
Then it unfolded a little pair of wings, shiny and transparent
like a fly's wings, and dried them in the shuttle's stale air.
It yawned, showing a mouthful of sharp little teeth and a forked
tongue. Nope, definitely not a chicken.
"Vinnie, it's a dragon!" I figured dragon rather
than dinosaur, because dinosaurs were one more thing Mars didn't
have. In fact, Mars didn't have much in the way of lifeforms
at all, except for the human colonists, a boatload of bacteria
and a couple of native species of reptiles, including a sentient
aquatic thing that kept to itself in underground streams and the
extremely rare and protected thing called a Martian dragon.
The dragons were also thought to be sentient, but as they
were so rare, no one had had much of a chance to find out. The
Company wasn't interested in scientific pursuit that didn't lead
directly to profit, so the Martian dragons had become more of
a myth than anything else. Until Vinnie got one.
"Vinnie, you can't keep it," I said. I was looking
at a piece of Martian history. It looked back at me and made
a little squawk, then climbed out of the remnants of its shell
and walked rather clumsily around on the shuttle floor.
"He's looking for food," Vinnie deduced, and crumbled
up a bit of chocolate from an old candy wrapper in his pocket.
I knew chocolate could be dangerous to some animals, but before
I could do or say anything, the dragon darted to it and ate it
in one bite. It flapped its little wings and seemed unable to
fly, but it was clear that it was hungry. Vinnie rummaged in
his pockets for more edibles.
The creature ate Vinnie's candy bars and I got some fruit
out of the food locker. It ate that, too, and pushed it's little
snout into the locker looking for more. I gave it a sandwich
and after devouring it, the dragon set about grooming itself sort
of like a cat, only without the fur, of course.
"What should we name it?" Vinnie asked, beaming
at it like a proud papa.
"Nothing, Vinnie," I said. "We can't keep
it! It's endangered! The Company will have our guts for garters
if we try taking this little guy anywhere. It has to go back
to its own planet, for crying out loud." I reset the autocourse
for a turnaround back to Toshiba.
"Aw, c'mon," Vinnie whined. "The guys I bought
the egg from didn't want it."
"What about its mother, Vin?" I asked. "She
missed its birth." I felt sad for the mother whose egg had
been stolen, not that I am naturally overwhelmed with maternal
instincts. I usually find the young of any species, including
my own, to be noisy and smelly.
But I liked the little dragon. It had climbed back into the
suitcase for a nap and was fast asleep after the exertion of entering
the world and eating its first candy bar.
I reached over and covered it up with the bit of towel. It
seemed to purr and I petted its cool, scaly skin as it slept.
It sure was a cute little thing.
"Vinnie, we're gonna be in big trouble if we don't get
this little guy back where he belongs." I had visions of
the Company security forces arresting us. Then I had visions
of the mother dragon coming after us for stealing her baby. I
didn't know which one was worse. I had never seen a Martian dragon
before, and I didn't know how big they got. The mother could
be one big mother.
"Aw," Vinnie whined. "I'm gonna lose a lot
of money on this." His pretty faced pouted
"You'll lose a lot more than money if we don't get him
back," I said. I checked our timer - we had half an hour
to Gernsback and then twenty minutes to Toshiba. Not for the
first time, I wished for a fancy onboard computer that could call
up esoteric information at the snap of a voice command, just like
in the videos. What I had instead was an old version of an encyclopedia
on my disk. I pulled up all the information I could find about
When Mars had first been colonized by Company mining engineers,
a few naturalists had gone along to catalog whatever could be
found. The sentient aquatics were located but first contact with
them was a disappointment. They didn't want anything to do with
us. However, as long as we didn't bother them, they didn't care
what happened to the parts of their planet they didn't use, so
we built the big base at Gernsback and a few little outposts like
the one at Toshiba.
The dragons didn't make themselves known for some time, being
the stuff of indistinct sightings and myth for a few years, much
like the Yeti Earthside. They seemed to live in a particular
area not desirable to the humans for any kind of exploitation.
They kept themselves to themselves, and like the aquatics, were
thought to be sentient but unsociable. That was it. No habits,
language, diet, or other information.
It was strictly forbidden to mess with the natives. The Company
was very concerned about profit, and a native disturbance of any
kind anywhere was cause for immediate Company attention and diversion
of profit. Anyone responsible for such a disturbance could find
themselves relegated to a compost heap on old Earth.
I saw the little spaceport at Toshiba on the screens and set
down pretty far from the other traffic. I didn't want too many
gawkers and lookie-loos to annoy us as we tried to carefully replace
our contraband animal.
Vinnie, whose disappointment about the creature was short-lived
when I explained that he could probably make up his losses with
the pay he'd receive from the shuttle run, held the creature's
sleeping form in the suitcase during our landing, cradling it
so that the little monster would not be disturbed. It wasn't.
It slept soundly through the whole thing.
We did have a little reception party, however. The two guys
Vinnie had bought the egg from were there to greet us, and to
offer Vinnie twice what he'd paid, if we would only give the egg
"No can do," I said to them. They offered more.
Vinnie was about to accept their generous offer when I yanked
him back into the shuttle hatch and explained that we couldn't
give the egg back because we did not have the egg anymore. "We
have the little guy, Vinnie," I said. "We don't have
the egg. They are offering money for the egg."
"Oh, yeah," Vinnie said, with his usual handsome
and completely blank expression. There was nobody home. I had
sighed so much that I was in danger of hyperventilating, but I
sighed again. How do guys like Vinnie manage to stay alive?
Can the "pretty" genes have just as much a chance as
the "smart" genes?
"You stay here with Junior," I ordered. Vinnie
nodded and went to check on the little tyke.
"Okay, boys," I said to the rather shabby pair.
I folded my arms and waited.
They exchanged a couple of meaningful glances. "Your
partner there bought something from us..." one of them began.
They both looked alike to me - worn features, rough hands, dusty
old jumpsuits, faces permanently marked by goggles.
"...and aren't you lucky we decided to come back,"
I finished for him. "Look, you sold him a Martian dragon's
egg, which you know is extremely illegal. He brought it aboard
my shuttle, subjecting me to some pretty severe punishment if
caught. I don't care how you got it, but I do care where you
got it. It has to go back, that much you know or you wouldn't
be here. But here's the deal. I want to take it back myself."
I wasn't a nut-case for danger, I just wanted to see where the
little miracle had come from, and if there was a chance of seeing
the mother without getting fried to a crisp or otherwise killed.
I had been cooped up on shuttle runs for way too long.
The one who had kept silent spoke. "They have lairs,"
he said. "We got it from a lair. I'll draw you a map.
There was nothing else around when we took it, but I've seen
the big ones. You don't want to go in there without being warned.
The big ones can make you . . . do things."
"What kind of things?" I asked thinking briefly
that there had been one or two co-pilots in my day who could make
me . . . do things.
"Just, you know, things," he said. I began to
wonder if all men in space suffered from some sort of brain damage.
He scribbled a map for me, and gave me some general directions.
"Okay, guys, now about the money." Reluctantly,
they gave me two gold credits. I kept them in my open palm.
"Twice that," I demanded. "I have to take the
damned thing back for you." Two more gold credits crossed
my palm and closed my fist. "Thanks." I wondered if
some of the things an adult dragon could make you do was give
back money and get back their eggs. It was likely.
The miners disappeared and I went back inside the 'Linda Rae,'
where Vinnie was rocking the baby in the suitcase and singing
to it. He looked kinda sweet.
I fastened the hatch, put the shuttle in overland mode, and
took another look at the map. We were in the designated location
in minutes, an empty stretch of reddish rocks and dirt with an
impressive mountain range jutting up into the Martian sky. I
handed Vinnie a breather and zipped up my jumpsuit, pressing the
"outside" button on the left wrist for pressurization.
I felt the suit seal on me and put the breather over my head.
The dirt was dry and crunchy under my boots and the baby woke
up when Vinnie brought it outside. A pair of gills fanned out
on its little head and it blinked a few times, adjusting to the
atmosphere. Then it seemed to be okay.
I consulted the map and set out toward the near mountain,
a rough-looking spire that poked up dangerously from the uneven
ground. As we got close to it, the baby became agitated and tried
to jump out of the open suitcase. Vinnie hung on to the little
I had my Glock Stingray on my belt, and it was set at high
stun, in case we ran into trouble, but I had never actually seen
a full-grown Martian dragon before, so I didn't know what to expect.
I guess I reasonably thought it would be a larger version of
I heard, or rather felt, her first, a low humming that seemed
to resonate through my body. The baby was jumping up and down,
flapping its little wings and making noises.
She was much smaller than I had imagined, standing fully upright
at not more than four meters. She had the same general shape
as the baby, but her head was differently colored, and she wore
a crest or crown of some sort. Her wings were small and transparent,
the same wings you'd see on a common dragonfly, and fanned so
rapidly they were a blur. I thought the sound must be coming
from her vibrating wings. She was not threatening in the least,
and when Vinnie set the suitcase down on the ground, the baby
raced to her.
She sniffed at the baby and ran a forked tongue over its little
head. Then she turned to me and said, as clearly as if she had
been speaking Chinglish out loud for most of her natural life,
"Thank you for returning the Prince. My people are grateful."
"Huh?" I said with my usual eloquence.
The dragon made a small bow in my direction. "It is
not an auspicious beginning, but perhaps it is time for our people
to communicate with you more fully."
I got the feeling that this was a moment of great diplomatic
import. Swell. Me and Vinnie, interplanetary ambassadors. The
Company was gonna have a fit.
"Uh, Your Majesty," I said, extemporizing like
crazy, "it's our pleasure to return the Little One to you.
Boy, he sure is cute. I don't know what got into those guys
who stole your egg. That's a definite no-no." I could tell
I wasn't using the best diplomatic language, but the dragon seemed
A few more reptilian heads peeked around the rocks at us and
I saw that there were at least a half dozen adults, none of them
eager to get very close to us. Maybe we smelled bad to them.
The mother continued. "We will make more formal contact
with your leaders shortly, but we would like to request that one
of you remain here with us as our guest until then."
"I'll stay," Vinnie volunteered before I could
stop him. The mother dragon inclined her head toward him.
I didn't like the idea of anybody staying there, but if a
choice had to be made, I'd rather leave Vinnie.
I said good-bye to Vinnie and the mother dragon, and kissed
the little tot on his scaly purple head, then went back to the
'Linda Rae' and flew overland to Toshiba. I queued up at the
spaceport for take-off to Mare Tranq, hoping that the Company
security guys wouldn't catch me flying a load of refined pilium
without a co-pilot.
But I was not so lucky. The Company caught me and I was fined
all the profits of the trip. One more sigh.
In the end, we never did hear any more from the dragons of
Mars. I suspect that once they got to know Vinnie well, they
decided that we weren't really a sentient species after all, and
voted against making any kind of formal contact.
As for Vinnie, well, sometimes I wonder how he made out, all
looks and no brains in a place where his looks weren't worth anything.
Or maybe they thought he was cute, too.
Copyright 1998 by Kate Thornton
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