Vinnie's Cargo

Vinnie's Cargo

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 half mine.

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 for Toshiba.

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, I thought.

"But, Vin, you could have filled the suitcase with something, sold it in Toshiba, then brought back whatever you wanted in it. See?"

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 extinction.

"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 back?"

"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 all.

"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 beans.

"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 Martian dragons.

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 back.

"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 tyke.

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 the baby.

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 to understand.

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

Aphelion's Lettercolumn

Return to the Aphelion main page.