by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, March/April 2017
“Can you breathe fire if you eat rocket fuel?” asked Alison, the captain’s five-year-old daughter.
S’lisha drew a deep, calming breath through her scaly nostrils. She didn’t understand why humans brought their children on spaceships. Her species kept their larval offspring in caves on their home world until they matured and their adult scales grew in. They didn’t feel an obsessive need to keep the grubs nearby. Or to pawn them off on lower officers for “babysitting.”
“Can you?” Alison demanded.
“No,” S’lisha grumbled, watching the pink-skinned primate grapple with the controls for the hatchway into the shuttlecraft’s small engine room — where the child probably imagined the “rocket fuel” was stored. Fortunately, the controls could be locked from the shuttlecraft’s main dash. “I told you, I’m not a dragon.”
“You’re a boring old alien.” Frustrated, the child started kicking the hatch door.
“Stop that!” S’lisha roared, her reptilian voice like metal scraping against stone.
The human child stopped kicking the hatch door and stared at her. She tilted her small oval face to the side. “Can you breathe fire if you get angry enough?”
S’lisha wanted to claw the child’s little face off, but the captain wouldn’t like that. And she needed this job. She just needed to put up with the child for another hour while she finished cataloging the asteroids here for mineral deposits worth mining. Then she could fly the shuttlecraft back to the main ship and dump the human larva back into the hands of her usual caretakers.
Children didn’t need “field trips.” They needed quiet caves to mature in.
“Here–” S’lisha shoved the knapsack the child had come with towards her. “Use your art supplies. Draw an asteroid.”
“They’re boooring gray.”
Cataloging asteroids could be soothing work — her only break from working with mammals day in and day out. It wasn’t with Alison along. “Paint them whatever color you want.”
Alison brightened at that suggestion, and S’lisha had time to run several more scans before she realized Alison wasn’t coloring in drawings of asteroids on her art tablet — she’d begun painting on the side viewscreen.
S’lisha roared, much like Alison imagined an angry dragon would roar. Alison clapped and cried, “Now breathe fire!”
S’lisha could not win with this child. She needed a way to contain her grabby little arms and kicky little feet. There weren’t a lot of options in a Class Z shuttlecraft. Looking the shuttle over, S’lisha’s slitted eyes landed on the airlock.
“Have you ever played spacers and dragons?” S’lisha hissed the words — soft and deadly like silk tearing on a knife.
Alison put down her paintbrush, dripping yellow blobs on the shuttle’s floor. “No… How do you play?” She sounded excited, hopeful.
“First, put on your spacesuit.”
S’lisha had to help Alison get her arms and legs into her custom child-sized spacesuit. Once it was safely sealed — child-locked so that Alison couldn’t accidentally depressurize it — S’lisha said, “Next, you hide in the airlock.”
“Hide from what?” Alison’s voice, broadcast from her helmet, crackled over the ship’s speakers.
S’lisha raised her scaly arms and spread her vestigial wings in a way that she thought Alison would find appropriately frightening and said, “The scary DRAGON!”
Alison doubled over laughing, the sound tinny and staticky over the ship’s speakers. Finally, she pulled herself together and said, “Okay!”
She climbed into the airlock all on her own. The smooth walls of the airlock cradled her like a larva cave. She didn’t balk at all when S’lisha sealed it around her or cycled the atmosphere out.
She did start to scream when the outer door opened and the shuttlecraft began to accelerate away from her. S’lisha assured her over the radio, “There’s nothing to fear. I’ll be back for you in an hour or so. And you’re very well hidden from any dragons.”
S’lisha turned down the sound of the speakers as she piloted the shuttlecraft away from the furious but safely contained child, floating among the asteroids.