by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Daily Science Fiction, June 2017
Chorif’s round feathered face stared down at the contents of the cryo-pod, and her wide copper eyes narrowed. She had been expecting to find valuable cargo for salvage; instead, all she saw was a squirmy green-fleshed larva, about the length of Chorif’s upper wing.
“Anything in there?” Amy called out. She was another space-wreck scavenger.
Usually, Chorif didn’t like to share her finds, but Amy’s cruiser had arrived seconds before her own at the charred remains of this shuttle, smashed into asteroid 835. So, Chorif had puffed up her breast feathers, squawked a good story about avian authority in this sector, and been relieved when Amy agreed to share the find rather than insist on her rightful claim.
“It’s just a larval version of the lepidopteran aliens who owned this vessel,” Chorif chuffed.
“It’s their kid?” Amy said, pushing Chorif aside to see the larva for herself. The pink skin between her small blue eyes creased. “Damn. An orphan now.”
Chorif grasped one end of the cryo-chamber with her strong, lower wings and said, “You want this? Or can I have it? Either way, it’s a heavy piece of equipment, so we should move it together. We can dump the larva out and leave it in the wreckage.”
“Are you kidding?” Amy said.
Chorif’s owlish eyes blinked. “No? I mean, it won’t be dangerous to us. Look at it.” Following her own advice, Chorif looked down at the helpless green caterpillar-like thing again. It kind of made her hungry. If it were smaller — say, only a talon’s-length long — and she had a whole bowlful of them…
Chorif clacked her beak hungrily.
“It’ll die,” Amy said. Chorif wasn’t terribly familiar with human tonal communication, but Amy’s voice had raised in pitch and taken on… an irritating quality.
“If you’re worried about cruelty,” Chorif conceded, raising a talon toward the larva, “I suppose I can kill it now so that it won’t suffer from starvation.”
Before Chorif could close her claws on the larva, Amy’s pink skinned fingers darted out and scooped it up. She cradled the caterpillar-like creature in her arms, rocking it and making low cooing sounds to it.
“Such smooth skin,” Amy said. Looking up at Chorif, she asked, “Is this really a larval version of the aliens we saw crushed in the cockpit? It’s going to grow huge, colorful wings like that?”
Chorif nodded, unsure what was happening here.
“Amazing,” Amy breathed, staring down at the caterpillar-creature in her arms again. “You’re going to be beautiful,” she said.
Was the human actually talking to the infant larva? Amazing, Chorif thought. Apparently, the human valued this alien baby. How odd. Suddenly, a thought struck Chorif: “Hey, I’ll trade you the larva for the cryo-pod.”
As addled as the human seemed by the presence of an alien baby, she still shot Chorif a look that meant she could see right through that gambit. “No doing. You were going to leave it here, so I get it for free. Trade something else for the cryo-chamber.”
Chorif grumbled. She was really off her game today.
But at least she wasn’t as crazy as this human.
Amy wandered out of the crashed ship’s cargo bay, back to the docking port, and onto her own ship where she called up a viewscreen and immediately sent a vid-message to Crossroads station, all while bouncing the squirming larva on her hip: “This is Salvager 41, and I’ve found a survivor in the wreckage on asteroid 835. An infant. Could you search the databases and send me any information about whether anyone’s looking for this infant? Anyone I can return it to? Any information about custody, really. Thanks and out.”
Chorif chittered. She’d followed the human out of curiosity, and now it all made sense. “You’re going to hold it for ransom?” she asked, admiringly.
Before Amy could answer, the viewscreen lit up with an image of a reptilian alien. “Salvager 41, we’ve checked the records, and the crashed shuttle on asteroid 835 was registered a Lei-ca-thor, a species that doesn’t have a centralized representation in the Expansion. They show up as traders and cargo-haulers occasionally, but there’s no one for us to contact regarding this matter. If you bring the infant to us, we can enroll it in the fosterage. Otherwise, under salvage rights, you can claim it as your own. However, you will be expected to pass several examinations regarding your fitness as an adoptive parent to an alternate species before the arrangement can be made permanent. Over and out.”
Chorif chuckled at how the human’s plan had back-fired on her. The upward curve to her fleshy lips was clearly an expression of her disappointment.
“I think I’ll name you Lee-a-lei,” Amy said.