There’s another really annoying thing about cities like Minotaur, and that’s that they’re calm places where things don’t happen very often.
Yes, I know, that sounds nice, but it has a few drawbacks. One: governments are fairly static. About half of the government officials currently in charge of Minotaur are probably the same people who were in charge when I left. Two: said officials don’t have nearly as much to do at their frontier or earth-adjacent counterparts, meaning that there tended to be less middle men and higher-ranking politicians took on tasks that they would delegate to underlings in other cities. Three: when something big and exciting and new did happen, said high-ranking government officials tended to jump right on it, personally.
Which all meant that I was in a meeting with the Queen Magistrate herself, and also that I was about eighty per cent sure that she was the same Queen Magistrate who’d dressed me down for that hilarious transport route prank when I was fifteen.
“Tamer.” Her soul is quiet, hidden. Professional.
“Your Majesty.” I swallow around the lump in my throat. There’s no way that the Queen Magistrate remembers my prank all those decades ago, but she would’ve looked me up prior to this meeting, so it amounts to the same thing.
“First, allow me to thank you on behalf of Minotaur for successfully heading off a feral dragon attack, and protecting our city and his citizens. Your courage and skill are admirable. However.” She fixes me with a stern stare, like she’s waiting for me to jump in with an excuse. I wait until she’s ready to continue. “However. Why did you call him back?”
“He needed my help.”
“He could have gotten help when he ran into a city that’s better equipped to deal with rogue dragons.”
“Or he could have headed for one worse equipped than Minotaur, and been a larger danger.”
“You know as well as – probably better than – I that we are the least prepared city in this sector to deal with such things.”
I wait for her to continue.
“This dragon, Laika, caused significant structural damage to two local buildings and put a great many lives at risk. Two of our civilians are currently in hospital due to injuries sustained in the attack.”
My jaw clenches at that word again – attack – but I don’t say anything. My reaction must come through in my soul, though, because Her Majesty narrows her eyes marginally.
“Rasyn and Norlu are in – ”
“Rasyn,” I cut in, “was hit in the shoulder with a small piece of falling masonry, which has caused no lasting damage, and Norlu twisted an ankle fleeing down the stairs in a panic. These are not what I would consider to be notable or significant injuries in the wake of an ‘attack’. With respect, Majesty, a feral dragon came into proximity of this city, and you called a dragon tamer. If you did not want somebody to prioritise taming the dragon, then you should have called somebody else.”
Something shows in the Queen Magistrate’s carefully guarded soul – a flash of surprise. Possibly this is the first time in decades that somebody had treated her with such blatant disrespect. I don’t particularly care. So what if I make an enemy of the government of Minotaur? What can they do, blacklist me for local high prestige jobs? I don’t live here.
Her Majesty’s voice is icy. “The priority of an emergency respondent is the safety of the people in and in proximity to the emergency. When acting in service to Minotaur, you should keep this in mind. I understand that things work differently in Frontier cities, but here, we prioritise safety over action heroics.”
“People in the emergency? People like Laika? You’re telling me I should have abandoned him in space.”
“Yes, Tamer. In this situation, you should have abandoned him in space.”
“Well. Like I said. Dragon tamer.” She didn’t get it, city people never got it. “Any dragon tamer you call up in such a situation will do exactly what I did. We can’t just choose not to prioritise the dragon if it isn’t convenient. People who are capable of making that choice aren’t able to become dragon tamers. Given the situation again, I’d do exactly the same thing.”
The other thing about quiet cities like Minotaur, as I am forced to contend when Her Majesty dismisses me, is that people who are not high-ranking government officials also tend to get interested whenever anything exciting happens. I don’t think I’ve ever had quite this much attention on me before. Minotaur’s being nice about it, but the interest is impossible to ignore, and even the people who aren’t directly paying attention to me (which, to be fair, is the vast majority of them) are often talking about the fight, sharing memories of it, musing on the future. I can’t wait to get back to a proper planet where only about six people give a shit whether I live or die.
News of a feral dragon on Minotaur has apparently permeated the Truesoul, too, despite the city’s terrible connection. I have a message from Tilla, and before I even open it I know what it is. A blurry image of Laika, captured by Minotaur’s monitoring system, with the attached word, Adoption?
I send her the mental equivalent of an eyeroll. Laika will indeed need a new princess, and while it’s not exactly a law, it’s a sort of unofficial rule that if a tamer has an interest in an unattended dragon that she tames, she gets ‘dibs’, or at least gets priority during the compatibility vetting process. We’ve lost many a good dragon tamer that way, and while my total lack of interest in long-term piloting is hardly rare in our ranks, it’s unusual enough that my friends like to tease me about it.
Other messages include a handful of invitations for drink from various distant acquaintances on Minotaur, who I can only assume want to hear about dragon taming in the brief few days that it’s fashionable and interesting, and a conversation request from Ilya. I touch souls through Minotaur.
How did your meeting with the Headmistress go? Did you get detention?
Ilya’s emotions are a little muddied through the long-distance connection via Minotaur, rather than the clean experience that a direct connection would provide, but it’s practically face-to-face communication in comparison to the way we normally have to relay messages through several cities and wait hours for a reply.
Indeed, she made me truly ashamed of my behaviour. Where are you?
Home. Come meet me? How’s your arm?
I glance down at my cast. I’ve had worse. It’ll heal.
You’ve had worse?! You broke basically all of your bones!
Only four bones. I want to check on the dragon one last time, then I’ll come home.
Ilya sends a brief acknowledgement and closes the connection. The dragon dens are only a couple of blocks away, so I walk over. It’s well and truly night now; it’s morning, in fact, although barely, and I’m the only one stupid enough to trudge around on foot in the dark, a lone figure in a pool of streetlamp light that Minotaur keeps conscientiously centred on me.
The den is largely deserted, in terms of dragons. It’s very small, of course – we’re mere blocks from the central government building, which isn’t a high-traffic area so far as space traffic is concerned, so it exists for the occasional high priority private transport or emergency repair job, and only has three hangars. Laika is the only dragon in at the moment, and looks even smaller than usual, crouched in centre of the vast space. An engineer, moving with the sluggish movements of somebody not used to having to stay at work half the night to deal with an unexpected feral guest, is checking something bolted to the back of his head – an EMP suppressor. His wings are bolted closed with tiny clamps, easy for a human to remove but out of reach of his grabber tail, and I know from experience that his thrusters must also be deactivated. It’s always a little sad to see a dragon grounded by force, even when it’s necessary.
I drop down into the hangar and flash my soul at the engineer in greeting. She flashes back; Melu, the senior engineer at this den, apparently. She doesn’t seem old enough for that, but at a den like this, the years of experience and training I’m used to seeing in senior engineers probably aren’t relevant. Usually. Until some frontier dragon tamer shows up and dumps a custom feral with an unknown past into your lap.
“How is he?” I ask, while Laika glares belligerently at me and projects a general desire for me to fuck off.
“Physically, in remarkably good shape.” Melu finishes tinkering with the suppressor and hops down. “Although a lot of this is custom work, not necessarily systems that any of us are trained on. There might be custom pieces that are broken in ways we can’t detect, but so far as vitals are concerned, all we’ve had to do is repair some emitters and largely superficial surface damage.” She watches him a moment, smiling. “He’s beautiful, isn’t he?”
“He really is. What about mentally?”
Melu shrugs “Ferals aren’t something that anyone here is trained to deal with. He seems aware and coherent, but uncommunicative, and I’m not sure if that’s indicative of a problem or if he’s just, you know, upset and traumatised from everything. We’ve got an AI psychologist coming in in the morning, and in three days he’s getting transferred to Talos.”
I nod. Talos is a good choice. He’s a highly mechanised city and a real focal point in manufacture and repair. He’ll have much better facilities and professionals for this sort of thing, and probably the best dragon specialists available this far from the frontier. I lay a hand on his neck, which he allows without any physical resistance, although he flashes irritation at me. Freshly cleaned, his synthsteel scales are obviously high quality, and not of any make that I’m familiar with in sight. They must be from a smaller manufacturer, or perhaps just one from the opposite end of colonised space than me. Clean, the pitting and warping is obvious; was his princess lax in maintaining his scales, or is all of this damage from after she died? How long was he out there alone?
“Do we know anything about the princess?” I ask.
“Well, I’m not really supposed to talk to anyone about that. It’s under investigation with the medical people and all that.”
“Ah, yes, I understa – ”
“So they don’t have a name yet, but they’re running her DNA now so we should have an answer soon enough, Truesoul willing, so they can notify her next of kin. They think she’s been dead for at least a year, but they’re not sure how much longer than that – apparently it gets a bit tricky to time further decomposition after that, and even that much depends on how cold and dry the cabin was kept. The death looks self-inflicted, with the… ah. Well. You saw.”
I nod. I did indeed see. He was alone out there for a year? A whole year? “Do we know why she did it?”
“No idea. Space madness? Laika’s got a tiny cabin; if they were alone out there for a significant period of time, especially if she were prone to psychosis or something… we might know more when they identify her.”
“So there was no obvious external reason to do… that, to herself?”
“Not that anyone’s found.”
“Right. Thanks.” I project Laika a feeling of general goodwill and leave. He’ll be in good hands, now.
Ilya is in her room, shoving random things in boxes as quietly as possible. Dad’s gentle snoring wafts through the wall from the bedroom next door as I help her.
“Why are we packing in the middle of the night?” I ask. “You running away from home?”
She giggles. “I’ve got a job on Daedalus in a few weeks, you know that. I thought I’d take a couple of days to settle into my new quarters. I’ll head out tomorrow. You should come and help.”
“Tomorrow? Why this sudden preparedness all of a sudden?”
“You’re right. It’s not fair of me to pull you away while you’re on vacation. Asking you to spend a couple of days away from Minotaur, in the middle of all this. I shouldn’t have asked.” She grins.
Ah. Alright then. “For you, my dear sister, I will make this great sacrifice and help you.”
“I knew I could count on you. Now go to bed. We’re leaving tomorrow, and I need you strong enough to carry all my heaviest boxes.”
The dragon responsible for taking passengers on the one day journey between Minotaur and Daedalus is Deakin, and he’s very nice, both in terms of personality and amenities. Deakin’s equipped for twenty passengers, and while he’s still much more cramped than I’d expect from a 20-person transport on the frontier (where journeys between ports can take weeks, and people learned early on that you need to provide a lot of space unless you want to risk your passengers developing psychological problems), today it’s just Ilya and myself monopolising the space. While I watch Ilya carry all of her heaviest boxes aboard (I only have one working arm, after all), I ask Deakin for entertainment recommendations and quiz him about the variety of food aboard.
Being a commercial transport used to communicating with a wide variety of people, he’s easy to talk to. He doesn’t ‘speak’ in the human way, but he does respond to a large repertoire of phrases, learned over years of people asking him for things. It’s very similar to the sort of system that you find in an ensouled hotel room or public space, and I suspect that there might be some translation software sitting between us, although I’m not a linguist and don’t really know how to check for that sort of thing.
When Ilya’s cargo is secured, we buckle into the launch seats and brace. The 6 gs of force on launch is never pleasant, and we grit our teeth and hold hands through it until the clear signal is sent and it gives way to the near-weightlessness of space. Deakin reminds us in a rote message to keep alert to his soul so that we can be informed of any direction or acceleration changes and brace accordingly.
“So, you want to watch something?” Ilya asks. “Raid the bar?”
“Getting drunk in a moving dragon is a terrible idea. We’ll run into some situation that needs a lot of evasion and you’ll get slammed drunkenly into a wall and throw up.”
“Watching something it is, then!” She gets that distracted look in her eye that people get when they’re trying to have a constructive conversation with an unfamiliar AI. “Ooh, have you seen Beneath Another Star?”
“No, and I am not letting you talk me into watching yet another romantic comed – ”
“We’re watching Beneath a Foreign Star.” She heads for the lounge, where the biggest screen is, and I briefly debate the merits of starting a battle that I’m guaranteed to lose. No; I need to save my strength for later battles. In ten or so hours, she’ll want to introduce me to terrible music, and that’s when I will need the will to truly resist.
So my only protest as I trail after her is a weak, “We could just watch our own things inside,” as I tap a temple.
She rolls her eyes. “We have access to a screen, and you don’t want to use it? You’re so antisocial.”
“Yeah, well, that’s why I live out in the middle of nowhere,” I mumble, sinking into a plush seat that’s artfully designed so that the emergency safety straps are both readily accessible and almost invisible when not in use. Beneath a Foreign Star flashes up on the screen before us, and several flat, simulated souls light up in my awareness, each flashing the ID of a character.
“The souls are richer in a live performance,” I mumble.
“Well, next time you can hire an acting troupe to come with us.”
The movie is boring. I don’t particularly care. I’ve stopped paying attention five minutes in. “What do you think would drive someone to do that?” I ask.
“To meet up with the wrong blind date? I think it’s just a mistake.”
“No, to tear a pair of levers out of her own dragon and ram them into her brain.”
“Oh. That.” Ilya sighs. “Space madness, I guess? You said that that dragon’s cabin is tiny, and they could’ve been all alone together for, I don’t know, ages. Maybe she just lost it? You see this kind of thing in your work a lot, don’t you?”
I shrug. Princess deaths aren’t exactly rare in my line of work, it’s true, but hardly anyone commits suicide. When they do, they don’t do so inside their own dragon, traumatising him. And they certainly don’t tear pieces out of him to do it. The body had been far too decayed to tell if there’d been other aspects of self-harm, but…
“There are plenty of surer and less painful or messy methods of suicide available in a dragon,” I point out. “The rest of the cabin was as clean and organised as one could expect in such a situation; I’d bet that it was all perfectly maintained when she died. Someone that careful and organised, if they were pushed to suicide – which is very rare, by the way, princesses don’t just randomly catch ‘space madness’ and act irrationally for no reason – wouldn’t do it like that. She was strapped securely in her flight chair, so it must have happened either during a period of acceleration, or when she was anticipating one, and it wasn’t premeditated, or she’d have something else. This was an act of very sudden, unforeseen desperation. Also, you can’t just… rip out levers like that, under normal circumstances. That’s raw unthinking desperate animal strength, ‘a mother lifting a collapsing building off her baby’ kind of strength. Something happened, and it was unexpected, and it made her decide on the spur of the moment that she needed to die that instant using whatever was within reach.”
“I bet it really sucked for the dragon too, huh.”
“Maybe he’ll be able to answer those questions, once the psychologists have had a look at him.”
On the screen, the romantic leads are trying desperately to convince us that upending your whole life to track down someone you met in a coffee shop once is a sane thing to do. I try my best to be interested. Mostly, the scene just makes me want coffee, so I go and make that instead.
Landing on Daedalus is almost a relief. Deakin lands in a fully enclosed and apparently airtight hangar, bids us a cordial goodbye, and reminds us that the air pressure on Daedelus is significantly higher than Minotaur. Which is just proof that we’re so close to Earth, really; no frontier dragon would bother to warn about a city’s air pressure because it’s just accepted out there that frontier cities answer to no one and probably set their air pressure by rolling dice.
Whereas inner cities, I think as I shoulder one of Ilya’s bags and we walk into the airlock, are a lot more standardised, and it makes sense that the people there are less adaptable and resilient. Pressure changes won’t bother me, but most people here might take time to get used to –
“Shana? Are you alright?”
Ilya is asking this because I’ve slumped against the wall of the airlock, gasping and swearing.
“I’m fine,” I gasp, as I ask Daedelus what the pressure is. The airlock dings and opens, and the pressure is, apparently, one atm.
Yes. A full atm. An entire fucking earth atmosphere. Now, I’ve worked in 1-1.5atm environments before, briefly, but who the fuck sets a city that high? Why? It’s not comfortable! Why walk around every day like the air itself is trying to crush you?!
I gather myself (I’ve worked in higher pressures, I can do this) and head out onto Daedelus, the City of Crushing Your Lungs, Apparently. It’s quite beautiful, all things considered. Not nearly so many tall buildings as Minotaur, Daedelus appears to be a living reminder of the planet it oversees; the walkways between the two story buildings are wide and bordered with living plants, the sun easily touches the ground pretty much everywhere, and there aren’t nearly so many transport cables, which is probably why people are walking around on the streets. It looks like some of the nicer frontier cities, except that it’s well-maintained and build with state-of-the-art materials instead of cobbled together out of trash and whatever metals are most easily minded in the area.
The hangar is gated off and we need to pass through a security checkpoint to get out. I could probably talk my way through as a tourist (I don’t have the kind of criminal record that Daedalus is likely to care about), but I hang back and let my sister flash her shiny new credentials for the first time instead. She tags me as assistance and we head on through.
Ilya’s accommodation is a little one-story home surrounded by greenery, in a row of identical homes. It’s hard not to smile at the joy shining from her face and soul at the sight of it. The house is about the size of our family home, which is a gargantuan amount of space for one person, at least by Minotaur’s standards. It has a simple ID lock on the door, not a real AI but enough to stop someone from just walking in and taking stuff; Ilya flashes it and we dump her bag in her entryway. Then she immediately steps outside, not even bothering to look around, and points to the sky.
“Look,” she says.
The Earth isn’t quite like the posters. A lot more of it is obscured by cloud cover (presumably, they take a whole bunch of pictures over a long period of time and then pick the clearest ones for posters), and the parts of the ground I can see look decidedly less green, due to the whole summer/winter thing they have down there. But this is the closest I’ve ever been, the clearest I’ve ever seen it in person. I’ll always be a frontier girl, but even I can’t help but tear up at the sight. There she is; our origin. Humanity’s first city. We’ve discovered and built and occupied so many little satellites out here, and there’s our first, our biggest; the one that we didn’t make, the one that made us. A soulless ball of rock and iron and water that birthed all of colonised space.
“You’ve got a good view,” I say, trying to sound unaffected.
“Everyone has a good view. We’re in geostationary orbit, and Daedalus doesn’t rotate. All the accommodation and most of the human-run facilities are built on this side of the city so that everyone can look up and see Earth at any time.”
“That’s nice,” I say, still sounding totally cool and normal and fine. There are people around, people who are probably going to he Ilya’s neighbours, and I don’t want to get a reputation as ‘Ilya’s sister, you know, the one who broke down crying at the sight of a rock in the sky’. I do a quick scan for souls just to see how many people are in the immediate vicinity, and find something… odd.
Well, not odd. I mean, plenty of people are different to other people, it’s fine, it’s not odd. It’s just that a couple who are sitting on a bench a few houses down and enjoying some kind of hot drink together have prosthetic souls.
I’ve met people whose brains can’t integrate a transmitter before. They’re rare, of course, very rare, but you get all types on the frontier, and those types especially include people with the kinds of disabilities that make life hard in the more social and normative societies closer to Earth. Soulless people are especially suited to isolated and remote work for the same reason that blind people are well suited to work that has to take place in pitch darkness, so sometimes I’ll run into one out on a random monitoring station or something, their location flagged with the same sort of prosthetic that I can detect from the couple; a static soul displaying an identification, sometimes some additional information like a mood profile (updated manually by typing something into a physical interface, not integrated with the person’s real actual moods), and not much else. I certainly never, ever would have expected to see such people here, in the dead centre of colonised space, where I imagine that being soulless would make life very, very difficult.
They look odd, too. Their clothing is strange, which isn’t particularly notable since I imagine that tourists from all over colonised space come to Daedalus, but they’re also quite short, with unusually lumpy faces. One of them has more hair on her face than I’ve… well, not more than I’ve ever seen, you get some pretty hairy people out there, but she’s certainly up there on being among the hairiest. The other, who might be the shortest adult I’ve ever seen in my life, looks to be almost hairless except for her hair and eyebrows. I rub at my own downy beard. Did she shave all the hair from her face? I’ve seen people do that, of course; teenagers exhibiting the latest shocking, out-there fashions, or professionals who need a smooth face for form-fitting facial equipment. But the contrast between the two is very weird.
They notice Ilya and me, and give us a brief, friendly wave. I smile and wave back, adding a soul greeting, before I remember that they can’t see it, then follow Ilya inside.
“Halfkind,” Ilya says before I can ask.
Halfkind? What?! “From Earth?” I ask, like an idiot.
“If you know of any place else where halfkind might be from, I’d love to hear it.”
“They’re from Earth.”
“I assume so.”
“What are they doing up here?”
Ilya shrugs. “They’re probably diplomats? I can ask when I get to know them. Although they probably won’t stay long; our gravity is even worse for them than theirs is for us.”
“Is that why the air pressure here is so ridiculously high?”
Ilya nods. “Halfkind do terribly with air pressure variation. If it falls outside a pretty narrow band, they start to asphyxiate. That’s why you don’t see them in space very much.”
I’d never seen them in space. I wasn’t aware that they even came into space. But I suppose that if diplomacy and negotiation with Earth is going to happen, it’d be here, on Daedalus, the city that exists for that very purpose. So of course halfkind diplomats would need to come here.
It must take so much courage to come out to an environment that you’re so completely unsuited for. So many changes in environment that I’d find a minor annoyance could kill a halfkind.
I’m halfway through helping Ilya lug her stuff to her new home (well, I’m mostly watching her do it – can’t blame me, I have a broken arm!) when something prods at my soul urgently. Someone I don’t know well on Minotaur is trying to talk to me, and I almost sweep it aside with all the other coffee invites and soforth until I recognise the name – Melu, the engineer fixing up Laika. I open my soul to the connection.
Shana. Laika will be transferred to Talos in about 36 hours. He’s demanding to see you again before then.
Huh? All I’d done to Laika was use the memory of his dead princess to enrage him, then disable him. I couldn’t imagine wanting to see someone very again if they’d done that to me. Why?
I don’t know. He’s not particularly coherent on many details, but he’s being very insistent about this.
I check Deakin’s schedule on Daedalus; he’s cleared to make a the journey back to Minotaur within the hour. Right. I’m on Daedalus right now, but I’m heading straight back. I’ll be there in about 24 hours.
I say my goodbyes to Ilya and climb back into Deakin for the long journey back to somewhere with a sensible air pressure. The ride is a bit more populated this time, and I make friends with an old lady who passes the time of the trip telling me all about her job in Earth atmospheric analysis, and before I know it I’m back in the den on Minotaur.
“He’s calmed down a lot since we told him you were coming,” Melu tells me as we head for Laika’s hangar. “I don’t know what you did to make such an impression on him, but whatever it was, good work.”
“Have they found out anything more about his princess?”
“Oh, yes. Her name was Lyllania.”
“They got an actual ID? Already? That’s lucky.”
“It was pretty easy, apparently.” Melu grins. “She was in the local databases. She was born on Minotaur.”
“Huh.” Maybe that’s why Laika had come back here. But there’s no way he himself is from Minotaur, or he would’ve been recognised. So why…?
Laika is lying on his side in the middle of the hangar, significantly more relaxed than the last time I saw him. He opens one eye to lazily track me as I approach and flashes me a greeting that could be loosely translated as Oh, it’s you, the dipshit.
Hi, fuckstick, I reply. You’re ruining another party, by the way. What do you want?
I pause. It’s not a request. The general vibe of the message is that a secret exists. A secret that he has. It’s not quite an offer of information, exactly, but…
Explain, I try.
Laika sends me the location of his access door. There’s something inside him that he wants me to see? Or something on the door itself? Okay. I come closer; he rolls up onto his belly, and I take some level of guilty comfort in seeing how hampered he is by the various clamps and locks on his limbs. If his mood changes (which it might, he certainly isn’t the most emotionally stable of dragons), he’ll have a hard time lashing out to hurt me.
I climb up to the hatch between his shoulder blades. This is a pretty cumbersome task with one arm in a cast, but I strap on my climbing rig (a dragon tamer always carries her climbing rig) and manage it. The hatch is sparkling clean and factory standard, the damaged parts all replaced, the name LAIKA gleaming on perfect metal. I ask for more information, but any requests are just answered with a repeat of the hatch location. Fine.
I open the hatch and drop inside, automatically closing it behind me. The floor’s only three metres down so I don’t even need the access ladder. I half-expect to find a corpse in there, but Lyllania’s body has of course been removed. The parts that she ripped from Laika’s control panel have been replaced with standard factory parts, two small, stylish switches that are jarringly out of place among the unnecessarily long levers and garish lights. The chair has been replaced, as has anything else contaminated beyond cleanability by exposure to a decomposing corpse, the water cycler is full of fresh, clean water, even the food stores and oxygen tanks have been replenished. My heart sinks a little; whatever Laika’s ‘secret’ is, there’s simply no way that there are any clues left in this refurbished cabin. I sit in the pilot’s chair and send Laika a slightly more irritated request for information.
And then I am pressed rather forcibly back into the pilot’s chair by a sudden, dramatic acceleration.
Most people would be very confused by this, but I’ve tamed a lot of dragons in my time. I don’t know how, I don’t know why, but the very securely restrained and sedate dragon I’m inside is very suddenly neither restrained nor sedate, and is in fact taking off at a frankly unwise speed. I don’t waste time wondering how the fuck that’s happening; I immediately buckle myself into the chair, and none too soon, because Laika throws himself to one side to avoid some obstacle or pursuer or whatever and those safety restraints are the only thing that stop me from bodily slamming into the wall of the confined cabin at high speed. I reach for the power to the viewscreens, which work just fine, and then the emergency manual controls, which do not.
Through the viewscreens, I can see Laika shake off the last of his restraining clamps and spread his in-atmosphere wings as he dodges his way out of the hangar and makes for the sky. The den does have security transports for this kind of thing, but they’re designed to stop some kid from taking a politician’s dragon for a joyride, not a feral who seems perfectly content to get us both killed in his bid for the vacuum of space. He activates his hind leg thrusters, which I was sure were drained of fuel, how are they not drained of fuel, how is he doing that, and I brace for the new bout of acceleration and try the manual controls again (no response) as we move ever upward.
Okay. Okay. So I’m being kidnapped. By a dragon. Apparently. I have basically none of my equipment, and I am being kidnapped by a dragon, and for some reason, none of the emergency override controls are working.
Okay, fine. I can ground him with the emergency shutdown. But not within Minotaur’s gravity well; the last thing I want to do is crash-land us both into a random building, killing us both and possibly multiple civilians. While Minotaur shrieks an alarm and emergency services ask me what the fuck is going on, I try to stay calm and focused and watch our altitude tick higher, higher, higher. If I wait until we’re on an escape velocity from Minotaur and then pull the shutdown, we’ll drift in a nice straight, predictable line, nice and easy for emergency services to pick up. Which is a much nicer plan than, you know, the death one.
Laika gives one last burst of speed and passes through the atmospheric shield, shorting out the cameras for a few seconds. They come back on in the starry expanse of space, and I pull the emergency shutdown.
It doesn’t fucking work.
Stop! I tell him, which is of course ignored. Take me home! I try. Ignored. As we fly further and further from Minotaur, my pleas get more desperate until I’m just sobbing in my seat. Laika pays me no mind.
This isn’t a cause for panic. I might have no equipment and no space suit and I’m at the mercy of a feral dragon who’s dragging me off to who knows where, but I’m also in a freshly stocked and refurbished cabin with plenty of food, water, power and air. Minotaur knows what just happened, and soon everyone else will, too. Laika doesn’t seem to want to kill me (I’d be dead already if he did), so I just have to hang tight until some emergency response team or other picks me up, which should be… anything from a couple of days to a couple of weeks, depending on just where Laika is going and what cities we’ll be passing.
I don’t need to panic. This is embarrassing, but I’m not in any real danger.
Laika is, though.
They’ll decommission you for this, I point out. Nobody tolerates dangerous rogue dragons. They’ll decide you’re too dangerous for service, and kill you.
Either Laika doesn’t care, or the concept is too complicated for me to get across. Either way, his response is just a flash of dismissal.
Why? I try.
Secret, he says.
Laika doesn’t respond. Not with his soul, at least. Instead, he turns every single one of his external cameras to point at the same region of space, unfurls his massive solar wings, and glides on through the void.