This is Mr. Goodman’s first sale to SpaceWesterns.com, and we’re sure that there will be more in the future. The Ice Dwarves is about a boy, and his life caring for genetically resurrected mammoths and dodging dragons… but everything isn’t always as simple as it seems, on Pluto. — ed. N.E. Lilly
Sometimes when I’m alone at night, I hear voices, but I never tell anyone. Sometimes they are things I’ve heard people say or words I heard in a movie. And sometimes, it’s like there is this other me talking. Me times 100. I should not have ignored the voices that day.
There it came again like some undead monster clawing its way out of a steep grave. I ignored it, though, just as I ignored everything else that happened around me. I had other things on my mind, like—
Twist. Turn. Bend. Wrap around. Twist. Turn. Bend. Wrap around. I remember braiding wires in the middle of that miserable, cold Plutonian Summer, a 100-year epoch with seasonal temperatures that never reached above freezing. Pluto is cold as a witch’s tit, the students back on Earth teased me before my family moved. Shrink what balls you got to peas, Dad loved to say. That was just like Dad, though, to say something so crass. But the truth was that Pluto would freeze a person to death inside half an hour if they weren’t wearing their thinsuits.
The herd of mammoths milled behind me, rumbling to each other in their resurrected language. Around me circled one of my cyberdogs, Cerberus. I huddled over my other dog, Bigfoot.
“Cut it out, Cerberus. Sit.” The two-headed dog sat and watched the planetarily-transplanted diaspora with a Smaug-like gaze. Stupid dog. Stupid life.
Twist. Turn. Bend. Wrap around. Bigfoot stood frozen in stride, a tumor-like ball of wires dangling from his reinforced carbon-carbon belly. I had almost finished my braid. Could sew up the belly and finish the work tomorrow. Tomorrow is a strange concept on a planet where a day lasts a week. That’s Pluto for you: everything takes forever, including moving on with your life.
I did not notice that the mammoths were milling around the ice plains with unusual fervor. Something spooked them, probably a Polar Bear, but why should I care? I had my head in hell while I tried to fix my dog.
I pressed the comlink on the side of my helmet and waited.
“What’s the matter, boy?” Dad said over the com.
“I wanta leave Bigfoot here. I promise I’ll come back for him later.”
“What if I haul him home and finish him in the garage?”
“Ain’t enough room on your bike for both dogs, and I paid too damn much for them to freeze out there. What if one of the ‘moths decides to gore it? What if a bear decides your toy looks like dinner? You have to consider the consequences, boy. If you cain’t braid wires…”
Not two weeks before, I remember my old man ditching his herd to bet on robot cockfights.
Dad was an expert at making people feel inferior.
“I can braid wires.”
“Watch your tone, boy.”
“Home in one hour.”
Dad loved to censor my every move, then pull the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do card. Not two weeks before, I remember my old man ditching his herd to bet on robot cockfights.
On the other hand, Bigfoot and Cerberus were all I had since we arrived at Pluto five years ago with little more than a few head of ‘moths and the chance for a wealthier life. Notice I did not say “a better life.” A better life implies spiritual revelations, emotional breakthroughs, and other types of lifestyle improvements. But the only improvement Dad focused on was economics. Without the stringent government breeding and processing regulations of other planets, Pluto was a haven for shady ranchers and men of fortune, perfect for raising a family.
Twist. Turn. Bend. Wrap around. Twist. Tu-what was that? I finally looked up. With both heads Cerberus barked for my attention. The herd was moving. I scanned the horizon for any sign of a polar bear, but I only saw a colony of emperor penguins and, of course, more ‘moths. Pluto claims a population of 60,000 people and 60 million ‘moths.
Get that thought outta my head. Why was the herd moving? Dad believed that migration in ‘moth herds was an evolutionary trait developed during the last Ice Age, when mammoths still migrated across Earth’s frozen tundras. Mammoths behaved like sea snails or mollusks living in an aquarium; they still became active at high tide. Now, however, mammoths were the spawn of genetic cloning served up to most household tables; there was no finer steak than ‘moth meats.
“Dad, herd’s moving.”
“The herd shouldn’t be moving. They barely got to the fields.” Cerberus paced, each head darting from ‘moth to ‘moth.
“Check your tracker if you don’t believe me.”
“Course I believe you. Wait there until I arrive, and don’t move.”
“But they’re moving.”
“And you’re staying put, Will.”
I turned off the com. Complained to Bigfoot, “I never get to do anything.” I wished I could sound more like an adult. “That sounds so stupid. I have to be the stupidest sounding kid this side of Neptune…and the most self-critical.” Bigfoot looked at me with all four of his vapid lamp-like eyes and said nothing.
A loud bellow emanated from the other side of the hills. I jumped up. Only one thing this side of the Kuiper Belt could make that sound. The ninth stone from the sun was a commercial breeding ground for two animal species: cloned mammoths, and the genetically engineered dragons.
“Dad, did you…”
So another one of those damn Burton dragons has gotten onto our property.
“Yeah, I heard it. Damn exotic species breeders. Poachers is what they really is, raising biological weapons as pets for the wealthy, pets that usually end up dead. So another one of those damn Burton dragons has gotten onto our property. How the hell are they getting past the fences? I’ll call Boz Burton and have his robots take care of the rogue dragon, but you stay put, and I mean it. You remember what happened to Charlie? Fool thought just ‘cause he wrangled ‘moths that he could wrangle a dragon, and he burned to death in a methane fire.”
“Yessir.” I looked down at the ice and wondered how dragons could eat that disgusting crystallized mixture of water and methane. I supposed it had something to do with the engineering. To create the genetic mish-mash, breeders tossed into the pot the broken ladder from a dinosaur with bird and lizard DNA.
That’s not all we eat. Snips and snails and puppy dog tails…
So that’s where the voice was coming from. The dragon was speaking to my mind. More specifically, it was parroting to me. Dragons did not understand language; however, they did pick up thoughts like a net tower and broadcasted them back at you. In that way, dragons were like giant fire-breathing African Gray parrots.
I suddenly became very aware of how alone and unprotected I was on the ice field. Dad was miles away, and he was probably the closest human to me. Even the herd had moved behind a crater. The dragon bellowed again, but this time the sound seemed much louder and closer. Baser. I could feel it in my bones. I grabbed my binoculars and scanned the region in thermal view, but I picked up only the retreating herd.
I wouldn’t have admitted it, but I was pretty nervous. I rushed to load Bigfoot. Roped him to the back and hoped the bike could handle the extra load. If not, I didn’t give a damn for a dollar, as Dad liked to say. Dad could lash me when I got home. I could hear him already: You are being a coward, Will. A yellow-spined coward who is gonna piss his thin suit. Wouldn’t that be a picture for Mama to clean up? Yeah, Mom, I wet my pants ‘cause I’m hearing voices and I think there might be a giant bird/lizard somewhere. Pass the potatoes.
Unaware of the giant shadow surrounding me, I looked up to the stars and wished I was attending college on one of the storm cities of Neptune rather than scraping for a living in some snow-covered dugout. Maybe Charon could ferry me away, but he never appeared in the sky. As one of the great stupid characteristics of Pluto, its only cool moon remained in complete rotational balance with the planet, so it was always in the same place. And of course, my dad refused to pay extra for land with a moon-view. All I could see was a lot of over-sized pebbles and stars. Gobs of stars. They were a long ways away from me. Then I looked at my feet planted firmly on the ground.
Where are you, delicious? Come to me…
Two slitted eyes blinked up at me from below the ice, and I froze. The nacreous white lizard moved, crawling through the crevices below the surface of the ice. Each of Cerberus’ heads blared an electronic warning.
YOU BETTER RUN!
The dragon roared like a Jovian storm. I jumped on my bike and slammed it into gear as the dragon hammered its horned skull against the roof of ice. On the third hit, the ice exploded and the dragon shot its heavy neck out into the air.
I checked my side-view; Cerberus ran alongside the bike’s blue-flickering flames. I looked behind to see if the dragon had by some miracle turned its attention elsewhere, but as soon as the dragon had pulled itself out of the hole like a massive biological crane, it charged.
I am going to split your bones, boy.
Suddenly, my greatest fear came to life. The dragon spewed methane flames around the bike. One of the birds used in this biological Molotov cocktail was an African bird that would spit up its stomach oils. This was bred into the dragons, who used a chemical equation with methane that it stored in a “second gut” to spit flames. Science sucks.
This was bred into the dragons, who used a chemical equation with methane that it stored in a “second gut” to spit flames. Science sucks.
In this moment of crisis, though, all I could think about was the time I asked Dad about dragons breathing methane. It’s funny how the smallest things enter your mind at the worst times.
I was a little kid, standing in our garage while Dad tinkered with the oil pan for one of his rigs.
“Dad, if on Pluto the ice has methane, and the air has methane, then when a dragon breathes fire, shouldn’t the whole planet blow up?”
My dad knew he’d just been thrown one of those curveball questions parents have no clue how to answer. So my old man pushed on his ratchet until the screw popped loose, then he carefully chose his words:
“It’s not that easy. There is also a lot of oxygen here, too. So if I filled a tank up with pure oxygen, and then I set that tank on fire, it should blow us all to kingdom come, but it won’t destroy all of Pluto’s atmosphere. It’s the same kind of thing with methane.”
“But I still don’t…”
“Besides, there’s not enough methane in the air. The atmosphere generators removed most of it. Look.” He took a big whiff of air and exhaled. “If there was methane, I wouldn’t be able to do that, our herd would be dead, and we would still be stranded on Mars, or worse, one of those damned space stations.”
“I’m busy. Go bug your sisters if you ain’t going to help.”
More flames splashed around the bike, and some singed Cerberus’s side. The dragon was gaining on me with its surprisingly swift thecodont shuffle. I knew if I didn’t do something fast, it would catch me in its talons or douse me in fire.
I was almost to the crater. If I could make it to the other side, maybe the dragon would stop chasing me and start hunting some mothburgers. A ‘moth might die, but I figured I was still worth more than a ‘moth, at least to Mom.
Suddenly, Dad’s truck surged into the plain. He wedged the ten-wheeler between my bike and the dragon. Dad’s old rig was used for transporting sick and injured mammoths, but now it was a giant battering ram.
“Stay behind me, boy!” Dad yelled.
The giant pearl-colored dragon leaped onto the rig and popped the cab open as easy as a polar bear disemboweling a caribou. Dad aimed his sidearm at the dragon and fired three times, but only the second tranq pierced the thick dragonhide. The dragon swiped at Dad, ripping him across the chest. Dad fired a fourth tranq, and the dragon reeled, then slumped down on the ice and snow. After a heavy sigh, it succumbed to the drugs.
“Dad, you alright?” I skidded to a stop next to him.
“You were trying to bring the dragon to the herd?”
Love you, too, Dad. “Did the tranqs work?”
“I hope so. They’re for mammals, not bird/lizards, so I don’t know if it’ll barely stop him or kill him. Just my luck it’d kill one of Boz Burton’s dragons and he’d be all over me. Maybe we can bury it or something before…” Dad looked at me weakly and slumped to the side. “I don’t feel so good.”
His thinsuit was shredded where the dragon had cut him. He was bleeding. The wound was poisoned. I grabbed him.
“Watch over the herd.” Dad’s eyelids began to droop.
“Wake up, Dad. Cerberus, get over here!” The robotic dog jumped to my command. “Give me your re-breather, Cerberus.”
A hutch in the dog’s back opened, and a small gray canister popped out. I tore off Dad’s headgear and strapped the canister to his face. The rebreather had medicines to keep him conscious and an airhole for him to breathe into.
“There are some caves up there,” I told Dad, who nodded weakly.
Ten minutes later, I leaned Dad up against an icy wall. I double-checked on the dragon. Its chest pushed in and out, in and out. I hoped the beast would stay that way. Our tracks and our scents led straight up to the cave. If the dragon woke, we’d be dead center in its crosshairs.
Dad looked a little stronger, or maybe he was just more comfortable out of the wind. “You’re really earning your keep today.”
“I know how the dragons are getting past the fences.”
“They’re crawling in tunnels underneath the ice.”
Dad chuckled. He choked on the pain. “The moon is not made of Swiss Cheese, and neither is Pluto. There are no tunnels beneath the ice.” He breathed deeply and said, “That’s just a myth.”
“But I saw—
“Hush, boy. There’s more important things. Where is the antivenom?”
For looking up at me, Dad did a great job looking down at me. “What good is it that I’m up here if I’m poisoned to death?” He tried to stand, but his legs buckled. Helplessly, he said, “You gotta go back. You have to squeeze the venom from the dragon and bring it to me.”
Dad coughed. He saw the fear in my eyes and said, “I wished there was another way, boy, but there ain’t. I’m dead on the ice without the antivenom. I’ll be okay up here.”
“Maybe we could call for help.”
“Rig’s busted. There’s no way my communicator survived the attack, and your bike’s com doesn’t have the range. Will, you have to get me the antivenom from the dragon’s poison glands. It’s the only way I’ll survive. This is life and death.”
I left him in the cave, but as I stepped out into the cold ice field, my father’s words sent me back to the town of San Malinche, where my father taught me my first lesson in life and death.
If there was a capital to Pluto, San Malinche would be it. That’s not saying much. San Malinche is also the Sin City of this hellhole and the nadir of the solar system. Even the marshals avoided it.
As much as San Malinche is a town of corruption, betrayal, and decadence, it is also a city of the dead. The stamp of death adorns the building doors in the forms of mammoth hides, skulls, and blood. Mostly Mammoth, but human, too. My father brought me with his herd to witness the horror of the slaughterhouse because I had no respect for life. I was seven, and so accountable for such sins.
“I have to get it through your thick skull that taking responsibility for your actions is important,” he lectured me as we entered the town. I sighed at the town. The best architectures of San Malinche were crude sand castles compared to the alphatropolises of Mars. Still, months had passed since I had seen anything more urban than a trade store, so the view lured my focus more than my dad’s animal husbandry lecture. Suddenly, snapping fingers woke me from my thoughts.
“Hey, Neverland! You listening to me?”
“Sorrysir. It’s just that—
“Shut it, kid. You are frustratin the hell outta me. One day you love your gerbil, the next day it’s dead. Do you know how expensive that animal was? It’s not like you can just go out and buy an animal.”
He rambled on about the horrible betrayal I had committed by carelessly killing the gerbil. Of course I knew that for a child, any child, to own a real live pet was extremely rare. And I cried when I found him dead in his cage. But that didn’t matter to my father.
Dad pulled his rig to the side of the road, his lecture out of gas. He handed me a credit card and pointed to a decrepit bar called the Broken Bear. “I want you to stay put until I come back. I have some business to take care of, and then we will see the real value of life and death.
I knew Dad’s business had little to do with anything legal, but I shrugged, took the card, and hopped out of his rig. Behind the rig, I saw the rest of Dad’s large herd waiting with the wranglers. If only they knew their fate—maybe the slaughter didn’t have to happen. Maybe…maybe, I decided, I should go to the bar before somebody decides to cut me open like a ‘moth.
Inside the Broken Bear, I tried to order a beer, but the bartender wouldn’t let me. Not that there was an enforced drinking age this far out in the middle of nowhere; he was just being a jerk ‘cause he knew Dad. I had to settle for soda and crackers.
First, I listened to two whores banter about their problems until I could tolerate it no more. I turned my attention to other conversations. Some people owed money, and that was a bad thing. There was talk of more marshals being reassigned to Pluto, and that was another bad thing. The atmosphere generators—placed on Pluto hundreds of years ago to cultivate a planetary wildlife sanctuary—they were not operating well, and that was a very bad thing. On the other hand, nobody worried about the price of mammoth meat, and that was good. The price had increased as people elsewhere in the solar system craved meat. Cows and buffaloes did not survive Earth’s apocalypse, but neither did the idea of eating emus or ostriches.
Drunken persiflage can entertain a child for only so long, so I left the Broken Bear and wandered around town. I felt certain Dad would be gone for hours while he committed his sin.
Pluto’s state offices were nested between San Malinche’s malls and racetracks as if man’s lust for money and passion for greed would nurture authority (and in many ways I guess they did). Here I discovered Pluto’s Department of Science. The department was short and thin, with no effort put to display it. I might have expected to find bureaucrats and scientists discussing important issues, or at least talking about hereditary defects in ‘moths and transgens (what some people called the genetic hodge-podge that was a dragon). Instead, there was a small ticket booth window and a door to the side.
I handed Dad’s card to the woman in the ticket booth. She handed me a ticket and the card back. I inserted the ticket into the computer next to the side door, and I entered the Department of Science.
Pluto, apparently, is dull, and there is not much to say about it. I got bored after the first exhibit—Origins of Pluto. A faded three-dimensional image showed the birth of the solar system as a voice monotoned, “Most of the planets came from dust circling the sun.” As the planets hung like hunks of meat around the sun, the view moved to the outer solar system and the Kuiper Belt. “Here,” the voice sighed, “a dwarf planet formed out of the billions of collisions of asteroids. People once thought that Pluto was a comet, or that it came from another solar system, but they were wrong. It’s the best-known dwarf planet, and binary system, in the solar system.”
I watched my new home shivering in the dark and felt embarrassed. How could anyone admit to coming from such an insignificant, lawless planet?
“Are we sure that there is no chance that Pluto had a cooler beginning?” I asked the exhibit. Since there was no body to direct my question to, I asked Pluto’s image.
The computer responded: “We have core samples, geological data, etc. There is nothing new to learn about Pluto’s origin.”
The computer then tried to direct me to several other “exciting” exhibits, like “Resurrecting Mammoths: The First Nucleus,” “Noah’s Ark: From the Earth to Pluto” (about Pluto’s first use—as a wildlife sanctuary for endangered arctic species), and one of the most popular exhibits: “Genome Shriving in Transgens.” B-o-r-i-n-g. Everybody on Pluto already knew this junk. I left the Department of Science unsatisfied.
Near the malls I first heard cooing like from a metallic bird, and, recognizing it immediately, I followed it to a dragon vendor’s store. The sign outside his shop read, “Dragon’s Tail” in cursive lights. It was the kind of strip mall store that everybody sees but nobody knows if it is open. Inside, I found Dragon’s Tail was foremost a cheap tourist trap. Faux dragon teeth and polyethylene dragon talons. Pewter dragons. Gaudy keychains. “Your Name Here” mugs. Past all this, though, was the exhibit—the real reason anybody, myself included, visited Dragon’s Tail.
At the far end, inside a large metal cage the size of a refrigerator crate sat a baby dragon. Its eyes bulbous, the scales thin, the undeveloped wings held tight to its body. At that age, I had never seen a real dragon before. Heard them, yes, but never seen one.
From behind the counter limped a large fat man who breathed like he had an iron lung attached to him.
“This here’s Scooter. He’s only 6 weeks old.” The man took a deep breath, then said, “See how blue he is? His scales’ll turn white as they harden. Go on closer if you like.”
“Don’t dragons breathe fire?”
“Ha! If they eat methane. I don’t feed them that crap. Makes them more approachable.”
I walked up to the cage. The baby dragon looked defenseless. It huddled to the far edge, as far away from me as possible.
“It looks so helpless.”
“They cain’t survive out here until their scales harden.” He stopped, took a breath, then said, “The cold is too much for them. That’s why the mama keeps them close to her. They nurse on her warmth as much as her food.”
I reached out to the dragon.
“Hold on there, kiddo. Just because they can’t breath fire doesn’t make them harmless. They have other methods of protecting themselves. More defensive.”
He tapped a sign on the cage, “DO NOT TOUCH THE DRAGON.”
Seeing my disappointment, he asked me, “Want to see something cool?”
I nodded. I might as well enjoy as much of my day as I could. Dad’s agenda would ensure that I hated the rest of it.
The salesman stared into the dragon’s large, swollen eyes and said, “Come on, you piece of wyrm meat. Let’s hear you talk.” The salesman and the dragon stared at each other for a moment. Then the salesman’s upper lip twitched into an almost-smile. It was just the corner of the mouth.
“Did you hear him?” the salesman whispered. I shook my head. I had not. “Shhh,” the salesman instructed. “You have to be quiet, and you have to open your mind.”
He turned off the spinning earring carousel and stared at Scooter again. I concentrated on opening my mind, and I thought I did hear something, but what I heard was neither fashionable nor cute. It was gruesome and mean-spirited. The salesman shook his head, then wagged his finger at the baby dragon. “Naughty dragon. That’s not nice.”
The salesman turned the carousel back on and retreated to his employee’s lobby. Didn’t bother to ask if I wanted to see anything. Knew I was there for Scooter only. I remained at the cage, waiting for the dragon to say something else. It cocked its head at me as if seeing me for the first time. In one step it crossed the cage and wrapped a long-taloned hand around the cage bars. I stepped back.
The dragon looked at me with clarity and understanding in its eyes, then it began to feed me the thoughts it had collected. You are a complete and total failure, the dragon sent to me. You have let down everybody you know.
I high-tailed it to the streets.
The juvenile dragon’s words shocked me like a carnival freak show, but I left satisfied in the belief that the dragon’s words, like the mermaid’s tale or the wolfman’s howl, were harmless. It was getting late, though, and I knew I had better return to the Broken Bear.
He told me that aliens would “claim their just inheritance” and destroy the planet, that they would make a heaven of hell.
Outside the Broken Bear, I listened to a man with a scorched face preach about the end of the world. He told me that aliens would “claim their just inheritance” and destroy the planet, that they would make a heaven of hell. He told me it was true. He had seen them.
“What do they look like?” I asked. He pointed at a smiling man strutting towards us. My Dad’s smile belied his sexual gratification.
Dad asked me, “Did you learn much from the professor?”
“You have a good boy,” the crazy man said, “When the aliens take over, he will make a good slave.”
“Who? This idiot? You haven’t seen him work,” my dad responded.
“Dad, are there really aliens?” I asked as we walked back to the truck.
“Don’t believe a rambling lunatic, son.”
I climbed back into Dad’s rig. “He said aliens were going to reclaim Pluto and wipe us all out.”
Dad chuckled. He circled the rig and pulled himself into the driver’s seat.
“If they had told your great-grandfather that one day there would be mammoths and dragons roaming Pluto in an oxygen-rich atmosphere, he’d a told you to go jump in a lake. He’d a said that dragons were a figment of your imagination, mammoths were extinct, and the atmosphere generators on Pluto would fail. So I’d never say there is no chance of there being aliens. But I’ve never seen anything to prove it.”
If only my father’s mood had stayed so merry, but his joy was stamped out as we drove towards the slaughterhouse. His voice started to echo that dark lecturing tone of his, and his whole body curled into a frown.
At the mammoth pens, the ice changed color. In the city the streets were mostly white and blue with some pink, but at the slaughterhouses the ice turned dark crimson. The alarmed trumpeting of mammoths carried through the air.
Once there, we climbed to the top of a tower where we could watch everything in the abbatoir. “Now watch and listen, son. This is how Dad makes his money.”
Dad’s wranglers had already started to maneuver his herd into the slaughterhouse. This was the trickiest part of being a wrangler, and the most dangerous. The inattentive wrangler could get the bad side of a ‘moth’s tusks or be trampled. Because of the high risk, robots helped the wranglers guide the ‘moths single file into a chute. At the end of the chute was a door. When the door opened, the front-most ‘moth, a giant bull, moved forward. Then the door slammed behind it. A giant robot standing at the far end of the pen with a large glowing staff then thumped the ‘moth on the head. I can still remember the scream of the mammoth. It was electric and shrill, like a rabbit; the kind of scream that a Giant Woolly Mammoth should not make. The sound quivered in my bones. Within seconds the ‘moth was dead, but the bull’s carcass was gored by giant hooks as it continued to seizure. The hooks hoisted the ‘moth to the next station, where blood-stained robots brandishing serrated knives keenly removed the bull’s hide. Further down, the tusks were viscerally chopped from the mammoth’s face. My gut gurgled as the tusks popped from their socket. The mammoth was reduced and minimized at each station, transforming from a hulking beast to a hunk of meat. Trunk, tail, feet, and finally head were all removed. The head slid down a shaft to a different area, where its brains, tongue, and eyes would be prepared as delicacies. At the last station, the actual meat, the part of the mammoth that would be used for steaks, was stripped from the carcass. At the end station, the bones were discarded into a grinder.
“That’s where the bones are turned into dragon chow,” Dad said. My sickness amused him. I could tell. As I stood hunched over, my stomach doing flips, he smiled triumphantly and said, “Bet you’ll never look at a steak the same way, will ya, kid?”
That was the final hair on the mammoth’s back. Soda and crackers erupted over the side of the tower.
“Crap! What’s the matter with you?” My father really had a way for looking after children.
I hunched over and emptied out the rest of my stomach, then Dad took me back to the rig.
“Here, Princess, you wait here while the ‘moths finish processing,” Dad said.
I grabbed his arm as he was leaving. “Let go,” he ordered me.
“Who is she?” I demanded.
He looked at me queerly, as if I was asking him if Charon was a second planet. Realization and anger crept over his face. He growled, “How dare you? Your mother is the only woman in my life.”
“But you left me to…”
“Mother Ma-friggin-Cree. Is that what this is about? Me leaving you?”
I couldn’t answer. I hoped my eyes would say everything.
He climbed into the cab and reached behind the seat. Pulled out a mechanical dog’s head with yellow eyes and put it on my lap like Herod delivering the head of John the Baptist to Salome.
“I won’t lie to you,” he said, and walked off, leaving a seven-year old boy to cry alone.
Cerberus’ yellow eyes watched me as we hiked back through the freezing hell of Pluto’s ice plains. Funny, I thought, that most people think of Hades as a fiery scorched land. To the Greeks, Hades was cold and foreboding; hence, Pluto. My Hades.
The dragon lay on the ice like a silent bomb, but just because it wasn’t ticking didn’t mean it wasn’t dangerous. I took a bag from Cerberus and climbed up to the dragon’s open mouth. A strange energy fueled me. Never before had I been so afraid and determined to finish my task than when I reached into the dragon’s mouth. I had to be careful. The dragon was covered in poison—one slip, and I could kill myself.
The poison oozed from the sides of the mouth and drenched my thinsuit.
It was still alive. Its hot breath permeated my hands. Smelled like gasoline and putrescence. I reached deep into the dragon’s mouth and felt around for the poison sacks. The two organs lay in the back of the dragon’s mouth. Couldn’t reach the sacks. Had to lean against its vorpal teeth and stretch half my body into the dragon’s maw. God, the methane stench. I coughed.
My hands fell on the plump round sacks at the back of the dragon’s maw. This was the source of the homobatrachotoxin that flowed over the dragon’s teeth, scales, and talons. I slowly milked the sacks, careful not to cut myself on the dragon’s teeth. The poison oozed from the sides of the mouth and drenched my thinsuit.
With enough toxin collected, I handed the container into Cerberus’ side. Cerberus began converting the venom while I climbed off the dragon. Cerberus and I returned to the cave unaware that, behind us, the dragon’s tail twitched in the endless night.
Once Cerberus finished converting the dragon’s toxins to antivemon, I fed my father the potent antidote.
He spit some of it out. “God, that’s awful…” His voice slurred. Dad nodded off to sleep. I looked back at the sleeping dragon and could not believe that man could create such a monster. Everything about the transgens was made for destruction. But even more astounding was the idea that people wanted them for pets when the government originally developed them for war. Where ignorance and arrogance meet, there’s money to be made, my dad used to say.
I saw an opening in the back of the cave. Decided to explore it. Flipped on my grip boots.
I felt rotten. I knew that when Dad woke up, we would ride home and tell the family about another great Will screw-up. Once again, I proved that animal husbandry was wasted on me. I had been selfish earlier out on the ice plains. I should not have led the dragon back to the herd. Then I saw something that made me forget all my problems.
I stood at the edge of a deep pit. I could not see the bottom. Dropped an LED into the abyss and watched it recede into nothingness.
Farther into the caves, the tunnels twisted and turned. Gaps flowed like rivers under the solid ice. There was no disputing how the dragons got around our fences: they crawled through the underground caves. More importantly, I felt certain that the enormous gaps proved that Pluto was porous like a comet, not a planet. Pluto was not from this solar system no matter what the Department of Science or my father said. He wasn’t the scientist I was, and he would never be the astronomer I would be, if I ever got off this rock.
The unmistakable sound of a dragon stomping on ice shook the cave. Thinking of my father, I ran back towards the entrance, but Dad was nowhere in sight. Only an irate dragon remained in the cave.
Methane fire sprayed at my feet. With Cerberus at my side, I turned and ran back as the dragon chased me into the caves.
YOU BETTER RUN!
As we rounded a section of caves, Cerberus pivoted.
“No, boy. Come on!” I shouted at Cerberus, but that mechanical mutt stood its ground. Rock and ice crashed around me as the dragon forced its way into the thin tunnel.
The dog opened its mouth and flashed an intense, bright light at the dragon. Blinded, the dragon tried to refocus its eyes, but the flashing would not stop. The dragon grabbed Cerberus in its jaws and shook it like a limp penguin. Then the dragon tossed him against the wall, and Cerberus exploded into a hundred pieces.
“No!” I cried out. I slipped on the ice. The dragon pounced, barely missing me. I flipped on my grip gloves and ran like hell at the pit.
At the last second, I jumped to the side and grabbed onto anything, hoping that the gloves and boots would stick me to the wall. But as I jumped, my legs flew up from under me, and we both slid into the pit. As we went over the ledge, my gloves clung to the ice, slowing my descent. One and a half tons of meat and fang shot past me. The dragon dropped into the abyss, a fiery methane fire illuminating the ossified walls.
I pulled myself up on the ledge and dusted off. I fell a lot further than I thought.
I kneeled down and peered into the deep. The pit wall hung away from me like a 100-year old icicle. Some people fell forever, I thought. Never put a hand out to stop the fall, but kept plummeting like Alice in Winterland.
I had been many things that day: rancher, protector, and even a dragon slayer. It was time to call it a day, but there was only one way to get out, and that was by climbing up the pit walls.
I tapped my boots to release the snow and ice. Checked the batteries in my grip gloves. One last time I looked into the dark Plutonian abyss, then planted a grip boot firmly in the wall.
As I climbed up the pit, I wondered what to tell Dad. My father, who believed in the religion of “Pay up or shut up” and the almighty “What’s in it for me?” My father, who said that dragons would never tunnel under ground.
Left, dig. Right, dig. Push away. I hadn’t scaled ice walls since I was a kid and my parents were a vibrant young couple happy to have a child.
When I had ascended a few hundred feet, I looked down (against my own instincts). The vertigo overwhelmed me. The walls blurred and curved. I looked away, concentrated on the wall, breathed deeply.
The brim of the pit looked down at me like the promised land, when suddenly the dragon roared.
I said, “Dad would never in a million years believe Pluto’s a comet.” Anything to keep the mind off of my ascent. I found it ironic that in a world of dragons and mammoths, Dad could not believe in something so natural. Still, no matter how advanced civilization grows, there will always be the Luddites and the people who resisted advancements and change. These were the people of the Department of Science who believed that there was nothing left to learn about Pluto. Could they have been more wrong?
The brim of the pit looked down at me like the promised land, when suddenly the dragon roared. It came surging from a crevice in the walls below me. Stampeded the vertical, ripped at its sides, and climbed upward, heaving its bloody, steaming carcass upward. I saw death in its glabrous white eyes.
You are being a coward, Will.
I looked back to the ledge. I couldn’t out-climb the dragon. Forget digging and pushing away. I scaled the wall like a spider scampering across its web with no control of its limbs.
A yellow-spined coward who is gonna piss his thin suit.
Parroting Boz Burton was one thing. Parroting Dad was another.
Somehow, I reached the ledge and jumped over. I fell, panting furiously. My lungs were on fire, and my body felt like a blown tire. This had been a day of swimming through avalanches; I was always trapped in the snow. It was one of those horrible barbed nightmares where scarecrows or demons are chasing you, and no matter how fast you run, the monsters just creep closer and closer.
You are a complete and total failure, the dragon sent to me. You have let down everybody you know.
The dragon’s tail flipped up and caught my leg. The ice around me nearly broke off, almost shattered into a thousand pieces. Giant fissures cracked around me and I knew this was death. Then a giant axe swung down, delivering a thunderous cut and completely severing the end of the dragon’s tail. The dragon fell back once more into the abyss, never to return.
My Dad helped me up.
“I was taking the long way round to the rig ‘cause the slopes are gentler. I saw the dragon coming up the side of the mountain. I had to hide, but I grabbed my axe from the truck. Guess I wasn’t too late.”
Later, we walked out of the cave, each holding one of Cerberus’s heads. I didn’t know what to say. I certainly was not going to blabber anything about comets.
“Sorry about your dog, boy.”
“I can rebuild him.”
“I know you can.”
I pulled Bigfoot off my bike. “I know you don’t want the parts to freeze, but it’s the only way home, and there’s not enough room for all of us.”
“Hold up, boy.”
I put the dog down. “Yessir.”
His mouth moved a couple of times before he finally said, “Thanks.”
“Yes, sir.” I waited for Dad to say something more, but he just stared at his hands. I hopped on the bike. Dad looked at Cerberus’s head in his hands. I turned on the engine.
“Hang on. You gotta understand. I know I’m hard on you. Fathers are like that. We want our sons to have a better life, but we want them to work as hard as we did growing up. We want them to earn it like we did. Now I have led my life one way, and there’s a lot of people out there who’d disagree with the way I done it. I don’t want you to be like me. Hell, you’re not, and I’m too old to be trying. It’s like you’re an ice dwarf—you’re in this family, but you’re not of this family. You’re better than me. Look, we’re in Neptune’s orbit. I want you to apply to an academy at one of the cloud cities. A transfer won’t be so expensive. Go there, and try not to be too much like your old man.”
My face became like an ice mask and my mouth immobile. Despite my Dad’s rambling way, he touched me and I felt closer to him than ever before. I tried to break through the ice and say something, when he said, “Now get off the bike, boy. Stay with the dogs, and I’ll come back with the other rig. We can still load them up and be home before supper. Save us from having the dogs freeze.”
I climbed off the bike, and Dad saddled it and drove off. Dad would always be Dad, even on a good day.
I thought of the academies at Neptune. They would be dull compared to my existence in hell. No dragons or mammoths. No more adventures on the ice. I picked up Cerberus’s head and began to braid the wires back to the neck. Twist. Turn. Bend. Wrap around.