I ran a contract rust-bucket from the big lunar base at Mare Tranq to Otherside Station on, you guessed it, the other side of the moon. It was the sort of exhilarating job one normally associates with snoring, since the main excitement was greeting a batch of dull-headed miners, ferrying them either to or from their place of employment, and then doing it all over again. Ad infinitum. It was a chance to see the same two places repeatedly until they started to look exactly alike.
And the pay-- why, you could almost afford enough to eat on the magnificent salary paid to shuttle rats.
About the only thing the job had going for it, besides being steady employment in a place where the unemployed were shipped back to earth for compost, was the chance to make a few bucks on the side carrying exotic cargo for the very rich and/or very perverted.
So how could you blame me for taking the bait?
Mare Tranq had one advantage over Otherside and that was the fact that it was the oldest and most wide-open of the lunar settlements. It was practically a city, for Chrissakes, with buildings that had floors above and below the lunar crustline. And businesses - not everything in Mare Tranq was owned and operated by the Corporation. Independent operators of every sort could be found in the twisting alleyways and dimly lit sex parlors.
"Hey shuttle rat, how's about a business deal?" This from the hulking form of a recent immigrant from earthside. I didn't look at him too closely.
"No, thanks," I said. I had an appointment to get some almost decent food and nothing was going to get in my way.
"Well, how about I throw in something extra?" The
voice sounded pleasantly accommodating, and I could have used
the money, but the body that went with it had moon-smell, that
peculiar body odor earthsiders develop before they learn to bathe
with the limited water supply. I gagged and tried to pass him
but he blocked my way.
"Hey! Maybe we could talk about a little cargo transaction.
Where you run?" The questions sounded like a formality.
This guy looked at me as if he were comparing me to a recent
I breathed through my mouth. "Otherside."
"Shall we find someplace cozy to talk?" His eyes sparkled with anticipation.
"No." I'm always open to business except when I'm hungry and it stinks. I turned around and started heading purposefully toward Wu's Kitchen, the lunar equivalent of Chinese food, equivalent being a very loose term in Mare Tranq.
"Wait! I can pay you a lot!" The voice now had a desperate edge to it and the sparkle had turned to panic.
I stopped, turned around, held my nose, and said, "Look. I don't mind talking business but I am hungry and you smell bad. So I'm going to get some food while you either go get a bath or otherwise disappear. If you opt for the bath, there's a public bathhouse two streets over and I'll be at Wu's Kitchen for at least an hour and a half. Otherwise, nice talking to you and get lost."
He blushed, no shit.
Public baths aren't cheap, and as I sat at a corner table at Wu's and poured a little more Sirichie hot sauce over noodles of suspect origin, I figured the guy wasn't going to waste good money on a bath. Most of 'em didn't.
But as I sipped the grain tea while deciding between sweet-and-sour-mystery meat and household pet-kung-pao, I saw him. He was still bulky, too much so for most lunar professions, but he was dressed in the usual jumpsuit of a native and looked freshly scrubbed. His shining face was shaven and I could almost smell the soap over Wu's combination of garlic and disinfectant.
He caught my eye and grinned, then raised his left arm, dramatically sniffed his armpit, nodded approvingly and waltzed over to my corner. "I smell great!" he announced. "Now can we talk?"
I gestured with my chopsticks to the chair beside me. My mouth was full, so I just nodded, swallowed and smiled. I had never, not once, had anybody go to the expense of a bath just to talk.
"So what's your deal?" I asked cautiously.
Okay, I wouldn't have been interested in anything too dangerous or too illegal or too immoral. That last part means anything that would turn my stomach. But if it was something just slightly one or the other and paid handsomely, well, then, show me the deal. And I wanted to know why he had gone to the trouble of a bath just to talk to me. There were hundreds of other shuttle pilots around who wouldn't have been quite so picky.
He looked at my food, waved the waiter away, and leaned in conspiratorially. "I need someone who can fly to Otherside and take something in for me without attracting a lot of attention, someone who comes and goes unnoticed."
Well, it was certainly flattering to know that even complete strangers considered me unworthy of notice.
"What is this something?" I asked, ignoring the compliment. "Just generally, I mean, don't get too specific." If it was something really bad, I didn't want to know the details.
"My sister," he said. He smiled a sweet smile. He wasn't too bad looking, if you got over that moon standard of good looks that demand human beings weigh thirty percent less than the insurance tables hope for.
Wait a minute. This guy was willing to bathe in order to talk me into flying his sister to Otherside. Commercial Corporation hops were available to Otherside, new shuttles with all the modern conveniences, like upholstery and a working bathroom, and as long as she was even remotely human, she could get a ticket, fly in, and go unnoticed. You didn't need a rat like me flying on an expired transport license in an ancient can of bolts and duct tape.
"So what's wrong with her?" I asked. It wasn't polite, but it seemed nicer than asking him right out what was wrong with him. Like where was his brain, for starters.
"Nothing. A skin problem," he said. "Let's just say she's a little different from most of us, but not too different. I just want you to take her to Otherside where she can catch a freighter to the Mars Colony. Look, I'll pay you two thousand credits to get her to the freight dock safely."
"Okay," I agreed instantly. Two thousand credits was more than I saw in a year, even with a little guns and liquor on the side. "Gimme your ID and I'll check you out," I said. Even for two thousand credits, I couldn't take stupid chances.
He took a plastic card out of a case which held others and slid it over to me. I glanced at it. In big embossed letters it said, "Dayton, Buster Pagliacci." The middle name at least should have impressed me, but it didn't. Once again I marveled at how parents can make their childrens' lives a living hell by saddling them with stupid names.
I punched him up on my handbag computer. Buster Pagliacci Dayton was a real person. His residence of record was on Earth, in Los Angeles. He was licensed to drive a land vehicle, a light fixed-wing aircraft and a boat. His location was listed as his Earth residence, so no one knew he was in Mare Tranq. He was forty-seven years old, looked like his identipic, and had only one outstanding felony warrant. For kidnapping.
I punched up the details on the warrant and found that my erstwhile business partner had kidnapped a girl from the Corporation-run National Health Institute's Palos Verdes Facility. No further information was given about the girl, odd in a kidnapping. I mean there should have been a description or a picture or something, just in case someone saw her. Or a name, maybe, at the very least. Weird.
Okay, Buster Pagliacci wanted me to take his kidnap victim to the Mars freighter dock without anyone, like the cops maybe, finding out. It sounded like something I didn't want to get mixed up in.
"Hey, Lizard Breath!" I heard the friendly voice of my sometimes-co-pilot, Ndoro. He pulled up a chair and eyed Buster. "Who's the big guy?"
Ndoro used to be one of the Corporation's rising stars, an Academy graduate with all the right genetic bells and whistles. Then one day he discovered he couldn't take orders any more from a bunch of balding, paunchy old men whose main task in life seemed to be giving him senseless missions. He walked out and came looking for a job in the underbelly of the transportation world. And no one would hire him because no one trusted anyone who came from the Corporation. But I took a chance, even if he was a mite dim sometimes, because he was a fine pilot and extremely good looking in an exotic way.
He rode shotgun on nearly all of my flights except the ones where I didn't want to share the loot.
"Take a look at this," I said, motioning toward Buster Pagliacci Dayton's files. Buster sat in silence.
Ndoro peered at the computer. "Yeah," he said, "I heard about this. Some guy snatched a girl from the Corporation's NHI research facility. There's talk on the street that she might have been carrying some kind of a plague or something. You know, a walking bio-weapon. They're lookin' all over Earth for that guy, only if she was carrying anything really dangerous, he's probably history."
I put the ID card and the computer back in my purse. "Meet Mr. Dayton, Ndoro. He's not on Earth and he's not history, he's our new client. And I think she's our new cargo. Ready for another run?"
"Are you nuts?" he asked. "No amount of money would be enough to transport this kind of cargo! What if it kills us?"
"Two thousand credits. Usual split, sixty-forty?" Eight hundred was more than Ndoro had seen in his entire career, short though it may have been. He thought for a moment.
"Okay," he agreed amiably, "but we gotta check out the kid. I don't wanna mess with anything like viruses or bacterial infections." Ndoro grinned, showing a set of very even, very white teeth against very black and perfect skin. Did I mention that he was built like a brick space station?
Mr. Dayton smiled back, then flagged down a waiter and ordered a bowl of hot steaming goat custards or something, I don't know what.
Ndoro moved close to Mr. Dayton, too close for politeness even in Mare Tranq. I knew he wanted reassurance about the kid.
The goat custards arrived and Dayton sniffed at them, then pushed them away and folded his hands on the table like an expectant child, smiling.
I sighed. "Okay, first off, Mr. Dayton, how'd you find me?"
His smile turned into a grin. He looked at Ndoro and said, "You both were very highly recommended. I spoke to a friend of yours who said you two were the best. He said you guys could fly anything that moved and you were always looking for a little extra work. He also said you were discreet and of high moral principles."
Ndoro frowned. He doesn't like it when people make fun of him. "Who?" He asked tersely.
Dayton looked back at me. "Why, your friend, Mr. Snipely. Lester Snipely."
Ndoro rolled his eyes. Lester Snipely was an ex-pirate we had captured some time ago, back when Ndoro and I worked for The Corporation, in our fatter days. After we had let him go, Snipely married the cargo we were carrying on that trip, namely a Mare Tranq-bound madam named Big Red. We kept his hot little cruiser in case we wanted to do a little pirating on the side for ourselves, but after The Corporation canned us, we had to sell it. It's a long story, not a good one.
"How is old Spray Gun?" I asked. That was Lester's old pirate monniker, Lester Snipely being a bit wuss for a pirate.
"Oh, he's doing fine," Buster Dayton replied. "The business is booming and the missus credits you with turning their lives around. You were pretty easy to find once I knew what to look for-- and where."
"Okay, how'd you meet Lester?" Ndoro's voice was soft, but had an edge to it. Most people answered his questions on the first try, not realizing how dim he really was.
Buster gave Ndoro a thin smile. "I used to date his sister. We kept in touch." It would be easy to give the Snipelys a call and find out.
"Okay," I cut in. "Your ID checks out, but there seems to be a little problem with your, ah, rap sheet. According to the Corporation authorities, you kidnapped a girl from the National Health Institute in Palos Verdes. So how'd you get her here? Who is she? And what's so wrong with her that they won't even publish her identity on the net?"
Buster Pagliacci Dayton didn't say anything for a few minutes. Ndoro leaned back in his chair and cracked his knuckles, an infuriating habit I had tried to break him of on short flights. Buster silently weighed the alternatives and sighed.
Ndoro sat up. I signaled the waiter who brought us a pot of tea, maybe even the real thing this time, and motioned for Buster to get comfy and spill the beans.
"I grew up outside of Los Angeles," he said and Ndoro shifted uneasily. He didn't like those James Michener-type tales that started with the formation of continents on the earth. Cut-To-The-Chase would have been his middle name if he'd more than one to start with.
Buster got the picture and shortened it up. "Anyway, my sister and I had the usual Earthside childhood, then went to local colleges. I went into ergonomic design, and Lag studied marine biology."
"Lag?" I asked.
"Marine biology?" Ndoro asked.
"Lag is short for Lagrima Christi, you know, Tears of Christ." He said this as if I really should have known it, as if it were really a name. Wasn't "Buster Pagliacci" enough? They had to load the daughter up with weird name baggage too? And wouldn't "Christi" have been the logical diminutive? Some people should need a license to breed.
I shot Ndoro an exasperated look. He knew marine biology meant fish, not guys in uniform.
Buster ignored him. "Anyway, I went to work for a design firm in Los Angeles and Lag got a job with the Corporation and the next thing I know Mom's calling me up and telling me there's been a terrible accident and Lag is dead."
I let my tea get cold. Buster had my attention.
"But no body showed up. I mean none. And the announcement letter was a little odd, too. The Corporation expressed their regret that Lag had suffered a 'terrible accident,' but they didn't say what it was, and no one would give us any information. The whole thing was screwy." Buster shifted in his chair. The one-sixth gravity must have been a blessing to someone of his size.
"Anyway, I knew it couldn't be true. Lag was just too careful for any accident. I figured they must have done something to her. So I did a little snooping around."
I could picture Buster snooping around a high-security place like NHI. They must have bounced his fat ass out of there quicker than you could say Top Secret Government Research.
"I bid for a contract there and got in through my business," he said modestly. "They needed an ergonomic overhaul in the offices. Lots of secretaries had been out with minor work-related injuries and they needed someone to redesign the administration areas. I bid way low just to get in there."
I stared at Buster with admiration. That was a neat trick.
"Anyway, I found out where Lag had been working, but her personnel files were gone. I poked around and found out about a lot of stuff they might have wanted to keep quiet, like how many of their people have died or disappeared or whatever recently."
"So how many?" I asked.
"Twelve in the last two months," he replied.
This was not a significant dip in the overcrowding on Planet Earth, I admit. It would take a cataclysm to even get the numbers down to something conceptually manageable. But for a Corporation research facility, it was pretty high, say in the panic zone.
"And they all worked on the same program as my sister," Buster said.
"So, how'd you decide she wasn't dead after all?" I asked. I was intrigued. Dead was easier, dead was more final. Missing was messy and meant that they needed to keep her alive for something, maybe something really creepy.
"I dunno," Buster confessed. "It was just a feeling. Anyway," he continued, "I scoped out the floor plans of the place and figured she must be in the special ocean project wing somewhere, since that was where she worked. From there it was easy. I had the run of the place during the day, installing furniture and measuring and everything, and I just narrowed it down to a couple of areas. Then I broke in and grabbed her."
He made it sound easy, but the sweat was shining on his face, and Wu's wasn't particularly warm.
"What about the others?" I asked. "The other people who had disappeared on the project."
His face flushed then went pale and sweat ran down one side like a tear. "I-I couldn't, they were, uh, uh. . ." he stuttered. "They were too far gone. I couldn't take the chance. I had to leave them."
"What was the matter with them?" I asked. "You know, I'm not going to transport anyone with a plague or anything," I stated flatly, in case I had not made that absolutely clear.
"No, no it's not a plague," he said quickly, "it's nothing like that. It's more like, well, adaptations, sort of. I guess I better let Lag tell you about it."
Ndoro was frowning. "No plague?" He asked. He was fearless except when it came to viruses. They scared the shit out of him, just like everyone else. He looked like he might back out of the deal.
Buster shook his head. "Nothing like that," he repeated. "No danger to us at all, in fact." He sat smiling, hands still folded atop the table.
"Okay, Buster, you're on," I said making the kind of snap decision that gets whole civilizations wiped out. Buster grinned and wanted to shake hands, something I hadn't seen in years. We don't shake hands in space-- it's unsanitary. "Half up front," I said, "and half on delivery. And if you lied and she's infectious, you don't live long enough to pay the second half. Fair enough?"
He nodded, and took out a wallet stuffed with Corporation notes. He counted out a thousand.
"Meet us at the shuttle dock, down at the far end where the contract ships are, tomorrow morning at two. And try to look normal, I got sixteen miners going back to Otherside from a weekend in town here."
Buster picked up the check and Ndoro and I went back to my overnighter.
"I 've got a bad feeling about this," Ndoro said as I counted out his share of the advance money. "He ain't told us everything."
"We don't want to know everything, remember? We already know way too much to lie under the needle." I always preferred plausible deniability, especially where the chemical truth-getter drugs were concerned, but that was unfortunately impossible now.
We slept in my overnighter for a couple of hours, then I packed my few belongings and we checked out. Ndoro and I walked in silence through the dark alleyways to the shuttle dock. The big commercial shuttles were brightly lit, with gleaming paint jobs and crews of busy workers all over them. Next to them were the transport shuttles, big cargo runners that didn't carry passengers, not as fancy, but still impressive. Then there were the private shuttles, small, sleek and expensive. Finally, there were the contract shuttles like ours, old, peeling, rusting, held together with whatever was handy and would work. The 'Linda Rae' looked like she should have been scrapped for parts back when the parts were still worth something.
Ndoro did the safety checks and the mech checks while I straightened up the interior a bit. We could carry twenty passengers, plus ourselves, but the accommodations were anything but plush. The steel seats were welded to the deck and the restraints were wide straps that had frayed in a few places. My expired operator's license hung over the hatch to the bridge cabin.
My miners were scheduled to show up at two-thirty, but I wanted to be sure Buster and his sister were safely on board and bundled up first. At two o'clock, they arrived, the sister wrapped in a long cloak with a high collar and matching hood that hid most of her face. She was diminutive, at least a foot shorter than Buster, and didn't say a word. Buster ushered her on board and they made themselves as comfortable as possible in the back.
"Hey, Buster, are you going with us?" I was a little surprised. I thought he was going to deliver the cargo and take off. "'Cause if so, the price just went up. You're a wanted fugitive," I reminded him.
"I'm going with her," he said stubbornly. "I'll pay you an extra thousand."
"Okay," I agreed. Ndoro didn't have to know about the extra money. No sense in stretching his mathematical abilities.
The miners, a grey-faced lot who worked the Corporation mines north of Otherside, boarded quietly. They were all well and truly hung-over and I knew they wouldn't be doing any unnecessary talking for the trip, and maybe not even any unnecessary breathing.
Ndoro fastened the locks from the inside and I ran the pressurization. Then I flipped the switches back and forth a couple of times as they weren't too reliable, and the big engines started up as Ndoro slipped into the co-pilot's seat beside me. Control cleared us for take off and we were almost out of the gate when the panicky voice of Control broke into my pre-flight reverie demanding that we return.
"Sorry," I shouted into the radio, "I can't hear you!" There was a lot of static from dirty switches and ancient equipment. But I didn't need to listen to them to know what it was all about. We cleared the dome that enclosed Mare Tranq and I glanced back at Lag or whatever her name was. She hadn't moved a muscle.
The trip to Otherside was the usual, except that Ndoro kept looking back at the passengers, something he never did when it was just a bunch of miners.
"Relax," I said to him. "I've got a plan." I said this with a great deal of self-confidence and very little truth.
"As soon as we get there," I said, making it up as I went along, "I'll grab Buster and the girl and we'll make a run for it while you offload the miners, maybe get into a fight with a couple of them. By the time the Port Police sort it all out, we'll be long gone and you'll just have an assault complaint or something." Sounded good to me.
Ndoro wasn't convinced, but it was the closest thing we had to a real plan. And anyway, it was what always worked for us when we had other kinds of volatile cargo. Like the time we... well, never mind.
So as soon as we got down and under the dome at Otherside, but before the Corporation cops or the Port Police could get out to our end of the dock, me, Buster and the girl were gone. Ndoro's white teeth were flashing as he soundly annoyed a dozen hung-over miners.
Buster practically carried his little sister and I led the way, twisting through a bunch of rust-covered derelict shuttles and miscellaneous debris. Otherside is not a very pretty place.
I ducked down a hole and into what looked like a large sewer. The door at the end of the tunnel swung open and we were whisked inside.
It was bright, smokey, smelly, loud and felt safe. Annie's Underground was the usual hangout for shuttle rats, and she could tell I needed a back door quick. We ran through to the other side of the bar where another tunnel led out to a solid wall of moonrock. As the door clanged shut behind us, plunging us into absolute darkness, I heard Buster gasp. "I don't like the dark," he said in the precursor of a whine.
"Oh, shut up," I said, pressing an outcropping of rock above my head and twisting it. Another tunnel opened ahead of us, this one with low wattage emergency lighting. "We can't stay here," I said. "I still have to get you to the Mars dock. But we can rest for a bit."
Lag took off her coat, lowering the hood which had concealed most of her face. He skin was a luminescent green and she held a gelpack of thickened water over her nose, breathing from it. A bony ridge of iridescent green scales grew from the back of her neck. Her hands were similarly scale-covered and the fingers were webbed, ending in sharp, curving claws. There was more biogel packs laid over slits along her neck--gills, I guessed I had seen iguanas of a more pleasing countenance.
"What the hell is she?" I asked Buster.
Before he could answer, Lag removed her breathing pack. "It's okay," she said, "I don't look it, but I'm still human. This is what they were doing at the Health Institute. I'm one of the more successful experiments."
If that was success, I didn't want to see the failures.
"Why?" I asked. For someone to go through that kind of trouble, there's gotta be funded research on a very large scale, no pun intended. And there would have to be an objective.
"I was a prototype for the Mars colony," she said. I knew Mars was riddled with great, mostly frozen underground oceans composed primarily of water and dissolved carbon dioxide, with traces of all the usual dirt and minerals thrown in for good measure, winding seas spiraling toward the core of the planet. What a mantle looks like when most of the original planet was an iceball. They had never really been explored, to my knowledge. Our colonies were supposedly all above-ground, like on the moon. "The Corporation wants to expand into the planet, and to do that, they need people who have a good scientific background, but who are adapted to live there. But the adaptation process has had a few glitches."
"You don't say," I agreed.
"The first adapted people were volunteers, of course. I'm afraid you saw some of them," she said to her brother. It was uncanny-- under the scaly surface, there was a definite family resemblance. He nodded and looked as if he might be sick. "They were not successful. So," she continued, "they stopped using volunteers."
I let the full horror sink in. "They did this to you without your consent?"
She nodded, a weird motion, what with the neck ridge, gill slits and all. I noticed that the irises of her eyes were an odd shape and two tiny winglike appendages came out of her back. He nostrils flared and steam issued forth. She clamped the gelpack back in place.
"How?" I asked, fascinated by her appearance.
"Gene splicing techniques," she said. "Pretty simple stuff, really. The remarkable part is what they spliced me with. I'm no ordinary lizard," she said, laughing. "The oceans of Mars have very little life left in them, you know, even though they are the key to rich mineral deposits. The core is cooling down, and the mantle seas are freezing solid, except around Mons Olympus and Tharsis, and some of the other still-active volcanic regions. It won't be long, geologically. But there is a creature who has survived in that environment. It was once a sort of flying amphibian. One of those is my new brother or father or whatever-- a new part of me. I am a new creature, created just for the spiral seas."
I shuddered. I had heard of the Martian dragons, of course. But just as fossils in the surface rocks. Not for a million credits, I thought. "So why'd you let Buster kidnap you?" I asked. "Why not just wait and go there with the Corporation's blessing?"
There was a pause. "I - I don't know how to explain this part," she said. "I need to get there quickly, before the Corporation finishes their experiments. I am not a finished product," she reminded me. "But I am an important one. The others, the ones in the oceans, are able to communicate with me. I have to get to them. We have to do something before the Corporation ruins the underground seas. Don't you see? They know what's coming. They are intelligent."
"Intelligent life on Mars?" I squeaked incredulously. It was a joke that not even the Corporation could qualify in that department.
Lag nodded. "I'm it. Well, part of it. When I join the others, with what I carry, we will become powerful enough to resist them."
It looked pretty hopeless to me. The Corporation was the most powerful thing in the universe, controlling all politics and almost all commerce. Those who survived outside of it, like myself, could hardly ever be described as successful. This delicate little dragon girl didn't stand a chance. But I felt myself ready to be convinced.
"Can you really do that?" I asked.
Lag nodded. "I've developed some abilities I never had before. Things the Corporation never suspected the dragons could do. Telepathy, for one thing. But greatly amplified. That's how I was able to get Buster to free me. But I don't want to convince you that way. I want you to know what's happening, what will happen, and see that I have to get there and do this thing."
"Okay," I said, but details bore me. "Whatever. But if we want to make the Mars ship, we'll have to leave now."
Buster helped her on with her coat and hood and we set off through the maze of tunnels at a brisk trot, the tiniest hint of a tail dragging along behind her.
I knew the way. I had smuggled a few people and a couple of other items through the tunnels of Otherside before. I found the hatch that led to the Mars docks and cautioned Buster and his sister to stay very quiet. He pulled her to him and shielded her small form with his bulk.
I poked my head through the hatch and looked around. We were definitely at the Mars dock, and the big freighters made the little lunar shuttles look like toys. There weren't any cops around, and all the activity seemed to center on one big ship that was being readied for the twenty-one day trip to Mars Colony.
"Got your tickets, folks?" I asked as I helped them through the hatch. It was dark out, but the freighter was brightly lit.
"I don't think we'll have too much trouble," Lag said in her soft, hissing voice. "Many of those workers have been to Mars," she said, "and they will listen to me with their minds more readily than those who have not."
She hugged Buster. "You know what to do," she said to him and he nodded. She turned to me. "Thank you for all you have done. In the future, when we sing in the great spiraling oceans of our victories over the intruders, your part will not be forgotten and you will live forever in our history."
"Forever? But your seas are freezing, Lag."
"We shall not let them," she said simply.
I looked into her eyes, into those oddly shaped irises, and felt a surge of warmth flow over me. Then she was gone, a tiny, lonely figure walking toward the hull of the great freighter.
We waited until she was aboard, then I led Buster back through the tunnels to Annie's. I ordered us each a drink as he counted out the rest of my money.
"So, what are your plans?" I asked. "If you need a ride back to Mare Tranq, we can probably swing something." But he didn't need a ride back. He told me his plans and I broke out in a cold sweat, even though Annie kept the thermostat in her place at around boiling.
"What do you mean?" I asked, terrified of his answer.
He showed me his hands. They were already starting to scale over a bit, and the greenish tinge to his face wasn't from the heat or Annie's drinks. My stomach turned.
"It- it is a virus, isn't it?" I asked in a petrified whisper.
He nodded. "But don't worry," he said. "You're perfectly safe. I- I injected myself with it at the NHI. You can't catch it through casual contact."
Yeah, I thought. That's what they said about Andele Seven, but it took two point six three million deaths before the Corporation admitted their mistake on that one.
"Why?" I asked, gulping down the last of my drink and signaling Annie for another. I needed it.
"I want to help," Buster replied. "I want people to know what's going on, what the Corporation is doing on Mars. I want everyone to know there is intelligent life out there, even if it does look a little different. And I want this whole lab in Palos Verdes exposed." He looked so earnest, so hopeful.
I left him there at Annie's, staring thoughtfully into a drink.
I got back to my shuttle and found the Corporation cops and the Port Police duking it out over jurisdiction. The Port Police won, and I was forced to update my operator's license, get a bunch of stuff on the 'Linda Rae' fixed and pay a hefty fine or bribe or whatever to the local magistrate. So much for my windfall from Buster. No hint of suspicion about my previous cargo, though.
I picked Ndoro up at the jail and got another load of miners, this batch on their way to some R & R at Mare Tranq and eager to get a head start. Usually I let them know right away that there's an extra charge for partying, but this time I was too preoccupied to even notice.
On the way to Mare Tranq I told Ndoro what had happened, leaving out the part about Lag having a virus and Buster catching it. For a couple of months, we scanned the news, looking for any mention of the Mars Colony oceans. There wasn't any. And I checked my skin every morning for any telltale green places or scales, but never found anything more than brown spots from solar radiation and the occasional tattoo.
So maybe it was all only a whacked-out story from a couple
of weird kids with a skin disease. Or maybe we just haven't heard
from the dragons in the Martian spiral seas... yet.
** The End **