ere they be dragons!”


I should’ve paid attention to that warning.

On ancient Earth, fanciful cartographers would inscribe that warning on portions of their maps that contained unexplored areas. Now, how did I know that, over one thousand years later? Two ways: One was that, as a kid, I voraciously read everything I could find on old Earth. The second way was that current space cartographers put the same warning on maps of an area where messages had been received from space explorers, messages that included vids, and the messages were emphasized by the fact that none of those explorers were ever heard from again. So I should have known better.

My spaceship reached the area indicated just in time for a dragon to capture us. * * *

t was L’rang’s fault that it started.

I was at Captain Zeb’s Space Bar, celebrating my capture of another exotic alien beast; this time, it was a dinosaur. “Free drinks for everyone,” I announced, finishing my first one.

“I’ll take that free drink,” announced L’rang, the Astorean, holding out a tentacle. “But what’s so great about capturing a dinosaur? They’re all over the universe.”

“Not like this one,” I said, finishing off my new drink and asking the bargirl, P J, for another.

P J was one of a kind; you’ve heard, of course, of sexiness. P J carried that to its ultimate extreme. She was the real reason I chose to celebrate at Captain Zeb’s.

“Seen a picture of that dinosaur,” Captain Zeb said. “Looks too small to be dangerous.” Knowing Captain Zeb, I was sure he was just building up the suspense.

“Size doesn’t matter when something’s this vicious. It spits venom that could even burn through a Universal Body Suit, if not quickly removed. Not only that, but its bite is more venomous that the deadliest of serpents. It isn’t just his bite that uses poison; a strike from the tip of its tail is loaded just as well. Not only that,” I went on. “That stuff it spits out can penetrate a force-field!” I finished my refill and P J brought me another.

“So how did you catch it?” L’rang asked.

I smiled. “Gotta thank P J for that,” I said and was pleased to see her eyebrows lift. “I had UniversalFX build me a female of the species, complete with their version of pheromones. The little dinosaur was not only willing, but positively eager to follow it into my cage. Since I left the ‘toy dragon’ there, he didn’t even try to get out!”

Captain Zeb roared with laughter. “Always said the female was the deadliest of the species!”

P J just gave one of her should-be-copyrighted mysterious smiles.

My exuberance was multi-fueled. Too pleased by my recent success, too much alcohol, and the undeniable presence of P J. Plus, I talk too much anyway – but look; to take the risks I do, I’ve got to be sold on myself! I was feeling so good, so ‘on top of the world’, that I proclaimed, “There’s nothing in the universe I can’t capture!” As I had emptied my last glass, P J handed me one more.

L’rang waved his tentacles. “What about the Space Dragon?” he asked.

Two things trapped me; the alcohol bubbling in my brain cells, and the sizzling look of interest in P J’s eyes. “Why not?” I asked, with undeserved enthusiasm.

Before I left, P J slipped me her number and said, “Call me.” That sealed my fate.

* * *

et me explain how I make my living, and how I got into it. Back in the twentieth century, Earth time, there was an explorer named Frank Buck. He’s been pretty much forgotten, but he was amazingly renowned in his time. I ran across his name when tracing my on genealogy. His slogan was ‘Bring ‘em back alive!’ and he did just that. He would go to dangerous places and capture wild animals, either for display in his own park, or to sell to zoos. Well, the similarity of our names led me into a career of tracking down dangerous – or at least interesting – alien animals for the Space Zoo.

There was only one real reason I decided to go to that area. Her name was Planet James.

That’s right; first name ‘Planet’, last name ‘James’. More familiarly known as P J.

It took me forever to find out her full name. Sure, I’ve got all kinds of puter gadgets and am connected to the space web, but I was far more successful in tracing down rare, almost unheard of, alien beasts with it; tracing down P J, when I had no info beyond what I’ve mentioned – well, it was tough.

One of the first things I did, after my asking around turned up nothing, was aim my special belt analyzer at her. It told me she was a human female, breedable age, height and weight, and that she had no natural weapons.

Ha!

P J had the weapons that had insured the continuation of the human species ever since our distant ancestors swung from trees on old Earth. She used those weapons to garner enormous tips while keeping us hapless males safely at bay. My belt analyzer was designed to tell me what potential dangers a particular creature would present, so I could be aware of and – hopefully! – avoid possible risk. Obviously the gadget was only good at helping protect me against physical danger, not the kind of danger Planet James presented.

Not that I’m sex-starved. My rugged good looks have helped me reel in many a girl in many a port, but P J was different; with her, sex-appeal has reached its epitome, both aura-wise and physical-wise. Accenting that was a certain feeling of mystery, as well as intellectual appeal; she was not one of those vapid blondes, no sir.

When I found out her full name, and why she kept it secret, it almost led to the death of each of us.

* * *

ay, way back in Earth’s history cartographers would put ‘Here they be dragons!’ on unknown areas. These days, ‘Here they be dragons!’ on a space map means just that.” Unbelievably, I was explaining this to P J, in her small apartment. She had shocked me by saying, once I was inside, that she wanted to go with me to capture a dragon! While the idea thrilled the daylights out of me, I didn’t want to be responsible for her getting killed, so I started explaining.

P J nodded. “There aren’t many of them,” she said. “At least, as far as we know. It is theorized they fly by using solar winds.” She smiled at me. “That’s really only a guess, since no one has ever captured one, or even survived when they met one. Like dragons of old, they shoot fire from their mouths.”

“That’s the point I was trying to make, P J. Going after a dragon is apt to be deadly.”

She smiled tenderly. “You’re sweet, Frank. You don’t want to get me into danger. Still, you’re planning on going.”

Sweet? Me? From P J? Now I had to go, risky or not. But that was even more reason she shouldn’t go with me. Managing a shrug, I said, “It’s how I make my living, P J. But I go alone.” After a pause, I added, “How is it you know so much about the dragons?”

“Part of my studies at Space University,” she explained.

“Space University?” I asked. “But the records don’t –“

She interrupted with a chuckle. “—Don’t show me registered there? No surprise; I’m registered as Tyra McIntire.” P J smiled at my expression and continued, “I think I was born knowing how to manipulate things, public information being just one of them.”

Which made me wonder if manipulating men wasn’t another of her skills. Wonder? Hell, no; I knew damned well she could – and make us enjoy it when she did. What was I being trapped into? --Not that I cared, since it was P J.

“Guess I inherited it,” she went on. “I chose ‘McIntire’ as my name because Cyrus McIntire is my uncle.”

“The Cyrus McIntire?” I asked, shocked. He was a genius, a scientist who seemed to have mastered every science known to man, and had produced hundreds of well-paying inventions in a very wide range of fields.

P J grinned. “He’s the man, my mother’s brother.” Sobering, she added, “I wish he lived longer; I never got to meet him.”

“Then why do you work in a bar?”

She shrugged her lovely shoulders, causing fluid motions of her breasts that thoroughly distracted me. “Space University isn’t cheap,” she said. “Especially when I’m majoring in five different fields.”

I shook my head in amazement, but then asked, “Why gamble your life in pursuit of a dragon?”

She leaned forward and said intensely, “Because of the effect it will have on my field of Exozoology! With the vids I’ll do and the papers I’ll write, I’ll shoot to the top of the field, even before I graduate! The income will be fantastic. I can study any field the University offers!” Relaxing, she finished, “It’s worth very great risk.”

That was also when she told me P J stood for Planet James. “Planet?” I asked.

Smiling, she said, “My mother has a wonderfully weird sense of humor.”

So we got ready to go. Planet brought along what she described as “A few tricks,” and I gathered things I thought – hoped! – would help and we went on the most important, most deadly ‘Bring ‘em back alive!’ of my career.

I just prayed that I could bring us back alive!

* * *

s reported, space maps, puter generated or paper, warned where dragons had been encountered. It was just our luck (good or bad?) that our first stop had a dragon. Unfortunately, our instruments didn’t report it until it zapped in from the side and grabbed our ship.

“Isn’t that wonderful?” Planet said, brimming with excitement. “How could it move so fast?”

“Stop being so damned happy!” I snapped. “Pull one of your tricks out of the hat!”

“Yes sir, Captain sir!” Planet grinned, saluting with one hand and playing the terminal with the other.

I was floored when another, larger dragon showed up. My chagrin changed to relief when Planet said, “How’s that for a trick?”

“A holo?” I asked. “But I can’t see stars through it. Holos are transparent. Is that something your uncle whipped up?”

Planet shook her head. “Not exactly,” she amended. “It’s a combination of the ‘you can actually touch it’ holo the Zonkers dreamed up many years ago, blended with the nanobot cloud invented by the Rastorians. The nanos in the cloud give the holo self-control; it responds to the situation instead of me programming it. Uncle Cyrus did the blending.”

Our dragon, of course, immediately released our ship and turned on the new dragon.

“You can actually feel that holo?” I asked. “Can it do any damage?”

Even as I asked, the vid screen showed the real dragon slash at the holo, and its claws ripped right through it. Seeing that, the dragon turned away and started back to our ship. Planet projected another dragon, but the real one ignored it.

“Fascinating!” Planet sighed. “It’s intelligent! It has already learned my projections are harmless.”

“Please stop being so happy about this damned thing; it’s about to kill us!” Okay, so it was my turn. “Maybe I should try my sonic cannon.”

“Ahhh … ‘sonic’?” Planet asked. “We’re in outer space, you know.”

I grinned. “Yeah, but it’s still a pretty good label for it. When it hits something solid, it causes a vibration just the same as a loud bang would make.”

She shrugged, with the usual lovely reaction. “Give it a try.”

I pushed the right combination of buttons, and was rewarded by a loud scream.

Now, I had been looking at Planet Jones when it happened. Hey, ‘looking’ was the only way I could enjoy her presence. Anyway, I had her in view, so I knew the scream didn’t come from her. In fact, I realized the scream wasn’t vocal. “The dragon!” she said.

I nodded. “Telepathic. But why hasn’t –“

“You hurt me.” The thought came to both of us.

“You were trying to kill us,” I said. I did it aloud, not certain how just thinking it would work.

“You wanted to kill or capture me,” was the reply.

“’Bring ‘em back alive’ is my motto,” I said. “Killing is only for self-protection. I hoped my sonic cannon would make you release our ship, so I could throw a force-field net over you.”

“Capture would be as bad as death,” the dragon said. “I do not wish to be captured.”

“Understandable, I guess,” I said. “But –“ As I said it, instruments told me we were moving.

“As with the others, I will take you to my home,” we were told.

“Can’t we talk about this?” Did the once-famous Frank Buck ever try to talk his way out of danger?

“There is nothing to discuss.” We continued on our way – on the dragon’s way, that is.

“You’re intelligent,” I said in desperation. “Why don’t you join the civilized races?”

“Because I’m more intelligent than all of them.”

“Then maybe we should join you?” Frank Buk, diplomat.

“Impossible.”

“Frank…?” Planet said, pointing at the control panel. Every instrument was flashing a red alarm, but I had paid no attention as there was nothing I could do. Then I looked at the vid screen.

“A black hole!” I said in extreme alarm.

“Do not be concerned,” I was assured. “You are perfectly safe.”

“Near a black hole?” I asked. It was incredible.

“As I said; I have superior intelligence.”

“Intelligence isn’t as powerful as a black hole – nothing is!”

“You refer to your intelligence,” the dragon said. “I am speaking of mine.” I hadn’t realized that thought alone could reflect smugness.

“You can control the force of strong gravity?” Planet said, admiration clear in her tone.

“More than that. I – we – control what was once referred to as dark energy.”

“That is absolutely amazing,” Planet said. If I was right, she was trying one of her great manipulative skills. I didn’t think superior intelligence had a chance. “How in the world did you ever –“

“Enough,” the dragon said, winning the contest by opting out. “We are here.”

A shining bubble had shown up between us and the black hole, and it had expanded to fill the entire screen. We approached it and then we were inside.

It was huge! Huge, but the main thing of interest to me was a cluster of old spaceships, piled together inside a large circle which was surrounded by more bubbles of different sizes; probably dragon homes. It was no surprise that the dragon deposited us among the other ships.

“Now what?” I asked.

“Now the truth will be determined,” the dragon said. “The others failed the test.”

“Test?” I repeated, blankly.

“A test of your worthiness,” the dragon replied. If it was supposed to be an explanation, it failed. “Wait,” the dragon instructed us.

“For what? How long?”

“Just…wait.”

Planet said to me, “While we’re waiting, why not look around?” “Instruments say the air is breathable,” I said, “but keep your faceplate closed anyway.” Of course, we both had been wearing our UBS units. Like an ancient commercial said, “Don’t leave home without it.”

The last ship had disappeared over one hundred years ago, so it was no surprise to find skeletons aboard. The only thing of interest that we found in any of them was a message written in the dust covering a monitor. “Beware the child!” An interesting scribble, yeah – but what did it mean?

We found out the hard way.

Back on my ship, we ate, drank, and got some much-needed rest…until there was a knock on the airlock door.

“Better answer your door,” Planet said, with a lop-sided smile.

I did, and found a small dragon floating there.

“Hi there!” it said/thought, with a cheerful friendliness. “Can I come in and play? My father said it would be ali right.”

He was about eight feet tall, maybe four feet wide. “You might find it kinda cramped,” I said.

“I’ve been in human spaceships before,” he replied. “All I need do is hunch over. Okay?”

I shrugged. “Why not?”

Planet said, in caution, “Frank; he’s a child.”

“I remember the warning, Planet – but I don’t think we really have a choice.” I backed up, leaving room for the young dragon to come in.

Bending over, he entered.

“Ahhh, I hope you aren’t hungry,” Planet said.

In the same cheerful way, the dragon kid said, “I don’t eat humans.”

“That isn’t what I meant,” Planet said, then added, “Well, it was a concern of mine – but what I meant was, I don’t think we have enough food for a growing dragon.”

‘Growing’ made me wonder. “How old are you?” I asked.

“Eight hundred of your years,” the kid replied.

“Eight…hundred?” I asked. “How old is your father?”

“Over a million,” he responded, grinning like an impish boy who had just answered a riddle. I whistled in astonishment. Then, remembering ancient Earth legends, I asked, “Did your father – or others of your people – ever visit Earth?”

“Sure did,” he responded in the same impish way. “Wish I’d been there. Sounded like fun.”

Planet asked, “Do they live near a black hole to gather power from it?”

“I’ll ask.”

Interestingly, I picked up neither the query nor the reply. They could, apparently, put their thoughts on different channels.

“Got nothing to do with it,” the kid responded. “We live here to remain isolated.”

“Makes sense,” Planet said. She looked at me. “There’s just a small group of them,” she said. “Staying near a black hole would guarantee their privacy.”

By then we were in the control room. The young dragon, driven by curiosity, was exploring the display. “Hey, looks like you folks have advanced from what you used to have.”

“Thanks,” I said, unsure of what else to say. “Look, come back to our storage area; it’s more roomy.”

The little dragon followed me back. When I opened the last door, he danced inside and bounced around. “Look at this!” he said with excitement. “It’s where you keep beings you collect, isn’t it?”

Suddenly my bright idea of trapping him here evaporated. If he knew what it was, it must mean it was no threat to him. That, plus my belated thought that we had no way out of this bubble. “That’s why it’s so big,” I said. “Lots of room, any time you want to play here.”

“Sure,” he said. “Humans require sleep; we do not. While you and your friend sleep, I could play here.”

Thanks to the power of suggestion, I yawned. “A bit of sleep might be a good idea,” I said, looking at Planet, regretting that we slept in different rooms. “What do you think?” I asked her.

She nodded with a small yawn of her own. “After all the tension, it might be a good idea.”

But whose idea?

That notion didn’t come to me until I awoke to find myself and my ship in outer space, staring down the barrels of the ship’s rockets. The multiple barrels were still radiating, showing recent usage. “That kid did this!” I said to Planet, who was with me. “We’ve gotta get inside before he decides to blast again. Use your palm rockets,” I told her.

“Mental hypnosis,” Planet agreed – then added, with alarm, “My palm rockets don’t work!”

“Grab my legs,” I ordered. “I’ll pull us both outta here.”

“It’ll slow you down!” Planet objected. “Palm rockets aren’t that powerful. They’re designed for one.”

“Do it anyway!” I said sharply. “My motto is ‘Bring ‘em back alive.’ That includes passengers.”

“But if he –“

“Do it!” I snapped.

We made it back to the airlock, more slowly than I would have liked, but we did it.

Inside, we were greeted by the dragon kid, who was clapping his hands in glee. “Wasn’t that fun?” he asked, with even greater happiness than before.

“Fun?” I ground out. “You tried to kill us!”

“Yes, but it had a happy ending!” he said, grinning more than I thought a dragon could manage. Then he added, still grinning, “Why don’t I take you home? Your home, I mean,” he added.

I was stunned, and thoroughly confused. “…Home?” I finally managed. “But…”

“You passed the test,” he said with pride. “I just knew you would. You’re different from the others.”

I shook my head trying to rearrange my thoughts. “Why don’t I take us back?” I asked. “Then you could return to your own home.”

“Oh no,” the child dragon objected. “Not at all. For one thing, you could not pull away without my help. For another, I want to meet your people. From your minds, I find them intriguing.”

“The impulsiveness of youth,” another voice said – the father, the one who had brought us here. The vid screen revealed him outside. “That also is why we rely on the young to respond to aliens. Children have a better sense of analyzing motives of others.”

“You rejected meeting other races,” I reminded him.

“As you humans would say,” the dragon replied, “old people are stick-in-the-muds. Thousands of years have inured us to new ideas. You risked your own life to save a friend, unlike any of the others. That impelled me to examine records of the earlier humans. I do not believe humans have evolved so much; we were just guilty of jumping to erroneous conclusions. Go. Fresh ideas can benefit us. Do not worry about my little one; he can take care of himself.”

I had no doubt of that.

I looked at Planet. “There is another famous quote that uses ‘child’,” I said. “’A little child shall lead them.’ So here is a twist in my motto; we are, ourselves, gonna be brought back alive – by a dragon kid!”

CONTENTS

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