Lula’s gold tooth glinted in the light of the dying sun as she stared into the barrel of Tania’s Pulsar-1500. Sand swirled in eddies around her dust-clouded boots. Her eyes watered, but she didn’t blink. The sweat that had beaded across her forehead during the hike back to the ship evaporated in the rising wind as she came to understand her situation.
She would die at Tania’s hand.
Tania, her partner. Tania, the traitor. Tania, who would have stranded Lula on this planet even if they hadn’t recovered the Golden Record from the old shipwreck. Tania would kill Lula, then brace a boot on her cooling corpse’s shoulder for leverage to pry the gold from her mouth before leaving this godforsaken planet.
And Lula would let her. Without so much as a clenched fist, she’d let Tania take everything.
Tania spat grit, ignoring the guilt that itched at the insides of her ribs, trying to keep her good arm steady. She told herself that it was better this way. She told herself that she wanted the money more than anything else. More than she wanted anyone else. “Give me the Record.”
“You couldn’t carry it back on your own, you one-armed cow.”
“I didn’t ask for your opinion, you ignorant twat.” The two women watched each other, unflinching. Tania’s thumb brushed the red dial on the Pulsar-1500, and the barrel emitted a high, climbing whine. She really would shoot Lula, and for what? The chance to keep the profits of the sale of a near-mythical artifact? “The Record. Now.”
“Let’s at least get into the ship. The storm is coming.” Lula hated the plea that crept into her voice. The sand hissed harder against the ship behind Tania. “You know the wind shouldn’t be this high, not at this time of day. That’s a sandsheet coming our way. We can’t be here.”
Tania spat again. She heard the tremor in Lula’s voice, and a brittle heat crept up her throat. She fought it down. Now wasn’t the time for guilt. Now wasn’t the time for looking back.
“Too right I know there’s a ‘sheet in the wind, Lula. That’s why you’re going to give me that Record — because if you do it now, you might be able to find shelter before the storm hits. I’ll even leave you with a beacon — you’ll only have to survive on your own for a couple of years before someone comes for you.” She stared over Lula’s left shoulder, unwilling to look her in the eye. “You’ll be just fine on your own.”
Lula’s fingers twitched, but she didn’t reach for her own weapon. She willed herself to do it — her draw was faster than Tania’s shot — but she didn’t. She couldn’t. And she hated herself for it. She hated herself for being weaker than Tania. Tania wasn’t letting her emotions get in the way of what she wanted, and that was why she was going to get what she wanted. Tania always got what she wanted, in the end.
It was just that Lula had always thought they’d wanted the same thing.
“Fine. Throw me the beacon, and I’ll throw you the Record.” Lula managed not to lick her lips, although the wind was quickly drying them. Tania dug into her pocket with her prosthetic hand and pulled out the beacon, tossing it at Lula’s feet. The little light on the beacon was a steady red; it would flash green when sending out a signal. The red light was quickly covered in a thin layer of the shifting sand.
Lula did not bend to unearth it. “Did you hear that?” She raised her voice to be heard over the rustle of sand.
“I said, did you hear that?”
Tania shook her head irritably. “No, I meant, did I hear what?”
Fortunately, Lula didn’t have to answer the question; the rumble that had been building as the light dimmed and the sand whispered over their boots had grown loud enough to be unmissable. The rumble, as it happened, was a roar.
Both women looked up at the same time.
Tania fell backwards, scrambled, and sat hard. When she got back up, she was already reaching for Lula; her Pulsar-1500 hung limp and forgotten in her other hand. Lula remained rabbit-still, her nostrils quivering at the sight of the massive beast that overshadowed them both.
They did not bother to run. They could not have outrun the sandstorm they’d thought was coming, and they could not outrun this. They could only watch through the driving wind as the shadow of the beast approached across the shifting sands. They could only squint into the sand that stung their upturned faces, and wait for the wingbeats to subside so that they could see clearly again.
There was no sandstorm.
There was only the dragon.
How Lula and Tania met is unimportant. The years that they spent together, the ruthlessness with which they built their fortune — it’s not necessary to this story. Here is what matters: they came to the sandbitten planet on a stolen ship in search of the Golden Record.
You’ve heard the legend of the Golden Record: a billion years ago, some far-off planet in a backwater section of the shabbiest leg of the Milky Way shot it off into space with their pictures and songs carved onto it, in hopes that someone would find it and rescue them from their dreary, pathetic, adventureless lives. You know the story of how the satellite they sent it on was passed over by countless more-advanced civilizations who didn’t feel like dealing with a third-world planet’s problems when they had enough of their own. You know the end of the story: the satellite eventually crashed on a planet far from everything, far from anyone. The adventureless planet died out when their sun got too hot or their atmosphere exploded or their oceans turned to acid or — insert your ending. Everyone tells it a little differently.
You know it as a myth, like Graxon’s Treasure or The Curse of the Intrepode. The tale of the Golden Record: not quite a fable, not quite a parable. Not even a very good story, when it comes down to it — a dull planet hopes for interstellar validation, doesn’t get it, and then dies alone. But for some reason, the story (unlike the inhabitants of that lonesome planet) wouldn’t die. People kept retelling it, over and over, and eventually, the Golden Record became a cultural touchstone. It became a byword for a hapless, hopeless, ultimately romantic adventure. It became important to people. It became priceless.
And Lula and Tania loved priceless things.
The beast was huge — large enough that they hadn’t noticed it. Some beasts are like that: they blend into the landscape, and you don’t see them until their teeth are scraping against your bones.
Lula and Tania hadn’t noticed the beast when it was sleeping next to the shipwreck where they found the Golden Record. They hadn’t noticed it tracking them as they walked back to their ship. But they noticed it now. At first it registered as a flying hunk of stone, a hillock cast from a giantess’ slingshot. But as it settled onto the ground between Tania and the ship behind her, it came into focus: teeth, tail, claws, scales, wings.
Their shoulders touched as they stood side-by-side to face the dragon, Pulsars raised. They waited for it to strike, so they could kill it in good conscience and then go back to pointing their weapons at each other. So they could shake off the weak parts of them that reached for each other; so they could embrace the parts that reached only for more.
But it did not strike. It looked at them with the patience of a thousand years spent tethered to a legendary treasure. It looked at them with the patience of a thousand more years to come.
Lula’s gold tooth glinted in the light of the dying sun as she asked the dragon what it wanted. “We don’t want any trouble, old man. Just tell us what you’re here for.”
The dragon looked at Lula’s satchel, which hung with the weight of a fortune. It did not need to speak. It had never needed to speak. Instead of speaking, it curled its tail around Lula and Tania’s ship and closed its eyes.
As the dragon slept, its spinnerets clicked with unhurried efficiency, weaving dragon-smoke into memories.
At first they thought they were watching the dragon’s dreams. The pictures didn’t make sense — they were disjointed, gruesome. After the first hour, Lula sank to the ground to watch. After the second hour, Tania joined her.
First came the treasure. The satellite crashing through the atmosphere of the planet. The wreckage, in the swamp. The Golden Record, growing more and more valuable with every retelling of its story over a hundred thousand years. This part was cartoonish — not truly a memory, but a prologue, imagined by the dragon in surreal half-sketched skeins of smoke and memory. Dragon-spun smoke beaded on the surface of the Record until it formed an egg; then the egg cracked, spilling out a wispy, wet-winged little creature. A dragon, born of the growing value of a relic turned treasure.
The swamp became a forest. The images sketched in the smoke became more realistic and detailed as the dragon became older, became more attached to the treasure. It huddled over the Golden Record during thunderstorms, keeping it dry. It spread its wings and shaded the Golden Record when the sun burned hot and bright. The growing dragon swept saplings and ferns away from the downed spacecraft — this treasure would not be buried, no. It would be protected. It would be hoarded.
As time passed and the story of the Record became a legend throughout the galaxy, the dragon grew. Its shape changed again and again - long and ropy during floods and famines, stout and ursine during the icy winters. A few things never changed: teeth, tail, claws, scales, wings.
Then the first of them arrived. A figure composed of dragon-smoke appeared, wearing a helmet and a bulky spacesuit. She walked through the forest, approaching the treasure, waking the dragon. The moment she grasped the Golden Record, the dragon sprang into action. Smoky entrails scattered across Tania’s lap, and the memory of the young dragon ate them from her shaking fingers as she choked back a scream.
The memories began to overlap after that first figure - a thousand years of scavengers and raiders and pirates and treasure-hunters, no two alike, from every corner of the galaxy. Lula and Tania were surrounded by a horde of adventurers, many more ferocious and better-equipped than themselves. Each one came alone. Each one was met, like a dancer at a ball, by a partner — the dragon, aging, changing his form with each passing century to better suit the decaying planet. To Tania’s right, a towering dragon breathed fire at a scarred bounty hunter from the outer reaches of the Terlon nebula. To Lula’s left, a squat, sluglike dragon slowly suffocated a three-armed, musclebound smuggler with whom Lula had once enjoyed a moderately successful dinner-date. Bodies formed from dragon-smoke thudded into the sand all around the watching women. The dust was soaked with the dragon’s memories of blood and sweat. It peeled away the skin of its victims like cornsilk. Their mouths spread wide in silent screams; their fingernails split as they tried to claw at the eyes of the creature that devoured them.
The dragon was always different, but he was always the victor. The smaller versions of the dragon were passionate; they delighted in inflicting death upon thieves. The larger, older versions were determined, efficient. The largest versions seemed tired, and more than a little bored. They seemed lonely.
But lonely or not, the dragon still wasted no time in rending the flesh from the bones of the thieves and the smugglers and the pirates and the treasure-hunters. Teeth, tail, claws, scales, wings.
They watched all of this, and they thought the dragon was dreaming.
But then they saw themselves.
Dragon-smoke Lula and Tania, approaching the ruins of the old craft. Tania walking in front as usual, her hips swaying with each measured step. Lula’s gaze lingering, running her tongue over her lower lip before following Tania to the craft. Each of them constantly aware of the other. One of them consumed by desire; the other, by the guilt of a betrayal she’d had planned from the beginning. Each of them ignoring the scaly outcropping of rock that seemed to cushion the wreckage.
As she watched the scene, Lula shuddered and reached for Tania. As she watched the scene, Tania swallowed hard around her guilt and reached for Lula. They sat in the sand, anchored to each other, and watched.
The dragon’s memory of them was painstakingly accurate. It had watched them, in their togetherness, with all the focus of a foreigner learning the tongue of his adopted country. The smoke-formed Tania constantly massaged the place where the stump of her shoulder met the too-small cup of her prosthetic arm. The mist-bound Lula unconsciously flexed her fingers whenever Tania bent to adjust the straps on her boots. The two of them circled each other as they walked back to their ship.
Lula watched herself gather courage and finally, boldly reach out for Tania.
Tania watched herself gather courage, sweep aside misgivings, and draw her weapon.
They sat in the sand, anchored to each other, and waited to see what the dragon’s image of itself would do this time. What it would do to them.
But the smoke vanished.
And the dragon woke.
Lula’s gold tooth glinted in the light of the dying sun as she approached the dragon. She tried not to look. Teeth, tail, claws, scales, wings. But she could not avoid them, could not avoid the afterimages of the dragon’s memories of what it had done with them.
She drew the Golden Record out of her satchel and placed it at the dragon’s feet.
She backed away, stood next to Tania. Their fingertips brushed.
Lula did not breathe.
Tania spoke for them.
“Thank you for giving us a chance. Thank you for letting us return the Record. We… we know you didn’t have to do that. And we’re grateful.”
The dragon picked up the Golden Record with surprising delicacy. Lula allowed herself to exhale. Even as the dragon stood and stretched its wings, preparing to fly away, she was bracing herself to fight with Tania for the ship. For passage home. She was bracing herself to shake off that weak part that would have let Tania leave her behind. She knew that she would have to fight, no matter how much it hurt her to.
Tania rested one hand on her Pulsar-1500. She, too, was prepared to fight. She was ready to push down the part of herself that wanted nothing more than to brush her fingers against Lula’s again; to ride away in a stolen spaceship, side by side. She was ready, because she knew that she could not bring herself to beg Lula’s forgiveness. She knew that she would have to fight, no matter how much it hurt her to.
The dragon watched them with a steady eye. It flapped its wings a few times and gave an ungainly hop. It did not fly away; instead, it settled its bulk atop their ship. Tania’s brow furrowed, then cleared in terrible understanding. Lula took a half step toward the ship, her hand reaching as though to shoo the dragon away.
The ship groaned. There was a great whip-crack as a central support gave way. The dragon watched Lula and Tania with an air of absolute serenity as their ship collapsed under the weight of a thousand years spent tethered to a legendary treasure.
Tania let out a raw, rough-edged scream. Lula fell to her knees in the sand with her fists in her hair.
The dragon flew from the wreckage. His wings kicked up the sand again, but this time, it didn’t swirl in eddies around the women. This time, it shifted into familiar scenes: Lula’s gaze lingering on Tania as they approached the Golden Record. Tania reaching for Lula as gruesome figures surrounded them both. The way the dragon had seen them lean towards each other in their penultimate moment of fear, just before it had spread its wings the first time. The dragon showed them that it had seen what was inside of them — more than just the usual hunger and greed. The dragon showed them that it had decided for them which parts of them would win out.
After the dust settled, Tania looked down at Lula. Lula was staring at the ground between them, dejected.
Tania looked again.
Lula was staring at the ground between them, where a little red light glowed steadily, unearthed by the wingbeats of the departing dragon. She spoke so quietly that Tania almost didn’t hear her at first.
“Shoot me already, you one-armed cow. You might as well.”
Tania wiped at the tear-streaked filth that covered her cheeks. “I didn’t ask for your opinion.”
Lula sniffed, and her mouth twitched — almost a smile. It was enough, Tania thought. It would have to be enough.
It was all they had. She said so.
“This is all we have left.”
Lula snorted, and the almost-smile became a smile. “Don’t be maudlin. I hate it when you’re maudlin.”
Tania crouched down and reached for the little red light at the same time that Lula did. Their fingers met atop the beacon. They pressed it, and watched the light change from steady red to flashing green. Lula finally looked up, her finger still next to Tania’s on the beacon. Tania stretched out her hand a little farther, lacing her fingers between Lula’s.
“Yeah, I think so.”
Lula’s gold tooth glinted in the light of the dying sun as Tania sat beside her in the sand. Together, they sat before the wreckage of their stolen ship, and watched the sky for a sign of rescue.