DIFFERENT DRAGONS

CHAPTER 1

Charlie tried to clutch the muzzle of the large friendly dragon. He lost his balance and frantically flapped his arms like a desperate fledgling to stop himself crashing onto the rocks far below.
“Faster, faster,” urged a voice, hoarse through crunching charcoal.
Charlie flapped faster. Suddenly he was floating on huge wings.
“Soar like a seagull, little one.”
The breeze lifted Charlie. He spiralled high into the air fragrant with barbecue fumes. Below were the pinnacles where dragons of many colours roosted. Their scales glittered in the rays of a blazing red sun.
Charlie soared through the sky, exhilarated. “Whoooooaaaw!” Then he woke up. His arms were wrapped around a pillow.
“Who are you talking to?” his mother called from the bathroom.
“A dragon.”
“Don't be silly Charlie. Get out of bed and have a wash.”
“Can't I have breakfast first?”
“No – Wash!” Mrs Teasdale’s tone could have intimidated a platoon of marines.
“I bet dragons don't have to clean their teeth and scrub their scales,” Charlie muttered to himself as he sat at the breakfast table. He glared over the toast and Sugar Puffs at his thirteen-year-old sister. “Mum, why can Mandy have that poster spread all over the table when I'm not even allowed to talk to dragons?”
“Take that off the table, Mandy.”
“Little pig,” Mandy hissed at the eight-year-old. She rolled up the star chart. “I was only looking something up.”
“You going to the moon then? Can I have your bedroom if you don't come back?”
His sister said nothing. She swung her satchel onto her shoulder, kissed her mother, then dawdled off to school.
Mandy did not like school, and school did not like her. She had declared her intention of being an astronomer as soon as she had been able to pronounce it. Since then nobody had managed to talk her out of her intended career. Now she was thirteen, others expected her to set her sights on a more sensible occupation, or at least show some interest in parties and boys.
Mandy's mother was happy to let her daughter make up her own mind, but then, some believed that Mrs Teasdale also needed a more realistic outlook on life. They probably didn't think that her opinion counted for much because she was only a cook in a factory canteen. Goodness only knew what would happen to Charlie when he got older. He wanted to be a dragon!
Mandy's own personal monster was tapping the glass of his aquarium to attract the attention of the guppies. The fish ignored him. Most people did, especially the owner of those beaded braids that had just bounced past his open door.
Spotting bigger game, the headmaster stopped aggravating his fish. “Miss Teasdale, a word with you.”
Mandy quietly groaned. “Yes, Mr Butt?”
“I would like to know whether you have been giving serious consideration to a more sensible road in life?”
Mandy should have said, “Yes, one that you're on, facing oncoming traffic.” She said instead, “Yes, Mr Butt, and I still intend to be an astronomer.”
The headmaster gave a severe smile. There was no arguing with this pupil. She was unlike all the others. They could be browbeaten into saying what he wanted to hear. Mandy had no time for bullies and wondered why anyone else bothered with them.
“We all have our dreams, Mandy,” Mr Butt explained amiably, “but we cannot go on clinging to them forever. Some day we should come down to Earth.”
“Yes,” thought Mandy. “In your case, at a thousand miles an hour.” She said instead, “Astronomy is an interesting subject, Mr Butt. Domestic science is not.”
“Come, come. Do you really think you are going to be the first woman in space?”
“That was Valentina Tereshkova.”
“Briton in space then?”
“That was Helen Sharman.”
For a moment the headmaster thought she was pulling his leg. “Really?”
Mandy was delighted by his embarrassment. “In 1991. The Russians sent her up with one of their crews.”
He pretended to remember, “Oh yes - of course.” Abashed, Mr Butt returned to play with his goldfish.
“What was all that about?” asked Karen as she brushed past.
“Coming down to Earth.”
The tall girl laughed. “He should know by now that you prefer to be up there with the planets-” She corrected herself, “I know - there isn't any up or down in space.”
So something had rubbed off onto her friend. Mandy often wondered whether any of them took in anything she said.
“You will come along and help the ecology project with the poster, won't you Mandy?”
“Okay, but I might be late. I've this feeling I'm going to be kept in for fifteen minutes.”
“Oh don't go and upset Pussyfoot again. We break up tomorrow and want to get this finished.”
“I'm just in one of those moods.”
Karen knew what Mandy meant. There was that rebellious edge to her voice. When the astronomer demonstrated that she knew more about her subject than that teacher, there was always a price to be paid.
“Look, I know Pussyfoot's not very bright, but there's no need to go on denting his ego so much.”
“Thickos like him shouldn't be allowed egos.” Mandy gave in. “All right. I'll behave. See you later.”

CHAPTER 2

Charlie's life was not as complicated as his sister's. He was still young enough to be allowed an imagination. As his reading was so advanced, his teachers let his fancy wander wherever it wanted, though it often baffled them.
He was also bright enough to read adult books. Because of this, the other pupils kept him at a safe distance, as though he carried a malevolent genie around with him in his pencil box.
Mrs Shah was the only one who appreciated his ideas and dragon pictures. She was different from the other teachers. Some of the pupils believed that she used to live in an exotic temple where people learnt how to fly by just thinking about it.
Mrs Shah would often tell Charlie, “The Universe is so vast that somewhere, whatever you believe is bound to be true. As you grow older, if you remain true to yourself, you will find out that the world is often what you believe it to be.”
Charlie wasn't quite sure what she meant by this, but it sounded very sensible.
Whenever he felt like hitting one of the older boys who teased him about his dragons, Mrs Shah would say, “Why waste your energy on someone who has no dreams? He will be miserable for the rest of his life because he can never know a dragon.”
That also sounded like good advice, but Charlie still wanted to punch Martin Burgess on the nose. He knew it would make him feel much better – if he could reach.
Mandy survived the day without showing up Pussyfoot and Charlie managed not to hit anyone.
The next day was a half term holiday. Charlie thought it was unfair that he still had to get up early, though a day with their grandmother was worth the effort. She had a garden filled with concrete creatures and a large pond full of carp that looked, goggle-eyed, back at you. And there was always the rockery to investigate. That was where the frogs hid, probably because they knew Charlie was coming.
Mrs Teasdale watched her son make a mound with his Sugar Puffs. “Eat your breakfast Charlie.”
“It's too early. We don't have to go to school today.”
“You eat your breakfast, whether you go to school or not.”
“Why?”
“Because I say so.” That was his mother's way of telling him that she didn't have time to argue.
Ten minutes later Mandy hustled him into their grandmother's car.
Charlie wound down the window. “I'm hot.”
“Well take your anorak off,” Mandy told him.
It seemed like a good idea so he did, only to find that he was wearing his sister's T-shirt. Mandy gave the design of Saturn and its rings a cursory glance. She never said anything.
His grandmother noticed the outsize garment. “I didn't know you were interested in astronomy, Charlie?”
“I'm not. I thought this was my dragon T shirt.”
Mandy opened her jacket. A large, friendly dragon smiled out at him. “Mum chucked them onto the wrong beds.”
Their Gran laughed. “And neither of you noticed? I thought I was getting old.”
“How old are you Gran?” asked Charlie.
Mandy never told him to shut up. She wanted to know as well.
“Fifty in August,” she lied.
“What do you want for your birthday?”
“A pension and bus pass.”
“Why?”
“So I won't need to do any more catering for rugby clubs and can save on petrol.”
Mandy knew she didn't mean it. “Go on Gran, you know you like catering.”
“I'd like it more if you two could do the washing up.”
“We wash up for Mum,” protested Charlie. “We have to or we wouldn't get clean plates.”
“But she does give us money for the pictures,” Mandy reminded him.
“Are we going to the pictures then?”
“Ask Gran.”
Gran negotiated a tricky junction before replying, “I can't come with you. I've got a wedding cake to ice.”
Charlie's mouth watered. “Ooh.”
“And you're not going near it. The happy couple want it decorated with freesias and rose petals, not dragons and fingerprints.”
“I'll sit in the garden and talk to a gnome,” he threatened.
“You do that.”
True to his word, Charlie went into the garden as soon as they arrived. He planted himself before a garden gnome and tried to outstare it.
Mandy wondered how long he would keep it up. Time was getting on. “Aren't you coming to the pictures then? It's a Steven Spielberg, and a U so they'll let sticky little brats like you in.”
“I suppose it's about flying saucers and things?”
“The last one he made had dragons in it.”
“I know, but I wasn't old enough to see it, was I,” Charlie groaned. “Wish we could have a DVD recorder.”

“You know Mum can't afford one at the moment. Come on, Gran wants us out of the way so she can do that cake.”
Charlie reluctantly got up. “All right then. But only if you let me see through your telescope.”
“You'll be in bed by the time it's dark enough to see anything.”
“You stay up all night.”
“No I don't.”
Mandy's attic bedroom was directly above Charlie's so he wasn't going to let that pass. “I hear you moving about. I'll tell Mum if you don't let me see through your telescope tonight.”
“Oh all right. But if you say anything, I'll tell her about you spending your pocket money in the arcade.”
“Wish I had a computer.”
“When you're old enough to do a paper round you can save up for one.”
“Why can't I win one in a competition like you?”
“The telescope I won wasn't as expensive as a computer.”
Charlie tucked the Saturn T shirt into his jeans. “How long can we be?”
“Gran wants us back for tea, then she’s going to pick Mum up.”
“Okay then.”
The film had some action and a lot of special effects. It wasn't as exciting as the ideas Charlie thought up. He wondered why he couldn't be left alone to conjure up his own entertainment instead of having to watch other people's fantasies. Some people accused him of being immature because he was so imaginative. Adults were free to make films of much duller ideas. He assumed that their teachers had told them not to daydream when they were young.
A meal was waiting for Mandy and Charlie back at their grandmother's.
Mandy watched her brother across the table. “Stop daydreaming and eat your pizza.”
Why did everyone tell him what to do? It’s a wonder he wasn’t told when to go to the toilet. Bed was beginning to seem like a good idea. When you looked forward to going to bed it was a sure sign that you were bored out of your skull.
Charlie was allowed to see the finished wedding cake from the kitchen doorway before being bundled into the car and off back home.

CHAPTER 3

Charlie knocked a folder of star charts from Mandy's bed.
“Sssh. Don't wake Mum. She’s got to get up early.”
“Sorry.”
Mandy aligned her telescope. “Come and look at this.”
Charlie tightly shut one eye and peered through the eyepiece with the other. “Wicked - what is it?”
“Jupiter.”
“What's that?”
“You know what it is. I told you the names of all the planets. Do you want to see Mars?”
“Where is it?”
Mandy moved the telescope down a little. “It shouldn't be too difficult to find. They're in conjunction.”
It was too late at night for Charlie to work out what 'conjunction' meant. He looked through the eyepiece and saw a rusty world with large blotches. “What are those dark patches?”
“The wind moving the soil about. At one time people thought it was vegetation watered by a network of canals.”
“In one of my comics there's a story about Martians. They're green monsters with webbed feet and eyes the size of saucers.”
“They once thought there was life on Venus as well. That's so corrosive and hot nothing could live there.”
Charlie thought for a moment. “How can you astronomers be so sure?”
“Probes send back images and other information.” Mandy pointed to a picture in one of her books. “These planets were all photographed by probes.”
Charlie thought only doctors used probes. “What sort of probes?”
“You know, a small spaceship without a crew.”
“When will somebody from this country go up in a spaceship?”
“She already has. You don’t remember Helen Sharman. You’re too young.”
Charlie hesitated. “You really wanted to be first, didn't you?”
Mandy sat back in her old armchair. “Perhaps not. I'd really like to find out how the Universe was created.”
“I don't want to grow up and be an adult.”
“If you grow up you won't be anything else.”
“They are so dull.” Charlie wandered away to examine the posters covering the bedroom walls. There were fantastic planets, small and cratered, and huge gaseous ones lit by binary suns. One poster was filled with stars following a wide curve which indicated their different ages and size. At the bottom, the suns were like large red balloons, at the top pinpricks of blue light, and in the middle warm and yellow.“It must be very difficult to tell how hot a sun is if it's millions of light years away?” pondered Charlie.
Mandy was studying the sky. “Look Charlie, I think that's Saturn.”
Charlie returned to look through the telescope. “It's blurred.”
“That's because it's low down. You can't see so well through thick atmosphere.”
“What's thick atmosphere?”
“What little kids breathe in to make their brains go stupid.”
“I'm not stupid!”
“I never said you were. Keep your voice down.”
“Just because our playground's next to the road.” Charlie peered through the telescope at Saturn for some while. “I bet there aren't any dragons on it.”
“Probably not. There wouldn't be anywhere for them to perch. Might be some on Mercury. That's very hot. Depends what they breathe I suppose.”
“They breathe fire.”
“You're the expert.”
Charlie stopped looking through the telescope and blinked hard to refocus his eyes. “But, I mean, there must be dragons somewhere?”
“There are so many planets in this galaxy, they’ve probably evolved on at least one of them.”
“Which one?”
“I've no idea. The only planets we know anything about are the ones in this solar system. You do remember what a solar system is, don't you?”
“Of course.” Charlie picked up a book filled with artists' impressions of other worlds. It was his favourite. After finding jam stains on Neptune, Mandy would only let him look at it while she was there. “Dragons are better than astronauts. They don't need spaceships.”
Mandy said nothing. For all she knew, dragons did exist.
“I bet space travel is just the same as believing in fairies.”
Mandy couldn't let that pass. “What?”
“Well, not many people have done it, and you don't really know what's out there, do you?”
“Of course we do. I get a newsletter every month telling me all the new things that have just been discovered.”
Charlie sat back on his heels. “I mean, you can't really prove it, can you?”
“Of course we can. There are space telescopes and probes out there recording everything.”
“There could be some alien up there playing jokes and making you see what it wants you to see.”
Charlie had the uncanny knack of coming out with things it was impossible to give a sensible answer to.
“It's the difference between science and fantasy,” Mandy evaded.
“What is science then?”
“Well, science is about what you can prove and fantasy is about what you can't.”
“You can't prove it though. I mean, what if everything is really some big joke?”
Mandy gave him a hard look. “Isn't it about time you went back to bed.”

CHAPTER 4

That night the sky was cloudless.
Mandy yawned as she watched the powdered stars of the Milky Way from the comfort of her armchair. She was sleepy and felt herself being drawn after a high orbiting satellite. The sketchbook slipped from her hand.

Charlie was sweltering and tossed and turned in his bed. He pushed off the duvet. The scorching breath of a dragon wafted over him.
He opened his eyes and there was Pontin, his favourite red dragon.
“Are you coming out?” asked Pontin.
“I'm too hot.”
“Why don't we fly to a world of ice?”
“Mandy says that Neptune is very cool.”
“But it's dark and has no caves.”
“Why not, Pontin?”
“Because it's made of gas.”
“I thought gas was hot?”
The dragon blinked its huge yellow eyes. “I know a place with cool waterfalls and caves of ice.”
“Where?”
“Climb on my back.”

Charlie swung himself up onto the dragon's neck and sat astride its shoulders.
“Hold tight.”
With one downbeat of its mighty wings, Pontin was airborne.

In the dimension where logic has no place, Mandy dreamt on.
Instinct insisted that out of the Earth's atmosphere it was necessary to have a spaceship. A battery of flashing lights and several levers immediately surrounded her. The astronomer now felt more in control.
Mandy found she was able to travel faster than light. The laws of physics did not apply here. Her small craft zoomed from sun to sun so she could examine the worlds orbiting them.
Mandy circled a planet close to an orange star. Its angry flares engulfed the cracked craters on the tiny world's carbonised crust. Then her spacecraft hurtled through the storms in the atmosphere of a huge gaseous world and dodged between its hundred moons and thousand rings.
A hundred planets later, Mandy’s curiosity was satisfied.
Then she noticed a dense, dark cube of space. It shouldn't have existed; nothing cosmic could be square. The laws of nature, not Pythagoras, created the Universe. This dimension had not heard about that, however.
Mandy entered the angular anomaly. Bright spheres were dotted about the dark cube like embarrassed Christmas tree baubles. Some were odd colours for suns: pink, brown and green as well as blue, yellow and red. Where in space was she?
Suddenly one of the red spheres hurtled from nowhere and clipped her spacecraft's tail. As she span, Mandy saw the bright globe disappear into a black hole. It was like a deep drain that not even light could not escape from. There were more black holes at regular intervals about the cube. They were dark and deep as though whirlpool monsters were sucking at the other end of them with cosmic straws.
The spacecraft juddered to a halt. Mandy then saw what had catapulted the red sphere at her. It was a vast golden creature. She had gleaming scales the size of planets and a tail that brushed suns from the star clusters outside the cube every time she moved. In her fiery fingers was a rod of quasar light.
On the other side of the black cube floated a billowing hydrogen cloud. It clutched a cue similar to Golden Tail's. The cloud constantly changed shape like a vast red amoeba. Mandy was sure that they were laughing at her. She became annoyed. Massive or not, these characters should not have been in the scheme of any universe she knew. They were astronomical absurdities.
She flew her spacecraft under the nose of Golden Tail and looked into her supernova eyes. For a moment, Mandy was afraid the creature would breathe her in. Then the eyes turned into clusters of blue stars and the scales puffed out into the rainbow rings of planetary nebulae.
The astronaut hastily backed away a few light years. It was too late. Golden Tail flicked her little finger and sent the spacecraft spinning. The monster raised her cue and struck a white sphere. This cannoned into Mandy's spacecraft which accelerated at the speed of light into a black hole. Mandy should have been stretched into spaghetti and squished out of existence. But she wasn’t.
Her spacecraft reached the event horizon, the point where not even light could escape the hole's gravitational pull, and she didn't seem to be growing any taller.
Suddenly Mandy was travelling through a shimmering tunnel, then she scudded out into an even stranger dimension. There should have been gravitational hurricanes, dimensional whirlpools or angels blowing trumpets. But Mandy’s ears didn’t even ‘pop’. Here the galaxies were square and suns triangular. This wasn’t just impossible, it was ridiculous. Gravity always made things round. Moons went round planets, planets went round suns, suns went round galaxies and galaxies went … round and round. A universe without gravity did not make sense.
At least the planets didn’t have corners. The nearest one was almost ovoid. Mandy went into an orbit about it.
Fronds of plasma wriggled from the world's surface like thin agitated worms. They twitched this way and that as though inviting her down. Before it occurred to Mandy that they were trying to snare prey, her spacecraft was caught in their web. Like a fly, it was pulled down until she was suspended over a bottomless hole in the strange planet.
Mandy could see right through to the other side as though it had been cored like an apple.
A brilliant beam of light soared up and enveloped her spacecraft. It was slowly sucked into the hole.

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