By Jane Maree
“A bard here sells stardust?” I tug my top hat low and flip up my collar, adjusting my oxygen mask as I scan the dock.
Mister Kieffer drops from the rope ladder hanging from the Nebula’s railing. “Aye.” Maskless, he’s only a little breathless in the oxygenless Holuvian atmosphere.
It’s risky to let a prisoner be my guide, but Kieffer says he can get me to the stardust guardian. If his stardust can grant me one wish, it’s worth any risk. His parents supposedly used stardust to wish him the ability to breathe without oxygen, so he is proof these wishes work.
I can wish my parents alive again.
“Ready?” Kieffer smirks, but his eyes betray bitterness.
I nod and we step through the subtle shimmer of the oxygen seal into the Interstellar city.
Voices mingle with the buzz of machinery. Sail-jets swoop overhead. Footsteps scuff the grey Holuvian dust. I keep my head bowed, unsure whether the news has been broadcast here yet.
“This is what the trade ring sounded like before…” Kieffer’s voice holds barely-contained bitterness.
Before I blew it into space dust. But the Alliance is responsible for the destruction, not me. Because they made me who I am—Peter Dolion, the notorious pirate captain.
I pocket my mask and pinch some pin-powder from a hidden pouch. My compass is wired to track this microchip powder to the other end of the galaxy if necessary.
In case this bard refuses to bargain. Let him try to run from me and thwart my plans.
“Here.” Kieffer ducks into a pub.
The minty hint of Holuvian-style rum stings my nostrils. I pause within the doorway, swamped by discordant noise. One voice leads the rest in a rowdy shanty, and I scan the room until I find the source. A bard sits on the end of the bar, lute in hand.
I start forward, but Kieffer stops me. “Not him.”
“What do you mean?” I growl. “You said—”
“I said a bard at the Interstellar. BARD is an acronym. ‘Beyond Any Reasonable Doubt.’ Peddlers use it when we’re not sure exactly who the client is.”
I grab his collar. “You don’t know who it is?”
“I’ve heard enough descriptions.” Kieffer frees himself and turns toward a table in the corner.
A woman in traveler’s garb looks up from her stew as we approach. Her green eyes flick between us, and she raises her eyebrows.
I sit across from her without invitation. Her hand drops beneath the table and I reach for the gun beneath my tailcoat.
“I’m Jesse Kieffer.” My prisoner-turned-guide offers his hand toward the woman.
She eyes him, then shakes his hand. “Kalopsia.” She looks at me. “What are you doing here?”
From the tone, I guess she recognizes me. “I come to barter for wishing stardust.”
I stiffen. “I’m simply being polite. If you won’t sell me your stardust, I will take it.”
Kalopsia doesn’t flinch. “I don’t sell to pirates. Even ones in top hats.”
“I don’t think you understand—”
“What would you wish for?” She leans forward, gaze pinning me.
I lean forward too, trembling hands clenched. “I’d wish my parents alive again.”
She sags back and a grimace quirks the corner of her mouth. “You cannot undo the past, Dolion. You can only wish something new for the future.”
My heart rends. It can’t be. This was my hope, my second chance, and now she tells me I can’t?
In a brutal instant, I see my past clearly: a boy and his desperate parents. Part of a pirate crew fleeing the Alliance’s hunters, with only two choices—make our hunters fear us, or be killed.
My parents couldn’t endure life as fugitives. They slowed me down.
I killed them.
If I can’t change the past, I can only continue to punish the Alliance for making their deaths necessary. And punish them, I will.
I thrust my finger at Kalopsia. “You’ll regret making me your enemy.”
While she glowers at me, I slip a pinch of tracking powder into her stew.
I give Kalopsia a final glare and sweep from the room.
Kieffer catches up to me at the docks as I fish for my mask in my pocket. He steps in front of me, barring the way. “You can’t kill her.”
“I won’t if she doesn’t get in my way.” Even if she’s right, I still have one wish for the future: death to the Alliance.
Kieffer grabs my throat, heaving me toward the shimmering edge of the oxygen seal. I struggle for my gun, but a cold tingle touches the back of my head and I fight to stay inside the city’s oxygen.
“You killed my parents too.” His voice trembles.
Fear clutches my gut. I can see my own hatred in Kieffer’s eyes.
“Killing you will just turn me into you, but I won’t play your game anymore.” He releases me and runs.
I stumble, gasping for breath, but he’s already vanished into the streets. What… just happened? He could have killed me, but instead… he’s gone to warn Kalopsia.
Did he see me lace her stew? Will he stop her from leading me straight to the stardust? I curse and turn back to the Nebula, tugging my mask on.
The gentle ship’s cook meets me aboard, concern creasing his brow. “You get the stardust?”
I withdraw my star-compass, praying that Kieffer hasn’t ruined all. The needle swings for a moment, then steadies. I look up and spot a sail-jet exiting the atmosphere. “I will.”
The words grate in my sore throat, and Kieffer’s parting words resonate. If his vengeance would turn him into me… what has mine turned me into?
I shove the thoughts away. “This is for you,” I whisper to the past. But when I try to visualize my parents, all I see is their bloodied faces.
I close my eyes and curse the Alliance, another crack forming in my splintering heart. “I will avenge you.”