By Jane Maree
Surrounded by the bustle of the Holuvian Interstellar market, I finally admit how bad of a pickle I’m in.
No, not just a pickle. This is worse. It’s a situation.
This situation has left me stranded on an unknown planet with nary a coin nor friend to my name. I grip my hat, jostled by the floods of spaceport locals filling the garish marketplace, yet I feel, remarkably… alone.
Nowhere to go. No one to go to.
“What can I do for ya?” A portly merchant leans over his stall of navigation tech. “Good sturdy compasses for your travels?” he adds, eyeing my rough garb.
“Actually,” I confess, “my ride lifted out of here without me, so I’m looking to make my own way. Any work going around?”
“What d’ya do?”
“I, uh…” Used to be a peddler. Illegal goods, obviously. An honest merchant would as soon spit on me as help me if he knew. My type does his type out of their jobs.
The merchant frowns. “You ain’t from here.”
“I’m from the trade ring,” I admit.
“Ah.” His brows rise. “Didn’t lose anyone when it blew?”
My hands tremble on my hat brim. I’m not ready to go there, yet. “Nope. Got lucky,” I lie expertly. My father taught me good. “Part of the job,” he’d always said.
The merchant responds, but my own quickening pulse drowns him out. I employ my usual tactic to cover the building emotion: cocky bravado. “By the stars! I’ve just spotted an old pal.” I clap my hat on and make my escape.
Shouldering through the market, I find a relatively quiet corner and take refuge from the human tide on an upturned crate.
I curse the trembly feeling in my chest. Of course, people would ask about the trade ring explosion. I should’ve been ready for it.
Being a survivor means picking up the pieces and starting again. Alone.
Something scuffles behind me. A dog bounds into view in a dazzle of light—because instead of a creature of flesh and fur, this one seems to be made of stars.
Coalesced from tiny, glittering specks, the dog sniffs at the cobblestones. A sail-jet swoops overhead, and the dog follows the sound; it spots me and grins, bounding forward.
The star-dog noses my knuckles, and I chuckle, almost expecting my fingers to go through his translucent form, but he’s quite solid.
I scratch his chin. No collar. “Do you belong to someone?” I murmur. “Or are you alone too?”
His tongue lolls, and his coat-galaxy ripples in a mesmerizing swirl of blue and silver.
None of the passersby spare us a second glance. “Anyone looking for you?” I rub the dog’s ears.
The dog’s ears prick. In the hubbub, I can’t tell who called, but Kip wheels and bounds off, trailing an afterimage of stardust.
Disappointment curdles, but Kip returns moments later, darting around the legs of a tall, scowling man.
I scramble up as he strides toward me, trench coat collar flapping against his neck. “What do you mean, he can see you?” the man demands, steel-blue eyes narrow.
I think… he’s talking to the dog.
The man’s frown intensifies onto me. “What do you mean, you can see him?”
I swallow. “I’m… sorry?”
“You can see Kip?”
I glance at the dog, then back. “Yeah.” Is Kip invisible to everyone else? That would explain why no one seems perturbed by the star-dog. Perhaps I can see him because of my… talent.
“What’s your name?”
This is too much. I cross my arms. “What’s it to you?”
“Jesse Kieffer,” he accuses.
I step backward. How does he know? Why did he even ask? Most of all, what in the galaxies is going on?
“You look like your father.” His glower softens.
He knows—knew—my father? “I’m sorry, who are you?”
“An old friend.” His gaze pierces me. “I heard they died on the trade ring.” He leaves the words hanging, and something in his tone suggests… he knows about me.
I was with my family when the trade ring exploded. But unlike everyone else, I didn’t die while floating in space.
That’s my curse. I can live in the void.
Which brings me right back to survivor and alone.
The stranger hums. “That’s unfortunate.”
Unfortunate? I bristle. “Excuse me?”
“No, no, not like that.” He brushes off my frown. “Your father owed me a favor. I was trying to track him down to help me with a job.”
This sounds too tempting. A job? An old family friend? “I don’t remember him mentioning you. What’s your name?”
“Call me Major.”
I cock one brow. “That’s what my father called you?”
Major snorts but doesn’t elaborate.
The peddler business taught me enough about manipulation to see that this man wants something from me. That should be enough to make me cautious, but… what more can I lose? I have no life to go back to, even if I had a ship to take me there. My chest clenches at the idea of this strange man and his dog leaving me, alone and stranded.
Kip watches me, ears pricked and tail wagging.
I shove my hands into my pockets. “What’s the job?”
“Just a couple misplaced items to collect.”
I’m pretty sure he knows I can tell he’s lying.
He raises his eyebrows. “What’s it going to be, Kieffer? You following in your old man’s footsteps? There’s pay and board covered.”
“I’m in.” I thrust my hand forward to shake.
“Good.” Major strides away, carving a path through the market.
Kip bounds after him, then scampers back, looking up hopefully.
“I don’t have all day!” Major calls over his shoulder.
“On your six,” I reply, then raise my eyebrows and shrug at the dog.
Kip mimics the motion and I find myself grinning, despite the unknown-but-certain danger ahead.
The dog made of stardust trots at my heels, and I feel a little less alone.