By Jane Maree
We’re a ragtag team, if ever I’ve seen one. Gathered around Major’s battered table in the dimly lit bunker, there’s no less than five kinds of crazy.
Jones, the intellectual, dissecting a cicada under a magnifying glass.
Flint, the muscle; he’s too big for his shirt, probably on purpose.
Qora, the gadgets girl. She keeps staring at me across the table, tossing an electrod between her hands, blue lightning buzzing from the end.
Major, of course, is the boss. And I’m the guy who can breathe in space and see invisible things, like Major’s invisible dog made of stars, Kip. I’m also a fantastic liar.
“Listen up.” Major palms the table, eyeing each of us in turn. “We portal-travel to the location Jones found—we’ll need the lunar nets—”
Qora flips the electrod into her back holster and pats her vest pocket. “Got ‘em.”
“Jones, you’ll stay here with Kip,” Major continues. “Once through the portal, I’ll give the go ahead, and Qora will deploy the nets. Flint is on guard in case we meet opposition. I’ll switch the portal to get the goods to the drop-off.”
I raise my hand. “What am I doing?”
Major grunts. “You’ll see.”
Uncertainty twists my stomach. “What exactly are the ‘goods’?”
Major turns to face me, eyes narrowing. “Just do your job and you’ll get paid like the rest of us.”
I nod confidently—a fantastic lie. Not sure how I’m meant to “do my job” when he hasn’t given me a job to do.
“Are we doing this thing, or not?” Qora’s lilting accent interrupts my thoughts.
Major nods. “Be ready for anything. We can’t afford to mess this up.”
Something in his voice makes me pause. What exactly is he so worried about? And if Major is worried… I glance at Kip, but the star-dog just cocks his head at me.
“Mask up.” Major steps to the cleared space in the middle of the stone bunker, pulling out his oxy-mask. His fingers fly across his watch’s buttons as a swirling portal grows in mid-air before him, silvery-blue as starlight.
Kip stands erect, ears pricked.
“Stay.” Major gestures to the floor beside Kip, obviously not realizing where the dog is, then jerks his head at us. “Ready?”
Qora and Flint vanish through the portal, but I hesitate.
“Get on with it,” Major growls. “I’ve only got enough charge to hold a portal for five minutes.”
I swallow my uncertainty and step through.
Coolness washes over me, my chest tightening as I leave oxygenated atmosphere for the cold vacuum of the void.
Sparkling silver trees form a glittering, ghostly forest. Underfoot, the ground is a pool of black nothingness.
Kip materializes out of the glowing portal.
“Weren’t you meant to stay behind?” My words are swallowed by the void, but Kip seems distracted anyway, staring across the narrow clearing.
Qora pulls a spider silk-thin netting from her pocket, illuminated hauntingly in the trees’ silver light. Flint’s hulking shadow stands watch beside her.
Major steps through the portal, brow furrowed as he gropes for Kip, but the star-dog darts out of reach, still staring away.
I squint into the wavering light.
A glittering form splits from a tree trunk, at first just a mass of stars, then coalescing into… a dog. No, a puppy.
My jaw drops.
Major raises his hand, glancing to Qora, mouthing silent words, then taps his watch. The portal bleeds to red.
I stare as another puppy bounds from the trees, joining its brother.
Kip trembles with a silent whine, tail sweeping.
The puppies approach, first cautious, then bounding forward, shedding shimmering dust.
Qora shifts, net poised. My gaze spins to Major.
His sharp eyes pierce me, and I realize why he needed me on this job.
I’m here to locate “the goods.” They’re going to capture these puppies, then portal them to who-knows-where. What for? My stomach clenches, and I glance at the flickering red portal.
Major’s raised hand flashes down, signaling Qora.
There’s no time to weave one of my artful lies, so instead I follow my gut. Lunge between Quora’s net and the star-dogs.
Electricity shoots through me. I crash to my knees, vision flickering. Kip darts backward and the puppies scatter. Someone grabs my collar and drags me free. Major’s cold gaze sheds fury. His mouth moves, but the words are lost.
The ground shakes. Something’s coming. Major looks up sharply, then scowls and hauls me, stumbling, toward the portal—now a swirling mass of silver and blue once more—the others following.
He shoves me through, and I fall to the bunker floor, palms peeling. Footsteps thud, and I scramble to my feet, still shaky.
Major doesn’t give me a chance to find my balance. “What was that?”
I bunch my fists. “What are you? A star-dog poacher? I thought you actually cared about Kip.”
Major closes the distance between us until we’re chest to chest, his eyes hard and his jaw tight. “You agreed to do the job.”
“What were you going to do to them?”
“I don’t know—” He breaks off too late.
“You don’t…” Realization settles in my gut. “You’re not actually in charge, are you? You’re working for someone else.”
Before he can reply, Jones shouts “Major!” and we both turn. Where Major’s portal had closed seconds before, a red spark flickers, slowly expanding into a vortex of fire.
Major stiffens. “You fool,” he spits.
“It’s them, isn’t it? Your employers.”
“They’ll kill us all.” His voice is hard.
Something moves at my side, and Kip’s starry coat brushes against my knee. He faces the portal, but looks up at me, eyes shining.
I made the right choice. Whoever these people are and whatever they want with the star-dogs, I’m not going to stand down just because Major is worried.
Even though I’m terrified.
I stand taller, eyeing the growing portal, bracing myself for whatever is about to step through. Luckily, fantastic lies are one of my greatest talents.