The Creature (excerpt from The Gypsy Pearl)

“You’re crazy, Caz! What if they come back?”

“They won’t,” I snapped. “They’re on Deck 9 with the other gypsies from Tye.”

I don’t know why Felly followed me, but I wasn’t going to let her ruin my fun. Ever since Mom left, she’s been trying to run my life, and after ten years, it’s getting old. I’m fourteen. I don’t need a mother.

I pulled my ponytail tighter and tried to walk calmly down the beige corridor. The grated flooring echoed beneath me, and the faint vacuum vents pulled at the cloth soles of my coversuit.

I’d timed it right. The guard was on break, and I’d be able to get into the docking area undetected. It had taken me seven tries, but it would be worth it. The only thing that broke the boredom on an Interplanetary City Station like the Arxon was when Surface dwellers docked to refuel and go through quarantine before travelling on to another planet. The Arxon’s speed made it a popular ICS.

This time was special, though. A few weeks ago, gypsies had come up from Tye on their way to Caren.

Felly eyed the blinking lights. “What if they have an alarm system?”

“They’re gypsies, Felly. Not ICS dwellers.” I slid through the door. Several hangars stretched down to the right. Each craft had been docked with its aft facing out over the main cargo bay below, but the one I cared about lay right in front of me: a gypsy space buggy.

Felly followed me a few steps. “That thing’s a heap. I don’t know how it even flies.”

I rolled my eyes at her superiority complex. Gypsies don’t stuff themselves into all the rules of ICS dwellers, so they’re free to come up with better ideas, including their spacecrafts. I’ve explained this to Felly before, but she thinks that being older means being smarter.

“I bet they never take this one down to the Surface so they don’t have to worry about it burning up in the atmosphere.” I walked slowly around the space buggy.

Felly bit her nails and watched the empty guard post. I shook my head. “No one’s coming, Felly. I’ll bet you my dessert no one will even care that we’re here.”

“The gypsies will care. And the security guard. And the Station Master.” Felly frowned like Dad. “Have you no respect for order?”

I ignored her and ran my hand over the windows, trying to peek inside. “I bet they’ve got amazing things in there.” Felly never gets excited about Surface goods. I breathed in the smell of the metal—metal that had been all around the Granbo System. I’d eavesdropped enough to know that the gypsies who owned this craft were traders, not migrant workers.

“C’mon, Caz. We need to get out of here.”

“I know. Haven’t you figured out that’s what I want more than anything?”

Felly folded her arms. “Caz, you get to travel all around the solar system and meet fascinating ambassadors. If you were down on the Surface, you’d be living in primitive colonies. You should be grateful to live on the biggest and best ICS in the system.”

She’ll never understand me. Who wants to live in a space rest stop that’s between the places people really want to go?

“Someone’s coming!” hissed Felly, shuffling into a hangar two doors down.

I ducked behind the space buggy, clinging to the rear thrusters with my fingers. A false step would mean a twenty-meter drop, so I pressed up against the craft.

Down below, the wide metallic floor was lit with red glowing strips to direct the caddies. Only a few workers monitored the area. One groomed himself in his reflection on the shiny metal support beams. Everything is shiny here. It’s all I’ve ever known, but no one can convince me it’s the natural order of things because I can’t stay shiny for a whole day, let alone forever.

A woman turned in my direction, and I leaned back further into the space buggy. Suddenly, a small hatch opened under me, and I landed on my butt in the smallest cargo hull ever.

I peeked out cautiously. No one below had taken notice, so I relaxed. Enough light reached in to see the interior, but I didn’t glance past the first thing I saw.

Wood!

A curved box—a really old piece. It smelled dirty and foreign and wonderful. The tiny ridges of the wood grain tickled my fingertips, and I rested my cheek against its dark beauty. An antique like this would bring an astronomical price with collectors.

I twisted the old-fashioned lock made of brass, or maybe gold. A loud click echoed in the largely metallic chamber, and I winced. I checked over my shoulder for movement below, but the grooming guy was gone, and the other two were talking to each other.

When I turned back, a pair of bright yellow eyes glowed from under the open lid!

I screamed.

A cat-sized humanoid emerged without blinking. It leapt onto me, knocking me back onto my elbows. Its eyes narrowed, pinning me down with their intensity. The creature crouched on my stomach and started sniffing at my arms. Its mouth came open, and I almost screamed again. There were a lot of teeth in there. Sharp teeth.

“Don’t eat me,” I whimpered, looking at it sideways.

It wore a brown and green coversuit like the beige ones most of us wear on the Arxon. A thin layer of white fuzz covered its head, but otherwise its pale grey skin actually gleamed. It really did appear very human except for the mouth and eyes. That should have been comforting.

Exhaling slowly, I tried to shift to get some leverage to kick away.

Sharp nails popped from the tips of its fingers like retractable claws. In a flash, the creature slashed my right shoulder. A burning pain propelled me into action. No longer worried about making noise, I scrambled back out of the space buggy, banging my head on the hatch in my haste. Disoriented, I lost my balance, and one leg dropped over the ledge.

The creature caught my arm with superhuman strength. Holding a tiny white ball between its thumb and forefinger, it spoke with a gravelly voice. “Never steal pearl!”

“I didn’t steal anything!”

With a violent shove, the creature crammed the ball into my wound and hurled me away from the ledge before slithering back into the craft.

Panting, I crawled out of the hangar, feeling the grates of the floor dig into my kneecaps and palms. Drips of blood fell through the vents, and I wondered vaguely if some computer would analyze the debris and know it was me.

Exhausted from the adrenaline rush, I almost didn’t hear the footsteps clanging down the corridor. “You!” called a guard. “What are you doing here?”

Cupping my hand over my shoulder, I rose awkwardly. “I’m sorry. I was just—”

“Oh, it’s you, Caz,” said the guard gruffly. “Go wash up, brat. And don’t come down here again.”

I hesitated because I couldn’t see Felly.

“Mr. Lew will hear of this.” He wagged a finger. “You’re supposed to be on the family deck. Go to the rec hall like the other kids. Don’t you know where you belong?” He waved me away, shaking his head.

I ran along the corridor and ducked into a washroom. An elderly lady glared at me disapprovingly, so I lunged for the sink, careful to avoid eye contact. My general disheveled nature always gets scowls from the life-long ICS dwellers. They love to give me demerits for my sloppiness.

I worked quickly to rinse away the blood. The instant the fresh water touched my skin, I felt relief from the pain.

“What the—?”

Not even a scar remained.

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