Cici dropped a bite of her veggie-paste lettuce wrap into her coat pocket.
Not good, grumbled the tiny creature inside it. She sent Cici an indignant mental image of a pile of something yellow and steaming. Vomit or excrement, Cici supposed, although she wasn’t sure which.
Me, me, cheeped the creature in her other pocket. He jumped up and down, then stretched his tiny front paws up, digging his claws into the fabric and starting to climb.
Settle down, you, Cici told the male hastily, ripping off another bit of lettuce and stuffing it into the pocket on top of him. He fell back into the fabric, the lettuce over him, then rolled around trying to get to it. She put her hand over the pocket, trying to hide the movement from the customer standing in front of her ticket counter.
“Sorry to interrupt your lunch,” the woman said.
The words sounded less than genuine, but Cici shot her a bright smile anyway. “Not at all,” she said. “One for the exhibit?”
“Is it really worth that much?” The woman nodded to the sign above Cici’s head. “Forty credits seems like a hefty price to look at a bunch of old junk.”
“I guess it depends on your interests,” Cici replied. What the heck was the creature doing? It was wiggling around like a contortionist.
Not good! The creature’s cheep was filled with disgust. Not food! Hungry! HUNGRY!
The woman sighed. “My boss said it was great. Not to be missed. A must-see. I don’t suppose there’s a brochure or something I could look at?
Soon, Cici promised the creature.
“I’m afraid not,” she told her customer. “The gift shop has some postcards, but the exhibit’s curator believes surprise is an essential element of the experience.” Cici suspected the curator was avoiding admitting that he had no idea what some of the displays were, but she wasn’t going to share that fact with a customer, even if only a potential customer. Some of the artifacts were, in fact, quite surprising.
The woman gave a rueful shake of her head. “Forty credits,” she muttered. “A week’s worth of water on Stanzia.”
Stanzia? Cici’s attention sharpened. The woman didn’t look like a miner. Her fingernails were polished and pointed, the latest style on Hollis. Her eyes were lined with glitter, also a Hollis style. And her hair shimmered with light-reflecting iridescence. No one on Stanzia would waste their time, or their hard-earned credits, to get such perfect hair.
“Stanzia?” she asked, keeping her voice casual. Under the counter, she began flicking rapidly through a row of cards. She thought she remembered seeing one that referenced Stanzia. Where was it?
“You’ve heard of it?” The woman sounded surprised. “Not many people have.”
“You’re a long way from home,” Cici replied.
“Thank goddess,” the woman replied with a laugh. “And if I never get back there, it’ll be decads too soon.”
In her pocket, the male creature dug his claws into the cloth and started climbing again. This time, it was the cloth against Cici’s leg. She could feel the claws, like pinpricks, through the fabric. She poked him. Stop that, she ordered.
He whimpered and then howled, Aaaoooow, Aaaaoooow.
The woman touched her ear, then glanced around the lobby. “Did you hear that?”
“Hear what?” Cici said. She pulled out the card she’d been looking for and waved it in the air. “You’re in luck. I can offer you a discount. Half-price.”
The second creature must have heard her friend. She began to howl, too. Aaaoooow, aaaaoooow. Together, the two of them sounded like the whistle on a faraway steam kettle.
The woman rubbed her ear, frowning, looking around again, but her eyes fell on the card. “Half-price? Really?”
“You’ll be the first Stanzia resident to see the exhibit,” Cici explained. “The collector collects… many things.”
“Huh.” The woman looked intrigued. She rested an arm on the counter, leaning forward. “Not too many Stanzia folk around these parts.” Her speech had suddenly dropped from crisp enunciation to a slightly nasal drawl.
Cici pursed her lips. The creatures in her pockets were both complaining, as vociferously as three-inch high monsters without speech could.
Hush, she ordered them. Busy. Food soon.
Hungry, the male whimpered, while the female creature sent her a piteous, jumbled image of darkness. Solitary darkness. Lonely, terrifying, miserable, all alone in the darkness.
The emotions were so intense that Cici felt tears springing into the corners of her eyes. She blinked them back briskly as she told the customer, “The exhibit will be traveling next year. The collector is headed out to the Stygian Cluster. That’s a lot closer to Stanzia, I believe.”
“Still,” the woman said. “A crystal in the hand…”
“…is worth two in the dirt?” Cici finished the saying for her. She tapped the edge of the card against the counter. She didn’t have the authority to bargain with the customers. Really, this woman ought to be happy to get a discount price. “Twenty credits is a good deal.”
“Five credits would be a better deal,” the woman said. “And I’d still be able to eat lunch, which frankly, I care about a lot more than some moldering old artifacts.”
All alone, the female dog whimpered.
Aaaaoooow! AAAAOOOOW! The other one howled.
The woman looked around again, frowning. “What is that noise?”
Cici ignored the question. “Done.” She extended the card to the woman.
Separate pockets, clearly a bad idea. They were pack animals. The female creature wasn’t as hungry as the male — well, of course not. She’d gobbled down their owner. He’d only managed to lick up a bit of the blood after she was done. But the female was lonely and the male was starving and Cici had to do something about both those things. Quickly. And without a witness.
“For reals?” The woman gave a chuckle of delighted surprise, but took the card. “Best not visit Stanzia, you’ll get taken for a ride.”
“No plans to,” Cici said as she gestured toward the exhibit. “Enjoy yourself.”
The woman disappeared through the door.
No plans to, Cici thought, hushing the dogs again. But if she got caught with these dogs and had to explain what had happened to their owner, who knew how far and fast she might have to run?