Ikko Mayfield was a Collector in training, and therefore it was his place to stand on the sidelines and observe the process. But with Tara Draxler as his mentor, there was rarely much of anything to observe when it came to technique.
The sun beat down on them mercilessly while Ikko stood back with hands on his hips. Tara’s red hair glowed under the summer sunlight, a halo of fire. She crouched to study a shimmering black residue left on the nearby rocks. Something she had been doing for far longer than necessary in Ikko’s opinion.
“You know who squints like that in broad daylight?” he asked. “People who need glasses.”
Without looking up, Tara replied, “My eyesight is fine.”
“Right, that’s why we missed our turn earlier. Because your eyesight is so fine that you thought the sign said ‘Independent Penis’ instead of ‘Inspiration Pointe.’”
Tara scoffed. “I didn’t actually think it said that. The sign went by too fast—no one could have read it.”
“Except for me! I told you that was our turn, but you never listen to me, Tara.”
From the angle at which he stood, he couldn’t see much of his mentor’s face, but her tone allowed him to imagine the way she must have flared her nostrils.
“Well, good for you and your perfect eyes, Ikko. Still doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with my eyes. The only time I ever need to wear glasses is when I read small print.” She thought for a moment and then added, “And when I drive at night.”
“In other words, you need glasses,” Ikko concluded with exasperation. “Or you could let me drive once in a while. Or let me be the one to take samples.”
With a grunt, Tara stood up, knees creaking, and turned to face him. “You know what nobody needs twenty-twenty vision to do, Ikko? Find giant crater—” She extended both arms to the massive crater in the ground not fifteen feet away from where the two stood. “—and extract fallen star. I could literally do this job in my sleep.”
And she did half the time. Ikko couldn’t count the number of meetings Tara had slept through, forcing him to take notes for her perusal later. It was frustrating to feel like he was doing both their jobs, and yet, he still wasn’t a full-fledged Collector. He was still tied to the semi-incompetent Tara Draxler.
“But you want more responsibility?” Tara opened her backpack and removed a pair of large, metal tongs, outfitted with sharp claws at the end of the contraption. “You can go extract the star while I take samples of stardust.”
Wide-eyed, Ikko held his breath as he hesitantly accepted the tongs and the crinkly, silver hazard bag designed for containing fallen stars safely. “By myself?” he asked just to be sure he wasn’t imagining things. Tara nodded.
“Like you said, you’ve gained lots of experience in the last two years, and I should listen to you more often.”
The tongs were heavy in his hand. The task of extraction had never been left to Ikko alone. He was always assisting Tara or trying to ignore Tara breathing down his neck while she watched him with a critical intensity. He swallowed hard.
“Yeah, okay. Easy, just…extract the star. No problem.”
He apparently needed more convincing of his ability than Tara did; she immediately went back to squinting at the residue from the fallen star that colored the surrounding rocks sparkling shades of charcoal gray and black. Forcing himself to take a deep breath, Ikko approached the lip of the crater.
There was an acrid stench and an electric zing in the air. Trees had been flattened all around the crater in a two-mile radius. He slipped the tongs and the hazard bag into his own backpack, freeing his hands to descend the rock wall into the crater. Slick palms were not great for rock climbing, and Ikko’s palms had never been sweatier. What was Tara’s game, letting him do this without any supervision?
He slipped down the last five feet, tumbling to his hands and knees. Getting to his feet, he then turned his hands over. His skin was covered in sparkling black stardust. The residue from fallen stars was toxic; he would need to shower thoroughly after this excursion. Dusting off his hands, Ikko picked his way across the blackened ground toward the center of the crater. The air shimmered around where the star landed, like heat waves distorting his vision. With fumbling hands, he dug the gas mask out of his backpack and strapped it over his mouth and nose—something he should have done before lowering himself into the crater.
The ground crunched beneath his shoes, and the sound of his exhalations were magnified inside the mask. Even through the gas mask, there was a burning quality to the air that made his nose and the back of his throat itch.
The heat given off by fallen stars was so hot it was almost cold. Ikko shivered and retrieved the tongs and the hazard bag. The crater deepened suddenly and steeply into a narrow hole in the ground. Ikko peered over the edge. At the bottom of the hole was a faint white light that hissed and spat sparks. It seemed to expand and contract slightly, like the star was breathing. Getting on his knees, he placed the hazard bag beside him and gripped the tongs with both hands.
He opened the tongs, the end of which looked more and more like a fanged maw the longer he sat there staring at it. Ikko’s heart frantically beat against his ribs as he leaned over the hole and scooped the fallen star into a clawed embrace.
Normally, this was the part where he or Tara locked the tongs in place, lifted the star out of the hole, and deposited the star in the hazard bag. Plucked and bagged, easy peasy. But when Ikko pulled, he was met with resistance. The fallen star brightened, shining through the clawed tongs. With a shudder, cilia-like strings shot out of the light and latched onto the rocks.
The white light flickered. Horrified, Ikko stared as an eyeball—made of white light and black void—blinked into existence. It turned to look up at Ikko.
Releasing the tongs, he scrambled backward doing a mad crabwalk. Silver cilia appeared, rapidly pulling the shining eyeball from the heart of the crater. Looking at that thing burned. Ikko forgot how to breathe, forgot how to move. He laid frozen on the ground as the cilia shifted the giant eyeball until it locked onto him again. It skittered across the crater, shrieking like metal being shredded.
In his studies to become a Collector, he had heard about strange, celestial creatures. Collecting fallen stars was a bit like collecting seashells on a beach. Most of them were empty, but once in a while there would be an acquatic animal using the shell as a home. Ikko had read all about the documented creatures found living inside fallen stars. However, nothing could have prepared him to see one towering over him as it burned his eyes and blotted out his vision.
Suddenly, the glowing eyeball split down the middle. The dark void at its center widened fearfully, and the cilia thrashed, but it was too late. The gash grew bigger, tearing the eyeball in two and splashing some unknown substance on the ground that immediately began to melt the rocks. The giant eyeball flopped about for a minute. When its dying twitches ceased, the thing looked more like a beached jellyfish. Struggling to catch his breath, Ikko looked up.
Tara stood over him, the sunlight behind her red hair shining like a victorious beacon. She gripped a sickle with a long, curved blade. When it was clear that the celestial eyeball was dead, she dropped the weapon to her side and offered Ikko a hand.
“And that,” she said calmly, yanking Ikko to his feet, “is why you always examine the stardust very carefully before you extract the star.”
“You…” Ikko panted as he looked from the remains of the eyeball back to his mentor. “You knew that thing was in there?”
“I knew something was in there.” Tara held up a glass tube of stardust so that it caught the light. “See how the dust has a greenish-gold undertone? That’s a sure sign that the fallen star is ocupado.”
“And you didn’t think to tell me?!”
“I was going to, and then you started ragging on me about my eyesight.”
“That thing could have killed me, Tara!”
The beaming smile she bestowed upon Ikko caught him so off guard that his outrage momentarily fizzled. “I know.” A firm but friendly hand landed on his shoulder and squeezed. “Congratulations! Nobody becomes an official Collector until their first near-death experience. I had yours under control, but I say it still counts.”
Ikko blinked in shock. “I’m…a Collector now?”
“Yep! Trust me, this experience will be burned into your memory from now until the end of time. Are you ever going to rush the extraction process again?”
He vehemently shook his head. Adrenaline was still singing through his veins, and the thought that he was about to die still echoed in his head like a death knell.
“Great! Then I dub thee a Collector.” Tara held up her hand as if she was about to knight him and then smacked his forehead instead. She grinned. “Welcome to the club.”
Despite his simmering anger, Ikko smiled. If he had been paired with a different mentor who set him loose long before this, Ikko could have very well been working alone today. The creature living inside the fallen star would have taken him by surprise, and he might have died. He would never admit it to her face, but perhaps Tara wasn’t such a bad mentor after all.