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Stranded Stars

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The day the sky fell started out horribly, which is to say it started out like an ordinary Tuesday at the PhD program Chuck Izumi-Marques remained vastly unqualified for. She’d applied on a hope and a prayer, really, and when the acceptance letter came in the mail, she almost threw it out, sure it was a rejection, before noticing lines like “pleased to inform you” and “more information to follow.” After that, she just about passed out from excitement. Now, here she was, half a world away, studying under the world’s premiere scholar on animal-habitat interactions, baking in the damp Hoenn sun, and never living up to her mentor’s expectations. Professor Birch. He knew she’d just taken three years off from school, didn’t he? And yet—

“Charlotte! What kind of incompetent ecologist can’t even measure a zigzagoon?” Birch barked. Chuck’s hands shook, and she dropped the tape measure for the third time, startling the animal in her lap.

“It’s Chuck, sir.”

Birch tutted. “I don’t have time for impertinence. Finish up this specimen and then take a lunch break.” He bent down and handed the tape measure to Chuck, leaning pointedly on his cane. Chuck avoided his gaze and felt terrible as she did so, grabbing the tape measure too tightly and biting her chapped lips enough to taste blood. Birch stood up. “Hopefully this afternoon you’ll remember how to hold a tape measure.”

Chuck sighed. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t say you’re sorry. Show me you’re as good in person as you were on paper.” And he hobbled away, an urgency in his step that told Chuck, you can do better.

And Chuck agreed with him, which was the worst part of it all.

As a kid, Chuck remembered seeing travel brochures—“Hoenn, an island paradise! Come snorkel! Come hike mount Chimney! Come see the craters!” Nowhere did it say, “Come get eaten by mosquitoes! Come sweat so much you nearly pass out! Come get a horrible sunburn, even if you’re not white!” She wanted a refund on this goddamn tropical sinkhole. At least her parents’ new jobs allowed them to move here with her.

Chuck coaxed the zigzagoon to the ground and with a gentle touch measured its height, girth, and snout length. The raccoon-like critter relaxed at her touch, almost instinctively, and the knot in her chest loosened infinitesimally. The animals were the best part of the job. The zigzagoon chirruped happily and licked Chuck’s hand as she put it down and led it back to the burrow. She sighed. This would be a long six years.

Chuck walked over to the shade of a giant palm tree and sat, drinking water slowly. Her joints throbbed. The leaves waved in a breeze she couldn’t feel, flickering sunlight on and off her face like a lightbulb that didn’t quite work, like the wind just wasn’t trying hard enough. She let out a breath. Sweat pooled in the bags under her eyes. The place where her right knee met her prosthetic was rubbed raw, maybe from sweat or maybe just from working with someone who always saw how far she had to go and not how far she’d come. She stared up at the palm leaves, hanging limply. There wasn’t even a mediocre coconut to be seen between overexposed green fronds and a sky that remained shittily, tauntingly blue. Hadn’t those fronds been moving in a breeze the moment before? Or at least something had flickered the sun off her face for a second…

THUD. A flash, the world lighting up, and then darkness as Chuck was thrown to the ground, dust in her throat, coughing, eyes seared with the afterimage of whatever that was, ears still pounding with that sound, that thud that shook everything including the base of her spine. Then, a frightening stillness. In the distance, a taillow cried.

Chuck tried to inhale and began to cough violently, feeling a bruise on her ribcage as she did so. she wanted to stand up and move somewhere more comfortable than this rocky clay path littered with weeds, but she knew as soon as she moved, she’d probably fall over, so instead she just lay there for a moment, feeling the earth cool sweat beneath her back and wayward clumps of grasses tickle her fingertips. The breeze made another feeble attempt. The air smelled like stone and metal. Chuck let out a cautious exhale, and the bruises didn’t feel as bad that time, so she slowly stretched out her arm and rolled over onto her side. She blinked.

Before her, in the dust, in a crater the size of a beach umbrella, lay a small fiberglass sphere. Despite presumably falling from the sky just seconds ago, it was undamaged, with the top half colored red, the bottom half colored white, and a thin black band separating the two. In the middle of the black band lay a small white button. Chuck sat up, slowly. The orb gleamed, like it hadn’t just slammed into a humid dirt road, like it hadn’t just kicked up a dust cloud, like someone in a hospital had sterilized it to bring into an operating room. Chuck inched closer.

Trying as hard as possible not to disturb the crater, she picked up the ball. It felt surprisingly light, and just slightly warm in her hands, but a dry kind of warm, the kind she longed for. She turned it over in her fingers. It seemed larger than a baseball and smaller than a softball, and heavier than both but not by much.

Where had this come from? Did it fall off some kid’s science project? Did a shuttle launch at Mossdeep go wrong? Chuck couldn’t even remember if there was a shuttle launch this week. She stepped back. She took a deep breath.

She pressed the button.

The ball shot out of her hands in an arc, up to the palm trees and down where it blossomed into light. Even in the day, it burned bright, like a small star brought down to earth, bright like a hospital light but kinder. Much kinder. And then, from the light, something started growing. A pair of metallic tendrils snaked through the light, a bright orange and blue like someone had taken metal ropes and fashioned them into limbs, living limbs, crawling out of the star followed by a lithe gray body and orange head, all alive, all metallic and organic and aerodynamically curving, emerging out of the light as the ball clattered emptily to the ground. For a moment, the two of them just stared at each other.

The creature stood exactly Chuck’s height on two metallic stalk legs without discernible feet. Its face lacked a mouth or a nose, but its eyes glowed even in the day, and instead of arms it had two long tentacles, one blue and one orange, just a little too long for its body. The orange and blue protrusions on its hips and forehead reminded Chuck of rocket fins. A round light blinked in the center of its chest. Slowly, the creature reached out a tentacle.

Chuck had raised animals since she was five. She’d worked in a safari zone for three years, studied animal biology for eight, and in all that, had never seen or heard of anything like this beauty. She stared into its eyes and it stared back into hers, and in that moment she knew she was seeing something so unique she couldn’t even begin to comprehend it.

Chuck smiled with her whole body. “God, you’re beautiful.”

The creature’s chest light began to blink rapidly. It looked around, almost panicked. Its light shut off. It ran. It shot down route 101, past all the test burrows and away towards Oldale, quickly becoming an orange speck in the dust. Screw her lunch break. Like an idiot, Chuck followed the creature down the road and didn’t look back.

 

"Procyon Derectus is a member of the genus Procyon, which goes by the common name of raccoons. The juvenile members of the species are referred to as zigzagoon, due to the zigzag patterns in their fur, while the mature members of the species are referred to as linoone, since the zigzags straighten out into lines as the creature grows. It originates in the island nation of Hoenn, although due to its love of small spaces, including but not limited to abandoned excadrill burrows and cargo ship holds, it has slowly started making its way to other regions. While Procyon Derectus has the ability to create burrows for themselves, it rarely does so outside of its original island home. Current research at Hoenn’s Oldale University focuses largely on understanding why Procyon Derectus only constructs burrows in its native land, and not in other regions."--The Complete Guide to Hoenn Wildlife