Black moon, p.2
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       Black Moon, p.2

           Romina Russell
 

  Stan turns away from the table. He still can’t hear the name of the friend he loved like a brother.

  But a different word jumps at me from Strident Engle’s answer. This is the second time he’s said Riser instead of soldier or minion or terrorist, as if the terms were interchangeable.

  On every House, it’s been the same reaction: a blanket vilification of all Risers out of fear they could become unbalanced.

  Fernanda’s warning that all Risers will be made to pay for the actions of the Marad grows louder in my head every day, as does Ferez’s foretelling of a future forged of Risers. A minority of people who have been ostracized by every House may now decide the Zodiac’s fate. Maybe my teachers were right: Maybe happy hearts start with happy homes. Maybe if Risers had been born into a world with a place for them, the master wouldn’t be able to manipulate so many into committing murder in the name of hope.

  “What’s this about?” asks Mathias, gesturing to the tableau of toys. It’s one of just a few questions he’s asked all day. The old Mathias would have demanded to know every detail about the weapon and the captured Marad soldiers, even if it meant violating diplomatic protocol . . . like the time we visited Libra.

  Thinking of the Seventh House makes my mouth go dry, and I clear my throat.

  “We think it’s a message,” says Engle. “They’re telling us to screw off.”

  His serious voice is identical to his sarcastic one, so I never know if he’s feeling content or contentious. It’s the same with every Scorp I’ve met so far, each one a mystery. But since these days it’s impossible to know whom to trust, regardless of House affiliation, it’s nice to know I’m in the company of someone Sirna trusts: Engle is a friend from her diplomatic travels.

  Then again, maybe that’s worse.

  After all, friends make for frightening foes.

  Mathias bumps my shoulder, and I look up. His facial features are hard to make out through the protective suit’s thick membrane, but I can tell he’s shaking his head, and he’s right—we’ve searched the rest of Squary and found nothing. Every House that’s been through here has yielded the same results. It’s time to track down a real lead.

  “I think we’re done,” I say.

  “Then I’ll take you back below sea level.” Strident Engle directs us to an exit: round metal doors built into the floor of every room.

  We descend a set of stairs to a canal system that runs beneath the bunker, and the four of us load into a small, unmanned boat that zips through a tangle of tunnels, toward Squary’s transportation hub.

  Even though Squary is considered one of House Scorpio’s “above-ground” settlements, it’s technically in the ground, since Sconcion’s atmosphere isn’t breathable. But from the perspective of Scorps who live in waterworlds deep within the ocean’s depths, Squary is essentially the surface.

  When our boat bumps gently into a dead end, we climb out and pass through a metal decontamination chamber that sterilizes our suits. Then we step inside a busy submarine station where Scorps are rushing along sleek silver floors to locate their gates and catch connecting rides. Timetables on wallscreens display routes and schedules for passenger subs, and a variety of holographic stands offer travelers options for private rentals and chartered trips.

  The first thing we do is strip off our heavy suits and deposit them in a designated chute. Without the mask, at last my view is unobstructed. Across from us, floor-to-ceiling windows look into the dark blue ocean, and Stanton and Mathias immediately make their way over to watch the fish parading past, spanning every color in Nature’s palette.

  It must be nearly sunset because Helios’s red rays are setting the top layer of water on fire. Normally I’d be running to the window to check it all out, too. But today I hang back with Engle, watching him as he consults the wallscreen nearest us. I’m still startled by the Strident’s translucent skin and scarlet eyes; he hails from Oscuro, the deepest waterworld on Sconcion, which doesn’t see sunlight.

  “It’s not racist to stare at the unknown,” he says, suddenly meeting my gaze, “or to be astonished by it.”

  I feel my cheeks heating up. “I didn’t—I’m sorry, it’s just—”

  “Don’t finish that excuse. Just refer to my previous statement.”

  I wish there was a translation guide for speaking with Scorps. Once again, I’ve no clue where I stand with Engle.

  A news report starts playing on another wallscreen, and my gut clenches as a montage of Cancrians in refugee camps across the Zodiac begins to play. I can’t hear the narration over all the noise, but I can imagine what the anchor is saying.

  At first the Houses were happy to take our people in and give us aid. One would think that with thirty-four habitable planets—well, thirty-one now—there would be more than enough space for all of us in the Zodiac Solar System.

  Then news about Aryll broke.

  When the Houses learned there was a Marad Riser hidden among the Cancrian survivors, nearly every government produced a list of reasons why they couldn’t keep us anymore. How we’re becoming a drain on their resources, how we’re interfering with their laws by functioning as a sovereign nation on their soil, how we’re selfishly accepting their handouts without working on any long-term solutions. But mainly they’re afraid of more Marad soldiers hiding among us.

  Virgo’s planet Tethys is mostly uninhabitable, but its people had their choice of ten planetoids in their constellation to evacuate to. The Geminin who left Argyr landed on Hydragyr, where the largest number of Cancrians had settled, only now the planet doesn’t seem to be big enough for the both of us.

  Yet Cancrians have nowhere within our constellation to go. We’ve no choice but to beg the other Houses for their help. Our financial institutions were obliterated along with our planet, and a few weeks ago our currency was officially canceled across the solar system. So for now, our only options are settling into a refugee camp or moving to a community with a barter system, like Pisces.

  “Our ride departs from gate six,” says Engle, and I pull away from the broadcast. “Let’s go.”

  I grab my brother and Mathias, and minutes later we’re boarding a large passenger sub to Pelagio, one of Sconcion’s shallower waterworlds, where Stanton, Mathias, and I have been staying. Engle booked us two rows of seats facing each other; I take the window, and Mathias snags the spot next to me.

  My brother slumps into the seat across from mine, his gaze glued to the window as an emerald-green eel glides past. Strident Engle sits beside Stan and beams out a personal holographic screen from his Paintbrush—a fingertip device that’s the Scorp equivalent of a Wave—and begins reviewing his messages.

  “Good evening, this is Captain Husk speaking,” says a man’s voice over the intercom. “We anticipate smooth sailing to Pelagio. Current tidal conditions have us arriving in a little over three hours. Once the seatbelt alert is off, please feel free to visit our restaurant and bar, located in the middle of the vessel. Now prepare for our descent, and enjoy your time on board.”

  Belt straps automatically slide across our chests, clicking into connectors in our seats. The sub’s motion is so smooth that I only know we’ve started moving when I see the stunning sights swimming past the window. We soar over colorful corals that could be beds of candy, then thread through a forest of reedy underwater trees brimming with small sea creatures, until we arrive at a majestic clearing where the water is endless and diamond bright. Dusky red-purple rays pierce through the blueness like fiery arrows.

  More than anything, I want to be out there.

  I miss slipping into the Cancer Sea’s folds, swimming alongside its turtles and seahorses and changelings, following its familiar currents to my favorite corners of the planet. I’d thought being on another Water House might be restorative . . . but it’s only making me feel Cancer’s absence more.

  A pod of striped dolphins dances out
side our window, twirling and playing and trailing along, until we gather speed and plunge into an abyss, leaving the sunlight behind us. Bubbles brush the sub’s belly, and schools of fish scatter in our wake as we dive into deeper and darker waters.

  I chance a peek at Mathias. His head is leaned back and his eyes are closed. He’s been letting his wavy hair grow out, and a light layer of stubble covers the hollows of his cheeks and slight cleft of his chin. It’s still hard to accept he’s back, when being around him reminds me he’s not.

  What’s up?

  His voice tickles my thoughts, and my finger buzzes with the infusion of Psynergy. I look down at my Ring. When we wore the bulky compression suits, I couldn’t reach it, but now I can touch the metallic silicon band.

  Just not sure what happens next, I send back, staring at the fine black glove hugging my left hand—the one I keep on at all times, since the skin at my fingertips will stay tender until my nails grow back in.

  Everyone urged me to heal my arm and get rid of every trace of Corinthe’s torture, but that would have meant turning my back on the full truth of my experiences. And I won’t do that.

  Ferez taught me that the past can coexist with the present, but only if we remember it. So if I cheat the past by trying to change it, I’ll risk forgetting it . . . and there are things I can’t afford to forget. Like the fact that the young girl in the pink space suit floating on Elara’s surface didn’t have the chance to heal her body. Neither did the dead of Cancer, Virgo, Gemini, or the armada.

  And neither do Risers.

  Your brother’s having a hard time, says Mathias. Have you talked to him?

  I look across at Stanton. He’s passed out with his holographic headphones on, and the new Wave Sirna was able to get him rests open-faced on his chest. I haven’t seen him like this since Mom left—distant, sullen, suspicious. But at least then he had to set those feelings aside to raise me. Now they’re just festering within him, sharpening his voice and hardening his heart.

  I’ve tried, I whisper to Mathias through the Psy. He feels guilty over how much he defended Aryll, and probably embarrassed about being used by him, too. But he won’t talk to me about it, and I think that’s because . . . because it’s my fault. I’m the reason Aryll used him.

  It’s the first time I’ve voiced this belief, and I’m glad it’s only happening in my mind and not out loud, because a bubble of emotion blocks my throat.

  I don’t think that’s it. Not at all. Mathias’s musical voice is gentle, and he almost sounds like he used to—sure of himself and protective of me.

  I think he can’t talk to you because he feels he failed you. Aryll used him to get to you, and your brother didn’t see him for what he was, so he didn’t shield you. Rather than protecting you, he endangered you by bringing him into your life.

  I frown at him. Mathias, this isn’t Stanton’s fault—

  He shakes his head. I’m not saying it is. I’m just telling you how he feels because . . . it’s how I would feel. If I were him.

  His midnight eyes stare into mine a beat longer, suspending my pulse, and neither of us says anything more.

  When my brother and I returned to Capricorn, Mathias stayed with his parents on Taurus for a month and a half, focusing on recovering from the Marad’s torture by training with the other Lodestars at the embassy. Then, a couple of weeks ago, he reached out and said he was ready to help, so Stan and I invited him to join us. We haven’t yet discussed our kiss or the words we exchanged the night of the celebration on Vitulus . . . which is a good thing, because I’m not sure what I’d say.

  Not that it matters, since the note I sent him and Hysan after the attack on Pisces pretty much shut the door on any romantic discussions for a while. I guess I should be grateful Mathias is still talking to me, unlike—

  “Apologies for this interruption.” Captain Husk’s voice over the intercom startles me. “If you’ll look out the starboard side, you’ll see a Scorpion whale making its way to the surface.”

  I press my face into the cold glass to get a glimpse of the massive mammal. “Holy Helios,” I whisper as its shadow swallows the submarine.

  The jet-black whale is impossibly immense—at least ten times as large as this one-hundred-passenger submarine—and its six sets of flippers propel it forward so fast that the sub starts to sway in its waves.

  The whale whooshes by.

  One second I’m staring at an eyeball the size of Equinox, and the next all I see is a snake-like tail whipping past. The whole thing happens so quickly that it feels as surreal and fleeting as a vision in the Psy. I squint up at the hazy horizon to try keeping the whale within view, but it’s already lost to the darkness above.

  Disappointed, I lower my gaze, and at last I spy the silver lights of Pelagio twinkling in the watery distance.

  2

  THE SUB SLOWS DOWN AS a bright bubble the size of a moon blooms into being, its glass walls dotted with small lights that sparkle like stars.

  On the way to Squary, Strident Engle explained the lights are mechanical gills, and they’re part of a filtering system that uses electrolysis to split H20 into particles of oxygen and hydrogen. The air is absorbed for breathing, while the hydrogen gets converted into fuel for powering the waterworld.

  Planet Sconcion has a dozen of these waterworlds, each its own sovereign territory. Half of them, including Pelagio, are located in waters shallow enough that city tops crest the ocean’s surface; the other half, like Oscuro, are buried in waters so deep that only special Scorp watercrafts can endure the pressure.

  Nepturn, Pelagio’s capital city, grows larger in the sub’s window, looking like a reverse aquarium: Rather than fish wading in water, humans swim through air.

  Scorps travel within waterworlds using waterwings—metal armbands with vapor jet pack attachments powerful enough to float a person off the ground. Scorps pair the wings with fins that slide over their footwear, enabling wearers to essentially “swim” through the heavy humidity in the air.

  We dock into a port along the glass wall to disembark, and then we head down a narrow pathway that leads to Nepturn’s transportation hub, where our identities are confirmed and belongings are searched before we’re granted passage beyond. We follow the crowd of Scorps bustling along sleek silver floors to the wall of lockers where we stored our waterwings and fins before departing to Squary. Once we’ve got on our armbands—which are cold and a little constricting—we carry our fins under our arms and make our way to the exit.

  “Wandering Star.”

  I turn to see Sirna, flanked by a Lodestar and a Strident. Smiling, I suppress my impulse to hug her and instead reach out to bump fists.

  When I wrapped my arms around her after we arrived on Scorpio a couple of days ago, in front of her full entourage of Stridents and Lodestars, her stance stiffened disapprovingly, and I realized I shouldn’t have done it. Sirna is a nurturer by nature, but like most Cancrians, she wears her shell to work and saves her softer side for her personal life.

  I guess I just haven’t had much affection the past couple of months. Or feminine company. And I miss Nishi more than water.

  “How did your visit go?” asks Sirna, once she’s traded the hand touch with everyone in our group.

  “Uneventful,” answers Engle on my behalf.

  “No news then?”

  “No,” I concede. I didn’t actually think I’d find anything the other Houses missed, but since the Plenum seemed so eager to arrange this trip when I asked for it, I’d hoped there might be a chance I could help.

  Sirna turns to the Lodestar and whispers instructions. He nods and takes off with the Strident, and when Sirna straightens, she looks pleased about something.

  “But I’m sure the master is far from done,” I caution her. “I’d like to consult with the other teams of Zodai who came through here before giving my report to the Plenum, so p
lease keep this to yourself for now. Anything new from the Marad soldiers in custody?”

  Sirna sighs. “Representatives from every House have already tried interrogating them, but they’re stoic. The only person any soldiers seem to have opened up to is . . . you.”

  I don’t quite meet her sea-blue gaze. “I guess when you’re about to murder someone, you stop thinking of them as a person.”

  Mathias’s arm brushes mine, comforting me with his touch. He understands even better than I do how it feels when someone treats you like you’re worthless. When they draw on your skin like they own it, reducing you to a replaceable canvas for their hate.

  “You must be hungry,” says Sirna, and I nod, blinking back my heavy thoughts. “How does dinner sound?”

  “I’ll tell Link and Tyron to join us,” says Engle. “Your treat, right?”

  Sirna’s mouth twists into something like a smile. “And they say chivalry visited Scorpio and drowned.”

  “Who needs chivalry when you look this good?” Engle shoots me a wry glance. “Right, Rho? Tell your ambassador how you couldn’t keep your eyes off me.”

  I start to flush just as Stanton steps in. “Is this banter on the agenda, or can we go already? I’m starving.”

  I stare at my brother, not recognizing him. There’s no color in his cheeks, no bounce in his curls, no comfort in his pale green gaze.

  “Yes, let’s go,” says Sirna, resuming her professional demeanor. As we’re filing out after her, I try catching Stan’s attention, but he stays out of my reach.

  Outside we’re swallowed by the hot breath of a sprawling, spongy city that’s immeasurably high, the view softly illuminated by the starry glow of the gills on the glass walls. The landscape before us unfolds in a rainbow of colors, and once more I have a hard time reconciling the lighthearted look of this world with the dark nature of the Scorps I’ve met.

  I slip my fins over my boots and hit the unlock sequence for my waterwings; the vapor jet packs jitter nervously for a moment, then my feet rise off the sandy ocean floor as I float into the humid atmosphere, like a feather flying against the wind. When I’m up in the air, my worries stay on the ground, and I finally feel free.

 
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