Black moon, p.5
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       Black Moon, p.5

           Romina Russell

  “All you have are words. Yet you know nothing of running worlds,” says Sirna, hard lines cracking her smooth ebony face. “Right now we have to focus on taking care of the people who are still alive, not avenging the ones who are gone.”

  “Since when do governments focus only on one task at a time? We can divide our resources—”

  “Our people are being pushed out of refugee camps on every House. The Piscene people are facing an epidemic we know nothing about. Food shortages from the attack on Tethys are affecting every House. And you want us to invest what resources into catching faceless, nameless bad guys, about whom we still know nothing, and who haven’t attacked us in months?” Her dark skin is suffused with red undertones from her rising temper. “You cannot twist every bad thing that happens into fuel for your blood thirst. We are Cancrians, and it is our duty to be caregivers, not warriors.”

  “It’s our duty to be protectors, not cowards,” I counter as the same angry heat sears my own skin. “What about the agents from the Cancrian Secret Service? You embedded them into the Marad months ago, and now they’ve completely cut off communication and are most likely dead. What did they die for if we turn our backs now?”

  Sirna glares at me, and it’s as if the past few months never happened. I see the disappointment in her face, and suddenly we’re back at our first meeting in the Hippodrome on Aries, when she accused me of trying to gain more followers for my “Ochus cult.”

  A loud sound rips my gaze away, and I turn to see Stanton abruptly blasting out of the room, leaving only his shattered Wave behind. Mathias and Engle follow him out, and then it’s just Sirna and me and our oversized Cancrian feelings. They seem to take up physical space in the room.

  “I know you don’t agree, and I know it sounds heartless,” she starts, her tone tight and tense, like she’s working hard to pick out the right words, “but I took an oath to serve Cancer, and that oath comes before everything else. The person in power always changes, and that is why I don’t serve people. I serve my House, and I will always act in its best interest. This is who I am, Wandering Star. I care for you, and I want us to be friends. But Cancer comes first. Always.”

  “I understand, Sirna—”

  “Not yet you don’t.” She’s still speaking slowly, as if she’s trying to prevent her emotions from leaking out with her words. “You’re young, and the young tend to take everything personally. But it’s imperative that you learn to separate self from duty.”

  “You think I take this personally because I’m young?”

  I try keeping my tone as restrained as hers, but my racing heartbeat makes my voice shake. “I’ve never been young, Sirna. I didn’t have that luxury. I take my duty to Cancer personally because it’s my life. My life. This isn’t a job I trained and applied for. My whole world was taken over when House Cancer called me to serve. The stars asked me to step up, and I did, and then when I proved to be my own person and not a pawn who’d do the powers’ bidding, my own people betrayed me and kicked me out to the streets.

  “Then, a few months later, those same people changed their minds and asked me back to help them—and, foolish forgiving Cancrian that I am, I dared to believe it’d be different this time. That the friendships I made were real. That my faith in my own people wasn’t misplaced. And then this morning you stuck a dagger in my back.”

  Sirna’s nostrils flare, and she purses her lips, and I can tell she’s working just as hard as I am to keep from shouting. I can’t believe after everything we’ve been through, I still can’t trust her. But I guess that’s always been my problem—refusing to see people as they are.

  “A word of advice before you go, friend,” she says softly, and my gut hardens at her deadly tone. “You need to get your emotions under control. Because like it or not, you’re in the public eye, and you represent something far greater than yourself. Your life is no longer your own. Do what you need to adjust to that reality, and then adjust—before the sea rises, and you find yourself unprepared. Again.”

  I glare at her, too afraid to speak for fear of shouting and proving her right.

  “Taking things personally is another luxury you’ve not been afforded,” she whispers, her sea-blue eyes flashing. “And if I were you, I’d go find your brother and give him the same message.”


  MY WAVE GOES OFF ALMOST the exact moment I slam the door to my room. I accept the call, and Nishi’s holographic form blooms out.

  The sight of her beautiful face is the only antidote to my anger, like a bolt of light chasing out darkness. Her hologram stays frozen a moment before activating, and I notice she’s let her bangs grow out, and there’s a shimmer of life in her amber eyes again.

  “Rho! I’m so sorry I haven’t been in touch. I got your messages, though. So you’re on Scorpio? What’s it like there?”

  I hear how cheery she sounds, and now the delay in my reaction isn’t simply from the transmission. Of course I want Nishi to be happy, but I just hope she’s handling her emotions in a healthy way—as a go-go-go Sagittarian, she can sometimes take and do and feel things in extremes.

  “It’s a really stunning world, filled with spongy, bright buildings. We literally swim through air to get around, and earlier today I even saw a Scorpion whale. But what about you? Are you home?”

  “No . . . I’m on Aquarius.”

  My heart stalls as she speaks.

  “I’ve been hard to reach because I got tapped to join a new political movement of young people who are fighting for unity and acceptance across the Houses—basically, the same things we’ve been fighting for. It’s called the Tomorrow Party.”

  It takes me a moment to hear her past my shock. Could it be coincidence that Nishi is on the very House I long to visit? Or is this the stars’ idea of a joke?

  “Now that the Plenum has declared Peace,” she goes on, “which we both know won’t last long, we have a window to woo more people to our cause. There are some big plans in the works, and I know you’ll want to be part of this movement, so please say you’ll come to planet Primitus!”

  Her words are so perfect that I’m afraid to trust they’re real. After so many months spent in pursuit of the smallest hint of hope, I’m not sure how to react when faced with so much of it.

  Is it possible the stars aren’t messing with me? Could they actually be answering my call? Could I have finally found the “right” reason to go to Aquarius?

  Or, says a vicious voice in my mind, maybe you’re just looking for justifications to do what you want. Maybe Sirna’s right about me. Maybe I’ve been selfish this whole time.

  “I’ll . . . think about it,” I say at last. “Let me check with the guys.”

  “When you’re ready, let me know. I’ll send for you.”

  She’s obviously not being literal—Nishi’s family might be rich, but not rich enough to arrange for private inter-House travel. Still, I agree to reach out soon with my answer. We have a few minutes left to catch up, so I fill her in on Squary and Stanton and Sirna, but before she can give me any advice, she has to jump off to attend a Party meeting.

  “Rho,” she says before going, “do you remember when I signed us up for the musical showcase at the Academy?”

  Almost immediately I feel a tidal wave of fear pulling me under, the tug of that memory so powerful that I’m afraid of wasting what breath I have left on speaking.

  “You were mad at me for leading us in a new direction,” says Nishi, oblivious to what’s going on inside me, “but in the end you loved our band. So trust me when I say that if you join me here, you’ll find what you’re looking for—just like I did.”

  Her voice and image disappear, and I let the memory drown me.

  • • •

  I’ve never told anyone what happened that night. What I did was so foolish that I was afraid to confess it to Stan, Nishi, or Deke. Seeing their reactions would b
e confirmation of how recklessly I behaved, and I’d rather pretend it never happened.

  After arguing with Nishi and Deke in the music studio, I was too consumed by my anger to think straight, and I stormed out of the compound fifteen minutes before curfew. I didn’t take my Wave with me because I didn’t want to hear from my friends, and without it, my space suit had no communication system.

  I remember taking long leaps across the moon’s rocky surface, beneath a starry sky, toward the crystal dome. The three other moons of our House formed a slightly jagged line above me that grew straighter every day. A year later, all four moons would align for the only time this millennium for the Lunar Quadract.

  An alarm rang through the air, so loud it made my bones vibrate—the first of two warning bells before curfew. The doors to the compound would be locked on the third bell, and without my Wave to alert anyone I was out here, if I didn’t make it back in time, I’d wind up outside all night.

  Every cell within me knew I should turn back, but my gut clenched at the thought, so I pushed onward in defiance of my better judgment. Just a quick moonwalk and I’d be right back.

  Behind the dome was an art exhibit created by the Academy’s sculpture students—a Moonstone Maze. I half-skipped, half-glided my way toward the towering stone statues, so tall they obscured the horizon. All year we watched the artists work on them on Elara’s surface, whittling while hovering in mid-air.

  I entered the maze through the first entrance I spotted and floated down a narrow path; the long stretch of stone to my left featured a row of different trees from around the Zodiac, and to my right were giant-sized House symbols, beginning with Aries and ending in Pisces. As soon as my eyes landed on the Archer, I thought of Nishi again.

  For all her daring, she’d never left the compound this close to curfew before, and especially not without her Tracker. My shoulders lifted a little at the thought of being braver than my best friend. Maybe she didn’t know me as well as she thought she did. After all, wasn’t my adventure tonight far more Sagittarian than Cancrian?

  Deke used to love saying that the only way to change the norm was to break it. He used that line on our instructors every time he got in trouble for not following the rules. And wasn’t that exactly what I was doing by breaking from my usual behavior? If I’d known how closed-minded and boring my friends had found me all those years, maybe I would have tried this sooner.

  The second bell chimed, and the network of lights surrounding the compound shut off, drowning Elara in darkness. My heart froze. I had only five minutes to get back to my room.

  Inside the maze, the bell’s echo seemed to ricochet through the rocky passageways, fading slowly, and the statues’ shadows stretched around me. I brightened my helmet’s headlights and stared at the sculptures in bewilderment. Instead of trees and House symbols, I was surrounded by larger-than-life representations of Cancrian wildlife—hookcrabs, crab sharks, sea horses. I hadn’t paid any attention to where I was floating.

  As fast as I could, I darted down the aisle and took turn after turn onto more paths I didn’t recognize. Every time I rounded a corner, I hoped to run into an exit, but I couldn’t find any way out. Then the third alarm went off, and I gasped in terror.

  I was locked out.

  But as I had the thought, I spotted the red light in the corner of my visor. The ringing was coming from inside my helmet, a warning my oxygen levels were low. I probably didn’t have much to begin with, and the exertion and anxiety must have caused me to burn through most of my supply.

  My headlights dimmed as my suit switched to survival mode to conserve power and air, which also meant rationing my oxygen. If I didn’t make it back before the final bell, I wouldn’t have to worry about surviving outside all night, because I’d only have enough air to last a few minutes.

  I felt around and grabbed hold of the nearest statue, pulling myself forward from one to the next. We weren’t supposed to touch the stone, but that didn’t matter now. My brain already felt tingly from the reduced oxygen, and my muscles seemed to slow to half-speed; it didn’t help that I could barely see in my helmet’s lessened lighting.

  My heartbeat, though slow, pounded too loudly in my ears, and as tears of defeat burned my eyes, a splash of light suddenly flickered ahead.

  I frantically reached for the next sculpture, and the next, until at long last, I pulled myself out of the maze.

  All around me, the moon’s surface was inky black, and the only way I could spot the entrance to the compound was by the blue emergency lights blinking in the distance. From this far away, they looked like stars.

  The curfew alarm could ring at any moment, so I urged myself forward, even as the reduced air made my mind feel Centered and half-asleep . . . like when I tried to hold my breath for too long in the Cancer Sea.

  At the thought of home, Stanton’s voice filled my head—If you lose your oxygen and are far from the Sea’s surface, don’t panic. It will only cost you more air.

  The memory was almost a decade old, from when he taught me how to deep dive. I forced myself to stabilize my breathing as I moved forward, trying to recall his advice as I went.

  Search for a surface you can push off from, so that you can preserve your energy for the final stretch.

  Just as Stan’s stories once saved me from my nightmares, hearing his voice now steadied my nerves and warded off despair. As I rounded the crystal dome, I launched myself at its surface, pushing off its wall and flying a good way before touching back down on the moon.

  The blue stars of the compound grew a little larger, and I used my accumulated momentum to take a second flying leap, not as big as the first, but still helpful. And as I landed, my headlights shut off completely.

  I was almost out of time, oxygen, and now, power.

  Wrapped in complete blackness, fear gnawed at me from all sides. Until my brother’s voice came to my rescue again.

  Don’t fear what you can’t touch.

  It’s something he started saying to me after Mom left us, whenever sinister visions from the astral plane followed me home and haunted my mind.

  Reinvigorated, I filled in the shrouded shapes around me from memory, and as the darkness lifted a little in my mind, I burned through every last reserve of life I had left, leaving no energy untapped, no part of me behind, until, unbelievably, my helmet bumped into the compound’s metal doors.

  The final alarm sang out as I cycled through the airlock. One more second, and I wouldn’t have made it.

  When the automatic locks clicked into place, I exhaled and slid to the floor of the dark and empty entrance hall, my back against the door, and I used my remaining strength to lift the helmet off my head. Sucking in lungfuls of air, my throat burning and brain throbbing, my body slowly revived.

  I knew I ran the risk of a monitor catching me, but having just defied death itself, I felt invincible. As soon as I could move again, I dragged myself into my dorm-pod and shuffled out of my space suit. Then I snuck back out and crept a couple of hallways over to Nishi’s room. I knocked softly on her door, and she opened it immediately.

  “Rho!” She pulled me in quickly and shut the door. “What are you doing here? You haven’t been answering your Wave!”

  “I’m sorry,” I said, taking her hand in mine. “You’re right, I’m closed off to new things, especially if I think I’ll fail. But I trust you . . . so I’ll give the showcase a chance.” But I couldn’t help adding, “Even if I’m still pretty sure I won’t like it.”

  Nishi laughed and pulled me in for a hug. “You really suck at fighting,” she said near my ear. “And I’m glad because I can’t stand being in a fight with you.”

  “Me neither,” I said into her hair.

  When I got back to my room, I sent Stan a message asking if he had time to talk the next day. I’d been missing his calls because of classes and band practice, but after what happened
that night, I couldn’t think of anything more important than seeing my brother’s face.

  As the memory ebbs away, and my eyes readjust to my Scorp surroundings, I’m left feeling the same way—like I need to see my brother.

  Mom may have raised me to trust my fears, but Stan taught me to face them. It was his faith in me that made me brave enough to move to Elara, and it was his patient teachings that got me through those fatal minutes on the moon. He’s the only person who’s ever made me feel like maybe my fears aren’t real. And now, he needs me to remind him that his aren’t either.

  My feet are already carrying me to my brother’s room. I knock on his door, and when he doesn’t answer, I try the handle. It’s unlocked, so I peek inside, but he’s not there. I try Mathias’s room next.

  “Come in,” he says, and I find him sitting on the spongy blue floor, spinning through a carousel of holographic folders, each file a different color.

  “Hi,” I say from the doorway. He’s wearing a plain white shirt and comfy pants, and I catch myself staring at the thick scar cutting down his neck. We haven’t been alone together since Taurus, and the realization makes the room’s cool air grow warmer.

  “Any chance you know where my brother is?”

  He looks up from the holograms to me and shakes his head. “How are you?”

  I jut my chin out at the holograms. “What are you up to?”

  His brow wings up at my non-answer, but he doesn’t press me. “I’m reviewing reports my dad sent over. They’re status updates from our eight refugee camps—Aries, Scorpio, and Virgo are the only Houses we didn’t settle. Our Royal Guard is trying to get in touch with the Cancrians on Pisces to know if they’ve been infected.”

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