Book 1 in the breathtaking sci-fi space saga inspired by astrology that will stun fans of the Illuminae Files and Starbound series.
At the dawn of time, there were 13 Houses in the Zodiac Galaxy. Now only 12 remain....
Rhoma Grace is a 16-year-old student from House Cancer with an unusual way of reading the stars. While her classmates use measurements to make accurate astrological predictions, Rho can’t solve for ‘x’ to save her life—so instead, she looks up at the night sky and makes up stories.
When a violent blast strikes the moons of Cancer, sending its ocean planet off-kilter and killing thousands of citizens—including its beloved Guardian—Rho is more surprised than anyone when she is named the House’s new leader. But, a true Cancrian who loves her home fiercely and will protect her people no matter what, Rho accepts.
Then, when more Houses fall victim to freak weather catastrophes, Rho starts seeing a pattern in the stars. She suspects Ophiuchus—the exiled 13th Guardian of Zodiac legend—has returned to exact his revenge across the Galaxy. Now Rho—along with Hysan Dax, a young envoy from House Libra, and Mathias, her guide and a member of her Royal Guard—must travel through the Zodiac to warn the other Guardians.
But who will believe anything this young novice says? Whom can Rho trust in a universe defined by differences? And how can she convince twelve worlds to unite as one Zodiac?
Embark on a dazzling journey with ZODIAC, the first novel in an epic sci-fi-meets-high-fantasy series set in a galaxy inspired by the astrological signs.
About the Author
Romina Russell is a Los Angeles based author who originally hails from Buenos Aires, Argentina. As a teen, Romina landed her first writing gig—College She Wrote, a weekly Sunday column for the Miami Herald that was later picked up for national syndication—and she hasn’t stopped writing since. When she’s not working on the ZODIAC series, Romina can be found producing movie trailers, taking photographs, or daydreaming about buying a new drum set. She is a graduate of Harvard College and a Virgo to the core. This is Romina’s first novel.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright ©2014 Penguin Group (USA)
TWELVE HOLOGRAPHIC SYMBOLS DRIFT DOWN the Academy hallway, gliding through people like colorful ghosts. The signs represent the Houses of our Zodiac Solar System, and they’re parading to promote unity. But everyone’s too busy buzzing about tonight’s Lunar Quadract to spare them a glance.
“You ready for tonight?” asks my best friend, Nishiko, an exchange student from Sagittarius. She waves at her locker and it pops open.
“Yeah . . . what I’m not ready for is this test,” I say, still watching the twelve signs drift through the school. Acolytes aren’t invited to the celebration, so we’re hosting our own party on campus. And after Nishi’s brilliant idea to bribe the dining hall staff into adding our new song to their lunchtime playlist, our band was voted to play the event.
I dip my fingers in my coat pocket to make sure I have my drumsticks, just as Nishi slams her locker shut. “Have they told you why they’re making you re-take it?”
“Probably the same old reason—I never show my work.”
“I don’t know. . . .” Nishi scrunches up her forehead in that uniquely Sagittarian I’m-curious-about-everything way. “They might want to know more about what you saw in the stars last time.”
I shake my head. “I only saw it because I don’t use an Astralator for my predictions. Everyone knows intuition isn’t star-proof.”
“Having a different method doesn’t make you wrong. I think they want to hear more about your omen.” She waits for me to say something more about it, and when I don’t, she pushes harder. “You said it was black? And . . . writhing?”
“Yeah, kind of,” I mutter. Nishi knows I don’t like discussing that vision, but asking a Sagittarian to suppress her curiosity is like asking a Cancrian to abandon a friend in need. Neither is in our natures.
“Have you seen it again since the test?” she presses.
This time I don’t answer. The symbols are rounding the corner. I can just make out the Fish of Pisces before they vanish.
“I should go,” I finally say, flashing her a small smile so she knows I’m not upset.
“See you onstage.”
• • •
The halls still swarm with restless Acolytes, so nobody sees me slip into Instructor Tidus’s empty classroom. I leave the lights off and let instinct guide me through the black space.
When I’ve reached the teacher’s desk, I feel along its surface until my fingers find cold metal. Though I know I shouldn’t, I switch on the Ephemeris.
Stars puncture the blackness.
Hovering in the center of the room, countless winking pinpricks of light form a dozen distinct constellations—the Houses of the Zodiac. Larger balls of colored light swirl among the stars: our planets and moons. In the midst of it all burns a ball of blazing fire: Helios.
I slide a stick from my pocket and twirl it. Amid all the sparkles in the glittering universe, I find the churning mass of blue, the brightest point in the Crab-shaped constellation . . . and I miss home.
The Blue Planet.
I reach out, but my hand goes right through the hologram. Four lesser gray orbs hover in a row beside my planet; if connected, they look like they would form a straight line. That’s because the Lunar Quadract is the only time this millennium our four moons will align.
Our school sits on Cancer’s closest and largest moon, Elara. We share this gray rock with the prestigious Zodai University, which has training campuses on every House in our galaxy.
I’m forbidden from activating the school’s Ephemeris without an instructor present. I steal a last look at my home planet, a whirling ball of blending blues, and I picture Dad at our airy bungalow home, tending to his nar-clams on the banks of the Cancer Sea. The smell of the salty water engulfs me, and the heat of Helios warms my skin, almost like I’m really there. . . .
The Ephemeris flickers, and our smallest and farthest moon disappears.
I fix on the black spot where the gray light of Thebe was just extinguished—
and one by one, the other moons go dark.
I turn to inspect the rest of the constellations, just as the whole galaxy explodes in a blinding blast of light.
The room is plunged into total darkness, until images begin to appear all around me. On the walls, the ceiling, desks—every surface is covered in multicolored holograms. Some I can identify from my classes, but there are so many—words, images, equations, diagrams, charts—that I can’t possibly take them all in—
The room is flooded with light. The holograms disappear, and the place is back to being a plain classroom. The Ephemeris sits innocently on the teacher’s desk.
Instructor Tidus towers over it. Her old, plump face is so perpetually pleasant that it’s hard to tell when I’ve upset her. “You were told to wait outside. You have been reminded of this before: Acolytes are forbidden from using the school Ephemeris without an instructor, and I can’t imagine what you’ll need a drumstick for during your testing.”
“Sorry, ma’am.” The stick goes still in my hand and joins its twin in my pocket. Hanging behind her is the only disruption to the room’s white walls, white ceiling, and white floor. Large letters in blue ink, bearing the Zodai’s favorite
precaution: Trust Only What You Can Touch.
Dean Lyll barges in. I square my shoulders, surprised to see the head of the Academy present at my exam. It’s bad enough being the only student forced to take this test twice. Doing it under his curt supervision will be unbearable.
“Acolyte, take a seat until we are ready to proceed.” The dean is tall and thin, and unlike Instructor Tidus, there isn’t a pleasant thing about him. So much for Nishi’s theory that they want to hear more about my vision.
I slide into a chair, wishing the room had a window. Mother Origene, the Guardian of our House, landed less than an hour ago with her Council of Advisors and the Zodai Royal Guard. I’d love to catch even a passing glimpse of them.
My friends and I are graduating this year, so the Academy has already submitted our transcripts for consideration at Zodai University. Only the top Acolytes in our class will be accepted.
The university’s best-ranked graduates get invited to join the Order of the Zodai, our galaxy’s peacekeepers. The best of the best are recruited into the Guardian’s Royal Guard, the Zodai’s highest honor.
When I was younger, I used to dream about being in the Royal Guard one day. Until I realized it wasn’t my dream.
“Given that our moon is hosting tonight’s celebration,” says the dean, “we’ll need to make this quick.”
“Yes, sir.” My hands itch for my sticks again. I step into the middle of the room as the dean activates the Ephemeris.
“Please give a general read on the Lunar Quadract.”
The room plunges into darkness once more, and the twelve constellations come alight. I wait until the whole Zodiac has filled out, and then I try accessing my Center—the first step to reading the stars.
The Ephemeris is a device that reflects Space in real time, but when we’re Centered, it can be used to tap into the Psy Network, or Collective Conscious— where we’re not limited to the physical realm. Where we can read what’s written in the stars.
Centering means relaxing my vision so much my eyes start to cross, like looking at a stereogram, followed by calling on whatever brings me the greatest inner peace. It can be a memory, a movement, a story—whatever most touches my soul.
When I was very young, Mom taught me an ancient art the very first Zodai used to access their Center. Passed on from long-forgotten civilizations, it’s called Yarrot, and it’s a series of poses designed to mimic the twelve constellations of the Zodiac. The movements align one’s body and mind with the stars, and the longer you practice, the easier Centering is supposed to become . . . but when Mom left, I gave it up.
I stare at the four gray orbs floating next to Cancer, but I can’t relax my vision. I’m too worried Thebe will vanish again. My brother, Stanton, works there.
We Cancrians are known for our nurturing natures and strong family values. We’re supposed to put our loved ones ahead of ourselves. Yet one after the other, my Mom, my brother, and I abandoned Dad. Abandoned our home.
I pull my drumstick from my pocket and pirouette it on my fingertips until the movement relaxes me, and then I start to play my latest composition in my mind, the beat growing louder with every rendition. Eventually, I can’t hear anything else.
After what feels like forever but might just be minutes, my mind begins to rise, elevating higher, toward Helios. The lights of the Crab constellation start to shuffle, adjusting their place in the sky. Our four moons—Elara, Orion, Galene, Thebe—move to their future positions, where they’ll be in a few hours, for the Lunar Quadract.
My instructors can’t see the movement because it’s only happening in the Psy Network, so it’s confined to my mind. Skill level and ability determine what and how much a Zodai can see when Centered, so visions of the future are unique for each of us.
Once the stars in the holographic map have realigned themselves, their trajectories leave faint arcs in Space that fade fast. Using an Astralator, we can measure these movements and plug the numbers into equations—but if I have to solve for x, the Lunar Quadract will be over before I can predict it. And, as Dean Lyll pointed out, we are in a rush. . . .
I concentrate as hard as I can, and soon I pick up a faint rhythm reaching me from afar, echoing weakly in my ears. It sounds like a drumbeat—or a pulse. Its beat is slow and ominous . . . like something’s coming for us.
Then the vision appears—the same vision I’ve been seeing for a week now:
a smoldering black mass, barely distinguishable from Space, pressing into the atmosphere past the Twelfth House, Pisces. Its influence seems to be warping our
Crab constellation out of shape.
The problem with digging so deep inside my mind without using an Astralator is there’s no way to tell apart which warnings are from the stars and which ones I’m manifesting myself.
Thebe vanishes again.
“There’s a bad omen,” I blurt. “A dangerous opposition in the stars.”
The Ephemeris shuts off, and the lights come on. Dean Lyll is scowling at me. “Nonsense. Show me your work.”
“I . . . forgot my Astralator.”
“You haven’t even done the arithmetic!” He rounds on Instructor Tidus. “Is this a joke?”
Instructor Tidus addresses me from the other end of the room. “Rho, the fact that we’re here at all right now should indicate how crucial this test is. Our most important long-term planning depends on precise star readings. How we invest, where we build, what our farms grow. I thought you would take today more seriously.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, shame spreading through me as swiftly as Maw poison.
“Your unorthodox methods are failing you, and now I expect you to do the math, the way your peers do.”
Even my toes must be red. “Could I go get my Astralator?”
Without answering, Dean Lyll opens the door and calls into the hallway, “Does anyone have an Astralator for an unprepared Acolyte to borrow?”
Even, measured footsteps approach, and a man marches into the room, something small clasped in his hands. I suppress a gasp of surprise.
“Lodestar Mathias Thais!” booms Dean Lyll, reaching out to touch fists, our traditional greeting. “Wonderful to have you back on our moon for the celebration.”
The man nods but doesn’t speak. He’s still shy. The first time I saw him was almost five years ago, when he was still a student at Zodai University. I was twelve and just starting at the Academy. I missed the singing surf of the Cancer Sea too much to get more than a couple hours’ sleep those nights, so I’d spend the rest of the time exploring the city-sized, enclosed compound we share with the university.
That’s how I discovered the solarium. It’s at the very end of the compound, on the university side, a wide room with windowed walls that curve to form a windowed ceiling. I remember walking in and watching in awe as Helios came into view. I closed my eyes and let the giant orange-red rays warm my skin—until I heard a noise behind me.
In the shadow of an elaborate moonstone sculpture, carved in the shape of our Guardian, was a guy. His eyes were closed in deep meditation, and I recognized his meditative pose instantly. He was practicing Yarrot.
I came back the next day with a book to read, and he was there again. Soon, it became a ritual. Sometimes we were alone, sometimes there were others. We never spoke, but something about being near him, or maybe just being near Yarrot again, soothed my nerves and made it easier to be so far from home.
“That’s a marvelous Astralator,” says the dean, as the Lodestar holds it out to him. “Give it to Acolyte Rho.” I swallow, hard, as he turns to me for the first time.
Surprise registers in his indigo blue eyes. He knows me. Warmth spreads through my skin, like I’m being bathed in the light of Helios again.
The Lodestar must be twenty-two now. He’s grown—his lean body has a bigger build, and his wavy black hair is trimmed short and neat, like the other male Zodai. “Don’t drop it, please,” he says in a mild baritone, a voice so musical my bones vibrate.
He passes me his mother-of-pearl Astralator, and our hands brush. The touch tingles up my arm.
So low only I can hear him, he adds, “It’s a family heirloom.”
“She will return it to you when her exam concludes—and in one piece.” Dean
Lyll doesn’t look at me. “Her grade will rest on its safe return.”
Before I can say a single word in his presence, the Lodestar turns and takes off. Great—now he thinks I’m a mute.
“Again,” says the dean, impatience coming through in his clipped tone.
The Ephemeris takes over the room. Once I’m Centered and the moons have aligned, I gently hold out the cylindrical instrument and point it at the fading trajectory arcs. Cancrians have excellent memories, and mine is good even by our standards, so I don’t need to write the numbers down. When I’ve taken all the measurements I need—enough to make a prediction about tonight—the dean shuts off the Ephemeris.
I’m still making calculations when the timer goes off. When I finish, I realize the dean was right—there’s no opposition in the stars.
“The math looks good,” he says roughly. “See how much better you do when you follow instructions and use the right equipment?”
“Yes, sir,” I say, even though something is still bothering me. “Sir, what if using the Astralator is shortsighted? What if I didn’t see the omen this time because the disturbance isn’t near our moons yet—it’s still at the far edge of Space? Wouldn’t the Astralator be unable to account for a distance that far?”
The dean sighs. “More nonsense. Oh well. At least you passed.” Still shaking his head, he yanks open the door and says, “Instructor Tidus, I will meet you at the celebration.”
When we’re alone, my teacher smiles at me. “How many times must we tell you, Rho? Your clever theories and imaginative stories have no place in astrological science.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I bow my head, hoping she’s right.
“You have talent, Rho, and we don’t mean to discourage you.” She moves closer as she speaks, until we’re face to face. “Think of your drums. You first had to master the basics before you could compose your own riffs. The same principle applies here: If you practice daily on your tutorial Ephemeris with an Astralator, I’m certain you’ll see vast improvements in your arithmetic and technique.”
The compassion in her eyes makes me feel ashamed that I’ve put no effort into getting better with an Astralator. It’s just that her insistence on daily practices reminds me too much of Mom, and I like to keep those memories walled off.
But disappointing Instructor Tidus hurts as much as remembering.
• • •
I race to my dorm-pod to change, too crunched for time to find the Lodestar and return his Astralator. I’ll have to search for him after the celebration.
The door unlocks at my touch, and I swap my Academy blues for the brand new space suit—black and skintight—I bought myself as an early birthday present. Nishiko is going to flip when she sees me.
Before heading out, I consult my Wave, a small golden device shaped like a clam. Cancrians believe knowledge is like water, fluid and ever changing, so we carry with us a Wave—an interactive way of recording, reviewing, and sending information. The moment I open it, holographic data blooms out and streams all around me: news headlines, messages from friends, updates to my calendar.
Earlier, when Instructor Tidus turned off her Ephemeris, I caught only a brief glimpse of the holograms in her room. But it was long enough for one of them to register.
“Where do we come from?” I ask.
The large holographic diagram from earlier materializes in the air, larger than all the others. It represents an ancient exodus from a world far away and lost to time, a world called Earth.
Archeologists think our earliest ancestors came from there, and the drawing depicts them arriving at our galaxy through Helios—though no one believes that’s really how they got here. As the Wave runs through our history, an image of the twelve constellations materializes. Only in Instructor Tidus’s hologram, there weren’t twelve.
There were thirteen.
“RHO!” NISHI’S FACE BLASTS THROUGH all the data, and I jump back a few feet.
“I know, I know, I’m coming!” I call back.
She reaches her hands out like she wants to strangle me, and she looks so real I almost duck—but her holographic fingers go right through my neck.
The Zodiac’s traditional hand-touch greeting evolved when it grew hard to tell hologram from human. Our teachers are always reminding us that holograms can be manipulated and forged, and those who have fallen victim to identity fraud have lost fortunes, even lives. But it’s such a rare crime that the axiom Trust Only What You Can Touch has become more superstition than real warning.
The holograms disappear as I stuff the Wave up my glove, grab my instrument case, and pull on my helmet. When I leave the Academy, I’m semi-weightless in a subzero climate, facing a dusty gray expanse where a crowd is beginning to form around a crystal dome stage. The crystal is pitch-black, so no one can see inside yet.
I look up at the sky; our three other moons are lined in a row, bright as beacons. My vision from the Ephemeris still haunts me, and for a moment Thebe’s light seems to flicker. I shake it off and make for the dome.
In our moon’s weak gravity, I bounce out in long, flying leaps. The crowd around me is a sea of shapes and colors, an array of space suit fashion on full display. There are designer suits that sparkle with precious stones, gimmicky suits that do things like project holograms into the air, functional suits that light up in the dark, and more.
The farther I get from the compound, the thicker the night grows, its blackness interrupted only by the glimmer of glow-in-the-dark fabric or a holographic helmet. I steel my gaze on the crystal dome ahead, dazzling like a half-buried diamond. Once I’ve reached the small side door, I Wave Nishi to let me in.
“Helios, can you breathe in that thing?” As soon as I cycle through the airlock, Nishi holds me at arm’s length to scan my outfit. “It’s about time your body came out of hiding and saw some action.”
I take off my helmet and shake my blonde curls loose. Deke whistles appreciatively from the other end of the dome. “Show the men of the Zodiac what we’re missing, Rho.”
I blush, already wishing I was back under the helmet’s shell. “I date.”
Nishi laughs. “If by date you mean endure a male’s company for fifteen minutes of stuffing your faces before you’re already Waving one of us to come rescue you—”
“Yes, that’s exactly what a date—”
“We get it, Rho, no one’s good enough for you.”
I stare at Deke, my mouth half-open with indignation, but he ignores my glare and turns to Nishi, holding something out to her. “I got them.”
“You didn’t!” Nishi springs over and inspects the four finger-sized bottles of bubbling black tonic in Deke’s hands. “How?”
I recognize the Abyssthe immediately. It’s a drink the Zodai take to improve their performance in the Ephemeris.
Centering requires an extreme amount of concentration and consumes a ton of mental energy because it requires a person to reach down into her innermost self and listen to the thing that connects her to the stars—her soul. Abyssthe helps lengthen the feeling so that a Zodai can read the Ephemeris for a longer stretch of time.
The three of us have taken it once before, for Instructor Tidus’s lesson on
Macro Reads, under her supervision. Its sale is closely regulated, so it’s very hard to get. A smug smile steals over Deke’s features. “Nish, a true Zodai never reveals his secrets.”
“You totally stole it from the university’s lab,” she says, plucking a bottle. Abyssthe is produced in House Sagittarius. Nishi told me that if taken outside an Ephemeris setting, the tonic has a mood-altering effect, making a person feel light-hearted and less inhibited.
Deke hands Kai and me the other two bottles. I’m not sure how I felt about Abyssthe when we took it in class—the brain and body buzz was nice, but the disorienting effect lasted so long I started to panic it would never wear off. They only sell it to people seventeen and older on Cancer . . . which is what I’ll be in just a few weeks.
“What will it feel like this time?” I ask Nishi. She’s the only one of us who’s taken it recreationally before. Sagittarians don’t believe in age restrictions.
“Like you’re the Ephemeris,” she says, already opening hers and taking a whiff. I smell a hint of licorice. “You feel your mind broadening, like it’s expanding into infinity, the way Space swells out from the Ephemeris. Everything becomes tenuous and dreamlike, like you’re Centered, and there’s this body high that’s like being . . . weightless.”
“Which we pretty much are on this moon anyway,” Deke points out.
Nishi rolls her eyes at him. While most people study on their own planets, Sagittarius is one of the more widespread Houses because they’re natural-born wanderers. Sagittarians are truth-seekers who will follow a trail of knowledge to whatever end—having fun the whole way.
“How long will the effects last?” I ask, shaking the bottle. The Abyssthe bubbles and froths, like it’s half liquid, half air.
The peak dropout point for students at Zodai University is when they get to Galactic Readings in the Ephemeris, and they’re required to dose themselves with Abyssthe almost every day for a month. I read that students who’ve had prior experience with Abyssthe tend to endure it better and have a greater chance of graduating.
“It’ll wear off by the end of our first set,” Nishi assures me. “And no, it won’t affect your drumming,” she adds, guessing my next question. “You’ll still be you— just a more relaxed you.”
Nishi and Deke down theirs in one gulp, but I hesitate and meet Kai’s gaze. He only joined the band two months ago. Since he’s a year younger, he’s never tried Abyssthe before, and his eyes are round with terror.
To take the attention off him and ease his fear, I wink and drink mine. With a worried smile, Kai nods and takes his, too.
The four of us stare at each other. Nothing happens for so long that we start laughing. “Someone marked you for a sucker,” says Nishi, snorting, pointing at Deke.
Then, one by one, we fall silent.
Abyssthe begins with a body buzz I can feel down to my bones, and it makes me wonder whether the crystal dome has detached itself from the moon and is now floating into Space. Nishi was right: My consciousness is tingling, like I’m Centered, but the universe I’m diving through is actually my mind. My head feels so sensitive that it tickles when I think.
I start laughing.
“Countdown: five minutes!” booms a disembodied voice. It’s Deke’s pod-mate
Xander, who manages the sound for our shows from his studio.
We all jump, and I unpack my drum kit, the Abyssthe making it hard to focus on anything in the physical realm. It takes me way too many attempts to fit four spindly metal pegs into their holes on the drum mat, a bouncy bed beneath my feet that has a plush burgundy chair at its center and a crescent of holes arranged around it.
When the pieces are in place and I sit down, the mat lights up and round metal plates unfold from the ends of each rod I’ve planted. They look like lily pads blossoming on tall stems.
“Lily pads,” I say out loud, laughing. If metal is starting to remind me of organic life, I must miss home more than I realize.
“Rho’s delirious!” shouts Nishi, collapsing in a fit of giggles on the floor.
So is Nishi, if she’s risking damage to her imported levlan suit—but the words that come shrieking out of me are: “No, I’m not!” I pounce on her, and we play-wrestle on the floor, each trying to tickle the other.
“Yes, you are!” calls Deke. He’s stuffed both feet into his helmet and is hopping around the dome, declaring the exercise an “excellent workout” every time he falls.
“She can’t be delirious!” blurts Kai, who hasn’t spoken more than a few sentences our whole bandship.
Nishi and I pull apart and stare at him. Even Deke stops hopping. Then Kai shouts, “Delirious isn’t real if you can’t touch it!”
We all explode in howling laughter, and Deke takes Kai under his arm and scruffs up his hair. “My boy! He talks!”
Kai slips out of Deke’s hold, and Deke chases him around, until we hear
Xander’s booming voice again: “One minute!”
We scream and scramble for our instruments.
I plop onto the plush chair and fit my feet into a pair of metal boots with pedals built in. Two stacked plates—lily pads—bloom from the tip of my left foot, my hi-hat, and the largest plate of all, the bass drum, emerges from my right boot, along with a pedal-operated beater.
I’ve tuned each pad to sound exactly the way I want, so I whirl my sticks in my hands in anticipation, while Deke positions his holographic guitar across his chest. He runs his lucky pick—a crab-shark tooth—through the color-changing strings, and an angry riff wails out. Even though it’s a hologram, his guitar operates on technology sensitive enough to trigger sound when Deke makes contact. It’s the same with Kai’s bass.
“Sound check!” calls Deke.
I roll my sticks across each pad, and then I press hard on the pedals in my boots. The bass drum reverberates menacingly throughout the dome. Nishi joins the percussion next, her voice throaty and soulful. Once Deke and Kai come in, the melody of Nishi’s song is haunting against our heavy and complicated compositions.
We only run through a few bars, enough to make sure everything’s working right, and then we go deathly silent as we wait for the crystal to turn clear. The nerves of playing are stronger than Abyssthe’s buzz, and soon I can’t tell apart the tonic’s effect from my own restless anticipation.
Xander’s voice cuts through the heaviness: “Academy Acolytes! You have been excluded from the big celebration, but you still deserve a good time! On that note, and performing now for your plebian pleasures, I present to you the incredible Drowning Diamonds!”
The blackness lifts, making the crystal window so clear it’s barely detectable, and the dome’s lights blast on, illuminating the night. Outside, hundreds of Acolytes are soundlessly rising and falling in the air, trying to jump as high as they can. Some are flashing holographic messages in the sky, all directed at the same person.
Marry me, Sagittarian siren!
I’ve been pierced by your arrow, Archer!
Wander my way, Truth-Seeker!
As a Sagittarian, Nishi doesn’t share our Cancrian curls and light eyes—her locks are straight and black, her skin is a creamy cinnamon, and her eyes are amber and slanted. Add a sultry singing voice to her exotic beauty, and she’s pretty much stolen every Cancrian guy’s heart at the Academy.
Cancer has the widest range of skin colors in the galaxy—something I’ve always loved about our House. Back home, I had a sun-kissed golden tan, but after being on Elara so long, I’m now pale and pasty. What we Cancrians all have in common is our curly hair—which spans every shade but is often bleached from so much sun exposure—and the color of our eyes, which reflect the Cancer Sea.
Cancrian irises range from the softest of sea greens, kind of like mine, to the deepest of indigo blues . . . like Lodestar Mathias Thais’s.
Nishi flashes her adorers a winning smile and does a slow turn to show off her sexy red suit, the levlan twisting with every curve of her body. She waves me over so I’ll join her, but I shake my head vehemently.
I hate the spotlight—I only agreed to be in the band because as a drummer I can hang farthest back, hidden by my instrument. Deke and Kai aren’t crazy about being front and center either—it’s a Cancrian thing—so they tend to migrate toward either edge of the dome while they play.
In the distance beyond the crowd, a freighter lands to refuel at our spaceport. The Academy/university compound now has armed Zodai standing guard at every entrance, checking people’s identification as they file in to hear our Guardian’s speech. It’s hard to believe I’ve been on this moon almost five years, and soon I might be leaving it forever.
We won’t find out if we’ve been accepted to the university for another month. This could be our last show here.
The Abyssthe’s influence briefly grows stronger, just for a moment, and I feel myself slightly spacing out, like I’m Centering.
In that second, I see a shadow flit across Thebe. When I blink, it’s gone.
“All right, diamonds—time to drown this place in noise!” shouts Nishi, her voice amplified in the dome and playing through the speakers of every helmet watching.
Another wave of soundless cheers ensues outside, holographic messages flicker, people soar higher off the ground, fists shake in the air—it’s time. Nishi turns and winks at me. That’s my cue to start us off.
I count four beats with my sticks, and then I come down hard on the snare and cymbal, simultaneously slamming on the bass pedal, and—
I blast backward as an invisible surge of energy smacks into me, hurling me off my chair. I hear my friends also taking tumbles.
My body trembles uncontrollably on the floor from the fiery pulse of electric energy. Once I stop seizing, I pull myself up.
I wish I hadn’t taken the Abyssthe—it’s making everything wobbly, and I can barely stand upright. As my vision begins to clear, I only have time to register the sight of our three moons, glistening like pearls strung on a string, when I see it: a fireball bursting through our Crab constellation, burning a path through Space.
With a scream, I realize I already know where it’s going to land.
WHEN I OPEN MY EYES, the dome is dark. All I remember is a fireball . . . and then the world went white.
I reach out and feel pieces of my drum set scattered across the floor. “Nishi? Deke? Kai?” I rise and pick my way through the rubble of stuff, toward the others.
“I’m okay,” says Nishi, her back against the wall, head buried in her hands.
“Just . . . dizzy.”
“A-live,” spits Deke from somewhere behind me.
“Holy Helios,” I whisper, scanning the scene outside through the crystal window. The sight is terrifying. The crowd of Acolytes that was jumping and cheering moments ago is now floating unconsciously a few feet off the ground. Whether they’re passed out or worse, I don’t know.
Chunks of metal, plaster, and other materials clutter the air, swimming along with the limp bodies. The debris looks familiar.
I try to see what’s happening by the compound, but I can’t. The window is fogging up fast.
A high-pitched noise grows louder, and I catch a crack creeping down the side of the crystal. As I watch, the fracturing spreads into a spider web of lines, and when the whinnying pitch reaches a new high, I realize what’s about to happen.
I reach for my helmet and toss Nishi hers. Deke grabs his, and I cast my gaze around the room, realizing I never heard Kai answer.
He’s still passed out, his body a small heap. I shove his helmet on his head and pull him up. Hooking a shoulder under his arm, I take him with me through the door Deke is holding open.
Deke comes through last—right as the crystal window blows.
Nishi screams, and Deke shoves the door, slamming it shut just in time. Shards of crystal stab the other side.
As soon as we’re on the moon’s surface, the lower oxygen lightens my load. I try using my helmet’s communication system, but it’s not working. Since the dome is blocking our view of campus and the compound, I signal to Deke and Nishi that we should go around.
When we reach the crowd, the sight is so devastating my vision blurs, like my eyes don’t want to see more. It takes me a moment to realize I’m sobbing.
Bodies are everywhere. Floating past each other peacefully, three or four feet above the ground. None of them have woken up.
A pink space suit no bigger than Kai drifts past my head, the person light enough to rise higher than the others. I reach for the girl’s leg and pull her closer. Where a face should be, there’s only frost.
Her thermal controls stopped working. . . . She froze to death.
Shaking, I look around at the suspended space suits surrounding me.
They’re all dead.
Everything within me goes so cold, my suit might as well have stopped working, too. I suck in lungfuls of oxygen, but still I can’t breathe. There are too many bodies here . . . more than a hundred . . . more than two—
I can’t count. I don’t want to know.
A generation of Cancrian children who can never go home again.
It’s only when I see Deke and Nishiko move in my periphery that I look up. They’ve both turned and are surveying the damage behind us, at the compound, their gloved hands gripping the sides of their helmets like it’s the only way they’ll keep their heads. My gut clenches with dread, and I already know what horrors await if I turn to look.
I know the debris in the air isn’t all from Elara’s surface.
There are papers and notebooks and bags. Chairs and desks and books. And other bodies . . . bodies not wearing compression suits.
Faint shadows move in the distance.
Squinting, I see a small trail of people bounce-jumping toward the spaceport from the far side of the compound.
I decide not to look back. Right now, I need to get my friends and myself to safety—and to do that, the suffering has to stay behind me. I have to wall off the pain.
If I turn around, I might not be able to.
I nudge Deke and signal to the spaceport. Through his helmet’s visor, his face is pale and wet. He takes Kai off my shoulder, and I get Nishi’s attention, and together we follow the other survivors.
The spaceport’s floodlights are dark, but when we reach the edge of the launch-pad, there’s a man directing us with a laser torch. When he sees Deke carrying an unconscious Kai, he motions for us to climb into the small mining ship parked in front of the hangar.
I help Deke get Kai on board, and when we’ve cycled through the airlock, we gently lay him down on the deck and remove his helmet. Then I yank off my own and take deep gulps of air.
We’re alone in a cargo hold full of spherical orange tanks of liquid helium from Elara’s mines. Frost webs the dark walls, and our breath makes puffs of vapor. The other survivors must have gone deeper into the hangar, toward a larger passenger ship.
The man who was guiding us emerges through the airlock and rushes up to Kai. His compression suit bears the insignia of the Zodai Royal Guard. When he takes off his helmet, I see a pair of indigo blue eyes.
Lodestar Mathias Thais.
Gently, he listens for breath, checks Kai’s pulse, and peels open an eyelid. “This boy has fainted. Can someone pass me the healing kit?”
I reach for the large yellow case hanging by the airlock door and hand it to him. When his eyes meet mine, he holds my gaze an extra-long moment, the way he did forever ago in Instructor Tidus’s room. Only this time, the surprise in his face doesn’t warm my skin. I’m not sure I’ll ever be warm again.
He rifles through the vials and packets, then breaks some kind of glass ampoule under Kai’s nose. It must be wake-up gas, because Kai jerks up, swinging a punch.
The Lodestar dodges. “Relax. You lost consciousness, but you’re going to be fine.”
“Lodestar Thais,” I say, my voice rough, “what’s happened?”
His brow furrows, and he blinks like I just did something unexpected. Maybe he really did think I was mute.
“Please, call me Mathias.” Even now, his voice is musical. “And I think it best that we wait to discuss,” he adds, looking pointedly at Kai.
“Mathias,” I say, a hardness in my tone that wasn’t there before, “please—we have to know.” When I say his name, color rushes to his face, like a match sparking, and I wonder if I’ve offended him. Maybe he was just being polite offering his first name. “Lodestar Thais,” I say quickly, “does it have to do with Thebe?”
“Mathias will do.” He turns from me and surveys my friends. I follow his gaze. They look as broken as I feel, and yet they’re staring at him just as defiantly.
When his eyes meet mine again, I say, “We don’t deserve to be kept in the dark after everything we just saw.”
That seems to convince him. “There was an explosion on Thebe.”
I turn my head so fast, everything spins. Somehow, I knew it the moment I saw the fireball. I knew it would land on Thebe.
My insides twist like sea snakes, and I snap open my Wave to reach my brother, but there’s no connection. I try checking the news and my messages, but nothing’s coming through. It’s like the whole network has gone offline.
“Rho, I’m sure he’s all right,” says Nishi, massaging my back. She’s the only one of my friends who’s met Stanton before. The only one who knows how much he means to me.
Mathias stares at me questioningly but doesn’t ask.
“What about the people on Elara?” I whisper. He shakes his head, and I’m not sure he’s going to answer.
“The pulse killed the power in their suits . . . everyone outside froze to death.” He takes a shaky breath before going on. “Pieces of Thebe entered our atmosphere and crashed into the compound. It’s . . . hard to tell how many survived.”
Something jolts our ship and knocks me into a helium tank.
Deke helps me up and we all look around apprehensively as the metal hull creaks and the orange tanks bump together. The vibrations intensify, building into a tremor, until the ship is quaking from side to side.
“Shockwave from the explosion!” Mathias calls over the noise. “Hold onto something!”
Nishi shrieks, but Deke steadies her. I grip a handrail and close my eyes. If we’re having moonquakes, what must be happening on Thebe? Close to three thousand people work at the moon base there.
Stanton told me they have shelters—please let him be in a shelter right now. . . . He has to be in a shelter right now . . . please.
With one last convulsion, the shaking ends as abruptly as it started. I watch Mathias move his lips, speaking soundlessly to someone we can’t see. Only the Zodai can communicate that way. When his invisible conversation is over, he says, “A meteoroid may have struck Thebe. This ship is launching now. We’re heading home to Cancer.”
THE TRIP WILL TAKE TEN HOURS.
Mathias moves us into the crew’s bunkroom, where we’re belted into oil-stained hammocks that stink of mildew, while he goes to the bridge. When we’re alone and buckled up, I can’t look my friends in the face. Somehow, seeing them will make the bodies on Elara real.
Every House has a different outlook on death. We Cancrians send our dead into space, toward Helios, the gateway to the afterlife. We believe those who pass on with settled souls are at peace and gone for good, while the unsettled soul lives on in the stars as a new constellation.
The hope is that one day, the unsettled soul can return to live again on Cancer.
I picture the girl in the pink space suit. Where will her soul go?
I chase the thought from my mind by trying to Wave Stanton and Dad, but there’s still no connection. I wonder if Dad even knows what happened. He doesn’t watch the news, and his Wave is so old he sometimes has to open and close it twice to get the holographic menus to pop out.
G-forces press us down as we lift off Elara. The ship’s engines rumble, loud and ferocious, but I can already hear the ocean’s everlasting breath. Maybe Stanton wasn’t on Thebe. Maybe he’s home right now, waiting for me. The last time we spoke, he told me he was visiting Dad soon.
The hull of the mining ship groans and creaks as we accelerate upward from the moon, leaving the past five years of our lives behind.
“It’s okay, Nish,” says Deke, squeezing her hand. She gives him a weak smile, her eyes rimmed red and puffy.
At last, the engines cut off, signaling our escape from Elara’s gravity, and in the sudden quiet, my ears tingle. Gripping my Wave, I unclasp my belt and float out of the hammock, weightless. So do the others.
“I don’t understand why Mother Origene didn’t warn us,” says Kai, speaking his first words since waking. He tries Waving his parents, but there’s no connection. “The stars must have shown signs.”
“To see a meteoroid that big, I doubt you’d even need an Ephemeris,” says Deke, scrolling through his Wave contacts, trying to get through to anyone on Cancer. “Any telescope should have caught it.”
I’ve been wondering the same thing. The Guardian has two main duties: representing her House in the Galactic Senate and protecting her people by reading the future. So what happened?
Nishi’s whisper is so frail, it’s the first thing about tonight that seems real. “The omen you saw during your test, the one you’ve been seeing when you read my future for fun, the one you won’t talk about”—she chokes back a sob, tiny weightless tears slipping from her amber eyes and scattering through the air—“could it be . . . real?”
“No,” I say quickly. Her expression hardens with distrust, which hurts because Cancrians don’t use deceit. “It can’t be,” I insist, spilling my evidence: “When I saw the black mass today, at my retest, even Dean Lyll said it was nonsense. He made me use an Astralator, and it confirmed—”
“You saw it again today,” says Nishi, like she hasn’t heard a word past that admission. “You’ve been seeing it for days, and then you saw it again today, and now this—Rho, take another look in the Ephemeris.”
“Why don’t one of you look, you’re better with an Astralator—”
“Because we didn’t see a dark mass in our readings.”
“I failed and had to take the test twice, Nishi,” I argue, my volume rising. “My reading was wrong.”
“Oh, really? So nothing bad happened tonight then?” Her voice breaks, and more tears slip into the air, like tiny diamonds.
I look over at Deke, hoping he’ll disagree with her. After all, he’s always the first to dismiss my reads as silly stories.
Only he’s not paying us attention. He’s just staring at his Wave blankly.
He couldn’t get through to anyone.
“Okay,” I whisper with a sigh. “I’ll do it.”
I scroll through my Wave and find my copy of the Ephemeris. It’s just a tutorial version, so it doesn’t have all the detail of the Academy’s, but it still works. Stanton gave it to me last year, for my sixteenth birthday. When I whisper the command, the star map swells out in a holographic projection the size of a puffer fish. I relax my vision until my eyes cross, and then I reach into my pocket for my drumsticks.
Only they’re not there. Like everything else I own, they’re gone. My eyes burn.
“I’m sorry, Rho, I shouldn’t have asked,” says Nishi, hugging me in midair. “Just forget it.”
“No, you’re right.” My voice comes out steady and determined. I give Nishi a squeeze back, and then I face the map again. “I have to do something. I have to help—if I can.”
I summon up one of my usual melodies, sans sticks—but the music reminds me too much of our show. I can’t find anything in me to call on.
A blaze of blue flashes through the cabin’s small window, and I look up from the map to the real thing.
Even from this far, after so long of only seeing it in the Ephemeris, Cancer is breathtaking. Ninety-eight percent water, our planet is painted every shade of blue, streaked with barely perceptible slices of green. Cancer’s cities are built on massive pods that float calmly on the sea’s surface, like giant, half-submerged anemones. Our largest structures—buildings, commercial centers, schools—are secured with anchors.
The pods that hold the most populated cities are so vast that whenever I visit one I forget I’m not on land—except when a shift in the planet’s core triggers powerful ripples. We have security outposts in the sky, reachable by aircraft, and a handful of underwater stations that have never been used. They were mainly built for protection, in case life above water is ever threatened.
My home is my soul: Cancer is my Center.
I turn back to the star map, and I gaze into the blue orb as though I could see every detail, down to the tiny whirlpools of color that fleetingly form on the sea’s surface. The longer I stare, the deeper and wider the map seems to grow, until I’m Space-diving through the stars.
All around me, millions of celestial bodies ascend and decline, and as their paths shift in response to distant events like gamma bursts and supernovas, they leave faint arcs in the sky. They almost look like musical notes.
Music of the night, Mom said the ancients called it.
I look to the side of Cancer. Thebe is gone. Then I survey the moons we have left—and all three begin to flicker.
Like any one of them could be next.
Pulse pumping, I pan away from our House and search beyond the twelfth constellation, where the omen appears. It’s not there.
Has it finally disappeared? Or has it moved closer?
I scan the whole solar system, desperately searching for a hint of the writhing blackness, a sign of the opposition in our stars.
Nishiko glides over to me. “You see something. What is it?”
“I . . . don’t see the omen anymore. . . .”
As soon as I leave my Center, the map shrinks back down to the size of a puffer fish—the way it’s appeared to the others this whole time.
“But?” she asks. “Why do you sound bothered by its absence?”
“Because I still felt the sense of danger, only I couldn’t see the source. And there’s . . . something else.” I dread speaking the words, but I have to. Maybe if I’d spoken up earlier, we would have had warning. If I’d just told Instructor
“What else? Rho, tell us!” Nishi squeezes my shoulder urgently.
“Sorry—I didn’t mean to keep you in suspense, I’m just—okay, listen. Earlier today, at my retest, I saw . . . I saw Thebe’s light flickering, and then it vanished. Like, disappeared from the map.”
My three friends exchange awed looks. Deke is the first to turn away. “Rho, this isn’t time for one of your tales.”
“Deke, you’re my best friend. Would I really be messing with you after what’s happened?”
He glares at me but doesn’t say anything. He knows I’m right.
“And what’d you see now?” whispers Nishi.
“Thebe is gone . . . and our other moons have started to flicker.”
None of us speaks. My friends are still caught in the gravity of my revelation, but I’m thinking of Instructor Tidus. She was the first grown-up since Mom who saw any potential in me.
Please let her have survived the blast.
Kai floats away from us, to a corner of the bunkroom. “I hope you’re wrong,”
says Deke, following Kai and offering words of comfort.
“Maybe you’re not wrong,” whispers Nishi. “The omen and the flickering of the moons could be connected. Did you see anything else?”
“Nish, I don’t know anything,” I whisper back, growing unexpectedly angry. “None of what I saw was real. The Astralator proved I was wrong. I have no clue what you expect me to do.”
Deke frowns at us from across the room. “What are you gossiping about now, Nish?”
“I’m being serious,” she says. “I don’t care how, but Rho saw a threat, and we can’t ignore that.”
“It wasn’t in the stars, it was in my head,” I say, my words fueled by more hope than certainty.
“What about all the tragedies in the news?” she asks. The last couple of years, there have been a slew of natural disasters in the Zodiac. Mudslides in House Taurus. Dust storms and drought in the Piscene planetoids. Forest fires raging out of control on a Leonine moon. The past year alone, millions of lives have been lost.
“Maybe it’s the Trinary Axis again,” whispers Kai, like the thought itself is dangerous.
“Don’t even say that,” snaps Deke. “Events go in cycles, Kai, that’s all. It’s nature.”
We fall silent, and I wonder if we’re all still thinking about the Trinary Axis. A thousand years ago, the axis started a vicious galactic war that raged out of control for a century. When we studied it at school, it seemed unreal—just as unreal as the bodies on Elara.
“Those terrorist attacks in House Aries,” I say, “and those suicide bombers on the Geminin space freighter—that’s not nature’s way.”
“Fringe fanatics,” says Deke, sounding just like Stanton. “We’ve always had our share of lunatics.”
Nishiko draws me to the far end of the bunkroom, darts a wary glance at Deke and Kai, then whispers in my ear. “What if there is an enemy? Think about the timing of the blast.”
“You mean the Lunar Quadract?”
“Almost every Zodai and high-ranking government member in your House was on Elara tonight to hear your Guardian’s speech—”
“And our moons were at their closest conjunction,” I say, completing her thought. I chew on my lower lip as the full magnitude of her theory sinks in. If someone planned this, they really thought it through. A well-timed blast in exactly the right place, and our moons could crash into each other like marbles.
I feel myself blanch. I don’t want to consider this. Cancer has no enemies. Humanity has been at peace for a thousand years. “This was a tragedy . . . no one could have orchestrated it.”
Nishi frowns at me. “You’ve been seeing an omen.”
“Yes, and the experts at the Academy who teach classes on this stuff don’t find my methods reliable, so neither should you.”
Nishi’s voice rises higher, and now Deke and Kai are listening again. “Rho, they just don’t understand your methods, that’s all! I know you’ve been taught to trust your elders, but on Sagittarius we’re raised to question everything—it’s the only way to get to the truth of a thing. You and our instructors are being blinded by prejudice right now. You’re so distracted by how you got the right answer that you’re missing the point that you are right—”
An alarm blares across the room, and an automated voice echoes through the ship: “Debris field ahead. Brace yourselves.”
A heavy object jolts against our hull, and Nishi and I grasp hands just as the retro engines fire, flinging all of us to the ceiling. We must be flying through Thebe’s rubble. “Grab something and hang on!” I shout, wrapping my fingers around a handrail.
The engines thunder so loud, my teeth vibrate. We hear the thuds of more space rocks striking our hull, and we cling to our handrails while the ship veers in every direction, blowing our bodies around like seaweed in a riptide.
Kai looks green, so I pull myself over to him and tug on his elbow. “Come on!” I call over the thunderous rumbling. “We have to belt in.”
As the ship rolls and swerves, I help him into the nearest hammock and squeeze in beside him, hooking the belt tight across our ribs. An especially large chunk of debris slams our hull, and Kai clutches my hand so hard, I wince.
The ship keeps lurching unpredictably, the wreckage so extensive it feels like we’ve been bumping through it for hours. After a while, Kai starts singing an old Cancrian seafaring song:
“The wind she blows from north to east.
Our schooner flies ten knots at least.
So ever forward we shall roam,
Until the sea shall bring us home. . . .”
I join in, flat and off-key. When Deke’s voice seeps in, he meets my gaze for the first time. His eyes look like dying stars, nebulas of turquoise whose lights are fading.
Now I’m the one crushing Kai’s hand.
We sing the song so many times that Nishi memorizes the words. After so much crying and shouting, her voice is nothing more than a soft purr, but it’s still beautiful. Gradually, the rest of us drop out so we can listen to her mournful tune.
The ship’s trajectory starts to smooth out. When the engines cut off, Nishi’s voice fades away, and we wait in tense silence.
“All clear,” the automated voice announces.
I take a deep breath, free my fingers from Kai’s grip, and undo my belt. When I’m in the air, Nishi’s already by my side. “Let’s find the Stargazer and tell him what you saw.” Stargazer is the Sagittarian word for Zodai.
“He told us to stay here,” interrupts Deke.
“Nishi’s right,” I say, taking her hand and digging into my pocket for my Wave. “Besides, I want to know what’s happening.”
Nishi and I zip up to the hatch in time to barge right into Lodestar Mathias Thais. With a frown, he motions us back into the bunkroom. Inside, dim light falls across his face, shadowing his cheekbones. “We’re making a course change.”
“The other moons?” I ask, my breath catching. “Did something happen to them?”
He stares at me, and I get the sense he’s observing me for the first time. He looks for so long, I begin to feel uncomfortable, but I don’t turn away. The same instinct that helps me read the stars seems to be whispering to me now. If I want him to treat me like an equal, I need to act like one.
He swipes the Wave from my hands and opens it. I don’t protest. He scans the holograms surrounding him and pulls up the Ephemeris. When the spectral Space map blossoms out, he asks, “You can read the stars with this?”
He sounds so doubtful that I blush. “Not very well. It’s just a tutorial version.”
He tips his head to one side, searching my face, continuing to float in the same steady position. “Your reading’s correct,” he says, his voice stony. “Our four moons have collided, and the rubble is streaking through our atmosphere. In the next few hours, it will strike our ocean and cause planet-wide tsunami waves. We can’t land
The edges of my vision darken. I feel like he’s sucked the light from my world with his words.
Everything that happened tonight was almost endurable at the thought of setting foot in the Cancer Sea, of sleeping in my old room, of hugging Dad and saying all the things I never said. I take a ragged breath, and Nishi steadies me with her arm. Dad—Stanton—the Academy—home—everything I know is sinking away.
Mathias clears his throat, and I realize he isn’t finished. Lowering his eyes, he whispers, “Our Guardian Origene is dead.”
THE SHOCK ROBS ME OF speech and thought, almost of breath itself.
My mind is blank.
My classmates and teachers, maybe my brother and Dad, now Guardian Origene—so many of our people lost in one night. I feel as if their screams are still echoing through the universe, filling my head with their voices.
Nishiko and Deke are as frozen as I am, and the three of us listen to Kai’s quiet sobbing like it’s an alien language we’ve only just begun to learn.
Mathias continues in a low baritone. “We’ll dock at a satellite called Oceon
6. Admiral Crius is there, organizing our House’s disaster response. He’s Guardian Origene’s Military Advisor, and he’s ordered all surviving Cancrian Zodai to report, and that includes you Acolytes.”
“Who’ll be our Guardian now?” asks Kai.
“We’ll find a new one. It’s our first priority.” Mathias turns to Nishi. “You’re Sagittarian?” She nods. “See me after we dock. We’ll try to arrange your transport home.”
He gives the rest of us another steady inspection, and I guess we must look like lost souls, because his eyes soften. “Wherever we are, whatever happens, Cancer sustains us. She is our Center. Find her now in your hearts.”
“What about the people living on Cancer?” I ask, my voice cracking.
When he answers, I get the sense Mathias is trying not to panic us. “The Lodestars foresaw the tsunamis, and the evacuation has already begun. Even now, dive-ships are transporting islanders down to our underwater stations, which are deep enough to remain stable.”
His dark indigo eyes swirl like whirlpools of the Cancer Sea. “Of our House’s three thousand Zodai, fewer than four hundred have survived. Everyone who’s left is on their way to Oceon 6, same as us.”
Kai sniffles, and Deke looks ill. “How do you know all this?” asks Nishi. “We couldn’t connect to anyone on my Tracker or their Waves.”
The Sagittarian version of a Wave is a Tracker. Since they’re such nomadic souls, the Tracker is a wristband that projects holographic data and also functions as a locator. It’s so Sagittarian families can track their loved ones across the Zodiac.
Mathias speaks softly. “I don’t use a Wave. I have my own communication system.”
“The Ring?” asks Nishi, her innate curiosity irrepressible. We’ve all seen the Lodestars on campus whispering into invisible microphones, but none of us know how it works. It’s technology that’s exclusive to the Zodai.
“Since we have so few Zodai left, and as you are what remains of the pool of candidates, you might as well learn as much as you can, as fast as you can.” He spreads his right hand and shows us his Ring. It’s just a plain steel band—or so it seems. On closer inspection, there’s a faint flickering glow around it.
“It looks like steel, but it’s metallic silicon. Like an Ephemeris, the Ring acts as an extrasensory antenna for picking up Psynergy. Only instead of using it to read the stars, the Ring uses Psynergy to link my conscious to every Zodai in the galaxy—what’s called the Psy Network.”
“I read that a person’s Psynergy signature becomes visible in the Psy Network,” says Nishiko. “What’s it look like?” Just like in class, while the rest of us are trying to process the current lesson, her questioning nature is already pushing us toward the next one.
“It’s different for each of us. As you know from your studies, Psynergy is a combination of your psychic energy—which determines your ability to do things like read the stars and access the Collective Consciousness—and your astrological fingerprint. Your fingerprint is on your birth certificate, and it’s a snapshot of Space at your moment of birth: the location of the stars, the rotation of the planet, the pull of the moons, an infinite number of factors. Since there can never be two of the same fingerprint, every Psynergy signature is unique—but it can still be veiled or altered in the Psy.”
“Why does that matter?” asks Nishi.
By now, Deke would be groaning audibly and begging our teacher to ban Nishiko from speaking for the rest of the lesson—but he doesn’t seem to be taking any of this in. He looks how being Centerless feels.
“It matters for the same reason falsified holograms matter: You can’t be sure who you’re talking to. The better you are at Centering, the easier it will be for you to distinguish people’s signatures so you can be certain of who’s listening. We Zodai are only human, so the Collective Conscious can’t help but reflect our flaws.” Mathias is showing remarkable patience, especially under the circumstances.
“If it’s like reading the Ephemeris, how in the world will we see a signature?”
asks Kai. “It’s hard enough just seeing the stars move.”
I’m surprised to hear the interest in Kai’s tone, since he looks as defeated as Deke. Then again, I probably do, too. Maybe we all look exactly the same—like corpses who are inexplicably still breathing.
“Even stars leave faint impressions of their trajectories in the Psy,” says Mathias. “Those small, fading lines are enough for an Astralator to measure a movement’s unique astrological footprint. Similarly, a person’s consciousness also leaves its mark. Have you taken Abyssthe in your classes yet?”
The word is a dagger. It stabs us all in the gut, so that not even Nishi can answer. We just nod.
“Abyssthe uses your mind as the receiver of Psynergy, same as the Ring. Both work by activating parts of your brain normally dormant, and they can help you stay Centered.”
A memory escapes the wall that blocks out my early years. Beyond Centering, Mom’s training also involved memorizing everything there is to know about each House of the Zodiac—traits, constellations, histories. But she only brought up Psynergy once.
She told me Psynergy is the magic that makes star reading possible. She said the brain is most susceptible to Psynergy in children, while it’s still forming, and that’s why she had to make me work as hard as she did.
Mom was certain if I practiced every day, I would one day be able to assert myself fully in the astral plane and see more than any other Zodai. By the time I was five, our lessons were lasting up to ten hours a day.
Two years later, she disappeared. For a while, I kept practicing, even harder than when she was around. I thought if I impressed her enough, she would give us another chance. I thought I could locate her on the star map and convince her to come home.
I bite down on the inside of my lip, shoving the memory deep into my subconscious, somewhere it can’t touch me again.
Mathias turns to go. “There’s an observation turret two decks up, and the captain has given permission for you to visit if you’d like.”
A little later, Deke and I press our faces against the thick, scarred glass of the turret, looking out at Cancer. We’ve already passed the moon rubble, but every now and then we catch chunks of rock flaming through Cancer’s atmosphere and crashing into the ocean. From this distance, it’s hard to make out the tsunamis that must be wracking life on our pods and islands. Cancer appears the same as ever, eternally blue and changeless.
“That moon rubble will form a ring,” says Deke. “We’ll be a ringed planet.”
“So now you’re reading omens?”
“Not omens. Physics.” His turquoise eyes droop at the corners, and he has a puffy, rumpled look. “Our tides will change.”
Our tides nourish the shores around our islands, and every sea farmer knows three-quarters of our planet’s creatures live near shorelines. If our tides shift, what will happen to the plants and fish that feed the rest of the ecosystem? How will Dad’s nar-clams survive?
“Nishiko says people become gods after they die,” I whisper. “That’s what
Sagittarians believe. They celebrate death, like it’s a happy event.”
“Ask her how she feels about it when her own turn comes.”
He sounds so cold, but I have to remind myself it’s actually pain. He’s hurting as much as the rest of us.
We Cancrians believe those who pass on with settled souls move into Empyrean, a paradise of blissful tranquility reached through a portal in Helios. Some Houses don’t believe in Empyrean at all, and others think it’s a canal from one life to the next, a kind of rebirth. Nishi’s people believe Empyrean is a real planet full of mansions and banquets and dancing in the streets.
Even though it feels like a betrayal to my people, the truth is, I don’t know what I believe.
“There. That’s Oceon 6.” Deke points toward a wheel-shaped satellite floating above our northern pole. It looks like a pinprick of light in an Ephemeris, but it’s growing larger. “The Lodestar said the wheel’s constant spinning creates centrifugal force in its outer rim to simulate gravity. They were on the far side of Cancer when the moons collided, so they didn’t feel the effects.”
I don’t know what to say to all that, so I don’t say anything at all. After a while, he whispers, “When we get there, they’ll have survivor lists.”
I hook an arm around his elbow. “Where were your sisters when it hit?”
“At the factory, probably.” Deke’s family produces a line of pearlescent paint from fish scales that’s very popular, especially among artist circles on House Gemini, where imagination is prized above all.
“Your island’s got hills,” I remind him. “I’m sure they made it to your parents’ house on higher ground.” His parents recently retired and gave the company to their children. Deke lets his twin sisters run it however they want. He looks up to them the way I look up to Stanton.
“They won’t find another Guardian,” he says, changing the subject. His crabby mood is growing contagious. “We have too few Zodai, and qualifying is too tough. And then what?”
“Then the most senior Zodai in Mother Origene’s Council of Advisors will step in until they find one,” I say, pulling the fact from my sea of repressed memories.
Guardians are the spiritual leaders of the Zodiac, and the position is always a lifetime appointment. On some Houses, like Virgo, the Guardian is also the government—Empress Moira rules her whole constellation—but Cancer is run by consensus. Our Holy Mother acts as an arbiter and advisor to our governing body, and she has an equal vote with the rest of our House’s representatives.
“They say a Guardian has to embody the noblest traits of our House,” says
Deke. “Compassion, loyalty, selflessness . . .”
“Brooding, clinging, self-absorption,” I add, trying to lighten the mood.
“The Guardian also needs to be a natural at reading the stars. To protect us. You know how rare that is?”
I close my eyes. “Come on, Deke. They’ll find somebody.”
The automated voice speaks through the ship’s intercom: “All passengers, return to crew quarters and prepare for landing.”
My elbow still linked with Deke’s, I pull him away from the view.
Back in the smelly bunkroom, Kai has stopped crying, though he’s still gloomy. Nishiko has cleaned her face and braided her dark hair. I haven’t even thought of my hair.
Growing up, I was always jealous of Stanton, who kept his blond curls close-cropped. So when I got to the Academy, I chopped mine off at the chin. My curls have been growing back ever since, and now they fall to my breasts. I usually keep them pulled back in a bushy ponytail or tucked beneath the gray hood of Stanton’s jacket . . . the one I took with me when I moved to Elara.
Back then, it fell to my knees. Now it’s just the right size—and gone forever.
I strap into the same seat as the start of the trip, barely recognizing the girl I was ten hours ago. The world was a mess of horror and confusion, but even in the face of what we were escaping, at least we were moving toward light and not darkness. The light of Cancer.
Home is on Kalymnos, a small coral atoll in the Northern Hemisphere. Our airy bungalow faces the inner lagoon where we keep our nar-clam beds. At night, bioluminescent microbes glow pale green in the water, creating constellations to rival the night sky. I grew up tending the beds alongside Stanton. We took turns driving off the hungry hookcrabs, but it was Dad alone who beaded the young nar-clams and harvested the pearls by hand.
I never wanted to leave. Becoming an Acolyte was the hardest decision I’ve ever made. Dad and Stanton didn’t understand—they knew how much I loved the fresh air and the Cancer Sea. But it wasn’t for my sake I left. . . . I did it for Dad.
He’s always been quiet, but after Mom took off, he barely spoke. Stanton could always find a subject to engage him with, but Dad’s shyer around me. It wasn’t until
I was eleven and found an old picture of Mom that I understood why.
I looked just like her.
So I applied to the Academy. If I couldn’t bring her back, I could at least free
Dad of her memory.
The ship gives a sharp lurch on touchdown, and something jabs into my hip. I
peel open my compression suit and dig into an inner pocket. Mathias’s Astralator.
“All clear,” says the automated voice. We unbuckle and float out of our hammocks, still weightless. Since we’ve docked at the hub, we won’t experience the wheel’s fake gravity until we reach the rim.
In the hub, we meet a row of officers in the same dark blue uniforms of the Cancrian Royal Guard. They’re floating at attention in zero gravity, and I wonder how they keep so straight and still when they exchange the fist touch with Mathias.
One of them says to him, “Admiral Crius wants to see you and your party at once.”
“Very well.” Mathias grabs onto a stationary rope hanging from a steel bar that wraps along the ceiling. The moment he grips it, the rope heaves forward at a brisk pace, pulling him forward through the air. He turns and waves for us to join him, and we each take a different rope. The Zodai follow along behind us.
Since we’re lined up in a row, my friends and I can’t compare theories on what this meeting could be about. The station smells of ammonia, and the low-wattage lighting makes everything look beige. When the steel bar dead-ends, we let go of the rope and load into a monorail car. Soon there’s a rush of speed. This must be the express train to the rim.
The farther out we go, the more centrifugal force I feel, and it’s nothing like gravity. It’s more like a carnival ride that’s slinging us against the right-hand side of the train. When we reach our destination and I try standing up, I feel like I’m slanting into a strong wind.
Mathias catches my elbow when I almost slip. “You’ll get used to it,” he breathes in his low baritone.
I’ve never been so close to his face before. I trace the smooth lines of his jaw and cheekbones with my eyes before catching myself and looking away.
He guides each of us out of the vehicle, and when we resume our procession, our feet clomp along the carpeted deck with something like real weight. It’s the first time since the crystal dome’s imitation gravity that I feel the full force of my body, and its presence seems foreign to me.
Admiral Crius is waiting for us in what looks like a lecture hall that’s been converted into a disaster-response room. A dozen blue-uniformed Zodai are working on slick screens, and an enormous holographic map of Cancer rotates in the air overhead, blinking with red warning lights. Crius gets up from his desk and gives Mathias a fist bump, then frowns at the rest of us. He’s a broad-chested man somewhere in his mid-forties, with pepper-colored curls and crinkles around his mouth and eyes. His expression, like everyone else’s, is grim.
“You must be Acolyte Rhoma Grace,” he says to me.
I stiffen. Deke and Nishiko turn and stare at me, and I try to remember which of the many rules I’ve broken. “Yes.” In a fuller voice, I say, “My name is Rho Grace.”
“Come with me, Acolyte. You as well, Lodestar Thais. As for the rest of you, these officers will see to your needs.”
The Admiral turns on his heel and strides away, and Mathias nods that I should follow. I give Nishi a questioning look, but she seems as confused as I am.
This can’t be about the Academy’s test again. This is about Stanton.
The weight of my bones is too much for me to carry, and my throat fills with what tastes like acid. I’ve already lost the only two homes I’ve ever known—I can’t lose what’s left of my family.
I peel off my black gloves and stuff them—and my Wave—into a pocket of my compression suit. My helmet is already clipped to my belt.
Fortunately, we don’t have to travel far. The Admiral leads us into a space no larger than Instructor Tidus’s classroom, where two other people are present.
The elderly white-haired lady’s expression is both warm and sad, but there’s a sinister snarl on the stout bald man’s face. Mathias closes the door and stands in front of it, ramrod straight, hands at his sides, eyes forward. I can’t read his expression.
Admiral Crius examines me head to toe. “Acolyte Rhoma Grace. You have been brought before what is left of Holy Mother Origene’s Council of Advisors to face judgment. Tonight, your mother, Kassandra Grace, has confessed to treason.”
The word sounds strange, unfamiliar, unconnected to my life. “I don’t believe you.” It’s almost a snarl. “Betrayal is not in our Cancrian nature.”
The stout man’s scowl deepens, but it’s Crius who says, in his clipped military tone, “Neither is abandoning our loved ones, yet she left you.”
After everything I’ve experienced tonight, I didn’t think I had anything left to lose.
I was wrong.
I’ve not thought about Mom for so long, I never considered what I’d do if I learned she was alive. Despair swims through my veins, and I swivel around and lock eyes with Mathias. The indigo blue of his gaze never looked so explosive, not even when we were escaping Elara. But does he care what happens to me, or is he revolted he showed me pity in the first place?
The desperation makes me feel like I’m falling further and further away from myself, from this moment, from memories of my life. It’s like I’m being sucked into a black hole, removed from the reality I thought I knew, only as slowly and painfully as possible.
“Kassandra Grace has been sentenced to summary execution,” continues Crius in his wintry way, every word pulling me deeper into the abyss. “If you stay, her name will stain yours. You will be shunned by your House, separated from your friends, and you can never be a Zodai.”
I’m so far gone that I barely hear him when he says, “We are here to offer you a choice.”
Hope flickers like a small flame, burning bright against so much darkness. “A
He gives a curt nod. “Denounce her. We’ll transfer you to work for us on House Aries, at the Planetary Plenum. You can start a new life for yourself.”
The admiral lays his Wave on the table in front of me and says, “Press your thumbprint at the bottom, and you’ll be transferred without delay.”
I stare at the clam-shaped device, the small sensor in its mouth shining like a pearl.
Shock is like lightning—it only lasts an instant—but its replacement is hot, prickly shame. I would have preferred death on Elara to this choice. Whatever my mother did, I know my answer. There is no choice—not for me.
“I belong on Cancer, with my family.” My voice is strong, and it makes me stronger. “Thank you for your offer, but I decline.”
The admiral’s brow dips so low, it forms a wall between his eyes. “You understand you’ll be forced to live isolated from Cancrian society, forbidden to return to anything or anyone you know?”
“I understand,” I say, opening my mind to memories I’ve been blocking out for a decade. They’re surprisingly well preserved and untarnished. I can’t believe I’ve found Mom again.
“Will you please let me see her? Under our laws, she’s allowed a final visit with family.”
He shakes his head. “That will not be necessary. We have never met your mother, nor do we know where she is. This was a test, which you have passed.”
Confusion flits through my features quickly, followed by relief: Mom’s not a traitor, I can have my life again.
And then anger.
The white-haired lady takes a rickety step, leaning heavily on a cane. “I’m Agatha Cleiss, and this is my colleague, Dr. Emory Eusta.” She offers her hand, but I don’t exchange the traditional touch.
Her lips stretch into a sad smile. “My dear, forgive us. We’ve tricked you in a most barbaric way. This terrible tragedy has forced us to act in a cruel manner, and this lie was the quickest route to the answers we sought. If you’ll take a seat, we will explain.”
I bite hard on the inside of my lip, now angrier about the apology—it’d be easier to storm out of here if she didn’t seem so genuinely sorry.
The bald man beside her looks so real that only when I see his arm pass through the corner of a shelf do I realize he’s a hologram. Since Dr. Eusta shows no sign of a time delay, he must be transmitting from nearby.
I sit down on one of four cushioned chairs surrounding a square table, where a tray of water and sandwiches has been laid out. The sight of food makes my stomach rumble.
Crius sits across from me. His sallow skin has a fatigued grayish cast, and his mouth twists in a skeptical frown. “Have some refreshment.”
“No, thank you,” I say, over my stomach’s renewed protests.
Agatha lowers her gnarled body into the chair next to mine. “Why do you think you were tested twice at the Academy?”
“Because I failed the first time.”
She smiles sadly again, and her misty green-gray eyes grow distant. Across from me, Admiral Crius takes a dark stone from his pocket and lays it on the table. It’s smooth and oblong, and though it appears dull black at first, the longer I gaze at it, the more brilliant colors I see within its depths. Viridian blue-green, aqua, indigo, amethyst, even a scattering of crimson. And it’s not dull at all. It’s glossy slick.
“Black opal,” says Dr. Eusta. “It holds Guardian Origene’s Ephemeris.”
“As far as we can tell,” adds Agatha, “it’s in perfect working order. We don’t know why it failed to show the approach of this catastrophe.”
In this room at least, my theory about Astralators being insufficient is irrelevant. The Guardian and her Council are so good at foreseeing the future, they can interpret what’s coming from simply observing the stars’ movements. They don’t need an Astralator to tell apart what’s real from what’s imagined. That kind of natural Sight takes decades to develop.
Crius gives a voice command to switch off the lights, and we’re enveloped in cottony blackness. Now I’m thoroughly confused.
“Touch the stone,” says Agatha.
It’s a strange request, but I do it. From the moment they brought out the opal, I’ve wanted to hold it.
When I lift it in my hand, the stone feels warm. I roll it around my fingers, sensing tiny clefts in its smooth surface. The imperfections are so slight, they’re barely perceptible; but the moment I discover them, a shadowy mass begins to form in my mind, like I’m unscrambling a code.
The longer I brush my fingertip along the ridges, the more defined the shadow grows, until I recognize the configuration of bumps as part of a constellation.
As soon as I identify the image, a light fountains upward from the stone, and I shriek as it scatters through the air, filling the room with stars. The others stand in shocked silence, but it’s not the stone’s power that’s stumped them—it’s mine.
The opal is projecting a hologram of the universe. A large hologram, ovoid in shape, it’s the finest and most detailed Ephemeris I’ve ever seen. I stand inside its nimbus of light and spread my fingers, letting stars sparkle over my skin.
“You’ve discovered its key,” says Agatha, the amazement in her tone less than encouraging. “The ridges on the stone shift their shape every time the Ephemeris shuts off, so the lock changes. The key is always an incomplete map, so only those most familiar with our solar system could even hope to fill in the blanks and open it.”
“You mean that was another test?” I ask flatly.
Dr. Eusta’s hologram moves through the Ephemeris like a pixilating shade. “Yes. And so is this.”
Agatha rests her hands on the head of her cane and locks eyes with me. “Holy Mother used to say the future is a house of a million windows. Every Zodai sees a different view of the stars, so everyone’s reading is different. Some readings conflict. Some are wholly wrong. And some . . . may be deliberately misleading.”
“We want to hear your reading of what happened to our moons,” says the blinking hologram of Dr. Eusta.
“You want me to read Holy Mother’s Ephemeris?” I ask. The amazement in
Agatha’s tone was nothing compared to mine.
I can’t believe they’re asking for my interpretation. “I’m not well trained—I don’t use an Astralator. I was the only one in our year who failed the Academy’s test—”
“Take all the time you need,” says Agatha, like she hasn’t heard a word of my protest. She and Admiral Crius sit back and wait, while the holographic Dr. Eusta floats around, like another celestial body on the spectral map.
I blow out a hard breath and look around. I’ve never seen the Zodiac in such detail before. The soft glimmering lights rotate through the air with much higher resolution than even our planetarium’s Ephemeris at the Academy. Black holes, white dwarfs, red giants, and more, all shining in brilliant definition.
It’s only now, inside this luminous representation of our world, that I realize I
never lost my Center. Like Mathias said—Cancer sustains us.
Home is within me, no matter where I go, no matter what happens to our planet or our people. As long as my heart is beating, it’s playing a Cancrian tune.
The thought fills me with such a strong sense of self that I feel large and invincible. In spite of everything the universe strips from me, it can’t take what’s inside my head and in my heart. Those things are mine forever.
The room grows so quiet, I can hear my exhalations. I stare at the blue orb of Cancer, its surface bluer than in any Ephemeris I’ve looked through before, and I keep staring until I feel my soul drifting skyward. In the astral plane, I see the rubble field where our moons once orbited. And as I’m watching, the debris begins to flicker.
My pulse picks up as I move closer. This map is so large that it’s the first time I can see what’s really happening when a moon flickers. It’s not fluctuations in the Psy Network, like I’d secretly hoped.
In fact, the moons aren’t even flickering. I wasn’t seeing them vanish—I was seeing them get swallowed by something black and writhing, something thicker than Space. The tarlike substance is still there, guiding the rubble’s movement, like a puppeteer pulling invisible strings.
It’s Dark Matter.
“No meteoroid did this,” I whisper.
“Of course not. That was only a rumor,” mutters Dr. Eusta. “Our astronomers have already confirmed no foreign body struck our moons. No telescope or satellite registered any object. We can’t find any data because as soon as the explosion happened, every device in Thebe’s vicinity stopped working . . . which you know, since the power outage even reached Elara.”
The pink space suit burns in my mind. Like it’s been branded there.
I let the pain scorch my brain, welcoming it. I never want to forget the people we lost tonight. They are why I need to help, if I can. I take a few steps back, looking at the Zodiac as a whole instead of focusing on one constellation at a time.
The first thing I notice is a flickering in House Leo. Then I notice another flickering in Taurus. These flickers are feeble, though. They don’t seem like threats—they’re more like ghosts of flickers past. The Psy Network is showing me that Dark Matter touched those Houses, too.
“It’s a pattern,” I say, piecing it together out loud as I go. “The Leonine fires, the mudslides in House Taurus—these tragedies . . . they’re all connected.”
At these words, my interrogators lower their eyes, and I get the sense they’re communicating with each other silently. They’re going to dismiss my readings as nonsense, just as the dean did. Only I won’t let them. Nishi was right: I can’t ignore my visions if there’s a chance they can help.
“We are not asking about the past,” says Admiral Crius, once they’ve finished conferring in the Psy. “Now answer our question: What caused our moons to collide?”
I force myself not to flinch at the violence in his voice. Then I say, “Dark
They don’t bother with the niceties of hiding their disbelief—this time, they say what they’re thinking out loud, to my face.
“Dark Matter!” Dr. Eusta sounds halfway hysterical. “Are we done here now?” he asks the other two. “She’s wasted enough of our time, don’t you think?” Admiral Crius seems inclined to agree.
“Where do you perceive Dark Matter?” asks Agatha, staring at the rubble. I
point to where I see it, but she only sees black Space.
She closes her eyes and touches her Ring. When she opens them again, she turns to the men. “Dark Matter is the only substance strong enough to suck the life force from a planet . . . and knock out our energy systems. If it’s now starting to appear in the Ephemeris . . .”
Admiral Crius shakes his head. “It can’t be.”
“But if it is,” insists Agatha, “that means it’s being manipulated using Psynergy. Only a powerful Zodai could wield Psynergy that way.”
Crius suddenly leans forward, grips my wrist, and glares into my eyes. My whole arm throbs in agony from his crushing hold. He’s checking me for lies. The violence that’s been so close to erupting from him strangles my veins and suffocates my skin, but I refuse to even blink.
“So it’s true,” whispers Agatha when the admiral pulls away from me in defeat.
“Lights on,” he says.
When the room brightens, the Ephemeris still glows, speckling Agatha’s wrinkled face with bits of color. Her lips are moving very fast, and I realize she’s talking through her Ring. Crius whispers hasty notes into his Wave. They glance at each other mysteriously, and each gives the other a slight nod. Then Agatha draws herself upright and smiles at me. “I think we are ready to proceed.”
She takes the opal from my hand and lays it on the table. Instantly, the Ephemeris winks out, and Dr. Eusta’s hologram stops pixilating. Holographic screens start to beam out from Crius’s Wave and hover in the air above us. Each file bears the photo of a uniformed Zodai, but I’m too jittery to read the words.
“Since the beginning of time, our Lodestars have been predicting the birth of each new Potential,” says Agatha, her voice soft and soothing . . . like Mom’s when she’d settle in to tell me a story.
“Your astrological fingerprint is on that long list, and so you are one of the many Potentials we have been watching. By the time you arrived at the Academy, you had already studied everything you could about the Houses of the Zodiac, and it was noted by a few of your instructors that you had a keen interest in our world—and a hunger to learn that could rival a Sagittarian’s. You carried a tutorial Ephemeris in your Wave to read your friends’ futures on your own time, for fun. You even knew Yarrot, something only taught to the most advanced Zodai in our House.
“You worked hard in your classes, and your only difficulty was using the Astralator. What you didn’t realize was that after putting so much work into your Centering technique and spending so much time reading the Ephemeris, you’d become a natural. Like us, you don’t need an Astralator.”
Admiral Crius jumps in before Agatha’s words can sink in, gesturing at the holographic data crowding the air above us. “These files belong to the candidates we’ve selected as Advisors. They will be beamed to your Wave, as well as the surviving members of the Royal Guard. You’ll see one of your comrades on that list, Lodestar Mathias Thais.”
I inhale sharply and turn around, only now remembering that Mathias is here. Even before seeing him, I already feel a rush of relief to have a familiar face nearby.
Except when I look, Mathias isn’t looking back. He’s staring ahead, eyes forward, like he’s determined not to listen to our conversation. His demeanor is completely different from before, when he was drinking in every word, as if the exile in question was his and not mine. I don’t understand what’s changed.
“Lodestar Thais would make a much better Advisor than me, if that’s what you’re thinking,” I blurt.
“Excuse me?” Admiral Crius leans forward, and his expression makes me tremble. “Are you under the impression we want you to be an Advisor?”
“Oh . . . no. Of course not.” Suddenly the thing I want most in the world is to melt into my seat cushion.
Crius stands, and so does Agatha. Dr. Eusta floats over, and all three of them look down at me. “Rhoma Grace,” Crius starts, his tone making me wonder if we’re back on the subject of exile. “Please forgive our cruel methods.”
Then—to my extreme shock—he and the others give me a deep bow.
“The stars revealed a portent that some of us found implausible, but it seems we must accept it. As of today, we honor you as Guardian of the Fourth House, our beloved Cancer.”