Chapter One: Café Majina
Wirfamîn tĕi Fente'laïctae'rîsutimiidu!
Fentelaïca. New Cadets found that pronunciation easier than what it was actually shorthand for. In both the ancient and modern tongues it meant fun, laughter, and relaxation.
Calliope-like music chimed throughout the strip mall of crisscrossing streets on the once barren asteroid in a pocket of space at the center of the universe—it was at least as close by just a few memgeeds, the smallest unit of measurement an agent could think of, as it could be with folded space to make the travel simple. Glowing signs of welcome decorated the streets and corners were embellished with blossoming cellophane material in different meaningful shapes and carved benches where beings of every shape, size and creed rested. Agents laughed and shopped on various avenues, each with different stores and products from the far reaches of the universe. Piping voices hailed passersby to take a look and see what might interest them. Because unnecessary magic was frowned upon, transport modules littered the asteroid, bringing and sending agents home or to different parts of Fentelaïca. There were also tracks in the center of the yawning streets for more scenic travel; no one was in a hurry at a resort.
One of the most famous streets, Nysdawqel, had a high rising brick building at the peak of a pyramid of steps that humbled the buildings on neighboring streets with its glowing majesty. The Intergalactic Library was home to a wealth of information from every planet as well as a section designated for the history of the Agents of Alcarion in every media convenient. Not every agent could understand how to get information from a twinkling cup of slush or from thin slips of delicate material bound in a rougher coating with symbols printed onto the material and no feasible texture or light spectrum component at all.
And in the very center of Fentelaïca was Cevlect Pliqur, the entertainment alley.
A large ring of smaller entertainment houses lined the center of Fentelaïca. Flashing tents and glittering complexes drew the eye—or whichever optical organ the agent used—and inside was only more wonder. Carnival style games and rides from all over the universe, circus players like firebreathers and death-defying artists. A lot of the fun came from just seeing what high flying feats were entertaining to some and humdrum to others. Dance and music halls and theatres allowed for agents to be a part of some of the universe's finer arts. The eye of the Plaza within the moat of tents and acts stood the jewel of the asteroid.
Neon lights beamed a full spectrum of colors, leaving exciting shadows and bouts of full darkness when an agent was beyond his or her visual range. Many songs that reverberated all around the crowded hangout were jazzed up with a techno beat. The songs were enjoyable to most, completely abstract to some, but there was a sense of triumph to hear a recognizable beat. Someone might state it aloud if it was particularly out of the ordinary for him or her purely out of joy for no longer feeling like the new Cadet on the asteroid. Some Cadets couldn't for the life of them recognize the alien tunes and the most likely reason was that they were newly ranked, which also meant they were the targets for jokes. It was all in good fun because it was the place for good fun.
Café Majina was all about fun.
In a booth along the upper floor terrace restaurant were two Cadets from Earth in the quieter Mikăeda region of the universe, who were fairly new to the Organization and Café Majina. It was clear in how they listened to the music with confused faces and how a number of agents passed by, tittering at them for it. A beat came on—beat might have been the wrong word since every instrument played to its own manic rhythm and repeated as often as the digits of pi—and the confused look disappeared.
"Carasian," said Zack DePalo, pausing from tugging at his uniform's glove.
"Dinga duh." His partner, Ita Garcia-Ramirez, rolled her eyes. It was the only sound not from Earth that they knew with absolute certainty. For being so ungodly painful to listen to, it played often.
"Are you really gonna start again, Ita?"
"I'm not starting anything, Zack. Stop jumping out of your ass."
"Well, it's hard to tell when every other word you've said for the last two months has been to start a fight."
"Has not! You're the one starting a fight for no reason. I was agreeing with you for cake's sake."
Zack stayed quiet and let the music fill the tense air as he plucked at his glove again. Ita's eyes drifted to the railing where she could just make out the edge of the dancing platform on the first level. The shyer dancers crowded the rim and some very interesting characters passed by there. From what Ita had seen thus far, none of them were even remotely human and she recognized even fewer of them than of songs that played in the building. Captain Lira told them about Fentelaïca as an afterthought a few weeks after their Graduation in March. It was already June, but they hadn't found the nerve to approach too many others. One wave left them talking themselves out of a fight for offending a touchy species of twig-like beings. Apparently waving meant wishing them to blow away and let the vacuum of space snatch them up and crush them in the snarling jaws of death. Apologizing outright was dishonorable and a proper apology meant little afterwards, yet the twig still demanded it or it wouldn't stop spitting splinters. Suffice it to say that was a lesson learned.
The lights above the slots on the inner wall of the booth finally turned green and a panel lifted. A conveyor belt extended with four dishes of food, and utensils and beverages sat beside each one. Ita took the two dishes on her side and placed them down in front of her and her friend's seats while Zack took his and the other Cadet's food. The tray retracted and the panel shut. With a soft beep, barely audible, the light switched off.
Ita looked at her pasta and her mouth watered. She loved the food at Café Majina—at least the food from the Earth menu. She had yet to venture towards the food from the other planets and Zack was just as hesitant. Not for not looking appetizing, they just didn't want their bodies to disagree with something and end up with an inexplicable illness or with stained teeth to explain to Ita's orthodontist.
"Gomen! Gomen! I'm sorry!" said a fast approaching girl a few years older than Ita and Zack, pulling someone behind her and both in uniform. It wasn't demanded on Fentelaïca, but since their companions seemed to favor it, Ita and Zack did the same. Besides, Ita loved her uniform. It made her feel cool—like a superhero—and she thought it was slimming. "Ix ati sinfer was avip liban! Father absolutely demanded to drill us because we have a calculus test coming up. I thought he'd be done sooner or I never would have suggested we meet at this time. Sincere apologies for our lateness."
Masako Fukuro spoke in the beautiful tongue understood by all since the Genesis though her speech had an oriental lilt in the still developing accent. Hearing and seeing it enough, Ita and Zack became more familiar with it. However, there was a big difference between hearing or reading Alcarion's Tongue and speaking it. To pronounce the symbols took a kind of finesse that Ita and Zack had yet to master. As many Cadets were told in whatever tongue they preferred, if the sound wasn't typical of their language, the tongue—or what have you—would move to what it knew. Cadets grew tired of the phrase before long into their practice speaking Alcarion's Tongue. It had many sounds that most languages weren't accustomed to, but with practice the tongue found a way.
Ita and Zack could get their points across, but they sounded like they had serious nasal congestion. Lira failed to mention that most of the other Fentelaïca attendees would be speaking so beautifully. She did have a good laugh at their expense on their first attempts at speaking. She told them it was something they would have to do as Cadets because they would be in touch with other beings not from Earth and it made interaction simple to be able to speak Alcarion's Tongue.
"No worries, Masako," Ita said in her "nasal" tones. "Food only just got here."
"I know." Masako held up her Cadet ID card—the card that gave agents access to any place on Fentelaïca. A photo of the agent was printed on the upper left corner. The user's information was printed beside it: name, age, date of birth, home planet, rank, etc. A thick line followed the rim of the card, displaying messages. Masako's, for instance, had a message in blue letters informing her that her food had arrived. She swiped the black strip to erase the letters, stuck her card back in her wallet and clapped her hands together. "Time to eat!" She picked up her chopsticks and dug into a bowl of what looked like miniature tortilla shells covered in a pale blue cream sauce that gave off an odd scent of cinnamon and axel grease.
"My sister meant to thank you," Toshihiro said. Masako looked up with a mouthful of food and bowed to Ita and Zack before poking around for her next piece. Toshihiro shook his head and then smelled his food. "Strange how Café Majina can make better tempura than at home. It makes home lunch a little less satisfying."
"You get the same thing every time, Toshi," his sister said after swallowing. "Be a little daring. I ordered from the Tulusa menu. I have no idea what it is, but it is delicious!"
"Last time you didn't have an idea what it was, you ended up vomiting it all back up."
"Ew much!" Ita said, lowering her fork. "Not the best dinner topic—or lunch—whatever." Time zones were never her forte.
Zack, less disgusted, said, "And the old married couple is at it again."
"You're one to talk." Masako nudged his leg beneath the table. "You and Ita have been quarrelling a fair bit over your Rixva." Rixva, which translated to the Rest, was less of a rest than Ita had hoped for. The break period following Academy was meant to give the new Cadets a chance to get used to the Magical Harnessing Unit of choice and other aspects of the Agents of Alcarion without the pressure of missions. Ita and Zack had used the time to learn as much as they could about the Organization, King, how to speak and how to use their magic, which meant they spent a lot of time with one another for the past two months since Zack returned to New Jersey. In truth, their nerves were a bit worn.
"We're not quarreling," Ita said.
Masako eyed her with a plastered grin. "Uh huh. Sure."
"It gets better though," Toshihiro said. "I don't think you two will fight so much later on. You just need to find the reason for your arguments. Even though you are out of Academy, there is a lot to learn about the Organization and each other."
"Yes. There is little I don't know about Toshi. He is just a pain in the ass because we're around each other almost all day, every day. We're so rarely apart. At least you two don't live with each other." She grinned at her brother, sticking out her tongue. Ita picked up her fork and twirled it through the flat noodles on her plate trying not to imagine the chaos that her partnership would have been if she and Zack were siblings like their friends. It was enough to tolerate him at school and the thought of that being a burden made Ita's face warm. She couldn't figure out what happened, which only made the tension more frustrating—and tiring.
"If this is what it's like having a sibling," Zack said, "I'll pass."
Masako shook her head, swallowing her next piece of food. "Not always. Usually, having Toshi so close by is a comfort and a vital resource. Sometimes just sensing his magic frequency can be helpful for concentration." Ita could understand that. Just because she and Zack had the occasional argument didn't mean she wanted to wake up one morning only to find that so well known feeling in the back of her mind suddenly gone. She just didn't need him in her face as much. "Six and a half years of this, but once we're agents, we'll get a bit more freedom. That seems like the biggest perk. Apart from better drinks, of course."
Zack grinned. "And some of those girls coming out of the Agents only side are pretty hot."
"So you both know where you're going once you rank?" Ita asked, glad the conversation changed to anything else. She wished she had an idea. Relying on whatever skills she supposedly had made her nervous. All she seemed good at was making a mess of things by taking them too personally.
"We plan to follow the military route," Masako said. "We want to be Elite one day.
"It's cute how new you are," she said. "Elites are higher than even top ranking officers. They get special missions, more intense than someone so new could imagine. They go up against King's worst. It takes special training and you have to be accepted through the High Advisory Court. I'll prove to them I'm ready for anything they, or King, can throw at me."
"I sure wouldn't mess with you," Zack said. "I've heard the stories."
"Yes, she can be a right monster," Toshihiro said. "She scared off a beast that was terrorizing a village on Raitthat in the Belleen Region and that's a pretty monster-heavy, warped region already—an enormous thing, it was! It could have given any creature on Nuirdeth a run for its money. In fact, I think she might actually have blood relations from Nuirdeth. I am simply the brains to the operations." New as they were, even Ita and Zack had heard of Nuirdeth in their research over the last few months. Ita didn't read up on it much, but she knew dark things lived there and it was in a region she would be glad to never come across.
"Thank you." Masako bowed and scooped a piece of blue dipped shell into her mouth. After swallowing she said, "At least you know better than to get on my bad side."
The others nodded.
When they finished eating, they sent the dishes and utensils back on the tray that came out of the large panel.
The Cadets swiped their IDs through the thin slot. The light turned red and the panel opened again, but the tray stayed inside. Four thick booklets dropped onto it. They flipped through the alphabetical phonetic listing of galactic regions in the beautiful symbols they came to know. Ita found the Mikăeda region and squeezed the tab between her index finger and thumb. It lit up and then the tabs changed, listing the names of the planets in that region. She found Earth. The tabs changed again to specify which continent, country and region. The last change was to appetizers, soups and salads, entrées, desserts and sides. Each section was very thick. Ita picked desserts and searched around for her favorite so far: a bowl of vanilla ice cream with strawberry sauce and rainbow sprinkles.
Masako grinned. "Still playing it safe, I see."
"I only like to see my food once, thanks."
As they waited for their food, Ita heard a new song start playing downstairs with a pulsing beat behind men's voices in near falsetto and the lights flashed all the colors of the rainbow to the long past era.
"Earthen," all four Cadets stated together. Soon after there was a chorus of groans and muttering as four ID cards buzzed in warning.
"That is so many levels of lame-tastic," Ita said, wiping the red curfew warning from her card and letting her WriComp scan and store it. She wished she could linger. Only the prospect of a new school week awaited her at home. But the card had been deactivated for anything but the front door and it was a one way trip for the evening. Masako and Toshihiro didn't have that restriction, having set their own alarm just to get back to school after a lunch break.
The Earthen Cadets walked around the ring of the second floor to the nearest tele-pod. They wedged themselves in and pressed the down arrow.
In an instant they were on the first floor. The ground below them was now covered in rumbling electronic tiles that changed colors along with the beat. The four Cadets skirted around the herd of dancers. Ita was far past being scared or nervous around a mass of aliens, but it was still quite the sight seeing large globs of congealed jelly or eight-foot tall slugs wiggling in their form of dance. Ita saw a fellow Cadet, tall and lean with tied up bead strands of hair and a skirt of green tentacles below a tiny waste and larger bust, grab Zack's arm and spin below it, trying to pull him into another group of dancers, but he had to politely refuse and flashed his ID card to make it clear why or else he would continue to be goaded. He found Ita again with a put off look.
"Why do all the cute girls want to dance when I'm leaving?"
They swiped their cards over a black box on the doorframe with a blinking red light. It marked that they were leaving and then shut down their cards until their next visit. Outside the door was a long hallway lined with transport modules, stretching along the perimeter of the building. The Cadets chose the nearest unoccupied transports, separated by at least two machines with Cadets on their way home before they broke their own curfews.
"We'll see you around," Ita said to Masako and Toshihiro.
Masako bowed. "Just keep in touch and we will come back soon. It's too bad we're going to miss the karaoke."
Zack barked a laugh. "Not from what we heard last time. Those singers were awful!"
"Exactly. Tonight is going to be better."
"How do you know?"
"Because it couldn't possibly get any worse."