A/N: Dear readers! 'Tis I, the author! It's been a while since I've updated this. Truthfully, it appeared as though there was a lack of interest and so my motivation to update withered... but all that changed over the weekend when I got a very kind review! It really pumped me up so thanks to that kind person, here is chapter 10. It's another long one! Actually, most chapters from this point will be around this length.
Last time, our Earthling trio arrived at the Solar Fleet after some much-needed exposition. Celestials, lunarians, and a whole bunch more! Tune in to today's chapter to find out a whole lot more. The Solar Sky world is about to vastly increase in scope.
I felt it immediately as the ship depressurized and the back opened up to lower the loading ramp. Something about the air was different here. My limbs felt strange, as if they'd just become lighter. I held up the rear behind Luna and Gaia as we descended the ramp, and Gaia voiced my thoughts.
"What's with this place? I feel different."
"Gravity and surface pressure here aren't quite the same as on Earth," Luna said. "This ship has to accommodate people from all over the Solar System. You'd better get used to it, cause this is 'average solar conditions' and it's used pretty much everywhere but Earth."
"Is there enough oxygen in this air?" I asked, suddenly worried. As we came to the bottom of the ramp I gazed forward, to the square-shaped entrance in the distance we'd flown through and the black expanse it opened up to. Somehow we weren't in the vacuum of space, yet I could see outer space just through the entrance. There must be some kind of barrier or shielding invisibly at work.
"Don't worry," Luna said, although her typical cheerfulness was replaced with a level, serious tone. "You might be able to jump a bit higher and lift heavy things easier, but you should function fine in this environment. Being used to Earth-like conditions you actually have it a lot easier than some."
Gaia led the way and marched around the ramp and straight for our welcoming party. I hurried clumsily behind, noting running in this lower gravity was a little trickier than normal since my body would nearly lift off the ground briefly each time I surged a stride forward. Gaia was silent, no doubt taking her time getting used to the new conditions, and so I was left to stare at the series of figures standing before our ship as we approached.
There were nine individuals arrayed like a barrier in front of us. They were of varying shapes and sizes, but more than any other one figure captured my attention. Its incredible size and girth was the key reason for this.
It appeared female and stood so tall over the others she seemed monstrous. This figure would even dwarf Luna, put side-to-side, and its wide and round body looked splotchy with greyish-brown skin. Its head, looking like a round bulb resting atop a giant onion, was bent down to cast its gaze over us as we approached.
Then, its gaze landed on me and our eyes met. They were dark from this distance, not to mention its great height, but even from here I could see them widen. Its mouth fell agape.
"Finally you have arrived," one of the other figures called out as we approached. Another tall lunarian, Luna's height, stepped forward and slammed against the ground the end of the huge trident it carried. "You know well the schedule we are on, Luna. What have you to say for yourself?"
The three of us came before them, Gaia standing sheltered beneath Luna's crossed arms and me a stride alongside them with fists clenched.
"Yeah," Luna said evenly. "Thanks for waiting for us."
The tall figure scowled back at her. It looked decidedly male, but it struck me as to how otherwise similar it was to Luna. He was Luna's height and had the same rocky, lithe figure, only his hair was very dark and short as if Luna's own wild and punky blue hair was cut off a few inches from the roots and blackened.
"Indeed. And now you have a debt to all of us for having wasted our time idling around your little planet. I trust you'll be able to make it up to us," he threatened, "unlike the last time we met like this."
He turned his left palm up and gripped the dark crystalline trident in both hands. It seemed as though there was a light inside of the staff, glowing within the black and green crystal. The long black sarong he wore stretched as he widened his stance and swelled his chest. He didn't appear to be wearing a shirt but his smooth, stony chest was adorned with an obsidian collar that was locked around his neck.
"We were only a few days late," Gaia interrupted, her huge flowery cloak shrouding her form. "Alignment is still months away. There's no need to rush."
I saw Luna tense as the collared man's bare chest swelled and he turned his attention to Gaia. It was then I recognized him, his rage-twisted face finally igniting a memory. I couldn't imagine forgetting that moment any time soon, the first moment I held a man captive by my power.
It felt like only yesterday I'd stared at that EAL soldier, back in the server room at Gaia's compound, and crushed him beneath the weight of my duress. At first he was surprised, then aggressive, but eventually he succumbed to my will. This lunarian had the same expression as the man before, only this time it was a figure almost twice my height with anger, not pain, twisting his features.
Triton thrust the pointed head of his staff towards the three of us and the light within the dark crystal flashed. At first I felt a rush of something against my skin, like a wave of heat, then three black chains shot out from each of the trident's tips and arced through the space between us like dark lightning. I had barely enough time to flinch before the chain wrapped around my neck like rope and condensed together. It formed a seamless black collar. I saw the other two chains had struck Gaia and Luna and the three of us were suddenly tethered to the crystalline trident in Triton's grip.
Then came the weight.
It was as if gravity had increased tenfold. I collapsed immediately, crumpling to my hands and knees, my arms shaking and my muscles bulging just to keep me from kissing the ground. Gaia shrieked and I saw her collapse alongside me, though I could hardly turn my head to look at her. I couldn't even breathe. My peripheral vision blurred to obscurity.
I heard Triton's voice, distant through my world of pain. "Insolent girl. You know nothing of Alignment or what is truly at stake."
What was happening? It felt like Luna's duress back aboard the EAL aircraft, but this was much, much worse. It must be because of whatever Triton had locked around my neck. I can't go on like this, I thought. More like a realization. I can't hold on.
My arms gave out and I slammed into the ground face-first. The pain was stinging but it paled in comparison to the bone-crushing pressure enveloping me. I was crushed prone onto the floor, my head scraping along the cold hangar flooring until my neck was turned to the side and my cheek was flat against the ground.
I saw Gaia there, still struggling on her hands and knees, the huge white cloak she wore shuddering and tiny white petals falling to the ground around her. Luna was still standing. Her stance was wide, her knees bent, and one hand was squeezing the chain from the trident like it was a snake.
"Release us immediately, Triton!" Luna shouted. "This is your only warning!"
A whine of pain escaped my lips. At Luna's words the collar around my neck seemed to burn my skin, like a slab of heavy granite heated in a furnace.
"Enough!" Shouted another voice, firm and commanding. I didn't even bother to fight Triton's duress to look over. "Triton, release them. Now."
Gaia quivered under her cloak, but then she rose up, as if she'd managed to lift one leg off its knee to find solid footing. I could hardly believe it. How was she able to move under such pressure?
And then it was gone. I felt the burning weight around my neck vanish and the greater pressure bearing down on me lift. My voice burst from my throat in loud pants and sighs of pain. I gulped in as much air as I could, fumbling numbly back to my feet. Luna gently helped Gaia stand but held a steely stare at our bare-chested assailant. The chains and collars were gone.
"Do you forget whom you're trying to incarcerate?" Said the voice again. I looked over and saw it was a man, a human appearing in his later years. Triton, still seething, turned toward the human and scowled.
"W-what the… hell..." I whispered between gulps of air.
I could hear Gaia begin to growl with rage, but Luna warned us. "Be quiet. Let me handle this."
In response Gaia tossed back her hood to uncover the red face of her fury.
I looked back to the man who'd saved us. He was around my height but bulkier and much older, and he carried a trim beard that was thickly streaked with grey to go with his shoulder-length silvery hair. He was dressed in an ornately adorned red robe that appeared sleek and rigid in places, almost like armour. I saw body armour beneath the open folds of his robe and armoured leggings to match in colour and form. The finish of his armour made it shine in the artificial light of the space hangar and looked far more advanced than anything I saw the RG wearing back on Earth. The red of his uniform looked to be inlaid with periodic patterns of green gemstones.
He motioned a steady hand toward Gaia. "This is surely Luna's chosen celestial. You ought to know to show more respect. You wouldn't dare greet me like that, would you?"
The collared lunarian only glared back, his grip tightening on the dark crystalline trident.
"Of course he would Mars, you know how impatient he can be," Luna said, uncharacteristic anger bleeding through her tone. "He and I will work it out, like we always do. Too bad for him he really pissed me off this time."
I gazed intently at the older man. He stood powerful and poised despite his wavy grey hair and lined face. If his name was Mars, then that must mean he was one of the people Gaia told me about back on the ship. This must be the planet Mars' celestial.
"Celestial or not," Triton said, "she must learn her place. Lord Neptune has no patience for such careless disregard of tradition. It's not surprising Luna has brought us yet another rebellious whelp and expected us to bend at the knee."
"Keep it up, collarboy, you're only making things worse for yourself." Luna crossed her arms again and I could see her shoulders relax. "Besides, Neptune isn't even here. You wanna talk about breaking tradition, explain why we're missing so many people here. Those old geezers couldn't even get out of bed to greet us, huh?"
As they argued I leaned closer to Gaia. "How did you do that? It looked like you were fighting against whatever Triton was doing to us."
"His duress?" She said, eyeing me. Her face was still flushed red from her earlier exertion.
"Yeah. I couldn't even move."
"If you can concentrate, you can use your own vitality as a countermeasure to another's duress," she explained. "I've never felt something like that, though. Luna's never put me through a drill that intense."
Using one's own vitality to combat duress. I considered the thought. If this collared lunarian tried that trick on me again I vowed to fight it with everything I had.
"Your delay has been a great inconvenience to us all," another figure interrupted, stepping forward. This one was even taller than Triton, although its rocky frame was rail-thin and skeletal rather than lithe and athletic. Shabby, pointed robes the colour of sand hung off its frail-looking body. As opposed to the rather sculpted features of Luna and Triton, this figure looked haggard with its grungy robes and its distinctly corrupted features. Lopsided eyes, a crooked mouth, round lumps rolling in its cheeks—this lunarian was clearly deformed.
At first its gnarled visage gave me pause, but as it stepped closer a sense of realization washed over me. I recognized it, its face, as a man I'd seen before.
He looked like the man in the gardens, back on the transport crawler. The shopkeeper whom I'd once met with daily. I'd exchanged enough ration cards with him for vegetables to learn his face well. This lunarian looked almost exactly like him, except his body was skeletally thin and his head was irregularly shaped, pockmarked and malformed.
He continued in his measured tone. "Surely you understand that if you cannot keep to tradition you cannot expect the same from us. Lady Saturn of course sends her regards, and her regrets for being unable to attend the greeting. Her message is, 'tell that rabble not to keep me waiting next time, and draw my bath now that you're here, I need my beauty rest.' "
Gaia and I shared a glance. I wondered how much of that message was for us.
"Don't give me that crap Hyperion," Luna said, shifting her weight. "Mercury and Mars are here. You outer planets just don't care enough to show up if you don't have to."
I stared at the skinny, misshapen figure. Lady Saturn, he said? I figured he must be a lunarian from the Saturnian system.
"Charming, Luna, as always," Hyperion said, grimacing. He fingered his shabby robes with skeletal fingers, wrapping the sandy fabric tighter around his frail form. Mars barked out a harsh laugh, crossing his arms and baring his teeth.
"There's no need for talk like that, Luna," said an older woman standing beside Mars. "I know meetings after so long can be difficult, but try to remember we're all on the same team."
The woman was smiling, but I looked at Luna and she was not. She bowed her head slightly anyway, "as you say, Mercury. Though you really should be telling that to Triton."
Mercury laughed so quietly and briefly I wasn't sure if she'd even uttered a single chuckle. "You said it yourself, Luna. We all know how impetuous Triton can be."
She was a short woman with black skin and a shaved head. She was quite old, older-looking than Mars with thick lines in her face and a slightly bent back, as if she couldn't stand straight. Still, her smile was warm and her eyes were like bright white beacons on her face. I felt drawn to her immediately, much more so than any of the others. I had a good feeling about her.
A young man beside her stepped forward and strode directly before us. Like Mercury he had incredibly white eyes, so much so that it took me a moment to discern the ivory irises against the whites of his eyes. "Let's try this again, shall we?" He stopped in front of Gaia and held out his hand with a broad smile. "On behalf of Mercury and the entire Solar fleet, let me welcome you. Sorry about all this, but believe me when I say we're all glad you're finally here. My name's Garon, what's yours?"
Gaia had on a guarded expression, and her face was still flushed, but I saw her anger was gone. She flicked away some of the black bangs that curtained her eyes with a practised movement. "Gaia. Nice to meet you Garon. Are you the Mercurian celestial?"
"Already going by Gaia, huh? Haha," he laughed, flashing a toothy white smile. He too had dark skin, but his face was bright and youthful and his black hair grew only a quarter-inch from his skull before forming a coarse blanket. "Yeah, I'm next in line. Mercury has tasked me with taking care of all the new celestials as they arrive. We've only got Venus left to pick-up before heading home, so everyone else is here."
Garon, like the elder Mercury, wore a kind of white dress, pure and ethereal in colour. His was sleeveless and form-fitting until the waist where it fanned out loosely. His hands were large and his arms were thickly muscled and powerful. He had a pair of white trousers on and shoes to match, whereas his elder's dress was loose and flowing and covered her from the neck down to her toes. They stood out beside the ornate armour Mars and the young man to his other side wore.
That young man was staring at us with crossed arms. I figured his stance beside Mars should make him the next celestial for that planet. He hadn't spoken up as of yet, but his rakish gaze told me that the events unfolding before him only had him amused. When our eyes met his lip curled into a smirk and his eyes shot daggers my way. I returned fire with a cocked eyebrow.
"We'll start with introductions," Garon said, turning and motioning to the party behind him. "This is Mercury, and her vessel you're standing in, Aphelion. Of course, there's Lord Mars," he motioned to the red-clad man, "and his son, Sir Veras."
His son? Mars clasped his hands behind his back and nodded to us, and Veras performed a flourish of a bow, swiping a hand through his coiffed rust-coloured hair. I thought he was the next celestial for Mars, but perhaps I was wrong. Or, perhaps he was both the next celestial and Mars' son. Could that be possible?
Garon then motioned toward the pair of figures who stood at the far end on Veras' other side. They appeared as male lunarians, and though they were dressed and looked the same with matching silver jackets and brown hair tied back in ponytails, one was significantly shorter than the other, who looked about Luna's height. "These two are their twin guardians, Phobos and Deimos."
"Luna!" they exclaimed in tandem, linking hands and thrusting their fists into the air triumphantly. The shorter one reached as high into the air as he could but the taller one merely had to bend at the elbow. "It's been too long, sweetie!" the shorter one gushed.
"I'm sorry guys," Luna said, a bittersweet smile flashing across her face.
"Of course you met Triton, of Neptune," Garon continued, turning to the other side and the collared lunarian there who continued to glare at us, "and Hyperion, of Saturn," he gestured to the skeletal figure with the misshapen face, "but that's the normally very talkative Ganymede, of Jupiter."
The splotchy giant stirred at mention of her name. "Oh, yes hello," she said with a distinctive, girlishly high-pitched voice. She almost bounced up and down, overcompensating for her earlier trance, and combed pudgy fingers through the curls of her flesh-coloured hair, which for her was greyish-brown. Her eyes still kept darting to me, penetrating me like I'd just committed a crime. What was her problem?
"Unfortunately the others couldn't be here, but you should see them later at the feast," Garon said. "For now, we're going to take you to your quarters. We prepared special accommodations for each of our guests, and of course Earth is no exception."
"Thank-you," Gaia said. Her voice was even, but I wondered if she'd really gotten over the earlier incident so quickly.
"Hold a moment," Mars said, stepping closer. "Something I'd like to say first."
Garon offered a puzzled look before stepping back, sweeping a hand out to let Mars take the floor. He retreated near to Mercury as Mars came before us, still with his hands clasped behind his back and a tight smile on his face. He struck me as a regal man and I felt my posture straighten as he approached.
"Let me address what's on all our minds," he began, but as he did the ground itself shook. The giant Ganymede had spun on the spot and dashed away, each stomp of her feet shuddering the metal-plated flooring. Each of us turned as she lumbered away and up the ramp they'd descended to get here. The rows of soldiers who'd marched in behind them scattered to make room for her mad dash.
"Ganymede!" Shouted Triton, pounding his trident against the floor though the sound paled in comparison to Ganymede's strides. "What is the meaning of this?! Get back here, now!"
Ganymede's huge strides had already carried her up the ramp and to the tall threshold that I'd seen as we landed. She disappeared through it without offering a reply.
"What's up with her?" I said, finally voicing my thoughts. "She was eyeballing me this whole time."
"Silence," Mars said, turned back and glaring at me. "I've no patience for further interruptions."
I recoiled at his words. At first he struck me as regal, but now I thought he was a prick.
"Of course someone is missing from your party," he said, beginning to pace before us. "The late Gaia. What is normally the passing of the torch will be something else entirely for your little girl. I hope you are prepared, Luna, to pick up the slack."
Luna looked like she was about to say something, but instead she lowered her chin down towards her chest and a dark smile crept onto her lips.
"There is something afoot, something much different this time than the others." Mars turned to glance at the other lunarians, and at Mercury. "Gaia's absence I fear is just the beginning. After we retrieve Venus, who is likely already waiting for our late arrival thanks to you, we will be sitting down to figure this all out the old way.
"I hope, little Gaia, you are ready. For your sake, and the sake of the Solar System."
"Of course I am ready," she shot back immediately. "I've been waiting years for this moment. Let's get on with it already. I can't wait until I can show that skirt-wearing bully what a mistake he made when he messed with me. Isn't that right, collarboy?"
She grinned a dangerous, mischievous grin as she dangled Luna's nickname for Triton above his head. The collared lunarian bristled at this, his nostrils flaring and his brows peaking.
Mars laughed again, abrasive and choppy. "You've got spirit girl, I'll say as much."
"Such insolence," Triton muttered to himself.
"Mars," Mercury said, her voice light and calming. "I trust that is everything?"
"For now," he said. "Veras, Phobos, Deimos, let's go. We've the dinner to prepare."
"Oh no," the shorter lunarian said.
"Can't we stay just a little while?" The taller one asked. They both looked over at Luna with longing.
"No." Mars swept past them and began his march up the ramp leading towards the threshold. Scores of armed guards, who had quickly repositioned after Ganymede's stampede, neatly parted to flank Mars on both sides. "You'll have your time to chat later. Come."
The young man quickly followed behind him after offering another snarky smirk our way, with the two lunarains grudgingly following behind. I'd recognized Hyperion and Triton as appearing like two men I'd seen recently, just as Gaia had said would happen. Phobos and Deimos were more difficult to place, and though they looked familiar nothing came immediately to mind. I resolved myself to have a closer inspection later.
Come to think of it, I didn't recognize the giant Ganymede either. In fact, she didn't even look familiar to me. How could that be? Perhaps I just needed another look at her.
"Excuse me," said Hyperion as he offered a weak bow. He turned to walk away and his long robes dragged over the ground, concealing entirely his short and smooth strides and giving him the impression of floating evenly across the floor. A trio of darkly robed men separated from the gathering of silver-clad soldiers to follow Hyperion as he slowly left us and ascended the long ramp leading from the entrance.
I looked over to Mercury and Garon who were approaching, but the imposing figure of Triton levelled his trident in the air toward us and glowered.
"This is not over, Luna. You've a debt to pay. I did not jest when I said we had unfinished business."
Luna fingered a loop of hair behind her ear. "Another time." She gave him a knowing smirk. "Right now we've got important business."
"If you'll follow me I'll take you to your suite," Garon said. He turned from us to give Triton the kind of glance you'd give to a child who'd wandered somewhere they shouldn't have. "I'm sure we'll all see each other soon. Please, we insist."
Triton held his ground, gently lowering his trident back to the floor. The elder Mercury was facing him, her weathered face expressionless and watching him in a kind of trance. When Triton caught her gaze his own expression relaxed, the curled glower loosening into a small sneer. In a flourish movement he swept his trident into the air and behind his back. He lifted up his chin and left us without another word, following the others.
This Triton was trouble. I could tell I hadn't seen the last of him, and that I could count on his scowling face to loom above me sometime soon. I could only hope that Luna and Gaia would be standing beside me when that happened. After all, they were about the only ones I trusted here.
When I returned my attention to the others it was just the five of us remaining, the three Earthlings and two Mercurians. Luna was cracking her knuckles dramatically, winking at us as if she'd single-handedly sent Triton home packing.
"So who is we?" Gaia said to Garon. "No offense, but it looks like you don't exactly speak for everyone here."
He laughed again, his sparkling white teeth peeking out between his lips. "You've got me there. I was just talking about us Mercurians," he said. He motioned to our surroundings, to the large stainless steel hangar we found ourselves in. "It's always been the responsibility of my people to guide these proceedings, so think of us as your hosts."
Mercury came beside Garon, though she hardly stood tall enough to see over his shoulders. "Most lunarians, Hyperion and Triton among them, tend to be overly fond of tradition. I believe their eternal life is to blame. People can get so stuck in their ways as they grow old, especially so for those who cannot die."
She glanced behind to the facility opening up around us. "Our role here still means something to them, and I suppose that's enough to make sure we don't end up tearing at each other's throats."
"Buck tradition, that's what I always say," Luna added with a swing of her arm.
"I've never heard you say that," Gaia said.
"This is my third time doing this and each one has been different than the last. They're just rusty from the last time. I'll bet you Triton doesn't even remember what to do."
"So what is it exactly we're here for?" I asked, stepping closer to the circle I was gradually being excluded from.
Garon looked over his shoulder at me before turning and facing me. "Alignment, of course. I'm sorry, what's your name?"
"Jornan," I said. I pointed at Luna and Gaia with a tilt of my head. "I'm their, uh…"
"Friend," Luna finished, bending down to our level. "It's just the three of us from Earth. We won't need a lot of space."
That word stirred me, and I held a long gaze at Luna's smiling face. I was their friend. I couldn't remember the last person to outright say that to me. Not even Valery had actually said it.
"That's fine with me," he said. "I really don't get it when the celestials bring a huge attachment with them. With the number of soldiers that Mars and Neptune brought you'd like they were expecting security to be a problem."
Garon motioned to the armed figures behind him flanking the sides of the ramp. Each wore rounded, silvery body armour and carried long, skinny firearms. "We have everything under control. Mercury asked for the best and brightest of our forces to guard this ship. Nobody has anything to fear."
"I don't think they brought their soldiers to help fight off an incursion of space pirates," Luna said. "It's more likely they're to protect themselves from each other."
"What do you mean?" Garon said. "We're all allies here. Sol leads and guides us all."
Luna shrugged. "It only takes a moment for an ally to become an enemy. Friendships and rivalries change over time. I know you Mercurians adhere strictly to the Solarum, but just because you have your laces tied and your shoes shined doesn't mean the rest of us are the same."
She turned to address Mercury. "I trust you're taking precautions against the more dangerous planets, Mercury?"
Mercury waited a moment before replying, and when she did she offered a coy smile. "I expect you consider Mars to be one such 'dangerous' planet?"
"I expect you to consider Mars a dangerous planet."
Mercury shook her head. "The rivalry between Earth and Mars is well-documented. It was even the case long ago, when I first took on the mantle of Mercury. Not once have the two planets ever lifted a finger to one another. I don't expect that to be the case here either."
"It's fine, Luna," Gaia said forcefully before her partner could respond. "We have nothing to worry about here. If they say they have everything under control, I believe them."
Luna made a dismissive sound and looked away. Mercury nodded gently to Gaia, a small smile still on her weathered face. "Thank-you, young one."
"Believe me," Garon added, "you definitely shouldn't be worrying yourselves with anything like that. Even if any of our guests try anything, we're well-equipped to put a stop to anything. Now please, follow me. The welcoming feast will be starting shortly now that you've arrived, so we must get you settled into your quarters. This way."
As Garon and Mercury turned to lead us away I stared a hole into the back of his head. "Okay," I whispered, annoyed that my earlier question went ignored. So far this whole time I'd felt like an extra; just some guy who tagged along with some people much more important than him.
I mean, that's exactly who I am, but still.
First that bully of a lunarian collared me somehow and crushed me to the ground, then Mars dismissed me like I was a peasant, and now practically the only thing I asked was outright ignored.
I decided then that everyone else couldn't be counted on for anything. Luna and Gaia were my only allies here. Garon and Mercury looked trustworthy enough, but it was clear I wasn't anyone they would take seriously.
Luna and Gaia followed after our two white-garbed hosts through the throngs of white-armoured soldiers. I hurried after them, glancing once back at our vessel. When would we see it again? I didn't have anything of value left there. If I never saw it again, I supposed it wouldn't matter. For better or for worse I was tagging along with Gaia and Luna, so if they left it behind so would I.
I matched pace with Gaia and came beside her. Mercury and Garon were several steps ahead, and a soldier hurried from up the ramp down to speak with them. I couldn't make out what they were saying.
"So what now?" I asked, looking between my two friends. Already I liked the sound of that. Friends.
"I guess we do as they say," Gaia said.
"For now," Luna said. "Once we get to our room they should leave us alone for a time. Then it's the real trial, the welcoming feast."
"Right," Gaia agreed.
"Why is it a trial?" I asked. "I'm famished, actually. Can't remember the last time I ate. A feast sounds perfect."
"Sure, there's food. But the feast is more than that," Luna said. "At every planet the Mercurians stop to pick up the celestials. Every time they do they throw a welcoming feast with culturally relevant dishes, essentially their way of showing that this ship is a welcoming home for their guests. But the real purpose of the feast is to get a public report from the celestial."
Gaia flicked her wrist dismissively. "They're going to make me talk about the current state of Earth. Of course, things aren't good there right now. Normally the present celestial would be the one delivering the speech, but since my predecessor is dead it falls to me. We're expecting a lot of scrutiny."
Hm, sounded a little boring. But instead I said, "why do they care? They certainly can't blame you for the planet's current state."
Gaia made a sour face. "Luna told me to expect them to do just that. Mercury wasn't just spouting platitudes when she said we're all on the same team. The celestials are supposed to work together, according to the Solarum, to expand the prosperity of the entire solar system. That leads to the celestials rating each other like peers to ensure everyone is doing their best."
"As the new Gaia it is her responsibility to deal with these issues, even if she had nothing to do with how they were started," Luna said. "It's the perfect opportunity for the other planets to undermine us."
My mind was eagerly latching onto their words, quickly sorting things into two piles, 'things I understood' and 'uh, what?'. As we climbed the ramps and the rows of soldiers flanking our sides marched in formation behind us, I decided the 'uh, what?' pile needed thinning.
"That's the second time that word's come up. The Solarum."
Garon looked over his shoulder at us. His gaze flicked between the three of us and I offered him a smile I hoped looked pleasant and sincere.
"Think of it like a code of conduct, a bible, detailing how the solar system should be run. The Mercurians, if you get technical, are the Heralds of the Solarum," Luna explained. "The other planets don't pay it too much attention honestly, but it's pretty serious business to lunarians like me."
"You don't know very much, do you?" Garon asked, staring at me over his shoulder.
I hesitated. Anger fluttered through my chest for the briefest of moments. "I guess I don't."
"He's new 'round these parts," Luna said.
"I could tell," he said, his white teeth peeking out from his smile. "It's rare a celestial's entourage contains humans from a different planet. I would never've expected a Jovian to come alongside the Earthlings."
"No, I've lived on Earth for most of my life," I said, eager to shoot down Garon's assumptions. "It's just all this celestial and lunarian business I'm new to."
We reached the far wall of the hangar and the great ramp veered left, up towards the large threshold. A row of silver-clad Mercurian soldiers stood on either side of our steady march upward.
"Indeed," Garon said. "Well, learned or not in our ways you are welcome here. A friend to Gaia is a friend to me, and to my people."
He gave a small bow before turning back and leading the way beside Mercury in silence. I saw the old woman look over to him and give him an approving nod. He beamed.
"We'll talk more when we get to our room," Gaia told me, leaning in slightly and lowering her voice. She nodded to me and I nodded back.
When we made it to the top of the ramp I saw just how large the threshold was—it was gigantic. I could stand on Luna's shoulders and not even come to half its height and it was wide enough that the five of us could walk through it shoulder to shoulder and not even come close to brushing the sides. Opposite to the doorway was a railing at the edge of the ramp, which now seemed more like an observation platform overlooking the back of the hangar. The sterile, stainless-steel hangar seemed to stretch out like a cavern from here. I counted eleven ships of varying size docked here, although our NE-2 was one of the larger vessels.
The size of the hangar alone as astounding. There was room here for even more ships, and based on the size of the ship we were on now I was positive this couldn't be the only hangar. What was the purpose of such an enormous spaceship? It was more like a space station.
To the sides of the doorway were tall, translucent holograms projected from indentations in the wall. I saw Hyperion and Triton standing each before one such figure, probably giving a report of how our greeting went. As I followed our Mercurian guides through the threshold and into a large hallway I peered over at Triton. He watched us exit the room, his thick brows like dark clouds of smoke slanted over his gaze. His eyes like Luna's contained moon-like objects, although the objects themselves looked distinct from hers. I wondered if the objects were perfect mirrors of the respective moon that floated in space.
He disappeared behind the wall and a grand hallway opened up around us. The sterile, stainless-steel framing continued here, although I saw electric signs on the walls above doorways we strode past indicating where maintenance crews should go. At the opposite end were what appeared to be a series of elevators. I made out a group of red-clad figures there, Mars and his crew, as they stepped into one and vanished behind the automated doors.
I looked at Luna and her face was twisted into a visage of intense concentration. Gaia was staring at the backs of Garon's shoes as we marched on, her mind clearly elsewhere. I could hear light chatter between our two guides in front, but couldn't make out their words.
Nodding to myself, I decided I too would use this time for contemplation. My brain was still struggling to make sense of everything that was going on, and if I could settle down and get a better grasp on my situation it would make me feel better.
Okay, so we're on our way to a welcoming feast where Gaia will have to deliver a speech. Apparently that's a bad thing. After that the whole fleet is travelling to Venus to do the same thing over again with their celestial. I didn't have a good idea of what came after that, so I saved that thought so I could get an answer later.
In terms of our new allies, I thought Mercury and Garon were mostly okay. They certainly made the best first impression, because I was already unsure about all the others. Mars was a prick, Veras too, and the two lunarians with them seemed they did little more than lick Mars' boots. The tall and frail-looking Hyperion honestly gave me the creeps, and Triton was clearly going to be a problem. I didn't get a chance to meet the celestials that went along with these lunarians, but I already mentally wrote them off by proxy. Luna didn't seem overly fond of them and right now that was good enough for me.
Then there was that other lunarian, the fat, splotchy giant Ganymede. I knew that was a moon of Jupiter, my home planet. I still didn't understand her behavior earlier, the way she stared at me like it was the strangest thing in the solar system to see a Jovian partnering with Earthlings. Then there was her spontaneous retreat back through the threshold. I couldn't even begin to explain that.
Truthfully it wasn't her appearance or her behavior that I really cared about, but rather her existence in general. It was the simple thought that there was a lunarian for the moon Ganymede that had me thinking.
It made me wonder if there was a lunarian for Io.
I tried to summon memories of my birthplace. It was a tumultuous home, one of the four largest moons in Jupiter's orbit. Nearly everyone from the Jovian system called one of those four moons home, partly because they were the only hospitable environments. Io, for example, has a patchy, poisonous atmosphere containing mostly sulphur and a surface pressure that would make life impossible for humans. Thankfully, it is a volcanic planet with hundreds and hundreds of active volcanoes on the surface, constantly spewing hot gasses and lava onto the surface and into the atmosphere. I grew up underground in a long-dormant magma chamber that once fueled an active volcano with millions of tons of molten rock from deeper under the surface.
Structures were built in such chambers eons ago, structures in which I lived the first few years of my life. Vital conditions for human life, such as gravity and air, were simulated in the underground environments where we were sheltered from the radiation on the surface, as I understood was the case with each of Jupiter's four largest moons. Even so, the most vivid of the memories of my life on Io took place on the surface, not underground.
I can't remember why I was there, or whom I was with, but I remember clearly looking up at the sky through the windows of the vehicle in which I sat. It wasn't Io's sky I was looking at, as it was far too thin. I was looking at Jupiter's.
From the surface of Io, one of the innermost satellites to the gas giant, the planet Jupiter filled the entire sky. Instead of looking to the sky and seeing the clouds and the weather of Earth, like I'd become so accustomed to over the years, I remember looking up and seeing those exact same features except it was for somewhere else, for a planet that seemed so close yet still out of reach. The dancing colours, the enormous storms, all of Jupiter's beauty was on constant display every time you looked to the sky. Unlike life on Earth, where the moon orbited the planet and disappeared for half the day while the sun was up, Io was permanently locked in synchronous rotation with Jupiter. It was always up there, filling the sky from horizon to horizon, looming over our home like a watchful God every hour of every day.
What would the lunarian Io be like? Would I recognize it, or would it recognize me, a long-lost child who fled its embrace so many years ago?
"Here we are," Garon said as we reached the elevators at the end of the hall. "These will be your main transportation between levels aboard Aphelion. There are staircases to be used during emergency, but they're sealed off until such an event. The artificial gravity here would make it a marathon just to get from point A to point B using them, so stick with these lifts for the duration of your stay."
The three of us followed Garon and Mercury into the elevator, the band of soldiers accompanying us turning around and standing guard outside the doors. Garon placed his hand on an angled panel jutting from the wall and the words QUADRANT-3 lit up above the doors.
"Cool," I said.
"This vessel is state-of-the-art, vitality-powered from by our most talented individuals. The strides Dr. Nemollen has made over the years with vit-tech has been incredible," Garon said.
"Vit-tech?" Gaia asked. "Technology powered by vitality?"
"That's right," Garon said, beaming again. "Mercury has been on the very forefront of such technology since its inception, all thanks to Dr. Nemollen. She's actually had a large role in shaping how Alignment will proceed this year."
That word sprung an alarm in my brain and I decided to try my luck again with the same question. "So what is Alignment?"
Garon, standing straight with his hands lightly clasped, turned over and gave me another odd, probing stare.
Mercury answered. "Alignment is why we're all here, of course. It is when the mantle of celestial is passed down to the next generation, so that the next chapter in our Solar System can begin with renewed perspective and direction, as dictated by Sol."
"We'll fill you in on the details," Luna said freely, though I couldn't help but get the message that she wanted me to stop showing my ignorance.
"Jornan, was it?" Garon prompted. "How was it exactly you got involved with the Earthlings? You don't seem like you… belong."
Was it really that obvious? Still, I decided to offer him a more pointed retort. "I asked nicely."
Unexpectedly, he laughed. "Well if that's the case I'll just offer you some advice. Brush up on your knowledge before this evening's feast. Navigation through all the customs and cultures of Alignment is difficult, even for the most seasoned among us."
"That's enough for now, Jornan," Gaia said in her best self-important tone. "As my bodyguard you're paid to keep a keen eye out for any danger, not ask silly questions."
Luna made a delightfully amused noise and I caught Gaia's eyes, lightly veiled by her hair, and the twinkle of mischievousness there was unmistakeable.
I'll play along. "As you wish, Lady Gaia."
She offered a knowing smile, signal of her approval.
Despite what Garon said, I felt then a sense of belonging that I couldn't remember ever feeling before. I may not fully understand what was happening to us, but I knew in the bottom of my heart that this was where I was meant to be right now. Beside Gaia and Luna.
Of course when the elevator doors opened something happened that really threw a wrench into that warm feeling in my chest.
Garon and Mercury stepped out first, both missing a step as they cast their gazes down the brightly-coloured hall to the other side. A small gathering of people were there waiting for us, and as we all exited the elevator they turned fully to greet us.
My gaze was locked with one such person at the other end of the hall. Her appearance was unmistakeable. Her gigantic size nearly filled the hallway from side to side, her rocky, splotchy skin made her body looked like it was covered in multi-coloured bruises. It was Ganymede.
"Junica?" Garon called out as we made our way down the hall toward them. "This is a surprise. What brings you here?"
A Jovian stepped forward from the small group, and she was clearly the only human among them. The other four figures were lunarians, based on their size, though Ganymede still dwarfed them all.
"Lady Mercury, Garon, please step aside," the young Jovian woman said. Even from this distance I could see the telltale markings on her face. They were different than mine, more numerous in circles and spirals opposed to my jagged, branch-like markings.
She turned slightly to the gathering of lunarians behind her. "Is that him?"
"That's him," Ganymede squeaked in her grating, high-pitched voice.
"Impossible," said another figure, its stoney skin a much darker tone than the other lunarians I'd seen so far. She looked female and wore a black sleeveless dress that draped off her shoulders and brushed the ground. It sparkled like the night sky, with bright, twinkling lights shimmering like far-away stars in the hallway's artificial light.
"What is going on?" The lunarian beside her echoed, also appearing female. This one had grey-coloured skin like Luna and Triton, but her face was covered in dark smudges and brown scrathces, giving her the appearance of skin complexion.
The last figure was clearly male. He didn't appear to have clothing or hair, and instead his rocky musculature was his defining feature. He was barrel-chested with thick, strong arms and an imposing brow. Deep fissures cut along his frame, cracks set deep in his body that glowed red with internal heat. He remained silent, but he stared at me so intently that a single thought, unmistakable in its message, lit up in my brain.
Io. This lunarian was Io.
"What is the meaning of this?" Mercury said, calling across the hall. "This quadrant is for the Earthlings. The Jovian wing is in quadrant 5."
"Of course, Lady Mercury," the young woman said. She was walking towards us. "We're not lost. We came as quickly as we could when Ganymede told us the news."
"Whoa." Luna was staring at the young woman as she approached us, an expression of shock on her face. "Who is this girl?"
"Must be the new celestial of Jupiter," Gaia observed quietly.
I realized she was headed straight for me. I pulled my gaze from the group of lunarians at the other end of the hall and watched her, entranced. She was the first other person like me I could remember seeing, the first other human from the Jovian system. Sure, I'd seen images of other Jovians while I lived on Earth, but never another one in person. Memories of my parents and my life on Io when I was a boy were but murky reflections too dark to make out.
But this young woman was real and only a few strides out of reach. I eagerly drank in her appearance.
Her skin was distinct, like mine, in its smooth coppery colour. Her neck was long and sculpted with a slightly rounded jawline and a strong chin. Her brow was deeply creased as she stared me down with the same caustic orange eyes as mine. As my hair was coarse and black, hers looked straight and a calmer shade of brown, a swish of bangs covering her forehead and brushed to the side. The rest of her hair was tied in a thick ponytail at the back of her head.
She was wearing full-length pants with bright orange stitching along the seams. The black bomber jacket zipped up to the collar fit her perfectly, especially compared to the blue jacket I was wearing now. Together with her dark pants, boots, and fingerless gloves, nearly every inch of her below the neck was covered, leaving only the Jovian markings around her head exposed.
The markings were a navy colour, unlike my inky black ones. Instead of jagged shoots that angled wickedly and forked out into tiny, finger-like branches, her markings were curved and elegant, looping hypnotically around each other from the left side of her neck up her cheek. Another spooled out from her forehead, emerging beneath her sideswept bangs to spiral across the bridge of her nose. Their blue colour popped out against her skintone and I found it nearly impossible to avert my gaze from them.
I'd spent a lifetime memorizing my own unique patterns. Seeing someone else, someone who looked like me but with their own unique features, their own markings, was fascinating.
She now stood directly before me. Her closeness surprised me, and I quickly closed my gaping mouth. She was beautiful, I realized. And tall enough to stare me square in the eye.
"You," she said, her voice heavy and forceful, "are my rival."
"What?" I mumbled, leaning slightly away from her. She held out a hand above the waist and her eyes narrowed, prompting me. A handshake?
I raised my hand to grip hers. I expected a firm handshake, but what I got was a much more personal greeting.
The sensation was immediately familiar. I'd experienced this a few times now, and it was memorable enough to be unmistakeable by now. Duress.
As soon I squeezed her hand her power seized me. It sprung through her hand and into my body like an electric shock. In no time at all her duress had wrapped me up by the shoulders, paralyzing me. It sunk into my flesh with such speed and precision that my muscles tensed up and couldn't relax. Breath caught in my throat and gravity pulled me down too my knees.
I was captive. I was hers.
The outside world was muted now, blurry along my peripherals. I thought I could hear more voices, shouting, but it was so far away that I lost it in the haze. I struggled for breath, helpless but to gaze up at the young woman who had just possessed me with her vitality.
This was different than before, I thought. With Triton I'd collapsed to the ground almost immediately, the overwhelming force crushing my body entirely. But this time it felt like I was being held not unlike how she gripped my hand, like her power constricted like trap closing around me. It was like she had a hand inside my chest, around my heart, and that if made the wrong move she would squeeze and destroy me.
Even if she didn't squeeze any more than she was, I probably would still die. I still couldn't breathe, and the need for air in my chest was like a fire in my lungs burning away my life. I needed to fight her off.
Gaia managed to fight against Triton's duress. She said I could use my own vitality to counteract it.
I needed to do that now. Before this woman squeezed the life out of me.
Diving deep into my chest, I found it. The font of my vitality. The gleaming orb in the vast abyss. I held it, and as I did energy ignited within me. My chest swelled with air as I sucked it in, lungs suddenly freed from her grip. I sputtered for breath and the world refocused around me.
I was still kneeling in the hall, pushed back against my feet by the invisible force still surrounding me. I could feel it now, like a foreign body under my skin. Her power was as much within me as it was outside me.
Never having done this before, I wasn't sure how to start defending myself with the power that churned now in my chest. So naturally I just decided to do the same thing she as doing.
Visualize and act. I cast out my power like I did at the EAL complex, flinging it outward like netting to catch my prey. As if it had tiny threads still connected to me, I felt the web vibrate at it stuck to the young woman standing over me. The web wrapped around her, squeezing around her like she'd done to me, but I could feel something else. Something was covering her body, like she had an electric barrier just over her skin that burned up my web the tighter it wound around her. A vit-shield.
I knew the technique well. Two could play this game.
Mere moments after I lit my vitality shield I felt the duress lighten. My breathing came in deep wheezes instead of panicked whispers. I could see her again, my adversary, as she stood above me. She was still holding my hand as she looked down to me, watching me struggle against her power. But I'd done enough struggling for one day. It was time to turn the tables.
Using the link between us as the vehicle, I cast out another web of duress, this time directly through the palm that tightly grasped hers. Her barrier was strong. I felt the net of my power burn away as it tried to penetrate her skin, but I also felt long threads already climbing up her arm, tiny vestiges of my duress tingling under her skin.
She reacted, her hand tightening over mine and her arm flexing and quaking. For a moment her steely gaze parted from mine and in that instant I felt strong enough to climb off my knees and to my feet.
It was that moment when I thought I'd secured the upper hand that she decided to end our budding game of tug-of-war. I'd only raised up one leg from kneeling before she clamped down, crushing me with such force that I was helpless but to submit. It was like I was suddenly on the bottom of the ocean floor with the entirety of the sea pressing down over me.
First my vision swam, then it vanished, and the next thing I knew I was blearily blinking away tears as I lay slumped on the floor.
What happened? Did I faint? I craned my head around, trying to see through the fog, but it wasn't until I recognized Gaia's silhouette, squat and thick like a flowery rectangle thanks to her cloak, that I began to understand what was happening. Why was she so far away from me now? Wasn't I only a few paces ahead of her?
Voices rang into the air around me, some familiar, most not.
"What is happening?"
"It's over now."
A hollow metallic sound, something sliding into place. I felt arms around me, carrying me. When had they carried me from the floor?
But wait, something wasn't right. The figures around me, there were too many of them. The arms that held me didn't feel anything like Luna's.
"Onto step two."
That voice again. I didn't recognize it at first, but I was sure of it now. I blinked away the dizziness and looked over at her. The young Jovian stood just before me, my adversary. She had defeated me.
"Are you sure about this, Junica?" A voice hummed around me. Its arms, the brisk and swirling things that held me, drew me in close to its chest.
"Of course," the young Jovian replied. "If you all are right, then this can be the only way to move forward."
I struggled against the person holding me and craned my neck upwards to see its head. I saw that it was the lunarian from before with the skin-like brown complexion. I was shocked. This close up the effect was bizarre upon her rocky visage, but more than that I was shocked at who stared back at me. It was the first person I saw today, when I awoke in the RG infirmary. The nurse Jane.
"Hello," she said. "How are you feeling?"
I stared back at her. Eerie waves shot up my spine—that was exactly what Jane had first said to me.
Of course this person couldn't be Jane. She was a tall rocky humanoid with arms of water that poured out of her shoulders, arms that were as much fully functional as they were liquid water. They seemed to bleed between the two states, firm and solid enough to hold me but often splashing against me and breaking apart the way liquids did.
The water wasn't like I knew back on Earth either; her arm could pass through me, needling me with its chill touch, but not a single drop of it would remain on my skin or clothes. Her wet arms undulated in their grip over me yet I remained perfectly dry.
"What's going on?" I said. I looked around. I was in an elevator and my friends were nowhere in sight. "Where's Luna and Gaia?"
"They're still in the hallway," my adversary responded. Junica. "Unharmed. You can relax. You just blacked out."
"Let me down," I demanded, squirming in the lunarian's watery arms. I felt her begin to relinquish me, but she hesitated.
"It's fine Europa," Junica said, nodding. "Put him down."
Europa's arms solidified and the rippling waves that coursed around me suddenly became humanoid, elbows, fingers, and palms. She comfortably propped me up and set me down on my feet but made no attempt in stepping away to grant me space. She stood over me, smiling-and there Jane was again, only this time she was an alien figure who'd just kidnapped me.
How was this possible? I know Gaia told me as much about the lunarian quirk, and I already knew it was the case since seeing Luna's likeness to Valery and the others earlier, but it still didn't make it any easier to digest. Especially this close up.
I still couldn't understand how their appearances could vary depending on the eyes of the beholder. And why did they only resemble figures in my recent memory?
"I can hardly believe what I'm seeing," she said, mimicking my thoughts. Her moon-like eyes stared down at me, the objects there spinning so slowly they looked almost still. Her moons were different than Luna's and Triton's, stone-grey and deeply scratched and smudged with browns and reds. Strikingly like the complexion on her face, I realized. Perhaps I was right, and the moons did in fact resemble the natural satellites themselves.
I broke from her gaze and looked back to the young Jovian woman standing before me. Seeing her again so close to me, staring eye-to-eye, I felt equal rushes of fear and attraction. She was beautiful, but she also attacked and abducted me without provocation.
Still, I didn't want her to think I felt either of those emotions. I went straight to business. "Why did you attack me? Where are you taking me?"
"How can this be possible?" Another voice moaned, panicked and urgent. It was the lunarian standing beside Junica, the one wearing the long starry dress and whose rocky skin was dark as coal. Her short hair was white like platinum and swept smooth and straight to one side.
"Attack you? I did nothing of the sort," Junica said evenly. "And I'm taking you to quadrant-5."
"Nothing of the sort? I don't know about you Jovians but on Earth knocking someone unconscious without their permission is assault."
"I had no idea you were going to lose consciousness." Junica turned away from me slightly but a smile appeared on her face, a curled marking near the corner of her lip rising with the skin of her cheeks. "I didn't expect you would black out like that. I suppose I overestimated you. Don't worry, it won't happen again."
"I'm sure," I said, thick with sarcasm. "Well if I'm not the person you're looking for you can just let me go, right?"
"No. If you're lucky this will only be a two-step process," she said, still smiling, "then we'll let you go."
"You have nothing to fear," Europa said, still looming over me. "We do not wish to harm you. Really."
"Then what do you want? What is going on?" My voice was strained. My composure was breaking.
"This isn't right," Ganymede whined, her high-pitched voice unmistakable. Even bent over her enormous size filled up most of the elevator, the rest of us squished into the corner nearest the door. "He, he needs to leave. He needs to leave this place immediately."
"Calm down Ganymede," Junica said, turning her attention to the round lunarian. "I already told you I have a plan. Everything is fine."
"Maybe she's right Junica," the platinum-haired lunarian added in, her voice now composed and cautious. Looking at her then, her mirror image jumped to the forefront of my mind. The hair was different, and her rocky face was absent of wrinkles, but I recognized her as Commander Martins, the RG officer Gaia seemed friends with. "Maybe we're mistaken. Maybe this boy is… an anomaly. Maybe he's dangerous."
"I'm dangerous?!" I blurted out. "What they hell are you talking about? She's the one who attacked me!"
"Watch your tone," growled a voice behind me. "You will speak with more respect, beginning now."
I looked over and saw it was the other lunarian with us, the only male-looking one. His thick arms were crossed over his barrel chest and he glared at me from under his broad brow. Standing so close to him now I saw another person in his face. It was the RG soldier from before, the man with the immovable jaw. Sven.
Like the others, the resemblance was uncanny. He looked like what I imagined Sven would look like in the midst of battle: sour expression, a hard gaze, rippling muscles and a stern grimace. His jawline was exactly as I remembered it, wide and angular and sturdy as hell. The human he resembled seemed nice enough, but this lunarian looked dangerous and imposing and my eyes kept darting to the deep fissures in his rocky body that glowed red with heat. What was that about?
My initial compulsion was to lash out at him, to scream and say how stupid it was that I was being treated as the problem here. I had no idea what was happening and given the choice I would be back with Luna and Gaia and not here cramped in an elevator with strangers who clearly disliked me. I didn't lash out though, of course. Instead I stared back at him with the kind of pathetic expression someone being kidnapped would probably have.
"It's all right Io, he's just frightened." Junica crossed her arms and gave me a satisfied grin that sparked further panicked frustration inside me. "I don't think he's dangerous at all. After all there's five of us and only one of him. It's only natural he'd be scared shitless."
The red-hot lunarian grunted his concession. His arms unfolded and lay at his sides, balled into fists, and he continued to glare at me from under his considerable brow. Beneath my panic the logical side of my brain managed to form a few coherent thoughts. My earlier hunch was correct; this man was the lunarian for Io.
Europa, Ganymede, and Io. I knew the names well. Planet Jupiter had dozens of moons, but only four of them had large-scale habitats for sheltering human life. Using my powers of deduction, I considered the platinum-haired lunarian closely. She must be Callisto. That would complete the foursome.
As I focused more on understanding my situation the anxiety and fear I felt began to drop to manageable levels. Junica's verbal harassment wasn't helping any, but despite that I was able to finally ask the most important question to my present situation.
"What are you planning on doing with me?"
Her satisfied grin gave way to a stern seriousness. "I plan on granting you an audience with Jupiter."
A tone sounded in the elevator and the doors slid open to my right. Junica seized me by the arm and dragged me out. I stumbled after her, her words looped in my brain. An audience with Jupiter. The celestial for my home planet. Likely a figure more powerful than any of the others surrounding me.
I'm just some kid from Earth. What business did I have to be here? Why couldn't I just go back to my friends?
The pain shooting from my arm shook me from my brief daze. Junica's grip on me was strong, too strong-it felt like she was purposely squeezing hard enough to make me wince. As the other lunarians piled out of the elevator and we began our way down the wide hallway I cleared my mind enough to spread a vit-shield over my arm. The painful sensation of her faded away to a far-away pressure and I caught her gaze as it flicked to me. That self-satisfied expression was back again and coupled with it was judgment. Was she teasing me?
I averted my gaze. She was making me more uncomfortable with just her eyes than she was with her hand around my arm.
I examined the surroundings. The hallway's floor was more silver panelling but this time the walls and roof were domed and made from glass.
Outside the hallway I could see much more of the gigantic spaceship I was on. The ring-like shape of Aphelion was visible here; I saw the way the interior of the ship seemed to curve as it extended into the distance. Dozens of hallways like this one all stretched out from the thick elevator shaft in the middle, forming a vast network of pod-like chambers that hung in the ship's hull like cocoons.
Straight ahead of us was one such chamber, hanging at the end of the hallway by a network of struts jutting out from the ship's hull. The doorway itself was enormous, likely to allow to ground-shakingly large Ganymede ample room to come and go. I read the electronic sign that glowed at the crest of the threshold. Quadrant-5.
My captors were talking.
"What are we going to do?" Panicked, high-pitched. Ganymede.
"Europa, why are you going along with this?" Deeper, more composed. Callisto.
"Nothing like this has happened before. I don't know what to do." Quiet and ethereal. Europa.
"Get a grip, the three of you. Lord Jupiter will decide." A growling threat. Io.
"What is there to decide? Everything up to this point… we, we can't just abandon it all!"
"Io is right," Junica said. "For the second time now, Ganymede, please quit your whining. I appreciate it, I do, but this isn't a decision we can make."
"Look," I explained as the doors to Quadrant-5 slid soundlessly open before us. "There must be some mistake. I haven't lived in the Jovian system since I was a boy. I'm just an Earthling now. I don't have anything to do with you people."
"Silence," Io commanded. "You have no say in this matter."
This was not good. Emotions and memories began flooding back to me. Each time the EAL caught up to me, or captured me, or imprisoned me. This felt like that, only now instead of armed soldiers escorting me it was gigantic aliens and a young woman who brought me to my knees within seconds of meeting her.
It was worse than before, in other words.
Quadrant-5 opened up around us as we made our way inside. The chamber had high vaulted ceilings and several other doorways leading to different rooms. Perhaps due to my fear I'd imagined something prison-like, but the comfort and luxuriousness of the room struck me. Plush carpets, clean tile flooring, seating areas and a kitchens and colourful artwork hanging from the walls; it all looked more like the home of a rich family than the dark torture chamber I was expecting.
Junica suddenly tossed me aside as we walked by a seating area and I stumbled into the back of a cream-coloured couch. "Wait here. Ganymede, you brought him to our attention. Keep an eye on him while we address Jupiter."
"M-me? But, but I think-"
"You can watch him for a few minutes," she said with a wave of her hand. "It's not like he can fight you off. I just need to make sure he doesn't make a break for it."
The giant lunarian looked crestfallen, her round facial features clenched in worry. Europa, standing only as high as Ganymede's chest, touched her reassuringly with a watery hand. "We will only be a moment. Bring him inside when he's summoned."
"All right," she squeaked.
Junica nodded her approval and turned toward a set of double doors that stood atop a short stairway leading up. "Come," she said to the others.
Europa, Callisto, and Io followed her wordlessly up the stairs. The doors swung inwards as Junica approached the top step as if pushed open by an unseen force. Moments later the four of them were through the threshold and the doors closed behind them.
I felt short of breath. I could tell I was beginning to panic again. Ganymede was only standing a short distance away from me but I still had to crane my neck upwards to see her face past her significant girth. She was glaring down at me, her mouth twisted into a frown and huge globs of tears in her eyes.
"Sit down," she commanded hoarsely.
I did as she asked. Walking around the couch and sitting down, its cushy comfort did nothing to assuage my panic. What was happening to me? Where were Luna and Gaia? Why had they let this happen to me?
I leaned forward and buried my head into my hands. Earlier today I felt I finally had grip on the direction my life was taking. Now it felt like I was back on Earth, imprisoned because of something I didn't understand, something outside my control.
Now I could only wait and accept my fate. Closing my eyes, I saw Junica's face drawn on the backs of my eyelids. Her markings. Her hair. Her smile. Who was she really, and what did she want from me? And why did she duress me the moment we met?
I supposed the answers awaited me on the other side of those double doors.
A/N: You made it to the very end! Nice work, and thanks very much for reading. As you can see, chapter 10 really sets up something big. Why did Jornan get separated from Luna and Gaia? Why is the young Jupiter celestial kidnapping him? What exactly is the deal with Mars, Triton, Ganymede, and the other characters who were introduced?
Find out next time in chapter 11! If you've enjoyed this story so far please let me know your thoughts in the box below. I really appreciate it. Once again, bi shout-out to reader R. Ficst who motivated me to update. Until next time!