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B E WA R E T H E 1 3 T H S I G N

MINA 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. Find her on Twitter: @RominaRussell Go to ZODIACBOOKS.COM to discover more about your sign—and to find out if you have what it takes to survive in the Zodiac Galaxy.

RUSSELL

R

In a galaxy where your sign determines which planet you call home, Rho, the young Guardian of Cancer, must find a way to unite the divided Houses of the Zodiac before an ancient evil destroys them all.

AT THE DAWN OF TIME, THERE WERE 13 HOUSES IN THE ZODIAC GALAXY. NOW ONLY 12 REMAIN. . . .

ZODIACBOOKS.COM

A NOVEL

“With a stellar cast, fascinating mythology, and unexpected twists and turns, ZODIAC is a must read. I am a fan!” —MORGAN RHODES, New York Times bestselling author of the Falling Kingdoms series

RHOMA GRACE, a 16-year-old Academy student from House Cancer, has an unusual way of reading the stars. She seeks out stories in the sky rather than taking the steps necessary for accurate predictions. And she can’t solve for ‘x’ to save her life. So when a violent blast strikes Cancer’s moon, sending its ocean planet off-kilter and killing thousands of citizens, including its beloved Guardian, Rho is more shocked than anyone when she is named as the House’s new leader. But, like a true Cancer, she loves her home fiercely and will protect her people no matter what, so she accepts. The catastrophes don’t stop at House Cancer. When House after House falls victim to freak weather events, Rho starts to suspect that Ochus, 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, a major in the Cancrian guard—must travel the galaxy and warn the other Guardians. But who will believe anything this young novice says? And who can Rho trust in a world defined by differences?

Cover design and art by Vanessa Han Razorbillbooks.com Penguin.com/teens Twitter.com/razorbillbooks Facebook.com/razorbill.books An Imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Manufactured in the USA

9781595147400_Zodiac_JK.indd 1

ROMINA RUSSELL FINISH: MATTE

9/16/14 8:21 AM


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 retake 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.”


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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. Cancer. 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

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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— “Acolyte Rho!” 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

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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

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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. “Four minutes.” 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

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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.

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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

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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 knowing I’ve disappointed my mentor 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.

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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.

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“RHO!” Nishi’s face blasts through all the data, and I jump back a few feet. By her backdrop I can tell she’s already at the stage. “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 black suit and 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.


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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

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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 lighthearted 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.”

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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 playwrestle 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.

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“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 hihat; 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!”

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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.

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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.

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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.


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“RUN!” 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. 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. 18


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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 launchpad, 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. 19


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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. Stanton. 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. 20


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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.”

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WHEN I THINK OF MOM, I think of the day she abandoned us. There are dozens of memories that still haunt me, but that one always shoves its way to the surface first, submerging all other thoughts with its power. I remember knowing something was wrong when Helios’s rays—and not Mom’s whistle—roused me. Every day, I’d awoken to the low-pitched call of the black seashell Dad had found for Mom on their first date; she kept it buried in her hair, pinning up her long locks, and plucked it out only for our daily drills. But this morning dawned unannounced. I clambered out of bed, changed into my school uniform, and searched the bungalow for my parents. The first person I spotted was Stanton. He was in his room across the hall, one side of his face glued to the wall. “Why are you—?” “Shhh.” He pointed to the crack in the sand-and-seashell wall through which he could listen into our parents’ room. “Something’s up,” he mouthed. I dutifully froze and awaited my big brother’s next cue. Stanton was ten, so he attended school on a pod city with our neighbor, Jewel Belger. Her

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mom would arrive any moment to pick him up, and Stanton was still in his nightclothes. The seconds of silence were agony, during which I imagined every possible scenario, from Mom being diagnosed with a deadly disease to Dad discovering a priceless pearl that would make us rich. When at last Stan backed away from the crack, he pulled me into the hallway with him right as Mom barreled out from her bedroom. “Stanton, come with me, please,” she said as she strode past. Lately whenever she and Dad fought, she sought solace in my brother. He eagerly bounded behind her, and though I longed to follow, I knew she wouldn’t approve. If she wanted me there, she would have said so. I looked out through one of the bungalow’s many windows as Mom led Stan into the crystal reading room Dad had built for her on the banks of the inner lagoon near his nar-clams; a miniature version of the crystal dome on Elara, it fit three people at most. I’d watch Mom go in there every night, her figure blurring into misty shadow behind the thick walls as she read her Ephemeris in the starlight. A small schooner pulled up to our dock, and Jewel jumped out, her frizzy curls blowing in the salty breeze. As she ran to our front door, Dad’s footsteps slapped down the stairs to meet her. I padded softly after him and hung on the staircase landing to listen. Dad traded the hand touch with Jewel and waved to Mrs. Belger in the distance. “Stan isn’t going in today,” he said as Mrs. Belger honked back a greeting from her schooner. “Oh,” said Jewel, sounding supremely disappointed. “Is he sick?” I crept out a little farther from behind the banister, and Jewel’s piercing periwinkle eyes flashed to me. Her chestnut cheeks darkened, and she looked away, either from shyness or to keep Dad from noticing I was there. “A little,” said Dad. I nearly gasped in shock—I’d never heard one of my parents tell a lie before. Cancrians don’t deceive.

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“Can I . . . can you tell him I hope he gets better?” I stared at the back of Dad’s prematurely balding head as he nodded. “I will. Have a good day at school, Jewel.” As he waved again to Mrs. Belger, I soundlessly slipped behind him and went out a side door. Tracing the outer walls of our bungalow, I found Jewel waiting for me by a small pond of water lilies that Mom tended to so much, she always smelled of them. “Is Stanton okay?” she blurted as I came closer. Her skin flushed darker in embarrassment again. “Yeah,” I said, shrugging. “He told me your parents are fighting a lot. . . .” She let her sentence hang gently between us, an invitation to talk to her as a friend, even though I was only seven and she was Stanton’s age. Her attention made me feel important, so I wanted to share something special—a secret. “Stanton’s not really sick. He’s with my mom. She and my dad just fought.” This seemed to mean more to Jewel than me, because her chestnut features pulled together with concern, and she said, “I don’t think it’s good for him . . . being brought into their arguments. I think it’s making him old.” Then she ran off to her mom’s schooner, and as they sailed away, Jewel’s face pressed into the glass window, staring back longingly at our bungalow. Her words worried me, even if I didn’t fully get their meaning, and I looked toward the crystal reading room, wondering. I found myself moving closer to the place, the thick sparkly walls reflecting me in the sunlight instead of illuminating what was going on inside. I edged around it, careful to stay low in case Mom or Stanton looked out, and then I peeked in, cupping my eyes and squinting so I could see. Stanton had just received his first Wave at school, and he was sitting on the reading room’s floor, recording information into it. Mom had switched on her Ephemeris, and she was orbiting the space while rattling words off to Stanton, words I couldn’t hear.

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I took a chance and opened the door a crack, as slowly and carefully as possible. “After you’ve cleaned the three changelings, toss them on the griller with a sprinkling of sea salt and sweet-water honeysuckles from the garden. I think that should be plenty of recipes. Let’s move on to Rho’s morning drills.” “Mom, but why are you telling me this?” Stanton spoke in the whiny tone of repetition. Even though he sounded unhappy, his fingers obediently ticked away on his Wave’s holographic screen, logging the information. “I like to wake Rho three hours early with rapid-fire drills about the Houses,” continued Mom, as though Stanton hadn’t interrupted. “After cycling through all twelve Yarrot poses, she must Center herself and commune with the stars for at least one hour—” Mom stopped speaking suddenly, and every molecule of my being liquefied beneath her glacial glare. Through the sliver of a gap in the doorway, she was staring straight at me. The door swept inward, and I nearly fell inside. Scrambling upright, I snuck a quick glance at my brother, who was looking from Mom to me with bated breath. I braced myself for Mom’s fury at my eavesdropping—only she didn’t look upset. “You should be on your way to class, Rho.” She searched behind me for a sign of Dad. I turned, too, but he was still inside the bungalow. When I looked back at Mom, she wore the same intense stare I’d seen on her face a week ago, when she warned me my fears were real. They certainly felt real in that moment. Every fearful possibility I’d dreaded earlier swam in my head once more, and I wondered what could have made Mom decide to dictate the details of her daily life to Stanton. Something was happening—something awful. My gut churned and sizzled, like I’d eaten too much sugared seaweed at once, and I couldn’t stand the not-knowing. Mom reached out and caressed my face, her touch more whisper than

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words. “Your teachers are wrong, you know.” It was one of her favorite phrases. “There aren’t twelve types of people in the universe—there are two.” She stared at the pearl necklace on my chest, which I hadn’t taken off all week. Cancer’s pearl wasn’t centered, but for the first time, she didn’t reach out to adjust it. “The ones that stand still and try to fit in . . . and the ones that go seek out where they belong.” That’s the last thing my mother ever said to me. When Dad sailed me to school that morning on the Strider—late—neither of us knew he would return to find Mom gone. Dad lived life mostly inside his head, so he wasn’t a big talker. But that morning he broke our usual silence by saying, “Rho . . . your mom and I love you very much. If we argue, it has nothing to do with you or your brother. You know that?” I nodded. He was speaking softly, in the comforting tone he always adopted post-fight. So I took a chance. “Dad . . . why did you lie to Jewel? What’s really happening with Stanton and Mom?” I could see from Dad’s face he would rather not answer, but he was always more forthcoming post-fight. With a slight sigh, he said, “I shouldn’t have lied, Rho. I’m sorry you heard that. I’m also sorry I can’t give you an answer, because I don’t have one. You know how your mom is . . . she’s having a spell. She’ll be fine when you get home.” It was then I understood what Jewel meant about too much information making someone old. I wanted to believe Dad—to push off the doubt and worry and the queasiness in my stomach that still hadn’t gone away. But the absence of the black seashell’s song that morning felt more like an omen. Mom was right. (She usually was.) Fears are real.

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TWELVE FLAGS, EACH BEARING THE symbol of a Zodiac House, lie in tatters before me, on a barren field that extends endlessly in every direction. I can just make out a crest neatly sewn beneath each House name—a dark blue Crab, a royal purple Lion, an inky black Scorpion. Caked in blood and grime, the defeated fabrics sprawl across the lifeless land like corpses from a forgotten battle. There are no sounds; nothing moves in the dusty distance. Even the sky is devoid of expression—it’s just a constant colorless expanse. But the stillness in the air is far from calm. It feels like the day is holding its breath. I turn in a small circle to survey my surroundings, and in the eastern distance I see a steep hill that’s the only disruption to the flat landscape. I concentrate hard on the hill, envisioning myself cresting it to survey the valley below, and soon my view begins to transform. As the vast valley sharpens into focus, I choke on a horrified gasp— Thousands of dead bodies litter the powdery earth below, their uniforms a rainbow of colors. Like a gruesome quilt made from people parts.

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I slump to the floor, nearly crushing the glass orb in my hand, and shut my eyes, forgetting that nightmares thrive in darkness. Corpses crowd my view in here, too. Hundreds of frozen Cancrian teens in flashy suits float through the black space of my mind, forever suspended there. I shake my head, and the vision flips to Virgo’s ships going up in flames, the air almost thick with the stench of burning flesh and metal. Then the tiny burned bodies of the once-lively Geminin people. The wreckage of vessels from what was once our united armada. I suck in a ragged breath as the next picture forms: the familiar wavy black locks, alabaster face, indigo blue— My eyes snap open, and I squeeze the glowing glass orb in my fist. The valley of bodies vanishes as the sights and sounds of reality rush into my head, as if I’ve just broken the sea’s surface after a deep dive. The barren field has transformed back into a large, sterile room lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves that house hundreds of thousands of identical glass orbs. They’re called Snow Globes, and each one stores a re-creation of a moment in time. I replace the memory I was just reviewing in its spot on the shelf: House Capricorn Trinary Axis Sage Huxler’s recollections After a moment, the orb’s white light dims out. I’ve been coming to Membrex 1206 for two weeks, combing through House Capricorn’s memories of the Trinary Axis, searching for answers to any of my millions of questions. I’m desperate for any signs that could lead me to Ophiuchus, or help us defeat the Marad, or bring back hope to the Zodiac. So far, I’ve found none of the above. My Wave buzzes on the table, and I snap it open, anxious for news. A

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twenty-year-old guy with my identical blond curls, sun-kissed skin, and pale green eyes beams his hologram into the room. “Rho—where are you?” Stanton looks confusedly at the Membrex (a room outfitted with the technology to unlock Snow Globes) surrounding us. He’s wearing his wet suit and squinting against Helios’s rays, so he must still be at the beach helping out. “I’m in the Zodiax . . . just looking something up.” I haven’t told my brother what I’m really up to here—deep within the earth of House Capricorn’s sole planet, Tierre—while he volunteers at the Cancrian settlement on the surface. “Any sign of his ship yet?” I ask before I can stop myself. “Like I told you twelve times this hour, I’ll let you know when he’s here. You shouldn’t worry so much.” Stanton looks like he wants to say more, but he glances off to the side, to something happening on the beach. “Gotta go; last ark of the day’s just dropped off more crates. When are you heading over?” “On my way.” Capricorns have been shuttling our people back and forth from here to Cancer on their arks, braving the planet’s stormy surface to save our world’s wildlife. The Cancrians on the settlement have been helping our species adapt to Tierre’s smaller ocean. Stanton’s hologram winks out, and I pull up the ledger on my Wave where I’ve been keeping track of the Snow Globes I’ve examined, and input today’s updates. To exit the room, I pass through a biometric body scan that ensures the only memories I’m taking with me are my own. Out in the dimly lit passage, I brush my hand along the smooth stone wall until my fingers close on a square metal latch. I pull on it to open a hidden door, and when I slip through, the ground falls away. My stomach tickles as I glide down a steep, narrow tube that shoots me out onto the springy floor of a train platform. Its bounciness reminds me of

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my drum mat, except this one’s riddled with rows of symmetrical circles that light up either red or green, depending on whether that spot on the train is available. I stand inside one of the green circles, and almost immediately there’s a rush of wind and the hissing of pistons beneath my feet—then the circle I’m standing on opens. A gust of air pressure sucks me down, and I’ve tapped into the Vein, the train system that tunnels through the Zodiax. “Zodiac art from the first millennium,” announces a cool female voice. I grab onto the handrail above me as the wind changes direction, and a stray curl falls into my face as we shoot upward. The Zodiax is an underground vault that contains what the Tenth House calls a treasure trove of truths: the collective wisdom of the Zodiac. Down here, there are museums, galleries, theaters, Membrexes, auditoriums, restaurants, reading rooms, research labs, hotels, shopping malls, and more. When Mom described it to me once, she said the Zodiax is like a brain, and the Vein is its neuron network, zooming people around as fast as firing synapses, its route mapped by subject matter rather than geography. A couple of Capricorn women in black robes share my compartment— one is tall with dark features, the other short with a ruddy complexion. We slow down for half a moment at “Notable Zodai from this century,” and the smaller woman is sucked up to a train platform. “Surface, Cancrian settlement.” I click a button on the handrail and let go. I’m blown up to the bouncy bed of another train station, and biometric body scans search me again as I leave the Zodiax. Outside, I instinctively raise a hand to shield my eyes from Helios’s light. Echoing silence is instantly replaced with the sounds of crashing waves and animal calls and distant conversations. As my vision adjusts, I make out herds of seagoats (House Capricorn’s sacred symbol) feeding and

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roughhousing at the water’s edge, and long-bodied terrasaurs flicking in and out of the rocks along the seashore, their scaly skin shiny in the daylight. High above us, horned hawks flap across the sun-bleached sky, circling the air in hopes of picking off the pocket pigs feeding in the weeds. Tierre is the largest inhabited planet in our galaxy, and it has a single massive landmass, Verity. Up ahead, the planet’s pink sand beach spills into the blue of its ocean, and behind me, wild forests grow right up to the ridges of volcanoes, giving way in the distance to snowcapped mountains that pierce the sky. The view is occasionally interrupted by the long neck of a fluffy giraffe reaching up for a fresh tree leaf. This place is a land lover’s paradise—which makes sense, given that Capricorn is a Cardinal House, representing the element Earth. People here live in modest homes on vast plots of land with multiple pets that live free-range. Cancer’s colony is being built along Verity’s western coastline, our people predictably opting to settle near our preferred cardinal element, Water. As I walk into our settlement, clusters of Cancrians are working on their respective tasks. Some are building pink sand-and-seashell bungalows, some are chopping seafood for sushi on flat stones, and some—including Stanton— are knee-deep in the ocean wearing wet suits, tending to the newly arrived species. As I walk past each group of people, they don’t stare anymore. Not like they did at first. A month ago, the Cancrians I met on Gemini insisted on my innocence and vowed the other Houses wouldn’t get away with this insult to Cancer. Then three weeks ago, we came to Capricorn, and the Cancrians here have barely spoken to me. Their glares and pointed silence have made it clear they’re not interested in my political failings—their sole concern is saving what’s left of our world. I wade toward Stanton through a shallow sea of crawling hookcrabs, miniature sea horses, schools of flashing changelings (blue fish that turn

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red when they sense danger), and a few just-released baby crab-sharks. My brother is with Aryll, a seventeen-year-old Cancrian who came here with us from Gemini. They’re in the process of releasing another school of changelings into the ocean. Rather than disturb them, I hang back and scour the sky for the telltale metallic glint of an approaching spaceship. It’s getting close to sunset. He should be here by now. “You look nice today,” says Stanton, spotting me. Only he says it less like a compliment and more like a question. His gaze searches my turquoise dress for clues before landing back on the water. Aryll turns, and his electric-blue eye roves over my outfit; a gray patch covers the spot where his left eye used to be. He flashes me a boyish smile before rearranging his expression into a Stanton-like look of disapproval. Even though I know he cares for us both, he takes my brother’s side on pretty much everything. “It doesn’t matter, I can still help you guys.” I come closer, letting the bottom of my dress get wet to show Stanton I’m not fussy. “Rho, don’t,” he says with a bite of impatience. “We’re nearly finished. Just hang back.” I do as my brother says, watching as he and Aryll set the fish free. The changelings look radioactive, their fiery bodies staining the blue water red, but soon their coloring begins to cool, and they disappear into the ocean’s depths. Changelings, being small and low-maintenance, have had the easiest time adapting to Capricorn so far. Stanton opens up the last closed crate floating beside him, and he and Aryll start releasing hookcrabs into the ocean. “That’s good, but watch for its pincers,” says Stanton, deftly taking the crab from Aryll before it snaps his finger off. When he talks to Aryll, my brother sounds different than when he addresses me. With Aryll, his voice dips lower, adopting a comforting tone

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that’s painfully familiar. “See this part of the shell back here, where it curves in a little?” Aryll nods obediently. “That’s always the best place to grip them.” Stanton’s words sweep me back to Kalymnos, where I learned how to handle the hookcrabs that constantly clawed at our nar-clams, and I realize who my brother is acting like. He’s being Dad. It shouldn’t bother me. After all that’s happened, I should be mature and understanding and compassionate. I should be grateful my brother’s alive at all. Some people lost everything. Aryll was at school on a Cancrian pod city when pieces of our moons started shooting through our planet’s atmosphere. The explosion took out his left eye. By the time he made it home, his whole family and house had drowned in the Cancer Sea. Like Stanton, he was herded together with other survivors and transported to House Gemini’s planet Hydragyr. Then Ophiuchus attacked Gemini. Earthquakes ransacked the rocky planet right as the Cancrian settlement was being built. Stanton was ushering a family to safety when he lost his balance and slipped off the rock face. Aryll caught him just as he was going over. He saved my brother’s life. “We’re going to change,” Stanton calls out as he and Aryll duck behind a privacy curtain to shed their wet suits. I study the horizon again for a sign of the ship I’ve been anxiously awaiting all day. Ophiuchus hasn’t destroyed another planet since Argyr, but the Marad attacks a different House every week. The army has also been linked to pirate ships that have been intercepting travelers and inter-House supply shipments all across the galaxy. Zodai on every House are cautioning citizens to avoid Space travel, encouraging us to travel by holo-ghost whenever possible. What if something’s happened? How will I know? Maybe I should try his Ring, just in case—

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“There!” shouts Aryll, his red hair flickering like fire under Helios’s rays. He points to a dot in the sky. My heart skips several beats as the dot zooms closer, sunlight catching its gleaming surface. The ship grows bigger on its approach, until the full form of the familiar bullet-shaped craft is visible. Hysan is here at last.

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’NOX LANDS ON A PLOT of pink sand far enough away not to disturb our camp. Stanton, Aryll, and I march toward the ship, and in the distance, Hysan’s golden figure leaps onto the beach, carrying a black case with him. I exhale in relief, realizing as I do that I’ve been holding my breath since Hysan and I parted. In a way, I’ve been lonelier these past few weeks than I was our whole time on Equinox. Hysan’s lips twist into his centaur smile as he approaches, and my mouth mirrors the movement effortlessly. I’d forgotten how relaxing a real smile could feel. He looks taller, and his golden hair has outgrown its Zodai cut. The white streaks are gone, and so are the expensive clothes—he’s dressed in a simple gray space suit that he’s filling out with more muscle than I remember. “My lady.” His lively, leaf-green eyes rest on my face and travel to my turquoise dress. “Memory did not do you justice.” “You should have been here hours ago,” I say, the flush in my cheeks undercutting my rebuke.

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“I apologize if I worried you.” Hysan brings my hand to his lips, his kiss activating a million Snow Globes stored inside my body. My skin tingles as the ghosts of his touch echo tauntingly through me. “Hysan. Thanks for coming. Hope all is well.” The choppiness in Stanton’s speech means he’s still wary of Hysan. When they met on Gemini, I introduced him as a friend and nothing more. Even though that’s technically true, I’m still lying to my brother . . . and apparently not even well. “Happy to be of service,” says Hysan, flashing Stanton one of his winning grins and bumping fists with him. After exchanging the hand touch with Aryll, he says, “I can’t stay long. I only came to deliver the Bobbler, then I must report to the Plenum on House Taurus. An emergency session has been called.” “What’s happened?” I ask, the alarm in my chest going off. “Nothing like that. I’ll explain later.” He opens the black case he’s been carrying and holds up what looks like a deflated hot-air balloon attached to a pump. “This is a Bobbler—it’s what our scientists use to explore Kythera’s surface. As soon as you hit Inflate, it will activate, and the navigational system will launch an instructional holographic feed. You can use it to send someone to explore the surface of Cancer—or even into the Cancer Sea, up to a pressure point—and it will withstand the harshest atmospheric conditions.” The Bobbler looks like a person-sized version of the membranes surrounding Libra’s flying cities. “Transparent nanocarbon fused with silica,” I recite, recalling Hysan’s words. He beams at me. “Exactly.” “What about the species down in the Rift?” Being unpleasant isn’t in my brother’s nature, so the hardness in his tone is so slight that anyone but a Libran would miss it. “We don’t have watercraft that can penetrate deep enough to know how they’ve been affected or whether we need to move them.” 10

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“I’ve reached out to my contacts on Scorpio,” says Hysan, his smile faltering but his manner still pleasant. “It’s the only House with ships that can descend to those depths. They’re not feeling particularly warm toward Cancer right now”—his eyes flit to mine but don’t quite connect—“still, I’m hopeful they’ll come through.” Around us the sun is setting, and a few stars are already peeking out in the darkening sky. As Hysan stores the Bobbler back inside its case, the night glows suddenly white. We look up to see silver holographic letters forming high above Tierre:

DINNER. “Can you stay?” I ask Hysan hopefully. There’s a slight hesitation before he says, “It would be my pleasure, my lady.” Though he’s smiling, I sensed something worrisome in his pause. Whatever’s going on, it’s worse than he’s letting on.

••• Dinner for the sector of Capricorn we’re residing in takes place in the vast valley of a steep hill—the same one from Sage Huxler’s recollections. Herds of black-robed Capricorns make their way there with us, each holding what looks like a magical wand. It’s their Wave-like device, a Sensethyser. Since Capricorns believe in quantifying and containing knowledge, they use a Sensethyser to capture and create holographic versions of anything new they stumble across. When pointed at something—a rare item, a new technology, an unknown mineral or plant or animal species—the Sensethyser digests every detail and creates a holographic replica that’s downloaded in a terminal of the Zodiax for review and classification. When we reach the valley, parallel processions of people pad along both sides of one extra-extra-long table, filling their plates with small servings from every platter. Each person brings his own plate and silverware, and 11

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every Capricorn household contributes a dish to the meal. For our part, the Cancrians who were chopping up seafood earlier now deposit a tray of sushi at one end of the table. There’s a stack of extra plates for those who forgot theirs, so Hysan pulls one from there, and once we’ve piled on some food, the four of us find a patch of grass to sit on. Most Capricorns gather in groups, holding huddled discussions and debates about a variety of subjects, and often people choose where to sit not based on whom they know but what topic is being discussed. As I thread through the groups, heads snap up to look at me. The Cancrians here may want nothing to do with me, but the Chroniclers—Capricorn Zodai—have taken an avid interest in me since I arrived. They’ve encouraged my visits to their Membrexes and still regularly invite me to discussions across the Zodiax about the current political climate. They’ve even requested to create a Snow Globe of my experience leading the armada—but those memories are dangerous enough inside my head. Giving them physical form would only make them more destructive. After a while, most Capricorns left me alone, probably realizing I wasn’t ready to be a full person yet. But now that there’s trouble in the news again, they’ve taken to staring at me like I’ve been holding out on them. At last we find a quiet place to sit, in the shadow of a twisty tree. As I look around me, I try to ignore the ghosts of the Zodai who died on this very land . . . but it’s hard to forget a quilt of broken bodies. “What is it?” asks Hysan. His large eyes run across my face like Sensethysers, deconstructing and reconstructing me inside his mind. There was a time Stanton and I could decode each other like that . . . and now the people who know me best are a Sagittarian and a Libran. “What isn’t it?” Hysan and I trade small, nostalgic smiles. I catch Stanton’s eyes narrowing, so I add, “What held you up?”

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“I found out one of my—one of Lord Neith’s—Advisors was a Riser.” Since Stanton and Aryll don’t know Hysan is Libra’s true Guardian, we have to be careful around them. “But Risers can’t help being Risers,” I argue, surprised that Hysan would hold a prejudice against any group of people. “It’s not their fault—” “We caught him sabotaging Aeolus’s Psy shield. And it’s not just him— Lord Neith has been in touch with Guardians from the other Houses, and we’ve confirmed a spike in the population of Risers everywhere. Which means—” “An imbalance in the Zodiac,” I finish, recalling Mom’s lessons. A person becomes a Riser when her exterior persona conflicts so strongly with her internal identity that she begins to develop the personality and physical traits of another House—and it can happen at any age. Most Risers only shift signs once or twice in their lifetimes, and with each shift they try to build a new life for themselves on their new House. But there are some Risers for whom the shift doesn’t take well, leaving them with an imbalance of traits from their old and new Houses. These Risers keep shifting signs throughout their lives, until their souls regain their balance. But some never do. Eventually, the transformations begin to wear on the bodies of imbalanced Risers, and they develop permanent deformities, making them look like the monsters of children’s stories. Excessive shifting also affects the mind, which can sometimes turn imbalanced Risers into real-life monsters. “Risers come from unstable Houses. A surge in their numbers now, in the midst of attacks from Ophiuchus and the Marad and the master . . .” Doubt casts a shadow across Hysan’s usually sunny glow. “It’s getting darker out there every day.” Our conversation is interrupted by the appearance of a girl my brother’s age with frizzy curls, chestnut skin, and periwinkle eyes. “Can I join you?”

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asks Jewel Belger. Hers is the family Stanton was shuttling to safety on Hydragyr when Aryll saved him. “Of course,” I say. She smiles shyly and sits next to Stanton. Right as Hysan is greeting her, a tall Capricorn Acolyte approaches us. “Hysan Dax? Sage Ferez has requested your presence.” Her tourmaline eyes turn to me next. “Yours as well, Rhoma Grace.” Stanton and I exchange questioning looks. “I’ll come with you,” he says, his protectiveness reminding me of Mathias. Pushing away the pain, I shake my head. “I’ll be fine, Stan. I’ll find you after.” Hysan and I leave our still-full plates behind and follow the Capricorn Acolyte underground, where we tap into the Vein. Since the whole House is having dinner, the train is empty. As they age, Capricorns unlock higher levels of wisdom and uncover more of the Zodiax’s secrets. Only young people ride the Vein—those over fifty have a different way of traveling no one else even knows about. “Guardian’s chambers,” announces the cool female voice, and we click our handrails and are blown up to a station platform. The Acolyte holds her thumb over a hidden sensor on the wall, and the whole thing slides open like a door. On its other side is a crystalline cave with walls of amber agate. The room’s bands of color are so luminous that it feels like we’re aboveground on a brilliantly sunny day. The only furniture in the cavernous space is a simple wooden desk with three chairs; behind the desk sits a stooped old man who must be nearing his centennial. He wears the same black robes as everyone else, the only distinction a lead pendant that hangs from a silver chain. It looks like House Aquarius’s Philosopher’s Stone. “Ah, welcome.” Sage Ferez nods kindly at the Acolyte who escorted us. “Thank you, Tavia.” He gestures for us to come closer, and as we settle into the chairs across

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from him, I notice a gold star in his right iris. On his wrist is a heavy Tracker, in the palm of his hand a Tattoo, and on the desk before him are a Sensethyser, a Wave, and— “I also have an Earpiece, a Perfectionary, a Paintbrush, a Lighter, and a Blotter,” he says, smiling at the growing surprise on my face. “But why?” I blurt before I can think of more polite phrasing. Far from offended, he pleasantly folds his hands together and asks, “Given the choice between possessing five senses and one, which would you choose?” “Five.” “Precisely.” The confusion on my face only grows, but Hysan smirks. “I apologize, Mother Rhoma, for not meeting with you sooner,” says Sage Ferez, “but, alas, I have been busy with troubles of my own. I suspect Lord Hysan will understand.” He slides his wrinkled gaze over to him. “I believe we have been facing the same transformations among our former friends.” Hysan shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “How do you—” “Know that you are the true Libran Guardian?” Sage Ferez smiles at him fondly. “Aging may weaken the body, but when done right, it strengthens the senses. There are few veils left my eyes cannot see through.” Hysan looks speechless for the first time. “Lord Vaz was a dear friend of mine, and on my many visits to him in his final year of life, I observed how deeply he cared for you. Since his passing, I’ve watched you zip in and out of Houses nearly as often as I. Though they don’t know it yet, your people are lucky to have you. Like your Cancrian colleague, you have proven yourself to be a unifier of the Zodiac.” Ferez’s black irises glisten like they’re filled with swirling ink. “My old friend would be so proud.” Hysan bows his head, averting his face from view, and I have to fight the urge to reach for his hand.

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“Dark Matter and the Thirteenth House.” I snap my gaze to Sage Ferez, who’s now smiling at me. Against the darkness of his skin, his teeth glow like stars. “Those veils, I’m sad to say, even I never saw through. You have a powerful gift—that alone would be enough to prove you are Cancer’s Holy Mother. Yet you have shown you have more than star-sight: Your vision for a united Zodiac isn’t a future you’ve forecasted in the sky, but rather a plan you’ve undertaken on the ground. That is quite wise for one so young.” “I led us into a massacre,” I say, shaking my head, unable to accept so much kindness. “I failed.” “Failure is not an end—it is the means to an end. Study your failures, for they are the scrambled secrets of success.” His black eyes crinkle in a mischievous, childlike grin. “There’s an old saying about the Cardinal Houses that asserts we are not only masters of our own elements, but we also possess an invincibility to another. Fire can’t be shaken. The grounded can’t be blown away. Air can’t be drowned. And water can’t be burned.” I bite down on my lower lip as Mathias’s words whisper through me. You’re an everlasting flame that can’t be put out. “Your mother’s abandonment did not destroy you. Nor did your father’s passing. Even Ophiuchus could not kill you. You are strong and resilient, impermeable to fire or water: You will rise and re-form from the ashes of this defeat.” Now I’m the one silenced by Sage Ferez’s words. But while his generosity moves and humbles me . . . I know I’m not worthy of his praise. So does the Plenum, and so does the rest of the Zodiac. I appreciate the few friends I have left, but I’m not kidding myself any longer—I should have refused the role of Holy Mother in the first place. I’m not—nor was I ever—Guardian material. “I have requested your presence to ask a favor,” says the aged Guardian, looking from me to Hysan again. “I’m leaving immediately after this meeting

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to visit Moira. She is a dear friend, one of the last I have left since Origene’s passing, and I fear for her future. Before I go, I would ask something of you. We represent three of the four Cardinal Houses, and as such, we are owners of Cardinal Stones.” “I don’t have the black opal anymore,” I interrupt. “It was returned to Agatha when she became the interim Guardian.” “The Talisman will only answer to a true Guardian—it remains in your service, whether it is physically with you or not. Once you are reunited with it, I must ask you and Hysan to seek out General Eurek on House Aries with your Talismans in hand. He will explain the rest.” “What will uniting the stones do?” asks Hysan, his speedy processing reminding me of Nishi. “I believe you may have guessed by now what strength the Thirteenth House once brought to the Zodiac.” “Unity,” I supply, the word sour on my tongue. “Precisely. I have hope that uniting the four stones will help us locate the Thirteenth Talisman, the one lost to time. Perhaps we can access its knowledge and discover the path to reuniting our galaxy.” Hysan and I are so awed by the notion that neither of us speaks for a moment. I still haven’t moved past the fact that Sage Ferez believes me— believes in me—and doesn’t think the Thirteenth House is my own fabrication. Then Hysan asks, “What about yourself?” The Guardian shakes his bald head, and the shadows on his face grow longer. “Only the stars know my fate, dear boy .  .  . but if I should have joined them by then, do not fret, for Eurek will know what to do.” Then his wrinkled features break into a genial smile, as though we were discussing happier subjects. “One more thing.” Sage Ferez leans into his desk, and Hysan and I instinctively come closer, too. “You will hear a lot about Risers in the coming war—and yes,” he adds, seeing my expression, “a war is coming. But there is something you must

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know before it starts. Risers are not a plague . . . they are part of the future.” He turns his glittering dark eyes to me. “You asked why I possess eleven technologies when one would suffice—can you now think of the reason?” For a moment I’m stumped, and I feel my cheeks heating with embarrassment—but then the answer bubbles forth from my mouth, like it’s been trapped there all along. “Choice. Because you have the freedom to choose.” He breaks into his childlike grin again. “Precisely. Each House operates a different way because it’s shaped according to the preferences of its people. Yet you both know better than most that we cannot control the circumstances of our birth. Not which family we are born into, nor which House. The truth is, our parents are but part of the equation that forms us—because the only thing more powerful than fate is free will. “Our choices define us: The stars may set us on a given path, but it is we who must decide whether we take it.” He gives us a moment to process what he’s said so far, but I’m still stuck on the bit about Risers being the future. “This wave of Risers is only the beginning.” His demeanor grows heavy again, and for a moment all one hundred years seem to be bearing down on him at once. “I know this is difficult to understand, but since you will lead us, you need to hear it. There may well be a time . . . in the not-too-distant future . . . when our House affiliation will no longer be determined by birth.” His inky eyes lock on mine, and I can’t even blink. “When our Zodiac sign will be a matter of choice.”

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PROLOGUE

WHEN I THINK OF MY adolescence as an Acolyte on Elara, I feel lighter. Like I’m back inside that semi-weightless world. My memories from those years always wash over me in waves. The first wave is the largest, and when it breaks, hundreds of Snow Globes bubble to my surface, showering me with memories of my best friends, Nishiko Sai and Deke Moreten. My life’s happiest moments live in this wave’s wake. As the current carries Deke and Nishi away, a second, gentler swell always rolls in, and my skin ripples as I surf through a montage of mornings spent in the silent solarium, soaking in Mathias’s presence and Helios’s rays. When the warmth begins to recede from my skin, I always try to pull away, before the third wave can overtake me. But by the time I remember to swim, I’m already caught in its riptide. When the memory crashes over me, I’m submerged in a cement block at the Academy: the music studio where Nishi, Deke, and I used to meet for band practice. Where the first two waves flood my mind with my favorite


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moments from the moon, the third always brings me back to this exact moment, in this exact place, a year and a half ago. Nishi, Deke, and I had spent the whole day in the studio, while Nishi taught us how to play a popular Sagittarian song called “Who Drank My Abyssthe?” “Not good enough,” she complained right after my closing hit, before the cymbals had even stopped echoing. “You guys have to stay present through the whole song. You’ve been fumbling through the bridge every time.” “I’m done,” Deke announced, shutting off his holographic guitar in protest. “No, you’re staying, and you’re going to focus,” hissed Nishi, blocking his path to the door. “We’re going again.” “You drank the Abyssthe if you think that’s happening!” he shot back. Then, rather than trying to get around her, he flopped to the floor and sprawled out like a starfish. “Wait, you’re right.” Nishi’s abrupt attitude reversal was as unpredictable as the pitch progressions of her vocals, and from the stunned expression on Deke’s face, she may as well have started speaking in a new alien language. “Rho, please tell me you heard that,” he said from the ground, “because I’m starting to think maybe I drank the Abyssthe—” “There’s a bigger problem than your focus,” Nishi went on, staring at the cement wall as if she could see scenes within it that were invisible to our Cancrian senses. “I think we need a bass player.” Deke groaned. “We’ll post holograms in the music department,” she went on, turning to me, her gaze hopeful and searching for my support. “We can hold auditions here after class—” “Why does it matter how we sound?” I interrupted. The tightness in my tone sent a new, tense charge through the air, so to soften the effect, I added, “It’s not like we’re getting graded.”


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We only started the band to improve our Centering. Our instructors at the Academy taught us that art is the purest pathway to the soul, which is why the Cancrian curriculum required Acolytes to rotate through diverse disciplines until we found our clearest connection to our inner selves. Only then, once we’d found that core connection, could we specialize. Nishi had always known that singing was her calling, but it took Deke and me longer to figure ourselves out. It was only at Nishi’s insistence the year before that we finally gave music a shot. I chose the drums because I liked surrounding myself with the armor of a booming beat and a shell of steel, sticks, and hard surfaces. Deke was a skilled painter, but he wasn’t passionate about it, so he decided to learn guitar. “Well . . .” Nishi looked from me to Deke, her features forming a familiar, mischievous expression. Deke sat upright in anticipation, watching her with reverence. “I kind of . . . signed us up for the musical showcase next week!” “No way!” he blurted, his eyes wide with fear or excitement, maybe both. Nishi beamed. “We’ve been working so hard the past six months, and I thought we could see what others think. You know, for fun.” “You’re the one who just said our sound wasn’t working,” I said, only half-heartedly trying to keep the sharpness out of my voice. I stood up behind my set and crossed my arms, my drumsticks sticking out at the angle of my elbows. “But we’re nearly there!” Nishi grinned at me eagerly. “If we find a bass player in the next couple of days, we can totally teach them the song in time—” I set my sticks down on the snare, and the rumbling note it made felt like punctuation to end the conversation. “No, thanks.” Nishi pleaded, “Please, Rho! It’ll be a blast!” “You know I have stage fright—” “How can any of us—you included—know that, when you’ve never even been on a stage?”


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“I know because I can barely address the classroom when an instructor calls on me, so I can’t begin to picture myself performing for the whole Academy!” Nishi dropped to her knees in mock supplication. “Come on! Just this once! I’m begging you to try it. For me?” I took a step back. “I really don’t like it when you make me feel guilty for being who I am, Nish. Some stuff just doesn’t come in the Cancrian package. It’s not fair that you always want me to be more like you.” Nishi snapped to her feet from her begging position. “Actually, Rho, what’s not fair is you using your House as an excuse not to try something new. I came to study on Cancer, didn’t I? And adapting to your customs hasn’t threatened my Sagittarian identity, has it? Seriously, if you opened your mind once in a while, you might surprise yourself—” “Nish.” I spoke softly and uncrossed my arms, opening myself up to her so that she would see how much I didn’t want to fight. “Please. Let’s just drop this, okay? I really don’t feel comfortable—” “Fine!” She whirled away from me and grabbed her bag off the floor. “You’re right, Rho. Let’s just do the things you like.” I opened my mouth, but I was too stunned to speak. How could she say that to me? Every time she or Deke wanted to do something foolish—sneak into the school kitchen after curfew to steal leftover Cancrian rolls, or crash a university party we were too young to attend, or fake stomachaches to get out of our mandatory morning swims at the saltwater pool complex—I always wound up going along with them, even when I didn’t want to. Every single time I was the one who caved. “Deke, what do you think?” shot Nishi. His hands flew up. “I’m Pisces.” Nishi rolled her eyes at the expression, which is what people say when they don’t want to take sides in an argument. It comes from the fact that the Twelfth House almost always remains


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neutral in times of war, as their chief concern is caring for the wounded of every world. “Forget it.” Nishi stormed out of the studio. And for the first time following an argument, I didn’t go after her. Deke got to his feet. “I think one of us should talk to her.” I shrugged. “You go then.” “Rho . . .” His turquoise eyes were as soft as his voice. “Would it really be so bad?” “You’re telling me you actually want to play in front of the whole school?” “Just the thought of it terrifies me—” “Then you agree with me!” “I wasn’t finished,” he said, his tone firmer now. “It terrifies me, yeah, but . . . that’s what’s exciting about it. It moves you toward the fear instead of away from it.” In a gentler voice, he asked, “Aren’t you bored with the redundancy and routine of being an Acolyte? Don’t you ever want to escape yourself?” I shook my head. “I’m fine with being predictable. I don’t like surprises.” “All right,” he said with a small but exasperated smirk. “You’re obviously not listening to me, so I’m going to try Nish. See you at breakfast tomorrow, Rho Rho.” Alone in the studio, all I could feel was my anger. Did my friends seriously just abandon me for finally standing up for myself? I blasted out of the room and charged through the all-gray halls of the quiet compound to my dorm-pod. Once there, I changed out of my Academy blues into my bulky, bandaged space suit with the colorful plastic patches covering snags in the outer fabric. Curfew was closing in, which meant most people were already in their rooms for the night. But I felt claustrophobic, like the compound was too cramped to contain all my emotions. So I shoved on my helmet and, rather than stuffing my Wave up my glove where it could sync with my suit and


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provide a communication system, I spiked it on the bed on my way out the door, leaving it. I didn’t want to hear from Nishi or Deke. Then I shot out to the moon’s pockmarked face without any of my usual safety checks, my anger so scalding it consumed every thought in my head. In my firestorm of feelings, I forgot Mom’s final lesson. For a moment, I forgot my fears were real.


TWELVE TOY ZODAI—DYED DIFFERENT HOUSE hues—are arranged in a row. All are missing limbs, a few have been decapitated, and the blue one is just a clay torso with an X slicing its chest. It’s the clearest message the master has sent us yet. One world down, eleven soon to fall. Squary is a cold cement bunker on House Scorpio that runs the length of the island it’s built beneath. It used to be a weapons testing zone, until Stridents detonated a nuclear device decades ago, and the facility had to be quarantined. It’s also where the Marad was working on its secret weapon when the Scorp Royal Guard barged in and arrested the handful of soldiers that had been living here. Stanton and Mathias stand with Strident Engle at the other end of the room, studying the real star of the scene: the Marad’s missile monstrosity, with its nuclear core that has the potential to devastate a whole planet, if operational. But I hang back by the toys on the table, unable to look away from their mutilated bodies . . . until a blade stabs my arm, slitting my scars open.


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I gasp and jump back, hugging myself. I know the pain is just a memory of the real thing, but it still makes me nauseous, and beads of sweat tickle my forehead. I snap my gaze to the guys, hoping they didn’t notice. They didn’t. They’re still scoping out the weapon, the three of them indistinguishable from one another in their bulky black radiation suits and facemasks. “So this is everything?” Stanton’s voice breaks the radio silence inside my heavy suit. “Aside from this weapon, five years’ worth of compressed meals, and the creepy toys, you didn’t find anything else? Nothing to tell us where the Marad’s headquartered, or who’s leading the army, or what the master’s plan is?” “We found the Risers we arrested.” The second voice belongs to Strident Engle, a Zodai in Chieftain Skiff’s Royal Guard who’s been guiding our visit to House Scorpio. “Have they said anything yet?” presses Stanton. “They will, once we find a way to break them.” One of the figures flinches and takes half a step back. That must be Mathias. “If you couldn’t break them in two months, what makes you think they can be broken?” I identify Stanton’s shape by his familiar stubborn stance, how he tilts his head and crosses his arms. “Every man has his breaking point,” says the Strident. “That’s ignorant.” My brother looks toward Mathias. “Some men are unbreakable.” Mathias doesn’t acknowledge the compliment as he ambles away from them. Stan’s been praising him a lot since learning of everything he’s been through. And yet, even now, my brother’s warm words lack actual warmth. There’s something else cooling their effect, only I can’t tell what it is. Mathias joins me by the table and stares at the toys. I wonder if he, too, feels Corinthe’s blade cutting him open.

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“None of the other Houses have any leads or ideas?” I say into the facemask’s radio system, mostly to escape my darkening thoughts. “We agree it’s likely they knew we were coming, given they had enough time to make this macabre masterpiece for us,” says Engle, recycling the same theory the Houses have been repeating to each other. He and Stanton stride over to join Mathias and me. “And if the Riser who betrayed you— Aryll—sent a warning, they had enough time to get rid of anything they didn’t want us to find.” Stan turns away from the table. He still can’t hear the name of the friend he loved like a brother. But a different word jumps at me from Strident Engle’s answer. This is the second time he’s said Riser instead of soldier or minion or terrorist, as if the terms were interchangeable. On every House, it’s been the same reaction: a blanket vilification of all Risers out of fear they could become unbalanced. Fernanda’s warning that all Risers will be made to pay for the actions of the Marad grows louder in my head every day, as does Ferez’s foretelling of a future forged of Risers. A minority of people who have been ostracized by every House may now decide the Zodiac’s fate. Maybe my teachers were right: Maybe happy hearts start with happy homes. Maybe if Risers had been born into a world with a place for them, the master wouldn’t be able to manipulate so many into committing murder in the name of hope. “What’s this about?” asks Mathias, gesturing to the tableau of toys. It’s one of just a few questions he’s asked all day. The old Mathias would have demanded to know every detail about the weapon and the captured Marad soldiers, even if it meant violating diplomatic protocol . . . like the time we visited Libra. Thinking of the Seventh House makes my mouth go dry, and I clear my throat. “We think it’s a message,” says Engle. “They’re telling us to screw off.”

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His serious voice is identical to his sarcastic one, so I never know if he’s feeling content or contentious. It’s the same with every Scorp I’ve met so far, each one a mystery. But since these days it’s impossible to know whom to trust, regardless of House affiliation, it’s nice to know I’m in the company of someone Sirna trusts: Engle is a friend from her diplomatic travels. Then again, maybe that’s worse. After all, friends make for frightening foes. Mathias bumps my shoulder, and I look up. His facial features are hard to make out through the protective suit’s thick membrane, but I can tell he’s shaking his head, and he’s right—we’ve searched the rest of Squary and found nothing. Every House that’s been through here has yielded the same results. It’s time to track down a real lead. “I think we’re done,” I say. “Then I’ll take you back below sea level.” Strident Engle directs us to an exit: round metal doors built into the floor of every room. We descend a set of stairs to a canal system that runs beneath the bunker, and the four of us load into a small, unmanned boat that zips through a tangle of tunnels, toward Squary’s transportation hub. Even though Squary is considered one of House Scorpio’s “above-ground” settlements, it’s technically in the ground, since Sconcion’s atmosphere isn’t breathable. But from the perspective of Scorps who live in waterworlds deep within the ocean’s depths, Squary is essentially the surface. When our boat bumps gently into a dead end, we climb out and pass through a metal decontamination chamber that sterilizes our suits. Then we step inside a busy submarine station where Scorps are rushing along sleek silver floors to locate their gates and catch connecting rides. Timetables on wallscreens display routes and schedules for passenger subs, and a variety of holographic stands offer travelers options for private rentals and chartered trips. The first thing we do is strip off our heavy suits and deposit them in a designated chute. Without the mask, at last my view is unobstructed. 4


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Across from us, floor-to-ceiling windows look into the dark blue ocean, and Stanton and Mathias immediately make their way over to watch the fish parading past, spanning every color in Nature’s palette. It must be nearly sunset because Helios’s red rays are setting the top layer of water on fire. Normally I’d be running to the window to check it all out, too. But today I hang back with Engle, watching him as he consults the wallscreen nearest us. I’m still startled by the Strident’s translucent skin and scarlet eyes; he hails from Oscuro, the deepest waterworld on Sconcion, which doesn’t see sunlight. “It’s not racist to stare at the unknown,” he says, suddenly meeting my gaze, “or to be astonished by it.” I feel my cheeks heating up. “I didn’t—I’m sorry, it’s just—” “Don’t finish that excuse. Just refer to my previous statement.” I wish there was a translation guide for speaking with Scorps. Once again, I’ve no clue where I stand with Engle. A news report starts playing on another wallscreen, and my gut clenches as a montage of Cancrians in refugee camps across the Zodiac begins to play. I can’t hear the narration over all the noise, but I can imagine what the anchor is saying. At first the Houses were happy to take our people in and give us aid. One would think that with thirty-four habitable planets—well, thirty-one now—there would be more than enough space for all of us in the Zodiac Solar System. Then news about Aryll broke. When the Houses learned there was a Marad Riser hidden among the Cancrian survivors, nearly every government produced a list of reasons why they couldn’t keep us anymore. How we’re becoming a drain on their resources, how we’re interfering with their laws by functioning as a sovereign nation on their soil, how we’re selfishly accepting their handouts without working on any long-term solutions. But mainly they’re afraid of more Marad soldiers hiding among us. 5


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Virgo’s planet Tethys is mostly uninhabitable, but its people had their choice of ten planetoids in their constellation to evacuate to. The Geminin who left Argyr landed on Hydragyr, where the largest number of Cancrians had settled, only now the planet doesn’t seem to be big enough for the both of us. Yet Cancrians have nowhere within our constellation to go. We’ve no choice but to beg the other Houses for their help. Our financial institutions were obliterated along with our planet, and a few weeks ago our currency was officially canceled across the solar system. So for now, our only options are settling into a refugee camp or moving to a community with a barter system, like Pisces. “Our ride departs from gate six,” says Engle, and I pull away from the broadcast. “Let’s go.” I grab my brother and Mathias, and minutes later we’re boarding a large passenger sub to Pelagio, one of Sconcion’s shallower waterworlds, where Stanton, Mathias, and I have been staying. Engle booked us two rows of seats facing each other; I take the window, and Mathias snags the spot next to me. My brother slumps into the seat across from mine, his gaze glued to the window as an emerald-green eel glides past. Strident Engle sits beside Stan and beams out a personal holographic screen from his Paintbrush—a fingertip device that’s the Scorp equivalent of a Wave—and begins reviewing his messages. “Good evening, this is Captain Husk speaking,” says a man’s voice over the intercom. “We anticipate smooth sailing to Pelagio. Current tidal conditions have us arriving in a little over three hours. Once the seatbelt alert is off, please feel free to visit our restaurant and bar, located in the middle of the vessel. Now prepare for our descent, and enjoy your time on board.” Belt straps automatically slide across our chests, clicking into connectors in our seats. The sub’s motion is so smooth that I only know we’ve started

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moving when I see the stunning sights swimming past the window. We soar over colorful corals that could be beds of candy, then thread through a forest of reedy underwater trees brimming with small sea creatures, until we arrive at a majestic clearing where the water is endless and diamond bright. Dusky red-purple rays pierce through the blueness like fiery arrows. More than anything, I want to be out there. I miss slipping into the Cancer Sea’s folds, swimming alongside its turtles and seahorses and changelings, following its familiar currents to my favorite corners of the planet. I’d thought being on another Water House might be restorative . . . but it’s only making me feel Cancer’s absence more. A pod of striped dolphins dances outside our window, twirling and playing and trailing along, until we gather speed and plunge into an abyss, leaving the sunlight behind us. Bubbles brush the sub’s belly, and schools of fish scatter in our wake as we dive into deeper and darker waters. I chance a peek at Mathias. His head is leaned back and his eyes are closed. He’s been letting his wavy hair grow out, and a light layer of stubble covers the hollows of his cheeks and slight cleft of his chin. It’s still hard to accept he’s back, when being around him reminds me he’s not. What’s up? His voice tickles my thoughts, and my finger buzzes with the infusion of Psynergy. I look down at my Ring. When we wore the bulky compression suits, I couldn’t reach it, but now I can touch the metallic silicon band. Just not sure what happens next, I send back, staring at the fine black glove hugging my left hand—the one I keep on at all times, since the skin at my fingertips will stay tender until my nails grow back in. Everyone urged me to heal my arm and get rid of every trace of Corinthe’s torture, but that would have meant turning my back on the full truth of my experiences. And I won’t do that. Ferez taught me that the past can coexist with the present, but only if we remember it. So if I cheat the past by trying to change it, I’ll risk

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forgetting it . . . and there are things I can’t afford to forget. Like the fact that the young girl in the pink space suit floating on Elara’s surface didn’t have the chance to heal her body. Neither did the dead of Cancer, Virgo, Gemini, or the armada. And neither do Risers. Your brother’s having a hard time, says Mathias. Have you talked to him? I look across at Stanton. He’s passed out with his holographic headphones on, and the new Wave Sirna was able to get him rests open-faced on his chest. I haven’t seen him like this since Mom left—distant, sullen, suspicious. But at least then he had to set those feelings aside to raise me. Now they’re just festering within him, sharpening his voice and hardening his heart. I’ve tried, I whisper to Mathias through the Psy. He feels guilty over how much he defended Aryll, and probably embarrassed about being used by him, too. But he won’t talk to me about it, and I think that’s because . . . because it’s my fault. I’m the reason Aryll used him. It’s the first time I’ve voiced this belief, and I’m glad it’s only happening in my mind and not out loud, because a bubble of emotion blocks my throat. I don’t think that’s it. Not at all. Mathias’s musical voice is gentle, and he almost sounds like he used to—sure of himself and protective of me. I think he can’t talk to you because he feels he failed you. Aryll used him to get to you, and your brother didn’t see him for what he was, so he didn’t shield you. Rather than protecting you, he endangered you by bringing him into your life. I frown at him. Mathias, this isn’t Stanton’s fault— He shakes his head. I’m not saying it is. I’m just telling you how he feels because . . . it’s how I would feel. If I were him. His midnight eyes stare into mine a beat longer, suspending my pulse, and neither of us says anything more.

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When my brother and I returned to Capricorn, Mathias stayed with his parents on Taurus for a month and a half, focusing on recovering from the Marad’s torture by training with the other Lodestars at the embassy. Then, a couple of weeks ago, he reached out and said he was ready to help, so Stan and I invited him to join us. We haven’t yet discussed our kiss or the words we exchanged the night of the celebration on Vitulus . . . which is a good thing, because I’m not sure what I’d say. Not that it matters, since the note I sent him and Hysan after the attack on Pisces pretty much shut the door on any romantic discussions for a while. I guess I should be grateful Mathias is still talking to me, unlike— “Apologies for this interruption.” Captain Husk’s voice over the intercom startles me. “If you’ll look out the starboard side, you’ll see a Scorpion whale making its way to the surface.” I press my face into the cold glass to get a glimpse of the massive mammal. “Holy Helios,” I whisper as its shadow swallows the submarine. The jet-black whale is impossibly immense—at least ten times as large as this one-hundred-passenger submarine—and its six sets of flippers propel it forward so fast that the sub starts to sway in its waves. The whale whooshes by. One second I’m staring at an eyeball the size of Equinox, and the next all I see is a snake-like tail whipping past. The whole thing happens so quickly that it feels as surreal and fleeting as a vision in the Psy. I squint up at the hazy horizon to try keeping the whale within view, but it’s already lost to the darkness above. Disappointed, I lower my gaze, and at last I spy the silver lights of Pelagio twinkling in the watery distance.

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THE SUB SLOWS DOWN AS a bright bubble the size of a moon blooms into being, its glass walls dotted with small lights that sparkle like stars. On the way to Squary, Strident Engle explained the lights are mechanical gills, and they’re part of a filtering system that uses electrolysis to split H20 into particles of oxygen and hydrogen. The air is absorbed for breathing, while the hydrogen gets converted into fuel for powering the waterworld. Planet Sconcion has a dozen of these waterworlds, each its own sovereign territory. Half of them, including Pelagio, are located in waters shallow enough that city tops crest the ocean’s surface; the other half, like Oscuro, are buried in waters so deep that only special Scorp watercrafts can endure the pressure. Nepturn, Pelagio’s capital city, grows larger in the sub’s window, looking like a reverse aquarium: Rather than fish wading in water, humans swim through air. Scorps travel within waterworlds using waterwings—metal armbands with vapor jet pack attachments powerful enough to float a person off the


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ground. Scorps pair the wings with fins that slide over their footwear, enabling wearers to essentially “swim” through the heavy humidity in the air. We dock into a port along the glass wall to disembark, and then we head down a narrow pathway that leads to Nepturn’s transportation hub, where our identities are confirmed and belongings are searched before we’re granted passage beyond. We follow the crowd of Scorps bustling along sleek silver floors to the wall of lockers where we stored our waterwings and fins before departing to Squary. Once we’ve got on our armbands—which are cold and a little constricting—we carry our fins under our arms and make our way to the exit. “Wandering Star.” I turn to see Sirna, flanked by a Lodestar and a Strident. Smiling, I suppress my impulse to hug her and instead reach out to bump fists. When I wrapped my arms around her after we arrived on Scorpio a couple of days ago, in front of her full entourage of Stridents and Lodestars, her stance stiffened disapprovingly, and I realized I shouldn’t have done it. Sirna is a nurturer by nature, but like most Cancrians, she wears her shell to work and saves her softer side for her personal life. I guess I just haven’t had much affection the past couple of months. Or feminine company. And I miss Nishi more than water. “How did your visit go?” asks Sirna, once she’s traded the hand touch with everyone in our group. “Uneventful,” answers Engle on my behalf. “No news then?” “No,” I concede. I didn’t actually think I’d find anything the other Houses missed, but since the Plenum seemed so eager to arrange this trip when I asked for it, I’d hoped there might be a chance I could help. Sirna turns to the Lodestar and whispers instructions. He nods and takes off with the Strident, and when Sirna straightens, she looks pleased about something.

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“But I’m sure the master is far from done,” I caution her. “I’d like to consult with the other teams of Zodai who came through here before giving my report to the Plenum, so please keep this to yourself for now. Anything new from the Marad soldiers in custody?” Sirna sighs. “Representatives from every House have already tried interrogating them, but they’re stoic. The only person any soldiers seem to have opened up to is . . . you.” I don’t quite meet her sea-blue gaze. “I guess when you’re about to murder someone, you stop thinking of them as a person.” Mathias’s arm brushes mine, comforting me with his touch. He understands even better than I do how it feels when someone treats you like you’re worthless. When they draw on your skin like they own it, reducing you to a replaceable canvas for their hate. “You must be hungry,” says Sirna, and I nod, blinking back my heavy thoughts. “How does dinner sound?” “I’ll tell Link and Tyron to join us,” says Engle. “Your treat, right?” Sirna’s mouth twists into something like a smile. “And they say chivalry visited Scorpio and drowned.” “Who needs chivalry when you look this good?” Engle shoots me a wry glance. “Right, Rho? Tell your ambassador how you couldn’t keep your eyes off me.” I start to flush just as Stanton steps in. “Is this banter on the agenda, or can we go already? I’m starving.” I stare at my brother, not recognizing him. There’s no color in his cheeks, no bounce in his curls, no comfort in his pale green gaze. “Yes, let’s go,” says Sirna, resuming her professional demeanor. As we’re filing out after her, I try catching Stan’s attention, but he stays out of my reach. Outside we’re swallowed by the hot breath of a sprawling, spongy city that’s immeasurably high, the view softly illuminated by the starry glow of

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the gills on the glass walls. The landscape before us unfolds in a rainbow of colors, and once more I have a hard time reconciling the lighthearted look of this world with the dark nature of the Scorps I’ve met. I slip my fins over my boots and hit the unlock sequence for my waterwings; the vapor jet packs jitter nervously for a moment, then my feet rise off the sandy ocean floor as I float into the humid atmosphere, like a feather flying against the wind. When I’m up in the air, my worries stay on the ground, and I finally feel free. The four of us fall in line behind Sirna, and we merge with a school of Scorps headed downstream. It feels good to swim again, even if it is without water. But it’s harder going from having the whole ocean to explore to being trapped inside an air bubble. We pick up speed, swimming in sync with the Scorps around us, until we’re a tightly woven team riding an air current we’re creating together. With every corner we round, we shuffle and reposition ourselves; travelers who are exiting cycle to the outermost lane, while those who have a longer journey stay put in the middle. Their bright colors make Nepturn’s blocky buildings easy to avoid, and their spongy texture is pliant enough that even if a person flew off course and hit a wall, they’d be protected by its plushy pores. Once Sirna starts cycling over to the outer lane, the rest of us follow suit, and moments later, we peel away from the group, toward a blue building taller than the ones surrounding it: the visitors’ burrow. Scorps are the Zodiac’s innovators; throughout the ages, they have been the inventors of our most groundbreaking and galactically coveted technology. The tech industry on Scorpio is so cutthroat that companies are intensely competitive with each other, making corporate espionage a constant concern—which is why the House operates under extreme conditions of confidentiality. And if there’s anyone a Scorp distrusts more than a fellow Scorp, it’s someone from another House.

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Sconcion doesn’t get many visitors because Scorps make it difficult for outsiders to obtain visas. Approved tourists are put up in a city’s visitors’ burrow, where a Strident is assigned as their guide to monitor their movements and limit their access to privileged information. When we land on the burrow’s rooftop, we stuff our waterwings and fins in lockers; air swimming is forbidden indoors. Up close the structure’s spongy surface feels fuzzy yet sturdy, and random debris—shells, sand, stones—packs its pores. The temperature is refreshingly cooler inside, and we take a lift down to the dining hall in the belly of the building, an enormous room that spans the full floor. The scent of fresh seafood tickles my nose as a cacophony of voices assaults my ears; even though the burrow isn’t very booked, the hall is swarming with curious locals who want to hear the latest news from other worlds. Long communal tables line the room. We grab drinks and silverware from a stand by the entrance, then we survey the space until we spot Link and Tyron waving to us from one of the tables near the back wall, the one closest to the hall’s oceanic wallscreen. As soon as I sit down, a holographic menu pops up in front of me, and I tap to make my selections—grilled blacktail filet with a peppered seaweed salad. When I submit my order, the hologram vanishes. Link and Tyron already have their meals, but only Link has started eating. “So? See something the rest of us missed, Wandering Star?” he asks through his mouthful of food. “Find another secret message from your boogeyman? Planning to get more of us killed with an encore armada?” When I open my mouth to answer, he obnoxiously slurps up an octopus tentacle and chews it loudly. Yesterday’s Stanton and Mathias would have jumped in to defend me by now, but they’re different people today, too busy fighting their own demons to shield me from my detractors.

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“Ease off, Link,” says Engle, studying me closely. “It’s not her fault the person behind these attacks is messing with her head. She’s just a little girl trying to play a grown-up’s game.” I glare at Engle, though I don’t get the impression he’s being serious; more than anything I think he’s trying to provoke me into a reaction. And if he’s testing me, that means he hasn’t formed his opinion yet—so I still have the chance to earn his respect. “Give me your Ephemeris,” I say. “What for?” “So I can call my boogeyman.” Engle’s red eyes widen a fraction, but Link leans forward with interest. Since he and Tyron are from Pelagio, their sallow skin isn’t as translucent as Engle’s, and their eyes are a darker and less striking shade of red. “My night just got interesting,” says Link, nudging Engle’s arm. “Do it. Give it to her.” Engle and I are still measuring each other, neither of us willing to look away first. “Why don’t you use yours?” he asks me. “Don’t have it with me,” I say. When he doesn’t react, I lower my voice. “You’re not scared, are you?” He cracks a cold smile. “Not scared . . . just wondering what your game is.” “Thought you said this wasn’t my game. That I’m just a little girl getting played.” I cock my head and arch my eyebrows. “But grown men like you aren’t scared of monsters, because you don’t believe in them. Right?” The lines around his eyes harden, and I know I’m finally getting under his skin. “So pass me your Ephemeris.” “That’s enough,” says Sirna, who’s sitting to the other side of Engle. He flinches and looks at her suddenly, brows furrowed, and I get the sense she pinched his skin under the table. Free at last, I lower my gaze and blink. Just then, a shadow falls over

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me, and I lean back as drones descend on the stone table, dropping off our dinner before flying back to the kitchen. As I’m chewing my first bite of buttery fish, the enormous wallscreen beside us flickers on, and a holographic newscast begins. “We interrupt your night with breaking news: We’ve just been alerted that an announcement about the Marad is forthcoming from the Planetary Plenum.” The food slides tastelessly down my throat, and the whole place falls silent at once. I whip my face to Sirna’s, but she doesn’t meet my gaze. What announcement? Why didn’t she mention that there was news earlier? “Ambassador Crompton’s transmission will begin at any moment,” says the newscaster, “so stay with us as we await this latest update.” A montage of recycled news packages begins to play as the station fills the airtime. “The Marad first came on the galactic scene by instigating and later escalating the conflict between Sagittarians and migrant workers from Lune”—another Scorp waterworld—“but as our network was first to report, the Wayfare Treaty has at last quelled that conflict. So where did the army go after Sagittarius? “The Marad—allegedly made up of Risers—brought its savagery to the others Houses, including our own, when they sabotaged the air supply in Oscuro, killing dozens of our people.” I glance at Engle’s downcast face, and as his hand clenches into a fist, I wonder if he lost someone in the attack. “Given the random and inconsistent nature of their strikes, it’s impossible to know what they’re truly after. They’ve hijacked hostages and cargo from ships all across Zodiac Space, assassinated Elders on House Aquarius, set off explosions on Leo, blown up part of the Zodiax on Tierre, and, most recently, targeted Piscene planetoid Alamar, which fell victim to a technological strike that knocked out their communication grid and shut down their network for nearly two galactic months.” The screen cuts back from the montage of images to the somber-faced newscaster. “And now, silence. But have they finished with us, or are they

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planning their next attack? With no enemy to battle, and no new violence to point the way, how can our Zodai protect us? And how much longer must we hold our breath, waiting for our leaders to tell us what they know? This reporter believes if we don’t breathe soon, we will drown.” New footage starts playing of an Ariean Zodai University student a few years older than me named Skarlet Thorne. “New voices are emerging in our leaders’ silence,” says the newscaster as we watch the stunningly beautiful Skarlet speaking at a rally on Phobos, the Ariean planet where the Marad was first discovered. Zodai from all over the Zodiac have been scouting the location in the hopes of finding clues. Skarlet’s clear, strong voice rings over the gathered crowd of Ariean Academy and University students. “If it’s true the Marad is comprised of Risers, then we already know what they want. It’s what we would all want were we in their position: acceptance.” Even though I’ve seen this news clip before, I can’t help nodding along to her words. Skarlet is one of the rare people proposing empathy for Risers, but unlike Fernanda, who deflects the issue of unbalanced Risers in favor of defending the whole race, Skarlet skirts the politics by narrowing her focus simply to finding a solution. “We’re fighting to defend our homes, but Risers are fighting for their right to have one—” Skarlet cuts out abruptly, her speech replaced by the image of a fortysomething Aquarian man with pink sunset eyes who’s standing beneath a holographic banner bearing all the House symbols. Standing in the background behind Crompton are a handful of Aquarian Advisors. There’s a small delay while he waits to speak, and then he beams a warm smile before beginning his announcement. “Brothers and sisters across the Zodiac, I come before you on behalf of my fellow ambassadors with happy news following a long season of darkness. “For months, Zodai from every House have been investigating the Marad’s hideout on Squary. I can now announce that we have found

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absolutely no evidence of future attacks, beyond the unfinished weapon that is no longer a threat, as it’s currently in our custody. Consequently, today—which is a relative term, as we are scattered across the solar system, leading dozens of different todays—” Some of the Elders behind him frown and clear their throats, and his smile falters. “As I say, on this day, in House Scorpio, our own Wandering Star, Rhoma Grace, has visited Squary—” I gasp at my name, and trade startled stares with Stanton and Mathias. “—and she, too, has found no concrete proof of anything to fear. Therefore, it is with great hope and relief that this Plenum is ready once more to declare Peace in our Zodiac.”

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THIRTEEN MASKED SOLDIERS SURROUND ME in the cadaverous Cathedral on Pisces. Heart hammering, I search beyond their white uniforms for a sign of my friends, but no one else is here. The lights of the Zodiac constellations hang overhead, and in the center, Helios is already starting to go dark. Half the sun is swallowed in shadow. “Wandering Star Rhoma Grace,” says the Marad soldier directly in front of me. His greasy voice reminds me of Ambassador Charon of Scorpio. “You have been found guilty of Cowardice, Treason, and Murder. For these crimes, we sentence you to instant execution.” My pulse pounds as thirteen cylindrical black weapons are simul­ taneously trained on my chest. “Do you have any final words?” asks the Charon-like voice. I try to speak in my own defense, but my mouth won’t open. I try to run, but my legs won’t move. I try to pinch myself, but even my fingers are paralyzed. This can’t be happening—it isn’t real—they can’t touch me—

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“FIRE!” he cries. My scream freezes on my lips as blue lights flash from every Murmur and blast into my chest at once, the pain so agonizing it incinerates my insides. My body collapses to the bone floor, and the force of my fall is so strong that I blow right through the ground and get sucked down to an even deeper dimension of this hell. I land on a flat field of prickly black feathers that scratch at my bare feet. The charcoal clouds above me darken and swirl, like a storm could blow through any moment. My Lodestar suit has been replaced with a thin white dress, and the chilly air bites at my skin. A large silhouette materializes in the gray distance, and as it comes closer, the first thing I notice is it’s not human. Its legs are thin as sticks, and tucked into its sides are great feathery wings. Something about the birdlike creature feels familiar, like I should recognize it, but I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. Lightning strikes the ground, illuminating the bird-man’s features: It’s missing an eye, its wings are studded with spikes, and its beak is soaked in blood. I let out a high-pitched shriek right as thunder shakes the earth. Rain starts pouring down on me as I spin and run in the opposite direction. My feet slide on the slippery feathers, and the soaked fabric of my dress clings to my skin as a shadow falls over me. I look up to see the bird-man diving down, its talons bearing on my head— I roll into a ball, and the ground suddenly falls away, sloping down into a sharp descent. The lower I tumble, the faster I go, bumping my elbows, shoulders, and head on the slippery feathers again and again and again, until land runs out, and I roll into a roaring river. My skin stings when it slaps the water, and I gasp for breath as the current tosses me around. The bird-man’s shadow falls over me again, and I dive underwater to escape it. Almost immediately, the river starts to shrink until it’s too shallow to 2

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swim. When my head is in the clear, the creature’s talons reach down again, too close to evade— I cry out as sharp nails pierce my shoulders. Blood leaks out from the gashes, and it gurgles up my throat, my nerve endings searing in maddening agony until I hear my bones snap in the creature’s claws— And then blackness entombs me.

••• I blink a few times at Helios’s brightness overhead, and as my vision adjusts, I realize it’s a ceiling light. I’m lying on a bed, my heart racing like I’m still being chased. An incessant beeping in tune with my pulse comes into focus, and when at last my breaths start to slow, so do the mechanical chirps. I look down to see clear tubes sticking out of my arms, and my vitals flashing across floating holographic screens. I’m in a hospital. I raise my hands slowly, and my body feels heavy and sore, like I haven’t left this bed in weeks. I scan the empty room expecting to see someone. Someone important—only I can’t remember whom. There’s one window in the small space, and it shows a dark, starless sky. My muscles are leaden, but I need to know what’s happened. Where I am. Who survived. I gradually remove every needle from my veins, and I hug the armrest to pull myself up. As my feet drop to the icy floor, oblivion beckons in my mind, and the world grows dark for a few beats. I rest my forehead on the bed, and when I feel steadier, I straighten my crinkly white hospital gown and slowly manage to shuffle out of the room. Even though the shadowy hallway is empty, a prickle of unease climbs up the back of my neck, and I get the sense I’m being watched. Voices murmur 3

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somewhere nearby, and I use the metal handrail along the wall to hold myself upright as I walk in the sound’s direction. “Don’t know what we’ll do if she doesn’t wake up soon.” Hysan. Relief floods through me, heating my skin, and I move as swiftly as my weakened muscles can carry me. My pulse quickens as soon as I spy his golden head through the partly open doorway of an unoccupied hospital room. But I freeze when I see who’s with him. “You look exhausted,” says a statuesque Ariean with flawless bronze brown skin and long cat eyes. Skarlet Thorne. “That’s because I am exhausted,” he says, and the heavy exhale that follows settles like a physical weight on my heart. “All we needed was for her to be the face of our movement,” he continues, and there’s a lack of sunlight in his voice that makes me flash to the half-dark Helios from the Cathedral. “We had everything else covered—the strategizing, the fighting—but still she couldn’t help herself. And now the whole Zodiac is at risk just because Rho couldn’t handle her emotions.” My jaw drops, and my chest hollows, like I’m being drained of every good emotion I’ve ever felt. “I can distract you from all that,” purrs Skarlet, moving in until she’s too close to him. “I missed you last night.” Air hitches in my throat as her lips trail up his neck to his ear, and she says something that sounds like, “Come tonight.” My heart holds its beat until Hysan answers. “As you wish.” I cover my mouth so they won’t hear my gasp, and I hear her say, “What if your princess wakes up and discovers us?” “Rho’s the most trusting person in the Zodiac,” says Hysan, and in the dim lighting his centaur smile looks more like a cruel sneer. “She won’t 4

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suspect a thing. And if she does, all it takes is a little sweet talking, and she’s mine again.” I squeeze my eyes shut and rub my temples, desperately hoping I’m just hallucinating from whatever drugs they’ve pumped into me. Then I look again, just in time to see Hysan pressing up against Skarlet. “How about showing me what I missed last night?” he asks huskily, grabbing her by the waist and pushing her onto the countertop. I turn away as their mouths come together, and then I bury my face in the wall and try to swallow the impulse to cry—but when I hear Skarlet’s soft moans, I muster every lingering store of strength within me and force myself to keep moving. If I’m going to die, I want it to be as far from this room as possible. I don’t slow down until I’ve made myself nauseous. I knew Hysan wasn’t trustworthy. I should have heeded my brain’s warnings. I should have trusted my fears all along. The sense that I’m being watched settles over me again, and I push past my pain so I can focus on finding the others. Mathias, Brynda, and Rubi can’t be far, and I need to know where I am and how much time has passed. A flash of blond hair flickers around a corner, and I speed up. “Wait!” I call out, my voice scratchy and unused. “Wait for me!” The woman turns around, and when I see her face, I try to call for help— but my throat is too dry to make a sound. “The stars must like me more than I thought,” she says in the reptilian voice I remember as she raises a pistol to my chest. She’s me, and she’s not. . . . Even on her Cancrian face, Corinthe’s smile is still leering. She takes a step toward me, and I will my legs to move, but my muscles are leaden, my body betraying me. Broken chains dangle from the metal cuffs on her wrists, and I realize she’s escaped custody just as the pistol slams into my head. 5

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WHEN I COME TO, I’M in a different dim hospital room, and I’m tied to a chair. Just like I was on Equinox. My heart revs with adrenaline, and I struggle against the chains to free myself. I stop when I see Corinthe’s face leaning into mine. She’s sitting beside me holding a jagged knife. “Didn’t want to start the girl talk until you were awake to enjoy it.” Her voice is almost gentle. She presses the sharp blade to my gown’s neckline and cuts down along the crinkly fabric until my chest is bare. “I thought we’d go with a different design today,” she whispers, bringing the icy metal up to my throat. I cry out as pain explodes through me. The knife punctures my skin and slices from my neck to my collarbone, and I start gasping for air. “Rising into your House has turned me into a romantic,” she croons as I suck in ragged inhales and try to fill my lungs. “When I’m finished, you and your Guide will have matching scars . . . and if that’s not a sign of fated love, what is?”

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My breathing is labored and high pitched as she carves down the rungs of my ribcage and reaches my stomach. I can’t scream or blink or fight. I’m frozen in my torment, my vision blurry, my thoughts swimming, the agony so complete and overwhelming that even if I survive, I know I’m not coming back from this. “So quiet today, Rho. . . . Aren’t you going to tell me how I’m a victim?” She pushes the blade so deep into my gut that my neck swings forward, and I vomit on my lap. “Aren’t you going to tell me how you still plan to plead for the accep­ tance of Risers?” she hisses in my ear as I hack up my insides. “How I can hurt you all I want, but you’ll still forgive me?” And even if I could speak, I know I couldn’t say that. Because if somehow I live through this, I’m going to kill Corinthe myself. The door abruptly bursts open, and she leaps back as Mathias storms into the room with a dozen armed Lodestars. “Arrest her!” he booms, pointing to Corinthe, who’s backed up against the wall but holding her bloodied knife out threateningly as the Zodai close in around her. Mathias darts over and immediately starts undoing my bonds, his square shoulders blocking everything else from view. “I’m so sorry, Rho. This wasn’t supposed to happen.” As soon as my hands are free, I pull both halves of my gown together to cover the cuts on my chest. But when I look into his soft midnight eyes, I know he’s already seen them. We wear the same scars now. Before Mathias can say anything, Hysan barges into the room. “What’s happened?” he demands. “Corinthe escaped, but she’s been captured, and the asset has been recovered,” says Mathias, standing ramrod straight and saluting Hysan. Asset? When Hysan’s eyes land on mine, his face splits into a sun-filled smile that cuts right through the bags under his eyes and the worry lines on his

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forehead. His green gaze brightens as he takes my limp hand in his warm one, and even though I know better now, my skin still buzzes from his touch. “I missed you,” he whispers, leaning in and pressing a velvety kiss on my lips. His concerned boyfriend act is so convincing that I wonder whether I made up the conversation between him and Skarlet. Then I look closer, and I notice the faded red lipstick on his chin and the crescent nail marks on his neck, and I know I’m not crazy. “Get away from me,” I snap, scrambling toward Mathias. I look up at him and say, “Mathias, please, take me away from here. I don’t want to be anywhere near Hysan.” But Mathias doesn’t meet my gaze. He’s assumed his unshakable Zodai stance. “He doesn’t answer to you anymore,” says Hysan, the gentleness gone from his voice. “Mathias is loyal to your heart, and you gave your heart to me. You’re both mine now.” I shake my head and grip Mathias’s arms to try to force him to look at me. “Mathias—please—snap out of it!” His blue eyes finally roll down to meet mine, but his irises are now as hard as stone. “You made your choice, Rho.” “Don’t do this!” My plea goes ignored as a couple of Lodestars cuff my wrists and force­ fully march me up to Hysan. “Time to deliver on all your promises,” he whispers as he leisurely runs a finger along my jawline. “You wanted to die for the Zodiac, didn’t you? I’m happy to report that after so many failed suicide missions, the stars have finally judged you worthy of a martyr’s death.” Our faces are inches apart, and yet I feel no warmth radiating from his golden skin. His sunny glow never looked so artificial. “Congratulations, my lady,” he huskily breathes into my lips. “You earned it.”

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Mathias comes up beside us, and Hysan turns to him. “After all she put you through, you deserve this more than I do.” “Thank you,” says Mathias, bowing his head, “but this is your right as much as mine.” Hysan unsheathes his ceremonial dagger. “Together then?” Mathias nods and holds up Corinthe’s bloodied blade—then they turn and plunge their weapons into me. “NO!” I blink, and Hysan and Mathias are gone. I’m still tied to the chair. “Welcome back,” croaks Corinthe. Her savage and unhinged smile comes into focus, and I look down to see she’s slicing lines across my abdomen. My shredded white gown is patterned with splotches of red blood. “What’s happening to me?” I manage to ask, my voice barely more than a breath. “What do you think?” she asks. “You failed. And now you’re dying.” Her blade digs in too far, and my eyes roll back, only this time I don’t lose consciousness—I feel my soul floating up from my body and rising to the astral plane, like I’m deeply Centered. The molecules of air around me transform into the slipstream where I first met Ochus, and I feel a wintry wind of warning before his monstrous form materializes. I endured torture for an eternity, he booms, hurling his words like hailstones, and you can’t even handle a few nightmares? You are weak—no wonder you failed the Houses. I—I don’t understand what’s happening, I stammer, his frigid Psynergy burning against my open wounds. Help me, please! I need to get out of here. I need to get back to where my friends are, I have to rescue Nishi— You are not listening—you are too late, crab! he thunders at me. The Zodiac is gone.

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It—it can’t be— What do you think is happening to you? he demands, his Psynergy wrapping around me like a hurricane, sending chills through my body. You have joined me in the astral plane. Our destinies were always linked, child, and now we are doomed to face forever what we destroyed. But I—I didn’t do anything— You played right into the master’s hands. The right leader would have stopped him, but you are rash, foolish, fearful—what hope was there ever that you could go up against a star and win? His icy hands close around my throat, and I’m infected with winter. Please! I beg him. Don’t— But my veins ice over, freezing my blood, and I can’t suck in any oxygen. Spots obscure my vision as I suffocate, and I’m not sure if I’m horrified or relieved that it’s all ending. I’m so tired of dying and reviving, dying and reviving, dying and reviving. . . . I’m ready for it to be over. “Oh, but I’m not,” croaks Corinthe in my ear. The pressure around my neck vanishes, as does the cold weather, and I blink my eyes open to find I’m back in my body. Only now I’m lying flat on my stomach. My back is in scorching pain, like there are live flames licking my skin. “I can’t let you die before showing you how great these scars are turning out,” says Corinthe as she carves across my shoulder blades. Her breath burns my raw skin. “Please,” I whisper, the fire in my body overwhelming. Water wells in my eyes, and pain presses into my mind. “Just . . . finish.” She laughs softly, but there’s no mirth in the mousy sound. “I’ll never be finished,” she rasps in my ear. “You’ll never escape this place. You’ll always be here with me.” Her blade stabs into my lower spine, and I arch up in a piercing scream.

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She pulls the knife out and stabs me with it again and again and again, until I can’t make any more sounds. Then I hear a loud knocking. My eyes fly open, and I gasp to find I’m no longer lying down. I’m standing upright in my dorm-pod on Elara and wearing my blue Acolyte uniform. “WHAT THE HELIOS IS HAPPENING TO ME?!” I shout to the room. The place looks exactly as it did when I saw it last—my bed is unmade, my desk is riddled with clothes I meant to put away, and a uniform identical to the one I’m wearing is draped across my chair from when I changed into my black space suit for our Drowning Diamonds concert. Someone knocks on my door again. I yank it open to find a trembling teen girl in a tattered blue uniform. Her knees are slightly bent, shoulders curved in, unkempt dark hair curtaining her features. She looks like she hasn’t bathed in months. First I think she’s a new monster I’ve dreamt up. Then I glimpse hints of her cinnamon face, and all my other fears fade from mattering. “Nishi?”

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FASTER THAN A BREATH, NISHI unsheathes a dagger and shoves me against the wall, pressing the blade under my chin. “I’m not scared of you, demon,” she says in a guttural predator’s voice. “So do your worst.” Since speaking means slitting my own throat, I stay completely still, not daring to even swallow. I just stare at the flickers of amber that shine through her matted clumps of black hair. The terror in her eyes is so primal that she feels realer than the Hysan and Mathias I met in the hospital. “Say something,” she suddenly commands, pulling the knife back slightly. “I’m going to find you,” I say, my voice tight. “Imogen and Blaze took you away from me, but I swear I won’t rest until I—” “Right, you’re risking your life to save mine, and now you’re going to make me feel like scum for the horrible things I said to you on Aquarius,” she says sharply, the dagger in her hand trembling. “And for joining the Tomorrow Party. And for getting Deke killed.”

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A sob slips through her sharp-edged voice when she says his name. “Aren’t you going to tell me again how he—he was free, and his back was only turned because he was freeing me? How I should have been looking out for him—should have warned him—should have taken his place—” “Nish—stop! I never said any of that because it’s not true!” Tears leak from my eyes, and I wish my subconscious had generated a monstrous version of Nishi—like it did with Hysan and Mathias—instead of this broken, beaten girl. “None of this is your fault,” I insist, and I don’t care if she stabs me with that blade anymore. I just can’t stand seeing her this way. “Please don’t think those things, Nish. I love you and will never stop searching for you—” “Rho?” I blink at the abrupt change in her tone. Her voice has dropped about a dozen decibels, and she sounds more fearful than furious. “It’s me, Nish. I don’t know what’s happening or if any of this is real, but I’m trapped in some kind of nightmare. Everyone’s been awful to me, and—” “Oh, my Helios, it’s you!” Nishi throws the dagger aside and crushes me to her chest. We hug so tightly that I can’t breathe, but I don’t care. I’d rather die right here, clasped in the arms of my best friend, than anywhere else. I hear her soft sobs in my ear, and soon I’m crying, too. When at last we let go of each other, we wipe our wet faces on our sleeves, and I shove the clutter off my bed so we can sit. “How is any of this happening?” I ask. “The Sumber.” Now that she’s not putting up a violent front, Nishi sounds much weaker than I first realized. “It took me a while to remember, but I finally figured it out,” she says, her hands trembling. “The gun Imogen pointed at me was a Sumber. She shot me, and then the nightmares started.”

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Even though she looks so different, it’s comforting to know she’s still the same quick study I remember. “H—how long have we been here, Rho?” I almost cringe at hearing her sound so brittle and breakable. And as I open my mouth to answer, I realize I have no idea how much time has passed. “I’m not sure. . . . It feels like—” “Forever,” she finishes for me, and I nod as our eyes meet. “Just try to focus,” she orders me, and I’m relieved to hear some of her bossy Nishiness coming back. “What can you remember before the nightmares?” For a brief moment, the fog lifts a little in my mind, and I see Crompton standing before me, flanked by a Stargazer and a Dreamcaster. As I raised my Scarab to shoot him, the Zodai beside him raised weapons of their own—an Arclight and— “I was hit by a Sumber, too,” I say, piecing it together out loud as I go. “I think it was a few days after you. But how did we find each other here?” Her gaze loses its intensity as her focus drifts away. “The Sumber’s mind control must run off Psynergy  .  .  . and our Psynergy signatures must be naturally drawn to each other. What can you remember from before you fell? Who shot you?” As usual, while I’m still trying to process the new information, she’s pressing us onward. If we were in class, Deke would be groaning and begging our instructor to ban Nishi from the room until the rest of us mastered the lesson. “Why are you smiling?” she asks in surprise. “I just really missed you,” I say, reeling her in for another, longer hug. Neither of us says anything as we hold each other, and I close my eyes as I breathe in her thick, dark hair. Even now, unwashed and in an alternate dimension, it still holds hints of the expensive, lavender-scented products she imports from Sagittarius. “I’m going to find you,” I whisper, tears threatening to overtake me again.

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“I know, Rho—” She cuts out and yanks on my hand, and we leap off the bed just as an explosion blasts above us, and the ceiling comes crashing down on the mattress. “RUN!” she shouts. Fingers laced together, we burst out of my room and hurtle down the hallway, ducking our heads and skidding to stops as chunks of the cement compound begin crumbling down around us. “Don’t let go!” calls Nishi over the deafening quaking and thundering. We turn the corner toward the dining hall and freeze as a massive ball of fire rolls our way. She shrieks, and I pull us in a new direction. The air grows hotter with every breath as the fire burns up more and more of our oxygen until I shove open a searing red door, and we topple into the swimming complex. Sucking in synchronized breaths, we leap into the salt water. We stay down as long as we can, and when we finally surface for air, there’s no trace of fire, not even a wisp of smoke. “What’s next?” I ask between breaths. “Something worse,” says Nishi darkly. “It’s always something worse.” We climb out of the pool and take each other’s hands again as we step through the red door—only we’re no longer in the Academy. The gray hall has turned glossy black, and it extends infinitely in either direction. The feeling that I’m being watched is back, and I pull Nishi along with me through the passage at a quick clip. “How do we wake up from the Sumber?” I ask as we hurry hand in hand past symmetrical rows of nondescript doors. “It’s not up to us. Whoever has our bodies has to administer the antidote.” I slow down in disgust at the thought of someone else having complete control over me. And suddenly the polished ground rises before us like a black wave.

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Nishi’s grip on me tightens as we start to slide backwards, and we wheel around to run in the opposite direction—but we skid to a stop as the path ahead starts rising, too. “What do we do?” I ask. Nishi yanks open one of the nondescript doors, and we escape into an unknown room. As the door shuts behind us, I look around and see we’re standing in the entrance hall to Zodai University. Every campus includes this identical chamber, a remnant from the days when all our worlds were ruled as one. The mismatched walls are crafted from stone, and they represent the four elements—sapphire for water, tigereye for earth, ruby for fire, and gold for air. On the ceiling above us is the ancient crest of the Zodiac Galaxy: a massive Helios with twelve sunbeams, each one pointing to a different House symbol. Within the sun is our old name: Houses of Helios. I used to cut through this place every morning when I visited the solarium. “Where’d the door go?” asks Nishi. I turn to see there’s no longer the outline of a doorway in the wall made of rubies, and I hear a strange flickering sound. “What is that?” “Do you smell—” Nishi’s voice cuts out as a blast of red flame blazes out from the wall, like a fiery hand reaching out for us. We leap across the room, falling back against the wall of cool sapphires. “What’s happening?” I shout as water starts to shower down from the blue wall, drowning my words and drenching us both. Since the fire’s flames are still reaching out for us, we tread along the wall of gold to avoid the water and the heat—until a strong gust of wind punches out from behind us, blowing our bodies across the room. Nishi and I lose hold of each other, and my back hits the tigereye wall, and then I slide down to the floor. Behind me the stones tremble from the impact. 16

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Water is still falling from the sapphire wall, and by now it’s about a foot high, so I’m soaked once more. Nishi reaches down to pull me up, and then we back away from the brown wall as its shaking intensifies. Tigereye stones begin dislodging and rolling down like pebbles, spraying our heads and faces and legs until we’re forced to huddle together in the middle of the room, equidistant from all four sides. “What happens if we die?” I ask Nishi, shouting over all the noise. “Each time we survive a danger, a new, worse threat is waiting for us,” she says, shivering as more of the flames are drowned by the rising water. “And it keeps going until the dream finally kills us, and a new nightmare begins.” I flash to Corinthe’s torture; I instantly shove the image away, terrified that the mere thought could re-trigger it. The water is now up to my waist, and it seems to be pouring in faster and faster. “If we drown, will you and I be separated?” Nishi doesn’t answer, but she tightens her grip on my hand as my feet float off the ground. “When Imogen shot me, how did you escape the Party?” Whether she’s asking from curiosity or just to distract us from our imminent deaths, I’m glad to feel useful one last time. I furrow my brow in concentration, and I find that the more I focus on the past, the better I remember it. “It was . . . my Mom.” “What?” Nishi’s amber irises grow bright with wonder. “She saved me.” As I say the words, the full memory unfurls: “Hysan found her. They were working together in secret for weeks—” Our heads bob against the Houses of Helios emblem on the ceiling, and we cling to each other as our faces tilt up into the last layer of air. I pull in as deep an inhale as possible before we’re sucked under. It’s pitch black all around us, more like Space than underwater, and I feel bubbles streaming from my nostrils as we descend deeper and deeper and deeper. My head starts to pound from the lack of oxygen, and Nishi’s hand grows limp in mine, and I know soon this will all be over. 17

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Suddenly my boot brushes against something solid, and I reach down and feel the ground. There’s some kind of metal lever sticking up from the floor. I try to push it down with one hand, but I can’t. Nishi must realize what I’m doing because she frees her fingers from mine and wraps both hands around the metal, and together we try shoving it. The lever gives way, and water begins to whirlpool around us as a drain opens in the floor, and all of it swirls away. As I finally draw breath, I turn to my best friend in relief—and I run out of oxygen again. Nishi’s sprawled on the ground, her long dark hair fanned around her. Dead.

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“NISHI, NO!” I drop down beside her fallen body, her eyes closed and chest unmoving. Remembering my childhood training, I apply chest compressions and administer mouth to mouth, again and again and again. “Don’t leave me alone here, Nish, please,” I beg as tears well in my eyes, and I press down on her chest yet again— Her eyes fly open, and she starts coughing up water. Air rushes out of my lungs as quickly as it rushes into hers, and I help her sit up, the tension in my body finally easing. When it’s clear she’s going to be okay, I finally take note of our surroundings. We’re in a supersized supply closet lined with aisles upon aisles of shelves. Compression suits, helmets, oxygen tanks, and other gear are stacked alongside weapons like Tasers, pistols, and Ripples. I help Nishi to her feet, and we survey the supplies around us. Then she wordlessly grabs a pistol and starts filling her pockets with extra ammunition, and I raise a Ripple to eye level, resting its butt against my shoulder. It’s

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House Cancer’s signature weapon, but it’s considered mostly ceremonial, since Cancrians don’t have a violent gene in us. Unless our loved ones are threatened. The crossbow device is made of tightly woven strands of Sea Spider silk that propel up to a dozen slender darts whittled from nar-clam shells and dipped in the paralyzing poison of a Maw. The weapon isn’t light, but its weight is comfortable, making the device sturdy enough to keep steady. Even though I’ve never held one before, it feels familiar. As Nishi hands me extra dart cartridges, she says, “Remember that Protector of the Planets holo-game you used to love playing because it always greeted you by announcing to the whole entertainment center that you had one of the highest scores?” “That’s not why I loved playing it—” “The Ripple is just a fancier version of the crossbow you always used in there,” she finishes. It feels like years since the carefree days when I used to hologram myself into that virtual reality world. The game would provide players with a weapons cache that holds twelve devices, and now that I think about it, they all seemed a lot like watered-down versions of the signature weapons of every House. “I always chose the crossbow,” I muse out loud. Nishi strides up to a different shelf and pulls down a couple of blue space suits with the university’s logo. She hands one to me. “In case the walls come down around us,” she says with a shrug. Since she means that literally, we pull the suits on over our uniforms. “So where’s your mom been this whole time?” she asks as we change. “With the Luminaries.” It’s getting easier to lower my guard with Nishi around, and I continue pushing down on the walls that barricade my memories to keep filling in the blanks. “It’s a secret society of people who’ve Seen the Last Prophecy, which is—”

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“Yeah, I’ve heard of the Last Prophecy,” she says dismissively as we clip black helmets to our belts and holster our weapons. “There are tons of conspiracy nuts on Sagittarius who believe in it.” “It’s real, Nish. The master himself confirmed it.” She stops working and steps closer to me, staring into my eyes. “Who’s the master?” “Crompton.” For some reason, I whisper the name. “He’s the original Aquarius.” Her face pales, and she begins to shake her head. “No way—” “It’s true, Nish. He betrayed Ophiuchus to the other Guardians and stole his Talisman to keep his immortality for himself—” An arrow flies over our heads, and we duck. Without looking back, we hurtle down the aisle, holding hands, running past rows of shelves in search of an exit as more arrows shoot after us. A dart lodges into the wall a hair behind me, and items keep exploding over our heads. “There!” shouts Nishi, and she pulls me down a row that dead-ends in a metal elevator, its doors opening like it’s welcoming us in. An arrow bounces off the helmet clipped to my hip as we slide inside. Nishi frantically presses the button to close the doors, and while we wait for them to shut, I catch a glimpse of our pursuer. He’s in a billowing black cloak, his facial features shrouded in his hood’s shadow. And as he marches toward us, I realize he isn’t human. Twin walls of metal swallow the view before I can see more, and I blow out a hard breath as we ascend somewhere—anywhere. “What’s the plan?” I ask Nishi. “While we wait for someone to save us, we’re just condemned to live out our worst nightmares?” She shakes her head. “The antidote alone isn’t enough.” Her voice sounds small again. “Even if you’re dosed, you won’t escape until you’ve faced your greatest fear.”

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“My greatest fear? Nish, this whole place is one huge fear fest!” “You don’t understand. This is the final thing the nightmare world is keeping from you—it’s the blow that breaks you.” Her voice grows rough, and she clears her throat. Deke’s death must’ve been the last memory she recovered. Her greatest fear was probably a future without him. “That’s why some people never awaken from a Sumber dose,” she explains. “And I think that’s probably why you’re still here.” The person I’ve forgotten clouds my mind again. The one I expected to see at the hospital . . . The elevator opens. We raise our weapons quickly but step out slowly. The metal doors shut behind us, and we find ourselves in the place that was literally and figuratively the brightest point of my time on Elara. It’s the highest peak in the whole compound, a wide room with windowed walls that curve to form a windowed ceiling. The solarium. Silver starlight glints across the collection of moonstone statues that are modeled after our Holy Mothers, and written across the floor beneath them is the Zodai axiom: Trust Only What You Can Touch. Any fantasies I ever had about the future were born in this room. “No way out again,” says Nishi, and I realize she’s right—the only exit is the elevator. And its doors are opening again. “Hide,” I whisper, and I pull Nishi into the collection of stone statues. I place her behind Mother Crae, and then I hide behind the neighboring sculpture of Mother Origene. I’m in the exact spot where Mathias used to sit when he meditated. I rest the Ripple against my shoulder, and from the corner of my eye I see Nishi aiming her gun at the elevator as our pursuer steps into the silver light.

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I can’t tell if the gasp is mine or Nishi’s. The creature’s legs are as thin as sticks, and tucked into its sides are great feathery wings. It’s the one-eyed bird-man. Its beak is still steeped in blood, and adorning its head is a crown of pointy thorns—they’re the arrows it’s been shooting at us. Trying to steady my nerves, I lean out the slightest bit and aim my weapon at its chest. When I see that Nishi’s also in position, I shout, “Now!” We fire at the same time, and the bird-man immediately goes down. We approach it carefully, and Nishi hangs back, her pistol pointed at its head, while I make sure it’s really dead. I lean over its cloaked body slowly . . . and it rears up and launches at me. We crash to the floor, where the creature easily overpowers me. Pinned down, I feel strong hands wrapping around my neck—not wings, but human hands. Blackness drowns my vision as I choke, and my pulse echoes in my ears, my throat afire— A bullet goes off, and my attacker’s hands fall away. He slumps to the side, and through my blurry vision I see Nishi, her chest rising and falling with adrenaline, her face set in a warrior’s scowl. “Stellar,” I say hoarsely, and she reaches down and pulls me up. I rub my throat as we stare at the human man beneath us, facedown on the floor. “Let’s flip him,” I say. Nishi takes his feet and I grab his shoulders, and together we turn him over. Nishi gasps, but I don’t understand. I stare at each individual feature like it’s a clue: the blond curls, the sunkissed skin, the open and glassy green eyes. Then I blink, and all at once the pieces come together. And I scream.

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DESPAIR DROWNS ME, AND I remember the Cathedral, watching my brother and Aryll roll around on the bone floor, struggling to overtake each other. I see Hysan and Mathias running to help Stan, but they’re too late. There’s no cry or gunshot or blood—there’s only Stan’s pale green eyes as they turn toward me, lifeless. My heart howls in agony, and it feels like every bone in my body is breaking. I’m coming apart bit by bit, painfully, permanently, and even if the heartbreak doesn’t kill me, it doesn’t matter, because I’ll never recover. I’ve already lost everything I loved in the Zodiac. My brother, my home, my House. Returning to reality would be the true nightmare now. I’m safer in here, where the horrors aren’t real. “It’s okay, Rho, it’s okay, calm down. . . .” Nishi’s murmurs of reassurance blow softly into my ear, and as her voice comes into focus, I register that I’m on the floor, sobbing hysterically beside my brother’s body, held up only by my best friend’s arms. “It’s going to be okay, I promise,” she goes on gently. “This isn’t real.

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Don’t let this place destroy you, Rho. I need you. Please, focus—this is just another nightmare.” Nishi’s presence is proof I was wrong—I do have a reason to return. Just one. “He—Aryll—killed him,” I spit out between sobs, my teeth chattering and limbs shivering. “The master told Aryll to take my mom, and my brother attacked him to try to save her. But I don’t even know if she—if she made it out—” My muscles feel gelatinous, and I sink down further until my head is pressed into Nishi’s chest cavity. She inhales sharply. “You mean, he’s actually . . . oh, Rho. I’m so sorry,” she breathes, her voice choking with her own sobs. “I don’t want to go back,” I say, shaking my head vehemently against her. “I don’t want to go back, I don’t want to go back, I don’t want to go back—” “Shhhh,” says Nishi, stroking my hair and holding me tighter to her. “Rho, you’re the bravest, strongest, most fearless person I know—” “No, I’m not, Nish! I’m not. I’m foolish and naïve and a coward!” The last word comes out as a shout, and it scrapes my throat. But still I can’t lower my volume. “When I was young, my mom trained me to trust my fears, and it’s all I’ve ever done! It doesn’t matter if I leave this place or stay here—either way, my fears always rule me. At least this world is more honest about it!” “You’re wrong, Rho. In here, you can only run from your fears. Out there you can face them.” Her wisdom reminds me painfully of Stan. He always believed I was strong enough to face my fears, but he never knew he was the source of that strength. Because I never told him. I should have been there for him sooner. I stopped being a kid long ago, but I kept expecting Stan to treat me like one, to watch over me and love me and protect me unconditionally. But who was there to protect him?

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“Rho, you couldn’t save him,” says Nishi, like she knows exactly what I’m thinking. The way she reads my thoughts reminds me of the way Stan and I used to understand each other’s minds, and my heart hurts so much that I have to gasp to catch my breath. “Remember that this was all Aryll’s doing,” she insists. “But I’m the reason Aryll screwed with Stan in the first place!” I break free of her hold, and I’m shouting again. “When the Marad surrounded us, I recognized Aryll, and I called him by his name! I should have realized how Stan would react. If he hadn’t known it was Aryll, he wouldn’t have attacked—” “Rho, your brother attacked Aryll because he grabbed your mom!” Nishi’s voice rises to match mine. “And if a different soldier had taken her, he would have jumped in just as fast! Stop taking credit for Stan’s death. He died the way he lived—on his own terms—and the only choice you have now is to accept that!” Lines suddenly start spiderwebbing across the solarium’s glass walls, like they did in the crystal dome on the day of our concert, and we leap to our feet just as the window shatters. Neither of us has a helmet on, so my next breath never comes. Shards of glass slice shallow cuts along my skin and suit as I’m sucked out of the compound and onto the moon’s soundless surface. And the instant I leave the solarium, the nightmare changes. I’m in a familiar gray room, sitting in a chair, and when I try to move, I realize my wrists and ankles are cuffed. There’s an empty hospital bed before me, stained with pools of blood. A woman in white healer’s scrubs has her back to me while she sorts through medical tools on a table. “Where are we?” asks a familiar voice. I swing my face around in shock to see Nishi sitting next to me. She’s also tied to a chair, and a sense of dread blooms in my stomach, keeping me from answering her. 26

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The healer turns around, and I start struggling, desperately fighting against my shackles. “Rho, what’s wrong?” asks Nishi because she doesn’t know this Riser wears my face now. “Welcome back.” Nishi snaps her gaze to the healer, and whether it’s the raspy voice or the leering smile, somehow I know she recognizes Corinthe. This can’t be happening. I can’t bring Nishi into this nightmare. “Our time together being almost over,” says Corinthe, holding up an even larger and sharper knife than before, “I wanted one more moment with you to say goodbye.” Our time is almost over? Suddenly the room begins to shake around us, and Corinthe’s image flickers, like I’m streaming a holo-show through a poor connection. This doesn’t seem to be happening within the dream—it’s happening without. “One of us is waking up,” says Nishi, our minds arriving at the same realization. “It’s you.” “Yes, but you also have a choice,” injects Corinthe, bending over us so we’re eye-level. Her knife is inches from me, reflecting back my terrified face. “You can choose to stay.” “Ignore her,” snarls Nishi. “Or you can do that,” concedes Corinthe, shrugging. “But if you go . . . she replaces you.” Darkness flashes in her familiar pale green eyes. “I’ll take out every moment of your absence on her. Every cut, every wound, every nightmare she suffers will be because of you.” My whole body is shivering, and I wish my hands were free so I could punch Corinthe again. “Rho, don’t even think—” 27

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“I’m not going,” I say to Nishi, ignoring Corinthe’s presence beside us. “I’m sorry, I can’t—” “You’re playing right into the Sumber’s game!” Since I know Nishi won’t let me stay for her, I reach for another reason. “Crompton could have custody of my body right now! The last thing I remember is shooting him at the same time that I got shot, and if he’s still alive, he’s not going to be happy with me—” “And if that’s the case, you’ll face it,” she says, speaking over me. “He’s already outed himself, so who knows what his next move will be? You’re needed. And whatever you find when you get back, you’ll be ready for it. I know you will.” “Don’t worry, I won’t kill her,” says Corinthe, looking at me like I’m being paranoid. “I’ll just bring her right up to the point of death. Every time. That way I can keep her with me forever.” The walls around us start to shake again, and this time I feel a forceful pull on my mind, like my thoughts are being vacuumed out of my head. “Tick, tock, tick, tock, crab,” taunts Corinthe as the quaking intensifies. “I’m staying,” I say out loud, hoping it helps me hang on. “Excellent,” says Corinthe as the air settles, and she returns to rooting through the tools on the table, giving us space. Nishi leans closer to me, and I wish our hands were free so I could comfort her. “Rho, I don’t have any siblings—Helios, I barely have parents. But you’re more than a sister . . . you’re a part of me. I can’t picture my life without you in it.” “I feel the same way—” “Before we found each other in the nightmare,” she goes on, her features drawing together like she’s admitting something shameful, “I had given up. I thought I’d be better off in here, where the nightmares aren’t real.” She takes a loud breath. “After a while, without the dream of hope, it got harder and harder to hang on to my sanity—on to me. I was alone, and tormented, and tired, and afraid—and then you rescued me.” 28

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She leans over as far as she can and presses a soft, slow kiss on my forehead. Tears sprout from my eyes. “You reminded me of who I am. Of who we are, and why we’ve committed our lives to this war. For House Cancer. For our classmates. For Deke. We can’t give up.” The room shakes for the third time, more violently than before, and Nishi and I press into each other to keep steady. I know my best friend is right—but I also know nothing awaits me in a world without Stanton or Nishi. “I swear I’m going to get you out of here, Nish,” I say as we pull apart, my voice sounding strong to me for the first time. “Just hang on a little longer— and if this place starts to feel like too much again, know that I won’t rest until I find you.” Her face softens with relief. “I know you won’t, Rho.” Corinthe cuts over to us as she realizes what’s happening, and everything begins to flicker like the Sumber is running out of power. “Who’s the monster now?” she shouts as I quit resisting reality, and I feel myself being pulled to the surface. “You’ll abandon your best friend to save yourself?” she keeps shouting. “So much for martyrdom, right, Rho? Just remember that for every minute you’re up there breathing your free air, she’s down here drowning in your nightmares!” A dizziness engulfs me, and my surroundings begin to fracture. As the room starts to fade, I hear Nishi cry out in agony. “NO!” I want to hang on, but I’m too close to consciousness to stall the process, and I try calling out to her, but my voice is gone. The whole scene is slipping through my thoughts, like trying to hold water in my hands. I don’t know who, or what, will be waiting for me when I awaken. All I know is I have to save Nishi from my nightmares. And I have to do it now.

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Zodiac series by Romina Russell  

n the Zodiac galaxy, your astrological sign determines everything about you. The stars tell the story of your life, and nothing—and nobody—i...

Zodiac series by Romina Russell  

n the Zodiac galaxy, your astrological sign determines everything about you. The stars tell the story of your life, and nothing—and nobody—i...