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 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.”
“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.”
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?”
“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 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 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.