Chapter Five: The Academy

They marched through the corridors. Kade led the entourage, while Ternalyn slithered silently behind Maxine, Henry and Woof. Before long, they passed a window. Maxine looked out, breath frozen in her lungs.

An ocean of stars glistened across an endless void of space. And on the cusp of a thousand stars, a silver sphere overwhelmed her eyes. Maxine rubbed her eyes, looked again. A few floors below them, surrounded by space, a sun hummed with ghostly flames. Cold, frightening, beautiful.

"Alpheric Prime," Ternalyn said, glancing at Maxine. "It’s the nearest star in our sector, giving life and light to the Alliance."

The Alliance?

Maxine shielded her eyes in an attempt to crush her churning thoughts. Henry was silent as they walked. Woof didn’t make a whimper. Before long, they reached a pair of oblong doors.

"Il-Star de Acadsri," Kade said into a control panel. He glanced furtively at Maxine.

"Arienna. Agers ji-nar-joeni-areeto," Reden said, with a quick glance of his own.

While it sounded like poetry, Maxine didn’t like that they were speaking it over English. Were they talking about her? Criticising her? Trying to hide something? Maxine found her hands fiddling with the skin of her elbows.

Kade led them into a metal capsule, and the doors closed. With a resonant hum, lights shot along the walls in glowing columns. They waited in silence. After a few more agonising moments, the lift stopped. The doors opened. A blinding light washed away the shadows.

They walked out.

Alpheric Prime--an actual sun!--sat in the darkness of space, basking the station in snowy light, polishing parked starships along a vast runway.

Maxine recognised where they were: it was the place she had seen from her window. A part of her begged to question: how were they not burning up or being pulled into the star’s gravity? She kept silent. It was colder now and the air swam with exotic scents. But nothing familiar. Kade, Reden and Ternalyn pushed the party forward.

We’re rushing. Why are we rushing?

As they scuttled forward, Maxine saw that the ships were not real ships--they were the manta-ray-like creatures. Blue smoke seeped from their whirling tails. Others snapped the air, cawing, moaning. Below their massive bodies, uniformed officers marched across reticulated ramps.

They approached one such ship. Maxine’s mouth unhinged like a trap door. It was a titanic spaceship, dwarfing all the others, with bat-like wings that wavered gently in the air, as if resting after an arduous flight. Barnacles encrusted its plated skin, tracing around sleek windows. Three officers in coloured uniforms stood to attention as they approached.

"Umbra Kirini Depotis Commander Kade," they all said together.

Kade greeted them with a firm nod. He marched towards the ship’s flanks, a cavernous opening. Officers lugged stacks of crates up and down on levitating platforms.

"Welcome to the Arienna. The pride of the Alliance," Ternalyn said, pointing with three webbed fingers. "She is quite a pleasant ship. Most of the time."

"Haha, yes, they love anti-matter mischief. Mark your ears," Reden half-roared.

Maxine looked at Henry. Henry stared back. Woof barked at the ship, tail wagging, eyes haloed in Alpheric Prime’s light.

And then, with a rumbling howl, the ship’s body exhaled.

A blusterous wail erupted from the ship, shaking the station to its core. As crates tumbled down the ramp, Maxine clamped her hands on her ears, but that wasn’t enough to block out its sonorous call.

Kade dashed towards the ship’s flapping wings. Calmly and swiftly, he ran his hands over the creature’s skin, wrinkling it with goosebumps.

And as Maxine’s hearing returned, the Arienna chirruped like a satisfied sparrow.

#

Maxine, Henry and Woof were ushered to the fifty-first deck of the ship and into a furnished room. It had a (human-looking) couch, a cherrywood table and a few cushioned chairs. Again, all human-like. Maxine was not surprised--she was flabbergasted.

As she walked around, she noticed a rear window showcasing a view of passing stars. The Arienna didn’t blast through space, nor did it rocket--it flew with graceful flaps of its wings, swooping in ways that would make a falcon jealous. And each time another ship swam across their path, the Arienna tilted its body, curling its wings inward, and banked around it.

The ships are organic. Biological. But Reden said antimatter. Dark matter? Wormholes? Some sort of Alcubierre drive? No combustion.

A soft pat caught her attention. Maxine turned to see Reden placing two folded packages on one of the chairs. And there, at the top of one pile, was a red baseball cap.

"We amended the damage," Reden said. "They are, as you hu-mans say, as good as newer. Or was it as good as old? Ruff. I’ll check that."

Together, Henry and Maxine snatched up their clothes. The bill of her cap was smeared with soot, remnants of the attack. Maxine wiped it like a hypochondriac spotting blood spot.

"Where are we going?"

Kade stepped forward, his cape enfolding around him. "Aries, my home world," he said.

There was silence. Maxine wondered if it was supposed to mean something, but before she could ask again, Kade turned to the door, punched codes into a panel and marched out.

The doors closed. Maxine stood still, cradling her clothes and her thoughts.

There were truths hidden within these people--not aliens. If Kade had known her father, then he would know things. Surely she could test him.

Reden placed his paw on Maxine’s shoulder, jogging her back into the room. He pointed a paw at another folded robe.

"I forgot to mention--the robe you were wearing is called an aran. They react to the emotional states of their wearers. That’s why it became as manic as a Dulcadian Death Moth earlier," he said. "Just keep calm. The garment will shift to anything you can imagine."

Maxine nodded four times in quick succession. So her aran hadn’t tried to kill her on the Pyxis; it had reacted to her panic. Somehow it all made sense, and at the same time, didn’t make sense at all.

Ternalyn gestured with at Reden with her three triple-jointed fingers. "I believe some hu-man privacy is in order?"

Reden turned to Henry knowingly and ushered him to the back of the room. They disappeared into the room with his clothes.

Maxine waited for Ternalyn to slither towards the window. Then she changed faster than she ever had in her fifteen years. When she was done, Maxine stared at her reflection in the window.

Painted with passing stars, her pale skin seemed streaked with horizontal rain. She looked tired. Lost. Even her eyes seemed to have lost their usual shine. She used to like them the most.

Maxine turned around. "My dad used to excavate relics from tombs across Asia. He got buried in one."

"Capricorns are empaths," Ternalyn turned, and her eyes washed into pale pearls. "I feel the questions gnawing at your mind. And rage. You have a lot of it."

"I get ragey at a lot of things."

"Really. Like what?"

"Racism. Bigotry. My hair," Maxine said. "Donald Trump usually makes the list, too."

Maxine knew the type of person she was: testy, sarcastic, her heart a lighter, her soul the fuel. She had grown to like and despise her random thoughts in equal measure.

Ternalyn paused, as if mentally reading between the lines. "We’re not your enemy."

Now she said empath right? Not telepathic...

"ENTERING VOID WARP SHORTLY. COMMANDER KADE ALUZARAN TO COMMAND. ALL OFFICERS, STAND BY," an alarm boomed.

Henry and Reden strolled out from the adjoining room. He was dressed in a rumpled T-shirt and faded sports shoes, just like before. Reden strode over to Maxine, rumbling under his breath. Maxine walked over to Woof to check on him. He was content for now, nuzzling his fur as if looking for space-dust.

"Hu-mans--sit down. Ruff."

They sat down hurriedly on one of the couches. Before Maxine could say anything, Woof leapt up onto Reden’s lap, turned, and sat down. Reden coughed and patted his mane down. "And you’re lucky my wife isn’t here."

The ship’s engines, vibrating through the walls, chugged in rising tones.

Maxine looked outside: Space was no longer empty--it was skipping, glowing, alive.

With a sizzling flash, a web of colours unlocked in front of her eyelids, melding into a single point.

A screech shrilled inside her ears.

Crazed goosebumps flared across her skin, trickling through the insides of her throat.

Rising and rising and rising until...

The lights and sounds ceased. Maxine’s stomach fell back into her body. She opened her eyes. Columns of stars fluttered across her vision.

"A superb journey," Reden said, gently placing Woof on the ground.

"That’s it?" Henry yelped.

"That’s it," Ternalyn said.

Through the walls, Maxine heard the whirled beating of Arienna’s wings. They were slowing.

Ternalyn and Reden got up and strode to the other side of the room. They went into the back room and disappeared.

Maxine looked at Henry. Henry looked at Woof. Woof let out a thin whimper.

"Maxine, look," Henry said, turning to the window.

Maxine turned. At first, all she could see was a glistening button against a void of black. As they swooped closer, the button bloomed into a speckled planet.

Maxine felt her eyes strain, she did not blink. The planet’s atmosphere was a glittering mauve shell. Even though they were still far away, Maxine saw fractured continents swirling in multicoloured oceans--waters of crimson and cerulean and cyan. And around it, colonies of starships and space stations, born from Maxine’s most fantastic dreams, were ushered to the planet on runways of throbbing light.

Beautiful...

Henry tapped Maxine’s shoulder. She turned.

Reden and Ternalyn stood before them, each holding what looked like a cloak. Then Maxine realised they were shifting--like aran she had worn. With a flick of their wrists, each of them transformed into a draping black robe before their eyes.

"Now, if you don’t mind," Ternalyn said, putting one webbed finger to her lips, "we need you to put these on."

#

The Arienna landed with a skid, a flash of light, and the triumphant screech. Ternalyn and Reden opened the main hatch--the lower deck of the ship, seemingly--and led them out. Maxine wasn’t sure what was going on. Mainly because she couldn’t see a single thing.

We’re being hidden...

Woof skipped along by Maxine’s feet, hidden under the wavy folds of her cloak. Light invaded her senses, and she gazed upward. An arrow-shaped door opened in front of them. Peach light filtered through. Slowly, Maxine was prodded down the ramp.

A cool gust of wind greeted her. Maxine stepped off the ramp and onto solid ground. She could see a soft purple sky through the fabric. And then the smells came: vanilla, pineapple, strawberry ice cream. She readjusted her robe and her vision seemed to clear with it.

They were walking on a cobbled path that meandered through a courtyard lined with what seemed to be trees. But they were most definitely not the same plants she knew on Earth. The tree’s translucent leaves and branches throbbed with globules of luminescence. They moved on, prodded and pushed.

A few moments later, Maxine heard more starships buzz and bombinate around them. And voices, many voices, speaking languages that had not been invented, nor spoken.

Maxine’s hand clenched her locket. She felt something she had never experienced before: wonder in her eyes and horror in her soul. They followed Reden through the prism-like trees and approached a grassy hill.

They trekked upward to the top. Maxine took a breath to steady her nerves. Henry stopped next to her. Gasped.

Upon the horizon, an enormous dome rose to greet them. It looked small from where they were, like half a walnut. And there, rising from its centre, a crystal spire pierced the sky, casting rays of cantaloupe sunlight across a bustling courtyard. In the clouds, other domes hitchhiked across wispy clouds. Maxine counted. Six.

Reden, Ternalyn and Kade pushed them onward, down the hill, and into a new area of the courtyard.

What is this place? It’s...It’s…

"Amazing," Henry mumbled.

"Shhh," Maxine hushed. "Don’t make any sudden movements."

"I couldn’t if I tried," Henry whispered back.

Across the courtyard, robed figures came into view. Some marched in groups like strings of determined ants. Maxine focused on their faces. They were uniformed aliens--young Leons, Capricorns and Ariens. The clap of hooves. Maxine caught a glimpse of another alien, cantering around with them.

Their glistening manes, tied in elegant ponytails, defied the wind. They had the torsos of men and women that stopped at their withers, before growing into muscular horses. And their fluorescent skins--oh their skins, Maxine thought--hummed like swarms of electric fireflies. Maxine forced herself to find an explanation.

Sagittarians, Maxine blurted in her head. Centaurs. Alien Centaurs.

Kade strode in front of Maxine. Ahead was an ornate fountain. A Sagittarian girl trekked around its circumference, diamond hooves glinting, a pulled-back bow in her hands. A fiery arrow sizzled between her fingertips.

"Bend your rear hooves when you fire," Kade shouted over to her.

The Sagittarian turned to see Kade, straightened militantly, and nodded. She fired, unleashing a purple lance that raced towards a levitating target.

Krooom! The light-show exploded in a shower of sparks, leaving a shimmering hologram whistling in the air: 90 Tri-Kions.

Maxine carressed Woof’s fur. He could already hear him sulking with fear and anxiety and disbelief.

Kade looked back at Reden. "Take them to his chambers. Keep the mammal quiet."

"Done," Reden purred.

Kade took a sharp turn and headed to another side of the courtyard.

Reden peered back at Maxine, Woof and Henry. "Please keep quiet. Including you furry one," Reden said with a twitch of his whiskers.

Woof hopped onto Maxine’s feet, and she felt his tail swipe the back of her knees. She stroked him, then glanced up at Henry.

Henry was frozen, fixated on the sky. Maxine nudged him, but he still didn’t budge. She was about to graduate the situation to a punch, when Henry reached for Maxine’s head. She raised her arms to stop him, but the action was slow. Gentle.

Maxine allowed Henry to guide her eyes.

A statue floated down from the sky. Sunlight stroked its chiselled features, a deep amber that made it look cast in molten gold. But it wasn’t. One moment it looked forged in cast iron, whilst in the next, it clouded into a sparkling ruby.

The wind gave birth to a passing zephyr, filling Maxine’s robe.

The statue drifted downward, downward, turned and stopped.

Maxine stopped. Breathed. Found nothing inside of her.

The man’s jaw was covered in faint stubble. He was dressed in a white suit with symbols--starways, maps, constellations--tattooed across its surface. And there, embedded in his sternum, was a golden medallion etched with an eight-pointed star. Maxine reached for her locket as her eyes found the plinth’s inscription:


THE STARR ALLIANCE ACADEMY

est. 61-Z

Founded by John Starr of Croydon, London, England, Earth.

Maxine’s felt her bones tremble, and she stumbled back, the shock threatening to relinquish her body. And then she felt it: tears breaching the walls of her eyelids, and with it, a wrenching weight, dragging her down, down, into the depths of a forgotten sorrow.

It’s true. It’s all true.

#

They marched their way through the spired dome--the "first one", Reden said--and into a pair of gated doors. Alien sights and sounds whirled past Maxine. Next came bejewelled statues resting in the cold mouths of hallways, stone awnings that whistled when the wind passed through them and, from above, gargoyle-alien hybrids that perched from the corridors like an impossible Notre-Dame. Maxine could not stop looking, gasping, shivering with shock and awe.

Soon the walls became covered in glyphs, tracing the paths of constellations. Maxine recognized many: Rigel, Orion, Cepheus, Andromeda, Polaris, Ursa Minor and Ursa Major, all scribbled with inscriptions. She did not know any of them. Occasionally she would hear the echo of a song as if the walls sang the alien artwork that adorned them.

And then the realisation simmered through her soul. Again. Again. Again.

It wasn’t him. It couldn’t have been, she thought with each harried breath. Before she could hold onto an answer, they were swept into another winged juncture.

Maxine’s mind throbbed like torn scab. The majesty of the corridors turned into an empty stone hall. There were no other exits, only a wooden door ahead.

The light changed--humming like wildfire. Henry adjusted his glasses. Maxine turned just as a series of urns floated out of the walls, splashing the corridor in firelight.

"Don’t mind the Kalkanites," Reden said, "they keep the urns burning. We put them to good use here. Better here than a Ka’lilron mine shaft."

High-pitched squabbles fluttered around each urn. They continued walking, past a tableaux of artwork embedded into the walls. Maxine’s eyes drank every image.

The first artwork looked to be a Leon, but with softer, more graceful features; a female. A metallic panel read: Leonri’s Triumph--The Dark Times.

Another statue depicted a Capricorn holding a silver Trident in its hands and read: Carpri--Defender of the Three Seas. They looked like an artist’s rendition of what a grand monarch might be (at least to Maxine).

Reden stopped them all in front of an age-worn door. He tugged the claw-shaped doorknob and pushed.

Buff. Inside the room, objects tumbled to the ground in smattering thuds. Reden forced the door open with a gruff and they stepped inside.

Maxine, Henry and Woof stepped tentatively into an oval-shaped room covered in musty skyscrapers--piles and piles of books.

Elsewhere, objects of all shapes and sizes tinkled and chimed in a mysterious wind. She scanned the room, and at the rear, sunlight soaked through a mullioned window, setting a cluttered desk alight.

Reden removed their arans as he walked by, sweeping them onto his massive shoulder. They came off like water.

Maxine took a moment to gather herself. The thoughts, the realisation, the shock was still hammering through her like a knife. There was just too much, too fast.

Henry picked a book off the floor. "Ethn...ethnological studies: studying the past to the future."

Maxine ignored Henry. She observed the objects lying haphazardly around: monstrous bones, levitating globes of planets, notebooks, pieces of metal and crystal and torn pieces of paper revolving on metal discs. Everything was labelled with frayed stickers.

The writing…

Yes, she could see the handwriting! Maxine swayed forward, eyes open, mind ready to--

A book tumbled to the floor. They turned to the back of the room.

The window opened and Kade soared through like a dark cloud. As he landed, sunlight dashed his uniform’s shoulders, now adorned in royal-red epaulettes. He reached behind his cape, took out a small glittering cube, and placed it on the desk.

Reden locked the door. "We made it without notice," he said, his whiskers puckering.

"Good," Kade replied, nodding.

"What is this place?" Henry asked.

"John Starr’s study," Kade said. "We have not been here for a long time. Excuse me. Do not move."

Maxine blinked.

In a flash, a blast of air rocketed across the room like a gold-threaded whirlwind.

Maxine breathed--and in that moment, papers, books and ornaments moved, like a manic television timelapse.

And as quickly as it happened, Kade was standing before them again. The room was neat and tidy.

"How did you do that?" Henry yelled incredulously.

Maxine had never seen anything like it, except maybe in a Loony Toon’s cartoon. Her eyes found Kade’s medallion and she saw it shimmer, gently, as if a calm spirit was awake inside.

"It is a gift I share with Ternalyn," Kade replied.

"You mean all aliens can do that?"

"No, Henry," he smiled. "Not quite." Kade walked slowly towards them. "The sights you have witnessed must have been...confusing. And I am sorry, but we had to keep you hidden from prying eyes. For now."

Maxine felt her heartache again, familiar and commanding. It begged to be answered. She gave in. "The statue outside the academy was my dad."

Kade nodded. "John Starr founded this military base, the Starr Alliance Academy. Here we train soldiers from all over the Zodiac. It was built fifteen years ago."

Maxine felt her fingers purse the air in thought. She was fifteen now. When her father had given her the locket four years ago, she was eleven.

What did that mean?

Had he lived another life even before she was born?

Had lied to her this whole time?

Her father’s face, once surrounded by an aura of joy, seemed to crumble with each revelation. Maxine cooled her thoughts. No. She couldn’t trust what they said--not yet.

"That’s impossible. He would have told me. I was his only daughter."

"We know it is hard to believe. On Earth, your father was an archaeologist," Reden said.

"An ethno-archaeologist," Maxine shot back.

"What is that?" Henry asked.

"Ethno-archaelogists uncover and study ancient cultures," Maxine said, feeling her mouth clench with resistance. "He excavated all sorts of data: art, pottery, relics and written works, to link the past and the present. It was something he explained to me years ago."

"Including cultural tales of the astrology and the constellations."

Maxine snapped around. Kade stood still, his dark cape wrapped around him, and stared at Maxine. His eyes came to rest on Maxine’s trembling shoulders.

Maxine swallowed saliva, pressed her foot into her shoes and tensed her shivering chest. And then a gathering fury besieged her with the tumult of a thunderstorm. "There are many depictions of the Zodiac--the Western, the Hindu, the Hebrew and the Chinese Zodiac--which correspond to years, rather than months."

Kade nodded. "Yes."

"The astrological signs change with every era, every culture, every scientific breakthrough. On Earth. The Western Zodiac was derived from the Greek word meaning "circle of animals", developed in ancient Egypt."

"Indeed.”

"Later adopted by the Babylonians. That’s in Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq. Again, Earth. The Akkadian language of the time called the place ’Gate of the Gods’. Shall I stop?"

Maxine swallowed. Her eyes felt like hot coals. Kade stared back, his eyes a cool jade. "No."

"Well, early astrologers on Earth knew it took twelve lunar months for the sun to return to its original position. So they assigned names to twelve constellations, linked to the seasons."

"Correct. That’s what you--"

"—In Babylonia, for example, the rainy season occurred when the Sun was in a particular constellation named Aquarius. Today, some regard astrology as superstitious rubbish. For most, the Zodiac signs are symbols of astrology. And the ancient civilisations that relied on them are gone. Dead."

Maxine gasped for air; her father told her about the world’s many representations of the Zodiac. Not a chapter or two of a book. Everything. They were sciences and histories and stories she cherished. And undebatable facts. Maxine’s thoughts snapped to her locket, entombed in her fist.

"All true," Kade said. "But not dead. Not here."

"Because you’re aliens. Fine. I get it. You’re embodiments of them," Maxine laughed. "But I need more than my father’s name and a bloody statue to trust you. Maybe we’re just drugged out of our minds right now. I need proof."

A book slammed open on the desk.

Woof sniffed the air, barked, fangs gleaming.

Maxine turned.

Tendrils of smoke rushed towards her, a velvety nightmare that filled the room, drowning them in furious darkness.

Henry stumbled forward, grasping for Maxine, pulling, pushing, trying to stun her into action. They careened to the floor, choking, gasping, silenced.

They’ve found me...