Awakening washed over Maxine like water--no thoughts, no sensations, no words. A deep throbbing transformed into an errant flame. Familiar. It warmed her skull.
Maxine breathed. Sensation ebbed back and forth. Colour returned. Ghostly screeches painted her mind in flashes. Maxine watched the flesh of her closed eyelids--her hidden interior. No sudden movements. Not yet.
Welcome home, Maxine Starr.
Maxine opened her eyes. A silver shriek impinged her senses. She turned her head to block it out, but jolt streaked down her neck like a taunt cable. Then her body. Her bones ached with memory.
How long had she been sleeping? Days? Months?
Maxine swallowed. Glass on parched muscle. She tried to sit, looked down and found herself covered in a billowing blanket. The bed was curved, carved into the hollow of a split...bone.
A whale? Bigger. Maxine tilted her head back and knocked something with a yelp.
On the bed’s headrest, ornate symbols were scrimshawed across a spindle. Some of the symbols she recognised. Others, nada. But there was something dreadfully familiar about them: creatures, people, ships, tools. Maxine tried to hold on to it, but recognition melted away like ice in her hands.
Maxine peeled the sheets towards her feet. She ran her hands over a flowing white robe moulded over her petite frame. She reached for her neck--her locket’s cold chain greeted her.
Thank goodness. Tha--why am I thankful?
She pushed herself over the bed. Her barefoot bristled against a luxurious carpet. Maybe this was a room of someone rich? Famous?
Adam Levine? I could settle for Zac Efron, why not?
Ah, names, better.
Maxine tried to recall what had happened, but it was as if someone had sucked all of her memories and tossed them into a dust cloud. Her muscles remembered, but her mind did not. She looked out into the room.
Before her, the walls were adorned in framed paintings from wall to wall. To the rear was a curtained window and a sleek black contraption in the corner. The device looked like a refrigerator, but with no buttons, no hinges, no cables.
Dark. So dark.
Maxine got up. Her body sagged, limbs heavy. She lumbered towards the nearest wall, the nearest painting. She stopped. Turned. Breathed. Looked at the frame.
The canvas only used two colours: red and an ashy grey. Dark strokes depicted a shadow stained city brimming with monolithic skyscrapers. Upon the horizon, a shooting star kissed a clump of dirty clouds. And there, tucked away below the frame, was a glittering circular crystal.
Maxine reached for it, and as she did, the crystal glowed, louder and louder, until, it seemed, a miniature sun had been born.
Good dream. Nice dream.
Maxine covered the crystal with her palm--and the light passed through her hand, illuminating the pathways of her arteries, her veins, her thin bones. And then a star with a glorious azure trail peeled from the surface and floated into the room.
Maxine blinked at the stunning light. The star soared slowly past, leaving a trail of stardust across her shoulders. And as it made its way to the back of the room, other crystals, beneath each painting, hummed with opalescent light.
The miniature comet weaved its way to the back of the room and fizzled harmlessly into some curtains. Gone.
Well, there you go. Paintings come alive all the time, right? Ha. Ha. Ha. Idiot.
Sarcasm, check. Maxine knew she was becoming her old self again.
She plodded over to the curtains, reigning in her battered equilibrium. She was stable. Barely.
Perhaps there’s a landmark or a car or a street sign outside?
A gentle breeze toyed with her hair. She reached up--no baseball cap. Had she lost it yesterday? The day before that?
Maxine reached for the curtains. A semblance of a memory flickered in her mind like a will-o’-wisp. Something about a boy...
A gush of wind swept the curtains back.
The light of a thousand stars murmured in a void of black. The stars were so beautiful, Maxine was temporarily stunned. She wished she could reach up, snatch them and sling them around her neck.
Her eyes focused on the distance, on a simmer of movement. Maxine could tell what it was by the way the shadow sunk and rose. Surely a bird. Or a bat. But as it came closer, Maxine realised that wasn’t it at all. It wasn’t flapping. It was swimming.
Maxine stumbled back, her hand on her chest.
A Leviathan swooped past the window, a colossal form that masked the stars around it. Maxine’s lips parted in awe, and in that moment, she saw a slew of windows across the creature’s body. People were inside, moving, talking, working.
As it soared past, capillaries of light raced across the creature’s spine, channelling to a beaked face. It looked vaguely like a manta ray, but a thousand times bigger. With one last push, the creature’s wings beat the air, the gust of wind pushing Maxine onto her heels.
Still holding her chest--her heart booming--Maxine looked down.
Thousands of these winged creatures were on a docking bay. They reminded her of one of those sea ships that carried military planes.
This was a clue, Maxine knew. Was she on a warship at sea? An expensive island? Shards of memory. Nothing concrete.
Maxine dug her heel into the ground, clutched the seams of her robe, and tried to remember:
There had been a man--a flying man.
He had flown away with them. Right?
He had curling horns that melded out of his temples.
And his eyes--chasms of emerald.
They flew away.
Away from what?
Monsters. That’s what.
There had been two of them: the Minotaur and the crab-robot, and then...
Maxine crumbled to one knee. She wasn’t in a house, or an apartment, or in school.
I’ve been kidnapped by aliens.
Cold goosebumps erupted across Maxine’s skin. It took her two seconds; it wasn’t her skin at all.
The delicate folds of Maxine’s robe...breathed. And before long, the robe cascaded over her body in ripples and undulations and waves. Like clothing in the wind. Like a storm across an ocean.
Maxine tried to yank it off, but the material passed through her grasp, flowing up to her face, pouring into her mouth. Maxine hacked, gasped for air, fell to the floor.
She screamed and screamed. No sound. The world was not dark; it was as pure as fallen snow.
A shadow hoisted Maxine to her feet and pushed her back, towards the wall. She looked up and gasped with what little air she had left.
In front of her was a man in a golden helmet. Maxine focused: he had furry eyebrows, a glistening nose and wide yellow eyes. Like an animal. Like a cat.
"Calm yourself," the man half-purred.
The figure placed a hand on Maxine’s shoulder--her knees creaking with the weight. A cold chill. She looked down. He robe’s vaporous form shrank back to cloth. Solid.
Fresh air flowed into Maxine’s lungs. When she checked, her robe was normal.
"Now I understand your shock, young one…”
Maxine threw herself across the room, up against the wall, as far as she could get. She clasped her robe, her hair, her face. And then her eyes found the man’s hands: giant tawny-haired paws.
Maxine rubbed her eyes like her life depended on it. "What happened to my robe."
"Your robe’s form correlates with the psychic resonance of your thoughts, ruff. I have quelled it."
The towering man stepped forward, slowly. Maxine realised it was not a helmet, but rather a shaggy, golden mane that outlined his head, chest and shoulders. He also wore plates of charcoal armour and stood on two legs--a tufted tail swiped behind him. Two pointed ears twitched every time he started a sentence.
It’s a lion. Like the wizard of friggin’ Oz. No. It’s Simba...in Game of Thrones!
"Ah, I see from your expression. Right. I’m terrible at this kind of thing," the Lion straightened. "What did he say? Raff. Ah yes, the social norm of introductions. My name is Commander Reden Nedorin. Second in command of the Starship Arienna and, ah, what was it? Oh yes, I’m a friend, as you hu-mans say. Not an enemy. Leave that to the Coalition hounds that--" Reden’s fangs slipped back into his hairy maw.
Maxine blinked: he pronounced humans as who-mans. "Where am I?"
"You’re on the star station Pyxis."
There had been streaks of light, a rainbow and waves of chilly air--but no star stations. Oh no. She would have remembered that.
Maxine suddenly felt her nose prickle, and she doubled over, letting out a wet sneeze.
Reden opened his mouth. Stopped. Opened it again. "Apologies," he said, shooting a furtive glance at his mane. "Molting season."
Oooohh, that’s nice, Mr. Lion-face. Wonderful. Fan-bloody-tastical.
"Where’s Woof? And Henry?"
"Ah yes, the hu-man and the Earth mammal. They are just down the hall."
"I want to see them."
"Have you accepted the fact that I’m an alien?" Reden said. His nose, a wet button of leathery skin, creased.
"And you want to see him now?"
"Humpf. Well, he did tell me hu-mans were impatient."
Reden strode over to the black machine. His huge paws glided over its surface, and he said something under his breath.
A door opened on the other side of the room. Maxine followed Reden out into the light.
The corridor brimmed with chalky light. Maxine controlled her steps as a metallic chill rocketed up her calves. A few figures passed them, but Maxine didn’t turn. She stayed behind the Lion-man. She stayed in his shadow.
He said Pyxis...that means...compass.
She knew the name--the full name was Pyxis Nautica, Greek for Mariner’s Compass. It was one of the casual bits of info she had gleaned from astronomy.
But it isn’t a place. It can’t be.
Reden trekked forward with huge strides of his legs, his tail arcing in swhoops and swhips. Maxine followed. She focused on a jewelled sword attached to Reden’s back. It winked at her in the light, but from the way it looked, cast from a dark iron, it looked like no human could wield it.
An announcement blared from the walls. Maxine froze, but soon realised it was in a language she did not understand. Reden looked back, eyes furrowing. She rushed scurried to catch up, keeping in time with Reden’s paws scraping against the floor.
Tik. Tuk. Tack.
They soon came to a large triangle-shaped door. Reden placed his paw on the panel and spoke.
The bullet-shaped door shot into the ceiling. Warm light poured into the hallway. Commander Reden beckoned Maxine in, and with grunt and a stutter, she edged her way inside.
Woof and Henry turned around together. "Maxine!" they both barked.
Maxine scrambled forward and gave Woof and Henry the biggest hug she could muster. When she stepped back, she saw Woof and Henry looked no worse for wear. In fact, they looked rather happy.
Then Maxine saw. Henry and Woof were standing right in front of it.
"Max, this is Ternalyn. Or just Tern," Henry said pointing frantically to the creature.
Maxine had no idea what it was. She had thought a talking Lion was totally unbelievable.
"Don’t be afraid,” Henry continued. “I thought she was crazy-looking too when I first saw her."
The being slithered forward, standing upright on a hooked, webbed tail. It wore a sea-blue suit around aqua skin, and when it bowed, two horns made a low whistle in the air, melding into the shape of a crooked heart.
"A pleasure, Maxine," the being said, and a series of fins undulated across its mouth.
"She’s a Capricorn," Henry smiled.
"That I am," Ternalyn nodded.
Maxine gritted her teeth. It felt like someone was stabbing her gut with a pencil.
Had Henry already made friends with them!? These monsters had gotten them into this spit-taking mess!
Then Henry’s eyes grew wide, and he grabbed Maxine’s arm with enough force to make her wince. "And t-t-that’s... a merlion!"
Maxine followed his gaze--Henry was staring at the lion.
"A merlion, I am not!" Reden snorted. "Ternalyn, did you not inform him that I am a Leon?"
"You and your dramatic requests," Ternalyn huffed. "I didn’t want to frighten the boy. Anyway, Umbra Kirini Commander."
"Umbra Kirini, Ternalyn," Reden said and half-bowed his head.
Woof scuttled behind Maxine, whimpered, barked softly, his eyes locked on Reden. As Maxine knelt to pat him, a flash caught her attention. Maxine turned. Protruding from Ternalyn’s chest was a gleaming gold medallion, carved with the symbol of a fish...and a goat.
"I’m so glad you’re okay," Henry grinned. "Woof didn’t seem the same without you."
"They tried to kill us," Maxine said brusquely.
"No, it was the crab-looking robot and that giant bull! Remember? We were saved by..."
Incandescent sprays of light soaked through the window, the walls, dappling everything. The creatures turned to the back of the room.
They all did.
The man drifted through the window and into the centre of the room. And in his chest lay a gold medallion, surrounded by white embers, thrumming in his breastbone. He landed gently, the fiery glow of his medallion easing into a gentle simmer.
Maxine swallowed. No saliva. Just heat.
It was him--the man in the star-speckled suit. But now wore a maroon uniform, adorned in medals and insignias, and a billowing black cape. Maxine just watched. His name swept into her mind like a whisper.
"Commander Kade. We didn’t see the harm," Reden said.
"It’s fine, my friend," Kade said. "Thank you for watching the boy and the mammal, Ternalyn."
"From one Vanguard to the next my brother," Ternalyn hummed.
The three aliens smiled together, standing side by side. Kade patted them on the back in turn.
Maxine pushed back the trembling that rose in her legs, her spine, the tips of her fingers. "Who...are you people?" She said, her voice sounding like a pale string.
The trio passed a pinball of glances around. "We are," Kade said and paused. It was as if he wasn’t quite sure how to phrase it. "We are the Zodiac."
Silence. Just their breathing. Maxine looked at Reden to Tern to Henry to Woof. Everyone but Kade.
Henry placed a hand on his collarbone. "I get it! You’re a Capricorn, a Leo...and Kade’s an Aries. You’re like horoscopes from the newspapers. I was born in February so that makes me an Aquarius."
Ternalyn nodded. "In your Universe, the Zodiac signs are constellations in space. You look to them for guidance. For strength."
"But here they are much more," Reden said. "We are not just star clusters. Oh no. Collectively, we prefer to be called Zodiac’ians."
Maxine thoughts drifted back to those monsters: the robot Crustacean and the Minotaur with the cracked grin. They had tried to take her. No. They had tried to eradicate her from existence.
"Stop. All of you," Maxine half-screamed. “What are those things that attacked us?"
A flash of contempt flared across Kade’s stern face. "32TRX and Wronth. Members of a league of planets called the Coalition," he stepped forward. "They wanted you."
"I don’t have anything that anyone wants!"
"It’s not what you have," Ternalyn said. "It’s what you can find."
The three aliens stared at Maxine, together. She thought for a moment that perhaps they were looking intently into her eyes. But then she followed their glittering eyes. They were looking at—
Maxine’s hand reached for her chain. Their pulsing, alien eyes followed.
Kade reached for his cape, wrapping it closer around his body like a dark shell. “I don’t know how to say this but…your father. He was our leader."
His words floated in the air—cut-off. Maxine stepped back, trying to find words of her own. There was nothing. Only a painful clenching in her heart. She knew it was the jaws of anger, her old friend, snapping at her soul. The truth came in shards of knowing. These aliens knew things. Hidden things. And while their words were cold and harrowing and dreadful, they made perfect sense.