It only took about three seconds for Castor to realize Tetra’s loud mouth was going to get him killed.
As Miss Jane rambled on about how proud she was and telling some stories about their time together (some of which were definitely about the previous class of students she taught), he could practically feel their eyes burning into the back of his skull. And considering there was a whole mop of messy hair in the way, he was impressed.
The joke fell flat inside his own head. Castor just didn’t want to think about what they might be thinking.
Considering all it took was some good grades to get him “Test Tube” threats, he didn’t know what this pilot rank would mean.
If only Tetra would’ve been quieter.
Maybe if he waited after class a little late, and then took a bunch of back halls between the different science labs, he would be able to avoid any trouble and–
“And since you’ve all accomplished more than we could ever ask of you, all I can do is give you the rest of the day off to celebrate and get excited about your new positions! May we all walk in Conjunction.”
It was like he could hear that scratch sound effect that happened in old music and movies right inside his eardrum. There went all his plans. Class normally ended at the same time as many work shifts, so he was relying on the hustle and bustle of all that.
Nobody’s shift ended an hour into class. It would just be students filling the halls. And unfortunately, at least half of them seemed to hate him.
Turning in his chair, Tetra was already up and moving. But he grabbed her hand. “Wait.”
“Wait for what? Class is–”
“Look at them, Tetra.”
Her gaze scanned the room, but the sparkles in her eyes didn’t dim until she met the eyes of a few guys from the back. When her smile faltered, she tried to put it back together before he’d notice, but it was already too late. They both knew that today was going to be… complicated for him. Tetra patted his shoulder, but it wasn’t enough to sate the gaping well of uncertainty growing in his chest. This wasn’t about a few points lost on a test. There was something more insidious in the air and Castor was practically choking on it.
Tetra didn’t let up, though. “Hey, they’re probably just bitter about their placements because they didn’t study enough. It’s not really about you, just their own internal disappointment. At best, it’s just improperly directed at you.”
“It feels different.”
“You and your weird feelings.” Rolling her eyes, she gestured for him to get up. “If you’re going to be a Sylvanus pilot, you gotta let go of these weird feelings you get. Your future CO probably won’t accept that as probable cause in any situation.”
While she had a point, it didn’t change how he felt. Castor looked back on their lives and ran over and over the other times he got weird feelings like this, the kind that tied his stomach in knots. Nothing good ever seemed to come of them. He stood, but asked, “Yeah, but when have they been wrong?”
“That time you made us ditch planetarium day when we were 9.”
Collecting his envelope and bag, he frowned at her. “Everyone else got the stomach flu. We were the only ones who actually got to see the asteroid belt from the observation deck, instead.”
“Okay, Sitla’s 13th birthday party?” Tetra was getting impatient with him, weaving little braids into the ends of her curls. Considering he’d never seen her hair in braids, he was surprised at how efficient she was about it. “We missed out on delicious cake.”
“Sitla nearly died.”
“Because she had an allergy, one we didn’t have.” Tossing her hair behind her shoulder, Tetra put both hands on his shoulders now. It made him sort of hate their height difference. It felt so patronizing. The only thing that redeemed it was the genuine kindness in her eyes as her short brows furrowed. “There’s a lot of times where you get these weird feelings and nothing bad actually happens to us, just random happenstances that have no correlation or connection. We skipped all of Twill’s traveling performances because you felt weird, and then all that happened was that Miss Jane’s files got jumbled and school was cancelled a few days. That would’ve been a blessing after losing our minds at a concert, but instead we were just bored. And there’ve also been bad times where you never got the feeling at all. You didn’t warn me about Xeres breaking up with me.” Though Tetra laughed, and Castor could objectively, logically, see her point, it didn’t rattle the weighted bile settling in his stomach. “It’s okay if the feelings make you nervous, Cas. But don’t let today be ruined just because they’re assholes.”
He wanted to argue more, give her more detailed examples of how these weird premonitions mattered and he needed to listen to them. But Castor couldn’t find a single good reason for fighting with her. He just had to get back to his quarters and he’d be fine, right?
After shaking his head to try to jostle the eerie vibes, Castor said,“You’re right, I’m sorry.” Then, he tried to stand up as straight as he could, like he was sure of himself. He wasn’t, but Tetra didn’t need to know that. “Today is the last day I’ll be called Test Tube. Tomorrow, I’m a pilot.”
“That’s more like it.”
Following Tetra’s lead, Castor walked away from the desk he spent eighteen years growing into. He had to let go of the fears and memories of this place, because it was finally time for him to be more than the far-away dreams trapped here.
All he had to do was walk out of this room, enjoy the next few days, and report to work on Monday.
Castor really hoped his mom would be proud this time.
On the way out the door, though, he felt someone run straight into his shoulder. His head flicked to the left, and again there she was, Andromeda. Her murky eyes didn’t show any remorse, but she said, “Sorry.” She looked down at her own hands, her prized squid ink open in her hand. Nobody knew much about it, but he overheard from Tetra that her father gave it as a gift on her 18th birthday. Her brows furrowed.
Suddenly, her hand tipped and the entire bottle spilled out on his shirt. While she wasn’t smiling, there was deliberation there, the kind like when she took his trash. Castor was too stunned to speak, but Andromeda gestured to his shirt and said, “You should go home straight away and get that cleaned up.”
Without another word, she walked ahead of him, towards his residential wing. It was bizarre, considering nothing was over that way except crew quarters. Andromeda’s were on another floor and she didn’t really have friends. Why would she go that way? Especially right after wasting her weird, special pen ink by tossing on his shirt?
Every day she seemed to get more and more confusing.
Before he could sort that mystery out, though, another presented itself. With very desynchronized sparkling, Tetra seemed all jittery and started walking faster next to him. So much faster than he could keep up. “You know what? I have a thing to ask my… uncle. You should get that cleaned up and I’ll meet you at your place, okay?” Then, she started jogging down the hall towards her uncle’s labs.
Again, he was left alone before he could even get a word in.
Grumbling, Castor used some spit to try to mitigate the growing black spot on his white undershirt. Somehow, Andromeda managed to hit the perfect gap in his black uniform. It was like it was on purpose.
Hell, everything pointed to it being on purpose. But the real question was why.
His bigger problem, though, even though the shirt pissed him off was Tetra running off. Castor had hoped she could help body-block for any trouble, but there she went. Most of the time, no one wanted to mess with the intimidating, a foot from the ceiling, half-Gizian always by his side. But now he was defenseless.
Well, without her meddling, guess back to the old plan. Time to take all those back-hallways to his room. Hopefully no one felt rowdy enough to cause trouble. He didn’t want any of it. He never did.
Castor kept on high alert for most of the walk, trying to react accordingly if anyone happened to start turning any corners in front him. And he definitely made sure no one was behind him, following. Even ducked into a few doorways to wait a few seconds, check, and then get back to walking.
But what he didn’t account for was for anyone to be in front of his door, waiting.
One of his classmates, Harth Bogum, had their arms crossed, leaning against the nameplate of his door. The guy got this big, uncomfortable smirk when Castor walked up. Times like these, he wished he was at least tall for a human, to try to intimidate them. Instead, Harth was over 6 feet and he was an average 5 9.
So he was like a damn fish, being sent towards a hungry leopard seal. He knew how that went. The class once watched their on-ship leopard seal during feeding time. It was ruthless.
Harth said, “Hey, Teste Tube. Funny meeting you here.”
“The irony of that statement is lost of the fact everyone knows this is where I live. It isn’t clever.” Taking a deep breath, Castor tried to stand straight, look serious, not succumb to that little part of his brain that wanted to run. He was supposed to be a pinnacle of Sylvanus pride now, one of the only students to ever get promoted directly to pilot. He’d done enough running all his life. Crossing his arms, Castor countered, “What do you want, Harth? All I have right now is a ruined shirt.”
“Well, when I see a window, I have to take it.”
Snorting, Castor cocked his head at the ancient Earth mafia talk. “What the hell does that mean?”
“I mean that you aren’t protected by your student status, and you aren’t protected by your rank. For three days, you’re nobody.”
“That’s not how any of this works. If you assault me now you’re still going to get penalized.”
Harth rolled his shoulders and only looked meaner about it, like Castor said something very particular to tick him off. If only he knew what that was. “Fine then, I’m at least going to get to confront you where you don’t get to have the high ground. All of us are useless civilians right now, so we’re on even footing and you have to listen.”
“What do you want to say then? I guess I have no choice but to be all ears.”
“Enough with this back-handed Test Tube business because no one wants to tell you what an asshole you are to your face.” Castor blinked; the bullying all these years was everyone going soft on him? Guess that was one twisted way to interpret it. Harth seemed dead serious about it, though. “It’s about damn time somebody tells you how unfair it is that you got to cheat from birth. You never know what you might get with genetic resequencing, but your mad scientist mom rolled the dice and got lucky. And now all of us get shipped off elsewhere because Mama Knox made herself the perfect baby. You got Sylvanus and pilot? Really? The nepotism is goddamn Ladon levels high, but at least Andromeda got her good genes the right way. You gamed the system.”
“I didn’t cheat anything, Harth. Even if my mother did resequence me, I was a fetus. I didn’t ask for it, didn’t participate, I am just dealing with all the lovely consequences. Like you, here, in front of my door, pissed, even though we’ve never had a real conversation before.”
“I’m being sent to the Sentinel, Knox. You ever heard of it?”
Castor tried to find any memory files on the name, but he came back with nothing. He shrugged. “No, doesn’t ring a bell.”
“Well lucky me, getting to tell you.” Harth’s arms flexed in a way that seemed almost unnatural, like his entire body was ready to burst with inhumane rage. While it didn’t make Castor feel sorry for the guy, it did make him wonder what could do that to him. “It’s a three-man ship that collects survey data of uncontacted planets but never gets to meet any of them. And you know the next time I get to see anyone? Five years. And even better, they made sure to assess our sexual preferences and personality types so we can be paired with people we won’t be attracted to and can only tolerate. So I have to ditch my boyfriend here on Sylvanus and spend the next five years in a metal prison with people I will never give a shit about.” But then Harth was stepping towards him, and that weird feeling in Castor’s gut started swirling like an alarm bell. His finger was pointed at him like it could shoot lasers like it was shooting accusations. Everything logical said Harth had become emotionally unstable after hearing some bad news, but there was something different, primal, untenable brewing under the surface. What radiated off him felt like the reactive rage one felt towards an enemy, a predator. “You didn’t make the problem, Knox, but you’re the only example of it that I can do anything to. And it’s not like being stuck in the brig for a decade would be worse than that hell.”
He raised his hands innocently and said, “Harth…”
“May we all walk in Conjunction, my ass. You and Ladon and your hacker lackey friend get to “reach your potential” while the rest of us are told how little we matter. We’re just bodies to fill holes.”
Thinking back on crisis training, Castor tried to reply with all the right words. “I’m sorry you feel that way. But the system-”
“Don’t you fucking dare. I’ve been waiting 13 years for this, Test Tube, so don’t even try to sympathize your way out of it now. You can’t. Because you believe in all the bullshit, even if you feel bad for me.”
After Harth’s speech, Castor half wanted to hit the guy himself. Harth Bogum felt entitled to greatness, just because he was born on the Sylvanus? Everyone had to earn their place. It was his fault that he didn’t try very hard during licensing exams or turn in half his homework.
But there was something in the back of his head, something that felt like a small, scared man screaming, that wanted to let Harth hit him.
Because what if he was right? What if everything was broken and he just was a lucky one?
Even though Castor’s body was at war with itself, filling up with this rising fear and indignation, his reflexes still wanted to get out of this intact. So when Harth started swinging, Castor put his right forearm up to defend, like a knight with a shield. He closed his eyes and waited for the hit.
And when his fist collided with Castor’s skin, something very wrong happened. His hand, in a split second, went from feeling like itself to something cool, heavy, alien. He heard bones crack, but they weren’t his. When his eyes opened again, Harth was cradling his hand, mangled, crushed, and staring at Castor like he was a monster.
Well, he already had been looking at Castor like that, but it was different now. Instead of being his enemy, Harth’s bright blue eyes were filled with this untouchable horror.
Following Harth’s gaze, Castor looked to his own arm. Instead of the soft skin he knew, everything below his elbow was now a dark gray and as slick as a steel beam. Felt heavy like one, too. This couldn’t be right. “What did you do to my arm?!”
Harth didn’t respond. With his heart beating out his chest, Castor didn’t have the time for the bullying bullshit. There was something very wrong and it wasn’t some holographic illusion. It was like the very molecules under his skin had turned into something else. “Harth, seriously!”
Finally, once Castor got close enough, Harth backed away and found his voice. But what he said only sunk Castor’s gut further into the metal floor. “Undesirable.” Scrambling, Harth got to his feet and ran to the nearest emergency alarm.
“No, Harth, listen to me, don’t–”
But before he could stop him, it was done. The entire hall dimmed, red lights started flashing, and alarm bells were screeching, ricocheting off the bulkheads.
In front of him, Harth was breathing so heavy he thought he might pass out. But maybe he was just projecting. The bully said, “They’ll be here soon. You won’t get to do whatever the hell you’re trying to do.” Then Harth got this panicked smile, like trying to find some hope. Castor just couldn’t shake the fact that he wished the guy would go back to screaming about how he was a “test Tube”.
Almost like it hurt, Harth started laughing in this unhinged, uneven way. “Hell, maybe if you don’t kill me before they get here, I might get to stay on the ship as a reward for finding you.”
Before Castor could respond, a hooded figure brushed past his shoulder and went straight to Harth. They moved faster than anything he’d ever seen, and his entire body shook with the drag that came off it. One second, there he was, cornered by a man who was looking at him like an apex predator on the loose. But now, Castor figured if there was any real apex predator on this ship, it just showed up and punched Harth through his face. Guy didn’t even have time to react.
His face collided with the floor in milliseconds.
When the hooded figure stood up in front of him, their small frame was confusing. More confusing was that they extended a pale, thin hand to him. “We need to go. Now.” Castor didn’t know how to respond, so they groaned, grabbed his left arm, and started dragging him.
Everything felt so surreal. The halls that he used to play in as a child were screaming, and they were screaming because of him. There were probably kids he watched grow up all his life hiding from him in their bedrooms. Adults who said hello to him in the morning who were prepping their rifles or getting in safe rooms because a monster was on the loose.
But he wasn’t a monster. He was just Castor.
Unfortunately, the statement rang a little hollow, seeing the metallic glint of his own damn arm.
It wasn’t until he realized they were heading to the science wing escape pods that he pulled back. Physics made the hood fall off, and Castor got his first real look of the only thing that the ship might be more scared of than him, whatever he was. And Castor was even more shell-shocked to see the person underneath. In front of him, half her braids undone and her gray eyes deader than ever before, was Andromeda Ladon.
Clenching his fists, Castor tried to keep a level head while asking, “Andromeda? What’s happening?” He could ask a lot more than that, but what he needed right now was simple answers.
From Andromeda’s monotone face and voice, that wasn’t what he was getting. “We have to go. Follow me to your mother’s lab. Now.” When she tried to reach for his arm again, he recoiled. And to think, he’d spent months wondering what it’d be like to hold her hand. What an idiot.
“What’s going on and why are you helping me?”
Finally, her calm demeanor cracked. Flaring her nostrils, Andromeda tried to reach for him again. “Castor, we don’t have time–”
“No. What the hell is this, Andromeda?”
Standing completely still this time, Andromeda’s lips pursed and she didn’t try to grab his hand, just extended her own. The way she kept swallowing, it didn’t seem easy for her, but the desperate, scared way she was looking at him right now reminded him that dark feeling in his gut was right. Everything was wrong.
With a trembling hand, she grabbed his fingers with her own; gentle this time. “Please. If we don’t get you off this ship, they’ll kill you.”