“The Princess of Navaro”

I am of the utmost belief that among the majority of humankind there holds a native desire to be thrust into situations of total chaos. When people talk about the weather, it is often in mock preparation for the coveted “storm of the century,” though talks of earthquakes, volcanoes, wildfires and plagues will also do in a pinch. The human heart remains eternally transfixed by the allure of scenarios which foretell a high likelihood of injury or death.

Yet in reflecting on my own observations of those around me during my relatively short time in this world, I’ve found myself entertaining the idea of exceptions to this hypothesis. Those quick to boast about hypothetical catastrophes may just as quickly shy away from their own hyperbole in the wake of a very real emergency. The few with tangible experience and training would be the most collected, but also the most likely to never take their abilities for granted.

There are times where I wonder which side of the playing card I fall upon. As I learn and grow and adopt new skills, I do find it easier to respond to signs of communal distress. In spite of this personal maturation, however, I continue to yearn for those fears during times of peace. Perhaps it is because I know in my own heart that such peace could never truly last. To believe otherwise would be to exist within a dream.

The times we live in are far too precarious. Scratch that; this delicate balancing act has in fact manifested itself for generations. In faraway lands on other planets, history tells of great battles and massacres which cut swaths through the human population. Going even farther back, the spread of disease attempted more than once to wipe out our species. It may not be so strange then to question whether our peaceful life here, on the satellite of Ganymede, will one day be forever lost to madness.

For now, at the very least, we remain innocent. Unlike the metropolises which plaster Mars and the greater Asteroid Belt, the colonies surrounding Jupiter harbor sentiments of a pre-Industrial age. We thrive in a manner appropriate to our fresh heritage, nothing more and nothing less.

Decades of heavenly bombardment had brought down fertile continents atop vast oceans, and we vowed to secure and cultivate these lands for the fulfilment of the human race. That is to say we were farmers first – humble, honest, and hardworking. Our towns and cities alike were small in size, feudal in governance, dated in technology, yet brimming with pride. We respected nature and strived for coexistence with these blessed lands. There was simply no better way to live.

At least, that is what my naiveté told me back when everything started…

The piercing ring of my alarm clock wrenched me from my otherwise peaceful slumber, while the bright rays of the sun made every conceivable attempt to blind me. In Earth time, it was approximately the middle of May, year 2107. Of course, that didn’t matter here. It takes just over an Earth week for Ganymede to orbit Jupiter, and more than twelve years for Jupiter to orbit the sun, so day hours and night hours were once a haphazard mess. Eclipses were also frequent, and left unabated, would send the surface into total darkness on a moment’s notice. To combat this, the Ministry of Galactic Health and Vitality had instituted the creation of artificial suns – fusion power plants atop large towers – to act as a source of heat and light for all of the satellite.

It was strange at first when the concept of nighttime vanished from our lives. Over time, however, we adapted in ways no one could have predicted. I remember reading in biology class how on Earth in the late twentieth century, people who spent long periods of time underground developed a forty-eight hour schedule: thirty-six hours awake and twelve asleep.

On Ganymede, however, the opposite seemed to be in effect. Naps are more frequent but often shorter. Most people would awaken for ten to twelve hours, and then sleep for another four to six. Some people were capable of being awake for twenty, but such a move catches up with them when they need ten hours of sleep just to function. There is no normal on Ganymede. It is commonly stated among the people that everything about our way of life is the result of chance.

Chance, indeed… Perhaps this environment of random probability was also the crux of why gambling was so ingrained in our culture. Children as young as elementary school learned the ins and outs of various board, card and roulette games. They would go even as far as to create their own, with stakes appropriate for children, of course. The adults, however…

Oh! Perhaps I said too much already! That’s right: I was talking about the passage of time, wasn’t I? The people of Ganymede adopted Earth time as it was the protocol set by the MGHV. Other than that, we were largely able to pick and choose when our personal days ended and when they began.

I was in what could be considered my junior year of secondary school. Our educational system was largely independent study, but during exam periods, we were required to attend one of three rotations. Our midterm proficiency exams were already upon us, while the seniors above me were preparing for college placement and entry into the real world. Ganymede only had Associate-level colleges, thus quite a few of the seniors had plans to leave this backwoods rock in favor of a Martian or Terrestrial university.

Those in junior class held similar convictions. Ganymedian colleges were satisfactory enough, but it was pretty well known that those who committed to them were also committing to spending the rest of their lives anchored to their small-town roots. In their minds, youth was about adventure and aspiring to greatness across the stars. I knew deep down that I should have echoed those desires, yet I could never bring myself to do it.

Was it fear of the unknown? Was it complacency in a peaceful life? Or perhaps, was it a question of self-worth? For that matter, what was my value to the universe? What was my value to those around me? Was value itself relevant to one’s happiness, or was I simply the victim of a society I could touch but never fully grasp?

After sixteen Earth years on this satellite, what do I have to show for it? In the eleven Earth years I’ve slaved over a desk, what can I say I’ve accomplished? If there are more than thirty billion people in the solar system, what significance is there in the actions of a single soul? Does my voice even matter?

Disrobing before the bathroom mirror, I stared deeply into my reflection. Long hair, dyed a crisp auburn, adorned a soft yet stoic face; brown eyes narrowed into a pained expression. Arms and legs were toned yet limber thanks to years of yoga with friends, and genetics had done well to give me a fair curve from top to bottom. I was well aware of my body’s potential in the eyes of others, but deep down I could only lament how such gifts, as they were often called, failed to serve any practical purpose.

A being defined by aesthetics is nothing more than a doll, but a doll is made to convey a specific message or quality. Even a lowly pleasure doll would bear more cultural significance than anything I have been able to offer. Alas…

The shower did nothing to ease my troubled mind. Once I had finished meticulously smoothing the creases of my school uniform, I got to work straightening my hair just enough to tie it off in a ponytail. Declaring myself acceptable, I made my way to the kitchen where my father was putting on a pot of coffee.

“Good morning, Jade.”

My father, Lieutenant Johnathan Cassia of the Ganymede Defense Bureau, was a man bound by commitment to strict discipline and heavenly virtue. Though I struggled at times to understand his rationale, I made sure to always be respectful of it. “Good morning, father; do you mind if I have a cup?”

“Feel free.” The aloofness of his response hinted at his own drowsiness, and I concluded that he must have recently returned from a long shift. His beat was the Navaro district, which spanned from our coastal city of Hemlock in the west, to the small villages and communities which dotted the hills east of us. Recently, a string of drug traffickers had made their way into the area, and my father had been put in charge of the task forces tied to the primary investigation.

He told me once that the street name of the drug was known as Cryovenom, refined from a special type of bacteria readily found in Ganymede algae specimens. It was far cheaper than other illicit substances, giving it a particular notoriety. Blood injections of the cultured substance resulted in violent yet pleasurable muscle contractions, as if the body were being slowly frozen from the inside out. Abuse of the drug resulted in permanent sclerosis, often fatal. Such a risk was hardly justifiable in my opinion, but apparently there had been an epidemic of sclerosis cases linked to the drug’s popularity. Who knew?

I was of course nowhere near naïve enough to believe that people would do stupid things without a motive. It was a known fact that Hemlock had never been a symbol of economic prosperity. New businesses seldom lasted more than a few quarters, while existing trades were routinely victimized by the forces of supply and demand. Whenever times were particularly tough, the people found it harder and harder to enjoy their free time in what could be considered the backcountry of space. It certainly made sense to take the edge off in such an abstract way, and it wasn’t as if the stuff was addictive in the physical sense.

No, the true societal plight was when times only continued to get tougher. More people started hitting the needle. More people ended up in the hospital or worse. When my father talked about the investigation, he always referred to the victims as weak, or not in control of their own lives. Sometimes I wondered if that really was the mindset, or if it was something far more sinister which could only reside in a shattered human psyche.

It was something I didn’t want to think too deeply about, though maybe that was because my own life was never really that bad. My father’s job meant that he and I could enjoy a relatively bourgeois lifestyle unaffected by the changing world. Meanwhile my mother, Meredith Cassia, traveled freely as a humanitarian nurse, returning home every so often to visit us. Serious though their paths were, my own was pretty much that of a normal teenage girl: teenage problems and no grasp of what the real world was supposed to be. Was I taking my reality for granted? It certainly appeared that way sometimes.

What does it truly mean to grow up? I pondered this question as I sipped my coffee, but nothing materialized and I gave up with a dejected sigh. My father looked up at me in suspicion and I quickly faked a yawn, which seemed to satisfy him for the time being. After washing the cup in the sink, I fetched my school bag from my room and bid my father farewell, stepping out into the chilly air.

The highway which ran north disappeared into thick forests for which the city of Hemlock got its name. Heading south would bring one into the city proper. Over forty thousand people lived and worked in close proximity to one another, as much of Hemlock was vertically built.

We had two public heliports, and the local hospital contained a third. There were talks of building a municipal air base, but nothing tangible yet. A single hyperloop headed east toward the hills and deeper into the continent, providing us the bulk of our commerce. The community college was nestled atop a series of rocky cliffs. Alongside it, a massive complex of hanging gardens had been erected.

Halfway up the hill, where my family’s house stood, I could take in nearly all of it. It was incredibly beautiful, yet also bittersweet. I took but a moment to digest the scenery, and then hopped on a motortrike and made my way toward the school.

“You may begin,” announced the proctor as the group I was in placed pens to digital paper. I leafed through the testing document on my screen, painstakingly annotating the passages before me, until I found myself gradually losing focus. One moment I was explaining postulates and theorems I knew would never help me in the real world, and the next I was scrawling artistic patterns along the margins without even thinking.

What the…? Dammit, I hope I don’t get scolded for that. With a quick shake of my limbs, I redoubled my efforts to try and get back on track. Somehow, I managed to finish all of the passages before the time limit for part one of the test was called. Then it was time for lunch.

The cafeteria was packed with over eight hundred students. Losing myself in the crowd, I failed to notice the pair of girls sneaking up behind me until it was too late. Without warning, I felt a pair of hands squeeze my hips and I yelped, nearly falling to the floor.

“Who in the hell-!? Oh, it’s you Francesca. I see you brought Felicity with you as well.”
Felicity Breaux and Francesca Descartes became friends of mine during middle school. If not for the different family lines, one would assume they were sisters. Both had blonde hair, green eyes and ivory skin. Felicity was the shorter of the two by a slight margin, but both were respectably svelte.

Francesca traced her fingers along my waist with a mischievous grin. “Don’t tell me you’re in one of those moods again! You need to lose yourself to the joys of youth already! Maybe find a boyfriend or girlfriend and put that fine body of yours to the test, you know!?”

“For heaven’s sake, you are such a pervert!” Romantic pursuits had occasionally crossed my mind, which was normal for girls my age. At the same time, I was aware that love was simply one kind of fulfillment, and could not fully occupy the void which had enveloped my spirit. What I needed was something more than a mere creature comfort, but whatever it was remained out of sight and out of reach.

Felicity turned to us and asked, “How long do we have before tests resume?”

“I think the proctors said two hours,” replied Fran. “We could always get a few rounds in while we eat. You in, Jade?”

They were referring to a card game which had become popular among the students recently. Two decks would be shuffled and thirteen cards dealt to each player. Each player would race to set up to three melds and a five card poker hand, the fourteenth card being either a direct draw or another player’s discard.

The melds could be either three-of-a-kind sets, or three consecutive cards which formed a run. Different combinations of sets and runs created a multiplier, which was applied to the point value of the five card hand. People referred to it as Pacific Rummy because it combined the rules of Rummy with the rules of Mahjong, a popular game among nations in and around the Earthen Pacific Ocean during the twentieth century.

It was normally played with four players but could be adapted for three. After grabbing our trays of food, we set down at a table and I pulled out my phone. A hologram of the playing field appeared before us. The cards were dealt orthogonally so that we could only see our own cards and the cards which had been played face up on the table surface.

Turns went clockwise as was customary for card games, with us drawing and discarding until we could get the melds we desired. On the twelfth turn, I discarded a three of clubs, and that’s when I heard it.

“Hold.” Felicity had used my card as the rear of a 3-7 straight for thirty points. Of her three melds, two consisted of runs which formed a six card straight for a multiplier of three. So my debt to her was actually ninety.

I couldn’t help but grit my teeth. “This is where I would ask for a mulligan.”

Francesca chimed in, “That’s golf, Jade. Denied!” I glared at her as the point counters were updated. The cards merged, shuffled in midair, and dealt themselves out for round two. It was also my turn to be designated as dealer. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a crowd forming around us.

That’s it, ladies and gentlemen. Take it all in. I mentioned earlier that gambling was prevalent in Ganymede culture. To be more precise, it is worth pointing out that the ways in which people gambled varied widely by individual preference. There were those like me and my friends who would play games competitively, but there were also those who did spectator bets. These were wagers on who would win and lose if competing against each other.

It was not unheard of for a group of three to six people to start up poker matches against each other, and thirty to sixty others to gather around and place bets on who would come out on top. This created flexibility among wagers, as the spectators could use real money to gamble even if the competitors themselves opted against doing so.

To add to the complexity, spectators placing real-money wagers were subject to an unwritten rule: they had to contribute a performance fee to their chosen player. This acted as an incentive for skilled players and increased the frequency of public matches, especially those among the students. The faculty of the school generally looked the other way, as these matches kept the students occupied and out of trouble under normal circumstances.

As the second round progressed, my hand was coming along rather nicely. I had managed to hoard many of the diamond cards, but there were a lot of sets already on the board. Victory was foreseeable but only if I could strike first. Drawing a diamond jack from the top of the discard pile, I made my move.

“Legality Check.” Placing my third meld, my side of the table had diamonds from five to king.

“Don’t let her get a ready hand!” exclaimed Francesca in a mocking tone. She lay down her third meld. Her multiplier of four was less than my multiplier of six, but if she drew a winning card before I did, it would ruin everything. Twice more we moved around the board, until I was finally able to draw what I needed.

“Hit.” There were groans from the audience as phones were pulled out, money being exchanged at an alarming rate. Placing a hand to my lips to stifle my sadistic grin, I spoke for all in the room to hear. “Full house with an inside straight flush. With the dealer bonus that’s… two hundred forty. Each.” Behind me, I could already hear the outrage.

“This game is rigged!”

“How in the hell did she pull that out of her ass!?”

As I looked over at Francesca, I could tell that she was getting annoyed. It wasn’t long before she slammed her hands on the table and stood up. “Calm down! It’s a legal play. Take your losses like adults or don’t bet on our game.”

No way will I get that lucky again. We played our third round, and then a fourth and a fifth. Felicity won two more hands and Francesca just one, but I was still in the lead if only by a hair. That’s when it happened.

“Are you going to pay up or what, you piece of gutter trash!?” A fight had broken out between two of the boys to our right. I knew one of them quite well; Bradley Petersen was, after all, a friend of my family. But the other male was an enigma to me.

I stood up and turned to stare coldly at them. “Oi, what’s going on Bradley?”

“This assclown here is trying to walk off with his tail between his legs,” was the answer I received. “He knew what he was getting into the moment he opened his mouth.”

“What, and you’re willing to risk academic suspension by pounding his face in? Why don’t you two settle this like men?” This caused Bradley to let go of the other’s shirt. “That’s what I like to see. Felicity! Go to the woodshop and get you-know-what.”

“Are you out of your mind, Jade?”

“Just do it!” Reluctantly, the shorter girl scattered over to the other building, and just minutes later had returned with a set of replica training gear. I took the sword, admiring its craftsmanship. It was an oak sword stained dark mahogany, with archaic patterns carved into the hilt. Felicity held the shield, which was similarly stained and bore a large insignia across its surface. They were not of the quality to sell, but they were more than functional. “Yes, this is what we’ll do. You; what’s your name, boy?” My gaze locked onto that of the stranger.

“It’s Raiden, Miss Cassia.”

“Last name?”

“Megaera.”

“Raiden Megaera, where have I heard that name before? No matter; in any case, it’s your lucky day. I’m going to have Felicity give you that wonderful shield over there, and Bradley will have this badass blade here. The fight ends when one of you surrenders. Tire him out or incapacitate him, and I shall cover your debt in full. Fail, and not only will you pay every cent, but I’ll make you do something really nasty. So, are you in?”

Everyone in the room fell silent. Thinking back, I guess this is where everything began. It was a bluff that I did not expect to be called upon so easily, but as he took the shield, I could feel the seeds of something begin to sprout. Heart racing, I handed the blade to Bradley, and took my place between them.

I thrust my hand down, and Raiden lunged forward before bets could so much as be called. He twisted the shield ninety degrees and crouched under the path of Bradley’s sword. My classmates could only gasp in awe as he pivoted the shield upward, knocking it against his foe’s elbows and causing the oak blade to fall to the ground. The fight was over.

No way; that seriously could not have just happened. Cheers and applause had erupted all around us. I looked Raiden up and down, trying to gain insight into what kind of man he really was, but came up empty. Whether it was fate or a calculated hustle on his part, I could not tell. It was aggravating, humiliating, but also very intriguing.

Snatching my phone from the table, I turned to Bradley and transferred the money to his account. “You fought bravely, but it appears the underdog, Raiden Megaera, is the winner!” Another round of cheering abounded, but it was cut short by the sound of the far doors clanging open, the principal of the school approaching with security right behind her.

“You’ve gone too far this time, Jade Cassia! My office, on the double!”

It looked as if my own luck had just run out.

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