“Identity and Awakening”
As the warmth of Ganymede’s artificial suns mixed with the gentle breeze of July, I found myself constantly tugging my collar in irritation. Though there were no true seasons on the satellite, something about the middle of the calendar year felt oh so summery regardless. A windbreaker was folded neatly between my satchel and hip, and my hat was tilted downward to shield my eyes from the sky. He’s late…
While June brought with it many changes, it felt as if nothing had really changed in the grand scheme of existence. Felicity was still on medical leave to get her emotions in order, and Francesca ended up in supplementary lessons after failing a bunch of her academic modules. I decided to leave them be and do my own thing for a while. Being in the evening rotation seemed to suit me better than I expected, plus dinners with Elena meant I wasn’t really lonely at all.
This peaceful routine I found myself in had guided me through an entire month before I knew it. In just one more, I would turn seventeen and take my junior finals. By September, I would be in my closing year. I still had no clue about what adulthood could possibly have in store for someone like me. It was enough to drive anyone mad with anticipation.
For the time being, plans surrounding the Seven Stars competition had been put on ice. Much of my personal savings had been transferred into Carmella’s wine fund, but it certainly miniscule in comparison to what I was expecting once the proverbial engine was running at full steam. This only added to the torture of pent-up impatience.
“Madam Cassia, I bid you salutation!” The voice was none other than Raiden’s. He was garbed in black slacks with a red dress shirt; a matching belt and shined shoes; and a silver cross around his neck. I had to cover my mouth to hide a smirk.
“What a cute child! I just want to pinch those chubby cheeks of yours!” As the last words rolled off my tongue I lost it and clutched my stomach in laughter.
“Is it really all that weird?” remarked the boy in question.
“It’s not too different from your class uniform, but a vest or jacket would have added a few years in the looks department.”
“I never thought of it that way, so I’ll keep that in mind from now on. Your outfit is rather spectacular Jade.” His eyes traveled up my black tights to my denim skirt and lavender blouse. Spectacular was pushing it, but he was a guy after all. I chuckled and stood up, making sure the windbreaker stayed folded up on the satchel as I moved.
“Shall we be off then?” We set out for a nearby café, my hand in his while we walked. “So I hope you don’t find this weird, but I was kind of shocked when you said you attended Mass regularly.”
“Am I the devil now, Jade?”
“Well, you totally give off this gangster vibe, you know?”
He laughed. “Even gangsters need spirituality in their lives. It fosters a sense of security in one’s path.”
“My old man used to go a lot and is still on the devout side, plus my mother grew up Catholic so it’s not like I don’t get it.”
“But you don’t consider yourself a part of the faith?”
“How should I put it…?” The fingers of my other hand absentmindedly began to twirl locks of my hair. “I believe the soul resides in the skin and that desires of the flesh are life’s greatest pursuit.”
“That’s quite hedonist of you, but I suppose I can accept it as an existential view of the universe.”
“Yeah, that’s kind of how I see it too. If I can achieve personal enlightenment, then it won’t matter where I end up once the body has decayed.”
Raiden gave an affirming nod as we approached our destination. He held the door open for me and we stepped up to the counter. Raiden ordered a ham sandwich with a soft drink, while I ordered a pasta salad and flavored water. We waited a few minutes for the orders to be filled, and then made our way to one of the outdoor tables, sheltered from the bright sky by a green parasol.
Lowering my hat and setting it down next to me, I helped myself to my meal. The silence grew, only disturbed by the gentle breeze. Raiden stared at me curiously and I couldn’t help but blush. I swallowed and asked, “Is something the matter?”
“You’re different from how you were when we met.”
“That came out of left field; how exactly have I changed, Raiden?”
“On the day your friend and I had that duel, you tried to come off as confident, even a little arrogant. However, I could tell you were a very guarded spirit. The same happened during Miss Descartes’s party.” He took a bite of his sandwich and swallowed. “Now though, you’re starting to abandon that façade altogether. I guess in a way I am kind of relieved.”
In the twenty or so days we had been dating, this analysis of my persona was something he brought up occasionally, albeit in rather roundabout ways. I didn’t exactly care for it, but I played along as if not knowing any better. Being this straightforward about it was certainly a first for him. “Is that your way of saying I am secretly weak-willed?”
“Oh, far from it!” he chuckled, much to my chagrin. “It isn’t as if you have some sort of complex or a superficial desire of popularity. It doesn’t seem to be related with a past trauma of any sort either, since you appear to be living a rather contented lifestyle. If I had to give a hypothesis, it’s that your place in society has already been decided, and you don’t want others to know how much you resent that.”
My left hand shook, causing my fork to clatter slightly against the table. “My place in society? I’m afraid I don’t follow.” How presumptuous. I refuse to believe that this world has any control over me.
“Your father has earned high praise for his dedication to our community, while your mother has helped rebuild the lives of others behind the scenes. Meanwhile, you’re on track to graduate with honors in just one more year because that’s what people here have come to expect from the Cassia name. I’m not a complete idiot, Jade; I do my research on those I interact with, just like I’m sure you did before you agreed to date me.”
“I never expected such a biting accusation to come out of your mouth.” I picked up my fork and began to methodically cut bits of pasta into chunks. “In no way am I dignifying that last part, but just so we’re clear darling, I am not and have never been the subject of nepotism. I was a stranger like everyone else when I got into secondary school, and my reputation is that which I gathered on my own.”
I struggled to swallow my now shredded meal, absolutely livid by this point. Raiden watched me, and I could almost swear that he was amused by all of this; for undeterred, he pressed ever deeper. “Miss Cassia, do you love your mother and father dearly?”
“Huh?” I don’t like where you’re going with this.
“It is par for the course that if you love your family dearly, then you would seek to put their needs above even your own. To do otherwise would fill you with the most mortifying guilt, would it not?”
Tch, as if you would know. “So by that logic, I will just graduate, go off to college and magically be this successful person?”
“That isn’t quite what I’m saying.”
“The hell it isn’t, Raiden.”
“Jade, please.” He reached for my hand, which was rather unexpected, and we stared at each other for a moment before he continued. “I have no wish to make enemies of you. I say this because it’s what I’m going through as well.”
I had just about reached my limit. Grabbing my food and drink containers, I stood up. “Sorry, but you don’t get to jump to conclusions like that.” I walked back to the nearby parking area and drove off. As I made my way toward home, I felt a cold mist on my face. It took me a few moments to realize they were tears.
Why is this happening? What even is this? If I’m just using him anyway, then why does this hurt at all? Could it be that I really am weak, if I am to be brought to by knees by something so trivial? My house was up ahead, but I knew that if I went inside I would just lock myself in my room. I passed it and headed further north.
The highway arced through thick overgrowths and steadily rising hills as it deviated from the coast. Sunlight had been completely blotted out, and I had to use the lights on my motortrike just to see properly. Nestled beyond one curve in particular was an unpaved road heading east. I whipped onto it and took off into the mountains.
The quiet engine and squelch of gravel played second fiddle to the awe-inspiring sounds of nature. I could hear birds soaring above me, while creeks roared with the downward flow of icy water carried down from the summit.
I trudged along the treacherous trail for nearly an hour. Eventually the trees had been left behind for a small clearing halfway up the mountainside. I parked here and turned the engine off, following a set of wooden steps upward toward a truly massive structure.
Even at the speed of light, spacebound communication with Earth would have taken nearly an hour each way. To get around this, engineers had essentially built cosmic railguns which could accelerate light to multiples of its scalar magnitude. Algorithms had to be created to avoid something called negative latency, which was where the return message was delivered before the initial message was sent.
The aesthetic was hard to define. If you were to cut a cross down the top of a solid egg, and shove one of those four pieces about a third of the way into the ground, perhaps that would compare most to the building’s shape. Anchored to the two flat sides of the tower were long columns of lights, which would flash blue to indicate that information was being sent or received along the complex network. Some of the lights would occasionally turn red to signify if data was being interrupted for any reason. In no time at all, they would return to blue as if nothing happened.
I had loved coming up to this place ever since I was a child. This high up, one could see nearly every part of the Navaro District, from its sparser towns to the city I called home. The ocean seemed endless from here, and the mountains behind me were like a labyrinth. I could just barely make out the highways and sections of hyperloop that carved a path deeper into the continent, with traffic no larger than mere grains of sand.
The mountain gusts were bitter, and I wrapped my windbreaker tighter around my body as I made it to the top of the steps. Here stood a much smaller glass observatory, and I entered the revolving door to escape the mountain’s chill. It was a small visitor area, used sparingly throughout the year. Vents in the ceiling kept the place from getting dusty, though the bulletin board posters were positively ancient and in need of replacement.
As I lay on one of the benches facing south, I pulled out my phone. “Call Meredith Cassia.”
[“Dialing…”] By the third ring, my mother picked up. “Hi, honey! It’s been too long!”
“Yeah… It’s good to hear from you, mom.” I did my best to hide the subtle choke in my voice, but to no avail.”
“Jade, darling, is something the matter? You sound like you’ve been crying!”
Sniffling, I replied, “Yeah, just a little… I know you’re probably busy, but… I really could use your advice…” Tears began to fall with more intensity as I struggled to tell her everything. I explained to her my plans to start a war game, the money laundering scheme with Carmella Albury, my relationship with Raiden and how I fought with him that day.
My mother listened intently until I had finished, and then she gave her thoughts.
“While I can’t say I approve of all this, you’re growing up and you will do as you see fit, whatever the consequences may be. Does your father know about any of this?”
“I haven’t really brought it up with him…”
“Honey, I have told you always that as your parents we can only guide you by what we feel is best for you. You have every right to choose a different direction, but you need to be sure that doing so makes you happy. Have you given thought to what will happen when this game of yours ends?”
“I think so,” was my answer. “My hope is that I can keep the game going until I graduate. At that time, the pot will be so large that whoever wins it will ultimately shift the balance of power in their favor.”
“It sounds as if you want someone in particular to win.”
“Well, I had planned to use the boy I told you about.”
“Why him, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I want… I want to find out if he knows about the Cryovenom, or about the group that attacked Felicity’s cousin.”
My mother paused for a moment, digesting what I had said. “Jade, you aren’t going to like what I have to say, but I think you are completely misjudging this boy.”
“If you place upon him the transgressions of his lineage, then you are acting exactly as he said society is acting toward you. You are becoming the very thing you wish to hate.”
“I don’t… know what to say to that…”
“Then say nothing. Go back and listen to what he truly feels and thinks. You may find him to be far more genuine than you initially thought.” There was a pause on the other end, and then, “I need to return to work now, sweetie. Will you be okay?”
I dried my eyes and took a deep breath. “I will. Are you going to be home for my birthday this year, mom?”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the universe. Be good and I will see you soon!” The call clicked after that, and I set the phone down at my hip. Beyond the soft rattling of the wind outside, silence had returned to the small glass dome which surrounded me.
What have I been doing all this time? I wanted so much to believe that I had come up with this scheme myself, that outside influences meant nothing in the wake of my open-ended rebellion. Reality, on the other hand, seemed fully intent on proving me wrong. I felt like a child scolded for disrespecting an elder. How humiliating…
There was an unwitting truth to Raiden’s words, whether I wanted to accept it or not. My pursuit of a new social order was clearly in the spirit of my father, while the desire to protect Felicity was clearly in the spirit of my mother. I found myself questioning whether he really had done his research on me, or if it were all simple intuition on his part.
Slowly, I let out a dejected sigh. I’m being a hypocrite, aren’t I? I need to fix this. My fingers tapped on my phone, sending a message to Raiden with positioning coordinates attached. I lay there as the minutes passed, watching the clouds drift lazily in the orange sky. Eventually I dozed off, awoken by a gentle nudge to the shoulder. “What time is it…?”
“It’s six in the evening, Jade. You worried me a little, calling me out here like this.”
“Yeah… I feel like I owe you an explanation… and an apology…” A bit of dust floated into my nose and I sneezed.
The charming young man kneeling on the floor across from me placed a blanket over my shivering body. “You’ll catch a cold like this, you know.”
“Raiden, why do you care so much about me, anyway?” My hands balled into fists and my cheeks turned bright red. “All I have been is malicious to you from day one, yet you still come to my rescue even now. What is it? Are you some kind of masochist?”
“Jade…” His gaze dropped as he struggled to put his thoughts in order. “All I want is to learn about you, but you have to put your trust in me for that to happen. No more mind games. Please…”
It took a moment to mull things over before I answered, “Very well.” Holding open the blanket, I ushered him to sit beside me. “When I started dating you, it was under false pretenses. Doing so was wrong of me, and I’m sorry.”
“I had a feeling that was the case, and I can’t say I’m really surprised given the allegations surrounding my name. Though to be quite honest, even I become frustrated with the way my mother and father conduct the trade.”
“Does that mean that the cryovenom-?” I stopped when he put his hand in front of my face.
“I can assure you the Megaera Estate abhors recreational drug use in any fashion. Anyone caught using while on a Megaera-affiliated property is severely punished.”
“I see…” Could I trust his word? For the time being, it was all I had.
“My parents did, however, advocate the use of accelerants to fuel the business. To balance the books, they offloaded the excess product by way of a dummy corporation in the Feather Creek Desert. The Arrow of Artemis was a mediator for the transfers; that is, until November.”
“Right, then you and Felicity…”
“I have to repay my debt to her family. I may not have been involved, but I take full responsibility for what happened.”
“Raiden…” I want to believe you; no, I need to believe in you. I may not know everything about you, and I may not yet understand your family dynamic. Regardless, I am going to follow you as far as this takes; for your sake… and hers…
The gusts of wind surrounded our secluded glass chamber. As our words faded, I found him drawing even closer to me under the blanket. His body is so warm. This is actually kind of nice. I thought back to something Francesca had said back in May, and I chuckled.
“Is there something amusing on your mind, Jade?”
Putting a finger to my lips, I answered, “Hmm, maybe there is. Can you close your eyes for me?” This put him a bit off guard, but he did as I asked. Setting my phone on the ground, I placed my left hand on his chest just below the shoulder blade. As I leaned forward, I found my own eyes closing against their will, shutting entirely as my lips pressed into his perfectly.
His right arm slid down my left to my ribcage, gripping firmly and holding as we shared that tender moment in time. As my eyes opened, I could see clearly into his emerald irises. Our lips parted, but our gazes remained fixed. We each began to breathe again, shallow inhalations muffled by the whistling air of the mountain.
Raiden’s lips began to move, and though his voice was barely above a whisper, the words he spoke roared into my mind like the echo of a hypersonic space vessel.
“Jade… I’m in love with you.”