“You discontinued your birth control medication?” Dr. Lawrence raised an eyebrow as he pored over the contents of my medical chart. “I understand you’re almost out of school, but that is a serious decision to make.”
“With all due respect doctor, such is a conversation best left between me and my gynecologist.”
“Right; at the very least, make an appointment with them as soon as possible so you can start a daily vitamin regimen. Personal nutrition is vital at this time in your life, Miss Cassia.”
“Thank you for your concern; now then, is my shoulder going to be okay?”
Dr. Lawrence pulled up some images on the wall’s display. “There is sufficient calcification allowing for mesh removal at this time, but it will take another six months to a year for your body to fully heal and the pain to subside. There may always be some discomfort though, so do be gentle from now on.”
“When’s the soonest I can have it taken out?”
“I’ll schedule you for this evening if you can go without food for the rest of the day.”
“That should work. You’ve been a great help, doctor.” Bidding him farewell, I made my way back through the halls of the hospital toward ground level. Since I couldn’t eat or drink, relaxing in the plaza sounded like an ideal way to waste time. It was now early February, and the weather was mild if just a little chilly. The heat of Ganymede’s artificial suns felt wonderful on my skin as I lay against a large rock, my coat a makeshift pillow for my head.
Minute by minute, the crowds would ebb and flow. Visitors carried gifts for loved ones, and it wasn’t hard to make out emotions of relief or concern in the patients who passed within my field of vision. Having been in relatively good health prior to the incident, I seldom found myself in a place like this. I considered myself lucky, and I tried to be grateful despite the events of the last four months.
A squad car pulled up near the main entrance, seeming to coincide with a pair of medical drones descending from above. It was highly likely that a traffic accident had occurred somewhere in the region and that the officers were here filing a report. Seeing them, though, reminded me a lot of my father and how I hadn’t talked with him since moving out.
The choices I made did not feel wrong in the slightest. Balancing work, school and the war game proved that if nothing else, I was a responsible and capable adult. Even if it wasn’t necessarily my problem, it still depressed me greatly to have lost the support of my closest family. Sure, my mother was calling every week – hell, she called more now than she ever had – but it could not make up the difference in any meaningful way.
My father was the one who taught me how to ride a bike, how to drive a car, and how to shoot a bow and arrow. We would often go camping and stargazing when I was a kid, and once I became a teenager he was the one who watched me compete in school performances and talent shows. It felt like those occurrences, those little wonders, would never again occur.
When I get married, who will walk me down the aisle if not my father? Not only that; when I graduate, who will receive me after the ceremony? If I go to college, what then? So many potential memories had been taken for granted, prefaced with an eventually I had no way of guaranteeing. Life certainly was a bitter pill to swallow.
A text message instructed me to report to registration for pre-op. Stowing the phone in my bag, I made my way back toward the ornate marble building. A highly decorated inspector passed by on his way back to the parked cruiser. Seeing me caused him to abruptly stop. “Hey, you’re John’s kid, aren’t you?”
I nodded. “Yeah, but I have my own place now. Is my father doing well?”
“He’s more or less going strong. Damn, it’s been a few years, hasn’t it? Kids grow up so fast these days.”
“Forgive me, but I can’t remember who you are.” Blushing awkwardly, I extended my left hand. “Sorry, my right arm’s still pretty banged up.”
“It’s no trouble at all, miss!” His grip was firm and confident. “I’ve worked with your father a lot over the years, even back when he was still a sergeant and I a mere constable! So, are you done with school? Kids grow up so fast nowadays!”
“I’ll be done in six months, but I already have a part time job, and I’m getting kickbacks from the war game after all…”
The officer clicked his tongue against his cheek. “Listen, I’m probably preaching to the choir at this point, but you need to be careful when hanging out in the underworld. I was there the night of the incident, and next time it might be more than an arm.”
“Did my dad tell you to say that?” I asked as my lip began to twitch in irritation.
“He didn’t, and even if he had it wouldn’t matter. We are officers of the peace. When we see someone going down a dangerous path, we pull them back because that’s our job. It’s not even that your father distrusts your boyfriend, because in reality he’s rather ambivalent. That said he doesn’t believe the Megaera family can protect you, and I’m inclined to agree with him.”
“Did you miss the memo where Raiden stopped me from being shot at before my father could?”
“Miss Cassia, open your eyes! The reason you were even shot at in the first place is because you were fodder for the real target! Do you even realize how shaken up your father was when he returned to the office that day? He blamed himself for your rebellion!”
“I…!” No response came to mind. Was it true what the inspector was saying to me? If so, then why hadn’t my father expressed his grievances to me personally? Why was he still avoiding me after all this time!? “I’m sorry, but I need to go. I’m having surgery in a few hours.”
The inspector let out a regretful sigh. “I wish you the best. Please, do be careful if nothing else.”
With a final nod, I made my way inside to the registration desk. At first it felt like numbness had overtaken my emotions, but then realized it was more of a growing apathy. I was sick and tired of being told that the things I wanted most, I couldn’t have. If all of this were a joke put on by the universe, well, it wasn’t funny anymore.
Notwithstanding the wonders of anesthesia, my surgery had been incredibly quick. I had a new set of scars running down my waist and shoulder, but the pain was nowhere near as bad as it had been six months before. A nurse greeted me when I awoke, telling me the procedure had no complications and that I would be released in as little as two days. It was a relief, because a return to normalcy was what I needed most. If only it were that easy…
Raiden’s parents picked me up on the day of my discharge. When I asked why my boyfriend wasn’t with them, I was told he had been sent on an errand. Given how worn out my body and mind were, I didn’t really pay it much attention. When I was dropped off at my room, I fell asleep and figured he would be around when I woke up.
Only he wasn’t. When I opened my eyes, there was a vase of flowers on the desk which had been brought in for me. The card indicated Raiden had sent it, but it was also laced with a myriad of apologies. Attempts at compromise with Marabunta and Artemis had fallen through, and he had an obligation to protect those under his care. He wished me well and sent his love, though what I really desired was companionship, a physical closeness to soothe my discomfort. Languishing alone in that room was not my idea of a good time.
I needed to see him. So like other rebellious teenagers before me, I decided I would sneak across to my boyfriend’s home and surprise him. Taking a bit of medicine and donning a grey shawl, I made my way into the cold night and down the side road which led to his door. The night sentry didn’t so much as bat an eyelash at me as I showed him my identification. A minute later, I was in the grand foyer.
Should I… call out…? The open room was completely silent to the point of being almost intimidating. Shuffling quietly along, I ascended the stairs to the second floor, making my way down a dark hall. There was a lit room halfway in, and throwing caution to the wind, I was compelled to take a peek.
“…cannot sit idly by and do nothing!” I recognized the voice as Raiden’s which caused my hand to hover above the doorknob. The voice which followed was unmistakably his father’s.
“I held matching sentiments at your age, but in our work, childish ideals lead only to broken promises.”
“Is it not more childish to submit to the whims of a schoolyard bully? The Megaera Estate is better than this!”
“You’ll understand as you grow that there are times where pride takes a back seat to survival.”
“So many times we have taken the fall, and to what end? We throw ourselves before the altar of the law while our so-called protectors turn a blind eye to our struggles! We are pawns to be martyred and discarded!”
“Bite your tongue, boy! Those debts have already been paid in full!”
“So we incur even more!? We sell out our reputation and our people in the vain hope of acceptable restitution!? Do you genuinely believe our honor has a price!?”
“I told you to bite your tongue!” There was an audible smack followed by a much louder crash. I ran away as fast as I could; only stopping to catch my breath once I had returned to the foyer. A wave of nausea overwhelmed me and I did my best to swallow it down. The echo of what had transpired continued to reverberate in my mind.
Arthur Megaera had just beaten the hell out of his own son, and I had witnessed the whole thing firsthand. None of it made sense; the Megaera family had seemed so tight knit from day one. Was this an isolated incident? If so, then what had been the trigger? While I tried my best to make heads or tails of the situation, I heard the sound of footsteps above me, and a new thought enveloped me.
Raiden can never know I was here. Isolated or not, there was definitely a reason for why Raiden had never made me privy to something of this magnitude. The prestige of his namesake must have meant everything to him. Could he bring himself to face me if he knew that I had seen such a fall from familial grace? Worse yet, if an outsider found out…
No, don’t worry about that now. Just get out of here, Jade! As the altercation continued upstairs, I rushed out through the double doors, shielding my eyes from the sun as I waved to the guard. I hoped it was enough to fool him. Once I had finally made it back to my own room, I locked the door and threw myself on my bed. Overwhelmed with nausea and emotional shock, I fainted.
It was nearly midnight when I next opened my eyes. The nausea had faded, replaced by a headache and the pain of a healing shoulder. I filled a water bottle and slowly drank from it, doing my best to revitalize myself lest I faint a second time. Fifteen minutes later, I could finally think again.
Raiden’s family is being blackmailed… This fact stood out above all others in my mind. There had always been a lingering possibility that the Megaera family was covering for a third party, yet I hastily sought to discard it once Raiden and I began dating. I could only blame myself for such foolishness.
On the other hand, I could wholeheartedly blame Raiden for lying about knowledge of his family’s business. The overheard conversation made it very clear to me that this grudge was a longstanding powder keg behind closed doors. Although…
It pained me to admit, but I understood Raiden’s secrecy on some levels. As the heir, he would be required to take responsibility for his parents’ actions; maybe not now, but definitely in the future. This landed him in a hypothetical where, should he successfully rectify the wrongs of his predecessors now, then he could take the throne honorably with all traces of corruption stricken from the public eye. Even my knowledge of such a pursuit could be a liability to his cause.
I needed to stifle my anger at the situation. What mattered was figuring out the link between Raiden’s family and this third party, whoever they were. Raiden’s father had been rather collected up to a point. It was only after a certain line had been crossed that Arthur resorted to violence. Since Raiden often spoke highly of his family, I could safely assume this was nothing more than a freak incident. So, why did Arthur Megaera get so pissed…?
Though I tried with all of my might to recall what had been said mere hours before, my mind was too hazy to identify specifics. In the most general sense, the Megaera Estate was subservient to an entity much larger than they. This entity had to have been around in the colonization era, which didn’t exactly narrow down the suspects.
Wait a minute… XANDRIA! Something seemed to click, a conversation I had with my ex-friend Bradley about this very issue. Xandria Holdings was the largest conglomerate this side of Ganymede. Could they be the ones blackmailing Megaera?
Xandria was an enigma to me in every way. I knew, of course, that Carmella was using them as an intermediary for the ledgers of our war game. If they were the ones blackmailing Megaera, then there could be only one conclusion. Xandria… has to be the producer. There could be no other explanation; Xandria Holdings had to be manufacturing and distributing the cryovenom.
Did Carmella know? No, she couldn’t have. She was a principal for heaven’s sake! Her job practically required her to abhor any and all associations to the drug trade. She wouldn’t dare risk her career if there had been the slightest indication that Xandria was criminal.
…Or would she?
Suddenly a different kind of nausea had begun to overtake me. I curled up in bed and tried to swallow it down, but nothing could ease the pain of this realization. I prayed and prayed that my deepest fears were wrong. I knew, however, that there was only one way to be certain.
The eleventh of February was a Saturday, so I could safely assume that Carmella would have the day off. The side of her office contained a second door which led directly out of the building. While it required a special keycard to open, there was another way to disengage the lock.
The machine for creating keycards was housed in the security office, and on the night of the Seven Stars competition, I had been allowed to produce a limited supply of time-sensitive dummy cards. Those cards had long since expired, but there was another type of card which was of vital importance. This was the Reset Key, and it was used to disengage locks if the internal electronics had failed. To create it, you needed a physical chip which would be inserted directly into the back of the machine. While in the security room, I stumbled upon the chip and made a Reset Key of my very own. I never really expected to use it and had only kept it as a novelty.
Clutching the card in my hand, I placed it in the slot on the doorknob, making sure nobody was around to catch me in the act. Five seconds later, the door opened. I stepped inside the dark room, inhaled that familiar scent of Martian Cedar, and proceeded to get to work.
Using my phone’s camera flash as a pen light, I made my way to the far bookshelf and began to skim my fingers frantically across the spine of each tome. Come on, which one was it…? The order of the books appeared to have changed slightly, with some being replaced over time. After a third scan of the shelf, I still hadn’t found what I was looking for, so I moved on to a different area.
With each minute that passed, I felt myself growing more frustrated and anxious. Then, on the lower shelves of the bookcase closest to the door, I found it. It was just the right thickness, and placing my finger over the top of the pages revealed the adhesive which fused them together. This is it. Pulling the volume, I opened it to reveal the secret compartment of gems inside.
Each one reflected a weak cyan, and they were cylindrical with roughly the thickness of a shot glass. Come to think of it, each gem was also identically sized. Taking one out, I began to trace my fingers along the surface. There was a laser-etched Xandria logo embedded above what appeared to be an inventory number or perhaps a manufacturer’s serial. I checked the other gems and saw they too had numeric markings.
The inventory numbers were twenty characters in length. Eight of the characters corresponded with what appeared to be a year, month and date. An additional four characters were identical to every gem. These characters were “ML40.”
ML40? Is it a reference to something? My gaze turned to the desk, and I spent precious minutes skimming through the drawers to no avail. Dammit! I’ve come this far only to reach a dead end! Furious by this point, I grabbed up the gems and dropped them haphazardly back into the book compartment, not caring if they got scratched up or damaged.
Huh? The sudden reverberation caught me off guard. I picked up one of the gems and dropped it on its counterparts again. *Clink!* Strange, it almost sounds like the gems are… That’s not possible! Pulling out the gem once more, I pressed my phone flash directly to the bottom, and the entire thing lit up, revealing pulsating bubbles inside.
It is a shot glass; this gem is an actual container!? Heart racing, I traced my fingers more carefully around the gem, looking for false edges. The top contained an artificial ring, and by twisting my thumb counterclockwise, the whole surface unscrewed and popped out. I turned the gem upside down and a second container fell into my hand. The liquid inside was the source of the blue coloring.
I don’t believe it… This has to be… Suddenly the inner door opened and the lights flickered on, Carmella Albury standing before me. She said nothing and simply stared at me until the door was completely closed behind her.
Then, she began to clap.