I adjusted the strap of my bag on my shoulder, took a deep breath and walked through the front gates of Neptune Academy for Boys.
The landscaped front lawn with the trimmed hedges and blooming flowers stretched out in front of me. An artificial stream ran through it, flowing under the driveway and around the school. Fish swam in the water. I couldn’t tell if they were real or not.
The school buildings flanked the administrative building, towering over it. I could make out students walking through the halls behind the large windows and saw a few more walking across the platforms that interweaved with each other so that all the buildings were connected in some way. I stood alone in front of the entrance to the blindingly white administrative building. Classes had already started for the day.
“Are you looking for someone?” a man in a security uniform asked.
“I need to get to the main office,” I said, holding up my acceptance letter.
“Down the hall. There’s a sign above the door. You can’t miss it,” he said.
Neptune Academy could swallow my entire previous school and no one would notice. It was that big.
I followed the man’s directions. The main office was just where he said it would be.
“Good morning,” I said. I held out the acceptance letter to the lady at the front desk. “I was told to come here first.”
The lady took the letter. “Aster Arman. Yes, Mrs. Dixon said you would be coming. Go through that door. Her office is first on the right.”
I went through the door and stopped in front of the office with the title ‘Student Administrator: Dr. Lydia Dixon MD BsC PhD’ on the door for a few seconds before knocking.
I stepped into the room.
“Good morning,” the lady behind the desk said. She was in her late forties with slightly greying short hair. I recognized her from the first interview I’d done over the internet. “Have a seat Mr. Arman.”
I swallowed and sat on the chair in front of me. My entire plan rested on me being able to convince this lady to let me into the school.
I handed her the documents. Mrs. Dixon flipped through a folder, then closed it and rested it on the table.
“Your grades for the entrance exams were exceptional, but I should warn you, the Science and Technology Department here at Neptune Academy is very demanding. We don’t accept very many people into the final two years.”
“I have only recently discovered my love for science and I was able to get a near perfect score on the entrance exam in just a few months. Hard work doesn’t scare me,” I said.
Mrs. Dixon gave me a long look. “Why did you choose to come here? According to your records, you lived closely to Mars University. With these grades you could have gotten into their introductory program and skipped the final two years of high school.”
“I’ve met people who have attended this school and they all spoke very highly of it, especially the Science and Technology Department. I don’t want to skip out on high school and the people I can meet during my time here. My parents told me that school is not just about education, but also about forming connections with people. I can learn in my room but I can’t form bonds on my own.”
Mrs. Dixon nodded. “That’s a good answer but I don’t think that’s your real reason.”
“It is. I want to learn more and be of service to my country.” I had already thought up of all the possible questions I could be asked and had answers ready. It had worked on the teachers at Deimos High School, my previous high school but Mrs. Dixon wasn’t going to be fooled that easily. Her eyes bore into me.
I lowered my eyes. “You’re right. That isn’t the only reason. I didn’t like my old school and one of my friends goes here and he’s always telling me about how much fun he has at school, even when it’s hard. I’ve gone to his competitions before and I saw how close he and his friends are. I got jealous so I thought that if I could get into this school, at least I’d already know one person. I worked really hard and studied for hours to get into the Business Department since that was what I was studying back at my old school but then I discovered that I liked Science more and what became curiosity turned into obsession. I wrote that essay in one night because it was so interesting."
Mrs. Dixon looked at me for a little longer. I forced myself to remain still under her gaze.
“Who is the boy who goes here?” I asked.
I took a deep breath. “Malakai Levine.”
Mrs. Dixon raised her eyebrows. “Malakai Levine?”
I nodded. “Yes. We met at one of the shooting contests at Mars University. I went out of curiosity and we became friends. We kept in contact after that.”
Mrs. Dixon nodded. “It’s good that you have a friend like him.” She stamped the papers and signed them. She held them out to me. “Welcome to Neptune Academy.” I reached for the file. Mrs. Dixon held onto it. “If you need anything, my door is always open.”
“Thank you,” I said. My heart rate began to slow down. “Don’t leave just yet.” Mrs. Dixon took up the phone. “One of the cadets will show you around the school. Yes, please send Malakai Levine to my office.”
I gulped and wiped my palms on my pants.
After a few minutes, there was a knock on the door.
“Come in,” Mrs. Dixon said.
An eighteen year old boy with short light brown hair and deep-set dark eyes walked in. He wore the Neptune Academy uniform: black shoes, navy pants, a royal blue vest with the school logo in white over a white long-sleeved shirt with a blue and white tie. On the left side of his vest were three pins, one of a beaker and wrench signifying his enrollment in the Science and Technology Department, the second was of a shield signifying that he was a part of the cadets, and the third was the purple and gold coat of arms of Nevaeh signifying that not only was he also in Military Training, but that he’d already been accepted as a soldier in the Nevaeh Defense Force despite the fact that he hadn’t finished high school yet. That wasn’t an honor given to many people. He had to excel in both academics and his military training in order to be awarded with that pin.
His eyes widened when he saw me.
“Aster?” he asked. “What are you doing here?”
“Hi Kai,” I said, begging him with my eyes to keep his mouth shut.
Mrs. Dixon looked between the two of them. “Mr. Levine, I’ll leave Mr. Arman in your care. Show him around and take him to get his tablet and uniform.” I hadn’t collected my uniform just yet since I hadn’t been fully accepted into the school.
“I will Mrs. Dixon,” he said.
I followed Malakai out of the office. He didn’t stop or slow down. He led me around the corner of the main building and dragged me into a closet.
“Um, Kai,” I said. He spun me around so my back was to the wall. He looked around then leaned down
“What the hell are you doing here, Aster?” he asked. “This is a boys’ school.” He pulled at my short hair. “Why did you cut off all your hair?” He looked down. “Oh God.”
I rolled my eyes and pulled back the collar of the shirt I was wearing. “It’s called a chest binder.”
“Aster,” he said. “Why did you come?”
I lock eyes with him. “You know why. I’m here to find Gideon.”