Episode 2 (Neptune in Conflict) – Chapter 1
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I held a picture frame in my hand. The picture changed every fifteen seconds. All of them were of me and Gideon. My fingers tightened around it.

“Melody, has Malakai finished watching the video?” I asked.

“Yes, he has.”

I put the frame back on my bedside table and went to the living room. The video message Gideon had left for him was no longer on the wall.

“What did he say?” I asked, sitting in the armchair opposite Malakai.

He clenched his teeth. “I know I said before that you’re on your own. I’m going to have to take that back.”

“I figured you would say that,” I said. I wasn’t happy about that. Malakai would only get in my way. “At least you believe me now.” He remained silent. “What do you think about this whole situation?”

Malakai thought about it for a moment. “Gideon asked us not to look for him until he sends us a message. If your timeline is right, he’s been gone for almost three months. I think we’ll have to go against his wishes.”

I relaxed and leaned back in the chair. Finally Malakai and I were on the same page.

“Do you think it has something to do with the program he was on last semester? What was that about?” I asked.

“He was invited to Venus University to take some advanced Biology classes. They were going to meet some famous people and tour Sun Division. I didn’t ask many details. I’d been preparing for my own exchange program,” Malakai said. “But if you’re right, then he came back after that, so he wasn’t taken there.”

“And we still don’t know where he got those keys or what Nibiru is.”

“He must have gotten them when he went to Sun. No one else would have had them to give him.”

“What about at Venus?”

“That is a possibility as well, I guess.” He sighed. “The truth is I can’t say. I don’t have access to that kind of information yet. I’ve only seen people with them before, never used them. As for Nibiru, I only know of it as a planet. Gideon was into astronomy but after that message,” he paused, “I don’t think he was talking about a planet.”

“I thought the same thing. Maybe it’s a person or a code-word,” I said. I flipped through the notebook again.

“It can’t refer to anything good. I’ve only heard about it in the context of the Nibiru Cataclysm and the end of the world.”

“Apparently Gideon didn’t know what it stood for either.” I rubbed my eyes. “Or maybe I need to take a nap and then look at this again.” I handed the notebook to him to flip through. “I have a few more questions.”

“What are they?”

“What was Gideon’s experience at Neptune like?”

Malakai’s fingers paused on the page. “What do you mean?”

"I overheard some boys talking about how they beat him up and they had the intention to do the same to me for no real reason,” I said. I saw his eyes glance at the fading bruise on my jaw. “The ones who did this were different and I’ve already taken care of them.”

“There was good and there was bad,” Malakai said.

“I heard them say it was because of you.”

I saw him tense.

“They are fools trying to destress themselves,” he said.

“Oh, is that what we’re calling it?”

“Everyone is under a lot of pressure to take the right classes, get the right grades, make the right friends. Some can’t handle that pressure and when they realize that they can’t get what they want, they take their frustration out on those who they think don’t deserve what they want.”

“And what they want is you?”

“Yes, and no.” He looked at me. “It is true that a friendship with me would benefit them, but it’s also what I have and what I represent that they want.”

“I must be a little slow. Explain it to me,” I said. “You’re telling me that they beat Gideon up because they were jealous of your perfection?”

“Well, I guess you could put it like that. But they have no idea what it is they were really doing.”

I dug my fingers into the arm of the chair. “Tell me who those boys are.”

“Forget about them. They have already been punished for their stupidity. Hopefully they’ll spend this next year working on improving themselves instead of trying to take what wasn’t theirs to begin with.”

I tried to calm myself. “What about friends? Did Gideon have any friends other than you?”

“A few. Mostly those who were a part of his astronomy and marine biology clubs.” He bit his lip.

“What is it Malakai?”

“Two of his friends didn’t return this semester either,” he said.

“We should look into that.”

Malakai put the notebook on the table. “Aster, I know you want to find Gideon but we have to go about this smartly. You’ve already taken a big risk just getting these notebooks. If there really is something going on at Neptune, which I still don’t think there is, you can’t risk someone finding out who you are or why you are here.”

“I know.”

There was a beep from my room. “It is time for you to get ready for school,” Melody said.

“Do you have training today?” I asked.

“Yes. We’re practicing for the next Monster Raid in a few weeks.”

“I need to go to astronomy club and the marine biology club.”

“You wouldn’t find either one of those interesting.”

“I’m not here to enjoy myself. I’m here to find out about Gideon,” I said. I really wanted to go with the others to do drone racing. I shoved that thought away. Gideon was more important.

“The marine biology club usually meets in the afternoon around five. The astronomy club meets at seven,” he said. That meant I could go to drone racing. I held back my smile.

“What clubs are you a part of?” I asked.

“Just Monster Raid and Aero Tag,” he said. “We don’t meet every week since most of us have military training. I usually spend my Saturdays and Sundays sleeping or working on a project.” He nodded to the bathroom. “Go and get ready.”

“You don’t have to go with me,” I said.

“I disagree. It’s not just you I’m worried about. Gideon might really be in trouble.”

“And what about the fact that your presence will make me a bigger target?” I asked. “Yes, even the teachers have told me that.”

He frowned. “The damage has already been done, and I promised Gideon.”

“When?”

“Just now.” He sighed. “I couldn’t refuse after what he told me.”

“What did he tell you?”

“Nothing that concerns you.”

“Did something happen to Gideon that you didn’t know about?” I asked, my stomach sinking.

“No. That’s not it,” Malakai said. “It’s something personal, between the two of us.”

“As long as Gideon wasn’t hurt,” I said. It was probably just one of those ‘take care of my family’ deals like those guys made on TV.

I went to my room and grabbed my stuff. It didn’t take me long to shower and change. When I came out, Malakai was talking on the phone with his mother. I went into my room to give him some privacy.

I looked at the notebooks spread out on my bed. I had to hide them. I grabbed the computer case that Gideon had sent me and shoved them inside with the pieces I still hadn’t put back together, and screwed everything shut. I would memorize them later and make some secure digital copies just to be safe.

By the time I was done, Malakai had finished talking. I had to wait on him while he used the bathroom. I made some coffee to help me wake up some more.

Malakai stormed out of the bathroom surprising me and making me spill the coffee onto my hand. I turned on the pipe and stuck it under the running water.

“Don’t do that,” I said.

He raised up a bag. “What is this? Are you sick?”

I glanced at it then turned my attention back to my hand. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Then explain these vials.”

“You shouldn’t be searching in my bathroom anyway.”

“It’s Gideon’s bathroom.”

“Melody, who owns this apartment?” I asked.

“Ownership of this apartment was temporarily transferred to Aster Arman, Gideon Le’Claire’s younger cousin,” Melody said.

“See?”

“Fine, but that still doesn’t explain these vials. If you’re sick I have to know,” he said.

I sighed. He wasn’t about to let this one go. “If you must know, they are to pause my feminine cycles. One injection lasts three months. I’m sure the girls in your cadet group use something similar.”

He held the bag up to his eye-level. “I’ve overheard them talking about something like this a few times but you have enough to last you for at least the next three years,” he said.

I shrugged. “It’s just a precaution. Coffee?” It didn’t look as if the burn would leave a mark.

We finished our cups of coffee then went downstairs. I spotted Mr. Moore in the lobby at the front desk.

“Aren’t you going to school?” I asked.

“I just have to pick this up really quick.” He signed for a box. “Need a lift?”

“No—” Malakai started.

“Yes. You have to see his car,” I said. “Mr. Moore, you promised to let me look inside.”

“How about tomorrow? I’m going to a friend’s workshop. You can come with me,” he said.

“Yes,” I said.

“No,” Malakai said.

I cracked my knuckles. “Try to say that again.”

He looked at my hands and smirked. “What can those little things do?”

“Are you related to him?” Mr. Moore asked.

“No,” I said.

“Yes,” Malakai said.

“Hell no,” I said.

“I was left in charge of her-him now that he’s such a long way from home,” he said, shooting me a glare.

“I’m seventeen. I don’t need a babysitter and I’ll be with my teacher. Unless you have a problem with me going to class without you, I don’t see what the big deal is,” I said. “What exactly do you expect me to do while you work on your projects?”

“Sit still and be quiet,” he said.

Mr. Moore patted Malakai’s back. “He’ll be fine with me. The workshop is a little outdated but it passed safety inspections just last week. He’ll be more likely to get in trouble at school,” he said, giving my jaw a pointed look.

Malakai clenched his teeth. “Fine. I’ll allow it.”

Malakai had been annoying before. What had Gideon told him to make him act like this now? It had me a little worried but I was going with Mr. Moore. Even if there was something going on, he hadn’t been there during that time so he couldn’t have had anything to do with Gideon’s disappearance. I should be fine.

Mr. Moore took us down to the underground parking garage. I wouldn’t put a car like his outside either. It was too cool.

“Wow,” Malakai said. “That’s custom made.”

“Mr. Moore said he made it himself,” I said.

Mr. Moore put the box in the trunk and opened it. “My parents sent me some stuff.” He reached inside and took out two packages. “They know how much I love these so they always send a lot.”

“Teachers get packages from their parents?” Malakai asked, looking at the package suspiciously.

“I’m not sure about other teachers but I do,” Mr. Moore said.

I took one and opened it. “What is this?”

“Chicken pastel,” he said.

I raised it to my mouth. Malakai held my hand.

“What is in it?” Malakai asked.

“Chicken, vegetables, I don’t think there’s anything in there to trigger an allergy,” Mr. Moore said.

“An allergy I don’t have,” I said. I took a bite. “This is good.”

Malakai watched me for a moment then took a small bite out of his. “This is good, but we shouldn’t be eating this. It will mess up our assigned diets.”

“If something as small as this can do that, then they need to revise our diets,” I said.

“That’s true. Don’t worry Malakai. One lap around the field and this will be long gone. There’s nothing in it that would affect our meals. I’ve looked at the average diet of a student and teacher at Neptune,” Mr. Moore said.

“Why?” Malakai asked.

“Just out of curiosity,” he said. He shut the trunk. “Let’s go or we’ll be late for breakfast.”

I took the front seat before Malakai could. He looked around.

“Nice car,” he said.

“Hear this,” Mr. Moore said. He pressed the button that started the car. “Just listen to that engine purr.” A soft purr came from the front of the car.

“Nice,” I said.

“Aren’t engines supposed to be silent?’ Malakai asked.

“Only if that’s what you want. I like to hear it work,” Mr. Moore said.

“Me too,” I said.

“How are you an art teacher again?” Malakai asked. I glanced back at him. He was a worrier but he wasn’t usually this suspicious about people, especially not about a teacher.

“Test anxiety. I could never pass the science exams. Art was my second love so I wasn’t giving up much. I still had access to all the toys, with my teacher’s permission of course,” Mr. Moore said.

“Then why not do architecture?” Malakai asked.

Mr. Moore didn’t answer for a while. “It isn’t all the time that teachers are hired based on qualifications. Sometimes skill is all that matters and I am a skilled artist.”

The drive to school was too short. I definitely needed my own car.

We got out in front of the dorm building. “Thanks for the lift,” I said, “and the pastels.”

“No problem,” he said. He drove off towards the parking lot.

“He’s suspicious,” Malakai said.

“I think he’s nice.”

“Exactly. Who’s ever heard of a nice teacher?”

I paused. “You’re right. That is strange, but I mean, they must exist, right?”

“I’m not ready to believe it. I’m more used to apathy.” Malakai walked in the opposite direction of the cafeteria.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“My mother called to tell me they sent some stuff that I need to put in the fridge in my room.”

“Oh.”

There was a long line at the front desk.

“Is it usually this crowded?” I asked.

“The Year Ones tend to get homesick the easiest so their parents send them the most things but it’s not unusual for something to come in the mail every few weeks for everyone else,” Malakai said. “Didn’t you know that? You used to send packages to Gideon every week.”

“I know but I only did that because I knew he liked getting things in the mail and I missed him. I didn’t know it was normal for parents to do it too,” I said.

“It won’t be as crowded later on in the school year but there’s always a long line.”

He said that but because he was Malakai Levine, as soon as one of the ladies at the front desk saw him, she just handed him his package.

“Stay here,” he said. “I’m going to take this to my room. I won’t be long.”

I looked around at the crowd. “I’ll wait outside. It’s too noisy in here.”

He paused for a moment then sighed. “Just come with me.” I followed him. Anything to get out of that room.

We took the elevator up to the fifteenth floor. I could never grow tired of the view as the elevator went up.

Some boys ran down the hall with a basketball in hand. I stood to the side to not get knocked over.

“Still immature at eighteen,” I said.

“Let them have their fun,” Malakai said. He opened the door to his and Gideon’s room.

“Ranger, Melody misses you,” I said.

“She wouldn’t if someone hadn’t removed my ability to connect to her,” Ranger said.

Malakai and I froze.

“I thought you said you were going to look at him,” I said.

“I had assignments. I was going to do it today,” Malakai said. “Ranger, what do you mean someone removed your ability to connect to her?”

“How should I know? I just obey commands like a dumb puppet,” Ranger said.

“Quite a personality he has there,” I whispered to Malakai.

“Don’t worry Ranger. I’ll take a look at you and see what’s wrong.” Malakai placed the box on the counter. “Aster, put those things in the fridge for me.”

“Finally,” Ranger said.

“You could have said something earlier,” Malakai said. “I wasn’t allowed to.”

“Strange.” Malakai tapped on the control panel while I put the packaged food in the fridge. The containers didn’t have fast food names on them. His mother must have made it for him and she’d made a lot. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Malakai was their only child. I forced my fingers to relax so I wouldn’t put holes in the packaging.

“I thought you weren’t supposed to eat anything that wasn’t prepared by the school,” I said.

“I only said that because I didn’t want to eat that thing he gave us.” He reached into his pocket and held out the wrapped pastel without looking at me. “Here. You can have it.”

I looked at it for a moment. “I don’t want your left overs.”

“I thought you liked it. If it was a leftover I would have thrown it away,” he said. I slowly took it from his hand. I ate it while I watched him work. “Maybe your parents sent something to the girls’ school since that’s where they think you are.”

“Do you honestly think so?”

“Not really,” he said. I frowned. “There. That should work.”

“What did Gideon do?” I asked.

“I saw a few new protocols that I disabled.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t have done that. He must have put them there for a reason.”

Ranger, when did Gideon shut off contact?” Malakai asked.

“When he returned in June,” Ranger said.

“So he was here,” I said. “Ranger, did he do anything while he was here?”

“I can’t tell you a man’s personal business.”

“Ranger, spill it or I’m cutting off contact with Melody again,” Malakai said.

“Fine. Fine. I’ll tell you,” Ranger said.

“I think we should be worried that he is so easily blackmailed,” I whispered.

“He was in and out in under three minutes. All I know is that he did something to the control panel then left,” Ranger said.

A bell rang in the distance.

“Breakfast time,” Malakai said. “I’ll have a look at the control panel tonight. We should head to the cafeteria now.”

I wanted to object but if Gideon had left something in there months ago, it could wait a few more hours. We found out by accident. If it was really important, he would have mentioned some‐ thing in the notebooks or in his message from Melody. I’d already put in extra security measures into Melody so it should be fine to leave them connected.

The lounge was still crowded when we left. I tried not to think about it too much. I had more important things to think about.

“Since astronomy and marine biology are in the evening, I want to go to drone racing and see what else is happening,” I said.

“I don’t want to do that.”

“Then you don’t have to.”

“You’re not here to have a fun time, remember? You’re here to find Gideon. Stop pretending that you’re an actual student of this school,” Malakai said.

“What’s your problem with me wanting to have some fun?”

“If it doesn’t help you achieve your goal, then it is a waste of time.”

“And what about everyone else who’s having fun?” I asked. “Am I not allowed to do that too?”

He paused and turned to me. I heard the yells coming from the courts and laughter from the clubrooms. A group of boys and girls ran past us. The clubs were joined between the boys’ school and the girls’ school. Everyone was out having fun.

“You wanted to make the same decisions as Gideon. He stayed in during the mornings and went to the clubs in the evenings,” he said. “If you want to do what he did, then after breakfast we’re going back to the dorms.”

He headed to the cafeteria without looking back to see if I was following him.

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