“I KNOW WHAT I SAW, Aurora. there was a human on Titus!”
The sound of her parents’ distraught voices woke Astraea from a deep sleep. They had never sounded like that before, but it was the fear in their tone that really caught her attention. Climbing from her bed, she crept to the door and opened it a fraction to listen to what they were saying.
“My father said you are mistaken. There are no humans here.”
“Hyperion is lying!” her father insisted. “No matter what he claims, there was a human woman here.”
“But it is impossible. Humans are banned, and
access to the Solar Stream is forbidden without permission. There must be some other explanation.”
“If there is, please tell me, because I cannot think of one,” her father said.
“I do not know,” her mother replied. “But if a human was found on Titus, it would mean disaster for us all. I am sure my father would have told me.”
“Your father is not telling anyone, and that is why I am so worried. The woman was terrified and crying as he took her away. He was taking her toward the new wing of the prison. But we haven’t finished building it yet. Why would he take her there?”
“I—I just do not know. Perhaps I should ask him again.”
“If he denied it once, I am sure he would do it again. But something strange is going on. At work we have found these thick puddles of gray matter. We have no idea what they are or where they are coming from. I told him about those as well, and he said nothing.”
“This is madness. My father enforces the law; he does not break it,” Aurora said. “He would not associate with humans, especially now. Perhaps she just looked like a human but was a Titan or Olympian.”
“I know the difference. She was definitely human.”
“What are we going to do?”
“I do not know. But I was thinking perhaps we should . . .”
Their voices trailed off as they moved deeper into the house, but Astraea had heard enough. Her father had seen a human taken away by her grandfather. But how was that possible? Everyone knew that contact between Titus and Earth was forbidden. Anyone caught going there, or bringing a human here, would be severely punished.
Astraea closed her door and wandered over to the window. It was late and the stars twinkled brightly overhead. Taking a seat on the sill, she watched a group of young night dwellers playing a game of kickball. The sound of their soft laughter drifted toward her, even though they kept their voices low. She had met a few night dwellers before, but they were a mysterious bunch who kept to themselves and only ventured from their homes after dark, since the sunlight was deadly for them.
Watching them play, she knew she should go to bed. The following day was going to be very busy, and
she needed her rest. But the brief exchange left her unable to sleep. What was a human doing on Titus? How did she get here? And why was her grandfather keeping it a secret?
Astraea’s kitten, Hiddles, leaped up onto her lap and meowed softly. The rainbow tabby fluttered his tiny wings several times and settled down. Astraea petted his fluffy, warm fur and smiled at his soft purring. She leaned down to his head and whispered, “I don’t want to go tomorrow. Do you think Mom would believe me if I told her I was sick?”
Hiddles looked up at her and licked Astraea’s chin, then lay his head down again.
Astraea sighed. “You’re right, she wouldn’t believe me.”
It was just before dawn when Astraea finally grew sleepy and climbed into her bed. It felt like she’d only just closed her eyes when a voice outside her window started calling her name.
“Astraea, are you up yet?”
Astraea moaned and rolled over. “No. Leave me alone.”
“Come on, we’re going to be late for the opening day!”
Astraea pulled the covers over her head. It couldn’t be time yet. She had only just gone to bed. “Go away, I’m sleeping.”
There was movement beside her bed, and suddenly her covers were wrenched away.
“Hey!” Astraea started pulling them back, but they were locked firmly in the teeth of her best friend, Zephyr. “Let go!”
“Get up!” Zephyr said through clenched teeth. Her gleaming white head and neck were stretched through the window to reach Astraea’s bed. As soon as she started to back up, Zephyr knocked all the marble ornaments off Astraea’s bedside table.
“Zephyr, stop! You’re wrecking the place!” Astraea clung to the covers, was dragged from her bed, and hit the floor with a loud thud. She got up, secured her grip on the bedcovers, and started to pull them back in with all her strength. “I said let go!”
“No, you let go!” Zephyr whinnied.
The tug-of-war continued as the two strong Titans pulled the covers. Zephyr was by far the stronger but was only using her teeth. Astraea had both arms
wrapped around the fabric and had planted her feet firmly on the floor. She flapped her small wings to add to her pulling strength.
“Give up now,” Zephyr called through her teeth.
“Never!” Astraea cried. “You give up!”
Inch by inch, Astraea was slowly dragged closer to the window. She put a foot up on the sill to give herself more leverage, and then her second foot, until she was standing on the sill, leaning back and straining against Zephyr’s strength.
The sound of a tear started. “Uh-oh,” Astraea called. “Zephyr, stop, it’s going to . . .”
The downy cover ripped in half, throwing both Astraea and Zephyr backward in different directions and filling the bedroom with a shower of soft white feathers.
Astraea landed hard on her backside. Outside the window, Zephyr nickered and coughed. After getting to her feet, Astraea peered out and burst into laughter. Zephyr lay sprawled on the ground in the middle of a cloud of down. Her wings were askew and her equine body was smeared with mud. She sat up and spit out the remnants of the duvet.
“Look what you’ve done!” Zephyr rolled over and climbed back to her four legs. She held up a golden hoof. “I spent all morning getting ready, and now I’m filthy. My hooves need polishing again!”
“You started it,” Astraea chuckled.
Zephyr snorted, “Oh that’s special, blame me. You should’ve been up already and you know it. Today everything changes.”
Astraea groaned. “Don’t remind me.” She leaned out the window and lowered her voice. “I have to tell you something, but you can’t say a word to anyone.”
“Ooh, a secret. I love secrets.” Zephyr trotted closer.
Astraea checked to make sure no one was listening and kept her voice soft. “Last night I heard Mother and Father talking. They said a human woman was found on Titus. My grandfather took her away.”
“A what?” Zephyr cried, and looked around fearfully. “A human is here?”
“Quiet!” Astraea hushed. “I don’t think anyone is supposed to know about it. But my parents were really upset.”
“No kidding! If a you-know-what was really here, they could cause an epidemic. They’re filled with all
kinds of terrible diseases. You could go blind if one touches you.”
“What?” Astraea cried. “No, that’s just a myth.”
“No it’s not. You-know-whats are filthy, disgusting creatures.” Zephyr looked around again and raised her front hooves as though she expected a human to jump out at her.
“What about Emily Jacobs? She’s from Earth and she’s not disgusting.”
“She’s not human,” Zephyr said. “She’s Xan.”
“But she used to be. And her father and Joel are still human and they’re not infectious.”
“That’s because they lived on Olympus long enough to be cured. But if there are new ones here, there’s no telling what could happen. How did she get here?”
Astraea frowned and mused aloud. “I really don’t know. But if it’s true, why is my grandfather hiding her?”
“Maybe to stop a panic.”
“Could be,” Astraea agreed. “I think we should miss the opening ceremonies and start our own investigation.”
Zephyr started to laugh. “Nice try, Astraea, but nothing is going to stop us from going to the
opening of Arcadia. We’re doomed, and there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves—even if a hundred you-know-whats appeared here.”
“But this is more important!”
“Maybe, but we can’t do anything about it. We have to go. Your mother will kill us if we don’t.”
Astraea sighed and shook her head. “I’ve been dreading this for ages. School—who ever imagined Titans would have to go to school? And why do we have to go when our parents didn’t?”
Astraea didn’t hear her bedroom door open or her mother enter. She jumped when her mother said, “We did not have to go because we were too busy trying to survive being locked away in that prison, Tartarus. This is a great day, the joining of the Titans and Olympians in education. It has been a difficult adjustment for all of us living together here. Perhaps now we will be unified.”
As her beautiful mother came closer, she frowned at the mess in the bedroom. Downy feathers covered every surface, and half the torn duvet lay on the floor. She picked a small feather from Astraea’s hair. “Do I want to know what happened here?”
Astraea and Zephyr looked at each other. They both said, “She did it,” at the same time.
Astraea’s mother sighed. “Why did I even ask? I do not care who started it. It ends now. And I want this mess cleaned up when you come home.”
“We will clean it up,” Astraea promised. She noticed small worry lines around her mother’s eyes. “Is everything all right? You look tired.”
Her mother smiled, but the expression didn’t reach her eyes. “I did not sleep well last night, that is all.” She looked out the window. “Zephyr, please come in. Breakfast is ready and waiting for you on the table.”
Zephyr’s head bobbed up and down. “Thank you, Aurora. I will be right in.”
Astraea and her mother watched Zephyr trot away and disappear around the side of their home. Zephyr was right. She had spent some time getting ready. The feathers on her wings were neatly preened and her coat glistened with health and care—except where it was now smudged with dirt and dotted with down feathers from the duvet. From behind, she was the spitting image of her father, Tornado
Warning, a clone from Pegasus who had come from Earth. From the front, a large black blaze on her chest revealed that her mother had been a midnight-black winged mare from Titus.
“She is looking lovely this morning,” Aurora commented.
Astraea grinned and touched the neatly folded wings on her mother’s back. “You’ve been busy too. Your feathers are glistening and you’ve perfumed them.”
Aurora sighed. “Astraea, please, how many times must I ask you to speak properly? We do not say ‘you’ve’ but ‘you have,’ and we say ‘do not’ rather than ‘don’t.’ You know I do not like this abbreviated language you and Zephyr have picked up.”
“But it’s how everyone talks. Besides, Emily Jacobs speaks like this, and she’s a Xan. She’s really important.”
“Emily Jacobs is a human from Earth who became a Xan. Granted, the ancient Xan were an admirable race that once protected the universe. And yes, they gave us the Solar Stream that we use to travel from world to world. But they are gone except for Riza and now Emily—who still has the heart and mind of a
human. Her involvement with the Olympians was a fortunate accident and nothing more.”
“But she’s done so much for us. She saved us all from those monsters that destroyed Olympus.”
“Yes, she did, but with the help of Riza and your cousins Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto. She did not do it alone. It took teamwork.”
“Well, I still like her.”
“And so you should,” her mother admitted. “She has done many admirable things. But that does not make her the best role model for you. She is impetuous and was never taught to speak properly. You and your friends are not human. You should not strive to be like her or speak like her.”
“But I like speaking like Emily. It’s cool.”
“It’s an expression I heard Emily’s friend Joel say. It means it’s good.”
Aurora sighed again. “You are not going to change, are you?”
Astraea grinned. “Not if I can help it.”
“All right, I surrender,” Aurora said. “If I cannot get you to change how you speak, you will at least try
to look nice for the opening ceremonies. Now, what about your wings? Would you like some fragrant oil to get your feathers shining?”
“For these?” Astraea opened her small, immature wings. The feathers were the soft downy gray of youth. It would be some time before they molted out and were replaced with white flight feathers large enough for her to fly. At this point, they were more of a nuisance than a blessing. “I’m just going to tuck them in and cover them up.”
“Cover them? Why? Your wings are beautiful. Everyone knows they will grow. Why are you so ashamed of them?”
“Mother, look at me!” She opened her wings again and spread her arms. “They barely reach my wrists. I look like a cherub. Until they grow large like yours or Grandmother’s, I’m just going to keep them hidden.”
Her mother smiled gently and combed back the hair from Astraea’s face. “A cherub’s wings are much smaller than yours and you know it. Believe me, what you have now is nothing to be ashamed of. I was exactly the same when I was your age. All Titans with wings are. You just need time.”
“Yes, and until then, I’m going to cover them up.”
“Suit yourself,” Aurora said. “But whatever you decide, do it quickly. The opening ceremonies will start soon, and your grandfather expects us to be at the front of the gathering.”
“That is enough of that,” Aurora chastised. “Zephyr is waiting for you. So finish getting ready and come down for breakfast. Then we can head over to Arcadia. Your father has already left.”
“I’ll be right down.”
While she dressed, Astraea’s mind kept going back to the previous night. It was obvious that her mother was trying to act as though nothing was wrong, but the news of the human woman appearing on Titus was something they should all worry about. As soon as the opening ceremonies were finished, Astraea was going to look into it to see if she could learn more.
After a quick meal, Astraea, her mother, and Zephyr left the house and joined the legions of Titans walking toward the newly completed school.
“Wow, there are more here than I expected!”
Zephyr commented as she looked all around. “I didn’t think there were this many Titans.”
Aurora nodded. “Tartarus was a large prison with many, many levels.”
Zephyr snorted angrily. “And after all that, we’re expected to be friends with Olympians, when they were the ones who imprisoned us?”
Aurora stopped and faced Astraea and Zephyr. “Listen to me, you two. What happened in the past is just that, the past. You were both born after Tartarus. And yes, these are trying times as we all adjust to living together on the one world after the destruction of Olympus. But we must try to find a way to get along. This new school might be the only way for true unification.”
“Or war,” Astraea said doubtfully.
“Do not even think that!” Aurora said. “Believe me, none of us want to go back to the dark days of fighting and strife. Peace is the only way. We just have to find a way to get along with the Olympians. The alternative is unimaginable.”
“But what if the Olympians don’t want to get along with us?” Astraea asked.
“They will,” Aurora said. “We have no choice. This is the only world we have left. We must find a way to live together.”
Zephyr snorted, “Why does it have to be us kids who are forced to get along? We’re the ones being made to go to school with them.”
Aurora smiled gently at her daughter and Zephyr. “That is because you are the hope of the future. Both of you are part of the first generation born outside the walls of Tartarus. You are the ones to ensure peace.” She paused again. “Tell me, have you even considered how the Olympians might be feeling this morning, knowing they are leaving their region, Olympia, to come into our region to go to school?”
Astraea looked at Zephyr and could see that they were both thinking the exact same thing. They didn’t care how the Olympians felt. To them, Olympians were refugees at best, invaders at worst.
“It will not be as bad as you expect, you will see,” Aurora said lightly. “I am sure in a few days’ time you will have made a whole new set of friends, and some may even be Olympian.” She walked on and looked back. “Now come along. They are expecting us.”
Astraea looked over at her best friend and raised her eyebrows. “Olympian friends? I’d rather hug a Hundred-hander—and they smell horrible!”
“I’d rather have a human friend,” Zephyr said. “And you know how I feel about them.”