A Passing Grade
The sky was endless and black, a velvet curtain speckled with pinpricks of light. Intellectually, though, Shen knew that these were, in fact, merely explosions of gas. Strings of such explosions came together on occasion, forming odd lines. Some people fancied they could see shapes in the sky. Shen had always found this practice ridiculous, but between finding constellations and studying the rise and fall of the first alien Aisha empire led by Gnarflox II...
“Shennaralix III! Stop stargazing and listen! If you spent more time studying and less time daydreaming, you’d get decent scores. Instead,” the teacher punctuated the remark by downloading her latest test score onto her comp-desk, “you continue to embarrass your family. I don’t know what to do with you,” he sighed, rubbing his temples.
Shen wasn’t anxious to look at her mark; she knew what awaited her, a zero or something close to it. “But, Honoured Teacher...”
At this, her tutor snorted. “But, what? Your classmate Kudailem actually works in class, and consequently, gets much better scores. Why couldn’t you follow her example?”
“But sir, studying the First Empire... is, well...” as per usual, Shen lacked the courage to finish the sentence, and only shook her head. “Never m—”
“—it’s boring,” another voice finished. “It’s completely dry, useless information. Everyone knows that any facts before the last three Leaderships are obsolete because our society only uses that information 0.000452% of the time... and of that percentage, most is by historians or other such types. Gnarflox the Second lived twenty million years ago. No one cares.”
Shen whipped her head around, mouth agape, and stared at Kudai, who finished her disruption by crossing her arms decisively. Their teacher was livid.
“Now both of you are revolting against me? This is insane! I, Merkan V, have been tutoring the children of the Royal Line and its close relations for years, and never have I come across such insolence! From you, Kudailem, of all people! You are to be a Lieutenant some day! You will lead a ship, and serve under an illustrious Commander! Yet now, you turn around and show your true face...” He shook his head in disappointment. “Apologize, both of you, this instant,” he ordered.
Kudai leaned back in her chair, mouth set in a straight line. “I refuse. My loyalty is with Her Most Honoured Junior Commander Shennaralix III, not with you or anyone else. If she is not Commander of my starship, I will not be a Lieutenant on it.”
Shen couldn’t help but smile at her best friend’s firm stance. Merkan’s blue pelt was turning an unhealthy shade of purple. His face became hotter and hotter, until, unable to suppress his rage, he pointed at the door and howled: “OUT! OUT! BOTH OF YOU, OUT! DISMISSED!”
The two girls hurried out of the classroom as fast as they could, the automatic door sliding shut behind them. Dashing down the hallway, they ignored the other occupants of the residents’ wing, winding around anyone else in the halls. They made it all the way to their shared quarters, where they collapsed on Shen’s bed in a fit of excited giggles.
“Did you see his face?” the spotted Aisha asked her friend. “He looked like Chef Folgarth’s breakfast re-hydrated surprise!”
“More like Fnarlos XII’s second moon, you mean!”
“Did you actually know all those things you said?”
”No, I just made those numbers up!”
Breaking out into more laughter, the girls cackled a few minutes, thrilled at their own tiny rebellion, and even better, their own private victory.
“Kudai...” Shen finally said, as they laid there on her bed, staring at the artificial lighting until their eyes hurt.
“Did... did you mean it? Loyalty, forever until the end?”
Kudai smiled, something she did very rarely, and only her very closest friends and family. “Naturally. You’re my Commander, but most importantly, my friend too. You’re almost like my sister. That will never change.”
“So, you aren’t following me because your father follows mine and your grandfather followed my father’s father and you have to, because that’s the reason anyone does anything around here?” The traditional caste-based system of her people bothered her: in public, she and Kudailem had to call each other “Commander” and “Lieutenant” or even “Princess” and “my assistant”. She felt it degraded their friendship.
Kudai didn’t feel the same. She twisted around just enough to bend her farthest right ear-stalk towards her friend’s. “Absolutely. There isn’t anyone else I’d rather follow. Although, for a daughter of Our Most Honoured Leader Arlhox VII, you don’t look or act the part.”
It was true. Beside Kudai’s ravishing dark purple pelt, her green eyes and her midnight locks cropped in a stylish haircut, Shen looked ridiculous. Her own hair was so pale as to be almost white; short and usually messy, it looked like someone had dropped a handkerchief on her head. Her fur was a flaxen wheat-blonde, a colour rare amongst her kind, and mottled with dark brown spots. She looked diseased, and where Kudai was pleasantly short and slim, Shen was tall and fit awkwardly in the white jumpsuits favoured by her kin. Her only redeeming feature was her eyes: bright sky-blue gems usually alight with curiosity.
It wasn’t just in looks, however, that the young alien Aisha was separated from Arlhox’s other children. Her many brothers and sisters were all adventurous and determined to prove themselves, quickly rising among the ranks and becoming Admirals or even Explorers, furthering the cause of their Most Honoured Father’s Dominion. The youngest of them all, Shen had never been interested in war strategies, ship building or even exploring new regions of space. There was only one thing in the universe that was worth studying, in Shen’s opinion: other worlds inhabited by sentient beings, and more precisely, the blue jewel planet Neopia.
“I know I don’t, Kudai, but I don’t think you’d like me as much if I did,” she joked, touching the other Aisha’s ear-stalk with her own. “Someday, someday...”
“If you get decent test scores,” Kudai interrupted wryly.
“...someday, if I manage to pass through this stupid education system, we’ll go to Neopia together, and become the first official Aïsha diplomats there.”
“We’ll set it up in Neopia Central, next to the building shaped like a... a... what is it again, Shen? You always remember these things. You’re good in languages. You’re practically fluent in Neopian!”
Never mind that neither of them had ever actually set foot on Neopia proper. There had been several visits to Kreludor and the Virtupets Space Station, but never had alien Aisha feet touched Neopian soil for more than a few days since the time of the Vending Machine’s installation. The embassy dream was something unattainable, both knew, because neither of them were daughters of ambassadors and so it would be taboo in their conservative, close-minded culture to invent a new tradition right there, just the two of them.
“A ham-burg-er, Shen. It designates a foodstuff with many layers in their language, but you can also use the word sandwich. The first is hot and usually has cooked patties in it; the other is cold and is filled with various thinly sliced meats. But I’ll do all the speaking with the natives. You’ll do all the lists and things. You’re good at those.”
Kudai sighed in contentment. “Yes, I like things organized; they’re so much easier to keep track of.”
Their room was a testament to their differences: each side was clearly delineated to avoid conflict. Shen’s side was a chaotic, brightly-coloured mess, and Kudai’s side was perfectly neat and organized, with every drawer, box and file carefully labelled. The bed they were lying on was unmade and smelled dirty, but was made comfortable by years of jumping, pillow fights and reading after curfew.
“So we’ll be the best diplomats ever and learn everything, first hand, not just from what Uncle Xelqued and Uncle Shreegla tell me. Aï?”
“Aï!” Kudai replied, and then sighed dreamily. “All those famous explorers... Xelqued, Shreegla VI, Gargon IV, Beerlap III... you know so many dashing Aishas, Shen. You’re so lucky.”
“Bah,” Shen snorted, “they’re all useless. They’re out discovering new places, when no one bothers to find out more about what’s right there!” She did, despite appearances, like all her ‘Honoured Uncles’—who were related to her by their prestigious Explorer caste and title only—but saw very little use in their profession. The Alien Aisha empire was already so vast; why were they busying themselves making it bigger all the time?
Suddenly, the relative silence of the room was shattered by the PA system blaring to life: “The Most Honoured Junior Commander Shennaralix III and Junior Lieutenant Kudailem are required at the bridge in 0005 hours. I repeat...”
They had five minutes.
“I’d hurry if you’d just get off me first—ow! You rolled on my tail!”
Alarmed, they flew out of the residents’ quarters, adjusting their jumpsuits as they went. The dash through the cafeteria, down three halls and up the stairs to the bridge took four minutes alone. As a result, when they tumbled into the turbolift, they were exhausted. They had only a few seconds before it would deliver them to the level above. Panting a bit, they barely managed to recover their composure before the doors hummed open.
The bridge was a pentagonal area; the whole front and a small part of the roof was a huge, reinforced bay window that gave an excellent view of the current Quadrant. Each side, except for the one they had just come from, had a different console. Navigators, pilots, engineers and other officers sat at them, collecting and comparing data. At the center of this sat His Most Honoured Leadership Arlhox VII, with his most trusted advisor and First Admiral, Kudailem’s father Kurillion IX.
As the girls entered, all activity ceased, and the officers turned to them and bowed all at once, before returning to their duties. It bothered Shen that they were only bowing because of the inverted triangle on her forehead, a sign of royalty. Most of them sported triangles, the sign of Captains, Commanders and Explorers, the second-highest caste, or circles, for Lieutenants and below. Most citizens had nothing; it was reserved for military personnel, those ‘furthering the cause’, and genetic to boot. The only way to obtain honorary status was to have the symbol implanted, which was... unpleasant. Still, many Explorers chose that option as a quick way to glory. Few lived long enough to enjoy it.
Speaking of unpleasant things, Arlhox had swivelled his chair around to better see the two young kittens; his expression clearly meant trouble. On either side were Merkan, wearing a smug smile, and Kurillion, frowning. Kudailem had averted her eyes; she had not been granted permission to look upon His Leadership yet. The most feared alien Aisha in the galaxy wasn’t very imposing, of medium height with attractive green fur and golden eyes. Shen wished she’d inherited his genes. Despite his years, he was still quite fit, and his mind was as sharp as ever. He continued to wear the golden ‘A’ with pride.
“Explain to me, daughter,” he began, “why you continue to fail your tests, abysmally, one by one...? You embarrass me! I purposely removed you from Gilga ZV5 and placed you here, on my ship, close to me, so I could offer you the very best—and yet, you continue to disappoint!”
Crumbling under the weight of her father’s anger, Shen bit her lip. Crying in front of her father was one thing, but she couldn’t break down in front of all of his officers; it would only shame and dishonour him further. She tried to take deep breaths, her head toward the floor.
“Your Honoured Teacher has informed me of your little rebellion in class today. I never expected such distasteful, defiant behaviour from either of you, least of all my own daughter.”
Shen swallowed her tears, fisting her paws at her sides. Suddenly, she felt strong arms wrap around her, and was pulled into her father’s warm embrace without much fanfare. This was a gentler, calmer Arlhox, the one she could call ‘Papa’ instead of ‘Most Honoured Father’. He stroked her messy hair, rocking her back and forth like he did when she was just a small kitten. Merkan didn’t look so smug now.
“Little kitling, what will I do with you?” he sighed. “I know how intelligent you are. I’ve heard you speak almost perfect Neopian and Kreludan, and that you love studying alien cultures. So why do you fail? Why are you so unhappy here? What is it that fascinates you so much about the little planet Neopia that you can’t get here, with your own people?”
The word took a long time in coming; it wasn’t one her people often used. It was an abstract concept, something she wasn’t used to, a very vague idea in her head.
“...freedom,” she finally said, and touched the inverted triangle on her father’s brow with an ear-stalk, then her own, with a paw. He understood.
“You will never be free of that, little kitten. We are Aïsha, we live and die by our function. All we can do is be the best of what we can be.”
“Wise words if there ever were,” Kurillion stated, glancing down at his own daughter, who inherited the circle from her mother; his own symbol was the triangle. Therefore, the best rank she could aspire to—and did aspire to—was Lieutenant, which did not displease her. Had she been anyone but herself, however, such restrictions would have been frustrating.
“Kudailem,” the First Admiral spoke, kneeling beside her, “do you agree with Shennaralix?”
Kudailem was forced to be honest; their kind didn’t lie. “Not really, Honoured Father.” Here she allowed herself to raise her head and looking him in the eye. “But no matter what Shennaralix says or thinks, I will always show her my loyalty and support, because I trust her as my Commander, as my leader, and as my friend.”
Kurillion chuckled under his breath. “A daughter of mine if I ever saw one.”
Arlhox and his trusted advisor exchanged knowing glances; the Leader put his daughter down, and the two girls joined paws for comfort. Shen still felt and looked upset, but Kudai’s seeming serenity calmed her frayed nerves.
“Merkan V,” Arlhox commanded, his voice businesslike and imperious, “step forward.”
The blue Aisha did as he was ordered, a bit nervous now.
“Have you done any assessments on my daughter so far, beyond the regular drills and tests?”
“Of course, My Most Hon—“
“Enough. Call me Leader. What are her skills?”
“Erm, she excels in languages, Leader, including our own. Her scores surpass Kudailem’s in that field. She understands politics. She has fair problem-solving skills, both practical and theoretical. She is creative. She is empathic, compassionate, respectful and very well-mannered in most situations,” here he cast a dark look at the twain, “and very kind towards everyone she comes across. She does very well with oral presentations, not a nervous public speaker. She enjoys reading. She’s a bright kitten, and learns astoundingly fast when she is interested in the material.”
Shen blinked. Merkan sounded genuinely fond of her; he didn’t usually act like it.
“And her flaws?”
“She’s very poor in the sciences and in mathematics. She often daydreams in class. She has boundless, uncontrollable energy. She doesn’t apply herself to material she dislikes. She has trouble standing up for herself. She can be lazy. She ignores or forgets to do her assignments. She’s... unmotivated.”
Arlhox sat back in his chair, thinking about this. He tugged one of Kurillion’s ear-stalks towards his mouth and whispered into it like a wocky-talkie. The First Admiral thought of the reply, then whispered back into his Leader’s ear. Shen knew she was being talked about.
“Shen,” he said finally, getting up, “what exactly do you want to do on Neopia? You want to explore it?” He turned away from them all, towards the windows and the stars.
Shen bit her lip nervously as Kudai squeezed her fingers reassuringly.
“So, you want to be an Explorer?”
“No! I mean... no, sir.”
Arlhox tapped his foot. “Then, what do you want to do there? It’s a fairly useless planet, populated by barely-sentient hyoo-muns and faeries and other such nonsense.”
Righteous indignation welled up inside Shen. This was exactly what her father was waiting for.
“That-that isn’t true! Neopia boasts 54 different sentient species, including humans and Faeries! It has 13 known lands, discounting the Space Station and Kreludor, each with a different ecosystem and its own independent government! There are monarchies established in the twin kingdoms of Meridell and Brightvale, the kingdom of Roo Island, the desert cities of Sakhmet and Qasala, the queendom of Faerieland and the underwater—underwater!—kingdom of Maraqua! They have democracies, tribal systems, councils and even places where there is no government!
“Besides their abundant natural resources, they have magic, as was experienced by Explorer Captain Xelqued and his Lieutenant Norbekk when they visited the Hidden Tower. This magic, which no Aïsha is naturally capable of, comes in six types: earth, water, air, fire, light and dark. It is possessed by the Faeries, who then pass it on to the native species, the Neopets. Some faeries go beyond their elemental calling and become protectors of a specific area. Examples are Illusen the Earth Faerie of Meridell, Taelia the Snow Faerie of Terror Mountain, Jhuidah the Island Faerie of Mystery Isle, the Soup Faerie of Neopia Central and the Space Faerie who is well-known amongst our kind. These are delicate, beautiful, infinitely wise creatures that deserve our respect! And I haven’t even touched on the humans, who have deeply affected Neopian lifestyle since their appearance in Neopian Y0, eight full cycles ago. Their currency, the Neopoint, is extremely valuable, and since the installation of a Vending Machine there, they have become one of our most important economic allies. So do not tell me that Neopia is full of riffraff, Father, because it isn’t!”
As she stood there, huffing and indignant, her father’s expression had shifted from a serious mien to a proud grin. Some of the officers, who couldn’t help but overhear her little outburst, were also smiling, some murmuring appreciatively. Shen blushed, suddenly mortified; had she really just ranted at Arlhox VII for all that time?
“What did you do, kitten? Eat encyclopaedias?” Kurillion laughed, and Arlhox followed suit. Merkan’s eyes were as wide as saucers. “She can’t even tell me how many armies Gnarflox II had—three!—but she can name every Faerie on some backwards planet? What is this?” he muttered, taken aback.
Kudailem was beaming with pride, and went as far as to hug her red-faced sister. “Brilliant, Shen, brilliant!” she exclaimed as quietly as she could, which, in her enthusiasm, wasn’t quiet at all. The room suddenly became very still when the Leader and his First Lieutenant ceased their laughter, and privately exchanged words. The silence felt suffocating to Shen.
“Shennaralix III, would you devote your life’s work to this little planet?” Arlhox VII demanded, walking past his chair slowly, heading for the broad window.
Shen straightened. “I would, sir.”
“Kudailem, would you follow her to the ends of the stars, no matter her decisions, keep her safe and sound no matter what?”
“I would, Leader.”
“Alright, then.” Arlhox leaned back in his chair, looking down at the two girls. “On the condition that you pass all your classes and obtain a minimum B-class diploma—which requires a mark of at least 80% in all of your courses, including the sciences—you will be known as Her Most Honoured Junior Ambassador Shennaralix the Third. If you do not, then you will follow a profession of my own choosing.”
Shen turned incredulous eyes on her father, her heart filled to burst with sudden happiness. “But—but I can’t be an ambassador; you said it yourself—we can never escape our symbol!” Her paws flew to her forehead, feeling the odd, leathery surface of the mark.
Arlhox smiled and waved the girls closer to the oriel, swivelling his chair. The ship was preparing for a rapid speed increase into the next Quadrant, and the universe looked as if it was twinkling, anxious to see them off.
“Look at how big that is,” he began. “We are nothing compared to that.”
Taking a deep breath, he reached for her and put a paw on her shoulder. His grip was firm but relaxed. Without thinking, she put her own paw over his. Especially from this angle, with this kind of view, the expanse of stars stretched from one end of the room to the other, filling her entire line of vision. It was a truly magnificent sight, and she felt humbled by it.
“Shen,” he father declared solemnly, “no matter how far I have come in life, I have always lived as a servant to the stars, and to my people. You must always give to others and to your society, daughter. We do what we are born and bred to do, and we do it to the best of our ability, because it is our duty to give back to those who raised us. Be a diplomat, start a new tradition, your own tradition, do as you wish. But promise me one thing: that you’ll be the best diplomat you can be, and then some.”
Shen pressed her paws to the armoured acrylic glass, dreaming only of seeing the sapphire planet Neopia appear. She knew it was out there, waiting for her. “I promise, Father,” she answered, and meant it with all her heart.
Huuuuge thanks to my wonderful beta, repudiated! :3