Chapter 28

Airomem spent much of her time now in the power room.  She would watch as each of her engineers ran through the necessary checks, smiling if one of the new recruits caught a temperature that was trending out of range, and remembering the years when she herself had been fresh on the floor.  But that had been long ago- back when she was just out of school, in the years when Prometh still taught her combat tactics.
She’d risen among the ranks quickly- in part, because of her father’s influence.  But also due to the extra time she spent listening to Prometh’s recounts of every possible piece of information about the reactor.  When she was on shift, the reactor ran.  And those in the Lear leadership were quick to pick up on that correlation.

But in addition, Airomem volunteered at the Port and Starboard entry points, disregarding her father’s best wishes.

Engineers were considered high class contributors to the Lear on their own – as a result, they were not expected to contribute to guard duty, similar to other skilled workers such as the doctors and the teachers.  

“What you are doing is an unnecessary risk!”  Her father said when he found out the first day she had volunteered, “You belong in the power room.  And more importantly, you’re my daughter, and as leader there is a chance you might take command upon my passing!”

“Then why was I trained for combat?”  Airomem demanded, “Everyone else is required to defend the ship.  I’m no better than them.”

“You were trained to understand how to make proper decisions,”  He father replied, “But this is impractical.”

“Unless I experience it, my judgement is hollow. Besides, I know you did the same at my age.  You were said to be the best, and I will uphold your name.  And the chances that I will be on guard during an actual attack are minimal.”

Begrudgingly, and with his arms folded across his chest, her father relented.  But she noticed that those days when she served, there were more guards than typical, and they were the largest.  And always, she served on the flank, out of the way from direct strikes.

After her second month of volunteering she arrived at her shift early, and rooted herself firmly in the center.

“Today, I am the cornerstone.”  She said when the other guards arrived.

“But Airomem, on direct orders from your father-”

“I don’t care.  Today, I am Cornerstone, unless you want to fight me for it.  And if you do, I’m sure he’ll love to hear about how you jeopardized the well being of his daughter.”  She said, as the stun guns in her fingers came to life, her arms hanging loose near her waist.

The guard bit his lip, then moved aside.

“Fine,”  He said, “But this doesn’t come back to me.  If your father asks, Earnest let you.”

“Earnest has been dead for a year.”  She said.

“Exactly.  And I’ll be dead tomorrow if he finds out it was me.”  He answered.

“Earnest it is,”  Airomem answered, and took up the center.  And she stared down the hallway, doors ajar down its length, dark stains covering the floor in increasing frequency the nearer they were to her.  Occasionally she would catch sight of a gaunt face, of cheeks tucked too far in to be healthy, and eyes sunk too far in to know hope.

And on her third month of guard, she saw one  emerge from around the corner and walk their way, his mouth ajar, his posture swaying with each step.  Behind him appeared ten other faces, each watching as he approached the door frame, edging closer from a distance with a knife tucked loose in his belt.

“Lone straggler,”  She said as the other gaurds jerked to attention, “Carrying no tribute, armed.  Approaching at thirty paces.  I’ve got this.”

“No,”  Said the guard accompanying her and pushing her to the side, “I’m afraid I cannot allow that.”

“Have the Lear grown so complacent that they send tiny girls to defend their borders?”  Shouted the straggler, now only ten paces away, as he cackled, “Come back out, little girl.  I wonder how you taste?  Not so gamey as my usual meals, but everyone knows that Lear taste the best!”  

He licked his lips as Airomem pushed herself to the front again, switching on the tasers, adapting a staggered stance.

“Not a step more!”  She shouted, “Or we will be forced to take action!”

“Not a step, not a step,”  Chanted the man, his arm muscles twitching as he danced forward, “Step.  Step.  Step.”

He leered as he slinked closer, the breath out of his mouth putrid even from a distance as Airomem’s arms stiffened, “I’ve been exiled, little girl, by my own people!  I have nothing to lose.  Figure I might as well get a last meal in!”

Then he darted forward, pulling his knife from his belt and slashing as he crossed the door frame.  And Airomem jammed both of her stun guns directly under his ribcage, turning the power to maximum.

He shot off the ground, his own legs propelling him as his clothing smoked, crashing against the ceiling before toppling down again, the faces at the end of the hall recoiling as he landed.  Airomem stepped over his body out into the hallway, her stun guns still burning bright, and her voice shouting.

“Let it be known!”  She said, the faces flinching as each word lashed across them, “That these doorways mark not only the entrance into Lear territory, but into death!  Let it be known that I am next in line for the crown, and I will tolerate no uprisings!  That I will bring darkness upon your lands, and burning light, until no plant grows and no child goes unhungry!  Let it be known that our tolerance for you has come to an end, and if you do not make peace, you will face far greater consequences!”

“Are you trying to start a war, princess?”  Hissed the guard as she cross over the border again, and they dragged the body away.

“It’s for their sake, as much as ours.”  She responded, “And we do not have much time left.”

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Chapter 29

“What you did was downright stupid!” Shouted Airomem’s father back at her apartment, where he had come as soon as he had heard news of the incident,  “It could have gotten you killed, and worse, it could have started a full on attack!  Airomem, this is not behaviour conducive to Lear survival Nor your own!”

He paced her short floor, biting his lip as she sat on her bed.

“The other tribes need to know we’re a power to be reckoned with,”  Responded Airomem, “They need to know not to attack us.”

“They do know that, Airomem!  If anything, it’s best that they forget it, and forget us entirely!  The Agrarians and Aquarians know one way to deal with fear, an instinct that has been bred into their cultures – to attack, and to destroy.  You must understand, Airomem, that they are not like us.  They have little order, they thrive in chaos.  Their attacks against us are rarely planned, and nearly always are a faction broken off from the whole.  To send a message like that only gives them cause to unify against us.  No, it is better that they forget our existence than to remember and do act.”

“But you said it yourself, father!”  Retorted Airomem, and gestured out of the window to where the stars lay beyond, “You said that we are coming to the end of the journey!  And when we do, we won’t have the doors and bottlenecks anymore to protect us!”

She stared at her father, waiting for his response, her chin high and her eyes blazing.  But instead he stared past her to the window, his mouth slightly open, the starlight mingling with the grey in his hair.  

“What’s wrong?”  Airomem asked, as his eye widened as she turned her head to trace his gaze.  But she only saw darkness accented by the lights on the other side of the ship, in addition to the flickers of movement from within its windows.  Then her father reached a hand into his pocket, uncrinkling an old piece of paper, and flattening it against the window.

“Look,”  He whispered, the color drained from his cheeks, his other hand taking her chin and pointing her face into space, past the paper.  Past the seven points shaped like a ring that were inscribed on the paper, “Look.”

And towards a cluster of seven stars in a ring the size of her thumbnail, glowing from the depths of the beyond.

“Airomem,”  He whispered, crumpling the paper within his fist, “Airomem, we’re here.”

***

Airomem watched the ring deep into the night, unsure whether she could tell it was getting larger or if it was her own imagination.

If what her father said was true, then they would soon be leaving the ship behind.  They would soon be emerging into a new world.  And they soon might be sharing it with those who threatened to end their existence with every chance they were given.

She swallowed and let her eyes wander, straying to a window at the other end of the ship.  Usually a farmer filled that window, working the fields nearly every day, his own gaze occasionally meeting hers, his actions just barely visible through the visible portions of the windows.  In the past she had tried to sign to him, but he had only stared back before returning to the soil.  Perhaps he was too far away to understand, or the light made her own figure too difficult to see.  And only occasionally would she get a good glimpse of him, only when he crossed the windows just right, his silhouette fleeting.

He didn’t look like the Agrarians- from what she could tell his cheeks were not puckered, and his face was not gaunt.  And he moved slowly, methodically, with purpose, unlike the Agrarians and Aquarians that twitched and jerked when they walked.  Surely the farmers on that end of the ship would be different, like the Lear themselves.  Like distant cousins, that had survived apart, but were really the same.

At least, she hoped.

The Lear would need allies.

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Chapter 30

“In my absence,” Said Airomem’s father to the room, fifteen of the Lear’s most experienced members within, “Each of you shall command over your areas of expertise.  Airomem, you shall take charge the power room.  Prometh, I give you council over the young of the ship, and over education.  To matters of war, to the military committee.  Each of you shall act independently until I return, and should I not return, make plans for the appointment of a new leader.”

“But who shall accompany you?” Asked Prometh, seated in a chair in the front, his few fingers stroking a silvered beard, “And more importantly, what is the point of this expedition?”

“I suspect I will have to go alone,”  Her father answered, “The Agrarians and Aquarians will be suspicious enough, and should I try to bring additional people, their suspicion will only increase.  As to why this mission is necessary, it is because we will need those on the other end of the ship in order to survive.”

Her father pulled a large roll of paper out from underneath his chair, then unfurled it on the table, pinning down the corners with dinner plates until it was as long as a man laying down.

“This paper,”  He said, gesturing, “Was left to us by Necti himself from those before him, and details what will happen as we reach our destination.  First, and most importantly, it mentions the awakening of this ship.  For those of you in the power room, that means we’ll have to crank up the reactor to levels higher than ever intended by the original designers.  Efficiency will be low, but we should only have to maintain it for a limited amount of time – which is fortunate, for our dwindling fuel stock will be exhausted quickly.”

“This is preposterous!”  Said a voice from the back, belonging to AJ’s father named Tela, one of the older members of the war committee, “If Necti is wrong, and our power is exhausted, we will have no bargaining chips against the Agrarians and Aquarians.  If the lights go out, we will be starved, starved then overrun!”

“The you better hope he isn’t wrong!”  Snapped back Prometh, popping the edge of his chair back against the edge of a nearby table, “By my estimates, the ship has twenty five years of fuel left until the reactor fizzles out through normal consumption.  And that’s a best case scenario!  So either we take the risk, or your children face certain darkness.”

“Is this, is this true?  Why were we not informed?”  Demanded Tela.

“The arrival of Dandelion 14 at its destination is beyond our control,” Answered Airomem’s father, “For this reason, the fuel stock was kept secret to prevent general panic.  We had plans within the next tow years to start rationing energy more strictly, however, we are now close to arrival.  And that is why we must act.  Come closer, and see what we have to do.  This concern lies close to you as well, Tela, for we may be in dire need of your military strategy.  Come, here, where you can see the paper.”

Those within the room crowded forward, standing around the table, squinting down at the minuscule handwriting and stenciled diagrams on its surface.

“Where did you get this?”  Asked Tela, his voice suspicious.

“It has been passed down from chief to chief since Necti left us,”  Said Airomem’s father, “Aside from myself, Prometh is the only other person to know of its existence.  Now, the paper itself is simple enough to read – it moves from top to bottom, detailing each stage the ship will enter.”

He pointed at the top and they leaned in, following his fingertip as he spoke.

“Necti programmed the ship such that the halves would come together when the destination planet became close.  That is what will happen first- the ship will repair itself, and systems come online.  This has two implications- one, as I mentioned, is the power requirement change.  And two, due to our position at the back of the ship, the Agrarians and Aquarians will be the first to meet with the other side, which could be disastrous.”

“You said we may need the other side to survive,”  Said Tela, “Why is this?”

“We do not know what awaits us on the new planet,”  Airomem’s father responded, “The more of us to face conflict, the better.  But that is not the only reason- whoever remains on this ship will die. Those on the other end are our brothers and sisters- we cannot condemn them to that fate.”

“For all we know, they could be as bad as the Agrarians and Aquarians!”  Responded Tela.

“And for all we know,”  Said Airomem, “They could be an enormous benefit.  We’ll have to give them the benefit of the doubt, we ‘ll have to meet them before we pass judgement.”

“Precisely,”  Said Prometh, “And we may need their help sooner than we think.”

“Yes, we may,”  Said Airomem’s father, “For the ship itself will never land on the destination planet.  No, as I mentioned, Dandelion 14 will continue sailing past it.  Only a small piece of the ship will detach itself and carry those within to safety.  And that piece of the ship is currently unattainable to us, beyond our reach.”

“It’s the third broken segment, which will be repaired along with the rest of the ship,”  Said Prometh, his eyes glinting, “And we’ll have to fight our way past the Agrarians and Aquarians to the only entrance. To the bridge.”

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Chapter 31

“We should kill you here and now,”  Stated Airomem, “You’ve intruded upon Lear territory, and we have no use for prisoners.  Maybe you came here to steal our secrets as a spy.”

“I could only wish,”  Said the man strapped down to the bed, his chest muscles twitching as he spoke, “I am not so lucky, not lucky at all!  I’m exiled!  Go on, kill me now! I’d rather die here- I’m a dead man anyways!”

A frown creased Airomem’s face as she stared down at him, the wretch of a man, scorch marks still on his skin from where she had stunned him as she guarded the bottleneck.  He grinned back up at her, his eyes darting from side to side in a way that made the hair on her neck stand up, and his breath coming in quick gasps.  

“And what, exactly, did you do to deserve such a fate?”  She asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Stealing!”  He screeched, “I stole, and I stole well!  For years upon years.  Stealing, you see, is in our blood and in our bones.  You can even taste it in the best thieves when they die.  But I stole from the chief, dozens of times, many times.  But I only had to be caught once, and should I return, he’ll steal my very heart.”

“Almost sounds romantic,”  Said Airomem, “Stealing your heart.”

“Not if it’s pulled out of your chest still beating!”  He shouted back, the veins in his neck throbbing, and spittle flying from his mouth, “Not so romantic then!”

“Indeed, not.”  Replied Airomem, “But consider, consider if you had a way to make your chief forgive you.”

“Impossible,” He spat, “I’d have to kill twenty Aquarians alone to seek his forgiveness.”

“But what if instead of killing them, I gave you the means to kill them,”  She said, and reached into a bag at her side, pulling forth two black rectangles and setting them at a table beside the man as his eyes widened, “I know these are near priceless among your kind.  By our counts, only four of them that still work exist outside the grasp of the Lear.  But you, you can give them to your leader in exchange for your life.  And maybe as a clever thief, you can even keep one for yourself.”

“And why,”  Said the man, “Why would the Lear, the cunning Lear, the slavemaster Lear, give me such a gift?  It is a trick, and I know it!”

“It is no trick,”  Airomem answered, “But rather, a trade.”

“A trade for what?  I have nothing to offer.”

“Oh, but you do,”  Said Airomem with a smile, as the man’s attention focused upon her, “All you have to do is deliver a message.”

***

Airomem and her father watched as the lone straggler departed, dancing down the corridor away from the entry point bottleneck, an occasional blue flash accompanying his cackling.

“You gave him two?”  Protested Tela from behind them, “Two stun guns?  This is a dangerous game, arming the Agrarians.  I won’t have my men die without cause, should they attack us.”

“It would be for great cause,”  Airomem’s father answered, “The greatest cause, our survival.”

“Besides,”  Added Airomem, “The stun guns we gave him have nearly no power left, and haven’t been charged in the power room for over three years.  They may look flashy, but they won’t last long, and he won’t know the difference until it is too late.”

“True, but his chief might,”  Said Tela.

“But the bait is too great for them to resist,”  Said Airomem’s father, “Ten stun guns, all for ensuring my safety to and from the bridge.”

“You’re giving them more?”  Shouted Tela,  his face red,“We won’t be able to hold them back!”  

“You won’t have to,”  Responded Airomem, staring as the blue flashes disappeared around the corner, “We plan on supplying both the Agrarians and Aquarians with new weapons.  The new tension will pit them against each other, hopefully starting a wave of battles strong enough to cripple both sides.  And even if they should turn on us, we only have to hold out for a short time, until we arrive at the bridge.  After that, nothing else matters.”

“Again, assuming you’re right.”  Said Tela.

“We’re praying that we’re right,”  said Airomem’s father, and walked back towards the back of the ship, “And you, Tela, should pray too.”

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Chapter 32

It took three days for the Agrarians to respond.

The chants echoed far into Lear territory to clash with the shouts of the siren boy as the Lear military scrambled to the bottleneck, lining up in ranks behind each of the doors, stun guns turned to high and braced for attack.  And when Airomem arrived with her father, nearly three quarters of their military faced off against the Agrarians, while the remaining quarter had fallen back to wait a the opposite end of the ship in case of a planned Aquarian attack.

Airomem’s breath caught in her throat when she saw the entire force- never before had she witnessed a full attack, but she had heard the stories of their numbers.

The Agrarian ranks stopped just thirty feet from the entry point doorway, the four front men lined with ropy scars across the faces and arms, their eyes hard and their skin tight.  Behind them was another row of nearly identical men, and behind that another, dozens of rows that extending back as far as she could see- more warriors in that corridor, it seemed, than the entire population of the Lear.

And together they chanted, their voices forming sounds rather than words.  Guttural noises that lashed against the ranks of the Lear in unison, funneled down the hallway to strike like a battering ram.  

“Show no fear!”  Hissed her father as he walked forward through the ranks of his men, Airomem at his right side, and Tela at his left, “It’s all intimidation.  They know that their casualties attacking the entry point would be too costly to merit an initiative.  Stand tall, chests outwards, faces stoic.  Be proud, for you are the Lear, and as each strong as ten of their men!”

And as he passed, their heads rose, and their expressions steeled, and their stances widened. Then he took his place at the front of the group, their spearhead, his own life first among them.

Then the voices of the Agrarians grew louder, and they stamped their feet until the walls began to shake, their faces turning red as something approached from far behind them.  It passed over their heads, supported by a sea of hands as it moved forward, a dark shadow that nearly brushed against the ceiling of the hallway.  And as it reached the front of the crowd, Airomem made out its shape.

It was a couch, or rather, couches, lashed together by liberated electrical wires to form a platform.  The legs and lower half of the couch were dyed red, the fabric coming away in sheared and dangling strips.  Bones jostled from the sides, clacking together as the platform swayed and then was passed down to the front of the Agrarians directly in front of Airomem’s father.

Silence washed over the horde as a figure stood up from the couches, brandishing two stun guns and letting electricity crackle between their prongs, illuminating a long scar than ran down his face and yellowed teeth.

“I am Sitient of the Agrarians, and I hear you have a deal for us, Lear!”  He shouted, “A deal for us that may put our troubles with the Aquarians to an end!”

“Indeed,”  Responded Airomem’s father, stepping forward, “We come offering you a trade of ten stun guns, for safe passage.”

“And why do you seek this deal, Learman?  What have you to gain?”

“The reasons are twofold.  First, we seek to explore the ship, and update our records.”

“Lies, Lear lies.  But go on.”

“And second, we have been stiffed by the Aquarians for far too long in their dealings.  Their water arrives to us tainted and off color, smelling of rot. Should you take their lands, we ask for fair tribute, as they have cheated us in our trades.  Furthermore, we find it easier to trade with one unified tribe rather than two, and if that means wiping out the Aquarians through enhanced weaponry, then so be it.”

Sitient smiled, and opened his hands.

“Then so be it!  We too know the Aquarians for their treachery.  But how should I know that you will make good on the deal?  You are old, perhaps only a decade away from death.  Perhaps your plan is to die among us, and for the bargain never to be completed?  Perhaps this is a Lear trick, a Lear lie?”

His voice rose, and the chanting behind him surged to meet it, rattling the walls for a full two minutes before it subsided and her father was able to respond.

“I assure you, we have no ill intentions.  We simply seek for guidance and guardianship.  In return, you’ll have your weapons.”

Sitient’s eyes narrowed, and the skin over his cheekbone twitched, his scar dancing.

“Do not take me for a fool!  I smell lies better than I smell flesh.  No, should this deal be completed, it shall be on my terms.”  He cast his gaze around the Lear, the pupils coming to rest on Airomem.

“No, I shall not take you, the aged leader.  Instead, I’ll take her, to ensure you make good on the deal!”  He said, and pointed, his index finger aimed at Airomem as chills raced down her spine, “Besides, she took one of our own just a few days ago- is it not fitting we take her in return?  A fair trade.”

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Chapter 33

Airomem

“Absolutely not!”  Shouted Airomem’s father after the Agrarians had left, and they had returned to her apartment, “Absolutely not!  They’ll use you as a bargaining chip, as a way to get even more out of the deal.  You had no authority to accept his demands!”

“It’s too late now,”  Said Airomem, her arms crossed over her chest, her heart still beating rapidly from when she had stepped forward to counter Sitient with words of her own.  As the ranks of Lear exploded into applause as she had lit her own stun gun as a challenging beacon, watching Sitient wince backwards as her mouth formed words.

“Take me then!  But do not suppose I will be an easier burden!”

Back at her apartment, Prometh spoke up from the door, from where he had followed them.

“Strategically, she’s right,”  He said, “You forget your position as not only a father, but also as a leader.  The Lear need you now more than ever as the ship joins together. Should you leave and not return in time, there is a chance that none of us will survive.”

“But if she should leave and not return-” Started Airomem’s father as Prometh cut him off.

“The Agrarians may not possess the most acute intelligence, but even they can sense the wrath a father will feel for his daughter.  They know that if the Lear attack then they will have their flank exposed to the Aquarians, and they shall not risk it.  And they know that with ten stun guns they will have a strong upper hand against the Aquarians, an edge they have been seeking for centuries. No, they will return Airomem, the motives are too great for them to consider otherwise.”

Her father’s face contorted, and Airomem turned away, looking outside the window to avoid his eyes.

“Leader or no leader, I cannot allow it,”  He said, “We will take the time to plan out a different alternative, as I cannot-”

But then his voice was cut off, and the ground underneath Airomem lurched, nearly knocking her off her feet.  Above them a voice spoke as she regained her balance.

“Systems rebooting,” said the voice, “ship damage assessed. Reuniting the two halves of the ship and restoring airlock, approximately twenty four hours until complete.”

When Airomem turned to face them again, her father’s lips were pursed shut, and Prometh’s eyes were lit by an inner fire.

“I’m leaving,”  She said once more, her fists clenched, “And I’ll come back.  I always come back.”

***

“Come with me,”  Her father said, three hours after he had stormed from her apartment, his face one of tired resolution, “Before you leave, I wish to show you something.  To give you my council.”

She followed him, wordless, as he strode away, her footsteps in the shadow of his and her thoughts upon what he might have to say.  They continued walking to the back of the ship, to the power room, and then to a small side alcove.  One she had been to before, but that had not been used in hundreds of years.

The room that held the suits.

Dust fought to hide the gleaming of helmets as her father strode in front of them, waiting for her to take a seat at a chair towards the back of the room.  He glanced backwards to where they were fastened to the wall, eleven in all, bright white with Oxygen tanks bulging from the back, and small utility belts clipped to the sides.  Towering over him, their silence majestic, their presence reminiscent of a time long past.  And one missing, the one Necti had taken long ago to the other end of the ship, which had never returned.

Then her father began to speak.

“These suits once allowed us to travel outside the ship,”  He said and she nodded, knowing the lore well behind the equipment, “I want you to consider their purpose, Airomem.  They are like small ships in themselves- they keep the wearer safe.  But the smallest of cracks in the glass, or the tiniest malfunctions, and the user enters extreme peril.  Just as we have entered extreme peril.”

“Of course,”  She said, trying to understand his point, “Outside the ship, the vacuum forces would mean near instant death should they be given the chance.”

“Exactly, Airomem.  The suit serves as a layer insulating against danger.  But there are other dangers than exterior of the ship, other environments that cause peril.  Environments such as the Agrarians, which you will soon enter.”

He took a breath, and she saw resentment cross his face, before he continued.

“I have brought you here because when you walk among them, you must walk in a suit of your own.  Not these suits, but the suit of royalty.  The suit of the Lear.  If you show but the slightest sign of weakness, they will rip you apart faster than the exterior forces of the ship.  So daughter, hold your chin high.  Remember your heritage, and give them no chance to strike.”

“Of course, father,”  She said, “Just as you do, when they approach for battle.”

“Precisely.  There is another reason I brought you here though, Airomem.  One far more grave.”  And from his pocket, he produced a key ring, and walked to the side of the room where a small cabinet was recessed into the wall.  

Three locks were on the outside of the cabinet, and he inserted different keys into each, unlocking them one a time.  Then he pulled the door open, the metal over an inch thick, and reached inside to pull out a device the size of a drinking cup.  He held it a half arms reach away, his hand gripped tight around its handle, and his eyes slightly widened.  

“What is it?”  Airomem asked, leaning forward, inspecting the bright yellow handle and dark red prongs that extended from the top, as well as a trigger that her father’s index finger avoided with care.

“This,”  Her father said, “Is the most dangerous item on the ship- more dangerous than knives, or stun guns, or potentially even the reactor.  Only two exist- this one, and its counterpart in the power room on the other side.  For this is an Omni-Cutter, a device capable of shearing through nearly any material on the ship.  One accidental slice from this, and the ship itself could be breached.  Back when it was used by those who wore the suits, only the most senior among them could remove it from its cabinet, and only for the greatest of emergencies and most dire of repairs.”

“But why are you telling me this?  Do you want me to take it with me?”

Absolutely not,”  He said, and walked back to the cabinet, fastening the device inside once more, “It’s another lesson for you to consider.  Despite its size, that device can be the end of us all.  As you travel, Airomem, realize that even the smallest of your actions can bring death to the entire ship.  Realize that you are an Omni-Cutter, that one mishap may very well be the Lear’s last.”

“But even if the hull was breached by the Omni-Cutter,”  Objected Airomem, “The ship automatically shuts off the areas where pressure has dropped until it is restored, correct?  So even if you were to cut into the hull, would the ship not protect us?”

“It would, yes.  But I fear you may not be so lucky, with the Agrarians.  Our time is short, and even one potential pathway that is closed off could eliminate our odds of survival.”

Then he walked forward, and placed his hands on his daughter’s shoulders.

“I say this not to put a burden upon you, Airomem, nor to dissuade you.  But rather, so you may know potential outcomes of your actions.  That you may think like a Lear before acting.  And that you may act as a chief would, as the chief you will one day become when my time is no more.  So go, and go with my blessing.  But go with the utmost caution.”

Together, they left the room, her father casting one last look upon the suits.  And he muttered under his breath, his words just audible to Airomem before following her.

“For though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”

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Chapter 34

The Lear military followed Airomem to the bottlenecked entry point then stopped as she crossed the border, saluting her back as she entered Agrarian lands.  Four Agrarians waited for her at the end of the hallway, four that had stood there waiting since the deal had been made. Now they folded around her as an escort, encapsulating her in a bubble of foreign silence interrupted only by the shuffling of their bare feet on the metal floor.

“Touch me,”  She barked before they enveloped her, her voice hard and her hands on the two stun guns at her belt, “And I will ensure you feel the pain of the Lear.  That I will go down fighting, and the lights above will burn you as they burned your ancestors.”

But the guard’s faces formed scowls instead of answers as they led her deeper into the ship.  Deeper than anyone she had known, besides Prometh, had ever traveled.  And as she walked, she remembered his parting words with her before he left her at the entry point, his eyes turning dark as he reacalled his experience as a prisoner among them.

“Show no fear, and give up no ground.  They will do their best to unsettle you, and to pull you down to their level- resist both of these, and remember that you are Lear.  Lear *royalty*, untouchable to them, a goddess among men.  Let the idea that you are the same as them never enter their heads.”

Then he took Airomem by the shoulders, and whispered.

“Stay safe, student.  We can’t afford to lose a mind like yours.”

And remembering Prometh, she swallowed, keeping her chin high and her shoulders straight as the hallways began to reek with the stench of rotted flesh.  Gouges dug into the walls and floor, scratches of knives and unrepaired dents of bodies thrown against metal in their final moments.  The occasional red splattering marked the ceiling overhead, the dots elliptical in shape as they dried, their mark frozen forever in time.  And bones collected in forgotten corners, piling up in tribute to the people they had once lived within.

The guards led her three to four lengths of the Lear’s entire territory, crossing through fields filled with both stooped plants and people, dozens of sets of eyes following her and hands gripping shovels as she passed.  Tongues flicked across lips as jeers sounded from those far enough away that their words could not be deciphered, their harsh tone making her imagination race.

But then they turned, and the fields fell away, and they led Airomem into a large room with the same lashed together couch that she had seen carried by the crowd during the negotiations. Seated upon it was Sitient, his eyes upon her as she approached.  And he raised a hand to his mouth- not his own hand, but one that had been removed from an arm, and took a bite out of one of the fingers with a crunch.

They will do their best to unsettle you. Echoed Prometh’s voice in her mind, followed by her fathers, If you show but the slightest sign of weakness, they will rip you apart faster than the exterior forces of the ship. So she met his eyes as he took a second bite, her irises like steel, and spoke.

“Let’s move.”

***

Like the Lear, the Agrarians had heard the voice in the ship, and they had seen the other half of the ship coming closer through the windows.  Sitient’s eyes had narrowed when Airomem explained her destination was the bridge, and demanded to accompany her for two reason- first, of curiosity.  And second, that to reach the bridge they would have to transverse a small strip Aquarian territory.

Sitient was able to negotiate safe passage through two promises, that the Aquarian leader Esuri would be permitted to accompany them, and that Sitient would provide an exorbitant amount of food to the Aquarians in the near future.  Likely, he would turn on the deal once he had his hands on the stun guns, but it did not matter to Airomem.  All that mattered was that she reached the bridge, and she initiated contact.

Sandwiched between Sitient and Esuri, Airomem had waited for the airlocked door to open.  She had prayed that whoever was on the other side would prove to be a  powerful ally.  

And that perhaps, with each other’s help, they may survive. 

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