Part 3: Horatius
Chapter 35

“I want her locked away, for what her people did to my brother!”

Vaca’s words hung in the air as the porters failed to move, and Nean bared his teeth. From my side, Airomem spoke three words in a challenge, punctuating each with a flash of blue light as defiance crossed her face.

“Then take me.”

Vaca’s mouth dropped open, and Nean turned to face the still porters.

“Do you hear her? She speaks openly against your new chief! She defies him to his face! Are you going to just stand there or are you going to act?”

Their blank faces met his, and Tom spoke for them, his words slow and deep as they shuffled, their heads nodding in agreement.

“She fought, and she closed the door. You ran.”

“Fine!” Shouted Nean, “Cowards, all of you. I’ll do what you are afraid to do!”

Pulling out his knife, he approached Airomem, a full head taller than her and twice as wide. Her chin rose with each of his steps and he faltered, pausing a mere two feet away, his figure entirely eclipsing her in stature.

“Surrender,” He said, “Or-”

“No, that is not what I came here to do.” She interrupted.

“Or I’ll-” He continued, attempting to ignore her.

“I must warn you, this will not be pleasant.” She added.

Nean’s speech became flustered as she refused to budge, and he extended the knife in the vague direction of her neck, his arm clumsy and hesitant as he spoke again.

“Then I must take you prisoner by force, in the name of-”

The jab was fast, almost too fast to be seen, a blur of blue that crackled through the air as Airomem’s stun gun connected with the underside of Nean’s arm. With a jolt he pivoted, blown backwards as his muscles contracted and he uttered a sharp scream of surprise, slamming against the metal wall and sliding to the floor.

“You killed him!” Shouted Vaca as Nean started to drool, “You-”

“I stunned him,” Said Airomem, “And he deserved it. He will be back to normal in only a moment, but perhaps he will think twice next time he threatens me.”

“That he should,” I said, speaking over Vaca who had opened his mouth once more, “As I said previously, the council will decide our next actions and appoint a new chief. And I’m sure they will want to hear what she has to say regarding the other side of the ship, as well as how to defend against them. She saved our lives today, and likely the lives of our entire community. We should be grateful to her, not trying to imprison her. And the council will be even more grateful for her guidance.”

“Which I will be only too happy to give,” Spoke Airomem, “For that is why I traveled here, risking my own life to make contact. Our time is short, and we must make all haste.”

“Our time until what?” Asked Vaca, and the porters leaned in as I held up a hand before Airomem could speak.  Whatever secrets she carried, it would be best that they were not exposed to the ship’s community by Nean and Vaca first.

“That is for the council to discuss. Now, the first action of the council is to meet, and to meet at once. Tom, free any members of the council that Segni held confined, and ensure they have been given a proper meal and a chance to wash. In one hour, we meet outside of the chief’s old quarters.”

Tom nodded, and started to lumber down the hallway away from the bridge with the other porters as Airomem’s sharp voice rang out.

“No, not all of you! Half of you must stand guard- under no circumstances must you leave, no matter what anyone says.”

“Listen to her,” I said, pointing back to the doorway “I will ensure that your meals are delivered here. Take Nean’s knife as well, and pray you don’t have to use it. No one should be able to cross that hallway in anything but a crawl, but be prepared in case they attempt it.”

Then I turned to Vaca as I led Airomem away and Nean began to stir.

“One hour until the council meets. Show up this time.”

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Chapter 36

Airomem

“Before anything else, take me to a window,” Said Airomem, “Towards the back of the ship.”

“Alright,” I said, shaking the water from my shoes as ice continued to melt from the walls with the rising temperature, “But first, how much trouble are we in? How big is this threat?”

“So long as the hallway is blocked, you have nothing to worry about,” Said Airomem, “At least for now.”

“And are you the reason that the ship came back together? Did you do this?” I asked as we walked.

“Us? No, the ship came together on its own, just like it was supposed to after it was reprogrammed when the asteroid struck.”

“What do you mean, reprogrammed?”

“How- no, what exactly do you know about the ship?” She asked, stopping, “How much history do you actually have recorded?”

I smiled, and pushed my chest out.

“I’m the most knowledgeable of anyone on the ship’s history,” I said, “What do you want to know?”

“You are the most knowledgeable?” She coughed, giving me a sideways look as we started walking again,“What’s your plan for departure to new planet?”

“What exactly do you mean?”

Airomem sighed, just as we rounded a corner and a window came into view, “This is going to be difficult. Much of what you know is about to change, Horatius.  Radically.”

Then she walked over to the glass, and pressed her face against it, searching. She pulled one of the black rectangles from her belt, and gave off three quick blue flashes. Squinting past her, I saw three quick blue flashes respond from the other end of the ship, as well as a face peering back at her, the features difficult to make out in the distance.

Taking her hands, she formed several slow signs, exaggerating her movements and squinting at the person across the void, who was forming signs of their own.

“What- what are you doing?” I asked, as her fingernails clicked against the glass.

“Letting the other side know what happened.” She answered, her face in concentration.

“With your hands? You’re speaking with your hands?”

“Well, yes, and no. I can’t fully mimic human speech- there aren’t enough signs for that, and we only use them in emergencies. But I can get the general message across. Words like *safe*, *past-danger*, and *attacked*, but nothing too complicated.”

Then we started walking again, as I took care to bring her along more deserted hallways on the way to the chief’s room at the very back of the ship, and I spoke up after a moment’s thought.

“Why wouldn’t you just speak normally instead of with your hands?”

“Because sometimes, in the power room, it’s too loud to talk.”

“The power room?”

“Yes, where- ah, never mind. We’ll cover all that soon. All you need to know now is that I need to speak with your council, and that it is crucial that they listen to me. What is the current status of your side of the ship?”

“We’re limping, but making it. As Segni said, he was our leader – and recent events have hit us hard.”

“Events like what?”

“The ship coming together was the worst- we weren’t prepared for the lurch, and it claimed many of our lives as well as causing a number injuries. We would have been able to handle them, but we’re low on supplies which complicated matters further.”

“The lurch must have hit you harder than us, or at least at a worse angle. And supplies? As in food?”

“Yes- we’re low on food, and more importantly right now, medicine. The food should be back up soon- after learning how to alter the lights in the control room where we just were, I’ve been able to enhance our growing conditions to be much stronger than the past.” I said, eager to prove to her that there were parts of the ship that our side knew more about than her own, “That action, combined with more frugal stewardship and rationing, should place us into a much more sustainable position. Speaking of food, what, ah, exactly do you eat?”

“We’re not like them,” Said Airomem, gesturing backwards and guessing my thoughts, “Our food comes from the earth, from plants. These paths that we walk, they feel familiar- they’re mirrors of our own, on our end of the ship. We just entered what would be my tribe’s territory on the other end. The rest belongs to the Agrarians and Aquarians.”

After a few more minutes walking, we reached the chief’s room where Elliot was already waiting outside, and the door was open for entry. And Airomem stopped in her tracks, her eyes wide in realization and her hand clutched around my forearm, pulling me away.

“I’m not going in there,” She hissed, and started backing away. “And neither should you, if you value your life.”

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Chapter 37

“Elliot, this is Airomem,” I said,  casting a confused look at her as she took another step back, “Where is the rest of the council?”

“Inside and waiting.  A pleasure to meet you, Airomem,”  He said, “Don’t be scared, I’m not going to hurt you.”

“They’re inside there?”  Airomem cried, her voice alarmed, “Get them out, now!  Quickly!”

“Look, I head about what happened on the bridge,” He said, “But we’re not like that here.  There is nothing to be afraid of- no one here will hurt you. There is no danger.  Now, we are all very eager to hear your story, and I assure you that you will be safe when telling it.”

“No, I won’t,”  She said, “Not in there.”

“Airomem, I saw you take on two grown men at once,”  I said, as Hannah waved from within the chief’s quarters, “Trust me, should you want to fight us, we would lose quickly.  We know nothing about fighting.”  

“No, I don’t know how to explain this,”  She said, her foot tapping against the floor anxiously, “Open the door a bit wider so I can see in.  Oh God, what have you done?  Where are the warning signs?  The monitors?  You must have removed them ages ago.  You see, on my end of the ship we have a hallway just like this, and a room just like yours on the end.  See, look inside- do you see that red C plastered to the door at the end?”

“Yes,”  Said Elliot, starting to grow impatient, “C, for Chief since this is his quarters.  And we’ve tried to open that door, but had little success.  It’s stuck shut.”

“You tried to open it!?”  Airomem shouted, “That’s insanity!  That C doesn’t stand for chief- it was once part of a larger sign, one that has been scraped away.  That door once said nuclear- as a warning to what lies within.  You don’t understand, it’s poison, poison of the worst type.  That door blocks most of it, but some still leaks through to where you stand now.”

“This is ridiculous,”  Said Elliot, “Every chief we have had has lived here contentedly, for as long as I can remember.  If it’s poisonous, then why is the heating so convenient, making a comfortable gradient from the back to the front?  That’s one of the reasons it’s so habitable, obviously that was planned for maximum comfort.”

“The heating is part of the problem!”  She exclaimed, “The heating comes from the poison, from radiation!  Look, have your chiefs ever exhibited any abnormalities?  Any growths, or discolorations on their skin?”

“Why, of course,”  Said Disci, the head doctor, appearing behind Elliot, “Such is God’s mark upon a successful leader.”

“No! That’s wrong, so wrong.  Did they die soon after?  Each time they were blessed, did it last long?”

“Well, no,”  Said Disci, his face scrunching together, “The Lord only blesses hose near the end of their life on the ship.”

“You have it backwards,”  She said, “Those growths are why they died.  They’re signs of the poison, signs of death coming.  Regardless, I refuse to come any closer.  I’m something of an expert on this poison, and I know what it can do to people.  We need to find another spot for our meeting, and you should board this door shut- it should have enough shielding to contain the poison.  I can explain everything to you- the poison, the other side of the ship, everything- but not here.  Those are my terms.”

Elliot paused, his face flickering between disbelief and uncertainty, and I spoke.

“Elliot, do you really believe that a chief marked by God would have allowed Segni to become our leader?”

And as he mulled over the question, his face turned closer to uncertainty, and Disci took a quick step away from the room.

“To our normal meeting room, then,”  He said, rubbing his wrist, “Despite the memories of what last happened there.”

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Chapter 38

Airomem finished speaking as she completed a hand drawing on the board on the wall behind her, depicting the ship before and after the Hand of God. The other members of the room squinted at it, trying to absorb all the information that had come their way, except for Vaca who was staring into the speckled stars outside the window.

Hannah, Elliot, Disci, and myself sat on the same side of the table as him, accompanied by Ruth, who had refused to leave her parents side since their imprisonment. But despite her young age, even she had been far more attentive than Vaca, her eyes following Airomem with each description and her forehead wrinkling at some of the more difficult parts of the story.

We’d decided to keep Vaca on the council, not for his opinion, but to keep him from stirring trouble in other areas of the ship. There were those who would follow him, those that still believed that he was the rightful chief. And though they were no longer the vast majority, keeping him in leadership kept them satisfied, and acted as a safegaurd against mutiny.

“So let me get this straight,” Said Elliot, gesturing at the drawings, “Prior to the Hand of God, the ship was one piece. We knew that, and we can agree upon that. Then, the Hand of God struck, and the ship broke apart, and we lost much of what the ship used to be able to do. We also knew that.

“But what you’re stating is that we originally lost much more- that we were in total darkness, that we lost all the heat, and that there were no heavy rooms but instead extremely light rooms. All because there is a room full of poison that gave us these things, which was damaged in the Hand of God, and now can kill us instead. How can something kill us and give us life at the same time?”

“Think of it this way,” Said Airomem, “When you plant seeds, you do not eat the dirt and compost that you plant them in- that’s poisonous to you. However, your food comes from that soil. The power room, the poison room, is like that.”

“That follows,” I said, remembering how I had learned about plants drawing pieces of soil into themselves to grow, “But what about how your side keeps us alive now?”

“After the asteroid,” she said, tapping her foot, “We were able to give you back some of the capabilities of the ship through wires. Without them, you would have died long ago. And we’ve taken special care to keep these wires alive, to keep you alive.”

“I’m sorry, but this all sounds a bit ridiculous,” Said Elliott, spreading his hands and taking a step back from the table, “We’ve just met you, and now you claim that you’ve been caring for us our entire life, in addition to our ancestors. And after what happened to Segni, I can’t help but be suspicious, even if you story does hold some merit.”

“I thought you might say that,” Said Airomem, and pulled out the black rectangle from her belt and flicking it on as Elliot flinched back, “See this? This is called a stun gun. This blue light here, this spark, is what keeps you and the ship alive inside the wires. It’s complicated, but you’re going to have to believe me.”

“Can you open up some of the wires and show us then?” Asked Disci, as we leaned forward.

“No, it’s very dangerous. More dangerous than the stun gun itself without the proper tools.” She said, then saw Elliot’s suspicion returning, “But wait, I can do something!”

Then she walked over to the window and gave three blue flashes, and her hands started weaving signals again as Elliot cocked his head.

“She can talk with her hands,” I explained to the group, “The other side of the ship is concerned for her safety, so they are constantly watching for her to appear in the windows and receive messages from her. From what I understand, at this distance they can only convey simple messages and at a slower rate than typical.”

“Wow!” Said Ruth from the table, “Can you teach me that? I want to learn to talk to them too!”

“Of course, if we have time, though only a few on the other end of the ship know how to converse,” Said Airomem, “Now, is everyone ready?”

“Ready for what?” I asked, at the same time as Elliot.

“For proof that we’ve kept you alive.”

“I just don’t think you have any way to adequately prove it.” Said Elliott, waving a dismissive hand,“There’s no way-”

But then, Airomem flicked her wrist to give one final signal, and Elliot’s mouth shut with an audible clicking of teeth.

Above, the lights shut off, pitching the room into instant darkness. Vaca shrieked as the legs of his chair left the floor and he started floating upwards, along with the rest of us, each pinwheeling our arms to keep from turning upside down. To my right, the vent that had been spewing warm air suddenly ceased to work, cutting its breeze as suddenly as the lights had been extinguished.

Then, a two second after it began, it was over. The lights snapped back on as we clattered to the ground, the chairs nearly rocking over and air flowing through the vent again. Disci’s face had turned a pale white, Vaca’s eyes were wide with accusation, and Ruth’s expression was filled with wonder. Elliot’s hands shook as he smoothed his shirt, and Airomem cleared her throat as she waited for him to speak.

“Yes, erm, well, that will do Airomem,” He said, his voice slightly higher than usual, “You’ve made your point. Go on.”

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Chapter 39

Horatius

Rations were lower than ever the next week, the sound of forks scraping on plates becoming commons during meal times to account for every last crumb.  And though we worked in the fields with the best possible techniques, our backs bent over the soil for long hours of the day, plants take longer to grow than stomachs take to shrink.

Each night after meeting with the council, Airomem spent time in her own personal apartment that the council set aside for her, often accompanied by Ruth who she was teaching how to speak with her hands.  And each day, Airomem taught us about the other side of the ship- everything from their government structure, to what we now knew as the power room, to the methods of bottleneck defense, which we immediately taught to the porters guarding the bridge.  Each day she communicated with those on the other side of the ship, asking how many more days left until arrival, and getting little in the way of answers.

“The problem is, they don’t know,”  She told the council, after one week on our side, “We should be approaching the planet soon, and we should be landing soon, but it could be a month away or six months away.  We don’t know how much time Necti left us to be prepared, and we can only assume that he erred on the side of caution and gave us more time than we needed. But what does matter is that, once we are close, we are able to evacuate the ship.”

“That won’t go over well,”  I said, “It’s easy to speak with us about leaving, now that we know what you know.  But the rest won’t want to listen.”

“If they don’t, they’ll die – in day or weeks but they will still die.  We have to make sure that when the time comes, they are ready to move, and move quickly.  We need to tell them now.”

Elliot raised a hand in caution, and spoke, the wrinkles that had started to form on the edges of his eyes over the last few weeks becoming more pronounced.

“Remember, the majority of them do not understand what is going to happen.  But they do understand that their chief was killed, and he was killed by people closely interlinked with you, Airomem.  And they do understand being hungry.  We’ll have to break this news softly, and in increments- over time, they will accept it.”

“But it could happen at any time!” Protested Airomem, “And if they are not ready to evacuate, we might as well have put a knife through their hearts!”

“Airomem, we are not like the Lear,”  I said, frowning, “Despite how much I wish we were. There is much that your kind understands that ours does not.  Trust me, teaching them the simplest of changes took years and gratuitous reinforcement.  If the day comes too soon, then we can handle it to the best of our ability- if the ship truly is a danger to anyone who remains on it, then we are justified in giving them a little push if necessary.”

“What, what exactly do you mean by that?”  Asked Elliot, and he cast a searching eye over me as I fidgeted.  He still did not know about the power room, nor my antics in pushing the people into adopting my agriculture methods.  But Elliott was too sharp to stay in the dark for too long, and I would need to inform him soon.  Perhaps when everyone was not so hungry.

“Like Airomem could shut off the power again,”  I said quickly, “And if they think that the ship is too dangerous, than they’ll have to follow us out of fear.”

“Don’t you think that they should get to decide if they stay or leave?”  Said Hannah, raising an eyebrow.

“If they decide wrong, then they die,” I responded, “Should we allow that to happen instead?”

“But what if we decide wrong?”  She objected, “What if we evacuate, and it kills us?  As much as I would like to place my faith in this plan, you must admit that it is an unprecedented risk.”

“Even if we do give them the choice,”  I said, “There are many who would follow us, many whose eyes have been opened over the last few months.  There are likely just as many who would remain entrenched in their ways, but we could at least save half.”

“Regardless, as of now this conversation stays between us for now, the members of the council,”  Said Elliot, “We should make plans for each possible scenario so we are prepared.”

We nodded in return as he walked to board, and started to draw out possible plans.

And even Vaca nodded, as he continued to stare out the window.

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Chapter 40

Horatius

I’d been accompanying Airomem most nights after her meetings with the council, bringing additional questions and jotting notes down as she ate her sparse dinner.  Each day she seemed to bring a new surprise, a new alien trait that made my eyebrows shoot up and my thoughts spin.  

It was so interested because I was a historian, I told myself.  It was my duty to learn not only about my side of the ship and our past, but theirs as well.  These were stories that I had never been able to access, ones that had been sealed away for hundreds of years by the void of space, pages unread for generations.  Ones that to them were old, but to me were brand new.

But there were other reasons too- how Airomem walked so confidently, how she seemed to demand attention from everyone in the room.  How her face had been the first I had recognized on the other side of the ship, and now was speaking to me, something that just weeks before I would have declared impossible.  And how I yearned for a way to impress her as well, since her side of the ship seemed far more extraordinary that my own.

“You said you knew about the control room before I took you there,”  I asked as she finished her rations, a disappointed look on her face as she set the plate on the floor, “How exactly?”

“It was mentioned in our stories,” She said, “We remembered a time when the ship would do much of the work for us, and the engineering in the power room was such that many of our tasks could be accomplished from a distance.  And since we always had the ability to change the power on other areas of the ship, it took little imagination to understand that perhaps we used to be able to change much more than that, or to change it more precisely.”

“And the power on your side of the ship, did you ever try to enhance farming with it?”

“Considering that the Agrarians did the farming, it was not in our interest,”  She said, “If we helped them too much, then they would grow too strong and become a threat.  Conversely, if we starved them off, then we would starve our own food supply.  And even if we were allies with them, we wouldn’t know where to begin in terms of the science.”

“Wait, you’re saying that you’ve never actually farmed?”  I asked, realizing there was something I *did* know more about than her, “Would you be interested in learning?”

“Of course!”  She said, “Trying on our end of the ship would be suicide due to the Agrarian’s grasp on the land.  But learning how to do it can only prove useful- whether in fighting our enemies, or upon arrival on the new planet, where I suspect we will have to do it ourselves anyways.”

“I can teach you then!”  I said, beaming, “Tomorrow, just after our meetings, I’ll take you to the fields.  It’s simple, really, especially since you already seem to understand the conceptual parts.”

“Deal,”  She said, as Ruth came to the door, and paused in the frame.  The she put her hands in front of her, her tongue tucked around the corner of her mouth, and started forming symbols as Airomem laughed.

“Yes, you can come in,”  Airomem said, and and made another sign, after which Ruth looked to me and laughed.

“What did she say?”  I asked, as I stood up to leave.

“Oh, it’s a secret Horatious,”  Said Ruth, wagging a tiny finger and laughing, “You’ll have to learn sign language to find out!”

The next day, Airomem joined me in the fields, and I taught her the basics of how to plant seeds, and of the varieties, their preferred soils, and light optimizations.  Her presence on our end of the ship was well known by now, through an announcement by Elliot who had temporarily taken control as chief by vote of the council, at least until the ship was no longer in crisis.  He’d also made the announcement of Segni’s death, assuring the crowd that he would, in fact, be remembered.

“But what about her!” Skip had shouted from the back of the crowd, as others murmured, “Segni was killed by her people, and you’re going to let her walk among us?  As if she were one of our own?”

“Aeromem’s people are enemies of those who killed Segni,”  Elliot had responded, keeping his voice level, “And they have been giving us crucial information about how to keep them from harming anyone else.  In addition, she explained how the ship created an extremely heavy room on the bridge for our protection as its systems came online. She is an incredible resource, and will do far more good than harm.”

I coughed as Elliott had mentioned the ship creating the heavy room, turning away slightly to avoid the eyes of the crowd.  I’d instructed Airomem to tell that lie, informing her that the control room was a long kept secret, one that it was best if the remainder of the population did not know about.  All it would take was one twist of the wrong knob, and there could be another Great Thirst.  This close to our arrival, another catastrophe might prove to be the last event we would experience.

I sighed in relief that the crowd’s perception of Segni had been so negative at the time of his death- they still felt the hunger attributed to his feasts, and many fought infections from lack of medicine, and others had family members that had perished or were close to perishing from the ship coming together.  Segni’s death was a distant tragedy compared to their own, washed away in a river of sorrow that hoped for new beginnings and redemption.  There were some who cried at his funeral, and others who paid their respects, but the general shock smoothed over any sense of retaliation.

The death of a chief had happened before, and was eclipsed by the shock of the other recent events.

In times of crisis, our people had always learned to listen to tradition and to orders.  Now Elliott, as the new temporary chief, was able to provide both of those.  The majority people were willing to overlook the events that had lead up to Segni’s death, and to focus upon the future.

The majority, but not all.

We planned on an assembly in the next week as Elliott met with each of the local leaders to discuss his plan, instructing them to keep the details extremely confidential.  He spoke with Tom, who would move the porters to action.  He reached out to the eldest cooks and doctors, relaying on to them that he would need their support to ensure survival.  And he asked me to start convincing the gardens, to bring Airomem out there under the pretext of teaching her our ways, but to win over as many people as possible into trusting her.  To acclimate them to her presence, to convince them that there was no danger.

Only then would we cascade the evacuation plan, speaking through localized leaders to win over the whole.  By Elliot’s estimations, that would gather support from over three quarters of the ship.  And the last quarter, while we could prod and goad them to follow, we could not force.  

That last quarter, if could we not convince them to follow us, if could we not convince them to change, then we also could not convince to live.

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