Chapter 47

Airomem

The voice came from above as she walked to the meeting room, causing her to redouble her pace, nearly reaching a run.

“Twenty four hours until arrival.  All members of the ship, report to the landing vessel.  Immediately.”

She broke into the meeting room just as her father stood atop a chair, calling for order among the arguing members.

“Your heard it!  Twenty four hours until arrival!  I want every member of the Lear notified to pack no more than a knapsack of belongings and to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice! Everyone but the most senior members here will be supervising. In twenty four hours this ship becomes a wasteland- anyone who stays will not be under my protection, and even if they were, they wouldn’t survive longer than a few days.  Dnadelion 14 is a about to become a husk, devoid of food or water, and with no power.  To stay is to embrace death.  Go! Now!  Except for you, Airomem, we need your report.”

Before she could speak Tela cut her off, his voice sharp with desperation, “Their military, how large is it?  How well can they help us fend off the Agrarian’s and Aquarian’s as we flee?  Are they potential allies?”

She raised a hand, signaling him to pause, and took a breath.  Then she began.

“The-,” She paused, realizing they had no name for themselves, and restarted, “The Nectians have a population of approximately one thousand, separated into their leaders, their chefs and doctors, and their laborers.  They have no warrior class, nor do they have weapons among them- I suspect there may be racks of stun guns locked away in their power room, where we recharge ours, but it is too dangerous to enter there.”

“So it was fruitless,”  muttered Tela, his eyes narrowing as his fingers gripped the tabletop, “Our weapons traded away for an empty expedition.”

“Not quite,”  She answered, holding a finger in the air, “Actually, quite the contrary.  The Nectians may be unable to lend a hand in leaving Dandelion 14, but they could prove crucial once we land on the new planet.  The majority of them are farmers- assuming that’s how we will find food, they will be indispensable when we disembark.”

Tela frowned, and her father spoke.

“And their disposition?  Will they cooperate with the Lear?  As farmers, are they like, well, are they like the Agrarians?”

“I would estimate that seventy percent are compatible,”  She answered, “But the other thirty percent will balk at the notion of leaving the ship, and will be left behind of their own accord.”

“And this other thirty percent,”  Growled Tela, “Are they the reason for your return?  We received no message from you that you were coming back, and had the guards on the boarder stationed there in case you arrived, not because you were expected.”

“Yes, the thirty percent mutinied,”  Responded Airomem, “Which is another reason we must help them.  They took prisoners, two of the leaders of the Nectians.  And without them, many of the Nectians will not be convinced to leave.  We’ll have to rescue those two, or risk losing them all.”

“So you’re saying that thirty percent were able to overcome the vast majority,”  Countered Tela, “Meaning the majority we are to bring with us is far weaker.  And in addition to that, they can offer no assistance against the Agrarians and Aquarians, but rather require our assistance to leave the ship.  Airomem, do I need to remind you that we now have twenty four- no, twenty three and a half now- hours left to disembark?  To force our way through to the bridge, and to protect our own kind first?  We cannot afford to take them under our wing.”

“But there is something they can do to help fight!”  She exclaimed, her face brightening, ”On their side of the ship they have discovered a control room, and they can wreak havoc upon the Agrarians and Aquarians from there!  The could incapacitate them from a distance, a tactic that could prove invaluable.”

But across the table, Prometh shook his head, large bags recently formed under his eyes.

“I’m afraid that will not be possible,”  He said, “I’m familiar with this room from old drawings of the Power Room schematics, and Airomem is correct.  It does hold great power.”

“And?”  Pressed Tela, as Prometh paused.

“And it also requires power to operate.”  He sighed, “For the past twelve hours, our engineers have detected the electrical draw of the ship to have tripled and to be steadily rising.  We checked everything- from wiring faults to misreads, and until I heard the announcement I assumed that we were simply missing something.  But now, I realize what has been happening- the ship is drawing power to the bridge, preparing the vessel that will take us to the planet.”

“And why is this a problem?”  Said Airomem.

“Because at the rate that the power is increasing, due to the exponential burn rate,”  Said Prometh, “I would estimate that, at best, we have about twelve hours of power left.”

For a moment, the table was silent.  Then Tela’s chair flew backwards as he stood, his face red as he shouted.

“So not only do we have to fight our way through our enemies, but we have to do so in the dark?”

“Well, yes,”  Answered Prometh, his voice tired, “But I suspect that will be the least of our worries.”

Airomem’s eyebrows shot upwards as Tela prepared for another outburst, but her words cut his off.

“Gravity!”  She exclaimed, “Without power, we’ll be weightless!  Weightless and in the dark.”

“Precisely,”  Said Prometh.

“With this information,” Stuttered Tela, “It is absolute madness for us to attempt a rescue mission.  Those of the Nectians who come of their own accord will be admitted.  But the rest- the rest have decided their fate.”

Airomem bit her lip as her father spoke up, his voice slow and deliberate.

“The Lear come first,”  He said, “Our duty is to serve them before all others.  I’m sorry Airomem, but under the extreme circumstances, we have no choice.  The Nectians will have to make their own choice, as you made them aware of the situation in your envoy.”

“Except for the prisoners!”  Airomem exclaimed, rising to her feet, “They don’t get to make a choice, and they’re the ones who saved their people!  Now they are dying for it!”

“They chose to be heroes, Aeromem.  And being a hero means you put yourself at risk for the sake of others. “

Her eyes flashed as she whipped around to storm out of the room, her voice coming out in a hiss.

“You’re right, father.  That’s precisely what being a hero means.  And once, I would have believed we fit that description.”

“Prometh,”  She heard her father say as she left, “See to it that the power room lasts as long as possible.  And my daughter has always listened to you, talk some sense into her as well.  This is a difficult decision, but I can’t afford to put our people into more danger. Compromises, difficult compromises, must be made.”

“Of course,”  Said Prometh, following Airomem from the room, “Talking sense is what I do best.  She will be ready to depart promptly.”

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Chapter 48

“Airomem, hold up!”  Prometh called, his breath coming in gasps as he rushed down the hallway.  The accumulation of his age and the sleepless night had taken its toll, and he grimaced with the knowledge that rest was still far away.

“I heard what you said,” She hissed, whipping around to face him and still walking backwards, “And you won’t talk sense into me.”

“Not if you kill me first with this pace,”  He responded, and then pointed at her with one of his remaining fingers, “But at bare minimum you owe me a discussion Airomem, a discussion of the other side, and of the survival of this ship as a whole!  Time is short and we cannot afford for it to be wasted by your temper!”

She stopped, blood rushing to her face.  Prometh was right, just as he had been countless times through the years.  Her storming away solved nothing, and she had no plans developed for what to do when her anger subsided.  She paused, then spoke as he caught up to her.

“What do you want to know?”

“These people you found, you said they were like the Lear?”

“Yes.”

“And that they may prove critical to our own survival?” He inquired.

“Absolutely.”

“And, when they turned upon you,” He held a hand up as she started to protest, “Was it violence and greed that drove them?  Or was it fear and ignorance.”

“Ignorance,” She answered, and Prometh smiled, “Ignorance for what was for their own good.”

“That’s fortunate,” He answered, his voice soft, “For that can be fixed.  Oh yes it can- knowledge can be given, and the stupid can be lead, but character is far harder to change.  Now, we must discuss the Lear departure of the ship.  Stop trying to speak over me.  We’ll come back to the issue of the Nectians in just a moment.”

From his pocket he pulled out a folded paper and began to open it, gently prying the creases apart and setting it on the ground.  And Airomem recognized it as the schematics of the ship that had hung in the classroom during her studies, as Prometh had taught her the methods of bottleneck defense.

“It is critical that you remember, Airomem, the path to the bridge,” He said, smoothing the map with his palm, “This map is old. In the years since it was created there could be blocked corridors or there could be malfunctions in the ship that block our progress.  Do you remember any of these?”

“No,” She answered with a frown as Prometh handed her a pen.  And she traced the route she had taken on the paper, her face wrinkled in concentration as she fought to remember if it was correct.”

Prometh shook his head as she traced a particularly long line through the farming fields, and shook his head.

“No that won’t do,” He whispered, shaking his head, “It’s too much distance.”

“Why does that matter?”  She asked, “If anything, it’s the quickest way as a straight line and it points nearly directly at the bridge.”

“You forget, Airomem, that we will be weightless.”  He answered, “We will not have the privilege of running along the ground.  Our speed will come from kicking off the walls, and in a stretch as long as this, the air itself will slow us down!  And should we get stuck near the center, we are as good as dead.  Easy targets from the sides.

He took the pen from her and traced around the inner edge of the fields, squinting as the tip raced through the narrow lines, and speaking once he finished the alternate path.

“This is better, with more right angled turns that can be used to keep speed.  More dangerous, though.  More dangerous for sure.  But the procession of the entirety of the Lear would be greatly accelerated.”

“It’s nearly at the center of Agrarian territory,”  she answered, “It doesn’t seem dangerous, it seems suicidal. You would be surrounded instantly.”

“Not quite,”  He answered, “With the sudden influx of weapons, all it will take is but the tiniest of sparks to drive the tribes to full war.  I’m certain the Lear can find a way to initiate it, just a few of the right words when giving stun guns to the Aquarians should be enough.  That means that the majority of the Agrarian forces will be at or past their own boundary, and those few who may be lingering will be incapacitated at the front of the procession by our own soldiers.  We’ll have surprise on our side as well, since we will cut power to the ship mere seconds before we depart, and the darkness will help shield us from prying eyes.  With no notion that weightlessness is coming, or even the idea that it exists, the Agrarian’s ability to react will be severely diminished.”

“So cut the power,” She reiterated, “Then flush our people through the hall in a single line as fast as possible to the bridge.  From there, we defend the entrance like a bottleneck until it is time to depart.”

“Exactly,” Said Prometh, “And there are only two who can lead the Lear to the bridge, two that have walked the paths before.  Myself, and you, Airomem.  But since I’m a frail old man, I fear there are journeys I can no longer attempt alone.”

She grimaced, turning to the window where she could see the other side of the ship with the Nectians, and bit her tongue.  She hadn’t considered that the fate of the Lear rested just as heavily upon her shoulders as the fate of them.

“When the Lear arrive at the bridge,” Continued Prometh, “It will be too late to save the Nectians.  Without gravity and in the dark they’ll have panicked.  Even if they do decide to depart for the bridge, the loss of power several hours before they leave means that many of them will be left behind.  I anticipate that only a few stragglers will make it, if any at all.”

“I,”  Started Airomem, he voice thin, “I’ll cross the Agrarian lands on my own then, now, before the power is out, and lead the Nectians to the brdige.  Then I can come back for the Lear.”

“A suicide mission that will help neither,”  Said Prometh, “You’ll be killed long before you reach the Nectians if you travel by foot.  I’m afraid that way is barred to you, Airomem.”

Her throat tightened, and Prometh turned to embrace her in the hallway, his arms around her as she felt hope fleeting, watching as a few members of the Lear hurried away from them, carrying the message of the soon to come departure.  At any other time, his gesture would have seemed inappropriate- but she found herself welcoming the comfort of her old mentor.  And she felt his fingers entwine around her own, her eyes widening in surprise as something hard and jagged bit into her palm, held firmly in place by the pressure of Prometh’s hand.  He angled his head, and he spoke into her ear, his words coming slow and heavy.

“As I said, Airomem, there are journeys I can no longer attempt alone.  But leading the Lear through Agrarian territory is something that I can do.  Your presence shall be missed.”

He took a step backwards, and gave her a slow wink.

“I hope I have talked some sense into you, Airomem.  As your father commanded, be ready to depart at once.”

Then he turned away as she glanced at her palm, her mouth opening as she recognized the objects she held.

“I’ll see you at the bridge,”  He said over his shoulder, and waved a hand in departure.

“You as well, Prometh.  Thank you, this may be the most important lesson you have ever given me.”

And she raised her own hand in a fist, mimicking his motion, but daring not to open her fingers and expose the three keys and folded note that she clutched within.

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Chapter 49

Airomem had no need to read the note to know her next destination. Instead, she felt her legs carrying her forward against the current of the frightened crowd, attracting stares as her shoulders rubbed against those preparing to flee. Whispers chased her down the hallway, whispers that threated to distract her from her task.

Snippets like “I bet she knows more about what’s going on” or “Why isn’t she preparing to leave?” or “Hard at work, even on the brink of disaster,” accompanied by a knowing glance or worried frown, though none of the speakers followed her. And when she arrived in the power room, it was emptier than she had ever seen – posts were abandoned in favor of preparation, knowing that reactor failure was soon imminent and that there was little the extra hands could do to help.

Despite knowing what was occurring, chills still ran up her spine at the distress alarms and flashing lights that called out to her to fix them, and her eyes widened as they saw the energy expenditure levels high above anything she had ever observed, yet still rising.

Prometh was right, she realized. The time to act before power was completely lost was rapidly dwindling. And turning away from the machinery she had dedicated so much of her life towards, she opened the note Prometh had written her and started to read, keeping an eye upwards at the few workers who had stayed behind.

She recognized one of them, Abraham, an engineer in training that she had personally helped instruct as he neared the title of full engineer. He was brighter than most his age, yet still had to grow into his gangly body, his arms and legs possessing an uncanny knack for bumping into tables and chairs. She raised a hand and beckoned him over, leading him outside the power room to where they could hear each other speak.

“I think I know what’s wrong with the reactor,” Airomem said, avoiding his eyes, “and I’m going to need your help to fix it.”

“But everyone says it’s already destroyed,” he said, brushing a bead of sweat away that raced down a strand of his dark curly hair. “Even Prometh said that.”

“Well, I think he’s wrong,” she countered. “And if it is already destroyed, there is little harm we can do. Don’t forget that you’re still an apprentice, Abraham – there’s much you still don’t know about the reactor, information that I do know. And if you work with me, we might just save the entire ship.”

“But how?” he asked, his eyebrows scrunching together.

“Not many people know this, Abraham, but there is a way that we can cause the reactor to reboot,” she said. “Do you know the panel on the side wall, the one with the number keypad on it?”

“Yes,” he said. “But I’ve never seen anyone interact with it. And I do know that if I touch it, that I’m no longer allowed to become a full engineer.”

“Abraham, if you don’t touch it, then there will be no full engineer position,” stated Airomem. “But besides, you have my full permission. More than that, you have my command. Here’s what I need you to do – I’m going to access some of the wiring on the other end of the wall, in the side room. When I give you the signal, I’ll need you to enter in the code I give you and hold down the green button. Okay?”

“Sure, but are you sure you know what it will do? And what is the signal?”

“Abraham, I know exactly what it will do. Remember that afterwards,” she said, and avoided his eyes again. “The signal will be when I flash my stun gun. You’ll be able to see the glow through the window on the door to the room, but I’ll be too busy to come into full sight. Understood, Abraham? From this point forward, you are under my strict orders to complete this action. No matter what anyone says, now the fate of the ship rests upon your shoulders.”

“Understood,” he said, straightening upwards. “And the code?”

“One four four zero,” she said and asked him to repeat it. Then he reentered the power room and she walked over to the side room, looking at the small circular window set into the metal that Abraham would see the glow of her stun gun through.

Taking a breath, she cast a look back at the struggling engineers and the limping reactor. She looked at the door that led back into Lear territory, where her father would be waiting for her, where the Lear were preparing to depart, and where all she had ever known was locked inside.

Then she nodded to Abraham and placed a hand upon the cold metal, entering the room as the door clicked shut behind her. Her own breathing was the only sound as she was cut off from the power room, and she struggled to keep it under control, raising her chin to look outside the window at the stars beyond.

Completely alone, except for the eleven suits at her back.

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Chapter 50

Airomem, you know where these keys belong. And you know the one other way to the other side of the ship, the way least traveled. Over the years, I’ve kept the suits on their place on the wall in case of an emergency such as this. And I inherited the books on how to operate them. Consider them my gift to you. Once you are ready to depart, enter the code on the back of this paper simultaneously into the two control panels, one the main in the power room, the other inside the room of suits. And beware, Airomem – should you lose physical contact with the ship once you depart, you do so forever. Heed the safety section with utmost care. I cannot stress this enough.

Airomem swallowed as she reread the note and turned back to face the suits. On the ground, in front of the first one, a book lay open – a book with three slips of paper marking pages. Read me first was scrawled upon the first in Prometh’s handwriting, centered on the already open page. Turning the book over, she mouthed the title of the cover, Ship Maintenance and Exo-repair Manual, then returned to the parted page.

Mandatory Safety Precautions

Section 1: Any and all excursions outside the hull of the ship shall occur in teams with a bare minimum of three participants.

Airomem grimaced as she paused. She’d only read one rule, and already she was breaking it.

Section 2: Excursions must be approved by the ship council prior to departure, and must be supported by the mission team in the control room.

Rule two, broken.

Section 3: Proper gowning and tethering procedures listed below. Prior to departure, each item must be checked and approved by a minimum of two other authorized members of the excursion team.

A list appeared beneath the section, detailing the proper way to ensure the suit was airtight, check over the tool belt, and connect the user to the ship via a double coil of wire spooled around the left hip. From what she could read, at all times, the user was to be tethered to two different points in the ship and was to scuttle along the outside edge of the ship while reconnecting to different points as the spools of wire ran short.

There would be no one to check her list, but she could ensure that she at least followed half of rule three, which was better than none.

Then she turned the pages to the second bookmark, a section titled Emergency Boarding Procedures, her eyes widening and a nervous laugh growing in her throat with each passing line. After committing the section to memory, she flipped to the last bookmark, Departure Procedures.

Closing her eyes, she reviewed the steps line by line, making sure she missed no part of what she had to do. That every step was as clear as it could be, that she could identify no discrepancies, knowing that even a small deviation meant death.

Then she turned to the wall of suits, running her hand along them until she came to the empty space at the end, and selected the one adjacent. The suit itself was intuitive – the boots were built into the pants, internal straps tightening the fabric to her heels automatically as her toes found the inner edge, the soft compression cupping her arch. Then the sensation travelled up to her ankle, the fabric compressing inward, small wrinkles forming upon the surface from where the outermost layer was designed for thicker calves. Her hamstrings were next, then her hips and stomach, the suit forming more of a skin than an article of clothing up to her shoulders, then moving down each of her arms until even individual fingers were intimate with the material.

As the fabric tightened, she noticed the weight of the tools at her belt and the air tank on her back become alleviated, the suit itself taking on some of the downward force from each. Moving an experimental step forward, she felt the suit not only conform to her movements, but contribute to them – stretching in regions to accommodate the strain of her muscles, while constricting in others to remove weight.

Then she reached forward and took the helmet in her hands, a curved trapezoid constructed of glass and metal that fit atop her shoulders and interlocked into her back, and slid it over her head. With a hiss, the fabric latched onto the harder helmet, constricting around the rim of the helmet like a bottle cap over a glass bottle, until no path remained for air to escape. She took a breath and felt the suit respond, a slight breeze smelling of plastic wafting upwards from her collarbone.

Reaching towards her belt, she zipped open the container, checking that all the tools that she would need were present. Then she picked up the three keys she had left on the book before gowning and strode over to the cabinet her father had opened for her just before she had left the Lear. Taking each of the keys, she unlocked a separate lock, surprised at the dexterity of her fingers as she turned the keys, an uneasy feeling growing inside her at just how easy it had been to open the most secure vault on the ship as she recalled her father’s words.

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.

As the last tumbler settled, the door creaked open and Airomem reached a careful hand inside, pulling the Omni-cutter from the box with a steady hand. It was heavier than it appeared, and she gripped it tight, afraid that it might somehow leap from her fingers. Holding it an arm’s length away, she flipped upwards the red guard, and put her index finger over the trigger.

She would need to test it, of course. It should be simple – just to see if the machine reacted to her at all, but she hesitated. Dropping it at the wrong angle would tear a hole in the floor, while an accident could send it into the wall, ripping a hole that would suck her into space. But she pushed the thoughts away and slowly commanded her finger to move, her muscles tensing with each millimeter that the trigger twitched, its internal mechanism resisting her.

Then there was a click and her index shot backwards as the trigger gave way. Bright white light exploded into the room as she gripped the Omni-cutter, accompanied by a buzzing far louder than even the full power setting of her stun gun. She cursed and released the trigger, seeing stars, and realizing that Abraham would have seen the light as well. That he would think it was the signal, and if she didn’t move now, he might come to investigate.

Her hand fell to her belt and she pulled the cord out of its winder, snapping the connector at its end to a railing intended for anchoring according to the procedure book. Then she rushed to the panel, the cord trailing behind her, and entered the numbers on the keypad with flying fingertips.

One.

Four.

Four.

Zero.

Go.

As she held the go button down, she flashed her stun gun repeatedly in case Abraham had missed the first light. She’d already been in the room for twenty minutes, and she prayed that another engineer had not distracted him from his post or noticed him touching the keypad.

She held her breath as seconds counted by, keeping one eye on the door’s window and her other eye towards the stars. Then she saw a face appear in the window, Abraham’s, his eyes wide as he saw her. She saw him shout and watched as his face turned down to look at the handle, then his hand pounded against the glass.

Then she heard the sound, a soft humming that filled the room, and felt her suit adjusting its grip upon her as the pressure dropped. More faces appeared at the window, red-faced engineers that pushed Abraham aside, their expressions confused. She raised a hand to them, and she signed two words.

My task.

Their looks turned to panic as she looked back out towards the stars and saw that the wall had begun to slide downwards moving until its lip was flush with the floor. She walked to the edge of the ship, the abyss surrounding her on every side, the cord spooled behind her, and the other end of the ship waiting.

And she gasped.

There, far to her right, there was an object among the stars, but far larger than any of them. What appeared to be a disk the size of her fist, a swirl of blues and greens, of color among the darkness.

The planet.

Their planet.

Home.

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Chapter 51

For a full minute, she stared, her mouth slightly open, her toes just over the edge of the ship. And for the first time in her life, she felt small. The Lear had always stood above the other tribes, and she had stood above most of the Lear. She even felt more significant than the stars, tiny pinpricks of light that she sailed between, that she commanded to fall past her as she fed power to the engines.

But this, this was something completely alien to Airomem. Something that would soon change her life forever. Had already changed her life forever.

She drew a sharp breath as the lights above her flickered, and she peered over the edge into nothingness, extending her leg outwards and feeling the force of artificial gravity fall away with each passing inch. She’d have to crawl along the side of the ship, moving in a “U” shape over Agrarian territory, crossing atop the bridge, then moving over the Nectians, a process that would be extremely slow going. And she frowned when her eyes turned towards the bridge, and bright white light illuminated her mask.

There, she could see just the uppermost tip of the third part of the ship – a metallic dome that rose behind rectangular metal of the bridge. On the other side, the white light emanated in bursts and spasms, illuminating the edges of the bridge and casting long shadows on the rest of the ship. Sparks accompanied the glow – long, trailing arcs of light that showered the top of the bridge, danced on its roof, and dripped off its surface as remnants of artificial gravity took hold of them.

Her shoulders sank as she looked upon that, raising her hand to look at the fabric separating her from space, wondering if it was made to withstand sparks like that. She could be impaled before coming anywhere close to the Nectians, or the temperature could rise higher than she could stand. Effectively, the bridge was no longer a passageway but rather an obstacle.

Her muscles tightened as the precious seconds dragged by and she fought to come up with another solution. Perhaps crawling under the bridge would help, but she did not know the extent of construction in that region. She could try to leap through the sparks, but as Prometh had said, losing contact with the ship likely meant she would float away, then suffer a death of eventual suffocation or thirst. But if there was a guide wire, maybe, maybe she could make it.

And her heart fluttered as it came to a realization.

All she needed was a guide wire. And long ago, when the ship had lost power, Necti had connected the halves to bring back power. There, nearly as thick as her arm, and spanning the gap directly between the two halves, was the cord he had once laid. A cord coursing with enough electricity to char her to the bone, that waved loose in the void. And that might be her only way across.

She swallowed and looked left again, considering chancing her way among the sparks just as a thicker ball of molten metal sailed from the repair site and skidded along the bridge, slag spraying away as it made contact and rolling to a red hot stop just on the edge. Airomem watched as it cooled, imagining that it had struck her in the back and had melted the material of her suit away in fizzling hunks as it sought her skin. Her mouth dried and she turned back to the cable, her thoughts fighting adrenaline for control over her body.

It would be impossible to crawl across, she realized, since her tether was metallic. That meant that if the insulator covering was not sufficient, current could flow through her body back to the metal of the ship, short-circuiting the electronics. Shutting off all the lights and killing her in the process as she lit up like the filament of a light bulb.

She tapped her foot, eye spanning the gap, and wondering if she could make the jump with the tether behind her as a safety in case she missed the other side. But if she misjudged, even just slightly, she would come back into contact with the wire. And this time, the momentum could carry her around the wire, tangling her with the cause of her death, and leaving her crucified between the two parts of the ship for eternity.

Considering her options, she frowned. To the left, she would likely die from exposure and heat. To her right, the cable would fry her from the amperage through her tether. Either way, the risk was too high.

But there was one way, she realized, one way just short of death. One way that meant she followed none of the safety precautions provided to her by Prometh or the procedures. A way insane, yet the least so of her options.

The only way.

So she reached behind her, and unclipped the tether, watching it recoil back into the spindle on her belt.

She took two steps forward in a running start.

And Airomem jumped.

***

In the meeting room, Prometh spread the map he had showed Airomem against the tabletop, speaking with Praeter and Tela as they peered down at the track he had marked.

“When we give the command,” he said, “the power room will cut all power to the ship, and our window will be opened. All the Lear must glide single file down the hallways, as fast as possible, before the Agrarians have a chance to react. The head of the group should be soldiers, ready to stun anything that moves, then soldiers should be peppered throughout the line to prevent disruptions and provide general aid. Then, the end of the line should be capped by soldiers, to ensure no one is left behind and that we are not attacked from the rear.”

“And you expect our citizens to naturally know how to glide?” criticized Tela. “This is a pile-up waiting to happen. We’ll be lucky if they make it down the first corridor without broken bones.”

“He has a point, Prometh,” added Praeter, clasping his hands together over the map. “We have difficulties enough mobilizing them now, and we still have gravity and light. This could easily lead to disaster.”

“We’ve considered that,” said Prometh, “and I currently have engineers cutting through the electrical lines of the main corridor. Within the hour, conditions within will replicate those during the final stages of evacuation, and nearly everyone will become accustomed to weightless travel. On your mark, Praeter, they will finish the conversion to weightlessness.”

“We’ll need to communicate the message first, then –” started Tela, but he stopped mid-sentence, his mouth still ajar.

“What is it?” pressed Praeter as Prometh’s gaze followed Tela’s, his voice filled with awe.

“We’re here,” he gasped, eyes glistening. “All my years, I have waited, and we have truly made it.”

There, in the corner of the window, they could just see the shape of an orb among the black of space. Beyond it, they could see a star far larger than any of the others they had ever encountered, a mammoth among pinpricks, their new power room.

In unison, their chairs screeched backwards as they rushed to the window, similar to like when they were children and a classmate spotted an interesting constellation or star cluster.

“It’s enormous,” breathed Tela.

“It’s beautiful,” whispered Prometh, his gaze upon the star. “Absolutely stunning.”

But Praeter’s fingers were clenched on the edge of the window, and when he spoke, his voice came hard.

“What,” he barked, “in the name of Dandelion 14, is that?”

Though he raised a finger, there was no need for him to indicate as a dark form passed in front of the star, the silhouette inching slowly along until it moved over the planet. It was a slim figure, bearing the shape of the suits from the power room, with its legs clasped around a cable that ran between the two sides of the ship.

“A hero,” choked Prometh. “A hero, for the stories to remember.”

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Chapter 52

Airomem panted as she inched across the power line, every one of her movements creating reverberations that whipped down the line and back, threatening to unbalance her and cast her into space. She inched her hands forward, careful to maintain contact with the cord, and gripped tight each time a particularly violent vibration raced towards her. Then she shimmied her legs upwards, all too aware of the electrical hum trapped underneath her as her shins glided against the insulation. Then she repeated the process, her eyes glued to the other end of the ship to prevent her pupils from being lost in the blackness below, and curses streaming from her clenched jaw.

Just moments before, she had made the leap, crossing from the solid metal of the ship to the power cable, suspended in space for what felt like years. Her hands had been extended outwards until her fingertips grazed the cable and she latched on, gripping fast as her legs streamed behind. Then they arced forwards as the wire became taut under her momentum, her center of gravity swinging as she fought for control. The full load of her momentum snapped against her shoulders as they bore the tension of her swinging body until she pulled herself tight along the wire. For a moment she had paused, trembling, knowing that without the tether, one wrong move could mean death.

And now, she was slowly approaching the other end of the ship, each movement taking her closer to the midpoint. Images flashed through her mind of space debris, smaller versions of The Hand of God that would punch holes in her faster than she would be able to react. Thoughts that perhaps the wire was not secured tightly on the other side, and that she might yank it free. Or that the old oxygen tank on her back might have become defective through years without use, and that it might run out prematurely.

But with each pull against the cable, she pushed these thoughts away, forcing herself to concentrate on the next foot forward, then the next steps of her plan. And praying that she had not forgotten any of the steps in the procedures.

After ten minutes, she was halfway and she paused from her suspended position to look beyond the ship. There, reflected in the glass of her helmet was the new planet, with the burning star just beyond, its light illuminating her red hair. After hundreds of years, this was their final destination. And she couldn’t help but wonder what they had left behind, and if this new world would prove any better.

By twenty minutes, she was three-quarters of the way there. And by twenty-five, the other end of the ship was ten feet away, and waiting. She would have to jump, clearing the last remaining gap to avoid the same short circuit problem that she had encountered earlier. But now, instead of her feet firm on the ground, she had only a swaying cable, and the closest handhold was thirty feet away, a tethering point just visible to the left of one of the windows.

The ship shuddered as she hesitated, and she cast a nervous glance to beyond the bridge, where the white light intensified temporarily. The longer that she waited, the more of a chance there was for something to go wrong, something she had absolutely no power to predict.

Gritting her teeth, she extended her arms forward as she arched her back. She hung there for an instant, like a string pulled tight and ready to snap, quivering under the tension. And then she launched herself forward, opening her arms wide as she drifted through space, her expression turning to horror as she streaked off target.

Halfway across the tethering point was now several feet beneath her, with the lip of the ship falling at the same pace. By the time she reached it, it would be too far to grip with her hands, and her toes would just barely graze the metal plating. She drew in a sharp breath as she saw the result of her trajectory, a beeline between two stars countless miles away, and felt adrenaline rushing just under the surface of her skin as the realization that not only would she be doomed if she missed, but so too would the Nectians.

In desperation, her hand flew to her belt where it found the coiled tether, and she whipped it towards its contact point. It sailed past the target, slamming into the side of the ship instead and skittering away, then retracting back to her side as the spindle drew it back in. She aimed a second throw, but it was too late, as the angle of opportunity for the opened hook to catch had closed, and she was now directly over the ship, the smooth top surface too flawless for her hook to catch. Eddies of the ship’s artificial gravity below caught hold of her and she started to fall face first, her emotions flaring as she crashed against the metal and bounced back upwards, her fingers scrabbling along the surface but finding no purchase.

She slammed downwards again once more, skidding across the slick metal, turning a full circle as she started to slow. Ahead, the edge approached, but she was still moving too fast, the fabric of her gloves doing little to reduce her speed, now just above a jogging pace. Then the metal fell away once more, and the ship began to depart, leaving her behind in the void.

But there, on the flank of the ship and just at her eye level, was the mirror of the tether point she had tried to connect moments before. And as she drifted away, the gap between her and the ship growing larger with each second, she cocked her arm backwards for one more throw and let the hook fly, watching as it struck metal and danced around the contact.

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