Chapter 59

“Okay, Tom,” said Airomem as she arrived at the section of wall where he waited. “On the other side of this wall is an apartment room. One room over from that is where they are keeping Horatius and Hannah. The problem is, we don’t know what is in the first apartment, and we are going to have to move through it. So once we break in, I’m going to need you to guard the door. And if there is anyone inside, you’ll need to keep them from getting help.”

“You want Tom to hurt them?”

“No, all you have to do is block the door and keep them quiet. As long as it stays shut, we should be okay. Now, ready?”

“Ready.”

With a careful hand, she began to slice with the Omni-cutter – here, she was far closer to the windows than she had been earlier, and under no circumstances did she want an accidental gash to expose the entire farmland to space.

Unlike earlier, she cut away a large section of the wall, comprised of rectangles six feet wide and as tall as she could reach, exposing the interior wall. With each completion, Tom helped her lift and set aside the rectangle blocks, their movements considerably more strained than the other porters due to the increase in size.

“You as strong as Tom!” he exclaimed after the second one, when beads of sweat appeared thick on his forehead.

“Yes, but I’m cheating,” she said, gesturing at her suit.

Several minutes later, the wall lay bare, and she walked along its edge, searching the metal. Then, she stopped, her fingers parting two bundles of wires, and her expression triumphant.

There, along the smooth metal, were a set of fasteners. A rectangle of them, several feet apart, which would be holding a piece of furniture in place on the other side within the apartment. In this case, a wardrobe or closet, whose back was flush with the inner wall.

“Tom, have you ever heard of the bogeyman?” she asked, clearing away more wires.

“The who?”

“The bogeyman. He hides in closets and comes out at night to scare children. It’s just a story.”

“No bogeyman on this side of the ship,” he answered, his voice resolute.

“That’s where you’re wrong,” she said, and started to cut. “I’m going to need you to be our bogeyman. And this is your closet.”

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Chapter 60

In all of Dandelion 14’s known history on Horatius’ side of the ship, no one had jumped between walls. No one had found themselves in a room where they should not physically belong, nor had discovered passageways unknown to the vast majority of the ship. And certainly, no one had ever created such a passageway.

Until now.

The three inhabitants of the apartment were playing carrots – a game left over from before the rationing days. The premise was simple – the players gathered in a circle, and the initiator produced a full carrot. He or she then took a single bite from anywhere on the carrot’s surface, and then would pass the carrot to their right. The next player would then continue, taking another bite at their own discretion, another piece of the morsel to be eliminated. They too would pass it to their right, and the circle would continue, up until the final play could finish the remainder of the vegetable in one large bite.

It was at the very end of the game when the abnormally large figure slipped from the closet without a sound, like a shadow bouncing along the wall. And it was the player who had just shoved an entire carrot into his mouth whose eyes widened as he saw him, trying to shout in terror as the morsel of food only jammed itself deeper into his throat and caused him to gag.

“Urllllfll!” he shouted as the players around him laughed, and the one closest to him, known as a “shoveler” in cases such as these, whacked him on the back. “Urlllfl!”

“C’mon, Esau, spit it out, spit it out,” said the player next to him. “We wouldn’t want you to choke now, not at the beginning of the feasts!”

The player raised a hand, gesturing towards the dark figure as the crowd of four laughed again. But they didn’t turn around. They didn’t have to, because as the figure crossed to the door in two strides, all the clues they needed were provided when it closed with a soft click.

“The closet!” Esau finally managed, the chewed bits of carrot exploding from his mouth over the other players as they whipped around, already far too late, their voices stuttering over each other as they jumped backwards.

“Tom is hungry,” Tom said, his eyes on them, his voice low and dangerous. “Very hungry.”

“W-w-we have plenty of f-f-ood, Tom!” said Esau, his eyes darting to the closet. “W-we can share with you! How did you get in here?”

“Tom so hungry,” came the response as he held a clenched hand over his stomach and glared. “That Tom rip the wall in half.”

From where she hid in the closet, Airomem suppressed a smile as Esau’s and company’s faces drained of blood until they reached a white so pale they rivaled the stars.

“We should, we should, ah, probably be fixing –” started Esau, moving towards Tom, but he held up a hand and the smaller man cowered backwards.

“Tom hungry and angry,” he said, the muscles in his jaw pronounced. “You play games with Tom’s food.”

“And I’ve taught Tom something of the way of my people,” announced Airomem, stepping from the closet and flashing her teeth. “You see, on my end of the ship, when we got hungry, there wasn’t always food. Sometimes, we had to improvise, if you catch my drift. And we taught Tom here a lesson about food. Specifically, how to get more of it when none is around. Just like they did with Segni.”

“Oh God, no,” they whispered, moving back as Tom nodded, his eyes on the floor. “Please –”

“Oh yes,” said Airomem with a low laugh. “But we’ll spare you – all you have to do is stay quiet. Not a word. The slightest noise and  – clack!” She brought her teeth together loud enough to make them jump. “Or, of course, you can leave.”

“Of course, we’ll be right on our way –” started Esau, edging towards the door, but Tom shook his head as Airomem spoke up.

“No, not by that way,” she said, and pointed behind her to the open closet. “That way.

“But the others, what’re they going to do to us?” he wailed, his face filled with realization.

“That does sound like a problem, one you probably should have considered before stealing the food,” replied Airomem, throwing the door open wider so that the hole was fully exposed. “But is that as big as a problem as you staying in here with us?”

They left, quickly and quietly, into the hands of others that intercepted them just outside the wall. And Airomem turned back to Tom, her voice low.

“Well done. And now, for the most important part.”

White light flashed as she clicked on the Omni-cutter and started to cut once more, burrowing deeper into the ship.

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Chapter 61

My shoulder slammed into the door for the fifteenth time, the blow shaking me to the bone as the metal refused to budge. I stepped back for another charge, feeling the growing bruise on my upper arm groaning in protest, my neck already twisted from nights of improper sleep.

“Help us!” shouted Hannah. “We’re so hungry! We need food! And water!” In one hand, she clutched the makeshift weapons, and the other, she clenched into a fist to pound against the wall.

But no help came. And likely, their voices were unheard compared to the uproar outside in the corridor.

“What in the Hand of God,” I panted as Hannah drew in another sharp breath, her face blue from the shouting, “is going on out there?”

“No clue,” she responded, “but damn I hope Elliott is behind this.”

From our position, waves of noise washed over us – shouts combined with falling objects, jeers sloshing back and forth, slews of words completely incomprehensible by the time they were mangled with the other stimuli. Every so often, we would catch a familiar voice or sound – a word from Elliott, a screech from Nean, or the scraping of shovels against the walls.

“What else can we do, what else can we do?” I muttered, racking my brain and coming up with no solution.

“It’ll come down to a fight,” said Hannah. “Elliott won’t leave without me. I know he won’t.”

“But what good will that do?” I said. “If he loses, that just means none of us escape.”

For the fiftieth time, I inspected the walls and doors for weaknesses, and for the fiftieth time, I found none.

“All this way and all this time,” I said, staring out the window at the planet. “All to go to waste, from ignorance. Sheer ignorance that will be regretted in a matter of days. But though we may fail, we shall not be forgotten.”

Taking the broken metal shard, I walked to the wall and paused. Then I jammed the end in as hard as I possibly could, the tip making a faintly visible scratch on the surface. It screeched as it dragged, and Hannah held up her hands to her ears but uttered no protest.

One by one, the lines and letters came together, forming words. Our own story on the wall, for future generations to see, if there were future generations. A monument to our shortcomings.

A story of too few words, a story cut short. Entire lives encapsulated in sentences that could never do them justice.

Horatius and Hannah. Their home turned to prison, their voices silenced. May others survive where they cannot reach.

I swallowed, biting my lip as I finished. My heart knowing that this self-proclaimed prophecy contained what might be our last few hours. That this faint marking might be the extent of the story I would leave behind.

“Oh God,” whispered Hannah next to me as a buzzing erupted from nearby, one that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. “Is it starting? Is this it, Horatius, is that the ship preparing to leave?”

She clutched my arm as the buzzing grew louder, her eyes shut tight. Mine were wide as my ears were on full alert, trying to determine the source of the sound. To know if the electrical systems were going offline, or if we would soon be losing pressure, or if something worse than I could predict was about to happen.

And there, just below where my shiv etched its last mark on the wall surface in front of me, a bright white light exploded outwards to fill the room.

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Chapter 62

The wall bent inwards under Airomem’s wrists like a blade of grass dipping under a wind, the suit stiffening from her fingertips to her ankles to apply the load. Her breath fogged on the metal in front of her as she pushed again, the end of her nose brushing against a shelf protruding from the wall, causing her neck to pull away backwards away from the surface at an odd angle. It was an uncomfortable motion, but a necessary one. The cut had to be made here.

The incision itself was like the others she had made, but this time, she had left the bottom of the cutaway intact, such that she could fold the metal upon itself. And as it yielded, the edges grated together like gnashing teeth, releasing a shriek that sent shivers up Airomem’s spine and a flinch to flutter across her face.

“Tom thought you wanted quiet,” came a voice from behind her, and she grimaced.

“I did,” she said and shuffled to her left. “New plan. Help me push!”

Tom’s hands appeared alongside her own and the shriek doubled in volume, his grunting doing little to drown it out until a two-foot-wide gap appeared and a head emerged from within.

“Ruth!?” shouted Hannah, reaching a hand through to grasp Airomem’s forearm. “Ruth and Elliott, are they safe?”

“They are,” Airomem reassured, the words tumbling out of her mouth as fast as possible, “but you are not. Hurry, come through; we’re getting you out of here.”

“It seems every time I turn around,” I mumbled from within, my head shaking as my eyes traced along the incision, “that another impossibility becomes reality. Airomem, how did you do this?”

“Details later, details later,” she said, waving her arms forward as Hannah started to step through the hole, her movements slowed due to the constricted space. “Move!”

Airomem’s head was turned sideways, her ear cocked through the hole, listening as she held her breath. And there, muted but approaching, was Nean, just as Hannah tumbled into the room.

Then it was my turn to jump through the hole, and our turn to flee.

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Chapter 63

My hip protested from days of inaction as I raised my knee to enter through the gap Airomem had created, carefully sliding between two sheets of metal. The sharp edges gleamed from both of them, revealing the jagged lines left over from the slag of Airomem’s tool that snagged against my shirt when I came too close, leaving stretched ripples that ran down the fabric.

“You’ll regret this, Elliott!” I heard from outside the door just as I slipped my back leg free. “I can hear them trying to escape now, and their screams are about to get louder!”

“Tom, help me,” said Airomem, stepping forward to grip the shelf that extended out of the cutaway portion of the wall. “Pull!”

Outside the door, there was the sound of scraping furniture as the barricade was cleared, accompanied by the screeching sound of folding metal as Tom and Airomem pulled the gap shut once more, leaving only a thin crack where the hole had once been just as the door on the inside opened and Nean’s voice came through clearer.

“You’ll wish you had conceded, you’ll wish –” he shouted, then choked on his own words. There was the sound of crashing furniture, as well as sheets being pulled from the bed and clothes from the closet in a desperate search. Airomem yanked us backwards into the apartment, gesturing back to the closet, where the hole had been concealed behind a layer of folding clothes.

“In you go,” she whispered, sending Hannah through first. “Regroup on the other side. We must act quickly. It will take them some time to find this hidden exit, and we want them to be as confused as long as possible. So long as they think you are still trapped inside the corridor, they won’t dare a pursuit. Though with our numbers, they would be little more than a nuisance.”

Then Nean’s voice sounded once more, this time a shrill scream.

“Search! Find them and guard the exits! They cannot have gone far, and they shall know true punishment when they are discovered!”

Airomem smiled and nodded, then pushed Tom and me through the hole. And on the other side, she leaned the metal she had cut away earlier against it to conceal any light coming from the gardens.

I’d always enjoyed working in the gardens to an extent, but never before had I felt the sheer joy of feeling the earth sink beneath my shoes or the smell of compost wafting upwards. I reached a hand down to the earth, touching it as I looked through the window once more, my eyes meeting the visible edge of the planet.

“We made it,” I whispered and, above me, Airomem spoke.

“Not yet. We must be moving – I don’t know how much time we have left, but it’s dwindling.”

Ahead, Hannah had already sprinted across the farms and was in the arms of Elliott and Ruth just outside the view of the entryway of the corridor. Beside them, hundreds of people were gathered, holding small bags filled with belongings, far more than I had hoped would ever take the leap to depart.

“Remember this day!” shouted Airomem as she walked before them, “as the day we find new life, as the day your ancestors will thank the heavens that you brought them to their home. Remember this day as the one where you made the right decision, where you chose life and adaptation! Now, take one final look behind you, then do not turn back – keep your eyes on the future, and let us depart!”

Together, the crowd started to move, a long line that passed by the corridor entrance on the way to the bridge. Young and old, with smiles of hope and frowns of worry, packs of families that clustered together and floated downstream. Airomem and I took to the front, while Elliott and Tom held the back.

And together, we walked, leaving behind only footprints on the path.

“We still have the food!” howled Nean from within the barricade, his face splattered with mud, his voice loud enough to be heard along the entire column and Vaca watching idly by his side while chewing. “We’ll see who survives!”

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Chapter 64

“Prometh, you absolute genius,” whispered Airomem next to me when we came to the first fork, and a smile broke out on her face. She turned right with confidence, down into a hallway that jutted away from the main at an angle, and had a sharp zigzagging turn near the end.

“What are you doing?” I said at the head of the hallway, my feet planted. “That way is longer; we should turn back!”

But Airomem shook her head, continuing to lead down the side passage, speaking as she walked backwards.

“Before I left, a friend of mine showed me a map of how my people would evacuate. At the time, I thought he needed my help, but now I think he is the one helping us. This map was carefully drawn that, in case the ship were to lose power, there would be the least trouble in still reaching the bridge. And since the ship’s sides are symmetrical, I just have to take the mirror image.”

“Lose power?” I said, keeping pace beside her as the procession started moving again, “What do you mean by that?”

“I mean it would be as if every knob in the control room was adjusted to its lowest setting. Gravity, lights; both gone.”

What?” I said. “Airomem, if that happens, people are going to scatter. It’s going to be near impossible to keep them together. They’ll head back home!”

“Then send word back along the line that if power is lost, to continue forward,” said Airomem, directing her words at the front of the line as they turned to relay the message. I fought the urge to quicken my pace, knowing that there were those who would not be able to keep up. “That no matter what happens, to continue forward! Every one of you, link hands, and do not let go! We will make it there together!”

Then she pointed at one of the men at the front, a kitchen cook with no children at his side, and spoke. “We need a count of every person in this line. Be sure to miss no one. And quickly! Leave your belongings behind; we will care for them. Go, now!”

He nodded and set off down the line, ducking and weaving to spot the children nestled between parents, disappearing around a bend in moments.

We were close now, mere minutes away, but there were plenty who had only rarely traveled this portion of the ship behind us. The puddles from melted ice were now reduced to tracks of moisture that threatened to trip up every step, and the air had taken on a musky quality from the standing water that caused noses to wrinkle down the line. The slaps of our footsteps rushed ahead, their echoes the only sounds from the front, and the strained hum of quiet conversation the primary sound from the back.

The corridors widened, merging back into the main hallway, and I thought back to the first time that Pliny had shown them to me, about how back then I would never have imagined using them for this purpose. That beside me would be a friend who I would once have considered more alien than anyone on my end of the ship. That together, we would lead the ship on an evacuation from the greatest crisis since The Hand of God.

And with only two more turns, we would have made it unhindered. But then darkness descended upon us like a physical blow.

Screams of shock flew down the line as feet left the ground and the hallway turned pitch black. Beside me, Airomem’s stun guns flashed into the air like beacons, illuminating faces flush with fear extending as far as I could see. And my heart skipped as I saw hands that had come unclasped in shock, fragmenting the line, and I shouted, “Rejoin hands! Do not let go of your neighbor! Do not let anyone stray!”

Rapidly, the line repaired itself in my immediate vicinity, but without gravity, the effort of maintaining a straight line was far greater than it had been previously. Twisting torsos combined with loose belongings floating away from owners, the confusion prying hands apart once more, causing panic as the gaps between line segmentations widened.

“We have to get to the control room,” I said to Airomem, fighting to remain right-side up, if that still existed. “We’ll bring back the gravity, and then we can make it the rest of the way!”

“Without power,” she responded, shaking her head, “the control room is useless. We need to regroup – damn, I thought we would have made it. If we had more time, we could have briefed everyone, we could have prepared them better.”

“Airomem, this is beyond anything you could have prepared them for,” I responded, remembering how well changes as simple as altered gardening methods had been received in the past. “Keep moving forward. I’ll run through the line to keep it together. Give me one of your lights. I’ll need it.”

My hand brushed over hers as I took the stun gun, and her eyes met mine in the blue light.

“Hurry, Horatius,” she said, her voice tight. “I didn’t come all this way to save you, only to have you be left behind again. There are too many stories left for this to be your last.”

I froze, thinking of something to say as her eyes lingered for a moment more. Then she started moving, the blue light bouncing along the hallway as I turned to push off in the other direction.

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