Chapter 65

“Keep together,” I shouted, moving down the line, the retinas of others reflecting my light as I drifted past. “And keep moving. We’re almost there!”

Being weightless, especially being weightless in the dark, was far more difficult than I anticipated. Twice, my head slammed against the ceiling or wall after a misjudged kick or a slip against the thin layer of moisture coating present on every surface. Each movement threatened to bring me in a collision course with the fragile thread of people making their way forward, promising to create destructive waves among the already tense crowd. And with each group of people I passed, the fractures grew wider, the panic more palpable, the people clinging more desperately to the sight of my light like a breath of fresh air.

“You, Ben and Asher!” I shouted at a particularly large gap, positioning myself in the center and addressing those on my left and right. “Reach towards me; we need to join your two segments. Ben, slow your side down. Asher, speed up. That’s it! Here, take hold!”

Each of them gripped one of my hands, stretching me apart as I tried to pull them together, my chest muscles straining while being careful to keep the draw smooth and continuous. One jerk from the center had the potential to cause fractures on both ends of the line, tripling the problems in my immediate vicinity. But over the course of a minute, the distance closed as we drifted forward. Their fingers fastened, locking together the chain so I could move to the next link. And the next. And the next.

Until after several hundred people, the groups stopped entirely. Individuals peppered the hall, bouncing to wall to wall in lost desperation, their voices crying out as they searched for lost loved ones.

“This way!” I shouted, my light drawing them forward. “Past me and forward! Join the main while you can. You, Dan, how far back were you in the initial line?”

“Slightly past half,” replied the former gardener, his body upside down in comparison to my own. “There are many behind us, Horatius. Are you sure, are you sure that what we are seeking exists at the end of this?”

“Positive,” I answered, fighting to keep my voice confident. “Absolutely positive. Keep moving and don’t let the others stray.”

“Will do,” he answered. “I’m trusting you, Horatius. I was always among those who adopted your methods. And I can only hope you are right once more.”

Then he disappeared, and I dove further into the darkness, searching out movement, tracking down sounds. Looking for life.

“You!” shouted a voice from my right as claw-like fingers dug deep into my forearm and a weight slammed into my side. Yelping, I nearly lost grip of the stun gun as a wrinkled face entered into my vision, and I reeled backwards as it broke into a snarl and released a wailing voice.

“You led us into death, Horatius – at least back home, we had light! What have you done for us, you have manufactured the death of our children. You have sealed our fates!”

Spittle flew into my face with each word as I struggled to recognize the face, eventually realizing it was Granny Vitula, a woman who had spent most of her life in the background of the ship’s population. She had been one of the few old enough to escape work, and spending the majority of her days alone, sometimes accompanied by those who wished to consult her memory. A memory that age had started to claim and came in pieces, often recounting past events as far more golden than they had actually been.

“You – you’re almost there,” I stammered, shocked to see her reduced to this state, wincing as her nails dug deeper.

“Almost to death!” she howled. “Almost to starvation, almost to –”

“No, listen! I can help you get there, I can –” But her wailing cut off my words, and I shook my arm as her nails broke skin, dislodging her, and spoke again, my voice shaking as I pointed and gave her thrashing body a push in the right direction.

“T-that way, go now! Follow the line!” Then I kept moving, trying to clear my head. There were far more others to rescue, others who sought salvation. And with limited time, I could not afford to help her.

But as I found others, and as I searched, her words still echoed in my head. Words I desperately hoped were false.

You led us into death! You sealed our fates!

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Chapter 66

“Elliott!” I shouted as he came into view from around a corner, Ruth and Hannah at his side, and Tom behind him. I’d passed through dozens of wanderers before finding him, yet sounds had emanated from each fork I had passed, sounds from people diffusing into every possible direction. And while I knew I had not covered the breadth of the expanding crowd, by finding Elliott, I had reached the deepest end of it.

“Horatius!” he answered, leaping forward. “What’s happening? Why did Airomem shut off the power?”

“She didn’t do it this time,” I answered. “It was bad timing. According to her, we are out of it, like a glass empty of water.”

“I didn’t realize it would come so soon,” responded Elliott, “or at such an inopportune time.”

“Neither did we,” I said, “or we would have been more prepared. But now we have to herd everyone towards the bridge. We can’t leave anyone behind, not after they trusted us.”

Elliott shook his head, his eyes sunken.

“We’re scattered from end to end, Horatius. Even with hours, there’s no way we could find everyone. We’ve done our best to contain the line ahead of us, but even so, there are those that could have looped behind us.”

“Well, we have to try,” I said and felt my throat closing. “I can’t, I can’t lead them to starvation. Not again.”

Elliott gripped my arm and spoke, his voice low and steady.

“You did what you thought was right, Horatius. Had we only followed tradition, had we never strayed, we would never have made it this far. Mistakes are impossible to avoid when striking a new path, and we are stepping away from one hundreds of years old. Leaping away from it. And we’ve had our fair share of mistakes. But now, now we have to continue pushing forward. To save who we can and to recognize that those who we can’t are those that the mistakes have claimed.”

“But –”

“Change cannot happen without resistance. Now, Horatius, you’ve traveled backwards to find us; let’s travel forward to find the bridge. And save who we can before it’s too late.”

He leapt forward, pulling Hannah and Ruth behind him, and leaving Tom and me to follow. Despite his size, or his lumbering characteristics in normal gravity, Tom exhibited more grace than any of us maneuvering in weightlessness, using light touches against the walls to steady himself and maintain his momentum. The only other place I’d ever seen him so at ease was in the heavy room, back when I had joined him as a porter, back before disaster had struck.

And after a moment of silence, Tom spoke, his eyes straight ahead.

“Tom strongest man on this side of ship,” he said, his voice reassuring. “But even Tom cannot carry everything. Horatius can’t carry everyone.”

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Chapter 67

We saw nearly no one as we traveled, but we heard many.

“This way!” shouted Elliott, my voice matching his as we faced down a fork. “Back towards our voices, this way!”

But from within, we heard only shouts too morphed by turns and distance to distinguish words.

“Stop, we can’t deviate!” said Elliott as Hannah headed in their direction. “We need to make sure everyone ahead makes it safely first.”

“But they’ll die,” said Hannah, pausing, her body horizontal and five feet off the ground, “You waited for us, you came to save us. What about them?”

“The others first, then we can come back,” responded Elliott, his face strained. “We cannot sacrifice those who are almost there for those who are lost. We can save far more with less effort. Then we turn back.”

If there’s time,” I said, drifting between Hannah and Elliott. “With every minute, they drift farther away. Even I haven’t explored the full reach of these corridors, Elliott. I don’t know where they will be taken.”

“All the more reason to regroup,” he said. “You’ll be just as lost as them in the darkness.”

“We could split up –” I answered, but Elliott cut me off.

No, Horatius. We are the leadership of this side of the ship. It is our duty to deliver the survivors to safety – we must consider them first.”

“Then you’re condemning the others to die,” said Hannah, her voice borderline accusatory as Ruth looked between her mother and father, and Tom stared into the darkness. “How are we any better than them? How are you going to live with yourself when we arrive at the new planet, and you know that your neighbors, the people you sat next to at meals, the children you saw playing at breaks, the elderly that helped raise you were abandoned here?”

Elliott fell silent, frozen, slowly turning to follow Hannah’s gaze. I held my breath as he swallowed. And just as he started to move, the screams began.

At first, it was only a single voice in the distance, a thin reed of sound just barely perceptible, just enough to make me shift my gaze. Then another screech joined in, and another, rapidly increasing in number and volume, reaching a crescendo in mere seconds. And growing closer.

Ruth’s head turned as she became the first of us to realize the next quality to the shouts.

That they not only were coming from down the hallway.

But emanated from every direction.

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Chapter 68

“My God,” whispered Elliott as he took Hannah’s and Ruth’s hands to pull them closer. “What’s happening?”

His head whipped left and right, searching, but found nothing besides the blue light of my stun gun. And as soon as they began, the screams fell away, until only a few solitary new ones popped out of the darkness.

“Are they dying?” asked Hannah. “Why are they stopping?”

And just then, I realized that the blue light from my stun gun had grown brighter. Squinting, I gasped, understanding that the increase in light was not from my stun gun.

But rather from others approaching.

“Because they’re saved,” I breathed, just before three lights appeared down a corner and sped towards us, the wielders far more proficient at weightless travel than we were.

“Let’s go, let’s go!” shouted the one in the lead, slowing as he reached us and uncoiling a cord. “Grab hold! We’re giving you a lift, courtesy of the Lear, your new brothers and sisters!”

“Did Airomem send you?” I asked, reaching out to grip the cable.

“We came as soon as she brought us news of the trouble. She’s waiting now, at the departure vehicle. The doors have opened and we’ve already loaded our tribe – we await only upon the remains of yours!”

“A godsend,” said Hannah, tears filling her eyes. “We are more grateful than you will ever know.”

“As are we,” said the Lear man, “for the return of our princess, for your shared knowledge of farming, and for new friends.”

From behind, more bobbing lights appeared, as well as ahead, until nearly the entire area was illuminated as strong as it had been with power. Like us, others were towed behind members of the Lear, their faces alight with amazement as we converged. In minutes, we arrived at the entrance of the bridge, the door thrust open, and the inside glowing so blue that I nearly had to turn my eyes away.

But I couldn’t.

The sight ahead was too mesmerizing.

Ranks of the Lear citizens were lined on the left and right of the hallway, ushering our people between them, pushing them along to where a double door had opened at the center of the bridge. And there, just before the entranceway, waited Airomem, personally welcoming each new member through the doors. Her chin high, her smile wide, her hair flowing straight back with no gravity to hold it down.

“Enter and find a seat!” she was saying. “Strap in, strap in! And prepare for the most monumental moment you will ever experience! Remember this to tell your grandchildren, so they may tell their own – today will be a day of legends! Hurry, move on – we are almost there!”

My smile spread to match hers as the Lear pushed me forward through their ranks, moving at the front of our small party, watching as more and more people disappeared within the double door. Then I was at the entranceway, speechless as Airomem pulled me aside for others to enter, my head craning to view the cavernous space within. Thousands of chairs arranged to face forward, crammed together to fit as many as possible into the confined space, with aisles that parted them into sections. And there, painted at the focal point of the room, was a uniformed man who stared at the crowd, waiting for them to settle. On his left pocket was a swirl of blue, green, and white that nearly matched the planet we now approached, and on his right was a bold number sewn on in white.

Fourteen.

“As we speak,” said Airomem, beaming, her hand on my shoulder, “the Lear soldiers are combing your hallways, searching for any stragglers that may have become lost. And here, the Lear citizens await, to initiate the bond between our peoples. My father is welcoming them each into the departure vehicle and ensuring each is prepared for the final leg. This is what we were born for, Horatius. This is why we are here.”

“This is our story,” I responded. “The story of our ship, coming to a final end. The longest story I have ever known.”

“And the best,” she said, shaking Elliott’s and Hannah’s hands as they reached her. “Elliott, meet my father inside. It’s only right that the two chiefs welcome our people together.”

“Of course,” he said, and Hannah spoke up next to him. “Yet again, Airomem, we owe you our lives.”

“If only Pliny were here to see this,” I said to myself, my stomach fluttering and heart rising as Ruth rushed forward, forming rapid signs with her hands before barreling into Airomem, who had bent over to respond in their language.

“We’re here, we made it, we made it!” Ruth shouted, punching the air with one hand as Airomem laughed.

“You did,” Airomem responded. “You are the true hero today, Ruth. The one who connected the ship. Now go on, head inside! We’ll be right in to join you.”

Then Tom was before Airomem, and he inclined his head in a bow.

“Of the chiefs Tom has known,” he said, “you are the one Tom chooses to serve.”

“Well, I’m not quite a chief yet – it’s still my father – but I am most honored, Tom. Go on inside; we will be there shortly.”

He rose his head to meet her eyes, then past her eyes and behind me as his mouth opened.

“No,” he said, his voice low, just as I felt something crash against my shoulder and push me into him. I turned, searching, jerking away when I found two wide-open eyes staring back at me. Unblinking. With dried blood matted in the hair above them, and the teeth knocked away under lips that had been carved from the face. And underneath, where the neck and body should have been, there was only a stump with shreds of skin still attached.

The decapitated head bounced away from me and against the wall, and I identified it as one I had only seen once before.

Esuri, chief of the Aquarians.

And from the end of the hall, there was a laugh. A shrill one, coming from a twitching chest, streaking away from a face with a long scar that had just appeared through the door.

“Princess!” shouted Sitient as others crawled through the door behind him. “The reign of the Lear has ended. Your head will join Esuri’s!”

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Chapter 69

“Soldiers, to me!” shouted Airomem as the swarm around Sitient thickened, bodies already covered in blood and writhing in weightlessness, summoned by his maniacal laughter. She twisted to shout again towards the Lear behind her, and her face fell as she saw the dozen rushing her way, stun guns at the ready.

“The rest are still in the search party,” she breathed, eyes widening as she turned back towards the gathering swarm around Sitient. Then she eyed the nearby Lear citizens and spoke quickly.

“Sound the alarm, shout into the tunnels! We’ll need as much help as we can get! See if any soldiers are inside the departure vehicle and bring them out, and make sure anyone not in the military is ushered inside.”

“Of course,” squeaked one and departed, soaring as quickly as she could and narrowly missing the soldiers that had just arrived.

“You twelve,” said Airomem, her words coming as quickly as she could think, “we’ll need to form a bottleneck defense as best we can, to hold them off. It’s just like on our end of the ship – they will only be able to have three abreast to attack. Without gravity, we’ll have to defend the top and bottom of the hallway – I want half of you upside down, now, and stay that way. Two rows deep and behind me. When they charge, so do we, and we hold for as long as we can! We cannot let them reach the departure vessel or it will be a massacre.”

“Let me help,” I said, moving forward, but Airomem held out a hand.

“They’ll need you, Horatius, when they reach the planet. We can’t afford to risk your life, to lose centuries of culture from your side of the ship, and since you’ve never fought, you would prove more harm than help. But me – without me, my father can still lead.”

I shut my mouth, knowing there was little I could do to refute her statement. Even armed with a stun gun, I knew little of defense, and a hole in their ranks would only leave more area for them to defend.

“Then give me your cutter,” I said. “Let me help somehow. I know I can think of something!”

Her eyes on Sitient, her hand went to her belt, and unfastened the Omni-cutter before handing it to me.

“Be careful with it,” she said. “What you cut cannot be brought back together. One slice in the wrong place, one opening to the outside, could mean your instant death.”

“I will,” I replied. “And, Airomem, look at me. You deserve to be on that planet more than any of us. Don’t do anything stupid.”

“Stupid seems to be working out for me lately,” she said, snapping to attention as Sitient and his horde started pushing off the wall towards us. “Think quickly, Horatius. Now, soldiers, for the Lear, for all your ancestors worked for, for your friends and your family – prepare to charge!”

“For the Lear!” the soldiers shouted in unison, then stiffened into formation. Two of them exchanged glances, a young man and woman whose hands were clasped together, stealing a quick hug and kiss. Then the man leaned closer to whisper in the woman’s ear, and they shared a bitter smile as well as a small nod. And readied to launch themselves like an arrow into the oncoming horde.

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Chapter 70

“Tom, with me!” I shouted as the Lear and Agrarians prepared to accelerate towards each other. “Quick!”

We rushed towards the back of the corridor as I wracked through my thoughts, working for possibilities. There were plenty of tools back near the fields, but those were too far. The battering ram was gone, moved somewhere in the tunnels by the Lear. There was the power room, but without power, there was nothing I could actually control with it. But there must be something else, something we could use as a weapon.

And just before we left the bridge, my eyes fell upon the open door that had once sealed away the hallway.

Maybe we didn’t need a weapon. Instead, we needed a plug.

“Tom, hold the door open!” I shouted, my voice frantic as I examined the hinges and frame. Without the frame, the door itself was just smaller than the size of the hallway, perhaps giving three inches grace on each side. Around us, Lear citizens shouted into the darkness, their voices shaking my concentration.

“The bridge! To the bridge! Attack on the bridge!”

Just feet away, a boy was zigzagging up and down the hallway, holding a box with a stun gun plugged into it that wailed louder than any human could, interspersing his own shouts in the lulls. And deep in the hallways, blue lights flickered as Lear soldiers rushed back to protect their people.

“Tom,” I said, turning back to the door, my hands shaking, “I’m cutting through the hinges. I need you to keep this steady.”

“Let Tom cut,” he said, holding out his hand.

“No, Tom,” I said. “One slip-up with this, if I cut to the exterior, then we are as good as dead.”

“Tom didn’t die when Airomem cut through,” he responded. “Tom saw it.”

“That’s because the doors automatically seal when the pressure difference is high enough,” I said. “We don’t have that advantage, especially since we are removing this door.”

Biting my lip, I clicked the cutter on, flinching as its white light battled blue for my field of vision. In a single swipe, I cut the top set of hinges, my eyebrows shooting upwards at the complete lack of resistance from the metal.

One down, two more to go.

The middle set was just as easy, and I prepared for the bottom, the only part that still held the door in place, when I heard a shout reverberate down the hallway.

Charge!

Five or six more Lear had made it to Airomem before her party drove themselves toward Sitient. Though vastly outnumbered, they filled the gap, their blue lights blazing like a shooting star towards the scattered stun guns, knives, and outstretched hands of the enemy. Screams erupted from the Agrarians, screams of hunger and anger that vibrated in tune with my bones, but failed to falter the Lear as Airomem led the pack, diving with her stun guns to split the assault.

And instants before the sides crashed together, the two soldiers that had nodded at each other before the charge reached forward, each taking hold of one of Airomem’s ankles. Together, they ripped her backwards as she screamed with surprise, the group of soldiers forming a small hole for her to pass through as she flew backwards away from the collision to safety.

“For the Lea –” was the last sound the soldiers made, their voices raised in unison, their bodies stretched wide to prevent passage, their weapons bared, their courage forced upon their faces.

Then the Agrarians slammed into them, and the noise of screams and crumpling bodies rifled down the hallway.

I’d seen blood in my life, and injuries. But I’ve never seen blood spray like a water from a dropped cup, or bodies shredded like cooks pulling apart squash in the kitchen. And despite their bravery and their skill, there was no hope for the Lear as they were torn to shreds.

But that didn’t stop them.

Long after their arms should have stopped working, they sliced forward with the stun guns, incapacitating as many of the Agrarians as they could. They formed their bodies into human shields when they could do no more, grasping each other to make passage as difficult as possible. Especially the couple, whose knuckles were white as they clenched each other’s hands, both from force and lack of blood.

Tearing my eyes away, I finished the final cut to the door’s hinges, and Tom pushed it through into the hallway. Behind us, the blue lights of soldiers had grown so close to hear them buzzing, and ahead, the Agrarians had lost momentum trying to fight through the bodies.

“Incoming, make way!” I shouted, turning the door sideways and pushing it to the left, such that bodies could fit through on the right. And with Tom’s steady hand, we raced down the hallway as the blue lights gained on us, and Sitient’s bloody head broke through the sacrificed soldiers.

And Airomem alone stood before him.

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