Chapter 71

Tom pushed off the walls twice, picking up speed as others flew by.

“Help!” I shouted to them, jarring two or three into movement. “Anyone; not just soldiers!”

We whipped past the departure vessel, moving faster than I could run, wind whistling as it passed over the door we held before us. Airomem still faced the Agrarians, her back arched with pride, a stun gun in each hand, hurling threats toward Sitient as he advanced. His eyes widened as he looked past her to Tom and me, and I saw his lips form a curse, a knife appearing in his hand. With all his strength, he threw it towards Airomem, shouting with rage as she deflected it with her two stun guns, the flashing knife spinning past her without injury.

And directly towards me.

I yelped as the blade approached, taking my hands from the door to block my face, my fingers deflecting the edge. I saw blood but felt nothing in those final seconds as we flew past Airomem, her hair billowing forward with the breeze we created. Then Tom and I turned the door horizontal, sealing the hallway, and lowered our shoulders into the metal.

I felt my each of my vertebrae smash into each other as we connected with the Agrarians in a series of racketing thumps, one for each of the bodies that detracted from our momentum. My teeth chattered each time we hit and rapidly decelerated, the back of one of the bottom ones chipping, the shard digging into the back of my throat as we ground to a halt.

“Hold!” I shouted to Tom, and we braced against the walls, keeping the barrier in place. The top began to pivot, dipping downwards as an arm appeared over the top, reaching to push off the ceiling to widen the gap. Just as a snarling face rose over the ledge, the two Lear citizens that I had called out to earlier reached the door at full speed, crashing above Tom’s and my grips and forcing the door back to its original angle.

The metal of the door and the ceiling snapped together, severing the arm that stretched through as its owner on the other end screamed, cutting off even the brief flow of blood that showered over us. Then the first of the soldiers arrived, his weight budging the door another three feet forward, followed by another, her sheer speed and fierce momentum driving the door another three feet despite her small stature.

More and more followed, forming a brace, their arms and legs making struts against the ceiling, walls, and floor to keep the door in place. With a new arrival, the door moved forward, but each time the distance was less, decreasing from feet, to inches, then hairs’ breadths as the number of Agrarians on the other side grew.

And within minutes, each new soldier no longer moved the door forward. Rather, their momentum only slowed it down as it began to grind backwards in spurts and jolts, as the Agrarians pushed back, and the Lear began to lose ground.

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Chapter 72 

Tom pushed off the walls twice, picking up speed as others flew by.

“Help!” I shouted to them, jarring two or three into movement. “Anyone; not just soldiers!”

We whipped past the departure vessel, moving faster than I could run, wind whistling as it passed over the door we held before us. Airomem still faced the Agrarians, her back arched with pride, a stun gun in each hand, hurling threats toward Sitient as he advanced. His eyes widened as he looked past her to Tom and me, and I saw his lips form a curse, a knife appearing in his hand. With all his strength, he threw it towards Airomem, shouting with rage as she deflected it with her two stun guns, the flashing knife spinning past her without injury.

And directly towards me.

I yelped as the blade approached, taking my hands from the door to block my face, my fingers deflecting the edge. I saw blood but felt nothing in those final seconds as we flew past Airomem, her hair billowing forward with the breeze we created. Then Tom and I turned the door horizontal, sealing the hallway, and lowered our shoulders into the metal.

I felt my each of my vertebrae smash into each other as we connected with the Agrarians in a series of racketing thumps, one for each of the bodies that detracted from our momentum. My teeth chattered each time we hit and rapidly decelerated, the back of one of the bottom ones chipping, the shard digging into the back of my throat as we ground to a halt.

“Hold!” I shouted to Tom, and we braced against the walls, keeping the barrier in place. The top began to pivot, dipping downwards as an arm appeared over the top, reaching to push off the ceiling to widen the gap. Just as a snarling face rose over the ledge, the two Lear citizens that I had called out to earlier reached the door at full speed, crashing above Tom’s and my grips and forcing the door back to its original angle.

The metal of the door and the ceiling snapped together, severing the arm that stretched through as its owner on the other end screamed, cutting off even the brief flow of blood that showered over us. Then the first of the soldiers arrived, his weight budging the door another three feet forward, followed by another, her sheer speed and fierce momentum driving the door another three feet despite her small stature.

More and more followed, forming a brace, their arms and legs making struts against the ceiling, walls, and floor to keep the door in place. With a new arrival, the door moved forward, but each time the distance was less, decreasing from feet, to inches, then hairs’ breadths as the number of Agrarians on the other side grew.

And within minutes, each new soldier no longer moved the door forward. Rather, their momentum only slowed it down as it began to grind backwards in spurts and jolts, as the Agrarians pushed back, and the Lear began to lose ground.

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Chapter 73

“Slow down!” shouted Airomem as the crowd collapsed in on itself. “Three porters, I need three porters now. At the front, we have to decelerate!”

Tom and two others scrambled forward at her call, throwing their weight into the door as the Lear cleared away. There was only ten feet left until the entryway to the departure vessel, and the Lear were flooding into it, waiting just beyond the opening with stun guns at the ready. The hallway beyond was empty – anyone who had yet to leave had now missed their chance.

“Prepare to pivot!” shouted Airomem. “Pivot and turn, keep the door between us, maintain the barrier! We want it sideways across the entrance. Lear soldiers, you must defend above and below the door! We can allow none through. The more you stun, the more bodies will be in their way, and the more difficult it will be for them to advance. Porters in the back, keep pressure on their backs so they can fight. Here it comes!”

Airomem and I slipped within the entranceway, Lear soldiers meshing around us and pushing us backwards. Then the back of the first porters holding the door appeared, and Airomem shouted as loud as her lungs would allow.

“Pivot! Pivot now!”

Tom sidestepped from the far end of the door, releasing it while the other two porters held it in place. It rotated on its axis as hands reached out of the freshly created space, groping and grasping the air, swiping mere inches from his shirt. Then as the door gave way more the first body squeezed through; teeth yellow, eyes wide, and frame bony. He screeched as Tom’s free hand caught hold of his neck and threw him down the hallway, cartwheeling end over end until out of sight.

But now that the space was open, others started to flow through.

“Pivot the entire way, now!” commanded Airomem, and Tom completely released the door, allowing it to slam into him and drive him back into the opening of the departure vessel.

“Turn before it is too late!” she yelled, her voice frantic, knowing that unless the door was horizontal, it would be too difficult to defend the hands jabbing from around the outside.

Tom reached a hand above, gripping the top of the door and throwing it downwards, roaring from the bleeding bite marks that had appeared on his fingers after only a moment of exposure. Then he was thrown backwards as the door slammed into the opening at waist height, held there by the struggling mass of Agrarians, and blocking about a third of the bottleneck.

With Tom behind him, the Lear started to jab forward into the Agrarians, flashes of blue intermingling in the mess of flailing limbs and howling faces, striking any movement as fast as possible. The soldiers were six wide on the top and bottom, covering the entire surface area of the opening, each region appearing above and below the split of the door. Twelve moving parts in total, far more than their typical bottleneck, and far more difficult to maintain.

With far more places to break.

And the Agrarians before them far more hideous than last I had seen.

This first wave was weaponless and coated with blood, their own blood, from injuries due to the forward surge of those behind them. Multiple within immediate view had an arm snapped at the elbow, their faces contorted in pain, trying the escape down the hallway rather than attack. Their faces were patterned with black eyes, the bones on their cheeks pinching their taut skin red after rubbing against the door, their clothes ripped from stretching.

They fell over themselves as the electrical shocks fell in, scrambling to avoid the stun guns, yelping as they tumbled down the hallway. With each stun, another body ricocheted away, cast aside by their comrades as more came to fill their places. More that, with each layer, had less injuries. Had more energy. Had watched the Lear defense as they approached.

And then a true bloodbath began when the Agrarians with knives arrived.

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Chapter 74

The first of the Lear fell when the timer read twenty-nine minutes. The second fell fifteen seconds later. And the third was down before the second had stopped screaming.

At the onset, the Lear line was taut like a drum, vibrating in and out from the center with each wave, bowing and flexing in more violent motions as the Agrarians gained momentum. It weathered fists and fingernails, bites and kicks, fending away strikes either through electric shocks or by warding the attacker away far enough away that the current of their own people swept them down the hallway towards Nectian territory. Some of the Agrarians waved the stun guns that Praeter had given them in exchange for Airomem, the batteries already worn down to render them useless, a faint crackle of electricity jumping between the prongs at random intervals.

But the first Agrarian with a knife had concealed it well, letting the metal rest under his forearm as he approached, angling it downwards to keep blue light from shining in a telltale signal off its surface. He drifted forward slower than the others, a smile forming across his face as he reached the front lines, his tongue lapping across his lips in anticipation. Pressing backwards, he resisted movement forwards, almost shuffling through space as he arrived at the very center of the Lear line, and waited for the strike to come.

It didn’t take long.

With a hoarse shout, the soldier directly in front of him lashed forward, swinging his stun gun in an arc intended to incapacitate multiple Agrarians, his movement lethargic after tiring from holding the door and the start of the fight. Every few minutes, Airomem and Praeter switched out the soldiers fighting to keep the line fresh, themselves stepping forward to take the second shift, and this soldier was only moments away from a transition and ready to be replaced. The Agrarian waited as the stun gun struck the neighbor to his right, then continued towards him, the arc only slightly interrupted by the strike. And with a shrieking laugh, the Agrarian raised the knife and struck.

The soldier stared open mouthed as the edge of the blade embedded itself into his forearm, the blood rushing outwards and spurting onto his shirt in direct contrast to his blonde hair, the surprise turning to horror when a dozen Agrarian hands gripped his still extended arm and wrenched him into the crowd, churning him backwards through their ranks, each layer leaving their own injury upon him. Another Lear soldier fought to fill the open position left behind but was too late, the Agrarians pressing forward into the gap before he had the chance to clog it, splitting the Lear line into two down the center.

Then the Lear soldiers to the right and left of the gap, a man and a woman whose motions were becoming increasingly frantic after seeing their counterpart dragged away, were sucked into the Agrarian vacuum, shrieking as fingernails ripped away any part of them not covered by clothing.

“Fill in, fill in!” shouted Airomem, selecting three of the Lear from behind and pushing them forward, using the porters’ strength to restore the line to functionality. For a moment, the Lear line held, until the next Agrarian with a knife struck, taking out two soldiers on the right hand side. This gap repaired itself far quicker, with soldiers ready to jump into position, but their grim expressions told that they knew their coming fate.

“We are rolling dice!” hissed Airomem to Praeter and Prometh, who were bent over the timer with me, searching for any way to accelerate its motion and to close the doors. “Should we lose multiple parts of the line at once, we cannot hold. If we are overrun, this battle is lost.”

“Then we will have to hold,” said Praeter, steeling his jaw. “But at this rate, it is going to come close. We cannot hold forever.”

“And I don’t think we can close the doors early,” I said, pointing at the timer. Praeter and Prometh had explained its usage to me, saying that they had several like it in their power room, the red numbers flickering back towards zero to indicate time remaining until an event. And if I had the time, I would have admired it for a thing of beauty – it was set into the metal of the wall, a picture of the approaching planet surrounding it, wisps of gold ink depicting two outstretched hands extending away from the orb. More to myself than anyone else, I read the text aloud.

“May all be welcome, and none cast away – our doors are open to all for the journey ahead!”

“Damn,” remarked Airomem, shaking her head, “if only the creators knew. There is no way to force it, then?”

“None that I can see,” said Prometh as he squinted at the timer. “Unless we try taking it apart. But with the amount of modifications made in repairing this part of the ship after the asteroid, and the systems Necti overrode long ago, I would be hesitant to try.”

“Then what do we do?” she demanded. “Wait while our own men die?”

“We stand, and we fight,” answered Praeter. “To the last man and woman. Horatius and Prometh, think hard. Every minute fought is more lives lost, more of a chance that all the lives will be lost.”

I nodded with Praeter, casting my eyes around the inside of the vessel. The citizens not trained to fight were huddled at the far end, a few of the remaining stun guns interspersed for light among them, their eyes darting back towards the opening with every new scream. Elliott and Hannah wove through them, stifling any signs of panic before it could take root, ensuring the group stayed well out of the way of battle. But other than the people and the chairs, there was little else of utility in the room.

In cupboards around the perimeter, there was water along with small packaged clumps of sticky material, marked “RATIONS” on the side. Neither of them had enough weight to be used as a useful projectile or other properties that could be put to use. The chairs themselves were fastened firmly into the ground, no parts removable, except for straps that could be cut away. And besides the timer, and the picture of the uniformed man at the front, the walls were barren and devoid of potential weapons.

“Airomem, Praeter!” came a desperate shout from the front lines, interrupting my line of thought as I scanned the room. “We need you immediately! Hurry!”

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Chapter 75

“What is it?” said Airomem, pushing to the middle of the crowd, a sweating Lear soldier with a fresh scratch along his neck waving her over. Praeter, Prometh, and I followed, concern crossing all of our faces.

“Trouble, coming quick,” gasped the soldier, his hand to his neck, feeling the shallow cut. “Look for yourselves, approaching down the hallway. Just visible around the corner.”

Airomem darted to the front lines, replacing an edge soldier, her stun guns flashing as she stole a glance down at the approaching Agrarians. Her face turned white, and from our position, we heard her curse, taking out two Agrarians with quick jabs before retreating.

“My God,” she breathed. “A whole section of knives is coming. There must be forty of them, all armed. There’s no way we can hold.”

“We’ll have to,” answered Praeter, just as a voice traveled over the fighting, just loud enough to be heard. Sitient’s voice.

“The Lear have always been cowards and have always been cornered! But today, the Lear will be no more; today, we finish them with a final strike! Lear Princess, come out to fight, know that I will carve through the bones of your soldiers for your precious head, and dine upon you tonight in victory!”

“Damn bastard,” hissed Airomem, stepping forward, but Praeter put a hand on her arm.

“Wait,” he said, but she cut him off.

“No, it’s time this ended. It’s either we destroy them now or we lose.”

“I never said not to fight, daughter,” he said, his eyes blurring. “Only to not be rash. Together, we fight – to an end or to a new beginning. We need every capable body.”

They moved, sliding to the front of the line, their voices calling to the soldiers, working those not yet at the front into a frenzy. And I moved forward with them, Prometh’s voice chasing me.

“Historian, where do you think you’re going? You can’t fight, not with those hands.”

“But I can still push,” I answered. “And while I push, I can think!” I took a place next to Tom, helping to brace the line of soldiers. His eyes met mine, and he gave a brief smile.

“Not as strong as used to be,” he said, eyeing my attempts to brace myself against the ground and side wall. “Should have gone to heavy room more.”

“Maybe if it wasn’t destroyed, I would be able to go back,” I answered. “But this will have to do.”

“Destroyed,” he sighed, shaking his head, the smile leaving his face. “Not just heavy room destroyed. All destroyed.”

“But soon, when we survive, there will be a new ship, Tom. A better one. We just have to make it there.”

The smile did not reappear on his face, but rather the frown deepened as his brow furrowed.

“Tom like old ship,” he said, looking ahead to where the Lear soldiers prepared for the onslaught, Airomem and Praeter sharing the center, their voices starting a chant.

“For the Lear!” they shouted, their fighting turning into a dance at the cadence. “For the Lear! For the Lear!”

The soldiers joined in, their voices deafening, their stances in defiance, just as the first of the Agrarians entered their vision, pushing their colleagues away in a rush to attack. They were the biggest I had seen, men laced in scars so thick they could have been clothes, eyes bloodshot with rage, bodies twitching in anticipation.

Sitient was at their center, his mouth opening in a battle cry, launching himself forward into the Lear to spearhead the attack directly at Airomem.

“No!” I shouted, my mind racing, watching as Praeter blocked a blow meant for his daughter by attempting to stun Sitient’s attacking arm, but Sitient easily evaded the attack. To their left and right, the Lear fell in a wave, knives cutting down the first layer of defense as more stepped forwards to take their place, only to be cut down themselves.

“Tom like old ship,” Tom repeated next to me, his voice shaking as I heard Airomem start the chant once more, the Agrarians returning the noise twice as loud. “Tom like old ship.”

“We have to fight, Tom! Don’t lose focus!” I shouted, my eyes on Airomem, watching as she narrowly missed another swipe from the side. “Oh God, what can we do? What can we do?”

“This Tom’s home,” Tom continued, taking a deep breath as his normally deep voice cracked. “Tom’s home, only choose one.”

“That’s right, Tom. We’ve already chosen one!”

Then Tom gripped me at the hip, his eyes blazing as they looked into mine, his fingers clutched halfway around my torso. His hair was mangled, coming down across his face, strands of grey appearing where they had not before.

“Tom, what are you doing? Stop it, we have to focus. Focus!” I yelled, trying to break his trance.

Even his face appeared muscular from this close, the tissue contorting as he formed the next few words, his grip on me becoming tighter.

“Only absolutely necessary,” he said, as if his words made complete sense. “Horatius, make sure I made the right decision.”

Then, with a wrenching feeling, his hand left my hip as he launched himself forward, careening into those in front of him.

And Tom broke the Lear line.

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Chapter 76

The line shattered before Tom as he swam through it, knocking Lear left and right while using their bodies to increase his own speed. He drove through Airomem and Praeter, splitting them apart with enough force to drive them inside the vessel, then crashed into Sitient as his momentum took them both towards the back wall. His hand twisted around Sitient’s shirt before he could cry out, twisting the fabric so tight it cut off all circulation, and hurled Sitient down the hallway to crash through the formation of half a dozen Agrarians.

The other Agrarians turned on Tom as he smashed through them, jabbing through his shirt and pants with knives, shrieking as he continued to move past them and reached the back wall. He fumbled with something in his hands for a moment as another knife plunged into his shoulder blade, grimacing as the wielder pulled it out for another blow.

And Tom turned back towards us, blood streaming down his chest, the Agrarians swarming over his body as the Lear looked on horrified.

“This Tom’s home!” he shouted to me as a bright white light exploded out of his hand. He raised the Omni-cutter that he had stolen from my hip high, then faced Airomem, who had just recovered inside the doorway. “For my chief – for the Lear!”

“For the Le –” the soldiers roared back, their voices lost as he slashed the Omni-cutter across the freshly repaired wall, cutting a thin straight line across the metal. In most areas, two layers of metal separated us from the outside – but here, where the ship had brought itself back together, only a thin layer was present. A layer that blasted apart before Tom could complete his stroke, and the inside of the ship met the vacuum of space beyond.

The Agrarians had no time to react as the wall ripped itself apart at the welds – unlike the hole Airomem had cut in the window of the apartment, there was a near unlimited air supply on this end of the ship, since I had cut away the door on one end of the hallway. And this was no pinhole like she had created – rather, this was an uncontrolled opening beyond that screamed at the hungry air to escape at full force, and bring anything it could with it.

Mercifully, the sensors on the doors of the departure vessel registered the pressure differential before Tom’s body was sucked through the hole he had created along with the nearest pocket of Agrarians. In a blur, the doors slammed shut, cutting off all visual connection with the bridge as wind roared through the hallway, howling through the now several-foot-wide hole that continued ripping through the crumbling metal, the voices of terrified Agrarians joining its shrieking.

For three seconds, we could hear the screams and sliding as people and objects were grated through the hole and expelled as a gift into the space beyond. Then there was only silence, the supply of air exhausted as pressure doors on the Agrarian end of the hallway and within Nectian territory shut, sealing the already determined fate of the Agrarian hold between them.

And once more, the bridge was broken.

Never to be one again.

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