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Part 18

The three figures started walking, the two on the sides slightly behind the one in the center.  The leftmost swayed with a slight limp, his hand on his belt where a scratched cooking knife hung on one side and a short black rectangle was clipped to the other.  The sleeves of his shirt were too wide for his arms, the red fabric hanging off his bone as if his shoulders were a hanger.  He smiled as they approached, two of his bottom teeth missing, and his cheeks forming concave pockets on the sides of his face, and his facial muscles twitching slightly as they held the expression.

The other side figure wore faded blue, the shirt jumping across his skin as his chest spasmed underneath.  The contents of his belt were identical to the left figure and a thin scar ran through his eyebrow to his jaw.  He spat on the side of the passageway, his thick phlegm trickling slowly down the wall, the metal similar in most parts to the rest of the ship but interrupted by long arcs of more rough material, globs that were fused to the surface and ran in frozen drops towards the ground. 

Then there was the center figure, her clothes entirely grey, the fit far more crisp than the other two, the folds accented with sharp creases.  She met my eyes as she led the party, my heart racing as I recognized the familiar pattern of freckles coupled with ginger hair.

Segni and I approached from the other end, him taking up enough of the hallway to push me near against the edge, Tom and Nean following our stride.  Segni held a hand against my chest to prevent me from moving past him, his breath coming in puffs as the others reached the halfway point and kept walking.  At one third of the way we met them, standing five feet apart, and a cluster of heads appeared at the open doorway at the end of the hall to watch and wait.

For a moment, no one spoke- we simply stared, taking in the appearance of those that had been separated for centuries, and viewable only from a distance.  Segni’s eyes flickered to each in turn, scanning their hands.  The men on the left and right of the woman in grey responded by looking him over, their eyes narrowing as they reached his chin, then turning to near slits when the glossed over his stomach.  My sight was drawn to the woman in grey, just as they had been drawn there over the years as I had spotted her watching me from her window, and her stare met my own.  Then her pupils flicked downward and to her right, where the fingers of her hand danced in a soft flurry of motion, too low to be seen by her counterparts.

Two signs, repeated over and over, one of her thumb overlapping her index and ring fingers, another of her pinky bending in towards her palm.  I frowned as I looked towards her face again, and then she spoke, her voice harder and sharper than I was used to.

“I am Airomem,”  She said, her chin high in the air, “Daughter of Praeter, leader of the Lear tribe.  With me are the leaders of the two other tribes, who have granted me safe passage to this meeting between our peoples today.”

Esuri,”  Said the man to her left, scowling at her, “King of the Aquarians.”

Sitient,”  Said the other, his voice raspy and starting before the other had finished speaking, “Chieftain of the Agrarians.”

“Segni, Chief of the ship,”  Came the answer from our side of the divide, “And on this day of meeting, we bring you a gift.”

He extended the basket to Airomem, and she accepted it, while Esuri and Sitent stared at the contents.

“No water?” Asked Sitient, “Only food?”

“And not enough to share between the three of us,”  Said Esuri, “With most of these varieties being of the basic species.”

“I forgo my share, such that the two of you may enjoy it,”  Said Airomem, “And we graciously accept your gift, Segni.”

“Of course she would give up her share, as if she would even need it,” Said Sitient, and spat against the wall again.

Enough,”  Said Airomem, her voice sharp just as Esuri opened his mouth to comment as well, and gestured to me, “And you, are you the leader of another tribe from your side of the ship?”

“I am Hor-”

“Him?”  Laughed Segni, putting a hand in front of me to cut me off, “No, he is the one who prepared the gift for you, a simple farmer.”

“Simple farmer?”  Said Sitient, “Did you come to trade insults as well as gifts?”

“Or to show disdain for us, the leaders, with his inferior presence?”  Asked Esuri.

“I am sure that he meant nothing of the sort,”  Interjected Airomem, “We must respect that their customs may be different than our own.”

“We meant no insult, and I am more than a simple farmer, and act as the Hist-“

Segni cut me off with his hand again and spoke, gesturing towards the basket.

“And now that we have provided on to you, where is the gift that you have prepared for us?”

For a moment, all was silent, Airomem’s mouth opening slightly as the Esuri and Sitient bristled, their hands moving towards their hips as Nean and Tom stirred behind us.

Our gift?”  Hissed Esuri, and pointed at Segni’s stomach, his finger rigid, “Our gift, after you send us your scraps?  Are you sure that you did not have more to give fat man, because your offering is a mockery.”

“Give it back then, if you don’t want it,”  Responded Segni, his face reddening and voice rising, “It’s all we could spare with the feast next week.”

“A feast?”  Shouted Esuri, “You feast, while the two thousand members of our tribe starve?  How many are you wasting this food upon?  Perhaps you should set seats for us as well!”

“A thousand,”  Shouted Segni back, “And maybe I would have invited a few of you, if you had been more polite!”

Airomem’s face turned white as Esuri and Sitient looked to each other, their heads tilting slightly to the side.

“A thousand,”  Sitient breathed, “Of course, that would just simply be your warriors, those invited to partake in the feast?”

“No,”  Lectured Segni, as Airomem held up a hand and I tried to interject, “The feast is for everyone.”

“One thousand total,” Muttered Esuri, “Five times less than our tribes combined.  With just as much food and water.”

“I assure you,”  I said, speaking quickly, “That our resources are few and stretched thin, much of them destroyed when the Hand of God struck.”

“Liar!”  Shouted Esuri, taking the basket from Airomem and smashing it against the ground, sending vegetables flying down the hallway in both directions. Airomem spun and slapped him, her nails leaving red marks across his face as he reached towards his hip again.

“Harm me, and you know the consequences for you and your tribe!” She shouted at him, then continued to us all, “We came here for peace!  We do not know the circumstances of their side of the ship, must assume that they likely have a fifth of the resources we do with their population, and must work with them in the future to assure mutual survival.  Together, as four tribes, we will create a future- a better future than our past.”

Esuri shook with rage as Segni responded, leaning over to pick up the remainder of the basket, a few vegetables left in the center.

“Four tribes?  No, I am Chief of the ship, just as my father was, and just how I told you earlier.  Just how it used to be before the Hand of God struck.  And now that we are reunited, I will assume responsibilities of the ship.  Not half the ship.”

And as he straightened up, and bit off the end of a green bean in his hand, something toppled out from his shirt pocket.  Something red, that bounced on the floor and rolled to the Esuri’s feet, with a bright green stem and unmistakable among the metal.

It was result of my labor reading the Guide to Gardening.  A plump strawberry, one that Segni had stolen from the basket, the size and color greatly enhanced through my work.

 And far more impressive than the other contents of the gift.

 

Part 19