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Chapter 23

Airomem’s eyes were shut tight as she hid in the dark underneath her bed, gripping the stun gun tight in her right hand and her left flat against the ground, while her toes were coiled like springs against the back wall.  In case the locked door of her apartment burst open.  In case she had to attack.  And in case she had to run.

Her breath came quick as she saw faint blue flashes through the crack underneath her door, accompanied by far off thuds, and the sound of metal ringing on metal.  And she thought back to an hour before, when she and her father had been sharing dinner.

“And how was school today?”  He had asked her, holding out her seat as he placed a plate in front of her, “Tell me that Prometh still has enough wits about him to teach the youngsters!  He used to be the finest of our engineers.”

“Good!”  She said, stabbing her fork deep into a carrot and shoving the entire slice in her mouth such that the next few word were muffled.  Being a princess came second to being hungry, she had decided.”Today we learned about the photonic crystal!  And about what happened to the one on the other end of the ship!”

“Oh, sounds like there was some serious learning indeed,”  Said her father, raising an eyebrow, “Are you sure that you’ll be able to keep all that knowledge in that tiny noggin?  I hear if you pack too much in then it’ll explode!”

“Dad!”  She whined, “I’m not six, you can’t play tricks on me like that anymore.  I’m eight now!  I know better.”

“Funny, at thirty eight I still think the same thing about when I was thirty six.  You can never stop learning, Airomem, and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.”

“Yes, daddy. You always say that,”  She huffed, rolling her eyes, and stabbed through another carrot, deep enough that the metal clinked against the plate.  And as she brought the it to her mouth, her father’s head snapped upwards, and she heard it.

The wailing of the siren.  The sound that made the hairs on her neck stand up, and her skin tingle as blood rushed to her face and adrenaline raced along her capillaries.

Her father’s hand swept the fork out of her hand as he tucked her under his elbow, then sprinted out of the mess hall.  Doors flashed by as they passed the siren wielder, a boy who had just entered his teens, holding one of the stun guns such that its prongs were plugged into a box that screeched as he took off in the other direction, running loops around the Lear territory.  

“Starboard!”  The boy shouted with every other step, his cracking voice struggling to make it down the corner he had just turned, “Starboard!  Starboard!  Starboard!”

And then they were at her apartment and her father threw the door open, before tossing her inside on the bed.

“Under, down, down!  Make no noises, and open your door for no one!  Do you understand?”  He barked as she nodded.  

“Wait, daddy, what if you don’t come back?”  She said, trying to grab hold of her hand.

“I always come back,”  He said, gripping her head between his hands, “Don’t you forget that, Airomem.  And I’ll always be here.”  He gave her head a squeeze between his hands, then raced  away, slamming the door shut behind him.  And as soon as he left she rushed to her dresser and took the stun gun from the top drawer, then waited under her bed, trying to still her breath.  Knowing what came next.

The darkness.

And seconds later it happened, the lights above extinguished themselves, along with every other light in their sector of the ship.  Turning the hallways near pitch black, impossible to navigate unless they were already memorized.

Which for the Lear, they were.  

She waited, her jaw tight, watching her doorknob as her eyes acclimated, the only light the faint stars outside her window.  Her muscles tightened as she heard feet run past, and the siren wailing again, this time the boy shouting “Port!  Port!  Port!” as his vocal chords strained.  

For several minutes, nothing happened as the noises drifted away, their volume decreasing until they were just at the threshold of her hearing where imagination fights reality.  Where she imagined all the stories she had heard about the other tribes.  How they feasted upon one another after their squabbles, the smell of cooking meat even  making its way as far as  the Lear’s side of the ship.  The times that they bothered to cook, that is.  Or the screams she heard when she would stray too close to the other side and the battle chants seemed to shake the walls themselves.

And then, in the silence, she heard footsteps.  Footsteps that crept down the hallway, and paused in front of her door, short ragged breaths coming from the other side.

Her breath held in her throat as she watched the doorknob start to turn, ever so slowly, creaking open in the darkness.  And a face appeared around the corner as she leapt out from underneath her bed, the stun gun extended in front of her with both hands, the electricity crackling as she turned it up to full power and bathing her face in blue light,

“Back,”  She screamed, “Back, or I’ll shock you so hard your skin will fry! Back!”

And in the light, her father’s face stared back, blood trailing along his temple.

“Hush,”  He said, entering as she burst into tears, “Hush, it’s over.  What happened to staying under the bed?  I told you to stay!”

And though he scolded her, she heard something else in his voice as he looked down on her standing there, the stun gun still buzzing.  Something she heard when she brought back top scores on her tests, or explained the schematics of the power room to her correctly.

“A princess would fight!”  She answered through the tears, her voice shaking, and he couldn’t help but smile.

“You’re right, she would,”  He agreed, “Now put that down.  And hush.”

“Where were we attacked?”  She asked as he sat down on the bed next to her.

“On both sides,”  He answered, “Port and starboard.  We defended both, and sent them running backwards faster than they came.  Now, princess, why is it that we defend those two points?”

“Because those two points are the only way that they can enter our end of the ship,”  She answered, “They’re the only two doorways.  But why, daddy?  Why do they attack us?”

Her father frowned, and spoke slowly in response.

“Airomem, we live a very different life here than them.  We live an orderly life- but the two other tribes, the Aquarians and Agrarians, are not so fortunate.  The Aquarians control the water, having access to the reservoirs, while the Agrarians plow the fields.  Unlike us, there are many points of entry for them to attack each other, and they are near constantly at war- what they seem to never understand is that they need each other to survive.  They grow greedy, and try to seize the other’s resources instead of trading. But what they lust over far more is what we have, Airomem.  Is after the electrical power.”

With those words, the lights buzzed back to life, and she saw that the blood originated from a long gash.

“Daddy, you’re hurt!  I din’t think that was your blood!”  

“Hush, it’s alright, it’s shallow,”  He answered, “Listen, Airomem.  We’ve started this lesson, and now we must finish it. It is something a leader should know as second nature. The Agrarians and Aquarians must never gain hold over the ship’s power.  Can you tell me why?”

“Because, because then we would be dead?”

“More important, Airomem.  Even if they let us live, it would be worse.  Think, how many years do you need to study before you become an apprentice engineer?”

“Ten,”  She answered, and her eyes widened, “They would break it!  The power room, the reactor, they would break it!”

“Exactly, Airomem.  Not only would we die, but so would they, by their own hand.  And so would the other side of the ship.  So we must protect them from themselves.  Now, why do we fight in the dark?”

“Because no Agrarian or Aquarian has set foot here in over a hundred years,”  She answered, “They would become lost, and would bump into the walls as they try to attack.  It gives us the advantage.”

“Precisely.  Now Airomem, the other tribes will not always try to attack us directly.  They hate us because we demand tribute from them- we supply them with electricity, and they supply us with water and food. But once, one hundred years ago, they tried to starve us.  For two weeks they stopped delivering food and water, even after we turned out their lights, and we dipped deep into our stores.  Tell me, what happened then?  How did your great great grandfather fight back, back when he served as adviser to the leader?”

Airomem knew the legend by heart, the stroke of ingenuity that had been decreed to have saved the Lear tribe from near extinction.

“They turned the power up, instead of off!”  She said, “And the lights burned brighter and hotter than they should have, and it burned the other tribes and their crops.  And only then did they pay their tribute, when their skin was so red it broke out in blisters, and they feared the lights!”

“Yes, well done Airomem.  A last resort, but a necessary one.  But remember, we can only do that in an extreme emergency- typically, the ship should not let the power rise that high, but after the asteroid struck the electricity had to be rewired to bypass many of the safety systems.  And even worse, the same power that harmed the Agrarians and Aquarians also traveled to the other side of the ship.  Surely, they did not know it was us, but we must care for our brothers and sisters, no matter how remote they might be.”

The her father stood, and walked to the door.

“I must be going now, Airomem.  I personally want to check over the ship, to ensure everything is in order.  Go to sleep now daughter, princess, but remember this lesson.”

“Daddy, wait!”  She shouted as he opened the door, “Don’t leave me, I’m scared!”

“We’re all scared,” He answered, “Some of us are just better at hiding it than others.”

“Tell me a story first before you go!”  She demanded, “It can be quick, I need to think about something else, or I won’t sleep.”

He hesitated, then returned to her bed.

“I will, but it has to be quick. Which one do you want to hear?”

“Tell me,”  She said, thinking, then decided, “Tell me about Necti.”

“Ah, your favorite,”  He said, “Of course.”

And he began, his deep voice recounting the tale as she felt her eyelids start to grow heavy.

***

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