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Chapter 55

The current of air from the freshly cut hole was less than Airomem had expected.

Instead of an explosion it was like a tiny faucet – a thin, spindling tube of air visible by dust jetting out through the hole into space, emptying the apartment in front of her.

Like all doors on the ship, the one in front of her had sealed itself as the pressure fell – a precaution that prevented a single hole from taking down vast swaths of the ship. From her position, she could see that the crack underneath had turned solid, the frame itself swelling to form a barrier, and though she could not yet touch it to test, that lock would be held fast. Until pressure was restored, the room would remain that way – sealed away and preventing any more of the precious air from escaping.

She clung to the side of the ship as she waited, watching the flow slow and thin, until only a trickle exited that she could just barely sense through her glove. And taking the Omni-cutter once more, she placed it up against the hole and let the spark fly out to meet the glass.

The plasma curve traced through glass quicker than she expected as the arc eroded the material, her hand gliding along the outer edge with a speed that attested to the sheer power of the Omni-cutter. In seconds, she had cut away nearly three-quarters of a hole the size of her shoulders, and she slowed down at the last portion, careful to make sure the connecting cut was clean and that there would be no rough edges, or a jagged snap that might cause cracks to spider web across the surface.

Ever so gently, she completed the circle, the white light flashing as it cut through the final finger length, then inch, then sliver. Catching the outside eddies of the ship’s gravity field, the circle cutout of the window fell the quarter of an inch of a gap the Omni-cutter had left behind in slow motion, then began to tip inwards.

Airomem’s hand shot out and caught it just before it fell, the sharp edge biting through her gloves. And she breathed a sigh of relief as she felt the ship’s gravity take hold of her fingers through the hole and she experienced the sensation of becoming grounded once more.

And slowly, without releasing the glass or her tethers, she placed her right foot through the hole, then her left, so that she sat scrunched half inside and half outside the ship, the gravity gradient making her insides feel imbalanced. Then she slid the remainder of the way, her feet connecting with the floor in a silence that should have left a thud had air been present, and turned to glance back into space. Space that had nearly claimed her, but she, Airomem, princess of the Lear, had conquered.

It took another few minutes to place the window back over the hole, and to pull the temporary repair kit from her utility belt. Two strips of tape held the window in place as she applied a sealant around the edge, one designed to stop any microcracks from propagating as well as reduce airflow through microscopic channels, the thick yellow putty conforming to the shape of the gap. Then the remainder of the job was a layer of tape over the gap, an amount that seemed to Airomem like far too little but would at least temporarily hold, according to the procedures. She could feel wire mesh in between the polymer layers, the adhesive itself so strong that she gave up on removing a piece that had attached itself to her gloves and now dangled from her index finger, and the black finish obscuring the yellow underneath.

She tested it, placing a palm against the window and pushing outwards, feeling the circle bulge slightly into space but hold tight. Then she turned back to the door, locked under the pressure differential, and considered her next steps.

It would be easiest to simply slice through it with the Omni-cutter, making a hole just as she had with the window. Her fingers twitched, greedy to use the instrument again to save time, her fear forgotten after her first use. But she paused, looking behind her at the patch. Cutting through the door might be a shortcut, but if the patch gave way due to a quick pressure change, then she could potentially lock down an entire portion of the ship. And the rapid decrease in pressure for anyone not wearing a suit in the nearby hallways would mean near instant death.

So instead, she placed the Omni-cutter back into her tool pouch and reached around to her back where her air tanks connected to the rest of the suit. There, just under the last of the vertebrae in her neck, she felt the valve that was used to quickly replace air tanks in the event of a longer than usual maintenance project. And remembering the instructions in the procedure book, she gently turned the knob until she could just barely hear a hiss. Too much, and the safety would kick in and close the air pathway to the suit. Too little, and she would be waiting for hours for the room to fill with air.

As the hissing continued, she paced, her eyes flicking back towards the patch every thirty seconds. And she thought about her next moves – first to find Elliott and Ruth, then to rescue Horatius, then to lead the charge back to the bridge. Saving all who would follow, and leaving those who would embrace death to their fate.

As her pacing quickened, the hissing slowed until it became just barely audible, then stopped entirely. Raising both hands in front of her, she clapped, a smile breaking across her face as she heard the sound and knew that pressure had been restored. Her heart quickened as she placed two hands against the door, prepared to sling it open, ready to enter as the first person who had traveled from end to end on the ship since Necti, both through internal and external means. Her chin raised of its own accord, and her stance widened, prepared to make a strong reemergence.

She shoved, putting all her weight behind her palms.

In front of her, the door rattled, the latch caught. The pressure in the room was not quite high enough to completely release the safety mechanism, though her air supply was depleted.

And cursing, she reached back to her belt, pulling back out the Omni-cutter, the white arc illuminating her face as she began to slice through the metal, cursing again as pressure was restored and she realized the lock had jammed.


Chapter 56

The hallway was nearly empty when she kicked through the door, an oval portion of it just a few inches shorter than her falling forward with a ringing clang as it struck the floor, skidding forward under its own momentum until it rammed against the opposite wall. Only one set of eyes watched her as she stepped outwards, the Omni-cutter still emitting its white arc, her suit still covering every inch of her body. Behind her, there was a click and the door swung open, the lock releasing as reverberations from the falling metal shook it loose. And though the window bulged out slightly more than usual, the tape, mesh, and putty combination held. Hopefully, for at least a few more hours – that was all she needed.

Across the hall, the lone figure stared as she reached a hand around to release the clasp that held her helmet in place, shaking her hair out as she set it on the floor. His eyes widened as he recognized her, then widened further as they looked past her to the hole in the window, then to the other end of the ship, and coming to rest on the Omni-cutter just as she shut it off.

“Hello, Tom,” she said, standing atop the fallen door to be only a head shorter than him. “Ready to save Horatius again?”

“Of course,” his lumbering voice responded, a slow smile uplifting the words. “But what is that? Stun gun?”

He pointed towards the Omni-cutter, and Airomem raised it upwards for him to get a closer look.

“Just as you are the strongest man on this side of the ship, this is now the sharpest knife. There is little, if anything, it cannot cut.”

Tom reached a hand forward, his eyes sparkling, but Airomem retracted her arm, speaking, “And because it is the sharpest, it’s also the most dangerous. It should only be used when absolutely necessary, and I fear now is one of those times. Do you know where Ruth is, Tom? Can you take me to her?”

“Her, yes. Horatius, no.”

“Then let’s start moving,” said Airomem, following Tom as he began to walk towards the exit of the corridor. “I fear our time already runs short. And if we are to depart, we must make haste.”

“Depart?” asked Tom, and Airomem gestured back to towards the window.

“To our new home, Tom. To the planet that you see out there, the purpose of our long journey.”

“But this Tom’s home,” he answered, confusion crossing his face. “Here, the ship.”

“Your old home, Tom. This one is falling apart, but the one that we are going to, that one is full of life and promise.”

Then they broke out of the corridor and into the farmland beyond, the overhead lights significantly dimmer than just a few days before, the soil harder under her feet from lack of maintenance. At the far edge, a crowd milled, clustered around the entrance to another corridor, their voices melding together into a buzz by the time they reached her ears. And from the tip of the crowd, just beneath the doorframe, she could see the glint of knives behind a barricade of furniture.

Halfway across the fields, she heard a scream that differentiated itself from the crowd, one that emanated from a small figure that rushed across the earth towards her, her haste so great that flecks of soil flew into the air behind her.

“Airomem!” shouted Ruth, barreling into her. “I knew you’d come! I knew it! There, in that corridor, they have my mother and Horatius! We have to save them!”

Behind Ruth, the crowd began to turn around, the words stopping in their throats as their eyes traveled from her face to her suit. Awe took hold of them in a wave, young and old, big and small, literate and illiterate. Ruth let go of Airomem and moved to her right, while Tom stood at her left, their heights forming a downward slant.

And when the silence was so thick that it felt impossible to breach, Airomem bent down and gathered a handful of soil from the ground at her feet and held it high in the air, allowing a trickle of it to pass through her fingers like water.

“One thousand years ago!” she shouted as the dirt fell. “One thousand years ago, our ancestors departed upon a journey for new life! A journey that took them far from what they called home in search for another. And today, we embark on a similar journey.”

She took a step forward towards the crowd and gathered another handful of soil.

“Today, we complete our voyage among the stars! We remember that this is but a step along our path, that the ship itself is not a destination but a bridge into the future of us all. To the planet you see outside the windows, a place where the lights shall never dim, where the plants shall grow, and the water plentiful. Where all shall be fed, and none greater than their neighbor. And we shall bring the dirt our ancestors left us, our only true piece of their home that we have left, and mix it with the soil we find ahead. As a remembrance of the past, the seeds that shall grow the future.”

Then she let the handful of dirt fall in front of her, the clump thudding against the edge of a shovel and spreading out in all directions.

“I will not force you to follow me. I give you the option to choose, but I warn you, just as a plant with no water withers and dies, so too will this ship. Already you have seen the signs that all is not as it once was, that you no longer can do what you have always done and survive. So I charge you this: wait here for death or spring forward for life! And I, Airomem, your chief and your equal, shall lead you there!”

The clapping started in the back, closest to the barricaded entrance, Elliott’s hands coming together in short powerful strokes where he stood. Dozens of others joined in, a small peppering interspersed in the masses, but with heart.

But then the jeers started from those who had been listening behind the barricade, and the crowd erupted in response, their faces red as they shouted and hands moving in a flurry of motion, the thunderous applause drowning out all other sound.

Airomem brushed the earth from her hands as she walked towards them, glimpsing the planet through a window in the corner of her eye as she did so, and whispering in a voice that stood no chance against the roar.

“To dust we shall return.”




Chapter 57

Ruth, Tom, and Elliott were gathered around Airomem as she drew in the dirt with the toe of her shoe, recreating the corridor where Horatius and Hannah were trapped.

“It bends a little there,” said Ruth, bending over and adding an arc to a previously straight line. “And here there is a closet.”

“Other than that, it’s correct,” said Elliott, and Tom nodded. “There are only two entrances, as you’ve drawn, both barricaded and defended by knives. Even if we could get past the barricade, we’d be cut to pieces. If they have the spine.”

“From what you have told me, they have the food rations holed up in there as well,” said Airomem, and she thought back to the wars between the Agrarians and the Aquarians. “Men are capable of much more evil than you would anticipate when they are defending their stomachs, and much more good when defending their hearts.”

“Good or evil, it’s still a barrier,” said Elliott. “Negotiations are failing – I believe they are holding on to Horatius and Hannah to exchange for food in the future, as well as to ensure their own safety. But even more so, I fear it is an attempt at petty revenge for Segni’s death, in which case, I fear for the life of my wife.”

“These are the same people who assaulted me,” said Airomem through clenched teeth, then pointed to the rooms she had drawn in the dirt. “We are past the point of negotiation. Now, where are they keeping them? And where are they keeping the food?”

Elliott turned and waved to a woman who had been waiting twenty feet away, her gaze turned towards the crowd still milling at the entrance of the corridor. With a start, she walked over, long bags under her eyes and scratches on her shins.

“Airomem, this is Angie; you may recognize her from your time in the gardens,” said Elliott. “Angie was asleep in her bed in the corridor when the rest of the gardeners moved the food and hostages inside, and woke up to the current barricade situation. She escaped by crawling through the barricade – if you can call it an escape. Nean was all too happy to have one less mouth to feed. They practically drove Angie out.”

“I see,” said Airomem as Angie stood opposite her, her lip trembling, her face flushed red as a quick flash of recognition spread across Airomem’s own expression. As she remembered that face from when she had fought off the gardeners with her dual stun guns, not participating in the mob but not helping Airomem and Horatius either. But standing to the side, watching and following. And certainly not asleep during the ordeal.

Airomem met her eyes and spoke slowly, her voice portraying no emotion.

“Quite unfortunate for you, Angie, though it is good you escaped. But now that you are here, that is all behind us. All that matters is what lies ahead. Can you point out on our map everything you know about inside the corridor?”

“Here,” said Angie, her own voice with a slight warble and gesturing at the second room on the outer edge of the corridor, one that faced the stars, “is where they are keeping Horatius. And here,” she pointed opposite, to a room that receded inside the ship so that it shared a wall with the edge of the gardens, “is where they are keeping the majority of food supplies. They keep that door shut tight, and distribute food from there twice a day.”

“And the times that they open the doors?”

“Morning and night for food, and they don’t really open the other ones. Nean wants to ensure there is no chance for escape.”

“Thank you, Angie,” Airomem said as the other woman looked down. “Your actions will help determine the fate of the ship.”

“I know,” she whispered, eyes watering.

“When we arrive,” said Airomem, “you’ll be remembered for this crucial information, as the reason why Horatius and Hannah were freed. If you remember anything else, Angie, do not hesitate to tell us. For now, that’s all we needed, but we may have more questions later.”

“Thank you, Airomem,” she said, departing. “Thank you.”

“Now,” said Airomem, ignoring Elliott’s questioning look, “we have two objectives. One, to rescue the hostages. And second, because everyone here looks so famished, is to recover much of your food. I’d rather everyone had energy for the next few hours. Here is what we are going to do.”

Crouching down, she illustrated the plan in the dirt, drawing two lines to show the proposed movement. Elliott shook his head when she finished, speaking.

“The things you have shown us that are possible, things I never would have dreamed of, have changed everything.”

“Let’s hope,” she said. “In one hour, we will act. That should give us enough time to prepare. During that time, Elliott, I need you to make it clear to your people to prepare to evacuate. Pair them up, ensure that your elderly and young have a strong counterpart. They should only bring the most essential of items. In addition, have your porters bring as much water as possible. Warn them that at any moment, the power may cut, and should that happen, they should reconvene just outside the entrance to the bridge. Make it clear that they should not enter that hallway without us, as it could mean death. And make it clear that anyone who waits here will be left behind. Be back here quickly, so we can start negations.”

“Of course, we will start immediately. I thought you said we were finished with negotiations?”

“We are. I just need you to hold Nean’s attention. Work some insults into them, get him and his people flustered. Tom?”

“Yes?” responded Tom, who had otherwise been silent, his eyes slightly narrowed as he tried to make sense of the diagram in the earth.

“Are you feeling strong today?”

“Tom always feels strong,” he said, stretching his arms in front of him and looking down them.

“Good,” said Airomem, holding her own arm next to his, the suit contrasting skin. “We’re going to need it.”


Next Chapter

Don’t forget to vote for  The Bridge!  It takes 2 clicks.

I’ll be providing the entire story here for free for a limited time.  In return, I ask that you tell a friend about Chapter 1!  The only way others find out about my work is through word of mouth.