Pioneers aboard the generational ship Arvad watched as three smaller spacecraft spun and danced around them. A 15-meter fighter darted about quickly, weaving between two lumbering freighters as if threading a needle. Its targets, an ice hauler and its escort vessel, fired their defensive cannons at the nimble assault craft but had yet to hit.
The fighter turned back for another pass and powered its primary weapons. On the bridge of the ice hauler, Captain Areanna Clovar shouted orders to her crew. “Form up! Turn 90 degrees to starboard and pull alongside our escort in a defensive pattern.”
She tugged at the intercom attached to her chair and thumbed the switch.
“Captain Natalie, do you copy?”
“Copy, Captain Areanna,” came the reply. “What should we do?”
“This pirate shows no signs of slowing down. We need a defensive formation. Follow my lead.”
Areanna’s ship rotated to direct most of its defensive capabilities outward.
Natalie’s quickly caught on and did the same. The two ships were now “back-to-back,” with their combined firing arcs completely covering the space around them.
Sensing danger, the fighter used its airbrakes and fired its port thrusters,
executing a sharp turn that should have applied lethal amounts of g-force to the crew. It simultaneously fired several missiles at the freighters. The fighter twisted away from the plumes of smoke trailing the rockets without losing any momentum. It turned into a lazy corkscrew pattern, continuing to fire until Captain Areanna interrupted.
“No fair, Oscar! You can’t do any of that stuff in space!”
Oscar, whose arms were straight out at right angles from his body as he spun in place to represent his corkscrew maneuver, shouted, “Yuh-huh, I can. I’m a pirate!”
Still standing with her back to Areanna, Natalie chimed in, “No! We agreed our spaceships would act real. There aren’t air brakes or smoke trails in space. We just learned about the Arvad’s engines in class the other day, remember?”
Oscar stopped spinning and exhaled loudly. He glared at his playmates, then fell over, dizzy from his spinning. Areanna and Natalie laughed, but Oscar sprung back to his feet quickly. His face was red, though whether from dizziness or anger, Areanna could not tell.
“Pirates can do whatever they want. That’s the point of being a pirate!” he yelled.
“But they can’t break the laws of physics,” Areanna explained, quieting her
laughter as she realized Oscar might be losing his temper. Oscar was seven years old and one of her best friends, but sometimes Areanna perceived more of a gap between them than her one-year seniority implied. On the other hand, Natalie was also eight years old, just like Areanna, and they rarely had such childish disagreements.
Then again, maybe it was because Oscar was a boy and Areanna was a girl?
Areanna shrugged inwardly; it usually did not matter except Oscar never wanted to play “Pioneers” and always wanted to play “Pirates versus Freighters.” For the past two weeks, the three friends had played “Pirates Versus Freighters” every day.
Areanna was starting to hate it.
Oscar’s face became redder. “Just because you have the best grades doesn’t
make you an expert in physics, Areanna. Why do I have to listen to you? I’m the pirate king, remember! I still have all of your treasure, and treasure is more important than school.”
“Fine, Mr. Pirate King. You can keep your bad grades. But I have all of your missiles!” Natalie reached down to pick up the tiny scraps of paper Oscar had rolled into balls to use as projectiles. Oscar reached into his pockets, but his hands came out empty. He was out of ammunition.
The two freighters pulled away from one another. Captain Areanna’s ship turned to face the pirate fighter, which appeared to have stalled after the corkscrew maneuver. Considering the forces its crew must have experienced, Areanna was unsure if anyone aboard still lived.
Captain Natalie had no such misgivings. Her ship recently was retrofitted with missile launchers, an illegal and complicated upgrade. Captain Areanna was sure that her ally’s crew had not trained on the new weapons. Indeed, as the missile launchers began firing, the first several missed their stunned target completely.
As the first salvo trailed harmlessly past the pirate, Captain Natalie fired again. This time there were several hits, and the pirate ship exploded into thousands of tiny shards. Areanna whooped in a most un-captain-like fashion.
Pirate King Oscar began to cry. “Missiles are pirate weapons! You’re not allowed to use pirate weapons!”
Natalie dropped the remaining paper balls and rolled her eyes at Areanna.
Areanna rolled her eyes back but walked over to Oscar, offering her hand as a
peace gesture. Oscar started crying harder; then, he swatted her hand away after a moment. Several adults who were chaperoning the children’s after-school
playtime looked over. Oscar noticed them, and with one last sullen look at his friends, ran off in the general direction of his family’s quarters.
Areanna started rubbing her hand, but Oscar had not hit her hard enough to hurt. Next to her, Natalie shrugged before asking, “Shall we play Pioneers, then?”
Now that the crying child had extricated himself, most adults were losing interest, but a few were still watching the girls. Areanna needed the chaperones to ignore them again to make her break for the door labeled ADMINISTRATION.
“Sure! But only if we don’t use missiles. I’m tired of fighting.” She closed her eyes and placed the back of her right palm against her forehead with a dramatic flourish as she had seen actresses do in old movies.
Natalie laughed. “Are you the pirate queen now? Do you get to make the rules?”
Areanna laughed in return, and the two friends resumed play. As more children trickled in after their afternoon classes, the communal area began to fill up. There was no more room to play “Pirates Versus Freighters” within an hour, even if Oscar had stayed. The volume increased to a deafening crescendo as voices bounced from wall to wall. The adults that remained quickly lost any semblance of control as they struggled to keep track of the many children under their care.
Sensing her moment, Areanna halted play with Natalie.
“I’m going to go explore now. No one is paying us any attention.”
“Are you sure you should do that?” Natalie asked, looking down at the floor. “The grown-ups say we’re not allowed to go through any of those doors. What if you get in trouble?”
“But I’m not going through one of those doors, remember?” Areanna tried to wink conspiratorially. Natalie, however, was still staring at the floor and missed the cue.
“Okay, but I don’t think it matters whether you go through the door or sneak
through that opening you found or whatever. If you get caught on the other side, you’ll get in trouble! Maybe I’ll get in trouble, too.”
Areanna perked up. “Does that mean you’ve changed your mind and want to come exploring with me?”
Natalie finally looked back up at Areanna. “No! I don’t like it. We aren’t supposed to go there. It’s breaking the rules, just like Oscar likes to do.”
“I’m not like Oscar,” Areanna bristled. “He doesn’t understand anything about the real world.”
“He doesn’t understand science and math and a lot of other things,” Natalie
agreed, “but you’re just as stubborn as he is. You’re sneaking away to go exploring because you know it’s a bad idea. And I don’t want to get in trouble with you. Please don’t go.”
Areanna sighed. “This isn’t dangerous. It’s just the Arvad. We’re not even going to be aboard much longer since we’re so close to Adalia. There are too many mysteries to solve!”
“You mean like how many rooms there are?” Natalie asked. “That’s dumb. Who cares how many rooms there are? Plus, once we land on Adalia, all of the
information about the Arvad will become public. Including maps.”
“Maps can lie. Official documents can lie. Grown-ups can lie! If I don’t see it for
myself, how will I really know?”
Natalie looked at her friend sullenly. “Okay, yeah, everyone lies. But this isn’t worth it. The Arvad is over a hundred years old, so all of its secrets have probably been discovered. I don’t understand why you care so much, and I don’t think it’s a good idea.” As if to punctuate her opinion, Natalie crossed her arms.
Areanna felt the blood rushing to her face and imagined she must look like Oscar did right before throwing his tantrum. The thought infuriated her. “Fine. I don’t want you to come, anyway. Go find Oscar and play whatever dumb baby game you want. I’m leaving.”
She walked away from Natalie and in the general direction of the
ADMINISTRATION door. No adult was watching, so far as she could tell. Her eyes traced a slow path around the recreation area, trying to spot anyone who might be on to her. She did glance one back at Natalie, who, to Areanna’s immense pleasure, was watching her leave. Once she was sure no adult behind her was paying attention, Areanna snapped her head back forward, lest Natalie got the impression she was having second thoughts.
The hall leading to ADMINISTRATION felt shorter now that she knew the way. The wall’s gentle curves as they transitioned from the public space to the working sections of the ship quickly obscured the recreation area, and for a quick moment, she could neither see the doors before her nor anything behind her. However, within several steps, there were many signs that Areanna was entering a restricted area.
For one, the yellow lights turned out to be several signs with “!” and ACCESS RESTRICTED. It all felt very alarmist. Was she not also a critical part of the mission to populate the Adalia System? What could be so secret that she or anyone else aboard couldn’t see it?
With one last glance behind her, Areanna stepped over a demarcation strip (also a yellow light) and into the restricted hallway. After a few feet, the paneling covering the walls became more spartan. They were solid sheets of metal cut into identical pieces, each roughly one-meter square. They lacked the polish and decorative flourishes found in the living quarters, but it was their regularity that had allowed Areanna to see the small gap in the first place.
It appeared that no one had interfered with her gap since her last visit.
Few traversed the hall leading to ADMINISTRATION, so she felt the odds of being interrupted by an adult at this point were low. Areanna fumbled through her pockets and pulled out a small piece of solid metal she had swiped from the recycling bin at one of the public workshops. Its edges were unworked and sharp from where the saw or clippers had trimmed it, but Areanna had a strip of cloth to protect her fingers.
She slid the narrowest point of the metal piece into the gap. There was not much room to work, but after a minute or two of wiggling her makeshift wedge, the metal bent forward enough for her fingers to slip in. The panels were flush against the wall and secured only by a small dot of welded metal at each corner. She wasn’t particularly big or strong, but she understood leverage well enough and put her whole body into detaching the panel at two of its corners.
With a series of grunts that were louder than she had intended, Areanna pulled and bent the panel forward enough that she was confident she could slip through. She looked around again but could see no adults nearby. In total, it had taken her fewer than five minutes to create her opening, and she appeared to be undetected. She fervently hoped the exterior panels of the Arvad offered more protection than the interior panels, but that was a concern for another day.
Areanna squeezed into the opening she had created. Bundles of cables and
flexible pipes blocked her way and resulted in a tight squeeze. She sucked in her tummy and pressed her back against a metal strut as she slid behind a thick bundle of sheathed wiring. As soon as she had cleared that hurdle, some yellow tubes blocked her path. Several body contortions later, Areanna slipped through all the obstacles and tumbled into a narrow corridor.
This new hallway was unlike anything Areanna had seen. The ceiling was so low her dad might not have been able to stand up straight. More plumbing and cabling lined every surface, running off in a dizzying number of directions. She could hear the familiar hum of the ship’s engines vibrating through the hull, but without any people around, it seemed somehow louder than usual. The sound echoed in this tight space and was decidedly oppressive. Areanna decided to move on.
Maybe three meters from her entry point, the hallway opened up to the room
behind ADMINISTRATION. Areanna gasped in surprise. A layer of dust coated the entire room, a phenomenon that she had heard about but never witnessed. The adults must have abandoned this room entirely. The idea of unused space aboard the Arvad was unthinkable to Areanna. She walked into the room, staring with wide eyes as the dust on the floor spiraled around her feet as she disturbed it.
Computer consoles lined the walls. Facing them were uncomfortable-looking
metal chairs bolted to the floor. After the shock of the dust had worn off, Areanna quickly realized that this room was the same shape and had the same technology as her classrooms. There was not anything new or exciting to see here.
Or so she thought. As she turned to return to the hallway, she caught a
glimpse of the door. From the main living quarters, nothing appeared different about ADMINISTRATION; from this side, however, the door had been welded shut with makeshift metal bars. The door also had deep pockmarks, a feature that Areanna had never seen. Something must have struck the door repeatedly with great force to cause such damage.
Most disturbingly, Areanna could see a prominent spot at the foot of the door. Her stomach sank as she walked carefully closer for a better look. She had seen dried blood before, but never enough to make a stain this large. If she had to guess, it looked like an adult probably bled out in this very spot. Areanna poked at a few of the holes in the door and realized they were perhaps from bullets.
Suddenly, Areanna was scared. She thought she was on a mission to count rooms but had stumbled into a bigger mystery. She did not have enough time to dedicate to this today, but she knew she would have to come back as soon as possible. Natalie and Oscar were not going to believe what she had seen here.
Unfortunately, though, she needed to get back to the recreation area right away or risk detection.
Taking one last glance at the door and the stain, she climbed back through the
wall and out through her gap. She took a moment to push the panel back into
place; it wasn’t perfect, but no one would notice anything was off if they just
glanced over it. Probably.
It would have to do. Areanna walked back into the recreation area, tapping her shoes against the deck and casually brushing her arms and shoulders to clear away any errant dust. Her luck seemed to hold out as no adults looked in her direction. Natalie was nearby, playing with a few younger girls. She looked up as Areanna approached.
Areanna shooed away the younger girls, ignoring their pouting. “Natalie, you are never going to believe what I found.”