The Arvad was a massive place. To eight-year-old Areanna, it was a vast, unexplored playground. She had a goal to count all of its rooms personally but had never managed to see more than seventy, the apparent extent to which the fore living quarters welcomed children. There must be more to the ship than family apartments, recreation chambers, school rooms, and dining halls, but none of her friends seemed to care. The adults, for their part, gently redirected her attention to their uninteresting lesson or task whenever she asked.
Areanna was frustrated by the lack of curiosity among her so-called fellow “pioneers.”
The school’s curriculum treated the Arvad with an odd combination of reverence and dismissal. Logically, Areanna knew that older students received more in-depth instruction on its history, design, construction, and functions; however, she feared that their impending arrival in the Adalia system would obsolete such topics from future courses, save perhaps history.
And while history was her favorite subject, she was living aboard the Arvad in the present. As such, she had recently decided to conduct her own survey.
Children were not permitted to wander the corridors independently, so sneaking away from chaperones was difficult. Further complicating the operation were her friends, with whom she usually spent all her free time. Overall, she had few moments of isolation to conceal her departure.
Every day after school, she and her classmates enjoyed two hours of free time to socialize, exercise, and rest. The space given to them was ample by Arvad standards, measuring seventy meters along the ship’s medial axis, or centreline, and forty meters laterally. It boasted several rudimentary structures that functioned as playground equipment but was otherwise largely open, allowing chaperones a clear line of sight at all times. At the fore end of the room were four openings, each leading to other communal or living areas. It was from these doors the children always entered or exited the recreation area.
At the aft end of the room were four additional openings, each a mirror of the doorway on the other side. It was one of these that Areanna schemed to traverse, but first, she needed to formulate a plan to sneak away undetected by an adult or playmate.
The first time circumstances had aligned in her favor, Areanna chose the left-most access corridors randomly. Each hallway curved gently, obscuring whatever was down them beyond five or six meters. Besides several access panels and various sections of ductwork or plumbing — all standard Arvad decor — they were complete enigmas.
Areanna made it twenty meters when things became interesting. Several yellow lights illuminated around her in response to her presence. Startled, she raised her hands to shield her eyes, only to notice two doors further down the hall. Forgetting about the lights, she walked until she could reach the first door handle. It was locked.
She tried at the second door. It, too, was locked. It was also labeled ADMINISTRATION in bold letters; Areanna realized the first door also had a label: ENGINEERING. Her face flushed with frustration. She finally worked up the courage to slip away, only to be defeated by a pair of secured portals?
She felt convinced there were limitless new spaces to explore beyond such portals and was desperate to pass through them. Unfortunately, her father stubbornly upheld the ship’s policy that no children were allowed in the working sections of the Arvad, and her time was short. So she took mental note of every detail she could and returned to finish playing before returning home for dinner.
Areanna’s father was tall and lean, physically the product of living his entire life on carefully moderated rations and in a spin gravity slightly below Earth standard. His eyes and mouth were lined from years of laughter and joy, though Areanna had rarely seen him express anything but quiet sadness for as long as she could remember. She suspected her mother’s death during childbirth was the cause, though her grandparents had died before she was born, and it could also have been that. Areanna did not like to think about such things, though, so the traces of happiness lingering on her father’s face would remain a mystery.
“Daddy? Oscar and Natalie have invited me to play today after classes,” she said one morning over breakfast, half-heartedly spooning her gray porridge and letting it drip from her spoon back into her bowl. “Can I please? Oscar got to be the pirate yesterday, and he took our treasure, so Natalie and I have to get it back today, or he gets to be Pirate King forever.”
Her father looked up from his Muse, the typical personal data assistant used aboard the Arvad. His brown eyes were always kind, revealing a softness that Areanna recognized as uncommon among the adults living in their block. “You may play after finishing your schoolwork, but I expect you home at oh-nineteen-hundred for dinner and a bath.”
Areanna shuddered. Water was available and plentiful from the recyclers, but her father “wanted to prepare her for the difficulties of pioneer living,” as he liked to say. So baths in her house were usually lukewarm chemical sprays and dry rubdowns using specialized towels. She had to keep her eyes shut tightly throughout the two-minute ordeal, and her skin always felt itchy the next day. “Do I have to?”
“Eat dinner? Absolutely, for your health. Take a bath? Even more absolutely, for my health. You’re starting to smell like a waste reclaimer after vegetable night.” He winked at her, and a smile threatened to turn the corners of his mouth for a brief moment. Instead, his eyes quickly darted back to his screen, all traces of teasing disappearing.
“Fine,” Areanna sighed, sinking into her chair. The possibility of her father smiling excited Areanna more than the prospect of bathing dismayed her; she shrank back, disappointed by the outcome of both.
Secretly, though, her heart was racing. Oscar and Natalie had not actually invited her to play today. In the two weeks since her first foray, Areanna managed to escape and explore again. By carefully timing her exit, the sheer chaos of the recreation space made it possible to slip away unobserved.
During this second trip, she noticed a small, barely child-sized opening near the doorway that led to ADMINISTRATION. It was a repair, but a sloppy one, with a metal sheet haphazardly welded in place. Otherwise, it was identical to every other plate lining the Arvad’s walls; had she not been explicitly looking for this type of detail, she might have missed it.
As long as she returned home in time to eat, her father would never know of her indiscretion. Today was the day she counted beyond seventy rooms. She was sure of it.