Delmeine woke to the sound of his mother screaming, a series of gunshots, and sudden silence.
A man’s voice. “We’ve entered the residence. Both adults terminated. Male removed for brain scan.”
A distant, crackling reply. “Move in. Take the children and get out. We don’t have other business as long as Jere and Tanna have been eliminated.”
Jere and Tanna were Mom and Dad’s names.
Mama warned him they would come in the night.
Delmeine’s feet were on the floor before a conscious thought, his blanket tossed aside in a flurry. He darted across the room, socks slipping against the slick metal, threatening to send him tumbling to the floor.
Delmeine reached the door just as his feet slipped. He caught himself on the lock and threw it closed, as he’d practiced dozens of times.
Please, he begged silently, let Vena be doing the same thing right now.
It was so simple to lock a door. He’d thought it crazy to practice, but now as the footsteps thundered down the hallway, Delmeine knew why Papa would force him and his little sister to practice this scenario again and again.
He stared at the door in a daze, as though he couldn’t decide if it even existed. He checked the lock again. The door was clearly sealed but somehow Delmeine knew the soldiers would walk right through without a second thought. Like magic they would have full reign over the entire battleship.
The doorknob jiggled and Delmeine jumped back.
“Delmeine!” came the voice from the other side. “This is the police. We’re here to help you.”
Exactly what Papa told him they would say.
“We’re here to take you to a better life. Can you please open the door for us? Everything’s going to be okay, Son.”
Delmeine knew he would not open the door, but somehow his fingers continued to hang from the edge of the lock.
He knew exactly what he was supposed to do. Mom and Dad, just a couple weeks earlier, had decided he was old enough for his own weapon, a light projectile pistol that sat in its steel case in the drawer next to his socks and underwear.
His face tightened as he tore his eyes away from the doorknob and the little lock that separated him from the strangers in the hall.
“Delmeine!” came a muffled shout. “This is the police. You need to unlock this door and come out now!”
He stumbled toward the dresser. Once his back was to the door, reality seemed to clear.
He expected the little case to be gone, lost in the mess as he would so frequently lose his pretend guns and other toys, but there it was, tucked in the back behind his shirts.
He opened the case and slipped the weapon into his hand. He checked the clip and safety, just as he’d been taught. It was small and light… not like the automatic weapons hidden in a safe a few meters away in Mom and Dad’s room. They wouldn’t let him near them outside of his training sessions.
“Delmeine!” came the voice at the door. “Are you in there, Son?”
The scream that woke him still echoed through the back of his mind as he tried to focus on what to do next.
“Get the explosives for the lock,” came a more distant voice. “We don’t have time to waste on children.”
Delmeine didn’t have time either. He ran for the spot under his bed.
As he slid under the overhanging sheets, Delmeine reached for the secret panel leading into the vents. He fiddled with the latch for a moment before the panel popped open. He slipped in, wiggling frantically forward, pushing the weapon in front of him. He took the first corner, backed up, then returned to face the panel and pulled it closed.
As the panel clicked into place, the explosion echoed through the bedroom and hummed off the walls of the air duct. Delmeine trembled at the sound of the door bursting open.
Despite the sweat on his hands they gripped beautifully. Delmeine pushed himself backward, hand over hand, his knees slipping along the slick metal.
“Where’s the child?” came a crackling, filtered voice.
“He must be hiding.”
“He might not be here.”
“The door wouldn’t be locked.”
“What’s the status on the daughter?”
Delmeine cringed and felt his throat close. His eyes suddenly burned, but he shook the sensation away and turned the corner toward his sister’s room.
He had to get there before the police did.
Moving forward was more difficult. His toes slipped again and again. After several long, frustrating minutes of experimentation with other modes of propulsion, he decided to pull himself with his hands, sliding along his belly.
He made a pattern out of the movements, like a song without pleasure… Left hand, right hand, push, drag, over and over. As he lost himself in the repetitive motion, the sound of his mother screaming came back, like it was still bouncing around the vents, seeping into the walls like a mold that would eat away their home.
The sweat on his face burned as he tried to push her voice from his mind. No crying, he told himself. Not now. You can do that later.
When he came to the living room, he cautiously approached the first opening and peered through the peephole.
There was Mom. She lay motionless on the floor, her arms splayed out to her sides, her chest and stomach splattered with blood.
His vision blurred and twisted as he strained to focus, to confirm that it was real…
It couldn’t be. They had so many plans. They were going to move. Dad recently scored a couple breaks on the job and was supposed to be moving up the ranks. The whole family was supposed to be going to an amateur mindclash tournament in a couple days, and Dad was supposed to take him to his first real combat training simulation sometime next week.
He stared at Mom lying silent on the floor and felt that warm embrace of a loving and meaningful home, with a planned future, where he knew the same people would still be there the next day. He knew everything would be different now, but deep inside, somehow it still felt like he would be at that mindclash tournament with Mom and Dad and Vena. Vena would pay attention to anything but the tournament, but still find a way to have a good time, while Delmeine would try his best to follow the action, pretending like he understood the intricacies of the rules.
It would all be normal again if he could just make it through tonight.
He could almost see her breathing…
But that was a lie.
He couldn’t stop to think or cry.
A foot appeared just before him on the other side of the grill. “The girl is missing too,” came another filtered voice.
Two other officers passed by.
“You search the room?”
“Guristas like to stash their children in interesting places…”
“Give it a ten minute search. If they don’t turn up, we leave ‘em for dead.”
Delmeine turned away and pushed into the vent, fighting a sudden outburst that threatened to give away his position, like the ghost of his family threatening to burst from his chest.
He shoved himself onward, head down, left hand, right hand, push, drag. For several long moments he struggled forward until he was stopped by a sudden pain to his head.
Vena’s hair flared around his face. “Delmeine…” she whispered, her voice trembling and threatening to break as she put a hand to her forehead.
“Thank you, Vena… for being okay.” He touched her shoulder, unable to hug her in the tight quarters. Suddenly he reminded himself of his mother when she would stay up worrying about Papa during his raids. Delmeine’s face began to burn as he looked at Vena’s face and the shoulder ruffles of her little white dress and felt the relief flood up from his chest.
He called her stupid earlier today, because she didn’t know what she was doing in a simple table game. They had gone to bed angry. He’d called her names then laughed at how much he’d hurt her.
But all that was gone now. They were just brother and sister.
“Did you lock your door?” he asked.
She nodded. “But they blew it down already.”
“Did you put the cover on your secret hatch?”
She nodded again. “Where’s Mom and Dad?”
“Mom and Dad are dead,” he replied. The sudden whimper and curling of Vena’s lip made Delmeine regret his words. But it was true. They had to continue. “But we’re gonna get out, okay?”
She nodded, tears welling up in her eyes.
“Back up.” He motioned and she began pushing herself backward.
A voice echoed from the living room. “Children! This is the police! We’re not gonna hurt you. We just need you to come out of there. We’re gonna take you to a safe place…”
“Go! Go! Go!” Delmeine whispered frantically.
Vena obeyed perfectly, scrambling backward, her hair a flurry as her head bobbed. She moved quickly and Delmeine had to struggle to keep up. Her hands worked frantically, all focus, like a robot who knew just what to do… but when she looked up to meet his eyes, the red face, contorted expression and tears in her eyes betrayed her true state.
She backed up beyond the next turn, then stopped to head forward. Delmeine put up a hand. “Let me go first.” He moved forward into the next tube heading toward their neighbor Leif’s quarters. His feet slipped as he tried to avoid kicking his sister, as she would, no doubt, be following too close. His hands gripped properly and after a few moments he was back into the rhythm of air vent movement.
“Where we going?” Vena whispered.
“Escape pod. Don’t talk unless you need to.”
She paused. “What about Mom and Dad? Are you sure they’re dead?”
Delmeine paused. No, he wasn’t sure.
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