In the captain’s quarters, three passengers sat quietly; two on the floor, one on a stool in front of a long steel table with a glowing top.
Emma LaFarge busied herself with an old rag doll, whispering secrets only the two of them would share. Adam—older than Emma by one year—sulked under the table, bored.
He moved between his nanny’s legs, pulling at her pants. She shooed the boy away without taking her eyes off her monitor and he crossed his arms in churlish protest.
The door to the cabin slid open suddenly to reveal Captain LaFarge, face stern as always. He was a sturdy man, severe in demeanor, with broad shoulders and muscular arms. His starched uniform gave him a rigid posture that made him look almost statuesque.
Emma rose to her feet and smiled at him widely. When Emma smiled her eyes shone like paradise, and most who looked upon her were struck by how her face became the absolute purest form of childish beauty. But tonight her iridescence was wasted on a father too preoccupied with adult concerns.
“I think it’s bedtime, Nanny,” the captain said, barely glancing towards the children.
The nanny’s monitor dimmed and she clapped twice to get the kids moving.
“Oh, not yet! Please, we want a story,” moaned Adam.
Emma generally thought Adam whined too much, but right now she was in agreement and looked up expectantly as well.
“Not tonight,” said the nanny, ushering the children out of the common room and into their bedchambers. “Captain’s orders.”
As she passed him in the doorway, Captain LaFarge touched her shoulder and asked her to stay behind. She nodded and patted Adam’s behind lightly saying, “Hop to it, sailors! I’ll be in to tuck you in, and I expect you in your beds when I do.”
Both children giggled and broke into a run down the hallway towards their quarters. The nanny turned back and the captain shut the door.
“So, you’ve decided,” she said, not asking, the resolve clear in his eyes.
“I have,” he said stoically. “We will not tell Emma about her mother. The girl is too young. She knows so little of life, and nothing at all of death. It would only confuse her, and bring her undue pain in an already complicated situation.”
“I see,” said the nanny.
“She’ll learn the truth in time,” the captain said, sensing her disapproval.
“With all due respect, Captain, time only makes pain sting all the harsher, and a lie seem twice as large.”
LaFarge ignored this. It irritated him how domestic help presumed to be in a place to question his decisions, as though they were part of his family.
“I’ll tell Emma her mother was called away to Earth,” LaFarge said and waved his hand dismissively. “Charity work. Children and so forth. We weren’t fond of each other in the end, but I’d like Emma to think highly of her nonetheless.”
The nanny hesitated and then pressed the control panel to open the door. It slid up to reveal two small children in ship’s nightdress.
“Emma and Adam, you get back to your beds this instant!” she said severely.
Adam sighed and crossed his arms. “It’s not my fault, Nanny, she made me walk her back!”
Emma slid past the nanny and moved to where her rag doll was still lying on the floor. She pushed it aside and then tapped a spot along the bottom of the wall. A panel popped from its rivets and fell to the floor.
Emma reached her arm inside the opening and felt around until she found what she was looking for. Removing her arm, she revealed her little wooden box with the bronze clasp. She tucked it under the sleeve of her nightgown then scooted past Nanny and back towards the door.
The nanny brought her hands to her hips and wagged her finger at the girl. “Oh, that box will send me to the crazy bay. Emma LaFarge, you are too wrapped up in your secrets. What’s in that cursed box of yours anyway?”
Emma merely laughed and disappeared down the hallway again, Adam—as always—following loyally behind.
For the first time in a long while, Captain LaFarge smiled. He was glad Emma had a companion. Like a brother and sister, Emma and Adam shared a life on board the Tian. They fought fiercely at times, but also stuck-up for each other when one was unfairly wronged.
They seemed like twins to the crew, their curly blond hair and big blue eyes fooling most everyone into thinking they were siblings. But they were not related.
Adam was a ward of the ship. His parents had joined the Tian to work, but both had succumbed to transition sickness within the first six months of their employment. Only eight percent of humans got sick when they transitioned to a life in the black, but those that did rarely survived beyond the early stages of the illness.
Many attributed the phenomenon to space’s general inhospitality. LaFarge, on the other hand, believed a person’s fate was tied to their general constitution. It was a belief he kept to himself out of a sense of propriety, of course, but he felt he’d never seen evolution work itself upon a species so transparently (or as rapidly). Not all humans were destined to inhabit space. It was a hard and empty sort of life, so it seemed sensible that nature would find a way to weed out the feeble.
The captain remembered how happy Adam had been when he’d told him he’d sent his parents back to Earth on a mission of great importance. It seemed a better idea than telling the boy the truth— that he’d bound them in tarp and blown them out the airlock.
There was so little innocence anymore that LaFarge felt duty-bound to keep his children from the harsh realities of life. At least until the Tian made it to its next destination, Port Miriam, where Emma and Adam would be boarded and properly schooled. At eight and almost nine years-old they were already starting later than other children.
He watched the nanny sigh and pick her way down the hallway after the children. Then he closed the door and unbuttoned the starchy white shirt of his uniform.
“We’ll let the teachers teach,” he said to himself as he folded the shirt over the chair. Then he sat down and touched his table monitor.
It flickered on to reveal the day’s Port news. He liked to keep up with Port politics. When you spent a year sailing between them you could miss the election of a new governor, or the introduction of a new tax that could harm your bottom line. It was wise to be prepared for whatever surprise awaited you at the next dock.
It was also reassuring to know that, while Earth was about to die, civilization had persevered and humanity continued to flourish.
The ports were growing every day. Jobs were being created at an alarming rate. LaFarge had even made himself a small fortune since the exodus of Earth began and, for once, the Tian had a full complement of workers. It was a wonderful time to be in the space faring business.
LaFarge had just begun reading an article about a machinist’s strike that had turned violent on Port Valhalla when the lights went out. He heard a buzzing overhead and then sharp pop as florescent bulbs cracked somewhere in the ceiling and the room went black.
He cursed and got up, leaving the table monitor on to keep the room lit. Then he smelled a rank odor and decided he’d better call Mr. Pin to bring up his tools and take a look. The last thing they needed was a fire smoldering somewhere between the decks.
LaFarge walked to the communicator and started to thumb Pin’s number when his quarters filled with red light and a siren wailed throughout the ship.
“Oh no,” is all LaFarge could whisper before his communicator buzzed and the panicked voice of his executive office crackled over the intercom.
“Sir, the ship’s reactor—” the XO started.
“What’s happened?” Lafarge yelled into the speaker.
“Sir, the ship’s on fire!”