Here, we find Aster after the disappearance of Seth. She has just dangerously offended the standards of The Council and violated her promises to herself to never give into The Council’s ideals or dangerously cross them.
I accidentally outlined two chapter 3s. To compensate for the excess information, chapter five is twice as long and I’m posting it in two excerpts as part A and B (B comes later this week. It needs a tad more proofreading).
I sit curled in a corner of my room, my knees drawn up to my chest. The night has been long. I have not slept. Too many thoughts whirl through my mind for sleep to carry rest. I have lied to myself and acted out of fear—fear prompted by fear; fear of my own actions.
I have prejudiced myself against people and treated them based on my first impression.
Bryce may act big-headed and tough like he can handle anything, but he has still treated me kindly. Behind his casual front and easy going swagger, perhaps he does hurt and miss his old life. Perhaps not. If so though, I have judged him because he chooses to hide his weakness, and that is wrong of me.
Ella may manipulate and sway others for her own protection but she is still a girl coping with insecurity and a new life without promise of stability. She is clever to protect herself with other’s trust. I have judged her for exercising cleverness.
The light has risen now. My watch clicks to 08:12, but still I sit, waiting; waiting for the dining hall to clear, for the others to go about their day and forget me. Then I will slip to the kitchen for a cup of tea and find a corner in this underwater world where I needn’t turn others against me, where I needn’t put on false fronts or lie to myself, where I needn’t hurt others for protecting themselves.
I cannot bring the community down if I disengage myself from it.
I can’t improve it either.
Aster jumped as a knock at her door shattered the thin blanket of silence she had enveloped herself in. For a week, she had lived in self-imposed solitary confinement, slipping out of her room only for food and water or a visit to the library or gym during meal times when she knew the rest would be eating.
Cautiously, she rested a hand on her door knob and squinted through the peephole, wary of a surprise meeting from Bryce. She saw only Micah, his face deformed by the peephole lens so that his nose stood out while his forehead and chin sloped narrowly above and beneath it.
Taking a deep breath and donning a cheerful mask for which she hated herself, she cracked the door open. Micah greeted her with his usual wide smile while Avery, who stood just behind him, searched Aster’s face skeptically with her large green eyes as if reading all Aster’s thoughts.
“Hey Aster,” Micah hailed her, his voice a loud tone of forced optimism though her recent lack of presence obviously concerned him, “We were just wondering how you’ve been. Haven’t really seen you lately.”
Aster relaxed. She was not the only one putting a mask on. At least she could wear her own decently while Micah’s whole demeanor screamed ‘Uncomfortable façade of cheeriness’ at every gesture.
“I’ve just been getting some good rest and work is all. I think better alone,” she explained, assuming an air of quiet content that clashed immediately with her true feelings. She stifled the scuffle speedily, promising it could fight itself out later.
“You’ve been avoiding people because you’re scared,” stated Avery. Her face an honest display of all she thought.
Micah coughed distractedly and looked down the hall as if glad to be out of the spotlight. Masks were definitely not his thing.
“We’re all scared, Aster,” Avery continued before Aster could assemble the right response. “You shouldn’t cut yourself off because of fear. Mistakes come with living. You could stay in your room the rest of your life and never make another mistake, never have your watch go off on you again, but you would be dead. You wouldn’t live because of your fear.”
She was not accusing Aster. She was stating the truth, and Aster needed truth just now. No more facades of cheerful contentment. Just reality. The hard cold reality.
“So you’ll come to supper tonight?” Asked Avery. It was not a question though. It was an exhortation, a call to leave her self-inflicted death behind and live again with the community.
Aster thought for a moment, studying Avery’s honest face and Micah’s earnest one. Yes, now was real, no masks, just pure concern and open honesty. Tonight at supper though, the masks would come thick and fast. No one could help that in this environment. What mattered though, was that the masks remain masks and not become them.
She nodded—not a promise to attend supper but an acknowledgment of the truth. Relief flooded Micah’s transparent mask.
“Thank you,” she whispered, a true smile twisting the corners of her mouth as she recognised her true friends.
“Don’t thank us,” responded Avery, as honest as ever. “Thank Bryce. He would have come himself but for some reason he felt that wouldn’t have helped.”
She flashed Aster an inquisitive look, and Aster felt her face grow warm. Before she could respond though, the lights dimmed, flickered, and went dark. For a moment they stood in shocked silence. Quiet prevailed, complete and utter quiet minus the constant steady hum of the Maris.
“Ummm, I can’t see,” Micah said.
Youths gathered in the dark of the auditorium. So far from the sun, the loss of synthetic light left them in dark so thick and heavy they could feel its weight bearing down on them, heavy as the weight of death. A single eerie light shone in the darkness, glowing off Nathan’s face as he tapped on his laptop.
Avery, Micah, and Aster groped their way into the auditorium to join the others. Bryce pulled Micah aside and whispered a question, concern and curiosity edging his low tone. Aster could feel his questioning eyes on her through the darkness.
He doesn’t know that I know he sent Avery and Micah. Feeling awkward, she turned to Avery only to find her gone. Voices rose from the center of the cluster of youths and the wan light from Nathan’s computer glanced off Avery’s defined cheekbones.
“Why should I let you see?” Nathan asked accusingly. “You don’t know the first thing about what’s going on.”
“I know that you have a self-made program installed on your laptop that broke through the fortresses’ security and attached itself to the main computer system so that you can feed off of the information running through there and track the problem,” countered Avery coolly.
“How did you manage that?” Asked a youth named Michael, obviously impressed.
“I told you I was smart,” responded Nathan pompously before returning to Avery. “That still doesn’t give me a reason to let you access what I’ve built. What makes you think you’ll know better than the rest of us when the problem is found?”
Avery did not respond verbally, but instead spun rapidly and caught Nathan squarely in the jaw with a flying roundhouse kick. The laptop flew from his hands, but she twisted around gracefully and caught it gently midair.
Everyone stood in shocked silence, still processing the usually quiet Avery’s sudden display of strength and skill.
Ignoring the stares of surprise, she rifled through a 3D layout of the Maris and addressed Nathan’s prostrate form in a tone of cold benevolence, “I already know the problem. I just need your laptop to find the solution.”
“What’s the problem then?” Asked Michael leaning over her shoulder to analyze the layout and tuck its detailed outline away in his mind palace.
“Life support systems are down,” answered Nathan in a submissive tone from where he lay at Avery’s feet, nursing his jaw. “Something burned out. Nothing complicated but important enough that now that it’s gone we’re all going to die.” He drew in his breath sharply as if in great pain.
“Can we fix it?” Pursued Michael ignoring Nathan and addressing his question to Avery.
“Aren’t you just a steady stream of questions?” Jabbed Nathan Sarcastically. “The Council didn’t want the fortress tampered with at all. They knew they were putting a parcel of geniuses in here so their systems are rigid and out of reach. I only managed to hack into the computer—and that only partially—after a few dozen tries and lots of expended genius.”
“Yes,” said Avery softly.
“Huh?” Dispensed Nathan, casting her a bored condescending look as if to say, ‘What is she babbling about now?
“Yes, we can fix it,” she stated and turned to address a dark-haired girl with wide dark eyes, “Elena, you studied nursing. Tend to Nathan, please.” She laid Nathan’s computer beside him. “Thank you, Nathan. I just needed to see what exactly gave way out. Now,” she turned to the gathered youths, “Who here can climb in the dark?”
The youths parted immediately for Aster, and to Aster’s consternation, Ella as well.
“You’re not the only one who can climb,” Ella responded to Aster’s questioning look.
“At the top of the cliff on the far side of that point jutting out, there is a small panel. It looks like just a part of the cliff so watch for it closely,” explained Avery as they stepped into harnesses.
“Reaching that point would be dangerous and difficult even if we were top-roping,” re-joined Aster, craning her head back to study the craggy point illuminated by a weak beam from Avery’s flashlight.
“Open the panel and pull out the blue taped conjunction clip.” Continued Avery as if Aster had said nothing. “One end of it should be burnt out so be careful of live wires. Plug this in its place and into the blue marked socket across from it.” Avery handed Aster an undamaged plug marked with blue tape that Aster guessed was a conjunction clip.
“Where did you get the extra clip? And how do you know so much about the inner workings of the Maris?” Asked Bryce warily as he joined them with headlamps.
Avery stared at the cliff and answered, her voice suddenly soft and far away, “My father put me here.”