After a hectic night and day, Aster has finally been rested a bit in her new home in the underwater fortress and is about to meet some of her new companions.
My eyelids flutter open to meet the grey light pouring into my room. Even here, in the depths of the ocean, The Council have provided us with a synthesised dawn. After the torrent of tears they released the night before, my eyes feel thick and swollen. I lift my head to find that I have slept in a heap on the floor before my door which has made my light pullover and uniform trousers feel cumbersome and creased. Pulling myself stiffly to my feet I stretch and, refusing to let my mind dwell on why I’m here, stride over to the closet. I need to lift my mood before the others awaken and set my mind on what lies ahead. I need to relax myself and air my thoughts.
For a moment, I study the contents of my closet. Every article is emblazoned with a silver star. Sighing, I push aside my revulsion of the symbol and accept my new life.
The fragrance of grass, earth, and growing life greeted her as she stepped uncertainly into the main chamber of the Maris and breathed in the cool morning air swirling through the tall auditorium-like room. A digital clock on the wall clicked to ’06:13.’ Aster stretched and started around the track at a slow jog. She breathed deep, the cool air burning her lungs, and shook her wild hair back. As her muscles, stiff from a night on the floor, loosened, she gradually picked up speed, her spirits lifting with the yellow light slowly creeping up around her.
A rustling in the bushes startled her and she jerked to a stop.
“Hello?” She called uncertainly, her breath coming fast and the blood pounding in her ears.
The rustling stopped and Aster tried to quell her loud breathing and rapidly thumping heart. Suddenly, a face appeared in the bushes followed by a neck and the full body of a boy.
“Hi,” he said amiably, reaching a hand up to straighten his glasses.
They stared at each other for a moment in silence, each unsure.
“I couldn’t find my room so I just slept here last night,” explained the boy, the state of his chaotic brown hair and rumpled uniform providing all the evidence necessary to prove his statement. “I’m Micah. Mind if I run with you?”
“Not at all,” responded Aster.
They started around the track at a respectable pace.
“Mmmm! Nothing like a good run in the morning to get your lungs working,” stated Micah, his breath coming hard and fast as if eager to prove the statement. “Mind if we slow down a bit?” He gasped after a couple seconds.
Aster slowed to a gentle jog at which Micah promptly dropped to a walk. With a sigh, Aster gave up her morning run and joined him.
For a few minutes, Micah heaved and puffed then wheezed brusquely, “Now I remember why I never run! It doesn’t make sense, forcing yourself to pound along at various speeds for no purpose.” He took a few more deep breathes, then continued, “Yep, I prefer other sports with purpose.”
Aster could not help but smile. His untamed hair, glasses, and all-round oblivious, amiable air pleased her.
“What did you say your name was?” He asked abruptly.
“Hello, Aster. I’m Micah Benjamin Sanjana,” he smiled agreeably and rambled on. “I’m a middle child. I have two brothers named Nick and Phil. Or, rather, I had two brothers. Are you hungry? I sure am.” He resettled his glasses. “When do you suppose breakfast is? I sure hope it’s soon. If it isn’t I might pass out from hunger or something.” He paused in contemplation, his eyebrows moving up and down in a series of thoughtful expressions. “No, I don’t think I’ll do that. I might fall and hit my head on something and that would hurt.” His face went white suddenly and his eyes shot wide open. “What if we can’t find the dining hall? This place is so big and I was so tired last night I didn’t bother exploring so now I don’t know where anything is.”
Aster just cleared her throat in an effort to maintain a straight countenance and pointed toward the north wing over which hung a large sign burdened with the words ‘Dining Hall.’
Micah peered at the plaque through his glasses and exhaled a sigh of relief, his expression clearing and his eyebrows shooting up. “I’m just so hungry right now,” he explained. “I hope you don’t mind me interrupting your run.”
“It’s fine,” assured Aster. “In fact,” she paused, searching for what she wanted to say, “Thank you for interrupting it. I mean, I think what I needed most just now was some companionship.”
Micah nodded energetically, eyes wide in understanding. “You mean, after what…uh…what just,” his sudden lack of words touched Aster. Beneath his affable façade, she glimpsed a boy scared to death who had lost his family as she had her’s, “After the, the thing that just happened…to all of us?” He finished, his eyes on the ground. They had ceased walking now and stood in the center of the track before the dining hall.
“Yes,” Aster whispered, her voice annoyingly weak. They stood in silence for a moment. “Do you miss your brothers, Nick and Phil?” She asked cautiously.
Micah only nodded, head down. Jerking upright abruptly, he whisked off his foggy glasses and rubbed them on his shirt. “Thanks, Aster.” He smiled, his eyes bright. “I guess it’s good to just stop and acknowledge things sometimes,” He glanced at the few other youths trickling into the auditorium, “But not to dwell on them.”
“Acknowledge and move on?” Clarified Aster.
“Yeah,” he agreed and sniffed. “Eyes ahead.”
Aster stood on the threshold of the dining hall feeling fresh and ready for the day ahead after her stunted run and conversation with Micah. A dozen faces turned to her as she entered and mixed fruit into a bowl of yoghurt at the buffet table. Eyes ahead, she reminded herself. We’re all just as nervous and confused as the next. Bryce caught her eye, and flashing a welcoming smiled, motioned her to his table. Well, she reconsidered, all of us except Mr. Take-it-as-it-comes. Pretending not to see him, Aster instead set her tray at the table of a young guy sitting alone.
“Hi, I’m Aster,” she introduced herself cheerfully in spite of her insecurity amid so many strangers.
With haunted eyes, he stared her uncertainly from under his black-rimmed glasses.
“Do you have a name?” She tried again, this time less sure. His whole demeanor spoke of intelligence riddled with despair.
“Seth,” he finally responded after an awkward silence. His eyes were on his food now which he barely seemed to notice.
“Are you okay, Seth?” Asked Aster in low tone so none of the other tables could hear.
“Of course I’m not okay,” he retorted, the sudden fire and passion in his words catching Aster off-guard. “My family is dead. Everyone is dead. There’s no point in this life,” his words, though low like Aster’s, burned with feeling. “I wish to God I had no more talent than a newborn so I could have died with them.” His watch suddenly let forth a high pitched warning sound and a red light shone on its surface.
“Those are dangerous words, Seth,” warned Aster warily. In her mind, the Red-lipped Woman’s warning to stifle rebellion or face termination echoed ominously.
“But it’s true,” he countered. “There is no meaning—no purpose—in anything.”
“What about the future? Certainly you can find some good to live for,” charged Aster in an effort to help him see through the cloud of hopelessness he had enveloped himself in.
“What purpose is there in living to see the future? Even the past—what purpose is there in remembering, or existence, or anything? We have no meaning. We never did, even before all this happened.” His watch beeped warningly again. “I realise that now, and it doesn’t really matter because nothing does.”
His words scared Aster. She wanted to break through to him somehow but how could you reach someone who saw everything as meaningless?
“Why believe like that though, Seth? Even if there is no meaning in life or anything, certainly you can create something to live for?”
He appeared to mull over this thought for a moment and Aster allowed herself a small light of hope. Any prospective answer from him was interrupted though, as a girl sat down beside Seth.
“I saw you guys chatting and thought I might join,” she explained for her intrusion, her large dark eyes wide and innocent, too innocent.
Mumbling an excuse, Seth left the table and strode away, head down, eyes on the ground. Aster watched him warily.
Catching Aster’s eye, the girl addressed her in a smooth tone, “I hope I didn’t interrupt. Bryce told me you’re his neighbor which means we’re neighbors too. I’m Ella. I’m one room down from you.”
Every aspect of Ella—her smooth voice, dark eyes, half smile lingering uncertainly as if timid—cried insincerity to Aster. Whatever Ella was after, Aster determined not to play her game. “Actually, we’re all neighbors here. That has a way of happening when you all live in the same building.” Aster piled the sarcasm on thick. “And you did sort of interrupt, but it’s too late now to stop that now.”
Ella smiled coyly. “Tut, tut, Aster. Lift up the community,” she reprimanded.
Aster narrows her eyes and studies me uncertainly. She’s sharp, sharper than most. None of the others saw through my mask so easily. She can’t know I’m only after her friendship as a safeguard for myself or that Bryce didn’t tell me of her but that I saw them in the hall together. She suspects me though, and that is dangerous for me.
My whole life, I needed only widen my eyes or twirl my dark hair around one finger to win their trust and friendship. They never knew that behind my soft voice and unaffected demeanor I am a thinker. I have learned the twists of human nature and used them for my own purposes.
Here it is different though. Here I am with people who think like I do. I must work harder to gain their trust. Why do I need people’s goodwill so much? To protect myself? To feel secure? I hardly know. I long for it though. Occasionally, the essence of something that happened in my past brushes at the edges of my memory and I think maybe I’m beginning to understand, but it never lasts. I asked Nan once about it. She laughed and told me I was making things up.