Theo hovered for another minute waiting for his son to appear but it seemed Malachi had been delayed longer than Ellie expected. Perhaps he should return to the town square? It would be a shame to miss out on his own birthday party, even despite the food.
He loved Ellie like a daughter. Everyone did. But the comparisons with Tila were inevitable considering how much time they spent together.
The girls had become close friends the day Tila saved Ellie’s life. Ellie was just eleven when the raiders attacked New Haven. Tila was only fourteen. Theo remembered that day almost too well. He and Ellie both lost something precious.
Perhaps Tila had too. No one should have to fight for their life at fourteen, and no fourteen-year-old girl should have to take one.
Ellie had followed Tila around like a puppy for weeks after that. Who could blame her? Tila made her feel safe.
Tila had shown her mettle that day. Theo could respect her courage and admire her strength but it was a pity she saw him as an enemy too.
But Theo also knew that Tila was too independent, too wilful. To put it plainly, she was too selfish. Theo worried about the influence she had on other members of the community, not least his own son.
Theo respected Tila’s ideals of independence and freedom but had tried explaining to her that the price of living in a community was that sometimes individual rights had to suffer for the rights of the group.
A community, by definition, was a gathering of interdependent people. They relied upon each other. Tila had learned to rely only on herself.
If he was in a gracious mood Theo could admit there was a certain kind of nobility to her selfishness, and in another time and place he would support her completely, but they lived here and now and stability and structure and rules were what New Haven needed if it was to continue to grow in safety. Tila didn’t seem to believe in rules. At least, not his rules.
By contrast Ellie was little more than inoffensive charm with golden hair. She was a good influence on Malachi. Tila was not. Ellie was sweetness and laughter. Tila brooded. Ellie welcomed people and was eager to make friends. Tila glowered and kept to herself. Ellie would tightly weave each person she met into the tapestry of her life. Tila built walls to keep them out.
In many ways, Ellie was still the puppy. Tila was the wolf.
Perhaps it would always be that way.
Malachi still hadn’t appeared and Theo was getting hungry. He sighed and decided he had waited long enough. He turned on his heel, marched back into his party and tried to cast aside, for a few hours at least, the loss of the past, the fears of the present and the burden of authority and fatherhood.
And besides, maybe there would be a cake.
The crowds had grown noticeably larger in the few minutes since Theo had left and returned. A small part of him was pleased. It was edifying to think that everyone had turned out especially for him even though the dearth of celebrations meant that any communal event was well-attended.
Theo pushed through the thickening crowds and exchanged pleasantries and handshakes.
Elsewhere, Ellie was still hunting for her friend, certain this task, like everything else in her life, would be easier if she were only a little taller.
A hand suddenly grabbed her around the arm and pulled her to the side of the thoroughfare. Ellie shrieked in surprise.
“Hey,” said Tila.
“You made me jump!”
Tila dismissed Ellie’s complaint with a wave of her hand. “Oh, you jump at everything. I’ve never known anyone so fragile. So?”
“Did you win?”
“Always! What about you? Did you find it?”
Tila nodded and opened her bag just enough for Ellie alone to see inside. “Do you think he will like it?”
“Tila, he will love it!” she squealed. “It was very sweet of you to think of looking for that. Did you have any trouble?”
“Some. But they won’t be bothering me again anytime soon.”
Ellie gasped. “You didn’t!”
“Of course not!” Tila snapped too quickly. “I’ll never do that again. They’ll be okay, just uncomfortable for a while. I don’t go looking for trouble, you know.”
Ellie raised a dubious eyebrow at this statement.
“I don’t!” Tila protested again. “It just finds me.”
“What finds you, Tila?” boomed Theo from behind them.
Tila, guilt etched on her face, quickly spun around slapping the bag shut so Theo couldn’t see what was inside. Ellie, like always, looked innocent of everything.
“Nothing,” they chorused. Ellie grinned.
“There’s no need to look so guilty,” said Theo, as he searched their faces and wondered what Tila was hiding this time. “Where have you been? You know more hands around here would have made the work easier.”
The unnecessary criticism riled Tila.
Theo said, “Ellie has been racing again, despite my concerns. And what about you, Tila, have you been staying out of trouble?”
He was trying to sound jovial, Tila knew, but she heard the edge in his voice even if he didn’t mean to put it there. She heard his criticism about work and trouble and it sparked rebellion within her. His light words sounded forced, as if he knew what her answer would be. As if he was being gracious enough to allow her the opportunity to not disappoint him this time. And Tila so often disappointed him.
But she worked hard and willingly when there was a real need. She just didn’t consider party planning suited to her skills and she resented the way Theo seemed to give Ellie a free pass for racing. Everyone knew how dangerous that was. So why did it seem like Theo, along with everyone else in New Haven, always questioned or challenged her actions just because she valued her independence.
So she told him the truth.
“I went to the Eclipse.”
Theo’s face fell. “You went where? Tila! The pressure seals to that ship are well past their rated lifetime and I haven’t authorised any checks on their integrity yet. You could have caused an explosive decompression and…” His expression hardened. “How could you be so… so stupid?”
“Stupid?” said Tila, her voice rising.
“Yes! Stupid! And thoughtless, and—”
“I’ve been down there a hundred times and I…” She stopped, suddenly aware of the hole she was digging. She could almost feel the temperature drop as she looked at Theo.
“You have been there more than once?” Theo said quietly.
“It was safe. I—”
“Tila, you have never committed fully to this community so what you choose to do is your own business, but you know that going to these areas risks exposing us to all manner of dangers, like pressure loss, or contaminated air, and I cannot allow that!”
“I—” Tila tried to say.
“And what of the boundary defences we have in place? What if a raiding party found you, or followed you back?”
“Oh come on, Theo! This isn’t about your defences. The air down there is fine. You did the work yourself and Malachi checked it for me.” Tila was too caught up in her speech now to notice Theo bristled at the suggestion that Malachi had been with her. “You just don’t want me making you look bad now you are on the council. You don’t want anyone, least of all me, defying your rules. You don’t want anyone to know more about this place than you do!”
Ellie touched Tila’s arm softly.
“Tila…” she began but Tila angrily brushed Ellie’s arm away and continued her tirade.
“You’ve done good things here, I’m not denying that, but you can’t tell people what to do all the time. You can’t just lock the doors, tell everyone they are safe and expect them to sit around and meekly comply with your orders.”
Theo shouted back, “I do not ‘give orders’, Tila. The council does not give orders. We work to protect everyone in here from the dangers out there. Dangers you, of all people, should appreciate. And the rules are not mine. They exist to protect everyone here, yes, even you! We face daily threats from raiders and pirates and gangs from all over the Juggernaut, all over this system, and the more New Haven becomes known as a place of safety and God willing, prosperity, these dangers will continue to grow. So I will not allow your recklessness to endanger everyone else in this community! There are too many lives at stake here for your selfish whims to risk compromising.”
“We haven’t faced raiders in months!”
“And why do you think that is, Tila? Is it because of you? Is it because you are out there, thinking only of yourself, fighting to save us all? Or is it because the council works so hard to make allies of the other communities and free ports? A lone wolf cannot protect a pack, Tila. By acting as you do you are a liability to New Haven, and your selfishness…”
“Selfishness?! I’m the one who found the breach in the perimeter two months ago. I’m the one who told you someone was selling our perimeter ID codes!”
“Codes they would not have access to if they were not being so frequently used without authorisation!”
Tila yelled, “I don’t need your authorisation! You are not my leader. You are not in charge of me. You’re not my father!”
By now their raised voices had carried their fight to half the people in the town square, and Tila’s final words rang throughout the high-ceilinged chamber. For one interminably long moment Tila and Theo glared at each other in a noiseless bubble, until somewhere a foot scraped on the floor, someone coughed, and the background noise of a dozen conversations began to wash over the sudden and uncomfortable silence.
Theo composed himself while Tila stood defiant before him, her fists clenched and muscles tense. He spoke again, calmly now, and more gentle. “Tila, believe me, I understand how you feel about this. Nobody is trying to impose limits on your freedom, but you must understand that these selfish actions put us all in danger, and no good can come of them.”
Tila replied also in a lowered voice, but where Theo sounded gentle, Tila sounded bitter and betrayed. “I wasn’t thinking of me,” she said. Then she shoved her bag into Ellie’s hands and marched away.
Ellie looked down at the bag with sadness. It had fallen open again under Tila’s rough handling. Ellie closed it and offered it to Theo, who was looking at the floor and sighing angrily.
“This is for you, Theo,” she said.
“What is this? A birthday present, from you?” His face softened a little.
“From Tila,” said Ellie. “She hoped you would like it.”
Intrigued by the gift and yet half-reluctant to discover what Tila might have gotten him, Theo opened the package and pulled out the brass nameplate of the ship which had delivered him, his wife and his son to the Juggernaut.
“What is it?” Theo asked.
“Gratitude,” said Ellie, sadly. “And selflessness.”