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A starship is struck by an asteroid on its way to colonize a distant planet. Now, hundreds of years later, the inhabitants must learn to survive deep space without technology or perish.
The asteroid was called the Hand of God when it hit.
Not that we know much about God, of course. There are plenty of books that survived the destruction, though the readers far more sparse. And those that could spouted nonsense after a few pages, about things called Suns and moons being created, about talking beings called “animals”, about oceans. About legends of old, myths, wishful thinking. But what I do know about God is, if his hand caused the damage to the ship, I don’t want to know much more.
The stories say that the ship used to be one before it hit. That the asteroid split the ship right down the center, making the way to the other side dangerous, impossible. But we can still see it, entangled in cord and moving alongside us, and we can see in their windows. We can see the faces far more gaunt than our own, the cheeks near bone, the eyes hollow and staring hungrily back at us. And we can see them fighting, using knives stashed from the kitchen along with strange flashing devices, and though we cannot hear we know they scream.
There is a third part of the ship as well, this one with no faces in the windows, all dark and barely held to the main two parts. But no one has ever seen movement there, and it is far smaller than the halves.
There are one thousand of us on our side, a census conducted each year by scratching marks into the cold wall, making sure we have enough to eat. Any number over eleven hundred has led to shortages of food, and more importantly, water. As one of the gardeners, I know this too well, planning out the ship’s rations and crops, utilizing the few rooms remaining with glowing ceilings. Deciding if I plant only those seeds specified for meals, or if we could splurge on space for the herbs demanded by our doctors or the spices requested by our cooks.
We worked together on the ship, each of us with our task for survival, none of us expendable. At ten a child was assigned their task, from chief to scourer, based upon the skills they possessed. Every year they were reevaluated, deciding if a change was necessary, and for the past three I had been applying for the coveted historian. For keeping the tales and the knowledge from long before, from where the recovered books on ship census marked twenty five thousand.
In the stories of old, it is said that God could speak even if he couldn’t be seen. That he could be heard as a voice alone, sending commandments down to his people.
And today, of the year 984, I, Horatius, heard him.
“Systems rebooting,” said the voice, jolting me out of my duties watering the plants, “Ship damage assessed. Reuniting the two halves of the ship and restoring airlock, approximately twenty four hours until complete.”
Staring out the window, I saw the cables holding the halves of the ships tighten. I saw the eyes of the hungry faces widen as they were dragged closer.
And I wondered if the hand of God was striking again.
At age four, I started schooling.
Out of the thousand inhabitants of the ship, one hundred and fifty attended schooling, going to one of the three locations near the center of the ship. There was Hippoc, the school for doctors and chefs due to the similarities in their trades, the mixing and application of plant herbs, of which approximately twenty students attended, their parents typically from those positions. Next was Empri, where students were taught to read, their futures as the historians, leaders, and judges of the ship and admissions set for ten total seats. And for the rest of us, a hundred and thirty in all, there was Vertae, the school for gardeners, porters, and the occasional guard.
I still remember the year before my first day, when my father held my hand, and whispered bedtime stories to me.
“Once,” He would say, as I resisted sleep with wide open eyes, “Once, it is said that the ship was so large that you could walk for days without touching a wall. That the potatoes you see me farming used to grow as tall as me, perhaps even taller, and had stems as thick as my arm. Instead of the glow lights above, there was only one glow light, and somehow it split into the many that we have today. And in the floor of the ship, there were rushes of water, hallways so to speak, that entire men could float down.”
“Float down water?” I asked, at three, even back then my brows crossed in confusion, “They must have been very rich, to have that much water.”
“Indeed, they must have been. But these are only stories, Horatius, stories that my father told me, and his father told him.”
“‘But where from?” I asked, “Where did the stories come from?”
“The historians, of course,” My father answered, “They have all sorts of stories, some so ridiculous it makes me think that they are crazy, not full of common sense like ourselves.”
“The historians,” I had repeated, the cogs in my young mind spinning, “I want more stories, papa. I want to be a historian.”
A frown creased my father’s face, and he sighed, “Well, Horatius, I don’t know-”
“But I do!” I protested, and regret crossed his face.
“Look, Horatius,” he said, “We gardeners, we keep the ship alive. Without us, there would be no food. There would be no one to carry water. Everyone would starve and thirst. But without the historians, well, we would lose stories. And we could do without that, Horatius. Food provides, stories do not.”
Then he tucked me into bed, using the patched blanket he had mended from his own youth and still bore his scent, and departed.
“A historian,” I had whispered before falling asleep, disregarding his last words, “A historian.”
One year later, my father dropped me off at general assembly, where the twenty five children of my year awaited their school assignments, each with a pack of vegetables for lunch and shy expressions. We had seen each other throughout the ship before, and Mitch, my best friend, was there next to me, but today was different. Never before had I been with that many people my age at the same time.
“Welcome,” Said an adult at the center of the auditorium. High above him was a single large glow light, surrounded by eight other lights that had appeared to have gone out, or perhaps were never installed, but were rather painted over with various colors. I remember being impressed with one that was swirls of green, white, and blue, and had situated myself underneath it.
“Today, you will receive assignments to your schools,” Continued the adult, “One of you to go to Empri, two of you to Hippoc, and twenty two to Vertae. While these placements are permanent, I encourage you to work hard, as your final assignments will be conducted at the end of your schooling. It is not unheard of for a farmer to seek to become a chef, or a doctor a chief, but it comes only with hard work.”
I remember nodding, and waiting, my arms crossed over my chest. I was ready to learn stories, and I was ready to learn letters. I knew I could do both.
“Elliott and Hanna,” Said the adult, “both of you will be attending Hippoc, so please exit through the door on your left, where you will be escorted to the school’s chambers. As for Empri,” He said, scanning the crowd, his eyes landing on me as I burst into a smile, “Ah, yes, for Empri, Segni, if you’ll come with me.”
I froze as another boy pushed past me, heading to the front of the crowd, his hair recently cut and his white smile reflecting the glow of the light above. I knew him from passing in the hall, when my father had pulled me to the side to allow the chief to pass with Segni following.
“But-” I said, though the adult cut me off.
“But the rest of you will be attending Vertae,” He finished, “Remember, Vertae is strength of the ship. Without Vertae, none of us could survive.”
My father repeated those words when I came home with tears on my cheeks. And he repeated the same thing he had for the past year, assuring me of its truth.
“Without food, we starve.” He said, “But stories, stories are not sustenance. We can manage without them.”
And for two years, I nearly believed him. Until age six, when Vertae started training us in gardening the fields, and two stories of my own began.
“What are you doing Horatius, trying to read again?” Said Nean, shoving me into the wall as he walked past and sneering, “Go on, pick up your shovel, before I pick it up with your head.”
I regained my balance, staring upwards at the squiggles that had held my attention, focusing on what I knew to be letters. On what those at Empri would be learning, and I, as a six year old in Vertae, would not.
It was the second year of schooling, our first year spent learning about subjects such as roots, stems, leaves, and the other components of plants. We learned of the water reservoirs and how to use just the minimum amount of liquid in growth. And we learned of the sewer and compost troughs, which had to be included every few months or else the plants would not grow as well.
“Why do we have to switch out the dirt?” I remember asking after following Nean into class, as Skip, our adolescent instructor, showed us how to spread the compost, “Why don’t we just use the old dirt?”
“What do you mean why?” Skip had retorted, his expression accusing me of stupidity while Nean snorted behind him, “You just do.”
“I get that, but why?”
“It’s just what you do. You take the dirt, and you spread it. Plants grow, you pick them, you repeat. Why doesn’t matter. Stop wasting our time with these questions, there is food to grow, and work to do.”
And by the end of six years of age, Skip trusted us enough to start preparing our own patches of garden, practicing with the easiest of seeds, the ones that could suffer the most abuse yet still have some yield. By now he had grown accustomed to my questions, positioning me at the far end of the practice field near the wall, far away from the rest of the class where I could not interrupt him as he inspected their gardens.
“No, no, no, you’re doing it wrong again, Heratius,” Skip had said, watching me as I planted seeds in a neat line, “Use the blade of your shovel to open up the dirt, not the handle.”
“Seems faster to use the handle to poke a hole, see?” I said, showing him how I could indent the earth and place a seed inside, without actually scooping earth out.
“It’s wrong, just do things the right way. If you don’t improve soon, I’m going to have to reduce your marks. Just do it right.”
“But it’s faster!” I complained, trying to show him again, though he had already moved on to the next student.
With time, I discovered that so long as Skip’s back was turned, it didn’t matter how I planted the seeds. Mine grew just as well as anyone else’s, and I could plant that at about twice the pace, especially without him distracting me at the edge of the field. And more importantly, as my practice field moved farther away from the others, I discovered something that never would have occurred had I remained with the rest of the class.
That if I gardened quietly, and stuck towards the edge of my field, I could hear voices. Voices that carried over to me from the other side of the wall, and though muffled, were intelligible.
“Now Segni,” Said the voice, “We’re going to go over this again. In order to become chief one day, you’ll have to read. And to read, you’ll need to know your alphabet. Can you recite it for me?”
“Why do I have to read to be chief? I can just talk.” Replied the young boy’s voice.
“No, you must read. Let’s go over it again. Here, listen, this is how you recite the alphabet. Start with A.”
Each day I listened in, paying close attention to Segni’s lessons, reciting the letters in my head. Learning the difference between vowels and consonants, and how to spell without knowing how the letters actually looked. Even with the wall between, I absorbed the lessons, eagerly accepting what Segni resisted as I planted my seeds.
Within the next month, another instructed called Angie taught us at night when Skip’s morning classes ended, taking us to another learning patch and showing us how to plant slightly more difficult seeds. Skip had already warned her of my slowness to learn, so Angie had followed his example and placed me on the outskirts of the group, this time near the window that peered out into the starry expanse outside the ship.
And as I planted, the rules that Angie reiterated to the rest of the group time and time again had already rooted and improved upon in my brain, and I found myself practicing the lessons from the mornings in my thoughts. Finishing quicker than the others in planting, there were times my gaze flickered out through the window and to the other half of the ship, where figures moved in the distance.
But each time I let my stare wonder, I always came to rest on a window to my left, near the end of the other half. Where a face constantly filled the glass, a face of a girl around my age, with red hair and her palms on the glass.
A face whose eyes met mine, and who stared at me every day that I worked.
“S-H-I-P.” Said the teacher through the wall, as I walked through the potatoes I had planted, administering carefully measured water to each, “What’s that spell?”
“Sheep.” Said Segni, his voice exasperated.
Ship, you little shit. I thought, nearly spilling my watering apparatus in frustration, ship!
It had been two years since I’d discovered my listening spot, and in those two years Segni had slowly and painfully progressed through the alphabet to the separation of vowels and consonants to spelling. I gritted my teeth each time his teacher sighed, each time Segni came into lessons and had not practiced the night before, each time he asked for a break after five minutes.
“Close,” Came the teacher’s voice, “We learned about sheep last week in the readings. Try again.”
“I don’t feel like it,” Said Segni, and I heard a thump as he put his foot on the desk, “Close enough.”
“No, it’s not close enough,” Said the teacher, “I’m going to need you to try again.”
“Look, I don’t have to do anything that I don’t want to. I’m the chief’s son, and he’s the one that gives you your rations. He’s not even sure why you’re making me learn reading, said he thinks it’s a waste. So I’d be careful or maybe I’ll tell him you’re not doing your job, and you’ll go to the fields.”
There was silence inside the classroom for a moment, then the instructor spoke, his voice bitter.
“As you wish,” He said, “If you shall refuse to read, I shall read to you. Today, we study the history of the ship prior to the Hand of God. Prior to when the ship was split, and our brothers and sisters were separated from us, perhaps forever. Segni, are you listening? Quit drawing.”
“Go on, I’m listening,” Said Segni with a yawn, as the teacher continued. I suppose I should be thankful for Segni’s general attitude, for without it I never would have heard the stories. Instead, Segni would have read them to himself, and I would be no better off.
“As I was saying,” Continued his teacher, “The ship was once one, one people. From their census, we know that food and water used to be in higher abundance, that they used to be able to sustain a population far greater than our own. Listen to this Segni, this is the reason why our numbers cannot exceed one thousand now, because we do not have the resources. When the asteroid hit, it took with it much of our capabilities, much of our ways to provide.”
“Yeah, the asteroid hit, and killed a ton of people. That happened forever ago.”
“It wasn’t the asteroid that killed those people, Segni. From records, we can see that only two hundred people died in the actual collision. The rest died after. From starvation, from famine, from thirst. Segni, as chief one day you will have to understand this, that we must be prepared for famine again.”
“If the asteroid hits again, we’ll probably all die, so it doesn’t even matter.”
“There’s plenty more that just an asteroid that can go wrong, Segni.”
“Whatever,” he said, “We’ll make it through. We always do.”
“Because we are prepared. Three hundred years ago, our ship panicked the water stopped flowing. Our numbers were at three thousand then, and when the flow stopped, they plummeted. It is said that a great historian, Archim, was able to discover how to start the flow again. But even he could not bring it up to normal levels, and so we persist today weaker than ever. One hundred years ago, the half our corps died, for an explanation that we cannot identify. Half, and we are barely able to sustain as is. Without food stores, we likely would have followed. This will happen again, Segni, and unless you are prepared we will not, as you put it, make it through.”
Segni huffed, and I continued gardening, heart pumping as I listened. I had heard of the Great Thirst, but that was supposed to be false, something my father said to me when I felt like complaining.
“Segni, you must listen to me,” Said the teacher, “Our lives will be in your hands. History repeats itself, and there are precious few who we can dedicate to leading the ship, precious few that know the purpose of our existence. You will be one of them and you must use that knowledge wisely, in the case of another disaster. In case the Hand of God strikes again.”
At age ten, we gathered in the general assembly, the rest of the ship together for the announcement of our positions. Extra rations were available to all that attended, so not a single person was missing from the crowd.
“Welcome,” Boomed the chief from the podium at the front, his eyes bright, “Welcome, to the selection ceremony. We are proud to receive the next wave of students into our cittezenship, into our community. Only through work do we persist, and together we survive.” He gestured at us, wearing the blue graduation robes that spent most of their lives locked in a closet, and as such had far brighter colors than any other garment. Then he continued his gesture to a table, where the were twenty five items resting on the surface. One pen, two mounds of dried herbs, and twenty three cherry tomatoes.
“Today, we accept our graduates with open arms. We have full faith in them, and bestow upon them the responsibility of future generations to come. But first,” He said, and held up a waiting finger, “They must pass their tests.”
Three people stepped forward from behind the chief, each in different colored robes. One I recognized as Skip, his hair plastered down for the occasion. The other was Sage, the lead cook of the kitchens, who sometimes gave me an extra portion when I gave her my best smile. And the third was a man that I did not recognize, with a beard that spilled over his chin, and a volume under one arm.
“I shall administer the first test,” Claimed Sage, “Will the interested individuals please step forward?”
Elliott and Hanna moved as one from our crowd, their chins high, their parents in the crowd with beaming smiles.
“For the past six years, you have studied, and you have persevered,” Said Sage, “And now, we must know if that has succeeded. Three questions I have for you, three questions that either a doctor or chef can answer. First, what is the proper herb to administer to those complaining of aches and sores?”
“Ginseng!” They said together, and Sage nodded as the crowd applauded.
“Next, demonstrate the correct way to prepare the following herbs for cooking,” Said Sage, as two people rushed forward from the crowd with trays, knives, and several green leafs. Both Eliott and Hanna took the knives and separated the herbs accordingly, dicing or rolling them into the correct shapes as Sage nodded.
“And lastly,” Said Sage, with a smile, “What is the oath of the school of Hippoc?”
“To preserve, to sustain, to nourish, and to aid, for the good of the ship.”
And with a final nod the crowd erupted, Elliot and Hanna returning to their seats with the piles of herbs from the table clutched in their hands.
“As we all know, no test is required for students of Vertae, so the next test shall be administered to the sole student of Empri, my very son, whose progress had made me most proud.” Said the chief, and the bearded man stepped forward, a frown on his face.
“It is known,” Said the man, and I recognized his voice from Segni’s lessons, “That the direction of our future is held in the hands of our leaders. That those graduating from Empri are of the highest caliber, are of the brightest minds, and of moral righteousness. Will the interested individuals please step forward for this year’s opening of Historian, so that I, Pliny the Historian, may extend my blessing.
Segni strode to before the podium, his father towering above him as he prepared for the first question. I bit my lip as I looked ahead, and pushed my way to the front of the student crowd, Nean pushing my shoulder as I walked past so I staggered behind Segni.
The chief’s eyes widened as I stared up at Pliny, my shoulders thrown back, and my fists clenched to hide the dirt under my nails. Behind me, I heard the crowd start to whisper, and looked back to see my father among them, shaking his head as his eyes met mine.
“A gardener,” laughed one from the front, “A gardener. Go back to the fields boy, don’t embarass yourself.”
“Indeed,” Said the chief, looking down at me, “Do you presume that you can pass a test designed for the students of Empir? This is for intellectuals, boy, absolutely unheard of. Go on back.”
Skip stepped forward, his face red, pointing at me, “Out of all my class he has the lowest marks!” He spat, “Can’t even make a hole correctly after four years! Slowest learner I’ve ever seen. I apologize, chief, for my student’s ignorance. Get, Horatius.”
Pliny stared down at me, his eyebrows raised, and spoke as well, addressing the audience in his deep voice, “It is written that anyone may take the test, and it is wrong to bar them entry. As such, we cannot deny him, regardless of our opinion if he will pass or fail. Let us begin.”
“That’s not fair!” Shouted Segni, “I’ve spend hours enduring lectures, years putting up with work and now you’re going to let him have a shot at it?”
My jaw stiffened as Pliny smiled, and replied.
“Of course, young chief to be. With all those hours of study, you should have nothing to worry about, should you? This should be easy for you.”
Pliny cleared his throat, and addressed us both.
“There are three main qualities that Empri instills in its students. First, is the ability to learn, or reading. With reading comes the second quality, which is knowledge. And only through those comes stewardship, which is the only quality that truly matters. The first two are but tools to attain the third. As such, there will be three questions for this test, three questions that must be answered correctly, one for each of the qualities. Do you understand?”
Together, Segni and I nodded, and the chief’s eyes narrowed.
“Question one will be on reading. I will spell a word, and you will tell me what it is, which should be simple for anyone accomplished in the field. For you, Segni, what does L-E-S-S-O-N spell?”
Segni thought for a minute, his eyes closed and mouth working to sound out the letters.
“Less!” He shouted, and a wry smile formed across Pliny’s mouth.
“Close, but not quite.” He said, “Lesson, Segni, it spells lesson.”
“Close enough to count,” Said the chief in a low voice, and Pliny continued.
“Now you, Horatius I believe, here is your word: O-P-P-O-R-T-U-N-I-T-Y.”
From behind in the crowd, I heard Nean shout out, his voice nearly cutting off Pliny’s.
“It spells stupid gardener!”
Chuckles sounded from the crowd, the vast majority of which did not have the means to tell if he was correct, and I waited for them to quiet down to whispers.
“Opportunity!” I said, my voice near a shout, “It spells opportunity!”
“Indeed,” Said Pliny, and tilted his head as he looked into my eyes, his expression as curious as the chief’s was red, the whispers in the crowd dying to surprised silence, “Precisely. Next, a question regarding history and knowledge. Segni, I shall allow you to go first due to your hard work in schooling. Before The Hand of God, how many people inhabited the ship?”
Segni smiled, and stuck his chest out, speaking the answer, “More!”
“Is that your answer?” Asked Pliny.
“Yes, my answer is more!”
“Technically, I suppose,” Replied Pliny, “Though I was looking for something more precise. Horatius?”
“Twenty five thousand.” I answered, and the curiosity in Pliny’s eyes increased as his pupils dilated.
“Precisely, again.” He said, studying me, though I held his gaze and did not move, “How strange, how curious. Now for the final question, on stewardship, should the Hand of God strike again, how should we be prepared for it?”
“It won’t strike again.” Spat Segni, and his father nodded.
“Food and water stores,” I answered, “Enough to get us through disaster and to recover. Spread around the ship in case one area is impacted.”
“Correct,” Said Pliny, “Three for three, with no marks off.”
“For both candidates,” Said the chief, and a frown formed on Pliny’s face.
“Well,” He said, turning to face the chief, “Based upon the integrity of both answers-”
“Three out of three for both.” Repeated the chief, his voice rising, “Both. My son, and this, this imposter. Integrity, Pliny? You want integrity? I’ll show you integrity. One last test, one more to determine the true winner, and to out the obvious cheating that is occurring. A pen, and paper, now.”
From the crowd, one of the attendants to the chief rushed forward, carrying the materials. And the chief marked the paper, writing letters big enough for the crowd to see, and displaying it.
“Horatius, it is enough that you have embarassed my family. It is enough that you have mocked our rituals and tests. Should you admit that you are cheating now, should you admit guilt, I will spare you any punishment.”
“I’m not cheating!” I answered, the fists at my side tightening.
“Then what does this spell?” Asked the chief, and brandished the sheet.
The letters danced in front of me, letters that I had never studied by sight, but only heard. Blood rushed to my cheeks as I stared, praying for a revelation, praying for a miracle.
“Go on,” Said the chief, “Show us how you are worthy to be Historian. What does it spell?”
“I- I don’t know.” I answered, tears forming near my eyes, “I can’t read it, I can only-”
“By his own admission then, he can’t read,” Said the chief, and turned to where Segni already bounced on the balls of his feet with anticipation, “Now, Segni, what does this spell?”
“Sheep!” His son cried out, his voice echoing.
“Ship. Precisely.” Said his father, and walked to the table that held the awards for each of the vocations, picking up a pen and cherry tomato. He placed the pen in his son’s hand, holding it high.
“Welcome,” he said, and the crowd cheered, “Welcome, to our new historian.”
And walking to me, he took the cherry tomato, and crushed it above my head such that the pulp fell into my hair, and the juice dripped down my face.
“And welcome,” He hissed, “Welcome, to our new gardener, whose position will start in one year. Until then, he will be punished for cheating, and will be obligated to fulfill any of the ships hauling and porter needs. Now go, Horatius, your job has begun.”
His finger extended to the door, and I left, Nean’s voice trailing behind me as dropped of tomato juice dripped to the floor.
“Thought he could be a historian. Not even fit for a gardener.” And turning back, I saw Skip nodding, the crowd laughing, and my father turned away.
Each morning I started with an hour of exercise, which was required of porters.
I would arrive in the heavy room slightly after breakfast, feeling my spine compress as I walked across the threshold, adjusting my posture slightly as I walked inside. Waiting was weightlifting machinery- an arrangement of dumb bells and plates designed to help increase muscle capacity, all at twice the weight they would be outside the heavy room.
There I would pair up with the others who had been assigned to be porters, many of them for life, their chests bulging from under their shirts and the veins in their necks popping. Most of them were those who could not succeed at gardening, though some were placed there for punishments like myself, for crimes such as hoarding water or striking their neighbors.
“Tom want first breakfast,” Said my partner as I watched his form. As usual it was impeccable, near robotic, not a single mistake as the weights were cycled through lifts and rests. But for all his skill with strength conditioning, Tom had troubles outside the heavy room, where his difficulty in grasping the intricacies of planting seeds and grammar had dragged him down the societal ladder to porter.
“Fine,” I answered, “I’ll take second, then.”
We ate in shifts, as porters. It meant that there were always some of us available to cart away waste, or move bundles of vegetables, or shift furniture around living spaces. But there was a perk to being a porter, one that was required by the sheer physical requirements of the position- we were rationed portions and a half, of both food and water.
“Good,” Answered Tom, dropping his weights so that the heavy room shook, “Tom done then.”
And he lumbered away, sweat staining the back of his shirt, his physical stature larger than almost any on the ship. In his absence I racked the weights, then retrieved a cart at the end of the hall, one that was to be transported to the kitchens and was filled with potatoes.
At first, the going was hard, since being so near the heavy room making the cart difficult to push. But after my first week of being a porter, I had learned inner layout of the ship, hidden from the main corridors, where the light halls were and how to connect them.
I’d been in light halls before, of course. Before being required to work, I’d often played in them, running up the sides of the walls and jumping from end to end of the corridor in a single bound, much to the annoyance of any traversing porters at the time. For just as the heavy room added weight to my frame, the light hall removed it, making transporting overfilled carts as easy as those that were empty in the normal, more occupied areas.
The light hall I used that morning was dark, the glow lights much lower than in other areas of the ship, and ran behind a row of living spaces that emptied their waste into the hall for porters to collect. As soon as I finished crossing the hall, there would be hardly another hundred feet before reaching the kitchens, and I could switch duties with Tom as he finished breakfast. The thought had my stomach growling, especially since the new chef Eliott was already known for his skill in dish preparation.
And that morning I was so hungry, and so focused upon completing my task, that I never heard the footsteps behind me.
“Stupid porter!” Said Nean’s voice as an oversized hand gripped the back of my neck, pinning me to the wall, “Think you’re smarter than all of us, look where you are now. If it was my decision, you’d stay here.”
“Get off!” I shouted, my muscles sore for the heavy room, adding to the agony of Nean cheese grating my nose against the rough metal.
“All I want to do is make sure you’ve learned your lesson. Help the chief out. He asked me, you know. Well, not him particularly, just the future chief.”
“Stop it!” I shouted, but Nean ripped me away from the wall, driving my forehead into the hard edge of the cart so hard that the room flashed. I fell, feeling his shoe contact my ribs on the way down, and once more as I curled on the cold floor, struggling to draw in breaths. Then Nean leaned over, his face so close to mine that I could smell his breath.
“Segni says if you try to humiliate him again, you won’t just be a porter. He says I can hit you hard enough that you think like them too. Right here.”
Then he spat, his phlegm mixing with the blood on the side of my head, before his running footsteps receded down the light hallway, and he was gone.
Ahead, I heard a door open, spilling more light into the space as a tall figure walked out, his voice angry.
“I swear by the hand, if you kids are playing this early in the morning I’ll have your rations personally cut so much that they’ll stunt any form of development,” He hissed, coming closer, “I’ll- Oh God, God, boy, what happened to you?”
Above, a face materialized, a face surrounded by beard, one that I could now match to the voice when the anger left it.
“Fell,” I answered, as Pliny reached a hand downward, pulling me to my feet.
“Bullshit,” He answered, before leaning inside the door that he had come through, “Clea, we’re going to need a doctor, please fetch one. Yes, right now, hurry!” Then he turned back to me, his voice low, “Boy, what happened to you, who did this?”
“I fell.” I repeated, gritting my teeth as pain started to set in.
“Like I said, bullshit. God son, you look awful.”
I turned away from him, and started pushing the cart, limping towards the exit before his hand caught my shoulder. “No you don’t, boy. The doctors are already on their way. They’ll be here in under a minute.”
And he looked into my face, studying it again, with the same curious expression as he had during the test.
“Tell me, boy, can you think straight?”
I nodded, though my vision blurred, and heard footsteps down the hall, doctors that had nearly arrived.
“Then if you understand this,” He said, and started to spell, ”M-E-E-T-space-M-E-space-H-E-R-E-space-T-O-M-O-R-R-O-W-space-N-I-G-H-T.”
“Because the ship needs a historian,” He answered as the doctors arrived, carrying me with them to their designated rooms, where herbs and bandages awaited.
Pliny held up the sheet of paper, the word imbued upon it in his thin handwriting, and waited.
“Stu-” I said, “Stud… Student.”
“Correct!” He said, a smile playing across his face, “Student. Four week’s lessons, Horatius, and you’re already sounding out complex words. Not to mention that you already have most the history absorbed, which takes up the bulk of the lessons. I suppose you did have somewhat of an advantage though, what with all the gardening.”
We were in Pliny’s apartment, his wife Clea listening from the other room as she finished daily chores and prepared for bed, and Pliny sitting with me in their living room. It was bigger than I was accustomed to- my father’s appartment had been only three rooms, consisting of his, mine, and a closet. There were plenty of vacant rooms about the ship, but very few with space, and Pliny’s was one of them.
Since my incident with Nean I had come to a near full recovery, all that remained of the accident being a small circular scar in the center of my forehead, just above my nose and between my eyes. I’d spent a few days in the doctor’s care, though remembering them was difficult as I tried to focus.
“Look here, son.” The head doctor had said while Hannah pressed a combination of ice and freshly cut herbs to my swollen face. I’d likely helped grow the herbs, and the ice was from the edge of the ship, near where the Hand of God had struck and could be collected off of the walls.
“Look here,” He repeated, when my eyes failed to focus, “This is no falling injury. Bruises like that don’t show up on your ribs from a small tumble, neither does spit end up in your hair, nor a head injury to this degree. I’m going to need you to tell me what happened, so I can properly report it in.”
“Was walking, decided to jump around in the light hall just like when I was younger, and I tipped on the cart.” I answered.
“And I became a doctor by drinking piss,” He answered, “I need you to report the name, or else this could happen again, to someone else. He will know justice.”
For a moment, I believed him. For a moment, I almost let Nean slip out of my mouth, and put the matter in his hands. But then he spoke again.
“Trust me, son, an act like this deserves at least a year of being a porter.”
And the thought of spending every day with Nean for the next year was so unbearable, I was only able to say two more words: “I fell.”
But that was a month ago, and in the space of that month, I’d had my lessons with Pliny to take my mind off my injuries. He’d started with an interrogation, demanding to know how my father had taught me to spell, or where I had picked up the art. And he had laughed when I sheepishly told him the answer, his eyes smiling, and asking if I could return each day at eight. I nodded, and he spoke again.
“There’s work ahead of you, Horatius, and you’re still behind Segni in many areas. But I’d rather have an eager student that a more experienced one. For now though, let’s keep this between us. I will teach you only for the sake of you learning- what you do with the knowledge is your decision. I cannot guarantee that you will become a historian in name. However, I can make you one at heart, and better yet, mind.”
So I learned the letters that I had become so familiar with, understanding how to pick them off the paper and transform them into the auditory format that I was so accustomed with using. And soon, Pliny lent me a small book, one that I was to read every night before bed in my quarters.
“It’s for learning,” He said, handing it to me, “It won’t always make sense, but it will help you adjust to sight reading. Go on, read me the title, get started.”
“One Fish, Two Fish. What exactly is a fish?” I asked.
“We have some idea, but believe that they must have existed in the past, before the hand of God. Most the books, especially this one,” He thumped a larger one, one I later would know as the bible, “Seem to mention them. Apparently they are for catching, so pay attention, Horatius. For many of the greatest learners were fishermen, and I will teach you to fish.”
So I rehearsed One Fish, Two Fish. And soon I moved on to other books, books slightly more complex, with more words that I couldn’t understand. Sometimes it took my entire concentration to follow the storyline, so when we moved on to other books, books that Pliny called manuals, I was far more interested.
“This,” He said, after two years of lessons, “This is the Guide to Gardening, which lists many of the techniques we employ today to ensure that we are able to feed the ship. Perhaps it could use a good read through from someone like yourself who knows more on the subject, and could see if there is anything else we have missed.”
So I read, and I learned. I found out that it was light that made plants bear fruit, not just water and soil, which explained why some students had better success than others in different areas of the gardening fields closer to the lights. And I learned other things, descriptions of how to rub plants together in ways to make bigger yields, that planting the seeds from bigger vegetables instead of eating them would lead to better yields.
And as I studied under Horatius, my body began to change. From my year as a porter, my muscles had grown tighter, able to lift more than before. And with more food, I’d grown, just as plants grew more with more light. When I returned to gardening, they’d treated me as an outcast, giving me grunt labor for the first three years, essentially working as a porter again in the fields. So by fourteen years of age, Nean no longer made comments when I walked past, my shoulders broader than his. And by fifteen, Skip decided to give me ownership over a small portion of the garden.
“Horatius, it’s been years since you’ve been in my class,” He said, calling me to the side of the fields where he monitored activity, “And I am a forgiving man. I believe in second chances, and now I am offering you one. A chance to own your own piece of land. A chance to be a respectable gardener. Are you ready to take this responsibility?”
“Why are you doing this, Skip?” I asked, my voice considerably deeper than the last time we had talked at length, and his face turned red.
“Are you not exited for the opportunity, Horatius ? I believe that you’ve had time to reflect on your past transgressions and poor marks, and-”
“Cut it, Skip,” I answered, “I know you’re not doing this because you want to. Why are you doing this?”
Skip sighed, “Look, Ann is getting old. She works in the center of the garden and complains that the bright lights hurt her eyes there, and she’s never able to carry enough water there to properly water the plants. No one else wants the spot.”
“I’ll accept under one condition, then, Skip.”
“You’ll what? Accept? I’m giving you the chance to turn your life around. You should take it gladly!”
“No, I’ll take it under one circumstance. That I manage my garden on my own, with none of your supervision, and none of your intervention.”
“Ridiculous! I won’t have you ruining a perfect square of soil because you can’t garden. I won’t leave you unatended, Horatius, I absolutely won’t.”
“Fine, then I don’t want it.”
“You have to take it, no one else will.”
“Then agree to my conditions. I’ll even make you a bet, Skip. If my plot of land produces three times as much as when Ann worked it, then for a full month you can have half of my rations. Half, and you choose first.”
Skip looked at me, his eyes narrowed, chewing on his lip.
“Fine,” He spat, “Fine, be difficult. But when you fail, I’ll be taking those rations. And you’ll be doing exactly as I say from then on, Horatius. You hear me? You-”
But I was already walking away, reviewing the Guide To Gardening in my mind. For twenty years, Ann had worked that spot, and for twenty years it had likely been neglected. I’d seen her work, not taking care that every drop of water found its home, spacing her plants too far apart, walking slow from a combination of old bones and general apathy.
Which meant for twenty years, the spot with the brightest lights in the room had been mismanaged.
And now it was mine.
“This was a mistake,” Said Skip from the edge of my plot, “I never should have agreed to this, and now you’re ruining perfectly good seeds.”
It had been several weeks since Skip had agreed to the deal, and though he was true to his word to never set foot within my plot, his comments still came frequently.
“Skip, what did we agree on?” I asked, rehearsing passages from the guide as I ripped out sprouts that had just broken soil, leaving only the largest behind.
After seedlings have developed two leaves, remove approximately one out of every two, selecting those that are the smallest and leaving the largest behind, allowing the healthiest germinations to persist. Doing such frees up root systems, allocates space for air and light, and will provide greater yield.
“But I won’t stand by for you to throw away perfectly good crops! I let you change what you wanted to plant, Horatius, after Ann planted the same thing there for twenty years! Twenty years, and you wanted to change it! Just do your gardening like you’re supposed to!”
“I am,” I muttered, and ignored him and the growing crowd of gardeners as I pulled plants up by the roots, tossing them away. Every step along the way Skip had balked- from changing the soil to manure composition, to using the guide to determine which plants would fare best with increased light, to making my holes in the fashion I had devised years before.
“Yeah,” Shouted Nean from the growing circle, “Stupid -”
But his voice cut off as I turned to face him, the sweat beading around my eyes, gripping the shovel tight enough that my biceps showed through my shirt. A few nervous chuckles sounded as I stared at him, though far fewer than there would have been two years before, and sounding thinner.
“What was that, Nean?” I asked, “I seem to remember when you said it the first time. I remember everything that you’ve said, Nean. Everything. I haven’t forgotten a word, and it would be best for you to stop reminding me. You may rather I forget.”
Nean swallowed, and broke his gaze away as I straightened my back, now taller than him.
“We’ll see,” He said, turning away, “We’ll see what happens when the chief hears about this, when your crops fail.”
But the chief never did find out. He never had the chance.
Two days after the incident, he died in his sleep, a cluster of confused doctors surrounding his bed the next morning, wondering how someone so healthy could perish in the night. According to them, he seemed even healthier than anyone else on the ship, due to his rapid weight gain and the bump that had been growing larger on his right shoulder each year, now nearly the size of his head.
“A sign of the chief’s ruling power, the arm of his law, and the power of his hand,” The head doctor had said after discovering it, and the chief had taken to wearing tighter shirts to display its presence.
After his death, Pliny’s apprentice had taken command, one the chief had assured the ship for years would provide a future brighter than they could imagine. And Segni had smiled at the ceremony, the crowd cheering, and had declared a feast be administered in his and his father’s honor.
But one week after the chief’s death, Pliny made an announcement during my lesson.
“Horatius,” He said, “There is something that I wish to show you. Something that precious few know about on the ship, something that Segni should know if he attended his lessons, and that his father neglected to tell him before death. Something that I do not trust Segni with, and, should you ever become historian, you must know.”
“What is it?” I had asked, placing a strawberry on the counter for Clea. It was her favorite food, and I had grown it just for her, sneaking the largest one out of my field.
“Come, follow me,” He had answered, and led me from his apartment, “Keep your distance, though. We have done well in keeping our interactions secret, and now that Segni is chief, more caution may be necessary.”
He led me through the corridors of the ship, to where the rooms grew colder and we approached the center, near where the ice grew on the walls. Typically, this area was deserted, the rooms too frigid for living and the fields unable to support life, and hallways turning unpredictably to behave like light and heavy rooms. It was quiet, our footsteps the sole source of noise, and our dim shadows the sole source of movement.
And after nearly a half hour of walking, Pliny opened a small side door into a stairwell, and we descended.
“Long ago, before the Hand of God,” Pliny said, his voice echoing, “It is said that the ship was one. But not only was it one, Horatius, but it was different. According to records, the area we now walk was once habitable. The lights above you could once change in brightness as you desired, or the air temperature be adjusted. We know this among many other things, many other ways that we could control the ship, rather than the ship controlling us.”
“Why does it matter, though, Pliny?”
“Think to gardening, Horatius. Think to how much more you could produce if you could change the lights as you wished, or even the temperature. But beyond that, think if you could decide which of the corridors were light halls. Or if you would heat this portion of the ship again, and use these fields.”
“But how? How would we do that?”
“That, is the question Horatius. And rather than how, is should we.”
We had come to a door, a door that was nearly encapsulated in ice, and Pliny removed a screwdriver from his pocket. Aiming for the cracks, he chipped around the edge of the door, until it shifted in the frame and he could open it.
The room we entered was caked in dust, and so cold that my breath formed in front of me, colder than I had ever experienced in my life. It jutted out beneath the ship, such that windows extended in every direction, allowing for a full view of the empty space surrounding the ship. A table was in the center, nearly a hundred books piled up on its surface, all bearing the same resemblance as the Guide to Gardening given to me by Pliny. And behind them, there were shelves of lights- tiny lights that flashed, surrounded by rows of buttons and levers, countless knobs and switches.
Above, on the ceiling, I read words that had long been forgotten, but were etched into the metal.
Command Center: The beacon in the darkness, the hope of humanity.
“What is this place?” I whispered, afraid even to break the silence, my eyes wide.
“It’s how the ship used to be controlled,” Answered Pliny, “It’s where our greatest strength used to be.”
“Then why don’t we use it?” I asked, walking over to the table, “Why don’t we take advantage of it?”
“Do you remember the story of the Great Thirst, Horatius?” Pliny asked, and I nodded.
“Before the Great Thirst, our numbers were at three thousand. Now they are but a third. I told you that the Great Thirst was resolved when the historian Archim discovered how to restart the flow of the water reservoirs, and that much is true.”
Then Pliny leaned forward, and pointed to a row of controls at the far end of the room.
“What I never told you is that Archim is the reason why the Great Thirst occurred. That he killed two thousand people by pressing one of those buttons, because he thought he could double the reservoir production, and just barely managed to partially correct his error after several days of frantic research before the entire ship died. As I said, Horatius, we have an inkling of how to control the ship. But should we?”