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“It happened before, a hundred years ago.” I said to Segni at the council, the other members white in the face as I spoke, “We survived then when half our props died, and we will survive now. With our stores, we should have enough that no one will go hungry.”
“Survive?” Said Segni, his voice rising, “Survive? How could you let this happen? How in the Hand of God could over half the crops die overnight, for no explicable reason? There was a feast to be next week, to celebrate my birthday.“
He slammed a fist down on the table, the carton where he typically held his fresh strawberries bouncing upwards then toppling over to show only nubs of green within.
“Simply put, we don’t know,” I said, with a bow, keeping my face somber, “We are simply fortunate enough that you had the foresight to prepare for such an event, your honor. And with the humblest of intentions, I remind your honor that I am but a messenger, with no control over the state of the gardens. As Pliny stated when introducing me to the council, I am average at best at gardening, and thus not suited for leadership.”
“Messenger be damned!” Shouted Segni, raising a fist, “I’ve heard about your methods in the garden from Skip. I know what you’ve been up to, meddling with the way of things, stealing his students! And now half the garden dies! Nean, seize him, and let us make him an example of what happens when you act against the will of the chief!”
“Your honor,” I said, speaking quickly as Nean advanced, Tom’s face creasing in a slow frown behind him, “I have practiced my methods for years. Never before has there been a problem or decrease in yields. In fact, your honor, not one of my own plants or my student’s plants have died – they seem to have survived this disaster. Without them, the ship would be in far greater trouble than a few hungry weeks.”
Segni watched as Nean seized me by the elbow, dragging me towards the door, Tom grunting as his face tracked me from across the room.
“You honor!” I shouted, red in the face, “In four weeks, we can have a feast! Four weeks, if you let me revive the gardens. If not, it will be at least twelve before we reach a full recovery, let alone a surplus.”
“A feast?” Said Segni, “We have had many feasts, Horatius, and had more planned before you brought this news.”
“Not just a feast,” I said, “But I have found that we can convert an entire field to growing strawberries if we increase our growth. Pliny said that fruit used to be sweeter in the stories, in the old days. Give me four weeks to bring you the sweetest strawberries of your life, and more of them than you have ever seen, to prove myself as your loyal servant!”
“Lies,” Said Segni, as Nean’s grip intensified and Tom’s eyes narrowed, a vein showing in his forehead, “Just as you tried to lie your way into historian long ago. Don’t think I am a fool, Horatius, and trick me like you tricked Skip.”
“But I came prepared! With proof!” I said, reaching into my pocket to pull out a small box and open it, revealing a small lump of red within, “A gift, for you, your honor. I had planned to give it to you on a more celebratory occasion, but here it is now. The sweetest strawberry you have ever tasted, and the largest. Take it, and know that I can make one twice as tasty in the future. It took me years to discover this secret, but with the rest of the gardeners working with me, we can prepare the best for you. And not just strawberries, but the other foods as well!”
“Wait,” Said Segni, gesturing to Nean, and leaned forward, removing the berry from the box and raising it to eye level. Then he bit into it, chewing slowly, the red juice dripping down a chin that was on the verge of doubling. His eyes closed, lips puckering after he took another bite, and another, until all that remained was the stem on the table, curved like a scar with crimson juice puddled about it.
“Four weeks.” He said, without opening his eyes, and holding up his fingers, “Four, until I want a feast, a feast of strawberries. A birthday feast to make up for the one I’ll miss.”
Then Nean shoved me from the room, Tom exhaled from behind Segni as his shoulders relaxed, and I walked towards my apartment, a smile tugging at my lips as I prepared for the next day.
I scoured the Guide to Gardening, reviewing everything I would need to teach, reading over each of the sections carefully, particularly those on growing speed.
Four weeks on average are required for maturation, The passage stated, Made possible through genetically enhanced seed stock as well as the controlled conditions and light sources aboard the ship. In natural environments, such as New Earth, growth rates will be slower as anticipated by the solar studies performed prior to departure. A separate seed stock to be used in those conditions, as provided by the preparatory drops.
I read the first sentence again, filtering away all the extraneous information. According to the guide, as well as my experience, preparing the feast was possible. Not only possible, but I’d only need half of the experienced gardeners to comply.
“Disaster has struck,” I shouted from the front of the gardens the next morning as my forty students rounded up the other gardeners, bringing them in a mob before me, “But we have known disaster before. We have known hardship before. And we will prevail.”
“Word is that you told Segni we could have a feast in four weeks!” Shouted Skip from the back, “Word is that you said it would be possible!”
I raised my hands as the rest of the experienced gardeners began to shout, thumping the weathered handles of their shovels into the earth, where dead plants crackled under their feet.
“I did,” I said, my voice level, “And we will. We have enough to survive between our stores and the surviving plants, enough to just get by. All we have to do is grow enough to provide a surplus. It is possible, and I can teach you how. Together, we can do it – look on at the plants that did survive, look at their health, look at their yields! And if we cannot, then I promise you that I alone will be held accountable. I promise you that I will leave the gardens and become a porter, and that you may forget that I ever partook in this.”
“How about we forget you ever partook in it now!” Shouted a man from the back, wrinkles cut deep into his face, and several nodded in agreement. “How about we return to the ways that have worked for generations in the past and will work for generations to come?”
“Because not only can I offer you a feast,” I said, “But by eight weeks I can offer you double rations. Not just you, but everyone on the ship! More food than you have had in your lives.”
“Nonsense, all of it,” Replied the man, and turned on his heel to return to his plot, brown with fallen stems and leaves as several others followed him, “Absolute nonsense.”
I bit my lip as more left, counting the numbers in my head as I felt a two small hands wrap around mine, from two children that had separated from the crowd.
“When our plants died under Skip, and he called us slow,” Shouted Mark’s voice, “Horatius taught us, and he taught us how to garden the plants that are still alive today!”
“And he took the smallest of us, the weakest,” Shouted Ruth, “And made us greater than the strongest! Don’t leave without giving him a chance!”
The crowd paused, looking at the numbers of children growing at my sides, several shaking their heads. Many continued to trudge away until just under half remained, just barely under the calculated threshold that we would need. But those that remained were younger, some of them from my own class ten years before, with enthusiasm still in their eyes and muscle still on their bones.
“We start today,” I said to them, “Each of you pair with one of my students, which will help in teaching you. The methods are largely similar, only slight differences exist, and the work is easier than before.”
But as we started class, and the experienced gardeners attempted to salvage their crops, Skip walked across the fields until we were face to face, spitting into the soil at my feet.
“When everything starts to go wrong, when tradition crashes down around us,” He hissed, pointing a finger into my chest, “We’ll know who to blame.”
After the first day of gardening, I returned to the control room, ensuring that the ultraviolet was lowered down to normal levels and optimizing the light of the entire garden, even for those who refused to follow my methods. There would be time to teach them again in the future, but now that stores would soon be running out, we needed food. Already stomachs had started to growl from the reduced rations arriving from the kitchens.
Day one had been successful, the gardeners far more receptive to my methods than I had anticipated. Most likely this was due to them being younger, to being less trapped in the ways of tradition. But I had also handed out strawberries before the lesson, three to each new gardener, the type that I had perfected for Segni.
“Taste these,” I had said, “Taste how much better these are, and know within a few weeks you will be growing your own. Know that you not only will be giving the ship more food, but you will be giving them better quality food. When this disaster is remembered a hundred years from now, you will be in the stories. You will be the heroes.”
By the end of the first week, their planting speed had doubled, their hands moving through the technique as if they had practiced it their entire lives. And I saw hope on their faces as the first of the greens began to sprout, poking defiantly through the soil far quicker than they were accustomed to in the past.
I think I’ll always remember that first week fondly. That I’ll remember my intentions were good, that I had set the ship on the path towards not just survival, but improvement.
That when I stared outside the window each night, and I saw the face staring back at me from the other side of the half of the ship, her spindly figures forming gestures across the glass, I imagined that even she somehow knew that brighter times should be ahead.
That maybe one day even Segni would recognize that I deserved to be historian, and I could head our food stores. That I could prepare us for times to come, seeking the other secrets long forgotten in stories trapped in written books. And maybe that a few students of my own, gardeners like their teacher, might read them one day. And might bring good to the ship after my passing.
Yes, I’ll always remember it that way.
Until I think upon the seventh day.
When the voice spoke from above.