Chapter 1

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.

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Chapter 2

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.

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Chapter 3

“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.

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Chapter 4

“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.”

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Chapter 5

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.”

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