Chapter 11

“Systems rebooting, ship damage assessed. Reuniting the two halves of the ship and restoring airlock, approximately twenty four hours until complete.”

The voice repeated three times, gasps echoing around the fields with each start, faces tilted upward and searching for the source.  And though I knew the source from my studies, it was no less disconcerting.

***

Three years had passed since Pliny’s death, three years that I spent on the council, watching Segni’s stomach expand while others contracted.  I had fought to remain on that council, biting down my pride and common sense to satiate him, learning to choose which arguments were crucial to the ship’s survival and which were simply principle.  

Part of me grew bitter during those years, part of me that grew just as lost as the ship.  For when Pliny was alive, we shared a common knowledge, a common understanding of how to preserve the ship. An appreciation of the stories, a regard of the wisdom they held.  With Pliny, we were a team of silent guardians, protecting that which we knew to be true and right.

But without Pliny, there was no one to share the burden.  And I alone stood between the ship and destruction.

But as gardener, nobody knew.

“I have opened the position of historian,”  Said Segni, two weeks after the death of Pliny, “And I have filled it, with my younger brother, Vacki.  Like myself, he was trained by Pliny in the esteemed school of Empri. And like myself, he is most suitable for the task.”

Scowls circled the council, but no one spoke, all eyeing the two figures on the left and right of Segni, long knives from the kitchen tucked into their belts.  Nean was one of them, staring at each of us in turn and daring us to object, his fingers twitching about the handle of the knife.  Tom the porter was the other, his size alone performing the necessary intimidation, his gaze off in the distance unless prompted by Segni.

“I have created their positions for my personal safety,”  Segni had said when he introduced them, “For without a chief, the ship would have no leader, and would surely fall into chaos.  I do this for the good of the ship.”

So Vacki joined the council, on the days he decided to attend, often choosing instead to study in his room.  Considering he took no books with him, and rubbed his eyes whenever he returned, I suspected that the true purpose of his absence had little to do with learning his letters.  And though my jaw clenched when he shirked his duties, I was thankful that Vacki did not attend nor have the ambition to push an agenda, else the situation on the council would have been even worse.

But from what I had failed to accumulate in those two years in terms of political power, I had gained in knowledge and control of the gardens.

“Skip,”  I had said shortly after Pliny’s death, “You lost the bet I set and I have proved that my methods are successful.  By next week I want four apprentices, four new gardeners to teach how to attain higher yields.”

“Ridiculous!”  Spat Skip, “I won’t have you tampering with the rest of the gardens, Horatius.  I simply will not have it.  I can bear that you do not follow directions, but it would be disaster if others did too.”

“Four, Skip!” I said, raising four fingers, “Four out of your class.  I’ll take them off your hands, and they will not be your responsibility.  I’ll take them by force if I have to.”

Absolutely not.”  He responded, “That’s final, Horatius.”

“How about we make a bet, then, and if mine produce more-”

“No more of your bets!”  Said Skip, and muttered to himself, “Nonsense, chaos and nonsense, I won’t have it.”

“Then a quarter of my rations.”  I answered, “A quarter until I have finished teaching them.  You look hungry, Skip- what’s wrong, I thought this was the Year of Feasts?

Skip grimaced, and turned towards me, pausing.

“Fine.”  He answered, “Fine.  But they shall not be my responsibility in the future, Horatius, if you mislead them.”

“Of course,”  I answered, “Of course, Skip. I will ensure that their actions are in no way attributed to your reputation.”

Skip was lucky that day, that he accepted a quarter of my rations.  He would need them.

When the new gardeners arrived, he selected the four smallest, those that could barely lift a shovel, and he pushed them in my direction.

“I sincerely apologize,”  He said to them, as their faces fell, “For assigning you to Horatius.  He was last of his year when he went through my program and still cannot plant properly.  However, I cannot handle all of you myself, and must call upon his aid.”

“But, but-”  One said, as relief flooded across the students that remained in the larger group, and Skip interrupted, “I’m sorry, but it cannot be helped.  It’s for the good of the ship.  What’s done is done.”

Then Skip assigned us to a plot of fields that had traditionally had lower yields, an area I had noted had dimmer lights above it that the rest of the gardens.  And he returned to the rest of his class, leaving four dismayed ten year olds behind.

“As Skip mentioned,”  I said, my voice loud enough to carry across the garden to his group and cause his face to turn red, “What is done is done.  It is most unfortunate that some of you were selected to be part of the lesser group.  But that group is not ours.  Listen to me now, and listen closely.  The four of you are the smallest, but your plants will grow taller than anyone else’s.  And they will bear more food than the rest of the class combined.”

The four students grimaced, and one spoke, his voice low and his foot kicking the dirt.

“It’s ok, Mr. Horatius,”  He said, “You don’t have to pretend.  You don’t have to make up stories about what will happen.”

“What’s your name?”  I asked.

“Matthew,”  He muttered.

“You’re right, Matthew.”  I said, leaning over, and looking him in the eye, “I don’t make up stories, I tell them.  It’s time to make a story worth telling.”

So we began, and I taught them how to dig quick holes, and gave them the tricks I had learned from the Guide to Gardening.  

But that wasn’t all I did.

At night, I walked to the room Pliny had showed me, and I studied the books laid out on the table.  Most of them were manuals, thick volumes filled with instructions and procedures about processes and objects that I could not understand, about things called engines and oxygen regulators and generators. But the rest were journals, journals that were marked off by year, fifteen in all, all signed at the bottom with the same name.

Archim.

Each were titled by their subject, with names ranging from “Temperature Modification” to “Gravity Enhancement”, the last of which only half filled out and named “Water Controls”.

Each of the books had Archim’s handwriting in them,showing his every step in touching the ship’s controls and the resulting observations.  And after a week of reading, I found what I was looking for, in a journal titled “Lumenosity from his seventh year of experimentation.

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Chapter 12

Controls to the lighting arrangements of the gardens, read the notebook on luminosity at the top of page one hundred and forty four, in flowing handwriting, I have determined that the array of knobs marked 1152-1280 control the brightness of garden lights, as well as the light composition.  After several weeks of study, I have determined that altering the state of the lights has no noticeable affect on the remainder of the ship.  Additionally, I have inferred that different combinations of light settings affect plant growth, and seek in the future to determine the optimal settings by enlisting the help of a gardener, as I have little knowledge on the subject.  At present, however, all that can be determined is the settings that must be avoided else the plants should deteriorate, as listed below.

I smiled, reading the combination, knowing from the Guide to Gardening that certain types of light were better than others, and remembering a passage that stated that too high percentages ultraviolet could be detrimental to growth.  I never knew what “ultraviolet” was, so I tended to skip over that section in the past.  But there, drawn in Archim’s notes, there was a knob labeled “ultraviolet”, with a warning not to set it to high.

It took three days of checking before I was confident enough to approach the array of controls that related to the gardens.  Three days of pouring through the Luminosity notebook, searching for areas where Archim’s experiments may have gone awry.  Looking for inconsistencies among his wording, or anything that might dissuade me, or support the voice in my head that screamed at me to stop as I looked at the array.

Even when I did approach, my palms started to sweat, and I cast a nervous eye towards the last notebook on the desk, the one labelled “Water Control”. I found a section far away from the center of the garden, and my fingertips brushed against the knobs, feeling the cold in the metal sear my skin.  Hearing the knobs call out to me, demanding to be altered, to be changed for the first time in generations.

I shook, remembering Pliny’s story of the Great Thirst.  And I wondered what might occur if turning the knob resulted in the ship losing light, light that was crucial for the plants to grow.

What if I would be known by historians as the man to cause the Great Hunger?  But according to Archim’s journal, nothing of that sort would happen.

Closing my eyes, I turned the first knob, holding my breath as I waited, listening closely to silence.  I moved it barely a quarter of a rotation, it gliding with too little resistance, too eager to move.

But nothing happened when I finished- no screams echoed down the hall from the interior of the ship, no drastic change in light levels occurred.  Then I ran, sprinting through the twisting hallways to the gardens, and inspecting the lights above, where one had taken on a slight purple tinge, my heart racing as I waited for two hours to ensure no other changes had occurred.

So I returned to the control room.  To start my plan.

Identifying which knobs were above Skip’s student gardeners, I turned those knobs to high during each night before returning to medium each morning.  Then with my own sections, I raised each of the knobs slightly, returning back each time until I was satisfied with how they appeared overhead.

I never said a word as I watched Skip screaming at his students, demanding to know what they were doing wrong, even accusing them of being worse students than me.  But as the weeks passed, Skip’s plants shriveled, often dying before they could yield crops, all while my student’s vegetation took root and grew faster than even the most experienced of gardeners, something unheard of in a beginner’s class.

Soon the slumped shoulders that had arrived with my students were replaced by straight, proud backs.  Their hands worked quickly, their minds absorbing the information I gave them, until all that was left for them to succeed was practicing.  

And when that happened, I started teaching them something other than gardening. I told them stories, emulating the education I had received from an unknowing Pliny many years before.

“Matthew,”  I said, addressing the student that had spoken to me on the first day, “Why must we always grow more food than we eat?”

“We must store it!”  He piped up, as he watered his row of plants, “In case we have a bad year of crops.  To be prepared.”

“Correct,” I said, and turned to address another student.

“Mary, what happens if we do not have stores?”

“We cannot feed the ship,”  The tiny girl answered, wiping sweat from her brow, “And if we cannot feed the ship, it will be disaster.”

“John, what happened one of the last times we ran out of a resource?”

“The great thirst!”  Said my third student, his arms spread wide, “And a lot of people died.  Two thirds.”

“Yes, well done, well done.  You all are learning so quickly- the best gardeners, and the most educated.  You should be proud.  Ruth,”  I said, and addressed the last student, the quietest of the bunch but who absorbed information faster than the rest, “What is S-H-I-P?”

“Ship,”  She said, her voice barely above a whisper, and I smiled.

“Yes.”  I responded, looking over my garden, a garden of mind and earth, while Skip shouted behind me.  Over the course of the weeks, I noticed his students had steadily migrated their gardening activities towards my side of the fields, their heads cocked when I told my class stories, their eyes squinting when I demonstrated techniques.

Until one morning, when my group gathered for class, a fifth face joined us.

“Mark,”  Said the voice, as a tiny had extended outwards.

“Good to meet you, Mark,”  I said, shaking it, “How can I help you?”

“I want to be in your class,”  He answered, “I want you to teach me.”

“Of course,”  I said, while Skip turned his eyes away from where he scowled on the far side of the garden.  And a fifth student learned to garden.

Then the next week, a sixth.  Then a seventh after the following.  And by the end of the class, the entirity of Skip’s program were clustered around me before returning to their fields, ignoring Skip’s shouts as they found results in their new methods.  I helped them, of course, fixing the light levels on every student that came to me for advice, such that their plants grew tall.

The next year, Skip gave no objection as I taught his entire class, instead choosing to recede to a corner of the garden and focus on his crops, banding together with the more experienced gardeners who held their noses high as they practiced the old methods. As we had agreed, Skip was enjoying a quarter of my rations, enough of a bribe to force him to turn a blind eye after his class deserted him.  What Skip did not know was I had struck a deal with the doctors and chefs of the council after a particularly frustrating argument with Segni, agreeing to supply them with their most dire herbs in secret from the garden despite Segni’s wishes, and that I would receive a quarter rations from the kitchen in return for my efforts.

I caught the occasional glimpse of experienced gardeners watching as my student’s plants grew faster and stronger than their own.  I never spoke a word to them about the superiority of my methods, instead waiting until forty of my students were fully trained, forty students that I was confident could outgrow the rest of the workers.  

I knew forty to be the perfect number for my plans, that after convincing Segni to save a humble store of crops they would produce just enough food to keep the ship alive without starvation.  That forty could just barely put us through a fasting period.

And as soon as I was convinced that the ship could survive, I returned to the control room, reviewing the prior two years in my mind.  In the past, the only way I had convinced students to join my class was through their personal failure, when they came to me for help. As a historian, I knew the future would be no different.
So I set the lights to ultraviolet for every gardener that did not follow my system.

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Chapter 13

“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.

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Chapter 14

Shrieks erupted around the garden as the floor lurched, knocking gardeners off their feet and into the mud as the cables holding the ship snapped taut.  Above, the lights flickered and dimmed as the ship lurched again, the visuals accompanied by the sound of screeching metal in the distance.

“First the chief died.”  Shouted Skip, raising to his knees, his face white, “Then the crops died.  Now this, now we die!  The Hand of God is upon us again and no doubt in punishment!”

Glancing around, the gardeners stared at me from every direction, many of their expressions accusing.  But in greater numbers were the children I had taught and the group of gardeners that had recently adopted my methods, a different expression on their faces.  A mix of confusion and of expectation.  Faces searching for hope.

“Listen up,”  I shouted to them, planting the blade of my shovel deep into the soil for a post to hold onto as the ship shifted again, “There is no reason yet to be frightened!  There is no reason to panic!  We are the gardeners, the backbone of the ship.  We are the lifeblood.  Stay put, and continue working on the crops- show the rest of the ship your example and your grit.”

“But what if-” Shouted Skip, and I turned towards him, my nostrils flaring and voice commanding.

“There is no time for what ifs.  Skip, it is now your time to lead.  Now more than ever we must enforce your mantra and do as we have always done.  We must garden, we must provide for the ship.  And I promise you that while you protect the crops, I will speak with the chief himself, and determine what action needs to be taken for your safety and the safety of your families.  Do you understand?”

Wide eyed from across the field, Skip nodded as there was another tremor and the color flooded again from his face.  Then he was standing, barking out orders to his gardeners, his voice slightly higher pitched than normal.  Not because I had given him the order, but because it is easier to face a disaster while staring at work than staring at it head on.

Once my gardeners were organized, I walked calmly from the gardens, then broke into a sprint as soon as I was out of eyesight, zig zagging through the hallways to the council room.  Even with Segni in charge, there would be an emergency meeting – and though he might not be present, which was likely to be the preferable option, the rest of the council members would still convene.

As I neared the council room, my path brought me parallel to the windows of the ship, where I could watch as the second half of the ship pivoted in the distance.  It was slow, so slow I had to stop my running and compare it against the background of stars to be able to tell, watching as it eclipsed a peculiar grouping of seven stars shaped like a ring.  And within the windows of the other side, there was a flurry of movement, dark shapes that hustled through corridors, followed by bursts of the strange blue light that had occasionally flashed through the windows in the past.

“You!”  Shouted Segni, pointing at me as I burst through the doors of the council room, breathing heavily,  “Just who we were waiting for. Now we can begin!”

“Segni, as I was saying, our situation is dire,”  Said the head doctor, Hannah shaking by his side, “The lurch has caused dozens of injuries in the kitchens, from burns to cuts, and already we are stretched thin on herbs to treat infections- and that is just for the kitchens!  The number of reports of lacerations alone I expect in the next few hours is surely to be astronomical.”

“Then grow more herbs, Horatius,”  Said Segni, with a shrug, “So that we don’t face a shortage.”

“The bare minimum time I need to grow medicinal herbs, depending upon the varieties you require, is three weeks.”  I answered, and my muscles in my shoulders tightened as I thought how the overhead lights had started to dim when the ship moved, “Make that four weeks.”

“Fine.  In four weeks, you’ll have your herbs then.”  Said Segni.

“But the infections will have set by then!  We need them now, Segni!” Exclaimed the head doctor, as Hannah put her face in her hands.

“Then maybe,” snarled Segni, “You shouldn’t have used so much in the past!”

“And refuse treatment to those who needed it?”

“You could have stretched it.”  Said Segni, “Instead of using them for everyone who came crawling for aid. Obviously they need it more now.”

“There’s more,”  Said Elliot, his voice quiet from the other end of the table. The council turned to face him, a vein on his neck throbbing as he spoke and his eyes hard, “More news, after I took stock of the injuries in my kitchens.”

“Go on, then.” Said Segni, waving a hand.

“As you know, we rely upon porters for the transportation of food to the kitchens.  During the lurch,”  Elliot swallowed, then continued, “During the lurch, the majority of the porters were in the heavy room.”

My breath caught in my chest as Segni waited, his expression blank.  After all the hours I had spent in the heavy room, I knew the caution required when handling the equipment, how anyone who endangered others by using it inappropriately was swiftly punished.

“And?”  Segni said, his voice impatient.

“And I’ve already called for the doctors.”  Said Elliot, shaking his head and staring at the table, “It’s… It’s a mess.”

“We’ll send the porters back to clean up the weights then.”  Responded Segni, “The doctors wouldn’t be much help in lifting them.”

“No!”  Shouted Eliott, and I saw tears threatening spill onto his cheeks, “No!  It’s a mess because at least half the the porters are dead, Segni!  It’s a mess because the entire room is painted crimson and those who are not dead are severely injured, with little to no herbs to help them!  A wall of weights fell when the ship lurched – I’d like to think it killed them mercifully had I not heard the screams when I approached, but I did.  Oh I did.  And now they’re gone, half our labor force, but also our shipmates, our friends!”

“We can replace them with gardeners,”  Countered Segni, “They’re just porters, so their job can easily be learned. As well as the chefs who can help- hey, where do you think you are you going?  What are you doing?”

“I’m going somewhere I can be of use!”  Shouted Elliot as he reached the door, “Because that place obviously is not here!”  He slammed the door, the sound echoing throughout the chamber as Hannah stood and followed him, not saying a word as she departed.

“Half the porters dead,” I muttered, “The kitchens injured.  The doctors short on medicine.  The food stores low and half the gardens dead.”

“I know.”  Hissed Segni, “Don’t you think I know that?”

“But what about what happens next, Segni?  Look, out the windows.  The ship is coming together where the Hand of God smashed it apart.   The voice said the two halves of the ship are reuniting in a day, which means that everyone on that side will be able to come to this side.  Watch, through the window, see their half moving?”

“By the Hand of God,”  Whispered the head doctor, “He’s right. We need to call Elliott and Hannah back!  As well as the historian!  We’ll need full council to determine how to meet them.  It will be the first time in centuries.”

Segni squinted as he stared out of the window, then he leaned over the table, his nostrils flared and jaw clenched as he looked towards me, one of his hands resting inside the box that normally kept his strawberries.

“Like he said, someone will have to meet with them.  But this,”  He said, waving his other hand in the air, “All of this, how will this affect the birthday feast?”

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Chapter 15

The council met in secret, just before midnight when the rest of the ship was asleep.

Elliot had returned with Hannah, and hey took their seats at the far side of the table, their hands clasped together.  Of our class, they had been the first to marry, and often I forgot their relation during council meetings. The head doctor, Disci, sat across from them with his apprentice at his right side, who had delivered each of us the messages to attend.

“Everybody but Segni,”  Disci had told him, just after a heavily rationed dinner consisting of uncooked vegetables due to the low numbers of chefs on hand, “This must be a secret from him, for the good of the ship.  He must not know.”

So his apprentice delivered the message to each of us, and we waited until the bustling of the halls turned to silence before stealing away, careful not to make noise ourselves.

“It is evident,” Said Elliot, his voice low from his side of the table, “That the condition of the ship has reached a dire low.  Do we have body counts?”

“None from the gardeners,” I said, “Some minor injuries, but the doctors have already seen to those.  The soil broke most of their falls.”

“Four burns from the kitchens,”  said Hanna, “Six deep lacerations from knives.  The rest is manageable.  As you know, nearly everyone in there was injured in some fashion or another.”

“And the porters?”  Asked Elliott, turning to Disci.

“We saved who we could, and cleaned out the heavy room as best we could, but not all the stains could be removed.  But of the original porters, I would say only ten percent are fit to work, thirty percent injured, and ten more percent crippled for the long term.  And the rest- you know the rest.”

“I do,”  Said Elliot, somber, “With the blight in the fields, this could not have come at a worse time.  Already we are short staffed just to provide food and herbs.  Horatius, we need both of those, can you provide them?”

I frowned as he mentioned the blight, then responded, “Yes, I can.  If we can do away with the feast, we can devote half of the gardens to herbs and the other half to high yielding crops as opposed to strawberries.  As I said to Segni, four weeks for each, assuming that nothing changes.”

“The feast is cancelled,”  Hissed Elliot, “Damn the feast.  There is no such time for such trivialities.  Priority number one is those herbs, Horatius.”

“Agreed,” I answered, “But what about when Segni intervenes?”

“Prepare a feast for one,”  Responded Elliott, “It will be enough to suffice, and with the rest of the council on your side, he should listen to the majorities. Damn strawberries, in a time like this.”

“Done.  But now, we need to speak about a more important issue.”

“Yes, yes we do,” Murmured Disci and turned to the window, the rest of our eyes following.

Outside, the other half of the ship had turned, righting itself to be perfectly parallel with our end.  Its flank was illuminated by a strobing white light that emanated from just behind the corner of the window, where the two halves of the ship came together. Only a few hours ago it had originated, too bright to look directly into and mimicking the color of stars far away, accompanied by a hissing and a vibration that I could feel through my shoes.

“What caused this?”  Disci whispered, “And why now?  Do you think they know that this is our weakest moment?  Do you think they did it on purpose, as a strike against us?”

“Why should they?”  Elliot answered, arms folded across his chest, “The Hand of God struck hundreds of years ago.  If this was an act of aggression, then it makes no sense why they would have waited this long to perform it.  Besides, we were once one people before the Hand of God split us, and if the stories are to be true, we lived in even greater peace back then than we enjoy now. They’re probably just like us.”

“Probably,”  Said the head doctor, but his eyes narrowed.

“Probably,”  I repeated, but continued staring across, to where the gaunt faces scattered throughout the distant windows stared back.  Where there was the occasional flash of blue light,  and where I had seen the glinting of brandished cooking knives in the past.

“That being said,”  Said Elliott slowly, “We can never be too careful.  Where the ship is coming together, where it is joining, has anyone actually been there?”

“I have,”  I responded, and the other faces turned towards me, their eyebrows raised, and I quickly shut my mouth.  The control room was just underneath and three minutes walk to where the halves were coming together, close enough that Pliny had shown me the door that had once lead to the other half.

“Here,”  Pliny had said, pointing to the door that was wide as two men, with frost encrusted around its edges, “Here is where the ships used to connect.  In fact, it was the only spot where they connected, the logic being if one side of the ship contracted disease or underwent disaster it could be sealed off.  Based upon our current situation, I suppose the logic was sound.”

He traced the outline of the frame with his index finger, feeling the crease between door and wall.  I remembered studying the door, a solid metal slab with handholds inlaid near the center, though there was no knob or opening mechanisms.  The metal was smooth, so smooth I could see my own reflection peering back at me in it, almost as though another version of me was waiting right behind the door.  All except for the center, where a single word had been scratched into the metal between the handholds, chiseled with a heart dug into material around it.

Necti

“Necti?”  I remember having asked, “What’s that?”

“Likely some form of graffiti, committed far from where the rest of the ship would see to avoid punishment.  To be honest, I don’t know, but it’s been here since I was first shown the door.”

And above, where the top of the door reached the ceiling, something else was written.  Something small, that I had to stand back to see on my tip toes, and had to squint to read.

Seperate we fly.  Together we land.

Back in the council room, Elliot snapped his fingers, bringing my attention back to the meeting.

“Horatius, pay attention.  Why in the hand of god have you been there?”  He asked, tilting his head slightly.

“There, ah, I had to fetch ice when I was a porter,”  I lied, keeping my voice steady, “Tom strained himself in the heavy room, and he claimed his mother always said ice was a remedy.  But the ice grows too thin on this end of the ship, where hardly any frost forms on the walls, and a decent sized piece is difficult to find.  So I had to travel deep within the ship, all the way to the back.”

“And?  What did you see?”

“There’s only one entrance, and the door can be shut,”  I answered, “But there is no lock, so it will need to be held in place, if need be.”

“Alright,”  Said Elliot, “Here’s the plan then.  Together, we will go to greet them, assuming this door actually does open.  None of us will go to their side of the ship unless they trade with of their own people, and it will remain that way until we are absolutely certain that it is safe.  Unless there are objections, myself and Disci will be the spokesmen to negotiate peace and give an impression of strength.  Horatius, prepare a small basket of a variety of crops to present as a token of our goodwill. We’ll want the remaining porters there as well, in case we have to force the door shut.”

“I’ll have it ready by tomorrow morning.  According to the voice, we should expect the door to open around noon.  Plus I can lead you there.”

“Good,”  Said Elliot, and smiled, “Now see, that’s how you have a council meeting.  Without this feast nonsense that’s not going to happen anyways.”

“Not for you it won’t,” Shouted a voice from the door, and the council jumped, turning to see Segni with his finger pointed at Elliot.  His face was flushed bright red, spittle flying from his mouth with each words, his eyes so wide that the blood vessels were visible among the white. Nean and Tom stood at attention behind him, accompanied by two other porters, all with kitchen knives. And his younger brother at waited at his side, his own stomach starting to approach the size of Segni’s, such that both could not fit within the entrance at the same time.

“You traitor!  You dare plan a mutiny, you dare defy me as you chief?”

“How, how did you find out about this?”  Stammered Elliot, his face turning white,”No, your honor, we-”

“Lies!  Lies and flattery.  Nean, Tom, take him and lock him in one of the unused apartments, no food for three days so he can experience the food shortage first hand!  His wife too!  And I knew because you invited my brother, my own flesh and blood, to betray me as well!”

“We what?”  Exclaimed the head doctor, turning his head to his apprentice.

“You said everyone but Segni!”  He squeaked, “His brother is the historian, and on the council, so-”

“Here, he admits it!”  Shouted Segni, “I want them both locked away as well!”

“Segni, you can’t do this!”  I shouted, as Nean lead the porters into the room, seizing the accused, “We have to prepare to meet the others, to set our first impression!”

“And as chief, I obviously would be most suitable for the job.  Who else would they desire to meet, besides the leader?”

“You don’t understand, Segni, it could be dangerous.  We don’t know anything about them. We don’t know what they’ll do.”

“You’re right, Horatius.  Which is why you’ll be there, right by my side, to make sure that that nothing happens.  You said you knew the way to the door, and tomorrow you will lead me to it.”

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