“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.
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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.
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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.
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“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?”
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I was eighteen when Pliny died, in the Year of Feasts.
Just two years prior I had been added to the chief’s council, Pliny taking me to one of their meetings and addressing Segni.
“Your honor,” Pliny said, bowing low, “I come to you today with a petition that will succeed only in strengthening the continued success of the ship.”
“Yes?” Segni said, lounging in his chair and chewing on a strawberry. He had decreed the last year that the chief be provided with triple rations, such that he not be distracted by hunger or lack of energy when making decisions. And since that decision, his face had grown slightly more round, and his shirts slightly tighter.
“Within your council, you have representation from the doctors, from the historians, from the cooks,” said Pliny, “But what you do not have is representation from the farmers, from those who provide your food. It would be wise, chief, to include them in order to predict crop yields and set the desired crops for the year.”
“I do agree,” Said Segni, “Such as strawberries, which have been smaller this month than usual.”
“Exactly, your honor. Exactly. So it is with you acceptance that I propose to appoint a gardening relations, to make your wishes more clear in the fields.”
“Oh?” Said Segni, and cast his eyes on me, “Sure, go on then. I’m sure Horatius will fetch him from the gardeners.”
“Your honor,” Interrupted Pliny before I could speak, “Actually, I have elected Horatius to fill this role.”
Segni’s eyes widened and he coughed, a cough that spread into laughter as bits of fruit flew from his mouth.
“Him?” He said, struggling to catch his breath, “Him? Oh Pliny, what a joke, he can hardly keep his place in the fields, let alone the council. I nominate Skip.”
Beside Pliny I gritted my teeth, keeping my gaze straight. Word had started circulating the ship after I won my bet with Skip about my methods of farming. Few seemed to mention the success I’d seen, focusing rather on how I’d thrown out seeds, or changed from the methods of the past, and had simply been lucky.
“Oh, but that is precisely why we need him, chief.” Said Pliny with a smile, “You see, I would hesitate before pulling Skip from the fields to attend meetings, in case the crops falter in his absence. And Skip is smarter than most the gardeners- no, we need someone that the average gardener can relate to, someone who they see as an equal or else they will not listen to him. Plus with Horatius your yields will not be disrupted, and he will have less time to cause issues in the fields if he is in meetings. Furthermore, he is able to represent the porters aft er the time he spent in their ranks. Chief, I advise Horatius not because he is the best, but rather because his skills are replaceable, and he will not be missed in his absence.”
“Hmm.” Said Segni, narrowing his eyes at me, “I suppose that is true. But will you keep your word and tell my wishes to the other gardeners? What if they do not listen to you, what then?”
“Your honor,” I said, bowing lower than Pliny, “All my life I have faced adversary and dissent. I will relay you word even if it means damage to my reputation, which is already marred, or loss of the few friends that I have. I am but your servant, and have no other ties.”
Segni eyes gleamed as I bowed a second time, and he nodded.
“Then I consent,” He said, his arms stretching wide, “Servant.”
Council meetings occurred once per week, consisting of Segni relating his wishes to his leadership team.
“Today is the anniversary of my father’s death and my coronation,” Segni said, smiling, a year after I had been on the council, “And as such, I call for a celebration.”
“A feast, you honor?” Asked Elliot, who was on the council after quickly rising through the ranks as chef.
“Not a feast, Elliot. Feasts! A year of them, to signify the bountiful years to come.”
Pliny cleared his throat and I spoke, keeping my voice level.
“We cannot accommodate that much food from our gardens, Segni. With the limited water supply, we cannot afford such waste.”
“Dare call it waste again and you will be a porter again!” Segni shouted, pointing a finger at me,” I have decreed it, and thus shall it be. I will have extra workers delivered to the fields.”
“From where?” Asked Elliott, shaking his head.
“From where they are idle in other departments,” Said Segis, “But in the far future, we will need more workers. Which is why I am commanding that each family strive to become larger as well, so that we can grow as a society.”
“But the water,” I said, “Even with more workers, we will not have the water to grow.”
“We haven’t tried it yet, so we don’t know,”countered Segni, “”But until then we will dedicate one hundred percent of the fields to growing food. Elliott, the feasts will start next week.”
“But what about the herbs!” Cried a doctor representative, “We cannot apply medicine without our herbs!”
“Last I checked, you had a year’s supply.” Said Segni, “And I said we were having a year of feasts. They’ll last.”
“But that’s for emergencies,” Protested the doctor, “Emergencies only!”
“And this is one. Is the honoring of your chief not a top priority? Is not the remembrance of his father an emergency in itself?
“But-” Said the doctor, but Segni raised his eyebrows. “Do you wish to be a porter, doctor? Do you really wish to speak against me?”
So the meeting concluded, and the feasts began the next week.
The first was successful, as was the second, and even the third. But by the fourth, chefs were cutting rations from the other meals to ensure there was enough to cover for the feast. Water was lower than it had ever been, the reservoirs often dry, rows of plants that required greater amounts dying off.
And with the frenzied production and cooking, there were more burns, cuts, and other injuries, causing the doctors to fly through their supplies faster than typical. Stored herbs were not as potent as fresh ones either, so they found themselves using more to treat smaller injuries.
It was halfway through the Year of Feasts when Pliny cut himself falling down a flight of stairs, the bloody laceration stretching from his shoulder to forearm. Typically, on a younger man, the cut would have healed quickly. And even at Pliny’s age, with the help of doctors, it was nothing to be concerned about.
If there was medicine to treat it.
“Horatius,” Gasped Pliny, coughing on his bed, green pus oozing from an arm that had steadily lost function, “Horatius, I want you to know, I regret those years ago not declaring you historian. I regret not standing up to the chief.”
“You still taught me,” I said, wiping the sweat off his forehead with a rag, “You did everything you could, Pliny. I can never thank you enough for that.”
“No, I didn’t.” He said, “You can see the state of the ship. It is not enough to know the stories as historian, Horatius. You must *use* them too. And I should have prevented this, I should have seen it coming more clearly.”
“You did,” I answered, my eyes watering as his turned glassy, “And you took measures against it.”
“There are other measures,” Said Pliny, “Actions that I was too much of a coward to do. And other things, darker things that I could have done. I put you on the council to bring you closer to Segni, to intervene when you can, so promise me something, Horatius. Promise me that if the time comes, you’ll take action. Promise me that the stories remember me one day as the man who prevented the disaster of the ship, not the one who caused it. Promise me that.”
“I promise, Pliny,” I said, as Clea started sobbing again at the edge of the bed from where she held his hand.
“Stories are just stories,” Pliny mumbled, the spirit fleeing his body, “Stories cannot feed people. Stories cannot give water. But one who knows the stories can, and he must.”
I cried that day, tears falling down my cheeks as the doctors collected Pliny’s body. More of them than when my own father passed away in his sleep the year before.
And staring outside the window of my room, long after sleeping hours had began, I saw a familiar face on the other side of the ship. One who had grown older with me, who now had her hand against the glass, and watched as I broke out in sobs once more.
When dawn was still several hours away, and sleep still impossible, I made my way to the room that Pliny had showed me. And as I opened the books, and began to study, I remembered his final words.
Promise me that if the time comes, you’ll take action.
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