Estimated Reading Time: 45-50 Minutes
“As the last known ship on the water, the people have stopped calling the ship by her name ‘The Empress’ and now simply refer to her as ‘The Ship’.”– History of The Empress: Book Twelve
Arthur woke up to sirens. He focused his attention as he shook off the daze of sleep. The blaring was coming in groups of three; land had been spotted! He rolled out of bed and quickly got dressed, eager to see it. Stepping outside, several other neighbors were rushing out of their containers as well. He joined them in running through the metal pathways to the side of the ship.
There was quite a crowd gathered as he got near the railing. It was hard to see between all the shifting heads, but he could make out an island just a couple miles away. He was surprised by how near they were, Arthur had never been so close to land. Others had caught on as well.
“Are we safe?” “How could they let us get so close?” “The sun just rose and it was a cloudy night, you can’t expect them to have reacted sooner.” “You can almost make out the trees, wow.” “What if we had beached? We could all be dead right now!” “We’re still plenty far, navigation knows what they’re doing.”
Arthur turned his attention from the crowd and studied the island more. It really looked quite beautiful, glistening sand melding into a thick forest. He was a little sad this would be the closest he would ever get to it. The riggers had already released the sails on the side of the ship, and they were turning away. He watched for a while longer. People slowly started to leave as the island got smaller and smaller.
Just as he turned to walk back home a messenger approached him. “Arthur! There you are. Captain wants you at the bridge.”
“I knew something would happen on my day off, I’ll head up. Thanks for letting me know.”
“My pleasure.” The courier disappeared into the maze of cargo containers and Arthur jogged to the bridge castle . The bridge was up several flights of stairs, and he was short of breath as he made it to the top. Opening the door, he noticed the view of the ship through the large window that wrapped the bridge. Rows upon rows of cargo containers topped with solar panels; little people weaving in and out. For how big it seemed from the main level, their world seemed much smaller against the backdrop of the open ocean. Just a pile of metal boxes floating on the water.
All the department heads were already there, caught up in conversation. As the librarian, he was technically a department head too, though he only had himself to manage.
Captain Thomas saw Arthur and motioned him over. “Thanks for coming Arthur. We were just discussing the island pass from this morning, we were all quite surprised.”
First Lieutenant Obadiah added, “Our understanding was that we were at least sixty miles from land, so to be within only a few miles of an island at daybreak was very concerning.”
Arthur responded, “Our records don’t show us getting that close to land since we sent the last expedition 200 years ago.” Arthur took in a breath, as he was still winded. “I heard a lot of scared voices gathered by the railing.”
Thomas replied, “Yes, we’ll have to hold a town hall to calm everyone. For now, I’d like to record this event and review our charts so we can recalculate our heading. Would you take us to the library Arthur?”
“Of course, Captain,” said Arthur. He rather he had been sent to meet them in the library in the first place, but there was no use in griping about it now. The group made their way downstairs. The bridge was the top level and the library located just below the main deck. The library had been built into the center of the ship to make sure their records would be as safe as possible. Having arrived Arthur unlocked the door and welcomed everybody inside. They each took a place around one of the tables while Arthur laid out their charts. They reviewed their position and heading, and concluded that they were mostly correct in their position, but that the island they passed had been previously undiscovered. The map was updated, and their current plan reconfirmed.
Arthur put away the charts and unlocked a second door in the back. Arthur didn’t have a reason to go in this room often, but it was his favorite room in the ship. He opened the door and took a moment to take it in. Among storing their historical documents and most precious books, this room contained the ship’s entire supply of unused paper. Arthur loved the idea that they could take these blank slates and turn them into something new. But outside of occasions like these, nothing new would ever be written. This paper’s usage was entirely pragmatic. They couldn’t afford to waste it on the creation of new stories or plays. Once it was gone, it was gone.
He picked up the historical log. They were on the fifteenth book capturing the ship’s history, and it was nearly full. His grandfather had started this one nearly sixty years ago, and he would be the one to finish it and start a new one. This book has taken the longest to write of any of the history books so far. The first ten years of the ship’s history produced the first seven books, but as time progressed, they saw less and less other boats. The rest of humanity died out and the only things to write about was what happened on the ship, and leadership has done their best to make sure there is as little to write about as possible. The last event was from eight months ago, when a man had been caught stealing from the garden. It was his second offense, which meant he had been executed and sent to compost.
After grabbing fresh ink and paper, He sat down and recorded the captain’s words describing today’s events. Captain Thomas kept things dry and factual as usual, noting how close they came to the island, the time at which it was sighted, and the addition of the island to our charts. He did make a note that the populace was upset by the event, but that there was no reason for alarm.
The captain finished and then said, “We had an exciting morning, but it’s time we all returned to our duties.” Everyone started shuffling out, but Thomas and Obadiah stayed behind. Thomas spoke to Arthur, “Thank you for facilitating today’s writing, I’m aware you were supposed to be enjoying a resting day.”
“Oh, it was no trouble Captain,” Arthur replied. “It’s not like we planned on nearly hitting an island.”
“No, but we were lucky today, I fear what would have happened had we beached. Our position is perilous enough without land sneaking up on us on a cloudy night.”
Obadiah chimed in, “The people are riled up as you heard. We are going to hold a town hall meeting tonight and wanted you to share a story from the ship’s history, something that speaks to the importance of unity and trust. Stories help us stay glued together I think.”
Thomas spoke up again. “Indeed. Unity is important, and we can’t function if people question the capabilities of the leadership. I think The Ark incident would do well for the message Arthur.”
Arthur said, “I’d be glad to, I know that story well enough, I can prepare something by tonight.”
“Thank you so much Arthur,” said Thomas. “And I apologize again for working you when you’re supposed to be resting. I’ll see to it that you have another resting day to replace today.” Thomas and Obadiah left, and Arthur went to the room in the back to review the histories and prepare the story.
Everyone gathered at the bow of the ship for the town hall. It was the only open space that could accommodate everyone aboard. There was a platform at the very front of the ship where Captain Thomas, Obadiah, and Arthur stood together, overlooking the crowd. Arthur felt out of place being showcased right next to the two officers. The captain was stately and self-assured; there was a quiet certainty in every movement he made and word he spoke. Although he was pushing sixty, he was still fit and in good health. The Lieutenant was in his mid-thirties, only a couple of years older than Arthur, but in much better shape, and possessing much more charisma and confidence than him. Arthur felt very unimpressive standing there on the stage.
Thomas stepped forward and started his speech. “We’ve all had a rousing morning. Many of you are worried about how close we came to land today. The island we saw had not been previously known on our charts, but we were never in any danger of beaching. We saw it at daybreak with plenty of room to maneuver, and we would have picked it up on our instruments if we had gotten any closer.” Arthur knew that wasn’t true, many of the ship’s instruments had been damaged over time, and nothing they can still use would have helped them. But that wasn’t public knowledge, it was a good lie. Thomas went on for a while longer, until he got to where Arthur came in. “Now I think it’s good for us to remember our history, to remember why it’s important that we trust and cooperate with each other. Our librarian, Arthur, will be sharing a tale from our past. If you would Arthur.”
Arthur stepped up to the front of the stage, every eye upon him, waiting for how he would inspire them. He always had a tough time getting his voice to carry, he just hoped they would be able to hear him. “Thank you, Captain. Uh, this story is from one hundred and fifty years ago, of The Ark, the last ship that we ever encountered.” Some murmurs swept through the crowd, he hoped it meant they were interested. “We had responded to their radio for help, the first message we’d received in ten years, and the last one we ever had. The last of their ship was disappearing under the waves as we arrived, and the survivors were waiting in their lifeboats. What had happened to their ship? Their second-in-command had convinced part of the populace that it was time they returned to land. They had recently had an accident that damaged their desalinator, and they were scared they would die of dehydration otherwise. He led a mutiny against their captain, and took over the ship. In his haste to go ashore, they disregarded safety protocols while sailing through a dangerous storm. The ship took on too much water, and they fled as it sank. Those who had participated in the mutiny were left to the sea, and the rest of the survivors were welcomed aboard and are part of our lineage today.”
“Thank you, Arthur.” Said Captain Thomas as he walked back to the front of the stage. “It’s a terrible thing when the rules that keep us safe are disregarded. We are the last of humanity, it is all our very great responsibility to keep each other alive, to protect this ship that we all call home. It can be tempting to have doubts, but it is your complete trust in me, Obadiah, your department heads, that keeps us alive and breathing. We’ve survived the ocean for three hundred years. Do your job, obey the laws, we’ll be here for three hundred more.” Captain took a step back, Obadiah started clapping. The department leads joined in, followed by the rest of the crowd.
It was clear the town hall was over, and the crowd started shuffling back towards their containers or back to their duties. Arthur was glad to get off the stage and finally head home. As he laid in his bed, he imagined what it would be like to have walked that island. To touch the sand, the trees, the dirt. The image of the beach and the forest was burned into his head. Of course, he would never know, to set foot on land was to die. All he would ever know was books and metal.