“Reginald, a young boy aged twelve years, was caught stealing medicine denied to his ailing mother, on account that the doctors thought the chances of her recovery were too slim. This was his second offense, the first being theft of food the previous year, and he was sent to compost yesterday evening. His father, also named Reginald, fought the guards in an attempt to rescue him, and he too was sentenced to death. This marks the end of the Cooper line.”– History of The Empress: Book Fourteen
It had been a month since the island encounter, and life had quickly gone back to normal. Arthur was in the library and had just set the theater troupe up with the Canterbury Tales, and they were already busy running through the script. He’d already seen this play five times, but there were only a few different scripts aboard to use.
Gerald, one of the older mechanics, came in with four teenagers. Arthur greeted them, “Hey Gerald, I’ve got the welding manuals you’ll need for today ready, and a table prepared for you.”
Gerald replied, “Thanks Arthur, we’ll be in here the next two days to get these kids trained up. Then hopefully they’ll be some work for them to do this week so they get some experience.”
“Not too much work I hope,” Arthur said with a laugh. “I like it when the ship is in one piece.” Gerald took the kids over to the table and prepped them for his lesson. There was nothing else to do for the moment, so Arthur returned to reading a book on pet care. Pets didn’t exist anymore, but he enjoyed getting glimpses into what life was like in the old world. He read on for the next hour, Gerald’s voice droning on in the background, various outbursts as the actors practiced their lines. As he was turning one of the last few pages, a loud boom roared from beneath him. Arthur, startled, dropped his book and gripped his desk as a huge vibration spread from the floor and rose into the ceiling.
“SHIT!” Yelled Gerald as the tremors rocked him and he fell to the floor. Arthur, shaken, stumbled towards Gerald to try and help him. He was already being picked up by his students as he reached him.
“You okay?” Asked Arthur as he helped him into a seat.
Gerald groaned, “Aye, what the hell was that?” He put his hands out on the table to steady himself and noticed he was holding a crumpled half of a paper in each hand. Arthur grabbed them and frantically tried to straighten each half out. “Arthur, there are bigger things to worry about, the ship’s been hit by something.” Scolded Gerald.
Arthur sighed heavy. “Right…. right.” He collected himself and looked around. The library seemed undamaged, and the shaking had stopped. He turned to the students and asked if they were okay. They all nodded. “Well, best thing to do is wait here until a guard lets us know it’s safe.”
Gerald had also gained back some composure, and responded in disgust, “You coward. We need to protect the ship.” He stood himself back up, though still shaky on his legs. “Come on boys, let’s move out.”
Arthur hated confrontation. “Uh, no…no, no one can leave.” He breathed in and continued, “The hallway could be flooded, or…or there could a fire. We can’t risk anything happening to the library.”
Gerald blew air out his nose. “Well you stay here then, but we’re taking action, that’s our duty. Let’s go!” He walked towards the door. His students were hesitant but started following. Arthur knew he couldn’t let him open that door, he hurried past Gerald and stood in front of the door. “Arthur, I’ll only tell you once, you get out of my way.”
Gerald was intimidating, he was older but still muscular, especially compared to Arthur’s pudgy self. He summoned what courage he could and stood his ground. “Jerry, I am the department head of this library and I order you to stand down.” The threat was clear, disobeying an order from a department head was a punishable offense, this was drilled into everyone from childhood. The students knew it well and returned to their seats, although they were all visibly uncomfortable.
Gerald’s eyes were cold, intense. Arthur could tell he didn’t want to take orders from the librarian, especially when he believed he was being stopped from doing his duty. They both stood there for several moments, staring at each other. Arthur felt ready to start trembling but kept his composure. Finally, Gerald relaxed his shoulders and sighed, and took a step back. Arthur turned around and started to lock the door. “Okay, we’ll all wait here until we get word that it’s safe.” Before he could turn the lock, Arthur was grabbed by his shoulder and jerked into the floor.
He looked up and saw Gerald throw the door open. The moment he did, thick black smoke erupted into the room. It was only a few seconds before he couldn’t even see a few inches in front of his face. He inhaled and instantly felt his throat burn and started violently coughing. He stood up and brought his shirt up over his nose, which helped some. He tried to call out to the others, but just wound up coughing more. He tried to think of what he could do to help, he felt for the door and started banging on the metal with his fist, trying to orient the others to his position. It took a minute, but he felt someone pass by. He reached out and helped guide them one by one out the door.
Soon no one else was coming, he had counted nine people leave, but there had been ten others in the library. He wasn’t willing to leave anyone in here alone. He wandered out to try and find the last person, but soon became disoriented. His eyes were watering badly, and he had lost his sense of where the door was. His shirt fell down and before he could fix it, he accidentally inhaled another big breath of raw smoke. He started another coughing fit, and not stopping he fell onto his knees. He couldn’t see, and he was having a hard time breathing. He felt his consciousness slipping, and as he was going out he felt himself being pulled upwards…
Arthur came to on the deck. The sirens were going off, and there was a mess of people rushing every direction. He looked up and saw large plumes of smoke rising into the air. He coughed as he sat up. It was better, but his lungs were still raw and his eyes burned.
A doctor finished up with one of the theater girls and came over to Arthur. She gave him some water and checked him over. “You look awful.” She remarked.
“I know, the smoke probably didn’t help either.” He tried to laugh but it hurt, then he asked, “Is everyone okay?”
“For the most part. You and Gerald got the worst of it of everyone who’s gotten out so far. Gerald collapsed as soon as he dragged you outside. He’s stable but still unconscious.” She replied. Arthur couldn’t believe Gerald had opened that door, who knows what’s happened to his library. A knot formed in his stomach as he thought over the possibility that their entire collection could be ruined. The doctor finished checking him over, gave him some water, and said. “I think you’re going to be alright, come find me if you’re still having trouble breathing after a while. I’ve got more people to help.” She quickly stood up and jogged over to someone else who had just been dragged out of the ship.
Arthur tried standing, his legs were weak but he managed to pull himself up using a railing. He lifted the canteen up for a drink, it was soothing on his sore throat. He chugged half of it before he forced himself to stop and save the rest. As he looked around again, he spotted Gerald’s body, it looked like he was starting to stir. Arthur made his way along the railing until he reached him, just as his eyes strained to open. Gerald groaned and Arthur helped him to sit up. Gerald tried to say something but went into a coughing fit.
“Here, take my water.” Said Arthur as he handed him his canteen.
Gerald drank slowly, with much more restraint than Arthur had had, then cleared his throat and spit onto the deck. “Thank you, Arthur.” He said, then looked away and after a short silence, continued. “I shouldn’t have opened that door, I was foolish and put everyone in that room in danger. I’m sorry.”
Arthur thought about the harm Gerald might have caused to his library, and responded. “Well…I don’t know If I can forgive you right now.” He paused for a second, then added. “But thank you for coming back for me.”
Gerald nodded and said, “That’s fair, I still owe you for what I’ve done.” With that they both just sat for a while, passing the canteen back and forth until it was empty, and watching the situation progress. Security had donned protective suits and masks to find anyone still and pull them out. The suits were shiny and clean, it was the first time they’d been pulled from storage and used. They didn’t stay that way for long as they went into the smoke to find survivors. Arthur felt sick to his stomach as he watched everything unfold. The first people they brought up were passed out but still breathing, like him and Gerald had been. Then the bodies came, one by one, covered in burns and blackened, all found in the garden. He hoped they had at least died quickly. Arthur wondered what that meant for their main source of food. After a couple hours the smoke had mostly stopped, and those hiding out in the floors below the garden were pulled out, all fine and intact, as the smoke hadn’t affected them. Power was redirected to the ventilation system and the remaining smoke was pumped out of the ship. Thomas and Obadiah were in the middle of everything the whole time, giving orders and directing crews. After everyone had been accounted for and the situation was under some modicum of control, Thomas came over to Arthur.
If the captain was at all stressed about the ordeal, he wasn’t showing it. “It’s safe to go back inside now, I’m going to send you to the library to take stock of the situation and do damage control, I’ll send some helpers with you, feel free to direct them as you choose.” Said Thomas.
“Yes captain, right away.” Responded Arthur. He got up, feeling much better now, and started making his way back inside. Thomas motioned at a group and a small crew started following him.
Arthur tried to mentally prepare himself as he approached the library. The hallway walls were stained black from the smoke. It covered the lights too, and he could barely see as they made their way. He saw the entrance; the door was still open. He gasped as he walked inside. Soot was everywhere. He took a couple deep breaths to keep control of his emotions. He came upon some loose papers that had been left on the table, completely black. He tried to rub out the black but it was baked in. Arthur couldn’t stop a couple tears from coming out at this point. He went to the shelves and took stock of the literature there. There were several sections that were mostly single unprotected pages that had suffered the same fate as those left on the table. Their charts and some of the more important documents were stored in chests and had been protected from the smoke. He pulled a book off the shelf, the exposed edges were black, but upon opening the book, the contents were fine. He pulled several other books and all were the same, stained on the outside but fine on the inside. He noticed some of the covers he was able to smudge the soot off. He gave orders to the crew assigned to him to gather dry cloth and to very carefully work through the books and clean off what they could. He started to catalogue in his mind what had been completely destroyed. He was familiar with many of the volumes, and many people become familiar enough with particular works they use for work, that he thought they should be able to use their paper to partially recreate some of what they lost. This was still the worst thing to ever happen to the library; but he was relieved that it wasn’t quite as bad as he initially feared.
They worked all through the night, and most of the rest of the ship was tasked with some sort of assignment as well. Arthur was exhausted by daybreak, but department leaders were to report to the garden to meet about the situation. Arthur still had no idea what had actually happened.
Arthur stepped inside what was the garden, a huge room taking up several floors below deck. Every surface was black, not a single plant in sight. All the department leaders were standing in a circle, faces sullen. Thomas spoke. “I see we’re all here. It was a long and demanding night for all of us, and I imagine we’re going to have many long nights going forward. Let’s go ahead and take stock of the situation. Denise.”
Denise, the head of gardening, gave her synopsis of the situation. “An explosion occurred in the garden yesterday afternoon. We don’t know exactly what caused the explosion, but believe the chemicals used for the hydroponics were improperly mixed. The explosion completely destroyed some of our equipment, but between what’s in storage and what we can repair, we should be able to get the garden working again, though probably not back to full capacity. None of our plants survived the blast.” Her voice cracked and she paused. There was some trembling in her hands, but she kept her composure and continued. “Nor did anyone who was working within the garden when it happened. We have seeds that survived in storage, but it will take at least a year to get anywhere close to what we were producing, and at least six months before we will have any new food to harvest at all.”
Obadiah spoke, “Half of us will starve if that’s true. Do we have no faster solutions?”
“Nothing, we didn’t plan for something this catastrophic. We have food reserves, but even with heavy rationing it will run out well before we can grow enough to feed everyone. We could maybe go two months before we will have to choose who to feed and who to starve.”
Thomas asked Jules, the head of fishing, “Is there any way to increase what food we can take from the ocean?”
Jules replied, “You know the answer to that Captain. We already take everything we can. We’re lucky to find the fish and plants we do.”
While they talked, a terrible thought had been nagging at Arthur. After summoning enough courage he spoke up. “I have an idea, and I know no one here will like it. What if we were to go ashore, and find fresh plants to transplant into our new system, so we can resume harvesting right away.”
A flash of anger appeared on Thomas’ face. “Arthur, you know we can never go ashore. We are the last of the human race, what you are suggesting is a fool’s errand, one that would kill us all.”
Arthur stammered to respond, but Obadiah spoke instead, “I think it’s worth considering Captain. We can take precautions, send only a small team ashore to get what we need. We have the lifeboats; the ship doesn’t have to get close to shore.”
Thomas responded again, yelling this time. “And what if the team comes back to the ship and brings The Bug with them? The water is where we are safe, I will starve half the ship before I sentence every single person to death. I will hear no more of it.”
Obadiah stood silent for a moment before resigning. “Of course, Captain.” Arthur didn’t dare push it either.
Thomas breathed in deep through his nostrils, then returning to his normal restrained and dignified voice, spoke again. “Right, Denise, go ahead and make use of whatever resources you need to get the garden up and running as soon as possible, that is our highest priority. Jules, I want you to form a committee to brainstorm ideas to increase our food supply. The smallest chance is worth pursuing right now, our lives depend on it. Arthur, how is the library holding up?
Arthur got his composure back and tried to respond matter-of-factly. “Better than I expected, most of our collection is intact, if not dirty. Although I don’t know how the smoke will affect the books’ integrity in the long run. A decent chunk of documents were effectively destroyed, but I think many of them could be partially replaced from memory using our paper reserves.”
“You are authorized to access our paper, however, only for documents with utility. Unfortunately, stories and poems aren’t worth the paper.” Arthur nodded in agreement, saddened, though it was the response he expected. Thomas continued. “I spoke to Gerald, who admitted to opening the library door against Arthur’s orders, causing the damage. This was corroborated by others in the library at the time. Though it was his first offense, the consequences of his decision were grave, and I ordered him to be executed overnight.” Arthur and several others gasped; Gerald was well known on the ship. Obadiah looked away. Arthur felt sick. Gerald had harmed his library, but he didn’t want the man to die. Although, he wondered if he wouldn’t have been executed soon anyway. If Thomas had to start making decisions about who gets food, a prisoner would surely be the first to go.
Thomas went down the line with each department head, confirming their plan of action going forward and the priorities of their resources. As he was wrapping up he said, “Now we all know this a most terrible situation, the hardest tribulation we’ve ever faced in our history. We’re all going to do everything we can to save our people. Everyone on this ship needs to pull together, the most united we’ve ever been. For now, I don’t want the full gravity of this predicament to make way to the people. For anyone who asks, with heavy rationing we will have enough food until we make repairs, as long as everyone does their part. You’re all in charge for making sure your people stay in good morale. At the same time, you all need to make decisions on who we will keep and who we won’t.” This statement caught their attention. “As awful as it is, it seems we can’t keep everyone, and the sooner we remove mouths to feed, the more people we can save. Now let’s all go do our jobs.”
The atmosphere was even gloomier than when they started. Despair was on everyone’s faces. Even Captain Thomas, ever the stoic, had some anguish in his eyes. Everyone went to their duties, preparing their lies for the people. Arthur returned to his smoke-stained library. His help had been reassigned elsewhere on the ship, so for the first time since the explosion he had a moment alone. He sat down to clean his books, and wept.