“It has been two weeks since we have sent the expedition to land. We have seen no signs of activity on the beach, and similar to the previous expeditions, now presume them to have perished to The Bug. We are leaving this position and resuming our previous course.”History of The Empress: Book Ten
Obadiah was quick to prepare the ship for the trip. They charted a course to shore. They would arrive in less than a week’s time. Obadiah made sure safety protocols were top of mind, he didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past. Arthur was to prepare training for the expedition crew.
The morning after the town hall, Arthur was in the library searching the shelves for relevant books. Most of the titles still weren’t legible after getting caked in soot, but he had where each book was pretty much memorized regardless. Denise walked in while he was rummaging. She looked stressed. “How are you holding up Denise?” Asked Arthur.
“As well as I have to be.” She replied. “I don’t really have the luxury to let myself fall apart right now.”
“I get that.” He said, and after pausing for a second continued. “I didn’t have the chance to say it at the funeral, but I’m sorry about what happened. I know most of them were your guys.”
She nodded and then looked away saying, “I don’t know what went wrong, but it’s my garden, whatever happened is my fault.”
“You can’t put that on yourself Denise. It was a freak accident; you couldn’t have done anything.”
She got angry and yelled back at him. “Explosions don’t just pop up from nothing Arthur!” She took in a deep breath and sat down, then said.” I’m sorry, it’s just I’m responsible for the garden, anything that happens to it or my crew is on me.”
He sat down next to her and said, “You’re right, I’m sorry. I don’t know what it’s like to be accountable for other people, just books. But I do know that you might be better off if you did let yourself fall apart, at least for a minute.”
“I can’t be weak right now, not in this crisis.”
“It’s not weak, I bawled me eyes out after the explosion, and all I lost was some scraps of paper. This sucks Denise, it’s okay to process that.”
She leaned into the table and buried her face into her hands. He saw a couple tears roll down her cheek. He put his hand on her shoulder, and then she did start to cry. They sat like that for a few minutes, as she let out all the emotions she’d been suppressing for the last week. As she started calming back down he walked to his desk and grabbed a scrap of cloth so she could wipe off her face. “Better?” He asked.
She took it and wiped her last tears away. She was quiet for another minute still and then said. “A lot actually. Thanks Arthur.” She paused and then chuckled softly saying, “You can’t tell anyone you saw me cry.”
“Of course not.” He replied. “You’ve got a bad bitch reputation to uphold. Now I never asked, did you come in here for anything?”
“Oh yeah. I volunteered to lead the expedition, since I felt guilty, and also I’m the best person for identifying what plants to bring back. So I need to review the plant encyclopedia.”
Arthur responded. “I’m surprised you even need to look at it, you must have gone through it a thousand times already.”
She chuckled and said, “Well I have to teach the expedition crew what we’re looking for, so I want to make sure I have my facts straight.”
He went to grab the book. The title wasn’t legible, but he knew where it was by memory. It was a thick, tattered volume that he wondered how it still stayed in one piece. He laid it down in front of her and said, “Here. You’re going to do great Denise.”
She didn’t respond, just smiled back at him, then she took the book and started her research. Arthur went back to his own work.
A couple days later he had Denise and ten other explorers gathered around a library table for his lesson. He brought out the closest thing they had to a book on survival, “What Every Boy or Girl Needs to Know: A Guide to Camping Outdoors.” It was made for children, but it still covered some key concepts. They went over how to build a fire, how to find drinkable water, and some basic first aid. He opened it up to any questions they had about the land, and he would try to answer. Of course, the first question that came up was, “What about The Bug, do you really think it’s gone?”
Arthur responded, “Well, I really have no idea. I think it’s a real possibility, with how long it’s been since they’ve had a food source. But if I was to tell you there was no risk at all I’d be lying to you.”
They all soaked that in for a second. Then another person asked, “Well, what can you tell us about it?”
“Not a lot, but we do have some written about it, mostly from journals people wrote at the beginning of our history, before we started hoarding paper.” Said Arthur. He continued, “It was the belief at the time that they were created in a lab as a form of bio-warfare. They appear to live in the ground, burrow into people and animals to eat them from the inside out, laying eggs in their victims as they feast. One journal entry notes them seeing a corpse wiggling at the side of the road, before it erupted with an outpour of beetle-like creatures.”
“What’s a beetle?” Someone asked.
“Good question.” Said Arthur. He knew there was a picture of one in one of the books, he thought for a second, before pulling out a children’s book about a lonely bee. He flipped to a page about the bee meeting a grumpy beetle, and set it on the table for them to see. “As you can see, their main feature is a large protective shell.” The group uneasily took in the creature. “That’s really all we have on The Bug. No one who survived to make it on the ship really got a good look at it. But it’s imperative that if it is still out there, and anyone gets attacked, that they don’t come back on the ship, because then it could kill everyone aboard.” Everyone nodded, they understood the gravity of it.
They went through a couple other questions about what they might expect on land, and then Denise took over to go over the types of plants they were searching for. She pulled out the plant encyclopedia and explained the characteristics of each plant, so that everyone would know what to look for.
Thomas sat in his cell, a locked room in the bowels of the ship. He had spent his first few hours demanding to be released, but after continuing to be ignored by the guard, finally resigned himself to quietly preserve what remained of his dignity. He heard a voice outside the door, and then Obadiah walked in.
“I’m surprised you have the stomach to show your face to me, traitor.” Spat Thomas.
Obadiah sat the tray down and said. “I’m sorry Captain, but I couldn’t just accept killing people off, not without trying to save them first.”
“You’re a coward is what you are, and you’ll kill everyone on the ship for it.”
“If this doesn’t work, I’ll be the first to sacrifice myself. I know you think this is a fool’s errand, and it very well could be, but it’s what we have to do. We’re already making out way towards land, I’ll try and keep you updated.” Obadiah left, and Thomas walked over to the door.
“You ready to be eaten when we get to shore?” He asked the guard. The guard glanced back at him, but said nothing.
The next few days were a blur for Arthur. Lots of people needed information preparing for the expedition; it was the most research he had ever done. Work was being done right until the day they arrived. Arthur was standing with Obadiah and Denise in the garden when the sirens went off. Groups of three, they had reached land, the first time in his lifetime they’d done it on purpose.
“We’re actually here.” Said Arthur.
“Come with me to the bridge.” Said Obadiah. “Let’s see it.” The three of them made their way up the stairs to the bridge. The helmsman was up there with a messenger. They walked up to the window together and took in the view. They were still a ways away, Arthur could just make out the tree line in the distance. They stood and watched in silence as they approached, the landscape slowly becoming larger and grander. Eventually Arthur could start to make out the individual trees just beyond the shore. As soon as they were close enough, Obadiah ordered the messenger to have them anchor the ship, and he rushed off to deliver the message. A couple minutes later they saw the sails being retracted, and the ship slowed as the anchor dragged on the ocean floor.
They were about a half-mile from shore now, the closest Arthur, or anyone, had ever been to land. He felt an odd mixture of great excitement and overwhelming dread. Everything he had been taught his whole life told him this was wrong, that they should turn the boat around and flee. But everything his heart yearned for told him to jump off the boat, swim to shore, and disappear into this lost world. He wanted to see all the things he had spent his whole life reading about. Houses and cars and playgrounds, relics of a lost civilization. “It’s beautiful isn’t it?” He asked out loud.
“Aye” Answered Obadiah. “It’s a shame we’ve had to avoid it for so long.” They all took in the view for a few minutes longer, then Obadiah said. “Right, there’s work to do. Both of you make sure you’re ready to leave in the morning.” Obadiah and Denise both went downstairs. Arthur had already prepared all he needed to and stayed to admire the panorama before him.
Three of the exploration crew were sent over on a lifeboat first. They were going to camp on the beach overnight to see if it was safe, and if they lived, the rest of the crew was to join them in the morning. Arthur watched as the boat rowed to shore. Tomorrow he would be in their shoes. Finally, he would do what was always just a daydream. He loved the people of the ship, but this wasn’t how humanity was meant to exist. The ship kept them safe, sure. But it was also their prison. Arthur wanted to do more than just survive.
The next morning came, and the crew was still alive on the beach. Arthur, Denise, and the other seven explorers loaded into the lifeboat. A good size crowd had gathered to send them off. Everyone was anxious for how the expedition would go. Many still didn’t like the plan, but no one wanted to start killing people off, so it kept on going. Obadiah made a short speech about how important this all was and lowered them into water. Arthur took a paddle and they made their way to the beach. Not even halfway through and Arthur’s arms were on fire. One of his crewmates could tell he was struggling, and switched seats with him.
Denise was sitting across from him now. “How are you feeling?” He asked her.
“I’m a little worried.” She admitted. She paused and looked down, then looked back at him, leaned in, and whispered. “Honestly, I think we’re all going to die.”
Arthur responded, “Don’t worry, we’ll be fine. The overnight crew is still fine, we’ll be okay.”
She stared out at the approaching scenery and said solemnly. “I hope you’re right.”
They finally reached the beach. Arthur stepped out of the boat and planted his feet on the Earth for the first time. He wobbled trying to stand in the sand. The ground wasn’t swaying back and forth, he found it incredibly hard to keep his equilibrium. he tried taking a few steps and fell face-first into the sand. One of the guys who stayed overnight laughed and helped him up. “It takes a minute to get used to.” Arthur focused on balancing himself. The sand was uneven, which felt weird. Everything on the ship was flat. The rest of the crew was having trouble too. It was a little comical, like something he would see in a play.
Arthur got down on his knees to actually get a good feel of the sand. He dug his hands in and let it slip between his fingers. He hit something hard and cold, and pulled a shiny little rock out of the beach. He rolled it around in his hand, admiring it. He slipped it into his pocket, a token of his first experience on land.
Then he stood, and trudged up the beach towards the tree line. He noticed how the ground got harder as he hit the soil. He walked up to a tree and placed his hand on the trunk. He had read the word tree a million times in different books. But this was the first time he had ever touched one. It was hard, and rough, and the bark had little valleys and peaks as he ran his hand along it. It was amazing. Arthur couldn’t help but tear up as he took it in.
After they got their bearings, they huddled to decide on a course of action. Denise was in charge, and started speaking. “Alright, our mission is to find edible plants to bring to the ship. You all know the identifying characteristics of each plant we’re looking for. The most important thing we do is to keep track of where we are. This is a new experience for all of us and it will be easy to be disoriented. We don’t know what this landscape looks like or where we’re going. We need to keep track of landmarks so we can find our way back to shore. Some of us have compasses, it’s important to note that the beach will always be east. If you can find the beach, you should be able to make your way back to the camp. Everyone understand?” They all nodded. “Alright, let’s go.”
With that they all made their way into the forest. After only a few minutes of walking, Arthur saw something moving on the ground. Kneeling down he saw tiny creatures moving in line with each other. Denise caught what he was looking at, “My god, is this The Bug?”
“No no, wait, it’s okay. I’ve seen pictures of these, they’re called ants. harmless.” He replied.
“Serious? I didn’t think anything would still be alive.”
“I’m surprised too, maybe The Bug had no interest in smaller creatures, or enough survived that they were able to repopulate after The Bug starved itself out.”
They walked farther and farther into the forest. Denise would stop every once in a while to examine a new plant. She found a couple herbs that she kept, but nothing she wanted to use for the garden.
After a while they came across their first relic of the old world, a crumbling stone wall. Arthur ran his hands across the top. Someone had built this hundreds of years ago and was just now being seen again by human eyes. They each climbed over and after not much more walking came across a ruin. There were only a couple spots of brick showing under a blanket of moss and vines. The entryway had no door, and one of the guys ventured in first to test if it was safe. Arthur sat down in the grass to catch his breath, this was the most he’d ever had to exercise.
After a few minutes the guy yelled out that it was safe, and they made their way in. Any crack in the floor had some sort of plant sprouting out of it, but the house was beautiful. Old faded photographs on the walls, peeling wallpaper, a fireplace. It was like stepping into one of the photos on the ship. Sometimes he had questioned if the old world was ever really real, as if mankind had always existed on the ship, but this was real proof. He could touch and feel and see things that were just legends a week ago.
Something familiar caught his eye on a shelf. A book. He picked it up and dusted off the cover. It was a new title, something he’d never read before. There were new books to find in this land, if they found fresh paper, they could maybe even make new ones. He saw Denise shake her head at him as he dropped the book into his sack. They moved into the back of the house. Arthur marveled at every little relic he passed by.
Denise opened a door and called for them to come look. Arthur and a couple others walked into a larger room with some metal cabinets and tools strewn around. There was a rusted heap of metal in the middle. “This is a…car, right Arthur?” Asked Denise.
“I believe it is.” He answered. He saw a door on the opposite side was open and walked around to look inside. “Oh shit.” He exclaimed as he reached the other side. There was a skeleton hanging halfway out of the car. “I guess they were trying to hide but it was too late.”
One of the other explorers asked, “That’s not gonna happen to us is it?”
Arthur was about to reply when Denise said hurriedly. “I’m sure we’ll be fine. Just keep your wits about you. We should get back to the mission.” Denise had everyone file out of the house so they could continue looking for food plants.
A bit farther into the forest the trees cleared up a little bit. Something caught Denise’s eye and she ran forward a bit and pulled at a plant on the ground. Pulling it free she held it up and Arthur saw a fat brown bit at its roots. “What’s that?” Asked one of the explorers.
“It’s a potato!” She exclaimed. “We can eat it.” She walked a couple steps and pulled out another one. “There’s a bunch here, everyone start grabbing them. The leaves are poisonous so make sure to break them off, no reason for them to take up space.” She broke the stem on hers to show everyone.
Everyone fanned out and started pulling up potatoes and stuffing them in their sacks. Arthur asked Denise. “Will these work for the garden?”
She replied. “Unfortunately these are root vegetables, and they won’t grow well in the hydroponics. It’ll be fine food for the ship though, and it’ll be a nice treat for everyone to have a new type of food.”
“At the very least it’ll be good for morale to have something on top of the thin rations we’ve been getting.” Said Arthur.
They quickly filled all their sacks with potatoes, and there were still plenty more in the field. They would be back. There was another ruin of a house on the other side of the field. Denise found a large pot inside and had one of the guys carry it. They doubled back and were able to retrace their steps back to camp without much issue.
They signaled the ship and before too long a lifeboat started making their way towards them. Denise cleaned the pot out in the ocean while everyone else washed the dirt off the potatoes. She instructed everyone to examine each potato for damage, she didn’t want the possibility that The Bug could be hiding in a potato and make it onto the boat.
Two people arrived in the rowboat. Denise explained these were just for food and once a potato was rinsed and inspected it was thrown into the boat. They were able to finish loading by sundown and kept a few for their own rations. Arthur helped Denise start a fire and to fill the pot with seawater. They threw the potatoes in the pot, added some of the herbs Denise had found, and let them stew in the boiling water. They sharpened some nearby branches to skewer the potatoes on and passed them around. When it was all done everyone sat around the fire with their potato on a stick.
Arthur felt inspired to speak and got everyone’s attention. “I’m not much for speeches, but I think today warrants one. You were all brave to volunteer to be here, and I’m glad you came. We’re pioneers. Today, we did and saw things no one has done or seen for three hundred years. The first since the old world ended to walk on land and live. The first to see ants, the first to enter a house, and now…” He held up his stick and said loudly, with more fervor than he’d ever had before. “The first to eat a potato.” A couple of the guys started to feel his energy and whooped in response. “We’re the beginning of a new era. To being the first.” He held up his potato again towards the center and everyone held their stick in to join his.
After that everyone chowed down on their potatoes and broke into conversation about how the day had gone. Denise tapped on Arthur’s shoulder and asked if they could talk. They walked down the beach a ways until they were out of earshot. She said, “I’m worried Arthur. This place is amazing, but from the way you sounded it sounds like you want to stay here.”
“Well, if we don’t die here it seems like the thing to do.” He responded.
“Oh, come on Arthur. We can’t stay here, it’s dangerous. It’s pretty but it’s a place of death. You saw that skeleton.”
“It was, lifetimes ago. It’s hard for me to shake the feeling we shouldn’t be here too. But that’s just because it’s what I’ve been told my whole life. Now that we’re actually here, I’ve never been more sure of what I’ve wanted. This is where we belong. It’s where I belong at least.”
“I don’t know… I don’t know if even Obadiah would want us to stay here. He wants us to quickly get the plants for the garden so they can leave. I think Obadiah fully expects us to die here as well.”
Arthur put his hand on her shoulder. “Well we’ll prove Obadiah wrong. We’ll prove it to him, to Thomas, and everyone else who thinks we can’t survive here. All we have to do is not die.” He gave her a little smile.
She did not return it. “Alright, well, time will tell. I guess we should head back to the group, it’s getting awfully dark.”
They continued to search the land for the next week. They worked on emptying the potato field. They found fields of lettuce and strawberries, which Denise said would work in the hydroponics, and started transferring them over to the boat. Denise picked up spices and herbs whenever she found them. They wouldn’t use space for them on the boat but she like that she could actually flavor her food for once with something other than salt. Arthur would collect trinkets whenever he found something he liked, and added to his stockpile of books. Most books he came across had been ruined by water and time, but he found a good one tucked away here and there. He used a chest he found to store everything so they would stay safe and dry. He was glad to see the more he hiked the less winded he got.
As each day passed and no sign of The Bug, Arthur became more and more confident that this is where they belonged. Arthur’s talks about the society they could build became more and more impassioned, and the rest of the exploration crew became more and more captivated with his ideas. Two weeks into their mission, Arthur and Denise were walking together down the beach after another campfire dinner.
“I’m going to tell Obadiah we should move to land, I’m sure of it.” Said Arthur.
“What if he says no?” Asked Denise.
“He won’t. He can’t. Not after seeing us thrive here.”
“But what if he says no, Arthur? Are you going to go back to the library?”
He stared out at the ocean, catching the silhouette of the ship on the horizon, barely visible in the moonlight. “If he really says no…I’ll stay here. I can’t imagine going back to living in a box, not after I’ve experienced all this. You don’t really want to go back do you? Here you have all the plants in the world.”
She thought for a second. “I certainly don’t want to stay here without everyone else, but…” Denise was cut off by a holler from the campsite.
They looked over and could just make out the lifeboat on shore. They paused their conversation and walked back to the campsite. As they got there they saw they had just come to pick up another load of food. “How’s everything back on the ship?” Denise asked one of the crewman.
He sighed and said. “It’s getting pretty dicey. A lot of people don’t like that we’re still here, that Thomas is still locked up. Half the ship refuses to eat what you guys are bringing from shore. A couple fights have broken out too.”
“Nobody’s been sent to compost have they?” Asked Arthur.
“Luckily no, Obadiah’s hasn’t been keen on enforcing executions. We’ve had plenty of people thrown in the brig though, it’s nearly full.”
Arthur replied, “The guards must have their hands full, we’ve never had more than a couple locked up at a time.”
“Indeed, a couple of them have started raising trouble about it too. Obadiah hasn’t punished any of the guards though because they’re the only reason he can keep control right now.”
Denise shot a look over to Arthur, “I don’t know if your plan is going to pan out.” Arthur didn’t respond, just crossed his arms. “Well I hope you guys can finish soon, before we have a second mutiny.” Said the crewman.