The cabin was eerily quiet despite how crowded it was, but this was typical for divinings. The silence seemed to seep in through the big bay windows as if the stillness of space muffled anything that anyone might want to say. But the truth is, they didn’t want to say anything. They were there to bear witness. They just wanted to see if maybe this would be the historic divining. The last one. There was a quiet, religious reverence to the room as Ludwig approached the sphere which sat elevated near the captain’s station. No one looked directly at Ludwig, their attention was all placed on the sphere. Ludwig resented them for that.
He stood in front of the bright white sphere. It sat on a pedestal, elevated to about chest height, and sat in a latticework bowl of metal probes which came halfway up the sides of the sphere. It looked like an enormous pearl, encased inside some great robotic clam. The top of the pearl was exposed and Ludwig placed his hand on it. It rolled smoothly, the unseen ball bearings hidden in the bowl below giving its movement a frictionless feel. Let’s get this over with. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his black divining glove, placing it on his right hand. It covered just his thumb, and middle and index fingers in a thin black velvet. On the tip of his index finger was a small metallic nub.
Here goes literally nothing.
Ludwig placed his hand back on the sphere and gave it a hard, twisting spin. The ball bearings made a small whirring noise as the sphere rapidly spun in a chaotic direction. He heard a sharp intake as several nearby watchers held their breath. He placed his three gloved fingertips lightly on the surface of the sphere. He could feel it spin underneath the soft velvet. It was still spinning very fast. Part of him wanted to see how long he could get away with waiting here. Let the people who had taken those big gulps begin to struggle, waiting for him to make a choice to release that breath. What if he never made a choice? The sphere could probably spin for a long time, for how long he didn’t know, but likely longer than their breath would hold out. Let them suffocate on their superstition.
With his fingers still gently placed on the spinning globe, he looked up into the room. Everyone was still staring at the spinning sphere. Except one. In the back of the room, Ludwig noticed Aunty Gemma standing, wearing her regular dirty overalls. She was looking not at the sphere, but at his face. As they made eye contact she smiled, and gave a slight nod to the device in front of him. Do the job, the nod said.
Ludwig closed his eyes, waited a moment, and pushed down on the sphere with his thumb and middle finger. The sphere came to a halting stop, and Ludwig heard the held breath release once more. With eyes still closed, Ludwig swirled the tip of his index finger across the surface of the ball.
Where? He asked, but as always, his prayer remained unanswered. Finally, with nothing left to do but act, he opened his eyes and pressed down with his index finger.
“There, I guess.”
The screens around the room lit up, showing a model of their ship, floating in empty space. After a moment, an arrow appeared, originating from the Mellifera and pointing down and to the right at an oblique angle. This was the vector Ludwig had chosen for this month.
Immediately, the silent spell was broken and people around the room began talking in excited voices. Ludwig could hear the captain begin barking orders, telling crew members to initiate travel towards the new heading, and those not a part of the crew to leave the bridge. As people began to file out, a woman approached him.
“God bless you, Ludwig, for what you do for us,” said Adelaide, the head chef and one of the oldest women on the ship. She always smelled like celery and Ludwig tried his best to avoid her when in the mess hall.
“Thanks.” Ludwig kept his head down to conceal the grimace he felt rising there. His stomach tumbled with guilt, frustration. “But I haven’t actually done anything.”
“Why of course you have, Ludwig,” she said. “I’m old enough to remember what it was like before your father was born, before we had our first Diviner. Things were much more difficult then, never knowing where we were going. But with your father, and you now, well I have hope we might find land yet, before I pass on.”
As if on cue, Ludwig felt a hand clasp his shoulder and looked to see his father standing there. A broad man, Karl dwarfed his son. It was easy to see why he was so respected. He was an imposing figure. Karl smiled at the old woman.
“Another step closer. Isn’t that right, Adelaide?”
“Another step closer,” she repeated, smiling. The captain issued another series of commands, ordering any stragglers out of the room. Adelaide gave a nod to each of them and exited. Karl and Ludwig followed shortly thereafter, the father’s mighty hand still clasped heavily onto the boy’s shoulder, steering him down the hallway.
“Excellent work, son. I feel really good about today. I think we’re getting much closer.” Ludwig’s father smiled at the other shipmates as they passed, beaming with obvious pride for his son.
“Shouldn’t be much longer yet, I figure. Any month now.”
Ludwig could feel himself shrinking under the weight of his father’s hand and the looks of those they passed. The pressure continued to build until finally, when they reached an empty corridor, Ludwig shrugged off his father’s hand and turned to face him.
“But it’s all bullshit!”
His father turned slowly.
“Now, what do you mean by that Ludwig?” He asked.
“That I haven’t a damn clue what I’m doing up there? I just pick a spot at random. I don’t actually know where any habitable planets are. And I don’t think you did either. I’m just guessing. I’m sure if we tried using the ship’s sensors, or thinking about it a bit more, we’d come up with something better than this nonsense.”
Karl grabbed the boy by both shoulders, his grip now both forceful and fatherly.
“Son, we’ve tried that. For generations, before you or I were born, our people have been floating around on this ship, using the sensors and the science they’d been taught. And look where it got us.”
A young couple walked past and waved towards the two of them. Karl smiled brightly at them, waiting until they had passed around the corner and out of sight before continuing.
“The truth is, the science was never good in the first place. They sent the first shuttles out and told them to find a new Earth, that our old one was broken, except they didn’t give them the right tools to do it. And so our people have been out here a long while, son. Trying to find somewhere. Gemma keeps us fed as best she can, but that farm won’t last forever. That’s why they need us. Why they need you, Ludwig. We’ve got the right tools to finally find something.”
“But, I’m literally choosing at random. I don’t know anything. I don’t feel anything. At all.”
“I know it can feel that way sometimes, son.” Karl rubbed his hands up and down the boy’s shoulders. “I felt that way too, even just before we found that first exoplanet. Back when you were a boy, do you remember? And that one was nearly habitable. Do you remember it?”
“Yes,” Ludwig said, shrinking again against his father’s intensity. “I remember.”
“Then you see. It works. We just need to give it time. I had a touch of the gift. Of the old ways. But then you were born and I could see it. We all could. You have the gift. Every turn you have us take is one that brings us to salvation.”
Karl gave a light shake to his son’s shoulders, indicating that the conversation was over. The two of them walked together to the mess hall and joined the rest of the colony for dinner. When they entered the hall, Adelaide made a big fuss, insisting they come sit at her table.
“Make way for the Diviner.”
By the end of that month, the Mellifera still had not found any planets, let alone any suitably livable ones. This meant another divining and despite his conversation with Karl, Ludwig found himself even less inclined to go along with the charade. What did any of it matter, anyway? When he went to divine, he did his best to make a mockery of it. He put the glove on wrong, and made the selection with his pinky. His father stood in the back of the crowd with his arms crossed, but after the ceremony was over said nothing.
Again, the month passed without discovery. And another. On and on the months went, as Ludwig found stranger ways to subvert the divining. He spoke to the sphere, requesting it to tell him where it wanted to be poked. He asked members of the audience where they thought he should point. He tried using his foot. All the while he watched as the peoples’ faces grew concerned. As though they knew that something wasn’t right, but didn’t know what to say.
When the next month came, Ludwig found he didn’t have the energy to play his game any longer. When he stood at the podium, he moved the sphere only a small fraction before plunking his index finger down near the same spot.
The usual silence was overtaken by an uncomfortable one. Divinings were supposed to take longer than this.
“Are you sure?” A voice called out from the crowd.
“Yep,” Ludwig said, already retreating from the podium and heading towards the door.
“I’m sure of it.”
He had made it halfway down the hall when he felt an arm link into his. He turned, expecting to see his father, and was surprised to see Aunt Gemma.
“Come with me, Ludwig. I think we need to talk.”
She guided them through empty halls until they reached the door to the Farm. Aunt Gemma was in charge of all agriculture onboard Mellifera, and so was allowed to freely enter and exit. The rest of the colony required special approval to enter. Gemma entered a passcode in a small terminal near the door. It opened and they stepped inside.
Ludwig had visited the Farm a handful of times as a child, and again later during agricultural classes, but still he was struck by how green everything was. In a ship full of grays and browns, with windows pointing out to a limitless black, the green in here was so vibrant it was overwhelming. Towering, leafy plants touched the ceiling, the leaves hanging down to brush the top of Ludwig’s head. To his right was a large section of crops, green plants that came nearly up to his neck, and on them hung numerous, heavy tubers. Modified potatoes. These he was overly familiar with from the mess hall.
Gemma led him further into the Farm, through a section full of large, multi-coloured flowers. The flowers grew up to his waist in places, in colours and shapes he hadn’t known were possible.
“You seem to be having troubles lately. With the divining. Is that right?” She cocked an eyebrow at Ludwig.
“Yeah,” he said, unsure of how much to say. He’d only ever talked about this with his father, and that hadn’t gone well. And yet, he felt compelled to continue.
“It’s just bogus. I mean, you’re a scientist Auntie. You have to know that. I’m not special. I don’t have some magical ability to sniff out planets. I’m no Diviner.”
The older woman paused for a moment, a thoughtful expression on her face.
“Farmer.” She said. “I’m a farmer. And I don’t know much about space travel. Or divining. I mostly just know about gardening. Plants and animals.”
Something caught her eye and she bent down to the flowers below, indicating to Ludwig to do the same. She pointed to a bright pink flower nearby. A fat little honeybee wandered across its petals, zig-zagging its way closer to the centre. Bees were one of the few animals maintained aboard the ship, and from his childhood visits Ludwig knew they were essential to the running of the farm.
“Did you know that honeybees dance?” Gemma asked.
“Maybe,” Ludwig replied. “I remember learning something like that in agro classes.”
“Well they do dance. Waggle dancing, it’s called. People used to think the bees did it for fun. When a bee felt joyous, or wanted to celebrate, it would do a little dance. Well, eventually scientists figured out that when a foraging honeybee finds a particularly good flower patch, it will go back to the hive and dance. And that dance tells the other bees about the patch. Where it is, how to find it. How far to go. And the other bees, well they would listen to the dance, and they would follow.”
“That’s interesting,” Ludwig said honestly, assuming that a point to all this was forthcoming. Gemma remained silent, squatting with her elbows on her knees, watching the bee for a while before continuing.
“What I guess I mean to say is, even if it didn’t look like the dancing was doing much, it mattered to the bee. And,” she looked directly at Ludwig, “It stands to reason that there weren’t always bees. So at one point there must have been a first bee. And how do you think that first bee learned to dance?”
She stood up and brushed her hands off on her overalls.
“Come on, let me show you the hive.”
The next month concluded, and it was time again for a divining ceremony. The morning of, Ludwig found himself approaching things differently. He smiled to the others as they walked to the bridge. He felt an energy coursing through him. Buzzing, he thought to himself and laughed. A readiness. Perhaps there was something to this.
As he stood on the podium, he noticed trepidation in the faces of many in attendance. He realized how badly it hurt them when he made a mockery of things. A feeling of guilt rose up at the back of his throat, but he swallowed it, channeling it into focus. Today would be different.
Once he had donned the glove he spun the sphere viciously, placing his fingertips just slightly on its spinning surface. Closing his eyes, he let the feeling consume him, felt his body begin to move and gyrate however it wished. Whatever felt natural. At first it felt awkward but as he began to give himself away to the process, letting his body take over, he forgot even that he was being watched. Suddenly he felt a spark, some twitch of energy in his left foot. He felt it rise up through his leg, fill his body with a white hot heat, before arcing out down his arm and into his outstretched finger, pressing it down onto the sphere and stopping its spin.
“There. I am certain.”
He opened his eyes and saw the crowd, awestruck and open-mouthed in the moment before they burst into jubilation. They felt it too. It had worked this time.
The next few days were electric. Each day, Ludwig awoke, waiting for news of land. In the mess hall, people talked in excited whispers of what they would do first when they landed on the new planet. It made Ludwig happy to here these whispers.
On the fifteenth day after the divining ceremony, an alert rang through the corridors of the ship.
“Possible exoplanet detected. Arrival T-6 hours.”
Ludwig, along with the rest of the colony, rushed to the bridge. They chattered excitedly, their noise spilling out of the room, down the hall and out the windows to fill the space around the ship. This ship had finally completed its mission. These people, born in the harsh confines of the ship, had finally found a home.
At last a small blip appeared through the central window, growing larger by the second. The new planet. Raucous cheers went up around the room. Someone had opened several bottles of wine, which were being passed around joyously. As the object grew closer, Ludwig pressed his face against the glass to get a closer look. He began to see forms on the planet. Swaths of blue and green. Closer now, he saw a painter’s swipe of grey. Mixed in with the green now, he saw red. Red fire, eating up the green. And around the planet, a haze of small metallic grey objects floated. Now they were close enough that he could take in the planet in its entirety. As the room began to quiet, he heard a sob escape from someone nearby.
“No, it can’t be!
There was no denying it however. They’d all seen it in pictures before. Earth.
They’d found their way home.
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It sat on a pedestal, elevated to about chest height, and sat in- one sat is fine, but two is too many. She was looking not at the sphere, but at his face. -comma after looking "Arrival T-6 hours.” T minus six. Otherwise it might read a T dash six. I might even say, "Arrival in six hours." You presume FTL travel- nothing else would allow months of journey to go to possible planets. Nothing else would allow random movement to take them to an "almost" habitable planet and back to earth in less than millennia. On top of that, you...
Hi Charles, Thanks for the feedback! Yes, you're right about the Luddite sentiment, but that is what I kind of hoped to be a central part of the story. What happens when a group of people on a ship that is the testament to scientific achievement abandons science in favour of superstition? I hoped to show how ultimately that leads them back to where they started, but you've helped me in pointing out some of the ways I didn't communicate that perfectly. I like your approach of having the father (or at least some other ship member) show s...
The reality of "What happens when a group of people on a space ship abandon science" is they quickly die because they can't maintain all the systems.
Charles stucker has already corrected everything sci-fi-ish that needs correcting. But With a story these good and gripping, there is no way on earth I am not going to drop suggestions. Here comes the suggestions. 1. [The ball bearings made a small whirring noise as the sphere rapidly spun in a chaotic direction.] This sentence has a kind of logical fallacy that may affect the flow of reading. The sphere cannot spin in a direction and still spin a chaotic manner. It is either one or the other. You can rewrite the sentence to use ran...
Hi Princemark, Thank you for your comments. These are really helpful suggestions on how to clean up my sentence structure. I really appreciate them. And yes, I read your story and was quite taken by it. I will head back now and see if I can find some commentary for you that is as useful as yours.