Glory of the Stars chapter one

Chapter 1
Lunch break.
Nephi Packard hung back, letting the other telestials working in the aeroponic garden shuffle past on their way out to the cafeteria. No supervisor in sight. He snatched a handful of the blueberries he’d been harvesting and stashed them in a worn plastic bag. Perfect.
He turned around to see Abish Winter staring at him wide-eyed. “You can’t take those. You’ll get us all in trouble.”
“Not if you don’t tell anyone.” Nephi tossed her a berry. She shook her head and hurried away.
“You’re skipping lunch again?” Enoch, his best friend, asked. “I hope she’s cute, whoever she is.” He socked Nephi in the shoulder.
“Yeah, wouldn’t you like to know.” Nephi slapped his friend on the back. “Besides,” he waggled the bag of blueberries, “these are better than leftover sludge shakes.” Leftovers for the leftovers. He shuddered.
“Don’t let Brother Sorenson catch you with those.” Enoch said.
“How long have we worked here?”
“Since we were twelve.”
“Right. Nine years, and have I ever been caught?”
“No, you have not.” Enoch took a berry and popped it in his mouth.
“That’s right.” Nephi slid the bag into the pocket of his faded work pants. His finger found the start of another hole he’d have to sew up. Or maybe Prissa would do it for him. “See ya round, Enoch.” Nephi joined the stream of people leaving aeroponics. His long legs carried him past his co-workers and into the hall. He peeled off in the opposite direction from the rest, following the gentle curve of the corridor, whistling a jaunty hymn tune. The words tumbled through his head. We’ve found the way the prophets went who lived in days of yore…He didn’t know quite what that meant but he liked the melody.
Thumbing open the access panel, he pushed his too-long hair back from his face. The solid pull of the ship’s gravity held him on the landing, but the weightlessness of the core beckoned him forward. The central core of the large globe that was the generation ship the Kingdom of Heaven, sported bare metal walls held together by rivets the size of his kitchen table, a narrow landing for each of the hundreds of decks, and, most importantly, no gravity. It was the one place Nephi felt truly free. With a laugh, he launched himself through the opening, caught hold of the narrow railing on the landing, and vaulted over it. Spinning away through the empty space, he whooped in delight. Lights on each deck flared to life as he passed. A thick cylinder ran from top to bottom in the core, housing the engines and other vital systems. Nephi landed with his feet against it, and pushed off into a back flip before letting himself float in the empty, echoing space.
The ship seemed to stretch on forever, and most of it was empty, waiting for the much larger population that would someday reach the planet Canaan, destined to become their new home. The new home of Nephi’s distant descendants anyway. It wouldn’t happen for four hundred or so more years. The domed ceiling at either end of the core held the ship‘s reserve water stores. And what lay beyond that, Nephi didn’t know.
Technically, only engineers and other specialists were allowed in the core to maintain the engines and such, but no one seemed to mind if a leftover like himself snuck in when nobody was working.
Not that he wanted to be alone.
Where is she?
Elizabeth had come to the core everyday for two weeks—except Sundays, of course. She was a little late today. He closed his eyes and relaxed. She’d come.
He imagined he was floating in some vast ocean, the likes of which he had never seen and never would. What did an ocean breeze smell like? The ship’s core smelled cold and sterile, especially when compared with the rich odor of the aeroponic gardens and the rest of agri-deck with its gardens, farms, and animal pens.
Another access hatch opened above—or was it below?—him. Above him. She was always above him. His own celestial angel. Elizabeth Black, granddaughter of President Black himself. She emerged from her own deck, taking flight as Nephi had.
He hadn’t thought a celestial like Elizabeth would even acknowledge the existence of a telestial leftover like him. But when she had appeared two weeks ago during his lunch-break run to the core, she had not only acknowledged him, she had talked to him, smiled at him, laughed with him, even played games with him as if they were children.
“Hello, Elizabeth.” Nephi waved at her. He couldn’t stop the grin spreading across his face. Her golden curls were piled on top of her head and bound with a clip that sparkled with multi-colored lights.  Nephi’s threadbare, dirty work clothes were rags next to her finely woven white blouse. Was it silk? Prissa would know. She worked in sewing. But Nephi didn’t know. Didn’t much care, either, but it sure looked good on her, tucked into her dark blue pants. Her eyes held a glint of mischief.
Without answering, she caught hold of one of the rungs that ran the length of the engine tower and pulled herself deftly around and out of his sight.
So, hide-and-seek today, was it? Not that there was really any place to hide in the core. She was just teasing him. Being coy. Nephi maneuvered himself closer to the tower. “I have something for you.”
Elizabeth didn’t answer. Nephi grabbed a rung and started around the tower. He caught a glimpse of Elizabeth’s bare foot as she moved back around to the other side. He could picture the playful smile she must have on her face. She enjoyed toying with him. Truth be told, he liked it as much as she did. “I have blueberries,” he called. Her favorite.
Nephi reached into his pocket for the berries and tossed them out in front of him. They floated lazily away. Elizabeth came cartwheeling head over heels from around the tower. She was upside down to Nephi’s perspective when she plucked the first berry out of the air with her fingers and popped it in her mouth.
“Mmmm.” She continued her turn as she grabbed and ate another berry. Each turn, each berry, brought her closer to Nephi.
She could never be his. He knew it. She was a celestial. She was the president’s grandchild. Probably she was already promised to some handsome, young elder, and at nineteen she was already old enough to marry.
At twenty-one, so was Nephi. But not to Elizabeth Black. Celestial girls didn’t marry leftover guys. Period. Yet with her moving closer and closer to him, with the blueberries hanging ripe in between them, anything seemed possible. Nephi could hardly breathe in his longing to reach out and tangle his fingers in those beautiful curls.
She was close enough to touch now, popping another berry into her mouth. Nephi reached out and tapped the little activator button on her hairclip. The lights stopped blinking, and the clip drifted away. Elizabeth’s hair floated out in a golden cloud around her head.
“Nephi!” She tried to sound indignant, but she was grinning, trying to hold her hair down. Nephi laughed. Elizabeth let go of her curls to playfully slap his shoulders—the first time she’d ever actually touched him.
Against common sense  or any type of decorum, Nephi took her by the shoulder and kissed her, as soft and short as a sigh. He opened his eyes. Elizabeth’s were closed, her lips slightly parted. He kissed her again. The taste of blueberries lingered on her mouth. He wanted to hold her, all of her, and make her his forever no matter what the differences between them. He pulled her against him. Her hands came around his neck. Nothing else mattered in that moment.
Until Elizabeth pushed away from him. Her hand clamped over her mouth. There was nothing teasing or playful in her face anymore, only shock and distress.
“Elizabeth.” He reached for her.
She shook her head. Her loose hair waved like a strange crown. She latched onto a rung on the engine housing and pulled herself upward. Or was it down? Nephi had lost track of where he was.
Elizabeth didn’t look back. If they’d been in a gravity field, she’d have run away, but zero G was ruining her dramatic exit.
“I’m sorry,” he called. Elizabeth didn’t respond. What had he been thinking, anyway? Celestial girls didn’t kiss telestial boys. Not ever. But he still felt warm all over. He could still taste the blueberries.
One of the berries drifted past him. He caught it between his thumb and forefinger and popped it in his mouth. The engineers could worry about the rest of the errant fruit. He wasn’t going to.
Elizabeth may be upset now, but she’d be back. He grinned to himself. Give her a day or two. She’d definitely be back.
* * *
It was almost time for dinner when Nephi’s tab chimed with a message. He turned away from the stinking algae filters he was scrubbing—a punishment for being back late from lunch—with the sudden, wild hope that it was from Elizabeth. That she wanted to meet him again. He took the tab from his pocket.
Nephi Packard, you are summoned to a disciplinary court in the High Council room on celestial deck immediately.
Nephi stared at the message in disbelief. Disciplinary court? Now? “Oh, Elizabeth, you didn’t.” But it seemed she had. This couldn’t be good. He looked down at his work shirt, stained with smudges of purple from harvesting blueberries, smelling of sweat and algae. He couldn’t appear before the High Council like this, no matter how soon they expected him.
The High Council. Ugh. Maybe he ought to just run and hide somewhere instead. As if there was anywhere to hide on the ship. Best to just get it over with. How bad could it be, anyway? It was nothing but a five second kiss.
He sprinted from the elevator to his apartment on telestial deck to change into his Sunday clothes. His little sister Priscilla wasn’t there, thank heaven. Explaining where he was going would have been tricky. He brushed his hand against one of her scrap metal wind chimes for luck, for all the good that would do.
The elevator climbed with agonizing slowness. Nephi bounced on the balls of his feet and drummed his fingers on his thighs all the way up to celestial deck, level one, a place he’d seen only on the ship newscasts. He stepped off the elevator and into a scene straight from heaven. Pathways of smooth, rounded stone rambled through grass—real grass!—and trees, interspersed with sparkling fountains. Children laughed and ran through the grass or splashed in clear pools while their mothers sat on benches nearby, visiting together or reading from real, paper books, the likes of which Nephi had never seen in person. Their faces held the fullness of the well-fed and a blush of health. The light had a bright, pure quality that Nephi had never seen before. It was a far cry from the plain walls and tiled floors of telestial deck.
Disapproving looks followed him through the park. Even his Sunday best looked faded and shabby next to the celestials in their everyday clothes. Dread sloshed in his stomach. The entrance to the High Council room was a thick wooden door flanked by two enormous trees. There wasn’t a buzzer that he could see, so he knocked. Just off to the left, he caught a glimpse of the doors to the celestials’ temple.
The door moved upward, proving it wasn’t as old fashioned as it looked, and Nephi stepped into the High Council room. Fifteen bearded and somber men in fine black suits sat around a table that looked like dark, stained wood, but couldn’t have been real. The High Council. He’d been listening to them give sermons his whole life, but he’d never seen them up close before. He’d never wanted to, either.
Elizabeth was there, too, between her grandfather, President Jeremiah Black, and her father, first counselor Lamoni Black, next in line for the Presidency, and Nephi realized exactly how idiotic he’d been in thinking he could ever mean anything to her. Elizabeth kept her eyes down.
“You’ve kept us waiting,” President Black said. Nephi’s mouth went dry. Jeremiah Black was an imposing figure with silver hair and piercing blue eyes. His neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard marked him as one of the upper lever celestials. On the Kingdom of Heaven, President Black’s word was law. It was doctrine. It was the voice of God.
Nephi swallowed. “Forgive me, President. I thought I should change out of  my work clothes before I came.”
Black’s expression didn’t waver. He raised his eyebrows slightly. “Sit down, young man.”
Nephi took the empty seat across the table from Black, trying not to make the chair clatter in his shaking hands. President Black nodded to his son, who stood.
“You are Nephi Packard of telestial deck, correct?” Counselor Black’s mouth twisted as if the words left a sour taste in his mouth.
“Yes, sir.”
“Brother Packard, you are accused of the sin of fornication. Will you now confess your fault before this council?”
Fornication? What had Elizabeth told them? She still had her head down, staring at her lap.
“No, sir,” Nephi said. “I have not committed fornication.”
Elizabeth’s father leaned forward. “Are you denying that you kissed my daughter today in the ship’s core?”
Nephi cleared his throat. “Yes. That is, no. I don’t deny it. I did kiss Elizabeth. Briefly.” Her eyes flicked to his for a fraction of a second.
“You lusted after her,” Counselor Black continued. “And you led Elizabeth into lust, also.”
“No,” Nephi said.
Black’s face deepened into a scowl.
“When I kissed Elizabeth, she ran away. She didn’t lust.”
Elizabeth met his eyes, but Nephi couldn’t read her expression.
“Young man,” President Black interrupted, “I have already heard Elizabeth’s confession. I will be the judge of her heart.” Elizabeth’s face paled.
“With all due respect, President, in the goodness of her heart, Elizabeth may have overstated her involvement. She didn’t do anything wrong. It was all me.”
“Brother Packard, you forget your place.” Lamoni Black pounded his fist on the table. “The President does not require your counsel.”
President Black held up his hand to quiet his offended son. “Indeed.” His eyes cut through Nephi like spears of ice. “Proceed with the sentencing.”
Nephi opened his mouth to protest, but snapped it shut at the look on the President’s face.
“Nephi Packard, it is clear to this council that you have no remorse for your sins.”
Nephi balled his hands into fists under the table.
“For the sins of fornication and lust you are sentenced by the council to five stripes.”
The maximum penalty? For a ten second kiss? Across the table, Elizabeth gasped. Nephi’s back prickled with anticipated pain.
“And for the sin of leading away another into lust, an additional five stripes.”
Ten stripes? Why didn’t they just cast him out and get it over with? They must want him to die slowly and in pain. Because telestial boys didn’t kiss celestial girls. Ever.
“Thank you, Lamoni.” President Black pinned Nephi in his gaze once again. “Because Elizabeth came to me freely confessing her wrongs, I have decided to show her mercy.”
That was something, anyway. Of course, the President wouldn’t punish his own granddaughter. That relieved him.
“Elizabeth Black,” the President said, “for the sins of lust and fornication you are sentenced by the council to three stripes.”
“What?” Nephi came to his feet. “You call that mercy? She didn’t do anything wrong. Neither of us did.”
“Silence,” President Black ordered, “or I’ll double your sentence again.” Elizabeth covered her face with her hands.
“I will take her stripes,” Nephi said. “She doesn’t deserve them.”
President Black stood. “Isn’t that noble? Especially for a leftover.” He spat out the word. “Elizabeth has her own lessons to learn.”
Elizabeth let out a muffled sob.
“Enough,” Black said. “Take Brother Packard to the penance room before I lose my patience.”
Nephi glared at him. Elizabeth’s father stood and bound Nephi’s hands with electronic cuffs, a larger version of Elizabeth’s hairclip, minus the lights and easy release capabilities.
Elizabeth continued to cry. Neither her father nor grandfather made any move to comfort her. Nephi wondered why she’d confessed in the first place. Surely she’d known what it would mean. Maybe she truly believed she’d committed a sin. “I’m sorry, Elizabeth.” This time he really meant it. She didn’t look up.
Counselor Black grabbed Nephi’s arm and led him out the back door, not into the park, but into a quiet hallway lined with doors. Nephi stayed silent during the long walk down the hall.
Black opened a door at the end of the hall and shoved Nephi inside. The room was bare of furniture, the walls white, and the floor covered in dull tiles. “Brother Packard, your penance will serve the purpose of bringing your will back in line with the will of God.” His voice was nearly monotone. Nephi guessed it was a rote and meaningless speech, much like his sermons. “Let these stripes remind you of your nothingness before God and your need for His correction.”
Nephi clenched his teeth. Counselor Black released the band from around his wrists. “Remove your shirt.”
Nephi pulled his best shirt over his head and let it drop to the floor.
“Stand there.” Lamoni Black pointed. “And place your hands against the wall.”
Nephi did so. The wall tingled with heat for a moment when his hands came into contact, and he could not pull them away. Panic washed over him.
“May God show forth His mercy unto you.” Counselor Black left the room.
Nephi tried unsuccessfully to control his breathing. Trying to yank his hands free did him no good at all. If Elizabeth’s father was not going to deliver the stripes, who was? And how long were they going to leave him stuck to the wall? Maybe the High Council expected him to think about the severity of his sins first. But all he could think about was the way his lungs refused to take in air and his heart wanted to escape from his chest.
The door opened. Nephi looked over his shoulder expecting one of the High Councilmen, but it was a much younger man who came in. Ammon Nielsen, heir apparent to Lamoni Black, who had no sons of his own. Of course. Who else would Elizabeth be promised to? He hoped she would be okay. Ammon held the rod—a slender strip of metal humming and crackling with blue bolts of energy. Nephi instinctively tried to pull away from the wall again.
Ammon stepped up close behind him. “Did you really think you could violate my bride-to-be and get away with it, leftover?”
Nephi lowered his head. He didn’t want to give Ammon the satisfaction of rising to the bait. He wondered if Ammon realized all the time he and Elizabeth had spent together in the core.
“I can’t deny that I’ll enjoy punishing you,” Ammon said. His face twisted into an ugly smile.
“Will you enjoy punishing Elizabeth, too?”
Ammon brought the rod down across Nephi’s back with savage force.
Nephi cried out. His back spasmed as the flesh tore away. A burning stench rose around him. He jerked as an electric shock coursed through his body, but the wall held him firmly in place. His throat clenched. Tears came to his eyes. He squeezed them shut. He would not let Ammon Nielsen see his agony. His breath came out in hollow gasps.
“One,” Ammon said with cruel satisfaction.

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