By Shane Brown
Rose squinted from the glare off the waves. “I can smell it stronger now. And it’s not Gordon’s pipe. It smells like burning plastic or rubber!”
Gordon tapped his pipe against the opaque surfaces and listened for hollow sounds. William had searched the previous night for controls or a radio, but excluding its awning and six seats, the thirty-foot upper deck was featureless.
Trevor leant over the stern. “I can smell it, too. Maybe we could foul the propeller with something.”
“That could set the ship on fire!” said William. “At least we have a ship. I don’t like our chances in the water.” He was relieved there were no ropes for Trevor to test his theory. “I’ll find what’s burning.”
William descended into the narrow corridor below deck where it was warmer and the burning smell was less intense. His cabin door swung with the ship’s motion. Jennifer and Patrices’ cabins were still shut.
Exhausted from the day’s arguments about what they should do, William lay on his bunk and slept until woken by shouting in the hallway.
“I am not going over the side when we have a perfectly operational toilet!” yelled Jennifer.
“Cycling that toilet wastes a day’s water ration,” Trevor countered. “This was meant to be a short trip. How long can the water possibly last?”
William struck Jennifer’s shoulder opening his door. “Sorry,” he said, seeing that Patrice and Rose were also involved. Gordon was predictably absent, probably taking advantage of the vacant upper deck to smoke his pipe.
“About that toilet,” said William. “It uses sea water, not drinking water. I checked last night. Don’t ask how I checked. So we don’t really have to worry about it.”
“We still need to ration the tap water!” Trevor insisted.
William noticed Jennifer and Patrice still looked ill. Jennifer’s blond hair was pulled straight back from her face. Patrice’s curly auburn hair was limp and there were beads of perspiration on her face. Trevor stood with his arms crossed, his broad figure blocking access to the tap and the cramped toilet.
“Rationing is a good idea,” said William, “but we can discuss it tomorrow. We’re not going to use much water sleeping. We’ll have clearer heads in the morning. We’ve argued enough today.”
Jennifer pushed past Trevor and slammed the toilet door. William shut his door on Trevor’s glare. Lying back, William listened to the hum of the ship’s propulsion and wondered if they would exhaust their fuel or water first.
Three days ago, first to arrive, William had overlooked the ship’s subtle oddities as the other failed writers quietly boarded, eyes downcast as they stowed their bonging and lingered in their cabins.
After an hour of avoiding eye contact they had spoken so little that when the ship unexpectedly lurched from the jetty they hurried on deck, relieved for something to discuss. None liked the idea of a ship without a crew, but they quickly adapted, for it was, after all, their destination that mattered, not how they arrived.
Jennifer and Patrice emerged in shorts, t-shirts, and slip-on deck shoes. Gordon changed into a green silk shirt and a brown vest with a special pocket for his pipe. William didn’t own non-issue clothing, so was pleased when Trevor and Rose remained in their drill trousers and collared shirts.
The vessel motored powerfully seaward. They had been told the journey would take two hours, give or take twenty minutes depending on the weather.
That had been three days ago.
William was distracted from his thoughts by a discreet knock. Without rising, he turned the door’s metal clasp, allowing Patrice to step in. She was wearing only her small red t-shirt and underpants. Her curly hair was loose.
William was instantly aware of the t-shirt and underpants situation. Until now they had maintained strict personal privacy, for the last two evenings taking turns washing on the upper deck by dangling clothing in the sea then sponging themselves with the wet article. His skin now tasted salty, and he couldn’t sleep with his arm over his face because the salt burned his eyes.
“Everything okay?” he asked, wondering what she needed.
“I wanted to thank you for dealing with Trevor,” she said. “For standing up to him.” She glanced down the hallway. “If we’re not careful he’ll promote himself to Captain.”
“I’m tired of arguing when there’s nothing we can do. If he knew how to steer the boat, I wouldn’t mind.”
She smiled quickly then came in, pulling the door closed as she sat on his bunk. Through the blanket William felt her thigh on his feet.
“You know,” she said, “Trevor only started arguing about rations when Jennifer asked him to leave her alone. He kept asking her personal questions and going into her cabin. She asked for some privacy and he became very unfriendly.”
William wondered if Patrice knew she was probably Trevor’s next target. And then Rose? Rosemary had an excellent figure for a fifty-year-old.
“How sick are you feeling now?” William asked. “Any better?”
“If I don’t eat or drink. That’ll make Trevor happy. He’ll probably guard the tap tonight and write a receipt whenever I’m thirsty.”
There was a thump as Jennifer repositioned on her bunk.
“Do you think she can hear us?” whispered Patrice.
William shook his head, although he had heard Jennifer crying the previous night. This was his first private conversation for days. “It’s alright if we keep our voices down.”
Patrice continued quietly, “You seem very practical. The others can’t agree on anything. Gordon acts like a Grandfather, saying there’s nothing to worry about, while Trevor thinks we could all die.” She indicated the ship. “What’s happening, William? Why hasn’t anyone come to help?”
William thought for a moment, then noticed Patrice observing the screwed up pieces of paper on the floor, his two dozen attempts to write in the last twenty-four hours.
“We must have been missed at the retreat,” he said. “We have to assume the ship was functional when we left the Institute because it waited for the six of us before it disembarked. I think the navigation system is damaged. It’s sending us off course and making us hard to find. That’s what I think the burning smell was.”
“What if the water runs out?”
“There’s a week’s worth of dry rations under the bunks.” William slid a few untidy ration packets into the corner with his foot. “I’d expect we have a volume of water to last the equivalent of the rations. We should have enough water to last.”
Patrice looked relieved. “What you say makes sense, but I can’t understand why it has taken this long. We can’t be very far off course, and it just doesn’t feel like there is anything wrong with this ship.” She stood and squeezed William’s shoulder. “I shouldn’t stand up too fast. It makes me sick. Sleep well, William.”
“You too,” said William, stretching out then extinguishing the light as she closed his door.
Normally a sound sleeper, William woke twice during the night, once with his body pressed to the cabin’s bulkhead as though the craft altered direction, and again, later, when it occurred to him that Trevor was not the type to overlook that the toilet used seawater.
“Is this the retreat?” asked Patrice, scanning the passing beach. The ship was cruising parallel to the beach five hundred meters off its starboard.
“Just forest and beach,” said Jennifer. “Shouldn’t there be buildings or something?”
We’ll reach something in due course,” said Gordon. William saw Gordon had trimmed his gray beard short, making his face look rounder.
“I can’t smell that burning anymore,” said Rose.
“There’s a ship ahead,” Patrice called from the bow. “Like ours! I don’t think it’s moving. It might be waiting for us.”
William saw that they weren’t heading for the second ship. They would miss it by three hundred meters.
“We’re going to miss it!” cried Jennifer.
Trevor started yelling across the water. “Hey! Hello! We’re here! We’re going right past you!”
“We need help!” called Rose. They shuffled down the rail then started yelling together. William saw movement on the ship’s deck, but it couldn’t have been people unless they were crawling on their hands and knees.
“Maybe we should swim!” said Rose. Trevor looked close to jumping the rail and swimming. William could go either way.
“But it could be nothing,” said Gordon. “The retreat could be around the corner. That ship could be nothing. I don’t think we should swim.”
“I can see movement,” said Patrice. “There’s someone there.”
“There’s something moving, alright,” said Rose. “But I don’t know what. It looks like cables thrashing on the deck. Or animals.”
“I saw a person,” insisted Patrice. “Just for a second, looking up over the rail.”
“Whatever we do, we do it now,” said Trevor, climbing over the rail. The other ship was quickly receding.
“It’s too far now!” cried Jennifer. “We might not reach it.” Gordon agreed.
“The beach then!” said William. “We swim to the beach, walk back, then swim out to the other ship.”
No one answered. They knew they’d missed their chance. William hadn’t liked the look of that other ship. At least this one had food and water.
William was lurched sideways, barely catching the rail as the vessel turned shoreward and sent them stumbling for rails and seats. They were headed towards the beach. There was no sign of habitation.
“What now?” Rose said as the engines stopped and the vessel rotated to run its stern on the beach. They all looked to the tree line.
“What’s this then?” said Rose. “Are we supposed to get off or wait?”
“I’m getting off,” said Patrice. She and Jennifer jumped to the sand. They walked to the beach top and peered into the dense forest. “There’s an old track here,” Jennifer called.
“Perhaps we should stay with the boat,” suggested Gordon. “What if it leaves again?”
Rose jumped down. “Then I don’t want to be on it. Come on, Gordon, at least stretch your legs. The ship is probably dropping us off so help can find us. It’s not going anywhere.”
William agreed, and with Trevor following he jumped to the beach.
Jennifer looked for a place to sit. “I just want to rest in the shade until help comes.”
“We need a blanket,” said Patrice.
William jogged back to the ship. “Wait a minute,” he called. “I think reaching land is something to celebrate.”
“Fetch my tobacco pouch please!” Gordon called as William climbed onboard.
Below deck, William heard a hissing under his feet. The noise extended the length of the hallway.
In his cabin he found his picnic basket. Everyone would enjoy a drop of wine, a wedge of cheese, and a few black olives to celebrate reaching land.
In the corridor William noticed the sound had spread to the walls and the low ceiling. It sounded like liquid was rushing through them towards the toilet.
William froze as he felt the ship move and saw the toilet door was bulging towards him. He dropped the basket, turning to run as a chest high wave exploded from the toilet door and tumbled him down the hallway and into the ladder. William grabbed the ladder and pushed upwards from the deck until his head broke the surface in a one foot air pocket that was quickly disappearing. The picnic basket was jammed sideways across the hatch, and William heard Patrice and Gordon screaming for him to escape. Bracing his feet on a ladder rung, he punched the basket until it cleared the exit. The lower deck submerged as William scrambled out. Two inches of water covered the upper deck and the stern rail was now five meters from the beach.
William hurdled the rail and swam towards the shore, his shoes only finding traction, not on a sandy bottom, but on a steeply graded hard slope when he was right at the beach line.
“What did you do?” said Patrice, looking aghast to the submerging ship’s awning.
William’s heart was thudding harder than he had ever felt. “I didn’t do anything! I was fetching my picnic basket when the ship sank around me. I almost drowned!”
“It was like a submarine,” said Gordon. “Not like sinking ships in the exposure films at all.”
Trevor and Rose rushed down the beach. “What was all the screaming about?” said Trevor. “Hey, where’s the ship?”
“It just disappeared,” said Gordon. “Underwater.”
Trevor pointed where William was studying the steep drop-off and retrieving the basket. “What happened to him? Did he fall in?”
“He was on the ship,” Patrice said. “He was almost trapped.”
Trevor spoke to the group, but was staring at William. “He went back on the ship, alone, and it suddenly sank with all our belongings? He was also first on the ship when we arrived.”
“I was almost drowned!” William yelled. He couldn’t believe Trevor was implying he’d sabotaged the ship. “They were all watching! I only went back because Patrice wanted a blanket!” He opened the basket to show two bottles of wine in a blanket. Several olives and a large piece of broken glass spilled out.
“You weren’t even here, Trevor,” said Patrice. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Why would William sabotage the ship?”
Trevor shrugged and pointed his thumb up the beach. “We found something up here. It’s not the retreat. It’s something strange. We were about to have a better look when we heard you screaming.”
“What is it?” asked Jennifer, unable to find anything washed up on the beach. William noticed no one looked him in the eye.
Rose drew in the sand. “The path crosses some kind of an aqueduct, then leads into five structures, like blue plastic cubes arranged in a ring around a white dome.” She indicated the dome was about waist high. “We should have a closer look. We might find some help.”
They followed the overgrown forest trail, and behind the fore dunes, just where the forest started, found the aqueduct, a meter wide rippling corridor that crossed their path and stretched unbroken into the forest east and west. Recessed a meter deep, the duct’s sides and bottom were dull gray. Trevor squatted at its edge. “It’s salt water. Tidal perhaps.”
The duct was spotlessly clean. William couldn’t see a trace of corrosion.
Rose kicked some leaf litter into the surface to gauge the current was flowing west. “Do you suppose this goes right around the island?”
Unable to fathom the duct, they stepped over it and followed the trail to a circular clearing of bare soil fifty meters across. The structures were exactly as Rose described, except William saw a chromed knee-high pipe running from the white dome into the forest away from the beach. Each structure had a doorway-sized aperture facing the dome.
“There’s nothing here at all,” said Jennifer when they finished exploring the single-room structures. “All empty.”
“They’re well maintained,” said Patrice.
“One would think there should be signs of animals,” agreed Gordon. “Someone must clean them regularly. We should wait.”
“We don’t have any food or water,” said Trevor. “We can only wait so long.”
William lifted his picnic basket. “I have two bottles of wine, some cheese, and some olives if you don’t mind the broken glass.”
Gordon smiled at William’s offer. “I think we should wait here for the afternoon. The ship probably dropped us here for a reason. Besides, where can we go?”
William buttoned his shirt and checked his damp blanket. He tried to recall any watercourses breaking the beach line near where they had landed. He couldn’t remember any, nor could he remember seeing any hills or peaks that might channel drinking water.
Patrice emerged from the forest near William, disturbingly close considering he hadn’t heard or seen her approach.
“This forest is strange,” she said.
William pointed over his shoulder. “Compared to our new camp, this forest looks pretty normal.”
“Trust me,” she said. “It’s not. There are species here that don’t naturally exist side-by-side. Have you heard of an epiphyte? They’re plants that live in the canopy of forests. I can’t see any epiphytes here.”
William was distracted by the others returning. “Let’s see what they found.”
They gathered in one of the cubes.
“No sign of another ship,” said Trevor. “It’s been four hours. There was no sign of the ship we passed.”
“I don’t think we walked far enough,” apologized Rose. “I was too thirsty.”
“Let’s drink the wine,” suggested William, finding his wine knife’s corkscrew. “I want to use the bottles to collect rain water.”
“Wine will dehydrate you,” warned Trevor.
“Then don’t have any, Trevor,” said Patrice.
Jennifer untied a handkerchief. “I washed these olives.”
After a drink of wine, Rose said, “You certainly came well prepared, William.”
“Well, this isn’t exactly the warm fires and cozy bungalows I expected.”
Trevor took a bottle and raised a toast, “To the East Coast Institute of Creative Writing and Public Dissemination – it’s time to upgrade your crazy ships you cheap bastards!”
Rose asked, “Why were you expecting camp fires and bungalows, William? I couldn’t find any details on the retreat.”
“Just a romantic guess. I couldn’t find any details either.”
Trevor passed the wine on. “The retreat is no guarantee. I know of authors who attended the retreat and haven’t written a thing since. Do you know what Kiev Striener does now? He works in the factory that recycles those lids off the water bottles. Most of his co-workers probably don’t even know who he is, and they were reading his books at school. I think of Kiev Striener every morning when I open my bottle of water. And trust me, he is one of many.”
“How can the retreat be such a big secret?” said Jennifer. “There must be cooks and cleaners and whatever else. Somebody must be selling them supplies.”
“What if this is the retreat?” suggested William.
The group was silent.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” said Trevor.
William shrugged and pointed around the group. “What’s to say this isn’t the retreat right now?”
Trevor shook his head. “This isn’t the retreat, and if it was, I don’t know what you would even be doing here, William. I know you haven’t written in a while, but last time I checked your career wasn’t as far gone as ours.”
William had hoped to avoid this, hoped they’d have little interaction at the retreat and the issue would remain undressed. “I volunteered.”
The group sat staring, waiting for more. When nothing came, they stuttered questions at once.
“You what? You volunteered for the retreat? You volunteered to go? What about your agent?”
William raised his hands. “Like yourselves,” he said, “I analyze popular writing trends. I’ve had little else to do lately. I analyzed the work of Emmerson Brook and found that after the retreat his writing became brilliant.”
“Emmerson Brook?” asked Patrice. “The writer with the cane and those burns?”
“That’s him,” said Trevor. “I think the cane is for show. He could probably dance a jig.”
“How was he burned?” asked Rose.
“He won’t discuss them,” admitted William. “But he does need the cane.”
“There was an accident at the retreat,” said Gordon. “The details weren’t released. It really changed him.”
William said, “The retreat seems to hone some writers, so I thought, Why wait?”
“So basically,” said Jennifer, “you’re doing this to avoid becoming like us. They used to believe pain and suffering made a good writer.” Trevor looked pleased by Jennifer’s bitter reaction.
Gordon nodded. “No months without working. No soul searching or threat of decommission. No drug and creative therapy, or courses in ‘special interest’ writing.”
“Clear sailing with all the answers?” asked Rose.
“As much as such a thing can exist.” William noticed that only Patrice hadn’t commented.
“Well, best of luck with that,” said Trevor. “Let’s work out sleeping arrangements. It’ll be cramped if we’re sharing one blanket.”
William woke thirsty. It was still dark. Only Patrice and Jennifer still slept. William checked the broad leaves he had placed to catch rainwater. They were dry. Kneeling, he dug his fingers through the loamy soil. It was damp underneath, but not on the surface. Surely the surface moisture hadn’t evaporated already. He was kneeling over a third hole, baffled, when his three companions returned from the beach.
“No ship,” said Rose for the group.
“We have to decide what we’re doing,” said Trevor. “Let’s wake the others.”
William thought the debate was remarkably short. They had no food or water. They needed to find help. There were no landmarks to navigate by, and they were fairly certain that along the beach, at least the way they had come, there were no signs of structures.
“It’s the pipe then,” said William, knowing his miserable thirst would worsen with the sun. He pointed over the treetops where the sky was lightening. “If that direction is east, we’re on the southernmost section of the island, and the pipe leads north, directly inland. We should probably leave right now.”
William wrapped his wine bottles in the blanket. They left the broken olive jar in the cube to show their presence. Jennifer arranged tree branches in an arrow pointing from the cube’s door to where the pipe entered the forest.
Ten inches wide, the pipe was raised off the ground three inches by thin supports every sixty or so steps. The undergrowth was cleared a foot either side like narrow parallel walking tracks.
At intervals William confirmed that the pipe sounded hollow by tapping it with his knife. After an hour he took off his belt, threaded it through the basket’s handle, then slung it bandoleer style.
“I can take a turn with the basket, William,” said Patrice.
“It’s fine thanks,” said William. “It’s easier with the belt.”
“I don’t mind taking a turn.”
“Really, it’s not that heavy.” William saw Trevor watching the exchange intently. His eyes wandered to the basket before he resumed walking.
After another hour matching Trevor’s pace, William felt his thighs and calves throbbing. He felt light-headed and couldn’t remember ever pushing his body so hard.
Around them, the under-canopy of low bushes and broad-leaved shrubs were replaced by layers of dark green ferns. Most of the trees were pines, but there were enough shade trees that large patches of sunlight on the ferns were rare. The wind bent the ferns, William mused, like waves on the ocean.
“Look for fruit,” said Patrice. “Something must be fruiting.”
Patrice suddenly tripped and fell. Helping Patrice stand, William saw the ground was slightly disturbed, but otherwise bare of obstacles. Still, William reasoned, Patrice and Jennifer were sick on the ship and probably dehydrated before even reaching the island.
“What the hell is that?” said Trevor, pointing to a gold sphere hovering above the ferns.
William counted nine other spheres through the foliage. If Patrice hadn’t fallen they might have passed them.
“It’s like an abacus,” said William when they found the spheres were strung on filaments between poles. From the path, the filaments and poles were invisible, but up close it resembled a nine-foot high, forty-foot long abacus. Trevor stopped before entering the pruned area surrounding the structure, but William stepped close and lightly touched one sphere, his touch gliding the sphere down the filament for ten feet. He turned and saw Patrice, Jennifer, and Rose staring in different directions.
“What was that sound?” Jennifer said.
“I heard it, too,” said Rose. “It was a musical note.” Patrice nodded.
William hadn’t heard anything. He walked to the nearest sphere and pushed. It sailed smoothly to the end of the line, stopped at the pole, and then, as though having transferred its energy, the sphere on the filament above glided back towards William. The others were again staring into the forest.
“Can’t you hear that?” yelled Patrice, her hands, like the other women, pressed to her ears.
“It’s the balls!” yelled Rose.
William put his hand out to halt the oncoming sphere, a difficult task as it rebounded from his palm.
“That’s weird,” Gordon said to Trevor. “Why can’t we hear it? What on earth is it?”
“It’s a giant singing abacus that only women can hear.” Trevor kicked his way through the ferns to the pipe. “We don’t have time for this nonsense.”
“This is all very interesting, but we have bigger problems,” Patrice agreed.
William wanted to investigate the device further, but it wasn’t helping his thirst. “Perhaps we’re approaching something larger,” he reasoned.
Trevor frowned at his wristwatch when after another thirty minutes Gordon called for a break. “We’ve only walked for three and a half hours.”
Jennifer sat on the pipe and secured her hair with a pewter hair-clip. “I’m so thirsty,” she said. “How far are we going? Shouldn’t we have passed a stream by now?”
“This pipe could go anywhere,” said Rose. “I’m not sure this was a good idea. Perhaps we should go back.”
“Can you feel that?” Jennifer looked at her legs. “The pipe’s vibrating.”
“Something’s coming through the pipe,” said William as the sound of steel on steel scrambled past.
William ran after the noise, clutching his basket to keep pace with the enigmatic traveler. He ran on a few steps before realizing whatever was in the pipe had stopped. He was still examining the pipe when the others caught up.
“It stopped here.”
“There are footprints here!” said Rose.
“Not ours?” Gordon asked.
“No. They’re crossing the path.” They looked where the prints led into the forest. A figure stood watching them. A white figure standing motionless twenty-five feet from the path.
“Hey!” called Trevor. “Hey you!”
William pushed through the ferns and bushy pine branches towards the figure. The ground was spongy with pine needles, and as William ducked under the last branch he stopped in shock.
“It’s a...a mechanical man,” said Jennifer, first to join William.
“A humanoid puppet,” said Rose. “A computer shaped like a person.”
“A robot,” said Gordon. “They were called robots.”
This one resembled a robot from an old pulp fiction magazine, with transparent plastic slits for eyes, gentle bulges for ears, and four vertical slits for its mouth. Close up it was cream colored, not white, with no obvious joints or seams.
“Robotics is illegal!” said Patrice. “Immoral. They take jobs and have no capacity to create.”
“What’s it doing here?” said Trevor, tapping the robot’s shoulder. “It feels heavy. Solid.”
Gordon examined a square discoloration on its chest. “This could be an access point.”
“Perhaps it services the area,” said William. “It might clean the cubes.”
Jennifer ran her hand over the robot’s smooth chest. “Maybe we can leave a message with it. Can I use your knife, William?”
William gave Jennifer the knife then walked back to peal a label from a wine bottle to use for a message. When he returned, Jennifer and Trevor were looking for a place to leave the message. Rose was looking for something to write with.
“Do you think it’s dangerous?” Jennifer asked, preparing to pry open what they guessed was an access panel on the robot’s chest.
Gordon shook his head. “Robots can’t hurt humans. That’s the first law. No robot can hurt a human.”
Jennifer slid the blade along the edge of the discoloration.
The robot’s left arm smashed into Jennifer’s chest so forcefully that her body collapsed backwards through the ferns. Before her body settled, the robot leapt forward and smashed its arms over her head and chest, pivoting at the waist to arc its torso in a series of pulverizing blows.
It was straightening for its fourth attack when William reached it, rushing low from the side to strike the robot waist high. It was like striking a pine tree; its feet hardly moved on the ground. William heard Rose screaming Jennifer’s name as Trevor rushed from behind and grappled the robot’s head to pull it away. The robot abruptly lowered its arms, stepped over Jennifer, and walked towards the path, jerking its head effortlessly from Trevor’s grip and leaving William laying under the ferns where he could see Jennifer.
She lay with one arm broken over her face. Her chest and head were crushed. William hoped the first blow had knocked her unconscious and spared her the horror that followed. She hadn’t even cried out. Hadn’t had time. Trevor parted the ferns around Jennifer as the others rushed to help her, not yet seeing what William could see.
William dug the shallow grave with shaking hands.
“I couldn’t do anything!” sobbed Rose. “I didn’t have time to do anything!”
“No one did!” said Patrice, watching for the robot.
“It could have killed all of us,” Rose said. “It was so fast. What is this place? What are we doing here?”
Patrice put her arm around Rose.
Gordon was shaking and mumbling about the first law of robotics as he cleaned Jennifer’s face.
“Help me with this,” said Trevor, pulling at a root. “Wait a second. This isn’t a root, it’s a plastic tube.”
Trevor tried to bend the tube with his hands. “Have you got that knife?”
William found the knife where Jennifer had fallen. Trevor sliced savagely at the pipe until clear liquid jetted. He sucked his hand where drops collected. “It’s water!” he said, then screwed up his mouth. “But there’s a strong aftertaste.”
William fetched his wine bottles while the others helped Trevor sever the tube then lift the ends. The liquid gushed out and filled William’s bottles.
“Oh! That’s awful,” said Rose, passing the bottle to Patrice.
Patrice took a long drink. “It’s better if you keep drinking and hold your breath.”
William refilled the bottles until they had swallowed all they could stomach.
“We can’t use this grave now,” said Gordon.
They all helped to bury Jennifer, then marked the pipe nearby with branches.
There was no discussion of returning to their camp; the robot’s footprints led in that direction.
“I don’t know what this place is,” said Trevor. “But people are going to prison for what happened today.”
Picturing Jennifer laying among the ferns, William was feeling more nauseous with every step. He tried to think of something else. “I think that pipe was part of a watering system,” he said. “I think this whole place is irrigated by an underground system. The taste could be fertilizer.”
“I’ve noticed something else,” Patrice said. “We haven’t seen one animal. Not one insect. Nothing.”
Trevor stopped and turned thoughtfully. “There weren’t even worms or insects in the soil we moved.” Gordon and Rose kept walking.
William pulled the remains of an insect from his pocket. Four inches long, it was tapered for burrowing with six powerful short limbs. He had found it digging the second grave. “I found this,” he said, passing the insect to Patrice. “I only picked it up because we haven’t seen anything else. But look at it – it has no mouth.”
“But how could it live?” said Patrice. “What would be its purpose?”
“An animal like this could aerate the soil, and break-up organic matter, but not affect the nutrient balance,” said William. “If someone was designing an artificial ecosystem with carefully monitored nutrient levels, an insect like that would be perfect.”
“Without a mouth it wouldn’t live long,” said Patrice. “Its activity would be contained locally, and its nutrient addition could be calculated before hand.”
“Can you even hear yourselves?” scoffed Trevor. “The shear complexity of that suggestion makes it absurd. No one could accurately monitor nutrient movement of a whole island, there’s too many variables.” Trevor followed after Gordon and Rose.
“You’d remove as many variables as possible,” reasoned William, ticking points on his fingers. “Fruit, animals, topography, water movement, soil types–”
“You’re forgetting the most influential variable,” said Patrice. “Humans.”
When it got dark they found an area where trees weren’t clustered too closely around the path. Trevor tore up ferns to lay over the soil as a cushion. William would have liked a fire. It wasn’t cold, but they would be in a dark forest with a killer robot. He didn’t like that combination. He checked his bottles. They had consumed half a bottle of water since Jennifer had died, but William expected they would finish the rest tomorrow – bad taste or not.
Patrice lay down next to William on the blanket. Remembering their earlier conversation, William listened for any sounds of night animals. He heard no scurrying of mammals, no chirping of insects, no thump of bat wings overhead. The forest was silent except for the wind moving branches, and the sound, not unlike the wind, of Trevor whispering.
The first thing William saw was Trevor standing completely still. Trevor’s eyes were locked on the ground near William’s head. The second thing William saw was the horrifyingly articulated robot emerging from the ground near his head.
William tensed to roll away, but stopped as the creature scuttled towards a tree trunk, its pincers snipping precisely at the trunk to remove an inch square wafer of bark that it fed through a slit at the base of its pincers. William circled warily to get a better angle, glancing over his shoulder to see the others were elsewhere.
The foot-long insect-like device had rolled back a flap of compressed pine needles to emerge. William’s first impression was of a giant cockroach until he saw the telescoping pincers and upgraded his estimate to scorpion. Its abdomen was transparent, and inside William could see what looked like wafers of bark covered in a fine layer of fungus. Tiny pincers moved inside the abdomen arranging the wafers into rows.
The creature didn’t look fast, its ten short pairs of legs more suited to burrowing than high speed pursuit, but William wouldn’t want those dexterous pincers to get hold of him. Especially at the crotch level.
The creature reversed along its earlier path, and William saw the slice of bark being processed through its abdomen by the tiny pincers. It backed into the hole using its pincers to return the flap of compressed pine needles into place.
William took two steps backwards. “What the hell were you thinking?” he yelled at Trevor. “Why didn’t you wake me? That robot was right beside my head! Right beside my face!”
Trevor didn’t respond, just kept looking where the creature had emerged.
William was furious. “Are you listening? Were you going to wait for it to take a sample from me? Wait until it peeled off some skin or sliced off my earlobe!”
Trevor looked at William, and William thought he saw hate. “I just had a hunch it wasn’t going to hurt you.”
When the others returned they avoided the spot where the creature had emerged as William stuffed the blanket into his basket.
Following the pipe again, William was scanning the ground at his feet so intently for movement that he was almost in the clearing before he noticed it.
In the center of the clearing was a metal disk, fifteen feet across, like a huge coin lying on its side. William saw the disk was incised with lines, and on its surface rested metallic shapes like a scattering of children’s playing blocks.
“This is a map,” William said, following an incised line that circumnavigated the disk near its edge.
He stopped at a small series of cubes on the eastern side of the disk’s edge. “This represents our first camp.” William saw the pipe they were following crossed the island. In the middle of the island, the pipe branched into two lines heading east and west. The lines all passed through clusters of objects, with the largest cluster at the disk’s northern edge.
“I want to test something,” said Patrice, tossing a fist of pine needles on the disk.
William scanned the surrounding forest for some new horror to scuttle from the undergrowth and clean the debris.
“Look!” Rose pointed where a pyramid slid across the disk and stopped four feet closer to the edge. “One’s moving!”
“That’s some map,” scoffed Trevor. “Bit hard to read if everything keeps moving.”
To William, however, that made it possibly a very good map. Some things moved.
The group was already moving to where the pipe exited the other side of the disk into the forest. William focused on memorizing the layout of objects before rushing after the others.
“I think we should have studied it more,” he panted. “It could help us.”
“For that to be a map,” Rose said, “this would have to be the most perfectly circular island ever created.”
“Not necessarily,” countered William. “A map can be representative, not necessarily perfectly scaled.”
“It wasn’t a map!” said Trevor. “If someone had taken the trouble to produce a map that complicated, they would have included hills and slopes and valleys. Why put such an unusual map in such a strange place? Who’s going to read it? We certainly couldn’t without knowing what all those symbols represented and why they moved. I think it was some kind of experiment, or a measuring device.”
“The only thing it’s measuring is how stupid we are!” yelled William. “Take a look around! There are no hills or slopes or valleys. We’ve been walking flat terrain for days. There have been no streams because there are no slopes. No topography.”
“Where’s the water going then?” Rose asked.
“Nature doesn’t produce flat islands,” said Gordon.
“I don’t think there’s anything natural about this place,” said William. “I think it’s completely artificial. There may have been an island here once, but I don’t think it looked anything like this!”
“Why would anyone do that?” said Gordon.
“Experiments the public can’t know about,” suggested Patrice. “Like robotics, or genetic tampering.”
“I don’t care what it’s for,” Trevor said. “If you’re so sure that was a map – prove it.”
William recalled the map. “In the next couple of hours we should reach the mid-point of the island and find something like we have already passed. The pipe will continue north, but also split off east and west.”
Two hours later they walked into a clearing with a disk like a giant coin lying on its side. An aqueduct led from the disk to the north. Pipes led from the disk to the east and west.
“William was right,” said Patrice.
“Not exactly,” said Trevor. Instead of shapes, the disk had three holes arranges in a meter wide triangle around its center.
“Salty,” said Rose, checking the water in the meter wide duct.
William heard a murmuring sound when he bent over the holes through the disk.
“Let me have your belt,” William asked Patrice, unfastening his belt then removing a shoelace. He joined the belts together, then tied a bottle to the end. He lowered the bottle down the closest tube.
Unsure if he had reached water, William inserted his arm down the tube. He withdrew the bottle half full of water.
“It’s fresh!” said William. Patrice clapped and Gordon slapped William on the back.
William decanted the water into the second bottle then repeated the extraction process a dozen times.
“Well done, William,” said Patrice. “The map and the water, I mean.”
William looked up from the hole. “I was expecting more structures from the map.”
“Let’s have a search around,” said Trevor. “Maybe an hours break before we start walking again.”
William joined Gordon searching the forest around the camp, but thick vines on the ground and between trees made it difficult. William noticed the vines were conveniently absent from the paths.
“I don’t see any fruit,” said Gordon, “but some vines are full of drinkable liquid.” Gordon clamped a thick vine under his arm, and borrowing William’s knife, sawed with the blade until fiery sparks leapt from the vine, peppering his shirt with minuscule embers until he hurled it away.
William saw Gordon had sliced into an electric cable, lucky to receive only a nasty shock. They traced the vine to a moss-covered column camouflaged as a tree stump.
William counted twenty-five cables sprouting from the object’s base, and scratching the moss with his fingernail showed metal underneath.
“This is a power transformer,” said William, tracing the path of several cables. Some went up trees, some into the soil, while most curled away to parts unknown. “This is how they power the irrigation system and whatever else it takes to keep this facade productive. This place is artificial, but the infrastructure is cleverly hidden.”
“Should we disconnect a few cables?” said Gordon. “If things stop operating, someone might investigate.”
“I don’t think damaging things is a good idea,” said William. “Look what happened to Jennifer. This place has ways of defending itself, and until we learn how it works, we should go carefully.”
When they got back, Patrice said, “We think we found food. Two tins of food.”
“Fruit salad,” said Trevor, peeling the lid off the second tin. “And processed meat.”
“Keep the tins,” said Rose. “We’ll use them for water.”
They divided the food; the slippery peach, pear, and apple pieces harder to hold than the chunks of processed meat. William let the meat crumble in his mouth, savoring the salty tang and the sensation of chewing.
“Someone made a shelter nearby,” Rose said. “It was long collapsed. We found these cans half buried.”
Patrice pulled a thick shard of plastic from her pocket. “This was under the shelter, too.”
Gordon licked the crumbs of meat from his cupped palm. “God, that tasted good. I feel so much better now.”
“I think I’ll need my belt again, William,” said Patrice. “My shorts are falling down.”
“We had best fill those tins before we go,” said Gordon, taking William’s device and the two empty tins to the disk.
“Perhaps we should stay here,” said Rose. “We might not find water again.”
William recalled the layout of shapes on the map. “According to the map, on the other side of the island is a large facility. If there are people anywhere, that’s where we’ll find them.”
“There’s something blocking the tube,” said Gordon, reaching into the aperture. “We can’t reach the water.”
Gordon jerked his arm out screaming.
William saw an inch square hole was cleanly punched through Gordon’s palm. Gordon screamed as though he was on fire and ran for the forest.
William tracked Gordon by his screams, ducking around trees and shrubs until he tripped over a low mound. Gordon’s screaming halted. William rushed in the same direction, finding Gordon’s pipe lying below some broken ferns, and then Gordon collapsed on a bed of ferns. William rushed to him, appalled to see the whole left side of Gordon’s body was bloated and discolored. His left eye was completely bloodshot, and his shirt and left trouser leg were filled out rigidly ready to burst. His swollen neck had blocked his airway. William found no pulse.
Rose and Patrice were pushing through the undergrowth. “Gordon! William!”
“Here,” called William, deliberating for a moment.
Rose dropped to her knees with a hand over her mouth. Patrice turned her back. William had lowered his arm down the tubes over a dozen times when they needed water. He hadn’t given a thought to which tube he should use.
Trevor crashed through the undergrowth with a torn strip of blanket for a bandage. He threw the strip to the ground and dropped to his knees beside Rose. He stared at Gordon’s bloated body, then at William, then started digging their second grave.
No one talked as they walked back towards the clearing, confused about the direction until William found the mound he had tripped over. It looked suspiciously like the mound they had just made, only overgrown and older.
William was uncomfortable breaking the silence, intruding on everyones’ private struggle to understand what was happening. “I’ll be back in a second,” he said. “I forgot something.”
William backtracked and placed Gordon’s pipe on the grave. The soil on the grave churned under his hand. Gordon was definitely dead. There was something in there with him.
William jogged back to the clearing, relieved to see the others, and wondered if after Gordon’s death he should mention what he had seen.
“Which way, William?” asked Patrice.
“North,” said William, deciding not to mention the movement in Gordon’s grave.
“I think we should split up,” said Trevor tersely. “We’ll have a better chance of finding help.”
“Tell William the real reason, Trevor!” Patrice snapped.
Trevor turned on William. “Alright! I don’t trust you, William. I think you know what’s going on and your not telling us. No one would volunteer for the retreat. You were the first onboard when we arrived, and the last before the ship sank.”
“I almost drowned,” said William.
Patrice said, “If anyone has acted immorally, it’s you, Trevor. You suggested not telling William when we found the food.”
“I explained that,” said Trevor. “It would force him to get food from somewhere else. Force him to show us what’s going on.”
“What about the robot, William?” Rose asked. “You gave Jennifer the knife.”
“She asked me for the knife!” William pointed at Rose. “And if you hadn’t noticed the robot’s footprints, Jennifer would be alive!”
Trevor wasn’t satisfied. “You put your arm down that hole, too. Why did Gordon die and not you?”
William thought for a moment. “Before we reached the island, how many times had you written about a character’s death? Hundreds? How many times had you seen death? Had you ever in your life even seen a dead body? No? No one alive has done much of anything. When were you last hungry, or thirsty, or terrified, or watched someone die? Life is too easy, and that doesn’t make for good writing. Didn’t we all sign contracts when we were accepted by the Institute giving them the right to improve our writing? That contract also stipulated that we couldn’t directly write about or discuss the Institute, or any activities engaged in by the Institute. So they wouldn’t be breaking any laws by sending us here. This is the retreat. The writers you never hear from again are decaying on this island somewhere.”
“My agent wouldn’t do that,” Patrice said. “I’ve been friends with Sullivan for years.”
“How long did your agent claim the boat ride to the retreat would take?”
“And that’s exactly how long it did take, because after two hours we started to worry, and that’s when the retreat began. As disgusting and immoral as it seems, think of the emotions and experiences you will draw from when we leave.” William didn’t think he had convinced them. “I think the facility to the north is the retreat’s end. Any other way is a trap.”
Rose shook her head.
“I’m taking my chances east,” said Trevor. “We’ve had nothing but trouble traveling north. There could be ships searching for us. We have a better chance on the coast than in the forest.”
“I’m going east, too,” said Rose. “I can’t believe this is the retreat. Patrice?”
“We should stay in pairs,” said Patrice. “I’ll go north with William.”
Rose embraced Patrice but only nodded to William. “Be careful,” she said. “We’ll send help when we find it.”
Trevor was already departing. “Good luck.”
William and Patrice set off walking north, and had been following the duct less than an hour when William heard something approaching from behind.
“What’s that sound?” asked Patrice.
William turned and saw a small wave in the aqueduct. As the wave approached, William saw it was being pushed along by a device, like a horizontal telephone booth, that was traveling quickly though the duct, scrubbing the walls with steel brushes to propel itself forward. The device looked stable, and large enough to carry both of them.
“I have an idea,” said William as the sound of the scrubbing increased. “Run! Quickly! Run!”
William ran awkwardly beside the device with his basket, letting Patrice run ahead then leaping onto its flat surface. The device seemed unaffected by his weight. It quickly caught up with Patrice.
“Come on! Jump! Now!” William caught Patrice as she jumped awkwardly sideways onto the device.
As they settled, being shuttled along five inches above ground level, William estimated the device’s speed. “We could reach the far side by morning if this duct goes all the way north.”
“Did the duct cross the island on the map?”
“It seemed to.” William pressed his palm to the vibrating surface. “It won’t be a comfortable ride, but there’s enough room for one of us to lay down.” Patrice looked exhausted. “Why don’t you try to get some rest. We can only wait.”
William didn’t get any sleep during the night. He shook Patrice awake when he saw the forest corridor ending ahead. The device carried them from the edge of the forest into a huge clearing and towards a bizarre assemblage of structures. William stood and saw the ocean in the background.
Except for the complex of cube-based structures at its center, and the seven other aqueducts radiating inwards from the forest, the two kilometer wide clearing they entered was paved in a mosaic of brown, red, and tan colored tiles.
The structures of the complex were like the cubes of their first camp, but joined together so that while most were a single level, some structures stood three cubes high.
William estimated there were two hundred structures in the circular complex, with the sections between the incoming aqueducts arranged into wedges like the face of a halved citrus fruit.
Not converging with the other aqueducts in one large pool, as Patrice had suggested, their duct branched into a network of narrower aqueducts connecting the structures, eventually terminating with the seven other main aqueducts at the base of a raised circular dais.
William stepped from the duct cleaner onto the dais at the center of the complex. He could see the beach.
On the dais, eight pedestals stood in a circle. On the pedestals, William realized, masses of personal belonging were fussed into abstract pieces of art. Sunlight reflected off surfaces glossy with transparent lacquer.
“Hey!” said Patrice, pointing at one sculpture. “That’s my bracelet. But...but that was on the ship, under my bunk in a bag.”
“Rose’s hairbrush,” said William. “The one with the mirror in the handle. The lid from the olive jar that we left at the first camp. Gordon’s false teeth. He was wearing those when we buried him. And there’s his pipe. I put that on his grave.”
“That’s Jennifer’s hair clip,” Patrice said, checking her pocket. “That was in my pocket when I woke up. It must have vibrated from my pocket and fallen in the duct.”
The lacquer over the hair-clip was rigid and dry. William peered through the quiet structures. “That was less than ten minutes ago.”
“Rose’s locket and chain,” said Patrice. “She was wearing that when we separated.”
“Who made this?” Patrice said.
William pointed to the seven other sculptures, then started towards the structures that comprised the eastern wedge of the complex. “Whoever or whatever made the rest, I guess. Let’s see if we can’t find out.”
None of the structures had doorways. They leapt nine aqueduct branches before approaching the section’s midpoint.
“Look!” Patrice called. “Fruit!” The lemon tree grew from a small square plot of bare soil between structures.
William’s hands trembled as he tore away the peel. He accidentally dropped the segments onto the soil, then squatted at the nearest aqueduct to wash the fruit. He was about to peel and eat a second lemon when it occurred that he couldn’t taste salt from the duct water.
“Patrice. This water tastes fresh to me.”
Patrice cupped a hand of water to her mouth. “It is fresh!” she sputtered through chewed lemon flesh.
William sat under the lemon tree drinking water and eating lemons.
“I think my taste buds are suitably demoralized,” said Patrice. “As sweet a lemon never grew. I remember reading a story about a single lemon tree at the center of an abandoned city. I can’t remember the details. Have you ever read anything like that?”
“No, but I wish I had. Let’s see what else we can find.”
The next segment of the complex was vacant of features.
“The ducts flow into some structures salty and emerge fresh,” said William as they entered the third section.
“Why purify sea-water?”
“For the irrigation system,” suggested William. “We need to get inside the–”
Patrice grabbed William’s arm, preparing to run.
William saw a robot watching them, then another, and then several dozen around the structures they approached.
“Wait. They’re just statues,” said William finally.
The section was populated with statues. When they approached the section’s edge they found two statues of children kneeling over the duct. William suspected they were a clue for the thirsty traveler. Might this scene have motivated him to taste the fresh water the statues indicated?
The fourth section was as vacant of features as the second was.
“If the pattern continues,” said Patrice as they entered the fifth section, “we should find something new in this area.”
William pointed between several structures to an aperture in another. “Like an open doorway.”
Patrice squinted. “What’s reflecting off the ground in front?”
“It’s seaweed,” said William when they approached. Seaweed fronds curled from the depths of a large circular pool.
In the open structure behind the pool were rows of tall thin tanks containing varieties of seaweed under suspended lamps. The tanks’ lamp intensities and water clarity varied.
“Productivity experiments,” guessed Patrice.
William opened the only other feature in the structure, a long row of drawers, and found slats of dried seaweed tagged and labeled in code. “I’ve found dinner.”
Patrice nibbled from several drawers. “We won’t starve.”
William chewed seaweed and examined the tanks, wondering who or what monitored the experiments. Patrice selected slats of dried seaweed and filled William’s basket.
They crossed the sixth section quickly.
Partway through the seventh section was an aqueduct bordered by six structures with doorway apertures. In the first two structures were coils of irrigation tubing.
In the third structure, William stopped and took several moments to classify what he was seeing as a robotic tree. Its trunk was dismantled onto five-foot sections, one with its spongy bark removed to reveal bundles of finger thick tubing and thin electrical cables arranged in a matrix of living timber, as though the tree was partially alive. Liquid was drawn to keep the trunk sections functioning from vats under each bench. Smaller vats along one wall fed the exposed nodes of the tree’s branches arranged on wooden racks. The root system was submersed in a huge vat, an array of tubes running from the severed trunk into the ceiling.
“Artificial transpiration to counter excess irrigation and balance water levels in the soil,” suggested William.
“Why keep it functioning?” Patrice asked. “Could it die?”
“Maybe it’s a control specimen,” William said.
The three other structures were vacant. The last section they crossed was devoid of features. It was becoming dark when they checked the beach then relocated the lemon tree.
They settled on the blanket and Patrice pulled the shard of plastic from her pocket. She polished it with her thumb. “Do you think Rose and Trevor are safe?”
“It would take them days to reach the coast,” William said. “There were plenty of features on the map between them and the coast.”
Patrice ate more seaweed. “This place reminds me of the Institute.”
“Well, the Institute looks like a city where people live and eat and go about their lives. A visitor might not realize the Institute is basically a factory for literature. This complex is based around a city-scape, but probably has a completely different purpose, too.”
William appreciated the analogy. “The Institute is split into suburbs with certain goals, like the Editors’ Sanctuary and the Punctuation and Usage District, and this place is sectioned into wedges with different features. Are we supposed to be learning something about our lives in the Institute here?”
“This isn’t the retreat, William. This can’t all be for us. We’re not that valuable.”
“Then why did the boat drop us here? Why hasn’t help arrived? And there have always been opportunities to survive – the well, the map, the canned food, the lemons, the seaweed…”
“Then why everything else?” said Patrice. “What was that abacus for?”
“To separate the genders. To arouse our curiosity.”
“Why did the robot murder Jennifer?”
“To terrify us,” answered William. “To see someone we cared for die.”
“Why kill Gordon?”
“To keep us moving. To force us to continue to find water.”
“None of that explains the artificial ecosystem.”
“I’m not saying this place is only a retreat,” argued William, “just that it’s being used as one. If you wanted to expose people to intense experiences in a short time, this is the place to put them. Perhaps only certain parts of this complex are accessible for each group. Rose and Trevor might have found different things had they come this way.”
“It’s too much, William. You’re so convinced this is the retreat you’re not considering the implications if it’s not. There is no one here to help us, William! Tomorrow we should follow the coast line towards Trevor and Rose.”
“Tomorrow is Friday,” said William, checking the date on his watch. “The retreat only ever lasts eight days. It finishes tomorrow.”
William was startled awake by a shriek. The complex was eerie moonlight and sharp shadows. Patrice slept on.
The shriek again. Keeping the dark shadow of the lemon tree in view, William rushed to the main aqueduct and listened.
“Rose! Help!” It was Trevor’s voice, but it sounded hollow, as though reproduced electronically. It was coming from the dais.
William rushed back. The shadow under the lemon tree looked vacant. It was vacant! Everything was gone. Patrice, the blanket, the basket, the wine bottles - everything had disappeared.
“Patrice! Patrice!” William hollered. “Patrice!” Trevor’s voice was a distraction.
William spun and saw a pair of legs dragged from view behind a small nearby structure.
William raced around the structure twice, unable to find Patrice or an entrance. He had seen her legs only seconds before!
He heard another shriek and sprinted towards the dais. The dais was empty, but William noticed a new addition to their sculpture. It was Trevor’s tin for carrying water.
Catching his breath, William heard a strange sound from the section populated with statues. He ran again, negotiating the maze of aqueducts until he found one of his wine bottles spinning on its side in the center of a large group of statues.
Could Patrice have dropped this? William looked around desperately and noticed one of the statues missing. It must have been the robot silently departing when William passed.
William set off towards the seaweed pool. His guess was justified when he heard a ringing crash of glass breaking and found his other wine bottle smashed in his path, its fragments still settling.
“Patrice! Answer me! Patrice!”
He kept running, despairing when he saw a shape floating on the seaweed pool. It was the blanket. William stopped when he heard the sound of brushes scrubbing metal from the next section.
He was finding these signs too easily. Tired of running from sound to sound, he walked to the center of the complex.
As he reached the center the sky was lightening.
His picnic basket rested on the northern duct’s edge. The slats of seaweed were still inside, and lemons bobbed in the water where the aqueduct had been disturbed.
Patrice’s shard of plastic was secured to the top of the sculpture. William sat and stared at the sculpture for half an hour as the sun rose. He took his watch off and laid it at the pedestal.
He walked through the complex and down the beach, knowing, for the first time in days, exactly what he would find.
The ship rested with its stern run aground on the beach. William climbed onboard the featureless deck. Below, all the cabins were vacant except one, where there was a desk, a pen, and a stack of paper. On the paper rested William’s watch. The ship’s engines started.
William sat down and began writing.
© 2002 by Shane Brown. Shane Brown currently writes from Brisbane, Australia. 'Muse' is story number 23 of his self-imposed fifty short story apprenticeship.