Aphelion Issue 277, Volume 26
October 2022
 
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The Island


by Patrick Niemeyer




It was the dirt. The little clods of dirt all over his shoes. I rubbed as hard as I could, but I couldn't make them go away. Doctor Orloff would be furious if they were still there when I presented them to him this evening. Everything else looked impeccable: the Cantanker was scrubbed and waxed to an impossible sheen, his suit had been washed and pressed, and of course, his gift was all ready. This evening was all he'd talked about for a month. Anyone who jeopardized his chances of making an impression on the Gaultiers was subject to a severe punishment. If he was especially angry, he'd make me . . . no, I didn't want to think about it.

The bell rang. Across the compound, the other thralls began to make their way back inside. I put down the rag. It was no use. He'd have to wear another pair. If I was lucky, he'd merely sentence me to a couple weeks of latrine duty. If not, well, I'd cross that bridge when I came to it.

The thralls assembled in the dining hall, two dozen of us in total. I stood in the middle of the second row, often overlooked but not entirely forgotten. We stood in silence for a moment. The others had done their jobs. I just knew it. As usual, I was the screw-up, the goof-off. Why had Trevor entrusted this task to me? It must have been because he knew I'd mess it up. That was it: They all just wanted to spite me. "Oh, Vincent," they'd laugh. "You can't do anything right, can you?"

The door at the end of the hall opened. Doctor Orloff walked in. The thralls remained at attention as he sat down to eat. He picked at his meal with great delicacy, cutting each chunk into a small, manageable morsel before ingesting it.

"Gorion!' he snapped. The addressed boy stepped forward. "Is the Cantanker ready?"

"Ready as she'll ever be, milord."

"I'd better be able to see my face in the hood. Oliver!"

"Yes, milord?" said a small, tousle-haired boy of twelve at the middle of the line.

"Is the gift ready? I'm presenting it to the Lady tonight."

"I know, milord. Your apprentices and I fixed it. It should work perfectly."

"Well done, Oliver. Perhaps you are not as useless as I had thought."

"Thank you, milord."

"Trevor! Is the suit pressed and ready?"

"Yes, milord."

"Excellent. I must look impeccable when I show up at the Ba-"

"Milord?"

Doctor Orloff set down his knife and fork. Dead silence in the hall. None of the other thralls moved their heads, but I could somehow still feel their eyes on me. I was shaking, yet forced myself to continue. "The shoes, milord. They were...dropped. Into a puddle. It wasn't my fault!"

"Not. Your. Fault," repeated the Doctor very slowly. "Everything else is in order. The other thralls have all performed their tasks. Why couldn't you?"

"Milord, I just, I. . ." I thought about telling him the full story, about how the other boys had sent me off to the cobbler, then strung a wire across the road so that I'd trip on the way back. They'd deny it, of course. "I just fell."

Doctor Orloff sat still for a very long time. This was never a good sign. When he was merely angry, he would stand up and yell, possibly overturning a chair or two for good measure. When he stared off into space, it meant that the punishment was going to be especially severe. The only other time I'd seen it, the thrall had been chained to a rock at the bottom of the cliffs beyond our castle and left there overnight. When they brought him back the next morning, he was half-drowned and freezing to death. He never did anything like pour salt in the master's wine again.

"Tom?" said the Doctor. "I want you to take Vincent to see Monsieur Belvedere at once. Have him fitted for a suit. He will accompany me to the ball tonight."

"Milord?" said the boy. "Are you sure-"

"Do not question me, vermin!' snapped the Doctor. "You must hurry if you are to make it before he closes. Take the horses."

I was as surprised as anyone by this turn of events. Perhaps the Doctor had a more insidious punishment in mind for me later on. But, as I realized when Tom and I had saddled up the horses and ridden out into the setting sun, the punishment was right there in plain sight. Doctor Orloff wanted me close to him. There was nothing on the Island more dangerous.

***

I looked in the mirror. The clothes did not suit me. The collar was so heavily starched that I could barely bend my neck. The jacket and pants were such a deep black that I felt like I was clad in shadows. I didn't know what Doctor Orloff wanted me to do all evening, but I imagined I would look sharp doing it. The shoes were especially uncomfortable. Generally, we thralls wore sandals. The soles of these were so rigid that I might as well have had stone tablets tied to my feet.

"Vincent!" snarled Olaf, standing at the door. "Don't keep the Doctor waiting."

I hurried downstairs to the front door, where the Cantanker was parked. I had only driven this thing once or twice, and now I was expected to chauffeur my master in it. Stepping inside and starting the engine, I marveled at the complexity of the device. There were at least a dozen moving parts that I could see, and hundreds more under the mantle. The Doctor was a mechanical genius, there was no doubt about that. A pity he still couldn't dress himself without the help of his thralls.

When the Doctor appeared, he looked stunning. His coat was an elegant black just like mine. His cufflinks were gold, and so heavily polished that they sparkled even in this dim light. The entire ensemble, from the silver bow tie to the ocean blue cummerbund, was perfect. Only the shoes stood out. Thanks to my clumsiness, the Doctor had had to settle for shoes that were far too dull to match the rest. I prayed no one else would notice.

The Doctor tapped his foot impatiently. I realized that I was to get the door for him. He slid inside without a word as I held it open. The metal made a crisp clicking sound when I closed the door. Perhaps I could get used to this job.

I took hold of the wheel and, pressing ever so gently on the fuel pad, began to guide the Cantanker through the gates of the castle. It was the only machine of its type on the Island, a fantastically intricate device whose ungainly appearance and noisy sputtering belied its masterful design and obscured the sheer marvel of its existence. Time and time again, the Doctor had regaled us with stories of the futuristic industrialized society that, at the moment, existed only in his dreams. Most people on the Island went on foot. Some owned bicycles. The privileged few rode horses or even in carriages. But the idea of a contraption that powered itself, that required only a skilled operator to run it, was the sort of thing that had been laughed at until Doctor Orloff made it a reality.

Night had fallen on the Island. The Cantanker crested a steep hill and for a moment was bathed in moonlight. I saw the various parts of the Island laid out before me. Or would have, had I not been struggling to get the Cantanker to switch gears. "Release the clutch!" barked the Doctor. "Turn the dial slowly." I did. The whole engine gave a great kick, then purred. I maneuvered down the hill, careful to scout for anyone else who might be taking this road. The Cantanker had not collided with anything yet, but any accident could sour the whole Island's attitude towards industrialization. The Doctor would never forgive himself if he allowed that to happen.

We reached the Manor without incident. After pulling up to the gate, I sprang out to open the door for the Doctor. If nothing else, I was going to be the best manservant that I could this evening. My job, as I understood it, was to follow him around, speak only when spoken to, and do whatever he told me to. That sounded like nothing I couldn't handle.

I parked the Cantanker and ran to join the Doctor. We entered together, me just a step or two behind him. The Manor was lavish. Orloff preferred to live in a castle, but this was somehow more homely. Portraits of the homeowner's ancestors lined the walls of the entrance hall, and through the doorway to the ballroom I could see a fountain around which dozens of guests danced. A servant took the Doctor's coat and hat and we strode down the steps to the ballroom. A man at a podium announced us--or rather, announced Doctor Orloff--and we joined the party.

"Now, listen here," he whispered, pressing a small object into my hand "I intend to propose to the Baroness de Gaultier's daughter tonight. It is imperative that everything go as planned. Keep this ring on you and go wait by the buffet while I mingle. When you hear me say, 'Sweet lady, I would give you the world if only I could hold it in my hand', you will come to my side, kneel and present it to her. If you fail, I shall feed you to the Kraken. Do you understand?"

"Yes, milord."

"Go at once. But first, fetch me a drink."

I hastened to grab a glass of wine from one of the tables, making sure to look for red, as the Doctor abhorred white. The partygoers were all elaborately costumed, and I could not help but feel self-conscious in my black suit amongst this gaudy, colorful sea. Nonetheless, I obtained the drink and turned to bring it to him. And then I saw her.

We thralls didn't have very much contact with women. Orloff had visitors fairly frequently. Most of them were men, and they rode in demanding that he build them a machine that could predict the winner in a dogfight or see into women's bedchambers. More often than not, they left disappointed. The women, however, were different. We never found out what they wanted, and they usually left satisfied. The Doctor worked alone on whatever they wanted, so the lab assistant thralls couldn't gossip about it. Those small, locked boxes that we were always loading into carriages for the madams and ladies must contain something very precious.

This girl, however, looked like none of these women. For one thing, she was younger--closer to my age, in fact. Second, she was prettier. I'd heard about something called "love at first sight" in an overheard conversation between two older kids on one of my errands, but this was the first time I'd had any idea what it meant. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do to her, exactly, but it began with walking up and running my fingers through her hair to rest them on the back of her neck. Before I could pursue the fantasy any further, I realized the Doctor was still waiting for his drink.

He took it from my hand without so much as glancing at me. I retreated behind the buffet, where I was free to stare at her. She had long, wavy, thick black hair and a slight shade to her complexion that suggested a lineage originating from the far side of the Island. I had spent all of my life on the colder, more mountainous slopes. Her side, from what I had heard, was something else altogether. First of all, there were no castles. Instead, there were villas--large, scenic estates with fields on which the serfs (that's what they called thralls over there) toiled. Secondly, they practiced gladiatorial combat. Doctor Orloff threatened to feed us to the Kraken whenever we misbehaved, but strangely, he had never said anything about making us fight. It was a time-honored form of entertainment on the Island, yet something about it gave Doctor Orloff an eerie look in his eye. One of the thralls said he'd seen him stiffen when riding past a chain of fighters in the market. I don't know. It sounded pretty exciting to me.

She was, I realized with a heavy heart, there with her mother, the Baroness de Gaultier. I kept eyeing the Doctor, waiting for him to pounce, but he held back, gazing at her in much the same fashion that I did. It made me sick, and at the same time, kind of guilty. Was I any better than he was for looking at her like that? Maybe I was. I wasn't planning on marrying her solely for convenience. It was no secret that the Doctor needed money. His pickiness in choosing his clients and staggering overhead costs were starting to take their toll. He needed money, and needed it fast. The Baron de Gaultier had been one of the wealthiest men on the Island. Every man desired the Baroness's daughter--would have desired her even if she weren't so achingly beautiful--but the Doctor had something on all of them: charm. We thralls rarely got to see it, but when he wanted to, Doctor Orloff could be the wittiest, most urbane man on the Island.

I moved slightly closer so that I might hear what he said as he strolled over and greeted the two ladies. It was all nonsense, but they seemed to find it amusing, chatting about the summer's peach crop and how it wasn't quite measuring up to last year's. Really, you never would have guessed that this was the same man who flogged his thralls if dinner was only lukewarm. Hell, I wanted to marry him. He paid her all sorts of cute little compliments that I wish I'd come up with, and she giggled in the most adorable way. Then the conversation turned to astronomy. She, it turned out, had received a telescope from her father as a gift before he went away, and spent long hours admiring the constellations through it. Some told her she was a silly girl, and that she should focus on the world in front of her. She said she found the world quite interesting, but wished she could see more of it.

"Sweet lady," said the Doctor. "I would give you the world if only I could hold it in my hand."

That was my cue. I stepped up to the lady, knelt, drew the ring from my pocket, and held it out. She gasped. I wanted to strangle the Doctor. He took it from me and slipped it on her finger. I didn't even get to touch her.

After that, I didn't pay much attention. Since I had served my purpose, there was little for me to do except return to the sidelines and watch the whole thing unfold from a distance. The Doctor had turned his back to me and started talking to her in hushed tones so that I couldn't have heard what he was saying even if I'd wanted to. I still didn't know her name.

"I can arrange a meeting with her if you like," a voice said in my ear. "Don't turn your head."

"What will it cost?" I said.

"Nothing but your trust. I need a message delivered and you're just the man to do it."

A piece of paper was pressed into my hand. "You can read it," he said. "It just won't make any sense. Leave it under Oliver's pillow. He'll think an angel put it there."

"How do I know I can trust--" I looked around. Whoever he was, he was gone already.

The rest of the evening passed in a blur. The Doctor did not ask me to do anything else, and so I was forced to stand behind the buffet and watch as he danced long into the night. The orchestra was versatile, and I heard everything from lively waltzes to mournful dirges. The Doctor, to his credit, did not let his cheerful demeanor drop, and from his smoothly practiced dance steps to his rapier wit, he remained the model of a perfect suitor.

My feet were killing me by the time he bowed and wished the Baroness's daughter good night. He was in such a good mood that he didn't even scold me when I almost backed the Cantanker into one of the gargoyles by the front steps. Indeed, he said not a word all the way back to the castle, leaving me alone with my rage.

I could not even guess who had whispered in my ear. There were so many guests at that party that even if I could get my hands on the list of invitees, I doubt I'd have been able to narrow it down. Or could it have been one of the servants? Their names wouldn't be on the list. To our masters, we were not even people. The only clue I had was that the voice was definitely male. That excluded close to half of the guests and servants. But who would want to help me? What could he possibly want with Oliver? To us thralls, Oliver was just the shy, quiet boy who had a talent for . . . wait a moment. When the Doctor asked Oliver if the gift was ready, Oliver said they'd "fixed" it. He could not have been talking about the ring. Was it possible that the Doctor had brought two gifts tonight, one for the Baroness's daughter, and one for the Baroness? But when could he have presented it to her? Perhaps he didn't. Maybe he left it in the backseat of the Cantanker for one of the Baroness's servants to collect while we were inside. I had noticed an extra parcel back there, but at the time had been so nervous I didn't think about it.

Oliver knew what was in those packages Doctor Orloff sold to his female clients. And whatever it was, it probably had something to do with the message the mysterious guest had told me to deliver to him. I hadn't even read the message. Most likely, I wouldn't bother. Something told me that the voice wasn't lying when it said I wouldn't understand. Oliver was privy to something that none of Doctor Orloff's other thralls knew. How I was going to get it out of him, I had no idea.

It was past midnight by the time we returned. The Doctor would never allow me to sleep in to make up for the lost time, so as soon as he released me and made his way up the grand staircase to his chambers (still sober, having had only one drink all evening), I hastened to the thralls' wing and hung up my formalwear in the appropriate wardrobe. I then slid into my sleeping attire (little more than a loincloth, for it was a hot night) and tiptoed down the row of mats to Oliver. There he slept, a child of no more than twelve, his bowl haircut almost covering his eyes. I crept closer, crouched down, and slid the paper underneath the pillow. He stirred, but did not wake. As I returned to my mat, I wondered if I should have read the message after all. One never knew when information like that might come in handy.

It was too late to ponder it further. I flopped down, drew the thin blanket over myself, and dreamed, of course, of her.

The next few weeks drifted by without incident. Everyone wanted hear the story of Orloff's proposal, although I left out the part about the mysterious figure who asked me to deliver a message to Oliver. The Baroness's daughter's name, I learned, was Carmen, and her father, the Baron, had been a sailor. That was not a word that was spoken often on the Island. It wasn't a bad thing to be a sailor--at least, not exactly. But very few of us had ever even set foot in the water. I wasn't sure if the Kraken was real, but I definitely didn't want to find out.

Still, there was something seductive about the sea. I'd spent one or two lonely nights gazing out over it, wondering what was really out there. I liked it when the sun reflected off the water on a clear day, turning the whole ocean a bright, glistening blue. If I ever went out there--which I had no intention of doing--I would have to do it on a clear day.

Some time later, I finally received some acknowledgment for the favor I'd paid to Oliver. Doctor Orloff called me into his office and told me that he had a special task for me. The Baroness de Gaultier was having trouble taming a particularly wild horse, and was wondering if the Doctor could send someone with my facility with animals to help her. I stared at him in disbelief. No doubt the mysterious voice from the party had arranged this. But how? It was best not to ask questions. The Doctor lent me use of a pony for the trip across the Island. He also gave me a wrapped gift to deliver to Carmen. I dared not open it, but it smelled faintly of roses. Oliver was nowhere to be seen as I saddled up Gooseberry and set out on my journey, but if I'd seen him, I doubt he would have looked at me. That boy knew how to keep a secret.

It was early morning. I liked this time of day. It was cool and foggy, meaning that I couldn't see more than thirty or forty meters in any direction. I had always been a morning person. Most of the thralls hated getting up at dawn, but I didn't mind. Of course, it didn't help that we often didn't get to bed until late at night. Official curfew was at dusk or thereabouts, but the Doctor often kept us up late working on some task or another. Especially gutsy thralls would sometimes stay up late playing games or sipping wine that they'd snuck out of storage. Occasionally, they'd steal down to the village to try their hand at gambling up there. We didn't have much, just the few goods and coins we picked up as tips, but we got by. My favorite part of the day, however, was not the end but the beginning.

The fog was starting to lift as I reached the estate. I predicted a very sunny, warm day. That was best. Who wanted to stay outdoors on a cold, cloudy day?

After a quick meeting at the estate steps, the Baroness de Gaultier and her attendants escorted me out to the pasture, where the horse--Silver, her name was--stood grazing. She eyed me as I climbed over the fence. I saw no reason to prolong this. Sure, I could approach her tentatively. But a creature like this, I suspected, could only be broken by someone who could prove that they were even crazier than she was. The Baroness watched with bated breath. The last man who'd tried to put a saddle on this animal had been kicked clear over the fence and almost broken his neck. I had no saddle. If I was doing this, I was doing it with empty hands.

Silver faced me head-on, pawing the dirt like a bull. Perhaps I could win her respect after all. I sprinted at her as hard as I could.

Carmen did not make an appearance that day. It was the one reason I'd come, and I left disappointed. Well, not quite. Before I departed, the Baroness planted a kiss on my cheek and presented me with a gift from her daughter: a lace handkerchief that smelled like strawberries. I'll have to keep this hidden, I thought. If the others find it, they'll never stop laughing at me. As I rode off the estate, I chanced a look back. Was it just me, or was somebody watching me from a window in the East Wing? I tried to put it from my mind. If nothing else, I was happy to have helped these two ladies tame a difficult animal. From here on out, Silver was likely to be very docile.

When I got back to the Castle, I immediately noticed that something was wrong. For one thing, there was no one in sight and not a sound to be heard. For another, I couldn't smell anything cooking. That was weird. Lunchtime happened at the same time every day. Smells of rice and noodles should be wafting over from the thralls' quarters. I should hear laughter, perhaps even music. Instead, there was nothing.

My first impulse was to head for the thralls' quarters, but some other instinct got the better of me, and I found myself heading over to the main building. As I got closer, an unmistakable sense of dread crept up on me. Whatever was in there, I knew it would have something to do with Oliver.

The great hall was empty. Something told me to check the cellar. I descended the stairs and threw open the heavy wooden door at the bottom. Dozens of thralls turned to look at me. They were all clustered around something.

"What is it?" I asked.

"You did this," one of them--an older boy called Elisair--said.

They parted for me as I came forward. When I saw what was at the center of the circle, I gasped. "Oliver!" I knelt next to him and cradled his head in my hands. The blood seeped through my fingers and began to drip onto the floor.

"It's not your fault," he gasped. "You . . . were just . . . a messenger."

"What happened?"

"Firearm . . . went . . . off. Meant to look like an accident. Somebody knew . . . I'd be working here . . . today."

I resisted the urge to cast my eyes around the circle. One of them was responsible. But I didn't want to reveal my suspicions until I knew a little more. "If there's anything I could do--"

He coughed up blood onto my shirt. His lips moved, but no sound came out. I leaned in, practically touching his mouth with my ear. Even then, I could barely make out what he was saying. Then he went limp. I swore I could feel him pass right through me.

All eyes were on me as I laid him gently down and stood back up. They looked at me like some kind of alien creature. "Where is Doctor Orloff?"

"He is in the village. He won't return until nightfall."

"When he returns, I want to speak with him."

"What did he tell you?"

"We're going to bury him. I don't think the Doctor will mind if we don't wait for him for the funeral. Billy, I'd like you to say a couple words."

"I think I have the right prayer."

"Has anyone eaten yet?"

"We were just about to make lunch when we heard an explosion down here. We got here as fast as we could. There was nothing any of us could have done."

"We'll have a feast after the service. To celebrate his life. After that, it's back to work."

"Why should we listen to you?" somebody asked as I pushed through the circle.

I turned. "Get used to it," I said. "You aren't just answering to me. From here on out, I speak for--"

"Oliver?"

"No." I started up the stairs. "From here on out, I speak for Doctor Orloff."

It wasn't long before I received another invitation to come out to the Baroness's estate to help her with yet another unruly animal. It was a hot summer day, and we'd been assigned to start digging a trench behind the castle through which wastewater would flow into the ocean. No one even glanced up as I dropped what I was doing upon receiving the message and left the others to pick up my slack. They knew better than to do that by now. The Doctor had yet to take me into his confidence. I still was not allowed into the lab to help him with those devices he constructed for the wealthy women of the Island. Then again, my curiosity had diminished. Since I was no longer just another thrall, I didn't concern myself with the same things the other thralls did. I still wanted to see Carmen again, though.

The case with the animal turned out to be a mere trifle--a stubborn mule that just needed the right combination of coaxing and prodding in order to learn obedience. After I was done, the Baroness invited me to dine with her daughter and her on the terrace. I was shocked. This was unheard of: for a noblewoman to eat at the same table as a Son of the Navigators! Nonetheless, she turned out to be quite serious. It was the tastiest meal I'd ever had, and as I ate, Baroness de Gaultier regaled me with tales of her upbringing in Island high society. There were countless minute and seemingly arbitrary rules to memorize. The more she told me, the more I realized how many faux pas I had committed since sitting down at the table, but she seemed not to notice. Carmen, for her part, said very little, giggling at my jokes and chiming in with the occasional example of her own upbringing mirroring her mother's. When the meal was over, the servants cleared away the dishes--the Baroness did not keep thralls, believing the practice to be archaic and unethical--and asked me if I would like to accompany Carmen for a walk along the beach. Scarcely able to believe my ears, I accepted.

"You're probably wondering why I asked you out here," she said as we began our stroll.

"To the beach or the estate?"

"Both."

"I didn't realize it was you and not the Baroness who'd sent for me."

"You are a Son of the Navigators," she said. "Do you know what that means?"

"The Navigators were . . . bad people. They duped people into following them, told them they could lead them to a new land where food was plentiful and the weather was always calm. Then they led them here."

"Food is plentiful on the Island, is it not?"

"It is not. We had a famine last season. Several of my friends died!"

"I ate well during that time. So did my friends and family."

"What are you saying?"

"I'm saying the Navigators were right. The food is plentiful, the weather always c--"

"We had a hurricane several years ago."

"How does that compare with elsewhere? Do you even know?"

"Elsewhere? What does that mean?"

"Vincent, you silly boy. Think. Where did the Navigators come from? Is it possible that there are other places across the sea, islands so large that you can't even walk from one side to the other in a single day? Do you really think the sea goes on forever?"

I looked out at the water. Honestly, I'd never asked myself that question before. This life was all I'd ever known. I'd been separated from my parents at birth and sent to work with the other Sons building a castle for the Doctor. I was not allowed contact with the Daughters. They performed other duties--what, I didn't know. I'd seen other Sons in thrall to other Island elites, but never Daughters. What did they do?

Carmen pointed to a building on the cliff. It was tall, thin, and round. I'd never seen it this close before. "Do you know what that is?"

"No."

"It's called a lighthouse."

"Lighthouse," I repeated. "What does it mean?"

"My father was a sailor," she said. "He had a small boat that he used to take me out in when I was little. You know what a boat is, right?"

"I've seen them. They use them for fishing. In the bay."

"That's correct. But my father didn't use his boat for fishing. He used it for exploring."

"I know that word. I used to go exploring in the caves by Doctor Orloff's castle."

"My father taught me to sail. He taught me very well. And when he passed, he told me that I would someday have to pass that secret on to someone else so that it wouldn't die with me."

"What do you want me to--"

"Go to the lighthouse." She pointed with her long, delicate arm as she spoke. "Knock three times. The man who lives there is named Consuelo. He will tell you everything you need to know."

Before I could ask another question, she kissed me. It was over as soon as it began, and once it was done, she turned and strode back up the beach. I watched her go. It was a long time before we saw each other again.

My hand was trembling as I forced myself to knock on the door. It had taken me several minutes to get up here, and the whole time, I was searching for any excuse I could think of to turn back. But I could not come up with anything.

The door opened after a short wait. The man who faced me was small and dark-skinned. His age was hard to determine. He certainly wasn't young, but I gleaned that from his posture and the way he looked at me, rather than his features, which were smooth and mostly wrinkle-free. The instant he saw me, his face split into a grin. "Vincent!" he said, spreading his arms to welcome me inside. "Come in! I've been expecting you."

Tentatively, I stepped into the lighthouse. The interior was nowhere near as cold or blank as the building's uniform white exterior. A run lay on the floor on which to wipe my feet as I came inside. The room itself was a generator room, not unlike the one in Orloff's castle.

"You like it?" said Consuelo, admiring the machinery.

"It's wonderful," I said. "But what does it do?"

Consuelo smiled again, not so broadly this time. "Let me show you something," he said, and opened the door at the other end of the room. He led me up a spiral staircase that ran along the inner wall of the building.

About halfway up the tower, he stopped at a closed door. "I want to warn you," he said. "That after I show you what I am about to show you, you will never be able to look at your life the same way again. What you do with what lies beyond this door is up to you. But if all you want is for everything to return to normal, I suggest you turn back now."

I didn't have to think too hard about what he was suggesting. A part of me did want to turn back the clock and pretend that none of what had happened after I'd dirtied the Doctor's shoes and been forced to accompany him to the ball had come to pass, but even if I'd yearned for that with every fiber of my being, I just couldn't see how that was possible. The other thralls would look at me differently. I wouldn't see myself as I had before. What I wanted wasn't the issue. This was about what needed to happen.

"Open the door," I said.

He didn't smile this time, just turned the knob and pushed it open. I stepped inside. It wasn't exactly what I expected, but since I hadn't expected anything, that's a meaningless statement.

It was a very beautiful room, but not an especially big one. A mural covered the walls and ceiling, but not the floor. As Consuelo stepped in and closed the door, I realized that it was painted in exquisite detail.

"Do you like it?" a voice whispered in my ear. I spun around. Of course. It was him at the ball.

"What were you doing there?" I asked.

"I had friends to see."

"But I never saw you!"

"I know how to blend in."

"But you're--"

"Dark-skinned?"

"I've never seen anyone as dark as you. Are you from over . . . the sea?"

"You're starting to figure it out. Yes, I'm from overseas. We all are."

"Where did I come from?"

"I don't know, exactly. The Navigators didn't keep records of their ancestry. What I do know is why they brought us here. They had thought it was possible to engineer a perfect society. They had rules and codes for everything from marital relations to agriculture to the system of government. But in order for it to work, they had to have complete control over everything. So they lied to people, telling them a perfect world already existed, and all they had to do was accompany the Navigators. Of course, when everyone arrived here and learned that the Navigators lied to them, they rebelled. The Navigators were all killed. Their children survived, and they became slaves to the civilization that the Rebels built--which, ironically, was based off of the plans that the Navigators left behind. It's no surprise that you've never seen a Daughter. They are kept indoors and perform domestic duties. Sons and Daughters are only brought together when the rich need to make more thralls. Once they bear a child, it's snatched up to be raised by somebody else so that it has no knowledge of its parents. Do you remember who nursed you?"

"Nurses, I think. They wore . . . blue."

"Anything else?"

"Not really."

He smiled. "You grew up with the other thralls."

"They're not so bad."

"They're all you know."

"Why are you doing this?"

"Don't you want to know where you came from?"

"I never really thought about it."

"Exactly."

I took another look around the room. "It's so weird," I said. "To imagine that there could be other people out there who live out their lives with no idea we even exist. What's it like, you know, across the sea?"

"I don't know," said Consuelo.

"Has anyone ever, you know, been there?"

"Not since the Navigators."

I stared at the room a moment longer, turning in a slow circle to see the history of my people. The painting told the story without words, from the moment the Navigators dreamt up their plan to the part where the Rebels, satisfied with the lives they had built, sat down and started to live them. Since then, nothing had changed.

Consuelo opened the door. "Go home," he said. 'Think on this. We shall see each other again. In the meantime, tell no one."

It was early evening by the time I got home. I assisted the Doctor with one or two meager tasks--he still wouldn't allow me inside the lab--and joined the other thralls for dinner. Most of them avoided me, but one or two would still allow themselves to be seen with me. One, a chatty fellow named Brent, told me all about how much he enjoyed maintaining the Doctor's plants. I'd never cared much for botany, but he cared a great deal, so I sat there and nodded as he went on and on and on. After dinner, I promised to help him weed the Doctor's garden as soon as it was light and I had a chance. Then I dusted off the display cases in Doctor Orloff's visiting room (a chore I'd been assigned that morning, but delayed from doing until now) and went to bed. I slept well.

It was not yet dawn when I was rudely awoken by a rough shaking. "Orloff wants you," Elisair said. I knew this wasn't good.

The door to his office was ajar. That was unusual all by itself. I'd been up here countless times before now, and in every single case, I was to knock, then wait for his rasping voice to call out, "Enter!" I pushed the door open. He stood behind his desk, leaning slightly forward with both his fists on its smooth wooden surface. "Close the door," he whispered, not taking his eyes from the floor.

As I did, he raised his head and fixed his gaze upon me. "You stupid bag of rot," he said. "What have you done?"

"I don't know," I answered, honestly.

"Well, you'll find out soon enough. What I can tell you is that I have no choice but to release you from my service. I'm sending you to the Colosseum."

"What?" I nearly fainted. The Colosseum? How could he do this to me?

"It's the best I can do," he said. "The constable would have you arrested, and given the Baroness's influence, you'd most likely be Kraken fodder by nightfall. This way, there's a chance."

"A chance?" I stammered. "Of what? Doctor, I'm not a fighter!"

"No, but you are clever," he said. "Clever enough that you could get something out of the young girl that I never could. You didn't honestly think I loved her, did you? I just wanted to learn about her father. He knew something about the sea that I've been trying to find out for years. Did she tell you what lies across it? Tell me. I must know."

"There are . . . other lands," I said. "Our ancestors came from there. The story goes--"

"Save your breath!" he barked. "We must get you to the other side of the Island at once. The trainer, Germanicus, will take you in. He owes me a favor. When they come looking for you, I'll tell them I sold you last evening. They won't believe me, but they won't be able to touch you once Germanicus owns you."

"What happened?" I asked as he rushed me from the room.

"Vincent, I don't expect you to forgive me for what I have done to you," he said, not slowing his pace at all. "I have treated you cruelly, and the only excuse I have is that I believe all of us serve a higher purpose. You believe that, too--or at least, you seem to. For the sake of both of us--for Carmen, if you truly love her--you must find out what happened to her." He pressed a key into my hand. "That's for the cellar. If you escape and want to hide out there, you may, but only for a night. It's the best I can do. Good luck!"

***


We had reached the courtyard. Brent sat holding the reins as I hid amongst the wine barrels in the back of the wagon. Without a word, he started the horses and we went on our way. I risked a look backward and saw Doctor Orloff on the steps of the castle, waving goodbye.

***

With a sweep of the legs, Tulliver knocked my feet out from under me and I went face-first into the dirt. It was loose, yellow dirt, the kind that from a distance might be mistaken for sand. Germanicus laughed from his seat. I stood up, spitting out a mouthful of earth as I did so.

"Guard your flanks," said Orsino, the trainer , and the skirmish began again. This time, I actually managed to strike him with my training sword. There was sarcastic applause from Germanicus, and not-so-sarcastic applause from Germanicus. I smiled.

These past few weeks had been a blur. Carmen, it turns out, had thrown herself off of the highest balcony the evening after I visited her and Consuelo. No one knew why she'd done it. I had a few theories, but even I couldn't see inside her head. The body had not been found. Some said that the Kraken had eaten her, but the less gullible among us knew that to be an impossibility. None of the other slaves had asked me about her, but I could see it in their eyes: a mix of suspicion and awe. They didn't know what to make of me, and I wasn't sure that I could blame them. I didn't know what was happening to me or how to process what I was feeling. Where was I going? Where would I end up? Was I going to die in the Colosseum, or find some way out of it? My first fight was this weekend. I guess I'd find out then.

That night was cool. Summer was gradually turning into fall. Gladiatorial fights were most popular during the warmest months of the year, but we'd get some turnout even as the weather turned wet and rainy. In a storm, of course, no one would turn up, but this was the most popular form of entertainment on the Island, and whether I won or lost, there was a good chance that someone whose toes I'd trod on over the years would be in the audience.

The other slaves seemed to expect something of me, and not just because I knew something they didn't. I knew the true story of how we all got here, that the Kraken was a myth created to keep all of us frightened of venturing too far out to sea, but what to do with that knowledge? I didn't know how to sail, and the one person who might have had some interest in teaching me had disappeared without a trace. My first thought upon hearing that no body had washed up on the shore was that she swam out to her father's old sailboat and made off with that, but it had been discovered anchored in the waters in a cave under the cliffs of the Gaultier estate. At the Baroness's request, it had been sunk.

The Moderators were starting to crack down on offshore activity. Anyone caught swimming or even wading in the waters was severely punished and, were it not for the much needed sustenance that it brought us, fishing would have been banned. Fishermen's children were bullied in school, and even though agriculture alone was not enough to sustain us, people were buying less fish with each passing day. No one wanted to acknowledge it, but the Island was slowly strangling itself.

I tried not to think about that. Mostly, I focused on becoming a better gladiator. Easily the best of the bunch was an older boy named Thorne, who stood over six feet tall, with a physique and prowess that no one else could match. He was nice in addition to being the object of every female spectator's affection. Once, I even had a dream about him and Carmen, but I'm not going to go into that. Physically, he was the envy of every gladiator slave, and while my muscles had hardened a good deal since I'd begun training, I could not deny that I would never look as good in my uniform as he did. Those costumes left little to the imagination.

Saturday came. I survived my fight fairly easily (it was rare that somebody actually died in one of our matches) with no more than minor injuries, and spent the rest of the day in training. (Germanicus was relentless that way. Only on Sunday were we allowed any kind of rest.) My body ached even more so than usual when I woke up on Sunday morning but I didn't mind. What was I to do with myself now?

"What do you know about sailing?" asked Thorne one day as we scrubbed Germanicus' floors.

I stopped scrubbing. "What?"

"You heard me." He eyed me skeptically. "I know you talked to that Gaultier girl. What did she tell you?"

"Not much." I hoped he would accept that. It was the truth.

"Did she ever show you to her boat?"

"No, although she told me a little about going sailing with her father. She kept doing it after he went away, but not for long."

"Did she ever take you swimming?" He was leaning in close now. "Don't tell me you've never tried it."

"I went wading once," I said.

"How did it feel?"

"Weird. I mean, I wasn't expecting the Kraken to grab me and pull me under or anything. I just felt the waves coming in and out. I've never felt anything like it."

"I'm surprised she didn't teach you."

"We only talked a couple times. I barely knew her."

"Do you think she's still alive?"

"Of course not."

"Really?"

I stared at him. "What are you getting at?"

"Come on, Vince. Why did she do it?"

"I don't know."

"Why did she do it?"

I couldn't meet his eyes. "She didn't like it here. She wanted to leave. She wanted to go . . . somewhere else."

"Where do you think she went?"

"To the bottom of the ocean." I started scrubbing again.

He watched me for a minute, then picked up his brush and resumed cleaning. For the rest of the afternoon, we didn't speak.

I kept wondering about Orsino. He slept adjacent to our quarters, but some nights, I could hear him stealing away. Where was he going? And why didn't he want anyone to see him? In truth, he was only slightly freer than we were. He was not a slave, exactly, but he was paid very little for what he did, and was only doing it as penance for some crime that must have been bad enough to bring the wrath of the Elders down upon his head. Nobody knew what this offense had been, but it clearly was of a dark and sinister nature. Still, he was allowed to move about the Island freely and more or less do as he pleased whenever Germanicus didn't need him. That meant that whatever he was doing now was something that he wanted no one else to know about. I lay awake, peering at the stars through the slats in the roof (hopefully, Germanicus would let us patch it up before the rainy season began) and tried to guess at Orsino's big secret.

Somebody tugged on the chain linking all of our arms together. I sat up. It was Thorne. Of course. I heard a faint scratching, as of somebody scraping metal against metal. He was picking the lock. "Are you crazy?" I hissed.

He held up the wire he'd swiped. "We've got to get going," he said. "We have a lot of work to do."

"What are you talking about?"

"They were going to kill you."

"What?" The other boys were waking up.

"You're dangerous, you idiot. Everywhere you go, you stir up trouble. Grayson was supposed to kill you this Saturday, but I warned him to back off. Now they want me dead, too."

"Who?"

"Haven't you figured it out?" I shook my head. "The Elders. They control everything. We have to hide. Or fight back."

"Is everything ready?" asked one of the boys who had just woken up. His name was Brendan.

"No," said Thorne. "But we've got some weapons from the armory. It'll get us started."

"What are we doing?" I asked.

"I'm sick of this place," said Brendan. "My mother was a Daughter. She was raped by her master and they threw me on the streets when I was little. I was sent here when a farmer caught me stealing from his field. This is all I've ever known."

"That's dramatic," I said.

By this time, Thorne had gotten the chains off of all the boys in our row. He then turned to the others and began to help them as well.

"We have swords and axes. The Watch has guns. What can we do against them?" I asked.

Somebody touched me on the shoulder. I turned. It was Andreas, a darker boy. He was holding at least half a dozen rifles under his arm, holding one out to me with the other. I took it. "Good luck," he said.

The entire building had become a flurry of activity. Part of the problem with being a gladiator slave was that even if you escaped, you had nowhere to go. Even those who had never seen you fight would immediately recognize the brand upon your forearm the instant it was exposed. There were enough people on the Island that it was possible for a free citizen who had ruined his life on one end of the Island to move to the other side and begin again, but not for a slave, and certainly not for a Son or Daughter.

"Where are we going?" I asked Andreas as we began to move.

"To the Tower!" he said.

"What are we going to do there?"

"Wait for them to come at us."

"Why would they do that?"

"Because we have something they want."

I didn't get a chance to ask him to elaborate as I was herded out of our barracks and past the guards that somebody else had already dispatched. What about Germanicus? I wondered. Surely we must have woken him by n--oh, wait. Germanicus wasn't just our trainer; he was a respected businessman with connections to some of the most powerful families on the Island. A few of the older boys among us were occasionally even excused from fighting so that they could "entertain" wealthy older men for an evening, whatever that meant. But kidnapping Germanicus would not all by itself be enough to bring down the wrath of the Elders upon us. There had to be another element to Thorne's plan.

We entered Germanicus' home and immediately set about barricading the door and windows. Why hadn't I been told about this? Presumably, they hadn't thought they could trust me, but then why had they put a rifle in my hands and allowed me to fight with them? I was no good with a gun. I'd never even held one before.

"Oliver," I said out loud. "He was involved in this. Somehow."

Nobody heard me. They bustled about as if they'd been rehearsing this for weeks. Somehow, the slaves had organized a rebellion, procured armaments, and taken their master hostage, and until minutes ago, I had had no idea that they were doing it. One thing was certain: Thorne wanted something from me. When he'd asked me earlier what I knew about sailing, it hadn't been just idle curiosity. He wanted to know what was across the sea. Just as I did.

"Thorne," I called out. He was occupied, of course. "Thorne!" I said louder, at last drawing his attention away from the peepholes in the barricades.

"What is it?" he said.

I pushed my rifle into his hands. "I can't do this."

"Vincent, I know this is scary--"

"I'm not meant to be here. You asked me where Carmen went. I think I should find out."

"What will you do?"

"I'm scared to say. Is this all we've got?" I asked, gesturing at everyone around me.

"There's a tunnel in the cellar," said Thorne. "We can slip out if it looks like they're about to close in. They're not just going to let us hold Germanicus for ransom. There's going to be a fight."

"You know that Orsino--"

"Orsino is on our side. If they kill us and take back Germanicus, he's waiting to begin with phase two."

"Does it involve the Daughters?"

"It involves your mother."

"If you need a place to stay, you can hide out at Doctor Orloff's. His cellar can hold quite a few boys." I handed him the key.

"We approached Orloff through Oliver. He wasn't interested."

"He will help you if I tell him to. Just remind him of what he promised me."

"What did he promise you?"

"All he could give." I leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. "I'll return," I said.

"I wouldn't be so sure about that."

It briefly occurred to me to say goodbye to Germanicus, but reconsidered and started walking. I had a long journey ahead of me, and I didn't want to wear myself out.

Not a mile from the Colosseum, I heard gunshots. The Watch had arrived, it seemed, and was less interested in keeping Germanicus alive than putting down an uprising. Perhaps Thorne just had him taken prisoner because slitting his throat would have been more than he deserved. A part of me wished I was back in there with them.

It took several hours to trek from the Colosseum to the Gaultier estate by road, but I could not risk being seen, and was forced to cross through wilderness and down little-known paths to get there. I hadn't heard gunshots in a while, although that could have been because I was too far away from them.

Dawn was breaking as I passed by the estate and started down the beach. The Lighthouse looked more or less the same, except it had seemed a bit taller the last time I'd been here. No matter. I climbed the steps and walked right up to the front door. It opened, which meant that Consuelo did not live here anymore.

The sun was shining very brightly by the time I reached the top of the tower. I was slightly winded from ascending all of the stairs, but not too badly. The light at the top of this house had not shone in generations, but that was set to change.

"What are you doing here?" said a familiar voice behind me. I spun. It was Brent.

"I might ask you the same question," I said.

"Oliver wasn't the only one who knew what was going on," he said. "I grew herbs and spices for Consuelo. He gave me messages to take back to Oliver. Nobody else knew I was even in on it."

"Where's Consuelo?"

"Hiding. Nobody knows where. It'll be a while before he shows his face again."

"Were you in . . . the room?"

He nodded. "I was looking out at the water just like you. I wanted to just jump out the window. It's so beautiful."

"And scary." I took off my sandals. "See you around."

"Where are you going?"

"To find another island."

Without looking back, I took a running leap off the rail, narrowly missing the cliffs as I plummeted to the sea below. I entered the water smoothly, my fists breaking the surface. For the first time in my life, I felt water all around me. It was cool and refreshing. I surfaced and began swimming out toward the horizon, out to where Carmen had gone and was waiting. I knew she'd leave a light on for me.

THE END


Copyright 2016, Patrick Niemeyer

Bio: I have a B.A. in English from Berkeley and live in the Bay Area. In my spare time, I like to play old computer games, watch hockey, and think deep thoughts. I have no fiction publication credits so far.

E-mail: Patrick Niemeyer

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