17 Nov Voyagers
“Voyagers”Written by David Feuling Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 23 minutes
He felt old and tired. That was all he knew about himself. He rose from his bed and washed his face while he waited for his mind to focus. There was a gentle shifting of the floor beneath him. “Am I on a ship?” the man asked himself. He saw that the room he occupied was much like a passenger’s stateroom. Moving to the window, the man observed the vast emptiness of the waters outside. That confirmed it. He was somehow aboard an ocean liner despite remembering nothing – not even his own name.
“Good morning, passengers.” An amplified voice crackled from somewhere above decks. “This is day one of our journey. Welcome aboard.”
The transmission ended. The man searched his room for clothes to dress himself. There were outfits to last for a week or more in the corner closet. A pocket watch chained to a vest featured an ornate, silverwork hunter-case. The name “Mr. Thomas Smith” was inscribed on the case’s interior. The man who could remember nothing decided that his name must be Thomas.
Thomas found a lighter and cigarettes in the pocket of the pants he now wore and reasoned that smoking might calm his nerves. He tried it, but the smoke hurt his throat and made him feel sick. These weren’t his cigarettes. Thomas butted out the lit one by crushing it into a bedside ashtray. He then set about finding his way above decks.
There were two elevators in the lobby of the staterooms’ deck area. Each lift was operated by a male attendant wearing neat servant’s attire but also a rough, cloth mask over his face. Thomas hesitated to enter at first. The visage of the masked staff members filled him with dread, and all the more so when these masked strangers remained silent in response to the shy greetings that Thomas offered. There was no one else around, and so Thomas cautiously entered one of the elevators and instructed the masked man. “I’d like to go above decks.” The attendant nodded and set the elevator into motion without speaking a word.
The elevator churned steadily upward. When it settled, the metal scissor gate was pulled aside by the attendant for Thomas to step out. The above-deck level was soaked in sunlight and ambient heat. “We could be in the Mediterranean,” he thought to himself. “Or perhaps somewhere along the shores of Africa.”
There was a woman above decks, standing nearby to where Thomas had exited the elevator. A bit further off stood two men who chatted and angled their faces toward the sky with their eyes closed. They seemed to be calmly soaking in the sun. The men stood at the same height and wore similarly styled hair and mustaches. Thomas judged them to be brothers or possibly even twins. Cautiously, Thomas approached the lone woman first. She appeared somber and reticent to engage him. “I apologize for asking such a strange question,” Thomas began in the way of an introduction, “but where are we?” The woman’s expression immediately brightened.
“You must be as confused as I am!” she exclaimed. “Frankly, I haven’t any idea where we are!” She shrugged and shied toward the deck’s railing. “I don’t even know the name of this ship.”
“By the heat, I think we might be near the tropics,” Thomas ventured.
“Maybe,” the woman said. “Something tells me that we’re traveling in the South Pacific, but then again – who knows?”
“It’s a mystery then,” said the man who was not even sure of his own name. “They call me Thomas, by the way.”
“Do you really remember who you are?” the woman focused her eyes sharply upon him. “Do you actually remember that name, or did you learn it somewhere?”
“I learned it somewhere,” Thomas admitted. “So…what is your name, then?”
“Rosalind,” the woman answered. “That’s the name I’ve picked up for myself. I don’t remember who I was before I got on this boat.”
“I don’t either. The men in the elevators won’t talk to me.” Rosalind nodded vigorously as though to confirm that she too had plied the men in cloth masks for information but received nothing from them. “We should ask the brothers, I think,” Thomas said. He pointed in the direction of the calmly sunbathing pair of strangers. Rosalind bit her nails for a moment and then spoke.
“Now that we’re a team of two,” she said, withdrawing her fingertips from her mouth. “I think that’s a great idea.” They approached, and all four greeted each other with the same peaceful but uneasy smiles that Rosalind and Thomas had already been wearing.
“Do you know who you are?” Rosalind asked them abruptly. “You seem to be brothers.”
“We seem to be twin brothers,” answered the man with the slightly neater hair and more confident posture. “It’s come as quite the surprise to us,” he laughed. “Judging by the IOUs left in my brother’s wallet, we’ve decided that his name is Harrison. I’ve had to guess at my own name, and so I’ve chosen to be called John.”
“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Harrison and John.” Rosalind shook the strangers’ hands as they offered them. “We’ve chosen ‘Rosalind’ and ‘Thomas’ for ourselves. That’s as close as we can guess to our real names.” She smiled sheepishly, and Thomas noticed that he somehow found her familiar. He wondered whether he knew her before finding himself on this ship. It was hard to know anything for sure.
“It’s nice to meet you as well,” John said. Harrison remained silent and fiddled absentmindedly with a large accordion camera that hung from a leather strap around his neck.
“Where did you get that camera?” Rosalind asked.
“I found it,” Harrison answered quietly. “We’ve been exploring the ship.”
“We’re trying to get some answers,” John added. “But no luck so far.”
“There’s nobody to ask?” Thomas furrowed his brows in thought. “There must be a captain aboard this vessel.”
“Everyone we’ve seen wears those masks.” John circled his face with his hand to indicate what he meant. “They won’t speak a word.”
“But…” Harrison murmured. “Thomas is right! There must be a captain, and that makes me think…there must be an officers’ quarters on this ship!” He exclaimed as though the idea electrified him. “Even if they hide it from us, there’s surely a place for them to control the ship. We’ve seen the bridge ourselves. Come with me and look!”
He led them around to the front of the ship’s bow and pointed up toward some large windows that loomed a few levels above them. “I’d wager that we can access that area by returning to the stateroom cabins, then climbing the stairs up a few floors.”
“It may work,” Rosalind said hesitantly. “But we may instead find several locked doors barring us from getting there.”
“There’s only one way to be sure,” insisted Harrison. “Let’s go see.” The group of four went together and found surprisingly that there were indeed no locked doors to prevent them from finding the place they sought. They avoided the elevators and took the stairs in the interest of stealth. No one was there to deter them along the way. They knew they’d located their target when they found a conspicuously reinforced with warning text printed across it.
The heavy, steel door was marked: “CAPTAIN AND OFFICERS’ QUARTERS – ENTER AT OWN RISK!” Despite appearing to be fortified for the purpose of security, this door also featured no lock. The handle turned easily when Thomas tried it. He let go of the door and stepped away as it creaked open.
“This is strange, isn’t it?” he said. “There’s no staff, no locked doors, and yet we’re told to stay away.” Only darkness and silence could be seen beyond the doorway, as though only void existed there. Thomas took a deep breath and stepped inside. After a few careful paces, he ushered the others to follow. They did so. John fumbled for a wall-mounted push button or chain by which electric light might be summoned. Nothing like that could be found initially, but Thomas’s eyes were beginning to adjust to the dark. The dim shapes of the room slowly made themselves known.
There was a sunken chaise sofa nearby to the door they’d entered, and at the far wall was an ornate demilune table with a pair of wooden chairs set like sentries around it. Despite what the location and marked door implied, these were not officers’ quarters at all. This place seemed instead to be a bare and lonely workroom.
Harrison discovered an electric lamp in the corner of the room and activated it. An abrupt flood of cozy, yellow light illuminated the area. Blinking to readjust his vision, Thomas spotted a logbook on the demilune at the far end of the room. “There,” he said, pointing. “That might tell us something.” He paced quickly to retrieve it. Rosalind noticed the danger into which he was walking.
Thomas felt his leg catch something at ankle level that sent him stumbling forward. There was an obvious twang of mechanisms activating from somewhere behind the wall. “Look out!” Rosalind cried while shoving hard into Thomas to clear him from the path of the booby trap that he had activated. Thomas drew himself up from the floor and observed the sort of injury from which he had been spared. In the spot that his forehead occupied mere seconds before, an ax-like scaling hammer had swung forcefully into place. It now hung in the middle of the doorway, held there by a spring-loaded machine.
Thomas set about claiming the scaling hammer for himself. He pried at it with his fingers while the others set about searching the room but was initially unsuccessful. With a few aimed kicks, the hammer was soon jarred loose from its mechanism. Thomas attacked the device again with his hands, and this time brought the hammer out. He tucked the improvised weapon between his belt and the small of his back.
“How strange,” Harrison remarked. He had retrieved a thick pile of newspaper from a corner desk in the room. “They’ve left us a newspaper, but redacted almost all of it.” He held the paper up to reveal that nearly everything except the publishing date had indeed been obscured by heavy lines of black ink. “If this paper is recent,” Harrison reported, “then we are in the summertime of 1908.”
“I was born in 1871!” Rosalind exclaimed. “I know that for certain! Am I nearly forty?”
“Possibly,” said Thomas. “That could be right, but maybe not. They left this paper for us to find. Otherwise, they wouldn’t redact it. We must be suspicious of anything they intentionally leave us…”
“I’m certainly not forty,” Rosalind assured herself quietly. “Certainly not.”
With the trap disarmed, Thomas approached the logbook he’d noticed on the demilune table. A handwritten note was perched atop the heavy ledger, stuck to its cover with a piece of resin adhesive. In a playful cursive, it read: “Congratulations! Now, please have a look. – Dr. V.”
The interlopers looked hesitantly at one another, negotiating with their eyes about who would step forward to risk a final trap. The votes were silently cast in their expressions, and Thomas reached gently forward to open the book. There was nothing to punish him, but he was not rewarded either. There was only blankness on each page as he turned through them. The only clue was the typed text that served as a header for each journal page.
In the top margins, the otherwise blank pages read: “LOGBOOK – THE S.S. SISYPHUS.”
Thomas leafed forward and backward through the book until he was satisfied. “There’s nothing here except the name of our ship.” He handed the logbook to John, who studied it also. He muttered the name Sisyphus to himself as though trying to summon a memory of its meaning. Finally, John spoke aloud to the group.
“I think I’ve heard about this kind of thing,” he said. “There are experiments being conducted. Maybe we agreed to participate, but now we don’t remember. Or maybe instead, we’ve somehow been conscripted against our will.” John paused thoughtfully as though lost in some idea, then continued. “Seeing the name of this ship reminds me of something. I’ve heard about a man named ‘Mr. Saxtam.’ He’s a person who fights to disrupt this kind of extreme psychological research. I’m sure that’s what we’re being subjected to here. It’s an experiment.”
“Mr. Saxtam?” Thomas asked. The name rang a bell in his own head. “Who is he?”
“I truly don’t know,” John frowned. “I’m not even sure how or why I know his name.”
“Fine,” said Thomas, irritated at the lost association that the mention of a ‘Mr. Saxtam’ brought him. “Let’s try to rest and think things through until this evening.”
“I agree,” Harrison said. “It’s enough for now. John, will you join me in the darkroom?”
“There’s a darkroom on this ship?” Rosalind’s question forced Harrison to pause. He was already shuffling away from the group but now turned near the doorway to answer.
“There is! We found it just past the library and gymnasium on the main deck. It was fully supplied with photography equipment.” He indicated the folding camera around his neck. “I’ve taken to documenting this ship.” Rosalind smiled politely but did not respond. John followed Harrison out of the room, and Rosalind turned to Thomas as the twin brothers took their leave. “I’m not sure I trust them,” she whispered, “but I do trust you for some reason.” She hesitated as she admitted it, as though the instinct to confide in Thomas came from an unknown place in her mind.
They walked together back to the sunlit main deck. Rosalind puffed her way through a half-dozen cigarettes while the pair leaned on the deck’s railing and watched the endless waters shuffle past them. The smell of burning tobacco made Thomas queasy, but the fresh air mostly took it away.
There were no coasts, nor spits of landscape, nor anything to hint at their location. There was only dancing, unbroken ocean in every direction. A lone seabird passed overhead, but that was all. When they felt confident that there was nothing to be gained by staring out into the blue, they took to relaxing in the empty deckchairs that dotted the otherwise deserted lounge area.
Thomas was reclining with his eyes closed when one member of the ship’s masked staff approached them. He heard the footfalls on the polished wooden deck and thought at first the twins had returned. Thomas sat up to greet them. What he saw instead was a lone disguised man carrying a piece of equipment that trailed electronic cables back into the ship. Thomas recognized the device as a telegraph sounder. The mysterious man set it down and powered it on. A Morse code message immediately filled the air. Thomas listened carefully, waiting for the message to start over from the beginning. It did so, and he focused on deciphering it within his own head. On the third iteration, Thomas sat back. He understood it completely.
The masked man circled a finger in the air over his own head, then cupped his hand behind his ear. After a moment of pretending to listen, the man shook his head somberly, then stooped and pantomimed holding his belly in laughter. Thomas understood the gestures to mean that no one else would hear this. The masked man clasped his hands and stood patiently as the Morse code signals continued to come in.
“What does it say?” Rosalind asked. Thomas translated.
“It says, ‘CQD. SOS. We are two brothers held captive at sea. Coordinates unknown.’”
The message repeated five more times before it ended. The masked man wordlessly carried away the amplifier after it was done. When he was back out of sight, Rosalind leaned forward in her chair and whispered to Thomas.
“The twins sent that out. They didn’t mention us at all!”
“I noticed that,” Thomas said. “And it seems they lied about going to the darkroom, too.” He settled back thoughtfully into his deckchair. The brothers returned soon after the masked man left Rosalind and Thomas alone. When the twins were within earshot, Rosalind called out to them.
“We heard your little attempt to send an SOS!” she exclaimed. “You tried to save yourselves but forgot about us completely.”
“It’s suspicious that you found the Marconi room on your own,” Thomas added. “You went there without mentioning any such plan to us.” As the brothers closed the distance, John responded.
“Don’t take it personally,” John said. “Naturally, we thought first of ourselves. That doesn’t matter. Any rescue will naturally benefit all of us.”
“Unless, of course, it doesn’t.” Thomas frowned and rose from his chair. “You tried to secure rescue for yourselves. We were simply an afterthought.”
“Now wait,” John interrupted with an aggressive sweep of his palm. He was warning Thomas to draw no closer to him. “How were you spying on our transmission?” Rosalind and Thomas looked to each other for an explanation that would not make them seem suspicious. Rosalind ventured an answer.
“The masked men were spying on you in front of us. We didn’t ask them to do that!” Thomas added:
“I think they must be trying to pit us against each other. It’s deliberate. They’re doing this in order to sow mistrust.”
“A likely story!” Harrison responded suddenly and made an effete attempt at spitting toughly onto the deck. Instead, the gob of saliva found his own shoes. He persisted in his lackluster show of force. “I think you’re the trouble, Thomas.”
Harrison walked to an empty deck chair and gingerly relieved himself of his camera equipment. Unburdened, he then turned to raise his fists in a boxer’s stance. Thomas was allowed only a few seconds to attempt to defuse the situation. He did so with calm words and hands that were open and raised defensively in front of himself. Harrison approached until there was no more room to be negotiated and then threw a slow and misaimed punch in Thomas’s direction. With a frown, Thomas responded.
He struck surely, putting Harrison down with a jab and then a hook. Thomas wondered who had taught him how to fight. Despite his memory loss, instincts such as self-defense seemed to survive cleanly in his mind. “I’m not the trouble,” he told Harrison.
The beaten man drew himself up from the deck and swiped a sleeve across his own face to clear his bleeding nose. Thomas spoke again. “We’re all in this together, and I don’t want to fight you.” Harrison nodded, accepting at least that he could not beat Thomas this way. The twin brothers withdrew, and Thomas returned to Rosalind, who sat warily in her nearby deck chair.
Thomas and Rosalind relaxed for perhaps another hour, occasionally speaking or wondering about some topic. Mostly, they enjoyed the sun and air. “If there’s no dinner in another hour,” Rosalind remarked, “we’ll have to go look for something to eat.” Thomas agreed.
As though to answer them, the same amplified voice that had crackled throughout the ship this morning now made a new announcement. “The evening meal will be served in the dining room on the fourth deck,” the voice announced. “Passengers have fifteen minutes to arrive, and latecomers will not be admitted.”
“Let’s go,” Thomas said. The pair took an elevator and found the dining hall without incident. They claimed an empty table near a corner of the ornately furnished room. The couple settled in and waited to be served.
Rosalind began to frown while unfolding her napkin and placing it across her lap. Some unpleasant idea had suddenly crossed her mind. “I think this is a cursed voyage,” she said pensively to Thomas. “Maybe we’re not even alive anymore. Maybe this is Hell.”
“It’s not Hell,” Thomas chuckled. “We’re certainly aboard a real ship. There’s ocean, sunshine, and fresh air here. Hell would torture us much more efficiently than this.”
“It’s purgatory then.”
“Are you a Catholic?” Thomas let a wry smile flicker across his face. “You must be. Otherwise, you wouldn’t guess something like that.”
“I don’t remember,” she said. “Maybe I am.”
There were six passengers in attendance. The twin brothers sat at a second table closer to the center of the room. They did not greet nor acknowledge Rosalind and Thomas. Near the kitchen doors sat two strangers – a man and a woman – whom Thomas did not recognize.
Large glasses of ice water were brought out for all six in attendance. An additional shot glass filled with whiskey was given to each of the four men, but Rosalind and the unknown woman at the far end of the room were not served. Thomas passed his shot to Rosalind, who thanked him and drank it. “I’m surprised you don’t want any,” she said. “Especially in a situation like this.”
“I want to be alert,” Thomas answered. He noticed that the unfamiliar man at the far end of the room also pushed his serving of whiskey away. It was left untouched near the center of the table.
There could be no denial that the food smelled heavenly as the masked waiters revealed the evening’s fare. There were quarters of roasted chicken served alongside gravy-soaked potato mash. The plates were accompanied by thick slices of margarine-laden toast and small bowls of salad drizzled with vinegar and oil.
After roughly a half-hour of quiet eating, an unheard dispute at the far end of the dining room erupted into something plainly audible to everyone in attendance. A masked waiter was leaning forward to listen mutely to some complaint by the man who was still a stranger to Thomas. Abruptly, the mute waiter fled toward the kitchen while the unknown man began to shout.
“I believe in Mr. Saxtam!” the man declared. His expression was resolute and angry. “Mr. Saxtam is out there somewhere, and if we can just lend him our strength, he can save us!” The man was pacing past the twins’ table now, moving deliberately towards Thomas and Rosalind. “If we all resist together right now, we can find a way to contact Mr. Saxtam. We can help him destroy this perverted operation!”
The furious man was at their table now, gripping the linen tablecloth and bunching it in his fists. The food and drink inched toward him as he pulled at the fabric in his desperation. “Will you join me? Will you help us all escape right now?”
Two of the masked waiters paced quickly to confront the shouting man. He ignored them. He was staring hard at Thomas and Rosalind, waiting for an answer they had no time to give. The masked waiters grabbed the unknown man by the back of his coat and heaved him to the ground before he could defend himself. The man looked up at his attackers while one waiter produced a derringer and shot him three times in the chest.
Without a word, the masked waiters dragged the body away through the kitchen’s double doors. There was no explanation by the staff nor any alteration of the evening’s schedule. Thomas looked about the dining room to observe the four other survivors who remained in attendance with him. The two brothers leaned in toward each other and whispered as they finished their meals. Rosalind set about eating voraciously and without breaking focus, as though refusing to acknowledge the situation might make it not true after all. With no one to talk to, Thomas ate silently as well. The woman who was previously seated alongside the murdered man was now alone at her table. Her eyes remained cast down at food which she no longer moved to touch.
Later that evening, Thomas and Rosalind found each other wandering in the hallways of the stateroom level. Thomas had something on his mind, and he judged by Rosalind’s expression that she would speak the idea into reality without his prompting. In vindication of his expectation, she spoke as soon as they were close enough to whisper. “We have to do something,” she said. “They’ll kill us all just easily as that poor man. By God, why do you think they did that?”
“He spoke too openly of Mr. Saxtam,” Thomas answered quietly. “Whoever Mr. Saxtam is – it seems we’re not allowed to discuss him like that.”
“In any case,” said Rosalind, “we have to fight back. Right now. We have to do something!”
“I was thinking the same thing,” Thomas affirmed. “I’ve been watching the masked men since dinner. I think I’ve caught them switching shifts.” Rosalind’s eyes widened appreciatively.
“You know where they go when they’re off duty…you’ve located the crew’s quarters?”
“Nearly, yes.” Moving his hand from behind his back, Thomas revealed that he was carrying the scaling hammer from the trap-rigged room. He tucked the weapon now between his belt and the waistband of his pants. “I’m going to go investigate.”
“I’ll come, too.” Rosalind decided. Thomas considered warning her to stay out of danger, but something in his obscured memories told him that such an attempt would be fruitless. He nodded assent and indicated the way to proceed.
To avoid the men staffing the elevators, they traveled by stairwell down five flights of stairs. Thomas led Rosalind deeper into the belly of the ship, twice pressing a finger to his lips to indicate a particular need for quiet as they progressed. Together, the pair eventually poured into a darkened hallway that neither had visited before.
They crept along a new corridor that was lined with sealed doors. Signage indicated that they were now in the crew quarters, and so they began exploring. Their furtive search produced little new evidence. When they had scoured the hallway, they discussed what else might be done.
“Everything’s locked,” Thomas groaned. “Nobody seems to be around.”
“But if we can take one of them away from the others,” realized Rosalind, “we can interrogate him.” Thomas nodded, and cautiously took the hammer from his belt. He began to tap it gently against the nearest metal door, hoping to provoke a lone man into entering the hallway. He must have done something wrong, because an alarm bell on the wall rang loudly in response.
A head wrapped in a cloth mask poked out into the hallway to stare at them. Seconds later, an additional shrouded face appeared from behind another previously locked door. Doors were opening all around them, and more masked figures were arriving to investigate. It seemed as though the intruders would be quickly captured. “Can you operate the elevator?” Rosalind asked Thomas urgently.
“Maybe,” he said.
“Then let’s go!” She broke into a sudden sprint for the lift at the end of the hall, striking at the face of one masked crew members to clear him from her path. Thomas followed in the wave of chaos that Rosalind had made, and soon they were at the sole elevator that reached this far into the belly of the ship. There was another masked man inside the elevator, but this one was relatively smaller in stature. Thomas realized that he was likely a youngster, but there was no choice left for Thomas to make.
He gripped the operator by his throat and ordered the boy to take the carriage above decks. Rosalind fastened the elevator’s door closed as the car lurched dutifully into motion. Thomas perceived that the masked operator was desperately afraid. It was not just his keen compliance that told Thomas this. It also the racing pulse that drummed against the chokehold in which Thomas held him.
Ahead of their pursuers by an elevator’s round trip, Thomas and Rosalind absconded with their captive to the darkroom. They dragged him beyond the library and gymnasium, expecting the photography studio to be a secluded and private place aboard the ship this late in the evening. They were not disappointed. It took little trouble to abscond with their hostage to the place that would serve as an interrogation room, in large part because the man in the mask refused to scream or to cry out.
Thomas threw the crew member into an empty chair while Rosalind ripped down twine from the drying racks and set about binding their masked captive. Thomas cocked the scaling hammer onto his shoulder and stared in the wordless man’s direction. It was a passive threat that the masked person should remain compliant while Rosalind worked. When the elevator operator was restrained, Thomas pulled the sackcloth from his face. Thomas and Rosalind had kidnapped a young man with boyish features. He could not be older than a teenager.
“We’re not supposed to talk to you,” the boy pleaded. “We’re not supposed to talk to you at all!” He fought to shift his bound legs against the chair, trying fruitlessly to shy away from the man and edged hammer threatening him. “Even if you take one of us away from the group, we’re not allowed to talk to you!” Tears squeezed themselves loose from the corners of his eyes and ran down his face. Thomas believed that the boy was truly afraid for his life.
“We shouldn’t hurt him,” Thomas said. Those were the last words spoken before the masked staff found them. Nine men burst into the room, arriving in an orderly but energetic stack. The captured youth had been reduced to wordless sobbing, but he stifled himself upon realizing that he’d been found.
The two were separated forcefully. Thomas lost sight of Rosalind as he was dragged down into the belly of the ship. He expected to meet her again in the brig, but that did not turn out to be where he was headed. Down in the engine room were makeshift holding cells staggered amongst the room’s machinery. Thomas was thrown past a heavy, metal door and into an enclosure that was cemented to the interior side of the ship’s hull. High overhead was a tiny porthole that barely cleared the level of the roiling ocean outside.
These were not the main features of the holding chamber, however. What instead drew Thomas’s immediate attention was the strange dividing wall between his own cell and the adjacent one. Rather than cinder blocks, it was made of a massive engine component. Thomas recognized it as an industrial crankshaft. The noisy undulation of the serpentine parts formed a barrier that could be gazed through but not crossed. Looking past the machine, he saw that Rosalind was already inside the neighboring enclosure.
“Funny seeing you here!” Rosalind called out to him over the crashing of the crankshaft.
“Glad you’re safe!” Thomas replied. It took effort to converse over the noise, and so they did not say more.
The small porthole above Thomas’s head revealed a bright moon on an unbroken field of empty sky. From the upper decks, something heavy landed with a splash into the water outside. Thomas wondered whether this jetsam included the man he had seen murdered earlier this evening. The night of the kidnapping turned into day without Thomas being able to sleep.
Thomas passed the time by grinding his teeth and listening to the engines work. At around noon, he found a small handwritten note tucked between two unmortared cinder blocks. It was scrawled with that same playful cursive that the note on the empty logbook had featured. This time, it said: “The noise can be meditative. Think about what you’ve done. – Dr. V.”
They were fed on plates slipped under the reinforced doors. There would be no more invitations to the dining room. Day faded uneventfully back into a second night in their cells.
On that third morning, Rosalind called out to Thomas over the drone of the pistons. “I’ve made something for you,” she said. “I don’t think I can use it myself. Watch the floor beneath the pistons.” A few seconds later, a glint of something metal appeared beneath the moving parts of the machine divider. Rosalind had created a knife-like weapon out of a piece of loose metal. Thomas reached for it beneath the thrashing mechanism of the crankshaft.
“Mind the machine!” Rosalind shrieked. A flash of red splashed over the crankshaft and was whipped by the machine’s action into both of their cells. Opening her eyes and peering through the machine, she saw that Thomas’s arm was wounded but not badly maimed. He held the weapon she’d made for him in his hands. “You’ve cut yourself!” Rosalind lamented, turning to avoid further sight of his injury.
“It’s just an engine,” Thomas murmured. He observed the bloody lashes on his forearm with an impassiveness that surprised him. The pain invited a sudden recollection, and for a moment, he was lost in his focus trying to recapture it. It was recitation as much as realization – equal parts rediscovered memory and new insight. Thomas allowed it to proceed.
“A machine can only do things as it always has. It will do what it was always meant to do. I, too, am an engine.” His eyes gazed at something far away, and his voice became trance-like. Rosalind frowned, unsure as to whether he was even still talking to her. Thomas felt the words flow without conscious thought.
“An engine never destroys itself, except when circumstances demand it do so to proceed. It will tear itself apart with relish as it attempts to chug down a doomed path.” He pocketed the bladed weapon that Rosalind had made. “It doesn’t matter who greets us when this ship docks… I’ll kill them if they don’t let us go.”
Rosalind didn’t answer, and Thomas set about bandaging his wounds with the spare bits of cloth that his outfit could spare. He felt better for having said the words remembered from some previous life. When his bleeding was stemmed into a clotted and carmine stain, Thomas sat back against the wall of his prison cell. There was nothing to do now except wait for whatever came next.
Harbor sounds began to invade the otherwise unbroken churn of the ocean. A legion of seabirds laid a squawking melody over the roar of the engines. After a few hours, there was the commotion and din of the ocean liner’s docking. The machine that divided their cells continued running even as the rest of the ship lulled into quietness. Thomas realized that it was likely there simply to harass them.
A masked man opened the door to Thomas’s cell sometime around noon. Rosalind heard them freeing Thomas, and shouted to him. “Good luck!”
“You, too!” Thomas responded as he was led past. “I’ll see you out there, Rosalind.”
The masked staff escorted him to the main level deck. For the first time, there was a discernible world beyond the ship. They had moored somewhere, but it was not clear exactly where this port was. There was sunshine and warm, dry air. Thomas could see a stout, green-and-brown tree line in the distance and knew that he recognized this place somehow. He was led to a gangplank that extended to the docks. Standing in front of that gangplank was a man with a wizened face and cruel eyes. Without greeting Thomas, the man immediately posed a question.
“Did our experimental brig impress you?” he asked. “It is my theory that exposure to constant noise and dangerous machinery induces special anxieties. I believe that this apprehension may be used to prevent recidivism. If I’m correct, my practice may be adopted elsewhere.”
“I think a regular brig might have turned out better for everyone,” Thomas said knowingly. The weapon Rosalind slipped him could only be present now because of the moving parts between their cells. “You’re so full of theories,” Thomas prompted. “You must be Dr. V.”
“We’ve met before,” said the old man with the cruel eyes. “Yes, I am Dr. Vulso. Do you remember me at all?” Thomas admitted that he did not, and Dr. Vulso smiled broadly upon hearing this.
“That’s good,” Vulso cooed. “That’s very good. And now it’s time for your treatment.”
“I don’t consent to any treatment,” Thomas answered. “I want answers, and then I want to leave.” Thomas readied the sharpened edge hidden in the palm of his closed hand. Vulso briefly scowled, then put on an unctuous smile.
“Your consent is not relevant at this time,” Vulso said. His perfunctory grin was replaced by another scowl. “I’m far too busy to humor you today, and I’m afraid you won’t be leaving.” That was all Thomas needed to confirm his instincts were correct. He would have to fight his way free, and so he readied the blade that Rosalind had fashioned for him.
Thomas took a step to close the gap of distance between himself and the doctor. He could feel hands already hovering near his arms and shoulders. The masked guards stood ready to seize and restrain him. Thomas knew that he would be given no other chance. With the same full-bodied motion that he had used earlier to bloody Harrison’s nose, Thomas sent a fist towards Vulso’s face. This time though, there was a sharpened point of metal held tightly in his grip.
The doctor flinched backward as the masked security hovering over Thomas flung themselves into action and restrained him. He felt hands clutching onto the arm which held the weapon, but Thomas forced it forward despite them. The edge of the razor cut a hairsbreadth into Vulso’s cheek before Thomas’s arm was driven backward by the force of several men tearing at him. They pulled so forcefully that he felt his elbow break as they ripped him away. Stunned by the pain of his disarticulated arm, Thomas could only struggle as the masked men handcuffed him and forced him to his knees.
“You’ve never fashioned a weapon in previous iterations,” Dr. Vulso frowned as a pinprick-sized stream of blood trickled down his face. He dabbed at it with a handkerchief before returning to his notes. “You’ve never injured your arms like this, either.” He indicated the gashes on Thomas’s forearms with his pen. “You often don’t hurt yourself at all.” The doctor tsked and stared hard into his captive’s eyes. “What’s gotten into you, Mr. Saxtam?”
Vulso clicked his pen and began scribbling another note on his clipboard. Thomas suddenly understood. He was the agitator. It had always been Thomas, even though he somehow forgot.
Thomas was forced back onto the gangplank’s wet boards despite the frantic fighting of his limbs. The pain of his broken arm electrified him as he tried to force it free. He fought anyway. There were too many of them, and they pressed down hard until he could hardly breathe.
The shadow of someone moving in the periphery of his vision blocked the overhead light from his eyes. Thomas Saxtam felt something cold and metallic press against his temple and shouted protests until a gloved hand covered over his mouth. Pinned down on his back, Mr. Saxtam could only stare up at the sky. Dr. Vulso spoke as he administered the amnesia compound.
“Bon voyage, Mr. Saxtam,” the doctor said. “Bon voyage, as always.” The sharp pain of a needle arrived suddenly. Against Mr. Saxtam’s temple, the metallic device had been activated and was now driving itself into his skull. Saxtam recognized the chemical burning beneath the surface of his skin. He knew that some strange medicine was now soaking through his flesh and into his brain. Soon after, there was only darkness and sleep.
* * * * * *
He felt old and tired. That was all he knew about himself. His arm was bandaged and hoisted into a splint. He rose from his bed and washed his face while he waited for his mind to focus itself.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableDavid Feuling Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A