Jack took a deep breath and released it slowly, “That’s good, it will be over in a few minutes.” He nodded and continued breathing.
“You’ve been told what to expect?”
“I want to warn you it will be much different from what you think. It isn’t all that bad. You did well on the survival skills course. You’ll be fine, they’re quite civilised and they need people with skills. They’re gonna want to keep you around. When you get to the headquarters, make sure you list your skills. That’s important.”
Jack frowned, “Why are you telling me this?”
“Well, someone has to. I don’t agree with the death penalty and sending you off half-cocked amounts to the same thing in my view. Sure not everyone deserves a second chance, but I get why you did it. Most people agree it isn’t fair what’s happening to you, but” she shrugged, “You’re guilty and there isn’t any other choice really. They’ll take your bag, don’t fight them. It’ll only end badly for you. I think that’s mostly it. Everything is done.”
Jack continued to breathe, the nurse smiled at him, she was pretty, though she had no real right to be. Her nose was a little too long, her smile just a little too crooked, her eyes just a little too wide, but it somehow all went well together.
“Count backwards from ten please.” Jack stared at her, burning her face into his mind, the last person to show him any kindness out in the real world. As he reached seven, his vision blurred and then there was nothing.
Jack woke slowly, groggily. Something was flashing at him, he took him a moment to sit up, when he did he pressed the button. Something hissed and a tray slid from the wall, on it was a small sandwich and a cup of water. A mechanical voice spoke, “Please enjoy the refreshments.” Jack looked at the sandwich for a minute then shook his head, he was feeling light headed and slightly sick, he didn’t know if he would be able to eat the food and keep it down. A moment later the voice returned, “If you do consume the food and drink given, you will not be released from the chamber.” He frowned, that didn’t sound right at all. He was told he would have a little time to adjust, acclimatise after the drugs wore off. “Chamber will flood unless food and drink is consumed. Chamber will flood in one minute.” Jack reached out and grabbed the sandwich, he quickly ate it in three bites, then downed the water, he put the empty cup back on the tray and raised his hands. “Thank you for enjoying the refreshments.” There was more hissing as cool air gently blew into his face. He was starting to feel better, perhaps the machine had just issued empty threats. Jack looked around the small room now that he was feeling a little better. It was pretty bare. The walls and floor were made of stainless steel, there were various small holes dotted around the room. He sat on a comfortable and slightly reclined chair. The room was small, with just enough room for Jack to stand.
“Chamber doors will open in five minutes.” Jack nudged the backpack towards the door. Inside were food, water and some basic tools. He had been warned that they would take them away. He wasn’t sure why it was even sent with him when they already knew that. Still, it would be better if they didn’t think he was going to put up a fight for it. He didn’t want to be here, no one did, but he didn’t want to die either.
His heart thudded in his chest, drowning out all other noise, the machine had started a ten second countdown for the doors to open. Jack could feel beads of sweat forming and rolling down his face. He took a deep breath and tried to release it slowly, but it came out in one swift rush. The doors slid open and he flinched away, expecting a mob to descend on him and the small room. There was no one there. He coughed out a breath and shuddered slightly. Jack carefully stood and nudged the backpack outside the doors with his foot. Nothing happened. He stepped forward and stuck his head out the doors, he jumped as the machine spoke again. “Doors will be closed in ten seconds, the chamber will then be flooded with bleach to ensure steralisation.” He jumped through the doors and the moment he had passed them they slammed shut. Inside he could hear something start to gurgle. He spun around quickly, facing the empty clearing. He leaned against the machine, feeling the faint vibrations through his clothes. It was better to have his back protected by something, anything. They would have been told of his arrival, they would have heard him being deposited. Where were they?
After a few minutes of nothing happening, Jack bent over and picked up the backpack, he slung it over one shoulder, enough that he could carry it comfortably, but not enough that someone couldn’t simply pull it from him. Maybe he had to go to them? Offer the bag as some kind of tribute? He looked around the clearing, studying it. It wasn’t anything spectacular, maybe twenty feet across and surrounded by trees. There were a few paths worn into the ground, each one snaking off in a different direction. Which way was he supposed to go? There were no signs or anything to indicate directions. Around him he could hear the noise of birds and animals. That probably meant there were no people around, right? Jack eased himself away from the metal room, moving slowly and carefully. He gripped one handle of the backpack firmly, ready to fling it from himself if needed. He examined the trails and finally chose one at random. The place wasn’t all that big apparently, so he’d find something eventually.
It took about twenty minutes before he reached what appeared to be a small village. The huts were small and Jack guessed they might sleep about three. There were about thirty of the huts in all, they were circled around fire pits in groups of three or four. None of the fires were lit. There was a larger hut in the centre, this one was square shaped and seemed much more house-like than the others. Slowly Jack approached the largest hut, if there were people he suspected they would be there. He stood outside the hut for a moment, unsure of what to do, then finally he knocked on the doorframe a few times. There was no response. Heart thudding heavily, he moved aside the small curtain that was used as a door and peered inside. It was dimly lit and hard to see, but as far as Jack could tell, the hut was empty. He let the cloth fall back into place and turned to look at the village. Nothing appeared to have been destroyed, there were no signs of any fights or struggles. Where was everyone?
There was a wide path leading away from the village, it appeared to be well worn so Jack decided to follow that one next. Perhaps there was some sort of religious ceremony going on. He had lost track of the days about a week into his confinement. Maybe it was a day of worship. He hadn’t thought that those here would be religious, but they could have turned to god in their exile.
The path led to a small river. At the banks there were a few boats that were tied up, some netting rested in each. There was also a small building, long but thin that had been constructed in a much more sophisticated manner than the huts. The nets were empty of fish and there was no sign of people. Jack turned from the boats and scanned the edge of the forest. If it weren’t for the small buildings he would believe the island to be entirely uninhabited by humans. He briefly wondered if it was all some kind of lie that the place was designed so the people on it would die regardless of what they tried. He discarded the idea as the ropes tying up the boats looked to be in good condition, as had the huts. Nothing looked as though it had been abandoned or if it was just for show. He made his way back to the village. The island was much bigger than he had been lead to believe and it was starting to get dark.
When he arrived at the village he went straight to the larger building, again he knocked, just in case anyone had returned, and entered. He looked around the room for any signs of other people, but he didn’t come across anything. As far as he knew there were at least sixty people living on the island, and probably more. He had expected it to be quite underdeveloped, but the huts seemed sturdy and well maintained. He had expected a lawless wasteland, the island destroyed, torn apart by warring factions, but it looked quite peaceful. He sat on a small stool and opened the bag. He hadn’t touched any of the contents despite his hunger and thirst for fear of needing it, but for now he opened a bottle of water and took out an energy bar. As he ate them he wondered what was on the other side of the river. Perhaps another group of people. Maybe there had been two factions here. There were other paths that he had not followed, perhaps they would give him some insight as to where everyone was.
As night fell he made himself a small fire in one of the pits, using the box of matches they had sent with him and taking the wood from a small woodpile. He chose one of the huts and claimed it as his own. He fell asleep quickly and slept the night through with any disturbances.
The next morning he had a breakfast of energy bars and drank some of the water, and unsure of what else to do he chose another path and began to walk along it. It led to a large open area that was filled with plants, each one carefully planted in a straight line. It looked like a farm. There were pens for animals, but the gates were open and the pens were empty. He couldn’t tell what animals had been kept there, but he guessed that they were probably small, like pigs or chickens. The pens were not damaged, it looked as though someone had released the animals, perhaps for grazing or to move them, and just never bothered to close it again. The longer he spent walking through the island the more nervous he became. There was a sense of being watched, stalked, but no evidence of it. The animals still made noises, there were no shrieks or screams, no sudden silences. Nothing to indicate he was anything other than alone, but still, that persistent itch between his shoulder blades remained.
In the afternoon Jack used the boats to cross the river, it wasn’t very wide, maybe twenty feet, but he wasn’t sure of the depth or speed of the river at its centre. About a hundred feet down from the small building, which Jack had investigated and found to be a kind of outhouse, was a line of rope that spanned the river, tied between two tree trunks. Jack used the rope as a way to pull himself across.
On the other side he found more worn paths that wove through the forest. He found another small grouping of farms, a few more empty pens and a couple of huts. No doubt for the caretakers of the animals. He stood at the second set of empty pens and frowned at them, there had been no sign of any domesticated animals on the island. Sure, he could hear things moving through the forest, but they were not the noises of pigs and there had been no clucking of hens. If the animals had been slaughtered, where were the bodies, why would they kill all the livestock if they were just going to eat them all? Particularly when they went to the trouble of creating pens.
This side of the island didn’t seem to hold a whole lot, he came across a small waterfall, and nearby a small system of caves. At one point he came across a small grouping of graves, their markers small but carefully constructed crosses. There were twelve graves in all, the names carved deeply into the wood. There were no dates or any other indications about the people or how they died. The newest grave, or at least the one Jack guessed to be the newest, looked to be a month or two old, perhaps more depending on how maintained the graveyard had been. It was getting dark when he came across the graveyard and unsure as to whether or not he’d make it back to the river before darkness fell, Jack made his way back to the small grouping of huts. There he started another fire, this time he had to scavenge for wood. When he finally had enough it was almost full dark. He sat in front of the fire, absorbing the warmth. He had covered a perhaps half of the total island and still there was no evidence of what happened to those that were here before. He thought over the scenarios in his head, changing and second-guessing. At first he thought that had everyone escaped they would have left some indication of it for those who came next, but he quickly realised that was unlikely. They wouldn’t want anyone to know that they had escaped, nor where they had gone, if they had escaped though, would they have brought the animals with them? Releasing them made sense, the next people would find animals ready to be round up and stored, but if that was the case, where were they? As far as Jack knew there were no large predators on the island, and if there were the people here would have already killed them out of preservation or to protect the livestock.
The next morning Jack woke early and stretched, all in all the island wasn’t so bad, there was food already planted for him to harvest, there was fresh water and potentially livestock somewhere along with nets for catching fish. Of course there could be improvements, but he could make them while he explored the island. Sure more people would be sent here and things would change, but that might not be for years. People getting sent to the island was a relatively rare event.
Feeling dirty, he made his way back to the river and bathed quickly, washing off the sweat and grime. Once dry he dressed again and set off the explore. He wanted to get an idea of the land. When he had woken he decided he wouldn’t worry too much about what happened to those living on the island. He hadn’t come across anything that would suggest foul play, sickness or animal attack. He had begun to accept that he may never know the answer to the question and as far as he was aware, there was no way to signal anyone outside the island of what happened. Even if there was, Jack wasn’t sure that they’d be all too concerned. After all the island was a dumping ground, a way for the government to wash their hands of the criminal elements. Those they deemed to be unsalvageable, too dangerous to allow them to work in the mines but who could not be executed for various reasons. Jack knew that this wasn’t the only island used, but he did not know how many others there were, only that this was supposedly the worst one. As he walked through the forest he pondered on that. Perhaps that was a lie, a way to get rid of people quietly. While people lived in relative peace everyone believed they received just and harsh punishments. Perhaps it was just a name that was used for a collection of islands and they sent people to what ever one they deemed the best fit, despite the conviction. If not for the graveyards, he might have suspected that he was the first person on the island, that they had set it up so that people who were exiled would have everything they needed to survive and the government could wash their hands of the whole thing. After all, if people on the island died, well, it would be their own fault wouldn’t it? Particularly if they were provided with shelter and food.
Jack was daydreaming when he stepped out of the trees, it almost killed him. He stumbled and let out a yell of surprise, he jerked back and fell over, the shift in momentum preventing him from going in face first. It was as he was sitting on the ground, feeling stupid that he noticed the smell. It was light but pervasive, a subtle smell of dry rot and must. He stood slowly and leaned over the pit, looking into it. It was full of bodies. Jack stared at them, the sightless corpses. Their clothes tattered and stained. He didn’t know how long they had been in the pit, but it seemed like a long time. There were no flies buzzing around the bodies. Their skin was dry and thin, it looked as though it was stretched tight across their cheekbones, pulled back from their teeth in a rictus grin. Jack moved back from the pit slowly, praying the edge wouldn’t crumble and that he wouldn’t go tumbling down into the corpses. He lay on the ground for a moment, what ever had happened to them had happened a while ago. He stood shakily and leaned against a tree. It wasn’t right, the corpses should have been bloated and slimy, the air was humid, they shouldn’t have dried out. He gripped the tree tightly and leaned forward, looking into the pit again. He pulled himself back and looked around. What had done this? If it was some kind of disease who had dug and placed them into the pit? Why weren’t there other bodies scattered around, left where they fell? No. Something had come to the island and killed everyone. Probably killed or took the animals too. He stumbled away from the pit and retched, trying not to throw up. His stomach calmed, and he straightened slightly before it clenched again, he leaned over and vomited until there was nothing left. Coughing and spitting he moved from the tree and his vomit, one hand held lightly against his stomach. He stopped along the way once or twice as his stomach clenched again, but he didn’t throw up.
Jack sat in front of the fire that night, shivering. No matter how hot the fire burned or how close he was he couldn’t get the chill from his bones. He knew he would have to go back and soon, fill in the pit, bury the bodies. Give them some dignity in death. He didn’t know who had killed them, he didn’t know how they had been practically mummified. He only knew that he was completely and utterly alone. There was no one to contact, no one was coming for him.