I was asked to go downstairs and watch the others play cards today, which I thought was very kind of the Captain. He doesn’t often make nice gestures like that, and having been on my feet all day I welcomed the change of pace.
I looked at the other boys who were still cleaning up and felt bad about leaving them but I didn’t have a whole lot of choice. They looked at me funny before I left and I wanted to explain until I saw the look on their faces. Sometimes people aren’t going to like you no matter what.
It didn’t take me long to reach where the men were playing in the room below.
There were six men gathered around a table with a great many more watching from around the room, and when I walked in they all cheered my name and made me feel special. One of the bigger men made a bit of a fuss of me and ruffled my hair. I told him I thought I might be getting too big for this but they just laughed and didn’t take me seriously. Eventually I managed to get away and found myself a seat while they all turned their attention back to the game. I looked around me and saw another boy sat closely behind.
He was a few years older than I was and looked quite important. When I took him in properly I saw that he was taller than I was and his hair was a mousey brown colour – looked a bit well to do, even, I’d have gone so far to say – and I noticed that there was a warm glow about his smile. That’s not to say anything against the others in particular but when I looked at the boy and a part of me reckoned he might actually be a nice guy. Some of the others my age weren’t so welcoming.
They were playing for quite some time before I finally twigged onto what they were doing. When I found out I was taken aback and I changed my feelings about the ship. At first it was nothing special. They were just laying cards on the table. After some time though they were putting coins on the table and I knew they were gambling. I didn’t mind that so much. Maybe as a boy I would’ve been shocked by that, but by then I knew that men were men and they needed to let off steam somehow.
Later, though, as the game got serious I saw they weren’t just playing for money anymore – they were playing for their lives. And when I saw that this wasn’t just some friendly way to pass the time I got real scared. I looked again at the smartly dressed boy and thought about what he made of it all. Did he even know?
What made me feel even worse were the other men who were watching everything as if it was all nothing but entertainment. A few of them shifted in their seats uncomfortably but that was it. At first I thought I was being paranoid, like my mind might’ve been playing tricks on me, until all guessing stopped altogether in the next instant.
The man closest to me placed his last card on the table before dropping his cool, looking scared. At that moment I saw in his eyes something I didn’t want to ever see again. It was like looking at something terminal – like when you know you’ve got a cancer growing in you and there’s nothing you can do about it. And then there was a quick flick of the wrist from the man opposite and a loud gunshot and that was it.
From then my days on board the Tigerfish changed for the worst. There were a lot of men on the ship I didn’t know much, even though I’d always been there, so I didn’t recognise the man who slipped off his chair and fell limply onto the floor. After that, though, I never forgot his face. His lifeless eyes seemed to look back at me accusingly like I should’ve done something – as if I was to blame – and a part of me believed I was. When I turned to the others they were going about their business without batting an eyelid. They just kept on watching the game and it was then that I knew this wasn’t a one off. This was normal for them.
Then I looked over at the other boy – he’d told me by now that his name was Aiden – and I saw in his eyes he was just as speechless. I was happy about that. I wanted to know that there was someone else who I could relate to, because I had never felt as alone as I did at that moment after I’d realised that everything was wrong and nothing right.
There were two more deaths that night before the game finally ended and the other players just walked away as if nothing had happened, splitting the winnings between them while I just kept watching and watching.
Eventually one of the older men had to shake me a little just to make sure I was still all there in my mind. When they saw in my eyes that I was terrified – I mean I was so scared that I couldn’t say nothing – they looked at me a little sympathetically and said: “You know, kid, it comes to us all in the end. Don’t go feeling sorry for them because they chose it. They chose to be bad once and that’s why they’re here and you have to put it out your mind.”
They said all that to me and they told me to perk up and then they were gone again and I was alone, watching still. I couldn’t take my eyes off them for a while. When I finally brought myself back to my senses I looked behind but Aiden had already left. For some reason I wanted to talk with him about what we’d just seen, to know that he was dead against it too. So when I went back and carried on my evening chores I looked around for him but nothing else happened. Another month would pass before I’d see him again.
Seven days a week I carried on doing my labours, keeping myself to myself so that I could avoid the other boys. But the truth was I didn’t mind the work and I came to be thankful for it because without it I don’t think I’d have survived. What changed me was I knew something they either didn’t know or had stopped caring about.
Sometimes when cleaning on my own I’d see the Captain walk by and I’d study his movements for a while. He never said anything but I think he could tell I was different now because whenever our eyes met there was real inquisitiveness in his frown, to let me know that he hadn’t forgotten about me.
From then on whenever I saw him I didn’t feel quite the same admiration as I had in the past. I don’t mean to say I wasn’t frightened – believe me I was always scared – but I wasn’t sure he was one of the good guys anymore. I wasn’t so sure about that.
Still, there was no other choice but to keep getting up each morning and doing my labours. I didn’t know anything else and I had nowhere else to go. If I asked to be set free I feared they’d get rid of me the same way as the others. I mean I know they hadn’t been overthrown overboard in their sleep but the last thing I wanted was a game of cards. So I just kept my head down for a while and the days passed by well enough.
Time passed and eventually I moved into the kitchens. I guessed they liked to change it around to keep us all from going mad. Sometimes they were thoughtful like that. It didn’t go smoothly, though. Keeping up was hard and doing food preparation was even worse. It was always impossible to please the cooks, no matter what I did.
A week into my new role I saw Aiden in the background talking to the head chef. He looked over and smiled before walking over to make small talk.
“What do you think to your kitchen duties?” he asked. When I looked back at him, a bit dumbfounded, I stuttered a little and eventually said something like it was all to my liking. He nodded and spoke some more.
“I used to work here as a cook sometimes too. And when I was very little I did the pots and brought out the dishes,” he said. “Sometimes when I look back on my days here I miss them. You know, Jack, I don’t know how you feel about it but I often miss being under the watchful eye of the crew. When you’re a navigator you feel the burden of responsibility.” He looked at me and laughed at my surprise.
“Oh, I know your name because I assigned you here, Jack!” Aiden said to me like we’d been good friends for a long time. “I know you work hard and I wanted to give you a chance to try something else. Every boy or man needs the chance to make something of himself. And when I saw you a while ago I could tell you had something going for you and I wanted to help you out a little.”
For a while I just looked back and feared I might prove him wrong about being smart and all that. To tell the truth I hadn’t considered it. Sometimes I guessed I did have some good ideas and I questioned what was happening around me but I didn’t know anything about making something of myself.
“We-well thank you Aiden I really like it here,” I lied. It wasn’t a place I’d warmed towards, but I appreciated that someone had actually noticed me all the same. A silent passed between us when suddenly Aiden turned around, his attention drawn to the other cooks that had just walked into the kitchen.
“Look, I best get what I came here for and see you around,” he shook my hand brusquely and moved to go before turning back and adding: “Hey, how about you come and join me with a few of the others tomorrow night in the lounge? For a drink, I mean. You may as well get to know some of the other crewmembers. You’re not far off drinking age, are you?”
“I turn sixteen in a few months,” I said to him, feeling anxious about going back into the lounge. He seemed to read my mind because he reassured me that the room had been booked for a special occasion. Apparently they were celebrating his latest navigational success. He told me that we were all going to land in the next week or two.
“When we arrive you may even get to go on land for a while and see what it’s like,” Aiden said excitedly and then he left me with my own thoughts. For the rest of the day I remember feeling really happy because I’d made a friend of someone who was really important.
When I stopped to think about it later I realised that he must’ve been on good terms with the Captain and played a big part in the running of the ship. I was so excited that I didn’t think about the shootings for the rest of the night – for once I was looking forward to feeling as if I was part of a group, like I mattered.
Evening came quickly the next day after another long shift in the kitchen. Once finished, I’d wandered back to my room to put on my evening dress wear, which I hoped was up to their standards.
The longer I waited, the more nervous I felt; as this was the first time I’d ever been invited to a social event. I started to practice in the mirror to try and sound more like the other boys. It was hard not to laugh, and no matter how much I tried I couldn’t get away from my accent. I was drawn back to my senses after a loud knocking at the door.
Aiden walked in with an air of confidence after I’d let him in and shook my hand, his smile wide and welcoming. He clapped me on the back and said he didn’t want me to feel nervous about tonight, saying that it was nothing to worry about, but I still fumbled around embarrassedly until he suggested we head to the lounge. I followed him and tried to make casual conversation but I needn’t have worried. Aiden had plenty to talk about. He spoke about his plans and how he’d recently taken over from someone else. All the while his enthusiasm came across and I found it infectious, to the point that I wanted to do his job myself.
We moved downstairs and eventually reached the room when I was introduced to three others who looked around the same age as Aiden. They were called Ollie, Christopher and Sam and I shook their hands like I was more grown up than I was. They all looked smartly dressed and Ollie had his hair tied back for the occasion. I remember thinking they were all so tall and confident and I couldn’t believe I was there sitting among them.
I made casual chat for a while and then Aiden came over and offered me a glass of whisky. I wasn’t sure about drinking but I didn’t want to offend so I just took it and smiled unsurely.
“If I’ve planned it right we should be landing next week so that the Captain can have a look around the town and get talking to some of the people about our mission.” Aiden said. He looked around at us all with bright eyes that showed how proud he was of his achievements.
“You know the captain isn’t very popular nowadays and I don’t even know if what we’re doing may be considered illegal. It’s not our job to tell people about theories.” Ollie said, looking studious. He didn’t say much but he always seemed to be considering things, acting like the voice of reason. When I thought about it I could see why Aiden wanted him as a friend. There was something in him that I trusted.
“We’re going to need to be careful but the Captain said that he can’t stay at sea all of the time anymore. We have to be more daring if we’re ever going to get our message across. I think we’ll only be there for a few days tops. He’s going to have to make sure that the crew doesn’t get any funny ideas. Not that I think they will because people like it here and it’s not easy to set up a whole new life but we will have to keep our guard up all the same.” Aiden said. He looked lost in thought for a minute and then turned my way, smiling again and brightening his expression.
“How about you, Jack? What do you think about the chance to go on land for a while? I bet we’ll be able to negotiate with the Captain about your rights and everything. You know it’s been a long time since we last stopped on land for anything but food and supplies.”
I considered it for a moment and to tell the truth I didn’t know how I felt about it. “I don’t know about it all but I’m interested in this mission you’re talking about. I thought we were patrolling the seas to keep everything safe? That’s our mission ain’t it?” I said this and that got me thinking about what we were doing out at sea. I’d been onboard for as long as I could remember but I didn’t know much and they didn’t say much.
“Oh Jack, they don’t tell you guys anything do they?” Sam said, looking sympathetic. He was bubbly I thought and seemed to like cracking all of the jokes. He was even shorter than I was, too, despite being a few years older.
“Look I don’t know how much we can tell you but we’re really onto something big here. I mean even our Government hasn’t told us anything like this and it’s top secret on this ship. Our captain is doing more than just keeping the seas safe and secure. He’s also working as a revolutionary figure and knows about a special prophecy – something he’s referring to as the Aquarian Age – and he’s telling people that we’re all heading for a time of spiritual evolution.”
“That’s what he’s saying but that doesn’t mean he’s right,” Ollie said cautiously. “Look, there’s a lot of people that would call us crazy and I’m not completely convinced myself. Do you see, Jack, what I’m trying to say? We’re going on land without any instructions from the higher ups and we’re telling people something that may just be fictional, do you see?”
Well I looked at them one by one and I saw how serious they were but I couldn’t tell them that I saw anything. They wanted an opinion from someone who’d just been on a ship most of his life. I’d read up about religion before because the captain had made sure I was educated a little and I had learned to write and understand some of the outside world stuff but I didn’t know what Ollie was talking about. Still, I was interested all the same.
Eventually I said: “Do you know what I think? I don’t know much about the Captain but I reckon he’s someone who doesn’t just talk about make-believe stuff. He’s savvier than that.”
“You know a lot more than you let on, Jack, I tell you that now,” Aiden said. I could tell he’d had a few drinks by now because he wasn’t talking so formally anymore. I don’t mean to say that he was acting drunk but he didn’t mind so much about keeping up appearances. “All I can tell you is I’ve known the Captain a long time and I’d trust him with my life. If he thinks that there’s something else going on and feels the need to warn the public about it I’m damned sure I’m going to listen to every word he says.”
For a while we sat there in silence and as I looked between them all I could see that they were all thinking about the future. Christopher intrigued me the most, as I noticed he didn’t like to say much at all. He looked drawn into himself and uncomfortable with the conversation.
We moved onto lighter subjects and didn’t talk much about the Captain after that. I could tell that Aiden was really looking forward to landing and followed the Captain’s vision, so I thought I’d support him. Then, before I could say anything else, Christopher cleared his throat and said that he needed to go. Aiden looked up at him briefly stunned before recovering quickly and moving in to shake his hand. The rest of us stayed seated.
Sam leaned in at that moment and started to talk about the Captain again, only I noticed this time he wasn’t holding back like before.
“He’s a real legend, you know,” Sam said, his eyes glistening with admiration. “They call him the Archer on land. Some say he’s one of the famous Eleven. Do you know what I mean when I say that?” he looked at me and I nodded my head back and forth like a yoyo. Of course I knew about the Eleven. They were all supposed to represent the Zodiac and acted as our guardians and inspirers. “Well some think he’s Sagittarius – the half man, half beast centaur destined to seek out and uncover all of the many truths or secrets in the world. Can you imagine what could happen if he is?”
“On that note I think we best call it a night ourselves,” Ollie said soberly before I could ask any questions. We stood up at that and I could see the other two were a little worse for wear but I managed to stifle a laugh somehow. They clapped me on the back and I kept thanking them while they told me they would try to get me time off the ship after landing. As we left the room and the other two disappeared Aiden stopped to eye the room with suspicion.
“Did you keep an eye on everything that happened tonight, Jack?” he said. There were no traces of drunkenness now as he looked at me with intent. “You watched Christopher, didn’t you? I could tell because you found it a little strange that he didn’t talk much.”
I nodded. Aiden lowered his voice and said confidentially: “Well I’m glad you noticed. I’m going to tell you now I trust you and I need your eyes and ears more than you know. Christopher isn’t so keen on the boss; you know what I’m saying? And he ain’t so fond of me, either. I don’t want you to think that I’m putting you up to anything now…” his voice softened – I could see that he felt at odds about putting me in a position – but I moved quickly to reassure him that I was happy to help.
“Of course, I know you will. But listen Jack I need you to be very careful. He isn’t someone you fool easily. All I’m saying is you might see some changes in the next week and I want you to be on your guard when we land. It’s going to be controversial with some of the others…there might even be more shooting,” his eyes fixed onto mine with sudden seriousness. “I’m sure we’ll talk again before that time but I just wanted you to keep your eyes peeled. Do you know what I mean?”
“I get you,” I said even though I didn’t know anything about being controversial. But I nodded all the same. He smiled wanly and then told me to get to bed else I’d sleep through the whole morning. We said our goodbyes as I turned to go upstairs. For hours my mind raced before I finally dropped off.
Then there was Christopher’s haggard face staring back at me, his frozen smile never once meeting his eyes. He towered over someone lying on the ground and when I went over to him all I remember was screaming for the longest time before finally waking up.