I thought it was just a storm… how wrong I was.
The flash came without warning and lit up the entire sky. Our boat rocked violently, back and forth, scattering us across the deck and threatening to cast us into the dark waters of the churning ocean. The last thing I remember is desperately threading my arms through the rigging that secured our containers. I only awoke when the tumult was through; not a man among us had stayed conscious the entire time. Our onboard clocks only suggested an hour lost, even if the sun’s position in the sky told an altogether different story. Both wind and current pulled in unfamiliar ways, and our satellite equipment couldn’t pick up any signal. I trusted the sun over our clocks, drawing on old lessons to calculate our location and bearing at high noon.
“Eight hundred nautical miles in an hour… How is this possible?”
I rechecked my measurements, redid the math, conferred with others and implored them to find a mistake… but the results were always the same. My mind flooded with horror stories I’d heard on shore leave at dingy bars, maritime myths traded between grizzled sailors. I’d always written it off as the kind of thing you’d say to scare your kids, or the result of watching too much Twilight Zone… but this was all too real.
Our readings beyond reasoning, we turned to our eyes for navigation. It wasn’t long before we caught sight of land. It was a small island, and we traced the fullness of its coast in no time. Still we saw no signs of civilization. After much time and discussion, we elected to moor the boat. But not without caution.
“Take the gun,” the captain instructed. I tucked the weapon in the waistband of my pants, its weight unfamiliar and cold.
We coasted forward carefully, avoiding a reef and anchoring near the shore. The first lifeboat had barely hit the sand when all men froze in their tracks, our chatter mirroring the dying hum of the engine when we saw them on the beach.
Mere moments ago I had thought the captain was overreacting when he told me to pick up the firearm, but now it felt like even a battleship wouldn’t be enough.
“Whatever you want to call those things, we’re not taking our chances. Back to the ship.”
The following weeks saw us skirting the shores of a dozen more islands, repelled each time by the approach of impossible creatures. While the sun was the core of our rough navigation by day, the evening skies blanketed us in a wholly foreign set of stars by night. We adapted as best as we could to these unfamiliar constellations, replacing old favorites like the Big Dipper with the Triceratops; or, my personal favorite, the T-Rex.
The beasts named in the sky were preferable to the ones that harried our ship.. Every few days, the long neck of a monster rose from the water and towered above us, its tiny head sporting a full set of vicious teeth below two curious, hungry eyes. But even this watchful behemoth was nothing to the pterodactyls. They circled above, waiting for the perfect time to pluck exhausted, unaware passengers to their deaths above the clouds. Only the roar of our guns could send them scattering.
Wandering lost and alone was enough to break many of us. Dwindling food and fuel did the rest. The crew let rage and fear take them, fighting amongst themselves over the smallest scraps and tearing apart our cargo in search of anything edible. Knowing we couldn’t go on this way, I confronted the captain.
“All this island-hopping is pointless if we never make landfall. When we run out of fuel, we’ll be stuck adrift in the middle of the ocean. We have to go ashore and resupply while we still have the chance.”
“…I’m afraid I can’t allow that. Those creatures may not be real, but something is on these islands. If we dock and they take the opportunity to climb aboard and tear the vessel apart, the insurance agency won’t buy our explanation any more than I do.”
“…Insurance? Are you serious?! We have men who have literally been torn apart by prehistoric creatures, and you’re worried about insurance?!”
He didn’t answer me, but he didn’t need to. The captain and several others firmly believed that the dinosaurs were a hallucination borne of hunger, thirst, and cabin fever. Thankfully, this was an angle I could work: If they were just something we’d imagined, what threat could they pose? Seemingly wwayed by this logic, dire hunger, or both, the captain finally relented, and we set foot on land the very next day.
We took all of our most useful supplies and set up camp on the beach not far from the ship. A dense jungle loomed a stone’s throw from our camp, but none were brave enough to enter. We were just settling in when the moon rose over the horizon. It brought with it a swelling tide, the rushing water easily capsizing our vessel. Much of what we hadn’t taken ashore was swept away into the sea.
I was still in a haze at daybreak, arranging large stones to spell out “SOS” on the beach. I hadn’t seen a single plane, but sometimes you just have to do something… even if that something is as good as nothing.
We discovered the true meaning of hunger once supplies ran out. Any hesitation we had about eating the wildlife on that strange island vanished. Small dinosaurs, bizarre plants, and even insects became our breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In the past, I used to wonder how humans ever determined which plants were safe to eat. After being desperate enough to eat anything I can tear from the ground, I don’t wonder anymore. An unlucky few perished from eating poisonous plants, but those who lived saw to it that the dead were properly buried for their sacrifice.
Between eating anything we could chew and drinking rainwater, we eked out enough stability to finally argue about something new. It was universally agreed upon that we should begin cultivating what few plants we could manage, but the means of our farming was another story. While some thought we should endeavor to preserve the current ecosystem, the first officer proposed completely burning down a huge section of the island to simultaneously clear land and fertilize the soil. It wasn’t a bad idea. Farming tools had not been among the supplies we scavenged from the ship, and preparing the land by hand would be a long and arduous process. But the jungle was naturally flush with resources, and we risked losing them to the fire. There wasn’t even a guarantee we could produce anything from the scorched earth as none of us had farming experience. Unable to agree, we put it to a vote. The pro-burning side took the majority, leaving the conservationists to wallow in defeat.
Another small faction insisted that the captain should be the one to make these decisions, but there was one small issue: the captain had lost his mind. We had hoped that food would bring him back to normal, but it only restored his strength; not his sanity. While we struggled to plot our course in this strange new world, the captain’s mind had not made the trip through the Warp soundly.
“Everybody stay calm! A rescue unit is on the way, I assure you. And don’t worry about the boat; I’m keeping a mental record of everything that’s happened. For the insurance agency, of course.”
Sometimes I envy his madness.
The fire raged for the better part of a day before fresh rain beat it back to a smolder. We found the charred corpses of countless beasts among the desolation, but that was to be expected. More surprising was a humming, glowing crater in the ground that seemed to be immune to the fire. We were left to speculate on what it could be, but the first officer declared that this discovery alone was worth the effort. I might have agreed with him if we had any idea what it was we’d found…
A thin layer of soot dusted the island for several days after the fire. We picked out stones from the ash and plowed fields with seeds we obtained from opened containers on the boat, but they just weren’t growing. We were forced to rely more heavily on hunting than ever before, a trying task when half our hunting grounds were now burnt ruins. We even turned back to the ocean from which we’d escaped, redoubling our fishing efforts. That is when a great illness swept through our group.
Plague and famine thinned our ranks by half. Even the animals we hunted were malnourished, often succumbing to starvation before our spears could ever find them. I’d complain that there weren’t enough men to dig graves, but graves were a thing of the past. We could no longer afford to waste meat by giving it to the earth.
I’m still not sure how we muddled through those dark days, but our endurance was rewarded when a new season brought back the rain. Our failed farms began to sprout, and we were once again afforded the luxury of planning beyond tomorrow. To better facilitate the work of the future, we divided the remaining survivors into two groups: farmers and collectors. I became a collector. I’d dabbled in horticulture back on Earth, but I never aspired to be more than a hobbyist gardener. Now I find myself as a key figure in the group, creating medicines and exploring the properties of new plants. At least I’ve found some purpose in this new life.
We’ve been on the island for three years now. What’s more, our captain is no longer with us. He was executed by the first officer, the first casualty in the “revolution.” The officer had been madethe head farmer, and one day he suddenly stepped forward with claims of discrimination. He insisted the farmers were slowly but surely being given less food, and that this was to weaken and incapacitate them out of fear of insurrection. The officer had no recourse but to kill the man responsible: our captain. Many of us collectors were scattered about the island when it had happened. There was nothing anyone could have done to stop him.
“I had to kill the captain. We need to start addressing the reality of our situation if we don’t want to die on this island… Do you trust me?”
“Trust” may not have been the right word for how I felt with the edge of a knife pressed against my throat, but I had been in no position to say otherwise. I promptly declared my loyalty to the first officer; or rather, our new captain.
We held a feast to celebrate his inauguration, the main course of which was those who refused to pledge their allegiance. It made for a grisly toast when he promised fair treatment and abundant harvests above the bodies of our former crewmates. I cheered along with the rest, but only enough to stay in his good graces.
His promises rang hollow in time, thinning both our numbers and our crops. The new first officer insisted that building a waterway to ease transportation and hydrate crops was the answer, but then new captain would not – and could not – grant him the manpower. I figured another “revolution” was not far off.
Though his talent for leading foundered early on, the second captain’s luck was more than enough to compensate. It was a day like any other when a terrific boom echoed across the island, and there it wassland, y other when a terrififresh victims of the Warp. Just like us when we first arrived, they did not realize the gravity of their situation. They were scared, yes, but more of us than the island, than this world. Sure, we had weapons and they didn’t, but they had no idea how lucky they were to have us to guide them. We set up a “refugee camp” for them, which is just a nice way of saying we quarantined them on the beach. This did little in the way of quieting them.
“Is there a rescue team coming? Why are you all dressed like that? You look like…like some kind of cavemen! What’s happening here? Someone explain to me what the hell is going on!”
The refugees were restless, unruly. The captain stifled the commotion with the merest gesture of his hand, summoning his closest men to beat the newcomers into silence. This was his chance to exert authority, to establish his dominance, and he relished it.
The stages of their adjustment were all too familiar. It began with denial, the unshakable belief that rescue was imminent, that they’d stumbled upon some secret government project to revive dinosaurs. This eventually gave way to fear, panic, desperation… in their defense, their transition took only a few days when ours had taken weeks. I suppose the sharpened tip of a spear accelerates the process.
Later, after finally accepting the reality of their situation, they started to cooperate. On Earth, very little would have separated us from these new arrivals. But time and necessity had worked wonders, and even our primitive weapons were enough to ensure our dominance. Those who were neither useful nor sycophantic enough to enter our ranks were treated no better than slaves.
It was their sweat that served as the foundation of our waterway, their blood that fed our crops. We flourished, our previous hardships rendering us blind to the price of our newfound success. The captain was triumphant on the day the waterway was finished.
“Now do you see? We must sacrifice to ensure our future!”
To protect this future, we were forbidden from speaking of the past.
Our group continued in this way for many years. We’d become capable of creating everything we needed, whether it be simple tools to work our farms or children to bolster our ranks. And we did make children. Many, many children. Perhaps it was our way of replacing the dead. We called these children “Second Generation,” and ourselves “First Generation.”
As our society grew, so, too, did a hierarchy.A class system. But we did not speak of nobles, commoners, or slaves. Instead we used words such as executives, administrators, and practitioners. We may not have been able to keep the values of Earth, but we could at least preserve the veneer. You could tell the difference between an executive and practitioner by attire alone. Still, it took the edge off the bitter reality of our situation and let us keep a tenuous connection with our lost home.
“You there, commoner! Round up some slaves and move that boulder!”
Such a command would be considered coarse. Barbaric, even. We instead veiled our intentions with thin corporate euphemisms:
“Hey, administrator! Enlist some practitioners and relocate that boulder!”
It may sound foolish, but it worked.
Whatever other atrocities I’d committed, I didn’t have it in me to harass the practitioners. Not that this meant many were spared their misery. Plenty of others who relished tormenting those beneath them. Some administrators even became executives after displaying few merits outside of the loyalty their cruelty instilled. If they couldn’t return to Earth, they would at least make the most of this world, no matter the cost.
In this way, I am no better than them. I ignore the suffering of the lower classes, enjoying the privilege and protection my valuable hobby provides. I ease my conscience by thinking of the lives I can save with my medicine, but there is no escaping the fact that my comfort is built on the agony of others.
Ten years have passed.
We doubled and redoubled our numbers, pushed our island’s ability to sustain us to the limit. More and more voices advocated for pioneering new lands. The captain offered to promote any executives who dared travel to other islands. It was a chance to govern their own lands, he said. To be their own boss. It was like something out of an infomercial… Me, I couldn’t care less about ruling. But the thought of finding brand new plants and unlocking their medicinal potential excited me beyond words. I was among the first to volunteer, earning accolades from the captain and a cadre of practitioners to aid me.
“Your research will help feed and heal generations of our children. They’ll learn your name in school, the savior of the human race.” I knew it was just talk; propaganda, even. But damned if part of me didn’t believe it.
After a few months of preparation, my fleet was ready to sail. And by “fleet” I mean three rafts and three canoes. It didn’t take long for us to find a new island and claim it as our own, raising a flag displaying the symbol of our people. We had scarcely made landfall before an executive assigned to manage our expedition began whipping a practitioner for working too slowly.
I turned away and ate my lunch.
The beating only stopped when a group of unknown armed men appeared from behind the trees. A fear I hadn’t experienced in a long time filled my stomach as they approached.
“What right do you have to hit this man?” The executive could not muster a response outside of tightening his grip and gritting his teeth. “Is it merely your weapon that separates the two of you? Should we treat you with the same ‘respect?'”
The executive snarled, throwing his leather whip to the ground. He raised his bow, but his fingers hadn’t found the first arrow before a gunshot thundered through the air. He fell to his knees, his words reduced to a pained gurgle. The shooter then addressed me, his face even, impassive.
“Do you know what Durango is?”
“… No. This is the first I’ve heard of such a thing.”
“And yet you appear to have been living there for some time. This is Durango. This island, this sea… Every horizon. It is all Durango. You arrived here through a Warp, as did we. As did that man your compatriot was beating. Though you have sullied this island with your flag, we know it is not your home. But you will take us to whichever island is. This…” he gestured to the practitioner, who could only watch the newcomer with cautious awe. “…cannot stand. We will pluck your inhumane way of living from its roots before it has a chance to spread.”
We surrendered immediately. More members of their clan poured out from the trees, separating and questioning us. The navigator of our fleet was shortly back on the seas with a small contingent of their men. The abused practitioner was given food, rest, and refuge. I was arrested for committing inhumane acts.
I learned on the voyage to their domain that this exploration group was only one of many. They were so numerous, in fact, that the members of their expeditionary forces alone outnumbered our entire clan by a healthy margin. Durango is a much bigger, stranger place than I could have ever imagined.
I was taken to their capital for interrogation, a process thankfully bereft of torture. They even assigned one of their ‘lawyers’ to my defense. Granted, his suit was a hodgepodge of stitched together animal skins, and his glasses appeared to be fabricated out of twigs, but I suppose I couldn’t have hoped for much better even back on Earth.
It was a shock when our captain was brought in a few days after my capture. They had constructed a series of palm-tree prisons to hold us while we awaited judgement, and they locked him in the one next to mine. An unmistakable anger was writ across his twisted features, yet he still refused to speak a single word. Many of the other executives and administrators were captured as well, though only a fraction of what our original numbers had been. Not one of them would talk. At night, residents hurled coconuts at our prison cells, shouting accusations of moral indecency and promising swift justice. I had no trouble sleeping.
My old clan members remained steadfast in their silence, and so I was forced to turn to a guard I’d befriended to learn the fate of the other clan members.
“Our chieftain ordered a liberation, so we sent two units to pay a little visit to your island. I hear your chieftain—er, ‘captain?’ Is that what they call it on your island? Anyway, your captain resisted, but that’s hardly unusual. We suffered about a dozen casualties… about a tenth what your clan lost. That may not sound bad for us, but we’re having an election next year, and our chieftain is worried that might reflect poorly on him. Getting people from his clan killed doesn’t sit well with most people, no matter what happens to the other clan.”
The charges against us were dire were as dire as their punishment: death. I needed to prove to them that I in no way participated in any inhumane acts, but this would be no simple task. During trial, the prosecutor directed his blame at all of us collectively.
“They took advantage of these poor refugees. They abused them and enslaved them, forgetting that they, too, began their life on Durango in much the same way. Many of the refugees died building the waterway, and yet so few of them survived to reap the benefits of their labor. Their rulers would have you believe that this is a misunderstanding, that the refugees were so grateful to their ‘captain’ that they built the waterway as a token of appreciation. Does this sound like the same refugees who thanked us in tears for freeing them from a disturbing cycle of oppression and death?”
The executives and administrators who began as mere train passengers did their best to rationalize their actions. They put the blame on us, the original crew who first arrived on the island, for giving them no other option. Many other practitioners were brought to the stand as witnesses. I recognized many of them, remembering first hand their tales of loss at the hands of the executives. I could only lower my head in shame.
The captain, however, refused to admit his wrongdoings.
“What was I supposed to do? We were in the middle of a life-or-death emergency! You’ve experienced the Warp. You know what it’s like. It would be bad enough to lose everything you’ve ever known in an instant… but to have it replaced with dinosaurs? Sinking islands? We were alone. Hungry. Desperate. Somebody had to raise the torch – AND the lash – and lead these hapless fools to salvation! They claim abuse, but don’t appreciate that they’re alive today to testify thanks to me. It was my leadership and military experience that fed and protected us! How are we any different from you? We have our own law, our own order… This trial is a joke! An infringement of sovereignty!”
The captain made his case again and again, but it did him little good. His unwavering silence forgotten, he shouted all the way to the gallows. As the hood was tightened around his head, he began singing our clan’s anthem, a song about how much everyone loves the captain. He had written it himself.
“O Captain, sweet captain, we owe a debt to thee! And nobody loves, oh nobody loves, yes nobody loves the Captain more than meee-!” A collective sigh of relief swept through the crowd when the noose tightened. It was never a very good song.
I must have pleaded my case well, because the prosecutor reduced my sentence to banishment from the Stable Islands. I was even granted ten minutes to convene with the free people of my clan before being sent out to sea. My group had already assigned a new captain, a practitioner whom I worked with many times in the past. He used to help me cultivate wild plants and always bowed to me with a great smile whenever I slipped him a portion of my daily rations. Now, though… he looked different. His eyes were sharp, his lips tightly pursed in disappointment and authority. He told me not to refer to him as “captain.” They were going to do away with the class system altogether. I would be the last executive.
Before I was banished to the Unstable Sea, both of my arms were branded with marks of expulsion. More than a final reminder of my misdeeds or a simple physical punishment, the marks identified me as a criminal. Were I to set foot on the Base Island again, I would not be spared death a second time.
Learning to live on islands in the Unstable Sea isn’t easy. They can disappear for days, sometimes months without warning. But it’s not all bad. I’ve watched the moon rise over snow-covered fields and been awoken by the gentle rays of the sun in tropical paradises. I’ve become a true explorer.
I survive by making medicine from leaves and selling it to merchants visiting from different Base Islands. They pay in T-stones and give no heed to the marks on my arms. Those looking to kill big game sometimes take me on their hunt. One even invited me to join her religion.
“We’re all sinners here on Durango, but that doesn’t mean we’re forever lost. The T-rex watches over us, for we are His children.”
The Omega, leader of a Tyrannosaurus-serving sect of hunters, assured me of this. They don’t consider it a curse to travel on the Unstable Sea, but a beautiful, unending pilgrimage. A blessing. I became a part of their journey, making medicine to heal the sick and learning to set up traps. The Omega presented me with a necklace made out of dinosaur teeth when I joined their order. I even eventually married a fellow clan member.
In the years that followed, I have seen the rise and fall of countless islands. Wrinkles now cover my face, deepening with each new destination. I sometimes catch news from the Stable Islands. It seems the captain I met before my banishment has passed away, and now his daughter has risen to power. I wouldn’t know this, of course, if her men hadn’t come to tell me as much and more.
It was a small band of delegates: young, raptor-riding servants born and raised in Durango. Everything about them was just a little foreign to me. Their clothes, their accents… I realized that while I had made Durango my home, those born here knew no other life.
They told me their newest leader was in the process of reestablishing the old class system. Delegates had been sent out in hopes of gaining support from people who once shared that bygone set of values. I suppose they thought we were nostalgic; that years on the Unstable Sea wouldn’t change a man. They even carried a letter of pardon with my name on it, but I knew that didn’t change what I’d been part of. I understood their stories only too well.
“We’ve been battling for years now. Not a day goes by where we’re not forced to fight. People Warp to our Base Islands, our Outpost Islands… There is constant bloodshed. Mass confusion. The world has gone mad. We yearn for the past, when times were simpler.”
The young Durangonian had rehearsed this speech. His patchy beard did nothing to camouflage his inexperience.
“Hrmph. Simpler times? There’s no such thing. There never was. This is all just what it means to be human. Earth was no different. Do you th—”
“We’re not here to listen to you ramble, old man. If I wanted to hear stories of Earth, I would’ve asked my mother. Not crossed these mad seas.”
The delegates’ bodyguard cut me off, features drawn in a scowl. I had almost forgotten the contempt some natural born Durangonians bore for Earth… but how could I blame them? These islands and the sea were the only world that mattered to them.
“Do you want to come home or not? This will be your only chance. The pardon won’t stand forever.”
“I am nothing but an old, nomadic hunter. The Stable Islands forsook me long ago, and I, in turn, have forsaken them. My home belongs not to a single island, but to all islands. I am home.”
The bodyguard grew red and drew his sword. The delegates could only stammer as he pointed the blade at my neck.
“You would spit on such a gracious offer? Choose your next words carefully, old-timer, for they may be your last.”
My two children responded by swiftly raising their bows. Others from my clan quickly converged and drew their weapons as well. A deep, silent tension built until it was tight as the bowstring on my children’s fingertips. Still seething, the bodyguard sheathed his sword.
“Savages, the lot of you! You’ll roam these wretched islands forever, never finding a place to call home! You’ll die a broken vagrant, wishing you had mustered a sliver of reason on this day! What were we thinking, expecting civility from a clan that worships a big lizard…”
The delegates and the bodyguard argued amongst themselves for some time before finally leaving. My fellow hunters tried to comfort me, but I waved them away and returned to a poultice I was working on. My son approached me not long after.
“Dad, what’s an ‘Earth’?”
I thought for a moment, pulling in memories of the past. I recalled sitting on the deck of our boat, measuring latitude every day at noon; playing cards in the cabin every night underneath the soft glow of the moon; transporting cargo, usually hefty armaments; being sucked into Durango for the first time; the practitioners from the train and their days of slavery; the searing pain I felt—both physical and mental—as I was branded for human indecency… Though separated by an insurmountable distance, the two worlds were inextricably part of me. How could I answer?
“Earth is…an extension of Durango, like you are an extension of me. People war with each other there. They commit crimes, abandon children… But people also learn to compromise, work together, and love one another. It will always be what I consider my true home, the place I was born, a place for which I will forever yearn… Earth will always be a story without a beginning for you, something you can never fully understand… But it doesn’t matter. Durango is your home. It’s where you belong, and where your lineage will continue. Durango is your Earth.”