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Excerpt for Cruel Reality Extended Sample by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



Cruel Reality

Extended Sample

(First 30%)





C. J. Whitley


1


[Note: This sample contains the first 30% of

‘Cruel Reality: Games of Life and Death,

the full version being available for $0.99 / £0.99]


Mike’s eyes opened slowly as he woke to a deafening roar. He felt like every hangover he had ever experienced was returning to haunt him all at once. There was the sound of dozens of scared voices, competing with thunderous noise, all magnified by the pain in his head. Wondering where he was and why he was there, he pushed himself to a sitting position as his eyes struggled to focus. He instantly regretted the movement as it felt like his brain sloshed around inside his skull. Closing his eyes he waited for a wave of dizziness to pass. He forced his eyes open and could not make sense of what he saw. Was that horrifying sound the radio-alarm malfunctioning? Was his brother playing a prank on him? He eventually made his eyes focus. This was not his old bedroom at his parent’s home, where he was spending the summer, back from university.

Mike found himself in a large, long room. Everything was made of metal; the walls, the floor, the ceiling, the supporting pillars. He was lying on a blanket and there was a bag lying at the end of it. To either side of him there were more blankets with unconscious people lying on them, with others beyond that. Rows and rows of the makeshift beds lined the room, some with unconscious forms on, some with people sat up, many of whom were crying and clearly scared. There appeared to be a mix of men, women and even children. There were a few people stood up, talking or looking around. One of these saw that Mike was awake and headed in his direction. As he approached with a swaying walk Mike suddenly became aware that it wasn’t his head that was spinning, or at least not just that. The room was moving. His slowly clearing mind put the pieces together. The roaring sound was engines – he was in the hold of a ship. Then his memory responded to the demands he was making of it – the van and the men that had attacked him.

He had been walking home from the pub in the village where he had grown up. Home from university for the summer, he had been sharing a few drinks as he caught up with old friends. He usually enjoyed the walk home from the pub, along quiet roads. It was a clear night in the early autumn and there had been a light, refreshing breeze. Despite that, he had been looking forward to getting into bed.

The gentle sounds of a stream had suddenly been drowned out by the sound of a vehicle approaching from behind. Slightly annoyed that he should be disturbed, he had taken a look over his shoulder. All he could see were the headlights and the vague outline of a van. Mike’s foot had caught on an uneven paving slab and he had reminded himself to pay attention to where he was walking as he stumbled, the van already as good as forgotten. But the van hadn’t passed by. It had slowed down as it approached him and he had cast a furtive glance back at it. It had trailed about ten yards behind and the headlights were all but blinding him. He had turned to face the van to see it suddenly accelerate and skid to a halt at the curb right by him. Doors at the side and back of the van had burst open and four men had leapt out and rushed at Mike.

Eyes wide with surprise and his heartbeat suddenly rushing, adrenalin had made senses dulled by alcohol instantly sharp and focused. He had felt apprehension, confusion, a certain degree of fear, but not panic. He had never been one to panic. He could have tried to run, perhaps back towards the pub, but he hadn’t. Mike had had no idea what their intentions were, but they clearly weren’t good.

The van had pulled up right next to him and the men were upon him instantly. He had reacted, stepping into them and punching the closest in the face, sending him flying back towards the van. He’d caught them by surprise. The momentum from the punch had made Mike overbalance and stumble and one of his assailants had caught his left arm. As he attempted to throw a punch at the man holding him a third man had reached the fray and grabbed Mike’s right arm. There had been a fourth attacker approaching with what looked like a handkerchief in his hand. In that moment Mike had kicked out hard to his right, catching the knee of the man holding him. With a satisfying crunch of bone and snapping of tendons, the man let go and flailed to the ground as Mike threw a head butt towards the face of the man still restraining his left arm. It had landed square in the nose and blood exploded out of it, but the man had not let go. By that time the initial attacker had recovered and piled back in with a strong right hook, landing the blow on the side of Mike’s face, and his world had swayed with dizziness before the two men threw him to the ground, pinning him. A white cloth came down over his face with a strong smell of chemicals. His head went light and he had heard one of the men say something incomprehensible as he had descended into the blackness.

Returning to the present, the man now approaching was a tall, broad guy in what looked to be his mid or late forties with thinning brown hair. Mike was more than a little wary, but waited silently. As the man arrived he looked Mike over then said, “I don’t suppose you have any idea why we’re here?” It wasn’t really a question as he sounded like he already knew the answer.

Mike gave a slow, confused shake of his head and replied, “I was about to ask you the same thing.”

The larger, older man responded, “Well, it looks like we’re all in the same boat,” and with that he extended a hand towards Mike to help him up. Mike smiled, though the other man did not. He couldn’t tell whether the man hadn’t realized the pun, or he just couldn’t find any humour in the situation. As Mike was hauled to his feet, the man introduced himself, “I’m Jonathan Knight. Call me Jon. That’s my wife and two daughters over there, though my younger daughter is still unconscious.” Mike looked to where Jon had indicated. Seeing Jon pointing towards them, the wife gave an unsure wave, while the older daughter, a pretty young woman of about twenty, gave a nervous smile as she stroked her oblivious sister’s hair. Mike returned a gentle smile, and then turned back to Jon.

“I’m Mike. I mean, I’m Michael Paulson,” he introduced himself. Taking another look around at the mix of people, several groups of what he could now clearly see were entire families, he said to Jon, “They took your whole family? How’d they manage that?”

Jon’s eyes dropped to the floor, and his reply came in a somewhat ashamed tone, as if he’d just been accused, “I let them in,” though that was followed defensively with an explanation. “We were sat down finishing dinner and there was a knock at the door. I thought it was my brother – he often stops round at that time of day – so I just unlatched the door and let it swing open. But it was a group of men in masks. They didn’t say anything. They just charged in and knocked me over before I realized what was happening. Then they used something like chloroform to knock me out and went after my family. We didn’t have a chance!” Mike nodded along. He remembered now the chemical soaked cloth. Jon looked at him, as if daring Mike to suggest that there was more he could have or should have done, but Mike just nodded with understanding. Jon continued, “Then I woke up here a few hours ago. What about you? Is that from when they took you?” He said the last with an indication to something on Mike’s face.

Mike’s hand went to his face and he only now realized that his right cheek was quite heavily swollen, and he thought it likely that he would have a blackened eye. “Yes, it must be. I was walking home at night and a van pulled up. Four guys jumped out and attacked me. I tried to fight, I think I even took one down, but ….. You know the rest as well as I do.”

Jon gave a look of appreciation and said, “Well, I’ve looked around a bit and you’re one of only a handful with any apparent injuries. I get the impression that they managed to take most of us completely by surprise and without much resistance. It seems to have been well planned and executed.” Jon saw the question in Mike’s eyes and didn’t wait for it to be voiced. “There isn’t the slightest indication of what they plan to do with us. My best guess is that they want us as hostages for ransom. Although, they’re going about it in a bit of an odd way.”

Mike gave him a quizzical look and the prompt he seemed to be waiting for, “How so?”

With a slightly thoughtful tilt to his head, Jon replied, “Well, they don’t seem to want us to suffer. They’ve given us blankets, food, water, even pain killers,” he nudged the bag on the floor with his foot. He then pointed down to the far end of the hold and continued, “There’s toilets and sinks down there. I don’t get it. They kidnap us, with pretty terrifying effectiveness, but then seem to be trying to look after us.” He then lowered his voice a little, “I mean, if you’re going to ransom hostages, surely you’d want the people you’re extorting to believe you wouldn’t hesitate to kill the hostages. Or worse. And it gets stranger. How many people here do you recognize?”

Mike was caught a bit off-guard by the question, but took a few moments to study as many faces as he could see. He was a little surprised to find that there was not only no-one he knew, but there was no-one that was even vaguely familiar. A feeling of being alone touched him, but passed quickly – he wasn’t a particularly sentimental or emotional person. However, neither was he an insensitive person and considered how many of the people, upon waking, would feel completely isolated to find no-one they knew. He looked around again, taking in just how many of the faces had tears in their eyes. He shook his head. “None. Why?”

Jon gave a very serious look. “I’ve spoken to a bunch of the people that have woken, and apart from the cases where whole families have been taken, no-body is even from the same town. I’ve spoken to people taken from London, Cornwall, Wales, Scotland – my family and I were taken from Yorkshire. Where were you–”

Mike didn’t wait for him to finish. His mind whirled with this new information. He interrupted Jon, though he was speaking almost as much to himself as to Jon, “They don’t plan to ransom us.”

Now it was Jon’s turn to be surprised and confused. “How do you know?” he questioned.

“There must be over two-hundred people in here. They took us from all over the nation and put us all onto this ship that they must have had ready and waiting, apparently customised for this specific use, all without getting caught. This is a huge operation. Whoever is doing this, it involves hundreds of people and they command a lot of resources. That means they already have a lot of money. The risk involved in all this couldn’t be justified by ransom money, which they’re not guaranteed to get, when they must have spent a great deal to organise it.”

It took Jon a moment to process everything Mike had just said. Eventually he nodded slowly and said, “That makes sense. So what else could they want with us?” Mike could only shake his head. Jon suddenly turned, saying, “We should discuss this with the others.”

Mike’s hand whipped out, catching Jon’s arm and he said, “Jon, wait.” He stepped in closer to Jon and, keeping his voice low, said, “I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”

Jon turned back and, with an eyebrow raised questioningly, he asked why not.

Mike explained, “Until we know why they have taken us, it is probably better to let people believe that we will spend a little while on this ship, be ransomed, then everyone will get to go home. Otherwise people will start imagining the worst, which won’t benefit anyone.”

Jon looked Mike in the eye, contemplating. He then asked, “So what do we do?”

Mike silently mused to himself. It had happened like this in many of his jobs. One day he was the new guy, not knowing what he was doing. But all too soon his colleagues, even those that had been there far longer than him, were seeking out his advice.

As Mike thought, he realized how hungry he was. He picked up the bag by his feet and dug around in it. There were sandwiches, biscuits, fruit and a couple of bottles of water. He took out a sandwich and a bottle of water and spoke to Jon. “How many ways in and out of here are there?”

Jon replied, “There were three doors and a hatch, but two of the doors and the hatch have been welded shut,” he indicated their locations as he spoke, then pointed to the final door, at the other end of the hold from the toilets, “That looks to be the only way in or out but there’s no way to open it from this side.”

Mike looked around, considering this. It seemed that their captors were leaving nothing to chance. The ventilation shafts were too small to fit even a child through. It appeared that they were completely at their captors’ mercy. As he looked around, he noticed that there were security cameras around, and speakers too – perhaps part of an announcement system. There may have been no clues left as to what was happening to them, or why, but perhaps they’d be told.

Temporarily dismissing thoughts of escape, Mike considered other priorities. “There are going to be others waking up scared. We need people greeting them as they wake, like you did with me, explaining what little we know, letting everyone know that we’re all in this together and that we’re all going to look after each other. If we can get a few people doing it, we might avoid panic.”

Jon nodded along as Mike spoke, and then said, “Yes, of course. I’ll go speak to some of the others and see if they’ll help.” With that Jon turned and headed back towards his family and the group of people stood talking to them.

Mike took a bite of his sandwich then took a few steps to his left, where he saw some movement of a body. It was a lad who he judged to be a few years younger than himself, perhaps twenty-one. He was another who had a few injuries – cuts up his arms and swollen knuckles. He opened one eye and it swept around before settling on Mike. Then the other eye opened and he spoke, “Who are you? What happened to me last night? Have I been arrested?” then he must have registered the bruising on Mikes face, as he added with half a grin, “Mate, you look like I feel.” His hand went to his head as if he was trying to contain the headache that Mike knew he must be feeling.

The man made no effort to sit up so Mike spoke down to him. “You don’t look so great yourself. You haven’t been arrested. What’s the last thing you remember?”

Noticing the injuries on his arm and giving them a surprised appraisal, he replied, “It was my friend’s twenty-first birthday last-night. Last thing I remember is doing shots of tequila at the bar.” Looking from the bruising on his knuckles to the bruising on Mike’s face, he asked in a slightly concerned tone, “Did you and me get into a fight last night?”

Mike found himself smiling at the lad’s drunken ignorance. “I wish it were so simple.” He sat himself down on the floor next to the young man and extended his hand, “I’m Mike.”

“I’m Jason. Do you know what happened to me?” Mike shook his head and began to explain what he did know.

2


Kayleigh stroked her sister’s hair slowly, as much to soothe herself as for her sister’s sake, who hadn’t yet woken. She watched her father leave the knot of people he’d been talking to and head over to a young man who had just sat up, revealing a bruised face. Perhaps not everyone was taken so easily, she thought. She had been going over it in her head – when the masked men had burst into the kitchen where they were sat finishing dinner, she had just frozen. Her mother had jumped to her feet, shouting her husband’s name, concerned for his safety. Her younger sister, Scarlet, had screamed. Kayleigh had done nothing. She had just sat, watching. It had all been so sudden. Her memories of the event were almost like those of another person who had been watching her, one whom had no control over her body. She kept going over what she could have or should have done. She could have grabbed a knife and tried to fight. She should have got up and tried to run to get help. It was all irrelevant now, but that didn’t stop her mind torturing her over it.

After helping the young man to his feet, Kayleigh’s father had pointed over to her and her mother. The man was average height, with hair that looked somewhere between blonde and light brown, with an average build. All very average, except his eyes. As the stranger’s eyes lifted to look at them they seemed to pierce her. Even in the dull artificial light of the ship’s hold she could see the colour of his eyes as if he were stood right in front of her, and not the other side of the room. His eyes were a greyish-blue, which she might have expected to be a dull colour, but these eyes were alive with energy. While he had a slight air of disorientation, there was no panic, no fear – he simply looked like he had walked into an unfamiliar building for the first time. As her mother raised a hand in a wary greeting, Kay found herself giving a small smile. He returned a more confident smile, along with a nod towards them both. Again she was struck by how normal he made it look, as if the entire situation was an everyday occurrence.

Kayleigh’s mother, sitting the other side of her younger sister, was struggling to accept that they had been kidnapped. She seemed to think it might all be some sort of nightmare. Kayleigh and her father had woken at almost the same time, and were among the first few to wake. She had come around first, but her father had already been stirring and she had roused him quickly. While she had been scared, panicked and weeping, her father had reacted to this by setting about reassuring her. He had ignored the why, where and how and had simply concentrated on the fact that they were all together and apparently unharmed. Kayleigh was a practical person and knew that panicking and feeling sorry for herself would accomplish nothing. She had calmed herself and began discussing the situation with her father. Neither could come up with any ideas as to who might have done this to them, why they had been chosen or what they had been taken for. Then, seeing other people begin to stand, looking as confused and disorientated as themselves, Jon had left her to watch over her still unconscious mother and sister and gone to talk to the others.

When Kay’s mother had opened her eyes Jon had come dashing back. After checking that she was unharmed and promising that he wouldn’t let anything else happen to them, he had explained that no-one had any more idea of what was going on than they did. Further to that, he told of how they had explored the hold of the ship and found toilets and sinks, which suggested that they may be on board for a while, and that there was no way out.

Kayleigh’s father now turned away from the young man and headed back towards his family. As he arrived he gave his younger daughter a concerned look and asked, “No change with Scarlet then?” though it was a rhetorical question and he didn’t wait for an answer. “That fellah over there seems a sensible sort. He pointed out that we should be a bit more organised in helping each other, especially those just waking up, all alone. Try to keep everyone calm – we don’t want hysteria. I think he’s right so I’m asking a few people to keep an eye out, then just go over to anyone waking and be friendly. Let them know that we’re all going to look out for one another.” Turning first to his wife, Jon said, “Tracey, why don’t you stay here with Scarlet, and Kay can help out with me.” Jon leaned forward and gave his wife a gentle kiss, as Kay stood up slowly and stretched out her body.

Jon stood and turned to his daughter, saying, “I’m going to go get a few more people to help. Do you want to start over there?” he pointed behind her as he said the last part. With that he spun and headed back to the knot of people who were still stood talking nearby. She turned to consider where to start and saw the young man with the bruised face and intriguing eyes sitting down next to another young man who was sporting cuts on his arms.

It then became clear where Kay was needed. A child woke, quite suddenly. It was a boy of about eight years of age and he appeared to be wide-awake instantly, while everyone else had been very sluggish upon waking. He was part of a family, who were laid out around him, but he was the first to stir. The boy, upon waking and seeing his unconscious parents among the strange and intimidating surroundings, scrambled over to them and tried to shake them awake. Failing to make them so much as stir, he began to cry. She went over to him quickly, but found herself wondering what to say. The boy turned to look up at her, eyes wide with fear. Kay realized that she had to say something. “Hello. Can you tell me your name?” was what came out. She said it in her most gentle voice, but it did nothing to alleviate the boys terror, who huddled himself up against his father’s motionless form, as if trying to hide himself in his dad’s clothing. Kay knelt down near the boy, so she was no longer towering over him. “My name is Kay. Is this your sister?” she asked, pointing to a girl that looked to be a year or two younger than the boy and lay next to what she assumed to be the boy’s mother. The boy sat up a little, still clutching his dad’s hand and gave a small nod.

Kay moved a little closer and rested a hand gently on the boy’s shoulder. He shied away a little as she moved, but didn’t seem to mind the comforting touch. The boy’s eyes were still streaming, but he had gone silent now. Kay spoke again, “I’m just going to sit here with you until your parents wake up, which I’m sure won’t be too long. Is that okay with you?”

As an answer the boy suddenly threw himself forward into Kay’s embrace, hugging up tightly against her and sobbing questions, which she did her best to answer.


3



Mike had taken an instant liking to Jason, or Jace as he liked to be called. He was an easy-going guy and was treating the fact that he’d woken up to find that he’d been kidnapped and imprisoned aboard a ship as if it were just a particularly bad hangover, and little more than he expected after a night of heavy drinking. He actually appeared somewhat amused by the situation. Mike had accepted his fate easier than most would, but Jace had barely stopped grinning since Mike had told him that they had been forcibly abducted and had no idea why. Mike had assumed that Jace thought it was all a wind-up. After Mike did his best to impress upon him that it was really happening and that there wasn’t anything funny in the situation, Jace had just said, “Every time I drink tequila something bad happens, but I think I’ll struggle to top this,” at which Mike found himself laughing.

Mike stood up and saw that Jon had been busy – there were now several people moving among the rows of unconscious people, apparently checking for those just rousing. Mike also thought he recognized Jon’s daughter comforting a child across the room. Jace now sat up slowly and said, “I suppose I should see if there is anything I can do to help.” He then gathered himself to stand up. Mike offered his hand, but Jace shook his head at it, preferring to ease himself up at his own sedate pace. Jace made it to his feet, then immediately closed his eyes and brought his hand to his head again, grimacing at the small thunder storm apparently taking place inside his head.

Shouting could suddenly be heard from further down the hold. Mike turned to see a big, heavyset man, probably in his late thirties, banging on the door that wasn’t welded shut. He was shouting abuse at their captors and demanding to be set free. Mike wondered if the man actually thought that their captors would be listening. Mike started moving over towards the disturbance. He saw Jon doing the same, though Jon was much closer and reached the man almost immediately. Still heading their way, with Jace not far behind, Mike heard Jon talking to the man, his voice raised so that the almost hysterical man could hear him over his own shouting, “Don’t start this again Jack! It didn’t get you anything but a sore throat last time.” The man, Jack, who was heavily built and balding, with a little brown hair left around the sides, completely ignored Jon. Jon spoke again, a bit louder and more forceful, “Jack! Listen!” Jack went quiet, apparently becoming aware of Jon for the first time, and turned to stare at him. Mike arrived at this moment, in time to hear Jon speak more calmly now, “Jack, that’s not going to achieve anything. We’re trying to keep everyone calm and you’re not helping. Please, just sit and wait like everyone else. I’m sure we’ll find out what is happening soon enough.”

Mike saw nothing but anger on Jack’s face. For a moment longer Jack just stared at Jon, then he started shouting at the door, again demanding to be set free. With a look of disgust, Jon turned to Mike and invited him to try to talk to Jack. Mike looked around quickly and found that most of the people that were awake were staring in their direction, waiting to see what would happen.

Mike stepped up close to Jack and, keeping his voice calm and even but loud enough to be heard, he said, “Jack, be quiet. Putting your fear on display like this is making everyone nervous and adding to their fear.” Jack once again stopped shouting and his eyes locked on Mike’s, who sensed the anger shift its focus to him. It was expected, of course. Mike had assumed that accusing him of showing fear would gain his attention. Now that he had that attention, he had to put it to good use.

Jack spoke to Mike in a deep, threatening voice, “Piss off! Who the hell do you think you are?!”

It was like the entire hold had gone deathly quiet, everyone’s attention fixed on them, though the noise of the ship was still there; the engines, the ventilation systems and the sound of the sea against the hull was always there, a continuous torment. Mike thought now that he could probably have handled this better, but it was too late to back down now. He lowered his voice, speaking so that anyone more than a few feet would have strained to hear him, still keeping his tone calm and even, “Mind your language, there are kids about.”

Jack’s hands suddenly became fists and his shoulders shifted – his entire body took on a more threatening stance, one to match his voice. Jack was almost screaming at Mike now, “Don’t talk to me about kids. My wife and ten-year-old daughter are over there, unconscious because of what these bastards have done to us!”

Mike tried to give an understanding look, and it was genuine. Mike appreciated that he was here alone and was directly responsible for no-one except himself. But Mike had set a course and would follow it through. “And how do think kicking and screaming at a door like an overgrown child is going to help them?”

Jack leaned in closer, his nose little more than an inch from Mike’s, everything about him very aggressive. Mike was aware that both Jace and Jon had moved in, ready to intercede, but he ignored them. Instead he did a mental check of his own posture, making sure that it was neutral and non-threatening. However, Mike had always been gifted with quick reactions and had been in more than one scuffle in his youth – if Jack did try anything, he was moderately confident that he could avoid injury, even without help from Jace or Jon.

At this point Mike changed tack slightly. He let out a small resigned sigh and, keeping his voice calm, but raising it slightly so that to a normal conversational level so that more people could hear, he said, “Look, it’s obvious that these people are very organised – they’re professionals. They will talk to us when they’re ready, and they won’t be rushed.” Mike paused for a moment, but in the absence of a response from Jack, except for breathing right on Mike’s face, he continued, “In the meantime we should be keeping calm and supporting each other, not arguing. Instead of wasting your energy on a metal door, the best thing you can do is wait with your family and be there when they wake up.”

Jack glared with an expression that said that he thought Mike was a young fool overstepping his place. He looked like he wanted to put Mike back in that place by means of his fists, but with an appraising look at Jon and Jace who flanked Mike as well, perhaps as considering what the bruising to Mike’s face might suggest, Jack grunted sourly. Still glowering, he spoke in a very cold voice, “Don’t tell me how to look after my family.”

With that, Jack turned on his heel and stormed back to his unconscious family, without making eye-contact with anyone. People started talking again almost instantly. In hushed tones at first, but the hold was soon alive again with voices. Mike let out a breath and turned to face Jon and Jace, the only two other people on the ship whose names he knew.

“I should have handled that better,” said Mike with a hint of regret in his voice, but both of his new acquaintances disputed the claim with a slight shake of their heads.

Jon said, “You may not have made yourself a friend, but you shut him up and that was the aim wasn’t it? Some people need to be beat over the head to make them listen. I tried the friendly approach and it didn’t work. Your way did. No point in dwelling on it.” Jon’s straightforward way of speaking made Mike like him even more and he knew Jon was right, so for now he put the matter from his mind.

Jace now asked a question, “What do we do now?” He looked about as if expecting to see something that needed his attention.

It was Mike that answered, “We wait.” Jace looked at him, eyebrows raised questioningly, urging Mike to further explain. Mike found himself with another person looking to him for direction. “They are in control and there is little we can do. Sooner or later they’ll either talk to us,” with that he quickly pointed to one of the speakers positioned around the hold, “or feed us, since there is only a little food in the bags and if it was to be a short journey they would have just kept us unconscious.”

Jon spoke, “You think we’ll be on here a while then?” though it was a rhetoric question since Mike had just said as much and explained the reasoning.

Mike gave a nod and then said, “In the meantime we should start meeting people and all get to know each other.”

Jon turned and headed back towards his family. Mike and Jace followed.


4



Kayleigh had been sat with the boy, named Alex as she had learned, for some time – long enough for him to cry himself out and be content to just sit burrowed up against her – when she felt the boy suddenly pull away from her. Her attention had been on some commotion over by the door, but the young man with the bruised face and the intense eyes had intervened and things now seemed to be settling down.

Alex’s mother was stirring at last and the boy was now hovering over her, shaking her arm in attempt to speed her waking. Her eyes fluttered open and Alex threw his arms around her, hugging her tightly. Recognising nothing except her son, Alex’s mother put her arms around him and returned the hug while she attempted to gather her wits. As her eyes cleared a little, Kay introduced herself, at which point Alex interrupted to explain that Kay had been looking after him. Unsure of exactly how to respond, and forgetting to introduce herself, Alex’s mum began to speak without really knowing what she was saying, “Who . . . um . . . How did . . . What’s going on?”

It was such a basic question, but with no simple answer. With a shout from the loud idiot behind her, apparently in response to something the calm young man must have said, Kay began to explain things as she understood them. Alex kept interrupting with the things he had learned and Alex’s mum, who eventually introduced herself as Kim, kept interrupting with questions, to many of which Kay had no answer.

By the time she had finished explaining the little she knew, Kay saw her father heading towards her mother and sister, with two young men in tow. She made her excuses to leave Alex and his mother, and Kim thanked her. Kay flashed the woman a smile, then stood up and headed towards her family.

Jon was stood talking to his wife, Tracey, and the two young men were stood to one side talking quietly together. Kay’s younger sister, Scarlet, was yet to wake. As Kay approached the group her father turned and greeted her, “Hey love, you doing okay?” She nodded and her eyes turned to the two young men beside him. Jon caught it and gave some introductions. “Fellahs, this is my daughter, Kay. Kay this is Mike and …” he trailed off, realizing that he didn’t know the name of the other young man.

Kay looked at Mike and those enigmatic eyes locked on hers. He once again gave that gentle smile and slow nod of greeting, his calm countenance and quiet mannerism belied by the bruising on his face. Then Kay found the other young man stepping in and taking her hand. She pulled her eyes away from Mike’s and the first thing she noticed were the cuts and bruises on the hands of the other man. As her eyes lifted to his face he spoke, “Hi, I’m Jace, it’s a pleasure to meet you. This is the first time I’ve been abducted, but I’m beginning to think it may not be all bad.” He said it with a boyish grin on his face, but he kept his voice sounding totally serious. Kay let out a little laugh. Mike and Kay’s mum laughed too, though Jon wasn’t sure how to react. It wasn’t so much the words that they were laughing at, but the context. They were being held against their will aboard a ship taking them to an unknown fate and this charming fool was taking the opportunity to flirt.

Kay’s eyes briefly darted to Mike and found that when he laughed he seemed far more relaxed and open. Ignoring the bruising, she decided he had a very honest face. Looking back to Jace, she now considered him. He was of a similar build to Mike but younger, perhaps a year or two older than her, which would put him at about twenty or twenty-one. Mike was, she thought, probably a few years older than that. Kay realized that Jace was still waiting for a reply of some kind, but her mind had gone blank and she couldn’t think of anything to say. Her mother came to her rescue.

While her daughter floundered, Kay’s mother introduced herself, “I’m Tracey, Kay’s mum, and this is my other daughter, Scarlet.” She stepped aside to indicate the unconscious form of her sixteen-year-old daughter.

Kay now found her tongue and asked her father what had happened with the man who had been shouting at the door. Jon replied, “That was Jack, a fool making a spectacle of himself. I tried talking to him but he wouldn’t listen. Then Mike stepped up and –,” but Mike cut him off.

“It was just a man venting some frustration. I explained that it wasn’t helping and he stopped.” It was the first thing Kay had heard Mike say and she couldn’t remember ever hearing anyone speak like him. He spoke softly, almost as if he didn’t care if anyone was listening, and yet something about him, perhaps the way every word was spoken carefully, that suggested he knew people would listen. The quiet manner made everyone else stop talking so they could hear what he was saying. Mike had clearly downplayed his part in events, but while his tone certainly hadn’t been defensive, something in it told her that he didn’t want it spoken of further.

No-one said anything for a moment and it was verging on becoming awkward when Tracey spoke, addressing the two young men, “So you two, where are you from? What do you do? Did you know each other before today?”

The group spent some time talking about themselves. Kay discovered that Mike was twenty-five and, despite being six years older, was a student like herself, nearing the end of a summer break. Jason was a salesman, though hadn’t yet decided what he wanted in life. Tracey and Jon explained that they were a nurse and bus-driver respectively. They talked of other things such as their homes and families, then the more ominous subject of the circumstances of their abductions.

After about twenty minutes they were interrupted by the soft and confused voice of Scarlet, who had woken unnoticed by the group. Her family practically leaped on her. Jon was the quickest – he had his arms around her before anyone realized what was happening – but Tracey and Kay were less than a breath behind and the whole family embraced. Mike and Jace said they were going to circulate, since this was clearly a family moment, although they weren’t sure if anyone heard.


5


The two turned and examined their surroundings once more. Mike did a quick head count and thought he counted about three hundred people in the hold, and estimated that more than half of those were now awake. It looked as if there were plenty of people on the lookout for those newly awakened, hopefully to talk to them and keep them calm. Those not occupied in such a manner were mostly now stood in groups discussing their fate. The groups were not large – the noise of the engines did not allow an easy conversation over more than a few feet. Mike decided to move among these groups to meet some of his fellow captives and find out some of their thoughts on the situation – perhaps some had come up with conclusions different from his own. Jace decided to accompany him.

Mike and Jason would join a group, introduce themselves, find out a little about the people and join in the general discussion for a bit and then drift on to the next group. People exchanged names, but there were far too many to remember and most were soon forgotten. Mike was content to learn faces. People were obviously speculating over what might become of them. Inevitably, there were some who came up with the worst possible scenarios. While most people thought ransom the most likely motivation, there were scare-mongers raising possibilities such as slavery, or being dissected to sell their organs, and unfortunately there are people that will believe anything – particularly when they are scared. Mike did his best to alleviate such fears.

As he moved about the hold he realized the unusual demographic of the people around him. There seemed to be two types of people in the hold. There were those that were part of a family that had been taken and those that had been taken alone. The families ranged, with children as young as two, or the children of the family might be almost adults as was the case with Jon’s family where his youngest, Scarlet, was sixteen. The first odd thing that struck Mike was that those taken alone, like himself or Jace, were all of a similar age – in their late teens or twenties. He realized that there were in fact no elderly people at all, and almost no-one over the age of fifty. The exception to this was a couple in their early fifties. Their names were Jane and Ben Townsend. She was a chef at a pub, though had been a nurse for over twenty years before that, and he was a carpenter who mostly did kitchen-fitting these days.

As Mike and Jace moved on from the older couple, a woman started shrieking about a dozen feet away. Mike immediately headed over. She had clearly just woken, and looked like she was the mother of a family – a man and three children were laid out next to her – who were all still unconscious. There was a man who was talking to her and trying to calm her, with no success. He was actually beginning to look rather flustered himself. The woman was sat up and she was hysterical. As Mike reached her he finally deciphered what it was the woman was screaming. One of her children was missing. Damn.

The man knelt by the woman clearly had no idea of what to do, and seeing Mike approaching he backed away. Mike went down on one knee beside her but the woman was still wailing and was completely unaware of him. He then put a hand on each of her shoulders and with a firm squeeze he simply said, “Stop.” To Mike’s surprise, and the amazement of those nearby, she did stop. Her eyes gained some clarity and they focused on Mike, silently begging for help.

With his hands still on the woman’s shoulders, Mike spoke again, “Tell me what’s wrong.”

The woman, suddenly looking very delicate and vulnerable responded in a quiet, broken voice, “My fourth child, Craig, he’s not here. What have they done with him?”

Maintaining eye contact, Mike spoke in his calmest, most reassuring voice, “There are a lot of people here. He’s probably still asleep somewhere else in the hold. Describe him to me. What is his name? How old is he? What does he look like? What was he wearing?”

The woman’s eyes were streaming with tears, but the woman remained lucid, “His name is Craig Hobson, he’s six, he has short brown hair and brown eyes and he was wearing . . . um . . . blue pyjamas with white aeroplanes on them,” then after a slight pause she added, “And he’s autistic.”

Mike nodded, briefly wondering whether the fact the boy was autistic was significant or not. He stood up and put two fingers into his mouth and whistled loudly, though even as he did it he realized that almost everyone’s attention was already on him. Shouting, to make himself heard above the noise of the ship, Mike addressed the hold, “This woman is missing one of her children. He is six years old and his name is Craig Hobson. He has brown hair and is wearing blue pyjamas with white aeroplanes on them. Can everyone please look around them and shout if you can see him?!”

Mike saw people’s heads moving, scanning the faces of any children near them. In many faces he could see the sympathy people felt for the woman, despite everyone having their own problems. Nobody answered though. Mike kept waiting an extra second, hoping someone would shout back. He could almost feel the woman holding her breath behind him. He wanted to be sure, “Anyone?” he asked. But everywhere he looked people were shaking their heads solemnly.

Mike slowly turned back to Mrs. Hobson, at a loss for words. His initial plan had quickly exhausted itself with no results. Two other women had materialised nearby and as the now broken Mrs. Hobson began sobbing loudly, they sat down with her, giving her some of the emotional support she desperately needed. Mike wasn’t a great comforter and he was relieved these women had presented themselves. But he still felt he could add something. He crouched down next to the three women and spoke to Mrs. Hobson, “The people that have taken us don’t want to hurt us – they’ve given us food, water, blankets,” he became aware of the irony of him saying this, sporting the bruises from his only encounter with them, “In most cases they’ve done their best to avoid injuring us, and I’m sure they won’t have harmed Craig.” Mike wasn’t sure if the woman was even listening to him, but he carried on, “They probably just missed him, left him tucked up in his bed.” The entire family were in nightwear, and had probably been abed when the men had come for them. Mike added one last sentence, “I’m sure he’ll be fine – he’s probably better off than us.” Mrs. Hobson nodded almost imperceptibly, looking blankly ahead now.

Mike stood up. The full extent of the power their captors had over them suddenly hit him – he and his fellow captives were completely at the mercy of these people. He knew the missing boy would make people worry all the more. Their captors had split up a family, left a woman not knowing the fate of her child. What else were they capable of?

Mike felt that he needed to be doing something. He turned to Jason and began to give instructions to him, without considering what the other young man, who had known him for less than a couple of hours, might feel about being ordered around. “Jason, I want to double check this. Head that way,” Mike pointed down the hold, towards the end where the toilets were, “Check every kid. Talk to people. Speak to every parent, or whoever in a family is awake. I want to check that every child is claimed by someone and is with their family. Okay?”

“Sure,” was Jason’s simple reply, a serious look on his face for the first time. He turned and set about the task given him, happy to be doing something constructive. Mike began doing the same in the other direction, covering the rest of the hold. He spent almost half-an-hour moving through the hold, stopping at each family, explaining what he was doing and checking each child.

During the time he spent doing this most of those still unconscious woke up, the effects of whatever had been used to keep them unconscious wearing off, so the job could be completed thoroughly. Unfortunately there was no sign of Craig Hobson, although they confirmed that all of the other families were apparently intact and there were no children who did not have at least one parent with them. Jace caught up with him and reported the same result. Mike looked to the Hobson family. Mr. Hobson and two of the three children had woken now. All had puffy eyes from crying. Mrs. Hobson saw him and looked at him hopefully. She might have guessed what he’d been doing, or perhaps someone had told her. Mike got a lump in his throat, wishing he could give her good news, but all he did was mouth the words, “I’m sorry.” He could see her holding back the tears, probably for the benefit of her other children.

Feeling a little defeated Mike returned to his blanket and sat down. He silently watched the people around him. He found himself surprised at the reaction most people had exhibited. People weren’t panicking as he would have expected. Most people seemed to just be waiting to see what would happen next, which was, he mused, all they could really do. The only person to really break down had been Mrs. Hobson, and with good reason. Mike dug into the bag that was still at the base of his blanket. He pulled out an apple and took a bite. It was a crunchy, juicy apple – just the way he liked them.


6


Kay was sat with her family. There were now only a handful of people still unconscious. A sombre tone had fallen over the crowd since the report of a child being missing. Many of the groups of people that had been having discussions had broken up, either dispersing completely, or splitting into smaller groups. The initial shock that had resulted from waking in the strange surroundings had passed, to be replaced by fear and uncertainty. Many people had returned to their blankets, waiting for something, anything, to happen. Kay had been surprised to see Mike move over to his blankets and sit down. For the preceding hours he had been so active, constantly moving, talking to people, helping them. When that poor woman with the missing boy had started shrieking, Kay had turned to find the source, and the first thing she had seen had been Mike moving towards the scene.

None of her family had said anything for several minutes. Kay stood up and stretched. Her family looked to her and she told them she needed to stretch her legs. She took a walk down the hold, smiling or waving at some of the people she had met earlier. She stopped and spoke quickly with Alex, Kim and the rest of their family, all now awake. They were coping well, considering the circumstances. She continued on her way back to her family, and her eyes sought out Mike. He was laid on his blankets, his legs bent, hand’s flat on his stomach. His eyes were closed, but something about him told her he wasn’t asleep. On an impulse, Kay took a detour and headed over to where he lay. As she reached his blankets and was about to say something, his eyes opened and focused directly on hers. Before she could open her mouth, he greeted her, “Hi Kay. I saw you with that lad earlier, taking care of him. It looked like you did a great job.”

Kay realized that he was referring to when she had been comforting Alex and she was pleased that he’d noticed her. She found her voice at last and responded, “I was just doing my bit. The kid needed someone. I don’t know why they’ve abducted us, but I just can’t believe they would take children.” It was something she had been pondering as she sat with her family. What might their captors want with them? What would they be used for? How would including children among their captives effect their cause? Of course, it was pointless wondering about or discussing such things without further information. Mike seemed to think along similar lines as he momentarily bit his lip and shrugged, not having any answer. “Is Kay short for something?” he asked instead. As she replied he sat up and offered her a seat on the blanket next to him. Kay took it and they continued to chat. One of the main things they had in common, apart from both having been kidnapped and held on this ship, was that they were both students. Mike had started a degree a few years later in life, having found it difficult to settle in any job, but it didn’t make student life that much different and they spent some time talking about their experiences at their respective universities.

As they spoke, Mike’s eyes were everywhere, alive with energy and he appeared to be waiting for something, as if he had noticed something. As Kay swept her gaze around the hold of the ship she thought she realized what it was; there no longer appeared to be anyone that remained unconscious. With her realization, the waiting came to an end.


* * *


The P.A. system screeched into life, the speakers grabbing everyone’s attention with a high-pitched squeal. Then a voice boomed out, a deep monotone voice, “Please listen carefully.” Everyone was doing exactly that. Despite wanting to ask a thousand questions, no-one breathed a word, each with ears pricked and many people’s eyes were now focused on one of the dozen or so speakers placed around the hold. The speech was that of a man who had learned English as a second language, but to a high standard – the pronunciation that bit more careful than that of a native speaker. The voice continued, “I will begin with a message for the Hobson family. Your son Craig was deemed to be unfit for the journey ahead. He was left asleep in his bed and, as the result of information provided by us, the police and social workers collected him this morning. Our sources inform us he is now in the care of his grandparents.” Mike glanced at the Hobson family. Mr. Hobson was openly crying, and his wife was sobbing once more. Tears of relief, he hoped. The voice in the speakers gave a small pause as the people massed in the hold reacted to this. Mike thought it likely they were being watched through the CCTV cameras in the hold.

The voice began again and everyone went silent – even Mrs. Hobson, with a little effort. The voice seemed to have a harder edge to it now, though it could have just been perceived that way because of the words it now spoke. “You cannot escape. Co-operate, and we will not harm you. Anything short of complete co-operation will result in your own suffering. A door will shortly open, through which you will find a small room, with your evening meal in it. You are to retrieve the contents and move them into your living area. After thirty minutes, the door to this room will close. Anything left inside will be lost to you. If the room is not vacated when the thirty minutes is up, the following meal will not be delivered. There are refuse sacks in the room and with each subsequent meal, once you have removed your food, you will leave the refuse from the previous meal in the room. The door will open twice a day, at 0730 hours and at 1700 hours. The water from the taps at the end of the hold is drinkable, and you are to refill the water bottles already provided from these taps. I repeat: Co-operate fully and we will not harm you.” With that the speakers once again went dead.

People were silent for a few moments longer, hoping for more. When they realized that nothing further would be said, there was uproar. Everyone began shouting at once, each trying to be heard above the others, hoping that someone was listening, yelling the questions that plagued them. What was to become of them? Where were they being taken? What did their captors want? The same questions over and over. There were, however, at least two people not competing to be heard. Sat on Mike’s blanket, Kay was watching him as he thought. They were to be told things on a need to know basis – he could accept that. Amidst the apparent chaos that now consumed the hold, he retreated into the calm of his own mind and analysed all that had just been said.

The voice had started off by reassuring them about the welfare of the boy who was missing from among their number. Mike saw no reason to believe that they were telling the truth about the boy – contacting the police in any way would only have put themselves at risk – but having seen the relief in the eyes of the boy’s parents, he wasn’t about to raise the point. Still, if people believed that their captors were the sort of people who would take the time to make sure the boy was okay, they would be more inclined to co-operate. However, if at least part of the message had been true, there were implications, which he began to consider. If the boy had indeed been left in his bed undisturbed, whether he was now with his grandparents or not, it suggested that the Hobsons’ abductors had prior knowledge about the family. As Mike understood autism, there were generally no visible signs. It was possible that the boy was suffering from some other affliction that had resulted in him being ‘deemed unfit’, though his mother had not mentioned anything. If it was the case that their captors had known of the boy’s condition before entering the house, it meant that the Hobson family had been targeted. Maybe everyone here had been targeted. If so, what had been the criteria? What were they to be used for?


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