Chapter Three- Aptitude
The sun beat down against Andrew's back. He'd spent the last three hours pulling weeds and pruning vegetables.
"No! Cut the ones on the underside!" Rissa smacked the shears from his hand, "How many times do I have to say it? Only cut the vines that haven't been getting any sun. The ones that won't grow anymore. Just- just give me the damn things, I'll do it myself," Rissa grabbed the shears and took over pruning, "Go to town hall or something. You're done for the day," She shook her head, her flaming red ponytail flailing behind her.
"Alright then," Andrew wiped sweat off his forehead and shuffled away before she changed her mind. He meandered through the fields, doing his best not to step on any of the half-grown crops. He passed a few kids who chuckled at his defeat as they worked.
"You'll find one that'll stick, Andrew!" A short, stout boy named Matthew called encouragingly.
"Eventually!" A blonde girl named Paris added with a good-natured laugh.
"Bound to, I guess," Andrew replied with a worn smile and a wave. He skirted around the edge of town and hurried through the woods. When he reached the rocky beach he slowed, scanning the area carefully. The air was heavy with the smell of low tide.
"Andy!" Nix waved. He was crouched over one of the tide pools with a bucket hanging from his elbow, "It's not even lunchtime; I'm guessing the whole farming thing didn't go well?" He laughed.
"Nothing's gone well, man," Andrew slumped onto the damp ground, "I feel like I've tried every job in town by this point, and none of the captains want me."
"You've only been here a week," Nix raised an eyebrow and stood up, nearly dropping his bucket, "There are plenty of other jobs."
"I guess. Just not farming. Or fishing. Or woodworking. Or cooking. Or taking care of animals," Andrew pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration.
Nix chuckled, "Don't get too down on yourself, Andy. It's all part of being the new kid. You got to run the rounds. If you're good at something, they'll pick you. If you're not then Etta will place you wherever they need an extra set of hands," Nix smiled encouragingly and plunked down next to Andrew.
"Yeah, that's what everyone's been saying," Andrew stared glumly out into the waves, half-expecting to see a Coast Guard ship on its way to save them all, "Why aren't we trying to get off this island?" He muttered, waving away a dragonfly that buzzed too near.
"Mirame," Nix pushed Andrew's shoulder so they faced each other, "Look at me. I know what you're thinking. I thought it too, remember? Everyone here has been through the same thing. That means for the past five years practically every kid has tried anything you could imagine to get off this rock."
"It doesn't seem like it. It feels like everyone's given up."
"Of course they haven't," Nix spoke earnestly, "but Andy, when people get too caught up in trying to get back wherever we came from, no one focuses on their work. Think about it, if the farmers are too busy to tend the fields and livestock we all starve. Same with the hunters and fishermen. The cooks keep people from eating strange shit they find in the woods. You get my point? Every job is important. But we haven't given up. What did you do with the builders the other day?"
"We repaired some damage on the roof of town hall," Andrew shrugged, "I wasn't much help."
"What do you think they do when there isn't any repair work to be done?"
"I don't know. Chop wood?"
"Andy," Nix sighed, "Can't you see? They're our escape plan."
"They build shit. They fix shit. The ones who've been here awhile have gotten pretty good at it. They're working on a boat."
"I thought you said people have tried boats before. You said they all crashed against rocks in the water."
"They have all crashed," Nix shrugged, "But try and try again, you know? Eventually they'll get something out. Emphasis on 'eventually'. That's why the rest of us have to focus on keeping everything running. That's why I spend my days in the stink of this place, collecting crap from tide pools and waiting. Eventually, another little boat is going to wash up with a newbie and I need to be ready when that happens."
"To get them out of the boat," Andrew smiled.
"Exactly," Nix grinned and handed his bucket to Andrew, "You hold this while I scavenge."
"What is this gunk?" Andrew frowned into the bucket, nearly overwhelmed by the smell.
"Some of it's food. Muscles, edible seaweed. This stuff," Nix yanked a handful of a bright green plant with thick, fuzzy stems from the shallow water, "This is some kind of medicine; I think it helps with stomach aches. The doc is always really happy when I bring it."
"You mean Lyn?" Andrew frowned at the squelchy plant as he took it from Nix and added it to the bucket.
"No, Lyn's more like a nurse. Glitch is the doctor."
"Who's Glitch?" Andrew quirked an eyebrow, "I don't think that's a name or a city."
"It... isn't," Nix scrunched his face up in deep thought, searching for words, "She's... she's a fantastic doctor."
"But..." Andrew trailed, prompting Nix to explain his sudden uncomfortable tone.
"But she's a little different. She doesn't make much sense most of the time, has these moods where she can't be around people. When I told you Lyn keeps the hospital running smooth, I meant it. She's the only one who can really get through to Glitch, calm her down when she's in one of those moods."
"How long has she been... different?"
"Since the day she got here. We think whoever wipes our memories messed up with hers. At least, she seems to think so, so it's our best guess. It's how she got her name. She calls herself a glitch in the system."
"What does that mean?" Andrew felt a cold lurch of fear in his stomach. If the memory wipes could cause side-effects, everyone on the island was at risk, himself included.
"I don't know. They left blank spots in our brains. Maybe her blank spot is a little too far left or right. She walks, talks, and bandages wounds alright enough," Nix pulled another hunk of seaweed right as a low wave splashed against their ankles, "Tide's coming in," he sighed, "Let's go get some lunch."
"What if a boat comes?" Andrew looked out at the water, hesitant to follow Nix.
"See the shadows?" Nix pointed at their feet, "Boats never come when the sun's at its highest. Never come after sunset, either. I've got an hour to go get some food and come back. Don't worry, man."
"Okay," Andrew relented. He passed the bucket back to Nix and started following him to the treeline when a question popped into his head, "I know that nobody knows why we're here, but do you have a theory? About who's behind all this?"
"Everyone's got a theory, and no one believes anyone else's," Nix chuckled, "I'll let you stick around and find one of your own before I tell you mine."
"I've been trying for a week, and still haven't thought of a single halfway sane idea."
Nix looked around the beach as if making sure nobody could overhear. Aside from the ever-present dragonflies they were completely alone. Nix leaned close and murmured under his breath, his tone deadly serious.
"Come again?" Andrew raised his eyebrows but managed to keep his voice free of judgement.
"Think about it. The exploding boats, the mass-amnesia, tools and shelter provided for us. Who would have the kind of money to do all that? Why?" Nix tapped a finger against his temple, a wide smile on his face, "Aliens studying the human race. We're rats in a maze, Andy."
"Are you messing with me?" Andrew's question left Nix with a slight scowl.
"You asked my opinion," Nix tried shrugging off his obvious disappointment, "Come on, we're wasting my lunch break."
As they walked through the woods towards Jamestown, Nix told stories about Rissa's famous short temper. Etta had occasionally had to discipline the redhead for everything from throwing trowels at people to dumping buckets of fertilizer over their heads. The conversation lasted all the way through the woods and into town hall.
Andrew had been inside the massive, sprawling building every day since his arrival but he hadn't explored much of it. Through the main doors was a large cafeteria-style room. Behind that was the kitchen. To the left was a set of stairs, and to the right were several doors. Andrew knew the building held meeting rooms, storage rooms, and even a library, but he'd yet to see any of it.
The kitchen bustled with people preparing lunch, but the cafeteria was quiet. Andrew and Nix sat down with bowls of steaming soup at one of several long tables.
"You still look bummed," Nix frowned when the conversation lulled, "I thought you didn't want to work in the fields."
"I didn't. I don't. I'm just... frustrated. The list of things I know about myself is turning into a list of things I suck at. I figured sprinkling water on plants would be idiot-proof, but apparently I suck at that too."
Nix chuckled, "You're sad because you're bad at something you don't want to do."
"Well, when you put it like that," Andrew felt a smile slip over his face, "I guess it's pretty stupid."
Nix snorted into his soup and spent the rest of lunch telling Andrew about the library on the second floor of the building. Nix's job as lookout meant a lot of downtime, so when he wasn't searching tide pools he read.
"Most of the stuff in there is boring, useful stuff. Identifying plants. Making cloth from wool. But there's other stuff too, adventures, horror, romance stories. You should check it out since you're off the rest of the day."
"Sounds like a plan. Got any favorites or should I just..." His words trailed off as someone took the empty seat directly across from him.
"Yeah," Andrew nodded nervously to the stranger.
The guy had to be one of the oldest people on the island. He was a tall, muscular young man with a scruffy, narrow face. He had a sinister-looking scar running across his neck that was pale against his dark skin and impossible to look away from, "I'm Makiyn," He spoke in a deep, quiet voice.
"Oh," Andrew sat up straighter, recognizing the name of the captain of the hunters.
"I talked to Rissa earlier," Makiyn's words held a note of amusement, "Since you're done farming for the day, I figured I could borrow you."
"O-okay," Andrew felt a lump forming in his throat at the prospect of failing twice in one day, "Right now?"
"Try to curb your enthusiasm, kid," Makiyn smiled at the queasy look that was taking over Andrew's face, "Follow me."
Makiyn hopped to his feet, and headed toward the exit. Nix gave a big, cheesy grin and two encouraging thumbs up as Andrew hurried to follow the older boy.
"Know anything about hunting, Andrew?" Makiyn asked in a polite tone as they crossed the grassy center of town.
"I don't know," Andrew shrugged, "I seem to have forgotten a few things recently."
Makiyn chuckled, a low, pleasant sound, "I probably shouldn't bother asking," He came to a stop in front of the metal door of the weapons shed and took a heavy key from his pocket. The rusty lock clicked and the hinges creaked as the door opened, "These aren't toys," He gave Andrew a long, serious look as he stepped into the shed.
Andrew stared into the tiny room, but didn't follow Makiyn. Shelves stacked high with sharp instruments, spears hung on hooks on the walls. Everything in there looked deadly.
"This," Makiyn handed Andrew a length of thin rope, "and this," a long knife in a leather sheath, "and this," a spear that was as tall as Andrew himself, "and... I'll carry these," a quiver of arrows and a roughly made bow.
"Um, am I supposed to use all of these?" Andrew felt his nerves spike at the concept.
"Well, you're supposed to try. Not here, though. We've got a training space about a half mile into the woods. Etta's pretty strict about weapons in town," Makiyn smiled kindly at Andrew, "Don't worry, as long as you're careful you should be safe."
Andrew nodded, and did his best not to drop anything as Makiyn locked the storage door and strode off toward the treeline.
"What jobs have you tried so far?" Makiyn asked, and Andrew grimaced at the reminder of his entire week of failure.
"Almost everything but hunting, clothes-making, and the guard," He answered in an even tone.
"Well, the guard doesn't take newbies, so you won't be trying that," Makiyn chuckled, "Torres hand picks people for her patrols. But we've only got two tailors, and they're always up for an extra set of hands. That's why I grabbed you today. I've been shorthanded myself for a few months now, and I wanted to give you a chance out here before those guys snatched you."
"I'll do my best."
"That's all I ask, Andrew. All the jobs here are important, but some are easier than others. Not this. See, hunting isn't about killing things," Makiyn spoke excitedly as the two walked deeper into the woods, "It's about saving as many lives as possible. Kill too many of a certain animal and the population dwindles, meaning less food in the future. Don't kill enough and our people go without. So we keep close track of what we hunt. Breeding seasons. Travel patterns. It's tougher than just playing with bows and arrows, despite what some of the kids around here think," Makiyn stopped his long strides and turned to face Andrew, "This is the weapons training area. We share it with the guard," He gestured ahead to a clearing in the trees.
Andrew walked forward into the clearing and took in the sight. A large section of bare, compacted earth had been trampled free of grass. Rough-made targets hung on the far side from wide trees pockmarked with old arrow holes. Small bushes to the side had half their branches snapped and snarls of hopelessly tangled rope hung like ornaments in a few places. Makiyn gestured for Andrew to put down his armful of weaponry against a nearby tree.
"What do you want me to do?" Andrew took a steadying breath as he carefully leaned the spear against the tree. A mistake while farming was one thing. He really didn't want to shoot an arrow into his foot.
"First," Makiyn pulled a large knife from a sheath hanging off his belt, "See that middle target? Aim for the dead center."
"From here?" Andrew didn't take hold of the knife he was being handed. He stared at it, feeling a trickle of fear. What if he dropped it on his foot? Or Makiyn's foot? It looked deadly sharp.
"Andrew, take the knife, aim, and throw. Don't think about it, just do it," Makiyn's voice was still quiet, but it had taken on an authoritative edge, "Do it, Andrew. Now."
Andrew took the knife by the handle. The target was twenty feet away, and a strong ocean breeze was cutting through the trees, "What does this have to do with hunting? It's not like I'll be throwing knives at squirrels or-"
"Now," Makiyn commanded, and Andrew tossed the knife. One second and a dull thud later, the knife was buried into the center of the target.
"Whoa," Andrew grinned at his lucky throw.
"Now with this," Makiyn handed Andrew the bow and quiver of arrows, "Aim for the target on the left."
Andrew gripped the bow, pulled an arrow from the quiver, strung it and let it fly. It felt odd. Like tying shoelaces. His muscles moved without prompting, without thinking. The arrow had landed a perfect bullseye on the left target. It was much more than just a lucky throw.
"What the hell, man!" Andrew backed up, throwing the bow down like it had burned him, "How did I know how to do that?"
"We call it aptitude," Makiyn's smile had returned, "It's like muscle memory I think, but more than that. Some of us, especially for certain jobs, show up already trained. But since we can't remember being trained there's no way of knowing off the bat. That's why newbies run through every job. Etta used to tell people on their first day, during the welcome wagon routine, but we found the less people think about it the faster they find their aptitude. That's if they have one at all."
"That's why the captains knew so quick they didn't want me," Andrew felt overwhelmed by sudden clarity, "They knew immediately that I... wait," The moment of understanding fell prey to a whole new world of questions, "So what does this mean?"
Makiyn chuckled, "It means you're on my team, Andrew. We'll keep trying different weapons for a little longer today, but starting tomorrow you'll be with the hunters. It takes a lot of meat to feed eighty teenagers."
"But you said 'some of us' have aptitudes. Why only some? Why-"
"I don't know," Makiyn placed a scarred hand on Andrew's shoulder, "Aptitudes are helpful, especially for certain jobs, but we don't need them to survive. At least, we don't need everyone to have one. The people who sent us here definitely want us to survive, but they don't seem to like helping unless it's necessary."
"But how do I know something if I can't remember how I know it?"
Makiyn shrugged, "The same way basically all of us know how to read. The same way I know there are seven continents and four oceans. We may not have memories, but we have knowledge."
"I don't know. For right now I want to see what weapons you're comfortable with, and if you can make small-game snares. Then we'll try tracking."
The rest of the afternoon passed swiftly. With every new weapon or training exercise Andrew became more unsettled, and Makiyn patiently calmed him back down. By late afternoon Andrew was starting to accept his aptitude, but the questions were stacking up and he couldn't let them go. Makiyn seemed to understand, he never snapped or scolded Andrew for his continuous repetition of 'whys' and 'hows'. Still, the captain of the hunters had no real answers.
They were deep in the woods, following rabbit tracks, when a piercing, loud whistle assaulted their ears. Andrew spun in place, confused and slightly alarmed, but Makiyn's dark eyes lit up.
"You two missed dinner," A tall boy in his late teens seemed to materialize from behind a tree, "It'll be dark soon, so Etta sent me to bring you guys back," He leaned against a tree, looking completely uninterested in the task of retrieving people.
"No she didn't," Makiyn crossed his arms in front of him, but his grin didn't falter, "You are just impatient."
The boy huffed and let a pack slide off his back, "Well, you did miss dinner. I brought food."
"Thanks. Andrew, this is my boyfriend, Dallas," Makiyn walked over and kissed Dallas on the cheek before picking up the dropped pack. Dallas was taller than Makiyn, though not by much. He had a lean, muscular build and a spray of freckles across his cheeks. His brown hair was short enough for Andrew to notice the small pieces of plastic sticking in Dallas' ears.
"Nice to meet you," Andrew mumbled, feeling suddenly like a third wheel.
"What?" Dallas sounded peeved, "Enunciate, dammit, don't mumble," He furrowed his eyebrows and gestured to the plastic in his ears. Hearing aids Andrew's brain supplied after a moment of confusion, how does he have hearing aids on an island with no electricity? He wondered, but didn't voice the question.
"Okay, if you're done bullying the poor kid, let's eat and head back to Jamestown," Makiyn rolled his eyes and started unpacking canteens and food from Dallas' pack.
"I didn't bully him," Dallas responded quietly, though a small smile slid onto his face as Makiyn threw an apple at him. He caught it easily.
"How long have you been here?" Andrew asked Dallas, making sure not to mumble.
"Four years and three months," Dallas answered immediately, "Now shut up and eat." Makiyn smacked Dallas on the shoulder.
The three of them ate and talked. Andrew mostly just watched the two older boys. Dallas had a blunt demeanor, everything he said was less than polite, but it wasn't spoken with hatred or menace. He'd been quick to snap at Andrew for mumbling, but he was equally quick to laugh. He seemed to enjoy giving people a hard time, and it made an interesting counterpoint to Makiyn's steady, easygoing manner.
They finished eating and began walking back to Jamestown. Dallas walked a few paces ahead, and pulled Andrew to walk with him. He pointed out disturbed leaves and snapped branches. Animal trails and their own footprints from earlier. Makiyn followed with an amused expression on his face.
"Aptitudes aren't all they're cracked up to be," Dallas spoke as he pointed out deer tracks, "Not everything can be downloaded into your brain. Not experience. I'm the best tracker here, and that's without the help of an aptitude. See these?" He pointed at a set of impossibly small tracks, "What made that?"
"A squirrel," Andrew answered without hesitation. He didn't know how he knew it, but he did.
"Yep. But what was the little guy doing?"
"I... I don't know?" Andrew quirked an eyebrow at Dallas.
"The spacing of the tracks shows that he was running. Probably getting chased, but he didn't go up a tree. So that means..." Dallas trailed to let Andrew answer, but the younger teen didn't know. He just shrugged. Dallas gave a wicked grin, "A bird was after him. In these dense of trees that means it was most likely an owl. We get some hawks, but they prefer hunting in clearings or near the river. See? Experience. Half the people that show up with an aptitude get up their own ass about a skill they never worked for. They don't bother learning anything new, so they never get better. As long as you aren't like that, we'll get along fine."
"I don't know, Dallas," Makiyn chuckled, "You seem to find plenty of reasons not to like people."
"Just about you, Mack," Dallas winked, "A new reason every day."
All three boys laughed, and Makiyn and Dallas continued to bicker playfully until they reached Jamestown.
"We're all meeting here at sunup," Makiyn told Andrew as they reached the weapon shed and returned the equipment they'd brought, "See you then."
Andrew waved as he walked toward the bunks. The sun was almost down and most people were milling around town square before curfew. He threw a long look at the crowd and caught himself smiling at the sight. People were talking, laughing, enjoying each other's company. A few of the younger kids were playing tag. He still wanted to get off this island, to get his memories back, but he couldn't help thinking to himself that there were worse places to be stranded. He was still smiling as he walked into the barracks to his bunk.
Nix was sprawled gracelessly over the top bunk, one arm hanging off the edge.
"I got the job," Andrew spoke happily as he ducked around Nix's arm and climbed into the bottom bunk.
"Damn. I was hoping you'd be a tailor. They've had a pair of my pants for over a month. Still haven't patched them."
"Shut up," Andrew laughed. the bunk above him shook as Nix moved around. Suddenly Nix's upside-down face came into sight, curly hair falling into a spiky halo.
"I'm serious about the pants," He grinned, "But congratulations on the job. The hunters are alright for the most part. I mean, they've got one or two assholes, but Makiyn keeps them in line. Not like some of the other captains I could mention."
Andrew shook his head, "Something to look forward to."
"Yeah," Nix yawned and pulled his top half back up onto his bunk.
"Night," Andrew called.
"You too," Nix replied, his voice already sounding half asleep.
Andrew dozed off faster than he had all week.