Note: I have never been to Sable Island, and any resemblance between characters in this story and real persons, including the researchers at Sable Island, is both coincidental and highly unlikely. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sable_Island
I don’t expect to be rescued, but this is my chance to tell people what’s going on here. I’m trapped on Sable Island. I have maybe six or seven hours until the horses get me. Even now, I can hear them outside, pacing, waiting. When I moved to Halifax last year, I didn’t know anything about Sable Island. Now I know too much. I’m writing this so it can be stopped.
My name is Gerald McArthur. I moved to Halifax to study journalism at Dalhousie. My application had been approved, and I was going to start in September. Meanwhile, I worked as much as I could. I got a job in a call centre, and sometimes washed dishes at the Casino.
Every morning I walked to work past lots of empty storefronts. A few days after the provincial election was called, the government opened a riding office in one of them. When I walked home, they had posted signs in the window. One said “Riding Office – Halifax Citadel/Sable Island,” but the one that really caught my attention said “Part Time Work – Riding Enumerators – Apply Within.” I went in.
A lady with too much makeup and an outfit that proclaimed office manager greeted me, and introduced to Ian, who looked like a fellow student. He filled me in on the job. “We need people to go door to door, verifying that the voters list is accurate. With all the students in this area it’s a challenge keeping things up to date. You’ll need to get a criminal record check, but we’ll pay you back. Lots of walking, rain or shine. Does this sound like something you’d be interested in?”
“Great. What’s your availability like?”
I told him I could work later afternoon and evenings, and on the weekend.
“Great. Any customer service experience?”
“I’m working at Vinus systems – ”
“I used to work there, but then so have half the people in town. Are from here?”
“What brings you out here?”
“Going to Dal. I started at U of T, but took a few years off, and now I’m back to school at Dal. You from here?”
“Oh no,” said Ian. “I’m from Cape Breton. Came down here to go to Dal, graduated last year, and now just working to pay off the student loans. Going home as soon as I can. You been up to Cape Breton?”
“No, not yet.”
“What a sin. You should go – most beautiful place in Canada. Anyway, consider yourself hired. Get that police check and come back tomorrow. You’ll need to fill out an application form. We should have some by then. I’ll give you the list, and you can go to work. Any questions?”
“Pay is minimum wage, I guess?”
“A dollar over. Not great, but better than a lot of places.”
“Why is the riding called Halifax Citadel / Sable Island? What’s Sable Island?” The Citadel was an old fort at the top of a hill. It used to look over Halifax Harbour, but now it mostly looked over downtown Halifax. You could still see the harbour through a few protected views between the office towers and condominiums.
“Sable Island is an overgrown sand bar about 300 k offshore. Nothing there except horses and the research station with few staff and scientists. But they need to vote. The government sends out a plane with a couple of elections officials to collect their votes.”
“Why is a remote island part of a downtown Halifax riding?”
“I don’t know.”
The office manager came over. “Sorry to interrupt, Ian, but are you almost done here? I need help with the next box.”
Ian stood up. “Thanks again, Gerald. We’ll see you tomorrow”
That night, I looked up Sable Island. As Ian had said, it is an overgrown sandbar, a flat and grassy crescent about 40 k long and 1 k wide. A serious hazard to navigation, with more than 350 shipwrecks in the area, it is sometimes called the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Attempts to settle it all ended in failure. The island is off limits for ecological reasons, and no one can go there without the permission of the coast guard, which patrols the area. The main ecological feature is a herd of wild horses. The origin of the horses is not clear. Some people think they are shipwreck survivors, and some think they were brought here in a settlement attempt a couple of hundred years ago. However they got here, they are now a distinct breed and the government protects them. Interesting, but I never expected to see come here. I never suspected it was all lies. I never expected I’d die here.
The next day, I reported with my clear police record check, filled out an application, and picked up a badge and a list of addresses. It was late afternoon, and Ian suggested I start by going to the end of Massey road, and walking back towards the office, allowing some time for people to get home from work. I’d missed lunch due to getting my police check, so I started by grabbing a sandwich at Pete’s deli, and heading down Massey road. The end close to downtown was largely older homes in poor condition, rented whole or as rooms to students, with the odd stately manor hanging on. Away from downtown, the houses were larger, in better condition, and further back from the road, behind well-manicured gardens.
When I reached the first block on my list, a car was just pulling into the driveway. I waited at the end of the driveway while a business suited man got out of the car. “Whatever you’re selling, get lost.”
“Not selling anything sir, just updating the voter’s list.” I lifted my clipboard to show the government badge.
“How long will this take?” He walked over. I had him.
“A minute or two. I just need to confirm a few things. Your name sir?”
“Denton. William P.”
“Thanks, Mr. Denton. One other adult in the house, Theresa Denton?”
“That’s right. My wife.”
“Okay, we’re done. Thanks for your time, election day is August 5.”
At the next house, no one was home. The house after that, an elderly lady answered the door. No update required there either, but she was lonely and wanted a visit. She told me how everything had gone downhill since the socialists took over the city, and raised the price of milk beyond any sensible amount.
“I’m not bitter, you understand,” she said. “It’s a democracy and they pulled the wool over people’s eyes. Not me though. And now everyone knows what they are up to. You can be damn sure I’ll be voting. Get the bastards out. Do you have the paper for me, dear?”
“No ma’am. That will be mailed to you. I just came by today to make verify you are still here.”
“Of course, dear. I’ve lived on this street for forty-two years. My Harold, bless his soul, built this house with his own construction company.”
“It’s a beautiful house, and it’s been lovely to meet you. Thanks.” I escaped. An hour later, the lonely widows were becoming a serious occupational hazard. I hoped to make up time when I got to the student houses. So far I had only progressed a block. The house on the corner had a larger than usual decorative garden area, with a small concrete horse in the centre. I knocked at the door. Another elderly lady answered.
I could never get used to being called dear, but in the city almost everyone over thirty called me dear. Out of the city, all the ladies called me dear.
“Confirming the voter’s list ma’am. Just need a minute of your time.”
“Of course, dear, what do you need to know?”
“What’s your name, please?”
“Thanks. And there is also a Stanley Winston?”
“Oh no dear, he…he passed on. Quite recently.” She started to look as if she was going to cry.
“I’m sorry to hear that. I’ll, uh, update the records.”
“Yes, of course. He worked for the government, he’d understand.”
“Okay, thanks. Sorry for your loss.” I edged back.
“Those damn horses,” she said.
“The horses. They were the death of him. ”
I looked out at the horse in the front yard. “He had horses?”
Mrs. Winston laughed. “Oh no. He looked after them for the government. The Sable Island horses, you know. On that damn island.” She gestured behind her, into the living room behind her. “Look at this room. He completely took it over. Would you believe this used to be our living room? But it became his study.” I looked past her into the room. Loose papers and books spilled from bookcases onto the floor and a large desk. Books and maps covered the couch. A large map of Sable Island dominated the wall. “I always told him the horses would be the death of him, but he just laughed. Said they were perfectly safe, and would never turn on him. Him of all people.” She started to laugh.
“What do you mean, the horses turn on him?”
“She stopped laughing for a minute, stared intently at me, and said, “Nothing to worry about, dear. They’re just horses.” Then she shrieked with laughter again.
“I should be going.” I started to back down the steps.
“Yes, you should. Get away from the crazy lady. That’s what they call me, you know. You probably think I’m crazy too. ”
“No ma’am, but I do need to be going.”
“Wait.” She disappeared into a hallway behind the living room. I could still hear her. “They were looking for this, weren’t they? They never found it. I didn’t tell them. But I’m not crazy.” She reappeared and crossed the living room to me, holding a small book in front of her. “Here’s the proof, she said to me. You read that. You’ll see.” She passed me the book. It was a cheap diary, almost new.
“I can’t accept a book, ma’am. You should keep this.”
“Oh no dear. They keep looking for it. You take it. Keep it safe. And watch out for the horses – that’s what I always said to him.” She closed the door abruptly. I flipped through the book. Neat printing filled the first few pages, but the words were nonsense. I considered leaving the book on the porch, then tucked it behind the clipboard, and headed down the walkway to the street. The concrete horse in the front yard had glass eyes that shone red in the early evening sunlight.
I need to tell what Mr. Winston knew. I should get to the point, but it’s barely noon. Writing this gives me something to do – my only chance to report a good story. Posthumous Pulitzer, perhaps? I’m not thinking straight. No surprise. It feels good to be doing something – not just waiting.
Later that night I checked the diary. The first entry read “Rislt qw qwew lkk rljwb ri olssixj awcwbrwwn.” Some sort of code, I thought. Or the work of a crazy and lonely old lady. But a crazy and lonely old lady might write in code. To decipher it, I started by typing the sentence on my laptop. As soon as I typed “qwew” I realized moving one key to the right would give me “were.” Within a few minutes I had translated the first entry: “Today we were all taken to paddock 17. Dr. G and Prof. M. were ordered by —- to walk into the centre of the paddock. Then A shouted, “For the last time, do you intend to go public with your information?” They bravely, but foolishly, yelled “This has to be stopped.” A blew his whistle three times. We all knew what would happen, but could not turn away. I wish I had. The explosion of blood…. At least it was over in seconds. I know now what I must do.”
The second entry was much shorter. “A is questioning my loyalty to the program. I told him the traitors got what they deserved.” There were no other entries. I had no idea what to make of this, but wanted to see Mrs. Winston again.
The next day I walked to her house right after checking in at the riding office. A large truck filled the driveway and men were carrying boxes from the house to the truck. There was no sign of Mrs. Winston. A well-endowed lady with a low cut top came over to me. “Yes dear, what can we do for you?”
“I’m looking for Mrs. Winston.”
“Oh dear, I’m sorry to tell you that she is no longer with us.”
“Yes dear. It was quite sudden.”
“But I was just talking to her yesterday. She seemed fine.”
“Yes, so was I. She mentioned having a visitor when I called her last night. Why were you here?”
“I came by to make sure her registration was up to date on the voters’ list.”
“I see. How was she?”
“She seemed fine. A little confused, perhaps. I came back to check on her.”
“You don’t need to be polite – she was my mother. She was crazy. She had a stroke several years ago.”
“That explains some of what she said.”
“What did she say?” The daughter stared at me intently, as if the lady had told me a family secret.
“Oh, just rambling. She thought the socialists were taking over city hall. I tried to explain that this was the provincial election. Sorry about your mother.”
“Thanks. It’s a blessing really. She had a good life, but after dad died she went downhill. ”
“When did he die?”
“About five years ago. Mom’s never been right since then. Did she give you anything? She was always handing out things to people, and sometimes she’d give away valuables or family items.”
“No. No, I just confirmed her name and that was it. I need to be going. My sympathies. “As I left the house, two movers rolled bubble wrap around the concrete horse in the front yard, lifted in, and carried it into the truck.
That night I did more online reading about Sable Island and the horses. I found a UFO blog that explained how Sable Island was used as a UFO landing site, but that made even less sense than Mrs. Winston. The diary entry was chilling, and Mrs. Winston clearly seemed to think there was something bad about the island and the horses, but she also said her husband died recently. I double checked the records on my list of electors. Mr. Winston was confirmed as a resident three years ago. So the woman who claimed to be Mrs. Winston’s daughter (I was getting suspicious) had lied. Or the previous person to update the list had just skipped a few houses to save time.
Next day at the riding office, I asked Ian about Sable Island. “It seems like a cool place. Have you ever been?”
“No. No one goes there. It’s protected. Just a few researchers to study the horses, and some environmental scientists.”
“And elections officials to collect their votes.”
“How does that work? Do we get to go?”
“I don’t know how that works. Maybe.”
Later that day I finished the list. Ian said I might be needed on election day, but they’d call the night before, and I confirmed that I could come in on short notice. “And guess what else?” said Ian.
“They’re going to draw for who goes to Sable Island. It’s going to be Riding Returning Officer, that’s Helen, then they’ll draw two representatives from the four parties, and they’ll draw one other riding person from all the staff. The draw is going to be the night before the election. If you’re interested, be here at eight that night.”
Of course I went. Free food, if nothing else. Just pizza and cake, but both were good. On the food table there were two shoe boxes, labelled “Sable Island Staff Draw” and “Sable Island Rep Draw.” I wrote my name on a slip and added it to the staff box. I wanted to see the place for myself partly to see if there was any hint of an explanation for the odd diary and comments of Mrs. Winston, though I really had no idea what I might be looking for. But even without that encounter I would have wanted to go.
Helen made a short speech thanking us for all our work so far, and encouraging us to put in 110% on election day tomorrow, with a larger party to follow. “Just one other thing – who is coming to Sable Island with me?” She walked over to the boxes on the table. “Everyone got their names in?” There was a chorus of agreements. She reached in, stirred the slips, and lifted one out. “Gerald! Is Gerald here?”
I stepped forward. “Congratulations. He’s our winner.” She handed me the slip. “Be at Shearwater main gate at 9:00. Dress warmly, even if it seems warm. Leave your phone at home – no phones or cameras allowed for staff, same as here on election day. See you in the morning.” She leaned in a little closer as she shook my hand, and said “I’m sure you’ll enjoy seeing the horses – it’s a rare treat.”
I was up early the next morning. Traffic was light, bus transfers went smoothly, and I arrived at the Shearwater military base early. The gate sentry took a cursory glance at my driver’s license, and directed me to building 22 to prepare and wait for our departure.
Building 22 was a shed, just one small room and a bathroom at the back. There was a large table and few cheap chairs around it. Several posters with flight safety reminders hung on the wall. Helen arrived while I was still reading the posters. A few minutes later the two party reps walked in together, chatting about last night’s hockey game. An officer arrived a few minutes later, and gave us a quick safety briefing for the flight. The plane was a little six seater, but somehow seeing the pilot at work made me less nervous than flying in a big jet. The flight was smooth, and after a few minutes of looking at the open sea I fell asleep.
“Gerald – we’re here. Rise and shine. Work to do.” One of the party reps, Susan, was talking to me. I looked out the window, and could see the entire crescent stretching away and disappearing in the fog. I couldn’t see any horses, people, or even buildings, just sand and grass.
“What happened to the sunny day?”
“Typical weather here – always changing. You must be from away.”
“Yes. Will we be able to land?”
“Oh yes – the pilot says he’s landed in much thicker fogs than this.” The plane began to sway like a tire swing as we started to descend.
“Hang on folks,” said the pilot. “It’s little breezy.” We were flying low along the beach, and a truck was parked in the sand up ahead. I asked Susan why there was a truck on the beach.
“That’s to mark the beginning of the runway area. We look for the truck, then land along the tire tracks made by the truck. The driver is responsible for finding a clear area of beach for each flight.”
“What if he can’t find one,” I asked.
“They always find it before the plane takes off. If they can’t find one, the flight is delayed until they do.”
“Has that happened to you?”
“No,” replied Susan, “but I’ve only been out once before.”
Notwithstanding the makeshift runway, the landing was a smooth as any in a larger plane. The pilot opened the door. A cold damp wind blew in, and we all zipped up our jackets. Helen said “Let’s get to the house.” We all walked back along the tracks to the truck. Helen, and the pilot got into the cab of the truck with the driver. Susan, the other party worker, and I climbed into the bed. As we drove along the beach, we saw the same large sign posted in several locations.
Welcome to Sable Island
No landing without permission.
No trespassing DND
DO NOT DISTURB THE HORSES
We pulled up in front of a small square two storey building, painted white with red trim. An older man with a full white beard, looking very much like a traditional sea captain, stepped out and welcomed us.
“Another election already, eh. Welcome, welcome. I’m Albert, station manager. Coffee, cocoa, and tea inside, step lively then.” He held the door open for us, and we trooped into the building. Albert led us down the hall and into a small meeting room. Six other men and two women were in there, and it became crowded and noisy as introductions were made and old acquaintances renewed. I squeezed over to a window. About twenty feet away there was a simple wooden fence, about six feet high. Through it I could see several horses, munching at the grass.
Eventually Helen cleared the room and set up the polling station. Susan and the candidate representatives signed off that everything was in order, right down to the “Polling Place” signs on the door outside. The people from the station lined up at the table, presented their IDs, picked up their cards, and voted. The whole process took about fifteen minutes, but in that time the view out the window changed considerably. It went from dark to overcast to drizzle to rain drops pounding against the window.
“That came up fast,” I said.
The last of voters said, “Weather changes quickly here. Your flight out might be delayed.”
The pilot came in just as the ballot box was being sealed. “We can’t go in this weather, and unless it clears up soon, we won’t be able to go. I’ll be over my maximum safe working hours per day unless we leave in the next 45 minutes.”
“Looks like you be staying for dinner, then,” said Albert. “Roast pork and scalloped potatoes tonight, plenty for all.”
“I don’t eat pork, sir,” said the pilot.
“Well, never you worry son, we’ve got some halibut then, we can do for you, if that be good for you?”
“Yes sir, thanks. But the weather may clear.”
“Not bloody likely. It changes fast, but this won’t clear soon, and you’ll need some time for the sand to dry. Look at the horses. They know these things.”
We looked out the window. A herd of horses was barely visible through the rain. They were standing in a tight circle.
Dinner was surprisingly good, despite being all freezer to oven. We all ate squeezed together at the same table, but the island residents kept conversation among themselves, discussing obscure points of breeding about the horses. “Foal 214 did well today.” “Aye, and did you see mare 45?” This brought several knowing laughs from the islanders. At one point Albert spoke up. “Sorry folks, for the shop talk. We’re not used to company.”
I sat next to an unhappy looking woman with hair obviously coloured black, and tried to make conversation with her. “Dr. Janus, was it?”
“Yes.” She spoke without looking up.
“I’m Gerald.” She looked at me for a moment, then turned back to her food. “How do you like living here?”
“I’m very busy here.” She finished off her food and left the table.
At eight Helen noted that the polls were officially closed, and that we needed to count the votes and phone in the station results. She asked the islanders to leave the room for the counting, then unsealed the ballot box. All present signed again, and she removed the eight slips from the box. “This won’t take long,” she said, and it didn’t, especially since all the ballots were exactly the same.
With a few hours to kill before bed, and rain still pounding outside, Albert declared indoor entertainment, and after much discussion the group agreed to watch The Little Mermaid. Terminator II was the runner up choice. I was curious about how crude the sleeping arrangements might be, but the entire upstairs was private dorm rooms, so we each had a private space for the night. My room was above the main meeting room, and the window was a higher perspective on the same view.
Despite the long day, I had trouble falling asleep. The weather had cleared, the moon was out, and when I went to the window I could just make out the herd. They did not seem to have moved in several hours. I watched for a minute, thinking they were sleeping, but after a while I noticed they were moving their heads, scanning the beach. Then they all turned their heads as one, to the side and up, as if looking at me. I felt exposed, but realized they were watching an owl, swooping down from above my window to the ground below, and back up to its unseen perch. The owl swooped down twice more, then flew towards the herd. As it flew above the herd, one of the horses made a sudden leap, like startled cat. The horse’s head strained up, mouth open, and snatched the owl out of the air. For a second I could see feathers around the horse’s mouth, and then the horse was down in the middle of the herd. All their necks bent down to the ground for a moment, then they whirled about and ran away into the darkness. There was no trace of the owl.
I know they are outside now, waiting, like they waited for the owl.
Unable to believe what I saw, I went to the bed and lay down, but my mind was racing. I remembered the diary entry, but the research station seemed normal enough, and the people there no odder than one would expect, living in such as isolated spot. I could hear the station getting quieter around me. Without my phone, I had no idea what time it was, but it was clearly late. The generator was off, and it had been a while since I’d heard a toilet flush. There was no sound but wind and surf. I waited a few minutes, then opened my door. The hall was dark and silent except for someone snoring. If anyone questioned me, I could just say I was looking for the washroom. I headed away from the washroom, and down the stairs to the main level.
If I could sign on to a computer, I could probably find information about the horses, but gaining access might be a problem. Depending on the security, I might be able to get in, but it would be easier to check for paper files. I went down the main hall, and found the large meeting room. I remembered there was an office area next to it, and tried the door. It was locked. Feeling exposed in the hall, I went back into the meeting room. At least I could claim to have forgotten something in there. Along one wall was a counter, with cupboards above and below. I checked the cupboards. They contained mugs, paper towels, paper plates, napkins, boxes of pens, scratch pads, and so on. In the last cupboard, on top of a stack of dishcloths, there was a couple of sheets of paper stapled together. I took it over to the light from the window. It was a PowerPoint presentation handout, with prints of the slides and notes.
The first slide was titled “Horse Breeding Program Progress Report,” and last week’s date. The next several slides were charts and graphs. The last slide, titled Summary, stated:
Problem Solving up 30%.
Random Kills down 17%.
Quick kills up…57%! Congrats to the Team!
I heard footsteps above. I froze, and waited to hear where they were going. A door opened and closed, then more steps, as if someone was trying to be quiet, then another door open and close. I put the papers back in the cupboard, and waited a few minutes. I crept upstairs as quietly as I could, stepping on the sides of the steps. I paused at the top, and thought I heard voices coming from Helen’s room. I went into the bathroom, turned on the light, and used the toilet, making no attempt to be quiet, then returned to my room, stepping normally. Helen’s room was silent.
The day is passing, but I think I can record everything, the whole story. I need to make it good – this is my swan song.
The next morning it was raining heavily. We didn’t have to be told there would be no departure until later, if at all. During breakfast, Susan asked if there were more napkins. Albert waved at the cupboard behind me. I offered to get them, turned, then hesitated. It was the same cupboard where I had found the papers yesterday. “In here, Albert?”
He nodded. “They be there, boy. Lots.” I opened the door. The papers I had seen last night were not there.
By the time breakfast was cleared up, the rain had slowed. Albert offered to take us on a small tour of the island in the pickup truck. “Might not see any horses though. They can be skittish.” The ride was comfortable enough. We drove along the beach for about half an hour, and only saw a few small groups of horses, always in the distance. Although the rain had stopped, it was windy and the surf was spraying us with salt water. The noise of the surf and the wind discouraged conversation. The beach was much cleaner than the ones in town I had visited. There was no garbage or forgotten shoes.
“Beautiful beach” I said to Susan.
“Currents are deadly though – you couldn’t swim here,” she replied. We returned to the main building wet and cold, and appreciated a lunch of soup and sandwiches.
During lunch, I asked the staff there if they knew Stanley Winston. I said I’d recently learned he was a distant relative, and had worked on the island. They looked at each other, then Dr. Janus spoke. “He used to work here, but he kept to himself. We were sorry to hear he died.”
Helen thanked the staff for the lunch, and asked if anyone had seen her bracelet. She wasn’t sure if she’d taken it off or dropped it. Everyone starting looking around the room. Helen left, saying she was going to check her room. Most of the researchers drifted out, heading for their labs. I wandered over to the movie selection. “Susan,” I asked, “anything you feel like watching?”
“Sorry Gerald, I’m not feeling well. I think I’ll go up to my room for a bit.” She left, leaving me the only person in the room. I found a copy of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” and started that. Once the credits were over, I wanted to turn the volume up, but the remote was not working, so I got up and went to the wall mounted TV. From the corner of my eye I noticed movement outside, and looked out. I thought it might have been a horse going by, but there were none visible. I went right up to the window, and over to the far side I could see Susan and Helen. They were standing by the truck, making out. After a minute they broke apart and moved away from each other. I thought they’d seen me, but Albert came into view, yelling at them. “Poor girls,” I thought. He probably thinks it’s evil. I opened the window a crack to try and hear them.
“— looking for my bracelet,” said Helen.
“Bullshit.” said Albert. “I don’t give a damn what you perverts do in your room. That’s your private business and it be none o’ mine. But you don’t come outside for that or anything else. You’ll disturb the horses. Now get inside.”
“We’re inside the fenced area” said Susan.
“That’s as maybe. You’re outside, you’re in danger. You’ll upset the horses.”
I heard steps in the hall, so I closed the window, grabbed a cup, and started pouring myself a glass of water. Dr. Janus came in.
“Thought I’d join you. Take a break. What are we watching?”
“An old Bond film. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.”
“Ah. Lazenby. Skiing. Good.”
“I saw something odd last night, Dr. Janus. Wondering if you might be able to explain it?”
“I was watching the horses from my window, and it looked like one of the horses attacked an owl.”
“You must have been dreaming, son. There are no owls here. It’s just a sandbar. Smaller birds, yes, but I’ve never seen an owl here.”
“Maybe it was a seagull?”
“There are lots of gulls here, but these horses are vegetarians. They don’t eat any animals – especially birds. How would they catch them?”
“It did look odd.”
“A trick of the light, perhaps. Nothing more. I must return to the lab.”
I resolved to get into the lab that night. After dinner, and another old Bond movie, I went up to bed, and waited for everyone else to settle. Once it was quiet, I crept downstairs to the lab entrance. The door had a mechanical push button lock. I tried 1-2-3-4 and turned the knob. The door remained closed. I tried 4-3-2-1 and turned the knob. The door opened.
I didn’t notice that someone had snuck up behind me. They grabbed my arms, and held them behind my back. Someone else held my head, forced me to look up, and my mouth was pried open. I could taste something bitter. “That’s it, my son, drink up.”
I coughed and spat out what was in my mouth, but more was poured in and my nostrils pinched. Unable to breathe, I swallowed….I remembered being carried and placed in a bed…and the next thing I knew it was morning. There was bright sunlight streaming through the window, and a bitter taste in my mouth. I was drenched in sweat. I tried to lift my head, and could not. It was too heavy. Then my stomach started to heave. I turned my head to the side, and vomited, long and painfully.
There was a knock at the door, and a Dr. Janus came into the room. It was my dorm room. “Good morning, Gerald. How are you feeling this morning?”
“Lousy. What’s going on–”
“Oh dear…I think another shot is called for.”
“No, I –”
She jabbed a needle into my arm. “That’ll hold you. Idiot.” I tried to speak, but couldn’t. As she turned to leave the room, I could move my eyes to follow her, but not my head. I don’t know how much time passed before I heard her again. She came into the room and over to the bed. I could see Helen stopped at the door, at the edge of my vision. Dr. Janus spoke. “Oh dear, he’s vomited. We’ll clean that up right away. Anyway, as you can see he’s in no shape to travel. I’m not sure exactly what he’s got. Probably just a minor stomach bug. But it’s my professional medical opinion that he rest here. He can go back on the supply plane next week.”
“I’m very sorry about this.”
“Don’t you worry. The staff here are so healthy, it’s a treat for me to have something to do. He’ll be fine. We might even be able to take him out and show him the island a bit…show him the horses maybe.”
“He’s a lucky lad, then.” Dr. Janus and Helen left the room. A few minutes later I heard the truck start, and drive away. I fell asleep again.
It was dark when I felt another needle in my arm. In the moonlight I could see the doctor, and the station manager.
“Well, how’s our boy?” asked the Albert.
“Alert, healthy, and quite paralyzed. He can hear us, but cannot move.”
“How long until it wears off?”
“In the morning he’ll be weak, but otherwise fine.”
“I need him healthy and able to run.”
“He will be. I’ll take care of it.”
“Doctor, you’re a genius.”
“Yes.” I heard the doctor leave.
“Well, my son. Congratulations. I almost envy you. You’re going to play a very important role, in a very important project.” Albert moved to the window. I couldn’t see him, just hear him.
“You’ve been wondering about the horses. Ah yes, the horses. Horses have served man in many capacities for thousands of years. In the fields, on the roads, and in the battlefield. These normally peaceful herbivores, can, when suitably trained, carry fighters into battle, and are easier to manage under difficult circumstances than pack animals such as donkeys. However, despite generations of use in warfare, the horses’ role was never more than to carry the soldier. At best, the horse might have some armour for protection, but it never took an active role in the fighting.”
“During the long struggle of World War I, a group of Canadian scientists, inspired by recent work in genetics, resolved to breed a horse that could not just carry a soldier, but be an effective fighter on its own, attacking enemy horses and even troops. At the outset of World War I, all parties relied on horses. Hundreds of thousands of horses died, many in combat, and some from starvation. Supply and care of horses was a major concern, and they played key roles. In 1918, a Canadian mounted troop of one hundred, known as Lord Strathcona’s Horse, defeated a force of three hundred soldiers equipped with machine guns. A proud moment for Canada, my son. And for horses.”
“Some saw the future role of horses diminishing as cars and trucks improved during the war and after. Fools. Horses still have an advantage in areas trucks cannot reach. If we had more horses in Afghanistan, things would have been different. Fortunately some visionaries realized the advantages of horses. They created a Canadian program to breed fighting horses, a secret project known as ‘Black Beauty.'”
“The need for secrecy, and the need to have an escape proof area for the horse breeding program, led to the decision to use this island. At the time, it was almost uninhabited, with only a lighthouse keeper. A stock of sturdy horses was secretly transported here, and the government started a cover story about feral horses ‘discovered’ on the island. To this day, various sources give conflicting information and speculation about when and how the horses arrived at the island, testimony to the success of the cover story. I love the internet – makes it easy for use to plant false information.”
“Breeding programs of long-lived animals such as horses take time to show results, and when World War II started the herd was merely bad-tempered. Although recently released cabinet documents show intense disagreement about whether or not to use the horses, the decision was made to keep the existence of the horses a secret, but at the same time provide more resources to improve the fighting abilities of the herd. More tranquil animals were removed and sold, and new breeding stock was brought here.”
“By the early 1950s, the program was showing results. That was when we completely stopped importing new stock, and imposed full isolation. We used the herd rejects, completely unimproved horses, to populate a zoo on the mainland, so that people could see a sample of the so-called Sable Island horses, and created this island as a protected area. Coast Guard patrols make sure no one gets on or off the island.”
“We’ve had a few problems, to be sure. The horses became fierce, but controlling and directing them has been an ongoing problem. We run tests… Every year a few people disappear, in order to help us with the research. We take people who won’t be missed…hookers, native women, runaways. And sometimes people talk, or ask too many questions. Then we kill two birds with one…horse.” He laughed.
“So, my son, we’re going to feed you to the horses. In the name of science and service to your country. An honor, really. You shouldn’t have been snooping. This project is too important to country…to peace…to cooperation between man and animal. That’s the future, you know. Horses to fight our land battles, dolphins to fight our sea battles.”
“The official story is that you wandered off, and drowned. I’ll run in to try and save you, but the current will be too strong, and you’ll be lost at sea. An honourable death. If only everyone could have one.”
His speech should have made me alert, but I fell asleep he left the room. When I woke up in the morning, I could move, but my wrists and ankles were bound together with plastic ties. I needed to pee. I sat up, slipped off the bed, and hopped to the door. It was locked. I banged on the door. One of the station staff immediately opened it. He had a military gun over his shoulder.
“I need to pee.”
“Stand still. Try anything, you’re shot. Not dead, just somewhere painful.” He took a knife from a belt holster, and sliced the ties. “You know where the bathroom is. Go.” I went. I knocked before coming out. “I’m coming out now.” He was right outside the door. “Go down to the meeting room” I did. He followed me. The doctor and Albert were inside, and there was a breakfast tray.
“Good morning. Come in. Eat.”
“What if I don’t cooperate? Refuse to eat. Refuse to run?”
Dr. Janus looked at me like I was an ungrateful child. “It’s our nature to avoid pain. I’ve seen the horses attack a person. It’s very painful. They may tear you apart first, and then eat you, or they may just start to eat you while you are still alive. Hard to say. We’re trying to get them to kill quickly and not eat. Geneva Convention and so on. I’m hoping they’ll at least kill you first, but I can’t promise they’ll do that. That’s why we do these tests. Trust me, you’ll run, and you’ll want a healthy, nutritious breakfast first. Eat.”
I sat down and started to eat. Dr. Janus continued. “There’s a large hut near the middle of the island. Inside you’ll find a cyanide pill and a bottle of water. Quick and painless – a better death than most people get. The hut is horse proof, but only until it gets dark. Then the door unlocks and the horses can enter. The horses know when the doors open and wait outside. To avoid a painful death, all you need to do is get to the hut.”
“You’re all mad,” I said.
“That’s as maybe,” said Albert. Sometimes in life bad things happen. This is no worse and no less expected than a car crash.”
“How many people make it to the hut?”
“A few,” said Dr. Janus. “You are the youngest and healthiest subject we’ve had in months. Should give the horses a good test. Eat up. You’re on soon.” They watched me eat. As soon as I swallowed the last mouthful, they bound my wrists and ankles with plastic ties, carried me out, and put in the bed of the truck.
It was sunny, warm morning. We drove about ten or fifteen minutes, bouncing along uneven ground. Albert dragged me out of the truck and stood me up. Dr. Janus got out of the truck and pointed a gun at me. “Sorry,” she said, “But a subject once tried to get the knife from Albert.”
“Cut me right good, she did,” said Albert. “The hut is up that way, then inland a few hundred feet. Just follow the posts. “Albert pointed up the beach. One post was about thirty feet away, and others were visible in the distance. The posts had large old video cameras and speakers on them, and the nearest camera was turning towards me.
“The horses are coming, but you’ve got a bit of head start. Your country appreciates your sacrifice. Good lad.” Albert cut the ties, he and Dr. Janus quickly hopped into the truck, and they drove off, scattering sand. I looked in all directions, but could not see any horses. The amplified blast of a whistle echoed, three times. I started to run.
I made it to the hut. I can only get into a little porch area, between the sliding outer door and a locked inner door. There are long, deep scratches in the walls. There’s high window, with thick bars. The bottle of water and the cyanide pill are here. There’s also a garbage bin. I found a pen and paper in that.
It’s getting dark. I know the horses are outside. I can hear them breathing. I kept my foot up to slow the bleeding, and I think I can use it again if I don’t put my full weight on it. I only need to get to the beach. If I charge out before the door unlocks, I might be able to take the horses by surprise.
* * *
Captain Hale finished reading the papers. “Well. I never. Damn lucky I found this. He gathered the scribbled sheets, and carefully fed them into his paper shredder. He picked up the inter-ship phone and dialed crewman Jones. “Thanks for spotting and bringing in the bottle. Sharp eyes. Turns out it was just a practical joke, but keep up the good work. I know you find the Sable Island patrol dull, but protecting the environment is good honest work.” Then he sent a coded message to Albert. “Don’t give them water bottles anymore – this last guy sent out a note in the bottle. Hope the test went well. Keep up the good work.”