NOTE: Aspects of history have been changed to suit the purposes of this story.
I didn’t believe what I said on that April day at the United Nations, but I could live with that.
“We shouldn’t intervene when others abuse human rights,” I said. “There are two reasons for this. First, we are not sovereign nations. Second, who knows how any of the rest of us will react? It might start a war that destroys us all.”
Everybody else seated around the negotiation table nodded, save for one person. The ambassador from Portugal shook her head and asked, “How do we know that others won’t take advantage of our inaction? Besides, isn’t it our duty to promote human rights?”
She asked it in Portuguese, and the interpreter took a while to translate it. Fortunately I didn’t need the interpreter’s help, because I understood Portuguese from school. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to answer. She had raised a particularly good point. It was a point I actually believed to be true myself. The only thing was, how did I know it was moral if everyone else in my delegation disagreed with it?
“No,” I finally said. “That’s completely false, because—”
My head suddenly burst with pain, and I broke off.
Someone was asking, “Frederick, what were you about to say?”
I didn’t know. My head ached so much that I could no longer think.
“Excuse me,” I muttered. I rose, and stumbled down the hall into the restroom. I examined myself in the bathroom mirror. My eyes looked bloodshot but otherwise I looked alright—
Agony, and I sank onto the floor. I rested my head on my arm, I closed my eyes, and prayed for the pain to end.
When I opened my eyes, I was in an ocean. A wave towered overhead, then crashed down upon me. Water sloshed into my mouth. I swallowed it, coughed, choked. Terror suffocated me. I screamed for help. Nobody could hear me over the sound of the storm, and I doubted there was even anyone to hear me. All I could do was tread water and hope I found land before I was drowned by my waterlogged business suit.
It was then that I saw the ship. It was a massive galleon, the likes of which I had only seen in pirate movies. I didn’t care what type of ship it was, though, because it was coming in my direction.
I screamed louder. I would survive after all, and then, after I was rescued, I would wake up from my headache-induced hallucination, or whatever dream I was having that felt so real.
I watched the ship draw nearer. Then it passed me. It actually passed me. A howl tore through my throat. The ship hesitated. Then, slowly, it turned around and came in my direction. I was saved.
“Thank you!” I said once I was on deck.
The sailors on board looked at me in confusion. They were dressed like buccaneers of some sort. Must have been part of the hallucination, but it couldn’t be a hallucination. I was too soaked and chilly for it to be a hallucination. Maybe it was a historical re-enactment.
“Ahoy, mateys,” I tried.
One of the sailors responded in another language. Portuguese, I realized. He was saying his name was Diogo Dias, and that he was the captain’s escrivere. I took this to mean he was a clerk. He looked young enough for it, only twenty or so. But he didn’t seem like he was twenty. His expression was too serious, and there was none of the naiveté in him that I remembered having when I’d been his age.
“Who are you? Why are you dressed so strangely?” he asked.
“My name is Frederick Jones,” I replied. “I am an ambassador for the United Nations. These clothes are what I wear to work, and what I have worn there for the past ten years.”
Diogo frowned. “What are the United Nations?”
I blinked. He didn’t know what the United Nations were? “The United Nations are—”
“Where do you come from, anyway?” he interrupted.
His eyes widened. “The New World!” he exclaimed.
I shrugged. It wasn’t that new.
After a slight pause, he turned to a knot tied to one of the ship’s masts and began working at it. I watched him for a while. Then I had an idea. Maybe, I could request the ship’s captain to take me back to America.
“Who is your captain?” I asked.
“Vasco da Gama. Surely you’ve heard of him. He’s the best navigator of them all.”
“I’m sorry, but no,” I said.
Diogo looked up from the knot. “How can you not know of Vasco da Gama?”
I shrugged. “Maybe I will recognize him if you bring me to him.”
“After I finish untying this knot. We need to lower the sails. It wouldn’t do for the storm to break one of her masts after we only set off yesterday.”
“Where are you sailing to?” I asked.
Great. We would never reach America.
“We seek to make contact with the Christian kings in Calicut,” Diogo went on.
“Christian kings?” Last I had heard, India was majority Muslim and Hindu.
“Yes,” said Diogo. “We will be rewarded greatly for it.”
I nodded. Even if Diogo was ignorant of India’s demographics, he would probably discover his error when we arrived.
He continued working at the knot. He struggled a bit due to the rain, but eventually he untied it and one of the sails from the boat came down. Then he turned to me, and opened his mouth as if to say something, but was interrupted by a shout of “Malindians!”
“What’s going on?” I asked.
Diogo shrugged. Apparently there was a fleet of African ships coming after us.
“We took their legendary navigator.”
“I don’t know who that is,” I said.
“The Lion of the Sea himself, Ahmad Ibn Majid.” Diogo gave a proud grin.
“How… how did you take him?” I asked. If we were going to India and not America, I might as well become acquainted with the type of people I would be traveling with.
“He was drunk when we found him, so it was easy to knock him out and capture him. Then—”
“But that’s against the International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages!” I burst out.
Diogo furrowed his brow. “We don’t abide by any such convention.”
“Everyone does!” I insisted.
“You’re strange,” he replied.
No. Just impulsive sometimes. That wasn’t what Diogo had meant, though. If he had meant that, his hand wouldn’t have been wandering towards his saber-hilt like it was.
I shook my head quickly. “No, no! I’m just disoriented. I almost drowned, after all.”
“Fair point.” His hand retreated from the sword-hilt.
I would have relaxed, but I was drenched from the sea and the rain, so I shivered instead. Diogo must have noticed this, because he took my arm and led me below decks to a room where he gave me some clothes. “Put these on and stay out of the way until I find da Gama,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said.
He nodded, then left, and closed the door behind him.
The clothes reeked of sweat and sea salt, but I put them on because I had no alternative.
A rustling sound. There was someone inside the room with me. I glanced up. A man sat by the light of a tall candlestick, watching me in silence. His face looked weathered and his eyes were red as if he’d been crying.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“My name is Ahmad Ibn Majid,” he replied in broken Portuguese.
I examined the table he was sitting at. A bunch of maps were strewn across it.
“You’re the captured navigator,” I guessed.
“I am. What of yourself?” he asked.
“My name is Frederick Jones. I’m from America, and I work for the United Nations.”
“What are the United Nations?”
“They’re an intergovernmental organization where countries work together for world peace and universal human rights.”
He nodded. “That sounds like a great endeavor.”
I smiled. “It is.”
“It must not be real,” he said. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be a prisoner of Portugal.”
“But it is real,” I said.
“Maybe one day.”
I was about to tell him no, it existed right now. I didn’t though. Something had been bothering me about the way nobody had heard of the United Nations, and the way everyone’s teeth looked like they were decaying from lack of toothpaste. Then again, I was always somewhat dense, and it should have taken me less time than it did to ask the date.
“The twenty-eighth of April, fourteen ninety-eight,” Ahmad replied.
“What is the matter?” Ahmad asked.
“I’m from the year 2020,” I muttered. “I’m from the future.”
Ahmad looked at me steadily. “So there is no such thing as the United Nations yet.”
I shook my head and sighed. “I suppose not.”
I sat against the wall and stared listlessly at the black leather boots on my feet. There was no longer any point in going to America. Even if I were to reach it after stopping in India, it wouldn’t be my America. I had been torn out of the fabric of everything I knew, and the ship lurched, and I almost vomited even though I was sitting down.
“You must be a madman, thinking you’re from the future,” Ahmad said.
I looked up at him. “I’m not—”
“It doesn’t matter to me whether you’re telling the truth. Even if you are a madman, at least you’re an interesting madman.”
“Thanks,” I replied. It wasn’t much consolation.
Ahmad’s dark eyes suddenly looked tired and sad.
It must have been hard, I thought, getting kidnapped when you were drunk. Thrust onto a ship bound for strange lands. Not knowing when you’ll ever see home again. In a way, Ahmad had also been torn out of the fabric of his reality.
“I’m sorry you were captured,” I said. “You must miss your family.”
He nodded, then looked at the maps on the table. “I have a son.”
I drew in a breath. “I have a son too!” I said.
Ahmad looked up. “Really?”
I nodded. “He’s twelve years old.”
Ahmad smiled. “Mine is eight. What a rascal he is.”
Suddenly, I got an idea. I rose and went to the door. “I will help you escape,” I said, and tugged on the handle. No father deserved to be separated from his son.
The door was locked.
“Don’t bother. Even if we were to open the door, there is a guard outside who would kill us,” said Ahmad.
“Oh,” I said. It seemed we couldn’t get out after all.
“I’m hoping to escape once we reach Calicut and the sailors are distracted,” he said.
“How long should that take?” I asked.
“About twenty days. This storm should end soon, and the rest of our voyage should go well as long as da Gama’s men fight off whoever is currently pursuing us.”
“That would be your fellows trying to rescue you,” I said.
Ahmad sprang from his seat. “Then we must escape now.”
“But the door is locked,” I said.
He grabbed hold of the candlestick’s base. “I have been using the flame to melt the hinges. With a little more heat, we should be able to remove the door, and then—”
The door burst open. I flinched, and the excitement left Ahmad’s eyes and he sank back into his chair.
A man with a black beard strode in. He glared at Ahmad, then turned to me. “Who are you?”
“I’m Frederick Jones from America. I work for the United Nations.”
The man didn’t know what the United Nations were. He didn’t care.
“How did you find your way to Africa?” he demanded.
“I—uh—was sailing, and my boat capsized. Your crew rescued me.”
“Hmm,” he said, and stroked his beard. He had a hard face, with high cheekbones and hostile eyes.
The man finally reasoned that since he had rescued me, I was now part of the crew of his ship, the São Gabriel.
“You’re Captain da Gama?” I asked.
He nodded. “I am. Come outside and help fire the cannons.”
I looked at Ahmad, then back at da Gama. I thought of universal human rights, but then saw the flintlock pistol in da Gama’s belt. He could kill me if I disobeyed him, so I followed him out into the rain, where I was almost deafened by thunder and cannon-fire.
I didn’t know how to fire a cannon, and there wasn’t any time to figure it out, so I just handed cannonballs to another sailor who fired them at the Malindian ships. As I handed over ammunition, I thought of the sadness in Ahmad’s gaze when I had nodded to da Gama and left him behind to clutch at his candlestick. I could help him later, I told myself, or maybe the Malindians would defeat da Gama’s forces, and then—but no. A large cheer had gone up from the sailors on our ship. The enemy was retreating.
The sailor I had been assisting looked over at me. “Why are you frowning like that? Aren’t you happy, too?”
“Overjoyed,” I said, then forced a smile.
Ahmad was right. The storm passed before night fell. That meant us crew members were able to have supper on the deck.
“Frederico!” Someone gave me a hearty slap on the back.
I turned to find Diogo grinning at me. He seemed glad I had recovered from almost drowning.
“Have you eaten?” he asked.
I shook my head. He shoved a piece of mutton in front of me. “Here. It is delicious.”
I looked around for utensils. There weren’t any. All of the other sailors were eating with their hands. Maybe they didn’t know utensils existed, and using their hands was the only way they knew how to eat.
I shrugged. It wasn’t my duty to rid da Gama’s crew of their savage eating habits.
“Are you going to have it?” Diogo asked.
I looked at the meat. Ordinarily, I would have refused to eat without utensils, but I hadn’t had food all day, so I nodded.
It seemed like I would be eating savagely, too.
I started in on the mutton, but my fingers got so greasy the meat slipped out of my hand and onto the deck at my feet. I stared at it forlornly.
“Pick it up,” said Diogo.
“Are you crazy? I’ll get sick!”
“When you’re on one of da Gama’s ships, you stop caring about things like disease. If we’re going to die, we’re going to die. Niceties won’t change that.”
So I picked up the mutton, looked at the stars in the clear night sky, and swallowed.
“See?” Diogo said. “Delicious.”
I shook my head. “I can’t believe you live like this.”
He laughed. “Everyone has to compromise eventually to get by.”
We sailed on for twenty-four more days. I came to know da Gama and his crew quite well. Da Gama seemed imposing, but there was a fear that would come into his eyes when he thought no one was looking. He also had the fiercest temper I had ever seen. If at night, we were to hear enraged shouting, it invariably turned out to be da Gama. He liked to shout about a lot of things. One of his favorite subjects was the Cape of Storms near the tip of Africa.
One time, he caught a sailor sneaking into the supply-room to take a swig of grog. I was below decks, but even I heard his voice as he raved, “We got through the Cape of Storms and you tell me you can’t get through the night without your ration of grog?” There was a whimper, then a thud, then a crash, then silence.
After that, everyone was eager to forgo rations.
Despite instances like this, da Gama was prone to bouts of generosity. One night, a sailor spotted land, and da Gama gave us triple rations of everything, including grog. We all sat around and drank, and da Gama laughed at everyone’s jokes, even if they weren’t funny. The rest of us found ourselves laughing along with him.
During that night, I asked the crew what they thought of their captain. He could be wrathful, they conceded, but that didn’t stop them from being proud of their expedition. The Portuguese Empire was so powerful. One time, they’d needed information from a local on one of the islands. He spat at them and refused to tell them what they needed to know, so da Gama captured him and tortured him until he broke down and told them what they wanted. Nobody could hope to stand against such a force as da Gama and his crew. They were glorious.
That wasn’t glorious, that was cruel, I responded. Everyone had human rights, and everyone else should respect them.
Da Gama’s crew didn’t care. They were right not to care. Why should they, when the UN didn’t exist yet? Even if it did, I realized, it wouldn’t have been able to stop da Gama. He was a man of force. The UN didn’t even have its own army.
But still, I said, nobody deserved to be tortured. Nobody deserved to be tortured, and nobody deserved to be captured. Not even Ahmad.
Tell that to da Gama, said the other sailors, and they laughed, because they knew I would die if I did.
After a failed attempt to approach Calicut, we finally anchored, but we didn’t anchor as close to the shore as the ruler of Calicut wanted. I said we should, but da Gama ignored me. He didn’t always ignore my advice, though. Over the course of the journey, he had taken several of my suggestions about hygiene. For instance, he had ordered for sick sailors to be quarantined, and for all medical equipment to be washed in boiling water before being used. So, when it came time to visit the Zamorin ruler of Calicut, I was one of the thirteen men he chose to accompany him, along with the captains of the other ships in our outfit.
One of the captains was Paolo, da Gama’s older brother. He was more mild-mannered than da Gama, and wasn’t a very skilled navigator, but the two men had a close bond that had led da Gama to appoint Paolo head of one of the ships.
Diogo came along, too. He and I had debated often about the feasibility of an institution such as the United Nations. We had talked about it so much that we had arrived at an ideological truce: I wouldn’t pester him about human rights, and he wouldn’t pester me back about their impracticability. We got along fine after that.
I didn’t have a chance to see Ahmad before we disembarked for Calicut, so I didn’t know whether or not he had escaped. Judging by the fact that some people remained on the ship, I assumed he hadn’t.
We took sabers and flags and trumpets and set off in a procession towards Calicut. I didn’t know how to play the trumpet, so when we performed a song I just held the instrument to my lips and pretended to finger along with the others. It seemed to do the trick. Nobody paid attention to my trumpet. They were all too busy looking at our sabers and flags.
We marched along like this for a long time, and reached the palace of Calicut about an hour before sunset. We passed through a doorway so big I was sure an elephant could pass through it.
Inside, we greeted the Zamorin. The Zamorin reclined on a purple couch and sipped from a gold cup.
One of the sailors pointed to a statue behind the Zamorin. “As fellow worshipers of Christ, we greatly admire your statue of the Virgin Mary,” he said.
I examined the statue in question. It wasn’t of the Virgin Mary. It was of a Hindu goddess.
I was about to point this out, but da Gama stepped forward before I could.
“I have orders to speak with you in private,” he said to the Zamorin. “Would you be willing to oblige?”
The Zamorin nodded. The two of them left us sitting on a stone bench while they had their private discussion.
They took a long time. I eventually grew bored, and asked the others about the fear I had noticed in da Gama’s eyes.
“Our captain needs to have made contact with a Christian king before he can return to Portugal. Otherwise King Manuel has ordered for his head to be cut off,” said one sailor.
“Why? Did he do anything to offend Manuel?”
“No. The king just wants the job done, and making threats is the best way he knows how to do that.”
My eyes widened. And I had thought da Gama was cruel. No wonder his men wanted to believe the Zamorin was Christian.
Well, I decided, if it kept a person from losing his head, I had no business revealing otherwise.
“Vasco doesn’t deserve to die,” Paolo said. “He has more honor than all the men in Portugal combined.”
“But he tortured someone, and if you torture someone, you can never be honorable.”
All of the sailors on that bench went silent. I looked down and silently cursed my impulsivity.
At last, Paolo spoke. “Who else would have taken his older brother’s place on an impossible voyage around the deadly Cape of Storms?”
I looked at him. “You mean you were originally supposed to lead the voyage?” I asked.
Paolo nodded. “I was, and I would have been beheaded, because I would have had to turn back at the Cape of Storms. I can’t lead ships through storms like that. But Vasco agreed to head the expedition. He did it to save my life, and he made sure we got to Calicut alright, and if that’s not honorable, what is?”
His eyes were filled with fervent devotion, and I swallowed. He was right. For someone to bear such a burden for his brother…
“Is that not honorable?” Paolo insisted in the sailors’ silence.
I could only nod.
About four hours later, we left the palace. It was raining very hard, and the water formed streams in the streets. We found lodging in the house of a Calicutian noble and lay on the floor to sleep.
I thought about what had happened. How could someone so cruel be so honorable? Why was I even thinking in terms of good and evil? Maybe most people were neither.
Back in the United Nations, we had thought of ourselves as good. That was nonsense, I thought. How could we be good if I found myself being encouraged to negotiate for things I didn’t believe were right?
Needless to say, I didn’t fall asleep for a long while.
The next day was uneventful. The Zamorin wouldn’t grant da Gama an audience. At first, da Gama was furious, and declared that he would go to see the Zamorin anyway. Fortunately, he calmed down and decided to wait.
He let us have the night off. The majority of the sailors shunned me after I had challenged their captain’s honor the previous day. I sat in a wicker chair in a corner of the room and watched them dance to the music of a trumpet, and listened to Diogo brag about his brother. He was one of the few still willing to talk to me, most likely because he was one of the few who didn’t take my ideas seriously, on account of our truce.
“Captain da Gama makes such a big deal about surviving the Cape of Storms but my brother Bartolomeu was the very first to ever do so,” he was saying.
I nodded. “He must be a very influential person,” I said.
“Is that why da Gama took you on as his escrivere?”
Diogo shook his head. “Everyone thinks that’s what happened, but my brother had nothing to do with it.”
“So why did da Gama take you?” I asked.
Diogo shrugged. “Goodness of his heart? Who knows why anyone helps anyone else? For all we know, people may just feel like it.”
The Zamorin was ready to receive us the next day, but said that da Gama could only take two of his men along. I wasn’t among them, so I and the rest of the men remained in the house of the Calicutian who was hosting us.
When da Gama returned, I heard from one of the men who had gone with him that the Zamorin had refused to accept any of the gifts da Gama brought. He had only wanted da Gama’s golden image of Santa Maria.
What had da Gama done? He had refused. That statuette had gotten him across the ocean and would get him back to Portugal. Besides, it wasn’t even gold.
I frowned. It seemed to me that it would have made better sense for da Gama to pretend the trinket was gold.
“That isn’t honorable,” said Diogo.
“Didn’t you say that everyone has to compromise?” I asked.
“Some things must never be compromised,” he replied. “Honor is one of them.”
I shrugged. Honor sounded all well and good, but da Gama’s measly idol couldn’t help us out now that he’d revealed it wasn’t gold.
“It wouldn’t have helped, anyway,” said the sailor who had been telling us about the visit. “There were so many guards around.”
“Why?” I asked. It seemed the sensible thing to ask, and maybe asking it would make the other sailors more favorably inclined towards me.
“The local merchants are jealous of our relations with the Zamorin.”
I was about to agree, but Diogo interrupted me.
“Damn the merchants,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they wanted us to die so we never return to Portugal.”
We all nodded.
“That sounds just like the merchants,” I said. Nobody nodded except for Diogo.
A few weeks passed without any development. Da Gama ordered the other captains to return to their ships. A few days later, he ordered for us to return as well. The only problem was that there weren’t any boats available to take us there, so we had to stay in the Calicutian nobleman’s house until we could find a boat. We didn’t find one, and to worsen matters, the Zamorin told us we had to move our ships closer to shore.
“Nonsense. They’ll capture our ship,” da Gama said.
That seemed likely, especially if the merchants were involved.
“You can’t just say that to the Zamorin,” I pointed out. “You’ll have to come up with something else.”
Da Gama stroked his black beard in contemplation. “If I order the ships closer, my brother will think I am being made to give such an order under duress.”
That sounded wise. I doubted the Zamorin of Calicut would want to be seen as an aggressor.
Now, all we needed to do was to secure an audience with him. Da Gama told our host that we wanted to talk with the Zamorin. That was all well and good, he was told, and we waited for our host to be ready to escort us to the palace. Our host closed the doors on us instead.
“What’s happening?” Diogo drew his saber.
We heard the clicking of locks. That was all the explanation we needed.
“If you won’t let me go back to my ship, at least let my men go. They’ll die of hunger otherwise,” da Gama said. He was furious. He was also right. We had gone three days without food.
“If you are to die of hunger you’ll have to bear it,” said our host, who had become our jailor.
“This goes against the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights—” I broke off. I saw from the guard’s contemptuous expression that it was useless to bring in international law.
Then, something surprising happened. Da Gama nodded. “Frederico’s right. It goes against our right not to starve.”
Some of the other sailors looked at him in astonishment. It was the first time da Gama had ever acknowledged human rights.
I looked at our jailor. Maybe he would see reason, too, and then I would have been the cause of our release, and then everyone would forgive me for doubting our captain’s honor.
The guard furrowed his brow in consideration, and didn’t answer for a long while.
I exchanged a hopeful glance with Diogo.
“We don’t care about that.” The guard’s voice was flat.
I looked towards the other sailors. They refused to meet my eyes.
I looked at my booted feet. What good were human rights if nobody believed in them?
Da Gama wasn’t about to give up so easily, however. He tried another tactic. He banged his fist against the wall and started to shout. “We didn’t survive the Cape of Storms to starve like this—”
The guard shook his head and left. Apparently, he didn’t care about that, either.
He did care about our valuables. Before we had been locked in, da Gama had sent a messenger to the ships. Through this messenger, he now ordered our valuables to be moved to Calicut in exchange for our freedom.
The bribe worked, and we were released. Great was our joy at being reunited with our fellow sailors. Da Gama gave us all quadruple rations of everything, including grog.
Everyone celebrated heartily, except for me. I sat on the deck and watched the others, and thought of my teeth. They had started to decay, because I had no way to brush them. I missed the days of toothpaste. I missed the days of working in the United Nations. I missed my son. It had been almost a month since I had last seen him, or heard his bright and wonderful laugh. I missed that laugh.
I remembered Ahmad telling me he had a son, and me telling him I would help him escape. Maybe I could still help him, but I didn’t know how to do that without getting discovered by the crew. If I was found out, I was sure to be executed.
There might be a chance to rescue Ahmad soon, I reasoned. I didn’t believe it. I was just trying to make myself feel better.
However, it turned out I was right.
The Zamorin forbade us from leaving the harbor without paying him gold. We all sat around doing nothing. There was nothing to do but swelter in the Indian heat.
“Damn them. Can’t they see we have no gold?” asked Diogo.
“Maybe it’s their plan to keep us in Calicut,” I said.
Diogo wiped the sweat from his brow. “I’m sick of this nonsense. We should be treated with respect.”
“There’s not much you can do to make that happen,” I replied.
Diogo frowned and leaned his head on his hands. A moment passed. He lifted his head. “Yes there is.”
I gave him a questioning look.
“I’m going to the palace to negotiate,” he declared, and stood.
I shook my head. What a stupid idea. “Don’t be foolish, Diogo. They could kill you.”
“If I’m going to die, I’m going to die,” he said. “I may as well die honorably.”
“Are you really sure you want to die for honor?” I asked.
“Without my honor, what is left?”
He met my gaze. I saw in his eyes that it was hopeless. In spite of what I said, in spite of whichever principle I invoked, no matter if it was human rights or common sense, Diogo would have marched to the Calicutian palace, and stood before the Zamorin’s couch, and demanded to be let out of Calicut, until he met his freedom or his death.
When I was his age, I had never been that brave. “Alright, Diogo, go and see the Zamorin.”
He smiled at me, saluted, and then left.
A week passed. Diogo didn’t return.
I figured that he had been killed. Da Gama figured that he had been captured.
“How do you know they didn’t kill him?” I asked.
“He still wants gold from us. Why would he kill someone he could use against us when negotiating?”
I nodded. That was reasonable. At least it got me out of thinking my friend was dead.
Some sailors thought it was disappointing that a Christian king would act like this.
It wasn’t the king, Paolo said. It had to have been the merchants. They must have wanted more bribes from us. The trouble was, we no longer had anything to bribe them with. Nothing was stopping them from holding Diogo indefinitely.
“Nothing is actually stopping us from leaving,” someone said. “Let’s get out while we can.”
I imagined Diogo standing before the massive door to the Zamorin’s palace. “No,” I said.
The sailor turned. “Why?”
I found myself saying, “Because it’s not honorable.”
The others temporarily broke their silence towards me to take up my cause. Together, we convinced the sailor that we should stay put. Then my crewmates reverted to their usual silence.
The strange thing was, I hadn’t invoked honor to gain anyone’s favor. I hadn’t even intended to mention the word. It had just come out, as if I had unconsciously absorbed it from my long talks with Diogo, like it had become a part of me in the same way that human rights had back in the United Nations. I didn’t know why. Maybe it meant I was becoming more like da Gama’s crew than I had wanted to admit.
In any case, our staying worked in our favor. A boat visited us two days after the Zamorin’s edict. We traded with the person on it, and da Gama sent a letter to Calicut with the message that we were friendly and willing to engage in commerce. In this way, we encouraged boats to defy the Zamorin’s orders to trade with us over the next month or so.
In the meantime, we discussed ways we could free Diogo. Da Gama considered sending a group of people to rescue him, but then learned from some of the people we traded with that if anyone from our ship set foot on Calicut, he would be killed on the Zamorin’s orders. We needed another strategy, but none of us knew what that strategy might look like, until one day when a group of Calicutian noblemen boarded our ship to trade. I noticed how da Gama’s eyes gleamed as he followed them with his gaze, so I wasn’t surprised when he ordered us to take them hostage. We lined up behind them, knocked them out with the butts of our swords, bound them up, and put them in the same room as Ahmad.
The next day, I was walking towards the deck when I heard a scuffling from around the corner. Then a thud.
I rounded the corner. A strange man had pinned someone to the ground and was brandishing a bloodstained knife overhead. I drew my saber.
The stranger must have heard it leave its sheath, because he turned.
It was an assassin. The sword trembled in my fist. His victim was Paolo.
The assassin blinked. I lunged forward, let out a yell. My sword sliced through the assassin’s chest. He gritted his teeth and staggered towards me.
We eyed each other for a moment. He faltered. He fell.
He was dead.
I swallowed. Some of his blood had landed on my arm, and I stared at it for a long time without fully realizing what it was.
Rapid footsteps approaching. I looked up from my arm. It was da Gama. He looked at me, then at the assassin’s corpse, expressionless. He saw his brother, and his mouth opened, but nothing came out.
“The assassin,” I muttered. “I killed him.”
Da Gama lurched forward. “Paolo,” he said, and his voice was hoarse.
His brother moaned again.
“Paolo, you will be okay,” da Gama said.
I stared at the dead assassin.
Da Gama turned to me. His eyes were wild. “Get help,” he said. “Get help!”
I stumbled up the steps, shouted for sailors to come follow me, and we returned below decks where Paolo had gone unconscious, and where we worked rapidly to bandage the wound on his stomach.
“What happened?” one of the sailors asked as we bandaged.
“The Zamorin must have sent an assassin,” da Gama said. “He would have killed my brother had Frederico not stopped him.”
The sailors stared at me in silence. I stared at the dead assassin.
Da Gama placed a hand on my shoulder. I looked up. He regarded me with a grim expression. “You performed a valiant deed today, Frederico. Never forget that.”
I felt pride surge through me. I felt pride surge through me at having slain another person.
Paolo regained full consciousness about an hour later. Da Gama stayed with him all the while. The rest of us waited outside the room in silence. We heard da Gama’s muffled voice, mumbling encouragement, screaming curses, sobbing prayers.
He emerged, dry-eyed, and one of the sailors asked what we were going to do in response to the assassination attempt.
There was only one thing to do, da Gama said. Kill the hostages.
I shuddered. There had been enough slaughter already.
“Wouldn’t the Zamorin kill Diogo in retaliation?” I asked.
“He only has one prisoner to our sixteen,” said da Gama. “We outnumber him.”
I shook my head. I would make da Gama see reason if it was the last thing I did. “But—”
He glared at me. “We’re killing the prisoners,” he snapped, and I couldn’t say anything to that.
So I had to stand with the rest of the crew and watch a group of sailors decapitate a hostage.
The executions took place once a day, in the same room as Ahmad. The crew had to cheer on the executioners, and I cheered with them. Da Gama would have killed me otherwise.
After each death, I went on deck, leaned over the side of the boat, and threw up.
At night, I didn’t sleep. I stared at the ceiling of my bunk, and there I saw the anguished expression of a prisoner as he was about to be executed. There I saw da Gama’s face, filled with madness as he ordered another prisoner’s death. There I saw Diogo’s solemn face as he had said he would compromise anything but his honor.
There I saw my own face as it had been when I had looked into the bathroom mirror at the United Nations all those months ago. A man who took the United Nations at their word, not out of naiveté, but because their morality was the only thing he could still believe in that helped him get through each day, and that he believed would help his son endure whatever torment lay in his future with a smile on his lips.
People were good. Surely they would uphold human rights. But how could I expect others to uphold human rights if I wasn’t doing it myself?
The next day, while the sailors killed the third prisoner, I went to Ahmad.
“I will help you escape,” I whispered.
He frowned. “What?”
“I will help you escape back to your son in Malindi.”
“Because I can’t stand how they’re killing the other prisoners. At some point it comes down to a matter of conscience.”
Ahmad shook his head in a tired sort of way. “No, not conscience. Not good will, like you had towards me in the past. You’re doing it to make yourself feel better.”
I frowned. “But—”
“I watched you cheer on da Gama’s crew as they killed innocents. Where was your conscience then? Or your good will? You had none to spare. Yet now all of a sudden—”
“I guess all acts of generosity are more likely to be selfish than not.”
“Alright, everything we do is for ourselves, even the things we do for others, we do it selfishly because we see ourselves in others. Are you happy now? Can I help you escape?”
“If all goodness comes from evil, then how can human rights ever exist?” he asked.
A cheer swelled up from the group of sailors. I looked over my shoulder at them. They hadn’t yet noticed my absence.
Ahmad saw me look over my shoulder.
“Distract the guard tomorrow morning and I will escape then,” he said. Then he hesitated. “Does it even matter if the motive is right if the end is good?”
I didn’t know. I didn’t think I would ever know.
“I’ll be back tomorrow morning.”
The next day, I told the guard outside Ahmad’s door that there was a fire on the opposite end of the ship.
He followed me, and when I got there, there was no fire, and I acted confused. Must have been my imagination, and I trembled and the guard saw me tremble and asked me why I was shaking, and I was about to blurt out something about my distress at the slain prisoners, or about Diogo’s capture, but nothing about Ahmad, definitely nothing about Ahmad, because I owed it to him more than I owed it to anybody.
I didn’t blurt out anything. A shout from above decks interrupted me. We climbed the stairs to see what was going on.
“Diogo!” I shouted.
The young escrivere looked a bit shaken, but otherwise seemed alright.
“Looks like your honor didn’t kill you after all,” I said.
He grinned. “You’re right. I don’t know what da Gama did, but the Zamorin let me go yesterday.”
A small crowd of sailors formed around him. They all asked what had happened, and what the Zamorin was doing.
Diogo’s grin faded. “He sent a massive fleet of warships to destroy us and—”
More shouting. Someone pointed. We looked. An armada was sailing towards us.
Da Gama appeared, and yelled for us to launch the ships out of the harbor. We did so.
Paolo emerged next. He had recovered enough to the point he was walking around, but was still a little unsteady in his gait.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
We told him.
“We should be fine,” da Gama said. He glanced up at the cloudy sky. “Ahmad said this area was known for its storms, but I don’t think we’ll find any, so we should be able to out-sail them.”
I wasn’t sure if he actually believed that, or if he was merely saying it for Paolo’s benefit. In either case, he turned out to be wrong. A few minutes after we launched off from Calicut, rain fell. Then came the thunder and the lightning, and then a strong wind started up and sent objects flying everywhere.
Diogo muttered something about untying the knots.
Da Gama shook his head. “Go get Ahmad. We need him to tell us the fastest way to get out of this storm.”
Diogo went below decks to fetch the navigator. He returned a few minutes later, looking dumbfounded. Somehow, he said, the door to Ahmad’s cell had been taken off its hinges. It was lying on the ground in front of the doorway. The cell itself was empty. The Lion of the Sea had made his escape at last.
“Taken off its hinges? I have to see this,” Paolo said. He started forward.
“No—” da Gama said, but it was too late. One of the ship’s masts cracked in two and fell, and pinned Paolo to the deck, and da Gama was yelling at him to stand, but Paolo wasn’t answering, and couldn’t answer, because Paolo was dead.
Someone wanted to throw him over the side of the boat because da Gama couldn’t focus on leading us out of the storm and away from our Calicutian pursuers.
Da Gama turned on the sailor. “I won’t bury my brother like a common sailor!” he roared, but it didn’t sound much like a roar, not when his voice was shrill like that.
I stayed quiet and only helped with the ropes. Eventually the sailor went quiet, too. There was only da Gama now, raving into the wind. He shouted that someone onboard the ship had betrayed him, had helped Ahmad escape, and when he found out who had done so, he would cause that person such pain he would wish for death.
I felt no fear, only numbness. I could have sworn that if someone were to point a flintlock pistol at me and ask where Ahmad had gone, I wouldn’t have told him. I didn’t know why I felt that way. Maybe Ahmad was right and we did everything out of evil, or maybe we did it out of honor, like da Gama and his men thought, but in the end, nobody gave a damn for human rights, and all I gave a damn about anymore was my conscience. My conscience, and the tremendous pain in my head. The last time I had felt such agony, I had collapsed on the floor of a bathroom in the United Nations. Now, I collapsed on the deck of the São Gabriel, and I screwed my eyes closed and prayed for the pain to end.
“Frederico!” It was Diogo’s voice, and someone was shaking my shoulders, but maybe it was nobody, or maybe I was hallucinating it, because the rain had stopped and the ship no longer lurched and there was only the buzzing of fluorescent lights overhead.
I opened my eyes. I was in the bathroom of the United Nations. Nobody else was around. I rose to my feet and examined my wet face in the mirror, my sun-scorched skin and rotten teeth, and I shuddered.
I was in America again, but I no longer remembered how to speak English. I was home, but I no longer remembered my son’s face.
I staggered out of the bathroom and into a hallway. There were voices coming from a nearby room. Some sort of negotiation was going on. Everyone was talking, searching for some sort of perfection. Pointless. There would never be perfection. We could never expect perfection from others until we found it in ourselves, and if we could see ourselves in every other person in the world, then we might just stand a chance, but until then…
That would never happen in a place like the United Nations.
I didn’t go back to the negotiation-room. I would never go into a negotiation-room again for the rest of my life.
I went home instead. Once there, I brushed my teeth and showered and changed my clothes. Then I grew curious. Had Vasco da Gama changed his ways after his brother had died?
I looked up Vasco da Gama. No. He had not changed his ways. He had taken nine days off after his brother’s death, and then returned to India and burned down ports. I sighed.
I thought of my son. He would be coming home from school soon. I would greet him with laughter, and he would look back with hope in his eyes and a smile on his lips, and then…