I was excited. The wind was blowing through my hair, I could smell the ocean and already see the island coming up. I was the only passenger on a speedboat pushing through the waves at breakneck speed. The island we were headed to was beautiful, like something from a movie, only in real life. Palm trees, white sand, and deep dark blue water underneath a tropical sun. Other than me, there was just the captain, a cameraman that I had been instructed to ignore as well as I could, and a girl from the crew. I didn’t know much about the show and hadn’t met any other contestants yet, I guessed everything was to be revealed when I reached the island. The show was called “Tribal - Face the Unknown”, which was about as much as I knew about it and I was poised to be a contestant in the very first season. I had applied on a whim, figuring I had nothing to lose and had been genuinely surprised when I got invited. I guess not a lot of people had heard about this show yet or wanted to be in it. I couldn’t figure out why. First of all, you would get to be on TV. Also, so far, they had made every effort to make my trip as comfortable as possible. First-class plane tickets, a chauffeur at the airport, a private cabin on the tanker that took us out into the ocean, and so on.
“So, Tristran, 5 Minutes to touchdown, you got time for a few questions?” the girl from the crew yelled over the roar of the engine, while the cameraman zoomed in on me. I nodded, playing along was the least I could do in return for all the comforts and luxuries that had already been provided.
“Tell us a little about yourself, what’s your background? Military? Clergy? Paranormal investigation? Lovecraftian survival?”. she asked.
“None of those,” I laughed at the absurdity of the question. “Data analyst. I figure out what people have bought and are likely to buy in the future and then I give a bunch of data to some software engineers who make your shopping experience more user-friendly with it.”
“Ok… so why would you want to compete in Tribal?”
“Well, you know, the usual,” I replied, “love.”
“Love???” she cried out, surprised at my answer.
“Yeah, I know, it’s a little cheezy, but I guess I am looking for a special someone. Someone to share my life with.”
“You’re looking for love on this show?” she asked again, incredulously.
“Yeah, you know, I’m looking to really meet someone and I figured why not here? I know there’s going to be a bunch of cameras and tv crap, but… you know… I get lonely sometimes and it’s hard to meet people. I can’t just randomly hit on people at work and when dating online you have to put up with an endless stream of Instagram filters and social media bullshit. Nobody is who they say they are, everybody is getting catfished. You know, going on this show, I figured I might actually be able to talk to someone for five minutes.”
“No, you’re not hearing me. I mean, ‘You’re looking for love on THIS show’?” she yelled over the noise, the island steadily coming closer.
“Yeah…” I replied, “why is that weird?” I asked, a little uncertain.
“Do you know what kind of show this is?”
“Something tribal. Like you know, typical dating show with some sports challenges and puzzles on a sunny pacific island.”
“Wow…” she said.
“‘Wow’ what?” I asked. “Why wow?”
“Didn’t you read any of the forms you signed?”
“I skimmed them,” I admitted. “Nobody really reads that stuff, do they? I thought it was a bit like the license agreement on my iPad.” I was beginning to feel a little worried. “Why? What kind of show is this?”.
She turned her head and looked towards the rapidly approaching island. “About a minute out,” yelled the captain, “get ready to jump.”
The girl just looked at me, her brows furrowed. I couldn’t read her expression and was uncertain if she was showing worry, concern, condescension, or just disbelief.
“What kind of show is this?” I yelled, my voice unintentionally raised by a pitch. Why was I sweating so bad all of a sudden?
“Jesus fucking… Seriously?”, she started, then stopped, distracted by the woodline behind the beach for a second before turning her attention back on me. I looked in the same direction. I saw a little rustling of leaves in the undergrowth, a shadow crossing between a couple of trees. Had I just seen something move or had it just been the pacific wind blowing across the island?
“Listen carefully,” she yelled. “Get underground before nightfall, try to find the other survivors as soon as possible, and stick close to them. Don’t accept any gifts, no matter how tempting, they’re not worth the price, and whatever you do, do not look at your own reflection, ever. Now jump.”
“What??” I yelled back, not sure if I had heard her correctly. My brain was tumbling over itself, trying to process what was happening to me. I had a million questions, but incapable of shaping a single one of them into a sentence all I managed to scream out was another “What???”. The boat made a rapid u-turn, losing momentum for a crucial couple of seconds. I almost tumbled over the side by accident from the sudden lurch. I held on to the railing for dear life. “I am not jumpi-...” I tried to yell, but got violently interrupted. The girl had given me a lightning-fast sidekick to the lower ribs before I could finish my sentence. I tumbled over, the wind knocked out of me, and hit the water headfirst, screaming, swallowing water, and thrashing about until I finally got enough of my bearings back to tell which way was up.
When I resurfaced, the boat was already several hundred feet away, speeding back towards the cargo ship we had come from. I looked over to the island, only a short swim away, and then down at the deep blue water that I was floating in. My reflection looked back at me, from the smooth surface of the ocean. Despite my aching ribs, the water I was still coughing up, and the looming unknown threats on the island, my panic was washing away bit by bit with every breath I managed to take. A gentle, peaceful feeling was taking over instead. Some little voice at the back of my head was screaming and bucking like a wild panicked animal, but I took a second look at my calm, self-assuring mirror image on the water and silenced that little voice like you would casually snuff out a candle. I felt a warm tingling in my belly and knew everything was going to be just fine. I couldn’t fathom why I had been so worried just a few seconds ago, everything quite obviously was perfectly in place as it was. My reflection gave me a little wink and I smiled back at it. “Love”, I thought, while that warm, peaceful feeling spread out across my body. I started swimming toward the island in a slow and relaxed breaststroke. I could hear the propellers of a small drone following me as I swam, recording my every move. I guess the show had begun.