What Joshua knows, without a doubt, is that this is the last day of his life. Let alone is he severely injured and unable to walk, he has been tied to a tree by a group of people who will most likely return before the end of day and kill him – and in the most painful way that they can. He decides that in the time that he has left, the most fitting and constructive thing to do would be to recall the story of who these people are, and why their actions are, he concedes, completely justifiable.
Joshua is one of several young men and women who were raised on an island, under the strictest of control, by a group of people who are referred to as the Elders. While growing up, it was clear that a mass of information was being carefully kept from them, but they had also been assured that the reasons for this secrecy would be revealed in early adulthood, during a rite of passage known as Coming of Age. But when this rite finally begins to take place, it doesn’t exactly appear to be an uplifting experience for those who are put through it; like Mikkel, who, after finally returning to the community, attempts to meet with Joshua to give him some kind of urgent warning about it. However, Mikkel falls short, and before Joshua can make any sense of it, he himself is removed from the community to Come of Age.
He is taken to an isolated shelter and put through a philosophically taxing ordeal, where he is forced to admit to some of his own callous tendencies and cruelty. He is then told of The Goal, which has all but been completed, and which is a meticulously thought out, three-phase plan designed to rid the world of our ‘vile race’, cleansing the planet of our destructiveness, and allowing nature the chance to heal from the wounds we’ve inflicted. However, as much as he tries to question the sanity of this reasoning, he soon realizes that he is completely outmatched, that they have thought of every angle and argument possible, and have formulated a set of seamless counterarguments to dispel any contention he can come up with.
He then learns that he has been chosen as one of the few people who are given the ‘real truth’, and this, only because he is being considered as a candidate to lead an expedition that will set out from the island for the third and final phase of The Goal. This expedition will be a last sweep for a designated portion of a continent, making certain that the land is uninhabited, and, if anyone is found, to inconspicuously sterilize that person or group of people. Joshua realizes he has two choices: he can allow himself to adopt this obscure set of beliefs (the Elders are clearly too clever for him to fake it) and be given the chance for adventure and freedom away from the island, or he can refuse and live the rest of his days under even more severe and tyrannical control. Understandably, he chooses the former.
Once his slow-building conviction begins to pass the test, Joshua is released back into the community. There, Mikkel finds another opportunity to meet with him in secret. He discloses the fact that he has some uncertainties about The Goal, and tells him of a text that he had once stumbled across during his education that talked about brainwashing. Joshua, being much more bought in, rationalizes how ‘programming people’ would be physically impossible, and Mikkel, realizing that he might have put himself in danger by opening up, quickly retracts his statements.
Then another young man, named Peik, who is also a potential leader for the expedition, Comes of Age. But when he is released, he immediately calls a meeting (something strictly forbidden on the island) for every young man to attend. In this meeting he reveals, in addition to the fact that he is no longer mentally sound, exactly what the Elders are involved in. But the group that has gathered only take this as proof of his sudden spiral into madness, and Peik struggles to redeem himself by presenting a few sheets of encyclopaedia text that describe mind control. Seeing these pages, Joshua realizes what Mikkel has done: believing the Elders to be in the wrong, he has managed to smuggle pieces of ‘misleading information’ to Peik before he was taken into the shelter to Come of Age, in hopes that he might resist their indoctrination. And resist he did.
The meeting, however, is cut short when an Elder discovers it, and Peik turns and runs for his life. Everyone else is ordered to go into a community hall to wait in silence while searches are conducted to find him. They finally return with bad news. Peik, in a clear act of insanity, tried to swim away from the Elders who were looking for him, and has drowned. They dismiss everyone to go outside and support each other in their state of shock and grief, except those who know about The Goal. Incredibly frustrated, the Elders try and root out the conspirator among them, concentrating their efforts on some of the women. Joshua chooses to keep quiet about what he knows, saving Mikkel’s life.
The Elders are afraid. Only three young men have been given the ‘real truth’, and already someone on the island has managed to slip disclosed material to one of them, which, at worst, might have sparked a revolt, and, at best, has already left one of the three dead. Knowing that this rogue ‘paper smuggler’ could strike again at any time, the Elders decide that they have no choice but to shuffle the remaining two young men who have been given the truth, off on the expedition prematurely, as they would be the most vulnerable targets for the conspirator. They quickly train Joshua – who might not be the best leader, but seems to be the more convinced of the two – to head the expedition. They supply him with the last seaworthy sailboat on the island, a crew of six, and a first mate, Mikkel, who will act as second in command.
Soon after setting sail, Joshua begins to illustrate his poor leadership skills, and the crew are increasingly allowed to get away with actions that would never have been allowed on the island. Then, just as his authority begins to be genuinely tested, a severe storm rolls in, damaging the masts and rigging beyond repair. During the ordeal, Mikkel saves Joshua’s life, and then quietly insinuates that he is no longer in his debt, that he considers the two of them to be even.
Under the extreme stress of trying to deal with their predicament, the crew inadvertently uncover one of the lies that had been told to them, and begin to question the true intentions of the expedition (they had been told that it was a scientific study, which hoped to probe into the mystery of what had decimated the human population). While they find ways to repair the ship, they recall what Peik had said before evidently ‘committing suicide’, which soon escalates into paranoia, and eventually into a mutiny. Mikkel steps in before things get too ugly, and takes over command of the ship. He decides to inform the ignorant crew of the true reason for the expedition, and Joshua, imprisoned in his quarters, quickly becomes convinced that it is only a matter of time before his infuriated shipmates put him to death.
Enlisting the help of the only person on board who believes in his innocence, Joshua escapes in the middle of the night while the ship is passing a steep peninsula (on which it would be impossible for the sailboat to disembark). However, before he can get into the water with the life raft, and amid the confusion of different people moving around in the dark, he accidentally slashes open the stomach of the young man who is trying to save him.
Once he reaches the peninsula he travels further inland, until he comes to the remnants of a garden plot where fruit and vegetables are growing. He sets up a home there, and, as the restless weeks pass, he soon finds himself inside of a thorny philosophical struggle. He realizes that the only way to rid himself of the guilt that he feels for most likely killing the young man who helped to save his life, he must become more like the person that that young man thought he was saving. And the only way to do this, he concludes, is to abandon some of the Elder’s philosophies.
Gradually, Joshua’s outlook begins to change. Until, one day, he finds a bird entangled in a spool of frayed rope that has lost most of its feathers and is on the brink of starvation. He decides to slowly nurse it back to health, a process that leads him to a strange conclusion. Through various experiences that revolve around the bird, he comes to understand that the longer we hold onto a certain piece of truth, the further from that truth we get. It turns out, he suddenly recognizes, that no one holds the truth of what humanity is – not the Elders, not Mikkel, not himself – and he grows to feel strangely enlightened by this fact. He eventually frees the bird, and settles into a quiet and simple existence on his garden plot.
Then the day arrives that he wakes to the sound of Mikkel’s voice. In an instant, he realizes that the crew of the ship have been determinedly tracking him for months, hunting him down. After barely managing to escape, he continues to run for his life. The bird that he has saved follows, hovering above him, indicating exactly where he is. Recognizing that this one and only companionship in his life might also be his downfall, he lures the bird close enough to throw rocks at it, violating the trust he had painstakingly gained. But before the bird can fly far enough away, the crew manage to spot him, and quickly close in.
Desperate, Joshua drops into a valley where he finds a recent fire pit, along with other, more disturbing signs of human destruction and cruelty. His old beliefs come flooding back, and he finds himself in a dilemma. If he continues, the crew will come across the same evidence, and almost certainly set out to protect this unknown group of people from other third phase expeditions, saving humanity, and prolonging the ruin and suffering that we cause. But if he retraces his steps and tries to lead them away from the evidence, he will be caught and die a painful and degrading death. After weighing things out, and in an extreme act of conviction and self-sacrifice, he turns around and retraces his steps, but only manages to lead them into the next valley before he loses his footing on a steep slope, tumbling downhill until he is knocked unconscious.
Joshua wakes tied to a tree at the bottom of the slope. With no one in sight, he decides to spend the day recounting the story of how he got there. Finally, as the day is coming to an end, Mikkel approaches him, alone. He tells Joshua the crew’s side of the same story, how they all had to take care of the young man that Joshua had cut, and how the infection slowly, painfully, claimed his life. Mikkel explains that the crew were consumed with frustration, and that, upon disembarking, and despite his reluctance, they became determined to find Joshua in an attempt to impose some kind of justice.
Then, Mikkel informs him that they have found the evidence of people in the previous valley, and that he and the crew intend on finding those people and educating them ‘to live in the most conscientious way possible’, and to avoid making the same mistakes humanity has repeatedly made. Joshua shares his newfound philosophy, arguing that, as long as we are alive, it is our lot to make those same mistakes, endlessly; because we are perfectly wired to deceive ourselves, because while we are making those mistakes, we fool ourselves into thinking that they are the only true option, that they are right.
But Mikkel disagrees, and, with the sounds of the crew approaching, he draws a knife. In order to prevent them from torturing Joshua, he stabs him, ending his life in a peculiar act of friendship, mercy, and hope.