“Polymer Island” by Helen Stubbs
The ocean lifted and lowered the Parkes like a mother rocking her baby, a gentle breeze her silent song in the night. Majella Fraser gazed up at the stars sparkling against the blue-black sky, above the unlit ship and sea. She couldn’t even make out her hand on the metal rail, on the narrow deck of the Navy ship, so she scanned the horizon, seeking the silhouette of their target. Yesterday morning in her lab at Sydney Uni, she’d never have guessed tonight she’d be out here. From counting nylon microfibers in the esophagi of Acanthopagrus butcheri to…
A message buzzed on her phone. Captain’s conference at the bridge. Yes! They had arrived. Majella stepped fast toward the hatch and trotted down the steps.
A tall caramel-skinned woman, gold-brown hair braided into a thick plait under her cap, eyed Majella dubiously as she approached the bridge. Barry, her nametag read on her white pressed uniform—a stark contrast to Majella’s velveteen jacket and black jeans.
Majella cleared her throat. “Hi, Barry.” She forced a smile.
The crew had watched her with disdain when she arrived by chopper this afternoon. They’d snarked about the detour from their peacekeeping mission to “Polymer Island” for Dr Fraser to study pee. PEA—Pollution and Ecological Adaptation.
“It’s not an island,” she’d snapped. No one knew what it was. That’s why she was here.
Barry nodded and turned, leading Majella into the bridge, where the Captain stood, clean-shaven and stern.
“Dr Fraser.” He nodded to her, a wrist clasped in his other hand. “We’ve arrived at the object and confirmed it’s unpersoned, with no sign of hostile force. It’s circular with a diameter of five point six kilometers.”
Barry motioned Majella to the radar, displaying the form in blue and black.
“It’s the shape of an upside-down lemon juicer,” Barry said.
“Equip to head out at 500 hours for a two-hour mission,” Captain Forbes said. “The crew isn’t happy about this research sally, except hydrographer Officer Adele Barry here, who is interested. The two of you can take in the zodiac, check it out, get out by 700 hours. Now get some shut-eye.”
Majella blinked, riled by the cascade of orders but dancing around inside with excitement.
“Don’t think I’ll sleep tonight.” She studied the map. “This might be the one.”
Forbes snorted and Barry looked away, which told Majella enough to stop there. Pollution and Ecological Adaptation were respected fields of research. Pollution created ecological change. Species had to adapt if they could, famously demonstrated by the peppered moth’s industrial melanism. More fringe, though, was Majella’s search for rapid non-terrestrial material incorporation, which was the first hit when you searched her name online.
The department had been clear: this trip was for research and recording a possible new landform, not seeking plastic-spined crabs or living rubber fish… rubber fish, rub-fish, rubbish. Still—Majella couldn’t stop hoping.
Hours later she lay on her bunk insomniating, thrumming her fingers, buzzing with adrenaline and anticipation. Wishing the sun would rise, already.
She rolled over, almost drifted off when a dorm-mate farted. She slipped in her ear-buds, hoping peaceful music would soothe her to sleep.
Bright green grass crunched beneath Majella’s feet as she snuck up the hillside, unable to shake the sense she didn’t belong here. Palm trees spread cool shade around her. From beyond the rise came noise and movement, chirrups and scratching claws, but with a veil of distortion, like an analog recording.
She ducked down to her hands and knees, and crawled the last meter up through the tall clumps of not-grass. They were harder than the natural fibers of the savannah reserves she’d visited, with a thickness and texture more like drinking straws. She ran a hand over them. They could be harvested and trimmed, used in cocktails. Come to think of it, they were the same as the ones she’d been served in drinks, at the resort down the hill. She glanced back.
“Majella, come for a dip,” Alfonzo called, ushering her with a tanned hand while water droplets glistened on his shoulders.
“Just a minute,” she muttered, wondering where she’d found Alfonzo, who he was… and where she was, come to think of it.
Under a deepening cloak of shade, she peered down to the noisy birds over the rise. Like chickens, they flapped rainbow wings and scratched at multi-colored plastic pebbles. They raised their heads, checking for threats with sharp eyes. One had darker, longer, PVC feathers. He extended his neck and played a recording of a cockerel’s crow.
Majella gasped. That drew his attention. He squawked with indignation, then started up the hill toward her, flapping his wings. He leapt, raised talons dripping black poison. Majella turned and ran down the hill, shoulders pumping back and forth, but he was too fast and descended in front of her. His massive claws gripped her arms as his beak seized her lip and tore it upwards.
She grabbed his legs by his backwards-facing knees and sat up, opened her eyes to near-darkness, fighting him off.
“You’re having a nightmare,” said Barry, her outback accent broader than earlier on the bridge. “Are you awake yet?”
Majella tried to catch her breath. Barry’s unbraided hair was wild, like a halo around her head
“I’m okay,” she said, embarrassed, wiping her forehead. “I just need some space to breathe.”
“So let go of my arm.”
Majella realized she was clutching Barry’s wrists like a life-line. “Sorry,” she said.
When dawn washed darkness out of the sky with red and orange, Majella clutched her third coffee, leaning on the rail, awed by the black silhouette asserting its substance against brightening day.
“Land, but not land,” Captain Forbes mused behind her.
“Notland,” Majella said. “That’s a better name. I wonder if it will hold us?”
“The substance is dense.”
“But how did it appear?”
“Those hills, and the mountain.” He raised a finger. “How do you think they were formed? I’m sending divers to collect samples in the caves below.”
“It looks like a new island formed by volcanic activity, but there’s been none. And it’s not rock.”
“A new land to explore. Not something we expect to find, these days,” Barry said, drawing alongside them, her gold afro again woven into a braid above her dark face. “It’s an explorer’s dream. Yours don’t come true, do they?” She locked eyes with Majella.
“None have yet,” Majella said. “I was trying to forget that one, by the way. Thanks.”
“Captain, request permission to take in an F88.” Barry frowned at the island.
“Explain,” the Captain ordered Barry.
Majella shrugged. “I don’t see a resort out there. Nor Alfonzo.”
“Dr Fraser was screaming in her sleep. I had to wake her,” Barry said.
“Exaggeration,” Majella scoffed. “I wasn’t screaming—that would have woken the whole crew.”
“Did either of you get back to sleep?” Captain Forbes asked.
They shook their heads.
“So you’re jumpy. The last thing you need is a weapon. We’ve scanned the island—no people, no animals.”
Barry grimaced. “Captain, this isn’t a regular research—”
“No weapons on research missions.” He raised a flat hand.
Barry shot Majella a filthy look.
“Don’t blame me,” Majella said. “You’re the one who blabbed.”
Majella studied the island, grappling her increasing sense of unease—so unlike her. She had nerves of tungsten. It must be the broken sleep and too much coffee. She took a deep breath and shrugged off her worries. There was nothing rational to support them. Majella believed in logic, and in this case all things pointed to a possibility of fulfilling her dreams. Not her nightmare.
If this place really was formed of a plastic-like substance, what would that mean? That the landscape itself was evolving. Rapidly evolved life forms may well follow. She bit her lip and gripped the rail. So exciting.
The island looked nothing like her dream. As the sun rose, it illuminated no Disney bright colors, no hunk called Alfonzo in an infinity pool, and certainly no cocktails. Instead—the dark lifeless textures of newly minted Notland rose promisingly, if ominously, tall in the ocean.
Majella searched the shallower water as Barry turned the tiller, steering the zodiac in to… shore. Through her reflection, Majella could make out a reef beneath the water, with curled life-forms resembling fractals, bright blue and paler at the edges, growing on what looked like a rocky structure. Coral was growing here! She snapped a picture.
The coral must have grown on the structure beneath the water. That was fair enough; however, it meant the island had been here long enough for those colonies to grow. Yet the first sightings of the island were reported only a month ago. The presence of coral suggested the island had been here for much longer, floating just below the surface.
The channel narrowed to a V-shape, into which the boat fit snuggly. Barry reached out a paddle and tapped the land—if that’s what it was. As she pushed down, the matter gave a little, like a thick rubber skin, similar to the synthetic floor Majella jumped on in playgrounds with her nephew.
“Will it hold us?” Barry asked Majella.
“There’s only one way to find out.”
Barry nodded. “I’ll go first.”
Gripping the front of the small boat, Barry climbed out, arms and legs like sinewy saplings. Her size and flexibility allowed her to maneuver gracefully out of the boat. One foot on the island’s skin, and then the other, she spread her arms like a surfer as small waves rolled beneath her.
“Definitely the weirdest place I’ve been,” Barry said. “And that’s saying something.”
Majella fit the straps of her small backpack over her shoulders, then moved to the front of the boat to climb over. Barry backed off a little, to spread their weight, and Majella’s boots touched down on the spongy island-skin, which seemed almost alive. She stood carefully, allowing her body to roll with the surface. It reminded her of the time she’d stood on a water-bed to hang a painting on the wall. Curious about the texture, she squatted and pressed her palms against it. It was cool and rubbery, granulated but continuous, like recycled plastic.
“Where do we tether the boat?” Barry mused.
Majella followed Barry’s gaze to an upright growth, something like a tree trunk crossed with a snout, or an elongated pimple. Majella approached it, examined how it grew out of the ground. She was wary of touching it, let alone tethering to it, as though the island mightn’t like that.
The island wouldn’t like it? She rolled her eyes. Islands didn’t have feelings.
Majella held her breath as Barry looped and tied the rope around the growth.
“Keep it loose,” she said.
Barry raised an eyebrow but obliged. She reached into the boat and swung a pack onto her back. Two hours wasn’t long to explore and take pictures and samples. The sun was orange, just above the horizon, heat building.
“Want a lifejacket?” Barry asked. “You reckon this shit could melt under us?”
Majella shook her head. “The structure’s been solid for at least a month. Longer, I’d guess. It’s not likely to melt today.”
Barry waved her hand toward the rise. “Well, Doctor and Adventurer, lead the way.”
Majella smiled. “Do you dream of exploration?”
“Sure,” Barry grinned. “But I’m a sailor and can’t wait to get off this rubber zit.”
“It does look kinda like a pimple.” Majella laughed.
The beach stretched out in both directions, and to the north the structure sloped up towards a small cliff. Majella inhaled a deep breath and slid her thumbs underneath her shoulder straps.
“Up we go.”
Majella called upon familiar land structures to describe features of the island, although they weren’t quite right.
“We’re crossing a beach-like surface, made of what looks like a continuous granulated polymer.” She released the button on her voice recorder and crouched, breath hastening as she opened a small vial. With tweezers she scraped the ground-material for a loose piece, but found nothing. Frowning, she removed a scalpel from her kit and, with some apprehension, sliced off a slither of the reddish-brown material.
She dropped it into the small jar and screwed the lid on, then raised her head, awaiting any reaction from the landmass. Why would she think it would react? Did she think that it was sentient? The substance was like skin, all joined together and continuous. It reminded her of animal dermis. But rock was similar, in that way, and she never expected it to react. It was the alien nature of the environment riling her.
The beach led to a sharper ascent of cliffs about three meters tall, jagged and blocky enough to climb easily. The lack of vegetation irked her. She shouldn’t be uneasy, though. Finding plants established would be stranger still. At the top of the cliff they paused at another structure, like a cliff, but with openings every meter, which led away between tall walls.
“It’s a maze,” Barry said, turning wide eyes to Majella.
“Or maybe just a series of walls… like gills.” Majella placed her palm on a wall and found it warm. “Either way, we don’t want to get lost in there.”
“I have GPS,” Barry said. “And we can mark our path.” She withdrew a can of spray-paint from her pack.
Majella shook her head. “Let’s not risk damaging the surface.” The irony wasn’t lost on her that this whole place seemed to be a reconstitution of human damage: human waste, foreign to the natural environment it had arisen in.
“Relying purely on tech is risky,” Barry said.
“I think we’ll walk straight through to the other side,” Majella said. “With so many openings there can’t be any turns, can there?”
“Let’s hope not,” Barry said, mouth turned downward as she put away the paint. She tapped the GPS screen and stepped forward, into the shadow of the tall walls. Majella followed her. About ten meters in, the walls ended in an open space. Opposite, another cliff angled upward steeply, leading up to a curving lip.
“What is that?” Majella breathed.
“It looks like the rim of a volcanic crater.”
Majella rubbed the wall, grown from the same substance as on the beach, but harder.
“Give me a leg up,” she said to Barry.
“Climb up onto my shoulders.” She leant back against the incline, and Majella climbed, one foot on Barry’s thigh, and the next on her shoulder. Leaning against the incline, Majella reached all the way to the top, took a firm grip and pulled herself up. From there she saw down into the crater: a massive bowl with tall spools of dark material, like shavings. She swung her leg over the wall, and turned, lowering herself down onto her feet.
“What can you see?” Barry asked.
“Some kind of frozen plastic, I think,” Majella said. “I have to go a down for a closer look.”
“Is that a good idea?” Barry asked. “I don’t think I can get up there. I’ll have a go.”
She backed off and ran at the wall, thrust her foot against the vertical surface and grabbed upwards. She didn’t reach the top, but slipped backward and rolled onto her ass.
“Are you okay?” Majella asked.
“I’ve been better.” She groaned, rubbing her butt and clambering to her feet.
“I have to look around a bit. We’ve come this far,” Majella said. “I won’t be long.”
“Be careful,” Barry said, swinging her pack off her back.
Majella’s excitement spiked as she climbed down into the crater. She walked between large curls of charred-looking matter, tracing their rough texture with her fingers. It was as though a massive hot razor had scraped the surface here to singe and curl the material, leaving behind the scent of burned plastic. She squeezed a section of the curl, and it splintered in her hand. She secreted the sample away in a bag.
All the land they’d covered so far seemed to be leading to a center. Careful to head west, according to her compass, Majella wove her way deeper through the loops. From dry and burned, they became shiny and healthy, developing the appearance of plants. Further on they grew taller and thicker, tangling high above her head like a forest.
Majella found the first leaf-life object and took a photo. Looking through her lens, she crept deeper in, snapping photos of thickening leaves. Her boot stuck in something, squelching as she pulled it out. Looking down, she found she’d stepped into thick black not-mud. She stepped back, raising her boot from the gooey, clingy mixture.
The vines around her were thick and strong enough to climb, so she climbed a little way up, until she found a spot to look down into … the heart (though it looked more like the butt-hole) of this island. A small breathing geyser bubbled, thick with the gunk on her boot. She snapped a shot, then examined the photograph and zoomed in.
Small creatures looked back at her, in the photo. Their eyes were entirely black, like a bee’s eyes. On the edges of the muck, on the far side, birds with sharp beaks paused, each with one leg raised.
Majella looked at the geyser again but couldn’t make out animals with her naked eye. Yet they were in her photo, heads cocked, unmoving, like tiny black replicas of living animals. She took some more photos, unsure if she should believe what she was seeing. She couldn’t make the creatures out with her naked eye, only in the photo.
Riled to have found something so strange, she climbed down from the vines and retraced her way back east, busting with the need to share what she’d seen. She found the spot where she’d climbed down, marked with her yellow scarf, and climbed up to the lip of the crater.
“Barry?” she called.
Barry rose from her slump against the wall, and helped Majella down the small cliff.
“Let’s go,” Majella said.
“Except for one problem.” Barry pointed to the way they’d come in. The gaps between the walls had closed. Majella hadn’t even noticed, preoccupied by the strange…animals. Yes–animals!
“When did that happen?” Majella asked.
“At ten twenty-five.”
Majella checked her watch. About twenty minutes ago, just when she’d stepped into the swamp.
“It’ll have to open soon,” she said, wishfully.
“I’ll radio the captain and inform him of this little hitch.”
Barry called in their update as Majella explored the length of the walls between which they stood. They were, indeed, trapped. The gills had swollen and closed out the gaps into an almost solid wall, with only the tiniest of lines marking where the passages had been. North was another narrow but tall wall. South, fifteen meters down, the walls came together, like the corner of a mouth, or the apex between two fingers.
Majella leant back against the incline that led up to the crater, her mind returning to those black slick beings in the heart of the crater. She hadn’t seen them move, and they couldn’t be alive… could they? The suspicion haunted her. They’d appeared to have eyes. The matter they’d lain in seemed fertile, if toxic. She had no reason to support her hunch, except for their shape, but despite the improbability of the prospect, she suspected they were either alive or… about to become so.
Majella shuffled backwards and shook her head, uncomfortable with that insanity. She mustn’t panic. If they were alive, there was no reason to presume they were a threat. It was human to fear what she didn’t comprehend. That was, perhaps, why she studied the rim of the walls, desperate to find a way out.
“There you are,” Barry said. “Captain doesn’t like us being stuck in here, but the Parkes is having problems of its own.”
“A breach in the hull.”
“You’re shitting me.”
Barry shook her head. “All hands are working on it. We’re on our own.”
Majella glanced upward again, taking the measure of the two sides of the cavern.
“We definitely can’t get above the gills, it’s too high. But we could get up onto the crater’s lip, again.”
“You could,” Barry said.
“I couldn’t make the jump, but I can give you a leg up again.”
Majella nodded. “I’ll get from there around to the hill, and make it back to the ship and bring back a fast-rope.”
“Can you walk along that narrow lip?”
Majella rubbed her jaw. “Should be doable.”
“I like that idea better than sitting here waiting for those things to decide to open.”
They returned to their backpacks and Barry’s jacket. Majella knelt down and unpacked her bag. “I’ll leave my water and deliver the samples to the ship.”
“Majella,” Barry said, as she sat next to her. “These things swelling up and closing… is that the sort of thing you expected?”
“I’m trying to explain it all in a way that fits with this being a big clump of dead plastic.” Majella pressed her fingertips to her temples.
“All?” Barry’s tone was deep.
Majella inhaled a shaky breath. She hadn’t been planning to say anything yet. She didn’t know how to describe the bird-like forms only visible in the photo. “Let’s get out of here, first.”
Barry touched her shoulder. “If you saw something odd I need to know what to watch for. You were spooked before we set foot on this island. What did you see?”
Majella bit her lip. “Nothing, really.”
Barry’s stare wouldn’t let up.
“Okay. In the middle of the crater there’s a swampy place and shapes that look like birds and animals.”
Barry squinted, evaluating this. “Do you have pictures?”
Majella nodded, and drew her camera out of her bag.
“They were only visible in the pictures.”
She switched the camera on and scrolled back through shots of the curling, charcoal-like loops. She scrolled forward again. Loops. Only loops.
“That’s not right!” She tapped the button, scrolling back and forth again. “I took pictures of them, and then I looked at them and zoomed in.”
“Then you must have deleted them.”
“I didn’t!” Majella cried. “Why would I do that? There’s a trash folder, anyway, that stores pictures for 30 days.”
Majella opened the little blue folder. “It’s empty.”
Barry watched her, warily.
“I swear, I took those photos.” Majella’s pitch rose in indignation. “I saw birds in them.”
“I believe you,” Barry said. “And why would you delete them? That makes no sense.” She folded her arms. “We really need to get out of here.”
“No shit,” Majella said, switching off the camera. “This place is doing my head in.”
“Go get that rope.”
“Yeah.” Majella pulled her backpack on, light, with only the samples in it now—samples which she was considering dumping. She couldn’t say why, but if the island didn’t want her to have pictures…
She rolled her eyes. There she went, again, considering what the island wanted. An island couldn’t want anything. Nor could it delete photographs.
Barry lay back against the incline, and Majella climbed up and over her shoulders, gripping the lip of the crater, once again. She pulled herself up and scanned the terrain for her best course of action. The crater’s lip, a narrow ridge not more than a hand’s width, extended in both directions. The distance was only for ten meters, if she headed north. Then she’d be on the hill, safe ground.
Her other option was to climb back into the crater, but as it extended around the height increased, and she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to scramble back up to the top.
Majella wasn’t afraid of heights. She’d done some gymnastics as a teenager and not long ago she’d tried out her ex-boyfriend’s slack line. Now wasn’t the time to think about him, though. Past grudges wouldn’t help her balance. If she fell from this height she’d hurt herself badly and they’d lose any chance they had of getting Barry out sooner rather than later.
Majella pushed her bum out and upward, and gained one foot on the top of the wall. Turning toward that foot, she brought the other foot up under her, and stood. Aware that Barry watched, willing her success, Majella stepped forward, one foot in front of the other. She was almost there when the wall crumbled beneath her.
“Fuck!” she screamed, falling sideways and hitting her ribs on the wall. She heard a crack, and a sharp pain tore through her rib. She managed to keep hold of the top, gasping for breath and moaning for the pain in her side.
Barry was down beneath her, reaching upward, her hands at least two meters below. “I’ll catch you and break your fall if you slip,” she said. “But climb back up if you can.”
Majella nodded and pulled herself up. The ground-skin was soft enough to cling to. Pain seared in her side. She reached her toe up onto the top of the crater. She pulled herself up onto the heels of her hands and shuffled along the edge that way, until she could roll up and onto her back, finally safe on the hillside.
“Well done,” Barry said, voice echoing as it bounced up the walls from below. “I thought you were screwed. Though I was surprised how good you were along that edge. If it hadn’t have crumbled you’d have been home and hosed.”
“Mmmm,” Majella groaned, clutching her rib.
“You all right?” Barry asked.
“Yeah,” Majella said.
No, not really.
She had to be all right. Get up, get moving. So she rolled over onto her hands and knees and pushed herself up to standing, clutching her chest beneath her left breast. “I might have broken a rib.”
“Need some meds?”
“I’m not coming back down for ’em,” Majella said.
Barry snorted. “I could throw it up.”
“I’ll get some when I make it back to the ship.”
Barry nodded, hands on hips, looking up at her. “Don’t forget about me.”
“As if I could do that,” Majella said.
She turned and looked down the sloping hill that reached down to the lower cliff-top. They should have come that way to begin with, and then Barry wouldn’t be stuck down in that hole.
Majella climbed down the low cliff of large rocks, turned and, still clutching her chest, made her way down the slope that led to the beach. Behind their small boat, the liferaft had come in, full of the other crew members, and another raft of supplies. Majella frowned, asking herself why the whole crew had come to the island, but then she saw the listing Parkes going down.
“Captain!” she called, and the crew looked up.
“Are you hurt?” Forbes called. “Where’s Barry?”
“She’s still trapped in a ravine. I came for rope, or help, to get her out.”
“What happened to you?” he asked, stepping onto the shore. The ship’s medic, Drew, approached Majella, too.
“I fell, walking along the edge of the hole, coming to get rope.”
“Move your hands,” Drew said, and Majella did, wincing before he even touched her. He pressed the sore area and she screamed.
“Fractured, at least.” He looked to the captain. “She needs a hospital.”
“Is help on the way?” Majella asked.
Drew looked at the captain in a way that she didn’t like.
“Best case scenario, yes,” Forbes said. “Meanwhile, ration supplies!” he shouted.
“We need to get Barry out of the hole,” Majella said, panting.
“Can you walk?” Forbes asked.
Majella nodded. “I made it here. There’s a little climbing, too.”
“I’d advise against,” Drew said. “If you puncture a lung you’ll need emergency medical care which we don’t have access to.”
“Puncture…” Majella paused, the reddish browns of the island swimming around her.
Drew slid his hands under her elbows. “Don’t pass out on us.”
“Don’t scare the shit out of me, then,” Majella said.
“I’ll come with you to the first cliff. It’s easy to find from there.”
“Unpack the boats and set up camp,” Forbes called.
“No fires,” Majella warned. “The surface might burn beneath us.”
“No fires,” Forbes amplified. “Hear that?”
The crew grumbled their understanding.
Drew packed ropes and climbing gear into a backpack and threw the straps over his shoulders. “All set.”
Majella took a shaky breath, wincing at the sting it caused. “This way,” she said.
She trudged up the spongy hill for the second time that day, until they reached the first cliff.
“I won’t come up, so let me explain…” Majella said.
They turned, frowning. Everyone was anxious now. No wonder.
“When we went up here first, there were tall walls with large gaps between them. But then they swelled up, closed. If they’re open now, don’t go into them. They’re probably not open, though, or Barry would’ve come down.”
The men nodded.
“Head to the right, to the outer edge, and go up the slope. Not far up, you’ll come to the hole where Barry is. When I say hole, it’s more like a deep rectangle. After that is the crater I explored.”
“Did you find anything useful?” Forbes asked.
Majella sighed and rubbed her forehead.
“There’s a swamp, and some strange… things. They sort of looked like animals, but they weren’t moving. I took photos, then somehow… lost… them.”
Forbes squinted at her.
“I can’t explain it. I took the photos, checked them, then the pics were gone. Not even in my trash folder. There is no way I would have deleted those photos on purpose. Maybe I’ve gone mad.”
“Do you want me to go in for more photos?” Drew asked, looking from Majella to the captain.
“No. We rescue Barry and pull back to the beach. Camp out quietly and wait for rescue in the morning.”
“But, Cap—” Drew began.
Forbes held up his hand. “Let’s get Barry.”
As they climbed the cliff, Majella sat back carefully against the wall, rib stabbing with pain now and then. She closed her eyes and breathed through the pain, drifting into a serene mindset, letting go of the passage of time.
“Majella?” Forbes called from the top of the cliff.
She blinked, raising her hand to shield her eyes from the day. When she turned to look at the captain, the sun was bright behind him, and he was an expressionless shadow against the sky.
“The gaps you described in the walls are open. We found the hole, but Barry isn’t there.”
“What?” Majella stood up. “She has to be, or she would have come back. What about her pack?”
“There’s no trace of her or her belongings.”
“I’m coming up there.”
“Wait–” Forbes protested.
Majella ignored him and the pain in her ribs as she climbed up the block wall. She pushed past Forbes, and ran, still cradling her rib, until she reached the gills, now open wide. She ran around to the right and up the hill, panting as she went, every breath tugging at her side like a terrible stitch.
Majella reached the rectangular chasm where they’d been trapped. Drew looked up at her, walking the length of the floor.
“There’s no sign of her,” he called. “Is this definitely the place?”
Majella nodded, unable to speak.
Rick stood alongside her. “Where do you think she went?”
Majella glanced up at him. Realized he was asking her. Her thoughts juddered. She pressed her temples. She had to work it out.
“She couldn’t climb… into the crater. I had to stand on her shoulders to reach it.” Majella rubbed her chest. “She must have… walked into a corridor. Out safely. Or…” Was crushed. Majella gulped and pressed down on her collarbone.
“Unless there’s someone else on this island,” Drew said. “A predator.”
“We detected no life. They wouldn’t take Barry down, either. Not without some blood-loss,” Forbes said. “There’s no trace of a fight.”
“They should have taken me, first. I’d be easy prey,” Majella said, lucidity returning. “It was easy to find the way back—there’s no way she got lost. Why would anything, anyone, take on her and not me?”
The captain studied her face. He looked back into the chasm. “Get out of there, Drew.”
Majella watched as he scaled the rope then, standing at the top, gripped its girth. “Do we leave this here?”
“I can’t think of any good reason to. Let’s take it back. We need every resource we’ve got. And, Doctor,” he looked at Majella. “I want all your theories, crazy as they seem. What could this island want with Barry? How or why did it block our signals and sink our ship?”
“Blocked signals?” Majella said. She noted the whites of Drew’s eyes, as he looked at Forbes. It clearly worried him to hear the captain talk that way.
“I have no theories,” Majella said, as Drew wound the rope around his elbow and hand. “When I try to talk it through in my head, I sound crazy.”
“Let me hear the crazy-talk,” Forbes said.
Majella turned and began to walk down the slope, distracted by the pain in her side. “I need some pain meds, first.”
“You need rest,” Drew said. “We’ll lay you out in a tent, and I’ll bandage your chest.”
“How bad’s the pain?”
“Eight out of ten.”
“I’ll give you codeine.”
“Then I need you to start talking to me now,” Forbes said. “I appreciate that you’re hurting, but please make the effort. My crew’s depending on me. I need information to make the best decisions.”
“All right,” Majella said, grinding her teeth. “Nothing about this island makes sense. The coral on the edges, under the water, means it’s been here for years. But as it turned up on satellite a month ago, I think most of it was underwater until then. Maybe the crater was a bubble of enclosed air, under water, because the plant growth, if that’s what they are, suggests a longer exposure to air.”
Forbes nodded. “None of that’s too crazy.”
“How that process happened, though…I can’t explain it. It seems the plastic pushed into this region has somehow molded together. It’s become something of its own ecosystem.”
“Is it possible that some human group has built it? We’re bordering East Asian waters,” Drew said.
“If that’s right, where are they? They’d be all over the place, and announcing their creation to the world, not deserting it.” Forbes said. He rubbed the regrowth on his beard. “Go on. What else have you got?”
She hesitated. “There’s an eerie menace about the place. Maybe it’s the emptiness. But also the crater—black and charred, then sticky and seeming almost alive. Yet my photographic evidence of that disappeared, inexplicably. The only connection I can think of is that this place is plastic and so is my camera. The other weird thing was, I couldn’t see the shapes with my eye. Only in the photos.” She turned to them. “And Barry. There’s no way she could have gotten lost. Something happened to her.” The last words came out panicked.
“Keep calm,” Drew said, squeezing her shoulder.
“He’s not saying you’re wrong,” Forbes interrupted. “Everything points to you being right. Maybe she’s fallen, or someone, or something, has taken her. Regardless, panic won’t help.”
“But I couldn’t see those things with my eyes. Only with the camera. So they could be anywhere,” Majella said.
Forbes and Drew exchanged a glance. It could have meant that they were scared, that she was mad, or that they didn’t know what to think.
Tents came into sight, up ahead, and Drew took her hand. “I’ll give you some pain relief and get you as comfortable as possible.”
“I should help— ”
“You’ll be no help if you’re dying, so let Drew treat you,” Forbes said.
Majella couldn’t argue with that, and she didn’t want to die, either.
Inside the tent, Drew rolled out two sleeping mats, one above the other.
“Do you mind if I examine you?” he asked.
She shook her head and pulled up her shirt.
Drew’s touch was gentle, and his hands cool, but his face creased in worry as he looked at her ribs.
“You have a rib protruding here. You’ve really broken it… goddamn thing must be hurting.”
He cracked open two codeine tables. “Not allergic, are you?”
She shook her head.
“Take these. When they’ve kicked in, I’m going to set your ribs. If I thought we were getting rescued tomorrow, I’d leave you as you are.”
Majella took the pills, grateful for the promise of relief. “What makes you think we’re not getting rescued?”
Drew looked away. “The captain let it drop back there. We received no reply to our sat-calls. He’s optimistic, I guess, trying to salvage morale. Maybe the message did get through.”
“How long can we last out here without help?” Majella asked.
“We’ll run out of water in a week. They’ll come looking before that.”
Majella sat back.
“What is it?” Drew asked, alarmed. What had the expression on her face been, to worry him so much?
It must have reflected what she’d been thinking.
“I don’t think we’ll last a week here.”
“A feeling. Ever since the heart of the crater. I couldn’t wait to get out of here. This place… something is wrong with it.”
Drew sat down beside her, forcing a smile.
“We’re navy–this chunk of Blu Tack won’t take us down.”
The edges of his face and words blurred.
“The meds are kicking in,” she said, her voice echoing and far away. “Use cameras… they can see…”
In her distant body, a click in her ears and stab in her side signaled her rib returning to the right position. After a jolt back towards consciousness, she dived deep into sleep.
Majella awoke, throat dry and eyes still closed, wondering where she was, on this hard, hard bed. All was quiet around her. She’d been on an expedition. Memories rushed back and she sat up straight, then screamed in pain as her broken ribs shifted.
“Aurgh!” She lay back down. She pressed on the aching rib and forced it back into place again with a painful click. She needed more drugs.
“Drew?” Majella called.
The only answer was canvas flapping and the whistle of the wind.
“Hello? Captain? Forbes?”
Majella waited for as long as she could bear, then she rolled up carefully, holding her rib in place. Unsteadily, she gained her feet. She stumbled over to the camp table and extracted a tablet from the first aid kit, then washed it down her throat with a swig of water. Hopefully one tablet would take care of the pain but leave her conscious.
Seeing she’d made it this far, she could make it out of the tent, find the rest of the crew, who couldn’t be far away. She pushed back the tent flap and looked out. The other tents had been torn down and much of the equipment was gone. Where? No hint or clue.
As far as she could see around the beaches, no one else was here. The Parkes had sunk entirely, but for the EPIRB marking its position. One of the liferafts was gone. Perhaps someone had escaped. The other raft slumped, deflated, against the shore.
What should she do?
Someone had left—deserted the rest. Or they’d all gone and deserted her. She could try to repair and inflate the boat, and head out to sea. She could wait here for help, but help might never come. Another night here would be the end of her.
Tears choked up her throat.
The boat. She’d try the boat.
Majella turned the sagging raft in the water and realized that plan was futile. The long rip in the underside was irreparable. How had that happened? Torn by coral? Or a slash by one of the crew? Had there been a murderer among them?
She hung her head and prepared to face an uncomfortable fact. There was only one place that she’d find any answers. That toxic, fertile place. The one she least wanted to return to. The black and sticky center of the crater.
Majella packed her backpack with water, food, a gun, all the remaining codeine and… matches, recalling her warning to the crew: no fires, the whole place might ignite. Then she staggered up the beach, up the block wall, where she paused. Majella turned for a last glance at the tent, at the remains of the Parkes, and at the last she expected to see of the remnants of the hopeful crew who had arrived here.
As Majella climbed down into the crater, stabilizing her rib with one hand, her thoughts broke free of the corset she’d laced them into. They grew wild like the black forest around her, followed any crazy idea to its extreme. The crew were caught, trapped. They needed her. Worse, they were already dead.
She heard the first calls for help but thought her ears were playing tricks on her. The cries grew louder, real, and puzzle pieces fell into place. Majella ran towards the black messy pit, weaving through dense vines, ignoring her pain. She crashed and fell once, then went a little slower, bleeding inside, drawn forward by the compelling cries ahead.
There they were, all the crew, waist deep in black ooze. Forbes was staring up at the sky, tears staining his face. Drew almost dozed off, but shook himself awake. The others were similarly devastated and inanimate. All alive, except for Barry. Majella gasped when she saw Barry’s arm protruding from the swamp, her fingers curled and bluish. Her gasp drew the crew’s attention.
“Stop!” Forbes whispered. “Go back.”
“They’re already moving,” Drew said.
“Did you bring a gun? Put my crew out of their misery, then try to get away,” Forbes hissed. “Or shoot yourself, too.”
Majella slowly turned to look behind her, eyes rolled to the side as far possible, to see what was slithering towards her. Black vines writhed closer, creeping, trying to pass unnoticed.
“If you keep still they might stop,” Elsie, the engineer, whispered.
Majella froze. The vines moved closer and closer. She clenched her teeth, determined to stay still. They didn’t pause, though, slithering closer and closer–then stopped a few feet away. Majella exhaled.
“After about ten minutes, they seem to fall asleep.”
“We mightn’t have that long,” Forbes said.
Ten minutes felt like an eon but Majella began to count the seconds in her head.
“Heavy steps seem to wake them,” Elsie said.
Majella kept counting the seconds until she reached 600. She slipped her hand inside her bag and withdrew the sheet of pills. She popped three out of the blister pack and swallowed them. Two had been enough to knock her out yesterday.
Matches in her other hand, she turned halfway around, and threw the pack of codeine to Drew, who was nearest.
“Take three,” she said.
He took them and handed the pack to Forbes, who took his pills and handed them around to the others.
There were two packs of matches, and Majella threw one to Forbes.
“You know what plastic comes from?” she said drowsily.
“Oil,” Drew said.
“And oil comes from…” Forbes followed the line of logic.
“Living matter,” Drew said.
“We’re its food,” Majella concluded.
“Let’s take it down,” Forbes said.
Majella’s vision was tunneling, as she lit match after match, casting them behind her, around her, everywhere. Forbes struck matches, too. The vine withdrew, flicking away like a whip, coiling on itself into the distance.
The whole island shuddered like an earthquake, then heaved upward, cavern yawning before it began to close over and recoil down into the sea. The fallen matches had ignited the black pit. Fire raced over the tar and leapt to the vines and treetops. It roasted the island, even as it folded in on itself and downward.
Burn, said Majella, holding up her hand, watching her fingers kindle like candles against the smoke blackening the sky. She couldn’t feel a thing.
Burn and die, she cursed it.
The irony wasn’t lost on her, that she was now destroying the rapid adaptation she’d spent her life searching to discover. How foolish she’d been, failing to realize that its existence would mean the demise of her own.
Helen Stubbs is a writer based on Australia’s Gold Coast, with stories published in anthologies and magazines, including Apex Magazine, Midnight Echo and Winds of Change. Her Creative Writing Honours dissertation explores literary activism and nature, emotion and the supernatural. Catch up with her as@superleni on Twitter or visit her blog at helenstubbs.wordpress.com.