Kurosh J. Shadmand
That’s what had brought them to the island and its attendant reefs that feasted upon nutrients dredged from the muddy depths by chill, well-travelled, abyssal drifts.
Borne by a techno-sleek research craft, their bio-boxes were crowded with taxonomically ordered oceanic life: demon coral and crimson sea-stars, benthic feeders and photic war jellies, multitudinous shapes and forms rendered, at the edge of life, by ingenious instrumentation, bio-mimetic chemicals, thermo and pressure precise control.
It was all wasted now—it was lost, returned to the murky waters within silvered coffins when the research vessel had sunk. It was a quick and painless death which came unexpectedly, a murderous blow from a rogue wave glittering in the early morning sun. The ship had rolled, gasped, and burbled as it bled buoyancy, then surrendered to the depths. Having slept beneath the staring stars, he’d made it from the drowning deck, struck for the island’s nearby shore and crawled, exhausted, onto the sand.
He’d thought he could see the bodies of his team at first, in the waters off the steep shelf plunging into the deeps and felt a surge of guilt. It was because of him they’d come here. He’d plotted the route, selected this island as a stop-off, pledged that its unique location promised abundant life. But guilt was soon replaced by something else.
For the things in the water were not his crew…
He’d tried to identify them, but failed, only learning there was more than one, several shapes in fact, a score—large, ponderous, angling closer to the shore. When he’d first seen a ripple-flash of weird colour come from one of the lurking, cruising forms, he’d backed away from the water’s edge, unsettled, and retreated to the tree’s edge. They’d followed.
Dusk had come, his first alone upon the island. He’d sat quietly, eyes and ears both strained as the sounds of insect and aviary life deadened and were replaced by the slither and pulse of lumpen, indistinct shapes that hauled themselves onto the sand. Painfully, they swelled, revealing shapes akin to titanic severed heads. Many limbs unraveled, Medusa-like, and hauled these crania along the beach. Then the flash he’d seen through the water would recur, that baleful iridescence glowing from within.
What purpose did it serve?
He hypothesised, collected evidence as more arrived and shone and sparkled as vivid expositions synchronised in the things, insinuating patterns, accommodations, flashing feelings and intent. Communication, he thought, encoded not in sound, but visual patterns and light. He is ours, they said, let’s collect… and they moved towards him in the gloom. He fled into the silent trees and found a clearing silvered by a sudden moon. As good a place to hide, to wait, perhaps even fight? Divergent intelligence was too treacherous a thing to trust your health, your life to. He fixed his gaze upon the clearing’s edge, then squeezed his eyes tight. Did he really wish to see the source of the slithering, stealthy sounds that were coming through the trees?
He murmured to himself and raved—then, as the things stalked closer, he shrieked. A strange sentience pursued him. He was all alone. He shouted, uttered dire curses, used the primal power of his voice—that honed and crafted primate evolution, that bespoke aggression, the social order, and science and dominion that other creatures feared. The things replied with gargled hoots—yet another pillar of conveyance—in an alienly, mocking cacophony that said to him, ‘but there are none to hear your cries...’ Then lights infiltrated and terror scratched, vindictive claws like those of a jungle-cat left the form of his language gashed with bloody scores, rendering it incoherent.
They paused at the clearing’s edge, then on they came with colorant displays, and he looked and saw them all around him, viciously unveiled. Huge, octopodian, glaring with pellucid eyes; shimmering, moist skin that was their voice, roaring in their silence; many limbs strong and snakelike, used for crawling locomotion, for seizing… they reached for him, coiled about him, lifted him struggling from his feet, while points of fire bit like barbs then cooled with icy, anesthetic numbness. He relented against his will and depthless liquid eyes crowded in, inscrutable, distracted...and a notion chilled.
Were they… tasting him?
A dazzle of approving crimson blazed and through his horror, and he noted distinctions in the things: eyes set slightly further apart in one hulking beast, a distinctive nick in the eye arch of another, a silver speckling upon one set of photic skin that shone like a cascading galaxy of stars. His psyche cleft in two, one taking notes, the other screaming.
They bore him clumsily through the trees, then whispering across the beach, down to the lapping water’s edge. Panic bloomed, a deeper circle of hell.
No, he would not be drowned!
Adrenaline aroused envenomed nerves, and he writhed against a hold as firm as wrought iron roots until the chill suffusion from the barbs drugged him more limp and he was pulled under, under, plungingly deep, until the thing’s myriad communication colours were spectrally curtailed into blues and greens and the breath was pressed in bubbles from his chest that fled to the above.
Now he would surely drown…
As he gasped for air and the burning saltwater surged into his lungs, he prepared for the blackness that would soon envelop him.
He would not be drowned…
For he saw his friends, lashed securely to a reef, flesh soft and shapeless from submersion. They were undead like he—water-breathing, starry-eyed aware, and destined for some other purpose. Rendered at the edge of life.