My first entry for 2019 NYC Midnight short story competition. Science fiction, a fisherman, a crime of passion. I got my talented daughter to create an original illustration for the story.
The air was crisp as Albi made the morning walk from his camp to the research station at the far end of the bay. The beach curved in the shaped of a crescent moon the colour of bleached bones. Above the high tide line were salt-ravaged objects: crisp ribbons of seaweed, driftwood, fish skeletons and the pock-marked array of plastic rubble. As he neared the concrete building, he gave a morning nod to the decomposing whale family; a mother and twin calves drawn together and strangled by a blue plastic polymer fishing net. Their once fleshy skin drawn black and tight across oversized mammal skeletons which showed through in the places where the flesh had dried and shrunk back from the bones. He remembered when they were still alive, moaning and rolling in the tangled ghost net, distressed but giving each other comfort as they gradually starved to death. Now the vacant eye socket of a calf looked seaward, forever into the ancient past when his ancestor whales carved their way north below the continental shelf, carried on warm currents into wide, protected birthing bays. But the deep-sea crevasses had all filled with plastic; not breaking down but breaking up into grades of tiny particles that sat like confetti sludge in every deep channel, in every vein of the world’s bloodstream. The ocean had settled into a gentle rhythm today, and with the waves gently spilling onto the sand, it felt like spring. Today the water was calm enough for Albi to visit his deep-sea nursery.
He stood still before the sensor pad and the scanner danced across his left eyeball- old technology, a relic of the bio-obsessed 21st century- and he wondered how anyone else would be able to access the facility once he was gone. His life’s work, locked away at land’s end. On one wall were large glass tanks numbered one to five. In the first were large plastic items including bottles, pieces of Styrofoam, a pop vinyl child’s toy, straws and numerous shards of larger plastic containers. To the naked eye it appeared as if something invisible were nibbling and tugging at the edges. The second and third tanks had plastic shards decreasing in size and the fourth tank contained plastics no larger than children’s glitter. The water in the vat seemed to writhe and swirl. Albi went over to tank number five and scooped out a ladle of water a little thicker than sea water. It seemed to pop and fizz and absorb the light.
Behind the tank room was a laboratory with various necessary pieces of paraphernalia, tools, a scalpel and jars with chemicals, acids and bases. Against the other wall was a daybed where Albi would sleep if he was working on an experiment showing promising results. He had a small collection of photographs on the wall, his mother looking very thin, not long before she died, himself at nine, beaming at the camera, holding a silver-scaled barramundi. He paused on the picture of Audra and sighed deeply. They met while studying bioengineering and again when they both started working for the Environmental Protection Agency. In the photo she was young and wearing a full-length waterproof lab suit as she waved from the rocks with the deep blue ocean and violet sky behind her. He tried to imagine her in a sundress. He wished she would come during winter so she could keep him warm and tell her the myths he knew about this lonely part of the world, where forest gave way to black rocks battered by the howling Southern Ocean. But she had been coming later and later, and last year she did not come at all.
The yelping, snorting noise brought him back to the present and Albi walked through into the largest room in the facility. In it were two large submerged tanks like you would find at Seaworld. The small school fish in the first tank darted back and forth at the prospect of being fed. The yelping came from an adult fur seal in the second larger tank and it shied away from Albi and swam to the far edge of the pool. He took a net and adeptly scooped up three fish and flung them to the seal. In response the seal rolled in the water and Albi saw the patches of red raw lesions on the creature’s back, her sides, and across her belly. “I’m sorry,” he said, but he noticed she was healing.
He called it the deep-sea nursery, but the reality was not so romantic. While he was able to keep a seal in the holding tank, larger mammals needed to be studied in a place that allowed for the flow of ocean currents, and a more ‘natural’ feeding experience. He didn’t always get the mix of inhabitants right and had lost many valuable specimens over the years. Albi had learnt the hard way never to trap an orca. He’d had a whole family thrashing around on the outside of the tank to ‘rescue’ the one in captivity and he’d had to make extensive repairs to the mesh and viewing platform after he finally released the animal. Now the only large inhabitants were three black and white Hourglass dolphins and an Antarctic minke whale. He threw them buckets of fish but noticed the minke was listless and reluctant to feed. The warmer currents always brought larger waves of plastic particles and the filter feeding whale couldn’t avoid ingesting the vile bounty. Albi noted that unlike fish, who died soon after ingesting plastics, the whale’s digestive system managed to excrete most plastics. It still wasn’t good, because the creature spent energy feeding with no nutritional benefit, but at least some of it passed through the gut.
Bringing the row boat back into the shore was difficult. The wind had picked up and the clouds hung low, heavy with rain. As he slowed the boat and navigated towards the ramp Albi saw her. Audra. Watching from the headland. He tied the boat securely and moved quickly, ready to throw his arms around her. But as he got closer he stopped and took in the sight of her. Her head was turned, and her eyes were far away, all at sea. Instead of her lab coat she wore a limp satin wedding dress, the colour of bleached cuttlefish bone, and in the breeze it flapped against her shrunken frame. The bottom of the dress was tattered and her feet were bare. She turned then, and there was recognition, a smile, and as she moved towards him, she started to cry.
Back at the camp, Albi gave Audra a mug of desalinated, decontaminated seawater. “I miss cups of tea.” Albi smiled and nodded.
“And I miss fish and chips.” She had bought a backpack and crate with Albi’s supplies- mainly nutrient powders to keep him alive- but there were a few tropical fruit essences to sprinkle on his fibre protein blocks. She took out a small brown cube and carefully placed three clear drops on it from one of the bottles.
“Albi…would you like a mango?” She smiled ironically and held it out. He laughed and grabbed her then and hugged her and kissed her hollow cheeks.
“Tell me the news. I want to know. No matter how bad. And what’s with the wedding dress?”
The picture she painted was worse than he imagined. The last eighteen months had seen plasticaemia mutate so that microplastics stored in fatty tissue spread to muscles and bone marrow. Worse still, it was found to be spread not only by blood to blood contact, but through saliva. Island dwellers were the first to be impacted, and The Special Forces had quarantined whole islands in the South Pacific and were using drone technology to torpedo any water going vessel that ventured from the land. In the Northern Hemisphere things were worse. People travelled to inland Europe, away from the coast and further north into Russia where sprawling camps spewed out from dwindling freshwater lakes. Anyone showing signs of plasticaemia was euthanized and burnt in piles. Audra described her camp in the desert where authorities were pumping clean water from the Great Artesian Basin. The saliva mutation meant that those who stayed on the coast had died in a few fast waves and rotting corpses littered once iconic beaches; the tell-tale signs of the illness causing their flesh to turn black and shrink around their brittle bones.
Albi looked at her face again and knew there was more she had to tell him. She had gotten permission to travel down to see him, to bring supplies, but no one had any hope that his research would save the human race. The wedding dress had been her mother’s and it made Audra sad to think that there would be no more weddings in their family. Or children. She paused and then pulled back the skirt of her dress to reveal the patches of tight skin on her legs that resembled fragments of old vinyl records. “They would have killed me Albi, if they knew I was sick. I can’t go back.”
“Come on,” he said, taking her hand. “I have something to show you.”
In the lab he showed Audra a series of slides under the high-powered microscope. In one, a star-shaped microorganism with teeth on each of its appendages could be seen ingesting plastic fragments. She smiled down, fascinated. “What is that?”
“That is a microorganism, a bacteria I call Aurora, after the Aurora Australis.”
“It ingests plastic?”
“Yes…and it’s voracious. It turns bisphenol A, phthalate and epoxy resins into organic excrement.”
Then Albi ushered Audra over to the glass holding tank number five and motioned for her to wait there. He returned with a fish in a small hand net. Its belly looked bloated and lumpy, which indicated its gut was full of plastic, and he released it into the water. The fish lolled about on the surface before flicking its tail and swimming below the surface. The water began to swirl, startling the fish, which began to open and close its mouth. The water appeared to pop and fizz and in a matter of minutes the bloating stomach had shrunk and the fish squeezed out a long strand of faeces. “They eat the plastic in its gut? And the fish survives?” Albi nodded.
“And the best part is that the fish are safe to eat afterwards.”
“So is this the answer then? Have you saved us Albi?” But he shook his head.
“No. I haven’t had the same success with mammals.”
“Do you still have the fur seal we caught? Can I see her?” Albi scooped up the now lively fish, and cut its throat.
“You can see her tomorrow.”
That night they sat under the full moon and ate the fish like it was a ritual of worship. The skin was crisp, oily and delicious and the white flesh flaked and fell away from the skeleton. It tasted like the sea; the ancient sea of the ancestors, the clean sea of salt mist and vibrant green seaweed, and with each bite they savoured the gentle rhythm of life, the ebb and the flow. Albi took off Audra’s wedding dress and they made love in the quiet hours. She cried and admitted she was afraid to die.
It was unusual that he slept so deeply and woke so late. He looked around the camp but Audra was gone. She had folded her wedding dress on a rock and taken his spare pair of overalls. The rowboat was still tied up, so Albi knew she hadn’t gone to the deep-sea nursery. She used to like visiting the captured whales and dolphins out there, but he’d planned to avoid it this time. The saturation of plastics had reached the Southern Ocean now, and he suspected he’d seen the last of the world’s healthy cetaceans.
Audra was waiting for him beside the trio of dead whales. He could see that she was comparing her own black lesions with the tight vinyl-sheened flesh on the whales. She drew a sad face in the air above them and stood up. “I want to pet our seal.”
The seal was moving as if in slow motion when the two entered the room, and she shied away to the far edge of the tank. It appeared as if her wounds were healing quickly and Albi made a mental note to examine her more closely when she was feeling better. Audra knelt by the tank, but the seal wouldn’t move. “What happened to her?”
“I put some Aurora bacteria in her pool. I know mammals store microplastics in the fatty tissue, and I knew she would only have a small level of contamination. She’s not shown any signs of plasticaemia so I hoped…I hoped she would be cured.” The seal turned her soft eyes towards his voice. “She’s healing Audra, even in a tank where the bacteria are breeding. She’s clean.”
Audra took off her overalls quickly, and before Albi could stop her, she slipped into the tank. She was painfully thin and the icy water made her skin bristle with goose bumps. Suddenly the water began to eddy and swirl as if connected to some impossible current, her eyes flashed, scared, and then her body was sucked under the surface and in the churning wash of the seawater she was set upon by ravenous microorganisms. The purple bruises became open, bleeding wounds and then the blood would disappear. He saw the flash of a hand, long strands of hair, the white of a bone sucked clean, flesh devoured as he watched. And then as quickly as it started, the ripples subsided and she was nothing left but a mess of hair, fingernails, tendons and bones. Albi felt rage then, a primal anger at the world, and he knew what he had to do.
He made his way out to the deep-sea pool with a large canister of Aurora. He could not wait any longer. Audra was dead and the world was dying with her. He made a silent apology to the Minke whale and the three dolphins, but in his heart he knew these creatures would be the first survivors. He poured the water into the ocean and it was quick to take effect. The Minke began to twitch a little and attempted to roll and dive. The dolphins, who were faster, began to swim around and did a series of breeches. Albi saw a few red patches appear on their skin in places where they stored fat, but as quickly as it started the movement stopped.
And they went further and further down, invisible, deep beneath the surface, a plume of microorganisms propelled themselves into the trench below the great continental shelf, North towards the powerful East Australian Current, to be dispersed along all the arteries and veins of the world.