They could read your mood. That was the most terrifying thing. I wondered if they could even read your decisions. We never comprehended that breathing was a language, a means to communicate. They gulped up every mist of carbon dioxide we breathed out and drank it into their leaves through those little green mouths, thousands of fat-lipped stomates, absorbing our breaths for sustenance but more than that, to see how we really felt. I had realised that every single breath was loaded with DNA which betrayed us down to our mood at any given moment. My theory was sound.
When the Dubois Explorer broke apart on the rocks near the uncharted island in the pacific, we had initially felt lucky to survive. The storm had been ferocious but the shallows between the rocks gave us enough of a barrier to navigate to the beach despite the crashing waves. The ship’s crew were lost, but my two companions, my science team, were with me in the rocky gullies near the shoreline, slipping on seaweed, as we waded up to our waists in freezing, white water.
In science circles at least, they were a relatively high-profile pair, as both were published authors. Professor Sarah Willow was a geologist of some repute. Dr Daniel Everly was an anthropologist with a social media following not typical of his profession, and I, with my single-mindedness, was a regular publisher of papers on botany. I had been on television twice in the last year and that certainly helped the deal with the venture I believe. We had cobbled together a hasty project proposal and were rewarded with funding for a vessel, equipment and our small team of adventurers.
“Bring back film, lots of films,” the Research Council chairman had instructed. “And plant a flag while you are there. A new discovery like this, an island system, for Britain, that would be something.”
He was smiling and laughing, but I never knew if he was joking or serious. I had chosen to ignore the remark.
The storm had come from seemingly nowhere. It erupted as we neared our intended destination. The boat was sturdy but a powerhouse of a rogue wave smothered the deck and pilot cabin and that was the beginning of the end of the Dubois Explorer. As the boat listed, we were pushed to the liferafts but before we even reached the deck, lightning illuminated the jagged rocks before us, about to tear into that crippled vessel.
We had no idea if the May Day call had been sent and if so, received, as we huddled on the sand, coughing out seawater and shivering close to the dangerous edge of hypothermia.
We retreated into the thick jungle at the head of the beach, with its protective canopy luring us into sheer darkness, stumbling, afraid but alive. It was only in the long-awaited peachy dawn light that we could see how strange and alien the place was. It was a truly unique ecosystem, cut off from influence, a new, one-of-a-kind landscape on Earth.
On that first day, we could see that the flora was closer to our time frame of movement. Like prayer plants, the leaves would shudder or arc suddenly, in your peripheral vision. You could hear them rustle with activity. It felt from that first morning, as they bloomed and reached for sunlight, that they were acutely aware of our presence and intrusion. I must admit, despite being marooned it made me a little excited at first. This was a discovery unlike any other. This would mean awards, fame, and even fortune if we ever escaped the island. We had stumbled onto an evolutionary pocket unlike anything recorded before.
In one twisted way, we had attained what we were searching for. It was one of the reasons we had ventured into the bleak seascape, thousands of miles into the ocean, to study uncharted landmasses. It was like our mission had been gifted and cursed at the same time. No humans had been to this wilderness before, I had presumed that, anyway. It was a simple Google map update that led us there, we knew that there was a new island cluster on the map, previously shrouded under a cloud cover so that satellites were blind to it.
It only took hours before the excitement changed into dread, followed by a pure kind of terror.
As we warmed in the sunlight of that first morning, under the dripping branches of odd, unfamiliar trees, and gathered our resolve, that’s when we first heard the human sounds from the foliage. It was like baby mutterings, unformed words but definitely human.
Sarah and Dan stopped what they were doing, ringing out clothes, and pacing in circles. They froze in silence, listening to the faint distorted voice, like a ghost had materialised on the island to greet us.
“What the hell is that?!” gasped Sarah, staring in the direction of the thick foliage and undergrowth. Her intent scrutinising stare I had come accustomed to was fixed on the sounds.
Dan stood firmly like he was bracing for a fistfight and said, “That’s a person, I swear that is a voice, but it’s weird, something is not right about it… We must take a look.”
I caught Sarah’s eye and she shook her head slowly whilst staring at me, as if telling me it was the worst idea to investigate.
Dan noticed her reaction and frowned, whispering to us both: “Yes, it is weird, I get that, but we are scientists and we have to look. Someone might be here and able to help us.”
He buttoned up his ragged, damp, khaki shirt and slicked a hand through his shoulder-length brown hair.
“Come on…” he beckoned, gesturing with a hand to follow him. He was trying to project resolve but his fear was easy to read. The way he edged so gingerly toward the bushes was like a nervous gazelle scanning for a hidden lion in the tall grasses.
Sarah did not move but I made a decision to relax the tension in my shoulders and follow him a few paces behind. He stepped through the bushes, blindly, pushing away each branch, reed and vine with both hands. It was an overwhelming tangle of green and texture.
The voice came again, and this time it sounded like Sarah, which was even stranger still, it was almost identical to her tone of voice, even down to the sound of chattering teeth and shivering, in its delivery.
And then, we heard the words clear as day.
“…I am cold…”
It was clear and pronounced but as if it was synthesised through an electronic filter, like a harmony of several voices at once, overlaying and rippling. Maybe it was a recording, I thought, as it was something she had said last night, but that made no sense. Who and why would anyone record it and play it back out in the middle of a bizarre tropical island?
Dan was wide-eyed and bewildered but the voice drove him on, he had to know, he had to solve the unnerving mystery.
All at once, he vanished, with a yelp of primal panic and the sound of a splash below. A moment passed as I hurried to where he had been, careful of my footfalls and that’s when he started screaming shrilly, in total agony. A sweet, fragrant jasmine-like scent wafted upward and with it the more odious stench of raw meat. I was confused. I peered over the edge of a thick tree root where it bordered a gully. Down below, there was a sheer, slippery drop of about three metres into a perfectly positioned, translucent, living, veiny funnel.
Dan had slid into the innards of a gigantic pitcher plant. His arms were flailing at the smooth, wet sides of the bulbous throat of the plant. It was a natural trap the size I had never witnessed. The digestive juices inside were burning him like acid, peeling off his skin as if it had been fried on a hob. As his eyelids burned away, his bulbous eyeballs were screaming at me in their own way, pleading to die and within a frantic, helpless few moments of time, that wish was granted. He shrivelled into a ball of bubbling flesh and to my surprise, the plant’s trap closed over, indicating it needed time to breakdown the bulk of the catch.
As if to mock, the voice again murmured over the breeze, “…I am cold…”
I looked up and realised it was coming from the leaves of the pitcher plant, which were numerous over long tentacles of root or vine that reached out from its thick stem and curled over the branches above the trap. It occurred to me almost instantly that it was part of the trap, incredible. I ripped a large leaf off raggedly, about the size of a dinner plate, and stuffed it untidily into my shirt pocket, momentarily pausing to acknowledge the sudden violent death of my colleague. I had not known Dan that long. He had been recommended to me by the university and apart from swapping notes on botany and anthropology and the odd game of cards in the cabin I knew very little about him. I was on the spectrum, and a scientist, so I was adept at pushing emotions down deep inside. I backed up to Sarah and shook my head. None-the-less, it had been a terrible shock and something I never thought I would witness.
“What the…What happened… Is Dan dead?”
“He is. I saw it. The plants here, I wager, are apex predators. Sounds crazy, but that pitcher plant mimicked your voice to entice him closer.”
I pulled out the ruffled leaf and unravelled it on the sandy ground. Once it was flat, I picked it up and held it high, facing the sun so the rays illuminated the thin structure inside.
“My guess is it’s to do with stomates,” I hypothesised. “Stoma literally means ‘mouth’ in Greek, as you know, and they are the means for gaseous exchange for photosynthesis and to create biomass. What if those mouths evolved, like ours, and had some kind of vocal cords?”
She was dizzy with indignation and was holding her blonde hair with bunched fists. Just seconds ago Dan had been devoured by a monstrous carnivorous plant and there was I, unravelling a theory rather than screaming at the jungle. No matter, once I had put the idea in her head, I could see her brain ticking. Working things out, discovery, it was our lifeblood.
“… Okay, but how did it detect us, how did it hear us, or know we are here to do that?”
“DNA…” I answered. “Every breath is loaded with it and gets drunk in by leaves. They know we’re here aright and they have ways of baiting us. Let’s return to the beach and follow it along to the rocks. We’re like toddlers stumbling around in a bear’s den, let’s play it safe until we work out what we are dealing with. There are so many plants here and I hardly recognise any of the species.”
As we began to make our way back to the sandy shore, I thought of how some lifeforms were not what they appeared to be until you looked closer. You think of coral as plants, the polyps just sits there on the ocean floor, yet they are animals, with a mouth, tentacles and a stomach. It occurred to me I had seen little evidence of animals here, but there must be something big enough to fall into and sustain a pitcher plant that large and hungry. Dan had been incredibly unlucky. I recalled at least him saying on the boat, that he did not have a family of his own and his parents had passed. It was a strange blessing not to leave others in pain for the rest of their lives on your departure, that was how I comforted myself as we walked.
We could see the sea through the trees in the distance so we picked up the pace. That’s when Sarah stood on something accidentally, it was like a beige, soft football and it instantly exploded into an eruption if jutting purple spores. I instinctively covered my nose and mouth with my hand as best I could, as the mist of colour coated her. She fell to her knees and wretched. I stopped where I stood, and I waited until the cloud of spores settled on the ground, watching Sarah circling on her hands and knees in confusion. She vomited and rolled on her back, disorientated and poisoned.
“Sarah?!” I yelled at her, to see if she had enough faculties to answer. She did not, she merely groaned and wept and clutched her stomach. Eventually, I noticed her movements slowed, her thrashing limbs spasmed and retracted till she was still. A toxin was paralysing her, flowing through her arteries. I knew I had to be careful. If I approached too soon, it might be fatal for both of us. Eventually, a few minutes later, she seemed to come miraculously back to life. She moaned, sat upright on the sandy earth and blinked at me.
“Wh…What happened?” she stuttered, wiping what she thought was purple dust from her eyes.
“We have to get to the beach…. How do you feel?”
“I feel… Strange… Like I’m underwater… Am I ill?”
“I don’t know yet. You inhaled some spores, don’t know what they were but I think they were a toxin. At least, you appear recovered now.”
She pushed herself to her feet and wobbled toward me. I held her elbow and assisted her in a slow amble through the remaining pencil-thin, towering palms before the shore. When we reached the beach, I noticed familiar black shapes amongst the scattered debris of the shipwreck, the shapes of bodies. I recognised the captain, his face bloated with the sea, his arms outstretched in death. As we grimaced at the sight, a pair of parallel stalked, jade, oval eyes poked from the damp sands nearby. They protruded a good two feet high above the sand and stared at us, deciding if we posed a threat.
“A giant crab…” I whispered, “Do not move… Incredible!”
The gnarly crustacean was a gigantic fiddler crab with one heavy, armoured claw and one tiny in comparison. The beast emerged with some effort and shuffling, from beneath the beach, and without pause scuttled sideways to scavenge food. With its primary claw, it gripped the captain by his limp, dead arm. We watched, mute, as the animal dragged the corpse into its hidden lair of tunnels beneath us, kicking up sand as it vanished below.
“Okay, keep moving,” I said, “but stay close to the edge of the jungle, where the ground is stony and harder.”
We meandered; my senses sharpened with the anticipation of another one of those huge crabs crawling out from below, to investigate our footfalls. A claw of that size could maim us easily. I was also aware of unusual insect noises, and although they were far away they were loud. I knew there would be insects here, for pollination, but everything had been left to develop to prehistoric dimensions. Bugs I imagined, would be the size of fists or bigger, we would need to avoid them if we possibly could.
By the time we reached the far side of the beach, the terrain was increasingly rocky and infertile, which I considered a good thing. I spotted a foreboding but empty cave entrance in a cliff that bookended the beach and the tide was low enough to ignore. It would be a place to reside to catch our breath in relative safety. I could hear new noises from the jungle, strange noises as if the trees were communicating, the sounds seemed to track our progress, to follow us up the beach. I had the distinct impression the plants and trees here, at least some species, were sentient and had a cognitive ability although how I would only guess at. As a botanist, I had studied the amazing, interconnected brain-like qualities of mycorrhizal fungi networks, the internet-esque communications, the cross-feeding systems, and chemical signalling from plant to plant, so I knew that trees could have a true sense of community. This, however, was another level. They were mimicking us, tracking us, reading us intimately.
When we reached the cave I was relieved, but I noticed the rocks poking up through the sand were perfectly smooth and equal in size.
“That’s strange for rock formations,” Sarah said, her geology senses peaking, “Wait…Oh God…”
When we crouched, we could see the pale ivory domes were in fact human skulls, like oversized mushrooms, clinging to the ground. We were not the first to discover this place, after all. I sat cross-legged, and Sarah decided to lay back on the sand, as if she was exhausted and had found a perfectly adequate bed.
“We’re going to die, here,” she said without emotion. I did not reply but kept my eye firmly trained on the beach and the shore. There were horrors hidden at every turn in this place. Evolution was about producing killers, that seemed to be its purpose.
She passed out again, I guessed from the rigours of the ordeal, and I did not wake her. Instead, I returned my attention to the leaf I had acquired, it was a wonderful discovery that would probably never reach my home country. I sighed.
Sarah began to moan again, this time as if delirium had taken her, and I noticed she seemed to be sweating, not from the temperature, but from a fever. I spied bean-sized bulbous fungal lumps growing on her arms, neck, and face. The spores, they must be something even more sinister than I had assumed. Some fungi I realised could take over insects, and control their hosts, turning them into something else, and changing them at a cellular level profoundly. I stood up and it was the speed of their growth that shook me. Her helpless body was morphing before my eyes, her flesh becoming a bumpy mat of puffy grey protrusions. She was being used by the fungi, no doubt a way to transport the spores great distances to establish new territories for the lifeform. Clever, brutal and selfish nature.
I was mesmerised by the vision and acutely aware there was nothing I could do to help her. When she awoke, her eyes began to close over to leave her staring through the narrowest of slits. She reacted as anyone would, she screamed and did not stop. In a mocking mimic, within a few minutes, the jungle was screaming back at her, an audible mirror of her pain. She somehow managed to get off the ground to her feet but fell almost immediately, the lumps were continuing to grow and in doing so they weighed her down, creating new large puffballs rooted in, and feeding from, her flesh. She was being devoured as fertiliser. As she writhed on the sand, she seemed unable to look at me and I in turn backed away from her. I edged away from the cave entrance one step carefully at a time. She began to lose her shape as a human, transforming into a cluster of puffballs, only betraying her humanity with the sight of a single leg still in proportion, a quivering solitary hand and of course the groans of horror still emanating from inside her.
That’s when I knew I was truly alone.
I walked from the cave, very carefully, to tread softly on the sand. This time I was very shaken, more so than by Dan’s demise. In such a short time, two of my companions, both experts on nature, had fallen foul to such trickery from this bizarre flora. I felt as if I were in a nightmare. I began to scavenge the sands for items of use, in the scattered debris from the wreckage of the Dubois Explorer. That’s when I found my soaking wet rucksack that had found its way from my cabin to the beach in the storm waves. Inside it was a bottle of beer and my journal; although the pages were damp, I could still write on them. I twisted the cap of the tall bottle and drank it fast, so it was spilling from my gums. It was like nectar to me, and for all I knew it could be the last beer of my life. When I had finished it, I paused intentionally, and I took in the sea and let my mind wander for a moment. The intensity of the day had been overwhelming.
I scrawled some hasty notes about what had happened on the island, upon a page in the book.
Project New Lands, Need Rescue, alone on an uncharted island. Hostile and intelligent life here. Follow the last position of Dubois Explorer. Everyone else is dead. Dr Chan, Oxford University.
I tore the page out, rolled it up and rammed it into the neck of the bottle. The bent bottlecap was easy to shape back into place, to fit the top of the bottle although it was a little loose. I had a long leather wristband which I wrapped around the neck and cap and tied off to make a crude waterproof seal. I would leave it under the shoreline, and maybe the tide would take it out.
The twilight was nearing and with the onset of another night in this place, no doubt, I would be faced with a whole new range of horrors, which I would need to confront to survive.
‘Plants always eat you in the end anyway,’ I thought to myself, almost amused, imagining the unstoppable, hidden roots and fungi that feed off of buried corpses.
“…I am cold…” chanted the trees in unison, as if Sarah was calling to me from death. “…I am cold…”