North of Antarctica

 

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Ball’s Pyramid in the Tasman sea is located 19 kilometers from Lord Howe Island east of Australia.

2023

“Angelina, would you set up a slide for that foreleg cross-section I made this morning? And find my notebook, if you can… I swear I had it before…”

“You did have your notebook before we last had sex, Professor Mires,” Evangeline mused. “Perhaps someone stole it, hoping for a ransom?”

Tristan sighed, running his fingers through the tropical sweat beading on his sunburned forehead. “We already discussed this, Ange. You have to finish your degree first. We’d both be ruined if I married you while you’re still interning and taking Advanced Entomology. Not to mention I haven’t broken it off with Rosie yet…”

Evangeline pouted. She’d always been able to melt the ice surrounding a man’s heart, his assets, whatever he had that she wanted. She’d made some headway with the geeky heir to a certain Paris mansion, but he was still much too closed-off for her liking.

“The sooner you do as I asked, the sooner we can head over to the mainland for that mall run.” Tristan grinned so sweetly that for a moment, Evangeline was afraid her own heart would melt out of character.

Before she could choke on sentiment, she whirled to face her travel wardrobe. From the top drawer, she drew out the thick leather-bound journal her professor insisted on keeping while studying the Gargantuan stick insects even though iPads had been invented since he’d first discovered the isolated population on a little-known island 300 miles north of New Zealand. Most of those gridded pages were filled with meticulous sketches of fossilized insects, dung, and nests, as well as chemical analyses and the first drafts of grant proposals he’d since submitted and never earned even so much as a friendly rejection letter.

A few of the pages were of a different genre. These had filled Evangeline’s sticky island dreams with visions of beautiful women, all tall and sensuous like her, contorting themselves into impossible positions to fit the desires of the mysterious man wielding the pencil.

Showing no outward sign of her knowledge, Evangeline flicked a strapless bra off the cover and handed the journal to her superior. His eyes darted to the bra, then quickly back to his notebook. “Right,” he said to Evangeline without looking at her. “The slide please.”

Taking her practiced route around the various clutter on the floor, Evangeline made it to the lab table, where she reached into the fossil drawer to search for specimen 498 among the plastic bags. She could sense her instructor glowering over her shoulder, and rummaged a bit more gracefully. “Are you sure you put it in the right drawer?” she inquired.

Suddenly her vision was blocked by what appeared to be an electrified ball of black yarn the size of her face. Spindly limbs adorned with amber spurs traced the outside edges of her face, while a hideous cephalic organ hung in her line of sight, pincers creaking open experimentally.

In that moment, all the de-sensitivity training she’d undergone in preparation for this insect field study fled from her brain, along with all human dignity. She screamed, batting at her face and thrashing her head from side to side.

The monster only clung tighter.

“How interesting… it appears to be secreting an adhesive mucus from its ventral glands…” Tristan’s pen scribbled madly on a page.

“Help me, you idiot!” Evangeline would have kept right on screaming, but just then the bug moved to cling to her lips. A shock, like a doctor’s syringe filled with sharp pineapple juice, pierced her chin. After a moment, the pain disappeared as the Gargantuan Stick dropped to the ground and slithered into a corner.

“Quick! Catch it! That’s the first live adult female…” Tristan trailed off, blinking dazedly at Evangeline. “What happened to your face?”

Evangeline’s heart dropped like she was riding a deadly 20th Century elevator. What had happened to her face? She lifted a trembling hand to brush her cheek. The skin, normally silken smooth, was cracked like a desert plateau. Deep ridges divided her forehead into a rough grid. Her chin was adorned with a stubbly stalactite. When she looked at her fingers, they had been stained green.

“It appears the bite of an agitated adult female can, as I predicted, cause physical mutation in a matter of seconds,” Tristan informed whoever might be listening. “This is excellent! Imagine the applications of such a serum, if it could be concentrated, perhaps mixed with bromine peroxide and fermented… why, we might just have an antidote to plastic surgery on our hands! Think of all the regretful celebrities!”

Evangeline reached into her pocket for a makeup mirror, but couldn’t bring herself to open it. “You do realize you’re legally responsible for my medical expenses,” she said, trying to breathe deeper. “We have to leave the island right now and go to a hospital, where you will pay for them to put my face back to normal. I signed a contract…”

“Oh, but you’re failing to account for academic justice!” Tristan was very excited now, marching around the room, gathering various gadgets and papers. “For fifteen years I’ve been fighting to get the scientific community to accept my hypotheses about these guys. They are not extinct, their venom is potent, and now I am its patent proprietor. We have to get you to that conference in Belgium right away.”

“What conference in Belgium…?”

“Once they see you, analyze the RNA, they can’t possibly doubt me. I’m so glad I found you.” The old thirsty smile was back on his lips, but where he would normally have embraced Evangeline, instead he cleared his throat and swallowed hard.

“I can understand that you want to exploit my body for scientific research and publicity, and that’s fine,” Evangeline said evenly, “but you will get my face fixed at some point, yes?”

“Oh, quite the contrary. I hereby forbid you to alter your appearance or chemical makeup in any way. You signed a contract.”

“That’s bull,” Evangeline spat. “I’m calling my personal surgeon to make an appointment tomorrow. Then I’m calling Mom.”

Tristan wrenched the pink iPhone out of her hands, dropped it on the floor, and stepped on it with a resounding crunch. He grinned up at Evangeline. “Welcome to the scientific community, babe.”

With words not forthcoming, Evangeline screamed, hefting a nearby microscope which was subsequently thrown at his head. Without waiting to see if she’d hit her target, she scampered across the cluttered floor, making for the door.

After a little jiggling of the rusty knob, it swung open.

“Run all you want,” Tristan smirked. Hurriedly donning his snorkeling mask, he knelt to peer under the bed, where the monster seemed to have escaped to. Meanwhile, his snark was not distracted. “I’ve just destroyed the last phone on the island, and you don’t have the key code for my motorboat. What are you going to do, swim to a cosmetic surgeon?”

“I was thinking more along the lines of, die trying,” Evangeline yelled into the wind. Before his snickers could buckle her knees from under her, she was running toward the rising tide.

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2032 – Monday

Rio Spencer motioned for the marine architects to follow. They kept hanging out in crannies along the lumpy shelf of the island, inspecting its viability to support the Spanish villa-resort she’d proposed to establish for tourists interested in the indigenous Antarctic parakeets. And that was all well and good – certainly Rio didn’t want her hotel to be famous for its deadly landslides – but she’d seen a flash of white around the corner, and she wanted help investigating before whatever creature it might be flitted away.

The architects were signing to each other in that underwater language that had never stuck in Rio’s head, no matter how many times she read the manual. Gritting her teeth in annoyance, she paddled over to the sunken promontory where she’d seen that flash – a gossamer fin, perhaps?

When she rounded the bend, Rio had to check and make sure her air flow hadn’t been cut off. She must be delusional. She couldn’t really be seeing a woman in a tattered white gown swaying like some undersea flower in the gentle current. But she did, or at least she thought she did – where were those darned architects?

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Never mind. Rio didn’t need them to figure out that this girl needed help. She propelled herself to float by her side. The eyes remained shut, the face still as stone. Tapping lightly on her shoulder, Rio asked, “How long have you been down here?”

The girl’s head whipped around to face her rescuer. When the flowing blond hair swept over the supple shoulder, Rio was not prepared for what she saw. Nearly choking on her own circulating breath, she paddled as far away from the creature as she could.

Meanwhile, awakened, the girl raised her bare arms over her head and began shooting toward the surface like a trained missile.

Rio wondered if she should warn her about water pressure.

Just then the girl swam right through a shark as if it were a hologram, causing Rio to reassess her considerate notion – clearly this thing wasn’t human. Whatever it was, it could take care of itself. Rio just hoped it wouldn’t try to take care of anyone else on the island.

2032 – Tuesday

Evangeline clicked her tongue in triplet rhythms at high frequency. As expected, a crowd of scorpions, crabs, and spiders scampered down from the canopy and rose from the breaking waves. Her slaves assembled around her mossy toes, waiting for auditory orders.

Evangeline grinned, contemplating just how to phrase her devious instructions. An added layer was translating it into language she and the arthropods could both comprehend. Her final message came out as follows: Nightfall. Tristan Mires – a light on his forehead. Extinguish him.

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Male Lord Howe Island Stick Insect K.

10:00 pm

Tristan trudged through the sludge of the rainforest floor, casting his headlamp vengefully in every direction he felt a mosquito bite. He was already exhausted from the 18-hour private plane flight with his wife, who couldn’t stop babbling about this hotel idea of hers. Now that she was finally winding down and preparing for her beauty sleep, the Gargantuan sticks would be searching for prey. Well, stick – according to his chemical analysis of the island, there was one live male present. Luckily, he was also in possession of his female from 9 years earlier.

A soft chirrup tickled his ears from above. When he shined his headlamp on the shimmering jade parakeet, it raised its crest and regarded him curiously.

“No fear at all,” Tristan muttered. “I could be here to pluck you or shoot you or even fry you up and put you on a bun with some pickles, and you wouldn’t even know enough to fly away.” He gazed into the ebony eyes, contemplating the rarity of an intelligent life-form – supposedly more intelligent than most humans – trusting him enough to creep closer along the branch. Slowly, he lifted his hand next to the silvery talons.

Something struck out at him from a cranny in the tree. He cried out as pain colonized his underarm and cloned itself like explosions of coral egg sacs all over his body. The parakeet fluttered out of reach as Tristan tumbled to the ground, where a swarm of dark creatures traversed his supine body, searching, pinching the skin, checking the veins.

A salty white tent sailed over his nose. “How do you like it now, huh Tristan?”

Tristan strained his neck, struggling to see the face these bare feet belonged to. “A- aaa- Angelina?”

“You’ll get my name right before I’m done with you.” She barked a thunderclap laugh that died as quickly as a summer storm. Then she made some kind of low, throaty noise Tristan could barely hear, followed by a few clicks of the tongue.

Like an army obeying orders, the claws and feet all evacuated Tristan’s arms, legs and torso at once. He sat bolt upright, preparing to make his escape. Before he could stumble to his feet, he met eyes with the horrid head that came out of the sensuous neck that came out of the white dress – it was less a face than a rotten piece of driftwood, overgrown with sponges, lavender corals and an acne of barnacles. Tiny isopods crawled around the mouth-hole as it formed what may have been loosely interpreted as a smile. “Kiss me.” The creature was upon him, sunken blue eyes staring into his. “Kiss me, and then you will do as I say.”

Tristan’s nostrils filled with the odor of fermenting marine invertebrates. Spluttering, he tried to shove the girl off his chest.

She grinned and gripped his shoulders to stay in his space. “Hmm, the serum should be kicking in right…about…now.” She glanced at her watch, then back up at Tristan. “Tell me, are you an arthropod person?”

A strange feeling came over him, as if his heart were wrapped in the softest of silken blankets. Hot, muggy blankets that seemed to slow the thoughts passing through his brain like flies caught in a sea of honey. And as he gazed upon this unique patch of ocean in the shape of a beautiful girl, he could not hide from himself the realization that she was the prettiest female in the world, his one true desire, that without her he would surely forget how to breathe. In a sudden, desperate burst of bravado, he pulled her in close and kissed the algae-lined lips, savoring the taste of salt and sea-lice.

When she pulled back, she was smiling, and sunshine seemed to radiate from her very being in the darkness.

“I’ll do anything you say,” Tristan avowed. He found it hard to form the words, like his consonants had been soaked in warm tea overnight. “What do you want from me?”

“Let’s find Daddy,” Evangeline said brightly. “I want the whole family together by daybreak.”

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12 am

“The whole ecology of this place depends on these guys. They keep heterotrophy in check, they filter pollutants, and without them in their daily diet the Antarctic parakeets can’t lay viable eggs.”

“Yes, I know. That’s all wonderful. That’s why I need you to do this for me.”

Rio rubbed her eyes and squinted at her phone. Midnight. Predictable time for Tristan to invite some coy shrimp into the houseboat.

I suppose I’ll have to go mediate, Rio groaned inwardly. With all the grace of a mahogany bureau, she heaved herself off her air mattress.

On the deck, Tristan stood holding a glowing glass box – the incubator for his precious breeding pair. Across from him, some barefoot girl in a white dress stood with her back to Rio, running her fingers along the edges of the insects’ last little world as if checking for grime.

Tristan looked right through his wife as if he couldn’t see her.

“Hey, there,” Rio said loudly. “Nice to meet you, young lady.” She put her hand on the girl’s pale shoulder.

An agglomeration of rotten and carnivorous things turned to face her.

“Um…” Rio glanced at Tristan. “Honey, we’ve talked about this before. If you’re going to bring home another woman, I have to be awake when you get here.”

Tristan’s eyes were impelled as if by magnetism to follow every ripple and twitch of the stranger’s body; he didn’t seem to hear anything his wife was saying.

Rio glared into the empty ebony eyes before her. “What are you doing? Who can I call to arrest you?”

“Fight all you want,” the algae-padded lips parted to utter. “In the end, beauty never lasts. You think these slutty bird-brains are beautiful? You think they deserve to be in the sunshine? No more than these sticks deserve to writhe in their guano. You can fight destruction, but you can’t win, honey.”

While Rio took that in, her rival turned back to the dreamy man holding the glass box. “Now, where were we?… Oh yes, you were just about to hand me the key.”

Tristan instantly produced a metal contraption designed to open the unique lock he’d commissioned for this purpose.

The coral-headed girl seized it.

Rio grabbed the girl’s clammy wrist. “You’re going to extinguish an endangered species that’s crucial to this environment!”

“Observation confirmed,” the face grinned, displaying a few misshapen teeth. “I could also destroy your pretty face, if that would add to your overall experience.”

“What’s wrong with you?”

The smile disappeared. In the tropical breeze, the goosebump-ed arms clutched one another. “Could you… say that again?”

“What’s wrong with you?” This time, Rio couldn’t keep the bittersweet curiosity out of her voice. If this lichen-grown garden had once been human, she could sense that the heart still was, more or less.

For a long moment, the two women stood across from each other as two equals, two planets pushing and pulling on each other’s gravitational fields, searching for signs of life.

The coral-head swiftly pivoted to face Tristan, who still stood like a robot holding the Gargantuan stick tank.

A soft hand darted out. A key plunged into the lock, striking the rattling clatter of endings.

Before Rio could decide which martial arts tactic to execute on this monstrous person, the two Gargantuan Sticks were scrambling over the stranger’s arms, in plain air for the first time since their capture.

Powerless to save the delicate insects without risking damage, Rio crumpled to her knees and glared up at the laughing creature. “You’re making a mistake, and the world has to pay… you monster! Who do you think you are, anyway?”

“Shut up!” the blond screamed, covering her ears. The bugs dropped from her hands and scurried toward the open railing.

Through a fog of screams, Rio navigated her way to the sleek black shadows, getting a nasty rugburn on the way. Just before they could disappear into the rainforest, she domed her hands over them. Legs and antennae squirmed and explored the windows between her fingers, searching for a way out. A needle pierced her palms, which soon began to itch, and she knew she’d been bitten. Still she held on, just tight enough to keep the insects from escaping without crushing them. The pain in her palms became unbearable, and yet she bore it, screaming in husky tones that vibrated at the base of her spine and seemed to bounce off the moon.

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A warm hand came to her shoulder. Tristan.

“Oh my god, Rio, I like just realized what was going on – it’s like I was sleepwalking or something. What are you doing?”

“Get… the… tank,” Rio managed to croak.

Tristan glanced down at her hands. “Don’t tell me you’re preventing the stick insects from escaping…”

“Didn’t think I’d have to,” Rio muttered to avoid screaming in his face.

“Look at your hands! They’re ruined!”

In fact, it appeared Rio’s hands and forearms had been grafted with tough green crocodile skin. Her fingernails grew long and sharp, like rocky arrowheads.

“We have to get you into plastic surgery ASAP! Cancel the wildlife census, forget that stupid hotel. I’m calling your doctor.” He tapped violently on his phone.

In the overturned bowl of her palms, the insects stirred weakly. She stood and strode over to the glass incubator, where she gently deposited them on their bed of decomposing leaves. She closed the top, placing her bare foot atop it while she held out her hand to the strange girl for the key.

“You’re horribly ugly,” the girl gasped. “Your whole existence has been ruined! And all you care about is a couple of gross bugs!”

“The bugs don’t care if they’re ugly. The parakeets don’t know they’re beautiful. What gives us the right to be any different?” A laugh slipped out like a tropical waterfall. “Forget my bourgeois hotel. If I can protect something beautiful, I’ll do it for the beauty, not for what it looks like.”

The coral-head stepped back. “Are you going to send me to jail?”

Rio shook her head. “No. But I’d like to learn more about each other, maybe see if we want to partner in a conservation venture…”

“Why would you even act like you like me?”

“Because I do. After all, we were both used by the same rotten guy.” Rio grinned. “What would you say to fixing this together?”

The dark, wet eyes glanced down at Rio’s monstrous arms, then back at her smiling face. “You’re still beautiful, after all,” she mused.

A million possible responses, ranging from polite to profound to exasperated, flashed through Rio’s mind. Staying silent, she looked the coral-headed girl straight in the face. Not to study its gruesome features. Not to intimidate the creature like a wounded wolf. Just to give her eye contact, and ask her to give it back. Nothing more needed to be said.

The strange girl knelt and locked the glowing incubator. She deposited the key in Rio’s alligator hand. Coated in sludge, bruised, and scaly in places, the two women embraced. It was the warmest embrace Rio had ever fallen into, better even than her first Japanese hot springs retreat.

Overhead, an emerald flash shrilled of dawn.

“Morning already?” In wonderment, the women glanced around, watching the dark curtain lift to reveal a sky the color of babies’ cheeks, of blueberries mashed in cream to feed to an invalid.

“It’s beautiful,” the algae lips whispered.

“Okay, it’s settled then. 4:30 sharp.” Tristan emerged from the houseboat and stuffed his phone in his pocket. “I’ll have to send you alone, dear,” he admitted to Rio. “I can’t leave the specimens…”

“I don’t think I can either, not while you’re in charge of them,” Rio remarked, stepping protectively between the lanky man and the glowing tank.

Tristan sighed. “Honey, why are you making this harder for everyone -“

“Because she made a choice.” In the dreamy light, the coral glistened softly on Evangeline’s forehead. She crossed her arms and stood by Rio. “Now it’s time to make yours. Face my wrath, or go home. And while you’re there, be sure to get your presentation of your findings to the scientific community on video. Now that’s something I’d like to see.”

She may not yet be an angel, but she has a sense of humor, Rio thought as she took the soft hand in her rough claws.

“What’s your name?” she asked as Tristan, spewing profanities, marched to get his suitcase.

“I am called Evangeline.”

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Note: The photos of underwater models in this post were taken by Benjamin Von Wong and spread across the World Wide Web by adoring fans. The process involved much danger and technical know-how as well as seven divers. Click the links in the image credits to learn more, or visit Benjamin Von Wong’s site.

Along with Von Wong’s photos, this post was inspired by a post on 2KQED about real stick insects on a real tiny island that are really endangered and much controversy has surrounded their conservation. The enlightening and provocative story can be found here: http://ww2.kqed.org/science/2016/01/19/six-legged-giant-finds-secret-hideaway-hides-for-80-years/

Image credits in order of appearance (both model photos were originally taken by photographer Benjamin Von Wong)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ball%27s_Pyramid

http://www.lostateminor.com/2014/06/05/surreal-photoshoot-done-ship-wreck-bali/?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=1154&utm_content=1154+CID_da9c9662e34f6308a935a34d59c2d21c&utm_source=newsletter&utm_term=von%20wong

http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/benjamin-von-wong-bali-underwater

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