Clink. The sound of my footfall reverberated across the island, swelling to a loud chime before subsiding. It wasn’t the sound I expected.
Blood ran down my cheek. I was exhausted from the swim, and the crash into the sea had opened a gash on my forehead. Somewhere above, in the ionosphere, the battle — a skirmish in a war that had started long before my grandfather was born — still raged, but my day was over. My life as well, if no one descended to rescue me.
I was better off than the poor suckers who’d splashed down further from land. If no one came to get me, I’d have some days to put my thoughts in order before thirst took me.
The island was flat. If I rolled a ball across it, it would keep going until it splashed into the ocean on the other side.
It was smooth. Ocean spray made the surface too slick to walk on comfortably. It appeared to be made of polished stone. Or perhaps it was made of ice. That might explain the glassy surface.
My boots were well insulated, so I bent to feel the temperature with my hand. It wasn’t cold. In fact, it was as hot as any piece of stone left out in the equatorial sun.
I tried to pull my hand away, but it didn’t budge. I pulled harder and left the skin of the tips of three fingers stuck to the surface.
Memories of childhood, of my tongue on frozen flagpoles assailed me as I stuck my bleeding fingers into my mouth. Only after it was too late did I stop to wonder whether the surface might be toxic as well as adhesive.
Careful not to let any exposed skin touch the ground, I knelt and studied the rock. It was translucent, cloudy. Milky depths extended miles under my feet.
Did something move?
On second glance, I must have been imagining the motion. The cloudy interior of the rock stared back without blinking.
I walked the island. It took me about five minutes to go all the way around, peering into its depths as I went.
My shadow grew long. Was night falling that quickly?
No. The sun was above my head, but still I cast a late afternoon shadow. Why?
The shadow moved. Tiny movements at the edges, as if it was the fuzzy picture on a bad monitor. As I peered into it I realized that it wasn’t my shadow moving… my shadow wasn’t my shadow at all.
Countless dark forms followed my footsteps just beneath the surface, each jockeying with the one beside it, trying to get closer to me. It wasn’t deep inside the rock. They were right there, right next to the surface, trying to break out.
What would happen if they made it through?
Panic. I could face enemy fighters without blinking, but the presence of those black things coming at me from below was too much. The flight instinct took over and I ran for the sea. Water was something I could understand. I would dive in and decide what to do afterwards.
I nearly made it. If it hadn’t been for a slick of windblown water that I missed because I didn’t want to look down for anything in the world, I would have known the sweet embrace of the deep.
But the surface betrayed me and I fell. The side of my face hit the surface with a painful crack and I lay there for a moment gathering my thoughts.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the shadows approaching, leeches drawn to a swimmer. I tried to get up.
My face was stuck to the ground.
I pulled harder, painfully hard, but something gave inside my cheek. I just couldn’t bring myself to keep the pressure up. Tearing off a piece of my face was too much for me, even though I knew that I had to get up or I was screwed.
The island sucked me in and I let it, docile and resigned. First an inch, and soon, half my face was subsumed. There was no pain as everything went dark.
In fact, I felt relief. That hadn’t been so bad, after all. Certainly better than drowning.
The pain came when I woke. Deep milky pallor surrounded me, but I didn’t stop to look. The hurt was too intense. I moved.
The pain continued. I tried to look up but the light burned my eyes.
I realized I didn’t have eyes and remembered being sucked into the surface of the rock like yoghurt through a straw. The pain wasn’t in my eyes. It was everywhere. The light burned and burned.
I scrambled away. I didn’t have a body, either, and yet I could move just by thinking about it.
Another presence, dark as night, flitted across my view. Could I get underneath it, use its shadow to block the burning light?
I could try.
But it saw me coming and we flitted through the translucent milkiness, trying to get beneath each other’s form. The other shape flitted off, leaving me to writhe in agony under the unfiltered sun.
I don’t know how much time passed, but I eventually realized that I was still on the island, still under the surface where I’d been pulled.
The constant pain was my reward for not having had the courage to pull away and drown myself. For some reason, night never falls on this island.
So now I watch, and when anything walks on the surface, man, bird, beast, I join the tail of dark shapes to give it an eternal shadow, blissfully out of the sun for a few moments.
It never lasts very long. Before we can become accustomed to the lack of pain, our source of respite disappears, perhaps to join our ranks.
Nevertheless, I keep looking up, hoping to spot the next one before my peers take all the shade.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer with over two hundred stories published in fourteen countries, in seven languages, and is a winner in the National Space Society’s “Return to Luna” Contest and the Marooned Award for Flash Fiction (2008). His latest books are The Malakiad (2018) and Incursion (2017). He has also published two science fiction novels: Outside (2017) and Siege (2016) and an ebook novella entitled Branch. His short fiction is collected in Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011). His website is at www.gustavobondoni.com.