It was never supposed to live in the sea; but once there it made itself at home. For weeks it drifted, basking in the sunshine, carried along by the great currents of the Indian Ocean. But it wasn't alone.
The young barnacles approached it cautiously at first, probing the object with modified antennae before deciding to make it their home, cementing themselves to its surfaces. A few individuals became a thriving colony, casting limbs into the water, fishing for plankton, enjoying the kind of serenity you can only achieve when you have no real brain and the world's longest relative penis size.
They chilled out for a few months, peacefully cruising over two thousand miles in the general direction of Africa. And then the object hit a beach. A lot of barnacles were probably killed that day. Their little world had ended; but that wasn't the biggest story. Not to the islanders who discovered the hollow lump of aluminium, and realised what they'd found – and more importantly, where it may have come from.
French experts have identified that lonely barnacle-encrusted fragment as a "flaperon", a control flap from the wing of a Boeing 777. It's still under intense investigation in Toulouse, but since there's only one missing 777 we know of, it's almost certainly from Flight MH370; the aircraft that disappeared without trace 16 months ago, and was assumed on the basis of rogue communication pings to have been swallowed up by the Indian Ocean.
Out of more than 200,000 kilograms of aluminium, plastic, fuel, electronics, luggage, flesh and blood; in spite of $150million spent deploying the most advanced technology we have for month after month after month; it is the only single shred of the aircraft that has so far been recovered. Predictably, it's driving everyone a bit mad.
The calmest people are the air crash investigators working in the laboratories of the Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses in France – since the debris washed up on La Réunion, a French territory, they take the lead in the investigation. That's a big stroke of luck, since France has a lot more expertise than, say, nearby Madagascar. They were quick to say that it's very likely the part comes from MH370, but continue to work to rule out any other possibility, however remote.
They were then totally undermined by the Malaysian PM, who blundered in saying it was "confirmed" that the wreckage was from MH370 even though he had no real right to do so. Then he and the media went further, and soon every bit of garbage in the Indian Ocean was plastered over the press as the latest bit of MH370 to emerge. The result is the same as we get whenever authorities give conflicting stories – crazy conspiracy theories and irresponsible speculation.
There's one key difference between scientists and conspiracy theorists. Scientists adjust theories to fit new evidence. Conspiracy theorists adjust new evidence to fit the theory. As soon as the flaperon emerged, it was twisted to fit the conspiracy narrative. It didn't land on the beach, it was planted by the authorities (after being very carefully weathered in seawater for 16 months, I guess). Why would the CIA/aliens/Russians/whoever shoot down a random 777 flying between Malaysia and China? Who the fuck knows.
The conspiracy theories aren't going to end any time soon, though. This isn't CSI, and the debris can only tell us so much. Scientists have a pretty good map of ocean circulation, so we can roughly simulate the likely path of a floating object around the world. From that we know that if MH370 crashed off of West Australia, where searches are taking place, it would fit with debris washing up on La Réunion 16 months later.
The state of the flaperon could tell us something, too. Depending on how badly damaged it is, investigators might be able to tell how hard the plane hit the water, whether the flap fell off or was torn off, and other useful information.
Even the barnacles could help. We can't talk to them because barnacles can't talk and in any case these ones are all very dead; but we know where different species of barnacle live, and we know how long they take to grow to maturity. The age and type of the barnacles, combined with what we know about ocean currents and possible routes, could give us some idea of what region the flaperon was in and how long it was there. We're still talking about huge areas, but it might let searchers rule out parts of the search zone.
We'll find it. We have to. But until then, until we get the black boxes and we can replay and reconstruct everything that happened in the hours after the plane disappeared, science and reason won't be enough to stop the theories.
People need there to be someone to be in charge, for there to be a story that gives everything some kind of sense. The one thing scarier than a villain is the idea that something can just happen without any plan or meaning. That the universe doesn't care, and our lives aren't some great movie with a satisfying plot. That we're really just the same as those barnacles, clinging to our fragile world, waiting for a rock to hit.