By: Catherine Olaso
“Do you hear that?” Shae nudged Keane outside the lab door. Cyrosuits were unnecessary on the verdant planet, the atmosphere and terrain comparable to Earth’s. Still, she felt cagey around the bizarre flora that overran the planet’s mountains, valleys and rock faces.
Keane looked confused. “Hear what?”
“I don’t know … a … giggling?” Shae tapped the entrance code into her wrist band and the door slid open. “It stopped,” she said, unnerved. That wasn’t the first time she’d heard strange noises from inside an empty lab.
Keane stepped over a long tendril teeming with clusters of dense leaves. The thick stem had coiled out from its container to reach the ceiling, run down the wall and twine around several pieces of equipment before sprawling along the floor. “Relax.” He picked up a massive chartreuse frond veined with fuchsia from its midrib to the tips of its serrated edges. “Bio-Team Seven is out of here in a couple days.”
Shae drew a ragged breath. “We’re harvesting a classified serum from a plant we don’t fully understand.” She gestured to the tangles of vine crowding her. “I’ve never seen a plant thrive with the ferocity this one shows. Just last week it was a seedling. Can’t you feel the energy pulsing off of it? Pulsing off of this entire planet? Something this invasive – this powerful – we shouldn’t underestimate it.”
Keane remained sanguine. “You’ve dissected, analyzed and documented every specimen inside this lab for eight lunar aeons.” He studied the mammoth vine. “Stop worrying. It’s just a big, creepy, overzealous plant.” He met her frown with a charming grin. “Anyway, it’s out of our hands. The first batch of samples and seedlings left the cargo bay hours ago.”
“Without my authorization? Keane, you countermand that shuttle!”
“No can do.” Keane raised his large, ebony hands in surrender. “Vice-Regent wanted those samples yesterday; you’ve stalled long enough. It’s not only your career on the line, Shae.”
Shae pushed Keane aside. Frantic, she logged into the communications port, forced to stop without the override code. “Call it back,” she insisted. “We haven’t confirmed its manageability. My orders were – ”
“And my orders were to revoke yours if you interfered with the mission.” Keane’s gray eyes softened with his apology. “Sorry, Shae. We’ve all got agendas. Nothing personal.”
She hissed an insult and slammed her fist against the console. They’d worked together since the Academy! How could he betray her? Furious, she strode to the door.
“C’mon, Shae. Don’t hold a grudge.”
The door slid open. Shae didn’t turn around. “I’ll be in my quarters preparing for evac in forty-eight hours. Consider this lab closed.”
Keane shook his head and watched her go.
“I’m coming home,” Shae promised, kissing her daughter’s picture. Tears stung her eyes and throat. Earth was far away, and eight lunar aeons an eternity. She crawled into bed wondering if Lexi could feel her love across the galaxy. Surely something that strong could breach the barriers of time and space. Distracted, she drifted off, unaware of the tip of a vine spying through the vent above her.
Hours of fitful sleep plagued Shae. She sat up in bed, craving water, her body drenched with sweat. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and noticed her fingernails – long, coiled and slightly green in the dim lighting. Was she dreaming?
An aching, urgent thirst assured her she wasn’t. She staggered into the bathroom and filled a cup, then hastily abandoned it for a pitcher under the sink.
Hunched over the faucet, Shae drank in large gulps, not stopping until she’d drained the container several times.
“Lights brighter,” she croaked, struggling to process the tint of her skin – also faint chartreuse with prominent fuchsia veins running the length of her arms and hands. A hoarse gasp parted her lips as she clung to the sink for support. She closed her eyes before glancing in the mirror.
Tiny brown spores dotted the whites of her eyes, lined her tongue and rimmed her nose. The tips of her ears divided into serrated edges. Her mouth sprouted a lush, waxy sheen. She touched her face with a trembling hand.
Shae stumbled free of her sleeping quarters, her heart on fire and her words disjointed as she shouted into her wrist band. “Keane … code 0990 … mandatory evacuation tactics!” She struggled to breathe. “Abort research … get off this planet!” Silence filled the wasted minutes she spent hobbling into the deserted common area. “Keane. Status … report location.”
Nothing. Panic amplified her voice. “Is anyone there? Anyone?”
With effort, she punched in the access code for the general sleeping bay. The door slid open, revealing long skeins of knotted vines sliding toward her. The giggling changed to whispering – myriad voices connected in one. “Earth is soon ours … we consume all quadrants of space.”
The vines thrust out like whips. Shae’s fist hammered the control panel. A sharp cry of pain echoed through the abandoned corridor when the edge of the closing door sliced off unrolling leaflets. Glossy green ooze sprayed into Shae’s face. She wiped the slime away, breaking off a twisted fingernail. The same green ooze seeped from her cuticle.
The Command Room, infirmary, galley and transport sector proved a mirror image of the sleeping bay. Hulking, whispering vines spider-webbed everywhere, shooting runners into distant parts of the research station.
Shae’s tongue felt thick and useless – her legs mush. She found what was left of Keane half buried in a bed of dirt inside another lab. Only the gray of his eyes remained visible inside a mass of chartreuse fronds and spiraling tendrils snaking out to replace his limbs.
Shae staggered to the lab’s control panel, her voice gone and her fingers too misshapen to send a warning to Earth. Her clumsy pounding only triggered the evacuation alarm.
Exhausted, she collapsed in a heap beside Keane and helplessly watched her arms and legs morph into thick, green stalks. Chlorophyll leaked from her nose as a new energy pulsed through her.
Drawn to the early morning sun streaming through the window, Shae closed her eyes and leaned into the warm light, her hazy mind aware of one final reality – bouts of gleeful giggling reverberating throughout the station.