By Alexis A Hunter
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
The moment I see it, sprawling out lazily on the bumpy, slate walls, I long to touch it. It wafts in the slight breeze, gusting in from the cave's entrance. Tendrils of green, spooling out toward me, interlaced inextricably with each other--
I want it to be interlaced inextricably with me, too.
I override security protocols on my suit, disengage one glove and brush my bare fingers over the moss. Instantly, I step closer. As if drawn, magnetized by the kiss of green against my skin.
"Liam!" Jackson is yelling in my ear, voice buzzing across the commlink, but I can barely hear him. This close to the cavern wall, I detect patterns: intricate swirls and whorls that seem to hold meaning. And it shimmers. Mossy, with jade accents, glittering like numerous eyes amongst the down.
Hungry tendrils wrap around my fingers. Clutching like children, afraid or in need. The moss reaches farther, wraps around my palm, sends thrills undulating up my wrist and forearm. Every muscle twitches, revels in the contact.
I am snapped away.
The connection severs.
I howl and try to fight Jackson's hands away. A warning beep sounds in my suit and then a pulse from my neural transmitter knocks me out cold.
The colors are deeper in my mind and memories. I think it got into my head. Sweat beads on my brow, the dip between my pectoral muscles, the small of my back. I writhe on the coarse sheets and cry out.
Jackson is here.
He holds my hand, but it feels wrong. Plastic. Distant.
I manage to pry my gritty eyes open and realize I'm in the decon chamber. His hand is in the gloves attached to the thick, clear walls. His jaw is clenched, eyes deep as the colors in my head. I start when I see the dark sage moss creeping over his face; the heart monitor spikes with my racing pulse.
"Liam," he says through the comm. "Liam, it's okay. You're okay. Calm down."
I point with my free hand--simultaneously repulsed and drawn to the moss on his jaw, spreading over his chin, reaching for his vulnerable throat.
There's only confusion in his eyes. He strokes his face with the hand not holding mine and doesn't react to the...
Stubble. Black and coarse, peppering his jaw in a familiar and reassuring way. I blink sweat from my eyes, biting back a cry. Stubble, only stubble.
I give in at last to the rising tears and his grip on my hand tightens. His throat works and his eyes are wet. My body aches for him in a dull, distant way. Some part of me, smothered by the green growing in my head, longs to press my form against his as we have done so many times before. Our partnership is deep, it is more than the corps ever intended it to be. There are hundreds of memories of our bodies interlaced, but panic rises in me as I find them suddenly inaccessible. Obscured by the moss.
I try to rise, but the IV and the monitors have snaked cords deep into my body--along my spine, at my wrist, the base of my neck--connecting to my neural transmitter. The feeds seem haphazard, chaotic. Numbers shift and blink, sometimes faster than I can read.
"What's wrong with me?" I ask, more whimper than words.
The computers buzz and drone, checking my vitals and administering careful biochemical adjustments through my transmitter. Raj--the AI--is the closest thing to a doctor we've got. He wasn't built to handle problems as complex as alien life. Bruises, cuts, a broken limb here or there--he was only equipped to treat minor injuries we might incur while scouting the planet. His blue, electric face displays no emotion as he tries to discern the effects of the moss. His voice is calm and detached, as he tells me--"The lifeform is quite vigorous, Lieutenant Liam. Stimulants and hormonal fluctuations have proven ineffective in dislodging it. The aid of a xenobiologist is required."
In other words, he doesn't know how to fix me. Jackson and I are alone on this godforsaken planet and--
I won't lie here. I can't give up. Jackson's face is twisted with desperation and I summon the strength to move my hand. It feels like lead, moored in my bones. My fingers grasp the metal edges of the transmitter at the base of my skull.
My breathing goes heavy. I call up my heads-up display. It fizzles and cracks, overlaying my vision with streaks of green that were never there before. I use my eyes to input the command code, use my finger to override another safety protocol.
A moment of panic-laced anticipation and then an electric burst. From skull to toes and back, it zips through me. My muscles spasm and clench, jarring a cry loose from my throat. Let me go! I tell it, scream it through my skull. The electricity fades and there is stillness. I can hardly hear Jackson speaking through the ringing in my ears; his grip is frantic, strong.
Is that it? Has it gone--
Green. It surges in my mind, shutting down the heads-up display, cutting off Raj's biochemical stimulants. The shade has deepened since I first saw the moss, wafting, waving, gently. It is more possessive. Spreading along the inside of my skull, compressing my mind, until everything is soft and fuzzy and green-tinged and I can't quite remember why I was afraid.
My grip relaxes on Jackson's hand, arm falling limp at my side.
Swallowing is hard. My tongue feels fuzzy and thick. Heat rages through my body, with no relief. My body feels disengaged. My consciousness is very small and very cramped and very distant. As if the moss overrode my mind itself.
Some faint sensory input squeezes through the mossy blockade and I know Jackson is near. I know he's gotten a signal through to base, requesting immediate assistance. I know he keeps trying to hold my hand and keeps screaming at Raj to do something.
But we are, all of us, helpless.
It unfurls inside me. I can almost see its leaves curling out, stretching as they grow from the tendrils inside my head, slipping into my mouth, filling my nostrils and reaching into the echoing cavern of my chest.
The moss feels heavy now. It moves quickly, with great need. It is burdened, burgeoning with some inner life it must expel.
I thrash inside my mental cage. I scream, but it doesn't reach my tongue. I cry, but my eyes are dry.
Only when I settle do I begin to realize that it wants out of me. I am...
[No longer hospitable.]
Its message is written in fragmented images my brain can somehow interpret: a too-warm breeze gusting into the cavern, a vine recoiling from shadows, and the overall message bleeding through like half-visible text.
The moss continues to sift through my body, investigating every organ. Pain flares, lighting up a region of my mind to which I am not allowed access. I watch it with an almost morbid fascination. The tendrils continue to scout; they reach my toes and retract as if repulsed.
[Hibernation period satisfied.]
It quivers, shaking my body. Its movements become more rapid, more frantic as it creeps back up through my kidneys, my intestines, my stomach. It clogs my throat, suddenly widening as it tumbles from my lips.
Mossy vines spill out of my throat, leaves spreading in the sudden expanse of dry air that is outside my body. Relief floods through me as the grip on my mind relaxes.
I blink. Flex my hands. Straighten groaning muscles to look down at my body, at the moss spreading across my skin and the round, purple fruits clustering together, growing.
Other colors filter back in as I realize Jackson is at my side, in the decon chamber with me. His eyes are blue-gray like the seas of our home-world. His face is bronzed from the kiss of a dozen different suns. His lips tremble and bring back echoes of memories I was afraid I'd lost.
"You're still here," I whisper, hoarse. I taste blood, rolling metallic over my tongue.
"Of course." His voice cracks like mine and I smile tiredly. The moss rests on the slow rise and fall of my chest. Jackson's hands are on mine, seemingly ignorant of the jade tendrils only inches from his skin.
We both look down, simultaneously, at the life spreading over my body. Sleeping, nestled against my chest. I don't have to look at Jackson to know he's smiling. I'm smiling too. Content. The exhausted joy of a safe delivery.
"He's so beautiful," Jackson whispers, brushing his fingers over the whispering leaves and the plump purple fruit. The moss curls around his fingers, but does not sink into him. It is safe and warm, successfully replicated. Temporarily satiated.
"She," I say, and smile.