"Good Morning crewbies. Time to go over today's schedule before the stasis buzz wears off and you remember why you hate me."
Clara lifted her head briefly in an attempt to sneer at him, but her head hurt too much to bother. She watched Captain Pardo’s stiff smile as his eyes swept the galley taking in the slumping enthusiasm of the United Earths Nascence Analytics Team.
"This is the first time on mission for most of you, and we will be first boots on the ground here, so stick with your buddies and keep your comms open. I don't need to remind you that there are life forms that may be hazardous to your well-being. My crew will do our best to keep all you brainies operational, but your first line of defense should always be a strong sense of self preservation and a fully charged peashooter in your pocket."
"Today's mission, other than staying alive, is to gather samples near the bio-harmonizing probe landing sites. My guys will watch out for your guys while you test for bacterial, fungal, viral permeation levels yada yada yada and science stuff. You should already have your assignments," he tapped his wrist terminal for emphasis. "Tomorrow, rinse and repeat. Crewbies out." He made a mocking salute, spun and left the room.
Clara gestured over her wrist to bring up her holo-screen when Maorji straddled a chair across from her smiling, "We're buddies! Exciting, hunh?"
Clara couldn't keep herself from groaning. Maorji wasn't her least favorite among the scientists, though.
"Crewbies?" she quirked an eyebrow.
"Noobie crew. Crewbies. He thinks he's clever." Maorji shrugged. “Better than NATs. Too buglike.”
"Oh, yeah. Too bad I'm not enough of a brainie to have sussed that out myself." She attempted to smile, but that hurt too.
"Aww. Sarcasm makes your face squinch up so pretty." He pushed a carton across the table at her. "Band aid for the boo-boo."
She peeled it open and drank without question. “Why are you so cheerful?”
“Pain meds and caffeine. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Clara kept her nose pressed to the cruiser window on the ride to the probe landing site. The view assaulting her eyes alternated the surreal with the familiar more rapidly than her mind could process. Blue sky, green plants, towering trees on rolling hills cut through with streams and rivers, yet each plant was as grotesquely odd as it was beautiful. The hair on the back of her neck stood up, and she shivered while her cheeks ached with a smile that wouldn't stop.
When the cruiser landed, Clara turned to Maorji beaming.
"You look psychotic."
She gave him an impulsive hug, "This is the most amazing day of my life." She bolted out the door.
They stood in a large circular clearing with the probe half buried in the ground 20 feet away. Two of the captain’s men took up defensive guard near them. Maorji and Clara walked to the probe. Clara knelt beside the probe to gather a soil sample. Her eyes grazed the label. “Cleansing Bullets by Terr-A-Form-Inc.,” she read aloud.
“Sounds pretty appropriate,” Maorji replied while he filled a sample jar from a few paces away.
“You think so?”
“Adapt or die. The microbes in there make this place perfect for us, but who knows what it might do to all this, so yup, cleansing bullets.”
“When I signed the contract to do this, I was more focused on ‘blazing a path for humanity’, ‘Adventure. Exploration. Discovery.’ and ‘to boldly go where…’.”
“Yeah, I got the ‘verts in the sidebars of my bio classes too, but” he gestured at her and the forest with his sampling shovel opening and closing his mouth like a fish out of water. He sighed, shook his head and turned back to his work.
She moved off to do more sampling. Of course, she had known that things wouldn’t be exactly as the ‘verts had promised, she wasn’t stupid. Still, there was no escaping the fact that she had been impulsive and naive. Maybe it was because she was already falling in love with this beautifully strange planet: trees with fernlike spiraling tendrils, brilliant flowers that hung from vines with petals the size of dinner plates, a bush that stirred with every breeze revealing iridescent blue undersides to its leaves. So much beauty, so much to learn. Clara became worried, no, frightened that something important might die here, might already be dying.
A sweet warm breeze caressed her face and a gentle trilling came from the brush. Why had she wandered so close to the field’s edge? Something rustling in the vegetation caught her attention. She peered into the shadows.
Emerald eyes in a fine boned childish face peered out at her. There was no nose but a humanlike face. She noted that it had green skin. No. It had fine green fur all over its body that undulated. It reminded her of tall grass moving in the wind. As she bent toward the creature, the trilling and the sweet scent coming from it grew stronger - heady like drinking a glass of wine too quickly.
Its small hand reached toward hers. There were no fingers, it was more like a cat paw. She felt warm and drowsy. She smiled. The fur of its hand extended lengthening from its paw. The fine green tendrils waving and brushing gently over the back of her hand. The paw unfurled, a blooming flesh flower, pink and moist. Beneath her calm curiosity, some part of Clara’s mind was gibbering and panicking but that voice was so very far away.
From the center of its paw flower grew a long thin stamen. It was white. Clara wondered if it was bone. Clear liquid dripped from its tip. She noticed her hand was tingling and numb where the green tendrils had been caressing her. The bone stamen entered the back of her hand, but she couldn’t feel anything. How odd. That looks like it would hurt. The paw flower pulsated open and closed while a cold sensation began to creep up her arm. A pale green tinge appeared on her skin following the sensation.
Clara screamed and jerked her hand back. Clear liquid from the bone stamen spurted up her arm. A quick movement in the brush and the creature was gone.
“Hey. What’s going on over there?” the guards ran toward her.
Clara stared down at her hand. No blood came from the puncture wound, just a few tiny green tendrils and a drop of clear liquid. The coldness in her arm resolved into a warmth that spread through her chest and the same calm dreamy quality washed over her again.
The guards stopped in front of her their faces a mix of concern and anger.
“I’m sorry. I thought I saw something,” Clara demurred.
“Come away from there,” the guards guided her back toward Maorji and the probe.
That night Clara stayed in her bunk with the curtain drawn. She could no longer open her hand, and the green fur was spreading. Her lower arm had a greenish hue. Everything below her elbow was numb.
Waves of panic would hit her periodically, but the green filaments would waft their calming fragrance and she would relax.
By morning she no longer recognized her hand.
Maorji came to her bunk to see if she was going to work with the crew. He pulled back the curtain and saw her green paw.
“What the fuck!”
Carla smiled, extended her blossoming hand, “Cleansing bullets.”