“Brody . . . can . . . hear us?”
Static crackled sharply in his helmet, causing him to wince behind the semi-transparent faceplate. “I hear you just fine, Control,” Brody replied. “No need to get all excited.”
That wasn’t entirely true. There was a great deal to be excited about, just not in the way Control typically got worked up about things. In the days since setting foot on the planet’s surface, Brody had managed to answer all the questions his team’s year-long expedition was supposed to encompass.
The planet—which the scientists poetically referred to as Delia—was perfect. Sure, the oxygen levels in the atmosphere were a smidge higher than standard, casting a bluish hue over the lush surface. The soil was more granular, making it more difficult for root systems to take hold. And the six-legged creatures he called hoppers tasted god-awful. Aside from that, however, Delia was perfect.
“. . . ank God!” Control came through again in a staticy burst. Okay, with the thicker atmosphere communications could be a bit spotty, but Brody didn’t mind having less contact with Control while on a mission. Protocol was all well and good to the people behind screens, but when you’re actually “in the dirt,” you needed to be a bit looser with the regulations.
“What’s . . . location? —no visual.”
Brody sighed. “I’m still on the surface! ’Bout two meters from basecamp.”
He’d been watering and compacting the soil on his potatoes for, well, certainly not long enough for Control to start bugging him! “You’re welcome to come help if you’re bored up there, Control.”
“. . . Status . . . the team? We. . . drone, but can’t —ocate.”
Brody dropped his trowel and tapped buttons on the panel attached to his suit’s forearm. His faceplate’s display sprang to life, filling his vision with the hazy orange holographic overlay showing a map of the surrounding area. A tiny green dot pinpointed his current location with his teammates a couple miles off in the distance.
He tried to share the data with Control, but got an error message. More communications issues. Brody scanned the horizon, pointedly ignoring the garbled words of Control ringing through his helmet speaker. In the distance, he spotted a raised outcropping; perhaps he could get a better signal there.
Thanks to Delia’s less-than-Earth-standard gravity, Brody propelled himself forward with each step, galloping over the short pink-tufted grass. With minimal effort, he scrambled up the short outcropping and was greeted by the most beautiful meadow he’d ever seen. Purple and pink fields of grass waved gently in the breeze, rippling as if he were staring at some strangely colored sea. Glistening emerald trees sprouted skyward, limbs like shards of glass making the softest tinkly sound as the air whistled through. Off to the side, a small waterfall splashed into a pond, misting the air and creating a rainbow infused with an unusual range of colors.
Idyllic was the only word Brody could think to describe it. How had he missed this bit of paradise so close to camp?
“—ody?!” The static hiss of Control cut sharply through his helmet, killing the serenity settling upon him. Brody sighed. His last check-in couldn’t have been, what? Fifteen minutes ago?
“Still here. Just checking on something new,” Brody said as he trotted towards the pond. He wanted to get a sample of the water. A nearby, usable, source would solve any number of problems.
“Loca . . . firmed! Drone . . . bound. Wha—status . . . team?”
The mention of Brody’s team tickled something in the back of his brain. Like a word he couldn’t remember but was on the tip of his tongue. They’d left earlier this morning, heading for the eastern ridge and kept regular contact. Still, he felt like he was forgetting something. Sometimes that was the way of things with the monotony of field missions.
Which is why Brody was eager to check out this waterfall. It was new, unexpected, and offered a break from the tedium of planting. He’d enlisted to explore, not farm!
“—ease contact. Brody!”
Brody ignored them as he dipped the spindly analysis meter from his gauntlet into the orange-hued water. The readout came back to his faceplate’s display. As expected: perfect. A smidge higher in iron, but otherwise potable. It also sat upon an underground vent, making it a natural hot spring. Their very own personal spa, just outside of camp.
“Brody! Drone —most there! Brody!”
If they were going to bug him, a little bit of light insubordination was in order! Brody began undressing. He and the team had been able to survive in Delia’s atmosphere just fine for hours at a time.
Time for a relaxing dip. Control would survive and might even learn a little bit of patience while Brody got some much needed peace and quiet. Control continued hailing him as he placed his helmet gently on the rocks framing the pool and waded into the pond.
“Brody!” The sound from Control echoed from his helmet on the bare rocks. “Visual confirmed . . . Oh my god.”
Brody submerged in the steamy water. Closing his eyes, he let the calm water clear his mind as the voices from Control became a soft gurgle. Finally, silence.
“Brody!” The thunderous sound of multiple voices from Control boomed from his helmet, piercing his peace and eardrums.
Brody’s eyes snapped open and the barren landscape of Delia spread before him. Dusty flakes of ash swam across his blurred vision. Though constant cloud coverage kept the planet in perpetual darkness, Brody struggled to keep his eyes open against the meager light filtering in.
Everything was a struggle, in fact. He found his lips unwilling to move even as he attempted to force words through them. His entire body refused to obey. Willing his eyes open further, Brody looked around to get his bearings.
He was just able to make out the shapes of three people sitting around him, hunched with legs sprawled out ahead of them. Tendrils, plantlike in texture, wrapped loosely around their forms, snaking into the arms and legs of their suits, pulsating. Large globules ran through the stalks and into the earth, like cartoons drinking from straws. Several tendrils extended into the base of their skulls and ears, doing who-knew-what to their minds as the planet slowly digested them.
“Dear God,” a whispered voice sounded in his helmet.
Brody heard a soft whine growing steadily louder until the sleek, silver-black frame of the drone entered his line of sight. Brody begged his body to move, to show the team watching in Control he was alive and conscious. Nothing worked.
Instead, as the drone hovered inches from his faceplate, all Brody could do was stare at his own reflection. He resembled the desiccated forms of his teammates. His exosuit sat oddly on his thin frame, like a child wearing their parents’ clothes. Worse, his faceplate was in reflective mode. The drone couldn’t pick up on the fact his eyes were open and moving.
“. . . Week five. Search successful.” The voice from Control no longer sounded desperate, merely resigned. “No survivors.”
Brody tried to scream, but still his mouth refused. As the drone pulled away, leaving them buried under the mounds of tendrils, one final message crackled from his helmet.
“Send a message back to Earth: Delia uninhabitable.”
Jordan Maison is a Native American author, who's spent the past decade and a half writing about the entertainment industry, while working on his true passion for fiction writing (some of which you can read here). When not writing he enjoys time with his kids, drawing, and way too many movies.
Find him online as '@JordanMaison' on just about all social media channels.