Two SF-horror stories of humans encountering nature in ways they never expected.
Kristine Smith is the author of the Jani Kilian series and other science fiction and fantasy novels and short stories under her own name. As Alex Gordon, she has written the supernatural thrillers Gideon and Jericho. Her fiction has been nominated for the Locus Award for First Novel, Philip K. Dick Memorial Award and the IAFA William L. Crawford Fantasy Award, and she was the 2001 winner of the Astounding Award (formerly known as the John W. Campbell Award) for Best New Writer. Prior to becoming a full-time writer, she spent 26 years working in pharmaceutical product R&D. She was born in the Northeast, grew up in the South, and currently lives in the Midwest.
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Southern Hemisphere/Central Sector/Northwest Quadrant
“It’s beautiful here.” Group Lead Lila Destry looked up from their tablet and surveyed the scene. “I watched all the official videos, but still. I didn’t expect it.”
Gwyn Escobar joined them at the edge of a grassy ravine lined along both sides with trees that resembled bur oaks if you didn’t examine the leaves and bark too closely. “The reports stated ‘Earthscape Level Five—Suitable for Test Settlement.’”
“That could’ve meant anything from desert hellhole to perpetual flood zone.” Tomas Bell looked over from his examination of the first of six crates of building materials and other supplies. “You know Corp. They say whatever it takes to get you to sign up. You don’t find out the truth until you land. By that time, they’ve locked up your stake money and started the penalty clock ticking.” He pulled his filter mask away from his nose and sniffed. “Air isn’t bad. At least they were right about that.”
Lila tapped the mask that covered the lower half of their face with the tip of their stylus. “There’s a haziness to it.” The upper half, with its furrowed brow and bloodshot eyes, displayed all the worry that came with the task of building a settlement team with four other people who had been chosen by lottery and met for the first time a week before departure. “Keep the filters running until we know what it is.”
“Tree pollen, judging from the fringe hanging off some of these trees.” Tomas picked off a bit of said fringe that had fallen onto one of the crates, then flicked the end with a finger and watched a puff of fine particles drift off with the light breeze.
“Great.” Sonna Patel twisted her rope of black hair around her head and secured it with a stretchy cloth band. “Now I can add allergies to the humidity and the chafing from this suit.” She pulled at the waist of the shapeless tan coverall, the front pocket patch of which bore her last name partially enclosed by the Corp “C.”
Gwyn tugged at her own suit in sympathy. Even with the fake silk underwear, the rough cloth irritated all the wrong places. “There’s corn starch in the kitchen supplies. That helps.” A shadow fell across her tablet, and she looked up to find Tomas standing over her. So tall. With tired brown eyes and lank blond hair already darkened with sweat.
“Hey, Notes. I need the codes to open the crates.”
“Sure.” Gwyn pulled up the necessary file, then flicked it over to Tomas’ device. She had signed on as “general technical support,” which covered everything from systems set-up and maintenance to handling the compost bins, but over the course of the two-week transit from the training facility she had acquired the unofficial title of Person To Go To For Stuff. Except for Tomas. His nickname for her was “the Notetaker,” which he had shortened to “Notes” over time. Take care, Gwyn, he told her the first time he saw her recording in her tablet. Corp doesn’t like people who keep a record.
After Tomas returned to the crates, Gwyn sought refuge in a nearby patch of shade. The scene reminded her of photos of Earth, the woodland and rolling hills visible through the trees so different from the domed station settlements in which she’d grown up. But the heat. The air should have been cool and crisp, not still and heavy. They had set down only an hour ago, and she could already feel her hair frizz, imagined it exploding like black dandelion fluff around her face. Not that she cared what she looked like. Keep head down. Do job. Go home. Hopefully with a healthy exploratory bonus to add to whatever interest her stake accrued.
Lila unloaded the last of the equipment, the medical and fire safety gear, from the shuttle that had transported them to the site. After setting the craft on standby, they walked along the line of crates, patting each as they passed. “According to the bible, we have seven hour-equivalents to assemble the domicile before sunshade.”
“That’s like dusk, right?” Sonna had dug out measurement equipment and begun marking the outline of the building that would serve as their laboratory and living quarters. “The suns never really set here, so we’d still be able to see, with or without lighting.”
“And the critters will be able to see us.” Tomas opened the first crate and slid out pre-made wall panels followed by the free-standing fabricator. “The bat-like things and the cat-like things and that bag of blob that ingests food through its skin.”
“That blob is two thousand kees west of here. In the ocean.” Sonna edged a marker one way, then another, with the toe of her boot, then stood back and surveyed the result like an artist assessing the latest brushstroke. “This place has had what, a hundred years to settle down since Corp ‘scaped it?”
“That’s a drop in the bucket in planet time.” Tomas entered the start-up code into the fabricator’s touchscreen, and green lights skittered across the device’s surface. “What we’re seeing now is a veneer. The soil is still dodgy, the air is just breathable, and none of the flora or fauna can be considered edible.“
Sonna rolled her eyes. “You’re just a barrel of fun, you are.”
“I tell it like it is. We’ll be living inside a soap bubble for the next three months. If it pops, Corp will use it as an excuse to cancel any earned bonuses and keep our stakes to help cover their losses. Families won’t see a credit.”
“You know, I thought I was the most cynical person I knew until I met you.” Sonna kicked another marker into position “If this is such a lost cause, why are you here?”
Tomas spun to face her. “You know damned well why.”
Gwyn focused on her tablet with the occasional sidelong glance at Lila, whose narrowed eyes held the realization of a day’s work still to do and two of the five people who had to do it already sniping at one another. They took a deep breath and were about to step in when Sonna held up her hands in apology and Tomas muttered under his breath and resumed setting up the fabricator.
Sonna set another marker in place, then joined Gwyn in the shade. “Refresh my memory.” She bent close, and pretended interest in the plans showing on Gwyn’s tablet display.
“His wife left their domicile in the Mars Seven settlement and took their kids back to Earth. He’s on the hook for child support plus repayment of the Martian stake.” Gwyn paused as Sonna activated her own handheld. “He’s in deep.”
“Hmm.” Sonna grabbed building plans off Gwyn’s tablet, then paused. “Why are you here?”
“Taking an off year from Uni. Looks good on the resume.” Gwyn shrugged. “And sometimes you just need a change.”
“Uh huh. What was their name?”
Gwyn almost didn’t answer. Then she met Sonna’s eye, and saw nothing of the woman’s usual cutting coolness. “Aiden.” She shook her head. “He’s not the only reason. I just…needed to get away, do something different.”
“Parents?” Sonna waited for her to nod. “Yeeaah.” Her look hardened for a moment. Then she patted Gwyn’s arm and returned to the framing.
Lila stood in the middle of the work area, hands on hips, and sighed. “Has anyone seen Mister Zelinsky?”
“I saw him head into the woods while we were unloading the crates.” Tomas waved towards a spot that looked vaguely like a path, then pulled a printout from the fabricator and unsnapped the first in a series of wall fasteners. “Nature called, I guess.”