“Always Become” (excerpt)

When I could move, I unstrapped myself and crawled out of the wreckage.  The air was thick with ozone and vaporized coolant.  With the electrical storm still raging overhead, I put some distance between myself and the crash site.  Only when I could think and see clearly again did I go back to bury Janic.

The wreckage was almost too hot to approach, and his body came free only after a struggle.  As I raked a hole in the earth with my bare hands, I told myself, this wouldn’t have happened if Luce had been in that second seat.

The atmosphere of Ianus 3 was a breathable but volatile stew of thermal inversions and charged ions.  Coriolis winds whipped up high-altitude cyclones, and if the solar wind was raging, devastating superstorms could appear with little warning.  

Janic had been new … just four months on-world.  Qualified to read instruments but unfamiliar with the subtle signs of impending calamity.  I hated that he’d never get the chance to learn, and I hated that I’d gotten to know and like him so much.

But none of that meant anything now.  All that mattered in the moment was putting him to rest where the planet’s native predators couldn’t pick him to pieces.

As I placed the last stone atop his body, something inside me shifted.  The sudden pain knocked me to my knees, forcing me to unzip my flight suit.  Peeling back the blood-soaked undershirt, I discovered a ragged gash along my abdomen.  Breathing pushed something purple and distended in and out of that hole.

I won’t last long with my innards crawling their way out.

After tearing the sleeves of my suit into strips with my utility knife, I bound my midsection while faerie flashes continued to dance in the squamous clouds overhead.  Cramming my guts back inside brought me close to puking.  The agony was profound, almost spiritual.

With my abdomen secured and less likely to come undone, I considered the situation.  Our hoverlift had suffered a massive lightning strike and come down near the edge of a highland plateau, some 30 kilometers from Frontier Post 113.  Directly between the crash site and safety lay a sunken wetland choked with dense foliage and as-of-yet uncategorized fauna, an off-limits region known as Heyford’s Slough.

Ranger training called for quick mental calculus.  In a situation like mine, the best way to be rescued was to wait near the wreckage.  If it was still functional, the craft’s emergency beacon would continuously broadcast my location until I was found.  But the possibility it had been destroyed was strong.

As I sat surveying the smoking piles of crumpled metal, a tingle teased my neck and cheeks.  Before I could process this, the sky erupted with ear-splitting thunder and a blinding flash of searing white.  Lances of ten-million-degree plasma pummeled the promotory where I sat, including the hoverlift wreckage.  Seconds later, when the assault was over, I found myself face-down in the wet dirt tasting blood.

Bloody hell.  Time for Plan B.

Safety, being the first edict of surviving a crisis, required that I abandon the high ground.  Persistent wind and atmospheric ionization meant more cluster strikes were likely.  Making my way back to 113 along the highland ridges was possible, but might take two days or longer; surviving that long, with my injuries, was far from guaranteed.  But I had to try.

The quickest way back, I admitted, would be to go down into the slough.  Down and across and up the other side.

Then I reminded myself: a year ago, Luce went down there and never returned.

She’d wanted something better than a bird’s eye view of the curious life forms inhabiting the sunken rifts of Ianus 3.  The strange duality of diversity and genetic similarity amongst the planet’s myriad organisms had infected her imagination, and she felt her career in the Ranger Corps was stagnating.  Restlessness was her life’s only constant.

“Don’t just be,” she’d liked to say.  “Always become.”

I gazed down the steep slope toward the mist-shrouded tops of pergolas woven of needle-bedecked indigo and carmine branches.  Beneath the yowl of the wind tearing through the crags around me, I heard an unearthly chorus of sonorous moans rising from the jungle, accompanied by arpeggios of clicks and crackles.  The torrid air rising from below reeked of sweet life and sour decay.

What lured you down there, Luce?  

Part of me longed to know.  The rest of me was terrified to go.

In the end, was it worth it?  Did you find the answers you were looking for?

The pain in my side was spreading like a slow fire.  Spurring my numbed legs into action, I found a shallow crevice in the promontory and began to cautiously make my way down into the slough.

Originally published in Into the Unknown: A Science Fiction Anthology, 2022, Lower Decks Press.