The soil sinks beneath my foot as I step out of the ship. My other foot follows. It’s also swallowed by the mud. Moisture soaks through, seeping from my boots into my socks. I’ll be drying those for weeks. Or tossing them.
Ignoring the disgust brewing in my stomach, I trek forward. This is what I’d said I wanted. I’d signed up for this. Oh yeah, I love soil. It’s the best part of botany! My own stupidity reverberates through my head, mocking me for being so naive.
“Mask!” My guardian shouts from behind me. He bounds from the edge of the ship, snapping the mask into place over my head with practiced hands. “If you overlook protocol again, I’ll be inclined to recommend you stay aboard the ship.”
“Doesn’t sound so bad right now,” I grumble, glancing from him to the ground. The mud is devouring him. He’s almost ankle deep now. But so am I.
“Keep moving,” he orders me, ripping free one of his boots. In one swift movement, he’s freed his other boot as well. “Remember the rest of them have already been here. If you want so badly to fit in among them, you can’t turn tail just steps out of the ship.”
“You’re my guardian, not my parent,” I grumble, but I follow him.
“You’ll find my job description is all inclusive,” he retorts simply. Pushing his way through groaning vines, he marches just out of view. Some guardian. The moment he thinks he has me safe, he rushes ahead. I reach to press one of those vines from my path.
The vine breaks. I fall with it. The mud draws me closer, welcoming me with warped glee. I swear it’s actually smiling. A bubbling smirk anticipating swallowing me whole.
And then I hit.
My mask betrays me, the clasp on my neck loosening. It sticks to the mud, but my body continues descending. My head tugs against the metal lining, while the mud stretches my shoulders further. My attempts to flail are useless. While my body plummets as though in water, my arms stick forward, cemented in place. It’s ripping me apart. My damn guardian left me and now mud is decapitating me. Mud.
My chin finally passes through the mask, but my cursed nose catches. It doesn’t matter anyway, my lungs are inhaling the mud like it’s my very life force. Even if I clamp my mouth shut, I’m already drowning.
My head slips through the mask. And then the mud is ripping me downward. Immediately I slam my eyes closed. But the speed with which I’m being drug down is almost enough to rip my eyelids back open. It’s certainly enough to fill my nostrils. It burns.
I’d scream if I could. This is the very soil I wanted so badly to sample. I’d never been off-world before. I’d never gotten to see another planet, or been on a spaceship before. It was supposed to be my one grandiose adventure. Well, so much for that.
Hey sweetheart, sorry, turns out I died up here. Better luck choosing a mate next time. Maybe he’ll have half a brain cell more than me.
I gasp. Air suctions through my mouth with greed, inflating my chest. Beautiful, incredible air.
For a moment, I’m convinced all my bones are broken. My body is numb. Even my fingers are stiff, barely twitching in response to my commands to move. I’m halfway through opening one eye when an incredible force sweeps past me. That has me reacting. I scramble backwards, pressing myself to a wall.
“I won’t fight you, but I ask you to spare me!” I gargle, mud pouring through my teeth. Gross. That won’t be a story to tell the missus. She wouldn’t appreciate kissing me knowing I had another starsystem’s excrement oozing up my throat.
Two eyes suddenly come into view. They’re not just close, but almost pressed against me. They blink, one lid at a time, until I realize there are more than two. In the midst of my counting, I don’t notice the wide mouth opening. My hand lifts involuntarily, pressing a single finger into one of the eyes. Not my proudest moment.
Two tendrils of writhing purple flesh whip up from behind its massive face. And then I’m running. But there are more. The room is full of them. No, it’s made of them. The purple tendrils aren’t just airborne, they’re also delved into the hard ground beneath us. It’s a plant.
I actually found life. It’s rather aggressive life. But as a botanist who came to this planet expecting none, I’m almost proud. The missus will be proud too. She may even overlook the mud.
One of the thrashing tendrils meets the wall right behind me. It billows slightly in the mud, but tremors still vibrate down beneath my feet. I reach out a hand to steady myself, and pause. I’m standing just out of reach of the first plant, but another is rising before me.
A gaping mouth widens. The shriek of air being sacrificed to the plant’s lungs ricochets shivers from my shoulders to my waist and back again. These aren’t just plants. They seem to be connected. One furious monster, many walloping limbs. If I thought the mud was alive…
The soft soil covering the tendrils beneath me breaks. They squirm as one, communicating down the line. I can’t just stand here, mouth to my knees. Fighting isn’t within my capabilities, so fleeing it is. Pushing away from the wall, I survey the room.
Mud. Mud. Mud. The ceiling, the walls. I didn’t die in the mud before. Here’s to the belief I can breath mud one last time. With a forceful lunge, I plow through the mud. The explosive feeling of water washes over me, and then I’m through. Wait, through? With vigor I wipe away the murk, blinking from one side to the other.
It’s another room.
Save for a minuscule glow blinking from the ceiling, it’s dark. But I can hear something: slithering, hissing. My first thought is snakes, but this is an alien world. Giant snakes? As a botanist I believe in the benefits of snakes in regards to plant life, but that doesn’t mean I’m not petrified of them.
It’s them or the plants. I glance over my shoulder, though I can’t see where I entered. Both of them could strangle me given the chance, or maybe just crush me under the weight of their savage hatred. I’ll admit the plant’s was justified. Maybe these don’t hate me yet.
“I’m just trying to make it back,” I tell the room. Another one of my less than intelligible ideas. Who trained me? I am not prepared for this situation at all.
“It’s really okay, you can keep performing your ritua-” my mouth clamps shut. In the dim light, a single set of wings flutter. Anything but insects. Really. Please. As if a unified growth, the ground lurches to meet the one. It darts upward, hovering alone. It flits to the left, right, as though executing some primal order.
And then the swarm rises.
Ah. Not slithering. Pulsing. My choice is made for me. Nope. My hand caresses the mud to my rear. My death is a trifecta: man-eating plant, swarm of intelligent bugs, or aqueous mud. Mud. I’d rather drown. Flattening myself to the mud, I lean back. It’s all too willing to consume me.
Caressing fingers massage my wrists, enticing me through. They stroke down my arms, spinning me. What a dancer. They continue, tracing from my thigh to my shin. Each slender finger wraps tenderly around my ankles. She appreciates my commitment to her, my resolute need to be at her side.
The words startle me, but not enough.
Swim you idiot!
A lock snapping into place, my mind tethers itself back to reality, my missus’ laughter rattling from ear to ear.
I would swim if I could. My limbs feel tied together.
I know I have to get to the surface. But the mud is pulling me down, the same way it did before. Those long fingers stretch up my legs, tightening. They tug. They scrape. They rip at me. I’ve become her property, her cherished conquest.
My missus has a vice grip. While the ribbon of my life was floating freely, she’d taken every scrap into her two precious hands. I have to fight. My last resort is a pathetic wiggle. I’m nothing more than a worm with everything to live for. I attempt to drive myself upward. It’s slow, but I’m actually moving. That’s barely hope. At this rate I’ll drown. Asphyxiate. Something.
Reverse psychology. My ultimate weapon. Swim against your conscious. Her laughter continues, louder. Fine, I get it. I know what she’s asking of me. But what if she’s wrong? I don’t give myself time to answer the question. My body swings. In an arch, my legs whirl above me.
Give in. Breath.
As soon as my mouth opens, the mysterious current tightens around me. Gulping mud in by the mouthful, I release my limp body to its command.
It doesn’t hurt to let another be in control.
I never thought my missus’ voice would be the one to taunt me in a crisis. But of course it is. She’ll be endlessly entertained by this tale. The threat of my death will be nothing compared to the humor of her voice jeering me into surviving.
Two burly hands clamp around my ankles, and then I’m on the surface. My guardian’s eyes are wide, confused, aghast, relieved. Gasping for air, I wheeze. The sound echoes through the low vines.
“Worried me there for a second,” he jokes. “Ground’s like quicksand, thought it’d sent you to the depths.”
“It did,” I grumble, stumbling to my feet. “Literally.” My worst nightmares were down there.
“Mask,” my guardian grabs me from behind, snapping the mask over my head again. “I’ll let this infraction slide.” How generous. With both feet firmly planted, I spin to face the ship.
“Feel free to recommend I stay aboard,” I announce, unbuckling the mask. I toss it to him. “Protocols and all that.”
“What?” He rushes to catch the mask before it slaps to the mud. “Wasn’t this your dream?”
“I’m thinking of changing my career.”