"What the fuck," Devin mutters. He rakes his hand through his hair, shaking his head. "But . . . how?"
"Shit." Lou walks out ahead of the rest of us. He takes a few careful steps down the slope into the valley.
"Woah, hold up, Lou," America says. "What are you doing?"
Lou pauses where he's standing on the side of the ledge. "We came to check this out, didn't we?" he calls up to us. He flashes a wide grin, revealing teeth that are chemically whitened. They look out of place against his leathery skin. "It isn't getting any lighter out. Let's move."
"Maybe we should come back tomorrow." Star's teeth chatter as she glances back in the direction we came from. She shields her face as a cold gasp of wind blows past us, kicking up pink dust from the dry ground. "It's almost dark, and it's getting cold. It will still be here in the morning."
Between the distance and the dwindling light, the outline of the Starship Scarborough at our home base is barely visible anymore. Above, stars twinkle to life in the deep indigo. With no light pollution, they light the sky like a milky soup. I wonder if the bright and unfamiliar one among the Cassiopeia constellation is our sun, the heart and soul of the galaxy.
"She's right," America says. "We don't want to go poking around that thing at night. Let's go back and get some rest. We can come back in the morning."
"Are you fucking kidding me?" Lou throws his hands in the air. "We've been sleeping for the past thirty-two years, and you want to get some rest? What are you worried is going to happen if we just take a quick look?"
"We just don't know, Lou," America says. "We have no idea where it came from. This is outside what we expected—"
"It's covered in whatever nasty mold this is and years of dust," Lou interrupts him, kicking at the algae on one of the rocks. It sticks to his boot, and he grimaces as he unsuccessfully attempts to fling it off. "Clearly no one's been there in ages."
We're all quiet.
Lou lets out an exasperated sigh. "Fuck this. I'm going by myself then."
He takes a few more steps, stumbling as the decline steepens. "Have fun collecting samples of mold and napping back at the base."
"Dammit," America mutters under his breath. "Wait, Lou. You're not going alone." After putting on his helmet and clicking on the headlamp, he follows him down the ledge.
With a shrug, Devin clicks on his own helmet.
"Are you going with them?" I ask.
"I'm not letting them go alone," he says as he tests his foot on one of the rocks. "This planet is a fucking desert. That starship is the only interesting thing here." He continues down the side of the ledge, not even giving us a second look.
Star glances at Elias and me and lets out a non-indicative sigh. "Someone's got to look after them, I guess." Then, she puts her helmet on and joins the rest of them in their descent.
After one last glance at home base, I do the same.
Dirt and tiny stones tumble down the ledge, my feet knocking them loose as I climb. Despite the traction of my space boots, the mold coating the larger rocks is slick and gooey. I remember exploring the beach as a kid—walking out across algae-covered rocks on the jetty with Lucy at low tide and trying not to slip as I searched for crabs in the small caverns and crevices.
My foot skids across a dark stone, like slipping on black ice. My heart skips a beat as I regain my balance. It's like slipping on black ice. Legs shaking, I lower myself so I can grip the ground. The mucus-like mold stains my light grey gloves with a sickening brownish pink. I can feel the dampness soaking in through the fabric.
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Down UnderScience Fiction
|WATTYS 2022 WINNER - HORROR| Shawn, a convicted criminal, never thought she'd see the sun again, let alone call another star system her home. When she's offered an out from her prison sentence, she embarks on a dangerous interstellar expedition alo...