It must be the colors. Everything is sharper, more vibrant, greens so deep they border on blue, silver bark trees and honey gold rivers, it all glistens in jewel tones like a mosaic of living gemstones. Which is why the sight of the blackened trees on the other side of the mountain is so jarring. Beyond the initial line of twisted wood, there is a yawning black hole in my field of vision.

"The hell is that?"

:A. Lee? What is it?:

"It looks like a dead zone. I, uh, I need a closer look."

There's a pause. :Seriously?:

"Seriously. Look, I think there is some sort of atmospheric interference. I can't see into it. I'm just going to descend until I can get a clear reading."

:There was no mention of this in the report.:

"Relax, I'm sure it's in there, Chang, but I don't like the blank spot in my specs. It'll take me ten- twenty minutes to get an eyeful."

:No, let's follow protocol on this one, A. Lee. I want you back here before dark. We'll send out a team in the morning.:

"That's ridiculous. If we have to requisition a team, Weber will butt in and bluster us for days with more bloody protocol. I can scope it out and be home in time for dinner."

:Ridiculous or not, there no mention of a dead zone in the report. We need to reassess--:

"Reassess what? None of the wildlife on this burg registers above a 5 on the aggression scale. It'll be fine."

:A. Lee, I am ordering you to return to the lab.:

A thread of anger winds through me. "You pulling rank on me, Ben?"

This time, the weary sigh isn't nearly as satisfying. :You're too valuable to the mission, A. Lee. We can't risk an incident--:

I snap the comm off before he can finish. Moments like these remind me I can never be too comfortable with Chang. My jaw is tight, so tight it keeps me from screaming my frustration to the mountain. My vision blurs as I look down at my hands, the rapid re-calibration too abrupt for the tech. My hands slowly swim into focus. Calloused, strong hands. I can call up the events that created these callouses, like data clips of another life, before the accident that rendered this body a shell. Not memories, not my memories, there is no emotional attachment to these recalled moments, but I do have emotions. I understand what it is to feel. Anger. Fear. Bitterness.

I know that one well. It leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Why can't he see me as more than a piece of equipment? That bitter spur leaves hot streaks of anger simmering beneath my skin. I don't want to go back to the lab. It's not about a break of protocol. I know the feeling of resignation well, too. I feel it whenever those brown eyes stare at the body and don't see me. I don't want to feel that right now. Without the hum of the comm in my ear, the song of the trees comes through clear, soft as wind chimes. That detail wasn't in the report either, but I doubt the exploratory team stopped to listen or note the beauty of the planet. They sought out functionality and threats. My gaze lingers on the patch of darkness on the other side of the mountain.

A dead zone could mean a lot of things. A sudden change in environment or climate. The introduction of an unseen variant or toxin. It could have inadvertently been caused by the exploratory team themselves but it was too odd to leave out of their report. Could they have somehow missed it? Doubtful, the area covered a swatch of land nearly as large as the settlement. Perhaps it began as a smaller affected area that spread in the months since the team's departure, before the Brahma arrived. Though, the their job was to make note of any unusual specimens and environmental activity. Unlikely they would miss such a strange display of decay. The idea the infected area appeared and spread to such a degree in the intermittent months is more alarming than the team missing the area altogether.

If that is the case, waiting for the Traditionalist Committee to stop dragging their asses along the ground to send a team out here could allow a budding threat to turn critical. The very idea rankles until I start picking my way over the rocky outcroppings to get closer. Chang will fuss and snap but ultimately, he will be grateful to avoid the argument with Weber. Worth it, though I'll probably get slapped with an insubordination mark on my file. My feet tap the rocks with each step to make sure the ground is secure beneath me. I'm on the other side of the mountain within twenty minutes of strenuous hiking, the valley out of my line of sight as I come in parallel to the dead zone.

The song cuts off.

Spooked, I draw up short with a frown. The wind is still active, a kiss of chill air across the back of my neck, but the trees have fallen silent.

"What--"

The rocks slide beneath my feet. I lose my balance as a sheet of shale breaks free and pulls me forward and down. I grasp at the dirt for purchase, feel the bite of my fingernails catch and tear, but gravity wins. I gasp, arms freewheeling, as the incline goes too sharp, too fast, and I am airborne. My stomach drops. In the absence of the song, I hear my heart beat explode with adrenaline, harmonized by the whistling shriek of passing air in my ears. The thought comes, unbidden and unwanted: this is how I end.

White hot fire rakes across my back as my body meets a patch of resistance in the prickly shrubs that cling to the side of the mountain. The air is shoved clear out of my lungs from the impact before the high whine of overburdened wood ends with a crack shot that flips me over as I tumble free. I can see the path of my descent now, and the next meager mountain shrub rushing up fast. I make a wild grab for it, bark and thorns ripping into my calloused hands. The shrub creaks, holds my weight for a breathless moment until the roots tear free. There is nothing else to stop my descent. I can't draw enough breath to cry out. My vision focuses in complete definition, a flash of the rising ground, and cuts out, the tech strained and overwhelmed. I close my eyes. I don't want to watch the end approach in a blur. Instead I think of Chang, of Ben. I pull up the memory of him laughing, a far too rare occurrence. This is my memory. I can feel the emotions attached to it.

My body is relaxed and limp as it plunges into frigid water. The landing is a shock on multiple levels. I am caught utterly off guard by my survival and sink until my feet hit the rocky bottom. I push off and flail, the drag of a strong current scours every wound and sore muscle as I fight my way to the surface. The first breath of air burns, the purity sears my deprived lungs. I gulp the stinging air and tread water, the current easing as I reach a calm section of eddies. My body registers the cold in shivers, but that could be attributed to the shock of my survival. I'm alive.

I know in that crystal clear snapshot of the landscape below me, I saw no identifiable body of water. It's not until I claw onto the shore I register the sight of the river in my reeling senses. I know I felt the water, I completely submerged in it, but even on the direct shore, the water blends with the land in one seamless color, near impossible to discern in the shadow of the mountain.

I look up and marvel that I am alive.

Aside from the quick gasps of breath and the soft trickle of the current, the air is silent, a weighted silence. There is expectation in that silence. The wounds on my back stretch taut as I turn to look behind me. I've emerged at the mouth of the dead zone. 

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