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The ship was called Oblivion, and it was rightfully named.  A scouter so small there was hardly enough room for its crew- much less any kind of personal decorum- the Oblivion was just as advertised; an infinitely tiny, infinitely unappealing slice of nothingness.  The Oblivion’s size, however, betrayed the dire importance of its very being; to travel into the vastness of space in search of new, hospitable planets.

Outer space, it would happen, was an entirely new breed of oblivion.

“You know,” Zarra mused as she stared at the inky dark on the other side of the ship’s window, “I think we were lied to about being able to see the stars up here.”

Mechad grinned, looking up from his diagnostic chart.  “We’ve been on this hunk of junk for, what, 9 years? And you’re only just now noticing that we got scammed about the view?”

“Please, with as much time as I spend below deck, this might as well be my first glimpse at the ‘starry sky.’”

“Hmph, I thought being below deck was an engineer’s paradise.”

Zarra rolled her eyes as she joined Mechad at the ship’s bridge.  “An engineer’s paradise would be having an extra set of hands, working tools, and… maybe an assistant that isn’t a robot.”

“What’s wrong with Sparky?  He’s a Federation certified worker droid, right?”

“‘What’s wrong with Sparky,’ he says,” she joked, “tell you what, captain; the next time that ‘certified worker droid’ walks headfirst into a nest of live wires, I’ll let you be the one to fish him out.”

Mechad laughed as Darrix, the Oblivion’s chief biologist, entered the bridge, his face twisted with confusion.

“I’m sorry,” he began, “but is Captain Lanox… laughing?  On the clock? Impossible, I think I need to test myself for hallucinogens.”

Although joking himself, Darrix brought up a valid point; their job was to work, not to wisecrack.  Mechad’s demeanor shifted, and the carefree joker stepped aside to make room for the captain.

“What you need to do is analyze those samples from Rygoth IV,” Mechad ordered, “right now, that’s the Federation’s top candidate for a new-”

“I already took a look,” Darrix admitted defeatedly, “and it doesn’t look like a match.”

The bridge fell silent.  Zarra, Mechad, and Darrix all exchanged glances; worried, defeated, hopeless.  Here on the Oblivion, such feelings were routine, seeming almost mandatory.

“I mean, with all due respect, Captain,” Darrix explained, “you were present when we touched down on Rygoth IV; you know it wasn’t exactly the most welcoming of planets we’ve been to.”

Captain Mechad Lanox pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed.  When he was assigned to be a scouter captain, he thought for certain it would be a cinch.  After all, the universe was infinitely expansive, and with mankind’s mastery over interstellar travel, how long could it possibly take to find a planet close enough to Earth?

As it turned out, much longer than he had ever hoped.

Undeterred, Mechad crossed his arms, exhaling sharply.  “Didn’t Federation reports say that the atmosphere was earth-like?”

“Yes, but that’s just the problem,” Darrix clarified, “earth-like isn’t the same as Earth’s atmosphere.”

“So?  Even if it’s not exactly identical, doesn’t the fact that the atmosphere is sapio-sustainable mean we can mark it?”

Darrix shook his head.  “The Federation wants a 100% match.  Even if what you say is true, the vegetation samples I took were just as bad, if not worse.  If disturbed even slightly, the native crops undergo a rapid decomposition phase, making storing- and by extension, eating- food nearly impossible.  We can’t bring people to a planet with the promise of clean air only so they can starve to death.”

Mechad nodded slowly, his face scrunching with worry.  “Dammit,” he conceded, “you’re right. I just…”

“You’re ready to go home,” Zarra agreed, “we all are.  But I know you don’t need reminding on how important this is; if we don’t find a new planet…”

The trio remained silent.  There was no need for an answer.

“So…” Darrix broke the silence, “did we find any new potential candidates?  Or at least, y’know, anything at all?”

As if on cue, the ship’s cockpit door opened, as Chief Navigator Keller meekly poked his head out the open doorway.

“Umm, captain?” he asked timidly.  “Can you… Can you come take a look at something for me?”

Immediately, all eyes went to Keller.  “Keller, is everything ok?” Mechad asked, Zarra and Darrix flashing each other a quick look of confusion.

“Umm, yeah!  No, things are good, actually.  I just-”

“Spit it out!” Mechad shouted, plunging the entire bridge into silence.  After a moment stammering over himself, Keller finally spat it out.

“A new planet just appeared on radar, captain; but I don’t think it’s a good idea to land, that’s the issue.”

“A new planet?” Darrix leapt at the news like an open invitation.  “What’s its name? I need to prepare my logbook.”

Keller stared blankly at him.  “That’s just it,” he responded, “the planet doesn’t have a name.”

This time, the silence on the bridge was warranted.

“Wait,” Zarra said, trying to wrap her head around it, “the planet name isn’t showing up on your console?  Because I can fix that if it-”

“That’s not it,” Keller interrupted, “I can see the planet on the console, and it was unnamed.  It’s not that the name wasn’t registering, or that some previous scouting party forgot to name the planet, it just… didn’t have one.”

Zarra stroked her chin thoughtfully.  “If a planet doesn’t have a name…”

Mechad picked up on her train of thought.  “It means the Federation hasn’t discovered it yet.  Keller, what you’ve picked up is a completely alien planet, untouched by humanity.”

As soon as the words left his lips, Mechad turned to Darrix, who was all but foaming at the mouth at the mention of an alien planet.

“Captain,” he could barely contain his excitement, “we need to land.  Aside from the fact that this planet is positively bursting with untapped scientific discovery, just imagine the reception we’ll get from the Federation!  I mean, even if this one turns out to be a dud, it’s been, what, decades since the last time a scouter discovered a planet all by itself!  We’ll be famous!”

“That may be,” Mechad reasoned, “but… I don’t know.  I agree with you about the scientific potential, and I agree with you off the record about recognition from the Federation.  But landing on any planet is a gamble, let alone one that’s completely unheard of. I mean, we’re a scouting party; there’s what, two blasters between the four of us?”

“Sparky has a built in taser if it comes down to it.” Zarra added smugly.

“I’m sure he does.  The point is, it would be very easy for us to find ourselves in over our heads, and the last thing I want is for anybody to end up hurt or worse on a planet where we don’t know if help can find us.

“That said, you know that I would never make a call without hearing from my crew first.  If you all are in, then I’m in too; I just want us to be certain we know what we could be getting into.”

There was another moment of silence on the bridge, as the crew of the Oblivion fell into a moment of deep contemplation.  Aside from Darrix, whose mind was made up as soon as the phrase “untouched by humanity” was uttered, everybody on board had much to think about.

“I mean,” Keller was the first to speak, “the console says it’s only about a jump and a half away… wouldn’t take us too long to get there.”

“I can handle myself with a blaster,” Zarra added, “and besides, I think we’re all in need of a little adventure, so long as we’re careful.”

Mechad looked around at his crew, nodding slowly to himself.  “Alright, it appears we’ve reached a verdict. Mr. Keller,” he said, channeling his best tv drama voice, “set a course for the Unknown Planet!”

****

“Keller?  How are we looking?”

“Entering the planet’s upper atmosphere… now, Captain.  We’ll be landed in a matter of seconds.”

When the unexplored planet first came into view, everyone on the Oblivion was shocked at how… pure it looked.  The vibrant blues and greens of the planet’s surface were strikingly reminiscent of Earth, in the days before it was overrun with pollution and environmental disaster.  This planet was completely untouched by the greed and corruption that had driven Earth’s beauty into the dirt and buried it; it looked like the perfect place to start anew.

“Ok,” Keller said as he slowed the ship’s descent, “and… we’re… here!”

“Alright everyone,” Mechad called out as Zarra zipped up her spacesuit and Keller reached for his, “I know this is exciting, but let’s not forget that this is still a standard Federation protocol.  We get out there, have a look around, and send word to the Federation. No extra exploring unless it’s absolutely… Zarra?”

“Yes Captain?”

“Where’s Darrix?”

Zarra sighed, gazing behind her at the Oblivion’s already opened door.

“Do I get to shoot him for defection this time?” Zarra asked as she sealed the helmet over her head.

Mechad grinned, shaking his head.  “Not this time. Wait til he defects for real.”

“You’re no fun.”

Zarra and Keller exited the Oblivion, with Mechad following closely behind as he made the finishing adjustments to his suit.  When he stepped outside, he nearly gasped in shocked surprise.

Zarra and Keller were standing on the planet’s lush, green surface, accompanied by Darrix.

The only problem was, Darrix wasn’t wearing his helmet.

“Darrix!” Mechad shouted, but the biologist merely turned to him and smiled.

“Captain,” he said excitedly, “this atmosphere… it’s nearly an identical match to Earth’s!”

Mechad stared at him in disbelief.  He watched the biologist’s chest rise and fall, safely, securely; if he were in any danger, he certainly wasn’t showing it.

Cautiously, Keller followed suit, unlocking the hatches that connected the helmet to the suit.  Once exposed to the planet’s natural air, he took a deep breath and promptly began coughing.

“Ugh!  Smells like rubbing alcohol.” he complained as Darrix took another hearty breath.  Zarra detached her helmet after observing the inherent safety in doing so, and Mechad followed after her.  Soon, the four of them were all breathing in the planet’s air, as opposed to the regulated oxygen feed from their suits.  The quartet stood in silence, each of them processing their discovery; Rygoth IV had been considered the greatest find of their careers, and its atmosphere was one of the most earth-like in the Federation databanks.  This… This was an entirely different type of discovery.

“Darrix,” Mechad asked, “what’s the read on this place?”

“The air here checks out at 99.9% similarity to Earth’s,” Darrix eagerly reported, “with around 90% similarity for local flora and vegetation, at least from initial reports.  I’d like to look around some more before we make any concrete decisions, but this place is looking really good.”

“Well then,” Mechad addressed the crew, “who’s up for a bit of protocol-approved exploring?”

“Our first planetwalk without protective gear,” Zarra mused, “it’s like being back on Earth again!”

“Speak for yourself,” Keller grumbled as he reattached his helmet, “I can’t stand the smell of it; it’s too… clean.  I’ll stick to Federation air, thank you very much.”

“Enjoy your canned air,” Darrix teased, “you don’t know what you’re missing!”

“If I wanted to smell like a doctor’s office, I’d check into the sick bay.  You guys have fun going au naturale, but I don’t think it’s for me.”

“So, Captain,” Darrix changed the subject, “where should we go explorating?”

Mechad surveyed his surroundings; they stood on a lush green plateau, tall grass stretching onwards for what looked to be a decent mile or two.  Once that ended, a scraggly black mountain rose high into the sky like a fantastical tower. It reminded him of an old painting he had seen as a young boy.

“I figure we’ll take it to the edge of the plateau,” he decided, “then see if there’s anything of interest at the base of that mountain out there; maybe if we feel like some light climbing we can go a ways up, but nothing too intense.”

Everyone nodded, satisfied with the captain’s sound decision making; admittedly, there wasn’t much else it looked like they could do.  The mountain obscured the crew’s field of view, making the planet seem like nothing more than a field and a mountain; there was much more to be seen, but they had to get there before anything else.

“Sounds like a plan,” Zarra responded, “who’s ready for a lot of walking?”

“Ooh, ooh,” Darrix called out with mock excitement, “I am!”

“Then let’s get a move on, why don’t we,” Mechad said as he started roving through the tall grass, “I know that mountain’s not going anywhere, but we don’t have all day, and I’d like to be back at the ship before nightfall.  Say, Darrix, when is this planet’s nightfall?”

Darrix pretended not to hear him as the group set off through the plateau, each of them swatting the tall grass away like dense jungle brush.  Mechad took the lead, flanked from behind by Darrix and Zarra, with Keller taking up the rear; they moved together as a diamond, the three nonscientists making idle chatter while Darrix stayed vigilant for anything worth chronicling.

As Zarra and Mechad droned on about whether or not the Oblivion’s in-flight holomovies were any good, Keller let out a small, subtle cough.  He winced as a sharp pain shot through his head, then left as quickly as it had come.

God, feels like a migraine coming on, he thought to himself as they continued their trek, we’d better not be out here much longer.

“Hey Darrix,” Zarra called out, breaking her conversation with Mechad, “find anything cool yet?”

“Nothing yet.  This grass looks like it could double as a semi sustainable food source, but I’d have to take a sample first.”

As Darrix bent down and plucked a piece of grass from the ground, Mechad groaned in mock contempt.

“Ah yes, what a treat for our new colonists,” he said with a smile, “today’s menu is grass, grass, and… grass.”

“Yeah,” Darrix rebutted, “but this is space grass.  Everybody knows that if you do something on another planet, it instantly becomes cooler.”

“Great news for the grass-eaters of Earth,” Zarra remarked, “they’ll no longer be seen as freaks.”

Mechad nodded stoically.  “I’ve longed for the day when humans and humans who eat grass can coexist in harmony.  Every day, that dream feels just a bit closer.”

The three of them burst out in laughter, Darrix nearly dropping his sample as he stowed it in his suit’s wrist compartment.

“What about you, Keller,” Mechad called out to the back of the pack, “what are your thoughts on eating grass?  Is that the future you always hoped humanity would get?”

“...What?” Keller stammered weakly.

“What do you mean ‘what?’  Were you listening to us, or were you off in your own dream…”

He turned to face Keller, and paused.

“...land.”

At Mechad’s pause, Zarra and Darrix also turned to see what the matter was.  Keller’s eyes were glassy and distant. His face was growing pale, his hair was slicked with sweat, and a tiny stream of snot trickled out of his left nostril, slowly solidifying as he stared back at the crew.

“Keller,” Mechad said worriedly, “you look awful.  Are you feeling ok?”

“Yeah, I-” Keller tried to speak, but was interrupted by a sharp, painful movement in his stomach.  His knees bent slightly as he grabbed at his stomach.

“I… I think I caught something; some kinda stomach bug, feels like.  I think I’m gonna go back to the ship… yeah, I think I gotta.”

He began limping back towards the Oblivion, when Darrix began after him.

“Hold on,” he asserted, “I’m going with you; I can run a checkup on you while you’re in the sick bay.”

Keller flashed a weak smile, betraying the pain he was clearly suffering.  “What, so I can… smell like this stinking planet?”

Darrix smiled wryly.  “There’s no getting around it.  Captain, you and Zarra should continue on without us.”

“What?” Zarra sounded shocked.  “Darrix, I know you didn’t come all this way just to pack it up so soon.”

“I agree, but according to Federation protocol, an injured crewmate takes precedence over personal gain; besides, I have a feeling we’ll be seeing a lot more of this planet.”

He turned to Mechad as he threw Keller’s arm across his back to keep him from stumbling.

“Captain,” he asked hopefully, “permission to send word to the Federation?”

“What, that this planet is the one?” Mechad pondered the thought.  “If you report it in, it’s gotta be named something; we can’t tell a thousand colony ships to come meet us at the Unknown Planet.”

Darrix thought about it for a moment, then smirked.

“Don’t worry, I’ll transmit coordinates for them to come meet us at Keller I.  How’s that?”

“Permission granted.” Mechad affirmed as Darrix cheered silently.

“Oh, that’s cruel,” Keller wheezed as Darrix began slowly walking him back, “that’s just cruel.”

“Save your breath, buddy,” Darrix said cheerily, “you’ll have plenty of time to complain about it after we get you looked at.”

As Keller and Darrix began their trek back to the Oblivion, Zarra and Mechad continued onwards towards the base of the mountain.  They watched the duo until the tall grass obscured them from view, then continued on.

“Do you think Keller’s gonna be ok?” Zarra asked as the tall grass gave way to the plateau’s end.

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Mechad assured her, “but I can’t help but wonder… do you think it was some kind of reaction to the air?”

“How do you figure?”

“Well, he said that it smelled like rubbing alcohol to him.  I know that’s not exactly a telltale sign of an allergic reaction, but we are dealing with alien territory here.”

“Well if that’s the case,” Zarra wondered, “shouldn’t we call Darrix and have him hold off on beaconing the colony ships?”

“He said it himself: Keller’s safety takes precedence over the mission.  I know Darrix has been acting like a bit of a loose cannon, but it’s just the excitement of a new discovery; I trust him enough to know that if he found anything wrong with Keller, he’d hold off on sending the signal.”

“Ok,” Zarra said with an air of hopefulness, “yeah, you’re right.  I’m sure he’s going to be ok.”

“I know so.  Now, I believe we have a mountain to explore.”

Zarra looked up for the first time in what felt like ages, noticing that the plateau had finally been put behind them; they stood now at the foot of the great mountain, looming over them like the spire of an enormous gothic castle.  The mountain was pitch black, with what appeared to be a carved pathway jutting out for their convenience. The natural pathway curved and wound around the mountain’s base, culminating a story or two up in what appeared to be a small cave on the mountainside.

“Let me guess,” Zarra said as she stared up at the pathway, “we’re gonna explore the cave?”

Mechad nodded.  “You know if we don’t, Darrix will never let us hear the end of it.”

“Fair point.  Up the mountain it is, then.”

The two filed into a line in order to fit on the narrow pathway, with Mechad leading the way and Zarra following close behind.  The path was twisted and winding, and the thought that perhaps this pathway was designed to be difficult to cross circulated through Zarra’s mind.  Her spirit of adventure was slowly being taken over by the creeping shadow of unease; not exactly fear, not just yet. Unease.

After a precarious climb, the duo reached the mouth of the cave.  Zarra attempted to make out something, anything in the cave’s darkness, when something glinted in the darkness.  There was something in the cave.

“Captain,” she whispered, “something’s in the cave.”

“You mean ‘something’ as in an organism?”

She shook her head.  “I don’t think so. I mean ‘something’ as in an object; I just saw something reflect sunlight in there.”

“That’s… curious.  We’ll check it out, but be careful.”

Zarra nodded, drawing her Federation issued blaster pistol.  She was semi decent with it, but a semi decent blaster bolt to the chest hurt just as bad as a decent one.  And in a close-quarters cave, she liked her odds even better.

This time Zarra took point at the cave’s entrance, with Mechad trailing behind.  She switched on the flashlight extension on top of her blaster, surveying the area as Mechad switched his light on as well, bathing the cave in light.  Zarra’s light shone across the object that had caught her attention: a small, metallic button that she nearly stepped on when entering the cave. Curious, she bent down and picked it up; when she examined it, she felt her breath catch in her chest.

“Captain,” she said warily, “you have to come see this.”

Mechad approached her, and she slowly handed him the button.  He stared at it, his blank expression slowly molding into one of confusion and worry.

It was a Captain’s Badge, awarded to only the best and brightest leaders in the galaxy.

It was issued by the Federation.

“This is impossible,” Mechad muttered, “the Federation never made it here, Keller said as much…”

“Captain,” Zarra thought out loud, “what if the Federation did make it here?  This button would certainly suggest so.”

“Agreed, but it still doesn’t make any sense.  You know how uptight the Federation is about scouting runs.  The fact that they’d let a planet like this slip past them… I truly don’t believe they’d make a mistake like that.”

“This doesn’t chalk up to a mistake,” Zarra agreed, “there’s no way.  Clean air, sustainable crops, this place is perfect for the Federation’s mission.  I don’t understand how they would-”

She trailed off mid sentence.  She stared at Mechad, her eyes growing wide with fear.

“Mechad,” she whispered, “what if they never left?”

Almost knowingly, Mechad pointed his flashlight towards the back of the cave, revealing a small opening leading downwards, even further into a new subsection of the cave.

“If they never left,” he said slowly, “I think we know where to look for them.”

Zarra gulped.  Caves were bad enough, but underground caves?  That was a different ballpark entirely. But this mystery- this conspiracy- it was too much to ignore.

She let Mechad take the lead once more as he crouched through the cavern’s opening; she followed suit, nearly sliding down the steep decline that led to the underground sublevel of the cave.

Once at the bottom, she joined Mechad, who was surveying his new surroundings.  Where the cave had been cramped and uninspired, the cavern was almost the opposite; it was wide and spacious, with crystalline stalactites adorning its ceiling.  A pool of shimmering blue water took up most of the groundspace, seemingly taking no notice of the rest of the cavern’s gloomy makeup.

Zarra stared at her reflection in the pool, feeling her dread slowly slip away; the water was calming, almost healing in a way.  She felt at ease once more.

That is, until Mechad called her to his latest discovery.

She jogged to his location, then stopped.  When she saw what his light had rested on, she raised her hand to her mouth in horror.

There, propped up against the wall, were two empty Federation spacesuits, nearly identical to the ones she and Mechad were wearing.  The empty suits were sitting on opposite sides of what appeared to be an impromptu campfire, long since smoldered out; wherever the suit’s occupants had gone, there was no sign of them.

“My god,” Mechad whispered to himself, “what the hell is happening on this planet?”

****

“Keller, buddy, how are you feeling, huh?  Hey, talk to me, ok?”

Keller groaned in agony as Darrix hoisted him across the examination table.  He unhooked his helmet, rolling up the suit’s sleeves so as to have access to a vein.

“Keller,” Darrix instructed hesitantly, “I’m gonna take a blood sample, ok?  Just lay still.”

As he prepared the needle, Darrix knew in his head that this was definitely not as simple as he was making it appear.  Somewhere around the quarter mile mark of their walk back to the Oblivion, Keller’s symptoms had worsened drastically; what had begun as perhaps a mild stomach infection had erupted into a flu-like illness.  His legs had grown so weak that Darrix had literally carried him through the doors of the Oblivion, like some B movie creature making off with the leading lady.

Since entering the ship, he had stopped speaking entirely and had begun shaking, and Darrix was worried that a seizure could be imminent; he had the means to quell one at hand, but right now, his priority was getting that blood sample.

He swabbed at Keller’s arm, injecting the needle and drawing out a sample of blood; he went straight to analyzing the blood, constantly looking over his shoulder at Keller to ensure he wasn’t going to spasm off the table.

“Ok, let’s see here,” Darrix mumbled to himself as the results began to come in, “this infection, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen; wait a second, is that… bacteria?”

Darrix stared at the information coming through his medical console.  By all accounts, it shouldn’t have been happening at all, but the results were staring him in the face.  Keller’s blood was overflowing with an unknown, potentially undiscovered microbe; the longer he stared at the enhanced microscopic image, the more the bacteria seemed to multiply.

Then, as quickly as they multiplied, the bacteria began to disappear.  And as they disappeared, the sample of Keller’s blood seemed to shrink, if only a little bit.

Wait… I didn’t take a sample that small, what’s going-

He turned to look at Keller, and he had to fight back the urge to vomit.

As Keller’s blood sample diminished, Keller’s entire body seemed to do the same.  His body was shriveling up before Darrix’s eyes, his skull caving in on itself. He watched in horror as Keller tried to speak through a mouth full of gushing blood as his face seemed to crumble inwards.

“D-D-D,” he gurgled as his skin sagged and began splatting off his face, “He-Hel…”

His cries were drowned in the rush of blood as the last of his skin dripped off his face like raindrops and melted away, leaving a wet, pulpy, sinewy half-face staring silently at Darrix in its final moments.  His near-skeletal jaw hung open, a sick sort of surprised gape to compliment his pleading eyes.

“This…” Darrix struggled to comprehend what he just saw, “This… this isn’t happening!  It can’t be! I don’t… I don’t understand. How did- what did… oh god.”

He whipped around, staring at his console in the hope that he might find something, anything to help him understand what he had witnessed.  After a moment of observation, he seemed to have found what he was looking for.

“This bacteria… it looks familiar.  Could it be…? No, it couldn’t. But that means…”

What Darrix wanted was to uncover the source of Keller’s fatal pathogen, and end it before it could affect him or anyone else.  If unbothered, he would be perfectly content to remain in that room for hours with Keller’s festering corpse if it meant finding a solution.

But just then, his thoughts were interrupted by a violent pain shooting up through his lower stomach and into his head.

****

“Come on!  Don’t fall behind!”

“I’m…” Zarra huffed as she raced behind Mechad, “...trying!  Maybe slow… down… a little!”

“We have to get back to the Oblivion!  Something is very wrong here, and we need to let Darrix know as soon as possible!”

Zarra began a response, but instead opted to save her breath as she kicked her legs into a sprint, matching Mechad’s frantic dash through the tall grass.  They hustled even harder with the Oblivion coming into view, Mechad nearly slamming into its bulkhead doors when they finally reached their destination.

“Darrix!” he called frantically, “Darrix, we need to get out of here, now!”

For a moment, a silence rose from within, until finally, an answer was called out from inside the Oblivion:

“Go ‘way.  Don’t come in.”

Zarra and Mechad exchanged nervous glances.  “Darrix,” Mechad ordered calmly, “this is your captain, and I’m ordering you to open the door.”

“No.  I can’t let you in.”

“Well, why not?” Zarra spoke up impatiently.

A beat of strained silence, followed by a reply:

“Because you’re safe out there.”

Mechad inhaled sharply.  “Goddammit man,” he yelled, “don’t make us force our way in!”

When Darrix refused to comment, Mechad grimaced as he opened the portable Federation datapad stored in the gauntlet of his suit.

“Federation HQ,” he said into the datapad’s commlink, “this is Captain Mechad Lanox, Captain’s code 0093511; I’m requesting access to the scouting vessel codenamed ‘Oblivion.’”

“Welcome, Captain Lanox,” the robotic voice answered through the commlink, “what is the nature of your request?”

Mechad stared at the Oblivion’s door.  “There’s a defector onboard the Oblivion,” he finally answered, “I need entry so as to prevent his escape.”

The datapad processed his request before the doors of the Oblivion slowly slid open.  Mechad shot Zarra a quick look that said “be ready,” and the two entered the ship.

“Darrix,” Mechad called out cautiously, “you’ve got 30 seconds to show yourself and explain why the hell you’ve been acting so weird.”

“I told you not to come in,” Darrix whimpered from the sick bay, “I warned you!”

“Darrix,” Zarra addressed him with more sympathy, “tell us what’s wrong.  We can help you, I promise we can.”

“It’s too late,” he said resignedly, “it got Keller, it got me, and now… now it’s got you too.”

“...what got us?” Mechad asked as the two slowly approached the sick bay’s closed door.

“Don’t you get it?  The planet got us.”

The sick bay door slid open, and Zarra nearly yelped in horror when she laid eyes on its contents.  Darrix stood before them, though they could hardly tell it was him at first: his skin hung loosely about a centimeter off his face like an ill-fitting mask, his body seemed to be losing chunks of fat and flesh the longer he stood, and he was coated head to toe in dark red blood.  His examination table was also drenched in blood, but any traces of Keller were absent.

“I thought we were safe,” Darrix mumbled, vainly trying to keep his skin intact with his bloody hands, “I thought it was clean.  99.9% similarity… how was I supposed to know?”

“Darrix,” Mechad asked softly, “what is happening to you?  Where’s Keller?”

Darrix shook his head.  “Once it’s over, your body just… melts away.  As for me? It’s the air, Captain; the 0.1% difference between this planet’s air and Earth’s was in the bacteria it carried.  Once you-”

Darrix groaned in agony, putting his hand on his stomach to keep a strip of loose flesh from peeling off him.

“Once you make any small atmospheric change- putting on a helmet, entering a ship or a building- the bacteria, they… they just hate it.”

He sank to his knees, his body beginning to resemble what he had seen from Keller.

“I’m sorry, Captain,” he pleaded, “I’m so, so, sorry.”

“Hey,” Mechad tried to comfort him, “it’s ok.  We’re gonna send for a medship and find a cure, you hear?”

“No, that’s not it; I… I activated the beacon.”

Mechad turned to Zarra, his look of worry now evolved into full blown panic.

“I thought it was safe,” Darrix gurgled as his jaw began to detach itself, “thought… was… s…”

His head smashed against the alloy floor, spilling blood and brain matter at the two survivors’ feet.  Not a word was spoken between the two, until a simple fact that they had overlooked.

“Oh my god,” Zarra said softly, “we just entered the ship.  We changed our atmosphere.”

She stared horrified at Mechad, who met her gaze with as much looming dread.

“I’m gonna shut down the beacon,” he said, seemingly unconcerned, “we can’t let the Federation land here, we just-”

He stopped, grunting hard.  The infection had started its work.

“We just can’t,” he continued, “you know that.”

“Captain,” Zarra responded, “what should I-”

“Get off the ship.  There’s a chance you might be able to reverse the bacterial process by re-exposing yourself to the planet’s natural air.  Now go!”

As Mechad rushed towards the ship’s bridge, Zarra reopened the door they had just come through, practically barreling out.  The air that had felt so good when they landed stung her insides, and it caused a sharp pain that rippled throughout her entire body.  She screamed, dropping below the tall grass as she writhed in agony.

If the bacteria don’t like new places, she thought as she struggled to fight the paralyzing pain, I think they like reacclimating even less.

Her thoughts were ceased by a sharp, almost stabbing pain directly to her head; she dropped her skull to the earthen floor, letting it thud dully.  She hardly felt the impact.

Zarra tried to stand, to assess her damage, even to call out for Mechad; she found, however, that her body was unable to process any of these requests.  She had shut down the way her faithful droid Sparky always seemed to, and all she could do was stare up at the bright, beautiful sky.

As her consciousness began to slip away and she felt her skin begin to sting ever so slightly, she offered up a final prayer- no, more like a plea- to the colonists of Earth: stay away.  Stay far, far away.

****

When the first colonists touched down on Keller I, they found a rather unusual sight: the scouter ship Oblivion had been completely abandoned, its crew members nowhere to be found.  After a thorough investigation of the surrounding plateau, the colonists came to the consensus that they would send word to the Federation that the Oblivion had been abandoned; after all, to say they had a lot of work ahead of them would be a gross understatement.  This was the new Earth, their new home, a place they had to care for better than their own children. This planet would care for them if they cared for it; if they respected the land, it would do the same to them.

As the stronger of the colonists began to unpack their various tools and resources, a mother took her son aside, gesturing to the vastness of the plateau that would become their home.

“You see,” she said hopefully, “this place is to be our home.  In time, we will make it nicer and cleaner than Earth ever was, and someday it will be your job to do the same.”

“I don’t like it here,” the boy complained, “this air smells funny.”

His mother smiled, sucking in a deep breath of the planet’s pure oxygen.  “Well, you’re just used to stuffy spaceship air. This change is gonna be good for you, I promise.”

The boy shrugged.  “Well for now, can I put my helmet back on?  Can I, mom, please? I promise I’ll try and get used to it.”

“You’d better,” she scolded in mock anger, “but yes, for now you can keep your helmet on.”

“Awesome!  I’m gonna go play, I’ll be back on the ship in time for dinner.  Love you!”

“Love you too; don’t stray too far, ok?”

“I won’t!”

The child lifted up his helmet, reattached it to his spacesuit, and- ignoring a minor pounding in his head- ran off to join the other children.

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