By Kristen Hornung
Cass stretched out onto the suns-baked mudflat and closed her eyes, relishing the heat radiating into her stiff back. When she focused on the sound of the water sloshing through the reeds and the burnt taste of campfire smoke, she could almost pretend that she was home.
“The crabobster’s ready,” Trent said.
She rolled over onto her side, rested her cheek in the crook of her clay-streaked arm, and stared at the roasted creature Trent had killed. It looked like a cross between a crab and a lobster, but its pink carapace was the size of her torso. “I wish you wouldn’t eat it.”
“The risk is low. Besides, I have an iron stomach.”
Cass watched Trent’s biceps bulge as he wrenched off the first of eight pereopods with a wet pop. “Remember what happened to the crew on RD7?”
He chuckled. “They were idiots for thinking that derm testing would be sufficient for an unknown species of berry.”
“What you’re doing isn’t much better. You know the genetic assay only reduces—”
“Please don’t start quoting statistics,” he interrupted, then wiped the sweat off his forehead and picked up a pair of pliers. “Anyway, it was the microscopic mold rooted in some of the clusters that gave them diarrhea. Since not every berry was infected, they might not have detected it even if they had done an assay.”
“You’re making my point for me. There are too many variables. How am I supposed to justify this risk in our report?”
“Easy. You won’t mention it, Cass.” With a loud crack, the exoskeleton splintered open, revealing flaky, milky-white flesh. “Unless you want me to disclose that you’ve been using a sensorigram.”
She gnawed at the brittle skin on her lower lip where a UV-blister had healed. “I swear, I barely use it.”
“Every day you’re getting clumsier, making more mistakes. Why would you worry about me having an adverse food reaction when you’re risking permanent damage to your cerebellum with that chip?”
“I don’t know.” She resisted the urge to look away. “Maybe I’ve been in denial.”
Trent tugged a chunk loose and tossed it into his mouth. “It’s a bit shrimpy. Should have named it shrabobster.”
“Will you turn me in?”
“Depends on if you keep using it.” Even though his tone was casual, his eyes bored into hers. “For the next year, we have to work together and trust each other. If we get sloppy with our radiation protocols, or miscalculate the tides… I mean, I’d like us both to survive—”
“I get it,” she interjected, pushing herself up off the ground. “I’ll be right back.”
After retrieving the sensorigram from their tent, Cass sat down next to him, wincing as her scabbed knee brushed against his thigh. She pinched the wafer-thin chip between her thumb and forefinger.
For a moment, she watched the flames illuminate the metal-encrusted silicate. She knew that if she hesitated, he would think she was addicted. She dropped it into his palm.
He nodded once, crushed the chip with the pliers, and tossed it into the fire. “Want to tell me about it? Must have been special to hook a rule-follower like you.”
She looked away from the flames and out toward the marsh, blinking the sparks from her eyes. The double stars were low on the horizon, casting a silver gleam over the expanse of water. Like a mirror, the surface reflected the sky while hiding what lurked beneath. “It’s just an enhanced memory from our last summer in the Rockies. I was eight years old. Have you ever had apple pie?”
He paused, halfway through licking the juices off his fingers. “I haven’t.”
“Well, I had spent the entire day playing with my best friend, climbing Ponderosa pines and making a secret fort out of branches. When the sun started setting, we went back to the cabin. We were so sticky with resin, and our stomachs rumbled like angry volcanoes. My mother gave us each a piece of apple pie that she had warmed in the oven.”
She paused to swallow. “It was mouthwatering… buttery pastry, tangy apples, and a spicy-sweet cinnamon-sugar glaze.”
“The sensorigram could capture all of that?”
“And more. Under the flavors of the pie, I could even taste the… the sharp edge of mountain air, and feel the lingering euphoria from climbing high in a tree and clinging to the trunk as it swayed in the breeze. It brought me back to that sense of… wonder, and of being small.” She sighed. “I’m going to miss it.”
Trent fed the hollowed-out pereopods into the fire. “Before we left Earth, I used to sneak out at night, just to be alone in the desert and look at the moon… it made me feel like that.”
She peered at the constellations emerging in the darkening sky, then at their reflections shimmering on the water.
He stood up and held out his calloused hand. “Let’s turn in.”
Cass accepted his hand, and he helped her to her feet. The gesture made her smile. He’d never touched her intentionally before.
Without the sensorigram to help her relax, it took her hours to fall asleep. When she finally did, she dreamed that Trent became ill and she couldn’t find their med kit. On his sleeping mat, he seized with fever. Brackish sweat trickled from his pores. His limbs stiffened. Pink spines erupted all over his skin.
Her terror threw her out of her nightmare. Trent’s mat was empty. She bolted to her feet, desperate to gear up and find him.
He was drinking coffee at the waterline, watching the crabobsters scuttle into their burrows. Giddy with relief, she shared her dream.
“Glad I haven’t transformed?” he asked, grinning at her over the rim of his cup.
“Yes,” she replied, grinning back. “Maybe tonight I’ll try a bite.”