The algae bloomed fiercely out on the lakefront during the hot summer months on Chaloir. The extreme, barely habitable heat of the exoplanet and high humidity levels felt like a never-ending swamp on the best of days and the research team slogged away at recording water levels and collecting specimen samples of water bugs jumping across the water. “I half expect an alligator to appear out from under the stuff that looks like duckweed! Good thing these suits are meant to take a lot more than just a few feisty reptiles.” Sierra called over her shoulder to Elias, hoping to take the edge off their slow work by reminiscing about summers swimming around lakes and dodging gators in her youth. All she could make out was a loud harrumph from Elias who had managed to step into an unseen hole and nearly trip as he reached towards a creature resembling a small snake coiled around a floating log. “Got it! Check out the definition on these scales, it’s like they’ve warped with the heat.” Elias triumphantly cradled his latest catch in his gloved hands, carefully guiding it into a small terrarium for such finds. “Incredible specimen, but what’s it really good for?” Sierra replied. “Well, I was thinking we figure out if it’s any good for medicinal purposes or, you know, we could just eat it. They sure are hounding us about finding enough protein before we drain and repurpose these nasty swamps.” “Yeah, and I’m sure Colony Command is going to give us a big raise when we give them a recipe book,” Sierra quipped. The rest of the fieldwork for the day was as eventful as wading through a mire could be. Sure, it was nutrient rich fuel for all types of living organisms and the lakes were crawling with microorganisms and new xenobiology not seen on earlier missions to more temperate exoplanets, but it wasn’t going to be enough to send any big starships full of colonists their way. That evening, the group gathered for dinner as Team Leader Alexandra Rojas read over the daily reports from the two surveyed lakes. “Hey Elias and Sierra, nice job getting the new Squamata samples, this snake creature looks fierce. Didn’t know they had such bright reptiles out in the swamp, the blues and greens are mesmerizing.” Alexandra held up the terrarium as the group looked in appreciation at the cool colors of the slumbering reptile. “Rojas, ma’am, we recorded a deeper tone of highly saturated brown when we collected sample 474. We’ll have to figure out how it changes color, do you have a temperature reading on the terrarium?” Elias flipped through his field notebooks for the proper data. Carlos introduced more heat and mist into the terrarium and the specimen sure enough returned to its original coloration from earlier that day. “Do it again, but this time I want it down a full twenty degrees from where you had it last.” Rojas commanded. “20 C? Seems rather extreme,” Carlos told her. “Hah! Wait until you’re here for the winter. You’ll be wishing you were back in those marshy heat traps. Maybe this thing has been tricked into some sort of hibernation with cold weather.” “Understood, I’m lowering the temperature and drying out the air to ten percent humidity.” “Give it about twenty minutes and we’ll pick back up after we finish bussing the dishes from dinner.” Rojas said, informally permitting the team to return to their meals and side conversations now that the reporting for the day was complete. Most of the group forgot all about Squamata sample 474, preferring to catch up on some long-awaited mail and new vids from Earth. Elias remained out of obligation, but Sierra was becoming quite fascinated by the life forms they’d brought in that week. A litany of fish, snake like creatures, and other somewhat recognizable amphibians and reptiles sat or floated in aquariums the group studied for up to forty-eight hours before returning them to their appropriate swampy locales. “Elias, Rojas must’ve liked the sample so much she brought it with her to her cabin. It’s gone.” Sierra noted, trying not to sound too surprised. “Uh, I wouldn’t be so sure about that, look down!” Elias exclaimed. Sure enough, the wide-eyed green-blue creature now lay below their feet with closed eyes. Its cage looked undisturbed as the creature lay motionless with no obvious explanation as to how it escaped. “Look, you like these snakes. Pick it up and put it back. Someone must have messed with it or knocked the cage without realizing it got out,” Elias replied unamused. With a little trepidation, Sierra reached down to pick up the specimen. It woke up, coiling around her hand before she realized she didn’t have examination gloves on. In a flash, she visualized not the swamps of the exoplanet, but of her once home in the southern United States. The cool snake-like scales lulled her into a memory of swimming in dark green water without caring how gross it felt to dig her toes into the algae and sand at the bottom. Elias gasped as the creature now lay comfortably in its original cage. “It must have teleported! Sierra, did you throw it, what just happened?” He tried to make sense of the preceding seconds, repeating his mantra to never mistake xenobiology for Terran creatures. Sierra snapped out of her stupor and looked down at specimen as if nothing had happened. “No, I must have just done it quickly. Teleportation can’t even be possible; if you saw anything it was probably just a weird jump.” Sierra tried to dismiss Elias’s exacerbation. They retired to their cabins to a fitful sleep as temperatures outside the pods began rising again well over forty degrees Celsius. Before retiring for bed, Sierra organized her field notes for the day with a focus on the Squamata sample. Sure enough, Carlos’s observations pointed to short-range teleportation that would allow the unclassified Squamata specimens to descend to the bottom of lakes for food without stirring up the water while devouring crustaceans. It was but one major finding from the research team, although it would not be enough to make any long-term venture to the planet worthwhile. All the colonists would want were coniferous forests and oceans that spanned whole hemispheres of worlds. Field Notes 5/29/2108
The summer wore on, populating the horizon with the sounds of newly hatched insects and larval stage creatures being eaten by arthropods. The research team was in good spirits as the long two-hundred-day summer was slowly coming towards an end as burgeoning life began preparing for the delicate process of hibernating while Chaloir cooled. Team Leader Rojas allowed the team a few days off before they began a few winter experiments and finally traveled off world. They were in good spirits as they anticipated the end of their research mission with significant new xenobiology findings and the knowledge that no human would need to return to its barely livable surface. Nothing precluded them from spending their shore leave along the shores of Chaloir’s lakes, but only Sierra was motivated to do so. She set out early in the morning to get moving before the heat rose to unbearable levels, even within the agile suit she wore for research. However, this job required only human flesh. Ever since that sample had touched her with the want to return to the gentle summer days floating in lakes in Florida, she had longed to properly swim in the lake. There, she could swim for hours in springs cooled by an underground aquifer and catch sights of water birds as she kayaked along winding rivers. “Elias, I’m going out for a short walk. I’ll be back in thirty minutes. Just taking a couple of photos and stretching my legs,” Sierra radioed in to Elias. “Copy that. Short solo egress has been approved. Have fun in the natural sauna,” he quipped. “Thanks, I’ll be back soon.” She soon found herself alone outside for the first time, holding a suit so no alarms would go off inside the research pod. As soon as she inhaled the humid air, she smelled mud and all sorts of living matter. As disgusted as she wanted to be by the rancid concoction, it beguiled her, urging her to remember those sunbaked childhood days. She became emboldened by this comfort, relaxing into her routine of hiking towards one of the largest lakes, dubbed Okeechobee by the group for how it resembled the Everglades. Sierra deposited her shoes and suit along the shoreline and without any preamble began wading in the water. It was as intoxicating as she imagined, and she took in the warm mixture of water and vegetation as fish languidly swam around her. It was almost home for her, and full submersion was only natural. Sierra dove headfirst, only constricted by the loose clothes meant to be worn under her suit. It was a cool, dark grotto that teemed of life. As she came up for air, she began noticing just how loud the lake sounded. The early morning was a frenzy of life, and she could hear every bug in a polyphony that reminded her of cicadas. Diving down once more, she realized that instead of the murky darkness, she could see in the water with a new amphibian vision. She bristled as she witnessed an alarming display of creatures never even spotted by the research team. A fish with spiny whiskers illuminated a sunken world of snakes, shrimp, and large plankton that danced around the rocky abyss of the bottom of the lake. Sierra yelled a sputter of sounds, gulping for breath as she resurfaced. Even with their lights and probes, the research team had never seen the lake the same way as the creatures. “My arm! It’s turning gray!” Sierra yelled in surprise as she looked at her once tan arm that was now morphing into a gray color impossible with human melanin alone. She tried to control her breathing so she could tread water, but her own disgust at the xenobiology nauseated her. She recoiled as her skin hardened into scales. Ever the consummate scientist, she had half a mind to record what happened and another to reach the suit and communication device at the shore so Elias could come and rescue her. Tears burned in salty eyes as the temptation she felt to return to her childhood haven was replaced by a rancid transformation into an abject aquatic human hybrid. Her skin was turning into the scales seen on the Squamata samples and she couldn’t imagine what it was doing to her internal organs as she doubled over in the water, folding her body into an amphibious shape not unlike the creatures in the lab. She imagined she looked ghastly as the small, coiled snakes she so often looked at were now injecting their xenobiology into a human many times their size, with the resulting transformation causing her spine to curve round so much the pain nearly made her pass out. She thought the moment would pass, but her fate was already sealed. Looking down, the Squamata all lay motionless at the bottom having entered their hibernation period for the several hundred-day winter ahead. Alone at the bottom of the lake, her last cogent thought was the chilling realization that even if help came for Sierra, it would never recover her immobile, scaled form from the bottom of the lake. Sierra was gone, a wisp of a ghost that would go up with the rocket that would lead the team to their next research site. There she would lie, motionless and unconscious like the rest of her new kin, looking forward to the rancid summer days on an exoplanet deemed uninhabitable. She would join the native biota and the research team would move on with little thought of the true cost of a mission and the false allure of the once familiar.
About the Author Angela Acosta is a bilingual Latina writer who holds a Ph.D. in Iberian Studies from The Ohio State University. She was recently nominated for Best of the Net and she is a 2022 Dream Foundry for Emerging Writers finalist. She is a Rhysling finalist with speculative poems in Shoreline of Infinity, Apparition Lit, Radon Journal, and Space & Time. She is author of Summoning Space Travelers (Hiraeth Publishing, 2022) and Fourth Generation Chicana Unicorn (Dancing Girl Press, 2023). She enjoys rock climbing and biking in her free time. About the Artist From Troy, Michigan and currently in Chicago, Sammy Loree is a visual artist and creative writer with focuses in surreal portraits and fiction. Updates and more art can be found on her Instagram @artsamloree.
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