Author: Alastair Millar

It should have been paradise; a warm, azure sea lapped the shore, separated from a verdant pseudoforest by a broad expanse of golden sand. When it came to xenobotany, this was as good as field trips got, and Maggie still couldn’t believe the grants committee had agreed to fund it.

Nevertheless, here she was, 27 light-years from home, notional leader of a university expedition to Sapphire, an Earth-like planet in the goldilocks zone of the star Marshall 4973. This island was part of a chain around the equator; the ubiquitous plant equivalents looked like giant tillandsia colonies, sucking moisture out of the warm humidity, the smaller piggybacking on the larger.

It should have been paradise; but it wasn’t. Down the beach, their biologist, Jack, was examining the tidal zone for signs of littoral life. He was only here because his post-doc supervisor had taken sick, and there was nobody else available to fill the slot. No doubt he was competent enough, but psych evals could still be wrong.

“Hey skip, whatcha got?” The voice in her earpiece was a sudden interruption. She glanced up at the sky, where the planet’s moonlets shone like diamonds.

“Hey Lucy. Plants. Or next best thing. How’re things upstairs?”

“Still doing the planetary mapping scans. Quiet up here.”

“We’ll be back later to liven things up. I won’t risk a night down here until we know what we’re sharing this place with.” And just what, she wondered, were the two women sharing the cramped space of their wormhole rider with?

“Don’t blame you. Much happier safe up here, me. Whoops, first run’s done, call you later!” Curious but timid, their pilot was so much like her own daughter May, long gone now.

She willed her attention back to the growth in front of her. Taller than she was, the blue stem had hard, scarlet spines as long as her forearm. A defence against something they hadn’t encountered yet, perhaps. Each point glistened with a clear ooze; she carefully swabbed the sticky substance onto a slide from her sample box, applied a coverslip, and popped it into her chem analyser. In two minutes she’d know what it was.

The problem with Jack, she realised, was that he was too much like the smirking thug whose name she refused to utter even in her thoughts, the one who’d taken her life’s joy from her. She remembered the sneering looks he’d darted in her direction as the judge droned on about “boys being boys” and let the lad off with a caution; May had withdrawn into herself even more afterwards, harder and harder to reach, until eventually she’d opened a vein in a warm bath and was gone forever.

The analyser beeped. Well yay for gloves, this stuff looked like a particularly nasty neurotoxin.

She’d seen Jack’s hungry glances at Lucy when he thought nobody was looking. What if he woke up before them when they came out of the wormhole, at the start of the long glide back to Earth? He could do something unspeakable; they wouldn’t find out until months later. She couldn’t run that risk. Project safety was one of her responsibilities, after all.

She carefully cut a spine off the plant. A terrible accident, she’d say; she’d warned him to be careful. He’d lost his footing and fallen backwards into the foliage, ripping his suit. So tragic.

She wouldn’t, she couldn’t, let another girl down. Taking a deep breath of the heavy air, she headed down the beach to where the unconcerned boy poked the wet sand, his back turned.