by Christopher O’Halloran
Chuck’s suit would protect her from the vine, but not from Booker’s furtive glances. He walked in step with her toward the danger zone and away from a command post buzzing with personnel.
Sunshine lit up the field. What she wouldn’t give to run carefree and barefoot over the lush grass. Instead, she crushed it beneath her boot.
Chuck’s glove brushed Booker’s, and he pulled away.
He was doing a lot of that. Pulling away. The connection between them was fraying, and Chuck had no idea what to do. The indecision was not her own, but it ached within her nonetheless.
“See it?” she asked over the comms. A fly buzzed nearby then landed on the faceplate of her helmet. She swatted it away with her thick glove. When she looked back at Booker, a strand of hair fell in front of her eyes. She couldn’t even brush it behind her ear, let alone retie her ponytail.
Inside her suit, fans whirred, circulating oxygen and cool air around her body in a current that mimicked her veins, her arteries. Sweat beaded on her forehead. Did they have to start their walk from so far away? At least the air circulation would keep her from being trapped with her own stink. The only smell inside her helmet was of the delicate antiseptic.
“No,” replied Booker. “Can’t see shit.”
The vine had sprung up—unbidden and unidentifiable—in the middle of a field in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Photos showed it about two inches in diameter, popping out of the ground and ducking back in a foot and a half further along. Discovered by a farmer as he put his horse out to pasture.
Both the farmer and the horse were in quarantine.
“What do you think it does?” asked Chuck. She wished she could brush the sweat from her skin. It tingled with the chill of the AC. The display on the outside of her forearm informed her that the atmosphere within the metal carapace was a comfortable sixty-nine degrees. Perfect for a brisk walk, once they got moving.
“Nothing to us. Not with these things on.” Booker smacked her in the arm with his glove. Her skin flushed. A bunny in her stomach twitched long ears. “Top of the line.”
“Thank you, Dimeter Solutions.” The agency that employed them wasn’t huge on communication, but they didn’t spare any expense with their exploratory procedures. Whether traipsing into volcanoes or dropping down to the ocean floor to collect rare organisms from the edge of hydrothermal vents, Chuck and Booker did it in safety and they did it in style. Bright white and impossible to ignore. Impossible to lose sight of the couple.
The box on her belt—about the size of a pack of cigarettes—was, likewise, top of the line. Chuck and Booker would reach the site, position the box adjacent to the vine, then leave it to monitor the alien thing grown from no seed and figure out just how dangerous it was.
They approached the vine. It looked almost exactly as the photos depicted it. Deep green with muted tan patches. Slightly fuzzy, almost like a peach. As far as Chuck could tell, it hadn’t grown at all since the photos were taken, but in person it shimmered with the glittering luminosity of a falling star.
She stopped blinking for a moment and could have sworn it pulsed. A slight swelling and receding as if taking something in from the earth. Or pumping something back in…
“Looks like there should be a pumpkin on the end of it,” Chuck said, smiling at her partner.
Chuck’s smile died. Something was bouncing around in Booker’s head, and she knew exactly what it was.
His wife had kicked him out after she learned about Chuck and him. Locked him out of their house and everything.
Chuck had told him he could crash at her place—he was no stranger to her bed, after all—but he declined. The separation should have been a good thing. A chance for them to finally be together, properly together, but he was pulling away.
She didn’t get it. They talked about it over and over, how great it would be to not hide. To be able to live their lives out of the shadows. Go on vacation, buy something big together. Hell, even just go out for lunch without worrying about how it looked.
Booker stared at the vine. His glove bounced slowly against his leg, over and over. Mulling over his thoughts.
Chuck sighed, the funk of her breath only faintly registering before being covered up by the sterility of her suit. They couldn’t talk about things now, no matter how badly she wanted to. Someone would be listening over the comms. Director Wade, back in command. Instead of getting the truth out of Booker, she did her job.
“Placing the monitoring device,” she said, unclipping the box from her belt and crouching by the vine. The knees of her suit creaked. She was an astronaut, exploring a new planet—yet again. The novel turned mundane from repetition. The extraordinary made commonplace.
“I want to touch it,” Booker said.
The box slipped in Chuck’s glove, but she caught it.
“Jesus, dude.” She smiled. “Scared me. I kind of forgot you were there.”
“It doesn’t look dangerous,” said Booker. “Don’t you think?”
Chuck looked at the face under the helmet. His tanned skin, the sharp chin. The thin mustache over his lip that tickled her whenever they kissed. It would look ridiculous on any other man, but Booker pulled it off. The strength of a gladiator with the class of an aristocrat.
She sighed, then returned her attention to the vine. Gently, she placed the box on the grass. It was heavy, flattening the blades. She nudged it against the vine, placing it in contact with the foreign material.
“Too bad we can’t check it out,” she said. “Looks like it would sauté up pretty good. Like zucchini. Toss it with some butter and chili powder.” Her stomach growled in agreement.
“You’re not kidding,” said Booker.
She wasn’t. The vine gave off an aura of sorts. It drew her attention; called to her.
Touch me. Feel me. Taste me.
Chuck looked over at Booker.
“Let’s head back before this thing hypnotizes us.”
Neither of them moved, though. Wind blew through the field, making the blades of grass sway and flicker in the bright sun. Booker’s presence next to her made Chuck want to scream. To be inches away and not able to touch him. Not just having two bulky suits between them, but having lost his love…
“What we did…” Booker said.
Chuck turned to him and grabbed Booker’s glove. “Let’s head back, huh?” When Booker met her eyes, she made a pointed glance down at the microphone at the corner of her mouth. They’re listening, she mouthed.
Booker rolled his eyes. He was past caring.
“It was stupid, wasn’t it?” He shook his head, looking back at the vine. “Like a couple of fucking kids. Messing around, risking everything.”
Okay, so they were doing this.
“Things weren’t great between you and Norma,” she whispered, the cheater’s justification hollow and cliché even to her own ears. “You said you two weren’t going to—”
“I know what I said.” He looked down at his glove in hers.
The fastener cuff had come undone.
Startled, he pulled back, and—just like that—his hand was exposed to the open air.
“Booker!” Chuck froze. She held his lifeless glove in hers.
He was compromised. The air—whatever had caused this strange vine to grow—seeped into his suit.
Booker held his hand in front of his faceplate. His mouth dropped open, his eyes examining the pale skin.
“They’ll come get you,” Chuck said. She dropped the glove; the damage was already done. “They’ll make sure nothing happens to you.”
Booker sighed. He looked her in the eye, shaking his head.
“Oh, Charlie,” he said. Just like he always said whenever she told him to shave his mustache or run away with her.
His hands came up to his helmet.
“Don’t expose yourself any more!” Chuck said.
“It’s too late,” said Booker. “Besides, I’m not dead. I don’t think it’s in the air.”
“You don’t know that.”
He twisted the helmet and lifted it off while holding his breath. The wind tousled his hair, tossing dark locks like the strands of a weeping willow. The crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes deepened as he squinted in the bright, Canadian sun. A sad smile grew beneath his mustache.
Chuck hadn’t seen him smile since telling her about Norma.
He closed his eyes and inhaled.
Chuck, strangely, was jealous. She wanted to breathe in the scent of the healthy grass, the bright yellow dandelions, each one a sun. She wanted to smell cow shit, not the stale, circulated air in her suit.
She wanted to smell the vine. Lean in close and breathe in the earthy goodness of it.
“I’ve got nothing left to lose,” said Booker, muffled by the glass of her helmet. “Norma’s gone. The house.” He shook his head, staring somberly at Chuck. “You.”
“You haven’t lost me,” said Chuck. Sweat trickled down her cheek.
Sweat? No, that was a tear. She was crying.
“I’m right here.”
He looked into the sky. His hand came up and pushed his hair back.
She was locked in the suit. Couldn’t scratch an itch, couldn’t move that one goddamn strand of hair behind her ear. Couldn’t wipe the tears from her eyes.
“They don’t know what that thing is,” Booker said. “You believe that?”
Chuck was speechless. He had never openly criticized Dimeter Solutions. Sure, over drinks they joked about how serious the agency took itself, but they wouldn’t go so far as to bite the hand that feeds on a hot mic.
“I believe that,” she said, finally. “Yeah, of course. It’s dangerous.”
“Doesn’t look dangerous.” Booker took a step forward and crouched.
“Stop,” Chuck said. “Don’t go any further.”
“Things can’t get any worse, Charlie.” He removed his other glove and tossed it aside.
“Maybe it’s not airborne,” Chuck said, “but if you touch it—”
“I’m not talking about the plant.” He blew thin breath through clenched teeth. “Things can’t get any worse.” His hand hovered above the vine as if repelled by a magnet. Was his brain keeping him from touching it? From being exposed to the poison of the thing? One last barrier of self-preservation.
The barrier fell away. He gently lowered his bare hand onto the vine. As gentle as a father giving his restless baby a soothing touch. Providing safety and comfort.
Chuck waited for something to happen. Even if the thing was poisonous—it had to be dangerous if they were taking such extensive precautions—that didn’t mean it would affect him immediately. Still, she felt like something should happen.
Booker’s eyes lit up. They blazed with emotion. Tears welled in them, then streamed down his face.
Chuck gasped. She couldn’t speak. He would scream. He’d start to shriek in agony. Fall to the ground, murdered by the alien eruption.
He smiled. He grinned from ear to ear, happy as Christmas. Joyous as a child with a parent returning from war. Nothing of the Norma Conflict, nothing of the tension between him and Chuck. Just unbridled pleasure.
“It’s incredible…” He laughed, wrapped his fingers around it even stronger. “Charlie—Chuck—it’s amazing!”
Chuck, hearing her name spoken with the same reverie as when they had first kissed, exhaled the breath she had been holding.
Booker jumped to his feet and took two quick steps toward her.
“I’m more than okay,” he said, still crying. “It’s all more than okay!”
He took her glove in both bare hands.
“You need to touch it.”
Chuck blinked rapidly. “It still might be dangerous. They’re going to quarantine—”
“It doesn’t matter.” He closed his mouth, still smiling. His eyes roamed over her face. Taking her in. That was the man she knew. The man she fell in love with. “It doesn’t matter.”
Chuck allowed herself to smile. She let his fingers move to her cuff, to the clips that would allow the glove to be pulled away. That would allow her skin to breathe.
“Is it just me,” Booker asked, “or is it getting hot?”
“Couldn’t tell you,” said Chuck, feeling flush herself. “In the suit—”
Booker’s suit contracted, metal plates grinding against each other. The joints pinched; he winced.
“Shit,” he said, tapping desperately at the control panel on his arm. “Thing’s glitching.”
He was locked out. The status lights hummed blue as always—no cautionary crimson—but the blue had grown so bright. It flared, even in the sun.
Smoke wormed out of small openings in thin tendrils. His neck stretched as he tried to loosen his collar, but the material there formed a tight seal. The forearm display claimed it was still a cool sixty-nine degrees inside, but his bare skin had the flush of a man trapped in a desert.
Now he was sweating.
“Booker?” Chuck wanted to help, but she was frozen.
He panicked. He begged for help. His skin blistered around his neck, his wrists.
“Wade,” Chuck said into her mic. “Wade, there’s something wrong with Booker’s suit!”
His eyes were huge.
“Chuck,” Booker moaned. “Chuck, oh god. It’s burning, it’s burning!”
She tried to grab his limbs, to tear the suit apart at its joints, but it did not yield. The heat passed through to her hands, and she had to pull away. Scorch marks ran along the palms of her gloves.
“I’m sorry, Booker,” she said, crying once more. “Help! Wade, someone, help us!”
The blisters on Booker’s neck grew and split—surely worse inside the suit. They bubbled, cracked, oozed.
Then, just under his jaw, it all split in a complete ring. The skin on his neck shifted an inch lower, pulled down by the weight of the suit. Blood seeped out of raw flesh. Exposed vocal cords shuddered with his screams, his undulating throat a slab of meat sliced from a living specimen.
The forearm display claimed a cool sixty-nine degrees.
His eyes rolled into the back of his head. He fell to his knees, reaching out to her with an ungloved hand. It was red, the wrists charred where the cuffs had tightened.
Booker grunted, moaned, then fell onto his face.
Chuck tried to fall next to him. Roll him onto his back, provide some sort of aid or comfort, but her own suit wouldn’t move. It was frozen.
Her tears stopped as realization dawned on her. “Wade,” she whispered to the man a mile away in a safe command portable. “Wade, something happened to Booker’s suit. Some sort of malfunction, and I think mine is going to—”
“It wasn’t a malfunction.” His voice was calm, collected. In control. “You were supposed to avoid contact.”
“It’s not dangerous, Wade!” Chuck craned her neck in the helmet, struggled to move her arms. “The vine is a good thing.”
More than anything, she wanted to throw her gloves off and show him the glory of the plant. They didn’t need to fear it. It was there to help them. To help humanity. To ease suffering and provide joy, or perspective.
“The vine is good—”
“We know what the vine is, Charlotte. We are well aware.”
The monitoring box against the vine whirred. Within, cogs moved, opening plates on the device. Its shell pulled apart like the wings of a beetle.
Clear liquid poured out. It hissed when it came into contact with the vine, eating through the organic matter.
“No!” Chuck rallied against her suit, throwing her body against the inner shell. It didn’t move, frozen in place by the bastard at its controls. She might as well be trapped inside a statue. How much power did they have over her? “You can’t do this.”
The liquid—the acid—chewed up the vine. It turned it into nothing. No goo, no dust, no smoke drifting into the air. It took the best thing that could ever exist and wiped it from the face of the earth.
Chuck shrieked. She smashed her head against her faceplate. Her forehead split, blood trickling into her eyes.
“You can’t do this,” she cried. “Booker needs help.” She tried to pull her arms inside her suit, to be free of its confines, but to no avail. “You can’t do this!”
“Booker should have stayed in his suit.”
Her own suit began to move. It walked her backward, turning her around and marching her back to command. Back to quarantine, to her punishment.
It pulled her away from her friend. From the vine. From the life she had been foolish enough to hope for.