“So, speaking of flora and fauna and fun…” I flip through my sketchbook to my recent drawings and show them to Corazon. I’m curious whether she knows the proper names of the shimmering butterfly and the jellyfish-type creature. And what other types of animals we could expect to come across.
“Oh, that’s a shimmerfly! They’re actually pretty rare. I haven’t seen one in person, but I’ve read about them,” Corazon tells me. It’s too bad she missed the one that showed up when Cleve was trying to cover our trail earlier. “Some people say it’s a sign of good luck, but I don’t believe in that kind of thing myself. And shimmerflies are definitely not dangerous.”
“No,” I laugh, “they carry medicine.”
“They’re good luck as far as I can tell,” Cleve agrees, happy to have recovered syringe OAC 4/5.
“People think of them as mischievous,” Corazon adds.
“Ah, okay, so maybe like crows,” I say.
“I think so.” Corazon considers for a moment. “Yeah, that sounds right.” It occurs to me that she’s never seen a crow in the flesh. She’d just have pictures or stories of them from planetfallers and the databases they brought along.
“They’re translucent,” Cleve observes, “so maybe shimmerflies aren’t as rare as you think. You just don’t see them easily.”
“And maybe people blame them when they weren’t even there,” I add. “Who took my pencil? Must’ve been a shimmerfly.”
When we’re done joking around, Corazon shares that she’s heard of some dangerous plants other than xenofungus. “There’s one they call a briar beast. It’s a little more animated than typical plant life.”
“Wait,” Cleve says, “more animated than typical plant life? How animated is plant life here?”
“Not much. Were plants on Earth? Did they move around?”
“Not of their own volition,” I tell Corazon.
“Well, it’s usually the same way here.”
Cleve wants actionable information. “Does it eat animals?”
“I understand it eats just about anything,” Corazon tells him.
This is not entirely without precedent. Trying to put it in context, I say, “Okay, there were small carnivorous plants on Earth—”
“No, this is pretty sizeable,” Corazon assures us.
“Good to know. Do you know enough about these to recognize them?” I ask.
“Hopefully. They can kind of camouflage with their environment. I think that’s how they hunt.”
Corazon and I keep walking as we talk, but Cleve lingers behind, surveying the area since we’ve just crested a hill and are headed down now into a thicket of mushroom trees. The wind shifts, and suddenly I find myself wracked with a coughing fit. I throw out my hand, bracing myself against the nearest thick stalk, since I’m not sure I can keep my footing with just my cane. When I manage to crack my scrunched eyes open again, I’m surrounded by a thick fog. This must be what the miasma haze looks like from the inside. I don’t know if my lungs are constricted or if my throat is swelling, but breathing is definitely a chore now.
“You guys all right?” I hear Cleve call. I can’t manage an answer. All I can do is cough.
“We stepped into the miasma,” Corzaon replies. “We got distracted,” she berates herself. “It didn’t look that thick. Cleve! Cleve, are you there?”
“I’m over here!” he shouts back. He must not have blundered into this mess after us. Corazon catches my elbow, and the two of us stumble back up the hill, following Cleve’s voice out of the thick patch of miasma.
Unfortunately, down through that valley is the route we must take. While it would be possible to skirt around on higher ground, the terrain there will be rougher, and a fall could land us right back into the miasma. Better just to prepare for it and plow straight through the pass as fast as we can. Cleve leads the way with the problem solving. Using what we have on hand, we fashion makeshift masks of damp cloth. Cleve and Corazon use bandages from the first aid kit, while I simply tie my monogrammed silk handkerchief around my face. The ornately embroidered MET was a splurge, but well worth it.
The wind can blow the miasma around, so we decide to give that a try, too. Corazon reluctantly sacrifices her fungicide gear to this endeavor. She disconnects the chemical cartridge—the most valuable part—and then lets Cleve fiddle around with the spray set up. “It’ll be just like spraying weeds or spreading seeds,” he says. He might be trying to instill confidence in us with that comment, but I suspect it was said more for his own benefit, to convince himself that the plan is sound. Certainly neither Corazon nor I have ever engaged in those activities. Once Cleve’s got the spray nozzle blowing blasts of air, we’re ready to go. The plan is for Cleve and me to crowd in right behind Corazon who will blow the miasma out of the way as we all run together.
That’s the plan, anyway. Normally, I can run just fine—with a sufficient warm-up. But with my coughing, the miasma obscuring our vision, and the xenofungus briars catching at us with each step, keeping my feet is tricky. Ultimately, I do take a tumble. I don’t suffer any major harm; the xenofungus has tiny thorns but also a lot of give. Cleve grabs the back of my blazer and yanks me back up to my feet. We’re all stumbling by the time we reach the lip at the opposite end of the pass and break out of the fog.
We were in a valley between two peaks, but one at some elevation. Now a new stretch of lowlands spreads out before us in all its grandeur. It’s like when we emerged from the wolf beetle nest and I saw Chiron for the first time. The world is lit by the setting suns, and I can see for miles. A river of xenofungus flows through the blue-green countryside, glistening red in the late afternoon light. A glimmer catches my eye, and I think I can make out a shimmerfly not too far off. It all looks so beautiful.
And I feel such pain. This is not the baseline ache I live with everyday, nor the sharp stab of a fresh break. I did just fall and immediately have to start running again, both things that could reasonably be expected to aggravate my old injury, but this is more than that. This is worse than anything I can ever remember feeling. Maybe the still-healing wolf beetle injury is exacerbating matters? This feels like a caustic burn deep within my leg, and those creatures do have acid glands.
Those are the thoughts that briefly flash through my mind as I take in the beauty before me. But then my leg gives out, and my brain decides to shut down. The pain is just too much.
Cleve comes running out into the fresh air at the end of the pass, same as Corazon and Mariah do. The ground here has canted up again, trapping the thicker miasma back behind them, so they are through the worst of it. Their trail from here will snake down into the lowlands, but Cleve barely spares a glance for that right now. He has only a moment to catch his breath before witnessing Mariah crumple to the ground in a still heap. Corazon is coughing—much like Cleve now is—but she is still on her feet. “Do you have any medical training?” Cleve asks her as he rushes over to Mariah. He drops down to his knees and pulls out his medkit.
“Uh, not particularly? No.” Corazon joins Cleve. “Um, but I’m good with things, I guess.”
She sounds about as confident as Cleve feels right now. “Watch for danger,” he tells her, setting the first aid kit aside. Then he straightens Mariah out a bit and gives him a smack on the cheek. “Em! Wake up! Are you all right?”
Corazon looks at Cleve in confusion. “Don’t you have some smelling salts or something? Maybe splash some water in his face?”
“Uhhh… right.” Cleve looks through the advanced medical supplies Roze gave him and finds exactly what he needs.