The forest was primordial, dripping with vegetation to is roots. There was a hothouse quality to the variety of leaf and vine, delightfully bold and often audacious in form. It was to Jim Brisk as if the great shaper of worlds leaving his thumbprints everywhere had gone off to take a break. This new world was ready for countless iterations of shaping and changing and caressing in refinement.
Perhaps the planet was eons yet to come to that nesting stage suitable for hosting the first skittering things, slinking about and foraging life forms. Perhaps. However, there was not a single ant or beetle or creature of any kind to be found—a world without man or beast. Jim went about gathering plant samples and depositing them in hand-labeled containers and bags.
A large cupped green leaf fell. Jim studied the course of veins underlying its waxy sheen. The sky was clear, the air dense and moist. Jim turned the blade over to examine the other side.
Perhaps we are it? He pondered as a cascade of water droplets fell.
Albeit introduced artificially by a silver rocket ship across galaxies, might not he and the rest of the crew be the first ants (so to speak) to arrive, venture forth, multiply, and get busy busy busy?
A shadow passed over. More droplets fell. A sudden deluge of rain-drenched Jim where he stood, knocking the leaf from his hand and plastering graying hair to the top of his head. He straightened under the onslaught chilled neatly as if he’d plunged into a mountain stream After fifteen years on the ship in close quarters and recycled water, the man lifted his face and extended his arms, fingers splayed–now this was a cleansing shower!
Unloaded of its burden, the rain tree slowly lifted its mop-top and straightened its slim smooth trunk to stand again 100 feet tall. Jim’s tent stood only forty feet away, and it was dry, the breakfast campfire still smoldering. Jim stripped out of his wet gear, and laying them out to dry on a bush, strode back to the tent, to find a dry change.
Dense with moisture as the atmosphere was, the sky never developed clouds here. Song of songs, it was by these 100-foot rain trees that the forest floor ever knew something more substantial than damp and moldering leaves. Observing them from the ship filled the crew with a certain unease. Periodically bending their mop-tops almost to the ground, the trees stooped like beachcombers after a storm. They wicked the water from the air and, in time, bowed gracefully, unloading their burden in a shower. They did not water their own roots but their neighbors and depended upon like treatment in return.
Having worked among the trees these first few days, Jim felt he could pick up the simple song out of the living scheme of things here. Naked and wet, he whistled happily.
A glance at the western slope sucked the glad tune from his lips. With the sun behind, three figures stood like empty silhouettes against the sky. They were motionless, watching. Jim knew the men instantly by the holsters at their hips and the uniforms that straightened the posture and squared the shoulders. Knew them too well. One eased himself down the incline where the soil was loose. The others followed. In a few moments, they occupied Jim’s camp.
The first officer yawned. “You know what I miss most about our home world Jim?” he said. “Food!”
The men behind laughed.
“And I’m not talking about a hydroponic veggie burger and salad. Right men? I’m talking about a flame-broiled thick steak of buffalo-pig or a juicy cut of terrasaur.” He glanced around at the forest. “This place looks ripe for grazing out if we can requisition a few crates of young calves to set loose. Not many, just enough for the men stuck here for the rest of our miserable lives. Don’t forget this is an outpost we mean to hold. Understood?”
The officer turned to leave, but paused and turned around. “You might not be an enlisted man, but the captain would be interested in your sudden distaste for regulation uniform or, for that matter, clothes of any kind.”
Jim hated himself for stammering, “I was just getting a change of…”
“Save it. I don’t have the time. I know you were just getting cleaned up to report back at the ship tomorrow. No doubt your recommendation will be we all go naked as first-class chimps, come out and hug some trees. Let’s go, men.”
The next day Jim was reprimanded harshly in front of the whole crew for eschewing protective gear. Later in the isolation ward, the doctor kindly reminded him while Jim might feel physically better than ever, it was the little cells too small to see with the naked eye the doctor must guard the crew against. Jim was at this moment, quarantined two weeks for further observation. “Then we’ll take your report fondly in both hands,” said the doctor. “It’s the little cells, green, blue, gray that matter right now, son.” The doctor locked the door behind him.
The room was bright white and furnished sparsely as the inside of a used pharmaceutical bottle.
That night Jim gazed from the port window at the tall, dark rain trees beyond the clearing. The hazy moon radiated concentric rings of light emerald. From here, the bowing trees looked more like the long thin necks of brontosaurus feeding. In that was portent beyond the realm of tidy, comfortable summary. So what if the plant life proved pleasantly varied in flavor and was found wholly sustaining to the diet of men. So what?
Jim woke later in that night with a tingling sensation in his ear. It came in two parts, like the crunch of gravel under expedition boots followed by the gentle fizz of champagne. Sitting up, he worked his jaw to equalize pressure—this kind of worked but for the ringing tinnitus that remained.
A glance at the bedside monitor indicated he had a slight fever. Sitting on the edge of his bunk, he lamented the coming two weeks of medical isolation.
Jim’s earache grew. The popping fizzing sensation made him queasy. He lay back down and searched the ceiling. His confinement he must accept as part of the rigors of exploration.
Jim felt a trickle run from his ear. He’d wear some rain gear next time out. He flipped on the light. Rather than a spot of water, he found a puddle of sandy grains, flesh pink, on his pillow. He carried the pillow to the desk to inspect. Each grain was shaped like blunted starfish. Mica flecks shimmered with each tiny wriggle. Jim cupped his ear. Another round of pop and fizz threatened to flow. The tingling sensation became maddening now for understanding the cause. He hit the communication console.
“Nurse, come quick. Something’s wrong.”
“Well, hello nature boy, what’s the matter?”
“I got something. Somethings coming out of my ears.”
“Oh, ho. Not feeling so keen about losing your protective gear now, are you?”
“They’re like starfish, quick.”
“You mean little pink ones. Or something close to that color?”
“Just get in here, please.”
“Can you hold the line while I check the S.O.P. This is tricky business. Remember what an S.O.P is? I swear when will you wake up?”
Jim woke, sitting up with a jerk. It was dark. Water drops struck and fizzed over the tent fabric like champagne.
His confusion dispelled itself by degrees. He relaxed as the sound of the dripping night air was something now soothing, something like home.
A moon shadow swelled over the tent as droplets multiplied.
Jim unzipped the flap and stuck his head out in time to get thoroughly drenched in the rain. He looked up, as the dark treetop slowly lifted away.
Jim laughed. “Come on, you! Cleanse my tarnished dream.”