The air sparkled with tiny particles of ice. They were so fine; barely visible in the shade of the large boulders and strange shrubs growing nearby. This place was beautiful. Kara’s lips tingled when the tiny crystals melted on her skin.

After a moment, her eyes and nose began to burn - just a little at first, like the juice from fresh cut peppers. The sensation intensified quickly, spreading down through her mouth and throat, back from her eyes, through her veins into every muscle. Her throat began to tighten, the muscles in her chest growing stiff.

"Poison," she croaked, doubled over in pain. Her eyes were swelling and filling with tears as she scrambled back on hands and feet toward the faint, electric hum from the ship.

She reached for the radio on her hip and buzzed her crew, but received no response as she dragged herself up the ramp into the airlock. Eyes swollen shut, she slapped the control panel and the ramp raised to seal the large, open hangar. Every wheezing breath lead to a shallower rasp as she crawled to the door of the ship’s cabin. Her body was buzzing with adrenaline and fingers numb as she frantically tried every decontamination protocol in the system. None of them brought any relief, and she finally collapsed, right hand resting on the call button beside the door.

The pilot, growing concerned by the team’s silence, came to the door to peer through the small window. Instead of seeing out to the rocky land below, he saw only the closed hangar door. A thin, shimmering layer of dust had settled over every surface. He noticed Kara, slumped beside the door, covered in dirt and dust, damp with the toxic mist. He selected protocol one, and hurriedly pulled on an orange hazard suit.

Jets in the floor around the airlock sprayed detergent around Kara’s motionless body, drawn up into the ceiling by powerful fans. After a moment, the fans reversed and blew every particle of detergent and dust down into channels in the floor to the planet below. When the process completed, the pilot burst through the door and carefully lifted Kara’s eyelids, scanning for damage. The swelling was already decreased. The scanner read only minor injuries, no damage to the eyes or mucus membranes, her breathing was shallow but even. He carried her into the cabin and removed the thin, protective barrier of her ultes, tearing off the panels of stretchy film as quickly as possible. He stowed her in the cradle and ran back to the airlock, sealing the cabin and preparing to find the rest of the team.

Three team members were missing, two unconscious, and one, Reiger, was slumped against a rock with eyes half-open. He was breathing evenly, quietly, as the pilot approached. The pilot’s blurry, lanky figure crouched in front of him; faintly, he heard him ask if he was alright. He gave a slight nod, hopefully enough for the pilot to see.

The pilot lifted Reiger and hauled his limp, heavy body onto the ship, then went after the others. It took over an hour to decontaminate the party. With everyone clean, he stripped off the suit and dragged each of them into the cabin. Kara was waiting, looking sore and dappled with the fine, pink rash the mist left on her skin. It looked as though it had seeped through every layer of the vacuum-rated ultes. They worked together to scan the team for injuries and get them into the cradles. Reiger was barely touched by comparison. The rash was faint, his eyes barely bloodshot.

"We’ll be studying you for sure," the pilot muttered as he lent an arm to the beast of a man, helping him into the cradle to analyze and attempt to reverse the reaction.

"What the hell happened down there?" the pilot asked.

Kara shook her head, still processing the events.

"There was a mist in the air, it just looked like ice or really fine water droplets. The readers didn’t indicate anything toxic in the atmosphere," said Kara.

The pilot checked on Reiger, who was coming around in the cradle.

"Can you stand?" asked the pilot. "I have two unconscious that need in that cradle."

Reiger nodded and heaved himself out of the device, then lifted an unconscious crew member and deposited the man into the cradle with ease. Kara was kneeled beside the other crew member, attempting to stabilize her through conventional means. When one crew member was conscious, they swapped him for the next, though his skin was still inflamed and eyes swollen shut.

"I have to get a sample," Kara said. "We need to find out what this stuff is. Do we still have another suit?"

The pilot nodded and pointed to a cabinet by the door, then helped Reiger begin bandaging the injured crew. Kara suited up and returned, warily, to the surface. The mist and dust had settled while they were inside. There was still no sign of the missing crew. Carefully, she made her way to the boulders where Reiger was found. A fine layer of the mist had settled over the rock’s surface and was glittering in the light. The film grew thicker toward the top of the boulder until is appeared white and thick like snow, so Kara scrambled up to see the other side.

Between Reiger’s rock and another larger boulder, the sparkling substance was caked to the stone, obscuring the dark, sooty surface entirely. Then she saw the source.

A small, green, fleshy flower, barely visible beneath the substance caught her eye. She photographed it, then scraped up some of the slightly viscous, shimmering substance. She barely touched the plant in the process, prompting it to send a puff of air that cleaned out what was left inside of it, exposing the flower and a compact bushy array of red leaves. Kara froze, with an animal sort of fear holding her body rigid and still as she took a few more photos and scraped the flower’s flesh into the sample jar. After she gathered enough, she made a final attempt to locate the missing crew. On the wide, open plain, there wasn’t so much as a footprint.

Then she heard them; two voices, rapidly exchanging what sounded like gibberish bubbled up from the other side of the rocky hillside. Kara hesitantly followed the sound up over the boulders to a depression on the other side, where those same red leaves and succulent green flowers grew in lush, bushy, knee-high mounds. Kara picked her way through them until she found two crew members, sprawled out with faint red freckles and blissful grins on their faces. A third appeared to be unconscious, face down in one of the flowers.

Kara stared for a moment, unsure how to approach them.

"Matt, Lesa, are you two alright?" she asked finally.

Matt and Lesa looked to Kara, eyes sharp and shining. Their keenness made her uneasy.

"Kara," Matt said softly. "We are so happy you’re here. Come here, take off the suit. It’s fine."

Kara carefully kneeled beside Matt and scanned him for damage.

She muttered in disbelief to herself as she read the results. The scanner showed no damage beyond the fading rash on the crew members’ faces. To the contrary, they appeared to be in better shape than they had been when their baselines were entered before the expedition.

"How can that be…?" she said aloud, incredulous at the state of the giggling scouts beside her. They were snuggling into one another now and licking the substance off of each other’s faces like a couple of giddy puppies.

Kara turned her attention to the third crew member, who was still lying with his face in the open flower. Gently, she touched his shoulder and spoke his name.

"Ken?" she softly beckoned.

Ken awoke with a start, flung himself onto his back, and stared wide-eyed at Kara. His lips were caked with powder. He licked and sucked every last grain of it off and lunged at Kara. The two went down together, and he held her in a crushing bear hug, whispering nonsense to her. After several minutes, he relaxed and she was able to get free of him and signal to the rest of the ship.

"Can you and Reiger come help me haul some crew members back up?" Kara asked. "Maybe bring sedatives."

Ken rolled over to the other two crew members and propped up on one side, eyes slowly focusing. The three of them were just beginning to settle down when help arrived.

"They’re all here." Kara said after the two men hopped down beside her. Their impact flung clouds of the substance back into the air, setting off another fit of euphoria and gibbering among the scouts.

"What the hell..?" Reiger asked.

"It seems to have some psychoactive properties," Kara said with some audible uncertainty. "Lieutenant, can you run a scan on Lesa and Matt? I was getting...odd results."

The pilot scanned the crew members again. His scanner, too, displayed surprisingly positive readings for both. Their vitals were perfect, and skin readings reflected radiation damage and elasticity of much younger individuals. The rashes were completely gone, with only faint freckles remaining on their faces. "They’re perfect," the pilot observed with awe.

"Right," Reiger said. "Let’s get these three back to the ship and cleaned up."

Kara pried up as much of a plant as she could from the rocky ground and stuck it in a sample bag before lending an arm to Lesa. Gradually, they coaxed the crew members away from the patch and back up over the boulders to the ship.

When everyone was packed up and calming down, they departed from the strange place with their samples secured. Kara felt uneasy, rereading the health stats of each crew member and checking the equipment for faults repeatedly on the way back to the base. After 5 full hours of diagnostics, probing, and prodding the crew, there was only one conclusion to be made: this pollen, this mist, had reversed years of environmental damage and wear and tear on these soldiers’ bodies.

This conclusion only served to deepen Kara’s uneasiness as they docked, crew now fully recuperated and silent, with faint pink freckles dotting the faces of the crew the only remaining sign of the day’s events.

Next Chapter: Launch