*Short Stories is a ongoing collection of original weird and wonderful works from Nerd Bastards creative writing team. We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we enjoy dreaming them into being. 

All it takes is one drop of blood.

Cari yawned as she perused through her least favorite material, oceanic Selachimorpha. It was easy to roll her eyes as the video notes explained more on the subject. She never quite understood her mother’s fascination with fish-eyed, sharp-toothed predators. Half her notes were on the creatures, despite the fact that all known Earth permutations had died out decades ago. Large predators had a hard time around aggressive, invasive species with two long legs.

After that sixth extinction, Earth was no place to be a zoologist. That’s why Dr. Zahn, her mother, took to the stars. Cari had grown up marveling at new species, falling in love with the small avian herbivores that lived in forests, flying gracefully with wide eyes like hers.

Yet her mother always held some strange reverence of these violent predators. Killers. Monsters. Cari learned the facts, observed and recorded dutifully, but they both knew she’d never feel anything but ambivalence.

And now, out here on her own, that ambivalence grew even more flippant.

“Dr. Zahn? We’ve reached Hammerhead.”

But now was not the time to remember the follies of the first Dr. Zahn. Now was time to get to her job. Since her mother died, Cari was now the leading scientist in xenozoology because of the research she inherited. She was determined to live up to the name, as long as she still had it.

Shutting down her video logs, Cari shoved a handful of crackers in her mouth and put on her exosuit. The contraption helped filter air from any dangerous particles, but as her mother would say, “did the even more important job of keeping the observer completely unnoticeable.” You’d think Dr. Zahn would develop something more extraordinary from the octopus, but instead only mimicked its camouflage. Cari could remember sulking for a week at 15, when she was finally allowed on the planets, only to be shrouded and forbidden from contact.

That was the real kicker, being in this job. Dr. Zahn has set a precedence that xenozoologists should be observers only, to avoid disrupting natural biomes and evolutions. Cari adored the creatures, but since she was trapped in space, she had yet to touch the things she had devoted her life to.

Or any other living being since her mother died, but that was a deep trauma for another day.

Before launch, she glanced down at the planet. Hammerhead. It was one of the first planets her mother had explored beyond the milky way. She even got to name the damned thing. On her way back to earth, Cari was trying to gather as much information as she could. It had been 30 years since a Zahn had collected any data from here. Someone had to preserve the doctor’s perfect legacy.

Cari smashed the ejection button and jettisoned to the surface.

In seconds, the transport pod landed and she was back on the mission. Her mission. Cari shook her head and exited.

Outside the pod, the beach splayed before her, endless. And above, the sky looked like a tapestry of blues. Crisp and clear, everything was beautiful here. She had to begrudgingly understand why her mother flagged this planet in her notes. It was gorgeous.

The only thing unsettling was the sea. It rolled, tumultuously, even though no storm was in sight. It was darker than the seas she’d been shown on Earth, or anywhere, really. There was nothing inherently wrong with it, of course, but the chill down her spine…

It clicked. The silence. Unlike most beaches she met, with gulls and fish and crabs, this beach was utterly barren. However beautiful, it was empty.

She shook off the eerie discomfort with a shrug. Heading more towards the cliff-face, Cari began her work. “Pull up Dr. Zahn’s notes on Hammerhead, please.” Time to observe, even if there wasn’t much. It was likely she’d have to head more inland to see anything, at this rate.

But she was more stunned to see the ailing face of her mother pop up on the screen. “Cari. If you’re watching this, you’ve made it to Hammerhead, and I didn’t. If that’s true, then I must insist you just taking a scanning of the planet and leave.” Her mother looked grave, a shifty fear in her eyes. “The longer the years have gone on, the more I’ve feared what’s happened there. The more I’ve simulated and studied, I believe I made a grave mistake 30 years ago.”

Cari peered at her mother’s visage, stunned, and scoffed. “Perfect you? What, step on a dandelion?”

“I’m sure you’re wondering what it might be, but I beg you not to ask. Knowing might make things even more dangerous, with that curious brain of yours. Just… I didn’t just observe on Hammerhead. I interacted with the wildlife, and I fear it might have changed everything there. It was a mistake I swore never to repeat. Please be safe, my brilliant girl. I love you.” The video shut off.  So you’re why it’s so quiet. An anger flared in Cari’s core, staring at the barren shore.

Dr. Zahn expected perfection in everything, and now here she was, telling Cari that she did the exact thing she told her was amoral? The thing she refused her all her life? Because of that rule, she hadn’t touched anything but her mother, ever. She lived a life lonely and locked away. The the amount of times she wished so desperately to stroke a feather, to hold close an ailing infant mammal, she was denied. Cari watched things die, to sate her mother’s morals.

And to hear the precious Dr. Zahn didn’t even follow them? Something snapped.

She was only going home to Earth to be apart of her father’s funeral. The father she never met in person, the father she never touched, the father she never got to truly know. All because of her mother’s decisions, morals, rules, and utter fucking bullshit.

Cari had never hated her mother more in her life. She screamed. It wouldn’t matter. Nothing could hear her outside this helmet.

Storming, she walked towards the water and yelled, “Now? Now you fucking tell me you’re imperfect? Now, that I’m almost home, and living with your goddamn legacy on my head? Now that it’s too late to fix any of it? Fuck you!” She fell to her knees. It felt hollow, even if it made her feel better. Her mother would never hear her, after all. Cari couldn’t change anything.

Just be angry at a woman who didn’t exist anymore.

While she fought off salty tears, the silence was shattered by the chirp of a bird. Her eyes flicked to the clifface, where a young fledgling was alone, abandoned.

Cari didn’t have to think. Not today. She shut down the suit’s camouflage and took off her gloves, her helmet. Then she ran to the bird. It was in a nest, presumably after its siblings and mother already took flight. It was lonely, stuck here, and her heart tethered to it. Her hands cupped the young creature and in desperation, it happily entered her open palms.

They were so soft. Cari felt new tears brimming. After years of wondering, she knew what smooth feathers felt like. It chirped again, this time right at her. And to feel something look straight into her eyes, to see her own wonder mirrored in the creatures she loved… it took her breath away.

30 years. She had been robbed of this feeling for 30 years.

The bird pecked at her hands and stomped around, assessing its new ground. Feeling the beak on her skin was marvelous too, even if it was sharp. She’d always wondered– “Ouch!” She grimaced and watched the small bit of blood pool from its tiny incision. Even the bird seemed stunned. “Watch yourself, little bugger.”

However, now the bird squawked in panic, a new fear to its eyes. With violent, frantic flaps, it flew back up the cliffside, wobbly and uncertain, but far enough to reach a tiny ledge. Cari looked at it, perplexed, before her legs were swept out from underneath her.

She screamed while turning over to face the most horrifying view she had ever seen. The creature was a humanoid, however with prominent, aquatic features. Its deep, black eyes stared at her viciously, its hands were flat, tightly gripping fins, and its teeth glimmered in the sunlight. A fin protruded from its back  and it almost seemed to smile at her. But what was most horrible was the Z tag on its ear and the puffed up injection sites on its shoulders.

Out of panic and pained irony, Cari laughed.

All it takes is one goddamn drop of blood.

Then she was dragged under the water.

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