The xenobotanist doesn’t notice her ship leaving. She has no idea the commander and crew have already judged the planet to be uninhabitable and moved on. ‘Etowah’ soars off in a cloud of atomized fuel and its enlisted xenobotanist is too far away to see or hear anything.
Because she smells chocolate.
“Dr. Meteo, you know what the commander will do.”
“He’ll wait. He always does.”
“Commander’s tired of you going wherever you please, not following orders.”
“Remember this, Spellini, and forget everything else: A good scientist follows her nose.”
The xenobotanist doesn’t particularly like chocolate, but she recognizes the scent. Sweet, mildly waxy and impossible to mistake. She shouldn’t smell anything inside the hardsuit. Maybe her own sweat if the one-way vents stopped working, but certainly not chocolate.
This leads the xenobotanist astray. A scent unexpected and full of limitless possibility. Chocolate doesn’t exist naturally. Creating it is a complicated process. Finding chocolate on this planet in the form most people are accustomed to would be groundbreaking. So she follows the smell.
“He’ll leave you here. Dr. Meteo, the commander could strand every scientist on this planet if he wanted and never lose a medal.”
Steep hills and valleys are no match for the dedicated xenobotanist. Hasn’t she seen worse? Wasn’t there that time when… when what? She can’t exactly recall. But this trek is nothing. She crosses what seems like miles as the smell intensifies. It presses itself into her nostrils, she can almost feel the particles soar up her nose.
“Spellini, you remember the underground labyrinth I investigated five planets ago? Made by that giant, long-dead root system?”
“You were gone for a week.”
“And the commander waited. One quick search, then I’m back. Promise.”
A mountain finally daunts her. Looming overhead, blocking out the suns and/or moons the xenobotanist can’t see anyway because of the polarizing, self-optimizing visor on her helmet. So she begins to climb. What about those mountains she had to scale last year? Where were those mountains? Was someone with her? The memory is distracting and the xenobotanist dismisses it as she climbs.
“And when you’re wrong? When you’re stuck on this planet?”
“Spellini. You know I like you. Hell, you’re probably my favorite student, and not just because you climbed those cliffs with me during your very first planetside trip.”
“Then don‘t go. For me.”
At several points she stumbles. The rocks are jagged and naturally slippery. Her gloves and boots weren’t designed for this. Yet the smell of chocolate continues to invade. Stronger than ever, it encourages when she inhales and taunts as she exhales. Wind tugs at the xenobotanist, it threatens to yank her clear off the mountain. With an exceptional lurch she heaves herself onto a shelf of rock large enough to let her lie flat for a moment.
“Sorry, Spellini. There’s something out there. I need to be the one to find it.”
The pain in her limbs overrides everything but the smell of chocolate. Unique plants the xenobotanist might study sway in the wind and she doesn’t care. A xenobotanist could spend infinite lifetimes studying. Even she, relatively unknown in her field, has several plants named after her. No, she can’t recall any of their names right now or even her own name, but that’s hardly important. The only important thing is that she get up this instant. Chocolate, the scent finally supersedes her aches and drags the xenobotanist to her feet.
“I thought you were different, Dr. Meteo. I joined ‘Etowah’ because of you. Because maybe you weren’t just a scientist out to name every plant and tree she discovered after herself.”
“I’m not. That’s not me. Don’t cry.”
She climbs around the peak of the mountain, the wind too fierce for her to face the apex, and descends. It’s slow work at first, her boots sliding through loose rocks. But soon she picks up speed, jumping over jutting boulders, moving faster than she ever has before. Faster than… than what? Does it even matter if she can’t remember?
“It’s fine. Go.”
“I will. And I’ll come back. Just seven planets ago, I survived a river that shifted quicker than you could blink, Spellini.”
“Wish me luck, then. My nose, too.”
At the base of the mountain is a large, coiled vine with several cream-colored flowers sprouting from it. One flower, the largest by far, rises on its stem toward the sky. Nestled inside its petals is a single square of chocolate. The xenobotanist unclips her helmet. She lifts it up just enough to take a bite of the chocolate.
But the chocolate won’t move. The xenobotanist gets closer. It smells like chocolate and resembles it too. But it isn’t. Whatever it is, it’s attached to the plant.
And then the xenobotanist realizes she can’t breathe.
She falls, she spasms as her brain drowns in the smell of chocolate, supremely oppressive, wiping out every memory she’s ever had. Even if she was physically able to stand, she wouldn’t remember how. Her mind is empty before she hits the ground.
“Ensign Spellini, we’re starting liftoff procedures. Are… are you crying?”
“Dr. Meteo didn’t go out, did she? I ordered her not to.”
“I‘m sure she listened, Sir.”
“Good. The scanners indicated the atmosphere here would penetrate our hardsuit joints, possibly cause toxic hallucinations. She’d never survive.”
The flower closest to the xenobotanist’s corpse brushes her outstretched finger. Another one gently, almost imperceptibly nudges her bare neck. The planet’s equivalent of a day goes by before more flowers inch toward the xenobotanist. After a month they surround her. Years pass as the plants feed, working their way through hardsuit, flesh, muscle and bone. Eventually, they retreat from a vaguely human-shaped fissure in the soil.
“This planet has been marked uninhabitable for years, Doctor Spellini. Why’d you insist on coming back?”
“Just following my nose. Someone once told me I should.”
“I forget. Hey, do you smell chocolate?”
Samuel Barnhart writes about all kinds of weird things from the place where weird things are born, South Florida. His short stories have previously appeared in Page and Spine, and the Fabula Argentea 5th Anniversary Anthology. He’s one of those strange people who doesn’t like chocolate except as ice cream.