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The bodies smell even worse aflame. Even corpses rotting in the sun three days should not smell this indescribably foul. Bits of flesh flake away, shriveling in the flames.

Carter rises from the pyre and gazes yet again at the animals in the pen. They're grazers in shape, but hideous, debased versions. Black drool glistens from their trembling jaws. As we watch, a pustule on its flank bursts with a squelch, disgorging runnels of ooze. The stench is unspeakable. "What do you think happened?"

"Don't matter." He must be as repulsed as I am\; for once he's not hitting on me. "Orders are to put 'em down if they're no good so that's what we're doing." He spits and gives the rail an indignant shake. "No good."

"Might be journals," I murmur. "We could find out what did this. Might be contagious." And airborne, I choose not to add.

"Left the charges back at camp," Carter says as if he hasn't heard. "Do 'em all at once. You coming?" I shake my head. He heads behind the outcrop. Moments later I watch thethe speeder streak southwards, a lengthening needle of smoke.

I edge up to the pen. We knew that Valance's project involved slime recovered from a cryolab older than the hills that had grown over it. Then he'd stopped transmitting, and here we were. Valance was nowhere to be found. Were these creatures infected with something? Had Valance contracted it as well?

My eyes roam the pen. Clumps of furry viscera lie in the dirt. And the pelts, now covered in eyes, so revolting that it's almost hypnotic. my hand reaches out. Impossibly black fangs snap closed just shy of my retreating fingers. I stagger back. My hand tingles - I presume from shock, until I notice the steaming droplet of saliva on my knuckle. I try to wipe it off but the tingle has already spread to my fingers. Curiously, it does not smell as bad as before. I stoop to get unguent from my pack but decide to lie down. Absently I notice the animals are all regarding me watchfully. Am I dreaming? Another boil ruptures, disgorging swarms of buzzing winged tumors.

I awaken in the pen. My infected hand is now large enough to enclose my entire head. After chewing off my third fingernail, I spit out both front teeth and regard myself with their slowly opening eyes. I'm now so beautiful it hurts.

A speck swoops into view. Carter, returning. I break my arm in three places to wedge between the slats and enter the access code. The gate swings open, wrenching my arm out of its socket and then off.

"What the." The hideous pale monstrosity with spindly limbs and two grotesquely symmetrical eyes with Carter's voice rounds the outcrop, looking so stupefied that my screams shred into cackles of mirth. Then I satisfy Carter's long-held deepest desire and throw myself at him. He is reluctant at first but loosens up after a few minutes of my embrace.

Afterwards, we all head towards the winking lights of the settlement, absorbing insects, lizards, and avians en route. The world around me is so ugly, so imperfect. But it won't be for long.

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