Florence tries to keep her wits when tasked with hunting dangerous plantlife.
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Flora Incognita, by Doctor Brandon Winter.
There are things to keep in mind when hunting Reaper Plants, and Florence recited them to herself as she made her way through a grove of anemone grass. Never hunt during bloom: a solitary Reaper is dangerous—a mating swarm is deadly. Never run from a Reaper—they can outrun you. And always save a round for yourself. A blaster shot to the head is better than a slow death at the bottom of a Reaper’s pitcher flower, dissolving in acid.
She pulled her rifle further up on her shoulder as she thought on this last bit of advice. She saw a man fall victim to a Reaper during one of her first hunts—she watched the muscular tendrils lift him off his feet and tip him over the edge of its pulsating pitcher. The man didn’t even scream. There was only a slick whisper as he slid down and a shallow splash as he fell into the acid bath. She’d never forget that silence, or the smell of the acrid cloud that rose from the pitcher and burned her eyes.
She lifted her nose into the wind and caught the sting of acid over the honey-sweet perfume of late spring flowers. The thick stalks of the anemone grass moaned in the breeze, and Florence blinked and wiped tears out of her eyes. It wasn’t far now. But if she was honest, this wasn’t a hard job; the trail was obvious, a wide path straight through the grass and bright with the silver mucous that marked recent tracks. But she liked to use all her senses—it made her feel like she was earning her money.
Florence followed the track deeper into the grove. Small, feathered feelers reached out and brushed her canvas trousers, then retreated into the cartilaginous tubes that grew in clusters at the base of each stalk of grass. A spear of infinity fungus drilled its way out of the dirt in front of her and exploded into dust. Florence sighed, then picked her way through a patch of razor weed. She paused briefly on the other side and listened.
A deep, rumbling groan broke the quiet. Florence froze, then threw herself onto the ground and inched forward on her elbows.
“You’re an idiot, Florence,” she said to herself. “Daydreaming. And you were almost right on top of it.”
The Reaper stood in the center of a clearing next to a clutch of yellow, wet pearls the size of melons.
“A nest. This was close.”
The plant swayed back and forth on its single foot, an appendage of quivering gristle, and ran its tendrils along the ground and over its eggs. Its meter-high pitcher flower was thick and bright red like a slab of meat and bobbed on a thin, fibrous neck. A stink rose from it and choked the air. Florence coughed, then put her rifle to her shoulder. She held her breath, took aim, and fired.
She hit the thing in the center of its neck, and it roared as blue sap, thick as syrup, ran down its stalk and onto the ground. Flies rose from the grass and swarmed the wound. The Reaper screamed again and flailed the air with its tendrils, scooping up flies in fits of instinct and pouring them into its pitcher. Florence fired again, but the shot went wide and hit a stalk of grass over the Reaper’s head. A cloud of seedpods floated over the scene like snow.
It charged her. Florence’s heart raced and her hands trembled. She saw the man’s face again as the plant lifted him up and into the acid bath—she heard his sigh of resignation and tasted bile. Florence spit and looked up—the Reaper was breaking through the grass, and the stalks moaned so loudly that her stomach churned. She looked to her left and right at the thick grove of grass—she had trapped herself. There was no way out.
“You’re an idiot, Florence.”
The Reaper was almost on top of her now, and Florence could taste the acid on her tongue. A tendril brushed a stalk of grass in front of her nose, so close that she could see the silver, hair-like hooks that covered the surface of the leaves. They would go right through her clothes to the skin and hold her down.
“I won’t be like that man,” she thought. “I’ll scream.”
Florence took a deep breath and held it. Her heart slowed and her hands grew steady. She drew her pistol and waited.
The Reaper pushed through the grass in front of her as if it were opening a set of curtains. It screamed when it sensed her presence and flung its tendrils at her, but Florence skipped out of reach. She fired. The Reaper’s foot exploded in a cloud of smoke and ash. It pitched forward and fell to the ground. Its body quivered with rage as it reached out and began dragging itself towards her. The Reaper was incandescent in the sunlight, almost beautiful. Florence cocked her pistol and covered her eyes.
The shot had barely faded when Florence walked out of the grove and onto a well-manicured front lawn. A man was waiting for her in a lawn chair, swirling a cocktail in a heavy glass. A waiter stood just behind him, holding a pitcher and eyeing the man’s drink.
“Ah, the gardener! I take it you found it, then?”
The waiter stepped forward to refill his glass.
“Ravenous beasts, very dangerous. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Florence looked around at the wide yard and the sprawling mansion beyond. She looked to the waiter, who shrugged, then lowered his eyes, gripping the pitcher until his knuckles blanched. Her employer swirled his drink and sipped.
“Yes,very dangerous. They’ll take over everything if you let them.”