UR03 wasn’t a big planet but had earth-like atmosphere and biosphere, with water and carbon based lifeforms. It had been known for ages, but not until recently humans had set foot on it. For some reason there was only a few places on it that inhabited larger mammals, otherwise there were plenty of birds, reptiles, and other smaller non-mammal creatures.
There was no obvious reason that intelligent or at least sapient life in this part of the galaxy was non-existent, or that mammal populations were limited. Therefore it was standard to plant probes to collect data for some years before any people were sent down. Six years had passed since the probes on UR03 had been set out, and they had diligently fed the Union scientists with data, until it was found safe to set up research stations.
A few weeks ago, there had been a distress call from one of the stations. Three of their nearest probes had suddenly gone quiet, and two of the staff had been sent out to check them. They hadn’t come back, and every attempt to contact them had been in vain. They had two drones that were flying over the area almost constantly, but they hadn’t picked up anything either.
“We can’t rule out human interference”, commander Nihad said at the breakfast table the morning after they headed out for UR03. In a few hours, they would take the larger shuttle down to the surface; both teams were assigned on this, plus the TR:s onboard and the commander herself. “There is a tiny possibility that this is about some rogue scientist or bounty hunter. My guess it’s only a matter of bad luck. There are still wildlife to be aware of, which I do not want you to interact with if you can avoid it.”
“Aww, no petting the cute fluffy animals?” Tianyi made a disappointed face at her smoothie.
“How do you know they’re cute and fluffy?” Santo asked, mixing his porridge with dried berries. “They could be the ones who ate those scientists.”
Haylen and Felicia exchanged looks. Haylen found it easier to put up with the two’s constant banter than her in general, but it made him irritated when it was during a briefing, even if it was one of these more casual ‘eating meetings’. He took another spoonful of oatmeal.
“Cute fluffy animals don’t eat scientists, they eat ice cream and cotton candy”, Tianyi continued, unaware of the commander’s growing impatience.
“See, my point still stands”, countered Santo. Why captain Avril didn’t cut them off, Haylen couldn’t even guess.
“Maybe the cute fluffy animals actually saved the lost scientists from your man-eating ostriches.”
“Who said anything about man-eating ostriches?”
“Excuse me”, the commander interrupted at last, “I wasn’t finished.” She looked at them both, reminding of a teacher Haylen had in school.
“Sorry commander”, both of them said, at least one of them not ashamed at all.
“The probes are located in the forest that borders on the field where the station is. It’s not very dense, but rather hilly and stony. We can’t use vehicles, so I ask everyone to walk carefully. We don’t want you to break any bones out of pure carelessness.”
“I don’t want you to break any bones out of any reason, really”, doctor Eira pointed out and glanced at the crew while sipping her coffee.
“Heard that, Rashida?” Mourad, the shortest soldier in team 3, grinned at his teammate across the table. “Don’t be such a clot.”
Rashida, who had tattoos on both side of her neck and a longer fringe on her otherwise cropped head, tossed her crumpled napkin at him.
“We’ll stay overnight, so bring your sleepover pack. The station has tents for guests.” The commander smiled broadly. “Maybe we can put up a campfire as well.”
“Oh my god, I hope Simone got marshmallows in some of her hidden kitchen storages!” said Keith and leaned back in his chair, overcome with nostalgia by the looks of it.
“Trick will be to actually convince her to give them to you”, Daleen pointed out and took a sip of her tea.
“Alright, this is impossible”, said the commander with a look of feigned frustration at captain Lace, then stood up and looked at the crew. “You’ll have another briefing before we launch for the surface. Until then, preparations as usual.”
Doctor Eira stood up too, taking her coffee mug and stopped at Haylen on her way out. “Did the cream work better than the pill?”
“Yeah.” He fiddled with the spoon.
She peered at him. “But…?”
“…it be like eatin’ engine grease”, he answered reluctantly. Why couldn’t she just settle with a ‘yes’…
Her eyes narrowed. “Trust a nineteener to know what that is like. Come get another before you leave then. I assume you’re almost out.” She patted his shoulder and left the canteen.
He noticed Felicia was looking at him. “What?”
“Do you really eat engine grease on Nineteen?”
“Fuck’s sake…” He finished his breakfast while she pulled a face at him.
– – –
Hours later, they were down on UR03. After a quick rundown of what happened from the remaining personnel at the station, the three groups headed out in each direction to find the malfunctioning probes. It would take them a couple of hours to reach them, but it was only noon and the weather was pleasant for a stroll in the woods, as Paavo, the light-skinned grunt with the missing ear in team 3, put it.
The two captains, Avril and Lace, were staying at the shuttle with Dmitri, the medics and the commander. While the teams were out, they would lead the work and set up camp, and, if necessary, form a rescue team with the commander.
Haylen was grouped up with Felicia, Tianyi and Santo, assigned to bring Xander to the most southern probe. Hopefully, the TR would be able to figure out what was wrong with the probe. Of course, all three of them shutting down at the same time indicated that it might not be the probes themselves that were the problem, but they had to start somewhere.
The terrain was indeed hilly and stony. It wasn’t hard to stick to the route that their digital maps suggested, since the sparse forest allowed them to find the best way forward. However, there was a lot of reeling over smaller rocks, trying to avoid to get stuck between them, or slip on their moss-covered surfaces.
Eventually they reached the probe. This one was a standard data collector, a tall, slim, metal casing with a control panel, and antennas and sensors on the top. The soldiers positioned themselves in a square formation around the probe, while Xander logged in on the system.
“It got power at least”, he told the other groups on the comm, and the other two confirmed their probes were still running as well. “I’ll start checking the logs here.”
Xander worked with the probe, occasionally exchanging a few words with the other TR:s about his findings.
“See any of your man-eating ostriches yet?” Tianyi asked Santo.
Santo scoffed, amused. “Enough about ostriches already, what the hell…”
“I’m not the one who’s obsessed with them”, Tianyi said. “Haylen, tell him.”
Haylen glanced at them, then continued watching their surroundings. “Not goin’ there.“
“Aren’t you here to protect the weak and innocent?”
Santo eyed her up and down. “You’re pronouncing ‘butch’ and ‘source of all wicked’ wrong, Tia.”
“You’re just sour you didn’t get to bomb anyth…- Shit, that branch just moved!” She raised her gun, aiming at something further away.
“Where?” asked Haylen, raising his gun as well.
She pointed with the laser. Haylen only saw dead branches covered in moss and dead leaves. Santo lowered his own gun. “Maybe it was a snake.”
“Why do you sound so casual about that?” she asked, accusingly.
“Are you afraid of snakes?” Felicia asked.
“I have a healthy respect for them, so should you. Look, there it is!”
Now they all saw it. A grey, maybe five centimeter thick, one meter long snake that slowly started to crawl over the pile of branches. It stopped again, perfectly blending into the background.
Xander looked up as well now, standing very still. Haylen didn’t move either. Even if they’d been told the animals here usually were afraid of or uninterested in humans, it would be awkward if any of them was bitten by a venomous snake because they provoked it.
“We should catch it”, Felicia suggested. “It would be great for barbecuing at that campfire the commander promised us.”
“Eugh, you UC12:s and your weird eating habits”, Tianyi groaned.
“As if your squid munching is any better?”
The snake continued its slow, interval movement over the ground, and eventually it had disappeared into the forest.
“Well”, Santo said, “at least it wasn’t a man-eating ostrich.”
“See? Obsessed.” Tianyi looked at Haylen and gestured at Santo.
Haylen only smirked.
Xander kept browsing the logs on the probe. After a while, he mumbled something inaudible, then said on the comm: “I found something. I’m sending you the name of the log file now. For some reason, the one who logged here in disabled all three probes. But the report said that they simply stopped transmitting, right?”
“Yes”, Roz answered, “they went dead so the station sent a couple of people out to check them. Are you saying someone went out and shut them down? Without the rest of the station knowing?”
“Or without them reporting it, at least”, Daleen suggested.
“We should copy the logs and study them back at the station.”
Daleen and Roz agreed, and the commander’s voice spoke on the comm. “Sounds like a good idea. It’s getting late, and I don’t want you lot out there longer than necessary if there’s an unknown player on the field. Get what you need from the probes, then head back. Meanwhile, I’ll have a talk to the personnel here.”
The mood had suddenly shifted. Haylen realized he had started to look for human shapes between the trees instead of possible man-eating animals. Even Tianyi went quiet.
The snake was nowhere to be seen.