The other two groups were already at the station when Haylen’s group came back. Rashida had sprained her ankle, and was now being seen to by Nyree, and mocked by Mourad. The commander and the others had put up the tent together with some of the station staff, and the reconnaissance groups relieved themselves from the field gear before sorting out their sleeping quarter.
Commander Nihad didn’t say anything about the talk she had had with the station people, and no one asked. After a dinner consisting of warmed up can food, where Felicia expressed her regret about not bringing the snake back for the grill, the commander gathered them all at the table and benches that were put up outside the tent. There was a piece of canvas as a roof over it, but even if the sky had been thick with clouds all day, there was no rain yet.
“No one left the station at the time the probes went dead, that’s what they claim”, commander Nihad said to them. She spoke in a low voice, even if the station staff were inside at the moment.
The station had spotlights to light up the ‘yard’, but there was a fireplace there as well, and the commander’s wish had come true. The fire already cast a dancing blaze around it.
“So they could be lying?” asked Cory.
“I won’t speculate in that, since it’s not our job to investigate. However, we’ll consider every option so they won’t be able to take us by surprise, otherwise we’re here to find the missing personnel first and most. Tomorrow we’ll begin searching. Scouts and snipers will use their amps, we also have some trackers to our disposal. We’ll search through possible areas around each probe, using coordination grids to be sure to cover it all. As for tonight, captain Avril has made a guard list. Anyone not on guard duty, rest and recreation.”
She looked over her crew. “You are allowed to socialize with the locals. But behave. If there aren’t any questions, you’ll find me at the campfire.” She grinned and took her foldable stool with her over to the fireplace.
Some of the station personnel came out to them a bit later, and one of them even went inside to get a bag of marshmallows after Keith complained he had forgotten to ask Simone. There was a fair amount of cheering about this, but Haylen, who was still sitting at the table closer to the station building with Felicia and Xander, taking care of their equipment or otherwise making preparations for tomorrow, noticed not all the staff was pleased by it.
A couple of them were standing in the doorway, and one of them muttered something and turned to walk inside.
“What, what’s wrong?” his colleague asked.
“Liz and Alain might be dead, and they’re eating marshmallows as if this was some kind of, of, camping trip in school? I’m sorry, I can’t really find the spirit.” He walked inside while his co-worker sighed and walked in after him.
“I can’t really blame him”, Felicia said, prying out gravel from the joints on her knee guards.
“Me neither”, Xander agreed. He was working on something data file related on his tablet. “But that’s no reason other people can’t be happy either.”
Xander was sitting with his back at the fire, and light made his hair glow red. After a little while he looked at Haylen, curious. “What is it?”
Haylen blinked. Apparently he hadn’t turned his attention from Xander’s hair back to his muddy boot after all. He tilted his head a bit to the side. “Enjoyin’ the view.” He smirked, teasingly. Xander snickered silently, blushing slightly.
“Did you find out anything else about the probes?” Felicia asked Xander, with a short glance at Haylen.
Xander shook his head. “The signature doesn’t match anyone in the staff. We’re running programs to identify it now. It could be a hacker, or someone from another station. Or maybe even something planted in the code from start. The commander said we didn’t have to go any further, but… We agreed that we could at least be of as much help as possible now that we’re here anyway. I mean, I would want all the help I could get if my co-workers disappeared after checking up on equipment that had been tampered with by someone unknown.”
Felicia hummed in agreement. “I think we should’ve kept searching too.”
“You mean physically?”
“It was getting dark even before we had dinner ready”, Xander pointed out.
She pointed at her eyes. “Night vision, my babe.”
“Rashida was injured in pure daylight.”
“Rashida can trip on thin air”, Felicia snorted.
“And there could be an enemy out there.”
“That’s why us grunts be here, eh.” Haylen said.
“Look, I don’t want to argue about it”, Xander said and rubbed his forehead, his hand partially hiding his face as he looked down on his tablet.
Hayeln was surprised by the sudden change of mood, even if it wasn’t surprising he had missed the signals. He looked at Felicia, but she only made a dismissive face and continued with her other knee guard. He applied repellant on his boot, trying to come up with anything to say that wouldn’t sound as a defense speech.
“I’m sorry”, he said eventually.
“No, I’m sorry”, Xander sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “This whole situation is getting under my skin, that’s all.”
The people at the fire laughed at something Tianyi said, and Felicia peered at the gathering. “I’m going to get one of those marshmallows before Keith eats them all. Are you joining?”
Haylen shook his head. “I got the 2.00 watch, goin’ sleep some before.”
She shrugged, picking up her things. “Suit yourself.”
– – –
Next morning they were heading out at first daylight, which was about two hours too early for anything, according to Keith. They moved in their ordinary teams, the captains going with them, but the TR:s were staying at the station. As did Rashida, much to her annoyance. Her foot was still not good enough for hours in rough terrain.
Since the probe Xander had been examining was the one that had been used for switching the probes off, that’s where they started their search. The station staff had reassured them that snakes here weren’t dangerous to people, but the soldiers were more wary about where they put their feet today. The tension from last afternoon was also coming back as they went further into the wilderness.
“A lot more animals around than I thought”, Felicia said quietly as they were taking a short break next to a small brook with a waist-high cliff wall that made for a decent cover. She had found a dry rock to sit on, leaning back at the cliffs with her eyes closed and amps off for a while.
So far, she found it more challenging not to lose attention because of the dullness of the surroundings, rather than the amps wearing her out. Finding birds and lizards and rodents and whatnot in every bush and behind every branch wasn’t fun in the long run unless you were a biologist, she assumed. Without these small breaks, she would have tired out even quicker.
Keith, who only had vision enhancing, agreed with her comment about the wildlife.
“Yeah, it’s kind of creepy. Those little fuckers, can’t even show up to say hello? Bet they’re up to something.”
“Hey captain, is that one of the station drones?” asked Tianyi.
Felicia opened her eyes to look up above the treetops where Tianyi was pointing. It was indeed a drone, slowly hovering over them, too high up for the others to see any details. Felicia zoomed in on it.
“It’s got the Union logo at least.”
Captain Avril flipped up a bigger map from her wristband, checking with the drone symbols. She frowned.
“Commander Nihad, this is captain Avril. We have a drone above us with an unmatched signal. Got any info on that?”
“Hang on captain, I’ll get back to you.”
The captain looked at Felicia. “Prepare for shooting it down. The rest of you, eyes on the forest for now.”
Felicia picked up her rifle, taking aim to get a feel of her target, then lowering the rifle some, waiting. The rest of the soldiers spread out, guns at the ready, searching the surrounding forest.
Suddenly, Felicia felt as if her balance organs were pushed and twisted into her head, making her lose all sense of where she was and filling her head with a rattle that made it even harder to think. She gasped, dropping her gun as she tried to get hold of something.
“Felicia? Felicia, talk to me!” The captain’s voice made it through the whirlpool in her head.
“It’s uh… it’s…” It was so hard to speak, the connection between her mouth and her brain was a bee swarm. “My sonar”, she managed to force out, feeling someone’s hands getting hold of her arms, “something’s up with my sonar, I can’t…” She moaned as the vertigo grew even stronger, grasping whoever’s arms it may be, wishing this would stop before she threw up.
“Keith! Bring it down!”
The moment the shot was heard, whatever was interfering with her sonar ceased, and she sat wide-eyed for a little while, trying to find her bearing again. In front of her, Tianyi had squatted, still holding Felicia’s arms.
“Hey Scopes, when you’re done wailing maybe you can ease up on your grip there? I have no circulation in my hands anymore.”
Felicia blinked, looking down at her own hands that were still grasping Tianyi’s arms. She slowly let go, and swallowed. “The drone, is it down?”
“Yep. It crashed somewhere that way.” Tianyi nodded towards the other end of the brook.
Captain Avril was listening to the comm, then looked at Felicia. “Are you alright?”
“Yes captain”, she answered, taking a deep breath. It had been extremely uncomfortable, but now she felt as usual again. She tried the sonar just in case. It worked just fine.
“Alright people, listen up”, the captain said, her expression grim. “That drone was supposed to be in the station storage, and whoever logged in on the probe to shut them down used this drone to do it. Xander is trying to determine from where it’s being controlled. Until further notice, we stay put. Stay alert.”
As she forwarded the message to team 3, Felicia picked up her rifle to check that nothing had happened to it when she dropped it. Then she began to scan their surroundings, waiting for orders. This was indeed kind of creepy.
Then the commander’s voice buzzed in on everyone’s comms. “Both teams, turn back to the station immediately. We have a situation.”
“Team 1, copy that”, captain Avril answered, and a similar response came from team 2. The captain looked as if she had more questions, but didn’t call on the commander again. “Alright, people, you heard the commander. We’re moving out. Haylen, take point.”
The frontliner nodded and started walking, a barely noticeable ripple in the air around him indicating he had put up his barriers.
Whatever that situation at the station was about, Felicia thought to herself, it better not escalate. It had taken them hours to get this far, and even if the way back would be a straight line instead of the zig zag pattern they followed earlier, it would take its sweet time.
She kept switching between infrared, sonar and zoom. Everywhere she looked, she saw animals.
The snakes were everywhere.