The surface of Galador III. October 20th, 2151.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that if Hoshi Sato is present in any reasonably sized group of people, sooner or later some form of gambling would commence. Within minutes of the landing party disembarking from the Beowulf, she was running a book. The subject was an obvious one. Given that they were involved in setting up a camp site, what exactly would be Professor Partridge's first double entandre of the afternoon? A reference to 'pitching a tent' was considered most likely, closely followed by enquiries as to whether any one 'needed help getting it (i.e. a tent) up'. Such comments were considered so likely that Sato insisted that any one making such a wager must specify a time: if the appropriate phrase was used, whoever got closest would win. There were other, less likely, options. Trooper Tipping seemed fixated on the notion that Partridge would offer to assist with a tent's guy-ropes and claim to be 'good with knots', but this seemed more wishful thinking on his part than any realistic prediction. The fact that the tents in question did not use such ropes didn't even seem relevant to him.
As the afternoon wore on a number of interested parties made sure to remain within earshot of the professor. A wide variety of sound recording devices were active, ready to capture any utterance she made and determine the time. Yet as the camp took form she remained nearly silent, a behaviour so out of character for her that there were several enquires as to the state of her health. At first she claimed to be still suffering the side effects of the shuttle flight. Later, it was feelings of awe and wonder at being on another world that had so quietened her.
Could this be true? Could the deep emotional implications of their arrival on this world have done what a thousand exonerations to 'please behave!' had failed? Archer hoped so, but doubted it.
During a lull in proceedings he took Hoshi Sato to one side. "So. Running a book, eh? Who gets the money if no one wins?" It was a question to which he already knew the answer.
Sato held her hands up defensively. "Hey, I told them. If no one wins before the first moon clears the horizon tonight, I keep the lot. I've got overheads to think about. Everyone was satisfied with that, no one was forced to take part."
He snorted. "Yeah, but you're not keeping the lot are you? Polly Partridge, going all this time without innuendo? There must be some pretty steep motivation for that to happen. What are you cutting her in for?"
Sato scowled. "Fifty-fifty." she grumbled.
Archer grinned. "And I think I can guess what the worst thing is." At Sato's puzzled expression he explained "She's got a doctorate in pure mathematics. There's no chance of you cheating her out of her cut, she'd spot it in a second."
"Only if I tell the truth about how much...Damn." Her face fell as she realised she'd been caught out. "I'd only have skimmed a little
off the top. Honest."
"Of course, of course." He leant closer. "Hoshi, now might be a good time to go give everyone their money back. All of it. Tell them you're cancelling because Partridge is unwell, if you like, but give it back."
A look of pure horror flashed across Sato's face. Returning money was near heresy in her books. But she nodded reluctantly and tramped over to the others, hands deep in pockets. From his vantage point Archer saw her handing over credit chips to some rather surprised looking people. He grinned, and made his way over to the Marines, who appeared to be playing with a model plane.
As he approached Grant threw the plane forward at a slightly downwards angle. Before it hit the ground the propeller buzzed into life, pulling it into a gentle climb. In seconds it had faded from view.
"The drones going up alright?" he asked.
James turned and saluted. "Yes sir. Three of them up now, each covering 140 degrees of arc."
"Hmm. it's been a while since I was at school, but I seem to remember circles only have 360 degrees."
"We always try to maintain positive overlap in our coverage sir. There should be no risk of gaps. The three drones will orbit base camp about two clicks out, providing real time surveillance. Nothing will get near without our knowing about it."
"Yeah, right." Tipping muttered.
Archer asked "Is something wrong?"
"Ah, during the war, sir, the Axanar found a way to mask their heat signatures. They managed to get past sentry systems on occasion."
"Well, I don't think we need worry about that." Archer said. "As long as we can detect wildlife in time we'll be OK. So what's this drone for?" As he'd been talking Grant and Dumont had began assembling a fourth plane.
James explained. "Extra redundancy sir. We'll have this one stay close to camp. Should any of the others fail this one will automatically take it's place."
Archer watched, fascinated, as the machine was put together. It was a quick, simple process. The components were modular, just needing to be attached together. Electronic linkages were just clipped into place. The majority of the drone was constructed from a transparent polymer. All the working parts were a low visibility grey, with a thin matt black layer running along the spine. When laid out on the grass right in front of him it was difficult to make out, even with a wingspan of over a meter. It was hardly surprising that it's predecessor had disappeared into the sky so quickly.
James lifted the craft. Despite it's size there seemed to be no real weight to it. "Here's the important parts. Two cameras. One visible light, the other thermal. The first incorporates a telescopic lens as well as the latest generation of starlight scope. The second is used both to detect heat signatures, but also to scan for thermal air currents. That allows the onboard AI to plot the most efficient course. The drone's light enough to act as a glider. Under ideal conditions it can use thermals to stay aloft indefinitely."
"So what's the propeller for?"
"Less than ideal conditions. Some times it needs a bit of a boost to get height. The motor's electric, near silent, and can run for over a day on a full battery, even with all the other systems running." She pointed to the black layer. "High yield solar cells. Recharges the battery while in use. I'll be very surprised if any of these touch ground before the end of the mission sir. How's it look Dumont?"
The marine checked a computer pad. "All systems green."
She nodded. "Initialize." She threw the drone. They watched it fly off.
"We'll, I feel a little bit safer, knowing we're not going to get trampled by herds of space wildebeest or whatever they have here." Archer said. He thought for a moment. "Have you detected anything in range yet?"
"No sir. Nothing large, anyway. Small traces, birds, mice, that sort of thing."
"Hmm. I think I'll take my dog for a walk then, while it's still light."
"Yes sir. If you're leaving the camp, will you want an escort?"
He shook his head. "I don't think that'll be needed."
"Very good sir. You'll be taking your gun then." Before Archer could say no, James mimed wiping a tear from her eye. He rolled his eyes, and nodded.
The interior of the Beowulf was dark after the bright sunshine outside. He paused at the top of the loading ramp to let his eyes adjust. A scrape of metal on metal caught his attention, and as his vision improved he realised Mayweather was assembling a camp bed at the front of the craft. "Travis? There's plenty of tents. You don't have to stay on here you know."
The helmsman looked slightly embarrassed. "Ahhh...I'm not really a camping kind of guy. I don't much care for the whole 'great outdoors' thing."
There was a flushing sound, and Doctor Locke emerged from the lavatory. "Mild agrophobia. Quite common amongst the Martian colonists. If you grow up inside enclosed domes, an aversion to open spaces is understandable." He washed his hands.
"But surely you've been in wide open spaces before?" Archer asked. "UEMA survival training takes you all round the world."
"Been there." Mayweather admitted. "Doesn't mean I liked them."
"What, so you're going to spend the mission cooped up in here?" he said as he unlocked Porthos' cage. The little dog leapt into his arms.
"Probably not. If we go into that forest, I'll be OK. Or maybe up to the mountains. I'm alright when I've got some proper landscape around me, not all this big rolling nothing. And I do enjoy rock climbing."
Archer said "Well, there's an expedition planned for the mountains later in the week. Put your name down. It'd be a shame if you came all this way and didn't do anything whilst you were here."
Perhaps it was Mayweather's mention of the the forest, but that was the direction Archer found himself strolling in. Despite there being no sign of danger he was reluctant to allow Porthos off his leash, even with a locator beacon clipped to his collar the dog could still run into trouble. Five minutes steady walk was enough to get them to the tree line, and get Archer breathing slightly harder than normal. I must start spending more time in the gym back on Enterprise.
With a canine's sense of priorities Porthos headed straight to the nearest tree, sniffed suspiciously for a moment, then let nature call.
"I bet you've been wanting to do that for some time." Archer said, receiving a faint whine as if in agreement. Having completed one biological imperative Porthos then lifted his tail for another. The captain had come prepared. He took a small plastic bag from his pocket to clear the mess up. Half way through the procedure he was struck by the sudden conviction that one of the drones was now watching him, an idea he found most off putting, and had to force himself to finish the task. Sealing the bag he placed it, carefully, into a different pocket for later disposal.
"No littering." he told Porthos. "We're guests here, in a way."
Some thing caught his eye. Growing a little over head height on the trunk of a nearby tree was what looked to be some sort of fungus. Dark brown, several growths, spreading out in a wide fan. He approached, leaping back startled as a bird of some kind burst from concealment in the bushes to his left. It shot away at high speed, clearly more frightened of him than he was of it. Well, maybe not much more. He'd half pulled his gun from it's holster. He put it back, and let out a long calming breath. He glanced at Porthos, who wagged his tail happily, and continued his approach more cautiously than before.
One of the growths was pretty small. He was able to slide one of the plastic bags over it, cutting it free from the tree with his pen knife. "A little present for the scientists. They'll be doing a full survey soon enough, but a head start can't hur...Porthos? What have you found?"
The beagle was digging at the undergrowth. As Archer watched a small patch of off white showed amongst the soil. Bone.
"Out of the way Porthos, let me see...No, no, you can't eat it. No. Good find though. You're a good dog, yes you are. A good dog."
Unearthed, the find consisted of a few centimetres of what, even to his untrained eye, was clearly jaw bone. The attached teeth gave it away. And these teeth were long, sharp. Clearly those of a predator.
Glancing around, suddenly nervous, he placed the bone into another bag and hoisted his communicator. "Archer to basecamp."
"Basecamp. Sato here
"Hoshi, check with the marines would you? Any heat signatures near my position?"
"One moment sir
." A short pause. "Sir, here's Corporal James."
Another pause, the James' voice. "Ah, captain, we've got plenty of heat traces. Nothing large though, you're biggest, then your dog. And the patten recognition software suggests that what is there seems to be avoiding you. Is there a problem? We can take the quad bike, get to you in a min---
"No, no. No problem." He looked at the piece of bone. Judging from the size of the teeth, whatever it was must have been quite large.
"Very good sir. Sir, I'd advise you start heading back soon. It's getting dark
He looked round. The sun was low on the horizon, the sky in the other direction turning a murky blue. "Acknowledged. I'm on my way. Archer out."
A camp table had been assembled by the time he got back, and the smell of food cooking made his belly rumble. Professor Partridge stood by the cooker, doling out huge portions onto the plates of the crew as they lined up. First things first. He sort out the scientific contingent and handed over two of the bags. The Porthos generated one he dropped into a waste disposal bin.
"Certainly a predator." Salome Murray mused, her attention momentarily distracted from her heaving plate. "Quite large, about the size of a German Shepherd, I'd say. And probably of canine stock, or it's equivalent on this world."
"A dog then?" Archer asked.
"Like a dog. Probably closer to a hyena. Good job we've got all this security. I wouldn't want anything like that turning up unexpectedly! Though it's odd we've seen no other signs of them."
Archer lifted his communicator and showed her the display. "I made a note of it's position. When it's light we can do a survey around there, see what else turns up."
Salome's husband Jeff had been examining the other bag. "Interesting. it appears similar to the Maine Tree fungus. I'll have to run an analysis."
Dumont, further down the table, called out. "Doctor Murray, could you check that out for possible nutritional or medicinal value? It's a marine thing, living off the land." he added.
That reminded Archer that he was still hungry. He headed to the cooker where Partridge was approaching food preparation in the same manner she showed for practically every endeavour: vast amounts of enthusiasm coupled with moments of sheer panic. Pans spat and pots bubbled, Flames leapt. She hit an errant sausage with a fish slice in an attempt to subdue it, and shrieked in terror as hot fat hissed and crackled. Archer didn't dare speak and distract her, instead he picked up a plate from a hot pile and joined the line. The crewman in front offered to let him go first but he declined. He'd wait his turn.
Sausage, bacon, beans, eggs--both fried and scrambled--, fried bread, fried mushrooms, some stuff he didn't even recognize. It was like a heart attack on a plate. A big plate. Struggling slightly with the weight he carried it back to the table and found a seat. To his surprise he found himself next to Mayweather.
"Managed to drag yourself off the Beowulf, eh?"
"I got hungry." Mayweather said. Archer noticed that he sat facing the landing craft, and wore a ship issue baseball cap with the visor pulled low, limiting his field of vision. Probably made him a little less uncomfortable. "You know, the professor's a pretty good cook, for a Brit. But I wish I knew what this was." He pointed with his fork. Half concealed under a slice of bread was a thick circular slice of some black substance, globules of white fat embedded within.
Archer looked closer. "Looks a bit like a salami. But not as wide, or thinly sliced. And completely the wrong colour."
Mayweather shrugged and cut himself a chunk, then took a bite. "Not bad. Savoury."
"It's called black pudding." said Sato helpfully, sitting opposite. "And it's made from blood."
Mayweather froze. "You waited until I was swallowing before saying that, didn't you?" She grinned.
Partridge dropped into the chair next to Sato. "Bit of a funny story there. During the Second World War, when the Germans were blockading Britain to starve our country into submission, there was actually a serious proposal to turn some of the stored human blood, donated for medical purposes, into black pudding for food. Of course nothing ever came of it but still, you have to laugh."
"Is this some sort of revenge thing?" Mayweather asked. "You get sick while I'm flying, so you try to make me sick?"
Partridge tutted. "As if I'd do such a thing. I'm pretty, not petty. Besides, everyone's got the same. Well, not those whose religion forbids it, or who's vegetarian. But everyone else. See?" She speared a piece of black pudding on her own plate, and devoured it with gusto.
Archer carefully cut the rind from a bacon rasher, throwing it to Porthos. The dog caught it in mid air and wolfed it down.
"By the way, are you busy tonight Hoshi?" Partridge asked.
"Not tonight, no."
"What about you Autumn?"
"Well, I'm supposed to be on stag tonight--sentry duty--but the advantage of being in charge is that I can change things if there's a good reason."
Partridge took a mouthful of egg. "Oh, there's a good reason, a very good reason. Something you girls will enjoy." She held up a data chip, and pointed at it with the other hand. "'Enter The Dragon'! Set up a big display screen in my tent, make a night of it."
Sato and James exchanged bemused glances. "Dragon...this isn't one of your monster movies is it?" the marine asked. "Only I couldn't sleep for a week after that last one."
"What? No. No, nothing like that. You'll love it. Trust me."
Sato shrugged. "OK then. Hey, I've got a couple of bottles of Chateux Picard in my bag. Now I know you don't normally drink Polly...."
"Hey, special occasion!"
James said "I may have a little something squirrelled away myself. Hey, Tipping, you've got my stag tonight."
"What? Now that ain't fair."
"Yeah, ain't life a bitch."
Archer leant backwards in his chair and looked upwards. "Stars are coming out."
All conversation ceased as everyone faced skywards.
"A new sky." Polly breathed, eyes wide with wonder. "Stars you can't see from Earth. And some you can, but in different positions. New constellations. Beautiful...Thanks John. Thanks for letting me come with you. Thanks for letting me see this."
He smiled. "You're welcome. Now let's see...that there is Betalgeuse...and that's Epsilon Eridani...that might be Rigel."
"Which is Earth?" Dumont asked.
Archer shook his head. "You can't see it from here, we're too far south. Perhaps before we leave we should head north so we can see it, from the surface. It's not the same looking through the transparent aluminium of the ships observation dome."
"Though you could say that that one is home." Partridge said, pointing.
Archer looked, then lifted his communicator. "Archer to Enterprise. Come in please."
"Enterprise. Hernandez here."
"Commander, you were due to leave orbit more than an hour ago. We're perfectly fine down here, you don't have to watch over us like a mother hen. Go carry out your mission."
"Ah, yes Captain."
A few hours later, Mayweather was dozing peacefully in his bed when he was disturbed by a sudden thump. Looking round, bleary eyed and in near darkness, he could just make out a blurred figure stumbling out of the lavatory, banging into things.
"Wha...hey, you OK?" he mumbled.
The figure spoke, it's voice female but otherwise slurred beyond recognition. "You....offended m'family...'fended a shaolin temple!" It then began making a series of high pitched, bird like cries, before stepping through the rear hatch, missing it's footing and tumbling down the loading ramp. Mayweather got part way out of bed, intending to offer assistance, when he heard the figure laughing uproariously and staggering away.
He shrugged, got back into bed, pulled the blankets tight and went back to sleep.