The surface of Galador III. October 25th, 2151.
It has often been claimed that a marine is happiest when cold, wet and miserable. All three conditions applied to Corporal James, but she was far from happy. Her feet felt like lead, her legs like jelly. Her spine ached and her shoulders burnt. Her stomach was in knots whilst her throat and lungs were on fire. In short, her body had become a walking mass of clichés, and it was only her determination and training that kept her moving. To add insult to injury, she had only herself to blame.
After so long cooped up on the Enterprise the landing party had, for the most part, relished the opportunity to get out and about. Long walks and jogs were common, carefully remaining within the drones' surveillance zone but describing wide circles around the base camp. As a matter of pride the marines had pushed themselves harder than anyone else but there soon arose the unspoken conviction that they could do more still. And so James had gone over the geology of the area with the scientists in an attempt to find something a bit more challenging. After planning things out she'd put it forward to the landing party, asking if anyone wanted to come with the marines. Even the most enthusiastic keep fit fanatics thought it best to wait and see how they coped before trying it themselves.
There was no sense leaving the camp undefended, so Tipping and Grant would stay behind whilst she and Dumont went for the first run. After some warm up callisthenics they set off, accompanied by a pacemaker on the quad bike. They went in fighting order. Body armour, helmet, wrist computer, rifle, pistol, grenades, medkit, ammo, batteries, combat scanner...a little over thirty five kilos of gear. Just the basics.
It started with a run--and it was a run, not a jog--of almost eight kilometres over the grassy plane, skirting the forest. This got them to the foothills which, they had been assured by the survey team, were much steeper than the aerial images made them appear. Score one for the science boys, even the quad bike had trouble with some of the slopes. They were also rocky and pockmarked, twisting an ankle or breaking a leg became a real possibility. She was glad the quad bike was with them, it's fold out trailer would make an effective stretcher if need be. If things really
got bad, the Beowulf could come pick them up.
Despite starting early in the day, before it got too warm, she and Dumont were both sweating copiously by the time they reached the next stage. The river looked cool and inviting, but before entering the two of them took the precaution of lashing themselves together with a length of high strength rope. The far end was attached to the quad bike.
Cool didn't begin to describe the river. Coming from the distant mountains, it carried the snow wash off their icy peaks. Dumont yelped as he waded groin deep into the water. James didn't fare much better. In places it was deep, very deep, and more than once she found herself immersed, only her hands holding her rifle high remaining above the surface. It was also flowing much faster than anticipated, and as they waded downstream they found it a constant battle to remain standing. The safety line to the quad bike, shadowing their progress along the bank, was a considerable reassurance.
They travelled down almost as far as the lake. Here the ground was thick with mud, almost a marsh, perfect for the next task. Crawling, flat on the belly like a snake, through the thick, viscous, and still very cold, mud. It also stank, and James was glad the scientists had found no trace of any micro-organism that would pose a threat to them. The area they were crawling through must be absolutely teeming with microbes.
After a hundred meters or so, the ground was mercifully too dry to crawl through any further. Their not quite triangular course now left them almost exactly six kilometres from base camp, and the plan required a steady, brisk walk back home. Of course, that was far too easy for a Pathfinder, so here they had added a twist. For the first klick James would carry Dumont across her shoulders, as if he were a casualty depending on her for evacuation. They'd then swap, him carrying her, changing every kilometre until they got home. She was aware that Dumont got the better of this deal, he was a lot taller and a lot heavier than her, but she was determined to do her part.
The determination wavered somewhat near the end of the third kilometre, gradually replaced by he conviction that she was indeed out of shape, by Pathfinder standards at least. With more than two hundred meters to go before Dumont took over the lifting duties her legs buckled and she nearly dropped him. It was like running into a brick wall. Through sheer willpower she managed two more steps, but then a new problem arose. As carefully as possible under the circumstances she lowered Dumont, bent double, and vomited.
"What are you stopping for? I thought you Pathfinders were supposed to be fit. My mum wouldn't stop, and she isn't in no fancy pants special forces unit. No, she's infantry. Ground forces infantry, the thin red line, the PBI. If she wanted to puke she wouldn't even break stride. I've seen her do it, most impressive. Unlike you two, you're such a disappointment. I thought you'd be something special. I feel ever so let down. My aunty Phillipa could do better and she's a tank commander. She goes to war sitting down, but she'd do better than this."
God, does she ever shut up?
James wondered, wiping her mouth with her sleeve. It had seemed such a good idea to invite Professor Partridge to be the pacemaker, although that was more to do with her desire to spend some time with the scientist than any practical consideration. How they'd joked, and laughed, and exchanged suggestive looks when Partridge had promised to 'whip them into shape'. They weren't laughing now. They hadn't expected her to mean it literally, pressing a length of thin electrical cable into service when they slowed. The first couple of times it happened it had been quite funny despite the sudden sting, but the novelty soon wore off. Just before they'd entered the river Dumont had had enough, and told Partridge that under military regulations corporal punishment was not allowed. Partridge had regarded him sternly for a moment, then said that, as a civilian, she was not subject to military regulations. She then had him hold his hands out so she could deliver a blow across the palms.
As she struggled to lift Dumont back onto her shoulders it occurred to James that the opposite was also true, and, as a civilian, Partridge had no power over them. As such they didn't have to put up with her behaviour. It was an illuminating thought, and one she spent a little too long mulling over. The faint hum from the quad bike changed in pitch slightly, which, she knew from bitter experience, meant that the rider had gotten off. There was a slight rattling as the storage compartment was opened.
"Bloody hell Autumn, she's got a sword!" Dumont squealed.
There was a whooshing hiss, then a line of fire ignited across the back of her thighs. She stumbled, managing to twist so that Dumont would land feet first, then dropped to all fours. Every muscle seemed to lock into place, and it was several seconds before she could take any voluntary action. That action was to scream a particularly foul obscenity at the gently swaying grass below her face. As she got her breath back she became aware that Partridge was standing by her, and lifted her head to say, in no uncertain terms, that her services as pacemaker were no longer required.
That intention lasted about half a second, as James remembered why she wanted the Professor here in the first place. Partridge wore one of her typical catsuits, plus a matching corset, both in a very deep red. Her hair was pulled back into a long braid, which, she'd claimed at the start of the journey, made her look 'like a Mord'Sith', whatever that meant. The small black control box for the quad bike was strapped to her left bicep. In one gloved hand she held a fencing foil, which she swished from side to side menacingly. The other hand was on her hip, one finger tapping out a steady rhythm against the corset's edge. One-two-three-four. One-two-three-four. One-two-three-four. She looked down at James with sardonic amusement.
, James thought, is a woman who could get away with murder
. Despite herself she chuckled at her predicament, and started to clamber to her feet. Partridge offered her free hand, which James gratefully accepted.
"I didn't over do it did I?" Partridge asked, a sudden concern in her eyes.
"I'll live." James admitted, rubbing the backs of her legs. "Although, I must say, ow! What did you bring a sword for?"
Polly cocked her head. "Do you mean on the landing party or with us today? Well, first of all to practice, though I've not had much chance so far, and secondly to motivate lazy marines when the cable no longer does the trick. Right, have a swig of water, then get a move on." She took a few steps towards the camp, quad bike obediently following her like a puppy.
As she drank from her water bottle James noticed steady movement in the sky. The spare drone had been tasked to keep an eye on them, in case of trouble. Ordinarily it would be flying too high to see. I'll bet they've taken manual control. Dropping it so we can see it, letting us know we're being watched. Yeah, they'll be laughing themselves senseless watching this.
The glassy eyed drone was not the only observer. At the edge of the forest, just deep enough for concealment, a shadowy figure watched with a set of high powered binoculars. Capable of a multitude of active scans they were currently locked into a passive visual only mode. There would be no emissions for the humans to detect. The watcher was outnumbered, and out gunned. It would have to choose it's time carefully.
It watched the three humans with interest. Two were obviously military. They wore armour and carried rifles. The other...the purpose of the other was unclear. It was...what was the term? Female. Yes, female, the humans had two genders, and this one's shape conformed to the notion of female. It had observed the humans since their arrival, taking the utmost care to remain undetected, and this one with it's yellow fur was perplexing. On the first night it had taken on the menial duty of food preparation, yet at other times had seemed to be giving orders. Though not to the uniformed ones, only to those in the varied coverings. Yet now it commanded two of the soldiers, and had been observed striking them. Perhaps it's duties were punitive?
The observer clicked in frustration. This was confusing, and at this range it could make out few details of the humans actions. If only it had stayed in place, watching as they had skirted past the edge of the forest! But no, the risk of discovery was too great, it had retreated deeper for concealment. Still, perhaps by increasing the photonic gain to maximum, it could improve the resolution of the image. It reached for the appropriate knob on the binoculars, but it's gloved fingers were clumsy. Idly it slipped the glove off...
"I don't know whether to pity the corporal or envy her." Tipping drawled, taking a sip of coffee. He was leaning over Hoshi's chair in the Beowulf's cockpit, to get a better view of the display. "Looks like the professor likes to play rough."
In the pilot's seat Mayweather was giggling away. "Oh man, this is comedy gold! Make sure we're recording this, the guys on the Enterprise will not want to miss it."
"Way ahead of you." Sato said. "I've got it rigged so that the official recorder only gets the wide angle images, the standard stuff. All the close up stuff is re-routed to external storage, which I'll physically detach later. It'll be a simple matter to alter the records. As far as the captain will know, every-thing's above board."
"You have a devious mind Lieutenant." Mayweather said.
On the screen the James put Dumont down. It was time for the medic to carry her. Tipping watched their progress for a moment. "I don't think I've ever seen Dumont move that fast. Not even in parachute training. I swear to god he'd free-fall slower than the rest of us."
Mayweather shook his head slowly. "Oh, she's got the sword out again! I can't believe I'm seeing this."
"Maybe you're not." Sato said. "Maybe you're hallucinating. You've not been at the fungus, have you?" The tree fungus Captain Archer had discovered on the first night had been tested thoroughly. It was found to be highly nutritious, a near perfect survival food, were it not for it's mild hallucinogenic qualities.
"Hey, I volunteered for human testing, but Doc Locke refused."
Sato snorted. "He's probably building up a huge stockpile for when his cigarette supply runs out."
Footsteps echoed up the access shaft. Someone was climbing the ladder into the cockpit. Hoshi quickly turned the main display over to the more panoramic surveillance view, and all three put innocent looks on their faces.
"Room for one more?" Captain Archer asked, sticking his head into the cockpit. Tipping moved as far forward as possible, almost sitting on the flight controls, to make room. Archer came in. "So what are you all doing up here?"
"Just keeping an eye on the others sir!" Mayweather blurted nervously. "It's for their own safety!"
Archer looked at him suspiciously. The helmsman was clearly hiding something. He glanced at Tipping, but the marine's countenance gave nothing away. And Hoshi's poker face was legendary. Still, it was fairly obvious what they were hiding. "Don't play games with me." he said wearily. "I know what's going on."
"You do?" asked Mayweather.
"Yes. I do." He turned to Hoshi. "You're running a book aren't you? Gambling on who does best?"
"Damn!" Tipping exclaimed, loudly. Archer turned to him for a second, then back to Sato. "Who's in?"
"Just us three." she said, thinking quickly. "After that business on our first night here I've not had many takers. Me and Mayweather reckon Dumont's going to win, Tipping's got his money on James."
Archer grunted. "As long as it's just you three I'll let it slide. For now." He straightened up, brow furrowing as something caught his eye. "What's this?"
He was gesturing to one of the smaller screens. Hoshi called it up to the main display. A thermal image, a bright red spot glowing just within the forest's edge. "I'm not sure. From it's size it looks like a small animal, maybe one of those ferrekat things."