The watcher moved position slightly, keeping the binoculars trained on the retreating figures. It watched the humans as they left, crawling forward for a better vantage point. As it did so it became aware of something wrong....Ground! Twigs, grass, fallen leaves..pressing directly against it's skin. It's glove was off! It had neglected to replace the garment after adjusting the controls. Foolish! Foolish!
It cast about frantically, desperate to find the missing glove. The camouflage material did it's job too well. The watcher was close to panic when it finally spotted it on the ground. Only once the glove was back in place did it begin to relax. All the same, it decided it had lingered too long. After quickly checking it had all it's weapons and equipment, it turned and began the long trip back to base.
"Huh. Whatever it is, it's gone." Archer said as the red spot faded from view.
"Probably a burrowing animal of some kind." Tipping suggested. "We've seen a few of them. Sudden heat trace as they pop their heads above ground, gone just as quick when they nip back down again."
"There's still so much we don't know about this world." Archer mused wistfully. "A full survey would take years. Even with all our technology, we can only make the most basic of studies."
"But would you want to spend years on just one planet?" Hoshi asked with a smile.
Archer smiled back. "With all the galaxy out there waiting for us? No chance. So much to see, so little time. And on the subject of time, our intrepid wanderers will be returning soon. I better make sure Doctor Locke is ready in case he's needed."
It was only after she was sure the captain had left that Sato turned to the marine. "Quick thinking Tip."
"It's the espionage training, that's what it is. Mind like lightening."
Mayweather was confused. "What are you on about?"
Hoshi shot him a withering glance. "What we are on about, you numskull, is that when someone, for example a ship's captain, thinks you are doing something wrong, but what he thinks you are doing wrong isn't quite as bad as what you are actually doing wrong, it is a bad idea to sigh with relief when he says what it is that he thinks you are doing wrong, and you realise that you are not in as much trouble as you would be if he actually knew what you are doing wrong. Fortunately Tipping here realised that you were about to sigh with relief, and thus give the game away, and said 'Damn' very loudly so the captain wouldn't hear you."
Mayweather considered this carefully. "I have no idea what you are on about." he finally admitted.
"And to think the Admiralty tried to use you as a spy. Thing's must have been pretty damn desperate."
When the marines arrived back in camp they were greeted with applause and cheers. James waved away the attempts to help. There was still one last challenge that needed completing. She and Dumont dragged their way over to a designated area, where Grant stood in wait.
"Prepare for practice fire." the red headed sniper said. Without a word they drew thin connector cables from their wrist computers, plugging them into their weapons' data ports. On the wrist-comp's small screen James could now see the control system for her rifle. She selected the icon for target practice protocols, reducing the weapon's effective output. It shouldn't be needed here, everyone had been informed to stay out of the firing zone, but there was no sense taking risks. Especially with civilians about, they couldn't always be relied upon to do the sensible thing. Besides, the targets wouldn't stand up to full power for long. Grant double checked the rifle's status, then gestured to the firing positions with a brisk nod.
Not even allowed to take off their bulky and heavy back packs, they took their positions overlooking a long, wide area of the plains marked out with red flags. Almost immediately a man sized shape sprang up from concealment in the long grass, about three hundred meters away. In one swift move James shouldered her rifle, squinting through the site, activating the zoom until the target was clearly visible. Humanoid figure, camo uniform, weapon held across it's chest. A 'Musorian', the non-existent race used to represent enemy forces in battle simulations. Placing her cross hairs slightly to the left of the target's centre--to compensate for the breeze, which could affect low powered shots--she squeezed the trigger carefully.
Unlike the real thing the training shots had little noise and less recoil. They moved just as fast though, flashing to the target. A bright spot showed where she had hit, a second one designating Dumont's effort. Both were a little off target, and she compensated with her second round. Closer. She was lining up her third when, just as suddenly as it appeared, the target retracted.
She lowered her rifle, returning the scope's zoom to normal. A second Musorian popped up just a few meters away. As she raised her rifle her thumb flicked the selector switch to three round burst. Her first burst drew a line from groin to chest. Even though armour, that would be bad. But not as bad as the next three rounds, straight to the face.
Even as this target dropped another popped up, right next to it. "Check fire! Check fire!" she yelled, voice hoarse with exertion. Beside her Dumont was shouting the same. Rather than a Musorian this target was a human male, wearing Fleet uniform. It disappeared almost instantly.
Over and over the targets would show, sometimes for a fraction of a second, sometimes much longer. They were, James thought, a useful piece of kit. A piece of memory material, two meters long and a meter wide, wrapped around a roll. A small motor could rapidly force the material through an upwards facing slit, electostatically charging it so it became rigid. There had been a lecture on the workings of the device, but she didn't remember much apart from all the sniggering at the use of the words 'rigid' and 'slit'.
One other factor. The LCD coating could display up to four possible images. Usually pre-programmed, they could be adapted by someone who knew what they were doing. Obviously someone on the landing party did know what they were doing, as James found out when the original target deployed again, and she found Captain Archer on the other end of her scope. Time for another chorus of "Check fire!"
Just to add to the confusion Grant would sometimes bark orders at them. To hold their fire as an enemy popped up. For one to shoot but not the other. To pick a specific one of several targets. To fire on a human in uniform. That wasn't much fun, and they really wished they didn't know why such training was needed.
"OK, make your weapons safe." Grant said as they finished. "That's it, I'll calculate your scores."
"Are we all done?" Partridge asked as they headed back to the Beowulf. "Thanks for letting me take part, it's been such fun!"
"Fun." echoed Dumont hollowly. He could hardly walk.
Partridge rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "You know it's been ages since I took that role. Normally I go the other way."
The marines mulled this over for a few seconds, then continued with increased vigour.
Captain Archer was waiting with a couple of large glasses of water. "Here you go. How was it?"
"Brilliant! We saw ducks!" the professor exploded, clapping her hands together. "Space ducks! Ducks from another world! Down by the lake. Well, obviously not ducks, obviously, but this planet's equivalent. Looked a lot like Aix galericulata. Ducks! And I found bones. Near the river. Looks like the same sort of canine predator you found evidence of. Isn't it strange that we've not seen any sign of them? There's a perfect environmental niche for predators but no trace of them in the last few years. Very odd. And they quacked! The space ducks, not the predators, I don't know what noise they made. Only it wasn't quite a quack, like a quack but more sort of drawn out. Quaaaack! Quaaaaaaaaaack!!"
"Yes, thank you professor." Archer said hurriedly. "I look forward to your report. Why don't you go put the quad bike on charge?"
As she left Archer turned back to the marines and asked again how the excursion had gone.
James sipped her water carefully, resisting the urge to gulp it down. It had the slightly chemically taste of re-hydration powder. Not pleasant, but what she needed. "Well, we've been through worse sir, a whole lot worse, during basic training. All the same...I think we're out of shape."
"Badly." Dumont agreed.
Archer rubbed the back of his neck. "The exercise facilities on Enterprise weren't designed with Pathfinders in mind, only regular troops. If your unit is to remain on board, we'll have to do something about that."
"I think I'd better see the doctor." James said. "I threw up. Probably the exertion, but it'd be stupid not to get checked out."
Dumont nodded. "Right. Wading through the water, crawling through mud...wait a second, you went under a couple of times didn't you? In the river? Did you swallow any of the water?"
"A bit, yeah." she admitted.
Dumont and Archer exchanged glances. "Go to the doctor, now." the captain ordered. "You too Dumont."
"Yes sir." Dumont said.
James didn't speak, but nodded faintly. She lifted her hand to attempt a salute, got half way, then crashed unconscious to the floor.