The surface of Galador III. October 25th, 2151.
Having dispatched Crewman Scott to get some soup for Corporal James, Captain Archer stalked purposefully towards the large tent were the scientists had their temporary lab. Angry over the injury to one of his crew, he considered descending upon them like the wrath of a vengeful god. Something had gone badly wrong. He wanted to know why, and he wanted to ensure it didn't happen again.
Within a few steps however he had reconsidered that approach. These people were academics, not used to the disciplines of planetary surveying. Many of them hadn't even been off Earth before, and certainly not to a new, unknown world like this one. It had been the responsibility of UESPA to ensure the safety of the landing party, and they had failed in that task. Archer was not one to shift the blame. As senior officer present, he decided, this was all his fault.
"Oh Johnny!" Professor Partridge wailed as he entered the tent. "This is all MY fault!" She hurled herself at him, sobbing into his chest.
Somewhat taken aback he held his arms wide, not wanting to take inappropriate advantage. "Professor, Professor, calm yourself! I've just spoken to Doctor Locke, Autumn's going to be fine. There's nothing to worry about."
"When she collapsed I was so frightened." she went on, voice muffled by his chest.
He looked around. All the scientists were clearly worried and concerned. "As I say, she just needs a bit of rest and she'll be right as rain. Now take a deep breath, let it out slowly, and calm down. No reason to be upset."
Partridge inhaled with deliberation, held it a moment, then exhaled. At least some of the tension seemed to leave her body. She raised her head and offered a slight smile, the loveliness of which was not diminished by the redness of her teary eyes. The long trail of snot wetly linking her nose and his uniform did detract from the effect, somewhat.
"But things could have gone badly wrong, John. Clearly there's some environmental factor we've missed. I'm in charge of our scientific investigations, I should of caught it. It's all my fault" she repeated.
Archer was silent for a moment, not because of her words, but fixated on the glistening patch on his chest. "Hey, Polly, I'm in charge overall. And I'm the one with practical experience of surveys. And I'm the one---look, does anyone have a tissue?"
There was much slapping of pockets, and Jeff Murry found a handkerchief.
"We can play the blame game," Archer went on, furiously rubbing the wet patch, "but that won't get us anywhere. Let's find out what the problem is, and how we can stop it happening again. OK?" He told them of Locke's conclusions, a corrosive compound in the river water.
"I don't think we actually tested water from that particular river, did we?" Polly asked.
After examining the computer records, one of the scientists, Simon, shook his head. "We did check the lake itself though, and found no trace of anything significant."
Salome Murry leant forward. "There's plenty of life around there, plant and animal. Even fish. Maybe whatever the compound is, it's only present in that one river and when it gets to the lake it's too dilute to do any harm."
"Possible." Polly said, nodding slightly. "Can you show us an aerial view of lake on the big screen?"
Simon said "Ah, not real time. The drones are all back on regular station now."
"That's OK, a recording will do. Do we have access to all their records?"
"Yes," Simon nodded, "we have those."
The big screen worked on a similar principle to the marines' portable targets. Though not as durable, it had a much more effective LCD coating allowing it too show a stunningly realistic image. The lake was in the centre, taking up nearly half the screen. It was fed by two large rivers and one smaller one, with a single wide river flowing away to the south.
"Now this is the one the marines went paddling in." Partridge said with a sniffle, highlighting the small river with a laser pointer.
"There's a lot less water coming from that one than either of the others." Salome said. "That supports the hypothesis that the compound is diluted to a safe level when it enters the lake. And look. There's a lot less plant life along the banks of that river than around the others."
One of the other scientists, Trevor, shook his head. "I tested the lake samples myself. There's not a trace of anything in there. Not a trace. Unless you're suggesting homoeopathic poisoning...that can't be it."
"What about the plant life?" Archer asked.
Trevor shrugged. "Could be other factors. Those two big rivers move slowly along the plains, that little one runs quickly from the mountains. The terrains different, a lot rockier, possibly not as fertile."
"The mountains..." Partridge muttered, rubbing her chin. "Simon, those drones have thermal imaging capability. Can you show us the heat signature?"
The image changed to shades of grey. The land was bright, warmed by the afternoon sun, the lake a little darker. It would be refreshing to swim in without being too chilly, Archer thought. Assuming it was safe to swim in at all. The three large rivers where of a similar temperature. In contrast the smaller one was a cold dark ribbon wending it's way through the landscape. As it entered the lake the darkness blurred and brightened till it matched the warmth of it's surroundings.
"That may be significant. This little river...we can't go on calling it that, it's a boring name. What shall we call it?"
"The Polly river?" Archer suggested wryly.
"Oh, we can't name everything we discover after me, maps would get so confusing."
"Alright then, how about the Autumn river? After all, she did do the most intense investigation of it so far."
The professor nodded. "Yeah, I suppose in a way she did discover it. Plus, it's small and dangerous, just like her. The Autumn river it is. So, the Autumn flows into the lake at this point here." She gestured with the pointer. "Very close to this big one. The freezing cold mountain water is rapidly heated till it reaches the average for the lake. So what if our mystery compound has a very low evaporation point? Considering the difference in temperature it could turn to vapour in seconds, dissipating in the breeze."
"That makes sense." Salome said, nodding slowly. "Cold, it's dangerous, warm, it's harmless. That'd explain the reduced plant life along the Autumn river. The stuff's still in it's dangerous state then."
"It's supposition," Polly admitted. "But it does fit the facts. We'll have to investigate further. I must admit, I'm fascinated. A compound with these properties is quite intriguing. I suggest that we amend out planned trip to the mountains to include a search for the source of the river. Finding the origin of this substance would be most illuminating."
Archer thought about this. "It'd mean a change to our planned route," he said, "but nothing too drastic."
"Damn it!" Polly suddenly snapped."I'm supposed to be clever, I should have realised something was wrong when she said her eyes were stinging."
"When was this?" Archer asked.
"Just after she crawled out of the water. She'd been under two, maybe three times by then. I had a look, and they were a bit red. I should have got medical aid then."
"Quite right, you should have." came a disembodied voice from outside. "But you did at least wash her eyes out with clean water from a bottle. That probably saved her sight."
Archer said "Have you taken up eavesdropping, Phil?"
"It's a tent. Tents don't have eaves."
"You know what I mean."
Locke poked his head in. "I'm smoking. As a rule people seem to get agitated if I smoke inside, so I'll wait out here. Now, I'm running some tests of my own, if any of you ivory tower dreamers believe you can make any sort of contribution, the results will go up on the local net shortly. But don't let me stop you from blundering to your own conclusions. Good day to you." And with that, he withdrew.
"He's a very rude man." Salome observed.
"True, but he did stay outside to smoke." Polly said. "Impeccable manners, by his standards."
"Right," Archer said, "we have a plan. Once Autumn's well enough to return to duty, we'll go on a little trip up river to see if we can find the source of this mystery chemical. Right now though...I'm going to go get my jacket washed."