The surface of Galador III. October 27th, 2151.
It was noticeably cooler in the foothills of the mountains, quite refreshing after the lazy heat of the plains. The increased altitude had little to do with it. They'd made good progress, and climbed a fair way, but not far enough to make any significant difference to the temperature. But now they'd moved into the shade of the towering peaks, offering respite from the blazing sun. The proximity of the fast running River Autumn, carrying snow-melt from the mountains, also served to cool the air. They were careful not to get too close though. Tests had conclusively proved that the river was the source of the mysterious compound that had poisoned Corporal James, and everyone was wary.
"Alright everyone, we'll stop here for a bit. Get our breath back. Scott, get some coffee brewing." Archer said. He shrugged the heavy backpack off with some relief, and looked out over the plains. Their current elevation made for a fantastic view. He could see the main camp-site in the distance. The Beowulf looked like a toy, and straining his eyes he could just make out some of the people still there.
Officially, according to the UESPA manual, the correct term for what Archer was now leading was an 'Expeditionary Party'. He had always found something vaguely embarrassing about that phrase for some reason, and had attempted to avoid it when asking for volunteers to find the source of the contaminant. During the following discussion, however, Crewman Scott used the phrase, with the result that Professor Partridge had immediately announced that she would be going on the 'expotition'. She'd then started singing, loudly and tunelessly, 'The wonderful thing about Pollys, is that Pollys are wonderful things!', whilst bouncing around the camp-site. This behaviour had continued until Corporal James, who was well enough to attend the meeting, had threatened to break out the stun grenades and tazers. Trip Tucker, apparently, had informed the Marines quite some time back that non lethal force was justified in the event of singing.
And so the expeditionary party had set off early that morning, over the plains towards the foothills. Using topographic data provided by the marine aerial drones they had been able to plot the easiest route along the course of the river. Drone four had also been re-tasked to keep an eye on them for as far as possible. Unfortunately that would not be for much further. A forest grew part way up the slopes, the river flowed through it. The drones optical sensors could not see though the thick canopy. The thermal sensors were a little better, but this area was full of geothermal hot spots. There were simply too many heat sources to make any sense of.
Apart from Archer himself, UESPA was represented by Crewmen Scott and Miller. Travis Mayweather was the sole member of the UEMA Fleet division present. Security trained, he carried an EM-400 rifle, and wore his ship issue baseball cap with the visor low over his eyes. Two of the Marines,'Red' Grant and Dumont, had come along in case of problems. As a medic Dumont's value was obvious. James had wanted to join them, but Doctor Locke had insisted she remain in camp until he was sure she was fully recovered, and Tipping was stand by pilot for the Beowulf, so he had to remain. Grant then had joined the party by default. Apart from the Professor two scientists, Trevor Collins and Jeff Murry, had come along. All carried backpacks, and the quad bike pulled a trailer of camping equipment. No one knew exactly how long this would take, so they had prepared for a couple of nights.
He looked around. "This might be a good place to set up camp." The area around them was flat and grassy, with a few boulders scattered around. The forest began further upstream.
"Isn't it a bit early?" Jeff asked. "We've still got a few hours of sunlight left."
"True. But we don't know what's up ahead. We could walk for hours and not find a good spot, and I don't fancy trying to put up a tent in the middle of an unknown forest in the dark." He grinned wryly. "On the other hand, we could stroll ten meters into that same forest and find what we are looking for. Well, let's get something to eat and think it over."
Professor Partridge wandered over to them. "Right. If we are stopping I'll run another check on the water. Never hurts to get extra data." From her backpack she produced a pair of goggles, which she donned. "De goggles do nothing!" she said in a cod Germanic accent. She'd said the same thing the three previous times she'd gotten samples, and no one knew why. After tying her hair back she covered her nose and mouth with a surgical mask. There was some concern that the compound would be even more harmful up here. Lab tests showed that it's toxicity was significantly greater at low temperatures.
"I'll get a water bottle ready." Archer said. If Polly did get splashed the best course of action would be to wash the compound off as quickly as possible. "Are you sure you want to do it? Taking risks isn't really your style."
Her grin was obvious even behind the mask. "I know what you mean. But I kind of feel I owe it to Autumn, you know?" Archer nodded. He did know. "Besides, I'm the only one present whose clothes are one hundred percent waterproof. As long as my head stays dry, I'll be fine. Otherwise..." She gestured to Archer's water bottle.
Murry rubbed his chin. "You are assuming, of course, that the material of your outfit won't be dissolved by the compound."
She giggled. "Very unlikely. I designed this to protect me from all manner of hazardous substances. And, of course, to look fabulous."
Polly's current catsuit was a black and orange tiger striped affair. Given her Tigger references the previous night, either she'd brought it along with the rest of her stuff and just happened to find the perfect opportunity to wear it, or the clothing itself could be made to change colour and pattens. Or
, Archer thought, she manipulated the conversation the previous night to give her an excuse to wear it
. That seemed both likely and unlikely to him. Likely, because Partridge was certainly smart enough to set things up like that. She was an absolute demon
at chess. During the Enterprise's first mission she and Vulcan Ambassador Soval had spent many hours in the obs. lounge, usually resulting in a stalemate. Eventually they'd decreed chess to be to limited, too simple, and they'd started developing a multi level variant.
It was unlikely
, in Archer's view, because Polly Partridge had never required an excuse to dress up. As her sole concession to the rough terrain she had swapped her normal footwear for a pair of sturdy, yet stylish, hiking boots. Not even she would attempt a mountain climb in stilettos.
She took two steps towards the river, then turned back. "Mind you, if I'm wrong, and my clothes do dissolve, I'd suddenly be naked. Is that such a disaster?"
"Oh, I think we could cope." Jeff said with a smile.
She regarded him silently for a moment, then arched an eyebrow. "You're a married man Jeff, I'll tell your wife you said that!" With another giggle she spun away and positively skipped towards the river.
Archer chuckled, and was about to speak when he caught sight of 'Red' Grant on her hands and knees, apparently sniffing the ground. No, not sniffing, he realized, but examining it minutely. She got up, moved to another spot, and repeated the procedure. He approached her. "Something up?"
Squatting on her haunches she thought for a moment. "Lot of trails here, Captain." she said in her soft, French Canadian accent. "Lots of animals come here. Some quite big. Probably to drink. Might not be a good place to stay too long, I think."
He looked to the tree line. "You think we're in danger?"
"Maybe, maybe not. I'm not seeing anything that looks like claws, so it don't look like there's anything predatory. But some animals, they get territorial, y'know? If they find us here, they might see us as intruders, try to get rid of us."
Something was bothering Archer, something he couldn't quite place. "Okay, you and Dumont stay alert, just in case. We'll take some quick refreshment, then be on our way."
"Yes sir." Grant said, hoisting her rifle. Unlike the ones carried by the other marines, it wasn't a plasma weapon. Grant had been a scout/sniper before transferring to the Pathfinders, and preferred the EM-660. Whilst guns firing metal bullets might be old fashioned, the fact that the projectiles couldn't be seen was considered an advantage for a soldier operating from concealment. For close up work she had an under-slung EM-303 grenade launcher, loaded with cannister rounds, essentially shotgun shells with six 'triple-ought' pellets. A hit with one of those was like catching a burst from a submachine gun.
Scott came over with his coffee. He thanked her and took a sip. It was good, strong, the way he liked it. He turned from the river and looked out over the plains once more, mulling over the next course of action. If Grant was right then they couldn't stop here. They'd have to move on, find somewhere they were less likely to be disturbed by the local wildlife. As soon as they'd finished their drinks he would----
was what had been bothering him. He paused, mug halfway to his lips, thinking furiously. "Grant? Are you sure that animals would come here to drink?"
She gave a half nod. "I'm not too familiar with the wildlife on this planet, Captain, but I've been to three Earth like worlds. Four if you count Earth itself. This place has all the signs I see in watering holes. So yes, I think so."
A frown fell on Archer's face. "But why would animals come drink at a river, when that river is poisoned?"
"Poisoned..." Grant said. "I do not know. Maybe they are immune. Perhaps they evolve here so it don't hurt them?"
Jeff Murry was listening in. "It's possible. That poison is corrosive, it'd take some pretty major adaptation to cope with that. If any animal can survive drinking it with no ill effects, well that's something worth studying. Though we'd probably have to dissect it to see what makes it tick."
"If you want something dead, Doctor Murry," Grant said, patting her rifle barrel, "you just tell me."