From near the river Partridge called out. "Hey, guys? Come have a butcher's at this!"
They tramped over towards her, taking care not to get too close to the water.
'Red' grunted. "So much for the immunity theory." She prodded at the body with a combat boot. "This thing is very dead."
The 'thing' was a quadruped creature, rather like a large pig or boar, with course black fur and prominent tusks. It was laying in a small depression, partly covered by a small bush, which was why it had not been spotted before. A thin trickle of grey green slime lead from it's mouth to a small puddle.
"I was just coming back from checking the river---major, major contaminant levels, by the way---when I spotted this little fellow looking right at me. It was the scariest moment of my life. Well, one of the scariest moments. Top ten, anyway." Partridge said. She folded her arms and pouted. "If it had been alive I'd have had it. And I thought you marines were supposed to be looking after us."
Grant shrugged. "Not me professor, I only came along to do target practice." she said, deadpan. "Hey, do you reckon there's good eating on one of these?"
"Maybe on one that hasn't been poisoned." Polly said, leaning close to examine it. "Wouldn't that be marvellous though? Our first planet, and we discover a new source of bacon. Brilliant!"
Archer said "But it still leaves us with a mystery. Wouldn't a creature avoid a water source if it was poisonous?"
"Perhaps it didn't know." Jeff suggested. "It might have migrated here from another area. It might not have immunity that native creatures do."
"Doctor, I look at the hooves, and I look at the tracks. They look the same to me. I can't for sure say this one is from round here," Grant prodded the boar again, "but others of the same type sure are. Besides..." she trailed off, pointing. On the other side of the river there was a large, flat bolder. A brown mass lay slumped on top.
"What is that?" Archer asked.
Wordlessly Grant lifted her rifle and peered though the telescopic sight. She made a few adjustments, then handed the weapon to him. Reed has once told Archer that the scope would let you read a book at two kilometres, though why you'd want to do that, and how you'd turn the pages, were questions left unanswered. It certainly had no trouble picking out details of an object thirty metres away.
It was a monkey, or this planet's closest equivalent. The science team had been tracking groups of them in the forests bordering the plains for several days now. The presence of this one indicated that they lived in the mountain forests too, although in this particular case 'lived' was very much in the past tense. There was no hint of movement, or breathing.
He lowered the gun and handed it back. Rubbing the back of his neck in contemplation, he looked down at the boar. "Is there any way to find out how long this has been dead for?"
"Oh, not long." Grant said. "There's little sign of decay. Also, look at the trail, where it dragged itself into shelter. See how the edges are just beginning to crumble?" Archer couldn't, but gave a vaguely affirmative grunt. "That means these tracks are recent Captain. Three, four days at the most. Probably just one."
Archer nodded. "Which rather suggests that the reason these animals didn't avoid the water, is that until fairly recently that water was safe."
"Interesting hypothesis Johnny." Polly said. "But what could cause such a...oh, I know! We're approaching an area of geological activity. Perhaps the compound was released into the water recently. We did speculate that it may be volcanic in origin, though of course we'd need to find the source to confirm that."
"I don't know. It strikes me as a bit of a coincidence." Archer said. "This happening now, just as we are here."
Polly shrugged. "For all we know it's a regular occurrence. Chemical reactions in an underground chamber, pressure builds up, some of the compound escapes, pressure drops until next time. Rinse, lather, repeat. Always repeat. There may be a way to find out. Those trees at the forest edge. I'll use an ultrasonic scanner, count the number of rings, and see how evenly spaced they are. I'll use those ones over there, away from the river as a control group, and compare them with those ones on it's bank. If the hypothesis is correct we should find that the ones at the bank have regular periods of reduced growth."
"Because those are the times they've been poisoned?" Archer asked.
"Right. Obviously the compound can't be released too often, as animals would be wiped out without a safe water supply. There has to be sufficient time for the population to re-establish itself and become used to drinking here again. And of course the trees themselves wouldn't survive too great an exposure." She started rummaging through her back pack for the scanner.
Archer drained his coffee. "Well, don't be too long. We better get moving soon. If you want a coffee, now's the time."
He went back to where Scott had set up the percolator, followed closely by Murry and Grant. After getting himself a refill he looked round and saw Mayweather sat on a rock, facing away from the plains and towards the mountains. He sat next to him. "You okay Travis?"
"Ah, a lot better sir. Now we've actually got some scenery around us I'm feeling a lot more comfortable. Down there---" he jerked his head back towards the plains, "---I keep getting the notion that I'm going to fall off the world."
"Just remember to keep a lot of heavy weights in your pockets, you'll be alright." Archer said wryly.
Mayweather smiled, then his brow creased. "Hey. What is that?"
Archer followed his gaze, then looked round for Grant. "Red, get over here!"
Something was moving in the tree line on the other side of the river. It looked like....yes, yes it was...a boar like creature, similar to the one they'd found earlier. It stopped as it saw them, standing it's ground, before emitting an oddly warbling snort. For several long seconds it regarded them.
"Just say the word, captain." Grant murmured, rifle at the ready.
He raised his hand. "Not yet. I think it's just being cautious. If it attacks you'll have to do something about it, but until it does, let's leave it be."
"Look at those tusks." Travis said. He was aiming his own rifle. "I'm glad it's on the other side of the river."
There was a chirp from Archer's communicator. Slowly, so as not to startle the beast, he unzipped the pocket and got the device out. It was one of the new sort, with the flip top lids. He wasn't used to them yet and fumbled it open. "Archer here."
"Sato sir, we're watching via the drone. Do you require assistance?
"Not as yet, but keep an eye on...hold on." Across the river the creature turned and walked back into the forest. "Okay, did you see that? It's gone. We'll be on our way in a minute."
"Understood. Don't forget we'll lose coverage once you are in the forest, so be careful!
"Yes mother." he grinned. "Archer out."
Mayweather made his rifle safe. "Guess we must have scared that thing off."
The captain said "Probably. But we may well have saved it's life as well."
"Oh? How so?"
"If it was coming here to drink, it would have been poisoned." Archer said. "At any rate, now we know there are others in this area, we better be careful. Everyone stay alert and....where's Polly? No, let me guess, she's already gone to scan the trees. Grant, get after her will you? And stick with her."
Backpacks wear donned, straps and buckles adjusted. The quad bike hummed into life. A flock of birds swooped over head, in a vee shaped pattern, like geese. And then----
"Down, every one down!" Dumont hissed urgently.
There was some confusion amongst the group. Archer, not knowing what was going on but trusting the marine's judgement, dropped to his belly and repeated Dumont's command.
As everyone complied Dumont slithered over to him. "Look sir."
Over by the tree line Grant had also dropped down, and was waving her left hand in what Archer guessed was some sort of sign language. After a moment she beckoned them over. Dumont went in a high speed zig zagging crouch with no discernible patten. Archer did his best to emulate him.
"The professor, she is not here." Grant said as they reached her. "Signs of a struggle."
Archer swore. "What was it, one of those creatures?" The boars certainly looked strong enough to drag someone away."
There was a hint of morbid humour in Grant's tone. "Not unless they use clubs." She pointed to a branch lying on the ground. At first glance it was no different to any of the others scattered around, until he saw the spots of blood and wisps of blonde hair.
"What the hell?" Dumont said. "Weren't we supposed to be the only ones on this planet?"
! Archer thought. He took a deep breath, and tried to steady himself. There's no body, so she was taken off somewhere. So she's still alive.
"Can you follow the trail?" he asked.
She lead him into the forest. It was notably darker, with a thick, acrid stench, as sulphurous gasses from deep underground got trapped beneath the canopy. Grant and Dumont, Archer noted, were fully alert, automatically operating as a two man fire team. Presumably that was just being cautious. If they'd expected any real trouble then, he hoped, they wouldn't have brought him with them.
On the ground, it's display shattered, lay the professor's ultrasonic scanner. It must have been on when it was damaged, as it now emitted a sad gurgling whine. He stepped forward to pick it up.
"Wait sir! You'll disturb the sign." Grant said. She pointed. "Here, and here. Do you see?"
Archer didn't, but now it had been pointed out to him Dumont did. "Oh hell. That complicates things."
"So what is it?" Archer asked.
"It's these tracks sir, we've seen them before. They're combat boots..." Grant glanced at Dumont. "They're Axanar."