“You’ve all seen the mission briefing?”
They nodded. He was sure a couple of them hadn’t, so he’d reiterate the important parts. “Our job is to go down to the planet’s surface, collect air, water, soil, and surface samples. We’re to take 3D images, sensor readings, and anything else we can do without physically contacting the planet. We don’t know if what killed the civilization here is still around or not. If it is, we don’t want to make contact with it. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m getting married in three weeks and my fiancée expects me to be on time and intact.”
They smiled and chuckled. Wagoner continued.
“While we don’t think anyone survived this… catastrophe… we can’t be sure. There could be survivors holed up underground or in shielded areas of the buildings. If they see or hear us moving around, they might mistake us for invaders or some other kind of threat. That’s why I selected most of you. You’ve had at least basic combat training and know how to use a sidearm. I hope that training turns out to be unnecessary, but be alert. If you think you see or hear something, draw your weapon. Fire it only if you think your life is in danger, but shoot to kill if you do. Understood?”
Some of the eyes staring at him opened a bit wider. They nodded.
“Check your weapons, make sure your suits are intact and secure, and I’ll see you in the shuttle.” Wagoner checked his own weapon and suit, then climbed into the shuttle.
Moments later, the away team joined him. The last one in closed the door and locked it.
Wagoner powered up the shuttle and signaled the bridge to open the shuttle bay doors. Seconds later, the doors began slowly sliding open. The shuttle lifted a short distance off the floor and began slowly drifting toward the opening doors. By the time it reached the doors, they were open. The shuttle passed through and into the vacuum of space.
Wagoner’s piloting skills made the trip to the surface a little rough. He’d flown and landed a shuttle many times in simulations, and a few times back on Earth, but it wasn’t a simple process. The shuttle shook a bit as it passed through pockets of turbulence in the atmosphere and countered changes in wind speed and direction. The away team breathed a collective sigh of relief when the shuttle touched down on the planet.
“Sensor readings first,” Wagoner told them. The crew walked to their consoles and began capturing sensor readings which were immediately transmitted to the Prospect’s computers. “How does it look out there?”
Harris from Biology spoke first. “The atmosphere is nearly identical to our own. It’s a touch lighter in Nitrogen and a bit heavier in oxygen and CO2, but very breathable. There’s no indication of a biological contagion in the air, but the scanners only see what they're built to see. It might be something we've never encountered. I don't get any poisons or radiation. It's probably safe to breathe, but I wouldn't recommend it except in an emergency - under the circumstances."
"Alright, fan out in pairs. One armed partner in each pair. Get me all the samples you can. I'm going to take Ensign Yu with me into the city to see if we can find any records of what happened. Ready, Yu?"
She nodded. They began the walk into the city. It looked more like an artist's concept than a city. The buildings had very modern designs that looked like they'd have been at home on Earth. Here and there, ground cars - just as stylish as the buildings - were crashed into things, parked strangely, or left in the middle of the street. Whatever killed the population of this planet seemed to have taken them relatively quickly. In some of the cars, they found alien remains.
"Scan these bodies for me, Ensign. I want to have a look inside that building across the street. It's bigger and more imposing than the rest. I'm guessing it might City Hall or something like that. There might be records inside of what happened." Yu nodded and began scanning the vehicles.
Wagoner walked up the ramp to the doors of the building and pulled. They weren't locked in any way, and opened easily. He stepped through them into the building, which was somewhat dimly lit because the sun was behind it now.
"Wagoner to Prospect," Kyle said, tapping his communicator button.
"Prospect here, Commander. What can we do for you?"
"I'm going to transmit some images of documents. I've got no idea what they say, but I want Linguistics working on them immediately. There are stacks of them here and there, more than I can carry back to the ship. If some of them tell what happened here, I can bring those."
"Understood, Commander. Anything else?"
"No, Wagoner out."
He pulled out his tab and began snapping photos of the many documents piled on desks around the room. As he did so, he couldn't shake the feeling he was being watched. He looked around, but couldn't see anything.
"Hello? Yu? Anyone here?"
Silence met his words. He went back to photography.
Without warning, he felt his hazard suit helmet being ripped from his head. Something bit his head, hard. The pain washed away his consciousness. The last thing he saw looked like a rotting carcass of one of the inhabitants of the planet. His last thought was of his fiancee back home.
* * *
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