Boots crunched across the snow, the wind stirring little eddies around their feet. There were six of them in the landing party, seasoned veterans of Earth's exploration fleet, each chosen for their individual skills and talents and so bundled in their enviro-suits it was impossible to tell one from another except by voice. This was their third trip out and their first landing on another world.
VR-63K wasn't much of a planet - more of a planetoid than anything. But it was big enough to sustain its own weather patterns and there had been promising indications of a wealth of various types of ores in the planet's crust. ExploreCo had laid first claim on prospecting and sent out a mining craft in the expectation they'd find something worth digging up.
So far, it hadn't been a successful expedition.
"This is insane!" grumbled Science Officer Dakota. ""How can they expect us to work on this frozen rock?" He pulled his foot out of a knee-deep drift, shook the snow off and took another step, only to sink up to mid-thigh. "Why didn't we take the motor skis?"
"Because we weren't sure how packed the snow was. You wouldn't want to motor ski right into a crevasse, would you?" replied Second Officer Chang with maddening patience. She turned and smiled at the complaining scientist. "And don't be such a stick in the mud. We're on another planet!"
"A planet covered in snow and devoid of anything interesting besides rocks," snorted -Xenobiologist Fey. She was feeling somewhat short-changed, given the total and utter lack of any kind of biological life on her scans so far. "Not even bacteria!"
First Officer Whittaker shook her head and continued on in silence. After eighteen months of living with these people (technically twenty years with the time dilation effect of light speed travel), she knew when to let them have their squabbling banter. Squinting into the patchy falling snow, she blinked, trying to make out the shapes around them. Something briefly flashed, a glimmer of thin sunlight against a reflective surface and she rubbed her eyes, trying to see more clearly.
"What is it?" The soft voice belonged to Dr. Zaystev, the mission's medical officer. He rarely spoke, but missed little of his surroundings, displaying an almost creepy level of perception sometimes.
"I'm not sure," Whittaker replied. "I thought for a moment I saw something shining over there." He pointed down the narrow canyon they were passing. "Something metal."
"Metal?" Geologist Markum's face lit up, even behind the face mask protecting him from the cold. "We should go and look then, shouldn't we?" He seemed ready to dash away on the spot - since their landing on the planet, he had been liked a child in a candy store, taking samples of everything. A planet made of ore was a dream come true for him, it seemed.
Whittaker paused. For some reason, she had misgivings about going down that canyon, but no actual rational arguments against it. "Carefully," she warned. "We don't know how solid the surface is in there or how far down the canyon actually goes. Chang, you take point, the rest of you follow Chang, but no closer than a metre apart. I'll take the rear."
Markum seemed ready to pout and complain, but took his place immediately after Chang obediently. The rest of the scientists followed, with various degrees of enthusiasm, and Whittaker came along behind, hand hovering over the laser baton hooked to her belt.
The canyon twisted and turned, rock walls growing higher above them. Down here there was less snow and the path was hard-packed and frozen solid. Here and there, patches of rock showed through and Markum kept pausing to scratch at it with a probe, frowning and muttering to himself.
"Problem? asked Fey sarcastically. She didn't really like the little geologist, mainly because he had his pick of the mission's resources and she got whatever was left over once the rest of the team had gone through them. "Rocks giving you trouble?"
"Why yes!" exclaimed Markum, completely oblivious as usual to her tone. "These rocks, they've been melted. See here? The smooth surface? They were exposed to incredibly high temperatures and then cooled down."
"So?" asked Fey. "Wouldn't normal seismic forces do that? Volcanoes and the rest?"
"Not like this. This rock," and he waved a chip of it in front of her goggles. "This isn't igneous rock. It's completely the wrong make up. No, the rock was here first and then it was heated by an outside force."
"An outside force like what?" Dakota asked derisively. He was slightly higher on the scientific totem pole, being a chemist and physicist, but he shared Fey's contempt of the "rock man".
"Well, how about something like that?" The voice was Chang's - she'd stopped in her tracks and was staring up the canyon at a large mass. At first glimpse, with the snow covering it, it could have been just another rock formation. But then the clouds broke again and weak sunlight played over scored metal and broken glass and the shape resolved before their eyes into the impossible - a space craft. And from the design, sleek and graceful despite the violence done by an obvious crash landing, it was of a kind not yet seen by humans.
"I'll be damned," muttered Dakota, shading his eyes as he looked up at the ship. "We just made history."
"Everyone, stay where you are!" Whittaker ordered and the uncharacteristic command in her voice silenced the imminent debate. "We don't know anything about this ship or its crew. We need to be cautious. We have protocols for this sort of thing and we need to follow them. So first step is to..."
Her words were abruptly interrupted by a rapid movement from Zaystev, who had shouldered past Markum and Chang and was heading straight for a large hole in the ship's hull. "Dr. Zaystev!" Whittaker called after him. "Stop right there! That's an order!"
"I must," came the soft reply. "I can sense someone inside, someone who needs our help." And with that, he vanished from sight, the sound of his boots on metal loud in the quiet canyon.
"'Sense'? What the hell?" Dakota looked around the rest of the group. "No-one said he was an ESPer!"
"Because we didn't know!" shot back Chang. She was looking nervously from the ship to Whittaker, as if expecting some kind of space monster to emerge.
"I don't know about that, but if there's something alive in there, I want my shot at it," Fey countered, taking a few steps towards the ship. Change whipped out an arm and pulled her up short before looking again at their leader.
"Whittaker? What should we do?"
"What can we do?" Whittaker sighed and unholstered her baton. "Zaystev might be crazy and an unregistered ESPer, but he's our medic. We need him." She looked around the small group. "It's too cold to stay out here - you'll freeze to death by the time I come back with him. So you're coming along. Stick together, stay quiet and don't touch anything."
"Hello? Can you hear me? I'm here to help!" Zaystev's voice echoed flatly in the ship, as if the walls were sound-proofed. Rusting metal crumbled under his feet and he hastened on, afraid of falling through. "Don't be afraid!"
His boot knocked against something that clattered along the deck and he looked down to see a long bone. Femur or its analogue, his mind supplied, even as he shivered a little. More bones appeared as he went on, all bleached white and bare, as if the ship had been here for a long, long time. But, strangely, the ship itself was remarkably intact; as he explored deeper, he discovered some kind of emergency lighting had been employed. Along the wall ran a glowing strip of light, feeble but still working. Some kind of alien technology, he decided, and went on. Up ahead, his senses were telling him was someone needing medical attention.
Fey clunked her head on a dangling pipe and swore under her breath. The tall woman was already stooping to avoid a concussion, but as they went on down the moderately-intact corridor, she was finding the going rough. "What are these guys, munchkins?" she complained.
"Maybe they're little grey men," suggested Dakota with a nervous-sounding chuckle. "Maybe we'll find the anal probing room."
"I'll probe you if you don't shut up," growled Fey.
"Both of you shut up," Whittaker ordered curtly. Inside her suit, her back was sweating, icy droplets running down her spine. Something was giving her the creeps here. "I think I hear something."
Chang frowned, tilting her head in the direction Whittaker was leaning towards. "I... think I do too," she said hesitantly. "A voice?"
"Maybe." Baton raised, Whittaker looked back at the gaggle of scientists. "Stay here. Fey and I will check it out."
"Why her?" demanded Markum, much like a child feeling left out.
"Because if some kind of face-hugging creature leaps out at me, she'll be able to at least work out what to do with it." Whittaker beckoned to the xenobiologist. "Front and centre, Fey. You wanted aliens, now's your chance."
Fey nodded and swallowed, bravado suddenly gone. "Right behind you," she managed, falling into step behind the officer.
The room they entered was significantly more damaged than some of the others they'd seen - it had borne the brunt of the crash. From the panels of burned-out instruments and shattered screens, it had to have been the flight deck or similar. Blueish-green stains marked some of the tumbled seats, but there were no bodies or any trace of scavengers.
"There's nothing here," Fey breathed, sounding more relieved than disappointed.
"Must have been the wind," Whittaker agreed. Then something shifted behind them and they both whipped around, Fey ducking behind the shorter Whittaker and the officer raising her laser baton, ready to strike. What they saw, however, was a flicker of lights across a panel that was more intact than the others and the broken, garbled recording of a voice speaking an entirely alien language.
Fey let out an almost girly squeak of excitement and clasped her gloved hands together. "Oh my Maker!" she exclaimed. "Do you know what this means?"
"Besides the fact we're in a crashed spaceship with no way of finding out what happened?" Whittaker replied a little acidly. Fey made a sound that the headset of her suit insisted on broadcasting as a raspberry.
"This is an actual recording of an alien language!" she said. "For the first time, we have proof of sentient life from another planet and with this recording, we might be able to communicate with them one day!" She moved over and began poking around at the panel. "Help me figure out how to reply this. I need to get all I can on my data recorder."
"Fey, we don't have time for this," Whittaker began, exasperated. Scientists. They were all crazy.
"Then you go on and find Zaystev," the xenobiologist retorted. "Send Dakota in here to help me, he's good with mechanicals. We'll be safe. There's nothing here at all that could hurt us, not with our suits on."
Whittaker paused. The last thing she wanted to do was split the group, but she knew from experience that she'd have to spend forever convincing the big woman to come with her. Better to let her do her thing in relative safety while she and Chang looked for their medic. "All right," she said at last. "But you get Markum too. And if anything happens, and I mean anything, you pound your panic buttons and we'll come running."
"Sure, sure." So caught up in the recording was she, Fey didn't even argue about having to babysit the geologist. "Panic button, first sign of anything."
"I mean it. We don't know what we're dealing with here." Fey looked up, a broad grin on her face.
"I know. Isn't it awesome?"
Deep within the bowels of the ship, Zaystev paused, tilting his head as if to listen. There was nothing to hear, not even the barest whisper of the wind, but he seemed satisfied - with a nod he continued on, moving past a heap of debris that half-blocked his way. The edge of his boot caught on something and shifted it, causing the heap to start sliding apart with a hollow clatter - the debris were bones, a pile of them, all starkly clean. For the first time, Zaystev hesitated, unsure, but then there came that half-whisper of a call, more of a sensation of need than a communication in words, and he pushed on.
The next room showed signs of habitation. A kind of bed arranged in one corner, a stack of clear plastic cubes that might be some kind of food container or even entertainment device, it was impossible to tell. A fire had been lit in the middle of the room at one point, half-burned fragments of furniture and cloth still visible in the ashes. Zaystev paused again and then headed unerringly towards the pile of cushions and blankets in the corner. A shapeless lump lay beneath.
Hand trembling, Zaystev crouched down and reached out, lifting a corner of the blanket. A grinning skull with fragments of mummified skin still hanging from it looked back at him and he gave a muffled cry, falling back on his rear. HIs doctor's brain took in the strange shape of the skull, the ridges above the eye sockets, the sharp teeth, but what he was mesmerised by was the sight of those teeth locked deeply into the bones of the wrist.
There was no sign of the hand itself - it had been eaten.
With a sound of disgust, he draped the blanket back over the body. He understood now the bare bones, picked clean of all flesh and tissue. It was an easy scenario to picture - a crash, no hope of rescue or escape, the slow decline in food supplies. Then the unthinkable, survivors eating each other one by one, until only one remained. And still the hunger.
Bile burned at the back of his throat and he stumbled back out of the room. When a hand fell on his shoulder, he cried out and whipped around, flailing. A sharp shock to his chest and he fell to his hands and knees, shaking. Looking up, he saw First Officer Whittaker. Even through the mask, her face was stern.
"I... thought I heard..." he stuttered. "But I was wrong. There's nothing here, only death."
Whittaker frowned, looking at the hysterical man, before holstering her baton. "Let's get you out of here," she said shortly. "Let's get everyone out of here."
Back on the shuttle craft, Chang carefully gave Zaystev a tranq shot and tucked a blanket around him. He hadn't spoken since they'd left the ship, couldn't look at any of the others. When someone touched him, he flinched.
"I think he's gone spla on us," the Second Officer said quietly to Whittaker as she left the medic to sleep. "Something in that ship got to him."
"We'll have to quarantine ourselves when we get back," Whittaker said with a sigh. "There's no telling what alien bug might have gotten through the suits. It's certainly effected Zaystev."
Chang wrinkled her nose, but nodded. There were protocols to follow. She looked over at the other scientists, who were gathered around Fey's data recorder, talking in excited tones. "Still, at least the rest of them are happy?"
"Whee. Happy scientists. They're worse than puppies." Whittaker sighed. Ahead of them, the mining ship loomed and she raised her voice so the others could hear her. "Looks like we're nearly home, girls and boys. Fasten your seatbelts."
"About time," Fey said, with a smile that somehow showed all of her teeth. "I'm starving."