Here's the next chapter.
I did a minor rewrite to this the other day. I've never been really happy with it, as I have a fair bit of character stuff to establish, the relationships between the Hansen family: Magnus and Erin, Magnus and Annika, Erin and Annika. I don't think it works as well as it could, so for this I really want a fair bit of constructive criticism. There's a lot of room for improvement in this chapter.
Anyway, here it is.
Field notes, Terbalus IV, Stardate 30167.5. The Sutherland has arrived at Terbalus IV, the planet that will be our home for the next solar year. In that time we plan to catalogue the life forms and environments of this relatively unexplored planet. It is our hope that our research here will lead to breakthroughs in the treatment of injuries and illnesses.
From orbit, the clouds that blanketed the surface of Terbalus IV had looked grey and green, and from the surface of the world they were little better. Magnus Hansen stepped out of the modular shelter and looked around at the clearing would serve as his family's home for the next year. It was wide, and sunny by local standards. By Earth standards, however, it was positively gloomy. The system's sun was little more than a feeble glow that struggled to pierce the layer of low clouds. Around the edge of the clearing, bleak grey trees stood, their trunks covered in moss and algae, and some type of bird could be heard, mournfully calling from the darkness of the forest.
Around him, the engineering crew of the Sutherland was finishing the construction of the shelter. He turned to face them and saw his daughter running up towards him.
"Daddy?" she called. Annika was four, a few months shy of her fifth birthday, and she viewed the world with a sense of childlike wonder. However, from the moment she had arrived on Terbalus IV, she had been obviously less than thrilled. Magnus could understand her feelings; the place seemed to have a way of draining the life out of you. He hoped it would pass.
"Yes, muffin?" Magnus said, kneeling down and opening his arms wide to hug her.
Annika looked up at him, her big blue eyes pleading with him. "I don't wanna be here," she said. "Can't we go back to Vulcan?" Vulcan had been their previous assignment, studying recently unearthed ruins near the city of Vulcana Regar. It had been dry, dusty, and hot, but at least the Vulcans were polite and they had the comforts of civilisation.
"Sorry, honey," Magnus told her. "We're going to be staying here for the next year, but it won't be so bad. We've got a whole new world to explore, with strange new life that nobody's ever seen."
"But there's no people," whinged Annika, and she stomped back towards the shelter, her arms crossed and a scowl upon her face.
Magnus stood and went over to his wife. "Annika isn't thrilled to be here," he told her. "Although, I can't really say I blame her."
Erin looked at him. "She'll get used to it," she said. "I'd like to start cataloguing the insect species tonight. I've detected a few unusual species already, and I'd like to investigate further."
Magnus nodded. "We'll get the equipment set up as soon as the Sutherland leaves," he said.
He headed back to the engineers around the shelter. "How's it going?" he asked the lieutenant in charge.
"We're just about finished," he said. "Just a bit more gamma welding to complete in order to make the shelter weather proof and we'll be done. The equipment has been beamed down and you have a fully fuelled type six shuttle."
Magnus nodded. "Good work," he said.
"Thank you sir," said the lieutenant.
The sun had set slowly, the sky turning deep shades of pink, orange, and finally red before darkness settled over the woods. The clouds still lay over the land like blankets, and the sky was starless, the air cold. Lights shone from within the shelter, and insects flung themselves at the radiance, pinging and banging their bodies against the clear metal of the windows.
Magnus and Erin stood outside the shelter, working in the glow of the exterior lamp, swatting the insects away from their faces. Spotlights had been erected on poles, aimed into the forest, but they were yet to be lit. Magnus and Erin were erecting a forcefield emitter in front of the lights.
Annika peeked out from the door, reluctant to come out into the swarm of insects. "What's that for?" she asked.
Magnus turned to her as Erin continued to work. "It's to catch the insects," he said. "They fly towards the light, but they hit the forcefield and are stunned. Then they fall into the collector we have underneath so we can have a look at them and see how they work."
Annika made a noise that appeared to mean that she understood, but she didn't leave the shelter.
Erin looked up from the collector. "I'm ready, Magnus," she said. "We can activate it any time."
"Alright then," said Magnus. "I'm bringing the stunner fields online." He tapped a control and a small blue flicker flashed between the emitters. The equipment hummed softly. "Activate the lights."
The lights flashed on, the brightness stabbing through the forest and cutting apart the darkness. Magnus and Erin sat, tricorders in hand, waiting for the first insects to appear.
The insects flying near the exterior lamp of the shelter immediately surrounded the bright spotlights, forming clouds of bodies that circulated around the lights and fell stunned into the collectors. Bare seconds later, swarms of insects emerged from the forest, coming in from every direction, whining and buzzing, smothering the lamps and dropping dead in their frenzy to batter themselves against the blazing lights. The collectors were clogged with chitinous bodies in seconds.
Erin looked at Magnus, stunned at the success of their first research venture. "Wow," she said, unfolding her tricorder. "I'm reading over three hundred different species."
Something dark swooped over Magnus's head and he ducked. "What was that?" he said.
"It looks like some sort of reptilian bird," Erin said, and a sudden screeching filled the air. "More of them are coming!" she called over the noise. "They appear to use some sort of echolocation to find their food!"
Great throngs of the creatures emerged from the forest, wheeling and circling and screaming amidst the brightness of the lights, feeding on the clouds of insects.
The noises of the forest rose even louder, disorienting the birds, which started to attack the lights, hurling their leathery bodies against the burning elements and killing themselves instantly. They became even more aroused, attacking anything they could find, trees, the field projectors, and the two scientists.
"Annika, get inside and close the door!" shouted Magnus, barely audible of the screeching. He and Erin ran for the cover of the entrance of the shelter, away from the lights and stunning field.
A roar cut through the night, deafening above the screeching of birds and insects. Magnus and Erin shared a shocked look, and then, barely fifteen meters from where they stood, a monstrous creature emerged from the forest. Its skin was shockingly pale, a great long body swayed above the ground. A multitude of long, spider-like legs converged from the middle of its body, and on what appeared to be the front end was a ring of bright red eyes, and a number of what appeared to be tentacles, each as long as Magnus' arm. From the midst of these came a long tubelike mouth that snaked over the ground, sucking up insects and the other animals attracted by the noise. It moved quickly towards the collectors, toppling the lights, which shattered on the ground.
Suddenly plunged into darkness, Magnus fought the urge to panic. He couldn't see, and he fumbled for the palm beacon at his side. Flicking it on, he could see Erin stumbling towards him, and the monster behind her, oblivious to her, still ripping apart the collector. Magnus grabbed her and pulled her away, towards the shelter and safety where the exterior lamp still glowed.
They ran inside, locking the door closed behind them. From the window, they could see nothing. The exterior lamp showed nothing of the scene; its beam shone away from the site of their overly successful experiment. They could hear the creature roaring and snarling hungrily, as well as the sound of their equipment being torn apart. Eventually the sound died away and silence reigned once more in the night forest.
The weeks continued, and as they went through spring, the weather became warmer. It was still cool compared to a San Francisco summer, but at least they didn't need to wear their field jackets when they went out. As summer came, the clouds began to fall away and they revealed a blue sky.
It was a few weeks after the incident with the giant spider that Magnus and Annika took the shuttle to one of more tropical regions of the planet. Tropical, however, was merely a reference to the latitude; the climate there was still cool and there was regular snowfall in the winter months. However, during summer, the climate was mild and life flourished in the deciduous forests. It was a pleasant change to the chilly woods that they had lived in for the last month.
It was not the first time that Magnus had been here with his daughter. She had been so grumpy about being stuck in the clearing that he had promised to take her with him the first time he'd gone. She had been overjoyed to get out into a place where it was not so cold, and they both enjoyed the excursion so much that it had become a weekly outing. They had discovered several new species, including a group of Gunji Jackdaws , and a type of feline predator that shared a lot of its genetic make up with canines.
Sunlight filtered through the trees, creating small diamonds of light on the forest floor. Annika reached up her hand to move aside a branch, her small, intensely curious face peering forward at the group of birds feeding by the stream before her. The jackdaws were large flightless birds, twice as tall as Annika, and their wings were nothing more than rudimentary stumps. There were five adult birds in the flock and three chicks that ran about their legs hunting insects amongst the leaf litter. Occasionally, one of the adult birds lowered its head, picking up pieces of the fruit that had fallen from the trees that rose above them. The birds seemed nervous, and there were always at least three of the adults keeping a watch, their heads turning, searching the forest.
The birds had been by the softly babbling stream for the better part of an hour, eating the fruit and drinking the running water. The sandy bank was covered with three toed footprints. The jackdaws crossed the stream, all the while feeding. One of them picked up a fruit from the bank of the stream and swallowed it. Annika laughed as the large bulge went down the bird's throat.
She leaned forward for a better look at the birds and the branch she was leaning on bent under her weight. Instantly, all the adults looked up, peering in her direction, and the chicks stopped playing and scuttled back to the safety of the adults.
"Careful, Annika," said Magnus beside her. "Don't make any noise."
"I won't, papa," Annika said, looking up at her father. She moved back and gently let the branch go.
The gunji jackdaws became alarmed at the rustling sound of the branch being moved, and Magnus pulled his daughter back into the cover of the foliage. After a moment, the jackdaws lowered their heads and continued feeding. In the half-light, their ruffled feathers hid the outline of their bodies.
"See, Annika?" said Magnus. "It looks like they're covered in fur, but really, it's feathers."
"Messy birds!" giggled Annika, and some of the birds lifted their heads again.
Magnus smiled. "Very messy," he agreed. "But it helps them when they are in the forest."
Annika turned away from the flock. "How?" she asked.
"Well, it breaks up their outlines," Magnus explained.
Annika's face lit up. "Hard to see the shape!" she exclaimed.
The flock looked up towards their position at Annika's cry. Deciding that it was too risky to stay by the river, they started moving towards the forest.
"Keep quiet, Annika," said Magnus.
A movement in the foliage caught Magnus's eye. A Terbalen wildcat was hunting the flock, moving under the cover of the foliage. It had a solidly built but light body covered in a short coat of ochre fur. Across its back, a mottled pattern of dark strips broke up the outline of the animal. Magnus could see the heavily muscled hind legs moving the creature, and the claws on the arm-like front legs flexed with anticipation of the inevitable attack. The head mounted on a neck the length of Magnus's forearm was fearsome mix of wolf and mountain lion.
"Look, Annika," Magnus whispered. "In the bushes over there, do you see?"
Annika peered through the plants, then caught sight of the wildcat. "Is it going to attack the birds?" she asked quietly.
"Maybe," said Magnus. "Let's watch." He held up his tricorder to record the coming attack. He recognized this male; he and his mate had claimed this area of the forest. He wondered where the female wildcat was.
The wildcat moved softly behind the trees, and the ears mounted high on its head swivelled. The large pads on its hind legs masked any sound it made on the forest floor. It watched the flock of jackdaws carefully, moving towards a position where it would be able to attack the young birds, all the while watching its prey. An adult jackdaw would be a formidable opponent for a wildcat, and Magnus knew at once that it was going for a chick. The wildcats normally preyed on other animals, but a jackdaw chick was too enticing a meal for them to pass up. An easy snack.
Magnus turned to Annika, who was watching the scene unfold with wide eyes. "See how he's going for the babies?" he said quietly.
Annika nodded. "Uh huh," she said, all the while staring out into the clearing.
One of the jackdaws suddenly saw the wildcat and raised its head, letting out a warbling alarm call. The response was immediate. The other birds gathered around the infants, forming a protective barrier between them and the wildcat. Now that it had been spotted, the wildcat moved out into the open, pacing the length of the flock, baring its teeth, and hissing ferociously. The jackdaws hooted at the wildcat angrily, reaching out with their long necks to bite at the predator. The birds had sharp beaks, normally used to snip fruit from branches, but they also made good weapons. Magnus had seen a wildcat attacked in this way, and the wound across its face had become infected. The wildcat had later died from its injury.
"It's going to be harder for him to get dinner now," Magnus said, smiling.
With a sudden snarl, the female wildcat exploded from the bushes behind the jackdaws, attacking them from the rear. The jackdaws wheeled around to face the new threat, and in the confusion, the infants were vulnerable. The female lunged forward, ducking underneath the kicking legs and snapping at the adults. The male ran forward and grabbed one of the chicks, shaking it about to break its back. The chick squealed in alarm, tiny legs thrashing wildly in pain before hanging limp.
As the two predators moved away with their kill, the jackdaws began to settle down. The adults made soft cooing sounds to calm down the two surviving chicks, and they headed back into the forest where their plumage provided camouflage. The wildcats snarled over their kill on the bank opposite to the Hansens. When the male raised his head, Magnus could see his face was red.
"Come on, Annika," Magnus said. He wasn't worried that the sight of the baby jackdaw being torn apart would disturb his daughter. She had seen this side of nature before. But with the jackdaws in the thick foliage, they wouldn't be able to follow the flock. "Let's head home."
Magnus and Annika made the trip home in a leisurely hour, and by the time they had landed the shuttle in the clearing surrounding the shelter, the sun was sinking behind the low ridge of hills to the west. Erin was outside the shelter checking the insect traps that hung in the nearby trees. She and Magnus had decided that this was a better way to investigate the insects than the light traps they had used on their first night on the planet.
"Mummy!" called Annika, running towards her.
Erin picked her up. "Hi, sweetie!" she said happily. "My God, you are filthy!" She turned to Magnus. "Have a good day?"
"Yeah!" enthused Annika.
"We saw that same behaviour again," Magnus said. "Down by the stream."
"Oh, they weren't attacked again, were they?" sighed Erin. She closed the trap and hung it back on the tree.
"I'm afraid so," said Magnus as they went inside.
"How many is that now?" asked Erin.
"Mummy, I'm thirsty," said Annika. Erin put Annika on the floor and she went to the replicator and got a glass of orange juice.
"Ten attacks," said Magnus. "They've lost seven chicks from the nine born this season."
"If this keeps up, this year's hatchlings will be lost completely," said Erin.
"Can't they have more babies?" Annika asked, recycling her empty glass.
Erin smiled. Her daughter was very intelligent. "No, Annika. They only breed once a year. And not all of the eggs hatch."
"Why not?" asked Annika.
"Well, not all the eggs are laid in the nest, so they aren't all incubated," said Erin. "It's like the rhea on Earth."
Annika gave her mother a confused look. "That's silly!" she said.
"Yes it is," said Magnus. "But it's the way they do it."
The next day, Magnus and Erin decided to have a close look at one of the more predominant plants in the wooded areas of the planet. They had called it a knobby tree, for its huge white roots and trunk were covered in twisted growths, not to mention a great assortment of lichen and mosses. The outer layers of the plants had calcified after centuries of growth towards the sun and abuse by the parasites that sucked the life from the plants. The cavernous chambers underneath the roots were dark grottos filled with life, from tiny arachnids to centipedes and other creatures that had never before been encountered. They were curious to find out how the trees could find enough nutrition in the swamp to support their growth, for they routinely reached over three hundred meters high and their trunks were large enough to hold a shuttle.
Annika had grumbled about being made to go. She hated going anywhere on the planet except for the weekly trips she took with her father to study the jackdaws, but Erin would not have her stay at the shelter by herself. Thus, the three of them loaded the shuttle with supplies for a day and headed to a large grove of the knobby trees some fifteen kilometers from their camp.
They arrived at the grove midmorning, and the shuttle landed amongst the trees gently under Erin's practiced hand.
They stepped out into the forest with their tricorders drawn. Annika smelled her forearm where the insect repellent had been sprayed, the tricorder she had asked to use sitting uselessly in her pocket. Around them, the great stand of massive white knobby trees stood, reaching up towards the sky, surrounding them like a natural cathedral. The leathery reptilian birds flew, flitting amongst the trees in search of insects, offering the occasional screech of indignation at the Humans intruding into their world.
Erin and went to one of the trees, pressing her hand against the knobbly bark. "Magnus, look at this," she said. "The bark is much colder than I would have expected."
Magnus came over, holding out his tricorder. "The bark is the same as the other trees we found," he said. "Partially calcified. It closely resembles an inorganic material, and its molecular density is higher than I'd expect for an organic substance."
"Any idea what could be causing it?" asked Erin, looking at him thoughtfully.
"I'm reading a strange sort of insect under the bark," said Magnus. "The calcification seems to be most concentrated around them. They might be consuming the organic materials from the bark and replacing them with an inorganic compound."
From one of the other trees, Annika let out a sudden scream. Erin and Magnus ran over, and when they got to her, Annika's hand was covered in blood.
"What happened, Annika?" Magnus asked as Erin ran her tricorder over her hand.
Annika cried and Magnus hugged her close to him. "Shhh," he said. "You're going to be fine."
Erin looked up at him. "It's not too bad," she said. "The cut isn't very deep. I'll get the dermal regenerator from the shuttle."
As Erin headed for the shuttle, Magnus dried Annika's eyes. "What happened, muffin?" he asked.
Annika raised her uninjured hand and pointed towards the darkness between the roots of the knobby tree. "I reached in there and something hurt me," she said between sobs.
"It's okay now," Magnus said, holding her close again.
Erin returned with the dermal regenerator. "Annika, hold out your hand," she said. She ran the instrument over Annika's hand and gradually the bleeding stopped.
Magnus took out his tricorder and held it out towards the roots of the knobby tree. "Erin, look at this," he said.
"What is it?"
"There's something like a spider web spun between these roots," Magnus said.
"Did a spider bite me?" Annika asked.
Erin reached out towards the web slowly. "I can't see any spiders," she said, then suddenly withdrew her hand. The tip of her finger was bleeding. "Damn that's sharp," she said. "That's no spider web."
"You're right, Erin," said Magnus, looking at his tricorder. "It's some sort of micro-fine wire, and it's extremely strong."
"What could it be for though?" asked Erin. "This would have no chance of catching an animal."
Magnus looked thoughtful for a moment. "Maybe that's the point," he said. "If a creature blunders into this web, it could be killed. Whatever spins this web could get its food like that."
Annika started moaning. "I wanna go back," she said, and she crossed her arms grumpily.
Magnus looked down at her. "Sorry, honey, but we've got a lot of work to do."
"You can stay in the shuttle if you want to," said Erin.
Annika sighed. "Oh, alright," she said as if it was the most unreasonable thing in the world to have to stay in the shuttle.
Magnus picked her up and headed to the shuttle, but at that moment, a huge white creature, the same as they had seen on their first night, strode into the clearing, directly between them and the shuttle.
Annika screamed and jumped down from her father, running back towards Erin. The monstrous creature began uprooting the saplings that grew scattered throughout the clearing, and then turned its attention to the shuttle. It swiped out with one of its huge legs, the shuttle sliding over the ground, digging a furrow in the soil. The spider snarled at the shuttle's stubbornness.
Magnus quickly drew his phaser and fired at the creature. The beam hit it at its midpoint, and the creature turned to him and advanced. Magnus quickly readjusted his phaser and fired again. The beam blasted off a section of its body, and the spider slumped to the ground dead. A thick liquid flowed forth from the remains of its body.
"Magnus!" called Erin. "Are you alright?"
"I'm fine," he called back. "Is Annika okay?"
"Just shaken up," Erin said. "We should get her back home."
Magnus nodded. "Alright," he said, "but I'd like to see if we can take this thing back with us. We've never had the chance to study one this close before."
Erin looked at him. "Any suggestions on how we can do it?" she asked. "That thing must way over a ton."
"What about the grapples on the underside of the shuttle?" Magnus asked. "A type six shuttle should be able to handle it. We have some hypersteel cables on board. They should be able to support the creature's weight."
Erin thought for a moment. "Agreed," she said. "Let's get to it."
They had brought the creature back to the modular shelter, suspended underneath their shuttle. Erin had taken Annika to have a sonic shower, and after she was clean, they had sat down to dinner. After dinner, Annika had gone to bed, and Magnus and Erin went outside to the corpse of the creature to continue their research.
"I'm getting signs that its skin has begun calcification," said Erin, holding her tricorder to the remains of the giant creature's body.
"Those same insects?" asked Magnus, looking up from his investigation of the legs and mouthparts on the underside of the creature.
"It looks like it," said Erin. "But why would they be feeding on this the same way they were feeding on the trees?"
"I'm not sure," said Magnus. "I'd like to dissect it, have a look at its internal arrangement. Can you bring me a phaser?"
Erin reached over and handed her husband a phaser. Magnus adjusted the settings, stepped back a few meters, aimed, and fired. The bright orange beam cut through the body of the creature, slicing the back of the abdomen away from the rest of the corpse. It came away with a gush of thick yellow liquid that spread out over the ground and gave off an offensive smell, distinctly like rotting vomit. There were small tubules in the liquid that moved spasmodically, like rather large maggots. Erin stepped forward, fighting the nausea, and held out her tricorder. She looked at the readings and her face twisted in confusion.
"What is it?" asked Magnus.
"Look at this," said Erin. "This DNA scan is completely wrong."
Magnus looked at her tricorder. "You think it might be a problem with your tricorder?" he asked.
"Might be," said Erin. "Try yours."
Magnus unclipped the tricorder from his hip and opened it. "I'm getting the same readings." He looked up at Erin. "The creatures have the same DNA as the knobby trees."
Erin looked at him. "Could it be possible?"
Magnus looked up at her. "I suppose. They may be able to mix the best about plant and animal life together. Setting root, but also being able to move about and catch prey like an animal. After all, the soil is very low in nutrients. It would be very hard for an adult knobby tree to provide the creatures with enough food to last them until they found a suitable location to put down roots."
"No pun intended?" asked Erin with a smile.
Magnus returned the smile. "No, of course not," he said. "But the spiders may be able to take an active part in providing sustenance for themselves while they grow. And, the larger they get, the more easily they will be able to reach adulthood."
Erin nodded. "They'd be able to establish a foothold and get a head start at growth."
"That could be what this one was doing," said Magnus.
"What do you mean?" asked Erin.
"Do you remember what it was doing when it came out into the clearing?" asked Magnus.
"It attacked the shuttle," said Erin.
"Before that," said Magnus. "It was pulling up other trees."
"Removing the competition," said Erin, realising.
Magnus smiled. "Exactly," he said. "It seems to be a very successful strategy for these trees, and it explains how they can be so prolific in this ecosystem."
A week later, on a day that dawned bright and clear, and after a light breakfast, Magnus and Annika took the shuttle and set out after the jackdaws. They landed near where they had on their previous excursion to the Jackdaw's territory. As the rear wall of the shuttle folded down, Magnus held up his tricorder, scanning for the tracking implants he had placed on the wing of the male bird. He held the tricorder so Annika could see the display.
"See this, Annika?" he said. "It means that the male bird is back near the stream."
"Where they were last week?" asked Annika.
"Near there," Magnus said, "but a little way downstream from there."
The way to the stream was more difficult than the previous week's journey. Magnus had to help Annika over a large rocky outcropping, and several times they slid on the moist leaves that carpeted the forest floor. As they approached the stream, the understorey of the forest thinned out, providing them with easier travelling. They waited by the stream patiently for the jackdaws to appear. Magnus's tricorder indicated the birds were in the area, and that they were headed towards them. He was anxious though; the two wildcats were also nearby, and chances were they were hoping to take another chick.
The foliage across the river from them rustled, and Annika looked up from the twig she was absently playing with. The flock of jackdaws came out from the trees. The bank of the stream here was not as wide as it was upstream where they had been the last time they had seen them, and there were numerous rocks in the river. The pair of infants ran into the water and started splashing, but they were careful to remain close to the adults.
Magnus pointed out one of the adult birds to Annika. "See that one with the darker feathers on his head, Annika?"
Annika followed her father's finger. "Uh huh "
"Well, he's the only adult male," said Magnus. "He mates with all the adult females in the flock, and he is also the only one who incubates the eggs."
Annika looked away from the birds and gave him a confused look. "I thought the girls did that."
"Actually," said Magnus, "in most bird species, both sexes share that responsibility, but in birds like the jackdaws, such as the ostrich and the eel-bird, the males do the incubation of the eggs."
Annika looked confused. "What's an eel-bird?" she asked.
"A bird that lives on Regulus V," said Magnus. "They're called that because they have a very long neck that looks like an eel, and every eleven years, they have to go back to the caves they hatched in. But the weird thing is, in most of the birds that look like the jackdaws, it is the male who incubates the eggs."
There was a movement in the bushes on the other side of the stream. Annika spotted it immediately. "Daddy, look! A wildcat!"
Magnus picked up his tricorder and pointed it at the wildcat. "That's the female," he said. "And the male is here as well. It looks like they're trying the same trick we saw last time."
"Are the jackdaws going to be tricked again, daddy?" Annika asked.
"I'm not sure, Annika," Magnus said. "I hope not."
"Me too," said Annika. She stood up, peering through the dense foliage.
Magnus put a hand on her shoulder. "Annika, keep down."
One of the adult jackdaws suddenly let out the warbling alarm call. The response from the other adults was immediate. They formed a protective barrier, but in the intervening week, they had refined their technique. Instead of a simple wall between the chicks and the predators, they formed a ring around the chicks, protecting them from any angle an attack might come from.
Confused at this, and unable to see a way to make a successful attack, the two wildcats emerged from the bushes. They circled the flock, snarling and gnashing their teeth ferociously, but the jackdaws stood their ground. They hooted angrily at the wildcats, and occasionally kicked out with their sharp claws. One of the wildcats got a little too close, and a jackdaw lashed out with its sharp beak, catching it across the face. The wildcat shrieked in pain and quickly backed away, blood pouring from its eye. With a final, indignified roar, the two wildcats turned and bounded off into the forest.
"They did it!" Annika cheered.
"Annika, keep your voice down," Magnus said.
The jackdaws looked up towards Magnus and Annika. Already uneasy from the attack, they began to head towards the forest. They disappeared into the thick undergrowth, moving away from the Hansens and the wildcats.
"Remember to keep your voice down, Annika," Magnus said.
"Sorry, papa," Annika said. "Are we going to follow them?"
"The forest is too dense," Magnus said. "We'd lose them in no time."
Magnus's combadge chirped, and he tapped it. "Yes, Erin?" he asked.
"You'd better get back home." Her voice sounded tinny over the comline.
"Why?" asked Magnus. "What is it?"
"We have a visitor."
"Okay, Erin, we're headed back," Magnus said. He stood and started heading back to the shuttle. Annika fell in beside him. "Who is it?"
"The Melbourne has arrived in orbit, and an Admiral Jameson has beamed down," said Erin.
"Is that Admiral Mark Jameson, from Mordan IV ?" asked Magnus.
"That's right, Magnus," said Erin. "You'd better hurry. Erin out."
Annika looked up at her father. "What's going on, papa?" she asked.
Magnus looked back down at her. "I don't know," he said.
"Dr. Magnus Hansen? I'm Admiral Mark Jameson."
Admiral Jameson rose to greet Magnus as he and Annika entered the hut. Jameson was in his early seventies, hair turned grey by age, but he still had a trim body. Jameson was a man who was proud of his good health .
"Pleased to meet you, sir," Magnus said. "This is our daughter Annika."
Jameson looked down at the little girl and smiled. "Pleased to meet you, Annika," he said.
Annika looked nervous.
"What's this about, Admiral?" Erin asked.
"The Council doesn't want to stop our research, do they?" Magnus looked worried.
"The Federation Council on Exobiology is very impressed with your work," said Jameson. "But they've ordered you to return to Earth. They have another assignment for you."
"What?!" Erin was incredulous.
"What about the work we're doing here?" said Magnus.
"The Council and Starfleet are in agreement on this," said Jameson. "You are to return to Earth."
"We can't leave now!" said Magnus. "We're just beginning to make rapid progress. What we find here could have all sorts of benefits to the Federation."
"I'm sorry about this, doctors," said Jameson, "but something very important has occurred, and we feel that your skills are needed for our particular problem."
"And exactly what is this particular problem?" asked Erin.
Jameson sighed. "I'm afraid I can't talk about it just yet. However, the Council needs exobiologists, the best possible. And that's you."
"I'm sorry, Admiral," Erin said. "We're very busy here. The research we are doing here is too important to just give it up. We have already found plants that may provide medicines to cure the worst diseases that afflict us. And we are confident that we are going to find more in the next few weeks."
"Admiral," said Magnus, "we're on the verge of one of the greatest discoveries of our time. If we leave now, more than a month of research will be lost."
Jameson sighed again. "I'm very sorry, really," he said. "But the Council has ordered that both of you return to Earth."
Erin was incredulous. "Admiral, we can't!"
"Sir," began Magnus, "our research here-"
"Your research here is over," Jameson told them. "The decision has been made. You've got until tomorrow to get ready to leave. We'll beam you aboard the Melbourne at midday tomorrow, local time."
Admiral Jameson was waiting for them in the transporter room when the Hansens beamed up to the Melbourne the next day. The equipment from the shelter on the planet had been beamed aboard earlier that morning, and their personal belongings had been transported to the quarters assigned to them for the week-long voyage back to Earth.
"Welcome aboard the Melbourne," Jameson said, stepping up towards the transporter platform after the cycle had completed. "I'll show you to your quarters."
"When will we be briefed on our new assignment?" asked Magnus as they headed out into the corridor.
"The situation will be fully explained to you when we arrive at Earth," Jameson told them.
"Can't you tell us anything now?" Erin asked as they stepped into a turbolift.
"Deck four," said Jameson. "Due to the sensitive nature of the information, the briefing will be conducted at a secure location."
A rehearsed answer if ever I heard one, thought Magnus.
"We're on a starship!" exclaimed Erin. "How much more secure can we be?"
"I'm sorry," repeated Jameson. "We'll be leaving orbit soon." The turbolift hummed to a stop and the doors hissed open. "I'm going to have to ask you not to talk of your assignment to anyone until we get to Earth."
"How can we talk?" Erin said disdainfully. "We don't even know what it is we're not supposed to be talking about."
"I know it must be confusing," said Jameson, holding up his hands as though to calm her, "but please bear with me."
The computer chirped and a voice came over the comline. "Admiral Jameson," said the voice of what sounded like a young officer, "you have a message coming in from Starfleet Headquarters."
"I'll take it in my quarters in a few minutes, thank you, Mr. Sloan," said Jameson.
Jameson turned back to the Hansens. "We should arrive at Earth in eight days. You'll be fully briefed when we arrive at Starfleet Headquarters."
"Can't you tell us anything before then?" asked Magnus.
Jameson gave him a determined look. "No," he said simply, and walked off down the corridor.