“They’re intelligent.” Josh Thompson leaned forward, both hands on the console. His legs were trembling. This changed the scope of the mission entirely. In four decades of interstellar travel, humans had only discovered two alien species that were considered potentially intelligent.
Sergeant Aboud raised one of her precisely sculpted eyebrows. “Are you sure? This one doesn’t look too bright to me.” She was watching a security camera feed from the storeroom, where one of the aliens had gotten itself trapped during the attack. It slashed furiously at the wall with its talons, leaving long scratches in the aluminum but making little progress in piercing the material. It could have conceivably scraped open a hole if it concentrated its efforts in one spot, but instead it bounded back and forth from one wall to another in what appeared to be blind panic. Josh could see why the now-deceased crew of the planetary research station had nicknamed the hairless, dog-sized aliens “hoppers.” They hopped like kangaroos. Josh hadn’t been watching a live feed, however. He was playing video of the attack itself. The aliens had used stolen key cards to move through the facility. In the feed from the motor pool camera, two of the creatures clearly observed one of the mechanics use his key card to flee. Then they’d retrieved the other mechanic’s card from her dead body and used it to open the door. The first mechanic hadn’t even made it to the end of the hall. “They’re using tools, and not in a primitive way,” Josh said. “They even blocked open the airlock. Why would they do that if they weren’t trying to make the interior atmosphere hospitable?”
“Maybe they just didn’t want to get trapped in a box.”
“Look at their tactical coordination. They split into teams to herd and isolate individual scientists.”
Aboud shrugged. “Some pack predators on Earth do that.”
“Not like this. The aliens are communicating, coordinating. I’m not sure how. I don’t hear any vocalizations on the video.”
“Maybe ultrasonic or subsonic. I’ll run an analysis. But I still don’t think they’re intelligent, Doc.” Aboud had a habit of calling anyone from the science division “doc.” Most of them did have doctorates, of course, but it still annoyed Josh. He was certain she meant it to be condescending.
Josh returned his attention to the playback just in time to see three of the aliens eviscerate one of the scientists–Doctor Xu, if he remembered the briefing notes correctly. Josh shut his eyes. He was feeling queasy, and it wouldn’t do his rep any good to puke in front of Aboud.
“We’ll know more when we observe them in their natural environment,” Aboud said. “According to the station biologist’s notes, their colony is four klicks southwest of here.”
Of course, the station biologist had also said the hoppers were docile.
Once they’d finished their analysis of the video, Josh followed Aboud down the main hallway where Sylvia Richards, their medical doctor, was bundling one of the dead scientist’s bodies into a black bag with the help of Scott “Perky” Perkins, one of Aboud’s security officers. Purging and restoring the station atmosphere had considerably reduced the stench of rot that greeted them upon arrival, but it was still bad enough here to make Josh’s stomach roil again. Sylvia, however, was whistling something cheerful. It was an odd thing to be doing considering the task at hand, but her quirkiness and constant optimism were a big part of why Josh liked her so much. That and her dimples.
“We’re going to recon the alien colony,” Aboud said.
“Give me a minute to get my gear,” Sylvia replied.
“No, you keep working, Dr. Richards. But prioritize an autopsy of the dead alien, the one the chef managed to kill. I want to know what I’m dealing with. Perky, stay and assist her. And make sure nothing gets into the station before we return.”
“On it, Sarge,” Perky replied.
“Take a close look at the brain structure,” Josh suggested. “I think there’s a chance this is an intelligent species.”
Sylvia’s eyes widened and she drew in a sharp breath, indicating she understood the magnitude of that possibility.
“They’re not intelligent,” Aboud snapped. “Thompson is just having dreams of glory.”
Josh felt heat rising in his neck and cheeks. He turned toward Aboud so Sylvia wouldn’t see him blush. Aboud stepped close and said, “Your job here is to help me understand the aliens’ behavior so what happened to the crew of this station doesn’t happen to us. Don’t get distracted.” She spun away before he could respond.
Josh glanced back at Sylvia. She gave a little shrug accompanied by the crooked smile that made him slightly dizzy. “Um… stay safe,” he said.
“Um, I’m not the one going into the field.” She winked at him. Josh tried to smile, but feared it came off more as a wince. Despite all his training in behavior, he still hadn’t learned how to avoid saying stupid things when talking to pretty women.
“Thompson!” Aboud shouted, halfway down the hall already. “Let’s go. Only four hours until sunset.”
They met up with security officers Lopez and Lopes, or “Z” and “S” as they were called to prevent confusion. Josh didn’t know why they didn’t just go by their first names–Al and Miguel–but it seemed there was nothing soldiers liked better than nicknames.
They went on foot as there was only a single two-man buggy at the station, but the trek was easy. Trappist-1d’s atmospheric pressure, composition, and temperature were similar enough to Earth’s that only oxygen masks were required. A human could even survive several hours without one, though there would be long-term health consequences to that. Gravity was noticeably less than on Earth, which made all their gear feel light. The surface of the planet was about 60% ocean, and of the single, large landmass, 90% was flat plains. Trappist-1d had ceased being geologically active millennia ago.
Almost the entire surface of the plains was covered in a blanket of three-foot-high yellow grass with wheat-like heads and clusters of small, black berries at the base of the stubby leaves that protruded from the stems. It was easy to move through, though the grass left a dusting of yellow particles on their jump suits–pollen, most likely, though Josh had been trained not to assume alien life functioned the same way as life on Earth.
The walk might even have been pleasant if Josh wasn’t so acutely aware that the hoppers were short enough to hide beneath the undulating surface of the grass. After what happened to the station crew, Josh felt a sharp jolt of adrenalin every time the breeze riffled the stalks nearby.