Two roiling suns scorched the desert landscape as the gaunt man stumbled toward the bivouac site. Commodore Tina Morales wiped the sweat off her brow and took another glimpse through her binos. More bone than man, the colonist seemed almost feral. His shredded and grimy olive drab coveralls hung from his skeletal frame like a parachute.
The commodore had planned to send an expedition out to New Roanoke within forty-eight hours. She’d wanted to go sooner, but her command team had needed time to analyze the probes’ data.
Keying the comms device secured around her right ear, she said, “Reaper Six, this is Falcon Six, SITREP. Over.”
“Falcon Six. Reaper Six. Wait one,” Colonel Carlson replied.
She rolled her eyes. Space marines. Any chance they had to assert their authority over a fleet officer, they took it. Still, she was the highest-ranking officer on the expedition. Her only crime was she wasn’t a space marine, but she played along, because she needed them more than they needed her. “Reaper Six. Standing By.”
“Falcon Six. Identified male survivor at five-point-zero klicks and closing. Permission to engage with lethal force?”
Carlson had always been trigger happy, but this request was absurd. She was convinced he was the wrong man for this mission. She needed a ground commander who saw the world in shades of gray, not through a black and white prism.
She keyed her comms device. “Negative. Stand down. Acknowledge.”
“Negative. Contact could be infected. Over.”
An alien pathogen was a logical hypothesis. Over the last fifty years, something had reduced the colony’s population from the two hundred and fifty souls on the original colony ship’s manifest to fewer than ten.
What Morales found even more intriguing were the thousands of heat signatures remote probes had detected beyond the eastern mountains, but remote DNA spectral analysis had determined there was no human genetic material there, so Admiral Chu had limited operations to within fifty klicks of New Roanoke.
The intel was a one-time deal. The United Earth Ship Eldridge would be moving on toward the nearest star in twenty-four hours. After that, the expedition would be on its own and Morales would be in charge.
“Reaper Six. Engage with stun weapons only. Acknowledge.”
A long pause followed. “Acknowledged.”
“Reaper Six. Give me a SITREP in fifteen minutes. Out.”
Two six-wheeled mobiles carrying a space marine platoon streamed past. The marines seemed frisky this morning, almost too frisky. They’d never operated in a one-point-one gee environment before, and she worried their bodies might break before their enthusiasm did.
Morales surveyed the horizon. She still couldn’t get over seeing two suns in Alpha Centauri Prime’s sky, and knowing that somewhere out there laid the answer to the great mystery that had spurred her parents to leave Earth in an interstellar generation ship forty-four years earlier. Three quarters of the crew had been born in space, and this was the first time most of them, including her, had ever set foot on a terrestrial surface.