The team sat around and listened as Anderson outlined the mission and the relevant cultural information.
“Demeter is primarily agrarian. Their technological development is similar to where Earth was one hundred years ago. There planetary government is along similar development to Earth's at that time, very factious and with many nations preferring isolation to globalization.
“They are not wholly a member of the Federation yet; however, they have been under our protection for the last fifty years. We have a small outpost there as well as an administrator to advise their International Union. Despite the fact that for several centuries they've been targeted by more advanced planets who have plundered them for their resources and decimated their population, they've not shown any interest in space exploration. After an attack half a century ago, more than two hundred people were kidnapped to be sold as slaves. We later rescued them and they sought salvation within the Federation. Some asked to be returned to Demeter and that was when we opened a dialogue with the International Union and asked to place an outpost on the planet.
“Not all of the nations were happy about this. One of the nations that pulled out of the Union because of its acceptance of the Federation was Gantese.
“Unfortunately, it seems that our outpost and the planet’s vast agrarian resources have now drawn the attention of planet Spectra. We believe Spectra is working with Gantese to undermine the IU and slowly conquer its nations. Our outpost in the country that hosts the IU, Palporta, has recently reported possible Spectran activity within Palporta.”
“You want us to go and investigate this, Chief?” Mark asked anxiously.
“But, Chief, if no attacks have been made, is this really a job for us?” Princess asked.
“Yes, we've been asked by the IU which voted unanimously to invite you, but also by personal request of the leader of Palporta.
“You will leave the Phoenix at the Federation outpost, be given more specific mission and cultural information from a Galaxy Security operative at the outpost, and then blend into the society and keep watch. It is our hope that the arrival of the Phoenix will squash any plans for attacks. While you are there, the Security Council will assess the gathered intelligence and determine whether to approach the IU for a larger security presence or to appear to withdraw completely.
The team saluted and headed towards the Phoenix hanger bay.
“Jason, will you hold back for a minute?” the Chief requested.
“What?” A variety of voices cried.
“Why?” Jason asked, his voice containing a tenuous hold on his anger.
“Chief, you're not planning on leaving him behind?” Mark asked, but his voice held a bit of a challenge. He knew why the Choef wanted to speak to Jason, but that reason was also why they needed him on the mission.
“No, but I do need to speak with him privately before you leave, if that is all right with the both of you?”
Jason stood against the wall, one leg over the other and his arms crossed on his chest as the others walked out at the Chief's order.
“Have a seat, please,” the Chief suggested.
“I'd rather stand.”
Anderson sat behind his desk and took his glasses off to clean them. No matter what he tried, he and Jason always seemed to be at odds and this was not the best conversation to have when G-Force's stubborn second was already on the defensive.
“You will need to be extra careful on this mission.” Anderson did his best to keep the statement from sounding like an order, but it still came out that way. Jason stared at him, his face showing a mixture of curiosity and defiance, but he said nothing. “Demeterns are humanoid and have chromosomes nearly identical to those from Earth. The difference is on the genomic level of one of the reproductive chromosomes and a few others.”
“I know that. You told me all about it when I was sixteen.” Jason snapped, resistance in his tone.
“You are part Demetern. Your grandfather was the planet’s first ambassador to the Federation and chose to stay on Earth when factions within Demeter and the Federation protested Demeter becoming a full member-planet.”
“I still don't. . .” Jason started, but the Chief cut him off.
“Remember, Demeter is a polygynous civilization, since 75% of the population is female. After puberty, the male will go through several phases to find his mates. If you are not careful, you may find yourself Imprinting upon several women. That will lead to Enthrallment and that leads to their version of marriage.” He looked up to see Jason looking perturbed. “Are you ready to come home with a harem? Just be careful, focus on the mission, and stay away from pretty faces.”
Jason took that as a dismissal and left to join the team without another word to the Chief.888
Diary of Keeri Donigel
‘I love to watch the blue foxes with their kits. They are so loving and gentle. It doesn’t matter if one is gnawing on her tail while another is gnawing at her ear; the mother lies there with the most contented look on her face.
'The male has returned with a rabbit in its mouth. He drops it before his mate. As she rises, shaking off their chewing children, the mated pair rubs muzzles and yip at each other in greeting. The kits dig into their meal with little grumbles and growls and yips of their own.
'This is the only species of foxes on Demeter I’ve studied that feed their young before themselves. The adults will eat what’s left and if it wasn’t enough, the male will go hunting again.’
Keeri looked up from her notebook, pushing a strand of brown hair that had escaped her ponytail behind her ear. Her blind stand gave her an excellent view of the den. She closed the notebook and rose slowly, making no sound as she moved to her camera stand and snapped a few last shots for the day.
She was starting to feel hungry herself. She didn’t want her own stomach to start growling. She’d made that mistake the first time she’d gone into the field to start her research for her doctorate in biology. She looked at her watch and wasn’t surprised to find it was late afternoon. It was so easy to lose track of time when she was watching her subjects. She gathered her things and returned them to her camouflage backpack and grabbed the last remaining water bottles. She took a few swigs before returning it to its pocket, making sure the empties were stored inside. She needed to get back to the cabin.
The cabin had been a gift from her father when he realized his eldest daughters, Keeri and Jessi, were different. Neither had shown the usual interest in finding a mate when they finished high school. In fact, each had been more interested in having a career than a husband. While their friends Imprinted and later became Enthralled, Keeri had gotten an undergraduate and then graduate degree in biology and Jessi had joined the Fire Department.
Keeri picked up the backpack and slung it over her shoulders, fastening the belt around her waist. She had a two mile trek back to her truck. She wanted to make sure she was back to the cabin before Jessi arrived.888
“Problem, Donigel?” the man sitting next to Jessi asked.
Jessi opened her eyes and looked around the room. Most of her collegues were sitting or leaning as comfortably as possible in stiff, upright chairs with their eyes closed as the department's counselor droned on. In fact the only ones sitting at attention were the women trying to beat a man out for the upcoming promotion review or those who had never seen a barbecued body. Jessi didn't qualify for either. She had seen a few barbecued and even a couple of deep-fried bodies in her two years as firefighter, and she still had to finish one more class before she could test for the next promotion level. Unfortunately, when that promotion became available, it would likely go to a man instead of her.
“Which one you want, Cap? The double standard or the fact that my vacation should have started three hours ago?” Jessi answered.
“Is your sister as career oriented as you are?” Captain Brandt asked, not paying much attention to the counselor, either.
“Worse,” Jessi answered. “And likely to kill me on sight when I show up at the cabin.”“No wonder no one's Imprinted on either of you,” Brandt stated. “What did you do this time?”
“I didn't get the shopping done like I was supposed to since you insisted that I sit through procedural counseling because some idiot tried to blow up the fertilizer plant this morning before shift change and cooked himself in the process,” Jessi explained. “She's likely been up on the mountain all day sketching and taking pictures and hasn't eaten and I'll get the blame for her not having food.”
“Well, if she kills you, no one will be able to tell Cletus how to do his job. So take some of the protein and vitamin bars out of the storage cupboard. They need to get used anyway.” Brandt paused. “Why is it that Cletus will listen to you and not try to Imprint on you like he does all the other women in the station?”
“Probably because none of the others have ever threatened him with castration. Stupid thing is, when it's time for us to face the promotion board, he'll get it while I have to wait.”
Finally, the counselor finished. Jessi wasted no time in changing into a pair of jeans and a tee shirt. She grabbed a large box full of meal bars and a few jugs of water like the captain told her, jumped into her beat up jeep and headed towards the cabin in the mountains.
Keeri was going to be upset that she was late and didn't get the shopping done. However the meal bars would work much better on the boat or the trail than sandwiches would anyway.888
Jason watched the six men leave the building and head for a black SUV parked in front of it. He glanced at his watch. It was just past one in the morning.
He’d never thought much about his Demetern grandfather: his father hadn’t known him and his grandmother had rarely spoken of him. He’d heard of his father’s promiscuity from his mother, even though he hadn’t known what promiscuity meant back when he was six. That promiscuity had led to his parent’s divorce when he was three. If he believed his mother, he had some half siblings running around, but she’d had no proof. His parents had died in an auto accident when meeting for an attempted reconciliation when he was seven and his grandmother had died only months later.
It wasn’t until the Chief sat him down at sixteen and informed him of the unique nature of Demeter and its population that he’d become concerned. He couldn’t comprehend the idea of having multiple wives and the more he’d thought about it, the more nervous the idea had made him. His father had obviously had trouble being with just one woman. Did he, too? Was that why he found it hard to only date one woman at a time?
The feeling of uncertainty had become worse with time and when the Chief informed them of the mission, he’d become terrified of the idea of stepping foot on Demeter. What if being in close proximity with his grandfather’s people brought out his Demetern biology?
To his relief, he’d instantly become comfortably with the natives and talking to women hadn’t turned him into a raving sex maniac. So far, none of the women had struck his fancy any more than any of the women he knew on Earth and he hadn’t felt as if he’d Imprinted on any of them, even though he really wasn’t sure what Imprinting might feel like.
He had found he could pick non-Demeterns out of a crowd just by focusing on them. He’d found his first Spectrans that way and started following them around serendipitously. As soon as he’d determined what vehicles they were using, he’d put tracers on them.
The men got into the SUV and drove away. Jason waited until they were out of sight and activated the tracking capability of his bracelet to follow them.
It became apparently a short time later they were heading out of Donotrep. Jason debated contacting Mark to tell him but decided to wait until he knew more. For all he knew, they were seeking someplace that sold Spectran Ale under the table.
They left the city, passed farmland and came to the edge of the mountains over the next two hours. From what Jason could remember of the topographical maps they studied, the mountains were small, all under three thousand feet but they were heavily wooded. There were no settlements but several camp grounds and individual cabins scattered all over, with one or two logging camps thrown in.
The city hadn’t been that different from a mid-sized Earth city and he hadn’t found any sign of a Spectran base, so following the Spectrans in the SUV was his only lead. The last time he’d checked in with Mark, he’d learned no one else had had any luck, either.
Jason couldn’t see much in the dark beyond his headlights. It was so cloudy there was no ambient light from the stars or moon, but he knew the countryside was breathtaking during the day. He could have sworn the tall grass he had seen swaying in the breeze was infused with neon greens, oranges and yellows that practically glowed in the sunlight.
The four lane road he’d been driving narrowed down to two lanes as he started up the first mountain. All he could see was trees.
Eventually, the Spectrans stopped. Jason was five minutes behind them and slowed when the tracker indicated they had turned onto a one lane gravel road that was about a mile long. He drove off the road there, making his own in order to hide his SUV behind some trees. Using the signal he was getting from the tracker in his bracelet, he followed the signal.
He trekked into the woods, being as quiet as he could. If they were, in fact, going to the base, the perimeter was more than likely guarded by men, dogs or electronics.
He debated transmuting but the Chief had asked they only give away their true identities if absolutely necessary. It wasn’t necessary yet.
Jason looked for signs of a patrol: broken twigs, flattened grass, footprints. He didn’t see those but did see some squirrels and rabbits.
When he was within one hundred yards of the signal, he hunkered down. He was seeing no sign of an active base.
As the night sky began to lighten with dawn’s approach, Jason noticed it was getting warmer. Demetern late summer in this area was similar to the that in the northern American continent: hot days but pleasant nights. Nonetheless, he found himself sweating from the trek and wished he’d brought some water with him. That thought made him chuckle silently. Mark would have a fit if he knew. ‘You followed goons to their base and you were worried you’d forgot to bring a bottle of water?’
He moved in another fifty yards as the sky lightened further. He wasn’t due to check in for another few hours. He wouldn’t bother Mark unless he really had found the base.
Another twenty yards in and his enhanced hearing picked up voices. Low and behold, they were speaking Spectran. Jason smiled.
Ten more yards and he could see three men standing outside a small building Jason thought might be a ranger station. They were smoking: Spectrans loved tobacco. The men were in casual clothes versus the typical green uniform. None of them were the Spectrans he had been following.
Jason knew from experience Spectra used small innocuous buildings as personnel entrances to their underground bases.
He listened as he crept closer. The men were discussing the need for Spectran females to provide for ‘the release of tension’ as there was no way they were going to risk bedding a Demetern female to have one of the witches take over their minds and make them a slave.
Jason shook his head with disgust. Typical Spectran, to demoralize another way of life, yet if that belief was fostered through the ranks, the Demetern women would more than likely be safe from rape.
The men finished their smokes and returned to the building. Jason moved in the rest of the way and crouched behind a bush below one of the windows. He ought to just transmute and bust in to scare the shit out of them before having target practice, but Mark would be pissed if they got an SOS out that G-Force was in the area. They might move the base.
Jason heard a twig crack behind him and reached for his cable gun, twisting around in a fluid motion only to find the barrel of an automatic rifle inches from his face.
“Well, well, well. What do we have here?” the man holding the rifle asked, smirking. Jason took his hand away from his hidden weapon and slowly stood, raising his hands up to his chest, palms out, angry with himself for not spotting the Spectran first.
“Hey, Vance,” the Spectran yelled, “we got ourselves a pussy whipped local spying on us.”
“Hardly.” Jason roundhouse kicked the rifle away and knife handed the Spectran in the throat. The trooper clutched at his throat as his eyes bulged. He would be dead in a moment, so Jason wasted no further time on him.
Since they had no idea who Jason was and it would take his buddies a moment to come investigate, Jason could get away and call in the rest of the team.
He’d taken only a few steps when a shout rang out farther behind him. The one he had killed apparently hadn’t been the only one out for a stroll. He spied three men appearing from nowhere to his left, all armed and making for him.
Jason ran and found himself ducking splintered bark and wood as they shot at him. He zigzagged, drawing his own weapon. It was one thing to act his cover, another to allow that to get him killed, but he would only return fire if left with no other choice.
Between his exodus and his pursuers, the noise level was driving every animal and bird away with noise of their own. It took a moment for the sound of fast moving water to register.
Jason found himself at a roaring river and cut to his left, running alongside it, looking for someplace to cross. It was wide, filled with boulders and it churning violently. It was the kind of river only the most experiences kayaker or rafter would ever attempt. Swimming across it was out of the question.
Unfortunately, having to turn was making it easier for his adversaries to get closer. He should have headed back for the SUV.
The sound of the water changed and Jason skidded to a stop as he suddenly came to a precipice over a waterfall. He slid, pebbles tumbling over the edge to fall the one hundred feet below. The roar was deafening and the water cascading over the edge hit the rocks below with thunder and spray.Jason cursed and turned again, but not fast enough. Something scraped his right side under his ribcage, bringing a burning pain with it. He’d run out of time.
Jason raised his left arm and began the arc to activate transmutation.
His bracelet shattered and the screeching pain that filled every inch of his skull was unbearable. Consciousness fled as his body collapsed in on itself, toppling over the edge to the chasm below.888
Keeri laughed at the glare Jessi was giving her as they trudged down the path from the SUV to the river, carrying the raft over their heads, Ajani, their large mixed brown dog, loping along in front of them.
“You’re the one who likes to fish and we wouldn’t have to do this if you’d brought the food,” Keeri reminded her. Jessi’s glare narrowed.
“Again, not my fault, ” she countered, “but not at the butt crack of dawn. Being forced to get up while it’s still dark when you’re on vacation is grounds for justifiable homicide.”
“Oh, come on.” Keeri put on her older sister look as she glanced over her shoulder again. The sound of rushing water was getting louder, so she had to raise her voice. “The salmon are spawning, so it won’t take us long to catch enough for a few days.”
“They spawn all day. We could have done this after lunch.”
“And fight the grizzlies for them?” Keeri shook her head, her ponytail bobbing with the movement. “We’d more likely end up as their lunch.”
Jessi grumbled under her breath and rolled her shoulders one at a time. She loved to fish, but on her own terms.
Kerri stopped at the end of the trail as Ajani barked and took off at a run down the bank. She shifted her hold on the raft as Jessi came up alongside her so they both could see the rapids. “Right or left?”
“Does it matter?” Jessi asked.
“Left then.” Keeri turned and followed the river bank. Above them, towards the waterfall several hundred yards upstream, was a series of boulder filled rapids with pools in between where the salmon rested between their drive to return to the place of their births to spawn. They were headed for one such pool where they could easily launch the raft.
They carefully made their way over the muddy sand and rocks. A doe was drinking at the first pool and once he spotted her, Ajani was off.
“Ajani, get back here!” Jessi called. She didn’t want to have to chase him, although he was good at following them along the bank.
Ajani started to bark.
“Crap. You don’t think he cornered that doe, do you?” Keeri asked.
Jessi shrugged. “There’s only one way to find out.”
They carefully lowered the raft to the sand and trotted off after their dog. The barking continued until the dog spotted them from his position behind a large downed log that was half in and half out of the next pool. He ran to them, circled and then ran back over to the log.
The sisters looked at each other and rounded the pool to see what he’d found.
“What the…?” Keeri said as she squinted at the dark lump lying in the sand beside the log.
Jessi didn’t say anything but jogged over to Ajani. “Keeri, get over here!” she shouted as she dropped to her knees and leaned over the form. Keeri heard the alarm in her voice and quickly joined her.
Lying in the sand beside the log was a soaking wet man.
“We’ve got to get him out of the water,” Jessi instructed and Keeri nodded. This was Jessi’s area of expertise so she would do whatever her younger sister told her. Before moving him, Jessi quickly checked his neck, back, and shoulders to make sure that moving him would not do irreparable damage. If those areas had been injured, they’d have to find a make-shift backboard before moving him. “I’ll steady his head. You grab his legs.”
Jessi leaned down and slid her hands and arms under the man’s back. She held the man carefully under his shoulder blades, barely supporting his neck with her forearms while Keeri held his legs. The two girls carried him off of the rocky shore and onto the grassy river bank.
“Keeri, get the emergency supplies out of the raft and anything from our own packs, too,” Jessi said as she did a more in-depth assessment of the stranger’s injuries.
“Well?” Keeri asked when she got back. “How is he? What happened to him? I wonder who he is?”
Jessi ignored her older sister’s questions. She was used to them, and used to working on victims with people around wanting more information than she could give, though usually it was more along the lines of “will he be all right?” or “you can save him, can’t you?” She wasn’t sure who started it, but the standard answer among her crew was, “only if you shut up and leave us alone.” She carefully padded down each side and along his spine feeling for any injury. After that, she checked his pupils, unequally dilated, good sign of a concussion. No blood in the ears, that was good. He may have taken a hard hit to the head but there was no closed head wound. His nose looked clear, too.
“He’s unconscious, so I believe he’s got a concussion, along with lots of bruises and cuts, a strange wound on the left wrist and it may be broken. He also has what appears to be a bullet wound on his right side. I’d say someone was shooting at him, got him at least once or twice and he either jumped or fell off the cliff above the falls. As for who he is, not a clue,” Jessi finally answered as she lifted his feet onto a rock to raise them and covered him with one of the emergency blankets in their packs. After she treated him to prevent shock, she dressed the wound on his side and wrapped his wrist. “His breathing and heart-rate are fine. I’m concerned that he hasn’t regained consciousness yet; that and going into to shock are his two biggest risks at the moment. Not sure if we should move him in the raft, wait for him to wake up, or call someone to transport him to the hospital.”
The man moaned and turned his head a little. His eyes fluttered but he didn’t open them. Jessi leaned down close to his head.
“Hey, you need to wake up,” she told him and rubbed his cheek. His eyes opened just enough to squint at her. “What’s your name?” she asked. His eyes closed again. “Come on, buddy.” Jessi rubbed harder. “We need to know your name in case we have to take you to the hospital.”
His eyes opened half-mast. “No…hospital,” he slurred as his eyes closed and he lost consciousness again. Keeri leaned in as well and tried to see what color they were. She thought they were a pale blue.
Jessi sat back and looked up at Keeri. “Let’s get him back to the cabin and then worry about the rest. We need to get him out of the wet clothes and warm.”
“We need both of us to carry him and the raft back to the SUV. I don’t think we’re strong enough to carry it if he’s in it.” Keeri turned to look upstream. “We don’t know what happened to him. Whoever shot him might come looking for him. We can’t leave anything behind.” They locked eyes and Jessi nodded.
“Let’s take him first. We’ll put down the second seats and lay him down. Ajani can stay with him while we bring the raft back up.”
Silently, they picked him up and carried him back to their SUV as quickly as they could.888
Mark stood staring out the window of the motel room. Princess sat in one of the room’s two chairs at a small table, while Keyop and Tiny snored away in one of the room’s two beds. Jason was late checking in. This wasn’t the first time he hadn’t checked in on time, but it was one of the few times that he hadn’t responded with a “Buzz off,” or worse. Those times were few and far between and never amounted to any good. Mark ticked off the times in his head: captured by acid spewing female robots, ran over a civilian on the way to join with the Phoenix, two other injuries and one other capture; although Mark’s personal favorite was the time his second was arrested in Bay City for street racing.
This time felt different. If Jason had been with a woman, he would have responded. If he was hurt or captured and in a situation to respond he would, but what if he couldn’t. They’d been quite fortunate that when hard luck hit Jason, it was usually on Earth. Rarely had it been on another planet or if it had, he was seldom alone. Unfortunately, if all five of them were in the field and a threesome too conspicuous, he was the most competent to be left on his own.
Mark decided he would definitely rethink that theory. But who to pair him with? If they paired up together for routine assignments, Jason would get defensive and think that he was no longer trusted. Tiny had a hard time keeping up with him, and he wasn’t patient enough to be with Keyop too often; besides Tiny and Keyop had learned to work well together even if they did get into trouble from time to time. That left Princess as the ideal candidate to partner him and something within Mark vehemently hated that idea. Princess partnered with him or Keyop. If she ever went with Tiny or Jason, it was because the met up to investigate something they both saw or because the Chief ordered it that way. Either way, Mark never liked it when it happened.
Shaking his head, he looked back out the window. Where was Jason?
“He’s only a few hours late checking in,” Princess yawned. “If he’s in the middle of something, he could wait until he’s finished before contacting us.” Neither she nor Mark wanted to think about what he could be busy with at three in the morning.
At seven in the morning, after a restless night, Mark decided it was time to look for Jason. He rolled out the map of Donotrep onto the small table. Jason was assigned to watch suspicious activity at a building at the edge of town. There was one main road near the building that lead out of town and a dozen smaller roads that lead back into town or dead ended.
“Princess,” he said. “I want you to start here, at this building. It's Jason's last known location. Don't worry about the building unless you see the SUV he was driving. Just ride around the area checking out these streets. This road here,” he paused and pointed at the road, “leads out of town. We're not one hundred percent sure if Spectra is confining themselves to urban areas. They could be anywhere, so be careful. Go ahead and use your motorcycle. The Chief was just worried that my plane and Jason's car might be to conspicuous here, your bike should be okay.
“Tiny, you and Keyop check out the hospitals, police, any where you think someone who's been injured would be taken for help.”
They both rapidly agreed and began looking at the map to get locations to check.
“What are you going to do, Mark?” Princess asked.
Mark sighed. “I'm going to break orders and take my plane out and look for him in the same area you are only from above.”
“Are you sure you should do that?” Princess questioned. “The Chief had to have good reasoning for ordering you not to use your plane.”
“He thinks Spectra has figured out who it belongs to.” Mark's voice was weary. “Right now, I just don't care. We're supposed to head back to Earth in twenty-four hours and were not leaving Jason behind.”
Keyop and Tiny went to two major hospitals, one small one, and three clinics, and two police stations. They could not get any information; no one that they talked to recognized their description of Jason. The police officers that they talked to told them that a picture would be needed if they intended to file a report of a missing person; however it was to soon to do that, even for an off-worlder.
Princess looked over all the side roads near the area that Jason had staked out and found no sign of him, his vehicle, or even a possible confrontation with Spectrans. Nearly an hour into her search she headed up the road that lead out of town towards the farms and mountains.
“Princess, where are you?” Mark called her over their communicators.
“About five miles out of town, Mark. Why?” she answered.
“I've been flying over the mountains for about a half an hour now,” he answered. “There's something I want to check out, but there's no where for me to land. About thirty miles out of town is an old dirt field with nothing around. It's just after the highway drops from four lanes to two. Meet me there and we'll ride up together to see what's there.”
“All right, Mark, on my way.”
Forty-five minutes later, Mark was on the back of Princess's motorbike and the two of them were heading up the mountain. It was late morning when they got to the spot that Mark wanted to check out. The began to traipse through the trees and brush.
“Princess, over here,” Mark yelled.
“This is what I saw,” he said as she joined him. “Jason did a good job of hiding it. If the sun hadn't reflected off the windshield right when I was flying over, I'd have never seen it.” He moved to the rented SUV hidden among the trees and underbrush. “It doesn't look like the Spectran's found it, though. So where is he?”
“What if we don't find him?” Princess asked.
“We will, Princess, we will.” Mark sounded like he was trying to convince himself as much as her. “Come on, there was a ranger station or something like that not to far in that direction.” He pointed towards the building. “Let's check it out. Maybe they've seen him.”
“Mark, stop,” Princess said as they came within sight of the small building that looked like a ranger station. “Something's wrong here.”
“What is it?”
“I don't know, something just feels wrong.”
“I don't think anyone's here, Princess,” he stated. “Let's walk the perimeter before we get closer.”
They walked around the station just inside of the tree line. The area was eerily silent: no person or animal sounds except for their quiet footsteps. The only signs that the building was recently occupied were tire tracks from vehicles no longer there and a cigarette butts.
“Funny, I didn't notice many Demeterns smoking while I was out,” Princess noted.
“Spectrans,” Mark replied. “I think they're gone, though. Let's get Tiny and Keyop up here. Then will split up and look over the station and cover more of the surrounding area.
By mid-afternoon, the team was tired and disheartened. The Spectrans had abandoned the station leaving behind nothing but one small emblem that could have fallen off of someone's uniform while packing up the station. A single shell casing was found near a waterfall. Mark picked it up to have it analyzed to see if it was a Spectran shell or from a Demetern hunter.
“Come on, team, let's go back to the hotel,” he said with as much authority as he could muster.
“But,” the others stuttered.“That's an order,” he said wearily.