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The Curatrix

Chapter Text

Will ran a hand over his face as he looked at the data on the planet they were approaching. It was quite large to put it simply. One point five times the area of Earth and one point eight times the size of Homestead II, and one point four times the size of Cletus Proxima. Labelled NW2043 the planet itself was much like Earth and orbited 11 Leonis Minoris.

He could see it if he glanced out the ship’s, the Magister’s, window. It had one supercontinent that covered about two thirds of the planet. The meager amount of data they had on the planet said that it was mostly forest and grassland with generous and impressive land formations. He could see from the window a reduction in the greenery where it was closer to its southern icecap, as it seemed that the continent stretched down to the southern icecap, making a tundra.

Weather readings from about fifty years ago, when the planet was still of interest, indicated stable weather systems and reliable hurricanes on the eastern and western edges of the continent near the equator. While the center of the continent experienced seasonal storms with high wind and torrential rain or blizzards depending on the season.

The planet’s gravitational pull was apparently oh point nine nine three four eight nine four times that of the Earth despite the planet having more volume. That was apparently due to the numerous and extensive crystal and mineral caused hollows in the crust that make the planet appear more massive and can cause dramatic changes in the landscape over a relatively short period of time on the geological timescale.

The continent itself has a massive mountain range running along the length of it. It seems that most of the natural formations stem from there. Not surprising really.

“Burning the midnight oil, man?” Epps chuckled from the doorway of the office room.

“We’re in space, Epps,” Will said. “Everywhere is midnight.”

“Not for long,” Epps glanced out the window. “Will be some time of day when we land. What’s the rotation cycle of this planet anyways?”

“Didn’t you do your homework?” Will looked back down at the screen of the tablet. “Uh, twenty six hours give or take a few minutes.”

Epps made a considering face. “Alright. Not as bad as Cletus. Donelly’s gonna have a field trip. Cletus is twenty hours. What’s a year?”

“Fifteen months,” Will said as he made a face. “Winter is four months of blizzards, Spring is two and a bit months of lighter typhoons, Summer is six months of summer showers, and Fall is two and a bit months of light typhoons.”

“That bad?”

“Not… really, I guess I’m just tired.” Will stretched. “It’s not that frequent from what I have read. There are sunny days and partly cloudy days but storms are frequent.”

“Great,” Epps laughed as he sauntered to the door. “Wet season every season. I wonder what this planet’s version of mosquitos are.”

“I don’t,” Will said flatly.

“Go to sleep, man,” Epps waved a hand as he stepped through the door. “Even Fig took a break from talking about gator meat to take a nap. We land in eleven and a half hours.”

“Can’t wait,” Will mumbled as he spun in his chair slowly. “Ugh. I miss cable TV.” None of that holographic stuff, not until they manage to remove the blue undertone in every. Single. Goddamn. Image.

He brought his chair back to the desk and picked up a rectangular box that was about a foot long and about five inches wide. It had been given to the team during the mission brief but none of them really bothered with it after Will had tossed it on his desk that first day of their travel. It was basic cardboard with a stamp saying ‘sensitive’ in big red letters. Will had never seen something labelled as sensitive before, ‘fragile’ sure, ‘heavy’ sure, but not ‘sensitive’. He opened the lid to see… a horn.

It was like a cow… horn? Maybe. Not really. It was straight, thick at the bottom and ending with a point. The base fit the width of the box and the horn stretched from the top to the bottom of the box. What was odd though was the bright, glossy teal colour that it was. He wondered exactly what animal it belonged to. Had belonged to.

After all the glossary had no description of whatever creatures they were meant to find. Which made their jobs only slightly difficult. He could see why these things sold for so much on the black market though. A shiny piece like this and from an exotic planet. A relatively unknown exotic planet at that. Oh well, they’d find the critters sooner or later. There were no time constraints on this mission after all.

Glad to be out of view from his crew, Will blew a halfhearted raspberry before dragging himself out of his chair. He stretched his arms above his head and groaned when he heard a loud pop. He let his arms flop down as he went to drop face first on his glorified cot. He’ll think more tomorrow. Maybe.

 

.o.

Will awoke to an irritating blipping sound coming from his computer along with a regular blue flash. He cracked an eye open and looked at the screen.

-Three minutes to usual alarm-

Will rolled to his back. “Dismiss morning alarm,” he said groggily.

~Yes, sir~ an at times almost disturbing robotic voice said.

Will sighed and grumbled when the blipping and flashing were only replaced by another.

-Suitable landing zone selected. Awaiting approval-

“Show me,” Will said. He squinted as a slightly blue-tinted hologram of a topographical map appeared in the middle of the office. He sighed again and pulled himself to his feet after stretching. He shuffled over to the map and looked over it. It showed a mostly forested area but a clearing near a lake had been highlighted slightly yellow. “What’s the area of the clearing?”

~Two point nine five three six eight two square miles, sir~

“Approve it,” Will said as he yawned.

~Yes, sir. Landing procedures will begin in four hours, seven minutes, and twenty eight seconds. Shall I wake the crew~

“Might as well,” Will said as he remembered that he didn’t need to change his clothes since he slept in them. Even though Sarah would probably beg to differ.

He headed down to the mess hall where he saw Epps already with a cup of coffee in his hand. The TV screen was playing a recent movie from Homestead II ‘based on a true story’ apparently. Some romantic crap if you asked Will.

“I hate landing procedures,” Epps grumbled in greeting.

Will grinned as he set the jug to boil. “I slept well, thanks. How about you?”

Epps only glared at him as he took another sip and then a bite of his toast. “Fuck off.”

Will finished making his coffee and plopped next to Epps. “You watching this one again?”

Epps rolled his eyes. “It’s a good movie,” he sniffed. “A real tearjerker.”

“Oh yeah, totally,” Donelly strode in. “You know what brings me to tears? The fact that there’s, what, five thousand people on that ship and only one medical pod. Terrible plot device. Brings me to tears every time.”

“Oh, bugger off, why don’t you,” Epps glared. “Let a man enjoy his drama.”

Donelly raised his arms in surrender. “Whatever makes you happy.”

The ‘morning’ carried on like that as the crew slouched their way into the hall and straight to the boiling jug. After that first boost of coffee and a first bite of space food they started actually conversing with people rather than with hmm’s and ugh’s. The movie was soon forgotten by Epps in favour of getting Fig to shut up about his momma’s gators back on Earth, his families was one of the ones that hadn’t relocated.

It was quite a bustle for only twelve people.

~All crew to the control room~

There goes the pleasant morning. Four hours passed in a blink.

“I still hate landings,” Epps hissed before downing the last gulp of his fourth cup. He tossed it in the recycler and followed the crew out of the hall.

“Alright,” Will grunted as he plopped in the Captain’s chair. They were a few minutes off from entering the atmosphere. “Did you all catch up on your briefs?”

A chorus of ‘nah’s and ‘nope’s greeted him and one mockingly enthusiastic ‘I heard it’s gonna rain’ tied the symphony.

“Ok… so, yeah, it’s gonna rain,” Will said. “That’s about all there was to it. There was also a very shiny horn from one of the unknown animals we are meant to track. Very shiny, easy to see why it sells for so much.”

“Yeah, but what is the animal?” Margaret ‘Maggie’ Madsen said. She was the youngest among them and she was interning under Donelly in Communication’s Management. She was a bright young woman and she roomed with Angie, zoologist and a killer marksman with a tranquilizer gun, and Gaby, criminal investigator and also astonishingly good with knives.

“That is a very good question and unfortunately one we do not have the answer to,” Epps muttered with a roll of his eyes.

“We don’t need to necessarily find the animals, do we?” Fig asked. “We just find the bad guys, do our thing and leave.”

“Not quite,” Gaby said. “If we can find a good population of the animals we can wait out the poachers instead of having to search for them.”

Angie nodded next to her. “Not only that but we need to examine populations in order to determine the extent of the damage that poaching has done and whether or not further action needs to be taken to stabilize populations.”

“And to do that we’ll need to stay and monitor populations for a while to work out their breeding habits and treat any that have been injured by human means.” That was Anthony Taylor. He was like a super-vet or something. He’s treated animals on Earth, and Cletus, and Homestead II. Will didn’t know anything about the guy personally but he was close with Ferny Manchez because they were cousins or something.

Ferny on the other hand was a top-notch tracker if his CV was anything to go by. Will had no idea how they became so close but it had something to do with Ferny’s aunt’s pet trappersnapper which wasn’t taking well to Cletus’ climate after moving from Homestead II. Will didn’t know what a snappertrapper was but it didn’t sound like a good pet. Who was he to judge though?

~Commencing atmospheric entry in thirty seconds. Please ensure that all personnel is seated and strapped in~

“I hate this,” Epps gripped the straps over his chest as the first shudders of entry shook him.

“You and me both,” Maggie said with a frown.

The ship continued to shudder as the external temperature counter began to rapidly rise from sub-zero. The flecks of orange and red were visible around the wings when Will peeked out of the window. Another shudder pushed him back in his seat and he looked at the digital clock on the wall. They’d need to set it to the day cycle of NW2043.

It took about fifteen minutes for the ship to touchdown. A mandatory holovid from the base of the ship, both inside and out, displaying the deployment of the landing gear. Six metallic legs, three under the main hull, two at the back under where the engines were, and one under the nose of the hull. The legs touched the ground and dipped down about halfway, absorbing the shock, before stilling.

“Magister,” Will said as he began unstrapping himself. “Set up a perimeter and report nearby wildlife or artificial structures. Begin defrosting procedures on the dogs.”

~Yes, sir~

At once the crew all took up their designated jobs. There was a time for complaints and this was not it, the complaining would happen in about two hours after they orient themselves.

“Alright everybody, we need communications set up, equipment check.” He counted on his fingers. “Fence up for the dogs, find that dog food and the kennels, and let’s get that greenhouse set up.” He clapped his hands. “Let’s get to it.”

Will went with Fig, and Epps to set up the greenhouse on the upper level. The Magister 5 was a big ship, it had a lot of levels. Five, to be specific. Each level was, without the separated rooms, between three thousand and five thousand square feet. The top was the greenhouse, a single chamber with a glass roof. Under that was a three sectioned level with the command center, the rec area/kitchen/mess hall, and the engine room. Under that were the sleeping areas/office rooms and the bathrooms. Under that was the infirmary/lab/vet office. The bottom level was the storage area and ship exit. Very large ship for only twelve people.

With a simple command the metal panels and insulation separated to expose the thick glass to the outside world. It was cloudy outside, as was expected but most of the plants they’d brought preferred the shade either way. The plants were all pulled from variously sized stasis cells and set up in their designated spots, labels and all.

“Wonder what kind of veggies they’ve got here,” Fig said. “Or fish. I like fish. Think there’s any fish in the lake?”

Epps chuckled. “Probably not the kind of fish we’re used to.”

“Let’s just hope there’s nothing big enough to eat us,” Will put in his own two cents. Not that that was a valid form of currency anymore but whatever.

“We’ll just send in the drones to check the water out,” Epps shrugged. “They’re water proof, aren’t they?”

~Yes, Mr Epps~

“Thanks, Mag,” Epps patted a wall.

~You’re welcome, sir~ Epps simply handled the machine better than Will.

“I think we should put the bell peppers with the tomatoes,” Will said as he carried the pots.

“Not if they’re red,” Epps shot. “Johnson’s gonna mix ‘em up again and I’m not up for that argument.”

“How the hell do you mix up peppers with tomatoes?” Fig asked from where he was planting the avocado tree.

“Who knows?” Will moved the tomatoes next to the cucumbers.

The greenhouse door slid open then and Maggie stepped in but remained near the entrance to stay out of their way. “Captain?”

“Call me Will, Mags,” Will wiped off his hands on his pants. “What is it?”

Maggie glanced down at her tablet momentarily. “There is interference with the signal from the drones when they get farther than five hundred feet. Donelly and I speculate that it may be because we’re sitting on a large metal ore deposit from what our scans could get. The ore might be causing magnetic interference.”

“Well, what can we do about it?” Will asked. “The comm. satellite had already been deployed, magnetic interference shouldn’t be a problem in the thermosphere.”

“Yes, but getting the signal from down here to up there and vice versa will need to be done by laser messaging,” Maggie explained. “Any microwaves will get too distorted by the magnetic field to be useful. Using lasers however will be a very time inefficient system because we’ll need to wait for clear weather or we’d need to send a comm. drone some six thousand to twenty thousand feet high depending on what kind of clouds we’re dealing with.”

Will just looked blankly at the wall for a few moment as he processed this. The sounds of digging and stomping had stopped behind him as they waited for his response. “Well, uh… the drone method would be risky since we’d lose the ability to track the drone beyond five hundred feet and it could get hijacked. I guess we just do the lasers and send as much info out as we can on a clear or at least patchy day.”

“Alright,” Maggie frowned as she began typing and started walking out. “We’ll get to setting it up and we’ll keep you updated.” The doors shut behind her.

“Well at least we have some form of communication,” Fig shrugged. Then almost as an afterthought he added. “Even though we’ll be totally isolated in winter. Wait, Magister, what season is it right now?”

~This hemisphere is currently about halfway through spring. The northern hemisphere is approaching winter~

“Great,” Fig said. “So we’ve just missed the blizzards.”

“Alright,” Epps tossed the last now-empty pot in the small storage closet. “We’re done here. I’m gonna go help with the fences.” He strode out quickly, barely remembering to put away his gloves.

“Is he OK?” Fig wondered.

“Yeah,” Will waved him off. “He’s just eager to get out some.”

.o.

Will wasn’t really prepared for the outside. Not at all.

The vary air itself was jarring. It was so… clean. Fresh. Crisp. The words didn’t do it justice. There was no pollution to sully it and clog their noses.

The grass was odd for an entirely different reason. It wasn’t really grass, which was understandable considering that they were on an alien planet. Each ‘blade’ of grass was composed of numerous segments varying in size from as small as the nail of a pinkie toe to the size of the nail on your big toe. Some were longer than others and some really long ones bent and touched the ground and seem to have taken root again.

The grass was wet with dew though most of it had fallen to the ground when the Magister had landed. Will could already feel the edges of his pant-legs growing wet as he walked through the grass. The clouds swirled above them ominously, hinting a storm. A distant rumble was heard as the winds picked up.

Will helped Marty finish setting up the last fence post. The fence was only around the ship for now, enough to let the dogs roam around, they might expand it later. “Looks like it’s gonna rain, fellas. Let’s head in. Good work today.”

The crew traded humorous words and shoves as they headed up the ramp. Marty and Ferny’s dogs hopped around their feet. There was only three of them though. “Yo, where’s Mindy?” Fig asked.

“She’s in Taylor’s office,” Marty said with a frown. “Wasn’t waking up from stasis properly. But I’m not too worried,” he said to dispel the depressing mood. “She’s a tough girl and Taylor says she’ll most likely be fine.”

They crowded into the kitchen as the dark clouds sealed up any last patches of blue sky. They all had their tablets with reports to fill and then hand to Will along with a cup of hot chocolate. The rec room had enough couches for thirty people so it was difficult to crowd with only twelve, eleven actually since Taylor was still downstairs. The TV was switched onto a saved comedy flick. It was almost like being back home.

Chapter Text

Will felt very ill at ease sleeping on that first night on NW2043. He woke early, before the sunrise, though that was to be expected considering that both the days and the nights were longer on this strange, new world. There was a nagging feeling at the back of his mind that something wasn’t quite right.

Not that that needed to be stated. Something wasn’t right. There were people, who were less than moral, that are exploiting the native wildlife. That very thought alone was frightening.

The illegal market had existed ever since markets have existed. No advancement in technology or innovation of the justice system would change that. The conquering of the final frontier simply expanded the range of products. From exotic animals to exotic materials, all manner of useless and frivolous to dangerous and ill-advised transactions were conducted.

Homestead II and Cletus Proxima each had their own unique range of flora and fauna, with exception of the pets and livestock brought in from Earth, though those were quickly being replaced in favour of what these new planets had to offer. It was almost funny how a dog, regardless of the breed or pedigree status, on Homestead II now cost five times as much as what it was back on Earth simply because it was a ‘rare token from home’.

It was this idea that rarity means more value that lead to ‘exoplanetary poaching’. While NW2043 was not colonized, and likely wouldn’t be for a long time yet as there were so many other planets many lightyears closer to Earth, Homestead, and Cletus, these horns, apparently promoted as dragon horns, that were confiscated during a set-up have apparently been somebody’s source of income for decades now.

That meant that somebody has been getting free reign of this planet for a long time. That they have much better knowledge of the terrain and probably have some sort of security system set up already, or a monitoring system at the least. They were already several large steps ahead of Will and his team.

Which begged another question. Why send a team of twelve to investigate and likely take down a crime syndicate? Sure, they had people who specialized in most of the necessary fields needed to solve this issue but one or two experts was nowhere near enough. It was like they were set to fail.

In fact they probably were. The only reason a team had been sent was due to public outrage from all three home planets. The public wanted to know where these horns were coming from and what these animals were and for the poachers to be brought down once and for all. The Interstellar Confederation probably wasn’t expecting them home.

Perhaps Will was overthinking it. He tended to do that when he had time to think. The team was still too small but they were meant to scout, assess, and report. Backup would probably be sent if the IC decided that the situation needed to be prioritized. They’ve invested too much in this team in any case. The Magister wasn’t a cheap build and Taylor and Johnson’s pay rates were insane.

Still, even after calming his racing thoughts Will felt odd. A small, nagging feeling at the back of his mind forced him out of bed. He padded to the window and squinted out into the dim light of just-before-sunrise combined with the thick rainclouds and light shower.

Perhaps his slight paranoia was also due to the apparent signal distortion of whatever ore or mineral they were on. The motion sensors were going haywire from the disturbance and Epps and Fig would be trying to deal with them today. The infrared sensors had been damaged during atmospheric entry and needed to be replaced. The dogs were their most reliable alarm system at the moment but because they were inside they couldn’t exactly notice anything outside.

Will looked to the treeline and took a moment to take in the details. They looked surprisingly almost identical to trees on Earth or on Homestead. Cletus had really tall grasses and bush type plants. He couldn’t quite distinguish the colour of the bark and he hadn’t really taken the time to look yesterday but it looked dark, a bit patchy in places perhaps due to some version of moss or lichen. The leaves were definitely green as he’d seen from space. The familiar scenery was comforting.

But there was something…

A shadow that stood out a little more than the general darkness of the forest. Will stared hard at it as a frown settled over his face. “Magister, zoom in on the treeline directly ahead.” A holoscreen was projected on the wall next to the window that zoomed into the area. Will grimaced slightly at the grainy image caused by the interference. It was like one of those home-videos they kept at the museum from 1994. He turned away from the screen and waved it off, his eyes seemed to be more reliable right now.

The shadow seemed to have moved a smidge to the left from where it had been before. Now the meager morning light seemed to reflect off of two tiny blue dots near the top of it. “Magister, image capture, same spot!” The Magister did as asked and by the time Will glanced to and from the picture whatever had been in the treeline was gone. But the image still remained.

 

.o.

 

“What is it?” Maggie mumbled as she stared at the image Will put up.

It was still raining outside but it was brighter now than it had been before. Some harsh winds had appeared out of the blue soon after sunrise and were now battering the landscape. Everyone was snuggled on the couches and armchairs with their respective cups of hot chocolate and coffee. They all stared blearily at the image and grunted in displeasure as it zoomed with stunningly low quality.

“Not a clue,” Will said. “But it’s definitely something that had its attention on us. And even if it wasn’t investigating us it’s still worth checking out.”

Angie nodded in agreement. “Something that big lurking this close is definitely a cause of concern.”

“It would be beneficial to sample the local wildlife,” Taylor said. “We need to know what to prepare for.”

“I think that should wait until we finish securing the outside,” Marty said as he scratched his Malinois, Ritchie, behind the ears. “Can’t keep the dogs in forever.”

“We’ve already got basic fencing in and the dogs are well-trained, they won’t run away,” Ferny said. “We just need to set up the kennels.”

“Marty, Gaby, and Johnson can work on setting up the kennels,” Will said thoughtfully. “Donelly and Maggie can finish up communications. Maybe Fig can help you.” The man had a surprising knack for dealing with stubborn tech. “Donelly, send out drones to scout the perimeter and we’ll review the footage when they return. Meanwhile, Epps, Stewart, Angie, Ferny, and I will head out to see if whatever was here this morning is anything significant.”

“I’ll bring Swinger with us,” Ferny said. “He’s been a good tracker for a while yet.”

Swinger was Ferny’s younger dog at three years old. He was a large Swiss white shepherd that he’d adopted after he and Mindy had retired from the military. Mindy was a very loyal and obedient single coated, red and black German shepherd. She was a good five years old but with the technological advancements of the last century the lifespans of many pets had been greatly extended. She had a good fifteen to twenty years to go.

“And find good spots for cameras in the canopy,” Donelly requested. “We have several lengths of cables and we might be able to get them set up via ground wires. It doesn’t seem like the magnetic field we’re sitting in will waste any significant amount of power.”

“We will,” Will said as he glanced out the windows. “We’re going to need to grab our boots and raincoats it seems.”

Angie seemed to jitter as she stood up quickly. “I’ll go grab my camera.”

“But we have drones?” Epps said, slightly confused.

“PAC Airview c3000,” Angie stated pointedly.

“But that model isn’t coming out for like another six months,” Epps said, still just as puzzled.

Angie seemed very smug and kind of giddy as she gave her answer. “I made a deal with the company to test out their camera on this mission and send back the photos so they can start making their promo.”

“And what do you get out of this?” Marty asked as he headed to his rooms to grab his raincoat.

“A free camera and five thousand dollars,” Angie said. “I think it’s a good deal considering that PAC has agreed to cover whatever costs my health insurance doesn’t.”

“Alright, I admit, it’s a good deal,” Epps said as everyone left to get their raincoats.

Outside the winds were still blowing strongly but the rain had lessened to a drizzle. The PAC was apparently waterproof and it completely ignored the rai as it floated next to Angie. Meanwhile Swinger had a small set of boots and a clear raincoat too. Swinger and Angie seemed to be the only ones excited to be outside.

Angie walked with Stewart who was observing the plants curiously. “Could you share some of the plant pictures with me?” he asked politely and Angie had agreed happily. Stewart was Johnson’s medical assistant on this mission but was originally a field medic. Adding to his skillset was a degree in botany which he’d use to make a portfolio of the native flora just as Angie would do the same with the local fauna.

A startled shout paused the group halfway across the clearing as they turned to look at Marty. The man had hand on the back of his head and a sheepish grin on his lips. “Sorry, a bug or something just flew in front of me,” he chuckled at himself as he pointed at the something. There on a blade of grass was a peculiar bug-looking thing with a blue-green body and four large clear wings.

Angie stepped closer to it and went down on one knee as she gestured the PAC over. She fiddled with a tiny remote in her hand as the camera drifted closer. Each time she pressed one of the buttons it took a picture. Just as it was taking the last picture the creature hissed at the camera and spread its tiny wings before flying off.

Angie seemed to be shaking with excitement as the men crowded to look over her shoulders at the camera screen. They were all surprised to see that the bug-looking thing actually didn’t look like a bug at all. Its eyes were large and dark but its body appeared like that of a skink. A very tiny skink with six legs, that’s two sets in the front and one in the back. “I love this planet,” Angie sighed as she hugged the camera.

“At least one of us does,” Epps muttered as they set back on their trail. Despite his grouchy exterior even he couldn’t restrain the glint of fascination in his eyes at this odd new world.

They made it to the treeline with no more disturbances. They stepped over the makeshift hedgeline of brush that looked more like really large broccoli. There they saw what they’d been looking for.

“Holy shit,” Marty muttered.

They stood around what looked like paw prints except… huge. Like huge.

“The toe bean is like half the size of my face,” Epps said.

“Toe bean?” Will asked and the others looked at him with odd expressions. “Never mind. Any thoughts?”

“Well I don’t keep a chart on the general paw to body size ratio of animals,” Angie said. “But I’d wager this thing is six feet at the shoulder.”

“Welp,” Epps clapped his hands, “that’s great. Let’s head back.”

“The tracks go this way,” Will said as he pointed into the forest. “Come on, stick close.” He dug into a pocket of the armored vest under his raincoat and took out a small drone. The drone floated up to around chest level and produced a small holographic map, about six inches across, which displayed what the larger drones had already scouted on the perimeter of the clearing. It added to that map with its short ranged scanner as they progressed through the woods.

Stewart took a moment to take sample of the green mossy stuff that coated the trees and Angie took some pretty good photos of the forest. Swinger stuck close to Marty as they walked and seemed to be a bit nervous which was understandable. The large tracks were easy to see in the soft, muddy forest floor but Will was sure that once the heavier rains start up they’ll be erased in a but a few minutes. With that thought in mind Will instructed them to move a bit faster.

They came across a small clearing. There was nothing odd about it, some rocks, the alien grass, nothing much. The only thing was that the tracks ended there. Just like that. Even Swinger was looking around in confusion.

“Maybe it can fly?” Angie suggested.

“That sounds horrific,” Epps grumbled yet again.

“Well, it seems we’re at a dead end,” Will said with a frown. “Is there-”

“Woof!”

Everyone looked at Swinger who looked at the treeline a little to the left across the clearing. He began padding across the clearing with determination and the people behind him hurried to follow. “What is it, boy?” Marty asked even though the shepherd couldn’t answer.

“Isn’t this the opposite of the smart thing to do?” Stewart asked as he jogged with the group. No one answered but he knew that at least one of them shared his sentiment.

They came upon yet another clearing- a small grove rather, of trees and what looked like creepvines. In the center of the grove was a huge rock, at least three stories tall and twice as wide, that the vines and moss and small bush broccoli seemed to make a home of. Except-

“That’s not a rock,” Marty said slowly as he followed Swinger into the grove. The others followed behind him. “Is this safe to touch?” He pointed at the mossy substance.

“I don’t know yet,” Stewart answered as he used a small blade to cut a sample off the creepvine and the broccoli bush and put them in separate containers. Then something caught his eye just a little to the left of the not-rock and he went to see what it was.

Marty, meanwhile, had picked up a stick and pushed away some of the vines and moss. “What on Earth?” he mumbled as he found a seam in the suspiciously smooth rock.

“You mean NW2043?” Angie said absently as she took some pictures of the grove.

Will and Epps approached Marty and looked at what he’d found. They took out their survival knives and began cutting away at the vines. Tough buggers they were though. By the time they were done their fingers were aching and stained green. They panted as they stared at the smooth surface. “It’s-”

“Hey, Captain!” Stewart called from around the not-rock. “You gotta see this!”

“It’s a ship,” Will finished as they came around the structure.

It was very clear where the entrance ramp had been because the area in front of where it would drop was paved with flat-ish rocks that were overgrowing with parsley and alien grass and- “Parsley?”

“And avocado,” Marty pointed to a tree a little to the side with a few slightly smaller ones growing near it. “And lemons and I think that’s a tomato plant.”

“Somebody’s been here before us,” Will said. “It looks like it hasn’t seen open space in decades.” He scraped away the moss from a panel to the side of the ramp. It revealed a lengthy set of symbols used specifically and only by the space program. “Can you identify it?” he said to the small drone that was still displaying its small map and had taken the initiative to put a location marker over the ship.

It ran a short scan of the sequence and swiftly deciphered the symbols. Exploration Vessel 78-B3. “Discovery 1”.

“Discovery?” Epps mumbled. “I thought this one was lost to space?” The Discovery 1 was basic textbook material when it came to space travel disasters and one in a million chances. It was sent out to explore… some solar system, Epps didn’t remember, and a month into its journey it was shoved off course by a comet or an asteroid or something. Basically they lost contact with the command center and here was about two months of media attention and thoughts and prayers and deep space scanning before the story lost interest and ‘hope was lost’. It was more like the government didn’t want to expend more resources on a ‘lost cause’.

Yet here it was. The Discovery. In one piece, if a bit bumped and bruised. Will looked at the small panel under the code and he pried at it a little until it fell open. It was an old passcode keypad, the kind they stopped using regularly about ten years ago. It was telling of the ship’s age.

The array seemed to be completely dead though, despite being undamaged and only slightly worn. The moment Will touched the buttons however the array lit up with a faint blue glow. Will could see which buttons had been used more frequently, three and four were the slightly cracked, two and five were slightly dented, zero, one and eight were a bit dimmed, six, seven and nine looked as if they’d been seldom used. “Attempt to hack it.” Will said and his small drone floated to the array and thin wires stretched from it and managed to force their way under the buttons.

Will was pretty sure that the more modern technology would be more than able to overcome this older model. He was right. A green glow overtook the blue momentarily before fading back into blue.

~Welcome back~

The Discovery’s old and slightly staticky audio modules startled the small group. They all took a step back as the boarding ramp lowered itself with a small hiss of old hydraulics. Will took the leading step inside while gesturing for the others to hang back and Marty kept a firm grip on Swinger’s collar to prevent the white dog from running away.

The interior was covered by a long undisturbed, thick layer of dust. The cleaning drones must have stopped functioning a long time ago.

~I cannot find a facial recognition match. Who are you~

“I am William James Lennox. I Captain the Magister 5 aka Exploratory Vessel 58-B6,” Will gave as much information as he could recall on site.

~I do not recognize those designations~

“What happened to your crew?” Will asked as he observed the abandoned ship.

~The arrival to NW2043 was unplanned and the crew was unprepared. A foreign viroid infected their systems. Seventeen dead from infection. Four collapsed fatally while in medical stasis. Two unaccounted for~

Chapter Text

“Is the viroid still present?” Will asked, suddenly alarmed.

~No. While decontamination sequences took longer than expected due to damages, the ship has been appropriately decontaminated and a cure has been devised by the Chief Medical Officer~

“When?”

~Approximately thirty-two years ago by Earth chronometers~

“Well damn,” Epps said from behind him.

Will turned. “Didn’t I tell you to wait outside?”

“Yes, you did,” Epps grinned as he carried on past him and to the control room. Behind him Marty, Angie, and Stewart were also looking around curiously.

“Discovery,” Stewart said. “Have you kept a sample of this viroid?”

“We are not bringing a deadly virus on the Magister,” Will snapped.

~Viroid, Captain Lennox~ Discovery corrected. ~And no, I have not as per my Captain’s orders. I have however kept the research notes and results, if you are interested~

“If you please,” Stewart nodded and followed as a trail of lights pulsed towards the staircase. The group followed behind him.

Discovery led them to what must have been the medical lab of the ship. The room was illuminated by bright white lights. It held examples of skulls and images of small native fauna and dried flora. Stewart and Angie were buried in the notes and samples. Marty and Epps were immersed in the pretty pictures while Swinger sniffed at the displays of what looked like colourful eggshells.

While his crew observed the lab Will led himself further up the stairs to the third floor, thankfully the layout of ships had been kept relatively similar through the years. He came upon the rec room which, unlike with the Magister, was not separate from the control center but was just one huge space. The furniture was old and worn and the floor was scratched, probably from furniture being moved. There wasn’t anything special about this room. Just standard, for its time, screen set and kitchen appliances, and control modules and units.

He proceeded further up the staircase to where the offices and bedrooms should be. He wondered if he could find a journal or diary of sorts. Something that could shed some light on the events that led to the Discovery being abandoned.

He stopped at the room that was labelled as the Captain’s. It was oddly tidy but still very dusty. The bed was made and the curtains were tied aside. Several pairs of shoes were neatly lined along the wall and several photographs hung on the walls. Most of the photos were worn to the point where they were unrecognizable even behind glass.

On the desk were several old tablet models on their charging stations. “Are these the Captain’s reports?” Will asked.

~Among other things~ Discovery answered.

Will picked up the one closest to him. He pressed the on button and the screen lit up directly to the home screen. It was odd, Will mused, that it would have no password. There were several applications available on the screen but the central one was simply labelled ‘Documents’. Will opened it to reveal dozens of folders labelled simply with numbers. He opened the one labelled ‘One’ and it revealed fifteen other folders. He rolled his eyes. Come on. He opened the first folder and it revealed three video files. ‘Set 1’, ‘Set 2’, ‘Set 3’.

Will had a thoughtful crease in his brows as he played the first file.

“Good evening,” a middle aged man set in front of the camera. “This is Captain Archibald Witwicky commencing the first entry of the Discovery Unit’s report.” He let out a deep sigh and ran a hand through his hair. “It has been sixty seven days since we were knocked off course and we have ended up in the orbit of NW2043, in the system of 11 Leonis Minoris. We will need to land in order to repair the damages the comet caused.”

As of right now, June twelfth, two-thousand sixty-seven, I will be creating monthly reports by the standards of NW2043. We have calculated that an orbital cycle of NW2043 is 439 days by Earth standards. We have divided those into fifteen months of 29.25 days, this will result in a leap year every fourth year by adding a day to the last month of the year. These months we will divide into sets, two of ten days and one of nine.”

The planet appears predominantly green, suggesting abundant plantlife and fertile soils. I have high hopes that we will be able to cultivate outside of out greenhouse and maybe even rely on this foreign flora and fauna for food.”

While we are not in the correct system the crew will still venture to complete our intended task by exploring and documenting this planet to the best of our ability until we are able to leave.”

Our previous transmissions have not made it through but should this one succeed then we eagerly await a response. This concludes the report for this wee- for this set.”

Captain Witwicky out.”

Will frowned at the very scarce report. The man must have been exhausted considering the amount of detail he could have put into the report but didn’t. The lines on his face made him look in his late fifties rather than forties.

“Yo, Will,” Epps poked his head into the room. “You alright?”

“Yeah,” Will said, “I found something interesting though. Can I take this?” He looked up at the ceiling and gestured to the tablet and its charging station.

There was a short moment of silence before Discovery answered. Will was unsure if it was actual hesitation or merely signs of an underperforming CPU. ~Yes, Captain Lennox~

Will picked up the items and thanked Discovery before looking to Epps. “Let’s go and show this to the rest of the crew.”

They rounded Angie and Marty and Swinger from the lab and the rec room respectively and came to find Stewart outside. The medic was looking over a large rose bush with enormous flowers. He was muttering something to himself about minerals and rainforests as he was picking petals off one flower and putting them in a tiny sample bag.

“You can close up now, Discovery,” Will said as he stepped off the ramp.

Again a short silence passed. ~You will return~ There was a soft questioning ringing behind the robotic words and Will blinked in surprise.

“We will,” He said. “I promise.”

~Until next time then, Captain Lennox~ Discovery said and her hydraulics hissed once more as the ramp pulled up and sealed off the interior of the ship.

“Until next time,” Will murmured. “Come on,” he said to the others, “the winds are picking up. I wanna get back before it starts pouring.” He looked at his modified watch, it was 12:39. It was odd to think that that was almost midday here.

With the help of Will’s little drone they traced their way back home. They heard lots of odd noises that Angie liked to Australian Magpies warbling but more whistly, and long. As though played with an instrument. For the life of them, though, they couldn’t see the creatures.

The closer they got to their base the more, new, odd noises they began to hear. These ones sounded like the long bellows of elk mixed with the odd braying barks of a zebra. As they came up to the treeline they saw the source of the sounds.

The field in front of their ship was occupied by a heard of six-legged purple… deer-things. Their heads were difficult to see in detail over the distance but they were long and smooth with thin upwards pointing antlers, their eyes also seemed to take up a lot of headspace. Their bodies were big and round compared to their skinny long legs. They looked like fatter, longer legged, six legged gazelles with long thin tails that formed a tight, neat curl of about half the length.

The team could see a round black shape hovering over the herd and the animals looked at it curiously. It was one of the security drones. The drone lowered and quickly backed away as one of the gazelle-things attempted to head but it before stomping threateningly with its four front legs. The drone returned but not nearly as closely and drew even closer when the animal turned away seemingly losing interest. To the team’s surprise that was not so. Suddenly the creature’s tail uncoiled and whipped out at the drone and smacked right against its round side. The drone spun out and finally retreated back to base for repairs.

“Damn,” Marty muttered as Swinger tilted his head curiously.

The team shared a look and Angie instructed her camera to simply zoom into the creatures as they took pictures. The ship and the rest of the team were easily visible across the field but no one tried to cross the now-obviously defensive creatures. Angie seemed to be the only one not visibly on edge. “Most animals sense fear,” was all she said.

They couldn’t contact the team over that distance due to the magnetic disturbance. However the rest of the team eventually took initiative by powering up one of the smaller cruisers and rounding the herd out of their way. The ship spun until its rear was facing them and opened its loading ramp to reveal Gaby in the pilot’s seat. “Need a lift?” she grinned.

Soon enough they were all back at base. There was a hum of curious chatter as the exploring crew was interrogated by the rest. Eventually Will managed to calm them down and get them into the rec room so they could review the files that they found. Stewart had retreated into the lab to examine the files that Discovery had shared with him and Johnson was tempted to join him but opted to listen to Will’s debrief.

After watching the first video most of the team shared slightly saddened expressions. Had the transmissions actually not gotten through or had they been ignored? It was a little frightening, if a bit irrational, to think that the same could happen to them. Thankfully though, that wouldn’t happen, the government and the public were all well aware and informed of which star system they were being sent to.

“Well, at least it saves us time figuring out how to split up the years,” Ferny said. “I’m chill with ten day weeks, uh, sets.”

“We gonna watch the second one?” Fig asked.

“What,” Johnson grunted. “We’re not going to discuss the supposed viroid that wiped out the entire Discovery crew?”

“What’s there to discuss?” Fig threw his feet up on the coffee table. “Something killed them. There’s a vaccine. We have the ‘recipe’ for it. We’re in the clear.”

“Does the potential situation of us dying before we even leave the planet not worry you at all?” Donelly asked with a very puzzled expression.

“Panicking is the worst thing you could do in a survival situation,” Fig grinned. And boy, if a viral outbreak wasn’t a survival situation like no other. “Play the second one.”

Will rolled his eyes and turned to the screen. They’d uploaded the files from the tablet onto the ship’s databanks just in case the old tablet gave out. The screen lit up with the scene of a familiar office, the image was a bit noisy and the audio was a bit behind the video, but thankfully none of the file was corrupted.

“Good evening. This is Captain Archibald Witwicky commencing the second entry of the Discovery Unit’s report.”

It has been ten days since we arrived on this planet. The weather is extremely cold and wet at the present and not much sunlight is getting through to the greenhouse. Thankfully the UV-lights are all functional and the plants show no signs of wilting with the fertilizing supplements. We’ve not taken it upon ourselves to explore much beyond the near perimeter of the ship as we are attempting to repair the hull and engine damages.”

The Discovery’s AI’s logic components appear to be fully functional but some of the databanks have been corrupted and some data has been lost but the loss is negligible. Two of our security drones seemed to have been damaged by the initial impact meanwhile another one was damaged on atmospheric entry. We have lost one water tank but water appears to be plentiful and lacking toxic chemicals on this planet. One of the engines has given out during testing three days ago so we may be stuck ere longer than anticipated.”

Two of our technicians, Daniel Nitton and Oliver Ruthers, were injured during that event resulting in a dislocated shoulder and a fractured fibula respectively. All of our medical supplies are still in order and none of the equipment is irreparably damaged, thankfully, and our supplies should last us upwards of a year if we are careful.”

I do believe that this concludes the second report of the Discovery 1 Unit. We are in the hopes that this transmission will come through. Captain Archibald Witwicky out.”

“His reports are very short,” Gaby commented, voicing everybody’s thoughts.

Donelly carried a small frown. “Perhaps he believed that they wouldn’t get through. Maybe he was just keeping them as a diary or journal of sorts.”

“That’s very depressing to think about, man,” Fig mumbled and the others hummed in agreement.

The Magister released a sharp beep to get their attention. ~Four security drones have returned with footage. One delivered to the repair bay~

“Do the other three have any notable footage?” Will asked as he and Epps stood.

~No, Captain, but the damaged one does~ The Magister said. ~Shall I play~

“Please do,” Will ran a hand through his hair. “Time of arrival?”

~Twenty six minutes ago, sir~ The Magister swiftly replaced Witwicky’s entry on the screen with the drone’s observations.

<<Security Drone 7>>

<<Playing: Day 2|Time:13:02:46|Starting: Event 2|Preluding: Event 3>>

<<12:23:19>>

<<Temperature: 26oC|Winds:12mph-Northeasterly|Humidity:95.7%|Weather: Light Shower>>

<<Location:5.342miles Northwest of base|Event 2: Motion Detected|Status: Seeking Disturbance>>

The drone cruised over the dense canopy.

<<Infra-red sensors: Non-Functional|EMP Detectors: Non-Functional|Standard Camera: 98% Operational|Standard Camera: Employed-Zoom +200% compromised>>

“What’s that mean?” Marty mock whispered to Fig.

Fig chuckled. “It can’t zoom beyond 200% without losing image quality.”

“Oh.”

<<Event 3: Disturbance Located>>

The drone lowered trough a gap in the canopy and approached an area of heavy foliage. There was a definite glint in the bushes. Something hissed. Something lunged from the bushes (not like the broccoli bushes, these were leafier bushes).

<<Event 4: Aggressor Attack|Caution: External Damage detected|Armor Integrity: 63%>>

There was clear view of the insides of something’s mouth clamped around the drone. A long row of sharp teeth that ended with a set of molar-like teeth towards back. The creature growled and the camera lens cracked and went black.

There was a metallic scraping sound and another angered hiss as the creature must have let go of the drone.

<<Engaging Back-Up Camera|No sign of aggressor presence>>

The back-up camera filmed with good quality but it didn’t have the extra sensors, not that they would have worked. It swiveled left and right and spotted no sign of the attacker.

<<Repairs Needed|Returning to Base>>

<<12:36:47>>

<<End Replay>>

“What was that?” Maggie murmured with wide eyes. “Magister, replay ‘Event 4’. Pause before the drone is struck.”

The Magister did just that and the image showed a wide open set of jaws. The gums were a healthy pink and the tongue was slightly darker. What they could see of the snout was mostly white but the tip of the nose appeared black. Most of the body of the creature was still obscured by leaves and shadows and neither saturating nor increasing the contrast on the image seemed to help.

The mouth was very much like that of a dog. There were two sets of canines on the top and lower jaw rather than one, resulting in four deadly-looking curved fangs on top and four on the bottom. The rest of the teeth seemed pretty standard and the back eight, four on top and four on the bottom (two on either side), looked like bear molars.

“Perhaps it is their version of a wolf,” Stewart suggested.

“Must be an enormous animal,” Angie said. “The security drones are pretty large and this creature managed to compromise 37% of its structural integrity.”

“You are most likely correct,” Johnson joined them in the rec room with a ziplock bag in hand. “It has rather large fangs. I just recovered this from the drone.” He held up the bag, the fang clearly visible inside and still slightly bloody. “Figured you might want to take a look at it.” He tossed it to Taylor and the vet it with ease as the rest of the crew crowded around him.

“Extraordinary,” Taylor murmured. “It’s almost four inches long by my estimate.”

“Look it’s serrated at the back,” Angie pointed out. “This is a well-adapted predator.”

“But look at the molars,” Taylor pointed at the screen. “It must be omnivorous. Like a bear.”

“Six limbs appear to be a trend among the vertebrates on this planet,” Angie said. “Imagine a six legged bear.”

“Now there’s a nightmare I could’ve lived without,” Ferny muttered.

“This creature could prove a serious health risk, especially if there is more than one in this area,” Taylor said, ignoring him. “Something this big must have a large territory and this was only five miles from base. We must know how to defend ourselves in case of an attack, without harming it.” He finished firmly with a stern glance to Epps and Fig, the more trigger happy of the group.

“Alright, so we’ll just send the drones in pairs,” Donelly shrugged. “That should bypass any possibility of us not having any eyes on the action.”

“No,” Taylor said. “I want to go to that exact location, personally.” He pointed to the screen…

…And the shiny chain just visible in the corner.

Chapter Text

“Good evening, this is Captain Archibald Witwicky with the third report from the Discovery Unit.”

We’ve been here for… twenty nine days now. We continue to be astounded by the life that we find on this planet. The most common large lifeform for now appears to be a purple herbivorous creature that is harmless unless provoked.”

The plantlife appears very thick in all regards. The ‘grass’ is composed of small segmented sections, each about the size of a fingernail and about the width of half a pinky. Much of the shrubbery is composed of plants that heavily resemble broccoli but vary in width, height, and colour. Some of the plants look like palm leaves but are thick like aloe-vera leaves. We have not attempted to see if any of the plants would have any medicinal benefits.”

We have discovered that our own plants have taken surprisingly well to the soil. Well… except the dill… The dill didn’t make it. But everything else seems to be growing spectacularly well.”

Most of the animals that were in cryostasis did not survive the crash and they have been frozen for later consumption. Two of the dogs made it, one is healthy, and the other is on the edge of losing a leg due to premature thawing.”

Despite the negatives, it appears that NW2043 is more than capable of sustaining us as long as we remain cautious of the local fauna.”

This concludes the report for this set... Captain Archibald Witwicky out.”

 

.o.

 

“This is likely one of our less brilliant ideas,” Will said to Epps as they got off the cruiser. They’d landed in a clearing about a quarter mile off of where the drone had been attacked.

“You don’t say,” Epps said as he checked his gun. He, Angie, and Taylor had been equipped with tranquilizers while Will, Ferny, and Fig got actual guns, well… stun guns, but still guns.

Their heavy boots sunk into the mud as they stepped off the cruiser. Miniature security drones orbited around them and their tiny engines hummed softly, barely audible over the rustling leaves. The specialized sensors of these drones and the team’s night-vision and infra-red glasses were non-functional for the same reason as the damaged security drones, the damned magnetic disturbance.

It was early morning. Just after sunrise, when the weird, trilling bird-things had started singing, was when they’d left base. The flight here had taken less than five minutes. In the time that they were gone they’d instructed the rest of the crew to set up a containment dome in case they brought back the creature, something that all but Angie and Taylor were not thrilled for.

“We’re almost there, team,” Will said from the front. “Keep a sharp eye.”

They slowed their pace as they neared the specific location. “Can you hear that?” Epps asked and they all stopped at his words.

They were silent for almost a minute as they filtered through the sounds of the forest. First the trilling bird-things. Then the rustling leaves. Then the lightly humming winds. At last they heard what Epps seemed to have picked up on. It sounded like breaths, deep labored breaths of something seemingly large.

“Check it,” Ferny said as he pointed to the ground with his gun. There was a thick silvery chain peeking under a bush. He stuck his foot over it and pulled it out from under the bush. The chain gave some slack but as it clinked the breathing suddenly edged on a growl before returning to strained huffs.

Will motioned the team forward and they all raised their guns cautiously. Epps took position to Will’s right with his tranquilizer pointing ahead. They edged towards the bushes and used their gun nozzles to shift apart the foliage.

“Holy shit…”

Will merely nodded as he lowered his gun in shock.

There was a creature lying up on the forest floor, black and white as the drone footage had indicated. It laid partially on its side, seemingly limp, as its chest heaved heavily. Two wide leathery wings extended from its back. It was mostly white.

The top of its snout and head and the one ear that he could see (which for all intents and purposes looked like a sheep ear) were black. From the back of its head a long black stripe stretched all the way down to its tail where the fins were edged in black also. There seemed to be a bit of gray on its underbelly but Will couldn’t be sure.

With the way it was laying its tail was closest to the humans and its eyes were out of view. One thing that was extremely obvious was the deep, torn, bloody wound around its left metatarsus.

Will motioned Taylor and Angie over while Ferny watched their backs. “Is it alert?” Angie mumbled more to herself than to anyone.

“Doesn’t seem so,” Taylor answered anyways. He picked up a small pebble and tossed it lightly to land on one of the leathery wings.

The small team flinched back slightly when the action caused the creature’s head to jerk up. It looked at them with wide disoriented eyes as it seemed to struggle to keep its head up. But its eyes weren’t the main cause of concern.

Angie brought her hand over her mouth in horror as the guys grimaced in distaste and disgust.

Right towards the back of the animal’s head, just above the ears, were two messily, bleeding stubs of what must have once been horns. The creature warbled miserably and flopped back down, its head thudding painfully against the forest floor.

The group made their way around the injured creature until they were facing it. With Will’s cautious permission Taylor stepped forward and into its direct line of sight. Its nostrils twitched and it strained a weak growl at him before laying its head back on the ground.

“We can’t tranquilize it,” Taylor said as he crouched in front of the creature. “We don’t know how much has already been pumped into it.”

The creature seemed to be growing weaker by the moment. It laid its head down and looked up at the vet with resigned eyes, streaks of slightly purplish blood ran down its face, making stark contrast against its white skin.

The vet approached it cautiously with a hand outstretched and the creature merely traced his movements warily. It huffed slightly when he was about a foot away, startling him and prompting Epps to whisper and urgent ‘get back’, but it didn’t do more than that. At last Taylor dared to put a hand on its snout, surprised at the very slight roughness of its skin. The creature rumbled again and he hushed it softly. “It’s alright. We mean you no harm.”

It looked at him miserably and simply continued with its strained breathing. Taylor took it as permission to continue stroking it. There was evidence of rope abrasions on its snout, places where the skin was too smooth and raw and he made a point to avoid those. To his surprise he soon felt the creature’s breaths even out and grow deeper.

“I think it’s asleep,” he said to the group who were staring at him as though he’d grown a second head. “What?” He asked.

“Are you like,” Ferny searched for the right word, “some sort of a dragon whisperer?”

“Dragon?” Taylor murmured with a raised eyebrow. “No wonder it looked familiar. We need the cruiser.”

“Will the sling fit?” Angie asked dubiously.

“It should,” Taylor said. “And we have spare material anyways.” He waved off her concerns as he unshouldered his backpack to fish out a large blue cloth which he tied over the creature’s eyes. “I will remain here until you get the cruiser.”

“We’re not leaving you alone,” Will said. “Epps will take Fig and Angie to the cruiser and Ferny and I’ll stay with you,” he ordered.

“Also,” Ferny called out from near the bushes by the creature’s tail. “We gotta deal with this.” He kicked at whatever it was and the metallic clink gave it away as the chain.

Coming around to check it, Will saw that it was a giant bear trap, about four or so feet in diameter. It seemed that whoever had trapped this creature hadn’t even bothered to clean their equipment. “There might be fingerprints on it,” Will mumbled to himself. The security drones couldn’t pick them up so the next best thing would be… “We’re taking it in with us. Drop the metal clippers with the sling.”

“Aye, Cap’n,” Fig said with a mock salute as they departed.

 Will and Ferny stood guard while Taylor moved over to the creature’s injured leg. The vet searched for signs of infection or parasites, he was unsure of what the symptoms of infection might be on this planet nor whether their antibiotics would work here but he had some hope as it was evident that the sedative drugs used on Cletus, Homestead, and Earth have so far proven to be relatively universal. Thus the same could be extremely tentatively assumed for NW2043. The vet was broken out of his thoughts as he finished up wrapping the injury by Will’s inaudible mutters. “What is it, Captain?”

“We’re gonna have to move the base off of that magnetic field so that it can recalibrate its sensors and those of the drones,” Will said. “But something crossed my mind,” he paused in though momentarily.

Taylor and Ferny waited patiently for him to get his thoughts together.

“I figured,” Will began slowly. “We’re new here and as such we are at a disadvantage to whoever has been here before us… I think that perhaps this magnetic field could work to our benefit. It distorts our signal which would keep unwanted visitors from finding us.”

“Ah,” Ferny hummed. “I see what you mean. But how are we gonna recalibrate all our shit?”

“You could program some of the Magister’s algorithms and programs and what-not onto one of the cruisers,” Taylor suggested as he checked over his work and packed his supplies. “Have it somewhere away from the magnetic zone as an independent repair bay.”

“The drones can be programmed to pass through it on their own if they’re damaged,” Will finished. “For someone not into too much tech, you know your stuff.”

“It seemed obvious,” Taylor smirked teasingly.

The deep hum of the cruiser’s engines brought their attentions upwards. They could see the gray shape coming to hover above them through the canopy. Its thrusters rotating downwards to keep it from dropping. A hatch opened from its belly and steadily lowered a mess of blue fabric, edged in retroreflective silver, and sturdy elastic rope, all kept in a comprehensible structure by thick metal rods to which the fabric was attached. Epps, Fig, and Angie descended with the harness, balancing on the metal rods and holding the steel ropes for support.

The unconscious creature barely stirred at the noise.

“Ok,” Will began as they all gathered by the harness. “I think we can do this bit by bit. We can use the extra material to heave its hind legs on first,” he glanced at Taylor for confirmation before continuing. “Then we can do the chest. No- wait,” he cut himself off. “Do the chest first and secure it. Then we can lift it and do the legs as well. That better?”

“Whatever you want, Captain,” Ferny shrugged. “As long as the doc approves.”

“Sounds good to me,” Taylor shrugged and Angie nodded.

It took a bit of effort to get the harness under the creature’s chest as it was quite hefty, though not quite as much as the group had feared. They only needed to lift it about a foot for Angie to haul the material under it and then they set it down. The harness wrapped around the chest like an elimitick dog vest but was loose at the top so the support rods could be slipped through the fabric. Angie secured it with a titanium zipper and as a further measure pulled the steel hooks over the seam in the case of extra strain.

They instructed the cruiser to ascend about four feet briefly until they fit the rest of the harness to the creature before instructing it to lower again. Carefully, they folded the wings into the harness so they wouldn’t be damaged as they rose over the canopy. They didn’t add extra support to the long tail as they lacked the material but they were extremely gentle when fitting the sling around the creature’s head. That sling they carefully attached to one of the support rods to keep the head elevated.

“Don’t forget that trap,” Epps reminded.

“Oh, yeah,” Fig perked up as he unshouldered his own bag and took out a set of mean looking clippers. “Didn’t bring these down for nothing after all.” The chain links were thick and sturdy and it took a bit of effort but the clippers proved sturdier as they cut through the metal. They chucked a stick on the trap to spring it before tying it to the base of the ladder.

One by one they clambered up the ladder and into the cruiser and untying the strap as it came in. The little security drones, that were practically useless until they were repaired, all flew in and attached themselves to their charging stations.

They raised the harness slowly off the ground and kept a close eye on the creature in case it woke up. It didn’t. It hung limply in the harness but thankfully the elastic fabric hugged it tightly and the reinforced ropes and rods held firm. Due to the hanging tail they couldn’t pull it all the way up into the cruiser so it hung under the open hatch the entire flight back.

Back at the base the rest of the team had successfully set up a containment dome. The containment domes were a set of mechanical pillars, about five feet tall and a foot wide, each connected by powerlines and short-range sensors which allowed the pillars to regulate their energy output according to the conditions of the others. The dome they had used required seven pillars arranged in a heptagonal shape with about twenty feet between each pillar. Once the force field was enabled the dome would be about forty five feet tall at its highest point and with an area of about fourteen hundred square feet. It should be enough for the creature temporarily as Taylor estimated it to be about eighteen feet long.

The cruiser hovered over the unsealed dome and began a slow, steady descend. Within five minutes the creature was suspended about four feet off the ground. Under the direction of Taylor and Angie, Johnson and Stewart removed the sling from the creature but left the blue cloth tied over its eyes. The harness was retracted and the cruiser was returned to its charging station in the Magister.

The team stood guard while Taylor and Angie went about cleaning the blood and sterilizing the injuries and collecting blood samples and skin samples and saliva samples and what-not else. They changed the bandages on the leg and sprayed antiseptic on the horn stubs before wrapping the bandages around them and its head. Taylor attached a small heart rate monitor to the creature’s foreleg which he then wrapped up in bandages. They wouldn’t know what the creature’s normal heart-rate is meant to be but it will be good to know at all times that its heart was beating at all.

They took pictures of all the damage and then began recording body sizes and lengths. They slowly formed a profile for the creature.

“Is it male or female?” Angie asked from where she was checking its ears.

“It might not be either,” Taylor answered absently as he poked around the pelvic area. “Remember this is an alien species.”

“It’s a dragon,” Marty whispered to Gaby with slight disbelief. “I don’t think its sex matters.”

“Every detail matters when cataloguing a new species,” Taylor said.

Especially when it is the species that our entire mission is centred upon,” Gaby added, though she too had a hard time believing what she was seeing.

It became apparent, once Taylor was done poking around, that this creature was neither one sex but both. "Like snails,” Angie murmured excitedly.

The rest of the team shared a look. “So like…” Donelly began hesitantly. “Can it, you know… with itself?” He finished with a small shrug and a less than appropriate hand motion.

“Reproduce asexually?” Taylor queried absently as he typed something into his tablet. “Most likely not. The organs are not positioned in a manner that would allow that. However it is possible that there might be an internal function that allows for it. Though such methods of reproduction are not very advantageous because they reduce variety. That is because there is no new genes being added from a second parent-”

“OK, thank you,” Donelly interrupted hastily.

Taylor merely huffed as he stood and went to wait by Angie. The zoologist was carefully removing the cloth from over the creature’s eyes. She pulled one eye open gently while the vet took a picture of it before doing the same to the other and labelling them accordingly.

“What should we name this species?” Angie wondered.

“Well,” Taylor began. “At best we can label it morphologically but we cannot label it taxonomically in any regard without referencing the other species NW2043 has to offer. I propose using Latin grammaticism to create a species name and we may create a genus name after reviewing other members of the species.”

“… I don’t think her question was that complex,” Epps muttered to Will who nodded.

“She seems satisfied though,” Will pointed out.

“Perhaps just a general name until we find other specimens of the species,” Angie proposed. “Any ideas, guys?” She called out to the rest of the team.

“Why is this even a question,” Maggie called out, having just joined the group in time to hear Taylor’s lecture.  “Just call it dragon and be done with it.”

A chorus of agreement had Taylor rolling his eyes with an amused huff. “I kind of wanted to call it that too,” he admitted with a small smirk. “I think we’re done here,” he said. “For now.”

With a manual command to pillar one, which technically unfolded into a two by two meter gateway, the dome activated with a low hum. A faintly rippling force field separated the team from the creature- dragon. The light rain rolled off the dome smoothly but the rippling was very slightly sporadic, likely due to the electromagnetism of the area, it didn’t seem to be a problem though.

“All we have to do now is wait,” Taylor said.

 

The Creature We've All Been Waiting For

DA

Chapter Text

It was a rumble of thunder that woke him. He grumbled painfully as he became aware of the dull ache and rhythmic sting that hit him from both leg and head. He could hear the rain pounding the ground and the winds tearing through the trees.

He tried to crack his eyes open but his lids felt as though they were weighed by stones. He crooned in pain as another ache pulsed through him. As the sensation went away he found himself slipping out of consciousness once more.

 

There was no thunder the next time he woke, just the gentle pattering of the rain. He smelled the sweet scent of the grass after a thunderstorm and his belly grumbled unhappily. His left eye cracked open, barely a sliver, but his vision was obstructed by the greenery. He huffed with effort as he opened his mouth and coaxed a few blades of grass in with his tongue.

He barely managed to manoeuvre the blades back to his molars before he found himself exhausted. He paused to rest.

 

The sounds of the hither-warblers hinted at the early dawn before he even opened his eyes to look. The dull ache was ever present but without the sting. His mind felt clearer than it had in fair amount of time.

His eyes opened slowly and with more success than the last few times. He was lying in a field of grass and he could taste some of the stalks in his mouth. He took a deep breath of the petrichor as he raised his head slightly.

He was out in the open. It wasn’t raining for now and there were patchy hints of a pinkish sky and a rising sun. His jaws split open in a wide yawn and as he ran his tongue over his teeth he noticed that he was missing his second-left-top fang. He grunted irritably, he didn’t remember hunting anything tough enough to risk his fangs.

With a huff he pushed himself to a semi-sitting position. There was something on his leg, he noted. It was as white as his scales but stained with dirt where it had rested on the ground. It seemed very flat, bar the little lump in the middle of it. He’d never seen such an odd wraperund. He nudged it with his snout and it didn’t even twitch.

With a heave and a helpful flap of his wings he pulled himself up onto four legs… Only for his left hind leg to give out under his weight with a sharp jolt of pain. He stumbled slightly with a whining hiss and went back into his semi-sitting position to look at his leg. There was another odd flat wraperund on it but this one was stained dark purple. It was draining his blood! No wonder he was hurting.

He snarled and tried to bite it but putting pressure on it only caused more pain. He could quite fit his claws under its tight grip without causing himself more pain. He panted through the powerful ache that his actions had caused as he slumped back into a lying position. Tricky buggers.

After a while the ache went away, the way it had been before he’d touched it. Perhaps he ought to leave it as it is. The drove would find a way to free him of its grasp.

Glancing up he could see the treeline a few hundred bounds away. The mountains were several thousand leaps farther, not very far for a flying creature like himself. He needed to get home, to tell the drove what he’d seen.

What had he seen? He frowned as he pushed himself up again, this time not putting weight on his left hind leg. He remembered vaguely at best.

He remembered the silver jaws tearing his legs and the sting of pain in his leg, flank, and neck. He remembered the blurry shapes of the scavengers and their filthy, smoky scents. He remembered the horrid pain before blacking out.

He crooned reproachfully. He should have listened. He should have listened and stayed away when they’d told him.

He noted the odd, gray, metal pillars that surrounded him. They stood completely straight and their edges shimmered faintly. A ritual perhaps? That was new, ‘they’ hadn’t been seen performing rituals before.

He looked around curiously before he spotted it. The large smooth, metal den that ‘they’ used to transport themselves. He knew where he was. He’d been here two nights back and they’d seen him. They’d seen him and struck at the right opportunity.

He hissed in displeasure, backing away from the metal den. At least ‘they’d caught him before he’d led them to the drove, there’s nothing worse that could have happened. What would they do with him now?

A sudden hiss sounded and a portion of the metal den separated and began lowering to the ground. With a startled hiss he jumped back and flapped his wings to propel himself further. That turned out to be a mistake as he collided with something solid. He spun in surprise only to find nothing behind himself. The rapid, nonsensical chirps of his captors swiftly reached his ears and he made a run for it.

He screeched in pain as he slammed head first into something solid yet again. His horns stung and burned with pain and his jerk backwards had him leaning on his injured leg. He collapsed in a heap of aching limbs and twitching wings as he looked around frantically. There were no walls nor barriers, merely those pillars. Suddenly the small shimmer they emitted made sense, it was magic! It had to be. These creatures were going to turn him into a grondle and no one would even know!

He stood shakily as five of ‘them’ approached him. He spread his wings and hissed as they stood between two of the pillars. He relaxed marginally, reasoning that if he couldn’t get through then the opposite would be true. They spoke slowly and in low tones, unlike the tones of the others whose words turned quickly and sharply, that were somewhat soothing but he wasn’t quick to trust. They raised their forelimbs in a gesture he wasn’t sure what to make of but didn’t feel aggressive.

He could see the long rods, the first ones called them ‘guns’, hidden behind the backs of two of ‘them’ and he huffed in their direction, eyeing them suspiciously. He wasn’t about to be caught off guard. ‘They’ at him in confusion and he huffed again. For such small creatures they caught on quickly and soon they’d divested themselves of their weapons, much to his surprise.

He didn’t know what to do then. He didn’t expect them to be non-hostile, let alone to be compliant with his demands. What kind of captors were they?

He tilted his head at their confusing gestures as his wings lowered slightly, the muscles still too weak to hold them up for so long. ‘They’ seemed to copy him as ‘they’ also relaxed slightly and their shoulders lowered. Perhaps these ones were more like the ‘first ones’?

He looked on suspiciously as one of ‘them’ reached into its strange, side-hanging pouch and pulled out a… a toothslip? How in Primus’ name did their clawless paws manage to grapple one of those out of the lake? As it approached him it held out the limp, slippery toothslip to him and he tilted his head further. Were they giving it to him?

He tensed as it said something and six peculiarly round bugs zoomed out of one of the pillars. They hovered in a circle between him and it and whatever barrier separated them shimmered slightly and seemed to disappear from the inside of the small circle, only big enough for him to fit his snout through. He remained in his spot and cautiously watched as it stretched its paw in and deposited the toothslip on the ground before backing away.

He looked at the toothslip for a moment then back at ‘them’ as they watched him curiously. Was that all? No gun… fire? No restraints? No pain? Were they not going to torture and mutilate him the way they’d done to his friends and likely to all his missing comrades? Where were they anyways?

He couldn’t see nor sniff a single other iupitrix around. The ‘other ones’ never wasted time when a new metal den arrived. Perhaps these ones were exiled? Maybe they couldn’t hunt properly?

Maybe they don’t want to hunt? A small voice niggled in the back of his mind but he chased it away with a flick of his ear. He inched forward carefully and snapped up the toothslip with his fangs before backing away. It could almost be considered a courting gift if it wasn’t so pathetically small. He swallowed it with a hint of apprehensive gratitude as he realized just how hungry he was.

With reluctance, he looked at the five of ‘them’ and crooned while licking his limps. The one that had given the toothslip made a series of noises that were vaguely familiar to him. He’d been very young when the ‘first ones’ had passed away, but he distinctly remembered what ‘more’ meant. He tipped his head forward briefly and the creatures seemed to buzz with excitement at the meagre display of body language.

They gave him another toothslip and he took it without complaint. Maybe they were trying to appease him? Whatever the case he might as well take the time to study them a bit, they so far didn’t seem interested in hurting him.

As ‘they’ chattered among themselves he became increasingly aware of an irritating itch and ache at the base of his horns. Shaking his head did nothing to dispel the sensation so he licked a paw and raised it up to clean whatever dirt or little parasites was bothering him. His irritation bled into confusion as his paw passed right through his horns when he tried once, twice, and on the third try his confusion faded into anger.

So ‘they’d taken his horns anyways, nevermind their kindness. He hissed and rumbled in displeasure at ‘them’ and bared his fangs in a warning. When he got out, they’d regret it. He was usually mild mannered and laidback or at least that’s what the others said but if there was one thing that a horned iupitrix did not want touched, it was the horns.

‘They’ looked at him in confusion and some of his ire was tapered at the seemingly genuine expression. He found himself feeling slightly, if irrationally betrayed, he’d only just begun to think that ‘they’ were different. He lowered his head at them to display his missing horns and their eyes seemed to brighten in understanding.

The one that gave him the toothslip pointed to the treeline with a low murmur that sounded distinctly like an explanation. He snorted suspiciously, yes, that is indeed where ‘they’ caught him and now he was here. It frowned at his rightfully apprehensive behaviour and turned to speak to its companions. ‘They’ seemed to discuss something for a while before one of ‘them’ trotted off to the metal den, only to return in a few moments with a slightly larger round bug hovering near it. It looked like the round bug that had threatened him in the forest when he'd been caught, except smaller. He looked at it cautiously.

‘They’ poked around with it for a few moments before a thread of light suddenly erupted from the bug and he stepped back in surprise. What in Primus’ name? The light spread out in a square as though it were a solid object and images appeared on it, as though it were a portal showing another plane… But it couldn’t be, it was showing ‘them’, the five that were with him right now. ‘They’ were walking through the forest and he could even hear ‘them’ speaking in their odd language. ‘They’ seemed to be searching for something and it appeared ‘they’d found it when the one in the front motioned them what must have been a command to stop.

‘They’ peered through a bush and the image moved past ‘them’ to show… him? ‘They’ really had found him like that, hadn’t ‘they’?

He tilted his head as the image froze once it rounded to his front. He’d seen the bloody metal jaws lying in the bushes and the dazed look in his own eyes. What hit him the most… were the pathetic little stumps on his head.

He must have voiced his disbelief as one of ‘them’ approached the barrier and spoke soothingly. It was again the one that gave him the toothslip and it approached the barrier with a paw held out and stuck it through the hole in the barrier that the smaller round bugs had made. He approached slowly as to not spook it and also in case it tried something on him. He sniffed at the small, clawless paw and it seemed to beam with happiness when he didn’t pull away when it stroked his snout.

It reached into its pouch and pulled out another toothslip. “More?” It said as it held it out encouragingly.

Mhru~,” he tried to repeat the odd little sound with poor results. Despite that it seemed to brighten up at his attempt.

Wait,” it said again as it held up a hand and went to its little group. This was another one of the sounds that he was vaguely familiar with and so he sat down carefully.

‘They’- hmm, perhaps he should think of another way to refer to them. They didn’t seem like the other ‘they’ that attacked the droves. He wasn’t sur what to call them though. ‘Friends’ seemed like a stretch presently and ‘acquaintances’ took too long to say.

As he contemplated, they returned with one of them pushing a big something with a round spinning something at the front and it was full of toothslips.  The one that gave him the toothslips approached him and thrust a paw forward and said “Back.” He was pretty sure that it wanted him to stay so he sat back on his haunches and watched as it gave him a look before shaking its tiny head. It waved the one with the thing-full-of-toothslips over.

The second one seemed apprehensive so the first one took the thing-full-of-toothslips and approached the barrier. The round bugs that made the hole lowered themselves and spread out farther and farther until it was big enough for it to step through. The others called out to it apprehensively but it waved an assuring paw as it pushed the thing-full-of-toothslips to him and stepped back.

He looked at the toothslips and then at it and then back and then at it again. It seemed to be waiting for him to do something, probably to eat. He stepped over the thing-full-of-toothslips and approached the thing as he sniffed curiously. What exactly was it? What did it want? Where did it and ‘they’ come from?

It backed away jerkily and fell over itself. He snorted, well, what can it expect when it walks on its hind legs like that, hopelessly unbalanced. It spoke a few words to him that he didn’t understand. He did however understand that it saying “Whoa,” and holding its paw out like that meant ‘slow down’… or ‘stop’… one of the two. In any case, he stopped advance but didn’t stop his deep inhales as he took in the strange scent of this one.

The smell of toothslips was inescapable but underlying it was the metallic scent of their den and something vaguely bitter but not unpleasantly so. There was also a sort of musk to it, not unlike that of the hither-warblers. Very confusing, perhaps Prime would know more?

Taylor.”

He paused. What? He tilted his head looking down at it.

“Taylor,” it tapped a paw to its chest and repeated. “Taylor, I am Taylor.”

A name, perhaps. Was it introducing itself? Maybe it and its group were more social than he’d thought. He should probably introduce himself too.

“Hsss,” their language was irritatingly difficult to emulate. It- Taylor seemed a bit apprehensive at the accidental hiss.

He tried again. “Hhasss,” not quite there. “Sshhas.” Now it seemed confused by his attempts. Prime could emulate it better than he could. Their language mixed poorly with the iupitrix’s chirruping one.

Taylor murmured something to its group and they seemed to perk up with interest.

“Shasz,” Primus damn it! “Shaz,” he barked, now frustrated with himself. “Shaz! Shazzzz!” He grumbled irritably as Taylor cracked a smile. “Jazz!” The loud bark startled even the hither-warblers into silence but he didn’t care. He got it right. “Jazz,” he said again, quieter now and imitated Taylor’s action of tapping a paw against his chest.

Taylor pulled itself to its feet as it looked at Jazz. “Nice to meet you, Jazz,” it said.

Jazz wasn’t going to bother trying to emulate that but he knew that it was a friendly set of noises. He inclined his head as he backed away to begin working at that inviting pile of toothslips. He was now almost certain that they meant him no harm.

Now to find a way to get them to take the wraperunds off.

Chapter Text

“Incredible! Absolutely fascinating,” Taylor murmured to himself as he typed away at his tablet. “It communicated with us!”

“You sound like a mad scientist, man,” Fig grinned.

“It also introduced itself,” Will commented as he glanced out the window at the lounging dragon. “If we can understand it well enough or vice versa perhaps it can help us with our investigation.”

“Can we bring one small fact to light here,” Epps muttered from behind his coffee mug. “It introduced itself, yes, but it called itself Jazz. That’s a human thing… or an extreme coincidence.”

“Perhaps Captain Witwicky has logged these creatures!” Angie said excitedly.

“Magister,” Will said. “Filter Captain Witwicky’s logs for any mention of an organism like Jazz.”

~Yes, sir~ the Magister took a moment as it did its job before speaking again ~I have found a single reference that may or may not refer to what you are searching for~

The screen on the wall of the rec room lit up as Captain Witiwicky’s seventh log was fast-forwarded to two minutes and seventeen seconds in.

“-have made a fascinating discovery! A number of extraordinary creatures have been looking around the Discovery for a few days now! They appear non-hostile and fairly gentle, like dogs now that I think about it! I find myself quite captivated by what we’ve already observed of their behaviours and we will begin making separate logs to document them!”

Now on another note, engine three-“

~Those logs mentioned are not within the tablet that was brought in~ The Magister supplied helpfully.

“Field trip anyone?” Ferny grinned.

“Epps can take a team up to the discovery tomorrow,” Will said. “I’ll remain with the rest to help settle Jazz in.”

“We need to tag him,” Gabby said. “He could lead us to the rest of his group, that is, if he’s a social creature.”

“I am fairly certain that he’s social. He wouldn’t have been early that friendly otherwise,” Angie answered. “Even still, I am surprised he warmed up to us that quickly.”

“He probably knows or managed to figure out that we meant him no harm,” Ferny said from the couch. “He seemed like a fairly intelligent animal. I mean… he spoke.”

“He imitated,” Taylor corrected, “sounds that he has heard before. Captain Witwicky must have gotten pretty close to them.”

“If we can communicate to him that we want to help then they might cooperate with us,” Will said. “This would make our job infinitely easier.”

“So, what then?” Marty asked. “We teach it how to talk and convince it to help us fight crime?”

“Basically,” Will said thoughtfully. “It sounds kind of cool when you put it like that. ‘How To Train Your Dragon’ anybody?” He asked as he picked up a remote.

“Yes, please,” Fig said as he threw himself on the couch.

.o.

“Alright, Jazz,” Taylor said gently as Jazz looked at him curiously. “I’m going to need you to lay down, OK?” He stepped into the enclosure and sat on the ground.

Jazz looked at him with a tilt to his head before plopping down on his haunches. Taylor hadn’t really noticed in the excitement of the last couple of days but Jazz had a very lovely shade of blue underlining his slightly darker blue eyes.

“Lay down, OK? Laay. Doown.” He said slowly as he laid on his side.

Jazz crooned softly before flopping down on his side hard enough for Taylor to feel it. He picked his head up to look at the vet as he stood up.

“Good job,” Taylor approached him slowly and moved over to the injured leg while Jazz kept a sharp eye on him. “Come in, Angie,” he waved over the nervous but giddy zoologist.

Angie stepped in gingerly and froze when Jazz turned his sharp gaze to her. She waved at him nervously with a small grin.

Jazz trilled in greeting. “Taylor?” he questioned as he looked at her.

Angie’s eyebrows knitted in confusion. “Um… no, Angie. An-Gie.” She pointed to herself.

Ahh-shie~” Jazz seemed mildly disappointed in himself while Angie was thoroughly amused.

“An-Gie,” she tried again helpfully while Taylor snorted slightly and unshouldered his bag.

Ahn-Ghi~” Jazz failed again.

“Close, close,” Angie encouraged. “Try again.”

Ahn-Gie~” Jazz said with a mildly satisfied purr. “Ahngie. Angie. Taylor,” he jerked his head to the vet. “Angie,” He looked back at her.

“Yes,” She clapped her hands, “Well done.”

He chirruped happily and purred. His self-satisfied purring was interrupted however when he felt a tugging at his injured leg.

Taylor was explicitly aware of the dragon’s intense gaze on him as he began cutting away at the bandages. He felt a niggling apprehension but was determined not to let it distract him. He set the bloodied bandages aside and studied the wound. It was already healing remarkably well and he’d managed not to disturb any of the scabs that had formed. He couldn’t see anything that might resemble irritation or any visible sign of parasitic organisms.

He took pictures of the wound again before bandaging it once more. While he’d been doing that Angie had checked Jazz’s heart monitor and Jazz himself seemed quite interested by the little machine. “His heart rate has dropped dramatically since we brought him here,” She said. “His physical condition has changed also. His skin is six degrees cooler, his pupils are no longer dilated, and his breathing isn’t laboured, we didn’t measure his blood pressure but I’d wager that whatever he’d been drugged with had affected it as well.”

“I want to take a blood sample,” Taylor said. “We could compare it to the last sample and maybe find some traces of the drug, given that his immune system hadn’t destroyed them before we froze the samples.”

They re-wrapped the heart monitor for continual observation and moved to Jazz’s other wrist. He pressed hard on the skin and the dragon twitched in slight discomfort but otherwise didn’t move. Between two of the tendons leading to his paw a bluish vein became visible. Angie took out a sizeable syringe and murmured soothingly to Jazz as she stuck it in the vein on the first try. She took out a good sample of dark purple blood before putting away the sample and placing the needle in a disposal bag. She dabbed at the small nick while Taylor patted Jazz’s chest. “Well done, Jazz.”

“Let’s check those horns now,” Taylor said as he kneeled up so he was level with Jazz head. He reached towards Jazz slowly, allowing him to become accustomed with having hands near his face. He cut away one of the bandages before putting the knife aside in case the dragon grew nervous. He steadily unwrapped the rest of the bandages and Jazz seemed a bit confused, having not noticed that there was something wrapped around his head.

The horns also seemed to be healing nicely. They didn’t appear irritated and were no longer bleeding. It was a shame that such a magnificent creature, any creature had to suffer such a fate. Who knew how many more had been left to die like this? Taylor shook his head as he wrapped up the individual stubs with a smaller, finer set of bandages.

Taylor moved on to Jazz’s snout and the abrasions marring it. They were no longer smooth and moist but had a roughness only slightly different from that of the rest of the skin. “He has a remarkable healing factor,” he commented as he stroked the dragon’s snout. Jazz purred at the gentle touch.

“I’m surprised he trusts us so much already,” Angie said with a small smile at the purring. “It’s odd.”

Taylor returned the smile. “I think he’s smarter than we give him credit for. Perhaps he’s decided that he is able to defend himself should we choose to turn on him and as such is allowing himself to relax more.”

“I think you’re giving him too much credit,” Marty cut in as he approached the dome with Ritchie, the Malinois, at his side. “What if he’s like the dodos and is simply too stupid to stay cautious?” He was part of the group that stayed behind while Will went off with the others to the Discovery.

“I don’t think so,” Angie said. “Jazz learned mine and Taylor’s names in less than five minutes each. That’s faster than even the fastest learning parrots.”

“Jazz?” Marty asked as the dragon ambled over to take a closer look at him and Ritchie.

“He introduced himself,” Taylor said somewhat smugly. “He has a capacity for learning and a memory span that’s God knows how long. He’s interacted with people before. It must have been Archibald’s crew.”

Taylor,” Jazz said as he looked at Marty. “Taylor?”

“No,” Angie chuckled, “Marty,” she said as she pointed to the man. “Mar-Tee.”

Maarh~,” He ended the half-word with a huff and tried again. “Marhtee.” He huffed again in said man’s direction. “Martee.”

“Uh, yeah,” Marty said dumbly. “Well colour me impressed. Do you think he’s comprehending or just remembering?”

“Not a clue yet,” Angie said. “We’ll find out if we get to spend enough time with him but we can’t keep him captive forever. It’s cruel.”

“Well, clearly he comprehends something,” Taylor said. “He had comprehension enough to know that Jazz is his name or is at least associated with him and that we in turn should associate him with it.”

Jazz lowered his head until he was level with Ritchie. He crooned with a tilt of his head.

“Do you know what that is?” Angie stressed the ‘what’ hoping he might pick up on it. He did.

“Whaaht~.” It was very breathy but the gist of the word was there.

“What is it?” Angie supplied.

“Whaahtsssit,” Jazz said with an inquisitive tilt of his head as if understanding what she were trying to teach him.

“It is a dog,” Angie said slowly as she and Taylor came to stand near him.

Dahg,” Jazz attempted. “Doog. Dog.” He chirped in satisfaction. “Dog.”

“Do you want to know his name?” Taylor asked as he observed Jazz reaction.

Jazz simply looked to him questioningly. “Whaht?” It was less throaty this time but more impressive was that he’d used it correctly.

“My name,” Taylor began. “Is Taylor. Her name is Angie. His name is Marty. Do you want to know the dog’s name?

Jazz looked at him momentarily as one ear twitched idly. “What… dog name?”

“The dog’s name is Ritchie,” Angie said.”

Name… Rhiishee,” Jazz tried. “Name… is?” He looked at Angie curiously and she nodded eagerly. “Name is Rhiishee. Dog- Dog’s name… is Rishee. Rithshee.” Jazz grumbled.

“He seems to have a problem when the consonants pile up,” Marty noted. “I gotta admit though it’s not a setback.”

Dog’s name is… Ri-tchie,” Jazz bit out with a triumphant expression.

“Good job, Jazz!” Angie exclaimed as she patted Jazz’s shoulder but grinned sheepishly when he flinched slightly. “Sorry.”

What is… Angie?” Jazz rumbled out. His ‘speech’ was smoothing over by this point, no longer sounding hoarse and forced.

“I am human,” she said. “Taylor is also human.”

Jazz looked between the two of them. “Angie, Taylor… Marty? Is Human?”

“Yes, that’s right,” Taylor nodded in approval.

Jazz purred in satisfaction. His attention was suddenly stolen by the hydraulic hiss of the Magister’s docking bay opening. A sleek cruiser pulled out slowly with lowly humming engines. The hum turned into sharp whine as the cruiser pulled away and towards the treeline before once again smoothing to a hum.

“Let’s hope they find something useful,” Marty mumbled.

As the docking bay closed the entry ramp opened and Epps exited with a slightly limping Mindy at his side. “You guys gonna have lunch?” he asked as Marty came over to look at Mindy. “She didn’t want to stay inside,” he explained. “So lunch?”

“In a while,” Taylor said as he stepped out of the enclosure. “We must feed Jazz first.” He stepped past Epps and went to kneel by Mindy. He’s not been checking up on her as much the past two days.

“So this is Jazz,” Epps said as he came up to the dome. “Looking way better, big guy.”

Jazz chuffed as he leaned closer to the new arrival. “What?”

“Who, Jazz,” Angie corrected.

Jazz looked at her. “Who name?”

“No, who is he,” She said helpfully.

“Who is he?” Jazz asked uncertainly, looking at Epps who looked back with an impressed expression.

“Yes, but when you talk to him,” she pointed at Epps, “You ask, ‘who are you’. Make sense?”

Jazz’s left ear flicked uncertainly as he seemed to mull over her words. He slowly turned to look at Epps. “Who ahr ouh? Who ahr you?” He corrected himself several more times until he was happy with the sound before actually asking Epps.

“My name’s Epps,” the man said with a small amount of amusement.

“Epps,” Jazz said, getting right on the first try, and his wings flapped happily when the man nodded.

“You been training him?” Epps asked Angie.

The woman shrugged as she stepped out of the dome. “Kind of. He already knew some things when we started.”

“Hence the mission,” Epps said. “Fast learner?” He asked as Jazz continued to look at them curiously.

“Incredibly,” Angie said. “Also surprisingly fast to switch from aggressive to friendly. A bit confusing considering what’s happened to him but then again, if he’s as intelligent as we think he is, his friendliness might not be all it seems.”

Epps chuckled, breaking the semi-serious atmosphere. “You’re making it sound as if he’s about to start discussing politics with us.”

Angie snorted unceremoniously. “I mean, for all we know he might once he knows the language well enough. It’s as if he’s studying us.” She glanced at the dragon who seemed to be minding his own business at the water trough they’d installed.

“Well,” Epps said with a shrug. “As long as he doesn’t eat either of you. How are those blood samples going? Mr World-Renowned-Vet find anything useful?”

“No,” Angie shook her head. “He has Johnson and Stewart working on it. I’m surprised you guys aren’t more actively trying to come and see Jazz. I thought the crew was excited to have a dragon around?”

“Oh, they are,” Epps said. “Like you wouldn’t believe. Will told us not to crowd him though. That was yesterday when you two were treating him,” He explained.

“So you’re taking turns?”

“Kind of,” Epps said. “Marty wanted originally to walk Ritchie, I wanted to come see Jazz. Donelly and Maggie are trying to set up one of the cruisers with proper repairs equipment, Fig wants to pet Jazz but he’s away-”

“Oh, before you continue, I just remembered,” Angie interrupted but Epps didn’t mind. “Why not just use the Discovery as a repair base?”

“Will and I already discussed this with some of the others,” Epps said. “The Discovery is too far away to be efficient and she can’t be moved, we don’t have the equipment and two of her engines are busted and some of her control gear is of no use.”

“And here I thought I had a good idea,” Angie sighed dramatically.

“Oh, it’s a good idea,” Epps said. “But until we have the equipment to repair her it’s not a feasible one.”

“Someday though,” Angie said.

“Yeah, after we catch the baddies and get recognised as somebodies,” Epps said with a wry smirk.

“I thought this was only an exposition gig, not an actual cufflinks and jail cells kinda deal,” Angie asked with a puzzled frown.

“If you knew Will as long as I do,” Epps chuckled, “you’d know he’ll never take crime laying down. Not after seeing something like what happened to Jazz.”

 

.o.

“When old Archie documents stuff, boy does he document stuff,” Fig said as he carefully exited the Discovery with a crate of tablets in arms.

“Yeah,” Ferny grumbled, “Except it’s none of the stuff that we came here for.” He readjusted his grip on the container of chargers.

~I apologize for the inconvenience, Ferny~ The Discovery said, slightly startling him.

“It’s fine,” Ferny said with a shrug. “We’ve only been searching for, what, twenty minutes? We’ll find them.”

Inside the old ship, Will was digging through yet another cabinet with little success. He shut the dusty doors with a groan. “Discovery, do you have any loose wall panels or floor panels or any hollow spaces that shouldn’t be hollow? And why, why, why are these files, that you say exist, hidden?”

~I do not know, sir, my memory files have corrupted over time~

“Well, that’s just great, isn’t it?” Will huffed. “Well, you knew your Captain. Where do you think he hid them?”

~I am a computer system, Captain Lennox, I cannot think in the same manner you do. I cannot predict decisions of living beings, the variables are too many for me to act on without overheating my CPU~

“Yeah, but you can hypothesize,” Will urged.

The Discovery went silent for a moment as though weighing its options ~You could try the floor panel under and to the left of the boiler in the engine room~

Will’s head jerked back in slightly exaggerated surprise and puzzlement as Gaby also stepped in from one of the offices with a similar expression. “Oddly specific, isn’t it?”

~My security logs indicate increased and seemingly unnecessary access to that panel by Captain Witwicky and Alexander Roth, our resident Biologist, in the last dozen or so sets before the Captain’s disappearance~

“Disappearance?” Gaby wondered. “I thought he died?”

~He is one of the two that were unaccounted for~ Discovery explained. “Though given his condition it is a logical assumption that he had passed away due to the infection~

“Who was the other unaccounted one?”

~Alexander Roth~

“Sounds fishy to me,” Gaby mumbled as they made their way to the engine room. “Both unaccounted for, both knew where the files were hidden. Discovery, when were the first signs of poaching noted?”

~Approximately thirty-three and a half years ago~

“You said the crew’s CMO had devised a cure,” Will said. “What happened to him? Why weren’t the crew recovered?”

~Officer Jared Rolland devised a cure that he suspected was either slow to take effect or only effective as a preventative measure. Neither option was confirmed nor falsified as he and the rest passed away beforehand~

Will and Gabby shared a look. “I sincerely hope that Johnson finishes synthesizing that- that vaccine, I guess, soon.”

They opened the door to the engine room and came upon an inconvenience.

“Discovery,” Will began, “which of the fourteen boilers are we meant to look under and to the left of?” Indeed fourteen rusted boilers lined the wall opposite of the four equally rusted engines.

~Ninth from the door, Captain~

“Two, four, six, eight- here we are,” Will mumbled to himself as he knelt next to the boiler, the floor panels also rusty with age and possibly leakage.

“To the left,” Gabby reminded.

“I remember,” Will said as he traced the specified panel. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a pocket knife. He stuck the end of one of the blades under the panel and levered it open. “Well… you have got to be joking.”

~I cannot ‘joke’, Captain Lennox~

The space under the panel was occupied by a number of… notebooks. However, the space had been flooded and of the couple dozen notebooks only… two, maybe, at the very top looked to be in adequate reading condition. Pretty much all of the rest, bar maybe those two, were completely waterlogged, moulded, or both.

“Looks like our resident tech duo, plus Fig, will be disappointed. Ain’t nothing they can fix here,” Gabby commented.

~I apologize for the inconvenience~

“It’s alright, Discovery,” Will said as he stood up. “Alright let’s go grab some boxes and get to sorting this mess out.”

Chapter Text

A peculiar group this one. Quite docile and very helpful. Turns out the wraperunds on his legs and his- his missing horns were not alive but rather were used to heal him. He was beginning to doubt that they were of ill-intent considering that nobody else that had been attacked had been treated this kindly, or so they’d say if they were ever found.

They were certainly a curious study. They babbled a lot to each other and their language flowed in its own weird way. It was, and he had to note again, incredibly frustrating to emulate but he was doing a decent job if he does say so himself. Once more, he couldn’t help but think how much easier Prime would be able to communicate with them.

If his memories could be trusted and Ironhide’s stories were accurate then these… homuns? Himins? Humans! He couldn’t keep calling them ‘them’, not when they were steadily proving to be not like ‘them’. Anyways, if he remembered correctly and if Ironhide was right then these creatures were like the first-to-come. Curious and inquisitive rather than hostile and thieving.

It had begun to rain once again but the strange invisible barrier shielded him from the falling water. He did miss the rain somewhat though, it was something all iupitrix have grown used to, the elders often grew worried when it stopped raining for longer than a couple of sunrises. Jazz crooned sadly as he laid down carefully.

He hadn’t seen home in almost five sunrises. They must be worried for him… or mourning. He had no doubt that they had at least spent some time searching for him and hopefully still were. He had hope, of course, that these creatures would eventually release him but if Ironhide had taught him anything it was to always prepare for the worst. Unfortunately, he had no means to prepare other than to just sit there and wait. The little round bugs never opened up the barrier enough for him to fit through.

What would happen if he got home anyways? He no longer had his long, curled horns. One of the only reasons he’d been desired as a mate, his sign of health and strength, now gone. His plain colours were hardly attractive and the meagre blues under his eyes were hardly eye-catching. His scales weren’t all bright and glossy like- like Primes or even Ratchet’s. He was born to be background noise, he wasn’t impressive, not by a long shot, at least not physically.

Jazz looked to the treeline with a feeling of homesickness. He wondered if his suitor would continue wanting to court with him if they saw each other again. He knew in his spark that he would not be abandoned but the worry was unavoidable.

He was pulled away from the approaching tangent when a small herd of wyplashes cautiously trotted from the forest. Their thin legs carefully marched through the grass and their big ears swivelled around attentively. Jazz frowned at them when they focused on him briefly before proceeding to ignore him, somehow knowing that he couldn’t harm them.

Little hither-warblers fluttered around them and roosted on their long horns. Some pecked at the parasites that must have littered the backs of the purple grazers. Their whip-like tails whipped sharply around occasionally, whacking at the irritating bugs that buzzed around them.

Jazz itched to hunt something. The wyplashes were perfectly sized for him even if their horns and tails were formidable defences. Not that he could hunt them though.

He laid down carefully in a loose curl. His tail swished idly, unsure if he was irritated or restless. Perhaps it was restlessness that was irritating him. But he didn’t feel that annoying little itch one got in their chest when they were irritated.

Jazz looked up with interest when a low hum drifted past his ears. One of the smaller flying dens was returning from wherever it had gone. It flew over his little dome smoothly and descended in a similar fashion. The flames it used to fly brought it low to the ground without actually burning it before backing into the bigger den. This confused Jazz, but he doubted that he could ask how it worked and get an answer that he understood.

His belly ached funnily, not painfully but oddly. It had been a while since he’d eaten any plants and toothslips alone weren’t enough to support a iupitrix, even one of his size. He tore off a mouthful of slightly bitter but otherwise tasteless grass.

He could see his hosts pointing at him through one of the neat holes lining the side of their large den as he chewed his greens. They certainly spent a lot of time pointing at him like sparklings, now that he thought about it. Boundlessly curious and judging by the ‘others’ that curiosity didn’t always lead to good things.

As sunfall drew near Taylor and Angie and a couple of curious standbys brought him what seemed to be his regular share of food. This time though, instead of a container of toothslips, they brought him a large thrashbyte, an impressive catch for such small creatures. This one would definitely be a suitable courting gift.

Before he dug into the waterdwelling creature Angie presented him with something tiny and red. Jazz had seen small round fruit like these on the trees the ‘first ones’ had left behind but he’d rarely eaten them. The subtly sweet smell was familiar however and he carefully took it from her tiny paw. He crushed the small fruit easily with his molars and a simple lookover of Angie revealed that she carried no more of the sweet fruit. He trilled in thanks, judging her response to this as positive, and went back to the thrashbyte.

As he ate he saw Taylor approach him with an odd item in its paw. The thing wasn’t very large at all but Taylor removed the top covering from it and revealed it to have a fairly pointy end. Taylor murmured soothingly to him and Jazz could see the rest of the group observing them with slight trepidation so, for their sakes, he decided to be calm and see what Taylor would do.

The human fiddled with the pointy thing for a moment before patting his shoulder. Jazz saw the thing getting pushed into him but he felt little more than the faint prickle he’d felt when the ‘others’ had ambushed him. He frowned and his tail flicked nervously as the human squeezed the thing before removing it. It dabbed at the small trickle of blood before sticking something over it.

Jazz waited a few moments to see if he felt any odd sensations. Thankfully, it seemed that he’d feel nothing more than the quickly fading sting of the pointy thing. With a small huff and a brief whiff at the thing that Taylor stuck over the wound Jazz determined that he was, for now at least, not in harm’s way. He trilled as he finally got to dig into his dinner.

They watched him for a little while longer and he kept an ear up to futilely attempt to decode their babbles and murmurs. The one with the lighter coloured fur on its head seemed to lead them. They stood either side of it and listened to it talk and only spoke when it spoke to them, it was dissimilar to the lead-follow relationship Angie and Taylor showcased as their seemed to be more respect based. Meanwhile this one seemed to stem from an actual hierarchy.

The apparent leader held a small brown thingamajig in his paws. They pointed at it almost as much as they pointed at him as they chattered amongst each other. They seemed equal parts excited and frustrated, if what he’s observed of Angie and Taylor’s body language was accurate. He wondered why but knew that, until he could get back to Prime or Ratchet, that would remain a mystery.

By the time Jazz was finished with his dinner they’d gone back inside with a few parting chitters in his direction. He settled down to begin cleaning his snout and claws from the bluish water-critter blood. They were definitely more thoughtful than what the drove had prepared for. Although, to be fair, any sky-comers that didn’t attack, maul, and maim a iupitrix were more thoughtful than what they prepared for.

It continued to softly drizzle as the day gave to night and the hither-warblers began trilling their evening tunes. Jazz sighed as he listened to their disjointed songs. His lips parted minutely as he let off a soft warble of his own. His own song was easily drowned out by the warblers as they began to flock in the rain. Not that there was anyone in particular to hear it, his own suitor couldn’t quite appreciate his songs as he’d like him to just as he couldn’t appreciate his suitor’s gifts as he’d like to. They came from different places with different cultures and traditions. If Jazz was honest to himself he found their miscommunications to often be quite amusing.

Jazz continued his aimless song. His curling coos and weaving warbles slowly put together the serenade he’d carefully constructed for his intended. His last note he crooned long and low and even the warblers seemed to pause, making way for his song to be heard. I’m still singing for you.

His ears perked up as his last note drew to an end. No answer came, though he knew not to hope for one. Jazz sighed and began a different tune.

 

.o.

 

To whomever comes upon these records,

In recent times I’ve grown suspicious of some of my crewmembers though I am sad to announce I know not who. I’ve taken it upon myself to copy as much of our discoveries as I could in a manner that cannot be corrupted or changed without obvious evidence of tampering. While handwriting books is an incredibly old and outdated practice I find it to be the most inconspicuous in this situation and most advantageous to me. Once I am done, I shall destroy the typed copies. With this I present this extremely condensed version of our research.

The creatures which we will be discussing, the crew has unanimously decided to label as ‘iupitrix’. Derived from ‘iupiter’ or ‘Jupiter’.

To begin with, these creatures, you may notice if you’ve seen them, are remarkably similar to dragons, classical dragons. Six limbs, adhering to the six-limbed standard of the megafouna of this planet- four legs and a pair of wings. They are opportunistic omnivores as we came to find.

Their personalities vary individually however they share a wariness of strangers and kept their young until they came to trust us. Very loyal to each other although, as we came to find, population dynamics vary between populations.

Alex, a young biologist on the crew, had become quite keen on anthropomorphizing these creatures and had set out to write a fantastical take on this planet. The crew had managed to discern two of megadroves although the two populations seemed to be composed of smaller dispersed droves. The dynamics among the droves is incredibly complex to the point where most of us wished we had a trained sociologists on our crew.

Each small drove has a leader of sorts but each o…

 

Will frowned at the page for the nth time. “This was the cliché-est of clichés,” he rolled his eyes as he flipped to the next page to see it in just the same unreadable condition. Something seemed to have been dripping on the notebook, probably lubricant and oil judging by the colour.

“Look at it this way,” Johnson said as he nursed a mug of coffee. “If everything was figured out for us then it wouldn’t be interesting.” He smirked at Will’s deadpan stare.

Gaby snorted humourlessly. “This makes our job harder, if we knew where these droves generally lived we wouldn’t have to rely on tracking Jazz to only a single drove.”

“Well, yeah,” Maggie agreed. “But aren’t we assuming that these… iupitrix are intelligent like… on par with, say, an eight year old.”

“I think we’re underestimating him,” Taylor said as he flipped through the second book. “But that’s beside the point. The intact bit over here that mentions a bit about physical attributes gives valuable information that will help us classify future members of the species. We must make the most of what little we have and continue searching for more.”

 

There are ridgebacks, smoothbacks, and sailbacks, and there are also tripoints, fantails, and wedgetails. All sailbacks are tripoints but not all tripoints are sailbacks. Smoothbacks can be either wedgetails or fantails but ridgebacks are almost always wedgetails, sometimes tripoints (extremely rare), and almost never fantails (we’ve encountered only one). Make sense?

There are also flats (no crown or horns), crowned, horned, and combos (both crown and horns). Those seem to be universal. They appear to occur on any dragon regardless of back or tail type. They may also be hereditary but we've only managed to observe one new generation. Crowns are normally yellow, red, or blue, occasionally gray and, assuming that albinos, leucistics, and melanistics exist, white or black. Crowns almost never have the same colour as that of the surrounding skin colour on the head of the dragon that has them. Horns can either have the same colour or a different one, combos abide those rules. The colour and type of crown appears to be hereditary, three types, dome, tear, and tick. The colour and type of horn also appears hereditary, smooth, rough, and curled.

 

Epps scrunched up his nose, and expression mimicked by Fig, Donelly, and Marty. “Yeah, I’ll let you guys keep track of that.”

“So,” Angie said. “That would make Jazz a horned, smoothbacked, wedgetail. I wonder what kind of horns he had.”

“It’ll be interesting to see how quickly they grow to a length similar to that of other members of the species,” Taylor said as he continued flicking through the notebook in search of intact information. “Perhaps even compare it to the rate of growth in a juvenile.”

“Hey guys,” Stewart announced his presence as he entered the rec room. “We’ve got a match,” he said as he held up his tablet.

“To what?” Will asked.

“The blood samples of Jazz,” Stewart said excitedly as he came to sit next to Johnson. “Look, the system isolated a number of toxins and chemicals commonly found in Angel’s Trumpet plants. I targeted for atropine and I found that he has approximately 0.07miligrams of atropine in his body per kilogram. He’s been injected with at least 70 miligrams of atropine and that’s not counting the other toxins that were in there.”

Johnson frowned as he took the report. “That’s nearly three times the recommended dose of atropine for humans!” he exclaimed. “His body shouldn’t have been able to fight it off, not to mention the other toxins.”

“What is atropine?” Marty voiced what everyone not medically trained was wondering.

“It’s a chemical used in medicine that can also be found in the Angel’s Trumpet plant, all parts of it,” Johnson explained. “It is used for patients with coronary heart disease and the average dose is 0.03-0.04mg per kilogram of body weight. Any more and it can be lethal. What were Jazz’s symptoms?”

“Fever, he seemed disoriented, possibly partially paralyzed, laboured breathing, dilated pupils, we cannot be sure but he might also be suffering memory loss,” Stewart counted off on his fingers. “We don’t know his heartrate at the time we found him but from the day we put in the heart monitor to now his heartrate has dropped 30%. We can assume tentatively that elevated heartrate was also a symptom.”

“Matches most of the symptoms of Angel’s Trumpet poisoning,” Johnson nodded to himself. “It seems that he’s hardier than we thought. Maimed, mauled, abused, severely drugged and yet still kicking. Thankfully he didn’t suffer the worst symptoms.”

“Which are?” Epps prodded.

“Convulsions, coma, and death,” Johnson said as he continued reading through the report. “It seems the botanical databank you insisted on actually came in handy. Good work, Stewart.” Stewart beamed at the praise.

“It would seem far more practical for whoever is organizing this crimescene to be farming their own drugs,” Gabby said. “It would save them travel and product costs. Not to mention that Captain Witwicky said that most plants grow well on this planet. They are tropical plants, aren’t they?”

“They are,” Stewart confirmed. “But the winter temperatures, if the old readings are correct, would be unsuitable for them here.”

“Greenhouses are a simple and cheap solution to that,” Gabby said. “I was hoping we’d be able to use the plant’s requirements to narrow down our search.”

“Well, even finding one of the droves would be better than finding none of them considering that poachers would more than likely eventually strike,” Will said. “Taylor’s already put a tracker on him so that’s one thing off the to-do list. When do you suppose we can release him?”

“When we stop finding traces of the toxins in his blood,” Taylor said. “We need to know how long to treat future rescues for. And when he’s able to walk without limping.”

“He seems to be healing remarkably fast though,” Angie said. “Not that I’m a vet or anything. Something that I can say for certain is that being in the open so long is making him antsy. I think giving him a shelter of some sort would do him good.”

“The best we can do at the time is a large tent,” Will shrugged. “I think? We have a bunch of six or eight-person tents, don’t we? He should fit in one of those if he curls up.”

“We’ll see tomorrow,” Taylor said. “It’s pouring again.” A rumble of thunder shook the base without warning.

“Donelly, did you manage to get a forecast?” Epps asked.

“Yeah, earlier this morning though it may have changed,” Donelly said. “There’s a… moderate, I guess, storm coming. Thunder, lightning, twenty to thirty miles per hour winds. The works.”

“It’s like living in South Librus,” Gabby commented. “In any case, this will be a good opportunity to test the drones in poor weather, I’m itching for something interesting to happen.”

“Are you serious?” Epps scoffed with a wave of his hand. “We found a dragon, or the closest thing to it at least; A dragon that can speak like a parrot; We are on an alien planet lightyears way from home; And you’re bored?”

Gabby shrugged. “I’m a criminal investigator. My passions lie elsewhere.”

.o.

Jazz stared wistfully at the streams of water rolling over the invisible dome surrounding him. The rains now poured hard enough for the hither-warblers to return to the canopy and for his song to be drowned out by the pounding droplets. He limped to the large water container in the enclosure and, without preamble, shoved his head into the cool liquid. He felt it soak into the not-wraperunds on his horns, easing the faint ache, and soothe the slight itch on the healing abrasion marks on his snout.

He raised his head up and simply felt as the water cascaded down his back. It was nothing like the torrents that fell just beyond his reach but it was a gentle reminder nonetheless. He was one of many that enjoyed the rain on his hide, although he, like most, would return to his den when the winds picked up and the lightning started flashing.

The lightning and thunder were distant yet but they’ll come and the storm would last the whole night and the day to follow and maybe the day after. Such storms were rare in the summertime but there were always one or two. Jazz hadn’t been around as long as some but he’s been around long enough to know the weather and the climate. He knew how the lands changed in response to such storms, where landslides happened, where floods were unavoidable, and where the mud grew too soft and dangerous.

What he didn’t know of, however, were the impatient blue eyes waiting under the distant canopy.

Chapter Text

“It is not safe,” Prime had said. He was right, admittedly, as he usually was. It wasn’t safe and, to be honest, if Smokescreen had suggested to go near these new arrivals Prowl would have protested immediately and fiercely.

Of course, Prime, being the understanding spark that he was, did little in the ways of dissuading Prowl besides a mildly discouraging look and an understandably concerned swish of his tail. Ratchet had been more effective in the brief moment he took to glare at him from the entrance of his den. “Just don’t kill yourself,” the healer had grumbled before returning to his nap.

Smokescreen had been more adamant but no more effective. “They could kill you,” he’d said. His ears had drooped low and his eyes had been shiny with worry.

“They could kill Jazz,” had been what Prowl had said. It was true. For all he knew, and didn’t want to consider, Jazz could be lying dead in the middle of the woods right now. He could have been dead for all the five sunrises he’d been missing. Prowl didn’t think of that, if he did then he may never have left.

Ironhide had promised to come and bite ‘their’ heads off if he just howled for aid. “I won’t be too late this time,” he’d said and they all knew what he’d meant.

Prowl had taken their warnings and promises to spark despite his swift departure. He flew in the direction Jazz had gone those days ago. He’d been among those who’d protested his investigation. They were all well aware that knowing more about the newcomers, that cornering them, ridding the forests of them, would be to their advantage. Thus they’d reluctantly agreed to send him off.

Jazz, the selfless fool, had insisted on going alone. He’d hit close to the spark in questioning Prowl’s trust in his skills. Prowl, not wanting to make a poor impression on Jazz, had let him go after the smaller had promised to return. Evidently, he’d failed to keep his promise so ow Prowl was within his rights to break his promise too.

Prowl didn’t fly as he’d tracked Jazz’s scent. Scents dispersed far too quickly on the air, especially when it rained. Not to mention that flying in weather such as what it were was suicide. No, it was better on the ground. Iupitrix were fairly sized and their natural oils could stick to the foliage for a fair amount of time, though Jazz’s scent was faint now even on the ground.

It had been getting quite dark when he’d heard it, two sunrises after leaving the drove. A faint wisp of a song carrying on the wind, nearly drowned out by the hither-warblers had they not paused to hear it too. A final note of a song he’d ever heard but a voice he’d recognise even after a thousand seasons of not hearing it.

Jazz, had been the only thought to cross his mind as he hurried through the woods. His ears had perked up as high as his horns would allow as he strained to hear the final trill. Prowl wasn’t much of a singer, he simply wasn’t, but he tried his best for his hopefully soon-to-be mate. He’d known however that the soft warbles that made up his singing would not be heard over the swiftly strengthening winds.

Once he’d reached the treeline, he’d paused. Jazz’s scent had grown even fainter, almost non-existent, as the rains fell without mercy. The winds bent the trees as though they were saplings and Prowl knew that stepping out of the relative shield of the treeline was a foolish thing to do. He sat down and pressed his wings close to himself and wrapped his tail around his legs. A flash of lightning streaked across the sky, shortly followed by a sharp crack that heard his ears.

Now, Prowl rumbled in discontentment. He squinted into the thick wall of rain. He could make out the lights of ‘their’ flying den and smaller lights that accompanied an odd structure of pillars a little ways from the den. Leaning forward a bit, he was tempted to say that he could see the fait outline of a iupitrix within the structure of pillars. He didn’t say it though, the figure was masked by the wall of rain between them and the torrent of water that rolled over the dome that the pillars surrounded. It was an odd thing that he was or wasn’t seeing.

Prowl huffed as he lied down in a tight curl. He missed having Jazz lying at his side on such cold nights. He laid his head under his wing with a sniff and shuddered when some twigs fell on him from the tree above. No point dwelling on that now anyhow. He’ll approach in the morning, when the winds calm and the rains lighten. He curled up tighter and did his best to fall asleep.

.o.

Jazz awoke with a sniffle to the sound of approaching footsteps. He rose with a wide yawn and stretched his wings high up before flapping them a couple of times and settling in a seated position as Angie and, oddly enough, Epps came in with today’s breakfast.

Epps was understandably more cautious than Angie but he still greeted Jazz with their customary “Good morning” and a little wave of his paw. Jazz himself was still working on that greeting.

Angie immediately went to check on Jazz’s hind leg and removed the, not wraperunds, bandages from his wound before replacing them while Epps cut away at the bandages around his horns. Epps also removed the wraperunds from his forelimb as well as the lumpy thing that had been attached to him.

Very deft paws these humans had, made all sorts of interesting things. Jazz glanced at the new coverings Angie was wearing, yellow top and blue bottoms all wrapped up in a clear… thing. Epps’ coverings were green and darker green, probably for camouflage, also bundled up in a clear thing. They probably made the things themselves, clever things, Jazz mused.

It baffled him though, that they would put all this effort to something so trivial. Iupitrices never considered covering themselves as such, never felt the need to. At most they might adorn themselves with flowers or line their nests with crystals during mating season. Perhaps there was more to these coverings than Jazz was understanding. He watched the water droplets roll off the clear material smoothly in contemplation, Angie were dry as can be, it obviously served to shield them from the water. Useful too, the fur on their heads didn’t look like it kept the water out very well. Very clever indeed!

Now as for the materials underneath… hmm. Angie’s were very colourful as they were last time. Why did they change though? Perhaps they used the colours as a manner of expression. Maybe it’s a warning. It was common knowledge that red snappers were so bright to warn you of their venom. The humans didn’t really have anything to sting him with, their claws were round and dull and their teeth were the same, only with the tiniest of canines. Maybe it had something to do with the prickles he’d felt when he’d been caught, maybe they shoot their stingers. And yet-

Jazz’s thoughts were interrupted by a loud growl. Angie and Epps gasped at his side. Jazz head shot up and his ears stuck out as he found the source of the threatening sound. A black and white iupitrix, larger than himself, charged across the field.

Jazz’s spark leapt in elation and he released a low croon as he trotted to the edge of the dome he was contained in. Just in time too, he had no doubt this new arrival would have run into the barrier if Jazz hadn’t come to stop him. “Prowl!” Jazz trilled the name joyfully.

“Jazz…” Prowl crooned as he came to sudden stop with a look of horror on his face. Even the bright red of his horns seemed to grow dull to match his expression. “What-” he jerked back as his nose bumped into the barrier. “Jazz, what is this?” He laid a paw against the barrier with an expression that slowly grew more and more panicked. “Your horns! What-”

It was at that moment that Epps and Angie decided to peek from around Jazz. Prowl reared back with a hiss and a snarl. Jazz moved slightly to shield the small creatures and that gave Prowl pause.

“What have they done to you, Jazz?” Prowl asked urgently as he leaned as close as the barrier would allow. His eyes rested on the little stubs that were left as reminders of the iupitrix’s once beautiful curled horns.

They helped me, Prowl,” Jazz said gently as he continued to block the view of the humans.

Prowl huffed in disbelief as he looked at the metal pillars that generated Jazz’s enclosure. “You’re a hostage.”

“I am not, Prowl,” Jazz crooned gently, working to calm the other’s racing spark. “This group is different. Calm down, love, please. I’ll tell you what I’ve learned.”

Prowl shook his head with subtle exasperation. “That self-imposed mission of yours. I was so worried.” He rested snout against the invisible barrier and a rumble echoed from his chest when Jazz mimicked him. “When I heard your voice…oh, when I heard it, Jazz.”

“You heard my song?” Jazz asked softly.

“Just the last trill,” Prowl said as he took a deep breath and his sparkbeat settled. “Even if I’d heard less I’d always know your voice. What is this?” He pawed at the barrier again. “I want to touch you.”

“I want to touch you too,” Jazz crooned.

A small shuffle behind Jazz pulled the two iupitrices from their mutual dwam. Jazz crooned encouragingly as Angie and Epps edged around from behind him. Prowl wasn’t of any help with making them more comfortable as he rumbled lowly, nothing like the pleasant rumble from before. Jazz swished his tail with an unimpressed but slightly amused expression.

Angie and Epps remained a fair distance from the barrier when Jazz moved so he wasn’t blocking Prowl from them. Epps had his arms crossed and stood half a step in front of Angie.

“That’s… Angie,” Jazz took a short moment to switch between languages. “And Epps. They mean us no harm as far as I can tell.”

Prowl maintained a stern expression as he lowered his head to be level with the humans. “They speak the same tongue as the ‘first ones’?”

“Yes,” Jazz said.

“How many of them are there?” Prowl asked as he assessed the humans. The one named Epps came up to around Jazz’s shoulder and the other one was smaller. They didn’t seem dangerous but… then again neither did the ‘others’.

“At least eight,” Jazz said. “Definitely not more than fifteen.”

Prowl seemed to relax at that. No doubt, he assessed the drove’s chances of killing them if they must. “We must inform Prime,” he said. “Everyone’s worried sick for you. How do we get you out of here?” He sniffed at the ground where the barrier cut into the grass. “What is that?” he asked suddenly.

“What is what?” Jazz asked with a tilt of his head.

“Around your leg,” Prowl gestured. “The wraperund looks odd it-”

“It’s not a wraperund, love,” Jazz said with a grin. “It’s a healing tool.” He turned until his side was facing Prowl and stuck his leg out. “It’s like the flat grass Ratchet wraps around our wounds. See?” He showed off his leg.

Prowl frowned at Jazz’s grin and he rose to look at him. “Are you… missing a fang?”

Jazz licked the space where his fang had once been. “It was a little accident between me and one of those round flying things. It’s-”

“Does it hurt?” Prowl interrupted.

“No, it was several sunrises ago,” Jazz shook his head. “I didn’t even remember that I didn’t have it. In any case, more importantly, they’re not like the ‘others’, Prowl. They could help us put an end to this horror.”

“It- it must be discussed with Prime,” Prowl said. His eyes shifted between the iupitrix and the humans. “Such matters, it’s… you know it trust you but… they-”

“I understand, love,” Jazz said with a small nod of his head. He then turned to the two silent humans and nodded towards Prowl with a croon.

Angie understood what he meant but she frowned and pointed at his injured leg. “You must stay. You’re injured.”

“What did she say?” Prowl asked.

“She doesn’t want me to leave,” Jazz explained. “I think they want to make sure I heal properly.” He turned back to the humans and crooned again, this time curling it at the end with a trill. He repeated the sound once more when they hesitated and Angie seemed to crack.

“Maybe,” she said slowly though Jazz was unfamiliar with the short word. “But you must promise not to leave.”

Jazz was not sure what she said but the stern look and the pointing paw were rather telling. He nodded slightly with a soft coo. Epps still seemed reluctant but not as though he would try to contradict her. Jazz however didn’t miss the cautious look the taller human threw at Prowl.

“You must not threaten them,” Jazz said to Prowl with a tone indicating that he would suffer no argument.

Prowl, while not comfortable with the smaller creatures, was no fool and he threw an almost indignant look at Jazz. The other’s firm expression didn’t falter though and so he sighed. “Very well.” He took a couple of steps back and sat down on the grass, wings folding elegantly behind him.

Jazz turned back to the humans with an inquisitive perk of his ears. “Out?” he tested a word he’d learned the other day… at least he thought it was the right word.

Epps and Angie shared a look before the taller shrugged and mumbled something before the two began walking away. Jazz looked on with slight confusion as they approached one of the pillars the looked slightly more complex than the others. They seemed to have a discussion of sorts before Angie shrugged and… poked the pillar?

Small pinging sounds came from each of the surrounding pillars as they each gave a flash of green. Then the invisible barrier became purple for a moment before disappearing as well. Jazz looked around curiously while Prowl seemed mildly alarmed as he’d stood with a  nervous flick of his tail, wedged fins flapping open and closed anxiously. Jazz looked back to Angie with a questioning look. The human did a jerky waving motion with her hands that gave the impression of a ‘go on’ gesture.

Prowl stepped forward cautiously and Jazz mirrored him. The smaller raised a paw and attempted to touch the barrier only to find it non-existent. He attempted twice more in bewilderment before he felt the steady drizzle of rain against his skin and his brain finally caught up with him. His eyes brightened and everything about him seemed to perk up as he trilled in excitement.

Prowl seemed to have been fully prepared to be bowled over by his hopefully-soon-to-be mate. So prepared in fact that he froze up when instead Jazz skidded to a halt in front of him and nuzzled his head under Prowl’s. The action was made significantly easier thanks to the absence of Jazz’s horns, Prowl mused mournfully as he finally relaxed. He returned to nuzzle with a soft, happy croon and gave a soft lick behind Jazz’s ear and the smaller purred.

Prowl shot a subtle glare at the human when he heard a small squeal as the smaller one seemed to jump in place. He huffed and both the humans shot him sheepish but somewhat smug grins. He also didn’t fail to notice Jazz amused trill. He glared at the humans once more and thankfully they were a bit more intuitive than Prowl cared to give them credit for and they backed off to their metal den. With a final huff he turned his attention back to the one nuzzling against him.

“I missed you so,” Jazz mumbled as he pulled back to rest the side of his snout against Prowl’s and look him in the eyes. “I know it is urgent but I hate to see you go so soon.”

Prowl pressed back against his snout and sighed. “I do believe… that I can allow myself to be selfish,” he murmured. “Just until next sunrise.”

“You’re willing to break your own rules for me,” Jazz grinned at him. “You make me feel all warm inside.”

Prowl gave a small chuckle as he sat down and Jazz mirrored him, their tails wrapping about each other. “I’d rearrange the skies for you,” he murmured as he gave a soft lick just under the decorative blue on Jazz’s face.

Jazz continued his content purring as the rain grew stronger. The weight of the droplets against him a soothing massage, one that he had missed. “My lovely sap,” Jazz said with a grin.

Prowl rumbled with a hint of humour before turning serious once more. “Have you been eating well?”

“Oh, yes,” Jazz said with a curl of his tail. “Very well in fact. Every morning and sometimes in the evening they’d give me a whole pile of toothslips. Last time they gave me a whole thrashbyte!”

“Is that so?” Prowl mumbled with amusement at Jazz’s enthusiasm.

“Yes! It is baffling how such small creatures managed to capture something so large!” Jazz exclaimed. “I do not know how they manage it. Very crafty creatures, those. Just like the ‘first ones’.”

“The ‘others’ are remarkably crafty too,” Prowl said, his suspicion and caution yet to dissipate. He sighed then and looked about the open field. “Aren’t you nervous? Being out in the open like this.”

Jazz looked around also and made a small shrug with his wings. “I figured that if the barrier could keep me in, it could also keep attackers out. At the same time the humans seem quite well equipped to protect themselves if they had to. I must also admit, I have fallen under the heavy impression that they are protective of me also.”

Prowl rumbled again, not a trace of humour in the sound this time. “What if they see you as a prize, as just another conquest? I’ll not let them do to you what ‘they’ have done to so many others.” He ended with a whisper, his trill was hollow as he said that.

Jazz’s ears drooped minutely as he chuckled dryly. “What kind of prize am I now that they’ve nothing to steal from me?” he asked as he tilted his head so his stubs were in better view of Prowl. With a small sniff the smaller iupitrix sighed. “I want to trust them, Prowler,” he said softly.

“I can tell,” Prowl said with a small frown. “By Primus, I hope your intuition does not choose now to fail you.” It was no question that Prime would give these humans a chance to prove themselves, such was his way.

Jazz hummed as he slipped his eyes closed, head slipping to nestle back under Prowls. Prowl was right to be worried, he mused as the rain grew heavier above them, rolling over their bodies. Thirty or so winters had passed since the humans had come after them. Jazz hadn’t seen another iupitrix besides those in their drove for seven winters now. Many of them had migrated north, hoping for an escape. Prime remained, and they with him, in case anyone returned so no one would be alone. Jazz suspected that there was a bit of selfishness involved as Prime and Ratchet awaited Rodimus’ eventual return from his little ‘Quest for Freedom’, with Ultra Magnus of course Optimus wouldn’t stand down unless Rodimus took somebody with him.

A small rasp against the top of one of his horn stubs had Jazz grunting in surprize before he could restrain the sound. A small apologetic croon sounded above him followed by a gentle lick at the base of his stub which made him purr.

“Apologies. Do they hurt?” Prowl asked, his words framed by a concerned hum in his chest.

“Just an ache,” Jazz said. “It’s many times better than what it had been, let me assure you,” he purred as Prowl continued his gentle grooming. Jazz’s ear twitched as the ache settled into a tickle. “Prowl?”

“Hm?” Prowl’s licking migrated to Jazz’s ears.

“You don’t mind, do you?” Jazz asked. “The horns. Or the lack thereof,” he joked halfsparkedly.

“I think,” Prowl started as he rested his head on top of Jazz’s. “That we’ve spent far too long together for me to leave you just for this.” Prowl huffed slightly with amusement. “In fact, I doubt I’d have left you even if we hadn’t been together so long.”

Jazz relaxed against his partner at those words.

“Although, I can’t help but grieve over the loss,” Prowl admitted. The horns had been quite beautiful.

“Yeah,” Jazz murmured. “Me too.”