"Why do they get to sit back at the science vessels why we schlep around swamps actively looking for things that can kill us?"
"I'm not sure, private." She said with extra emphasis on his rank. "Our orders are simple, secure and create a perimeter and identify potential threats. The sooner you stop complaining about our orders the faster you can be losing your paycheck to the rest of us in poker."
The major wasn't normally this testy, so her irritated response rippled through her crew, each interpreting it in their own way. Then again, this was her first time 20 being light years away from home on a planet whose ecology mirrored the everglades.
"Charles how long until that uplink is done?" She asked knowing it was taking longer than usual. Truthfully she didn't want to spend any more time away from the barracks than she had too. The unfamiliar noises of the wildlife gave her the sent shivers down her spine.
"Well I've got bad news and bad news which do you want first." She remained silent waiting for him to continue speaking. "Right well there is something interfering with our equipment. It could be all the vegetation, a local variation in the gravity field or the planets stronger magnetic field, but its probably the same reason we haven't heard from the colonel."
"So what's the other bad news?"
"Well it means our original plan for a perimeter isn't going to work, we need to reduce the diameter by about half if we want reliable readings"
"Shit." She said matter of factly. The sensors they were placing doubled as research tools and ab early warning system for potential threats, halving the size could meant they had less time to react. Less time to react means less chances of successfully defending the mission.
"Do we have any alternatives?" The others began whispering among themselves quietly.
"Well the only way were getting a 5-mile diameter is if we get more sensors, and even then we'd need relays between base and the sensors to get the information we need back. Otherwise, we're in the dark and ---"
A shrill cry, higher pitched and louder than they had ever heard interrupted his thought and made him duck. The major drew her weapon and looked up in time to see a large bird lime creature flying overhead.
"What the hell was that?" The private asked, his shouldered gun shaking in his hands.
"I'm not sure, but we shouldn't stick around to see if it has friends." She said frantically, she wasn't sure the others had seen it, but it could have carried at least one of them away. She hoped most of all it wasn't attracting them unwanted attention.
"Corporal you done with that uplink yet, we need to move." She rewinded her video hud to get a better look at the creature but it moved through frame so fast it was indistinguishable through the fog.
"This one is done but its useless here alone."
"That's fine it's in position and we're following orders, we'll see how the Major wants to solve the problem when we get back."
"Yes Ma'am" the corporal said with a sarcastic salute as he dropped several of his tools as he rushed to pack his things and not be left by the group.
The team continued setting up the perimeter going from location to location in a nervous rank and file. Perhaps worst of all was knowing that they were doing an incomplete job so they would have to spend even more time in the noxious swamp.
"Remember boys, we are doing this for the betterment of man kind" the major said sarcastically as she swatted a mosquito the size of a small bird. Not that it could bit her through her armored suit, but they are nasty insects.
Before they had made it back to the science vessel it became more clear that something was wrong. Radio silence continued for several hours and as anxiety filled their worried minds, each of them began to feel as though they were being followed.
Even the Major could not get the image of the animal that had swooped past them out of her head. She replayed the image on her hud several times in disbelief. It looked like a harpy, but she though it must have been a large bird.
Only when they were very close to the ship did they regain radio contact. Dr. Rajers explained that the trees were thousands of years old and had absorbed many heavy metals that made them interrupt contact. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
"We made it, boys," the Major said with an obvious release of tension that made some of them question if she thought they were going to make it back. This was a half truth, she was also worried about a scenario where giant birds had attacked the ship killing the commander, doctors and scientists on board.
"There is something else you need to know, Major," the Dr said. "I'm speaking directly with you now, no one else can hear us." The major knew something was terribly wrong, she had never heard Rajers take on such a serious and apologetic tone.
"This planet is unlike anything we have ever seen. There appears to be an active microbial defense system that is more advanced than we could have imagined."
"Get to the point," Ramirez said hastily. She redirected her comm systems to play for her men as well.
"You can't get back on the ship. The bacteria is already eating your suits away and the viruses are going to begin redesigning your structure. You will be dissolved and evolved into one of the native ascended beings. Judging from the history on your HUD it looks like you have already seen one." Rajers waited a moment to let what he said sink in.
"How... How is that even possible?" The panicked major said.
"It appears to be the result of centuries of genetic research, we already lost one of our own. To the process. Your death will be painless and you will be reborn with the full body of knowledge of your new species as an adult. They appear never to age, and be far superior to humans in skeltal design, musculature, brain mass and just about every measurable way."
The major looked at her men, whose suits were already showing obvious signs of corrosion.
"The bacteria on your suits is resistant to all our known antimicrobials, and multiplies as it digests the iron. It appears that there are several kinds of bacteria designed to digest several kinds of suits. We are not the first they have prayed on."
"What about the ship won't it be destroyed?"
"That's exactly why we are going to exit and reenter the atmosphere. We are leaving now but waited long enough to explain your fate. It appears to be a painless process. The first viruses eat away your pain receptors and overload the pleasure centers of the brain. There appear to be hallucinogenic effects as well."
The major heard the sound of the engines turning on from a short distance away. By now her crew realized their suits were literally being eaten and were screaming for help. Several of them started firing into the air at what they thought and were indeed harpies. She contemplated how she always thought flight was the most liberating feeling and remembered wishing she were a bird as a little girl.
"Listen up, boys" she said pointing at the ship
"We need to take down that ship, it presents a clear and present danger to the entire human race if it leaves this planet and travels to earth. They are carrying with the m the same bacteria that is corroding our suits and will eventually repurposed our bodies. Do not let that ship leave the atmosphere!"
"Yes, sir." Her men said as they took aim with their anti-aircraft weapons, or whatever they were equipped with. Before each of them had the opportunity to enact revenge for being left behind, the ship started loosing altitude and crashed into the forest. The bacteria had eaten away large portions of the engines.
"Enjoy the trip, boys" the Major said taking off her helmet and suit. The air carried with it thousands of viruses and chemicals. She lied down and let her transformation begin. She urged her men to calmly do the same and die with some decency and price of mind.