Predators and Prey
Location: Coral Forest, Shaddam IVa
Timeline: Mission Day 1 at 1035
[MD1: 1035 Hours]
The team had trekked about 10 minutes from Base Camp, walking across the barren landscape of Shaddam IVa and chatting as they went. There wasn't a lot to necessarily see as the team pressed on: just collections of large and small rocks, scrubby plants and bushes, and all of it covered in the fine layer of dust that seemed to coat positively everything on this moon.
As the team neared the coordinates of the coral forest, the sharp and prickly scrub brush gave way to the beginnings of coral structures that gradually spread further and further. Pink and white shone through the dust layer in places, making for a somewhat pretty effect in the weak sunlight. But what was immediately interesting -- at least for the scientists in the group -- was the teeming abundance of life signs lighting up their instruments.
The coral forest seemed to have an intense concentration of flora and fauna, all just waiting to be observed and analyzed. Coming to a stop outside the large field of coral before them, the team took a few moments to take it all in and discuss their plan for surveying the area.
Jyl-eel breathed through her rebreather while the air, thin and dry, was chilly on her cheeks. She was studying the initial readings of her tricorder. "These are unusual. They're neither animal or plant, exactly. They're partially photosynthetic. But...." She frowned as her tricorder made a downward oscillation. "It looks like their growth cycle is being inhibited. Somehow." She turned some to the others, "Almost like a tree that isn't getting enough sunlight or water."
"I wonder if this dust has anything to do with it?" Davies asked, his tricorder out and trilling as well. "If this coral relies on photosynthesis, the layer of dust could be blocking the full effect of the sun. Like a plant that's always in shade," he commented, eyes roving the coral field. He noticed several large birds skimming the fields, occasionally dipping down to scoop some kind of prey in their beaks before rising up to circle above for a bit before repeating the process.
"Yes. Like an old solar panel," Jyl-eel conjectured in metaphor. Her tricorder kept pulsing as she paused for a moment to consider that. An errant insect buzzed by her, landed on the coral and began to creep into some kind of crevice. Once it had obscured itself, Jyl-eel passed her sensors by it. "Interesting. There's some kind of fructose-based, sponge material inside. It's generating elevated heat." Jyl-eel blinked, "That might be how it attracted insects and animals. Come in from the cold."
"Interesting," Andrew mused. "If it is this dust that's inhibiting their growth, we could sample the coral bands to determine if that's always been the case and if not, when conditions became like this." His hand was about to wipe some of the dust from the coral but he stopped short, remembering that there were bugs in it. Unknown bugs.
"That would make a lot of sense," Davies nodded to Tor, eyes flicking up from his tricorder to momentarily look at her. "I'm picking up an immense amount of insects in these fields. I mean, it's positively teeming with them," he exclaimed, excitement in his voice. Who but an entomologist would get excited about bugs? "If the coral has evolved to invite them in, the insects must serve some kind of purpose. But what would it be?" he wondered, hoping Tor might have an idea. The young man looked then to Doctor Munro and nodded to him as well. "Some samples might shed some light for sure. I recommend taking them with your gloves on, if you can. According to my scans, these insects are venomous. Though I don't think their mandibles are long enough to pierce through our thermal gear."
Tamblem listened to the science types as they yammered on. Most of it was way outside his field, but he keyed in on the phrases a security officer needed to hear. Hearing about more and more life and teaming was a word that should constantly be scrutinized, "Ok, hold up, folks." He paused, unslinging his bag and retrieving his helmet. The Trill continued as he pulled the helmet over his head, "Full MOPP, suit up. I'm not taking any chances here."
"I haven't studied many Class L environs," Tor began. "But with no fauna to keep them in check, insect life might run amok." She looked cautiously to the Trill and minded his orders. Tor completed her protective equipment by donning what Tamblem had demanded. She continued as she worked, "Are the insects native to the planet or an invasive species?"
Andrew fumbled with the suit as he removed it from his bag. He'd been lucky enough to be unfamiliar with it, but Dravor was right, there was no way to predict how these creatures would react to some alien attention and so maximum protection was a sensible precaution. "I doubt we'll be able to say for sure, given how little we know about the planet or the insects."
Davies, too, had followed the security officer's orders. Pulling the collapsible -- and, hence, portable -- protective headgear out of his bag, he slid it over his face and connected his oxygen canister. Combined with the thermal gear he was already wearing, the helmet gave his appearance quite the ridiculousness, but did that really matter right now? He deemed it not and, instead, focused on Tor's question, his eyes locked on his tricorder.
"These insects appear native. The trace amounts of that unknown alloy grown into their carapaces seems to suggest they were born here on Shaddam IVa," Davies nodded to himself more than anyone. "Look there, though," he held up a hand to point at a bird who'd just dived for something and began to ascend. "It's got one of these bugs in its beak. I wonder if these avians are immune to the insects' venom? A natural evolution, maybe?" he asked of Andrew and Tor.
"Maybe it was never effective on those avians," Andrew considered. "Either way, if we ever need to develop an antivenom then they'd be a good place to start."
The Valt concurred with a nod, and gestured at the coral, "As might the coral. If the insects are making that jelly inside these coral structures, then the corals aren't affected by it either. So we have at least two routes for an anti-venom if we need it."
Davies considered this and nodded. "I suppose we should start collecting samples, then. I'll capture one of the insects and get some aggressive scans. Tor," he looked to the scientist beside him, "perhaps you could work on getting some of that jelly in the coral? Doctor Munro," the entomologist turned to the burly biologist, "I guess the bird work falls to you. Curious though...has anyone noticed that these avians don't make any kind of vocalizations? For that matter, neither do the bugs..."
It was true. Since the team had arrived at the coral forest, none of the local fauna had made so much as a peep. No bug buzzing, no bird chirps or screeches, nothing. It was like watching a silent movie play out.
"Something to be concerned about?" Dravor asked, eyes scanning the coral field. The science side of things wasn't in his wheelhouse but he'd rely on those who knew what they were talking about. In the mean time, he kept his scanner peeled for anything that might threaten the team.
Tor frowned some on her apple cheeked face. "Hm. It's strange for life forms to not have hearing organs. Unless its from a vacuum. And when animals have hearing organs, they usually make sounds." Tor's tricorder had been active while she was deciding where to pull the jelly from. Her fingers tapped at the sensor pad. "They're not making any sound in any megahertz range." She tested her theory by positioning herself near some of the insects- she snapped her fingers, checking to see if the small creatures responded in any way.
As Tor moved closer, a few of the insects took flight, flitting away and landing again further away. But when the woman snapped her fingers at the remaining bugs, something odd happened. Those insects took to the air, which wasn't in itself odd, aside from supposedly deaf organisms reacting to the snap. No, what was interesting was the increased pitch of the soft trilling from Tor's tricorder. The readings indicated a spike in the local EM field, which seemed to be spreading as what looked like every single bug in the coral forest took off in waves, swirling in the air 10 feet above the coral. Again, there were no vocalizations but more and more rapid-fire EM spikes flared.
Davies had, initially, jumped back as the insects all around them took off. But when they started swirling overhead, he'd pointed his tricorder at the swarm and studied the readings his device fed him. "It's like those few triggered all the rest somehow. Some kind of electromagnetic communication, maybe?" he asked, arching an eyebrow behind his transparent face shield. He shook his head, fascinated by the insects' behavior. "They're obviously communicating somehow, else they wouldn't all copy each others' behavior. But I'm not detecting any kind of chemical or pheromone-based danger signal being transmitted throughout the swarm. Puzzling but kind of beautiful," he smiled, eyes dancing as he watched the bugs dance above them.
Dravor had dropped himself into a crouch when the bugs launched, a reaction born of instinct. But when the swarm coalesced safely overhead, not bothering them, he rose back to his feet, weapon drawn...again, instinctual even though he couldn't exactly phaser any target in particular. He did thumb the controls to a wide-spread beam setting, though, just in case they needed to start bug zapping in a hurry.
Tor, who had also ducked, looked up at the swarm in a mix of fear and wonder. "Wow. Maybe I won't do that again."
"They do seem easily startled," Davies nodded, watching as some of the bugs began to flit back down into the fields. Interestingly, a couple of the insects landed on his right arm, crawling towards the hand holding his tricorder. "Hmm," the entomologist said, holding his arm up to show the others, "I wonder if they're picking up EM signals from our equipment? Maybe it's attracting them? I wonder if we --" Whatever he'd been about to say was cut off as the scientist's eyes narrowed behind his faceplate, staring at the bugs that were now trying to chew their way through his glove. "Th-they're biting my glove. Gnawing on it is more like it," Davies commented, trying to use his other hand to gently shoo the creatures away. Instead, one of them bit that glove, jaws clamped down like a vice.
"This field trip is over," Dravor stated as he dodged around the fluttering insects. "Davies, let's get you back to the base, double-time everyone, and get your phasers out." He looked around to ensure the scientists were complying as he tugged on the entomologist's shoulder to get them moving, "We will have to work on... whatever that thing is on the way. We aren't staying in this swarm."
Andrew stowed the mist-netting he had been setting up for the avians and fumbled his phaser out of its holster. He felt clumsy in the suit but was glad it provided some shielding from the swarm. He flinched as a bug flew too close to his visor and picked up his pace a little.
Tor complied with Dravor's orders. She closed her instruments quickly and saddled onto her shoulder her gear. "I don't know if it's our EM signatures or something else. Or if because we pulled some of the jelly from the coral. But they seem to be very angry. Like your Earth wasps."
Tor was right: for whatever reason, the bugs had been sufficiently riled up. What had started as a startled taking to the sky now seemed to be an anger response to something. Davies -- now in motion as ordered, though trying to fling the bug off his hand -- looked up and saw the swarm changing direction to follow them as they moved back the way they'd come. Even incensed, though, the bugs still made no vocalizations: the only sounds they made came from the angry buzzing of their wings.
"We do seem to have upset them," Davies said with concern, hastening his steps. They were only a 10 minute walk from Base Camp: if they hustled, they could make that journey in half that time. Except as the team picked up their pace, so too did the bugs increase theirs. Still shaking his hand to dislodge the insect chewing on the finger of his glove, the man suddenly cried out in pain and half-sagged to his knees. "Got through!" he shouted, using his other hand to point at the bug that, having bit him successfully, was now flying off. "Holy hell that hurts," he swore, getting back to his feet.
And then it happened: in the time it took for Davies to regain his footing, the swarm overtook them...
TO BE CONTINUED...
=/\= A joint post by... =/\=
Ensign Brian Davies
Doctor Andrew Munro
Ensign Tamblem Dravor
Ensign Jyl-eel Tor