12.00, January 14th 2138

Alpha Centauri, Northern Hemisphere

The construction of the base is still in full swing when Jeri "Burner" O'Neill, Monica "Shades" Lewinsky and Emma "Hustler" Peel receive orders to report on the double for mission briefing. Barely half an hour later, they are strapping themselves into the acceleration couches of the Viking, a small UTRPF spaceship, while Rudy "Stormfront" Owens, the Synner pilot, makes the launch preparations. The Viking consists of a minimum of sub-modules, all excess weight having been eliminated to allow maximum speed through hyperspace. The destination of the trip: the fourth planet circling the K class star Epsilon Indi.

When hyperdrive was first invented over a century ago, the stars suddenly came within mankind's reach and it wasn't long before the first probes swarmed out across the galaxy. Those probes brought back stunning information. Not only was there life out there, it was abundant. The probes reported many planets with well-developed ecosystems, many of which required relatively minor adaptations to make them suitable for human habitation. But when the first manned ships arrived, they soon discovered that the planets which looked so good from space were a lot less friendly up close. The early explorers found themselves face to face with lifeforms that were lethal and aggressive to a point never seen before on Earth. Many of the early explorers perished. After the Silverman Incident, in which a returning exploration ship nearly brought a hostile species back to Earth, it was decided that humanity, after more than a century of peace, once again needed armed forces. Thus the United Terran Reconnaissance and Peacekeeping Force was born.

But there are some planets that could not be tamed even with the help of the UTRPF. It is such a planet to which the Viking is headed. The fourth planet circling Epsilon Indi is a desert world with 1.3 times the gravity of Earth. It has a breathable atmosphere but is scoured by planetwide sandstorms that can last for months. The sands of Epsilon Indi IV are also home to a wide variety of lethal lifeforms, first encountered by the exploration vessel Columbus (surviving crew: 2 out of 15).

About a month ago, during an infrequent calming of the storms, a new research outpost was placed on the planet's equator. Its mission was to investigate the lifeforms of that region. The people stationed there recently managed to capture a specimen of a very large wormlike creature. The scientists brought it back to the outpost and were halfway through the autopsy when they discovered the creature wasn't quite as dead as they'd thought. The three meter long body suddenly started convulsing, slamming Eleanora Harshaw (xenobiologist) into a wall. The crash broke her spine and several ribs. The other scientists managed to stabilize her and put her in cryogenic suspension, but she needs extensive surgery which can only be done on a better equipped base. The Synners' mission is to pick up the injured scientist and bring her back to Earth.

18.22, January 23rd 2138

Epsilon Indi, Carceri Mountain Range

O'Neill, Lewinsky and Peel quickly cross the space between their spaceship and the bunker located adjacent to the landing pad. Up here in the mountains, the air is thin but breathable. Sand sweeps over the concrete pad, but the landing zone is located above the height of most sandstorms and the weather is relatively calm. The Synners attention is focussed on the bunker as they carefully approach it. The landing zone is supposed to be safe, but previous experience has taught them to never rely on what you're told.

Lewinsky keys a palmreader set in the concrete and the bunker door hisses open. Small drifts of sand whirl into the space beyond, which is slowly illuminated by lights that flicker to life. The bunker is an unmanned supply depot, containing rations, equipment, water, spare parts, communication gear and most importantly, a modified Solar X Grizzly ATV. This heavy six-wheeled vehicle is designed to function in the most hostile environmental conditions, and should carry the Synners to the research outpost in a mere eight hours.

After checking the vehicle and loading up the gear, O'Neill orders Owens to take the Viking back to orbit. When the Grizzly rolls out of the bunker, the Viking is already a disappearing dot in the dark sky. O'Neill pilots the Grizzly onto the crude road that leads down the mountain, into the sandblast desert below. Soon the sandstorms swallow the vehicle, and O'Neill has nothing but the onboard computer to show her the way. Lewinsky and Peel lean back in their bucket seats and go to sleep to the sound of the engines and of the sand scouring the Grizzly's hull.

Eight hours later, the heavy terrain vehicle rolls up to the research centre, a concrete column that sticks out of the sand like a worn tooth. The Grizzly rolls inside where the Synners are met by the science crew. Since the cryo-unit with the wounded scientist is too big to be transported in the Grizzly, Harshaw will have to be brought out of the cryosleep before the trip. The Synners are given quarters for the night while the scientists make the necessary preparations to transport their injured colleague. The next day, with the unconscious human cargo secure in the back, O'Neill once more pilots the Grizzly out into the storm. The station is lost from sight almost immediately.

Two hours go by uneventfully, when all of a sudden the right front wheel of the Grizzly seizes up completely. O'Neill hangs on to the steering wheel, barely managing to keep the vehicle from rolling over. Instead, the Grizzly comes to a bouncing halt. O'Neill quickly checks the scientist but she's still okay. Lewinsky and Peel grab their assault rifles, checking the ammo and the protective sandcovers before opening the top hatch and climbing out. Inside, O'Neill reconfigures the sensors to search the storm for hostiles.

The sandstorm limits visibility to a mere two meters and it's impossible for the two women to see what's wrong with the wheel without getting closer. Lewinsky checks her combat suit's environmental systems and then slowly moves towards the right front wheel. Lewinsky keys her radio: "You're not going to believe this," she says. "One of those sandworms they briefed us about tried to grab the Grizzly with its proboscis. It must have gotten caught on the axle. We've got an entire worm wrapped around the wheel." O'Neill asks Lewinsky if she's sure the thing is dead. Lewinsky looks at the wrung out mass of oozing flesh and says: "It's dead. Trust me on this."

Lewinsky orders Peel to guard her back while she tries to cut the worm away from the axle. Peel takes up guard station on the right middle wheel. Lewinsky hacks away with her knife and is soon up to her elbows in puss, the putrid smell passing even through the filters of her facemask.

Then a warning signal sounds over the radio. O'Neill shouts: "Two bogies, three o'clock!" Lewinsky reaches for her assault rifle with gore covered hands. Peel stares into the sandstorm, ready to fire the moment something, anything, comes into view. But the two bogies aren't moving. Instead, some sort of projectile whizzes only inches past Peel, shattering into a thousand shards on the Grizzly's hull. A second rock clips her on the right leg, throwing her off balance and sending her falling from the huge wheel onto the sands below. "The bogies are moving towards you!" O'Neill shouts. "Use your grenades, it's your only chance!"

Lewinsky and Peel fire their grenade launchers, saturating the area beyond the Grizzly with shells. On the computer console inside, the two blips disappear from the screen. Peel starts clambering up the wheel. She's hauled herself halfway up when a worm rises from the sand below, extending its proboscis towards her. Lewinsky quickly opens fire, perforating the proboscis. Screeching, the sandworm snaps it back into its maw and quickly disappears under the sand.

"Shades, get that worm off our front wheel. Hustler, cover her. I'll provide coverfire from the hatch!" Lewinsky obeys O'Neill's orders and finishes removing the worm. The slimy mass slithers down onto the ground. Just as Lewinsky is getting up, another worm reaches up from the sand, this one extending almost its entire body above the ground, reaching over the wheel with its proboscis, trying to swallow Lewinsky whole. This time, it's Peel who opens fire, a rain of bullets cutting the sandworm nearly in half. The sandworm sways for a moment before its massive bulk drops like a falling tree. Lewinsky and Peel haul themselves into the Grizzly and O'Neill guns the engines, getting the vehicle moving as quickly as possible. Lewinsky looks at her stained clothes, the smell of dead sandworm filling the compartment like a dense fog. Peel sighs. "This is going to be a long ride."

Six hours later, the Grizzly emerges up in the mountains, leaving the sandstorms behind. The Viking is already waiting on the landing pad. The three tired Synners load the still unconscious Harshaw into the ship and into a cryo unit. After returning the Grizzly to its place, the three board the Viking.

"Nine days in hyperspace," Lewinsky says. "You think that's going to be enough time to shower the smell of worm off of me?"

To be continued...



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