"What the hell was that about, Mister Wazel?" he shouted. "The Fatmi were almost on us, that's no time to go haring off!"
Wazel glared back. He pulled a bottle out of the box and shook it in the commander's face. "Without this, I'd be dead in a week. Unpleasantly. I might as well have stayed there! I didn't say it was important on a whim, commander."
The commander took a deep breath and rubbed his muzzle. "All right, all right," he said, waving his other hand vaguely. "It was an emergency and you didn't have a choice, I accept that."
Wazel backed down too. "I should have said something, commander. You didn't have to wait for me."
"Anyway, we're all through now. And..." Clager looked at his watch. "The charges should go off in about thirty seconds. We should probably back away from the gate, we don't know what's going to happen." He turned around and finally got a look at where he was.
He was standing in a glade in a forest. The trees and ground cover were a bit odd, but no more unusual than some other planets he'd been on. They were green and he could call them plants without stretching the meaning of the word. Where they'd come through were two stone monoliths, tilted a bit and partly covered with something close enough to moss. A lot of the clearing was strewn with boxes and the rest of the supplies, still lying where they'd been thrown through. He picked up a box and a jug of water and walked away from the gate quickly. The others grabbed whatever they could and followed him.
"Doctor, do you have any idea what might happen?" he asked, stopping at the edge of the forest and turning back to look.
Elggren shook his head. "If we knew how it worked, I might be able to tell you. As it is, your guess is as good as mine."
Clager looked at his watch again. "Ten seconds... Might as well stop here, then... Five... Zero." They all watched the stones in the glade intently, but nothing happened. They continued watching. Something small and brightly colored flew through the clearing, but that was all.
"I guess the answer is 'nothing on this end', Doctor," Clager said. "It's been a minute now. Either the gate is down and the machine destroyed, or the charges didn't go off." He walked back into the clearing, drew his sidearm, and cautiously walked between the stones, stopping a few steps beyond them when he didn't disappear. He shrugged and reholstered the pistol. "That's that, then. We're here and as far as we can tell the gate is down."
"Sennae," said Elggren, "is there anything unusual about those stones, or elsewhere in the clearing?"
"I am not sure, Doctor," answered Sennae. "Many of my sensors are not functioning or are returning clearly incorrect results. For example, they are reading that my quantum core is completely inert. However, I believe that I am still functioning and internal diagnostics mostly agree."
"Were you damaged in the transition?"
"It seems the most likely explanation. A change in the laws of physics sufficient to explain the results I am getting would kill you all and destroy me entirely as well.
"I'm glad for his sake that Medic Atalla was on the surface and got away," Clager said, "but we could use his expertise here right now. Does everyone feel all right?" They all looked at themselves carefully.
"Sennae, can you do anything to check us?"
"Very little, Doctor. Visual inspection reveals nothing. I can tell that your heart rates and breathing are elevated, but that is probably due to quite reasonable fear and uncertainty rather than any damage sustained in transit."
Elggren nodded. "I guess we'll just have to keep an eye on each other and hope," he said.
Clager said, "As long as we're on our feet and functioning, we need to get these supplies organized and some kind of shelter set up. I don't want to do it in the forest, but I don't want us too near the gate, either. Just... in case. Vankloser, you're with me. We'll make a quick recon of the area, hopefully we can find another clearing. Sergeant, you're in charge here. Make sure everyone gets sidearms, and get the packing and organization started."
Clager arbitrarily picked a spot on the perimeter and entered the forest there, Vankloser falling in behind him. Back in the clearing, he could hear Ulis setting guards and trying to get the grumbling science team organized. He allowed himself a moment of concern. Elggren seemed to be a practical man; it would be wise to have a word with him. He could probably get the rest of his team to understand that they were here to survive, not to do science. He wished he knew the science team better, or even his own soldiers for that matter. Having it all fall apart just two days after he arrived made a tough job even tougher. Then he firmly turned his attention to the forest around him.
Now that he had a chance to look, it was obvious why the trees looked both familiar and off-kilter at the same time. The trunks and branches had normal-looking bark but weren't quite round, they were more like bulging triangles in cross-section. The leaves were green, but their stalks emerged from the middle instead of one end, and the leaves themselves weren't symmetrical. Well, they were, but there were three parts, not two. Trilateral symmetry, he remembered. It was very rare in explored space but it did happen, and it was exotic enough to be the object of popular curiosity.
Something dropped out of the tree in front of him, colored bright red. He jumped back, lifting his pistol reflexively, as it flew away. The red made it easy to see, standing out against the somber greens and grays of the forest. He relaxed again and studied it more closely. It might have been a bird assembled by a very drunk god: like the plants, it had trilateral symmetry, three wings radiating from a central body. It flew with two, the third hanging below as a rudder, switching which pair it was flapping from time to time with a twist that was hard for the eye to follow.
"Odd wildlife, sir," said Vankloser from behind him. "But not very much of it."
"Not much to see, at any rate."
"More than that, sir. On any planet I've been on, you can hear the animals even if you can't see them. There are plenty of dead leaves on the ground, and even a small animal makes a racket walking through them. There should be insects buzzing and birds chirping. We may have scared the ones near us quiet, but we should hear them in the distance. But I don't hear anything."
Clager listened a moment, and nodded. "Very quiet. Well, another question to add to the list. We'd better get on with the tour." He turned to the right and started walking, keeping the clearing just in sight. Forest, forest, and more forest. They made a half-circle without finding anything and he was beginning to wonder if they would have to set up in the clearing with the gate, when he saw a brighter area ahead.
It was another clearing. This one had a different ground cover, something like grass but triangular again. It was perhaps half a meter tall, and the triangular cross-section meant that it didn't lie down as easily as grass, but they could cope with that. It was larger than the original clearing as well, giving them more room, more distance to spot something trying to sneak up on them. "We'll set up camp here," he said. "Let's complete the circle first, then we'll report in."
The rest of the way was just more forest, nothing they hadn't seen already as far as they could tell. Clager knew nothing about tracking, but the disturbed leaves where they'd walked were quite plainly visible. That bothered him, he didn't like leaving a trail for whatever might be around here to find, but there was nothing he could do about it right now. They turned and headed back to the gate clearing.
Everyone was looking at him as he stepped out of the forest, Vankloser with him. He looked behind himself, then realized that Toft, on guard, had warned them something was coming and to be ready. Toft holstered his pistol and saluted. "Nothing to report here, Commander."
Clager returned the salute. "We didn't see anything to guard against, Mister Toft, but that doesn't mean it's not out there. Well done." He walked over to Ulis while everyone relaxed and got back to work. "Report, Sergeant."
"Packing is underway, Commander," the bear said seriously. "We have enough clothes for everyone, including Wazel and Meyyammai. We have a year's worth of concentrated rations, but only a hundred gallons of water. A pistol for everyone and a few to spare, gave them out but I don't know how much good they'll do since none of the science team know how to shoot. No tents, guess nobody thought we'd need them ten klicks underground. Rolls of plastic sheeting and cable will have to do. Then there's the odds and ends, flashlights and batteries and medkits and such. Miss Meyyammai is sorting the odds and ends, the rest are packing. Bags for light stuff, most of the rest is in boxes already. They're trying to build a frame, or we'll have to carry the boxes in our arms."
"Well done, Sergeant." The bear held up a hand.
"Some problems, sir. Only knives we have are kitchen. Better than nothing but not really what's wanted in the bush. And, we're going to need fire."
Clager thought for a moment. "Fire was the last thing we wanted down below," he finally said.
Ulis nodded. "True. But a trouble now."