Nia’s backpack dug into her shoulders. It was heavy and hard, but it contained her suit’s life support system. It made constant clicks and whirs and gurgles, almost white noise but more distracting. The worst part was that it probably wasn’t needed.
Aether Rex was perfectly safe by the initial readings. But Nia heard enough horror stories not to trust the initial readings. Stories about starblazers who succumbed to novel microbial nightmares because they equated temperature and pressure and oxygen to safety. Across 10,000 worlds, complex lifeforms were a rarity; but simple lifeforms, invisible and elusive, were to be expected. Inexperienced starblazers like Nia and Amit did well to stay suited.
They hiked all day through a water-carved canyon. The towering rock walls were dark with mineral deposits. Underfoot, long tendrils of seafoam-colored grass analogs stuck to their boots like tufts of cotton candy. They took samples, left markers, and documented everything. They wouldn’t know what was valuable until they were already gone, and if they wanted to make a sale their records had to be exceedingly precise. They’d learned that lesson the hard way after Phobetor.
Nia bumped into Amit, who’d apparently come to a halt. He didn’t say anything; just stared ahead. And then Nia saw them too.
Another starblazer team. Three of them, climbing up the boulders 100 meters ahead.
Nia squinted in the bright light of what they were calling late afternoon, with one star at the zenith and the other dead ahead. The strangers were little more than silhouettes, but what she saw in their outlines was unmistakable. They were well armed.
There was another series of horror stories Nia had heard, and they flooded her mind now like a tsunami, submerging all other thoughts. Not all lifeforms to be feared were alien. Amit must be thinking the same thing. He still hadn’t said a word.
One of the strangers turned, faced them, and waved slowly with one arm extended above their head. An acknowledgement, but not a greeting.
Outnumbered by armed strangers on an empty planet. Nia’s backpack didn’t feel so heavy anymore. She waited for someone to make a move.
Notes: I used an image as a writing prompt for this piece. You may be able to find the image on the artist’s ArtStation page. Image by Fran Niño, used with permission.