They were afraid.
In the ghoulish and smoky light, our desperate band of three found a world quite unlike their own. The air was choked with sulfur from its volcanoes, and the earth was covered with black fronds which looked like plants, but had thorns on them which could easily embed themselves in a finger. The ground squelched as they walked, bacteria dying by the thousands.
"If there's a hole in my suit, I might be dead before I set foot on the ground," thought K.
No one else was talking, as if the People of the Volcanoes wouldn't attack them if they didn't make a sound. It was an extended bluff and nothing more. They didn't know what they ate, let alone what was going through their minds.
A loud noise echoed through the thick air, sounding for all the world like a scream. They tensed, waiting with prenatural caution for any more. After twenty seconds, they started walking again, still on high alert.
The radio in K's suit crackled. "I suggest we go back," said Jo, the radio distorting her voice.
"Nothing's happened yet," said K, forever the stalwart one under pressure.
"Maybe the People have spotted us."
"No. Their favored method of alert would be a series of sharp hissing noises. It would hurt them to scream like that. It might not even be possible."
No one argued with her, because she was the biologist of the three. But Li had one more question. "If they didn't scream, what did?"
Her query was met with silence, the only comfort being the fact that there were no more screams.
But something was watching them. Its first instinct had been to scream at the sight of the Browns, envoys of disease and technology. But it dared not scream again, even to alert its fellows, who were surrounding the Browns. Instead, it cupped a single hand over its radio and sent a message to its regiment commander, hoping that the commander could find a way to accurately exploit the situation.
Meanwhile, Jo, K, and Li were exploring once more. There was an air of tension around the voyage, as none of them knew exactly why they were still surveying the planet. Some of the people sent to this glorified swamp never found their way back, which meant that the People of the Volcanoes were either dangerous or somehow so intrinsically better than the government that the people who had disappeared had become enamored by their lifestyle.
Jo harbored a deep-seated fear of the former option. She had seen backwards ships of her fellow humans before, ships which had gone mad in their isolation. They would attack the government soldiers, confused by their superior technology or offended by their cultural looseness. And that was just human beings. Aliens had entirely different minds; perhaps something utterly inhuman could come to them.
Li, on the other hand, pondered the latter. A contrarian by nature, she had dabbled in some of the more unsavory nongovernmental beliefs in her youth (belief in a predominantly restrictive god, belief in postmodernism rather than something productive), and she knew firsthand that regressive ideas could be paradoxically alluring. In addition, as a historian, she had read of the Europeans of old eloping with the culture of their aboriginal allies for its freedom from strict bonds of culture, and could comprehend how restrictive the government could be.
K had a different fear. It was unjustified, so she had kept quiet about it. But it had gnawed at the back of her mind like a worm, and at times she shivered inside her suit, because she could almost justify it. Her concern was that it was possible that, even though they were the most advanced of all the beings she knew, other aliens had landed upon the planet and evaded detection.
It was a fool's errand to list the problems with the others. The Greens were obsessed with their bodies and bound by a strict code of honor which locked them into a state of never accepting any technology other than the pitiful fare which they had, seemingly incapable of realizing that they were not immortal. The Greys, on the other hand, were so uninterested in enmity that even as the humans had copied their technology, they had done nothing. The Greys were constantly destroying the Greens' empire, then quickly retreating until the Greens were powerful again.
Many people believed that the Greens and the Greys were pawns in some dastardly game by some far more powerful beings, as they thought it wasn't possible that two entire species could have such glaring character flaws. But it seemed that the Greys had simply built the Greens up as monsters which they could fight, which made sense in a paradoxical way, but