Herroton Colony Landing Ground.
29th November, 2151.
The environmental conditions on Herroton were a known quantity, certified safe for humans. As such there was no need for atmospheric tests. The moment the pilot gave the all clear, Captain Archer stood and made his way to the aft of the Beowulf class landing craft, thumbing the button to swing open the wide double doors and lower the boarding ramp. Captain's privilege allowed him the honour of being first onto the surface of a new planet, if he so chose---and regulations allow
, he thought wryly, glancing at one of the Marines, Corporal James, in passing---but on this occasion it was Porthos, straining on his leash, that made that one small step.
It was warm, the air still and heavy. There was a curiously salty aroma, rather like being at the beach, despite the colony's location far from the sea. There was also a distinct burnt smell, though that was most likely due to the Beowulf's landing thrusters catching the ground. A small, new colony like Herroton had only the most basic of landing facilities. There was a concrete runway for those vehicles that needed it, but VTOL craft like the Beowulf made do with patches of hard ground, reinforced with metal mesh, surrounded by blinking landing lights. A couple of hangers stood nearby, along with a control tower. A pair of emergency vehicles stood ready, along with a long bulky transport on large balloon tires. As he watched, the latter began to rumble in their direction.
Looking round, the landing port was located fairly near the middle of an open plain, some two dozen or so kilometres across. After so long in the cramped confines of Enterprise, he felt a slight disquiet at the wide openness surrounding him. It soon passed. A large collection of buildings, low and squat, made up the colony in the distance. At about half the distance, in roughly a straight line, a small cluster of structures marked the archaeological site. Above him the sky was blue, with a very slight hint of green. A few clouds scuttled slowly across. All in all, a pleasant day.
The transport halted nearby, before tuning on the spot, all four wheels moving independently. With a hiss, the vehicle lowered. A set of steps unfurled at the back, leading up to a hatch, which opened.
"Good morning Captain!" Commissioner Tovan said, descending. "Welcome to Herroton. Governor Trex sends his apologies, he's a bit caught up at the moment. Council business, you know how it is."
"Good morning Commissioner. Yes, I quite understand. The Governor must be very busy. Now, you remember my officers, I'm sure. Commander Tucker, Major Reed, and Lieutenant Sato."
Tovan greeted them in turn. "And I see you've brought a few of your crew with you."
Archer nodded. "Representatives of the engineering staff, to help with the power distribution problems. And Mr. Reed's Marines, to carry out the search for the missing personnel."
Craning his head to peer into the interior, Tovan asked "Anyone else? Your first officer....? Or perhaps...perhaps the charming Professor?" he added, trying not to sound too eager.
"No." Archer said simply, watching disappointment spread across Tovan's face."As we've not yet been given permission to bring down landing parties for purposes of shore leave, it would be inappropriate for any member of my crew to set foot on this world, apart from those involved in either the engineering team or the search team. Apart from myself and Hoshi, that is. We're here for diplomatic purposes. But apart from us, no one." And that, if Archer was any judge of personality, would guarantee Tovan would add his voice to those willing to allow shore leave.
There was another reason for Partridge's absence. Despite her comments at dinner the other evening, the planetological survey was taking longer than expected, a lot longer. She had no intention of visiting until she had some worthwhile results, certainly not if there was any chance of that Councillor Vrok finding out.
"Hmm. Very well. If you'd care to come with me, Captain." Trex said, climbing the steps.
Hoisting Porthos under one arm, his luggage under the other, Archer followed. The interior of the vehicle was reminiscent of the bus on which he'd gone to school as a child, rows of seats and wide windows. He went with Tovan to the front, sitting directly behind the driver. Once his crew were all onboard the hatch closed, the vehicle raised slightly, and they sped off in the direction of the city. The only sound was the faint hum of electric motors and the occasional rattle as the big wheels kicked pebbles and gravel up against the underside.
"I hope you don't mind the use of this transport." Trex said. "We do have a few flyers, but given the current problems the governor has put them all on emergency standby. In case someone gets hurt, needs rushing to hospital. That sort of thing."
"No problem. It's a very comfortable ride, and it gives us a chance to see the scenery. Being on a new planet is always an exciting experience."
Tovan half turned in his seat. "Major Reed. I've set up accommodation for you and your people at the dig. It's a bit basic, so if you'd prefer something better in town itself, just let me know and I'll see what I can arrange."
"Thank you Commissioner. I'm sure it will be suitable."
There was a mutter from one of the Marines. "Don't say that till we've seen the place, boss. It might be a dump."
"Then I'm sure it'd suit you down to the ground, Tipping."
Presently they arrived at the site. Several single story buildings with the look of offices and accommodation to them, and a larger storage facility. A bulky excavator vehicle was parked next to it. As they approached a feature of the landscape, previously obscured from view by the lay of the land, became visible. A huge, wide pit, deep into the ground. And as the transport skirted the rim...
"Good God." Archer breathed. From his vantage point he could see the pit's contents. A vast ziggurat, a stepped pyramid, filled the excavation. It was, as far as he could estimate, at least a hundred metres in height, constructed of blocks of some smooth, slightly purple stone. Floodlights on tall stands pointed into an oval shaped opening at the base. Despite the bright illumination they provided, the interior remained defiantly dark. A spiralling ramp had been carved into the edges of the pit, allowing access to the entrance. Somehow, Archer could not explain why, this place felt old. Ancient, inconceivably so. And yet, there were no signs of erosion or age. It could have been built yesterday.
"Impressive, isn't it?" Tovan remarked. "Doctor Smith assures me that less than a third of it has been uncovered. The actual entrance is more than two hundred metres further down. No one is sure what that hole is, maybe ventilation or something, but it's a convenient access point."
"That's more than twice the height of the Great Pyramid of Giza!" Hoshi exclaimed.
"Yeah. Sure is somethin'" Tucker added, a hint of disbelief in his drawl.
"And that's just the structure itself. For all it's size, Smith reckons it's nothing more than an entrance, a way into the tunnels beneath." Tovan said. "Ah, here we are. Accommodation for you and your people, Major."
The transport had drawn up next to one of the buildings, a prefab structure in dark green. As the vehicle lowered and the Marines disembarked, Archer asked. "Any chance of a quick look at the site while we're here?"
"Oh, I expect so. I'll have to clear it with Doctor Smith or one of...ah. She'll do." Tovan had spotted a Denobulan woman approaching the transport. He got out, signalling her over. Archer followed him down the steps, but turned instead into the low building. Inside the Marines were already making themselves at home. There were plenty of camp beds, more than were needed in fact, storage lockers, and cooking facilities.
"Mind your head, Captain!" Reed called out as he entered. "Sandstrom here's already clocked himself on one of the beams."
Sandstrom was a huge man with an incredibly thick neck. He was clean shaven, and shaved his head bald too, but with his unnaturally blue eyes and blond, almost white, eyebrows he looked like a stereotypical Viking. So much so that it was slightly confusing to look at him, the mind insisted in trying to portray him with flowing hair and beard, and their absence was like some weird optical illusion. He was seated on one of the beds, Dumont the medic seeing to a cut on his forehead. There was a very clear dent in one of the metal roof struts.
"Ooh, nasty." Archer said. "Are you OK, Sandstrom?"
"Yes sir. It's just my head, nothing important!"
"He never uses it anyway." said Corporal James. "Don't worry Captain, I've come up with a fool proof scheme to ensure this will never happen again. Look." She held out a piece of paper, about two centimetres square. Peering close Archer could just make out the words 'Take care' inscribed upon it. She licked the back of the paper then stretched up, for she was quite short, and pressed it against the strut. It adhered in place.
"I'm very sorry about this Corporal but I think you've put that upside down." Archer said.
"Not a problem sir, most of this lot can't read anyway." she replied. Without taking her eyes off Archer she reached out at serpent like speed to catch a pillow thrown at her from the other side of the room. "Thanks Tipping. An extra pillow would make my bed much more comfy. It's very kind of you to give me yours."
There was a moment's silence, broken my Tipping's muttered "You cow!", then a burst of activity as the assembled troopers snatched up pillows, blankets and mattresses from the extra beds. Those fastest were able to assure themselves a more comfortable night's sleep.
"I see you're all making yourselves at home." Tovan said, entering. He was accompanied by the woman he'd seen earlier. She wore simple coveralls, with a holstered side-arm. Her hair was greying and her face lined, but she carried herself with strength and vigour, a decidedly military bearing. Making an estimate of her age, Archer concluded she was probably too young to have served in the last major Denobulan-Antaran conflict, but could well have seen action in the minor skirmishes that had followed. "Captain Archer, Major Reed, this is Phlane, head of security for the dig."
Before Archer could respond, Reed barked "Attention!" The Marines responded instantly, and the Major himself offered a crisp salute to the newcomer. "Ma'am. Allow me to offer my sincerest thanks for allowing myself and my men to assist in the search for our missing personnel. I realize this must be very frustrating to you, having outsiders intrude onto your jurisdiction is never pleasant, but we both have the same goals here and work to the same ends. Rest assured your authority in this matter is recognised, and we will work fully with you."
The slight hint of anger present in Plane's features passed, replaced by a startled expression. "Ah, yes, well, ah...Major. Ah, thank you, and, ah, welcome to Herroton. I, ah, look forward to working with you. We'll give your people some time to settle in, and, ah, acclimatise, then we can get planning. I'll fill you in on what we've done so far, and you can bring me any suggestions for future tasks. All activities subject to my approval, of course."
"Of course." Reed agreed, glancing to Archer.
The Captain gave a faint nod of approval. During the shuttle wide down he'd discussed this matter with Reed. There would be someone in charge of security, he reasoned, someone in charge of the search so far. That person might not be happy with the Marines being suddenly included into proceedings. Yes, the addition of extra people would make things easier, but it could be interpreted as a lack of confidence that they were capable of doing the job, that the authorities thought it best if someone else take over. An insulting notion. So Archer suggested Reed make it very clear that he wasn't there to usurp anyone. It seemed to have worked.
"Right." Phlane adjusted her gun belt. "Captain, the Commissioner tells me you would like a look in the site itself. Well, I can take you to the First Chamber. Any further than that we'd need Doctor Smith's permission, and he's deep in the tunnels at the moment. Out of touch."
Reed frowned. "Don't you have communicators?"
She shook her head. "Don't work down there. No one's sure why, probably the mineral content in the walls. We have emergency locator beacons, but they just send out a signal. Powerful enough to detect at range, but too imprecise to carry a message. The beacons act as receivers too, if there's an emergency we can send out a signal to recall everyone down below, but as for talking to individuals, no chance."
"What about some form of intercom?" asked Corporal M'boto. He was one of the Marines tech specialists. "Surely you could just lay cables or something?"
"Yes, that was discussed. In fact, Dr Soong had the idea to use the cables for the lighting system to carry messages. It was never put into practice though, we'd need a prohibitively large amount of intercom sets to cover even a fraction of the area."
"Cables? I thought you had some sort of broadcast power distribution system?" Reed asked.
Tovan said "The colony does. But, like radio signals, it doesn't work in the tunnels. There is a generator installed in the main chamber itself, powering all the lighting and equipment. In fact, when the blackouts began, they laid extra lines up here. This building, and the others round here, are powered by that generator, not the one in the city.
"At any rate, the Governor will be expecting you for lunch. So if you want to take a brief look into the site, now's the time to do it."