Archaeological Site, Herroton.
29th November, 2151.
With Tovan, Reed, and the marines swapping war stories, it was up to Phlane to take Archer, Tucker and Sato down to the entrance of the ziggurat. They travelled in a four wheel drive electric buggy. Phlane set a steady pace, keeping as far as possible from the edge of the spiralling track. Archer couldn't blame her. It was a long way down, and the edge seemed to be crumbling slightly. Enthusiastic as he was about seeing the site, he didn't want to rush things.
As they descended, he became gradually aware of an almost unnatural chill in the air. At first he put it down to his imagination, spurred on by the sense of awe at the size and design of the ziggurat. Yet he soon realized it was more than that, much more. The chill leached into him, robbing the warmth from his bones. Involuntarily he hunched his shoulders, pulling Porthos, who'd been sat on his lap, closer. He wasn't one to believe tales of the supernatural, but he could not help be reminded of ghost stories told round the camp fire. He thrust those thoughts away, seeking a rational explanation. Perhaps the ziggurat was constructed of some material that absorbed heat very efficiently? Or perhaps---
"It's cold down here." Sato said. "I wish I'd brought a coat."
"The nights are always cold round here at this time of year, very bitter." Phlane said. "A few hours of direct sunlight makes all the difference, but the sun is too low on the horizon to shine down to the bottom of the pit. So, it stays cold."
Archer cleared his throat.
"Oh, I know that sound." Tucker said, grinning. "The cap'n's embarrassed by something. Ya didn't think this place were haunted, did ya'?"
Archer turned in his seat and held up his dog, pointing him at the engineer. "Porthos, attack! Kill!" The beagle yawned, and wagged his tail lazily.
"It's actually warmer inside," Phlane went on, "well, in the First Chamber at least. That's where the generator is located, and it puts out a bit of heat as well as electricity. But if you are planning to venture further, do take warm clothing. Also a beacon and a mapper. And personally I'd recommend a bottle of water, and some food."
"Did Carl have all this stuff when he went missing?" Sato asked.
"Carl? Oh, you mean Dr Halliwell. Yes, he was very conscientious about such things. Everything was in his briefcase, apart from a flask of, what do you call it, coffee? Yes, a flask in the pocket of his coat. That was in one of the corridors, near the chamber where his briefcase was found. So either he'd dropped the coat on his way to the chamber, or...
"...Or he'd left his briefcase in the chamber, and dropped his coat on the way back to the entrance." Archer finished. "But why would he do either?"
"Maybe he'd made a discovery?" Sato suggested. "Doctor Smith said the briefcase had been found where he had been working. Perhaps he'd had some stunning revelation, something so important he wanted to share it with the others, and started running back. He always did like running. And he could have dropped his coat if he got too hot."
Phlane hesitated. Clearly she didn't want to dash Hoshi's hopes. "I'd have to say that is....unlikely. Dr Halliwell's personal computer was still in the briefcase. Dr Smith has checked it carefully, it hadn't been used that morning, so he hadn't done any work. But it did have all his earlier notes in it. Smith says it is inconceivable that Halliwell would have simply abandoned it."
"Oh." said Hoshi, quietly.
"And that doesn't explain where Carl disappeared to." Archer added. "Or Velen, the guard. His disappearance is just as important, and just as much a mystery."
"Thank you captain." Phlane said.
Presently they arrived at the bottom of the pit. With the great mass of the ziggurat towering over them it was hard to believe more than two thirds remained unearthed. Phlane parked the buggy and disembarked, leading them towards the oval orifice. It was a couple of metres higher than the base of the pit, a ramp of hard earth reinforced with metal mesh led up to it. Six powerful lights on tall stands shone into it, yet Archer could see only a little way in, the darkness swallowing the attempts at illumination.
There was something....unreal about the structure, as if it wasn't really there. Something off-putting. He hesitated, not afraid, but unsure. Besides him Sato and Tucker had also halted on the ramp. In contrast Porthos was straining at his leash to get to the entrance.
Phlane was halfway up the ramp. She stopped and turned to face them. "Don't worry. Most everybody gets like this the first time. Even some of the archaeologists, who've been in here hundreds of times, still hesitate. It's never bothered me though." She barked a laugh. "I must have no imagination!"
Archer forced himself to take a step, then another. Once in motion his misgivings faded, though he'd be lying to himself if he said they'd gone completely.
Misgivings or not, the structure was breathtaking. Each block was the size of a small shuttlepod, and up close he could see that, rather than slightly purple stone, as he'd first surmised, they were made from light grey stone, coated in a translucent purple substance. A polymer of some kind, from the look of it. Despite the primitive appearance of the ziggurat's design, it was clearly the result of a technologically advanced people. Perhaps that explained the structure's unreal appearance too. The polymer wasn't reflecting light as the mind expected it to. That's probably it
, he told himself, and was almost convinced.
As they reached the top of the ramp Tucker fished a small scanner from a pocket and ran it over the intersection between two adjacent blocks. "Huh. How 'bout that?"
"Something up Trip?"
"Nope, this here, cap'n, is a perfectly straight vertical line, 'zactly as it should be. Only....if you take a few steps back...yeah, just here, does it look like a straight line to you?"
"Can't say that it does." Archer admitted, rubbing the back of his neck thoughtfully. "There's a definite curve."
"Yeah, but which way does it curve?" Tucker asked.
"To the...the...it's...Damn it, that's weird. I can see the curve, but I can't tell which way it goes. And if I get closer...yeah, a straight line."
"The angles." Hoshi said softly. "The angles are all wrong."
"It's got to be some sort of illusion." Archer said. "Maybe something to with this coating, on the blocks? It might be refracting light oddly. Phlane, has this phenomenon been studied?"
Phlane shrugged. "You'd have to ask one of the scientists about that, I'm only the security."
"I'll tell you what it is doing." Sato said, rubbing her brow. "It's doing my head in. I'm not going in if it's like this in there, it's making me dizzy."
"The effects are much less pronounced inside." Phlane reassured her. "Possibly because you can only see a small amount of it at a time."
"Well let's get in then." Sato said, keeping her head down as she went up the rest of the ramp and in to the darkness.
Following, Archer found her leaning against the wall and taking deep breaths. "Are you alright?"
"Yes sir, I am now thank you. That was just...oh, I don't know." She closed her eyes and shook her head rapidly to clear it. "Yeah, that was strange. I'm alright now."
"Are you sure?" he insisted. "We can head back outside, get one of the Marine medics to check you out."
"Honestly sir, I'm fine. It was a bit...disturbing out there, but I'm OK, really."
He nodded reluctantly. "OK then. But if it happens again, you let us know at once. That's an order."
She tossed a flippant salute. "Yes Sir, Captain Sir!"
He gave her a mock imperious stare, though inside was relieved. If she was joking about it then that was a good sign. "Same goes for you Trip. Any ill effects and you let me know. Is this sort of reaction typical, Phlane?"
"Some people can get a little disorientated. The effects are only temporary though, and never severe."
"So far." Archer said.
She regarded him steadily. "You suspect this effect is somehow responsible for the disappearance of the two personnel?"
"It's possible. Maybe they got so badly affected they couldn't think straight, went wandering off into the tunnels." He shrugged. "We've not really got enough data to draw any conclusions yet."
Phlane was shaking her head. "In the years since we've gained access to the interior, the only major effects have been out there, at the entrance. I can't say it's impossible for people inside to be affected so badly, but it is unprecedented."
Archer nodded slowly. He'd been reaching for a solution, without having enough facts. By now his eyes were adjusting to the dark, and...no, no, that was not it. It was getting lighter. Looking up he could see a series of thin, extendible metal bars wedged just below the ceiling. Each held a light bar, along with what looked like a motion sensor. In the illumination they provided he could see that the corridor they were in was lined with much smaller blocks, though they, like the ceiling and floors, were coated in the same purplish translucent material as the larger ones outside.
"Something else you should bring." Phlane said. "A good flashlight. The lighting they've put in is all well and good, but to save energy it only comes on when there's someone nearby. If you want to see further than a few metres, you'll have to provide your own illumination. And of course, only a fraction of the complex has been fitted with lighting, so if you leave the explored areas, well..." She didn't finish the sentence. She didn't need to.
With a modicum of illumination present it could be seen that several smaller corridors branched off this one. Phlane shone her flashlight down the nearest. "When this place was uncovered this part was packed full of earth. It took a while to excavate. There are dozens of rooms down there. All empty. The archaeologists guess they were used for storage at one time, but whatever they were holding has long decayed. Eventually it got to the point where they didn't bother digging them out unless they thought they could find something. Look."
She turned the beam onto what was clearly another opening, except this was still filled with a solid mass of dried earth. Archer prodded it experimentally. Some dirt crumbled away, but it was too hard to pick do more than that.
"They used an ultrasonic scanner to get an idea of what was down each corridor, only digging out the ones that seemed promising. Eventually, they found this one." Phlane said, leading them deeper into the ziggurat. If Archer was any judge, they were approaching the centre of the structure.
The corridor opened out, revealing a large chamber. Even with Phlane's flashlight the other side was lost in darkness. Yet some things were obvious. Just two metres or so from the corridor entrance the floor just stopped, giving way to a gaping chasm. It was quite clearly designed that way, not the result of subsidence or some structural failure. On the right a stone staircase descended into the dark, on the left another made the ascent. A series of barrels, ropes strung between them, had been placed along the edge as an impromptu safety barrier. Two metal structures, like bridges, jutted part way into the darkness. Again, these were clearly additions by the archaeologists, not part of the original design. One terminated in a large cage, hanging from a collection of sturdy looking cables. The second had no such cage, though the cables stretched both up and down into the gloom.
"An elevator system?" Archer asked.
Phlane nodded. "It's a jury-rigged system. But quite safe, I'm assured. And a lot better than the staircase. In the early days that was the only way to go, so this is a big improvement." She lead the way across the bridge, which rattled alarmingly under foot, to the cage. Sliding the door open, she stepped in.
Archer picked up his dog and followed, keeping his gaze fixed ahead. The cage-elevator swayed alarmingly as he entered, and he grabbed tightly onto the metal bar welded into place as a hand hold. It brought some reassurance. Hoshi followed lightly, she'd obviously shaken off her earlier dizziness. Then came Tucker, looking up at the cables.
"Looks sturdy 'nough." he opined. "Look like QB-19 rated cables, 'less I miss my guess. You can haul an elephant on one o' those. O' course, I can't see what they attached to, up there. That might give way." he added mischievously.
Phlane said "You'll be delighted to hear that one of the survey team has worked out what to do if we do find ourselves falling."
"Yes? What?" Archer asked.
"Accelerate downwards for two hundred metres and then become very still. And flat." She slid the door firmly shut, shook the handle to ensure it had fastened, then turned to the controls. A small screen displayed the interior of the cage, seen from ceiling level, at the back. Something about it struck Archer as odd, then he realized that there was no one in the cage on the screen.
"There are two elevators?"
"Right. Counterbalanced so that as one descends, the other rises. As a safety precaution we have cameras set up in each, just there." Phlane pointed. "It makes sure no one sets off whilst someone is getting into or out of the other. Prevents accidents. And before you ask, Captain, the images from the cameras are recorded, so we can keep track of who has used the elevators. So if Dr Halliwell and Velen did leave for some reason, they would have had to climb the stairs. Not impossible, but quite challenging. Now, is there anything else before...?"
Archer looked to his officers, then turned back to Phlane. "Let's go."