Archaeological Site, Herroton.
29th November, 2151.
There were a series of metallic clunks, then the elevator swayed dramatically before beginning it's descent. Archer reaffirmed his grip on the metal bar, and Porthos whined in alarm. Within seconds they had lost sight of their surroundings, the dim light of the elevator not reaching to the walls of the surrounding chamber. It was somewhat disorientating.
To take his mind off it, Archer turned to Phlane. "So, is there much need for security here?"
"Not as such, no. We're part of the colony's overall security department, but here at the site we mainly act as emergency response teams, on standby in case some one gets into trouble. That rarely happens. Doctor Cruikshank fell off a ledge and broke her leg last year, that's probably the most significant thing we've had to deal with. Up until now, of course. We've had to borrow extra people to help with the search."
"What about the colony in general? Is there much need for security?"
She shook her head. "Not really. We're a police force, essentially, in what is a fairly small, quiet town. We have the occasional training exercise, so we can turn at a moments notice into steely eyed killers, should the Antarans suddenly decide to launch a major assault on an unimportant colony on the far side of our space from them. But mostly it's the quiet life. And to be honest, that's how most of us like it."
"The quiet life. So there's been nothing like this before then?"
"Unexplained disappearances, you mean?" Phlane raised an eyebrow. "No, nothing like this. Well, I say that, we did have a case some four or so years back. A group of youngsters went off on a hunting trip to the mountains. We never found three of them, but we found the other two. Bits of the other two, anyway. They'd been attacked by vrex."
"Vrex?" Tucker asked. "That councillor we met? I know she seemed a bit harsh, but..."
Phlane laughed. "No no, that's Councillor Vrok. An admired and respected member of the colony's administration, I assure you. And not, adamantly not, a cold blooded self serving vicious and callous predator."
"Ah, my mistake. So, is there good huntin' in the mountains?"
"So I'm told, if you can avoid getting devoured by vrex. Are you a...." She broke off as the second elevator rattled past them on it's ascent. "Are you a keen hunter, Mr Tucker?"
"Since I was so high." He held his hand down to demonstrate. "Not been for a while though. If'n I can get this power problem sorted soon 'nough, I might just go to these mountains of yours."
Sato said "You should take Red with you, she'd like that." Isobelle 'Red' Grant was one of the marines, a top tracker and hunter.
Archer grimaced. "I think we've got enough on our plates at the moment. And we didn't come all this way just to slaughter the local wildlife."
"Oh believe me, you'd be doing us a favour captain." Phlane said. "Those vrex are dangerous, not so much to us as they are to the chevans, our major meat source. The colony faces lean times ahead, there have been a few of us arguing for a cull."
Archer's ears popped as the elevator descended. He swallowed a couple of times to clear them.
A sudden burst of light from below startled him. It wasn't all that bright, but it seemed momentarily dazzling to his dark adjusted eyes. The elevator slowed to a halt by a platform of the ubiquitous metal mesh. A ring of lights illuminated a short ramp down to the ground, the now familiar arrangement of stone blocks under purple coating. In the wall directly opposite the elevator lay a large opening, a tunnel high and wide enough for Beowulf class landing craft to pass. About five metres along, four thick hydraulic struts stretched floor to ceiling. Just beyond them stood a wall of metal, clearly not part of the original design.
It was cold down here, very cold, his exhalations clearly visible in the pale light. And again Archer was struck by the conviction that there was more to this than a mere low atmospheric temperature. Irrational as the notion was, he could not fully rid himself of it. It was also quiet, now that the rattling of the elevator had stopped, unnaturally quiet. An environment like this really ought to have water dripping in the background
The clatter as Phlane slid the cage door open was almost shocking in it's intensity. He took a couple of breaths, steadying his nerves, then followed the Denobulan woman down the ramp.
"You OK, cap'n?" Tucker asked softly, concern evident in his tones. He'd obviously picked up on his mood.
"I'll be fine, Trip. Thanks."
Porthos, on the other hand, seemed perfectly fine. Indeed, he strained at his leash to get closer to the tunnel the moment Archer put him down.
As they entered the tunnel he could see that the four struts were holding something up, a slab a good fifty centimetres or so thick. It was pushed up into a slot in the ceiling. Regular tooth like protuberances jutted from it's bottom edge, and looking at the floor he could make out where matching depressions had been, though now they were filled with rubble and sand.
"This is a door?" he asked.
"This," Phlane said, "is indeed a door. The only way into the complex, as far as we can tell. It took nearly a month to prise it up far enough that they could get these struts in place, and another week to lift it up all the way. I've been told it's now locked in place, but we're leaving the struts here for safety. You wouldn't want to be underneath if it suddenly decides to drop. Or trapped on the wrong side, for that matter.
"Now this," she added, rapping her knuckles against the metal wall, was put in by the archaeologists, to stop draughts mainly."
There were a few small holes along the top of the wall, through which snaked a hydra like collection of cables. Archer recognised them as the ones supplying power to the rest of the ziggurat. Two hatches, one large, one small, were embedded in the wall. Phlane tapped a long number into the keypad by the smaller one, which promptly swung open, and beckoned them through.
Keeping a tight hold on Porthos' leash, Archer entered. The first thing he noted was the sudden rush of warmth, most welcome after the chill in the outer chamber. The lighting here was uncomfortably bright, but as his eyes adjusted he began to recognize the scale of the area. This cavern was huge, in size---and shape---reminiscent of a decently sized aircraft hanger. The walls, floor and ceiling here were bare stone, without the coating. At the far end, directly opposite the entrance, a tunnel mouth led off into the darkness. Much of the chamber was filled with barrels and containers of various sorts. To his right a large rectangular generator hummed away happily to itself. It seemed to be the source of the warmth. To the left was a large metal shed with a window. The lights inside were off.
Sitting by the shed, playing some sort of board game on a low table, were two Denobulans. Both wore the same sort of coveralls as Phlane, and carried holstered guns. They stood as the party entered, staring at the humans with curiosity.
"Shouldn't you two be at the communications board?" Phlane asked. "There are people in the tunnels at the moment."
"Sorry ma'am." one said. "It's the cleaning fluid, the fumes are making us sick. We've got the door propped open and the volume turned way up. We'll be able to hear if there's a distress call."
Archer walked round to the side of the structure. The door was held wide open, a barrel pressed into service as a door stop. He approached the doorway, becoming aware of Porthos' reluctance a moment before he was hit by an eye stinging acrid stench. "Lord, that's potent. What happened?"
Phlane shrugged. "There must have been a problem with the environmental systems. The place was dripping with condensation, absolutely smothered."
"When was this?" he asked.
"You're determined to find a connection to the missing people, aren't you?" she asked. "Well, alright then, we found it like that the morning they disappeared. But if it's relevant in any way, I can't see how."
"Condensation in the guard's shack." he ruminated. "No, to be honest, I can't see how that fits, either."
Sato was examining a large rack mounted to the side of the shack. "Are these the distress beacons?" she asked, holding up one of the small cylinders.
"That's right. Each individually numbered. When anyone goes into the tunnels, they take one, noting it's number and their name for the records." Phlane gestured to the clipboard hanging from a length of cord by the rack. "Most of the humans tend to use the same one over and over again, as if they personally own it. But really they are for communal use."
Sato looked thoughtful. "Do you mind if I borrow one? I've an idea as to how we could get a bit more communication with these."
Phlane looked sceptical, but nodded. "If you can do that, it would be useful. Please, take number eleven. That was the one your Doctor Halliwell favoured."
Sato hesitated, then selected the appropriate one, signing for it on the clipboard.
Despite his earlier misgivings, Archer was strongly tempted to investigate the tunnels further. He reminded himself that he had an appointment for lunch with Trex and a number of officials, and that there would be opportunities later. "Guess we'd better be heading back. Thanks for showing us---"
He got no further, as Tucker suddenly exclaimed "Hey, wait a minute, that ain't right!" He pointed to a large collection of barrels a few metres away. "You got trellaline stored right next to ya' coolant fo' the generator. You have to keep 'em well apart. If'n they ain't prop'ly sealed, an' the fumes mix...boom!"
The guards looked alarmed, as did Phlane.
Archer said. "Right, lets get them shifted. Porthos, sit, stay."
With them all working together, it didn't take long to move the trellaline to a safe location. He would of thought that would do, but Trip insisted they move the coolant as well, as it's current position was inefficient from an engineering standpoint, apparently. Those barrels were larger and heavier, and difficult to move, but eventually Trip declared himself satisfied.
"Sorry' bout that, cap'n, but I couldn't leave things like that. It's bad form."
"Understood Trip, but now we really must be---oh, now what? What have you found, boy?"
Porthos was barking excitedly at him, rushing back and forth to the spot where the barrels had recently stood.
There, in a shallow depression in the ground, the floor was discoloured, stained a greyish brown.
"That looks like...blood." one of the guards breathed.
Phlane nodded. "It does indeed. Better get Phlox here to take samples, see if we can identify who's it is. And if it turns out to be Velen's that has some severe implications. Especially for your Dr Halliwell."
"For Carl? Whatever do you mean?" Sato demanded.
It was Archer that answered. "That blood stain, if that's what it is, was hidden under those barrels. Deliberately. That means someone has acted to conceal the evidence of injury. Someone who had something to hide. And right now Doctor Halliwell is the only person we know of inside the complex. That makes him the prime suspect."