Archaeological Site, Herroton.
30th November 2151.
After the discovery of the mysterious traces, discussion went on long into the night. Eventually Archer and his officers made their way to the apartments that had been assigned to their use. Located in the same building where most of the human archaeologists lived, the rooms were small and somewhat characterless, but comfortable enough. All the same Archer did not get to sleep for several hours, mulling over the days events.
When he awoke, somewhat later than usual, it was to the news that a shuttle from Enterprise had landed, carrying some extra equipment Reed had requested, along with Professor Partridge. After a quick shower and breakfast he gathered up the others and set off back to the site. A ground car had been placed at their disposal: Archer had some experience driving Denobulan vehicles, but not much, and not for many years. Fortunately Phlane had decided to act as liaison with them and elected to drive. As she said, with all work at the site suspended for the time being, she had little else to do. Privately Archer suspected she wanted to keep an eye on them. She was, after all, with security.
As they travelled, he again was struck by how pleasant the surroundings were. It was not surprising that Doctor Halliwell had elected to walk to and from the site, despite the distance.
Several crates were stacked next to the accommodation block. Sergeant Woo was going over the details on a pad with Burke, the marines' administrative assistant. As the car halted next to them the two men stood to attention, saluting Reed and Archer.
"Is this all the LOSIR gear?" Reed asked, taking the pad for his own inspection.
"Yes sir." Burke confirmed. "Every last relay we've got."
"What's LOSIR?" Phlane said.
Reed opened the top crate and fetched out a small rectangular object. It looked to be made of a hard plastic, dull grey in colour. "Line Of Site, Infra Red." He explained. "It's a short range communication system, used in situations where broadcasting a radio signal might be...unwise."
"Unwise as in, giving your position away?"
He nodded. "Right. LOSIR is a tactical system enabling limited communication in covert situations. Now, because it uses infra red, rather than radio, I'm hoping it won't be affected by whatever is blanking out the signals down there. The trouble is, as the name suggests, it only works when you have a clear line of site. The infra red can't go through solid objects or bend round corners. So that's where the relays come in. We set up a command post in the entrance chamber, and leave a trail of these as we progress into the tunnels. As long as each one can 'see' at least one other in the trail, we should be able to communicate with little difficulty."
Sato sighed. "Great. I was up half the night getting a couple of distress beacons modified for Morse code. Looks like we won't be needing them now."
"I wouldn't say that ma'am." Woo said. "Even with all the relays, we can cover only a tiny part of the the tunnels."
Archer rubbed the back of his neck thoughtfully. "Hmm. Have we enough relays to connect to section four, chamber D?"
The answer took a few minutes, Woo and Burke examining the pad intently. "Sorry sir. There's just two many turns in the tunnels."
"Damn." He thought for a bit. "Trip, show them the locations of all the anomalous contacts." So far they had found six spots on the map where the lights had been triggered with no apparent cause.
"Oh, we can certainly reach this one sir." Burke said, pointing to the map. "This one too. And...probably this one as well."
Archer nodded. "Good, good. I'd have preferred to have seen the chamber where Halliwell had been working, but for now, the nearest one will do."
"You're assumin' it ain't just a 'lectrical fault." Tucker said.
"And what else have you got?" Phlane asked, tapping the lowermost crate with her foot.
"Specialist equipment." Reed said quickly. "A few thing we didn't originally think we'd need. I changed my mind."
Reed hesitated, giving Archer a quick glance. "Amongst other things, yes."
Archer said. "I thought it undiplomatic to have fully armed troopers running about. That's why they've had side-arms only up to now. But given the current situation, Mr Reed convinced me---"
"Oh, I quite approve." Phlane broke in. "We don't know what's going on, but it certainly look like some thing nasty is down there. Personally I'd be glad of extra fire-power. So what exactly have you got?"
As the discussion took it's more militaristic bent, Archer turned to Woo. "Where's the Professor?"
"Having a lie down, sir, in that hut. Said she wanted to sleep it off."
"Sleep it off?" Phlane said, momentarily distracted from weaponry. "She's not drunk is she?"
"She tends to get travel sick." Archer explained. "Especially in shuttles."
The hut in question was similar to the one used by the marines, though much smaller. Entering Archer saw that it contained a table, some chairs, and just four beds, three of which had been stripped of mattresses to make the fourth more comfortable. It was dark inside, the windows having been polarized to keep down the sunlight. Despite that the black lustre of Partridge's catsuit glistened like oil on water. She lay, or perhaps that should be reposed, on the fourth bed, eyes closed, a damp flannel across her forehead. Corporal James sat on a bedside chair, holding her hand and gently stroking her hair. As they came in she looked up, smiling, and put her finger to her lips in a polite, yet clear, demand for quiet.
"Oh brother," Hoshi said softly, "can you believe this?"
Tucker glanced at his watch. "No. It don't take her this long to recover."
"Milking it for all that it's worth." Archer agreed. He approached the bed and made the same shushing gesture to James. Picking up the flannel, he wringed it out so water splashed on Partridge's face. With a squeal she sat bolt upright.
"Now that I have your attention, professor," he said, over the series of incoherent noises she was emitting, "could you explain what is so important it required observations of the rest of the system?"
Partridge harrumphed, and wiped her face dry with a corner of blanket. "I can't believe you did that Johnny. You're supposed to be setting the standard. And you!
" she turned to the marine. "I can't believe you let him. You're a trained killer, you could have stopped him."
James looked like a kicked puppy. "I..I'm sorry. But he outranks
"Oh, don't fret about it. Look. Thanks to your care and ministrations I'm feeling much better now. Could you be a dear and rustle up some breakfast for me? And a cup of coffee. Get Mr Reed to make the coffee, he's good at that. Tell him it's for me, he'll be happy to do it then." She smiled at James and wrinkled her nose. The marine giggled and practically skipped out of the hut.
"You take advantage of that girl, Polly." Tucker said, a touch reproachfully.
"I take advantage of everyone
, darling, and they love me for it." She took a deep breath, then launched into a series of convoluted motions that ended with her balanced upright on head and shoulders, body stretched vertically up the wall, ankles crossed. "Right. There's a case under the bed. Could some one put it up here and open it up?"
Archer crouched, found the metal case, and put it on the mattress. He flipped the catches and lifted the lid.
"Don't touch it!" Partridge warned. "It's very sharp."
"What is it?" Sato demanded. "Diamond?"
It certainly glimmered like one. The fist sized, irregular lump caught what little light was in the room, throwing it out again in a prismatic blaze.
"It's beautiful." Archer said.
"That it is." Partridge agreed. "And to answer you question Hoshi, it's moon rock. A collection of various compounds, mainly silicon, a few impurities. Normally it would be dust."
Tucker bent for a closer look, using a pen to lift the rock to get a look at it's underside. "This has been fused. It's practic'ly glass. No wonder the moon's so bright. The heat required to do this must ha' been astronomical."
"Literally, I'll wager." Archer said. "Hernandez said you'd been monitoring the sun. You think a solar event caused this."
It was difficult for Partridge to nod in her current posture, but a slight raising and lowering of her forehead signalled her agreement. "At first I was concerned, I mean really concerned, that the star may be prone to massive flares from time to time, and if one of them were to occur now...well...Great for scientific study. From a distance, a very long distance. Not so much fun close up."
Archer pulled a chair over and sat. "I gather from your unworried demeanour that this is not the case."
"Nope. From observations of the amount of the moon so affected I concluded that the incident lasted approximately eleven hours. See, when it first started the side of the moon facing the sun would have suffered the brunt of it. So that's half it's surface cooked straight away. As the moon spins on it's axis---unlike Earth's moon, it's not tidally locked---the other side is gradually exposed to sunlight. We know how fast it turns, so by seeing how much of the surfaces has been afflicted, I worked out the duration of the event.
"Just to be thorough I also examined the second moon and two other planets I could get a good look at with the Enterprise's telescope array. They also showed evidence of extreme heat. More on the one closer in to the sun, less on the one further out. Which does support the idea that it was the star itself, rather than some other phenomena, responsible. And all pointing to an eleven hour long event.
"Now, if this sort of thing had occurred more than once, we'd be seeing the evidence on the surface of those worlds. It's possible that, if the burst happened a second time, it could hit the same area as it had before. But that's only really possible if we were dealing with a single astronomical body. The different planets and moons all rotate at different rates. The odds against a second flare happening when all bodies were showing the already cooked side are ludicrously high. Over nine thousand, at least. So I think we can rule that out.
"And while I'd been studying the planets, I'd had the solar observatory take a good look at the star. G-type, main sequence, pure vanilla. Not the sort of thing to go boom at all."
Carefully, Archer lifted the case and set it on the table to get a better look at the contents. "As I recall, there's a hypothesis that an object colliding with a star can cause solar flares, even if they're not usually prone to them."
"Oh, thank you for not misusing the word 'theory', Johnny." Partridge said. "That's certainly the most likely cause, though not the only one. Still, if it was a collision, the object would must have been pretty big to get those effects. A comet or asteroid wouldn't do it, we're talking planetary mass. Now, any questions, class?"
"Yeah." Sato said. "How the devil can you stay in that position without smothering yourself?"
"Structural reinforcement built into my clothing keeps everything where I want it. That, and I'm a physicist. I have a special relationship with gravity."
Archer rubbed the back of his neck. "I have a question. Given the amount of damage this solar flare has caused to the moons and other planets, how come this one got off so lightly? Herroton has an atmosphere, large bodies of water, a suitable ecosystem, life itself...I've not seen any indications of the sort of damage you've been talking about. Why is this world unscathed?"
"Now that is the question, Johnny." Partridge rolled away from the wall into a cat like crouch. "I have absolutely no idea. But I'll tell you something interesting. I've worked out, very roughly, when the flare occurred."
"When?" he asked.
"Almost two hundred thousand years ago." she said, eyes shining with enthusiasm. "Or, to put it another way, not long after that there ziggurat was built. And about the same time that this world suffered mass extinctions. Now I don't know about you, but that strikes me as rather an odd coincidence. Rather odd, indeed."