Archaeological Site, tunnel complex. Herroton.
30th November 2151.
The marine exploratory team had set a steady pace for their descent into the tunnels. Not fast, but steady. Even with the motion detectors on the lighting rig acting as a sort of early warning system, they considered this to be unknown territory and took the appropriate precautions. Corporal James took the lead position, or 'point' in military parlance. An expert in CQC, Close Quarters Combat, she would often be at the front in enclosed environments. Urban warfare, ship boarding actions, any sort of cave complex. Trooper Tipping had once said that her short stature made her ideal for the role: in the event of a hostile contact the rest of the squad could shoot over her head without risk. He made sure she was out of ear shot when he said it though.
As befitted the terrain, Reed had selected the team carefully to give them the greatest possible tactical advantage. None of them were above average height, a minor factor but one that could make a significant difference in such limited space. Whilst the main corridors were reportedly quite roomy, to get to their destination and use the minimum number of LOSIR relays they would have to utilise some very narrow, low passages. Maintaining position a couple of metres behind James' right shoulder was Priest, a technical expert. Normally James worked with M'boto, but the lanky African wasn't ideally suited for the setting. Then came Sergeant Woo, followed by Pashmat, a stocky communications expert. He carried Sato's Morse signaller. Dumont the medic came next, with Tharpa bringing up the rear. The Gurkha was second only to James in CQC skills, and then only by a fraction of a percentile. His job was to make sure nothing nasty snuck up behind them.
Every step James took was carefully, precisely placed. The floors down here were uneven, tripping was a real possibility. More importantly, even in her heavy combat boots, she remained quiet. The air was still and silent, any noise would give their position away long before they could be seen. It made for frustratingly slow progress. Every so often they would stop entirely, listening out for any unnatural noise. So far, nothing.
She kept the stock of her EM-414 rifle pressed tightly to her shoulder. There wasn't much recoil from the plasma weapon, but the more secure the firing position the better the accuracy. A modular design, the 414 could be modified for a wide variety of circumstances. In this instance the standard butt stock had been replaced with an extendible version. A shorter barrel had been fitted, less effective at long range, but much more useful for close work. With the stock retracted the weapon was a mere sixty one point three centimetres long. The gun's systems were so advanced they recognized the modifications and and altered the firing patten automatically. When fired each plasma bullet would be electromagnetically shaped to give maximum stopping power within forty metres. Effectiveness would fall off rapidly as the bullet began to disperse after that point. The protocols could be over ridden, should circumstances demand it, through the gun's main menu.
Some of the team carried EM-303 Munition Delivery Systems under-slung beneath the barrel of their rifles. A 22mm cannon, they were capable of firing a wide variety of ordinance, with both the flechette rounds and the 'quadruple-aught buck' shotgun shells proving highly useful up close. She'd considered the 303 herself, but in the end had decided on a forward mounted pistol grip, just the thing for rapidly getting on target if a hostile presented himself. There was a slight drawback to this. Firing the gun super heated the air around the barrel tip, and the grip was just behind that. A few shots wouldn't matter, but people had reported minor flash burns after extended use. A pair of sturdy leather gloves should provide sufficient protection. Given the rough stone of the walls and floor, the gloves were a wise idea anyway, along with the shin guards, knee pads and elbow pads. The helmet was essential.
They had just reached point seven one when the message came over the LOSIR link. "Greyhound Two, this is Trap One. Hold your position. We have a possible contact at Alpha Charlie One
Instantly the team halted, dropping into a crouch, guns at the ready. "Trap One, Greyhound One." Woo said, "Message acknowledged, prepare for blackout on my command."
The next voice, distorted but still recognizable, was Reed's. "Greyhound Two, this is Greyhound One. Blackout is ready when you want it. You're the man on the ground, how do you want to play it?
Woo thought it over. "Kill the lights where we are, but keep them operating around the contact." They'd discussed this in the pre-mission briefing. When Trip Tucker had said it was possible to turn off individual sections of the lighting rig, the possibility of using this tactically was raised. By keeping the lights on around the contact, they wouldn't raise suspicion, and could possibly approach by stealth.
"Acknowledged, we're killing the lights at point seven one, now.
The darkness was so sudden, so complete, James felt a faint tinge of fear, the body convinced it had gone blind even as the mind said otherwise. She slid her visor down and waited for the night vision to activate. The appropriate icon came up on the display, but she could see nothing at all. The system worked by taking what little ambient light there was and amplifying it to useful levels. Down here, there was no ambient light.
"OK, everyone go active." Woo ordered.Tiny emitters built into the shoulder plate of each marine's body armour began to pour forth the merest scintilla of electromagnetic radiation. Light, but in the infra red band, invisible to the unaided eye. But through the visor, the tunnel was now as well lit as it had been with the lighting rig on, albeit now in green and grey.
Woo spoke again, both to his team and Major Reed over the link. "Right, we need to find out what we're dealing with. We need a close target recce., without scaring it off. James, Tharpa, you two scout ahead, quietly. Try to get a good look see at it." He tapped the side of his helmet, where the inbuilt camera was located. "Take some relays with you, stay in contact. The rest of us will stay here, out of the way. Got it?"
That suited James. She and Tharpa could move quicker and quieter without the others. After collecting the relays, and going over the contingency plans once more, they set off. Before entering the next section James sent a message back to the command post. "Greyhound Three to Trap One, about to reach point seven two. Deactivate lights there please."
"Trap Two to Greyhound Three. Lights deactivated at point seven two. Contact is still at Alpha Charlie One.
Alpha Charlie One was a long, curved stretch of tunnel where anomalous contacts had been recorded. It was near to one of the main chambers of the complex, a vast cavern with walls covered in hieroglyphs. James knew Sato was itching to get a first hand look at them. AC1 was not far ahead now, just past point seven five.
She paused, listening. If they were getting close it was possible she might hear something. Nothing stood out. As an experiment she flicked her helmet's vision mode over to thermal imaging. That proved ineffective. Apart from a faint glow around the power cables in the lighting rig everywhere she looked showed the same uniform temperature. Except for Tharpa, of course, but even he was indistinct. Marine uniforms were treated to be thermally camouflaged.
Going back to night vision she continued. Absently she flexed her gloved fingers around the pistol grip. The creak of leather seemed unnaturally loud in the echoing silence, and she winced. Another pause, waiting to see what could be heard, then onwards once more. Before entering each new stretched, they secured a LOSIR relay where it would do some good, and ensured the lights in the next section were deactivated.
It was as they reached position seven four that the message came through. "Greyhound Three, this is Greyhound One. Hold position! Contact has moved to position seven five!
Even as Reed spoke it became obvious that was so. From her vantage point she could see the lights coming on in the next section. Rather than risk being heard with a verbal reply she hit the transmit button twice, a double click that would be heard and understood by the Major. She moved lightly to one side and dropped to a knee, knowing Tharpa would be moving to the other side behind her. Her rifle was levelled ahead, index finger on her right hand held parallel to the trigger, giving a fraction of a second more thinking time if anything happened.
Had they been detected? Was the unknown contact coming for them? She wasn't sure, but it seemed unlikely. Analysis of the records had shown that when ever the mysterious traces had turned up, they mostly just wandered around their immediate locale before returning. That was probably all that was going on here. Alpha Charlie One was a stretch of corridor, with only two ways out. It was a toss of a coin whether it came closer to them or went further away.
The section of tunnel she was in, point seven four, was about two metres wide by ten or so long. The ceiling was low, James could probably have walked under it with no problems, were it not for the lighting rig on the ceiling; even she had had to duck under that in places. They'd turned a sharp right from point seven three to enter it. The next turn, into seven five, was to the left, more than ninety degrees. They'd be doubling back on themselves. The area about the turn was now fully illuminated by the light from that section. Looking in that direction caused her night vision gear to automatically reduce it's amplification.
And now she could hear something. A soft, wet sounding slapping. Surely that couldn't be...footsteps? The rhythm was right but the noise itself was disturbingly fleshy. And something else...a low, malevolent gibbering, interspersed by busts of lunatic cackling.
James had never heard anything like it in her entire life. She glanced back at Tharpa for reassurance, and found none. He looked to be as disturbed by the sound as she was. The noise was getting louder, closer. She took deep breaths, concentrating on filling her lungs as much as possible without gasping noisily. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest.
Woo's name flashed on her Head Up Display. "Three, this is Two. Are you guys OK? We're reading accelerated vital signs.
James hit the transmit button twice, hearing the double click of Tharpa doing the same.
"OK. We're here if you need us. Stay frosty.
James forced herself not to swear. 'Stay frosty'. They'd been saying that ever since Professor Partridge had shown them those old movies. But right now she really didn't want to be reminded of them.
A sudden snort made he flinch, her index finger twitching to press against the trigger. It took all she had to relax it once more. The thing was getting closer. A dark patch, a shadow, slithered across the rocky floor and began to climb the opposite wall. It's source, illuminated from behind by the lights at section seven five, was about to cross the periphery into seven four...
...when it stopped.
The footsteps---if that's what they were---ceased, and the shadow halted it's advance. The gibbering deepened, becoming a simian grunting. Making sure her helmet cam was recording, James looked at the shadow as best as the angles would allow. It seemed to her that it was roughly human in form, two arms, two legs, a torso and head. But the arms seemed preternaturally long, hands drooping at knee level. The head a mere lump on the torso. The whole unnaturally slender and disproportionate. It snorted again, then launched into a violent burst of activity, gyrating and hurling it's arms about, the shadow dancing on the wall.
Abruptly it screeched, a hideous caterwauling to chill the blood. Expecting an attack James flipped the rifle's selector switch over to three round burst. She'd drop this thing the moment it came round the corner. But nothing happened. And then she realized the shadow was gone, the shrieking and fleshy footsteps racing away.
What happened? Did it know we were there? Did it
she thought, remembering the way it had snorted. Then, mind racing, she looked up at the lighting rig, thinking of the creature's strange activity at the threshold.
There was a second voice now, in the distance, howling in response to the first.
"Tharpa, with me!" she shouted. The time for stealth was over and she dashed, bent double, for the turn. "Trap One, this is Greyhound Three. Kill the lights. All of them, now! Greyhound Team, get here fast. Signaller, rig for radio, we're not going to have time to place LOSIR relays. Scout party in pursuit of unknown contact, possibly multiple!"
She reached the corner just as the lights went out, skidding to a halt. There was a distant thump and a shriek of pain. It sounded like the mysterious creature had hurt itself in the sudden darkness, and she smiled grimly. Her night vision fluctuated, trying to cope with the the sudden change, before settling down into it's normal state. Rifle ready she jogged forward, more secure now they had the creature on the run. "Entering seven five."
The HUD showed an incoming message from Reed, along with a warning of low signal strength. That was a concern. The message would be sent via the LOSIR relay system to trooper Pashmat, before being re-transmitted with his high power radio. With the team only a little way behind James and Tharpa, she'd hoped the signal degradation wouldn't be that strong. Too late to worry about that now.
"James, what happened?"
"The contact got close, real close to the section we were in, then turned and fled."
"Were you detected?"
"I don't think so. I think...Sir, it got right to the edge when it stopped, and then started waving it's arms about. There's a motion detector just inside there. I think it knew something was up when the lights didn't come on as it approached, and tried to set it off without getting any closer. It understood,
sir and....stand by."
They'd reached the next intersection, a T junction branching to the right and straight ahead. The corridor they were in stretched into the distance, she could see other intersections further along. To the right, point seven six, Alpha Charlie One, one of the sources of the unknown traces.
"Screw the quiet approach." she told Tharpa, who grinned savagely in return.
Two seconds later a small grey cylinder bounced into seven six. A half second later it blazed with a blinding glare and thunderous report. James and Tharpa followed, 414's up and ready. The safeguards on their helmets had protected them from the worst of the stun grenade's effects, and they were ready to deal with anything it left incapacitated. Yet there was nothing to be seen. This stretch of corridor curved treacherously. Anything further along would have some protection, though the distant wails of some creature in distress suggested such protection was not total.
As she stooped to recover the grenade---it could be recharged back on the Enterprise---something glittered wetly in her night vision. She touched it gingerly, rubbing her gloved fingertips together. Blood. The floor was uneven here, even by the standards of the complex, and there was a big ridge just before here. She'd bet good money the contact had tripped and banged it's head when the lights had gone off. She stood and switched to thermal vision. The blood glowed hotly, an irregular trail leading round the bend. Now we're getting somewhere...
They followed, the glowing patches an easy to spot path, to a point where the blood dribbled down the wall from a narrow rectangular opening near the top. Here the ceiling was quite high, so James raised her left arm, extending the meter long probe and turning it's camera head to see. The probe didn't have thermal imaging, but the small IR emitter was effective enough for a night vision picture to come up on her HUD. She saw a shape, no, two shapes, crawling away through a narrow shaft. They reached a turning and for a second one looked back at her, with eyes that glittered like a cats. Then they were gone.