What with everything that's been going on, this has been rather ignored recently. Sorry about that. But I've just got a bit more done and hopefully will be able to do more soon.
1st December 2151.
Someone sat near the back, probably one of the marines, started singing 'The Wheels On The Bus Go Round And Round'. It had been quite amusing the first two or three times. Archer wasn't sure how many times it had been, he'd lost count at about twelve, but the novelty had faded long before then. The temptation to yell 'shut up!' was strong, but he fought it down. People dealt with tension in different ways, and snapping at them wouldn't help matters.
Next to him Trip Tucker studied the display on his pad, tracking the transport vehicle's progress. "We're makin' good time, cap'n. Ah reckon we'll be there in a few more minutes."
Archer peered at the display. The area with low sensor return was now very close, and from their current position it looked like a fairly straight run. They'd had to navigate some pretty steep terrain to get this far. The large balloon tyres on the Denobulan vehicle had handled it well, though it had gotten a bit on the bumpy side. Phlane, at the controls, was a skilled driver. "Looks like we're coming up to the tree line soon." he said. "We'll have to walk the rest of the way." Porthos, sat between Archer and Tucker, pricked up his ears at the word 'walk'.
Tucker nodded. Observations from Enterprise had suggested that was the case, and they'd come prepared.
Like a Jack-in-a-box, Hoshi Sato popped her head up over the seats in front of them. "Hey, Captain, you're navigation qualified aren't you?"
"Standard level, yes." Archer nodded.
"Oh, good. Could you have a look at these, please? These are some of the hieroglyphics that Doctor Halliwell was examining when he...disappeared. There's some images next to them. They kind of remind me of the displays on the navigation console back on the Enterprise."
He took the offered pad. "Yes...yes...you could have something here. It sure looks like a diagram of a solar system. Not this one though, there's one too many planets."
"Look at the next one." Sato urged.
Archer flicked to the next image. Almost identical, except..."This planet is out of position." He flicked back and forth between the two images. "It's orbital path was too close to that gas giant. Gravity must have destabilised it, sent it careening across the system."
"Didn't you say massive solar flares could be caused by a planet hitting a star?" she asked.
"It's hypothetically possible, yes. And if these symbols are an accurate representation of what happened in this system, we may have evidence to support that. Have you shown the Professor? This'll be right up her street."
"Yeah, I tried." Hoshi pulled a face. "She's not too interested at the moment."
Curious, Archer stood and leant over the chair to get a look at Partridge, sat next to Sato. She was pressed up against the window, sucking great lungfuls of air through the small sliding opening. He asked "Professor, are you OK?"
"I hate everything. And tell those microcephalic buffoons to cease their infernal caterwauling, or I'll...I'll...'I will do such things---what they are yet I know not---but they shall be the terrors of the earth'."
"Hamlet?" Tucker asked, brow furrowed.
"Lear." Archer corrected. He turned to the back. "Ladies and gentlemen! The Professor's feeling a little fragile. Could we have some quiet please?"
As the singing died away he reflected that it was an ill wind that did no one any good. Partridge might feel dreadful, but at least he'd had an excuse to shut them up. He turned back to her and said sympathetically. "Don't worry, we're stopping soon." The moment those words were out of his mouth, the vehicle passed over a large rock, lurching violently sideways.
"Ugh, not soon enough."
Sitting back down, Archer asked Sato "So, does this help?"
"I'll say. Carl had done a lot of work on the language, but had run into a brick wall. He had no real context to work with. But if these images do represent the star system, I can use that information, apply it to the accompanying text, and start making some real progress."
"Sort of like the Rosetta Stone?"
She nodded. "If you like."
"The what?" Tucker asked.
"Oh for crying out loud." Partridge moaned. "To think that you went to Cambridge. All that education, wasted. Should have sent you to Oxford."
"The Rosetta Stone is a granite slab discovered in 1799." Sato explained. "It was inscribed with a royal decree issued in 196 BC. The important thing is the decree was represented in three languages, ancient Egyptian, the later Demotic script, and ancient Greek. At the time scholars knew ancient Greek, but not the other two..."
"So they were able to learn them two other languages from the one they did know." Tucker realized. "I get ya now."
The vehicle slowed to a halt. "That's as far as I can drive." Phlane said as the engine grumbled into silence.
"Everybody get your things." Archer called out. "And could somebody please wake Doctor Locke."
Ten minutes sat on a motionless fallen log restored some of the professor's joi de vivre
, though she still didn't look well. That was as long as Archer was prepared to wait, however, as time was passing. Following Partridge's discovery of a potential 'back door' into the tunnels last night, they'd quickly planned this expedition. The power cuts in Herroton City were becoming both more frequent and longer in duration, and were threatening to seriously affect the safety of the colonists. Archer had promised Governor Trex he'd try to resolve this as quickly as possible.
Most of the engineering team remained in the city, doing what they could to help out, though Tucker had brought along a couple just in case they were needed. It hadn't gone unnoticed to the Captain that they were both security cross trained, and carried EM-400 rifles. In addition, Tovan had assigned a four man team of Denobulan security personnel. Apart from the professor, everyone was armed, in Archer's case reluctantly. Even Locke carried his old service issue side arm.
Archer looked back along the route they'd taken. From this height he could just make out the tip of the ziggurat in it's pit, surrounded by the low buildings of the archaeological site. It sat roughly halfway between the landing ground and the city. On their journey they'd passed a couple of farms. One was hydroponic, growing Denobulan food plants in climate controlled greenhouses. The other held a herd of chevan beasts, large, placid bovines that were a staple food for the colony. A high electrified wire fence surrounded them, not, Phlane explained, to prevent them from escaping, but rather to stop the predations of vrex. The vicious carnivores rarely came onto the plains around the city, but with the power supply failing they seemed to be getting bolder.
As if summoned by this recollection, Reed approached with news. "Captain, Trooper Grant's been having a quick scout round. Says she's found tracks. She doesn't know the species, but reckons it's a predator from the claw patten." He ushered the captain to a stretch of ground, where Grant saluted and gestured to what was clearly an animal print.
"Three, maybe four days old, sir." she suggested. "Assuming tracks decay here at about the same rate they do on other worlds I've been to. Quadruped, claws on all four feet, probably two hundred kilograms. Pack hunter I'd say."
Porthos sniffed at the track, then pulled back, ears flattened, and growled softly. Archer beckoned Phlane over. "Vrex?" he asked. She nodded a confirmation.
"Right, we better get moving." He looked round, then up. The sun was just approaching it's highest point. "Let's see what we can find. We've no idea how long it'll take, and I'd rather get it done before dark. Especially if there's something nasty lurking round here"
"Yes sir." Reed agreed.
Archer hoisted his backpack on. Supplies for exploration, food and water, first aid kits, sleeping bags. This far from the city they couldn't rely on help coming if they needed it, and it would probably take a while to carry out a full survey. There were more supplies left in the bus, just in case. He fastened his coat tightly, despite the hour it was somewhat chilly, and pulled his ship issue baseball cap firmly onto his head. "Ladies and Gentlemen, gather your things please. Let's get started."
Leaving two of the Denobulans to watch over the bus, they set off into the woods. The Marines seemed to be treating this very much as hostile territory, spreading out to surround the others, keeping careful watch all around. They communicated through hand gestures, clicks on their radios. Occasionally they'd stop dead still, for no reason apparent to Archer, signalling the others to do the same, before moving on. Given the tracks they'd found, that was understandable, if disquieting.
That aside, the captain found the trek really rather pleasant. Sunlight dappled through the leaves on the trees, which swayed slightly in the gentle breeze. The distant drone of insects and chirping of birds formed an ever present backdrop. The air was scented, a woody smell with a hint of what could almost be garlic...and something else. Something unrecognisable. Every world had it's secrets, it's surprises. Some sight or sound or smell that was unique, unknown until visitors came along. He smiled.
Suddenly the Marines all dropped into crouches, rifles at the ready. Reed, closest to Archer and the others, frantically signalled for them to do the same. They did so, Locke lazily lowering himself into a fairly comfortable position between a couple of tree roots, whilst Partridge scrunched herself into a ball, pulling the collar of her trench coat up over her head like some leathery armadillo.
Reed listened to his earpiece for a moment. "Movement up ahead." he said softly.
"Vrex?" Archer whispered.
"Ah, please don't whisper, sir. The sound carries further than talking quietly."
The word "Sussuration." drifted from the neck-hole of Partridge's coat. They waited, in case more was to follow, but that seemed to be it.
There was a rustle of something easing it's way through vegetation. "What ever it is, it's coming this way." Reed said, raising his rifle.
Archer said "Tell your people to stand ready, but I don't think we're in any danger."
A moment later Grant stood, signalling the all clear. "It was a Mahwee. The moment it saw us it turned and fled."
"Probably not used to people, unlike the ones in the city." Phlane suggested. "And certainly not expecting large numbers of humans. I think we can relax now a bit. Mahwee tend to avoid areas with an active Vrex population, for good reason. The one that left those tracks has probably moved on."
Reed cleared his throat. "If it's all the same to you, I think a cautious approach is the smartest move here. Although I'm intrigued as to how you could be so sure we were safe, captain."
"Porthos. His tail was wagging."
"He didn't much care for the scent of them there Vrex tracks we found." Tucker said.
"But he does like Mahwee," Archer said, "at least, the one he met in the governor's office. It's a pity we didn't bring any drones with us, we could do with an eye in the sky."
"I was told to prepare for an underground deployment." Reed said defensively. "I'll make a note to bring at least one on all planet-side missions in future."
"What about the Enterprise?" Sato asked. "Can't they scan round here?"
Archer rubbed the back of his neck. "There's a thought. Professor, could the...oh good grief. Professor, you can get up now." There was a faint groan of dismay from Tipping, who, located at the back of the group, was positioned directly behind Partridge and enjoying the view.
"Ah, yes." Partridge said once the situation had been explained to her. "The matter is complicated by the ineffectiveness of active sensors, plus the fact that Enterprise is low on the horizon, but I'd say passive infra-red scans should give us some indication of any thing approaching."
"Vrex are cold blooded." Phlane said simply. "Could you detect them under these circumstances."
"Oh, poo." said Partridge. "Still, nil desperandum
, if we do get a real time IR scan, and we hear something approaching, we'll have a better idea what it is. No IR trace equals cold blooded, equals time to panic."
Reed's hand went to his earpiece. "Sir, Grant's found something else."
"That girl's earnin' her pay today." Tucker said.