1st December 2151.
"Is that a vrex?" Archer asked.
Phlane smiled grimly. "Not any more it isn't."
The carcass was spread, scattered, around a small clearing. Trooper Grant had spotted it through her rifle's high powered scope, her attention drawn by the birds wheeling in the sky, half glimpsed through the gaps in the trees. Carrion eaters. Right now she prowled the clearing, reading the signs, whilst the rest of the party watched from close by. Not too close, she did not want them disturbing the tracks.
Doctor Locke took a long drag on his cigarette. "Looks like it's been ripped to shreds. Whatever did it must have possessed extraordinary physical strength. I'll know more when I can get a proper look. What do you think Partridge?"
"I think that these are very pretty flowers."
Locke rolled his eyes, and muttered something about a lack of priorities. Archer looked round, to where Partridge was crouched next to a small bush decorated with flowers. They were indeed pretty, rather like daises but with vivid purple petals. He stepped closer, dropping to his haunches next to her. "Could this be the source of that pollen you found?"
"Looks like it. There are pictures in the data files Dr. Soong gave me." She brandished her pad. "Of course, we can't be sure it was this particular plant. I'd say the odds of that are rather on the low side. But it's certainly looks like the right species."
He scratched Porthos' ear absently. "So we are in the right area then?"
"Possibly. We have no idea how far these plants spread, apart from the fact they only flourish in the mountains. On the other hand, this is the closest point to the ziggurat. The further away you go, the longer it'd take our mysterious intruders to get there."
Reed came over. "Captain," he said, trying to keep Archer between himself and Partridge, "Grant's finished her examination."
The red headed scout/sniper beckoned them over. "Two sets of tracks. Predator and prey. Ah, but which is which?" she asked in her French Canadian accent. "These tracks, a quadruped. Clawed."
"The vrex." Archer said.
She nodded. "The other, bipedal, standing upright. It enters the clearing there, yes, you see the broken branch? It is running, running fast, the vrex close behind. It gets here and climbs this tree. Look here, see where it has gripped the branch, the bark has peeled away."
Reed held his own hand up in comparison. "The fellow's got pretty big hands." he said.
"And, from these scratch marks, long hard nails. Almost claws." Grant said. "Also, from where it grasped the tree, very long limbs."
Archer grimaced. "Sounds like the thing James and Tharpa met in the tunnels. So what about the vrex? Wait, let me guess. It followed the unknown up to the tree and tried to leap up after him, causing those scratch marks up there, am I right?"
"I'd say so. From the size and weight of the vrex, I think that's about as high as it could jump. Now here---" she gestured to the ground "---we see tracks leading away. I'd think it was going to try again, with a run up. But it never got the chance."
Tucker asked "Why not?"
She pointed to two spots on the ground. "Here, and over here. Two more set's of prints. The same species as our mysterious climber, I am sure of it. Both suddenly appearing as if from nowhere, but the tracks are deep, very deep."
"Ah, clever, very clever!" exclaimed Partridge.
Archer was about to ask for an explanation when an idea hit him. He looked at the spots Grant had indicated, then upward. "They were in the trees already?"
"Precisely. While the vrex was concentrating on one of them, the others dropped down behind it and...well, see for yourself." Grant said, indicating the body.
Archer rubbed the back of his neck. "Even with the weight of numbers, plus surprise on their side, ambushing a vrex seems a very risky thing to do."
Now that they had been allowed closer, Locke had been examining the remains intently. "Far as I can tell there's a lot of flesh missing from this creature, even allowing for the effects of scavengers. I think they were using this for food. Look at this rib. See the grooves? I'd say teeth marks. And what's more I'd warrant by the same sort of teeth that messed up that Denobulan security guard." Phlane glowered at him, obviously not happy at his choice of words.
"Yes, I agree." Grant said.
"Oh wonderful. A marine agrees with me." Locke muttered. "My life is complete."
Archer held up a hand, counting points off on his fingers. "OK. So what do we know? There's at least three of them. They're carnivorous, and cunning enough to split a vrex off from the rest of it's pack, lure it into an ambush. No indications of tool use, that we know of. Physically very strong. Oh, and good climbers. Anything else?"
Corporal James said "Warm blooded, Captain. And smart enough to get spooked when the motion sensors didn't turn the lights on back in the tunnels."
"Smart 'nuff to cover it's tracks, too." Tucker added. "Placin' them barrels to hide that blood stain."
Archer sighed. They'd learnt more, but it still wasn't enough. "Grant, after they'd killed the vrex, where did they go?"
"This way sir."
She led them deeper into the woods. Here the trees grew closer together, and the undergrowth thicker. The marines maintained their defensive positions around the rest of the party, constantly scanning the surroundings with the thermal imagers built into their rifle sights and helmets. They payed especial attention to the trees. Archer was reassured by that, a fact that left him slightly disappointed in himself. Having to rely on armed personnel might be pragmatic, but offended his sense of idealism.
To his surprise the marines made little effort to be quiet. He asked Reed about it.
"No offence captain but there's really not much point. It was not too bad back there, but now we're in the thicker stuff, you and your lot are making so much noise it doesn't matter how quiet we are."
"I'm sorry if we're letting you down, Major." Archer said gravely.
"Oh I didn't mean it like that sir!" Reed blurted, before catching the amused look on Archer's face. "Well, you know what I mean. To be honest I---"
He broke off, swinging his rifle to one side as something small and brown burst out of the undergrowth. Archer had a quick impression of wings and feathers before it was gone, flitting rapidly away, the barrels of half a dozen rifles tracing it's path. Before he could relax an ear splitting high pitched shriek split the air before being suddenly curtailed. Turning he saw Partridge, her hands to her mouth and eyes wide, take a deep breath.
"Sorry." she said. "Guess I'm a bit nervous."
Corporal James moved closer. "Don't worry, Professor, we'll look after you."
"Thanks. I just wish I wasn't so easily frightened.
"When I was growing up," Corporal M'boto began, "my mother always said, if you are feeling afraid, you can raise your spirits with a song."
"Or poetry!" Sato yelped. She'd heard Partridge sing before and had no wish to repeat the experience. "You have such a wonderful speaking voice, I'll bet a poetry recital would do the trick."
Partridge thought for a moment. "Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head,
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.
There was a short pause.
"The hell was that?" asked Trooper Tipping.
"'The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner', by Coleridge." she said, with an apologetic shrug. "It was the only thing I could think of."
"And I'm sure it lifted everyone's mood beautifully." Locke said with a chuckle, lighting a cigarette. "Shall we continue?"
As they delved deeper into the woods, Partridge let out an exasperated grunt and slapped at her scanner pack. "It'd be a lot better if this were working. At least I could run some environmental scans, keep my mind occupied. It's ironic really. Because it's intended for scientific study, this uses active scans, so it's being knocked out by whatever it is that's causing the sensor disruption. Meanwhile all the military stuffs working fine."
of the military stuff." M'boto corrected. "We do have some active scan systems, and they're non-functional. All the passives seem OK though."
Tipping said "Seem
OK? Don't jinx it, man!"
"Could you use our equipment for your studies, ma'am?" M'boto asked.
"Some of it, maybe. Not enough to make a difference, I think. Besides, at the moment I'd much rather you guys used it to keep us safe." She pulled on an earlobe. "I've been thinking of putting together something, to combine a scanner with a micro computer and a multi-media recorder. Some sort of tri-scanner, or tri-puter, or...whatever. If I ever get round to it I'll be sure to include some dedicated passive scanning elements."
"Could be useful." Archer said. "Juggling multiple pieces of equipment during a survey is always a pain...hold on, looks like we've got something."
In the vanguard, Grant had stopped. She half turned and waved him forward. "Could this be what we are looking for, captain?" she asked, a touch of irony in her voice.
"It could be, yes." he admitted, staring through the trees at the unmistakable form of a second ziggurat.