1st December 2151.
The ziggurat was not identical to the one on the plains. It was considerably smaller, standing, to Archer's estimate, only some three or four stories in height. Unlike the purplish grey stone that the larger one was constructed from this was....No, Archer realized, looking closer. This was
made from the same stone, but layers of moss and mulch from fallen leaves had given it a sickly greenish brown appearance. He looked round. The ziggurat was located in a bowl shaped depression, surrounded by high trees with wide spreading branches. Without the benefits of active sensor scans it would be almost impossible to spot from the air. Small wonder no one had discovered it before.
"How's it look, Grant?" Reed asked, drifting up behind them.
"Lot's of hot spots Major." she said, slowly swinging her rifle around. "Very small though. Birds, small mammals."
"There might still be vrex around." Phlane warned.
Archer pointed to his dog. "Porthos doesn't think so. Alright. Mr Reed, you and your people secure the area please. Hoshi, get on the blower to Enterprise, let 'em know what we found. Once you've done that, tell Governor Trex, I'm sure he'd be interested. Professor, this looks like the time for science stuff, so I'll leave that in your capable hands. Everyone else, take five, get some chow down your necks, and try not to get in the way."
He forced himself to take his own advice. The urge to get over there, to investigate for himself, was palpable. But he knew enough to leave things alone at this stage, there was little he could contribute right now. Instead he eased off his backpack and looked round. Finding a fairly clean place to sit, he selected a ration pack, opened the outer bag, removed the cutlery and other accessories, and pulled the initiator tag. He then carefully placed it on the ground. While waiting for it to heat he opened a pouch of dog food. Porthos wolfed it down in seconds.
"I swear I don't know where you put it all. Seems like you must eat twice your body weight each day." he grinned. Pulling a thermos from his back pack he poured himself a large coffee and sat back to savour it. By the time he'd finished the red circle on the ration pack had turned green, indicating the meal was now cooked. Gingerly, for it was very hot, he picked up the pack by the corners of the unopened end, tipping it so the inner bag slipped free. He unsealed it, picked up the plastic spoon, and dug in. Chilli con carne, hot in both the meanings of the word. "No, Porthos. No! You are not having any! You know the effect it has on you."
"And we don't want that. Although it's better here than on the ship. Here at least you can go stand up wind of him." Sato said, sitting next to Archer. "I've informed the Enterprise. It's all quiet at their end."
"Good. And Herroton City?"
Sato hesitated. "Not so good. The power is still out. There are signs it may be eating into the emergency reserves."
"That can't be right." Phlane exclaimed. She irritably swatted away a flying insect. "There should be enough reserve power for a full day."
Sato shrugged apologetically. "That's what I was told, ma'am."
Archer finished his meal, then pocketed a few of the items from the accessory pack. A few snacks, a bottle of fruit juice, varied condiments and some toilet paper. The cutlery went into the inner bag, which was then wrapped tightly in the outer one. He stood, stamped a hole into the soft earth with his heel, put the bags in, then kicked soil over them.
Phlane looked shocked. "Surely you're not going to just leave that there?"
"Biodegradable." Archer explained. "Once the outer packet's been opened and the heating compound triggered, the whole thing should decay naturally in a few weeks. Even the cutlery."
"Hmm. That's alright then. I suppose."
"Well it beats lugging all your litter back home again. Hoshi, get yourself something to eat. Judging from all that activity over there they've found something. I'm going to have a look. C'mon, Porthos."
The marines had indeed found something. On the opposite side of the structure there was a large rectangular panel, made of the same material as the rest of it, but considerably cleaner. It lay flush with the rest of the ziggurat. Fallen leaves, in varied states of decay, were gathered around it's base. What looked, at least to Archer's eye, to be the same tracks they had seen earlier, seemed to lead directly to and from that panel. He considered the idea that the creatures had climbed the structure at this point, but that didn't make much sense. The panel was flat, with little purchase. It would be much easier to climb elsewhere, where the blocks were practically steps.
Then it hit him. "Those tracks...they don't lead up
at all, do they?"
"No Captain." Reed said. He gestured to Corporal James, then the panel.
James nodded, raised her rifle, and walked steadily forward. "Did you hear Tipping where you were Captain? Screamed like a little girl the first time this happened."
Any comment Tipping may have made was inaudible under the grinding sound that followed. The panel tilted back so the topmost point was now depressed a good half metre. Then the whole panel slid steadily upwards. A few stray leaves slid from it's surface, joining the piles below. Just enough sunlight penetrated the interior to reveal more mulch festering within. The tracks continued into the darkness, clearly the creatures had passed through here. As the panel---a door, Archer now realized---continued up he noticed it's bottom had the same tooth like protuberances as the main door at the other site, with corresponding depressions in the floor below.
"We found it by accident." Reed said. "We were scouting around, Grant followed the tracks, that thing opened up, Tipping screamed---"
"I did not
scream." Tipping insisted. "I was vocalising to centre my chi. Preparing mind, body and spirit for combat."
Reed ignored him. "As soon as we moved away, it closed again."
"Has anyone been inside yet?" Archer asked.
"No sir, observations from outside only. Far as we can make out, there's a tunnel about three metres long, then what looks like a flight of stairs leading down. Nothing else as far as we can tell."
"Sir? There is something...odd." said James. "Tharpa, keep an eye on things." Only when the wiry Gurkha was covering the entrance did she lower her own rifle. She pulled off her glove, licked a finger tip and held it up. "There's a faint breeze, coming from inside."
Archer stepped closer and held up his own hand. "You're right. Surprisingly warm, considering what the rest of the tunnels are like."
"Almost balmy." Partridge agreed, moving up next to them. She had removed a glove and was waving an interrogative finger. "We might not need our cold weather gear after all."
"Well, better safe than sorry. I'm taking mine." James said, watching Partridge replace her glove. "Excuse me asking, Professor, but just why do you wear gloves? I mean, all the time."
"Partially it's because I like them. Somewhere along the line I rather got the idea that they're elegant and sophisticated. But mainly," she added, with surprising candour, "I don't like my hands. I mean, they're not ugly or anything. They're just not as spectacular as the rest of me."
"Oh." James said, for lack of anything more constructive to say. She took Partridge's now gloved hand and closely examined the wrist. "OK, the other thing I've meant to ask. How are they attached to your sleeves? There's no seam or fastening that I can see."
Partridge pinched a spot at her wrist, twisted slightly, and pulled. A hint of pale flesh showed in the subsequent gap. "Nano-level fasteners reinforced by a low level magna adhesion field. A little something I worked out one afternoon." She brushed the material back into place, the gap fading totally from view. "I use the same fastening for getting into this outfit. There's a few others, too. So I can, you know, answer calls of nature."
Archer tensed up. He knew what was coming next. There was an overwhelming, monumental inevitability about it. He should speak up, try to stop it, but it would be like arguing with a glacier and expecting it to retreat. The idea was out there now, in their heads. If he stopped the question now they'd only ask it later, when he wasn't around. Best to let it pass, get it out of the way.
"Don't your, pardon me asking, Professor, but don't your undies get in the way?" asked Sandstrom, the heavy weapons man, with nervous fascination.
An amused eyebrow slithered up Partridge's forehead. "You're making rather an assumption there, aren't you?" There was a slight whimper from the marine as he contemplated this.
Archer cleared his throat noisily. "If everybody's quite
finished, we should plan our next step."
Reed gestured into the entrance. "If we're going in there we ought to leave a party up here, to keep an eye on things. Also, assuming we have the same problems as elsewhere, we should have a communications post here. Perhaps Lt. Sato...?"
The Captain shook his head emphatically. "Hoshi's the only one of us with any hope of reading those hieroglyphics. I've a feeling that'll be important if we want to figure out what the hell is going on."
Reed inclined his head. "OK. Trooper Pashmat will set up a comms post. I'll leave Sandstrom and Delany with him for additional security. Those two giants would find it tricky in the tunnels. And I can tell from Red's puppy dog eyes she'd rather stay here too."
"Not my sort of terrain down there." Grant admitted.
"You have seniority, Red, how d'you want to play it?" Reed asked.
"I'd like as many seismic sensors as you can spare." she said. "We'll scatter them around the clearing, maybe even a few in the trees. If there's any more of those creatures about, I'd like a bit of warning."
Corporal M'boto had several seismic sensors with him. They looked to Archer rather like grey plastic tent pegs, with flat disks at the top. When the peg part was pressed into the ground the top gradually changed hue to fit in with it's surroundings. As a precaution the marines scattered bits of grass and leaves over them as well.
As they were doing that Partridge approached Archer from behind. "Look at this, John."
He turned, stepping back in slight alarm as she was carrying James' rifle. "Err...you've found something?"
"A thought occurred. Autumn let me borrow her gun, to test the idea. I only needed the sight, but it'd be a bit inconvenient to keep whipping the thing on and off. Here." She handed him the rifle, absently wiping her hands on her coat as if she'd been handling something very unpleasant. "Take a look at the ziggurat, about two thirds up."
He squinted through the sight. "What am I looking...ah. Interesting." The view through the sight was brightly, and falsely, coloured, the word 'THERMAL' in squared off brackets pulsing in the top right corner. Numbers and abbreviations he didn't recognise danced across his vision. He tried to ignore them. The ziggurat was a dark blue, but a fine green mist seeped from four equally spaced points at the height Partridge had mentioned.
"Oi! Trip! Get over here!" Partridge bellowed.
"'Sup?" Tucker asked, approaching. He was eating a chocolate bar from a ration pack.
Archer handed him the rifle and gestured. "What do you make of that?" he asked, before screwing his eyes shut tight and shaking his head. Peering through sights, telescopes, any thing like that always gave him a headache.
"Looks like a bit o' warm air's gettin' out." Tucker said. "An' from the spacin', I reckon that's on purpose. There's holes up there to let it out."
"We had a look at that side." Partridge said, pointing. "There are more round there. Same height, same spacing."
"Curiouser and curiouser." said Archer. "Now are they to let something in, or let something out?"
"Would a closer look help?" James asked. At Partridges nod she turned to Reed. "Major, I'm just having a look up there." And with that she trotted to the base of the ziggurat, and started to climb.
"Careful!" Partridge called. Despite the stepped nature of the structure the coating of fallen leaves looked rather slippery.
M'boto, placing a seismic sensor nearby, smiled reassuringly. "Not to worry, professor. She's mountain warfare trained, a very good climber."
"At her height, she has to be, just to get up stairs." Tipping added.
James quickly swarmed up to the nearest hole, watched it intently for a few seconds, then just as rapidly descended. As she approached she unspooled a cable from her wrist comp, which she plugged into Partridge's pad. "You've got a bigger screen on there, you'll see better."
The helmet camera image revealed a small square hole leading deep into the interior. It was, quite obviously, designed to be there. More interestingly a row of depressions on the bottom surface just inside hinted to another feature. "I'll bet good money there's another slab o' rock in there, that can close off that hole if need be." Tucker said.
"Yes, but why?" Partridge asked.
Archer shrugged. "We're not going to find our hanging around here. Malcolm? Are your people ready?"
"Yes captain. Pashmat's got the comm post set up, and Grant's happy with the sensors."
"OK." He took a deep breath, let it out slowly. "Right. Let's see what's down there."