1st December 2151.
A faint dizziness passed over Archer as he entered the ziggurat. At first he attributed it to the odour of the decaying vegetation scattered around the threshold, but that didn't seem right. The aroma, whilst unpleasant, was not that strong. He turned to see Sato following him in. As she did so she staggered slightly, putting a hand to her temple. He reached out to steady her, pulling her deeper into the construct. "Watch yourselves." he warned the others. "There seems to be something odd happening as you come in. It's like that distortion effect at the main entrance, only not as strong."
"A lower powered version of the same frequency." Partridge said, running her scanner around the door. "Probably due to the smaller size of this building. Should have anticipated that."
Locke followed with a grimace. "I thought you said that gadget of yours was useless."
"I may have exaggerated for dramatic effect. Are you OK, Hoshi?"
Sato took a deep breath. "Better, thanks. I wonder why it affects me worse than anyone else?"
"Maybe some people are more susceptible." Partridge mused.
Locke added "Lt. Sato's family has a history of epilepsy, though she is not afflicted. Perhaps that makes her more sensitive to these electromagnetic fields."
Partridge nodded. "That's certainly feasible. And isn't that sort of information covered by patient confidentiality?"
Locke just waved a dismissive hand.
Archer turned to Reed. "Alright, Malcolm, how do you want to play this?"
"If we had a choice, I'd like to go as stealthily as possible. My people only, covert patrols into the interior."
"But we don't have a choice?"
"No sir. Covert takes time, and with the situation deteriorating in Herroton city...There's no way we can search even a fraction of this place quickly enough, not quietly, not with...excuse my saying so Captain, but---"
"Not with all us amateurs tagging along? No worries Malcolm, I know what you mean. So what do you recommend?"
Reed said "A similar arrangement to how we did things out there. Except we have our CQC experts...that's Close Quarters Combat, take the point position. If we can keep the Marines around everyone else, that should provide plenty of protection. Hopefully."
"I would have enjoyed your speech much more," Partridge said, "if you had not included that last word."
The flight of stairs at the end of the corridor led down to a large empty room. Their flash lights revealed it to be perfectly square, with a narrow corridor leading off each side wall, and a much wider one leading off into the darkness, in the wall directly opposite the stairs. Reed had his men cover the passageways in case anyone, or anything, came through. Once he was satisfied he sent Corporal James and Trooper Tharpa to investigate the right corridor. They returned within a minute. The corridor ended in a small, featureless room.
As they checked the opposite corridor a message came over the LOSIR communications link. "Greyhound One, this is Trap One. Do you receive me?
"I can hear you without the LOSIR link, Pashmat." Reed said. "We're only at the bottom of the bloody stairs. What's up?"
"Sir, Red's been examining the tracks. She says she can only make out three distinct tracks, the three we were following. And from the looks of things they all went into the structure within the last twelve to eighteen hours.
"Understood. Greyhound One out."
Partridge shivered. "Oh great. So we're now certain they're down here with us."
"There may be other ways in and out." Sergeant Woo suggested.
"And there may be hundreds of those things down here. Thousands. Oh, why ever did I come along? Oh, that's right, it's because I'm indispensable"
Locke muttered darkly under his breath.
Archer ran a finger inside his collar, loosening it. It really was quite warm in here. His brow furrowed in thought and he turned to the nearest marine. "Mr M'boto, could you use your rifle's scope to find out where all this heat is coming from?"
"Thermal scan coming right up, Captain." The answer came quickly. "There sir, near the ceiling. And...there, too. In fact..." His voice trailed off.
In the half light it had been difficult to see, but now it had been pointed out to him Archer could make out the narrow rectangular openings just below the ceiling. There were four on each wall, equally spaced. Reed walked to the nearest one and extended the probe from his wrist computer. The night vision sensor at the tip provided an image for his helmet's head up display. "Looks like the shaft those creatures James and Tharpa met escaped through."
"What does?" James asked as they returned.
Whilst Reed explained, Partridge circled the centre of the room, torch beam directed upwards. "Johnny, come look at this." Her torch highlighted a smaller square hole in the ceiling.
He cast his own beam around. "More of them. Four...eight...twelve...and sixteen. That looks to be it."
"Judging from their size and shape, and the number...plus the relative position both to each other and the structure itself, I'd say these lead up to those holes we found on the outside. Thermal vents, to dissipate heat."
Archer rubbed the back of his neck. But what could be creating the heat?"
"Now that's a good question."
"Here's another good question fo'ya." Tucker said, approaching. "What's wrong wi' this room?"
Archer and Partridge looked around. After a few moments Partridge shrugged.
"OK, let me rephrase that. What's missin' from this room? No? I'll tell ya. 'Member the upper levels o' the main structure? Packed tight full o' earth, exceptin' where the archeologists had dug it out. But here...clean as a whistle, practically."
He was right. Apart from the dirt trail at the entrance, the room was clear. "Do you think that's significant?" Archer asked.
Partridge and Tucker exchanged glances. "Mebbe. Mebbe not." the engineer stated. "Not got 'nuff data to make a call yet."
"It is interesting though." Partridge said. "But we're not going to...what's that?"
With a sudden droning hum a cloud of insects swarmed into the chamber through the wide passageway, filling the room as they swirled. Instinctively the explorers ducked, covering their heads against the tide. Then, just as rapidly, they were gone, pouring upwards into the vertical shafts.
"Ack! Bugs!" Sato spat, vigorously clawing at her hair to ensure she had no unwelcome guests.
"Actually," Partridge said, in the somewhat shrill tones that happened whenever she was rattled, "they may not have been. The term 'bug' is not synonymous with insect. Strictly speaking a bug must have mouth parts adapted for piercing and sucking. On Earth, they'd typically be of the order Hemiptera. And I'm sorry Hoshi, but you already know this of course. You're good with words."
"They were bugs." Phlane said, rubbing her cheek and grimacing. "Trust me on that."
Locke approached her. "Let me see." he said, opening his med. kit.
Archer looked round. "Has any one else been bit?" He bent down to check on Porthos.
Krengel, one of the Denobulan guards, had a bite to the back of his hand, whilst Cross of the Marines had a teary eye, apparently the result of one of the insects flying into it. "That'll teach me to keep my visor up." she said ruefully.
"Anything you need, Phil?" Archer asked.
"Peace and quiet." Locke said simply, examining Phlane's bite.
"I'll leave you to it then. Malcolm, while we're waiting, let's check out that main corridor."
"Yes sir." Reed selected a handful of Marines to accompany them, the rest remaining to guard this room. Partridge elected to stay where she was, while Sato and Tucker decided to tag along.
After a few metres the corridor began to slope steeply downwards, before opening up into a far larger chamber, big enough to swallow the beams of their powerful flash lights. The floor only extended a couple of metres or so into the room before being replaced by a gaping chasm. A sense of deja vu struck Archer, the conviction he'd been here before. Then he realized what it was. "It's just like in the main structure. The vertical shaft where the archaeologists rigged up their elevator system." he said, being careful to keep Porthos away from the edge.
"Not 'zactly the the same." Tucker said, playing his torch beam along the stony ceiling. "That shaft went up as well as down. Looks like we're at the top here. But if'n we look to the side....no, well mebbe t'other side...yeah, steps leadin' down. Wonder how far it goes?"
"A little over sixty metres, sir." Reed said, peering down into the abyss through his rifle's scope. "Nothing on thermal. There's just enough ambient light from our torches for the night sight to work. Looks clear all the way down, the stairs go all the way, no obvious breaks or collapsed areas. At the bottom, a squarish area, no significant features except a corridor on the north wall. No evidence of hostile presence. At least, not from this angle."
Archer rubbed the back of his neck thoughtfully. "Will the LOSIR beacons transmit over that distance?"
It was Sato who answered. "No, but we've got options. LOSLAS, the Line Of Sight Laser system." She unfastened a belt pouch and pulled out a dark grey object the size of a thick paperback. "We leave one up here, with the emitter array poking over the edge, attach a LOSIR beacon into this port, make sure it's got a clear view of the last LOSIR beacon. Then, when we get down there, set up another one, and make sure they can see each other. Hey presto, working comms."
"Sounds good, get it set up. I'll go get the others."
Reed ordered "Tipping, keep an eye on the Captain."
"I don't need my hand held Malcolm, It's just a short trip up the corridor."
Reed looked grave. "That may be so sir, but, I don't know if you noticed, there were more of those ventilation shafts or thermal vents or whatever they are back there. And we know the creatures can move through them."
That gave Archer pause for thought, and as he returned to the entrance chamber he paid considerably more attention to his surroundings. Now he knew what to look for he could spot them quite easily. The archaeologists at the main site knew about them of course, but lacking the facilities to probe deeper within had been unable to discover anything of significance. They'd had a working hypothesis that they could be for ventilation, but were holding off making a decision about their purpose until they had more data. The discovery that there were creatures travelling through the shafts had shocked and upset them. After all, they'd all been down in the tunnels, often alone, despite the rules. The idea of an unseen hunter potentially tracking them was not a pleasant one.
Locke was washing out Cross' eye when he returned. Rather than disturb him he waited patiently until sure the procedure was finished. "How are things, Doctor?"
"She'll live." Locke grunted, as if that prospect mildly offended him. "So will those two, it was only a---Stop scratching it! You'll only make it worse!" The latter was directed at the Denobulan, Krengel, who guiltily stopped scrabbling at the back of his hand.
"Any chance of infection?"
"There's always a chance. But I've got the bites cleaned out and sealed, and I've given them inaprovaline plus broad spectrum anti-histamine. I don't foresee any problems but will keep them under observation. Now have you found anything of interest down there, or did you just take the opportunity to abandon that mass of clod-hopping jar heads?"
"A pit, like the one at the main site. Not as deep though. There's stairs leading down."
By the time they got all their equipment together and got to the chamber with the chasm, James and Tharpa were already half way down. "I thought it'd save time to send a scouting party first," Reed said, "so I picked the most expendable ones."
James' voice drifted faintly up to them. "I heard that."
"How are things going so far?" Archer asked.
"So far so good." Reed replied. He aimed a small pen shaped laser painter down into the pit and triggered a yellow beam. A moment later a green light shone in the darkness, a matching spot dancing across the ceiling. "Yeah, they're fine."
Sato stood from where she had been crouched by the edge. "Right, that's the LOSLAS relay set up at this end. As soon as the scouts get the other end set up we can follow them down there."
"And that" said Tip Tucker, "is when the fun really