Many, many apologies for the slow rate of work, but I've just had the dreaded writers block.
Nothing seems to shift it (Dan Brown allegedly hangs upside down to clear it, but if it means writing like him, I'm not sure that's worth it).
The Ziggurat Interior.
1st December 2151.
The voice had been Trip Tucker's, the words indistinct, the accent unmistakable. And the gun shot, unmistakably a plasma weapon but lacking the throaty roar of a rifle or carbine. A pistol, then, like the ones the UESPA crew carried. For a second Archer froze, shocked at the realization that his friend was in trouble. Then in one swift movement he scooped up Porthos, thrusting the little dog into Partridge's unresisting arms. She was, he reasoned, the least likely to go rushing off into danger. "Stay here and look after him!" he ordered. "Hoshi! Look after them both!"
Reed was barking orders into his comm. system. He broke off to tell Archer to stay where he was. Archer ignored him, darting from the central chamber and into the maze like structure beyond. By looking over the walls he could see his destination and keep himself orientated, though twice he skidded past the right opening and had to retrace his steps. As he ran the hieroglyphs swirled and danced, mute testimony to the Professor's hypothesis that it was some sort of motion sensitive display. The changing pattens made judging distance and speed difficult: he banged an elbow painfully after misjudging the edge of a wall.
He burst out of the structure right in front of a startled Denobulan guard who raised his carbine automatically. Phlane swatted it down. Archer ignored them both, sprinting all out to the flight of stairs which he ascended a groin punishing three steps at the time. Half way up he realised he'd drawn his own gun, quite without meaning to. He didn't re-holster it.
Several marines clustered around the door way, weapons at the ready. One---Cross---said "He's here." into her communicator as he approached. Reed had probably warned them he was on his way. She stepped aside to let him pass. The first thing to hit him as he entered the tunnel was the faint but distinct smell of ozone, the usual side effect of a plasma weapon shot. There was something else, too, an unpleasant, acrid stink, and he wrinkled his nose in distaste.
Tucker was half standing, half leaning against a wall. One of the marine medics, Dumont, was checking him over. And with good reason. His hands were shaking, and even in the half light he was pale and wan.
"Trip! You OK, buddy?"
"I reckon I will be, cap'n." Tucker said after a long breath. "Just a bit rattled, is all. Ain't that right?" The question was to Dumont, who nodded.
Archer let out a sigh of relief, which turned into gasp for air as his exertions caught up with him. "What...happened?"
'...creepin' outa that there shaft up there. I'm sorry cap'n, I know we ain't the shoot first an' ask questions later types, but....OK, I ain't too proud to admit it. I got scared. Real scared. An' I took a shot. An' missed." He gestured without looking at one of the openings near the ceiling. Next to it part of the polymer coating on the rock was slightly blackened. Faint wisps of oily smoke drifted from it, the source of the unpleasant smell. "Guess I need to spend more time on the shootin' range." he added ruefully.
Archer struggled to keep his breathing under control. He felt dizzy, his heart pounding in his chest and thumping in his ears. The soles of his feet ached, almost as much as the tendons in his inner thighs. "Guess I
need to spend more time in the gym."
Five minutes sat at the bottom of the stairs returned them both to something approaching their normal conditions. Coffee from Archer's thermos helped. Reed hovered nearby, not saying anything about the captain running off, but with an expression that promised the matter was not forgotten and would be discussed later, probably using the phrase 'with the greatest respect' several times.
"So, Trip, what did you see?"
For a moment Tucker didn't reply, just staring into space. Then he spoke softy. "I was workin' on a way to keep the door open. Figured a pulsed EM wave o' the right frequency should do it. I got a few spare transponders in the tool kit, so a rigged one up with a Coleman-Hayes governor, for positive feedback, y'know? I set it up right by the door, then moved away to see if it worked. Obviously, if'n I was still standin' there, I'd be settin' the sensor off myself. So, I came part way down the stairs, and asked the marine, Steiger, to go the other way, into the tunnel, far enough that it don't pick up him.
"An' it worked. We moved away, an' that door stayed open. So 'least we can still talk to the outside."
"Thank you sir, that will make things much easier." said Reed.
Archer asked "And then what?"
"Well, once I was satisfied that everythin' was goin' fine, I went back up the stairs." He shuddered. "An' that's when I saw it. Took me a moment, it's a lot lighter than it was, but still pretty gloomy. But it was leanin' out of the vent, reachin' for Steiger. He were facin' the other way, down the corridor---"
"So it was between you and him?" Reed asked.
Tucker nodded. "It were behind him, right behind him. An' it looked...you gotta understand. I only caught a glimpse, it were dark...I didn't see it good. But what I saw...it looked...it looked wrong."
"What do you mean, wrong?" Archer insisted.
Tucker shrugged helplessly. "I mean not right. It was like...d'you remember them psychological tests we had in trainin'? When they flashed up images o' people with disfigurin injuries, an' puppets that looked a bit like a person, but not quite close enough. That sorta thing."
"Yes, I remember." What he remembered most of all was the cold sticky gel used to hold the EEG and ECG sensors in place and give a good contact. As the pictures had flashed onto the screen, for less than a second each, his physiological response had been measured. The procedure was, apparently, to help weed out those who might become disturbed or frightened at the appearance of a new alien species. A phrase one of the psychologists had used drifted around his memory, 'The Uncanny Valley'. He couldn't recall what it meant.
"Well, that's it. Just an impression of wrongness. If I'd been expectin' it, maybe I'd ha' been OK. But as it was....I was surprised, I was startled. Guess maybe I panicked a little. So I shouted to Steiger, and took a shot at the thing."
Reed said "And missed."
"Yeah. Well. Guess it heard me shoutin', cos' it shot back into that vent like a rat inna drainpipe."
Archer looked at Reed. "What about your man? Did he get an image on his helmet camera?"
"Doesn't look like it. I've got M'boto going over the footage just in case we got anything, But as Commander Tucker says, he was facing the wrong way. And of course, as soon as he heard the shout and gunshot, he dropped, looking for the shooter. Facing the right direction, but keeping his head down. Which is absolutely the right thing to do under the circumstances, of course, but it means he was looking too low. As soon as he realised what had happened, he took a look into the vent with the extending probe on his wrist computer, but there was nothing there by that time."
"There's one other thing been botherin' me." Tucker mused absently. "When I drew my gun, I accidentally flicked it into high power mode."
"Easily done." Reed said with a shrug. "The selector switch on the EM-33 was always a bit over sensitive. Especially if that's an older model, the workings can get rather worn."
"Right. The thing is though, at that range, an' at that power...."
"You should have done a lot more than scorch the polymer." Archer realized. "You should have burnt through to the stone blocks underneath. Probably gouged a big hole in to them."
Reed stamped on the ground a couple of times. "This stuff must be hellishly strong. If we can get a sample back to Earth it'd be very useful. New types of armour..."
"Should be easy 'nough to figure out how tough it is. We know the power output of the pistol." Tucker stood and looked up the stairs. "Hey, Trooper Cross! Can you get in there an' measure how deep the hole I shot is?"
She dissapeared into the tunnel for a moment. "Err...where is it, exactly? Sir?"
"You can't miss it. Just past the third vent on the left han' side. 'Bout six centimetres 'cross, whole area's blackened an' smokin'."
"Are you sure, Trip? The damage I saw wasn't anything like that bad." Archer said.
They exchanged glances, then trotted back up the stairs. Cross was just coming out again as they reached the top. "There's a bit of a blemish," she said apologetically, "but that's it."
They reached the vent. As Cross had said, there was a small brownish stain, but apart from that, nothing.
"I'll be damned." Tucker said softly.
Reed said "Now that is
Archer's communicator whistled. He looked at the display. Sato, routing her signal through the Marine's LOSIR net. "Archer here."
"Captain? Is everything alright? Is Trip OK?
"He's fine. I'll explain later. How are things at your end?"
Even through the static her excitement was palpable. "We've made a breakthrough sir, we're getting to understand the symbols. It seems that many thousands---
"Hold your horses, Hoshi. Me and Trip are on our way. You can tell us in a minute."
It took considerably more than a minute to reach them, Tucker fascinated by the display system and stopping to examine it better. Eventually they reached the centre of the structure, where Tucker gave a very brief account of his encounter, keeping it simple and straightforward, to avoid spooking Partridge.
"So," Archer said, when he had finished, "what's this big breakthrough you've made? Oh, Professor, you can put Porthos down now. Thanks."
"I didn't want him running off." she replied.
Sato beckoned him over to one of the walls. "Look at this sir. Recognize it?"
Archer examined it carefully. "Looks like a map of this system, the star in the centre, all the planets, moons, asteroids..." He broke off, the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end. There was something about this image, something...He was suddenly aware that Sato was watching him carefully. "This map. It's current! Up to date! This isn't some millennia old image. This is now!"
He turned at a grumbling from Partridge, who dug a purse from her coat pocket and handed Sato a large denomination credit chit. Sato grinned triumphantly. "Less than twenty seconds, sir. She thought it'd take you at least thirty to spot that."
"That'll learn ya to underestimate the cap'n." Tucker said. Partridge stuck her tongue out at him.
"And I'll show you something else." Sato went on. "Have a look at Herroton on the map." She paused until he'd found it. "Now, look at the four o'clock position."
He leant closer. "Something in orbit. Is that...can that be the Enterprise?"
Partridge said "It's in the right position, judging from it's apparent distance from the surface."
"Now that is weird. How can a two hundred thousand year old structure have up to date orbital information? It doesn't make any---Oh! What's this?" As he spoke Archer had tapped absently at the spot representing his ship. Suddenly a new image flickered to life next to the map, a collection of lines and curves that crudely made up a very familiar shape.
Sato said "Now that is
As they watched the image flickered and altered, new details gradually emerging. It slowly spun and rolled, giving a panoramic view. Just as abruptly as it appeared it was gone again, fading from view in a matter of seconds. On the large map a flashing circle formed around the space it had occupied, runic script alongside.
"Ah, a very rough translation would be something like 'contact lost', sir."
Archer pulled out his communicator. It whistled for attention before he could open it, an incoming call. "Archer here."
." It was a good thing she said her name as it was impossible to identify her by voice alone. Of course, the LOSIR system tended to 'flatten' speech, but even so, and shouldn't be this bad.
"Maria, I was just about to call you. Are you using the tactical communications system? It sounds like it."
"Yes sir. A few moments ago we were painted by an extremely powerful sensor sweep from the planet's surface. It matched nothing on our database. As a precaution I've gone to Tactical Alert and initiated stealth protocols.
Archer looked to the others. "Actually, I think we may have done that. We've discovered an ancient complex of some sort. We're still figuring it out, but it's clearly the result of highly advanced technology, capable of tracking the Enterprise in orbit. You'll be pleased to hear, I'm sure, that the stealth systems seem to have foxed it. It's not showing up any more."
"That's reassuring. I'm going to stay at Alert for the time being though, just in case someone launches a missile or something.
Archer didn't think that was necessary, but wasn't going to argue the point. "Very well. I'll prepare a status report and send it up to you shortly. Archer out."
As he closed the communicator Sato beckoned him to another wall. "Have a look at this sir." The display showed a planet, the continents clearly marking it out as Herroton. Dozens of tiny triangles dotted it's surface, and next to one a small spot pulsed pale green.
"Let me guess. That's the Denobulan city, right?"
"Looks like it sir. Now this
triangle here is in the right position for the main ziggurat. So if that's what the triangles represent..."
Tucker whistled softly. "Sure is a whole lot o' them. Could they all be ziggurats?"
"They do seem to correspond to areas of low sensor return." said Partridge. "Here, Hoshi, show them what we saw before."
Sato raised a hand to a circular shape near the map. "If I can remember what I did last time." she muttered, before putting her fingers to the circumference and making a twisting motion. The map blurred for a second, the dot representing Herroton City fading from view. In it's place, many, many others appeared, scattered across the globe.
"Your planet has acne." Locke said, lighting a cigarette.
Archer ignored him, working out the topography of the map. "From the placement of these, access to water, land suitable for farming, temperate climates...these are cities, major population centres."
"Hell of a lot of them." Tucker said.
"Assuming population density anything like ours, I'd suggest any where between seven and twelve billion inhabitants." said Partridge. "Provisionally, of course. As far as we can tell, this image is just prior to the mass extinction event."
Numbers like that were too hard for the human mind to really get a grip on, especially when dealing with fatalities on that sort of scale. "Twelve billion Builders..." Archer echoed hollowly.
"Builders?" Tucker asked.
"It's what we're calling the race that made this." Sato said, gesturing around them.
"Bit of a dull name."
"I know." said Partridge. "I suggested Quagaars."
"Would twelve billion dead Quagaars sound better?" Archer asked, more sharply than he'd intended. "Sorry, Professor."
Before she could respond Reed and a couple of his people jogged in. "Right, you two take over guard duty here. James, Tharpa, with me."
Archer regarded him suspiciously. "What are you planning, Malcolm?"
Reed hesitated, weighing his words. "Sir...I know you won't approve, but as head of Security I have to...Sir, we know there are hostile creatures down here."
"Possibly hostile." Archer corrected. "We have circumstantial evidence, but nothing concrete."
"Probably hostile." Reed retorted. "The evidence may only be circumstantial, but there is a hell of a lot of it." He waited until the captain inclined his head in recognition of a valid point. "Hostile or not, these creatures are using the vents to navigate this structure. As long as they can do so with impunity, they have a tactical advantage. But it's only an advantage if they're doing it and we aren't. And that's why we have close quarter combat experts. To go in after them."