The Ziggurat Interior.
1st December 2151.
"I'm not so sure that this is a good idea, Malcolm." Archer said mildly.
Tucker was less tactful. "I'm real sure it ain't."
They stood at the bottom of the main staircase. Nearby James and Tharpa made their preparations to enter the vent, removing their bulky armour. Sato and Partridge were now examining the hieroglyphs on the outer walls of the central structure, and Archer doubted it was a coincidence that they were close enough to eavesdrop the conversation. Locke was examining the insect bite to Phlane's cheek, which had started to itch abominably, whilst the rest of the Denobulans stood on guard, further away but still able to keep an eye on them.
Reed sighed softly. "Sir, we've been over this. We know nothing about those creatures, really, and we're not going to learn anything at this rate. Unless you're prepared to overlook a possible factor in solving this little mystery...?"
"Damn it, Malcolm, don't try to blackmail me!" Archer snapped. The frustrating thing was Reed had a point. Power was still off at the city. It would soon become a major problem. According to a burst message from the Governor's office a fire had broken out after someone tried to cook food on an open flame inside their home. Thanks to Commissioner Tovan's forethought all homes had short range battery powered two way radios, and the emergency services were summoned. Fortunately the vehicles were unaffected by the drain and quickly attended the blaze. One person was critically injured and taken to hospital, where Phlox saved his life. But the hospital's power reserves were now critically low, and further use could drain it completely. The emergency vehicles too would need their batteries recharged soon. Life was going to become very hard for the colonists.
"Sorry sir. But my people can do this. They're trained for it."
James waved a piece of equipment at them. "Non gratum anus rodentum
." she said cheerfully.
Bewildered, Archer looked to Sato, who said "Not worth a rat's....bottom, sir. In Latin."
"Huh. And the relevance?"
Sato shrugged, but Partridge answered. "Unofficial motto of the Tunnel Rats. American, Australian and New Zealand soldiers who infiltrated the enemy tunnel complexes during the Second Indochina war. 'The smallest men with the largest cojones'
, as they were some times known."
"And that's us!" said James. "Metaphorically, at least."
"Literally, for one of us." Tharpa added, examining the blade on his combat knife.
"That's not what that blond on Schofield Station told me."
Archer rubbed the back of his neck. "I still don't like it. They're going to be out of communications range once they're in there. If they run into trouble they can't call for help."
"Have you seen how narrow those corridors are Captain?" Reed asked. "Even if they did need our help, I doubt any of us could get to them. Not that it'll be a problem. I keep telling you, they're trained for this stuff, it's second nature. And that includes tunnel clearing without communications. That's for tactical purposes, to prevent detection, rather than practical ones like now, but the principle's the same."
"And we won't be completely cut off sir." James said. "We'll be carrying the modified emergency beacons Lt. Sato designed. We can send and receive messages with them."
"It's still slow." said Archer, unwilling to let it go.
"Me and Trooper Pashmut have been practising." Sato said. "We can use the beacons almost twice as fast as the automatic signalling system."
Reed snorted. "There's no way Pashmut'd fit into one of those vents."
Sato put her hands on her hips. "No, but I could."
"Absolutely not!" Archer stated emphatically. "It's risky enough as it is!"
"Hoshi, you're good in a fight," James said, holding up her hands, "but you're not trained for this environment. We'll be OK with the beacons as they are."
Partridge added "Besides, you're needed here. We've still got a lot to do translating these symbols."
After a moment Sato nodded, disappointed.
Archer sighed with resignation. "Alright, alright. You two can go. But just a quick scout around, do you understand? We've got enough going wrong as it is."
"Hey, I gotta question." Tucker said. "Why have your guns got two barrels?"
Both Tharpa and James carried pistols. As Tucker had noted, the weapons had a thicker than normal chassis holding a second barrel, located below the first, right in front of the trigger guard. There was a small green gem-like hemisphere located just below the lower barrel.
"Yeah, it looks like it's been drawn by Rob Liefield." Partridge added.
"It's an Asquith CC-11." said James, removing the magazine and handing the weapon over to Tucker. "Specially designed for close combat work."
"No EM designation?" Tucker asked.
She shook her head. "They're not general issue. And probably won't ever be, unlike our rifles. Only a couple of hundred have been built. Most units have no need for them."
He examined it with an engineer's eye. "Good craftsmanship. This weren't turned out in a production line, that's for sure. Bullet firin', too, you don't see that much these days."
"Right." She thumbed a bullet from the magazine and showed it to him. It had the traditional shape, but there was no casing and a web-like network of grooves were cut into it's surface. "Six point eight millimetre caseless frangible round, designed to break apart on impact. Partly that's to improve lethality, but it also limits ricochets in closed areas. There's a tiny gas bottle in the magazine. I couldn't tell you what's in it but a quick spray into the chamber followed by laser ignition will send this little fellow rushing off at just over four hundred metres per second.
"Now, look at this...." Taking the pistol back, she gripped the lower barrel assembly and pushed it gently it forwards. Just as it seemed it would come off the end it slid upwards. With a soft click it fastened into place in front of the upper barrel.
"An inbuilt sound suppressor." Partridge said, impressed despite herself.
James nodded. "That's it. When it's in place the systems automatically reduce the amount of propellent used to fire, so the bullets are subsonic. And this traps almost all noise from the gun itself. Plus there's no muzzle flash so you're not messing up your own vision. On the subject of which...see this little diode?" She pointed to the green gem like stud.
"Yeah..." Tucker said.
"Two functions. First, low level emitters so our night vision gear has something to work with...That reminds me. Do we have any evidence that the opposition are technologically advanced? I mean, we know this place was made by some pretty clever guys, but what about the creatures in the vents? Any ideas?"
The others exchanged glances. Eventually Partridge spoke. "They clearly show some level of reasoning ability. But their attack on the Vrex utilised claws and teeth. No indication of any tool use as far as we've seen. Why?"
It was Tharpa who answered. "We're trying to decide whether or not to use our night vision. It would be useful."
"Useful?" asked Archer. "I would have thought it essential!"
"Not so Captain. Enemy bases may have sensors, to detect the emissions. Sometimes it is better to do without."
"He's right, sir." Reed said. "It's part of their training. Two weeks in a pitch black environment. There's a specially built complex under ground in Bulgaria. I spent a day in it once, and that was enough for me."
James said "But if they're not using technology, I think we can risk night vision ourselves." She tapped the goggles hanging from a strap around her neck.
"You're using those?" Partridge asked. "What about your helmets? They have inbuilt NV."
"They're also a bit on the bulky side. Don't want to give our location away with a lot of noise, banging my helmet on a low ceiling."
Partridge folded her arms and stuck her jaw out. "So instead you bang your unprotected head against the ceiling and splatter your brains out! I really wish you'd reconsider."
"Don't worry Polly." James said with a smile. "It's been tested in computer models, battle simulations, and even real life conflicts. It is safer this way, really."
Partridge made a non-committal "Hmmm..." sound, but did relax slightly.
"Yeah, so what's the other function?" Tucker asked, gesturing to the green emitter at James' blank expression.
"What? Oh, right, yeah. I shan't tell you, I'll show you." She slid her goggles over her eyes. Behind her Tharpa did the same, whilst Reed went and whispered something to Locke. "OK, before we do this, I better tell, you, this isn't permanent, OK? Nothing to worry about...Right. OK?"
And then everything went mad.
Pink and purple sparks danced painfully across Archer's vision. Instinctively he closed his eyes and turned his head. Or at least he tried to. He could feel the movement, the muscles responding in his neck, the back of his head brushing the collar of his cold weather jacket. Yet beyond the sparks he could still see James standing in front of him, pistol held up for examination. She wasn't moving. In fact, nothing was moving, like a still picture placed where ever he looked. He tried swinging his head rapidly to dislodge the image. That had no effect, except to make him feel sick.
"Careful Captain! You'll make yourself dizzy." came James' voice.
After a few seconds the still image faded from view to be replaced by a vague blurry darkness. It wasn't much of an improvement, even if the sparks weren't quite as bright.
"Fascinating..." Partridge breathed. And she didn't sound panicked, which was not what Archer would have expected. Even if she had known what was coming, she would still have been frightened. So she hadn't been affected.
"Sorry Captain." said James. "I wanted to show Commander Tucker, but I guess you were too close to him and got caught too."
"So it's an area effect?" Archer asked. That was the last piece of the puzzle. "Some sort of blinding weapon?"
"You sure it ain't permanent?" Tucker said, his voice rising.
"I'm sure sir. We all go through this as part of our familiarization with the weapon. And the guy who invented it has been zapped once a day, every day since he first came up with it. That's probably a publicity stunt. But there's never been any reports of permanent effects."
Tucker grumbled "I'd hate to be the first."
Archer blinked a few times. The sparks were almost gone. Everything still seemed dark and blurry, but they were visibly returning to normal. One of the blurs resolved itself into Doctor Locke, who peered intently into his eyes. "Massive pupil constriction. Seems to be returning to normal now. You might want to sit down for a few minutes John."
"Good advice." He made his way carefully to the bottom step and sat. "Some sort of laser?"
Reed nodded. "Yes sir. Similar effect to our stun grenades, only more directional and without the sonic effect. It's incredibly bright, I can't even remember how bright but it had a lot of noughts. But because it only pulses for a fraction of a second there's no risk of retinal damage, even if you look right at it at point blank range."
"I think" rumbled Locke, "that I would like to see the research behind that allegation. The human eye is a delicate instrument. It should not be needlessly abused."
Reed looked unsure of himself.
"Weirdest thing." Tucker said, moving to sit by Archer. "It was like I was lookin' at a freeze frame, taken the 'zact moment that thing went off."
"Really? That is interesting." said Partridge. "Over stimulation of the retina, I should imagine."
"Yes." Locke added. "That's plausible."
Archer rubbed his eyes, and was relieved to see his vision was now back to normal. "Well, it's certainly effective. I'm guessing your goggles filter out the effect?"
"Yes sir. The flasher works on a very tight frequency. Our goggles don't let that through." James said.
"Just as well." Tharpa added. "In confined space, reflection off nearby objects can be, what is the word...dazzling. Even through closed eyelids!"
"I'm impressed and appalled in equal measure." Partridge said glumly. "Multitasking again. Oh, there's no denying the ingenuity of the design...I just wish it wasn't considered necessary."
There was a chirp from Sato's pad. "The translator matrix has found another match. Polly, we better go check this out." She rushed back into the central complex.
Partridge went to follow, hesitated at the entrance, turned to James. "Be careful." she said softly. Then she was gone.
"We will." Tharpa called after her.
James smiled. "Ah, that was nice of her."
"Mind on the game, corporal," Reed said, "keep your mind on the game."
"Yes sir. Right, I think that's everything...."
"Is that all you're wearing?" Archer asked. "Doesn't seem very protective."
Having removed their armour, the two marines had then doffed their uniform fatigues. Underneath they wore form fitting one piece charcoal grey coveralls. They'd added boots, knee and elbow pads, plus their wrist computers. A tight fitting hood of the same material covered most of the head, leaving the face exposed. The slimline goggles, looking more like a pair of designer sun glasses than military equipment, were held in place by elasticated straps. Currently they both had the goggles pushed up onto their foreheads. A similar strap held some sort of respirator. It looked, Archer thought, like the porcelain face masks worn by ice hockey players. The straps were slack enough that, when pulled down to neck level, the mask would hang without getting in the way. And apart from a belt with several pouches, that seemed to be it.
"It's all we need sir. Armour will just get in the way. The under suit is tough enough to protect us from abrasions, the knee and elbow pads are what we really need crawling about....I keep thinking I've forgotten something..."
"Your make up." Tharpa said, handing her a small tube.
Archer watched as she expertly applied the camouflage face paint. "I'm still not happy about this."
"Good!" Reed said. "I've had CO's who would send people off on dangerous missions without a second thought. I'm not to keen on working with people like that."
"Dangerous missions?" Tucker asked. "Five minutes ago you was tryin' to convince the cap'n this is all perfectly safe!"
"Ah." said Reed. He thought for a moment, then said "Ah." again.
Archer shook his head slowly, and sucked air in through pursed lips, a sort of backwards whistle. "I don't know, Malcolm, I was coming round to the idea. But if you think it might be dangerous, well...."
"Oh, please don't scrub the mission, captain." said Tharpa. "We've only just got ready."
"Yeah, and the Professor thinks I'm going to be doing something really brave." James added.
"'Course, you could just hide some where for half an hour, then tell
her you done summat brave." Tucker said.
She thought about this. "Yeah. works for me. Hey, do you think if we say we did something brave enough, we could get medals?"
"Oh, I'm sure something suitable can be arranged." Reed said. "Probably made from chocolate covered in tin foil. Come on. Unless the Captain objects, it's time to go."
Archer followed them up the stairs, Tucker at his side. If he was any judge of character, there had been a touch of whistling in the dark, forced good spirits to cover up nerves. Under the circumstances, though, nerves seemed a reasonable response to him.
There were several Marines at the entrance to the corridor, some standing guard, others using the extending probes from their wrist computers to check on the various vents. No one, it seemed, wanted anything creeping up on them again.
"Lookit that, cap'n," Tucker said softly, "you can't even see where I shot no more."
"Incredible..." Archer breathed.
"Right. Who's got the communications beacon?" Reed asked.
James said "We both have one, just in case."
"Good, good. And have you decided where you want to start?"
"Yeah. We have no idea how these vents link up along there, or even if they link up at all. So, to give us our best chance of tracking those creatures down, we'll go into the one it was in earlier."
Steiger pointed it out. "This one. I've been keeping an eye on it. Looks all clear at the moment."
"Good. With a bit of luck that will give us a chance to get a feel for the place before anything kicks off. Give us a boost up will you?" James said.
As Steiger helped lift her to the vent, Archer said "Remember, this is a reconnaissance mission. Hopefully nothing will...'kick off'."
"We'll do our best sir, but a lot depends on those creatures. Good grief, this is going to be a tight squeeze. Maybe I better lay off those chocolate medals. Here we go,,," She slithered nimbly into the tight opening.
After Tharpa had followed her into the darkness Archer called out after them. "Be careful. Both of you."
"That's not the Pathfinder way." Reed grinned wolfishly and called into the vent "Hey, you two! Good hunting!"