The Ziggurat Interior.
1st December 2151.
As vents go, this one wasn't too bad. It wasn't quite high enough for Corporal James to crawl, but there was enough room for a reasonably fast slither. The plastic stuff covering the stone looked odd, semi-translucent, in the night vision goggles, but it was rather more comfortable than expected. Her knee, elbow, and toe pads were reassuringly quiet as she moved. It was
unpleasantly warm, a hot breeze blowing directly into her face, but at least it was a dry heat. And, so far at least, there seemed to be no rats, beetles, snakes, or other fauna that made tunnel clearing such an ...interesting
Another advantage: she and Tharpa had decided to use their LOSIR communicators. Without enough relay beacons to leave a trail they'd still be out of touch with the main party, but at least they could talk to each other if need be. They didn't even need to speak aloud. A throat mike would pick up their utterances if they 'sub-vocalized', which James thought was a very fancy way of saying talking under your breath. Even with the system they stuck to their training, keeping chatter to a minimum. You could miss an external sound if you were deep in conversation. Best to use it only when needed.
Like now. "T-junction ahead. Branch left, right. Ten metres."
." Tharpa's voice was flat, anonymous. The throat mike caught only the most basic inflection.
Cautiously she approached the junction. The idea that there may be something nasty lurking round the corner was fore front in her mind. She halted less than a metre away, and, keeping her gun trained, extended the probe from her wrist computer. Used it to look first left, then right. No sign of anything, just the vent carrying on out of range of the sensor in either direction. She retracted the probe and slid further forward to the junction itself.
"All clear. Checking thermal."
The lightweight goggles didn't have thermal capability. She pulled a hand held imager from a belt pouch, automatically checking the display was set to absolute minimum before turning it on. It wouldn't do to have the screen come on bright enough to illuminate her position for anyone watching. It was bad enough that the device made a faint whine. She examined the display closely, and bit down a swear word.
" Tharpa asked. The throat mike had picked up her expletive.
"Thermal no good. It's all this hot air, I guess." She looked from side to side, deciding. Turning left would take them in the direction of the large chamber, going right lead back towards the stair well. And there seemed to be something in that direction..."Checking right. Remain here, cover left."
She snaked round the corner, waited for Tharpa to take up his position, and proceeded onwards. As she got closer what appeared to be small dots hovering in the air took shape. Insects, struggling in a spider's web. Or, if not a spider, it's local equivalent. She'd not been to many planets, but they all seemed to have something spider-ish on them. It was probably down to....oh, what is the phrase?
She racked her brains, couldn't think of it. James wasn't interested in science, but she was very interested in a certain scientist. Twice a week, typically, Professor Partridge would give lectures on a variety of subjects in the observation lounge, and she had been present, front and centre, for every one.She couldn't remember the details, but there was something about how life even on different worlds would develop in similar ways.
She shook her head. Whatever it was could wait. What was important was the web itself. There was a lot of it, a tunnel leading off out of view. Clearly undisturbed. The mysterious interloper couldn't have come this way, not without demolishing the webs. So, the other route. "Returning."
Tharpa's voice, delivered by the comm system, sounded as if he were at her shoulder. "Roger. All clear
There was no room to turn, even for her. She shuffled backwards until he told her she had reached the junction, twisted her lower half into it, then turned left. Soon this vent angled some forty five digress to the right. It was, she realized, now running parallel to one of the walls of the main hexagonal chamber. She paused a moment to orientate herself. If you were to look down on the chamber from above, and if the door they'd come through was in the twelve o'clock position, they'd be running parallel to the next wall in an anti-clockwise position. Yes, that seemed about right.
There were cobwebs here too, or more accurately their remains. Strands of web scattered and torn. Clearly disturbed by something moving through. She felt her heart pumping faster. "We're on the right track."
" Tharpa replied. Idly she considered making a bet with Lt. Sato next time their was a mission of this nature. See how many time she could make him say that.
There was the beginning of a dull ache in her shoulders and thighs, and it seemed to be getting even hotter. Nothing she couldn't handle, but no sense pushing themselves when they didn't know what was ahead. "Let's take a couple of minutes. Send an 'all well' message over the beacon." That got the inevitable "Roger.
" in reply.
She let herself down onto her stomach and took a sip off water from the tube over her shoulder. It was more convenient than trying to unhook the bottle at her waist. She tried the thermal imager again. It was just as useless, apart from confirming the temperature was indeed higher here. She switched it off.
"We've just got an 'all well' message over the beacon, Major." Sato said. "Should I send a 'message received'?"
Reed, who had accompanied Archer and Tucker to the centre of the circular structure, looked relieved. "If you would, lieutenant, please."
"So what have you found now?" Archer asked. The configuration of hieroglyphs around the chamber was notably different to how it had been earlier.
Partridge spun, hair flying, eyes flashing, to face him. "This is fascinating
! This display is the history of this star system. Look, look here. Do you see? It's as we suspected. This planet over here has been diverted from it's orbit by the gravitational influences of the gas giant here."
"Not a big world." Tucker said, leaning for a closer look.
"Big enough." Archer said.
"Right. Look at this." Partridge touched a circular insignia next to the display. Instantly the image went into motion. The planets and moons orbited the central star in their elliptical paths. Except for rogue world, which plunged deep into the system, sling shot round the star, hurtled far out to the very edges of the display, then fell back in to repeat the process over and over again.
Reed gulped. "Got quite close to Herroton that time."
"Close enough to spot with the naked eye." Archer said. "Probably make out details if they had telescopes then."
"And even if they didn't," Partridge said, "it passes by fairly regularly. Sooner or later they'd be watching it. Ah, see. Passing by again, not as close, but still visible I reckon."
Suddenly the image stopped. A long dotted line ran ahead of the wanderer, snaking round the display like the petals of a flower, before terminating in the central star. An inscription appeared next to the image.
"As far as I can tell," Sato said, approaching, "this is the Builder's projection of where the planet would go. And they realized it would be a catastrophic event for them. Oh, I've sent your message Major."
Archer rubbed the back of his neck thoughtfully. "So they knew what was happening."
"Oh yes. In fact, if you look to the image on the left...I'll synchronise the two and continue the sequence."
The wandering world re-commenced it's journey. It stayed close to the dotted line, straying slightly as it passed close to another body. The dotted line itself would then subtly shift, the predicted path revised to match the actual one. Now that the Builders knew what was coming, Archer realized, they were monitoring the world in great detail.
Next to the system map was an image of Herroton, slowly spinning on it's axis. As he watched a series of tiny triangles popped into view on it's surface, slowly at first, then with increasing urgency. A pattern began to emerge, a pattern that still felt incomplete when the image suddenly froze as the wandering world met the inevitable end of it's long strange journey.
He stepped back, silently digesting what he had seen. "So. These structures, these ziggurats. They only started building them after
they realised they were in danger?"
Sato nodded. "It looks that way sir."
He turned to Partridge. "A response to the threat?"
"Weeeeeeeellllllllllll," she said, stretching like a cat, "post hoc ergo propter hoc,
as they say. Just because they spotted a probable threat to their existence and then started a massive building program doesn't automatically mean one caused another. Maybe some chap who really, really liked pyramids got into power. On the whole though, I do rather think a connection is likely."
He went "Hmm." and walked over slowly to the two marines Reed had stationed here. One was holding Porthos, Archer thanked him and took the little dog back. Deep in thought he strolled a full circuit of the central chamber. Arriving back at his starting point, he searched his pockets for a comb. For some reason he always felt that tidying himself up helped clarify the thought process. That done he beckoned Partridge closer.
"What would we do," he asked softly, "if we discovered our own world was doomed?"
She laughed mirthlessly. "If
we discovered our world was doomed? We discovered that in the early 21st century. We also discovered it was our fault, but we could still fix the problem. What we actually
did was deny it was happening, tried to discredit the scientists saying that it was real, and even banned proper research. It took World War Three to shake us out of those parochial attitudes. Typical human short sightedness."
He glanced at her sideways. "Well. What if we weren't
human? What if we decided to do something?"
"Ah, now that is the question. You think this place is some sort of survival shelter, don't you?"
"I must admit, it occurred to me."
"Yeah, me too. The animals went in two by two, hurrah, hurrah."
Tucker had been listening in. "So, maybe these Builder fellows are all hidden away down here. In suspended animation, like."
Partridge smiled faintly. "It's been done." The smile vanished. "But if so, where are they? There's life on this world, lots of life. More than I'd expect. It's certainly habitable for life as we know it. So what are they waiting for?"
Archer thought it over. "Maybe the system failed. Look at that display. I get the impression the building program was incomplete. Perhaps the alarm, for want of a better word, didn't work---"
"---And they overslept?" she said. "Like I say, been done."
Archer and Tucker exchanged glances. Tucker mouthed 'No idea'.
"So these...creatures in the vents," Archer said, "could they be the reawakened Builders?"
She shrugged. "Perhaps. Though trying to equate the brilliant minds that built this structure with the pack hunters that kill vrex with claws and teeth is a bit of a stretch."
"But if something did go wrong with the wake up call, maybe the rest of the suspended animation system is faulty." Archer suggested. "Some sort of brain damage might have resulted."
"The one I saw did look kinda weird." Tucker said.
Partridge didn't look convinced. "This facility was built more than two hundred thousand years ago, Johnny. I have difficulty believing any one could survive that long in a perfectly functional system, let alone a faulty one."
"But is it possible?" he insisted.
She simply replied "Unknown."
It really was getting very hot in the vent. James wanted another swig of water but that would have to wait. They were crawling through another area of destroyed web, and angry spiders swarmed over them. They'd taken the precaution of donning their respirator masks to stop the spiders getting into their mouths or nostrils. The creature's small size meant it was unlikely that any toxin would be powerful enough to harm them, but all it needed was an adverse allergic reaction to swell the soft tissues, and you'd be suffocating a long way from help. The respirator did it's job, but also prevented them drinking.
The spiders---they weren't really spiders, but that's how she thought of them---were fascinating to watch. They glowed with a soft blue bio-luminescence. Perhaps a means of attracting prey? Or mates? It was strange how convergent evolution had acted too---Convergent evolution! That was it! That was the phrase!
She felt pleased at remembering it, and resolved to casually mention it in the debriefing. Better yet, mention it to Polly, show her she had been paying some attention after all.
"Looks like there's an exit up ahead." she said, getting a "Roger.
" in return.
She slowed her pace, trying for a stealthy approach. As she got closer she had a narrow view of the chamber beyond. It was long and apparently quite high. She couldn't judge it's width due to the narrowness of the opening. From here she could see row after row of equally spaced columns, running floor to ceiling. They seemed to be made of the same plastic as that which coated the stone surrounding her, though she could not tell if the columns were hollow or not. As she watched a soft pink glow drifted lazily up the inner surface of one of them.
The wrist computer's probe, when she got close enough, let her know the room stretched off to either side. There was no sign of anything living in view, but looking straight down revealed a dirty patch directly below the vent. It also revealed a problem. The vent was a good two metres up. And, with no means to turn round, she'd have to go through head first...
So it was, after a hurried discussion, that Corporal James emerged from the vent. Carefully she slithered out as far as her hips, one hand supporting her weight on the lip of the vent, the other holding her pistol ready. With exquisite caution she twisted round until she faced upwards, a task only manageable thanks to Tharpa maintaining a solid grip on her ankles. From that position she could drop back so most of her body lay vertically down the wall. Only her shins and feet remained within the vent. For several long seconds she maintained this inverted state, alert for signs of movement. Satisfied she holstered her pistol and told Tharpa to let her go.
She dropped, one foot kicking accidentally at the lip of the vent as it came out, landed on outstretched hands and tucked into a roll. After parachute training this was nothing major. Within three seconds she was up, gun ready, senses straining for signs of detection. All clear. She gave him a thumbs up then removed her respirator and took a most welcome drink.
"Right. Now how am I---
" Tharpa started.
He broke off as a scream, a hideous gibbering wail of pure fury, tore the air.
Something lurched from behind the nearest column on the left. Despite it's ungainly motion it moved with astonishing speed, straight at James. In it's sudden rush through the half-light few details were apparent, but it seemed twisted, malformed, like a waxen effigy left too long in the heat. Clawed fingers on unnaturally long arms scythed towards her.
A curse of shock and disgust escaped her. She fought down her incipient panic, reminding herself she had the edge. She raised her gun, aimed right at the lopsided face, triggered the flasher...
...and nothing happened.
The creature didn't even slow down. And now it was leaping, barrelling into her with bone jarring force. One of it's flailing limbs caught her wrist, sending her gun scuttering away as they both slid on the smooth floor away from the vent. The creature was on top of her, pinning her with it's weight as jagged fangs snapped at her throat. It took all her strength to keep it from her neck. The foul stench of it's breath and body made her gag.
"Tharpa!" she yelled with all the breath she could spare. But she knew it would take him time to move forward from his position inside the vent, spot them, and line up a shot. Not a lot of time. But too much. Time she did not have.