The Ziggurat Interior.
1st December 2151.
The door was massive, dwarfing even the exaggerated scale of the other portals within the ziggurat. Underneath the ever present polymer coating there were objects embedded into the body of the door. Blue gemstones, or so they appeared, in complex spiral formations. Similar shapes, this time in gold filigree, decorated the frame. And around it's outline hieroglyphs danced and swayed.
Reed glanced back at Sato, who checked the display on her modified distress beacon. She nodded. The signal was coming from beyond the door. With quick economical gestures Reed directed his people to positions around it, some looking outwards, most facing in. Satisfied they were ready in place, he looked to the Captain.
Archer took a deep breath, and nodded.
The Pathfinders began their assault on the room.
"I want to watch the footage again." Partridge had said, some eleven minutes earlier. "See if we can get some sense of the mechanism. If these structures really are affecting the environment on such a massive scale, well, I want to know how."
"It'll be a major help for all them terraformin' projects they got planned back home." Tucker said.
She nodded. "It'll also be a good idea if---". She broke off as the distress beacon hooked to Sato's belt started beeping for attention.
Sato didn't bother with the display screen, decoding the signal by ear. And from the expression on her face, Archer knew it wasn't good news.
"Captain, the Tunnel Rats have found a large chamber nearby. They were attacked by three creatures---", there was a gasp of horror from Partridge, "---but they dealt with them."
"Are they alright Hoshi?" Archer demanded.
Sato hesitated. "Sir, Corporal James is hurt, and requesting medical assistance."
"Damn. We better find the Major."
Finding Reed was easy enough. As they left the circular central structure he was coming the other way, looking for them. "Captain, I've just heard from Trooper Pashmut at the communications post. He says that the---"
"We heard, Malcolm. Let's get Locke and go find them. Hoshi?"
"Way ahead of you captain. These beacons are directional. I can tell the general direction we should be looking...that way. And if Pashmut does the same and sends me his data..."
Archer said "You'll be able to triangulate, find out precisely where they are. Phillip! How are the doing?"
The two ill Denobulans, Phlane and Krengel, lay on bedrolls on the wide bottom step of the main staircase. They were in heavy duty sleeping bags. Both were still and pale. Locke sat beside them, a look of intense concentration on his face as he studied his pad. "Hmm. Stable. You know, I really don't think this is allergenic at all. It looks almost like...I'm not sure."
"Can you leave them for a while? James is hurt."
"What? Now? Oh, yes, yes, that shouldn't be a problem. Although some one should stay to look after them."
"Dumont, you know Denobulan biology, right?" Reed asked. "Stay here, keep an eye on them." He quickly assigned a couple more troopers to guard duty. "Right. Let's go."
With a general fix on the parties location, they set off. Up one of the other flights of stairs, through the door, identical to the one they had entered the main chamber through, and into a maze of tunnels. The beacon pointed them in the right direction, and they made good time. All the same Archer was wary. They had no more relays for the LOSIR communications network. The distress beacon was their only lifeline to the outside world.
Apart from the marines, Archer came, along with Locke, Sato, who was needed to operate the beacon, and, to everyone's surprise, Partridge. Considering her self admitted cowardice that seemed most unusual behaviour. She really is concerned about James,
Tucker, looking after Porthos, remained in the main chamber along with his support staff, both armed, and the Denobulan party. Sato had given the engineer a data chip containing all she had learnt so far about the language, just in case he wanted to continue studying the hieroglyphs. He hadn't looked enthusiastic, but promised to give it a try.
And then they found the door.
"Marine Pathfinders! Entering room! Entering room!" Reed bellowed. There was no point in attempting a stealthy entrance. Like all the doors in this place, this large one made a scraping, grating noise as it opened. Shouting out their identity probably would have no effect on any hostiles, but it would let James and Tharpa know they were here. They moved through the opening in well practised formation, fanning out to cover all around, rifles up and ready, dropping into crouches to make themselves smaller targets, senses alert.
A voice drifted from the distance. "Marine Pathfinder. Not mobile, help needed." Tharpa, from the sound of it. A bright red light flashed in the gloom, a standard issue laser painter. Reed drew his own, sent a green burst back.
"OK. everyone inside please." That wasn't for the benefit of his troops, but for the captain and the others. They rushed in, followed by the troopers who'd remained out side to guard them. As they moved further into the room the door ground shut, closing with an echoing doooom
"Fascinating..." Partridge breathed, looking at the long rows of columns. "I wonder what these are? They seem to be---"
"One thing at a time, Professor." Archer reminded her gently. "We've got wounded to see to."
"Right, of course, yes. Lead on, Mister Reed!"
He cleared his throat nervously. "Right. Standard approach pattern, maintain coverage. Non-combatants to the centre please, and let's not forget to look up now now and again. Let's move!"
They moved. Reed and Tipping maintained position at the front, flanked by two other troopers. As they reached the gap between the next set of columns, those troopers dropped into a crouch, facing at right angles to the line of movement, covering the sides. They maintained this position until the group had passed them by, at which point they rejoined the others, flanking Sergeant Woo and Trooper Cross at the back. Meanwhile the marines along the sides had all moved forward one place, ready to repeat the procedure when they reached the next gap.
In the centre of the group, Archer kept his side arm holstered and concentrated on helping Partridge along. Sato did the same on the other side, though she kept one hand on her own gun. And Locke held his old service pistol at the ready, watchful for any threat.
They saw the bodies first, two creatures of strange proportion. Clearly dead, there was something nevertheless unnatural about them, and even the hardened warriors watched them warily. And then they saw their colleagues. James was flat on her back, quite still, whilst Tharpa knelt beside her, gun in one hand, saline solution bag held high in the other. The tube led down to James' wrist computer.
"OK, Tharpa, report." Reed said as Locke and Partridge rushed forward.
"James entered this room through that vent." Tharpa gestured at it with his gun. "She was attacked by one of those creatures, over there. Two others approached, I shot them. She dealt with hers, but after helping me down she collapsed. Wrist comp. showed low blood pressure, so I put her on saline, sent distress signal."
Archer looked over to the third creature, the one that had attacked James. Up till now it had been hidden off to one side. "Phil, how is she?"
"One moment John. Here, professor, make yourself useful. Keep that elevated." He took the saline drip from Tharpa and handed it to Partridge, then examined the display on the wrist computer. "Useful device this. Most of the medicines we use are delivered into the muscle, but we still need intravenous injections now and then. The built in, electronically guided needle makes things very easy."
"This bag's nearly empty, doctor." Partridge said, biting her bottom lip as she looked down at James.
"Probably internal bleeding." He attached a small ultrasonic scanner to his computer pad and ran it over James.
"The creature, she said it struck her here and here." Tharpa said, pointing.
"Mmm. Yes. Couple of cracked ribs, severe bruising...and internal haemorrhaging. Quite bad. Looks like you got her hooked up to the drip just in time. Right. I'll get another bag of saline on her. Some coagulant to take care of the bleeding, painkillers, and a stimulant to bring her back to the land of the living. She'll be fine."
There was a palpable release of tension from the group. With her spare hand Partridge dug a handkerchief from a coat pocket and wiped her eyes. "Hold this Hoshi." She handed the saline bag over, then slipped her coat off, gently placing it over James like a blanket.
Meanwhile Archer and Reed went over to the creature James had killed. "Now there's a face only a mother could love." Reed commented wryly.
Archer nudged the body with his toe. It was squat, twisted, covered in course hair. It was otherwise naked. And it's face...Tucker's words came back to him. There was something wrong about the creature, unnatural. And yet...despite the lopsided shape, there was also something he recognised somehow, some feature that seemed familiar...
"Don't get too close, John." Locke called over. "It may have lice or something similar. A possible disease vector." Reed and Archer stepped hastily back.
Tipping trotted over, and looked down. "Now, that is weird."
"What's weird?" Archer asked.
"Sir, sirs. well, I was having a look at the other two, and, well, they don't match up, you know?"
"Match up?" Reed asked.
"Yes sir. It's like, well...maybe you should see for yourself."
"See for myself." Archer muttered. "I'm always being told to see for myself."
Nevertheless, he and the Major followed Tipping over to the other two bodies. It was soon apparent what he meant. Although all the creatures shared the same general proportions, there were major individual differences. The second was much more symmetrical than the first, though possessed of a sickeningly lumpen cranium. The third, disturbingly, had what appeared to be a small malformed hand protruding from it's stomach. And again, there was a hint of familiarity. That some how made it worse, as though this was something that should be right, twisted and distorted to some ghastly extreme.
"What the hell are these things?" Archer asked.
Tipping added "And are there any more about?"
At that point Archer's attention was drawn to the nearest pillar. It was wide, wider than his arm span, and had a translucent appearance. It's outer surface was fluted, like a Corinthian column. A soft pink glow was floating upwards within, accompanied by a faint buzz, like a distant bee. It was this that had drawn his notice. After several seconds the glow disappeared at the columns highest point, the buzz fading. It looked for all the world that the glow, whatever it was, had continued into another room directly above this one. He glanced at Reed and Tipping, who both looked as puzzled as he felt. He noticed, for the first time, just how warm it was in here. And the heat seemed to be emanating from the column.
Sato came over. "Sir, Autumn has woken up."
"That's good." Reed said. "Could you please signal Pashmut, let him know how we are doing?"
Partridge had manoeuvred herself into a sitting position, supporting James' head on her lap. She held the second saline drip high. The marine herself looked pale, but she attempted to sit up and salute as they approached.
"As you were." Archer said, keeping his voice light. "I must say, Corporal, you've not been having the best time of it since you joined the Enterprise. Shot, poisoned, and now attacked by a vicious beast."
"Again, sir." Her voice was slightly slurred, and her eyes unfocussed but she had the hint of a smile. "There was the big green thing at Theta Iota."
Archer cast his mind back. "Oh. Yes."
"Don't worry about it Captain. I wouldn't miss this for the world."
Tipping muttered something about her current position influencing her opinion.
"Oh! Major!" James exclaimed, remembering. "The creature that attacked me. I tried the flasher on it. No effect."
Reed frowned. "What? It must be faulty. Where's your gun?"
"Ah, I'm not sure sir. It was knocked that away." She waved a lazy arm.
"Tipping, M'boto. Find it and check if it's working. If these things are immune..." Reed trailed off.
Archer said "It was certainly working earlier. Could it have burnt out through use?"
"The curse of the substandard kit strikes again." Reed mused.
"Alright, alright, everyone out of the way." Locke said, cigarette drooping from one corner of his mouth. "I've got ribs to set."
Partridge said "Sorry about this Autumn." as she slid out from underneath. She paused for a moment, brow furrowed, then abruptly started rooting through Locke's medical bag. "Mind if I borrow this?" she asked, holding up a tube shaped device.
Locke stared at it a moment. "Ah. I see what you are thinking. Yes, go right ahead."
Curious, and wishing to give James some privacy during the procedure, Archer followed Partridge over to the first dead creature. He was amused to see her slip a pair of surgical gloves on over the ones she was already wearing. Despite that there was no sign of squeamishness as she carefully opened one of it's eyes. She put one end of the device directly over the eye, triggered it. There was a flash. She did the same with the other eye.
M'boto approached, carrying James' gun. "Found it sir. It seems to be working fine."
"So these creatures are immune to the flasher." Reed grumbled.
"Autumn said that the flasher only affects a very specific frequency." said Partridge. She was looking into the display at the other end of the device. "These retina prints suggest that our hairy friend here can't perceive that frequency. Seems to be lacking the necessary receptors. Odd thing is, they appear to be there, just atrophied."
Archer rubbed the back of his neck thoughtfully. "Professor, could you check the other two?"
"Certainly. Is there any reason to suspect that they may be different, or are you just being thorough?"
He hesitated. "You should see for yourself."
Reed leant closer. "Now
who's saying that?" he said quietly.
"Shut up. That's an order."
"Yes sir, Captain sir."
Corporal James joined them. "Ready to return to duty, sir." she saluted.
"No you're not." Locke called from where he was packing his things away. "Not until I give the say so. And I don't."
James muttered under her breath, then gestured to the creature she'd killed. "Ugly looking Mike Foxtrot."
"I heard that." Locke rumbled.
"Not you sir. This here dead...whatever it is."
"This is astonishing
!" Partridge exclaimed, trotting over. "I've never seen such a range of dimorphism within a single species before. Indeed, if not for the similarities of the retinal pattens, I couldn't be sure they were all of the same species. I can only conclude that the divergence between these individuals is the result of some mutation, altering them significantly from the norm. Massive, horrific defects. They must have been in terrible pain...Yet I can find no evidence of radiation or any chemical agent that could have caused such defects. Of course, given the advanced nature of the changes, it must have begun some time ago. Still...Oh, Major, you'll be pleased to learn, I'm sure, only the one little Autumn dealt with would have been unaffected by your flash weapon. The others seem to have a similar visual acuity to us, although Mr. bumpy head there was apparently blind in one eye."
Locke reached for the tube shaped device. "Let me have a look." He quickly ran through the images Partridge had taken. "Wait. That can't be right..."
Archer asked "What is it Phil?"
"These retina pattens. I'm not sure...this looks like...No. No, it can't be. It's insane. It can't be." he repeated.
Archer and Reed exchanged glances. "What?" Reed demanded.
Locke hesitated, then reattached the ultrasonic scanner to his pad. "Simple way to find out." he said, and quickly ran the device over the body of the first creature. "Skeletal structure seems to..." he trailed off.
"That looks like..." Partridge said, peering at the display over his shoulder. "Oh, that can't be right!"
She and Locke, maintaining a litany of 'that looks like' and 'that can't be right', quickly checked the other two bodies. Eventually they trailed off into a stunned silence.
Archer rubbed his forehead. He was beginning to get a headache. "Could some one please, please
tell me what you've found?"
"I wouldn't have spotted it from the retina scan." Partridge said, her voice distant. "But Doctor Locke is more familiar with such things than I am."
"Of course, I had been brushing up on their physiology recently." Locke said. "In preparation for this mission. So once I spotted the tell tale signs, well, it was a shock. I had to double check. Number of ribs, arrangement of internal organs, that sort of thing. Even with the mutations they matched the standard model. Partridge concurs."
"I may not know their retina prints, but I'm familiar enough with the basic physiognomy." she said.
"Familiar with the basic physiognomy?" Archer was incredulous. "Are you saying these creatures are already known to us?"
"Oh yes John." Locke took a drag on his cigarette. "They are Denobulans.