Many, many apologies for the delay in updating. Illness, shift changes at work, writers block...it all seemed to come at once. Sorry.
The Ziggurat Interior.
1st December 2151.
"Denobulans." Archer said. He rubbed the back of his neck, deep in thought. "OK, OK. That actually makes a weird kind of sense. I mean, I wouldn't have guessed it, but now you say it...yeah, it all fits into place."
Despite the seriousness of the situation he had to struggle to keep from smiling at the expressions---a mix of confusion, surprise and sheer disbelief---on the faces of Locke and Partridge. Hopefully there was a marine standing close by, facing in the right direction. Decent helmet-cam footage would be something to treasure.
"What?" growled Locke, cigarette drooping from one corner of his mouth.
"What?" shrieked Partridge. She shook her head rapidly and put her hands on her hips. "No, no, no! That's not how it goes! That's not in the script! What happens is, Doctor Locke or I make our stunning revelation, right, then there's a long silence, then you repeat it back to us, then we explain it, right, and that's when it begins to make sense to you. That's how we do it. You can't go...understanding it, not yet. It's too early. Be reasonable Johnny." She took her hands off her hips and folded her arms across her stomach defensively. That was easier for her than across the chest, because of anatomy.
Archer held his hands up placatingly. "I did have a bit of information you didn't. Hoshi, you remember when Phlane was giving us the tour of the main structure? I asked if there had ever been any unexplained disappearances."
Sato's brow furrowed as she cast her mind back, then cleared. "Oh. Yes. A group of youngsters went missing on a hunting trip...in the mountains! It could have been round here!"
"Right. The remains of two were found, attacked by vrex. But there was no trace of the other three..." He looked down at the three bodies. "Could this be them? And if so, what could have caused this...mutation?"
"And could it be the same thing that's happening to Phlane and Krengal?" Sato asked.
Locke and Partridge exchanged glances. "It's possible." Locke said. "Some sort of retrovirus, lentiviral perhaps, delivering RNA to the host's cells, rewriting the DNA already present."
"So those insects that swarmed as we entered were almost certainly the vector, a delivery system if you like." Partridge added.
Reed asked "So what is it? Some sort of biological warfare?"
"Pretty inefficient." Sato pointed out. "These guys were still alive after four years."
"But severely compromised." Reed insisted. "If the entire city were so affected, it would be incapable of an adequate defence."
Corporal James, looking pale but otherwise fine, chipped in. "Begging your pardon, Major, but they seem capable of giving a good fight to me. Strong, fast, good grasp of group tactics. OK, so they can't drive a tank or shoot a plasma rifle, but if your goal was to wipe out all the Denobulans for some reason, there's got to be easier ways to do it."
"Yeah." he conceded.
"So. Why would anyone want to mutate the Denobulans into these...these...whatever they are?" Archer asked.
Partridge went "Hmmm." He looked at her in case more was forthcoming, but that appeared to be it.
"We'll probably have a better idea with more data." Locke said, waving the ultrasonic scanner. "Right. Ladies first." He moved to one of the bodies.
"That one's female?" James asked.
"Of course. What do you think this is?" He gestured to the hand protruding from the stomach.
Sato turned away as the implication hit her. "Oh god..."
For once the smile was absent from Tharpa's face. "I killed a pregnant woman?"
"Yes." Locke said simply. He grunted as Partridge's hiking boot caught him sharply on the ankle, and stared at her blankly before the penny dropped. "Oh. If it's any consolation, Trooper, neither would have survived much longer anyway. The two bodies are so intermingled, you can see that here, there's no way she could have delivered a live child. And it would have caused massive trauma to her. Fatal, and very painful. So you spared her that at least."
"Thank you Doctor. That is some small comfort."
"Are you going to be OK, Tharpa?" Archer asked, putting a hand on his shoulder.
He shrugged. "That is not why I joined Marines. But I will be OK, in time. Thank you."
Locke ran the scanner over the female's midriff and paid close attention to the display. "Ah. Interesting, but not unwholely unexpected. The foetus is heavily mutated, even more so than the parent. The Denobulan ancestry is barely recognizable, mostly in the skeletal structure. Though I have to say I've never seen anything quite like the skull at all."
"I have." said Partridge, staring at the pad over his shoulder. "On a shelf in Doctor Soong's lab."
Trip Tucker ripped off a lump of his ham on rye sandwich and looked down. "Y'know, there's mustard on this. You really shouldn't be havin' it."
"Sir?" asked Crewman Able, one of his engineers.
"Ah, nothin'. Just talkin' to..." He trailed off, gesturing to Porthos. The beagle was stood on his hind legs, front paws on Tucker's leg, staring hungrily at the food. Tucker sighed and dropped the lump of sandwich, which vanished in a single bite. "Heh. You an' Polly. Both eat what you like an' never put on any weight. Must be a portrait of you an' her hidden away somewhere."
He finished his portion off, licking the crumbs from his fingers, and turned back to the display. Sato's translation chip was doing good work on the hieroglyphs, but he was pleased to say he was figuring out a lot himself. He'd already identified what was clearly a power distribution system. The source of the power, and it's ultimate use, was still unknown, but it was surely only a matter of time. Then he swore to himself and slapped his forehead. Of course, they already knew the source of power. It was being drawn from the transmission grid at Herroton City. But that was now. What about before? Before the grid was active, before the Denobulans were even here?
"It must be absorbin' energy from the environment some how." he said aloud. "That may be why it's so cold in the pit around the main structure. An' I'll bet good money that's why Polly couldn't scan' roun' here an' in those other places too."
Able asked "The ziggurats were absorbing the sensor beams?"
"Looks that way. Seems we might have been inadvertently chargin' these places up. An' now it's reached the point where it's drawin' power straight from the reserves at the City." A thought struck him, a nasty thought. "Hey, get to a place where you can get a decent line o' sight to the relay beacons. Get onto the Enterprise. I want to know if there has been any power loss on board, anythin' at all. That could be a real problem."
Able nodded and darted away, leaving Tucker and Porthos alone in the center of the circular structure. He stood in silent thought for a moment, before his attention was caught by a new image flaring into life on the curved wall.
"Hullo. What's this?"
"Why me?" Trooper Tipping moaned.
"Because going in there would make anyone very miserable." Reed explained. "You're always miserable, so it won't make any difference. Now get to it."
Tipping's shoulders slumped. "I'm putting my respirator on first." he said. That seemed like a wise precaution. A search of the chamber had turned up a pile of debris in one of the corners. Most of it looked organic, rotting vegetation, fragments of bone. It stank. But even from here the gleam of metal could be made out in the torch light.
Still grumbling, Tipping waded into the pile.
Archer cast his eye over it. At first glance it appeared to be disorganised, random. But now he had heard Partridge's ideas, it did seem there was a shape to it, crude but definitely there. A nest. Not a bird's nest, but the constructed home of a gorilla. Or a mahwee. He rubbed the back of his neck thoughtfully, and turned round as Locke and Partridge approached.
"Well?" he asked simply.
The two exchanged glances. "I can't be sure." Locke admitted reluctantly. "I'm no expert on mahwee, nor do I have any physiological data with which to make a comparison. But I can say that the three adult bodies, plus that of the unborn child, all show tremendous deviation from the norm. Tumours, growths, appalling genetic damage. Most of it apparently quite random. However...however, in each case there are some similarities. Shape of the skull. Relative size of the lungs. A new organ growing on the duodenum whose purpose I could only guess at. Individually I'd write these off as no more significant than any of the other mutations. But as they appear in all the individuals...This was deliberate. This was planned."
Reed shook his head in confusion. "But why would any one try to turn the Denobulans into mahwee?"
Sergeant Woo added "Besides, these creatures are all over the planet. The Denobulans have only been here a decade or so, and only in this small area. Surely they can't all
be mutated Denobulans?"
Partridge waved her hand in a cutting-off gesture. "No no no. I really don't think that's what's going on at all. It's far more likely that---"
"One moment Professor." Archer held up his own hand to halt the flow of words. "We've got two Denobulans with us who look to share that same fate unless we can help them. Phil, now you have a better idea of what's going on, can you do anything?"
Locke took a long drag on his cigarette. "Well, the innaprovaline is slowing the spread of the infection. A touch of durypium would probably help bolster the DNA, make it more resistant to change. There's a lot of damage already been done, though. Still, if we can arrest the progress, keep them stable, we could probably repair most of the damage back on the Enterprise. Or at the city's hospital, Phlox has a well equipped genetic surgery suite."
"What about an anti-viral agent, to combat the retrovirus?" Partridge asked. "Surely you could synthesize one with the medical equipment we brought."
"In principle, yes." he agreed. "But ideally we'd need a sample of the original retrovirus, as pure as possible."
Corporal James cleared her throat nervously. "Didn't you say the insects carried the virus? Because I've got one right here." She pointed to her shin. "We crawled through some web earlier. This little fellow must have been caught in it, and then stuck to me."
"That may do." Locke said. "That may do indeed."
James handed it to him, but spoke to Partridge. "Yes, there are lots of spiders in the vents. Or spider like creatures. A fascinating example of...of..." For a moment a look of wild panic shone in her eyes as the phrase eluded her. "...of...convergent evolution
in action!" she finished triumphantly.
After a moments consideration Partridge narrowed her eyes at her. "Oh. I see what you did there." she smiled.
There was a metallic clang as Tipping through something from the pile. Reed drew his knife and used the tip to scrape away some of the adhering vegetation. "Looks like the frame from a back pack. The fabric has gone, rotted or torn off." He suddenly stiffened, hand to his earpiece. Then he stood, looked Archer straight in the eye and jerked his head off to one side.
Archer nodded and walked away from the rest of the group. "Alright Malcolm, what's up?"
Reed glanced around to make sure they weren't overheard. "Sir, Tipping contacted me over the LOSIR net. Secure channel, no one else could listen in, or even know he was signalling..."
"He's found something and didn't want everyone to know." Archer realized. The answer was obvious. "Hoshi."
"Yes sir. He's found bones sir. Lot's of them, different types. But...some of them are human sir. A skull, what looks like a femur...and as the only human known to have gone missing on this planet is Lt. Sato's friend..."
"Doctor Halliwell." he said softly. "Damn. Alright Malcolm, I'll tell her. Thank you."
"Sir. I'm sorry sir."
"Yeah. So am I."
Reed hesitated. "Sir, given the ongoing situation...perhaps you should leave off telling her. Just until the right time?"
"There is no right time Malcolm, not for something like this. But perhaps when the immediate crisis is over."
By this point Tipping had succeeded in finding a number of artificial objects. A battered hunting rifle, useless from neglect. Panels of artificial fabric, apparently from a tent, now used as crude bedding. A water bottle. Cutlery. A small communications hand set.
"Wait a minute!" Sato said. "Hand me that comm unit please."
"I don't think you'll get a signal here ma'am." Trooper Cross said diplomatically.
"I'm not signalling. I've made a bit of a study of alien communications tech and unless I miss my guess...Yes!"
"What is it?" Archer asked.
"This type of communicator has an inbuilt memory. The power's drained, but if I cross link it to my own equipment, we should be able to recover a record of all the calls made."
He nodded. "That might point us in the right direction. Get on it. OK, Doctor, time is pressing. Get back to the main chamber, see to the patients."
Locke made an affirmative gesture with his cigarette. "Right. Do you need Partridge here? She is a biologist, and at the moment that would be useful synthesizing the anti-viral agent."
"I'm contributing!" Partridge said cheerfully.
"Almost as useful as she is irritating." Locke continued, and grimaced as she suddenly hugged him.
Reed said "James, Tharpa, Cross and M'boto. Go with them. As far as we know there are no more hostiles, but let's not take chances, eh?"
"Get going." Archer ordered. "We'll join you shortly, soon as I'm satisfied that there's nothing more to be learnt here."
As they left Sato exclaimed "Jackpot!"
"Found something Hoshi?"
"Yes Captain! A lot more data than I was expecting. I think whoever this belonged to was using it...well, in much the same way you keep a ship's log. As a journal, or diary, of sorts."
"Alright," Archer said, "let's hear it."
Sato tapped the buttons, and the recording began to play...