The Ziggurat Interior.
1st December 2151.
Archer stared at the power display and swore under his breath. Twenty minutes at the most...."OK. Hoshi, Professor, we need answers. Find out what's going to happen when this place is fully charged."
"We don't actually know that anything is
going to happen." Partridge started. "It might just be..."
He held up an interrupting hand "Professor, I will accept 'nothing is going to happen' as a legitimate answer. Providing
we know that for certain. Now find out!" He turned to Tucker and Reed. "Trip, Malcolm, find a way to shut it off."
"Aren't you rather assuming that whatever happens will be bad?" Partridge asked. "It might be perfectly harmless."
Archer took a deep breath, and reminded himself that she was far and away best qualified for the job. There were times, however, and this was one of them, when he wished he'd selected someone who followed the chain of command. He wasn't going to say that to he face though.
"Best to have a plan in place, Polly. We don't have to use it if it's not needed." Sato said.
"We could try blowing up some of those glowing columns." Reed suggested. "If they are power storage that should scupper things."
Partridge shook her head. "That may be....a bad idea. The outer casing looked to be the same stuff coating all the surfaces in here. In which case it is extremely durable and self healing. And if those are storage cells, blowing a big hole in one could release all that energy in an unmanageable form."
"Translation from Polly speak," Tucker said, "boom!" He moved his hands apart to mime a large explosion.
Reed said dryly "I'll bear that in mind."
With Porthos padding at his heels, Archer left the circular structure to find somewhere he could get a clear signal to the communications post on the surface. "Archer to Grant, how are things up there?
A slight pause, then "Ah, all clear at the moment sir. No sign of vrex, or any other problems
"Good. Listen, we've got evidence that something, we can't be sure what, may start happening soon. Could one of you get to the bus and bring the two Denobulans we left on guard back here in the next ten, fifteen minutes? I'd rather have us all together."
"Captain, even knowing the route, it would take at least ten minutes to get to the bus, same time to return
"Could you signal them? Guide them to you?"
"Not directly sir. Radio communications are almost completely dead...stand by." Another pause. "OK, Pashmut says we can route a message via Enterprise. The main transmitters should be powerful enough to warn those guys, get 'em heading our way. Delaney and Sandstrom can set off flares and smoke here, start them heading in the right direction. Just to make sure I'll go out to meet them on the way."
Archer frowned. "Are you sure that's safe? I don't want you missing them in the forest or getting lost."
The LOSIR link robbed speech of it's inflections, but Archer thought he could make out an affronted tone. "That's not going to happen sir."
"No, of course not." Despite himself he smiled. "OK, do it. And connect me to the Governor's office."
Herroton City. The Command Centre.
1st December 2151.
"That's not a lot of time." Trex said, glancing at Tovan and Vrok. "And you say you have no idea what will happen when the system is fully charged?"
There was a slight, but noticeable, pause before Archer could reply. Direct radio communications were still functional within the city, but not over the range needed to reach the mountains. The conversation was being relayed via laser link from the Enterprise, hence the delay. "I'm sorry Governor but that's all we know at this time. I've got our best people on it and we'll do all we can, but I thought it wise to warn you to prepare for the worst."
Trex nodded sadly. "Very well Captain, thank you for that." He sighed. "I'd hoped we could avoid this, but I'm going to order all civilians into their emergency bunkers. I don't know if it is warrented, or even if it would do any good, but..."
"I concur, Governor." boomed Tovan, showing his support.
Vrok was silent for a moment. "If nothing else, it would be a useful test of our emergency procedures." she eventually conceded.
"If you need any help contacting any of your outlying settlements, please feel free to relay any message through the Enterprise."
Archer said. "Do all the farms and outposts have bunkers?"
Tovan said "It is our way, Captain."
"Yes, I remember seeing them when I visited your home world. Hopefully they will not be needed, but it is a sensible precaution. Right, I'll inform my people on the Enterprise. If we learn anything more, we'll be in touch. Archer out."
As soon as the connection was cut Vrok muttered "That's not really a lot of help."
"It's a warning." Tovan said. "Without the humans we would be taken unaware."
"A warning of what?" she sneered. "That something might
happen in a few minutes, but then again it might not? And if it does happen, what will it be? Answer me that!"
The last words came out louder, harsher, than intended, and she was suddenly aware of all the Command Centre staff looking up from their work, before turning quickly back to what they had been doing. To her surprise Trex stepped closer and put a hand on her shoulder. "It's all right." he said simply. "We are all worried. Very worried"
1st December 2151.
The exercise facilities on the Enterprise were adequate for the ship's regular crew, but not for the Marines. Since landing on this planet they'd taken what opportunities they'd had for long runs and callisthenics, but, as she made her way through the forest, Trooper Grant had to admit it wasn't enough. She was breathing more heavily than she would have liked, and could feel her heart thumping. She was not unfit, not by any stretch of the imagination, but was not at the peak of physical condition she was used to. Perhaps there was some way to fix this. A new exercise regime, perhaps. Surely, if the interconnecting hatches in the Enterprise's habitation ring were propped open, there would be an effectively endless running track? And also---
A distant crack-hissss! caught her attention. Another flare going up. She glanced back over her shoulder but could see nothing, the tree canopy here too thick. Hopefully the two Denobulans had a better view, and were heading in the right direction. That she
was heading in the right direction was certain. Even without the inertial mapper in her wrist-comp, that would allow her to retrace her steps better than any trail of breadcrumbs, she could easily make out the tracks made by the expeditionary party on it's arrival.
A noise to her left, something moving through the undergrowth. Couldn't be the Denobulans, not here, not yet. They'd still be a good five minutes away, and that was assuming they matched her speed. Unlikely. She brought her rifle up as a precautionary measure. Pashmat's rifle actually, with the short barrel and under-slung launcher filled with shotgun style canister rounds. Her own sniper rifle was of little use in such close terrain so she'd left it with the others. Unwilling to trust her life to just a pistol, she'd borrowed the EM-414.
The noise turned out to be a small creature, some sort of predatory mammal, from the look of it, that scurried away from her quickly. For a split second she was transported back to her childhood, camping out with her father, the fox wandering so close she could almost touch it...
A pleasant memory, but now wasn't the time. Taking a sip of water she continued on her way.
The Ziggurat Interior.
1st December 2151.
"This had better be important." Locke growled as he reached the centre of the circular structure. "I don't appreciate having Marines order me about."
Partridge blinked in mock confusion. "I'm very sorry Doctor, there must be a misunderstanding. I told Autumn to ask you to join us, not order you. Besides," she added, beaming, "this will only take you a moment. Then you can get back to your normal routine of smoking and scowling. I see you've started the latter already."
Archer rubbed the back of his neck wearily. "We don't have much time. Professor, please show him what you've discovered."
"Oh all right." She led them over to a display. It didn't mean much to Archer, a collection of small spheres linked by dotted lines, but he was half convinced that it was a representation of a chemical compound. Sato stood next to it, comparing the hieroglyphs to the image on her pad.
After some contemplation Locke said. "That looks familiar...the basic structure at least. It would help if we knew exactly what these were." He gestured to the spheres.
"This any good?" Sato asked, handing him her pad. He took it and studied it carefully, looked back to the display, back to the pad, then once more at the display.
"Ye-es." he said eventually. "Yes. That does help. Hmm. Yes. I'm fairly sure...Yes, it's the chemical make-up of a distinct pheromone signature, as I'm sure Partridge has already told you."
She nodded. "Well, it's obvious really. But identifying the species, that's the important thing. I have my suspicions, but not enough data to be sure."
Locke glanced at her. "And that's why you wanted me? Well, I don't have the pheromone signature of every species memorised, nor am I particularly familiar with lifeforms on this planet. But then, you just wanted someone to confirm your suspicions, right?"
Partridge said "Or deny them. Either way, let's get an answer."
"An answer you shall have. As I'm sure you remember, I have been reviewing their medical data recently. Yes, this is the pheromone signature for a Denobulan."
"The pheromone signature..." Archer murmured. "Why is that important. Important to them, the Builders? Important to this place?" He gestured around them.
Partridge curled a strand of hair round one finger."I can only speculate...but..."
Sato patted her on the back. "Hey, so far your speculations have been pretty near the mark."
"Hmm-mm. OK. Remember those insects that swarmed earlier? I think they may have been imprinted some how, so they instinctively hunt for and infect anyone with these pheromones. They didn't bite any of us, remember. They might not like the taste of humans, as it were."
"Yeah, but they only got two of the Denobulans, not the rest." Archer said.
Locke nodded. "That's easily explained. From my examination of the one Corporal James supplied, I think it had only recently emerged from a dormant period. The vast majority of the swarm were probably just trying to leave the structure, not really in hunting mode. Only a few were awake enough to be aware of the Denobulans in their midst. You know, insect minds are fascinating Captain. They're practically robotic, following simple orders regardless of other factors."
A chill went down Archer's spine. "So there's a cloud of insects out there, hunting down Denobulans, waiting to infect them and turn them into those nightmarish monstrosities we saw?"
Partridge waved a hand airily. "I wouldn't worry too much Johnny. The prevailing winds will be taking that swarm we met away from the city. In fact...." She closed her eyes for a moment, muttering to herself. "Yes...there are no Denobulan buildings anywhere near the danger zone. Hmm, danger zone, sounds nice and dramatic. I must use it in conversation more...Oh no!" She suddenly reached out and grabbed Archer's arm painfully tight.
"What is it?" he asked, trying to extricate himself.
"The bus! The bus we came on! It's parked nearby! It's possible that the insects could find it and get to the two guards we left behind!"
Archer swore loudly. "Grant's heading there now. We'll contact her. If she can get them back here soon enough---" He broke off at a shout from Tucker.
"Cap'n, the power display's just shot up. It's maxed out!"
Instinctively they looked around, anticipating some calamitous event.
Locke lit a cigarette. "Somewhat anti-climactic. No boom."
"No boom today." Partridge said absently. "Boom tomorrow. There's always a boom tomorrow."
"There's a cheerful thought." Sato said.
Archer went over to Tucker. "So, no sign of any activity?"
"Nope, nothin'. In fact, 'part from the lights comin' on, there don't seem to be anythin' goin on here at all."
A nasty suspicion began to form at the back of Archer's mind. "Nothing going on here
?" he repeated.
The suspicion grew. "Can we be sure," he began cautiously, almost afraid that to voice his thoughts would bring them to reality, "can we be absolutely sure, that this display represents this
"Well what else can it....oh." Tucker trailed off. He looked at Sato, who appeared concerned, and then at Partridge who had a look of horror on her face.
In a sudden burst of activity the three began darting around the circular area, following traces on the display, examining hieroglyphs, comparing notes. After a few moments of frenzied chatter they apparently reached a conclusion, and it wasn't a happy one. Sato snarled something in a language Archer was glad he didn't understand, Partridge put her hands to her mouth, and Tucker's shoulders slumped.
"You're right Cap'n. It ain't this place at all. This here display is moniterin' the main structure, down on the plains."
The Archaeological Site.
1st December 2151.
"How close can you get us?" Lieutenant Crispin asked. He stood, grasping the back of the pilot's chair for balance, in the cockpit of the Beowulf lander. Through the transparent aluminium windscreen he had a near perfect view of the top of the ziggurat, with which they were level.
The pilot considered this carefully. "Looks like some loose earth down there, so we'll probably kick up a lot of dust, Nothing we can't handle. I don't know if that entry ramp will support our weight though. We can get right at the bottom of it, no worries. That close enough?" she asked
"Should be, we've got enough cable. Hey! You weren't kidding about the dust! I can't see a thing out there." Appearing from nowhere a thick oily cloud suddenly cut visibility to nothing.
"This isn't dust, we're not low enough for that. I'm taking us out of the crater. Hold on.".
An alarm started warbling. The systems operator flicked several switches rapidly. "We're getting contaminants in the air intakes! Nothing major but I'm closing them to make sure."
As the landing craft rose it emerged from the cloud like a submarine from the depths. "What the hell is that?" Crispin asked.
The crater was now filled with a swirling vortex of black. And even over the roar of the engines, a distant hum could be heard.
"Look" the pilot said, pointing to the windscreen. Plastered to it's surface were the bodies of several insects.
Crispin leant forward, staring into the pit. "My God, there must be millions
of them! I think we better tell the Captain!"
And below them the cloud of insects rose higher and higher, rising from the pit, where the early evening breeze blew them inevitably towards the city.