Discussion in 'Fan Fiction' started by The Badger, May 3, 2012.
I want Tipping's job.
Nothing beats a nice little hike in the great outdoors. Unless of course you are in constant danger of being attacked by a horde of vicious beasts. Well, thank god for the Marines ... and Porthos.
Good to see you writing again.
Glad to see more from you, Badger, and this latest installment was worth the wait. As always, well done, and I hope you can get more posted soon (for purely selfish reasons, I assure you ).
1st December 2151.
"Is that a vrex?" Archer asked.
Phlane smiled grimly. "Not any more it isn't."
The carcass was spread, scattered, around a small clearing. Trooper Grant had spotted it through her rifle's high powered scope, her attention drawn by the birds wheeling in the sky, half glimpsed through the gaps in the trees. Carrion eaters. Right now she prowled the clearing, reading the signs, whilst the rest of the party watched from close by. Not too close, she did not want them disturbing the tracks.
Doctor Locke took a long drag on his cigarette. "Looks like it's been ripped to shreds. Whatever did it must have possessed extraordinary physical strength. I'll know more when I can get a proper look. What do you think Partridge?"
"I think that these are very pretty flowers."
Locke rolled his eyes, and muttered something about a lack of priorities. Archer looked round, to where Partridge was crouched next to a small bush decorated with flowers. They were indeed pretty, rather like daises but with vivid purple petals. He stepped closer, dropping to his haunches next to her. "Could this be the source of that pollen you found?"
"Looks like it. There are pictures in the data files Dr. Soong gave me." She brandished her pad. "Of course, we can't be sure it was this particular plant. I'd say the odds of that are rather on the low side. But it's certainly looks like the right species."
He scratched Porthos' ear absently. "So we are in the right area then?"
"Possibly. We have no idea how far these plants spread, apart from the fact they only flourish in the mountains. On the other hand, this is the closest point to the ziggurat. The further away you go, the longer it'd take our mysterious intruders to get there."
Reed came over. "Captain," he said, trying to keep Archer between himself and Partridge, "Grant's finished her examination."
The red headed scout/sniper beckoned them over. "Two sets of tracks. Predator and prey. Ah, but which is which?" she asked in her French Canadian accent. "These tracks, a quadruped. Clawed."
"The vrex." Archer said.
She nodded. "The other, bipedal, standing upright. It enters the clearing there, yes, you see the broken branch? It is running, running fast, the vrex close behind. It gets here and climbs this tree. Look here, see where it has gripped the branch, the bark has peeled away."
Reed held his own hand up in comparison. "The fellow's got pretty big hands." he said.
"And, from these scratch marks, long hard nails. Almost claws." Grant said. "Also, from where it grasped the tree, very long limbs."
Archer grimaced. "Sounds like the thing James and Tharpa met in the tunnels. So what about the vrex? Wait, let me guess. It followed the unknown up to the tree and tried to leap up after him, causing those scratch marks up there, am I right?"
"I'd say so. From the size and weight of the vrex, I think that's about as high as it could jump. Now here---" she gestured to the ground "---we see tracks leading away. I'd think it was going to try again, with a run up. But it never got the chance."
Tucker asked "Why not?"
She pointed to two spots on the ground. "Here, and over here. Two more set's of prints. The same species as our mysterious climber, I am sure of it. Both suddenly appearing as if from nowhere, but the tracks are deep, very deep."
"Ah, clever, very clever!" exclaimed Partridge.
Archer was about to ask for an explanation when an idea hit him. He looked at the spots Grant had indicated, then upward. "They were in the trees already?"
"Precisely. While the vrex was concentrating on one of them, the others dropped down behind it and...well, see for yourself." Grant said, indicating the body.
Archer rubbed the back of his neck. "Even with the weight of numbers, plus surprise on their side, ambushing a vrex seems a very risky thing to do."
Now that they had been allowed closer, Locke had been examining the remains intently. "Far as I can tell there's a lot of flesh missing from this creature, even allowing for the effects of scavengers. I think they were using this for food. Look at this rib. See the grooves? I'd say teeth marks. And what's more I'd warrant by the same sort of teeth that messed up that Denobulan security guard." Phlane glowered at him, obviously not happy at his choice of words.
"Yes, I agree." Grant said.
"Oh wonderful. A marine agrees with me." Locke muttered. "My life is complete."
Archer held up a hand, counting points off on his fingers. "OK. So what do we know? There's at least three of them. They're carnivorous, and cunning enough to split a vrex off from the rest of it's pack, lure it into an ambush. No indications of tool use, that we know of. Physically very strong. Oh, and good climbers. Anything else?"
Corporal James said "Warm blooded, Captain. And smart enough to get spooked when the motion sensors didn't turn the lights on back in the tunnels."
"Smart 'nuff to cover it's tracks, too." Tucker added. "Placin' them barrels to hide that blood stain."
Archer sighed. They'd learnt more, but it still wasn't enough. "Grant, after they'd killed the vrex, where did they go?"
"This way sir."
She led them deeper into the woods. Here the trees grew closer together, and the undergrowth thicker. The marines maintained their defensive positions around the rest of the party, constantly scanning the surroundings with the thermal imagers built into their rifle sights and helmets. They payed especial attention to the trees. Archer was reassured by that, a fact that left him slightly disappointed in himself. Having to rely on armed personnel might be pragmatic, but offended his sense of idealism.
To his surprise the marines made little effort to be quiet. He asked Reed about it.
"No offence captain but there's really not much point. It was not too bad back there, but now we're in the thicker stuff, you and your lot are making so much noise it doesn't matter how quiet we are."
"I'm sorry if we're letting you down, Major." Archer said gravely.
"Oh I didn't mean it like that sir!" Reed blurted, before catching the amused look on Archer's face. "Well, you know what I mean. To be honest I---"
He broke off, swinging his rifle to one side as something small and brown burst out of the undergrowth. Archer had a quick impression of wings and feathers before it was gone, flitting rapidly away, the barrels of half a dozen rifles tracing it's path. Before he could relax an ear splitting high pitched shriek split the air before being suddenly curtailed. Turning he saw Partridge, her hands to her mouth and eyes wide, take a deep breath.
"Sorry." she said. "Guess I'm a bit nervous."
Corporal James moved closer. "Don't worry, Professor, we'll look after you."
"Thanks. I just wish I wasn't so easily frightened.
"When I was growing up," Corporal M'boto began, "my mother always said, if you are feeling afraid, you can raise your spirits with a song."
"Or poetry!" Sato yelped. She'd heard Partridge sing before and had no wish to repeat the experience. "You have such a wonderful speaking voice, I'll bet a poetry recital would do the trick."
Partridge thought for a moment. "Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head,
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread."
There was a short pause.
"The hell was that?" asked Trooper Tipping.
"'The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner', by Coleridge." she said, with an apologetic shrug. "It was the only thing I could think of."
"And I'm sure it lifted everyone's mood beautifully." Locke said with a chuckle, lighting a cigarette. "Shall we continue?"
As they delved deeper into the woods, Partridge let out an exasperated grunt and slapped at her scanner pack. "It'd be a lot better if this were working. At least I could run some environmental scans, keep my mind occupied. It's ironic really. Because it's intended for scientific study, this uses active scans, so it's being knocked out by whatever it is that's causing the sensor disruption. Meanwhile all the military stuffs working fine."
"Most of the military stuff." M'boto corrected. "We do have some active scan systems, and they're non-functional. All the passives seem OK though."
Tipping said "Seem OK? Don't jinx it, man!"
"Could you use our equipment for your studies, ma'am?" M'boto asked.
"Some of it, maybe. Not enough to make a difference, I think. Besides, at the moment I'd much rather you guys used it to keep us safe." She pulled on an earlobe. "I've been thinking of putting together something, to combine a scanner with a micro computer and a multi-media recorder. Some sort of tri-scanner, or tri-puter, or...whatever. If I ever get round to it I'll be sure to include some dedicated passive scanning elements."
"Could be useful." Archer said. "Juggling multiple pieces of equipment during a survey is always a pain...hold on, looks like we've got something."
In the vanguard, Grant had stopped. She half turned and waved him forward. "Could this be what we are looking for, captain?" she asked, a touch of irony in her voice.
"It could be, yes." he admitted, staring through the trees at the unmistakable form of a second ziggurat.
These guys better make sure they don't end up like that vrex and turn from the hunter to the hunted. Whatever these things are, they are smart, fast and powerful. This is going to get hairy, real soon.
Looking forward to it.
Good to have you back, Badger. I really enjoyed the last two chapters for their interpersonal interactions and the details about the surrounding nature. I'm looking forward to the next installment. A second ziggurat - that sounds quite exciting and mysterious.
1st December 2151.
The ziggurat was not identical to the one on the plains. It was considerably smaller, standing, to Archer's estimate, only some three or four stories in height. Unlike the purplish grey stone that the larger one was constructed from this was....No, Archer realized, looking closer. This was made from the same stone, but layers of moss and mulch from fallen leaves had given it a sickly greenish brown appearance. He looked round. The ziggurat was located in a bowl shaped depression, surrounded by high trees with wide spreading branches. Without the benefits of active sensor scans it would be almost impossible to spot from the air. Small wonder no one had discovered it before.
"How's it look, Grant?" Reed asked, drifting up behind them.
"Lot's of hot spots Major." she said, slowly swinging her rifle around. "Very small though. Birds, small mammals."
"There might still be vrex around." Phlane warned.
Archer pointed to his dog. "Porthos doesn't think so. Alright. Mr Reed, you and your people secure the area please. Hoshi, get on the blower to Enterprise, let 'em know what we found. Once you've done that, tell Governor Trex, I'm sure he'd be interested. Professor, this looks like the time for science stuff, so I'll leave that in your capable hands. Everyone else, take five, get some chow down your necks, and try not to get in the way."
He forced himself to take his own advice. The urge to get over there, to investigate for himself, was palpable. But he knew enough to leave things alone at this stage, there was little he could contribute right now. Instead he eased off his backpack and looked round. Finding a fairly clean place to sit, he selected a ration pack, opened the outer bag, removed the cutlery and other accessories, and pulled the initiator tag. He then carefully placed it on the ground. While waiting for it to heat he opened a pouch of dog food. Porthos wolfed it down in seconds.
"I swear I don't know where you put it all. Seems like you must eat twice your body weight each day." he grinned. Pulling a thermos from his back pack he poured himself a large coffee and sat back to savour it. By the time he'd finished the red circle on the ration pack had turned green, indicating the meal was now cooked. Gingerly, for it was very hot, he picked up the pack by the corners of the unopened end, tipping it so the inner bag slipped free. He unsealed it, picked up the plastic spoon, and dug in. Chilli con carne, hot in both the meanings of the word. "No, Porthos. No! You are not having any! You know the effect it has on you."
"And we don't want that. Although it's better here than on the ship. Here at least you can go stand up wind of him." Sato said, sitting next to Archer. "I've informed the Enterprise. It's all quiet at their end."
"Good. And Herroton City?"
Sato hesitated. "Not so good. The power is still out. There are signs it may be eating into the emergency reserves."
"That can't be right." Phlane exclaimed. She irritably swatted away a flying insect. "There should be enough reserve power for a full day."
Sato shrugged apologetically. "That's what I was told, ma'am."
Archer finished his meal, then pocketed a few of the items from the accessory pack. A few snacks, a bottle of fruit juice, varied condiments and some toilet paper. The cutlery went into the inner bag, which was then wrapped tightly in the outer one. He stood, stamped a hole into the soft earth with his heel, put the bags in, then kicked soil over them.
Phlane looked shocked. "Surely you're not going to just leave that there?"
"Biodegradable." Archer explained. "Once the outer packet's been opened and the heating compound triggered, the whole thing should decay naturally in a few weeks. Even the cutlery."
"Hmm. That's alright then. I suppose."
"Well it beats lugging all your litter back home again. Hoshi, get yourself something to eat. Judging from all that activity over there they've found something. I'm going to have a look. C'mon, Porthos."
The marines had indeed found something. On the opposite side of the structure there was a large rectangular panel, made of the same material as the rest of it, but considerably cleaner. It lay flush with the rest of the ziggurat. Fallen leaves, in varied states of decay, were gathered around it's base. What looked, at least to Archer's eye, to be the same tracks they had seen earlier, seemed to lead directly to and from that panel. He considered the idea that the creatures had climbed the structure at this point, but that didn't make much sense. The panel was flat, with little purchase. It would be much easier to climb elsewhere, where the blocks were practically steps.
Then it hit him. "Those tracks...they don't lead up at all, do they?"
"No Captain." Reed said. He gestured to Corporal James, then the panel.
James nodded, raised her rifle, and walked steadily forward. "Did you hear Tipping where you were Captain? Screamed like a little girl the first time this happened."
Any comment Tipping may have made was inaudible under the grinding sound that followed. The panel tilted back so the topmost point was now depressed a good half metre. Then the whole panel slid steadily upwards. A few stray leaves slid from it's surface, joining the piles below. Just enough sunlight penetrated the interior to reveal more mulch festering within. The tracks continued into the darkness, clearly the creatures had passed through here. As the panel---a door, Archer now realized---continued up he noticed it's bottom had the same tooth like protuberances as the main door at the other site, with corresponding depressions in the floor below.
"We found it by accident." Reed said. "We were scouting around, Grant followed the tracks, that thing opened up, Tipping screamed---"
"I did not scream." Tipping insisted. "I was vocalising to centre my chi. Preparing mind, body and spirit for combat."
Reed ignored him. "As soon as we moved away, it closed again."
"Has anyone been inside yet?" Archer asked.
"No sir, observations from outside only. Far as we can make out, there's a tunnel about three metres long, then what looks like a flight of stairs leading down. Nothing else as far as we can tell."
"Sir? There is something...odd." said James. "Tharpa, keep an eye on things." Only when the wiry Gurkha was covering the entrance did she lower her own rifle. She pulled off her glove, licked a finger tip and held it up. "There's a faint breeze, coming from inside."
Archer stepped closer and held up his own hand. "You're right. Surprisingly warm, considering what the rest of the tunnels are like."
"Almost balmy." Partridge agreed, moving up next to them. She had removed a glove and was waving an interrogative finger. "We might not need our cold weather gear after all."
"Well, better safe than sorry. I'm taking mine." James said, watching Partridge replace her glove. "Excuse me asking, Professor, but just why do you wear gloves? I mean, all the time."
"Partially it's because I like them. Somewhere along the line I rather got the idea that they're elegant and sophisticated. But mainly," she added, with surprising candour, "I don't like my hands. I mean, they're not ugly or anything. They're just not as spectacular as the rest of me."
"Oh." James said, for lack of anything more constructive to say. She took Partridge's now gloved hand and closely examined the wrist. "OK, the other thing I've meant to ask. How are they attached to your sleeves? There's no seam or fastening that I can see."
Partridge pinched a spot at her wrist, twisted slightly, and pulled. A hint of pale flesh showed in the subsequent gap. "Nano-level fasteners reinforced by a low level magna adhesion field. A little something I worked out one afternoon." She brushed the material back into place, the gap fading totally from view. "I use the same fastening for getting into this outfit. There's a few others, too. So I can, you know, answer calls of nature."
Archer tensed up. He knew what was coming next. There was an overwhelming, monumental inevitability about it. He should speak up, try to stop it, but it would be like arguing with a glacier and expecting it to retreat. The idea was out there now, in their heads. If he stopped the question now they'd only ask it later, when he wasn't around. Best to let it pass, get it out of the way.
"Don't your, pardon me asking, Professor, but don't your undies get in the way?" asked Sandstrom, the heavy weapons man, with nervous fascination.
An amused eyebrow slithered up Partridge's forehead. "You're making rather an assumption there, aren't you?" There was a slight whimper from the marine as he contemplated this.
Archer cleared his throat noisily. "If everybody's quite finished, we should plan our next step."
Reed gestured into the entrance. "If we're going in there we ought to leave a party up here, to keep an eye on things. Also, assuming we have the same problems as elsewhere, we should have a communications post here. Perhaps Lt. Sato...?"
The Captain shook his head emphatically. "Hoshi's the only one of us with any hope of reading those hieroglyphics. I've a feeling that'll be important if we want to figure out what the hell is going on."
Reed inclined his head. "OK. Trooper Pashmat will set up a comms post. I'll leave Sandstrom and Delany with him for additional security. Those two giants would find it tricky in the tunnels. And I can tell from Red's puppy dog eyes she'd rather stay here too."
"Not my sort of terrain down there." Grant admitted.
"You have seniority, Red, how d'you want to play it?" Reed asked.
"I'd like as many seismic sensors as you can spare." she said. "We'll scatter them around the clearing, maybe even a few in the trees. If there's any more of those creatures about, I'd like a bit of warning."
Corporal M'boto had several seismic sensors with him. They looked to Archer rather like grey plastic tent pegs, with flat disks at the top. When the peg part was pressed into the ground the top gradually changed hue to fit in with it's surroundings. As a precaution the marines scattered bits of grass and leaves over them as well.
As they were doing that Partridge approached Archer from behind. "Look at this, John."
He turned, stepping back in slight alarm as she was carrying James' rifle. "Err...you've found something?"
"A thought occurred. Autumn let me borrow her gun, to test the idea. I only needed the sight, but it'd be a bit inconvenient to keep whipping the thing on and off. Here." She handed him the rifle, absently wiping her hands on her coat as if she'd been handling something very unpleasant. "Take a look at the ziggurat, about two thirds up."
He squinted through the sight. "What am I looking...ah. Interesting." The view through the sight was brightly, and falsely, coloured, the word 'THERMAL' in squared off brackets pulsing in the top right corner. Numbers and abbreviations he didn't recognise danced across his vision. He tried to ignore them. The ziggurat was a dark blue, but a fine green mist seeped from four equally spaced points at the height Partridge had mentioned.
"Oi! Trip! Get over here!" Partridge bellowed.
"'Sup?" Tucker asked, approaching. He was eating a chocolate bar from a ration pack.
Archer handed him the rifle and gestured. "What do you make of that?" he asked, before screwing his eyes shut tight and shaking his head. Peering through sights, telescopes, any thing like that always gave him a headache.
"Looks like a bit o' warm air's gettin' out." Tucker said. "An' from the spacin', I reckon that's on purpose. There's holes up there to let it out."
"We had a look at that side." Partridge said, pointing. "There are more round there. Same height, same spacing."
"Curiouser and curiouser." said Archer. "Now are they to let something in, or let something out?"
"Would a closer look help?" James asked. At Partridges nod she turned to Reed. "Major, I'm just having a look up there." And with that she trotted to the base of the ziggurat, and started to climb.
"Careful!" Partridge called. Despite the stepped nature of the structure the coating of fallen leaves looked rather slippery.
M'boto, placing a seismic sensor nearby, smiled reassuringly. "Not to worry, professor. She's mountain warfare trained, a very good climber."
"At her height, she has to be, just to get up stairs." Tipping added.
James quickly swarmed up to the nearest hole, watched it intently for a few seconds, then just as rapidly descended. As she approached she unspooled a cable from her wrist comp, which she plugged into Partridge's pad. "You've got a bigger screen on there, you'll see better."
The helmet camera image revealed a small square hole leading deep into the interior. It was, quite obviously, designed to be there. More interestingly a row of depressions on the bottom surface just inside hinted to another feature. "I'll bet good money there's another slab o' rock in there, that can close off that hole if need be." Tucker said.
"Yes, but why?" Partridge asked.
Archer shrugged. "We're not going to find our hanging around here. Malcolm? Are your people ready?"
"Yes captain. Pashmat's got the comm post set up, and Grant's happy with the sensors."
"OK." He took a deep breath, let it out slowly. "Right. Let's see what's down there."
Thanks for the new chapter, Badger. I look forward to reading it when I get back from work this afternoon.
Another good chapter - a good setup for the action no doubt to follow when the team heads underground. Nice work, and as always, looking forward to more from you.
And into the darkness we go once more. Curious to learn what we'll find down there.
Also, a chapter wouldn't be complete without learning a little more about naughty Professor Partridge. Oh her attire. Or the of lack it.
1st December 2151.
A faint dizziness passed over Archer as he entered the ziggurat. At first he attributed it to the odour of the decaying vegetation scattered around the threshold, but that didn't seem right. The aroma, whilst unpleasant, was not that strong. He turned to see Sato following him in. As she did so she staggered slightly, putting a hand to her temple. He reached out to steady her, pulling her deeper into the construct. "Watch yourselves." he warned the others. "There seems to be something odd happening as you come in. It's like that distortion effect at the main entrance, only not as strong."
"A lower powered version of the same frequency." Partridge said, running her scanner around the door. "Probably due to the smaller size of this building. Should have anticipated that."
Locke followed with a grimace. "I thought you said that gadget of yours was useless."
"I may have exaggerated for dramatic effect. Are you OK, Hoshi?"
Sato took a deep breath. "Better, thanks. I wonder why it affects me worse than anyone else?"
"Maybe some people are more susceptible." Partridge mused.
Locke added "Lt. Sato's family has a history of epilepsy, though she is not afflicted. Perhaps that makes her more sensitive to these electromagnetic fields."
Partridge nodded. "That's certainly feasible. And isn't that sort of information covered by patient confidentiality?"
Locke just waved a dismissive hand.
Archer turned to Reed. "Alright, Malcolm, how do you want to play this?"
"If we had a choice, I'd like to go as stealthily as possible. My people only, covert patrols into the interior."
"But we don't have a choice?"
"No sir. Covert takes time, and with the situation deteriorating in Herroton city...There's no way we can search even a fraction of this place quickly enough, not quietly, not with...excuse my saying so Captain, but---"
"Not with all us amateurs tagging along? No worries Malcolm, I know what you mean. So what do you recommend?"
Reed said "A similar arrangement to how we did things out there. Except we have our CQC experts...that's Close Quarters Combat, take the point position. If we can keep the Marines around everyone else, that should provide plenty of protection. Hopefully."
"I would have enjoyed your speech much more," Partridge said, "if you had not included that last word."
The flight of stairs at the end of the corridor led down to a large empty room. Their flash lights revealed it to be perfectly square, with a narrow corridor leading off each side wall, and a much wider one leading off into the darkness, in the wall directly opposite the stairs. Reed had his men cover the passageways in case anyone, or anything, came through. Once he was satisfied he sent Corporal James and Trooper Tharpa to investigate the right corridor. They returned within a minute. The corridor ended in a small, featureless room.
As they checked the opposite corridor a message came over the LOSIR communications link. "Greyhound One, this is Trap One. Do you receive me?"
"I can hear you without the LOSIR link, Pashmat." Reed said. "We're only at the bottom of the bloody stairs. What's up?"
"Sir, Red's been examining the tracks. She says she can only make out three distinct tracks, the three we were following. And from the looks of things they all went into the structure within the last twelve to eighteen hours."
"Understood. Greyhound One out."
Partridge shivered. "Oh great. So we're now certain they're down here with us."
"There may be other ways in and out." Sergeant Woo suggested.
"And there may be hundreds of those things down here. Thousands. Oh, why ever did I come along? Oh, that's right, it's because I'm indispensable"
Locke muttered darkly under his breath.
Archer ran a finger inside his collar, loosening it. It really was quite warm in here. His brow furrowed in thought and he turned to the nearest marine. "Mr M'boto, could you use your rifle's scope to find out where all this heat is coming from?"
"Thermal scan coming right up, Captain." The answer came quickly. "There sir, near the ceiling. And...there, too. In fact..." His voice trailed off.
In the half light it had been difficult to see, but now it had been pointed out to him Archer could make out the narrow rectangular openings just below the ceiling. There were four on each wall, equally spaced. Reed walked to the nearest one and extended the probe from his wrist computer. The night vision sensor at the tip provided an image for his helmet's head up display. "Looks like the shaft those creatures James and Tharpa met escaped through."
"What does?" James asked as they returned.
Whilst Reed explained, Partridge circled the centre of the room, torch beam directed upwards. "Johnny, come look at this." Her torch highlighted a smaller square hole in the ceiling.
He cast his own beam around. "More of them. Four...eight...twelve...and sixteen. That looks to be it."
"Judging from their size and shape, and the number...plus the relative position both to each other and the structure itself, I'd say these lead up to those holes we found on the outside. Thermal vents, to dissipate heat."
Archer rubbed the back of his neck. But what could be creating the heat?"
"Now that's a good question."
"Here's another good question fo'ya." Tucker said, approaching. "What's wrong wi' this room?"
Archer and Partridge looked around. After a few moments Partridge shrugged.
"OK, let me rephrase that. What's missin' from this room? No? I'll tell ya. 'Member the upper levels o' the main structure? Packed tight full o' earth, exceptin' where the archeologists had dug it out. But here...clean as a whistle, practically."
He was right. Apart from the dirt trail at the entrance, the room was clear. "Do you think that's significant?" Archer asked.
Partridge and Tucker exchanged glances. "Mebbe. Mebbe not." the engineer stated. "Not got 'nuff data to make a call yet."
"It is interesting though." Partridge said. "But we're not going to...what's that?"
With a sudden droning hum a cloud of insects swarmed into the chamber through the wide passageway, filling the room as they swirled. Instinctively the explorers ducked, covering their heads against the tide. Then, just as rapidly, they were gone, pouring upwards into the vertical shafts.
"Ack! Bugs!" Sato spat, vigorously clawing at her hair to ensure she had no unwelcome guests.
"Actually," Partridge said, in the somewhat shrill tones that happened whenever she was rattled, "they may not have been. The term 'bug' is not synonymous with insect. Strictly speaking a bug must have mouth parts adapted for piercing and sucking. On Earth, they'd typically be of the order Hemiptera. And I'm sorry Hoshi, but you already know this of course. You're good with words."
"They were bugs." Phlane said, rubbing her cheek and grimacing. "Trust me on that."
Locke approached her. "Let me see." he said, opening his med. kit.
Archer looked round. "Has any one else been bit?" He bent down to check on Porthos.
Krengel, one of the Denobulan guards, had a bite to the back of his hand, whilst Cross of the Marines had a teary eye, apparently the result of one of the insects flying into it. "That'll teach me to keep my visor up." she said ruefully.
"Anything you need, Phil?" Archer asked.
"Peace and quiet." Locke said simply, examining Phlane's bite.
"I'll leave you to it then. Malcolm, while we're waiting, let's check out that main corridor."
"Yes sir." Reed selected a handful of Marines to accompany them, the rest remaining to guard this room. Partridge elected to stay where she was, while Sato and Tucker decided to tag along.
After a few metres the corridor began to slope steeply downwards, before opening up into a far larger chamber, big enough to swallow the beams of their powerful flash lights. The floor only extended a couple of metres or so into the room before being replaced by a gaping chasm. A sense of deja vu struck Archer, the conviction he'd been here before. Then he realized what it was. "It's just like in the main structure. The vertical shaft where the archaeologists rigged up their elevator system." he said, being careful to keep Porthos away from the edge.
"Not 'zactly the the same." Tucker said, playing his torch beam along the stony ceiling. "That shaft went up as well as down. Looks like we're at the top here. But if'n we look to the side....no, well mebbe t'other side...yeah, steps leadin' down. Wonder how far it goes?"
"A little over sixty metres, sir." Reed said, peering down into the abyss through his rifle's scope. "Nothing on thermal. There's just enough ambient light from our torches for the night sight to work. Looks clear all the way down, the stairs go all the way, no obvious breaks or collapsed areas. At the bottom, a squarish area, no significant features except a corridor on the north wall. No evidence of hostile presence. At least, not from this angle."
Archer rubbed the back of his neck thoughtfully. "Will the LOSIR beacons transmit over that distance?"
It was Sato who answered. "No, but we've got options. LOSLAS, the Line Of Sight Laser system." She unfastened a belt pouch and pulled out a dark grey object the size of a thick paperback. "We leave one up here, with the emitter array poking over the edge, attach a LOSIR beacon into this port, make sure it's got a clear view of the last LOSIR beacon. Then, when we get down there, set up another one, and make sure they can see each other. Hey presto, working comms."
"Sounds good, get it set up. I'll go get the others."
Reed ordered "Tipping, keep an eye on the Captain."
"I don't need my hand held Malcolm, It's just a short trip up the corridor."
Reed looked grave. "That may be so sir, but, I don't know if you noticed, there were more of those ventilation shafts or thermal vents or whatever they are back there. And we know the creatures can move through them."
That gave Archer pause for thought, and as he returned to the entrance chamber he paid considerably more attention to his surroundings. Now he knew what to look for he could spot them quite easily. The archaeologists at the main site knew about them of course, but lacking the facilities to probe deeper within had been unable to discover anything of significance. They'd had a working hypothesis that they could be for ventilation, but were holding off making a decision about their purpose until they had more data. The discovery that there were creatures travelling through the shafts had shocked and upset them. After all, they'd all been down in the tunnels, often alone, despite the rules. The idea of an unseen hunter potentially tracking them was not a pleasant one.
Locke was washing out Cross' eye when he returned. Rather than disturb him he waited patiently until sure the procedure was finished. "How are things, Doctor?"
"She'll live." Locke grunted, as if that prospect mildly offended him. "So will those two, it was only a---Stop scratching it! You'll only make it worse!" The latter was directed at the Denobulan, Krengel, who guiltily stopped scrabbling at the back of his hand.
"Any chance of infection?"
"There's always a chance. But I've got the bites cleaned out and sealed, and I've given them inaprovaline plus broad spectrum anti-histamine. I don't foresee any problems but will keep them under observation. Now have you found anything of interest down there, or did you just take the opportunity to abandon that mass of clod-hopping jar heads?"
"A pit, like the one at the main site. Not as deep though. There's stairs leading down."
By the time they got all their equipment together and got to the chamber with the chasm, James and Tharpa were already half way down. "I thought it'd save time to send a scouting party first," Reed said, "so I picked the most expendable ones."
James' voice drifted faintly up to them. "I heard that."
"How are things going so far?" Archer asked.
"So far so good." Reed replied. He aimed a small pen shaped laser painter down into the pit and triggered a yellow beam. A moment later a green light shone in the darkness, a matching spot dancing across the ceiling. "Yeah, they're fine."
Sato stood from where she had been crouched by the edge. "Right, that's the LOSLAS relay set up at this end. As soon as the scouts get the other end set up we can follow them down there."
"And that" said Tip Tucker, "is when the fun really begins."
Another interesting chapter - where does it lead? Whatever will happen to our heroes?
Tune in next week for another amazing chapter....
The Ziggurat Interior.
1st December 2151.
There were no handrails guarding the side of the stairs, but they were wide enough to descend without straying too close to the edge. Only two members of the expedition had any difficulty with them: Porthos, whom Archer carried tucked under his arm for safety, and---perhaps inevitably---Professor Partridge, who included heights amongst the very long list of things she was afraid of. At this revelation Sato started to say "What? In those heels?", but she trailed off with the realization that Partridge was wearing sensibly flat hiking boots instead of the usual stilettos.
With Tucker at her side for security she eventually made her way down. "Pacifist or not, if some one tells me that corridor's a dead end and we have to go back up, then I'll eviscerate them."
"I was going to tell you something about that corridor," Corporal James said, "but I think I'll let Tipping tell you instead. Nah, I'm joking. It goes on for a couple of hundred metres, sloping slightly down, and ends in what looks like one of those automatic doors. Of course, we've only been looking with these," she tapped her rifle's scope, "so we can't be sure it'll open."
"It better open." Archer said as he approached. He handed Tucker a pad. "Latest message from the city. Confirmation that it's not just a power blackout. The energy reserves are somehow being drained as well."
Tucker was incredulous. "What? How's that even possible? Let's look at that..."
"If there was something interfering with the power broadcast system," Partridge mused thoughtfully, "that would explain the blackouts. But not an energy drain..."
"Unless..." Tucker started. He prodded at the pad, calling up the data his engineering team had included in the report. "Lookit this. All the buildin's in the city are loosin' power. But some more than others. Mostly it's the places that need a lotta power. The Command Centre, the hospital, the labs..."
"So this could be a targeted attack." Reed said.
"Huh. Hadn't thought o' that. It's possible," Tucker conceded, "but I kinda think it might all be down to simple engineerin'."
Archer said "The places with the greatest energy needs have the biggest receivers for the broadcast system."
"Got it in one, cap'n. An' under the right conditions, a receiver can act like a transmitter. Hey, Hoshi. Can we use our communicators this far down?"
She nodded. "Normally no, but I've set it up so that, if you're in range of either the LOSLAS relay or one of the marines, our communicators will be automatically routed through the LOSIR net to the Coms post on the surface."
"Thanks. I got an idea." Tucker flipped open his communicator, tapped in a code. "I've no idea if'n it'd work, but it's---Crispin? It's the boss here. You monitorin' the drain? Yeah? Where are you? Yeah, that should do. Listen. I want you to deactivate the energy receiver. That's right. Turn it off, right off. OK, anythin'? No? OK, try disconectin' it. No no, completely. I'll wait."
He did wait, but not for long. After about a minute Crispin was back on the line, having unplugged the receiver, excitedly announcing that the drain had ceased. "Good work, good work. Now listen. Get onta Gov'nor Trex, tell him to have all the receivers disconnected 'cross the city. It won't get the power back on, but it'll stop it from bein' all drained away."
Before he could flip the communicator shut, Partridge grabbed it from him. "And tell him to leave it attached in at least one building, somewhere unimportant. That way they'll know when the power comes back on again."
"If it comes back on again." Locke muttered as Tucker closed the line.
"It's our job to make sure it does." Archer said. "Without power life's going to get very hard for those colonists very quickly. So unless anyone has any urgent business right here, I suggest we go look at that door."
It got steadily colder as they traversed the sloped corridor. Whatever the reason for the heating in the upper chamber, they had left it behind them. Soon their breath could be seen as faint clouds of vapour in the torch light. Archer fastened his jacket tightly, glad they had brought the cold weather gear. and turned the collar up.
Despite her earlier misgivings Partridge suddenly chuckled. "Hey, Trip, you know what this reminds me of?"
Tucker looked around. "Can't say that I do."
"All those night's we spent at Rodney's, back in uni. Staying up till three in the morning playing Dungeons & Dragons. Mysterious pyramids, dark underground tunnels....this takes me right back."
"You played Dungeons & Dragons?" Archer asked his Chief Engineer, trying to repress a smirk.
Tucker looked embarrassed. "Just for a little while. The revival was a bit of a craze with the students, y'know, and I got sorta pulled into it."
Partridge said "For three years. Honestly Trip, don't worry about seeming uncool. I was playing D&D, so that makes it cool by association."
"Yeah, right." Tucker drawled. "I suppose you made bein' a Goth cool as well."
It was hard to tell in the torchlight, but it seemed to Archer that a near panic flashed across Partridge's features before she adopted a poker face Sato would have envied. "I don't know what you mean. I was never a Goth."
There was a moment of silence, broken, eventually, by Tucker. "Right. Riiiight. My mistake. You were never a Goth. Got it."
"Good. Glad that's cleared up."
They continued a moment longer. Tucker caught Sato's eye and winked. "Never a goth. Guess I musta been thinkin' of someone else. That's it. I 'member now. It was durin' that six, maybe seven month you just up an' disappeared from the university. Gone without a trace. An' in your place, there was a woman who looked, you know, kinda a whole lot like you. Same height, same shape..."
"The same shape as the Professor?" Corporal James asked, intrigued.
"Oh yeah, looked almost 'zactly the same. 'Ceptin', o' course, this woman had jet black hair, with blue an' purple streaks. Dressed like she were goin' to a Victorian funeral."
"Trip..." Partridge said softly.
"An' she was smart, too." Tucker went on, enjoying himself. "Took over all the research an' lecturin' an experiments an' stuff Polly was doin'. An' still had time to write some pretty awful poetry."
"You said you..." Partridge began, before trying to cover it up in a fit of coughing.
An unexpectedly cheerful Doctor Locke asked "Sore throat?" She responded with incoherent grumbling.
"So...did this woman have a name?" Sato asked.
"Oh yes." Tucker waited, stringing the moment out, until he was sure everyone was listening. "Phoenix. She were called Miss Persephone Phoenix."
Someone snorted, the sound of a barely suppressed laugh. Partridge glared daggers at Tucker. "Right..." she started.
"Looks like we're getting close to the door." Archer said, cutting her off. "Malcolm, I think a scouting party is in order. The rest of us will wait here."
"Yes sir. Everyone douse your lights, we do this with night vision only until I'm sure the area is secured. Tipping, Cross, Priest and Dumont, stay here and keep an eye on the party. Everyone else with me, by the numbers."
Before turning his flashlight off Archer sat and dug a pair of night vision goggles out of his pocket. They were his own private property, a present from his dad. During one of his earliest planetary surveys he'd been attempting to observe the habits of a group of nocturnal mammals, but the UESPA issue NVG projected a bright green glow onto the area around the eyes. He stood out like the proverbial sore thumb, and the creatures had ran whenever he approached. He'd put in an official complaint about them on his return to Earth, but the bureaucracy moved slowly and that design was still in use. Henry Archer had got him this set soon after, the best civilian model available.
With the goggles on the corridor seemed more brightly lit than it had in the torchlight, though it faded into inky blackness as he looked back the way they had came. The most obvious sources of illumination were the emitters on the shoulder plates of each marine's body armour. The inbuilt light sources at the end of each rifle also shone out into the dark. They were so bright it was hard to believe they would be invisible to the naked eye. Yet that was driven home as he looked at those around him, apart from those with goggles, he seemed surrounded by the blind. Porthos whined softly, so Archer picked him up and stroked his head.
The scouting party approached the doorway. With his communicator off, and no direct link to the LOSIR net, he couldn't make out what was being said. Fascinatingly, he could spot the tiny flashes of infra red as the coded signals were sent back and forth. Reed lifted an arm, then swept it forward. Two of the Marines, James and Tharpa, to judge from their stature, approached the door. With a grating noise it slid up into the ceiling.
"What's that?" Partridge asked shrilly.
Archer explained "The door's opening, which is a relief. Malcolm and his people are going inside now."
"As long as there is nothing nasty coming out I'm happy. I'm not really suited for facing monsters. Well, not without a mithril chain-mail bikini and a plus three longsword of smiting." She dug in her pockets for her brown paper bag and offered it round. "Anyone fancy some licorice? Johnny? Trip? Hoshi?"
Sato took a pipe. "Thanks."
"Hold on a second." Archer said. "Hoshi, how did you find the bag in the dark?"
"Well, I guess my eyes must have adjusted..." She trailed off, looking around in surprise.
Tucker said "She's right Captain. Should be pitch black down here, but I can jus' make things out. It's all a big blur, but still..." He got to his feet, looking around.
Archer slipped his goggles onto his forehead, but could see nothing at all. His own eyes were still adapted to the bright display of the night vision gear.
"It's the ceiling." Partridge said. "It's glowing faintly."
"Are you sure? I can't make that out." Sato said.
"It's too diffuse to make out directly, but if you look back the way we came it looks like a sort of luminous trail going off into the distance."
A short pause. "Oh yeah."
"There's never been anything like this at the main site." Phlane said. "Or at least, if there has, it's never been reported."
"No." Archer said, rubbing the back of his neck thoughtfully. I think we now know where the power from the city is going. It's coming here. This place is...for want of a better term...it's waking up."
Ok, I want a visual of Polly in her mithril chain-mail bikini with her +3 longsword of smiting, and I want it NOW!!!!
D&D? Really? I would have figured her to be more of a LARPer.
Exploring a dark, underground, tomb-like structure is creepy enough, but you're really giving this place a nice mystic feel which adds to the tension of a possible threat around every corner.
The levity between Polly and the others is a nice little addition which is exactly how people would react in such a high pressure situation.
And now it seems something ancient (and maybe evil) has been awoken. Gonna be fun.
I can't give you that I'm afraid, but here's something similar. Not quite NSFW, but I'll post a link rather than the pic. just in case.
Very nice. it's not Polly of course, but it's still very nice.
The Ziggurat Interior.
1st December 2151.
Archer's communicator whistled for attention. He flipped it open. "Archer."
"Reed here. We've secured the chamber, if you want to come on through."
The Captain stood. "Will do. What's in there?"
There was a short pause. "I think you should see this for yourself."
"Very well, we're on our way. Out." He flipped the communicator shut. "Isn't he supposed to actually tell me stuff when I ask? I'm sure I read that some where."
"We've all been on the ship with Polly too long." said Tucker, climbing to his feet. "Her sense o' melodrama is contagious."
It was now just bright enough to see without the flash lights, though they kept them on, just in case. Archer led them towards the doorway. Steiger, one of the marines, was waiting by the open door. He saluted as they approached. "Major Reed says you're to go right in."
Archer felt his jaw drop as they passed through. Although still quite dark, the chamber beyond was clearly huge, and looked to be hexagonal in shape. It was, he estimated, about the size of a football field, at least. It was also some three stories high. A wide stair case, again without handrails, led down to the floor. From his vantage point he could see other doorways, like the one he'd just come through, one to each wall.
Curiously, the chamber was filled with a series of concentric walls, coming up to about head height. They looked to be made of the same grey stone overlaid with polymer as the rest of the structure. The walls were not continuous, wide gaps allowed passage between them. It looked like a very simple maze. Something about their placement reminded him of Stonehenge, the same sense of ancient purpose. He could see the marines moving around the walls, looking very small from here.
"Whoah." Tucker said softly, besides him.
"Yeah." Archer replied, unable to think of anything more useful. He kept a firm grip on Porthos' leash, the little dog straining in an attempt to rush down the stairs. Carefully, he descended.
"Great, more stairs with no hand rail." Partridge moaned. "Who designed this place, the Galactic Empire?"
Locke rubbed his forehead wearily. "I can't believe you are still scared! What's wrong with you?"
"Yeah." added Trooper Tipping. "I thought you scientist types were all supposed to get caught up in scientific curiosity, and not even notice any thing else. Well, that's what I read."
"Where did you read that?" Partridge asked shrilly, shuffling carefully from step to step.
"Errr...'The Lost World' by H.G. Wells."
"Ah, you suprise me Mr Tipping, you are far more literate than I gave you credit for. But to address your statement, I must point out that both Challenger and Summerlee possessed two advantages over myself. First, they were fictional, and as such only afraid when it suited the purposes of the narrative. And secondly, they were both male, and thus could only contemplate one thing at a time. I'm a woman. I can multi-task. Scientific curiosity and abject terror, simultaneously? Easy."
By this time they had reached the lower level, where Reed approached them. "Captain, the room is secured, but I recommend no one goes any where without one of my people with them."
"I think some of us can look after ourselves." Phlane said, patting her carbine.
"Yes ma'am." Reed said diplomatically, and rapidly changed the subject. "Commander Tucker. I wonder if you could help us with a little problem? That door---" he gestured back up the stairs, "---shuts itself if there's no one nearby. I've got Steiger up there as a sort of door stop. Foolish really, I should have got Tipping to do that. He'd be useful for once. Anyway, the problem is, if it shuts, we lose our line of sight communications with the outside, and I'd rather avoid that."
"Yep, I can have a look at that."
As Tucker trotted back up the stairs, Reed turned to Sato. "Ma'am, there's some thing you really should see. If you examine this...structure..."
"Hieroglyphs!" Sato exclaimed. The picture-words covered the nearest of the free standing walls. They seemed to be on the others, at least as far as could be seen. "Oh, I wish Carl were here, He'd love this."
For a split second Archer wondered who Carl was, before remembering the missing Dr Halliwell. He was ashamed to admit that he'd rather forgotten about him with everything else that was happening. Fortunately Sato didn't seem to pick up on his mood. "Can you read them?" he asked.
"Parts of it, certainly." She tapped her pad. "I've got the beginnings of a translation matrix here, we just need a bit more raw data and then we can make some real pro---"
"Everybody down!" Reed hissed suddenly, dropping to one knee and bringing his rifle to his shoulder. He cocked his head slightly, in a manner Archer recognised as listening to his tactical communications net. Around the chamber, the other marines adopted similar poses, weapons at the ready, alert for any danger. Archer knelt, putting his hand to his side arm but not drawing it. Sato had no such reservations, readying her gun in the approved manner, as did Doctor Locke. Phlane and the other two Denobulans not only raised their carbines, they positioned themselves so they could look around with no blind spots.
After several long seconds Reed visibly relaxed. "Right, understood. Carry on" he said into the communications net. He stood and turned to Archer. "Sorry about that sir. M'boto thought he saw movement, but there's nothing there. Bit of a false alarm. Still, no harm done."
"No harm done? No harm done!" exclaimed Partridge, who emerged from her hiding place behind Sato and under Porthos. "It's bad enough down here as it is without you messing about! Oh, I'm sure you think it a jolly jape to scare the civilians, but that sort of thing really isn't on. Here we are, on an important scientific expedition, with vital work to carry out---"
"Contact left!" This time the speaker was close enough to be heard without the comms system, nearby within the maze like walls. Reed didn't need to tell them to get down, they did that automatically.
Again, there came a long pause. "Ah, negative contact. Negative."
"Are you sure, Dent?" Reed asked.
"Ah, yes sir. I just saw...I thought I saw, movement out of the corner of my eye. But when I turned, nothing."
Locke checked the safety on his pistol. "Could it have been something moving past you?"
Dent, accompanied by Tharpa, appeared at the nearest gap between walls. "Not really sir. I was on the other side of this wall. There's not that much room in there. Anything going past me, we'd have seen it coming or going. And it would have been close enough to touch."
Archer approached the gap and looked back the way Dent had came. The area between the walls formed a curved corridor, festooned with hieroglyphs, perhaps wide enough for three people to walk abreast. There were no protuberances or other obstructions that could act as a hiding place. The floor seemed solid, no obvious trapdoors. He looked up. The ceiling was now quite bright with no gaps to mar it's surface. Besides, if something had been rising or descending, it would easily have been seen by the others around the chamber.
He rubbed the back of his neck thoughtfully. "Is it possible we're seeing some sort of perception altering effect? Like at the doorways?"
Partridge examined her scanner. "I'm not picking up the same energy signature. It's possible, but seems unlikely."
Reed slapped his hand to the side of his helmet as another signal came through. "Stay there, don't move! We're on our way." He looked at the captain. "Another contact. James spotted movement at the centre of this structure."
Archer glanced down at Porthos. Whatever was going on certainly didn't seem to upset the dog. "Tell me, major, have you ever heard the story of the marine that cried wolf?"
"I'm sorry sir, but we have to take these reports seriously."
"Scientific curiosity, abject terror, and now the beginnings of some serious annoyance." Partridge grumbled. "Multitasking."
The centre of the structure was a wide circle about the size of a tennis court. There were six of the walls surrounding it, the gaps between them aligning with the six stairways and doors leading into this chamber. Like all of the other walls, these were covered in hieroglyphs. Corporal James stood nearby, directing the beam of her rifle mounted flashlight onto a specific section of the wall. Tharpa stood behind her, keeping an eye out in the opposite direction.
"What have you got, Corporal?" Reed demanded. "Well, spit it out!"
She spoke hesitantly."It's....I...I'm not really sure sir. We were patrolling, like you ordered, and...I just spotted something out of the corner of my eye. Right there."
Archer asked. "What sort of something?"
"Couldn't rightly say sir. It was just movement, a sense of movement, like a blur. And when I turned, it was gone." She shrugged, the motion partially obscured by the bulky body armour.
"Where about were you when this happened, Autumn?" Partridge asked softly.
"About a metre, maybe two, from that wall. That's where I saw it."
Partridge went "Hmmm." She absently twirled a strand of hair round a finger, and went "Hmmm." again.
"You have an idea, Professor?" Archer asked.
"Hmmm. Yes. Nothing I'm certain of, not yet. Fortunately we have the opportunity for empirical testing. Could everybody please move to the centre, please? As far away from the walls as you can, thank you. And Mr Reed, could you kindly tell your chaps still patrolling about, and what have you, to get out of this structure and move away from it? To the foot of the staircase should do. It probably won't make a difference, but we should always eliminate any confounding variables, yes indeed. Come along now, come along."
As soon as Reed confirmed that the structure was cleared, apart from those at the centre, Partridge approached the wall James had pointed out. "Right. Everyone keep you eyes peeled. And for once, don't look at me. One-two, ah one-two-three-four." With that she commenced a fast, high stepping, bouncing march around the circumference of the central clearing.
"She's doin' that and we ain't allowed to look at her?" moaned Tipping. "This is torture!"
She'd just started her third circuit when Sato called out "There! Did you see that?"
"Yes!" Phlane exclaimed.
Trooper Cross confirmed that she, too, had seen it.
"Ha! All women!" Partridge said with an enormous grin. "I knew the boys would be looking elsewhere."
"I didn't see anything." James said.
Partridge wrinkled her nose at her. "I think we all know what you were looking at."
"Ah. It's true, I can't lie." James conceded.
"Well I saw nothing, so could we please get an explanation?" Archer said.
Doctor Locke lit a cigarette and took a long drag. "The hieroglyphs. They changed, shifted somehow."
Partridge looked deflated. "Oh. You spotted that?"
"No. Wasn't looking. You are exceptionally clever, Professor, and like a lot of clever people you often think other people are stupid. I had access to the same information as you. I'll admit, I hadn't come to the conclusion as fast as you did, but once you started trying to trigger motion sensors in the wall the solution was obvious."
"Not to me it isn't" Reed admitted.
"Would you care to explain Doctor?" Partridge asked acidly. He declined with a wave of his cigarette so she continued. "I suspect that this structure is some sort of command centre. These walls fulfil the role of screens. Some form of display matrix embedded in the polymer coating, I should imagine. And designed to activate whenever someone is nearby. There's no point showing something if there is no one there to see it, after all. Now we know that whoever built this place...I'm sorry, it's no good. We can't go round saying 'whoever built this place'. We need a name for them, even if it's only a place holder until we find out what they were really called."
Archer shrugged. "OK, if you feel it's important. What do you suggest?
"Well, it can be something simple and to the the point. Let's see...OK. What do we know about them. We know they built the ziggurat, yes? And they built cities and roadways, long ago. And they built this structure here. They did an awful lot of building. So I suggest, the perfect name for these builders is...the Quagaars."
"The Quagars." Archer repeated.
"Quagaars. Not one 'a', two."
Archer chuckled. "How about...the Builders?"
"The Builders? The Builders? Well, I suppose so. But it doesn't really mean anything, does it? OK. What I was saying was that we know that the Quagaar...alright then, the Builders, have some sort of motion sensor technology. We've seen it opening doors for us. I'd say the same thing activates these displays. When there is no one around, the display matrix freezes into it's last known configuration. These aren't carefully laid out images, selected for posterity. They are just whatever was being shown the last time anyone was here."
"What about the hieroglyphs at the main site?" Sato asked. "There's no record of them ever changing."
"If this place is, indeed, 'waking up'," Archer suggested, "then those ones may have been frozen too. I'm guessing that, in the same way the lights are still getting brighter, this system isn't at full capability yet."
"Right." Partridge nodded. "It's not entirely functional, occasionally sensing someone nearby, partially updating the display. If it continues to improve though, we should see something very interesting soon."
"Hoshi, get to work." Archer said. "Something tells me these symbols are the key to what's going on here. Of course we---"
He broke of at a shout from the entrance, followed the schhuuunk! of plasma weapons fire.
Another curious update! I likey...
Many, many apologies for the slow rate of work, but I've just had the dreaded writers block. Nothing seems to shift it (Dan Brown allegedly hangs upside down to clear it, but if it means writing like him, I'm not sure that's worth it).
The Ziggurat Interior.
1st December 2151.
The voice had been Trip Tucker's, the words indistinct, the accent unmistakable. And the gun shot, unmistakably a plasma weapon but lacking the throaty roar of a rifle or carbine. A pistol, then, like the ones the UESPA crew carried. For a second Archer froze, shocked at the realization that his friend was in trouble. Then in one swift movement he scooped up Porthos, thrusting the little dog into Partridge's unresisting arms. She was, he reasoned, the least likely to go rushing off into danger. "Stay here and look after him!" he ordered. "Hoshi! Look after them both!"
Reed was barking orders into his comm. system. He broke off to tell Archer to stay where he was. Archer ignored him, darting from the central chamber and into the maze like structure beyond. By looking over the walls he could see his destination and keep himself orientated, though twice he skidded past the right opening and had to retrace his steps. As he ran the hieroglyphs swirled and danced, mute testimony to the Professor's hypothesis that it was some sort of motion sensitive display. The changing pattens made judging distance and speed difficult: he banged an elbow painfully after misjudging the edge of a wall.
He burst out of the structure right in front of a startled Denobulan guard who raised his carbine automatically. Phlane swatted it down. Archer ignored them both, sprinting all out to the flight of stairs which he ascended a groin punishing three steps at the time. Half way up he realised he'd drawn his own gun, quite without meaning to. He didn't re-holster it.
Several marines clustered around the door way, weapons at the ready. One---Cross---said "He's here." into her communicator as he approached. Reed had probably warned them he was on his way. She stepped aside to let him pass. The first thing to hit him as he entered the tunnel was the faint but distinct smell of ozone, the usual side effect of a plasma weapon shot. There was something else, too, an unpleasant, acrid stink, and he wrinkled his nose in distaste.
Tucker was half standing, half leaning against a wall. One of the marine medics, Dumont, was checking him over. And with good reason. His hands were shaking, and even in the half light he was pale and wan.
"Trip! You OK, buddy?"
"I reckon I will be, cap'n." Tucker said after a long breath. "Just a bit rattled, is all. Ain't that right?" The question was to Dumont, who nodded.
Archer let out a sigh of relief, which turned into gasp for air as his exertions caught up with him. "What...happened?"
"I saw...somethin'...creepin' outa that there shaft up there. I'm sorry cap'n, I know we ain't the shoot first an' ask questions later types, but....OK, I ain't too proud to admit it. I got scared. Real scared. An' I took a shot. An' missed." He gestured without looking at one of the openings near the ceiling. Next to it part of the polymer coating on the rock was slightly blackened. Faint wisps of oily smoke drifted from it, the source of the unpleasant smell. "Guess I need to spend more time on the shootin' range." he added ruefully.
Archer struggled to keep his breathing under control. He felt dizzy, his heart pounding in his chest and thumping in his ears. The soles of his feet ached, almost as much as the tendons in his inner thighs. "Guess I need to spend more time in the gym."
Five minutes sat at the bottom of the stairs returned them both to something approaching their normal conditions. Coffee from Archer's thermos helped. Reed hovered nearby, not saying anything about the captain running off, but with an expression that promised the matter was not forgotten and would be discussed later, probably using the phrase 'with the greatest respect' several times.
"So, Trip, what did you see?"
For a moment Tucker didn't reply, just staring into space. Then he spoke softy. "I was workin' on a way to keep the door open. Figured a pulsed EM wave o' the right frequency should do it. I got a few spare transponders in the tool kit, so a rigged one up with a Coleman-Hayes governor, for positive feedback, y'know? I set it up right by the door, then moved away to see if it worked. Obviously, if'n I was still standin' there, I'd be settin' the sensor off myself. So, I came part way down the stairs, and asked the marine, Steiger, to go the other way, into the tunnel, far enough that it don't pick up him.
"An' it worked. We moved away, an' that door stayed open. So 'least we can still talk to the outside."
"Thank you sir, that will make things much easier." said Reed.
Archer asked "And then what?"
"Well, once I was satisfied that everythin' was goin' fine, I went back up the stairs." He shuddered. "An' that's when I saw it. Took me a moment, it's a lot lighter than it was, but still pretty gloomy. But it was leanin' out of the vent, reachin' for Steiger. He were facin' the other way, down the corridor---"
"So it was between you and him?" Reed asked.
Tucker nodded. "It were behind him, right behind him. An' it looked...you gotta understand. I only caught a glimpse, it were dark...I didn't see it good. But what I saw...it looked...it looked wrong."
"What do you mean, wrong?" Archer insisted.
Tucker shrugged helplessly. "I mean not right. It was like...d'you remember them psychological tests we had in trainin'? When they flashed up images o' people with disfigurin injuries, an' puppets that looked a bit like a person, but not quite close enough. That sorta thing."
"Yes, I remember." What he remembered most of all was the cold sticky gel used to hold the EEG and ECG sensors in place and give a good contact. As the pictures had flashed onto the screen, for less than a second each, his physiological response had been measured. The procedure was, apparently, to help weed out those who might become disturbed or frightened at the appearance of a new alien species. A phrase one of the psychologists had used drifted around his memory, 'The Uncanny Valley'. He couldn't recall what it meant.
"Well, that's it. Just an impression of wrongness. If I'd been expectin' it, maybe I'd ha' been OK. But as it was....I was surprised, I was startled. Guess maybe I panicked a little. So I shouted to Steiger, and took a shot at the thing."
Reed said "And missed."
"Yeah. Well. Guess it heard me shoutin', cos' it shot back into that vent like a rat inna drainpipe."
Archer looked at Reed. "What about your man? Did he get an image on his helmet camera?"
"Doesn't look like it. I've got M'boto going over the footage just in case we got anything, But as Commander Tucker says, he was facing the wrong way. And of course, as soon as he heard the shout and gunshot, he dropped, looking for the shooter. Facing the right direction, but keeping his head down. Which is absolutely the right thing to do under the circumstances, of course, but it means he was looking too low. As soon as he realised what had happened, he took a look into the vent with the extending probe on his wrist computer, but there was nothing there by that time."
"There's one other thing been botherin' me." Tucker mused absently. "When I drew my gun, I accidentally flicked it into high power mode."
"Easily done." Reed said with a shrug. "The selector switch on the EM-33 was always a bit over sensitive. Especially if that's an older model, the workings can get rather worn."
"Right. The thing is though, at that range, an' at that power...."
"You should have done a lot more than scorch the polymer." Archer realized. "You should have burnt through to the stone blocks underneath. Probably gouged a big hole in to them."
Reed stamped on the ground a couple of times. "This stuff must be hellishly strong. If we can get a sample back to Earth it'd be very useful. New types of armour..."
"Should be easy 'nough to figure out how tough it is. We know the power output of the pistol." Tucker stood and looked up the stairs. "Hey, Trooper Cross! Can you get in there an' measure how deep the hole I shot is?"
She dissapeared into the tunnel for a moment. "Err...where is it, exactly? Sir?"
"You can't miss it. Just past the third vent on the left han' side. 'Bout six centimetres 'cross, whole area's blackened an' smokin'."
"Are you sure, Trip? The damage I saw wasn't anything like that bad." Archer said.
They exchanged glances, then trotted back up the stairs. Cross was just coming out again as they reached the top. "There's a bit of a blemish," she said apologetically, "but that's it."
They reached the vent. As Cross had said, there was a small brownish stain, but apart from that, nothing.
"I'll be damned." Tucker said softly.
Reed said "Now that is interesting."
Archer's communicator whistled. He looked at the display. Sato, routing her signal through the Marine's LOSIR net. "Archer here."
"Captain? Is everything alright? Is Trip OK?"
"He's fine. I'll explain later. How are things at your end?"
Even through the static her excitement was palpable. "We've made a breakthrough sir, we're getting to understand the symbols. It seems that many thousands---"
"Hold your horses, Hoshi. Me and Trip are on our way. You can tell us in a minute."
It took considerably more than a minute to reach them, Tucker fascinated by the display system and stopping to examine it better. Eventually they reached the centre of the structure, where Tucker gave a very brief account of his encounter, keeping it simple and straightforward, to avoid spooking Partridge.
"So," Archer said, when he had finished, "what's this big breakthrough you've made? Oh, Professor, you can put Porthos down now. Thanks."
"I didn't want him running off." she replied.
Sato beckoned him over to one of the walls. "Look at this sir. Recognize it?"
Archer examined it carefully. "Looks like a map of this system, the star in the centre, all the planets, moons, asteroids..." He broke off, the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end. There was something about this image, something...He was suddenly aware that Sato was watching him carefully. "This map. It's current! Up to date! This isn't some millennia old image. This is now!"
He turned at a grumbling from Partridge, who dug a purse from her coat pocket and handed Sato a large denomination credit chit. Sato grinned triumphantly. "Less than twenty seconds, sir. She thought it'd take you at least thirty to spot that."
"That'll learn ya to underestimate the cap'n." Tucker said. Partridge stuck her tongue out at him.
"And I'll show you something else." Sato went on. "Have a look at Herroton on the map." She paused until he'd found it. "Now, look at the four o'clock position."
He leant closer. "Something in orbit. Is that...can that be the Enterprise?"
Partridge said "It's in the right position, judging from it's apparent distance from the surface."
"Now that is weird. How can a two hundred thousand year old structure have up to date orbital information? It doesn't make any---Oh! What's this?" As he spoke Archer had tapped absently at the spot representing his ship. Suddenly a new image flickered to life next to the map, a collection of lines and curves that crudely made up a very familiar shape.
Sato said "Now that is the Enterprise."
As they watched the image flickered and altered, new details gradually emerging. It slowly spun and rolled, giving a panoramic view. Just as abruptly as it appeared it was gone again, fading from view in a matter of seconds. On the large map a flashing circle formed around the space it had occupied, runic script alongside.
"Ah, a very rough translation would be something like 'contact lost', sir."
Archer pulled out his communicator. It whistled for attention before he could open it, an incoming call. "Archer here."
"Hernandez, Captain." It was a good thing she said her name as it was impossible to identify her by voice alone. Of course, the LOSIR system tended to 'flatten' speech, but even so, and shouldn't be this bad.
"Maria, I was just about to call you. Are you using the tactical communications system? It sounds like it."
"Yes sir. A few moments ago we were painted by an extremely powerful sensor sweep from the planet's surface. It matched nothing on our database. As a precaution I've gone to Tactical Alert and initiated stealth protocols."
Archer looked to the others. "Actually, I think we may have done that. We've discovered an ancient complex of some sort. We're still figuring it out, but it's clearly the result of highly advanced technology, capable of tracking the Enterprise in orbit. You'll be pleased to hear, I'm sure, that the stealth systems seem to have foxed it. It's not showing up any more."
"That's reassuring. I'm going to stay at Alert for the time being though, just in case someone launches a missile or something."
Archer didn't think that was necessary, but wasn't going to argue the point. "Very well. I'll prepare a status report and send it up to you shortly. Archer out."
As he closed the communicator Sato beckoned him to another wall. "Have a look at this sir." The display showed a planet, the continents clearly marking it out as Herroton. Dozens of tiny triangles dotted it's surface, and next to one a small spot pulsed pale green.
"Let me guess. That's the Denobulan city, right?"
"Looks like it sir. Now this triangle here is in the right position for the main ziggurat. So if that's what the triangles represent..."
Tucker whistled softly. "Sure is a whole lot o' them. Could they all be ziggurats?"
"They do seem to correspond to areas of low sensor return." said Partridge. "Here, Hoshi, show them what we saw before."
Sato raised a hand to a circular shape near the map. "If I can remember what I did last time." she muttered, before putting her fingers to the circumference and making a twisting motion. The map blurred for a second, the dot representing Herroton City fading from view. In it's place, many, many others appeared, scattered across the globe.
"Your planet has acne." Locke said, lighting a cigarette.
Archer ignored him, working out the topography of the map. "From the placement of these, access to water, land suitable for farming, temperate climates...these are cities, major population centres."
"Hell of a lot of them." Tucker said.
"Assuming population density anything like ours, I'd suggest any where between seven and twelve billion inhabitants." said Partridge. "Provisionally, of course. As far as we can tell, this image is just prior to the mass extinction event."
Numbers like that were too hard for the human mind to really get a grip on, especially when dealing with fatalities on that sort of scale. "Twelve billion Builders..." Archer echoed hollowly.
"Builders?" Tucker asked.
"It's what we're calling the race that made this." Sato said, gesturing around them.
"Bit of a dull name."
"I know." said Partridge. "I suggested Quagaars."
"Would twelve billion dead Quagaars sound better?" Archer asked, more sharply than he'd intended. "Sorry, Professor."
Before she could respond Reed and a couple of his people jogged in. "Right, you two take over guard duty here. James, Tharpa, with me."
Archer regarded him suspiciously. "What are you planning, Malcolm?"
Reed hesitated, weighing his words. "Sir...I know you won't approve, but as head of Security I have to...Sir, we know there are hostile creatures down here."
"Possibly hostile." Archer corrected. "We have circumstantial evidence, but nothing concrete."
"Probably hostile." Reed retorted. "The evidence may only be circumstantial, but there is a hell of a lot of it." He waited until the captain inclined his head in recognition of a valid point. "Hostile or not, these creatures are using the vents to navigate this structure. As long as they can do so with impunity, they have a tactical advantage. But it's only an advantage if they're doing it and we aren't. And that's why we have close quarter combat experts. To go in after them."
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