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Posted January 27, 2006
Fan Fiction: Eclipse
Act Two: Investigation
The team paused for a water break, then continued up the narrow canyon, documenting the immense skeletal remains and geological features with the digital camera as they walked. The walls of the canyon were made of the same rocky, light-colored earth as the plain they'd crossed and the low hills nearby; nothing aside from the bones seemed especially unique or out of place, but it was hard to tell sometimes what would turn out to be important at first glance. Even if nothing jumped out at them while they were here, it was entirely possible a fresh set of eyes in the scientific department might discover something in the photographs later.
To Sam, the walk felt almost like a tour through a natural history exhibit, one dedicated to the extinction of Earth's dinosaurs. She paused for a moment beneath the arching vault of the vast ribcage that spanned the canyon and gazed upward at the massive vertebrae suspended several feet over her head, mentally estimating the size of the creature they had originally come from. She felt very small in comparison, in a way she'd never felt when faced with enormous astronomical bodies like supernovae or black holes; there was something immediate and vast about these biological ruins that set off instictive warning signals in the back of her mind, as though the unstoppable machine of Entropy was poised on the brink of swallowing her whole.
She shivered a little despite the intense heat, then glanced around at her companions. Next to her, the Colonel had turned to look over his shoulder back the way they'd come. His brow furrowed a little as he studied the curvature of the canyon, which would conceal their point of entry entirely if they proceeded much further, and he glanced down at something clasped in his hand with a concerned grunt.
"We'd better not get turned around in here," Jack said, tilting the object-- a compass-- in Sam's direction.
Sam squinted through the glare reflecting from the compass' face and caught a glimpse of the needle spinning wildly around, refusing to settle on any one point. She grimaced, then reached up to swipe a fresh trail of sweat out of her eyes. "As strong as the magnetic field is, it'll probably also interfere with our radios over any significant distance. I doubt we'll be able to hear anything more than static when the SGC dials in for our checkup a couple of hours from now."
"Shades of P3X-403," Daniel mused aloud, two paces behind them, staring up one side of the canyon at an earthen spire rising to a point several feet above the rim. His hair had already begun to escape from the tan-colored bandana he'd chosen to wear today, sticking out around the edges in sweat-dampened spikes. "It might be a good idea to go ahead and check out some of these earth formations you were interested in, then head back. If the UAV images show anything important, we can always come back with better equipment."
Sam nodded, remembering what she'd heard about the problems the SGC mining teams on the Unas-settled world had faced when trying to find one of their number who had gone missing. She would be a little disappointed to head back early, but on a mission like this one where no lives were on the line, it was better to be safe than sorry. "It looks like the canyon flattens out a little up ahead, we can climb up more easily there. It shouldn't take very long to test my theory about what caused them and take a few samples."
"You spoke of multiple theories prior to our arrival on this planet," Teal'c observed calmly from his place next to Daniel. "What have you observed here to change your mind?"
Sam smiled at him, pleased at his perceptiveness and interest. "From the MALP pictures, it was impossible to tell whether the spires were formed from softer, packed earth, as we can now see they are, or rock, like the formations commonly called hoodoos back on Earth, which might have contained useful minerals. In the latter case, they would have been revealed by the passage of time, as wind and other natural events wore away the material around them. As it is, however, I'd guess there must have been something other than the elements involved in building them."
"Mound-building insects, maybe? Like Macrotermes termites?" Daniel asked, wrinkling his nose. He'd flipped his clip-on sun-glasses up for a better look, and his blue eyes almost seemed to glow in the light of the alien sun. "I've never heard of them living in an environment as extreme as this, but there's always a first time for everything, I suppose."
"Maybe not insects," Sam replied, "but I'm fairly certain some kind of lifeform was involved. The shape and composition of the columns is inconsistent with wind formation, and I can't think of another environmental process that could possibly have created them given the harshness of the environment." She wasn't sure what kind of lifeform it had been-- bacteria binding them together, something larger physically shaping them? Was something hidden beneath the spires?-- but she wanted to find out.
"Well, we won't find out standing here yakking about it," Jack groused. He removed his ball cap again, ruffling his damp hair to dry it a little, then settled the cap back on his head and made an elaborate 'after you' arm gesture in Sam's direction. "Get to it, Carter."
"Yes sir," Sam replied. She exchanged amused glances with Daniel, then took point again, heading toward the lowest visible section of the canyon's now-sloping walls.
The blue sun had begun to set, flickering at one edge of the horizon, and a golden-red glow lit the sky afire at the other. Shadows pooled strangely in and around the giant bones at the canyon's floor as the vaguely underwater hues that had previously characterized the landscape grew progressively warmer. Sam kept an eye on one of the spires as she walked, and was puzzled to see that a dark patch she'd noticed at the top didn't move at all in the shifting light; she'd assumed it was a shadow before, but that clearly wasn't the case. It almost looked as though the spire were hollow... but what could have caused it?
The narrow canyon opened out slowly as the walls dropped, then widened suddenly as the team turned a corner, joining a vast, shallow valley crowded with more of the titanic skeletons. The sight struck Sam speechless for a moment; it looked like nothing so much as a killing ground, or perhaps an elephant's graveyard. More of the skeletons were complete here than had been in the canyon, and they varied more widely in size; the rib bones of one particularly large specimen jutted up against the horizon in a grotesque parody of trees, with tatters of lichen at the tips providing a semblance of leaves and branches.
The sight reminded Sam just how hot and thirsty she was. She called another quick rest break, making sure to dampen her collar and the sleeves of her uniform shirt for a little extra relief once she'd swallowed a few mouthfuls of lukewarm water. Daniel's lips were beginning to crack in the dry heat, so she shared her SPF 30 lip gel with him; he'd brought his own, but he'd forgotten to remove the chocolate bar he habitually carried from that pocket of his vest, and his tube of gel was completely embedded in the resulting sticky goo.
Finally, the team approached a small grouping of the spires. She could see another, much larger cluster of them in the distance, rising up from a swell of ground like the spines of a hedgehog; it almost made her wish she'd brought along one of the ground-penetrating radar scanners the SGC kept on hand for sizable geological and archaeological surveys.
Sam tapped the side of one of the spires with the heel of one hand and found her suspicions confirmed. "It's hollow," she said, marvelling, and unslung her kit to retrieve the small rock hammer she'd brought with an eye to securing possible mineral samples.
"That seems... unlikely," Daniel commented, a thoughtful expression on his face.
"Well, it sure doesn't look like something you'd find in Vancouver or Egypt," Jack replied with a shrug, rapping a second column with his knuckles. "I've always wondered why we don't come across more seriously alien landscapes out here. Is the galaxy really that boring?"
Daniel opened his mouth, looking a little indignant, then shook his head and shut it again; he'd had this argument with Jack several times before. Sam grinned at the pair, still enjoying the renewal of their familiar banter after so many months without it, then stepped past them with the rock hammer and struck firmly against the wall of the first spire. Small chips of packed earth came away under the head; after a moment, a section gave way entirely, creating a small hole into the interior of the column.
She took a moment to secure a few of the earth fragments she'd removed for later study; the flakes had a texture reminiscent of dried mud, a distinct oddity on a planet whose intermittent cloudcover was all dust and no moisture. While she was packing them away, the Colonel stepped forward with a flashlight in hand, shining it into the opening she'd made.
"Nothing in here," he said, tilting the light first upward, then down. "It's like the inside of a chimney. Big hole at the top, hollow all the way down. Can't see the bottom, though; looks like it opens out into a cave."
"I wonder if they're all like that?" Daniel mused, looking over at the larger, distant complex of spires that Sam had noticed earlier.
"Let's find out," Sam suggested, picking up the hammer again and moving to strike the column Jack had tested with his hand. The wall was a little thicker on this one, but was no more difficult to pierce than the other, and soon she was peering into the interior of another empty earthen tube. This spire was angled more toward suns-rise than the other had been, however; she could see a small area of the cavern floor beneath, spotlit by the suns' red-gold rays.
"I don't suppose there's any easy way to get down there," she said dubiously, more curious than ever about the origin and purpose of the earthen formations. She'd never seen anything quite like them before.
Jack shook his head. "I didn't see any cave mouths on our way here, and without climbing gear I'd rather not try to shimmy down one of these things."
And of course they had to be concerned about the possibility of predators, too, Sam thought. Maybe whatever had chewed up those bones out by the Stargate had moved on a long time ago, and maybe it didn't lair underground, but there was no way to be sure without going down there, and the chimney-like entrances would make it difficult for them to escape in a hurry if they needed to.
Daniel frowned and began digging in his own pack. "Wait a minute, I have an idea..."
Jack frowned at him. "If this idea of yours involves you going down there alone..."
"No, no..." Daniel cut him off. "I'm just looking for... ah, there it is." He raised one hand, revealing a spare digital video recorder he'd probably been carrying 'just in case'. "Do you still carry duct tape, Sam?"
"Never leave home without it," she assured him. She retrieved the roll for him, then watched with an intrigued expression as he secured the video recorder to the end of a coil of rope from the Colonel's supplies with a series of knots and expertly applied squares of tough, shiny silver tape. The camera didn't have a light of its own, so he incorporated a flashlight into the assembly too, aimed forward of the lens and fixed into the 'on' position.
"MALP on a rope," Jack commented, grinning as he examined Daniel's completed handiwork. "Sweet."
"You'll have to widen the hole a little," Daniel replied, nodding, as he wound the coil of rope around his arm. "I'll pass the camera through and lower it down into the cavern, then let it spin around a little to get a good look at all the walls before pulling it back up."
"Good idea, Daniel," Sam agreed, and picked up the rock hammer again to widen one of the holes.
Teal'c stepped forward, shaking his head, before she could do so. "Allow me, Major Carter," he said, then raised the butt end of his staff weapon from the ground and used it to strike repeatedly at the nearest column. The dirt crumbled easily at the blows, flaking away and falling into the widening hole to rain down on whatever lay inside.
"Thanks, Teal'c." Daniel pressed the button to turn the video recorder on, then began slowly lowering it through the opening.
© 2006 Jedi Buttercup.