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Grand Central Arena: Chapter Fourteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, December 2, 2009 18:44 EST



    DuQuesne watched tensely as the inner lock door opened. It was easy to logically argue that there was no reason for any danger to be lurking on the other side; convincing his gut of that likelihood, not nearly so easy.

    The lighted corridor revealed by the open lock – lit by some gentle, white source that seemed to come from the material of the ceiling itself – was only a temporary relief. He stepped out cautiously, Steve and Carl following, and stopped.

    The corridor was large, though not nearly so immense as it could have been in this megastructure. The disquieting part was the absolute emptiness, stretching straight away in both direction for kilometers. Aside from the slight misty softening that kilometers of atmosphere gave any sight, the corridor might as well have been a simply-rendered graphic, with none of the scratches, dust, smudges, or a thousand other subliminal details showing that an installation had been built for use by living beings.

    Of course, it didn't even exist a few days ago. The softened edges of distance did bring a more interesting point to mind. "Check our environmentals."

    "Atmosphere's… perfect." Carl said after a moment. "78% nitrogen, a little more than 21% oxygen, smidge less than 1% argon, a little CO2, and about 50% relative humidity. Pressure's one atmosphere, a little over 100 kilopascals, temperature 22 degrees C."

    "Any contaminants?"

    "Nothing." Carl shook his head. "Aside from the motes we've brought with us, this air's just… air. No bacteria, viruses, sensor motes, or dust. Not even as much as you'd expect in a brand-new fabbed habitat. It's completely clean."

    DuQuesne nodded. "No point in wasting our own resources at this point." His suit retracted the few-micron-thick helmet it had generated until that point. "Just keep the environmental monitors online and have it go to full life-support isolation if anything changes significantly, especially in our own life signs."

    The air smelled… flat. With nothing else in it, there couldn't be smells, except what they brought with them. "Carl, our first priority is power. Could we get power from the lock connections?"

    Carl stepped back to the lock and examined it. "Well, yeah, in an absolute pinch, I suppose. But these things aren't built to handle much power at all. I'm not sure they'd handle the draw that we're using just to keep everyone alive and comfortable, so we'd have to move out if we wanted to have a net gain. And it would take a LONG time to charge up to departure level that way."

    And, DuQuesne thought, assuming that our unknown hosts allowed us to dismantle the lock mechanism so as to cannibalize it for power, rather than just shutting off the juice when we started. He spoke again, activating the shipboard connection. "Captain, we've entered and there is breathable, safe atmosphere inside. It's my intention to proceed inward, towards the main shell, as I would presume that is where we will find our answers. Looking down the corridor in the other direction, it appears to come to a dead end at about the distance we would expect if it runs the length of this… spacedock."

    "Understood, Doctor. I don't have any better suggestions, so carry on."

    A momentary dizziness assailed him, and adrenaline surged through his veins. What now?

    Something bumped into his arm; he tried to turn, found that he was lying on his side.


    "Holy jumping Jesus on a pogo stick," Steve whispered reverently, as he slowly sat up.

    DuQuesne and Carl stared at each other from the floor.

    "What's wrong?" Ariane's voice demanded.

    He stood slowly, feeling the emphatic, perfectly distributed drag of weight. "Captain, you have seen no movement from where you are, correct?"

    "Movement? No, nothing is moving within the range of Holy Grail's sensors. Why?"

    "Because that means we have another mystery. There is gravity now. About… 1 full G, in fact."

    There was a pause. Then Sandrisson's voice came dryly over the radio. "You know, I am becoming rather tired of having to believe six impossible things before breakfast. You are sure the corridor isn't rotating?"

    "Very sure," Carl responded. "Besides the fact that we didn't feel any lateral acceleration, an analysis of our radio signals shows no sign that we're rotating with respect to Holy Grail."

    "This isn't nearly as courteous as the air," grumbled Steve. "I'm not used to Earth gravity, I spend most of my time in the orbitals."

    DuQuesne snorted. "It will do you good. Even if your medical nanites keep you from the standard low-weight syndromes, it's good to be in real gravity. And this is hardly anything."

    Even before he finished that sentence, he winced inwardly. What the hell's wrong with me? Do I WANT them to know? It's just one clue, though so could be no-one will…

    But he heard a shocked indraw of breath over the link, and Carl stopped dead and slowly turned, eyes widening. "So that's why your background's fuzzed. You're a Super!"

    DuQuesne wanted to kick himself. Managed this masquerade for half a century, and now I make some amateur slip of the lip? Maybe… maybe I DID want them to know. Still, look at their faces. Play it down, play it down. DuQuesne gave him a frown, restraining a much stronger glare. He wasn't even born at the time it all came apart. Hell, not another person on board Holy Grail was alive then. "I would much prefer you not use that low-brow nickname. The Hyperion Project may have been – was – a mistake on many levels, but it insults the creators and especially the… results of the Project to use that term." I have every reason to hate Hyperion, but as one book put it, they did great things. Terrible, but great.

    "You're… one of the Hyperions?" Ariane's voice was clearly trying to sound controlled, at ease, but the shock was still there. For most people, it's like meeting up with Frankenstein's Monster. You don't expect a cautionary tale of our time to be working on your engines.

    "Yes," he said quietly. "But in the end, we… well, most of us… the ones who survived… we're just people. People with some special problems, maybe some special advantages, but not really that different." And it'd be real nice if I could believe that.

    Steve nodded, and then to his surprise just gave an appraising grin. "Well, that explains your build. 2.5 G's of spin acceleration for your whole life."

    Thank you, Mr. Franceschetti. "2.6, actually, to be precise. And sorry, Steve, you're not my type," he said – adding a small smile of his own to take the edge off it. And express my gratitude for giving me this opening.

    The serious look behind the smile showed that Steve knew exactly what he was doing."I already guessed that. A guy can still appreciate the view."

    "Appreciate away, but let's get back to work." He could feel the tension easing. The revelation had been a shock, but – thanks to all gods that might be – the others had come to know him and trust him enough to let it slide, now. "We have artificial gravity and no apparent mechanism for it, which means we have a long hike ahead. I'm not sure if this qualifies as more of Gabrielle's 'hospitality', or whether it's an obstacle."

     About a half-hour and three kilometers later, Steve came down firmly on the "obstacle" side of that question. The design and systems engineer wasn't in bad shape, but full-gravity walking was clearly not something he was used to. For his part, DuQuesne was a bit impatient that he had to slow his walking pace to match theirs. He restrained that reaction, though; physical superiority was a trivial capability in almost all cases, nothing to be particularly proud of, and if someone wanted to, could be equalled with a little nanomedical boosting.

    A part of him knew that wasn't entirely true, at least not in his case, but that was a part he repressed heavily and deliberately.

    The corridor ended in a mostly-circular doorway with no visible seams, locks, or controls. "Seems to be made up of the same stuff as most of this spacedock. Carl, have you got anything on that yet?"

    "Not a damn thing," the temporary sensor expert answered. "Which really worries me."

    "Can you be a little more detailed on 'not a damn thing', Carl?" Ariane asked.

    "I really mean nothing. I can't even get a list of elements from it. Spectroscopic analysis gives me zip, I'm not getting x-ray diffraction patterns – in fact, radiation doesn't seem to go through it at all – and my sample motes can't get a single tiny bit of it to detach for analysis. The chemicals a few of them can synth up for analytical work don't seem to have any effect on it, either."

    "It's not ring-carbon composite like our suits or the ship armor, is it?"

    "No, that's the first thing I tested. I can't get a debonding to work at all."

    DuQuesne frowned at the massive circular portal in front of him. "If that's the case, we'd better hope this thing opens easily, because it sounds to me like we haven't got a prayer of forcing it."

    Steve walked up to the doorway, scanning. "I'm not even getting thermal patterns, except reflections of our own heat. It's totally even and there's no sign of any seams, panels, nothing."

    "What are we supposed to do, then?" Carl wondered aloud. "Wave our hands and say 'Open Sesame'?"

    Despite the chill that went, quite involuntarily, down his spine, DuQuesne realized that he was not really at all surprised that the ten-meter wide door rolled aside immediately upon Carl's whimisical request. The lack of surprise was, in some ways, even more worrisome than total startlement would have been. "Apparently, yes."

    "Fuck. That's just wrong."

    "There's no way that they … whoever they are… could possibly know that reference."

    "If they've read all our data storage, they could. Or it could be a pretty simple guess to detect what appears to be a request to open."

    "If they've read our data storage… but that would mean that they took in and assimilated our language, including an awful lot about our customs, history, and figures of speech, in a matter of a few days at most," Sandrisson protested weakly.

    "Yes. It would."

    The interior beyond the door was not lit. Light from the corridor spilled in, illuminating a vast expanse of floor and little else. DuQuesne glanced around, shrugged, and walked in, followed by the others.

    Their own lights played about a room so huge that "cavernous" was an utterly inadequate description. Titanic, brooding shapes were visible at the edges of their lights – even with enhanced imaging, they were just dark outlines of massive machinery. Gravity was still present, but felt slightly different – lighter, DuQuesne thought. "This definitely wasn't built in the last few days," he said. "And it's not as immaculate as our little spacedock."

    "How so?" Ariane asked.

    "Dust. There's not much, but some dust on the surfaces."

    "That doesn't look good," Steve's voice said.

    Following the focused beam of the system engineer's light, DuQuesne could make out an irregular shape, an outline that didn't seem to fit at all with the neat, symmetrical station. "No, it doesn't. Let's go take a look."

    As they moved towards the unknown object, Ariane said, "I know I may sound like a nag, but be careful. We don't…" her voice abruptly faded. As it did so, DuQuesne suddenly realized the light from behind was dimming.

    Faster than any ordinary human could possibly have managed, he whirled, reversing his course and lunging towards the door. But they had come too far inside. With a rumbling chime that echoed throughout the alien room, the great portal rolled shut.

    "Captain! Do you hear us?"

    Silence answered. He couldn't feel any of the data links active, either. He tried boosting power, but all his receivers showed were his own reflected signals, and those of Steve and Carl.

    "It's useless," Carl said bluntly. "The way that stuff acts, we couldn't punch a message through it with a terawatt laser and a fusion reactor for constant power."

    "Open up!" Steve said to the door. "Open Sesame! Open, dammit!"

    This time the door remained immobile.

    "For a group of supposed brilliant intellects, we were rather easy to separate," DuQuesne observed. "Not, I suppose, that we had much choice. Had we sent in remote rovers, they would now be completely useless. But if we can't figure out how to keep that blasted door open, getting significant power is going to become even more of a pain."

    "You're awfully calm for someone who's just been trapped, Marc." Steve looked, fortunately, as though he found that reassuring.

    "I doubt we're actually trapped, to be honest. I would expect that whenever the rest of the crew follows, they will be able to open the door from their side, and none of them are so stupid as to walk through without making sure there's someone standing by as gatekeeper, even if they can't somehow jam the door open."

    Carl nodded. "So what do we do? Just wait?"

    "I see no point in wasting that time. They know our resources and that there's no need to panic. They aren't going to come charging out immediately, or at least I would hope not, and when the door does open we should be able to detect it immediately when our connections to the network come back online. So let's get some more work done." He turned back and started again for the distant irregular shape.

    As they got closer, he was able to make out more details, but instead of clarifying what he was seeing, the details made things more confusing. He had thought at first that it was the ruins of some kind of machine, perhaps fallen from the distant ceiling in ages past, but … the jagged canyons of gray-brown alien material loomed above, not mangled machinery and electronics, but a winding path through the scallop-sided ridges.

    "What the hell… is this… dirt?" Carl said incredulously as they reached the path.

    DuQuesne felt one of his eyebrows rise in sympathetic disbelief. It certainly did look like the material on either side of the pathway, between the path and its enclosing ridges, was simple dirt – not dust, but soil, soil dry and dessicated but still dark and thick. The path itself had a metallic-plastic sheen to it, but the echo of their footsteps had the solidity of boots on thick stone. He squatted down and dug his gloved fingers into the stuff at the side of the path. "Sure feels like dirt to me. What do the motes say?"

    "Minerals… organics… damn, it is dirt. Sterile, I think, but there's lots of organic traces in here, and this isn't standard Earth issue. I think…" he dug at a particular spot and came up holding a twisted, brown object that was crumbling into dust even as he showed it to them. "Yeah. That was a root of something."

    "Curiouser and curiouser, as the old book says." DuQuesne stood up. "Come on, let's see if this path leads anywhere." Steve grumbled something. "Just a little farther – say fifteen minutes. If we don't get to something then, we'll take a break, have some lunch. Okay?"

    "All right. I'm just not used to this kind of hiking. I think I'm going to really regret this tomorrow morning."

    The three followed the path, winding between the ever-higher ridges which followed some kind of wave-like pattern. The path itself widened slightly, and in some angles of light DuQuesne thought he saw patterns on the flat surface; but whenever he stopped and tried to examine them, there was nothing there.

    Rounding another corner just like the last three, the walls abruptly ended at an open space. Their path continued and joined with a flat, paved-looking surface covered with regular hexagonal tiles about a meter across; looking to the sides, they could see that similar paths joined from other steep-sided canyons on either side. A few hundred meters ahead, a smoothly curved wall belled out towards them, with another circular door – much smaller than the first, perhaps only three or four meters across – set in the precise center of the curve.

    He glanced at his other companions, who shrugged and followed him across the paved area, footsteps echoing eerily in the silence. He contemplated the door for a moment. "We're not stepping through this one right away."

    "No," agreed Carl, "But we can see if it will open."

    He nodded. "True." He turned back to the door. "Open up."

    As smoothly as the first, this door rolled aside. The light that came in was soft white light, clearly artificial and similar (but not quite identical) to the light in the giant spacedock, and quite a bit dimmer; through the door was visible a corridor that seemed to widen out, in a narrow cone-shape, until joining with a vastly wider room or corridor about ten meters farther along. That corridor, or room, seemed to be about a hundred meters across; tantalizing edges of shapes – which might be sculptures, street signs, or mechanisms – were partially visible in the restricted field of view.

    DuQuesne was strongly tempted to go straight on through – and clearly so were Carl and Steve, despite the latter being footsore. But they'd have to leave at least one person behind them as doorkeeper, in case this door turned out to be one-way as well, and there was no telling when they'd be back. "Close and lock," he said after a moment. He didn't know, of course, that there were locks, but it seemed logical. And when the door shut he thought he sensed a vibration that indicated the engagement of some form of locking mechanism.

    "We'll wait on that one until we've gotten a report back to the others – whenever they decide it's time to check on us. In the meantime, let's have something to eat and take a rest."

    Steve immediately dropped to the floor. "Works for me!"

    As they ate, DuQuesne was constantly aware of the brooding silence of the installation. Given their limitations on replication mass, Tom Cussler had only been able to give them a moderate number of nanoprobes, but they'd scattered some along their entire route, which were spreading slowly outward on their own. So far, there wasn't a single sign of movement or life anywhere, and none of any active power sources – at least, none accessible. Given the characteristics of the hull-material making up the foundations of this impossible place, there could be a 50-gigawatt nuclear reactor right under his ass and he wouldn't know. Or, probably, even notice if it melted down right then and there. "Carl, have you tried cosmic ray background?"

    "Nothing. This stuff either stops 'em dead, or wherever we are doesn’t have any cosmic rays – which seems pretty damn unlikely," the controls engineer answered. "My background analysis hasn't shown anything, even though it's kept running since we started out on this field trip. No… wait, on the high gamma there's … something."

    Carl transmitted the data to DuQuesne who examined it. The faint variations in return from the high-end gamma radiation probes did not, however, tell him much. He shook his head. "Maybe Sandrisson can make sense out of this. It's definitely not in my field." He glanced at Steve. "Fransceschetti, have you got any thoughts on the whole layout?"

    As a concept engineer, Steve dealt with the high-level design of large structures, so DuQuesne hoped some of this might make more sense to him. Steve scratched his head, fingers running absently through the short curly hair. "Hard to say. I mean, given the scale this thing's been made on, judging it from just what we've seen so far would be like trying to figure out what Kanzaki-Three's design and purpose is from, oh, one storage room alone." He glanced around.

    "Well, one thing I can say is that this area was clearly made to include naturalistic features. The canyon has rough walls and profiles of natural weathered rock if you look, and the dirt is, well, natural in composition, if not quite Earthly. From the data we're getting in the returns from the nanoscans, there's other areas out there which have some similar features. There's also portions which are clearly artificial and meant to look that way, so I'd say you have a spacegoing race that did originate from a planet, and that liked to preserve some of the essence of living on a planet." He yawned. "Whooo, I'm tired. Anyway… the open nature of the design indicates they weren't clearly separating working from living areas, at least to me. That is, the natural area doesn't have some specific division from the main entry or the operational locations.

    "On the other hand… there's also no clear power sources and none of the machinery – whatever it is – seems to be running, except the air maintenance and gravity."

    "Do you actually know the air's being maintained in here?" DuQuesne asked.

    Steve looked nonplussed. "I suppose I can't be absolutely certain. But there are materials in here other than that nonreactive whatever-it-is, and I would think that after many years the oxygen would have combined with anything accessible."

    DuQuesne shrugged. "How many years, though? Can we actually tell how long it's been since, say, that root Carl found was growing?"

    "Well, I might, by…" Carl trailed off. "On Earth I might, by doing things like Carbon-14 dating, but those all rely on knowing the proportion of proper isotopes in things. I'm familiar with the proportions – some of the proportions, anyway – on Earth, but I have no idea if they hold at all here." He frowned. "If I assume the temperature and all has been reasonably stable, I can do a guess based on the decay of the relevant compounds." A few minutes went by. "It's… a long time. Millions of years, I think. But there's a lot of assumptions in that calculation."

    "Understood. And if anything was doing any sort of maintenance… all bets are off." DuQuesne stood, dusting off his pants reflexively, though the ring-carbon composite generally didn't allow anything to adhere to it without special treatment. "Enough of a break. We'll certainly come back here, but there's a lot more to explore, and we've got a lot more time before we've put in a full day."

    Steve groaned as he got up. "Why not let the nanos do it?"

    "Because they have no directionality or intelligence, and may not even get everywhere, as you know. We can keep going in interesting directions."

    "And because he thinks it'll do us good," Carl put in.

    "Elitist supermen are such a pain to work with," Steve said. "Okay, Mr. Slave Driver, let's go."

    "If I was a true elitist superman slave driver," DuQuesne said with a slight smile, beginning to move down one of the other artificial canyons, "I would sendeach of us out alone."

    Steve looked around at the vast silent gloom of the mysterious station and shuddered. "No, thanks!"

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