“It doesn’t look familiar to me.” Ahrottl offered. Everyone ignored her. It’s all right, I’m getting used to it.
Mother Superior stated, “The writing is unfamiliar to me, but the spacing and frequency suggests phonetic rather than representative symbols. Unfortunately I do not have a great amount of information about linguistics, and we are far enough from the Station network that I cannot easily obtain any. It doesn’t look like any script I’ve seen before.”
Gerry and Maria both made noises of surprise. Ahrottl rocked her head back and closed her eyes in frustration. Sure, you’ll listen to your talking machine but not the author who speaks twelve languages and can compose poetry in all of them!
One of the holos, projected images from Gerry’s scanner, rolled across the script on the surface of the strange artifact. The holo giving the overview of it showed the small figure that was slowly walking across the central surface.
“The writing continues in a line, and seems to reach between the spines and … oh man, look at that!”
The projection that had been showing the writing continued to scroll and came to a stop at a symbol that no one could mistake.
“It’s an arrow!” Maria said in awe.
“It’s a pretty simple symbol. A lot of species use that to indicate direction.” Ahrottl said. She slowly romped over to Maria, crouching by the side of her chair. Maria unconsciously reached down to scratch the top of her head. Yes, good. I may as well get scritches out this. She wriggled, more comfortable now, and kept sipping at her stimulant bulb.
“I wonder what it’s pointing to?” Gerry asked. His face showed a childlike wonder. The scanner showing his holo continued to scan forwards as he followed the arrow, walking between the two spires and across the open surface of the strange, twisted metallic hull. “I think I found it!”
The scan lurched forwards and centered on what appeared to be a circle set into the metal. There was some kind of device set in to it, and more of the lettering around it. Gerry’s forehead furrowed in concentration and the holo became an extreme close up.
“It’s a latch! Like, a latch on a hatch!” Gerry was practically bounding with excitement.
Congratulations, Doctor Seuss. Not that you have any idea who that is. Ahrottl stilled briefly, concerned. Why am I so grumpy?
“Yeah, I see it Algernon. It sure does look like a latch.” Maria said archly. “You know what you’re going to do? I do.”
Gerry looked confused. “Huh?”
“You are going to NOT touch that latch. You are going to zip right back to the ship here and pilot us back to Lotus to report this.”
“Oh come on, Maria, I’m not stupid. Who knows what’s in there…” Gerry trailed off, his eyes growing distant.
“Neither one of us knows, and neither one of us is going to know today, because you’re going to be a smart, smart man.” Ahrottl winced as Maria unconsciously squeezed one of her ears a bit too tightly. “Gerry, I’m serious. We found this thing. We’ll get our pictures beamed across the galaxy as the folks who discovered it. Ahrottl here” She shook Ahrottl’s head, almost violently. What in all the hells is wrong with you? Ahrottl contemplated biting her. “will write the novelization and we’ll have the youngest, sexiest actors play us in the holo. I’m really uncomfortable with this, Gerry, please come back.”
Gerry swallowed, and the downward-facing scanner showed him running his hand across the surface next to the hatch. There was a small series of protrusions that looked like they had to be switches of some sort that his hand came to rest near.
“Maria, this thing is dead. Dead dead. It’s in the middle of no-where and we’d have noticed if anything was flying to or from it. The Collective has been charting this system for the last twenty years, give or take. Opening the hatch, stepping inside, even just recording what we see when we’re in there … how could that hurt?”
Ahrottl shook her head and wriggled free from Maria’s fingers and leapt up on the console, putting herself face-to-face with Gerry’s projection. She stared into his large, dark eyes. “It could hurt if they breathed acid. Or plasma. It could hurt if the pressurization fails and you’re blown out into space and smash into something. It could hurt if the ones who built it are hibernating and opening the hatch wakes them up and they decide to vivisect or blast the intruder. It could hurt you in a thousand, thousand ways. Get your lanky hairless behind back here and let’s go report this thing.”
Gerry frowned again, and cocked his head to the side. Ahrottl had never seen him make this gesture. She got down off the panel, uncertain, and glanced back at Maria, who seemed as puzzled as she did.
“No. This is it. This is what I came here for. This is what I’ve been looking for all along. This is our big break. It’s The One. It’s…” Gerry looked down, then looked back up. “I sound crazy, don’t I?”
“Only a little, honey.” Maria chided gently. “Come back.”
Gerry sighed deeply and stood up. “Okay, zipping back.” A moment later he looked puzzled. “Nothing’s happening.”
“What do you mean?” Ahrottl and Maria asked at the same time. They glanced at each other and Maria gave Ahrottl a tight-lipped smile.
“I pressed the button, and the rope is going taut, but I’m not leaving the surface of the artifact. It should be reeling in the cord.”
“It’s possible that the surface is somewhat magnetized. Try carefully to jump off of it.” Mother Superior suggested.
Gerry’s figure crouched and straightened a couple of times. “I can’t get both feet off of it at once.”
“Hmmm.” Maria seemed to be considering. “Maybe you’re making a circuit with your feet.”
Ahrottl frowned. “His suit’s not going conductive. That would be terrible design.”
“Well, what do you suggest?” Maria raised one eyebrow.
Ahrottl looked up to Mother Superior. “We reel him in ourselves. Can’t we do that on our end?
Mother Superior nodded sharply and froze in place briefly. The view through the port shifted just a touch, stars swinging up a little and then back down. Mother Superior spoke again. “Attempting to reel him in is instead drawing our own ship closer to the artifact. I am sorry, I have no explanation for this phenomenon.” She looked grave.
They all looked at each other for a moment. Ahrottl piped up. “Hey Gerry, try walking back to where you first landed.”
Algernon’s head bobbed. “It can’t hurt, I guess.” His tiny figure on the holo turned around and started to take a step.
Ahrottl’s heart leapt into her mouth as she saw the very ends of the spines of the floating artifact glow. A whitish purple glow, with small crackling blots of energy resembling plasmic discharge began to dance around the ends of them. Maria gasped and looked on, slack-jawed.
“Guys, what’s going on?” Gerry asked.
“What did you do?” Maria asked.
“Mister Algernon, you may want to look up.” Timmy supplied helpfully.
Gerry’s eyes widened. “What do I do? Guys, get me out of here. Get me out now!”
The energy at the tips of the spires continued to crackle and discharge but showed no signs of changing its pattern. Ahrottl thought fast. “Cut the cord and fire your safety jets, but get away from the spines first! Go back to the hatch!”
They watched as Gerry panted and his figured turned back around and ran back towards the hatch. “I’m trying to pull out my emergency torch now. Damnit!” They saw him crouch down over the hatch. “I dropped it. At least it’s sticking…”
His eyes widened again. “I think I-”
A massive bolt of energy leaped from one spine to another. They began to fire intermittently, connecting the tips of the spires, dancing in a slow pattern around the artifact.
“-kicked something. I’ve got the torch. Cutting the line now.”
Maria’s face was screwed into a knot of concern. Ahrottl was stilled, gripping her arm with both her hands, unconsciously licking her lips and whiskers in fear. She pulled herself up onto Maria’s lap and buried her face against chest, peeking out to glance at the holo of the artifact, not wanting to see Gerry’s face.
“Firing safety jets now.” Through eyes slitted in fear Ahrottl saw the tiny figure separate from the surface of the artifact, floating upwards towards them. “I’m free! I’m off this thing!”
Maria breathed a tremendous sign of relief, and Mother Superior clapped her hands twice, primly. Ahrottl scooted around, facing back towards the holos, watching as he floated ever closer.
“Mother Superior, please move for intercept.” Maria said.
Mother Superior nodded gravely, pursing her lips, and the stars in the port shifted. Meanwhile the light had begun to leap more and more quickly between the spires. Ahrottl was reminded of something, something that she had seen a few times before. What was it?
“It looks like a hyperspace gate. The same kind of light.”
Maria snorted. “We’re in the flattest space that there is. Do you know how much power that that would take out here?” Hyperspace travel exploited the curvature of space, “punching through” layers of space where they were the most curved and thinnest, as close to a heavy gravity well as possible. The less curved the space, the more energy it would take to open the way through to other levels of space. In theory, traversing hyperspace when not close to a star or an extremely large gas giant would require more power than even Great Family technology was capable of producing.
The light was now connecting all of the spires, stably, as Gerry was trying to slow down his jets to coordinate with their vessel. He passed control of them to Tommy so he and Mother Superior could work together, using their unnaturally quick minds and near instant communication to set him on a safe trajectory. A few moments later, Gerry spoke up.
“I’m at the airlock. Cycling in. Mother, please pull away to a safe distance. This thing is making me really uncomfortable.”
“I’m not sure what a safe distance is, Algernon, given that we have no idea what in heaven’s name that thing is doing. I will say, however, that our guest’s comment was not entirely incorrect. The energy discharge does resemble that which is present at the opening of a hyperspace gateway. Might I suggest that we withdraw now to Lotus Station and warn the authorities there?”
Gerry came in, his helmet hanging off the back of his suit, the smell of space wafting off of him. “Yeah, I think we should warn them. I’m sorry guys.”
“We are drifting closer to the object.” Mother Superior’s voice rang out with an edge that Ahrottl had never heard before. Is she afraid?
“Are the engines engaged?” Gerry asked.
“Yes, Algernon, the engines are engaged. In fact, they are the only thing preventing a collision now.” Mother Superior sounded strained. Ahrottl fell into a crouch, shocked. Am I going to die now? Is that it? Destroyed by something that I don’t even understand?
All of them watched as the bolts of purple-white light seemed to stabilize, and the spaces between them rapidly began to fill in. In a matter of moments the object had been replaced by what seemed to be a bright, lavender star.
“Master Algernon, might I make a suggestion?” Tommy asked timidly. Gerry nodded. “Any suggestions anyone could make right now would great.”
“Perhaps we should save fuel and allow ourselves to fall into the object. It does seem to be a hyperspace gate, as improbable as that is.” Timmy offered. “Perhaps once we are through the other side, we can figure out how to get back.”
How many adventure serials begin this way? Ahrottl wondered. A small crew of a tiny ship are transported far, far from home and spend years trying to find their way back.
Maria and Gerry were holding hands, looking into each others eyes, tears forming on their faces, murmuring potential farewells to each other. Mother Superior spoke up again, “In any case, we are at thirty seconds to impact. I am engaging hyperspace shielding, and will attempt to guide the ship in the inevitable fugue that will follow. Should this gate be functional we should all be fine when we get to the other side. Should it not, bless you, and may God have mercy on our souls.”
Gerry and Maria kissed, and Gerry looked around and nodded at Ahrottl. “I’m sorry for bringing you along for this. Timmy, Mother, thank you. Drop the engine to minimum. That way we don’t need to re-engage when we arrive.”