It was almost a full day after leaving Vinzin that the Ang’seillia approached the star system that was their destination. The three Rangers, knowing the time was close, were all in their seats in the patrol shuttle’s cockpit.
“I’m getting some new readings off the jumpgate beacon,” Brenda said, her normally cheerful voice suddenly tinged with worry. “The system name reads as ‘Eulinthis,’ and the coordinates are right on. But there’s a problem with the jumpgate. I think we’re going to be able to get back to normal space, but I don’t know if it’ll let us jump back out again.”
Cat looked at Brenda’s screen and her happy face turned with concern. “I have no problem risking it getting us inside. Is there a backdoor to get out? Maybe a jumpgate on the opposite side of the system? It might be a way to get out. I know it would probably be a long ways away but I could definitely fly us outta there as long as I had an exit I could get to.” She looked at the both of them.
Brenda looked back at her console, adjusting the controls slightly. “I’m reading another gate in an adjacent system,” she said. “If we have to travel in realspace to get to it, it’s a long, long run. Months, likely.”
“Hhmmm, that might be a last resort. Is it definite that we will not be able to jump out? Is there at least a slight chance of jumping out or none at all? Or can we fix what is broken?” Cat asked Brenda.
“I can’t say for sure,” Brenda said. “It may let us jump out, or not. I guess that means there’s at least a slight chance. With any luck at all, if it won’t let us out, we’ll be able to make repairs to the gate.”
“Alright, I’ll be willing to take a chance. We need to get into that system either way. I’m sure we will be able to contact home base if we need help,” Cat replied.
“Fair enough,” Elanor said.
“Haven’t gotten tired of the company yet,” Brenda agreed. “Let’s go for it.”
“Alright, hold on.” Cat started flipping switches and pushing buttons on the console. “Jumping in 5..4..3..2..1..Jump.”
As they sailed clear of the jumpgate, they could see a single planet looming large in the viewports ahead. Brenda immediately started scanning. “I’m getting massive life readings,” she said after a minute or two, “but it’s all on the lower end of the scale. Plants, animals … hardly any signs of sentient habitation or technology. And nothing in orbit. Looks to be an absolutely lovely place though.” She shook her head, puzzled. “Let’s see what we get on energy patterns — one thing about sentient species anywhere in the galaxy — they use power.”
Elanor said, “I’ll see what I can find about mineral deposits, any concentrations of refined metal. That would be another good tip-off for sentients.”
“OK, I’ll fly close to the planet and you two can take those readings as I scout out a safe place to land.” Cat started pushing more buttons on her console and slowly eased the ship closer and closer to the planet until the bottom of the shuttle was just skimming the top of the atmosphere. “How’s this?” Cat asked.
“Good,” Elanor said. “Now let’s see …” A minute or so went by, and then Elanor suddenly let out a long, low whistle. She chuckled sheepishly and said, “Sorry. I was so startled! Expected mineral concentrations in the planet’s crust. They’re deep, as if a lot had been mined out at some point. Then I found this!” She set up the holographic portrait of the planet. A single bright red dot appeared in the midst of the blues and golden tones that enveloped most of the world. “It’s a cache of refined Quantium-40. Literally tons of the stuff.”
“Tons?” Brenda gasped. “That’s crazy. I can’t even imagine what that’s worth. Just sitting there –” Her voice abruptly died as she saw the fresh information coming from her scans. “I’m only picking up one place on the planet where energy use is higher than the baseline. High baseline though — almost like a web over the entire planet surface. I’ll plot it on the map.”
A sparkling, silvery web enveloped the hologram. One dot of silver light glowed brighter than the rest of the web. It was right on top of the concentration of Quantium-40 that Elanor had found.
Cat stared at the screens as Elanor and Brenda were doing their scans. “We need that Quantium-40 to repair the jumpgate. What is that over the cache? Some sort of city or town?” she said as she punched in a few buttons and dials on her console.
“Maybe,” Brenda said, sounding dubious. “If so, I don’t think it’s inhabited.”
“Let’s go down and see. I can land about a mile out from the cache to hide our cover.” She punched in a few more buttons and grabbed the controls and started to ease the shuttle down towards the surface.
The Ang’seillia turned sharply, angling downward. For a few moments, the little ship was bathed in a corona of superheated plasma as it descended through the atmosphere, and then it burst through a layer of high clouds and into clear, brilliantly blue sky. Several thousand meters below, they could see they were above a coastline, with thickly forested land ending in a series of bluffs at the water’s edge. Here and there, they could see small meadows between the trees. One of these was along the edge of a high cliff, and it was here that Cat brought the shuttle in for a gentle landing.
“The air’s breathable,” Brenda said, “but the CO2 concentration’s a bit on the high side. We should probably use filter plugs, if we’re going to be walking any distance. Gravity’s good — about .9G — and temperature’s nice, about 18C.”
“Wonderful! Let’s grab what we need and start trekking towards the cache. We need to make sure we have a way out before we get any deeper into this mission.” Cat finished landing procedures and turned off the engines before unbuckling from her seat and standing up with a groan. She had not stood up in a while so she stretched for a minute before rifling through her things to make sure she had what she needed.
The other two women did the same, stretching and checking their gear. “Even with these,” Brenda said as she set a pair of filter plugs into place on her nose, “it’s going to be nice to breathe non-recycled air again.”
They left the shuttle, closing and securing the hatch. Cool air, laden with moisture and smelling of salt, swirled around them in a steady breeze from the sea. They could hear the waves crashing against the cliffs below. A wide grin spread across Brenda’s face as she looked around. “Almost like the old Top End,” she said.
Elanor looked at her porta-comp, then pointed toward the trees that rose high into the sky a hundred yards or so distant. “I’ve got the coordinates of the Q-40 cache locked in,” she said. “That way.”
They made their way into the forest. The sunlight was dimmed a little from the high crowns of the tall trees, and the undergrowth was light, so it wasn’t too difficult to stay on a direct bearing toward their goal. The ground underfoot felt light and almost spongy. They could hear what sounded like insect and bird calls all around.
“I have not seen a view like this in a long time.” Cat closed her eyes as they continued walking and took a deep breath in, “Or felt a sea breeze.” She opened her eyes as she followed the two women in front of her. She had a pistol like weapon hidden on her belt just in case they had any unwelcome visitors. Cat kept a vigilant eye out as she enjoyed the surroundings and her friends in front of her surveyed the area looking for the cache.
Their path through the trees began sloping upward after about half a mile. The rise was gentle at first, then became more steep, until the three women were having to half-walk, half-climb their way up the slope. They could see clear daylight ahead of them, however, so they kept onward, until at last the forest abruptly gave way to a plateau. A few yards from the forest’s edge, they could see the edge of a strange structure.
Elanor took some readings with her porta-comp and described what they saw. “It’s a slab, something like concrete but with a very high crystalline carbon content. Almost like someone took cement and, instead of gravel or sand, mixed it with crushed diamonds. Nearly a kilometer across. As close to a perfect circle as makes no never mind. These pillars around the edge — almost like arches. Mostly made of the same stuff as the slab, but with some kind of conduits built into and running through them.”
“Any idea how old it is? Or what it was for?” Brenda asked.
“Looks like … around 20,000 years. And … I couldn’t even begin to tell you.”
Cat took a good look around hovering her hand above her eyes in an attempt to shield them from the sun. “Wow, almost looks like some sort of collection center for some sort of energy? The conduit could be a clue and certainly the diamonds mixed in with the cement substance could also be a big clue.” She bent down still looking around. “Certainly is a pretty amazing site though.”
“That’s for sure,” Brenda said. “It’s hard to believe it’s been here that long. I mean, it’s perfectly clear — the woods end right at the edge. Even the ground cover … look.” She gestured down, and indeed, the low-growing plants that formed the undergrowth of the forest stopped a few centimeters from the edge of the slab, as if groomed that way. She looked up slowly, her eyes widening. “Something feels strange, all of a sudden. Like there’s someone else here, like we’re being watched.” She looked at the others. “Can you feel it?”
Eleanor looked up from the screen of her porta-comp. “Yes,” she said slowly. “It feels … almost like a charge in the air. Like when a storm’s coming. But the weather’s fine.”
“Agreed.” Cat looked at the slab which stretched out across a large part of land. “I feel very uneasy at the moment. I am getting a gut feeling that something bad is on the way and we should get off of this planet quickly.” Eleanor and Brenda gave Cat a quizzical look, and Cat turned her head and looked at the both of them with a smirk. “But I’ve never listened to my gut feeling before. Let’s get a move on and find a way down there!” With that she started slowly walking away in search of a way to go investigate the structure that lay ahead of them.