Chapter 3: The Gate
Dominic grabbed an overhead bar and pulled himself onto the flight deck. Jack was strapped into the pilot’s seat; Angela sat at the co-pilot’s station to his right. Neither of them looked back; both were laser-focused on their control panels.
Maazin hovered behind, monitoring — most likely everything, ready to propel himself back to the engine module at the first hint of trouble.
Kim was strapped into the seat at the portside science cluster. Data flashed across her instrument panels, but Kim ignored it. Her eyes, wide with stunned disbelief, were locked on the forward window. If Dominic hadn’t known better, he would have sworn she was trembling.
Dominic followed her gaze and felt his jaw drop.
He glanced quickly down at the telescope and spectrograph readings, just to be sure his eyes weren’t playing tricks, or that he wasn’t still dreaming, and then looked back at the window. A massive ring crafted from strange alien material — it seemed to be spun from metal and crystal rather than shaped or manufactured — dominated the view. A vast triangle of the same strange substance was mounted within.
Dominic pulled himself to the starboard instrument cluster and strapped himself in without peeling his eyes away from the window. “I … I didn’t realize we’d be so close!” he managed.
“Easy, Specialist.” Angela suppressed a smile. “We’re still a long way away.”
Dominic turned his gaze back to his instruments. Angela was right. They weren’t close at all, at least not by the scale he was used to. That meant — holy Christ, the gateway was massive. The Collins was a dust speck approaching a mountain.
“We’re closing fast though,” said Jack. “Want me to ease off?” His fingers hovered over the retro thruster controls.
“Not yet,” Angela said slowly, shaking her head. “This is what we came for.”
Dominic shook his head. “How … how big is that thing?” Intellectually, he’d known the thing was big. They’d been briefed; he could quote the precise dimensions from memory without a tick of hesitation. Knowledge, though, mere knowledge hadn’t prepared him for the sheer and overwhelming awe of reality.
“We could fly a skyscraper through it,” Maazin said.
“I could fly Texas through that thing,” Jack returned.
The Collins still moved with speed, and the alien artifact was growing larger on their screens, until Dominic felt a wave of vertigo churning in his head and gut, as though the scale of the thing pulled him like a tide. Emotion surged through his veins like wine, a strange vintage too complex to distill or analyze — awe and wonder, certainly, joy, and fear, icy and trembling. He found himself thinking, unexpectedly of small, lost, inconsequential things — a toy spaceship he’d loved as a child, the white lace pattern on his mother’s favorite kitchen table cloth, the narrow lower bunk where he’d slept at the Academy, the slope of Anna’s hip and the gentle and warm curve of her back as she slept. More than the size of the artifact, it was the age of it that overwhelmed and shook him, as though the very weight of time could crush him like a firefly into the darkness of insignificance.
Dominic took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
Focus on your sodding training, Vance, he admonished himself.
He was a scientist, one of the best; it was time to start acting like one. Heshook his head once and forced his attention to the monitor that showed the view from the forward telescope. The stars beyond were distorted.
Dominic nodded to himself. That’ll be the plasma energy field. “Are those markings on the surface?”
“Yes,” said Kim. “Symbols, like on the Saturn artifact.” She was moving symbols around in the equations on her display almost faster than Dominic could follow. “I’m working on deciphering them.”
Dominic looked at another monitor and nodded. “The materials and construction — they’re like the Saturn artifact, too.”
“Meaning we don’t know what they are,” said Jack. “Is that thing … generating the wormhole?”
“No,” said Kim. “I mean, we believe the wormhole is artificial, given its size and stability. But as near as we can tell, the technology here is just a seal, a gate.”
“Like a giant manhole cover,” said Dominic, “or a stopper in a drain.”
“Then let’s knock on the front door, shall we?” Angela turned in her seat. “Kim?”
Dominic turned to watch Kim’s monitor. Rows of pictographic symbols flashed across her screen. “Transmitting,” she said.
Ahead, symbols on the triangle within the great circle began to flash. The circle itself began to turn slowly, and Dominic thought of the pins and tumblers moving in some giant cosmic lock. His heart raced and his palms were damp. He concentrated on slowing his breathing and his pulse.
“Wow, Kim,” said Maazin. The excitement made his Pakistani accent thicker. “Looks like you did crack it.”
“It’s a pictographic code,” said Kim. “Just like on the Saturn artifact. Each one represents a series of E8 mathematical formulae. The most complicated I’ve ever seen. The correct sequence opens the gate.” She shrugged. “It worked for the probes, anyway.”
“Remind me again what happened to them?” Jack said. A wry smile curled the corner of his lip.
“We don’t know what happened to them,” Angela returned sharply.
The ship drifted closer to the gate. The bubble of energy that covered it still seemed to distort the field of space beyond, like a film of oil.
Dominic glanced at his instruments and shook his head again. The unimaginable energy was obvious even in the silence of space. The readings were inconclusive; if they had to turn around now, he could make a career out of analyzing them.
What in the name of all the flaming levels of hell is generating that kind of power?
Kim transmitted another set of symbols. Beyond the gate, space and time seemed to bend — that’s the only way Dominic could think of to describe it — as the very fabric of reality warped into an impossible new shape, a tunnel.
Dominic looked around. Everyone was fidgeting, clenching their fists, holding their breaths — tense, afraid, excited. The last symbols vanished from Kim’s screen.
Ahead, the great circle turned faster, flowing like ice, and the bubble of energy vanished like a soap bubble popped.
“Go, Jack,” said Angela. Jack touched his controls, and Dominic felt the subtle vibrations in the deck plate as the mains fired. The Collins gained velocity.
The Gate was close, closer, and then it was all around them. And then, stars, the gate — everything — vanished utterly as the universe went dark.
“We’re in the wormhole!” said Kim. Her voice trembled with excitement.
“Can you make the exit, Mister Vance?” said Angela.
Dominic didn’t look up from his screen. “Nothing on telescopes or spectrographs—”
“How fast are we moving?” Angela asked.
“I can’t tell,” said Jack.
“Tell!” Angela demanded.
Jack turned in his seat to face her. His eyes were wide. “Our instruments weren’t meant for this kind of speed.”
“It’s like a … gravity current,” said Kim. “It’s pushing us along like flotsam.”
An alarm chimed and new data flashed across Dominic’s screens. “I’ve got something ahead.”
“The other end?” asked Angela.
“Maybe,” said Dominic. “Could be … light, maybe stars. I’m not certain.”
“How far?” said Angela.
“Twenty-six … no, wait….” He shook his head, trying to make sense of data that seemed to twist the laws of physics into a new shape, and then defy them all over again. “These readings don’t make any sense.”
“Space and time….” said Kim. “They … they mean something … different here.”
Dominic nodded once. “Yes. That’s exactly it. Or the best way to put it, anyway.”
“That’s not telling me as much as the two of you probably think,” said Jack.
“I’m with Mr. O’Brien,” said Angela.
“I’m not sure the hull can handle this kind of stress,” said Maazin. His eyes darted from instrument cluster to instrument cluster.
Angela turned to look back at him. “Maazin—”
“On it.” Maazin launched himself back, hurrying aft.
Another chime sounded on Dominic’s instrument panel. His eyes darted to the spectrograph display. “I’ve got something else….” The chime sounded again, louder, an alarm clarion. Dominic spun in his chair. “Wait! There’s something in here! An object. In the wormhole! With us!”
Angela spun in her seat, turning back to the flight controls. “Full stop!”
Jack glared at her. “You’re joking, right?”
Maazin called back from the engine module. “We’re not stopping with forward retro thrusters. Not at this speed.”
“The gravity stream’s too strong,” said Kim.
“I don’t think we could stop even if we could somehow spin around and use the mains,” said Jack. “Which, for the record, we can’t.”
The alarm clarion sounded again, blaring so loud that Dominic thought his ears must be bleeding. “I’ve got a visual.” Dominic adjusted the view on the telescope monitor. The object ahead was a piece of space junk. As it tumbled, Dominic caught a brief glimpse of the ISA logo on the hull. “It’s one of our probes!”
“Where?” said Jack.
Before Dominic could answer, the Collins shook and lurched violently. Metal screamed and tore. From somewhere aft, Dominic heard a sound that have might been an explosion. The deck reeled and alarms blared.
“Never mind,” said Jack. “I think I found it.”
Maazin shouted from the engineering module. His voice was frantic. “I’ve got massive damage! Mains are down. We’re losing life support!”
Dominic’s stomach heaved. The ship spun wildly. He tried to turn one of the telescope cameras back on the Collins itself, and immediately wished he hadn’t. A gaping hole had been ripped in its side and the communication antenna dish had been torn away completely.
Another alarm sounded. Dominic looked down at his screen. Uh oh. “We’ve got another probe ahead!”
Jack and Angela worked frantically, trying to regain control. No good. The Collins reeled again, spinning like a windmill in a hurricane.
The second collision was even harder. The ship lurched again, and Dominic heard the sickening sound of metal on metal, tearing.
“Found that one, too,” said Jack.
Dominic heard more sounds — definitely explosions. The fire suppression systems were working overtime.
“Massive damage!” Maazin called. “Massive!”
Angela turned around in her seat. “The probes didn’t get through….”
She didn’t finish the thought. She didn’t have to. If the probes didn’t get though the wormhole, something must be blocking the far end. The Collins was heading toward that something at unimaginable speed.
Dominic peered at his instruments again. “We’re coming up on the exit….”
“How soon?” said Angela.
Dominic shook his head. He couldn’t get a definitive reading. “Fast,” he said.
Ahead, the instruments showed another gate, a triangle in a circle. Impossibly huge, and growing with every heartbeat. They were getting closer, and quickly. Beyond, the telescopes showed stars — distorted. The energy field was in place.
“Looks like trouble,” said Jack.
“Specialist Chang—” Angela began.
Dominic turned to watch Kim work. The symbols and equations appeared again on her monitor. She was transmitting.
Dominic looked back at the monitor he’d trained on the Collins. The severely damaged ship was still spinning wildly. How the hell is this thing holding together?
The gate was close, and still covered with its energy bubble.
Jack worked frantically. “I can’t get control!”
Dominic had to swallow twice before he found his voice. “We’re going to hit that gate.”
Kim looked up. Her eyes were wild. “It should be off!”
Angela looked back at Dominic. Dominic glanced at his scope. He shook his head.
“Transmit again,” said Angela.
Kim did. “It’s not working!”
The gate was visible from the spinning cockpit, and growing larger with every wild turn, with every desperate heartbeat. The energy gate was in place. The Collins shuddered again. They ship felt very small and fragile.
“O’Brien,” said Angela, “can you turn?”
Jack shook his head without looking up from the controls. “I don’t think I could do that even if anything was working—”
“I’m trying!” Maazin shouted from the engineering module.
Dominic looked back at the main forward window. He could see symbols on the crystal-metal surface of the gate. “Look,” he said. “Are those the same?”
Kim shook her head. “Close, but reversed. They’re—”
They were close, closer.
Then, Dominic heard Kim muttering to herself. “Wait, we’re on the other side of the door….”
“What?” Angela demanded.
Kim didn’t answer. She worked frantically. Dominic saw her pull a delicate silver chain out from under her flight suit and clutch the pendants for a split second — he recognized sacred symbols from a dozen or so different religions. It was the jewelry equivalent of those coexist bumper stickers from the old movies.
Maazin called out again. “You’ve got maneuvering thrusters!” After a moment, he added, “Maybe.”
Jack worked the controls. Dominic felt the hull vibrate again as the thrusters fired. The Collins stabilized. But the ship was still speeding toward the gate.
The gate filled the window. They’d be on it in seconds. The energy bubble was still in place.
If we hit it at this speed…. Dominic didn’t finish the thought.
Kim looked up from her instruments. “Transmitting….”
They reached the shield. Dominic closed his eyes and braced himself.
When he opened his eyes at last, he saw stars. An infinite field of shining stars, impossible to name or count.
They were through.
Dominic checked his monitors. The Collins was still moving at tremendous speed, mostly in one piece, leaving a trail of drifting space junk behind them like the tail of a comet. Behind them, the energy shield re-engaged.
Everyone was limp, too stunned and exhausted to move or speak. A long moment passed before Angela broke the silence. “Kim, what the hell happened?”
Kim shrugged. “I transmitted the code backwards. A mirror image. ’Cause, you know, we were on the other side of the door. See, the symbols were reversed and—” Her voice was almost a whisper. “It was all I could think of.”
Dominic felt a grin widening across his face. “It was bloody fricking brilliant!”
Angela nodded, smiling. Kim beamed.
Jack checked his instruments. “We’re still moving fast. We haven’t lost any velocity from the gravity stream….”
Kim’s face went pale and her eyes were wide. “We’ll lose our fix on the gate!”
Dominic swallowed. If that happened, they would drift forever, lost.
“Full stop!” said Angela.
“No way,” said Jack. “Not without the mains.”
Dominic looked up at the window. They were in a stellar system. Ahead, a sun was bright, close. Yellow, like Earth’s. The Collins was heading for it. He looked back down at the monitor that showed the camera he’d focused aft. Behind, the gate was dwindling. It would soon be lost to sight. He widened the view and started working on getting their bearings. Where the hell are we?
“Can we slingshot around that star?” said Angela.
“Do we have enough life support?” asked Kim.
“Maybe.” Jack frowned. “It’d take a hell of a shot to hit that gate again with only thrusters.”
“If we miss by even a fraction….” Dominic began. There was no need to finish that grim thought.
Angela hit a comm button. “Maazin?”
“I’ve got a mess that my three languages don’t give me enough nearly enough expletives to describe,” said Maazin. “I’m picking up the pieces back here!”
Angela’s frown deepened. “I need options. What’s here?”
Kim looked at her instruments. “A g-type main sequence yellow dwarf. Almost a twin for the sun. One planet, fairly close to us, and … wow.”
Ahead the sun went dark abruptly, eclipsed by something large.
Angela gaped. “What the hell is that?”
“That’s the planet,” said Kim.
Angela turned. “Nick, where the hell are we?”
Dominic turned his attention back to his instruments. “Working on it.”
“Dammit, use the computer!” said Angela. “Identify star patterns—”
Dominic looked up at her. He was way past looking for familiar star patterns; it was time to look farther. Way farther. “I’m working on patterns of galaxies.”
Everyone stared at him, slack-jawed. Jack whistled. “We’re a long way from home, folks.”
Angela turned back to the window. “Can we orbit that planet?”
Jack shrugged. “We’ve got the momentum.”
“Do it,” said Angela.
“Yes Ma’am,” said Jack. Dominic felt the broken Collins shudder as Jack adjusted the maneuvering thrusters. Maazin was going to have his hands full.
“That planet’s big,” said Kim. She shook her head again. “Bigger than Jupiter. But it’s rocky! It’s not a gas giant.”
Dominic looked up from his instruments and shook his head. “It’s huge, but … where’s the mass?”
“What do you mean?” said Angela.
Kim looked back over her shoulder at Dominic. “The orbit of its moon?”
Dominic nodded. “There’s not nearly enough mass for a rock that size. That’s about Earth gravity.”
He watched the window, still gaping. The planet was growing larger. He looked down at the spectrographs and rubbed his temples. “This planet … it doesn’t make any kind of sense.”
“How so?” said Angela.
“Oxygen nitrogen atmosphere,” said Dominic. “Like Earth. Well, like Earth minus the pollution. Rapid rotation … close to a twenty-four hour day.”
“Any signs of technology?” asked Angela.
“Nothing in space,” said Jack. “Not even a satellite.”
“No city lights on the night side,” Kim pointed out.
“We’re getting close to orbit,” said Jack.
Dominic adjusted his instruments, and then shook his head and adjusted them again, almost hoping for the comfort of an error to explain the incongruities below. “There’s a lot of ground to survey, but from what I’ve seen of the topography….” Dominic shook his head again. “Like I said, it just doesn’t make any kind of sense.”
Ahead, the sun moved from behind the planet as they crossed the terminator to the dayside.
“Explain,” said Angela.
“Massive continents,” said Dominic, “but the climate … I’m seeing … look, here. Jungle, right next to glaciers, right next to desert. Regardless of longitude or latitude.”
“It’s like someone tore up a map and just patch-worked it all back together at random,” said Kim.
“That doesn’t make sense!” said Angela.
“I’m trying to tell you,” said Dominic.
Kim adjusted the controls on her instruments. “Wait! I’m seeing some kind of … I don’t know. Energy flows. I can’t get a reading….”
Dominic looked back at his own panel. “It’s like the energy over the wormhole gate. That tells us precisely nothing mind, but there you go. It’s almost like a grid, but the lines are irregular, not straight.”
“Artificial?” asked Angela.
“It must be,” said Kim. “Look, the flows run along the borders of the topographic zones … and they meet at nexus points.” She tapped another control. “I’m putting them on the main screen … there.”
“Where two or more of the patchwork zones meet,” said Dominic.
“There’s a large one … a main junction, I think,” said Kim. “I’m sending you coordinates. It’s right at the point where five of those climate zones meet. Maybe that’s a source?”
“Possible,” said Dominic. He shrugged. “Makes as much sense as anything.”
“What could be generating that kind of power?” said Angela.
“Unknown,” said Dominic. “Nothing I can read from orbit, anyway.”
“Give me your best hypothesis,” said Angela.
Dominic looked back at Kim. She shrugged. “Advanced technology,” said Dominic. “Something we’re not equipped to read.”
“Could those energy flows cause the climate anomalies?” said Angela.
Kim took a deep breath and let it out before answering. “Like Dominic said. It makes as much sense as anything, I guess.”
“Which is, again, to say precisely none,” said Dominic. “I’m trying to find it with the telescopes….”
“If that nexus is artificial, then whoever built the wormhole gate….” Angela began.
“That’s where we’ll find them,” Kim finished. “That’s my best guess, anyway. Dominic?”
He didn’t answer. Something on the telescope monitor had caught his attention. He blinked, shook his head, and blinked again. “Wait … what the hell?”
Angela turned to Dominic and raised her eyebrows.
“You simply must see this,” said Dominic. He tapped his control, and an image appeared on the large monitor above the window. It showed a jungle, magnified, from directly above. “This is two climate zones away from that nexus, but right near the borders. Still pretty close.”
“That vegetation doesn’t look … alien,” said Kim.
“Just wait,” said Dominic. “Here.”
Dominic watched Angela as her jaw fell open.
The image showed a very clear image of a cluster of Egyptian-style stone Pyramids in the ruins of a lost city, along with a Sphinx, its bold nose still intact, rising high above the jungle canopy.
“Oh—” said Angela. “Oh my God!”