Monday, March 4, 2013

The First Imperium (CW 4) Chapter 2

Here is this week's Crimson Worlds IV sample - Chapter Four of The First Imperium.


Chapter 2


Level 242

Combined Powers Excavation Site

Carson’s World – Epsilon Eridani IV


“I’m telling you, these conduits go all the way down to the planet’s core.  How many more levels do we need to discover before you will accept the true scope of this installation?”  Friedrich Hofstader stared at his companions, the exasperation in his voice clear.  For months, the chief of the CEL’s research contingent had been urging the Committee to authorize deeper digging.  But no matter what he said, they kept dragging their feet, debating endlessly about every expansion of the research effort.

“Dr. Hofstader, I understand your scientific curiosity and the resulting impatience, but it is important to stress that we must maintain a cautious approach.”  Ivan Norgov was the head of the Russian research team and the elected chairman of the International Committee created to manage the scientific efforts on Epsilon Eridani IV.  “It is essential that we follow proper research procedure and thoroughly document our findings at each step.”

Hofstader suppressed a sigh.  He was already the odd man out, and he was trying not to further antagonize his colleagues.  It wasn’t easy, especially since he couldn’t think of Norgov as anything but an officious asshole. “Gentlemen, I understand the research protocols, but have any of you considered the fact that someone built this?”  Hofstader had always favored action, and he had bristled for years when colleagues at the Institute in Neu-Brandenburg endlessly debated protocols and process.  Academics will never change, he thought with considerable irritation.  But Epsilon Eridani IV was an unprecedented research opportunity, and he couldn’t reconcile with anyone stunting progress here with endless bureaucracy.

Norgov gave him an annoyed stare, but it was Adam Crandall, the chief physicist from the Alliance team, who spoke first.  “I presume there is more to your point than the obvious fact that this is not a naturally-occurring structure?”  Crandall was another pompous fool, mired down in intellectual pretensions, but even Hofstader had to admit the Alliance scientist was brilliant.  He was responsible for most of the foundational work on explaining the warp gates and how they functioned. 

“My point is simply this…”  Hofstader couldn’t understand how a group of people this intelligent could be so stupid.  “Until the Alliance found this artifact, we were alone in the universe.”  He spoke with amazement and reverence at the monumental importance of the discovery, which his colleagues seemed to have forgotten.  “The moment this was found we were no longer unique.  The race that constructed this facility was thousands of years ahead of us…and that was half a million years ago.”  He could see he was losing them, but he continued, hoping to somehow get his point across.  “Don’t you see the implications of this in terms of our place in the universe?  And, by extension, the imperative need for us to study and apply this technology?”

Norgov frowned and held his hand in the air.  “Dr. Hofstader, I think we are all familiar with your issues and concerns.”  The Russian scientist wasn’t trying to be condescending and insulting; it just came naturally to him.  “Nevertheless, I think it is a massive and unwarranted leap to assume that simply because a sentient race preceded us in the galaxy and built this facility that we face imminent invasion…or whatever else it is you imply.”

“This entire planet is an anti-matter production facility utilizing seismic energy as a power source.”  Hofstader’s voice was becoming higher pitched.  He was passionate about his research, and frustrated that a culture of bureaucracy was slowing down the exploration of the greatest discovery in history.  “Imagine the implications!”

“The Committee has issued no such finding.”  Crandall again, spouting Academic orthodoxy.  “Your assertions as to the facility’s purpose and power generation are premature.  They are, at best, a hypothesis at present.”

“I’m not talking about Committee findings.”  Hofstader was losing steam – he knew he wasn’t going to get anywhere.  Not with this group.  “I’m talking about plain sense and an evaluation of the data.”

“Dr. Hofstader, no one is disputing your knowledge or the usefulness of your research, but you are making a significant number of unsubstantiated projections, not the least of which is your assertion that this facility is planet-wide in scope.  We have determined it is quite vast, far larger than it initially appeared.”  Norgov was trying to be conciliatory, at least to the extent it was possible for him.  “But we are far from verifying the facility is built on a planetwide scale.”  His eyes narrowed as he looked at Hofstader.  “Not to mention extending all the way to the planetary core s you have theorized.”

“Indeed, Friedrich, Dr. Norgov is correct.”  Crandall spoke softly and smiled.  In his own way, he too was trying to avoid offending Hofstader.  “We must not abandon proper research procedure simply because of the scope and import of the find.”

Hofstader sighed, but he managed to keep it quiet.  Crandall simply didn’t have it in him to think outside the box.  None of them did.  They’d spent their whole lives in academia, and they’d lost all touch with the real world implications of the things they researched.  He wanted to continue arguing, but he realized it was a waste of time. 

Norgov noted Hofstader’s lack of a response, and he smiled.  “We are agreed, then.”

Hofstader just nodded, so grudgingly it was barely perceptible.  He wasn’t going to waste any more time debating…it was pointless.  But that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to do anything.

 

 Bradley Travers ducked under a support beam and continued following Hofstader down the dusty corridor.  Travers was tall, well over two meters, and these old tunnels had clearly been built for shorter beings.  It was pretty anecdotal, but it was a tiny piece of the greatest puzzle of all…who were the builders of this complex, and what were they like?

Beyond rough assumptions based on an analysis of the facility itself, the only clues they had found to date were microscopic bits of fossilized amino acid chains that might or might not be something similar to DNA.  It was going to be years in the lab before anything meaningful could be derived…unless they found more substantive data to jumpstart that timetable.

Travers was the head of the Martian research team, and his xenobiology credentials were impeccable.  But there was more than one layer to Travers – he was also one of Roderick Vance’s operatives at the Martian Security Department.  He was on Carson’s World mostly to do his job as a scientist, but he was also there to keep an eye on things for Vance.  He was pretty sure he’d ID’d all of Gavin Stark’s people, unless Alliance Intelligence had managed to get someone into a really deep cover.  In fact, he was pretty sure he’d pegged most of the spooks.  Every Power had at least one in their team, and most had more.  Even though the Superpowers had agreed to share access to the planet and work together to unravel its mysteries, they still jockeyed for position, trying to get an edge on the others one way or another.

Vance had been particularly concerned about anything Stark was doing, since he’d lost his main asset inside Alliance Intelligence.  The newsflash had simply noted that Hendrick Thoms, director of megacorp GDL, had died in a work-related accident.  His true fate, known only to a very few people, had been considerably more horrifying.  Gavin Stark had no pity for double agents.

Vance had gotten the better of Stark during the recent series of rebellions on the Alliance colonies, largely using intel from Thoms.  Stark had been holding Fleet Admiral Garret hostage for months, having replaced him with a double.  Combined with his secret control over General Samuels, he’d been positioned to achieve total victory…until Vance assisted Erik Cain in rescuing Garret. 

 Gavin Stark was a psychopath and a human reptile, but he was also extremely intelligent.  Vance had always known it would only be a matter of time before Stark figured out what had happened, especially after MSD also outed Samuels, allowing Generals Cain and Holm to take control of the Marine Corps and save it from destruction.  Stark couldn’t get to Vance, at least not easily, but Thoms hadn’t been so lucky.  Vance knew Thoms would eventually get blown…with unpleasant results.  He wasn’t the same as Stark – at least he liked to think he wasn’t.  But he hadn’t hesitated to expend Thoms either.

Travers agreed with Friederich Hofstader about pushing the pace of the research.  It might be thousands of years – if ever – before humanity encountered the enigmatic race that built the great artifact on Carson’s World, but there was simply no way to know.  The only thing they could be sure of was, if that contact happened, humanity would be hopelessly outclassed.  Better to learn all they could before that day came.

The corridor was eerily quiet, untouched for millennia.  The only sound was the soft scratching of their boots on the rough stone surface.  There were just the three of them - Hofstader, his assistant Katrina, and Travers.  They were here unofficially…very unofficially.  In fact, they were violating just about every rule and protocol that applied to the project.

The tunnel had been bored out of the bedrock, and it led down at a constant 5% grade.  This branch hadn’t been opened for exploration, and there were no lighting units installed yet; the preliminary scout teams hadn’t even ventured this far yet.  The glow from the party’s portable electric torches danced off the smooth walls as they passed by.  There was a thin semi-opaque tube running along the ceiling, the corridor’s original lighting track.  It was non-functional, since there was no power generation in the facility, but otherwise it looked almost new.  The same tubing had been found throughout the complex.  They still hadn’t been able to identify the material.  It was pliable and could be bent around curves, but it was extremely tough – even a plasma torch had a hard time cutting through it.  And they had no idea at all how it functioned.

“According to my projected schematic, this passage should lead to one of the acceleration chambers.”  Hofstader’s voice echoed loudly off the tunnel walls.  He glanced back at his two companions and spoke more softly.  “It may be a long way.  Remember, I if am right, this complex is planetary in scale.”  He readjusted the pack on his back and turned to face forward, into the gloom of the passageway ahead.

They continued for hours, walking at least at least 25 kilometers, stopping only once to eat a few ration bars.  They passed a number of sealed hatches, but they bypassed them and pressed on ahead.  It had taken a heavy plasma torch to cut through the sealed doorways they’d discovered elsewhere in the complex, and they didn’t expect these to be any different.

“I’m detecting a slow uptick in background radiation.”  Katrina’s voice was soft, distracted.  She was staring at a small handheld monitor.  “Analyzing now.”  She looked up, a big smile on her face.  “Readings consistent with long-term radioactives from anti-matter production.  We must be close.”  Katrina Hoffen had been Friedrich’s student first, and now she was an accomplished physicist in her own right.  She’d volunteered for this assignment, as had most of the scientists on Earth.  This was the greatest research project in human history, and even the prospect of spending years on an alien world wasn’t enough to discourage most of them.

Friederich Hofstader was the top scientist in the Central European League, and it fell to him to assemble that Power’s team.  Katrina had a strong record, though she was relatively young and inexperienced for a mission of this magnitude.  But Hofstader was a bit of a maverick, and he focused more on securing people he trusted rather than on traditional academic achievements.  For the most part he had little time anyway for the fuss and bother of his peers and their review boards and awards committees.  All that mattered to him was the job at hand.

They quickened their pace, stopping only to rerun the radiation tests twice more.  Finally, the tunnel led through an archway and onto a small catwalk that stretched as far as their light carried.  Katrina activated a handful of small chem lights and tossed them over the railing.  They landed about ten meters below and illuminated a vast tunnel extending off in both directions.  There was a 5 meter wide conduit suspended on a series of brackets.  It disappeared into the darkness at both ends of the illuminated area.

“You were right, Friedrich.”  Travers’ wasn’t surprised; he’d expected Hofstader’s theory to check out.  But it was still amazing to consider the scale of the construct looming in front of them.  “Congratulations.”  Travers wasn’t a physicist, but he recognized a massive particle accelerator when he saw one.

Hofstader was mesmerized, staring at the amazing structure.  It was definitely an accelerator, but it was far larger and more complex than any he’d ever seen.  He couldn’t begin to identify half of the constructs and devices built into it, and it would take weeks of detailed computations to even guess at the energy levels the thing could achieve.  But they were able to confirm one suspicion by measuring the slight arc of the conduit…it appeared to stretch completely around the planet. 

“Apart from the technology involved, this is an engineering achievement of incalculable proportions.”  Katrina spoke slowly, her mind nearly consumed by the act of simply staring at the amazing device.  “This entire planet was an anti-matter production facility.”  She turned to look at Friederich.  “Just as you suspected, Dr. Hofstader.”

They stood silently for a moment, unable to look away from the ancient alien construction.  Finally, Travis turned and stared at his two companions.  “Imagine the power the race that built this commanded.”  He took a deep breath.  “I wonder if they’re still out there somewhere.”

The three of them lost track of how long they stood there transfixed, but they were all thinking the same thing.  Where were the builders of this place?