She glanced around at the others. She had – successfully, this time – argued that she would be part of the group exploring through the next door. Part of that success was, admittedly, due to the complete lack of danger found so far, and the fact that unless they not only found a source of power, but an awfully big source of power, her piloting skills were going to become essentially irrelevant. Until that time, her physical enhancements, combat training (simulated, but at high realism levels), and adrenalin-junkie preferences made her a much better candidate for playing explorer than any of the specialists.
"After all," she'd finally pointed out, "Unless we're suddenly going to have to go blazing out of here, evading cannon and missiles while Dr. Sandrisson tries to activate the drive in a last-minute glorious escape, just about any of you could manage to get Holy Grail undocked and to an appropriate point in the model solar system to be able to make a safe transition back. And to be honest, Holy Grail isn't a fighter craft, so if someone is shooting at us, we probably aren't getting away no matter who's in the pilot seat."
So now she looked forward at the enigmatic portal, which had showed those few tantalizing glimpses in the few moments DuQuesne and the others had opened it. This time the advance party consisted of herself, Dr. DuQuesne, and Dr. Sandrisson; Gabrielle was of course staying with the still essentially comatose Laila Canning, Cussler was tending the operation of the replicator, while Carl and Steve were trying to set up simple automation for the camp. "Open door."
The white artificial illumination streamed in, brightening the advance camp that the stranded crew of Holy Grail had set up in the canyon-bracketed antechamber in front of the second door. The other three active crewmembers looked up as the door opened. "Ready for test?" she asked Steve.
"Yep. Go ahead."
She faced the door again. "Allow door to be opened from both sides if commanded by any of the people currently present, but not by anyone else without explicit instructions by one of those currently present."
She stepped through the portal. From the other side, Steve said, "Close door."
The door rolled closed again. Ariane waited a moment, then spoke. "Open door."
As obediently as it had from the other side, the door rolled back open. Ariane grinned as she stepped back through. "It works."
DuQuesne nodded. "We determined that it worked for the main door, after Dr. Edlund made the suggestion; it makes sense, a fairly simple security procedure which does not rely on newcomers to put it in place. Although it has obvious dangers in both directions, which indicates something about the builders." He adjusted the small pack he carred. "Captain?"
Dr. Sandrisson gave a smile and a nod as she looked over at him. Ariane took a deep breath and stepped forward. "Here we go."
The door rolled shut once more behind them. While it would have been nice to maintain communications during the exploration, given how little they knew about what was outside, Ariane felt it more prudent to keep the door locked, just in case. And, just in case something else could override that lock, the others would keep a guard on it.
The conical corridor emerged into an oval space, a hundred meters across, a hundred fifty wide, and reaching a peak of thirty meters in height at the center. Two broad, straight lanes of empty space – one running directly from the corridor's mouth, the other at right angles to it – divided the space into quadrants. Low ridges or walls, smooth and featureless, interrupted at intervals by spaces, ran along the edges of these quadrants. Inside each were some enigmatic objects or structures, like wind-carved desert rocks and distorted hollowed tree-trunks made of pearl-tinted steel and polished coal. The light itself emanated from somewhere near the ceiling, but try as she might Ariane couldn't quite make out where. It cast soft shadows, despite the apparent lack of focus.
"Wonder what the hell those things are?" DuQuesne murmured.
"Let's take a look," she said. "Nothing's moving, and I'm not picking up any energy readings except the light itself." She picked the nearest open entrance to the first quandrant and walked over to the first object.
Up close it resembled some sort of abstract sculpture, with little upcurved points – not too sharp --, small holes, and other small features spaced at intervals over the thing. Sandrisson and DuQuesne were examining the material.
"Well, what do you know. This stuff isn't the foundation material. We've got a central ring-carbon composite structure – not all that different from our own high-end armor – with mixed alloys and composites… in a pretty odd pattern, too." DuQuesne frowned. "No idea what it's for."
Something about the spacing of the smaller features was nagging at her. "Doctor… you know, I think this might be something like support columns. For whoever came here to be able to install other things, like chairs, walls, hang pictures, whatever."
Sandrisson leaned forward, touching one of the upcurved points. "I believe you may be right. This is almost like a wall hook. You could use these to support small objects, or as part of the support for something larger. Or use the holes here as fastening points, for bolts or something of the sort."
"And the pattern of materials makes sense from that perspective," DuQuesne agreed. "If you want to fasten things permanently together – welding, glue, whatever – you can find an appropriate surface pretty much anywhere. Without having whatever technology they used to make the foundation material." He turned to Sandrisson. "By the way, I know you were looking over the results Edlund got from the high-gamma and other scans, but you haven't said a damn thing to anyone. What's the story on that stuff?"
When Sandrisson hesitated, Ariane spoke. "Doctor – Simon – let's not get secretive here."
He gave an apologetic grin. "Sorry, Ariane. If you're a sensible man, you get in the habit of being very cautious of making extreme pronouncement when one's in the sciences, especially when it's not your core field." He shook his head. "And the implications are pretty extreme, I'm afraid. At the very limit of resolution of the far gamma, I was getting some indications of structure."
"But that would be at about 10-14 meters, or even less," DuQuesne said, wrinkling his brow. "That's down at subatomic size scale."
"Exactly," said Sandrisson, absently pushing back a strand of snow-white hair. "And I was only getting subtle indications of structure – very regular structure – even then. After examining all the other data – which showed not a single trace of any subatomic particle I could identify – I was forced to only one conclusion. What we are looking at is a structured ultrasubatomic latticework, a self-healing, self-supporting structure that is constructed of quarks. A coherent quark composite, if you will."
"I thought that you couldn't get individual quarks to play with," protested Ariane. "Don't they just bind tighter to each other the farther you try to pull them apart, like tying two things together with springs?"
"Something like that – rather the opposite of most natural forces, of course, which tend to weaken with distance – and yes, that is generally the way it works, with a few minor exceptions. Apparently, however, our unknown builders knew some things that we do not."
DuQuesne shook his head in disbelief. "That's about as close to the classic sci-fi 'unobtainium' as I've ever heard. You'd need a thermonuclear bomb to even start chipping away at it. You could lasso Jupiter and drag it in by main force with a rope of this stuff."
Ariane nodded. "Now, if we can just figure out how to make it, we're all set. But I don't think we're going to do that right now, so why don't we do some more exploring?"
"Fair enough." DuQuesne surveyed the oval-shaped room. "Which direction, Captain? There appears to be one door at the far end of this room, and one right across from the one we entered by."
Both doors appeared to be identical to the one they'd just recently left; circular and a bit less than four meters across. "Let's take the one at the far end. See where a right-angle turn takes us."
Ariane gave it the same instructions as the prior door, to which it appeared to respond just as well, and the three stepped through and closed the door. But as they started down this new conical corridor, which seemed to join with a somewhat wider corridor ahead, DuQuesne held up his hand sharply. "Do you hear that?"
A stacatto rapping was approaching, growing rapidly louder; to Ariane, it sounded very like the rattle of boots on pavement, many pairs of boots all running. A startling flash of movement, multiple figures passing by the entrance. In that quick moment, Ariane could tell the figures were bipedal, generally greenish in color, tall, and not human in outline, though that might be some kind of uniform or costume the things were wearing. There was no sign anyone had spotted them; the running sounds continued.
Cautiously, Ariane moved towards the corridor's end, followed by DuQuesne and Sandrisson. The footsteps, now some way distant down the corridor, slowed and stopped. But it was the next sound that turned the entire universe upside down.
"A thin branch that ends in air, Mindkiller. How pathetic this, your last run," said a sharp, cold voice.
To use modern vernacular, "WTF???"