So DuQuesne and the others were preparing for a little look around the Upper Sphere. Surely there can't be any problem with THAT!
Like the Inner Gateway, the Outer Gateway looming before them was twenty meters across. However, the Outer Gateway was not a vortex of unfathomable energies, but another simple doorway of the indestructible Arena material. It had been something of a hike, following the directions Orphan had given DuQuesne before he returned – through several corridors and then taking what appeared to be another elevator like those he'd seen in Nexus Arena. Given what he guessed about the design of this place, DuQuesne suspected that the relatively short ride was exceedingly deceptive and the elevator actually covered a vastly greater vertical ascent than simple human perceptions would indicate.
The elevator had opened into a large room – the room in which they were now standing and had made their advance base. DuQuesne surveyed the makeshift base camp, at which Gabrielle would be standing watch. All three of them were armed and facing the doorway, as they had no idea what might be waiting outside.
He felt tense, but also somehow… more free. It was a pleasant, yet eerily insidious, feeling, one that harmonized with parts of him that hadn't been allowed free rein in decades, and he worried about that. Had all his prior work been useless? Or was it just that here, in the ultimate of all artificial environments, parts of the old Marc C. DuQuesne were just better suited than the persona he'd developed instead?
It doesn't matter right now. We've got a job to do. He checked to make sure the others were ready, getting wordless nods in answer. He faced the door. "Open Outer Gateway."
The great door rolled smoothly aside, and blazing sunlight streamed in, sunlight of such a familiar shade that he blinked. With the light came a distant rumbling noise, faint strange sounds, and a breath of cool, humid air that brought the smells of a new world with it; sweet scents, an undertone of pungency, the faint emanation of decay smelled in a forest. Cautiously, the three advanced to the entrance and stood looking out.
"Wow," Carl said finally.
The Outer Gateway opened onto a wide ledge of rock jutting from the face of a cliff. A kilometer off to the left, a great waterfall plunged down into the valley below, the source of the distant rumbling. The steep-sided valley was filled with lush vegetation, most of it a deep green in color, but with shades of lighter green and blue-green visible. Splotches of red, yellow, violet, and other colors indicated flowers or something similar, and motion was visible indicating something like birds flying between the trees.
Above, a cheerful white-yellow sun shone, looking essentially identical to the one they'd left behind weeks… or was it months?… ago; but through the generally blue background of the sky, and the white of the floating clouds, were hints of something else, a subliminal curve or suggestion of color that had no business being in a sky.
Gabrielle suddenly squatted down. "Well, hello there."
Following her gaze, DuQuesne could see that she was observing something moving along the ground, shiny and black with many legs – very much like a beetle. "Be careful," he cautioned. "the Arena may make it possible to survive here, but that certainly doesn't mean things can't be dangerous – and in fact Orphan says it's probably about as dangerous as exploring a new area of Earth was back in the old days. Which means that most things probably are perfectly safe, but you can't tell right now –"
"—whether that's a harmless wood beetle or the local equivalent of a black widow," Gabrielle cut in. "Don't try to teach your medical officer how to wrap bandages. I'm not going to take any unnecessary chances, Marc."
Carl, meanwhile, had been surveying the ledge. "Looks to me like we've got a pretty good path down from here, at least for a while. I'd want to belay us at a couple points, but it probably won't be necessary if we're careful."
DuQuesne agreed, after glancing over the indicated pathway. "Looks good to me. All right, are we clear on procedure?"
"You're going to check in with me every half hour, on the dot. If I don't hear from either of you within five minutes of that time, I give you a call. If I get nothing after another hour, I do not – and you have emphasized, I do not – come after you right away by myself. I go down and get Steve or Tom first, and have them back me up as I scout for you at the last known position. If I don't find you fast, or I stop calling in, they're to shut the Gateway tight and wait for Ariane or Simon to come back – or go through the Inner Gateway, their judgment call." The pretty blonde did not look entirely happy with this arrangement. "This does mean that if you two do get into trouble, that you either solve it yourselves or you'll be dead before anyone gets there."
"So we'd better not get in trouble," Carl agreed. "Setting time at… mark. Okay, first call back in one half hour, even if we're only fifty yards down the mountain."
"Good enough." DuQuesne said. "Let's go."
The "pretty good path" turned out to end after a descent that took them down almost a hundred and fifty meters, zig-zagging so as to cover something close to a kilometer in actual walking distance. The end of the path was a small natural platform (although considering the setting, DuQuesne wondered whether he should apply the word "natural" to anything here); looking over the edge, DuQuesne could see a sheer drop of 50 meters into greenery that ran just about completely up against the cliff; it was hard to make out what lay at the bottom.
Descents and ascents of that magnitude, however, had been well within their discussed possible scenarios, and after check-in he and Carl were quickly able to set up a powered winch, anchored to the rock by spikes, with a solar recharger. It would handle masses up to three times DuQuesne's mass for that distance, and with regenerative charging from descents as well as solar, would be able to handle up to three such upward loads per day. "Not useful for high traffic, but I doubt we'll need anything more than that." Carl said.
DuQuesne nodded and as it was check-in time, spoke. "Gabrielle, we've completed the winch setup and it works. We're now heading down. I'm leaving our first repeater here." He locked the radio relay repeater onto the winch supports.
"Understood, Marc. What's your plan?"
"I'm going to head for the river. Water's always a good thing to have a lot of, and most lifeforms will tend to hang out in those areas. Our armor should hold off just about anything alive long enough for us to shoot it or cut it down, assuming we don't see it coming."
"Carl? Anything interesting?"
"Nothing of great note. Getting spikes of RF-noise off and on, but at this point I can't tell what could be causing them. There's sure no sign of other aspects of civilization, so I strongly suspect a natural cause – maybe from up there." He pointed to the sky. "Storms out there might make lightning that's completely mindboggling, and the EM might go a long, long way."
"Well, keep an eye on it. Let me know if you see any patterns. We might also be seeing transmissions from some other Sphere. On this scale, it's possible that we could receive transmissions from Alpha Centauri in effective realtime, so to speak."
"Will do. Ready to head down?"
"Be careful, you two," Gabrielle's voice said. "I don't want to have to actually exercise any of my functions. Just look out through the doorway at the sunset, whenever that is."
"We're assuming there IS a sunset here," Carl said.
"Unless things change, there will be," DuQuesne informed him. "The sun's moved in the sky by a fair angle – about as much as I'd expect it to move back home, overall. Makes sense; if they're trying to make it liveable they'd have to take into account that a lot of organisms depend on the night-day cycle." He swung onto the descent saddle. "Descending. Next call in 30 minutes."
The descent turned out to be actually closer to 100 meters – near the limit of the winch's cable and reducing the number of up-trips that would be practical. DuQuesne had to pause the saddle several times to hack away vegetation that was encroaching too closely; once he disturbed a nest of something that tried to attack in a swarm, but his light environment suit automatically closed up and the things dispersed shortly; they'd appeared to be something like a cross between a dragonfly and a stag beetle. Finally, however, he reached the bottom.
The base of the cliff was scree, fallen rock, but being woven into a more stable base by swiftly growing vines and other plants. He wondered idly how the Outer Gateway coped with geologic shifts… and then what sort of geology existed on this outlandish place. "Down, Carl. I've cleared the descent path, it should be okay."
With no need for him to pause, it took Carl only a few minutes to descend and join DuQuesne on the ground. It was somewhat warmer here, but not tremendously so. "Climate variations must be very different on these Spheres. I'm afraid we're going to have to re-work just about everything we know about the sciences in view of this place."
The two cautiously worked their way closer to the river, calling in as time required. Once well into the jungle, the undergrowth diminished considerably, making progress easier, but DuQuesne kept both of them moving slowly and carefully; he didn't want to get caught out by anything unexpected. Both of them noted a number of potentially interesting features – a plant, or something that looked like one, that appeared to move when they got close; a brightly-colored flying thing that gave DuQuesne the impression of a pterodactyl or, possibly, a bat – though with a bifurcated tail; one tree that had a circle of absolutely bare soil near it (which they both gave a very wide berth); and others.
Finally, DuQuesne could hear the river rattling over rocks not far off, and then reported in to Gabrielle. "It's going to get dark fairly soon, so after we scout out this area I think we'll set up camp, probably in a tree or hanging between a couple."
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Carl stiffen. "Hold on," he said to Gabrielle. "What is it?"
Carl pulled out a flat display. "Stronger RF spikes – and they've coincided with our calls the last couple of times. I just managed to get a good spectrum of the last one, and it looks to me like a transmission!"
DuQuesne immediately linked to Carl's data and scanned it rapidly. What he saw sent a shockwave of adrenalin through him. "Gabrielle, Code 6, repeat, Code 6." He cut off immediately, with Carl silently mouthing a disbelieving "Code 6??" at him.
He nodded. "Move."
The two of them hastened from their prior position, trying to parallel the river towards the cliff. "Code 6" was a contingency for what was to happen if DuQuesne thought there was a possibility of encounter with advanced hostiles. His glance over the data indicated several potential sources, which had shifted position, and which were closer – much closer – now than they had been previously. Critical now was to get away from the last transmission location. Gabrielle – assuming she followed the orders, which he hoped she would – had by now retreated inside the Gateway and locked it. It would be unlocked for a quick glance and interrogation at semi-random intervals for the next day or so, to allow them to make it back inside without giving adversaries a chance to attack.
He held up his hand, and Carl sank down to the ground; they hid in the dense vegetation and waited, weapons out and ready.
Long minutes ticked past, and then more minutes. Shadows began to lengthen as the sun-equivalent retreated behind distant ridges, invisible from their viewpoint inside the jungle. DuQuesne was relaxed but alert, deliberately slowing his breathing and heart rate to wait as long as he had to. After some initial tenseness, Carl tried to emulate him – fairly well, DuQuesne had to admit. But that wasn't too surprising, given Carl's preferred virtual adventure background; he really did know a lot about the martial arts, and control of one's body on all levels was a part of that.
Still, there was a limit to most people's patience, and after an hour and a half, Carl shifted. "How much longer –"
"Shh!" DuQuesne hissed with quiet intensity. His ears had just picked up on another sound.
To someone else – less trained, less paranoid – it might have sounded almost random, the dropping of detritus to the forest floor, the occasional scuttle of something else through underbrush; but to DuQuesne it sounded like something else, a set of carefully spaced footfalls – not human footfalls, either – timed to blend in with the background. But during the sounds there was also sometimes the faint rushing scrape of bushes or other plants being pushed aside by a larger body.
Carl looked at him questioningly; clearly he still couldn't hear it. DuQuesne shook his head very slightly; the other man looked grim and made sure he had a good grip on his gun.
The sounds continued, gradually approaching. No… there was more than one set of sounds. Dammit! DuQuesne cursed inwardly. Whoever they were, it was a trained squad. He caught Carl's eye, used his hands to give him vectors. Four individuals. There, there, there, and there.
A very faint shadow moved in the gloom; based on his sketchy knowledge of the area, he guessed it at about 75 meters off, and that made it pretty good-sized. Couldn't quite get a good look at it. Of course, if the things had infrared imaging on, they might already see him and Dr. Edlund. They would certainly spot them as soon as either of them moved.
Then another movement in shadow, a bit closer; this one stalked cautiously, smoothly into a slight clearing, and DuQuesne's heart seemed to drop straight into his boots. A centauroid body atop seven sharp-jointed legs, with a pair of jack-knife arms held curled and ready.
How the hell did they get here? There's no way they could have known where we came from. We must just be hitting the absolute jackpot of bad luck; some scouting party happened to find our Sphere and land on it.
He considered their options coolly, dispassionately. They'd be discovered in the next few seconds – that much was certain. There were four of them – and he'd be stupid to assume there weren't more somewhere else. No chance to make a sprint for the winch; unless the things were terribly slowed by the vegetation – unlikely – the two of them would just end up being a piñata for them to gun down. That was assuming that they could outsprint the things through the jungle and not get killed by something along the way. Surrender was pretty much out of the question; even if he hadn't had a first-hand sample of their attitude, Orphan's description had made it clear that he'd be about as warmly welcomed as a Jew into a Nazi meeting. Oh, they might keep one of them alive, or both, for study, but that wasn't going to be much fun.
And it would just leave the problem for later, leave it to get worse. No. Only one thing to do.
His one hand was still in Carl's field of view. He aimed it at the one to the right, since that was on Carl's side, wiggled his gun ever so slightly, then held up three fingers. Carl's eyes widened, he swallowed. Then nodded.
DuQuesne balled his fist, then began the count. One finger. Two fingers.
As the Molothos suddenly gave a chittering hiss and turned towards their hiding place, DuQuesne and Carl opened up on them.
Let's start a little interstellar war!
I'm afraid there CAN be. And don't call me Shirley!