“This place is dead, colonel. I think Captain Hunter was right. Either Atwell’s forces or the Ithis hit this base and the 98th hard before our ships ever got near the planet.” Special Forces Recon Sergeant Roy Alexander spoke while adjusting the optics on his rangefinders. Nearby, Sable was finishing the last of what rations they had carried from Bayone Three. “Our position is confirmed. We’re on the primary side of Hallows Moon, and if my surmise is correct, the attack against Alaska Base came right through the same gate we used. West of the emplacements.”
Lieutenant Colonel Lucas Moody eyed the alien structure with more than a little suspicion. It looked as if it had been hurriedly constructed out of whatever could be found nearby, from rocks and discarded wood to pieces of composite and at least one piece of duracast luminum that looked much like a support arm for a standard field communications array. Inside it, however, was a permanent doorway that at least appeared to function as a means of teleporting from Bayone Three to Hallows Moon.
“I’m having some trouble understanding these readings, colonel,” Alexander said. “Based on Arianne’s star charts, the larger Bayone primary should be just below our northern horizon, and it is, based on the light pattern.”
“So what’s the problem?” Moody asked.
“Bayone Three should be visible in the southern sky at magnitude seven, and there’s nothing there.”
That got the colonel’s attention well enough to make him turn away from inspecting the alien gate. “Not there?”
The sergeant handed Moo the rangefinders and pointed along the approximate declination. “Planet should be bearing one nine nine mark two four one true. ATMAS tracking has it rising over our southern horizon three hours ago.”
Moo adjusted the rangefinders and scanned the starry southern expanse of space from his high vantange point just east of what was left of Alaska Base. The overlay Alexander had keyed into the tracking systems guided his field of view to the requested coordinates. An amber circle indicated the position of Bayone Three calculated by Arianne during Apache Blade’s last perimeter update. Sure enough, at the center of the circle was nothing but empty space.
“Alien gates, surprise attacks and now a missing planet...” Moo growled. “I don’t like mysteries, sergeant.”
Moo lowered the rangefinders and looked over towards the Alaska complex again. “Am I correct in assuming your recon gear would be considerably enhanced if we could get the forward base’s systems running?”
Alexander considered the colonel’s suggestion. “It would definitely give us some options with regard to power. This base probably has at least one set-down reactor. That would give us surface defense battle screens if we can untangle the autosystems.”
“What do you need to make that happen?”
“Arianne. The command module is in my assault pod.”
“Think that contraption is a two-way affair?” Moo asked, unsure if even discussing the alien portal’s limits was all that wise.
“Probably, if there were a planet we could teleport to.”
“Too bad there’s no way to test it,” Moo replied. “Except by leaping before looking. But here’s the funny thing, sergeant. There’s no debris up there. No residual energy readings. Nothing that would indicate an event capable of destroying the planet. Perhaps it’s still there and we just can’t see it.”
“With all due respect, sir, I’ve never heard of any phenomenon that could be responsible for a planet being invisible.”
Moo continued peering through the electronically enhanced lenses. “That’s been one of the things on my mind for a while. What’s the actual scientific difference between Atwell’s toys and our jump gates?”
“Hardware. He can shuttle matter through a dimensional tunnel and have it appear at an arbitrary location with varying levels of precision,” Alexander replied. “For Skywatch to do that with a starship and its crew, we need jump gates, stable subspace tunnels and drive fields and enormous power sources, and we can only go from static location to static location within distance limits. We can string the gates together, but we can’t do what the alien version can do, and we certainly can’t do it with the kind of precision they’ve managed. Didn’t your chief engineer and signals officer transport themselves from Argent to Barker’s Asteroid? I remember reading about that in my briefing.”
“They did indeed, and I’m told it didn’t take much power to do it. In fact, the handheld versions of these devices seem to be self-powered or at the very least, capable of focusing the power of the scattering field in one location. I used it myself to escape from wherever Atwell and I squared off the first time.”
“So wouldn’t adapting that technology to create their own ‘jump gates’ be fairly straightforward? Perhaps that’s what this portal is after all. A permanent implementation of the same principle.”
Moo looked back at the forward base again. “What about a weather probe?”
“Couldn’t we send a weather probe through the portal with pre-programmed instructions to fly ten yards, turn 180 degrees and fly back?”
Alexander looked contemplative for a moment. “That’s not a half-bad idea. At least we would know for sure if the thing remained intact.”
“Let’s go see what we can scare up.” Moo started down the dusty grade towards the base perimeter. Sable scrambled down. Alexander held his weapon at the ready and followed, keeping a sharp eye out for movement.