104 Days have passed since the Pathfinder Ship Pegasus left the Fallon System.
Aves Zilla – “In nine days time, this entire planet will become a molten sphere of fieryhot magma,” said Tactical Lieutenant Commander David Alkema.
Commander William Keeler pondered the enormity of what he had just heard. He could not help butfeel a note of sadness about the destruction of this planet. As the shadow of his Aves flashedover its indigo seas and golden sands, he determined it was one of the most beautiful planets Pegasus had visited in all its journeys. Finally, he breathed a heavy sigh and rendered hisdecision. “All right, shore-leave is limited to one week for everybody. No exceptions!”
“Excellent command decision, sir,” Alkema assured him.
“That’s why they made me Commander,” he reached under his seat and opened the cabinet he hadrecently had installed on Zilla , which he had designated his Supreme Executive Commander
Hands-Off This Means You Aves. In the custom-designed cabinet was a selection of brown liquidsin glass bottles. He selected a fermented grain blend from the Hardscape of Aurora colony andpoured a glass for himself and his Executive Officer. Keeler raised his glass. “To doomedplanets.”
Alkema returned the gesture. “To doomed planets.”
Keeler downed his shot and spared a glance at the ground monitor as he poured another one. “Ofcourse, all planets are doomed, in the long run.”
Their Aves passed over an archipelago of tall, tiny islands that rose high over the sea like arow of pillars.
“You’re certain there’s nothing we can do?” Keeler asked him.
“The rogue planet is too large, too close, and moving too fast. Even if we pulverized it withNemesis warheads, the debris would still pound the planet to bits.” Alkema seemed disappointedthat, for once, he would be unable to pull a miracle out of his pants. His reputation aswunderkind was fading. He had begun his tenure on Pegasus as an underage officer, rising
through the ranks by cleverly getting his ship out of one predicament after another. Now, inhis mid-twenties, he seemed older, even a little tired, a little puffy around the edges of hiseyes. The black curls of his hair seemed to have lost some of their luster. Keeler attributedall of this to Alkema’s four kids and “fish-mongering wench of a wife.”
The Commander himself had never had children, and was increasingly grateful for it as heobserved the effects of family life on his young Executive Officer.
“What if we opened a hyperspace portal in front of it?” Keeler suggested, and as he did so,realized he had suggested this before, when Alkema had first explained to him the planet’spredicament.
“That only works in science fiction, sir. We don’t have the power to open a portal thatbig,” Alkema explained, for the second time. He offered a promise, “I’m going to keepworking on it, sir.”
Keeler took this news as an occasion to drink again. “Maybe if we had gone directly hereinstead of Crotoan, we would have had time to figure out something.”
Pegasus had headed directly after leaving the Fallon system, hadThe Croatoan sytem, to which
proved to be a small dusty system of four barren, beaten up planets huddled around a cool, redstar swathed in a cloud of interstellar debris and a massive asteroid field.
“I don’t know that it would have made any difference,” Alkema said.
“True, but I will always wonder if we could have saved the planet if we hadn’t wasted threeweeks in that hell-hole of a star-system,” Keeler said.
“There was also that… Thing,” Alkema reminded Keeler.
“We agreed we would never discuss the Thing again,” Keeler snapped at Alkema.
“We agreed that would be best,” Alkema conceded.
“I hated that… Thing,” Keeler went on.
“We all did, sir,” Alkema replied.
The Aves passed over a coastline, where the sea was presided over by tall eroded cliffs thatrose imperiously like the sandstone columns of a crumbling temple. Commander Keeler touched thecontrol panel on the side of his custom leather Supreme Executive Commander massage chair andprojected hologram images of the some of the planet’s abandoned cities. Their probes had foundover sixty large cities and hundreds of smaller ones all across the planet.
“There were at least 300 million people living on this planet no more than a few local yearsago,” Keeler announced, feeling the need to state once again their mission objective.
“Where did they all go?”
“That’s what we’re going to find out, sir… I hope.” Alkema replied. “Even if they hadspace travel, it would be extremely hard to evacuate a population of that size. I’m not evensure Sapphire could do it.”
“Oh, sure we could. We’d all just go over to Republic and ask if we could crash on theircouch for a while.” He shut off the hologram displays and gulped his drink.
“What do you think it was like, when they first learned their world was going to bedestroyed?” Alkema asked.
“Uncertainty at first,” Keeler replied. “Those who raised the danger would have beendismissed as alarmists and doomsayers. Then, as the prediction was confirmed, some would panic,others would try to figure out what, if anything, to do. There would have been a rash ofsuicides, an economic and social collapse, possibly. Some brave souls would get mind-numbinglyintoxicated and remain in that condition until the final moment of doom.”
The voice of Blade Toto came through from the flight deck on their COM Links.
“Altitude is now 2,000 meters and speed is subsonic. We’ll be on the ground in about fourteenminutes. Strap yourselves in, if that’s what you have a mind to do.”
On the horizon, their destination loomed. In the planet’s high latitudes, in the center of avast plain, a huge shape had been built. It was as large as a major city, and it consisted of acircle, surrounded by four sets of lines radiating outward from four perpendicular points.
“It’s called a Ziga,” Keeler said. “And it was a sun symbol in one of Old Earth’sprimitive cultures.”
“Every city on the planet is dead,” Alkema double checked the sensor readings. “But that‘Ziga’ is putting out as much energy as Pegasus’s gravity engines.” He literally licked
his lips then, as though in anticipation of finding out what all that energy was being usedfor.
“It’s possible they built some sort of fleet there to evacuate some fraction of theirpopulation,” Keeler suggested. “That would explain some of the planet’s missing colonists,at least.”
“It would be interesting if they also evacuated to Fallon colony, and met up with the refugeesfrom Hellfire,” Alkema suggested.
“Probably not as interesting as you would expect,” Keeler replied. Alkema zoomed theprojection in on a spot 10 kilometers south of the giant structure. Here a vast aerospace porthad been constructed, and a city-sized complex of large buildings surrounded it. Their landingcoordinates were at the edge of the aerospace port. Zilla and its accompanying ship,
Phoenix, slowed and descended as they approached the vast aerospace port. They settled downonto the tarmac, kicking up dust devils beneath their landing thrusters.
A few minutes later, their forward hatches opened and the landing crews stepped out to tastethe air of this new planet. Even this far north, well above 60 degrees of latitude, the air waswarm and dry. Gethsemane orbited an F-class sun, which gave its sky a golden hue and kept theplanet warm as the deserts of Nef.
The Aves looked sleek and small compared with the other aerocraft that lined the sides of therunways. They looked like they could carry 1,000 passengers each, Keeler guessed. Theirfuselages were oblong, with eight large engines clustered in two pods of four and nestledbetween double sets of wings. Each plane had the same blue and white characters stenciled ontheir polished metal skin.
“Lingotron’s getting it,” Alkema told him, as though reading his mind. “The form issomewhat unusual, combining aspects of the ancient Anglish and Mandar symbology. There wassimilar text discovered in the logs of the cargo ship we encountered. It reads,
‘P-E-R-A: Planetary Evacuation and Resettlement Authority.’ And then there’s a code numberfor the individual aircraft.”
“Remarkable,” Keeler said. “This must be some kind of launch facility.”
“Maybe the Ziga is a kind of launch accelerator,” Alkema suggested. He could picture how itcould work in his mind; if the ships were built here and launched on some kind of accelerator,they could reach a high rate of speed without burning fuel, which could be saved fordecelerating when they reached their destination.
Phoenix , with a squad of six warfighters tailing him.General Kitaen approached from the Aves
Kitaen scared the crap out of Commander Keeler, which Keeler supposed was a good thing for hischief of security. A single stripe of blue-black warpaint graced his left cheekbone. The duskysun glinted off his shaved head. “Commander, we detect a large group of people approachingfrom the group of buildings to the northeast.”
“Are they armed?” Keeler asked, although he knew from experience they would be armed. Theywere always armed.
“Most likely,” Kitaen affirmed, and he nodded to his adjutant, a tall thin Sapphirean female,whose face was plain but whose knockers were almost perfectly formed snow globes of joy.Warfighter Shield gave a command and six warfighters in black tactical gear clicked their pulseweapons to active defense mode.
Sixteen soldiers in gray uniforms and black battle-helmets came marching across the tarmactoward the Pegasus crew. The lead man, who had close-cropped white hair, a stern face marredby a long scar on one side, and an eyepatch the same color as his trim uniform, stopped hissquad and demanded. “Who are you people?”
Keeler thumped his chest. “Me, William Keeler, Commander of the Pathfinder Ship Pegasus .
This is one of my officers, Lt. Cmdr. Dave Alkema. The tall fellow with the bare pectorals isLt. Commander Kitaen. And these are other people. We come in peace… and such-like.”
“I am Thall,” the man announced.
“You’re also handthome,” Keeler lied.
“Are you the Kariad?” the man asked, narrowing his eyes. Except for blossoms of burst redcapillaries at the tip of his nose, the man’s skin was pale and white.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Keeler replied, wiggling his eyebrows.
“Are you from the Kariad?” the man demanded again.
Keeler answered him this time. “Technically… neg, we are not of the Kariad, but we know ofthem.”
“Why have you come here?” Thall demanded.
“We’re selling cookies and magazines to win scholarships to space camp,” Keeler answered.“We wondered if we could have a moment to…”
Alkema (per their prior arrangement) cut him off, “We are explorers… and we noticed yourplanet is in a spot of trouble. It’s going to collide with another planet in nine days.”
“We are aware of that,” Thall informed him.
“Oh,” Keeler gave him a big bright smile. “So, um, do you need any help clearing out theplace. We’ve got a nice big spaceship in orbit.”
“We have already made arrangements to evacuate the planet,” the man answered.
“That’s good,” Keeler said. “May I ask what arrangements those would be?”
Thall gestured for Keeler to be silent. He put the other hand to his earpiece. After someseconds he said, “Yes, Madame President. I will bring the visitors to you. (Break) … Yes,
immediately Madame President.”
Thall addressed them. “The President wants to see you. Walk this way.”
“If I could walk that way…” Keeler began, then decided not to go with it. He followed Thalltoward the main building, just as a trio of large, wheeled land vehicles came from around theside. These were also labeled “PERA.”
Keeler turned to Kitaen. “I don’t think we all need to go. Just me, the kid, you, and a fewarmed men… and her.” He pointed to Warfighter Shield.
Kitaen agreed and ordered some of his men to remain with the ships. The other landing teamswere loaded onto the vehicles and driven across the base to a large ugly building from whosefront the Ziga was visible on the horizon.
Kitaen’s warfighters waited in front of the building while Keeler, Kitaen, and Alkema were ledinside and down a long reception hall to a kind of conference room at the end. Where they satand waited, and waited, and waited for well over an hour, until the leader of the planetdeigned to see them.
Thall announced her arrival. “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the People’s Quorum ofGethsemane, her eminence, Hildegard Kahn.”
She entered imperiously. Kahn was a shortish woman, with a mop of blond hair gone platinum. Shewas not notably fat, but her hips were disproportionately wide. She wore an unflattering yellowand black pantsuit that made her look like some kind of bumblebee. Keeler began to stand up.“Don’t stand up,” Kahn ordered him sharply. “Just tell me what you’re doing here…Commander Keeler, is it?”
Keeler nodded and withdrew the hand he had been preparing to offer. “Our ship was in thestellar neighborhood and we thought we would drop in. We detected a large planetoid on acollision course with your world, and we thought we might … possibly…
help you in some way.”
She cackled. That was the only way to describe the insincere, dismissive laughter that eruptedfrom her. “No assistance is necessary. The Kariad warned us of the impending disaster thirtyyears ago. We took steps to deal with the crisis.”
“What steps did you take, may I ask?” Keeler inquired, more than the usual deference in hisvoice.
“At that point in time, I invoked Emergency Powers and took over Executive Authority of theQuorum,” Kahn raised a finger to indicate the importance of the next point. “In secret!Because we did not want to cause widespread panic.”
“Of course.” Keeler hoped he sounded neutral.
Kahn went on. “The Kariad instructed us in the construction of the Project we code-named‘Heaven’s Gate.’” She gestured toward the window, from which the Ziga could be seen on thehorizon. “The Gateway was built under conditions of Supreme secrecy.”
“Right, of course, supreme secrecy,” Keeler repeated.
“When the Gateway was completed, fifteen years ago, we began the process of planetaryevacuation.”
“Through the gate,” Keeler deduced.
“Precisely,” Kahn affirmed. “And while it’s quite… extraordinary to receive visitors fromother colonies at this late date, we really have no time to meet with you. I suggest you returnto your ship.”
“What does the Gateway do?” Keeler asked. “Where were they evacuated to?”
“To Heaven,” she answered, scowling at him as though he were stupid.
“Is that the name of a colony?” Keeler asked.
She huffed impatiently, “No, the Gateway allows your soul to pass through to the Afterworld,without having to die.”
This was too much even for a slightly intoxicated Commander Keeler to take. Really?”
He challenged her.
“Yes,” Kahn said, scowling and angry that anyone would disbelieve her.
“And this isn’t some weird science-fiction plot where you dupe the populace into believingyou’re sending them to a better place, when in fact, it turns out to be a mass suicidemachine?” Keeler pressed, certain he had seen a plot like this in an old episode of thepopular holo-fiction drama, The Scary Zone of Unpredictable Madness .
“There’s nothing science fiction about it,” Kahn snapped back at him. “Aliens callingthemselves the Kariad warned us thirty-two years ago that our planet was going to collide with
another, then instructed us in the construction of a meta-dimensional gateway that allows usfree passage to the realm of the Afterworld.”
had run across prior worlds visited by the Kariad…PegasusKeeler was skeptical.
Yronwode and Fallon, specifically. And wherever the Kariad had visited, catastrophe followed.“Is that what Kariad told you? That this… device… takes you to Heaven?”
“The Kariad only told us it would take us to another place where we would be safe,”
she replied. “We did not know it was Heaven until the first travelers went through.”
“How do you know it is Heaven?” Keeler asked. He was almost sure this was some kind ofscheme, but he did not know what yet.
“Because those who went through came back and told us what lay on the other side,”
she insisted. “And their description matched precisely with our philosophical construct of theideal Afterworld.”
Keeler almost fell over at that. “You mean you can make a round trip… to the Afterworld.”
“Yes,” Kahn insisted, her tone so exasperated that it made Keeler and Alkema think of GonerilLear… albeit older and with less fashion sense.
“As a man of faith, I would be curious to know what the Afterworld is like,” Kitaen put in.
“It is much like Gethsemane,” Kahn replied, the brittle edge of her voice softening, but onlya little. “Only much, much … better.”
“So, the Afterworld you access through this Heaven’s Gate is consistent with your religiousconception of the AfterWorld?” Kitaen continued.
“Yes,” she replied impatiently.
“And what was your planet’s dominant system of religious expression,” Kitaen continued.
“NIM,” she answered.
Kitaen scowled. “NIM? I’m afraid I am unfamiliar with NIM.”
Thall interrupted. “Neo-Iestan Mysticism. NIM holds that the Afterworld is an extension of,and shaped by, our consciousness, hence this Afterworld is a product of our collectiveconsciousness, our collective conception of what a perfect world should be. We built theGateway in the shape of the Zina, the holy symbol of NIM.”
“It’s pronounced ‘Ziga,’” Keeler interrupted.
Kahn cut Thall off. “Thall, shut the hell up. It’s enough that I have to see you mound-kickers every day. I’m not going to talk to you, too. Just do your gawddam job and keep yourmouth shut.”
Thall shut up. Keeler of course, did not. “If you are so certain that you can go to Heavenwithout dying, why haven’t you left?”
“There are still a few hundred of us here, and we will wait until the last day. I want to makesure all of my people are safe before I leave. That’s leadership.”
“Unh-huh,” Keeler nodded. “So, could I see this gate in action?”
Kahn had been growing steadily more pissed as the conversation had progressed. Now, she lookedlike her reflex reaction was to deny their request, but this impulse was over-ridden by herwant to overcome their skepticism. “We’re sending the last personnel from the Office ofSustainment through this hour. If you are willing to follow our conditions, you may observe.”
“This I got to see,” Keeler said.
Without looking at Thall, Kahn ordered, “Major Thall will take your party to the Embarkationarea. I will join you there. But first I need to speak to him in private.”
The three from Pegasus excused themselves, and Thall closed the door behind them. Almostimmediately a tirade, barely muffled by the heavy wooden door, erupted. Kahn’s voice wasshrill and hectoring. “This is the kind of mound I have to put up with while I’m trying to
evacuate an entire furking planet! If I ever want your gawddam opinion I’ll ask you for yourgawddam opinion. And don’t think that’s likely to happen, buddy, because you are a furkingidiot. You’re here to guard my ass and open the gawddam doors and aside from that, you keepyour gawddam mouth shut.”
This went on for several minutes longer than was necessary. Alkema turned to Kitaen and sawthat his face was red. “Are you embarrassed?”
Kitaen looked down at the floor and nodded.
“I’m sure Mr. Thall can take it,” Alkema offered.
“I’m embarrassed for her,” Kitaen clarified.
The door opened again and Thall exited. His face was stony. Apparently, he was long accustomedto being on the receiving end of Kahn’s tirades. “Follow me, gentlemen,” he said politely,and led them to the far side of the building to a kind of tram station where a pair of monorailpods waited for them.
The twenty minute trip took them across an arid, rocky landscape of mildly interestingdesolation. Most of Gethsemane’s land area was semi-arid desert, with vegetation confined tobands along the rivers and the coasts of its shallow seas. Though eroded hills rose in thedistance, there was nothing on this flat plain like the grandeur of the coasts. Once past theopen plain, the monorail ran between two of the rays of the Ziga. Kitaen looked over the sideof the tram and admired the workmanship that went into the beams radiating out from the circle.Thall explained helpfully. “The beams are made of a cobalt-molybdenum alloy. Inside of themare rods of super-conductive material. They direct energy in toward the center of the circle.”
“What is the source of the energy?” Alkema asked.
“Zero point energy derived from quantum fields in subspace,” Thall answered.
“Very advanced,” Kitaen observed.
Thall admitted, “It is Kariad technology. We did not invent it.”
“It taps into the magnetic field of your planet, doesn’t it?” Alkema asked.
“I think so,” Thall answered. “I don’t really understand how it works.”
Alkema turned to Kitaen. “That explains why we detected an EM distortion field covering mostof the planet’s surface. The planet Fallon had something similar, but it was localized and notnearly as powerful.”
“I remember,” Kitaen assured him.
The Tram dove underground, passed through a tunnel, and finally pulled up to a docking ramp.
Pegasus’s The station was part of an enormous, cavernous space notably larger than one of hangar decks. Only one other of the huge docks was occupied, this by a long train of twentyempty cars.
Keeler realized after a moment that he was standing at the dock, staring up into the dome ofrock with the slack-jawed, eyes-wide expression of a yokel seeing a Republic megacity for thefirst time.
“The other six lines aren’t used any more. We parked the trains in their tunnels.” Kitaenexplained. Another tram pulled up behind his and Kahn emerged, surrounded by a coterie of aidesand guards. She ignored the landing party and went her own way.
“The control room, let me show you it,” Thall said. He led them away from the boarding dock,down a short corridor, and up two levels to the control room. It was a surprisingly small room,an eighth the size of Pegasus’s Main Bridge, and a lot of it was taken up with banks of
technology that blinked and hummed. Four men sat at desks in the front of the room, lookinginto old-style monitor screens. A smaller display in the center console was counting down:
Next Gate: 00:03:52
A sort of enclosed balcony protruded out from the rear that overlooked that vast round paradeground that surrounded the Gateway itself. Thall offered Keeler a set of binoculars, the better
to scan the huge space, but Keeler declined. “Built in Zoom feature on our Spex,”
“Spex?” Thall asked.
“A kind of vision augmentation built into … the gear we wear when visiting planets,”
Alkema explained further.
“Really? How interesting,” Thall said.
The center of the circle of the Ziga enclosed a space larger than the groundball stadium at theUniversity of Sapphire at New Cleveland (which held 214,000 screaming Armpit Avenger fans anddrunken alumni.) A metal ring of pure gold marked the interior circumference, forming a walltwo-meters in height. The floor had once been white, but was scuffed and warped by the passageof millions of evacuees. In the center of the circle was a tall parabolic arch two hundredmeters tall. Thall pointed toward the arch. “The departure party should be assembling by thegateway arch about now.”
Keeler, Alkema, and Kitaen zoomed their vision. There were about thirty people standing on theparade ground in front of the arch. They were dressed in white robes and dark glasses andalternated expectant glances between the arch and each other Alkema asked one of the menworking the controls about one of the displays. The man was happy to explain. “These show thecapacitors holding energy. It takes them about four hours to build to a one hundred percentcharge.”
As the clock reached one minute, lights began flashing and a recorded voice that sounded a lotlike Hildegard Kahn’s announced. “One minute to gate activation.”
A shield began sliding over the viewing windows at the rear of the control room. Thallindicated a display screen on the far wall, “You can observe the rest of the activation fromhere.”
When the clock hit 00:00:00, light appeared on the golden ring and in less than a second ittraveled all the way around it, making it glow with bright white light. The moment it completedits circuit, the arch emitted a lightning flash of brilliant white light that seemed topenetrate their eyelids, bones and souls.
The afterimage blinded them for several long moments. Keeler willed his eyes to clear andstumbled toward the viewing window as the shield slid aside. Out on the parade ground, theentire group of people had vanished without a trace.
“Neat,” Keeler said.
“It isn’t over,” Thall told them. “We’re receiving an envoy from New Gethsemane. He willtransport at the completion of…”
Before Thall could finish, the light circled the ring again, and there was another over-brightflash of light. When the after-image faded, a man stood in the middle of the ring, dressed in acolorful robe and looking happily disoriented. He was tall and dark skinned, with a thatch oftightly curled black hair going gray. Though elderly, he looked well-fed and robust.
“I’d like to talk to him,” Keeler said.
“The Passage through the Gate leaves you disoriented,” Thall warned, but he led them down aflight of stairs and across the parade ground in the center of the ring, which had a strangeozone-like sting in its air. Hildegard Kahn and one of her co-councilors were already greetingthe envoy.
“Minister Oberth, the Five Welcomes of Unity extend to you,” said Kahn.
“I like pudding!” The man exclaimed at the top of his voice.
“We’ll see that you get some,” Thall promised the man.
“Who?” the man demanded in a loud voice. Thall carefully unpinned a folded sheaf of papersthat was attached to the front of the man’s robe and handed them over to Hildegard Kahn, whosnatched them away and held them jealously close.
“Because we can’t rely on memories of the Afterworld, reports have to be written and passedthrough an envoy,” Thall explained.
The tall man blinked at him, and as he became accustomed to his surroundings, a look ofdisappointment set in.
“What’s wrong?” Keeler asked.
“Oh, you know, it’s just that it’s such an adjustment to be back in here,” Oberth saidpatting his groin. “The bodies we have in New Gethsemane are so young and vigorous, nothing ofthe infirmities of age. You can play stickball and Buck-Buck and Johnny-on-the-Pony all daylong and you never get tired. But then you gotta come back to this old body and your pubes aregoing all gray and all you can say is…” He broke into a shout, “‘What the Hell! My pubesare gray!’”
“Thall, take Minister Oberth to his chambers before he embarrasses himself,” Kahn ordered.
“Too late, I peed my pants!” Oberth declared.
“You aren’t wearing pants,” Thall reminded him.
“I peed something!” Oberth insisted.
“Now!” Kahn insisted. She turned over to Commander Keeler. “Regrettably, the journey betweenworlds confuses the mind. He will be all right and a day or so. If you are satisfied, I thinkyou should leave now.”
“May I see it?” Keeler asked. “New Gethsemane. May I travel through your ‘Heaven’s Gate’and get a look at the AfterWorld for myself?”
Kahn looked as if she were about to say no, but Oberth piped up with enthusiasm.
“Why, of course you can.”
“I’ll take that as an affirmation, then,” Keeler replied.