He was stunned. He had read the reports of persons who had survived encounters with Banshees. He knew they put out some type of field, or warped the space around them, that induced terror and nausea and other symptoms in humans. This was another of the many reasons humans and Banshees didn't communicate: humans couldn't function in the presence of Banshees.
But no report could have prepared Mothram for actual contact with them. It was the worst thing he'd ever experienced.
He finally recovered enough to get to his feet. He avoided looking at the mess in the airlock as he stumbled down the corridor to where Marah had collapsed. He started to bend over to check her pulse, but stopped himself, feeling that he might faint again if he bent over. "Marah," he croaked out, looking down at her. "Please tell me you're all right."
She stirred. "Yes sir," she laughed weakly. "I'm all right. I just need to lie here for a few days, okay? I think a meteor ran me over."
Mothram slowly walked over to the intercom. The effects the Banshees had produced seemed to be wearing off. Slightly. He touched the button. "Bridge. Mothram here. Is anyone up there able to answer?" He listened a moment. "Hello. Bridge." He thumbed off the intercom and shook his head at Marah. She was now on her feet, swaying unsteadily. Her face was pale and flushed. "I'd better get up there. You go to your quarters and sleep. I'd like to discuss who that man was and what just happened immediately, but I don't think any of us can handle that now. I'll call a meeting in a few hours." He uncharacteristically reached out and brushed her hair. He quickly withdrew it and put his barriers back in place. "Sleep. That's an order."
She smiled weakly. Mothram nodded at her and quickly shambled to the lift, slapping at his face to reawaken his tingling muscles.
As he walked toward the bridge, he passed several crew members staggering about in a daze. One of them had a large wet spot on his crotch. Mothram made sure they were all right, then continued on his way.
On the bridge, he found that his crew had pulled themselves together. He asked if there were any serious injuries. There were not. He went and stood above Rickman's station. "Banshees were all over the ship, sir," the pilot said. "I managed to get us into hyperspace before I lost consciousness."
Mothram looked at the pilot, finding a new respect for Rickman. How could he possibly have kept his wits about him, fought the pain, to get them into hyperspace? Mothram made a mental note to put a special commendation onto Rickman's service record.
"The ship is stable," Rickman continued. "We're out of the forbidden zone." He looked at Mothram, eyebrows raised. "We got lucky. They let us go."
Mothram shook his head. "I don't know. I have a strange feeling the cost of our freedom is going to be extremely high." He turned to his duty officer. He was about to issue an order to her, but noticed a foul odor coming from her. He realized what it was, and wondered that she hadn't fled the bridge as soon as she'd regained consciousness. He nodded at her imploring look, and she quickly left the bridge. He turned back to Rickman. "Notify all stations to relieve any personnel not absolutely necessary to ship's functioning. Sorry, Mr. Rickman, at the moment that doesn't include you. Please set a course for Earth, full speed."
"Yes sir," Rickman said with a weary sigh.
Mothram wanted to go directly to his quarters and sleep off the pain. But he made the rounds of the ship, checking to make sure his crew were as well as possible, considering what they had just been through. He finally laid his head on his pillow an hour later. He fell asleep at once.
Four hours later, he sat in the briefing room with his four most trusted officers. Chet Rickman, who had just finished up his shift, looking miserable, being one of the few on board who had not had a rest after the encounter with the Banshees; engineer Logan White, one of Mothram's closest friends; Michael Malone, head of Ship's Sciences; and Marah Finnis. Mothram sat at the head of the table, and Marah sat at his right. She looked around at the men as she said, "His name was Duncan Norbert. He was with Secret Services. He was Enhanced, and was my guide through my first ten years of life, when he wasn't off on some mission. He was a good man." She fell silent. She took a moment to collect herself, then went on. "He recorded everything that happened to him on this last mission, and uploaded it into me before..... It's incredible. What they've found deep in Banshee territory...."
"What is it?" Mothram asked gently.
Marah looked at each of them in turn, and then told them Duncan's tale.
The next morning, after breakfasting at a small restaurant three blocks from his apartment, he presented himself at the gates of the President's estate twenty minutes early. Exactly twenty minutes later he was ushered into her private office.
Marina Farrakhan, leader of the Earth Council and all the colonies of humankind which it represented, sat behind a large mahogany desk, fingers steepled. The official records said she was thirty years old, though Duncan suspected she were a few years older. Still, that made her the youngest President since Reconstruction. She wore a sharp black suit, and her black hair was cut short. A gold earring dangled heavily from her left earlobe. She was so intelligent that the tabloids, despite medical evidence to the contrary, often claimed she was Enhanced, even though Enhanced humans were not allowed to assume the Presidency.
She motioned to one of five chairs in front of her desk. "Hello, Mr. Norbert. Please sit down."
Duncan nodded to her, and sank into the chair closest to her desk.
"I'll get right to the point. You of course know that we have been secretly sending small unmanned probes into Banshee territory for hundreds of years."
Duncan nodded. "Yes. As I understand it, the Banshees don't mind the probes. As long as humans don't enter the forbidden zones. And the probes have shown us no signs of the Banshees, no homeworld, colonies, monuments, or anything."
"That was correct."
Duncan noted the past tense. "I take it we've found something."
Farrakhan nodded and handed him a computer- generated photograph. "This planet has been designated J359. Deep in Banshee territory."
Duncan looked at the photograph. From a distance of several thousand miles, it showed a barren planet covered entirely with what were unmistakably the ruins of a huge city. Duncan looked up at her. "This is incredible. Did the Banshees build it?"
She shook her head. "We don't know for certain, but my experts don't believe it's a Banshee artifact. We're sending you to find out exactly what it is and who built it."
Duncan's eyes widened. "Me?"
"You're our best."
He was silent for a moment. He usually accepted without question missions which appeared to have no probability of his returning alive. Nevertheless, he always managed to survive. But going up against the Banshees seemed like the ultimate no- win situation. He was momentarily terrified. Then the thought of being the first to set foot on the ruins of what was obviously an ancient alien civilization canceled out his terror. But.... "How will I get there? No one casually strolls into Banshee territory and lives to tell the tale."
"We've equipped a slivership with some experimental devices we hope may shield you somewhat from the Banshees. These devices are barely off the drawing board, and are as yet untested, but we have high hopes they will shield humans from Banshees. I'm sure I don't have to tell you what implications such shielding devices have for mankind.
"You'll take the slivership and make a high warp jump into Banshee territory, cutting out of warp practically in orbit of J359." Duncan raised his eyebrows. A high warp jump was dangerous enough, but cutting any type of warp within the gravity well of a solar system, let alone within orbiting distance of a planet, was almost suicidal. Farrakhan had anticipated an outburst from Duncan upon hearing this. She was gladdened when none came. "We have every confidence in your skill as a pilot, and think that, with great care, you will be able to pull it off.
"Actually, getting in looks like the easy part. The Banshees may discover you on the planet. Your chances look.... Well, they look pretty slim. But they're not zero. You know the risks. Do you accept this mission, Mr. Norbert?"
He had been staring at the photograph while she spoke. The thought of exploring an alien ruin was irresistable. He handed the photograph back to her and stood. "Madam President, how can I refuse?"
Marina Farrakhan smiled her legendary smile, and nodded. "Thank you, Mr. Norbert."
As usual before a mission, Duncan was given five days to do whatever he wanted, and access to as much credit as it took to satisfy his every whim. The government gave him this vacation time whenever it was possible, whenever the mission facing him wasn't so urgent that giving him the time would jeopardize it. They gave him the time because usually the missions he went on had virtually no chance of success, and he probably would not return alive, so they wanted him to live it up, just in case.
There was time to spare before this mission. The alien ruin had waited perhaps billions of years, so it could just a few more days for Duncan to enjoy himself. Duncan took the time to go to some of his favorite places. He went to Greece and stood for awhile staring at the Acropolis. He went and stood at the edge of the glassy, blackened plain that used to be Washington D.C. And he spent a whole day at the brothels on the dark side of the Moon, where he rented a large suite and hired a harem of twenty women who satisfied every sexual fantasy he could think of. Duncan had no living relatives, and he had been forbidden to see the few friends he had when he had accepted the mission.
So after five days of living high, he boarded a shuttle which took him out to Earth Station Goliath for a final briefing, and then to the sliver ship which orbited nearby Pluto. From there, he flew alone and eager toward his rendezvous with the unknown.
Duncan planned to drop out of warp 1200 kilometers from J359. As the time drew near, he began running checks on ship's systems, in preparation for the transition. However, a million and a half kilometers out, things went seriously wrong.
He had just finished a check on the cooling system when he felt a sickening lurch that sent his stomach into his throat. A thunderous crack echoed in his ears, and the ship creaked and groaned as if it were ripping apart. Stars suddenly appeared on the forward viewscreen, replacing the blank whiteness of hyperspace. J359 filled the center of the screen, a dead and rust-colored rock. It grew rapidly as Duncan's ship hurtled toward it at nearly a million kilometers an hour.
Duncan cursed. Ordinarily, upon dropping out of warp, the ship would have been practically standing still. But this time it had been violently ripped out of hyperspace before he could cancel the velocity differential. So his motion relative to normal space had been translated with the ship, something that shouldn't have happened.
He consulted the computer. If unchecked, the ship would impact with J359 in just over an hour. He would barely have enough time to slow the ship down for a rough landing.
He reached down and toggled the forward thrusters to burn at maximum. With difficulty, he made a few minor course corrections. Then, satisfied everything was all right for the moment, he went aft to find out what had gone wrong.
Smoke filled the engine room. The ventilators were whining, overburdened. Duncan, wearing formulite gloves, removed the smoking, red hot, warped housing of the hyperdrive engine. Inside, the engine itself had been torn from its mounts and thrown backward, reduced to a pool of bubbling slag. He stared at it dumbly. He had never heard of such a thing happening.
He called up data on the computer terminal on the wall. According to records, the ship had struck a gravity shelf in hyperspace. The shelf was a mere bump in normal space, but it became a mountain in hyperspace, from which it extended into infinity. The engine, which was the only part of the ship that actually existed in hyperspace, had been snagged by the shelf. As a result the ship had dropped from hyperspace.
Duncan scanned the area around J359. The gravity shelf made a wide circle, 4 million kilometers in diameter, with the planet at its center. Duncan was fascinated. Nothing like this had been known to exist. It was as though the planet and the space around it was pinched off from the rest of the universe.
Incredibly old alien ruins, and now this, he thought to himself. Fantastic.
With the hyperdrive destroyed, getting back home would be a problem. More than a problem. An impossibility. The slivership was equipped with a backup, intraplanetary hyperdrive. That would let him leap a short distance, but not too far; it would burn out after three or four light years. After that, he'd have to make the journey on thrusters alone, and he didn't have near enough fuel to do it. Besides, that way would take a thousand or more years to return to Goliath. And then there was the Banshees to worry about. Traveling that slow through normal space, he probably wouldn't make it beyond J359's solar system before they were on him.
To make it home, they'd have to send someone else into Banshee territory to retrieve him. He doubted President Farrakhan would do that.
He resolved to make his exploration of this artifact as satisfying as possible. A memory so bright he would carry it with him into the next life.
He returned to the bridge and strapped himself into the crashcouch. After swiveling the control panel across his stomach, he began flicking switches. The forward thrusters cut out, and he used the maneuvering thrusters to position the ship for entry into J359's atmosphere.
He recorded a log and transmitted it toward the listening posts at the edge of human space. Even though someone coming after him was unlikely, he still included a message saying he'd head for G313M, if anyone cared to rendezvous with him. Would be there, say, two weeks from today. That should give him enough time to conduct a preliminary exploration of the ruins.
Entry took place fifteen minutes later: a brief shudder pulsed through the ship.
He'd never entered atmosphere going so fast. Maneuvering was tricky. The ship didn't want to obey his directions. But he wrestled with it, riding the bucking, swaying ship as his stomach rose into throat.
The incredible vista revealed once he was close enough to see it, barely registered in his mind. Great plains of metal stretched between towering stone and metal buildings. Enormous catwalks spanned the air between the buildings. Great gaping black holes studded the surface at rare intervals, apparently extending deep below the surface.
Duncan aimed for one of the plains.
The planet's atmosphere was so thin as to be almost nonexistant. Still, it was a challenge bringing the ship in. But he was an excellent pilot; the ship jolted and bounced several times as it swooped down on the plain he'd chosen. But it touched down, and came to a rough halt after skidding nearly two miles.
He unstrapped the crash harness and stood, stretching his stress-tensed muscles. As he did so, he ran a systems check on the ship; nothing that had been damaged was irrepairable, except the hyperdrive, of course.
An hour later he emerged from the ship, wearing a minimal spacesuit with a supply pack strapped on the back.
The ground underfoot was metal, a metal so polished he could see the stars reflected in it. It stretched away into the distance, to the buildings towering at the great plain's edge. Large rocks and small fine grit littered the plain. Here and there the metal was crumpled into twisted, deep depressions.
The planet had taken a heavy battering from space.
Duncan brought a pair of binoculars to his eyes and studied the skyline at the plain's edge. The buildings towered into the perpetual night of the star-dusted sky, like huge fangs reaching toward the heavens. Most of them were metal, with rows of windows looking out over the plain. Most of the window panes were still intact; obviously they weren't made of glass. Amazingly, light shone from the windows of some of the buildings. A very few.
Some of the buildings were made of stone, although these were toppled over and in such decay that they were barely recognizable as buildings.
How long had this great shattered ruin lay in wait for Man? Duncan wondered. President Farrakhan's people thought it was tens of millions of years old. For those long years it had waited as Man puttered about on his small planet, developing enough brains to send Duncan here to boggle at it.
Duncan put away the binoculars and started across the plain. The stars were crisp points of fire dusting the sky above, glittering indifferently as he trudged toward the ruin.
Halfway there something at the corner of his eye caught his attention. He looked into the sky. Far above the horizon, smears of incandescent light grew larger, then faded, only to grow again. Like a rhythmic pulsing. Or something throwing itself against an invisible barrier and rebounding.
Duncan knew immediately what it was: the Banshees had finally come for him. Only they weren't able to come down to the planet. Something blocked them, and they were battering themselves senseless against it in their fury to get at him.
It must be the gravity shelf surrounding the planet, he thought to himself. In effect, the gravity shelf isolated J359 from the rest of the universe, and the Banshees, probably due to some facet of their unknown composition, couldn't get past it.
His mind raced at the possibilities. Perhaps humans could make artificial gravity shelves, on a small scale, and surround ships with them. The Banshees would no longer be able to prohibit humanity's travels.
Duncan watched the light show in the black sky for a few minutes. Abruptly it stopped; the Banshees vanished, leaving bright afterimages on his eyes as he stared at the stars.
Doubtless they would be there waiting for him when he left J359. He sighed and resumed walking to the line of buildings at the plain's edge.
When he reached them, he found that none of the buildings had an entrance at ground level. His seismograph told him that the bulk of the ruins lay underground; the buildings towering over him were minimal compared to the tunnels catacombing the ground.
He explored the buildings along the edge of the plain, looking for a way in. Two miles to the right, he found one: a curving, elaborate arch framed a huge, gaping black maw in the side of one building. He looked back at his ship, a tiny speck faraway on the plain, then turned and stepped through the arch.
He reached up and clicked on the floodlight on his shoulder, bathing the hallway in the first light it had seen in uncountable ages. It sloped sharply downward. Doorways lining the sides opened into branching passages; Duncan glanced in a few of these. They led off into darkness. Some of the doors led to stairwells which climbed to this building's higher levels. Still other doors let into huge, spacious rooms, lacking in any furnishings.
The particular building he'd entered was one of those few that were made of stone. The hallway walls were laser smooth, showing no signs of seams or bricks. It was as if the building had been carved out of a single, tremendous block of granite.
Duncan moved down the hallway, following its slope. His feet kicked up a fine mist of dust as he trudged along. Several hundred feet beneath ground level, the stone hallway gave way to one of metal. The point at which the two materials changed over was seamless; the metal and stone simply blended together.
He kept to the main hallway, glancing into the rooms as he passed. They were remarkable in their plainness; not one of them contained furniture or other artifacts. No carvings on the walls, no pictures: nothing. Approximately one third of the rooms were lit with a strange half-glow which seemed to have no exact source; the light seemed to diffuse out of the air.
Everything he saw was recorded into his datacore; when he returned to Goliath he could download his head into the mainframe there.
The only sound in his ears was the cycling of his rebreather.
The hallway twisted and turned and descended so often that he lost all sense of direction. Thankfully his automap kept track, so he'd have no trouble finding his way out.
He began to feel insignifcant compared to the enormity of the place. As far as he knew, he was the only living thing in that vast, ancient masoleum. Or was he alone? Perhaps unseen things lurked in the shadows beyond his light, monstrous creatures licking their slobbering jaws at the thought of having him for dinner.
He chuckled to himself. Come and get me.
A mile below ground level, his indicators showed that the atmosphere--air pressure, gases and all--had reached Earth-normal. He boggled at that for a moment. How could it be? Why Earth-normal?
He shrugged his shoulders and removed his helmet.
The air smelled musty, like a tomb that had been sealed for centuries. He took a deep breath and almost gagged on the smell. But he'd soon grow used to it, and having his helmet off made him feel not so detatched from the ruin. He took his gloves off as well, adding still another sense with which to experience the place.
For the next seven days he explored the ruin, staying within a few miles' radius of his ship. By the end of those seven days he was frustrated. The ruin refused to yield its secrets. For a man used to getting immediate results, that was annoying.
But everywhere he went he found the same thing: cavernous rooms and small rooms, wide hallways and narrow tunnels, all filled with nothing. He knew it would be a mistake to think that just because the small, infinitesimal portion of the ruin he had explored held no artifacts, there were no artifacts to find. But that's the way it appeared.
Several times he donned his suit again and ventured up above the life-zone which blanketed the lower parts of the ruin. He climbed to the tops of several buildings. The only difference between those rooms and the ones below were the windows, which afforded him an excellent view of the plain on the one side, or the ruins stretching away to the horizon, a sea of shattered towers waiting patiently beneath the unblinking stars.
The only remarkable thing he found was a huge resevoir of water deep within the bowels of the ancient city. It was enormous, a small ocean. As he stood on its shore, eating lunch, the air near him wavered and a faint glow flared to life. It lashed out at him, passing harmlessly through his flesh. And it disappeared before he even had time to react.
A Banshee had managed, however weakly, to make its way onto the planet. But thankfully it had been so weakened it was powerless, and must have been snapped back over the gravity shelf like a rubberband stretched to its limit.
Duncan laughed in belated startlement, touching his cheek where the Banshee had touched him.
They wanted him, and they wanted him BAD. Duncan wondered, as he finished eating: was this planet, this ruin, important to them? Had the Banshees kept humanity out of this portion of the Galaxy to protect the secret of J359? And what was that secret?
"Give it up!" he shouted, his voice echoing off the water and the faraway walls of the resevoir's cavern.
He packed away his lunch and headed off down a tight tunnel. Soon he would call it a day and return to his ship for sleep. He'd been sleeping in the ruins for the past few nights and was looking forward to a soft bed.
Ten minutes later he saw a light at the end of the tunnel. Duncan quickened his pace. He exited the tunnel into a room mind-bogglingly huge and brightly lit. The roof and walls were so distant from him he could barely discern them. He could see no source for the light; it seemed to radiate from the air itself. The room-Duncan felt that `room' was too small a word for this place; it didn't convey the sense of its staggering size; but just then he could think of no other word for it-was completely bare of any furnishings or decor. The only object visible was a tall pole a few hundred feet in front of the doorway in which he stood. Duncan walked towards it.
He stopped a few feet from the pole and examined it. It was ten feet high, round, and made of a silvery metal that dazzled his eyes. It's entire surface was rough and serrated, and gave the impression of being impossibly sharp. Duncan casually reached out a finger and lightly touched the pole. Cursing, he jerked his hand away and saw blood welling from the tip of his finger. He stuck the finger in his mouth and sucked. Looking back at where he had touched the pole, he saw a few drops of his blood glistening against the rough surface. As he watched, they seemed to dwindle and evaporate, as though being absorbed into the pole. A moment later, the drops were gone.
He withdrew his finger from his mouth. He slowly spun on his heels, studying the hazy distances of the room. "Well," he said to himself.
There was a sudden sound like rushing wind behind him, and he whirled back to the pole. The air next to it shimmered. A featureless, colorless humanoid shape coalesced out of the air. Duncan stepped back. He reached out and attempted to touch the vague shape. His hand passed through it. The surface where he had touched it whirled excitedly, like roiling smoke, and then settled once more into seeming solidity.
A projection or something, Duncan thought to himself.
A sudden voice emanated from the form. "The seed we planted has come to fruition. You are acceptable to us." It raised its arm and pointed to the center of the room. As Duncan watched, space there seemed to twist in upon itself, and he felt himself and the room seemingly tilt in towards the disturbance. He felt as though he were about to tumble down a very steep hill. He fought the urge to reach out and grab onto the thorny pole to steady himself. Instead, he dropped to his knees and braced himself with his hands on the ground.
The disturbance below him- in front of him? -twisted more, and then the fabric of space seemed to rip open. Blinding light poured into the room, forcing Duncan to shield his eyes and lower his head.
"Where are your brothers, the others of your kind?" the voice of the apparition asked.
"Very far from here," Duncan answered.
"The door is open. Go and bring your brothers to this place." Duncan suddenly went cold as a connection was made with the interface on the back of his neck. Data poured into him, two faces were burned into his mind. Then the connection was withdrawn. Duncan shivered uncontrollably, his eyes seeing nothing but the brightness pouring from the rent in space. "Go, and bring your brothers. Bring the ones I have shown to you, as well."
Duncan, unable to see, rose to his feet, fell flat on his face, and then crawled backwards to the tunnel behind him. Once he was in the tunnel, he was beyond the effects of the space warp. He climbed shakily to his feet, and then he ran away as fast as he could, filled with awe and anticipation and an urgent desire to lead humanity back to this place.
It took him several hours to return to the slivership. Once there, he cleaned up the hyperdrive housing and installed the small intraplanetary hyperdrive. He considered it a very likely probability that no one would be waiting for him at G313M. But he couldn't afford to worry about that; he had to believe he'd survive this mission.
Next he recorded a thorough log of everything he'd seen and transmitted it to the nearest listening post. Then he fought down his excitement enough to lie down and sleep for a few hours.
When he awoke, he strapped into the crashcouch and launched himself into space. He told the computer to automatically jump into hyperspace as soon as the ship cleared the gravity shelf.
Then he waited.
Just as he'd expected, shortly after the ship left the planet's surface, the Banshees returned. They waited just beyond the gravity shelf, shining smears of smoky light against the background of stars. He imagined he could feel their attention focused on him, feel their hungry anticipation.
Why were they so intent upon killing him? He doubted they merely wanted to capture him.
Soon they were a looming wall of light several miles long, blocking his path, growing nearer with every second. Finally the ship passed the gravity shelf, and they were there, winking into existence all over the ship. Agony jolted through his body, and he writhed uncontrollably, the unyielding straps of the crashcouch biting into him. He watched through pain-clouded, barely conscious eyes as the Banshees on the bridge drifted toward him.
It was over as suddenly as it began. The ship jumped into hyperspace and the Banshees vanished, caught off guard. In seconds they were thousands of miles behind him.
Duncan sighed wearily, thankfully, and unstrapped himself from the crashcouch.
Was it all in vain? Would anyone be waiting at G313M?
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