Manxome foe votsb 3, p.16

Manxome Foe votsb-3, page 16

 part  #3 of  Voyage of the Space Bubble Series


Manxome Foe votsb-3

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  “Uh huh.” Weaver wasn’t certain, but he thought the Adar had smiled like an infomercial actor might have.

  “The iridium source is about the size of what you would call a mini-keg of beer. Which reminds me, you must try my Mr. Beer soon and tell me if it works as advertised.”

  “When we get back to Earth.” Weaver liked beer. Not enough, however, to make it on-board.

  “Control… control… the lazy Susan motor through the RS-232 port on the side via some of this phone cable — five hundred meters from Radio Shack…”

  “Hey, can you put a wireless switch that’ll give me a couple kilometers range in noisy rad environment?”

  “Perhaps… how about more wire? I have more rolls, at least two kilometers of wire that will work for this.”

  “Wire is good, just heavy. I’ll have help carrying it.”

  “Wire then. So, let me see. You control the gammas incident on the LGB by turning the lazy Susan on and off. I’ll put one springloaded push button on it that will rotate the table ninety degrees when held down.” Tchar pulled out a push-button kit from somewhere in his quarters. The kit was in a small light blue modular toolbox with a logo on the front. Never more out of place did it look than in the hands of the alien Adar wearing spandex shorts and a Hawaiian shirt.

  “There must be a button in here that will…”

  “I’ll come back in ten minutes.” Weaver said.

  » » »

  “So this is a… what?” Miller asked as they approached the gate.

  The radiation counters were going off the scale; they weren’t going to be able to spend much time in place.

  “It generates gamma rays,” Weaver replied, setting the box down and pointing the emitter at the gate. They had to set it up on the edge of the crater; the Looking Glass was hanging forty feet in the air. “There are detectors for that as part of the defense system on the other side. When we start beaming through the concrete and steel on the other side, the detectors are going to go nuts. I hope. Hey, this thing is bad news on the front end so don’t get in front of it when we take the cover lid off. Understood?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Anyway, they detect the gammas on the other side. These are a different energy level than the background gammas here. So they should be able to see them. We point the gammas ninety degrees away from the LGB and then just push that button at the end of the wire to point the gamma rays at it. You let off the button and it points back away from the gate. Voila! it goes on and off and they should see this on the other side.”

  “And then they drop another nuke through the door,” Miller pointed out.

  “That is why this thing is set up on a looong wire,” Bill replied, peering down the tube. “But if they’re paying any attention at all, they’ll notice that there’s a signal coming through. You think that’s pointed at the gate?” He depressed the button a time or two. It worked — gotta hand it to Tchar.

  “I think there’s enough radiation going through the gate that it won’t be noticeable,” Weaver said. “I’m up to over a thousand millirads. These suits are going to be hotter than fire when we get back.”

  “Too bad we don’t have any neenions,” Bill said, standing up. “Let’s open the lid on this thing and get the grapp out of here.”

  “You ready?”

  “Yes, sir,” the commo tech said, swallowing nervously. He felt good reason to be nervous. The Dreen were in the neighborhood and while everyone else was in armor just bristling with guns, all he had was as stupid space suit. “How long do we have to be down here?”

  “Until we get a response,” Bill replied. “Start sending.”

  » » »

  It was one of the more boring vital jobs on the planet. Seven gates had opened that were from planets that had current or former Dreen presence. Once it became possible to move gates, all seven had been relocated to a fortress deep under the Antarctic rock. The area was tectonically stable, as far away from anything vital as you could get on Earth. Each of the gates was plugged with a special door made of heavier armor than the one securing Cheyenne Mountain. However, the door could be opened, quickly, and opposite each door was an air cannon loaded with a nuke. In the event of Dreen presence being detected on the far side, the nuke could be fired and the door closed again. When a heavy duty nuke went off on the far side of the gate, it closed fast enough that the only thing that made it through was a blast of radiation.

  Even if the Dreen were able to get through those defenses they’d be, well, in Antarctica. There wasn’t anything for them to eat and it was a long way to anywhere they wanted to be.

  Just in case things got very bad, the facility also had a massive nuclear weapon embedded under it. The facility was deep enough that when the nuke went off, the blast would just collapse the thousand feet of rock overhead. If the Dreen got through the defense they were going to find the other side was quite a nasty place.

  But somebody had to keep an eye on things. So twenty miles away was another facility. It had a large staff of Army infantry that rotated in and out, doing winter training along the way, and a smaller staff of permanent residents that kept an eye on the gates.

  Keeping an eye on the gates was simple on one level and much more difficult on another. Each gate was shown on a video monitor with another screen that gave particle readings. All of those screens showed higher than normal particle levels. Gates generated a stream of muons and quarks naturally. But all of the gates had had one or more nukes fired through it. That, too, generated a lot of particles.

  Computer programs monitored levels and determined if they were within normal range. However, radiation slowly decreased over time. From time to time the amount of particles from a particular gate would drop far enough to trigger the automated detectors.

  At which point a human had to be involved. And it was a very boring job. Most of the time the technicians just sat for twelve hours staring at nothing. From time to time an alarm went off and they had to analyze the situation and decide if it was an emergency or just normal fluctuation. Thus they had to be familiar with particles and radiation.

  Fortunately, the U.S. government produced a large number of such people every year. They were called “nukes,” the guys who handled the atomic teakettles for nuclear submarines and the few remaining nuclear aircraft carriers. Not only were they trained in some fairly advanced particle physics, they were used to sitting for hours looking at nothing.

  It was still a God damned boring job.

  So when the alarm went off on Gate Eight, the tech was happy to have a change. Since radiation fell off fastest in the immediate period after a nuke went off, he initially assumed that the rad level had just fallen out of spec. But when he examined the readout, it was apparent that the alarm was anything but a false alarm. All sorts of radioactive decay products were coming through the gate as background noise that looked like the remains of a big nuke. But it was suddenly bursting gamma radiation. Gamma was produced in an initial nuke blast and there was a tiny amount of residual. But not like this.

  Without thinking about it, he hit the base alarm button. Seconds could count if the Dreen were preparing to breach the gate.

  As he waited for his supervisor to respond he examined the readings. After a moment, he frowned and leaned forward.

  “What?” his boss asked, running in while still tucking in his blouse.

  “Big stream of gammas coming out of Gate Eight,” the tech said, still leaning forward. “We nuked it and all that. But something’s funky.”

  “Define funky,” the supervisor asked, leaning over the tech’s shoulder. A former nuclear officer, he could read the screens as well as his tech if not better. “Why’s the gamma spectrum have a sharp peak at six-twelve keV?”

  “That’s what I mean by funky, sir,” the tech replied. “It’s a discontinuous stream too. The peak keeps coming and going.”

  “You realize what the definition of a discontinuous stream of particles is, right?

  “Yes, sir. A signal.”

  » » »

  “So far, so good,” Miller said. He had an extendable camera poked over the lip of the depression they’d hunkered down in. “No nuke. I’m glad the gate stabilized before we got here.”

  “It only turns off for about two weeks,” Weaver reminded him. “I’m wondering about response. I don’t think it’s going to be quick.”

  “So how long do I do this, sir?” the commo tech asked. “I don’t mean to whine, but my wrist is getting worn out. I don’t do Morse much anymore.”

  “Well, it’s long enough for them to see the greeting,” Weaver replied. “Go on to the message…”

  “U… S… A. U… S… A,” the supervisor muttered. He could read that much Morse code. “There are survivors.”

  “Or Dreen trying to catch us out,” the tech replied. “It’s changing. What’s that?”

  “I think we’re getting a full signal, but it’s too fast for me to catch,” the supervisor said. “You’re recording?”

  “Continuous,” the tech said.

  “Johannsen spent some time in signals,” the supervisor said, straightening up. “I’ll go get him and start trying to figure out how to reply.”

  “What do you make of it?”

  “It’s a hell of a long time since I did Morse, sir.”

  Eric Johannsen had started off as a nuke but experienced “confinement issues” during a deployment and had transferred to a land base, then out of the Navy. However, he’d spent his time on the land base in a commo position. Modern commo didn’t involve much Morse code, it was all about switches, encryption and video compression. Now he was trying to dredge up three-year-old memories of one class and it wasn’t coming fast.

  “USA, USA, USA.” He fast forwarded through the transmission and then paused, looking at the time counter. “That’s continuous for the first fifteen minutes.”

  “They were saying hello,” the supervisor said. “What’s the rest of that mess?”

  “It speeds up, too,” Johannsen said. “There’s somebody who really knows Morse on the other side. Let’s see… Operational Immediate. Eyes Only Presidential. Codeword: Eagle Whisper. Verification Alpha Delta Niner. Eagle Whisper Mission has reached the attack site. No survivors found ATT. That would be ‘At This Time.’ Confirmed Dreen attack… Jesus Christ, sir. What the grapp is the Eagle Whisper Mission?!”

  “Don’t keep reading,” the supervisor said, leaning over and shutting off the playback. “I have calls to make.”

  “I’m glad to know they made it,” the President said. “How do we respond?”

  “I’m loathe to drop the defenses, Mr. President,” the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs replied. “But the easiest thing to do would be to open the gate and go through. In a suit, admittedly. And there would be a heck of a drop on the other side. But we could handle all that.”

  “Set up an emitter on this side,” the national security advisor suggested. “I think that the people down there could probably do that. We might even be able to set up direct communications from here.”

  “Open the gate for a moment and send through a note,” the President replied. “Tell them that we’re working on it from our end and we’ll get back to them. Send that right now. And tell the people down there that they’d better keep their mouths shut.”

  “I’m running out of air,” the commo tech said. At least he wasn’t being forced to keep sending with nothing coming back.

  “That’s why we brought spare bottles,” Chief Miller growled. He was lying on his back watching the take from the camera. He was used to sitting in one place and watching nothing for days on end. Sniper hides came to mind. “Crack one open.”

  “The ship isn’t coming back until the Marines are done with their search,” Weaver said. “Or we get some response telling the CO to land. So I’d suggest you get comfortable, PO.”

  “Yes, sir,” the tech replied, picking up one of the O2 canisters. “I need some help.”

  “Got it,” Bill said, trying not to sigh.

  “And we have response,” Miller said suddenly. “I thought for a second it was a nuke and I nearly wet myself. But something just shot through the door and landed on the edge of the crater. And it is not a nuke. Metal canister of some sort. Let me modify that. I don’t think it’s a nuke.”

  “They would have shot one long ago if they thought we were spoofing them or didn’t get the message,” Bill said, slotting the tech’s replacement in. “Go get it, would you?”

  “I hear and obey O swami,” Miller said, rolling over and standing up. “Be right back.”

  “Huh,” Bill said. The “message canister” was a Number Ten can, apparently formerly holding coffee. It had a screw lid and his claws just skittered across it. “Open that up, would you?” he asked, holding it out to the commo tech.

  “That thing’s hot as hell, sir,” the tech said, backing up. “I respectfully decline.”

  “Gimme,” Miller said with a sigh. He wrapped his claws around it and crushed, then ripped the top off. “Piece of paper inside.” The paper fluttered to the ground as he tipped the can up.

  “Paper does not retain radiation very well, PO,” Bill said, gesturing.

  “Your suits do, though, sir,” the tech pointed out.

  “Okay, Miller, back away slowly.”

  “It’s a standard message form,” the tech said once the suits had backed up far enough for him to approach the paper. “From: SpaceCom To: Commander Eagle Whisper. Stand by for communications gear to be set up. Estimate four hours.”

  “Hell, it only took us twenty minutes,” Miller said. “Why four hours?”

  “We’re a carefully selected group of top-flight specialists,” Bill pointed out. “Naturally it would take a group of regular techs longer. And the guys on the other end don’t have Tchar’s maze of junk.”

  “This place is a maze,” Smith said. “Left or right?”

  The streets of what had once been a major city now resembled canyons, many of them blind. Fallen rubble choked them and in many places it was unclimbable. Holes opened up without warning. Already two suits had been damaged from falls.

  The map that the archaeologists had left behind wasn’t much help. It had been scanned and Berg was looking at a blow-up on his internal monitors. But it didn’t appear to be to scale and landmarks were denoted with cryptic terms that only made sense to a small group that discussed their work every day. But “Lag Pile” didn’t mean anything to Berg. And it was a two-dimensional representation of an area that was, among other things, often three dimensional.

  “Grapp if I know,” Berg replied. “But any survivor, if there is one, can’t be far from the base. He or she had to haul supplies. How far do you think they’re going to go?”

  “Well, we’ve searched most of what’s on the map, right?” Himes said.

  “Right,” Berg replied. “And Bravo found the workings they were working on. Nobody there, signs of Dreen. But… Chither. Top said something about a doctoral candidate… exploring a new section. Which means it’s not on the map.”

  “That’s very helpful,” Smith pointed out, looking at the Y intersection. “So left or right?”

  Berg examined the map again. He was pretty sure they were by “Lag Pile.” It was a massive mound that sort of looked like a skyscraper after twenty million years of wear. On the back side of it from their position was a circle and some dotted lines that stopped without being cut off. An unmapped tunnel.

  “That way,” Berg said, pointing up the mound to the left. “Watch your step. We’re looking for a tunnel opening.”

  “I don’t see a tunnel opening,” Himes said, sliding down the hill on his butt and elbow wheels. “Just another damned canyon.”

  “This is relatively close to the main base,” Berg pointed out. In fact it was in someone else’s search sector. “And there ought to be a tunnel by where the slope increases.”

  “Great,” Himes said, using the slope and the power
ful arms of the suit to get himself upright. “What do we do now?”

  “Sweep left and right,” Berg said, looking up and down the lip of the canyon. “Look for anything out of the ordinary.”

  Smith headed to the left, then paused.

  “I’ve got what might be a path,” he said, swiveling his sensor pods, then activating the targeting laser. “Look at those rocks.”

  “Balanced,” Berg said, walking over to the rock pile. Three large boulders had been stacked, but one of them clearly could be moved back and forth easily. He swiveled it up and to the side and found a narrow opening to a tunnel that was partially choked by rubble. “Hello? Anyone home?” he boomed through the external speakers.

  “We can’t get down that,” Himes said, looking at the opening.

  “We can get down,” Berg pointed out. “We just roll in on the belly wheels. Getting out would be the interesting part. Open up my back pack. I’ve got some rope in there.”

  “You carry rope?” Himes asked, surprised.

  “Think Boy Scout,” Berg replied.

  Himes opened up the cargo box of the sergeant’s suit and pulled out a long spool of what looked like twine. There was more than the spool of twine in there. There was a CamelBak of water, a small spare air bottle, three MRE packages, a first aid kit, a small repair kit and a thermal blanket. Then there was the pair of pistols — .577 magnums with worn grips — and a low-slung combat holster.

  “Uh, Berg, that’s not going to hold much,” Himes said with a snort, pulling out the spool of twine.

  “You’d be surprised,” Berg replied, taking the spool. There was a clip on the end and he pulled out a length and handed it to Himes. “It’s nanotube mono. You could lift the Blade with it. Clip that to the butt shackle. Smith, take the spool.”

  By running the line around their suits and claws, the two could belay the team leader down into the hole. Getting him out would be a matter of pulling really hard.

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