Despite Eleya’s declaration that they should proceed with the meeting, there was an awkward silence that lingered for some time before Colonel Lhenan pushed his chair back from the table. He stood and crossed the room, standing at the control panel next to Eleya. He bent down and spoke with her briefly before producing a small data cartridge from his tunic and seating it into a recessed slot, hands sliding over the controls as he prepared his presentation.
Sergeant Zenshen moved up, taking the seat next to Alex. She elbowed his arm and leaned in, speaking barely loud enough to hear. "If I may ask, is that normal?"
Alex looked at her, surprised to see how uneasy she appeared now. He shifted in his seat and leaned over, lowering his voice as well. "Is what normal?"
"The Empress and the Princess'... Interaction."
"Oh, that. Yeah, that's pretty much how it goes." He sat up, then returned to their conference after reconsidering. "Usually without weapons. That was new this time."
She blanched and did not look any more at ease. "I had been warned they were not always on good terms, but I did not expect that.”
Colonel Lhenan cleared his throat and dimmed the lights, the holographic pad humming to life. “The information we are going to cover is classified. Please keep this in mind.”
In the darkness, Alex couldn’t see the Colonel but he was fairly sure that Lhenan was just talking to him when he said that. A panel showing an image of the enormous ring materialized in the air at the end of the conference table. It appeared to be facing him exactly, but if it was like Human hologram technology, everyone would see it that way.
“This is the ring located in local space. The Humans have not been able to determine if it is the same ring that was encountered in the cluster-globe or a different one.” He reached down and tapped the controls.
“They attempted to take a sample of the ring material but were unable to.” The slide changed to a video, the camera slowly approaching the faintly curved outer edge. It drew to a stop, the surface textured with the same curlicues as the walkway inside had been. A cutting disk at the end of a machine arm spun up, the camera jittering as it pressed the tool to the ring but there was no other reaction. It spun freely, not heating or producing any sign of work. “As you can see here, the material appears to be either frictionless or using some sort of shield technology that we cannot detect.”
“Their scans?” Eleya was quiet, remarkably respectful sounding. Alex found that almost as disconcerting as them talking about Humans like he wasn’t there... or like he wasn’t one.
“They also turned up nothing. Given the parity of our respective scanning technologies, I doubt that adding our own would change that.” Lhenan tapped through several items, complex charts that Alex barely understood.
“It appears that the ring will open a portal when an unarmed ship comes within seven three point two six two kilometers. As before, it requires that there be both Tslao and Humans on board.” Alex double-checked how he was translating measurements and switched it from precise to general. Another still image flipped up, the inside of the landing dome from the apex, a shadow from a ship cast onto the floor below. “The automatic landing mechanism that took hold of the Kshlavo activated at two kilometers before the test craft passed through the portal. It also released controls immediately upon landing.”
Alex spoke up this time. "Did the portal close behind them?"
"No sir. It remained open for the length of the initial test."
“Huh.” He leaned back into his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. “Lucky.”
“Indeed.” He clicked over to the next image, the archway surrounded by softly glowing symbols. It was frosted over, the hieroglyphs that seemed to indicate weapons were not allowed bright on both sides. “The team did approach the inner portal, carrying a variety of weapons. Whatever controls it seems to be able to discern intent. While it would not allow a combat knife, a kitchen knife appeared to be acceptable. Standard and exotic firearms also caused it to deny entrance.
“If you will notice these marks at the base of each side of the arch.” The image changed again, all of the glyphs dark and the portal clear, the hash marks faintly lit. It looked mostly the same on the other side, some of the trees in the distance were turning colors as though it were fall. “It appears that one mark was removed from each side when Prince and Princess Sorenson passed through it... There were 75 before, with 74 remaining on each side now. As of yet we do not know if that is counting down the number of passages remaining or the total number of people allowed through.”
“Given that we were tagged upon reaching the other side, I would assume that it limits the number that can pass through.” Carbon looked over at Alex, eyebrow arched.
Alex had forgotten who Prince and Princess Sorenson were and was staring into the screen working that over in his mind when Carbon nudged him. “Oh, yeah. Tracking tag. I don’t see why they’d bother with one if it was per trip.”
“That is the general consensus so far, but until another group goes through it, it is still speculation.”
Alex looked at the Colonel in the dim light of the projector. “Is that going to happen soon?”
“There is another joint reconnaissance mission planned in twelve days. We were expecting that at least one of you would be joining it.” He indicated between Alex and Carbon. “Or both of you.”
Alex managed to stop himself before he just volunteered. Things had changed in his life, whether he had intended for them to or not. He reclined and turned to Carbon. “You up for that?”
She considered that for about long enough to blink, smiling as she replied. “Yes, I am.”