Friday, May 3, 2013

Return Postage

“Oh no, I’m sure you guys are going to love this.” Alex leaned forward, his brand new environment suit squeaking from the motion. He was taking a little too much enjoyment in explaining what happened when you went through the portal in the artifact, into the Dyson shell itself. “The sensation is horrible. It’s like... it’s like a burning hot hand is trying to pull your chest open.”

He was waiting with the Human half of the crew for the initial trip back into the shell. He was still working for ONI, after all. Aside from Lieutenant Colonel Thames and Lieutenant Williams, who he had only met in passing, the rest of the group were strangers. Two enlisted soldiers and a trio of techs rounded out their contribution to this mission.

Given that his audience was primarily military, they mostly seemed unconcerned with his description. No doubt they had already read his account of the events there and were familiar with the tagging process. Two of the science techs were a bit pale at his description.

“It doesn’t last very long, right?” The more composed scientist, Jarl Abbot, sought a bit of reassurance as he fiddled with the scanner controls on his suit.

“No, not really.” Alex decided that he was coming too close to being cruel for his own amusement and curtailed any further aggrandization. “It feels like it takes forever, but it is only a few seconds.”

“All right. That isn’t too bad.” Abbot and the others that seemed concerned eased visibly.

“It’ll probably help to be expecting it. I had no idea it was going to happen, so it knocked me right on my ass.”

Their conversation was cut short, the Tslao delegation arriving at the staging tent. Carbon, of course, lead the group even though they were still acting as though she was just a Lan. Sergeant Zhensen followed her, then a quartet of technicians. Naturally, he knew all of the Tslao personally.

“Colonel Thames. I am pleased to see you again.” Carbon gave the him a short bow.

“Likewise, Shipmaster.” He sort-of bowed in return. It wasn’t sloppy or careless, it just didn’t look like he was used to doing that. “Is your crew ready?”

“They are.”

“Good, then we can get this operation started.” Thames turned, leading the group out of the tent into the open expanse of the landing bay. There had been a lot of construction in the past few weeks, a dozen temporary buildings going up along the the piers that radiated out from the central hub.

The hub itself had been partially enveloped by a squat pre-fab building that had been cut to fit over the one live portal archway. A pair of guards in full Silverback armor flanked the double doors into the building. They carried no weapons, but could still punch someone in half on accident.

Thames waved the guards down from attention and slid his credentials through the reader. A set of heavy locks clunked out of the way and the doors parted for them, opening into the room lit primarily by rows and rows of science and communications equipment. “Welcome to Grand Central.”

The first thing that caught Alex’s eye was the portal. The green grass was gone, replaced with blinding white snow and a steel sky. That wasn’t the only thing that had changed, though. “Where did those pillars come from?”

Williams picked his question up. “They were ‘constructed’ this morning, which is the best way to describe what happened I’ve heard so far. They extend out at the top, forming a shelter.”

“Huh. Looks like someone knew we were coming.”

“The science team that was working here came to a similar conclusion and freaked right the hell out.” She gestured to the largely unattended equipment as they approached the portal. “You’ll notice we’re running a bit light right now while they figure out what kind of foil will keep their thoughts in best.”

“Quaint.” Alex rolled his eyes, quite used to the idea of others poking around in his head unannounced now. That didn’t mean he liked it, but the shock had worn off some time ago. “I see we’ve been sending things through already?”

Williams nodded at the pair of antigrav sleds laden with gear, haphazardly arranged against the nearest pillar. “Yeah, the techs pushed them over after the shelter was formed. I think they just wanted to see if it was solid and there’s no way we’d let them try that with one of the survey drones.”

“They should have just gone over themselves. It worked for me.”

“No way in hell. You know how long it took to find these three?” She laughed out loud and hitched her thumb over her shoulder at the Human science techs. “There’s plenty of people dying to study this thing, but not everyone’s got whatever it is that makes going there sound good.”

Alex shrugged. He had plenty of time to examine his motives for stepping across that threshold the first time and still hadn’t come up with a reason that sounded better than ‘because.’ “I’m eager to go back, myself. Biggest mystery I’ve ever seen. I just can’t leave it to someone else, you know?”

“When you put it like that, this operation sounds a hell of a lot better.” The Lieutenant marshaled the group into a rough line in front of the portal, pulling Carbon up with them. “You two first. You’ve already been tagged, you should be immediately ready to assist anyone who has a hard time with the process.”

Alex smiled at Carbon and nodded towards the snowy field beyond. “Shall we?”

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