Authors: Thomas DePrima
Copyright ©2001, 2010 by Thomas J. DePrima
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or any other means without the permission of the copyright holder is illegal, and punishable by law.
No part of this novel may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the copyright holder, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
This version of the printed novel has been formatted for presentation on Amazon Kindle devices and various other electronic media. The requirement that the text flow freely to accommodate different mediums may at times result in unusual display arrangements.
Cover art by Martin J. Cannon
To contact the author, or see additional information about this and his other novels, visit:
An appendix containing technical data pertinent to this series is included at the back of this book.
Many thanks to Ted King for his technical expertise and encouragement, and to Michael A. Norcutt for his suggestions, proofreading, and for acting as my military protocol advisor.
This series of Jenetta Carver novels include:
A Galaxy Unknown
Valor at Vauzlee
The Clones of Mawcett
Against All Odds
Other novels by this author include:
When The Spirit Moves You
When The Spirit Calls
Table of Contents
~ June 12th, 2269 ~
A recalcitrant clump of wiry salt and pepper hair flopped about ingenuously as the septuagenarian head beneath it twisted this way and that in the glare from an excessively bright overhead lamp. The unlit stump of the offensive cigar that had fouled the air inside the hot and unventilated tent until it was no longer fit for man or beast, hung precariously from aged lips. It was difficult to tell if the occasional sound that escaped past the cigar stump was excitement, wonder, or simple approval.
Pushed together to form an ad hoc table, a collection of large, injection-molded packing cases supported an oversized tray filled with corroded relics of the past. The aggregation represented just one day of laborious digging. A collapsible canvas chair, a clothing trunk, and a bed constituted the only other furnishings in the shelter.
The single tribute to modern science was the gel-comfort bed, whose simple controls can increase or decrease the gel pressure in the mattress or adjust its temperature to immediately suit the owner. The thin, gravity-shielding cloth used to cover the bottom of the mattress allowed the bed's occupant to reduce the effects of gravity above the bed and thus suspend the sleeper so lightly on the surface that it felt as if one were sleeping on a cloud.
A young head, eyes bright with excitement, suddenly obtruded between sun-bleached canvas flaps at the entrance of the shelter and shouted, “Doctor Peterson, come quickly!” After coughing twice when it unwisely paused to breathe in a lungful of polluted air, it managed to choke out, “We've found something! Please come at once!”
Doctor Edward Peterson lowered the ancient artifact he was examining and slowly turned a weatherworn face towards the eager graduate student. He sighed quietly. He'd seen that selfsame look on Bruce Priestley's face many times before, and it might, or might not, be anything significant, but as expedition leader he was perforce obligated to take a look. Removing his eyeglasses unhurriedly, he rubbed his nose gently where the frame had rested and left slight indentations in the flesh. Then he carefully folded the eyeglasses before placing them into their hard protective case.
Virtually everyone had been having their eyes corrected surgically since the process had become as routine as cleaning your teeth with a sonic toothbrush, but Doctor Peterson was a bit of an anachronism. It was almost impossible to get new eyeglasses these days, and he guarded the several pair he owned with a controlled fanaticism. He'd sworn an oath to himself to use eyeglasses to correct the vision in his light-grey, senesced eyes until he could no longer replace the spectacles.
Peterson's career in the field of archeology kept him living in the past, and he frowned upon modern technology, yet— he never hesitated to use it wherever it proved to be an invaluable tool for advancing his work; or when it allowed him to get a good night's sleep. He insisted upon living in a tent, while everyone else lived in temperature and humidity controlled portable shelters, but he allowed special digger droids to assist in earth removal efforts because they greatly facilitated access to his obsession— the magnificent relics from the past.
The Doctor cleared his throat noisily, put his enormous, gnarled hands on the arms of his chair and pushed down as he rose to his feet. As he reached the entrance, his young assistant eagerly swept the tent flap aside, instantly bathing Peterson in the summer afternoon's harsh sunlight while allowing fresh air to revivify the smoke saturated milieu inside the tent. Peterson squinted, ducked his head, and propelled his sinewy six-foot four-inch frame through the opening, just as an early afternoon zephyr drifted leisurely through the camp.
Pausing for just a few seconds to allow his eyes to adjust to the bright light, he scanned the horizon and again marveled to himself just how much the gently rolling landscape on this part of Mawcett always reminded him of his hometown in western Pennsylvania. If not for the purple and black leaves of the trees, and the tree trunks covered by a slippery, fibrous surface that constantly oozed a mucous-like substance, he could almost forget that he was light years from the town where he'd spent his youth. The varieties of fragrant wildflowers that grew in great abundance around the camp, even made it smell like home. Perhaps that was why he'd selected this area for the dig site from among the innumerous locations available on the uninhabited planet.
The weather on this June day also compared favorably to what he would have expected back home at this time of year. And each evening, everyone on the planet was treated to the most magnificent light show in the known universe. As the sun dipped gently below the horizon, the sky virtually exploded into brilliant spectacles of reds, yellows, oranges, and purples. It was almost worthwhile taking the long trip to Mawcett just to enjoy its panoramic sunsets.
Turning his craggy face with its hawk-like features and two days of salt and pepper beard stubble towards Priestly, Dr. Peterson said sternly, “I hope this is better than yesterday's spectacular find, Bruce.”
Bruce Priestly grinned crookedly as they resumed the trek. Twenty-six years young, with short brown hair, pallid skin, and a thin frame, Priestly looked more like an accountant than a field researcher. Standing barely five-foot seven-inches, he was shorter than the Doctor by more than half a foot. He lowered his medium brown eyes and put on his most apologetic face before saying, “It is, sir. I'm sorry about yesterday. I really thought that we were onto something when we found that concrete tunnel.”
“Bruce, since we know that this planet was home to an advanced civilization twenty thousand years ago, before some great, unknown disaster appears to have wiped out all sentient life, it's logical to assume that we would find a sewer pipe or two. You have to investigate further before proclaiming to the entire camp that you've discovered a secret underground burial chamber. You have a fine mind and a brilliant future in Archeology, but you have to avoid getting carried away by exuberance before determining if your discovery has scientific validity.”
“Yes sir. That's why I didn't come get you hours ago.”
Doctor Peterson slowed his pace dramatically and cast an appraising eye towards Priestly. “Hours ago? What is it, another underground tunnel?”
“Not exactly. It's more like a ramp that leads downward- but it does move horizontally underground after it descends about nine meters.”
“Nine meters?” Doctor Peterson said sharply. “That's rather deep! But— I suppose it could lead to a sewerage treatment line.”
“I don't believe that it is a sewer tunnel this time. Uh— while excavating the tunnel we encountered a door.”
“A door? Made of concrete?”
“No sir. It appears to be some sort of metal or composite material. My laborers are vacuuming up the last of the dirt now, and I felt that you should be there when we opened it, even if it's just a sewer connection point or pumping station.”
“If it's been protected from erosion and corrosion, even a sewer plant can yield valuable information and artifacts.”
“Yes sir. That was my thinking as well.”
To save time, the pair crossed an active excavation area. They were forced to pick their way carefully along narrow paths that wound through a checkerboard grid layout of five-meter-square excavation areas marked with wooden stakes and string. All other dig sites on the planet used laser stakes positioned along two axis of the dig area's perimeter. When activated they constantly drew and redrew a grid in light beams and presented no chance of anyone becoming tangled in string. But Doctor Peterson intractably insisted on the ancient system. Each time someone tripped on a stake or string, they would just sigh, shake their heads, and mumble a brief and unintelligible expletive.
As the two scientists at last reached the entrance of a two-meter wide tunnel that descended slowly below ground, Doctor Peterson halted and took out his eyeglasses. Bending, he closely examined the shiny black walls that bordered the entrance ramp, and slid a rough, calloused hand over the smooth, lustrous surface to feel the texture. Tendril-like streaks of white in the solid wall gave the appearance of fractures.
“This is no sewer plant, Bruce. These walls were constructed with a highly-polished, metamorphic rock such as marble. I can't see this sort of expensive construction material being used for the entrance to a utility plant. And this ramp has to be at least two meters wide.”
“When I saw the marble surface, I didn't really think it was a sewer plant, Doctor,” Priestly admitted candidly, “which is why I'm so excited. I, uh, was trying not to get carried away by exuberance.”
Doctor Peterson scowled mildly at the impertinence of the comment, an obvious reference to his very recent chastisement, as he straightened up and rejoined the younger man who stood eagerly waiting, several feet ahead.
With each step into the tunnel, the sunlight diminished, but dim work lights, previously attached to the walls by the laborers, provided adequate illumination for the pair to find their way. Their eyes, accustomed to the bright light outside, slowly adjusted to the gloom. The pungent odor of damp soil and mold spores lingering in the passageway, assailed their nostrils, but Dr. Peterson was able to see well enough to know that all dirt had been thoroughly vacuumed from the tunnel.
The downward ramp turned back on itself twice as they descended. When at last they reached the bottom of the ramp, and the passageway had leveled out, it widened significantly from two-meters to four. Doctor Peterson halted suddenly, his eyes opening wide, as he got his first look at an ominous-looking wall, five-meters ahead, that blocked their passage. Black as midnight, it gleamed menacingly in the harsh light of portable Chembrite Light panels.
A full thirty-seconds passed before Dr. Peterson again moved forward. Laborers, cleaning up the last of the soil, parted to let the two scientists through as they approached.
“This is phenomenal!” Doctor Peterson said, his voice quaking with excitement and awe as he stared at the wide door in the center of a wall seemingly made of the same substance. “There isn't a speck of corrosion on the wall or door. It looks brand new. I wonder what it's made of. Do you see a handle, or a way of opening it?”
“No sir,” Priestly said shaking his head. “I gave it a quick check before I came to get you. There doesn't seem to be any easy way of opening it from this side.”
Doctor Peterson's excitement had risen to rival that of Priestly, who was having great difficulty standing still and looking even marginally calm. Although Priestly's arms were held rigidly at his side, his fingers were twitching spasmodically, and his breathing was as ragged as if he had just run a hundred meter sprint.
“Let's get our portable X ray, sonar, radiation, and air quality measuring equipment down here right away!” Doctor Peterson said obstreperously.
“It should be here any minute, Doctor.” Priestly said. “I sent for it when I came to get you.”
Peterson nodded absently as he began a close examination of the door and wall.
When several laborers finally arrived with the equipment they'd been sent to retrieve, a coterie of curious dig site team members with anxious faces trailed close behind. The rumor of a possible major discovery was already spreading through the camp like wildfire. Doctors Anthony Ramilo, Barbara Huften, and Dakshiku Vlashsku had dropped whatever they'd been doing and hurried along behind. As they crowded around the door for a closer look, their young assistants brusquely yanked aside the laborers who were trying to set up the equipment.
Doctor Huften slid her petite, five-foot two-inch body next to Doctor Peterson, fixed her pale-blue eyes intently on the door, and said in her surprisingly husky voice, “What is it, Edward?”
“We don't know anything yet, Barbara, except that young Priestly has found a marble-lined tunnel that leads to this most extraordinary wall and door.”
“Any markings on the door?” Doctor Ramilo asked, as he tried to maneuver his own five-foot eight-inch body closer. His curly ebony hair and sable skin, features from his Moroccan heritage, seemed to give him an odd sort of kinship with the wall.
“No, Anthony, it's just a plain black surface with no markings of any kind. Its only unusual feature is its size! Lord, it must be two-hundred centimeters wide! But more importantly— there's not a single micron of corrosion or deterioration in evidence.” Straightening up, he turned and brusquely flourished his arms as he said, “Everyone stand back now so that we can get the equipment operating.”