Rouaas, although known to both planets for hundreds of years, is still terra incognita to a surprising extent. Sharing a star system with two other partially terraformed planets, it's by far the least-explored of the three, primarily because of its lack of water and therefore life.
These three planets occupy orbits around their sun roughly analogous to Venus, Earth and Mars in the Terran solar system. Of these, Rouaas occupies the one corresponding to Venus, and is accordingly the warmest.
However, unlike Venus, Rouaas lacks a greenhouse atmosphere, and although considerably warmer overall than Earth it has nothing like Venus' inhospitable climate. The general consensus is that it would have almost no atmosphere at all, much like Mars, were it not for the Virrin.
All three planets, in fact, possess atmospheres very similar to Earth's (and by extension Qozernon's and Deshtiris'), one of the chief reasons it's assumed that they're incomplete terraforming experiments by the Virrin. Supporting this theory is the presence of plant life on the middle planet, Aastya, all of it Earth-based, which led to its current use as a prison planet.
It's not that Rouaas hasn't been explored. In fact there are several mapping satellites in orbit around the planet continually adding to the available store of data. Its landscape is known to be extremely rugged in nature, with many large craters pocking the surface. There's ample evidence of seismic and volcanic activity, including numerous active volcanoes and the remains of vast lava flows. In addition, the surface is broken in many places by gigantic rifts, some many miles deep.
Contributing to the savage nature of the landscape is the almost total absence of weather, which would otherwise contribute the softening effects of erosion. Although the atmosphere was apparently identical to Earth's at the time of terraforming, in the intervening thousands of years some of the oxygen has been bound up in the form of oxides. A certain amount of sulfur dioxide has accumulated due to continuing volcanic activity, as has what little water exists in the atmosphere, which would otherwise have been permanently bound long ago into hydrous minerals.
Even with the vast database of information provided by the satellites, little is really known about the planet. Unlike Earth, for example, there's an almost complete absence of metals: Rouaas is for all practical purposes a giant ball of solid rock. Such minerals as are easily accessible are far cheaper to mine on one of the Twin Planets, for even with advanced technology the transportation of tons of low yield ore almost twenty light-years is simply not economic. For this reason, although trillions of bytes of data on the planet are available, very little of it has actually been looked at in detail. Add to this the fact that though Rouaas is slightly smaller than Earth literally all of it is land, and looking for the Futaba began to take on the aspect of searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack.
And always the question remained: Why Rouaas?
Kiri provided the answer to the first riddle. "It's not well known, Sen," she said, "but amorphous diamond will reflect a hyperspace pulse of the proper phase. In effect it rings like a bell, but in hyperspace rather than normal space." She explained how to temporarily reconfigure the comm system to send out a hyperspace pulse of the right phase and how to set up the Noriko's sensors to detect only the reflection. "Just be ready to pick it up the moment you transmit," she said. "I don't know what kind of alarms he might have set for himself, but if he does detect the pulse it's better if he thinks it's a one-time anomaly."
"Won't he recognize what's happening?" I asked. "Last I heard he'd managed to snag all your files on the Futaba."
"That's not in those files," she said with a grim smile. "The information on the 'hyperspace bell' phenomenon was in a separate set of files dealing with the early experiments I'd done on amorphous diamond. He didn't touch those; probably didn't realize there was anything of value there."
"What about him tracking the Noriko?"
"Not likely, for the same reason the Brizali didn't detect us when we landed on Deshtiris. The ship's too damn small. Just try not to poke around too long before you land. He might get suspicious if he detects several hundred pounds of metal floating around without visible means of support." I nodded.
"One last thing, Sen. Once you drop out of hyperspace I think you should maintain comm silence. It's almost impossible to tap communications that originate in hyperspace, but once in normal space they'll make you a sitting duck. Any questions?"
I paused. "If I don't make it back--I love you all," I said, and broke the connection.
I soon had everything set, ready for the drop out of hyperspace. I put together several telecom messages and stored them without transmitting, and took care of one last piece of business, programming in a series of instructions for the Noriko that I could trigger from the keypad on my suit. After that it was simply a matter of donning my protective gear and waiting. It seemed like an eternity before the Noriko finally sounded a warning and a moment later Rouaas swam into view directly ahead. Here we go, I thought.
On the panel before me was a small image of the giant dull-brown sphere suspended in space before me. I pressed a key, sending out the pulse. Almost immediately a small flash appeared on the screen, somewhere in the southern hemisphere of the planet, and I entered a command to zoom in and magnify, overlaying with topographic and geologic information from the centuries of accumulated data. I found that it originated within one of the deep rifts breaking up the planet's surface.
I zoomed in again, wondering if Rokun had landed at the bottom of the chasm, which according to the data was over three miles deep. That didn't fit the information on the returned pulse, though, which apparently had been reflected back from a location just a few hundred feet below the level of the planet's surface. I zoomed in again, with similar results, and zoomed once more. What the hell is that? I found myself wondering.
What I was seeing just didn't look quite right. The satellite data originated from directly overhead, of course, but even from that angle I saw what appeared to be excessively regular curves and straight lines, barely detectable so close were they to the edges of the chasm. I queried the database for information on prior construction on Rouaas, but even as I waited I knew that no humans could have built on this scale without an immense investment of resources, for the evidence of intelligent construction extended for dozens of miles in either direction. A half-second later the database returned the available information on the only known construction, a few very small prospecting plants built several hundred years ago.
Instead of a slow glide, I took the Noriko straight down towards the rift, applying just enough power to keep my descent under control. I was only a thousand feet above ground level, about to descend directly into the chasm, when I saw it.
At first glance it might have been a series of natural ledges, resulting from the different erosion rates of layers of differing strata, except that here there was no erosion to speak of. Then, as I moved in closer, they took shape--a series of terraces, cut into the solid wall of the cliff and extending out of sight in either direction. The lowest one was perhaps six hundred feet below the lip of the chasm, almost even with the cliffside, with each one above set further back into the rock. They were spaced vertically about sixty feet apart, with almost vertical walls sloping slightly inward from one up to the next. Below the bottom ledge there was a sheer drop into the abyss, straight down for nearly three miles.
As I continued descending below the lip of the rift, I saw that a section of the topmost ledge had no wall behind it. Instead, a vast cavern had been cut into the rock, extending back into utter darkness. The opening had to be at least two hundred feet in height and easily a thousand feet in width. I realized that a Deshtiran battleship could have entered with plenty of room to spare.
I soon determined that the Futaba was somewhere inside. The hyperspace pulse and the Futaba's echo weren't affected by solid rock, which was fortunate, as my readouts placed it several hundred feet back within the cavern.
For a moment I debated taking the Noriko in, then decided against it. There was a good chance I might need to make a fast getaway, especially if I succeeded in finding Haley, and I had no idea what surprises lay inside. Coming in closer, but well to one side of the immense opening, I saw that the top ledge was a good sixty feet deep. There were also periodic vertical outcroppings on the walls behind the ledge, resembling columns, which would block any view from the cavern. I gingerly brought the ship down on the far side of one of these.
I took a deep breath. "Noriko: portal," I said, and stepped out of the ship, cautiously sniffing the air. It proved breathable enough, if very dry. There was a thin feeling to it, as though I were at a much higher altitude, due to the slightly diminished oxygen content. There was also just a faint trace of a sulfurous tang, but all in all the air was considerably more breathable than Deshtiris' had been under the Brizali.
I turned back to the ship. "Noriko: close portal." I put on my helmet, raising the visor for better visibility. Then I headed for the opening, hugging the wall as much as possible. In a few seconds I was inside.
I noticed that the actual entrance to the cavern was surrounded by deep grooves cut into the rock. There was a brownish residue along the bottom of these, and I guessed that it had been metal once. Here and there were other traces of what might have once been machinery or conduits, now long since crumbled into dust.
Still hugging the near wall, I worked my way into the cavern. I hesitated to use my hand torch for fear of attracting attention, and so my progress at first was slow, as I allowed my eyes to adjust to the darkness. For the first hundred feet the walls were featureless, without openings of any kind, but after that I began to see occasional openings carved into the solid rock, which became more frequent as I progressed.
I saw a glint up ahead, as light from the now distant opening reflected off something shiny, and soon found myself face to face with the Futaba. There was no sign of life inside, although of course I had no way of knowing if anyone was in the living quarters.
As my eyes continued to adjust to the dim light, I realized that the Futaba was parked almost at the very back of the immense hangar. From here I'd have to enter one of the many openings scattered along the walls. For several moments I remained motionless, looking in all directions for any sign of movement, my ears straining to hear any sounds other than my own pulse pounding in my ears. Satisfied, I set my torch on its lowest setting and carefully examined the ground around the Futaba's doorway. To my dismay I found no footprints or other traces I could use as a starting point. Although several millennia's worth of dust had drifted into the vast cavern, virtually none of it had reached this far back.
Frantically I looked at the maze of corridors, utterly at a loss as to where to begin. And then I saw the blood.
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|