Chapter 18.
Back aboard the Sieve, Jack had a shower and donned a clean uniform. He briskly walked to the bridge. All his sentimental feelings about being on a new planet were subdued and vanished before his never-ending joy at being on the Sieve of the Jumblies.
He strode into the small room that constituted the command centre of the ship. Derek Smart must have been infected by the formality which had permeated the ship in the last few weeks, because he jumped from his seat, at attention.
"At ease, Mister Smart," he said, with mild amusement. No doubt the normal informality would have reasserted itself a week into space. "Have you anything to report."
"A great deal, Captain," Derek replied. "I will catalogue the interesting findings I have made about this planet. First, it rotates exactly in the plane of the ecliptic. That means it has the same length of day and night all year, everywhere on the planet."
"So it has no seasons," said Vad.
"Not as such," replied Derek, "but its orbit is quite elliptical, so it is at different distances from the sun at different times of the year. It would be a very unpleasant place to live if the continents were at the equator, but it is of a pleasant climate for human habitation within reasonable distance from the poles. It remains to be seen how that will vary with the distance from the sun. Secondly," he continued, as if his train of thought had not been interrupted, as indeed it had not, "it always points in the same direction, because of its axis being perpendicular to the plane of its orbit, which would not be unusual in itself. In other words, it has no precession. However, out of curiosity, I matched this up further and further, and made the remarkable discovery that the planet always points in the same direction, relative to the galaxy itself!"
"By 'points in the same direction' you refer to the line through its axis, I presume." Jack was intrigued.
"Yes, sir. This is a remarkable coincidence. Of course, somewhere, by the laws of probability, some planet must be close to that path, in relation to its orbit around its own sun, but the situation with the axis exactly in the orbital plane is quite unusual. Normally planets form from the same accretion disk as the sun, and spin more or less perpendicular to the plane, but this one is exact."
"So someone may have discovered the planet with the appropriate orbit, and moved it on its axis?"
"That is a strong possibility, sir. I have no idea why."
"I see," mused Jack. "Go on."
"The planet is also unusual in having no moons," added Derek. "For its size, it might be expected to have two or three, but zero moons is well within the bounds of probability."
"We guessed that the builders might have dug out the equatorial regions for minerals," interposed Vad, who had come in as they talked. "But people with that level of expertise may have cannibalised the moons as well. If there were any."
"There are other possible explanations for an absence of moons," added Derek. "However, taken with what you have found, your theory is sound."
"The question of the reconditium?" asked Jack.
"It is far underground." Derek paused, then continued. "It is directly below the surface structures. We are unable to penetrate the structures to any great extent, which makes them interesting if for no other reason, but we can scan on an angle through the ground. The exact depth is not clear, but it is there. I have never encountered metallic reconditium before, so I can only guess what it might be, but it is certainly too far for mining with our current technology. But It has occurred to me that the reason it is below the structures may indicate that the structures themselves go deep into the planet."
"An underground civilisation?" breathed Jack, "Capable of building hundreds of kilometers down into a planet? That was suggested by one of the colonists. There might have to be only a single entrance which might take years to find."
"Or they might have sealed themselves off completely," said Vad. "If they have that level of technology, they might be able to sustain themselves indefinitely underground."
"Elder Yerrow suggested they might not breathe the natural gases of the planet," said Jack thoughtfully.
"If that is the case, they might still be there," said Vad. "There may be an unknown civilisation right beneath us!"
"The scans have revealed no known lifeforms," said Derek, "but the metal of the structures does seem resistant to our scanning, and we might not recognise a completely foreign lifesign. It seems, however, that it is extremely thick. It may be that its thickness, rather than its composition, makes it relatively impervious to our scans."
"How could we contact them?" asked Jack. "Could we send messages to them?"
"How do we know what they would interpret as messages?" asked Vad. "But I suppose we can try. I'll get some of our computer buffs on it in the morning. Since our frequencies don't seem to penetrate the outside walls, it might have to be some analogue of banging on the walls in code."
"It would be an interesting place to live," commented Jack, with a faraway look in his eye. "As you go down there is less gravitational effect, but enormous pressure and high temperatures."
"There is still the most interesting item," said Derek. "I saved it until last. It is difficult to detect, because of all the metal around it, but the gravimetric sensors detect some sort of anomaly right at the heart of the planet. It is so difficult to read that it may be a distortion, but it registers as a discontinuity in the space-time continuum."
"In the middle of a planet?" asked Vad disbelievingly. "In the middle of a black dwarf maybe. What would it mean?"
Derek looked disturbed.
"My only interpretation would be that matter in the center of the planet is oscillating between unstable states of existence," he said. "If this is so, and the planet is stable, it would be an extraordinary discovery!"
"Very odd!" said Jack. "I think we should sleep on it."
"There is one minor feature I neglected," said Derek. "It is not obvious when looking at the planet from one side, but if you look at this hologram you can see.." He switched on a projector, and a small version of Regula IV spun in the air in front of them, ".. that the structures, although different, are exactly over the poles on both ends. They may have been built there for some gravitational purpose."
"Gravitational?" asked Vad.
"There would be only gravity operating there," said Derek. "There would be no rotational stresses from the turning of the planet, such as there would be at the equator."
"Perhaps they are a device, on a colossal scale, to neutralize the destabilizing force deep in the planet," said Jack with a frown. "But what about the planet would make it worth that much effort?"
"What an interesting planet to investigate," sighed Vad. "The tidal forces in an ocean which is very deep, and has no continents in it!"
"What if the cities underground go right through?" said Jack. "A mighty underground metropolis that goes right through the planet!"
"And us hovering around out here like a mosquito, not able to know they exist!" exclaimed Vad. "I can't believe that though. Who would cut themselves off completely like that?"
Derek thought for a moment. "It might make sense," he mused. "They may have some colossal machinery in the centre of their city doing space-time experiments. They might be using the reconditium in the machines. It has odd properties. If they've got the technology like this, they might even have manufactured the reconditium."
Jack said nothing for a moment. then he said musingly, "You said it reminded you of something, like an apple core. I have the same nagging feeling. What is it? A food container?"
"It's a bit like a container," agreed Vad. "It would hold a lot of drink!"
Jack and Vad retired for the night, leaving Derek and the night crew on duty.
Jack undressed slowly, the puzzle occupying his mind. He lay on his bed and tossed, sleepless, the image of the hologram filling his mind. Eventually he dozed off. In his mind there was a small insect, which he knew to be the Sieve, buzzing around a canister floating in space. At times it was an old-fashioned metal can containing food, at other times it took on other cylindrical forms, some as absurd as a wooden rolling-pin, which he had only ever seen in cartoons. Suddenly a giant hand plucked the canister from space, and poured a steaming hot drink from it. He recognized it as a vacuum flask, a device for keeping .... A vacuum! With a space-time anomaly at its center!
Suddenly he awoke. He exclaimed, "My god!"
The lights switched on automatically as he swung out of bed, and he hastily put on a clean uniform, and quickly made his way to the bridge.
The few crew turned to look at him in surprise, and jerked to their feet with an automatic, "Captain on bridge!" call. He had the habit of keeping away from the bridge during his sleep time, so they feared some emergency. However, he simply ignored them and approached Derek, and said, "Derek, let me see that hologram again!"
Derek obligingly switched it back on, and Jack carefully examined the structures at each end of the planet. He straightened up and said to himself, "I wonder if Brildan Furr realised this?"
He went to his ready room, and switched on his recorder. Too bad if I died in the night and this discovery died with me, he thought, as he began to speak in a surprisingly calm tone. Inside he boiled with excitement.
When he had finished, he went back to bed, but still did not sleep for a long time. The adrenalin produced by his discovery kept him tossing, unable to relax. Could he be wrong? It was an unusual experience, he thought in some detached area of his mind. He could usually sleep instantly for whatever time he had, and wake up whenever he had set himself to wake. Eventually he slept.
Next day his system had regained control, and he awoke at exactly the right time, fresh. He called all of the senior crew together, and they assembled in the conference room. Jack stood up to speak, which surprised them, but he was too filled with enthusiasm to relax.
"I have called you together to let you know what I believe is the truth about Regula IV," he said. "I doubt that Brildan Furr realised quite what a discovery he had made. He was overcome by greed because he detected reconditium below the surface, but what he did not realise is that they had found.." he paused for dramatic effect, "..a stargate!"
"A what?" asked Carla in puzzlement, but the engineers knew what Jack meant, and their hearts began to beat faster.
"A gate to the stars," Jack said. "I can't be sure, but everything fits nicely. I have no idea how it works, or how long it will take to solve it. But consider. We have a planet hollowed out, and a huge tube built through it. The buildings at the ends have no doors in them, because they are huge doors. One end an entrance, one an exit."
"Why do you think this?" asked Vad, not contesting the idea, but interested to know Jack's line of reasoning. Jack slid out the hologram machine, and displayed the projection of the planet.
"I looked at the hologram of the surface, not thinking of it as a planet, but as a simple tube. If you think of it on a tiny scale, you can see that one end is an iris, and the other opens out in a spray. I would guess that the iris is the entrance, and the outward spray the exit."
"We're looking at huge ships!" said Vad in awe.
"Who knows?" said Jack. "They may have simply given themselves a lot of room to manoeuvre. But the technology is certainly huge."
"All right, it's a tube," said Carla doubtfully. "What about the idea that it's some sort of enclosed society, who like to live in the low gravity of the center of a planet?"
"Because it has a space-time discontinuity in the center of the planet," said Jack. "I couldn't see how that was possible, but if the tube was hollow, and a vacuum like space, it is possible!"
"We've been sitting on a planet with a vacuum tube up the center?" said Saviour with a start. "I'm glad I didn't know that!"
"I knew there was some reason I decided to stay up here!" said Derek.
"My theory is that this was used to travel from some distant place and back," continued Jack. "A ship approaching would send a signal, the gate would open, and the ship would fly through, coming out on some similar planet, maybe galaxies away!"
"And the structures extend beyond the atmosphere," remarked Vad. "The air will not leak into the vacuum."
"And they just made a garden on it to make it look pretty!" said Carla approvingly. "A very civilised people!"
"We must hope so!" said Jack. "One day we will meet them."
"If they still exist," remarked Vad. "The gate hasn't been used in a long time."
"An interesting thought just hit me," said Derek suddenly. "How do they service these things? I mean, you've got a moving part a thousand stories high, in a jungle with weather that's going to drop dirt everywhere. How do you look after it?"
"I suppose, centuries ago, when it was in use, it moved often enough not to get dirty." Jack shrugged. "It's like a rail line. If the trains keep running the rails stay clean. If they stop the line gets overgrown."
"I don't know that a foot of dirt in a track is going to stop a moving part that high," commented Vad. "It might just push through."
"And it might not," said Derek. "I'd hate to have to get out of my starship and clean a groove ninety kilometres long!"
There was general laughter.
Jack commented, "With the size those ships may have been, they may have had big brooms!"
"Anyway," said Carla, "the next question is, what does all this mean to us?"
"Possibly nothing," replied Jack, "but a good deal to the colonists. I think my next job is to tell them!"
The meeting broke up, and Jack spiraled back down to the planet. When he arrived he was surprised to find hustle and bustle, and the colonists dressed in their best clothes.
He watched for someone he knew, and soon spotted Etillia Braz.
"What's up?" he asked her. "Has the colony picked out its first public holiday already?"
"I daresay landing day will be a holiday eventually," she said with a smile, "but today it's the colony's first wedding."
"So two of the colonists have decided to start off together?" he said with a smile.
"Two of the support staff, actually," she said. "Illana and Brendan."
"I see," said Jack in surprise. Obviously Brendan had not become a pariah because of his involvement in the plot.
Etillia smiled again.
"I know what you are thinking," she said. "Is he a villain? We don't think so. What he did was wrong, but he has decided he loves the place, and wants to stay, profit or no."
"For the botany?"
"I think because they are both wearing rose-colored glasses," she said. "But maybe it will last. I hope so."
"Will everyone be there?"
"You bet your boots! Our first social occasion! Who would miss?"
"Then I would be invited?" Jack asked. "Could I say a few words?"
"You can give away the bride, for all I care!" she said. "It's in about an hour."
"I'll let the others know," he said. "Carla loves a wedding!"
In fact, both Carla and Briony decided to come, and put on their best outfits. They joined Jack and went wandering.
"It won't seem like a real wedding without all the lead-in events," said Carla with a mischievous smile, "but it should be a good party. We can't fit in a shower, I suppose."
"I'll order a chocolate cake," said Briony. "If they don't have one here, I'll get one sent down from the replicators."
The two women went off to join the bride's group, and Jack joined the men.
He found himself with Amerbrec Zatof, and Anders Yerrow. They were very relaxed, as a result of a few drinks early in the piece, but not intoxicated.
"Well, Jack," said Zatof, "I believe you are predicting hard times for us?"
"Not so hard," he replied with a smile. "I'll say a little later. What are your plans for the next few months?"
Yerrow answered. "Getting in some crops. Building the hydroelectric plant. Once we have a steady supply of electricity we can get some materials creators going, and get into serious building."
"Will you be staying with us as long as you have stayed here?" asked Zatof.
Jack was somewhat baffled by this complicated sentence, then he realised that Zatof's people would be living on the other continent. They had only put up tents, and would be moving house as soon as the Sieve could manage it.
"Oh, a couple of days," he said. "Enough to see that the land is liveable."
"It is a risky venture, this," said Zatof, looking into the distance. "We assume that the elements will be with us, on the basis of a short survey, and a few days here now. But with our technology we should be able to survive an unknown catastrophe long enough for help to arrive."
"The weather must be a question," remarked Jack. "it's beautiful now, but what will it be like in half a year's time, whatever a year is here? I believe the planet has a very elliptical orbit."
"We have a lot to learn about the planet," said Yerrow. "It will be fun to find out."
"I'll be telling you something later," said Jack. "But we'll wait for now."
"There are plants of different varieties," said Zatof. "Some do not look like they would survive really savage weather. Of course, that means nothing. They might be nearly eliminated every so often, then grow back!"
"Well, I hope all goes well," said Jack. "If I have to return I hope it is only ferrying new arrivals."
"If any come!" said Zatof with a grimace. "But I think we will enjoy the place anyway. My main fear is that the weather may be too boringly the same!"
"I think you may have visitors," said Jack. "I'll say a little later."
As the minutes passed the weather changed. Clouds appeared, and it became dim. Because of the low angle of the sun, a bit of cloud reduced the light a lot. Fine rain began to fall.
This might have been expected to dampen the spirits of the wedding parties, but rain to farmers is always welcome, so the festivities seemed unabated. Lights were set up, and umbrellas appeared. They had the technology to make a large force field and keep it off altogether, Jack guessed, but they loved the rain. No doubt if it turned to a torrent a force field would be produced.
There was no really large open space yet, so the largest was used. It was in a rocky ampitheater, and the groups spread about. Carla, Briony and Jack sat pretty much in the center, towards the front, as guests of honor. Jack showed his appreciation of his role by sitting fixedly at attention, staring forward, while Carla spent her time taking in everything about her, emotionally and visually. Briony concentrated on the wedding itself, but enjoyed the happiness around her as well. It was something to distract her a little from the unpleasantness that had found them. She thought Serena should have come, rather than keeping to herself in her cabin, but supposed she would find it hard.
Brendan had found formal clothing, and Illana had come up with a glorious bridal gown, no doubt with the aid of the matter replicator, given the shortness of time. In some sort of gesture, it had fluted panels at her waist, just where her gills were, and matching them. The gown was white, with a subtle tone of blue here and there. A suggestion of water? wondered Briony.
The ceremony was long, probably because it was a historic occasion. In the absence of relatives, every would-be politician in the area took the opportunity to speak. Carla's attention wandered, and she noticed a girl sitting high on a rock, a scarf over her head to protect her from the drizzle. There was something familiar about her body shape. Beside her sat Etillia Braz, so she whispered, "Is that one of your girls?"
Etillia glanced up at the girl, who had turned to look at them at Carla's whisper. "No, I don't know her," said Etillia. "One of the Tolian girls."
"I'll bet!" thought Carla, as the hooded figure waved inconspicuously to her. "A Tolian girl with pretty good hearing! Thanks for the chocolate, Celeste!"
She turned to Captain Normington, who still sat listening to the ceremony. Briony was sitting out of earshot.
"Captain," she whispered, "it's possible that Celeste isn't dead."
He turned to her in surprise. "Alfred thinks she may have survived," he whispered, self-consciously. He felt that all eyes were probably on him as Captain of the Sieve. None were. "He felt that there was no advantage in pursuing her."
"A killer android who can't resist a wedding can't be all bad," Carla replied. "I agree. This wouldn't be a bad place for her to stay."
"It wouldn't," he agreed.
The wedding finally came to an end, and Carla glanced up. The small figure had gone. "Good luck, Celeste," she thought. "Make a good home here."
Brendan and Illana were not heading off on a honeymoon, mainly because they had nowhere to go. A tent had been made available to them some distance away, built entirely of flowers and tree branches, but they did not run off straight away. During the round of congratulations, and just after he had kissed the bride, Jack asked if he could address the gathering again.
There was a tangible but unexpressed groan, and everyone sat down again. Even the colonists had occasionally had to endure Jack on the speaker system. He stood up, and used a public address microphone so that everyone could hear.
"Now that the celebrations are finishing, I would like to have a word with you all while you are still together. Tomorrow we take the people from Arduria to the North Pole area, and they will be setting up their own constituency.
"Some of you may have heard me say, and indeed you may have thought yourselves, that scientists may not have much continued interest in this planet. If the buildings prove impenetrable, people will lose interest. And Regula IV is too far away to be really viable as a tourist destination.
"Some may have heard a rumor that we had found some sort of instability inside the planet that might pose a threat."
He paused for effect.
"There is an anomaly right at the center of the planet. There is some sort of instability in the space-time continuum!"
There was a murmur of disbelief, even though the majority of them did not know what the space-time continuum was. It sounded impressive. But some of them did.
"That's impossible!" exclaimed Illana. "You couldn't have a discontinuity of that sort inside matter!"
"Exactly!" he agreed. "Therefore the center of the planet must be hollow. In fact it must contain a vacuum!"
Nobody interrupted him this time as he paused. Obviously he had some good story to tell, and they were used to telling and hearing stories.
"Also, I believe the buildings are not buildings at all," he continued. "So we will never get inside them. What I do suspect is that there is a hollow tube which runs right through this planet, with a sealed vacuum inside."
He had them. Nobody could think of any rational explanation for what he was saying.
"I believe that this planet is actually a stargate," he said. "Some race, millenia ago, found this planet suitable, or altered it to be suitable, and put a tube right through it. If you examine the buildings, and think of them as miniatures, one end looks as if it opens out like a flower. No doubt, as it did, some atmosphere would begin to pour in. But the size of the hole is such that by the time a vessel had flown out, and the hole sealed, not much would have been lost. The other end, this end, is like a giant iris. The pieces move on tracks."
"And some ship flies along, the gate opens and it flies through?" asked a farmer in perplexity. "What is the point of that?"
"In the center is a warp in space-time of some sort," said Jack. "The ship flies in and comes out somewhere else in the universe! Or, from that other place, a ship appears from the warp, and flies out the other end!"
"Why are the two ends different?" asked Felicia.
"I can only hazard a guess," said Jack. "My best guess is so that a pilot won't fly in the wrong end accidentally. An entrance looks different from an exit."
"So what does this mean for us?" asked another woman.
"If this is a stargate," said Jack, "I cannot imagine that the scientific fraternity will ever stop trying to unlock its secret. You will have people staying here forever. If they do unlock its secret, you will be the guardians of one of the most important planets in the galaxy. So, Brendan and Felicia, this may not be the idyllic little honeymoon spot you had though it!"
There was a general roar of laughter.
"If we never find out how to open it, there will always be people trying," he added.
"And tourists coming to look at it!" said Zatof.
"However," Jack persisted, "it might be as well not to have your villages close to the edifices. If we do find how to open them, there may be a huge flow of atmosphere into them. It would be best to set up your homes at the periphery of the continent."
"That may be our best bet anyway," said Brendan. "If there is no ecological damage we can do to the seas, since there seems to be no ecology there, we may end up importing fish to stock up the seas. It could be an important food source."
"I don't know about the wind," said Ambrasia Lattif. "Anybody who can make this technology can make force fields to keep the air out. But we will stay back to make sure."
"And I had just got to love this spot!" said someone, and there was another hoot of laughter.
"What's this 'villages'?" asked someone. "We'll build our metropolises on the sea!"
"We can move ourselves," said Ambrasia. "We won't impose on you to stay. You have the others to set up. I don't think it is too much of a rush."
"Very well," said Jack, "we will be taking the people from Arduria first thing in the morning. Be packed and ready by 0800 hours tomorrow."
The Ardurians did not have much trouble with the schedule. They had left their major belongings aboard, on two other shuttles, and had only brought a couple of days' supplies. Next morning everything went smoothly, and they were soon all aboard.
Armed with foreknowledge, Jack had them all shunted down to a spot near the sea, which had some clear areas already, and the people of the Sieve went down to assist them for a couple of days, and explore the new environment.
Brendan and Illana had postponed any long honeymoon, as they were key personnel in the landing. They were quickly at work analysing the flora and insects, which they were surprised to discover were notably different. It was raining steadily here, which made the construction of housing more troublesome, but more appreciated when complete.
"Evolution or a different gardener?" Brendan asked rhetorically. "This is going to be fun!"
"I suppose the sea is too wide for much cross-pollination or seed transfer," said Illana. "But this makes it more certain that these continents were planted!"
The rain stopped next day, and things ran smoothly. By the end of the day a whole village was taking shape. The Sieve stayed with them for four more days. They had houses complete, and a set of flyers, capable of carrying them across the planet when necessary. First they used them to view the gates of the supposed stargate. Knowing what they were, it was possible to distinguish giant hinges. The crew of the Sieve longed to stay and investigate, but their first probings got nowhere.
"It's a job for specialists," sighed Derek. "It may take years. I guess we'll just have to wait for news!"
There were emotional farewells, mostly from the colonists. This was a crucial moment of their lives, and they were about to be left alone, far from help if they needed any quickly. Some had formed attachments to the ship and its crew.
For the crew, however, it was just another delivery, what they did all the time. They said goodbye, and got on with their lives.
Jack and the others underestimated Celeste. They knew she was an android, with a presumably long life, and they thought she would lie low.
But the new Celeste was young, android or not, and had things to do. In any event, it is a lot easier to smuggle a smallish crate onto a ship whose computer you have already suborned. The ship was taking some supplies back from Regula IV, soil samples, machinery which had only needed to be used temporarily. A crate of electronics components might have seemed odd to the senior staff, but to the loading crew it was just something on the manifest, to be left in a large city somewhere. Celeste was a very thorough planner.
In the years that followed the colony spread along the margins of the seas, and crops were grown, discoveries were made about the planet, and life settled into a routine. Cargo ships came about every twelve or eighteen months, and fish were used to stock the seas. Land animals were not introduced. Those who felt a need for pets had insects to fill that role, and investigations continued into whether cattle or flightless chickens would do harm.
About four years later a small team of scientists was camped near the iris-type opening. During the day there had been a steady and unusually strong wind blowing towards the structures. They worked on and eventually went to bed. A terrible roaring sound woke them. As they climbed into their clothes a gale swept through, destroying their tents, and blowing some of the workers off their feet and into the shrubbery. In the wind dirt scoured their faces.
It continued for about an hour, then stopped suddenly.
"Is everyone all right?" asked the leader, and all of them were accounted for and unhurt, though spitting out dirt.
"So much for the perfect weather," grumbled one of the men. "I don't mind the rain, but that was a bit scary!"
They tidied up, grumbling, and went back to bed as best they could. In the morning they cleaned up the camp properly, and went back to their studies of the iris. As they got closer they stopped.
"Hell!" said the leader, as she looked at the trees blasted away, and the shiny clean runners for the iris blades.
"This may not be a good place to be!" said someone suddenly, and they scrambled back to their runners, and flew back to the city at the shore.
Nothing else happened.
"Automatic routine maintenance?" asked one.
"Better warn the others," said the leader. She called the group at the other pole.
"Anything unusual happen?" she asked.
"No, why?" asked her opposite number.
"We had a steady wind all day yesterday, then the iris cleaned itself. Bloody scary! It was like a gale."
"We have had a steady wind," mused the other. "Let's get up in the air, and have a look. Thanks!"
The team activated their runners, and flew into the air high enough to survey the machinery. Air could be seen to be being sucked in through some sort of ports, which they had never found before. They filmed what was happening, and during the daylight still, vents opened somehow, and roaring jets of air cleaned the edges of the hinges, blasting away all the vegetation in their way.
The scientists excitedly put up satellites to record everything that happened, but nothing further did.

Go on, read the epilogue...
or give up and put off that pleasure until later.