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Pakkrat

The Thule Project - Ch. IV

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The Thule Project - Ch. IV
by Pakkrat

IV. "I don't get it," said the Pakkrat as Siobhan led the pair of vessels from Varen's Girdle, through Aragoth Prime and further sectors back towards civilized space. "Why did you stop me and why did we leave? Couldn't you have leaned on him, y'know, point a gun at him or something to get him to open up?"

"Pakkrat, the Progen does not fear death," explained Siobhan. She tried to further explain. "We were not going to learn anything more than what he told us. You see, Talus-N Ravindran does not remember what Talus-M Ravindran did."

"I don't understand."

"When he Answered the Call Forward, the memory of Calling your gene-map was excluded from his matrix - on purpose, I believe." Siobhan continued seeing the Pakkrat still listening. The formation raced onward. She needed to put some distance between the pair and the Sabine Order.

"Memories can be voluntarily left out, especially if too traumatic to the Progen. I too once gave up memories of past lives during which I had done terrible things for the Republic. Only recently have I been given them back through Jenquai psionics. But that is another story. The Specialist does not remember Calling your gene-map because the Sabine Order knew this was heretical and against ethics. They let him Answer the Call without that memory."

"We departed because now Talus-N will start asking questions to his Sabine Order and I want to be well away when he does not get his answers."

Siobhan was pleasantly surprised that the Pakkrat was still listening to her as she continued, "But we do have enough of a lead. The Specialist made a confessional to the Virtuals on Mars before he fell during the Gate War."

"Again," asked the Pakkrat, "what are these 'Virtuals'?"

Siobhan continued to explain, "I was about to cover that. Listen, the Virtuals are the recorded personalities of all the past Primarchs of the Progen Republic. They are kept in a vast computer on Olympus Mons, Mars. They hold the sum total of all Primarchs that have ever led the Republic. Only a Primarch or the Sabine Order can access the Virtuals. It is an almost sanctified privilege of the ruling Primarch and the maintenance of the Sabine Order entrusted with the upkeep of the Machina Republica. It holds the consciousnesses of every Primarch and are not to be disturbed except in times of extreme duress."

"Then we're screwed," said the Pakkrat. "We can't just barge in and ask to question a bunch of dead guys' machine-ghosts for Talus-M's confession-thing, can we?"

Siobhan smiled slightly. "I think I know a way to do so."

The Pakkrat seemed to recoil from her on the comm monitor. "Just who are you?"

"Get us to Mars as fast as you can, Terran," half-ordered Siobhan.

As sectors flew by with the Pakkrat in the lead, Siobhan pondered if she truly did have the authority to make good on her idea.

With the former Primarch, Anjuren Kahn in exile, the Republic without a true leader in the position, no non-Sabine could interface with and access the honored Virtuals. Siobhan hoped her own story would give her what she needed.

The Dr. Pakkratius' words were starting to prove why he chose to sit out on this adventure. His clues with the erased memories of Ravindran's were proving that an unauthorized Call Forward was indeed given to the Pakkrat. Siobhan was beginning to believe that this went much deeper and was being covered up by the Sabine Order. Dare she think that Magna Vinda was involved?

The confessional Talus-N had leaked was remembered because any Progen could give such to the Machina Republica one-way to the Virtuals. This was often done with reverence and as well before a Warrior went into battle in case their gene-map was never recovered. The confessional existed so that the Progen could unburden themselves to the Republic's highest authorities of the past without repercussion, before going into battle, in this case during the Gate War. While the memory of Calling the Pakkrat was erased, perhaps the Specialist had spoken to the Virtuals about it before he fell. All Siobhan could hope to do now was to attain access to the Machina Republica on Olympus Mons, the highest mountain on Mars where the Virtuals were kept in reverence. Whomever eradicated Talus-N's memories was not aware that he had spoken his confession to the holy Primarchs of the past. But did Siobhan have what it took to access the Machina Republica?

Sectors flew by as Siobhan watched the Pakkrat's finest freewarp flying. He drove the formation on all night while she rested. He was driven, this Terran and she was beginning to like him. This man from Terran past, took her on dates, spoke politely to Siobhan and did not seem to mind expenses and risk he was willing to undertake. She contemplated what might be found when the two were before the Virtuals on Mars.

Eventually, the Red Planet came into view as the Terran and the Sabura gated into Mars sector. With the twin asteroid cannons, Romulus and Remus, straddling the the planet and all in orbit over the red terrain, the two vessels approached to near-orbit and held geostationary position above. Siobhan breathed a hopeful sigh before she committed to this unauthorized intrusion. Would the Virtuals answer her high above them?

The connection to the Machina Republica could only be a one-on-one, tight lasercom beam to Olympus Mons. Siobhan's hand hovered over the transmission button on her console to make contact with the holiest place on Mars. This would be no confession she was about to engage. Even if she failed to access the Virtuals, the Warrior's attempt would be logged on record. This was an all-or-nothing act she was about to undertake for the Pakkrat and the search for the truth about him and the Sabine Order's doings.

*Vita Theodora, help me*, she prayed with closed eyes when she pressed the transmission button.

The lasercom beam shot from the *Kitten* down to the tallest mountain on Mars. The connection landed at a communications tower and was received. A second passed as identification information was exchanged between Olympus Mons and the Sabura Warrior. There was a second of silence that seemed to stretch to Siobhan's nervous anticipation.

The First Sabura, though Called from Centuriata stock, was still a project of the Sabine Order and never severed to its own recognizance. Thus the Sabura were to the rest of the Progen Republic still one with the Sabine Order. With her hidden status as the First Sabura in particular, Siobhan was right under Magna Vinda in authority, though Vinda herself had overlooked this fact by mistake. It allowed the First Sabura access.

With relief, Siobhan, the only non-Primarch and non-Sabine Sentinel to make contact with the Virtuals was answered by the many voices of Primarchs past.

"WHO CALLS UPON THE HALLS OF THE VIRTUALS?" asked the many voices speaking as one, powerful entity.

"Holy Primarchs of the past," answered the Warrior, "it is I, Siobhan the First Sabura who seeks your counsel."

There was another eternal second of silence before the Virtuals spoke again, more softly this time, yet still as many-in-one, "Ask, First Sabura whom we do not know yet acknowledge your access."

With unbidden tears in her eyes, Siobhan began to tap the Virtuals for the confession of Talus-M Ravindran and what else she could learn of the Call Forward of the Pakkrat. It was a very intimate while that passed between Siobhan and the Primarchs of Progen past. Never before had such a sinful heresy and yet so powerful a connection been accomplished and Siobhan was awestruck by it. Her body trembled nervously as she asked of the dead. It was psycho-spiritual in nature, holy in experience, and a wonder of science that she sought such counsel. Thankfully, the Pakkrat did not intrude upon this communion by asking what transpired.

* * *

The Terran watched Siobhan's face from start to finish on the communications monitor. The Warrior looked like she had seen a ghost, was speaking to the Almighty, and interfacing with a supercomputer all at once. She was crying, sobbing, and speaking with reverence, though the trader could not hear was was being said. The Pakkrat tried to catch a word or two with the movements of her lips but in the end gave up. This was the girl's moment and as such he chose not to spoil it and anger her. Instead he watched the time and clocked her connection with Olympus Mons.

After only a few minutes, the deep red lasercom beam faded and Siobhan ended the transmission with a bowed head and a salute across her chest. Then she made contact with the Terran.

"We have to get out of here now," said Siobhan.

"Are we in danger?" asked the Pakkrat.

"We will be soon if we are still here."

"Where to then?" asked the trader.

"Anywhere but Progen space," answered the Warrior still reeling from the interface a moment ago.

"Good," said the Pakkrat as he spun the formation about to face the way they had come to Mars sector, "I've about had enough of Progen space."

He began the rapid, freewarp run to Earth. The Pakkrat decided it was time to look on his own lead that he had left in addition to what Siobhan had gleaned from the dead, whomever they were.

He warped past the checkpoints, past the huge red capital ships and stations. In a direct line, the formation made the star gate and passed through its created fields into Asteroid Belt Gamma. From there it would be to Asteroid Belt Beta and then Alpha before the safety of the blue gem of Sol, Earth. There was no doubt in the Pakkrat's mind that he was now in trouble with the Progen Republic.

With the girl accessing that which she should not have been able to access, the Pakkrat was now an accessory to espionage of the highest order. They might call him a spy or thief or worse. He was now tied to this woman who alone could explain what he was doing over Mars and tapping the Machina Republica.

He listened to her findings. She told of her communion with reverence yet imperative force.

"You were Called Forward, Pakkrat. It was no mistake. He knew you were there, Talus-M. It was a mining ship named the *Warthog* that found you. The Sabine Reclaimer (at the time) alone knew you were alive and in cryostasis. The crew knew nothing but a dead Terran derelict ship in an asteroid. Talus-M took enough samples from your arm to map your genes. Then he snuck them back aboard the miner craft and back to Progen space. His confession said that he could not save you because the miners looted your ship for whatever was available. Yet, they took only enough so as to not raise suspicions that they had ever been present. Talus-M was the Progen to repair the distress beacon. He saved your life, Pakkrat. You would still be sleeping in that ice and rock if he had not. Your gene-map then went into storage after it was analyzed for traits the Sabine Order were in need in those times."

"This has to be why Dr. Pakkratius and Imperator Pakkrateus have your genes, Pakkrat. You are the original. You are their clone father. They are Progen, yes, but they have your gene-map inside a Progen matrix. I do not know how it works being that I am just a Warrior, but somehow the Sabine included you into the Progen Republic, a secret that would get us killed, reclaimed, destroyed and denied in that order."

Siobhan digested the revelation, "Oh, Pakkrat why did this happen? The confession did not say why the Progen decided to clone you, twice, while you still lived. It also does not say why Terran genes were selected. Finally, the confession does not give the reason why you could not be saved then and there."

The Pakkrat savored this new information. He had clone Progen sons, from his own genes by a dead Reclaimer who did not remember him. Cover-ups. Heretical and unethical Call Forward. His gene-map, the rescue, the recovery, and the suffering he endured this past two years with no answers from his own InfinitiCorp. Why had the Finn sent him to the comet? Did the Finn know ahead of time that the *Labyrinth Runner* would be incapacitated by it?

"I don't know the answers," said Pakkrat who re-focused upon his route to Earth sector, "but I know a dead guy of my own I can ask."

Soon enough the Blue Planet came into view. Before it was the super-disc of Earth Station, humanity's oldest, still-operational orbital platform. The octagonal space station welcomed the tiny duo into its hangar shortly after their arrival in the sector. Exiting their craft the two made for the residential section of the station.

The news feeds blared over the crowds of Terrans moving about the station:

*"We need to clean up Earth Station...."*

It was the quoted Lady Isabella DeWynter whom the news was mentioning. The pair moved through the station at the guidance of the Pakkrat who alone knew where he was headed. Siobhan merely followed him even as she looked over her shoulder a few times to check for followers.

*"Loric de Grey of Hyperia is close to completion of a new gate in Lagarto, Gallina, but not everyone wants him to succeed....."*

A picture of a Terran man bedecked with gizmos and gadgets was interviewed on the news monitors. The Pakkrat took notice of the man, but then continued deeper into the commons.

Down several decks of Earth Station the two descended by the emergency stairs. The population of the orbital platform thinned as they went down flight after flight.

Siobhan when they were alone in a corridor asked, "This seems a strange final resting place for Terrans."

"We aren't going to dig up a body or anything," said the Pakkrat who was now taking steps two at a time.

The floor that the Pakkrat chose was only half-illuminated by station lights. It was analogous to an orbital slum where, here and there, a domicile door was stuck half-open or not present. The Terran Trader continued down the slightly curving corridor. Siobhan followed behind him with her hand on the Athanor pistol. Past many squatters in this level they went with a purpose in the trader's step.

Once, a Terran vagrant in these lower tunnels asked for a handout from the couple. Siobhan was about to step forward to repulse the beggar, when her partner fished out a palm-sized object and handed it to the beggar.

"Here," said the Pakkrat. "Take this, sell it only on the black market and only after hours. It will see to your needs if you are careful enough. In trade, we were never here. Understand?" The beggar nodded as his hand closed over the item.

Siobhan barely had time to see what the beggar pocketed as the Pakkrat quickly trudged froward. She saw the vagrant hide a Mahjong tile in his coat pocket.

The Warrior had heard that the pirates of the Red Dragon Tongs valued the ancient Earth gambling game from China and coveted the game tiles wherever they turned up. It was a point of pride to the pirates to own a complete set. The Pakkrat had just handed over a valuable collectable to the beggar like it was a donation to the poor. Then, barely breaking stride, the man from Earth continued down the corridor.

Stopping before a taped-off apartment door, the Pakkrat spoke to Siobhan, "I have quite a few of them in my hold."

Siobhan seemed alarmed that the trader had such items just collecting dust in his ship when he could make a deal with the pirate organization for them. He had altruistically given the beggar about a year's sustenance on a whim.

When the Terran tried to force the door, Siobhan showed him how to do it more efficiently. Then she stepped aside with her pistol out. He entered with a nod of quiet thanks.

The lights flickered and the air was stale. The air conduit system was deactivated and dust covered everything. The apartment seemed empty of humanity for a long time. It was quite looted of anything valuable and only various debris remained. The two moved, one after the other through the living space. Siobhan clicked on her vambrace light torch to better illuminate the area before them.

There was a quick movement as something scrambled from behind a shattered chair to a floor duct. Skittering claws of a rodent or some other vermin earned Siobhan's attention, her pistol tracking the animal's path. She let out a sigh.

"I hate rats," she said with a disarming sigh.

"That's too bad," whispered the Pakkrat. "They're great survivors."

The pair entered what was once a bedroom. It was picked clean with only dust and more debris to greet them.

"There's nothing here," whispered Siobhan.

The Pakkrat was looking at a wall panel's rusty screws, "Oh, it's here alright. The Finn would've hidden his soul here if he could have. Got a screwdriver?"

Siobhan, barely proficient at systems repair-on-the-fly, produced a small tool-set from her armored utility belt. Handing it to the trader, she shone her torch on the panel of his attention.

With occasional squeaking screws, the Pakkrat soon had the panel off the decayed wall and was reaching into it with his arm.

"C'mon, Finn," said the man, "you showed it to me long ago. Surely you left something here.....aha!" The trader removed his arm from the opened wall. In his hand was a circular, laserdisc from long ago. Today's hard storage came in the form of hexagonal data crystals. Siobhan stared at the round object.

He looked at her questioningly, "What? Don't you people carry hardcopy anymore? Let's get out of here." The Pakkrat then re-attached the wall panel. The pair then backed out the way they came, leaving the Finn's apartment gloom to itself.

The couple took a different path from Earth Station's slum levels. Emerging into the bazaar from different sides of the market, the Terran made for the exit. He was followed shortly by Siobhan who was given plenty of opening by the Terrans about her. It was just another business day in the station's markets when the two found their respective ships in the docking bay.

Away from Earth Station, Siobhan signaled to the Pakkrat, "Do you have the equipment to open that disc?"

The Pakkrat smiled, "When's the last time you got out an album of CCR?"

"What?" asked the Progen woman.

"Sorry, that was before both our times."

Siobhan wrinkled her nose and said, "You have such strange sayings." She accentuated the observation with a fist on her hip.

Pakkrat explained. "I listen to music on long hauls when alone and it helps with the monotony. I keep a laserdisc player on hand since I haven't the slightest idea how to hook up those crystal-readers used these days." He slipped the data disc into the player and fed it to a monitor on his ship's bridge and cockpit. Then he played the data.

The balding and wrinkled old man appeared. He had thick glasses and coughed a few times before he spoke to the viewer. Pakkrat recognized him as the Finn, but Powers he did not age well! He must have been ten or twenty years older. He also looked ill as his features looked poor. Then he spoke as Siobhan listened in on the communications link.

"Pakk, *cough*, I don't know where you are or what happened to you, lad but it's been long enough and I've ground the mystery down to that disc I gave you. You must be dead or lost in space somewhere. I don't know if you followed that nav-disc or not but it's been too long you haven't contacted me that I have to assume you dead or adrift to the deep dark." The old man the Pakkrat knew now especially by his raspy voice as the Finn began a wracking cough. Then he continued.

"This disc is my final clearing of the books, lad. If you are still out there somewhere, know that I had nothing do with what that nav-disc had on it. I was only told to give it to you."

"Pakk, I thought about the who, what and why of that haul you flew out of here. I think you were carrying more than what your cargo registry stated. Yes, the stuff was hot and we all dared not crack it open. It was weapons-grade Uranium, fer Powers sake. Pakk, *cough, cough*, I don't have much time, so let this apology clear my conscience and send you to wherever you went with my last and best wishes. It was nothing personal, business and all. Powers, I hope you come back, lad. Warp speed, lad."

Then the recording faded and ended with the Finn's signature rune. The Pakkrat remembered it on every document the fixer signed. Ejecting the nav-disc, the Terran Tradesman stored it inside a music disc case and hid it among his music disc collection under his pilot chair.

"Fare well, old timer. Finn."

Siobhan asked him, "He sounded like a comrade, Terran. Was he your friend?"

The Pakkrat considered his memories of the Finn. "We were more business partners in near-crime," he said, "but we always seemed to stay on the lawful side of that line."

The trader swung the formation to port and then warped from Earth Station.

"Where are we headed next?" asked Siobhan.

"We need to find my old ship." answered the Pakkrat. "We need to have a look at her."

"Where is your old ship?"

"The rescue drones that hauled me in may still have their memories stored, so it's off to the Infinity Campus where I was pulled from the old *Labyrinth Runner*.

Ahead lay the facility Infinity Campus. It was a multi-purpose facility and headquarters for the company here in Earth sector. Swarms of tasked drones moved about the orbital station. It had no proper docking hangar, but InfinitiCorp employees oversaw the operations the drones undertook.

Using his corporate authorizations, the Pakkrat gained access to the drone teams that salvaged his ship. Reading their logs, he swore aloud. "Their logs of the salvage have been erased."

Siobhan asked, "Was it a maintenance data dump? I mean, were they out of memory space or something?"

Pakkrat looked into that and came up with, "No, that specific mission was erased. The drones know nothing about it anymore. And it was an unmanned mission, so nobody here was on site when I was hauled from that asteroid."

Siobhan played with her double-helix in her gauntleted fingers. It was something he saw her do when she was thinking. Then she brightened with an idea.

"Pakkrat," she offered, "maybe the drones can remember where your ship hulk was stored, like in a hulk field or the like."

The trader nodded to her then stroked his beard as he went through date-stamped logs of junked ship hulls. Though there were no names attached to the hulks, the Terran found that all the hulks of that month on the year he was rescued went to the same location. "Smart girl," he said, looking at her on the monitor.

"Then we just have to find the ship and the drones are not a hurdle," she said.

"Says all the hulks of that month went to Asteroid ED5013," the Pakkrat read aloud the name. "That's right here on the fringes of Earth Sector. My ship has been here the entire time, right under my nose!"

Siobhan noted, "I don't know where that location is, Pakkrat."

"I do. Let's go."

Minutes later after warping to the sector's outer reaches, the pair came upon a yellow-orange crystalline asteroid. Across its darker landscape were littered tens of hulks. Thus began focused scans for the right hull shape, size, configuration and class that matched the *Labyrinth Runner*, the old hauler.

*While the pair searched, their sensors failed to register the slow, inexorable fly-by of a capital ship in black, sleek shape. Bulbous turrets were stowed as tiny bumps on the vessel's outer hull. The **Andromeda** slipped by them, quietly watching them.*

When the old and derelict hauler was re-discovered, the Terran man and the Progen woman exited their ships in EVA spacesuits to the surface of the asteroid. As they approached, Siobhan pointed her torch at the ship's port-side cargo section.

"I'll be a honey-dipped rat on an ant hill," swore the Pakkrat. "They did enter my ship. Look at the hole they cut into the cargo bay. The drones would not have been able to enter through such a small hole. See?"

"Yes," said Siobhan. She looked at her armor's sensors. "Though the cargo uranium is now mostly depleted uranium slag, we should be safe enough to dig around for this secret shipment, *Pakk*." She said his nickname like the Finn's recording.

"Let's hope it's here," he answered smiling with half-hope.

The two entered the cargo bay through the hole. After about ten minutes of searching through sections of depleted uranium, nothing was found.

"Do you think it was found, whatever the Finn was suggesting?" asked the Warrior.

"If it was found, why rescue me at all and have to deal with my back-pay?" answered the Pakkrat with a question. "Whatever it was, they didn't find it and the drones' memories were erased to conceal such a detail or clues.

"You say you were stranded in an asteroid from a comet's hail storm that incapacitated your ship," reminded Siobhan. "What if the drones could not have salvaged everything and only took the majority of what they could carry?"

The trader snapped his fingers when they were safely back in their vessels. "That's it!" he exclaimed. "The drone's instructions were too simple and they rescued my ship as a first measure. I'm still alive because they didn't find whatever was hidden in that radioactive cargo. The navigation computer was destroyed by the through penetrations so it was useless to them, whoever they were."

"Then," said Siobhan, "there is no way to backtrack to the asteroid where you sought shelter, is there?"

Pakkrat nodded his head, but then raised his index to his temple saying, "there is one last rutter to that site left. In here."

"What is a 'rutter'?" Siobhan asked.

"Seriously? You folk in this Crystal Age don't keep maps on hardcopy?" The Pakkrat went on to explain that a 'rutter' was a record of charts, maps, travel routes and pathways that ancient Earth sailing ships kept as secret documents to keep ahead of the competition.

"So, earthling," asked the Progen, "where is your rutter, hmmm?"

"I remember where I was when I entered the cryostasis capsule."

"Then lead the way," suggested the Progen.

The couple warped from Earth sector with Siobhan leading while the Pakkrat correlated sector maps with his memory of the discarded route the Finn's nav-disc had suggested he take over 161 years ago.

*"Mistress, they just left," reported Joga, the ever-present Progen secretary.*

*"I know where they are going as I was privy to the drones' records before they were erased," declared the Lady DeWynter. "We only need follow them to Ceres/Thule. But I have doubts they will be able to open that long-quiet gate."*

Ceres/Thule, to the Crystal Age was the sector that now contained the discarded route featured in the nav-disc given to the Pakkrat. Sectors from Earth, they halted before the cold, inanimate rings that barred the way to the sector beyond. Since it was a dead-end sector with no adjoining star gate other than to Venus sector, it too was long ago discarded as a waste of InfinitiGate resources. Like Pakkrat's comet-laden route a century and a half before, Ceres/Thule was largely uninhabited save by space fauna and old nav-bouys that were, in theory, still present.

Pakkrat barely remembered the route through 161 years of cryostasis, two years of career and now a small stint of Iteration Haze, (as Siobhan called it). Back in his day, the Ancient stargates had yet to be discovered. Everyone plied Sol system in long stints of warp speeds, which itself was relatively new as well. Nobody had wormhole gates to sling them across the universe. The trader smiled. He was beginning to feel very old as the pair approached the unused InfinitiGate that they hoped opened to Ceres/Thule.

"This was not here back in my day," noted the trader from Earth.

"To my knowledge it has not been opened in a long time," said Siobhan. "I've been through Venus sector, docked at Venera Highport and stared at its inactive rings a few times. It is like some mystery is beyond them that others may ignore."

"I know what is behind that gate," said the Pakkrat. "It's getting there through them."

"What do you know about Ceres/Thule then?" asked Siobhan.

"Well Ceres is a huge asteroid," described the Pakkrat. "It was discovered long before true space travel in Sol. I remember it in the distance when I went comet-surfing."

"What is comet-surfing?" asked the Warrior woman.

"Never mind," said the smiling trader. Continuing, he said, "But Thule, I only know from topic searches in archives. It is supposedly some sort of legendary, unattainable land of long days and long nights above the Scythian parallel on Earth. A bunch of old, dead explorers tried to find it north of the British Isles. Eventually it was decided that it was an island off the coast of Norway in Europe. But now, here in this Crystal Age, Thule must be some unattainable body in space, right?"

The formation of the Warrior and Tradesman craft was before the inert gate. Siobhan tried a few transmissions to the rings in hopes that one of them might open it. None worked. "How do we get it opened," she asked.

"There has to be a condition or combination, I am guessing," answered the Terran.

*Joga, watching from the bridge of the invisible **Andromeda** some distance away from the pair at the Ceres/Thule stargate, turned to the lounging Lady DeWynter, "Mistress, I feel something."*

*"You've had feelings before, Joga," answered the Lady. "Is it the presence again?"*

*"Yes, mistress," concluded the psi-gifted Progen woman, "and I am powerless against it."*

* * *

"I dunno, Siobhan," called the Pakkrat. "Maybe it is some gate that only Jenquai or the gifted can open and I am neither. I doubt I could think or will it to open any more than I could balance my credit account."

Siobhan smiled at the observation mixed with another of the Pakkrat's strange figures of speech. To add to the humor, Siobhan suggested, "Have you tried, Terran?"

It was funny to watch the Terran take on a mimic grimace of fierce concentration. It made Siobhan smile and hold back an amused chuckle. When he tried a new grimace, his face a cross between intense pain and bared teeth scowl, the Sabura could not hold back her giggling at his demeanor.

Then, except for the two vessels' running lights, everything went dark and shadowy. Both pilots checked their scanners for the cause of the sudden night. Venus was eclipsing the sun, its shadow creeping over their location. But even at that speed both were enveloped immediately. There, in the shadow of Venus a motion came from the Ceres/Thule star gate. It was moving!

Spinning and twirling its hexagonal rings, the star gate expanded and spread outward. There was an aged scraping and high-pitched whine as the old rings squealed into position which reverberated through the two nearby ships. The Pakkrat covered his ears in reflex as Siobhan merely grit her teeth against the noise. Then the darkness was lit with blue brilliance as the decrepit portal lit its artificial wormhole with flickering plasma at its edges.

"An unattainable land of long days and long nights...," said the Pakkrat when it was safe to uncover his ears and at the sight of the opened gate.

"It must be keyed to only open in shadow and only when requested," said Siobhan.

"Someone or something is making this adventure hard to reach the end of the maze," mused the Pakkrat aloud.

"This cannot be coincidence," said Siobhan who was on alert. "Do you read anything on your scanners?"

"Nothing."

After a few moments, the Terran nodded to the Progen who led them through the Ceres/Thule star gate.

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