THE PRIZE BEYOND THE GATE
By Jeff Robinson (3,990)
(published SFN Anthology from AKW Books 5/2009 "More Alpha Dreams")


Eric Prescott monitored the progress of the Entry Team from his office at Selene Station . Deep beneath the lunar surface on the far side of the Moon, more than a hundred of the world’s most talented scientists had gathered to witness and record the team’s activities from rows of desks, crowded with computer consoles and telemetry monitors. While one entire wall of Eric’s office was lined with windows which overlooked the huge room, Eric observed the Level 16 Entry team from the large wall monitor mounted on the opposite side of his room.

The attention of the entire staff, and most of Earth’s inhabitants, focused on the six men, who had been tasked with unlocking the final level of the alien artifact known simply as the Enigma.

Checking the chronometer, which blinked in the corner of the screen, Eric noted that the team was right on schedule. The scientists had been working for nearly a half-hour and had a mere ten minutes remaining before they finished setting the intricate codes into the last of the vault doors that had resisted Mankind’s entry for the last twenty-two years

Soon their work, and that of the entire Selene Station, would be complete.

All their actions had been carefully calculated and rehearsed and the work of a many lifetimes depended on their success.

To one side of the main image, which showed the men working at the Level 16 vault doors, were a half-dozen inset displays tuned to the main news feeds of the Earth’s largest news services. The media conglomerates back home were hyping up the occasion as the most important since Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the Moon, more than a hundred years before.

A sound in the hallway drew Eric’s attention to the large double doors of his office, which opened to reveal a well-dressed woman, who boldly entered as if she owned the place.

Immediately recognizing her as the celebrated news journalist, Sondra Soren, the anchorwoman of SNN’s primetime news show, Eric tapped a button on his desk, transforming the transparent windows to the Operations Center into shimmering, ceiling-to-floor mirrors, and rose promptly to introduce himself.

While he had been awaiting her arrival, he now found himself somewhat unprepared for her presence, since she was already talking aloud, as if to an invisible companion.

The dark-haired, green-eyed woman radiated an air of confidence and authority that gave Eric pause. Blinking in surprise, he tried not to look at the floating four-inch silver balls which hovered slowly around her head and shoulders. Even though he recognized them as video remotes that captured and projected three-dimensional images to the SNN satellite feeds for broadcast back to Earth, Eric found them difficult not to stare at.

He cleared his throat to speak, but stopped for fear of interrupting, and waited for Sondra to stop talking.

“…and here we are in the office of Director Eric Prescott,” she said aloud in an apparent monologue that he knew was being overheard by millions of Earthside Tri-vid viewers.

“Dr. Prescott,” she said, “has been the chief administrator of the Selene Station for the past eighteen years, ever since the United Nations took over the facility from NASA after the existence of The Enigma was revealed to the world.

“How do you do Dr. Prescott? I’m Sondra Soren from SNN,” she said, cordially extending her hand in greeting. “On behalf of myself and my listening audience, I wanted to thank you for taking time to share this momentous occasion with us.”

“You’re welcome,” he said, with unexpectedly nervousness.

“So, do you prefer to be called Doctor or Director?” she asked almost graciously.

“Eric, please. Just call me Eric.”

“Fine then, Eric. Do you mind if I start right off with a few questions? I’ve already reviewed some of the more important background with our viewers, but perhaps you could offer your personal perspective for posterity. Tell us, what makes this event so special?”

Eric found his mouth awkwardly dry, as he struggled not to think about the number of people eavesdropping on this not-so-private conversation.

“Well,” he said wondering how much detail to go into, “the alien artifact was discovered in a lunar geological survey in 2151, but was initially kept secret by NASA and the United States. As engineers excavated the construct, they dated its age at more than two billion years and were amazed any artificial structure could remain intact after so long a time. Digging away eons of moon dust, they uncovered a cone-shaped structure that extended deep into the lunar surface.

“Of course, the first teams to inspect the artifact had no idea of its purpose. They tried to examine it but the only distinguishing feature was an entrance sealed by a metal portal of such unusual properties that it defied conventional analysis. Harder than any known metal, it had somehow resisted billions of years of exposure to the lunar environment.

“Unfortunately, they couldn’t figure out how to activate the door mechanism and seriously considered blasting it open. One of the explorers, however, recognized the symbols that covered the door. They were cuneiforms etched into the metal surface that defined a strange base-16 numbering system. Above these symbols was a picture of a circle, bisected by a straight line. Below were a series of knobs that could be turned to sixteen positions, obviously a combination that would open the door.

“The expedition leader had a hunch that to open the door, they had to enter the value of Pi in base 16. Pi being the ratio of the circumference of a perfect circle to the diameter of the same circle.”

“Yes,” said Sondra. “We already explained this to our Tri-vid viewers in an earlier overview, along with the fact that the door opened to a chamber sealed by a second door.”

“Right, but the next door had more symbols on it and the problem it described was harder. The answer to the second puzzle was the transcendental number, Phi, known to the ancient Greeks. Similarly, the third door required them to enter the value of the base of natural logarithms, ‘e’. Each successive door opened to yet another chamber that spiraled deeper into the lunar surface and only opened when the team answered a puzzle of increasing difficulty.”

Eric noted Sondra’s dour expression. He was apparently covering information that was not new to her.

“Yes,” she said, cutting him off. “And we know that the team quickly advanced to the fifth door before they were stumped. Then they had to pass the problems to experts back on Earth.”

“Right, but they opened that one too, eventually. By the 7th Gate, the problems had progressed from basic number sequences, like prime numbers and the Fibonocci series, to problems involving advanced calculus.“

“But when the mathematicians on Earth couldn’t figure out the puzzle on the 8th portal,” Sondra interjected, “the team started entering guesses and that’s when they learned that entering a wrong answer locked the doors.”

“Correct. The first invalid combination froze the dials for twenty hours. Each subsequent error entry doubled the length of time that the mechanism locked up.”

“So how many bad entries have been entered?”

“Ten so far,” answered the Director, “Five by the initial team at Gate 8 and five more on the subsequent doors over the last 22 years.”

“So the penalty for an incorrect answer is how long now?” she asked.

“If the team working today makes a mistake we won’t be able to try again for twenty-eight months… roughly two and a half years. However, we’ve learned to exercise great caution and haven’t made a bad entry in since Gate 12.”

“And you’re confident your team won’t make a mistake today.”

“Right, because we’ve learned to be careful, just as we’ve learned so many other things. You see, the race that built this facility was far more advanced than we are and, just by studying their puzzles, we’ve found an incredible wealth of knowledge. At Gate 8 we had to learn new forms of math based on the alien’s notation and syntax. At Gate 11, we had to decipher the alien’s language as well.”

“But by then NASA had lost control of this facility to the United Nations,” said Sondra, trying to jump ahead. “Can you explain why your operations are based here on the far side of the Moon instead of closer to the artifact?”

Such was Sondra’s charisma that Eric answered without hesitation. He had already forgotten about the millions of eavesdroppers listening to his answers.

“That’s because the head of NASA back then was a bit paranoid. When the first wrong code was entered, something a power source deep within the core of the construct activated and scared him.”

“And why was that?”

“Because of the magnitude of that power source. When it turned on, it generated a magnetic field nearly as great as Earth’s own. It distorted Earth’s magnetosphere, caused the Northern Lights to shift as far south as Miami, and wrecked havoc with orbiting communications satellites.

“The Director, Winston Kincaid, feared the artifact would self-destruct. Measurements indicated an energy source of unprecedented power and engineers concluded the generation of that much energy required the presence of antimatter or the direct conversion of matter to energy. Kincaid therefore built his main base here, on the opposite side of the moon, as far from the construct as possible. He even created an elaborate telemetry system of remote sensors so he could monitor everything safely from here. In fact, it works so well that we still use it today. That’s why we never moved our operations.”

Grinning demurely, Sondra asked, “But, didn’t Director Kincaid try to keep the existence of the alien facility secret?” “Yes, he claimed the unusual magnetic field was a natural phenomenon, but there was simply no way to hide the truth. Eventually scientists concluded NASA was concealing something and a whistleblower finally leaked the truth to the U.N. By then the mysterious source of the lunar magnetic field had become known as the Enigma and the name stuck.”

“So the UN put you in charge and you’ve run this place since.”

“Actually, the work is done by hundreds of scientists stationed here and at Universities all over Earth. As the puzzles on each vault door became increasingly more difficult, it took more effort to work out the solutions. The problems the portals posed have driven and directed much of Earth’s scientific research for the past two decades.”

“I understand,” said Sondra. “But have you been able to figure out what purpose the Enigma really serves?”

Eric’s answer was interrupted by a voice over the station’s public address system. “Vault data entry sequence completed. Final verification check initiated.”

“Excuse me,” said Eric. “They’re almost done. I need to watch this now.”

“We all do,” said Sondra to her silent listeners. “We all need to watch this.”

Eric took a seat at his desk and turned toward the large monitor screen as the six team members double and triple-checked the settings they had made to the dials on the alien portal.

Sondra drew near to the Director and her remote Tri-vid cameras witnessed the final activities of the team.

“So why does it take so long to enter the codes?” Sondra asked. “Are you just being overly cautious?”

“Perhaps a little,” replied Eric. “But the real reason it takes so long is that, as the problems grew more complex, so did the answers. The first doors only required the entry of a few numbers. Gate 8 required the translation of Maxwell’s equations, the fundamental rules of electromagnetic theory, into alien mathematical notation. Gate 10 demanded entry of special derivations of general and special relativity.

“Later problems forced us into new fields completely unknown to us. The solutions required setting hundreds of different values, all in the proper sequence. By then we’d confirmed that the portals represented a series of tests with a prize at the end, if we were smart enough to solve all sixteen gates.”

“So what is the prize you expect to find?”

“The stars,” he answered softly. “The stars.”

“You see,” said Eric, turning toward her. “The sequence we’re entering today involves math that describes the principles of faster-than-light travel. All the problems from the earlier doors were actually lessons that led us to this point. Oh, it may take us decades to build ships that can use this new science, but all we lack now is an energy source to power such ships, a secret we believe will be revealed beyond this final gate.”

“Final checks complete,” sounded a voice from the leader of the Entry Team. “Activating the door on my count. 3… 2… 1.”

Eric and Sondra watched and there was a short pause that seemed to last for minutes. Then team started shouting. “It worked! It worked! The sequence was correct. The portal is opening. We got the answer to the last problem correct. In a moment we’ll finally find what’s behind the last Gate.”

Then a shrill alarm sounded and the shouting stopped. “Wait a minute. Something unusual is happening here. I don’t think it’s supposed to….”

Abruptly, a burst of static cut off the transmission and all the telemetry feeds failed.

Eric stabbed a button on his console. “Ops,” he called, “What’s going on? I’ve lost all video in here.”

There was no immediate reply and Eric stopped himself from calling again. Touching the window controls, he turned, as the mirrored wall behind him faded to transparency, and blinked in shock as Ops personnel scrambled at their consoles.

“Director?” replied a voice from the intercom, which Eric recognized as his Operations Chief, Stewart Grainger. “We’ve lost all communications with the Entry team. A large energy surge occurred just before we lost contact, but we haven’t figured out what’s happened yet.”

“Damn!” said a voice behind him.

Eric spun his chair around to see Sondra Soren holding one of the silver hover-cams in her hand. Shaking it angrily, she glanced first at the object and then back at Eric, a dour expression clouding face. “I’ve lost my uplink, too. I’m offline.”

“We’re trying to re-establish our telemetry links right now,” said the Ops Chief.

Suddenly worried about Winston Kincaid’s predictions, Eric asked, “Stew, have you checked the seismic detectors? Have they registered any activity?”

“You mean an explosion?” offered the Ops Chief. “No. They’re online and quiet. There’s been no explosion, as far as we can tell. Wait. Wait, a second…”

Eric listened to several voices talking at once at the other end of his communications link.

“Sir, we’re getting indications that all electronics in line-of-sight of the Enigma have malfunctioned. However, we do have a link with the lunar base in Tycho Crater and we’re working with them.”

“Alright,” said Eric, “but aren’t our electronics shielded against radiation from solar flares? An electromagnetic pulse shouldn’t take them out the way you’ve described.”

“Yeah, I know. But they’re still gone. Give me a few minutes and I’ll get back to you.”

Muting the comm-channel, Eric turned back to Sondra.

Her arms were crossed in a hostile gesture of barely contained anger. Both of her hover-cams lay inert and unmoving on his desk and she glared at him, as if expecting some sort of explanation.

“This is just great,” she said, gesturing widely with her hands. “Cut off in the middle of my broadcast and God knows what the network is doing. Can’t you do something?”

Eric calmed himself, as his mind raced with worries about the team and the project. There was nothing he could do until he had more information.

“Sorry,” he said. “It might just be a minor technical problem, but it might be something more serious too.”

“Like what?” asked Sondra, her demeanor shifting from one of anger to curiosity.

“Well, we know there’s a power source of incredible size within the Enigma. Winston Kincaid was always afraid that it was a bomb of some sort that would blow up if we failed too many tests. Fearing that the entire complex was an intelligence test of some sort, Kincaid wanted the facility reburied deep under the lunar surface. He figured that if it had been idle for billions of years, it would remain harmless, if we continued to ignore.

“The good news is that there’s been no explosion, but we still don’t know what else might have happened.”

Before he could speculate further, the Ops Chief came back online. “Director, I’ve bad news. I’m patching in a video segment recorded at the staging bunker. This is what their cameras captured just as we lost contact with the entry team.”

Eric and Sondra leaned close as the video played. At first, the images seemed quite ordinary. Since most of the Enigma construct had been buried under billions of years of accumulated moon dust, all that could be seen was the apex of the cone shaped artifact, sticking up above the man-made crater of excavated rock and dirt. There was no movement, just the dull gray metal of the Enigma, lit by fixed perimeter lights and silhouetted against the black sky and lifeless wasteland of the lunar surface.

Unexpectedly, the top of the artifact moved. The cone-shaped structure separated into pieces and parted, opening like the petals of a flower in bloom. Then a bright light grew from within the structure, the intensity growing until it swamped out the image. Then the video simply stopped.

“What was that light?” Eric asked.

“We don’t know,” replied Stewart, “but it was bright enough to burn out the optical feed there. We haven’t been able to contact anyone in the bunker since, so either their communications are out or … “

Steward didn’t finish his sentence, but Eric understood. It was likely that both teams were dead. “Can we re-establish visual contact with the Enigma site?” asked Eric.

“No. Anything that gains line-of-sight contact with the Enigma goes offline, shuttles, satellites, everything. But that’s not the worst of the news. Look at this.”

The image on Eric’s display was replaced by a view of the Earth, as seen from the Tycho Base. While showing most of its night side to the moon, a bright crescent-shaped band of green and blue shone brightly to one side. Strangely, though, the portion of the planet, that was supposed to be dark, glowed faintly and strangely flickering colors crawled slowly across the surface.

“What are those lights? asked Eric.

“It’s some kind of atmospheric ionization,” answered Stewart, “like the Northern Lights.”

“But those lights aren’t near the poles. What’s causing them?”

“It’s the Enigma. Apparently it’s unleashed intense levels of radiation toward Earth. Not much is in the visible spectrum, but reflected light from Earth’s surface indicates that it’s mostly X-rays and gamma-radiation. The illumination source is so strong that it’s even ionizing gas in the upper atmosphere. That’s what you see as bands of light moving across the night side of the planet. The sky’s literally on fire.”

“But that would mean…” started Eric

“Yeah, we know,” replied Steward coldly. “The Earth’s receiving a lethal dose of radiation. Everything down there’s being fried.”

Eric sat stunned in shock. Turning to windows of the Operations center, he saw everyone in the other room staring as the same images on their large screens. No one moved. Silence shrouded the room. There were no words to describe the horror they witnessed.

“Hey,” demanded Sondra. “What’s all this mean?”

Turning his attention to his guest, Eric scowled. “Didn’t you hear? When we opened the last gate, we some sort of doomsday mechanism activated that’s sterilizing the planet.”

“But you’ve got to do something.”

“There’s nothing we can do. The energy source is so strong that anything that gets in sight of it is fried. That’s what knocked out the communications satellites.”

“But can’t anyone launch missiles or something from Earth to stop it?” she asked.

“Probably not,” he said. “They’d have the same problem. Everything there is being bombarded with high energy radiation strong enough to disrupt all communications or guidance systems. They’re as helpless as we are.”

“So what will happen? she asked.

“Well,” said Eric. “If the irradiation continues, in 24 hours the Earth will have revolved once on its axis and everything on the planet will have received a fatal dose of radiation.”

Sondra finally began to understand and a look of shock replaced the anger she had worn on her face a moment before. Staring first at the screen and then back at Eric, she asked, “So there’s nothing we can do?”

Rising, Eric said, “I don’t know, but we’ve got some of the best minds in the world here. Let’s find out.”

As he strode out the doors of his office and headed toward the Operations Center, Sondra Soren hastily fell into step behind him.



*****



Twenty fours hour later, Eric and a dozen of the most senior members of his research staff sat in a conference room, watching the now familiar, but horrific images of Earth. Eric stood at one end of the table, his back half-turned to his fellow scientists.

Gesturing to the screen, he said, “We’ve confirmed the intensity of the radiation from the Enigma is dropping off quickly. At this rate, it will have stopped completely within another hour or so.”

“So how bad is the damage?” asked someone.

Eric’s face was grim. “Radiation damage is cumulative and calculations show that anything on the surface with more than about twenty kilograms of body-mass will likely die. In a few weeks, little will remain on Earth except a few plants and animals smaller than the average dog.”

“So what do we do?” asked Sondra.

“Well, the stations here on the Moon can only last a few years. Some people planetside undoubtedly survived in shelters and shielded bunkers, but probably not many. If we want to survive too, we’ll have to find some way back to Earth with the remaining shuttles we have.”

“But why?” sobbed Sondra. “Why would aliens do this?”

“It was a trap all the time,” moaned one scientist, putting his head in his hands.

“Then why tie it to intelligence tests?” asked another. “No, we must have failed their test. We doomed ourselves.”

“No,” said Eric. “I don’t think so. Consider this. What if there was an advanced race out in space that had been around for billions of years. They might not look too kindly on new races that showed up to intrude on their domain. Perhaps they put devices like this on lots of worlds where life could evolve. Then, if life did get advanced enough, the beings there would find the devices, activate them, and destroy their own civilizations before they became a nuisance.”

Everyone silently pondered the suggestion.

“That makes sense,” said one of the staff. “It could explain the unusual extinctions that have occurred in Earth’s ancient history. Fossil records stretching back to pre-Cambrian times show several, one about 68 million years ago and another about a 170 million years ago. After each event, only small animals remained and life started over from those survivors.”

“But if that’s true, why wouldn’t the aliens just sterilize entire planets so there was no life at all?” said Stewart. “Why do something this elaborate?”

Eric shrugged sadly. “Maybe they don’t hate all life. Maybe they just don’t want new spacefaring neighbors.”

“How horrible,” wept Sondra. “So the aliens just reset the eco-systems on selected planets to keep promising life forms from escaping out into the galaxy and inconveniencing them. It’s… inhuman.”

The silence in the room seemed to imply tacit agreement.

“You mean the Enigma wasn’t an intelligence test after all?” cried someone. “It was just… a mousetrap?”

“No,” replied Eric. “I think it really WAS an intelligence test. The only problem is… we passed.”

 

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