Rating: 18, due to language, violence and various other details. I cannot sufficiently emphasise this. If you don't like these, just stop reading! It's as simple as that. Flames will be redirected to my central heating system in the winter and to my gas oven in the summer, but otherwise will be ignored. Mmm… I do love a nice bit of gammon steak in the summer…
Summary: Extreme Alternate Universe fic! Warning! Possible culture shock and disorientation! (N.B. natives of the British Isles may disregard this warning notice completely.) The Stargate never made it to the United States: instead, it is in the hands of the British Government – the Ministry of Defence, to be exact. Expect alterations at the most fundamental of levels, abandon your hopes of seeing anything familiar…although I might stick in the occasional familiar face or two from time to time. Multiple minor crossovers. No Sam/Jack, Sam/Daniel, Sam/Janet, Sam/Teal'c, Sam/Hammond guaranteed. This is not a primarily 'shipper fic by any stretch of the imagination!
Disclaimer: Gekko and their assorted compatriots own anything recognisable from the television series Stargate: SG-1 and someone else has some of the stuff from the film Stargate. Any characters, planets, ships etc which are not from that series or any other media to which someone other than myself holds copyright to are of my own creation, and I shall be deeply angry if anyone attempts to use them without getting permission from me first. Such miscreants will be hunted down and attacked by Replicators and/or Daleks. I make no profits beyond enjoying myself out of this.
To the best of my knowledge the 22nd Special Air Service Regiment of the British Army has never and does not maintain any such unit called J Squadron or indeed any form of unit dedicated to dealing with the supernatural; also to the best of my knowledge neither does any other arm of the British Armed Forces or any element of the British Government operate, support, endorse or supply personnel and/or equipment, funding or any other means of support to such a unit or organisation: this is entirely a product of my own creative skills, thank you very much. (What the hell, the US Army has the Initiative, the USAF has the SGC and the UN has UNIT in other fiction, if there's a good reason why the British Army can't have a dedicated paranormal ops team in a fictional milieu, I'd be interested to hear it.)
I have no connections of any kind whatsoever with any element of the British Armed Forces. Any inaccuracies regarding any aspect of the operations procedures, regulations and other details are either my error or, as I have previously stated with regards to J Squadron, the result of creative license. I make no claims at being an expert on any branch or unit of the British Armed Forces. It should be noted that none of the characters represented as serving as part of the British Armed Forces are intended to have any resemblance whatsoever to any real personnel. Any such resemblances are entirely unintentional and coincidental. (I doubt there will be any, but you never know.)
On another note, if you've got an idea for a fic involving any original characters or anything else of my design, feel free to contact me – you just need to ask first, okay? I won't reject an idea unless there's a really good reason. (Such as if someone's got ideas about Ash's history that don't fit with the material I've already prepared, or wants to write 'smut' fic involving, for example, a gratuitous encounter between Ash and Gareth. They're both straight, okay?) Yeah, this is unusual. I think you'll find this is an unusual fic. If you want to try writing any drabbles or a short or even a longer fic based on this, drop me a line.
Series: The 'Shattered Arrow' Universe. Faith Restored and Ashes on the Gulfstream Wind are currently in production; these fics will be posted in parallel to the timeframe of this one, with Restored in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer section and Ashes in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Crossovers section. Faith Restored begins set in May 1997, whilst Ashes starts at October 31st 1997. When XT-1 reaches these points, the chapters will be posted simultaneously, keeping as in step as much as possible. There's a way to go yet though.
Author's Notes: Please note that any and all original characters of British origin are not meant to sound like Hugh Grant. The only human being on the entire planet who sounds like Hugh Grant is Hugh Grant. I cannot stress this enough.
The Gateway Opens has been under production for more than a year by this point, constantly being refined, adjusted and improved. I'd like to thank Joe B1451, Falling Dragon, GTAOtaku and Sage Harper for their support, advice, beta-reading and willingness to endure my madness and mayhem for such a lengthy production process.
Dedication:To the memory of Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba, BEM & MiD, B Squadron 22nd Special Air Service Regiment, who fell on the 17th July 1972 at the Battle of Mirbat. One of the world's finest, both as a soldier and as a man, we are much poorer for his loss. He dared and won.
"They shall not grow old as we are left to grow old,
Age shall not weary them nor the years
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them."
Chapter One: The Gateway Opens
Part One of Nine
The End…of the Beginning
Friday 5th March 1993
London's West Side
Dear Doctor Carter,
Whilst we thank you for your interest, we regret to inform you—
Samantha Carter groaned, blinking sleep from her eyes as she read the opening sentence of the rejection letter. She balled it up and tossed it into the nearby waste bin. The letter, merely the latest of many, landed atop the ever-growing pile of its predecessors.
Sam yawned hugely, running her hand through her short tousled blonde locks as she glanced at the clock over her front door. Oh, just perfect. Trust her alarm to fail.
The lanky astrophysicist slumped down on the stairs, burying her head in her hands as her phone rang. Eventually the answering machine took the call. "Carter? Ya shoulda been here two hours ago! I warned you, one more slip up and you're outta here. Well, this sure fits the bill. You're fired, Carter!"
Sam grimaced. She wouldn't miss Errol Grant. He might have been the only American she'd encountered since moving to England four months back, but the Texan had been obnoxious, small-minded and abhorrently bureaucratic. To be honest, she wasn't that homesick in any case. She would, however, miss her wages from the McDonalds restaurant. True, the work had been demeaning for someone of her qualifications, but it had paid the bills.
Well, the upside was she didn't have to go to work now. She could veg-out in bed. Write application letters to a few more universities and labs. Watch the BBC; it was quite a change to watch a non-profit-making channel that wasn't littered with commercials.
Sam groaned as she stood up. Pulling her robe more closely about her, she shuffled into the living room, throwing herself down on the old and comfortably worn sofa. Her bed had most likely gone cold by now, the only one she was kidding was herself when it came to the application letters, and it was just gone ten o'clock; the news had been and gone so the only stuff on the Beeb now would be home decorating and cookery programs. Oh, and The Wombles.
How are the mighty fallen, she mused, laying her head back and staring absently at the faded art-deco ceiling. Just two years ago she'd received her doctorate. A couple of months later her father had died from cancer, and Sam and her brother had inherited his estate.
Sam's dreams of finding a nice cosy lab and a steady job had not become reality. Work had proven impossible to come by, despite her travelling between the coasts of the US. The money began to run out, and she'd known that her time was growing short. She'd sold up and moved to England, hoping that just maybe she might strike lucky. Back in her first year of high school, her class had been taken on a week's field trip to the UK, and it had been a visit to the Jodrell Bank observatory that had first inspired her to take her first steps into the field of astrophysics. If anything her situation had worsened; the dollar was weak whilst the pound sterling was strong. The combination of the punishing exchange rate and costs of the housing market had drained her accounts almost dry, and if anything the academic world here was far more competitive.
Sam looked up at the sound of the doorbell. Mentally shrugging, she rose from the sofa's comfortable depths to answer the door. It was probably just a salesperson, but it was better than just moping around.
Her visitors were the very last people she'd expected. A British Army captain in khaki dress uniform, a cluster of medal ribbons displayed on his jacket, looked up brightly from his briefcase. Behind him on the pavement, a tall and burly soldier in camouflage fatigues stood beside an Army Land Rover. "Doctor Carter?" the captain enquired.
Sam blinked, half-convinced that she was still dreaming. "Yeah?" she answered.
The captain held out his hand. "Captain Buckland, GHQ. Could we come in for a moment?" he asked.
Sam regarded him warily as she shook it. "What's this about?"
"A job." Buckland told her, smiling politely.
Sam slowly nodded, standing to one side and adjusting her robe. "Okay," she said. Buckland motioned for the soldier to follow him in, and she dead-bolted the door behind them. Sam led her guests into the living room. "Do you mind waiting here for a sec? Just so I can get some pants on."
"Certainly," Buckland nodded, removing his cap as he sat down.
"So," Sam said as she returned to her guests, having gotten dressed in a pair of old jeans and a sweater. "What's this about a job?"
Buckland set his case on Sam's coffee table. "Before we get to discussing that, I'd like to say that we did our background research quite thoroughly on you. We know that you're none too keen on the military and that you refuse to work on nuclear or biological weapons development. General Blake at the Pentagon was…quite upset at your refusal." He smiled briefly at this.
"Doctor, I'll be frank. You'll need to sign the Official Secrets Act if you take this job. Ordinarily, no details about the operation would be revealed until you had signed. However, in light of your moral stance and how it affects your work I have been authorised to give you two pieces of information. Firstly, we don't want you to design anything. We have in our possession a…device that we'd like your help to get working. And secondly, this device is not a weapon, or at least we're quite certain it isn't. And if it should transpire to be of such a nature, we will do everything we can to safely destroy it."
Sam nodded slowly. "What's the catch?"
Buckland frowned, momentarily confused. "Other than that you'll have to sign the Official Secrets Act before we can give you any more details? None."
Sam weighed the options in her mind, still sleepy. Caught between the job market and the British Army. Huh. She'd never have envisaged this situation two years ago.
Being flat broke or working with a military force.
What the hell. How much worse can it get?
RAF Benson, Sub-Level Eight
Lieutenant General Gregory Hayes waved for the junior officer before his desk to be seated. "Tom. I understand you've chosen the last men for your team." Finally, the sentiment remained unspoken.
Major Thomas Ross of the 22nd Special Air Service Regiment nodded, setting down a stack of files. "I took the liberty of preparing their files, assuming you wanted to know the details. These three are the last. I felt that two patrols' worth of troopers would be enough for this job." If we ever get the bloody thing working, he refrained from saying. Hayes knew it was on his mind, though. He privately echoed the sentiment.
The project had existed for almost sixty years now. At least once every decade or so since the Fifties, one of the archaeologists or physicists working on…it, it was still hard for him to seriously think of the device by the name that Professor Lacey had translated all those years ago…would get excited and claim they were close to making the device operational. And, to be on the safe side, the Ministry of Defence would give the order that a team be made ready in case they actually pulled it off this time. Hayes pitied Ross and his men; most likely they'd be stuck doing nothing beyond training, retraining and generally getting bored out of their minds for the next couple of years until it was finally accepted that a breakthrough just wasn't happening any time soon.
On this occasion, it had been the 22nd SAS Regiment who had been selected to provide a reconnaissance team. Despite the regiment's name, it was a unit of the British Army whose only connection with aircraft consisted of blowing the things sky-high or jumping out of them at altitudes sometimes in excess of thirty-five thousand feet. A secretive regiment at the best of times, the current members of the team, including Ross himself, had all served at one point or another with the highly-classified J Squadron, a sub-unit successfully kept secret from the rest of the regiment. J Squadron's purpose was to provide a military option for dealing with threats of the supernatural nature.
The fighting arm of the SAS is based on the module of four. Four troopers make up a patrol, four patrols a troop and four troops a 'sabre' squadron. There are four 'line' sabre squadrons: A, B, D and G. These rotate through the regiment's various commitments: Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Malaya, Belize, Jungle Training and Special Projects. Teams could also be assigned to various continuing NATO tasks, and one squadron was kept on stand-by at their base-camp at Hereford to fulfil a Counter-Revolutionary Warfare role in the event of a terrorist incident. Such an incident had brought the regiment to the public eye worldwide when a sabre squadron was sent into the Iranian Embassy in Prince's Gate, London, after terrorists seized the building and took hostages.
Squadron commitments tended to last from six to nine months, although it was not unheard of for a squadron to be scattered all over the world, little gangs here, little gangs there, doing a dozen things at once. The four troops in a squadron are always Air Troop (freefallers), Boat Troop (marine-trained in canoes and subaqua expertise), Mountain Troop (climbers and Arctic-weather warfare specialists) and Mobility Troop (highly skilled in fighting using heavily armed Land Rovers and trained mechanics). All SAS troopers are familiar with all of these skills to a certain extent, but a trooper of a particular troop is an expert in that particular field.
The SAS, one of the oldest military elite units still existing on the planet, is rare among the Special Forces community in that to join the Regiment, an applicant needs to have served at least two years' service in another unit in any branch of the Armed Forces. Most militaries tend to prefer young and male soldiers for front-line units due to the psychological reasons involved; feelings of invulnerability, confidence and optimism, the attitude that their career will be an adventure, and on average males tend to be more highly competitive on the grounds of their testosterone drive. These were exactly the sort of people that the SAS did not want in its ranks under any circumstances.
Soldiers who were still in service after having served several tours of duty and re-enlisted in the British Army were generally considered more likely to be able to keep a cool head under fire. Almost all of those soldiers who applied to go through the six-month intensive Selection and Continuation Training course had served in Northern Ireland for at least one tour of duty, and gained from that the one quality that made the SAS in particular stand out as a fighting force, even amongst the world's Special Forces. They'd been through the pressure cooker of the Ulster proving ground and its resident terrorists. They had been on a station for months on end where the threat of death was a constant, a possibility so all-pervading that anyone who couldn't stand the heat soon got out of the Army, leaving behind men who could face the bitter realities of a soldier's job. Most of the applicants for Selection came from the Army; however, personnel from the Royal Marines and RAF Regiment had applied in the past – and got through.
The SAS ran Selection courses twice a year, once in the summer and again in the winter. A hellish six-month regime, as many as two hundred applicants might be accepted on at the beginning of a Selection course only for a handful of between four and a dozen men at the most – enlisted men and officers – to make it through. Anyone who didn't come up to scratch by even a whisker was marked out by the Directing Staff to be Returned To Unit, or RTU'ed, on the spot, and Platform Four of Hereford's railway station often saw the departure of many an applicant whose hopes had been dashed to pieces. It wasn't a foolproof system, but it was as close as it was possible to get.
No soldier would ever get into the Regiment unless he was a particular type of individual. Whoever it was, they all shared one factor in common: each man was a specific type of person with a peculiar type of intelligence. Each was a self-starter, a lateral thinker, a total believer in the maxim that absolutely anything was possible with a few elastic bands and a big enough ball of string, as long as you thought about it hard and long enough. The Regiment had a can-do attitude that was second to none in the world of Special Forces. In that sense, it was unique.
That was another of the major differences between UK Special Forces and, say, the Americans. In the US military, during a hostage situation they would get their counter-terrorist negotiators from the FBI or State Department. The US Special Forces were seen as fire platforms, as the very best combat monsters in the whole of the American military. Which was fine, as far as it went. But you would never pass Selection for the SAS or SBS on those criteria alone. You had to have real brains these days, as well as brawn, if you were to have a chance of getting in. It was all very well unleashing a Rottweiler, but if you unleashed the Regimental Rottweiler you needed to have a damn good chance of getting your stick back.
On top of their regular troop-specific combat, survival and infiltration training, each soldier was taught at least two specific disciplines that suited his own particular abilities. These might include advanced medicine, demolitions, signals and electronics, tracking, linguistics or sniper duties. Each man was trained to a reasonable level of fluency in at least one other language – usually Malay, as the Malayan government maintained close ties to the Regiment which often deployed there for jungle-warfare training exercises, or Norwegian. The Regiment's members undertook annual winter exercises in Norway, which was possibly the most popular training ground of all among the troopers: very often after a long day climbing the largest mountains they could find, they could spruce up and scream down the town to soak up some of the nightlife.
The SAS was unusual in this sense also: the officers were almost all on temporary attachment from their 'parent' regiments, staying usually two to three years before returning to their parent units. Only the enlisted ranks stayed with the SAS, and not all of them, just the best. The SAS was where the enlisted ranks could get on with soldiering and go 'career' with as little interference as possible. Officers were sometimes regarded by the men they commanded as mere visitors, although there were exceptions who were, like the men they led, exceptional soldiers, and many senior NCOs had gone on to become officers themselves.
There were only three positions in the SAS where officers might expect to lead troopers into battle: these were troop commander, squadron commander and regimental commanding officer. If an officer passed the rigorous Selection and Continuation Training process then regardless of his previous rank he would hold that of a captain, major or colonel respectively for a tour of three years at the most, then return to his parent unit with the option of reapplying for a higher position, although he would have the option of applying for a second tour if he could make it through Selection again. Each time an officer returned to apply for another posting, he would have to go through the Selection process again. The occasional intelligence officer or 'green slime' of the Headshed managed to cling on for maybe as many as a dozen years, but they were the closest to exceptions to the rule. Very few officers were long-stay men, and they were usually in charge of stores or the armoury in SAS Group HQ.
"First, we have Lance-Corporal Gareth Berensen." Hayes took the proffered file and opened it. Berensen's photograph had presumably taken when he'd been 'badged', the traditional acknowledgement of a soldier successfully making it through the gruelling six months' Selection and Continuation Training and being accepted into the SAS with the presentation of the trademark beige beret, Winged Dagger cap badge and dress uniform blue stable-belt. A handsome, strongly featured man of Caribbean descent in his mid-twenties smiled at the camera with a pride that was already modestly restrained. Members of the SAS were supposed to never acknowledge in public the true identity of their regiment, either during or after their service. "He's an expert signaller, and further trained as a sniper specialist on CRW duty – he's the best the Regiment's had in the past decade and has been the Army's sharpshooting champion for the past three years. He's just returned from operations in Ulster with J Squadron's Air Troop." Hayes looked up at this, an eyebrow raised in silent question. He'd served for two tours as the commanding officer for J Squadron during the latter half of the Seventies.
Ross continued. "Berensen's originally from the Paras – he spent seven years with them, and fought at the Battle of Goose Green during the Falklands War. He made it to the rank sergeant of the Sniper Platoon of 2nd Battalion before he joined us." Standard policy with the SAS was for all non-commissioned trainees who made it through Selection to be placed at the rank of trooper, regardless of any previous rank. The Special Air Service operated strictly on the basis of personal merit when it came to promotions. Consequently, most new recruits had held the rank of corporal or greater before getting accepted and therefore already knew the score. "He joined the Regiment back in '88. He's also highly adept with bladed weaponry, has a habit of lugging a samurai sword around, god only knows where he picked it up. I keep expecting a call from the Japanese ambassador asking for it back." Hayes' moustache twitched in amusement at this. "Anyhow, I've been hoping to get him for this since the start, but it was all a question of when he'd be back from combat ops with J Squadron. Berensen bagged the target from close on a mile out, so he's up to scratch on his skills."
"Who were they after?" Hayes knew that with J Squadron it was even money between terrorists and the paranormal, and as he knew from personal experience, the latter could be pretty much anything. He still had the scars on his arm from where a vampire had bitten him back in the early Seventies, and had afterwards served two tours based in Wellington with the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce before transferring to the SAS. Each year on the morning of the Third of July, he would awaken without fail sweating and shuddering from nightmares of the creatures he had fought that terrible dawn in 1975. For a hellish two hours it had looked like an interdimensional invasion could succeed, beginning with New Zealand, and in all honesty it had been that Doctor chap who'd been ultimately responsible for the creatures' defeat.
"Mohra demon, intent on bringing about an apocalypse. Had a habit of slaughtering newborn babies for the blood sacrifices, not too good at covering his tracks though. By all accounts, Berensen seems to have taken the bugger out with a 0.5-inch AP round through the gem those creatures have in their foreheads."
Hayes had to fight a faint flicker of sympathy with the demon. A half-inch calibre armour-piercing round could easily destroy light armoured vehicles and tear through a car's engine block without losing all that much of its velocity. The demon had undoubtedly died in considerable agony.
Another file crossed the desk. "Trooper James Conley. Spent three years with 45 Commando Unit of the Royal Marines. He considered transferring to the Special Boat Service, but decided he'd give dry land a go with us instead. According to his instructors, he's a born natural at reconnaissance and observation. Fluent in seven languages, one of them demonic. He's been with the Regiment for four years now, one of them with J Squadron's Mountain Troop. By all accounts he's got a bloody mountain goat somewhere in his ancestry." Hayes snorted in amusement at this. Conley's photograph showed a nondescript-looking young dark-haired man, his expression carefully blank as he had looked at the camera.
Ross handed over the last file with a little more reluctance, and Hayes knew that there had to be a catch with this one. "I chose this man to serve as the mission's second-in-command. Sergeant Samuel Ashcroft."
Hayes set down Ashcroft's file very carefully, staring intently at the major. He had no need to read it, having worked with the man three years before on OPERATION PINEWOOD, during the outbreak of the Gulf War. He'd done as thorough a background search on him as possible afterwards, and found it disturbing. And that was before he'd been visited by a man who identified himself as an agent from MI-5 and warned Hayes off. Ashcroft was another J Squadron veteran, who'd been shipped out in '82 to the Falklands War with 3 Para at the start of his third year of service in the Army. He'd been badged in early 1984, serving first in B Squadron's Mobility Troop for close on four years, then later transferring to J Squadron for a couple more. Nine months ago he had made sergeant after serving as an instructor for two years with the 21st SAS (TA) (Artists) Regiment, and had only just completed a tour of duty serving in a liaison position between J Squadron and UNIT.
Hayes chose his next words very carefully. "Major…we have enough problems with this project already, and they're only going to get more complex. And Ashcroft…sooner or later, complications follow him." Ross opened his mouth, no doubt to try and protest, justify his choice; the general held up a hand to forestall him. "Tom, I'm not saying no…yet. Do you believe that the benefits will outweigh the problems from having him involved? And can you validate those?"
Ross shrugged. "These men are ideal for if we get the device working this time – they've all experienced combat before, and having served in J Squadron they're experienced in dealing with the supernatural so they should keep themselves together regardless of whatever we run into," he said. "Ashcroft is the best demolitions man in the regiment, and according to popular scuttlebutt he seems to have some skill in computer hacking. Thinks on his feet. A good soldier." Hayes nodded thoughtfully in agreement. "He's a natural survivor; put him in a life-threatening situation and he'll not only find a way out of it but a way to take you with him. If we run into trouble, he should be able to handle things well."
Hayes stroked his moustache thoughtfully. "I hope you're right." He sighed, handing the files back. "When do they arrive?"
"Berensen can be here within three hours – he's in Hampshire getting debriefed, all I need to do is contact Harcourt. Conley lives locally and is on leave at the moment – I'll visit him myself, explain the situation. And Ashcroft…" he trailed off.
Hayes had to suppress a groan. "He's already here, isn't he." It was more a statement than a question.
"No sir. I, ah, had him go with Buckland to collect that astrophysicist, Carter. The American. I told him it was just a bodyguard detail."
Sam slid across to the middle of the back seat of the Land Rover, peering between the front seats to get a view of the highway – or motorway, as they were locally known – ahead. She knew she'd never get used to the cars here being right-hand drive.
She'd packed very little, having been assured that today was just an interview. Buckland had been dropped off at Whitehall, and now she was alone with the soldier. He drove swiftly yet cautiously, eyes constantly darting about as though expecting every car around them to contain heavily armed gunmen. He'd exchanged no words with Buckland at any time, and the captain had not been inclined to introduce him. He was well-built but not excessively so, had brown hair that was surprisingly long considering he was in the military, and looked to be somewhere in his early thirties. She had a feeling that in a suit he could easily pass himself off as an ordinary businessman.
Sam tried checking his uniform, to find out more about her mystery driver. Hmm. No shoulder patches. No rank insignia. Her eyes darted to the rear-view mirror, angling her head to check his beret for a cap badge or something. Nope, nothing, just a plain, black, unmarked beret. Hell, he could be a private or a five star general for all she could tell. He had a sidearm holstered on his right hip, which didn't tell her much beyond that whatever project Buckland had recruited her for was very likely a serious endeavour.
She froze, fighting down a sudden surge of panic. Was he even a soldier? Could he be an intelligence agent stuck in a set of camo fatigues? Had these guys even been for real?
She'd signed the Official Secrets Act. Okay. Sure, she wasn't an expert on official British state documents, but it'd looked like the real deal. So the chances were she was going to be okay, that Buckland wasn't just some guy in a costume and this guy wasn't wearing military surplus gear. That was good.
Sam sat back in her seat as the soldier pulled them off the motorway, navigated the junction and headed off down a quiet B-road. Okay. They were going somewhere in the country. Well, if they were heading for a military base, that made sense. You didn't usually stick those in the middle of inhabited areas.
Sunlight briefly shone on something as they turned a corner and Sam's eyes widened slightly. That couldn't be good. Beneath the dashboard, she'd briefly seen the outline of an assault rifle; hidden from prying eyes but ready for use nonetheless. She fought a frown, not wanting her escort to know she'd spotted the weapon. She'd only caught a brief glimpse of it, but it sure didn't look familiar to her. Compact, a scope mounted atop it and the magazine located in the stock, behind the trigger assembly, the case painted a matt-green colour.
So they expected trouble. The good news was they'd taken steps to deal with it. The bad news, of course, was that this confirmed this was a risky job.
Right. She'd had enough of the silence. "Uh, 'scuse me?" She waved briefly to the soldier as he glanced in the mirror at her. "Hi. Look, I was just wondering – where are we going? And is it okay if we talk a little or something?"
He shrugged. "Fine by me, but if you don't mind I'd prefer it if the radio stayed off – easier to detect company that way."
Sam frowned. "So you guys are expecting trouble?"
Another faint shrug. "Hopefully we won't be getting any, but we don't take chances."
The soldier grinned. "The Armed Forces. Hell, I only just got assigned to this project myself so I don't know what it's about. Sam Ashcroft, Sergeant, Para Reg – that's the Parachute Regiment, by the way. I go by Ash," he added. "And I had a dekko at your file when I was given this assignment. Seems impressive enough."
Sam nodded appreciatively at the compliment. "So where're we headed?"
"RAF Benson, South Oxfordshire."
"Oh – so you're Air Force, then?"
Ash snorted. "Hardly – the Paras are an Army unit," he replied. "Look, you'll prob'ly be running into a lot of military personnel if you take this job, so here's the short version; the Royal Air Force has the RAF Regiment, Army has the Paras and the Special Air Service, and the Royal Navy has Royal Marine Commandos and the Special Boat Service."
This job was getting weirder by the second. "So what are we doing on an Air Force base?"
"From what I've heard, it sounds like a combined arms operation – the RAF supply the base and some transport, we – the Army – provide some squaddies, including yours truly, anyone's guess what for. Haven't had that particular briefing yet. And I haven't a clue where the Navy boys come into things. I heard on the grapevine there's some spooks around the place too."
"Yeah, you know – intelligence agents," Ash grimaced. "They never bring good news. Yes, it's handy to know when there's a nuke on the black market or some nutcase has got hold of some semtex, or, favourite of favourites, some gullible idiot's been and shipped a consignment of M-16's to Irish terrorists after hearing a pretty story involving green hills and whisky, but of course it then leads to someone—" here Ash winked in the rear-view mirror, "—getting landed with the job of having to do something about it. And, like as not, ending up in the cacky in the process. Hopefully we're just around for extra security. I could use a nice milk run for a change. Here we are."
Security was surprisingly tight. A squad of four military police were on the front gate, armed with holstered sidearms and carrying assault rifles identical to the one under the Land Rover's dash. They certainly weren't messing around. Getting a close look at the corporal leading the squad as he looked into the vehicle, Sam decided they were probably trained experts, not just amateur rent-a-cops. Their eyes just looked different.
As bases went, RAF Benson looked not too dissimilar to the US Air Force bases Sam and her brother, Mark, had stayed at while their dad dragged them around from post to post. True, the signs and spelling were a little different, but there were still the clutter of prefabricated hangars and helicopters scattered around in and in front of them, in some cases being worked on, others warming up their engines or lurking within the hangars.
The sergeant halted them before a large squat-looking three-storey brick building that seemed to sprawl across the landscape behind a clutch of hangars. A six-man squad, this time line soldiers, armed to the teeth, were on duty at what looked to be the main entrance. Unlike Ash, they bore full rank insignia and regimental patches that marked them out as members from the Black Watch Regiment. Ash reached beneath the dashboard, unclipped the assault rifle there, grabbed a kit bag from the front passenger seat and calmly dismounted, motioning for Sam to follow. Two of the Black Watch remained on duty outside the camo-coloured building's double doors, two more clambered into the Land Rover and drove off around the building and the last pair fell into step behind Sam and Ash.
Sam licked her lips nervously as they entered the building. Military brat she may have been, being in the close presence of this much firepower was still unsettling.
The halls were curiously deserted, with only the occasional officer or squad jogging past. Sam began to get the feeling that the building itself wasn't the centre of activity at this project. The hallways were also unusually wide: with careful manoeuvring, you could have driven a vehicle like that Land Rover down them.
Finally, they arrived at an elevator. Stepping inside, Sam was surprised by the number of buttons there were labelled in descending order. Unless she was imagining things, there were at least a dozen or more subterranean levels to the building.
The lower levels were a good deal busier than those on the surface.
The corridors had more traffic, for a start. Technicians, officers, a few enlisted soldiers and scientists hurried about, each intent on their own individual destinations. Sam had to maintain a fast pace in order to keep up with the lieutenant she'd been assigned as a guide.
A few minutes ago, when she and her escorts had disembarked the elevator at sub-level eleven; an Army captain behind a security desk had met them. He'd had a pair of files open before him, comparing first her, then Ash to their photographs. They were fingerprinted and the officer, apparently satisfied of a lack of any duplicity, had handed Sam and Ash a pass each. The lieutenant had been summoned and told to take her to the main labs. She hadn't seen Ash since.
The lieutenant – Gibson, she thought his name was – finally came to a halt, opening a door, and, breathing more heavily than she liked, Sam followed him through. And grinned broadly at what lay beyond.
Now this was her idea of a lab.
They'd entered a control room, cluttered with computer terminals, wiring and what looked like an old-model Cray. Through the control room's window a much larger room was visible, easily the size of one of the aircraft hangars aboveground. Whoever had set this operation up certainly hadn't stinted on the funding.
In the centre of the hangar there stood an odd ring-shaped monument consisting of two stone rings, one inside the other. The opening they surrounded was a little more than twenty feet in diameter. Seven crimson markers decorated the outer circle, while the inner ring was bedecked with arcane-looking symbols. One or two reminded her vaguely of the hieroglyphics in the classic 'Mummy' movies, but beyond that they were unfamiliar. A metal ramp leading up the centre of the ring obscured the view of anything that might be on the bottom surface of the artefact. A stone monolith and a pedestal, the upper surface slanted to one side, were also important locations in the hangar, surrounded by countless desks flooded with books and papers.
Down in the hangar, a lanky young woman in a ragged and stained donkey jacket was arguing with a short bearded man who was somewhere in his forties in front of a blackboard. A couple of military technicians brandishing clipboards stuffed with paperwork were deep in discussion with an elderly man well into his eighties who leaned heavily on a walking stick, and every so often one of them would gesture at the pedestal or the ring. Power cables, tools and various components lay scattered around the ring.
The control room was just as hectic. A young woman barely in her twenties, straggly dishevelled brown hair tied back with a long-unwashed silk scarf, was hunched over a keyboard, every so often darting over to the Cray and opening it up, fiddling with the circuit boards and even occasionally pounding on the casing while pleading with it. Some more military technicians, marked out by their unit patches as being from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, a private and a lance-corporal, were setting up a pair of desktop terminals, swearing up a storm under their breath in frustration as they did so.
"Ah! Doctor Carter!" Sam looked around as a short and plump middle-aged woman with ruddy cheeks emerged from behind an overflowing computer desk. She was the sort of woman who automatically triggers off a certain genetic memory in the reptilian back brain of the first teacher you get in school, the one with the tweed skirt and the shoes so sensible they could do their own tax returns, and with special training in dealing with nervous incontinence. "So good of you to join us."
"Uh – but I haven't agreed to anything yet—"
"Yes, yes, all a formality. You won't say no to this job, I can guarantee it! Harker, Doctor Mary Harker," she grasped Sam's hand; the astrophysicist fought to keep from grimacing as her bones were ground together in a vice-like grip. "I'm the head of the research section around here – Clive," she turned her gaze to Gibson, "I think Gregory said he wanted you to stay with Ms. Carter for the time being, give her the tour, get her fed, show her the lavatory, take her to her room and so on. That's all for later though," she continued, looking back at Sam. "You've probably got a lot of questions, Doctor Carter?"
"Uh, yeah? Wh-what's this about?" Sam stammered as Harker led her gently but firmly over to the window. One of the engineers cursed under his breath a few times, whacked the case of a computer tower with his fist a couple of times, and jammed a lead more firmly into its socket. The monitor before him lit up in response and he kissed the screen.
"In a word, those," Harker pointed out of the window at the artefacts that dominated the room. "The tablet, the pedestal and the…Stargate." She sounded proud of the last name. "My mother, Julia Lacey, worked on this project before me. She translated the name, you see. I became an archaeologist, followed in her footsteps you might say."
Harker looked from the Stargate to Sam. "Those artefacts were discovered during the nineteen-twenties in Egypt, Giza to be more precise. It took us – this project, the security services, military intelligence and the government quite some time and digging to put the full story together. Apparently, a Professor Langford studied them for several years there, before they were loaded onto a ship in the Thirties bound for America. But—" she shrugged, "—they hit a snag. The Third Reich, to be exact. Somehow, they found out about the Stargate. Hitler was a complete magpie when it came to certain types of ancient artefacts. A U-boat attacked the freighter, undertook a boarding action. They were in the middle of nowhere. The crew were killed, the artefacts loaded onto another cargo vessel, and the freighter sunk to destroy the evidence.
"The ship that the Gate had been loaded onto ran into a storm upon entering the Channel, took some minor damage along the way. They put into Portsmouth dock for repairs. Funny thing though: the vessel's skipper was suspected of smuggling antiquities. The ship was boarded, and the artefacts confiscated along with the registered cargo. One thing led to another…" Harker shrugged again, grinning broadly, "…and here we are.
"If we're right about the Stargate," Harker nodded at the artefact in question, "if we've translated the hieroglyphs on the tablet correctly, then it's a matter transporter of some sort. Your predecessors believed it opened a stable wormhole. Where to, we're not sure. Could be the other side of the universe or Butlins for all we know. That's what we're here to find out!"
Sam slumped against the desk heavily. She was dreaming. Had to be.
"No, you're not asleep dear." Sam cringed inwardly, realising she must have spoken aloud. "This is only too real."
"So what do you need me for?" Sam asked.
"Very simply, to get it in working order. Doctors Chessel and Horrocks down there–" Harker gestured offhandedly at the couple in front of the blackboard, who were arguing quite heatedly now with much arm-waving and shouting, "—believe we're close to finding the symbols necessary to activate it. Unfortunately, we've hit a snag with actually powering the Gate and operating it. Your credentials speak for themselves; we're rather glad no one snapped you up, a bit of fresh blood around here is just what we need. And the chap with the stick down there is Professor Richards, studied linguistics and now our leading authority on electronics. Funny what studying Open University courses leads to. And over there is Doctor Carol Gladstone, our resident former child prodigy and computer expert," she gestured toward the young woman hunched over the terminals. "There's a few more of us around, you'll meet 'em later. As you can see, we're all one very happy little—"
"YEE-EESSSS!" Carol punched the air viciously, standing so swiftly her chair shot back on its coasters at high speed until it hit the Cray. The young scientist danced inanely, pointing with both middle fingers at the terminal, thrusting her hips in mid-air with the accompanying arm movements. "Gotcha, you li'l bastard! You came, you saw, AND I FUCKED YOU IN THE ARSE! Who's da compy queen, huh!" she asked the room in general.
The engineers exchanged glances as she continued her little jig. "I reckon she's gone to her happy place," the private muttered to the lance-corporal, who nodded sagely in agreement.
"—family," Harker continued, as if nothing had happened.
As Sam was led off by the officer, Ash turned at the sound of his name being called and grinned broadly. "Scudder!" he yelled in greeting. "How the hell've you been, ya barmy Tyneside bastard!"
"Ah, fine, fine man! Missin' the Gulf ah'ready, an' ah ne'er thought ah'd hear meself say that." Scudder looked a bit shame-faced even as he said it. "Shite, them wuz good days. Great to see ye agin."
To call Corporal Dennis 'Scudder' Hodges a large man was an understatement. Six foot five, head shaven bald because his wife liked the way it looked, brawny, strong as an entire team of oxen and a hardy example of Newcastle stock with an accent thick enough to float rocks to match, he was absolutely huge and dwarfed everyone he met. Ash himself was no lightweight, but next to the Geordie veteran he looked almost fragile. At the ripe old age of thirty-four, Scudder had eighteen years of intense soldiering under his belt, and it looked as though nothing short of a direct hit from a plummeting meteorite could possibly slow him down.
He'd joined the Royal Green Jackets Regiment straight out of school at the age of sixteen and done several tours of duty in Northern Ireland, rising through the ranks until he'd become a platoon sergeant. He had generally been considered an unholy terror by friend and foe alike. The troops had been downright petrified of the thought of incurring his wrath, though they knew he wouldn't hesitate to put his neck on the line to keep them out of trouble or safe, and the officers knew better than to challenge him or his advice. He'd joined the SAS only seven years previously, and if Ash were honest with himself he would have said the older man was set to make sergeant inside of the next year or two, and deservedly so.
They'd first met in '86 when Scudder had been posted to B Squadron's Mobility Troop upon being badged, and the pair had later transferred to J Squadron together. Scudder had served a single ten-month tour with J Squadron before being transferred back to their native B Squadron while Ash remained on with J. Around twenty years back, an officer from the J Squadron Headshed had hit on the idea of rotating a few troopers out of J Squadron to the line squadrons, thus ensuring that if a line squadron ran into anything of a paranormal nature it would have experienced personnel on hand to deal with it. Scudder had been one of those selected for the task that particular year. During the Gulf War he'd acquired his nickname from joyriding around Iraq on attachment to D Squadron in a Pink Panther, or 'Pinky' Land Rover, leading a fighting patrol hunting SCUD and FROG missile launchers and racking up half a dozen kills from hit-and-run attacks alone in the process.
"So, is this a mixed op?" Ash asked as they re-entered the lift, Scudder leading the way and pressing the button for sub-level twelve. Ash slung his SA80 over his shoulder, and allowed himself to relax slightly now he was in the company of a fellow trooper.
Scudder nodded. "Oh, aye – there's me and a coupl'a other lads from B Squadron here as well as some more from J. Mind ye, the boys from B are all ex-J Squadron."
Ash grimaced as the lift doors opened and the NCOs stepped out. "Oh please, for fuck's sake tell me we aren't going to stop a bloody apocalypse or something," he moaned. "I had enough of dealing with that crap during the Gulf."
"Nah, calm doon ya daft bugger, this is tot'ly different." Privately, Scudder wondered just what exactly Ash had been up to. True, when they'd been new in J Squadron they'd been through some pretty hairy times together, but an apocalypse? That was not something Scudder himself had ever encountered.
Ash sighed, relieved. "Great. So 're you going to tell me what the hell this all is about or what?"
"Well, there's two more lads from J Squadron due in today – ya might want to wait a bit, like, get the full intel with 'em. 'Sides, old Ross can explain it better."
Thomas Ross had first crossed paths with Ash and Scudder during their early days in J Squadron. Back then he'd been in command of the squadron's Mobility Troop, and had been a reasonable soldier. He didn't try and be one of the lads, for the simple virtue that for all intents and purposes he was one. Like the best officers to serve in the Regiment's ranks, he wasn't there for simple career advancement. His presence in a fighting patrol usually meant that the team became deadlier and it was just a bit more bearable slogging through sweltering jungle, tabbing over burning desert sands or storming a high-rise block of flats, whereas at the other end of the spectrum there were a (thankfully very rare) few officers who put a dampener on things and came close to being dead-weights in combat. But it was still standard practice to rib the major every so often, just to make sure he felt accepted.
"Pity – he had such promise as a soldier, then he goes and gets presentation skills and turns into a Rupert after all," Ash said, shaking his head mock-ruefully at the 'tragedy' of the major's situation.
"Aye, it's a sad fact that and no mistake," Scudder agreed, grinning.
"So who're these other lads, then?" Ash asked. "And how many of us are there on this job?"
"Well, so far there's me, Sid Vicious an' Froggy Longley from B Squadron and you, Ross and Nev Hardcastle 're here a'ready from J. The two new lads comin' in this afternoon – an' they look like the last of us for noo – there's this lad, Jimmy Conley – ye know, short-ish basturd. Ah met 'im when he got badged and put in B Squadron 'fore he went off te fight the weird crap, c'n move like a bleedin' rabbit heided for a brothel e'en if he's got a hundred 'n' twenty poond bergen on his back. And there's this sniper bloke ah've never huid of – Gareth Berensen, 'e's a lance corporal. Think he used te be in D Squadron."
Ash shook his head slowly. "Nah, he don't ring any bells. What're the Black Watch guys like?"
"Good enough." Which just about summed up Scudder's opinion of them. Earning such an appraisal from the Geordie veteran was a considerable feat. "Ah checked wi' Sid, 'e says he doesn't recognise anyone." It was standard policy for SAS troopers to identify themselves as still being with their parent regiments if asked and never as being members of 'the Regiment' as they called it. Indeed, in the event of their deaths any official mention of their passing would list them as belonging to their parent regiment and not the SAS. Sid 'Vicious' Kay had served with the Black Watch before putting in for Selection, which could have potentially caused problems if he'd been recognised by an old friend.
"Least we're covered on that front. So, you done a recce of this place yet?"
"Well, whoever built this pit knew what they was doing – runs for fucking miles. Ah reckon it's bigger'n the base up above," Scudder jerked his thumb toward the ceiling in emphasis. "Built from scratch – they ain't refitted a coal mine or summat. Looks bloody ancient, though. Think they built it before the Second World War. We got more labs'n we know what ta fucking do with, oor own hospital, – an' ye want ta watch out in there, there's a sick sadomasochist bitch of a doc runnin' that place – and the armoury was put t'gether with us in mind judging by the vari'ty of kit. There's these rooms with sun lamps in so someone thinks we'll be doon a long time, and best of all – ye'll love this! – they've got a Killin' Hoose, all set up faur us!"
"Why do I get the feeling," Ash said slowly, "that we – you, me, Ross and the lads – are being set up to be dropped in some of the deepest and the shittiest shit that any Rupert has ever found for us?"
"So it's no jus' me then? Good ta know."
"Fucking brilliant. It's a weirdo op, right?"
"Aye, moore's the pity," Scudder said, his mood turning gloomy. "An' we could be stuck here fer ages while they boffins arse aboot."
"So, if we don't get sent on a suicide mission, by the time we come out we could be ready for fuckin' retirement? Oh, great," Ash groaned sarcastically.
"Just so long as the doc here en't runnin' the ol' farts home is all ah'm sayin'."
"Yeah, well you'll be all right won'tcha? Your wife and kiddies can visit you. Come t'think of it, you might have grandchildren by then."
"Aw, fer cryin' oot loud, man! Don't gi' me nightmares, eh! Anyway, this's our basha doon here." Scudder indicated a row of doors.
Ash frowned, gently nudging one of them with his boot and peering into the unlit bedroom beyond. "We get our own rooms? No doubling up? What next – ensuites?"
Scudder grinned sheepishly as the sergeant stepped inside and cursed upon finding just such a facility. "Y'know, it's funny ye should say that…"
Ash looked at him incredulously, tossing his kit bag on the bed. "Suicide mission."
"Yeah," Scudder nodded gloomily.
"C'mon," Scudder nudged him. "I'll show ye around, an' ye can drop that bullpup off 'n' all."
Sam smiled weakly at Gibson and thanked him, confirming that, yes, she was confident enough to find her own way around for now, no problem.
In short, she'd signed on.
It had been a long day. Forms had been produced. Forms had been signed. Harker had introduced her to a variety of people working here, including Nicholas Tyrell from MI-5, the project's chief intelligence officer; the chief medical officer Laura Wilson, who'd seemed quite friendly enough; and the commanding officer, General Hayes. Upon asking him about paratroopers being stationed at the base, he'd smiled kindly and simply said that there were some details she wasn't yet cleared to know. Sam had chosen to leave it there, due to exhaustion and the implication that answers would be forthcoming in the future.
And beyond this drab-looking door, apparently, was the room she'd been allocated while staying on the base.
A noise issued forth from beyond the door – three repeating noises, to be exact. They sounded vaguely familiar somehow, but she was too tired to be able to place them. She opened the door, fully intent on crashing for the night. She could get driven back to London tomorrow, pick up some stuff…
A baseball bounced off the floor, impacted with the wall beside her head, rebounded into the ceiling, bounced one last time and landed squarely in the hand of the person who'd thrown it, who was lying sprawled on one of the pair of beds. "Oops," she grinned sheepishly. "Sorry – I wasn't expecting a flatmate any time soon."
Sam looked muzzily at the young oriental woman. "Uh, hi? I just got shown here, told I could spend the night here…"
"Yeah, same with me. Tricia, Doctor Tricia Su. I'm a biologist, and until someone gets that Gate working I've got sod all to do. Hence the Steve McQueen routine." Tricia shrugged. "You?"
"Sam Carter, I'm an astrophysicist. I just got here."
"Ah!" Tricia leapt up off her bed, grabbing Sam by the shoulders. "Get it working! I've been stuck in here most of the time on the off-chance that someone'll get it working, and so far zilch has happened! I'll do anything – caddy your golf clubs, bear your children as a surrogate mother, ANYTHING! Open the Gate, please?" She sighed. "Sorry. Pent-up frustration. I'm just fed up with sitting around on my arse the whole time."
"Yeah…" Sam looked at her…'flatmate'…oddly. She could tell things were going to be interesting around here.