Jack inhaled as he stepped onto PV1-542 – a habit he'd never been able to shake, even when on occasion the smells coming from the 'gate region were less than pleasant. Usually it was good to take a deep breath of fresh air first thing on a new planet; most of them were untouched, or relatively untouched, wildernesses, invigorating in the absence of car exhaust and smoke and too many people. Unfortunately, this wasn't one of those.
Two schlorps followed him as the Stargate sent Daniel and Teal'c into the recycled air, and the wormhole cut out behind them. For a moment, they all looked around the room.
"Room" was a generous assessment. The Stargate sat near the wall of what was barely a closet, windowless grey walls hemming it in. A ramp led down into the debarkation area, a flat space about four meters wide. The door at the other end opened into a larger room, filled with terminals and controls. Personnel stood guard there, keeping an eye on the Stargate from what open space they could find.
"Did not Major Carter plan to meet us here?" Teal'c asked, stepping down the ramp with his staff weapon relaxed. Neither of the guards had done more than nod to them – he had no cause for concern.
"We are here a bit early," Jack said, flipping the cover off his watch. "She's probably communing with nature or something."
"Nature?" Daniel surveyed the room again.
"Space nature," Jack said. "I hear the star was something special."
"Yeah, I hear it's a real star," Daniel punned. Jack rolled his eyes.
"Colonel," one of the guards called as they left the gatecloset. "Major Carter won't be down for another ten minutes."
"Guessed that," Jack called back. Because if they were precisely eleven minutes early, Carter would be precisely ten minutes away eking out the last possible scraps of data from whatever she was doing. Daniel once commented that her punctuality was a survival mechanism–"otherwise she might waste a few seconds, and all the mysteries of the universe would pass her by."
"She's probably up in Lab 2F-18C," the man said, pointing down the hall. Someone had tacked up "0F/CORRIDOR A1" signs, scrawled in what looked like Major Lorne's handwriting. "If you take A1 down, hang a left at C5, then go up Stairwell E–"
"That won't be necessary," came a voice from one of the spur halls. A moment later Carter jogged in, looking very much like she'd run all the way there. "Colonel," she said. "You're early."
Jack smiled. There was no way he'd have dragged all of SG-1 to this place when the expedition first went out, seeing as SG-11 had already scoped it and all that was left was sciencing. Of course, Carter wouldn't be pried away from the post – something about the technology and a very fascinating sun – so Hammond had sent her off.
Jack didn't like having his team split up. He liked having them all together where he could keep an eye on them. When they were offworld with other teams there was always the nagging fear that they'd be kidnapped by hungry natives (in Daniel's case) or hunted to exhaustion by supersoldiers (in Carter's). Despite the fact that they were on Carter's turf at the moment, and she was less rejoining the team and more shepherding them around the base, it felt right to be back together.
"Couldn't wait to see this new toy of yours," Jack said. It looked like they weren't going to get their ten minutes of unsupervised snooping around, after all. Idly, he wondered who'd called her down here.
"Really?" Carter asked. "Which new toy were you referring to?"
Jack glanced over at Daniel, who raised both eyebrows in a How are you going to get out of this one? gesture. Jack coughed. "Oh, any of the very, very interesting new devices which you covered in your thoroughly engrossing progress report which – well, you know me – I read cover to cover," he lied.
They'd obviously caught Sam in a good mood, because she rewarded him with a full grin and laugh. "Of course, sir. Would you like the tour?"
Jack smiled back. "Love it. T here has to hunt down Edwards, get the low-down on security, but Daniel and I want to see what you're up to."
Carter gestured them down Corridor A1, already beaming as Teal'c bowed out. "This way," she said.
A week and a half wasn't, as Sam had protested, much time to unlock the secrets of an ancient civilization, so most of the work she, SG-11, and their team of auxiliary scientists had done focused on turning the installation into a usable base and getting the infrastructure for research in place. "We've mapped out most of this facility," Sam said as they walked, gesturing past the unbroken grey walls. "It covers about nine square kilometres over the surface of the planet, along with a few towers and a sub-level, where we are. Other than that, we haven't had time to do much other than get the basic systems running – we've shored up life support, environmental systems, and a gotten a few of the computers online. A lot of this technology is so far ahead of us that it could take years to figure out with a skeleton crew like this one."
She approached a door, tapping the panel at its side. It pulled back to reveal a set of wide stairs, leading upward into a similarly grey passage.
"What we have been able to figure out is incredible," she continued. "The facility here uses systems unlike anything we've ever seen. There's some evidence that whoever built this place incorporated Ancient technology into their own devices – which means not only were these people very advanced, but by studying how they were able to interface with the Ancient machines we may finally get an edge on reverse-engineering them for ourselves."
"What about this 'unlimited productive energy' thing?" Jack asked. He'd read parts of the report, after all.
Carter smiled, keying open a door near the top of the stairs. She led SG-1 into a long hallway with a transparent ceiling, turning to address them in true tour-guide fashion. "That all comes from this planet's sun," she said, pointing upward. "Meet the local hero, PSR-PV1-542."
The sky flashed.
"Whoa!" Jack said, hopping back. "Did that thing just–"
"It's a pulsar with a four-second period," Carter said. "That means it completes a rotation once every four seconds–" The star flashed again. "–bombarding this planet with massive waves of radiation."
"Radiation, you say?" Daniel asked, with a wary look at the sun.
"It's the single most important factor in this planet's uninhabitability," Carter said, indicating the land outside. What they could see was grey and barren, slag pools where volcanic activity had long ago cooled, broken rocks and meteor impacts pockmarking the landscape. "This planet is very close to its sun, and almost directly in the path of its jets. Biological matter caught without protection in one of these pulses would be vaporized."
"But we're safe, right?" Jack asked.
Carter's smile widened. "Yes, sir. If you'll follow me–"
She headed down the hallway. Jack followed, and Daniel and Teal'c followed him. Daniel cast an uneasy glance skyward as they went.
"Most of PSR's energy emissions fall outside of the spectrum of visible light," Sam said. "The effect is like you see – even at high noon, other stars are clearly visible. And, since this planet is tidally locked to its sun, this part of the planet is always in high noon."
"It's not that I don't trust you," Daniel said, "but if the radiation is as bad as you say, how are you sure we're safe? I mean, besides the fact that we're all still alive," he amended. "As far as we've noticed."
Jack cast him an odd look, but Sam didn't see it. "That's what I'm about to show you," she said, leading them through the hall to the opposite door. A high opaque tower was visible through the hall's ceiling, the door leading directly into its base. It opened as they approached, and she stepped through.
The room was filled with what Jack could only speculate were computer banks and terminals of various sorts – Ancient crystals visible in some, while others held nothing like any technology he'd ever seen.
"This is the grounding distribution center for what we've dubbed 'the lightning rods,'" Sam said. "This tower, along with nineteen others around the installation, absorbs radiation, converts it into usable energy, and stores that energy in massive reserve batteries beneath the surface. For all intents and purposes that means unlimited productive energy, Colonel, replenished in under five seconds. Right now, and without most of the systems functional, we can extract about ten thousand megawatts. That's about five times as much as a nuclear power plant or the Hoover Dam operating at peak efficiency."
"Yowch," Jack said, grimacing up at the pillars that punctuated the walls. He could hear the room buzzing.
"We estimate that there were once twenty to thirty distinct safeguards, including this one, running in tandem – any one of which would generally be sufficient to protect the installation, thirteen or fourteen of which were partially devoted to power collection," Carter explained. "The problem is, they would require constant maintenance, and the facility has been abandoned for so long that most of them have shut down."
"How many?" Jack asked.
"At the moment, only three are operational, two of which feed into the batteries." Sam said. "We've tried to get some of the other ones running, but it's been difficult."
"But the three that are running are... running," Jack checked.
"Yes, sir. We have our own failsafes in place – if one or more of the safeguards fail, an evacuation alarm will sound through this entire area."
"All right." Jack clapped once. "Very impressive. Now talk about tactics."
Carter took a deep breath as her brain switched tracks. "As you know, sir, this address was not on the Abydos cartouche. This means that the Goa'uld likely don't know about it. In addition, because of its proximity to PSR-PV1 and its position inside the pulsar's jet, attack from space is virtually impossible. No ship can withstand that amount of radiation – everything alive would fry, and the systems would blow out. In a practical sense, this planet is safer from Goa'uld attack than Earth."
"Well, all that's very impressive," he said. "So why was all this abandoned in the first place?"
"...we don't know," Carter admitted.
Daniel raised both eyebrows. "That's it? Just 'we don't know?'"
"We've only recently been able to identify the part of the computer core that stores logs, and we haven't translated much," she said. "But from what we can tell, it just – was. There are no indications of an attack or a natural disaster – the things that aren't working are undamaged, just old. We haven't found remains, but the condition of the base suggests that it wasn't closed down and moved out of. The only theory we have now is that something came up which prompted an immediate evacuation, and no one ever came back."
"Okay, that's a bit spooky," Jack said.
"Everything is perfectly safe now, sir," Carter said. "We spent a week and a half ensuring that. It's just a mystery."
"And of course there's no one around to ask," Daniel put in.
Jack caught the subtle shift in her expression – the tensing around her eyes and the corners of her mouth that told him she was trying not to smile. "But kind of?" he guessed.
She started down another hallway. "If you'll follow me," she said.
"Where are we headed?"
"Comm and sensor room," she answered. She looked back over her shoulder, now unable to conceal a grin. "Daniel? You're going to love this."
Upon entering the main control room, Daniel looked around for what Sam had been hinting at. If there was something there to fascinate him, it was under deep cover – aside from the tall screens displaying alien text and the ring of low windows, it looked like any other lab or control room in the city. Computer banks, terminals, inscrutable equipment. He had to wonder why people even wanted windows in this city; the perpetual gloom of the landscape, combined with the periodic flash of the pulsar, didn't do anything for the room's environment.
Sam walked over to a side fixture, laying both hands on it as if to show it off. "What is it?" Daniel asked.
"It's an active receiver," Sam said. "Powerful enough to cut through the sun's electromagnetic interference."
The look in Sam's eyes told him that the best was yet to come. "Why?" he asked.
"The records we've managed to translate indicate there are intelligent beings within the star itself," Sam said, looking for all the world as if she'd just delivered a gift. "The people in this installation maintained contact with them, though we don't know to what extent."
"You're kidding," Daniel said, ignoring Jack's muttered oh, boy. "I mean, they'd have ot be noncorporeal, but – sentient, alien entities?"
"From the records, an entire society of them," Sam said. "Willing and interested in communication."
"Have you managed to contact them?"
Sam exhaled slowly. "One of the three remaining safeguards, the fold shield, actually manipulates spacetime directly over the facility to direct radiation into the collection buffers," she said. "That kind of distortion makes it impossible to get a coherent signal out. Now, when there were twenty or thirty safeguards all operating at once, the inhabitants wouldn't have had any trouble shutting one off to get a signal through from time to time. Unfortunately, we don't have that luxury."
"So there's no way to make contact," Daniel said, disappointed.
"Not that we've found yet." Sam indicated something on the far horizon. "We've set one of the old transmitters at the edge of the fold's coverage zone to broadcast on the offchance that something will make it through, but no one's answered so far."
"Well, once you get some of the other safeguards working again, you'll be able to turn off the fold shield, right?"
"That's the plan," Sam said. "But the technology here is so far beyond us that we've only had luck activating what's left in working order. Fixing anything, or reverse-engineering anything is going to take a lot more time."
"Well," Jack said, swatting idly at one of the walls, "Hammond's liked what he's been hearing, and so has the Pentagon. And from what I can tell, getting you more time isn't going to be a problem."
Carter smiled radiantly, and Jack had to hide a bemused look. (Easiest person to shop for, ever.)
"So," he said, "this is fun. What's next?"
"Review of tagged technology," Sam said. "Anything it looks like we might want to send back to Area 51."
"If it's all right, I'd like to take a stab at some of these records," Daniel said.
"Go ahead," Sam responded. "I think Dr. Daggart was looking forward to picking your brain anyway. I'll page him up here."
"Thanks," Daniel muttered, already pulling out a journal from his pack. Jack rubbed his hands.
"So, this tagged stuff. Anything neat? Maybe a big honkin' space gun?"
"Not yet, sir," Carter said as she led him off. "Mostly diagnostic tools, microcomputers..."
Daniel focused his attention on the record bank, referring to the jotted instructions tacked to the side of the screen. After making sure he knew what the basic commands were – open, close, and scroll – he started taking notes on symbolic groupings and waited for Daggart to show up and tell him what they'd already learned.
As Sam's voice faded away down the corridor, a small red light on one of the central panels pulsed on. Daniel didn't notice, and if he had he wouldn't have been able to identify it – but it flashed insistently, pace slowly increasing as it went.
After Carter had filled his brain with as much information as would fit, Jack wandered back through the first-floor corridors, glancing out the windows and trying to remember which was which. Carter had said the base was in high noon, but the pulsar actually hung slightly off-center in the sky – he'd tried to figure out which way he was heading based on the shadows outside, but given that very few of the hallways had windows, it didn't always work. He'd been able to find the long transparent hallway once before, or one like it – this one had more doors than the last one, he thought. And the tower looked slightly different.
He was about to backtrack for the sixth time when one of the doors opened and Teal'c stepped through, hands tucked behind his back. "Colonel O'Neill," he greeted.
"Teal'c!" Jack exclaimed. "Man, am I glad to see you. You wouldn't happen to know the way to the Stargate, would you?"
Teal'c raised an eyebrow. "I believe it is this way," he said, stepping down the hall.
Jack fell into step beside him. "Carter is convinced this place could win the war for us, after enough poking around at things," he said. "How's Edwards doing?"
"Colonel Edwards is enthusiastic," Teal'c said, sounding enthusiastic himself. Not that one could tell without knowing him. "He has only a few reservations."
"The installation is quite large. Securing it will be difficult. In addition, there are no weapons emplacements in the city's original design. However, Colonel Edwards assures me that attack from space will be impossible."
"Yeah, that's what Carter said too."
"The area of most concern would seem to be the Stargate," Teal'c went on. "It is Colonel Edwards' opinion that much of the equipment in the nearest lab can be relocated to allow for fixed weapons to be placed there. However, Major Carter has not allowed him to do so."
Jack had to smile. He could imagine Carter laying into the man, ensuring that none of her precious labs were wrongly handled. Edwards may have had two ranks superiority on her, but no one was under any illusions – this place had "property of Sam Carter" written all over it. "Well, we're really not expecting the Goa'uld to come in through the front door, are we?"
"It seems unlikely," Teal'c agreed. "However, Colonel Edwards has asked me to forward a request to General Hammond."
"He wishes to investigate the possibility of installing an iris on this gate, as well as making this installation into a permanent offworld base. In addition to the strategic and technological advantages, Lieutenant Menard has theorized that this planet may have deposits of rare minerals; its size would indicate the presence of dense materials, possibly including naqahdah, to produce the gravitational pull which it possesses. He needs more time and access to the planet's crust in order to make a proper assessment."
"Is there anything this place doesn't do?" Jack asked. "I tell ya, Teal'c, I'm glad we got here first. If the Goa'uld ever do hear about this, we're going to be hard-pressed to keep it away from them."
"Then it is a good thing they are unaware," Teal'c said.
"I'll say." They were hidden, they were protected by the pulsar, and they were figuring out how to work the technology. He couldn't see what could happen. And that was what unnerved him, because when he thought things couldn't possibly go wrong, they invariably did.
He snorted to himself. Of course, he got these feelings once or twice a week. Usually missions only went catastrophically wrong once or twice a month. Besides, Carter was on the job. And when it came to alien technology and weird stellar phenomena, his faith in Carter outweighed his faith in Murphy's Law.
With that in mind, he headed back to the gateroom to make his report.