CHILDREN OF THE ABYSS
Chapter One: Descent
"Now this is the kind of place that needs a gate." John looked through the jumper's forward window at the clear azure sky as it merged with endless blue ocean. Perfect, frothing waves pounded along miles of unmarred white sandy beaches that lined the coasts of a string of large island masses. The HUD appeared on command, showing the surface temperature to be a balmy 88 degrees Fahrenheit. "This has got to be the next best thing to paradise."
"Paradise would include hula girls, indoor amenities, and non citrus beverages," Rodney muttered from the seat behind him.
John knew without looking that the other man never even bothered to take in the view, more interested in what was displayed on his computer screen. John rolled his eyes and took the jumper in close enough for the spray to caress the bottom of the vessel. He would have to use his imagination to know what it would feel like against his skin.
"It is beautiful," Teyla agreed from the copilot's seat. "It would make a wonderful alpha site, or perhaps a suitable world to visit for R & R." She smiled in John's direction.
"Maybe some surfing," Ronon put in from the seat behind Teyla.
John grinned at the both of them. "Now, that's what I'm talking about. There are plenty of other gates we can use for the midway station. And since there are no humanoid life signs, this place probably isn't even on the Wraith's radar."
"Because there are no life signs is more likely why the Wraith wouldn't be interested in it. Ironically, that is also precisely why it would be a good gate to harvest," Rodney argued. "We still need another 3 backup gates for the Pegasus side of the bridge. This world has a space gate. Space gates are always the best choice because then we don't take the risk of accidentally cutting someone off from the gate network who didn't already have access."
John nodded disinterestedly through Rodney's explanation and then pointed to the perfectly clear sand below. "Just look at it . . . untouched by human feet."
"And probably loaded with vermin, stinging critters, and poisonous crustaceans anyway. Our presence is not required to make a place unpleasant."
"Unpleasant?" John turned to look askance at his friend. "That's it," he decided. "I'm going to put down, check it out. It's roughly lunch time, and we have to make absolutely sure before we take the gate, right? I say we need further study."
Teyla and Ronon smiled their agreement.
"Come on, are you serious?" Rodney was the lone dissenter. "We need to get this done."
"I emphasize the fact that these are backup gates, Rodney. The regular gates in the chain are already set up and working. It's going to be months before the Midway station is finished, anyway. Hence, I don't think this is all that urgent."
"That is not the point. What if something happens to one of the gates in the chain? We won't have time to go gate hunting at the last minute. It's best to have a system in place before we need it."
"Colonel Carter's already got the backup gates in place for the Milky Way side, hasn't she?" John asked, knowingly. Rodney's urgency was beginning to make sense.
"She's only got two out of three." Rodney didn't sound happy about the confession. "But that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with this. I have my own personal deadlines that I hold myself – "
"We're going in," John said, searching for the best spot on the nearest sandy coast. "Besides, you owe me."
"Owe you?" Rodney's voice squeaked. "For what?"
"Oh, let's see. How about that alien moon station that ended up being full of buffer people? The one where I was forced to land a shuttle with no power or landing gear."
"If you'll recall I argued against that."
"So you're saying we shouldn't have rescued Teyla?" John shot back.
"No, I'm just saying that . . . ."
"Because we wouldn't have ever gotten into that situation if a certain scientist didn't decide to turn on the power."
"Fine," Rodney grumbled. "Go live out your adolescent surfer fantasies. But don't take too long. We've still got like four other worlds to check out. I don't want to get behind schedule."
"You're just in a hurry to see Samantha Carter again."
"Just . . . go already. I'm going to stay here and do some actual work."
"Suit yourself." John grinned broadly and settled the ship down in a clear spot far up the beach and near sparsely growing tropical looking trees. It reminded him of something from a vacation brochure. Too bad he really hadn't known to bring his surfboard. But that didn't mean they couldn't enjoy the place while Rodney continued his readings.
"Come on, kids." He turned toward Ronon and Teyla. "Let's go have a field trip."
"It is quite lovely here." Teyla's lips quirked upward as she stepped off of the jumper's ramp after Ronon. The ocean breeze blew at her hair, sweeping it away from her face. She drew in a deep breath. The smell was different here than on Atlantis. There was brine, yes, but there was a subtly sweeter undertone.
Ronon grinned back at her as he strode out onto the white sands, leaving large booted footprints in his wake. "I'm going for a swim," he announced, shrugging out of his skin vest as he went. The sun's gentle warmth gleamed off his golden skin.
"Hold on a minute," John called after him. "We need to make sure it's safe first."
"Looks safe," Ronon called over his shoulder, but he stopped anyway, waiting for John to catch up to him. Teyla looked on as the two men continued toward the water's edge, John carrying the sample test kit.
"For all we know this could be acid or something." Teyla could just make out John's soft words over the sound of the waves crashing against the shore.
"You sound like McKay." Ronon's rumbling voice carried better than John's. Whatever John replied was lost as they moved farther away. Teyla allowed her smile full rein as she continued across the sands, leaving them to their task. She had no intention of going in; she was content to wander along the beach, enjoying the way her boots sank gently into the soft sand.
She found a bit of driftwood farther along the beach, near sparsely growing trees. The wood was crusted with ocean residue but seemed mostly dry. No tiny creatures seemed to inhabit it, so she settled down on it, resting her P-90 beside her. The weapon hardly seemed necessary on this peaceful world.
A yell reached her amid the ocean noises and she opened her eyes to the sight of her teammates frolicking at the water's edge like children.
Both men had removed their shoes and rolled up their pants legs. Their discarded belongings were visible as dark lumps against the white sand farther away from the surf. They seemed intent on besting one another at some game whose rules only the two of them knew.
She laughed outright when John went down just as a wave came in. He landed on his backside and the rushing waters caught him full in the face. He rolled with the foaming wash and came up sputtering. Ronon, having caused the incident in the first place, backed away pointing and laughing.
John stood and charged after Ronon, who turned and ran in the opposite direction along the beach. It was good to see her teammates so carefree. This indeed seemed an idyllic world.
"Get back to the jumper! Something's wrong!"
The words came so close on the heels of her thought that for a moment Teyla thought she'd imagined them, but then she saw Rodney on the jumper's ramp, waving frantically.
"Rodney? What is it?" Teyla called. Both John and Ronon stopped running and turned to look back in the direction of the jumper. Their rough-housing had taken them a fair distance from the ship.
"There's something moving out there," Rodney yelled, gesturing forcefully toward the crashing waves. The whole of his countenance suggested danger.
"Any idea what?" John yelled as he tagged Ronon's shoulder. They both headed back toward the jumper at a jog. Teyla was already headed back as well. She would reach it before they did.
Her senses were on high alert as she moved quickly across the sand, checking the trees behind her and the ocean surf ahead. She saw only the waves; nothing seemed out of place.
And then a shape formed, very close to the shoreline.
"Rodney!" she called, close enough to see the worried blue of his eyes. "There!" She pointed toward something sliding quickly through the waters. Whatever it was, it was wide, perhaps once and again the width of a man, and long. It reminded her very much of the coffins she had seen at one of the military memorial services. But as it drew nearer, she saw that it was segmented, bearing shorter narrower sections at its front and back. The segmented portions seemed to rise and fall with the flow of the waves. As she looked on, others of them came into view. Their sleek metallic blue-gray had been nearly lost against the waters.
She reached the ramp just as the first of the objects reached shore. Their segmented motion changed when they washed onto the sand. They seemed even larger against the white granules, with the long middle section being easily 7 feet or more. Three more of the machines broke the surface and changed course toward her friends.
"Sheppard! Ronon! Hurry up!"
They'd already seen them and broke into a run, barely taking the time to stoop and grab their belongings before they sprinted on toward the jumper. Teyla remained by the back ramp as Rodney brought the ship online. The ramp was rising as they neared.
Teyla pressed herself against the bench as first Ronon, then John leapt up onto the ramp just as Rodney lifted off. Ronon's skin was damp with perspiration, and the bottom edges of his trousers were speckled with water. It was difficult to tell whether John was truly perspiring as he already looked half drowned.
"What the hell was that?" John demanded, dropping his belongings as he stormed toward the front of the jumper. Rodney exchanged the copilot's seat for the pilot's, allowing John to settle wetly against the cushion. "I thought you said there were no life signs!"
"Whatever those were, they weren't alive," Rodney shot back. "They were mechanical. Someone or something made them."
John seemed to absorb that. "Who? And where did they come from? And what did they want with us?"
"I don't know," Rodney responded. "They didn't register on the sensors until they were really close to the surface."
Teyla watched through the view screen as John steered the jumper in a wide arc to hover at a distance from where the machines were gathered.
Against the backdrop of sand, the details of their blue-gray segments were more obvious. They closed in on something lying on the white sand. Long pincer-like protrusions folded away from the body of one of the machines and retrieved the object. Once it was lifted from the ground, it became obvious what it was. A compartment slid open atop the machine and the object was dropped inside. As one, the machines reversed back toward the water and disappeared beneath the surf.
Teyla's brows rose and her gaze strayed downward to John's bare, wet feet.
"Was that your . . . uh, your boot?" Rodney spoke into the weighted silence.
John did not answer the question. But Teyla was certain that even his toes clenched, which was response enough.
John heard the snicker that Ronon didn't try to hide, and Rodney's wide-eyed questioning look was going to morph into laughter at any moment. The hard, ridged surface of the jumper's floor was cutting into the flesh of his feet and despite the fact that his uniform trousers felt cold and damp, his face and neck felt on fire.
"Way to give them the boot, Sheppard," McKay said, the expected laughter heavy in his tone.
"Not funny, McKay," John responded.
"Really appreciate the way you shoed them away." Rodney chuckled under his breath.
"Still not." John got the jumper moving again and directed it out toward the ocean, before gently easing the vessel into the deeper waters. Blue closed in all around them, casting a subdued hue over everything. Forward lights came on automatically, playing against colorful underwater reefs and schools of tiny fish.
"Wait. What are you doing?" Rodney demanded, all signs of humor gone from his face.
"You're a man of science, McKay. Figure it out." John called up the HUD in an attempt to track those machines. He didn't want to get too close in case there was something bigger down there.
"Going after them to get your boot back isn't all that scientific. Don't you have another pair back on Atlantis?"
John sighed. Sometimes McKay failed to see the obvious. "Don't you find it the least bit interesting that those technologically advanced machines came out of the water on a supposedly uninhabited world?"
"Well, yes." Rodney's response was meek. "Being underwater kind of shook me up a little." He cleared his throat and then went to work on his computer. "Although I do understand your need not to leave a shoe-venir behind," he said, getting in another crack.
"Were you able to tell if the machines were of Ancestor origin?" Teyla cut in. John shot her a grateful look and then waited for Rodney's response. It was a good question.
"The outer design was pretty nondescript, and the jumper sensed their motion more than anything else – and then only because I was looking for something like that. But if I could get a look at the internal design or the programming I should be able to tell for sure."
"Well, let's hope they lead us to home base," John replied, following the points of light on the HUD that indicated the smaller machines. The jumper sped along above a rich variety of dark rock and reef formations. Some of the larger reef arches were big enough to fly the jumper through, clearly visible in the translucent blue water. Still the jumper remained far behind the machines.
"Whatever those things are, they're pretty fast." Ronon spoke what John was thinking.
"Yeah, they are." John glanced back, noting that his friend had at some point put his footwear and shirt back on. He suppressed a sigh. At least he'd gotten his gun.
Suddenly the signals winked out.
"What just happened?" Rodney asked of no one in particular. He started pressing commands on his tablet.
"They just vanished off the HUD," John added, focusing out into the deep blue ahead of them, looking for any sign of their targets. He moved the jumper higher, hoping for a better visual of the area ahead. "Are you getting anything at all?" he asked Rodney.
"Nothing. It doesn't make sense. If they went in deeper, sensors should still pick them up. They're just gone." Rodney punched commands into the equipment as if it had betrayed him.
"Could they have hidden among the reefs?" Teyla asked.
"I'm not getting any indication that the reefs are blocking sensors," Rodney responded. "But that doesn't necessarily mean that they aren't." His motions became more determined, as though Teyla had given him an idea.
John slowed the ship as they reached the place where the machines had seemed to disappear. He brought the jumper in closer to the floor, skimming above the brown-and-white, crusted surface that stretched out before them. The HUD was completely clear.
"What happened to the fish?" Ronon asked as he leaned forward and looked up in the direction of the sky.
"And the reefs?" Teyla added, though she seemed more focused on what was beneath them.
John looked around. They were right. The part of the ocean they were in was clear of the schools of the brightly colored minifish and the reef formations that had characterized much of the ocean floor earlier.
"I don't know. But there is definitely something different here." John looked to McKay. "Rodney, you got anything?"
Rodney looked up from his computer. "And I'm supposed to have the answer, because . . . ?"
"Because we've all done our parts and given you all the clues. No fish, no reefs, something strange about this place." John gave him an expectant look. "Your turn. Tell us something brilliant."
Rodney glared at him before looking out of the view screen. "Huh." He frowned and consulted his computer again. "Try landing the jumper," he suggested.
"So, that's what you're going with?" John teased, but he did as Rodney suggested. The jumper settled toward the ocean floor with ease. John slowed their descent as he neared the bottom, not wanting to ruin his record of petal soft landings.
The bottom never came.
"What the – ?" His eyes widened as the jumper continued to descend through a thin layer of what had appeared to be the ocean floor before being surrounded again by darker blue waters. He turned a surprised gaze on McKay.
"How's that for brilliant?" McKay wore a smug grin. "We've just passed through a cloaking field of some kind. And yes, boys and girls, it does appear to be of Ancient design."
John hovered just beneath the field, taking in the darkness below. The waters were not as clear as those above, and the fish and other sea life were not a part of the new section of ocean.
Best he could tell, they were in a very wide irregular trench. The rocky walls stretched ahead of the jumper on either side, winding into the distance before them. Below, he couldn't see a bottom. The blue depths seemed to get deeper and darker and go on forever.
"You think the Ancestors would have put a base down here?" Ronon sounded skeptical.
"They put something here, considering they went through the trouble of hiding it." Rodney pointed out. "That usually means it's something good."
"Like a place for people to go and figure out how to ascend?" Ronon challenged.
"No, I was thinking more along the lines of a top secret base where they manufacture ZedPMs," Rodney shot back. "Or maybe where they're developing their next, new power source. Or a repair depot for jumpers. Or – "
"Sorry to interrupt your wish list," John cut in. "Forward, backward, or down?" According to the HUD, the trench twisted along for miles. The display hadn't come up with any conclusions as to the trench's depth. The reading on the display showed only the Ancient equivalent of a dash, which usually meant the system didn't have a response.
Rodney focused on the HUD, frowned, and then responded. "Down. If those RFMs were anywhere ahead of or behind us, the jumper should have detected their movement. The only direction they could have gone is down."
"RFMs?" John looked at him from the corner of his eye as he started a gradual descent deeper into the darkness. He knew that Rodney was talking about those machine things, but he wasn't taken with the fact that he was already naming them.
"Remote Foraging Modules," Rodney responded as if it should have been obvious. "It makes sense," he argued. "If they came from an Ancient facility deep underwater, it's likely that they're used to survey the environment outside of the cloaking field. And considering the fact that they took your boot, it stands to reason that they were looking for something, hence the terms remote and foraging. I chose module because – "
"Never mind. We get it." John cut him off. He'd go with it, even if they did look more like miniature single-car bullet trains. "If you're hiding your top secret base, I understand that you'd want to cloak and hide it from outsiders. But shouldn't the jumper have picked it up by now? We are inside the cloaking field, after all, but there's no sign of anything on the HUD."
"Perhaps after so long, only the cloak and the modules remain," Teyla suggested. "Or might the Ancestors have shut down the facility when they left the Pegasus galaxy for the Milky Way?"
"I like the second idea better," Rodney pointed to her. "It would suggest that they wanted to preserve the power for the future. If the facility is on standby, it may be for good reason."
"Or maybe," Ronon put in, "They're trying to keep something down here. Maybe this is like a prison for a sleeping mutated sea monster that we're going to end up having to hunt down and kill before it gets back to the surface."
"What?" Rodney looked at Ronon as if he'd grown a second head.
John looked over his shoulder at the big guy. "Lorne was showing Leviathan again in the rec room, wasn't he?"
"Yeah." Ronon grinned.
John chuckled. "I think we're all voting against sea monsters." A dot illuminated in the lower corner of the HUD, flashing orange. He squinted at it. "What's this?"
"I think we've finally got something," Rodney said, excited. He began tapping at his computer with a vengeance.
John leaned a little to the side to get a look at what Rodney was doing, because dropping like a stone wasn't all that challenging. Then Rodney hit a button that transferred his tablet screen to the HUD. It appeared as an overlay of the HUD. Geographic data began to take shape on the inset display. The depth monitor indicated that they were at 1500 feet.
"Uh, McKay? Are we going to be able to do this in the jumper?" John asked, gesturing toward the indicator. "Last I checked max depth for the jumpers is something like 1000 feet."
"Maybe that cloak did something to lessen the effect of the pressure," Rodney said after looking over the display. "The jumper seems to be doing fine. The pressure outside is well within jumper norms. Besides, we need to change direction now, anyway."
John compared the hazy glowing lines that indicated the trench walls to what he could see outside of the ship. A large shaded spot on the HUD resolved itself to a dark tunnel in the trench wall. The tunnel opening was easily 15 times the size of the jumper. He steered the ship inside.
The jumper's outer lights reflected against the dark rocky walls of the tunnel. He pushed the ship faster, feeling more at ease, and quickly closed the distance to the point where the tunnel opened to a cavernous space. It dropped off into a huge area blanketed in dark, mottled waters.
As there was really nowhere else to go, John cautiously lowered the jumper, just skirting the top edges of the darker, cloudier waters. The outside lights were doing little to cut through the black stuff.
A chime beeped inside the jumper and a light began flashing in the top corner of the HUD.
"That's new," Rodney noted. "Maybe some kind of proximity detector?" He did something to his computer, then said, "There it is." He pointed to an image on the smaller inset display. The resolution was crappy, but John thought he could make out a glowing blocky form.
"Looks like Tetris," Ronon volunteered. John couldn't disagree, but he began to wonder if Ronon was becoming a little overexposed to Earth culture.
"It'll get better as we get closer," Rodney assured him. "We're at the extreme edge of the program's ability to filter. Plus the pressure is probably interfering a bit, although it's still far below what I'd expect at this depth."
True to Rodney's words, the digital image did start to improve as they continued deeper into the cloudy depths. A faint blue-green glow was beginning to show through the cloudy blackness.
"Why is the water so murky?" Teyla wanted to know. "It is as if the waters are filled with thick smoke."
"Because to an extent they probably are. According to these readings there are likely hydrothermal vents nearby which are billowing superheated water and sulfides into the ocean. If there are vents nearby, that's a good sign because that's a form of energy the Ancients are known to have harvested."
The HUD gave an outline of what John suspected were underwater mountain ranges, which he had every intention of remaining well above, and something large and blocky atop one of the higher ranges in the distance.
John was just able to make out what looked like a spire rising out of the mists when Rodney's tablet flickered and winked out.
"Hey! What did you do?" Rodney looked accusingly at John.
"What do you mean what did I do?" John asked, at a loss. Best he could tell, the other man's computer had bailed.
"You just . . . ." Rodney's voice trailed off as Ancient text began to scroll across the bottom of the HUD. "What the . . . ?" Rodney frowned and started pushing buttons.
"Rodney?" John pressed for answers as the text ran off the edge of the HUD before starting a second line just below it. He had a bad feeling about this. "What's going on?"
The Ancient text began to flash by faster, moving to a third line that impinged farther into the HUD's graphics. It reminded John of something being overwritten, and that just couldn't be good when you were somewhere underneath an alien ocean. If they lost the HUD he'd have to try to fly without instruments in this black soup.
"Rodney?" he demanded more forcefully when there was no immediate response. A quiet Rodney never failed to make him nervous.
"I'm just . . . give me a minute. I'm trying to figure out what's going on!" Rodney's movements were frantic now, his fingers fairly flying over the controls. He jumped up out of his seat and rushed to the back compartment.
John glared after him and then was forced to return his attention to trying to fly the ship as the text suddenly took over the whole of the HUD. The ridges and peaks outlining the mountain ranges and other obstacles were visible only as fading images in the background. "Rodney!"
(to be continued)