Hello again returning readers. This is Volume 2 of my Drakaverse-Stargate crossover story. Um, not much else to say except "Thanks for reading" :-)
STARS OF IRON
Eons had passed since living beings had last visited that particular star system. It was merely one of many in that region of space, much closer to the galactic core than Earth was. Countless stars could be seen by the naked eye from the surface of its planetary bodies - those that did have a solid surface, at least - at night, their sheer density making the local nights as brilliant as full moon on Earth, a spectacular light display of bright pinpoints and diffuse glowing nebulae and a huge glowing cloud that was the galactic core itself, lit from within by the colossal energies it contained.
An eternity ago, the ancient civilization that seeded the galaxy with a network of connected stargates and engineered habitable worlds had taken advantage of the energy and resource rich region of space to fuel the industrial machine that produced the massive roving world-shapers. Thanks to the myriad burning starforges, planets and asteroids showed an abundance of stable superheavy elements unmatched in the more distant reaches of the galaxy, elements that enabled the gate-builders civilization to thrive and sustained its needs over the thousand centuries it lasted at its height, until they, too floundered and fell into almost oblivion, remembered as tales and fragmentary stories and leftover wonders, save a handful of younger civilizations that nevertheless managed to rival its power, if not sheer expanse.
Thousands of years after the last gate-builders had left the stage their accomplishments were still remembered in the memories of those species that stood as equals at their side.
And despite the march of time and the upheavals it brought along, some testimonials of the Gate-builders glory remained intact and untouched by the new masters of the Milky Way, protected by time and secrecy and lost in the sheer vastness of space.
Few Asgards still knew about the seemingly unimportant star system where representatives of the Great Four had once congregated under the patronage of the Gate-builders. The place was left alone after the demise of its owners and the great alliance withered away.
There was an almost taboo associated with it, the symbol of past greatness now abandoned and useless, even the technology it contained grown mundane next to the other great races' own accomplishments. No Asgard had had an interest in it for millennias. None except one, that is, and then Loki had only viewed the old facility as a curiosity, until it provided an answer to a particular consequence of his on-and-off meddling with the evolution of a world whose importance was easily overlooked - by his own race as well as the tyrannical Goa'uld. Well, at least nobody else looked over his shoulder to prevent his behind-the-scene meddling. And there was no trace of it. If the Supreme Council ever sniffed around he could deny any intervention - after all it wasn't the first human planet to reach a post-industrial level.
If they investigated deeper, then they might wonder about some discrepancies, but no concrete evidence there either.
At least until it came to his blatant and direct intervention in the New America's case. Towing a human colony ship to the other side of the galaxy was breaking every rule about non-intervention and in a manner that left little doubt if anyone bothered to look into it. Fortunately, the whole Asgard species had been so giddy with Loki's out of the blue solution to the Replicator threat, literally saved from the brink of extinction at the last moment, that the Supreme Council had swallowed his explanation hook, line and sinker. Commander Thor's inner suspicions couldn't prevail against the wave of popular gratitude for their savior, specially after his own resurrection from backup mindstate was only possible thanks to the victory Loki had brought on a trinium platter.
Between this and the need to rebuild the shattered Ida home galaxy, nobody would expend the effort to check Loki's statements.
And assuming the most probable computed scenarios panned out as expected, by the time anyone ever got wind of his little fate-pushing in the Milky Way it would be too late to do anything but watch the fireworks. It was a brilliant plan. In a few decades, the Goa'uld would be caught between hammer and anvil. Whether it was hammer or anvil that survived the ensuing shock didn't matter as long as the Goa'uld upstarts were reduced to paste in the middle.
Loki rather looked forward to that. What were decades or even centuries to a being like him ? There still was the nagging problem of his species genetic decay, but in the worst case scenario he was prepared to simply shed off biological existence and continue living as an uploaded mind.
In any case, now he had ample time to tinker. Maybe even take a little jaunt out in the neighbouring galaxies where Ancient facilities were rumored to still exist.
Far below the lofty machinations of ancient alien beings, a starship hung over a dead planet in orbit of that unremarkable star. The ship itself represented the pinnacle of its creators' prowess as well as their salvation, liberty's own liferaft fleeing the wreck of Earth's freedom, bound for a star four lightyears away from Sol, a journey that should have taken the next fourty years spent with most of the crew in cryogenic storage.
That plan had gone overboard.
General Frederick Lafarge's personal diary
Date of entry 28th October 2010 (Earth reckoning)
I shouldn't even be writing this now. I'm looking at the date displayed by the mission computer, and I can't help wondering if this is some kind of dream I'm having while my body's frozen. Even though this should be impossible, impossible seems a valid adjective for the situation as I discovered it upon my premature thawing. It felt as if no time had passed since I went into cold storage but at least the unexpected developments kept me from dwelling in reflections about the war and how it could all have been different. If only. The words are still there and painful as ever, but I keep telling myself we should all look forward. No point looking back now. Especially not now, when the answer to the centuries-old question of makind just received an answer, as enigmatic as it came : we are not alone.
Whatever happened to the New America can't have been a natural occurrence. Not with an obviously artificial structure waiting at the other end. Who built it ? Is it the same people who have somehow hijacked our journey ? Did they bring us here on purpose ? Why ? Is it a gift or a curse ?
So many questions and so many new perspectives. Faster than light travel at least. Captain Galloway's crew checked as soon as they managed to get a location fix, we are still in the Milky Way, and the elapsed time according to astrometric data is exactly what the onboard clock says.
In the Milky Way but far from Sol. According to the plot we're much closer to the galactic core, on the opposite side of Earth itself and apparently the relative motion is quite stable. Which means we can't directly observe the Solar System (the core's in the way) and the reverse is true.
And it means one important thing : whatever we do here, the Snakes won't know.
Yet now we know FTL travel can be done. And the sheer size of that construction out there is pretty telling. If we ever manage to master the principles that made it all possible, then we'll be able to build an army to crush the Snakes one day… and they won't even know it until it happens.
That's one possibility. By the time we're able to do that, who knows, maybe they'll have been left alone for so long that they'll have duelled each other to extinction. That would be quite fitting a fate.
But that's for a distant future (besides, I wonder what they're going to think when the New America disappears from their scopes !). In the immediate time we need to survive and rebuild a working cilivization. And grow in numbers before we can ever hope to accomplish much besides.
I have the premonition that whatever we find on this floating island in space will be key to everything.
There is life over there, or at least an environment that's conducive to life. A nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere, water vapor clouds. Which incidently hide much of the external surface, the pictures only show sea and glimpses of dry land and radar scans are blocked by the transparent dome - a wonder in itself given its sheer size and the material strength it presupposes.
The probe managed to get very close to the edge of the… dish ? saucer ? disk ? It's more like a flower without the petals. As close as a hundred meters and no hostile reaction was registered coming from the alien facility. No reaction at all that we could discern in any case.
The vertical edge below the clear dome looks like a giant cliff of the same burnished grey metal seen everywhere else. It goes for three kilometers before the surface curves inward towards the stalk giving it the shape of a shallow cup, and there are abstract geometric patterns. What looks like a huge rosace on the curving underside, and matched entrelacs on the vertical band. It looks pretty, but whether it's purely for aesthetics or there's a more practical reason, we have no idea. There are all sorts of grooves and ridges and unconnected polygonal shapes that may or may not be doors.
The first probe is still taking high resolution pictures of the surface, focusing on the sideband since that's where hangars doors or access hatches are most likely to be found. Three more probes was dispatched two hours ago in order to speed up the process.
I took the decision to wake up more crews as well. There's an asteroid belt and several rocky moons in the system and we need to ascertain the resources we can access.
On the plus side, we have enough antimatter to last a century and more if we're careful. Assuming we settle here, of course. And this decision depends on whether we can gain access to the alien station and live on it.
Uncharted star system
2010, November 2nd
It was an ugly and utilitarian contraption, a soda-can shaped pressurized compartment on top of a clump of spherical propellant tanks, and a cryogenic engine nested at the end. One of the New America's small runabouts, designed to carry small numbers of personnel or cargo between orbiting starships. Not a heavy lift vehicle and not for endo-atmospheric use owing to its complete lack of aerodynamic considerations and paltry liquid fuel engines, the craft was attached to the hull of the ADSF Barcelona, one of the antimatter-powered parasite cruisers that formed the colony ship's strike wing. She was named after the martyr Spanish city whose inhabitants had rebelled against Draka rule after the Eurasian War, only to be crushed by a Snake fission bomb. One atrocity amongst many in the dark years that followed the end of the war, as the Domination raped and pillaged Europe herself and drove her populations under the hated Yoke.
The name would always be remembered, as many others. The Snakes had killed or enslaved countless millions and maybe worse even, their twisted society was ensuring that no trace of the cultures and civilizations they had conquered would remain. Cultural genocide, erasing the memory of the people they fed to the Yoke so their descendants would never remember how their ancestors had lived free and the accomplishments of murdered nations. Even the language spoken by their parents they would forget, replaced by the Domination's English, butchered and warped beyond recognition, a tongue as barbaric and ugly as the black soul of its practitioners. The Alliance refugees fully intended to carry that memory.
The Barcelona had undocked from her mothership thirty hours ago, after her crew was fully awoken and briefed. She was carrying six additional passengers and now they were crammed inside the runabout's tight confines, strapped in zero-gee frames and clad in vacuum-rated Fleet suits.
Maneuvering from the New America's geostationary orbit towards the alien platform holding position at the top of it's thousands-kilometers long stalk had taken the best part of the past thirty hours. It could have been done much faster - but nobody wanted to light a full-power antimatter exhaust plume in such relatively close proximity to the colony ship, thus the cruiser's bridge crew had taken their time and followed the plan drawn up by the New America's command staff before their departure.
In addition, they didn't want to spook any defense protocols the huge construct might have in place. So, a slow approach it was. It also gave the away team ample time to digest the data accumulated so far.
That thing was huge. It was built of unknown materials. One of the probe had latched on the hull and done a surface analysis. Its results were puzzling and that was the understatement of the month : diamond didn't cut the unknown alloy, the sampling blade barely managed to scrape the surface and what it got was merely space grime deposited by particle winds and micrometeorite impacts.
And a rough-and-dirty calculation, based on the local star's characteristics, suggested the station/beanstalk had been collecting space dust for millennia. Hundreds of millennia.
This just didn't seem possible, and a more detailed analysis was sorely needed. And it was just the start.
The small craft shuddered as its mooring clamps were released and the small maneuvering thrusters puffed vapor, jolting it clear out of the cruiser's frame. Seconds ticked by as it drifted away and once a safe distance was attained it rotated in place to align its axis with the computed approach vector that would lead it to the station looming a hundred klicks away.
Behind the front-mounted hatch and docking apparatus, Flight Lt O'Hare reviewed the parameters displayed on the collapsible flat screen displays. Vector, thrust, engine parameters were all in the green and no additional input would be necessary until they reached the end of their outbound trip. A braking sequence was already programmed to bring the craft to a relative halt near the station's side, and then careful manual input would allow her to bring the runabout in the immediate vicinity of their target, a small section of wall tentatively identified as an entry hatch on the probes' downloaded imagery.
Satisfied, she squirmed a little in her front-mounted acceleration frame to make herself more comfortable and craned her neck around to look at her passengers. Like her they wore their helmets with the faceplate open, since the compartment was pressurized. She met the blue gaze of the team's commanding officer, seeking mere confirmation that everything was fine - so far. Of course, it was psychological, the repeater screens on the back of the acceleration frames showed the essential parameters of the craft. Nevertheless, they all had to be feeling a measure of apprehension. Who knew if some ancient defense system wouldn't flash-fry them all on the way ?
"We've got the final go-ahead from Mission Control, Colonel. Course is set and autonav is engaged. ETA two hours" she rattled off in her professional, bored-unflappable-pilot's voice.
"I can see that, Lieutnant. I'm sure we're going to be fine."
O'Hare nodded at the Colonel's bright eager smile. The other woman seemed to be filled with expectations, and that was understandable enough given her background. A brilliant physicist and engineer, she had been a key member of the team who had designed the colony ship's antimatter drive and among the New America's passengers she was probably one of the most likely to make something of the alien systems.
The other members of the ad hoc team she didn't know as well, and she tried to discern a reaction on the next passenger's face. The man strapped at the scientist's right met Rosie's gaze with a stony stare of his own. White-streaked brown hair and grey eyes, hard-lined features, the kind of cold look that wouldn't seem out of place on a Draka's face, minus the eerie aura of amorality usually associated with the Snakes.
He had been introduced by Lafarge himself as a Major O'Neill during the mission briefing, without any mention of his past service record or technical specialty and O'Hare strongly suspected he was OSS. It would make sense and explain his relative familiarity with the General, an ex-OSS man himself.
Rosie's gaze then drifted beyond, down the middle narrow passage between the two rows of passenger frames, but she could barely glimpse the last two members of the entry team obscured as they were behind the two officers. They were Fleet Marines, with Space Recon badges on the sleeves of their armored space suits. Muscle and life insurance, albeit both had various technical skills as well as a matter of course since everyone on the New America had at least a degree, everyone save the young children anyway, and half the colonists had a doctorate, many owning more than one. Their weapons were slung in cargo nets overhead, securely strapped to prevent them from escaping in micro-gravity as were the rest of the team's impedimenta.
The main burn countdown reached zero on the displays and the runabout's rear engine came to life, cryogenic hydrogen and oxygen reacting inside its combustion chamber and the passengers felt themselves pushed gently against their restraining frames. The acceleration was low at first, then became stronger as the craft cleared Barcelona's immediate perimeter and its engine reached full power without any risk of damaging panels and antennas on the cruiser's surface.
External cameras showed the receding hull behind, the looming mass of the alien station ahead and the spherical expanse of its anchoring planet below.
"Mission Control, Bravo-Three is on the way" O'Hare announced on the general frequency, using the runabout's registry code.
"Understood Bravo-Three" it was the General's firm, authoritative voice "we'll be following you. Good luck, Colonel. Lafarge out."
The transit was unremarkable. It wasn't anything the runabout's passengers hadn't experienced before, although this time the boredom was lifted by the particular nature of their destination and the requirements of their mission. Indeed the mass of pictures and readouts accumulated by the probes and the small spacecraft's external sensors were enough to keep the crew occupied, although the two Marines made a show of sitting as straight as they could and listening to upbeat music in the mercifully closed confines of their helmets.
O'Hare had soothing classical tunes playing in her ear as she shared her attention between routine monitoring of the runabout's systems and observation of the giant space station using the camera controls. As far as she knew, the pair of officers behind did the same, the Colonel visibly engrossed in her perscomp's display.
And there was no reaction to their approach, soething O'Hare found herself thankful for - fretting that a most likely "reaction" could well consist in a well-aimed disintegrator ray or similarly unpleasant phenomenon.
Right on schedule the small capsule did an about-turn, pointing its rear engine forward to prepare for the braking, and after a perfunctionary checklist the pilot gave the computer her go-ahead. A faint vibration and pressure built-up, sustained for exactly the same time as the initial boost, and the runabout ended in a relative hover a hundred meters from the metal cliff now blotting half the sky, seeming to stretch up, down and sideways to infinity - but it was an illusion. The details could now be made out with the naked eye from the handful of viewports, or without any magnification on the cameras.
Curving ridges and geometric shapes blended into larger motifs with fractal regularity, a mathematical harmony that was probably designed to be readily appreciated by any sentient species, or so Carter felt. At least the alien geometry resonated in the human mind in a way that was both soothing and majestic and familiar. Well, she mused, it seems that ancient aliens minds didn't fit with Lovecraft's depictions, although one had to be demented anyway to willingly choose emigration to Snakeland. No wonder he had imagined alien intelligence as something escaped from mad nightmares !
"There's our destination" she reached forward and pointed at the main viewscreen, catching O'Hare's attention. Set inside one of the smaller repeating motifs in a shallow recess was an opening of sorts, or at least something that looked like one, a two-panelled rectangular door made of the same material as the rest of the wall. Others like it were scattered on the surface, farther away, and this one seemed as good a place as any to try gaining access to the interior.
"Can you move us closer, L-T ?"
"Aye, Colonel Carter"
Short careful bursts from the maneuvering thrusters brought the capsule close enough to touch the station's hull under manual control, the female pilot half-consciously trying to minimize the amount of burnt propellants she was spewing in such close proximity to the unknown titanic construct, even though she mentally scolded her apprehension. After all, the station had been hanging in space for thousands of years, and had likely withstood much worse than a few puffs of chemical smoke.
"Mission Control, Bravo Three is on-station next to the designated access. We're ready to EVA"
"Bravo-Three, understood. Knock at the door whenever you're ready, Mission Control out"
"LT, please depressurize, everyone, check your seals."
"Crew compartment depressurized"
The firve crews were now in vacuum inside the small craft, its atmosphere pumped back into the air tanks at the back. They could have simply vented out, but there was no need to waste.
Familiar sensations. Muted vibrations conducted from the spaceframe through the suits, nothing audible save the mens' own breathing and faint machinery noises from their built-in life-support systems, and the filtered voices coming through the radios.
In total silence, the front-mounted main hatch irised open, revealing the opposite door to direct eyeball observation, a scant two meters away from the motionless runabout's nose. Two meters of space separating man from his greatest discovery to date, O'Hare thought, as the pair of Marines floated ahead, first to exit the relative safety of the flimsy aluminium walls into the void. The pair moved with trained precision, pushing themselves towards the alien wall - or floor, or ceiling, in zero gee such distinctions were eminently relative - in a bracketing pattern, one each side of the putative doorway. Each trailed a thin line, one end fastened securely to their transport, and they made contact.
Nothing happened as human hands touched the station for the first time in millenia.
"It's safe, I think - no measurable change in emissions" Carter declared, eyeing the sensor take on her perscomp.
"Open Sesame !"
The Colonel arched an eyebrow, the effect throughly missed under the reflective visor of her helmet. Nevertheless, the OSS officer felt his superior's stare on him.
"Well, I had to try it" he shrugged, the motion less than noticeable under the spacesuit.
"Would have been too easy."
Thousands of kilometers away, Lafarge snorted. Typical O'Neill, making contact with mankind's greatest discovery and finding a fitting wisecrack.
"Anyway, we'd have a better chance trying this" Carter pointed to a recess on the right side of the door. Right side, that is, with the dome being the "up" direction. Inside the recess was a lever sized for a human hand, currently flat against its cradle. As if to reinforce the logical conclusion, there were indications in alien script, blocky shapes that had to be letters or symbols. It didn't take much imagination to deduce the writings meant something akin to "Open-Close".
O'Neill removed a sticky pad from a container on his suit. Whoever the station's builders were, their thoughtfulness hadn't apparently extended to providing handholds for zero-gee work. If he tried to pull the lever without anchoring himself he would accomplish nothing but swing his own body around. The sticky pad was nothing but a handle with a flat adhesive surface on one side. Although very simple in idea, designing an adhesive that worked in vacuum and extreme temperatures on any surface was a remarkable achievement in itself.
He peeled the protective film and applied the sticky face to the unknown material, counterbalancing his push with a burst of his suit thrusters. A light pressure was all it took normally for the pad to take hold. He allowed the glue to consolidate for the recommended fifteen seconds, then gave a firm tug. It held, and he addressed a mental blessing to the engineers who had invented the space adhesive.
Thus anchored, O'Neill managed to pull the recessed lever. The mechanism yielded smoothly and without a hitch like a well-oiled one, belying the fact that it had been exposed to space for an insanely long time, and the explorers were rewarded by the panels silently parting away to reveal a dark chamber beyond. A second later, the darkness was banished as interior lights came on. It was evidently an airlock, with another set of doors on the far wall, about four meters deep, enough to hold all five me and women of the exploration crew.
More of the alien lettering around the far door controls. More elaborate than a simple metal lever : instead backlit crystalline buttons and a small screen coming alive with schematics.
It was the only adornment in an otherwise bare naked room. The walls were smooth here with a metallic bronze sheen, only broken by flush-mounted light fixtures emitting a warm glow and scattered thin gratings.
It didn't look dangerous. Nevertheless the Major's gloved hand prevented Colonel Carter from moving beyond the threshold as she intended to, even as the pair of Marines left their flanking overwatch and repeated their "in first go the expendables" routine.
No deadly trap activated as the two men crossed the threshold. No hidden rayguns, no impaling spikes, no cooking hard radiation.
The sudden and unpredictable artificial gravity field did elicit a pair of surprised exclamations though as the spacemen entered the chamber and found themselves falling towards the floor. Fortunately, they were already in the correct orientation and their surprise didn't prevent them from landing on their feet, not particularly gracefully but safely.
They made a few tentative steps under the gaze of their superior officers, gauging the strength of the local gravity as well as checking their suit reading.
Their report was laconic enough.
"Sir, Ma'am, it feels and reads like one gee"
It was enough to make the Navy scientist giddy and she didn't wait to share her sentiment on the circuit.
"Carter to Mission Control, there's artificial gravity inside the station ! It's amazing ! We're in some sort of airlock, and the systems appear powered and functional. I think we might be able to use it and enter the station proper"
The reply from the New America's bridge came a second later.
"Understood Colonel. If you think you can do this, then by all means try, but be careful. If you close the external doors you may be cut from communication, so think about that before going further."
It was a good point, Carter reflected. There was no knowing if the alien material would allow radio waves through.
"L-T, you're going to stay outside. I'll try to operate the controls and close the external doors. If five minutes pass and either they don't open again or we're cut from radio contact, try using the manual release" she pointed to the handle O'Neill had used.
"And if it doesn't work, well, use your judgment or defer to Mission Control's orders."
Actually, staying outside of a potential trap very much appealed to Rosie O'Hare. She had no intention of becoming a dead hero.
The buttons had to follow a logical order, Carter reflected as she gazed at the inner lock controls. And so she pressed the first one. The small luminous glyph inscribed on the crystalline surface was perfectly arcane, but its meaning became clear a fraction of a second later, when the outer doors closed, trapping the four-man party inside the airlock.
The radio came alive almost immediately after, with O'Hare's voice calling.
"Colonel, the, uh, doors just closed !"
Thanks for telling me, Lieutnant Obvious, the physicist rolled her eyes. At least they could communicate through the exotic metal without substantial signal attenuation. It was one less concern for the expedition.
"I'm aware of that, L-T. Keep in contact, I'm going to see if I can pressurize and open the inner doors."
The next button did nothing. At least it seemed so, until the environmental sensors aboard the spacesuits started to pick up a change in their surroundigs. The omnipresent vacuum was receding - gas was pouring out of the gratings.
"I guess the builders of this station really were logical" one of the Marines offered a comment, the first one since they'd left.
O'Neill and Carter nodded.
"So far so good"
"Pressure rising steadily" Carter added as a running commentary, mostly for Mission Control's benefit, although their suit telemetry was transmitting everything back to the mothership. "Almost pure nitrogen though. No oxygen in the mix. Traces of argon and helium"
"Makes sense, somehow. Oxygen's corrosive, nitrogen's not. If I were the builders of this station and wanted to leave it mothballed I'd pump it full of non-reactive gas too"
"Pressure's stable at 1020 Hpa. Earth-like"
"Okay… one button left to push"
Restraining the trepidation she was feeling, the scientist activated the last control, praying the mysterious alien mechanisms wouldn't betray her.
The didn't. There was a noise of locks disengaging, then the two panels slid aside with a hiss that was perfectly audible in the new atmosphere.
The first meters of a corridor were visible in the light coming from the airlock. After that it was pure blackness.
"Okaaaaay, not what I expected" Carter dropped, disappointment coloring her voice.
One of the Fleet Marines took a step forward and craned his neck, swiveling his head from side to side as if to listen better, then swept the darkness with the flashlight attached under the barrel of his flechette rifle and peered down the sight.
"Got anything, soldier ?" O'Neill was tense, hand on the butt of his holstered pistol, a heavy duty thing designed to punch through Draka space armor at close-range.
"No Sir. Nothing moving, as far as I can see it's just a corridor. No weird alien monster with dripping fangs… and if it were invisible I'd still get a radar and sonar return to shoot it"
The officers ignored the faint snickers coming from the other Marine. Besides, the humor wasn't unwelcome and took away some of the tension hovering around the team.
"Well, you go ahead Marine. If you get eaten by a space monster, we'll try to kill it before it dies of food poisoning."
"Works for me Sir."
As it happened, there was no hidden space monster hidden behind the narrow gratings adorning the corridor walls, and no surprise spung from the next set of air-tight doors. The metallic surfaces were smooth and unadorned save for scattered indications in the blocky letters which had to constitute the station builders' alphabet, and those were probably direction signs from their placement and repetitive nature. One set was repeated at regular intervals, following the general direction of the corridor towards the center of the vast construction. Others were set at intersections or above panels that were perhaps maintenance accessways. All in all the facility, what little was seen, was fitting with the logic expected from a technological civilization.
Still, everything was powered down, the only active mechanisms so far had been the airlock controls, which were probably operating on a standalone power source, but Carter was persuaded that more of the station's systems were still under power. The internal temperature sat at a few degrees above zero celsius, which was unlikely unless some form of environmental control was active. And there was the issue of gravity, uniformly stable at one Earth gravity… which was a remarkable coincidence in itself.
"So, what do you think the local denizens looked like ?" O'Neill asked Carter. But the question was clearly one every member of the expedition had in mind.
The blonde female switched her attention away from her perscomp screen.
"Close enough to us. The way they designed their controls, the gravity we're under, the air pressure, the size of things - I'd say humanoid, bipedal oxygen breathers."
"Maybe we'll find some of them, frozen just like we were ?"
"Now that would be another can of worms."
The team had moved inwards for a little over two hundred meters, through an additional two sets of doors. Those were a different design from the airlock's, with a locking mechanism in the middle that looked very much like a windstar compass with more of the alien script around the circumference. Some fumbling had been needed but the Marines had found how to operate it manually after a few minutes of experimentation. The locks were evidently meant to be powered, but they'd been (sensibly) designed with a fallback mode as well. Rotating the star-shaped rings disengaged the internal locking bars, cracking the panels open and allowing one to pull them apart with sheer muscle power.
Following the main corridor the explorers eventually reached a larger space, and made their first notable discovery.
The room they entered was much longer than it was wide in the illumination provided by their suit-mounted lights, its length perpendicular to to axis they had followed. The foursome spread out slightly, playing the beams of their searchlights across the darkness. They were standing on a platform running the length of the room. Another twin platform faced them across a four-meter wide chasm. Stepping closer, O'Neill made out what laid at the bottom of the trench, and signalled Carter with a hand. Moving up to his side, the scientist got a mental jolt of excitation at the sight.
"So, Colonel - are you seeing the same thing as me ?" the grey-haired Major asked in a level tone.
His fellow officer stared down, then aside, following the linear shapes on the trench floor where they vanished away in darkness.
Her mind digested the sight, and then she answered.
"Nothing looks more like a pair of maglev tracks than... a pair of maglev tracks" She felt herself grinning with irrepressible glee. "And I'm willing to bet those tracks go all the way around the periphery of the station
O'Neill completed her thoughts.
"I think we just found the local subway." He sighed. "Some things are the same everywhere in the universe, it seems."
General Frederick Lafarge's personal diary
Date of entry 5th November 2010 (Earth reckoning)
Following the success of Colonel Carter's mission, I have sent five more teams down to the station. They have cracked open three more external locks in the process.
What they have found so far confirms the preliminary observations : there is a maglev ring with boarding stations at regular intervals. Like the rest, it is unpowered and inactive. So far all the rooms and spaces our teams were able to explore showed the same state.
Colonel Carter speculates that a control room must exist somewhere, which makes sense, but we haven't found it so far. None of the rooms the teams have managed to explore so far contain anything looking like like it in any case.
Of course, this station's a huge place and we've only barely scratched the surface. We'll be sending more teams as fast as we can thaw the men out. As long as the station remained in its current low-powered state, my staff is confident the teams aren't too much at risk, and I agree : unpowered mechanisms cannot harm them unwittingly.
We have to determine whether this station can be rendered habitable and safe, and whether it can sustain the whole population of the New America.
If not, we'll be in trouble. None of the planets in this system are inhabitable, the closest star system is three LY away and we cannot determine if it contains life-supporting planets with shipborne instruments.
Despite all this, I'm remaining confident. Confident in the skill and ingenuity of the New America's crew. And also, confident that whoever sent us here did so in the knowledge that we could make the best out of the opportunity.
December 6th, 2010
"Colonel, evacuation is complete. All personnel have left the station, your team is the only one remaining on board. Airlocks have been sealed and the Barcelona's moving away right now. Will notify when she's safely out of sight, over"
"Understood General. I'm waiting for your go ahead." Samantha Carter sounded cooler than she felt, butterflies were furballing inside her stomach and her impatience was killing her as much as she dreaded a catastrophic outcome.
Soon would come the culmination of a month of effort by hundreds of Alliance men and women. Since the day her team had cracked open the antique station, exploration by teams moving through the maze of passages and corridors inside the titanic construct had barely scratched a percent of its total volume. But logic and persistence had driven them straight to the station's heart, following the neat clear route provided by the maglev transit system. The entry team had discovered the outermost ring first, and further exploration had uncovered a junction station where it connected to a radial line heading to the center. Subsequent efforts had focused on following the neatly laid-out axis of penetration, only pausing to crack open the massive pressure doors sealing the tunnel at regular intervals, a safety feature undoubtedly part of the mothballing scheme that had left the facility intact throughout the passing millennia.
At the same time, the Alliance crew had taken every opportunity to increase their understanding of the builders' logic, codes and language. Every inscription was photographed, tagged and catalogued, maps were drawn, conjectures raised. Each small discovery raised new questions in turn.
Aboard the mothership, a transcription effort was underway using the data gathered by the explorers. The New America project had started its life as a hard science endeavor - a thing of physicists, mathematicians and engineers, shrouded in the deepest secret. Although it had grown to encompass more personnel and more disciplines as it crept closer to its ultimate goal, the criteria governing the recruitment and gathering of intelligences had still continued to lean heavily to the hard science area. In short, the colony ship had departed a Draka-dominated Solar System, it was filled with engineers of all stripes, from nuclear power generation to environmental systems and tailored ecologies, with a sprinkling of military personnel who were more often than not specialized in relevant technical fields.
There was a comparative dearth of people with a significant background in Humanities and social sciences. Not that there weren't - enough wives had a degree in, say, History or Literature, gained before they married, had children, and moved out to the Asteroid Belt.
There were also a few generalist teachers to look after the young ones.
But there was no such thing as a Ph.D in Linguistics aboard.
To be fair, the initial plan hadn't call for one, and the databanks contained most of the relevant knowledge in electronic form, readily available whenever the not-fledging-anymore colony could spare the effort for such intellectual luxury.
Therefore, the Rosetta team, as they'd taken to calling themselves with a hefty amount of self-derision, was composed of an OSS code-breaker, a Fleet Signal Intelligence specialist, and a Navy commander's wife who happened to speak seven languages in addition to Latin and Greek and served as a language teacher before the Exodus for the Project's youth.
Together, Lefarge hoped, they would combine analytical skills and flair for languages to make sense of the unknown alien speech.
So far, they'd managed to confirm the builders' tongue was alphabet-based with a numerical system similar to their own, and had started to classify words into families. They were also making educated guesses on grammar, and their current theory pointed to a system of declinations similar to Latin, in principle at least.
It was a start and the more data was made available, the more they could refine their conclusions.
Otherwise the original denizens of the station had stayed as much a mystery as before, albeit shrouded in a strange veil of familiarity. No picture of them had been found. The explored spaces were devoid of representations, the only adornments appearing to be abstract motifs echoing those on the vast exterior hull. Blank walls dominated throughout, even in the areas that were assumed to have been public, deeper inside the station, as opposed to the area close to the exterior which was now assumed to be little-used maintenance and support access for the dark inactive machinery sitting silent and enigmatic, their unfamiliar shapes providing no clue to their function.
Other areas had seemed a lot more familiar in layout and function when teams had branched out from the maglev stations to explore their immediate surroundings. Once the surprise had worn off from suddenly stepping into wide open areas as opposed to the closed confines of corridors and maglev tunnels the explorers had found what were undeniably habitation quarters, wide curving "streets" overlooked by apartment balconies and gossamer metal platforms and adornments whose function could only be guessed.
Opening some of the doors had revealed spacious living rooms and perfectly preserved, if sparse, furniture whose form and function was immediately understandable and leant even more credence to the theory that whoever the facility's builders were, they had a lot in common with humans.
But all was clinically sterile and impersonal. Not a single thing that might look like a piece of personal belonging, not a living microbe on the dustless surfaces. The ornamental flower gardens were filled with cold and sterile dust, soil long gone to powder along with the remnants of the plantlife they had been holding whenever the place was last inhabited. Fossilized stems and leaves that crumbled to nothingness under the touch of a warm glove. Ashes and ghosts everywhere. Not even a ghost town. It was as if the inhabitants had dutifully packed away every last trace of their presence and allowed the place to enter a state of eternal limbo. Which was exactly what must have happened as far as the explorers could guess. Everything pointed to an orderly, unhurried evacuation intended to preserve the possibility of returning one day.
Eventually they had reached the central region of the huge station, past the line's terminus. By then the translation team had been confident enough in their nascent grasp of the alien language that they had pinpointed a particular letter configuration as linked to the concept of control and command, almost a hunch, but Carter's team had doggedly followed the hunch past closed doors and rappelled down pitch black vertical elevator shafts several levels down, even closer to the central axis.
And they had reached a last set of massive doors sealed shut and no manual emergency control had been visible. But it hadn't mattered. Long dormant systems had sensed the first Marine approaching the gate and blue-white ambient light had come alive in the access corridor. Unbeknownst to them, the four humans were scanned by biosensors hidden behind the walls, sensors advanced enough that even vacuum hardsuits wouldn't have blocked their keen sight. The lighter ship-duty uniforms and oxygen mask every team had taken to using instead of the bulkier spacesuits inside the station were no concealment to the ancient scanners.
As those relayed their findings to the eon-old custodian system, the crystalline processor nodes recognized their long wait as over, for the beings they'd waited for with infinite patience had finally returned. Or at least, beings whose structure, layout and pathways were sufficiently similar that they shared a direct lineage from the beings who had first designed and programmed them.
And so the machine custodian did what it was built for. It opened the gates before the putative reclaimers. The next and final step would be theirs to take.
It all had been an hour ago. The thick armored panels had swivelled out in silence, preceded by a musical chime, and the team had stepped through in the hope that their expectations would be met at last. They found themselves in a wide spherical chamber, four stepped levels arrayed from the equator down, each sporting workstations - a molded seat and a set of controls of sorts - all dark and unpowered ; the central area empty under a glittering crystalline protrusion that screamed holographic projector to Carter - opposite the entrance, a jutting platform held another seat, throne-like in its bare metallic sheen.
It all seemed so logical, so recognizable as something humans with such a technological mastery would create that Carter's imagination immediately pictured the "control center" in livelier days, ranks of… people, she couldn't imagine them otherwise, manning those stations under the watchful and serene gaze of the being sitting on the lone chair, monitoring the myriad data such a place would generate - grand dreams of resurrecting that picture except with the men and women of the Alliance as operators. A shiver of excitation, hope and awe had run along her spine and she could feel her companions shared a measure of her awe. They were simply better at hiding it.
Although Major O'Neill did voice a part of his feelings.
"I wonder if the people who ran this place had big honking guns too ? Because I'd have some if I were them… oh yes" he trailed down as his gaze swept the room from one end to another.
"Maybe they were the peaceful, pacifistic, 'diplomacy can solve everything' types ?" one of the Marines snickered.
O'Neill made a spitting sound. "Not in the kind of universe that spawned the fucking Snakes, son."
Nods answered him from the two soldiers. Mere mention of the Drakas always seemed to drop the atmosphere's temperature by a few degrees - that or inflame it altogether.
"Well Sir, I hope we find out whatever technology's hidden in those walls and use it one day to kick the Snakes' slimy butts."
"Amen to that. Even if I'm long dead when it happens."
Further talk of the arch-enemy was interrupted by Carter's cry and the soldiers pivoted with trained instinct to the source of the sound, weapons ready to blast any threat to their charge with an alacrity that was as much the result of training as deeply-ingrained male instinct to protect the females of the tribe. But there was no danger. Only surprise and wonderment as they registered what had caused the scientist to sound off.
Set in the wall section behind the command chair was a square panel, its rim glowing a thin pulsing blue line. Inside the smooth dark grey slab was the embossed imprint of a hand. A thumbed, five fingered hand, its slightly oversized shaped providing an invitation to press a live one on its surface and see what would happen.
Which was exactly what Carter tried to do, until O'Neill's caught up with her and prevented her from proceeding with her idea.
"Ma'am, I think we should consult with the General before trying anything… reckless"
She froze, processed the suggestion and sensibly pulled her arm back from the waiting panel.
"I… yes, you're right. It might be dangerous. Better take precautions."
"So that's it General" she finished explaining to the command staff aboard the colony ship. The radio link was crisp and clear thanks to the relays installed along the axis of exploration, bringing out every pause and every inflection faithfully. "It's our best bet. Everything so far has appeared logical enough. This has to be it - the control room we were looking for, and the panel just has to be a switch, I'd bet my life on it."
The General's voice came back seconds later, heavy and brooding, weighing the pros and cons as he set to take a decision that might seal the fate of the entire expedition.
"You make a convincing argument Colonel and, personally, I think you're right - or I'm hoping for it. And there's something else too you should know - Commander Galloway has completed his astrometrics survey and his conclusions are… well I'll let him explain the highlights to you Colonel Carter."
"Colonel, Major, I don't want to weight on your decision" the starship commander began with as much levity as he could muster to ease the finality of his message "but as you know I've been tasked with surveying the region of space we find ourselves in the middle of. I have compiled hundreds of hours of instrument time and cross-checked my conclusions with my fellows. I'll forward the detailed data to you Colonelbut in short, the system we're currently in sits in a very energetic region of space due to its proximity with the galactic core. We have a very hot nebula corewards, containing several supernova residues, black holes and even neutron stars in the vicinity - all mere lightyears from our position. The local star's own particle wind creates a bubble of relative safety, but if we were to cross the heliosphere to reach one of the surrounding systems… even the New America's radiation and particle shielding would be overwhelmed. The crew would experience irreversible cellular degradation even in cold sleep. We'd be all dead on arrival."
He paused to let the facts sink in then resumed.
"Basically, we're stuck here. We can't leave the system - not with the ships we have anyway. So you better succeed at reactivating this station… hoping it is indeed supportive of human life. Because even here we're taking four times the ambient level of stellar radiation we'd be taking in the Solar System."
"Thanks Commander. I really feel better now" Carter let a smile audible enough on the link color her tart reply.
"For all our sakes Colonel, for all our sakes."
"Understood General. I'm waiting for your go ahead."
It was four more hours before every member of the colony save Carter's team was safely out of sight, aboard one of the ships holding orbit on the other side of the planet where they would be shielded from any… complication. Hopefully.
"Every man and ship accounted for, you are clear to proceed Colonel. Whenever you're ready."
"I'm as ready as I can be General. See you a in a moment, over." she finished on an optimistic tone.
With an intake of breath, she pressed her ungloved right hand on the waiting imprint. An instant of nothing, then - light, glowing through the flesh of her hand for an instant, just before it was eclipsed by every workstation lighting up along with the ceiling-mounted projector. In the empty space at the middle of the chamber a vast three-dimensional display flickered to life, showing the station's outline, its connecting stem and the planet below and the surrounding star system in multicolored glory, the sheer scope breathtaking, but nothing compared to the rest - all around the periphery of the chamber's curving walls a similar event happened, blank dark walls seemingly vanished to be replaced by a view of the exterior space as if the bulk of the construct had suddenly turned invisible.
Carter wasn't sure whether she imagined or actually felt the faint vibration of machinery coming to life deep inside the bowels of the station. But the hiss of rushing air was all too real and she glanced at her suit-mounted environmental display.
The oxygen level was rising.
Freedom Station was waking up from its long slumber.