Art by JediKay
Betaed by ReeAnn
The Universe roared with a bone-jarring thunder and blinding whiteness exploded everywhere. Mere seconds - or an eternity - passed and the flare dispersed leaving reverberations that were mere memory of sound rather than actual noise. Inky blackness and static were all that remained...
Somewhere in the Pegasus Galaxy a stargate flared for the second time in less than twelve hours seeming to immediately expel a 'Lantean gateship - the first visitors to the system in over fifteen thousand years. Inside the small ship seven of the eight occupants were crowded into the smaller front section all eager to see the quiescent white dwarf star around which orbited the observation platform that had summoned them. Ronon Dex was the lone member of the team who showed no interest in the dead star, his innate curiosity having been long ago quashed and supplanted by wary distrust of all new situations. He frowned at the scientists and soldiers and pushed his way back to the rear compartment eager to be apart from the press of other people.
"Stop crowding me!" Chief Scientist, Dr. Rodney McKay, snapped back at the bodies pushing in around him where he sat at the right front seat of the puddlejumper.
"Okay, kids, everyone back to your seats," Colonel John Sheppard ordered before any real animosity or conflict could break out. "We're heading to the station, now." The small bright ember that had once been a G type star slid to the left, out of view as John brought the Jumper to bear on the observatory.
With soft conversation, everyone filed back to their places in the rear compartment and Ronon returned to his preferred seat up front. "Huh," he grunted, nodding at the object spinning in place before them, "That doesn't look like anything the Ancestors built."
"Yes of course because they only had one style of architecture for the whole of their existence -" McKay said.
"Rodney, play nice," John admonished the scientist who hadn't even lifted his head from his study of his own laptop.
"Right, sorry." He did look up then and gazed at the silvery white space station. "This thing is old even for them. Styles change. Surely even on Sateda -"
"Ok," John cut him off again, ready to deflect any further possible insults to Ronon's world or culture. But it wasn't necessary. He could see that McKay's attention had already been snagged by something on his monitor.
"It's online and -" he waved his hand as if that added more to the explanation. At the same moment, the Jumper's HUD activated.
"- And acknowledging us. Acknowledging the Jumper, anyway," John finished for him.
"Bay doors are opening on the other side of the platform - the other side of the wheel part." And again hands gestured in the air, possibly miming flying the jumper around to the other side. He paused and squinted, head tilted in consideration. "It looks a lot like the space station in Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey.'"
"Well, it's a good design."
"Except this is a little more... I don't know... blobby." It did seem to have extra parts stuck on almost like afterthoughts, or maybe extra funding coming after initial plans had been finalized. Or something. Rodney shook his head and looked back down at his laptop screen. He poked at a key. "I hope this thing has... Ah. Yes. Artificial gravity is coming online now."
The silvery space station now almost filled the windshield's view, blocking out the darkness of space behind it. "The station is taking over the landing," John reported. But his hands remained on the controls just in case something untoward should happen and he needed to take back control. Rodney didn't answer, his attention remaining fixed on his laptop's monitor. Behind them came only the softest of terse conversation, not even loud enough to distinguish between speakers. In this almost silence, the small ship entered the not very large space station.
A gasp from behind emphasized John's "We're in and wow that was close." It had seemed as if they almost skimmed the edges of the bay opening. "Bay is closing," he read from the HUD.
"And the station is repressurizing and lights are up." Rodney paused but still didn't look up. "Ok... ok... And now, life support is online." Now he grinned up at Sheppard with excited anticipation. "Right. Ready. Let's go!" He jumped from his seat and moved back to the rear compartment.
They hadn't brought a lot of equipment with them on this mission, only the standard gear and Rodney's usual collection of tools, crystals, extra battery for his laptop, and other miscellaneous goodies he deemed necessary for the successful completion of any scientific mission. And most of it would remain in the Jumper, anyway for this first excursion within the station. Only McKay and the two engineers he'd brought along donned their heavy packs. John followed, arms folded across his chest while he waited for the scientists to be ready. He then signaled for everyone's attention. "Heads up, everyone." He waited til they all had their attention on him. "There will be no wandering." He stared meaningfully at McKay and the engineers. "We have no idea how safe or not this place is. After all, it called us because it needs something fixed."
"Attended to," Rodney muttered a correction.
John shot him a wry expression. "Either way it's an unknown and those do have the nasty tendency of biting us in the ass."
"True enough," Rodney acknowledged. "Let's go already."
John gave the entire company a final visual inspection before lowering the Jumper's ramp. He nodded to the marine sergeant and corpsman who exited first, weapons at the ready, alert and expectant. They both turned outward as they descended the ramp, taking in the whole of the unexpectedly small hangar bay.
"Clear!" they each sang out, almost in unison.
McKay surged forward at that. "Of course it's clear," he grumbled, "The life signs detector already told us that." But he lurched to a halt as Sheppard grabbed the pack on his back and yanked him backwards.
"And of course there's no such thing as an automated defense system."
"Oh, well -"
"Rein in some of that enthusiasm, McKay."
"Yes, yes, can we go now?" The scientist twisted himself free easily.
"Stay together," Sheppard enunciated loudly for everyone's benefit
The bay was obviously empty aside from their Jumper and there was only one internal access, a simple door that slid sideways into the wall at the group's approach. This led directly into a fairly wide but otherwise featureless corridor which led both right and left.
"Which way, McKay?"
Rodney didn't even look up from his scanner. "Left about six hundred meters then right into one of the ..." he grimaced "... spokes. That leads directly to the hub which is where the main controls are."
John nodded again to the marine sergeant, "Delaney, take point. Ronon, you're on our six. Everybody else, stick together."
They moved quickly down the corridor accompanied by the sounds of their own footfalls and the faint hiss of the ventilation system. There was no conversation to distract any of them. The passageway was continuously lit from behind recessed frosted panels placed at several meter intervals. None were dark. For a facility as old as this one claimed to be, support systems seemed to be in remarkably good working order. No one could doubt the Ancients built their structures to last.
"Here!" McKay called out unnecessarily as they came up on a vertical oval shaped access portal. One of the soldiers, the broad shouldered Sgt. Delaney, looked back at his commanding officer, who was blocking the scientist's path.
"Go ahead, Sergeant," Sheppard said, still keeping himself between McKay and the door.
The marine waved his hand in front of what appeared to be a small sensor very like the ones on Atlantis' doorways and it opened without any fuss, lights coming up on the other side at the same time. Rodney leaned around the soldiers to peer inside. He took a step back. "It's... a little narrow," he observed uncertainly.
John shrugged. "Well, it's wider than a submarine's passageway."
Rodney's head snapped around, "And you would know from all the subs the Air Force has--"
The pilot laughed, "I've been to Groton; anyone can play tourist."
Delaney and Morales, an Fleet Marine Force Hospital Corpsman on his first Atlantis assignment, exchanged long suffering, but silent, looks of amusement.
The Russian software engineer, Valeri Zaikin, squeezed in to peer over his boss' head. "You're right Colonel, this is a piece of cake, Rodney."
"Lemon cake," McKay grumbled back. Then he huffed in determined resignation, "Well, it doesn't matter. This is the way we have to go." He jiggled the scanner in emphasis, as if the fault they had to take this route was the machine's. His expression clearly saying: so it would be tight - single file all the way. But not impossible. It wasn't as if someone could get stuck.
"The order will be Sgt. Delaney, me, Dr. McKay, Ms. Emmagen, Dr. Shaltiel, Dr. Zaikin, Corpsman Morales, Specialist Dex." Sheppard listed the order before anyone (Rodney) could shove his way in first. He waited for their nods of understanding then stepped aside and gestured to the opening. "Sergeant," he invited casually.
Everyone obediently filed through the doorway in the prescribed order and they moved along the narrow featureless tube with Delaney setting a cautious, yet not terribly slow, pace. Even with Rodney situated behind him, by the time they reached the halfway point, John sensed the man's rising distress and one or two of Teyla's soft words of concerned encouragement. At least he could spare McKay some embarrassment.
By the time they reached the end and John could hear the quick shallow breaths of the battled phobia but still insisted on having Delaney enter first and give an all clear before allowing the rest of them to follow. He turned to observe Rodney passing through noting he was wide-eyed and pale, his jaw clenched hard enough to ache. "Rodney--?"
McKay swallowed twice before managing a deep breath. "This is it," he confirmed without acknowledging his team leader's concern.
Bright lighting illuminated a large curved console with a bank of three dark flat screens arrayed in front of the single central chair. Around the periphery of the room several narrow tables seemed to have been extruded seamlessly from the wall, each with two accompanying chairs which were fixed to the floor. It was, however, the central console that commanded Rodney's attention and he strode directly to it already fixed on his work. "Valeri, give me your laptop. Let's start by downloading the data archive," he organized even as he settled himself in the chair.
"Is that why the thing phoned home?" John asked as Zaikin obediently handed over a thin laptop already trailing an interface cable.
"No." Rodney glanced up briefly at John. "This observatory hasn't been active since about two thousand years before the Ancients last left Pegasus."
"What?!" Instinctively Sheppard shifted his grip on his P90 as if he suddenly expected something to attack them imminently.
"Standby mode, apparently," McKay continued blithely as he continued working. "A White Dwarf is essentially nothing more than a very dense, cooling briquette." He paused to read something first on one of the console screens and then on Zaikin's laptop screen. "Of course I am simplifying here. It's not just radiative cooling..." He trailed off as his attention was distracted by something on the console screen. He typed on the laptop, looked back up at the console and muttered "good, good," to himself or possibly the keyboard. "Earth's sun is about four point six billion years old," his voice resumed its earlier lecture mode volume. "And it's just through half its main sequence lifetime." He waved a hand as he explained, "It will end as a red giant and then stellar winds will strip the outer envelope away leaving pretty much what we have here - a collapsed naked stellar core losing its heat (in four stages) to the surrounding space."
"Yes, 'oh.' It would be far more interesting if -- oh!" He cut himself off this time. The engineers both followed his gaze to the leftmost monitor.
"'Oh?'" The extra quotes John added were obvious.
"Last year something collided with the star. The station woke up for that."
"It's been online since and its memory buffers are full."
"So that's why it called?"
"Apparently." McKay was sounding distracted again, his attention now so focused on his work that it didn't seem he would add anything more.
Valeri Zaikin, a man in his early fifties and with a lifetime of experience that made him one of the more reliable and flexible of Rodney's scientists looked up at Sheppard. "It should have dumped memory directly to a receiving computer on Atlantis but it seems that machine is no longer in service," he explained.
"Ah, so nothing catastrophic, then." John really wanted a quiet, uneventful mission.
"Depends on your definition of catastrophic," the other engineer declared. John knew that she had served in the Israeli armed forces and that made her a strong candidate for further off-world missions. Which was why she was off-world now after only a few months as part of the Atlantis expedition. "For this machine," she patted the console affectionately, "perhaps having its memory constipated with nowhere to send it is catastrophic."
"Colonel, stop pestering my people." McKay deigned to re-enter the conversation. "It's a nice sized station, why don't you military guys go explore. We're going to be here a while." At Sheppard's hesitation he added, "We didn't see any life signs and there's no reason to think there might be Wraith hibernating here." He paused to consider his words, then added, "Unless it'll convince you to go look for them."
"Not funny, McKay."
"Not meant to be, Sheppard."
"So... a while is how long?"
"Hours. We have to download the whole archive, reset the buffers after those are cleared." His hands waved about, emphasizing the huge amount of work ahead of them.
"Come on, Sheppard. I like his idea." Ronon encouraged hopefully. Sheppard knew he really hated standing around without good reason if there was a chance to be more active.
Sheppard thought about it. He rather liked the idea. "Teyla, I'm sorry, but I'm going to ask you and Morales to stay here just in case there are hibernating Wraith or something else dangerous." He wasn't about to leave McKay and his people unguarded. "Delaney, you're with Specialist Dex and me." Teyla was patient and quite capable of bending Rodney to her will when she really wanted without a whole lot of fuss. Rodney was rather old-fashionedly gentlemanly that way. John was pretty sure that only Teyla and Morales noticed them leave.
"Well. That's interesting," McKay muttered to himself twenty minutes later. He looked up. "Where's Sheppard?"
"Exploring, sir," Morales answered from his chosen post leaning against the wall near the entryway. "As you suggested."
"What is interesting, Rodney?" Teyla asked. She was seated at one of the chairs by the odd tables. The chairs swiveled and so she was able to keep her eyes on everything simply by turning in place.
"I've found some encrypted - strongly encrypted - files. Valeri, you stay with the archive transfer; Leah, you have the transient memory dump. I'm going to look into these. They're on a different server." He engaged his radio, "Sheppard, I'm going to have to change locations," he announced even as he readjusted his pack in anticipation of a hike.
"Why?" Came back clearly enough in his ear.
"I found references to some encrypted files on another server. " He pulled out his life signs detector. "It's almost directly opposite where you are now. Have you been there yet?"
"No. Teyla, do you copy?"
"I am listening, John." They all were. Everyone had their radios live and on the same channel.
"Go with him. Keep him out of trouble. Morales, you stay with Doctors Shaltiel and Zaikin."
A chorus of "Yes sir" and "Very well, John," reassured him. Mostly.
"It's an older bridge," Rodney explained as he and Teyla passed back into the narrow spoke. "Smaller, they must have used it while building the main part here." He was focused on the scanner and almost didn't recognize the tightness of the passageway this time. Teyla murmured a sound that was meant to imply that she was paying attention to him, but she was really more intent on their progress and the possibility that if his attention strayed from its focus he might need some encouragement to keep from panicking. "I suppose it's possible the earlier structure was more sound - although really, the whole station has to be sound I mean --"
The sound reverberated and the station shuddered. Light flared then disappeared completely. Everyone's radios filled with the shocked oaths of several languages.
"Rodney!" John yelled
"I don't know! Shut up! Everybody shut up!" he yelled, breathless and disoriented. "Ow."
"We're fine, John."
"Everyone's good here, sir. A bit knocked about."
"We've lost power though," Zaikin reported.
"Probably power's down everywhere." Sheppard replied. "Rodney?"
"No. No, it's not down everywhere. The small bridge is still up."
"Separate power systems?" Shaltiel mused. "Or backup?"
"I'll know when we get there," McKay answered.
"That sucked," Ronon editorialized.
"Don't everyone turn on your flashlights. We might need to conserve batteries," Sheppard advised. "Rodney, we need power. Ronon and I are trapped in a very small room. And I don't hear the ventilation going."
"Shouldn't there have been some sort of backup power?" One of the marines - Rodney wasn't sure which - was asking.
"Yes," Shaltiel replied after a moment. "I can't tell yet why it didn't."
Rodney stopped in the mid-motion of getting his flashlight out of a side pocket of his pack. "I thought there was no power?"
"My laptop is fine and it seems to be able to access the dump buffers, so I am looking to see what else I can connect to. Valeri is doing the same, but he was knocked off his feet and lost his earpiece so can't report."
"All right. Teyla and I are on our way..." he was already striding forward confident in his assumption that his companion was right behind him, "...to the small bridge. We'll see what we can do when we get there. First thing is to get air system going again. And anything else of life support that has been shut off."
"Interesting that we still have gravity, Rodney." Leah pointed out.
"Small favors and all that."
"People, if air supply is limited maybe so should the chatter be. " Sheppard gave a shot at mild subtlety.
"Good point," Rodney agreed. "I'll report again when we get there."
Now he did start to run, Teyla beside him. They careened off the curved walls now and again but sped up each time until Rodney skidded to a halt before one more unremarkable door. He passed his hand before the panel not really expecting it to open. When it did, he muttered, "I don't like this," but entered anyway. Fairly dim lighting revealed a short passage. This part of the platform would have been a small extension inside the wheel looking not unlike a bulb between a pair of spokes. He'd seen it on the schematics but hadn't given it much thought at the time.
"You can do this, Rodney," Teyla encouraged mistaking his hesitation for the phobia he often declared.
"Of course I can," he replied distractedly. "I just don't care for the coincidence." He pushed himself into the small airlock - because that's what it was - or had been once upon a time back when - would there be air on the other side of the --
"Rodney?" Teyla's questioning voice directly behind him and her hand on his shoulder jarred him from his near panic. He swiped his hand in front of the sensor and this door opened with a small, telling, hiss. There hadn't been air before; there was air now. He strode in and the lights came up at his presence. The room was small, somewhat trapezoidal in shape and dominated by... a Chair. Not completely unlike the one on Atlantis. But not quite the same either. This one didn't wait for someone to sit down; it was already glowing. Invitingly so, in fact.
He jerked to a stop tearing his eyes from the Chair to scan the rest of the room. There were closed cabinets along the right and back walls, and a small, unassuming (and dark) workstation off to his left that faced inward toward the Chair. "We might need that on," he said and he interrupted his rush to the chair to quickly pull his laptop from its secure place at his back, the disconcerting rip of releasing Velcro reflecting his haste. He hunched over the top of the station and when that revealed nothing useful, he moved to kneel behind it ignoring Teyla's shadowing him. He ran his fingers over the casing, making a satisfied huff when he found the thin cracks of a panel. "Teyla, hand me a screwdriver," he ordered, gesturing vaguely at his pack on the floor in front of the workstation. He did not take his eyes or right hand off the newly discovered panel.
A moment later, the pommel of a small screwdriver was shoved towards him. "Thanks," he said but didn't look away. Then he gently shoved the working end between the bottom crevice, first one corner, rocking back and forth til it made a pop sound then he did the same to the other side and the whole cover snapped off.
"Is that how it is supposed to come off?" Teyla asked with a grimace.
"Certainly not. But we're in a hurry here." He dropped the small tool with no second thought and twisted his head to peer inside. "Nothing unusual," he announced and a few moments of quick handiwork had his laptop linked to the alien machine. He lifted himself back to his feet and carried the laptop back to the front of the workstation, setting it rather precariously on a somewhat flat surface clear of any controls. He booted it up under his companion's silent scrutiny and started typing quickly. Several windows came up at his command and they all seemed to wait.
He moved his attention to the Ancient console.
"Hey guys, are you there yet?" Sheppard's unexpectedly breathy voice came over both radios.
"Yes, sorry, working," Rodney snapped back.
"We are here, Colonel." Teyla's response was much calmer. "Dr. McKay is connecting his computer to the Ancestor's." And as the Ancient machine came alive with windows upon windows of arcane and unreadable text, she added, "And he has turned both on."
"Rodney," Sheppard's voice insisted, "is that --"
"Safe?" Rodney interrupted. "Yes, I've got virus protection and this workstation is not too different from some of the older ones on Atlantis." He stood up, arching his back quickly. "Now shut up and let me work. You don't sound like you have much air left. Don't answer!" He flicked his radio off and gestured for Teyla to do the same. "I can't do anything from here," he said.
"The Chair?" She was quick, he'd give her that.
"Yeah. It's their only chance."
"Rodney! Wait, it might not be safe." But he wasn't listening and she wasn't fast enough or near enough or perhaps just hadn't expected him to just jump onto the Chair without checking it out first. But that's what he did, pulling off the cumbersome vest in record time, and she couldn't stop him.
"Oh," he said softly as his head and back touched the glowing blue chair back.
"Rodney?" But a flash at the corner of her eye had her turning toward the console McKay had indicated and by the time she turned back, a translucent shell had swallowed both her teammate and the Chair. She hit her radio, "Colonel--"
"Great job on the ventilation," Sheppard interrupted.
"Colonel there is a problem," Teyla said carefully as she walked slowly around the enclosed structure. "Dr. McKay is... trapped. We found a Chair as on Atlantis and when he sat down it encapsulated him."
"Of course he did," Sheppard groaned. "What do you mean by "encapsulated?" Force field?"
"No." Teyla walked up to the enclosure and rapped her knuckles on it. "It is hard and almost transparent." Her eyes narrowed as she tried to make out details within. "His eyes are closed but he is breathing. I do not know if he is conscious, though." She leaned closer, aware of a shout that sounded too distant to be Sheppard. Ronon, then. "John?"
"He's doing something, Teyla, Ronon heard something click in or near the door..."
Teyla was about to respond but Rodney jerked suddenly, his neck arching up away from the Chair, then he shuddered, his eyes snapping open briefly, a look of shock and then... He disappeared.
Teyla shouted, Sheppard and a myriad of other voices, the others who had been silently listening, all of them were talking at once, asking questions she could not answer. "He's gone," she cried out. "He's gone!"
To Act II