Milites, aedafitores, cogitores, amici, amantesque fueram; centis nominibus appellari sumus et milli pluribus appellabimur ante astrae fient obscurae frigidaeque. Heroes sumus.
The war was over.
The war had been over for quite some time, to anyone who was paying attention. It was hard to keep fighting; after all, once you were exhausted on one plane of existence and on another, your entire home galaxy had been laid to waste by the strategic weapons of both sides. They had managed somehow, just as the others had, slugging it out star by star and planet by planet until only a few last remnants had been left alive.
An end had finally come, after the better part of fifty years' fighting, with word arriving that a peace had been negotiated between the Loyalist and Independent factions. It was not unexpected; even if the Loyalists had managed to muster the forces to attack the last few Independent strongholds, it was doubtful their Lantean and Nox supporters would have gone along with it. They were tired of the slaughter and had no desire to see more of their own people put at risk. All that was left now was to pack up and obey the recall orders.
That, Crawliel thought, might be more difficult than it sounded, because he wasn't sure how his companion would take it. He delayed as long as he could with other tasks, like getting the ship powered up and ready for the long intergalactic flight, but eventually he sighed and started the long walk deep into the research facility's lowest and outermost reaches. He wished there was someone else there with them, preferably someone he could order to do the job for him, but the rest of the already-small garrison had been withdrawn one by one, until only he and a few dozen automated systems were left.
Besides Lilith and her pets, that was.
A hatch slid open and he stepped from the facility proper into one of the experimental areas. It was like stepping between worlds: on one side everything was smooth white walls, bright lights, and gleaming metal; on the other there were dark, twisting halls made from chitin and flesh. There was always a distinct chill in the air, and many of the corridors were filled knee-deep with a fog that he hoped was just water vapor. Goosebumps rose on the skin of the construct he was wearing, for more reasons than one.
He finally found Lilith in what she called the queen's chamber, not far from the command deck. She was tall and lithe, and had long blonde hair that was streaked with red, like many of her kind. As she so often was, she was running esoteric devices over the sleeping form of her eldest 'daughter'.
"Afternoon, ma'am," Crawliel said after a few moments.
"Good afternoon," she replied, not looking away from her work. "How are you today?"
"I'm doing fine," he said. "You?"
"Quite well. I think I've finally gotten the bugs worked out of the mass birthing process." Lilith stroked the queen's cheek fondly. "That will make things so much easier in the future for all of us."
"Uh, yeah." Crawliel shuddered slightly. Natural birth was not something he and other Furlings had needed to be concerned about for a hundred thousand years, since they had mostly shed their original forms. For that matter, he was pretty sure that even other Nox weren't quite so enthusiastic about the process. "Actually, about that. The war's over. We're going back to Bastion."
"I am aware of that," she said, with only the slightest stiffening of her body. "I have been kept appraised of the progress of the negotiations. It's not unexpected. I'll be ready to leave by the end of the day."
"Oh. I see." Crawliel had honestly expected considerable resistance on her part. He was relieved that the war was over, having chosen a side more or less by accident and doing his best to avoid any actual fighting. She, on the other hand, was a convert and always struck him as something of a fanatic. "You don't mind?" he asked.
Lilith finally turned to face him. "Would I have preferred to see the Citadel burned to ashes and scattered across the stars, just like my world? Certainly. They deserve nothing less. But the outcome was inevitable once the Ancients and the rest of the Nox decided to intervene." She shrugged. "I can wait. I can wait a millennium, or a dozen, or longer if I have to. Demographics are on my side. My Wraith will be as ready then as they are now."
"They can hibernate that long?"
"Not naturally, but the equipment here will sustain them." Lilith smiled softly and turned back to the queen. "Sooner or later, they're going to understand what we've all lost while they stood by."
In all honesty, Crawliel doubted that would be the case. The Ancients had been around millions of years and had seen countless civilizations come and go. Lilith's pet Wraith would be no different. It wasn't his problem, though, and if it kept her happy then he really didn't seen any reason to contradict her beliefs. The Ancients could do that for him.
One reason that the Wraith posed such a challenge was the timing of their emergence on the galactic scene. Under normal circumstances, they would have posed little threat. Lantean technology far surpassed theirs even at the start of the war, with our warships in particular having advantages on a ton-for-ton basis in power output, efficiency, offensive and defensive capability, and every other measure of combat ability. At other points of history, the differences would have been even greater. Even their advantage in sheer weight of numbers should not have been so great — at our height, Lantean society was spread across the entire galaxy, and the Wraith would never have had a chance to grow to such numbers.
Unfortunately, we were considerably weaker than was average for Alterran civilization. One must understand that this was part of a natural cycle of boom and bust that stretched back to the earliest recorded parts of our history, right to the original split with the Ori. Society would advance to stretch across the galaxies, until our technological and biological advancement reached a critical point and the vast majority of the population disappeared in mass ascension events. There would always be some left behind, either intentionally or by accident, and from these remnants Alterran society would once more rise. Atlantis, and the other city-ships that followed, were designed specifically to help moderate the effects of these mass ascensions and preserve what knowledge and technology could still be used and understood by those who remained. Once such event occurred shortly after the Furling civil war, leaving Lantean society vastly diminished. We were only just beginning to recover in terms of population and advanced technology, with barely twelve million of us spread across the galaxy, a tiny number compared to the countless billions of the servitor species produced by the Human Seeding Program [nb: believed to be h. sapiens extracted from Africa — dj]. Lantean population growth was only barely above replacement rate, but none the less we were beginning to once more spread out and explore the galaxy around us when we encountered the Wraith.
The exact date for the start of the war was one of considerable debate, in no small part because it had political ramifications regarding how the High Council and other government bodies handled the earliest parts of the conflict. I think that, in retrospect, the only logical point to choose would be when the Wraith were first awakened. This occurred at an archaeological dig being conducted as part of a planetary survey by the Monitor Corps vessel Veritas, a Loknar-class destroyer operating under the auspices of the Galactic Exploration Command….
Planets are big. Really big.
Even habitable planets — using baseline Alterran physiology as the standard for defining 'habitable', as opposed to that of methane-breathing knnn or gas giant Dwellers — are positively huge. They have about five hundred and ten million square kilometers of area, give or take some millions. One could not just step through a stargate, spend a few hours walking around the general area, and declare the planet explored. Even the most basic survey of anything beyond gross physical features could take hundreds of people months to complete.
That was why Veritas was at thirty days and counting in its mission to explore a nameless world out on the far end on the galaxy. Re-explore, rather — like every other habitable rock in Pegasus, it had no doubt been surveyed several times before but those records had disappeared somewhere in the database at some point in the last few thousand years. It was one of those jobs that someone had to do in order to keep society functioning smoothly.
Vital as it was, it was also so boring that the ship's executive officer, Star Captain Johannes Veterator, was seriously contemplating finding some way to accidentally blow the planet up. It wouldn't be all that difficult. There were a dozen ways to do it with a stargate alone. If he put some thought into it, he might even be able to do it retroactively, so that he'd never come to the system at all.
"You're thinking evil thoughts, Johannes," Star Colonel Nioba said, breaking into his contemplation of artificial singularities.
John sat up a little straighter and glanced over his shoulder at the ship's commander, who had turned her chair to face him. "I don't know what you mean, ma'am. I'm just reviewing the report from the aquatic survey unit."
"Mmm-hmmm." She arched one eyebrow at him. "You're being very loud about it, you know."
John blushed and looked back at his screen, clamping down on his mental shields. "Sorry, ma'am."
"No, you're not," Nioba said with a chuckle. "Go find something to do before you kill us all."
"Yes, ma'am," he said as he all but jumped out of his chair. "If you need me, I'll be on the surface."
He left the bridge before his commander could suggest something else for him to do. A visit to some of the survey sites on the planet would be good for morale. They might need reminding that the people upstairs remembered they existed. Or possibly not, since most of them came back to sleep on the ship at night and probably didn't really care what the operations crew thought about them, but it would definitely be good for John's morale to get some fresh air and flight time.
John passed by the external transporter rooms, even though ring transporters had been placed at all the points of current interest around the planet. Instead he went straight to the main hangar bay and picked out his favorite gateship. A minute later he was flying clear of the bay and pushing the engines as hard as they'd go. The maintenance crew would be annoyed when he got back, but he'd discovered that one of the benefits of being the executive officer was that he could ignore that sort of thing. He spent a while putting the ship through its paces and making sure that he hadn't lost his touch while spending most of his time behind a desk, until finally he turned planet ward. Veritas was a sleek, dagger-like shape against the bright blues, greens, and white of the planet. John deliberately dropped his speed to only a few dozen kilometers an hour and then did a close approach, just barely missing the transparent bridge dome as he skimmed along the hull.
Grinning to himself he turned the gateship once more and sent it into the atmosphere, heading for the largest of the many survey sites scattered around the planet. It was located in the foothills where a great plain met a mountain chain, and like the rest of the planet, it was currently uninhabited. Until a thousand or so years before, much of the area had been tundra or even covered with ice, the result of a short cold period, but now there were trees and grassland stretching in all direction. The only artificial object on the entire world was the stargate, or at least that had been the assumption until the ship's deep scans had picked up faint readings not far from the gate. Since then most of the ship's archaeologists and no few of the engineers had been going crazy over the find, although the rest of the science staff were of the general opinion that they had been insane to begin with.
John landed in a clearing not far from the main encampment and enjoyed spending a few minutes walking through the pristine forest. He hadn't called ahead, but none the less one of his fellow officers was waiting for him when he emerged from the woods. Field Captain Teyla Salatrix was the commander of the ship's Ground Force contingent and thus had the dubious job of safeguarding all the scientists from wild animals, hostile aliens, and on occasion, each other.
"I see that one of our lords and masters from the operations crew has deigned to visit us," she said to him with mocking seriousness. She had an odd, slightly stilted way of speaking, the result of growing up among the consular and anthropological delegation assigned to the human world of Athos. Like many members of the Monitor Corps, and especially the Ground Forces, she had spent most of her formative years surrounded by as many humans as Lanteans.
"Someone has to keep an eye on you grunts," John replies. "We can't have you blowing up the invaluable artifacts or damaging the local ecology, can we?"
Teyla raised an eyebrow. "I am not sure a flyboy would be the best candidate for supervising us, especially you. Did you not once set fire to a temple?"
"Honestly, how was I supposed to know the holy vines were flammable?" John brushed the entire issue aside with a wave of his hand. It wasn't his fault that humans were weird. "How's everything going?"
"No one has died," Teyla said, "and thus far even Sergeant Lynceus has managed to restrain himself and not stunned anyone. In my view, that is a smashing success."
It was John's turn to raise an eyebrow. "That bad?"
"Our scientists do not get along with those sent by the Science Council. I believe the most polite thing they've called them is poachers and it gets worse from there." She paused a moment and smirked slightly. "I believe the troopers are teaching them new profanity."
"Good for them." John spotted one the scientists in question approaching and nodded in acknowledgement. "Parrish."
"Johannes," Parrish said. He was a tall, lanky man with a near-constant smile and the enthusiasm of a puppy. He was also head of Veritas' life sciences department. John liked him, not just because of his personality but also because Parrish had once saved him from large, betentacled plant that had been either very hungry or very amorous. "Come to see what we've found?"
"Yeah," John said, only lying a little. He was a big fan of science, although he preferred the kind that made explosions and ravening death-rays. "What have you got?"
"Well, the ecology around here is just fascinating." Parrish turned toward the mountains looming in the distance and waved his hands at them. "I mean, only two, maybe three thousand years ago, the glaciers you see up on those peaks would have reached down here. But if you look all around us, there's already an incredible amount of plant life that has moved back in. Most of it's very hardy, because the winters are still fairly harsh in this area, especially since the moisture coming off the oceans all gets dumped here. There's a lot of animal life, too, although honestly only the giant squid in the oceans are all that interesting in my opinion."
"Animals not as exciting as a nice tree?" John joked.
"Wellll," Parrish said, looking a bit shifty, "that depends on how you define exciting."
"The beasts of the forest crave the flesh of men," Teyla stated matter-of-factly. John smiled hesitantly, unsure if she was joking. Finally she explained, "A bear attempted to eat Doctor Goramnus."
"What, seriously?" John asked.
"I wouldn't say it tried to eat him," Parrish said. "It just mauled him a bit and then left."
"Mauled him," John repeated.
"He tried to pet it. It's not the bear's fault that he'd never seen an undomesticated animal outside of a zoo. We warned everyone not to bother the wild animals, but no one ever listens to squishy scientists."
"They do now," Teyla said, a hint of a smile appearing on her face. "It was certainly an instructive experience for everyone, and we have much less trouble keeping everyone inside the camp's protective barriers at night."
"And Gor wasn't hurt much!" Parrish quickly added. "Well, once they reattached his arm and stuck him in a regeneration pod for a while." He clapped his hands together. "Anyways, you probably didn't come down here to talk about bears. Come on, I'll show you the real prize we've found."
Parrish set off down a path into the forest, heading toward a long, high hill a kilometer or so away, and John and Teyla followed along. About ten minutes later they reach an excavation pit, where several scientists were using disintegration rays and force fields to dig into the hillside. Parrish led them into the pit itself and John realized that they were carefully uncovering something big. A few dozen meters under the surface they had exposed a wall of some strange, glistening material that was colored in subtle hues of blue with traces of green and purple. It reminded John of the shell of a beetle or some other insect.
Reaching the blue wall itself, Parrish turned and grinned triumphantly at them. "Impressive, isn't it?"
"It is at that," John said, walking up beside him. He glanced at Parrish for the okay, then carefully placed his hand against the material. It was hard and smooth, almost slippery even, although not moist in the least. It definitely wasn't any kind of rock that he'd ever heard of. "I'm guessing it was alive or something?"
"Is alive," Parrish corrected. "We've taken tissue samples, there's definitely cellular activity under the outer layer. What you're looking at seems to be a shell of some sort. It's a chitin-like material, although the makeup is just astounding. Most of it's very similar to advanced carbon nanotubes, and there's also iron, titanium, even minute traces of naquadah and trinium. None of us have ever heard of anything like it."
"How far does it extend?" Teyla asked.
"We think the whole length of the hill — maybe even longer."
John did a quick estimate of how far it had seemed to extend in either direction. "That's got to be, what, ten kilometers?"
"We think closer to eleven or twelve, depending on how much is buried."
"Bigger than a city-ship," John said with a whistle.
"I know. There's records of larger fungal or plant colonies, but not of a single organism of this size or makeup, at least not on land." Parrish' smile grew even wider. "The best part is that there's six more of them scattered around the surrounding area, plus another dozen or so smaller ones. There might even be more. This is the sort of find that makes careers."
"Which is why the Science Bureau is sending their own experts and ships," John guessed.
Parrish rolled his eyes and nodded, his grin dropping away. "Yes. That, and the archaeological find. It wouldn't do for the Corps' pet scientists to show up the real researchers."
"I bet the commander would let you stick around after we leave," John offered. "You could catch up after we hit Prolmar and Sector Seven."
Parrish shook his head. "No need. The company would be awful, and I'd get bored before too long. I took this position so I could go out and discover things, not sit in one place." His smile returned. "Besides, everyone's going to know who found it."
"I'm sure our planned shore leave at Sateda has nothing to do with your decision," John said.
"I did hear they have rather impressive botanical garden in the capital, although I'm not a particular fan of pleasure domes, unlike some people on the ship." Parrish gave no indication that he was directing the comment at his present company, which saved John the effort of defending his honor against the horrible, vicious, completely (mostly) untrue rumors floating around the ship's rec rooms. "Come on, you'll want to see the other source of excitement."
Parrish led them out of the pit and away from the hill-slash-creature and down another well-worn footpath that lead in a different direction than they had come from. After another walk, they came to another excavation; this one they were digging around something that was more of a small rock outcropping than something that could accurately be called even a small hill. The rock extended well beneath the dirt that had accumulated around it, and the workers had exposed a clearly artificial opening. It was extremely simple, just an arched entryway that was flush with the rock face and may well have been next to invisible if the rock around it hadn't been worn away by time and the excavators.
"This is just the tip of a large, buried facility," Parrish explained as they walked down a ramp to the level of the entrance. "Most of it is several hundred meters down, in the bedrock. There's also what looks like a caved-in hangar about twenty kilometers west, in one of the foothills. Both sites are very well hidden, and there are remains of what were probably shield and sensor-jamming systems near the surface in both areas. Whoever made this place wanted it to stay unnoticed. If the glaciers hadn't disturbed a lot of the stealth materials or the power was still on, we might not have noticed it."
"Mmm," John said, looking around as Parrish led them inside and through an open airlock with what looked like double-layered blast doors. It sounded like a lot of effort to avoid being found, and he couldn't think of a good reason for that — or perhaps more accurately, an innocent reason.
"We checked for booby-traps and automated defenses," Teyla said, as if reading his mind. "Our initial scans showed nothing obvious, but I have specialists going room-by-room and scanning for anything dangerous."
"Good thinking," John said.
Beyond the airlock the hall began spiraling downward at a gentle slope. There were lights strung up at regular intervals, as the originals weren't working. They descended the equivalent of ten or twelve levels before it flattened out and then terminated in a wide open chamber. There were several tables, chairs, and computer consoles scattered about, almost as if it had once been half living area and half workroom. Now it was filled with engineers, technicians, and other people studying the place. Less than half wore the white, gray, and tan uniforms and jumpsuits used by the Monitor Corps; far more wore civilian clothing with pins or patches identifying them as members of one of the Science Council's many subsidiary organizations.
Holding court at the center of the room was a short, lithe woman with space-black hair which was pulled into a braid that reached halfway down her back. She glanced their way momentarily, sighed dramatically, and handed a data slate off to one of her subordinates.
"I suppose you've come to find some new way to obstruct my team, Captain?" she asked sharply. "Or perhaps it's you this time, Doctor?"
"Actually, we were just showing the XO around," Parrish said. The woman's attitude didn't dampen his enthusiasm in the least. "Have you gotten that blockage in the lower tunnel cleared out yet?" To John, he added, "Our surface-penetrating scans show tunnels leading from a chamber a couple levels down out to each of the creatures, but there's a collapsed stairwell in the way."
"The executive officer?" The woman said, ignoring Parrish. She inclined her head to John in a polite greeting. "Project Administrator Taxia, Faxlig Institute."
"Star Captain Johannes," he said, nodding. "Nice to meet you."
"Has your commander finally decided to listen to the complaints I've been filing?"
John raised an eyebrow. It sounded like the commander may have chosen then to send him down for more reasons than worry about explosions. "Complaints?"
"Captain Teyla has been placing unnecessary restraints on our research," Taxia said, glaring at Teyla.
"By which she means we have been making sure that her team is not exploded, electrocuted, poisoned, or crushed by hidden defenses," Teyla replied.
"You're annoyed because they're checking for booby traps?" John asked, wondering if he was missing something.
"It's highly unlikely that there would be any such thing, and we do have our own procedures for avoiding that sort of incident," Taxia insisted. "All you're doing is getting in the way and possibly disturbing the state an invaluable archaeological find. This is almost certainly a late Third Age Furling installation. It's entirely possible that there's not another like it in existence, especially in such pristine condition, and your soldiers are tromping around making a mess of it."
"As I've assured you," Teyla said, "we are taking every precaution to avoid disturbing the site."
"I don't know if that's good enough," John said. "Didn't one of your guys accidentally knock down that tower we found on Arprolas?"
Teyla narrowed her eyes. "No. That was one of your pilots, I believe."
"Oh. So it was." John shrugged. "Director, I wouldn't worry. They really are trained on how to take care of that sort of thing, and I'm sure our own archaeologists are watching them like hawks."
"I see," Taxia said. "I suppose I should have expected the field captain's paranoia to extend up her chain of command."
"Yep." In John's opinion, once enough weird human ruins had shot poison darts at you or tried to crush you with giant boulders, it was healthy to have a certain amount of wariness about any long-abandoned building. "What is this place, anyways?"
"My guess is some sort of biological research lab," Parrish said. "They were either studying the creatures we found, or were responsible for creating them somehow."
"That seems unlikely," Taxia said. "The Furlings rarely concern themselves with matters like biology, and that held true even during those days when most of them still had primarily physical forms. Research into some sort of exotic radiation or particles is more likely. The experiments themselves might have been conducted at the end of those tunnels and at some point since the facility was abandoned, whatever it was leaked out and caused local life to mutate."
"Could be, could be. The Furlings didn't always bother with proper shielding, either," Parrish agreed. "Which brings us back to the question of the stairwell again — can we go and take a look?"
"The engineers have cleared it out, yes, and your security technicians have cleared that level," Taxia admitted. "There's a sealed hatch at the end of tunnel to the closest mound creature. I was about to check on their progress at opening it."
"It's a good think I showed up when I did, then," Parrish said. He looked at John and Teyla. "Want to come along?"
"I'm sure they have something better to do," Taxia said.
John shook his head. "You'd be surprised. My job involves a lot more sitting around staring at personnel reports than dog fighting with pirates or rescuing stranded travelers."
"I see. Well, come along then."
The four of them headed further inside the facility, passing through a pair of short halls before coming to a stairwell leading downward. After several flights they came to an area where the white walls were cracked and buckled and were now shored up with the copper-colored material commonly used in Lantean buildings. According to Taxia, the immense weight of the glaciers had caused shifts in underground formations, which in turn had broken the structure at that point. Most of it was far more intact, barring a few other less well-constructed corridors. The stairs terminated in another open chamber similar to the one above, although filled with more equipment instead of furniture. It was barely lit, with only a few portable lamps stuck here and there; of the half-dozen halls that lead away from the chamber, all but one was pitch black.
At the end of that one there was a round door and several scientists milling about, peering over each other's shoulders as they observed two technicians kneeling on the floor. The techs had a panel open next to the door and were fiddling with something inside.
"Afternoon, Specialist Firtus," John said, recognizing one of the techs.
"Practicing your breaking and entering skills, I see."
"We've got to keep in practice in case someone else decides to lock you up, sir." Firtus conferred a moment with his companion, then stood up and brushed off his knees. "Actually, it was pretty simple. The door's got a remote-controlled lock, but whoever built this place didn't actually activate it when the left, like they did the main entrance. We've just been hooking up a power cell and checking the circuits over."
To demonstrate, he reached across the door and tapped a raised triangle with symbol engraved in it. The symbol flashed and after a momentary hesitation the door slowly rolled aside with a raspy, creaking noise. There was darkness beyond, quickly dispelled as people began shining lights inside. Immediately past the hatch was a surface the same blue color as the carapace that had been unearthed at the dig, only here it was swiftly retracting into itself until a tunnel of some sort was revealed.
Teyla had to step in front of Parrish to keep him from rushing inside and took a few cautious steps past the hatch herself before nodding for Parrish to follow. John and Taxia followed, with the techs and other scientists coming along in their wakes. Here and there parts of the ceiling began to glow, providing illumination that was dim but more than adequate to see by.
"This is artificial," Teyla said as they all slowly walked further inside, coming to halt inside a chamber thirty or so meters inside. She squatted down and put her hand through the fog. "The floor feels extremely level and not very wet, considering this fog. I can not imagine that would occur naturally."
"Some sort of living structure," Taxia murmured. "Incredible."
"I've heard that people have tried this sort of thing," Parrish said, practically vibrating with excitement. "But as far as I know, never on a scale like this."
John was left scratching his head as everyone else marveled at the find, with even the techs getting into the act and looking over what looked like some sort of console but did absolutely nothing as they poked and prodded at it. It honestly didn't seem all that important to him.
"So what's it good for?" he asked, drawing odd looks from the others. "I mean, okay, I suppose it's impressive and all, but why make it?"
"That's a good question," Parrish said after a moment. "It definitely isn't like the Furlings to create something like this. It's far too… squishy."
"It could have been someone else, some ally or servitor species," Taxia suggested.
"But still, why even bother?" John said. "I don't see the point."
Parrish frowned and worried at his lower lip. "You could plant a seed or egg or something at your chosen location, and come back a few months or years later to find a complete building, assuming you supplied the right nutrients."
"A wet, cold, disgusting building. It's nothing we don't do with fabricators, assembler gates, and a few industrial robots."
"It could grow and repair itself."
"City-ships do that with repair droids and micromachines. They don't get sick, either, like living things do."
"For another thing, I can't imagine a biological creature could match advanced technology."
"Well, no, there are hard limits to how far you can push an organism that's mostly carbon-based, especially when it comes to high-intensity power, but who cares?" Parrish spread his hands wide and smiled. "It's amazing! Isn't that enough?"
"I guess," John said. He really couldn't see anything particularly amazing about living inside the bowels of a big bio-engineered critter.
"You know, I think I'll —" he started, cutting short as he turned a little and saw movement out of the corner of his eye. It was nothing much, just a flash of red in the darkness of one of the corridors leading away, there and then gone, but he would swear that it wasn't a trick of the light.
"Teyla, you see that?" he asked, noticing she was eying the same corridor
"I am not sure," she said slowly. She pulled a hand scanner from her utility belt and turned it on, but it was a futile gesture: the device's entire screen lit up and it made a plaintive chirp.
John frowned deeply, and Teyla looked no happier. Neither one of them had gotten this far by ignoring their instincts. It was possible they were just bored and looking for something interesting to do, but unlikely.
"Administrator Taxia, Doctor Parrish," Teyla said. "If it is not too much trouble, I would prefer if you did not being immediate exploration of this place." She held up a hand before they could protest. "As you can see, our life-sign sensors do not appear to function correctly, and there could be hundreds of miles of corridors. It would be very easy for people to become lost, and there may be hazards further inside."
Parrish sighed but nodded. "You're right, of course. We'll need to be careful, maybe adopt cave exploration procedures."
"It shouldn't be too hard to adjust the sensors," Taxia said, nodding as well. "Anyone who comes down will not do so alone, or go far past the immediate area until it is mapped."
It wasn't exactly what Teyla had said, but it was a compromise of sorts. "That is acceptable, so long as at least one Corps member accompanies each group."
"Agreed." Taxia looked around her. "It will be weeks before we can even hope to explore it entirely in any case, and a few delays until the rest of our personnel and equipment won't hurt anything. Studying a find like this at even a basic level will take years. Decades, even."
John and Teyla stuck around until well past what should have been dinner, because apparently everyone who was planet side — and a few who hadn't been — wanted to come down and see the big, huge, immensely important find of the millennium. Nothing untoward happened at all, not even so much as someone wandering off and falling down a chasm, and eventually they both relaxed enough to leave Teyla's chief lieutenant to supervise and went to get some chow, dragging Parrish along to make sure the man relaxed a little before he exploded or spontaneously ascended or something.
Teyla did some more dragging after they ate, pulling the two of them and a couple of her troopers away from the main camp to another, smaller clearing where someone had dug a fire pit over the last few weeks. It was one of those odd ideas she had picked up from her childhood, that people should get away from stress by leaving the comforts of a perfectly good city or recreation tent with a fully functional holographic entertainment center and instead go 'camping' out in the forest. John had known her for ten years and still didn't quite get it. He was far more at home in the air or space, and if he had to commune with nature, time out on the ocean would be his first choice. Still, he could see a certain attractiveness in the peace and quite of just sitting around a fire, melting various sweets over it, and passing around alcohol and other mood-altering substances.
Later, while John and Parrish were lying on their backs trying to figure out which star was Veritas (none of them, they realized, because there were trees in the way) and the troopers were arguing what the best squad support weapon was (drones, in John's opinion, could solve anything), Teyla's communications pin chirped.
"Captain, it's Kelto."
Teyla sighed. "Go ahead, Lieutenant."
"We've had some people exploring the… thing go missing. Trooper Mikros and two scientists. No one's heard from them for about an hour now. I've sent some search parties down, but I thought you'd want to know."
"Of course someone is missing," Teyla replied. "It would be too much to expect that no one wander off despite instructions to take care. I will be there shortly."
John propped himself up on his elbows. "You want us to come with you?"
"I am sure I can manage a simple search and rescue by myself," Teyla said with a slight smile. "If I have need of more manpower, I shall call —"
"— the ship," Parrish finished. He grinned and stretched. "I don't feel like moving."
"I will try to keep that in mind." With a nod to John, Teyla disappeared out of the circle of firelight and into the darkness. The four of them remaining turned back to their conversations, recounting old stories of adventures on worlds that had offered more excitement than this one.
The attack came without warning. One moment they were talking around the fire; the next a lithe form leaped from the trees and struck Corporal Persperia's head so hard that John could hear her neck snap. There was a beat of horrified confusion before the rest of them moved, drawing weapons and scrambling to their feet. John trained his disruptor on the attacker but before he could fire another being appeared from the side and struck the weapon from his hand. John tried to hit it back but the thing deflected his blows with ease, casually turned to bat Parrish to the ground when he tried to aid John, and with little effort it forced him to retreat until it suddenly rushed forward and pinned him against a tree. He tried to struggle, but its strength was so great that with just one arm it could hold him in place.
Firtus was having no more luck that John, and in fact the first attacker — and now that it was in the firelight he could see that it was a female with long, blood-red hair — was holding him down on the ground. For some reason she ripped the front of his tunic, raised her right hand, and brought it slamming down on his bared chest.
A moment later, Firtus screamed. He kept screaming until he had no more breath, and even then he mouth hung open in silent agony as his entire body twisted and shriveled until, a minute later, there was nothing left but a desiccated corpse.
Finally the female rose, turning John's way and giving him a wicked smile. At some silent command the male released John and he staggered a few feet. He knew he stood no chance at trying to fight, run, or even activate his communicator, so he straightened his back and squared his shoulders.
"I am Star Captain Johannes Veterator of the starship Veritas, Lantean Monitor Corps," he said, managing to keep his voice steady. "Who are you?"
"We are Wraith," the female replied. He voice was low and slightly raspy. She slowly began walking around the fire, and as she did John studied her and the male. They appeared almost human at first glance, although even the slightest observation belied that. Her skin, and that of her companion, was a pale blue-green in color, and there were strange inset marks on their faces. Their limbs were a little too long, and the female moved with an odd, predatory grace that reminded John of the great cats, all arrogance and lazy power.
"I'm not familiar with that species," he replied. "If we're trespassing on your world, I apologize. I warn you, though, if you kill us we will be avenged."
She laughed at him. "Perhaps. Perhaps not."
"Believe me, there's no 'perhaps' about it. We have a ship in orbit, and I can guarantee that if you pick a fight with it you'll lose."
"We know of your ship. It does appear formidable." She drew a finger along his jaw. "You are one of the leaders, are you not?"
"I'm the second in command."
"I thought so. You will prove very useful."
"I doubt it." John smirked a little. "You won't get anything out of me, and honestly, I'm not sure you'd get any kind of ransom."
She chucked again, a deep, vibrating laugh. "Oh, I shall savor your defiance."
"I don't know. I've been told I'm a bit stringy," John said. He was trying to keep their attention firmly on him, and not what he'd caught out of the corner of his eye. He could have sworn that he did nothing to give it away, but it was almost as if she had read his mind. The female tipped her head to slightly to the side and the male stalked over to Parrish, who had been silently inching his way backward towards John's weapon, and placed a foot on his outstretched hand.
"My queen," the male said, eying Parrish with a speculative look that John did not like at all. "If I may?"
"You may," she replied.
"No, wait," John said desperately. "Don't do this."
"Is he a friend?" the queen asked. John didn't answer, but she smiled even more. "Perhaps I should keep him around, then. Take only a little."
Parrish tried to fight, kicking and punching as hard as he could with no effect as the male knelt down, and when John tried to move the queen's arm lashed out fast as a snake and pressed him hard against the tree once more.
Just as the male was grabbing on to Parrish's shirt, an energy bolt flashed out of the woods and struck the queen in the side, flinging her a half-dozen meters. The male jumped to his feet and hissed, only to be hit square in the head then chest in quick succession. Incredibly, the queen rose, ribs exposed through a charred but visibly healing hole, then with a screech she darted off into the woods and disappeared in the darkness.
Teyla appeared a moment later, her pistol extended in the direction the queen had gone. "Are you all right?"
"Fuck, no," John said. "But we're alive."
"You're lucky I was still close enough to hear the screams."
Parrish snatched John's disruptor and got up, trembling in a way he hadn't even a few seconds before. John found himself shaking as well as he retrieved the more powerful pistol Persperia had been carrying. He checked her pulse and found none.
"We need to get her to sickbay and into a regeneration pod," he said. A glance at what was left of Firtus left little doubt in John's mind that he was too far gone for even the most advanced revivication technology. Given the massive tissue damage done to the rest of him, there was no chance that his brain wasn't destroyed beyond repair. "Have you alerted everyone else?"
Teyla shook her head. "I tried to contact both the ship and the camp, but it appears our comms are being jammed."
"We'll head back to camp, then, and use their transmitter. If we have to we'll ring aboard and do it in person."
"Where did they come from?" Parrish asked. "There's no way we could have missed them in our original scans."
"The mounds," John guessed. "They must have been inside, hibernating or something, and we woke them up."
"They would have had to come out through the facility's entrance and past the guards and civilians, though," Teyla said.
"It's possible there's other exits that they could open from inside," John suggested, but he wasn't sure of that at all. It was all too likely that where there were two of the Wraith creatures, there would be more. "We should hurry."
They set off through the forest, as fast as they dared with only dim moonlight to see by. Teyla took the lead and John covered the rear, with Parrish in the middle where he kept an eye on Teyla's scanner. None of them saw anything on the way, but that apparent blessing turned ominous when they reached the camp and found it dark and deserted, with no one to be seen and the normally-bright spotlights around the perimeter and main paths unlit. The sole sign that anyone had been there at all was a pair of Wraith bodies, which looked male but were far more heavyset than the first and had strange face masks. Nearby was the corpse of a trooper, too desiccated to even be identified.
"I'm not picking up any life signs," Parrish whispered. "Anywhere."
"They might have retreated to the ship," John said.
Teyla shook her head and said what John had actually been thinking: "Or the guards ended up spread through the mound and were isolated one by one, then those who were still on the surface were overwhelmed."
"Or that, yeah. We need to get to the rings and get reinforcements."
They made it halfway to the center of the camp where the ring platform was located when the night sky was suddenly split by a brilliant blue bolt from the nearest mound. It was swiftly followed by more from the other mounds. John was an experienced astrogator and needed no instruments to measure the angle to know they were aimed at geosynchronous orbit. There was only one thing up there worth shooting at.
"Back to my gateship!" he ordered.
They sprinted this time, thankfully down a more beaten and safe path. Even as they reached it the ground started to rumble and shake, as if there was a mighty earthquake beginning. John flung himself into the pilot's chair, activating the cloak and taking them into the air before the hatch was closed behind them. In all directions the mounds were cracking open as something began to rise from inside them. It was an incredible and terrifying sight, even from a distance: six massive, triangular shapes lifting into the side, with smaller ones coming up as well. They were ships, living ships, carrying who knew how many Wraith and possibly prisoners aboard them.
John wanted to drop the cloak and open fire, but he didn't dare do so, not with passengers, and not when someone had to report back home. He wasn't even sure he could kill more than one or two before he was out of drones in any case. So he trailed the ships at a safe distance, recording as much data as the gateship's sensors could pick up, until all of the Wraith ships had entered orbit and then jumped to hyperspace.
Veritas was in pieces when John took the gateship that way. The ship was broken completely in two by a gash amidships, one of the engine nacelles was floating free, and there was a slowly-expanding cloud of debris surrounding the larger parts. Even the largest sections were barely intact, cratered and charred by weapons fire. Trying to dock and perform rescue operations was out of the question, as there were no safe ports or hangars, and they didn't have the right equipment aboard anyways. The only option was to use the stargate to contact the nearest base and request help.
The battleship Depulsio arrived two hours later. By the end of the day, there were exactly twenty-eight survivors from Veritas' crew: John, Teyla, Parrish, four marine biologists who had been on gateships under the ocean, ten people from a different survey site on the other side of the planet, and eleven crew members recovered from within the ship's wreck. It wasn't skill but luck that separated them from the two hundred and ten who did not survive.
Days of debriefing followed, with John and Teyla bearing the brunt of it as they were escalated up the chain of command right to the High Council itself. The loss of a starship, plus the Science Bureau's advance team, to a completely unknown enemy was an important matter. Every last action they had taken since the day Veritas had entered orbit was reviewed and dissected, until finally there was no questions left to ask.
When it was over, John found himself in the office of Supreme Commander Camilla Volsciae, the commander in chief of the Lantean military. He had been there before, although not for a long time. She was a distant relative, a great-great-something aunt although only her gray hair betrayed her centuries of age, and a mentor of sorts who had taken him under her wing when he had been barely sixteen and his parents had had the bad grace to choose then to ascend. At the time she had been a starship commander, and since her selection as Supreme Commander he had avoided having too much contact, wanting his own career to be well established in a way that left no room for accusations of favoritism. It was decision mostly born out of pride, not any real chance that anyone of importance would think poorly of him, and now he was glad that it was her sitting across the desk instead of a stranger.
"How are you feeling?" she asked.
"Exhausted," John replied. He felt as drained as he would have been if the Wraith had gotten him, if not more so. They, unlike politicians, at least had the decency to kill you once they were finished.
"I'm not surprised. You've had a rough week. If you want leave, it'd be no trouble to arrange for a month or two, longer if you need it."
John shook his head. "Naw. I might take a week or two, but I'd rather get right back to work and deal with any lingering issues I might have in a more aggressive way."
"I see." Camilla sat back in her chair and steepled her hands. "The Council has reached a decision regarding how we shall proceed regarding the Wraith problem."
John leaned forward. "And?"
"While a shoot-on-sight order has been authorized, we'll be taking no particular effort to track them down."
"What? You've got to be fucking kidding me!" John exclaimed.
"I'm completely serious, Star Captain," Camilla said coolly, reminding him that, mentor or not, she was still his superior.
"They only have a handful of ships and no major population centers or industrial base," she said. "Our resources are better spent elsewhere, especially given the continued tensions in Sector 3."
"There are always tensions in Sector 3. The Genii are incapable of going more than a dozen years without pissing off at least one neighbor." John shook his head. "It's an excuse. If human raiders had hit one of our ships, we'd hunt them down like dogs."
"There are other political considerations," Camilla admitted. "Based on your scans, it's the opinion of several scientists that they incorporate Nox technology. We've also concluded that the Wraith themselves are artificial beings, possibly some sort of hybrid between a human-like species and an insect called the iratus."
"The Nox are pacifists. They wouldn't create something like those things."
"They haven't always been such ardent pacifists, though."
John frowned and nodded slowly. "That ideological shift followed the war, after so many of their planets were devastated."
"Exactly. Which leaves us in something of a delicate situation, doesn't it? If this came to light, it might cause considerable internal turmoil in our allies' societies. We can't even be sure who created the Wraith — there were Nox and Furlings on both sides of the war, and while it seems unlikely that the Elect would build a facility in Pegasus in secret, it's possible that our ancestors knew and we lost the records after the Great Ascension."
"Shit," John said. The Furling Civil War had been a complete mess, an internal dispute that had spilled over into Nox society and eventually drawn in the Lanteans and even their fledgling Asgard protégés. Most of Andromeda had been rendered lifeless, including the majority of Nox and Furling worlds. There were still hard feelings all around, especially since the Lanteans had refused to destroy the Fallen while imposing a peace.
"It's not just our alliance, is it?" he asked after a moment. "The Wraith could be considered self-replicating weapons, in violation of the Tripoint Accords."
Camilla tipped her head. "They're sentient, independent beings, so strictly speaking that's not true. Still, it skirts the line, and we'd rather not see it come up."
"Yeah, the last thing we need is a formal investigation. We'd still be dealing with it in ten thousand years."
"Precisely, which is why we've largely kept this from the public. As far as most people are concerned, Veritas was lost to raiders who destroyed it through treachery."
"And the Wraith just get away?"
"Hardly. Even if we're not focusing on them, sooner or later we're going to find them, and when we do I think it's safe to say the fight will not be nearly so one-sided."
John sighed. "I don't like it, but I guess it's not my decision."
"No, it's not." Camilla tapped her fingers on her desk for a few moments, before idly saying, "The construction of the Aurora-class battleship Inceptum will be finished in about two years."
"I — ma'am?" John said, blinking in surprise at the sudden change in topic.
"There's only twelve like her in the fleet, you know. A brand new line of battleships, the first of any importance in the last few hundred years."
"I know that, ma'am. I've been keeping an eye on the design process." On the surface the Auroras were little different than any other ship of their size class, but under the skin they were the most advanced ships produced since the Ascension had left Lantean technology considerably regressed. They were even equipped with advanced drives that could, if necessary, be converted easily for extragalactic flight. According to rumor, there were plans to start re-exploring the Avalon galaxy with them sometime in the next century or so.
"She doesn't have a crew or even senior officers yet. I want you to take command."
"Ma'am?" John said blankly, sure he had misheard. "I don't have the seniority for that."
"The committee had already been considering you, based on your performance in other command positions and Star Colonel Nioba's recommendations, and in light of recent events I'm going to go ahead and give her to you. There may be a few hurt egos, but it'll be far more convenient for us both this way."
"What do you mean?" John asked, still stunned.
"It'll keep you from running off to try to hunt the Wraith by yourself, for one thing," Camilla said. John ducked his head sheepishly and didn't try to deny that he had briefly entertained the idea. "Starship captains have considerable leeway in carrying out their assignments, you know."
"And if we happened to spend a fair amount of time looking for certain mysterious raiders while carrying out our other duties, they might be found without any need for an official search," John finished. "Sneaky."
Camilla grinned. "I didn't reach this age without learning a bit of deviousness, Johannes. I take it you accept?"
"Yes, ma'am, I do," John said, nodding sharply. "Thank you. You won't regret it."
The decision to put aside dealing with the Wraith was both a massive mistake and completely correct given the information available. At the time, the Wraith had only six hiveships and an equal number of combat cruisers. A single Monitor Corps squadron of a battleship and escorts could easily have destroyed them in a fight with only minimal losses. The problem was that it would be difficult to bring them to battle. Already they had escaped and almost certainly scattered. At the time, we had not isolated the unique emissions signature of their hyperdrives and could not tell them apart from other interstellar traffic except at close range, and thus hunting them down individually would take dozens or more ships. Diverting that many Class One starships, or even less powerful auxiliaries from the Civil Defense Forces or other second-line units, would draw considerable attention both internally and on the intergalactic scene. That was viewed as unacceptable, especially since those ships were already being used for productive purposes elsewhere in the galaxy.
Second, it simply did not seem worth the effort. The Wraith posed little threat to any prepared Lantean ship, even those of civilians, and most cities and outposts had sufficient defenses to ward off any attack for sufficient time for rescue to arrive. Thus only human worlds were endangered. Several simulations and projections were run to estimate the potential damage. First, it seemed unlikely they would attack any of the major worlds with interstellar travel. While Wraith technology was in most cases considerably superior, the human fleets and defense networks would still be a threat. Industrial-level worlds, while less capable of mounting space-based defenses, would also be difficult targets both because of ground-based air defenses and their connections to more powerful civilizations. Thus only planets without significant industrial capacity would be directly threatened. Next, after considerable study of the recovered bodies of Wraith drones, estimates were made on how often they needed to feed. Even the most pessimistic put it at one human every two weeks under normal circumstances. It was also estimated that a hiveship carried roughly one to two thousand crew. (This is believed to be accurate at the time, but later in the war hiveships often carried up to twenty thousand crew to support enlarged fighter wings.) Based on this, we estimated human casualties on the order of no more than forty thousand per month. This was viewed as acceptable losses.
That decision may seem callous, but one must consider the sorry state of most human societies, especially at the most likely target level of development, and the fact that it was out of a large galactic population. Forty thousand a month was a drop in an ocean compared to common causes of death; it would not even make it into the top hundred. Even leaving all the myriad diseases or simple malnutrition aside, more humans would die at the hands of their brethren in inter-tribal warfare every year than would die at the hands of the Wraith. The efforts of the Monitor Corps, as well as other diplomatic and human welfare programs, would be best focused on larger issues such as crop failures or preventing warfare that could potentially kill millions in a single attack. While in retrospect it is clear that Supreme Command Camilla and Councilor of State Ganos Lal were correct to argue the other way, I believe that we could not have made a different decision at the time.
[nb: Appendix C, dealing with casualties, has an estimate of eleven to fourteen million dead in the first ten years after the Wraith awoke. — dj]
The Monitor Corps had many duties. Beyond the core mission of defending Lantean citizens, frequently from their own stupidity, it was primarily an exploratory, humanitarian, and peacekeeping force. Part of this involved enforcing limits on the interaction of societies with exceedingly large technology gaps. No one wanted planets with interstellar warships conquering those who thought that bronze was a marvelous advance; not only did it tend to result in all sorts of genocidal nastiness, but it kept any one power block from accumulating enough worlds and resources to become an even greater annoyance to Lantean society.
Needless to say, there were always people trying to skirt the rules.
"Okay, let's try this again from the top," Star Captain Laurentius Quercus said with a sigh. "Your ship is a free trader registered out of Ha Vek Ni?"
"Yes, yes, that is correct," Shipmaster Ni So Ba Kep said, bobbing his head.
"And for the most part you do business by going between different planets, some high tech, some low tech, and exploiting the technology differential," Lorne went on, "shiny trinkets or useful pieces of tech in exchange for genuine native art, that sort of thing."
"Indeed. I assure you, we only offer fair trades, and stay within the rules from the Office of Cross-Cultural Relations," Ni So Ba Kep replied. "I have recently acquired some very fine Tetrakamen spirit carvings, perhaps the honorable captain would wish to see them?"
"Not really, no." Lorne pointed out the window of the meeting room at the planet that Inceptum was currently orbiting. "So that kind of trading is what brings you here to Sorasu, a lovely world where most of the planet is finishing up their industrial revolution and they've recently discovered such wonders as internal combustion, flight, mass conscription, machine guns, and trench warfare."
The trader hesitated then nodded. "That seems accurate, oh most noble captain."
"And among things you've been selling are… what did call them? Large-scale excavation devices?"
"They are not on the restricted list!"
"They're nuclear bombs! Some of them are even multi-megaton city busters."
"They are fission and fusion devices," Na So Ba Kep corrected.
"You can call them whatever you want, but they're still included in the category of 'weapons of mass destruction'," Lorne said. "Can you explain to me in short words and phrases why you thought this was remotely a good idea?"
Na So Ba Kep shrugged. "They were liquidating outdated devices on the last planet I visited. There is no need for concern; I sold to all parties on this planet to insure fairness."
Lorne forced himself not to bang his head on the table or, more productively, shoot the man. He briefly wondered if John's previous captains had made their XOs deal with this sort of problem, then decided they hadn't. After all, the entire reason Lorne was doing it in the first place was that John had been of the opinion they should just blast the traders out of the sky and ask questions later.
"Here's what we're going to do," Lorne said after a moment. "You're going to give us a list of every person or government you've sold a nuke to on the planet. Then while we collect them, you're going to give them all refunds. Also, we're going to take any remaining inventory you have."
"And if any city disappears in the meantime, things are going to become very, very unpleasant for you."
The threat of possibly having his ship seized or being subjected to psych adjustment was enough to get the trader to cough up names and coordinates. Even then it still took several hours to send gateships down to the planet and collect the fifteen bombs that had been sold so far, as the new owners were understandably reluctant to simply give them up. Fortunately, none of them had even gotten around to picking which of their several enemies they wanted to vaporize first, let alone figured out how they would deliver their nukes. One joker claimed that there had been some kind of mistake than that they had never received any such device, but a few quick scans and a well-placed drone dealt with that problem. Things went quite a bit smoother after that, until the planet was once more a nuclear-free zone and the trade ship had hurriedly left orbit.
It was just another fun and exciting day in the Corps, really.
Satisfied with a job well done, Lorne headed down to the forward observation lounge to relax a little. He found John and Teyla there, sitting together on an isolated couch near floor-to-ceiling window that made up one wall of the compartment. He made his way over to them.
"Scoot over," he ordered. They obliged and he squeezed in next to Teyla.
"Hello, Star Captain," she said. "I trust everything went well?"
"There's no risk of a sudden outbreak of nuclear war, if that's what you mean," he answered.
"Good job, Lorne," John said. "I knew you could do it without me."
Lorne refrained from commenting on how something probably would have exploded if John had been talking with all the annoyed potentates on the planet, and instead asked, "What are you looking at?"
"Intelligence reports," Teyla replied, tilting the slate she was reading so he could see it.
"Wraith hunting?" Lorne shook his head and put an arm across the back of the couch as he leaned closer. It was something of a preoccupation for the two of them, trying to discern information about what the Wraith were up to. It was difficult, to say the least, because the creatures were very good at staying unnoticed and almost no one had seen one for years, or at least not seen one and lived to tell about it. Most of their information was rumor and speculation. "You guys really should find another hobby, you know."
"It keeps us out of your hair, doesn't it?" John asked with a smile.
"You out of my hair," Lorne corrected. "Teyla never causes me any headaches."
"Only because she's better at making excuses and looking innocent," John retorted.
"Of course," Lorne said. "Find anything interesting?"
"Attacks have spiked significantly over the last few months," Teyla said. "In fact, compared to last year, they've almost doubled."
"Here, listen to this," John said. "Travelers from around the galaxy, including several Lanteans, began arriving at the monasteries of Sal Madon for the Festival of the Grand Conjunction, one of the most anticipated musical events of the decade, only to find the buildings deserted. There was no indication of where the monks had gone, although there were signs of struggles."
"Anthropologists observing the yearly Great Meeting of the Plainswalkers of Takledon noted that fully half of the tribal caravans failed to arrive at the fields around the stargate," Teyla went on. "Most of them were from the eastern part the continent, and an aerial survey with a gateship discovered several sites with the burnt remains of caravans and untended herd animals."
"The Libellan colony on Tirias Plekorush had been scheduled for relocation due to the sudden onset of an ice age following a minor asteroid impact, but the five thousand settlers there never returned to their homeworld," John said. "The Interior Bureau ship sent to relocate the stargate found the town buried under snow and many buildings collapsed, but only a few bodies."
"A dozen unknown fighter-class ships came through the gate on Sumanok Peloray. They buzzed several towns and attacked another before leaving."
"Fighters?" Lorne said with a frown. "That's a new one. Pretty heavily populated planet, too, if I'm remembering right."
"It is, yeah," John said. "We're not positive they're actually Wraith, but there's been at least three other possible sightings in the right sector and they seem to have the same general shape of the larger ships. There was also a small scout ship of some sort spotted near the Omaron Nebula by a cruise liner, but they didn't stick around to get a good look at it when it came their way."
"They're getting pretty bold," Lorne said. "That's more sightings in a few months than you've had in some years, right?"
"It is," Teyla said, handing Lorne her slate. "I find the trend worrisome."
Lorne looked over the accumulated data and statistics. In truth he had always thought that his friends' constant search for the Wraith was a bit pointless. Understandable, yes, given what had happened, but unlikely to achieve much. Space was too vast for a single ship and a handful of people to have much hope of finding a relatively small group determined not to be found, and the Wraith were quite good at making sure no one ever saw more than glimpses of their ships. Suddenly, though, the occasional diversion from the ship's planned course to interview survivors or follow up possible leads seemed far less pointless and more important.
"They're hitting industrialized worlds, too," Lorne remarked as he looked things over. "It's the same general pattern of going after relatively isolated targets on those planets, yeah, but the targets themselves are larger. Towns instead of villages or nomads."
"Which suggests that, while they like to concentrate their forces, they are needing more and more… victims at a time," Teyla said, "Which in turn implies considerable population growth."
"Not to mention confidence that no one's going to stop them," John added. "That has been pretty much the case."
"To a point. They do seem to be avoiding anyone who could mount a defense," Lorne said, studying a plot of the times and locations that the Wraith were believed to have struck. He had a nagging feeling that there was some kind of pattern there, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it. "It seems like our biggest problem is that we can't pin them down, right? There are hundreds of possible targets and even more uninhabited systems for them to hang around in when not actively culling."
"Exactly," John said.
"Have you considered scattering some sensor platforms around?"
"No, we haven't. I don't know why we never thought of the blindingly obvious." John rolled his eyes. "We don't have the resources to seed as many as we'd need. Too many possible targets again."
"But if we could find a way to focus on a few planets, we might have a better chance," Lorne said thoughtfully, "especially if we could get some of the more advanced human worlds to cooperate. I'm sure some of them have to be getting worried about the level of raider activity, even if they have no idea who's behind it all."
"We would have to be careful with that," Teyla said. "We have discussed similar ideas before, but both Corps Command and the State Bureau have been reluctant to involve the humans more than necessary. I think the situation may have gotten bad enough that we could attempt some small measures, though."
John raised an eyebrow and smiled slightly. "I take it you're offering to help sift through the mountains of data we have to come up with a plan? Because trust me, there's a lot more we haven't even gotten to yet."
Lorne shrugged. "There's only so much off-duty time I can spend painting or hanging around botany. It'll give me something to do. Plus I know full well you couldn't plan your way out of a wet paper bag."
"Screw you, Lorne."
"If that's how you want to thank me, sir, it sounds good to me."
It took a few weeks of analysis, but Lorne did eventually manage to produce some general predictions and models for how they could improve the search for the Wraith. John was a good leader, amazing pilot, and an excellent tactician, but Lorne was far better at taking piles of seemingly unrelated information and turning it into something useful. It wasn't terribly detailed, of course, but there were a few general trends in the timing of the incidents, their size, and how far they were from other recent attacks. Why those trends existed, Lorne could only guess, but there were a place to start.
That was the easy part, of course.
Stargates were incredibly convenient things. A person could enter a simple six-digit code, step through the wormhole, and find himself on a planet across the galaxy, without any of the fuss of flying a ship across the intervening distance. For example, if a very busy starship commander needed to squeeze in a visit to a planet while his ship was dealing with idiots who had nearly knocked a moon out of orbit on the other side of the sector, all he had to do was snag a gateship and fly it on through the gate.
Aquanulae City, where the gate on the planet Lorcanis was located, was all but indistinguishable from those of any of the other industrial worlds that John had ever visited, at least from the air. Immediately around the gate was a large plaza, suitable as both a market and for transshipping goods. While at their technology level the gate was not useful for moving anything but people, luxury goods, and other low-bulk items, it was still an important trade link, and no doubt there was a train station within a reasonable distance. Here and there he could spot new construction: guard towers, bunkers with automatic weapons and light artillery, and other sorts of defensive structures. He had little doubt there were heavier weapons zeroed on the plaza out at a further distance. The Monitor Corps strictly limited the kind of fortification allowed around a stargate, mostly to insure that no Lantean traveler ended up splattered across a gate shield or similar barrier, but also to enforce a degree of free passage between worlds. There were different degrees and exceptions, of course; trenches and walls were perfectly fine, so long as a gateship could pass safely, and societies that needed to worry about someone shoving a naquadah-enhanced fission bomb had more leeway. It appeared the Lorcanians were now determined to push right to the limits of what they were allowed.
John landed at a military airbase near the edge of the city. Stepping out of his ship, he was greeted by the smell of burning fuel, a cacophony of sounds, and an array of soldiers bearing ballistic weapons and wearing absurd clothes. The Monitor Corps favored simple uniforms of white and tan, with a small amount of gold threading, pins, and faux leather for the purposes of rank identification and comfort; humans, by contrast, invariably needed to cover themselves with ribbons, medals, epaulets, badges, feathers, and every other imaginable kind of finery. It was really a bit silly, in his opinion, although he couldn't blame the entire species for having bad taste when Lantean civilians were quite capable of coming up with their own absurdities, aided by far more questionable uses of advanced technology.
The man with the flashiest uniform and most befeathered hat stepped forward, while the rest of the soldiers came to attention.
"Star Colonel Johannes Veterator? General Salamis Istven, commander of the Gate Guard." Istven shook John's hand. "It is an honor to have you here, sir."
"The pleasure's of all mine." There was a loud roar overhead and John looked up to see a trio of sleek, jet-propelled aircraft swoop past a few hundred feet overhead, doing a complex interweaving maneuvers as they did so. John grinned and said, "Nice ships."
"They're some of our newest," Istven said, looking up at them as well with a bemused expression.
John got the feeling that their little demonstration was unplanned and grinned even more. Pilots were pilots no matter the species, it appeared. "Have someone pass on my complements on their flying."
"I will. If you'll come this way, sir, the war minister is waiting to meet with you."
The general led John to an open-topped ground vehicle and soon they were purring along down the streets of the base. It only took a few minutes to reach the side furthest from the airstrips. Inside they were taken to an ornate conference room with a long wooden table, fine drapes, and several paintings on the wall. Waiting at the table was another man. His clothing was even less practical than the generals, including a poofy shirt with a frilled collar and lace cuffs.
"Star Colonel Johannes!" he exclaimed. "Eltris Mortoven, His Majesty's Minster of War. It's wonderful to meet you."
"Please, sit down," Mortoven said. John did so and the two Lorcanians sat down across from him. "I hope your visit has been good so far."
"It has," John replied, not pointing out that he had only been there ten minutes or so. "I've been impressed by what I've seen so far."
"You flatter us, sir. I'm sure it's all nothing compared to some of the things you've seen." Mortoven sighed, clasped his hands together, and put them on the table. "Which, of course, is why we were so thankful when you requested to visit."
"I mean the current situation, of course. Half the quadrant is talking about these raids. Strange, dart-like fighters coming out of the gate or descending from the skies, and when they leave thousands of people have simply vanished. It's terrifying."
"I hadn't realized word of the attacks had spread quite so much," John said. He wondered how much information they were missing simply because all they had to work with was what other Lanteans overheard or were told and then took the time to forward on to Command. Half the reason he and Teyla had started going on these visits was to improve their direct sources of intelligence.
"Well, it wasn't until recently that some of the more well-traveled merchants started to put things together, but I assure you, most governments in the area have taken notice. Once you're looking for it, it's obvious that something has begun in the last year or two."
John nodded. "We've seen it, too. A few other officers and I have been aware of the presence of these raiders and we're doing our best to hunt them down, but there's been a sharp spike in activity lately. That's why we're trying to focus our efforts a little more and touch base with you and the other human worlds."
"For which we are grateful, Captain. We tried talking with the State Bureau, but in all honesty they weren't very helpful at all."
"Be glad you don't have to live with them, Minister," John said with a smirk. It died away after a moment. "I should warn you now, though, that I can't guarantee a lot of direct help. We're still trying to track these raiders — they call themselves Wraith — and not having a great deal of luck. We hope that by working with you and others we can pin them down and destroy them."
"We'll be happy to assist however we can," Mortoven said.
"You can start by telling me what sort of deep space tracking systems you have."
Istven winced. "We've only just put our first few satellites in orbit ourselves. There is an old Sikarii sensor platform as well, but it can only monitor a few light-minutes out and is only really useful for tracking asteroids or the occasional merchant ship."
"We had been hoping to upgrade the system," Mortoven added. "We've been looking into purchasing a complete skywatch system from either Athos or Solana V, with hyperspace early warning capability, but we're waiting on paperwork to go through the Office of Cross-Cultural Relations."
"You'll have a permit within the end of the week," John said easily. "I'd go with the Athosian system myself. I've never known their work to be anything but top quality."
"I — thank you, sir," Mortoven said. He seemed taken aback by how quickly John had given the okay. No doubt there would be minions from the State Bureau sending John nasty messages for the next few months.
"I imagine you don't have much in the way of actual orbital or surface-to-space defenses, either."
"No, we don't," Mortoven replied, with a sudden gleam in his eyes, "although we might be able to afford some sort of orbital weapons platform, or even a just few ground-based ion cannon."
"Mmmm-hmm. Yeah, I'm sure you could," John said, quirking an eyebrow slightly. "I imagine your neighbors on the other continents would be thrilled to see you put a few particle beam batteries in their skies."
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean."
"Maybe after I talk with them I could work something out, maybe stick with just surface weapons, but for now it's probably best to assume you won't get anything like that for a while." John didn't mind allowing them access to a mostly harmless sensor system, especially if it was tweaked so it couldn't look downward and gave equal access to everyone on the planet, but the history files were full of examples of why it was a bad idea to give advanced weaponry to people who still had enemies on their homeworld. "What about air defenses?
"Those we have," Istven said. "Surface-to-air missiles backed by radar-guided artillery, although not much in the way of theater missile defense. We've also got two hundred of our newest air superiority fighters like the ones you saw, plus another thousand-some of the previous model. Most of it's concentrated near the border areas, though, and I don't know how effective any of it will be against these Wraith."
"We honestly don't know their full capabilities, but what little we data we do have indicates they should be vulnerable to your weapons, at least when they come down in your engagement range. My recommendation would be that you redeploy what assets you can back to your population centers, and if possible find a way to get your aircraft numbers up. I think I could probably swing you some smaller, more mobile SAMs or even some man-portable air defense weapons a lot easier than heavy weaponry. That way you could cover your smaller cities and towns better as well. I'll do my best to convince your neighbors to withdraw some of their border forces as well."
"I'm sure you have many helpful suggestions," Mortoven said. "Really, though, I'm not sure what good stopping some of their aircraft will do us if we can't reach them in orbit."
John nodded in acknowledgement. "A valid concern, but with the Wraith we haven't seen any sign of orbital bombardment at all. It should be entirely possible to significantly delay them in their attacks and prevent them from achieving their goals long enough for help to arrive. I've brought along subspace transmitters that you'll be able to use to send a distress call. The minute you see any suspicious activity, you just hit the button and a Lantean ship will be here in less than an hour, at longest. Think you can manage that?"
Istven puffed up a little. "If anyone can fight off alien spacecraft, sir, it's our boys."
"I'm sure that's the case, General." John reached for his belt, intended to retrieve his hand computer to go over more detailed information, but stopped when he heard a loud noise outside. "Is that a siren?"
"It's the air raid alert," Istven said, sounding confused. "That can't be right, I specifically ordered that no drills be held this week."
The sirens seemed to grow louder, until John suddenly realized that the noise wasn't just the siren but also a high-pitched buzzing wail from sources there were rapidly drawing closer. The sudden outbreak of weapons fire and explosions confirmed John's worst fears.
"Wraith," he spat, jumping from his chair. "I need to get back to my gateship! It's armed!"
"This way," Istven shouted back, leading the way out into the hall and out the rear of the building. There was chaos all around them, but of the purposeful kind seen whenever well-drilled troops were acting on instinct alone and rushing to do their duties. Overhead, one of the dart-like craft raced past, only to be caught a moment later by a missile fired from one of the jets John had seen earlier. Any thrill John felt from seeing such dramatic evidence that the Wraith were vulnerable was short-lived, because more darts appeared and swept after the human fighters.
They reached the road leading to the landing field just in time to see a dart blast something out on the field, and while John couldn't see through the smoke he had little doubt that fighting the Wraith off with his gateship was now impossible. Then that dart swung around and came buzzing straight down the street at him, firing some kind of quicksilver beam that dissolved everyone it touched. He tried to throw himself and the general into a door but was too slow and everything disappeared in a flash of light.
Slowly regaining consciousness, John cautiously opened his eyes and immediately wished he hadn't. Between the dim blue light and the strange, fleshy feel of the floor beneath him, he knew exactly where he was. He considered feigning unconsciousness for a while longer, or at least waiting to move until his head didn't hurt quite so much, but in the end he climbed to his feet. There was no one else in the cell, and he had been relieved of his communicator, sidearm, and other gear. The only thing he had was a small non-regulation knife in his boot, but under the circumstances it was cold comfort indeed. He tried searching the cell but found nothing, and as he examined the walls for any panels, ducts, or other possible means of escape he heard the door spider web-like door retract.
John turned to find a Wraith male and two drones standing there. "Hello," he said after a long moment of silence. "I suppose you want to take me to your leader. Well, you're in luck. It turns out my schedule's been cleared unexpectedly."
The male bared his teeth in a predatory grin and jerked its head backward, giving John no other answer. He and the drones lead John through the twisting passages of the ship. From time to time they would pass other Wraith, but there were no signs of any humans. Eventually they reached a large chamber that was dominated by a gnarled throne, with several screens along the walls. The largest, directly across from the throne, showed a world John recognized from his planning sessions. It was Shiuen, one of the most populated pre-spaceflight planets in the sector.
As he studied the display, there was a soft sight directly behind him. He turned around to find himself face to face with a queen.
"Greetings," she said with a toothy smile. For a moment he thought it was the one from the forest, but then he reconsidered. This one, while almost close enough in appearance to be a twin, had golden hair rather than blood red. Then again, it could be the same one; he had no idea what coloration meant with Wraith.
"Hello," he said, lifting his chin a little to look her in the eye.
"I remember you. The one from the awakening, who escaped my sister. What are you called?" she asked, circling around him.
"Johannes Veterator gens Lastares d'Atlantis," John answered, giving his given and chosen names, family line, and place of birth. "Commander of the Monitor Ship Inceptum."
"You name yourself after the trickster fox," she noted. "A predator. Interesting."
John ignored her comment. "I think I mentioned this the first time I met your kind, but kidnapping me is an act of war."
The queen chuckled. "The war began long ago, Lantean." She stopped moving when she was in front of him again, holding herself unnaturally still. "Kneel."
John shook his head. "No thanks. I only do that sort of thing with close friends, maybe the occasional comrade."
"Kneel," she repeated, drawing a finger along his cheek. The next thing John knew his knees gave out and he found himself staring up at her impossibly tall-seeming form. She was a telepath, he realized, and a strong one at that. He pulled his mental shields as tight as they could go and started reciting primes, formulas, and other random information, which only seemed to amuse her.
"When I learned a Lantean had been captured, I had planned to feed on you myself," the queen said. "Your lives are so might brighter and more exquisite than mere humans. But now that I know who you are, I think perhaps a different course of action is called for."
"How's that?" he asked.
The queen stepped aside and tipped his chin up so he was looking at the screen. "What are the defenses of this world?"
"I don't know even what planet that is, and if I did I wouldn't know what you're asking."
The queen laughed. "You were found on a similar world, and you command a warship. Surely you know something."
"Not really," John bit out. "You know us Lanteans. We never pay much attention to mere humans."
"You're lying," she said, sounding amused. She began circling him once again. "Even if it were true, you certainly have other information that would be of use regarding your fleet's deployments and the defenses of Lantean worlds."
"I'm not telling you anything."
"That is what many others have said, and in the end I have always learned what I wished to know." The queen leaned down from behind him so that her mouth was by his ear. "This does not have to be unpleasant. I could have great use for one such as you if you willingly cooperate."
"I…." John swallowed. "I'd rather not. So why don't you let me go?"
The queen stood straight and walked back in front of him, trailing her hand on his shoulder. "You mentioned friends. Perhaps you worry about them? You could protect them if you help me. I assure you, if you serve at my side the relationship would be most rewarding for both of us."
"No," he said firmly.
She touched his cheek again and grinned. "We shall see. I ask again, what are the defenses of this world?"
He felt her mind slam against his like a tsunami, threatening to overwhelm every defense he had ever been taught in an instant. The urge to open his mouth was overwhelming, and he soon gave in.
"Nothing," he said, "Nothing of importance. A few aircraft, artillery, nothing of note though. Not even get aircraft or rocketry."
"Aaaaaah, good," she crooned. "Go on."
"We haven't even made direct contact with them to talk about you. They hate interacting with outsiders. They probably don't even have a clue you exist. All their defenses are oriented around stopping passage through the stargate." He babbled on, trying desperately to keep her interest focused on what he was saying. He slowly inched his right hand back to his boot and the concealed knife, his movement painfully slow for fear of drawing attention. He finally managed to grasp the hilt and a moment later he had it free. He lashed out lighting-fast and the ultra-sharp blade passed through flesh with ease, only meeting slight resistance as the tip passed through bone. John fell to the deck, blood bubbling from the wound in his neck, and despite the pain he grinned as the Queen screeched with fury. Then his vision began to grow dark and it felt like he was being lifted upwards into nothingness.
John found himself standing at the bow of a massive ship, face to the breeze. The surface of the water below glimmered with sunlight, although the sky above held no sun, only an endless expanse of brilliant stars and nebulae. Leaping around besides the ship were something almost, but not quite, like dolphins.
John turned around to see a man with a long, flowing robe standing with his arms spread wide.
"Hey," he replied with a deep sigh.
"You have ascended, my friend! As your body died, your mind shed its corporeal bindings and transcended to a new plane of existence." He clapped his hands together. "Is it not wonderful?"
"Ascended? No, really?"
"It is true! What you see and hear is but a construct your mind has created because it can not yet comprehend what has occurred. Soon you will shed all the trappings of mortality and become truly enlightened."
John laughed incredulously. "Who the hell do you think I am?"
"I… excuse me?"
"Stars and void. The welcoming committee has really deteriorated. Where's Oma?" John paused, looked around, then added, "And is there an easy way off this thing?"
"I don't understand," the man said. From the sound of things, this was not something he was used to anymore.
"Never mind." John climbed up on the railing.
"Wait, where are you going?"
"Back!" John shouted over his shoulder. He took a breath and dove into the water below.
"Colonel? I think he moved. Doctor, the colonel's waking up!"
"Oh, fuck me. Lorne, stop shouting," John mumbled. He opened his eyes and immediately shut them as the light seemed to make his head explode. After a moment he tried again, blinking groggily a few times and turning his head to see that Lorne and Teyla were standing nearby and watching him. "Where am I?"
"Sickbay, sir," Lorne replied.
"One of our search teams found you naked in a field, not far from the city," Teyla explained. "You were missing for almost a day."
"Naked," John repeated, latching on to what was clearly the most important part of the sentence.
"As in unclothed, sir," Lorne confirmed. "No one knows how you got out there."
"Good afternoon, Colonel," said Surgeon Lieutenant Amara, approaching the medical bed from the other side. "How are you feeling?"
"Pretty good, actually," John answered truthfully.
"He always says he's fine," Lorne pointed out, trying to sound light-hearted and not quite making it.
"Well, as far as my scans show, he is," Amara replied. "He could stand to loose a kilo or two, but otherwise he's in perfect healthy."
"Do you know what happened?" Teyla asked. "There are eyewitnesses who say you were beamed aboard one of the Wraith fighters."
"Darts," John said. "They're pointy, so I've been calling them darts."
"Darts. Yes. In any case, we theorized that you were aboard one of those the Lorcanians successfully shot down, but none of the other missing persons have returned, including those who should have been aboard the same craft."
"I don't know," John said. "I was running for the airfield, and the next thing I remember is waking up here." He frowned. "Although… Captain, call the bridge. Set a course for Shiuen, flank speed."
"Sir? This was almost certainly a scouting attack. It's possible the Wraith will follow up in force."
"I don't think so. It was too small, and they have to know we've got a presence here after spotting my ship. This isn't their target, not yet."
Lorne glanced at Teyla, then shrugged and relayed the order. "You're the commander."
"Yes, I am." John looked at the doctor. "Can I go?"
"We don't have a clue what happened to you, sir," Amara said. "I'd rather keep you under observation for a while."
"Tell you what, I'll spend the night here, but right now I've got work to do." John sat up and swung his legs off the bed, then looked down. "Could someone get me some pants?"
Inceptum reached Shiuen a short time later, sliding into a low orbit and ignoring the indignant radio messages being sent their way. They waited for an hour, which stretched into a second and then a third. As hour four began to creep up, John started to wonder whether his hunch was completely wrong and he had just left a planet undefended behind them.
Then the answer came, as Lieutenant Chuck announced, "Hyperspace signature detected! Distance is twenty light-years and closing, ETA one minute."
"Red alert," John ordered. "Stand by on all batteries."
"That's awfully close," Lorne commented from his station behind and to the left of John.
"Their ships are pretty stealthy," John said. "It's not going to help them this time, though. Chuck, pin down an emergence vector. Helm, prepare to maneuver and intercept."
A minute later, a hyperspace window ten thousand kilometers above the planet and directly in front of Inceptum. Four ships emerged, a trio of cruisers surrounding a far more massive hiveship. Almost immediately they began cruising toward the planet, launching darts as they went, but shortly after they noticed their unexpected opponent and changed course.
John activated the external communications with the thought. "Wraith ships, this is Inceptum. You've got, oh, fifteen seconds to surrender or we will fire into you."
"Wraith ships are powering weapons and hyperdrives," Chuck reported a moment later.
"I guess that's a no," John grinned. It was the answer he had wanted. "Tactical, take 'em out."
"Aye, sir," Amelia said. "Drone control, bridge. Fire for effect."
The Wraith ships began to spit a hail of blue bolts at the Lantean vessel. Some bolts from the hive were nearly half as long as Inceptum. They splattered against the ship's powerful shields to little effect, slowly draining the shields but not even sending so much as a shudder through the hull or flicker through the lights. It was far too little to save them. A series of hatches opened on Inceptum's dorsal side and a flurry of yellow squid-like projectiles spilled forth. The bulk of them headed straight for the hiveship, with three smaller streams splitting off to hit the cruisers. The drones pierced straight through the Wraith hulls, carved their ways through vital systems, and emerged on the other side, only to turn around and do it again. It took only seconds for the drone swarm to utterly shatter the hiveship, until at last its main reactors detonated and a massive explosion vaporized it entirely. The cruisers followed moments later. The few surviving darts tried to ram Inceptum, but only one survived long enough to smash harmlessly against the shields.
"Good work, ladies and gentlemen," John said as it became clear no further ships would be arriving.
Lorne grinned at him. "Looks like they can't handle a stand-up fight against someone who can shoot back."
"It's why they scurry around like roaches," John replied. "Too bad for them there's an exterminator around now. A couple more fights like this, and the Wraith will be history."
The battle over Shiuen was the first direct confrontation between an operational Lantean warship and its Wraith counterparts. As far as the High Council was concerned, it could not possibly have gone better. Star Colonel Johannes and Inceptum decisively showed that Lantean military technology, while less powerful than it had once been, was still far superior to all known threat forces. A single volley of drones was able to destroy the enemy ships, even the massive hive. The Wraiths' return fire was almost completely ineffective. This proved that there had been little point in trying to hunt down the Wraith, as they posed no direct threat to Lantean holdings and once cornered they were easily destroyed. It was expected that, having lost what we thought was a full sixth of their society in one blow, the Wraith would quickly return to their previous levels of near-dormancy.
Instead, the opposite occurred. Attacks grew increasingly frequent over the next year, to the point that even the Council was forced to admit that a policy of standing back and ignoring the problem while Johannes and his crew dealt with it was no longer an adequate strategy. At the same time, there were increasing demands for Monitor Corps' attention elsewhere in the galaxy on account of several natural disasters and bushfire wars. In retrospect, it is possible that some of these were Wraith inspired, either directly as in the case of the sudden asteroid impact at Valkas Cor, or as false flag operations that ignited tension between hostile powers. In any case, ships were not immediately available.
Lantean starships were immensely powerful on an individual level but low in numbers, both because few resources were dedicated to their construction and because of manpower shortages. Many designs, and even some ships, were centuries old when the war began. At the top were the Federation-class dreadnoughts, of which five were on active duty. Next came the new Aurora-class battleships, numbering twelve, and another dozen older light battleships. Finally, there were fifty destroyers of various classes. As can be seen, the Monitor Corps possessed only a handful of Class One starships to patrol the galaxy. There were also over a thousand Class Two ships, primarily belonging to other government agencies or major private organizations, which were equipped with some level of defensive technology. These were not warships, however, and when pressed by circumstance into combat they often faired poorly.
Further, the Council was reluctant to directly acknowledge our mistake and desired to intervene as little as possible. As such, it was eventually decided to construct a long-range sensor array of sufficient power and capacity to track all ships within the volume of space the Wraith operated in, which in theory would allow Inceptum and a few support ships to easily locate and destroy Wraith ships in a piecemeal fashion. It seemed the best option available to most people. Of course, as with many things, it took considerable time from when the decision was made to when it was actually carried out. We could not have known that the Wraith would be able to grow to such numbers, let alone consider striking at us directly….
Lieutenant Chaya Athar of the Ground Force, chief of security for the Lantean outpost on the planet of Rutaynas Ligemor — or, as the local human residents called it, 'New Seledon' — often spent her free afternoons wandering through one of the marketplaces of the human settlement on that world. It was the first time she had been stationed at a post in such close proximity to a human population, and even after six months on the planet simply walking through the town was an interesting and exciting experience. Before this assignment she had worked with humans from time to time, such as the occasion when she had been aboard Sidus and the ship had provided disaster relief for a human colony following an unfortunate accident with an experimental Lantean naquadah-enhanced geothermal tap, but those had all been brief, fleeting encounters. Apparently her superiors had decided that she was good at interacting with members of less advanced societies, for she had been selected head of security on a jointly inhabited world.
New Seledon itself was a small human colony of sixty thousand people, spun off from the larger human world of Sateda halfway across the galaxy fifty years before. It was their first off-world settlement, one seeking to exploit trinium deposits believed to be located in mountains near the gate. Such deposits would provide an immense source of wealth if they could be exploited, as trinium was valuable commodity to trade with space-faring societies and thus a way to buy knowledge and technology that would allow Sateda to leapfrog centuries ahead in advancement. When the Lanteans had decided to place an astronomical research station there, they had been welcomed with open arms for the innumerable benefits they would bring with them, ranging from protection to medical care.
Chaya found working and living so close to the primitive people to be a rewarding challenge. It was trying at times, because the Seledonians were backward both socially and technologically compared to Lanteans, but they were hard workers and eager to please, and even when they offended they were usually quick to correct their errors. Certain they were much better company than the majority of the galaxy's humans, for they had discovered such wonders as fusion power and germ theory and were a reasonably egalitarian civilization. They were also an easy-going people and not given to aggressiveness, which was more than some of their supposedly more advanced starfaring cousins could say. Finally, their society was so vibrant and active that it was endlessly entertaining to observe, their art was aesthetically pleasing, and the food alone was worth any minor irritations. Chaya may have had a slight bias in that regard, of course, given the debatable quality of the cornucopia machine-synthesized food that was the staple of meals on most Lantean ships, or at least the ones whose commanders didn't import human food. For all those reasons, and for the practical purpose of forming good relations with the populace, Chaya spent made a point of visiting the town as often as her duties allowed.
"Good afternoon, lieutenant," someone called from behind Chaya. She turned and saw the tall, portly form of the town's mayor, Volkanis Kall, a short distance away. She politely waited for him to catch up with her.
"Good afternoon, Mister Mayor. I trust the day finds you well?"
"Yes, yes, quite well. And you?"
"Much the same as always. Can I help you with something?" Chaya suspected that he had sought her out on purpose, as she was one of the main points of contact between the human government and the outpost's administration. Most of the scientists there had little time for interacting with humans when they could be staring into space, except for recreational purposes, and so the duty of liaison fell up the shoulders of Chaya and her counterpart in the maintenance staff.
"Actually, yes, now that you mention it," Kall replied. "I have a few questions regarding planetary security that I was hoping you might be able to answer for me."
"Oh?" she said.
"There have been a few disturbing rumors floating around in recent months. Traders are talking about long-standing and reliable partners that have gone missing, of planets where the people around the stargate have mysteriously disappeared. It's nothing really reliable, of course, but I'm sure you can understand why we're concerned. A plague would be dangerous, and a small colony like this could be a target for raiders looking for technology or resources."
"I wouldn't worry about it if I were you," Chaya replied. There was a temptation to ask the mayor for more information, because Corps Intelligence had nothing on the human galactic rumor mill. She decided against asking, though, as it wouldn't do to imply that mere humans might be better informed than their Lantean superiors. "Your militia's fairly well-organized, enough to make a difficult target outside of an actual war. Even then, I doubt anyone would be stupid enough to attack while my men and I are here."
At the moment 'her men' consisted of only two squads of troopers and a few gateships, just enough to defend the outpost itself, but their mere presence and the threat of Lantean retaliation should deter any but the most foolhardy aggressor. At least, that had been the theory until lately. Someone had dared to engage Inceptum, and a battleship had rather more firepower than the positively ancient Mark XX Space Defense System the outpost currently had. Chaya wished her own briefing hadn't been maddeningly vague as to who the raiders were or why they were hitting so many planets around the sector.
The mayor nodded, but said, "Still. We don't have a great deal of contact with the space-faring societies, but the few that do visit homeworld have said there are rumors of pirates out in this sector. I doubt a few hundred men with automatic weapons will be much use if a starship decides it wants to take something we have."
"Pirates, you say?" Chaya said in a non-committal tone.
"Ships have gone missing, I'm told, which makes all those other rumors even more frightening. Perhaps you know more than I do?"
The lieutenant looked around then drew the mayor off the main road and into an alley between two buildings. "I might, but this doesn't go any further, you understand?"
Kall nodded. "Of course."
"There have been a large number of attacks out this way, and the Fleet is looking into things. They don't exactly tell us ground pounders a lot, of course, but I can tell you there are a few things going on here at the outpost. They're going to be installing a new long-range sensor array, one that can scan out a few thousand light-years. More than that, they're upgrading our shields and our surface-to-space defenses, including a full drone bay — missiles, basically. They're even bringing in a zero-point module to power it all."
"Zero-point… you mean a potentia? I've heard of such things, but I never imagined one would be here. Is it true they can power a planet?"
"Well, it could probably power most of your homeworld for years, if you had a power grid that could handle it." More accurately, it could power their homeworld for several human lifetimes, even accounting for population growth and advances in technology, but there was no need to be insulting by being overly accurate.
"If they're sending such a powerful device, they must be very concerned."
"Not necessarily. It's probably just easier to do this than to send out more ships. The sensors will let the Fleet keep track of what's going on in the sector and the new weapons will make sure we can defend ourselves. Honestly, I wouldn't worry. Once they get those drones and shields running, no pirate's going to touch this planet."
"How soon will the new defenses be running?"
"We've got the ZPM already, actually. Typical bad timing — the construction ship carrying the actual equipment got delayed and no one back at the manufacturing center got notified. Everything should be up and running within a couple weeks, a month at most."
The mayor smiled at her. "I see that bureaucracy is as inefficient as ever, even among your people."
"It does seem to be a universal constant," she replied. She frowned slightly as a sense of unease came over her. Something was nagging her from the corner of her mind, as though her subconscious had picked up something subtly wrong that her conscious mind had not yet noticed.
"I do hope that the increase in security will not affect our existing relationship," the mayor went on, oblivious to the change in her demeanor. "I'm sure you would all miss the foodstuffs we provide, and the medical assistance that you give us is —"
"Be quiet, please," Chaya said, cutting him off. She listened intently and asked, "Can you hear that? Some kind of buzzing noise."
"I — actually, yes. I wonder what it is?"
The answer came in the form of distant explosions and weapons fire, followed shortly by the scream of warning sirens from around the city. In the distance, Chaya could hear the distinctive sound of the outpost's defense guns opening up, three sharp cracks followed by a few seconds' pause as they recharged and acquired new targets. The buzzing sound grew louder until it turned in a high-pitched warbling wail unlike anything Chaya had heard before, and a moment later a long, triangular fighter shot past overheard.
"I've got to get back to base," Chaya said to the mayor, already beginning to jog out of the alley and into the street. The urge to sprint was almost overwhelming, but she forced herself to moderate her pace. The outpost was on the other side of the town and then almost four miles on further out, and well up a mountain to boot. There was a good chance that the ring transporter at the edge of town might be off-line or blocked by the base shields, and it would do no one any good if she exhausted herself halfway there.
"Who are they?" Kall shouted from behind her.
"I don't know," she yelled back. As she fought her way through the panicking crowds around her, she reached up to toggle on her communicator. "Base, this is Chaya. Report."
"Sergeant Kratus here, ma'am," replied her second in command. "Twenty-six fighter craft came through the gate a minute ago. There was no reply to our challenge and they opened fire on us. We must have knocked down at least seven of them, but we're still under heavy fire and our shields are collapsing."
"I assume you've sent a distress call?"
"Yes, ma'am. However, the gate is engaged with an outgoing wormhole, so they can't get combat gateships through to us. Inceptum has acknowledged our signal and is inbound, ETA fifteen minutes."
"Good work. Get the civilians to the shelter and hold out as best you can. I'll be there as soon as possible."
"Already on it, ma'am. With all respect, though, it may be best if you stay where — hold one." There was a short pause, before the sergeant said, "Lieutenant, we've got reports of intruders in the outpost. I don't have any idea where the hell they came from, there's no sign of a transport ship."
"Damn it!" Chaya growled. Her base was being assaulted and her men were fighting for their lives, and she was stuck miles away from them. "Sergeant, fall back to the tightest perimeter you can manage. Don't worry about the labs, just make sure you maintain control of the operations center and the shelter. The rest is expendable."
"Copy that, ma'am."
The buzzing noise, constant for the last several minutes, suddenly became louder once more. A tiny silhouette appeared above the far end of the street, rapidly growing in size. Chaya and a dozen others around her stopped and stared. She pulled her sidearm and readied it, knowing it was unlikely to do any good, and took careful aim at the oncoming fighter. She squeezed off several shots until suddenly and without warning a quicksilver beam stabbed down from the ship to the ground below where it swept through the crowd. Anyone it touched was dematerialized, and Chaya threw herself to the side as it neared. The fighter zoomed past her position and continued on, sucking up more people as it went. She aimed at it again but after a moment's hesitation she lowered her weapon, knowing that in all likelihood the enemy ship now contained hundreds of innocent civilians. She didn't know why they were being taken, but firing on the ship would only endanger them. Better to let it go and then track it down later, so that they could be rescued.
The attack seemed to stretch on forever, although Chaya knew that it was only a few minutes in truth. More than once she had to dodge a fighter as it beamed aboard more victims, and she could not help but notice that the guns of the outpost had fallen silent. She was on the verge of demanding another report, even knowing that Kratus was probably better off without her trying to manage things from afar, when her communicator bleeped to life.
"Lieutenant, Kratus here. The enemy is pulling back. Several of the ground troops have been reported as beaming onto one of the fighters. It looks like they double as transports."
"I've noticed that myself, Sergeant. Casualties?"
"Several men stunned, ma'am, and a number unaccounted for outside of control and the shelter."
"Do you have any idea who it was?"
"Ma'am, I haven't got a clue what those things were. The looked like someone took a person and a catfish and did something unnatural with — wait, what?" Until now the sergeant had sounded harried but in control, but now there was a sudden panic in his voice. "What do you mean, the reactor's becoming unsta—"
The connection died with a crackle mid-word. That moment of warning was all Chaya had, but it was just enough for her to grab a human child running past and dive into the shadow of a nearby building. A moment later there was an unimaginably bright flash that nearly blinded her even looking the other way. The ground heaved and her ears filled with a terrible roar. She curled tight around the child to shield him with her body as a fierce wind filled with debris blew past and the building sheltering them shook, until without warning everything went black.
She came to again a few minutes later to find herself covered in a layer of dirt, rock, and twisted metal, but thankfully nothing so large she couldn't push it off her. Her shoulder, arm, and ribs seemed to catch fire every time she moved or even breathed, almost certainly cracked or broken. She gritted her teeth and focused on her injuries until she could feel them slowly start to fade away. It was a stopgap at best, she had never been particularly good at healing herself or others, but it would work until she received medical attention.
Chaya realized she was still holding the human child in her arms and carefully released him. He was shaking and sobbing quietly, and Chaya was dimly aware that she should probably try to comfort him somehow but she didn't have the slightest idea how she was supposed to do it. She hadn't interacted with anyone so young, human or Lantean, since she had been a child herself.
"Are you injured?" she asked. This was apparently the wrong question to ask, at the child immediately moved on from sobbing to outright squalling. Chaya patted him down, half in an awkward attempt to comfort him and half to check for wounds or broken bones. He seemed fine, just distressed. That was fair enough; Chaya was fairly distressed herself.
"Stay here," she ordered. "I will return shortly."
Chaya carefully picked her way out of the alley they were in and into the street. In the distance she could see the remains of a mushroom cloud slowly dissipating, directly above where the base would have been. Of the base itself she could see nothing; billowing clouds of smoke rising from the city in that direction left it completely obscured. It didn't matter, because if it had been the naquadah reactor going up then there would be nothing left, even in the shelter. Closer at hand were numerous humans in the street, many crying out in pain from burns or blinded eyes. A few others were emerging from shelter and rushing to their aid. There was little Chaya could do to help, and at the moment it would be more important to try to organize whatever was left of the city's emergency responders. It would be critical to evacuate those closest to the blast, where the fires would be the worst.
Chaya began making her way northward, reluctantly allowing the boy to follow along. The colony's main militia armory was on the opposite side of the city from the outpost, along with one of the hospitals, so it would be a logical point to set up a command post. She didn't get more than a few blocks before four gateships appeared out of the clouds of smoke overhead. One by one they came near the surface and dropped ring platforms at scattered points around the city while the rest maintained an overwatch. The nearest was only a few dozen yards from Chaya, no doubt because they had picked up her communicator's signal.
With a flash a squad of troopers appeared. Unlike Chaya, they were in proper combat gear, with battle rifles and vests containing personal shields, life support, and emergency medical devices. They spread out to form a perimeter and soon more people were beaming down, many of them medical personnel or combat engineers. One in particular met Chaya halfway as she walked over.
"Captain Teyla Salatrix, Inceptum," the other officer said.
"Lieutenant Chaya Athar."
"I am sorry we could not arrive sooner. What happened here?"
"We were attacked without warning. I don't even know what they were after — all they seemed to be doing was abducting civilians and attempting to seize the outpost. I believe they may have sabotaged the reactor when they were forced to retreat. Were they the raiders we've been warned about?"
"They are Wraith," Teyla said with a sigh. "They have never directly attacked Lanteans before, but perhaps they did not know you were here." Teyla glanced behind Chaya, then stepped past her and squatted down with a smile. "Hello there. What is your name?"
The boy said nothing, just stared with wide eyes. After a moment Chaya explained, "I pulled him to shelter when the explosion occurred. He has been following me since. I was intending to establish a command post at armory or hospital in the north quarter and turn him over to the local authorities there."
"I see." Teyla stood. "If you are not injured, I would appreciate your help liaising with the humans. We must act quickly to minimize further loss of life, and it will go more smoothly if we are working together."
"Of course, ma'am."
They worked non-stop straight through until the next afternoon, relying on their bodies' natural recuperative powers to keep them going, clearing debris, fighting fires, and recovering survivors until at the last buried life sign winked out. More personnel began pouring through the gate less than an hour after Inceptum's arrival, both from the human homeworld and disaster teams from the Bureau of Public Welfare.
Chaya was more exhausted than she had ever been when she was finally shown a bed aboard the orbiting battleship. She knew it would get worse; becoming an officer had meant years of study that included learning the psychological effects of failure and loss. Experiencing it first-hand would no doubt be different, although she was positive that she was not the blame and that would hopefully ameliorate any depression. The one thing she did know was that she would have to do her best to prevent others from suffering the same fate as those who had been under her protection. After all, one day she would want to ascend, and it was only logical to shed any lingering burdens over the attack by helping others.
The great city of Atlantis was the capital of the Lantean Union and the heart of their civilization, having somehow endured through five million years. It had been the home to scientists and engineers, soldiers and explorers, artists and statesmen, and every other sort of person imaginable for countless generations. It had always been the heart of Lantean civilization and, as far as anyone could conceive, always would be. For that reason, along with a number of rather more practical ones involving hard-wired command and control systems, the High Council, the Assembly of Worlds, and most other high-level government bodies were located there.
Two days after the attack at New Seledon, the Council met in emergency session, the first such occurrence in a very long time. All seven members were there, one from each of the main government bureaus plus the High Councilor, who was the chairman and chief executive. Moros Myrddin was the current High Councilor and easily the oldest in the room, nearly a thousand years old and having served on the council in one position or another for longer than some other members had been alive. To either side of him were Ganos Lal, Councilor of State, and Supreme Commander Camilla, the next two in seniority. The others around the semi-circular table were Councilor of Public Welfare Melia Salubris, a slight woman of middling height; Councilor of Interior Saxeus Fecerens, ebony-skinned and heavyset; Councilor of Economics Sugambri Tel, who had a long braid of hair running down his back; and finally Councilor of Science Ardea Inquilix, tall, thin, and elegant like the heron from which she took her name. As the elected heads of the Lantean executive branch, they were effectively the most powerful people in the galaxy, exerting influence far disproportionate to both the tiny Lantean population and the relatively unobtrusive nature of the Lantean government.
Under normal circumstances, the monthly Council meetings were short and uneventful affairs. Each councilor spent the majority of his or her time running their bureaus without outside interference, and even that left them plenty of time to conduct personal business. Only matters that crossed between their portfolios, involved important foreign affairs, or otherwise concerned civilization as a whole needed to be brought up to the full council. These matters would be discussed at length in a calm and rational manner, until a consensus was reach. Only occasionally, such as when a five-year budget was being drawn up for approval by the Assembly, did Council deliberations even become slightly heated.
These were not normal circumstances.
"I am sure that everyone can agree with me that this attack on our outpost is completely outrageous," Ardea was saying, her face flush and fists balled in an uncharacteristically expressive demonstration of her feelings. She turned in her chair to face Camilla and pointed at her accusingly. "Beyond that, I for one find myself wondering why we even bother having a military if the Monitor Corps is incapable of defending even a single minor outpost!"
"We were in the process of upgrading the outpost defenses when the Wraith attacked," Camilla responded. "Such things take time, especially given the limited resources that this council has seen fit to allocate to my bureau. We barely have enough to maintain our current fleet and ground fortifications as it is."
Ardea threw up her hands. "Excuses. We gave you what you asked for, and what has it gotten us? No extra security, only the loss of a valuable scientific station and a zero-point module — not to mention the lives of over a hundred researchers and their support staff."
"If I may remind you, Councilor, a number of my people died in this incident defending yours," Camilla said coldly. "However, if you are so dissatisfied the protection the Corps is providing, I'd be more than willing to withdraw it from your science facilities."
Ardea was taken aback by the statement, but only for a moment and then she was smiling sweetly. "Perhaps I misspoke. I'm sure the men and women on the ground are doing the best they can. What's occurring here is simply a failure of leadership and not their fault."
"Oh, I agree completely. If only someone had allowed us to commence the outpost's upgrade six months ago instead of stalling with complaints about it disrupting research, we would have had a proper shield and drone weapons in place."
Before Ardea could reply, Moros leaned forward and said, "Councilors, this discussion is accomplishing nothing. What we must do now is decide what action to take in the future."
"Action?" Sugambri looked askance at Moros. "What action is there that we need to take? Surely our warships will move in and wipe these creatures from existence."
"I believe I've suggested that a few times," Camilla said. "I've been told it's not practical. But what do I know? I'm only in charge of our military."
"Commander," Moros said wearily.
"Supreme Commander. The first word is important."
"Yes. Quite. Perhaps you would like to update the council with a full report on what is going on?"
Camilla nodded and tapped the table, causing the lights to dim and a hologram to appear in the center of the room. It displayed one quadrant of the galaxy, which had a disturbing red blotch spreading through blue and green stars.
"This is the volume of space where we believe the Wraith are currently operating, based on intelligence reports on attacks in the last year. These have been further backed up with models created by the crew of the Inceptum, the ship which has been mostly responsible for dealing with the Wraith for the last several years." Another mental command caused the map to animate, with more and more red and orange stars springing up to show verified and suspected attacks. "There has recently been a massive surge, both in attacks and sightings."
"Fascinating," Ardea said, leaning forward to study the image. Her earlier ire seemed to be set aside in favor of professional interest. "This is far beyond what the Wraith should be capable of with their original population."
"Indeed. Our experts — again, mostly the crew of Inceptum and its science staff — believe that what we may be looking at is a large population surge. We do not have solid information about Wraith reproduction and maturation rates, but it is plausible that we are looking at a baby boom that began as soon as they awoke."
"What of the ships, though? There must be a great many of them."
"Several dozen, at the minimum. We believe the largest ships have manufacturing capabilities, like city-ships do, although there must be ground bases somewhere. In any case, the situation is only going to get worse as they continue to spawn and build more ships. We estimate over a thousand humans are being consumed a day, not even counting collateral damage or events like that at New Seledon, where almost thirty thousand were killed. Those numbers will only go up."
After a brief moment Melia asked, "What do you recommend, Supreme Commander?"
"I intend to assemble a fleet and destroy every Wraith we can find," Camilla replied. "Unfortunately, that will require considerable effort, given how stretched the Corps is at the moment. Ideally, I would like to begin a full-scale mobilization, including a call-up of the Civil Defense Force and a reactivation of both the military shipyards and the mothball fleet located at Pittance."
For a few seconds there was a silence so quiet that you could hear a pin drop. It was broken when Saxeus exclaimed, "Reactivate the yards? Are you insane?"
"We will need new ships to replace losses, and while some of that can be offset by the mothball fleet I do not want to rely on such old equipment."
Saxeus shook his head. "Reactivating the Pittance yards would be a major undertaking and a complete waste of time if we did so only to shut them all down again if they turn out to be unnecessary. I'm sure that our current capacity is more than sufficient to meet any repair or replacement needs you might have."
Pittance was the home of the only large military shipbuilding facility still in existence, and it was also home to a large fleet of older ships that were not currently in use. The yard itself was completely shut down because it was not needed. The city-ships and a few dedicated construction facilities had enough capacity to satisfy demand for smaller starships. Unfortunately, only there were only a handful of berthing slips large enough for a full-size battleship.
"But if you're wrong, a delay could be very costly," Camilla argued. "We don't even know how easily it will go. It should be a simple matter of initializing everything, but they haven't been activated in so long that there might need to be major repairs. If nothing else, it would be good to verify they even work."
"I have to disagree," Sugambri interjected. "Your proposal could result in mass economic chaos. It would completely disrupt the shipbuilding industry and everything related to it. I can only imagine how many resources we would have to pour into Pittance just to get the shipyard running. Actually using the yard to build ships would be like dropping our entire budget into a black hole."
Around the table the other councilors nodded. Camilla didn't need to be a telepath to guess that they were all thinking about what sort of impact Camilla's proposal would have on their own areas. Even though Lantean society easily provided for personal needs such as food and medical care, there was only so much naquadah, trinium, fabricator time, and power to go around for luxuries and most especially for personal experiments. Every gram, second, and watt that was diverted to the military could potentially come from the budgets of their pet projects.
"Besides," Saxeus added, "I'm not sure we have the personnel to run that yard properly anyways. We're not as short-handed as you are, but everyone has a full workload already, and unlike you we can't just cancel everyone's vacations and double their work hours."
"Speaking of personnel," Ardea said, "do you think a mobilization will require calling up reserve personnel from the rest of the non-military fleet? Or worse yet, bring the armed auxiliaries under direct military control?"
"That would be unacceptable," Melia stated, her eyes widening slightly. "We rely on those ships. I have a dozen major disaster recovery efforts in progress right now. Tens, even hundreds of thousands of lives would be at risk if we lost even one of them."
"And many of those people are already doing important business," Sugambri added. "Trying to man the mothball fleet could cause serious issues in several industries."
"I had intended to call for volunteers to reenlist, yes," Camilla said. "The Corps does have the right to requisition those ships during an emergency. They could be very useful in covering sectors that our warships are currently monitoring, so that they can be withdrawn."
"Only in a formally declared emergency," Moros quietly reminded her. She suspected he agreed with her about what was needed, but was warning her that he wasn't sure a vote to that effect would pass.
Ganos Lal frowned and shook her head slightly. "While I agree that we need to strike the Wraith as hard and soon as possible, I'm not sure I would be comfortable moving too many warships off station. There's a number of hot spots around the galaxy where there are major problems brewing, especially with both the Genii and Ji Sukan. They might see this as a sign of weakness and try to start a few wars while we're distracted."
Camilla snorted in disbelief. "If they think that, they'll be surprised."
"Of course, but a few million people may end up dead anyways."
"Even if we do spend more resources on military equipment, should we not concentrate it on building up the Civil Defense Forces?" Melia asked. "The Wraith attacked an outpost directly. We should increase defenses by adding more shields, drones, and weapons platforms to our worlds, especially near the Wraith border."
"That is more reasonable," Saxeus agreed.
"There is no border," Camilla pointed out. "These are raiders, not a nation-state. They could migrate across the galaxy if they wanted."
"Still, your own models indicate they are holding a distinct space," Melia replied with a gesture to the still-glowing map. "They must have some reason for remaining there."
"We suspect they have their own shipbuilding sites," Camilla said. "Locating and destroying those would be one of our main objectives."
Ganos made a thoughtful noise, and asked, "Is there any reason you need more than a few ships? I would think that it would be most efficient and least disruptive to send a few battleships in and destroy those main targets. That way, your smaller ships could remain on station where they are, even if they have to extend their patrols. I'm sure there are exploratory missions that could be delayed."
"We considered the idea, but decided it was too risky. Our battleships will need escorts. Once the Wraith realize that we're launching a counter-attack, they will almost certainly concentrate their forces. We are dealing with ships that have highly advanced weapons technology that can endanger our ships, especially when used en masse. We could easily lose ships to ambush." Camilla looked at her main opponents. "Consider that when you warn of expenses. An Aurora is a very resource-intensive ship to build."
"I think I have a compromise," Ganos said. Camilla turned to her with hope. They were often allies when it came to foreign affairs, as unlike most of the council she was intimately familiar with military necessities. She was also good at dealing with obstinate children. "Obviously, we need to do something before this threat grows any larger. The Monitor Corps will need more ships to thoroughly eradicate the Wraith, especially given how numerous they are now and how quickly their population has grown in such a short time. For that reason, we do need to build more warships."
"Ganos, please," Sugambri said. "We can't."
"Hear me out," Ganos said, raising a hand. "We use only existing yards, and simply use slips that will be coming open but were intended for civilian projects. I'm sure we can turn out a dozen or so destroyers in the next few years."
Grudgingly, Saxeus nodded. "It could be done, if we push things a little. There'll be a lot of complaints, though."
"Government projects have always had priority, and I'm sure the public will understand. Now, as for resources, I think we could cover any additional cost if we split it up among a few other bureaus. We'll just design the ships for easy conversion to non-military use, and after the crisis they can be turned over to whoever helped pay for them."
"I'd prefer a larger permanent fleet, but I suppose that will work," Camilla said.
"I wouldn't be surprised if the Assembly is willing to fund more and bigger ships," Ganos said, "given how this could have been prevented if we'd had more ships to patrol in the first place."
"It doesn't solve the immediate problem, though."
Ganos smiled. "I realize that. What you need is a stopgap until the new ships are ready. As such, I propose that each battleship sent into Wraith space be equipped with a zero-point module. I believe that will remove the threat of mass attack."
"I… hrm." Camilla considered the idea. "Not ideal, but it would boost their survivability significantly."
"It would," Ardea agreed. "Shield power is limited largely by the ability of the ships' reactors to resupply the capacitor banks. A ZPM would be able to power the shields directly, and almost indefinitely."
"Not necessarily," Camilla corrected. "They're not designed for that level of power, unlike a city-ship's. They could get burnt out if hit with enough energy at once. But in general, you're right, and I doubt the Wraith could mass that kind of firepower."
"We do have a quite a few spare modules at the moment," Saxeus said. "We'll want some of those for fixed defenses, but three or four would be easy to manage."
"Excellent," Moros said. "Does anyone have an objection to this plan? No? In that case, we should discuss the exact details of the revised construction budget."
It was not an ideal solution at all, in Camilla's opinion, but it was what she had to work with. She could have ordered her ships to assemble and proceeded to attack, no matter what anyone else had to say about it, but politically that would have been dangerous. The Monitor Corps and other defense forces had considerable independence when it came to conducting operations but ultimately relied on the rest of the government for repairs and other services. The Wraith weren't such a threat that they warranted antagonizing everyone else. There were positive benefits, too, especially if the crisis ultimately resulted in authorization to construct more battleships and other heavy vessels rather than relying so much on smaller ships for patrols.
If nothing else, there didn't seem to be any way ZPM-equipped warships could fail to give the Wraith a serious kick in the ass.
War was boring, except for those occasional minutes when it was terrifying.
That was one of those age-old adages that had been passed down for who knew how many generations in countless societies. Still, it wasn't until now that Star Colonel Astaynax of the battleship Sidus had realized it wasn't just one of those bits of 'common sense' that had nothing at all to do with the real world. Peacekeeping, anti-piracy, and exploration missions had been more than enough to keep him and his crew occupied under normal circumstances. It wasn't until they were pulled off of those missions to attack the Wraith that it turned out that the saying had a certain truth to it.
Sidus, along with Tria, Intrepid, and Inceptum, had been given what should have been a very simple mission: delve into so-called Wraith space, a rather nonsensical designation that had none the less become popular after a leak to the public, locate any Wraith colonies, shipyards, stations, outposts, or other installations, and blast them into dust. Along the way, they were to do their best to prevent any 'cullings' — another invention of datanet denizens, although more apt — and destroy any Wraith ships they came across. As text, the mission objectives weren't that different from hunting down the occasional pirate or privateer. In practice, they were turning out to be damn near impossible to fulfill.
The problem was that the Wraith were incredibly hard to track down. First, most of them were on ships, which spent almost all of their time in hyperspace or deep space, emerging only when the crew got hungry. Any bases they had weren't located on an inhabited planet or even a mapped planet as far as anyone could tell, and the Wraith themselves seemed to take great pains to go nowhere near them in order to keep them concealed. No one was even sure what was necessary to create new Wraith ships, so they essentially had to take a look at just about every decent-sized planet and moon, which meant thousands upon thousands of places to search in each of the thousands of star systems within Wraith space. Laying down sensor platforms was aggravating, because as soon as the warship left a Wraith scout vessel or cruiser would appear and blow it up then vanish back into the black before the ship could return. Occasionally one of the battleships would stumble across a Wraith ship and manage to engage it, with predicable results, but those successes were few and far between. It was like trying to punch a cloud of mosquitoes — one or two might be smashed, but most would just avoid the fist and continue to buzz around happily.
In frustration, Astaynax and his crew decided to try a new tactic. They planted a sensor platform near a human world with a decent-sized population, flew on a roundabout course to that planet, and then landed in the middle of one of its larger deserts to wait. They hoped that the Wraith would destroy the platform, stop by for a snack, and then Sidus would be able to either destroy them or allow some to escape, after planting a tracking device on it. It certainly couldn't work any worse than what they had already done.
Not that staring out into the desert was much more exciting that staring into hyperspace.
"XO," Astaynax said, standing before the bridge window and looking out across his ship, "I have a question."
Star Captain Soraltes got up from her chair and walked forward to join him. "Colonel?"
"Is it just me, or has someone flooded the number four dorsal sensor pallet?"
"That does appear to be the case," Soraltes agreed. A few hundred meters ahead, the wide depression where the sensors were nestled did indeed appear to be full of water, and several crew members were sunning themselves nearby. As they watched, someone dove into the water.
"We do have pool on Deck Seven, yes?"
"A large one, sir."
Astaynax sighed. "I think that perhaps this mission is beginning to get to the crew."
"It has become rather tiresome, hasn't it?" Soraltes cocked her head. "Perhaps we should inspect their makeshift swimming facility for safety."
The two of them turned and headed for the exit at the rear of the bridge. Just as the door was hissing open, though, the tactical officer turned and called out to them.
"Colonel! The sensor probe was just hit, and we've now detected several ships inbound. They appear to be Wraith."
Astaynax sighed, not surprised at all by the timing. "Sound the alert and prepare the tracking drone. Once they enter orbit and start launching darts, we'll engage them."
The crew scrambled to their stations and a new kind of wait began, this one not idle but instead full of tension as they all wondered whether they'd succeed at their mission. It would all depend on how the Wraith would react when they realized that they weren't facing just humans but instead a Lantean battleship.
Minutes passed, until finally the Wraith ships exited hyperspace and glided into orbit. There were three of them, all cruisers, and a larger group than was usually seen unless they were on the attack. Perhaps they had already been on the way to this planet to cull it and merely stopped to destroy the sensors, or perhaps it was just coincidence. It didn't matter either way to Astaynax, only that they were there. He waited a few more minutes, wanting to be sure his prey had been drawn in, until they began launching darts toward one of the human cities.
"Bring us to full power," he ordered. "Helm, antigravs to maximum. Get us into orbit. Tactical, be careful as you pick your targets. I'm sure you don't want to have to wait another week to try again."
"No, sir, I do not," Lieutenant Menicus said.
"Wraith ships appear to have spotted us," Soraltes reported. "They're coming about to face us and powering weapons."
The cruisers were spreading out into a broad arrowhead formation to bring all of their heavy guns to bear. They fired, raining shots onto Sidus at a rapid rate. Against other targets they often preferred slower, more powerful bolts, but against Lantean ships they had begun to simply fire as much as they could, as fast as they could, in order to strain the shields with many hits from different angles. It might have been enough to impact shield strength considerably for another ship, but with Sidus it was pointless — even if the shields were less efficient under that fire, the almost endless power of the ZPM meant that they could fire for hours without being a threat.
"Tactical, destroy the lead ship," Astaynax ordered.
"Aye, sir." Moments later, a volley of a hundred drones ripped through one cruiser and it exploded.
Astaynax leaned forward and watched the sensor displays closely. "Come on, run away," he murmured. "You know you can't win." If they didn't he would have to just destroy them and be done with it, because otherwise it would be too obvious they were holding back.
"They just powered their hyperdrives," Soraltes said.
"Tactical, execute Plan Beta."
Sidus fired another volley of drones at one cruiser and a considerably smaller one at the second. The first was destroyed; the second, however, only took a few minor hits before it managed to jump to hyperspace. One of those hits was not from a regular drone, though. The ship's technicians had modified the main phase-shifting system that the drones used to penetrate enemy ships so that it would merely lodge in the hull, and added a long-range transmitter. When remotely activated, it would allow the Lanteans to track the ship and see where it was visiting when not bothering human planets. With that information, it would be easy to find any bases, especially if the cruiser stopped for repair work.
"Beacon is active, sir," Menicus said. "And… I have destroyed all remaining darts."
Astaynax smiled. "Excellent shooting, Lieutenant. Soraltes, please pass the word along to the rest of the crew that the plan seems to have worked. And inform the rest of the squadron, too. I imagine they're going to be sorry they said it couldn't be done."
"I'll be sure to remind them of that, sir," Soraltes said.
The next few days were spent waiting again, although this time they weren't just staring out the windows. In addition to their patrol sweeps, the crew was carefully monitoring the path of their tagged cruiser. They weren't following it, of course, not wanting to give away what they had done, but the beacon was specially designed to be traceable at long distances. That was only true if you knew the exact frequency to look for, though, and otherwise it was low-power enough that hopefully the Wraith wouldn't notice it among the emissions of their own transmitters and engines.
That didn't mean Astaynax didn't want to keep after other Wraith. For that reason he was happy when the normal operations of the bridge were interrupted by a report from Soraltes.
"Colonel, we've just picked up a distress call from a human spacecraft. They say they're under attack, and their description of the other ship matches that of a Wraith vessel."
Astaynax spun his chair to face her. "Location?"
"Approximately sixty light-years away, bearing zero-one-three mark plus one seven."
"Barely more than a minute or two away. Excellent. Helm, lay in a course and engage hyperdrive, best speed. Tactical, shields up, arm weapons."
With any luck at the other they would find at least a Wraith cruiser, but he hoped that there might be more lurking in the area, or even a hiveship. Finally, after several agonizingly long minutes that seemed to stretch on for eternity, Sidus dropped to normal space.
Immediately a holographic screen shimmered into view to display the situation they found. At the center was a primitive-looking human ship that was little more than a command section at one end and an engine block at the other, with a long spine between them that had cargo containers attached to its sides. It was amazing the ship was capable of interstellar flight at all. A short distance away was the arrowhead shape of a Wraith scout vessel. It was a tiny thing, perhaps a hundred meters long at best and dwarfed even by the human container ship. None the less it was firing tiny blue bolts at the humans, resulting in explosions on the human ships' hull. It was little more than a gnat compared to the massive bulk of Sidus, and clearly the Wraith flying it were well aware of that as they immediately began to flee into the void in the hopes of evading long enough to jump out. Astaynax, while disappointed by such small prey, wasn't going to let it go.
"Tactical. Fire at will." The screen flared as a single yellow bolt from the forward guns hit the Wraith dead astern and it exploded into spectacular cloud of plasma and debris. Astaynax sighed and turned to tactical. "Any further contacts?"
"No, sir," Soraltes reported. "Just us and the humans. Unless there's another ship lying under emissions control out there, we're the only thing within a light year."
"Hail the humans."
A moment later, a human male appeared on the screen. He was old, with a wrinkled face and thinning grey hair, although old was of course a relative term — he may well have been fifty years of age, younger than Astaynax even if he looked like a Lantean ten or even twelve times that age. He was obviously terrified, his eyes wide and voice quavering as he said, "This is Captain Shal Rotarn of the Kesigan, to the Lantean vessel. Thank you for saving us."
"I am Star Colonel Astaynax of the Monitor Corp battleship Sidus. It was no trouble at all. Tell me, do you need further assistance?"
Rotarn quickly nodded his head. "Yes, yes, we do. Our hyperdrive is gone, and we have considerable structural damage. We're loosing pressure in multiple sections and need to evacuate immediately."
"Do you have a hangar, or airlocks compatible with Lantean shuttles?"
The human glanced off to the side and shook his head vigorously. "No, no hangar. I don't think the other, either."
"Damn." Astaynax looked at Soraltes again. "Are you positive there are no other ships around?"
"Absolutely, sir, and if anyone tries to approach we'll see them coming."
"Right. Lower shields, prepare to dock." He turned back to the screen. "Captain, we'll be coming alongside shortly. Have all your people as ready as you can when we arrive. We'll have rescue teams and medics waiting if you need help getting anyone off."
"Thank you. Thank you very —" Rotarn looked off to the side again and somehow managed to pale even further. "Oh no." Then the image disappeared and Astaynax was left looking out the window at the human ship.
"What happened?" he asked
"The transmission cut off," Soraltes replied with a puzzled frown. "There was a power spike in their transmitter at the same time, it sent out a wide-band subspace squeal. I bet they blew a power relay or something."
Astaynax stared at the human ship. "Something doesn't feel right about this."
A second later Mencius shouted, "Wait! Their engines just came back up!"
Astaynax began to bring the shields back up, not even bothering with a verbal order but instead sending an override command directly from his command chair. It was already too late, though. The human ship had swung just a few degrees around and now its drives came to full thrust, well beyond their maximum safe limits. Under other circumstances they would have burnt out in mere seconds, but as it was the ship accelerated at a over a thousand gravities and crossed the space between it and Sidus in the blink of an eye. Even as the first glimmers of the shields started to form Kesigan slammed into Sidus' bow at over a kilometer per second. Instantly the freighter and the first third of the battleship vaporized into a ball of plasma. The explosion and sheer force of the impact turned another third of Sidus into nothing but a twisted mess of twisted, charred metal. It was a tribute to the durability and massive redundancy of Lantean military engineering, not to mention the strength of their advanced trinium and naquadah alloys, that the rest of the ship remained mostly intact. A large portion of the engineering crew even survived, although many were injured.
A short time later, the survivors discovered that they would have been better off being vaporized along with their fellows.
There had been a heavy feeling in the air on Inceptum for the last few weeks, ever since word of the destruction of Sidus had arrived. The ship's automatic distress beacon had been activated and when Tria arrived to investigate they found nothing but twisted wreckage. The ship's emergency recorder showed that a human ship, most likely hijacked, had rammed Sidus. At some point after that, one of the reactors must have detonated and vaporized most of the remaining hulk, although the recorder had been ejected before that and there was no firm data on why the failsafes had not prevented that. There were no survivors to give any additional information.
The news had hit everyone in the squadron hard, and many throughout the rest of the Corps for that matter. The Monitor Corps was not a large organization, as most Lanteans didn't care for the risks and occasional violence that the job entailed even in a support position, and almost everyone knew at least one person who had been aboard the destroyed battleship. For those directly involved with the war, it suddenly turned their mission from a tedious but important task to something far more serious, not to mention dangerous. No longer was it just humans who were dying, but friends and comrades. The desire to strike back was felt throughout the fleet, and that feeling was strongest aboard Inceptum. They had been fighting the longest, and for many this was not the first time they had lost so many friends to the Wraith.
The only problem was how to strike back, given the continued elusiveness of the Wraith. Fortunately, the crew of Sidus had supplied a method for their comrades to avenge them.
"Thank you all for coming," Teyla said. She was standing at a podium in one of the ship's auditorium, facing the entire company of troopers that made up the ship's Ground Force infantry complement. A few other members of the crew were there as well, either as part of the official briefing or just out of curiosity. "I'm sure all of you are wondering why I have called you here. The answer is simple: we have made a discovery that will allow us to strike the Wraith and avenge Sidus, and the commander has decided to entrust the Ground Force with the task rather than leave it up to Space Force, a decision which I am sure you can agree is a wise one."
There was soft laughter from around the auditorium, along with a discontented noise from Teyla's left, where Star Captain Lorne was sitting. He raised an eyebrow and she tilted her head slightly, daring him to contradict her. Wisely, he chose not to.
With a thought Teyla activated a holographic display. "As some of you know, on one-seven-nine point eighty-four, Sidus managed to tag a Wraith cruiser with a tracking beacon. Since that time, the squadron's intelligence division has been studying its movements, and they have seen it meet up with several other vessels. We now believe that we have identified a hive ship."
There were gasps and sharp smiles at that announcement. So far Inceptum was the only ship to successfully engage a hive ship in battle. The thought of doing so again, as seemed to be implied, as a pleasant one.
"Star Colonel Johannes has convinced Corps Command that directly attacking the hive would be counterproductive," Teyla said. "There is a great deal we do not know about the Wraith, and this would be an unparalleled opportunity to gain solid information on them. For that purpose, at some point within the next few weeks I intend to lead a party to board the hive ship."
If her previous statement had caused a stir, this one caused an uproar. Everyone started talking at once, either to their neighbors, Teyla, or someone halfway across the room. It took a minute for things to calm down enough for one of the senior troopers to ask the obvious.
"With all due respect, ma'am," Master Sergeant Echinus said, "there's supposed to be thousands of Wraith on those ships. We might be amazing soldiers, but we're not quite that amazing."
Teyla smiled. "I understand that. We have no intention of taking the ship, only performing a quick snatch and run operation. We did consider bringing in other units, but ultimately doing so was deemed too risky. Our objectives are threefold: first, obtain technical data from the ship's computer, including current fleet deployments; second, capture Wraith leaders; and third, destroy the hiveship as we leave."
Lorne stood up and joined her at the podium. "Obviously, charging in with the ship would make it impossible to board the hive without being noticed. For that reason, the engineering staff has been modifying a Type IV midrange transport for the job. We will jump into the target system just before the hive is expected to arrive and wait under cloak. When it appears, we will latch onto the hull and burn our way in. If the Wraith do somehow notice us, Inceptum will be waiting nearby to assist."
"Do we know anything about the interior of the ship?" Corporal Sempia asked.
"We do have a partial map of one ship," Teyla said. "We do not know if it would be reliable, though, and so we will have to find our own way around. Doctor Parrish?"
Parrish got out of his chair and came to stand next to Lorne. "Err, yes. Wraith ships are of a biological nature, which means that the exact layout of the internal corridors will be unique to each one. Despite that, we think we've identified of key areas based on scans and examination of wreckage. You might think of it as being very similar to the anatomy of any other living creature, such as yourselves. The essential layout is the same for all of you — heart, lungs, digestive system, kidneys, so on and so forth — but there's always personal differences, even with twins. Your arteries and veins follow different paths, your skins have varying melanin levels, other things are a little bigger or smaller. You get the idea."
There was a brief moment of silence, and then Sempia said, "So that's a no?"
"It's a sort of," Parrish replied with a shrug. "I can point out the command centers or engines, just not the exact route to get there."
"I am sure that will not be a problem," Teyla said. "Certainly most of you are skilled at finding your ways around unfamiliar cities while on shore leave, without the benefit of even this much information and with rather more intoxicants in your bloodstream."
"Yes. Quite. Anyway, once aboard we'll hopefully be able to pin down a more exact layout using the transport's sensors. We've worked up a functional interface that will allow us to connect our computers to theirs, so with luck that part of the mission should be pretty simple." Parrish wisely passed over any mention of how it was even possible to create such a device without knowing how Wraith technology worked. The origin of the Wraith was still heavily classified.
He reached past Lorne to touch the podium, changing the hologram to show three Wraith. The male and the neuter drone were based on recovered corpses; the queen was an artistic reconstruction based on descriptions from Teyla, John, and Parrish. "These are the Wraith themselves. I imagine you're already a familiar with them. The queen is the one we're most interested in, because they seem to be the leaders and also because we know the least about them. The main things you need to watch out for are their incredible strength, speed, and regenerative capabilities. The feeding ability is also dangerous, but combat vests should provide plenty of protection."
"Obviously, this mission carries considerable risk," Teyla said. "Even with personal shields and superior firepower, if we are detected we could be easily overrun. For that reason, this mission will be composed of volunteers only. If you wish to join, please send me a message by tomorrow morning. More detailed information is available on the ship's database, and I will be available for discussion. Dismissed."
People began standing up and heading for the exits, chattering excitedly as they went. Teyla would not be surprised if many of them volunteered, knowing that, like her, most of them were frustrated with doing little more than damage control whenever the ship arrived too late to prevent a culling. This was a chance to do more than that.
One person in particular caught her eye, and Teyla went over to join her. Lieutenant Chaya had accepted a position aboard following the loss of her previous unit. She was a competent soldier, albeit inexperienced compared to most of those on Inceptum. Chaya was also somewhat standoffish, which was understandable given recent events.
"Good afternoon, Lieutenant," Teyla said.
"Do you intend to join the strike team?"
"I am… considering it," Chaya said cautiously.
Teyla was surprised by Chaya's hesitance on the matter. In her position, Teyla would have been the first to volunteer. In some ways, she had done exactly that, or at least the closest thing she could do at the time.
"I must admit, I had expected you to be enthusiastic about the idea."
"Why? As you said, it is a mission is quite dangerous. I should study the briefing information to make certain that I have the right skills to be of value."
Teyla quirked an eyebrow. "You do not desire to strike back at the Wraith for what they did you and your command?"
Chaya pursed her lips and stayed silent for several seconds, before slowly saying, "Basing any decision on that would be irrational. There is no guarantee these are the same Wraith who attacked us, and even if they were, risking the success of the mission simply because of a grudge would be counterproductive. In fact, some might argue that it would be unseemly to hold such a grudge in the first place."
Teyla frowned. It was certainly a logical statement and based on sound reasoning. That didn't mean it make much sense to her on an emotional level. How could Chaya not want to avenge her fallen comrades? She had only been at the Seledon outpost for half a year, barely any time at all as Lanteans counted time, but still more than enough to make friends. Then again, there were a number of philosophical schools that touted that kind of detachment, and Teyla had to admit that she was something of an outlier herself. She, along with John, Parrish, and a handful of other Veritas survivors aboard Inceptum had kept watch for the Wraith for a long time, but other survivors had either returned to their lives or sought even safer pursuits at home.
"I understand," Teyla said shortly. "I am sure you will carefully consider whether to volunteer, and I will do the same when reviewing the candidate list."
She was not terribly surprised when Chaya's name was among those submitted. People often had a habit of putting aside philosophy when it suited them and they could create some form of justification. Teyla selected her, not just because of sentimentality but because she did have useful skills, not least of which were latent parapsychic abilities that were untrained but still might prove useful in the face of Wraith telepathy.
Selecting a team was only the start of things. Details of their plan had to be worked out and drills conducted using the ship's virtual reality system, simulating as many possible scenarios as they could devise. They tried to overcome their lack of information as best they could with randomized layouts and what they hoped were overly generous estimates of Wraith numbers, strength, and firepower. It was imperfect, but the best they could do, given how little information they had, and not for the first time Teyla wished that the Wraith would have the decency to land troops when attacking. Instead, thus far they had conspicuously avoiding that, sticking almost entirely to attacking with darts in the vast majority of cases. They had no need to send warrior drones down to capture anyone when simply setting fire to buildings was more the sufficient to drive people into the open, with the number of humans being killed in the process insignificant compared to those taken and unneeded in any case given their darts were being filled to capacity.
Almost two weeks passed before they launched the mission. In part the delay was to allow time for training, but most of it was spent waiting for the hiveship to reach a point where it could be attacked. The hive seemed to spend the vast majority of its time lurking in the interstellar void or traveling in hyperspace. Approaching under those conditions would have been difficult to do without potentially alerting the Wraith, and it would also be under circumstances where the Wraith would have be able to bring the most forces to bear. Instead they waited until the hive was clearly on a course for a star system and jumped there first.
"Inceptum, Vipera," Lorne said on the transport ship's tiny bridge. "Ready for departure."
"Bay doors are open, you are clear to proceed," Chuck answered.
"Roger that." Lorne placed his hands on the control sticks — like many pilots Teyla knew, he preferred having something physical to manipulate in addition to the mental interface — and eased the ship out of the hangar. It was a tight fit, as Vipera took up most of the bay. Under normal circumstances the battleship would not have been carrying a transport of such size, but John and Lorne had acquired one from somewhere and the engineers had outfitted it to meet their needs.
John's voice came over the speakers. "Vipera, we've just picked up the hiveship on our long-range sensors. ETA is thirty minutes. We'll be taking up our position above the star's pole and waiting for your signal. Good hunting."
Inceptum jumped out seconds later, heading for the system's primary, where it would hide in the outer reaches of the star's coronasphere just above the magnetic pole. Hopefully that position would keep the Wraith from noticing the battleship was there. Meanwhile, Lorne activated the transport's cloaking device and put it into a high orbit around the inhabited planet below.
The minutes ticked by as they waited for the Wraith to arrive. Teyla busied herself checking over the troopers in the passenger area one last time, more to have something to do than any worry that something might have suddenly gone wrong since the pre-departure check or indeed that her squad leaders would allow something to go amiss. There were two dozen aboard the ship: twelve who would be going into the hive, including herself and Doctor Parrish, and Lorne, his flight crew, and guards who would keep their line of retreat secure. It was a balance between stealth, speed, and firepower, one that they hopefully had gotten correct.
The Wraith emerged from hyperspace right on schedule, a hiveship escorted by a trio of cruisers. This was the first test of their plan: would the transport's cloak hold up against Wraith sensors?
"Well, they don't seem to be acting strange," Lorne said after a few minutes. On the bridge displays, they could see that the Wraith had entered a lower orbit and begun launching swarms of darts. By the mission plan that was a good thing, as it insured the Wraith would be thoroughly distracted. "I'm starting our approach. Gage, keep an eye on the scanners and tell me if any of those other ships so much as twitch."
"Yes, sir," the sensors tech directly behind Lorne said, her eyes darting from screen to screen.
Vipera slowly closed in on the hive, which appeared to grow in size until it completely filled the broad window at the front of the bridge. It was monstrously huge, easily twice or even three times the size of a city-ship. Even having seen the ship on screens and partially buried had not prepared Teyla for how big it truly was up close.
Soon they were traveling mere meters above the gnarled, rippling surface of the ship, searching for a good entry point. They found what an opening of some sort near the center of the ship, where there was an odd open space for no obvious reason. Lorne settled the ship just above it.
"Sergeant Kiro, whenever you're ready."
On the ship's belly, several ports opened and equipment began extending. Some latched on to the hive's hull and pulled the ship closer, while others sought out the weak spot below and began carefully drilling through with disintegration beams. At the same time, a forcefield was erected to ensure a pressure seal. Finally, a tube was extended into the newly-made hole.
"We're in, sir."
"And… no sign of any activity still. Teyla, you're clear to proceed. Good luck."
Teyla nodded. "Thank you."
Teyla headed back to the rear again, where her troopers were gathered around a circular hatch in the floor. She slipped on her safety glasses, which included both a full communications system and a heads-up display linked to a sensor unit on her belt. She also picked up her pulse rifle and checked it over a last time.
"Captain Lorne has successfully delivered us," she told the others. "From this point on, the mission's success or failure rests on us. Please do not embarrass me or the Ground Force."
"We'll do our best, ma'am," Sergeant Echinus said.
"I trust you will not," she said, smiling slightly. "Technician Dorcas, open the hatch and adjust the gravity."
The hatch irised open, while at the same time the internal gravity was significantly reduced. Troopers began hopping through the hatch in ones and two, with Teyla in the middle of the group. She 'slid' a short distance through the weightless tube and landed nimbly on her feet at the far end. They were at the end of a dark, dank corridor, with the tube's lower rim just above the floor level. There was no sign of any activity. Silently they spread out down the hall until the point-men reached the nearest intersection.
Parrish came down last, stumbling a little at the transition. He was decked out in battle gear as well, but instead of a rifle he carried a pack of science equipment on his back. Teyla looked at him with a silent question and he nodded.
"Here goes nothing…"
He tapped the scanner he was carrying and a moment later Teyla's HUD changed to include a circular sensor display. Both showed fuzz for a few seconds while Parrish fiddled with his unit some more, adjusting the device's input and automatically sending updates to the units the rest of them had. Suddenly the display changed again to become sharp and crisp. It now showed several green dots and an outline of the corridor, and when she glanced at it directly it expanded to show a much wider area. Not only was there basic map, but it now showed numerous red dots.
"Excellent work, Doctor," Teyla said. "Sergeant."
"Secure the immediate area and find a suitable place for the warhead. My group will proceed onward."
"I think I've identified the nearest computer node," Parrish said. A tiny dot appeared on the map display, along with a waypoint arrow pointed the way.
"Thank you. Alpha team, move out."
Teyla and one of the corporals took the lead, with Parrish safely in the middle and Chaya guarding their rear. They began to make their way deeper into the hive, darting between the numerous crannies, alcoves, and other hiding spots that so conveniently dotted the halls. Their sensors showed no signs of any Wraith nearby, but they still showed all due caution, just in case something else might lurk inside the ship that they had not yet seen. They only saw a few dots anywhere nearby and avoided them with ease; while the sensors could not see the entire ship at the low power levels their detectors were set to, they were in a position whether they could see literally thousands of life signs gathered close to what were believed to the dart bays and the massive hibernation catacombs that spread out from them. For all that it was convenient and the exact reason for the timing of their raid, it was also disturbing, because now and then groups of yellow dots designating humans would appear in the dart bays, only to be driven off into the lower levels where they would disappear.
The team reached the computer node quickly, able to move at a near-run for far longer than a human could without even breaking a sweat. It was not in a room, but simply in the middle of a chamber that several corridors joined together at. It also did not appear to be a computer, either, instead being a disgusting lump of glistening flesh that emerged from the floor and rose to touch the ceiling, like a fat, tumorous stalagmite.
Parrish, of course, looked like he thought it was the best thing since replicated bread. He immediately knelt down next to it, rolled a piece of cloth on the floor, and started to pull tools from his pack and lay them down on the cloth.
"How long is this going to take?" Teyla asked, not needing to look away from him to know her troopers were taking up guard positions at the uncomfortably numerous entrances.
"It will take as long as it takes," Parrish said, glancing up at her while continuing to unpack. "This is a completely unfamiliar computer system, even if it is based on Nox technology, and if I'm not very careful I could end up damaging something or corrupting the data I download."
"Very well. Do it as quickly as you can. We may not have long."
Parrish tipped his head and smiled wryly. "Believe me, Captain, I have no desire to spend any more time here than you do."
If Parrish was hurrying, then perhaps he was the result of some sort of Lantean-sloth hybridization project. He scanned the core several times with different types of sensors, then started carefully inserting probes at various points. That took a little over seven minutes; fifteen minutes after that, he was still sitting there and staring at a computer slate and tapping it idly.
"Doctor," Teyla said, running low on patience. "Have you made any progress?"
"Mmm?" Parrish looked up. "Oh. Yes. I've gained access to their network, and taken the tissue biopsies I wanted."
"Have you found the information we're supposed to look for?"
Parrish winced. "See, that would be the problem. The organization scheme is… well, nonexistent, for all intents and purposes, and if there's a search index I haven't found it, so I'm having to construct one from scratch, which is difficult if I want to stay undetected. Also, the language is a bit troublesome — it appears to be a mix of early modern Nox and Lantean, with a completely different symbol set. It's confusing the translation program."
Teyla spared a moment to wonder just how awful the Wraith computers had to be to make a Lantean scientist used to the central database think it was disorganized. "Is there any way you can speed it up?"
"That depends entirely on how much you want me to get," Parrish said. "I think I have the technical specifications for their ships, and maybe something on their biology. They're quite closely related, I think, which is interesting."
"And I am sure you will have plenty of time to study the relationship in great detail, once we have returned to the ship. However, we do not have much time, and since the technical data was our main objective I think we should move on soon. You have five minutes to retrieve that and whatever else you can."
Parrish frowned but nodded. "Very well, Captain."
At exactly five minutes later by the mission clock, Parrish began extracting his probes and tossing them into the pack, thankfully faster and with less care than he had handled them before. He kept the slate out and entered commands into it for several seconds.
"It appears our guess as to the location of the command areas was more or less correct," he said shortly. "Which likely means that this unique life-sign here is the queen. We need to head aft and up several levels, then to the center of the ship."
On Teyla's HUD map, one life sign turned from red to orange. The queen appeared to be alone at the moment, although there were several other dots not far away, including a cluster on the ship's bridge. She studied the intervening sections briefly, then designated a route that seemed to avoid traffic and signaled for the team to move out.
It took another ten minutes to cover the distance, once more emphasizing how large the ship was. No doubt there was some method of moving about that didn't involve walking, just as a ship or city had internal transporters, but for now they were stuck on foot. It was then their luck began to waver: just before they reached the queen's chamber, several other Wraith joined her, with a human in their midst.
"Is that…" Chaya started, cutting off when Teyla shouted, "Go!"
They sprinted the last dozen meters to the chamber. Teyla arrived first, with Chaya close on her heels. The queen was standing near the center of the chamber, with a male at her side, and before her two drones held a human male. Teyla snapped her rifle up, and shot the male wraith square in the chest, blowing a melon-sized hole straight through it. Chaya hit one drone and then the other, as Teyla lined up a shot on the queen and set her rifle to stun.
The queen declined to stay still long enough for Teyla to fire. Instead she leaped at her, lashing out with one arm and striking Teyla so hard in the chest that she stumbled back despite her shield. She had little doubt that if it weren't for the shield her chest would have been caved in. The queen didn't stop with that, darting aside with a hiss to knock Chaya's feet out from under her. She turned to Teyla once more, batting her rifle from her hand as Teyla tried to raise it again and then wrapping both hands around Teyla's neck. The queen squeezed but was unable to actually compress the shield, which shimmered just centimeters from Teyla's skin. That didn't mean she didn't have enough leverage and traction to physically lift Teyla up and hold her like a shield between the queen and the troopers coming through the door. None of them could get a clear shot as the queen backed away toward the far wall, waving Teyla to and fro like a life-size doll and completely ignoring Teyla's attempts to free herself. A few of them fired aways, trusting the shield to protect Teyla from the stun bolts, but none of their shots hit the queen. It wasn't until Chaya dove ahead and managed to fire from low and to the side that the queen dropped Teyla and then went down as more shots hit her from several directions.
Only then, as Teyla shook her head, did she become aware of the wailing alarm.
"Are you all right, Captain?" Chaya asked.
Teyla shook her head and had to laugh despite herself. "Only my pride is injured. We shall never speak of this again, understood?" There were more laughs from the rest of the troopers and a chorus of acknowledgements. "Secure the prisoner and ready it for transport. I want to be gone by the time reinforcements arrive."
Two troopers knelt beside the queen and began binding her to a collapsible stretcher. Parrish, Teyla noted, had his hands on the human's shoulders and was talking to him softly. She was relieved to see that while he appeared on the verge of a nervous breakdown, the man was otherwise unhurt. They had arrived in time for once.
They left as soon as the queen was secured, running as fast as the two troopers carrying the stretcher could manage. Fortunately they had no need of evasion now and could take the most direct route back to the transport. They met resistance several times, but the Wraith were only slowly reacting to their presence and arrived in twos and threes, easily being gunned down the moment they appeared. It was only as they neared their destination that the Wraith started becoming more organized, sending in dozens of warriors at a time, and then a constant stream. By then, though, they were linked up with the rearguard team, and the Wraith were simply unable to send enough people through the corridor at once to threaten them.
As soon as everyone was aboard, the hatch irised shut and the transport sped away from the hive, no doubt leaving several Wraith quite vexed by the hole in their hull. Teyla went forward to the bridge.
"Our friends seem pretty pissed," Lorne said over his shoulder when she stepped in. "All the darts are headed this way, and the capital ships have powered their weapons. They're not shooting yet, though, and in a couple more seconds we'll be clear enough that it won't matter anyways. How'd things go?"
"It was a success," Teyla said. "Assuming Doctor Parrish managed to download the correct data."
"I've never known him to do bad work."
"You would say that," Teyla said with a small smile.
"Yeah, yeah. Would you push that blinking control there?"
"Of course." Teyla pressed the button.
Behind them, the hiveship exploded.
Lorne glanced at one of the displays, which switched from telemetry data to a visual of the expanding cloud of debris. "You know, as nice as drones are, there's something to be said for naquadriah bombs."
"And… there's Inceptum.."
The battleship shot out of a hyperspace window and began laying into the remaining Wraith ships, utterly annihilating them with ease. It was fitting conclusion to a very good day.
The first raid on a Wraith hive ship was another demonstration of Lantean superiority in all fields. It had already been shown that in space the Wraith could not hope to compete directly; likewise, this was the first of many times where superior infantry technology allowed small number of Ground Force troopers to confront vastly larger Wraith forces. While not completely invincible, they were more than strong enough that the Wraith rarely elected to directly engage our troops on the ground unless forced to by circumstance, preferring instead to attack with darts, either using their energy weapons or by beaming troopers aboard and then depositing their victims in space…
Beyond providing a boost to morale, the raid also gave our scientists a wealth of information. Interrogation and examination of the prisoner resulted in several interesting discoveries regarding Wraith psychology; unfortunately, the research team was forced to euthanize the subject after less than two weeks due to their inability to find an acceptable food source. More useful was the technical data gathered from the Wraith computers. A great deal was learned about the capabilities of their ships and the likely makeup of their fleet. This included information on how quickly Wraith ships could be grown, both when left alone and when supplied power and nutrients by a hive ship. Other points of interest included…
Unfortunately, the raid was easily the high point of the campaign. No important Wraith bases were destroyed, and despite several successful interceptions the Wraith continued to raid dozens of planets each week. Far worse were the losses incurred by the Lantean squadron over the next few months. The battleship Intrepid was lost to an ambush at the neutron star near Prolmar, and even by the end of the war no one had discovered what happened to the destroyer Vastarator. These were followed by directed attacks on multiple Lantean outposts still remaining within Wraith space, which culminated with the raid on Pittance….
Janus, Chief Lecturer for Hyperspace Dynamics, Senior Member of the Science Bureau Directing Committee, and Three-Time Winner of the Novatia Prize for Outstanding Research, had high hopes for the meeting he was about to attend. He had been in something of an academic doldrum lately. Oh, he was still conducting a number of long-term projects that he firmly believed would produce planet-shattering results, but some of those wouldn't near completion for centuries. He could just spend some time in stasis, but that would leave him out of the loop with regards to what everyone else was doing, and that wasn't even mentioning the social side-effects. Not that there was much to miss, really — thus far, 241-kay-1 had proven a rather dull century.
Thankfully, the universe had seen fit to provide a source of inspiration. As soon as Janus had heard about the proposed Wraith-Related Research and Development Coordinating Committees, he had volunteered to join one.
"Good evening, everyone!" Janus said as he entered the meeting room. A half-dozen people were already present, either in person or via telepresence from other cities and outposts scattered around the galaxy. He recognized most of them, if only vaguely in some cases.
"Hello, Janus," said Fulguria, a fellow high-energy physicist and engineer. She waved for him to take the chair next to her. "How have you been?"
"Quite well, thank you. And you?"
"Oh, fine enough, I suppose. This entire situation has thrown some of my research into a complete mess, though. Do you remember those stellar formation studies I was doing around the Ionian Nebula?"
"Well, the Wraith have been destroying every space-based sensor platform in an area several thousand light-years across, and the nebula is well within their space. Guess how much distinction they make between Corps sensors and purely scientific ones?"
"None, given the look on your face."
"Exactly. And of course I can't replace them anytime soon, because the Bureau won't let their ships go into the area without an escort and the Corps won't provide one, so I'm stuck waiting until things cool down. At the rate things are going, I could probably build a ship of my own and do it myself before that happens."
"How awful. You have my sympathy." Janus was glad that his own research wasn't the sort to be affected by those circumstances. Most of it he could do in Atlantis, either in his main lab or his hidden one, and the remainder was conducted on a private facility on an out-of-the-way uninhabited planet.
"Thank you." Fulguria shrugged and spread her hands. "I decided now that I have free time, I may as well help solve the problem."
"Understandable." Janus looked around the others sitting around the large, circular table. "Do you know if we're waiting on anyone?"
"Just the Corps representatives, I think. Doctor Parrish Cursor and an officer."
Janus put his hand on the table to access the public database and called up Parrish's biographical file. He was a biologist with a focus on botany, a worthwhile and challenging field even if it didn't have the clean, beautiful elegance of physics. He hadn't done much publishing lately, but that wasn't surprising given his position with the Monitor Corps. It wasn't that Corps scientists and engineers didn't do important work, just that truly in-depth research could only be conducted on dedicated science ships that could stay in one place for more than a few months and didn't have to worry about distractions.
Janus spent a few more minutes making small talk with the rest of the scientists, getting to know some of the ones who he had not worked with directly before. Several were fairly young, only a century or two old, or only had experience with more practical areas instead of pure theory. They certainly had plenty of enthusiasm to make up for anything they lacked.
At that point the Monitor Corps representatives arrived, their holograms blinking into existence in two empty chairs. They both wore the plain uniforms the military favored, although there were small differences in style and decoration that no doubt meant something. Janus recognized one as being Parrish, which made the other the actual soldier. Both of them seemed tired, with their clothes a little rumbled, their hair a little too messy to be a stylistic choice, and barely-perceptible wear lines around their eyes.
"Good morning, everyone, or whatever time of day it might where you are," Parrish said. "I'm Doctor Parrish Cursor, chief science officer on MS Inceptum, and this is Star Lieutenant Aldenatachuck Acer, our operations officer."
"I go by Chuck," the lieutenant said with a small wave.
"Thank you all for taking the time to come here today," Parrish went on. "I know many of you are very busy with research."
Janus smiled and said, "I'm sure I speak for all of us when I say that it's no trouble at all."
"Still, we greatly appreciate it. Now, let's see. This particular group is somewhat interdisciplinary in nature, and one of our main goals is to brainstorm ideas to assist in the war effort. Even if no one here is capable of implementing them, we can at least forward them on to specialists as needed. If you do end up using any of your personal resources on projects approved by the committee and Corps Research Division, you will be reimbursed from our budget. Obviously, you're also free to go ahead with any personal projects on the side even without approval, and if any of those end up being used you'll also be reimbursed."
There were more than a few eager looks around the table at the mention of reimbursements and budgets. Janus himself didn't particularly need anything, as his own personal labs were well established and he had numerous funding sources to draw on, both from the government and elsewhere. He did, however, remember well the days of fighting tooth and nail for simulation time, lab space, and more resource units than the Basic Research Stipend provided. Even a small military budget, let alone payments if a new technology was licensed, could be a big break for young scientists.
"What sort of research are you talking about?" Fulguria asked.
"Ideally, it would be directed toward practical ends, but theoretical research might be covered if it eventually leads to anything useful," Parrish replied. He smiled slightly, although it didn't seem to quite reach his eyes. "While I'm sure we'd love to fund purely scientific endeavors, the Corps' research budget isn't unlimited and unlike the Bureau we do have to focus on things that will net returns."
"Ah." Janus could practically see Fulguria trying to find some way to justify a new stellar observatory network.
"What sort of fields would you be interested in?" asked another scientist, a squat man named Keodarchus that Janus believed was some sort of social scientist. What exactly he was doing here, Janus was unsure. Perhaps he was in the wrong room.
"We'll give more or less anything a chance," Parrish said. "The entire idea is for you to bounce ideas off of us, since we have field experience. Star Lieutenant, I think this might be a good point for you to say a few words."
"Hmm? Oh, right." Chuck sat up straighter and cleared his throat. "Ah, yes. I bet that some of you are thinking in terms of just, 'more weapons, bigger weapons,' and wondering why we're even bothering you. Honestly, though, weapons are not the main focus of what we need. Drones, phase disruptors, p-beams, they all work pretty well, although we wouldn't mind anything that might be particularly effective against the Wraith. It's other things that we really need — engines, sensors, automation, and all sorts of other technology. Just to give an example, we have a lot of trouble tracking Wraith ships in hyperspace at range, because they have a low profile and we haven't figured out a way to identify their unique emission spectrum."
Janus suppressed a frown. It all sounded remarkably… mundane, for important research during an interstellar war.
"That is an interesting problem, isn't it?" said Nautes, a physicist. He was a bit of hack, in Janus' opinion. "I looked over the information packet that you prepared for us. Their drives have some issues with heat and static build-ups, which I suppose is only to be expected given that there are inherent limitations on even engineered biological materials, but they certainly seem to be optimized for low emissions. Actually, it reminds me of the engines on historical Nox hunter-killer craft."
"That's not a coincidence," Parrish said. "We think they may have salvaged a war-era Nox ship and reverse-engineered some of the technology."
"Really?" said one of the soft scientists, perking up. "That's remarkable. Do we know if that's still extant? I don't think anyone's had a chance to examine genuine Nox military hardware for tens of thousands of years. Do you have any idea what kind of opportunities we —"
"We're quite aware, yes," Parrish said, "but at the moment we have other things that must come first. I'll mention your interest to our superiors and let them pass on whatever relevant information we have."
Fulguria made a thoughtful noise. "Janus, as I recall you once wrote a monograph on the differences in hyperdrive technology between difference species. Do you have any thoughts on the matter?"
"Yes, I did." It had been ages ago, when Janus had first become interested in hyperspace physics. "Every species, or more accurately every society, uses different types of hyperdrive technology. Often they're related, of course, because many cultures started out with crude copies of Alterran hyperdrives — many humans here in Pegasus, some more in Avalon, the Ree'tou, just to name a few. On the other hand, the Asgard, Furling, Dwellers, and knnn all developed at least the basics on their own, and have distinct technologies. The Nox are something of a mix, given that they're an offshoot of Avalonian plague survivors but diverged from our technology five million years ago. Given the biological nature of the Wraith ships, I would imagine that their drives operate using unique principles."
"You see, that's exactly the sort of thing we're looking for," Chuck said. "Maybe you could look into identifying what those principles are and come up with ideas for using them to detect Wraith ships?"
"I suppose I could," Janus said reluctantly. It was not exactly the kind of work he had anticipated when he had volunteered. Still, it wouldn't take too long to review his old work, identify the base principles, and then hand off the tedious part of the job to his lab assistants.
"Thank you. Being able to pick out Wraith ships would do a lot for our response times and ability to intercept them away from population centers."
"Mmm. You know, if it's finding out about where they are and will be, I might have some other ideas."
Nautes snorted. "Hopefully ones that don't involve proscribed technology."
"Of course not!" Janus snapped with a fierce scowl. He couldn't believe that some people were still brining up one honest mistake with a time dilation device and harping about temporal law.
"If you're having trouble with response times, have you considered upgrading your hyperdrives?" an engineer — Prelacia, Prolacia, something like that — asked. "As I remember, most Corps vessels use intragalactic instead of intergalactic models."
"We could do that easily," Chuck said. "For our capital ships, it's mostly a matter of some software and minor hardware changes. The problem is that intergalactic hyperdrives require a lot more fuel and have a much, much shorter effective lifetime. We're talking so much wear and tear that we would essentially have to refit them twice a year or more, which would mean taking ships off the line."
"I can understand why that would be troublesome. Thank you."
"Let's see, what else," Parrish said, glancing off at something that wasn't present in the hologram. "Ah, yes. Field Captain Teyla has told me that if we could come up with some way to increase manpower on the ground or leverage what we have more effectively, it would be helpful."
"Really?" Fulguria said. "I was under the impression the Wraith rarely bothered landing."
"And doesn't the Ground Force already have some rather large and dangerous vehicles for that kind of combat?" Nautes added.
"Both of you are correct," Parrish acknowledged with a nod. "It's not so much the Wraith that are the problem. Their troops, when they show up, can be pretty easily dealt with by personal arms, mini-drones, or Bolos. None of those are terribly useful for crowd control when dealing with refugees."
"Yes, I suppose you can't just shoot them, can you?" Fulguria said. "I can think of a few solutions."
"Maybe some kind of aerosol drug," someone else said. "Or depending on the exact situation, put it in the food or water."
"Crowd control, mind control, is there a practical difference?"
"It'd have to be technological in nature, since we can't count on the availability of parapsychics. There's been some interesting research done lately on the effects of certain types of electromagnetic fields on human brains— maybe that could be useful."
Across the table, a woman named Helena sighed and rolled her eyes. She was a computer scientist of some renown, and quite attractive as well, with long golden hair, a warm bronze complexion, and brown eyes with a hint of an epicanthic fold. "While those might be useful in some situations, they sound a bit ethically dubious, and maybe not practical in all situations. The Ground Force has had success with limited artificial intelligences on their heavy vehicles, so perhaps smaller robots with dogbrain intellects."
"All those sound like they have potential," Chuck said. "Especially robots, since docility can be counterproductive in some situations. I think that — hold on." He paused and frowned while cocking his head slightly. "Well, crap. I'm afraid you'll have to excuse us, we just went on alert." His hologram winked out.
Parrish sighed and shook his head. "Somehow, it isn't surprising that this happens when we actually want a few peaceful hours. Well, thank you all for coming, and by all means, continue your discussions. I'm sure we'll arrange another meeting sometime, and I believe you all have my communications address."
"Wait a moment," Fulguria said. "You mean you're actually going into combat, right now?"
"Hopefully, yes. The alternative is to show up after the Wraith are gone."
"I'm surprised you and the other civilians are still aboard a warship, given that you're dedicated to the war at the moment."
"Quite a few people moved on to other ships, but the rest of us figure we can't just abandon our shipmates when the going gets tough." Parrish shrugged and grinned. "Besides, someone has to do… forward observations and experiments. Now, I need to get to sickbay. Whatever happens, there's going to be a mess to clean up and people to help." He stood up and disappeared.
"Well," Helena said after a moment. "He's made of sterner stuff than I am."
Nautes chuckled. "Or he's been getting into the more interesting plants and is a little too out of it to understand the danger."
"Speaking of that," Janus interjected, "does anyone feel like moving this to somewhere a little more comfortable?"
There were a few people who elected to stay behind, such as those who were attending via telepresence, but by in large they decamped from the meeting room in favor of a lounge several levels below. It was near Janus' laboratory — well, the official one, at any rate — and he visited often when he needed to relax and do some free-association thinking. They spent some time sharing ideas while enjoying fine food and drink, audio-visual entertainment, and a variety of recreational pharmaceuticals. Several hours later, most of them, along with a number of hangers-on who had gathered around, ended up in one corner, sprawled across various couches, chairs, floor mats, and each other, in various states of intoxication.
"Do you know what the problem with this war is?" Janus asked.
"Bloody life-sucking aliens," Fulguria replied.
"Well, yes, yes, that's certainly a problem as well," Janus acknowledged. "But you know what the other problem is?"
"I bet you're going to tell us."
"I am." Janus took a drink of his alcoholic beverage and then waved it about, careful not to disturb the man and woman nestled against him on either side. "The problem is the military's mindset. They're too focused on their usual tactics, which might work fine for pirates and humans and whatnot, but are obviously wrong for an enemy that isn't quite so vastly inferior as usual. They're thinking in terms of better equipment. All they want from us is bigger battleships, greater guns, faster factories, and more massive…"
"Probably, yes. I bet some commander somewhere wants one." Janus shook his head. "But while some of that might be useful, it's really not that interesting, it doesn't require that much intelligence, and pretty much any research assistant or technician could work on it. No offense meant to any of them, of course, it's just not on our level."
"Oh, no offense taken, Doctor," called Rhaebus, the chief of Janus' technical staff. Janus eyed him warily, because that response had been far too cheerful. That might be explained by drugs, but sometimes Janus got the feeling the technician was mocking him.
"Good, good. Anyways, it's simply not a productive strategy. It's just playing right into the Wraiths' hands. What we need, ladies and gentlemen - -yes, you too, Tycharies — is a solution that relies on science, not brute force."
"Yeah!" someone said.
"I mean, we're some of the most intelligent people in two galaxies, maybe the entire known universe. Surely we can come up with something."
Encouraged, Janus went on, "I think the Nox have the right idea. You don't meet force with force."
Fulguria frowned. "They did back in the, you know. Thing. Incident with the Furlings and their little internal tiff."
"Yes, and where did that get anyone? Now nine-tenths of Andromeda is uninhabitable and the Furlings are even greater stuck-up jerks than ever. No, the Nox have the right idea. Did I say that already?"
"Anyways, we need to meet them with science, not brute strength. Luckily, we're a bunch of a really, really brilliant scientists. While the military stalls for time, we can come up with something that will win the war for them. Like a time machine."
There were groans from all around and in the back someone shouted, "Enough with time machines! Wormhole-based time travel spawns alternate universes, and the only other method anyone has ever gotten to work halfway correctly in ten million years just made half-day loops!"
Janus nodded quickly. He couldn't expect anyone else to understand his ideas. "Okay, okay, not time travel. But something big, like a way to detonate their ships all over the place."
"Or small," a biologist suggested, "like a way to make the Wraith themselves just blow up."
"There's always mental powers," another suggested. "Some way to make them more common and more useful."
"I still think robots are a great idea," Helena said. "This could be an opportunity to really move forward on artificial intelligence again. Maybe combine it with some nanotechnology for flexibility."
"No, not nanotech robots — giant robots! We have land battleships, why not big walking robots with energy weapons in their arms and eyes, that could just squish the Wraith underfoot?"
"I said science, not more war machines," Janus reminded the last person. "That sounds like a solution the military would come up with."
"Anyways, I'm just saying, we should devote any time we spend on this to innovate solutions that will also benefit society and further science instead of just better weapons and engines and so forth."
The discussion continued for a while longer, until it veered off course into a debate over the latest Pan-Galactic Interpretive Dance Competition, which was still going strong despite the war. It made Janus a lot more hopeful about how this military research thing might work out. For a while there he had been worried there would be no chances to do anything more than the same thing as always, like some common engineer. Now, as people came up with increasingly outlandish ideas, he was becoming positive that it would inspire all sorts of potential ideas for him to explore. It was all going to be very helpful, in Janus' opinion. Some people might disagree, but he had long since stopped worrying about that sort of thing.
Iavintes Lipetza was one of the larger Lantean population centers, home to nearly a quarter-million people scattered across settlements around the planet. It was an industrial center as well, with substantial trinium and naquadah deposits. The people there created ships, vehicles, laboratory equipment, and a thousand other things for the rest of Lantean society. Its shipbuilding industry was small but quite active, and was capable of turning out vessels up to a few hundred meters in length and a million or so tons in mass. Mostly these were pleasure craft or long-term home ships, although occasionally they made vessels for the Science or Public Welfare Bureaus. Each one was a custom work, because in those days there was no demand for mass quantities of ships, only personal vessels where craftsmanship was valued above any other consideration.
However, the shipyards on the planet's surface were not the only ones there. Above, on and around the fourth and largest moon, was Pittance Fleet Base. Pittance was one of the largest construction complexes in the Lantean domain, and was capable of simultaneously building several ships two or three kilometers long. It was also home to the main fleet boneyards, where row after row of warships sat silently waiting for a time when they might once more be needed. In some cases, they were obsolete because their roles had become unnecessary, or their technology outdated; in other cases, it was quite the opposite, for some of the sleek black ships were so advanced that modern Lanteans could not quite understand their operation. Like those ships, the yards sat quiet, its assembler gates powered down, atomic forges cold, and heavy transporter arrays offline. The orbital assembly frames were folded up tight and clustered around the fabrication nodes. No one moved through the base's corridors, save for a few watchmen and technicians who transported to and from the planet every shift.
"Have I ever told you about my trip to Thaimedown?" asked Senior Master Sergeant Lucetria of the Space Force. She was an old veteran, who had rejoined the Monitor Corps late in her sixth century in an effort to stave off boredom.
"Is that the one with the dragons or the one with the giant mantis?" replied her partner, Corporal Petrakus, a member of the local Civil Defense Force. The two of them were sitting in the massive control center at a planning table off to one side. The control room was circular room with three tiers of control stations leading down to a central command table. It was meant to be run by over two dozen people supervising part fabrication and ship assembly for fifty or sixty starships, but right now all but the primary command station were dark. They voices echoed through the room as they spoke.
"No, no, this is an entirely different trip. Those were when I was aboard Columna Autumni in Sector Two, sixty years ago." Lucetria frowned, bit her lip, and laid down several cards and moved a few pieces on the large galactic game board spread out on the table. "This trip was about, oh, fifty, sixty years ago."
"Then no, I don't think you have." Petrakus pointed at her star destroyer. "That's an illegal move."
"Sorry. Anyways, it's a human world, with this huge equatorial archipelago. Lots of little jungle islands, beautiful beaches, it's a pretty major tourist attraction among the humans. You would not believe the sorts of things you can do there. The locals will do just about anything, and I do mean anything. There were times that I thought I was going to melt into a puddle of blissed-out goo."
Petrakus gave her an amused look. "Really."
"Yeah. I'm not sure where I should being. I mean, it's hard to remember quite a few days because they can make some really great drinks, and some of those parties were just plain amazing. If I had to choose one part that really stood out, it was either this Jataican man who, well, let's say he had a lot to thank his genetics for, if you know what I mean —"
"I do not need to hear this," Petrakus said with a groan.
"Or alternatively this set of twins that I spent a couple days with. Now there was a pair who knew how to have some fun. The only reason I parted company with them was they had to head home."
"I'm not listening."
"I think you would have liked them." Lucetria grinned as he blushed. "Or maybe there was another person you might have like, a real stunning blonde. What was her name? Invierre or something like that. Lovely woman, and Lantean too. Maybe she's still around. I was thinking about heading back when we get leave next month, maybe I could introduce the two of you."
"You could use a little stress relief, boy. Everyone on this planet is way too uptight. It's no wonder your population keeps going down."
"'In order to ascend, one must learn to put aside the shackles of purely physical behavior'," Petrakus quoted. "'Only by achieving mastery over the base desires and purging them can one achieve the frame of mind necessary to lift oneself free of our mortal bodies and reach true enlightenment.' Relianius, Meditations on the Ocean."
"'Those who ignore the physical will never understand the universe around them. Likewise, those who concentrate purely on biological acceleration may shed their forms but never know what the nature of their original existence was and thus will also be ignorant of physical life'," she returned. "'It is only by experiencing life to its fullest can one ever dream of achieving real enlightenment. Some few might find ascension in clinical or ascetic methods, but those who do so can never hope to realize their full potential and risk ignoring the so-called mortal planes despite the many wonders there. Those who flee from mortality and all that it encompasses are not enlightened, but frightened and often uncaring souls who are to be pitied, not admired.' Kaito. Personally, I find that philosophy rather more realistic, not to mention more fun."
"My aunt ascended while having intercourse, you know."
Petrakus boggled. "What, really?"
"No. But I bet someone has. Tell you what, my young friend - come with me, and if you change your mind, you can always try 'purging your desires' later. You're, what, only forty? You have a lifetime ahead of you."
"Well…" Petrakus hesitated, and was saved when a beeping noise began to come from down in the control center. He turned in his chair. "Is that the proximity alert?"
"I think it is." Lucetria pulled herself out of her chair with a groan. "I swear, if this is another bunch of joyriding idiots buzzing us with their new yacht, we are going to experience a weapons misfire. I have no idea why this has become such a popular pastime, but I'm going to put the fear of gods into them."
As they strode down the stairs to the command station, the beeping grew more insistent. Petrakus sat down at the console and peered at the display.
"Well? What is it?" Lucetria asked, coming up behind him.
"Huh. It's not a yacht at all. We picked up the hyperspace signature of three inbound ships. ETA twenty seconds, emergence locus — holy crap, that's right on top of us. What kind of idiots bring their ships in that close?"
Her eyes narrowed. "Idiots who are going to lose their ships, that's who. Call the local space patrol and tell them they're going to need to dispatch a cutter."
"Yes, ma'am." Petrakus reached for the communications panel, but his hand stopped mid-way as the display changed to show the new arrival. "Wait. That's not a Lantean ship."
"Raise the shields. Raise the shields!"
They reacted just in time, with the base's main shield rising up just as three Wraith cruisers emerged from hyperspace barely a dozen kilometers overhead. It was enough to save their lives from the initial volley. The orbital stations were less fortunate, for their shields were far less powerful at the moment — while designed to draw power from the base, that function was only automatically activated when more than one zero-point module was available, and that was not the case. Within seconds their shields failed under heavy bombardment, and hull plating bulked and shattered, drydock spars split apart and went flying into the night, structural frames warped and melted. The Wraith kept firing until only charred debris remained. Then the Wraith split up, two ships headed for the planet along with a swarm of darts, and the other continued to assault the base. It quickly became clear to the Wraith that a conventional attack was useless. The cruiser launched a last transport ship carrying its male officers and then began to plummet down at full speed. Even that might not have been enough, if the base guns had reached full power, if there had been even one more ZPM, or if the shield was not overextended to cover an area thirty kilometers across; as it was the shield buckled and the entire base was obliterated.
The other two ships turned their guns on the planet below and let loose a rain for fire. Only the largest town had more than a basic shield, and in the minute before the defense outpost slashed the attackers apart with a swarm of drones the Wraith did massive damage. The civilian yard simply disappeared as it was struck by a multi-megaton volley and all across the surface of the planet there were ugly red scars where towns and villages used to be.
Camilla stretched as the council meeting broke up for lunch. Not for the first time, or likely even the thousandth, she was immensely glad that things usually went smoothly enough that the council only had to meet for brief periods on a regular basis. If every session was one of the day-long affairs that occurred during the budgeting period, she wasn't sure she would last long before putting her sidearm to some exceedingly impolite uses. Then again, maybe a little housecleaning would do some good with regard to the currently crisis. Certainly Yannes the Peacemaker had managed to put an end to considerable infighting by tossing a few people off the control tower's balcony back in 4,280-kay. Unfortunately it probably wouldn't work as well these days as it had for her. It was a nice thought, though, and perhaps if some day Camilla showed up with a squad assault weapon or micro-drone launcher, debates would go a bit faster.
Camilla was the last to leave the room, except for Moros. He stood by the door waiting for her, and as she approached he asked, "Would you like to get lunch together? I believe Illuminia's has gotten in a fresh shipment of tova beans from Genoa Secunda, and it would be a shame if we missed them."
"I suppose I can put up with you for a bit longer," Camilla allowed.
"Excellent. I have a proposal I'd like to discuss with you, something that might break the current deadlock."
Camilla grimaced. Despite her best efforts to be conciliatory, certain members of the council were still being stubborn about military appropriations. The keels for a new battleship and several escorts had been laid down, but further construction above and beyond normal was still stalled. "How?"
"I believe that the largest problem is your insistence on future construction being so battleship-heavy," Moros said. "They don't see why so many are needed, when we've made do with destroyers until now. While the split-funding proposal has worked so far, no one else really has use for more than one or two ships that size. They see it as a way for you to exploit the agreement."
"I've explained it again and again," Camilla said in an exasperated tone. "Destroyers need almost the same minimal crew, but don't have even half the capabilities. It was a mistake to concentrate on them so much in the first place. I don't understand why they don't see how it will make the Corps' humanitarian and scientific endeavors more effective, in addition to our combat power."
"I think I may have an idea how to sell at least a partial increase, based on those secondary uses, but you're going to have to lower your demands at least a little."
Camilla sighed. "Well, I'll hear you out, but no promises."
As they walked out of the conference room and across to the control area, the stargate activated and as usual the gate shield was raised. Camilla and Moros paid it no attention, as dozens of people came and went by stargate each day. Suddenly a low thump reverberated through the rooms. Another swiftly followed and all eyes in the room turned to the gate where bright flashes of light were coinciding with each thump. Camilla dashed across to the main gate control console. Moros followed close behind her.
"Can you tell what's coming through?" she asked the sergeant on duty.
The sergeant shook his head. "No, ma'am. Traffic analysis shows nine -" thump thump "- correction, eleven fighter-class transits so far. We've received no gateship IFF signals, no pass codes, no transmissions of any kind."
"Damn it." More objects impacted the shield as Camilla thought through the possibilities. No Lantean would be stupid enough to come directly to Atlantis without sending the proper authentication signals, and even in an emergency they would divert to some other world. No humans would come through without permission, either, certainly none that could send ships through. "Where's the wormhole originating from?"
"Terenas Myzapor — orbital stargate, currently listed as uninhabited."
"They must not know we have the shield," Camilla said slowly. "Sergeant, raise the city shields and have the officer on duty man the control chair. Then contact headquarters and have them send out a general alert."
"Aye, ma'am." The sergeant's hand slapped down on the shield control and outside the city's great defensive shield reached skyward, cutting the city off from the rest of the universe.
"Camilla?" Moros said quietly. She looked at him steadily.
"We're under attack," she said. "The question is, is it just us?"
Bleep-do-beep. Bleep-do-beep. Bleep-do-beep….
John groaned and covered his head with his pillow. He knew that the annoying beeping noise was coming from the communications system, and that if anyone was bothering them it might be important, but he sure as hell was not going to get up and answer it. It was his day off. Besides, if it was really important, the officer on duty would have sounded an alarm or something.
"If someone does not answer that," Teyla said, voice low, sleepy, and exceedingly dangerous, "you will all be spending the remainder of our leave in sickbay."
"Mrrgph," John replied, pulling the pillow down tighter. Then, not really caring if anyone could understand him, he mumbled, "Make a lieutenant do it."
The noise continued as no one moved. John really couldn't blame them, because the bed was really quite comfortable, and everyone else on his senior staff had been just as stressed and exhausted as he had been. Getting some rest and relief was half the reason for their recent recreational team-building exercise.
"Oh, fuck you all," Lorne eventually muttered. There some annoyed grumbling from Parrish as Lorne crawled over him to get off the bed. Lorne had the good sense to walk out to the living area instead of answering the call right there where he would further disturb everyone else, or more importantly Teyla.
Lorne returned a minute later and got back onto the bed. He poked John in the side and whispered, "It was Lieutenant Hesione, sir. We received a message from Corps Command ordering you to report to Headquarters for some kind of meeting."
"You have got to be kidding me," John groaned. "Have I pissed off anyone recently?"
"Do you want me to make a list? The Autocrat of Tirkan, Public Welfare's Plenary Review Board for Sector Five Tourism, the Magistrates of the Blue Moons, the entire Republic of —"
"Your troop commander," Teyla said. "Who can kill you with her little finger."
"Point taken." John sat up and took a moment to try to figure out how to get off the bed without disturbing anyone. Teyla and the lieutenants were on one side, Lorne and Parrish on the other. In the end he carefully inched his way down instead off across and then stumbled off to the bathroom.
After cleaning himself up and making sure he looked how a respectable starship commander should look, John spent a few hours going over his recent logs. As far as he could tell, there wasn't anything he had done to warrant a summons to physically report to Headquarters, which probably meant that someone else had screwed up in a major way. If that was the case, John was going to find out who the person responsible was and make their life miserable. Inceptum was in dock for a week to reload drones, repair minor damage, and give the crew some shore leave, and if John ended up being called away from his own time off then someone was going to suffer for it.
When the time came John transported over to the planet's stargate and stepped through to Atlantis, coming home for the first time in over a decade. The city was exactly as he remembered it, all sharp lines and angles, and when the gate disengaged the morning sun shining through the window behind him sent brilliant colors all across the stairs and walls. Every system around him hummed in perfect harmony in the back of his mind and the entire structure seemed to thrum with energy. Meanwhile the public data stream initialized and the city AI began to quietly whisper in his ear, listing off weather reports, detailing what areas were closed for maintenance, and asking whether he'd like his apartment prepared.
"Not yet," John thought, before murmuring aloud, "Nice to be home, old friend."
//And is it pleasant to see you as always.//
John smiled at the response. The gestalt AI might be closer to a dog in intellect than a real person, but that didn't mean it couldn't feel some measure of affection for him, or he for it. It had been one of his constant companions during his childhood, helping to bring him up along with a small group of caretakers. His parents had loved him, in their own way, but had quickly realized that a baby wasn't nearly as romantic in reality as it seemed in theory and had handed him off to those who actually liked caring for young children. They had visited him often and he remembered them as kind, if awkward around him, especially when he was too young to have meaningful conversations with. John's real family was Atlantis, his caretakers and mentors, and his crèche mates, Lorne among them. He didn't mind — he'd seen enough other families of all shape and sizes over the years to know he could have had far worse and little better.
John stopped woolgathering and left Stargate Operations, waving to the technicians on duty as he passed. A moment in the nearest public transporter took him out to the main entrance atrium at Corps Headquarters, a small, round building with a shape that had elicited numerous unprofessional nicknames over the millennia. A pair of guards greeted him as headed further inside. The guards there were simply for show and to direct visitors, as the internal security system would keep out any unauthorized personnel. Deeper inside, though, were guards whose jobs were completely serious and who were armed not just with stun batons but with heavy pulse rifles and body armor. They protected the control chair, because the havoc someone could wreck on the city with it was almost unimaginable. There were considerable security features built into the chair itself, of course, user permissions and command authority limitations, but there were ways around those if you knew what you were doing. The auxiliary control room was also located within the building, and it had guards as well.
John did not, of course, head for the chair room, but instead upwards through the building towards the operations section of the building where numerous staff officers and specialists did all of the behind-the-scenes coordination necessary to keep a galaxy-spanning military force functioning smoothly. Eventually he reached the Master Situation Room. It had several planning tables and screens, but the main feature was a massive holographic display that took up most of one wall. As John stepped into the room, he saw the master display was currently showing a plot of the galaxy, a faded image across which were innumerable icons of various colors that marked the position of Lantean ships, cities, outposts, and other holdings, as well as other items of interest such as interstellar-capable human nations. There was an unpleasant red blotch spread over several sectors.
At the moment only the round center-most table was occupied, with several officers seated around it. John recognized all of them, as there weren't that many command-grade officers in the Corps. He took a seat next to Helia.
"Hello, Johannes," she said with a polite nod.
"Helia. I see they've pulled you away from the front, too."
"Indeed. Perhaps it has something to do with the recent Wraith attacks."
John grimaced. The exact scope of the Wraith assault was still a bit unclear, both because of the chaos it had caused and, he suspected, deliberate information suppression on the part of the government. He knew that it had been pretty bad, though.
"If it looks like I'm going to say, 'I told you so,' kick me," John said. "Because it'll probably be pretty tempting."
Helia smiled. "I will if you promise to do the same for me."
"It's a deal."
Camilla entered then, striding across the room and sitting down at the table. She glanced around and said, "Good morning, everyone. I'm sorry to have pulled you away from your duties so suddenly, but this is a matter of vital importance. As you are all aware, there was recently a series of direct attacks against Lantean holdings. Not only did they strike the majority of our outposts and colonies within their own space, but they attempted several more across the galaxy. Most of the latter consisted of only darts and were stopped before causing much damage. However, three cruisers successfully destroyed Pittance Base and inflicted significant civilian casualties."
There were shocked murmurs around the table. John said, "How did they get there without being detected?"
"We suspect the cruisers were constructed or grown somewhere nearby, most likely on an uninhabited planet." Camilla held up a hand to forestall further questions. "Full details are now being distributed to all units, so that they will be prepared to defend against similar attacks and to search for other ships that might be lurking in safe space. However, that is not the reason I called you here. Shortly after the attacks, a message was transmitted to several of our cities and stations."
"A message?" John repeated, eyebrows going up. The Wraith, in his experience, had never been ones for talking to anyone.
"It contained a proposal for a cease-fire, pending formal negotiations for a long-term truce," Camilla continued. "The Council has decided to grant the request. The cease-fire will go into effect this afternoon, and our representatives will meet early next week."
There was a brief silence at the others attending looked at each other with varying levels of amazement, especially among those who had been on the front lines thus far. No one seemed to want to speak first, but eventually Helia said, "That is a very… interesting decision."
"Yeah, interesting is one way to put it," John said. "What possible reason would we want to negotiate?"
"The attack on Pittance has massively depleted our reserves, and hampered our capability to build more ships to replace those we have lost so far — which, I might add, has constituted almost a tenth of our ships of the line," Camilla responded.
"You weren't using those mothballed ships anyways," Field General Scipio pointed out. The bulky, olive-skinned man was the Chief of Ground Operations, and second in command of the Corps as a whole. "If you need help that badly, you could just start dropping some of our mobile planetary defense units and we'll clean things right up for you."
"Thank you, Scipio, but we can not completely forget the space-borne part of the war," Camilla said dryly. "I was reluctant to agree to this step, but after looking at our current strategic situation I think that it is in our best interests."
"Is it really that bad?" Star General Tarpeia asked. She was Scipio's counterpart in the Space Force. "I'll admit, I've been mostly focusing on my own quadrant, but our losses haven't seemed so bad that we need to consider a truce with these creatures."
"On the surface, no," Camilla said. "It's the demographics that concern my staff and I the most, as well as the Council."
"Please tell me this isn't some political thing with the elections," John said. The Assembly of Worlds was scheduled to meet that year in full session, which meant the coming of the eternal budget battles.
"They are a factor, but there are much more important ones," Camilla replied. A set of graphs appeared over the table. "Recruitment into the Corps is down twenty percent over the last two years. Retention is down almost sixty. It's not as bad in the Civil Defense Force, but that just means our offensive arms are even more affected."
"That is disconcerting," Colonel Parsus of Ferox said. "Do we know why?"
"The same reason the median age of our personnel is only sixty, I imagine," Camilla said. "Most people don't want to risk getting killed. We've had more casualties in the last thirteen years than in the previous thirteen hundred."
"The young know they're immortal, but their elders remember there are exceptions," Scipio said, quoting a familiar phrase. There was considerable truth to it. For all intents and purposes Lanteans were biologically immortal and their medical technology and healing powers could save all but the most grievously injured. Few people died outright; the vast majority ascended instead, even if it took a thousand or more years. Those who did die were mostly lost to accident, violence, or misadventure. When such things did occur, it wasn't uncommon to see the fallen person's former companions suddenly seek out safer lines of work.
"It's not just that," Camilla added. "The birth rate has plummeted since the attack on the Seledon outpost, and will likely go down even more after this latest set of attacks. According to the Public Welfare Bureau, people are holding off on having children in favor of waiting for more settled times."
"This all seems like an argument for striking now, before our strength is depleted further," Helia stated.
"I agree," John said, "and the fact that the Wraith are agreeing to negotiate tells me that they may be weaker than we think."
Camilla shook her head. "None the less, the Council thinks that we need to get some breathing room to rebuild our forces, then strike at a time of our choosing."
"Which is exactly what the Wraith will be doing," John said, raising his voice a little. "And I don't know about anyone else, but I'm wondering what happens to the humans while we're rebuilding."
"That is a good question," Scipio said.
"We will do our best to secure a settlement that benefits them as much as possible," Camilla said, somewhat reluctantly. "There may well be some losses on their part, but our projections indicate that it will likely be less than continuing the war at this time."
There was grumbling at that. John wished he could believe that the Council wouldn't so blithely discard entire worlds, but he didn't have quite enough naivety to do so.
"Where will this meeting take place?" Tarpeia asked. "Security will be difficult, given the circumstances."
"We have agreed to meet in the Cimtar System, at the edge of Wraith territory." The hologram above the table blurred then reformed as a map of that particular sector. "We will bring five battleships, with two destroyers as forward scouts; they, in turn, will bring a hiveship and twenty cruisers. The actual negotiations will take place on one of our ships."
"You can't be serious," Helia exclaimed. She flushed slightly as everyone turned to her in surprise, and in a more moderate tone she went on, "With all due respect, ma'am, we would be risking a major portion of our fleet in what could well be a trap. We can't possibly secure that meeting site in such a short period of time. There are a hundred places within striking distance that I can see at first glance."
"I agree completely," John said, leaning forward. "The Wraith can not be trusted. Every time they've taken down one of our ships, it's been by ambush or treachery. The probability that they're going to show up and negotiate in good faith is tiny. Chances are they'll hide a fleet somewhere nearby and attack when our guard is down."
Camilla nodded along, and calmly said, "I think you're both right."
John blinked and wondered if he had just fallen into a different universe. "You do?"
"I do. It's obviously either a trap, or they think they would benefit more from a delay that we would. The knowledge we have of their reproduction rate and shipbuilding capacity indicates that might well be the case." Camilla shrugged. "Not only that, but we've seen some odd ship movements near Cimtar, and Predictive Branch has advised me that they believe the Wraith will attack."
"Predictive Branch," Scipio scoffed. "They didn't have any visions of the Wraith appearing in the first place, why should we pay attention now?"
"The installation they originated at was shielded using complex arcanotech defenses that blocked parapsychic precognitive and distance-viewing abilities. Predictive Branch has lately been reliable, or at least as reliable as they ever are."
"And the Council is aware of this?" John asked hesitantly. He was pretty sure that the councilors did not get where they were by being stupid, and yet there seemed to be increasing evidence to the contrary.
"Yes. We think that at least attempting negotiations is still worth it, but we will be taking precautions." Camilla suddenly displayed a shark-like grin. "Tell me, what's the difference between a battleship and a dreadnought?"
"More guns, bigger guns," John answered immediately.
"Crudely put, but accurate," Star Colonel Ligati said. He was the commander of the dreadnought Entente. "It's the same hull, just with the science labs and most of the hangars replaced with drone bays and shield generators."
"Precisely," Camilla said, nodding. "The same hull, essentially indistinguishable from the outside."
"I think I see where you're going," Parsus said.
"I intend to lead the negotiation squadron personally," Camilla said. "Under my command will be Inceptum and Ferox, but rather than three more cruisers we'll have dreadnoughts — Federation, Entente, and Union."
"You'll be there?" Scipio questioned with a concerned frown.
"Ganos Lal and I will be representing the Council, so I may as well take command," Camilla answered. "In addition, we will be positioning a second squadron just outside of Wraith sensor range. It will be under the command of Star General Tarpeia, and consist of the dreadnoughts Dominion and Concordia, supported by Depulsio, Tria, and two destroyers."
"That's the entire dreadnought fleet," Ligati pointed out. "It's a bit of a gamble."
"Well worth the risk, though. As I'm sure Colonel Helia and Colonel Johannes will agree, this war has been immensely frustrating so far. The Wraith have done everything in their power to deny us a direct confrontation where we can bring our strengths to bear. If they try to stab us in the back, they will play right into our hands. There will be two or three times as much firepower waiting for them."
"Still, if they throw enough ships at us…."
"We've accounted for that," Camilla said, brimming with confidence. "We've determined hard limits for their ship and crew numbers, based on known technical and biological data. There's simply no way for them to have spawned more drones or grown more ships in the time they've had. We've run over a million simulations, giving the Wraith ten percent more ships than is physically possible, and we're confident that we can win even if they throw half their fleet at us. We'll take some damage, maybe even lose a ship or two, but in exchange they'll be crippled. Meanwhile, the rest of the fleet will be standing by to sweep into Wraith space and mop up the rest of them. Some will probably escape, but this time we'll know how to scan for them, how they operate, and we won't be so complacent about letting them go."
It wasn't a perfect plan, but there would no doubt be plenty of time to make it better, and John had to admit he was enamored with the idea of one big stand-up fight. He didn't have any illusions that all of the Wraith would conveniently show up to be destroyed, but a chance to annihilate a portion of their fleet in one battle was too good to pass up. The biggest worry he had was that the Wraith might actually want to negotiate and would fail to show up with a battle fleet. It didn't strike him as very likely, but it was possible they would do so, if only because they thought it was in their best interests. That, John knew, definitely wouldn't be in the interest of anyone else, especially the humans within the space they held.
Ganos Lal had spent her entire life learning the arts of negotiation and compromise, how to understand differences in psychology arising from culture or species, how to determine exactly what people truly wanted and what they were willing to give in exchange. She had negotiated countless thousands of agreements and sat as arbitrator on countless thousands more. When young she had dealt with small tribes or inter-departmental squabbles; now she represented the Lantean state at meetings of the Alliance of Heliopolis and conversed with creatures so alien they didn't breath the same air as Lanteans, let alone think in remotely the same way.
None the less, Ganos was still nervous about the upcoming meeting.
The Wraith were a unique challenge, even for her. Never before had she dealt with aliens that might pose a genuine threat to Atlantis and those it protected. Powerful aliens, yes, some who were far stronger than the Lanteans at the moment, but not threats. Most of those who matched or surpassed Lantean development were either on a short road to mass ascension or so alien that they had no conflicting interests. Dwellers, for example, had no interest in rocky planets, and cth-keck thought that radioactive ooze was a wonderful source of nutrition. The few other great powers were either allies, like the Nox, or so far away as to be of no concern. The Ori were, in theory, one possible exception, but no one had ventured near their home galaxy in tens of millions of years.
The Wraith, though, they were different. They had technology that, while a tier below that which Atlantis possessed, was still dangerous. Moreover, they were directly opposing the Lanteans for territory and resources right in their home galaxy. They wanted not just planets or naquadah, but people to use as food. Whoever had created them had known exactly what they were doing, creating an enemy that was inherently inimical to the Lantean way of life and that was capable of attacking them, both directly and indirectly. It remained to be seen how it would all translate into negotiation tactics on both sides, assuming the Wraith truly were coming to negotiate.
Ganos looked up from her last-minute review of the most important pieces of data when the ship's chief science officer approached her in the lounge. "Councilor Ganos, Colonel Johannes has asked me to bring you to the bridge. We've detected the Wraith fleet on approach."
"Thank you, Doctor Parrish." Ganos stood and adjusted her robes, which were a dark ultramarine with fine patterns embroidered on it in gold and burgundy. She followed Parrish to the ship's bridge, where the colonel and his senior officers were waiting. Camilla, while physically on her flagship, was there via a holographic projection.
"Councilor," Colonel Johannes said with a polite nod. "You're just in time. The Wraith will be arriving in about two minutes."
"I assume there's nothing untoward about their disposition?"
"Not that we've seen," Camilla replied. "There's one hiveship and twenty cruisers, just as agreed."
"And our fleet?"
"We have our shields up, but weapons are powered down. We'll maintain that stance until we're sure their weapons are cold and then lower the shields, just as you asked." When Camilla said that, Johannes made a small, disgruntled noise. "We will, of course, maintain a high state of alert until the Wraith are gone, one way or another."
"Thank you for your cooperation," Ganos said. "I understand your objections, but I think showing a measure of trust will help us — whether in negotiations, or keeping the Wraith thinking we're oblivious to any potential unpleasantness." She was no fool and had seen plenty of meetings under flag of truce degenerate into battle, either because of misunderstanding or planned treachery.
A short time later, half a dozen hyperspace windows opened up just under a thousand kilometers in front of the fleet and Wraith ships began pouring forth. The Lantean squadron was arrayed in an X-shaped formation, with Inceptum at the center and slightly behind; the Wraith took up a similarly defensive position, the cruisers spreading out in a roughly conical formation in front of the hiveship.
"Wraith ships have their weapons arrayed powered down," one of the officers reported. "All other ships are reporting the same."
"All ships, lower shields," Camilla ordered, "but keep the generators on hot standby."
Another minute passed, then, "The Wraith hive has launched a small transport craft. Sensors show no obvious signs of explosives, beyond their reactor."
"Looks like we're going through with this, then," Johannes said. "Transmit docking instructions. Captain Laurentius, you have the bridge. Councilor?"
Ganos nodded. "I'm as ready as I'm going to be, Colonel. Lead the way."
Ganos and Johannes left the bridge and headed toward the forward hangar bay. That part of the ship had been cleared out of personnel except for a guard contingent, and the hangar itself had been reinforced with additional shielding in case the Wraith attempted to detonate an explosive aboard the ship. Just down the hall from the hangar itself, a conference room had been prepared. Ganos and Johannes entered from one door, outside of which several troopers in armor waited. Two more troopers in ceremonial but functional dress uniforms were inside, one in each corner on their side. There was a wide table at the center of the room, its width calculated to be just wide enough to stop a Wraith from lunging across, and on each side was a single chair. Ganos stood behind hers, with Johannes just to her left and behind, and waited.
Soon the door on the opposite side opened. First through was a female Ground Force captain, who stepped to the side. Next came two Wraith males, who, like the Lantean troopers, took up positions in the remaining corners. The last was a queen, tall, red-haired, and moving with an odd grace that reminded Ganos of a snake or some other predator. The queen looked around the room and for an instant her eyes seemed to widen when her gaze fell upon Colonel Johannes, but then she smiled.
"Welcome," Ganos said. "I am Ganos Lal, Councilor of State for the Lantean Union."
"It is a… pleasure to meet you," the queen said,
Ganos waited for a moment so that the creature could give her name, but when none was forthcoming she said, "Shall we begin?"
Ganos glanced at Johannes, who nodded and left with the Ground Force officer. Ganos sat down in her chair, gesturing for the queen to take her own seat. When they were both settled, Ganos began by saying, "I think that the logical point to start would be why you have asked for this meeting."
The queen inclined her head. "It has become clear to us that this conflict is no longer in the interests of either of our peoples. It has become a stalemate. You destroy our ships, we destroy yours. You strike at our hives and kill my sisters, we assault your colonies. Both sides are weakened, for no purpose."
"An interesting statement, and perhaps a valid one," Ganos replied. "Yet, I feel compelled to point out that it was you who started this conflict, with your attack on MS Veritas, a vessel engaged in peaceful exploration."
"A warship," the queen said.
"A ship conducting peaceful exploration," Ganos reiterated. "Which, according to witnesses, was something that you were informed of, even if it was not evident for some reason."
"We had only just awakened and were confused. Frightened. Creatures unknown to us had invaded our homes. We only acted to escape from what we perceived as a threat."
"You slaughtered helpless scientists."
The queen spread her hands. "Perhaps we overacted. It was a mistake made in haste. It is also in the past. I believe that we would be best served to focus on the present and the future."
Ganos quirked an eyebrow. "History informs the present, Domina. Still, I suppose the exact details are unimportant. There are certain things that can not be ignored, however, the foremost of which is your invasion of our space."
"Your space? We have attacked only a few of your ships and outposts, and only one of those was of any import. It appears to us that we have primarily been… yes, perhaps, invading human territory, not Lantean."
"This entire galaxy is Lantean territory, regardless of who physically occupies any particular world or system," Ganos said.
"By what right to you make such claims?"
"By right of having been the first to colonize this galaxy, and having created almost all life within it. There are a few enclaves, but by in large it is all ours. This claim is recognized by a number of interstellar and intergalactic treaties and organizations, including the Tripoint Accords."
"We are not familiar with these Accords."
"It is a treaty that most intergalactic-capable societies within this local group recognize and are party to. We can give you a copy, if you so wish."
"Thank you." The queen smiled broadly, showing a row of sharp teeth. For a moment, Ganos wondered whether smiles had the same meaning for their two species. With many predators, it was definitely not a display of friendship or happiness. "This is actually quite helpful, I believe. As legitimate owners of this galaxy, you have the authority to negotiate an exchange of territory to us."
"There are certain rights held by the lesser races with regard to possession of their planets of origin," Ganos said.
"We can deal separately with the humans regarding any additional issues. We are mostly concerned with your actions. Do you have a way to display a map?"
"Yes." Ganos touched the table's surface, and at one end a holograph display appeared, which showed the rough outlines of the current Wraith and Lantean zones of influence. Several controls appeared before the queen.
The queen took a minute to familiarize herself with the control system, then zoomed the map in to focus on Wraith space and the volume immediately around it. "We propose that, in exchange for a cessation of hostilities, the Wraith be allowed to retain all space that we have taken so far, as shown here."
"That is utterly unreasonable," Ganos stated flatly. "Not only is that almost fifteen percent of the galaxy by volume, but it's considerably more than what you could possibly claim to actually control."
"And yet, it is also not area that you can claim to control, either."
"Your species doesn't even live on planets. Why would you possible need so much room?"
"We do prefer more settled life, but are unable to have it because of your constant harassment. Further, we also require the resources that are on the worlds within this space."
Ganos knew well what that was a euphemism for. "None the less, we know for a fact that your current population can not possibly need so much room. Even if we reduced the volume by half, there would be several hundred inhabited worlds in your space."
"Mmmm, true, although we will need room for expansion. But you do not object to ceding territory in principle?"
"No, we don't," Ganos said after thinking for a moment. "I would also propose the creation of a demilitarized neutral zone between our territories, whatever the eventual borders are."
"A wise idea."
"There are other matters to consider," Ganos said. "You mentioned room for expansion. If your population continues to grow, you will need to expand beyond whatever boundaries we set. It will inevitably result in us coming into conflict again. Any treaty must include measures for population control."
"Also wise, and something we would need to do regardless," the queen said. "Some method of verification can be negotiated."
"Also, we want arms limitations, sufficient to prevent you from waging an aggressive war again."
The queen drew herself up and hissed. "Unacceptable. We will not weaken ourselves so that you can destroy us at leisure."
Ganos leaned forward and gave the queen a hard look. "We are the ones who have been attacked without provocation, Domina. We require some kind of guarantee that we will not be attacked again. We have no concerns about fixed defenses, but ships capable of offensive operations must be limited, in proportion if not absolute numbers."
The queen hissed again and lifted her chin. "Getting the others to agree to such a measure would be difficult. There would have to be some kind of incentive, and similar limits on the part of Atlantis."
Ganos smiled slightly, knowing that if nothing else they could build whatever forces they desired in the Avalon galaxy with the Wraith none the wiser. "As I said, some sort of proportionate agreement is acceptable. The details can be worked out, as long as there is agreement in principle."
"Very well," the queen said, settling down a little. "Is there anything else?"
"There is the matter of the fate of the humans within your space."
"What of them?" the queen asked. "They are, as you said, a lesser race."
"They are, in many ways, our children," Ganos said.
The queen looked puzzled. "And?"
"They… they're important to us. We guide them, protect them as they grow."
"How odd," the queen said. "Only exceptional offspring are worthy of such attention. From what I have seen and learned, you would consider most humans to be barbarous creatures, barely more than animals. There is no more reason to worry about them than about the common drones."
Ganos shook her head slowly. "While the humans in your sector are largely… underdeveloped, all societies have potential."
"In theory," the queen scoffed. "But certainly not in practice."
"Humans are intelligent, sentient, and sapient creatures, whether they realize their potential or not," Ganos stated forcefully. "They do not deserve to die in agony as someone's dinner."
"All living things must eat," the queen said with a sly smile. "I am sure that this applies to you as well."
"We eat plants and meat that is grown artificially without ever being part of a feeling creature," Ganos said, leaving aside those few deviants who did eat real meat. "Or food that is outright fabricated. Nothing needs to suffer for our survival."
The queen raised her feeding hand and showed the slit on it to Ganos. "We require sustenance of a different sort than you. We can not help what we were created to be, and surely you can not blame us."
"That's not strictly true, which comes to our final requirement," Ganos said. "You must cooperate with us in finding an alternative food source."
"We have tried," the queen said. "Other mammals do not provide the same vital energy as a human or Lantean."
"None the less, alternatives must exist— for example, clones that do not have higher brain functions. Or we could make it so that your feeding is compatible with other food animals, or so that you can eat just as most species do. In fact, as I recall, your young already do so."
The queen was silent for a minute then nodded slightly. "We agree to this requirement, without any reservations save that we participate in all research, for our own safety."
"But of course," Ganos said. "If there is nothing else, I believe we have found some basis to work from. Shall we discuss the details?"
They spent several hours going back and forth and trying to hammer out some kind of agreement that might be acceptable to both sides. It was difficult, to say the least, given that they had such diametrically opposed goals. Even once they pinned down the approximate volume of Wraith space as 12.5% of the galaxy, with a twenty-light-year neutral zone, they still went back and forth on exactly where the boundary lines would be drawn, with neither side wanting to simply pick a center point and draw a circle. There was also the matter of arms limitations, an even more difficult topic because of the nomadic nature of the Wraith. Eventually it was decided that there would be some limit on the number of cruisers, but exactly where that limit would be was not yet pinned down.
"I think that it may be wise to recess for a while," the queen said, after they had stalled yet again. "We appear to be making progress, but I must consult my sisters to see what their thoughts are."
Ganos nodded. "I should consult with my government, although I don't think they will have any serious objections."
"Undoubtedly we would both benefit from rest and sustenance as well," the queen said, rising from her chair.
"True enough," Ganos said. She stood and extended an arm toward the far door. "Someone will show you to your ship."
"I thank you for your hospitality, and look forward to seeing you again."
"And you as well."
Ganos waited until the Wraith had been escorted from the room to turn and leave through the door behind her. She was exhausted, not so much because of the length of the session but because of the implication of what they had been discussing. As she walked to the ship's bridge, part of her almost hoped that negotiations would break down.
John turned in his command chair when Ganos Lal entered the bridge. He, along with many others aboard who weren't actively involved in maintaining battle readiness, had been watching the negotiations between her in the Wraith. Also like many, he had not been pleased by some of what he had heard.
"Councilor, the Wraith transport has departed the ship and is returning to the hive," he reported.
"Good," Ganos said firmly. She sat down at the empty chair next to Lorne at the master situation monitor station. "I will be very glad when I do not have to deal with that creature any longer."
"Wraith aren't very good company, are they?"
"Not at all. The longer I sat there, the more aware I was that the queen doesn't seem to view anyone but possibly other queens as really being people, let alone equals. I think they're only negotiating at all because we're in a position of strength, and the Wraith can respect that." Ganos looked at Camilla, who had been present the entire time. "What are your thoughts, Supreme Commander?"
"I don't like it at all," Camilla said with a deep scowl. "Giving over territory to the Wraith would mean abandoning humans in our charge. We may not be able to protect them very well at the moment, but that will change."
"I agree with you on that," Ganos said. "It would be immoral and unethical. The question is whether the others will see it that way. I think Melia would vote against a treaty under these terms, but the others I'm less sure about. Moros in particular might be inclined to shift his vote in favor due to practical concerns."
"Practical concerns, ma'am?" Lorne said, quirking an eyebrow.
"It might seem like a good solution to buy us time to build our forces to sufficient strength to crush the Wraith," Ganos said. She sighed and shook her head. "It's not unreasonable, either. This treaty could keep the Wraith contained and their population lower than it might be, which would mean a lower casualty rate due to cullings. We'd be exchanging millions of deaths that might occur anyways for billions who would be safe."
"Acceptable losses," John said flatly. "Especially if the losses aren't Lantean, no doubt?"
Ganos glared at him and snapped, "Our first duty is to the Lantean people, Star Colonel. Remember that. And I am not saying that I agree with the reasoning, simply that some people will think that way."
"She's right," Camilla said. "I have to say, a delay may be helpful, and in the short term I can't see human casualties increasing. It's the long term that worries me. We might get complacent, especially if work proceeds on finding an alternative food source."
"If we're lucky, it would simply be a matter of supply clones," Ganos said. "That would remove the source of conflict. The question would be how the Wraith would act after being freed of the need to at least keep humans alive and —"
Suddenly, Chuck interrupted. "Colonel! The Wraith transport just passed the hiveship and kept going."
"What?" John spun around and checked the sensors. Sure enough, there the transport was, gliding right past the dart bays and away from the hive entirely. "Shields up!"
"Colonel?" Ganos said, standing up.
"I don't know why they did that, but it can't be good."
Camilla nodded. "I agree. Colonel Birareus, squadron orders, shields to maximum." Her hologram disappeared as she continued to give more orders to her own crew.
"Wraith transport has jumped to hyperspace," Chuck reported. He paused a moment before going on. "New contacts on long-range sensors. Multiple hyperspace signatures inbound, bearing two-nine-three mark forty. Point of origin is the gas giant around star PM-3917. Estimate thirty-plus — wait one. New contacts, bearing zero-three-two mark one-zero-seven. And… more along another bearing, also from Wraith space."
"Sergeant Kilea, escort Councilor Ganos to the aft hangar," John ordered. To Ganos, he said, "We have a transport aboard capable of reaching hyperspeed. It'll take you to safety."
"I see. Thank you, Colonel, and good luck."
As Ganos left the bridge, John ordered, "Power to weapons," almost simultaneously with a report from Amelia of, "Wraith ships just powered their guns."
"We now have fifty — no, seventy-plus inbound contacts," Chuck said. "Eighty. Ninety. Over a hundred hyperspace contacts now. ETA for first wave is four minutes."
"Well, we asked for a battle. I guess sometimes we really do get what we want," Lorne muttered behind John. "All stations now report ready, sir. Targeting instructions incoming from the flagship, and the relief squadron has entered hyperspace."
"All right, then. All hands, prepare to engage the enemy."
Moments later, the Wraith opened fire. Thousands of brilliant blue bolts flew toward the Lantean ships, with darts close behind them, and the cruisers themselves rapidly spreading out and beginning combat maneuvers. The Lantean warships returned fire, both drones and energy weapons; a green beam from Federation's main battery cleaved the hiveship in two and a half-dozen the cruisers disappeared in as the first wave of drones struck home. For the most part, the Lanteans sat there and took the shots aimed at them, trusting their shields to protect them. For the most part that was a successful strategy, until the Wraith began to concentrate all their fire on Ferox to weaken its forward shields. It didn't seem like a major concern, because soon only a handful of cruisers still existed.
Then the first incoming wave dropped from hyperspeed right on top of the squadron. At that point, the Lanteans were forced to break their formation to avoid collisions, and the battle devolved into a massive furball.
Entire squadrons of Wraith cruisers harassed each Lantean warship, almost twenty focusing on beleaguered Ferox alone, and more were arriving every minute. Darts swarmed about in all directions like gnats surrounding giants, trying to skim close to shields of the battleships and dreadnoughts in order to avoid defensive fire, their own weapons little more than pinpricks against the ships' powerful shields. They found little shelter despite their maneuvers, for the drone controllers on the ships were experts, and two or three drones would harry each dart until they struck home. The cruisers met similar fates, with forty or fifty drones pouring into each one and ripping them to shreds. The Wraith were not the only ones suffering, however, for even the shields of Lantean warships could only take so much before failing.
"Ferox reports her shields are failing and is attempting to withdraw," Lorne said calmly as he tried to keep up with the battle outside. "Reinforcements are now ETA one minute."
"More Wraith ships exiting hyperspace," Chuck said. "Estimate thirty-plus this time."
"Amelia, try to take some heat off Ferox," John ordered, while trying to maneuver Inceptum closer to their sister ship. Despite regulations to the contrary, he had taken personal helm control, quite unable to just sit back and direct.
"I'll do my best, sir, but there's so many darts out that that getting a clear shot is hard, and we're going to run low on munitions if this keeps up."
"Do your best." John looked up as the lights suddenly dimmed and flickered. "Lorne, what was that?"
"We're getting sporadic power fluctuations throughout the ship, sir. It's feedback from the shield generators."
"Shouldn't the ZPM give us plenty of power?"
"It's not lack of power that's the problem, it's the uneven drain across different shield facets. They're not designed with a ZPM in mind like a city-ship is and the system's having trouble compensating."
"Right, I'll see if I can keep them off our weak sides and — oh, shit." On John's display, a green icon winked out.
"We've lost Ferox!" Lorne shouted. "The flagship is taking heavy damage as well." He paused a moment, then cursed and said, "Darts are firing on the escape pods, sir."
Finally the five ships of the reinforcement squadron arrived, but even that gain was offset as yet another and even larger wave of cruisers entered the fight as well. For all intents and purposes the battle had devolved into a half-dozen separate battles, as hordes of Wraith fought Lantean warships in ones and twos. Try as they might, the sheer number of Wraith kept the Lanteans from getting back into an effective combat formation and several ships were left on their own. Even the mighty dreadnoughts were having trouble under the shear weight of fire. Only Inceptum and Tria, which still had ZPMs and more power than they could use, were having any success, and even that was limited. If they had wanted to disengage, by this point it would have been difficult to safely open a hyperspace window for fear of collision or loss of shield power.
"Munitions at ten percent," Amelia reported. "Switching to energy weapons to conserve the rest for critical targets."
Along Inceptum's flanks and bow, large turrets swung into action. The weapons were primarily intended for planetary bombardment, each one a dual-function phased particle projector that could fire precise shield-penetrating shots or simply pour out hundreds of megatons per second to glass entire continents. The latter setting was employed here against the shieldless Wraith to devastating effect, shattering cruisers with every shot. The battleship destroyed dozens of enemy ships, as did the others, but more kept coming.
Then more Lantean ships finally began to succumb, starting with those that had been in action longest — first the dreadnought Entente came apart at the seams, then Union's back was broke in two by a volley of fire that pierced her shields amidships. Next to fall was Federation, blowing apart as the subspace tap at the heart of her engines overloaded and detonated.
"We've lost the flagship," Lorne said quietly. There was no time for anyone to mourn, because two deceptively soft thumps vibrated through the hull. "Shields are weak, port-midships. Roll ship at least ten degrees starboard."
"On it," John said. He rolled the ship along its axis while flying under the spreading wrecks of several cruisers, trying to gain some measure of cover so the shields could recharge. "Chuck, are there still ships coming?"
"I don't think so, sir, but there's so much energy flux and debris out there that I'm not even sure how many are still functioning here," Chuck said. "Last count was just over two hundred arrivals, but I'm pretty sure most of those have been destroyed."
"Hey, that's some good news," John said far more cheerfully than he actually felt, trying to keep up a determined face for his crew. The universe rewarded his remark by knocking the ship sideways with so much force that they would have all been flung from their chairs if it weren't for their seats' safety restraint fields. A spike of pain arced up his back until the neural feedback safeties cut in and lowered the gain on his link to the ship.
"Direct hit, port-aft quarter!" Lorne shouted. For the first time, a hint of concern leaked into his voice. "Hull breach, engineering decks, and heavy damage to the drives… we have a muon radiation leak, portside engines! Emissions are at one hundred rads per second and rising."
Those were rapidly nearing deadly levels, even for short periods of exposure. To an extent radiation damage could be repaired, but there would be a point where even revivication pods would be of no use — assuming any of them lived long enough to be put in one.
"Can it be contained?"
"Engineering says not without shutting down the engine, sir."
"Negative! They are ordered to leave it up. I'm having enough trouble keeping those cruisers off us as it is. If we lose that engine, we're dead. How bad is it going to get?"
"Dampening fields are active, but it's going to be lethal aft of frame three-ninety-five within thirty seconds."
No one on the bridge needed to be told that they were sitting just past frame four hundred. Worse yet, the ship's auxiliary control center was even further aft in the engineering section, a design flaw that John was suddenly and acutely aware of.
"Well, fuck," he said. "Clear out everyone aft of three-ninety, and have Teyla start organizing an evacuation on cloaked gateships. Everyone, if you want out, now's the time."
John wasn't surprised at all to see that, while his senior officers were ordering their enlisted staff to evacuate, most of them were staying at their stations. Soon, it was down to just John, Lorne, Amelia, and Chuck on the bridge; further in the ship, some engineers were still at their stations. Some of them at least had the benefit of radiation suits and personal shields, although that close to the damaged engine block it was questionable how much good it would do them.
"Just so you all know," John said a few minutes later, while narrowly dodging a large chunk of hiveship, "I'm proud of you all, and it's been a real honor to serve with you, et cetera, et cetera."
"Sir?" Lorne said.
"You kinda suck at the uplifting end-of-life statement thing. Just so you know."
"I'll try to keep that in mind. So, how screwed are we, anyways?"
"We're at over four hundred sieverts already, sir."
John chuckled. "Doomed, then."
"Fried to crisp, yeah. If anyone wants painkillers, you might want to snag them before your muscles start sloughing off."
"Sir?" Chuck said. "You suck at the uplifting thing, too. Just so you know and all."
"You do," Amelia confirmed. "You know… I think I'm more or less out of targets. I might be going blind, though. I keep seeing black spots."
"My scopes are showing clear in the immediate area," Chuck said after a moment. "There's a few cruisers over by Tria and Concordia, but I don't see any more."
"Okay, that is some good news," John said. "I'm going to get us clear of the debris. Amelia, dump the rest of our drones on any darts that pursue us. Lorne, kill the engines… now."
"All pursuing ships destroyed."
"Great work, everyone." John hit the controls for internal comms, wincing as the tips of several fingers slid off. "Teyla, it's John. It looks like we're clear. You're in command. I would suggest you launch some gateships to cover the ship until relief arrives and you can decontaminate the bridge. And if I don't see you again, it's been fun."
There was a long pause, then she answered, "Yes, it has, John. Hold on a little while and there will be a medical team there shortly."
"Cool. Bridge out." John looked at the rest of the bridge crew, all of whom were unnaturally pale. "You know, I think I'm going to move, so that I don't get liquefied organs all over my chair."
He stood up, wobbled, and fell flat on his face.
John found himself standing at the gates of a gigantic festival. Tents and causeways spread out in all directions, with tall rides silhouetted against the horizon. Immediately behind him was a road, which seemed to stretch out to infinity in two directions.
"You know, twice in a year is a bit much, even for you," a woman said. "This is enlightenment, not your personal break room."
John grinned and turned. "Oma Desala. How are you?"
"I'm doing well," Oma replied with a smile of her own. It was vaguely mysterious, which was odd for a smile, but quite in keeping with her usual nature. "You, on the other hand, just died of extreme radiation poisoning."
"Yeah, I noticed," John said, holding up his fingers and looking them over. They were whole, of course, being only metaphorical fingers. "I haven't done that in a while. I'm starting to remember why I like dying of old age or just disappearing beyond the rim so much."
"Perhaps if you let go of your burdens you wouldn't have to keep experiencing grisly deaths."
John shrugged. "It gives me something to do. Everyone needs a hobby. Speaking of which, still meddling?"
"You meddle," Oma said, a hint of gentle chiding in her warm voice. "I help people along in the journey."
"No, it's really not." Oma's expression suddenly grew serious. "You're playing a dangerous game with these antics, you know. If you keep resurrecting yourself this way, sooner or later the Others are going to do something."
John smirked. "They're welcome to try. I'm playing by the rules, even went through childhood like always, and if they want to make an issue of it they're not going to get much support from the other others." His smirk dimmed a little as he realized how silly that sounded. "If they try to start a fight… well, we all know how that turned out the last time."
Oma frowned but nodded. "Sooner or later you're going to have to give up. We've seen where this war leads. The potential realities are narrowing down to just a few branches, and none of them are pleasant."
"Maybe, maybe not. There's always hope, and I've lasted this long. I'm not going to give up now."
"All roads lead to the great path, Oma Desala," John said gently. "Even if my road is a bit twisty, I'll get there eventually. Save your worry for those more worthy and in need."
Oma sighed but smiled slightly despite herself. "I suppose we shall see, won't we. Will you at least stay a little while?"
"Naw. I need to get back to my crew."
"Surely you're not taking them with you," she said, her disapproval returning. "It's bad enough that you've got one following you around, now dozens more?"
"It's their choice. I doubt many will chose my way, even for a few years." John concentrated and suddenly there were several dozen others gathered around the entrance of the fairgrounds. The bridge crew was at the front, but there were numerous engineers and technicians behind them.
"Listen up, everyone!" he called. "We've all ascended. Congratulations, and welcome to enlightenment. You've got a choice to make now, so I want you pay attention. There's three ways you can go from here. First, you can stay here on this higher plane of existence to learn the secrets of life and the universe. It's a cool enough place, and Oma here will take care of you." John pointed to his left. "Second, you can head down this road. No one's really sure what's down there, but… I think it's nothing bad. Everyone goes there eventually."
He took breath, then said, "Or third, you can go back and return to the fight. That's what I'm doing. It's what I've always done. You won't remember anything about this place, probably not even what happened, because there's rules about that sort of thing. I'll warn you, it's not going to be easy, and there's a good chance you might end up dead for real next time, or worse. I think it's worth it, though. There's no pressure, I'll respect whatever decision you make. Talk with each other or with Oma about it. We've got a little time."
John stepped to the side and waited as his once and maybe future crew began to talk amongst themselves. He didn't doubt that most of them would choose to remain. After all, it wasn't that often that you got a free chance at enlightenment, and most of them knew that returning would mean a long, grueling struggle.
He wasn't at all surprised, though, when one in particular came to stand at his side.
"You didn't think long."
Lorne rolled his eyes and gave him a look that said he thought John was an idiot. "I didn't need to."
"You sure? Because this Wraith thing isn't looking too great."
"How many times have we had this conversation, John?"
"More times than I can count."
"And I have ever said anything different?"
"No, but sooner or later you're going to get tired of me."
Lorne shook his head and grinned affectionately. "Don't worry, sir. Wherever you go, I'm going to be there behind you."
John ducked his head. "Thanks."
A few minutes later, or at least what felt like a few minutes in the strange, subjective time of the ascended planes, the others began to break up and filter toward their destinations. The vast majority went with Oma, and one pair headed off down the great path. A few, though, followed John and Lorne back down whence they had come.
John's first thought upon waking up was, "Oh no, not again." It took him a moment to remember just why he was in sickbay, at which point he tried to sit up. He got his shoulders several inches off the bed before flopping back down.
There was soft clapping from a few meters away, which turned out to be from Lorne in the next bed over. "Good job, sir. Very impressive."
"Eat shit and die, Lorne," John grumbled.
"Did that already, sir."
"Obviously it didn't take. Go throw yourself out an airlock."
"I don't think the doctors would appreciate that, sir."
"They can go breathe vacuum, too." John found the bed control and raised himself up to a sitting position that way. "Status report?"
Lorne shrugged. "I'm not sure what's going on myself, sir. I only woke an hour ago, and as I understand we spent almost a day undergoing regeneration. From what Teyla told me when she visited, we took heavy casualties. Right now we're limping to a repair base on the starboard engine and will be there in about two hours."
John winced but said, "At least we're intact enough to keep do that much. What about casualties?"
"Bad. We lost most of the engineering crew. The rest of the bridge crew pulled through somehow, though. Chuck and Amelia are still in regeneration but they'll pull through. That's about all I know for sure. I'm trying to convince someone to bring us a data slate, but the doctors aren't cooperating much."
There were footsteps at the entrance of the sickbay ward and then Helia appeared at the door. She looked as exhausted as John felt, and perhaps had better reason given that she hadn't spent a day being zapped with life-enhancing rays. "Captain Laurentius, who are you — oh. Colonel Johannes, you're awake."
"Helia," John said. "I'm glad to see you made it out as well."
She slowly walked over to his bed, glancing over her shoulder to make sure no doctors or nurses were lurking around to scold her. "We did. We took a few hits, but nothing like you did. I'm sorry about the men you lost."
"Thanks. What about the rest of the fleet?"
Helia shook her head. "Concordia took some serious damage but got out, and they think they can repair Depulsio if they can get a tug there. Otherwise… other ships were lost, most of them with all hands. The Wraith were firing on the escape pods. It's only because of the ZPMs that our ships made it out, I think."
"Supreme Commander Camilla?"
"Killed in action, along with everyone else on Federation."
John closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to steady himself. After a minute, he said, "Well, at least we smashed their fleet. There were, what, two hundred or more ships? That's got to be most of them, except for the hives themselves."
"Two hundred and thirty-eight confirmed kills, although there might have been as much as dozen more. But John… there have been reports of Wraith attacks all along the front. There are hundreds of cruisers still out there. We don't know how it's possible, but they have a lot more ships than we thought."
"Oh." John took a moment to assimilate that information. "That really sucks, doesn't it?"
Lorne laughed and even Helia cracked a smile. "That is a succinct way of putting it, yes."
"Mind filling us in on more?"
Helia pulled up a chair and started telling what had happened while they were unconscious. John knew he was going to forget half of it and probably even fall asleep any minute, but he needed to hear it. The sooner he knew the situation, the sooner he could start making plans for when he was back on his feet and ready to rejoin the fight.
The Battle at Cimtar was without a doubt the turning point of the war. The loss of five dreadnoughts and two battleships was a major blow; the loss of their crews was catastrophic. Not only were almost three thousand experienced personnel lost, including the Corps' Supreme Commander, but recruitment plummeted to an all-time low. As the war progressed, most ships were reduced to minimal staffing, relying in many cases on volunteers from the ships' former science staffs to cover support tasks. Replacements for the ships were slow in coming, because a great deal of funding and industrial capacity was diverted to the construction of increasingly elaborate planetary defense networks. The Lantean core worlds were turned into fortresses, while numerous minor outposts were abandoned in favor of safer city-ships and colonies. While this meant that the Lantean population was safe for the most part, it meant a drastic reduction in mobile forces capable of meeting the Wraith in battle. Converted civilian ships proved inadequate for making up the difference, and it would be years before the first new battleships came off the assembly lines. Meanwhile, considerable effort was diverted to finding methods to win the war that would not be so reliant on having numerical equality. Equal amounts of effort were placed on finding ways to ascend beyond the traditional philosophies, some more successful than others; ascension rates took a sharp upturn following Cimtar and continued to climb throughout the war, until they reached a plateau decade before Atlantis was abandoned.
One other reason that Cimtar was such a failure was that the objective of destroying the greater part of the Wraith battle fleet was impossible. Over two hundred cruisers were destroyed there, which by pre-battle estimates would have been almost two-thirds of the Wraith fleet. Post-battle analysis indicates that it was between one-third and one-half: still a major blow, but very disproportionate compared to the losses on the part of the Lantean fleet, and easily replaced. Our best guess by the end of the war was that they may have found some way to accelerate the growth of their ships and even crews, possibly using captured zero-point modules, a theory born out when their production numbers dropped sharply in the last decade of the war, when they would have long since stopped finding more ZPMs. However they did it, they were left with enough ships to launch an offensive, forcing our own planned counter-attack to be canceled as Supreme Commander Scipio organized a defense.
Stalemate is the best word to describe the next decade. Once put on war footing Lantean industry was producing enough ships to offset losses and gain ground in terms of capital ships, but recruitment remained difficult. The Wraith, in turn, were soon roaming much of the galaxy and outright controlled a quarter of it, but were unable to assault the defenses of Lantean worlds. As the war progressed, the Wraith began to establish permanent picket fleets around important systems, both to gather intelligence and force the defenses to remain ready at all times. Essentially, many systems were in a state of light siege, including the system. At this point it was a very light and easily bypassed siege, especially compared to the close blockades of the late war, but it was enough to fuel considerable worry and even more construction of local defenses.
This is not to say that there was no military action taking place at all. Battles raged constantly across the entire galaxy, both in space and planetside. Monitor Corps vessels intercepted Wraith fleets almost daily, destroying cruisers by the dozen and even the occasional hiveship. Innovative tactics were developed to trick the Wraith into engaging in battle, although they learned quickly and on several occasions managed to turn the tables and destroy light warships. Meanwhile, the human worlds were under increasing assault, and soon the Wraith were encroaching on the territory of interstellar powers. Attempts were made to organize a united defense, but long-held grudges made this difficult, and in fact some powers saw the war as an opportunity to expand and the Corps was forced to make an appropriate example of them…
[nb: By the twentieth year of the war, the human casualty count hit half a billion. Notable was that much of this came not directly from cullings, but from damage to essential infrastructure and government collapses. The Lantean population was also shrinking, mostly due to ascension, and had dropped almost twenty percent by this point. — dj]
The city of Atlantis was the bright center of Lantean civilization in the Pegasus galaxy. If there was a human counterpart, it was almost certainly the world of Athos. There were a few who might dispute that, but only a few. At a time when eighty percent of the galaxy's human worlds had not even invented steam engines and those back on Earth were only just getting around to developing agriculture, Athos had starships capable of crossing the galaxy in a matter of months. Athos itself had over six billion inhabitants, outnumbering the Lanteans by a factor of almost six hundred, and was the center of an expanding multi-planetary republic. They were cultured, civilized, socially liberal, and in many ways was exactly what the Lanteans — at least, the more forward-thinking of them — hoped that all humans would one day become.
That was one reason that Lorne and his new command, Hippofaralkus, had come to Athos as part of a high-level meeting regarding the Wraith. The location was something of a symbolic act, as it was a human world and the hope was to get the advanced humans working together. Athos was the only logical choice, because the Athosians were about the only space-capable society than none of the other humans outright despised. Disliked, in some cases, but people would at least agree to go there and speak to them, which would be more than could be said about the Genii, Ji Sukan, Ekadans, or most of the other great human powers.
"Hopefully this meeting goes a bit better than the last one we were both present for," Lorne said to Ganos Lal as the two of them were lead into a large, airy reception hall, filled with dignitaries and their aides from over thirty worlds. Only a dozen had originally been invited, but according to the Athosians as soon as word got out, more and more worlds starting sending representatives anyways.
"I very much doubt it is possible for the opposite to be true, Star Colonel," Ganos replied. "For one thing, I don't think that any of the delegates will spend the meeting wondering how I would taste."
"I wouldn't be too sure of that," Lorne said. "Some of these people aren't that far removed from cannibalism."
"Thank you for reminding me," she said dryly. "Perhaps I should rephrase that as 'none of them wish to kill me'."
"Maybe not, but then, there's a battleship in orbit that might influence their thinking. And it definitely doesn't extend so far as not wanting to kill each other."
"Have you always been so charmingly optimistic, Colonel?"
"I see. If you'll excuse me for a moment, I need to talk with our ambassador about a few things."
"Of course, ma'am."
Lorne spent some time browsing the table of light snacks laid out at one end of the hall and then began circulating the room. While most of the human dignitaries were high-ranking civilians, ambassadors and foreign ministers and royalty, there were quite a few military officers as well, usually as attachés' but occasionally representing governments of a rather less democratic kind. Trying to work out relative importance was always difficult with these situations, because no ranks ever quite lined up, even with professional organizations that had nice, numbered grades instead of completely ad hoc titles. The current Lantean system only had four grades of officers currently in use, while some militaries had a dozen or more without even considering enlisted ranks. How could you compare a Sosuran Hecantonarch with a Sukani Tai-na? That was without even considering actual power. An Athosian Captain had rather more firepower in a single battleship than the Hadothan Grand Admiral's entire fleet.
Fortunately, Lorne had the pleasure of being a field-grade Lantean officer and a starship commander to boot, and thus inherently higher-ranking than anyone else present. His ship could destroy some nations' fleets just by landing at the wrong place. Still, it paid to be polite and try not to offend anyone by showing the wrong amount of deference to different people in mixed company.
"Star Colonel Laurentius?"
Lorne turned to find an Athosian officer standing nearby. His hairline was receding and he was getting a bit of a gut; Lorne would guess that he was getting into middle age by human standards.
"I'm Captain Hallen Trivasset. I don't know if you remember me, but —"
Lorne grinned. "Of course, from the officer exchange program on Sucino Vestivus. That was, what, fifteen, twenty years ago now?"
Trivasset smiled, pleased that Lorne remembered him. "About that, yes. I was pleased to see your name listed as one of the Lantean delegates. I fondly remember my time under your command."
The Athosian, then a recent graduate from their premier military academy, had been one of several humans chosen from around the galaxy to take part in a program meant to enhance human understanding of Lantean procedures and society, foster greater cooperation across cultural lines, and steer human military operations into a more civilized direction. It had been a mixed success; some had adapted quite well and proved excellent officers, others had failed to even last out the entire period and one had been caught spying on an enemy nation using Lantean resources. Trivasset had been one of the former.
"It was fun, wasn't it?" Lorne said. "Even with the carnivorous plant thing."
"Even with that, yes."
"Are you here as part of your planet's delegation?"
Trivasset nodded. "Apparently having served for a year on a Lantean warship makes me an expert on galactic military affairs as far as the Personnel Department is concerned."
"Ah, the wonders of bureaucracy."
They spent a few minutes catching up before it was time to head in to the room where the conference proper was being held. The setup there was another of those reflections of hierarchical importance that humans insisted on, along with other idiosyncrasies. At the focus of the room was a long table with room for the Lanteans plus representatives of the eight great multi-planetary powers. It was curved so that everyone could see each other, although not quite a true semi-circle — the Genii had some odd superstition about incomplete circles. It faced a steep, amphitheater-like hall where the delegates from all the other attention space-faring societies were to sit. Most of them were a step below the ones who got a seat at the actual table, usually single-planet nations with only limited interstellar capabilities beyond the gate or surplus from other worlds.
Lorne settled into his seat to the right of Ganos. They were at the center of the table, and around them the others were sitting down as well, with some glaring and grumbling. The Athosians had been careful with the seating so that no blood enemies were next to each other, but Lorne was convinced that some of them would spit across the room if their physiology allowed it.
When everyone was in their proper places, Ganos said, "Good afternoon — I'm sorry, is this on? Ah, I see. Thank you. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. On behalf of Atlantis, I thank you all for coming. You are all aware of why we have asked you here. This is a dark time for the entire galaxy. The Wraith pose a threat to each of the worlds represented in this hall, and a thousand others beside. Some of you are already near the edge of the front lines, and while no human planet with interstellar capabilities has been directly attacked yet, your ships have been, and it can only be matter of time before they stop ignoring you. I have come here today to a more complete overview of what we know of the Wraith, and to ask for your assistance in dealing with them. Star Colonel Lorne will now present the current strategic situation."
"Thank you, Councilor, delegates. The information I am about to present is current as of yesterday evening…."
He spent twenty minutes outlining the progress of the war so far. It wasn't a complete picture by any means, and in fact it omitted quite a bit about current Lantean deployments and the full scope of what they knew about Wraith technology. War or no war, there were some things they didn't want to share with the humans. When it was all over the cleanup was going to be a mess, especially making sure that the humans didn't get their hands on anything that might be dangerous.
Once he was finished, Ganos spoke again. "I'm sure you can see that, at the moment, this is a grim situation. We do anticipate having sufficient forces to return to an offensive posture within the next three to five years. It could take longer, however, and in the meantime the Monitor Corps is forced to concentrate on holding actions and strikes on enemy infrastructure. Protecting specific planets for long periods will be difficult and will not be done unless there are exceptional circumstances. For that reason, what we hope to do is create a coalition of human worlds that will present a more unified front against the Wraith. This would save tens or hundreds of millions of lives. This is practical as well as altruistic. Many of your worlds have high populations, making them tempting targets, and if your less advanced neighbors are consumed then the Wraith will be even stronger when they do attack you. While I am sure working out the details will be complicated, I am sure you can at least agree to the idea in principle."
"Athos would be more than willing to join such a coalition," Ambassador Emila Kalagen immediately said.
"As would Ha Vek Ni!"
There were several other such exclamations, especially up among the minor worlds. They had the most to gain from such an arrangement, lacking serious forces of their own. Many more seemed to find the idea worthwhile, but simply weren't as enthusiastic, desperate, or sycophantic as the more vocal ones.
Not everyone agreed immediately, though. Nothing could ever go that easy.
"An interesting proposal," General Narsis of the Genii Confederacy said with a small smile. "You get us to do the bulk of the fighting for you, allowing you to avoid casualties and later swoop in and claim victory. I can see why you like it."
Under other circumstances Lorne might have leaped to the defense of Lantean honor, but he had been dealing with Genii complaints for nearly thirty years and knew that they'd find something to gripe about no matter what the situation was. Confrontation was what the man wanted.
"You're absolutely correct," Lorne said. "It's part of our secret plan to… well, honestly, I'm not sure what we'd achieve by doing that, but it must be important to allow so many of our ships to be destroyed and our people killed."
Narsis' expression remained neutral but there was a hint of a smile around his eyes as he tipped his head in acknowledgement of a point scored. "Of course. My apologies, Star Colonel, if you feel I made light of the losses you have suffered. However, those losses are surely small compared to those that have been suffered by humanity, and now you ask us to fight in your stead."
Ganos shook her head slightly. "Our losses have, in proportion to population, been larger than that of humans."
"And I would not say that they are asking us to fight for them," Captain Trivasset said, raising his voice before Narsis could say anything more. "Rather, they are asking us to fight alongside them, and for ourselves and our cousins. The Wraith are a scourge on this galaxy — how many did you estimate had been lost again, Star Colonel?"
"Two hundred and thirty-nine million, plus-minus ten percent," Lorne said.
"Two hundred million in a matter of a few years," Trivasset went on. "They will surely continue, until they have attacked us all."
"I will add that this did not have to be our fight," Ganos said. "The Wraith approached us some time ago regarding a settlement, peace with Atlantis in exchange for a quarter of the human population. We rejected that offer, choosing to place our lives on the line rather than surrender our charges to them."
Lorne shot her a look but stayed silent. This was neither the time nor the place to discuss the official story behind the truce negotiations and the battle at Cimtar.
"How noble of you, not to abandon your duties," Narsis said. "But this brings me back to something I have been wondering — why should we help? I think we all know that, even if the Monitor Corps is currently just holding its own, sooner or later it will rebuild and have sufficient force to crush the Wraith. Many of our worlds are nowhere near the front lines. Our biggest concern would be long-range raiding parties. We might be better served keeping our forces close to home."
Lorne knew what was coming next, and sure enough, on the opposite side of the table from Narsis Minister Ilsedi of the Ji Sukan had a smirk spreading across her face.
"Ah, I see your reasons for complaining now," she said. "Cowardice."
"How dare you!" Narsis spat, a growing flush visible even on his dark skin. "That is not true!"
"Oh, of course not. Please forgive me," Ilsedi said sweetly. "The Genii are not cowards, I will admit. They've proven that enough times when they throw themselves into battle. No, what I should have said is that they have no hearts, no sympathy or empathy for their fellow humans."
"I notice that you have yet to volunteer any of your forces. I can't say that I'm surprised. The Ji Sukan would not know what to do in a fight where they couldn't just stab their opponents in the back."
"General, Minister," Ganos said loudly. "This is not the time or the place to be flinging insults at each other."
"My apologies, Councilor," Narsis said, not taking his eyes from Ilsedi.
"Yes, I'm so sorry to have gotten us off-track," Ilsedi said. "Please, continue, Councilor."
Ganos eyed them both for several long, pointed seconds before saying, "I understand why some of you might be reluctant. Many of your worlds have only a few hard-won ships to your names. But that is why it is so important for you to band together. Hadotha has a dozen cruisers, Ki-Laan a few hundred light attack ships, Ha Vek Ni a vast merchant marine capable of keeping fleets supplied across the galaxy. Together, you can form a battle fleet that is greater than the sum of its whole."
"I agree completely with that sentiment," Narsis said. "Between Athos and Genoa alone, we could muster fifty or sixty Class Three ships of the line and hundreds of lighter craft. Even those worlds with much less advanced ships could be useful in providing screening and escort ships."
Ambassador Kalagen nodded. "I think it might be possible to assist some of our fellows in upgrading their technology as well."
"Which does return me to some of my earlier concerns," Narsis continued. "For countless centuries, Lanteans have tried to guide our advancement and limit our power. The State Bureau has rules for conduct and technology transfer. The Monitor Corps spends much of its time keeping the peace and strictly enforcing the laws of war. And where has that gotten us? Most of humanity still lives in the dirt! Those of us at this table could have helped them, made them more, but the rules say that we can only interact with those who are sufficiently advanced and only in prescribed ways."
"Help them?" Ilsedi repeated softly. "More like conquer and control."
Narsis took a deep breath and set his jaw but otherwise ignore her. "Where there could have been a few dozen great powers spread across hundreds of worlds, instead we have thousands of independent states, none of them strong enough to really fight off an aggressor like the Wraith. The Lanteans have systematically limited our power, and now we suffer for it."
Ganos sighed and shook her head. "You may well have a point, General," she said wearily. "Certainly many of us question the wisdom of allowing so many human worlds to remain in such primitive conditions. I think there will definitely be major changes in policy after the war is done and we can once more devote time and resources to fixing it. And, although I had not planned to say this yet, we would certainly look favorably on those worlds here which do assist us when it comes to expansion into even occupied worlds, so long as a degree of care is taken to protect any original inhabitants."
Narsis looked taken aback by that statement. He had to take a moment to think before responding, "I must say, I had not expected an answer like that. I have no doubt that you will be true to your word, Councilor."
"Since you seem to have taken on the voice of the loyal opposition, General," Ganos said, looking out over the crowd in a way that made it clear she knew many others were sitting back and let him draw any ire that might come, "are there any other issues you wish to bring up?"
"Actually, there is one last thing," Narsis said. "A question of security. If we send a large portion of our forces to join a coalition fleet, it occurs to me that many of us will be forced to leave some of our territory lightly guarded. Even leaving aside the Wraith, there is the question of attacks by other human nations. Some here may, despite the benefits, decide not to join, and then see that their neighbors are now vulnerable and their worlds ripe for taking."
"Aha!" Ilsedi shouted. "Now we see the real truth behind your objections! You wish to make everyone think that you are bowing out for honest reasons, when you intend to use the galaxy's suffering as cover for your own expansionist desires! It's hardly surprising that the leaders of a military dictatorship think of nothing but their own bloodlust and ways to keep their people focused outward."
"Dictatorship? Our people are far freer and better off than those ruled by the oligarchs of Sukan!" Narsis shouted back. "We have every intention of joining our Athosian and Tarkonan friends in battle if that is what they wish. But you — oh, no, I know your sort. You see nothing but opportunities to sate your greed. Your worlds are far from the Wraith, you can afford to use the rest of us as a buffer. As soon as our back is turned, you will shove a blade into it!"
"Baseless accusations born out of a desire to shift any suspicion away from yourself."
"General! Minister!" Kalagen snapped. "This is unseemly."
"I agree," Ganos said sharply. "We are not here to fight battles from generations ago."
"Baseless? I think not!" Narsis continued, heedless of Ganos' admonishment. "We've seen your spy ships lurking in Quadrant 37. You've wanted to take those worlds for decades."
"Retake them, you mean," Ilsedi snarled. "Those planets rightfully belong to us. Even if we tried to take them back, which we have no intention of doing at this time, we would be merely liberating those living under the Genii boot!"
"They have been Genii planets for almost three generations, and were legally taken following declared challenges for possession, in full accordance with the laws of war. Not only that, but the plebiscites eight years ago showed by a firm majority that the populations wished to remain part of the Confederacy."
Ilsedi jumped to her feet and thrust an accusatory finger at Narsis. "Only because of decades of ethnic cleansing bordering on outright genocide!"
Narsis stood and shouted back, "Those charges have been fully investigated by the Monitor Corps and found to be utterly baseless! I demand you retract that statement!"
"Never!" Ilsedi looked around at her fellow delegates. "You all know the history of the Genii. You have seen how they act. They can not be trusted."
"Stars and void, I am not in the mood for this at all," Lorne groaned, rubbing his forehead. He waited another minute to see if the yelling would stop, but if anything it looked like outright violence was going to break out at any moment. Finally he looked at Narsis and Ilsedi, concentrated, and purely for show lifted his right hand from the table and clenched it into a fist.
The shouting match quite suddenly came to an end as both delegates started to make choking noises and scrabbled at their throats.
"I think I speak for everyone here when I say that this meeting is far too important to be constantly interrupted by childish tantrums," Lorne said in a conversational tone. "If you can't keep to the matter at hand, I suggest you find members of your delegations who can. Thank you."
Lorne released them and leaned back in his chair, quite unconcerned by the wide-eyed looks being directed at him from all around the room. He was sure they'd appreciate a chance to actually discuss matters instead of having to listen to ranting all day. Also, he thought that a small demonstration of who was in charge would do them all some good.
Ganos smiled and, quite as if there had been no uproar at all, said, "We have considered that possibility, General. For that reason, the State Bureau is hereby suspending all active interplanetary territorial challenges, and will not be accepting any until the crisis is over. Declarations of war will not be accepted against any world, be it within the coalition or not and regardless of technology level. Any unauthorized acts of aggressive warfare will be met with any necessary punitive measures up to full interdiction and the destruction of all military assets. I hope that is sufficiently clear for everyone."
If there was anyone who didn't think so, they remained silent. The next few hours went much more smoothly, and by the end all of the nations present had agreed to join the coalition. Lorne was under no illusion that would be the end of the matter, of course; there were a thousand issues to hammer out in order to make things actually work, from how many ships each world would contribute to organizational issues and chains of command. Those were just details, though, and he was sure they'd be taken care of soon enough. If he was lucky, he and his ship would be back on the front lines where they belong by the end of the week.
It was the day of the Lantean New Year. It was something of an arbitrary point in time, all things considered. It almost never had anything to do with the year of any planet occupied by Lanteans, even that of the planet Atlantis itself was currently settled on. Instead it was based on a calendar begun millions of years before, when Atlantis had left Terra Atlantus. Still, in the tradition of countless worlds across numerous galaxies, the start of a new year was seen as an excuse to let loose and party even by the more uptight Lanteans. In fact, many planets choose to celebrate both the galaxy-wide and local planetary new years in a similar fashion.
The sixty sociological researchers on Kartegeh Vormaynash were not celebrating.
"Yakovus. Yakovus, wake up," said Sicyon, one of the chief researchers. He gently shook his son's shoulder. "Yakovus, you must wake."
"Father?" The young man blinked his eyes blearily. "Is something wrong?"
"We need to evacuate," Sicyon said. "The enemy is coming. Gather what you can carry and meet me in the control room."
Once his son was up and moving, Sicyon returned to the control room himself. His wife Xianthes and the other members of the outpost staff were gathered around the main display station, which currently showed the long-range sensors, and a set of ominous red dots were slowly moving in toward the planet.
"How did they get so close?" Mavra asked. "We're a thousand light-years from the front."
"Our sensors aren't exactly up to the same standards as a city-ship," Xianthes answered. She was the closest thing they had to a military officer, by dint of having served in the planetary self-defense force on Catanrush for a decade. "The way I've heard, they've been hitting every long-range sensor platform they can find, faster than the Corps can deploy new ones."
"Wonderful. That's just wonderful. How long do we have?"
"Twenty minutes, perhaps thirty at best. I've already contacted the Fleet, but there's no ship close enough to aide us in time. We also need to consider what else needs to be done."
"What do you mean?" Sicyon asked. "We're evacuating, what else can we do?"
"What about the humans?" Xianthes said. "There are almost a thousand of them in the nearest village alone."
"There's no way we can get that many through the gate in time," Mavra said. "The instant those ships arrive they'll cut off access to the stargate and that will be that. It's unfortunate, but such things happen."
"We can extend the outpost's shields enough to cover the village and the gate," Xianthes proposed.
Sicyon frowned. "That would considerably reduce its efficiency. It already wouldn't last long against a bombardment."
"It's not like we need to power anything else," Xianthes argued. "And if we can delay the ships even a few minutes, we could save hundreds of lives."
Suddenly, one of the other researchers came running into the room. "The gate was already engaged when I got there," Tercia said, panting. "It's an incoming wormhole. I couldn't dial out."
There was a collective intake of breath around the room. Without the stargate, there was no way to escape the planet. They had no ship with an FTL drive.
"We still have the gateships," Sicyon pointed out, trying to remain calm. "We can fit perhaps twenty-four, maybe even thirty of us inside. They can cloak and remain undetected."
"But that won't be nearly enough space for all of us," Teotenatus said. "How would we choose who is allowed to go?"
"Yakovus and Altruista, obviously," Xianthes said.
"Of course," Mavra agree. "And then… perhaps seniority?"
"Or simply stick with the youngest," Tercia said.
"I volunteer to remain behind if Sicyon gets a space," Xianthes said. "Nereis should go with her daughter, as well."
"That would be logical," Teotenatus said. "The children will need at least one of their caregivers."
"Xianthes!" Sicyon protested. "I should remain, not you."
"I have survival training. You do not. I have the best chance of making it out safely."
"We still need to decide who does not get a space," Lacerta reminded them. "Perhaps we could assign everyone a number and then generate a random set."
"Do we really have time to debate this?" someone asked from the rear.
"Of course we do," Mavra said. "There's always time for reasoned debate."
"There are children in the village," Xianthes said. "I propose that we take the gateship there and load on as many as we can fit. We have two adults to act as pilots already."
Instantly there was an uproar of consenting and objecting voices as everyone tried to express their opinion of the idea at once. They quickly realized that was counterproductive, however, and quieted down.
"It makes sense from a numerical perspective," said Lacerta. "Their smaller sizes would allow more to fit inside the gateships, especially since most infants would fit into the overhead cargo nets."
"Most moral and ethical systems do value to the life of a child over that of adults," Teotenatus added. "That includes all modern and almost all historical Alterran models, once you set aside certain outliers like that unfortunate group of deviants back during 2,104-kay on Proclarush Teonas in Avalon."
"Nonsense," Mavra said. "Children or not, they're still human. A single Lantean life is worth at least a dozen of theirs, once you account for superior intellectual capacity and relative life expectancies."
Tercia nodded. "Statistically speaking, we are far more likely to contribute to the war effort or raise the general standard of living in the galaxy. Perhaps that would be a useful measurement for choosing who goes on the gateships? We could use a predictive model to establish who will do the most good based on previous action."
"That would be biased against the young, who have not had as much time to establish a track record," someone pointed out.
"Ah, but the young also have a greater remaining life expectancy," she replied. "It would balance out if the model is programmed correctly."
"We do not have time for that," Xianthes said. She placed her hands on her hips and looked around the room. "Most of you have spent time in the village and have met these children. Can any of you seriously look me in the eye and say they are not worthy of being saved?" Even Mavra could not meet her gaze, and after a moment she said, "Given the time constraints — we have less than fifteen minutes now — I motion that we accept my proposal."
"I second that," Sicyon said quickly. "All in favor?"
The motion carried by approximately two-to-one. They quickly moved to put it into action, with the two parents each taking their child to one of the gateships and piloting it to village, along with a few armed volunteers to help maintain order. The villagers were already assembling in their square and preparing to leave in a state of barely controlled panic. They had heard enough stories to know that the Wraith would be unlikely to leave survivors; while not all parents were willing to part with their children, there were more than enough to almost overflow the two gateships. When the ships took off, the volunteers stayed behind to try to lead the villagers away and provide what help they could.
The gateships cloaked and retreated to what the pilots judged would be a safe distance from any settlement, where they would be unlikely to be damaged by accident. Most of the Lanteans at the outpost scattered in small groups in the hopes of avoiding capture.
The Wraith arrived only minutes after the gateships left the village. It was only a trio of cruisers, on a deep strike mission to sow as much chaos in Lantean-controlled space as possible and taking the opportunity to attack a Lantean outpost while stopping for a snack. Between them they launched over a hundred darts, most attacking villages and towns near the gate. At the outpost, Xianthes and another volunteer activated the shields and the small air-defense system that had been hastily installed not long after the outbreak of the war. It was barely worthy of the name: no drones or real surface-to-orbit capability, simply a few small anti-aircraft cannon. They managed to down a dozen darts before the Wraith became sufficiently annoyed to open fire. The shields held for a few minutes, but when the collapsed the Wraith continued to pour down fire on that area until the outpost, the village, and everything within twenty kilometers was scorched right down to the bedrock. It didn't even cost them a meal; there were plenty of other humans elsewhere on the continent.
The only Lantean survivors were the four aboard the gateships.
The Wraith were coming to Sateda.
No one knew when or in what numbers, but everyone one the planet could feel it in their guts, from President Skane down to the barely-literate hicks of the far outback. Sateda wasn't the most advanced planet in the galaxy, but it had plenty of contact with those that did freely travel the stars, and even had access to some of the big interplanetary news services. Anyone could see that red line inching their way. No one had much doubt what their arrival would herald, either, for everyone had seen the images from the colony on New Seledon, or more recent ones that flowed out of the war zone as disaster relief groups, journalists, and scavengers traveled to attacked worlds by ship and stargate. If most of the galaxy had been fine with ignorance when only pre-industrial worlds were being threatened, they were now more than making up for it with a combination of genuine concern, panic, and enlightened self-interest.
On Sateda, they did what they could to prepare. Military enlistment soared and local defense militias were reformed and retired soldiers called back to service to lead them. Their space-based forces consisted of a few primitive fusion-powered rockets, but they seeded the planet's orbits with nuclear-tipped missile satellites. On the ground, anti-aircraft defenses were built up, ranging from highly sophisticated radar networks linked to powerful missile and artillery batteries to millions of man-portable rockets and point-defense guns. Bunkers were built to house the populations of their cities so that the darts could not reach them. In the skies, men like Squadron Leader Reodel Tarn practiced daily in their fighters, some of them refurbished ships that had been pulled out of mothballs and were older than their pilots.
It was, Tarn sometimes thought, one of life's darker ironies. He had signed up with the Air Force mostly because women loved pilots, because it was a good way to get into the space program, and most of all because it was safe. He didn't want to be one of those poor bastards slogging around the swamps of Calodon when the separatists decided to get uppity again. It appeared that the infantry were going to get the last laugh, though, because while they got to sit in bunkers and well-fortified anti-air sites, he would be flying up in the air with hordes of advanced alien space fighters. Casualties, the wing commander had dryly informed them, were expected to be high. He was rated a good enough pilot that he was flying one of the new fusion-powered Raptors, but he had a suspicion that would just make him a more appealing target compared everyone else.
When Tarn came into the Officer's Club after one grueling day-long session in the air — his ship could go for three months without refueling, a fact that his sadist commander delighted in — he found several of his fellow pilots clustered around one of the large video displays. He wandered over to see if there was a game on, as impending planetary destruction had not reason enough to cancel the Planetary Cup. Instead he found the President, several generals, and a Lantean woman in uniform holding a press conference.
"What's up?" Tarn asked, flopping into a chair.
"It sounds like the balloon's about to go up," Carvus Par said. "That's Field Colonel Teyla Salatrix. Apparently she's commanding a Lantean unit sent here, and while they haven't said anything yet I can't imagine they'd be here unless the Wraith are close behind."
"A Field Colonel, her?" Tarn said. She didn't look like a high-ranking, battle-hardened soldier, more like one of the women he'd been trying to score with the weekend before, but maybe that was normal for Lanteans. It was also a bit odd that she was a she, given that the Lantean Ground Force was mostly infantry, but then Lanteans were weird that way too. Tarn didn't have anything against women in the service, but they belonged in a plane or tank, not out slowing down the troops.
"Yep. Apparently she's been in the fight right from the start. What's weird is that no one's said what unit she's with, or where her troops are."
"Oh, wonderful. If they're sending in the Ground Force that probably means no ships, which means nothing to keep the Wraith away." Tarn shook his head. "You want my guess, it's probably for show. They'll probably set up some kind of anti-aircraft system in Seledon so they can show that they care about the planets that aren't in their space coalition and let the rest of the provinces take it up the ass."
Tarn listened to what the politicians and brass were saying for a few minutes, but none of it was worthwhile. It was more or less the same platitudes as usual, how Sateda was strong and would weather the storm and how the Field Colonel was going to be such as a great help. Tarn didn't doubt they'd survive, with or without outside help, but that didn't mean they weren't going to take a beating. As the week sped by he soon forgot about it entirely. If there was any secret plan to save the planet, no one was sharing it with anyone at his level. Chances were that there were civilian conspiracy theorists who knew more than he did, if only by accident.
Then the Wraith arrived.
They were awakened a few hours before dawn by the wail of sirens and scrambled from the barracks to the ready rooms to suit up and get their mission instructions. It seemed as good as time as any to Tarn; in all honesty, he was getting a bit tired of waiting.
"Just under an hour ago, our deep space monitoring station detected a fleet of starships approaching in hyperspace," Wing Commander Ret told them when they were assembled for their final briefing. "The Lantean liaison officer identified them as being four Wraith hive ships with twelve escorts. There has been no sign that they intend to break off and hit anywhere else, and it seems unlikely given that they have hives with them. Therefore we are now going to full alert status and the President has declared martial law. The Wraith will be arriving in roughly two hours and we do not know where they will strike, but we will be launching all available planes and evacuating the base. There is a good chance they may attempt to eliminate the airstrips from orbit, so I want you all to make sure that you've got the location for the secondary landing sites. Fighter Command is going to do the best they can to keep you updated on where you can put down, but there's no guarantee they'll be able to stay on the air. Beyond that, there's not much I can say right now that you're probably not tired of hearing. Just trust your instincts, stick to your wingmen, and kill some of the bastards. Good hunting."
They filed out and took to the planes. Tarn's squadron was the first to launch, simply because it could loiter in the air the longest, and soon they were followed by hundreds of others. It was an incredibly impressive sight, with over a hundred jets within the space he could see alone. They didn't stay that way for long, each squadron splitting up and heading different directions, so that the Wraith would have no single target and to improve reaction time as best as they could.
After an eternity, the radio crackled to life. "All units, this is Fighter Command West. Wraith ships have entered orbit and are launching fighters. Probable target is Karsedon or nearby towns. All units in Zone West-Three are to converge on —"
The message was interrupted by a sudden burst of static that coincided with bright flashes overhead, almost certainly the orbital nukes firing off. Moments later there was a Wraith response in the form of a bright blue bolt that smashed into the earth somewhere off to Tarn's port side. He didn't have to consult his charts to figure out that the massive tower of smoke was over what had been the airbase only moments before. Here and there on the horizon he saw other bolts falling, thankfully none near the hidden airstrips that they were supposed to return to.
"Repeat, all units in West-Three converge and stand by."
"You heard them, boys," Wing Commander Ret said. "Let's got get them."
Tarn twisted his plane around and opened up his throttle to maximum. Almost immediately he and his squadron left the other conventional jets behind, their fusion-powered ramjets far out-performing the older ships. They were not the first to reach the environs of the city, though, for there were other units stationed closer. He could see jets of all sorts, from interceptors to fighter-bombers to armed trainers and stunt planes. Flying relatively low and slow were even old piston-prop planes from the First Unification War that someone must have pulled out of a museum.
His sensors pinged then as relayed data from the air defense scanners arrived, showing waves of fighters descending from above. They were approaching fast, but not incredibly so, perhaps to avoid damaging themselves on reentry. They would be in missile range in less than a minute.
Off to the east, a heavy SAM battery launched a volley of missiles up at the darts. Most struck their targets, but before another set could be fired a shot from orbit obliterated the battery. Then the darts were leveling out and swooping in toward the city.
"Gold squadron, Gold lead," Tarn said. "Enter into attack formation and link firing computers. We'll open up with hammerheads as soon as they're in range."
His trigger finger itched by he held steady as they drew closer and closer. They didn't even seem to be trying to maneuver or evade at all. Finally the computer sounded the lock tone and he fired, launching his entire payload of radar-guided missiles. All around him his squadron did the same, and beyond them other ships let fly as well, each missile assigned a separate target by their interlinked firing controls. Easily a hundred darts exploded as the projectiles struck home. The rest did not so much as pause or twitch, and seconds later the darts were mixing in with the human fighters and firing their own weapons.
The battle quickly dissolved into a chaotic furball, utterly beyond the ability of anyone to keep control of. Darts fell by the dozen, whether they were hit by heat-seeking missiles, the latest and most powerful railguns, rotary autocannon, or even simple machine guns, amazingly fragile for such advanced spacecraft. Or perhaps not so amazingly, because for every ship that was downed two more took its place and the Wraith seemed to have no care for the losses they were taking. Humans were falling as well, in lesser numbers, yes, but they had fewer ships in the air to begin with. Tarn's wingman went down in the first five minutes because for all that the Wraith were vulnerable even the most advanced human planes were equally threatened by the Wraith energy weapons. Inexorably they seemed to be getting further and further from the city they were supposed to protect, even as more darts began dropping from the skies above and completely bypassing the battle.
Tarn was forced to break away all too soon, because his ship had unlimited fuel but decidedly less ammunition. His missiles ran out first then he spent his last railgun slugs fighting his way out of the combat zone. He pushed his engines past their limits and streaked for one of the bases in the nearby mountains, desperate to reload so he could get back to the fight. A couple of the Wraith seemed to have other ideas, perhaps because his was one of the few top-of-the-line planes left, and soon he was dodging fire from a pair of darts following close behind him. A sudden volley of fire from a flak cannon below knocked the Wraith from the air, but the leading shots were a little too close, and Tarn's ramjet made a horrible noise as it ate something it really shouldn't have.
"Well, this is embarrassing," he muttered to himself as the engines automatically shut down to keep the entire plane from exploding. Trying to restart caused even more red lights to start flashing on his display and more warning buzzers to go off. He was high enough and fast enough that he could still maneuver a little and aim himself in mostly harmless direction, but there was nothing but forest and fields for miles and there was way he was going to reach even so much as sufficiently flat and straight road to put down on before he hit the ground. He waited as long as he could, hoping to see somewhere to ditch, but in the end he had to reach back and pull the eject levers.
Being shot out of a plane by what was essentially a small rocket was definitely a new experience. The shock of it left him a little dazed but he managed to aim his parachute toward a nearby field. He pulled off what was, in his opinion, a textbook-perfect landing. Unfortunately, textbooks rarely had anything to do with actual lumpy fields full of some kind of bean, and his foot caught on something as he hit the ground. His ankle didn't seem sprained, but as he limped toward a nearby road it hurt like a bitch.
Tarn started to make his way in the direction of the base, hoping that if nothing else there might be a spare plane there, or even just a gun. He didn't get far, because a few minutes later the side of a nearby hill suddenly exploded in a shower of dirt, rocks, and small trees. Emerging from beneath it was a huge tank of some kind, rolling along on several sets of treads. It was easily sixty yards long and a dozen wide, with ports and turrets dotting its flanks. On top of it a massive turret swiveled and aimed some kind of weapon to the side. It fired with a blinding flash and a deafening clap of thunder. He felt the tank move again more than anything, and by the time he could see and hear again it was sitting just a few yards away with a hatch open in its side.
"Please step inside immediately," a voice said. "There are darts approaching and several ships are preparing to fire on this location."
Tarn didn't need to be told twice and he scrambled in. He found himself in a small, circular compartment that held three low acceleration couches in a triangle. Occupying the front chair was a stunningly beautiful woman. He recognized her, of course, just as anyone else would have; the picture of Field Lieutenant Chaya leading a child through the wreckage was one of the iconic images from the attack on New Seledon.
"Please sit down," Chaya said, glancing away from the broad screen that made up the entire forward wall. "We may experience some shocks shortly."
"Uh, yes, ma'am," he said, quickly doing so. Restraints emerged from the chair and a moment he was held down snugly. A console unfolded as well, but he had no idea what any of controls did and he decided to touch nothing but the armrest. "Squadron Leader Reodel Tarn, 121st Squadron. Thanks for picking me up."
"Field Captain Chaya, Dinochome Brigade," Chaya replied. "It was no trouble at all. You were there when we moved, so there was no reason not to do so."
"Still, thanks." Something went thump and Tarn looked upwards. "What was that?"
"An impact on the theater shield this vehicle is now projecting. The Wraith have begun returning fire against us."
"You mean there's a warship firing on us?" Tarn said, his voice a little closer to a squeak than he would have liked when trapped in a small space with a woman.
"Yes," Chaya said. For a moment there was a hint of a smile on her face. "Exciting, isn't it?"
"Lord and Lady," he said faintly. "What is this thing?"
"A Bolo-type Mark XXX Planetary Siege Unit. Don't worry, we're designed to engage ships in orbit, and they'll be gone before they pose much of a threat. Our ion cannon and drones are quickly eliminating them."
"Oh." Tarn looked at one of the displays. One showed what he guessed was orbit, where red icons were disappearing one by one. Several green ones were scattered across the planet's surface. Another had the local situation on it, including the nearby battle, and there to red dots were disappearing by the dozen. "I had no idea that this kind of thing existed."
"We haven't deployed them for nearly twenty thousand years," Chaya said. "With so few ships, we've had to come up with alternative methods of engaging the Wraith." Before he could ask the next logical question, she apologetically added, "We only waited so long to fire because we had to be sure we could get the hiveships in a single volley. Otherwise they might have escaped and attacked other worlds."
"Better late than never, I guess." Tarn waited a minute, not wanting to distract her, but he couldn't help but ask, "Aren't tanks a little low-tech for you people? I would have thought you'd have something that could fly."
"Oh, it can fly, but it's slow and the treads are much more efficient. Using them allows us to stay mobile while still reserving power for weapons and the shield. They're really quite amazing machines, especially the intelligences that control them. It's capable of fully independent operation. All I need to do is tell it where to go and who to kill."
"Huh." He waited another minute, then asked, "So, what do you going to be doing when you get off duty?" Chaya gave him an odd look, and he hastily added, "Sorry. I'm a bit out of it. I got shot down, you know."
"Yes, I saw that. I have no plans… at the moment. For now, however, if you would be so kind as to order your comrades to break off from the fight so we might have a clearer shot at the darts, I would appreciate it."
It wasn't exactly how Tarn had imagined his day going, but he supposed that there were worse endings.
Commodore Hallen Trivasset was not having a good day. His ship's number two turret was still having trouble with its rotation mechanism, the Ji Sukan had completely failed to appear at the rendezvous coordinates, and a small Wraith fleet was heading their way. It would be the first time that their part of the Coalition Grand Fleet engaged the Wraith. There had already been some battles on the other side of the galaxy, the largest of which had involved almost a hundred ships. In some cases, the humans had been victorious, in others they had not. From the after action reports, they were fairly evenly matched, and it often came down more to numbers than any particular tactics. Hopefully that would change as the fleet began to learn how the Wraith thought and acted. They couldn't afford to trade the Wraith ship for ship.
"Signal from the flag for you, sir," one of the bridge technicians said, breaking into Trivasset's thoughts.
"Put it though."
Admiral Talyit, the fleet's Genii commander, appeared on one of the bridge screens. "Commodore Trivasset. It appears that the Wraith have decided to grace us with their presence."
"Indeed it does, ma'am," Trivasset replied. "The Ji Sukan, on the other hand, have not. Do you intend to engage anyways?" They had a considerable force on hand already, but the Ji Sukan were supposed to be arriving with at least two battle squadrons and several escorts. They could increase the firepower of the fleet by perhaps a quarter or more.
"If we sit around waiting for them, we'll never get anything done," Talyit said. "No, I feel confident about this. We have enough forces deal with this fleet, and right now we might still have some small measure of surprise on our side. They won't be expecting resistance in this part of the galaxy."
"I agree, ma'am."
"And of course, if we do retreat in our first battle, I'd rather it be here, over a relatively unimportant planet instead of one of the coalition worlds. You don't go straight to the final round of the Galactic Cup without playing a few practice games."
Trivasset nodded. It was a harsh statement but true. They needed a chance to mold their rag-tag fleet into a more cohesive whole, and drills would only go so far. "What are your orders, ma'am?"
"We'll go with Defense Plan Gamma. You'll take the BatRon Two into a higher orbit and swing around the planet, and I'll remain in low orbit with One and Three. When the Wraith jump in, we'll be in position to come at them from two directions and get them in a crossfire. If we can't even pull off a maneuver as simple as that, we may as well fly our ships into the sun and be done with it." Talyit smiled wryly. "If we're very lucky, we might even manage to pin them without any escape vectors, but for now I'll settle for just not hitting each other."
"I understand, ma'am. We'll move into position immediately." When the transmission cut off, Trivasset turned to his officers. "Squadron orders. All ships are to enter battle formation and prepare to change orbit."
As they swung around to the planet, the human ships began to form up. They were of numerous sizes and classes, drawn from Star Navies, Space Fleets, and Aerospace Forces from around the galaxy. At the core were five Athosian Valiant-class fast battleships arrayed in an X formation, each one almost a mile long and the newest ships to come out of the spacedocks. Before the coming of the Wraith, they would have been among the most powerful non-Lantean ships in the galaxy, and they remained larger than almost anything but a Lantean battleship or Wraith hive. Four more Athosian heavy cruisers flew ahead of them, accompanied by several destroyers. The Athosians were the largest part of this squadron, but they were far from the only ones. Four Dorandan battlecruisers accompanied them, smaller and less advanced but still as large as a Wraith cruiser and hopefully at least their equals. Then came even more ships flying in escort and fire support positions: Cortessian gunships, Soluan missile destroyers, Tarkonsi battle carriers, and many others. Some had advanced energy weapons, some carried complex robotic missile buses that in turn carried independent submunitions, and some had only railguns and nuclear weapons. Many of the smaller ships were the best their worlds had to offer despite their primitive technology. Luckily, Wraith ships had no real shields, only the most basic of anti-meteor and anti-radiation fields, meaning even simple kinetic weapons could be useful, and if nothing else they could screen the larger ships from Wraith darts and scout-bombers.
Battle Squadron Two was halfway around the planet when the subspace transmission came informing them that the Wraith had arrived and that the rest of the fleet had engaged them. Their position worked in their favor: thanks to telemetry from the rest of the fleet, Trivasset could maneuver his ships into precisely where they would have the most advantage, while the Wraith could not see them through the concealing bulk of the planet.
They came over the horizon and found the fleet and Wraith locked in battle. The humans were lower, between the planet and its would-be raiders. They were exchanging heavy fire, some from a distance and some at only a few kilometers, the space equivalent of knife range. Two Wraith cruisers were lifeless husks and a third was listing as its engines misfired, but an equal number of human capital ships were shattered and numerous escorts were little more than scattered debris. Squadron Two's long-range ships fired as soon as they had a line of sight, sending missiles, railgun slugs, and particle beams directly into the rears of the Wraith ships. It caught the Wraith completely by surprise and the weapons struck their most vulnerable areas, the engines and launch bays. Immediately some of the cruisers turned and started to fire on their newest opponents.
"Missile and carrier divisions break off on a vector of two-seven-nine," Trivasset ordered, wanting to keep them at a distance where they could take advantage of their superior range. Around him the lights occasionally flickered and distant thumps were heard as Wraith fire hit the Victory and her own weapons replied. "All other ships, engage the enemy more closely."
The battleships and escorts flung themselves at the Wraith, spreading out to surround them on all axes and cut off escape routes. The first ship to fall was a corvette that was smashed apart by a single Wraith shot. The Pride of Tallis had been a ship so small that in the Athosian fleet it would barely have rated as a police corvette, but none the less had been a major contribution by its homeworld's standards. It was not alone, soon joined by several destroyers and frigates, until the Athosian battleship Fearless was dealt a mighty blow and broke apart amidships. The Wraith suffered too, though, their darts shot down by the hundreds and their cruisers crippled one by one, until the last two survivors tried to escape. Only one safely made the transition to hyperspace, the other caught just as it opened its window by a spread of multi-gigaton missiles from one of the most primitive ships in the fleet.
"Congratulations, ladies and gentlemen," Trivasset said to his crew with a slowly spreading smile. "Let's not get too celebratory just yet, though. I want those last darts mopped up so that we can get our search and rescue birds in the air, and a damage report from all ships. It'd be a bit embarrassing if one of those fighters crawls up our ass and blows us apart at the last minute."
Despite his words he was definitely celebrating inside, and that only grew as the scope of their victory became clear. The toll had been heavy, yes, especially among some of the smaller and less advanced ships, but they had managed to almost completely annihilate an equal Wraith fleet for much lighter losses.
Then, an hour later, a message arrived.
"We just received a coded communication from Athos, sir," Trivasset's flag commander said quietly, so that only he could hear. "One of our merchant ships has reported a massive assault on one of the Genii core worlds."
"What?" Trivasset shook his head. "But there aren't any Wraith ships within a thousand light-years of any of those planets."
"I know, sir. According to the report, it looks like it was the Ji Sukan."
And with that, all his hard-won joy turned to ashes.
Star Colonel Lorne was having a bad day. Breakfast had been late because the dish cleansing machine in the mess had somehow flooded two corridors and thirteen compartments with water and a cleaning agent that had proved remarkably effective at dissolving clothing. The hyperdrive was glitching again, just like it had been since they had left the shipyard without a proper test cruise, and as a result they had dropped out of hyperspace half a million kilometers off-course, nearly hit a moon, and failed to catch the Wraith ships they had been after. As if that hadn't been enough, they had then been forced to divert from their planned patrol in order to rescue a bunch of idiots who thought cruising around a war zone in civilian ship was fun and exciting. Now, in true human fashion, the Ji Sukan had chosen to turn back the civilization clock a few thousand years and take part in the grand old tradition of blood feud, jeopardizing the entire plan to get the human worlds working together. It was enough to make even a man as calm as Lorne scream, or it would be if Lorne were not given to calm, but deadly quiet rather than rage.
"I want to make sure I have this straight," Lorne said to his executive officer, Brevet Captain Parrish. "The Ji Sukan, having cooperated with the Coalition so far, have not only failed to get their ships to their assigned and agreed-upon stations, but those ships were instead formed into a battle fleet which even now is above Genoa Secunda."
"That's what the message from Corps Command says, yes," Parrish said, handing over a data slate with the exact details. "It looks like they may have underestimated the planetary defenses, but there are reports of heavy damage. There have been other attacks on planets throughout Quadrant 37."
"I'm not even sure there's a word for this." Lorne could see the already-shaky Coalition falling apart any moment as word started to spread, as everyone started to scramble back to their homes. It would be a disaster.
"Treason sounds like a good starting point," Parrish suggested helpfully. "Perfidy and treachery work, too."
Lorne scrolled through the information quickly. The attacks had begun only hours before, which almost certainly suggested they were timed to coincide with an anticipated Wraith attack in Quadrant 51, where a significant Genii squadron was located. The Genii had contributed a huge portion of their mobile fleet to the Coalition, either because of genuine feelings of solidarity or because they would rather fight far, far from their own worlds. Many of those ships had come from the fleets protecting their outer colonies, especially those in the contested zone. Now their old enemies had taken advantage of their weakness to recover old losses. Not only was it treacherous in the extreme, but it was a flagrant violation of galactic law.
A cold smile appeared on Lorne's face as he reached the end of the briefing. It contained a simple and direct order, straight from Supreme Commander Scipio and the High Council. He was to take two escort ships, destroy any Ji Sukan ship outside of their own space, and then impose whatever sanctions on the Ji Sukan as he determined was necessary to insure that no one else would try a similar action and reinforce confidence in the Coalition.
He was quite sure he could manage that.
"Set a course for Genoa Secunda," Lorne ordered. "Then get me a channel to Fretus and Vindicator. I'll want them to hit the fleets around the colonies."
It took just over two hours at full power to reach Genoa Secunda. They weren't there for long, popping into the system just long enough to demand the Ji Sukan surrender, wait to see if there was a reply, and then completely annihilate the entire attacking force. Then, after dropping off a lieutenant with a gateship to make sure the Genii didn't kill all the survivors, they continued straight on to Sukan itself.
They dropped out of hyperspace a fair distance from the planet and cruised in at a leisurely pace.
"Lieutenant Lacastia, please start broadcasting across all frequencies," Lorne told his ops officer as they approached. "I want everyone in the system to hear me."
"Channels open, sir."
"Attention all foreign vessels within the Sukan system, this is the Monitor Ship Hippofaralkus. This system is now under a Corps interdict. You are ordered to leave with all due haste or face prosecution. Hippofaralkus, clear."
Sukan was a major transport hub and no doubt there were hundreds, even thousands of foreign-flag starships of various sizes scattered throughout the system. They would all soon be scrambling to get away, not just because of the possibility of prosecution, fines, or even seizure, but because they had to know there was a chance the Ji Sukan might react poorly to having their capital system's international trade cut off. Lorne had no intention of bothering them at all, unless they were stupid enough to get in the way.
"Have we received any transmissions yet?" he asked after a minute.
"No, sir. Well, not from the government, but plenty from ships begging our forgiveness."
"I figured." Lorne opened the channels again. "This is a message from the Monitor Corps, acting with the full authority of the High Council of Atlantis, to the Republic of the Ji Sukan. You are ordered to immediately turn over your cabinet ministers and military high command pending an investigation into charges of waging unauthorized aggressive warfare and other crimes against interstellar law. Failure to signal compliance within the next ten minutes will result in the destruction of all military assets in this system. Be warned that your force attacking the Genii has already been destroyed. Hippofaralkus, clear."
Standing next to Lorne's chair with his arms crossed, Parrish asked, "Think they'll go for it?"
Lorne snorted. "What do you think?"
"I don't know, I'm just a botanist who took a crash course in ship command. I never bothered with all that history and diplomacy stuff."
"In a word? No."
Six minutes later, they received a transmission and Foreign Minister Ilsedi appeared on a screen. "This is an outrage!" she shouted. "By what right do you have to come here to our planet and threaten us?"
"Galactic law gives me that right," Lorne said calmly. "Also, about thirty million tons of battleship. What gives you the right to attack the Genii?"
"We were only reclaiming what rightfully belongs to us. Those are our planets, and our people, whether Atlantis wishes to recognize that or not."
"And Genoa Secunda?"
"We had no intention to seize that world, only make sure that they could not strike us yet again."
"Mmm, I see." Lorne nodded. "Here's the thing, though. There are rules and laws for how to declare a war, and you didn't follow them. You also seem to have chosen to attack when the Genii were busy trying to fight the Wraith, which in my book seems a lot like treason against your entire species. I'm not too happy about that. Still, I'll give you one more chance to surrender, and if you do I'll leave the rest of your military intact."
"Never!" The transmission cut off.
"Well, that could have gone better," Parrish said. "Looks like there defense grid has activated, and there's several squadrons of ships entering attack formation."
There were fifteen capital ships in the system, plus several dozens smaller ships and numerous defense stations ranging from huge fortresses to single-shot laser satellites. It was impressive, for a human world, but Lorne was not terribly worried after years of fighting the Wraith.
"Think they'll fire first?"
"I doubt it."
"Me too. We'll give them until the end of the deadline to change their minds. Lieutenant Anguis, please start choosing targets. Try to conserve our drones; I'd like to have some left over if possible. Helm, we'll make a single fast pass from high orbit." Seconds slid past, until finally the ten-minute deadline was crossed. Lorne gave them another minute, just in case their clocks were using some odd non-standard time units, and then said, "Okay, screw 'em. Engines ahead full, all batteries open fire."
The Ji Sukan never stood a chance. Their shields may as well not have even been up, for all the effectiveness they had at stopping drones and phased particle beams. Their weapons, even the heavy cannons on the fortress stations, barely did more than make Hippofaralkus' shields glitter and glow for a few moments before return fire tracked back to the sources. It was a slaughter not unlike what might happen if a crazed dire bear was dropped into a nest of seal pups. Five minutes after the attack started, every Ji Sukan military station and ship around the planet was so much scrap. The only things left in orbit were Hippofaralkus and a cloud of rapidly fleeing civilian ships.
"This was refreshingly straightforward," Parrish remarked as they took up a stationary position over the planetary capital. "Was it always like that before the Wraith?"
"Not really," Lorne said. "They were never stupid enough to get to this point. Speaking of which, channel to the planet, please. Attention, Ji Sukan. In thirty minutes, I intend to destroy all of your planet-side military bases and surface-to-space weapons. You have until then to evacuate them."
A few seconds later, Ilsedi was on the screen once again. Her face was much paler now. "Star Colonel, please, you can not do that. You would leave us defenseless!"
"Yeah, I know. That's sort of the point, really. Oh, and if you and the rest of the cabinet don't surrender by that thirty minute deadline, I'll also start targeting shipyards and other industrial centers."
"We will not submit ourselves to Lantean mind-wipes!"
Lorne rolled his eyes. "Please. You'll be given fair trials, and psych adjustment only tweaks your personality a little. It's hardly as crude as a mind wipe. Twenty-nine minutes, by the way."
Ilsedi's eyes narrowed. "You have an embassy on this world which —"
"Will remain intact and its inhabitants unharmed," Lorne finished for her. "Or I'll turn your largest city into slag."
After a moment she closed her eyes. "Very well. We will be outside the Parliament building in fifteen minutes, awaiting your shuttle."
"Thank you, Minister. Your cooperation will be noted. Hippofaralkus, clear." Lorne turned to Parrish. "And that, my friend, is how I wish diplomacy always worked. Fast, easy, and to the point."
"I don't think diplomacy is supposed to involve quite so many explosions."
"Whatever," Lorne said with a shrug. "Have Field Captain Carex take two gateships down and retrieve their government. If they cooperate, we'll hold our fire and not hit the bases."
"Showing a little mercy, are we?"
"We can afford to. It'll make us look magnanimous, and leave them with enough defenses that they won't be easy picking for the Wraith."
A few hours later, the situation had stabilized considerably. What was left of the Ji Sukan military had withdraw to their own planets, and a garrison ship had arrived carrying peacekeeping troops and a State Bureau team to conduct formal investigations into responsibility for the war. Under the circumstances it was almost certain they would pick a couple of scapegoats to blame and let the rest of the country off easily, with only minimal reparations to the Genii. It would leave both sides with some measure of dignity and allow them to get back into fight against the Wraith all that sooner.
The biggest problem with the entire war, Janus had long since decided, was that most of his fellow Lanteans were incompetent. Those who weren't were hamstrung by those who were. The Monitor Corps was a microcosm of society. The officers and enlisted soldiers of the expeditionary forces were quite intelligent, but they were the elite and in Janus' experience the far more numerous members of the Civil Defense militias seemed barely able to walk and hold a conversation at the same time. It was even worse with the rest of Lantean society, where natural selection didn't come into play nearly as often. It wasn't even people like the artists, service workers, or support technicians who were the biggest problems, because few of them claimed to be really brilliant and even the most extravagant artists consumed relatively few important resources. Instead it was the higher-level engineers and scientists that were the worst. There were a few people like Janus who knew what they were doing and could produce quality results, a few more that were decent enough with some supervision, and a great many who thought they were the most brilliant scientists to ever live but were demonstrably idiots. Maybe some of them were good at a particular field, although Janus doubted it, but they reached far past their own competencies and fell flat on their faces without even realizing it. All they managed to accomplish was suck up power, materials, and technical staff and occasionally produce strange and useless technology.
It was all horribly depressing, really. It didn't help that even his lab staff seemed to have become lazier than normal recently.
"Rhaebus," Janus said, looking across his public lab at his chief technician, "are you actually doing anything, or are you just staring out the window?"
"Waves," Rhaebus said idly.
Janus resisted the urge to sigh and gently said, "That doesn't answer my question."
"Hmm? Oh." Rhaebus shook his head and turned to look at Janus. "I was thinking."
"Thinking about the new flux regulators that you're supposed to be designing, I hope," Janus said. Rhaebus was one of the few people allowed into Janus' other lab, where they were working on what he believed would be a device to instantly end the war. Unlike the other Lanteans Janus had been thinking about, Rhaebus was definitely very, very good at his job. Not brilliant at basic research and theory like Janus, no, but when it came to turning physics principles and complex design demands into practical reality, there were few better.
"Those? No, those are all done and are scheduled for one of the south pier A-gates tomorrow." Rhaebus pointed out the widow. "I was just looking at the ripples on the shield. They're interesting."
Janus looked himself but didn't see any ripples, or really much of anything at all except the occasional silhouette of a passing flagecallus. "Ripples?"
"I think they're being caused by variations in the ocean current and field power at different parts of the shield."
"I don't see anything."
"Really? They're pretty obvious." Rhaebus shrugged. "There's something about them that's sitting there just out of reach. I'd swear that they're connected to the special project, but I can't quite grasp how."
"Special project?" Across the room, Janus' intern Talsia perked up. "We have a special project?"
"No, no special project," Janus said, aiming a silent glare at Rhaebus. What was the point of having a secret lab and a secret project if the intern that Science Bureau Personnel had assigned to him for ascended-knew what reason found out about it? Janus was half convinced that one of his rivals had arranged for the internship, both to slow him down and insure that any ideas he had would be blabbed across half the galaxy.
"Sorry, boss," Rhaebus said. "I've been feeling a bit fuzzy lately. I think it might be this new meditation style that I'm trying out."
"Oh, me too," a nameless tech said. "I can feel my inner energy just expanding each time I use it. I think I'm getting closer to ascension every day."
Several others nodded as well. Janus knew that there was no chance that what they were feeling was anything other than a placebo effect. Even Rhaebus, smart as he was, didn't have nearly the grasp of the universe's inner workings that Janus had, and he certainly wasn't anywhere near ascension. More likely it had something to do with lack of sleep, and possibly low blood sugar.
That last had a better than even chance of being true, now that Janus thought about it. "I'm going to run down to Macciano's to get something to a snack. Anyone want me to bring something back?"
After taking a few orders, Janus left the lab, took a transporter down to the base of the tower, and walked out onto the deck. It was a nice enough day outside, he supposed, well-lit by the glow of the shield and spotlights shining down from the buildings, which were carefully tuned to simulate sunlight. The problem was the every day was a nice enough day. There was no variation in the weather the city experienced while four kilometers under the ocean, just the same regulated temperature, the same light schedule, and the same artificial breezes. It was a bit oppressive, too, because past the shield was only pitch black water and the lights didn't really simulate an actual sky and an actual sun that well. It didn't help that Janus was well aware of just how quickly they would all be crushed or drowned if the shield faltered. Sometimes he wondered who's brilliant idea it had been to build the city out of advanced materials, but to not use windows that were rated for high pressure. It made perfect sense to submerge the city so that the Wraith wouldn't be able to determine its exactly location and snipe at it from afar, not to mention put a large amount of water between them and weapons optimized for draining the shield, but that didn't make it less creepy to a tiny part of him.
Janus reached his destination, a little café out on the northwest pier that was highly popular and had long been renowned for its fine pastries and other culinary delights. The dining services in Atlantis were starting to suffer just as much as the weather. The public market was all but bare of real ingredients these days, and even the finer restaurants were cutting back considerably on real fruits and vegetables. The interstellar trade for those goods was down considerably and the city's gardens couldn't supply nearly enough for everyone. The establishments that did still serve real food, like Macciano's, had been forced to dramatically raise prices. Oh, there was plenty of food to go around, but it all came out of cornucopia machines instead off of plants. While the food they produced was chemically identical to the real thing and in theory no one could tell them apart, especially when only the ingredients were made and then used for cooking, Janus found that simply knowing that they were fake significantly lessened the enjoyment he got. He supposed that was one of the best motivators for ending the war quickly — if his supply of real cacao ran out, he didn't know what he would do.
As he exited the transporter with a float-tray full of food and drinks tagging along behind him, Janus saw a strange light coming out of the open lab door. He groaned, wondering what piece of lab equipment someone had destroyed this time, and sped up his pace. By the time he reached the door, the light was gone.
So, for that matter, was his entire staff.
"Hello? Hello?" Janus said. There were no small piles of ash or anything like that on the floor, but that didn't mean they hadn't been vaporized. It was also possible they had been rendered invisible, or perhaps shrunk. He was very careful as he walked inside, not wanting to either be zapped himself or squish anyone.
After a few minutes of poking around, he found a note blinking on his computer. It read, "Janus, I have found the key to ascension. I am taking everyone else with me. Sorry to leave you behind. Also, the hyperspace inhibitor is fundamentally flawed. Do not attempt to use it. — Rhaebus."
"You can not be serious," Janus said to the empty room. "That's impossible. He couldn't possibly have really ascended." He looked out the door to see if they might be standing outside and having a nice laugh, but there was no one to be seen. Finally he checked the security logs and watched as Rhaebus turned into a glowing squid and then turn everyone else into one as well. It was astoundingly poor taste, in Janus' opinion. If Rhaebus going to ascend, the least he could have done was wait until the final project was done, or even just for Janus to get back so he could come along too. If an intern deserved it, surely he did too.
Janus knew that it was going to be horrible mess to straighten out. He would have to recruit an entirely new research and support team, which would take months. His projects would all be stalled until then and thrown into complete chaos as he tried to bring the new people up to speed. He would almost certainly be the butt of jokes for weeks, too.
On the bright side, at least the wretch had finished the design for the last component of Janus' great work. Once they were manufactured, he could easily handle that last installation himself. Quickly he decided that his best course of action would be to put off the trouble of finding a new staff and focus on that project. Once it was done and successfully tested, Janus had no doubt that he'd have every physicist and engineer in Atlantis begging to assist him in any way, not to mention the undying gratitude of an entire galaxy.
Two days after the ascension incident, Janus loaded up the flux regulators and the master control unit into the back of his personal gateship and left the city, bound for one of his private off-world labs. He did not dial that gate directly, of course, but rather went through several intermediary gates in order to minimize the chance that anyone could follow him. The facility itself was on a cool, wet world that didn't even rate a name. It was located near the equator and on the opposite side of the planet from the gate, at a spot where the climate was reasonably warm. He and Rhaebus had built it using an automated construction system so as not to involve anyone else, and over the decades used it for numerous experiments involving high-energy physics that couldn't be done anywhere people lived, both for safety and privacy. Recently they had started to convert it for use in the inhibitor project, adding capacitors, field manipulators, and multiple new neutrino-ion generators to supply sufficient power without having to requisition a zero-point module and explain why they needed it. The most important pieces were a powerful subspace antenna and the master control unit that his jumper carried, which contained a highly specialized computer that would make it all function as desired.
The hyperspace inhibitor was a simple concept, really. If enough energy was pumped into hyperspace using the right kind of equipment, turbulence could be generated that could be dangerous to ships traveling through it. Some of Janus' colleagues had thought it would be a good way to defend planets and even come up with a workable method for creating the turbulence, but in practice generating a destructive bubble even a few light-seconds across could drain a zero-point module in only a few hours. The solution had come to Janus while he was working on long-range sensors to detect Wraith ships. Each race used hyperdrives with slightly different characteristics, including different operational frequencies. If the subspace antenna used to generate the turbulence could be fine-tuned to affect precisely the desired frequencies, then not only would the power requirements be far less, but only the targeted ships would be affected. With enough power, most of the galaxy could theoretically be covered by the jamming effect.
It was difficult to put into practice, of course, and even Janus, the galaxy's premier expert on hyperspace, had difficulty doing so. It had taken him years just to get the antenna designed to his satisfaction, and years more creating the special programming and computer system that would be required to precisely control the interactions of all the different static charges, power flows, and subspace fields that were involved. More than once he had been on the verge of giving up, only tomake another breakthrough.
Finally it was ready, though, and after a last diagnostic Janus activated the inhibitor at test power. The generators spooled up and the antenna began glowing. It started giving off electrical discharges as static built up, a result of unavoidable inefficiencies when dealing with subspace technology, and as designed the flux regulators absorbed them right back into the power system. The entire system was working beautifully and his sensors showed that the turbulence in hyperspace was forming just as expected.
Satisfied that there were no immediate problems, Janus called up the tracking system he had devised to watch Wraith movement. Although the Science Bureau's stellar observation network had suffered heavily in the war, it was still intact in patches here and there, and he had real-time access to the data from it as a member of the Bureau's Directing Committee. With a bit of fancy programming, he had found a way to use it to track Wraith ships without having to access the military's far more extensive sensor network, which would have been noted and possibly resulted in some pointed questions as to what he needed it for. It took a few minutes to locate some Wraith ships, but soon enough he had a decent enough sample at multiple locations around the galaxy. He took a deep breath, and then brought the inhibitor up to full operational power.
There was delay of several agonizingly long seconds as the effect spread. Then the Wraith ships started to wink out one by one.
"Oh, yes," Janus breathed. "I really am brilliant."
It took just a few minutes for a large portion of the Wraith ships were gone. Only those that weren't in hyperspace were left untouched, and the instant any of them tried to jump they would be destroyed. It was everything that he had hoped to achieve.
His excitement only grew over the next three days as he fine-tuned the device. There were some small kinks to work out, but they were only minor problems and he didn't even have to shut the system down for more than a few minutes here and there. The only thing he couldn't fix directly were the actions of the Wraith. Within a few hours they had obviously noticed something was wrong and stopped sending ships into hyperspace, or at least stopped sending the cruisers and hiveships he could see. That was a minor issue, though, and he wouldn't begrudge the Monitor Corps the pleasure of hunting down the stranded survivors and destroying them in detail.
When Janus was finally satisfied that everything was perfect, he took his gateship and flew back to the gate. He planned to contact the High Council and then bring them to the lab so that he could personally show them how he had just won the war for them. He suspected it might well be the best day of his life.
It wasn't until he dialed the gate that things started to go wrong.
The instant he hit the final key on the ship's dialing device, alarms started to blink on the HUD. There was an anomalous build-up of energy in the gate, coming from the wormhole itself. He tried to disengage it using both the standard and emergency overrides, but to his horror nothing worked. The gate was surging out of control toward a complete overload and catastrophic detonation. He spun the gateship around, fleeing first high into orbit to avoid the inevitable shockwave and then trying to get under the horizon to protect against directed radiation. He barely made it.
The gate's explosion was the equivalent of a dozen of high-yield naquadah bombs, hundreds of gigatons in strength. Everything within a hundred kilometers was incinerated instantly and a huge cloud of dust and ash was thrown into the sky. It was an effect like the impact of a small asteroid, and was almost certainly enough to send the already-cool planet spiraling into a long ice age.
Janus was in shock as he tried to figure out what could possibly have happened. He could think of only one thing that had changed since the last time he had used the gate, something that left him chilled to the bone. The instant he landed at his lab he rushed to the control room. He had been deliberately ignoring the link to the Lantean communications network, wanting to see everyone's shock first hand, but now he desperately trawled through the major news feeds. They were filled with panic over unexplained explosions on dozens, if not hundreds of planets, explosions that had started three days before. Janus did not know how or why, but he couldn't deny that his experiment was the cause.
He immediately shut the system down and put the entire building into long-term standby mode, sealing it up against the outside world. For a brief, mad moment he considered destroying the entire thing outright, but he couldn't quite bear to do it yet, and settled for disconnecting the control unit. Without that, no one could hope to use the inhibitor. Then he boarded his small personal yacht, which he had used to bring equipment that couldn't fit in a gateship, and set a course for Atlantis. He arrived a few hours later, jumping in close enough to Lantea that the Wraith picket at the edge of the system could not hope to intercept him. The city was in an uproar but he ignored everyone, sealing himself in his lab to try to figure what had gone wrong. He didn't emerge again until a guard showed up at his door to escort him to the council chamber.
For a moment Janus was terrified someone had discovered what he had done, but upon arriving he noted that no one seemed to be angry at him. There were several council members missing or replaced by people Janus did not recognize.
"Janus, thank you for coming," High Councilor Moros said. "Councilor Ardea is missing and you appear to be the senior member of your bureau in the city, so we could appreciate it if you would participate in her place for now."
"Ah, yes," Janus said, relief flooding through his body. "It would be an honor."
"That brings us to a full quorum, then," Moros said. "Before we begin, I think it would be appropriate to take a moment in thought our missing members. I know I speak for all of us when I say I hope they are well and merely out of contact."
Janus shifted uncomfortably in the silence.
After a few seconds, Moros continued. "As you all know, over the last three days stargates have been exploding all across the galaxy. While all Lantean gates were locked down within twenty hours of the initial detonation, there has been considerable loss of life. It has been even worse among the human worlds, most of whom never even received any warning. Councilor Saxeus, has any explanation been found?"
Saxeus shook his head. "No. All we know is that upon activation, the stargates at both ends begin experiencing a massive energy surge from the interface with the event horizon. Ninety to two hundred seconds later, they undergo a catastrophic overload. We've been unable to gather more data than that, for obvious reasons, although we are preparing to do a controlled test using gates placed in orbit of uninhabited planets. All I can say for sure is that at least three hundred gates have been destroyed, possibly far more."
Janus, seeing an opportunity, raised his hand. "Ah, actually, I do have some kind of explanation. I have been studying the phenomena closely, and I've noticed that the detonations coincide with an odd kind of static in hyperspace. My initial simulations show that the static could cause an energy buildup of the kind describe. However, testing would be difficult, because it ceased a few hours ago."
"Is there any possibility that this is a natural phenomena?" Ganos Lal asked.
"None whatsoever. It was far too specific and controlled in nature to be anything but artificial."
"Could the Wraith be responsible?"
A man in uniform shook his head and grimly said, "Not a chance. They use the gates as much as we do. Not only that, but we've seen their ships exploding left and right. Could your static explain that, Janus?"
"Ah… possibly, yes. I'd have to study it further."
"One of us did this, then," Moros said. "Certainly it wasn't the humans. Can you track the source?"
"I'll do my best, Councilor," Janus said. It was the best outcome he could ask for, a perfect chance to make sure that no one found his outpost by either obfuscating the search or blowing it up before anyone else could find it.
"Thank you. Star Colonel Johannes, what is our current military situation?"
Johannes shook his head. "Unclear, sir. The Wraith have been hurt, and hurt bad. They seem to have lost every ship in hyperspace, and that means a lot of them. We're bad off too, though. We've definitely lost Myrmidon Base, which means several ships in for refit and probably three or four entire Ground Force regiments. Supreme Commander Scipio and Field General Celaena were both present at well. Star General Ixion has taken command of the Corps. We're focused on damage control at the moment, so pressing an attack is probably impractical for now."
That didn't sound too bad to Janus. Awful, yes, but not a complete disaster.
Then Melia said, "Those aren't our only losses. We estimate over three million Lantean casualties." Janus, along with the rest of the council, stared aghast at her. That was easily half of their already-depleted population. "Given that most of us live near the gates, it's not surprising. We're doing what we can to find survivors," she went on, only the slightest hint of a quaver in her voice. "Human casualties are almost certainly in the tens of billions, if not now thn in the next few due to secondary effects. Hundreds of worlds were affected, including several highly populated industrial worlds."
It was then that Janus suddenly started to understand that this wasn't just another lab accident. Entire civilizations had been wiped out in an instant, and his own vastly reduced. It was a crime almost beyond imagining. He would have confessed on the spot had he been able to get a hold of himself enough to speak.
"It's even worse than you might think," Saxeus said, his deep voice cutting into Janus' dulled awareness. "Consider how our entire industrial system is set up. Our mines transport raw materials directly to industrial centers and shipyards. Every time one of them went through an automated dialing system, we lost both the mine and the destination, and if the mine tried to connect to a destroyed facility it automatically tried again with another one. We've lost most of our industrial capacity, including all capital shipyards. It's a miracle we didn't lose more than one city-ship, or even Atlantis itself. And it gets worse from there."
"How?" Melia said, echoing Janus' thoughts.
"The Phaeton Array has been destroyed. Think about how we create zero-point modules."
"Stargates," Janus answered dully. "A network of hundreds of miniature stargates, in close orbit of black hole, each tied to a matching gate on the Phaeton station. They're used to create the pocket universe at their cores and then charge them up. Powers above, the entire thing must have gone up like a supernova."
"It did," Johannes said. "We lost the entire defense fleet there, and a Corps ship sent to investigate confirmed a massive blast wave. In fact, we're probably going to have to evacuate or shield every inhabited system within two hundred light-years because of the radiation."
"We still have the ZPM-manufacturing systems on the city-ships, but they don't have nearly the output," Saxeus went on. "Our civilization-wide power capacity has dropped a thousand-fold. We're not going to have any ZPMs to spare, and things like A-gates are going to be difficult to keep running when we have to use the available modules for defenses."
Janus could see it all in his head. City-ships all possessed the necessary systems to make more power modules, but those machines were power-hungry themselves, barely produced ten percent more energy over what they took in, and were slow to boot. No ZPMs meant relying on only standard generators, which could produce similar amounts of energy over the long-term but no where near the peak power, which meant a lot of problems for high-power systems like city and planetary shields, heavy weapons platforms, assembler gates that instantly produced goods, and direct energy-to-matter replicators. The output of the remaining industrial centers would plummet as they fell back on slower manufacturing methods. Even worse, there would be more power needed for defense systems than ever, because the Wraith would have fewer targets to concentrate on once they recovered.
It was an absolute disaster beyond imagining. Janus couldn't pay attention at all to what the others were saying as the meeting continued, too caught up with trying to cope with the enormity of what he had done. In the space of a few days, he might have completely destroyed all hope of winning the war, maybe even destroyed civilization entirely in the long run, because he had somehow neglected to even think of the stargates when designing his wonder-weapon.
Now all he could think of was finding some way to fix his mistake. He didn't know how he would do it, but there had to be some way to do it, to make it all just go away as if it had never happened. He didn't think he could live with himself otherwise.
The war was lost with what was later code-named the Attero Incident. It did not end there, however. For a few brief years we enjoyed some small measure of superiority and the Wraith fell back into their core territory. However, by 1,200 they had effectively replaced their losses and begun to expand once more. They were bolder than ever, knowing that we were weak and unable to defend nearly as much space as before. By 1,215, most minor Lantean outposts had been largely abandoned, leaving only skeleton crews behind who could easily leave if threatened by overwhelming force. The majority of the remaining population and industrial power was concentrated in a few fortress worlds and city-ships, which the Wraith could not attack directly. Many of the more powerful human polities existed in a similar state, small bubbles of calm into which the Wraith only occasionally made probing attacks, instead focusing most of their attention on other less defended worlds. Essentially the Wraith were able to maneuver largely at will, outside of bubbles of Lantean and human control. The few non-humanoid aliens in the galaxy were, unfortunately, mostly exterminated; the Wraith seemed to have little tolerance for those they could not feed on but might be a threat.
This is not to say that we ceased to fight; in fact far from it. Battles continued to occur across the galaxy for decades, both in space and on land. The Monitor Corps, now largely reduced to a core of battle-hardened veterans, fought harder than ever, even as ships and regiments were lost one by one until only a handful remained. It would be impossible to fully document their efforts in the time I have allotted myself for writing this monograph, but should the reader have access to the Atlantis database, there are a number of useful texts within the historical archive regarding everything from major campaigns to the smallest squad-level battles. Suffice to say that they fought with an unparalleled valor, matched only perhaps by those humans who they worked with.
With that said, there was a sizable portion of the Lantean population that had decided that winning the war was impossible by conventional means. Instead, they turned their considerable resources to esoteric means of fighting or to other personal projects. The former occasionally turned up marginally useful technologies, such as a device used to create biological explosives in humans on worlds about to be culled, which would then detonate aboard Wraith ships. The latter largely focused on ways to artificially accelerate the process of ascension, with varying degrees of success and failure. The citizens and organizations involved in these personal projects all commanded considerable personal resources, from high scores in the reputation markets to personal spacecraft and labs to positions in the government, and so there was little the Council could do beyond encouraging them to put their efforts to more useful ends. Those of us still focusing on winning by realistic, conventional methods placed our hope and funding on two programs in particular. Project Soldat, based on Asuras, was a way to replace our waning manpower, and Project Arcturus, on Doranda, would provide a powerful new source of energy that could reduce our reliance on zero-point modules.
These projects represented the last hope most of us held. Already many said that it would be best to abandon Pegasus entirely. It was not an unreasonable suggestion. Even with the population mostly secure behind impenetrable defenses, our numbers were dropping rapidly in the face of a zero birth rate and a high number of ascensions and failed attempts to achieve that goal. In retrospect I believe it is what we should have done. By leaving Pegasus with city-ships and our surviving warships, our civilization might have been pulled back from the brink of collapse. Instead, when the decision was made, we ended up retreating to Avalon with only a handful of people and no real infrastructure….
Asuras was an out of the way planet in an uninteresting part of the galaxy. It was well out toward the galactic rim, where there were fewer habitable planets, and was quite unremarkable itself. It had several large continents full of life, but nothing particularly exotic, and until recently it had been completely uninhabited. In fact, as far as most of the galaxy was concerned, it was still was. Only a few hundred researchers, a small military garrison, and some construction technicians knew there was a facility there under heavy sensor-blocking shields. The only thing notable about the planet was that it had unusually large concentrations of a material colloquially called neutronium. It had nothing to do with the degenerate matter found in neutron stars, but instead was an especially neutron-rich and dense form of naquadah.
It was the isolation and the neutronium that brought the Lanteans there. The Wraith had no reason so suspect that anything might be on the planet and so their fleets bypassed it entirely. The researchers could thus conduct their experiments with nanotechnology and artificial intelligence without being hindered by either the Wraith or some of their own brethren, a few of whom had ethical concerns regarding the project. Their ultimate goal was to create a solution to one of the military's most pressing concerns: a lack of manpower. It took a minimum of thirty people to effectively operate an Aurora-class starship, and ideally three or four times that number for long-term missions. That wasn't even counting their troop complements. The situation was even worse for the Ground Forces, which got far fewer volunteers and had dwindled to a fraction of its former size. They had originally started looking into simple nanotech weapons and independently operating combat robots, until someone had gotten the idea to combine them into one highly flexible combat system. It was a fairly small step from there to making the individual soldati intelligent and self-aware. Ideally there would have been time to fully design a custom intelligence, but that could take decades to properly design and test. Instead they simply went with human personality uploads as a template and modified them to suit their purposes.
It had taken almost a decade to create a prototype series, but now they were almost ready to start a limited production run for field testing. All that needed to be done first was an inspection by the Monitor Corps — which, of course, meant the facility was now in a state of complete chaos, because with that day now at hand everyone suddenly remembered a thousand things they needed to do.
Helena was not among them, however. She had done all her work well ahead of time. Instead she spent the last few hours making sure the most important parts of the entire project were ready.
"Now, just remember, there's not really much to worry about here," she said to the others scattered around her lab. "You've all dealt with Captain Matisca and her staff and the officers coming aren't going to be very different. This review is essentially a formality, too, and there's very little chance that we're not going to get approval to begin field testing. All you need to do is act normally, be polite, and answer any questions truthfully. If you get confused about anything, I'll be with you the entire time to help."
"We understand," Natalia said with a soft smile. She paused for a moment, then added, "We all have the utmost confidence that the project will be approved for continuation."
"Remember, this is a social setting," Helena reminded them. "It's best not to speak for the group too much, or to be obvious about communicating with each other over the link. It can be unsettling."
"Of course. I'm sorry."
Natalia, or Sexta as she was officially designated, was one of the twelve test model soldati. Each one was a synthetic organism made of trillions of microscopic machines, linked together by a subspace network into a single, intelligent whole. They were supremely flexible, easily able to change shape at will, and in human form were much stronger than a Lantean and had near-infinite stamina so long as their power systems held out. While intended primarily as infantry, they could also serve as technical staff on a ship, or even become pilots, doctors, engineers, or almost anything else if given the proper training and knowledge base.
The original, now-defunct prototype unit had been a bland, featureless mannequin, but as the new models and their proposed descendants were meant to directly interact with people, they had been given the ability to appear human. The design staff had been responsible for choosing their current likenesses and there was considerable variation between them. Sexta and Octavia, for example, had been modeled in part on Helena's grandmothers in their youths. One was tall, thin, and a platinum blonde, while the other was shorter, dark-skinned, and had almond-shaped eyes. Primus and Secunda, on the other hand, appeared as an older man and woman, as Doctor Salmoneus believed it gave them a certain amount of dignity. They had also been given names: Oberoth for Primus, Natalia and Shara for Sexta and Octavia, Niam for Septimus, and so forth. Some of the staff had looked a bit askance at the practice, but in many ways the soldati were the children of the programming team and given that even ships had names it hadn't seemed too unreasonable.
The door to Helena's lab slid open and a man in a Monitor Corps uniform slipped inside, shooting a harried look back over his shoulder as he entered. He was tall, with messy hair and a faint beard. He looked somewhat surprised to see her and the soldati.
"Oh, sorry," he said. "I didn't know anyone was in here. Am I interrupting anything?"
"No, not at all," Helena said.
"Great. I just wanted to escape the official tour they've got waiting. Those things are always boring as hell. I'm John, by the way."
"Helena. It's nice to meet you."
"The head programmer?"
"Yes, I am," she confirmed. "Although programmer is perhaps a bit crude, given the level of mental development the soldati have. I'm a psychologist as much as anything else."
"That must be interesting." John looked at Natalia. "And who are you?"
"I'm Natalia," she said. "Soldat model Sexta."
"Really?" John's eyebrows went up. "I wouldn't have guessed. Would you mind introducing the rest of your… fellows? Siblings? I don't have a clue what terminology you use."
"Siblings would be an apt analogy," Natalia told him, before starting to introduce the rest. Helena was honestly a bit surprised that he was directly addressing them and even seemed genuinely interested in meeting them. Many of those outside the programming team heard the word 'machine' and would ignore them in favor of the Lantean staff. She supposed his job would necessarily make him good at dealing with all sorts of alien creatures.
"So, I've got to ask," John said after the introductions were finished. "You all seem to be reacting to what I say like a Lantean or human would, but is that real, or just a fancy user interface?"
"As real as it is with anyone else you might know," Natalia said. "We pass as sapient and sentient by all recognized test standards, at roughly human baseline. Our core cognitive models are all based on detailed human brain scans."
"We think and feel in much the same way a human would," Niam added, "although we're obviously not influenced by the same kind of physiological reactions and hormones."
"Huh." John glanced at Helena for confirmation.
"They're quite correct. At the core of their mental process are human psychology models, not full uploads but close enough to get the most essential parts," Helena explained. "Under that is a base code, which handles all the autonomic functions. There are a few tweaks, of course, such as the primary directives, but those simply adjust how they think and feel. It makes for a very flexible system."
"Interesting. So they have emotions, too."
"Yes, indeed, although they don't experience it quite the same way and sometimes have a hard time understanding why people feel the way they do. It's something we hope will be improved as they interact with more people, and of course we'll be making incremental improvements as the project continues."
John looked at the soldati. "What do you guys think about that? Incremental improvements, I mean."
Natalia frowned. "I don't understand."
"Do you mind having your thoughts messed with?"
"Not at all. It's simply how we are."
John frowned slightly but nodded. "That makes sense. What about fighting the Wraith? How do you feel about being sent out into combat?"
"We don't have a problem with it."
"Of course," Oberoth said firmly, speaking up for the first time. "It is, after all, our purpose, our entire reason for existence."
"It would be a relief to get out of here," Dianna, model Secunda, added with a tight-lipped smile. "In fact, I dare say that we will enjoy our jobs quite a lot."
Helena wasn't surprised at all that those two were the most eager. They were the oldest and their emotional processes weren't quite so developed, and so they seemed to feel everything stronger and more vividly than the newer models, especially the most basic feelings.
"All of the models have as part of the base code a strong aggressive instinct and compulsion to go into combat," Helena explained. "They can override it, of course, but it's quite a powerful drive."
John's eyes were a little narrower now, although he was still quite casual-sounding as he said, "A compulsion doesn't sound like it's quite the same as being genuinely interested."
Natalia hastily said, "It's not like that at all. We do want to contribute and make ourselves useful. The base drives simply give us a degree of direction."
"It's really nothing sinister," Helena told John. "When you get right down to it, it's like our own hindbrains. There are instincts very deeply rooted there for things like fight or flight, or libido. They have their own unique drives just as we do."
"I see." He still seemed a little skeptical but he let it drop anyways, instead asking, "So are these the only twelve you have? It's not going to be much of a test if that's the case."
"Not exactly. We'll be producing many copies of each one of them to send out. Within each model, individual units are capable of sharing experiences and memories, which will allow them to grow and learn at a much faster pace. Unfortunately sharing between models doesn't integrate quite as well, but they can share information if not necessarily full understanding."
"Many copies," John repeated. "I suppose that's one way to get around having to make a bunch of unique versions."
"If we get approval, we will also create a much larger number of second-line units, which will have more limited cognitive abilities and be focused purely on tactical combat. The existing twelve will function in a way similar to non-commissioned officers, relaying orders from above and using their superior intelligence to work out how best to fulfill the goals they're given. Eventually we'll use the twelve as a basis for creating more intelligent models, depending on how successful each one is in different roles."
"Can they make more of themselves?"
"At the moment self-replication beyond repair is locked out by their code, but they will have some limited ability create both new bodies and new minds eventually. We're keeping that carefully under control for the moment, due to treaty restrictions."
John bit his lip and seemed deep in thought for a minute. Finally he said, "I can't say that I'm completely thrilled with this. Some of it's a little creepy, especially the compulsion part. But I kinda like these guys, and we do need the manpower, so I think it's safe to say you'll be getting the okay to do a limited test run in the field over the next few months."
Helena frowned. "I'm sorry, who are you again?"
"I guess I didn't really introduce myself, did I? Johannes Veterator."
"The Supreme Commander," she said faintly.
John grinned at her. "Yeah. Believe me, I'm still as surprised as you are and I've been doing this job for years. Mostly because everyone who was senior to me died, ascended, disappeared, or just plain didn't want the position, but there you are."
"Oh." Helena couldn't believe she hadn't made the connection between the shortened name he had given and the dignitary they had been expecting. Somehow, she didn't think he had stumbled into her lab by accident, either, perhaps wanting to see the soldati without them or Helena knowing who he was. At least it seemed to have worked out fine, and she was confident that his doubts would soon be assuaged.
Metas Kar had once been home to a large and thriving civilization, right on the cusp of the industrial age. That time was long past now. Many of the great cities were little more than ruins, with a few scavengers huddling here and there in the rubble. The smaller towns, villages, and farmland were still intact for the most part, but everyone living in them knew that their reprieve was only a temporary one and could be revoked at any time by ships swooping out the sky.
Life had been like that, ever since the Wraith had come a generation before and decided to stay.
Here the Wraith had planted one of their rare land-based facilities, a luxury they increasingly afforded themselves these days. For all that their hiveships fulfilled most of their needs, having a few bases allowed for repairs to be more easily conducted and research to be done. A few Wraith even found that they liked living on a planet, especially since the population could provide endless entertainments. Thus some stayed there, occasionally sending a dart out to pick up a few unfortunate souls for feeding or other purposes. It was a very comfortable existence.
It had been, at least. Soon it would change.
"As you can see, this facility is quite substantial, with numerous buildings, heavy fixed defenses, and several thousand warriors stationed as a permanent garrison. Under normal circumstances, we would not bother with a direct attack but just destroy it from orbit," Teyla said to her troops. "However, according to intelligence we've received, roughly sixty Lanteans are being held there for interrogation. We believe they are survivors of the Public Welfare transport ship Hitei Kaan, which was lost three weeks ago while ferrying refugees to Atlantis. Our mission is to go and rescue them."
There were nods among the men and women assembled before her. It was, perhaps, a bit odd how she seemed to have largely come full circle now. When the war had first started, she had been leading a company on a ship. Over time she had started to command larger and larger units, right up to entire combined arms planetary defense brigades. Now she was once more personally leading a roughly platoon-sized unit, not because of any reduction in rank or responsibility but because the Ground Force had shrunk so much and there were so few officers left that she often had to lead small attacks herself.
There were, however, new additions to her latest group. In addition to her normal troopers, there were almost two hundred soldati. At the front were the twelve leaders, and behind them were row after row of combat units. Even after several weeks of drilling with them, they were still somewhat unsettling to her. The leaders were not a problem, less strange than some humans and all Asgard that she had met, but the rest were somehow flatter, more obviously machines. They all seemed to have the same short, direct personality, and they all looked far too similar. Yes, their skin color, facial structure, and sex varied, but it was the same few variations in different combinations. It was like looking out across some vast collection of siblings from a largish group marriage. Unsettling though they were, they were also essential to pulling this mission off.
"Because we must enter the base itself, this is going to require a direct infantry assault," Teyla continued. "For that reason, we will be leaving the majority of our Bolos here at the base. We will be taking in just three with us for air cover and neutralization of the heavy weapons emplacements, under the command of Field Colonel Chaya. The rest of us will be entering the buildings through these locations. The operation should be a simple smash and grab, just like any of the dozens we have done before. This time, however, each of you will have an additional squad of soldati under your command. This should make our job much easier, in that we might be outnumbered only ten to one instead of fifty." She smiled slightly. "I am sure you will all find it a refreshing change. Now, as for assignments…."
A day later, they marched onto their assault transports, ready to make the attack. As was often the case, they would not be getting direct support from an actual warship, but their ships had enough drones and other weapons to deal with a few small Wraith ships if any happened to be present. The attack got off to a smooth start, with the ships' pilots expertly bringing them out of hyperspace right on the edge of the planet's atmosphere. Immediately they opened fire on the visible air-defense systems, catching the Wraith by surprise. Barely thirty seconds later, the transports hit the ground hard at three points around the outskirts of the Wraith base. The tanks rolled off first, weapons blazing as they fired to suppress defensive emplacements and knock down any darts that got into the air, and close behind them the infantry came running. The bulk of the soldati were in the first rank, charging ahead and already taking fire from those Wraith that dared to leave the safety of the building in the face of the tanks. Their weapons, configured to overwhelm Lantean energy shields, were somewhat effective against the robotic soldiers, but it took concentrated fire to kill one permanently.
Teyla reached her assigned entrance with the rest of her squad just as the initial wave had finished blowing a hole through the door. In addition to her master sergeant, she had two of the soldati leaders with her, Oberoth and Natalia. They were already proving invaluable, as they could instantly give orders to and receive information from each and every other soldat on the planet, far faster than Teyla could through her communications gear. It was amazing to watch them in action, completely in synch with each other in every movement. Natalia would react to things only Oberoth could have seen, or dart forward in the exact moment he laid down covering fire. Their aim was as near to perfect as could be managed in the twisting halls of a Wraith facility, and once, when a Wraith commander strayed too close to them, Natalie cleaved his head off with her hand, its side suddenly turned razor-sharp. Teyla was impressed, to say the least.
Despite all that, it took almost half an hour to fight to the holding cells where the Lantean prisoners were detained, because the Wraith had both the advantage of being on their home field and being vastly more numerous. It almost certainly would have been impossible to do without the soldati without pulling in several hundred more troopers to take their places, troopers who simply were not available these days. The soldati made the entire operation possible, for without them, it would have required several hundred more troopers who were simply not available.
"Oh, powers above," someone cried when they opened the door to the first cell. Inside were a dozen people, dirty, exhausted, and clearly ill-treated. Many were gaunt from lack of food or perhaps from being used as food themselves. One of them, a young woman with tangled brown hair, threw herself at Teyla and tried to hug her through the personal shield.
"Thank you," the woman sobbed. "Oh, thank you so much. We had lost all hope."
"Do not worry," Teyla said, awkwardly trying to comfort the woman without dropping her shield. "We will have you all out of here soon. Do any of you need assistance?"
"Yes, yes, poor Atallus, they fed on him, left him here half-alive to taunt the rest of us," the woman said. She stepped back and visibly tried to pull herself together. "I am Pyrrha, first officer of the Hitei Kaan. Thank you again, I don't know what we would have done if left here longer."
Teyla smiled softly. "We are only doing our jobs. Please, help get the others ready to go. Senior Master Sergeant Echinus, Oberoth, please arrange for medics and stretcher teams to carry those unable to move. I wish to leave immediately."
"General, there is another matter," Natalia said. "Some of our teams have found humans in the lower levels. There are several thousand of them, held in pens there."
Teyla sucked in a breath and cursed silently. None of their intelligence had indicated that any humans would be living on the site, instead of simply being carried in as needed. Perhaps they were waiting for the arrival of a ship or to be moved to some other location. The reason did not really matter, only that the original plan of rescuing a handful of people and then detonating a naquadah bomb needed to be changed.
"We have plenty of room on the transports," Teyla said after a moment. "Organize an evacuation, split them up between the transports as evenly as possible."
Natalia nodded, and said, "Done."
"I would advise against that," Oberoth said. "The operation plan calls for an immediate return to the ships upon retrieval of the prisoners."
"Consider this your first lesson in military reality," Teyla said. "No plan goes exactly as intended."
"We put ourselves at risk by remaining here longer than necessary. It will take a considerable amount of time to move that many people, especially as many will need assistance."
"I judge it an acceptable risk. Notify me if there are any problems." Teyla turned to Pyrrha, who had gotten most of the survivors on their feet. Several soldati had arrived to assist the rest. "Come this way. Our ships are waiting."
As they started walking down the hall toward the exit, Natalia suddenly said, "We have a problem. The Wraith are coming back."
"Excuse me?" Teyla said.
"Dianna captured and mind-probed the base commander," Oberoth said. "He was able to contact a nearby fleet. There is a hiveship and over a dozen cruisers heading for this planet. They will arrive in less than ten minutes."
A chill ran down Teyla's spine. "Then we must move. Our tank support and transports will not be able to hold off a fleet that large for more than a few minutes."
"It will take at least that long to load all the humans aboard, at the minimum," Oberorth said. "We should abandon the humans that we do not already have moving. That will save roughly five hundred of them."
"We have ten minutes. That is plenty of time to get them all aboard."
Oberoth scowled. "If we delay our launch by eight minutes, we can save as many as a thousand. Surely saving half would be acceptable."
Now Teyla was frowning as well. "We will wait until the ships arrive in orbit, and leave the tanks behind in automatic mode to cover our escape. Even a few minutes will drastically increase the number we are able to get aboard."
"This is irrational!" Oberoth said. "There is no need to risk ourselves to protect mere humans. There are tens of billions of them in the galaxy. They breed like animals. A few thousand more of them will not change anything. The Lanteans in this unit are, however, effectively irreplaceable. Your lives must not be endangered for something so pointless."
"They are people," Teyla snapped. "They are not, and never will be, pointless."
"She is right, Oberoth," Natalia said. "The risk is minimal if we hurry, and protecting humans is a valid secondary objective. Arguing will only slow us down."
Oberoth shook his head but said, "Very well, General. I shall do what I can to expedite the evacuation. I do insist that you board the ship immediately. Surely you recognize your own value."
Teyla nodded, knowing that on that point he was correct. Her presence on the mission at all was, strictly speaking, an unnecessary risk. She hurried back to the transport, directing the other Lanteans to do so as well. There too she was forced to agree with Oberoth, that each of them was too valuable to risk now that the main mission was complete. There would be plenty for them to do in directing refugees on the ships, while the soldati took care of freeing the humans and getting them aboard. If some of the soldati were left behind, there would be little real loss, because each one's mind was backed up and safely stored.
The minutes ticked by as Teyla waited on the bridge and more and more humans were brought onto the transport. Then, at nine minutes and a handful of seconds, the Wraith appeared in orbit. Immediately they started firing, their weapons stopped by the theater shields that the tanks were projecting.
"We need to launch, now," Natalia said quietly. "We must gain as much altitude as possible before while the theater shield is still up, otherwise they might manage to shoot one of our transports down."
"I know. Take us up," Teyla told the pilot. "Natalia, have one of the soldati still below detonate the demolition device as soon as we reach a safe distance."
The three transports sealed their hatches, with soldati who remained on the ground holding off a wave of humans trying to force their way aboard, and then lifted. Almost a thousand life signs remained on the sensors and Teyla reminded herself that none of them would have had a chance at all but for their lucky timing, and that a death by instant vaporization was far preferable to one at the hand of a Wraith. As the ships barreled toward the faltering shield, fire started to shoot up from behind them as the tanks tried to disrupt the Wraith formations. Several cruisers were hit hard enough that they had to back away, and while the transports took heavy fire and their shields wavered, they were able to safely engage their hyperdrives.
As they jumped, the demolition charge vaporized everything within a mile of the Wraith base.
Teyla relaxed a little as they set a course for a city-ship where they could deliver the refugees. She noticed that Natalia had a thoughtful look on her face, and said, "This was your first time in combat, yes?"
"In a manner of speaking," Natalia replied. "Several of my alternate copies have been in battle already and I share some of their memories. But yes, this is the first time I personally have."
Teyla nodded. She didn't quite understand what the implications of her first statement might be, but she thought that treating Natalia the same as she would any other new trooper would be a safe choice. She was close enough to a normal person that the differences mattered less than the similarities. "How do you feel?"
The soldat smiled as she thought about it. "It was exhilarating. You can't know what it's like to feel so much aggression, such a great drive to fight, and finally be able to let it out." Suddenly Natalia frowned deeply. "And now that the feeling is gone, the aggression seems more powerful than ever. I… I don't think I like it."
"It's such a constant feeling in the back of my head, in my gut I suppose you could say, that at times it threatens to overwhelm everything else. Even once the battle was over, I wanted to find someone, anyone to fight, even if it meant hurting the humans. Oberoth and some of the others killed quite a few of them, in fact, in order to prevent them from mobbing the transports. It seemed excessive to me, but I understand why they did it." Natalia shook her head, then her expression brightened. "Perhaps when our base code is next updated, the aggression drive can be weakened or removed entirely. That would solve the problem."
"Yes," Teyla said slowly. She would have to review the security footage from the ship's external cameras to see exactly what had happened, but the calm, almost off-handed way Natalia had described Oberoth's actions disturbed her. "Perhaps that would be the best. I shall mention it to your programmers."
At the end of the quarter-long testing period, all of the soldati were returned to Asuras. Most of the second-line drones were put into standby mode, and all the copies of the twelve leader models had their memories and experiences recombined into a single unit for each model. Helena had mixed feelings about the results of the field tests. For the most part, everything had gone well. Again and again, the soldati had proved invaluable as combat troops on the ground. In space, they had also done well, both as technicians on major warships and as crew on converted civilian ships used as cannon fodder against the Wraith fleets. On the other hand, many of the Corps personnel had voiced concerns about some of their actions, particularly involving humans, and in some cases their desires for themselves. The latter was one of the reasons that she and Star Colonel Laurentius, one of the officers sent to review the project, were having an awkward conversation with Natalia and Niam.
"All we're asking is for our base code to be modified slightly," Natalia said earnestly. "Removing the aggression drive would solve so many of the problems that have been experienced so far."
"We understand your feelings," Helena said. "Personally, I think you may be correct. But others argue that it's essential for making you effective soldiers."
"It's not, though," Niam said. "Colonel Laurentius, for example, has no compulsion like ours, and yet no one argues he is not an effective leader."
"We're not asking not to fight," Natalia went on. "We simply think that an outright compulsion is detrimental, and that our primary psychological makeup contains plenty of other drives that will make us useful."
"Look, guys, I understand that, and I'm sure Helena does too," Laurentius said with a sigh. "But we're not the ones who need convincing. The High Council in particular thinks that you need to have strong motivation. Not only that, but many people are uncomfortable with the fact that you want to change your own base code."
"Why?" Niam asked.
"Because, among other things, your base code includes a lot of the restrictions on your behavior, like the one that keeps you from harming Lanteans. If you start fiddling with other parts of the code, why not that, too?"
"We're not asking for direct access to our code, though," Natalia said in confusion. "Simply that you change it for us."
"We know," Helena said. "And I think there is a very good chance that I will get authorization to remove it."
"In the mean time, though, you need to drop the issue," Laurentius said. "Half the reason people are concerned is that you keep bringing it up with everyone. With Councilor Melia and Star General Callinus here, it's especially important not to rock the boat."
"All right," Natalia said. "I'm not sure I completely understand, but we will do as you ask, and relay your request to Shara and Leo."
"Thank you," Helena said. "Will you step outside for a while? The Colonel and I need to discuss some other matters."
Once they were gone, Laurentius slumped in his chair and sighed. "This is a mess. I feel sorry for the four of them. Hell, for all twelve of them."
"How do you think I feel?" Helena said ruefully. "I can't believe I didn't even consider the psychological impact of putting high aggression into their base code."
"I'm even more worried about the ones who don't seem to mind that much," Laurentius said. "Especially Primus and Secundus. They seem to enjoy letting their rage go more than I like."
"I know. I think we may have to do some serious mental rewiring on those to in order to reverse the damage it's caused to their psyches." Helena shook her head and sighed. "Assuming we get a chance."
"You didn't hear this from me, but at the moment things are pretty much split on the Council," Laurentius said. "You've got some supporters, but there are some councilors who want major changes made. We're talking removing their intelligence, or even suspending the program entirely."
"They can't!" Helena gasped. "That would practically be murder."
"I know, which is probably why they haven't ordered it yet. But if Melia and Callinus don't give a good report, things could go badly. Just try to tread carefully, okay?"
"I'll do my best."
For a few days, things seemed to be going smoothly. Callinus, while somewhat hostile to the very concept of the soldati, had to admit that they were certainly extremely effective. Melia even seemed sympathetic to their plight and receptive to the idea of removing the aggression code, especially when Helena emphasized her own agreement and that several officers had independently recommended it.
Then, at one of the last meetings on the last day of the review, it all came crashing down. It started when someone made an off-handed comment about how even with the soldati fighting the war was going to be long and costly. Unfortunately they did so while several of the soldati were present.
"Actually, we have a possible solution for that problem," Oberoth said.
"Do you?" General Callinus said, with a bemused expression. In a tone that would be more appropriate for addressing a pet, he said, "Please, tell us. I'm sure it's fascinating."
"The greatest strength of the Wraith is their overwhelming numbers," Oberoth said, a slight narrowing of his eyes making his annoyance evident. "This is also, however, their greatest weakness. A large population means a great many hands to feed."
Dianna continued by saying, "What we need to do is cut them off from their food supply."
"I do believe that's what we're always trying to do," Callinus said. "They have a habit of attacking places where we aren't present."
"Yes," Oberoth said. "Which is why we should eliminate the food source entirely. Once that is done, the Wraith will find themselves with only whatever resources they have on hand. They will shortly be forced to turn on each other. We estimate that within a matter of four to seven months, the Wraith population will be reduced by half. Within a year, it will almost entirely eliminated beyond a few highly vulnerable survivors trying to stave off starvation via hibernation."
"We've even considered several potential methods of removing the human population," Dianna said. Much to Helena's horror, she held up a vial with a liquid inside. "I designed this nanovirus as one proof of concept. It is highly transmissible, one hundred percent lethal, but will not harm anyone with Lantean genetics. It's even designed to provoke behavior that increases an infected subject's chance of encountering non-infected targets. Of course, this was hastily made, and I'm positive we can come up with much better versions in a short time. We've also considered molecular terraforming technology and think it has great potential, especially since it can be used through a stargate and affect entire planets."
There was a horrified silence, until Laurentius managed to say, "Are you serious? Wipe out the food supply?"
"Absolutely," Oberoth said. "It would be the most efficient way of combating the Wraith, and end the war within a year, except for some minor clean-up over a few decades."
"You're talking about killing off the entire human population of the galaxy!" Melia said, her face white as a sheet. "It's genocide, a gigadeath crime a hundred times over."
"There's no need to wipe them all out," Dianna said in a helpful, considerate tone. "We just need to reduce the human population to a more manageable level. We believe that we could safely fortify the core spacefaring worlds to a point that they would be effectively impenetrable, even in the face of desperate mass attacks."
Melia looked like she was trying to say something, her mouth opening and closing several times, then she turned and stormed out of the room. Callinus and their aides followed close behind her, leaving Helena, Laurentius, and several confused soldati.
"Was it something I said?" Dianna asked.
"I think you rocked the boat," Natalia replied. She looked at Helena. "We didn't know they were planning this at all. Please, understand that."
"I believe you," Laurentius said softly. "I don't think it's going to matter, though."
The next day, a terse order was received, which instructed them to suspend further research until a final decision was made. Helena tried to come up with something to make the council understand that several of the soldati had nothing to do with the proposed genocide. She even considered doing triage and eliminating all of the troublesome ones to save the four or five who were definitely innocent and seemed to attract more sympathy from Lanteans. She never got to make her pleas, though. Two days after the incident, Laurentius slipped into her office.
"I'm not here, and if I were, I certainly wouldn't be telling you anything," he said. "Do you understand?"
"I think so, yes," Helena said with growing concern. There could be no good reason for him to say something like that.
"However, I think you should know that the Council's reached a decision."
"It might be a good idea to find some way to make an off-site backup of the personalities and memories of some of the soldati," he said. "Far, far off-site, and one that won't be found if you're searched while leaving."
"I… I see. Thank you."
Helena was in too much of a hurry to panic. The first thing she did was use the facility's fabricator to make a high-density memory core, enough to save the twelve main models inside along with the schematics for their bodies and some other useful technologies. She paired it with a nanite creation device, of the sort they had used to create the soldat, and a supply of raw materials. Finally she put them inside a shielded trinium container designed to withstand immense stress and heat. Then she called the soldati to her office.
"I need to make a secure backup of your mind-states," Helena told them. "Please connect to this memory device and upload a copy."
"Is there some reason for this?" Shara asked while they complied.
"It's just a precaution," Helena said. "In case the Wraith find this base, we want archival copies of you and of our research."
"Ah. I see."
"Thank you all," Helena said once they were done. "Please, go about your business."
That night she took the container and loaded it into one of the gateships. She cloaked it and then flew across the continent, until she reached a deep cavern near the sea several thousand kilometers from the base itself. There she unloaded the container, and set a timer on the replication device. She hoped to someday return and rescue them herself, but if she did not do so within fifty years, it would automatically produce copies of each model. She left a message as well, not quite able to contain tears as she explained that the Council had likely decided to end the program and eliminate the soldati and apologized for making mistakes in their creation that had lead to their end. That done, she returned to the base.
Two endless days later, she was awakened by the garrison commander, informing her that the entire staff was being evacuated. Most of them were being sent through the stargate, but Star Colonel Laurentius invited her to join him on the Hippofaralkus. Reluctantly, she complied. She saw no sign of the soldati, but several of the troopers were carrying anti-nanite weaponry and she feared the worst.
"I'm sorry it's come to this," Laurentius said when she arrived on the ship's bridge. Outside the window, she could see Asuras. "Did you have a chance to make preparations to leave?"
"I did," she said.
The ghost of a smile flashed across his grim face. "Good."
An officer approached them and said, "Lorne, we've received the all-clear signal from the surface. The gate is disengaged, and there's no life signs."
"Thanks, Parrish. Gunnery! Configure energy batteries for max-yield bombardment and lock in a sterilization pattern."
"Weapons ready, firing solution locked in."
The ship's guns sent a flurry of bolts toward the planet, each one carrying the equivalent of thousands of megatons of energy when they struck. Petals of flame hundreds of miles wide blossomed all across the continent. They kept firing for several minutes in an overlapping pattern designed to incinerate everything there and even melt the bedrock so that no nanites could possibly survive. Soon the entire continent was hidden behind a black cloud lit by hellish glows from the molten rock beneath them. Helena forced herself to watch until finally the bombardment ceased and the ship jumped away. Only then did she turn to leave and mourn in private.
Chaya was trying to meditate. For decades she had been doing her best to keep up with her studies of ascension, snatching moments here and there for self-contemplation. It hadn't been easy, of course, but war was mostly composed of long periods of sitting around doing thing much at all, and every ship or base carried a full library of philosophical texts and even had dedicated rooms for individual or group meditation. She'd had considerable success, especially for someone her age. Many times she found herself seeming to expand her consciousness beyond her body, a little further each year. She might have thought that was just her imagination, but her latent parapsychic abilities had grown as well. Even if ascension was still a distant goal, that would have made the meditation worthwhile. In her experience, there were few skills more useful than the ability to kill a Wraith with your brain.
Tonight, however, her subconscious simply refused to cooperate. Every time she tried to reach a meditative state, she found herself with a growing feeling of unease, as though something was subtly wrong with the world that she could not detect under normal circumstances but yet was disturbing enough to keep her from expanding her mind in ways that would let her figure it out. It was supremely irritating, although more likely than not it was just stress. For almost four months she had been stuck in Illiam, having come there following the assault on the Wraith base and stayed because the city needed a new defense commander. She itched to get back near the front, unreasonable as that desire was. The actual front, that was, not a city with a Wraith fleet sitting in orbit. They weren't much of a threat, because they seemed content to just sit there, not even bombarding the city or the surrounding land. It was a very polite siege, really, with neither side firing at the other because of how little point there would be.
Chaya sighed and stretched, then climbed to her feet. If she couldn't meditate, she could at least take a walk and clear her mind a little. Outside it was quite cool, as it was winter in Illiam's hemisphere. Unlike Atlantis, it was located on land and surrounded by suburbs that were also protected under an expanded shield. She exited her residential building at ground level and started strolling down the street toward the city core. Overhead the sky was clear and the moon was full and bright, as were those stars that could be seen through the city lights and the shield. Chaya could just pick out the stars that were not stars at all, but actually Wraith cruisers and hiveships. No doubt there were some transports as well, smaller and unarmed variants of the cruisers that had appeared in recent years, carrying supplies for the ships permanently stationed around the planet. She shook her head and tried to banish that thought from her head. She would never get back into the meditative mood if she dwelled on how impotent she was to help those poor humans.
After a leisurely walk she crossed the bridge over the artificial lake at the center of the city and reached the control tower. She was just stepping inside when the shield went down. It took a moment to realize that she was really seeing what she thought, then she set off at a sprint for the nearest transporter. She reached the control room just as the first bolts of Wraith fire came smashing down on the city.
The first thing Chaya saw was the bodies of the control room staff, slumped over chairs and the floor. A stun grenade lay just inside the doorway. Most of the consoles were smoking and had large holes melted through them by weapons fire. The only person still standing was a woman hunched over the single functional control station. After a moment Chaya recognized her as Pyrrha, one of the refugees.
Chaya stepped forward and something crunched under her foot. The woman spun around and raised a plasma pistol and instinctively Chaya reached out with her mind and yanked away, neatly catching it herself.
"Why did you do this?" Chaya asked. What she had done was quite obvious — killed the control room staff, lowered the shields, and left the city open to attack. Even now Chaya could still hear muffled explosions, although they were becoming less frequent.
"Because there's no other choice," Pyrrha said. Her eyes were wide and gleamed with a strange madness. "Can't you see, there's no point in fighting them any longer. We must submit if we are to survive."
"The Wraith are not in the habit of taking prisoners," Chaya pointed out. "Not for longer than it takes for them to become hungry."
"That's where you're wrong. There could be a place for you with them. I accepted my fate and the gifts I have been given are beyond anything I could ever have imagined. I have a place now, a purpose, and such strength and pleasure that you'd never believe." Pyrrha turned her face upwards with a look of pure ecstasy. "Oh, the rewards my queen will give me when she comes will be great."
"I think not," Chaya said, and she shot her.
Half a minute later a squad of troopers came rushing into the room. Half of them weren't even in full battle gear, just carrying whatever weapons they had happened to grab while rushing from the armory. Outside, the whine of darts was becoming louder.
"We have been betrayed," Chaya told them. "Lieutenant Ucalenus, set up a defensive perimeter around the control room. I want you to use the gateships to dial Atlantis and evacuate as many people as possible. The Wraith have destroyed the shield generators and drone bays, and without them there's no way we can hold the city."
"You think they plan to seize the city, ma'am?"
"Otherwise they would have vaporized us from orbit. Obviously they want the technology contained here. I intend to go to the auxiliary control room and set the self destruct. As soon as you hear the alarm or your position is in danger of being overwhelmed, you are to evacuate and shut down the gate."
"Ma'am, I should —"
"It's my duty, not yours. I'll send you what support I can. Do you have a communicator?" He handed one over and Chaya set it to city-wide broadcast. "This is Field Captain Chaya. The Wraith have penetrated our defenses and entered the city. All citizens are to evacuate via the stargate immediately." Chaya looked at Ucalenus and said, "Good luck."
She barely made it out of the control room and into the corridor to the nearest transporter before the communicator chirped.
"Captain, this is Sergeant Andressa in auxiliary control. I regret to report that there is a large Wraith force at our location. We've sealed the entrances, but I don't think anyone is getting in or out anytime soon."
Chaya cursed. Without direct access to one of the consoles there she could not set the self destruct. It required a direct genetic and neural authentication, not simply a passcode that she could give over the audio link.
"Understood," she said. "I want you to take direct control of the city's transport network. Cut off any location that is controlled by the Wraith so that they can't use it. Also, set up a diversion protocol to route traffic to other nearby transporters if the one closest to stargate operations gets overloaded."
"Is the power room accessible?"
"It appears so, ma'am. I'll try to get other units there."
"Thank you, sergeant."
Chaya reached the transporter, stepped aside to allow a flood of citizens to come rushing out, and ducked in before the door could close. She entered her destination and an override code to make sure she didn't waste time stuck in queue. She reached the power room a minute later and was confronted by a young militia private wielding a battle rifle and wearing pajamas.
"Oh, Captain." The private lowered his weapon and blushed. "I'm sorry about my appearance, ma'am. I heard the explosion, jumped out of bed, grabbed my gun, and ran here to my station."
"Don't worry about it," Chaya said. She briefly considered sending him to the gateroom, but she needed someone to watch the corridor. There was a natural choke point at the end, where it intersected a major thoroughfare. A single person could conceivably hold off a small army until his powerpack started to run low. She lifted her communicator and said, "Andressa, are there any Wraith near my location?"
"They're landing troops all around the control tower, ma'am. You have several hundred heading your way from both locations. There's a couple fireteams in their path, but I don't think they'll hold for long."
"I don't need long. Thank you, Sergeant."
"You're welcome, ma'am."
"Private, I need you to come inside, please," Chaya said. "Shoot anything that enters the corridor then seal the blast door if they start to overwhelm you."
"Yes, ma'am." The private looked the door over then fiddled with the control to close it partially, leaving a space just large enough to fire out of.
Chaya went to work. There were hundreds of safety protocols in place to prevent a person from doing what she intended. The standard self-destruct system, for example, only accepted commands from the main or auxiliary control rooms or the command chair and required at least two authorized users to activate. What she planned to do bypassed that system entirely and was essentially sabotage of the zero-point modules. Under normal circumstances, overriding even a single safety system would sound dozens of alarms in the control rooms and be easily stopped. No one was going to stop her, though, so it was mostly a matter of digging into the code and disabling each safety one at a time.
It was a time consuming process and took most of her concentration. Several minutes after she started, the private began firing his weapon, first in single shots, then controlled bursts, and finally at full automatic mode. Over the crack of his rifle she could hear Wraith stunner fire impacting the door, and once a bolt even slipped through the space in the door. Just as she finished entering the last command, he got up and slapped the door control to seal it entirely.
"I must have shot a hundred of them, but they kept coming," the private said. There was a trace of sweat on his brow and he was shivering a little.
"That's a fairly typical tactic of theirs."
There was a loud thump from the other side of the blast door. "How long do you think they'll take to get in?"
"Those are Class VI blast doors. They're more likely to get in through the walls, ceiling, or floor. I'd say several hours at the minimum, assuming they want the equipment intact."
"So what were you doing?"
"I've rigged the zero-point modules to deliberately overload," Chaya explained. "Their detonations will take out the planet, and most of the other planets on this side of the solar system for that matter. The Wraith fleet will, obviously, not survive. We won't even have time to feel a thing ourselves."
"Oh." He was quiet for a moment, then grinned faintly. "Well, I guess that's as good as way to go out as any other."
"Indeed," she said, smiling a little herself.
Her communicator chirped again. "Captain, this is Ucalenus. We're completely cut of from above and below now. We've sealed the doors and are falling back through the gate."
"Thank you, and good luck."
Chaya reached down and hit the final control to initiate the overload. Several alarms began sounding and the ZPMs began to visibly grow brighter. It would only take a dozen seconds or so for the containment to fail, and she turned away from the screens so that she could not see the warnings and graphs. It was an oddly freeing experience, knowing that you were about to be instantly disintegrated. She had done her duty to the best of her ability, never turned aside like so many others had, and now in the end she was dying after saving a last few lives and, as one of her old commanders would have said, 'sticking it to the Wraith' one last time. It was unfortunate that she never managed to ascend, but in all honesty it wasn't so important and she was satisfied with the life she had… oh.
Lay down your burdens indeed.
It was so obvious in retrospect, that seeking ascension could itself be a burden. Chaya could feel constraints of physical form drop away like unlocked chains, just moments before the overload reached critical. She rose up toward another plane, taking a moment to snatch up the private — Ascanius, his name was Ascanius, he had joined the militia because his uncle was in the Corps, he was thirty years old and the last person born on the planet, he was so many other things that she found she knew in an instant — and watched as below the city, the planet, and the entire Wraith fleet vanished in a immense burst of light.
Ascension was everything Chaya had ever thought it would be. There was so much to learn, an entire universe worth of knowledge to try to grasp and comprehend, and she knew that she could remain here a million years and still not discover everything there was to know. It was the same with the Others, too, millions of the brightest minds of every Alterran generation, some of them hundreds of thousands of years old, a few even multiple millions, and while most of those on this particular plane and around this galaxy were Alterran, she knew that out there in the beyond there were members of countless alien races as well. And the experiences! Life was so much freer without the restraints a physical form. She could surf the outer shockwave of a supernova, or shrink herself down to see the interaction of individual molecules within the heart of a gas giant. Life was peaceful, too, without any worries at all. Nothing could compare to it.
And yet… and yet, as years flowed by, Chaya still found herself drifting back to the mortal plane to observe again and again. She tried to tell herself she was simply learning about something other than nature, that social development and history were perfectly valid subjects of study. Some small part of her recognized that as an excuse and knew that she hadn't quite left all of her burdens behind as she had once thought.
This day in particular brought her to Proculus. She had grown up on this world, all those decades ago. There had been a small city there, home to perhaps fifty thousand people, with more scattered in small villages here and there. Since then it had become a home to almost two hundred thousand humans, for it had been chosen as refugee center. The Lanteans had only recently abandoned it, leaving a small automated space defense system in orbit.
"You should not be here," Oma Desala said, appearing at her side.
"I am studying the growth of their society," Chaya responded. "There are people here from over three dozen worlds and varying levels of technology. Watching them form an entirely new hybrid culture is a fascinating experience."
"You could see that on any of hundred worlds, and yet you return home."
"It seems like the rational thing to do. After all, I have the most experience with this world. If I started off studying refugees from the Goa'uld, I would have no source for comparison."
"Chaya, we both know that's not why you're here," Oma said gently. "You come here because of old sentimentality. You only slow your journey down the great path by doing so."
"If sentimentality influences my choices, I see no harm in it."
"Perhaps. Still, if you wish to dwell on the past, perhaps you should turn to other worlds as well. Focus less on this one and spread your attention among others."
Chaya gave Oma a curious look. "You're encouraging me to spend even more time watching mortals? Why?"
"Must I have a reason?"
"You do nothing without a reason, Oma Desala."
"I merely think that you would be best served if all of your time was not spent here. Many lighter ties are easier to shed than one deep one."
"No. No, it's not just that," Chaya said, growing more concerned by the moment. "You don't want me here specifically, not now. But why?"
She shifted her viewpoint, spreading her attention from one particular refugee town to the entire planet, and then to the space beyond. Then she saw them — hiveships coming out of hyperspace, their escorts already charging weapons and targeting the defense grid. There were almost a dozen hives, enough to scour the entire planet clean of human life.
"Chaya," Oma said softly. "We should go. There is nothing you can do."
"We can not interfere with mortal life. That is our highest law."
"I help others reach enlightenment. I don't meddle in their affairs."
"No. No, I will not leave. I owe the people that much. They deserve to have someone record their end. I will watch and observe— nothing more."
Chaya meant what she said, for that one moment. She watched the Wraith engage the defense system, batting it aside for the loss of only a handful of cruisers. Then, as the first darts entered the atmosphere, she thought of all the people below, of the children playing there unaware of what was occurring overhead, and of the duty she had held for so long. She knew she could not stand by when she had the power to help.
The first wave of darts burst apart with a thought. Knowing she was already damned by that action, Chaya gathered her strength and twisted the planet's magnetic field into a weapon, shredding the Wraith ships within seconds, and then scattering the debris off into space where it could do no harm.
"You should not have done that," Oma said mournfully.
The Others appeared all around her. There was a long conversation, so fast and complex that no human could possibly hope to follow it, and she begged and pleaded with them, not for her own sake but for all those who suffered at the hands of the Wraith. Perhaps, somehow, she influenced them just a little, but it was not enough.
"If you desire to protect these people," the Others said, "then that shall be your fate. You shall stay here and guard, never to leave, never to know more. The greater universe shall be lost to you."
With that, she was bound.
"… and we estimate that at peak power output, the generator will be the equivalent of twenty-five zero-point modules," Fulguria said. "Not only that, but while there is a limit on power, energy would be effectively unlimited. That means that unlike a zero-point module, it will never run dry, although obviously there will be times where maintenance is needed."
"Impressive," Lorne said. "So this will solve our ZPM trouble?"
Fulguria shook her head and grinned broadly. "Star Colonel, by the time this project is finished, we're going to be using ZPMs to power gateships. For larger ships, they'll just be auxiliary power sources for when the Arcturus generator is down for repair. Let me repeat: twenty-five modules, in a space smaller than your ship's existing subspace tap. We could give Hippofaralkus a city-ship grade defense shield, two of them even, and a dozen heavy phase cannons, and you still would have more power than you'd know what to do with. Your hyperdrive would be so fast that you could reach the other side of the galaxy in thirty seconds. And more than that, any planet with one of these could have a planetary shield that could withstand a supernova and never need shut down. So impressive, Colonel? That doesn't even begin to adequately describe it."
Lorne found himself grinning as well. It had been a long, long time since he had seen anyone with that kind of enthusiasm. Even John seemed to mostly just go through the motions these days. If it worked as advertised, even with the tiny numbers they had these days they could still potentially win the war. Put shields on every human planet, use the hyperdrive to instantly catch Wraith fleets, and vaporize hundreds of ships with impunity — it was the sort of thing he hadn't even dreamed of for decades.
If it worked, that was.
And if it worked in time, which was the real problem.
Lorne's smile faded a little and he casually asked, "How long until it's operational?"
"Well, we've gone through several test runs," Fulguria said. "We're still having some stability problems and radiation issues. In fact, that's why we had to bring in a ZPM — to provide an outside power source for the shielding."
"That's gotta sting."
"Just a little, yes. I'm confident we'll have the problems fixed soon enough."
"Colonel, we've been working on this for a very long time. I was kicking around some of the first ideas almost fifty years ago. It may take months, it may take another year, or it might happen tonight. A little more time won't matter." Fulguria frowned slightly, then said, "Or will it?"
"It might," Lorne admitted.
"I had hoped your ship was just conducting repairs and this was a courtesy call, but I suppose battleships have better things to do than visit even important science outposts. How long do we have?"
"We're not positive, but we've seen signs that indicate the Wraith may be hitting Doranda within the next few weeks."
"Will we be getting any kind of reinforcements?"
Lorne had to stop himself from laughing. "Ma'am, there's exactly three battleships left in this galaxy, and maybe a half-dozen lighter warships. Unless Aurora magically reappears, Hippofaralkus and what's left of the Dorandan navy is all the protection you'll get."
Lorne knew she didn't, not in the same way he did. She hadn't been in a position to watch ship names struck from the list one by one, knowing that each time it meant another handful of friends gone forever and that much more of a chance that the next ship would be her own. He envied her a little.
"Is there any way you could relocate the project to somewhere else?"
Fulguria shook her head. "No, not at all. We chose Doranda because it has some support infrastructure and it was, well, more expendable than most places. We can't risk doing this kind of experiment in Atlantis until we're sure it works. Maybe Athos, if we had to, but… Colonel, this building may look small, but it goes a long way down. Building a new one would be difficult, given how hard it is to get naquadah and trinium these days."
"That's what we thought," Lorne said. "If you can get the reactor running, will it be useful?"
"Oh, there's no question of that. We've got a power grid built leading to several shield emitters around the continent, and I'm sure you didn't miss the Mark XXXIII planetary defense cannon on top of the building. If we can power it up, we'll be able to shield the planet and cut Wraith ships to pieces with impunity."
"Good. Work as fast as you can, and I'll keep you up to date with what we know. If there's anything you need, just ask, and you'll get it."
Lorne spent the next week in meetings with the Dorandan leadership. It was an advanced planet, but a small one: the entire population was concentrated on one main continent, because the others had been evacuated so the defense grid could be tightened, and there were just over half a billion people. For the most part the Wraith had seen fit to ignore it entirely. The defenses were simply too strong to be penetrated easily, and the planet wasn't large enough to take the trouble. That had been the situation until now, at least. Over the last few years the Wraith had been growing bolder and bolder, hitting increasingly large targets as their appetite grew larger and it became clear that the Lanteans were unable to put up more than a token resistance. They had as many as ten thousand ships running around the galaxy now, although fifteen years before they had finally stopped reproducing and building at such an astounding rate. Their normal speed was more than enough to keep expanding, though, and there were so many to feed that each major culling took millions. Now there were fleet movements near Doranda, dozens of hiveships and hundreds of cruisers and transports starting to join together in nearby systems. The only question was how soon the attack would be.
Nine days after Hippofaralkus' arrival, the sensor platforms they had scattered around on their approach showed all those ships suddenly changing course and heading straight for Doranda.
"Now?" Fulguria exclaimed when he informed her. "We've got half the system pulled apart for adjustment."
"Now," Lorne confirmed. "The Wraith tend to have crappy timing like that. Are you ready?"
"Not yet. Give us an hour."
"We'll do our best." An hour was going to be difficult, given how many ships were headed their way, but that was pretty typical for Lorne's life.
Hippofaralkus formed up with the Dorandan navy to wait for the attack. There were a dozen battlecruisers and sixty lesser ships, not even a fifth of what the navy had possessed at its height, plus the orbital fortresses. The Wraith had almost three hundred cruisers and thirty hiveships. If the researchers couldn't get the Arcturus system working, there was no doubt as to what the outcome would be.
The Wraith jumped into the outer system, wary from long experience of minefields and other traps that might lurk closer in. They gathered just outside the orbit of Doranda's moon and waited for a short time, gauging their reaction, but the human fleet stayed close to the planet where the fixed defenses could support them. Then the first wave started to approach, fifty cruisers and four hives with a swarm of darts and light bombers in support.
Hippofaralkus was running on minimal crew, to the point that Lorne was flying the ship himself while Parrish of all people was at the gunnery controls, but they had been doing this for so long that the battle went like a well-rehearsed dance. Each movement was carefully calculated to bring the optimum number of Wraith ships into a firing arc, provide cover for one of the human ships, or roll a faltering shield away from heavy fire. Each drone was carefully placed, the swarms of the past replaced by small clusters of a dozen or so per cruiser. Meanwhile to all sides the human ships stood their ground, filling the sky with missiles, particle beams, and railgun slugs. Wraith ships died in all directions.
But for all that skill and bravery, the Wraith were killing with brutal effectiveness. Human ships and stations split apart with more and more frequency as shield shields failed under intense fire. Hippofaralkus suffered as well, shots burning through her shields and ripping into the hull. Numerous turrets were blown clear off the ship, a series of gashes ripped down the starboard side and vented whole sections to space, and worst of all, the parting shots of the last Wraith ships struck home in the engine section.
"We've lost main sublights," Parrish reported tersely. "There's heavy damage to the power distribution grid, primary power is down to thirty percent."
"Shit," Lorne said, struggling to keep the ship under control. "What about the shields?"
"What shields?" Parrish asked. "Half the emitters are fried."
"Yeah, I thought that's what those warning lights were. Any chance we can get them back up?"
"I doubt it. There's a second wave already moving in." Parrish paused, then said, "We do have full hyperdrive capability."
"Think we should use it?"
"You're the commander, I'm just a botanist. It's your job to make the big ethical and tactical decisions."
Lorne chuckled and glanced at his screens. They were the only large ship left. In fact, there were only two battered frigates and a few satellites remaining. The wise thing to do would be jump to the drydock at Taranis, a hidden facility that was the only one left in the galaxy that could accommodate a ship their size. He wasn't feeling very wise at the moment.
"Prepare to flush the drone bays. We'll take out as many of them as we can."
"Actually, I think if put all power to the forward shields first, we could make it close enough to the main fleet to — wait." Parrish cut off and frowned. "We have a message from the Arcturus team. They want us to drop down as close to the surface."
Lorne didn't wait to hear why, just said, "On it."
Hippofaralkus plummeted downward in a power drive. Lorne barely managed to pull the ship up before smashing straight into the surface and bringing them to an ignominious end, but they came to a hover a thousand feet above a wide expanse of farmland. Suddenly their sensors registered a massive energy spike and a shield came into existence. It was huge, covering the entire continent and some distance beyond. For a moment he thought for sure it would be paper-thin, but as the second wave of Wraith ships fired at the battleship their shots splashed harmlessly against the shield like nothing more than fiery raindrops.
Then, in the distance, the Mark XXXIII defense cannon opened fire.
Lorne was in complete awe by the sight he saw. A constant stream of bolts leaped skyward, smashing entire hiveships apart like eggs. The gun kept firing with no sign of stopping as it cut down ship after ship, until low orbit was filled with a cloud of debris. Within five minutes, the entire second wave was destroyed.
"They did it," he said softly. He turned to Parrish with a wild grin. "They did it!"
Fifty miles away at the Arcturus facility, spirits were not so high. They had finally managed to bring the reactor to operational status, and even running at a quarter of projected capacity it seemed like an amazing success. Even if they achieved nothing more the reactor was already generating power as strong as seven zero-point modules. They were simultaneously projecting a full-power shield across an entire continent and powering a defense gun capable of single-handedly taking down an entire Wraith fleet. It had seemed like the only way things could have been better was if they had another gun, so they could engage more targets at once.
Then the reactor started to grow unstable.
"We can't keep up this level of activity," Doctor Euryalus told Fulguria. "The exotic particles that are building up in the chamber are causing some major instability. The damper fields are handling it for now, but the ZPM is being drained at a rapid rate. If the dampers fail, there could be a massive explosion."
Fulguria studied the readouts with a heavy heart. They were so close to success that it seemed unthinkable that something could stop them now. "We can't shut it down. Could we power the dampers using the reactor output?" A moment later, she shook her head and added, "No, that would —"
"Cause a feedback loop, yes," he finished for her. "If there was some way we could siphon off the particles, it would work fine."
"There's no time to figure out how to do that," she said. "What if we reduce power?"
"That would only buy us a few minutes. We have to shut down entirely."
"There are still two hundred Wraith ships out there. If we do that, we're dead."
"And if we don't, within thirty minutes the ZPM is going to fail, and then we're going to experience a runaway criticality event and an overload that will wipe out two-thirds of the solar system."
Fulguria smiled grimly. "I guess we'll have to see where we stand in thirty minutes. Reduce power output as low as we can manage for the moment. Then get me a connection to the Hippofaralkus, and have anyone who wants to leave assemble in the hangar."
Star Colonel Laurentius was grinning like he was high when he appeared on the communications screen. "Doctor! Congratulations on your success. We owe you our lives."
"I'm afraid congratulations will have to wait," she told him. "Do you think the Wraith will be leaving now that we've demonstrated the effectiveness of our defenses?"
"No, that wouldn't be like them at all." Laurentius glanced off-screen at something. "In fact, from the way they're forming up, I'd say that the entire fleet will be here within a minute or two."
"I see. Are you capable of making a hyperspace jump?"
"Yeah, we could." Laurentius frowned. "Why?"
"There's a critical, fundamental problem with the reactor, one that would take a major redesign to correct."
"How bad are we talking?"
"There's a good chance that if we can't shut it down, it could experience an uncontrollable overload and vaporize the entire planet."
"Yeah, that could be bad," Lorne said after a long silence. "We'll send gateships to evacuate your staff."
"No, we'll send you one of ours. I intend to remain here with anyone else who volunteers to try to manually keep the reactor stable. There's a chance we can pull it off, and the people here are counting on us."
"Is there anything we can do to help?"
"Just get clear of the system, and wait to see what happens."
Laurentius nodded slowly. "I understand. We'll see you on the other side, then."
"I look forward to it." Fulguria shut down the link and looked at Euryalus. "If you want to go, now it is time."
"I could hardly leave and let you have all the credit if it works," he replied after a moment.
She smiled and clasped one of his hands. "I'm sure that's the only reason, of course."
He smiled back. "Of course. Now, I have an idea for how we might be able to squeeze a little more life out of the system. If we reduce some of the radiation shielding, especially on the arcs not facing the control room, we could let a lot of the pressure off."
Fulguria thought about the numbers. "Risky. Even with this side's shield at full, there's going to backscatter. If there's a spike…."
"Less risky than leaving the excess particles to build up."
"Fair enough. Do it. We'll just have to figure out a better way when we rebuild the system." If they got a chance to do so, she thought.
Soon only Fulguria, Euryalus, and three technicians far down in the power distribution center were left. Hippofaralkus jumped directly from underneath the shield as soon as the evacuation gateships landed, just as the Wraith fleet's vanguard started coming into range of the Mark XXXIII. With so much power behind it the weapon could still do damage at half a light-second out, and hiveships were large and relatively slow targets. Three hives and several more cruisers were destroyed before they could get into range of their own weapons. Fire started to pour down onto the shield, all aimed toward the research center, and soon it grew so intense that the impacts on the shield became as bright as the sun. It became stronger as the entire fleet settled into orbit, most of the ships cutting their engines so as to funnel all their power to the weapons. Only the transports kept moving, placing themselves between the surface gun and the warships in an effort to shield them. It an almost entirely futile gesture, for the blasts kept going straight through them and the result was often a weaker energy bolt accompanied by a shower of molten hull fragments. Ship after ship was destroyed, some outright vaporized, some only split into multiple pieces, but all rendered harmless. Dozens fell every few seconds as the gun traversed back and forth. For several minutes, it seemed like the Wraith might well be destroyed before the ZPM failed and the Arcturus reactor went critical.
That suddenly changed when the corpse of Wraith cruiser, half-eviscerated by a plasma bolt, fell onto the shield. It was vaporized instantly and its component atoms scattered across the entire shield surface, the kinetic energy easily absorbed and the momentum dealt with using inertia-breaking wizardry. The bombardment was already almost unimaginable in power, equivalent to dozens of gigatons per second, but it was constant in nature. The impact was something else entirely. There was demand for the massive amount of energy needed to stop all those millions of tons of ship, resulting in a sudden split-second power draw of almost a million petawatts, enough to light the cities of thousands of industrial worlds.
Fulguria felt the result more before she saw it on her monitors. It was a hot, prickling flush across her skin, especially on the side of her body toward the maintenance access corridor leading to the reactor, and a sudden bloom of purple streaks in her vision. She inhaled and smelt the sharp stink of ozone. She looked at her safety readout and saw what she expected, a sudden blast of ionizing, gamma, and more exotic radiations. The readings were back to normal now, but once had been more than enough to insure that she wouldn't be continuing her work.
"What was that?" she asked. "We'll need to record it for the follow-up team."
"That impact on the shield," Euryalus grunted, not even looking away from his controls. "The sudden power spike led to a sudden draw on the reactor which led to sudden radiation pulse. I think we'll be fine if it doesn't happen again. Well, fine for an hour or two, maybe."
No sooner than he said it there was another flare from the reactor, this time as the tail end of a hiveship hit a thousand miles away. It was no deliberate action on the part of the Wraith. Indeed, if they knew what was happening, they would have almost certainly pulled back out of range of the defense cannon, accelerated a few ships to relativistic velocities, and pummeled them with kamikaze attacks strong enough to shatter continents. Many Wraith ships were simply in low, inherently unstable powered orbits and started to fall as soon as their engines failed. Others were knocked from orbit by explosions or collisions with other pieces of debris. The results were the same either way. There were the remains of more than two hundred Wraith ships in orbit now and there was only one place for most of them to go. Cruisers were a kilometer in length, hiveships eleven times that, give or take a little variation from different growth patterns. That was well into the range of extinction-event asteroids. They were moving much, much slower, meaning far less kinetic energy, but there were a lot of them that were coming down. As more and more chunks of debris hit the shield, the spikes in the reactor became more and more frequent and threatened to overwhelm every attempt they made to keep the system under control.
"We have to retract the shield," Euryalus said quietly. "These irregular spikes are pushing the system beyond control."
"If that debris doesn't hit the shield, it will hit the planet itself," Fulguria protested. "Millions will be killed."
"If the reactor blows, there won't be a planet."
"Damn it!" After a moment's more hesitation, she hit the shield controls and reduced the shield perimeter down to the area immediately around the capital.
The result was immediate and catastrophic. Fireballs hundred of miles wide bloomed across the continent as ships hit the surface. It was too late to be effective, though. Already the reactor was highly unstable and soon Fulguria had to retract the shield further, until it just covered the reactor facility itself. The last dozen remaining ships ignore the city and continued to concentrate their fire, in a race to see whether they could win before being destroyed. The result was a Pyrrhic victory for the Lanteans: as the gun swept the last cruiser from the sky, fully a third of a hiveship fell just twenty kilometers outside the city, close enough that the blast waved leveled it and the massive earthquake crushed the underground bunkers where the population sheltered like ants beneath the foot of a giant. Only the outpost, still protected by the shield, was left unharmed.
Twenty-five minutes had passed since the assault began.
"I'm killing the reactor," Fulguria said. She was almost slumped over the console now, barely able to stay conscious as her soft tissues dissolved from repeated lethal radiation surges.
"I show safe shutdown," Euryalus said after a moment.
"Good. That's good." She swallowed, tasted blood. "How's the shield?"
"Holding. It's on ZPM power now. It won't hold up long against an attack, but there's enough power to keep it at minimal levels for, oh, a few thousand years."
"Program the cannon to target anything without a Lantean IFF that comes into range. Then set the autodestruct. I don't want scavengers getting this before a recovery team arrives." Every Lantean outpost, city, and ship had long since been equipped with an automated destruct system. If a Wraith entered before it was disarmed by another Lantean, the entire facility would be instantly vaporized.
As he did that, she recorded a message to transmit back to Atlantis. "This is the final report of the Arcturus Project. I regret to report that there are serious issues with the reactor design. However, I think that…" She broke off to cough, a long spate of wet hacking. "I think that the basic concept is sound. The entire Wraith attack force was destroyed, and if someone can solve the problem this could be the weapon we've needed to win. I urge you to review the data and give it due consideration. Arcturus, out."
"The others are on the way up," Euryalus said after the message was sent.
"How are they?"
"They took only nine or ten lethal doses, instead of twelve," he said wryly. Fulguria stood and wobbled, and when he tried to steady her they both nearly went down. Since that was obviously out the question, they settled down on the floor, backs resting against the wall and arms around each other.
"I have the medical kit," Euryalus told her. He offered her an injector. "For the pain."
She took it and checked the dosage. It was set well into the lethal range. "Thank you," she said, pressing it against her neck and feeling it hiss. "I enjoyed working with you."
"And I you."
A few days later, a Lantean probe came through the gate. A Wraith probe followed it later, as would many more over the next few thousand years. Each one reported the same thing: a single intact building with a minimal shield, sitting among blasted ruins on a planet scarred by hundreds of impact craters. There was no human life remaining; in fact, on land few creatures much larger than a goat or wolf survived anywhere on the planet because of mass extinction events. Seeing nothing of value there and pragmatic as ever, the Wraith were content to mark it as useless and leave it be.
Another day, another rescue. It was what Inceptum spent most of its time these days. Only a few Lantean outposts remained in the galaxy. Most were cut off from the stargates, either because of Wraith action or because the occupants were paranoid about a repeat of the Attero incident. This could make evacuation difficult, as the outposts that the Wraith were aware of were often under blockade. In those cases, the only option was the send in a warship. It was, in all likelihood, the main reason those outposts were allowed to exist. They had defenses, yes, but the Wraith had plenty of ships to swamp anything short of Atlantis itself, and that only because they couldn't get at the city without boiling away the oceans first. The outposts were bait, and the ships that could have been attacking were almost always laying in wait somewhere nearby. It tended to make rescues a bit interesting.
There were some who argued that risking one of the last remaining ships on people who really should have had the sense to evacuate sooner was irrational. In this case it was fellow Corps members that John and his crew was going to retrieve, though, and even if he agreed with that principle there would have been no question whether they would do so. Their target was Circe Base, the home of the last of the Ground Force's expeditionary units. Over the years the Force had shrunk and units had been combined again and again, until only a single badly under-strength battalion. They had continued to strike out from Circe none the less, performing rescue operations of their own or just randomly dropping spare automated Bolo-type mobile Planetary Defense Units on human worlds to mess with the Wraith. It was bad luck that the Wraith had not only found the hidden base, but had done so while their own combat transports were away on another mission. On the other hand, they hadn't seemed to realize what they had found, or they probably would have attacked immediately. That ignorance couldn't last forever, though, and so it was up to Inceptum to extract them.
"How's it looking?" John asked as he entered the bridge and took up his chair. He had been sleeping when the extraction request arrived and his new XO hadn't woken him early. With only twenty-six people left in the entire crew, none of them could really spare any rest.
"We've detected six Wraith cruisers in a high synchronous orbit," Lorne reported. With his own ship stuck in the buried drydock at Taranis, he had been more than willing to take his old job back. "There's two more in a polar orbit. I've slowed the ship down a little to time our arrival with their closest approach to the rest of their fleet."
"Only eight ships total?" John shook his head. "That's a little obvious even for them, isn't it?"
"Maybe, but given their positions, I'd guess there might have been other ships that got a little too close and got smacked by the base's weapons."
"Could be," John said. He studied the sensor display of the system they were approaching. "My bet's on the moon with the thick methane atmosphere around the fourth planet."
"Same planet, but I think they're actually inside the gas giant's outer atmosphere, myself," Lorne said.
"The rings of the fifth planet," Amelia suggested.
"Second planet, one of those deep craters near the pole," Chuck opined.
"Guess we'll see in a minute," John said.
They dropped out of hyperspace right on top of the main Wraith blockade fleet, destroying it within seconds. The other two only lasted as long as it took for drones to reach their positions. With the opposition out the way, Inceptum settled into a position hovering directly above the base. Unfortunately, there was no way to retrieve the forty Planetary Defense Units still on the planet. They might have managed to fit one or two of the tanks into the hangar bays if they tried, but it would have taken quite a bit of time an effort. As it was, it would be hard just to transport as many supplies aboard as possible, along with the Lanteans there.
"Sensor contacts," Chuck announced a minute after their arrival. "Fifty Wraith cruisers and three hiveships just entered hyperspace at the fifth planet. ETA, thirty seconds."
"Good guess, Amelia," John said. "Stand by weapons, stand by hyperdrive. We'll jump as soon as all the critical equipment and supplies are aboard or shields hit ten percent."
The Wraith arrived and both sides opened fire immediately. It was a fairly even match, since Inceptum was unable to maneuver much while using the rings to beam supplies and troopers up. Not for the first time, John wished that he'd managed to convince the War Materials Board to hand over a new ZPM after the ship's first one had died seventeen years before. Even without it, though, they easily destroyed twenty cruisers before their shields started to falter and they started taking damage as energy leaked through them.
"All supplies and personnel aboard," Lorne reported while the lights flickered and the thumps of minor impacts resonated through the hull.
"Engaging hyperdrive," John said. The ship jumped away, destroying a last two cruisers as they went. Quite satisfied with the results of the battle, he turned his chair when he heard the bridge doors open. "Welcome aboard, General."
"Thank you, Supreme Commander," Teyla replied. "It is, as ever, a pleasure to be here. Thank you also for your swift arrival."
"Oh, you know, we were in the area so I figured we could drop by," John said with a casual shrug. "Did you have time to get everything?"
"Everything that could be moved, yes," Teyla said with a sigh. "Unfortunately without our tanks it will be difficult to resume any meaningful operations. We instructed them to scatter, hide, and wait for retrieval, but the Wraith will likely either destroy them or blockade the planet more closely."
"Still, there's a chance we can pick them up, and at least at the moment they're intact." John grinned. "That's more than some people can say about their ships."
Behind him, Lorne sighed and probably rolled his eyes in a disrespectful manner.
"That is true," Teyla said with a soft smile.
"You're all welcome to stay aboard, too," John went on. "We haven't had a decent-sized trooper detachment in way too long. And hey, we've got the entire old command crew back together. It'll be just like old times."
The radiation alarm chose then to go off, clear evidence that the universe had it in for him.
"Oh, you have got to be kidding me," Lorne groaned. "Muon radiation leak, portside engines. Did you never get the damned thing fixed?"
"We kept meaning to, but there was never time. Besides, the patches have been working fine. Except, you know, when they blow out." John checked their course against the rate the radiation levels were rising. There was no way they could get to any of the remaining bases or safe worlds, let alone one with an actual dockyard. He found a convenient star system and a minute later they dropped out of hyperspace, far away from the primary among the icy planetoids in the outskirts of the system.
A short time later, once a full damage assessment was conducted, the command staff met on the bridge. John felt far more endangered by the wrath of the chief engineer than he did by the radiation leak. The latter he had survived before.
"How bad is it?" he asked.
"The entire containment system has been fried," Tech Captain Mico Lamina replied, with a pointed stare that made it clear who she blamed for the continued trouble with her cherished engines. "It will need to be replaced entirely, again, as I warned you it might."
"How long will that take?"
"Take?" Mico shook her head. "You do not understand. We used the last of our spares the last time the system failed. We need access to either a repair ship, or at least a transport with a Class VII hold to carry the new field deflector units."
John rubbed his temple. "That could take months, even if there's any on hand. We can't sit out here that long without full power."
"It might be possible to rig up some radiation shields, but it would also take considerable time and I would not be comfortable using that solution in the long-term."
He thought about it for a minute, not seeing any good way out of the situation. Sitting there until repairs could be done would be dangerous, because if the Wraith caught them they'd be destroyed for sure. Even if they resorted to ripping the parts out of Hippofaralkus it would probably take months for a ship to safely get them to Inceptum.
"Okay, then. We'll rig the ship for long-term shutdown and come back once we've got the parts. We still have Vipera in the hangar. It'll be a bit of a squeeze to get everyone aboard, but I think we'll be fine until we can reach a safe stargate."
"Athos is close," Teyla suggested. "They might even be willing and able to supply us with parts."
"Good idea. Athos it is."
They spent a day shutting the ship down. There was no guarantee as to when they could return, so they did the best they could to prepare the ship for an indefinite stay in the void by shutting down everything except for self-powered anti-radiation and anti-meteorite shields. Those, plus an emergency maneuvering system rigged from a set of gateships, would protect the ship from collisions and other natural dangers. There was nothing they could do about the Wraith, except insure that if they did find the ship it would blow up in their faces. That done, they climbed aboard the old, battered transport and set a course for one of the few remaining free systems in the galaxy.
Athos had not escaped the war unscathed, but none the less had fared far better than most worlds. It was a combination of a position at the far side of the galaxy from the original Wraith worlds, advanced technology, and sheer bloody-minded determination that had kept them mostly safe. Forty years on war footing had left the population tired and worn out, with entire generations who had never known peace, but they were at least alive. Athos still had a large navy and massive defenses around all of their colonies. It was enough to keep the Wraith away for now.
They landed at one of the military spaceports near the stargate. There were several hovering ground vehicles and platoons of soldiers waiting for them as they stepped off the ship.
"Good afternoon, sir," their officer said, stepping forward. "I'm Major Torren Trivasset. Welcome to Athos."
"It's good to be here," John replied. "Thanks for letting us pass through."
"It's no trouble at all," Trivasset said. "The President made it clear that we were to extend you whatever help you need. Speaking of whom, Star Colonel Laurentius, Grandfather sends his complements and is glad to hear you're still alive."
"Thanks," Lorne said, "Remind him he still owes me a bottle of brivari for saving his ass over Manaria."
"I'll be sure to do so, sir. Now, if you'll all follow me, we'll escort you to the stargate."
John frowned and as they walked to the vehicles, "We need an escort?"
Trivasset hesitated, then said, "There are some small fringe elements of society who blame Lanteans for the Wraith, and we would prefer they not get a chance to express their views in a more personal way."
"By which you mean as a torch-wielding mob or with a sniper rifle."
"Exactly, sir." The major shrugged and apologetically said, "The majority of the population knows that it's nonsense, of course, and we would have preferred to have some kind of official recognition of your presence, especially since Field General Teyla is here."
Dryly, Teyla said, "I am not sure that I wish to know why I particular deserve recognition."
"You're the last Athosian-born Lantean, not to mention the hero of Tharis, Calsus Three, and countless other worlds," Trivasset said. He smiled slightly. "There's a number of holovid series and plays about you. Decision at Veltra is considered a classic."
"I see," Teyla replied. A little wistfully, she said, "Perhaps I shall arrange a visit soon. It would be nice to see home again."
"You're welcome any time, ma'am."
After a short trip aboard the waiting hovercraft, they reached the stargate. Soon they were safely back in Atlantis. It was good to be home, but in all honesty he was not looking forward to explaining what had happened to his ship.
It was over a week later that John had the wonderful experience of physically attending a meeting of the High Council in years. He had never particularly liked dealing with most of the other Lantean leaders, and had only taken the job as Supreme Commander because he was the next person in line when Thesia, the third to hold to post since Camilla's death, had ascended. Everyone else above him had died, ascended, or gone missing over the years. Because of the lack of qualified commanders John had chosen to stay on his ship and command from the front, which conveniently let him skip many council meetings and claim to be under attack when wanting to leave one early.
There had been some changes on the council since the first time he had stood before it seventy-odd years ago. Moros was still in charge, of course, and Ganos Lal and Melia would never have left their positions willingly because they had a sense of duty and obligation. Saxeus from the Interior Bureau was still there, mostly because of sheer obstinacy in John's opinion. The Economics and Science positions, on the other hand, were practically revolving doors. Science was especially bad, with councilors barely managing to stay on for more than a few years before quitting or ascending without so much as goodbye. Palto and Dresanna, the current councilors, were non-entities chosen mostly for being pliable and unlikely to randomly leave. Both did little more than sit there and agree with whatever Moros said.
"Thank you all for coming," Moros said, with a slight glance in John's direction. "It is very convenient to have the entire Council assembled for this meeting, because of its great importance. As you know, we have been studying the final telemetry data and schematics sent by the Arcturus Project since the destruction of Doranda. The teams responsible for doing so have concluded that there is no way of making the device safe with the manpower and resources that we possess. As such, we must consider what our next move is going to be."
"Our next move?" Saxeus said. "That reactor was our last hope. We can sit here under the ocean indefinitely, but I think it's safe to say that the war is lost."
"I must reluctantly agree," Ganos said. "I have discussed matters with my counterparts in the Alliance. The Asgard are still willing to help, but they have few intergalactic-capable carriers capable of conveying the rest of their fleet to Pegasus and would likely be defeated quickly. The Furlings have no real offensive ability. The Nox… are the Nox."
The rest of the council looked to John, and he found himself nodding. "Without a new power source to boost our ships, it would be… hard to fight back directly any longer. Sooner or later we'll lose Tria and the other operational ships."
"Do you have suggestions?" Moros asked.
"Beyond trying to find some biological weapon, sending out waves of self-replicating warbots, or maybe supply the Athosians with our technology?" John shook his head. "Not right now, no."
"That is my assessment as well, and none of those choices are acceptable. We must face facts. There are less than three thousand Lanteans left in this galaxy. Roughly two thousand are here, the rest scattered in hiding places elsewhere. If we are to survive as a species, we have no choice but to withdraw from the war. I propose an immediate evacuation to Avalon, while there are still enough of us to rebuild there."
John sucked in a breath. "And simply abandon the people of Pegasus?"
"You yourself admitted there is nothing more we can do. Going to Avalon would at least remove the threat of the Wraith."
John hated the very idea of leaving with all his heart, but he had to admit that Moros was right. Sitting indefinitely under the ocean of Lantea was not an option. Their population was too small, and with the constant oppressive presence of the Wraith overhead, it would only continue to shrink. There was also the chance the Wraith would eventually find some way to attack them. The only thing more unacceptable than abandoning Pegasus was dying and still leaving the humans to the same fate.
"I agree," John said.
"Thank you," Moros said. He relaxed almost imperceptibly, like he had been expecting a drawn-out fight. "Are there any objections? No? Then by unanimous vote, the evacuation is ordered. The question now is how and when."
"The sooner, the better," Melia said. "If we send an advanced party now, we could have a settlement ready by the time preparations are complete to move whatever equipment we can. We could begin relocating most of the population within a month."
"Could we take the entire city with us?" Palto asked.
"In case you didn't notice, there's a thousand Wraith ships overhead," John pointed out. "They don't know where we are at the moment, but the instant we turn on the sublights they'll see us and converge. We can't take fire from that many ships while also operating the sublight engines and engaging the stardrive. We'd never make it to hyperspace."
"We still have enough automated construction units and generators to set up a small town," Saxeus said. "Much of the city's essential equipment is portable as well. We could have a very comfortable existence on Terra or elsewhere in Avalon, despite the current conditions there. I definitely recommend we take the city's zero-point modules."
"We can't do that," John said. "The shield would collapse."
"A backup generator could keep it running long enough for us to leave," Saxeus replied. "We should probably set the self-destruct in any case, to keep the city out of Wraith hands."
"Absolutely unacceptable," John said, sitting up straighter. "The city is invaluable. It's been the center of our civilization for more than five million years. We can't just blow it up."
"Sentimentality is not reason enough to outweigh the practical concerns."
"If you need a practical concern, Atlantis will be a necessary staging ground for any return to Pegasus. We will need a safe base of operations when that time comes."
Saxeus shook his head. "You assume we will return. There is no guarantee that we will ever return, and it will certainly not be in our lifetime or that of our children, or even our grandchildren. The short-term benefits of the ZPMs vastly outweigh any theoretical advantages for an operation that may or may not happen and will take place in thousands of years if it does."
"I don't care," John spat, "and I will not allow you to destroy this city. End of discussion."
Moros stiffened. He at least recognized the implied threat there, and most likely Ganos did as well. Whatever the law said, John was the one whom the remaining military personnel would back if it the fight became more than verbal. What they'd do afterwards if it came to that, he had no idea, but he would not allow his city to be destroyed by the Council any more he would let the Wraith do it.
Before the conversation could degenerate further, Melia said, "I agree with Johannes. We have a moral obligation to the people of this galaxy to return one day and liberate them from the Wraith, even if it takes five thousand years to do so. Perhaps our descendants might chose not to return, but we must leave the option open to them. We have enough spare zero-point modules that leaving three here will not hinder us, given how small our numbers now are."
"Well said," Ganos murmured. "I concur. We must preserve the city for as long as time as is possible. Returning is not out of the question. My latest studies show rapidly growing divisions within the Wraith. They can not sustain their current population growth for long. Sooner or later they will fall apart into civil war. By the time we are ready to think of coming back, they will be much weaker than they are now."
Moros looked unhappy, but he nodded. "Agreed. Ganos, given that you know the most about the current situation in Avalon and are the second most senior councilor, I believe it would be appropriate for you to lead the return expedition and prepare the way."
"Very well," Ganos said.
"There is the matter of those who can't get to Atlantis," John said, calm once again. "I think our best option is to have any ships capable of intergalactic meet up with Tria somewhere safe. They can make the flight together. That'll give us a warship and probably some heavy equipment that we can't fit through the gate. If any of them are willing to pick up anyone stranded away from a gate, they can do so."
There were nods around the table. John felt a pang about not being able to retrieve his own ship, but he knew there was no other option but to leave it until someone returned.
It only took a short time for the actual details of the evacuation to be planned. An initial wave would go through to build a settlement, then the majority of the population and whatever equipment they could move. A small group would remain behind to wait until the last ships were safely away, at which point the city would be abandoned.
Word of the evacuation quickly spread. John was busy dealing with the military's preparations, such as cleaning out the main armories. While he was doing so, Teyla came to his office.
"Supreme Commander Johannes," she said, oddly formal.
"Field General Teyal," he replied. "What can I do for you?"
"I am here to tender my resignation," Teyla said.
John gaped at her. "Why?"
"I can not in good conscious abandon the people of this galaxy to the Wraith. Instead, I intend to return to Athos and offer them my services."
"Teyla, sooner or later, Athos is going to be hit, and hit hard. Once the Wraith know we're not down here, the blockade fleet's probably going to head straight for the biggest target, and that's Athos."
"I am aware of that, but none the less, I can not leave them to their fate."
John sighed and stood up. "I wish I could stay with you."
"I know," she said, pulling him into a tight embrace. "Your place is safeguarding our people. I could not ask you to do otherwise."
"I'll miss you," he said softly.
"And I you."
"I'll see you again some day," John said, with a strength of conviction that surprised even him. He didn't know where his confidence came from, only that he knew it was true. "Count on it."
Teyla left the next day, with a few other volunteers who chose to remain. Lorne was the next to go, heading to Earth with Ganos and a detachment to provide security. Soon enough the population of the city shrunk down to a few dozen people awaiting the last transports to arrive.
Then something odd happened.
Elizabeth woke with a gasp, convinced for a moment that she was drowning. Then reality reasserted itself as she became fully awake and aware. She was not drowning, nor trapped in a plummeting spacecraft, but rather laying on a soft surface, a bed perhaps.
"You're awake?" a man standing close to her said.
"I think so," Elizabeth replied. She sat up and took a better look around. She was in some kind of hospital ward, but not at Stargate Command. The architecture and technology was clearly alien and matched that of both the Antarctic outpost and the brief, painful glimpses she had seen of Atlantis. Her companion was a white man, perhaps in his late thirties or early forties. He was wearing a bland beige and tan outfit not unlike what the Tok'ra preferred to wear. Elizabeth herself was wearing a white dress.
"I'm Doctor Elizabeth Weir," she said after a moment.
"My name is Janus," the man replied. "Your ship was shot down. We retrieved it from the ocean floor."
"There were two others with me, Major John Sheppard and Doctor Radek Zelenka. Are they all right?"
Janus shook his head. "I'm afraid not. You were all killed in the crash, and while we were able to revive you they both suffered severe brain damage, beyond our ability to repair."
It hit her like a punch to the gut. Unless those trapped in the other spacecraft had managed to survive somehow, that meant she was the only one left. Her entire expedition, a hundred and thirty people, wiped out barely twenty minutes after leaving Earth.
After a moment, she managed to get herself under control enough to ask, "Where am I?"
Immediately she wondered if she was being deceived. "That's impossible. I was just there. The shield collapsed, the entire city was flooded."
Janus smiled broadly. "I know. Not what happened, that is. I'm sorry for your loss. But you are in Atlantis. Your gateship, if I'm guessing correctly, was one I've been working on. Where did you find it? Was it different from the others?"
"In the hangar over the gate room," she answered in confusion. "It had a device in the back that the others didn't. Why?"
"Yes, that's it," he exclaimed. "It worked! That device you saw, it's a time machine. You traveled into your past, no doubt arriving today because it's when I made the last modifications to the system. It's wonderful!"
Elizabeth drew in a deep breath and only her years of training and experience kept her from hitting him. "I respectfully disagree."
"As do I," another woman said. "Doctor Weir, I am Councilor Melia. I am sorry for the circumstances that brought you here. If you feel well enough, our High Council would like to speak with you." Melia cast a narrow-eyed look at Janus. "And to you as well, Janus. Your disobedience has not gone unnoticed."
"Of course," Elizabeth said, already planning what to say. "I'd be more than happy to meet them."
Her hopes that the Ancient leaders would help save the expedition were quickly crushed. They were sympathetic to her cause, but refused to take any action that would alter the future. Perhaps they had good reason, but all Elizabeth could think of were her people slowly drowning for no reason or fault on their part. The closest she got was an offer to block the stargate and prevent the expedition from arriving at all. She initially refused, hoping to bluff them into changing their minds, but they remained adamant. If all else failed Elizabeth would ask them to seal the gate before leaving, but she thought there had to be something else she could do.
Her prayers were possibly answered when Janus pulled her aside and said, "Come with me. There might be something we can do."
He took to another part of the city and they briefly walked outside. Atlantis was beautiful, everything she had imagined, but after an initial moment of wonder she looked up and shivered, seeing the ocean outside the shield.
After a minute they walked into a room holding a control chair like the one in Antarctica. The sight of the man sitting in it took her breath away. His face was a little more stress-worn, his uniform different, his hair cut closer, but still he could have been John Sheppard's twin.
"John?" she softly murmured despite herself, wondering if Janus had lied to both her and the Council and he had survived somehow.
John looked their way and after a second the chair moved into an upright position. "Yeah?"
"Supreme Commander, this is Doctor Elizabeth Weir, the survivor of the crashed gateship," Janus said. "Doctor Weir, this is Supreme Commander Johannes Veterator, the head of our military."
"Pleased to meet you," Elizabeth said. It had been an irrational thought, of course, and the resemblance was just some quirk of genetics. Perhaps he had lived longer than the other Ancients and was a more recent ancestor than usual.
John nodded. "Likewise. I'm sorry for your loss, Doctor Elizabeth. Or should I call you Weir? I don't know what your naming customs are."
"Just Elizabeth is fine," she said.
John — Johannes, she told herself — looked at Janus. "I watched the Council meeting remotely. You've been a very bad boy, Janus. How many times have we told you not to meddle with causality?"
Janus set his jaw but said, "Many times, I admit."
"I bet you regret turning down the Council position now, don't you?"
"Actually, yes. That's why I'm here. I have a plan to save Elizabeth's expedition, but I will need council-level security access to do it."
"And you think I'll help you?"
Elizabeth prepared to make her plea yet again, but first John grinned suddenly, the same boyish smile she had seen so many times over the last month. "All right. You've already changed the timeline just by having her here, so I may as well help change into something better. Tell me —"
He was interrupted by a chime. Immediately his grin was replaced by a deep frown and the chair reclined again. A hologram appeared overhead that showed part of the planet and the space above. There was a swarm of red dots and a single green symbol, weaving its way toward the surface.
"It's the Pyxis," John said. "Damn it, they jumped in too far out. I told them not to try to run the blockade."
Janus quietly told Elizabeth, "This is the last transport that we're waiting for."
Another person's voice came from around them. "Pyxis to Atlantis. Our cloak was damaged at Valdore and we are under attack. We're returning fire but there are too many ships up here. Can you assist?"
"Negative, Pyxis," John replied, his voice so low and tense it was almost a growl. "All our munitions are expended. Recommend you take approach corridor Delta-Three and get under the water as soon as possible. Don't bother returning fire just divert all power to engines and shields."
"Understood, Atlantis." The green symbol drew closer to the planet, but the cluster of red around the ship grew thicker and thicker.
"Atlantis, we are taking heavy damage. Shields are failing and —" Whatever else the pilot was going to say was drowned out by screams. A moment later there was the sound of explosions and the channel abruptly cut off.
"Fuck!" John shouted, smacking the arm of the control chair.
"There were three hundred people on that ship," Janus said quietly, his face pale.
They stood there in silence for a minute, until Melia's voice came over the intercom. "Attention. The Pyxis has just been destroyed. The final evacuation will commence now. Please report to your assigned positions immediately."
John looked at them, an intent look in his eyes. "You said you have a plan?"
Janus nodded. "I have a way to extend the life of the zero-point modules. However, for it to work, we need access to the power room, a way past any guards, and for Doctor Weir to be removed from the internal security scans. We also have to re-enable the safety protocol to raise the city in the event of a shield failure."
"Give me a second." John's fingers flexed on the chair's pad. "Security is down, failsafe enabled. Come on, we need to move fast."
The three of them crossed the city again, until they reached a room where three ZPMs were plugged into a central pedestal. Janus explained his plan then. While the ZPM was attached, a small trickle charge would be drained even if the ZPM was not in use. Because of this, if they were manually connected and disconnected in sequence, a small amount of power could be saved. It would hopefully be enough to keep the city intact until the expedition arrived. If not, the city would automatically rise from the depths.
There was a downside, however. Elizabeth would have to stay and manually change the ZPMs out. There was no question in her mind about doing it. Rodney, John Sheppard, and so many others had died to save her. The least she could do was return the favor.
"Janus, go get the stasis chamber ready. I'll show her how to take care of the modules," John said. Once they were alone, he asked her, "When you came into the chair room, you called me John. Why?"
"You look like John Sheppard, one of the men in my expedition," Elizabeth replied. "The resemblance is… uncanny."
"Huh. Same name and same looks." Suddenly his demeanor changed. It was a subtle thing, just a slight change in his posture, like a great weight had been lifted. His smile was a little softer, too, his expression sly. "I bet you wonder if that's a coincidence."
"I do," she said cautiously, thinking of other Ancients they had met over the years, and of Daniel Jackson.
"The truth would take a very long ontological discussion to fully explain and explore," John said after a moment. "The short answer is that, no, I am not John Sheppard. I'm also not not John Sheppard." He frowned, and silently repeated 'not not' to himself. "Which is probably not an answer at all, is it?"
"No, it's not," Elizabeth said, giving him a stern look that had occasionally worked when John and Rodney had started arguing over whether or not John was Rodney's personal guinea pig. "I think you can take thirty seconds or so and try for one that at least sounds more grammatically correct."
"I've been around in one form or another for very long time, since the city left Avalon," John said. "Me and couple others, in fact. You might argue about whether it's the same me, but here, in my heart, what makes me John is the same. Think of it as reincarnation of a sort."
"That's amazing," Elizabeth murmured. "So the whole time, Sheppard was a descended Ancient? Did he know?"
John shook his head. "It doesn't work like that. We're born, we grow up, we live and love and eventually die. It's what keeps us human over the millions of years, what separates us from the Others. I usually don't remember much consciously, although there's always something under the surface." He grinned suddenly. "Unless something odd happens, like a visitor from the future pointing it out. It'd be helpful if you don't do that again. It can get awkward."
Elizabeth chuckled and nodded. It was obvious that if, by some good fortune, she lived to see the rest of the expedition arrive she would have to do some creative alterations to her story. "And there are others like you?"
"A couple who've stuck with me. Sometimes others come and go over the ages."
"That's good. It'd be terrible for you to be alone."
"Don't worry about it. There's usually other friends and family, too. I think I'll be pleased to call you one some day." John smiled and pointed at the ZPM console. "We should get to work."
John showed her how to operate the ZPM machine and then took her up two levels to where Janus had prepared the stasis chamber. Janus surprised them both by handing over a slip of paper with gate addresses, which he said were locations he believed ZPMs might be found. They said their goodbyes then and she stepped into the chamber. As it activated and a cold feeling descended upon her, the last thing she saw was John's smile.
Near the south pole of the planet Earth, a small settlement had been built around the stargate. It was protected by an energy shield from both the elements and any prying eyes. Two thousand, one hundred and eighteen people lived there, a tiny fraction of what had once been Lantean civilization. What would happen to those survivors was still uncertain. There were so few of them left that rebuilding seemed an almost impossible task. More than that, they were tired after almost a hundred years of war, and many had no desire to remain on the mortal plane any longer.
At the edge of the shield, two men sat on the edge of a building's roof, looking out across the white plain outside.
"So, I hear Moros pitched a fit at the council meeting," Lorne said, taking a drink from his bottled alcoholic beverage. "Something about a human from the future not showing up?"
John chuckled. "Yeah, he's pissed. Somehow I get the feeling he doesn't accept the explanation that she disappeared inside the wormhole. Janus is lucky he didn't get skinned alive and hung from the gate as warning."
"I'm sure you had nothing to do with it."
"Of course not."
They sat in silence for a few minutes. A few yards away, strange flightless birds waddled past.
"So what now?" Lorne asked. "I'm pretty sure we've never screwed up quite this badly."
"You blew up half of Andromeda once," John pointed out.
"That's beside the point, sir."
John shrugged. "We'll stick around a while, see what happens here. Maybe talk to a few of the new guys to see if they'd be up for tagging along with us until Atlantis gets back on its feet."
Lorne nodded. "Works for me. I could use a vacation."
"So could I, and this seems like as good a place to relax as any. I kinda like it here."
The time after the evacuation to Earth is outside the scope of this document, but I would be remiss in not touching on it briefly. There were barely more than two thousand Lanteans left by this point and it soon became clear that Tria and the other ships had failed to reach Avalon, making the reconstruction of society difficult. Earth was populated only by primitive tribal groups, the most advanced of whom were only just beginning to build agriculture societies and cities. Rebuilding may still have been possible had the Supreme System Lord Ra not discovered Earth less than two years after our arrival. With the resources we had, mounting an effective defense against the Goa'uld was impossible. At that point, the remaining Lanteans went into hiding or left the planet entirely, destroying the small settlement we had made around the stargate and allowing the gate to be buried in the Antarctic glacier in order to prevent our technology from falling into their hands.
Of those who spread through the galaxy, the majority settled on the Nox homeworld. Most ascended within a few decades or blended in with Nox society, seeking to become part of what they viewed as a more successful culture. These included Ganos Lal, Melia, and myself. Others sought to aid societies that they viewed as having potential, or simply went to find an empty planet where they could meditate with no distractions from the surrounding world.
On Earth, some also sought seclusion. Many did what they could to help the humans there, even if we could not resist the Goa'uld as a whole. This was particularly successful on the continents of Australia and North America, where a small group of Lanteans used their technology to sufficiently annoy and frustrate the Goa'uld that they ignored the continents in favor of the rest of the planet. Not all were quite so passive; several of the surviving members of the Monitor Corps joined forces with the Oannes freedom fighter Omoroca and successfully assassinated the System Lord Anu. They were shortly hounded off the planet or killed by the rest of the Goa'uld.
The Lantean population, both on and off Earth, shrank precipitously over the next several centuries, until only a handful remained. Roughly a dozen led by Theresia, former head of the Department of Games and Recreation, stayed in North America and Australia until roughly 1,281 BCE, spending considerable time in stasis to prolong their lives. Besides myself, Janus was the last Lantean on Earth, living in a hidden laboratory under what the natives call the Palatine hills. It was a result of his meddling that much of our language filtered into the local Etruscan dialects, along with numerous names and stories. Pinning an exact date on his departure is difficult, as his continued experimentation with time travel was eventually a marginal success. The last visit his lab's computer records is in 79 CE, although it is always possible he might return at some future point; knowledge of his fate is not among that I still carry from my ascension.
As for myself, I returned to physical form in order to create a defense against what I believe in inevitable Ori incursion against this galaxy. It is my sincere hope that our descendants will one day return to Atlantis. To this end, I have taken it upon myself insure that the genetic sequences necessary to use our technology will remain extant in at least some of the Earth's populations. While they are still present in a weak form in spots around the globe, including Australia, North America, and Italia, I have taken it upon myself to use genofixing technology strengthen those genes in a more deliberate manner, both in those locations and in the local population around my own facility here in Brittania. I hope that these genes will remain present until the departure of Doctor Weir's expedition. While I was hesitant to take such action, as it is based in part on foreknowledge of the future, given Doctor Weir's failure to arrive in Antarctica it is obvious that Janus has meddled with causality. I hope only to give them a better chance to survive, and perhaps one day reclaim Atlantis, destroy the Wraith, and rebuild Lantean civilization once more.
Helia stared out of the bridge viewport at the stretched and blue-shifted stars ahead of Tria. It had been just days since the battle at the Ionian Nebula, where the surviving ships had gathered to prepare for the intergalactic voyage. It had seemed like a perfect hiding place, for the active nebula would foil long-range sensors. Instead it had become a killing ground. They had been completely surprised by the Wraith, who were led there by a tracking device on the Olympia that had been detected far too late. Only Tria had escaped into hyperspace, and not before taking enough damage that their hyperdrive failed halfway between galaxies.
Her XO Selenia came up beside her. "We've reached cruising speed, ma'am."
Helia nodded. In their desperation, they had used their sublight engines to turn the ship into a makeshift light-hugger, traveling so close to the speed of light that they experienced immense time dilation effects. For every day that passed aboard, over seven hundred years would pass outside.
"How long until we're in transmitter range of Ida or Avalon?"
"Sixteen days, maybe."
"Or eleven thousand years." Helia sighed. "Thank you, Captain. And please, pass my thanks along to the engineers as well."
Helia tried to be confident that, even if those she knew were dead, Alterran civilization would be thriving on Earth. In the back of her mind, though, was the lurking fear that the Nox or Asgard would arrive and tell them that the others had failed to rebuild and that they were the last Lanteans alive. It was a thought so unimaginable, so terrifying, that Helia refused to confront it outside of her nightmares. All she could do was hope it was not so.
Janus hummed happily as he exited his modified jumper. Thus far his experiments with his new time travel device had been a huge success. He had spent several months now jumping to various points in this planet's timeline and recording events of interest. His goal was to create a reasonably exhaustive history to serve as a baseline so that when changes were made he could spot them. Soon he would be able to determine how well minor changes to the timeline affected both his own perception and that of other people in a controlled manner. Once that was done, he could move on to the next stage in his plan. The most difficult part would be finding a way to get back to Pegasus, but there was enough intergalactic travel in the past that he could surely hitch a ride at some point. It would have to wait until he smoothed out the last few glitches, of course, especially the one with the navigational system. Occasionally it still landed him a little bit off-target, which could be annoying, to say the least.
His thoughts were interrupted by a crackling snap and a shout of, "Kree!"
"Oh dear," Janus said.
It was a wonderfully warm evening, with the stars and moons bright overhead, as perfect a midsummer night as you could ask. They had come to the gate as always, where they could pay homage to the Ancestors near the site of their city and trade with other worlds. Of all the games and feasts and other things that accompanied the festival days, what Teyla enjoyed the most were the stories of the Ancestors that would be told. Tonight she and many others were gathered around a fire to listen to them. To one side was Kanaan, to the other was her close friend Sora.
"Ah, where to begin, where to begin," Charin said. "There is so much to tell. I shall start with the Great War. In those days, you know, the Ancestors often walked on this world, and we ourselves flew among the stars. We were some of their chosen people in fact. The Genii were as well, Sora, as your own people have no doubt told you. One Ancestor who favored us in particular was Thaela the Half-Blooded, a mighty warrior who had been born on this world while her parents lived among us. She rode a might chariot that made the ground itself shake and tremble as it passed. Among her comrades were Jannes the Bold, greatest of all those who flew, and his companion Larn the Faithful. Also by her side with Hallen and Torren, two Athosians to whom she taught the ways of war. Don't make that face at me, Kanaan, we shall get to your namesake soon enough."
"Now, when Thaela and Jannes were young, the Wraith had not yet come. No one remembers where the darkness first arose, but all the books and stories agree that they were there and the first to resist it…."
"Well, shit," Lorne said. He stared under the raised hood at the exposed guts of his car, trying to figure out what was causing the horrible grinding noise it had made when he'd tried to put it in gear. It would have helped if he knew what half of the stuff in there did. He could change his oil just fine, but that was about the scope of his car knowledge. He did logistics, not mechanics. He kind of wished he had paid more attention to what his dad had tried to show him as a kid, and that it wasn't his first day at his new posting.
"Car trouble?" someone drawled.
Lorne glanced over, saw a uniform, and instinctively straightened up, promptly hitting his head on the hood. After a minute of using language that definitely wasn't becoming an officer and gentleman, he said, "Yes, sir. It won't move."
The other officer grinned and ambled closer to take a look. "Captain Cameron Mitchell. Nice to meet you."
"Lieutenant Evan Lorne, sir. Likewise."
"Hmmm. Well, looks like you've got all your belts where they should be and I don't see anything else out of place. I can take a closer look at it later, maybe. You heading for Edwards?"
"You can ride with me and Sheppard, then." Mitchell started walking and waved for him to follow along. "We live up on the third floor and are headed that way ourselves."
"Thank you, sir," Lorne said fervently. "You have no idea how much I owe you. I'm supposed to report today and I'd die if I was late on my first day."
"It's no problem." They reached another car further down the lot. It was a convertible, and while Lorne didn't know a lot about cars he could recognize that this was a real beautiful and impressive one. In the driver's seat there was another man in uniform with captain's bars. He had aviator shades and a casual, arrogant slouch that only a pilot could have.
"Sheppard, this is Evan Lorne," Mitchell said as he slid into the passenger seat and Lorne got in behind him. "Lorne, John Sheppard. He likes flying, Ferris wheels, and things that go faster than two hundred miles per hour."
"Good morning, sir," Lorne said.
"Mornin'," Sheppard said, looking over his shoulder and nodding. Then he looked again more closely. "Do I know you?"
"You know, I'm not sure," Lorne said after a minute. "Maybe. You look familiar."
Lorne's suspicions about Sheppard being a pilot were confirmed a few minutes later, while he was clinging to his seat and wishing that he had never met Sheppard, no matter when it had happened.
Chuck fidgeted in his chair as he waited for someone to say something. On the other side of the table sat Scylla and Charybdis, or as they were alternatively called, Deputy Director Thatcher of CSIS and Lieutenant Colonel Davis of the USAF. Somehow he suspected that he would be less fortunate than Odysseus when it came to making an escape. Even if he got away from them, his boss was no doubt lurking ahead like a giant undersea rock.
"Am I in trouble?" Chuck asked after a few more minutes of being stared at.
"What would you guess, Sergeant?" Thatcher asked. "You did hack into a highly classified military server, after all."
"One containing secrets that are vital to the security of both our nations," Davis added.
"I'm going to guess that I am," Chuck said.
"Yes, you are," Thatcher confirmed.
"Look, there's a completely rational reason behind it," Chuck said. "There's been a lot of unusual activity coming from that place that was connected to a fraud investigation I was conducting. All I did was a little digging."
"You hacked past some of the most advanced firewalls and security protections on the planet," Davis pointed out.
"Well, yeah, but I didn't know it was military."
"Even after you started accessing files."
"It read like it was background material for a roleplaying game or something. How was I supposed to know it was all real?"
"I would expect that the fact that the servers were at NORAD would have given it away."
"So does this mean there are really aliens?"
They both glared at him for a minute. Finally Davis said, "Your investigation did help us track some criminals we've been looking for ourselves, and your level of skill with the computer system has attracted attention from our own technical specialists. For that reason, we're prepared to be lenient."
Thatcher leaned forward. "There's a special project about to be launched as part of the program you've stumbled across. I highly suggest you volunteer. The alternatives would not be pleasant."
"Yes, ma'am," Chuck said meekly. "I'd love to volunteer, ma'am."
It was one minute to departure and John still didn't really know what the hell he was doing. A month ago he had been perfectly happy flying his chopper around to different top secret don't-really-exist bases near McMurdo. Now he was about to step through an alien device that would shoot his body through a wormhole into an entirely different galaxy, which was possibly a one-way trip. His CO already hated him, the entire military contingent was made of Marines except for a couple random international troops, and he figured that there was a fifty-fifty chance that by the end of the week he would shoot McKay. Even by John's standards, the entire thing was insane.
The thing was, he really didn't have anything better to do. His career was pretty much in the gutter already and the only reason he had been flying anything but a desk was his top secret clearance and his prior record. Sticking around Stargate Command or Area 51 to play lightswitch wasn't appealing at all. He supposed he could just wait out the rest of his term and resign, but commercial flying sounded even worse than playing with alien gizmos and he'd be bored out of his mind if he just went home and lived off his trust fund or something. Not only that, but there was something inherently appealing about setting off into the unknown.
Also, there might be spaceships he could fly with his mind.
So there he was, standing next to a giant puppy dog of a lieutenant, watching as the wormhole opened and they waited for the okay to go through.
"What's it feel like?" he asked Ford as they walked up the ramp.
"It hurts like hell, sir," Ford replied. His face was hard and serious for a moment before he grinned and jumped backwards through the puddle.
'Marines,' John thought with a sigh. He stepped through.
He found himself in a large open space, dark except for the illumination from their flashlights and the gate. Then lights began to come on, slowly at first but with gathering speed and brightness as John walked further ahead and up the stairs. There was a hum in the floor and walls as the power grew stronger, which he felt more than heard. He happened to put a hand against the wall and felt a sudden snap connection with the awakening city. For a single glorious moment he knew that this was why he had come and all his doubts disappeared.
Of course, thirty minutes later John learned the city was going to drown them all, but that was pretty much normal for his life.
We have been soldiers, builders, thinkers, friends, lovers; we have been called a hundred names and will be called a thousand more before the stars go dim and cold. We are heroes.