The Nemhain Main Laboratory 07:30 hrs
Brigadier General Snow entered the lab and looked around. He didn't get down to this level of the ship often, but had been warned by others that it was not exactly what a person would expect from a lab. At first he could not see what they meant, but then he began to notice the small pieces of paper. Some were stuck to the sides of computer terminals. Some were taped together in groups. He paused to look more closely at five small rectangles stuck to the wall between two sets of equipment. Each one was a small drawing with a caption below. Snow was familiar enough with Earth animals to recognise cows and chickens, but he was pretty sure that they didn't talk, right? He read some of the captions and raised an eyebrow. Earth humour could be a little, uh, well, hmm... He read the title above the pictures. The Far Side. Of what? Or where, maybe? He studied one of the pictures and read the caption again.
The corner of his mouth quirked, he couldn't help it.
"What? Whazzit! Hello?" Ilexa Thorn's head jerked into view from a scattering of books, papers, post-its and three data pads, where it looked like she had been taking an impromptu nap. "Brigadier, where did you come from?" She patted her chest to calm herself. "Oh, bother," she slapped at a timer resting on the lab table as it began an incessant beeping. "Just a moment, I have to record these test results. It will just take a minute." She grinned at him and picked up a data pad as he shrugged and turned back to the pictures. Once or twice he gave a chuckle as he read, waiting patiently for Thorn to finish with her notes.
"Ah, finished. I have been working on this set of experiments for days! What can I do for you, sir?"
"Actually, it is what I can do for you. I take it you haven't checked your messages for a while."
"Why, uh, no. I mean, I checked them not too long ago - I think. " She moved to her terminal and clicked away on the keys.
The Brigadier leaned from behind and pointed at the screen. "I think I sent the first one forty-eight hours ago, and the second one yesterday."
Thorn twisted her mouth up in embarrassment. "Why don't you summarise them for me?"
"Basically, I wanted to let you know that I received clearance for you to go with one of my pilots on patrol. That is, if you still want to..."
"Still want to? Are you kidding? When, when?"
"This morning, but Thorn, when did you sleep last? I can re-schedule it you know, it's part of my job."
"Nope, no way. You can start scheduling a second flight for me if you want, but I am not missing my first tour of the system because of a little sleep deprivation."
Snow shook his head. "All right, if you are sure you are up to it. You need to hurry, I can't hold the patrol for you, and it leaves in half-an-hour."
"But we have leave to do a fly-by of all the planets in the system, right? Not just out to the perimeter and back?" Thorn asked over her shoulder as she gathered pieces of equipment and slid them into various pockets.
"I have given the pilot clearance to give you a full tour of the Farpoint system, gas giant, the works."
Thorn and Snow turned to leave the lab, then Thorn turned aside and quickly flipped on the dampening field she had set up around the rat cages. She liked to hear them scurry and squeak at her as she worked, and they usually warned her when anyone was entering the lab. But they didn't need to be bothered by loud noises when she wasn't there. Casting a quick glance at their water and food levels, which looked good, she continued out of the lab and down the corridor.
Patrol of Farpoint System, 10:40 hrs
"What a rush! Good thing I prepared for this in the simulators." Thorn was ecstatic. The X-wing trainer was circling inverted around the gas giant, giving her a great view of the swirling gases the enclosed the barren planet. Farpoint 5 was not as big as Jupiter, but Thorn did not care. She had just spent three hours in an X-Wing, she was touring a remote system light-years from Earth, she was seeing sights with her naked eye that astronomers on Earth had only been able to glimpse through the view piece of a telescope or relayed from probes. Music played softly from speakers clipped to the collar of her flight-suit.
"Now what are you listening to?" Asked the pilot. "I can't believe the Brigadier gave you permission to bring that MP3 player along. Don't we have enough shots and sensor readings of these planets for you to study already?" Major Phillipe did not mind ferrying Thorn around, it beat flying the regular patrol, but what was up with the music?
"This piece is called 'Jupiter' and was written to show the grandeur of that planet in music. Something this glorious needs its own soundtrack, don't you think? Thorn swallowed painfully. You just don't understand. She thought to herself. You don't understand what it is like to be stuck on one planet, looking up at the stars and dreaming of travelling to them one day, always knowing it was a dream. Then one day it's not, it's almost as easy as running to the corner market. And probably just as boring for you, but not for me. May I be struck blind if I ever take such a gift for granted.
Thorn tried to blame the show of emotion on her lack of sleep and all the missed meals in the last few days, but as the silent tears began to flow down her face. She knew it was because she was simply overwhelmed by just being there, upside down over a planet a million miles from home. I packed everything else but Kleenex! And she surreptitiously wiped her eyes on her sleeve.
Actually, Phillipe had a good idea what was going through Thorn's mind, and when he overheard the sniffling, he wisely held all comments and let the moment pass. Checking in with the Nemhain, he adjusted his bearing and turned toward the research vessel.
Thorn cleared her throat and decided to change the subject and the mood. "Did I tell you about the time a friend of mine took some people up in his little Cessna? Seems one of his passengers became 'sick' if you know what I mean. This passenger was holding the filled airsick bag between his knees unsealed when my friend decided to surprise everyone with a barrel roll. Fortunately it was a short flight back to the airport, but my friend never took that particular passenger up flying again."
Phillipe had to match that story with one of his own as they made their approach to the landing bay. It was a smooth landing, and as the two clambered down ladders, Ilexa was in a much lighter mood. She tucked her helmet into the crook of her arm and turned to look out the landing bay doors as Phillipe signed off the X-wing to a waiting tech. The view showed a sliver of the planet of Farpoint, with its moon rising behind it. Thorn could just make out the red glimmer of FP5 in the distance, mixed in with a scattering of true stars. Her eyes misted over for a moment and she chewed her lip as she thought, what a baby I am, how can I walk to debriefing with tears in my eyes. And still no Kleenex! She ducked her head to hide using her sleeve again, when her eye caught sight of something that made her head jerk up in surprise.
"Major, when did this new ship come in?" She asked as she studied what looked like a small travel-weary freighter nestled in among the shuttles and fighters, slightly bigger than a regular shuttle.
"What new ship, where?" Phillipe scanned the bay questioningly.
"There, between the ring shuttle and, uh," Thorn swiped her hand over her eyes and looked again. "I swear I saw a small cargo ship right over, well… shoot, I don't know." She rubbed her eyes again, perplexed. "It must have been a weird trick of the light."
"Or you're so tired you are imagining things. The Brigadier warned me you hadn't got enough sleep over the past couple of days. I say you need to take the rest of the day off and have a nice long nap, followed by a full night's sleep, then maybe sleep in, just to round everything out."
"Well first things first," responded Thorn. "I need something to eat, and I think I owe you lunch for the fancy Immelman you pulled over the Cuithne Asteroid."
"Oh, come on. Food is free in the mess hall."
"But what makes it so special is the presence of my company."
The two headed to the debriefing room. Behind them, a flash of light, sparkling with rainbow colours as if from a prism, followed them for a moment, then winked out.
The Nemhain Mess Hall, 12:24 hrs
"I tell you, it was on the invoice, but I can't find it anywhere," One engineer moaned to another. "Antilles is going to kill me if I can't find it…"
Thorn gave Phillipe a worried look as they finished their meals. She spoke in a low voice, "that's the third crewman I have heard talking about missing equipment. Don't you think that's weird?"
"Can I join you two?" Major Jenna, Chief Medical officer of the Nemhain slipped into a seat beside them. "This has been the strangest day," she continued as they made way for her. "I keep misplacing equipment. I would set something down, and when I would turn to pick it up again, it wouldn't be there. I just don't get it."
"Sounds as if it is a common problem today," commented Phillipe. "I think the whole ship needs some R&R. What do you say, Doctor? You could make it a medical order. If General Farr were here, she would take your advice if you could show that efficiency levels were down."
"Not a chance, not with the Hunter, Ashleigh and Nirvana out-and-about," Jenna waved her fork in a circle. "Someone has to be on watch, even a research vessel."
Thorn looked blearily at the two. "I would give my right arm for some edomame right now," she thought out loud and poked the food on her plate.
Phillipe and Jenna looked at her with eyebrows raised. Thorn caught the look.
"Oh please! It's an Earth expression. My arms are not detachable."
We know that, but ed'amame is a type of music on Mon Calamari." Phillipe gave a little hitch in his chair. "And it is not something you listen to over dinner. At least, not for non-Calamarians."
Thorn rolled her eyes. "And on Earth, it is a vegetable." She sighed. It was her own fault, not checking with the supply clerks to see what earth food the cooks had requested. Now there were always peas on the menu, but nothing else from Earth.
"Oh, come on Thorn, surely some of the food here tempts your appetite?" Jenna looked worried.
Phillipe looked triumphant. "Lack of appetite, another sign of stress! Right doctor?"
Jenna and Thorn gave Phillipe the same look.
"No, I enjoy trying foods from other planets, it's having the same Earth food day after day. Does the cook think we only eat peas?" She sighed again. "As much as I would like to discuss symptoms of work-related stress, my research team is off-duty, I happen to have the rest of the day off, and I will be incommunicado for the next eighteen hours at least." Thorn picked up her tray and made to stand up. "Starting as of now, goodnight all." She stood to go, but tripped unexpectedly, bumping into Chief Master Sergeant Spectre as he walked behind her with a tray of food. Orange and green bits went everywhere as some of the contents of the Chief's glass caught Ilexa full in the face.
"Oh, I am so sorry Chief, what a mess." Phillipe and Jenna helped to pick up errant silverware as Thorn wiped her face on her sleeve for the third time. "I am so glad this was water," chuckled Thorn as she helped pick up the fallen food. She and the sergeant walked over to the disposal unit, dumped their trays, and turned to get a new serving of lunch for him.
"Who is the guy in civvies? Thorn asked as she helped Spectre load food onto a new tray.
"Civvies?" Spectre glanced around the mess hall. "What do you mean by civvies?"
"Civilian clothes. This guy looked like a trader. Shoulder length hair, red shirt, looked like he was going for the Calrissian look. I only caught a glimpse of him after I got the water in the face."
"I think I would have noticed someone dressed like that," frowned Spectre.
"Oh, don't worry about it, I must be mistaken. I did have peas and caltuk going down the back of my neck at the moment." Thorn waved goodbye and set off down the corridor, not noticing the tiny bead of light follow her out of the mess hall then flash, and fade into the shadows.
Thorn overheard more complaints of strange things happening as she walked to her quarters.
"I put the wrench down, it disappears, I look around for it, it's over on the other side of the worktable. " One tech was saying to the other.
So that explains it, Thorn mused. People playing jokes on each other. It's a good thing all my lab techs are planet-side on break. If anyone tried these kind of jokes in my lab I would have their hide tacked to the wall. She yawned into her hand and wound her way down to her lab for one last check on her rats before barricading herself in her quarters.
Thorn had taken three steps into the main lab before she noticed anything wrong. The lab-rats were scratching and skittering around in their cages. Equipment was pushed around, cabinets doors were open and showing racks of test-tubes and supplies. Files and data-pads were scattered on the floor. Then the lab door slid shut behind her and the lock snicked into place.
The Bridge of the Nemhain, 12:45hrs
"There it is again!"
"There what is again, Devon?" Glantry Fett, Captain of the Nemhain, looked over his first officer's shoulder and inspected the screen in front of him.
"This anomalous reading in the landing bay sensors. I spotted it yesterday when the third patrol came in and again late last night when the first patrol left, and now here it is again when the shuttle cleared the landing bay. I just ran a diagnostic and everything came back fine."
As Glantry studied the readings, he heard a small cough behind him. Turning, he found his chief of security giving him a worried frown.
"Tell me what you come up with, Devon." He stepped up to General Phil.
"Sir, I think we should talk about this in your ready room." Phil said quietly. Glantry nodded and kept from commenting as he led the way to the small conference room. As the door slid closed he perched on the edge of the table.
"So what's up, Phil?"
"Sir," Phil paused as he tried to think how to broach this subject. "Well sir, we seem to be having a problem with things going missing."
"Missing?" Surely there is not that much room on this ship for things be misplaced, is there?"
"Apparently there is, sir. Numerous items have been reported missing from all over this ship. Medical and engineering mostly. Research has not reported anything, but most of that team has shore leave. When they get back, I may have a much longer list than I do now."
The captain examined the ceiling a moment as he thought about this. "And what do you think is causing this?
"Oh, I couldn't say, not yet. I am having my people look into it, but some things simply could not have walked away without help, if you see what I mean."
"I do see. Well, keep me updated. I hope this is just a case of misfiling a supply list, but if things are being helped out the door, I want to know about it."
The Nemhain Main Laboratory, 12:45 hrs
Thorn was hit from behind and slammed to her knees so hard that her teeth clicked together and she could taste blood. Her arms were forced behind her back and her left hand was twisted, shoved up behind her shoulder blades, forcing her head down to the metal plating of the floor.
"What is this, the yoga police?" This was too unreal, she could not see her attackers anywhere. Thorn tried to look over her shoulder, to see what could be behind her that was twisting her arm off, but there was nothing there.
Then she felt a hand grab her by the hair, yanking her head up so quickly her neck popped. Tears of pain sprang to her eyes.
"Ah, now you have eyes to see, do you not?" A man stood before her, the man she had seen in the mess hall. Thin and tall, but muscular. Hair long enough to reach his collar, a red long-sleeved shirt of some fine material that draped nicely. Black leggings, belt and boots finished off the outfit, matching Thorn's previous opinion that this man had the same sense of style as Lando Calrissian. But he did not have the eyes. Ilexa looked into those eyes and quailed. They had laugh lines around them, but she knew instinctively that they had laughed at the wrong things and for too long.
"And what should we do with you now? Now that you have the eyes to see? My men tell me you have glimpsed our little operation on two separate occasions. Then you walk in on us inspecting this area. Surely I cannot have you spreading rumours about strangers on your vessel, can I?" He smirked, his eyes becoming narrow and hard.
"Such an interesting vessel, too. Full of strange technologies, " Thorn felt her watch tugged from her wrist and saw it tossed to the man in red, who held it up for inspection. "I ask myself," the man said, squatting down to look Thorn more fully in the face. "Why does this ship carry such an interesting and varied array of technology? Here is a primitive device," he waved the watch, an old analogue Thorn held onto more as a keepsake than anything else, "in a room full of wonders. Some Goa'uld technology, which is always in high demand, and then this new technology." He held up a Republic scanner. "It is a pleasant surprise, and the few things I take with me should fetch a suitable price, from a suitable buyer."
The man smiled at her, and tossed her watch aside as one would discard a banana peel. Thorn felt the hair on the back of her neck rise. She felt hands pull her MP3 player and all the other pieces of equipment she carried from the pockets of her jump suit. She glanced behind her and caught a glimpse of two men, shorter and heavier than the man in red, both with stout bristling beards. She whipped her head back around as she was yanked to her feet and propelled through the main lab and into the large storage area.
Thorn realised where they were taking her and began to struggle, digging in with her heels, almost wrenching her arm out of its socket. Then she was thrown into a small closet, so small she ran into the back wall before she was able to stop. The door was pulled shut behind her. She whirled to throw herself at the door, hearing the lock on the other side snapping into place, then other more eerie sounds of metal being bent and twisted.
She pushed herself back against the wall and held herself there. Otherwise she would have rushed to the door, beaten on it, dug at the seams with her fingers, but she held herself against the wall and let the panic pass. It didn't do to panic when you are sealed in an explosives containment unit.
The Nemhain Infirmary, 13:10 hrs
"I was here alone, basically doing busy work. Checking supplies, that kind of thing." Doctor Jenna waved a hand in the direction of where she was standing. "I pulled out a couple different items and put them on the table behind me to get them out of the way. When I turned around they were gone. I checked the entire area." Jenna was getting irritated just thinking about it. "Then I came back to this cabinet and some of the items were back, but all of the extra scanners and their power cells were gone, and there was no one in the room!"
Phil looked up from his notes and surveyed the room. He had wanted to be doubly sure before he went to the Captain with his suspicions, and now he had heard enough.
"Doctor, I hope to have this sorted today, but I want you to lock down all your equipment. I think we have uninvited and invisible guests."
Jenna rolled her eyes, "Oh great." She sighed.
Phil pulled his comm from his pocket and switched it to the security frequency. "I want all personnel in the security office immediately. Suit up with TER's, anything else we have for phase-shifters." He tucked his comm away and headed for the bridge. "I better tell the captain personally that his ship has been invaded."
The Nemhain Main Lab, the Supply Room Vault, 13:20 hrs
Ilexa hung by her fingers from the ventilation screen and tried to keep breathing calmly. She had one foot and her knee wedged onto different levels of shelves and she shoved against the metal screen.
"Stupid, stupid, lock-down procedures!" She spat and climbed down from the shelves, resting her head against the cool metal surface. Had she not insisted herself that the screen be welded down so that it didn't vibrate, or worse, fall from its mounting during any kind of manoeuvres the ship was pushed into? The small emergency light gleamed a piercing white as she surveyed the room fruitlessly.
General Coup had installed this small closet to hold Thorn's most dangerous chemicals, most delicate mixtures, or as he had put it, "Things that go boom in the night." And she had slept better, knowing that these dangers were locked up tightly and not about to blow a hole in a ship floating in the vacuum of space. They had discussed every possibility. The ventilation sensors had been programmed for every conceivable gaseous mixture. The door only opened inward, and was specially 'stair-stepped' around the frame to hold a blast inside the room. Thorn had nicknamed it The Vault and considered it probably the safest part of the ship, as long as there were no chemicals inside it.
Now it had been stripped bare, only the metal shelves were left. Those were bolted and welded to the floor and wall, and Thorn could not think for the life of her what she could do with them anyway. Standing in the centre, she could stretch out her hands and touch walls in one direction, maybe half that again in the other.
And now her foresight had doomed her. She could feel that the refrigeration and ventilation were off, no flow of air was coming out of that screen. She was sure that frightening man had yanked the power relays to the compressors. But she could feel that the exhaust was on, sucking the air out. First thing to do was block that exhaust, if only she could reach it.
She shrugged out of her newly requisitioned flight jacket. It still even smelled new. Thorn gritted her teeth and climbed the shelving again. Pushed the material through the small openings. It took her a long time to get enough of the jacket shoved through the holes until it was able to stay up there. The muscles in her arms burned, and she could feel the heat in her wrenched left shoulder, feel it begin to swell as she strained the tendons and muscles.
Finally done, she sat against the wall and tried to figure how much air she had left. Or rather, the oxygen to carbon dioxide ratios. She knew you didn't just run out of air, although that was a big part of it, but rather the bad air, the used air, would build up. And as she would have to breath that air over and over, the carbon dioxide levels in the blood would rise. Carbon dioxide bonds on to red blood cells better than oxygen, and soon the blood simply does not have room to carry oxygen. "And then that is that," she said to the walls.
Sitting with her back to the wall, she rested her head on her knees and tried to do the math. Then the long nights and strange day finally caught up with her, and she slept.
Captain's Ready Room, 13:30 hrs
"This has me very, very worried." Captain Fett looked around the table at his staff. "Don't we have sensors to catch phase-shifters?"
"Yes, sir. That is what held me back in the initial assessment. Our sensors should spot any life-form bio readings that have not been previously cleared," said the chief of security. "We did set up a secondary sensor grid, based on the Stargate Command's TER's. They should detect any object 180 degrees out of phase with normal vision, but those have not picked up on anything either. I have personnel sweeping the ship now with hand-held devices, but I only have a slight hope that they will find anything. What really worries me is the nature of the thefts." Phil massaged a temple "People will put down a tool to find it across the room, or the sensor readings changed or some other gag. I get a creepy feeling we are being played with, and that does not seem to match the profile of anyone we or the SGC has dealt with before."
"Let's see what Antilles can do to boost our sensors in other ways," Devon added. "Maybe we can catch them out some other way than the TER's."
"Are you sure there is no sign of this down on the base," Fett asked.
Phil nodded, then shrugged, "No reports of anything like this. It seems to be focused in the Nemhain."
"Just be circumspect about where you discuss these things, there could even be an eavesdropper in here now for all we know," warned Glantry.
The three glanced around the room, then at each other.
The Nemhain Main Lab, the supply room vault, 14:20 hrs
A small, light, scratching sound came from the door. Ilexa's eyes snapped open. She had slid from her sitting position to lay on her left side, and as she woke, her left shoulder flared in pain. She was able to hold still, barely, listening for the sound that woke her. She had no idea how long she had been asleep, but the air already tasted stuffy. Thorn glanced up at her new flight jacket and winced. The material had been sucked in tight by the pull of the exhaust fan into the holes of the ventilation screen, making the fabric look like it had been caught in a waffle iron.
I didn't want it to look new anyway.
She heard it again, a scratching around the door, getting louder. She sat up with an effort, favouring her left shoulder, and moved to the door, knelt in front of it, listening. There it came again.
"Hello? Who's there?" She beat the heel of her hand against the door. "Hello?"
She listened intently, her ear close to the door. Some sound must penetrate the metal of the door to the supply room, she could hear whoever was on the other side. It was silent but for her breathing, slightly shallow in anticipation.
The scratching came again, stronger and louder.
"Hello, come on! Can you hear me? Hello!" Thorn beat repetitively on the door with both hands now, creating a bass drum roll. "The lock has been twisted out of shape, the handle on this side won't work! Hello!"
She leaned against the door, more winded than she realised. How much air do I have left? It was quiet again, and it occurred to her that one of her rats could have gotten out and was now scratching at the door. Ilexa tried to slow her breathing, but it was an effort.
The sound was different this time. It startled her, and she pulled away from the door. It was a course, dry laugh, mocking and spiteful. She jerked and crab-walked backward till her back hit the far wall with a thump.
"Oh no, my dear," came the voice of the man in red. "I could not let you sit in there and think I had forgotten you. I am leaving you a little gift, to remember me by."
What a creep! He's been playing with me!
A background sound became louder, tinny but vaguely understandable. Thorn realised it was comm chatter, the sound turned as high as it would go.
Someone will hear that, he won't leave it cranked up like that.
But the sound did not change in volume. There were breaks in the conversations, but all frequencies seemed to be tuned in at once.
He means for someone to hear it. He must be leaving, and he's left the comm to attract attention. I'm gonna get out of here!
Thorn listened to the comm chatter and hoped.
Bridge of the Nemhain, 15:00 hrs
Acid Burn, helmsman of the Nemhain, scratched his head and stared at his terminal.
"Any luck, Acid?" Devon asked from his seat, looking at another terminal.
"The analysis of that weird reading you've been seeing doesn't match anything we have in our database. The computer is pretty sure it is an exhaust of some kind, at least it is some kind of chemical breakdown by-product, but other than that it has no clue what would create it, I…"
Right on the edge of Acid's peripheral vision, he could see movement of some kind. His eyes smarted from staring at the terminal for so long, but he knew he saw movement, not just a trick of the light. He cleared his throat cautiously.
"Uh, anyway, I don't think that we will be able to get anymore data on it till we get another reading like it."
Acid stared at the transparasteel viewport in front of him. It was angled in such a way so that he could see his reflection, the back of Devon's head, and a perfect view of a data pad being picked up and looked over, by nothing! About three feet away, and just behind and to the left.
"But on the other hand," he shifted in his seat, "we could run a couple—"
Acid leapt from his chair and body-checked whatever it was into a console. He could feel a short, compact body and definitely two arms as the still invisible intruder elbowed Acid in the nose. He hung on, grabbing and guessing as the intruder twisted to shake him off. A high pitched buzzing sound in Acid's ear made him flinch back, and he collapsed heavily as his left leg went numb and gave out from under him.
Glantry holstered his blaster and stepped fully onto the bridge. Devon jumped forward to help Acid, crumpled in an awkward position against the helmsman's chair.
"Sorry about that, Acid, but I wanted to make sure I caught whoever this is fully in the radius of the stun blast." Fett knelt and carefully felt around on the decking in front of him. He felt cloth, and figured out it was an arm. He felt a bulky object on the wrist, like a GDO or a really big watch. Figuring out the catch took a moment, then he was able to pull the object free. There was a wavering in the air, like heat rising from the decking, then the body of a man appeared, flat on his back. He was short and stocky, with a bushy beard. His clothes looked to be of good quality, but showed that dribbles of a couple meals had not all made it to his mouth. There was another device attached to the other arm, around each ankle, and what looked like a control device around the neck.
"That was the strangest thing I have ever seen," Devon was telling Acid. "It looked like you were attacking the computer console. Well, it was the strangest thing I had seen, " he motioned at the unconscious intruder, "until I saw him appear out of nowhere."
"Phil, get to the bridge. We uh," Fett paused, considering, he did not want to announce to the ship this kind of catch, did he? "Just get over here." Glantry tucked his comm away and continued to search the intruder, tossing various devices and equipment into a pile in the corner. Satisfied he had found all weapons and equipment hidden on the intruder, he looked over at Acid, who was vainly trying to massage the pins-and-needles feeling out of his stunned leg.
"I was just coming up here to tell you to arm yourselves, but it looks like a body-check works just as well. Of course you will have to explain to Antilles why he now has to repair this control panel."
Acid looked up at the console. Half the board was dead and a couple monitor lights were broken.
"Hey, all in the line of duty."
A small security detail arrived with Phil right behind. He motioned the squad's head officer over to the side as the another guard rolled the intruder over onto his front and manacled his arms behind him.
"I want you to keep this quiet," Phil told his officer. "No comm traffic, just you and your team know about this. No one is to see him unless I give the order, and not over the comm, but me in person, got that?"
Phil stepped over to Glantry, who was looking through the pile of equipment with interest. "Everything in this bag is from our ship. These items here," he indicated a smaller pile, "aren't anything I have ever seen before. These devices here seem to be the cloaking mechanism. I want Antilles over here right away to look these things over. If he can figure out how they work, maybe we can get this whole thing cleared up."
"That is one of the things I was on my way to tell you about, sir." The look in Phil's eye made Glantry pay close attention. "Those pranks I was telling you about have gotten worse. Relays are being switched so equipment will short out when anyone tries to use them, or the relays have been pulled altogether. One of my men went to open a storage unit and the handle had been electrified. Gave him a nasty shock. Engineering is being overwhelmed trying to keep up with all the problems, and they have to be doubly cautious looking for booby-traps."
"Get our uninvited guest awake and talking, I want to know everything about him. And I mean the works."
"Oh, aye Captain! Yes indeed." Phil looked extremely happy at the thought.
"And get Thorn up here, I want her to look over these things too. Serves her right for working at all hours, I need her awake and up here as soon as she can."
Phil gave Glantry a surprised look. "I thought she was here already, she wasn't in her quarters when we searched that area. I tried getting her on the comm once or twice, but got distracted when the pranks turned dangerous."
Glantry's eyes narrowed. "Leave the interrogation to me. Find Thorn. Snow said she running on adrenaline, but she may be down in her lab. Chew her ear off for not having her comm on and get her up here quick."
She knows better than that! She had better have a better reason for not answering a comm than lack of sleep.
The Nemhain Main Lab, the Supply Room Vault, 15:35 hrs
Ilexa Thorn bit her lip hard and concentrated. She rocked slightly, keeping time to her breathing. She recognised the first signs of CO2 poisoning, shortness of breath, headache, sweating. About a thousand-ppm, she guessed. This was occurring much faster than she had anticipated. She remembered reading news stories about children locked in old refrigerators suffocating in less than two hours, but they had panicked and screamed their air away, right? Best not to think about that. She rested her head on her knees and tried to focus. Her flight jacket was probably not blocking the exhaust as well as she had hoped.
Her thoughts swirled and memories rose in front of her eyes. The light of the emergency bulb reminded her of the small reading lights in the library carrels at her university. Studying in those small nooks, falling asleep in those small nooks, hearing snores from other nooks. Thorn remembered the smell of a good book, a dry, woody smell. A memory tugged at her mind, of a night studying for a humanities exam. Old legends, old stories.
Her mind drifted through these thoughts until it stuck on an outcrop, a memory of an old legend of a thief and opportunist, and how things had been hidden in plain sight…
"Thorn." It was unmistakable this time. She thought she had heard someone trying to reach her on the comm earlier, but it had been covered by other traffic.
"Thorn, come in now!"
"Why can't anyone hear this, why…" Her voice rising, she clenched her jaw to stop talking out loud. Why can't anyone hear the comm turned to full volume? Wouldn't someone hear it and wonder?
She suddenly knew that no one would hear it, and no one would hear her no matter how loud it got. Thorn suddenly remembered seeing the dampening emitters propped up a few feet away from the vault, she had been a little busy having her arm twisted off at the time to really think about them, but now she knew.
A sound between a groan and a wail keened out of her. She knew who had done this to her, she knew people were beginning to look for her, but she knew she was quickly running out of time. The rising CO2 levels finally triggered the sensors and the alarms began to blare, loud and shrill.
Captain's Ready Room, 15:52 hrs
Guards stood at the door leading into the ready room, with more inside. Fett stood with his back to the door, glaring across the table at the prisoner. This prisoner glared right back, mute to all questions, contemptuous at all threats. Fett darkly reminded himself that probe droids were simply not allowed in interrogations, but he would dearly love to have one hovering over his shoulder right now.
"They won't come for you, you know." Fett snapped at the short man. "No honour among thieves. Why should they stick their necks out for you? They will leave you here to rot, and split your part of the take among themselves." No reaction. Or was there? A slight narrowing of the eyes, perhaps? "Why should they come for you? After all, you got greedy. No, your friends aren't that friendly, are they?"
No reaction again, but Fett could feel it in the air that he had hit on a sore point. He decided to let the stocky man stew over those thoughts for a while. Fett turned abruptly and stepped from the room, back to the bridge.
Acid was on his back underneath the damaged control panel, grimly repairing it himself as engineering struggled to keep up with the growing problems on the rest of the ship. Devon was scowling at the monitors. Sensors were hiccuping, showing errant data. Overloads in one area caused burnouts in others. Amazingly, gravimetrics and propulsion had not been directly affected, but how long would that last? The comms officer had been trying to get a message out to the rest of the fleet with no response. Was the fleet in hyperspace, or had the communications array been affected by the overloads, or worse, sabotage? Fett spun on his heel as Antilles burst onto the bridge.
"I got it! We've got it!" He motioned to Sergeant Spectre, who came tearing in at his heels. "It's not a phase shift at all, it's a layering of different holo-projectors. We have them now!"
"How? Actually, tell me how they did it later. Just tell me how we can stop this."
Captain's Ready Room, 15:56 hrs
"Milord, I swear, they know nothing."
"You were caught! They have your shroud-emitters. They know enough."
"No Milord, they are grasping at straws! You have them confused and defenceless!"
"Not defenceless, defensive. That is when a baited animal is at its most dangerous. You have given them an edge and ruined this find before we had even begun to mine its wealth. But you did serve me well before this blunder, so it will be quick."
The Bridge of the Nemhain, 15:58 hrs
That's the thing, it's how they did it that gives us the edge. Holo-projectors excite the air molecules at different energy levels to show different colours. The holo-projectors these guys are using do almost the opposite. Their projectors send out an opposition charge to the light waves we would regularly see—the two cancel each other out and we can't see a thing. But Spectre has modified a couple of hand-sensors to look for this opposition charge. We tested it on the devices you got off the prisoner and we can track it."
"Can you get the ship's sensors to pick up this opposition charge?"
"With the sensors acting the way they are, who knows what kind of data we are going to get back. But the adjustment to the hand-helds won't take any time at all."
"Good. By the time Phil gets back here with Thorn, we can be ready to sweep this ship from stem to stern."
Antilles looked at Fett puzzled. "I just passed Phil in the corridor. I didn't see—"
Fett was already out the door and headed to the ready room. The guards that should have been posted inside were at ease in the corridor.
"Who told you to leave the prisoner alone?"
"General Phil ordered us out of the room. He told us to wait here."
Fett hit the door release sharply. The door panel slid back to show the ready room, empty but for the body of the prisoner, slouched in the chair Fett had left him in, his eyes blank and glassy.
"Ah, by all the—" Fett muttered a few choice curses in his arsenal before yelling down the corridor as he ran back to the bridge, "Antilles, Spectre, get every hand-sensor you can find ready."
Glantry pulled out his personal comm and clicked in Phil's frequency. A high, piercing whistle sang out from the speaker. Everyone flinched as all comlinks chimed in, like children's whistles at a badly planned birthday party. Fett was beyond cursing now. The comm officer looked over the monitors and sighed. All communication on the ship was out.
"Here, give me the ones you have finished with." Fett took the sensors and handed them out to the security team, keeping one for himself. "Fan out and keep your eyes open. Things are not what they seem anymore. They are able to use these holo-projectors to disguise themselves as one of the crew." He ran a quick scan over everyone on the bridge, finding nothing. "One of them was just here. I am going to follow that trail and see where it takes me. You and you," he signalled to two of the security team, "follow me."
The Nemhain Main Research Level, 15:45 hrs
Phil snapped off his comlink in disgust and sighed. He had been trying to reach Thorn for too long, surely somebody had told her she was being paged, even if she did not have her own comlink on. He would rather not make a ship-wide page just yet, but where else could she be? He had checked her quarters, the mess hall, the training facilities and even the simulators. He was working his way down to her lab now, pausing as he went to check with his teams sweeping the ship.
He stepped out of the turbo lift and turned smack into another security squad.
"Sir," the squad leader turned to Phil. "We were just starting our sweep of this level. Come to join us?"
"I am actually looking for Colonel Thorn, but I doubt she's down here."
"Sir?" The voice of one of the squad echoed down the hall from the doorway of the main lab. "Come look this over."
Phil hurried to the door of the lab and looked about, surprise in his face. Unlike the thefts on the rest of the ship, which had been clean and quiet, the lab looked like it had been worked over. Phil could immediately see gaps where equipment had been taken, and papers, data cards and data pads were scattered across the floor. He motioned for two guards to sweep the room with TER's. Nothing showed up, and he walked into the lab carefully, looking around at the mess.
Phil bent to pick up a gold bracelet. He turned it over in his hands. Not a bracelet, a watch. Thorn's watch. He looked from the watch to the rat cages. The rats were watching him, twitching their noses and scrabbling about. He signalled for the guards to check the two storage rooms. The first one was a small storage closet, but the second was a larger room. The guards scanned both quickly. Nothing again. Phil looked around the storage room for more signs of Thorn and spotted the dampening emitters placed around the vault.
He glanced uneasily back to the rats. What were the emitters doing around the vault? Then he saw the small cylinder lying in front of the vault door. Phil strode across the room quickly, passing through the dampening field. The noise from the comlink was metallic and loud. But not as loud as the siren going off. He motioned to a team member to shut the emitters off. Everyone winced as the sound of the alarm, previously dampened by the emitters, blared out across the room. Another security member ran to the alarm monitor and switched off the sound hurriedly.
Phil picked up the comlink and examined it, noticing that someone had been able to jam it to accept all frequencies, voices on different channels cutting over each other, like listening to five different conversations in the mess hall. He thumbed the sound off and grimaced in relief from the noise.
"Sir, the alarm was for high levels of CO2 in the vault. It's up to seventeen thousand ppm!"
Phil moved to the team member's side. "Are you sure that is CO2 and not CO?"
"Yes sir. There are no signs of combustion, which would lead to CO. This is CO2, a product of respiration."
Phil turned and stared at the door of the vault, aghast. "Get that door open!"
"We're trying sir, the lock is jammed, it's been twisted out of position and snapped off. Cutting through it is going to take some time."
"Forget that, there is another way in." Phil ran to the far side of the vault, reached up near the ceiling and popped open a small hatch that had been scarcely visible, flush with the surface.
"Coup always builds in a hinge release in case the lock is damaged in an explosion." Phil explained to the watching personnel. "This manual release drops the pins out of the hinge," he hauled on the lever, "we should be able to push the door open when these release." The lever slapped over and Phil heard the thunk as the metal pins dropped.
"All right, now push." Three members of the security team put their shoulders to the door, fighting to gain purchase on the smooth metal floor. The ruined lock now acted as a hinge, and the heavy metal door swung inward, grating against the floor. Phil crowded behind them, and as the opening got wide enough he slipped through. It was dark, the only light coming from a small emergency bulb, but he could see the shape huddled in the corner.
The light was blinding, stabbing into Thorn's eyes. She didn't have the strength to raise her hand to block the light. She just wanted to sleep, couldn't everyone just leave her alone so she could get some rest? There was a buzzing in her ears, but at least that alarm was finally quiet. Someone was shoving something in her face. She gagged on the metallic taste and tried to jerk away, but a hand held her head and she realised she could breathe again. Really breathe. She relaxed a bit and ignored the bright lights, just wanting to sleep.
A harsh whistle sang out from every comlink. Everyone slapped at their comms to try to shut off the tinny, bitter sound. Thorn's eyes twitched open and the memory of that loathsome man in red made her jerk into a sitting position.
"Thorn, hold still and relax, your blood-ox levels are extremely low." Thorn's face was flushed, but her lips and fingernails had a blue tinge to them, a classic sign of CO2 poisoning.
"Oh. Oh, hi Phil. There's a lever that will push the hinge pins out, and then you can open the door to the vault…"
"Yes, I know about the lever. Now just lie back and breathe deeply."
Thorn blinked in perplexity and then realised she was out of the vault. She was out of the vault! That creep of a man had been pawing through her lab equipment and she was out of the vault and if she could get her hands on a vibro-blade she would show him primitive technology!
"Phil, I have to get - no! Stop it!" She slapped his hand away as he tried to hold the oxygen mask over her face. "Phil, listen to me. I know who is doing these practical jokes and moving things around."
"I don't care, you need to keep this on. Wait a moment, you do?"
"Yes, get me to the bridge. I know how to set the sensors to show where they are."
Phil stood and reached down to help Thorn to her feet. They moved out of the lab and to the turbolift. Thorn sagged against the wall coughing as she tried to explain.
"It's an old legend where the thief hides the item in plain site of the gods, they can't find the item because they don't cry."
"Who don't cry?"
"The gods, they are too strong to cry, so they search and search and cannot find the item that is hidden in plain sight. I can't remember who finds it." She leaned back and closed her eyes, trying to remember the end of the story. "We can set the sensors to measure the wave length of light as it is refracted by water. Then we should be able to see them."
"Who, the gods?"
"No, the dwarves."
Phil seriously considered getting Thorn to the infirmary, but they were already on the bridge level. The door to the turbo lift opened part way, then stuck in its track. Phil shoved, and it rattled out of the way.
"Come on," he said. "Let's get to the bottom of this once and for all."
The Corridors of the Nemhain, 16:10 hrs
The trail from the ready room was already thin. Fett cranked the sensitivity to full and continued watchfully, mindful of members of the crew he passed in the halls, running a quick scan on them. Mostly engineering personnel, all were legitimate. He continued on, blasters set to stun, though he was angry enough to think about belaying that order and turning up the heat. The trail of excited molecules looked to be leading to the hanger. If their visitors were thinking of pulling out…Fett pulled out his comlink to contact the hanger team, then winced and put it away again. A member of the security team raced around the corner, almost plowing into him.
"We have picked up two more trails, they are both heading to the hanger," he gasped out.
"Lets step this up, herd them in." Fett took off at a quick pace, checking the sensor only to make sure the trail did not deviate from the route to the hanger, the three members of the security team flanking him. The hand-sensor blipped faster and faster, showing that the trail was fresh, they were just a few moments behind the intruder.
The hallway opened to the hanger. Fett knew it would be hard to trap anyone among the fighters and shuttles, but when he saw the hanger he almost laughed out loud. Snow, Phillipe and a half dozen other pilots were mixed in with security and engineering staff, all forming a wide ring around the entrance to the hanger. Some crew members even held hand-sensors, and their faced lit up as Fett and his team entered the hanger proper.
"That's three!" Called a security member from beside the door. He nodded to the captain, "we have three distinct energy emissions from inside this ring, sir."
Glantry folded his arms across his chest and addressed the open space. "Don't you think this has gone on long enough?"
There was a waviness, a shifting of light, a prism effect, then two men appeared. Short, stocky like the prisoner had been, both bearded. To the front of where they stood another shift, a shimmer, and a third man appeared. Tall, with dark hair reaching the shoulder, blood-red shirt, black leggings and boots. The man put his hands on his hips, threw back his head and laughed. The echoes bounced around the hanger.
"I have not had this much fun in a long time. Quite the chase! I hope it was as enjoyable for you as it was for me. Unfortunately I must go, but I will remember this," the man's eyes narrowed and his face hardened, "you can depend upon it. The price for the technology I have collected here will far outweigh this inconvenience." His face broke into a sly grin, "who knows, I may just be back." With that, he turned his back to Fett and began to walk toward the ships in the hanger.
"Drop him," Fett clipped out. Five different shots rang out, all on stun. But the energy stopped before it reached the three, flashed gold in the light, and was absorbed.
"Is that all? Why Captain, I thought better of you. I have travelled far, and have gathered many different types of technology. I know that you have met the Goa'uld, so have I. I believe I am on much better terms with them, as they were kind enough to give me this." The man flicked a wrist, and a personal force field flared gold around him and his men. "But I came up with this little trick myself." He flicked his wrist again, and from one of the shuttles came a burst of energy. No, not a shuttle, the image wavered and died, revealing a small freighter. The energy reaching out from it solidified into a wedge, literally shoving the members of the crew who formed the ring aside. The force field surrounded the man in red and his companions, leaving a way open and free for him to reach his ship. A few more stun shots burst out from the crew. The energy was absorbed in quick ripples of light.
"Can you stop me now, Captain?" The man laughed again. "Stop me? You can't even name me."
Fett clenched his jaw and smouldered, barely able to keep his rage in check. The man turned to walk away.
"I name you." All eyes jerked to the group of security personnel entering the hanger. The team stepped back to reveal General Phil, looking anxious, supporting Thorn, who looked flushed and ill. Dark shadows under her eyes, her lips were a dangerous mixture of blue shaded to grey.
"I name you. Trickster, liar, thief, murderer!"
The man in red glared at her, all smugness gone. "What do you know of me? You who gets trapped in your own cage? I am all that you say and more. Brokkr was a fool, and greedy. Just as you said, Captain." Fett noted that this man must have been in the ready room for the entire interrogation.
"I am not talking about Brokkr, but if Brokkr was here, then one of these two must be Sindri." Thorn coughed, leaning on Phil, as one of the burly men started and glanced at the tall man uneasily. Thorn glowered at the man in red. "I mean you, murderer of Balder, outcast of the Aesir! I name you Loptr, Lodur." Thorn took a dry breath that rattled in her throat. I name you Loki."
The man hissed at her, his face almost feral in his rage. "So you can name me, but with all you have you still cannot stop me. And you will not be able to follow, or I will cut you down." He pointed at the hanger bay door, open out to space. A much larger shimmer in the blackness, then a ship appeared, as large as the Nemhain and outfitted heavily, they could see the weapons arrays from where they stood. Thorn bent over in a coughing fit, then looked up at the man wearily.
"You are on the run, dodging and weaving. You may have won this time, but we know you now, and we are allies of the Tau'ri, who are allies of the Asgard. You had better run far and run fast."
"Brave words only. The Asgard are consumed with their fight with the Replicators. They have not caught me yet, and they have had a long time to do it. They have not the skill."
"Don't be so sure about that," Snow called out, pointing at the opening to the hanger again, all eyes were drawn to it. Like a special effect, the Mon Calamari Starcruiser Ashleigh, flanked by the Imperial Class Star destroyer Hunter appeared, framed in the bay opening. Between them, escorted by them, was an Asgard Chariot Class Warship.
The two shorter men immediately let out a howl of fear and ran for their ship, but Loki stood and watched as the Asgard ship moved in.
"The Nirvana came in on a different vector. Look, there she is." The Nemhain shuddered slightly as the Interdictor Nirvana kicked in its gravity wells, pinning Loki's ship in place.
Loki turned and ran an eye over the crew gathered there. A bright light surrounded him and his companions. The two smaller men disappeared. Then the image Loki shimmered, prismed, and faded away. A small humanoid stood in front of them. Blue skin with a tinge of pink, a large head with wide, black eyes. An Asgard. The liquid eyes held Fett's gaze, and then the light flared and the true form of Loki vanished.
Captain's Ready Room, 18:00 hrs
"We have been tracking Loki for a long time. In fact, the Asgard council was about to have us withdraw from the search entirely." The image of Vali, Captain of the Asgard warship, flickered as he swivelled his head to look at the assembled group in the ready room. The body of the fourth thief was gone, the Asgard had reclaimed him as well.
"We are lucky you bumped into the rest of our fleet when you did," Fett replied. "We had no idea they had received our hails. We would have had no way of stopping him from flying right out the hanger doors." Fett was still sore about that. There had been no way to stop Loki with half the ships systems down, had there?
"The luck is shared between us equally. Loki has slipped through our nets more times than the Asgard would care to admit. He will finally be brought to justice for all his crimes. I hope you have been able to recover everything of yours from his ship. And if there is anything else the Asgard can do for you, please ask it of us."
"Right now my crew is still sorting through all the stolen items on both his ships. It may take us a couple days to make sure everything is back. From reports by my teams over on his second ship, he has a stockpile of Goa'uld technology that I know people in this room would love to get their hands on. Am I right?"
Antilles, Phil and the rest looked ecstatic at the news. Personal force field generators, healing devices, staff weapons and zats, a whole stockpile of them.
"What would he have done with our equipment?" Asked Phil.
Vali nodded at the question. "Loki has contacts across space. His accomplices are of one such race with disreputable trade connections. There are those among the Goa'uld that had no qualms dealing with him, as well as other underworld associates. Your things would have been sold to the highest bidder and scattered across a dozen different worlds." Phil frowned at the thought.
"I, uh, have a question." Thorn looked pinched and cold, huddled up in her chair, favouring her left shoulder. "According to Norse legends, Vali was born and raised to hunt down the murderer of Balder. Could you, please, explain this in a little more detail?"
The Asgard paused for a moment and Thorn thought she had pushed it too far, then Vali spoke. "Balder was an eminent scientist and tactician, head of our council. As you now know, we propagate through mitosis. When Loki caused Balder's death, he also destroyed the samples to create him again. I was duplicated from a few samples that were not completely destroyed. Because of this we were not able to save all that Balder knew, all that he planned for our race. Yes, I have been hunting for traces of Loki for," he paused and blinked, considering how to put it, "quite a long time."
The Nemhain Main Lab, two days later.
Brigadier General Snow entered the lab and looked around. Most of the equipment seemed to be back in the same places, judging by the location of the cartoons on the walls. He heard slamming and banging coming from the main supply room. Startled, he strode to the door and looked in. Thorn was flipping through a number of books, three data pads piled in on the table. CD-ROM disks surrounded a laptop computer, which Snow considered a bulky data pad. Thorn turned to scowl at him.
"I can't find it anywhere! This is nuts, I know I read it somewhere."
"What? What are you looking for?"
"I had a friend make copies of every book he could find on Norse legends, Senna and Edda, and I can't find that story anywhere."
"Huh? Hey, you know Thorn, I was wondering. You know these Far Side cartoons?"
Thorn paused flipping through a book and gave him a questioning look. "What about them?"
"Are there any more?"
Thorn chuckled, then let out a laugh. She turned to the bookshelf behind her and pulled out a big book with a black cover. "The complete and ultimate Far Side Compendium. If you make any marks or food stains your head is forfeit, got it? Good." She handed him the book. He grinned at her and waved an arm at the table.
"Now, what are you looking for?"
"The story. The story about Loki hiding the stolen object from the other Aesir. I can't find any mention of the story at all, anywhere. It's about to drive me over the edge."
"Otherwise, you're okay? You know, with everything?" Snow looked at the vault and Thorn followed his gaze. The lock had been repaired and the door re-hung. Thorn scowled and rubbed her eyes.
"Let's just say my lab techs are going to be fetching samples for a while, shall we?" Thorn began to minutely examine the spine of a book. Snow backed up to the door, motioning with a hand.
"Just let me know if I can, uh, or if you, uh… Thanks for the book." He turned to leave.
"E-wing?" Snow spun around and looked at her.
"I want to go up in an E-wing, see if all the talk about that ship is on the level. Soon."
Thorn bit her lip and considered, swallowed. "Can you get me on the next patrol? Do you have enough time to go through channels?"
He waggled his eyebrows at her. "It's part of my job. The Hunter will lend us a trainer."
"OK, then." She looked at her battered watch. "I will be at briefing in one hour and twenty minutes."
"Good. I will comm you if you are not there in one hour and twenty minutes." Snow emphasised the time meaningfully, waved the book at her and left.
Thorn began to straighten up her mess and tried not to think about what she had committed to. She had tried not to think about this for two days. Coup had already added another hinge-pin lever for the inside of the vault, as well as other safety features, including an independent supply of air. She knew she could get out any time she wanted. But in space there was no escape, just a small cockpit. Thorn slammed the last book into place and grabbed her flight jacket, which still showed creases from its ill-fated job as a ventilation cover.
They won't mind if I am a little early for briefing. And there is one good thing about space, she tossed a glare at the alarm system on the far wall. There may not be a lot of air, but at least it's quiet.