"Salvage," replied the other wolf with a sigh. "I told them to forget about our own gear, we can always replace that. They're removing as many pieces of the installation as they can without actually destroying anything. If we get a reprieve, then we can continue studying it in one piece."
Clager nodded. "Good thinking. If the Fatmi do get past our outer patrol, we'll still have four or five hours of warning. Then your people can really go to town, because anything left will have to be destroyed."
Elggren nodded, his ears back a bit. "Absolutely. Even if we could say that it was harmless and useless, I'd still not be comfortable with it falling into their hands."
Clager's ears perked. "I'm glad we agree, Doctor."
"You've been on too many research projects where the scientific staff wasn't so practical, I take it?" Clager had the grace to let his ears droop. "I lost my family on Palmit, Commander. I'm very, very aware of the stakes here."
There was a moment of awkward silence. Finally, Clager said, "I'm sorry, Doctor. I didn't know."
Elggren shrugged. "It's all right. You've had more important things to do in the two days you've been here than read personnel files."
"True, and it worries me. It could just be coincidence, that they show up half a day after I do. But I keep wondering if they followed me. That would mean that they have some kind of new antidetection gear. I don't know how likely that is, either, but it could be more likely than them just showing up here of all the godsforsaken places."
They both stared at the big screen for a minute, showing the slow progress of a hide-and-seek battle around one of the gas giants in the outer system. Eventually, Elggren said, "If you'll excuse me, Commander, I should get back and help my team."
Clager nodded. "Of course. Good luck, Doctor. I'll keep you informed."
Elggren left the command room, closing the door quietly behind him, leaving the commander alone with his thoughts. Clager's thoughts weren't pretty. It was _possible_ that the Fatmi had simply stumbled across this system on a routine reconaissance, but he didn't like the odds, especially in an area which would be difficult for them to reach and where they hadn't been seen before. If they'd come here on purpose, then the force the outer patrol was currently fighting was unusually small for a long-range scouting mission. Either way, their cover was blown, and they'd have to fortify this system or abandon it, and he knew which way that decision would go. The alien installation here was interesting, even potentially vital to the war effort, but there was no way to justify the materiel required to defend it properly if the Fatmi guessed what was here.
But it was the missing ships and the possibility of new antidetection gear that really preyed on his mind. He sat, and thought, and finally hit a comm button.
Beep. "Orbital Group."
"Commander Clager here. Is Lieutenant Commander Porvath available?"
Beep. "Patching you through, Commander."
"What do you think of the Fatmi force that the outer patrol is engaged with?"
Beep. "It's small, Commander. That's not very many ships to send such a long way. If they ran into any trouble, the entire group could be wiped out with nobody left to get a report home."
"Damn, I was afraid you'd say that."
Beep. "I take it you're troubled by the size as well, Commander?"
"Yes. And the possibility that they may have followed me here, using some new antidetection gear. Combine that possibility with ships that they should have but we can't find..."
Beep. "The rest of the scout force could be coming down our throats while all our attention is on the outer patrol."
Beep. "We can do a sweep, Commander. We'll have plenty of time to call everyone back if the outer patrol can't contain the force there, so if we're wrong, no harm done. But if you're right..."
"I leave it in your hands, Porvath. I don't know whether to hope that you find something or not. Keep me informed."
Beep. "Aye, sir. Good luck to us all. Porvath out."
He let the line go dead and stared at the big screen, hoping for answers.
Doctor Elggren threaded his way through the narrow passages of the underground complex, heading back to the artifact chamber. As he had told the commander, he was well aware of the stakes, and it had already occurred to him that if any of the Fatmi ships got away, or even if they didn't, his work here would soon be interrupted permanently. He tried to keep his tail from drooping as he reached the chamber and started down the steel stairs bolted to the rock wall. Fifty meters below, the few volunteers from his team who hadn't evacuated to the surface when the excitement started were hard at work pulling as many pieces off the artifact as they could without damaging it. Wazel was half-buried in it, only his legs sticking out of a narrow hatch, and Meyyammai was handing him tools and carefully packing the small bits that he handed out to her. Keren and Disti were at work on the other side, out of sight but he could hear them swearing. And Sennae was recording everything, lights flowing across the AI's boxy hull.
The artifact itself looked almost comically like a "dimensional gate" from popular fiction. Elggren found it painful sometimes to admit in public that that was in fact what it seemed to be, as far as they could tell. The center of the thing was a tall gateway on a dais, surrounded by banks of enigmatic machinery. There was a gravitational anomaly associated with the gateway, possibly sustained by the whisper of power still flowing through parts of the machinery. The anomaly was what had first attracted notice. Sadly, the Fatmi would detect it just as easily, and be just as curious...
Meyyammai looked up and waved. "Shivak! What's the news, Doctor?"
Elggren waved back. "No news is good news, Miss Aashem. So far, nothing has changed. The more time we have to recover parts for study, the better off we are."
Meyyammai wrinkled her nose. "If we win, we'll just have to put it all together again."
He reached the base of the stairs and sat on the bottom for a minute. "We can hope," he said. "We may be evacuated anyway. If the Fatmi command gets word that we're trying to defend this system, they'll be back to find out why."
Meyyammai sighed and nodded, then Wazel's tail poked her and she returned her attention to business with a small squeak. Elggren watched for a minute, then got back to his feet and went around to see what Keren and Disti were swearing about. He found them poring over a tall cylindrical section which appeared to be free, as far as he could tell. "What's wrong?" he asked.
Keren looked over her shoulder. "Oh, hi, Doctor. This thing," she tapped the cylinder with a claw, "should be loose. For a while there we kept finding more bolts, but now we think we've gotten all of them. But it still won't move. Perhaps you'd like to have a look?"
He nodded and stepped closer to peer at it. And over it. And under it. He couldn't see any more screws or bolts or fasteners either. "Maybe all three of us should try lifting it," he said. "It may just be heavy, we have no idea what's in it." They nodded and everyone secured whatever grip they could on the smooth metal. Ten minutes later, they were still trying, all three swearing now, when the general alert klaxon went off.
In the echoing stone chamber, it was even louder than usual, and they all dropped everything and clapped their hands over their ears. Wazel wormed his way out of the machine and they all stood, waiting for the news.
Commander Clager's voice followed, nearly as loud as the claxon. "ALL HANDS! ALL HANDS! EVERYONE ON THE SURFACE, DROP WHAT YOU ARE DOING AND GO TO YOUR ASSIGNED SHIP IMMEDIATELY. GO. DUSTOFF IS IN TEN MINUTES. DEMOLITION CREW, YOU HAVE FIVE TO BLOW ALL SENSITIVE INSTALLATIONS, INCLUDING THE ELEVATOR HEAD. CAPTAIN OLDSMID, YOU HAVE COMMAND. ROUND THEM UP AND GET THEM OUT. GODS BE WITH YOU."
The loudspeaker went silent. It took a moment for the announcement to sink in. Meyyammai said, "We'll be... trapped? WHAT?" Elggren put a reassuring hand on her shoulder and she settled down again. More silence went by. Elggren realized they were waiting for him. He took a breath, hoping he'd have something to say, when someone started clattering down the steel stairs.
The looked up and saw the remaining military complement: the commander in the lead, followed by Sergeant Ulis, and Gorne, Toft, and Vankloser. All of them were loaded down with boxes marked "Explosives". When they reached the bottom, they put the boxes down, and the commander stepped forward, between the two groups, turning so he could see both.
"Doctor, I was right about the Fatmi having new antidetection gear. The orbital group sent out some fast scouts to check the area. Major Dipte found them the hard way, he just happened to pass close enough to get a visual ID on them. They shot him down as soon as he radioed in, but he bought a chance for some of us. You see, the main Fatmi force is only half an hour away now."
"We'd still be on the elevator when they landed," said Keren.
Clager nodded. "Our only chance is to blow the shaft and sit tight. It's not much of a chance, but if we tried to join the evacuation, we'd just get caught, and you know what would happen then. That's why I gave the blow and dustoff order. Doctor, for you and your team, I'm sorry. You didn't sign up for risking your life."
Elggren finally let out that breath. "These things happen, in war," he said slowly. "It was the only order you could have given." He could feel Meyyammai shaking under his hand still on her shoulder, and he tightened his grip.
"We have enough food and water and air for some time," the commander continued. "The emergency supplies were meant to last a week for the entire complement. With so few of us, they will last a lot longer. We will issue hand weapons to everyone. And we need to prepare to blow the artifact."
Elggren stepped in before Meyyammai could blow her top. "I'm sure the commander will not give the order until there is no hope. He knows how important the artifact could be. Which means we need to keep it if we can, but if we can't, we have to make sure the Fatmi don't get it."
Clager nodded. "Exactly, Doctor. Dimensional gate technology could end this war. Unfortunately, it would end it in favor of whomever has it." Meyyammai relaxed under his hand. He gave her shoulder a squeeze and let go. "Sergeant, prepare the artifact."
Ulis stepped forward, a towering bear who looked like a grunt with barely enough room in his mind for beer and women at the same time. He clapped his hands, the sound echoing off the rock. "All right! Everybody heave to and pile all the parts in the gate. Vankloser, pick your places and set your charges." Meyyammai was shaking again, and Ulis stepped forward, leaning over a bit to get closer to the short mouse's level. "I know you've just taken it all apart, miss, trying to save it," the bear said, in a gentle tone. "But we're only going to get once chance to do this, and we have to do it right, for everyone's sake. If everything is in a pile, we have a better chance to make a clean sweep and leave nothing for the Fatmi, yes?" Meyyammai nodded slowly, and Ulis patted her lightly on the head. "I will help. Is there something heavy for the big bear to carry?" Somebody snickered, and Ulis straightened up. "Keep making that noise, private, and you'll be the one carrying it instead," he said, his voice rough again. There was no more snickering.
Elggren saw Clager eyeing Ulis as the bear started hauling huge crates up onto the dais, and he edged over to the other wolf. "There's more to him than you'd think," he murmured quietly. "He can charm Meyyammai better than anyone, or be tough as nails. You'll get used to it."
"I hope to get the chance," said Clager.