They were about halfway through restacking the loose parts when the ground rumbled and shook. A little later, some dust puffed out of the passageway entrace far above. The commander's voice came over the PA. "That was rubble from the elevator head hitting the shaft bottom. It takes a while to fall ten kilometers. Most of the shaft is still open, but the bottom fifty meters are blocked by rubble now."
"Now we're really stuck," said Meyyammai, putting down the crate she'd been trying to carry and sitting on it. "In a thousand years, somebody will find us, and have to figure out who we were and what we were doing, as well as the artifact." She began to rock from side to side a bit.
"Depends on how you look at it, miss," replied Ulis. He stepped over and effortlessly picked up the crate and the mouse sitting on it. "For my money, it's fifty meters of rock between us and Them. Which isn't nearly enough but is better than nothing," he continued as he carried his load over to the pile and set it down carefully, leaving Meyyammai perched atop the stack. "Now, I'll hand stuff up to you and you can put it in the middle of the pile, OK? We need to get this done." She nodded and they all got back to work.
Fifteen minutes later, the PA chimed. "Doctor, if I could have a word with you?" Elggren set down his crate and hustled up the stairs, aware of the eyes following him. The passages were darker, the lights down to minimum power to save fuel in the generator now that they weren't getting power from above anymore.
He found Clager in his office, and the wolf turned quickly to face him. "Doctor... how long would it take your team to reassemble the artifact and get it operational?" This was the last question that he might have expected, and it took him a moment to collect his thoughts.
"We can reassemble the parts in two hours, maybe one if we push it. Operational? That begs the question, Commander -- we're not even really sure what it's supposed to do yet, let alone what it actually can still do. Yes, we were able to power it up partially. Yes, we extended a few probes through and got them back. There may be a habitable environment on the other side, maybe. The temperature is right, and there's air of some sort. But we don't even know what the air is made of, or what it looks like over there. Assuming that 'over there' really means anything!"
"But, can you do it?"
"We can get it reassembled and powered up. Will it still work? We can hope so. But to what end? Even if there is a habitable environment on the other side, even if the thing still works well enough that it doesn't simply kill us as we go through, we'd still have to blow it behind us! We'd never get home!"
"We're already not going home, Doctor."
Elggren deflated, ears and tail drooping. "The Fatmi have landed?"
"Yes. They're starting down the shaft. It will take them a while, they're being careful about booby traps, and then they'll have to dig through the rubble. But they know we're here and they're coming. The artifact may be a slim chance, but it's all we have. I'd rather be vaporized trying to go through it than be tortured to death by the Fatmi or blow my own head off."
Elggren stood silent a moment. "When you put it that way... All we can do is try, Commander."
Clager nodded and turned to hit the intercom. "All hands! Change of plans. Science team, please reassemble the artifact and prepare it for operation. Mister Vankloser, reset your charges for an intact machine and a timed detonation. Sergeant, get everyone else started salvaging emergency supplies, carrying gear, and whatever other useful materials you can find. Don't worry about packing it, we'll shovel it through the gate loose. Either we'll have time to worry about packing it once we're through, or we won't be worrying about anything. We have about an hour, so let's move it, people." He released the button and turned back to Elggren.
"They'll need you down at the artifact, Doctor. I'm on salvage. Is there anything from your quarters that you or your team will need?"
"Meyyammai will want her cyolin, it's small enough to go with us and it may help keeping her... stable. I'm afraid I don't know Wazel or Keren or Disti well enough to say."
"Well, with any luck we'll have five minutes after everything is set for them to get their stuff. And you, Doctor?"
"There's a picture of my family on the wall, Commander," Elggren said quietly.
Clager nodded. "Of course, Doctor." He clapped Elggren on the shoulder and herded him toward the door. "And now, time for all of us to hustle. Good luck."
Wazel was helping reassemble the artifact with a good deal more enthusiasm than he'd had when taking it apart. He understood how important it had been to save whatever they could, back when they expected to be able to evacuate, but it still felt like desecration. Now he felt like he was righting a wrong as well as hopefully saving his own fuzzy hide.
He was linked directly to Sennae, drawing on the AI's perfect memory and enhanced senses to restore the tangles of wire that linked modules together within the machine, wires which were sometimes color-coded in the infrared or ultraviolet as well as visible shades. He wondered again how it was that the builders had never invented the wiring harness, and laughed a little as Sennae wordlessly responded in its deadpan way, that this was the thirty-seventh time he'd wondered that.
In the background he could vaguely hear Sennae talking to the others, directing them as they moved larger and simpler pieces back into place while he did the delicate work that needed the direct link. He didn't pay much attention to it, relying on the AI to tap him on the shoulder if there was anything he needed to know, such as getting his tail out of the way of stomping feet.
The background noise got louder and Sennae showed him a quick picture of the soldiers bringing supplies. Ulis had found a large crate and a long rope and was using his massive strength to lower crateloads of gears at once, much faster than having to carry it all down the stairs piece by piece. They want to know if you want anything from your quarters, Sennae added.
Medicine, he sent back urgently. The bottle in the top drawer of the dresser, and a box under my bunk. Tell them it's important! The AI sent a working and he resumed threading wires into connectors. Five wires later, the AI added a confirmation that the message had been transferred and acknowledged.
Elggren was momentarily surprised to hear an unfamiliar voice from below as he started down the stairs, then realized it was Sennae talking. The AI spoke only rarely, preferring the richer communication it had with Wazel and sometime Meyyammai through direct connection. Most of the time, Sennae was basically a voice-activated recorder and playback to most of the team, but obviously in this emergency the AI needed to communicate with everyone at once and was doing so with its usual purposeful efficiency.
He stopped halfway down the stairs and leaned over the railing. "The soldiers are salvaging. If anybody wants something from their quarters, I'll make a list and get it to them."
"My cyolin!" called Meyyammai. Elggren nodded.
"Clothes," said Disti, not looking up from the box he was bolting back into place. "For everyone if they have time, for Meyyammai and Wazel if they don't. Those two can't wear anybody else's."
"Anything else?" said Elggren. "Keren? Wazel? Anything personal, Disti?"
"Wazel says he needs the medicine from his room," Sennae said. "A bottle in the top drawer of his dresser, and a box of it under his bunk. It's important."
"If I have time, I'll get my stuff myself," said Keren. "If not, I'll live." Disti nodded.
Sennae broke in. "If there is a solar emergency power panel down here, please include it," the AI said. "I may be useful, and if you take me, I will need power. Otherwise, I must be demolished with the artifact."
"Of course we're taking you!" Elggren said, adding to the list.
"If there is no way to power me, there is no point in taking me," Sennae said. Elggren didn't have time to think of a response to that, so he just said, "Anyone else?" No one said anything.
"All right, then," Elggren said. At that moment, an empty crate was almost at his level as Ulis hauled it back up for another load, and on an impulse he tossed the paper into it. "Sergeant," he called up the stairs, "can you get that list to the salvage team, please?"
"Aye, Doctor," said the bear. "I'll take care of it. You best help them with the machine, now." Elggren nodded and descended as quickly as he could, walking over to Sennae's boxy form to find out what needed to go back on next.