"Final check, Sennae," Elggren said. "Does it match the pre-breakdown scan?"
There was a brief pause. "In all significant respects," the AI replied. "There is some variation in the exact position of individual wires. In most electronics, that does not matter. So far we have no evidence that it will matter here."
Elggren nodded, then turned toward the stairs. "Sergeant!" he yelled up to the bear who was still lowering crates of gear. "Tell the commander we're ready to power up the artifact. We're going to have to switch off most of the lights to do it, though."
"I'm here, Doctor," Clager said, leaning over the railing of the top platform. "The rest of the salvagers will be back in a minute. When they are, go ahead. The Fatmi will be arriving at the rubble in the shaft in less than half an hour at their current rate. I'd like to be gone by then."
Clager watched from the platform as Elggren gathered his team around Sennae and they reviewed what they'd done the last time they activated the artifact. Ulis hauled the crate back up and they waited for the other three. Time dragged and the commander was acutely aware of every minute going by. Finally, Vankloser, Toft, and Gorne appeared at the other end of the passage, bearing more boxes and bags. He helped them load it into Ulis's crate, then said, "That's it. Whatever we have now is what we're taking. Everybody down below and stand ready to start throwing supplies through the gate when it opens." The three clattered down the stairs while Clager leaned over the rail again. "Whenever you're ready, Doctor!"
The group around Sennae dispersed to various locations around the artifact, Elggren going to stand on the dais. "Everybody! It will take about four minutes for the artifact to warm up once we start. When the gate opens, you will see something that looks like a plate of glass form between the two gateposts here. I will throw a rock through first. If that goes OK, then we can start evacuating."
Clager took over, giving orders as he ran down the stairs. "Thank you, Doctor. Once the gate is operating, we will put all the supplies through first. Toft and Gorne, you will do the actual throwing. Everyone else will form a chain to feed supplies to them. Ulis carries the really heavy stuff. Vankloser, you keep an eye on your charges to make sure nothing gets knocked loose and prepare the time fuse for a three-minute detonation. Once all supplies are through, personnel will go through in the order that we're lined up. I will be last and start the timer. Any questions?"
Everyone shook their heads. The commander looked around, then said, "Doctor, your show."
Elggren turned and said, "Go." Wazel, connected to Sennae, pressed a large mauve button. Everyone jumped when a chorus of loud clicks and bangs echoed off the stone walls. "Don't worry," Elggren shouted over a rising hum. "That switch controls a bunch of relays which actually control the power to the various modules. In that way, it's not very different from our own big machinery."
The lights dimmed almost to nothing, the room illuminated now by flashlights that the science team held and the twinkling of small indicators on the artifact. The hum increased. "It's charging now," shouted Elggren. "In about two minutes the hum will go away again!" He turned and waved to Wazel and Sennae. After a moment, Wazel gave him a thumbs-up without looking around. He assumed that meant that Sennae was satisfied with the state of things.
Almost everyone had their hands over their ears now, and they stayed that way until the two-minute mark. The hum did disappear, quite abruptly, although it was hard to tell because of the way their ears rang. Between the gateposts, the view of the other side of the chamber wavered just a bit, clouding over ever so faintly until it looked very much like a pane of slightly dirty glass stood between the posts. "How's it doing, everyone?" Elggren asked.
"Give it just a moment longer," said Keren from her post. "This meter is reading a bit low compared to last time, but it's still rising."
"Looks good over here," Disti said. Meyyammai nodded from where she stood.
"If Keren's meter stops where it did last time, then we can only assume that the artifact is operating as well as it did last time," the AI responded.
"Just about there," said Keren. "A little more... little more... and... stopped on the mark."
Elggren had already picked up a fist-sized rock from near the wall, and he stepped up onto the dais, approaching to within a few feet of the gate. "Here goes nothing," he said, and tossed the rock in. It hit the glassy region and simply disappeared, without a sound. Elggren watched a moment longer and nothing further happened, then he stepped away from the gate again.
"That's what it did last time," he said to Clager. "We might as well get started."
Clager nodded. "Toft, Gorne, let's go!" The two cats leapt up onto the dais and took positions on either side of the gate. Clager rushed forward with a box in either hand and slid them across the dais to the waiting soldiers, who seized them and threw them through the gate. Like the rock, they disappeared silently. Elggren, who was closest, grabbed another box and handed it to Clager, and one by one everyone got in line and started passing supplied forward.
"How's it doing, Mister Wazel?" Clager asked a few minutes later, the line taking a breather while Ulis brought a very large and heavy crate forward and pushed it through the gate.
"Nothing to report," Wazel said. "Minor variations in the power draw when bigger items go through, less than one percent. That appears to be normal, nothing is showing any sign of strain."
"Very good! Let's keep moving supplies, then. There's still a lot here that we'll be glad to have."
Wazel turned his attention away from the busy supplies-movers, looking through Sennae's senses once again. He could see all the meters at once -- well, they seemed to be meters, they hadn't had enough time to be really sure of anything -- and beyond that he could catch glimpses of the power flowing through the body of the machine, magnetic fields flexing and pulsing as the artifact did whatever it did. Even with all the sensors, when he watched boxes go through the gate he could see no more than with the naked eye. They just disappeared, and he hoped it would be somewhere worth disappearing to.
He floated, not really aware of his body, his attention nowhere and everywhere at once, watching for any change. After some time, Sennae let him know that the supplies were gone. It was time to disconnect, the AI was going through the gate next.
Did they get my medicine?
I have no record of a box matching your description.
Wazel shut down the communion with desperate speed and pulled the plug out of his spine socket. "Shit! Commander, did anyone get the medicine from my quarters?"
Clager looked around. "I'm not sure." He looked at the three who had been salvaging. They looked at each other.
"Shit!" shouted Wazel again. He bounded across the room and started up toward the passage, not bothering with the stairs but simply climbing the rails on the outside. Everyone else stared after him as he swarmed up the scaffolding supporting the stairs and disappeared through the entrance.
"Damn," said Clager quietly, then he clapped his hands sharply to get everyone's attention. "All right! Everyone through the gate! Ulis, you carry the AI. I will wait here for Mister Wazel." There was a rumble in the distance. "For as long as I can. That would be the Fatmi starting to dig at the rubble. Now go! Go! Go!"
Toft and Gorne went through, disappearing just as the supplies had. Elggren followed, Keren, Disti, then Ulis carrying the AI and herding Meyyammai in front of him. Venkloser stopped, facing the commander, and saluted. "The timer is over there, sir," he said, pointing at a small box sitting off to one side, with wires leading to it from all over the room. "All the charges are in order. Good luck, sir. See you on the other side." With that, he jumped up onto the dais and ran through the gate.
Clager stood alone in the stone chamber, listening to the rumbling in the distance. It got louder, and he walked over to the timer and triggered it, starting the three-minute countdown, and he stood dividing his attention between the display and the stairs.
With two minutes left on the count, Wazel shot out of the passage entrance and went over the railing, catching one of the vertical supports before he could fall and sliding down the pole gracefully, a box tucked under his arm. He hit the ground hard and rolled, Clager running over and hauling him back to his feet. Together, they sprinted for the gate and almost fell through it.