This is less of a short story and more of a life story. I used to tell it to myself in my head, over and over again, with different characters and circumstances, the essentials always remaining the same: a bright young woman gets entangled in a world of space travels, adventure and danger, where she has to navigate between impossible odds, unexplained science mysteries, terrible foes, and… her own insecurities and shortcomings. In the course of the story, she discovers the power of friendship, love, betrayal, hatred, jealousy, and many more emotions she’s always underestimated.
I don’t know where this story will lead me. I know how it looked like before, but it’s different each time I tell it to myself, and this version will probably guide me to unexpected places, too. It is as much an unknown to me as it is to you. Which is what makes it fun to write.
Please feel free to comment; in particular, please do offer any corrections to the style and language. I am not a native English speaker and I will welcome any and all suggestions. Any mistakes are my own fault, not my beta’s. And on that note:
Big big big THANK YOU to my amazing beta, caeai. You rock my world, girl.
Disclaimer: I do not own any part of the Stargate universe or franchise and I derive no financial profit from writing and publishing this story. This is purely for entertainment.
Warning: this will be long. It’s already almost 50 thousand words and counting, and I’m only on the fourth chapter.
Enjoy! (I hope.)
She was laughing, her bright green eyes scintillating with pure joy, her orange pigtails bobbing this way and that as she ran across the backyard, trying to catch up with the boys. She was small, looked like a two-and-a-half year old at the most, but her third birthday had passed some weeks ago. Her light blue dress had a big pocket on the front, where she had stored her little treasures of the day: a black, glossy pebble she picked up near the southernmost side of the hedge; a dead fly she “rescued” from the cat; an ice cream stick; and a dark red bead she found under the sofa in the living room. All of this clattered inside the pocket as she sped through the lawn in white tights and navy blue bar shoes, tripping and swaying a bit as the ground proved tricky for her little feet. All of her clothes were already dirty from the repeated falling over.
The two boys were older, already long past the awkward toddler phase. Their running was swift and intentional, as they pretended to be a policeman chasing a gangster. The little girl tried – unsuccessfully – to keep up with them, never really understanding the purpose. One of the boys, the chaser, was taller and leaner than the other one, his hair and eyes both almost the same shade of dark brown. He was wearing blue jeans and a black T-shirt that read “Smells like teen spirit.” The other boy, the chasee, was smaller but rounder, especially on the cheeks. He had the same shade of orange hair as the girl, but his eyes were grey, not green. He was wearing dark green shorts and a grey T-shirt with an outline of a hawk on it. They both carried plastic guns and pretended to shoot at each other, every so often feigning a fatal shot and dropping to the ground dramatically, arms and legs spread out every which way. The little girl would then finally be able to catch up, and would stoop over the boy currently on the ground and pretend to shoot him with her two fingers, mirroring their game without understanding what it meant. The boys would laugh at her with a mixture of annoyance and kindness, a combination known perhaps only to children, and she’d join them, not knowing why. Their pure voices carried across the backyard to the verandah, where the adults sat, drinking cool drinks in tall crystal glasses and observing the children with warmth in their eyes. The boys had met at school and quickly became fast friends, bringing the two families together for the first time on this sunny, warm Saturday in late September.
Her bike was blue, with multicolored ribbons hanging from the handles. She pedaled hard, trying to keep up with the boys already way ahead of her, as they sped up along the street. There were three of them now, the orange-haired boy, the brown-haired and another one, a bulky black-haired and hazel-eyed twelve-year-old, leading the pack. He was a year older than the other two, and automatically and naturally assumed the position of the boss of their little group. He didn’t like having a snotnose girl following them around at all times, but it was just impossible to get rid of her, especially that her brother was rather protective of the annoying tot.
They halted briefly as they arrived at the entrance to the park, panting like dogs. The girl just managed to catch up with them as they started off again, riding their bikes in a slalom between the trees. At last they came to their destination, a small skatepark, now deserted as it was already getting dark and there were no lamps. The boys hooted wildly and started to brag about who would pull the most impressive stunt.
“I don’t think you should do that now,” ventured the girl when she finally regained some breath, after catching up with them again. “It’s dark and you can’t really see the ramp.”
“Shut up, tootsie,” the older boy told her with an angry expression on his face. “We can do whatever we want. We’re grown up and you’re just a child!”
This sentence was welcomed by the other two with another burst of hoots, but they didn’t sound just as wild as before.
“Well I think it’s stupid to risk broken bones like that!” She said, crossing her arms and looking at him challengingly. “You can do whatever you want, but Aaron and Jake won’t be so stupid to follow you!”
The boy stuck out his tongue at her, got back on his bike and rode out onto the ramp, yelling “Child! You’re just a small child!” all the way there. The other boys looked at each other uncertainly, but eventually followed their leader. The girl screwed up her face and sat down on the ground by her bike, her arms still crossed, throwing furious glances at the boys who seemed to be having the time of their life. That is, until one of them misjudged the length of the ramp in the growing darkness and fell rather spectacularly, with one wheel of his bike lopsided and twisted. The girl was on her feet instantly and ran to him, as the other boys stopped in their tracks and watched wide-eyed as their friend’s forearm bent in a weird way. Immediately, the brown-haired boy started crying.
The girl rushed to his side, pushed the bike off him and kneeled down. He tried to scramble up, but she put her hand firmly on his chest, making him lie on the ground.
“Don’t move, Aaron,” she said in a quivering voice, trying not to look at his weirdly positioned hand. “I think you should stay down. And don’t move your hand! I’ll get help, but don’t move your hand!” She turned her head around to look at her brother. “Jake, you stay here and make sure he’s not moving, okay?”
The ginger boy nodded his head frantically, finally breaking the spell, getting off his bike and coming to sit by his crying friend. The girl leaped up to her feet, jumped on her blue bike with ribbons at the handles, and more flew than rode away, as the twelve-year-old leader of the group stood and gaped in horror.
After that day they were banned from seeing the black-haired boy again by their parents. They didn’t mind. Aaron had to wear a cast for a few weeks, and he let his friends draw pictures on it with sharpies. The eight-year-old heroine drew him a huge red heart and a smiley cat-face.
There was a large couch in Aaron’s basement, two old, ragged armchairs, and a tiny coffee table. A single exposed light bulb was emitting strong, yellow light, too bright for them, so they covered it with a dark red piece of cloth, bathing the room in a bloody shade. There was a narrow window on the wall, high up, which they always kept open. It was the only reason why they did not suffocate there, five sixteen year old boys and one thirteen year old girl, as much time as they spent in the cramped room.
They had changed. Aaron’s hair and eyes were still dark brown, and he was still tall and lean, but he looked more gangly, as if he had too many limbs and not enough coordination. There was a shadow of facial hair on his chin too, proudly worn. Jake’s orange hair was neatly trimmed and it darkened to a deep maroon, almost auburn, although his eyes remained light grey, with spots of pale blue. He got taller and bulkier, with broad shoulders and sturdy frame; there was not a faint memory of his previous chubbiness in him. His sister was still smaller than usually girls her age, skinny and flat, more a child than a teenager yet. Her orange-coppery hair was pulled in a ponytail, and her green eyes were bright as always, though barely visible in the dimmed light of the room.
The three other boys were Aaron and Jake’s age, their classmates and close friends. Two of them were blonde, and one had light brown hair; all three of them had blue eyes. Aaron and Jake were sitting on the couch with guitars in hands, one of the blonde boys sat in one armchair with a bass guitar; the other armchair was occupied by the light-brown haired boy, a small keyboard sitting across his lap. The fifth teenager sat on a stool behind a drum set in the back of the room. There was a lot of laughing and joking around, interloped with music they were trying to learn. The only girl in the room sat cross-legged on the floor with her back to the wall, a book in her hand, as she tried to split her attention between the text and the playful rehearsal in front of her. She was failing.
Finally, she sighed, put down the book and glanced at the boys with a smile. They weren’t looking at her, the irreverent and dirty jokes flowing between them as if they were in male-only environment. They grew so used to her, they hardly ever noticed that she was, in fact, a girl. She rose to her feet and quietly exited the room, never knowing that both Jake and Aaron took notice of her leaving, thinking she didn’t really belong, but at the same time not minding the feeling of inadequacy. It wasn’t the only place where she felt like an outsider.
The light of the day was growing dim, a slight chill permeating the air. Evening was drawing near. Seconds ticked by as they stood on the verandah, leaning against the railing, quiet, watchful, waiting. Jake’s hair was even shorter than before, and his sister was finally starting to look less like a child and more like a teenager.
Suddenly from inside the house came a ringing, a shrill sound that cut through the silence like a knife. They both shuddered, but didn’t move from their spot. The ringing ended, and a muffled voice reached them through the open door, though they couldn’t recognize the words. Then silence returned for a moment, before they heard the footsteps coming. Their mother appeared in the doorway. They turned around to look at her. Her grey-blue eyes were full of tears. She didn’t have to say anything. They jumped up to her and embraced each other, and cried together, each drawing strength from the others’ presence, even at this dark, dark hour.
Away back, at the far side of their backyard, where there was a small gate in the fence, stood Aaron, motionless, half-hidden behind the hedge. He just watched them, not wanting to interrupt, not wanting to interfere, but determined to be there for them, even if they would never know. But just as they were entering the house again, the girl turned around and glimpsed the silhouette of their best friend. He saw her looking at him and waved his hand tentatively. He then placed it on his heart and lowered his head. She disappeared inside with her brother and mother, but he was sure she knew what he meant.
And she did.
The three of them were standing on a viewing platform, overlooking the city, rays of sunshine penetrating the clouds and illuminating entire districts. A thick, though barely perceptible layer of smog was floating above. Patches of green down below indicated parks enclosed by the suburbia, and farther along the horizon higher buildings rose like towers of an enormous castle. It was a warm afternoon in early June.
“Our last summer together,” Jake broke the silence. “I can’t believe it’s over.”
“It’s not over,” Aaron resisted to the idea. “We’re still gonna see each other.”
“Yeah, but how much?” The young man shook his auburn head. “It’s gonna be hard to keep in touch when we’re in three different parts of the country.”
“We will try, though, won’t we?” The coppery-orange haired teenager said in a small voice, resonating with hope. “And we’ll see each other every time we get back here.”
“Sure, Allie.” Aaron smiled at her warmly. “That’s a given.”
She returned his smile. Jake, standing in the middle, extended his arms and hugged them both to his sides.
“A new path awaits each of us,” he said in a serious tone. “But we shall never forget the miles we’ve already walked together.”
“Well said, bro.” Aaron nodded his head appreciatively. “Promise me you’ll both write a lot of letters! I will be insatiable for news from San Diego and Pasadena.”
“And us, from New York!” Added Jake, squeezing his friend a bit closer. “At least me and Allie are staying on the same coast. You’re really going far away!”
“Same coast for now.” Aaron raised his eyebrow. “You never know where you’ll end up after Sand Diego!”
“True,” Jake acquiesced. “Well, friends… real life is awaiting, full of work and tough choices. But for now, let’s enjoy this last summer of freedom! Let’s be reckless and inconsiderate and let’s have all the fun we can!”
The other two hooted agreement, but as they were turning back from the cityscape, each of them shot one last longing glance to where their childhood had passed in relative happiness and peace.
Like it or not, they were growing up.
The recruiter sized her up and down and smiled somewhat ironically, as if right from the start he didn’t believe she would make a good candidate.
“So you’d like to join the Air Force,” he said. It wasn’t a question, so she didn’t respond, instead maintaining eye contact. “What’s your name, miss?”
“Alice Boyd,” she answered calmly, though inside she was trembling, intimidated by the man in the uniform who had the power to determine her entire future at that moment. “I want to be a pilot.”
“Of course you do. Who doesn’t?” His smirk wouldn’t go away. “How old are you?”
The recruiter’s eyebrows went up.
“You don’t look nineteen.”
“I get that a lot.” Alice smiled mildly. “I’ve always been small for my age, sir.”
“Uh-huh. So you want to be a pilot… Are you in college already, or would you like to apply to the Air Force Academy?”
“Neither, sir. I’ve completed my higher education already. I’d like to attend the Officer Training School.”
The Technical Sergeant raised his eyebrows even higher.
“Impossible. You just told me you’re nineteen. That would make you fifteen when you graduated high school.”
“Yes, sir, that’s when I went to college. I have a BS from California Institute of Technology, with double Major in Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics and a minor in Computer Science.”
The recruiters eyebrows went down and his smirk disappeared, replaced by an expression of shock and disbelief.
“You’re some kind of genius child or what?”
Alice smiled politely, shaking her head.
“I believe the term you were looking for is wonder child, sir, but yes, basically I am. I was admitted to CalTech at the age of 15. I was one of the few early entrants on the campus, but not the only one, sir.”
He kept staring at her for a few more seconds. Then he shook his head, as if resurfacing from water after deep plunge.
“Right,” he said curtly. “Before we go any further, I would like to stress that it is very important for you to be completely honest with me. If you lie or hide the truth, we will find out about it sooner or later, and you’ll be disqualified from the recruitment process.”
“Understood, sir.” Alice nodded, finally moving her eyes off him and taking a look around the office. It was very cluttered, though clean, creating an ambiance of diligent busyness.
“I will give you a questionnaire that you will fill in, there’ll be some detailed questions about your family and medical history, your education and work experience, if any, criminal record, that sort of stuff, but for now I need you to answer me a few general questions.”
She looked up at him expectantly, not interrupting with any unnecessary “yes, sirs.”
“First of all, do you have any medical conditions that might preclude you from service in the Air Force?”
“No, sir, not to my knowledge.”
“Good. Have you ever taken any prescription drugs recreationally?”
She raised her eyebrow.
“No, sir, I’ve never taken any prescription drugs outside of the method and frequency prescribed by a doctor.”
“Any soft drugs? Meth? Let me remind you to be honest. Recreational soft drug use in the past will not necessarily disqualify you.”
“No, sir, I’ve never done any drugs, soft or hard, and I’ve never used methamphetamine. I did get a few morphine shots after an accident a few years ago, but that was prescribed and controlled by my doctor.”
She smiled fondly at the memory, which may have been an odd thing to do when talking about an accident.
“I fell from a ladder, sir, and broke a few ribs pretty nastily. They all healed up well, though.”
“No lingering pains?” The recruiter was serious, leaning in a little bit, as if that was a truly important question, though Alice could not conceive why.
“Good. What about mental health? Have you ever seen a psychiatrist or a therapist in the past?”
“Yes, sir, I’ve had a few appointments with a therapist a few years ago, after my dad died. My mother insisted on it for both me and my brother.”
“How did your father die?” The Sergeant apparently didn’t feel the need to say anything so polite as “I’m sorry for your loss” or something. It rubbed her the wrong way.
“He crashed his plane into a flight deck of a Navy carrier,” Alice replied a bit too harshly. She closed her eyes for just a moment and took a deep breath to control herself. “He was a Navy pilot, there were some pretty bad weather conditions. They were in the middle of the ocean and he was running low on fuel. He tried to land in that storm, but… well, he crashed. He was still alive when they got him out of the cockpit, but despite all their efforts, he died after two days in a coma.” A flow of emotions colored her voice as she recounted the event. The recruiter’s eyes grew a bit softer.
“Well, that’s unfortunate. But if your father was in the Navy… didn’t you want to follow in his footsteps?”
“I am. I want to be a fighter pilot, sir, and I have more chance to achieve that in the Air Force than in the Navy. Plus, my family is scattered all over the other branches of the military, the Air Force is the only one we don’t have a representation in yet.”
“You have other family members in the service?”
“Yes, sir. My uncle, that is my father’s brother, is in the Army. My own brother is in the Marine Corps. I even have a second cousin in the Coast Guard. So you see, it’s a family business.” Alice smiled at the recruiter and he had to return the smile. He was warming up to her pretty fast.
“What does your mother do?”
“She’s a graphic artist here in LA.” She made an indeterminate gesture with her hand, encompassing the city around them.
The Sergeant nodded and smiled.
“Just one more question. But a serious one. Do you have any criminal record, or a juvenile record?”
Alice shook her head.
“No, sir. Regrettably, my life has been pretty dull so far. I haven’t even gotten any speeding tickets.”
“Well, that’s good. Okay, I’ll give you a break now. Here,” he took a binder with a couple sheets of paper from his desk and handed it to her. “This is a questionnaire I told you about before. Please fill it out with as many details as possible. Then we will review it, make some preliminary calls to check the info out, and schedule a longer meeting when we can chat about other stuff. This entire process will take some time,” he warned her. “But don’t be put off by that. That’s always the case. Nothing to worry about.”
“Thank you, sir. Would you like me to fill this in now?”
“Yes, if you can. There’s a desk… well, a chair with a folding desk, really, outside, in the hall. I have another meeting now, but it shouldn’t take long and you should be finished before it’s over.”
“Ok, thank you, sir.” Alice smiled politely again, took the binder and left the office. As she sat down in the chair he spoke of, she let out a long breath. Well, it wasn’t as bad as she thought it would. People could be really prejudiced against her. A small redheaded girl, so easily dismissible, it was all too easy to look down at her and patronize her, but the moment they found out just how well-educated and, frankly, how smart she was, they felt like they’ve been cheated, which led them to dislike her, most of the time. But maybe she was a bit too quick to judge, too; that recruiter seemed at first like a pompous ass, but turned out to be quite nice in the end.
It was so hard for her to read people. Not for the first time, she hesitated. Being in the service meant dealing with other people, focusing on teamwork. Could she do this? She’d always been a loner and an outsider. But then again, that was a challenge, and she never backed out of a challenge before in her life. She wasn’t going to start now.
It had been a close call. The machine shook like a trembling child as she was taxiing down the strip. Part of it was the unstable engine, part the terrible weather, and part – the sheer force of her landing. Merciless gusts of wind and waves of violent rain were beating the cockpit’s canopy. She could hardly see five yards ahead of the nose, even the blinking lights of the landing strip were dim and barely perceptible. Slowly they grew brighter and more visible as she approached the hangar. Then, suddenly, she was inside, bright light dazzling her eyes, wind and rain no longer whipping the hull of her Falcon. The plane came to a standstill and she breathed deeply, the adrenaline rush still washing all over her body. Such a close call.
There were people approaching the aircraft now. Alice checked her controls and flicked the switches. Then she hit the button and the canopy went up. She took off the helmet and the mask, taking another deep breath, smelling the rain in the air despite the heavy scent of fuel, always surrounding planes. Her heart was still beating too fast, her cheeks were flushed from exertion and stress, her neck stiff after sitting in the cockpit for a long time. She stretched, hearing satisfying cracks in her joints. Then she scrambled out of the cockpit and dropped to the ground. The flight crew was already at work with the craft. Good. This baby needed some tender loving care after what they’ve just been through.
“Good job, Lieutenant.” A familiar voice resonated loudly in the wide space of the hangar. Alice turned on her heel and stood to attention, saluting.
“Thank you, Captain.” She beamed at her superior officer. He smiled, returned the salute and nodded for her to relax.
“It was a close one,” he said. “What happened with the engine?”
She shook her head.
“I am not sure, sir. It might just be that it was soaking wet.”
“You think?” The Captain frowned. “That wouldn’t be a bad thing. The alternatives might cost more to fix. Anyway, that was some good flying you did, Boyd.”
She smiled a bit mischievously.
“I thought that was some mighty fine landing, sir!” She exclaimed, coming to attention again, playing with him. He rolled his eyes, but looked amused, too.
“Fine it was, LT. When you’re ready, there’s someone here to see you. You’ll want to change in your blues. Come to the CO’s office.”
She raised her eyebrow. Who this might be? She couldn’t think of any reason she might have a visitor, except for family or friends, but that would not merit blues, or, for that matter, a mention from the good Captain.
“Yes, sir,” she replied and saluted again. The Captain lazily saluted back and turned on his heel, leaving her to wonder. Who could this visitor be? She barely made it to the base a couple weeks ago; it was only her fifth real flight there. Surely, she was doing well, wasn’t she? She racked her brain, searching for some transgression she might have made, but there was nothing. And then, even if there was, her own superior would be the first to talk to her, and not some visitor from God knows where.
It was pointless to speculate, she decided as she entered the locker room half an hour later, wrapped up in a towel, her hair still damp from the shower, though she tried to dry it. She changed in her skirt and pale blue blouse with a tie tab, then braided her orange hair and put it up with a pin. She looked in the mirror and smiled at her own reflection. You did good, today, girl, she thought to herself. Daddy would be proud. It was time. Whomever this mysterious visitor might be, it was rude to make him wait, right?
Standing outside her squadron commander’s office, she removed her side cap and knocked on the door. A muffled voice from inside told her to come in. She did, then approached the desk, stood at attention and saluted. Major Tarrick returned the salute, watching her intently from his chair. Alice relaxed her stance, but there was something in her CO’s face that made her uneasy. She glanced quickly at the other person present in the room. It was another officer, a woman with short blond hair and soft blue - almost grey - eyes. She was in her mid-thirties and wore the insignia of a Lieutenant Colonel. Alice snapped at attention again, more out of habit than because of any conscious thought.
“Lieutenant Alice Boyd reporting as ordered, sir!” Alice turned back to her CO.
“Lieutenant, this is Lieutenant Colonel Samantha Carter,” Major Tarrick said, nodding his head to the blond officer. She was looking at Alice with searching, serious eyes, as if trying to assess her.
“Ma’am.” Alice nodded to her and got a nod in return.
“Hello, Lieutenant,” the woman greeted her without a smile, but her voice was soft and warm, and if you looked closer, you could see a sparkle deep in her pale blue eyes. She raised a thick binder she was holding in her hand. “You wrote this.”
Even though Alice didn’t know what to expect coming in, it was definitely not this. She raised an eyebrow and spied the inscription on the binder. Theoretical assessment of energy requirements for creating an Einstein-Rosen Bridge, it read. Alice felt her cheeks flush a bit.
“Yes, ma’am, I’m afraid I did.”
Colonel Carter finally smiled.
“I have a friend at CalTech who gave me this to read.” She said by way of explanation. “It was very interesting.”
Alice raised both her eyebrows.
“Oh?” She still remembered the embarrassment that paper has brought upon her. That was the only assignment in college that she didn’t pass.
“Oh yes,” the officer smiled even more broadly. “Although I imagine it did not garner you much appreciation from your teacher.”
“No, ma’am.” Her face was burning now. She must look ridiculous, deep red cheeks against her otherwise pale complexion.
The Lieutenant Colonel’s eyes flicked to Major Tarrick. He cleared his throat and Alice shifted her attention to him.
“Colonel Carter came here yesterday evening,” he announced. Oh? That was news. “She came especially to assess your personal file and skills in the field. Your today’s mission was tailored so as to give her a feeling of what you can do.”
Oh, fuck, Alice thought to herself, blanching for a change now. She was being assessed? What for? She almost asked this out loud.
“You handled yourself exceptionally well in these difficult circumstances, Lieutenant,” the Colonel said softly. It sounded almost like they wanted the circumstances to be difficult, just so they could see her pushed to the edge. But that was impossible. The storm was unexpected, Alice had checked the weather forecast before going up. But the engine… they couldn’t sabotage it, could they? No, that was a ludicrous idea. No matter how much they wanted to test her abilities under stress, they wouldn’t go so far. What if she failed, what if she crashed? And yet some instinct deep inside told Alice that it was exactly what happened. She banished that thought from her head.
“Thank you, ma’am. It was a close call.”
“How long have you been in the Air Force, Lieutenant? Two years?”
“Almost, ma’am. Twenty-two months to be exact, since my commission.”
“And this is your first real assignment, with no training wheels?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Why is she asking these questions? If she read her personal file, she should know all this stuff. Alice felt the woman’s gaze boring into her face, as if she was trying to peel off the outer layers and see the soft inside, her heart and soul.
There was a pause, awkward silence filling the room. Alice stood, feeling uncomfortable as both her CO and the other officer watched her intently.
“The colonel is here to present you with an offer,” Major Tarrick finally said, breaking the spell. Alice turned his head to him. Offer? That didn’t sound very military. “I do not know what is it, but I’ve been informed that this is a volunteer-only assignment. Top secret. Apparently it’s so highly classified that you have to give her your preliminary consent before you even know what it’s about.”
Alice gaped at him. A special assignment? Volunteer-only? Top secret? Why would I consent to something I have no earthly idea about? She thought a little panicky. But there was another voice in her head, admonishing her, pushing her to throw herself into whatever this is, challenging her. She made an effort to silence that voice for the moment.
“As your squadron commander, I am responsible for you and your well-being,” the major continued, holding his eyes level with hers, not looking at the colonel. “And although I do not know what this is about, I’ve got enough experience with these kinds of hush-hush assignments to know that they tend to be on the dangerous side. You’re barely twenty-one, Boyd,” he added in a softer voice. “Most of your fellow officers were still in college at that age. I was. I know how smart and skilled you are –” his eyes flicked to the other officer for a split second “– but you have no combat experience, zero, zilch. I’m advising against taking the good colonel’s offer.”
Alice didn’t say anything. She didn’t know what to say. This was the first time that her CO said anything that nice about her – he wasn’t big on compliments, usually. Granted, she only knew him a couple of weeks, but in that time he came off as a demanding boss, almost unfair.
“Lieutenant,” Carter spoke in a low voice. “I won’t lie to you, what I am proposing is dangerous. Very dangerous. But if you do it, you will never want to go back. This will be the single best thing to ever happen to you. I promise.”
Alice looked at her. The ranking officer was watching her, all serious and solemn.
“Was it for you? Was it the best thing?” The girl asked resolutely.
“Yes.” There was no pause, no hesitation in her answer.
Alice kept silent for a moment. Carter was holding her gaze all this time.
“Is it a flying assignment?” The young lieutenant finally asked. It was all so strange. Why did Carter start with showing her the old paper? Why did she come yesterday, why did she need so many assurances? Did she really do something to arrange Alice’s hard landing today? What was going on?
The woman didn’t reply, but lowered her eyelids, looking at Alice in a way that in itself was answer enough.
“You don’t know?” The colonel sounded sincerely surprised. Alice shook her head. “Well, Lieutenant, we’re looking for a specific type of people for this assignment. Skilled, of course, but smart most of all.” She waved the binder with the unfortunate paper. “You’re brilliant, that’s evident. And from the display we’ve seen today, I can already tell you’re gonna be one heck of a pilot.”
“I already am a pilot.”
Carter smiled crookedly and looked down, but didn’t say anything to that dictum. Alice didn’t know what to make of her response. Sure, you needed a brain to be a good pilot, but there was a certain set of skills that were far more important, like reflex, the ability to make quick decisions and think on your feet, and many, many others.
“Are you a pilot, ma’am?” She ventured, aghast with her own impudence.
The lieutenant colonel smiled again, showing teeth this time, no doubt enjoying some private joke.
“Not anymore. But I still do pilot stuff from time to time.”
Stuff? What was that supposed to mean? Alice frowned. So what was she supposed to do? How do you make a decision based on some vague promises and warnings? Go get it, girl, her inner champion encouraged her. You’ve never backed down from a challenge before. That was true. But she only just started her actual piloting career, and she didn’t even have time to enjoy it properly. She was torn. And as usual when this happened, in her mind she went back in time. What would dad do? Preliminary consent, Major Tarrick said. So she could rescind that consent after she hears more? Surely, they wouldn’t make her do anything she didn’t want to do, especially that it was volunteer-only, right? So where’s the harm in consenting? Quitter. That was the danger. If she consented and then backed down, she would be labeled a quitter. And frankly, she would feel ill at ease with it herself, too. Then don’t quit. See it through. She wasn’t sure if it was that inner voice who was always goading her to do bold things, like a damned cheerleader; or maybe it was a memory of her father, saying these exact words to her on one of many occasions when she came to him seeking advice?
She raised her gaze to meet Carter’s eyes.
“Ok. I’m volunteering.”
They were sitting in one of the empty offices in the main building, just down the hall from Major Tarrick’s. They occupied two comfortable armchairs separated by a small coffee table. A smiling airman – Alice didn’t remember his name, though she saw him on the base regularly – brought them coffee and some cookies, and then retreated from the room, closing the door behind him. Well, a lieutenant colonel deserved such pampering for sure.
“You don’t talk much, Lieutenant,” the older officer observed casually as they sat, sipping their coffee and nibbling on biscuits. Alice smiled a bit shyly.
“No, ma’am. Listening is more interesting. Allows me to learn something new. I already know the things I could say.”
Carter threw her an incredulous look.
“That’s very… mature. And commendable.” She put down her mug. “But I would like to hear what you think, too.”
The Colonel shook her head slightly at that.
“So. The assignment.”
Alice looked at her expectantly.
“I need to stress first that the information I am going to give you now is strictly classified, beyond any measure of classification you’ve ever heard about. In fact, what I intend to tell you now is the best kept secret in the whole world.”
The young lieutenant raised an eyebrow, her disbelief evident on her face.
“It is,” Carter reaffirmed. “It is also a bit difficult to process at first, so let me start with something easier. You were handpicked for this assignment, Lieutenant, and there are many expectations for you. The bar is set up way high. I trust that you will not fail those expectations.”
She paused, and Alice felt like she was expected to say something like “I won’t, ma’am,” but instead she just raised her other brow, so both of them were up now.
“You asked me if it’s a flying assignment. It is, in more ways than just one. But to dispel any misgivings you might have about leaving the base just as you’ve began your regular flights in a Falcon: we want you to fly a fighter. It will be a bit different than flying an F-16, though. The fighters we have in mind are much more advanced. Waaay more advanced.” She smiled, stressing the word “way.”
Alice felt a rush of excitement. Was she talking about Raptors? She’s never flown one, but that would be very exciting. Or what if it was an F-35 Lightning? Wouldn’t that be just… awesome?
“The fighter’s designation is F-302. Even that is classified. You may never tell anyone this designation.”
Oh, my. A completely new, advanced and secret fighter? And she, Alice Boyd, was handpicked to pilot one?
“An F-302 is a two-seat, multi-role air and space superiority attack fighter capable of short, intra-system hyperspace hops.”
A moment of silence followed that statement. Alice frowned, as she tried to decipher Colonel Carter’s words. Air and space? Hyperspace? Suddenly she remembered her paper that Carter brought with her. Einstein-Rosen Bridge. Hyperspace. No, impossible. She dismissed the idea.
“I don’t understand,” she managed eventually.
Carter smiled sympathetically.
“I don’t blame you. It sounds like science-fiction, doesn’t it? But I assure you it is true. The F-302 is capable of flight in space. It can leave our orbit on its own or can be deployed from a battlecruiser anywhere.” She noticed Alice’s blank stare. “Yes, we’ve got a battlecruiser too. A spaceship, Alice.”
It was the first time she used her name; it startled the young lieutenant. She shook her head. Was it some kind of an elaborate joke?
“I am serious, Lieutenant,” Carter said, guessing her train of thoughts. “We’ve been traveling all over the galaxy for the last eight years.” She paused again, allowing this news to sink in. “Prometheus, our battlecruiser, and F-302s are a direct consequence of our travels.”
“Consequence? How did you travel without a spaceship?” Alice said, her voice level, not showing any of the emotions washing over her at the moment. Incredulity, mostly, but also fascination, excitement and, yes, fear. Am I going nuts? Is this really happening now?
“I’m glad you asked.” The colonel smiled. “See, in 1928, on a dig in Giza, we unearthed a device we now call a Stargate. The people who discovered it then didn’t know what it was for, taking it for an archeological artifact. However, there were some who thought it was a weapon. As such, it was studied closely during the 1940s, but it was later stored and forgotten, until early 90s. Finally, nine years ago, we were able to make it work and discovered that it was, actually, a means of transportation.” Carter tapped her finger on Alice’s paper, which was sitting on the coffee table where she had put it.
“Einstein-Rosen Bridge,” Alice whispered, her mouth dry. If it was a joke, it was a very intricate one. But she didn’t believe it was a joke anymore. It was too convincing. It had to be true… or maybe she was really slipping away and losing grip on reality. She restrained a shudder.
“Yes. The device allows to create a stable wormhole between two points in space. Entering a Stargate on Earth, the matter is broken down to a molecular level, transported through the wormhole to the identical Stargate somewhere on another planet, and put together again. You can literally take one step and find yourself thousands of light years away.”
Alice looked down at her paper on the table.
“You were actually pretty close in your calculations,” said Carter, watching her intently. “There were a few inaccuracies, but of course you didn’t have any of the knowledge we now possess about wormhole psychics. Still, to come so close in a theoretical paper like that… it’s impressive.”
Alice kept her eyes down, not looking up. There was a balloon inside her chest, swelling with pride. She willed it to stop expanding, telling herself that ego was a very dangerous thing.
“You know, I don’t usually make these trips myself,” the colonel offered in a lower voice. “But a friend of mine gave me your paper to read, and when I heard you were one of ours, and that you qualified to our program, I couldn’t resist meeting you. You’re brilliant.”
Alice looked up suddenly, meeting her gaze. How is one supposed to stay humble when a lieutenant colonel is saying things like that about them?
“You’re exactly the kind of person we need. Smart, skilled, well-educated in science. You are very young and inexperienced, but we cannot afford to wait now.”
Uh huh. That didn’t sound very well. Sounded… ominous.
“I will not lie to you, Lieutenant. This assignment, this job that I am offering you… it will be dangerous. We’ve lost many good people to this program.” Her eyes were sad as she said it. “But there is no doubt that if there is anything worth risking your life for, it’s this. There’s a war out there.” She added in a low voice, almost a whisper. “The space is far from empty, Lieutenant, and not everyone there is friendly.”
Fuck. Aliens. There were aliens! Living intelligent creatures in space! It was impossible. She must be going nuts right now. Alice blinked quickly.
“Fighting for our country is a noble cause.” Carter continued, her eyes never leaving Alice’s. “But defending our planet… traveling far and wide… meeting new cultures… new technologies… it’s incomparable to anything.” She went silent for a moment. “But there are downsides to this, too. It takes a toll on a person.”
Alice wondered briefly what kind of toll it took on Colonel Carter. There was something about her, the way she talked, a spark in the eye. Like she’s seen too much.
“The Earth is in no way safe,” Carter resumed after a few heartbeats. “Prometheus, our first battlecruiser, is supposed to help us fix this. Up till now, Stargate was our only way of travelling around the galaxy. That restricted our movements and possibilities greatly. Our enemies have ships capable of interstellar travel.”
Hyperspace, Alice thought. She shifted uncomfortably. There was another paper of hers, locked somewhere in her desk drawer back at home. She never turned it in, mindful of the Einstein-Rosen Bridge fiasco. But it was there: a theoretical essay on the energy outputs required to open a hyperspace window.
“Prometheus, and other spacecraft of its class if we manage to build them, will be an attempt to tip the scale of the war to our side. Give us an edge. Or at the very least, help us keep the Earth safe.”
Alice nodded slowly. All these years and she never had an idea there was any greater danger other than another nuclear country deciding they were fed up with America.
“Prometheus is capable of transporting a squadron of F-302s,” Carter added and smiled suddenly. “That’s where you come in. We want you to become an F-302 pilot, or a co-pilot at first.”
Alice frowned. A co-pilot? She was piloting Falcons all by herself, why would she want to change that to the second best?
“Wherever Prometheus goes, you’ll go with it. All over the galaxy.”
Oh, that’s why.
“Of course when you’re not currently flying yourself, there’ll be a ton other interesting things to do, like getting to know all the systems aboard the Prometheus. Much like the F-302, it was retro-engineered from the technology we gathered during our travels through the Stargate. Some very cool toys there, Lieutenant.” The colonel grinned wide, her eyes twinkling with excitement.
Oh, this woman could be her older sister. She understood Alice perfectly, it seemed.
The silence stretched out as the two women sat looking at each other.
“How big the crew?” The girl asked out of the blue, not really knowing what else to say.
“About one hundred fifteen. Why?”
Carter arched her eyebrow, but didn’t comment on that.
“So how does it sound to you?”
Alice frowned. She didn’t really know. There was chaos in her mind, and she didn’t know what to think or feel.
“I think I’m confused, ma’am.”
“Understandable.” Carter nodded with a warm smile. “Everything will be much clearer once you hear it all. I’ve only given you a rough rundown, and we’ve already been sitting here for almost an hour.”
Well, Alice was looking forward to hearing more, but for now she needed some time to process all that she’s already heard. There was still a part of her that didn’t believe any of it. And another, very small, but very vicious part, too, whispering to her you’re going crazy, you’re turning into your mom, it finally happened. She shook her head to clear her thoughts. It didn’t work.
“I need to know now, Lieutenant.”
Alice looked down at her hands. She was clasping them together tightly in her lap. She made an effort to relax her fingers and took a deep breath. Here goes nothing.
“I haven’t changed my mind, ma’am.” Her voice was small and uneven, but when she raised her gaze to look at the lieutenant colonel, her eyes were calm. “I’m volunteering.”
Compared to her previous assignment, Nellis Air Force Base was huge. Alice has been there before on training, of course, but the sheer size of the place still intimidated her. She actually liked the more private and cozy feel of the smaller base, which housed only one squadron of aircraft and allowed for the residents to feel somehow connected. At Nellis the crowd blended into one bland, unrecognizable mass. Thankfully, that was only supposed to be one stop on the way to… where? Alice wasn’t sure. Prometheus was no doubt housed in some remote top-secret facility, not in the middle of the biggest Air Force installation, wasn’t it?
She was one of the first to arrive. They have been assigned living quarters on the base, nothing fancy like officer housing, more like the enlisted personnel’s barracks. Alice didn’t mind, but the few other officers who arrived with her were a bit grumbly about that. They didn’t really speak to her all that much, except a few words at mealtimes, but she could hear them complaining to each other.
It took full seven days for everybody to assemble, presumably because of all the additional formalities that were required for this assignment. Everyone’s clearance levels had to be seriously upgraded, their performance on duty reassessed yet again, their mental health and predispositions examined dutifully by three separate head doctors, and a thorough physical performed at the Air Force hospital in Colorado Springs. Why not here, at Nellis – Alice didn’t know, but she suspected the physicians examining her there were familiar with the entire Stargate Program and thus better qualified for the job. After all the Stargate Command wasn’t all that far away, was it? They probably received patients from under the Cheyenne Mountain all the time.
It was still hard to wrap her head around all this. Alice has been thoroughly briefed before arriving here, as promised by Lieutenant Colonel Carter. She was even allowed to read through some of their mission reports, which she did with wide eyes and cheeks burning with excitement and fascination. Already at Nellis, they were each issued a tablet containing a lot of additional information, mainly on wormhole and hyperspace physics, as well as all technical specifications of both the F-302s and the Prometheus. This Alice swallowed within a day, determined to learn as much as was possible in the time allotted. She then was left to wander, with nothing to do but wait when the others were arriving, through the base library. Of course nothing of direct connection to the Stargate or the BC-303 was to be found there, but she figured she could deepen her understanding of astrophysics in the meantime. So she buried herself in books once more, something she hadn’t had a chance to do since graduating college.
On the seventh day since she arrived at the base, they were all asked to come to a briefing room. When Alice got there, she was struck by the sheer number of the people attending. It was hard to estimate before, as not everyone attended meals at the same time, and at other times they were wandering about. But now at least twenty people were already seated in the room. Alice knew that Prometheus could hold only eight F-302s, so there would be sixteen pilots and co-pilots in all. Why so many people here, then?
She took a seat at the back of the room, scanning the crowd with her eyes. There were only five or six other women there, but what made her uneasy was the realization that everybody in the room was older than her, and that they all outranked her as well. She thought she saw one or two lieutenants, but they were first class. She still had a couple of weeks of service to go to achieve that rank. All others were captains or majors. She suddenly felt very young, inexperienced and frankly, intimidated by this crowd. What was she even doing here? Maybe Major Tarrick’s been right. Maybe she should have waited. But would she get another shot at this? Highly unlikely. Once you shoot down a volunteer-only assignment, you’re not going to get it offered to you again.
The low murmur of the people talking died away when someone entered the room through the door behind the speaker’s pulpit. It was a rather short man with dark blond hair and hazel eyes, wearing the insignia of a full-bird colonel. Everybody leaped to their feet to stand at attention.
“At ease,” the colonel gestured them to sit down. “Good morning, everybody. I am Colonel Matthew Cox. For the time being, you will be reporting directly to me.”
He paused to look at them, his assessing, cool eyes sweeping the rows.
“You were offered this assignment because you constitute the elite of the Air Force pilots. You have been handpicked by a special board at the Office of Homeworld Security, who went through thousands of applications submitted by your former Commanding Officers. Of course your COs didn’t know what they were volunteering you for, but they were asked to choose the best of the best.”
They volunteered us, huh? Alice thought, trying to suppress a smile. Isn’t that an oxymoron, Colonel?
“You were all thoroughly briefed about the entire program. I don’t need to stress the importance of this assignment. Not only our own world is at stake here, gentlemen, but the entire galaxy’s fate may be on our shoulders, as well.”
That’s a little grandiose, she mused. I know the Goa’uld are threatening everyone, but we cannot take responsibility for the entire galaxy, can we? She frowned slightly. Maybe they could. Maybe they should. The galaxy was full of humans once taken off the Earth. Humans who for the most part were slaves for so long, they didn’t even know how to defy their supposed gods. Weren’t the people of Earth, by the sole fact of being of the same race, bound to help them, now that they finally might have the ability to do so?
“You were told that you will be assigned to the Prometheus as she performs her tasks, either patrolling our solar system, or performing other tasks in outer space. That is correct. Each of you will take at least two tours on the BC-303. However, those of you deemed best fit to fulfill it, will get an additional assignment later on.”
Everybody shifted, leaning over, drinking in the Colonel’s words. What else was in store for them?
“There is another deep space carrier under construction at the moment. Its designation is, for now, X-304. It is a second generation of interstellar capital ship developed by the United States and its allies. It is expected to take its first flight sometime in the beginning of the next year. The X-304 is going to be more advanced than anything we’ve ever built on Earth. It is designed to house anything between eight to sixteen F-302s. Additionally, we are installing F-302 outposts in various locations on the planet, as well as in several of our offworld bases. After your initial duties aboard the Prometheus are finished, you may get assigned to any of these places.”
Alice glanced quickly on the only two people sitting in her row, a captain and a major. They were both frowning, not entirely pleased with the news, it seemed.
“Each of these postings is of vital importance to the defense of our planet, as well as our military effort in the ongoing war with the Goa’uld.” The colonel continued, reading the room’s reactions well. “And each of them requires specific set of skills. You will be assigned according to your performance and predispositions for these tasks. I should also warn you that ultimately, the decision of who joins the crews of the BC-303 and X-304 lies with their commanders.” He looked at them impassively, keeping silent for almost full ten seconds. “As you already know, the F-302 design differs from the standard-issue fighter. No matter what you were flying until now, you will have to take additional training on these machines to acquaint yourselves with how they operate. That will be done out of the McMurdo base, to limit any possible exposure of the F-302s existence to the public.”
Oh, joy. McMurdo was in Antarctica. And although here in the U.S. it was still high summer, it was the middle of the winter in the South Pole. That will be hell on ice, Alice was sure.
“Before you go to the actual pilot training there, you will be required to attend a special training at the Marine Corps installation in the Spring Mountains, as well as the Air Force Academy’s training facilities in Colorado Springs.”
Marine Corps? What the heck?
“This will be a complex physical condition and marksmanship training with elements of offworld mission drills.” Colonel Cox narrowed his eyes as the attendees’ frowns deepened and a few of them shook their heads. “You will be pilots, gentlemen, but the nature of your mission is such that it is impossible to predict in what situation you might find yourselves. Suppose you crash on a Goa’uld-occupied territory and you have to make your way back to the Gate through enemy encampments on foot? Whether you’ll need this Special Ops training or not, it is better to be prepared.”
Well, that actually made sense. Although anyone who thought that she, Alice Boyd, five feet four inches tall and weighing a hundred and five pounds, would do well on a Special Ops training, must certainly be mental. Surely Lieutenant Colonel Carter knew this? Why didn’t she say anything? Now it was too late to back out of this whole deal. God help me, Alice thought, cold panic sweeping through her, although her face remained impassive. This is bad. This is really bad. Either I’m gonna embarrass myself in front of all these people, or my system will shut down and I’ll die. She was not prepared for anything like this. She was a pilot, dammit! She wasn’t cut out for running around with a gun. Of course, as an Air Force member, she had to stay fit, but this was a whole new level of physical condition, one that she surely couldn’t achieve. It was just impossible.
“Do not be alarmed, though,” the colonel added, probably responding to the incredulous looks thrown at him from the audience. “This will not be a standard Special Ops training, nothing that intense. We are well aware of what you can and cannot do. This training is especially tailored for all military personnel going through the Gate, and conducted as a joint operation by the Marine Corps and the Air Force. The marines will go easy on you.” He smiled crookedly.
Okay, that doesn’t actually sound all that bad. Surely all sorts of people go offworld, right? Not all are SG teams. There are military scientists, support personnel, EMTs and such. Alice took a slow, deep breath, trying not to reveal the level of disarray her emotions were in. You can do this! Her inner cheerleader told her in an overconfident tone. It’s a challenge. Take up the gauntlet. Well, if you put it that way…
“Once you’ve completed the trainings on a satisfactory performance level, you will be assigned to the Prometheus, or another temporary duty until a spot on the battlecruiser is freed. You then will be assessed and given your permanent assignment.”
The Colonel paused. The silence in the room was almost palpable. All eyes were locked on the short silhouette standing in front of the pulpit.
“We will travel to the marine training facility this afternoon. I will act as your CO all the way until you are assigned to the Prometheus. You are to report with your personal belongings outside the barracks at sixteen hundred, where you will be picked up. And this is all for now. Dismissed.”
He nodded to them and stepped off the platform, disappearing inside the door behind the pulpit. On cue, everybody in the room started talking at the same time. Alice sat in her chair and mulled over all they’ve heard. That was some serious game-changer. Not only the training, but the variety of the assignments. With her youth and lack of combat experience, she was sure to lose to everybody else in the room. She would not get a permanent spot on the Prometheus, let alone the new battlecruiser. The best she could hope for then would be an offworld outpost, and even that was unlikely. Okay, so you’re gonna be flying an F-302 on Earth. Is that such a bad thing? Certainly not. Less than three weeks ago she was quite happy to pilot an F-16 in a small and remote base with no real tactical or strategic significance whatsoever. Now she was supposed to get to pilot – or rather co-pilot – the most advanced fighter ever constructed. And staying on Earth meant staying in touch with her family and friends. That was important, too, wasn’t it?
Shit, family. Where was Jake at the moment? Didn’t he say he was being transferred somewhere last time they spoke? He didn’t yet know where to and what for, but surely he found out by now. What was she supposed to tell him? Hey, bro, I am being directed for some additional training so I can fly a space-worthy fighter-interceptor and possibly help protect Earth from aliens. She’s never lied to him before, but she will have to start now. Dammit, she will have to lie to everyone in her life. That will be fun.
The room emptied slowly. People were still deep in conversation, but nobody really gave any notice to her. Despite her orange hair, she was quite invisible. Good. She liked it that way.
She followed the group back into the barracks where they were housed. Most of them walked straight to the dining hall, but Alice skipped over to her room, which she shared with the other five women on the assignment. They were six in total. Six women and about twenty-five men. Well, she was used to that. Frankly, she was always in the minority, ever since she was a little girl, she was usually surrounded by boys. First her brother and his friends, then at CalTech there weren’t all that many girls as well, although definitely more than female pilots in the Air Force. Being called a “gentleman” along with her fellow assignees was not something she dwelt on.
She fished out her cell phone from the drawer by her bunk. She dialed her brother and waited several rings, until his voicemail came on. It was only one in the afternoon; no doubt he was still working.
“Hey, Jake, it’s me. Listen, I don’t know where you are right now, since you told me you were being reassigned but not where, but I just wanted to let you know I’ve got a new assignment as well. I’m being directed for some additional training now, so I’m not sure when I’ll be available, but try to call me tomorrow evening, if you can, ok? I’d like to speak to you in real time, you know? I miss you, bro. Take care.” She pressed the button to end the call. There. She managed not to lie and yet she didn’t divulge any classified information. Now if only that would be so easy every time… She dialed a different number.
There were only two rings before someone picked up.
“Hallaway Treatment Center, how can I help you?” A woman’s clear voice answered.
“Hi, Marcy, it’s Alice Boyd. Could I speak to my mom?”
“Certainly, Miss Boyd, please hold for a moment.”
A soothing, ambient-like music followed for a few minutes. Alice knew they needed to get her mother from wherever she was to the phone calls room. This usually took time. She waited patiently.
“Hey, mom!” She said enthusiastically. “How are you doing?”
“Oh, Alice, darling!” Her mother’s voice was sober and bright. She was doing so well lately. “I am great, honey. How about you?”
“Oh, I’m fine, mommy. Just calling to check up on you. What have you been up to?”
“Oh, you won’t believe this – Chris Cormack visited me yesterday. Remember Chris? We used to work together on that cartoon about the funny moose, way back.”
“I remember! The cartoon never aired, though.”
“That’s because it was ridiculous. Who the hell would watch a cartoon about a moose, no matter how funny?” Her mother laughed. “Anyway, Chris came and I got to show him some of my recent work. He was pretty impressed, I might say!”
“As well he should be! If it’s anything like what I’ve seen the last time I’ve been in your den, then it’s amazing.”
“Oh, thank you, honey. Anyway… what was I saying?” She became confused all of a sudden.
“Chris Cormack came to see you yesterday. You showed him your latest pieces.” Alice said patiently.
“Oh, right. So he asked if I could make him some commissions! Can you believe this! After all these years, finally I will get some real work!”
“Oh, mommy, that’s amazing!” Alice gushed. She never gushed, except when talking to her mom.
“I know, right? He will send over the specifications. They’re developing a video game and they want me to make them some concept art for it. I can barely contain my excitement! It’s so good to feel useful and needed again.”
“Oh, mommy, you’re always needed. I need you.”
“I know, baby. But you’re a grown-up now, and anyway it’s different with work.”
“Maybe you’re right. I have some news, too, you know.”
“What news? Tell me!”
“I’ve got a new assignment. I’m going away for a few weeks for some additional training, but then I’m gonna be posted somewhere else. I’m not sure where yet. But it’s a very exciting new opportunity.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful, Allie! I do hope you’re taking proper care of yourself, though.”
“Yes, mom.” Alice sighed. Moms will be moms, no matter the circumstances, she supposed. “Listen, I gotta go to lunch, but I’ll call you again soon.”
“Sure, baby. I love it when you call. Makes me feel less alone.”
Alice’s heart contracted with a sudden surge of pain and guilt. Oh, mom. If I knew a way to help you, I’d keep you with me at all times. The truth was, she should be there for her mother. Any other good daughter would settle somewhere nearby, got a normal job, and visited her sick mother every week, or more. Or took her to live with her altogether, driving her to therapy every day.
“You sure you’re alright, mom?” She asked in a smaller voice, trying not to give way to tears welling up her eyes.
“Yes, honey, I’m quite well. Do not worry. Go eat your lunch. I need to get back to my painting anyway. I don’t want to lose too much of the daylight.”
“Alright. Talk to you soon, mommy.”
“Bye, baby. Love you.”
“Love you too, mom.”
She hung up. Staring with unseeing eyes at a point in space, she wondered if she ever will come to terms with what happened to her mom and the way Alice handled it. Could she do more? Should she? She made sure mom was in the best mental health facility in the SoCal. But shouldn’t Alice just stay with her? Shouldn’t she abandon her career and take care of her mother the way she took care of her daughter when she was little? How could Alice not repay this? But at the same time, could she sacrifice her whole career and all her ambitions? Should she?
That was old news, of course. She led the same exact battle with herself every time she phoned her mom. Would it ever stop, this feeling of guilt, like she’d betrayed the woman who brought her into this world and gave her all her care and love? Alice doubted that. But it didn’t make it any less difficult. Whatever decision she made, she would be unhappy with it, that at least was quite clear.
She finally sighed deeply and got up from her bunk. It was high time to go get that lunch.
The room was dark. It was almost always dark here, the sun actually rising above the horizon only for a few hours around noon. However, if the sky was clear, with stars and moon it was not all complete darkness, the slightest light reflecting off the snow and ice. And it was cold, constantly too cold. Other people didn’t seem to have such a problem with this, but Alice was constantly shivering. The doctor on the base told her it was because of the way she was built: small and slim, most of the energy her body was producing went to operating all her systems, and not to produce heat. She didn’t have any fat or muscle layer to insulate the cold, either, which also contributed to her feeling worse in this climate.
Although she admittedly gained some muscle and mass during their two weeks of intense physical training, she was still the smallest and the weakest of the training participants. Surprisingly though, this did not have a direct impact on her performance, as she had feared it would. In fact, even though she wasn’t top of the class, she completed the training with more than satisfactory performance assessment. She marveled about it, laying on her bed in the dark. She woke up too early, the alarm clock on the stand was showing five in the morning. Her body had a different idea. It’s been three days since they arrived at the McMurdo Air Force Base, but her internal clock was still set on Colorado Springs time. There was nineteen hours difference, so in central America it was eleven in the morning at the moment, previous day. How odd. Anyway, there was no way she could sleep at eleven in the morning, even though it was actually five am. How confusing. The jet lag would soon pass, she knew, but for now she just lay restless in her bed, remembering the harsh training they were all subjugated to.
They were airlifted from Nellis to the Mountain Warfare Training Center in Spring Mountains, California. That day they were left alone, they could make themselves comfortable in their living quarters – another barrack for enlisted personnel, it seemed. That must have been done by design. Maybe to let them savor the hardships they could potentially encounter offworld? Or just to prepare them for what was coming aboard the Prometheus? For sure there wasn’t enough space for much more than a barrack-like living quarters on the ship. Was there? Alice didn’t remember any mention of that in the specs she’s read while at Nellis.
The actual training began the next morning, bright and early, by a three-mile run on the mountain paths, which left all of them breathless and swaggering at the end of it. Surprisingly for herself, Alice found that while the exertion itself was just as debilitating for her as everyone else, she seemed to tolerate high altitude better than others. In fact it seemed that the bigger the person was, the more problems they were having just breathing in the thin air of the mountains. Something to do with lung capacity, no doubt. She would have to read up on that – it might prove useful one day.
What followed then was a rigorous regime of conditioning exercise, back-to-basics physical fitness and hand-to-hand combat training, capped with weapons qualification program. It was at the same time familiar to what they’ve all been through during their initial Air Force training – no matter if they went through Officer Training School, like Alice, or ROTC or the Academy. However, there were plenty of differences to keep them on their toes. For starters, it was much harder – physically – than their basic training. And then, there were quirks like learning how to best combat a Jaffa without risking their symbiote finding its way to your spine, using staff weapons and zats, or defending oneself against a Goa’uld hand device. That part, Alice had to admit, was fun, even though she kept failing the hand-to-hand trainings. She was just too small and weak. But she managed to offset her less-than-satisfactory combat skills demonstration with a stellar performance on the shooting range. Her daddy would be proud; it was him who first taught her to shoot. On the other hand, her mom would be disturbed. She never liked guns all that much.
After two weeks of such intense training, they were all deemed ready to go on, and transferred to a facility located in the remote part of the Air Force Academy grounds near Colorado Springs. They spent another week there, practicing drills that were supposed to imitate real offworld combat situations. Each of them got a chance to lead a team – and that was probably the hardest part about the entire training, Alice admitted to herself, turning to the other side on her bed. She didn’t know if it was deliberate or not, but her team consisted of her - a second lieutenant - and three majors. Ordering them around went against the grain, and a simple task of issuing an order grew to an almost insurmountable encumbrance. But eventually she completed the assignment, which was to free an SG team trapped in a Goa’uld mothership, and not too bad at that. All in all, throughout the entire three weeks of training, she managed to keep somewhere in the middle, never really shining – except perhaps on the shooting range – but never really failing as well – that is, with exception of the hand-to-hand combat. For someone who never expected to do such things, she thought she did quite well. Could have been better… but could have been worse, too.
She glanced at the alarm clock. It was barely five thirty. She sighed and shifted on her bed. She could get up and do something productive with her time, but her bed was the only place on the base where she was not cold, so she decided to stay. No wonder that during the winter months the number of residents on the base dwindled to less than two hundred, while in the summer there was more than one thousand people living and working here. Alice was guessing this was actually why they started the program now; fewer people meant less possibility of any security leaks. Although the base’s squadron of F-302s operated all year round, so then again maybe that was not the reason. Maybe they just wanted to make them as uncomfortable as possible. After all, it’s cold in space, too.
She thought back to three, or actually four days before, as they arrived very late in the evening. The time difference was so big, and they were all so tired after the long travel, that nobody had problems falling asleep that night. In the morning they started their actual pilot training. First day was only theory – hours and hours of endless talk about the performance and specifications of the F-302 model. Then the next day they had a chance to try it themselves in a simulator – a state-of-the-art machine the likes of which Alice had never seen before. She was convinced it was alien technology, or maybe something retro-engineered from an alien piece of equipment some SG team had encountered on their travels. Either way, it allowed for a full immersion, giving the semblance of an actual flight, more like a virtual reality than a simulator, really. It was impressive.
And then, finally, yesterday, they got to go on a real flight in an F-302. They each rode the second seat for now, having an instructor or another seasoned 302 pilot accompany them, but it was nevertheless the most exhilarating feeling Alice has ever experienced. An F-302 was not a plane: it was a piece of art. It sailed through the sky with grace and ease, accelerating to almost impossible velocity in one blink of an eye, making narrow loops and twists mid-air that no other man-manned machine was ever capable of, and all this with only slight g-force registering. Inertial dampeners was what made all the difference; with the speed and maneuverability superior to every other plane in existence, they guaranteed a ride as smooth as aboard a 747. Of course the four engines – one of them a hyperdrive, no less – didn’t hurt as well.
The 302 actually proved quite easy to handle. There were many more controls on the pilot’s dashboard, and the heads-up display was like something out of a sci-fi movie, but once Alice got a grasp on what did what, making the plane do whatever she wanted it to do wasn’t all that hard. Well, at least so far. They were still doing some pretty basic stuff for now. Yesterday was more of a joyride than an actual training. But it was about to start for real now.
The alarm went off. It was six in the morning. Alice extended her arm and turned it off, feeling the cool breeze creeping up her hand as soon as she got it out from under the duvet. God, it was cold here.
Gingerly, she got up, peeling off the layers of duvets and blankets from herself, as the other women in the room started to move as well. The usual morning grumbles followed, until they all were up, showered and ready to face the day. They didn’t talk much on their way to the dining room. Despite sharing a living space all throughout the training, they didn’t develop any kind of camaraderie that usually happened over time between people working closely together. In fact, Alice was still pretty much left to her own devices whenever there was a bit of free time. It felt somehow right – which was kind of natural, considering her age and rank as opposed to her current colleagues’.
“Morning, Boyd,” one of them had the good manners to say when she sat down at a table with two first lieutenants and three captains. “How are you today?”
“Good morning, sir,” she replied politely. “I am fine, thank you, if a bit sleepy. I don’t think my body knows we’re in a different time zone yet. How about you, sir?”
“Oh, same. Woke up before the alarm again,” Captain Archer sighed deeply. He was a young man, no more than twenty seven or twenty eight years old, with a brownish hair, interspersed with a few gray strings, visible despite his short buzz cut. His hazel eyes were more lively and warmer than those of his fellow officers. He was the only one who talked to Alice quite willingly, without patronizing or looking down at her. “Wonder what we’re going to be do doing today. Suppose they let us fly the first seat?”
“No idea, sir. But I guess we will get another day of second seat training before they decide to hand their precious fighters over to us.”
“You’re probably right,” he acquiesced. “I feel like a butter bar again… uh, pardon me, Lieutenant.” He became flustered for a moment.
“I don’t mind, sir,” she said in a low voice, looking at her plate. “Frankly I feel a bit like an intruder here. Like a child in a room full of grownups.”
She didn’t raise her gaze, but she heard the murmur of ascent from another captain sitting across the table. Her smile faded.
“Well, Boyd, you may be young, but I’ve seen you fly yesterday, and let me tell you, I don’t think you have anything to be worried about.”
That made her look up. Everybody at the table was staring at Archer with various looks of incredulity or outright disapproval. His gaze remained calm and level.
“Besides, you’re not that far away from a promotion to the first lieutenant, are you?” He continued and swallowed a spoonful of oatmeal.
“No, sir. Actually, I’m about to hit the two-years mark in a couple of weeks.”
“See? Besides, it’s not all about the rank. What you do is what matters the most. My uncle is a colonel in Pentagon, a staffer, you know,” he offered with a shrug. “I say my job beats his any day.”
Alice smiled again. She decided she liked the young captain. He seemed to have a very liberating, no-nonsense kind of attitude. It was refreshing.
One of the other captains offered an unrelated remark at that point and the others followed. Alice dropped off the conversation, concentrating on eating her breakfast and listening to what others had to say.
They spent the entire day – that is, after it got bright enough to take off - riding the second seat again, performing ever more complicated maneuvers and getting the feel of the machine ingrained in their brains and hands. That was perhaps the most important thing about flying: every plane was different, and you had to learn its every quirk, every slight imbalance, every single switch and control. You had to become one with the machine: doing before thinking, reacting before realizing. That was what this training was really about.
The instructors weren’t stopping their training for any lunch, trying to use the daylight as much as possible. The sun was rising earlier and setting later every day, but they still had only some four or five hours of daylight. Of course they could fly longer than that, but landing on an ice runway in complete darkness was no fun, despite the F-302’s state-of-the art navigational systems. They also had to share the machines, as there were only fifteen of them on the base. That meant that half of the trainees started their flights in the morning, the other half after noon.
About two hours into her flight, Alice was cruising on an altitude of barely three kilometers over the vast ice plains of Antarctica. It was beautiful, the pure white snow reflecting the sunrays permeating the cloud cover. It was so bright, in fact, that it could damage her eyes, should Alice remove her goggles.
“I’m bored,” a disconnected voice announced over the internal intercom. “Let’s see what you can do. Get us up, Lieutenant, way up.”
She was currently flying with their main instructor. He was a seasoned pilot and seemed to know everything there was to know about the 302. He also had a twisted sense of humor she found rather hard to appreciate.
“Yes, sir,” she responded gladly, pulling the stick. “How high?”
“I wanna see forty kilometers on my altimeter,” he said. “Go full-force on this baby, Boyd. Just don’t touch the aerospike engines yet.”
“Yes, sir!” She couldn’t hide the excitement from her voice. She pulled the stick even more, pointing the nose of the aircraft to the sky, and punched the controls with overeager enthusiasm. They started climbing, the angle of ascent so steep it was almost vertical, picking up speed as they went.
“Altitude ten kilometers and rising, reaching Mach 3,” she reported, reveling in the fact that she felt almost no pull. If she could ever achieve this speed in her F-16, she would be crushed by the pressure of multiple atmospheres, and not even a g-suit would change much. Whoa. She was now going faster than ever before in her life. They weren’t just supersonic now; they were hypersonic. Holy fuck. “We’ve reached Mach 6, altitude nearing thirty thousand meters.”
There was a few seconds of silence as they hit the forty kilometers mark on the altimeter.
“Nose-dive, Boyd, now!” The instructor ordered suddenly through the intercom and Alice reacted instinctively, pushing the stick. Even with the inertial dampeners, the sudden change of direction at this speed pinned her to her seat with crushing weight, but it lasted only a heartbeat and then the plane was going down at a steep angle, almost vertical again.
Alice felt lightheaded and giddy, more out of pure joy of doing this than anything else. And in that precise moment, her controls blinked and went out completely, the HUD fading away. Alice felt her face drain out of all blood, heart lurching into her throat. She reflexively pulled the stick to level their flight, but it was stuck. She tried to flick the switches, but nothing was happening.
The controls were unresponsive. The plane was falling to the ground.