Radek frowned at the brace of dead pigeon-like birds that had been left outside the door to his living quarters. Very strange. If, like Rodney, he were a cat lover, he might be tempted to think his pet was leaving its kills for him. He did not have a cat, however, and he was not a cat lover but a pigeon fancier.
The two interests did not combine well, not that pigeons from Earth—Columba livia domestica—were allowed in Atlantis, even in these more relaxed times since the end of the Wraith War. Rodney still lacked an Earth cat as well, although a number of people had adopted Pegasus-variety companion animals. It was not uncommon to see a fluffy tail peeking out of a uniform jacket pocket or one of those small furry dog-lizards curled in a scientist's lap while they typed busily at their laptop. Radek had been forced to send out group emails regarding pooper-scoopers, maximum allowable pet size and off-limit laboratories.
He gingerly picked the limp birds up by their feet and palmed his door entry. Inside, he dropped them into the waste disposal chute, then went to wash his hands. Who knew what alien avian parasites they might have harbored.
A week later it happened again, three dead birds heaped outside his door that once more looked remarkably like Earth's domestic pigeons. It was somewhat distressing—he'd never been able to eat pigeon when it had featured on the menus of classier San Francisco restaurants. He'd thought any risk of encountering pigeonneau rôti or terrine de pigeons was behind him after the expedition had finally, finally been allowed to return to Pegasus.
Radek disposed of the pathetic corpses, washed his hands, then hacked into the city-wide surveillance system and activated the dormant camera outside his room. These days, with no risk of Wraith beaming down and the Genii as their allies rather than enemies, they'd shut off all the cameras in the residential hallways. He routed the feed from the camera to save to a folder in his system then went to have a shower, hoping the baffling mystery would soon be solved.
Five days later he returned home, tired after a long day largely spent wrangling Rodney, who was in a foul mood. Rodney was always much harder to handle when Colonel Sheppard was back on Earth, and Sheppard had to attend planning meetings at the SGC every month since his promotion to full bird Colonel. Atlantis was in the process of changing from a military outpost to a colony, and the security arrangements of the city during the transition were complex. Radek shook his head as he trudged down the last hallway. Rodney and the Colonel needed to stop dancing around each other and sort themselves out.
"Sakra!" More of the dead birds.
In his quarters, Radek dried off his hands, then opened the stored camera feed, scrolling through until he reached the last few hours. There. At 1710, a large shape bent, laid down the small bodies, then straightened and stared fixedly at the door of his room for a moment before wheeling and striding off out of camera range. The man had been facing away, but there was no mistaking that hair.
Why was Ronon Dex leaving piles of dead Pegasus pigeons outside Radek's door?
Ronon lounged against the wall of the ready room, watching his team gear up. He’d never worn the military clothes with fatigues and tac vest—Earthers had such weird names for things—and these days, nor did the rest of them. They had to blend in to get intel, not stand out like those Genii dicks.
Everything had changed since the Wraith had been defeated, including his team. Sheppard was busy with meetings and trips back to Earth and rarely went off-world these days, and McKay mostly stayed in his lab working on the ZPM recharging project. Ronon reminded himself to get McKay into the gym more; he’d be getting soft again without Sheppard making him do forced marches to the Ring. Ronon kind of missed all the bitching and moaning.
It was good in some ways to be part of Lorne's new team with Mehra and Dubois, a Marine who'd studied cultures, anthro-something. They were all professionals, good soldiers and quick on the uptake. Ronon had gotten used to Sheppard and McKay's teasing insults though; he missed the entertainment. He looked down at his boots and grinned. If ever squad-mates needed to get past their own bullshit and fuck, it was those two. Probably even more so, now that they weren't often on missions together.
He missed Teyla too, but she had the twins Charin and Tegan keeping her busy, as well as Torren. She was mostly with her people at the settlement on Athos, and Ronon understood that need to reconnect when they'd been culled almost to extinction, but it'd been good to have someone to silently commiserate with when the Earthers were being idiots.
"Okay, guys," Lorne said when they'd all stowed their guns, knives and stunners in boots and under leather coats and jackets. "Let's move it. Remember, we don't know what we’ll find. Might be a nest of worshipers, might just be refugees. Stunners and non-lethal force unless there's no choice."
Usual SOP; Ronon's blaster hadn't been set to kill for months. Mehra nodded, chewing gum, and Dubois flicked a casual salute. "Sir."
In the Ring room Ronon was surprised to see Radek Zelenka standing by the foot of the stairs, tapping on a tablet. The Ring plumed out and Zelenka frowned up at Ronon. "You are busy now, but when you get back we will talk. Meanwhile: no more dead birds."
Ronon felt his eyebrows shoot up, but he knew Zelenka was as smart as McKay, and he'd wanted him to figure it out, hadn't he? "Okay," he said, and then Lorne and Dubois were striding forward, and Mehra glanced over at him and tilted her chin at the Ring's blue disc, and Ronon had to go.
They were jumped almost as soon as they stepped through, overpowered by surprise and sheer numbers.
It was the usual worshiper crap you got on failed worlds where the people had gone bad—filed down teeth, tattooed maws on their hands, copying the Wraith even though the Wraith were gone. Copying them more since they'd passed from nightmare to legend.
Dubois was dragged out of the wooden-barred cage first, maybe as he'd talked more, trying to placate them, to reason. Taken and tied to a stake in the middle of the ring of huts, drugged with something they forced him to drink. It took an hour before Ronon could lure a guard over and slide the smallest knife he'd had stashed in his hair through the bars to bring him down and get the crude key. The crowd was gathered around the central post by then, oblivious to the shadowy cage on the outskirts of the clearing as they chanted and banged drums in the firelight, pushing the kids forward to bite and cut Dubois, to lap at the blood trickling dark from his wounds.
Ronon broke a couple of the guards' necks in vicious, silent struggles before reaching the place where their weapons were piled, then he blew a smoking hole in the headwoman's chest before Lorne yelled at him and made him switch his blaster to stun.
Ronon fired again and again into the press of villagers, teeth bared, watching them fall unconscious in messy heaps. Beside him Lorne was cursing, firing constantly, clearing the way for Mehra to kick and swipe the kids off Dubois's body, slumped unconscious where they'd tied him to the stake. She wasn't pulling her punches—Ronon heard a few small limbs crack. It didn't stop them coming back; in the end they had to stun the kids as well.
After the last villagers had fled into the woods and they'd untied Dubois who was confused but just able to stand up with help, Ronon, Lorne and Mehra stared down at the still forms of the kids they'd stunned.
"Probably should take them back and let the medics treat them," Lorne muttered, and Mehra crouched down and checked for broken ribs. The kids were filthy, all skin and bone.
Some of them only came up to Ronon's knees and he knew he should feel sorry for them. He just felt hatred, cold and tight in his chest. The Wraith might be gone, but their ghosts were still killing. He grunted. "Really think we can save them?"
Mehra shook her head. "Nope, I reckon they're fucked. This whole place is fucked." She looked up at Lorne and Ronon. "Can't just take 'em back to the infirmary, patch 'em up then toss them back here through the Gate. Whole damn village'd have moved on to avoid reprisals. If we take 'em home we'll be stuck with them, and some poor bastards'll have to spend months reprogramming them not to be worshipers."
Ronon grunted. They all knew how that went. Mostly the kids ran off, went feral, preyed on the people who'd taken them in. "Leave them," he said. "This world's dying anyway; none of them'll last much longer." Lorne nodded, looking sick.
Mehra left the kids lying there and rose, swiping a forearm across her face as they followed Lorne back to the Ring, taking turns to help Dubois stumble along until Ronon hoisted him into a shoulder carry. He wanted to get the fuck out of there before the worshipers regrouped. He never wanted to see this place again.
Later, they slumped on infirmary beds while the staff fussed and bustled, cleaning and dressing Dubois's wounds. Ronon hoped Dubois had been too drugged to remember much. He still seemed groggy.
He heard Lorne reporting through the thin curtain between their beds as they endured the routine blood tests and physicals. Lorne told Woolsey to lock out that address and pass the intel on to the Council of Worlds to spread a warning. Some things you couldn’t fix.
As soon as the doc said Ronon could leave he headed for the door. Lorne stopped him, grabbing his arm. Ronon paused, breathing slow and deep so's not to deck Lorne. He didn't look at Lorne, just clenched his teeth and tried to crush down the anger boiling in his gut.
"Ronon, you okay?" Ronon said nothing. "Look, I know it was a rough one. If you need to talk–"
"Need to hit something." Ronon pulled his arm free roughly and got out fast before he did something he'd regret. Lorne was okay, but he didn't understand. None of them did, who weren't raised under the culling skies. Who hadn't been hunted by the Wraith like a game animal for seven long years.
He took it out on the heavy bag in the gym, punching until his arms ached, until his knuckles were skinned and bleeding. No gloves; he wanted the pain.
He heard someone behind him long before they spoke. Figured he knew who it was, but he didn’t move, just leaned his sweaty forehead against the bag, exhausted.
"Hey, buddy." Sheppard, of course. "Tough mission, huh?" Ronon said nothing, just panted into the bag. He hurt like hell.
Sheppard came up beside him and lifted one of his hands. "Shit, that's not good. You should go to the infirmary."
"No." Ronon pulled his hand free and turned away. "No infirmary."
Sheppard sighed. "Come sit over here, then. At least let me ice them." He guided Ronon to a bench then got a bag of ice from a cooler in the corner and made up two icepacks with towels, wrapping them around Ronon's hands. It hurt worse for a while, then they went numb.
"Dunno if I can do this anymore," Ronon said after a long silence. "It's all changed."
"You miss the team?" Sheppard could be like McKay sometimes, making things all about himself. "I could . . . maybe I could come out with you guys some more. But Lorne's the team leader, so that'd be–"
"Not the team," Ronon said before Sheppard could get too stupid. "The Wraith." He blew out an angry breath and shook his head. "Not the Wraith. Fuck."
"Ookay," Sheppard said carefully. "You're gonna have to help me out here, buddy. I'm a little confused."
Ronon gritted his teeth. "Hate the Wraith; always will. Not sorry they're gone. But they were easy."
"Easy?" Sheppard still didn't get it.
"To kill," Ronon said. "See a Wraith: kill it. Easy."
Sheppard rubbed the back of his neck, his usual tell when he was uncertain. "Uh huh. Not sure I recall the bastards being that easy to kill."
"Simple," Ronon said. "Black and white."
"Ah," Sheppard said, nodding. "No gray zones, right." He was silent a moment, probably thinking about the one he'd called Todd, who'd sucked him almost dry then given it back. Who'd worked with him.
"Not for me," Ronon said. Sheppard could be some sort of fucked up Wraith-kin; that was him. "Missions aren't about that anymore. It's worshipers. Bandit scum like the Bolokai. Humans."
"Yeah," Sheppard said heavily. "We gotta figure out new rules of engagement out here. There's a lot of politics with the Council and all, and the IOA." He sounded tired.
Ronon slid the ice pack off his left hand and flexed it gingerly. "It was kids as well today—worshiper kids. They bit Dubois. We had to hurt them."
"Man, that sucks," Sheppard said with feeling. "I hate it when it's kids."
"It was fucked up." Ronon slid the other pack off his right hand and moved the fingers carefully. His hands hadn't swelled up too bad.
"So stop," Sheppard said, shooting him a sideways glance. "If you hate it so much. Stop."
Ronon frowned. "I'm a soldier."
"Soldiers retire," Sheppard said. "I'm planning to, pretty soon. Too much damn politics." He got up and went to the door, opened the duffel he'd dumped there and pulled out a couple of beers. Without thinking he flipped one to Ronon. Ronon caught it, wincing. His hand hurt like a bastard.
"Shit, sorry," Sheppard said sheepishly, coming back over. "Force of habit." They took a drink, then Sheppard wiped his mouth and said, "You must've thought about what you'd do after. After soldiering, I mean."
"Yeah, a bit," Ronon said. He took another drink. "Might do something with Zelenka. A business."
"Yeah?" Sheppard sounded curious as all hell. "With Radek? What?"
"Not telling you about it," Ronon said easily. "You'd blab to McKay."
"Hey!" Sheppard put on that wounded face he thought worked on everyone. "I don't tell Rodney everything!"
"Yeah, you do," Ronon said smirking at him. He turned back to his beer. " 'cept the stuff that really matters."
"The fuck's that supposed to mean?" Sheppard frowned at him. "Also, way to change the subject."
"Sick of you two wasting time, " Ronon said. "You're gonna retire, your dumb military rules've changed, and you still haven't told him you wanna–"
"Mind your own goddamn business, Ronon," Sheppard growled, crushing the empty beer can in his fist.
"Okay," Ronon said, standing up. He made a loose fist, bumped Sheppard's shoulder with the heel of his hand. Ouch. "Thanks for the beer. Good talk."
"Any time," Sheppard said sourly. Ronon left him there, staring moodily at the treadmills.
"So this new thing, with the market and all?"
Chuck looked up at Ronon from the floor plans covering his desk. He'd handed running Gate Operations over to Amelia and was now head of the city's planning and logistics department, working with the military quartermaster. He still kept an eye on things though, as his glass-sided office was right by the operations area. Chuck frowned. "The Atlantis Trade Arcade on the South Pier?"
"Yeah. How do I, y'know, get a stall?" Ronon stood there, face impassive. Chuck thought he looked tense though, a muscle clenched at the corner of his jaw.
"You want to set up a shop?" Chuck raised his eyebrows. He hadn't pegged Ronon as an entrepreneur— maybe a knife sharpening business?
Ronon's eyes flicked sideways. "Might do." Chuck's glance followed, but there was no one out there except Radek Zelenka in the operations area, fixing one of the scanner consoles.
"Oh, well, for longstanding members of the expedition, there's no charge. You just tell us what you want and we'll arrange it. What were you planning to sell?"
Ronon's eyes flicked sideways again. "I'll get back to you. Just want my name on the list." He turned away, then looked back. "Make it a big place. With water and power."
Chuck nodded and stared after Ronon as he sauntered off. All the shops had basic amenities—they were converted living suites. Apparently the Ancients had gotten too exalted for anything resembling markets or malls, so they'd had to make their own. He wondered why Ronon wanted a big place? He must be planning to sell a whole truckload of knives.
Radek saw Ronon emerge from Chuck's office as he was putting his tools away, the scanner repair completed. He stood up. It was bad enough being towered over when he was at his full height, let alone when crouching down.
"Got a moment?" Ronon looked oddly uncertain.
Radek nodded. "I can fit you in as long as Rodney does not break any more scientists in the next half an hour. Shall we go to the cafeteria?"
Ronon glanced around the operations area. There were only a couple of duty technicians at the consoles, taking no notice of them. "Rather be private. Your room? Or mine."
Ah, this was awkward. Radek cleared his throat. "Ronon, while I am naturally flattered by your attention, and the . . . the gifts,"—he supposed that was what the dead birds were—"I am afraid that I am not as the Americans say, gay. Not homosexuální. Sorry to disappoint."
Ronon shifted uncomfortably. "Yeah, no. Wasn't coming on to you. Sorry it looked that way."
"Then what?" But Ronon had picked up his tool chest and marched off toward the transporters. Radek hurried after him, thoroughly baffled, but Ronon wouldn't say any more until they got to Radek's room.
"This is about the dead pigeons?" Radek said as soon as the door closed behind them.
Ronon looked sheepish. "Yeah. Trying to butter you up, as McKay says. Heard you liked pigeons."
Radek rolled his eyes. "Můj bože! I like them alive, Ronon. I like them as pets, to breed them."
"Sorry," Ronon said, "didn't realize." He thought for a moment. "I can trap you some live ones."
"Forget the zatraceně pigeons! What is this about?"
"Want to go into business with you."
Radek blinked. "Business?" He shook his head—this was going to take a while to untangle. He pointed at a chair. "You will sit down, and you will tell me what insanity this is." Ronon complied meekly, and Radek got two cans of Budvar beer from his mini-fridge and gave one to Ronon, then sat on the bed and popped his own can.
"Mmm, this's good." Ronon read the name off the can. "Budweiser Budvar. Not like that tasteless piss Sheppard drinks, though."
"The Americans stole the brand name from us Czechs." Radek sniffed. "They would not know a decent beer if they were drowning in it."
"Yeah, see, that's why." Ronon took another long drink and set his can aside. "I want to open an inn, and I want you to do it with me." Ronon looked over at Radek through his dreadlocks. "You know beer, and I heard you had a still going and made booze the Marines all drank in that siege, back before I came here, when there wasn't anything else."
"You want to open an inn?" Radek stared at Ronon, trying to imagine him tending bar. Surprisingly, it wasn't that hard to envisage.
Ronon nodded. "I'm gonna stop going on missions. Fed up with it. It's what soldiers do in Sateda when they stop soldiering." He paused, made a face. "What they used to do. They'd set up an inn with their severance pay, or buy a small farm."
"Like the Roman legions," Radek said thoughtfully. "Yes, it is sometimes so on Earth." He pondered the idea. "I have no great skill in beer-making, though, or in the manufacture of spirits. I believe the Marines called my concoction during the siege 'Radek's Rotgut'." He waved a hand. "Of course we had very little to make it from, just slops and leftovers from the mess kitchen. It was effective, but the taste . . ." He screwed up his face. "Execrable."
Ronon grinned. "Yeah, I heard. Didn't stop them buying it."
Radek shrugged. "It was the siege. We had, as it were, a captive market."
"Anyway," Ronon said, picking up his beer again, "I know some recipes. Mostly need your technical know-how with the still, and a business partner. My aldfather Kelon ran an inn—my father's father. Out in the countryside, on the plains west of Sated City. I used to stay with him before I enlisted, and he taught me some things. Lot of stuff grew out there, a big farming area. The inn was known for its ale and torkan. Had quite a name, 'specially for the torkan."
"Torkan?" Radek looked up. "I have not heard of that drink. A distilled spirit?"
"Yeah, made from tormack. You know, McKay's favorite."
Radek's eyes widened. "It is everyone's favorite. But I thought the supply had dried up. The world that farmed it was culled."
Ronon shrugged. "They were only one place. The Satedan plains were another. Some fields might have been bombed by the Wraith, and the people were taken, but it's a root vegetable. Probably a lot left in the ground. Worth going back to check."
"Tormack." Radek could feel his mouth watering at the thought. Vodka was made from potatoes so it would be in that family. What would a liquor distilled from such a delectable root vegetable taste like? He suddenly very much wanted to find out. "There would have to be a lot left there, Ronon. People—and by that of course I mean Rodney—will want the tormack for eating first, and only to make spirits if there is enough."
"It was a big plain," Ronon said, shrugging.
"What did torkan taste like?"
Ronon grinned. "You know how tormack's purple? Torkan's pale violet. They used to say it tasted like heaven mixed with fire in a glass." He smiled reminiscently. "Pretty accurate."
Radek got up and found two shot glasses and the half-bottle of slivovice remaining from the Daedalus's last run, because how often did he get business proposals from large half-feral aliens involving exotic purple vodka? This was definitely an occasion. He poured them each a shot. "Well, my friend, there are many unknowns in this proposal but if we can get a reliable supply of tormack I will build you a still to make this heavenly liquor, yes?" They clinked glasses. "Na zdraví! To your health—and to partnership."
Ronon grinned and raised his glass. "In the old days I'd have said kez Vakkos—'fuck the Wraith'. Guess these days I should tone it down to da n'hodda—'strength to your arm'." They clinked and drank.
"No, my friend, I like your first toast better," Radek said. "Toasts should be fierce." He knocked glasses with Ronon again. "Kez Vakkos!"
"I hope this isn't going to be the usual clusterfuck," McKay complained cheerfully from the front of the jumper where he'd immediately claimed the shotgun seat.
Ronon shot Radek a glance as they settled into the second row of seats. Radek rolled his eyes and Ronon grinned. It was kind of nice having McKay along on a mission running his mouth off again. Lorne, Mehra, Dubois and Parrish were on benches in the rear.
In the pilot's seat, Sheppard was readying the jumper for take-off. "Not like anyone forced you to tag along, Rodney," he drawled. "Just because we're hunting the wild tormack–"
"If you thought I was going to let you and Ronon come to Sateda by yourselves," McKay retorted, "you were sadly mistaken. Trouble-magnets, the pair of you."
Sheppard raised his voice. "Okay kids, buckle up, we're underway!" Ignoring McKay's muttering about not needing seat-belts when you had inertial dampeners, he took them down into the Ring room and, with a wave to Woolsey on the balcony, waited for the plume to settle before easing the jumper forward into the Ring.
It was morning on Sateda. Ronon steeled himself for the ruins of the city, having not been back since he'd been released here, tracker re-implanted, to run again. Crappy memories, but the Wraith were dead now, so he could bear it.
Sheppard took the jumper up to hover high over the devastation, and Ronon shut his eyes, clenching his hands. It was worse, seeing the vast reach of it.
"Actually, there are quite a few life signs," Rodney said, staring at his tablet, sounding surprised. "Mostly human, I think, not just animals. Ronon looked up as McKay raised his hand and flicked a finger off to the left. "Over . . . that way."
Ronon was pretty sure that was the plains, the fertile farmland, which only made sense. His pulse quickened. Had some of his people returned?
"Cloaking now," Sheppard said. "Send the jumper the coordinates, Rodney, and we'll check it out." He glanced back over his shoulder. "You still gonna be able to run the soil scan, Radek, even if there's people about?"
"Yes, yes," Zelenka said. "The agricultural scan is calibrated entirely differently, much finer grain, to distinguish different densities of matter such as roots and soil."
Parrish had come forward and was leaning between Zelenka and Ronon's seats. He sounded excited. "It's quite remarkable, what Rodney and Radek have achieved. If they can incorporate this new scanning technology into heavy machinery, we could revolutionize automated harvesting."
"Nothing like the lure of tormack to motivate Rodney," Sheppard said with a grin, flying the jumper out over the ruined city's outskirts and the wide, muddy swathe of the Donvat river—its bridges all ruined—then on across the plains. It was too far to see clearly at this speed, but Ronon thought he'd seen a boat on the river as they passed overhead.
There were people all right, a whole village. Sheppard hovered the jumper while they checked the place out. Ronon thought it looked surprisingly well organised. People were bustling about and working in the tormack fields, gathering roots in wheeled carts pulled by . . . Ancestors, were those tjellen? They were. He hadn't seen the broad, floppy-eared beasts of burden in more than two decades. Maybe not since he'd worked on Kelon's farm that last summer before enlisting. His eyes stung, but he wrestled his feelings into submission. No time for sentiment on a mission.
Lorne had come forward as well, replacing Parrish. "How d'you want to play this, Colonel?"
Sheppard turned. "Get Dubois up here?" Lorne nodded and ducked back, returning with Dubois. Sheppard nodded. "Captain. Wondering how we should manage this situation. The tormack fields appear to have been claimed by some settlers." He looked back at Ronon. "Think they're Satedan?"
"Might be," Ronon said. "Can't tell." He squinted out across the plains. "They're only farming one small part. Plenty more fields out there they can't reach."
"Yes, excellent point," McKay put in eagerly. "There's lots of tormack for everyone."
"Well," Dubois said, "but we'll need to negotiate. They've claimed this territory, or returned to it from hiding. We can't just set up a harvesting operation on the plains without talking to them."
"Trade negotiations?" Sheppard asked, sounding resigned.
Dubois nodded. "Yes, sir. And I recommend we back off to the city outskirts, de-cloak then return, but relatively low and moving slowly, trying not to scare them too much. We don't even know if they've seen flying machines before."
"Have if they're Satedan," muttered Ronon, mildly affronted.
"Sure, Ronon, but we don't know that yet," Dubois said.
It did little good. As soon as they were within range people started pointing, screaming and running, grabbing children and dragging them inside. By the time they touched down on the outskirts of the village the place looked deserted.
"Shit," Sheppard said. "Well, that worked."
"Huh. Maybe they really hadn't seen flying machines before," McKay said. "Now what do we do?"
"Small greeting party, the rest stay in the jumper as back-up." Sheppard looked back at Ronon, Lorne and the Marines. "Mehra, Dubois, Ronon—with me. Lorne guards the scientists in here." Lorne nodded, frowning.
"I don't need guarding," McKay protested.
"Shut up, Rodney," Zelenka said. "Something smells of fish here."
Ronon caught Zelenka's eye. Yeah. Something was off.
As they stepped out of the jumper, three people emerged from behind the nearest hut. A skinny adolescent, an older woman who seemed to be the leader, and a bald-headed guy. They were all dressed in ragged clothes, and looked terrified but determined.
The older woman pulled herself up straight. "I am Saira, and this is Genno and Dalen."
Sheppard raised his hands. "Hey, nice to meet you—we didn't mean to scare you folks. We're peaceful explorers." It might have worked better if he hadn't been holding his P-90 in one hand. The villagers shrank back a pace.
Beside Ronon, Dubois sighed then stepped forward, his hands open before him, free of guns. "I'm Captain Dubois and this is Colonel Sheppard, Ronon Dex and Sergeant Mehra. We mean you no harm. We're here to talk trade."
The woman, Saira, frowned. "You say you mean no harm, but you come with many weapons. No one trades with us. We're outcasts."
"They Satedan?" Lorne asked Ronon quietly.
Ronon shook his head. "Nope." Ringspeech was a mystery of the Ancestors, but you could tell if someone was speaking your own tongue. With other languages there was always a faint, subtle undertone, and he heard that here. He took in their hands; all wore rags or at least one glove on the right side. A chill ran up Ronon's spine and his lips drew back in an involuntary snarl. "Worshipers," he rasped, raising his blaster.
In a second the party's weapons were trained on the small cluster of villagers. Mehra and Dubois scanned the village, alert for any movement.
"Hey now," Sheppard drawled, not lowering his gun. "Let's not jump to any unfortunate conclusions here." He eyed the woman. "Sorry about this, but Ronon here thinks you folks might be Wraith worshipers. That true?"
She raised her head and stared back at him. "It is not true."
"Show us your hands, then," Ronon growled.
The youth, Genno, stepped forward a pace, half-shielding the woman. He glanced back at her. "Mother, we cannot lie about this. We have to tell them." He turned back, looking defiant. "We were worshipers of the Wraith, yes." He unwrapped the rag from his right hand and turned it over to show the tattooed feeding maw. Ronon bared his teeth, and the youth took a fearful step away, thrusting his hand back into his ragged clothing. His voice rose, half-panicked. "But we are not anymore, not now! We were wrong, and misguided, and . . ." he trailed off, looking sick. "You cannot know what it was like, how impossible to resist, when they gave life . . . "
"I know," Ronon snarled. He remembered it only too well. The soul-sucking enzyme craving, being aged then dragged back from the edge of death so many times, the pleasure-pain in every nerve as they pushed life-force into him.
"Then you are stronger than any of us," the bald man, Dalen, said quietly. "We thought they were gods—what else were we to think? They took life and returned it. We were wrong, and foolish, and we did evil things. And now we are hated, and rightly."
"Why here?" It was wrenched out of Ronon, like ripping a hook from the mouth of a fish. This had been his home, a happy place. How dare they poison it?
Saira spoke. "It was a Great Culling. People avoid Sateda even now, even though the Wraith are no more. They think it haunted." She shrugged, then looked Ronon in the eye. "We needed somewhere to rebuild where there were no others. Once they find out, people drive us away. Or kill us."
Like being a Runner. Ronon cursed and turned away, pacing angrily. He'd been used by the Wraith as well, used just as these people had been used. But he'd never embraced it. Never. A whisper, then, in the back of his mind: And if your team hadn't come for you?
"Hey, buddy." Sheppard touched his arm. "Look, we can't just, like, drop a nuke on them. 'specially if they really have reformed. It's kind of like a drug rehab camp here, y'know?" Ronon made an angry noise, but he knew Sheppard was right. They couldn't shoot a bunch of civilians, even if they had been Ancestor-cursed worshipers. Sheppard went on. "Not as though these ones are crazy or still doing all that shit, not like that last fucked up mission you had. This is different, and I think we gotta try to help them. Sure, they did some bad stuff, but c'mon, we’ve all done things we regret."
Sheppard was almost pleading, and why did it all come down to Ronon?
Because he'd brought the mission here, seeking tormack. Because this was Sateda and he was one of the last of his kind in all the known worlds—if anyone had rights here, he did. Because he'd been a Runner, and hating the Wraith had eaten him alive. Because he'd screamed as he'd sweated out the enzyme's poison along with Ford and Teyla and McKay. Because the Wraith had killed him. Because they'd been forced to give him back his life.
Ronon blew out a breath. "Yeah. I can't deal with them, though. I'm gonna wait in the jumper."
He hung out with McKay and Zelenka, who tried to pump him for information about what was going on. Ronon shook his head; he couldn't talk about it. He curled up on a bench and put his coat over his head, tried to sleep. Maybe he did nap for a while, because suddenly they were airborne, the scientists in a huddle over Zelenka's laptop.
"There's a good concentration of roots down below us," Parrish was saying, pointing at the screen, "and it's over ten miles from the village. Shouldn't bother them too much if we harvest here."
"We can direct them to that area on the other side of the plain, well away from where we will be," Zelenka said, nodding. "There are many roots there, and locating a rich field for them was part of the trade bargain Dubois negotiated. That, and basic supplies and medical assistance."
"Might even sell them a scanner-harvester, once I build it," McKay said. "Maybe they can test the prototype."
"If you can build it, Rodney," Zelenka said, giving McKay a sardonic look. "It is merely a twinkle in your eye at this point. Anyway, they have no resources. What would they pay you with?"
McKay stared at Zelenka as though he was crazy. "Tormack, of course. What else?"
Ronon sat up and rubbed his face. He felt wiped out.
"Ah, Ronon, you are back with us," Zelenka said. "Operation Tormack is a go, I believe. We are in business."
"What's this?" McKay peered suspiciously from Zelenka to Ronon. "What does Ronon want with tormack? I mean," he waved one hand in a vaguely 'feed your face' manner, "other than the obvious." He kicked Ronon in the leg. "And don't think for one second that I'm not going to be keeping a very close eye on your consumption, you, you, tormack-hound!"
"Quit that." Ronon pushed his foot away. "Plenty for everyone, McKay."
"There'd better be," McKay said threateningly.
"Calm down back there, kiddies," Sheppard drawled from the pilot's seat. "I don't wanna have to turn this car around."
"Again with the idiot automotive humor," muttered McKay, but he moved up front and evicted Lorne from the co-pilot's seat then spent the rest of the mission bugging Sheppard instead of hassling Ronon about his business plans, so that was okay. Zelenka gave a thumb's up sign to Ronon, which made Ronon grin. Good thing the Earthers didn't know what that gesture had meant on Sateda.
Zelenka brought over the glass beaker containing about an inch of pale violet liquid and set it on the table. The fluid looked right to Ronon, with a slight greasy thickness. "The moment of truth, yes? You are sure it is not drunk chilled?"
Ronon shook his head. "Like it is." This obsession Earthers had with chilling ale and icing spirits was yet another stupidity he'd given up trying to understand. It ruined the taste, in his view.
He poured the liquor out into two small shot glasses, almost filling them. Zelenka had ordered an initial supply on the Daedalus, labelled as "laboratory glassware", and they had a larger order lodged with the Ryollen glass-makers.
They raised their glasses: "Kez Vakkos!" The torkan slid down in one smooth swallow. Ronon puffed out his cheeks and shook his head like a dog.
Across from him, Zelenka made what could only be described as a sex noise. His hair seemed to be sticking out more than usual. "Ježíš Kristus. We are going to be rich men, my friend. We are going, as they say, to make a fucking killing!"
Ronon poured them both another shot.
"I think it looks very well, Ronon." Teyla spun in a slow circle, surveying the room.
Some of the furnishings were Athosian-made and Teyla had brokered the trades—the high, carved wooden counter at the far end and several woven tapestries in deep reds and golds on the walls. The serviceable tables of minnis wood were from the Athosian carvers as well—the remains of Teyla's people had moved back to Athos after the Wraith were dead and gone. Low wooden stools surrounded the tables—not the most comfortable seating, maybe, but a useful gauge of how drunk their patrons might be. Falling off your stool was one sign you'd had enough.
Teyla chuckled. "I see John and Rodney have been helping you decorate."
"Them and others," Ronon said, grinning. Sheppard had insisted that a "bar", as he called the inn, must have "dumb shit on the walls". He and McKay had commissioned Lorne to paint several signs in elaborate cursive script, gold on polished wood. One said, "Now you're torkan!" and another, "Ale and hearty". Across from these was one McKay had thought up, reading, "A clever ruus", alongside a quote he'd insisted on from an Earther called Molson: "An honest brew makes its own friends". Sheppard had then come up with a saying by a guy called Martin, a legendary Earth drunkard: "If you drink, don't drive. Don't even putt." Ronon didn't get it; it was something to do with that weird game with the metal sticks and little white balls that Sheppard liked. Carson had contributed a quote from someone called Franklin: "In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is strength, in water there is bacteria".
Ronon's favorite hung behind the counter: "A glass for torkan, a mug for ale, and for the table, good company". The same saying had been lettered across the lintel of his aldfather's inn, all those long years ago. The sayings were kind of dumb, but Ronon figured they gave the place character. Outside, swinging from a bracket Zelenka had welded himself, was a hanging board also painted by Lorne. At the top it said Vad Malka, Satedan for "Good Company". The Czech for that was written across the base of the sign: Dobrá Společnost. In the center Lorne had painted a torkan root with spindly arms and legs, dancing a jig.
"You have sufficient stocks of ruus wine for the opening?" Teyla asked. She'd brokered that as well, through Halling.
"Yeah, reckon so," Ronon said. "Most people're gonna want to try the torkan, anyway. It's more of a novelty."
"A very powerful novelty—I remember it fondly," Teyla said. "I hope not too many overindulge."
"Nah. We're rationing it out until Radek gets his new still running," Ronon said. "Two shots each, that's all. Mostly we'll serve ale. Anyway, I'm gonna be a responsible innkeeper, and it's not like they'll be flying jumpers home, just walking or taking transporters."
"Very true," Teyla said. She'd helped Woolsey and Lorne set up the protocols for traders coming to the new market. From the Ring room, off-world visitors were directed by discreetly armed hospitality staff to a special transporter that took them directly to the South Pier. A force field across the narrow neck of the pier prevented them from straying beyond the new trade arcade. Several permanent shops were already open, and Ronon and Radek's inn would join them after tonight's party. Many stalls were left empty to enable visiting traders to rent them by the day. The logistics of it all had taken months to work out, and there was still a risk that some bastard would try to use it as a way to infiltrate the city. Ronon figured Woolsey, Lorne and the security staff were paranoid enough to make that unlikely, and he'd keep a watchful eye out for troublemakers as well.
It had been pricey, getting established. Having his name put down on the list for a place had been free, but nothing after that had come without cost. A fee to sell liquor, a fee to rent the space from the city, a fee for their power, water and the market's security staffing. Ronon was a taxpayer. Worth it, though, and it'd turned out that he wasn't wholly dependent on Zelenka for funds, as Ronon had a big stash of Earth money—they'd been paying him for years as a "civilian consultant". He'd thought when Sheppard said that to his brother, he'd been taking the piss. Not so much.
The door slid aside and McKay poked his head in. "Are we horribly early? We are, aren't we, but I wanted to see it before the unwashed masses got here. Wow, this looks great! John, come and see."
"Hi Ronon, Teyla." Sheppard slouched over to prop himself against the counter. "Nice place you got here, big guy."
McKay rolled his eyes. "Not like you haven't been down here helping Ronon and Radek get set up every day this week. I've barely seen you lately."
Sheppard waved a hand. "Gotta help a buddy out. Anyway, I'm retired, Rodney. I can do what I like now."
"Oh no, no, that's precisely where you're wrong, mister," McKay said, but he was grinning. Ronon smirked at them both. They looked a lot happier since they'd gotten their heads out of their asses and started fucking. About goddamn time.
Teyla pulled Rodney into an Athosian embrace, then touched foreheads with Sheppard. "It is very good to see you both looking so well," she said with a twinkle in her eye.
Sheppard cleared his throat and rubbed the back of his neck, smiling sheepishly. "Um, yeah. You too."
"Carson says my blood pressure's never been this good," McKay said brightly. "Athletic sex is a much healthier form of exercise than running for the Gate chased by hordes of savages shooting arrows."
"Rodney!" Sheppard protested. The tips of his ears had gone pink. "Jeez, put a sock in it."
"Why? Ronon and Teyla are friends. They don't care," McKay said, strolling over and leaning into Sheppard, sliding an arm around his waist. Sheppard pulled one of his weird faces, but he didn't push McKay's arm away or stop him from planting a kiss on his cheek.
"Okay, okay, just, not in front of the Marines, right? I'll never hear the goddamn end of it."
"Such a blushing violet," McKay said, and kissed Sheppard again.
"Well, since there are a couple of hours until you open, I believe I will go and change in my quarters," Teyla said, casting a fond glance at McKay and Sheppard. "Save me some torkan, Ronon."
"We better take off too. Gotta spruce up for the party as well," Sheppard said, pushing McKay toward the door.
Ronon snorted. "Yeah, sprucing up. Figured that's what you'd be doing."
"That new shower I installed in our suite's very roomy," McKay said with a sharp grin. "It can fit two, easy."
Sheppard rolled his eyes and cuffed McKay, and they wandered off, arguing in low voices and poking each other.
Ronon smiled, watching them go. No time for a nap. Zelenka would be here soon with a supply of small-denomination Atlantis scrip for making change. He'd said the scrip exchange was like the plastic disc system in casinos, the huge gambling palaces Sheppard had taken him to in Vegas when they were stuck back on Earth. Ronon hadn't liked them: too many people, too easy to get jumped. Scrip had become the currency of Atlantis and off-worlders visiting the market would exchange trade goods for a stack of it, to purchase what they liked in the Trade Arcade. When they left, they'd visit the Arcade's money exchange and any left-over scrip would be swapped for common Pegasus coins, like Manarian silver pieces. Ronon figured they'd have bankers here, before too long.
He shook his head, and went to get another barrel of ale from the store-room.
"And that, my friend, is check," Zelenka said, moving his castle. "Mate in three moves, I believe."
Ronon frowned at the board, but he couldn't see a way out. Chess had bored him when he was younger, but he'd come to appreciate the tactical side of the game; it was kind of like planning a military operation, and sometimes he missed the old days. "Yeah, okay, your game," he said, stretching his arms above his head with a yawn.
He glanced around the inn. It was late—they'd be calling time soon and kicking the last patrons out. The place looked a little different now, almost a decade after their opening, with the big pinboard by the door smothered in photos of celebrations across the years. No one called it the Vad Malka now—it was "the Vad", or, more often, "R&R".
The walls were still covered with Athosian hangings, and the old signs Lorne had painted were mostly intact. The one Carson had given them had been broken in a fight, but McKay had glued it together so you could hardly tell, and "Now you're torkan!" had a bullet hole in the lower left edge from where some prick had tried to shoot Genno for having been a Wraith worshiper. Ronon had grown to like the kid, who was smart and had a job now, in the labs as a technician. It wasn't his fault what his parents had made him do, and Ronon had broken the arm of the bastard who'd shot at him. He didn't serve bigoted scumbags; the Genii were bad enough.
They'd had to get better seating after months of complaints, mostly from McKay, who kept bleating that his ass was getting permanent nerve damage. Chairs with tapestry cushions now, and a padded bench-seat all around the walls.
McKay was in one corner of that seat, his almost-bald head tilted back against the paneling. His legs were up on the cushions with Sheppard at right angles to him stretched out full-length, his head in McKay's lap. McKay's hand was in Sheppard's shock of white hair, a journal he'd been reading fallen off to one side. They were both snoring softly.
Zelenka looked over at them too, and shared a wry smile with Ronon. "I will make some coffee," he said, getting up stiffly. His arthritis bothered him more in the cold season.
Ronon got up as well and collected the last empty food bowls that were strewn about the tables. You couldn't serve torkan and ruus wine without something for people to line their stomachs, so they had a deal with the restaurant across the hall for a supply of stew and flatbread, fried beancakes and honey pastries. They paid in torkan—it was a good arrangement.
In the small kitchen out back he put the dirty dishes in the washer-sterilizer Zelenka had made them and poured himself a mug of ale. He usually didn't drink until they were closing, and not much even then. Old habits, still ingrained from when he could never risk drunkenness or letting his guard down. He sat at the table and watched Zelenka fussing with the espresso machine.
"How's that new bird settling in?" Ronon had built Zelenka a pigeon coop a couple of years after they'd opened the inn, and had trapped enough wild birds for him to start a breeding program. It had become a second business, flying messages to and from the main continent where there were now several townships with a mix of Pegasus refugees and Earth settlers. All the towns had transporters of course, and McKay had set up a wireless email network, but people liked the sentimentality of sending special messages by pigeon post. Zelenka did a roaring trade on Valentine's day.
"She is doing very well. Her leg is almost mended, poor thing, and the other birds are socializing her—she is already quite tame and will eat out of my hand. Thank you for bringing her to me; her plumage is quite lovely."
Ronon nodded and drank some ale. He'd found her dragging a broken leg on one of his hunting trips to the continent. He helped supply the restaurant with game and they got a discount on stew in return.
There was a scratching noise at the window. "He is late tonight," Zelenka said, sliding two cups under the nozzles. "He has another girlfriend?"
Ronon shook his head. "Wouldn't see him at all if he had." He got up and opened the window, letting in Rocco, his fire-lizard, who immediately hop-flapped up his arm and onto his shoulder, perching there, chirping and hissing conversationally about his evening's adventures. Ronon rubbed the sleek scaled head and the creature trilled a purr of pleasure.
McKay had thrown up his hands when he'd brought Rocco back from the market on Tallis several years ago. "Oh of course you'd have to out-pet everyone and get yourself a dragon!" McKay had cradled his sasset protectively—it was the closest thing Pegasus had to an Earth-cat, a brown ball of fur with wide golden eyes. "Don't you dare let it near Kepler; I won't have him traumatized."
"Fire-lizards don't eat tribbles, McKay," Ronon had said, sparking a slew of acid retorts until Sheppard'd had to haul McKay and his pet away, giving Ronon the finger as they left for putting McKay's blood pressure up.
Zelenka took the coffee out and Ronon sat back at the table and finished his ale, thinking about Rocco and his occasional girlfriends—wild fire-lizards on the continent, all escaped pets, much to the exobiologists' dismay. Ronon had pretty much given up on girlfriends these days, and other than Melena he'd never really been in love. The short-lived thing with Amelia had ended amicably before they'd come back to Pegasus and he was happy enough as an uncle to Teyla's brood. Some people were born uncles, like him, Sheppard and McKay, and Zelenka.
He knew in his case it was the way he'd lost Melena and the long years as a Runner. Some things you didn't get over. He was content, though, with his friends and the rest of the old-timers. He wasn't lonely, and there was always someone to play chess or backgammon with, or reshada, a dice game becoming more popular now that more Satedans came to the inn. There was always someone to lean on the counter and regale him with tall tales about strange worlds or unlikely heroics in past battles while he polished shot glasses and snorted disbelievingly.
Out in the main room he heard McKay and Zelenka talking about the physics and engineering classes they taught at the new Atlantis Academy, and Sheppard complaining about the latest police cadets. "Goddam kids, Rodney—I feel like a kindergarten teacher!"
Good company. Ronon grinned, and went out to join them.
~ the end ~