“What the blue blazes is that?”
Zoe shouldered past the comically staring Jayne to get to Mal. “Captain, I thought this planet was supposed to be entirely uninhabited.”
“It is!” Mal threw up his hands.
“So, to be clear, sir, we have no idea why there are obvious signs of civilization on what is supposed to be an empty planet.”
“It’s at least reassuring to know that your sources are as accurate and forthcoming as usual, Captain,” Simon’s voice floated over Mal’s shoulder as the doctor came up from Serenity behind them. Mal rolled his eyes.
“Well, I think it’s kinda purty, in a lonesome way, that big ole ring standin’ guard,” Kaylee piped in from Mal’s other elbow.
“Not quite as lonesome as I’d like,” Mal muttered. “Zoe, whyn’t you take Jayne and have a nice thorough looksee down through those ruins. I ain’t aimin’ for any more surprises this trip. We’re here to give Kaylee’n’Wash the time they need to do their thing. If we gotta get off this rock in a hurry, I’d rather know that before Serenity’s engines are all in little bitty pieces.”
“That mean we’ve got a little time to go exploring, Cap’n?” Kaylee’s face lit up, and she bounced a little as he turned towards her. Mal glanced at Zoe, who shrugged eloquently.
“You don’t go alone,” the captain decided, “and you stay in eyesight from the ship. Go play with your gate to nowhere if you like, but stay away from the ruins ‘til Zoe’n’Jayne’ve done their thing.”
His girl genius agreed and Mal watched in badly hidden amusement as she dragged the doctor back towards the open cargo bay door, presumably to scoop up River and Book for her little picnic.
“I take it we’re not in a hurry, sir?” Zoe’s patient voice did a much better job of hiding her own amusement than her face did.
Mal shaded his eyes and scanned the area, still and peaceful except for where Jayne was already poking the business end of his gun around corners and into piles of rubble.
“Be a few days yet ‘til Inara’s expecting us,” he mimicked her shrug from earlier. “Place givin’ you the itch, Zoe?”
“Not exactly, sir. But something doesn’t sit right.”
“We’re a little out of the way, but the nearest settlement’s not that far. All the planets we’ve seen, some of ‘em have been a lot worse than this one seems to be, and they still had people. Doesn’t seem right this place being empty.”
“Well, for our purposes, empty’s a sight better than crowded,” Mal nodded significantly towards the party crossing the field towards the giant stone ring, River skipping in the lead in a rare example of good behavior. “And we could all use a rest, so let’s just hope it stays that way.”
“Yes, sir.” Zoe strode off to catch up with Jayne and Mal shook his head, turning to head back to the ship. He glanced over at the giant standing ring again and impulsively adjusted course to check in on Kaylee and her parade.
When he arrived, the shepherd and the doc were standing at some distance from the ring, pointing and frowning and generally making well-educated noises that Mal didn’t really care to hear right now. He’d hear them all soon enough without going looking for them.
“River, sweetie, whatcha doin’?” Kaylee’s voice carried no concern, but Mal noticed Simon’s head whip around and shoulders tense regardless.
“River?” Simon repeated her name when she appeared to be ignoring them, putting her hands against the stone and then leaning her head on it, eyes closed.
“Shhh,” River smiled. “Can’t hear them if you yell. Their voices are tired.”
“Hear who?” Mal knew he’d probably regret it, but he had to ask.
“Big damn heroes,” River stroked the stone, and Simon blushed.
“She’s-ah-been a little-since, you know, the fire,” the doctor stuttered. Mal raised his eyebrows to keep himself from chuckling.
“Trapped,” River’s voice went up a few pitches. “Stuck. So long in the dark!” Simon caught her as she stumbled back, arms flailing.
“Easy, River. Nobody’s trapped here. It’s a wide open field. You’re safe.”
The expression she turned on her brother was one of withering scorn. “Not me. The team in the gate. We have to open it. Let them out.”
As one, they all turned to look at the gaping hole and the strange low podium beyond. No one said ‘Open what?’ or ‘How?’ but Mal could bet there wasn’t a one of them not thinking it.
Book stepped closer to Mal, his voice low. “Is there the slightest possibility that there could actually be people trapped in that ring?”
“Way I reckon it, questions about souls are more your line o’work than mine, Shepherd,” Mal got right up to the ring and pulled himself up and through it and down the ramp on the other side. “Can’t say as I see what point there is puttin’ a doorway into nothin,’ but odd as that child is, she does seem to have a way of seein’ what we can’t.” He strolled over to the podium to take a closer look. He poked at one of the strange carved symbols and jumped a little when it lit up and the stone ring started to tremble.
“Cap’n?” His engineer and all the rest came piling around the side of the ring to cluster around the pedestal.
“You got any idea what just happened here?”
Her eyes were wide and she shook her head. “Never seen such a thing, Cap’n. What did you do?”
“What did I--? It was the—it didn’t look like a button!”
Simon’s lips were twitching, and so were Book’s. “Because the way the symbols on the platform and the symbols on the ring match is clearly a coincidence,” the doctor muttered, none too subtly.
Fortunately for Simon, Zoe and Jayne chose that moment to reappear.
“All’s clear down in ghostie town,” Jayne shouldered his gun. “What’s with the lights and the buttons?” He reached out and pushed on the red central dome before anyone could stop him.
There was a strange grinding, clunking sound that was not unlike the sound of Serenity engaging her landing gear. Then suddenly the inner ring started to spin, and the lights flashed, and there was a gigantic splash that somehow came from nowhere and settled into what looked like a pool of water, but clearly couldn’t be.
“Don’t finish that thought, Jayne,” Zoe snapped. “’Cause none of us know the answer.”
“I do,” River smiled and twisted a little in a sort of aborted dance move. “See?”
She gestured, and at that moment, four figures walked out of the glowing pool and down the ramp towards them. Mal blinked. And blinked again. He felt Zoe go to combat readiness beside him, which was comforting, but for himself, he only let his hand drift down to rest on the hilt of his gun, and otherwise kept loose. The four in front of him were clearly heavily armed, but they didn’t look like Alliance types. Uniforms were all wrong, and the weapons weren’t Alliance issue—not to mention the fact that none of the folks in front of them were carrying their weapons in an offensive position. In fact, that one in the glasses looked like he was trying to be friendly, if a little confused.
The four newcomers glanced at each other, a rapid exchange of head bobs and eyebrows and pursed lips that told Mal he was dealing with a group of folks who knew each other very well, folks who were used to ending up in unfamiliar situations and relying only on each other to get themselves out of trouble. The one in the glasses and the older man in the cap held each other’s gazes longest, while the tall dark one and the blonde woman kept careful watch on Mal’s own crew. The man in the cap nodded, and the one in the glasses flashed a short smile and a shrug that Mal didn’t have time to decipher before the man started speaking.
“Hello, I’m Daniel Jackson. This is Colonel Jack O’Neill, Major Samantha Carter, and Teal’c. We’re from the Tau’ri. We were expecting to be meeting with Abiz, the town regent. Our friend Jacob sent us a message that he was expecting us?”
Jayne muttered something uncomplimentary in Chinese and Zoe elbowed him. Mal saw the curiosity click on in this Daniel Jackson’s face and stepped around the pedestal to offer him his hand, which the other man shook briefly before stepping back towards his team. Clearly a man who knew exactly where his cover was. Mal’s own curiosity went up several notches.
“Not sure who you’re expectin,’ but doubt it was us. Just passin’ through ourselves. Name’s Reynolds, this is my crew. And we seem to be the only folks on this rock.”
“Sir?” the blonde woman—Carter, was it?—had some kind of instrument in hand and was looking distressed. “He’s right—none of the atmospheric indicators that Dad was talking about are present. Could we have ended up in the wrong place?”
“Daniel?” The colonel drummed his fingers on the gun slung across his chest. Jackson frowned.
“Jack, when was the last time I dialed the wrong address?”
“Never, Daniel Jackson,” the big, silent guy spoke before the colonel could answer. “It is evident that there has been, however, some accident.”
“Reynolds, right?” The colonel turned his attention to Mal after assessing his crew. “You said you were just passing through? You come through the gate?”
“What, this thing here? No.” Mal crossed his arms. “Came by ship.”
“Persephone, few other places along the way.”
The colonel raised his eyebrows. “If you’d excuse us for a moment?” The team withdrew several paces and started conversing in rapid low tones which Mal probably couldn’t have understood even if he’d caught all the words, given that the ones he did weren’t making much sense. When they came back, all four of them were looking decidedly tense. Mal didn’t think that was much of an improvement.
“Captain, you got any idea what we’re in for with these folks?” Zoe’s question didn’t get an answer as the colonel spoke again.
“We need to take a look around. That going to be a problem for you?”
“Long as you mean no harm to me and mine, I don’t see why it should. Where’d you folks say you were from again?”
“Planet called Earth,” O’Neill said casually. Behind Mal, his whole crew reeled back with gasps of shock and whispered curses.
“Is there something wrong?” Jackson asked, stepping forward and then pausing as they all stepped back again.
“Thinkin’ you’re further from home than you thought,” Mal said with a dry mouth.
“You’ve heard of Earth?” Carter asked.
“Ain’t a one of us don’t know the stories of Earth That Was,” Kaylee burst out.
“Earth that Was?” Jackson parroted. “Jack—“
“Go right ahead, Carter.”
Mal watched, stupefied, as the woman headed straight for the pedestal, making polite shooing motions and dropping to the ground to pull at its underside. Meanwhile, Jackson and Teal’c were headed at a fast clip for the ruins at the edge of the meadow.
“Jack is fine,” O’Neill said.
“Came here by ship, huh?”
“Serenity.” Mal gestured to where his crew was gaping at Carter on the ground. “Zoe, my second in command, one on the ground’s Kaylee, ship’s engineer, Doctor Tam and his sister, Shepherd Book, Jayne. Ship’s down the way.”
Jack nodded. “Earth that was?” he said quietly.
“Got a member of my crew thinks you all been stuck in the—“
“Stargate—for a real long time. Folks been out here in the colonies a long time. Big central city planets, little scrappy terraformed bits of light shining in the black.”
Jack nodded, his face tight. “And how did you get us out of the gate?”
“Dunno. Hit a button or two, and there you were. Never seen anything like it.”
Jack’s fingers tightened on his gun. “Okay. Guess it’s up to Carter and Daniel, then.”
Mal frowned. “You really think you can fix this? Nothin’ left to go back to.”
Jack gave a thin-lipped smile. “We’ve gotten out of worse spots before. I’m hanging my hopes on a solar flare.”
Mal looked back at the doctor, who mouthed “bu-tai zheng-chang de” at him quietly. Mal had to agree. ‘Not entirely sane’ seemed like a fitting description for this whole team of strangers. On the other hand, sane wouldn’t likely get them out of this mess, so maybe they were better off crazy. And somehow, looking at the determination on the face of the woman at the pedestal, the confidence in O’Neill’s stance, and the spring in Jackson’s step as he dashed back across the field, Mal felt sure it was a good kind of crazy.
“Jack!” Daniel’s voice rang out triumphantly. “Remember the temple with the time loops?”
Mal just shook his head. And he thought dealing with River was bad.