The skeleton slams into the jumper seconds after they clear the Stargate.
"Gah!" Rodney says, instead of "which is why Simpson's not getting near the generators for the next few millennia" that seemed to be where his last sentence was heading originally. "What the hell--"
"Bodies," Ronon says. The skull grins as it slides off the jumper to starboard. "Lots of them."
That's one hell of an understatement. They've wandered into a deep-space graveyard, drifting with dead ships and mangled corpses. John raises his eyebrows and thinks the jumper cloaked. "So," he says. "Who's up for a little recon?"
"The archives on Atlantis warned against using this gate," Teyla says. "Perhaps this is why."
Rodney glances up, his fingers still curled over his keyboard. "Yes, the warnings that we couldn't translate," he says. "Other than the giant 'Idiots Beware' written all over the files, which is like waving an all-inclusive Cuban vacation package in front of some people."
John nudges the jumper forward, threading through the minefield of bodies and twisted metal. "Well, but Rodney, all-inclusive means the drinks are free, trade embargo or no trade embargo."
"And yet no mention of funeral expenses," Rodney grumbles.
"Doesn't look like Wraith work," Ronon says, watching the drift of bodies.
"Other dangers exist in the galaxy," Teyla replies. This place presses against her Wraith-given senses like the weight of an ocean. There is malice here. Hatred.
"I'm getting power readings from the planets." Rodney flicks his fingers at John. "Go, go, what are you waiting for?"
"Nothing, Rodney," John says, and spirals the jumper in towards the nearest moon.
Teyla breathes easier when the dead ships fall away behind them.
"This is unbelievable!" Rodney's splitting his attention between his tablet and the view outside the jumper. They've never encountered anything like this in the Pegasus galaxy before. This isn't just one moon or a planet with some rudimentary Ancient tech cobbled together into something like a space-flight ready society. This is a dozen planets and a hundred moons, all of them lit up on his screen with energy signatures all across the EM spectrum. He was recording radio and subspace broadcasts that looked like everything from cereal commercials to covert military actions.
"It is as though they have never experienced a culling," Teyla says. "This is what Athos was once. What my people could have become."
"Yes, yes, very impressive," Rodney says absently. It's probably not worth noting that Earth hasn't got anything like this sort of system-wide civilization. Not even close. The amount of terraforming alone that must have taken place to make these moons habitable--at least a dozen have been assembled from larger chunks from the two asteroid belts--and he would give at least a year's supply of coffee to know how they're maintaining the atmosphere on three others that don't have anywhere near the necessary mass. "The third planet is the most heavily urbanized. Can't tell from this far out what sort of power generation they're using." Meaning, of course, that there's a possibility that there are ZPMs at work. Meaning that they might have an opportunity to recover some. Trade for some.
"Don't like the look of it." Ronon sits back with his arms folded. "Too much activity."
Teyla has moved forward, leaning against the back of Rodney's chair for a better view. "If we knew why the Wraith have allowed these worlds to flourish, when they have destroyed so many others--"
"Then we might be able to figure out a new way to protect Atlantis," Sheppard finishes.
"Hmm, yes, exactly," Rodney agrees. There's a little octopus dancing on his laptop screen and it's strangely hypnotizing.
"Still, I'd like to start a little farther out. I'm feeling cautious," Sheppard says, slanting a mild look at Rodney.
Rodney snorts. It's not as if Sheppard hasn't flown them straight into the jaws of death on several other occasions. "They're primitive compared to the inner planets! Barely even a background energy signature."
"But there are people there," Sheppard says. "Might be able to gather some info at the local watering hole."
"Oh, right, I'm sure the local hicks on a mining outpost are going to be able to tell us if the planets are using ten thousand year old Ancient technology for power."
"Could just ask them to point us to the glowy machines," Sheppard offers.
"Of course. At least we won't have to worry about translation, Colonel, with your ability to reduce intelligent discussion to words of two syllables or fewer."
"I like to think it's a gift," Sheppard says, as the sandy brown surface of the moon he's chosen rises up to meet the jumper. "Here we go."
John tells the jumper to stay cloaked, pulls on his sunglasses, and leaves a reassuring hand on his P90 as he steps out onto the moon's surface. It's hot, a dry heat, and underneath his tac vest he's sweating already. Dust puffs up from every step he takes. About half a football field away there's a collection of sorry-looking wood-framed buildings, gray and sand-scoured. Outside, a scrawny horse has been tied up to a hitching post.
"Think I took a wrong turn at the Clint Eastwood movie set?" John asks. Ronon and Teyla share a glance that silently accuses him of being hopelessly Earth-centric again.
A tumbleweed rolls past John's feet, skidding along in the light wind. He and Rodney watch it go.
"I just hope there's room enough in this town for the all of us," Rodney says.
The bar they walk into is so spaghetti Western that John's almost surprised the doors don't swing on hinges. Teyla looks around with interest, and Ronon narrows his eyes suspiciously at the dusty sunbeams and the dark corners. Rodney shakes his head like he resents being the butt of one more cosmic joke, and sighs in a put-upon kind of way when the piano player at the back of the room starts in on a song that's almost, but not quite, Yellow Rose of Texas.
John bellies up to the bar and nods at the man standing behind it and running a dusty cloth over the rough wood. The barkeep nods back and fills a glass from a bottle, then slings it towards him. John stops its slide and lifts it to his lips, tasting it cautiously--it's almost, but not quite, a whiskey sour. "Huh," he says.
Ronon takes the stool next to him, but sits backwards, resting his elbows on the bar and surveying the rest of the patrons restlessly. He's probably the least conspicuous of the lot of them, in his dusty leathers and ragged coat. John sips his drink and starts noticing the details around the bar that he missed at first. There are red paper lanterns hanging from the overhead beams that are painted with what look like Chinese words. Rodney's found a table and is muttering over his laptop again, while Teyla sits with him and watches the locals carefully.
Ronon grunts, and John turns around to follow his gaze. From the corner of the bar, a man almost as big as Ronon is giving him a stony glare, and when he crosses his arms and leans back, his biceps flex almost as much as Ronon's do. Ronon scowls back, and John shifts uneasily on his stool. The man across the bar is strapped around with bandoliers of cartridges, wearing a knife sheath on one side, a holstered handgun on the other, and if John's not mistaken, those are grenades strapped to his belt.
"Let's not make more trouble than we can handle," John suggests, but Ronon's already grinding his teeth together.
The other guy slides his knife out, tests the edge against his thumb, and starts paring his nails. He's grinning at Ronon the whole while.
John sighs. Ronon's nearly growling, low enough that only John can hear it, and his muscles clench to approximately the tensile strength of steel. He brings out his own knife--and John missed the crucial second, so he has no idea where Ronon was concealing that pig-sticker--and starts flipping it, catching the blade and sending it spinning again, each toss exactly the same as the one before. The dusty light glints off the blade each time.
The guy sets his jaw, and John's wondering where, exactly, this is going to lead next, when a second man sweeps down the stairs from the upper floor, his coat billowing behind him. He seems to take in the situation at a glance. "Jayne. Time to move."
"But--" The menace gives an incredulous pout.
"Now, Jayne." The newcomer eyes John and Ronon, taking in John's P90 and Ronon's size. "Pardon my friend," he says. "He gets a little riled up sometimes."
"No problem," John says, ready with a restraining hand in case Ronon decides he needs to bring out an even bigger knife.
"Captain Mal Reynolds," the second man says, offering his hand.
"Colonel John Sheppard," John replies. Reynolds' grip is firm, and his stare is assessing.
"Funny," he says. "You don't look like Alliance."
John shakes his head. There's an edge to Reynolds' voice when he says that, and John's smart enough to know a grudge when he hears one. "No association," he says. "We're from...out of town."
"Hmm," Reynolds says. "I do hate to be cutting this short, as you all look like interesting folk. But I do believe we have business elsewhere." He grabs Jayne by the collar of his grimy t-shirt and propels him towards the door.
John leaves a handful of coins on the bar, ones they've found useful for trading on other planets, and gets up. He wanders across the bar to the table where Rodney's working. "I think I've seen enough," he says. "Ready?"
"I'm pretty sure I won't be able to wash the local colour out any time soon, so yes," Rodney says.
"It appears as though we are not precisely welcome," Teyla adds, keeping an eye on the bar patrons behind him. John turns around slowly. Their welcome has definitely cooled considerably since he made nice with Captain Reynolds.
"Right," he says. "Time to move out."
"Hey. Strangers," the barkeep calls out behind them when they're heading out into the head-cooking sunlight.
John pauses, feeling an itch between his shoulders where the locals probably have a rifle or seven aimed. He turns around slowly. At his side, Ronon's hand has settled on his gun, and Teyla's muscles tense to her "I'm about to kick your ass and you'll never know it til you're blinking up at the ceiling" state of readiness.
"Oh, wonderful, just perfect," Rodney mutters. "I was hoping we'd have a chance to visit the OK Corral."
"Just stay calm, Rodney," John says. There are half a dozen windows in the upper floor of the bar where a dozen guys with who the hell knows what kind of weapons could be concealed.
"Why? Because you're the fastest draw in the west? Please." Rodney shoves his laptop into his pack and crosses his arms.
Before John can slap on his harmless smile and get them out of this, another voice drawls, "Is there a problem, gentleman?"
It's Reynolds and his hulking friend. He's got his hands out, and he's the picture of generous affability, even as Jayne flexes his muscles and glares.
"Just the matter of the bill," the bartender says. "And the money from the upstairs wall safe."
"What money?" Jayne tries, while the other man just scowls.
There's a shot from the upper storey, and a clinking bag falls from Reynolds' belt. "Oh," he says. "That money."
"Hey," Jayne says. "I thought you said we was just hunting. I coulda blown that safe wide open--"
"Which is a big part of the reason I did not tell you I was going after it," Reynolds says in a kind of sideways murmur. "Had no call for grenades."
"But I like grenades--"
"Maybe," the bartender interrupts, "if you put the cash back real nice, you'll have a chance at walking out of this."
"Oh, well now, that's real neighbourly of you," Reynolds says. "But I'm thinking there might be a better way out. Zoe?"
There's a crackle of a radio, and then John hears, "Yes, sir?"
"Could use a little rescuin' about now," Reynolds says. "If you don't mind."
"Of course, sir."
John's already edging back towards the jumper, with Rodney in front of him and Teyla and Ronon on the flanks. They're nearly there, and well out of the fight, when a ship more than ten times the jumper's size roars in from the scrubby hills behind the settlement.
"Oh, shit," Rodney says.
That's when the shooting starts.
"Kaylee!" Mal's already shouting even before the last of the bullets are done ricocheting off the hull. "Kaylee, get yourself in here now!" Zoe follows him down to the hold, a little slower and more cautious, but with her guns ready in case she finds them necessary.
"Look at that!" Mal says, pointing to the center of the hold.
"Look at what, sir?" Zoe asks, because as far as she can tell, there's nothing there, though something must've crushed their cargo containers and plowed them aside.
Mal gets a mulish look on his face. "There's a zhòu mà invisible ship in my cargo hold."
Zoe raises one eyebrow.
"There is!" Mal bounds down the catwalk stares and aims a kick at the empty air. There's a hollow bong sound, and then the captain's cursing and dancing on one foot as best he can.
Kaylee comes in, cautious-like, from the engine room, and puts a hand out to the place Mal had kicked. "Shiny," she breathes. "You think they'd teach us how they made it do that?"
And as sudden as that, there's no invisible ship in the hold. Instead, there's a very visible ship, maybe twice the length of Inara's shuttle, barely able to fit inside the hold. Zoe can see some folk inside, and soon enough the ship's hatch is opening and they're clambering out into the hold.
"I don't even want to know how that happened," one of them's saying, and making distressed noises as he examines the ship's hull. He's followed by a woman who takes a moment to take in all the hold and the people standing around. By now, the ruckus has brought Inara down from her shuttle, and River's sidling around the hull of the ship. Zoe meets the woman's eyes, and they pause for a moment among the captain's shoutings and the stranger's explanations, just figuring out how things lie. The other woman nods, and Zoe finds herself nodding back.
Beyond her, there's a man bigger than Jayne who's doing his best to loom, and Jayne's looming right back. They both seem to be happy enough, Jayne showing off Vera and the stranger giving it an appreciative look. Zoe would prefer that they don't get too friendly too soon, or Serenity might be home to a little more target practice than she can rightly stand up to.
The captain's down among the strangers now. "That was some mighty fine shooting," he says. "You get much call for that where you come from?"
"Every once in a while," the leader of the strangers says. He's pretending to be at ease, but Zoe sees the tension in him.
"Now, I don't mean to sound ungrateful, since you helped us out some," Mal continues, "but you do have your ship in my cargo hold."
"Well," the leader says, "we'll be getting out of your ship, then." He heads back to the ship's hatch, and they both pause for a moment, looking in.
Then Mal's roaring, "Doctor! Your kǔ nǎo sister is holding up our guests getting the hell out of my hold. Can you see to her?"
Rodney grimaces at the jumper, which is jammed into the alien ship worse than that time it got wedged in the gate. Well, better, since there aren't any alien bugs attached to Sheppard, but worse, because there's a different sort of pest that's attached herself to him, instead.
"Is the power source renewable? Do you really get that kind of speed all the time? Have you ever pulled a Barn Swallow like that before?"
"Yes, faster usually, and oh god no," Rodney says, trying to brush her aside. She turns big wounded eyes on him, and he says, "What? What? I'm trying to excise one ship from another, here."
"Well," she says, pouting, "so'm I."
Rodney smiles tightly. Maybe he's not up to his usual gallant self, but right now he is still recovering from almost dying and there are other things on his mind.
"Rodney," John says, "if there's nothing wrong with the jumper, then we have kind of a bigger problem."
Rodney comes around the hatch and takes a look at the girl sitting in the pilot seat. She's hugging the flight console and looks like she's listening very hard. John's making puppy-dog eyes at her, but she hasn't noticed yet. She's probably the only girl in the universe that wasn't going to, either. She's reserving the usual alien-priestess look of longing and awe that John inspires for the power output readings on the jumper's screen.
"River," her brother pleads. "Come out of there."
"She speaks," River says, rubbing her cheek against the console. "Objects in space, dreaming ten thousand years awake."
"River, come on. This isn't our ship."
River tilts her head at John. "She loves you best."
"Right," John says, smiling awkwardly. "Thanks."
"Oh, God," Rodney says. The engineer's back on his case the moment he steps out of the hatch, but at least he has answers to her questions. By the time Teyla emerges from the jumper leading the strange girl by the hand, he's elbow-deep in the workings of the alien ship, and Kaylee's showing him all her juryrigs. She's really quite good, not quite up to Zelenka's standards but very innovative. "Hmm?" he says, when John nudges him. "Already? Oh, fine, just five more minutes--"
"Rodney," John says, and Rodney sighs.
"That's all right," Kaylee says. "Y'all come back soon, and then I can show you the grav boot, it's really the best bit, and ours is half-way new, almost."
Rodney almost thinks it might be worth it.
"They said they come from Earth-that-was?" Elizabeth asks wonderingly. "This could very well be the last outpost of the original humans who left with the Ancients."
"It's an entire solar system full of cowboys," Rodney says. "Sheppard might finally be getting some competition in his perpetual slouching sweepstakes, but that's about it."
John definitely doesn't pout at him, but he might straighten his shoulders a bit before he goes on with the debriefing. "The hostilities going on between the planets have lasted nearly twenty years," he says. "Seems like it could be a pretty dangerous place to visit."
"There are also the Reavers that Captain Reynolds and his crew spoke of," Teyla says. "It is possible that the warnings in the database were speaking of these creatures."
"Could be why the Wraith haven't culled them," Ronon adds.
"Sounds like you were lucky to be cloaked," Elizabeth says. "All right. Much as I regret missing the opportunity to learn more about them, it doesn't seem feasible right now. Perhaps at some point in the future, when we don't have a war at our own doorstep."
"Yes, very unfortunate," Rodney says. "At least having the life drained out of you has the dubious advantage of not making you into what all the fashionable Reavers are wearing."
"Thank you, Rodney," Elizabeth says. "I think we're done here."
John unfolds himself from his chair slowly, sketches a salute that he can later deny is a doffing of his invisible cowboy hat to Elizabeth, and says, "I'm going to go rustle up some grub."
He heads out of the office towards the cafeteria, and behind him, he hears Ronon ask Teyla, "Why does he want to eat insect larvae?"
John grins. Beside him, Rodney asks, "We're never going to speak of this again, are we?"
"Probably not," John says, and moseys off into Atlantis's sunset.