Phil Coulson sighed and set down the tray he'd finally grabbed for a late lunch though he didn't seat himself. On the other side of the table, Dr. Bruce Banner also paused, then smiled and took another drink of his coffee when no further alert sounded to rouse them into immediate action. The general notification to the entire base was procedure, but as Phil's deputy, Jasper Sitwell had the authority to deal with most non emergency calls even when Phil wasn't taking a much needed break.
"Do we have more than Steve's team out right now?" Banner asked him when he did finally take a seat.
Phil nodded. "Jimmy Woo's team is still on Manara," he answered before taking a healthy bite of his sandwich and then pocketing one of the weird Daganian fruits that tasted like watermelon but looked more like an apple. Knowing his luck, he'd be needed in the control center before he could finish.
"And where is Steve's team?"
"Checking one of the abandoned planets the Genii recommended," Phil answered before pausing to take a drink of his bottled water. "It's supposed to have interesting ruins left behind by one of the early high tech societies."
He wasn't surprised that Banner hadn't kept track of who might be off-site right now or where they were. Banner might be the expedition's CMO, but he spent most of his time, lost most of his time, refining his work on the ATA gene therapy. The same gene therapy that had gotten them here to the lost city of Atlantis, though only after several notable failures and with unforeseen side effects, including on Banner himself. They had a handful of other medical doctors, trauma surgeons mostly, to handle sick call, along with a cadre of nurses Nick Fury was probably still kicking himself over sending; the expedition took the best and most resilient employees that the Stargate Headquarters International Earth Logistics and Defense organization had had to offer.
Frowning, Banner asked, "The Genii haven't already scavenged everything useful?"
Phil could only shrug. "I'm sure they've stripped most of it, but they tend to ignore the things they can't modify into weapons, and we've picked up interesting items they've left behind before. Not to mention there are often diaries, notes or other accounts that the Genii generally ignore, being unable to decipher the languages." Languages the expedition's linguists were often able to translate, though they hadn't bothered to let the Genii know about that.
For all the openness between worlds thanks to gate travel, most societies had their secrets, the Genii foremost, and in that the expedition fit right in.
"Plus, it was the perfect excuse to get Stark out of your hair," Banner teased, draining his coffee cup but not rising to get more.
Sighing this time, Phil nodded. "Plus, it was a perfect excuse to get Stark away from all of us for a few hours, though in my defense, it was Captain Rogers' suggestion that his team head out."
Not that Anthony Stark had been more of an ass than normal over the last couple of days.
Most of the time, Phil overlooked Stark's overweening attitude since the scientist had the intelligence to back up his self-proclaimed genius, along with an uncanny knack for understanding and repurposing the alien tech they were discovering and using. The problem was that Stark also had an aptitude for pissing off most the people he worked with, as he wasn't the only one here with a monstrous ego; a given due to the nature of their work and the limited contact the expedition had with Earth. Atlantis was no place for wallflowers or those who lacked self confidence.
Banner nodded. "For all that Atlantis adores Steve and Bucky, I think being surrounded by the tech within the city reminds them too much of their time in stasis. They may claim they don't really remember anything from when they were frozen, but Atlantis' awareness isn't something that can be ignored by gene carriers, even when we sleep. Despite my limited interface with anything requiring the gene, if my own expression of it was even as strong as Tony's, much less Steve or Bucky's, I know I couldn't stay here for even a week without having to get away for just as long. Not and remain sane."
Banner had a flare for understatement, and not just about his own condition. Captain Steve Rogers was much too polite, was very much a product of his time in growing up in the forties, to ever come out and admit to Phil, his CO, that living in Atlantis made him uncomfortable. Barnes wasn't quite so restrained, but his complaints stemmed more about his gaps in knowledge of the world they'd lived, fought and nearly died in, and the one they did the same for now. He thought living in a semi-sentient, alien city was cool, was something right out of Buck Rogers and the other serials he'd enjoyed in his youth.
As for Banner, given that his own experience with the ATA gene had nearly killed him when he'd accidentally self-administered an early iteration of the cure he'd been developing for the plague that had put Captain Rogers and Sergeant Barnes in stasis, Phil understood his reluctance to engage with the Lantean technology. A refinement of the gene therapy had kept Banner alive, but every time he did interacted directly with Atlantis, the Lantean DNA in his body began to proliferate and overwrite his human DNA. Doing so took away his higher thought processes, including his ability to speak English, Russian or any of the other human languages he'd learned over his lifetime. This made his usefulness in such a state limited and only for emergencies. Everyone, Banner most of all, feared that eventually he would not be able to come back from his altered state.
In truth, the ATA gene was both a blessing and a curse. Phil still wasn't certain if he resented Nick's refusal to allow him to undergo the therapy or if he was grateful. Without the gene, the expedition would never have reached – or survived – Atlantis, and there were times he was envious of Rogers, Barnes, Stark, and the handful of others for the things they could get the city to do. All Phil needed do, though, was watch how carefully Banner held himself apart from everyone else, or remember how Stark now had an artificial heart thanks to a jealous Obadiah Stane who'd stole an untested version of the therapy and used it on Stark in an attempt to stop his inclusion in the expedition.
"Director, you're going to need to deal with this," Sitwell's voice interrupted Phil's thoughts, this time through one of the private command channels of the earbud Phil normally removed only when he slept.
Having now been on Atlantis for several months, he no longer had the impulse to look over his shoulder for SHIELD's real director, Nick Fury, but being accorded the same title as the man who was responsible for the entirety of SHIELD instead of just this little piece out over in the Pegasus Galaxy still freaked Phil the fuck out. As did being in the Pegasus Galaxy on a long term mission in the first place.
He gave a slight wave that he knew Banner would correctly interpret, especially after he raised his hand to his earbud and activated the mic that went with his comm.
"What have you got, Jasper?"
"It's Captain Rogers' team. It turns out the Genii weren't quite correct about P3C-257 now being uninhabited. The locals call it Athos and are a little bent out of shape to have come across Captain Rogers' team exploring their old city."
"Are our people prisoners?" Phil asked, pulling Banner's attention his direction. He signaled Banner to go ahead and listen in, mouthing channel two.
"Negative, sir. Ms. Lewis has not given any of the distress words. What she is reporting is that Stark apparently put his foot in it during the initial contact. That, additionally, Rogers admitted he's not the leader of the expedition. So, now, while the leader of the Athosians is willing to negotiate with us, she will do so only with the top man in charge. Darcy claims this Tasha is willing to come to Atlantis, with only a second who may also be her bodyguard, as long as we're willing to leave a couple of our people with the Athosians at the same time."
An exchange of hostages.
Not just an Earth or Milky Way thing, thanks to the snake aliens who could enter a host body and take over the host's will and thoughts. The Hydra had been the scourge of the Milky Way galaxy for hundreds of thousands of years, as the creatures could live for thousands of years. They left fear and mistrust in their wake, even now that most of the Hydra Commanders had been killed or severed from a host. In the expedition's experiences here in Pegasus, however, such an exchange could actually be the opposite – a trust offering. Either that or the Athosian was willingly sacrificing herself to gain Atlantis' gate address for the rest of her people.
The expedition had encountered a few worlds that revered the long dead race that had created Atlantis, to the point of those ancient builders being the central figures in a common religion. Atlantis was, therefore, the home of the gods, the expedition's members their messengers. Still others considered Atlantis their El Dorado, a place of untold riches and wonder, with the expedition either being lucky in having found it first, or being interlopers and thieves. Then there were people like the Genii and the Hoffans, who saw everyone beyond their own world in terms of how useful they could be to their empire building or allies in completing their grand project. Phil preferred the cultures that, thanks to the wide spread use of the gate system, saw everyone as kin – and alien – with alliances or feuds shaped accordingly.
Phil finished his water and picked up the tray with the remains of his lunch. "Was Darcy able to tell you anything about the Athosians themselves?" he asked Sitwell. He noted that Banner followed him but was more concerned with his deputy's answer.
"Low level on the tech scale, certainly below the Genii or the Hoffans is what I think she's saying," Sitwell grumbled.
Meaning Darcy's words were likely being censored whether she was calling in distress or not. That they could use their comm system they brought with them from Earth through the gate while on another planet regardless of its distance from Atlantis was normally a godsend, but it also meant that conversations were generally heard by a lot of people, not all of them your own. That, coupled with Captain Rogers' difficulty in lying or even shading the truth, created problems in getting accurate intel when the gate team was still out in the field. Darcy Lewis was actually very good at lying, but like everyone else she generally tried not to around Captain Rogers, nor would she be lying here in any case.
"The old city showed signs of machining and manufacturing capabilities, but it's been abandoned for as much as a several hundred years and it looks like the Athosians are now nomadic hunter-gatherers. Assuming the Athosians aren't lying and that it was their ancestors who were the original inhabitants of the city, of course. Some carry guns similar to the Genii's and the camp, which is little more than tents, was set up within the shadow of the gate, sometime after the team's arrival. No signs of domesticated animals with them, or beasts of burden or transportation."
This wouldn't be the first world where the inhabitants mostly hid who they were and how they truly lived, nor the first time they'd run across poachers or scavengers. It also, unfortunately, wasn't the first time the Genii's intel had been wrong, though so far Phil hadn't been able to see a pattern to it or determine if it was intentional. For the most part , the expedition teams had been able to adapt and prevent any significant casualties, which made thinking about the Genii motivations more an exercise than an immediate problem.
"Just that the leader, a gal no bigger than Ms. Lewis herself and who just carries two half-size quarterstaffs, managed to take Rogers down with them, when Barnes and the bodyguard got a little pissy with one another in the initial confrontation. Darcy's giddy about it, really hoping we can become allies with these people so she can take lessons."
Taking down Rogers was quite a feat; Phil knew that maybe a handful of the soldiers serving under Rogers could manage it, and then only rarely. This Athosian must not only be skilled in fighting, but also in stealth to have gotten the drop on Atlantis' military commander. That, or Rogers had been distracted by Barnes or Stark again. Or Stark and Barnes. If the four weren't normally his best first contact team as well as the best at discovering traces of the Lantean tech that had apparently been seeded all over the Pegasus Galaxy but barely left in Atlantis herself, Phil would have insisted that Barnes and Stark be on different teams.
The trouble was, Rogers was the only one either of those two listened to. No, Stark also listened to Pepper Potts, who'd worked with Stark long before either of them had heard of SHIELD or stargates, and who Stark had insisted be included in the project or he'd refuse to become involved himself. But it turned out that not only could Pepper put up with Stark's tantrums and manic work binges, she also had a master talent in managing the rest of the scientists and technicians reporting under Stark as the expedition's CSO. They respected her as they didn't Stark, meaning she was too invaluable to put on a gate team just to wrangle her boss.
Since Barnes had been part of Rogers' originally gate team, Barnes was also the person Rogers trusted most, as his second in command and more. Phil would have been more comfortable convincing Rogers to let that go if he could offer Barnes his own gate team, but Phil doubted Barnes would ever shed his tendency to go maverick if he wasn't following Rogers. Not having leadership qualities wasn't a failure no matter what Barnes sometimes thought of himself, but it did leave Phil with no current alternatives than keeping the three of them on the same team.
Other than ordering Rogers to man up and make his choice between the two of them or, hell, bed them both. Separately or at the same time; Phil didn't care. The team was already compromised when it came to each other's welfare Darcy's included and any breakup, if it came, was going to be damn messy regardless of additional intimacy or not. If they got some pleasure and comfort out of the arrangement, not to mention taking the fucking jealousy out of it, maybe everyone would breathe a little easier.
"Have Ms. Lewis inform the Athosians that I appreciate their offer to come to us, but that I would be happy to visit their planet and negotiate on behalf of Atlantis. You had better also brief Thor and get his team on ready standby; then prepare yourself, as I'll be leaving Atlantis in your hands. I'll be there in ten minutes."
"Do you want me to come with you?" Banner asked, having stayed at Phil's heels as he headed for his quarters so he could put on his field uniform.
Phil shook his head. "If things go bad enough that we need you, I'd rather have you here to patch us up instead of needing doctoring yourself."
Banner frowned, but nodded and peeled away toward the infirmary. He didn't normally handle the day-to-day medical issues, but when it came to alien biology, which the Athosians would be no matter their human appearance, Banner was the only one comfortable enough, confident enough, to work with or work on the few allies they had been able to find here in Pegasus, especially after the tragedy on Hoff. Banner was also the only doctor Thor allowed near him (or Jane), and should the back-up team be called into play, someone would undoubtedly end up needing Banner's services.
Deciding he wasn't going to take anyone with him, Phil changed from his suit into his uniform and then headed to the Armory to pick up his handgun. Rogers and Barnes were already in the field, two of his best, and Darcy Lewis was turning out to be a decent field asset herself, both with a weapon and with helping Stark explore the technology possibilities, so he shouldn't need to take any heavier armament or escorts. With those four at his side, if he needed more back-up, he'd need an army.
There had also been a time when he was the back-up. He might have spent his last few years riding a desk while coordinating teams and being Nick's left hand, but he'd kept up with his weapons and close combat training, and what he might have lost in fitness or flexibility he gained in guile and experience. He could handle himself, had handled himself in any number of off-world situations just like this one and, if he couldn't… It wasn't like he was irreplaceable.
When it came down to it, Jasper or Jane Foster could step into his shoes and run the base with no significant difference. Either of them could also manage the problem children, though either would also piss on Phil's grave if he made one of them have to do that.
Despite having used the stargate systems for nigh on fifteen years, Phil got a thrill going through it each time, especially when he was gating onto a world new to him. Sure, in some ways, they all looked the same, looked like some part of Earth. For humans to thrive, evolution and basic biology demanded a certain mixture of flora and fauna, along with acceptable levels of temperature, water, and oxygen. The devil was in the details, of course, or the god, as the phrase originally was coined, with each planet also wholly unique and, therefore, appreciated for its variables.
This one, Athos, immediately reminded Phil of visits to the Black Forest, a countryside filled with conifer trees, clearings of rich, deep loam, and pale rays of the sun that brought light but not a great deal of warmth. The gate dominated a copse, one not too much bigger than Atlantis' own gateroom. Darcy and Barnes awaited him just beyond the gate's danger zone at the edge of the nearest tree line. A handful of the Athosians waited with them, alert but not menacing, since their watchers included a couple of kids.
Kids could be as dangerous as their parents, of course, but so far in the expedition's experience, children were more revered in Pegasus than back home. They were rarely part of scavenging or raiding parties and the gate teams that had gone out from Atlantis over the months had needed to return two or three times before any world's children had been introduced or even seen; it had taken five visits for the Genii to present their children and admit some of their other secrets.
Darcy met Phil with her normal grin, while Barnes simply looked bored. Bored was a damn sight better than looking angry, scared or sheepish, in Phil's mind. Whatever had happened here didn't look like it was going to be irreparable to future relations. The closest thing to a formal introduction, however, came from one of those kids who identified himself as Jinto before gesturing for the Terrans to follow him into the trees.
In less than ten minutes, Phil, Darcy and Barnes were led to a tent. Clusters of men, women and children were going about various everyday tasks. They gave Phil and the others a look but didn't interrupt their actions save for one boy who ran to greet Jinto before being called back to lessons. At first glance, the camp appeared to be following a routine more elaborate than had they come simply in response to the gate team's arrival, as if they would have settled here regardless due to some schedule or migration of their own.
One more indication, Phil hoped, that his people would be forgiven for their trespass.
Jinto approached the central tent in a gathering of maybe fifteen others, although tent wasn't perhaps the correct word given the size of even the smallest of them; family dwellings and more, Phil thought, like the westernized yurts he'd live in one summer while working the Renaissance Faire circuit during college. Or like the beit al-sha'ar of the Bedouin desert, though constructed of almost tarp-like cloth or skins instead of woven wool or hair.
"Tasha, we've arrived," Jinto called out though he didn't wait for a response before pulling back a flap and gesturing Phil forward.
Phil wasn't surprised this largest dwelling proved to be a communal meeting place, having no furs or sleeping areas but instead a long table made up of thick, sturdy poles that were roped together and fitted atop square wooden boxes that most likely were where the dishes and such were stored during travel, that were now set for ten although it looked like the table could seat at least twelve. Several smaller tables or desks crowded the long walls, with several on the farther, short wall holding food and drink preparations that a couple younger men were worrying over. An elder, taller even than Thor, was keeping an eye on them, and the ones coming in with more food through another flap in the back that obviously led to the cooking fires.
Captain Rogers and Stark were already seated along the left side of the table to Phil's entrance, at the two closest place settings. Across from them sat four additional Athosians, including their leader, Phil expected, given she was the only woman present. Given the three male Athosians with her were nearer Phil's age, he was surprised at how young Tasha appeared; he put her no older than thirty. Not that age guaranteed leadership qualities, of course, but it did have him wondering how the Athosians chose their leaders. On Hoff it had been a Council of the eldest, while the Genii's government was built from family lines and other political connections.
Straight inheritance could be the mechanism here, as well as martial skills. Looking carefully at her, Phil didn't doubt that she could have floored Rogers, though probably as much because Rogers hadn't expected it due to his natural deference to women and his difficulty in fighting them. Of course, the warrior behind her looked just as fit as the woman, and he was the one carrying weapons, so rule by combat probably wasn't the right track.
While Phil wasn't blind to her classic beauty, her tumble of red hair or the body that would have belonged to a gymnast or a dancer back on Earth, given his own inclinations, it was that warrior standing behind her that Phil would have preferred meeting had the circumstances been different. He was exactly Phil's type despite being at least ten years Phil's junior. The circumstances weren't different, however.
Phil shifted his attention back to his young guide, who was now moving toward the Athosians overseeing the food preparations. Jinto approached and received a quick hug from the tall man; Phil didn't see a strong family resemblance in their features, but it was obvious they were father and son by their manner and affection.
Phil wasn't a father, but he did have his own form of children, he supposed. Rogers had risen at Phil's entrance, wearing the sheepish expression Phil had been expecting. This wasn't the first time Phil had been called away from Atlantis because Rogers felt guilty about doing something that resulted in the disapproval of the locals and he hoped Phil could smooth things over.
Stark looked over for several seconds, but once he saw that it was only Phil and the rest of his team, his attention returned to what looked like a necklace in his hands that he was puzzling over. The necklace glowed, implying it was Lantean, so Phil wasn't surprised to be so quickly dismissed and it wasn't worth calling Stark out on in front of potential allies.
He wasn't given the chance, anyway, as the Athosian leader had also risen when Rogers had and approached Phil. She held out both arms which Phil copied until they were grasping each other's forearms. He then allowed himself to be pulled gently forward and down until their foreheads touched. As a greeting it was an interesting intimacy, with the both of them unable to reach for weapons without breaking the embrace, thus giving warning.
"Welcome, Director Coulson of Atlantis and the Terrans," she said in a grave voice. The smile she offered seemed genuine, however, and so was Phil's. "I am Tasha Romanev, daughter of Alian. Welcome to Athos."
"Thank you for your hospitality. From what I've seen so far, your world looks lovely."
That earned him another smile. Along with a roll of Stark's eyes where he still played with his toy, and from the bodyguard too, which did nothing to lessen Phil's inconvenient interest in the other man. He hadn't meant it as idle flattery, but he could see how someone less… diplomatic than his hostess would think so. Back on Earth he would have been the one standing behind Nick while some politician delivered that type of line and while he was too disciplined to actually roll his eyes, he'd have mentally been doing the same.
"Wait until you see the abandoned city," Stark said, completely oblivious to the scowls immediately gracing the faces of the Athosians around them, or Rogers and Darcy's differing degrees of embarrassment.
Before Phil could begin to come up with some sort of apology for Stark's crassness, Tasha abruptly lifted her head, looking beyond Phil toward the entrance of the tent.
"The Dead Ones!" she cried out, apropos of nothing, or so it seemed, but her bodyguard moved instantly in response, pulling his weapons free and following Tasha through the tent opening. The other Athosians also began moving, some with faces tightened in fear but still with purpose, the father pulling Jinto to him and the both of them slipping out the back while one of the other men who'd been sitting next to Tasha came toward Phil and tugged at him.
"We must flee," he told them gravely, his words disappearing in a scree of rending metal and screams from out near the gate.
Outside, the other Athosians were not quite as disciplined as those in the tents had been, yet also not totally lost to panic. Cook fires were being smothered and children gathered, the youngest being thrust into the nearest arms of those who could carry them regardless of parents it looked like, since Darcy was handed one as she and the rest of her team – including Stark – followed Phil and the elder through the flap.
Rogers moved to the front and signaled Barnes to stay with Stark, signaled the two of them to follow Darcy to wherever she was being led. He turned toward Phil, but Phil shook his head.
"Stay here and help with the evacuation, Captain," Phil ordered. "Then rendezvous with your team." As he watched, Tasha and her bodyguard moved toward the gate, the man handing over what looked like two escrima sticks to her while he grabbed the bow and quiver one of the others thrust his direction. Obviously they knew what was coming through the gate and Phil wanted to know too.
Rogers started to object, grabbing Phil's arm as he broke after the others. "Director – "
"These children need your protection more than I do, Steve," Phil reminded him, shamelessly playing on Rogers' sense of integrity. "I'm not going to engage, just get an idea of what's heading our way. Consider me your scout."
Rogers didn't look happy, but he also knew his duty as well as how to take orders. He gave Phil a short nod before moving over toward Jinto's father who had taken charge of the others who were staying behind to put together some sort of defense.
Phil ran toward the gate. The two Athosians had disappeared into the dark of the wood, but he didn't need a guide considering he could still hear screams and the sounds of trees crashing. It didn't sound like large weapons fire, canons or the like, but obviously damage was being done, either taking out the scant protection the trees might offer, or perhaps taking down the trees to use them as ad hoc weaponry.
It turned out to be both and although he'd called it, it was also the last thing Phil expected to see. Tasha had called them the Dead Ones. Back in the Milky Way galaxy, Thor and the other Asgard called them Replicators and that's how the entry read in the SHIELD database. But most field teams called them Doombots.
If Atlantis was semi-sentient, these hollow robots were only a step down, their construction and programming so complex that they moved and reacted as if they were alive. It took heavy duty firepower to take a single one down, multiple .50 cal rounds from a machine gun or greater, and the Athosians were facing at least ten of them with sticks and arrows, with little more than volley guns that fired six or eight heavy enough rounds but took at least two minutes to reload.
Phil's Glock 17 wasn't going to do any better.
He watched in amazement as Tasha nimbly darted between two of the Doombots to grab up one of her people and tumbled them out of the way of a swatting hand. At the same time her bodyguard pulled back his bow and let fly with an arrow, hitting squarely between the opening where eyes would be on a face. Phil could applaud the skill in making the shot, but didn't see the point as he doubted it would even prove a distraction. Except something then exploded inside the robot, sending it down and into its nearest companion, which also took its feet out from under it.
When Phil looked again, he could see a capsule under the next arrow head, like some kind of high tech incendiary tow, something he'd never expect to see on such a primitive weapon. Maybe the Athosians weren't quite so behind the technology scale as they first appeared, if they had tech like this. Maybe they could hold their own.
Until it became obvious that only the bodyguard carried such a weapon. The guns did damage, but taking one down without destroying it only disabled a Doombot, and only temporarily. Its alien technology was able to fix itself in the field and let it get right back up. Such futility wasn't stopping the Athosians from keeping up their offensive, however, or stopping Tasha from dancing amongst them while she single-handedly tried to recover those of her people who'd already fallen.
Phil had never been that light on his feet, nor was he the consummate soldier that Rogers or Barnes were, but he could hold his own on a dance floor or a kickboxing mat, and he wasn't about to just stand around when he could help.
"Steve, it's Replicators," he signaled Rogers as he moved to assist Tasha in getting her people away. "They're holding the gate open for now but at some point they'll be through and I'll contact Atlantis and Thor. We need Asgard weaponry – "
Phil couldn't help himself, seeing the next thing that came through the gate. "Mother of god!"
It was out of a fucking Transformers movie, a metal snake-like creature the size of a multi-car train but flying like an airship. It flowed around the Doombots like it was made of water instead of the metal-biological hybrid pieces like all Replicators, something like a maw bursting open and then snapping up one of the Athosians that couldn't move fast enough to evade it.
Phil had never seen anything like it, couldn't imagine how to stop it, or if it was eating people for fun, for fuel, or for some other reason. Fleeing looked to be not just a good idea, but the only one. Still, Tasha held her ground, refusing to abandon anyone she could still reach, while her bodyguard provided cover-fire and distraction. Phil could do no less, grabbing up one of the Athosian guns and firing at one of the stumbling Doombots in the hope that he could direct it toward the snake creature and slow it down.
"Director Coulson! Coulson! Dammit, Phil – "
He only became aware that Rogers was shouting at him as he searched for a second gun, doing his own rolling under the foot of a Doombot that would have staved in his chest or head had he been a second slower. "I'm here," he assured Rogers. "The Doombots have some sort of ship. It's picking up Athosians, eating them – "
"Halling says the Dead Ones steal people, taking them back to grand ships of the stars to steal their souls to keep the Dead Ones mobile. Few who are taken ever come back, and those that do are changed, half-dead themselves. Phil, they took Bucky."
Phil closed his eyes to the despair in Rogers' tone. And in his own heart.
Other races in the Milky Way, younger races than the Asgard, had their own tales of living machines powered by the lifeforces of others that may or may not have been Replicators. Thor claimed that the replicator technology had been created by his own people, ages ago in the geological time-sense, machines of nano-technology that had been animated with magic to create mechanical life-forms that further evolved to the point of near-sentience.
He hoped to god that those stories were correct as in the instant he reopened his eyes, it was to see Tasha the next to be scooped up. Her bodyguard yelled in rage but instead of running toward his own doom as Phil half expected, he was grabbing Phil's arm and pulling, dragging them both away as they were the last two defenders standing at the gate.
Phil felt a burn up and down the arm being tugged that had him resisting for a moment, not because of the pain or because he didn't want to follow the hot archer, but because he hadn't even realized he'd taken fire.
"Come. We must run."
Running was not Phil's idea of a good time. He still did it, regularly even, joining one of the groups of scientists or doctors who pounded around Atlantis' many balcony routes at least five days a week as part of a fitness routine. Not even the spectacular views of the city and ocean or the scintillating company made it enjoyable, however. It was simply a necessity, just one more thing in Phil's life he had to do instead of something he wanted to do.
At the moment, he felt immensely grateful for such discipline, but he also decided that it wasn't that he didn't like to run, it was that he hated to. Even while it was keeping him alive.
He also decided it was Tony Stark's fault, even if he wasn't sure how. In the end, it was always Stark's fault, or Nick's, but Phil liked Nick. And it was easier to blame Stark; his curiosity, his tinkering, his inability to play well with others. In fact, Phil knew, as sure as the sun came up each day, as sure as he lived and breathed, that one day he was going to kill Tony Stark. Or at least facilitate Tony Stark's death. It was inevitable, would probably be intentional, and no one would blame him, because Stark was the kind of man who found trouble even if he wasn't causing it.
Okay, maybe Phil's current torture from running wasn't Stark's fault, but he had no doubt that it was Stark's fault Phil had even come to Athos, so that did count and…And possibly Phil wasn't thinking straight anymore. He was having a little trouble with more than just the running or blaming Stark – like that whole living and breathing thing. Especially the breathing thing.
He was still alive, because he hurt too much not to be. He was breathing, after a fashion, but not well and way too loudly. He also had to take some responsibility for his current condition, because he knew daily running wasn't enough, not when he'd let Nick put him behind a desk for too long.
In his defense, he had enough work to oversee on Atlantis that he could fill two of the twenty-eight hour days of the Lantean sun and still not have time for sleep, much less maintain anything more than the minimal field status. At least he was fitter than Stark, a man who spent a third of his time in the field, another in the lab, and the last sleeping, eating and making smart ass comments. But Stark also had his Energizer Bunny heart. No doubt that did wonders for his physical condition, whereas Phil was closer to fifty than forty in years, and also had a hole in his shoulder that, while nowhere near one of his lungs and which actually stopped bleeding, still wasn't doing him any favors.
He'd also been running flat out now for close to half an hour, with no breaks, no water, and no sign that his guide was intending to stop. Or needed to stop, which was definitely making Phil feel old and out of shape. In other circumstances Phil would have found such stamina a challenge to live up to, but at the moment he was concerned it was going to kill him and not in the manner he would prefer to go.
"I've got to stop," Phil called out to tormentor… rescuer… whatever.
"Soon," the man called back. "It's just a little farther. A mile, maybe a mile and a half. No more than two, I promise."
The grin Phil was offered was meant to be friendly, maybe even reassuring and confident, though whether the bodyguard was secure in Phil's ability to continue stumbling along after him or just from knowing that they really were nearing a place where they could stop, Phil had no idea. He couldn't be sure if he was even reading the other correctly, after all, given he was guessing at an alien's expressions and subtext. Being similarly human as far as DNA didn't mean everything else was interchangeable. Phil had learned that back on Earth amongst societies that had, overall, the same worldview, or at least shared the same fundamental building blocks of evolution, environment and language. Fewer of those commonalities existed here in Pegasus, in worlds shaped by threats and triumphs entirely beyond Earth's purview.
Phil needed remind himself that human nature wasn't universal either, that smiles in one culture meant insult in another, and that there was no reason why he should feel reassured in return since, for all he really knew, he could be being led in circles or straight back to the Doombots, that he could be a sacrifice to the attackers and that what he'd seen before the gate merely a staged set-up to put him off his guard. He didn't really know the Athosians, didn't even have the Genii's questionable intel since Cowan's people had assured them this planet was deserted. The Athosians could be in league with the Doombots, could be in command of them, or their victims just like they appeared. Phil just didn't know.
What he did know – the only thing he did know – was that he wouldn't make another half mile like he was going, much less one or two full miles.
But he wanted to. Wanted to not just because he happened to enjoy living or because his ego needed to prove he wasn't just a pampered bureaucrat and a liability. Alien culture – alien alien aside – there was something about this Athosian that reminded him of his own field days going through the gate with Nick, the Contessa, and whichever cocky hotshot Nick had been trying to season. He missed those days of camaraderie and the instant trust danger sometimes engendered.
Phil also missed regular sex. So if he was being honest with himself, his confusion and desire to live up to his guide's expectations could simply be a product of infatuation and transference. He'd always found competency to be as sexy as a tight ass or amazing upper body strength with nary a steroid in sight.
As distractions went, Phil's brain was pretty amazing itself. Between one pleasant image featured in his minds eye and the next, he was being gathered up against that epic chest and halted. Not in a hug like he first imagined, but oxygen deprivation and searing pain gave him a reasonable excuse for his confusion. He chocked up what felt like the briefest of squeezes before being let go to his healthy fantasy life and current unhealthy condition too, though he had the vaguest fear that he might have said some of his last thoughts aloud and chose to regard the new grin he'd been given as merely his guide's own relief in finally stopping.
"We're here, Coulson."
Wait… what? Here? They'd stopped?
While Phil dragged in heaving breaths and wrapped his brain around that, he also tried to discern why this patch of ground was any better than the last several miles they'd crossed through the Athosian forest. But in truth, he was too busy trying to remember how to breathe again without sounding like a bellows to take much of a look around. When he finally did, he still didn't see any reason for here over there.
He also didn't see his – the – Athosian anymore.
Phil still had his gun and maybe a clip and a half, since it had proved so ineffectual against the Doombots. Had two guns actually, since he'd found that next abandoned volley gun yet had had no opportunity to fire it before being dragged away. What he didn't seem to have was his earbud anymore. No chance to contact Rogers or one of the others to check on their own status, to confirm or disprove his suspicions that he'd been led here for some nefarious reason. Of course, now that he was getting enough oxygen to his brain, he also realized that if the Athosians had wanted to kill him, they could have done so in the initial attack with no one the wiser. And if this particular Athosian wanted to kill him, he could have done so almost any time during the last forty minutes and not have had to run so damn long.
In the next instant Phil was moving, pulling his handgun and aiming before his brain registered that he wasn't alone anymore. The Athosian had returned and was beckoning Phil to follow him, showing no concern at having a gun pointed squarely at his face, but instead an expression that could have held approval, like the guard was impressed and, yeah, it wasn't like he was making any noise now as he led Phil out of the clearing, so even Phil was a little impressed with himself. It had been too many years since he'd needed and could count on such skills.
This time they were just walking, and the journey ended almost before it had begun, with the Athosian leading Phil directly to a rock face that towered above them which had not been previously visible through the dense the forest. The Athosian then twisted something Phil couldn't make out, and a piece of the rock face vanished.
Low tech his ass.
"So the Athosians are like the Genii, with their secrets and survival hidden underground?"
The Athosian frowned for a moment, then his face cleared and showed the tight smile he'd been wearing when Phil had first arrived at the 'primitive' tent camp. The one that Phil had interpreted as being pissed at having to making nice with the guests that had trespassed. Stark had one just like it when forced to make nice with the locals.
"Actually, this is Satedan, not Athosian," Phil's guide explained, finding flint and tender to light a torch from a bundle that lay just beyond the entry. "As I am… was Satedan."
Just from his expression, there was a story there beyond what his words implied. Phil had no time to contemplate it, or do more then form the vague idea they should seek out more Satedans and their higher tech, before his guide continued, both in walking them inward and in explanation.
"Sateda and Athos traded together for many generations, often combining travel parties to journey through the rings of the ancestors to other worlds. As part of our trade treaties, the Athosians allowed us to build a sentinel post on their world, while they cached remnants of their past on ours lest their culture be lost again."
In the feeble torchlight, Phil could again see a twist to the other's expression; another piece of the puzzle falling into place if Phil was interpreting the ironic look correctly. If he had to guess, Sateda had fallen, to the Doombots – The Dead Ones – or maybe something else.
This structure showed no signs of abandonment other than dust and cobwebs, nor any sign of wear. It appeared to be built with metals and architecture not unlike that of Atlantis herself. Not an analogue or actual companion city/ship also built by the Lanteans, but obviously the Satedans had done their own exploring of Lantean artifacts and ruins at some point, and it was understandable that if Sateda had had technologies approaching parity to the Lanteans, someone else might feel threatened enough to try and tear them down.
"I'd only been here once when I first was honored to walk with Tasha through the rings as she took up her mother's mantle. That was seven, maybe eight years ago, and I remember how much I wanted to impress her with what my world could do. Upon my return some months ago seeking refuge, I refused to come here and be reminded of what had been lost. It's been many generations since one of us has entered with intent to use. Today, I wasn't sure I'd remember the location."
The story was offered matter-of-factly, yet with the kind of blank look in his eyes that Phil had seen from survivors of worlds the Hydra had vanquished or destroyed, from survivors on his own world in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and too many ravaged neighborhoods throughout Eastern Europe. Something had certainly shattered Sateda. Had shattered this man before him for all that he stood unbowed now.
"And do the Satedan's have names?" Phil asked with what he hoped was an acceptable amount of asperity as well as sympathy.
He wasn't about to ask the questions in regard to a subject his guide had already taken pains not to elaborate upon, nor did he want to be the one who would break this man again. Losing Tasha now, after losing his entire world, had to have the Satedan on an edge that was only being staved off by having something else to be responsible for.
That got his guide to stop and turn back, a look of obvious chagrin on his face. "Sorry. Specialist Barton. Clint if you'd prefer," he offered, though not with the head bowing to touch forehead thing that Tasha had given Phil when they'd first met one another.
They'd not found the handshake to be a common greeting in the Pegasus Galaxy either.
"Late of the Satedan First Company. Of the late Satedan Wing Force."
The irony was back, along with a touch of ruefulness. As if Barton – Clint – was aware how close he was to falling and mocking himself for it. Human expressions and emotions all, and something this time Phil was sure he wasn't misinterpreting anymore than he was the words.
One of the biggest surprises Phil and the other early gate explorers had found when they'd gone through to other planets was their ability to understand the spoken language of most every alien race they'd encountered. Thor had been the first to explain it; that the races of the nine realms had a common language as their base lingua franca, and that something within the gate system made an alteration in any gate traveler's brain to bridge any drifts that occurred over time. This alteration didn't work on written languages, but SHIELD linguists had done a decent job of devising new Rosetta stones to fill in the gaps of communication with some of the more common races in the Milky Way, and now in Pegasus too, as the same rules applied. The fact that this brain or genetic alteration worked idiomatically as well was a bit beyond comprehension, but Phil had always supposed since it was his own brain supplying the idioms, of course it was in a fashion as he expected and understood.
Phil nodded in thanks. "My given name is Phil," he offered in return. "Director of the SHIELD expedition to Atlantis, here in your… realm."
They still weren't positive whether the Asgardian nine realms meant nine localized galaxies, or merely groups of planets interconnected through the stargate systems in some configuration they were not yet privy too. The Asgard had discovered a different way to generate wormholes, one that required only their own 'gate' as the point of origin, yet could transport any Asgardian to a fixed point on any planet that their gatekeeper, Heimdall, could see with no receiving gate required. All Asgardians had the ability to telepathically connect back to Heimdall and be recalled home. They called it the Bifröst, and SHIELD archeologists and historians had had a field day when they'd discovered certain gods and myths on Earth had origin in an alien species. To some extent Erich von Däniken and his ilk had been right all along.
"A leader and a warrior, like Tasha. You held yourself well in the fight." Clint smiled in approval, then turned concerned. "Your shoulder?"
"Hurts like a mother, but I'll live," Phil assured him. "You fired your arrows as fast as I fired my bullets."
Clint shrugged. "I am – was – a Specialist. Of the First Company."
"Of the Satedan Wing Force," Phil repeated to show he had been paying attention. "You had flying ships of your own, then?"
Clint's eyes blanked again for a moment, before pride won out over loss. "We did once," he answered as he resumed walking. "Before the Dead Ones came. Now the Wing is no more, as Sateda is no more. Our ships, however…"
As ships went, it was pretty damn ugly. Small too, fit at best for carrying squads of ten or twelve, but then that would be what was needed to get through a stargate.
"Back in our… realm, we also have tales of the Dead Ones, though we call them by different names," Phil offered, a measure of hope taking hold in response to the gleam in Clint's eye. "They say the Dead Ones do not immediately destroy those they take, and that some come back." He didn't add that they came back broken, or that many races in the Milky Way had technology well beyond what he was seeing here, such as the Asgard, yet even they feared the Replicators.
Clint turned to him, all feral smile and the glint now a fire born of certainty, of something that had the hair on Phil's body rising along with goose bumps.
"You came back," Phil gasped with sudden insight.
Clint nodded. "They do not get to take my people again."
Hope, and something more. It just might be enough.
– finis –