Evan's day started entirely too early for his taste. He was more of a morning person than many of his fellow officers, but even he didn't like getting up at 0330, especially given that the hour was even more stupidly early because of the extra three hours in the Lantean day. While the near-deserted nature of the corridors at that time meant he could discretely spend the night in John's quarters, that didn't change the fact that the night wasn't actually over by any sane person's standards. Also, to add insult to injury, all the mess had was some fruit and oatmeal.
In any case, Evan arrived at the ready room at exactly 0400. There was no pre-mission briefing to go through; that had been taken care of the previous day. It was a fairly simply meet and greet on an agricultural world with no particularly distinction beyond rumors of some kind of shrine to the Ancients that might or might not contain holy relics. Lieutenant Cadman was already there and mostly geared up.
"Good morning, sir," she said cheerfully. She clearly had no problem with being up so early.
"Morning," Evan replied, going through the pre-mission routine on automatic. He slipped into his tac vest, retrieved a first aid kit and added it to the other useful odds and ends he kept in his pockets, then went to the arms locker. He entered his code and opened it up, retrieving an M4 and several clips of ammo to go along with the zat he wore at all times. It was when he got out the C-4 that he hit a bump.
"Huh," he said. "That's weird."
"What's weird?" Cadman asked.
"I asked Sergeant Gutierrez to put some extra C-4 in here for me, but there's only two blocks."
"Oh. That is weird."
There was something in her voice that made Evan turn around and eye her suspiciously. Sure enough, several of her vest pockets were bulging more than they should have. "Lieutenant, did you take my plastic explosives?"
She smiled at him. "Strictly speaking, sir, the C-4 doesn't belong to any one person, but instead is part of the expedition's supply of --"
"Hand it over," he ordered. Reluctantly she gave him two more blocks, which wasn't all of the extra that he had requested from the armory.
"You know, sir," Cadman said as he kept looking at her expectantly, "I am a certified demolitions expert. I should carry a little more than usual myself."
"Certifications or no certifications, I've been using this stuff since you were in elementary school," Evan said. She had a point, though, and so he let her keep the remaining two extra blocks.
"Wow, sir, you're older than I thought."
"No, I just happened to start blowing things up sooner than I was officially allowed to do so."
Before Cadman could ask any questions that Evan had no intention of answering, Parrish and Kanaan arrived. They were, as usual, talking shop, no doubt something about the increasingly large gardens in the city's park or the wild plants on the mainland. Kanaan was wearing a standard expedition field uniform rather than Athosian clothing, since he would be representing the expedition rather than his own people.
"Morning, guys," Evan said to them. "Ready for another fun and exciting trade mission?"
"I am ready," Kanaan said. "Or I shall be once I have my equipment, in any case."
"Same here, Parrish said with a grin.
"You have all the sample containers, right?" Evan asked. On one of their first missions, Parrish had found a particularly interesting berry-bearing bush, only to discover he had left most of his containers at home. The results had been explosive.
"Don't worry, Major. I made sure to double-check it all when I packed last night. Do you ever plan to stop asking me that?"
"Oh, sure," Evan said. "Once I'm sure you're never going to forget and throw another fit. Maybe in a few years."
"I did not throw a fit. Doctor McKay throws fits. I simply was..." Parrish tilted his head and considered his words for a moment. "Vocally frustrated."
"Yeah, well, I just don't want some town trying to lynch us because you were a potty mouth around their kids." Not that it wouldn't be hilarious to watch their reactions as the harmless-looking man let out a stream of profanity that would make even the most hard-bitten marine blush, but Evan disliked shooting civilians.
"Rest assured that I'll do my best to refrain from any further outbursts in public. I wouldn't want to ruin our team's reputation for diplomacy, after all."
A few minutes later, they were all geared up and heading for the control room. Since this was primarily a trade mission, they were all wearing light backpacks to carry small amounts of trade goods there and back. Since this was, according to Teyla's second-hand information, a reasonably safe world, only Evan and Cadman were carrying rifles, although the other two still had a zat just in case. The idea was to go in looking relatively threatening. It was a fair trade off, as neither Kanaan nor Parrish were all that great of rifle shots in any case, although they were both improving at a reasonable rate given how little time they had for practice.
The sun was high in the sky when they emerged from the gate. Like many gates, this one was located in an open field. There was a road with a thick layer of gravel and faint wagon ruts leading away into a light forest. While Cadman dialed Atlantis and sent the MALP home, Evan scanned the horizon with binoculars. His gaze came to rest on a tall structure rising above a hill several miles away. It reminded him of the old fire towers in national parks, and as he watched he saw a faint glint of sunlight reflecting off of something at one of the tower's windows.
"Is that some kind of watch tower?" Evan asked Kanaan, handing over the binoculars and gesturing in the tower's direction.
"It appears to be one, yes," Kanaan said after a moment.
"I'm surprised it's not closer."
"In all likelihood, they use it to simply observe the gate rather than try to guard against people coming through. Should the Wraith come through, it would be more useful to warn the population than to try to stop their darts. They probably have some means of sending out a signal, such as a fire."
"I suppose that makes sense," Evan said, frowningly slightly despite his understanding. To him, it seemed like it would be more fruitful to create some sort of barrier or erect fortifications around the gate. Then again, this system was the result of centuries of cullings, so maybe the natives had good reasons not to try that sort of thing. "It doesn't matter anyways, since we're not trying to sneak around. Come on, let's follow the dull gray, but thankfully not muddy road."
They walked for about twenty minutes, following the road as it meandered through the forest, crossed a bridge over a small creek, and finally emerged into open fields of something green, waist-high, and vaguely wheat-like. There were people in the fields here and there, but they paid the team no mind. Past the fields they could see the town that was their destination. It was a typical quasi-Renaissance town of brick and stone buildings, the tallest of which were about three stories high. The most striking feature that Evan noticed as they entered town was that the cobbled streets were remarkably clean. There was no open sewer running through the streets like he expected, and there were several fountains and troughs with clear water running through them. There wasn't even much of a stench. It was, he supposed, another one of those reminders that unlike an actual Renaissance village, or for that matter the settlements on most planets in the Milky Way, this place had been built by people who had once been far more advanced technologically and still retained some essential knowledge such as germ theory and the attendant importance of good plumbing.
Just inside town, the street widened into a large open square. Around the edges were stalls, but only a few of them were occupied or had anything out on display. There weren't many other people around, either, and most of them started to scurry off when they saw Evan's team.
"This looks like a wonderful place to trade, sir," Cadman remarked. "It's practically a bustling center of commerce."
"I agree. Look, that stall has some lettuce," Parrish said in a flat tone. "Isn't that just fascinating?"
Evan sighed and asked Kanaan, "Do you have anything to say?"
"Should I?" Kanaan replied. "I'm sure I can find something to say if you want me to."
"Please don't." Evan chose one of the largest open stalls and walked over to it. The proprietor was a pudgy man wearing breeches, a dull blue shirt with a vest over it, and an odd, poofy hat. There were several racks of hats of various shapes and sizes behind him. The merchant eyed them suspiciously as they approached.
"Good morning!" Evan said.
"Good morning," the man replied.
"I'm Major Evan Lorne, and these are Lieutenant Cadman, Doctor Parrish, and Kanaan of Athos. We're here to trade."
"Athos? I had heard that world had been culled to extinction."
"We were attacked, yes," Kanaan told the merchant. "However, our people survived."
"Hmph. Well, I am Saphon. Welcome to Tarkhold. As for trade, you've come on the wrong day." The word 'idiots' was left unsaid but clearly implied by his cross expression and folded arms. "The weekly market isn't until the day after tomorrow."
"Really? I didn't know that," Evan said. It figured that they would arrive on the wrong day. He supposed he should be glad that at least the database and MALP had told them what the day-night cycle was, but that thought didn't really help much. "I don't suppose you could tell us what sort of goods are accepted around here for barter, or if there's a currency or something like that?"
"Of course we have a currency," Saphon scoffed. "Do we look like backward hicks who barter every single time we want to buy something?"
"No, but -"
"There's a money-changer on Baker street."
Perhaps sensing Evan's growing desire to draw his zat, Cadman stepped in and said, "We don't have any money right now, which is why we asked about barter. We can offer several different goods, as well as skilled manpower to perform a lot of useful services."
"Services?" Saphon gave a pointed look to either Cadman's chest or the assault rifle that she was holding in front of it. "Yes, I'm sure you have all sorts of services and goods that someone here would be interested in. Too bad it's not market day. Personally, I'm not interested in barter at the moment."
"You've been a big help. Thank you for your time," Evan said with a large, forced smile. He turned and headed for the next open stall over. "Excuse me, miss! I don't suppose you could direct us to the Ancient or Ancestral temple that's around here somewhere?"
"The Temple of Lights?" replied the woman there, who was half-hidden behind lettuce and other vegetable. "Take the west road out of town. You can't miss it."
"Thanks," Evan said.
"It's no problem. Would you like to buy anything?" The merchant leaned forward over her vegetables and said in a loud, carrying voice, "Unlike some people, I have no problem bartering with nice travelers such as yourselves."
"Don't trust her!" Saphon called. "She'll rob you blind if you give her a chance!"
"We'll stop by after we've visited the temple," Evan told her. "Come on, guys. Cadman, keep your finger away from the safety, please. Thank you. Doc, did I not just say that we'll be back to look at those. Christ, I can't take you people anywhere."
"Are you really taking us anywhere?" Kanaan asked. "I was under the impression that the team was sent here as a whole, even if you are our leader."
"It's cultural reference. It doesn't have to be completely accurate."
"I'm not sure it really counts as a cultural reference," Parrish opined. "It's more of a thing people say."
"Yeah, it's a figure of speech," Cadman said.
"You know, I don't think Sheppard or the other team leaders have teams that talk back this much," Evan said.
"Major Sheppard works with McKay," Cadman reminded him.
"Besides, I doubt that you and Sheppard spend much time talking about us," Parrish said.
Evan looked over his shoulder and glared at him. "Excuse me?"
Parrish held up his hands. "I'm just saying that you probably spend your free time together doing other things. Like each other."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"You're not being quite as sneaky as you think, sir," Cadman said. "I mean, sure, you're probably fooling most people at the moment, but if you pay attention it's kind of hard to miss."
"For example," Kanaan said, "There is a bite mark that is just visible here." He indicated a point at his shirt collar.
Evan felt a blush creep onto his face. "I am not having this conversation."
"Come on, sir," Cadman said. "I thought half the fun of these super-secret, personnel-strapped projects was that no one cared about this kind of thing."
"Be that as it may, I am an officer and a gentleman, and a gentleman doesn't kiss and tell," Evan said firmly. "Not when I'm on a mission, at any rate, and preferably not without a drink or two."
"That's a shame," Parrish said. "I was hoping to hear all about your torrid, secret romance."
"Change the subject, guys, or I'm turning this team around and heading home."
They spent the next several minutes trying to explain what that meant to Kanaan, with Evan fully agreeing that he was, in fact, comparing them to unruly children. The conversation only returned to the actual mission when they reached point where the road branched in two directions. One branch led through an arch in a tall hedge wall; on the other side, they were faced with a reflecting pool and a large two- or three-story stone building. It built of marble, with inlaid carvings and accents of brightly colored stone; overall its architecture reminded Evan of ancient Persian or other near-Eastern structures. More eye-catching was the slim tower that rose from the center of the building. It was made of the same bronze-colored metal and bright glass as the towers of Atlantis, although it was closer in size to a small minaret than one of the city's towering spires.
Evan whistled. "Okay, so it looks like the shrine is more than just your average native temple. Hopefully they'll let us take a look."
They approached the temple and walked up the steps onto the broad porch-like area at its front. There was a wide entrance there, with two inward-swinging doors as wide as a man and three times as tall. They stood open and there were a number of people in robes, mostly women, going about their business inside. One spotted the team and came over. She was around Cadman's age and had black hair with a long braid that reached halfway down her back. She also had simple bonnet with flowers woven into it. In fact, everyone inside seemed to be wearing some sort of cover.
"Greetings, travelers! I am Acolyte Katriya, and I welcome you to the Temple of Light. I hope your journey here was pleasant."
"It went well enough," Evan said. He quickly introduced his team once again. "We've heard rumors that there was a shrine to the Ancients here and we were hoping to see it. If that's not possible, we completely understand, and we wouldn't want to give offense."
"Of course it is possible," Katriya said. "Many people make a pilgrimage here to see the Illuminator and the rest of the shrine. Most come during the high holy days around the solstices and equinoxes, but we welcome pilgrims at all times. If anything, you're in luck as there are no crowds today." She gestured to a wooden rack just inside the door, which was festooned with slightly grimy-looking hats made of woven straw. "Please, cover your heads and then follow me."
Evan gave the hats a dubious look and then reached behind him to pull a cap from the side pocket of his backpack. Cadman already had her usual beret on; Parrish and Kanaan were less well-prepared and had to don the straw hats. Evan hoped for their sakes that there were no lice in them.
"How long has this temple existed?" Kanaan asked as the team was lead into the temple and down a long hallway.
"Almost six hundred years, although most of it was rebuilt and greatly expanded after the last great culling," Katriya replied. "The main shrine and the relics inside predate that, of course, as they are of Ancestral origin. We believe it has been found and lost several times throughout history, as the people of this world came and went."
"That's amazing," Cadman said. "What sort of relics are there?"
"You don't know about the Illuminator?"
"No, we simply heard that there was a genuine Ancient shrine here," Cadman explained, stretching the truth a little. "We're traders and explorers, and when we heard about it we decided we couldn't miss the chance to see if it was true."
"Ah, I see." Katriya nodded. "Well, there are a number of minor relics on display around the temple, and I shall give you a proper tour later. The main one is the building itself and the Illuminator housed within. Truly, the sunlight shining through the shrine's walls is beautiful beyond description, and the Illuminator itself glows with an inner light at all hours of the day. It is said that the light can cleanse the spirit and the body of ills."
"Your people are blessed to have such a thing," Kanaan said. Evan glanced at him and saw that somehow he had a straight face. Unlike many of the Athosians, Kanaan didn't seem to be especially spiritual, and he had adapted well to living in Atlantis. Whether or not he still thought random Ancient trinkets was a blessing wasn't something Evan knew.
"Yes, we are." They came around a corner and entered an antechamber of sorts, with long stone tables lining two of the walls and an archway at the far end. They were piled with items ranging from coins to flowers to what looked suspiciously like the skull of a cow. Katriya gestured to the tables. "Please, leave an offering to the Ancestors, and say a prayer if you wish."
"Does it need to be anything in particular?" Evan asked.
"No, simply something of personal value."
Kanaan stepped forward first, pulling a small wood trinket from one of his vest pockets. "May the Ancestors watch over all of us on our journeys."
Evan, meanwhile, pulled out a block of C-4, looked at it for a moment, then put it back. After searching through his pockets for a minute he retrieved several paper clips that he brought along for lock-picking and other purposes. He placed them on the table and said, "Um. All hail the Ancestors."
"Yeah, praise them with great praise," Cadman said, placing down a wrapped piece of spearmint gum.
Parrish pulled out a small sample baggy with some kind of flower inside. "May the Force be with us." Evan gave him a sharp look and mentally decided that he need to have a small discussion with the botanist regarding how not to piss off local religious figures.
Katriya didn't seem to mind what any of them had given or said, though, and lead them through to the next chamber. Just past the archway the stone of the temple an Ancient metal wall. There was typical Ancient door standing open. Over it was an inscription, which was worn and faded with age. Evan could only just pick out a few words: "memorial" and "materials recycling".
Inside there was a hexagonal room that was about thirty feet across. The entire spire seemed to be hollow and tapered to a point far above them. The walls were lined with colored glass and the sunlight did shine beautiful patterns all over the chamber. Near the far wall was a typical control console and accompanying screen. Evan didn't pay attention to any of that, though, because he was focused on the large device at the center of the room.
"Behold, the Illuminator," Katriya said.
The Illuminator was a strange-looking thing. It was on a hexagonal pedestal about a foot high. At the base was a glossy metal hemisphere about ten feet in diameter. Rising above it was a column leading to smaller sphere the size of a large beach ball, which was opalescent and softly glowing. The column itself seemed to be made of a transparent material and inside it were rings that would momentarily light up blue in a regular, pulsing pattern that rose upwards. It actually reminded Evan of a cross between a warp core and a Van der Graff generator.
"Huh," Parrish said. "It's a warp core."
"Yeah, it kind of does look like one," Cadman agreed.
"You guys are nerds," Evan told them. He took a step forward. That was a mistake, of course. The Illuminator's pulses started to move faster and the lights became brighter, and a low hum started to fill the air.
"Oh, shit," Evan said. He tried thinking 'off', but nothing happened. "Has this ever happened before?"
"No, never," Katriya replied, her eyes wide as she stared at the machine. She fell to her knees and started to pray.
"Um." Evan saw that the console had lit up as well and he walked over to it. The screen was full of gibberish, as well as a large pie chart that was rapidly filling up. He tried poking at the controls and nothing happened. "This is bad. I have no idea what this thing is doing, but I bet it's not good."
"I thought you could read Ancient?" Cadman said.
"I'm fluent in Ancient, but this is a bunch of random characters. The only thing that I understand is this ominous progress indicator." Said indicator was almost halfway full, and behind them the machine's top sphere was now shining like a bright light bulb. He doubted they could make it out of the building before it finished doing whatever.
"I think it reacted to your ATA gene," Parrish said. "Have you tried thinking it off?"
"Yeah, tried that."
"I have heard the marines say that when they have trouble with their computers, they hold the power button to restart it," Kanaan said. "Would that work?"
"Maybe there's a plug we could pull," Cadman suggested.
"I hate you guys so much," Evan said as the indicator hit one hundred percent. There was a bright, almost blinding flash, then the humming noise stopped and the pulsing returned to its normal rate. For a moment Evan held his breath, waiting for something dire to happen, but eventually it became apparent that he was not about to die that instant and he let it out. Then he suddenly came to a realization: namely, that something had happened to his clothes.
Evan was still wearing several things: his tac vest and backpack, belt and thigh holster, boots, cap, and bits of elastic where the waistband of his boxers should have been. He was not wearing the rest of his boxers, his t-shirt, jacket, or pants, or his socks. Down around his feet were several miscellaneous buttons, zippers, and other bits of metal and plastic. His weapons were still where there were supposed to be.
A glance around the room showed that everyone else was in a similar state. They all seemed to notice this at the same time and immediately Kanaan and Parrish tried to cover themselves up with their hands, to marginal effect. Cadman was blushing but had her hands on her weapon; she had probably lost any modesty she had shortly after becoming a marine. Evan, of course, had never had any sense of shame to begin with and simply glared at the stupid thing.
"I ask you," he said to no one in particular, "why would those Ancient shit-for-brains scum-sucking monkey-fucking sons of syphilitic xeno whores create a naked ray?"
On cue, the machine dinged and the screen flashed, "GRATIAE VOBIS, VENITE ITERUM AMABO VOS". A tray emerged from the lower hemisphere. It held several piles of cloth, sorted by material and color. It was plainly all that was left of their clothes.
"Recycling. That's real fucking clever," Evan said. He slipped his backpack off his shoulders and walked over to the tray. "Well, get over here and start packing this up. We may as well salvage what we can."
"Uh, sir, I think you're forgetting something," Cadman said. Acolyte Katriya chose that moment to notice all the nakedness and started to scream loudly.
"This is going to be hard to explain, isn't it?" Parrish said.
"Acolyte? Acolyte Katriya?" Cadman said, kneeling down next to the acolyte. "You're fine. None of us have been hurt. In fact... in fact, this is a miracle! We've been purged of our worldly entrapments. All praise the Ancients!"
Katriya stopped screaming, but only for long enough to take a deep breath. A few seconds later, a pair of male guards appeared at the door. They had wicked-looking spears, which they promptly leveled in the team's direction. Evan, sensing that the situation was unlikely to improve, drew his zat and shot them both.
"This is the part of the mission where we make a tactical retreat," he said. "For you civilians, that means run like hell and zat anyone who looks at us funny."
That was exactly what they did, sprinting back down the hall they had arrived by and indiscriminately zatting everyone in the way. They kept running even after they left the building and only slowed down once they were most of the way back to town. Even then they kept up a steady jog, breezing past crowds of boggling onlookers. No one seemed to be following them, but just in case, they didn't stop running until they reached the gate. Needless to say, their arrival drew considerable attention when they stepped through the wormhole.
"Just so you know, Major," Parrish said as he panted heavily, "I now understand why you insisted I start running every day and you won't hearing any more complaints."
Evan put his hands on his hips and glared at the control room staff, who were clustered around the balcony, and the various guards. "Don't you people have work to do? Because if you don't, I will be more than happy to find you some."
With that he turned and stalked off toward the ready room. Luckily there were spare sweatpants and t-shirts there, just in case a team came back mud-caked or similarly wardrobe impaired; Evan still needed to make a mental note to stash spare underwear there. By the time they changed, locked up their weapons and explosives, and made it to the infirmary, John had somehow managed to get wind of the situation and was leaning against the wall by the infirmary door.
"Well, well, well," John said, pushing himself away from the wall. "Look at what we have here. Major Lorne, I seem to remember getting a lecture about this sort of thing a few weeks about. It was something along the lines of how we can't easily replace clothing and how we need to be responsible and be careful not to destroy what we have."
Evan violated John's personal space and stuck a finger in his face. "One more word, Sheppard, and I will gag you."
"Now hold on a second," Parrish said. "I thought you weren't going to talk about your sex life with us around."
John's ears turned red. "Wait, what?"
"Never mind them," Evan told him. "Just be assured that if you say anything about irony, you will know pain, and you will know fear, and then you will die."
John frowned. "Did you just quote Babylon 5?"
"No," Evan said, and walked into the infirmary for his post-naked-ray medical exam.
"Why am I even here?" McKay asked.
Not for the first time, John asked himself that question. Why was McKay there? This wasn't a first contact mission or exploration of an unknown planet. The Athosians had been trading with the Genii for generations. Was it really worth the trouble to bring him along? Sure, John knew that there was a good man somewhere beneath that prickly exterior, but it didn't change the fact that dealing with McKay was typically like handling a rabid porcupine.
"Lieutenant, why are you here?" John asked in lieu of answering McKay.
"I assume it's because I'm part of the team, sir," Ford answered.
"Exactly. And McKay is here because he's part of the team too," John said. "We don't really need you guys just to visit some of Teyla's friends, but teams stick together."
"Oh, please," McKay scoffed. "Ford is here because you might need someone to carry something heavy or shoot some Wraith."
"And you're here because we might run into some kind of cool technology that you'll need to look over," John said. "Admit it: if Lorne's team had found anything but a naked ray, you'd be pissed that Parrish was the scientist on the scene and not you."
Instead of answering the question, McKay said, "But we know we're not going to find anything here!"
"It is unlikely that the Genii have any technology that you would find remarkable," Teyla said. "They are a simple people and not interested in such things."
"Yeah, but we're talking about leftover Ancient technology here," John pointed out. "They loved hiding their technology as stone blocks or things like that. The Genii could be sitting on top of a shipyard or be using a ZPM as a disco ball."
"They don't really glitter, sir," Ford said.
"Nor do the Genii have your 'disco' style of dancing," Teyla said. "In fact, I suspect they would find it quite abhorrent, and I am not sure I could blame them for that."
"It didn't mean it literally," John said. Before he could make a witty retort, a chirping noise drew his attention back to McKay. He now had his Ancient tricorder out and was waving it back and forth while staring intently at the screen. "McKay, put that away."
"Why? Didn't you just say that I was here to look out for Ancient technology?"
"Yeah, but I don't like you waving that thing around so much," John told him. "Sooner or later you're going to attract the wrong kind of attention and you'll end up mugged and bleeding out in a gutter. If you're going to use it, try to be more subtle."
McKay rolled his eyes dramatically and stuck the tricorder back into his vest. "Have you made it your goal to be as contradictory and annoying as possible today?"
"Only with you, Rodney. I plan to be a perfect gentleman with our hosts. Speaking of whom, it looks like there's a couple of people headed our way."
Coming down the grassy path were two Genii, one a man of about fifty or so and a woman closer to Teyla's age. Both were wearing simple clothes that reminded John of the Amish or Mennonites. They looked fairly harmless. Then again, John had once had an RPG shot at him by a harmless-looking goat herder, so he was quite aware that appearances could be deceiving.
"Teyla!" the woman said, opening her arms wide. They briefly embraced and then touched foreheads. "It is so good to see you. We heard that Athos had been culled, and when we sent some of our people to see, they found only scorched earth around the gate."
"The Wraith did come, but most of use escaped the culling," Teyla said. "We hope that some of us can return to Athos with the coming spring, if the forest recovers from the firestorm, but for now we have found shelter with our new friends and allies, the Tau'ri." She half-turned so that she could look between the Genii and the team. "Allow me to introduce me traveling companions: Major John Sheppard, Lieutenant Aiden Ford, and Doctor Rodney McKay, of the Tau'ri. Major, Tyrus Istya and his daughter Sora, of the Genii."
"Pleasure to meet you folks," John said with a smile and a polite nod of his head.
"Likewise, Major," Tyrus said. In John's opinion he seemed to be scowling a bit much for someone who was actually pleased. "What brings you to our world? Are you simply accompanying a... friend, or is there some other reason?"
"We're looking for new trade partners, and Teyla offered to introduce us to some of her friends."
"Odd that you would come so well-armed when visiting friends."
"Yeah, well, you know," John waived his hand up in the air, "Wraith."
Tyrus made a little harrumphing noise, but Sora nodded and smile. "Of course. After what happened on Athos, you can't be blamed for being overly cautious. Come with us. I am sure Cowen will be glad to see you, Teyla, and hear what your new friends propose."
The Genii and Teyla led the way, talking and catching up with each other. John made no attempt to intrude, not just because he didn't want to interrupt a personal conversation but also to set their minds at ease. He'd probably feel a bit uncomfortable if strange men with guns showed up at his home and claimed to be friends. Certainly that goat herder with the RPG had been a bit peeved about it.
After a few minutes they came to a quaint little Amish village, centered on the dirt crossroads.. Most of the buildings were whitewashed, one-story affairs – homes, most likely – with a single large hall at the center. There was also a cluster of barns and silos, and while there were rows of trees obstructing John's view in most directions, he could see fields and more buildings further down the roads. The place had a sort of wholesome, rustic feel to it, like someone had taken a stereotypical midwestern American settler town, removed all the unpleasant the bits about stealing land from the natives, and plopped it down on another planet. John was immediately suspicious; in his admittedly skewed experience wholesome and rustic tended to go along with oppressive and xenophobic.
As they reached the hall, a man stepped out. He was of average height and stocky, with curly brown hair. He smiled faintly at them.
"Teyla, it is good to see you again."
"And you, Cowen." Teyla quickly ran through introductions once more, saying that Anastasius Cowen was the chief of the Genii. "I was hoping that you would have time to discuss this year's trade agreement."
"Of course. I always have time for the mediator of Athos. In truth, I hardly dared to hope that you would arrive as usual after we heard rumors that you had been culled. Come in."
"Ford, McKay, why don't you guys stay out here?" John said. He didn't want McKay near delicate negotiations and the buddy system demanded Ford stay with him.
"Yes, sir," Ford said, before flashing a bright smile at Sora.
John followed Teyla and the two Genii into the hall and to a rectangular table in one corner. They sat down on opposite sides, John and Teyla loosening their rifle slings in the process so that they would hang discreetly out of sight.
"I think it would be best if we began with reaffirming the agreement between the Genii and Athos," Teyla said. "If I am correct, we should have arrived in time to collect the harvest of winter tava."
"The harvest is nearing completion, yes," Cowen confirmed.
"Good. In that case, I believe that last year's terms should still suffice, unless you wish to make changes."
Teyla had explained prior to the mission that the Athosians and the Genii had a long-standing agreement to trade Athosian wine and other liquors for grain on a roughly biannual basis. The Genii had two main staple crops, one that was similar to winter wheat in that it was planted late in the year and harvested in the spring. While the seasons of the two planets did not line up precisely and shifted slowly in relation to each other, they had been close enough for generations that the Athosians could largely rely on regular Genii harvests to supplement their food supply during the lean months.
"I would think that changes are necessary," Tyrus said. "Given the damage that has been done to Athos, can you hold up your end of the bargain?"
A slight thinning of her lips and a lifted eyebrow was all that indicated Teyla was displeased with that statement. "If I did not believe so, I would not have suggested that we continue with the same arrangement."
"I mean no offense. I am simply saying that if you are unable to supply the same amount of wine, then perhaps we should adjust the amount of tava that we will provide."
"While our production will likely be limited in the future, I assure you, we saved more than enough for both the spring and fall deliveries. The Genii do, of course, have first call on our exports." Teyla's voice grew marginally frostier. "I would also remind you that we have had an agreement to continue supplying each other in the event of a culling since the days of our great-grandmothers. While I see no need to invoke that agreement at this time, I find it troubling that you seem to have forgotten it."
Cowen quickly shook his head. "Of course we would honor the agreement, there is no question of that. I believe that Tyrus simply wanted to ensure that you did not feel pressured to keep to the old arrangement if you can not afford to do so, nor to put yourself in our debt."
"I thank you for your consideration, Tyrus," Teyla said. "Unnecessary though it was."
Tyrus tipped his head but kept his mouth shut, quite wisely in John's humble opinion.
"Now, we is it that we can do for your people, Major?" Cowen asked.
"We're basically after the same thing as the Athosians," John replied. "Tava beans and grains, on the same schedule as everyone else. We're willing to offer salt in return, and in fairly large quantities."
In Pegasus, salt was almost as valuable as gold, much as it had been on Earth for most of history. It wasn't quite as rare, as the gate made access to sources such as seas and oceans, but the sheer number of planets out there meant there was plenty of demand as well. Atlantis, however, could easily refine sea salt in a number of ways.
"Salt for grain." Cowen nodded. "An exchange on that basis is workable. How much would you need?"
"We're hoping to make the Genii one of our main suppliers, given your reputation for reliability," John said. "Call it enough to keep two hundred people well-fed throughout the year."
"Mmm. We could supply that, yes, although with difficulty. I propose a price of one ounce of salt for ten bushels of tava, and fifteen bushels of a grain of your choice."
"Cowen!" Teyla exclaimed. "That price is all but extortionate. We could get ten times as much in the markets of a dozen worlds."
"Then you are welcome to try on those worlds, although I think you may be somewhat optimistic. However, I am willing to lower the price to thirty and fifty, respectively."
"Why are you insisting on such unreasonable terms?" Teyla asked. "I realize that the Tau'ri are strangers to you, but surely that alone wouldn't motivate you to act so."
Cowen held up his hand in a calming gesture. "It is not that I do not wish to make a more typical offer, but I simply have no other choice. The vast majority of our harvest is already claimed, especially the tava. Finding even a relatively small amount like you request would be difficult. Even a minor crop failure or spoilage in a silo could result in a shortfall. If that were to happen, we would have a choice between failing to meet our obligations or going hungry ourselves." He shrugged and spread his hands. "You must understand, we sell our reputation for reliability as much as the grains and beans themselves, as does Athos. If we take on this risk, we must make sufficient profit to cover any potential shortfall."
Teyla nodded slowly. "Phrased that way, it does make sense. I'm not sure the Tau'ri can afford the price, however." She glanced at John, who shook his head. They were still experimenting with the best ways to extract salt from the ocean or desalination tanks and while they might later have plenty, at the moment they would blow almost the entire trade budget.
"What if we supplemented the salt with medical services?" he asked. "We have very skilled doctors."
"Can they cure hunger?" Cowen asked.
"Okay, point." John thought, then asked, "Why can't you just plant more?"
"We do have sufficient seed stock so that it might be possible, but where would we plant it?" Cowen said. "As you might imagine, all the fields that can be planted this year will be in use."
"Can you clear more land?"
Tyrus snorted. "Clear more land? You make it sound simple. Tell me, Major, have you ever worked on a farm yourself."
"My family raised horses," John replied. His family's stable staff had, at any rate, which was almost the same thing. "They're big riding and draft animals."
"I see. Well, while that might give you some understanding of the subject, you've clearly never worked the land yourself. Clearing more land is a long, arduous task. It is not easy to remove tree stumps, especially not ones as wide as a man is tall, and rocks are even worse. If you wished to pay us for the time and effort, you may as well accept the original price."
John started to smile as he saw a possible opening. "How soon will you be planting the next crop?"
"We'll begin at the end of the month," Cowen said.
"We can work with that, I think. If we cleared all the major obstacles for you, would you be willing to plant the extra crops? We'll even pay a premium for the extra tilling and whatever else you'll need to do. Say, fifty bushels an ounce for the tava, since you can't plant more right now, and a hundred bushels for the grain in the fall."
Cowen and Tyrus looked at each other for a moment, then Cowen nodded. "I think you may underestimate the task before you, but that sounds like a reasonable offer. Teyla, while these are your friends, I think that it would still be appropriate for you to act as witness."
"Of course." Teyla looked between them. "The agreement is an exchange of tava beans for salt, at a rate of one ounce of salt for fifty bushels of tava, and a second exchange of grains this fall, at a rate of one ounce of salt for one hundred bushels of the grain. Do both parties accept these terms?"
"The Genii do," Cowen said.
"So do the Tau'ri," John said.
"Then may the Ancestors look upon this agreement and bless all those who are true to it with prosperity," Teyla said, "and may they curse any oath-breaker and leave him broken in spirit and cast out from his home."
Cowen stood and the rest of them followed. "Major, it will take a few days for your tava to be ready. However, I believe we can give the Athosians theirs as early as this afternoon. Also, we had planned to hold a spring festival this evening, and in light of our new friendship I would like to invite you and your leaders to come. And of course you as well, Teyla."
"I would be delighted," Teyla said.
"I can't make promises for our leader, Doctor Weir, since she may already have other commitments," John said, "but I'm sure she'll try her best to come."
"I hope she does. If you'll excuse me, I shall start making the arrangements."
"It was nice meeting you," John said.
Cowen and Tyrus walked off toward a room near the back of the hall, while John and Teyla exited through the front door. They found McKay sitting at the edge of the building's porch and poking at his scanner; Ford and Sora stood nearby, chatting about something and wearing wide smiles. John noted approvingly that Ford was standing with his back to the wall where he could observe both McKay and the road, although he wasn't sure he liked Ford's smile. John was pretty sure he had worn the same one himself while chatting up good-looking people in foreign nations, which had 'possible diplomatic incident' written all over it.
"I think that went pretty well," John said to Teyla.
"It did, although Tyrus was in a foul mood for some reason," she replied.
Sora looked over and laughed. "My father is that way often these days. Please don't take offense, it was not personal."
"I am sure you have nothing to do with his ill temper," Teyla said with a smile.
"Of course not."
"Major!" McKay scrambled to his feet. "Major, there's something vitally important I need to tell you."
"I'm sure it can wait," John said smoothly. Sora seemed suddenly far more interested in McKay then Ford, and the lieutenant himself was standing a little straighter.
"No, it really can't."
"McKay, look, we're busy. I don't have time to listen to your latest theory about the best way to build a watermill." John shook his head and said to Sora, "He's a brilliant engineer, but let him get started and he'll babble for hours about every kind of nonsense you can think of. Last week he spent thirty minutes trying to explain why the sky is blue."
"I did not!"
"By the way," John continued, ignoring McKay, "we're going to be clearing some land for you folks. I don't suppose you can point us in the direction of a typical stump or something?"
"Clearing land?" Sora said. She pointed across a nearby grassy field, where several goat-like animals roamed and chowed down on the greenery. "There's an old stump on the other side of the village green, and that area is probably where we would want a new field."
"Thanks. Teyla, I'm going to take McKay to look at what work we might need to do, but I don't think we need you or Ford, so you can just keep talking with Sora while we check it out."
Teyla looked at him curiously but nodded. "Very well. We will wait here."
"Cool." John took McKay by the arm and propelled him in the right direction.
"What was that about?" McKay hissed. "I do not babble!"
"It's called making excuses and trying not to draw attention," John replied. "If there's something wrong, you don't want to let the entire world you know. And hey, I thought I told you to keep that thing out of sight?"
"I was bored."
John sighed. "Of course you were. What's wrong?"
"There's weird radiation sources around this stupid village."
John was so startled he almost tripped and fell flat on his face. "Radiation? Are we in any danger?"
"Well, not immediately, but I wouldn't want to hang around too much. The really weird thing is that I don't think it's natural."
"Christ." For a few minutes, John had been thinking this would be a nice, smooth mission where nothing weird happened. So much for that hope. "Okay, we're just going to act like there's nothing wrong and we'll figure it out later. Put away the scanner, but leave it on and recording so you can look at the data later. "
"Shouldn't we ask the Genii if they know what's going on?" Almost immediately, McKay answered himself, "No, wait, if they're secretly in league with the Wraith or something, we don't want to alert them or they'll kill us."
"Exactly." They came to a huge stump that, true to Tyrus' statement, really was as wide as John was tall. It suddenly seemed a lot less important. "We could rig some kind of tow system to the jumpers, right?"
McKay stared at him. "I... yes, but isn't that a bit beside the point at the moment?"
"If there's nothing wrong, we'll need to do it anyway, and we need to stay out here long enough to be convincing." John thought for a few more moments. "How hard would it be to make some gunpowder or dynamite?"
"Please, any idiot can make gunpowder," McKay scoffed. "Dynamite shouldn't be too hard, either, if we can get the right materials."
"Then we might be able to blast these out, too," John said. C-4 would have made short work of it, but they had a limited supply and wasting it on stumps would be a bit silly. "By the way, how much salt are we making?"
"Now you're just going off-topic to be annoying. I don't even have anything to do with that. It's one of Radek's people who are handling it, and I don't pay close attention to what my minion's minions are doing."
"I am so glad that I don't work for you, McKay. Come on." John led him back to hall, and while McKay was fidgeting and glancing around like a trapped animal, he didn't seem to be much worse than usual. Whether that would fool a hypothetical observer was up for question. When they arrived, John said, "It looks doable. We should probably head back home to get all the Athosian trade goods ready to go and see if Elizabeth can attend the festival."
Teyla nodded. "I will see you again soon, Sora."
"I look forward to it," Sora said, before touching foreheads again.
As they neared the gate, Teyla asked, "Is there something wrong, Major Sheppard?"
"Maybe. Maybe not," he replied. "Ford, dial the Alpha Site. We're taking the long way back."
The Alpha Site was deserted when they arrived, although John knew they were being silently observed by cameras and brain-jacked sentry birds. There wasn't much there besides a few rough log buildings that the marines had thrown up, one of which concealed the entrance to a small underground chamber carved out with tunneling crystals. It was meant to be safe location for teams to stop at if they couldn't go straight home, as well as a place to conduct trade without allowing visitors into the city. For a time the Athosians had considered staying there instead of on the mainland, but ultimately the protection of the city's gate shield had outweighed the inconvenience of flying back and forth.
It didn't take long after the team returned to Atlantis for McKay to go over the sensor readings he had taken and then call for an immediate meeting with Weir and Cam.
"We have a problem," he announced once everyone was settled. "Or at least I think it's a problem, and given how often I'm right, there's really no practical difference."
"What kind of problem?" Weir asked.
Rodney used a remote to turn on the large display he had positioned at the front of the room. "This is a scan I did of the Genii village. Most of it looks pretty normal, right? These boxy shapes are different buildings, these are trees and fields, these are human life-signs, all the sort of stuff you'd expect in a quaint Amish settlement. Except! Except if you look at some of the more detailed sensor modes, you see this." Several pale yellow blobs popped up, a couple near barns and several more at out-of-the-way spots in fields or grottoes. "In these areas, there are elevated levels of alpha and beta particle emission."
"Wait, you mean there's radioactive areas?" Cam repeated. "What's the source?"
"Aha, you see, I was confused about that too, because there should have been some point sources with much higher readings from whatever was actually emitting the radiation. Then I realized that in those spots, the air itself was radioactive." Rodney waved at the screen. "On our way back to the gate, we passed closer to this spot here, and while the sensor wasn't really meant for taking readings at that range, I can definitely tell you that there are elevated levels of radioactive isotopes there, especially uranium and, here's the really disturbing part, possibly plutonium."
"Holy crap," John said. "They're sitting on top of a nuclear plant or something?"
"I do not understand," Teyla said. "What does this mean?"
"This kind of radiation is typically seen with certain kinds of power generators," Weir explained.
"And weapons," Cam added, his brows deeply furrowed as he studied the image.
Teyla shook her head. "That does not make sense. The Genii retain no such technology. In many ways, they have even less that Athos does. Is it possible this could be the forgotten remnant of an earlier civilization, buried underground?"
"Nope," Rodney said. "I mean, sure, I could see something like that happening, but the active out-gassing and isotope ratios make it really unlikely."
"I cannot believe that the Genii could have such a thing," Teyla insisted. "We have known the Genii for generations. I have been there almost every year since I was child. We would have seen it."
"Maybe the Genii don't know it's there," John suggested. "We've certainly seen enough alien facilities that are concealed and abandoned, but still operations thanks to automation. Or there could be a bunch of Moorlocks living down there, but they never come to the surface."
"I don't know," Cam said. "I mean, come on, no one's ever noticed holes in the ground that have air coming out of them? Some of which are right inside buildings?" He shook his head. "We need to check this out. If we're going to be trading with them, let alone sending regular work teams, we have to know what's going on."
"We could send through cloaked jumpers," John said. "They've got better sensors, and if something goes wrong they'd give us a lot of extra firepower."
Teyla frowned deeply. Slowly she said, "I would prefer to confront them directly and ask what they know, but I understand the need for stealth and discretion. If it is nothing, we would only anger the Genii, and if Doctor McKay is correct... perhaps they have good reason for concealing their activity."
"Cam, Rodney, have teams assembled to fly the jumpers," Weir said. "John, Teyla, make preparations to meet this afternoon's transaction, with a mind toward extra precautions. Once the trade has been completed and we have more evidence to work with, we'll make a decision about what our next step will be."
An hour later, John was once more on the Genii world, this time with considerably more companions. There were fifteen marines and the same number of Athosians there to act as pack mules, lifting heavy sacks of beans and pulling makeshift carts back and forth between they village and gate. Overhead were two cloaked jumpers that had sneaked through the gate between groups of haulers. Evan's team and Rodney were in one, along with more marines, while Captain Sahine's team was in the other. The next four hours passed uncomfortably, because the personnel on the ground only had sidearms and grenades, as that many marines carrying assault rifles would almost certainly piss the Genii off regardless of whether there were nefarious activities going on. John was sweating for more reasons that just the physical labor, and the itch at the back of his neck wasn't caused by the burlap sacks he was carrying.
He finally breathed a sigh of relief as the last of the trade party passed through the gate to the Alpha Site. He turned Teyla and said, "Come on, let's tell the Genii that we're going to go make ourselves more presentable and that we'll be back in time for the festival."
Teyla hesitated, then said, "One moment." She clicked her radio. "Doctor McKay, have you found anything yet."
"Found anything?" Rodney replied. "Found everything is more like it. The isotope analysis definitely confirms that there is an active nuclear facility underground. In fact, I would say that there's both a power generator and an enrichment plant down there. We wouldn't have noticed it without a detailed scan, but it's definitely there."
"And is there any evidence that the Genii are aware of this?"
"They have to be," Evan replied. "We've seen some life-signs appearing and disappearing from several places. Everything below the surface seems to be shielded against scans. We've also noticed a small number of radio transmissions, although they've all been so brief we haven't had a chance to listen in." He paused for a moment, then added, "Oh, and Parrish says that the Genii are cultivating way more fields than they should be able to. Most of them are pretty far from the gate and are only readily apparent from altitude."
"Thank you." Teyla turned her radio off and then slowly turned on the spot, stopping when she spotted Sora near one of the houses. Teyla started walking that way purposefully and John hurried to keep up.
"Uh, Teyla?" he said. The stony expression she wore didn't fit with politely saying goodbye.
"Sora!" Teyla called. "Sora, I would speak with you!"
"Teyla?" Sora replied with a frown. "Is there something wrong?"
"There is." Teyla looked around, then said, "Come, we need more privacy." She led them around to the relative seclusion of the house's rear side, where no one passing by could easily see them.
As they walked, John lagged behind and whispered into his radio, "Lorne, we need close overwatch, fast. I think the shit's about the hit the fan."
"Copy that. We'll be in position in thirty seconds."
"I have long counted you as one of my closest friends," Teyla was saying to Sora, "and for that reason I will not prevaricate. Do you know of the facility that lies beneath your home?"
Sora's mouth formed a small 'O' and she paled. "How do you know?"
"You do not deny it then?" Teyla put her hands on Sora's shoulders. "The Genii may have their reasons for hiding this, but I must know the truth of the matter, Sora. Are your people being coerced? I will help you in any way I can if that is so, and even if it is not, I will hear you out. You must trust me, though. I promise that no one will know of this conversation if you do not wish it."
"I... I can't tell you anything," Sora stammered. She took a deep breath. "I must get Cowen. Only he can explain fully. Please, wait here." She rushed off.
"This is a bad idea," John said to Teyla. "An incredibly bad idea. What are you thinking?"
"I know that I have strayed from our plan, and if you later wish to punish me for it, so be it," Teyla said. "But you cannot know what it is like to have such an old confidence betrayed so completely. Doctor Weir will wish to wait and investigate further, but I must seek the truth rather than let this deception fester. I am sorry that I have put you in danger with my actions."
"We'll talk about it later."
"Sheppard, you're about to have company," Evan said. "Five men approaching from the west, two more from east. We have weapons locked and a sniper in position."
John turned toward the larger group, drawing his zat as he did so. The Genii came running around the corner of the building, first two men in uniform carrying bulky rifles, then Cowen and Tyrus, still in Amish wear but now carrying pistols. Sora trailed after them. Moments later John heard more men moving behind him. He spared them a glance over his shoulder and saw that they were holding position at that corner. John aimed his zat at Cowen.
"Well," Cowen said after moment, stopping about five yards away. "It appears your new friends have gotten you into trouble, Teyla."
Teyla lifted her chin slightly. "It is not I who is in trouble. First you hide your nature from your closest allies, and now you approach us armed? Explain yourself, or I assure you, your perfidy will be known on every world of this galaxy."
"And that, Teyla, is why it would be very unwise to let you leave Genua," Cowen replied. "I am sure you will offer your word that you will tell no one, and under other circumstances I might even be inclined to believe it. But him," Cowen gestured to John, "I do not trust. I'm sorry. Now please, come with us. The story of how you've discovered our secret must be fascinating."
"How about not?" John said. "You can't just make us disappear. Our people will come looking for us, and they'll be pretty peeved."
"They will be welcomed with a very sad story," Cowen said. "You were both taken by a Wraith raid. We're preparing demolition charges on several buildings to make it believable. Our peoples will mourn together and grow closer through our shared losses."
"Yeah, still not seeing any reason to cooperate."
Tyrus leveled his pistol at John. "If you do not, then we'll simply have to eliminate you here and now."
"Please," Sora said. "Lay down your weapons and come peacefully. I guarantee that no harm will come to you."
There was a long silence, then Cowen stepped back and nodded to the guards behind John. They started to move and John immediately said, "Ajax."
In the next few seconds, several things happened in quick succession. John shot Cowen with his zat; a sniper's bullet splattered Tyrus' brains across the wall; a shrilled whine filled the air, and a drone sliced straight through each set of guards, causing them to disappear in a spray of glowing particles. Before Sora could do more than open her mouth to scream John zatted her as well.
Teyla stepped forward and squatted next to Sora, carefully turning her so that she wasn't lying on her face and checking her pulse.
"She'll be fine," John said.
"Her father is dead," Teyla replied, standing again as Lorne's jumper landed beside them, ramp open. "She will not be fine."
They boarded the jumper, which re-cloaked immediately and sped off toward the gate. They stopped at the Alpha Site first, warning those there that it was possible there would be Genii retaliation coming, and then passed on to Atlantis. Weir met them as they left the jumper bay.
"What happened?" she asked.
"Sora noticed that Teyla seemed upset," John said. "She pulled us aside and started asking questions, then left for a few minutes and returned with armed guards. We had to shoot our way out." Teyla looked at him for a long moment, but remained silent.
Weir grimaced. "That's unfortunate, but I suppose it's better that we found out something was wrong now rather than later. We'll debrief once all the supplies have been moved from the Alpha Site."
"Yes, ma'am," John said. As true as that was, he suspected that they were still in for a lot of trouble with the Genii in the future.
"You did not have to lie for me," Teyla said as soon as they were alone.
"Yeah, well, I can't blame you for what you did. Just promise it won't happen again."
"You have my word."
That was good enough for John.
There were times when Laysa wondered how anyone could ever come to regard stargate travel as normal, despite the nonchalant attitudes of so many of the veteran explorers. It seemed like no matter how often one went through such a wonder the experience would be something to marvel at. Perhaps her attitude was different because she had come to the expedition from outside the stargate program but inside that cordon sanitare between the civilian population and those who knew the true nature of the universe. For her, gateways and holes in space-time had always been dangerous, barely-controlled things, and passing through them had usually meant death or madness. To see such a thing harnessed and made safe for everyday use was remarkable. Perhaps it was also a uniquely American jadedness, as obsessed as they were with the latest technological wonders regardless of how well the familiar equipment worked.
Then again, Laysa was stepping onto a spacecraft like it was a bus, so perhaps she had no room to point fingers.
"Good morning, Doctor Lam," she said to the woman who was joining her team for this mission. "Are you ready to go?"
"As ready as I'll ever be," Lam replied. "I have a few pre-mission jitters, but that seems understandable since this is my first time off-world."
"I hate to break it to you, doc, but you're already off-world," Sergeant Markham said from the rear compartment, to which he had been exiled to make room for Lam up front.
"That's different. Working in the infirmary here isn't that different from a small hospital back on Earth. Going to another planet with its own people isn't the same thing at all."
"You don't need to worry about anything, ma'am," Sergeant Bates said. "We'll keep you safe."
"Assuming," Laysa said, casting a glance at their pilot, "that we get there in one piece."
"Do I even want to know?" Lam asked.
"I just want to point out up front that I'm not a naval aviator," Miller said. "I would be sailing around on a frigate right now if it weren't for the alien genetics."
"I'm sure that puts the Royal Navy's mind at ease to know you won't be anywhere near the helm of one of their ships," Laysa said. To Lam, she added, "During flight training, he had a few difficulties evading trees while taking off."
"That was you? We heard Colonel Mitchell's screams all the way in the city," Lam said. "Does this thing come equipped with parachutes?"
"Those won't actually help if we plow into the ground and explode," Markham said. "Honestly, I don't know who's idea it was to make him our main pilot. The kiwi is a flightless bird."
"Ha ha," Miller said. "Are we going to leave, or should I just shut the ship back down?"
"By all means, Lieutenant, please get us underway," Laysa said.
After a brief exchange with the control room, Miller set them in motion. Acting on autopilot, the jumper floated across the bay, down the long shaft to the gate room, and then into the waiting wormhole. On the other side Miller took over without so much as a dip or shimmy, keeping the ship slow and quickly gaining altitude to keep them clear of any obstructions or people in the wide square that surrounded the stargate.
"Welcome to sunny Seledon City, population two hundred thousand," Miller said as they reached a height of several hundred meters. "Today's forecast is sunny with a high around twenty-five -- that's around seventy-six or so for you yanks. To your left, you can see... well, a bulkhead."
The view ahead was more than enough to make up for the jumper's distinct lack of side windows. A city sprawled across the landscape, utterly improbable in this galaxy and yet there none the less. Immediately below them was an open square some two hundred meters wide, with the gate in the center, and rows of stalls and stands filling the rest. It seemed less active than the last two times the team had visited. The square had more than just a commercial function, as it was surrounded by a tall, thick wall with watch towers and gunports for machine guns, mortars, and other weapons. If someone chose to invade, they would find themselves in an impassable killing field.
Beyond that the city was laid out in a grid system that reminded Laysa of many American cities. It felt planned and new, all straight lines save for where a river bisected the city, as though it hadn't grown organically like older cities. The architecture was very utilitarian as well and most of the buildings had concrete exteriors, like the Brutalist style of the post-war years. Most of the buildings were two or three stories at most, but a few rose up as much as twenty. There were apartment complexes, factories, office buildings, warehouses, parks – in other words, all the same buildings you would expect in a city of its size.
It was just in a different galaxy, one where, by all accounts, cities were few and far between.
Another commander might have decided to take the mission for himself, but Colonel Mitchell had stuck to the planned schedule even after the MALP had shown an advanced civilization. Laysa wouldn't have begrudged him the change, given his seniority and her team's official status as a combat rather than diplomatic unit, but she was glad for the chance to take this on herself. Her team had already visited twice, first just as a general introduction and then to negotiate the meeting that Lam would be attending. If everything went as planned, the next trip could be escorting Doctor Weir to meet the prime minister.
They had been provided with a map marked with a landing zone for the jumper and the navigation system lined it up with the data from the sensors. At that point, it took less than a minute to cruise across the city, even flying at a fraction of the ship's top speed. The natives had not believed they could have an aircraft that was small enough to fit through the gate, as their own helicopters and piston-driven planes could not, and sending the jumper was a message. It showed the expedition's power, both as potential friend or enemy.
They sat down in a small, deserted parking lot next to a four-story hospital. Laysa, Bates, Markham, and Lam left the jumper, with Lam carrying along a bag of medical supplies; Miller stayed behind to stand watch and act as a lookout. It was a fine day out, with remarkably fresh air for a city of this size and technology level. Something seemed off, though, and after a moment Laysa put her finger on it. The last time they had ventured into the city, the streets had been full of people, bicycles, and buses. There were far fewer people now and those who were out hurried about their business. There were also distinctly more soldiers. There had been regular patrols of gendarmes, para-military police who doubled as militia, but now there were more and larger patrols, all armed with rifles rather than just sidearms. There were more regular soldiers as well, both on foot and in vehicles.
"Gunnery Sergeant," Laysa said.
"I see them, ma'am," Bates replied. Markham nodded as well.
Lam frowned and asked, "See what?"
"There's a lot of troops on the streets," Laysa replied. "It's probably nothing to do with us, but stay sharp. I don't want to be the first Atlantis team to follow the long SGC tradition of becoming entangled with civil wars."
There was no one there to greet them, another oddity, and so the team ventured into the building. The main entrance looked more like one for a bunker than a medical facility, with thick but well-balanced doors and tiny windows, but inside there was an airy lobby that was brightly lit and painted in sky-blue. There were couches and chairs scattered about, along with statues and art on the wall, and directly across from the doors was a wide desk. No one so much as blinked at the team despite the weapons the team carried.
Laysa started toward the desk, only to stop when a young woman hurried their way. She wore a long, dark blue smock, and Laysa noted that several other people had similar garb. She supposed it served a similar function to the white coats of doctors on Earth.
"Captain Sahine?" the woman asked.
Laysa nodded. "That is me."
"I apologize for not meeting you outside, Captain, but you arrived sooner than I expected. I'm Doctor Melena Tal. Welcome to Sandron Memorial Hospital and Sateda."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Doctor," Laysa replied. "This is Doctor Carolyn Lam, one of our top physicians, Gunnery Sergeant Bates, and Sergeant Markham."
"It's an honor to have you here, Doctor Lam," Melena said. "I'm sorry that Master Surgeon Petarus and the rest of the senior physicians aren't here to meet you. They were called to an emergency planning meeting."
"Is there something wrong?" Lam asked.
"A civil defense alert was issued early this morning. I don't know why." Melena spread her hands. "There are rumors that a platoon returned through the stargate with heavy casualties during the night, but there are always rumors. Chances are that the Defense Drill Board has once again decided to toy with our lives."
"You have regular drills?" Laysa asked.
Melena nodded. "There are scheduled practice drills every six months, but the Board also calls them at random, sometimes for just one building or neighborhood, sometimes, like today, for the entire planet. The only time that you can be sure one won't occur is during the planetary championship, and that only because the Board was nearly lynched the last time they tried."
"I hope that it's not inconvenient for us to be here now," Lam said. "We can return at another time if you like."
"No, not at all. I was scheduled to be off-shift and not needed anywhere else at the moment." Melena gave them a slight smile. "I'm one of the more junior doctors, you see. I only finished my initial apprenticeship last year, and so I can be spared from the drill activities."
"I'm sure you can do a fine job at showing us around," Lam said with a much larger grin. "If anything, I'd rather be showed around by a working doctor than an administrator."
"I will try to do my best. Please, follow me. We will start with the main wards." Melena led the team to a stairwell and then up a level. The ward they came to appeared much the same as any hospital on Earth, filled with staff and patients in varying degrees of health. The equipment looked older, certainly, and there were eight beds to a room, but it could easily have been a scene from a historical movie, were it not for the different styles of clothing and hair.
"The second and third floors are all in-patient wards and examination rooms," Melena explained as they walked through. "Above that are the offices."
"How many beds are there?" Lam asked. She had a small notepad out and was jotting down observations about the hospital.
"Two hundred on these floors," Melena replied. "However, in the sub-basement shelter there are two hundred more, with room to move many of those on the upper floor down there. In the event of an attack, patients can be moved there for safety."
"I notice that there's blast shutters at all the windows," Laysa said.
"That's correct. They're intended to provide a degree of protection while the patients are being relocated. There was some debate over whether the duplication was necessary, but in the end it was decided that adding the above-ground rooms would make recovery much easier for the patients."
It was an interesting way to phrase it, implying that above-ground capacity was an afterthought. Laysa's growing impression of near-paranoid levels of preparation for attack was further reinforced when went down to the first basement level, passing through the ground-floor cafeteria on the way, and saw the emergency department. It seemed over-sized for a hospital of that size and was clearly designed to be swamped by far more casualties than the city could possibly expect outside of a major disaster. At the moment there were only a few patients there, all minor injuries according to the doctors, but there was a disproportionate number of staff on duty.
Lam spent about fifteen minutes talking with the doctors regarding medical practices and observing a few procedures. She seemed somewhat impressed and Laysa herself didn't see anything that stood out as particularly backwards. Then again, her own experience with medical care had been confined to yearly checkups and one memorable encounter with a field hospital, leaving her without any points of referents that didn't come from television.
"Our operating suites are on the next level down, and there is a surgery scheduled in about thirty minutes that you are welcome to watch," Melena said as they moved on. "Sandron Memorial has the largest trauma center on the planet. It was deliberately designed that way because we're the overflow facility for Ballera Victrix, our main military hospital. If you have some time, you should visit their burn unit. It's state of the art."
"I'll make sure to do so," Lam said. "I'm sure our own burn specialists would enjoy comparing notes."
"Through here is our pharmacy, which I believe is the main purpose of your visit," Melena said. "Doctor Havron, this is Doctor Lam, our Tau'ri visitor."
Havron was a tall, reedy man. He had what was probably a long ponytail, but at the moment it was curled in a bun and constrained behind a hair net. "Ah, yes. Welcome, Doctor. We've been looking forward to meeting you from the moment we heard about your offer to the government."
"The feeling is mutual," Lam replied. "I brought samples of several of the drugs that we mentioned and information on some of the others. I tried to make it a broad representation of what we've got available."
"I'll be glad for anything you're willing to share," Havron said. "Is it true that you have not just anti-bacterial drugs, but also anti-viral ones?"
"We do, yes," Lam confirmed. "They aren't always as effective as the most powerful antibiotics, though."
"Anything at all would be welcome," Havron said. "We have only begun to develop truly effective antibiotics in the last few generations. Well, redevelop, I should say. You have no idea how frustrating it is to know something is possible but be unable to figure out just how the ancestors accomplished something."
"I can certainly sympathize," Lam said. "I know from personal experience that the Ancients, or ancestors, had capabilities that were both amazingly powerful and amazingly hard to reproduce. I should also warn you that there's no guarantee that everything we have will be useful to you. While I expect most of the general drugs, especially the broad-spectrum antibiotics and painkillers, should work just as well for you as for us, many of the others are disease-specific. Even the general ones might cause unforeseen reactions."
Havron nodded. "Of course, I understand completely. We can drink milk and the Andari can't, while most Satedans can't set foot in the same room as chula root without breaking into hives. We're already planning clinical trials."
The three doctors quickly began discussion medicines in greater depth than Laysa could hope to understand. The main point of it all was that the expedition had access to far greater medical knowledge than the Satedans did, although it was possible they could learn a few things as well. The drugs were easily the most important part of the trade deal that would be negotiated. While the expedition had a limited supply, they did have all records of the formulas and techniques necessary to produce more. Combine that with the Satedans' existing pharmaceutical industry and it would allow both groups a reliable supply of new drugs. It was the sort of thing that, if done in the third world, would have intellectual property lawyers screaming for blood. If it worked out, the exchanges could possibly be expanded to other matters, such as producing weaponry and ammunition.
Just as they were preparing to move on to watch the surgery, Laysa's earpiece crackled.
"Captain, we have a problem," Miller said, concern filling his voice. "A ship just jumped into orbit. The jumper shows it as... a Wraith cruiser, [i]Vespula[/i]-class."
"Wraith? Here?" Laysa said. "Cloak the jumper."
"Already done, ma'am." Miller paused a moment, then said, "The cruiser is now launching darts. Forty... fifty... sixty-plus contacts, now entering atmosphere and closing on our location. The stargate is also active."
Laysa turned to Melena. "We need to get outside and to our ship, now."
"Outside? Captain, if there are Wraith, we must stay in the lower levels. The hospital is fortified."
"Our ship is armed. We might be able to do something to stave them off."
Melena and the team ran down a corridor and up to the ground floor. Even as they exited the building, air raid sirens were sounding, an unnecessary gesture in the face of the rising whine of incoming darts. Anti-aircraft guns began firing, filling the sky with flak, and blue bolts began flashing down in reply. Either by chance or malevolent design one passing dart sprayed fire across the face of the hospital as it passed. Debris rained onto the team, a two large pieces knocking Markham and Melena to the pavement.
"I'm fine, I'm fine," Markham said as he climbed to his feet. He was dirty and scraped, but otherwise looked unharmed. Melena, however, lay still on the ground, a spot at the back of her head wet with blood. Lam knelt down beside her.
"We need to get her back into the hospital," Lam declared.
"Doctor, we don't have time," Laysa said. "I don't think we're getting back in that door anyway."
"She needs immediate medical attention."
"And we need to get airborne." Seeming the stubborn expression on Lam's face and all too aware of the battle raging overhead, Laysa said, "Fine, you can treat her in the jumper."
There was no time to retrieve the jumper's emergency stretcher, so Bates picked Melena up into a fireman's carry. Miller stuck out an arm to guide them into the jumper and soon they were in the air, invisible but still vulnerable to fire from either side. The jumper had no shields while the cloak was up.
"What's the situation?" Laysa asked Miller.
"It's just the one cruiser, but there's almost two hundred darts out there now," he replied. "I think it's their entire complement. It's been firing on a number targets on the surface, and the darts seem more intent on causing damage than picking up anyone. You ask me, this isn't a regular culling."
Laysa's instincts said the same thing. The timing of the attack and the civil defense drill was too perfect to be a coincidence. "Could we take out the cruiser?"
"I think it might be possible, if we catch them by surprise and fire all of our drones at the engines," Miller said. "We'd have to decloak, though, and there's still be all the darts."
"Even if we escaped them," Laysa murmured, "all it would take is for one to get home and tell the Wraith that there's someone running around with a Lantean ship. We can't take that chance. Position us so that we have a clear run to the gate, but outside the city. I want to be able to make a top-speed dash for a safe world as soon as the gate disengages."
"We're not going to help?" Lam asked, looking up from where she was treating Melena.
"We can't do anything."
"Captain, there's a good chance that the Wraith will keep the gate engaged for the entire raid," Bates said. "We'll probably have to wait until they're gone."
"We'll just have to hope we can dial out faster. I don't want to be here if they nuke the city." Laysa thought for a second, then added, "Actually, I think we can do something. Get me a channel to whoever is in charge of the gate defenses."
The next thirty-five minutes was an eternity. After trawling through radio frequencies, they finally got in contact with the gate commander, informing him they would be trying to dial out. With any luck, anyone nearby would be able to follow them through. Meanwhile Laysa punched in the coordinates of a world where the gate was in a deserted grassland. She held her hand above the key to activate the gate and kept her eye fixed on a HUD timer displaying how long the gate had been active.
The moment came just short of the thirty-eight minute limit and she slammed down on the key. Silently they waited to see which would be faster, the jumper's DHD or the Wraith at the other end. They were answered when the gate indicator turned green to show an outgoing wormhole.
"Punch it," Laysa said, but Miller was already on it. The ship streaked for the gate, accelerating faster than any mere aircraft could, hitting a hundred KPH, three hundred, six hundred, and then they were at the gate itself. The jumper tilted slightly and they shot through, barely missing a hill on the other side. They looked upward, slowing just as quickly as they had sped up, and came to a hover a thousand meters up. Miller pointed the nose down and brought up the life-signs sensors.
"Come on, get moving," Bates murmured, watching display like a hawk. A minute passed by, and just as Laysa was going to radio the Satedans, a terrible gout of flame spewed from the gate, easily a hundred meters long. The gate disengaged even as the grassland began burning.
"What happened?" Markham asked, his face tight and pale.
"They must have seen people trying to escape and fired on the gate," Laysa said dully. She hadn't anticipated the Wraith would be so intent on keeping anyone from escaping. She swallowed and said, "Take us home, Lieutenant. We need to get our guest to the infirmary."
The post-mission debriefing was a sober affair. The team had not brought word that they would be resupplied with medicine or ammunition, just another refugee. All attempts to dial Sateda through the rest of the day failed to connect, indicating that the gate was buried, engaged, or otherwise blocked. Laysa had little hope that anything good would be discovered even if they did make contact. Somehow she doubted the Satedans would be in a position to start manufacturing new drugs no matter how desperate they were, and Atlantis was in no position to help a stricken society of their size. For now, they were once more on their own.
"Morning, ladies!" Cam said cheerfully as he entered the ready room. "Ready to investigate another exciting and mysterious energy signature?"
His team looked at him with varying degrees of disbelief and grumpiness. He couldn't blame Satterfield or Mehra for being a bit annoyed at his attitude, given that they had both been up late as part of a nighttime security drill, but it wasn't really his fault that he had such a sunny personality.
"You do remember that the last time we investigated a mysterious energy signature, the excitement came in the form of a crash landing and underage cultists, right?" Porter asked, as the only one who could technically sass him.
"We're walking, so there's absolutely no need to worry about crashing," Cam reminded her. "Besides, what are the chances that an expert pilot like me would crash again?"
"With respect, sir," Satterfield said, "you've done it twice in the last four months."
"Hey, now. The last time an energy field killed the power, and the time before that I was shot down while in the middle of the biggest space battle in Earth's history."
"The only space battle, sir."
"Does it really count as a space battle?" Mehra asked. "You didn't even leave the atmosphere."
"There were motherships in orbit, there were aliens, and every fighter was a spacecraft," Cam said. "It was totally a space battle."
"I don't know," Porter said. "None of the fighting was anywhere near space, unless you count General O'Neill's drone attack."
Cam huffed. "You know, that energy signature isn't going to investigate itself. Let's get moving."
They trooped down to the gate room and across the galaxy. P9G-738 was an old planet around an old star that was beginning to run out of hydrogen fuel. In stellar terms it wouldn't be long before it bloated up and incinerated the planet; in human terms the planet would still be habitable for tens of thousands of years. The star was already turning reddish, though, and the scraggly nature of the grass and bushes on the plain around the gate demonstrated that the planet was already receiving a different spectrum of sunlight than they had evolved to make use of. It was still warm, though, as the star was burning hotter, if not as brightly.
Porter lifter her tricorder and pointed to the west. "The signature is that way, Colonel, about a mile out."
Cam pulled out a pair of field glasses. He could just barely make out a structure in that direction. "Yeah, there's definitely a building over there. Let's check it out."
It was eerily quiet as they walked across the plain. The only sounds were the soft whisper of the breeze through the grass and the occasional rustle of something tiny moving away from them. Cam saw no animals or birds, even through the binoculars. If there were any animals larger than a mouse out there, they weren't showing themselves.
"Nice vacation spot," Satterfield commented.
"Yeah, it is," Mehra replied. "Come to P9G-738. Walk through the dry grass, see the sad little shrubs... marvel at yet another creepy alien step pyramid. Seriously, what is it with aliens and pyramids?"
The building Cam had seen was indeed a step pyramid. It had a hexagonal base and six levels, each one about ten feet high. It wasn't especially big, maybe a hundred yards across at the widest point of the base. At each point of the hexagon there were stairs, which were barely wide enough for two people, and at the center of each face, there was a perfectly square opening to the interior. The pyramid was built from a dark gray stone that glistened slightly in the sunlight. There were no markings or decorations marring the perfectly straight lines and flat surfaces, or at least none visible to the human eye.
"Where are the readings coming from?" Cam asked.
"The entire structure has a magnetic field around it," Porter said, biting her lip as she studied the scanner. "There's definitely a strong point at the center of the base, though."
"Wonderful." Cam tried not to think about all the horror stories involving alien step pyramids that turned out to be radioactive or house voracious flesh-eating creatures. "Satterfield, Mehra, stay out here. If you don't here from us in, say, twenty minutes, call for backup. Doc, let's check it out."
The entrance to the pyramid was just barely high enough that Cam could fit inside without ducking. He noticed that there wasn't any plant life inside, not even the moss or vines that he would expect in an abandoned structure. The grass simply stopped where the stone began. Just inside the entrance, the floor slopped downward and soon they were well below ground level. It was a straight shot to the center of the pyramid, where they found a wide hexagonal room. In the middle of the room was a pedestal that was, surprisingly, six-sided and lined with controls. There were lights in the ceiling, not bright but sufficient to see by. They didn't really help much with the spooky feeling.
"This looks similar to some of the older Ancient technology we've seen," Porter said as she examined the pedestal. "It doesn't use the same configurable control crystals that the Atlantis computers have, but it's not the same style of purely physical buttons and switches, either. It could be a transitional design."
"So it's Ancient?"
"I think so, yeah. I can't really say what it's for, though, without turning on the console."
Porter pressed a button on one of the panels. The controls lit up and holographic screens shimmered into existence above each side of the pedestal. Several blank surfaces on the console also extruded new buttons and sliders. The lights around the room grew brighter and the characteristic hum of waking Ancient equipment filled the air. Suddenly the room seemed a lot less spooky and a lot more like any of the numerous labs in Atlantis.
Cam let out the breath he had been holding. "That was anti-climatic. So, what have we got?"
"It looks like this is one monitoring station in a planet-wide system of some kind," Porter said. "Some Ancients were planning to conduct an ecological intervention to fix problems caused by the changing wavelength of the sunlight. Whoever was running it shut the system down in a hurry when the Wraith war started and never came back. Since then, it's been running on a backup solar power system in order to conserve the primary energy source."
"It's not the first abandoned project we've seen," Cam said. "I can't see us spending any time worrying about the planet's ecology, unless the botanists think there's something worthwhile here. Is there any chance we can salvage the power source?"
"Let me see... oh." Porter pressed a control. A panel appeared on each wall and folded downward, each one revealing three slots that it turn held the familiar shape of a ZPM. "Yeah, I'd say the power source is portable and useful."
"I think," Cam said, his mouth suddenly dry, "that we need to call in a larger science team."
McKay and his minions were there so fast that Cam almost thought they had spontaneously teleported upon hearing the phrase, "zero-point modules, yes, modules plural." Unlike the almost-depleted ZPM Cam's team had brought home from M7G-667, these turned out to be at nearly full capacity. There were tests to be done, of course, to insure that they weren't booby-trapped or that their removal wouldn't cause the sun to explode or something, but soon enough they were back in Atlantis with their bounty. By the end of the day, the city was fully powered for the first time in ten thousand years, and Cam was standing in the control room as they dialed Earth.
"Given that it was you who found the ZPM," Elizabeth said, "I think it's only appropriate for you to make contact."
"Thank you, ma'am," Cam said. He took a breath and pressed the key to begin transmitting a video feed. "Stargate Command, this is Atlantis Base. Are you receiving?"
There was a delay, then Sam appeared on the main monitor, a huge smile on her face. "This is Stargate Command. It's good to hear your voice, Cam."
"You too, Sam," Cam said, not choking up even a little bit, although there did seem to be something in his eye. "You too."
They couldn't immediately gate straight to Earth, of course. The SGC had practically invented the art of being paranoid about returning long-lost friends. There were samples and scans to send home for scrutiny, and eventually they wound up dialing the Alpha Site – the Milky Way version – and passing through there first for a thorough exam. It didn't matter. All Cam cared about was that he was once more setting foot on surface of his own home planet.
Well, on a floor eight hundred feet under the surface of his planet, but that was just a minor detail.
There was a short debriefing, but their time zones were completely off. By the time they reached the SGC it was 1630 local and 0330 by Cam's internal clock. It worked out fine, though, giving the brass a chance to read their mission reports while he, Elizabeth, and McKay got back on schedule. First thing in the morning, Cam had a meeting with the general.
"Well, Mitchell, I see you're still pulling miracles out of your ass," O'Neill said without so much as a hello. He waved for Cam to sit.
"I... thank you, sir?" Cam replied. "I'm not sure I would call anything I've done recently a miracle."
"You made it through five months in a hostile alien galaxy with only one fatality and a fairly small number of other injuries," O'Neill said. "You also brought home eighteen ZPMs. One of those has to count."
"I really can't take credit for any of that, sir," Cam said. "It was pure chance my team found the ZPMs, and there were a lot of close scrapes where it was as much luck as anything else that no one was killed."
O'Neill just stared at him for a minute before shrugging and saying, "Well, I guess in that case I better find someone else to take command of the Atlantis battalion."
"Excuse me, sir?"
"I mean, I was planning to leave you in charge, but if you're no good at your job I can't do that." O'Neill rapped his fingers on his desk and looked up at the ceiling as if he was deep in thought. "Let's see, I need someone who's a proven leader, brave, skilled.... maybe lucky, too, the sort of person who might accidentally stumble across an entire cache of ZPMs. Oh, wait! There's someone like that right in front of me!"
Cam shifted uncomfortably in his seat because of the praise. "In all honesty, sir, I had assumed that someone more senior would be given command, given that I'm just filling Colonel Sumner's shoes."
"I don't care about seniority," O'Neill said with a wave of his hand. "I care about results. You get them."
"Thank you, sir. I'll try not to let you down."
"See that you don't." O'Neill flipped open a file folder on his desk. "Now that Atlantis has been proven to be a viable outpost and, more importantly to the people upstairs, demonstrably productive, you're probably going to see a major increase in staffing."
"If possible, sir, I'd like to keep of my current officers and NCOs in their current positions of responsibility," Cam said. "They've all served admirably and I wouldn't want them pushed aside by newcomers."
O'Neill shrugged. "It's your unit, run it however you want."
Cam blinked. "It's that simple?"
"Did that crash leave you hard of hearing or something? Actually, now that I think about it, you're probably exhausted. You should take a vacation."
"Sir, there's probably a lot of work to do -"
"You'll be stuck in meetings until at least next week, so you may as well head home for Labor Day."
"Labor Day?" Cam asked with a frown.
"Labor Day. As in the day on which we do not labor, as it's a federal holiday."
"I know, sir. It just seems like it should be for another few weeks."
"Interplanetary jet lag," O'Neill said with a nod. "I know the feeling. I was once stuck off-world for three weeks and thought I had missed the Cup, but it turned out the days were shorter and I got back just in time. Just go home, see your folks, and get some rest."
Cam smiled and said, "Well, if you insist, sir."
The next two days passed in a blur of meetings with military and civilian officials from all across the planet. Everyone wanted a piece of Atlantis, but Cam mostly dealt with that by simply agreeing to allow the nations in question to post personnel there so long as he had final approval over the actual people. There were also all the usual complaints and problems coming out of the Pentagon, but somehow he breezed through them as well. It wasn't long before Saturday rolled around and he was flying home in a first-class seat.
His mother was waiting with open arms when he arrived. "Cameron! It's so good to see you!"
"You too, Momma," Cam said, hugging her tight against him. "I've missed you."
"You have no idea how thrilled I was when you called and said you'd be able to make it for the holiday. I had no idea you were even back in the country."
"It was a surprise to me, too. I'm sorry I haven't been able to call or email you before now, we didn't have Internet access where I was stationed."
Momma shook her head. "Don't worry about that, honey. I'm just happy to have you back home, even for a little bit. Now go around back and say hello to your father and brother. We'll have plenty of time to catch up over the next few days."
Cam walked around the house to the back yard. Over to one side he found his Daddy (Everett, he reminded himself; he'd been trying to break the habit of calling him Daddy for fifteen years now without much luck), brother Ash, and Uncle Roy building something. There was already a swing set up, but that was just one part of a larger structure, which already had several thick support beams sunk into the ground. Ash and his daddy were holding up a cross while Roy was looking back and forth between said beam, a support, and a paper in his hand.
"Cameron!" Everett called out. "Get over here and hold this up for me."
Cam laughed. "I'm here for one minute and you're already putting me to work?"
"I'd love to let you get off your feet, but someone has to show your idiot uncle how this is supposed to fit together."
"Don't try to blame me," Roy said. "There's no way this is going to fit together. You messed something up when you drilled the bolt holes. Either that, or you drew the plans up wrong."
"You know," Ash said as Cam took Everett's place, "I'm not sure I even want my kids around this thing. It's seems less safe by the second."
"What's wrong with a tire hanging from a tree?" Cam asked. "That's all we had and we loved it."
"That's what I said when I got home from Iraq, found a pile of wood in the barn, and was told we're building some sort of super-yard-fort-swing-thing. Apparently my sons want one and Grandpa here decided to build the biggest and best fort ever created."
"He did?" Cam asked, mock outraged. "We asked for a fort -"
"And were told to build it ourselves! It's awful. I mean, I know Chandler and Stewart are adorable, but we were too, right?"
"Quit your whining and turn that thing over," Everett said.
"Yes, sir," they replied.
The four of them spent the rest of their afternoon constructing what was, Cam had to admit, a really kick-ass fort-swing-thing, suitable for holding off the inevitable zombie hordes that would accompany NIGHTMARE GREEN in ten years or so. He was sure all the assorted grandchildren, nephews, and younger cousins that would shortly be descending on the homestead would be thrilled when they saw it. Conveniently, they finished up the fort just before supper, so they returned to the house to clean up and get some grub.
"You boys have perfect timing," Grandma said when they came through the kitchen door. She was mixing up a salad at the central island. Cam stopped dead in his tracks when he saw her, completely stunned by her presence.
"The casserole and corn are just about done," she continued. "It should all be ready by the time you've showered. Cam, it's wonderful to see you again." She frowned as she took in his slack-jawed expression. "Is something wrong, sweety?"
"No, no, not at all," he said quickly. He grinned and held up his grimy hands. "I'd hug you, but I don't think you'd appreciate what I'd do to your dress in the process."
"Stop worrying about that and get over here. I've been raising children long enough to stop worrying about a little dirt." They embraced, but as glad as Cam was to be with his Grandma again, he couldn't quite shake the odd feeling that there was something wrong.
More of his family poured in over the next two days, until on Monday it seemed like everyone was there. There were a huge number of them even by the standards of his overly-large clan, thanks to some strange coincidence of vacations and leave schedules that allowed even those on active duty to arrive. Cam was damned near wore out just by trying to catch up with all of them and keep track of all that had happened while he was in Pegasus. His younger cousins Skipper and Spencer, who'd lived with his family while Cam was a teen on account of their mother's illness, had just graduated from the Academy and were now in flight school. Jessie had finally found herself a man that should could settle down with and was expecting. Megan was now officially done with her residency and was interviewing with Doctors Without Borders. There were a thousand other events, major and minor, that everyone thought Cam just had to know about. He was glad to hear it all, especially as no one had died or been serious hurt and there had been no other crises of any seriousness, even if most of it turned into one gigantic blur.
Still, Cam couldn't help but think that there was something that he was missing. What made it even more irritating was that he was pretty sure it was important and that the answer was just out of reach. He couldn't figure out if it was a person, place, or thing.
One possible answer presented himself in just after lunch on Sunday. If there was one person he hadn't expected run into as he came out the door was John Sheppard.
"John?" Cam said. "What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be back at... base?" He looked around and pulled John away from the porch and around to one of the little alcoves created by the many additions to the house, where there was marginally more privacy.
John shrugged and stuck his hands in his jeans pockets. "General O'Neill sent word that would could start rotating people home for a few days leave. Lorne and I flipped for it."
"Okay, that explains why you're in the country, but why here?"
John shrugged again. "I didn't have anywhere better to go. I called your mom, and she said it'd be fine to come. I thought she would have told you."
Cam scratched his head. "No, she must have wanted to surprise me. You're welcome, of course. Follow me and we can get you some food."
"Hold on. There's something I need to talk to you about first." John sort of rocked on his heals while looking more at Cam's feet than his face. "I, uh... well...." He trailed off, then looked up, stepped forward, and pulled Cam into a kiss.
Cam kissed him back, of course. He'd been dreaming of a moment like this off and on since the moment he'd set eyes on John in Antarctica five months before. He'd never acted on his desire, though, both because of their positions in the chain of command and because... because... shit.
Cam shoved John away. "We are not doing this."
"What?" John said incredulously. "Why not?"
"Because I won't help you cheat on Evan, that's why!"
"Oh, come on. There's nothing between us besides some buddy-fucking."
"Bullshit. I've seen how you act around each other. It's more than that." Cam shook his head. "This is wrong. The John I know would never cheat on a partner." He started to reach for the cell phone in his pocket, planning to call the SGC, then stopped and narrowed his eyes. "No, everything's wrong. Skip and Spence have been in intelligence for years. My father can't walk without crutches, let alone play touch football. My Grandma's dead, for fuck's sake!"
John sighed and rolled his eyes. "I'm going to go get some barbecue. Come find me when you're done acting like a drama queen and ready to fuck me silly."
He walked past John and as Cam turned to watch him he saw Momma standing nearby. She was wrong, too, back straighter, fewer lines on her face, not a trace of gray in her hair.
"What about this isn't working for you, Cam?" she asked. "I've given you a whole and healthy family, your dream job, and the old crush that you've inexplicably fallen head over heals for. What more can you want?"
"Who are you?" Cam asked. "What are you?"
"That doesn't matter. You wouldn't be able to understand," Momma said as she walked closer. "Just like I'm having trouble understanding you, which is a very odd position for me to be in. I've taken in a million men like you. I know how you work up here." She tapped his forehead and he flinched back. "You define yourself by your relationships to others and what groups you're part of – your country, your unit, your family, your friends and lovers. And yet I give you all of that in the best possible ways and you're not happy. It's very strange."
"If you think that's all that makes me tick, you're not as smart as you seem to think."
Momma shook her head and tutted. "You see, that's where you're wrong. People like me are made to understand people like you. It's not as if humans from Earth are all that different from humans anywhere else. I cracked the rest of your team in a matter of minutes, but here you are, still resisting. If I had to guess, I'd say someone stuck a high-grade firewall in your head. You certainly didn't construct it yourself."
Cam clenched his fists. "What did you do to my team?"
"Don't you worry about them, I'm taking good care of them. They're such... delectable little people, I won't let them spoil before I'm done with them." Momma smiled. "But you're the real prize. A genuine, honest-to-God nexus, and a powerful one at that. So many potential lives and unrealized realities, countless could-have-beens and never-weres, all bound up inside you. You have no idea how special you are, Cameron. Humans are so inconsequential, even on a planetary scale, and yet I sense the fate of galaxies around you. "
"Oh, so you're one of those. A self-proclaimed god-like alien that thinks humans are just ants scurrying around their feet. It must be pretty awkward if you can't do more than make me see things," Cam said, crossing his arms. He hoped his bravado would cover up the growing dread he felt. He had heard stories of things like this, eaters of memories and souls that would strip your mind of every last thought and experience it contained. The fact that he was even aware of what was happening wasn't as uplifting as it might have been; sometimes ignorance was bliss.
"Honey, I'm just telling the truth. Most humans never change anything of importance. People like you are one in a billion."
"We all can change each other's lives for better or worse," Cam said. "That's important."
"Not on any meaningful scale. Humanity and other species like it are, quite frankly, irrelevant in the grand scheme of thing. I'll even admit that I'm not all that much greater. It's nothing to be ashamed of, it's just the way things are in the universe." She shrugged. "We're getting off topic, though. I would like to make a deal with you. You explicitly give me consent to enter your mind at more than a surface level. In exchange, I'll stick to exploring just the pleasant paths your life could have taken. You have so much potential that by the time I can't sustain your flesh any longer I won't have gotten through even all of those."
Cam shook his head. "Nope, not going to happen."
The smile that had been on Momma's face the entire time started to waver, just a little. "Why not?"
"You said it yourself, I'm defined by my relationships. I can't abandon the people I'm responsible for just so I can have a private slice of heaven."
She sighed. "Fine. How about this -- I keep you just long enough to build up the energy I need to pierce the gate's protections and reach an inhabited world. You can go back to Atlantis, a little tired but otherwise no worse for wear."
"Still not happening."
"Are you serious?" Momma said flatly.
"I'm not going to let you go eat the brains of an entire planet just for my sake."
"You just don't get it, do you?" she said, throwing up her hands in disgust. "I could strip bare the most populated planet and in the grand scheme of things nothing at all would change. If anything, it'd be a benefit for you and yours if the Wraith didn't have them to feed on."
"Why are you having trouble understanding your position in the universe? Do you think that just because you look like Ancients and can play with their toys that you can match their feats, perhaps? Because let me tell you, you can't hope to match their magnificence. They have been hopping galaxies for half a billion years, reshaped countless worlds to match their preferred habitat, moved or destroyed stars just to make the night sky suit their whims. You've barely had language for a hundred thousand, and you only have that because some Ancients meddled with your neural structure."
Cam frowned. "Excuse me?"
Momma smiled viciously. "Didn't you know? You're nothing more than a combination of genetic repository, cannon fodder, and pets. Special Genetics Project Aleph-slash-8501, Servitor Race For Insuring Propagation of the Species. The real kicker is that you only won out over the other hominids because you're more attractive fucktoys."
"You know what?" Cam shook his head. "I really don't care. Maybe you're telling the truth, maybe you're not. I'm not helping you, and since you're making such of a fuss about getting my consent, I'm betting you can't force me to."
"Oh really?" Suddenly they were standing in the back yard, surrounded by family. Momma said, "You're right, to a point. I can't worm my way into your head or break in by brute force. I probably can't even inflict serious discomfort now that you're aware of what's going on. But I don't have to hurt you to get what I want."
She snapped her fingers and across the yard Cam's daddy collapsed, his legs suddenly giving way beneath him. Ash scrambled to help him but halfway there he fell and began to scream, his face blackened and burnt.
"There's so many ways that a parajumper can be hurt, aren't there?" Momma asked. "I know you've been so worried about your brother. You don't need me to imagine all the horrible things that could happen to him, but I can help you see it up close and personal."
Cam took a deep breath to steady himself but said nothing.
"Not enough?" The sky turned black and Cam heard the characteristic howls of gliders and whine of darts overhead. The horizon lit up as fire fell from orbit and began to incinerate nearby towns. Momma leaned close and whispered into his ear, "How'd you like to witness all those alien atrocities you've read of happen right here at home?"
"None of it's real," Cam said.
"No? We'll see if you feel the same way when Wraith suck the life from the twins and Jackal Guards flay your nephews and niece alive."
The world suddenly flickered like a badly spliced movie. For a moment Cam was back on the planet, laying on the ground amid dry grass and surrounded by his team. The homestead reappeared a moment later, deserted now save for Momma. She hissed like a snake and turned one way and the other, searching for something. Two vague clouds appeared in the air and slowly resolved into jumpers; they were half-translucent and glistened with rainbow colors, as if they were nothing more than soap bubbles, but the silhouettes were unmistakable. One sat down and began spilling more shapes, dark and cloudy but human in form. Cam could see the leader clearly, though. John seemed to glow with an inner light and he was somehow crisper and clean than he ever had been before, as though Cam had been watching him through a blurred TV, and was just now seeing him directly. He seemed younger, his face carrying fewer worry and more laugh lines and just a hint of stubble, his hair darker and a little too long to be proper, a grin hiding around his eyes despite the angry set of his mouth: the platonic ideal of John Sheppard.
Momma threw back her head and howled like a coyote. "Oh, you poor fool! I see it now!" She howled again and cackled with laughter. "You'll wish you'd believed me in the end!"
The world flickered again and this time stayed as the alien planet, which now seemed even more dead and dusty than it had when the team arrived. In Momma's place there was something dark and glassy, a conglomeration of obsidian spikes and blades that met at impossible angles. It scurried off and a final howl filled the air, accompanied by the angry chatter of automatic weapons.
Cam tried to reach for Porter, who was the nearest of his team, but couldn't lift his hand more than a few inches. Marines circled around them and called for stretchers, while John knelt down next to Cam.
"Cam, can you hear me?" John asked. "You're going to be okay."
"Now that you're here," Cam whispered, before closing his eyes and falling asleep.
He woke up in the infirmary the next day, exhausted and attached to an IV bag and numerous wires. The rest of his team were in the beds around him, all unconscious. In short order Carolyn was at his side, along with Doctor Biro, the expedition's neurologist. They told him that he was the first to wake up and that the others, while still sleeping, seemed to be physically fine. Whether they were mentally intact wasn't as clear, although the doctors were hopeful. For Cam's part entire experience was already acquiring a blurred, dream-like quality that was difficult to recall clearly. Hopefully the same would be true for whatever the others hand gone through.
As the doctors prepared to run Cam through a battery of tests to assess his memory and other cognitive functions, John was allowed to briefly visit him. He explained that Cam's team had missed their hourly check-in and a rescue mission had been dispatched. They'd found the team half a mile from the gate, lying in an open field. There was no sign of the pyramid or anything, just an endless stretch of grassy wasteland. Whatever had attacked the team had been driven off, although what it was remained unknown.
"I'm sure the rescue wasn't necessary," John concluded. "You probably could have handled it yourself without too much trouble, but I couldn't pass up the excuse to fly a jumper and shoot at something."
Cam smiled faintly. "Thanks anyway. I owe you one."
"Nah, don't mention it. I'm sure you'll have to rescue me at some point."
"Probably sooner rather than later, knowing your mouth."
"I don't know what you're talking about." John looked over his shoulder as Lam called for him. "My time's up. I'll see you around soon, Mitchell."
John sauntered across the ward, pausing at the door to grin and wave jauntily. For the briefest of moments, Cam saw the other John superimposed on him and wondered what it all meant, and whether he even wanted to know.