Word Count: ~14,000
Summary: While waiting for Sheppard to recuperate, Rodney finds a reference that hints at a supply of ZPMs on an unexplored world. However, when the team arrives, they find it inhabited by rivals that aren't interested in sharing.
A/N: Thanks to kristen999 for the beta. Written almost three years ago for the Critias zine. Enjoy!
“Your gun,” the guard repeated, forcing the words around fingers that ground into his windpipe. “You’ll never find Dr. McKay on your own. At least not before Colonel Sheppard dies.”
Ronon tightened his grip then, realizing the truth of the guard’s words, dropped him to the ground and jerked him close. “If you double-cross me, I will find you and kill you. Got it?”
Eyes widening, the man nodded. Ronon shoved him away, adjusting his blaster to the lowest stun setting then thumbing the safety on. Extending the weapon, he growled, “Where is he?”
Fingertips closed around the grip but didn’t pull. “Two levels down. Turn right. Sixth cell on your right.” Snatching the blaster, the guard tucked it under his tunic and disappeared into the gloom.
Ronon took the stairs three at a time, John’s gray face in his mind’s eye and the mantra of ‘leave no one behind’ ringing in his ears. Turning, he counted the solid wooden doors and kicked with all his might when he reached six.
“Well, it’s about time,” McKay huffed. “And a little warning next time. I could have been standing behind that door.”
“Let’s go,” Ronon said gruffly.
They raced out, McKay keeping up surprisingly well. Exiting the W’lorq prison, Ronon ducked down an alley and headed to the forest.
“Hey, this isn’t the way to the gate.”
“No, it’s where I left Sheppard and Teyla.”
“Oh, God. What now?”
“He got shot the first time we tried to bust you out.”
“Arrow this time.”
McKay winced. “Ouch.”
“Some kind of toxin on the tip.” Ronon clicked his comm. “Got him. Almost to you.”
“You must hurry,” Teyla replied over the giggling in the background. “He is… not improving.”
They crashed through the underbrush, skidding to a stop at the sight. Sheppard was flat on his back and squirming while Teyla held him down with her hands and knees.
“You must hold still, John. You will aggravate your injury.”
“Come on,” Sheppard whined. “It’ll be fun.”
“Fun?” McKay questioned. “Where exactly did that arrow hit him?”
“Later.” Ronon grabbed Sheppard’s arms as Teyla rolled off. “Ready to go?”
“Hey,” Sheppard slurred. “I know you.”
Holding his wrists in one hand, Ronon quickly slid the left side of Sheppard’s tac vest and shirt up to check the wound. At least the bleeding had stopped. The arrow was lodged in the flesh between Sheppard’s ribcage and hipbone, the jagged shaft poking out about an inch.
John giggled and twisted away. “That tickles.”
“What the hell did you give him?” McKay demanded.
“Nothing,” Teyla sighed. “I am uncertain if the toxin does this naturally or if he is having a reaction to it. But he has been like this since Ronon left to find you.”
Ronon pulled Sheppard to his feet, but his legs seemed to be made of jello. “Hard to carry him with that in his side.”
McKay peered over their shoulders. “What did he want to do that would be fun?”
Face flushed, Teyla ignored Rodney as she helped Ronon lower John to the ground and studied the wound a minute. “Perhaps the arrow is far enough to the left that if you carry him over your right shoulder, you won’t press it in any further.” Placing her hands around the injury, she steadied Sheppard as Ronon squatted to pick him up.
“Hey,” Sheppard protested as his arms dangled down Ronon’s back. “What happened to the view?”
“You must be quiet now, John,” Teyla soothed. “We need to go home.”
“Not ready to go home,” Sheppard pouted. “It’s fun here. Lots of cool colors.”
“The colors at home will be like this, too,” she reassured him.
“Really? Okay.” He began to hum happily.
“No humming,” McKay hissed as they left the cover of the perfectly normal green trees and headed through the honey-toned grain field.
“Tell me a story.”
“What are you? Four? Shut up.” McKay whispered.
“You shut up,” John mumbled. One arm flopped, the elbow clipping Ronon’s spine. “Why are there snakes on me?”
Shouts from the village drifted to them on the wind. “They’re coming,” Ronon announced.
“They’re heeeee-re,” Sheppard sing-songed.
“Run,” Teyla urged.
Ronon pushed away the strain on his back and shoulders as he moved into a jog, pretending he didn’t hear Sheppard’s grunts of pain interspersed with the manic laughter.
“Another mission for the record books,” McKay gasped between huge gulping breaths.
“Next time, don’t insult the chieftain’s daughter,” Ronon sniped.
“Oh, like I was supposed to know Scary Girl was his daughter.”
“It should not matter,” Teyla reasoned. “After all this time, surely you have learned that comments about the native populace will not end well.”
“You’d think I’d know that by now. But she-”
“Get it off me!” Sheppard screeched, arms and legs swinging wildly. “Help me!”
“What is it, John?” Teyla asked in alarm.
“Off! Off, off, off. Please,” Sheppard begged, pounding his head and fists into Ronon’s back as he struggled to free himself.
“We are almost there, John,” Teyla soothed. “Hold on a little longer.”
“Get it off!”
“There is nothing on your neck for me to remove.”
Ronon wrapped his arms tighter around Sheppard knees. “Get to the gate, Teyla. We’ll be right behind you.”
She darted forward, quickly outdistancing them. The Ring was on the horizon, stark against the clear mid-afternoon sky. By the time Ronon stumbled to the dialing pedestal, the shimmering blue was waiting for them.
“I have asked for a medical team,” she informed them as they staggered up onto the dais.
Sheppard hung limply in his arms now, his blood dotting the path behind them and streaming down Ronon’s shoulder to his wrist. Without a backward glance, they stepped through.
“You look better.”
John glanced up to find Ronon smirking in the doorway. “I feel better,” he answered, trying to stifle the yawn that crept up on him. “Sorry. Can’t seem to get enough sleep.”
“I hear poisoned arrows will do that. How’s the scar?”
“Cool. Can I see?”
“No.” John’s entire body protested as he gingerly scooted up until he was sitting. The pain meds were beginning to wear off, and every muscle was stiff from being confined to the infirmary bed for several days.
“When’s the doc going to spring you?”
“Tomorrow. I’ll be on light duty for a few days after that.” John yawned again and scrubbed a hand over his face and through his hair. “Say, big guy, I can’t help but notice you seem to be missing a vital piece of your wardrobe.”
Ronon’s right hand twitched. “Lost it on W’lorq.”
John snorted. “You losing that blaster is about as likely as me not wanting to fly.”
Refusing to meet his eyes, Ronon pushed away from the door and kicked a chair until it landed next to John’s bed. “Yeah, well, it happens.”
“Does McKay know?”
“That I lost it?”
“That you traded it for him.”
Ronon’s eyes flicked up. “No,” he said finally. “Don’t tell him either. He gets weird about stuff like that.”
John chuckled. “I know. Don’t worry. I won’t-”
“Oh, good, you’re awake. You look like crap.”
“Rodney!” Teyla scolded as she nudged his shoulder from behind. “You were going to work on not saying things like that.” She set a large bag on the foot of John’s bed.
“We’re not off-world,” McKay protested. “It’s just Sheppard. And he does look like crap. Actually, now that I think about it, you really remind me more of something one of my college roommates regurgitated once. We’d ordered pizza, hot wings, and chips with guacamole after drinking- Ow!”
John laughed as Rodney glared at Ronon. “You always know exactly what to say to cheer me up, McKay.”
“Truth hurts and all that. Enough with the hitting!” McKay snapped as Ronon thumped him behind the ear again.
“Don’t make me separate you two,” John warned. “Did you just drop by for a visit, McKay, or did you want something?”
“What? Oh, yeah. Guess what I found in the Ancient database.” Wearing his smuggest expression, Rodney folded his arms across his chest and rocked back on his heels.
John shifted uncomfortably as his side twinged. “Instructions on how to build a ZPM?”
“Please. Like I’d be here talking to you if I had,” Rodney scoffed. “But that’s actually not too far off.”
“Spill it then.”
“There’s a reference to a mining and manufacturing facility where the Ancients produced the metal for jumper hulls and building exteriors.” Excitement lit McKay’s eyes. “Not bad, huh?”
John raised an eyebrow as his mouth twisted to the side. “You want to start building jumpers?”
“No.” McKay huffed, his expression now shouting ‘you are such a moron.’ “But it takes a lot of power to do that kind of thing….”
“So, a possible ZPM,” John surmised. “Nice. When do we go?”
“Thought you were grounded for a couple of weeks,” Ronon reminded him.
A scowl darkened John’s features. “Crap. You’re right.”
“Hello?” McKay waved a hand. “I said ‘reference.’ We’re still trying to track down where it is. The Ancients weren’t exactly the best at leaving detailed instructions, you know.”
“That hasn’t escaped my attention,” John remarked dryly. “How long is it going to take for you to determine the location?”
“Well, you know how slow Zelenka is,” McKay hedged, his ears turning rosy. “It’ll probably take, um, about two weeks.”
Sometimes Rodney really did know the right thing to say. John couldn’t contain a grin. “Sounds perfect. Good job.”
McKay ducked his head but not before John caught the pleased look that flashed across his face. “Yeah, well, I guess I should get back. Busy man, you know.”
Teyla had been busy emptying the contents of her bag: several shrink-wrapped sandwiches, four bottles of water, a family-size bag of kettle-cooked potato chips, three chocolate-chip cookies and one white chocolate macadamia nut, and fresh mina berries from Elakai. Rodney’s eyes grew round.
“Too bad you don’t have time for lunch,” John teased.
McKay sniffed. “I am hypoglycemic. I shouldn’t skip meals. If I fai- pass out, I’ll lose more time than if I just stop and eat now.” He shot a hopeful glance at Teyla.
“I have brought enough for us all,” she said as she drew up a chair on John’s right. “Please stay and eat, Rodney.”
Ronon grabbed three sandwiches and a bottle of water then sprawled in the chair on John’s left. McKay nudged the food over and made himself comfortable on the end of the bed, a sandwich in one hand and a cookie in the other. Suddenly exhausted, John nibbled on the berries and wrapped the macadamia nut cookie in a napkin for later. Then, settling back in the bed, he drifted off to the sounds of his team targeting their next practical joke victim.
John spun, bringing the bantos rod in his right hand up to block and swinging with his left. His obliques – sore, stiff, and tight – rippled as he swung, reminding him of their newly-healed status. Teyla twirled away, quickly tapping his back with a stick.
“If you are to defeat your enemy, you must not be so obvious,” she chided.
He dropped to the floor and rolled on his back. “Shooting is so much easier.”
“Sometimes we do not have guns.”
Propping himself up on his right elbow, he heaved a sigh. “I know. But no matter how many times we do this, you’re still going to win.”
“It is not for the winning that we practice.”
“Everything is about the winning, Master Yoda.” Sheppard grinned, ducking the swat she aimed at his head as he climbed to his feet. “Besides, I’m improving.” At her arched brow, he amended, “A little.”
“Very little,” she replied with a smile. “How does your wound feel?”
“Not too bad. The exercise helps.”
“You will be ready for our mission tomorrow?”
“Of course. Don’t tell Rodney though. I’m gonna tell him I pulled something while sparring.”
Rolling her eyes, Teyla replaced the bantos rods and picked up her bag. “Do not blame me. I have no wish to have my dinner ruined. Again.”
“Aw, come on. You know the highlight of my day is stirring up McKay.”
“Yes, I am well aware. As is most of Atlantis. Most of the galaxy in fact.”
John shrugged, grinning. “What can I say? I bore easily. And the last couple of weeks have been boring.”
“Your boredom shall end tomorrow. Somehow I doubt your teasing of Rodney will.”
She said it with a smile that seemed a little frayed on the edges. The galaxy had been quiet during the time he’d been grounded – he was fairly certain the two were unrelated – and everyone was caught up: all reports filed, inventories taken, maintenance up-to-date, boots polished, guns cleaned. He’d actually washed, dried, and ironed all his uniforms the old fashioned way instead of using the super-quick Atlantis sonic laundry facilities. Even McKay had time on his hands, and God help the galaxy when both of them were bored. They must have driven Teyla and Ronon, and most likely all of Atlantis, crazy.
“Hey, if we, you know, went a little, um, overboard, I apologize.”
Her look softened and warmed. “There is no need to apologize to me. But you may want to consider speaking to Dr. Zelenka. He has not returned to the mess hall since that unfortunate incident with the volcano cake.”
Sheppard bit back a smile at the memory of Radek spluttering as chocolate-raspberry goo exploded all over him. “I’ll be sure to do that. Anyone else?”
“Other than Major Lorne, Chuck, and the entire medical staff? No.” Teyla gathered her belongings and headed to the door. “I will see you tonight at dinner.”
“Bye.” John managed to hold the laughter in until she was far enough away to not hear. He and Rodney had an ongoing war with Lorne and Chuck. They all made a conscious effort to keep the pranks out of the operational areas but had had no idea the medical staff was throwing an impromptu party on the East Pier, much less that the newest doctor, Seagoville, had a snake phobia. Apologies had been made and accepted, but his past few checkups hadn’t been exactly pleasant, and Rodney was already plotting how to avoid his next physical.
Tossing his towel around his neck and grabbing his gym bag, John went in search of Zelenka.
He found McKay instead.
“What?” Rodney was hunched over two laptops, brow furrowed in concentration.
“I’m looking for Zelenka.”
“First of all, I’m not his damn secretary. Second, why would you think he’d be in my lab?”
“You aren’t in your lab. You’re in his.”
Rodney’s head popped up, glancing at the neat surroundings. No coffee cups, no moldy plates, no PowerBar wrappers. “Oh. I guess that’s why he was here earlier.”
“And where is he now?”
“Still not his secretary.”
“Fine,” John sighed. “What are you working on?”
McKay’s face lit up. “MALP analysis of 434. The gate is-”
“I just told- Oh, the planet for tomorrow’s mission – M5R-434. The gate is inside.”
“Some kind of building. It’s huge, has a massive power source. And… life signs.”
John’s gut clenched. “Human?”
“You’re sure? ‘Cause the only other place-”
“Yes, yes. Not a nanite to be found. I reran the data several times. I didn’t want to take any chances.” Rodney’s face was open, vulnerable, for a split second before the walls of smugness reasserted themselves. “Any other questions?”
“How many life signs?”
“It fluctuates as people go in and out of range. I’ve counted as many as thirty at one time, but I’m sure there are lots more. Did I mention the place was huge?”
“Yes, you did,” Sheppard replied thoughtfully. “Big enough for a jumper to fly into?”
“Probably, but I wouldn’t recommend it, enclosed space and all. Too many variables.”
John perched on the stool next to McKay and studied the monitor where MALP video flickered, showing a dark, cavernous room and no people. Not one. In the fifteen minutes of film they had, nobody appeared. It was odd. And it made him nervous.
He could feel Rodney’s eyes on him. “Is there anything concrete in the database about this place beyond the purpose of the facility? Did the Ancients populate the planet?”
McKay shook his head. “Nothing. There’s the vague reference about having a manufacturing facility and a list of planets rich in the proper ore. This is the only one of those worlds with a gate. But that’s it. If the Ancients seeded the planet with life, they forgot to mention it.”
“So it’s possible someone found it and made it their home?”
“This is the Pegasus Galaxy. It’s possible that we’ve found Krypton.”
John chuckled. “If it weren’t for the fact that I regularly travel to alien planets through wormholes, fly this city with my mind, and do battle with space vampires, I’d think you were joking. If that ore glows green….”
The corner of Rodney’s mouth tipped upward. “That would be cool.” He sighed wistfully. “It would be cooler if it rendered the Wraith powerless.”
“Yeah,” Sheppard agreed.
They stared at the scrolling data in silence for a minute, lost in the possibilities. Exhaling loudly, John pushed to his feet. “Ready for lunch?”
Rodney wrinkled his nose. “I am. You aren’t. You smell like old gym shoes.”
“Subtle as always. I’ll meet you in fifteen minutes. Don’t eat all the lasagna before I get there.”
Years of gate travel had taught Rodney to keep both hands on his P-90 when they stepped onto a new world. Once they established that no one was trying to kill them immediately, he could begin scanning. Adrenaline coursed through his veins as the wormhole whooshed to life and his body dematerialized. He gripped the automatic weapon tightly as they emerged on M5R-434 and squinted as his eyes adjusted to the crude lighting strung along the walls, small haphazard rectangles of weak yellow.
“What is this? The dark ages?” Rodney fished the life signs detector from his vest pocket with one hand and his scanner with the other. “No one in the immediate vicinity, and no-”
The scanner read a massive spike in power a half-second before the lights came on. All of them.
“What the hell? McKay, what just happened?” Sheppard demanded, squinting as his knuckles turned white around his P-90.
“Give me a minute.” Stuffing the LSD in a pocket, he adjusted a few settings on the scanner. “The energy readings are off the charts.” He rotated slowly. “The power source is close by but not in this room, straight ahead of us I think. The whole place went active at the same time so everything’s a little screwy. I don’t even know where to start.”
His team closed in around him, Sheppard in front with Teyla and Ronon at his sides, the unfamiliar sight of an M16 in Ronon’s hands catching his attention.
Checking the LSD again, Rodney warned, “We’ve got people headed this way.”
The tension around him ratcheted up another few notches.
John lifted his P-90 to his shoulder. “How soon?”
“Not enough time to dial out if that’s what you’re thinking. They-”
“-have arrived,” Teyla announced quietly.
“Oh, crap,” John groaned.
“What?” Rodney craned his neck to peek over Sheppard’s shoulder. “Oh.”
Five men approached cautiously, hands hovering above the weapons strapped to their waists. They wore dark charcoal uniforms made of a heavy fabric with textured lapels, and their boots made no sound as they walked across the slate floor. They kept their expressions neutral, but their eyes never stopped moving.
Strangely, Sheppard relaxed a bit and stepped forward, one hand raised in a placating gesture. “Hi. I’m Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard. This is Teyla Emmagan, Ronon Dex, and Dr. Rodney McKay. Um, nice place you’ve got here.”
One man, a bit taller than Sheppard with a steel gaze and closely shorn brown hair spoke. “What is your business here?”
“We are explorers, traders,” Teyla answered in her most congenial voice. “We wished to make your acquaintance.”
Another man, wiry with disheveled blond hair, entered and walked quickly to the side of the first man, leaning close and whispering.
The smaller man shrugged. “It’s the only explanation.”
Ronon’s eyes focused on the blasters the soldiers carried. “Sheppard? Are they-”
“Yeah, they are.”
“They are what?” Teyla asked quietly.
“Travelers,” John stated.
The leader glanced up sharply. “You have heard of us?”
John grimaced. “Ever met a ship’s commander named Larrin?”
Recognition and amusement flashed on the man’s face. “And you lived? Unusual. I am Selar, head of security for this facility.”
“Nice to meet you.” John placed a hand on top of Ronon’s M16 and gently pushed until the muzzle pointed toward the floor.
“We don’t have many visitors,” Selar said as he waved his men into an at-ease position. “Especially not ones that carry the genes of the Ancestors. Parov here,” he gestured to the blond man, “thinks you are responsible for powering up the facility.”
“What makes you say that?” Rodney asked.
“We’ve been here for over twenty years,” Selar answered. “This is the first time the lights have ever come on, and the control room lit up when you walked through the gate. I don’t believe in coincidence.”
“Neither do I,” McKay replied. “Why are you here?”
Parov’s eyes dimmed. “Our ship-”
“Our council,” Selar interrupted, “would be better suited to answer your questions. This way.”
Rodney pulled out the scanner as he followed Sheppard. The readings were still going nuts, and he couldn’t get a firm lock on where. Shoving it back in his pocket, he tried to look at everything at once. The stargate was in the upper left corner of the room on a dais – one not built by the Ancients – and the DHD was off to the side. The room lacked the magnificence of Atlantis’ gateroom but was similar in scale. Lights that were bright but not harsh ringed the ceiling, illumining every corner. Shelving obviously made by the Travelers lined the wall to the right of the gate and extended six rows deep, filled with objects that varied in size from smaller than his fist to bigger than Ronon. Half the opposite wall was glass, exposing a two-story control room with a spiral staircase in the center. The other half was smooth and bare. What he assumed to be exterior doors were in the lower right corner, next to the smooth wall, and between the gate and the shelving. The air was musty and heavy with the scent of machine oil, electricity, and a combination of elements resembling burning sulfur and chlorine.
Not realizing he’d stopped, he glanced up to find the group staring at him, Sheppard’s expression an interesting mix of irritation and concern.
“Sorry,” he mumbled. “Coming.”
The door to the control room was in the warehouse’s upper right corner, and while typical Ancient door controls now glowed to the side, a metal bar kept the door jammed open. Selar gestured for them to enter. Consoles that were covered in dust and debris blinked happily, and a dizzying amount of information scrolled across the displays. Pulling out his scanner unobtrusively as Selar excused himself to alert the council, he strolled through the room, noting a communications relay, a bioscanner, readouts for various mining devices, and a set of controls that he’d never seen before but clearly read “Transport” in Ancient. But the far corner held the only console that mattered to him. He had to restrain himself from kissing it.
His scanner confirmed it – three magnificent, barely used ZPMs.
Not taking his eyes off it, he called, “Um, Sheppard? Could you come here for a minute?”
Heavy boots clomped next to him. “What is- Oh, that’s beautiful.”
“Yeah,” Rodney sighed.
“Do you recognize it?” Parov asked. “We surmised that it was the power core, but I’ve never been able to make it work. And I wouldn’t let anyone else touch it for fear we would destroy ourselves.”
“We call them zero point modules.” Rodney pressed a button on the console, and the ZPMs rose, glowing gold and amber. “They extract vacuum energy obtained from an artificial region of subspace time.”
Parov looked sufficiently awed. “We’ve attempted to create similar types of energy with no success.”
“Same here.” Rodney grimaced at the memories. “If you aren’t using the ZPMs to power this place, what are you using? I’m assuming from the inventory on the shelves and the smell that you’re manufacturing something.”
“We had to create our own power source and manufacturing equipment. We aren’t inept, Dr. McKay. I’ve been designing hyperdrives since I was a boy. Without the Ancestral gene, however, nothing here works.”
“Which is odd. We haven’t found any other Ancient, uh, Ancestral place where the gene was needed to operate everything.” McKay glanced at Sheppard. “A defense against sabotage?”
“Or more paranoia as the war continued. Maybe this was a newer facility with more safeguards.”
“Parov, what’s going on here?” Selar demanded.
Jerking guiltily, Parov swiveled to face him. “We were merely discussing the power core. Dr. McKay was explaining how-”
“Enough.” Selar’s hand rested on the grip of his weapon as he turned to Sheppard. “I would ask that you not touch anything here without permission.” His tone didn’t brook any argument. “Come with me.”
Rodney lowered the ZPMs into their console and followed the group up the spiral staircase. The second level was cleaner than the first. Computer terminals, of non-Ancient design, covered every square inch of the consoles, a complex spider web of wires running along the floor, up the walls, across the ceiling. A dozen or so people occupied the area, all of them pounding frantically on the computers. While the exterior wall was made of metal, the other three walls were transparent glass, one side overlooking the warehouse and the other the operational areas of the building. Muffled shouts from those areas carried through the glass. Moving to the wall, he frowned at the chaos below.
“You happened,” a woman snapped. Petite with flame red hair and angry eyes, she poked McKay in the chest as she glared up at him. “We have spent years bringing this facility to full capacity, rewiring every piece of machinery and adding our own until we finally were able to produce enough to meet demand. Then you walk in, and everything is ruined. Ruined!”
“I hardly think that I’m responsible for your incompetent mess. In fact-”
“McKay, knock it off,” Sheppard ordered.
“She started it.” He rubbed the spot she’d poked. “I mean, look at this place.”
“Rodney,” Teyla wrapped an arm through his, “remember what we discussed.”
“But- fine.” He stared daggers at Red and moved to stand by Ronon.
A serious man with iron gray hair spoke a word to her. Shoulders slumping, she nodded wearily and returned to her chair to begin typing again.
“My apologies,” the man said. “I am Garlon, commander of this facility. Selar has told me who you are. Please forgive Vekrel. When the power came on, the modifications we had made to the equipment shorted out. We have numerous injuries, and we are trying to effect repairs.”
“Why don’t you just turn the power off?” Ronon asked.
“We have tried,” Garlon replied. “Our power source overloaded a few minutes ago. We’ve never used these consoles before. We’ve been trying to figure out which one works what.”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Rodney muttered.
Glancing out again, he noted two distinct areas. To his left was processing – large smelting equipment that removed the impurities from the mined ore and added additional components to create the metal they used. To the right was the manufacturing area where a staggering number of machines cut, bent, and twisted the metal into the necessary shapes. These machines were Traveler technology – crude and clumsy-looking in comparison to the surrounding Ancient devices although they were more advanced than most Earth-based equipment. Many of the Ancient machines had been ripped out, tossed in a corner like yesterday’s garbage. The problem was with the ones still in place. So many wires ran from them to either a power source or a Traveler’s machine that he couldn’t follow them.
Sparks flew. People screamed. One man was caught in a press, struggling to free himself as it continued to pull him in. An assembly area had been added, but all the devices had been swept off the tables to make way for the injured. A fire smoldered in one corner while a saw spun wildly in another. As soon as they got one thing fixed something else went wrong.
“McKay, can you help them?” Sheppard asked quietly.
The blood drain from Rodney’s face as a worker with most of her clothes burned away was helped to a table. “If they’ll let me.”
Sheppard cleared his throat and turned to Garlon. “Look, we didn’t mean for this to happen; we had no idea our presence would cause harm. Please believe me that it was never our intention. But we can help you if you’ll let us. Rodney knows more about these consoles than anyone. We can assist with the wounded, whatever you need.”
“If you could shut down the power-”
“It’s a trick,” the red-haired woman hissed.
Garlon glanced from her to Sheppard and back. “If it is, Vekrel, they’ll die. Painfully.” He exchanged a significant look with Selar then turned to Rodney. “Can you shut off the power?”
Shoving computer terminals to the side, McKay scrutinized the consoles around the room. Most reported their equipment as offline; others showed errors and malfunctions.
“Just unplug the ZPMs,” Sheppard suggested.
“If I do, we lose everything. He said their power source had overloaded. It would be pitch black in here, and they have wounded.”
“Then hurry it up.”
“Stop bothering me.”
He finally spotted it – a small panel in a corner covered in design specs. With the papers removed, “Emergency Shut-off” in large Ancient letters glowed brightly on the display. Pulling his tablet from his back, he connected it quickly and ordered the proper shut-down sequence. Moments later, the machines below whirred to a stop. Most of the people rushed from the room, leaving him and his team with Garlon, Vekrel, Parov, Selar, and a couple of guards.
Garlon inclined his head. “Thank you for your assistance.”
“Please allow us to contact our medical personnel to help with your injured,” Teyla requested.
“That will not be necessary.” Garlon tugged on the hem of his uniform jacket. “Our doctors are quite capable.”
“I meant no offense,” she responded. “We merely wish to help.”
“I think you’ve done enough,” Vekrel snarled.
Sheppard pasted on his most sincere expression. “We really didn’t mean to cause any trouble. We didn’t know you lived here. As Teyla said earlier, we’re explorers, and we are always looking for allies. If you think too much has transpired for that to be possible, we’ll go home and leave you in peace. But we would really like to learn more about you and your people.”
Garlon studied them carefully, meeting each person’s eyes. Rodney tried not to fidget and reminded himself not to flinch, gazing back with what he hoped was a friendly yet confident air. Teyla smiled genially; Ronon stood to his full height and looked fearsome; Sheppard simply stared back, his expression inscrutable.
“Parov,” Garlon said, “please give our guests a tour of the building while we finish cleaning up. Our midday mealtime begins shortly, Sheppard. We would like for you to join us.”
It almost sounded like a request.
Sheppard arched a brow at Ronon who frowned then shrugged. Teyla gave a small nod. Rodney’s stomach growled when Sheppard glanced at him.
“I guess we know where you stand, McKay,” John chuckled, the amusement not reaching his eyes. “We’d love to stay for lunch, Garlon. Thanks for the invitation.”
“I will see you then. Parov, Selar.”
Parov gestured to the staircase. “This way, please.”
They wound down the stairs and exited through a door in the first floor control room into the processing area. The air smelled singed with a strong undercurrent of chemicals.
Indicating a large door to the left, Parov began. “That is the entrance to the mine. This building is built into the side of a large mountain range rich in an ore we refer to as arlinot. We believe it to be the same ore used by the Ancestors in the construction of their ships and structures. Very durable, it has a multitude of uses including weaponry and engine parts. Would you like to see it?”
“Yes,” Rodney answered.
“No,” Sheppard and Selar chorused.
“Oh.” Parov leaned close. “Perhaps later, Dr. McKay.” Straightening, he smiled weakly at Selar. “Continuing then.” They walked slowly through the processing area. “Once the ore is brought in, we begin the purification process. It took us over two years to perfect it – knowing what to remove and what to add to create the proper strength. We have several different mixtures based on whether the metal is for-”
“No need for specifics, Parov,” Selar said. “Just the highlights please.”
Rodney glanced at Sheppard who frowned and moved to his side. “Ronon and I will keep Selar entertained. See what you can get out of Parov. I want to know what they’re hiding.”
He nodded and smiled encouragingly at Parov as Sheppard ambled next to Ronon and asked loudly, “How can you possibly think Darth Vader was tougher than Sauron? Not only did Sauron exist for thousands of years, he had no redeeming qualities. Vader was turned in the end.”
Ronon blinked then rolled his eyes. “Sauron was held captive for all that time. Vader actively persecuted the Rebellion, killing as many as he could, including his teacher, Obi-wan Kenobi.”
McKay had a sudden coughing fit when Teyla chimed in. “You are both incorrect. No one was worse than Cruella DeVille.”
Parov patted his shoulder gently. “Are you well, Dr. McKay?”
Rodney waved a hand at him. “Fine, fine. Just got a little smoke in my lungs. Now, I, for one, love details. What kinds of things do you need the metal for?”
The man’s eyes slid to Selar who was completely enraptured with the heinous offenses of the best movie villains of all time. “Follow me.”
They strolled through the smelting equipment until they reached the manufacturing area. The wounded were gone, and several workers cleaned while others were busy making repairs.
“As I said earlier,” Parov began, “I have been designing hyperdrives since I was young. The majority of what we manufacture here is engine parts. Although more effective technology would be best, I simply don’t have the time. It takes every minute of the day to keep the machines working. Our population has outgrown the capacity of our ships, and we’re so busy trying to keep everyone alive, we don’t have the ability to build new ones. A vicious circle.”
“How often do your ships come by?”
The flush started at the base of the man’s neck, and his voice grew hard. “Not often enough. The last one was here just over three years ago.”
“Three years? Why so long?”
“For our protection, or so they say.” Parov sighed heavily. “The Wraith haven’t found us yet, and the governing council of our people doesn’t want ships to come too often for fear of revealing our position.”
“How do you get the parts to them?”
“We have scheduled meeting times and locations. We take the parts with us when we go on trading ventures to other worlds.”
McKay grinned to himself as Sheppard waxed poetic about the virtues of Han Solo while Teyla pointed out the intelligence and courage of Leia Organa.
“What are your friends talking about?” Parov asked.
“Oh, uhhh, some heroes from back home. How long have you lived here?”
“About ten years. The ship commanders are not allowed to go over fifteen percent occupancy. When they reach that limit, they determine how many people need to be left behind. The name of each family is input in the computer, and a random selection is made.”
“Are you sure it’s random?”
White spots appeared on Parov’s cheeks. “I always believed so until….”
“Until?” Rodney prompted.
“If you’ll come this way,” Parov called loudly, “We’ll make our way through the living quarters to the dining area. The midday meal will be served soon.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean-”
“-until I was chosen. I’d had a disagreement with my ship’s commander over how hard he was pushing the engines. I questioned his authority, in his mind, in front of the bridge crew. Suddenly the ship was overcrowded, and I was ‘chosen’ to be offloaded. I knew the count. We were still two hundred people under the limit.”
“Wow. Um, I mean, uh-”
“Right through here.”
A door on the wall opposite the control room was propped open with another metal bar. What had once been the living area for a couple dozen Ancients now housed about a hundred Travelers. The rooms, smaller than the control room in Atlantis, held beds for up to five people. Cots, bedrolls, and blankets lined the corridor; boxes no bigger than medkits sat next to each one and apparently contained all their worldly possessions based on the few meager items he saw as he passed. More crude lighting fixtures hung from the ceiling, and wires lined the floors and walls. He had no idea how they had been able to see before the facility powered up. Panic raced up his spine and stabbed at his heart as the walls closed in around him.
“You okay?” Sheppard asked.
“Wide open spaces,” Rodney mumbled as he pulled at his collar and wiped the sweat pouring down his face. “Were their ships like this?”
“I take it back. All of it. You can get kidnapped by the sexy alien anytime.”
“This has to beat being cocooned on a hive,” John said.
“I was too afraid of dying to think about it at the time, but thanks for bringing it up.”
Parov’s brows puckered. “Dr. McKay?”
“He’ll be fine,” Sheppard answered. “Is there a place more, um, open?”
“Yes, our dining area is in the next section.”
The last two rooms were a makeshift hospital. People spilled into the corridor and out another door that lead into the manufacturing and assembly area. Blood smears on walls and the floor accentuated the seriousness of the situation. Several individuals were unconscious, but, from what he could tell, the two medics were working as fast as they could.
“I have told you, Sheppard, that we will handle this ourselves.”
“Surely you’re not going to let your pride get in the way of helping your people.”
The security chief’s eyes narrowed, and his tone was clipped. “Tell me, Sheppard. If I had walked into your city unannounced with a few armed men, and my presence initiated a cascade of malfunctions that resulted in the maiming of several of your personnel, would you willingly let me bring more of my people in?”
“Rather than stand there and watch them die? Hell, yes.” Sheppard glanced down as he took a calming breath. “We are not your enemy.”
“I only have your word for that. I haven’t received confirmation yet from Commander Larrin. The only reason you’re still alive is on the off-chance that she really does know you. You’d better hope she’s feeling generous today.”
Selar spun on his heel and disappeared through the opening in front of them. Sheppard took a last look at the injured.
“Damn fool,” John muttered before following him through.
Rodney was on his heels, mentally begging for fresh air and blue sky. Unfortunately, all he got was a bigger room, admittedly an improvement, with rows of tables and chairs. As with every other place he’d seen so far, there was not an inch of space to spare. About fifty workers and several council members ate rapidly, not lifting their eyes from the food. Parov indicated one of the tables while Selar continued into what McKay assumed was the kitchen.
“Are you all right, Rodney?” Teyla asked.
He took a seat at the table next to Sheppard and across from Ronon. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just need some water- oh, thank God.”
A young adult, no more than fourteen, poured cold sparkling clean water from a pitcher. He was so thin he was almost see-through with short brown hair and bore a frightening resemblance to Selar. The boy smiled shyly at them, blushing furiously when Teyla thanked him for the water.
“What’s your name?” Sheppard asked.
“Setrel.” He shot a furtive glance toward the kitchen. “Are you really Ancestors?”
“Oh, please-” Rodney yelped when Ronon kicked him under the table.
“No, we are not.” Teyla answered. “But some of us have the ability to use Ancestor technology.”
Setrel was crestfallen. “Oh. We thought- Silly, I guess – the Ancestors returning after all this time. We had hoped when you arrived and everything came on….”
“Hope isn’t silly,” Ronon replied. “Sometimes it’s all you’ve got.”
“Besides,” Sheppard added, “you seem to be doing pretty well on your own.”
“My father says that, too,” Setrel responded.
“Is Selar your father?” Teyla asked
Setrel blushed again at the attention. “Yes.” He straightened as pride filled his face. “He keeps all of us safe. Even the Others.”
“Setrel!” Selar’s voice boomed in the rapidly emptying room. “You are needed at your station.” He glared at John as he returned. “You will not question any of our people without my permission.”
Sheppard’s mouth opened then closed with a snap, and his ears turned red – a sure sign of his mounting anger. “Sorry. We were just trying to be friendly.”
Garlon and Vekrel rushed in, Garlon sitting at the head of the table with Teyla to his left and Sheppard to his right. Vekrel took the seat next to Ronon and Parov next to McKay. Setrel and a girl about his age entered carrying plates heaped with steaming vegetables and roasted meat. A basket of fresh bread was placed in the center of the table.
Rodney blinked in surprise and turned to Sheppard. “I thought you said that they had some kind of processed crap to eat.” He could feel Teyla’s ire aimed in his direction and lowered his voice. “This looks better than we get at home.”
John stabbed a slice of an orange vegetable and took a deep breath before chewing heartily. “Wow. This is great. Who did you trade with to get this kind of quality?”
The Travelers ignored him, focusing on their meals. Sheppard arched a brow at Teyla who shrugged slightly before sampling her meal. Her eyes widened in surprise.
“Indeed, this is delicious. My compliments to whoever cooked this.”
Garlon inclined his head at her words. “The ones too young to work in the factory are assigned duties in the living quarters and kitchen. I am pleased you appreciate their efforts.”
Rodney watched Ronon shovel a bite of everything in quickly then give a nod. No citrus. He tucked into the meal, unaware for once of how hungry he’d been until that moment. The food was incredible – several different vegetables sautéed in a buttery sauce that brought out the flavor of each to full effect. The meat was perfectly roasted and also full of flavor while the bread was crispy on the outside and soft inside.
Sheppard dropped his fork and leaned down to pick it up. “Find out from Parov where this food comes from and who the Others are.”
Rolling his eyes, Sheppard wiped the utensil carefully with a napkin and resumed eating. McKay tried to think of a way to bring it up casually, but the room was so silent he knew he’d never be able to do it without alerting Selar who was standing near the kitchen entrance, flanked by his guards and watching their every movement. Rodney would be lucky if the man hadn’t already figured out what Sheppard wanted him to do.
The meal finished in an uncomfortable silence. Garlon thanked Setrel as he and the girl removed the plates and refilled the water. Standing, he paced the length of the room once then turned to them.
“We still have not heard from Commander Larrin. We would ask that you stay with us for a while longer.”
Ronon snorted quietly at the non-request.
“Is there anything you require?” Garlon asked.
“Um, yeah. A bathroom,” Sheppard requested.
Garlon’s brows shot up to his hairline. “You wish to bathe?”
“Colonel Sheppard is asking for a place to empty his bladder,” Teyla explained.
“Oh, of course. My apologies. I should have thought of that earlier.” To his credit, Garlon didn’t appear nearly as mortified as Sheppard. “Selar, would you show them to the functionals?”
“Certainly.” Selar gestured toward the living quarters. “This way.”
To Part 2.