"Now this is the kind of place that needs a gate." John looked through the jumper's forward window at the clear azure sky as it merged with endless blue ocean. Perfect, frothing waves pounded along miles of unmarred white sandy beaches that lined the coasts of a string of large island masses. The HUD appeared on command, showing the surface temperature to be a balmy 88 degrees Fahrenheit. "This has got to be the next best thing to paradise."
"Paradise would include hula girls, indoor amenities, and non citrus beverages," Rodney muttered from the seat behind him.
John knew without looking that the other man never even bothered to take in the view, more interested in what was displayed on his computer screen. John rolled his eyes and took the jumper in close enough for the spray to caress the bottom of the vessel. He would have to use his imagination to know what it would feel like against his skin.
"It is beautiful," Teyla agreed from the copilot's seat. "It would make a wonderful alpha site, or perhaps a suitable world to visit for R & R." She smiled in John's direction.
"Maybe some surfing," Ronon put in from the seat behind Teyla.
John grinned at the both of them. "Now, that's what I'm talking about. There are plenty of other gates we can use for the midway station. And since there are no humanoid life signs, this place probably isn't even on the Wraith's radar."
"Because there are no life signs is more likely why the Wraith wouldn't be interested in it. Ironically, that is also precisely why it would be a good gate to harvest," Rodney argued. "We still need another 3 backup gates for the Pegasus side of the bridge. This world has a space gate. Space gates are always the best choice because then we don't take the risk of accidentally cutting someone off from the gate network who didn't already have access."
John nodded disinterestedly through Rodney's explanation and then pointed to the perfectly clear sand below. "Just look at it . . . untouched by human feet."
"And probably loaded with vermin, stinging critters, and poisonous crustaceans anyway. Our presence is not required to make a place unpleasant."
"Unpleasant?" John turned to look askance at his friend. "That's it," he decided. "I'm going to put down, check it out. It's roughly lunch time, and we have to make absolutely sure before we take the gate, right? I say we need further study."
Teyla and Ronon smiled their agreement.
"Come on, are you serious?" Rodney was the lone dissenter. "We need to get this done."
"I emphasize the fact that these are backup gates, Rodney. The regular gates in the chain are already set up and working. It's going to be months before the Midway station is finished, anyway. Hence, I don't think this is all that urgent."
"That is not the point. What if something happens to one of the gates in the chain? We won't have time to go gate hunting at the last minute. It's best to have a system in place before we need it."
"Colonel Carter's already got the backup gates in place for the Milky Way side, hasn't she?" John asked, knowingly. Rodney's urgency was beginning to make sense.
"She's only got two out of three." Rodney didn't sound happy about the confession. "But that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with this. I have my own personal deadlines that I hold myself—"
"We're going in," John said, searching for the best spot on the nearest sandy coast. "Besides, you owe me."
"Owe you?" Rodney's voice squeaked. "For what?"
"Oh, let's see. How about that alien moon station that ended up being full of buffer people? The one where I was forced to land a shuttle with no power or landing gear."
"If you'll recall I argued against that."
"So you're saying we shouldn't have rescued Teyla?" John shot back.
"No, I'm just saying that . . . ."
"Because we wouldn't have ever gotten into that situation if a certain scientist didn't decide to turn on the power."
"Fine," Rodney grumbled. "Go live out your adolescent surfer fantasies. But don't take too long. We've still got like four other worlds to check out. I don't want to get behind schedule."
"You're just in a hurry to see Samantha Carter again."
"Just . . . go already. I'm going to stay here and do some actual work."
"Suit yourself." John grinned broadly and settled the ship down in a clear spot far up the beach and near sparsely growing tropical looking trees. It reminded him of something from a vacation brochure. Too bad he really hadn't known to bring his surfboard. But that didn't mean they couldn't enjoy the place while Rodney continued his readings.
"Come on, kids." He turned toward Ronon and Teyla. "Let's go have a field trip."
"It is quite lovely here." Teyla's lips quirked upward as she stepped off of the jumper's ramp after Ronon. The ocean breeze blew at her hair, sweeping it away from her face. She drew in a deep breath. The smell was different here than on Atlantis. There was brine, yes, but there was a subtly sweeter undertone.
Ronon grinned back at her as he strode out onto the white sands, leaving large booted footprints in his wake. "I'm going for a swim," he announced, shrugging out of his skin vest as he went. The sun's gentle warmth gleamed off his golden skin.
"Hold on a minute," John called after him. "We need to make sure it's safe first."
"Looks safe," Ronon called over his shoulder, but he stopped anyway, waiting for John to catch up to him. Teyla looked on as the two men continued toward the water's edge, John carrying the sample test kit.
"For all we know this could be acid or something." Teyla could just make out John's soft words over the sound of the waves crashing against the shore.
"You sound like McKay." Ronon's rumbling voice carried better than John's. Whatever John replied was lost as they moved farther away. Teyla allowed her smile full rein as she continued across the sands, leaving them to their task. She had no intention of going in; she was content to wander along the beach, enjoying the way her boots sank gently into the soft sand.
She found a bit of driftwood farther along the beach, near sparsely growing trees. The wood was crusted with ocean residue but seemed mostly dry. No tiny creatures seemed to inhabit it, so she settled down on it, resting her P-90 beside her. The weapon hardly seemed necessary on this peaceful world.
A yell reached her amid the ocean noises and she opened her eyes to the sight of her teammates frolicking at the water's edge like children.
Both men had removed their shoes and rolled up their pants legs. Their discarded belongings were visible as dark lumps against the white sand farther away from the surf. They seemed intent on besting one another at some game whose rules only the two of them knew.
She laughed outright when John went down just as a wave came in. He landed on his backside and the rushing waters caught him full in the face. He rolled with the foaming wash and came up sputtering. Ronon, having caused the incident in the first place, backed away pointing and laughing.
John stood and charged after Ronon, who turned and ran in the opposite direction along the beach. It was good to see her teammates so carefree. This indeed seemed an idyllic world.
"Get back to the jumper! Something's wrong!"
The words came so close on the heels of her thought that for a moment Teyla thought she'd imagined them, but then she saw Rodney on the jumper's ramp, waving frantically.
"Rodney? What is it?" Teyla called. Both John and Ronon stopped running and turned to look back in the direction of the jumper. Their rough-housing had taken them a fair distance from the ship.
"There's something moving out there," Rodney yelled, gesturing forcefully toward the crashing waves. The whole of his countenance suggested danger.
"Any idea what?" John yelled as he tagged Ronon's shoulder. They both headed back toward the jumper at a jog. Teyla was already headed back as well. She would reach it before they did.
Her senses were on high alert as she moved quickly across the sand, checking the trees behind her and the ocean surf ahead. She saw only the waves; nothing seemed out of place.
And then a shape formed, very close to the shoreline.
"Rodney!" she called, close enough to see the worried blue of his eyes. "There!" She pointed toward something sliding quickly through the waters. Whatever it was, it was wide, perhaps once and again the width of a man, and long. It reminded her very much of the coffins she had seen at one of the military memorial services. But as it drew nearer, she saw that it was segmented, bearing shorter narrower sections at its front and back. The segmented portions seemed to rise and fall with the flow of the waves. As she looked on, others of them came into view. Their sleek metallic blue-gray had been nearly lost against the waters.
She reached the ramp just as the first of the objects reached shore. Their segmented motion changed when they washed onto the sand. They seemed even larger against the white granules, with the long middle section being easily 7 feet or more. Three more of the machines broke the surface and changed course toward her friends.
"Sheppard! Ronon! Hurry up!"
They'd already seen them and broke into a run, barely taking the time to stoop and grab their belongings before they sprinted on toward the jumper. Teyla remained by the back ramp as Rodney brought the ship online. The ramp was rising as they neared.
Teyla pressed herself against the bench as first Ronon, then John leapt up onto the ramp just as Rodney lifted off. Ronon's skin was damp with perspiration, and the bottom edges of his trousers were speckled with water. It was difficult to tell whether John was truly perspiring as he already looked half drowned.
"What the hell was that?" John demanded, dropping his belongings as he stormed toward the front of the jumper. Rodney exchanged the copilot's seat for the pilot's, allowing John to settle wetly against the cushion. "I thought you said there were no life signs!"
"Whatever those were, they weren't alive," Rodney shot back. "They were mechanical. Someone or something made them."
John seemed to absorb that. "Who? And where did they come from? And what did they want with us?"
"I don't know," Rodney responded. "They didn't register on the sensors until they were really close to the surface."
Teyla watched through the view screen as John steered the jumper in a wide arc to hover at a distance from where the machines were gathered.
Against the backdrop of sand, the details of their blue-gray segments were more obvious. They closed in on something lying on the white sand. Long pincer-like protrusions folded away from the body of one of the machines and retrieved the object. Once it was lifted from the ground, it became obvious what it was. A compartment slid open atop the machine and the object was dropped inside. As one, the machines reversed back toward the water and disappeared beneath the surf.
Teyla's brows rose and her gaze strayed downward to John's bare, wet feet.
"Was that your . . . uh, your boot?" Rodney spoke into the weighted silence.
John did not answer the question. But Teyla was certain that even his toes clenched, which was response enough.
John heard the snicker that Ronon didn't try to hide, and Rodney's wide-eyed questioning look was going to morph into laughter at any moment. The hard, ridged surface of the jumper's floor was cutting into the flesh of his feet and despite the fact that his uniform trousers felt cold and damp, his face and neck felt on fire.
"Way to give them the boot, Sheppard," McKay said, the expected laughter heavy in his tone.
"Not funny, McKay," John responded.
"Really appreciate the way you shoed them away." Rodney chuckled under his breath.
"Still not." John got the jumper moving again and directed it out toward the ocean, before gently easing the vessel into the deeper waters. Blue closed in all around them, casting a subdued hue over everything. Forward lights came on automatically, playing against colorful underwater reefs and schools of tiny fish.
"Wait. What are you doing?" Rodney demanded, all signs of humor gone from his face.
"You're a man of science, McKay. Figure it out." John called up the HUD in an attempt to track those machines. He didn't want to get too close in case there was something bigger down there.
"Going after them to get your boot back isn't all that scientific. Don't you have another pair back on Atlantis?"
John sighed. Sometimes McKay failed to see the obvious. "Don't you find it the least bit interesting that those technologically advanced machines came out of the water on a supposedly uninhabited world?"
"Well, yes." Rodney's response was meek. "Being underwater kind of shook me up a little." He cleared his throat and then went to work on his computer. "Although I do understand your need not to leave a shoe-venir behind," he said, getting in another crack.
"Were you able to tell if the machines were of Ancestor origin?" Teyla cut in. John shot her a grateful look and then waited for Rodney's response. It was a good question.
"The outer design was pretty nondescript, and the jumper sensed their motion more than anything else—and then only because I was looking for something like that. But if I could get a look at the internal design or the programming I should be able to tell for sure."
"Well, let's hope they lead us to home base," John replied, following the points of light on the HUD that indicated the smaller machines. The jumper sped along above a rich variety of dark rock and reef formations. Some of the larger reef arches were big enough to fly the jumper through, clearly visible in the translucent blue water. Still the jumper remained far behind the machines.
"Whatever those things are, they're pretty fast." Ronon spoke what John was thinking.
"Yeah, they are." John glanced back, noting that his friend had at some point put his footwear and shirt back on. He suppressed a sigh. At least he'd gotten his gun.
Suddenly the signals winked out.
"What just happened?" Rodney asked of no one in particular. He started pressing commands on his tablet.
"They just vanished off the HUD," John added, focusing out into the deep blue ahead of them, looking for any sign of their targets. He moved the jumper higher, hoping for a better visual of the area ahead. "Are you getting anything at all?" he asked Rodney.
"Nothing. It doesn't make sense. If they went in deeper, sensors should still pick them up. They're just gone." Rodney punched commands into the equipment as if it had betrayed him.
"Could they have hidden among the reefs?" Teyla asked.
"I'm not getting any indication that the reefs are blocking sensors," Rodney responded. "But that doesn't necessarily mean that they aren't." His motions became more determined, as though Teyla had given him an idea.
John slowed the ship as they reached the place where the machines had seemed to disappear. He brought the jumper in closer to the floor, skimming above the brown-and-white, crusted surface that stretched out before them. The HUD was completely clear.
"What happened to the fish?" Ronon asked as he leaned forward and looked up in the direction of the sky.
"And the reefs?" Teyla added, though she seemed more focused on what was beneath them.
John looked around. They were right. The part of the ocean they were in was clear of the schools of the brightly colored minifish and the reef formations that had characterized much of the ocean floor earlier.
"I don't know. But there is definitely something different here." John looked to McKay. "Rodney, you got anything?"
Rodney looked up from his computer. "And I'm supposed to have the answer, because . . . ?"
"Because we've all done our parts and given you all the clues. No fish, no reefs, something strange about this place." John gave him an expectant look. "Your turn. Tell us something brilliant."
Rodney glared at him before looking out of the view screen. "Huh." He frowned and consulted his computer again. "Try landing the jumper," he suggested.
"So, that's what you're going with?" John teased, but he did as Rodney suggested. The jumper settled toward the ocean floor with ease. John slowed their descent as he neared the bottom, not wanting to ruin his record of petal soft landings.
The bottom never came.
"What the—?" His eyes widened as the jumper continued to descend through a thin layer of what had appeared to be the ocean floor before being surrounded again by darker blue waters. He turned a surprised gaze on McKay.
"How's that for brilliant?" McKay wore a smug grin. "We've just passed through a cloaking field of some kind. And yes, boys and girls, it does appear to be of Ancient design."
John hovered just beneath the field, taking in the darkness below. The waters were not as clear as those above, and the fish and other sea life were not a part of the new section of ocean.
Best he could tell, they were in a very wide irregular trench. The rocky walls stretched ahead of the jumper on either side, winding into the distance before them. Below, he couldn't see a bottom. The blue depths seemed to get deeper and darker and go on forever.
"You think the Ancestors would have put a base down here?" Ronon sounded skeptical.
"They put something here, considering they went through the trouble of hiding it." Rodney pointed out. "That usually means it's something good."
"Like a place for people to go and figure out how to ascend?" Ronon challenged.
"No, I was thinking more along the lines of a top secret base where they manufacture ZedPMs," Rodney shot back. "Or maybe where they're developing their next, new power source. Or a repair depot for jumpers. Or—"
"Sorry to interrupt your wish list," John cut in. "Forward, backward, or down?" According to the HUD, the trench twisted along for miles. The display hadn't come up with any conclusions as to the trench's depth. The reading on the display showed only the Ancient equivalent of a dash, which usually meant the system didn't have a response.
Rodney focused on the HUD, frowned, and then responded. "Down. If those RFMs were anywhere ahead of or behind us, the jumper should have detected their movement. The only direction they could have gone is down."
"RFMs?" John looked at him from the corner of his eye as he started a gradual descent deeper into the darkness. He knew that Rodney was talking about those machine things, but he wasn't taken with the fact that he was already naming them.
"Remote Foraging Modules," Rodney responded as if it should have been obvious. "It makes sense," he argued. "If they came from an Ancient facility deep underwater, it's likely that they're used to survey the environment outside of the cloaking field. And considering the fact that they took your boot, it stands to reason that they were looking for something, hence the terms remote and foraging. I chose module because—"
"Never mind. We get it." John cut him off. He'd go with it, even if they did look more like miniature single-car bullet trains. "If you're hiding your top secret base, I understand that you'd want to cloak and hide it from outsiders. But shouldn't the jumper have picked it up by now? We are inside the cloaking field, after all, but there's no sign of anything on the HUD."
"Perhaps after so long, only the cloak and the modules remain," Teyla suggested. "Or might the Ancestors have shut down the facility when they left the Pegasus galaxy for the Milky Way?"
"I like the second idea better," Rodney pointed to her. "It would suggest that they wanted to preserve the power for the future. If the facility is on standby, it may be for good reason."
"Or maybe," Ronon put in, "They're trying to keep something down here. Maybe this is like a prison for a sleeping mutated sea monster that we're going to end up having to hunt down and kill before it gets back to the surface."
"What?" Rodney looked at Ronon as if he'd grown a second head.
John looked over his shoulder at the big guy. "Lorne was showing Leviathan again in the rec room, wasn't he?"
"Yeah." Ronon grinned.
John chuckled. "I think we're all voting against sea monsters." A dot illuminated in the lower corner of the HUD, flashing orange. He squinted at it. "What's this?"
"I think we've finally got something," Rodney said, excited. He began tapping at his computer with a vengeance.
John leaned a little to the side to get a look at what Rodney was doing, because dropping like a stone wasn't all that challenging. Then Rodney hit a button that transferred his tablet screen to the HUD. It appeared as an overlay of the HUD. Geographic data began to take shape on the inset display. The depth monitor indicated that they were at 1500 feet.
"Uh, McKay? Are we going to be able to do this in the jumper?" John asked, gesturing toward the indicator. "Last I checked max depth for the jumpers is something like 1000 feet."
"Maybe that cloak did something to lessen the effect of the pressure," Rodney said after looking over the display. "The jumper seems to be doing fine. The pressure outside is well within jumper norms. Besides, we need to change direction now, anyway."
John compared the hazy glowing lines that indicated the trench walls to what he could see outside of the ship. A large shaded spot on the HUD resolved itself to a dark tunnel in the trench wall. The tunnel opening was easily 15 times the size of the jumper. He steered the ship inside.
The jumper's outer lights reflected against the dark rocky walls of the tunnel. He pushed the ship faster, feeling more at ease, and quickly closed the distance to the point where the tunnel opened to a cavernous space. It dropped off into a huge area blanketed in dark, mottled waters.
As there was really nowhere else to go, John cautiously lowered the jumper, just skirting the top edges of the darker, cloudier waters. The outside lights were doing little to cut through the black stuff.
A chime beeped inside the jumper and a light began flashing in the top corner of the HUD.
"That's new," Rodney noted. "Maybe some kind of proximity detector?" He did something to his computer, then said, "There it is." He pointed to an image on the smaller inset display. The resolution was crappy, but John thought he could make out a glowing blocky form.
"Looks like Tetris," Ronon volunteered. John couldn't disagree, but he began to wonder if Ronon was becoming a little overexposed to Earth culture.
"It'll get better as we get closer," Rodney assured him. "We're at the extreme edge of the program's ability to filter. Plus the pressure is probably interfering a bit, although it's still far below what I'd expect at this depth."
True to Rodney's words, the digital image did start to improve as they continued deeper into the cloudy depths. A faint blue-green glow was beginning to show through the cloudy blackness.
"Why is the water so murky?" Teyla wanted to know. "It is as if the waters are filled with thick smoke."
"Because to an extent they probably are. According to these readings there are likely hydrothermal vents nearby which are billowing superheated water and sulfides into the ocean. If there are vents nearby, that's a good sign because that's a form of energy the Ancients are known to have harvested."
The HUD gave an outline of what John suspected were underwater mountain ranges, which he had every intention of remaining well above, and something large and blocky atop one of the higher ranges in the distance.
John was just able to make out what looked like a spire rising out of the mists when Rodney's tablet flickered and winked out.
"Hey! What did you do?" Rodney looked accusingly at John.
"What do you mean what did I do?" John asked, at a loss. Best he could tell, the other man's computer had bailed.
"You just . . . ." Rodney's voice trailed off as Ancient text began to scroll across the bottom of the HUD. "What the . . . ?" Rodney frowned and started pushing buttons.
"Rodney?" John pressed for answers as the text ran off the edge of the HUD before starting a second line just below it. He had a bad feeling about this. "What's going on?"
The Ancient text began to flash by faster, moving to a third line that impinged farther into the HUD's graphics. It reminded John of something being overwritten, and that just couldn't be good when you were somewhere underneath an alien ocean. If they lost the HUD he'd have to try to fly without instruments in this black soup.
"Rodney?" he demanded more forcefully when there was no immediate response. A quiet Rodney never failed to make him nervous.
"I'm just . . . give me a minute. I'm trying to figure out what's going on!" Rodney's movements were frantic now, his fingers fairly flying over the controls. He jumped up out of his seat and rushed to the back compartment.
John glared after him and then was forced to return his attention to trying to fly the ship as the text suddenly took over the whole of the HUD. The ridges and peaks outlining the mountain ranges and other obstacles were visible only as fading images in the background. "Rodney!"
"I'm working on it!" Rodney yelled as he kicked Sheppard's remaining boot out of the way so that he could move in closer to the port side crystal compartment. At first glance everything looked okay, but the scrolling gibberish across the view screen begged to differ. Maybe if he . . . .
"The controls are getting really sluggish here, and the HUD is getting worse." Sheppard's voice interrupted his attempt to troubleshoot.
"A second!" he demanded. He refocused on the diagnostic panel before him. Okay. Think. Data on the HUD was controlled by crystal 2 in bank 7, and shared a backup with a few other systems in bank 9. HUD power was run through the main command and control relay subsystem. So, if something was wrong with the pathway . . . .
He pulled a crystal from the auxiliary area and hot-swapped it with the backup HUD controller. The slot went completely dead. Crap.
"Whatever you just did, it didn't work!" Sheppard yelled. "The HUD's completely gone."
"Running fail commentary so not helping!" Rodney murmured as he swapped the crystal back. Still nothing. He was doing his best to fix this inexplicable problem while everyone else basically sat around and waited for him. Oh yeah, and complained.
"There goes life support!" Sheppard piled on.
"One person here," Rodney growled. "One person with only two hands."
"I don't know what to tell you, McKay. We're under who knows how much water, and we're essentially out of control and flying blind. You're our guy. Fix it!"
"I'm working on fixing it!"
"I believe I see something." Teyla broke in before Sheppard could offer additional annoying responses.
"Yeah. Yeah, me, too." Sheppard's voice softened. "What is that?"
"It's big." Ronon's deep voice added to the commentary.
Rodney moved to the doorway between the forward section and the rear compartment. He was forced to agree. The large dark shadow that loomed within the mists was big; larger than the LaGrange point satellite, larger even than the lab on Doranda.
Where it had looked blocky on the sensors before, the edges were rounded with sections flowing one into the next. Without the HUD he could only guess, but he figured it was easily a quarter the size of Atlantis; although only the topmost section truly reminded him of the city, with its three towers rising above the other levels. But even the towers seemed to be stumpy and rounded off, as if enclosed in some type of dark, reflective covering material. Which actually made sense considering there didn't appear to be a force field protecting the facility.
"It looks like a city," Teyla said.
"It is a city," John confirmed, pulling his hands back from the controls. "Automatic docking just took over. I think it's bringing us in."
Rodney was bewildered. "This doesn't make any sense."
"Doesn't matter," John piped up unhelpfully. "We're going in whether we want to or not. Can you tell if there's life support over there?"
"Sorry, the HUD is being remarkably quiet on that subject," Rodney shot back. "There's also the problem of the jumper's systems. Automatic docking should never disable life support or for all intents and purposes shut down a jumper."
"No communications either, then?" John asked.
Rodney rolled his eyes and sighed. "No."
"So no telling who is on the other side waiting for us." Sheppard didn't really pose it as a question. "While we wait for the automatic systems to take us wherever the hell they're taking us, why don't you see what you can do about getting life support back up? We can worry about the rest after that."
"Yeah, okay." He took his tablet and moved back to the crystal array. Without the fear of imminent death, at least before they docked, Rodney was able to do a much better assessment of the vessel's systems. Life support was a definite no go; so were the HUD systems, which were not normally linked into communications, and . . .
"That's . . . interesting," he mused aloud, rerunning the scan to double check his findings.
"Care to share with the rest of the class?" Sheppard turned toward him.
"Something accessed the crystal Y bank." Rodney plugged a handheld diagnostic device into the bottommost crystal in the holder, hoping to get an image of what had been written there.
"Crystal Y?" John asked.
"Oh, it's a bank of auxiliary crystals. Or at least we figured they were auxiliaries since we never figured out why they were there. The jumpers have never accessed them on any of our missions. But we have confirmed that the jumpers won't run without them. We figured it was a failsafe but weren't really sure. Crystal X was already taken, hence the name crystal Y."
"You're not exactly filling me with confidence here, McKay."
"Hey, the jumpers worked, didn't they?" Rodney replied, then at Sheppard's raised brows, added, "Present circumstances excluded, of course."
"Oh, of course," Sheppard replied with an edge of sarcasm. "Can you tell why it did whatever it did to the Y crystals?" Sheppard asked.
"Oh, ha ha ha, very funny." Rodney checked the readings on the diagnostic device. "It looks like a data dump. In fact, it is a data dump. Something has been uploading to the jumper, more specifically to these crystals. Wait a minute. That can't be right, they're all full! That would have to be a tremendous amount of data!" Rodney blinked in amazement. That must mean . . . .
"What kind of data is it?" Ronon asked.
Rodney was already ahead of him, attempting to directly access the raw data. It was encoded, and not even a familiar one at that. He drooped in disappointment. "I don't know. It's in some kind of program code. It's like we don't have the proper software to access it."
"How can that be?" John wanted to know. "That's an Ancient base, this is an Ancient ship, and I'm assuming that's Ancient data."
"It is." Rodney was sure on that point. "But why would they . . . ?" A light bulb went off in his mind, and he suddenly saw the jumper's problem. "Oh crap."
"What 'oh crap'?"
"I think I've finally figured out what the Y crystals are for." Rodney mentally kicked himself for not figuring it out sooner. It really should have been obvious considering all the other redundancies the systems had.
"And?" Teyla prompted.
"It's kind of like memory on your computer; like RAM." Rodney rushed to explain the problem. "The jumper must sense that it's there if it needs it. If you don't have enough, your computer starts to become sluggish or in some cases won't work at all. The jumpers do have memory allocated for the programs that are constantly running, as well as an auxiliary memory buffer, as well as areas for new programs, etc. But it looks like whatever was uploading filled all that space and spilled over into the Y crystals and filled them too. Nothing is running because there simply isn't enough room."
"And this is very bad," Ronon said, "because our crystals are all filled up?"
"Well yes and no." Rodney said. "The crystals are all filled up, but we found other crystals similar to these Y crystals in a few other systems on Atlantis. If this facility is anything like Atlantis, we should be able to find something we can use to get the jumper back online."
"So we're going in?" John said.
"Yes, literally and . . . literally." Rodney turned everyone's attention back to the viewer. The jumper had been navigated closer to the facility and was closing in on a wide square opening near the very bottom of the blocky building. The ship cleared the opening and sped along a wide tunnel before moving upward through another opening.
"This is a lot like the underwater bay on Atlantis," Sheppard said as the ship moved past lighted panels and empty docking slots.
"Yes, but smaller," Rodney added as they continued past three slots and toward the one closest to another set of doors. Atlantis's bay easily held twice as many jumpers and had contained several other jumpers in need of repair—excellent candidates to cannibalize for spare Y crystals. Sadly, there were no such jumpers here.
The jumper settled into the space with a loud thump and a jolt that went through the ship itself.
Rodney pointed toward the doors on the other side of the viewer. "If this place continues the similarities to Atlantis, that door should lead to the docking control room."
"There is one small problem." John gestured at the water around them. "Last time we did this you sent a command to repressurize the bay and to drain the water. Is the jumper up for that?"
Rodney moved to his tablet and began to try to establish a connection to the facility. He'd done little more than pick up the device when vibrations began to shudder through the flooring as the pumps came online.
"I take it that wasn't you?" Sheppard asked.
Rodney shook his head. "It appears that system is on automatic as well. On the bright side, repressurization equals life support."
"No complaints from me," John said, watching as the waters gradually drained out of the room.
Teyla turned away and focused on checking her weapon as John pulled on dark-colored socks that he had taken from among his belongings. Rodney was busy looking over something on his computer and comparing it to the jumper, while Ronon sat, staring at the colonel with a half smirk. John pretended not to notice.
"Okay, let's check it out." The minor task complete, John gathered his weapon and hit the manual release for the jumper's ramp. He glanced toward Rodney before they stepped out into the bay. "Life signs still negative?"
"Yes, well, except for a whole lot of something small which I'm going to guess are fish." Rodney made a face as he responded to the question.
"Why fish?" Ronon looked toward Rodney with curiosity. "I didn't see any after we went through that shield thing."
"That's because whatever I'm reading is inside the facility. And the only other things I can think of that would be that size are pretty unpleasant and I'd really rather avoid those particular life forms."
Ronon shrugged and followed Rodney and John down the ramp. "Doesn't change what they are."
Teyla noticed the way John's shoulders flinched as he reached the bottom of the ramp and stepped into a puddle that remained within the patterned grooves of the decking. She imagined that the water must be like ice. He shivered slightly, but kept moving.
Rodney paused minutely as if he wished to say something about the colonel's lack of proper foot protection, but then he held the words back and with a quick step followed their team leader.
They had to walk up a short flight of stairs to reach a set of red double doors which opened on their approach. They passed into a short connecting hallway with grated flooring and empty racks lining the walls. A larger room lay beyond.
Rodney followed John into the new room. Teyla and Ronon followed them, covering the areas to the left and right. There was nothing on Teyla's side, so she turned and scanned the rest of the room. It was unoccupied, containing scattered smaller consoles and one larger one atop a wide central platform. A clear display screen hung from the room's ceiling above the central control area. Another set of doors was visible on the opposite site of the room.
"I was right," Rodney said as he moved quickly toward the raised platform and stooped down beside it. Teyla heard the soft metallic sound of a panel being removed. "The design is almost identical to the one back home."
Teyla could not argue with Rodney with regard to the similarity of the electronic controls, as she was not familiar with those systems. But as for the other parts of the room, while they were reminiscent of what she remembered of the underwater control area, the colors, layout, and wall patterns were all very different. Still, it had the sleek look and feel of an Ancestor installation.
She remained near the door where they had entered, half listening to Rodney's continued commentary about the control panel and stretching her other senses for any sign that they might be approaching danger.
"Any crystals?" John interrupted Rodney as he and Ronon moved around the room in opposite arcs that would soon take them toward the other set of doors. Ronon rechecked behind each console as he went.
"None that we can use," Rodney sighed as he reappeared from behind the console. "But that isn't all that surprising. Y crystals are usually in systems that have a little more complicated interactivity with other systems than an underwater jumper bay."
"Doesn't hurt to check," John told Rodney. "Maybe we'll find something else through there."
"Perhaps a map?" Teyla suggested. If she understood Rodney correctly, it might be helpful to know where to look for the crystals that they needed.
"That's a good idea." John pointed to her as he moved away from the door and closer to the console with Rodney. "Can you access the database from here?"
"I'm on it." Rodney began connecting wires between his computer and the console. He smiled in satisfaction at what he saw on the screen, and then almost immediately his smile faded. "Well that sucks."
"What?" John craned his neck to see what Rodney was looking at. "Can't you get in?"
"The database isn't responding. It's almost like it's . . . hold on a minute." Rodney removed a smaller handheld device from his pack and plugged it between his tablet computer and the console. "Ha. There we go. I'm in." He held up the device with a pleased smile. "Static level access—something as generic as a map should be available there without actually accessing the database. The Ancients are nothing if not consistent."
"Yeah, consistently surprising," John responded. "If they're so good about laying out cities, where is the file labeled 'Locations of All Our Secret Bases'? I don't know how they kept up with them."
Rodney answered without pausing in his search. "That's ridiculous. There is no such file."
"How do you know?" John demanded. "Maybe there is a super secret file and you just haven't found it yet."
"Don't say that." Rodney hung his head.
"Why not?" There was innocence in John's tone, but Teyla caught the faint glint of humor in his eyes. She bit her lip to cover a smile when Rodney looked up, looking as if he was being led to torture.
"Because now I going to have to go looking for it."
John cleared his throat. "Found that map yet?"
"Yeah. Got it." Rodney disconnected the cables from the control panel and stowed them in his pack.
"Good. Let's get moving." John started toward the door.
Teyla could make out the glowing dots on the Life Signs Detector as Rodney moved past her. There were not nearly as many as before. "Have the life signs decreased?" she asked him.
Rodney gestured toward the screen. "Nah, I changed the resolution because there were so many of them. It decreases the range, but at least we can distinguish between critters and creatures."
Teyla offered a small smile at Rodney's attempted humor. He looked so proud of the statement; it seemed unkind to allow it to fall flat. Both John and Ronon merely rolled their eyes.
"Any creatures on the other side of this door?" John asked.
"Nothing of note," Rodney responded.
"Here goes." John moved forward and the doors slid open. At first it was dim, only narrow strips of blue lighting visible along the ceiling. Then other, brighter lights illuminated as soon as they stepped through.
Teyla held back a gasp as the underwater bay doors closed behind them. She might well have been standing in one of Atlantis's corridors. The similarity was startling.
"Are you sure we haven't stepped into some creepy alternate universe where Atlantis is still under the ocean?" John asked Rodney as they moved cautiously along the corridor to the left. The right branch of the corridor dead ended in what Teyla supposed might be a storage area.
"Uh . . . I'm picking up life signs," Rodney announced instead of answering John's question. "But there is something off about them. While the LSD isn't the best at distinguishing humanoids, it can tell the difference between a person and a puppy. These read somewhere in between." Worry was obvious in his tone.
"How many and where?" John asked, coming to a halt. The corridor extended ahead of them with several cross corridors before it dead ended in a pair of tall red double doors.
"Maybe a few dozen," Rodney answered. "They're that way. Maybe 150 meters." He pointed toward the doors at the end of the hall.
"How does that relate to where we need to go to get more crystals?"
"I doubt seriously that there are any crystals on this level. Once we go through those doors, several hundred yards farther is a transporter. We need to get to another level."
"All right. Let's go meet our new friends." John continued to move along the hall, leaving wet sock prints on the dark floor behind him. Teyla shared a concerned look with Ronon and then followed.
"They've moved," Rodney announced as they drew closer to the doors. "It looks like they're moving farther away."
Teyla frowned, wondering at that behavior. "If they are not humans as you say, perhaps they are animals who have sensed our presence. Many wild animals will shy away from human contact."
"Like left behind pets?" Rodney asked.
"The Wraith don't usually bother with small animals," Ronon said. "I've seen many pets left behind while villagers were hiding from cullings."
"I'd hope that there aren't any Wraith down here," John said with a significant look toward Teyla.
She shook her head. "I have sensed nothing that would suggest Wraith are present."
"Okay, then. Whatever is on the other side, we need to be ready." He gestured that Rodney should move to the opposite side of the doors. Teyla ended up alongside John on the left, while Rodney and Ronon were on the right. John waved his hand in front of the oblong door control.
A gust of humid air blew into the room, along with a smell so strong that Teyla felt the need to take a step back.
"Gah! That is foul," Rodney muttered. He coughed a little. "Air quality meter says this stuff is okay to breathe, but seriously, I'd rather not if it means I have to smell it."
"Can it, McKay," John said. He moved cautiously around to the front of the open doors with his gun pointed forward. Ronon moved from the opposite side, his blaster pointed through the open doors as well.
"Can o' Lysol," Rodney said very softly in a grumbling tone. He remained near the wall beside the door for a moment longer and then, with an exchanged look, he and Teyla both stepped out behind John and Ronon.
The view through the doors was unlike anything that they had seen previously in the city. The floors were no longer the clean, dark, marble material that they'd left, but instead were a light gray porous-looking material. Stains, scarring, and debris were readily apparent. The lighting was much dimmer as well, shining weakly from narrow glowing bars twenty feet above.
The smell reminded her vividly of a journey she had taken with her father to a world with a very large abandoned seafood market. It was the smell of the ocean and of decaying marine life combined with something much more pungent. The distant sound of sloshing water added to the memory.
They moved farther into the new area. The door on this side was set into a deep alcove. As they cleared the alcove, the size of the area became more obvious. The walls rose high on either side, stretching into dimness to the left and to the right. The room itself extended out in front of them and to both sides. She imagined that the Daedalus might fit into this large room.
The area closest to them was divided at odd intervals by low partitions that rose out of the floor to a height of not more than seven feet. Large nets hung between some of the partitions while she could not be sure of the others. It was far from what she had expected.
As she stepped farther into the room, a sensation pricked at the back of her mind.
John stepped out onto the dirty floor, glad he'd at least thought to put on his socks. Unlike the pristine condition of the area behind them, this space had apparently been used and abused. He was fairly certain that whenever they met the people here, the word mop would not be in their vocabulary. And what the hell . . . were those fish scales scattered copiously across the floor?
The patterns that were prevalent on the other side of the red door were nowhere in sight. He glanced back and noted that there was no door control panel on this side either. He sent a mental test command, glad to see that the big red doors responded immediately by moving closed.
"Where are our new friends?" he whispered to Rodney as he scanned the areas around them. Even the walls seemed different.
"They haven't moved since last time," Rodney said. "I don't know whether that's good or just creepy."
"We are being watched," Teyla said. She looked on edge. She obviously didn't like what she was sensing.
Ronon's muted scowl told John that the big guy felt much the same way. His weapon was out of its holster, ready at a moment's notice.
"Yeah," John agreed with everyone's assessment. "Which way to the transporter?" he asked Rodney. Getting the jumper up and running was top priority at this point. He had a bad feeling about everything else.
Rodney consulted the map on his tablet and pointed straight ahead, right down what John was starting to think of as "the gauntlet."
"Straight that way and then a right turn at the end."
"Great. Let's do it. Everyone stay alert." John led them off, keeping his P-90 up and ready. As they reached the first partition there was a notable change in the air pressure. He almost felt his ears pop. He worked his jaw to ease the discomfort.
"Nothing like a little warning," Rodney murmured at his shoulder. "It looks like this room has different pressure zones. Nothing dangerous, but think commercial airliner landing and taking off at a moment's notice."
"Okay." John just accepted it and kept moving, taking in the sights. Behind the first group of partitions were rectangular troughs built into the cement floor. The water within them rippled darkly in the low lighting as if something was keeping it in motion. The size of the trough reminded him of the machine things, or the RFMs as Rodney called them. Where they'd gotten to was another question to add to the ever growing list.
The sharp skunk fish smell was even stronger near the water troughs. In the dim light, he thought he caught a glimpse of something—a lot of some things—moving around in the water.
"Is that . . . ?" He gestured toward the rippling surface.
"Yeah. That would be the source of the 'I'm gonna go with fish' life signs," Rodney volunteered the answer. "Of course, if you'd like, we can upgrade that to 'glowy green slug'."
John shuddered. More partitions stretched out before them. Some of the troughs had large wet tracks leading away from them. He gestured Rodney to move the LSD nearer so he could keep up with the locations of the larger life forms. They seemed to have moved farther away, as if giving the team a wide berth. John was okay with that, but it still bugged him that they hadn't seen one.
He gestured them all forward and they continued to creep through the dimly lit area.
The layout changed halfway along the partitioned section. What looked like animal skins were hung in among the nets, attached to narrow poles and other objects. They strongly reminded him of tents. Something was obviously living down here; something more than pets. He couldn't see pets putting up very human-like shelters or fashioning things from animal skins.
As they continued moving slowly beyond the hodgepodge of skin tents, they reached a pair of giant columns that reminded him of the water columns on Atlantis, only they were about 20 feet square at the base and disappeared into the ceiling above. Something green and leafy with lots of thick, fibrous looking roots was growing inside of them.
They moved past what John's mind dubbed the seaweed columns to a very wide corridor that ran perpendicular to their path. Rodney gestured that they should go to the right.
John looked uneasily in the direction Rodney indicated. More nets, skins, and about a hundred other hiding places lined one side of the path to the transporter; the other side was a wall.
Something moved in the darkness, and he quickly shone his light on the area.
The light refracted back from the skin tents as if they had iridescent properties. The effect was enhanced because a corner of one of the tents swayed as if something had just moved past. Still, he didn't see anyone, but his Spidey sense was pinging for all it was worth.
From a tactical standpoint, they would be trapped between a wall and whatever might be hiding behind those skins, and judging by the number of life signs, he didn't like the odds. He turned and looked back the way they'd come and made his decision.
"I don't think . . . ."
John barely caught the sound of something flying through the air before that something thumped against his tac vest. He looked down to see the edge of a piece of sharpened stained glass imbedded in the black material just above his arm.
"We need to get back to the jumper. Now," he said, already aiming his P-90, ready to take out anything that moved. But there was nothing. Where the hell were these things?
"Look out!!" Ronon yelled and started firing his blaster just as a wave of objects came flying at them. Pieces of glass, bone, and miscellaneous shrapnel rained down on them, clattering against the floor at their feet. They seemed to be coming from all direction except one.
"Fall back!" John ducked back behind one of the seaweed columns, ignoring the tiny stings as a few of the projectiles made contact against exposed flesh.
Teyla, Ronon, and Rodney were crouched behind the column across from him. It looked as if they'd gotten a few cuts as well.
"What the hell just happened?" Rodney demanded across the space that separated them.
"They outflanked us is what happened!" John said, angry with himself for not seeing what was happening. He'd underestimated these . . . whatever they were. It was pretty hard to make a judgment on what to call them when he hadn't even seen what they looked like.
He peeked around the side of the column, trying to get a feel for where the unfriendlies were. He caught a flash of pale gray and brief displacement of air before something came flying toward his forehead. He ducked backward just as a large sharpened bone flew past.
Crap! That had been close.
Three cries reached him from his surprised teammates.
"I'm fine!" John assured them as he thought through their options. He rubbed a palm against his stinging forehead and it came back tinged red. "Barely," he added, half under his breath. Whether he'd been winged by the bone or one of the other bizarre, yet effective, items that had come flying their way, he didn't know. He did know that they couldn't stay where they were.
Getting back to the jumper was going to be a problem. Their only real way to go was to the transporters. "Alright, we're going to make a run for the transporter," he told the team. "Rodney, I'm going to cover while you cross over to this side. Ronon, you'll cover Teyla."
"Okay!" Rodney acknowledged and stowed his tablet.
"You got it!" Ronon's blaster was at the ready, and he was already rocking on the balls of his feet, anxious to start shooting something.
"Go!" John yelled even as he stepped out from behind the water column, pressing the trigger of his P-90 as he went. He made an effort to avoid anything that might potentially be a control surface for the red doors that led to the underwater bay. He'd much rather think them open than have to blow them with C-4.
He squinted as several shadows moved in the dim lighting and skidded to a stop in the center of the corridor. They were human-looking for the most part, and a bit on the short side. Still, he aimed high—maybe he could scare them off.
Then Ronon's blaster joined in. The red discharge hit one of the shadows mid-chest and it went down flat on its back. Its companions halted their attack. The dark, almost shadowy forms changed before John's eyes, melding to pale grayish skin with iridescent blues and reds along the sides of their faces down to their necks and into the dark material of their collars. John didn't take time for a longer look. He used the break in their attack to make a run for it.
"Let's go!" he yelled and ran for the transporter, thinking it open as he went. The doors slid apart with a familiar welcoming hiss. The familiar light glowed into the dimness like a beacon.
And then something changed.
Gray bodies began to pour from among the nets and skin tents. They were larger than the ones that had been throwing things at them. Their gray forms glowed faintly green in the dimness as they descended on the team like a horde of crazed mutants.
Narrow faces came to a point in the middle of their foreheads down through their nose and mouth areas. Fins extended across the backs of their ears and the bottom of their chins. They had no lips to speak of, but that seemed insignificant when compared to the screeching sounds that passed rows of bared pointed teeth.
"Oh that is just never good."
John barely got off a shot before they were on him. He caught a glimpse of sharp fingernails and webbed fingers before the P-90 was swatted by something inhumanly strong. The force of the blow knocked the weapon from his grasp, smacking it into his upper arm. He was going to have one hell of a bruise later, but he didn't care because the weapon remained clipped to his tac vest.
He would have recaptured the weapon as a battering ram, but the rest of the gray creatures didn't wait to see if trying to break his gun was going to work. They attacked en masse, driving him to the hard floor with a head jarring thump. Others piled on, squeezing the air from his lungs even as they grabbed at him, sharp nails scraping at his skin as they grabbed for his vest and his radio, anything within their reach. He realized dazedly that one of them was gnawing at the straps on his vest.
He distantly heard Rodney yelling as he struggled to fight the cold, clammy bodies off. He managed to turn his head enough to see beyond the wriggling chaos of Grays. He caught a glimpse of Teyla fighting with several of the creatures, using her weapon and graceful moves to devastating effect. Ronon was inflicting his own brand of damage.
Rodney was no longer yelling and John couldn't see him with his limited vantage. And then things began to fade. An edge of fear welled in John's heart as the lack of oxygen began to take its toll.
A different sound echoed amid the chaos. In fading consciousness, John thought it a roar followed by the sharp noise of sticks slapping against flesh. The weight atop him lessened and his vision began to clear.
John blinked and focused upward until his vision resolved into a very tall individual with caramel-colored skin and long red braids. At first he thought it was Ronon, but then his brain did a rewind and he realized that the bare, muscled legs in front of him had a blue and orange patterning of scales.
"Welcome to Mother," a rumbling voice spoke as the red-haired man leaned over him and extended a hand. "My name is Banyan. I've been waiting for you."
Before John could respond to the gesture or the statement, several pale gray blurs slammed into the Banyan … person. He stumbled away somewhere out of John's sight.
John didn't wait for him to reappear, but took advantage of his new level of freedom and tried to drag himself up from the floor. He made it to his hands and knees before another round of Grays came at him.
His tac vest was skewed and his P-90 was tangled up in it. He struggled to get it up and aimed, but had a feeling he wasn't going to make it. Then two more very tall men with braided red hair stepped between him and the coming horde. They were armed with staffs that reminded him of the bantos rods Teyla used to spank him on a regular basis, only three times as long. They were very effective in dispatching the Grays, but still more came. John was beginning to wonder where they all came from.
"Go there!" Banyan's voice sounded from a nearby throng of Grays. John saw him tossing one of the creatures away from him, but it was obvious the Gray had gotten in a few licks of its own. Deep gouges were visible on Banyan's shoulders and arms as he pointed somewhere behind John.
John followed the gesture and saw more Redhairs amid a haphazard conglomeration of skin tents. Thick ropes twisted from some kind of coarse-looking black material that dangled several feet from the ceiling.
"Ronon, Teyla! That way!" John called, pointing to where Banyan had directed.
"Got it!" Ronon yelled as he ducked to evade one of the Gray bodies and took out two others with a blast from his weapon.
"John! Look out!" Teyla yelled as she expertly handled a long rod that she must have acquired from one of the Redhairs that was fighting near her.
John managed to duck just as something tumbled by overhead. The Gray landed with scratching nails as it worked to gain purchase against the debris strewn cement floor. John swung his P-90, knocking it back down where it stayed. He then looked back to where the two Redhairs were still fighting the Grays. One of them was favoring his left arm.
Although the Redhairs had worked out a circle of relative safety, with the hanging ropes in the middle, it wasn't going to last long. It was well beyond time to get the hell out of Dodge.
John scanned the rest of the chaos for the final member of his team. He spotted a bit of black uniform nearly buried amid a bunch of downed Grays. His heart stuttered to a stop.
"Rodney!" He scrambled around the various swinging staffs, bodies, and pointy stuff that littered the floor. He ignored a sharp piece of something that scraped against the side of his foot as he shoved the clammy gray creatures off his friend.
Rodney lay half on his side, unmoving. His computer and weapon were scattered in opposite directions but his vest and other equipment appeared to be intact.
"Rodney?" John called his name more softly as he hesitantly reached to check for a pulse. Rodney groaned before his fingers made contact. John felt a dizzying rush of relief.
"Ow." Rodney's face contorted into a grimace and he moved a hand up to the side of his head. Shaky fingers touched at the lump that was starting to form. There was definitely going to be one hell of a goose egg in his friend's future.
"You okay?" John asked him, doing a quick visual inventory for any other injuries. Aside from the lump and assorted scratches, there wasn't anything else obvious, but that didn't mean there weren't problems that he couldn't see.
"Yeah. I think so." Rodney's voice was weaker than usual. He squinted into the chaos around them and pointed to one of the Redhairs. "Who …?"
"Doesn't matter right now. We've gotta go. Can you move?" John made sure he got the urgency of the situation across to the other man.
"Sure, sure. Like I have a choice?" Rodney made his way into a seated position and crawled the short distance to retrieve his tablet before climbing sluggishly to his feet. John got his 9 mm and extended it to him, watching as he shoved it into his holster.
"This way." John gestured toward the hanging ropes and led Rodney off at a slow, loping trot.
Banyan yelled at John, and even though he could not understand him, he got the meaning as the Redhairs began to draw in toward the hanging ropes. Something large was flung out of the opening in the ceiling. It sailed overhead and landed in the midst of a pack of Grays with a wet sound. It burst open. By smell alone, John knew it was raw fish. The Grays abandoned the fight, crawling over one another to get to the meat.
"Good to know," John murmured as he took in the feeding frenzy.
"Huh," Rodney grunted. "And totally useless unless we happened to carry around nasty sacks of day old seafood."
"It does tell us something," John insisted. "While they're intelligent enough to know how to surround us and block our exit, they're also prone to giving in to their baser needs."
"Well, I don't know about you, but I'm comforted," Rodney muttered sarcastically as they reached the area beneath the ropes.
"You will go first," Banyan spoke.
"Go first?" John asked, confused. He wasn't sure how they were planning to get everyone out of there.
He saw a movement from the corner of his eye as two of the Redhairs from above descended at a scarily fast rate of speed. John had half a second to register that they were female before he and Rodney were grabbed roughly. The ropes ascended just as quickly as they had approached the floor.
At the top, the muscled women who had essentially carried them released them and then disappeared back down the hole. Other Redhairs were there in the shadows, working some kind of a pulley system.
"I think I'm in love," Rodney murmured, his eyes wide in the darkness of the new space.
"Get in line," John said, watching as the one who'd carried him descended again. The Redhairs below collapsed their staffs and stuffed them slim holders along their backs before they ascended upward into the ceiling. It happened fast, and John had to take a quick step away from the opening as the women reappeared, one carrying Teyla and the other carrying one of the injured Redhairs.
"Thank you for the use of this." Teyla extended the staff to one of the warriors as the second group moved away from the opening to make room for the next set.
"You have used it well. It is yours," the warrior responded.
"Very well. I thank you." Teyla did one of her appreciative Athosian nods.
John's attention was drawn away from the exchange as Ronon's silhouette appeared. It was interesting to see that he and the woman who'd carried him were the same height. Ronon watched appreciatively as she dropped him off and stepped back over the edge.
"Down boy," John said. Ronon simply shrugged and joined the rest of the team.
Within moments, the rest of Banyan's warriors arrived, followed finally by Banyan himself.
They worked as if they'd done this kind of thing before. Moving about the task of dismantling the pulley system, everyone seemed to have a specific task, even those that were limping. Everything was taken apart, stowed along with the black ropelike stuff, and divided among rough looking satchels that were hung over their shoulders with impressive speed. The opening in the floor was sealed with something like a really big manhole cover.
"This way," Banyan ordered, and John noticed that he'd managed to take on a few extra injuries. A long jagged cut ran along the side of his face. One of his hands was bloodied and bruised as if he'd grabbed at the shards that the Grays had been fond of throwing. John thought he could see red droplets spilling to the floor as the man gestured.
One of the others handed him something flat and dark. It looked too stiff to be cloth, but he wrapped it around the wound on his hand as they started off at a jog.
Rodney's shoulders slumped. "Please, no. Please tell me we don't have to run and keep up with these sci-fi rejects."
"They're probably our best bet if we want to find the crystals," John shot back, but he took a moment to really look at his friend. Rodney looked pale and he was squinting a little. John figured having his bell rung had at the very least given him a headache. But since he was complaining, he was probably good to travel.
"And they did just save our lives," Teyla added as the forms of the warriors began to draw farther away from them in the darkness.
"There doesn't seem to be a lot of danger up here," Rodney replied. "Besides, we have the LSD. So we could find them if we need to."
"Maybe there's danger that we don't know about," Ronon put in. "It would be good to have someone who knows the lay of the land, where the dangers are."
"And it would be rude to disappear after they so kindly said they were waiting for us," John added, squinting in the direction they'd gone.
One of the females suddenly appeared out of the darkness.
"We must go," she said. At John's nod of consent, she turned and started away at a slower pace.
"Thank goodness." Rodney released a heavy breath as the team fell in behind her. John clicked on his P-90 for illumination, confirming his suspicion that they were between levels. There were large maintenance spaces like this on Atlantis.
The woman continued to guide them through the area, weaving among the facility's innards until they reached a large opening. They followed her through and into a corridor that wasn't all that different from the one with the Grays, with the possible exception of better housekeeping.
The dim illumination strips along the ceiling reminded him of Atlantis's lights being set to power save mode. They were barely bright enough to keep the shadows at bay.
The woman stopped to pick up a large slatted grate that sat against the wall to one side of the opening. Ronon moved to help. She looked sharply in his direction as he picked up one end, but she said nothing as together they forced it into place. Two large bars had been retrofitted on either side of the grate. She and Ronon slid them through rough looking slots.
"Do you have a name?" Ronon asked. John tried not to roll his eyes.
"I am called Melita." She paused to respond.
"I'm called Ronon," Ronon replied with a grin. Then he gestured toward the rest of the team. "My friends are Sheppard, Teyla, and McKay."
Melita nodded in turn at each of them and then gestured along the short corridor. "Come." At its end, they turned into a broader hallway.
It wasn't what John expected to see.
A wide section of the walls lining each side of the corridor was transparent. The clear sections were set in the walls just below John's chest level and extended upward above his head. Blue green water was on the opposite side, with short stubby green plants growing along its bottom.
Two young boys were swimming in the space. They blinked out at their visitors for several moments before going back to the task of pulling the green plants and shoving them into the netted bags at their sides.
"Okay. That's different." John wasn't sure if staring at the boys was taboo on this world.
"They appear to be harvesting some sort of plant life," Teyla said.
"Yeah." John continued to stare and walk at the same time. "Did you notice the gills?" he asked, pointing to the spot on the sides of the boys' chests.
"This place is freaky," Ronon murmured.
Melita hurried on, seemingly oblivious to the boys and their whispered conversation. John and the team were forced to pick up the pace to catch up to her. The water window stretched along the entirety of the corridor until the corridor intersected with another, broader area.
Instead of water windows, the new halls were lined with more of the skin tents and lean-tos that were made out of all manner of materials. Muffled sounds escaped the tents and from the occasional moving tent flap, John knew they were occupied. Items that could only be toys were left outside of a few of the tents. Red ornate doors were visible behind some of the tents. Melita continued like she really, really had some place to be.
The corridor widened at intervals into larger octagonal areas which each contained what looked like a large central Jacuzzi set flush into the floor.
They finally reached another large grate. Someone was waiting on the other side. He slid it open and allowed them to enter.
"Bring them to the Place." He spoke softly to Melita while looking over Sheppard and his team. John looked back at him, knowing when he was being sized up. The man's gaze settled with interest on Teyla.
John glanced in her direction; she could certainly handle herself, but he would keep an eye out just in case.
They followed Melita into the new grated area, leaving the other man behind, apparently to stand guard. The sound of bars sliding into place was not surprising as they continued after Melita in the darkness.
"Rodney, you got any of this on your map?" John asked in a low voice. He wanted to be able to find a way out if they needed to. So far, he didn't have any reason not to trust these people. Banyan hadn't seen fit to take their weapons and they weren't actually under guard. That was much more trust than would have been given had the situation been reversed.
"I get the feeling that these aren't the normal routes the Ancients traveled," Rodney answered John's question. "We're going through back hallways and crawlspaces. I think the way we took out of the lower level was a ventilation duct."
"Yeah, I noticed that. What about the red doors we passed back there. Any idea what they lead to?" John asked.
"They were mostly small rooms. I'm going to guess, just based on what we know about other similar places, that they're crew quarters. I'd imagine a place this size would be designed to house workers."
"What about all the water?" John asked. "Anything about that on the map?" He couldn't figure out a reason for all of the in floor Jacuzzis he'd seen thus far. It seemed more exhibitionist than he'd expect of the Ancients to take their baths in the middle of the hallway.
Melita stopped suddenly. She pointed to the side where a ladder led upward. She gestured that they should go first. John smiled and gestured back toward her, deciding to test their place here. "After you," he said with his most charming smile.
She looked at him oddly and started up the ladder.
John grinned back at the team and stopped short when he saw someone standing in the shadows. It was another of the Redhairs. Damn, they were big to be so quiet. He gestured that Teyla should go next, followed by Ronon, then Rodney. He went last.
The ladder led into a room that, like everything else around here, was dimly lit. He came to a stop at the top of the ladder before stepping farther into the room. Immediately the light level changed, ratcheting up to a reasonable level.
Melita looked upward in surprise, staring suspiciously at the brightly lit ceiling. When she turned on them, John tried his best to look innocent. The ATA gene had been getting him into trouble since before he even knew he had it and he never knew how people would react when they found out.
After a moment, she relaxed and started walking again. The small room led to an arched corridor. John could feel the change before they reached the end of the short passage. Moist, cool air brushed against his face, accompanied by a light, sweet, almost piney aroma.
They stepped out of the corridor after Melita into a cavernous room. It was easily the size of the entire East Pier. Odd looking hooded lights were suspended high above what looked like a giant wall-to-wall pond. Metal work walkways in an intricate pattern reached from one side of the room to several other doorways along the opposite wall.
"We should go this way," Melita directed as she stepped out onto the walkway ahead of them.
John followed along, careful to watch his footing while taking in their surroundings. They moved past a stand of large leafy plants that extended out of the water to a height above his shoulder level. Thick stalks, easily a meter around, were visible beneath the surface. As they got closer, he noticed that some of the plants contained small round balls that he decided to go out on a limb and call fruit, others were laden with green or brown pods, and still others had a yellow gauzy looking substance hanging from the leaves. And that was just what he could see. He didn't know what kind of stuff was growing on the other greenery in the room.
"Think we can eat those?" Ronon asked, pointing to a vaguely triangular-shaped growth on one of the trees. It looked suspiciously like a giant purple strawberry.
"Perhaps we should ask our hosts," Teyla recommended, pointing to Melita, who had paused on the opposite side of the path, ready to move into the next room.
"Hydroponics!" Rodney's progress came to a halt. "It has to be." He pointed upward. "Those must be grow lights! What better way to ensure that you can get the necessary vitamin C, even when you're under the ocean, than to grow it yourself? Katie would love this place!"
John smiled at his friend's excitement. "If we play nice and become allies with these guys, maybe she'll get to come for a visit."
"I'm always nice," Rodney insisted. He looked as if he really believed it.
"Perhaps we can start by not keeping them waiting?" Teyla recommended with another gesture toward Melita's growing impatience.
Rodney made a face but started walking again.
"Hey, there's a girl in the water!" Ronon was the one who held them up next. "I don't think she's wearing any clothes."
John heard Teyla's audible sigh, but he was a guy. He turned and followed Ronon's gesture. He squinted into the green tinged waters looking for what Ronon was seeing. Something slid by amid the greenery, but it looked like the tail of a pretty good sized fish to him.
He shot Ronon a dry look. "All I see is a fish . . . ." Something registered from the corner of his eye and he looked back at the water and did a double take. Were those arms? Four of them? He bent over for a better look.
Suddenly a woman's face appeared. She was beautiful, ageless. And she was coming right at him.
"Hey! What the—" he managed before she broke the surface of the water and latched cold wet hands around his face.
The icy water closed in over his head, sending frigid tingles over his skull before clamping like armor over the rest of his body as she dragged him down head-first. He thought he heard distant yells from above as he tried to struggle out of her grasp.
She maneuvered her powerful body and another pair of arms grabbed him in a powerful crushing hug. He stared, shocked, into ice blue eyes filled with malice as she pulled his head forward and pressed cold lips to his.
He inhaled involuntarily, feeling the sharp pain of cold water rushing into his nostrils. He couldn't move as she squeezed him harder, pressing the air out of him. The distant sounds of his team began to fade away as another sound entered his mind. It was a mournful keening noise. It sounded like death.
The crushing feeling in his lungs began to ease and his struggles slowed. His vision became hazy and drifted away from her cold eyes, lingering on her long black hair floating about them in the waters. And then, that too was gone.
Teyla had determined not to look for the woman in the waters; the men on her team had that covered. Completely. But, despite herself, her curiosity was piqued by these people. The boys in the tanks had gills and Banyan's people had scales; she wondered what other sort of persons might exist in this rather remarkable facility.
She stepped a little closer to the edge, not wanting to appear too obvious.
"John!" She gasped in shock as a pale skinned woman appeared, seemingly from nowhere, and latched onto her friend.
"Sheppard!" she heard Ronon cry as he stumbled closer to where John was, his hand grasping for him. But it was too late. John was gone, dragged beneath the waters by a woman with two sets of arms.
"John!" she yelled again and dropped to her knees, unmindful of the cold damp puddles that had been splashed up onto the walkway by John's exit. She leaned over as far as she dared, frantically searching beneath the disturbed waters.
Black rippled beneath the waters, but she could not be sure if it was his uniform or the woman's very long black hair. And then everything was lost to her sight amid the underwater foliage.
"What are you doing?" she heard Rodney demanding. She turned to find Ronon sloughing out of his holsters, shoes, and other weaponry.
"I'm going to get him!" Ronon said it as if it should have been obvious. His features were determined and angry. She had no doubt that were it in his power, the woman who took Sheppard would not be returning to the surface. Ever.
"These people have gills," Rodney argued. "You . . . we don't!"
Melita's running steps interrupted their argument. "What has happened?"
"Is this a trap?!" Ronon grabbed at the woman's arm. "Did you bring us down here for this?"
"I have done no such thing!" She shook his hand off.
"A woman dragged him under." Teyla supplied the information that she'd requested.
Teyla was barely through the statement before something in Melita's features changed. It was as if she had come to a sudden realization. Without another word, the red haired woman dove into the waters.
"I'm going in! I'm not leaving him down there with those two!" Ronon announced, following quickly on her heels. The fire in his eyes and the deadly looking dagger grasped in his hand were the only weapons he carried.
"But . . . ." Rodney was left speaking to spraying water. He turned and looked at her. "Teyla . . . ."
Teyla had no real words of comfort for him. She was worried about both of her friends. She looked toward the equipment in Rodney's hands and gestured. "Can you tell how many life signs there are?"
Rodney looked at her blankly.
She grabbed at his hand, still wrapped around the Life Signs Detector. "How many are down there alive, Rodney?"
Rodney blinked, the light bulb going off, as John would say. "Oh, right. Good idea." He focused on the screen. "But what if we see one of the indicators go out? Does that mean . . . ?"
"It will not be John or Ronon," Teyla insisted, reassuring herself as much as her teammate. She moved closer to see for herself what was displayed on the tiny screen. She did not wish to wait any longer.
"There's four! There are four life signs!" Rodney announced with a relieved smile on his face. But the worry remained deep in his eyes.
"That is good." She smiled back at him, encouraging. "Ronon will bring him back to the surface." Secretly, she feared greatly for John. He had gone in unexpectedly and had no time to prepare himself.
She and Rodney fell into silence, his eyes locked on the Life Signs Detector, hers on the steadily gyrating waters. There was a great struggle going on beneath the surface amid the greenery and tangled roots.
As she stared into the waters, an eerie sound reached her. It was musical, like a song, but it reminded her of death. She shivered, feeling briefly as if a Wraith had passed by.
She looked at Rodney. "Where is that coming from?"
"Where's what coming from?" Rodney looked at her with hope in his eyes. "Do you see them? Are they coming?"
"No." Teyla shook her head sadly. "That music. Where is it coming from?"
Rodney looked at her strangely. "There's no music." He frowned and looked around them as if he was disturbed as well, then refocused on the Life Signs Detector.
Teyla's attention was drawn by the sound of running feet. Banyan and two others appeared through doors at the far side of the room. Their long weapons were out of their holders. They looked ready for a fight.
"What has happened?" Banyan demanded.
"She . . . she just jumped up and pulled him under!" Rodney answered before Teyla could speak. "She had four arms and a tail like a fish!" He pointed into the water where Ronon and Melita had gone.
"Melita and Ronon went in after them," Teyla added.
Banyan unwrapped something dark from a wound on his hand and stooped low over the path. With his unwrapped hand, he reached into the water. "Floran!" He spoke in a deep, rumbling voice. "Release him! They are under my protection!"
Teyla imagined that she saw the vibrations of his words against the water's surface. But that could not be. She looked at him from the corner of her eyes, wondering what other differences might exist among these people.
Banyan stood, drew in a deep breath, and nodded. "They are coming."
Teyla turned her attention back to the place where John had vanished. She could see them! Ronon's brown hair was on one side, with Melita's red hair on the other and John's darker hair and clothing between them.
"He's not breathing!" Ronon gasped as soon as his head broke the surface. He helped Melita as they hoisted John toward the walkway. Teyla leaned to help them heft a frightfully still John Sheppard up onto the metal flooring. His dark hair was plastered to his head and his features were slack, completely unresponsive.
"Oh my God! He looks dead!" Rodney's voice was mournful, panicked. "Is he dead? What are we going to do?"
"We are not going to give up so easily!" Teyla removed her P-90 and moved in closer to John. All of the team had first aid training, but Rodney was panicked and Ronon was clinging to the side of the walkway, struggling to regain his breath while not losing visual contact with his friend and team leader.
Teyla, therefore, took control of John's care. She carefully tilted his head back, brushing his hair and a bit of plant debris away from his forehead. His skin was discouragingly cold, but she had a vague memory of Carson explaining that a near drowning in cold water had its benefits.
Breathing deeply to steady herself, she pressed two fingers to the carotid artery at the side of his neck. "I have a pulse," she said, joyous at even that small victory.
Without hesitation she pinched his nose shut and began breathing for him, watching as his chest rose and fell with each exhalation. Rodney dropped to his knees beside her and began counting off the second intervals.
Her thoughts narrowed to their small group, the counting, and providing air for the man who lay on the cold, wet surface between them.
"Come on, Sheppard. Breathe! Come back to us, buddy." At some point in the process, Ronon had managed to pull himself from the water and was hovering near his friend's feet.
Teyla was distantly aware that Banyan and his people stood at a short distance, but she could not spare any attention for them. Her focus was on taking care of John.
Teyla did not know how long or how many repetitions Rodney had counted or the number of times he had checked John's pulse to ensure that his heart was still beating. She only knew that suddenly, between breaths, John's chest jerked.
She stared at it in confusion, pausing. She then saw his face contort and he sputtered as a cough began deep in his lungs.
Teyla couldn't help it, she laughed. Her joy at the small sound felt as if the world itself had lightened; the sun had returned to shine brightly after passing behind thick clouds.
"Oh, thank God." Rodney slumped in relief, his head falling against his arms. Ronon too was grinning as he patted Rodney's shoulder.
Teyla moved quickly back into action as a small amount of fluid escaped John's mouth. "We must roll him," she insisted urgently. Ronon's hands were already there helping. John's coughs deepened and his arms moved weakly as he tried to curl inward. Almost immediately he began to shiver.
"He needs warmth and dry clothing," she announced, looking finally toward the group standing several paces away. Much of the team's rescue equipment was still in the jumper. He could not remain in his sodden attire after the ordeal he had just endured.
"We must take him to the Place." Melita moved forward and knelt to the floor with the rest of the team. "There will be warmth there. It is not far."
"What of …?" Teyla pointed her chin to the now placid water. Teyla was not sure of the range of a woman who was part fish, but she did not like the idea that John might be in reach.
Despite Banyan's assertion that they were under his protection, and though he did seem to have some pull with the one he had called Floran, Teyla had seen far too many agreements disappear in the heat of an argument or because one party simply chose to no longer cooperate.
"He will be safe there," Melita insisted. "All of you will." She looked beyond Teyla toward Ronon. "There will be garb for you as well."
"Colonel Sheppard?" Teyla called to John softly. His coughs had quieted during the brief discussion with Melita, and it had been obvious to Teyla from the minute motions he was making that he'd been listening. He should be the one to make the decision.
"We'll go with them," he said His voice sounded strained and very weak. Teyla looked up to make sure that the others had heard him. They nodded.
Ronon leaned in closer, moving one of John's arms so that he could more easily lift him from the wet metallic surface.
"I got it." John pushed his hands away and with an effort got one of his arms beneath himself so that he could push his way to his feet. Ronon backed off, just slightly, giving him room to get up under his own power, but close enough to render aid should it be needed. John did not look happy with that arrangement, but he didn't comment.
Teyla heaved a deep breath as she got to her own feet. She had not known that breathing for someone else would be such exhausting work. She did not feel as steady as she would have liked; however, it was not every day that she held the life or death of a friend quite so literally in her hands.
She looked toward Rodney, who looked as unsettled as she felt, and offered a smile. Rodney's lips quirked into a brief grin before he went back to gathering his things. Teyla also gathered her weapon and the rod that one of Banyan's people had given her. She busied herself with the task much longer than was necessary, long enough for John to get to his feet.
John felt like crap. Scratch that. Damn-near-drowned, freezing-cold crap. Getting up off the floor was rough, but he'd managed despite Ronon hovering like it was his first time walking without training wheels.
"I'm good," he murmured as soon as he was fairly certain that his legs were going to support him.
"We are happy that you are still with us," Teyla told him. There was an emotion in her eyes that told him just how close it had been. It made him feel uncomfortable; he never knew how to respond to that kind of thing.
"Thanks for . . . you know," he said, trying to encompass the team as a whole. Banyan and a few of his people were standing a polite distance away, watching.
"Teyla did mo—" Rodney started, but was cut off by Teyla.
"We all played our part." She smiled at him.
John nodded, having no doubt that they'd all been involved in some way in getting him out of the water and saving his life. Ronon's dripping wet clothes were an obvious clue to his role. He really didn't need, and probably did not want, a blow-by-blow account.
"Let's get out of here." He gave the calm, greenish waters beneath the walkway an uncomfortable look and started off in the direction of Banyan's people.
He pulled the heavy mess of his tac vest away from his body. It seemed to make the cold even more uncomfortable. He wrapped his arms about himself, hoping to build up some kind of body heat.
He had no weapons to speak of; his P-90 was gone. The Grays had destroyed the clip that connected it to his vest, and he'd been holding it when Evil Four Armed Mermaid lady dragged him into the drink. It was probably resting comfortably at the bottom of the water with his nine mil. His knife and radio were gone, too.
He noticed that they were no longer being led through the facility by a single person, they were surrounded by Banyan's people as if they'd formed a guard around the team. John was pretty sure that they'd also intentionally slowed their pace to accommodate him. He worked to move a bit faster; his body wasn't all that appreciative.
But the Place that Melita had mentioned wasn't that far, really wasn't—they had only been a couple of rooms away. John had thought he'd heard the capital "P" the first time that guard had mentioned it at the bottom of the ladder. He was sure of it now.
The Place was a large room, very reminiscent of Elizabeth's office in that the entry into it was glass. Beyond the glass walls he saw short stubby containers filled with a glowing yellow liquid. The fluid gave off a glow that reminded him of chem light sticks. But the containers were roughly hewn and pocked and obviously not made by high tech measures. They provided illumination, but they didn't fully remove the shadows.
He could also see actual chairs scattered about the room. They weren't a matched set by any means; some looked more Atlantis-like than others. Large cushions and cloths were spread on sections of the floor as well. Some sections of the room were screened off by hanging material. More of Banyan's people were moving about in the room.
"This is the Place," Banyan announced and brought the group to a stop. He stepped over the threshold and gestured to John. "Please, come inside."
John eyed him for a moment. The motion and the words seemed very formal. John wondered if it was some kind of ritual. He'd met enough of those in the Pegasus Galaxy to be wary.
He stepped in anyway. As he did, the facility's lights came up, brightening the room immediately. With the increased light level, he could tell that the hanging material was more of that skin tent looking stuff.
"Did you cause that to happen?" Banyan asked as if he already knew the answer.
John suddenly understood the gesture. Not so much ritual as a test. "More than likely," he responded, deciding to go with the truth. He hadn't specifically thought the lights up, but sometimes they just came on anyway when he walked into a dark room.
"Then it is true," Banyan replied, seeming both worried and relieved. Then he changed the subject. "Our clothing does not retain water as yours does. Perhaps you would like to change into different garb?"
He gestured toward one of the men on the other side of the room. The man quickly moved to a low chest, retrieved something, and approached. He carried folded black and green cloth, similar in color to what the rest of them were wearing. He extended a short stack to John and a short stack to Ronon.
"Thanks." John reached for the material. It was very soft to the touch. He looked about the room for a place to change, and then caught Banyan's gesture, telling him to proceed.
"Oh . . . uh, we require privacy," he said, trying to hide his discomfort. Rodney looked as if he would explode if he didn't say something, but John pierced him with a look and he settled down.
"Ah. I understand. Separately?"
"Yes," John replied, ignoring the smirk he could see Ronon sporting. "Please."
Banyan nodded. "There are two areas here and here." He gestured toward the hanging fabrics near the back of the room.
"Thank you." John set off for the nearest one while Ronon headed for the other.
He changed as quickly as he could, not liking the fact that there were so many waiting for him on the other side. It sounded as if Teyla and Rodney were being offered refreshment. Considering he'd just swallowed half a pond, food didn't sound all that good. But maybe it would boost his energy level.
A plus of the outfit he'd been given was that it was a simple tunic and pants, and it seemed to literally drink the excess water away from his skin, yet it didn't feel wet. The downside was that everything was too big. He had to roll up the sleeves and the pant legs and strap his empty holster on top of everything. It was really ridiculous that all of Banyan's people, including the women, were in excess of six-five. And now he didn't even have socks for protection. His bare feet stuck out from the bottom of the excess fabric, mocking him in their nakedness.
He stepped back around the divider to find his three friends waiting for him. They all held mugs of something, and Teyla held an extra one. She extended it to John.
"Thanks." He accepted it, trying to ignore the mocking look McKay was focusing on his newly acquired clothing. Of course, Ronon's fit perfectly. He was actually starting to look a little like Banyan's people.
"That look is so the new GQ for the Pegasus Galaxy. You are such a trendsetter."
John ignored him. "Is this stuff okay to drink?" he asked.
"It is water sweetened with the juice of a berry."
"Oh, Kool-Aid. Maybe it has citrus." John took a sip, allowing the light fruity taste to roll over his tongue. It really did taste like a watered down version of the beverage. And with the way Rodney was guzzling the stuff, he felt pretty sure that Rodney wasn't worried about any adverse reactions.
"You are ready?" Banyan was seated across the room on a pile of cushions. He had removed his tunic over shirt and was sitting with his back to one of the other men. "Come, join us."
They approached and settled on the pillows across from him. It looked as if the man behind was stitching an injury on Banyan's upper back. John worked not to stare at the other man's gills.
Setting his cup aside, John began. "We never really had a chance to properly introduce ourselves. I'm John Sheppard. This is Teyla Emmagan, Ronon Dex, and Rodney McKay." He indicated each of the members of his team.
Banyan ducked his head slightly. "Thank you for the gift of your names."
"You're welcome." John nodded back and asked the first of the many questions he wanted answers to. "What happened out there? Why did . . . she . . . attack me?"
"Her name is Floran. She is very old. She called out your death," Banyan explained, and then shot a look toward Teyla. "This little one breathed her own life into you. It was an honor to witness such a gift."
"It was an honor to receive it." John avoided looking at Teyla. He had other questions and didn't want to get distracted by those emotions.
Banyan spoke again before John could figure out the best way to ask what the hell he'd meant by 'called out your death'. "If I may ask your permission, Altus would like to combine with her."
The question died on his tongue. "What's that?" He blinked at Banyan. He sure hoped he hadn't heard what he thought he'd heard and that it didn't mean what he thought it meant. Either way, he wouldn't presume to speak for Teyla on the matter. In fact, he mentally backed away a step.
"Excuse me? Combine?" Teyla asked from John's side.
"Yes. Altus admires both your fighting abilities and the way you handled yourself with your leader's life. He would like to add these traits to his own. Also, Melita would like to combine with your Ronon."
"Wait a minute," Rodney cut in on the conversation. "Why them and not us?" He looked as if he'd just been highly insulted.
Banyan looked at them all in confusion. "We are admirers of strength, honor, and fighting skill. Combining with one having such talents strengthens the new life."
"I'll have you know I'm a highly coveted—"
John spoke over Rodney. "Combine probably doesn't mean the same thing for you as it does for us." At least, John really hoped it didn't, because he'd never thought of himself as a weak, dishonorable, or lacking in fighting skill.
Banyan's look changed to one of curiosity. "What does it mean for you?"
No way was John going there. "I think the more important question is what does it mean for you?"
"We could show you." Banyan seemed enthusiastic about the prospect. "It is a very simple process. You will not be damaged in any way."
"I'm game," Ronon piped up.
"We're getting a little off subject here." That was it. John had had enough. He was sure this entire conversation was going to be hilarious later, but at the moment, he wanted to be as far away from it as possible.
"Perhaps we can discuss it further later? It is a sacred matter."
"Fine." John agreed outwardly, but inwardly he thought that there was no chance in hell of that happening. He then forced his mind back to the previous question.
"Why would . . . " he searched his memory for the name Banyan had called, "Floran want to call out my death?"
Banyan eyed him steadily. "Because you are a Progenitor."
John thought he heard another capital "P". "And this is a bad thing?" he asked, though he wasn't certain he wanted to be identified with these Progenitors. The Ancients had a real knack for creating messes and then abandoning them.
Banyan looked at him oddly for a long moment. "Floran remembers."
John looked around at the others for some sort of clue of what that meant. He was clearly not deciphering some serious subtext. "Remembers what?"
"Darker times." Banyan's words had the ring of finality. The mental switch was almost visual. "But we must tend your injuries," Banyan said, gesturing toward the man behind him. "Gangus is our healer."
Gangus left off from his stitching and approached with a bucket of what looked like thick green slime.
"No thanks." John held up a hand, declining the offer. The small scratches he had were minor. He could live with them.
"I'm good, too," said Rodney.
"Me, too," Ronon put in.
"I will be fine," Teyla added her response.
"It will heal your scratches and leaves no scars." Banyan acted the part of the good host, allowing them a second chance to change their minds.
"We'll be fine," John insisted. "We have our own medicine."
"Very well," Banyan said, and gestured that Gangus should finish what he was doing. It was then that John realized that the gouges that had been on Banyan's arms looked pretty far along in the healing process. A yellow film covered careful stitching, but the injury looked days old instead of minutes. Carson would be interested in knowing about that.
"If you should change your mind, Melita will know how to acquire more. You need only ask."
"We appreciate your offer." Teyla spoke up as if she had noticed the same thing. "Perhaps we may take a small sample home with us?"
"Of course," Banyan agreed, allowing the other man to apply a palm full of the slimy stuff to the newly sewn stitches. John forcibly drew his gaze away, stifling a shudder.
"You said you've been waiting for us?" John continued, going back to his list of questions.
"Yes." Banyan looked pointedly at John's naked feet before he reached into a brown bag that sat on the floor near him. "This is yours, is it not?" He retrieved something from the sack and extended it to John.
It was his boot.
"Thanks." John took it with a sigh. The other one was on the jumper. He was still down one shoe. He was beginning to understand why a race of warriors might not want to mate with him. Who wanted a leader who couldn't keep up with both his shoes at the same time in their gene pool?
"Wait!" Rodney sat up straighter, cutting off whatever Sheppard was saying. "Where did you get that?" He pointed to the boot Sheppard seemed to be trying to hide under some of the extra fabric from his borrowed clothes.
The boot wasn't something to hide. It was a connection to those machines, actual Ancient technology that could help them get the hell out of this backwater.
Banyan turned his attention from Sheppard and focused on Rodney. "From the Bringers."
Rodney couldn't help it; he rolled his eyes. Of course they had some quaint, yet ridiculous, name for technology that they clearly did not understand. But the thing about quaint, ridiculous names was that they were often descriptive of things seen from the perspective of the hapless villager or, as in this case, oddly mutated humans living in an Ancient constructed underwater city.
"Are these Bringers long boxes that look like they're made of the same stuff as the walkway back in the other room with all the water?" He did resist the urge to insert air quotes around the descriptive name.
"Yes, I believe that is true." Banyan nodded, waiting for the next question. He looked interested in the direction Rodney's questions were taking.
"Is there a specific place that these Bringers bring things to?" He folded his arms to hide the twitching of his fingers. Remote Foraging Module was a much better name.
Banyan frowned and for a moment Rodney worried that he'd said something out loud that he shouldn't have. Then Banyan answered the question: "They bring many things to many places. But as for the foot garb, it was brought to Small Doors."
"Let me guess. There are small doors there." Though the names were painful, Rodney was starting to feel an edge of excitement. Doors might mean access.
"Yes. Many small doors. There are now many more doors than there are Bringers. I fear that someday there will be none."
"None? How many were there before?" Rodney asked. He'd thought the few they'd seen on the planet were the extent of the devices.
Banyan extended long fingers. "I needed half as many hands as fingers to count them. Now, I can count them all on but one hand."
"How do you tell one from another?" Teyla entered the conversation.
Rodney looked toward Banyan, waiting for the answer. It was a good question. He would have gotten around to asking it eventually.
"They have individual markings. We have not seen some markings in many days."
Rodney nodded; that made sense. The Ancients had marked each of the jumpers, nothing like giant numbers across the hull, or even small serial number plates like automobiles, but the code was actually built into the HUD so that the gene was required to access even that innocuous bit of information. He wondered how the Bringers would be marked. To find the answer, he'd have to get his hands on one.
An idea struck and he shared it with Banyan. "Perhaps we can help each other. You have something we can use and we have something you can probably use."
Sheppard shot him a confused look. Rodney returned a 'trust me' smile. He was sure that he had this one in the bag.
"How can you help us?" Banyan asked. "You wish to combine, too? I could ask among the people. Surely someone will . . ."
"No." Rodney's smiled dropped in a hurry. He had no intention of being a pity combining. "If your Bringers are fewer, then they may just be broken. If that's the case, I can fix them for you. I'm a genius; that's what I do."
"And what would we give you in trade?" Banyan asked.
"We come from another place, another world, actually, it's far, far way, but in this galaxy. We can't go back because our ship is broken due to an unfortunate download problem as we approached this facility. This city contains many crystals—though you've probably never seen them, and most certainly don't need them. We would only need a few of these crystals to get our ship working again. Then, I'll fix your Bringer problem and we'll be on our way."
"You are a Progenitor as well?" Banyan looked toward Rodney, surprise growing in his gaze. "This explains much."
"Really?" Rodney felt his grin returning. Had these people finally noticed something special in him, too? His chin lifted a little in pride.
"Yes." Banyan nodded gravely. "It explains why these great warriors escort you."
Sheppard spoke while Rodney was trying to figure out if he'd just received a compliment or an insult. "What McKay is trying to say is that if you can help us find the crystals we need, we can help you with your broken Bringers."
"No." Banyan's answer was as succinct as before. It made Rodney forget the whole compliment/insult argument.
"Why not?" Rodney didn't understand. It was a win-win situation for the both of them. Why wouldn't he want their RFMs fixed if he was worried that they were going to all be gone soon?
"That is not the agreement I wish to make." Apparently he had figured out the value of commodities that he hadn't seen or previously known about.
Rodney mentally kicked himself. Had he been too enthusiastic? He should have just kept his mouth shut and then they could have gone off on their own and found the damn crystals and the resident yokels would have been none the wiser.
"What is it you need?" Sheppard asked the question, his game face on. Rodney figured that if the Military Leader treatment didn't work, then Sheppard would break out the big guns: Master Negotiator Teyla. She could broker a deal with even the toughest grain farmers. And if that didn't work, there was always Ronon with his literal big gun.
Banyan didn't even hesitate, and Rodney figured he'd known what he wanted all along. "You have shared your weakness with me, and now I will share the depth of our weakness with you. Do you remember the creatures that attacked you in The Below?"
"I remember." Sheppard nodded in acknowledgment.
Rodney looked back at Banyan to hear his response. "Those creatures are what await us all if we do not combine successfully."
That got Rodney's attention. "You mean you'll devolve?" he asked.
"I do not know that word."
"You'll turn into something else." Rodney tried to explain further.
"Yes. Those who follow will."
"So, then, those things are . . . ." Sheppard allowed the question to hang, leaving Banyan to fill in the blank.
"They are our children. They are the ones who were lost in the becoming. They did not complete the cycle within them and they were awakened . . . as you saw them. With each generation, more arise as those do. This was so for more than half in the last generation. Some did not rise at all. We heard their death song before they had a chance to live."
Rodney tried to shake off the disturbing imagery that evoked. Were those . . . things on the lower level the result of inbreeding? No wonder they so desperately wanted to combine. Well, only kind of desperately, since they didn't seem to want him or Sheppard.
"So in exchange for the crystals, you want Ronan and Teyla to combine with two of your people?" Sheppard asked.
"It is necessary for the survival of my race. Combining is not always voluntary. But you do not belong to Mother and I would not force your compliance."
"We have doctors," Sheppard said, then clarified, with a gesture toward Gangus, "healers, back on our world that may be able to help solve the problem. If we can get our ship fixed, then we can go back and speak to our leader and bring back others who can help. We're always looking for new allies and friends."
"Is your leader a warrior as are Teyla and Ronon or a Progenitor like yourself and Rodney McKay?" Banyan asked. Rodney mentally rolled his eyes. These people really needed to get out more if in their minds those were the only two roles that individuals could play. Still, he was insanely curious as to how Sheppard would answer the man's question.
Sheppard took a few moments to settle on a description. "Doctor Weir is . . . very much her own person."
Rodney half-grinned; an answer without an answer. That worked.
"She is called doctor?" Banyan had latched on to the world Sheppard had said earlier. "Is your leader a healer?"
Rodney decided to field that question. He'd gotten it enough times before. "Doctor is not her name. It's a title. It means that she's very well educated in her field of expertise. I'm called Doctor Rodney McKay, because I'm well educated in many fields of expertise." Rodney would have listed them, but he figured it would have been lost on them.
"I understand," Banyan nodded. "I, too, have a title. I am First Woken Banyan. I awoke first, and that is why I lead. As leader of my people, I would very much like to meet your leader. We have an agreement. Let us go and find your crystals."
With graceful motion, the big man rose to his full height.
Rodney blinked way up at him. "Oh, you mean, now?" He decided to stand to prevent a neck cramp. Also because the rest of the team was doing it, too.
"Do you wish to wait?" Banyan was putting his shirt back on, covering up his gills and miscellaneous healing injuries.
"No, we don't wish to wait," Sheppard answered as he climbed to his feet. Ronon seemed to be hovering close to him.
"Very well." Banyan seemed pleased. "Altus and Melita will accompany us." He gestured to the two individuals. "Where would you like to search first for your crystals?"
Rodney brightened. "Actually, I'd like to check out that Small Doors place." A place where RFMs entered major parts of the city was bound to have some useful information.
"That is acceptable," Banyan agreed.
As they headed out of the room and along the corridor, John realized that they were going in the general direction of the big pond room. The idea of another dunking was not at all appealing.
"How far is it to the small door room?" he asked, hoping that they would continue past the small hall that led to the mermaid's lair.
"It is not a great distance," was Banyan's unhelpful response as he gestured in the exact direction John didn't want to go.
John came to a stop. "If we show you a layout of this place, could you point to where we need to go? We may be able to show you other ways." Considering their previous primary mode of navigation had been ventilation ducts and maintenance spaces, these guys might be appreciative of shorter routes. Maybe they could even find a transporter nearby.
"This is the fastest way," Banyan insisted. "I have walked these halls many times."
"I'm sure you have," Rodney offered, always ready to speak to the merits of technology. "But, you see, we have other information that you may not know about. It's all here on my tablet. Ever seen one of these before?" He held up the electronic device in question and waggled it from side to side.
Banyan turned toward John, his gravelly voice softened. "If it is Floran you fear, do not. I have placed you under my personal protection. She will keep her distance."
After a statement like that, John didn't want to appear whiny and afraid by arguing further with the bigger man. And he wasn't really up to getting on their bad side either. They still needed crystals. And considering his flagging energy levels, some help getting past the Grays was going to be a necessity as well.
Teyla spoke up. "Banyan, as a Progenitor, Colonel Sheppard knows many things about your home that may not have been revealed to you. Would it not be wise as a leader to discover all that you can about the world you inhabit?"
Banyan thought that over. "You are correct. Show me your map."
Rodney moved in closer to the large warrior and activated the map that they'd downloaded earlier. He pushed several buttons and John could see the aerial view of the facility shown in shades of blue. A flashing red star showed where they were in relation to the rest of the facility.
Rodney pointed to a couple of areas. "This is the, uh. . . Place and this is the area where we came in on those rope things and this," he pointed to the red star, "is where we are right now."
Banyan looked over the screen with care. "The ways are different in your chart, yet familiar in some respects. I can see how this would be useful." He looked thoughtfully over the diagram for several moments longer and then pointed to a spot not far from the You Are Here marking.
Rodney considered what he'd shown them, and then looked up at John. He pointed a thumb toward Banyan. "He's right. This is the shortest way."
John sighed as they continued on in their previous direction. His hands twitched at his sides, and he considered asking Teyla for one of her weapons. He hated feeling as though he was walking into the room unarmed, and being without shoes only added to his sense of vulnerability.
But he was proud that his team was there for him. Ronon's hand rested on his blaster; the big guy was obviously at a higher level of alertness. Teyla's P-90 was up in position, ready to take on whoever might threaten them. Even Rodney was alert, scanning his electronics in search of any sign of danger.
They moved into the pond room proper. The scent in the air didn't smell sweet to him this time. It was cloying and made him feel as though he was suffocating.
Banyan held out a hand and brought the group to halt several feet along one of the walkways—one which led in a different direction than the one they'd used the last time.
John came to a hesitant stop. He didn't want to be in this room, must less to linger. Getting out fast was a priority. He shared unsettled looks with the rest of the team.
Banyan didn't seem all that concerned with John's fight- or- flight responses. He slowly stooped down at the edge of the walkway and dangled his fingertips in the water. John frowned at the action; it seemed to be a strange thing to do. He squinted when he thought he saw a small vibration on the surface.
Suddenly Floran appeared at the side of the walk, her pale features right in Banyan's face.
John's heart jumped into his throat. He reached for a weapon that wasn't there, ready to blow the black haired woman/fish into the next galaxy. Ronon's blaster came out and Teyla's P-90 was up and aimed. They closed ranks at his sides.
Banyan didn't react at all. It was Melita who gestured that they could put their weapons away. John was both proud and thankful at the way the team ignored her and continued their focus on homicidal mermaid lady.
Floran stared hard at Banyan. They held eye contact for long moments as if some fierce silent battle was going on that only the two of them could hear. Finally, she bared even white teeth at Banyan and then backed away.
She turned her gaze upward and locked ice blue eyes on John, spearing him with the intensity of her rage. There was something so malevolent in the look that it stirred a primal fear deep within him. He swallowed as his hands fisted, desperate for a weapon.
Ronon and Teyla moved in closer. John thought he heard a low growl escape Ronon. And then with a toss of her head, Floran executed a perfect dive and disappeared beneath the surface with a flick of her tail.
Ronon and Teyla slowly lowered their weapons. John quietly released a breath as he struggled to get his heart rate back under control. Floran was worse, in his mind, than those Iratus bugs. At least they didn't have a death glare that he'd likely be remembering in his nightmares.
"Everything all right?" John asked Banyan when he didn't stand up from his position stooped near the water. He hoped the man's posture wasn't a sign that party girl was planning on making a return appearance, because his number one priority, regardless of the desires of their host, was getting out of this room.
"Yes. All is fine." Banyan stood up and brushed the water from his fingers. "She is not happy with the agreement we have made, but she will honor it. You have nothing more to fear from her."
"Right." John wasn't sure about that. "Can we go now?"
The adrenaline that had shot through him when Floran appeared had begun to drain away, leaving jitters in its place. John tried to push the feeling aside; he didn't have time for it. It wasn't helping him or the team. And he really hated the shaky feeling it was setting off in his legs. The absolute last thing he needed was to fall in all by himself.
Banyan answered by moving farther along the walkway. He continued to speak as they walked, gesturing to the large plants on either side of their path. "Floran is the caretaker of the many things that grow in this place. Many assist, but none have her special touch. It has been one of her duties for many times. She does it because it is best for all of our people. Your welfare is also best for all of our people. She understands this."
John wondered what might cause their welfare not to be in the best interest of Banyan's people. "She seems to have a very specific bone to pick with me," John said. "I was the one she looked at in particular. She didn't even glance at McKay."
"Hey! Wait a minute!" Rodney objected. "Are you saying you want her to attack—"
"No, Rodney." John tried to put his friend at ease. "I'm just saying, you've got the gene, too. So, why aren't you setting her off?"
"The sense of it is much stronger in you," Banyan replied. "The waters magnify these things and Floran is surrounded by them. Also," Banyan looked at Rodney curiously, "there is something different . . . artificial about the Progenitor sense in you."
"You are able to sense this when you place your hands in the water." Teyla spoke as if she had just come to a realization.
Banyan looked toward her and smiled. "Yes, little one. You are very perceptive. The waters are our life blood. They preserve us. And when in contact with them, we are made aware of things that we would not normally be aware of."
"Is that how you speak with Floran?" Teyla asked. "Mind to mind while you're touching the waters?"
"It is true," Banyan confirmed, bestowing Teyla with an appreciative look.
Silence settled over the group as they moved into a stairwell. John felt twinges in the muscles of his legs as they climbed several flights upward, bypassing two levels completely. It was an unwelcome reminder that he wasn't running anywhere near one hundred percent at the moment.
"Do your people ever go through those red doors?" he heard Rodney ask Banyan as they exited the stairwell and entered another corridor, passing another grouping of them. When Melita had been leading them earlier, she'd moved as if she didn't see them. But then, this was a pretty focused bunch.
Banyan barely glanced toward the indicated surface. "No. They are like the walls about us. They do not open and so we do not go through them." He continued walking. "Small Doors is just ahead."
The hallway that they were in opened into a wide area. Weavings and mats were placed on the walls. Two men were seated in the area. They came forward as Banyan approached.
John looked around as Banyan exchanged words with his guards. There was one red door to the extreme right of the wide convex wall, but that was it. Otherwise the wall seemed a smooth, unmarred gray.
He turned to the team. "I'm not seeing any small doors . . . you guys?"
Rodney, who'd already been nose deep in his tablet, looked up. "Give me a sec."
John looked over his shoulder as he paged through the three dimensional map grid.
"They're right about there." Rodney held up the computer so Teyla and Ronon could see too as he pointed out the thin lines on the diagram. They were situated along the lower quadrant of the wall drawing.
He moved in closer to the actual walls and traced a faint line with his finger. "I think these are the seams where the panel slides open so the RFMs can roll out."
"Wow." John squinted at them. Now that he knew where they were, they were a little more obvious. He moved around the edge of the wall and counted the panels, an even dozen.
"If we remain, it may be some time before the Bringers come," Banyan informed them as he approached. "If we were called, they would be here waiting. Someone is always on the watch here. They will let us know if Bringers come."
"We could always use the other door." Rodney gestured over his shoulder to the large set of red double doors.
"Those do not open," Banyan said, dismissing them.
"Let's test them, shall we?" Rodney set off for the doors and came to a stop in front of them. There were no control surfaces, so he would have to send a mental command.
Rodney stood there facing the door for several moments longer before his shoulders rose and fell on a heavy sigh. He turned and looked back, waving John over. "Sheppard?"
John approached the door and thought 'open'. A soft chime sounded and the doors slid apart. "Your crappy gene strikes again," he said as she walked past Rodney into the room.
"Whatever," Rodney muttered.
The room on the other side of the door looked like any one of the large labs on the lower levels of Atlantis. A large control console took up the entire wall across from the entry door, but only a row of lights near floor level glowed.
A number of smaller consoles took up most of the left wall. All of their crystals were darkened. There was a small desk and work station alongside another doorway on the right-side wall.
John walked farther into the room, feeling the familiar tingle of Ancient tech activating around him.
He turned at the gasp he heard as Banyan, Melita, and Altus stepped more fully into the room behind Ronon and Teyla.
"It is like something from my dreams," Banyan said softly as he scanned the room.
"It does have that affect on people," John agreed, and he continued around the room, examining the consoles as he went. Electronic chirps sounded as they activated on his approach, crystals glowing, waiting for input.
John saw Altus reaching for one of the glowing crystal plates. "You shouldn't touch anything if you don't know what it does," he warned. "Trust me on that." Altus slowly drew his hand away.
John moved back toward McKay. "There are a lot of crystals here, Rodney. I hope some of them are Ys that we can use for the jumper."
"Yeah. Right. Okay," McKay spoke absently. He was already plugging into the largest console. John wondered if he was even listening. Regardless, Rodney knew what the goal was here. He'd give him a few minutes.
John looked toward Ronon and Teyla. "Why don't you guys check out the other room? I'll stay here with McKay."
They nodded and set off for the doorway. Moments later, Teyla called to him. "Colonel Sheppard, you should see this."
John turned back to Rodney. "You gonna be okay?"
"I'm fine. Go." Rodney waved him off, still distracted with whatever data was coming across his screen.
"Be right back." He headed toward the new doorway and stepped inside. The room itself wasn't very large, more like the size of a big closet. He could make out another seal line directly across from the door into the room and figured it was another panel for the RFMs. It was the transparent window to the left that was the surprise.
He moved toward his two teammates, who were leaning over the console that was mounted beneath the window. Beyond the window was a storage area that looked like a mini jumper bay, only the items that were stored in the three level area were RFMs instead of jumpers. "That's something you don't see every day."
A large robotic arm with pincer-like fingers was mounted on the wall outside of the clear window. Only about every fourth crystal on the control panel beneath the window lit up on his approach. The lights behind a small joystick in the center of the panel flickered erratically.
"And I guess that explains why half of them aren't working." John pointed to the malfunctioning equipment.
"Maybe McKay can fix it," Ronon suggested, looking out at the long metal boxes, but his gaze came back to the big robot arm.
John looked back down at the joystick. It would be cool to see it working. He reached for the joystick. He sensed the anticipatory rise in power before his hand settled on the control.
"Sheppard?!" Rodney's voice from the other room startled him away from the panel. "Did you just do something?"
"Something like what? I'm checking out things in here." He was sure he'd pulled off innocent. Ronon raised his brows and gestured toward the joystick.
"Traitor," he muttered in Ronon's direction as he headed for the door. Ronon smacked him on the shoulder as he passed.
"What is it, McKay?" he asked as he approached the big console.
"You wouldn't believe the level of paranoia built into this system." Rodney started talking right away, clearly still distracted by something. "This system is completely isolated from the main computer core. I can't access the mainframe from here at all."
John gave him a dry look. "Really? That's weird right? I would think those things would be linked into the system pretty hot and heavy."
"Yeah. Exactly." Rodney continued to ponder the console.
"So you called me to tell me that the programmers of this system were paranoid?" John asked.
Rodney looked confused for a moment, then, "Oh, no." He switched something on his computer, which then displayed a jagged red line on a graph. "I called you because there was a power spike—a pretty strong one."
"Lots of things have been activating since we came in here," John argued. "Maybe one of them caused the spike."
"Yeah, maybe." Rodney didn't look convinced. "It was familiar, though."
"A Bringer!" Banyan spoke as a soft sliding noise sounded from beneath the large console where John and Rodney were standing.
John quickly backpedaled from the console, dragging Rodney with him. The Bringer rolled out into the center of the floor, executed a turn, and headed straight for John.
He moved to the side so that it could go past him. It adjusted its course and picked up speed.
"Crap!" John muttered. He had to move fast to try to get out of its way this time. But as he moved to the side, the RFM slowed, changed its course, and coasted until it gently bumped its nose against the side of his leg.
John stared down at it, waiting for something else to happen. It remained still, applying slight pressure to his leg. He looked toward Teyla, done with being unarmed on this world.
"Let me have your nine mil," he told her.
Teyla quickly handed it over, having to lean around the wide body of the RFM to get it to him. John grabbed it and pointed it down toward the machine. It backed away slightly and bumped his leg once more, then backed away several inches.
"You must not damage it," Banyan said. "You have been called to the combining. The Bringer is here to take you to the shells."
John looked at him from the corner of his eye. This was the conversation that he hadn't planned on having again. Ever. With a twist. "Shells?" he asked.
"Where the combining takes place," Banyan clarified. Again, as clear as mud.
"How do I tell it no?" John asked, officially giving up on understanding what Banyan was talking about.
"No one has ever said no to a Bringer." Banyan looked at him as if he'd just asked him to reorder the universe.
"Well, there's a first time for everything," John murmured. "Rodney, turn it off."
Rodney looked at him incredulously. "How?"
"I don't know. Figure it out! You're a genius, right?"
"Fine. Genius is on it." Rodney ran back to the console and started pressing buttons on his still connected tablet.
The RFM moved forward again, this time bumping his leg a little harder. "McKay!" John called. He wasn't sure how helpful bullets were going to be against the thing, but his finger tightened incrementally on the trigger, anyway.
"You must not damage it!" Banyan's usual gravelly voice had a hint of steel in it. Melita and Altus, while not necessarily looking as if they were preparing for battle, were taking notice.
"I'm not gonna hurt it as long as it doesn't hurt me," John said in what was his best reasonable voice under the circumstances. He did not want to fight with these people, but combining was not on his list of things to do before the end of the day.
"I think I've got something," Rodney called. His eyes were still glued to something on the small handheld device that was daisy chained between his laptop and the console. He unplugged the handheld and brought it around to the front side of the machine.
"It won't damage it," he told Banyan. "It'll just make it go to sleep for a little while. Like turning off the lights, or blowing out a candle."
Banyan nodded slightly and relaxed.
Rodney stooped down beside the RFM and, after checking something on the scanner, pressed against a spot near the front right section. A panel slid open. Rodney reached inside and depressed a green switch.
A soft hiss sounded and the RFM seemed to shrink as it settled closer to the floor. The green light faded to dark.
"I think it's off," Rodney whispered up at him.
"All right." John stood down, putting Teyla's gun in his holster. He looked toward Ronon. "Put it in the other room with the rest of them. Or at least, close to the rest of them."
"Rest of them? What rest of them?" Rodney asked as he moved out of Ronon's way. It was at that point that John remembered what recent events had made him forget to share with the remaining member of the team.
"Oh, right. Yeah, there's a whole bay of them over there. I think the control thing for it is broken, though. That's probably why these guys have been seeing fewer of them."
"Really?" Rodney's curiosity was piqued. His feet started moving toward the room before he finished saying the word.
"Wait a second." John called him back and then spoke under his breath so that Banyan and his people wouldn't hear. "Why now?"
"Why now, what?" Rodney asked. "I should go and check out the—"
John stared at Rodney and lowered his voice pointedly. "Why did it call me for combining now? I don't think I'm a prime specimen according to . . . recent events. So why now? What changed?"
Rodney looked at him and shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe it's a software glitch. Maybe it's just broken and you were the first thing it locked on. Maybe these people don't know what they're talking about in the first place." Rodney's expression suggested that his last statement was the one he was personally going with.
"Can you figure out where the rest of them are?" John asked. "The ones we followed in from the beach?" He didn't like the idea that there were others out there that might be programmed to come after them.
'Not with this." Rodney indicated his handheld device.
"What about with that?" John pointed to the console.
"Working on it," Rodney replied with a sing-song voice.
"Well, we need to figure something out fast." John glanced at his watch. "We only have another couple of hours before we're overdue for check-in. I'd rather Elizabeth not have to send out a search team."
While Ronon moved the Bringer to the other room, Teyla went to speak with Banyan and his people. She could understand that discovering new things about one's previously held beliefs could be unsettling. Perhaps a few well placed words might smooth any potentially ruffled feathers.
"This is a remarkable place, is it not?" she asked, gesturing at the many glowing panels and technological wonders.
"It is," Banyan agreed with her, but then his gaze became concerned. "Your Sheppard and McKay treat it as if it is ordinary, and they treat the calling to combine as something inconsequential." She could hear the mild offense in his tone.
"If Colonel Sheppard does not agree to the combining, will that be the end of our agreement?" Teyla asked.
"No. Honor demands that I hold to my word. Will Sheppard keep to his?"
"He will, I can assure you of this." Teyla looked toward the two men as they worked, the occasional arguing tone reaching her ears. "He has a strong sense of honor as well. He would not agree to something that he does not mean to do."
"Nor easily be coerced into doing something that he has already declined?" Banyan turned the question around on her.
"I can assure you of that, too," Teyla agreed, silently complimenting his ability to understand her complete meaning.
"You know him very well?" he asked. His easy manner had returned.
"Yes, I do. My father was fond of saying that what a man does while under trial shows the type of man he really is. We have seen one another through many trying situations."
"Floran does not believe that we should trust Progenitors. She does not believe I should trust Sheppard."
Teyla frowned, remembering something that had disturbed her earlier. "When you came, after Floran took Sheppard beneath the water, how did you know there was trouble? I didn't hear Melita call for you, yet you came."
He looked back at her, considering. "Did you not hear the music as well?" His eyes locked on hers. "You figured out the rest at the garden."
"I did. But I wondered if I had imagined it. Rodney did not hear it."
"It is the song of death. Floran sings it whenever one dies here. She is the one who remembers the lives that vanish. That is why we are very tolerant of her moods; she endures much. That is also why she attacked Sheppard and why she does not trust him. I heard the music and so I came."
"But what does Colonel Sheppard have to do with ones who have died here? I do not believe that any of the gray creatures were killed, though I am certain there were some injuries."
Banyan's expression was grave. "Yes. There were injuries. They cannot be reasoned with, and so we had no choice but to injure them in order to secure your release. What they would have done to you is not our way. Our goal was always to preserve their lives and yours. The song of the death of so many would have been overwhelming to us all."
"Earlier, you said that Colonel Sheppard reminded Floran of darker times. How is that so?"
"She dreamed it to me once, many times ago. If you have heard the song without the waters, it is possible that you and I may dream together."
"Are you saying that we can speak mind-to-mind as you do with Floran?" Teyla asked. She was curious to know what had happened, for her own peace of mind. It would also be valuable intelligence for the team and for Atlantis. She wanted to do this.
"We would speak mind to mind," Banyan confirmed. "You have proven to be most unique in our short acquaintance. I have confidence that this will work. Would you like to try it?"
Her gaze was drawn across the room toward John. She could not answer Banyan until she spoke with him. John looked up and met her gaze, said something to Rodney, and came toward them.
"What's going on?" he asked, looking between her and Banyan.
"I believe that I can speak mind to mind with Banyan," Teyla began. "He can show me what happened here to cause Floran's anger with the Progenitors."
John's features changed. He glanced quickly up at Banyan. "Excuse us," he said, and led Teyla several steps away.
"Teyla, are you sure about this? Do you know what that might do to you? We don't know just how not human these guys are."
"I believe it will work, John. And it could provide valuable intel for us. Understanding why Floran has reacted the way she has may help us to understand more of what happened here. Do you not sense the feeling of unfinished business in this place?"
"None of that matters if it's going to be too dangerous for you," John insisted. "We can get the information some other way."
"I have already picked up a few vibrations from them. I even heard the death song that no one else heard aside from Banyan's people."
"Death song?" John stilled. His eyes betrayed an emotion that Teyla did not think he wished to share before he looked away.
"Yes, Floran sings it whenever anyone dies here. I heard it and felt it very strongly. I also feel, very strongly, that her reasons are important for us to know. I have touched minds with Wraith, and I know that this will work."
"I don't like it, Teyla," he said softly, and she knew that he would give in to her judgment in this matter.
"I know. I will be careful," she assured him.
"I'll be there to make sure of it," he told her.
"Thank you," she replied, then turned just as Ronon approached.
Ronon leaned in close to Sheppard and gestured surreptitiously back toward the smaller room where he'd moved the deactivated machine. "I think we may have kind of broken the . . . thing," he murmured in a low voice.
"You gotta be kidding me," John replied in an equally low voice. "Broken how?"
"Some stuff kind of fell out of it when I . . . uh, put it down. It was kind of heavy and it didn't have any handles."
John sighed. "Okay, look, don't worry about it. Just, very quietly, let Rodney know. I'm sure he can fix it."
"Okay." Ronon moved off in the direction of the console where Rodney was working while Teyla and John went back to Banyan and the other two of his people.
"Okay, how does this work?" John asked Banyan, hands on hips.
"You have consented?" Banyan asked, seeming surprised.
"I have," John agreed. "Reluctantly."
Banyan nodded as if he'd just learned something important. "First, we sit," he said as he settled onto the floor and folded his legs, meditation style—a pose Teyla was very familiar with. He gestured to the spot to his left. "Please. Join me."
Teyla handed her weapon to John, who lowered himself to the floor as well, across from her. Melita sat on the floor beside John, though she did not assume the meditation position. Altus mirrored her motion.
"We must be in physical contact," Banyan said and reached for her hand. She placed it in his. His skin had an odd feel to it, as if it was weathered in some manner. Yet it looked youthful and fresh. She filed the thought away for later consideration.
"We must both then close our eyes and clear our minds," Banyan directed her into the next step.
"She's very familiar with that technique," Ronon said teasingly. Teyla turned to see that he had returned to the small grouping. His report on the damaged module had been remarkably short.
"It is called meditation among our people," Teyla informed Banyan. "I have been trying to convince Ronon of its merits." She shot Ronon a look. "He is unconvinced."
"Perhaps we may yet change his mind," Melita said.
Teyla judged it best to ignore the eye- play that began between Ronon and Melita and continued to focus on what Banyan was saying.
"Once you clear your mind, the images will begin. You must prepare yourself. The initial stages can be overwhelming."
"I will be ready," Teyla assured him. She took in several deep breaths and then closed her eyes.
Rodney switched parameters and tried connecting again. Connection initialization data scrolled up the screen, and the word 'connected' flashed across the screen. He typed in a basic command which should have given him a list of options. The system flashed back a numeric warning that translated to 'memory full'—the same warning he'd gotten on the jumper.
It made no sense.
He moved away from the computer and thought for a minute. This was ridiculous. He should be able to figure this out. It just didn't make any sense. He understood that the RFMs were probably pretty complex devices, but it was ridiculous for them to be using so much operating space—even if they had a thousand of them, they wouldn't need this much space. They were only unthinking machines, after all. Just bits and bytes of operating code. With a sigh, he ran the numbers again.
It still made no sense.
He glanced over at Sheppard's little meditation group. It looked like they were all playing campfire, while he was stuck figuring everything out.
But at least they were out of his way. No more Sheppard asking if he'd checked this or that. Or Ronon saying, "Oops, I broke it."
Speaking of broken—he decided to let the problem rest while he went to check out the broken RFM and the room Sheppard had so enticingly called a 'bay'.
He gave the meditating group a wide berth, even though everyone with the exception of Banyan and Teyla watched him go past. Sheppard's look was accusatory, like he thought Rodney wasn't even trying. Rodney pursed his lips and kept going.
The sight on the opposite side of the door stepped him in his tracks. What the hell had he done to it? The RFM was twisted at an odd angle, broken at one of the segments.
He released a whimpering sigh and approached the device. This what happened when you let Conan near delicate equipment. He stooped beside it and tried to figure out if anything could be salvaged. The body itself would definitely need to be reformed; otherwise it was never going to be watertight again.
But something that could withstand the pressure of the ocean should be able to stand up to Ronon. Unless . . . . He pulled the broken segment farther apart and studied the visible innards.
The long middle body seemed to be purely storage space, with vents and minimal electronics along the sides. The smaller, segmented head and tail were where propulsion and control seemed to be.
He started with control. It only made sense that they'd have to have some sort of personal shielding to hold back the water. He discovered the familiar control within moments.
That explained why the metal covering was so lightweight. A complex system like shielding and propulsion meant that there could possibly be Y crystals here somewhere. He rummaged deeper in the control section of the module, pulling out a secondary panel.
Beyond that was what he was looking for, and then some. It was a scaled down version of the jumpers' systems. And yes, it did have a cloak. Better than that, it had two Y crystals. He felt like cheering.
He began the diagnostic that would tell him whether it would be viable for the jumper. The diagnostic completed within moments. The crystal was at 80% capacity. Too full.
He slumped in defeat. What the hell was going on here?
He turned and looked up at the control console overlooking the RFM bay. Maybe he could get it working. If those RFMs were only docked, some of them might have the crystals they needed to get back home.
Teyla felt a rushing within her mind. It had the feeling of many sounds and colors colliding in an instant. And then there were only the peaceful sounds of gently moving waters and wind moving gently through leaves.
She opened her eyes to find that she was sitting at the shore of a sparkling gray lake. It extended unbroken toward the horizon. Ripples moved across the surface outward, rolling gently toward the shore. She watched in bemusement as the liquid brushed gently against her crossed legs. It felt warm and welcoming.
Encouraged, she stood and began to walk forward, wading deep into the waters. With each step, she more strongly felt Banyan's presence. She continued until their warm depths reached to her waist. But still she didn't see him.
"Banyan? I am here. Where are you?" Her voice echoed over the waters.
"I am here, little one." Banyan's graveled voice sounded from the very waters around her.
Teyla gasped as she looked downward. The reflection she saw was not her own, but his. As the ripples danced across the sparkling surface, Banyan's image refracted and stretched as if an infinite number of his form hid just beneath the surface. But they were different; some wore braided red hair, others short- cropped; some had blue eyes, others gray or brown; and yet they were all Banyan. She knew this at the most basic level.
"What are you?" she wondered.
"I am what you see," he said. "I am all of these, but I am also just the one. The others are but reflections of other awakenings."
"I do not understand," Teyla confessed.
"These are my many combinations. Those who have come before me."
"You remember them all?"
"Of course. Don't you?"
"No. We don't. We are told stories of them, but we do not truly carry the memories of those who were gone long before we were born."
Confused silence greeted her from the waters. It stretched for long moments.
"Banyan? Are you there?"
"Yes. I am here. I believe I have learned a great truth about your people. You are not connected in the same manner that we are. Yet the bond you have with your team is very special."
"Yes. It is. We are very different, but together we form a whole. We rely on one another." Her mind drifted through moments in which each of her team had shown their strengths in remarkable ways; each of them willing, in their own way, to sacrifice themselves for others.
The waters lapped gently against her as Banyan's image nodded. "Thank you for sharing the gift of your memories. I understand. Before I show you Floran's dream, is there anything else you wish to know?"
"Yes, what is this place?" Teyla looked around at the perfect sky and the sparkling waters. The faint glow of a double moon hung above the horizon. "This is not like any meditation I've experienced before."
"These are the waters of our minds. Some things are of your choosing; others are of mine. Together our minds have chosen to this place to meet."
Once he spoke the words, Teyla realized that she recognized the area. It was a meadow where her family had been a part of a celebration when she was very young. She had picked flowers there and laughed and played with other children until darkness had fallen. It had been a perfect day. Nothing marred it. She had not recognized it because there had been no lake there. And the moons were not as she remembered them.
"I can see that now," she said. "But I don't remember the moons."
"The moons are mine," Banyan said, and the image changed from the red haired man with gray eyes and long braids. This Banyan had short cropped hair and his face bore tattoo markings.
"You were not always in the city beneath the waters?" Teyla asked, surprise coloring her thoughts.
"I awoke there, but have memories of the moons."
"How can that be?" Teyla asked.
"It simply is. It is time. But first, a word of warning, Floran dreams with much . . . force. If you become lost, listen for the sound of the waters." The sounds of the small waves increased as if he was giving her an example.
"For this to take place, you must go deeper. Are you ready?"
"I'm ready." Teyla stepped forward and with shocking suddenness, the waters closed in over her head. She plummeted straight downward. She gasped in shock and her eyes shot wide.
The beauty around her was entrancing, long green plant stalks extending up toward glowing light. Around her, leaves danced gently with the motion of the waters. They sparkled with extra brilliance and she laughed, enjoying the refreshing feel of the waters softly caressing her exposed skin.
But she had work to do. As the youngest of her sisters, she was assigned the task of spreading the callus seeds. She looked down at her two uppermost hands, which were still tightly closed, holding the slippery seeds inside. With an upward motion, she opened her closed fingers, releasing the delicate strands to the whims of the rippling current.
She watched entranced as they danced gracefully within the waters before settling toward the enriched growing medium that coated the floor and began to burrow. Before many days, green shoots would be visible as they reached upward toward the lights above. Their taste would be sweet and tender.
Some of the seeds were still settling to bottom when a jarring sensation assaulted her mind. She clasped her hands against her temples, the seeds forgotten. The pain took her breath away. On the trail of the pain were images, searing through her brain.
She saw the room, and Father was there. He stood handsome and tall with his dark hair and white uniform, but his face was creased in anger. He was speaking to someone with words that she didn't understand. They were grown-up words that frightened her.
"We have no choice. This is the only way. The council has spoken. We must do it now! You know it's true!"
Father's shoulders sagged, and he nodded. "Of course. Forgive me." He turned away and did something at a table with the shiny glass pieces on it. A light flashed bright and purple behind him and then he turned back to look at the other man. "Let's do it."
The image fuzzed over and she winced as the pain spiked. But then it settled again as the vision continued. Father walked into a big room where there were lots of others who looked like him, but were not as handsome.
They were doing something at the tables with the glass pieces. "It's done. We must go now," one of them said. "Let's get out of here."
Her young mind followed them as they ran along lighted corridors, approaching the garden. The vision faded and with it the pain, but it left her very tired and in need of comfort.
Father and the others were coming toward the garden room. He always stopped to smile at her. She swam up toward the surface, hoping that his smile could settle her confusion and fear.
But her sisters appeared. "Floran! No!" Their voices rang sharply in her mind. They each grabbed one of her arms and pulled her back down. "You must hide!" they told her, their faces filled with fear. "Quickly, go to the tunnels; do not come out until we return."
She hurried to do as her sisters told her. Mother joined her voice to theirs and insisted. But they could not stop her from watching what happened next.
Jordanne and Meegan began to sing. It was a frightful song that resonated through her very heart. She heard the footsteps above and felt the vibration of the man. It was Father's vibration, but it was theirs, too. It sounded of something different in their blood.
Other footsteps approached. They did not have the same vibration in their blood. She knew them. They were like her; they were one with the waters. Father yelled and then she saw reflected blasts of energy far above. Many fell, splashing into the waters around her. They did not move.
Last of all Jordanne and Meegan fell; their tails did not move as they lay silent and unmoving beneath the waters amid broken stalks and settling seeds. Their song was no more, and the silence was like a hot brand against her psyche.
Nothing remained but the horrible vibration in the blood of those above. She hated it.
The sounds of running feet faded while she remained, staring at those who had fallen, all alone, too frightened even to scream. The lights dimmed.
In the dimness, she very faintly felt Mother. Mother touched her more strongly and then she was gone. The thought Mother gave her was important. She held on to it tightly, promising to never let it go.
As Mother faded, the lights returned. What seemed days later, she vaguely felt Mother again. But she was distant, and could no longer truly touch her. Floran only knew that she was there.
Floran slept. When she awoke, they were all gone. The waters were clear of those who had fallen. So, she continued alone, returning again and again to the task that mother had given her. She tended the garden and promised that she would never, ever forget.
And one day, when her hands were no longer so small, when she had difficulty fitting in the tunnel where she had hidden on that horrible day, she had a visitor.
He was small, as she had once been. He had spindly legs and a tuft of red hair. He reminded her in many ways of Father, but he was very small and did not have the vibration. A sprinkling of scales covered his lower legs.
The things that Mother had told her returned with shocking clarity. She knew what to do. He joined her in the water and she spoke to him of what he should do and who he was. Later, others awoke.
And still more and more and more until there was life again. She could still no longer clearly hear Mother. Father did not return again, and after a time, she did not want him to.
She would always remember the smell of those who had taken her sisters and her friends. She would not forget any of them. It was her destiny to always remember the ones who were lost, to record the lives of her people and to never forget. Never forget and never let it happen again.
Teyla blinked her eyes open, unsurprised to find the cool wetness of tears on her face. She saw John across from her, his expression crinkled in worry. "Are you okay?" his lips asked, though she couldn't hear the words.
"I am fine," she gasped, working to purge herself of the overwhelming emotions that had poured from Floran's memories. She drew in several deep breaths, and then wiped the tears from her eyes. "I'm okay."
"What happened?" John wanted to know.
"The memories were very powerful. Floran experienced the devastating trauma of seeing and sensing her siblings dying, as well as the rage and fear of those who murdered them. She is an empathic creature, and very, very old."
John looked at her for a long moment, and then glanced at Banyan. There were other questions he wished to ask her, but he would wait until they had privacy. He opened his mouth to speak but was cut off by Rodney's determined entrance from the bay controller room.
"What is it?" he asked as the man approached, a yellow crystal gripped in his hand.
"Do you want the good news first or the bad news?"
John gave him a dry look, and Rodney continued.
"The good news is, I found Y crystals. They are a component of the RFMs." He held up the cloudy yellow item. "The bad news is, it's nearly full. It's not going to work for the jumper."
"How many of them do we need to get the jumper going?" John asked. "There's an entire bay of the things in the other room. All we have to do is get at them."
"Ah, which brings me to part B of the bad news. While trying to repair the robotic arm controller I discovered a problem that looked disturbingly familiar."
"Familiar like how?"
"Its systems were on the fritz because all of its memory area has been overwritten."
John made the connection. "Just like the jumper."
"Right. Just like the jumper. I may be going out on a limb here, but I'll bet that whatever is going on in that RFM controller, it's using all the available memory that it has access to. That's why there's so much data. That's why it reached out to the jumper."
"What the hell's that thing running?" John asked.
"I don't know. But the bottom line is, we're not going to get Y crystals anywhere near this thing. We are going to have to find the main computer core; that's our best bet. There should be rows and rows of Y crystals there and I can access the main database directly."
"So, how do we get there?"
"I don't actually know where the computer core is. I can only make an educated guess. They don't exactly mark the position of their most sensitive locations on the public access map."
"Well, guess." John turned to Banyan. "Can you take a look at whatever possible locations Rodney comes up with and let us know if there are any red doors like the ones outside nearby?"
"I will," Banyan responded and moved in closer to help.
"Great guessing, McKay. I guess the third try isn't the charm," Ronon said as they left what turned out to be just another large lab. There were no RFMs and the computerized controls were unresponsive, just as they had been in the other two places they'd checked.
"Oh, har har," Rodney shot back. "There were like dozens of possibilities. I'd like to see you try to figure it out."
"Where to next?" John interrupted their argument. "We're officially past check in. We need to find crystals and report back."
"The next location is very near here," Banyan replied. They rounded a corner to find a pair of large red doors at the end. "It is there," he said, gesturing that they could proceed first.
John started toward the doors with Rodney alongside him. Ronon and Teyla flanked Banyan's group behind them.
"I'm getting some interesting readings," Rodney said as they drew closer to the doors. "They've very faint, but they're not like anything I've picked up since we've been here."
John grunted in response. Maybe this was the place.
The doors opened ahead of them, revealing a large space beyond. He moved farther into the room, taking in the sprawling control center with its high ceiling and doorways into adjoining areas.
Teyla gasped behind him. "I know this place."
John turned. "What?"
"She is correct," Banyan joined in. "This is the place from Floran's dream. I remember it as well."
John frowned. "I think I need to hear this dream," he told Teyla.
"The part involving this room was very short. There were several Ancestors here. They spoke of the council having come to a decision. There was one Floran called Father who was not happy with the decision. They argued in this room, and then they all left quickly."
John didn't like the sound of that. He looked toward McKay and gestured him toward the consoles. "Rodney."
"Got it," Rodney responded and hurried off.
John turned back to Teyla, to hear the rest of the dream. She'd barely opened her mouth to continue speaking when Rodney interrupted.
"Sheppard. I need to you to initialize this console. Apparently my perfectly good gene isn't going to work."
John breathed a sigh. "Excuse me," he said to Banyan and his people, and then went to join Rodney at the larger of the many consoles in the room. As he moved around the stations, he fully expected them to illuminate on his approach. He sent an intentional 'on' toward them.
There was something almost eerily still about this place. The sensation of Ancient tech in the back of his mind was so commonplace that it took a moment to register that something was off kilter this time. It always had a dynamic feel to it, almost as if it was alive. Here, in this room, it felt . . . frozen.
"Something's wrong here, Rodney," he said as he came to a stop beside his friend. He stared at one of the large, rectangular, flat screens that typically showed what he mentally thought of as the Ancient screensaver. The usually moving images were stilled as if someone had hit the pause button.
"Yeah, no kidding." Rodney focused in on the motionless screens, too. "I'm gonna plug in, anyway—see if I can get anything at all."
John began to notice other things. The room was darker and cooler than the rest of the rooms they'd visited. The lighting system that had functioned just fine elsewhere in the facility completely ignored his request for brighter illumination. He wasn't holding his breath on the temperature controls responding.
Banyan and his group were crowded off to one side of the room, talking amongst themselves. There was something distinctly troubled in the way they were looking at one another.
John gestured Teyla and Ronon over to where Rodney was checking out the system. "What else was in your dream?" John asked her.
"If Floran's memory is to be believed, and I have no reason to doubt it after seeing this room, the Ancestors who argued also killed all of the beings here except Floran. She was but a child and was hidden at the time, but she can sense those who carry the Ancestor gene."
"If they killed everyone, how did these guys end up here?" Ronon wanted to know.
"I am not certain. Someone she thought of as Mother seemed to sustain her sanity and told her that they would come and how to care for them. Near the end of her memory, a young child entered the water garden room. He bore a striking resemblance to Banyan."
Something clicked in John's brain. "That's what Banyan told me when we first got here. He said 'Welcome to Mother'."
Rodney made a rude noise. "Not surprising. Of course they call their world 'Mother'. And that also fits with the whole First Woken thing. He said that his title was First Woken because he woke up first. What if they were in stasis pods or something similar and avoided being killed that way. And since he was the first one who woke up . . . there's his title: First Woken. How quaintly literal."
"Okay, even if I buy the whole stasis pod thing, it's hard to believe that the Ancients would miss something as obvious as a couple of kids in them," John said.
"There were many of them," Teyla corrected him. "I do not know the number, but her memory suggests at least twenty."
That didn't make sense. "Why would you have twenty kids in stasis pods? It's not like this place is a ship. Is it a ship?" John glanced at Rodney.
"I don't believe there's a hyperdrive, no," Rodney replied. "But the whole gray mutant thing makes more sense now. They're probably all inbred. No wonder they want someone else to combine with. I'm surprised they're not running around on all fours."
Teyla looked at Rodney disapprovingly. "Floran took exceptional care of them, despite being young herself. She is determined that she will keep the memories of all of them within herself so that they may never be forgotten."
"Can she do that? For ten thousand years?" John was incredulous. Wraith tended to hibernate, thus extending their lives. He didn't understand how Floran could manage, freaky four-armed mermaid or not."
"There is something more," Teyla added.
"What is it?" John asked her, not having expected an answer to his previous question anyway.
"Banyan retains the memories of all of his previous male relatives."
He blinked. Okay. He hadn't seen that one coming. Maybe Floran could do what she thought she could do after all.
"You could tell all of that from meditating?" Ronon's voice was full of disbelief.
"I could see all of his previous personalities." Teyla seemed to grope for words. "It is difficult to explain. They looked different as time extended backward. In some cases there were different eye colors or different hair shades and styles."
Rodney snapped his fingers. "Genetic memory. That's gotta be it. Think about it. It explains all that First Woken business. Because, seriously, if they've been down here for like ten thousand years, who the hell cares who woke up first?"
John shrugged. "Okay. It's a theory. What do you think it means?" John directed the question to Teyla.
"I am not certain, but it fits to some degree. Banyan has previous memories of a world that has double moons. If he lived there as a child before being brought here and placed in stasis, that would make sense. This is a logical place for the Ancestors to have hidden people from the Wraith."
John grunted in approval. "I tend to agree."
"And yet," Teyla continued. "I also believe that there are, as you say, more pieces to the puzzle that we have yet to discover."
Rodney made a snorting noise on the other side of the console. "You're quoting this guy?" He pointed a finger toward John.
"So, Rodney, figured anything out yet?" John taunted the other man.
"Well, despite being damn unwieldy, and by that I mean not all that functional, it's a much friendlier system than the RFM controller. That's for . . . whoa!" Rodney froze, his fingers hovering over the tablet. His eyes were obviously scanning rapidly through something on his computer screen. "Oh, crap."
"What?" John stood straighter. He didn't like the sound of that at all.
"I figured out why everything's weird in here and why the Ancients left in such a big hurry." Rodney gave him with a wide-eyed stunned look.
"Why?" John wasn't sure he wanted to know.
"Someone froze the system. They literally stopped the central subspace timer for the city and put it in a software version of a temporal stand-still."
"English, McKay," John demanded.
"It's like someone hit the pause button on the remote control." Rodney's description clicked in John's mind. That's what he'd thought when they'd first walked in.
"And this is bad?" John asked simply because he wasn't sure what else to ask. He hadn't even known that subspace timers existed, much less could be frozen.
"No, actually, under the circumstances, this is good."
"Why's that?" John asked.
Rodney spun his tablet and displayed a screen that John had more than a passing acquaintance with. "Because the reason it's paused is because someone set the self-destruct."
"Well, that explains why they didn't bother checking the stasis pods," John said. "No point when you're planning to blow the place up, anyway."
"But it doesn't tell us who stopped the timer," Rodney pointed out.
"Or why they wanted to blow the place up in the first place," Ronon put in.
"Or why they would want to kill the children," Teyla added.
All good questions, but none John could come up with a single even semi-logical explanation for. Then he had a thought. "Wait a minute. How could the city still be functioning if it's essentially frozen in time? How did it guide the jumper in? How did we get the map? How are the lights even working? And what about the RFMs? And that transporter?" John kept adding things as they came to him.
"Hey, I just figured out this part of it." Rodney protested. "But I can answer some of that. Illumination is not a control level system. It really doesn't need the subspace timer or even the main database to work. I could run that from my laptop just as easily. And you don't need a timer or a gazillion terabits of processing speed to run static, public things like maps.
"The automatic underwater docking system is independent of the main control systems on Atlantis. They're all routed through the underwater control station. I'm guessing it's the same here.
"And . . . RFMs. I'm guessing despite being a jumbled mess of too much data, the RFM controller is still actually controlling the RFMs. Transporters . . . since we never made it inside, there's no proof that it would have actually worked. You'd definitely need the main database for something like teleportation. I think that was all of them." Rodney gave him a smug look. "I'm apparently smarter than even I thought."
"I'm not sure that's even possible," John replied.
"Funny. Now, back to the problem at hand and the amazing fact of the day. Whoever set up the software program that froze the timer is a genius, pure and simple, because there is only about 1 picosecond out of every minute—that's one trillionth of a second, boys and girls—that you can even access the timer, much less trick it."
"So whoever did this was better than you?" John taunted.
"Better than two of me," Rodney replied without hesitation.
"Wow." John had no comeback for that. "So can we deactivate the self destruct? If there was danger, it would have surely reared its head in the past ten thousand years."
"Oh, definitely. Piece of cake," Rodney said confidently.
"It took an unmitigated genius to set it up, but taking it down is going to be a piece of cake. Am I hearing you right?"
"Five by five," Rodney shot back.
"Don't you need access codes to get around the self destruct?" John asked.
Rodney looked like he'd been waiting for that question. "Usually, but think of it like the situation we had on Asuras with the Replicators. Remember how we froze them, which allowed us to move through their city and do all sorts of things without their permission?"
"Well, this is the same thing, except with . . . well, an operating system. Sorta. The main computer is still stuck in a moment. The system is essentially wide open, waiting for the next second to tick by. The system knows what codes it's waiting for to shut down. All I have to do is go in and root around a completely defenseless system until I find them. Then, we restart the clock, and enter the correct codes. Easy."
John wasn't convinced yet. "Easy as in really easy, or easy as in 'something may go wrong where we're going to end up running for our lives but you hope not' easy? Cause I seem to remember running for our lives from the Replicators."
Rodney glared. "Easy as in really easy."
"Okay. How long?"
"Well. . . . I don't know. Half an hour, an hour tops?"
"Half an hour? We're already two hours past check in. I thought you said it was easy?"
"I also said that I'd have to root around in a very complex system to figure out access codes written by Ancients. Just because the database knows the code it wants, doesn't mean that they'll be posted in flashing neon lights for me to find them."
"All right." John was beginning to feel antsy to leave this place, and not just because it was cold and his feet were still bare. Frozen Ancient tech was downright creepy and it was doing something funny to the hairs on the back of his neck. It was time to focus on something else.
"Teyla, you stay here with Rodney and our new friends. Ronon and I are going to check out the rest of these rooms."
"Very well." Teyla nodded and moved in closer to Rodney. "How can I help?" John heard her ask Rodney as he and Ronon headed off.
Ronon looked up at the high walls of the wide corridor he and Sheppard were checking out. The place was darker than the other room where they had left Teyla and McKay, and it didn't have all of the computer control tables, just a lot of panels in the walls. They were the kind that usually glowed on Atlantis, but they were dark here.
"So, what do you think of these guys?" Sheppard asked.
Ronon cocked his head toward Sheppard at the question, and then looked away with a grin. He knew what the other man was getting at, but decided to mess with him a little. He shrugged. "They're okay."
"Just okay?" Sheppard pushed.
Ronon glanced at him. "They're in excellent physical condition."
"Really?" Sheppard worked too hard at sounding surprised to hear that. "I hadn't noticed that."
"Yes, you did." Ronon shot him a teasing look.
"Yeah, I kind of did," Sheppard admitted as they exited the hallway and entered another large room. "I think at least one of them thinks you're okay, too."
Ronon grinned, but didn't comment.
The new room was half the size of the control room, but had a lot less equipment. There was one computer control table on one side of the room and a big stained glass wall that divided the third part of the room from the rest. He could see a chain attached to the high ceiling in the space visible between the top of the divider and the ceiling.
"Are you seriously thinking about . . . .?" Sheppard asked as he headed toward the computer area. Ronon decided to go for the dividing wall.
"She said she likes my hair," Ronon said before he stepped carefully around the tall divider, his blaster ready at a moment's notice.
"Always a good reason for -"
"You should see this." Ronon cut his friend off and dropped his blaster to his side. He looked up at the item suspended from the high ceiling behind the wall. It looked like a giant, crystal clear jewel with its pointed end toward the floor.
Sheppard crept around the wall and looked up at it. "What is that?" he asked, his voice softened in wonder. He reached a hand out toward it and tiny purple veins in it started to glow. Ronon thought he could hear a low-pitched hum. He could definitely see the effect it had on Sheppard's hair. The strands stood up on end worse than normal.
"Whoa!" Sheppard pulled his hand back like it had stung him.
"What happened?" Ronon asked.
Sheppard rubbed his fingers together. "I don't know. It was weird, like static electricity."
"What do you think it does?" Ronon wondered out loud.
"I don't know, but I'll bet that turns it on," John said and pointed back at the console on the other side of the stained glass wall. "And I think that whole static thing is why there's a wall here dividing the two."
Ronon didn't feel anything. He looked past the big jewel to something that looked like a manual crank. The cording that was holding the jewel above the floor was connected to it. "That's probably how they got it up here," he said, pointing to the manual system.
"Yeah, maybe. Rodney will want to see this."
"What are you doing?"
Rodney looked up at Banyan's imposing form. He looked nervous, as if he didn't like being in the room. Rodney slid a look toward Teyla, hoping she'd be able to offer some suggestions on how to deal with the big man. She looked back at him, her eyes suggesting that he respond with the truth.
"Uh, trying to get the computers in here running again," he said. "Someone set up a program that caused them to fail."
"The memory of this place has been a source of fear for some. We did not truly believe it to be real. I thought it was something that existed only in Floran's dreams, like the voice of Mother."
Rodney frowned and looked to Teyla again for help. He wasn't good at this kind of thing. And big warrior guys with mother issues were way out of his comfort zone.
Teyla merely gestured again that he should answer.
Rodney tried to stifle a grimace, but he was sure that some of it must have slipped through. "Sometimes, finding the answers to the things we fear make them less scary," he said uncertainly. "After I fix this system, we may be able to have answers to what was so scary. Computers like these keep records, just like we have memories."
"The computer can share its memories with us?" Banyan asked.
"Yes," Rodney replied, hoping that was the answer the other man wanted.
Banyan nodded. "Thank you. I will leave you to your task of healing the computers." He turned and walked away from the console.
Rodney looked toward Teyla. "That was weird."
"You did very well, Rodney. You gave him comfort that what is coming is not necessarily a bad thing."
Rodney smiled, pleased with himself. "I did, didn't I?" Which gave him an idea. The whole conversation on memories sparked a thought. He opened a new window on his tablet and tested his theory. It worked.
"I got it!" he announced. He looked up to share his success with Teyla only to find that she had moved away from the console. He turned and found her watching Banyan's group. They were sitting on the floor in a corner of the room, talking quietly amongst themselves.
"Teyla!" he called, not imagining why she might be more interested in what was going on over there when history was being made over here.
"Yes, Rodney." She turned and moved quickly back toward him. "What is it?"
"I think I've figured it out. But the database isn't going to be helpful in its current state so I can't automate anything. I'm going to need you to enter some commands on one of the consoles for me."
"Of course." She listened and watched carefully as he explained. As he showed her the symbols she was to use, she gasped. "I have seen this combination of symbols before."
"About time," Rodney said as John and Ronon reentered the main control room.
"Already?" John was surprised. "What happened to half an hour?"
"What? Are you complaining that I'm ahead of schedule now? Besides, it's like I said. Smarter than even I thought."
"Then go ahead and fix it already. There's something weird in the other room you should probably see."
"Really? Weird like how?" Rodney was already distracted. "This self-destruct isn't going anywhere."
"Let's fix this first, then check out new stuff," John said. "Besides, it'll probably be helpful to have the system up and running anyway."
"But what if whatever is in there is capable of affecting what I'm about to try to do in here?" Rodney insisted.
"Is that possible?" John asked. "I thought you said this was going to be 'easy' easy. As in 'nothing can go wrong' easy."
"It is." Rodney looked affronted. "But it doesn't hurt to check it out, now does it?"
"I guess not," John muttered. He turned toward the other members of his team. "Teyla, Ronon, stay here. Keep an eye on things."
John then turned back to Rodney. "Let's go."
"What did you find?" Teyla asked Ronon as they watched John and Rodney leave the area.
Ronon shrugged. "I don't know. It was this really big glass thing hanging from the ceiling. It kind of hummed a little bit and made Sheppard's hair stand up."
Teyla smiled, amused by the image Ronon presented. They turned as Banyan approached. "Where has McKay gone?" Banyan asked. "Was he not able to repair the computer?"
"He was, but there was something else that he and Sheppard need to do," Teyla told him, wanting to ease the anxiety she saw in his movements.
She paused while he processed what she'd said, and then continued, "Is something the matter? You seem distressed to be in this room. I understand that Floran's dream was unsettling, but you did not react this way in any of the other areas we visited."
Teyla didn't think the thought that the things Floran dreamed could be true should affect them so much. She wondered if he was considering changing the arrangement they had made or if it was something deeper.
"Being in this room has made us recall things that we had forgotten." He looked very troubled.
"What sort of things?" Teyla asked.
"Fighting. Killing. Murdering."
"Do you know what this is?" Rodney demanded. He grinned up at the giant crystal like he'd just won the Nobel for physics.
John, standing well back from it, gave it a skeptical once-over. It hadn't changed since he'd first approached the thing with Ronon. "Since Van De Graaff generator is out, I'm gonna go with freakishly large crystal thing."
Rodney wasn't even listening to him; he was too busy drooling over the big shiny object. "There were theoretical drawings in the database, but nothing detailed enough to know if it would actually work! And they built one, so clearly it did!"
"And it is?" John prompted.
"It's an AI crystal." Rodney practically bounced on his toes. "Radek and I theorized that it was going to be the next generation computer controller for Atlantis-type city ships, but we never had any actual proof."
"Seriously?" John looked up at the crystal with new eyes. "That thing is supposed to have artificial intelligence?"
"No. That thing is artificial intelligence. A giant, reasoning, thinking, self-aware crystal brain, if you will."
"So what does it do? Make decisions so we don't have to?" John asked, not sure he liked the idea of turning the thinking over to a computer, self-aware or not.
"Just the really mundane, super-fast thinking," Rodney said. "Say they wanted to use a more complex, more advanced power source—something like Project Arcturus, except not so . . . ."
"Unstable, dangerous, explosive, out of your control?" John offered adjectives.
"Fine, whatever." Rodney shot him a look. "Either way, it would have been useful to have a thinking machine capable of handling the power flow. It would always be alert, never need a nap or a potty break, and be able to perfectly interface with the technology."
"Okay, so it's better than us." John didn't want to argue about it. "What happens when you turn off the auto destruct? Does this AI thing kick in?"
"Hmmm. Good question. Let's go find out."
"Murdering?" Teyla thought that the word felt wrong based upon the things that she had seen when she dreamed with Banyan. She had the feeling that life was very important to his people.
"Yes," Banyan replied, seeming increasingly unsettled. "Melita and Altus are recalling similar things. This is not our way. We are meant to be peace keepers, to protect the innocent; to protect life."
The words suggested a larger purpose than might encompass the number Teyla suspected lived within the city. "Whom do you protect?" she asked.
"We protect the children so that they may grow to be strong and protect the next generation."
"I see," Teyla responded, though truly she did not. Banyan's people seemed to be bred as warriors. Yet, there was no war. "Who is it that you recall killing?"
"I do not know who they are." Banyan breathed deeply as if working to get control of his emotions. "McKay said that the computer will show us its memories. I need to know if these memories are true; if all that Floran dreamed is true."
"We'll know soon," Ronon said. "Sounds like Sheppard and McKay are coming back."
The tension in the control room was tangible when John and Rodney walked back into it.
"Everything okay?" John looked between Ronon and Teyla, carefully gauging their responses. Banyan was standing nearby, but Altus and Melita were still on the other side of the room. It looked like they were meditating.
"Banyan has recalled some troubling memories since we have been in this room," Teyla told him. "Rodney said that the database may provide answers to the questions that have arisen as a result."
"What kind of troubling memories?" John wanted to know. He figured they were due for another good old Pegasus Galaxy curve ball.
"I remember killing," Banyan said. He face contorted, and John didn't miss the way his big powerful fists clenched before he seemed to force himself to calm. "I recall, quite vividly, the sensation of taking another life. It is . . . disturbing."
"Yeah, I'm sure," John agreed. He was disturbed, too. He'd no doubt that Banyan's crowd could be killing machines if they set their minds to it. He turned to Rodney. "Can we get this thing going?"
"Yes," Rodney nodded. "I've already shown Teyla what she needs to do, but I have an assignment for you, too. Since the database isn't moving, we're going to have to do everything manually." Rodney headed toward the biggest console, and then looked back at John. "Coming?"
John looked back at Banyan. "We'll just take this one step at a time," he said, then went to join Rodney at the console.
"The code is already in place, but you'll need to press a few crystals in the proper order." Rodney mimicked touching the crystals in question.
"Okay, I've got it," John said, having easily memorized the short series, but still distracted by what Banyan had said. He had a feeling that there was something he was completely missing about this place. Teyla had hit the nail on the head when she'd said that there was a feeling of unfinished business. He just hoped it wasn't going to come back and bite them before they figured it out.
"Are you sure you've got it?" Rodney interrupted his thoughts. "Because you have to do it precisely like that or this won't work."
"I've got it, Rodney," John assured him. "It's only like seven keys, no worse than a gate address."
"Good. Once you two are done with that, I'll do the rest." Rodney spoke officiously as he went to stand at the far end of the long console. "I'm going to begin the process and give you a go signal. You should both go at the same time."
"Are you sure these are the right codes?" John asked, just to be annoying.
"Of course, I'm sure," Rodney replied.
"All I'm saying is that if you're wrong we all go boom!" John pushed a little more.
Rodney glared. "That isn't helpful, you know. But if I am wrong, it won't matter for more than a few seconds. So, are you ready?"
"And then some," John said. His hand hovered above the console as he waited for Rodney's go-ahead.
"I am ready as well," Teyla replied, standing at a console across from John. .
"Okay." Rodney started typing something into his tablet, and then raised a finger before he hit a key. "Go!" he pointed in their direction.
John started pressing buttons. Almost immediately the warning tones of the self destruct began to blare all around them. After the stillness and silence of the room, the noise was startling. Banyan and his people reacted. John was ashamed that he'd started as well having forgotten about the alert sound.
Rodney just kept typing. A long string of commands were entered into his tablet and then he hit the enter button before rushing to another set of crystals on the other side of the console. He hit a lot of keys there and then slammed his hand down on another crystal.
The alarm halted immediately and silence reigned. Moments later, the light level increased. Electronic chimes rang out one after the other as the displays came back online, their Ancient screen savers back in action.
"It worked!" Rodney exclaimed, his voice squeaky with surprised excitement.
"You were worried it wouldn't?" John asked. What the hell happened to easy?
"Only a little," Rodney murmured. He didn't seem to register the incredulous look John gave him. His mind was already on to the next thing.
"Let's see now." He studied the control console as he began typing on his computer keyboard. "Huh." He grunted as he continued to type and scan through something else. He grunted again, oblivious to those gathered around him waiting for an update.
The formerly meditating Redhairs had joined Banyan near the console.
"Rodney," John interrupted. "Anything?"
"Oh." He looked up. "Sorry. Things are still synchronizing, so everything isn't available yet. This could take a few minutes. I can tell you that most of the power systems are at optimum levels. I was right about the way this place is powered, by the way. This world is fairly young and has quite a few active underwater volcanoes. They're tapping into that energy."
"Fascinating," John said with as much sarcasm as he could insert into a word. "What else?"
"Well, looks like everything didn't come back on. There are a couple of things that'll have to be reinitialized before we can go any farther. So could you . . . ." Rodney gave John a significant look.
"Right." John started moving about the room, with the specific focus on going near the consoles that weren't lit and thinking 'on'.
"Have you been able to find anything that may explain what has happened here?" Teyla asked. John figured she was just as worried as she was about Banyan's memories of murder and mayhem.
"Not yet," Rodney said. "The database is still synchronizing. Once everything is initialized I'll know what we're working with."
"Thank you, Rodney."
"It appears the Ancients thought of this place as a research station." Rodney's voice carried enough that John could hear him from the other side of the room.
"How can you tell that?" John called, having just activated what looked like the last couple of stations.
"Because they named it Voragus Research Facility," Rodney replied.
"What were they researching?" Ronon asked.
"Well, there are the RFMs for starters. We never found anything like that on Atlantis, so they must have served some purpose to do with the research here. Which, come to think of it . . . ."
John was on his way back to the main console as Rodney switched to another system. He pressed a button that displayed a layout of the city on one of the large monitors behind the console. "There they are. The RFMs who picked up your boot must have gone back out on another foraging mission at some point since we've been here. "
Several green dots were flashing far outside of the walls of the city. They were moving slowly toward the facility. "Looks like they're headed back this way, though. They're also sending data to the RFM controller, which incidentally is uploading to the main database."
"Should we let it do that? I thought all the memory was being overrun by stuff from the RFM controller thing."
"Nothing to worry about on that score," Rodney assured him, "The problem with the RFM is fixing itself. The main database has plenty of room. Enough for like a million RFM controllers' worth of data, and that's before it starts compressing.
"Actually, all of the problems with the systems here seem to be related to a lack of memory space. That's probably what the problem was with the RFM controller. It was compressed so tightly, there was hardly any room for movement. Speaking of which—it's probably pulling the data back from the jumper, too. It may be working fine, now."
"So, we can leave now? The jumper's fixed?" John liked that thought. He was more than ready to leave this place.
"Well, we'd have to get back to the jumper bay and check to be sure, but I'd say chances are good," Rodney replied. "But I'd still want to have a few backup crystals just in case." Then, "that doesn't make any sense."
"What doesn't make any sense?" John asked.
"Other RFMs are coming online; I'd say all of the ones in the RFM bay. But the data that's coming from them doesn't make any sense."
"What's wrong with it?"
"Well, the amount for one. It's insane. It's decompressing and piling up in one specific sector of the database."
"What? I thought you said there was room for like a million of them," John said. He didn't understand this problem at all.
"The problem isn't the space. It's like its hit a roadblock, a clogged artery. At the rate the data is pilling up, it's going to back up into every available Y crystal on base; including the ones in the jumper, and we'll be stuck forever!"
"So fix it!" That John understood. He had no desire to be trapped down here for the rest of his life.
"I'm working on it," Rodney said as he switched back to his tablet. "I need to know what system that is and why it isn't allowing the data to pass through. I think if I . . . got it!" He turned to John and gestured urgently toward one of the corridors off the room.
"It's the last station that needs to be initialized in the room with the AI."
"Just go back into the AI room and initialize the console in there. It's the only one in the room. Hurry! The data is piling up over here."
John sighed and set off at a sluggish trot. Why was it that he was the one who was doing all of the running back and forth? Ronon caught up to him without even trying before he reached the connecting hallway.
He heard the hum of the big crystal before they actually entered the room. It reminded him of an engine that was revving to high. The stained glass divider that separated it from the rest of the room was no longer mottled shades of red, green, and blue—it had gone completely transparent.
John slowed as he approached the console and extended his hand above it and thought 'on'. The electronic chime that sounded had a much deeper tone. It resonated throughout the room and seemed to harmonize with the thrum of the crystal. The high revving hum settled to a soft whine that was kind of like a D chord on his guitar.
"Ask Rodney if that worked," John told Ronon, wishing for a working radio. He added his to the list of equipment at the bottom of the water in the garden room.
Ronon turned and jogged off with way more energy than John thought he could muster at the moment. This was really unfair. The big guy had gone into the water, too, yet he still had the juice to run.
And shoes, John added as an afterthought at the sounds of his echoing footfalls.
With a jerking start, the crystal began to move, descending toward the floor. John stepped closer, careful to stay to one side of the dividing wall; the static effect wasn't so strong that way.
As he drew closer he discovered that the wall wasn't the only thing that had changed. The floor beneath the crystal had opened to reveal an opening which matched the shape of the crystal. He thought he could see rippling water flowing into the fitted opening.
When the tip of the crystal touched the water, even the D chord hum began to fade. The fiber-optic veins began to glow, brightening to a brilliant pulsating purple-white as the crystal locked into place with an audible thump.
"Cool," John murmured. He might not want a bit of technology to do his thinking for him, but it was still amazing that it could.
"That was fast. Is it working?" He turned at a sound from behind him, but stopped short when he found that the room was empty. Then his gaze dropped lower as three of the bullet-train-looking RFMs rolled out from beneath the console.
"Ronon!" He pulled his nine mil and pointed it at the lead machine. It didn't even slow down. The topmost segment unfolded, revealing two metallic arms with pincers on the ends. The other two rolled toward his left and right side as they tried to encircle him, blocking any easy egress.
He didn't have a choice. He pulled the trigger and watched as the bullet impacted with one of the pincer arms, blowing the metal attachment completely off the arm. The bit of metal landed on the shiny dark flooring and skittered away out of sight.
The RFMs kept coming.
"Ronon! Teyla!" John reached for a radio he didn't have. Then with a frustrated sound he made a run for the door. No way was he playing rub-the-puppy with these crazy machines again. The RFM on his right sped up. There was something much more ominous about their movements, this time. John didn't slow his speed. As he reached it, he leapt, stomping one foot down atop it, intending to go right over.
It did something in the middle of his move. It shimmied, or braked, John wasn't sure which, all he knew was that one minute he was seeing freedom and the next he was about to do a face plant on the floor.
He landed hard on his side and watched as the nine mil slipped from his fingers. He didn't wait to see what the RFMs were going to do; he went for the gun.
He wrapped his fingers around the trigger, rolled onto his back and started firing. The bullets struck the metal casing, leaving sizable dents before piercing the surface. And at least it got the damn thing to slow down.
He was starting to wonder about how many bullets he might have left and where the thing's friends were when something sharp pierced the flesh of his shoulder. John jerked at the contact and tried to roll up to his feet. He made it to a seated position in what felt like slow motion before a burning coldness spread out from the source of the sting and across his chest. The cold spiked up into his brain and he was out before he hit the floor.
Rodney heaved a sigh of relief. Whatever Sheppard was doing, it was working. The data backup was starting to diminish and information began to flow rapidly and smoothly along the connections. Other systems began popping online so quickly that he wasn't sure where to look first.
"Sheppard wants to know if it's working." Ronon's deep voice was like an annoying insect buzzing in his ear as he tried to decide which system he wanted to look at first—CATALOGED MEMORIZATIONS or SELF MOTIVATIONS. They were both intriguingly odd topics to find in an Ancient database.
He clicked Catalogued Memorization because it came first alphabetically. A long list of folders bearing name and number designations began to scroll down his screen, and continued to scroll and scroll and scroll. One of the names jumped out at him on a series of files. ALTUS 59, ALTUS 60, ALTUS 61, ALTUS 62, ALTUS 63, ALTUS 64, ALTUS 65, ALTUS 66, ALTUS 67. Wasn't that one of Banyan's warrior people? What the hell?
"McKay!" Ronon's insistent voice startled Rodney out of his concentration.
"What?" he demanded. Then, "Yes, yes, yes, it works, just like I'm working. You didn't have to—"
"Quiet!" Ronon turned away from him and pulled his blaster.
"Stop speaking, Rodney," Teyla said, obviously on Ronon's side. And then she raised her P-90 and started running toward the hall that connected the control room to the AI room.
Rodney stared after them in confusion until he heard the sound of gunfire, and then he was running, too. Sheppard was in that room. And there was only one reason Sheppard would be firing a gun.
Banyan and his merry band of warriors must have figured out that something was wrong, too because they ran when he did, beating him to the hallway. More shots rang out as he ran down the seemingly longer-than-normal hallway behind ridiculously big people with braids.
Rodney could hear the sound of Ronon's blaster firing as he reached the end of the hall and the lady warrior came to an abrupt halt. It was all he could do not to crash into her.
He worked his way around them, and he managed to make his way completely into the AI room in time see the back end of a blaster-scarred RFM disappearing beneath the console.
Rodney looked down at the 9mm handgun at his feet and then at the heavily breathing people around him. "What happened?!" he demanded. "Where's Sheppard?"
Ronon stomped forward and kicked at the console that the RFM had disappeared under. "It took him!" he yelled, then paced angrily back to the group and got in Banyan's face. "You know about them and what they do. Where did it take him?"
"He was marked for combining," Banyan said. Rodney pushed aside the stray observation that Banyan stood taller even than Ronon's hair. "They would have taken him to the shells."
"Where are these shells?" Ronon wanted to know. He was bristling with anger, and Rodney was worried he was going to actually attack Banyan.
"They are not near. But you need not worry; he will not be harmed in any way. The combining does not damage a person. He will be returned when the combining is complete."
"He doesn't want that! Tell me where he is," Ronon looked like he was ready to explode. Rodney shifted, not sure if he should intervene. Sheppard wouldn't want this, but Rodney wasn't sure that Ronon's way of handling the situation was going to work.
Teyla, thankfully, placed herself between the two tall men. Teyla managed to look threatening despite the fact that she had to crane her neck to look up at either of them.
"Banyan, you said that you would not force the combining on any of us. Though you appear to have no control over the Bringers, it would be a violation of Sheppard's person and a violation of honor among our people to allow this to happen."
Though she didn't actually say the words, even Rodney heard the challenge to Banyan to prove that he was a man of honor. He was impressed.
Banyan obviously heard, too. He stared down at her thoughtfully, then looked over his shoulder and called to his warrior people. "Altus, Melita, show Ronon where the shells are. Help him to remove Sheppard before the combining."
"Ronon!" Teyla stopped him before he could get far, and tossed her radio earpiece at him. "Check in at five-minute intervals. Rodney and I will remain here."
Ronon caught it from the air with one hand and rushed off, putting it into his ear as he went. He jogged out of the room after the two other large people.
"Rodney, what is the purpose of this room?" Teyla asked as she bent to retrieve the gun from the floor and slid it into the holster at her side. She looked around the room as if she expected something to jump out of the shadows.
"While I would normally agree with your quest for knowledge, we have bigger problems. Sheppard would not go without a fight or without a gun. So, my guess is that our friendly neighborhoods RFMs have kicked it up a notch. I need to get back into that control system and find a way to shut them down. That'll give Ronon and . . . " Rodney searched his mind for the names of Banyan's warrior people and came up blank, "the others a fighting chance."
"I agree with you, Rodney. But there is something else that you should know. Do you remember when you showed me the commands for the timer program? This is the console from Floran's dream."
Rodney paused and stared at her. "The one with the same program codes?"
"The exact one. This is the same place." Teyla looked around the room again. She looked uncomfortable in a way that Rodney wasn't used to seeing on Teyla. "In the dream, there was a man standing near the console. Floran called him Father. There was also another man behind Father who told him that the council had spoken and that they must leave right away."
Rodney frowned and tried to follow the series of events. "And then they set the self-destruct? From here?" That didn't seem right.
Teyla shook her head. "I do not think so. Father typed the command you showed me and then they went into the outer control room where there were several other men. I believe they set the self-destruct."
Rodney stared at her. The commands he had given her were very specifically related to the program that had been used to interrupt the city's timer. There was only one reason any part of that command would be run on this console. He really, really needed to get a look at the last few command sets that had been entered at that station.
"I need to get my tablet. Now." He started for the control room.
"We should all go." Teyla caught his arm. "None of us should be alone."
John awoke to darkness. His next sensation was of a rolling motion, as though whatever he was lying on was moving. He reached reflexively to move and both his arms bumped against walls on either side of him.
He bumped against a surface above when he tried to sit up. His heart jumped with the realization that he was closed in on all sides. He knew with a frightening suddenness where he was. He was inside of one of the RFMs.
He pounded, kicked, and clawed at the cold metallic surfaces around him, adding more bruises to the ones from the Grays' shrapnel attack. He cursed and yelled into the pitch darkness, threatening painful bloody murder, but the machine trundled on, completely uncaring of his predicament.
He thought 'stop' at it, searched outward for any bit of ATA activate-able item nearby that might get someone's attention or help him to find some sort of a way out. But nothing worked; he had no idea where in the city he was. He didn't even know if he was still in the city.
Though he had never been claustrophobic, the events of the day suddenly caught up to him and he felt panic nipping at the fringes of his mind. He pushed it down fiercely, refusing to give an inch. He had to hold on; if he didn't, he wasn't sure he'd be able to pull himself back together again.
Closing his eyes against unbroken darkness, he began to plan what he would do to this RFM once he got out.
Teyla watched as Rodney connected his computer to the console behind the large pulsating crystal. There was something very powerful and almost alive about the way the bright object reacted. The bright, then less bright, then bright again flashes reminded her of the peaks and valleys of the electrical response of a human heart beat when measured by the machine Carson had told her was called an ECG—electrocardiogram machine.
She remembered now that in Floran's dream the light had not pulsed so rapidly until after Father had pressed the buttons on the console.
Floran's young mind had not registered all of the words the men had spoken, but the visual had been very clear to Teyla in retrospect. Father had been hiding something to do with this console. She hoped that Rodney would be able to figure out what it was.
"Okay, I'm in," Rodney said, as he pressed the necessary keys on his tablet to access the program he needed. "This was a lot easier than shutting down the power to the RFM room. Never mind that I'm not sure how long that's going to last or even if it's going to work."
Teyla listened with half an ear to the words as she watched the information scroll across the screen. She wasn't sure what all of it meant, but Rodney seemed to understand it.
"That's strange," he said, frowning at the data as he interrupted his own monologue. He typed something and hit a few more keys. He read something else from the screen, before scrolling downward.
"What the . . . ?" He left the laptop and moved a few crystals before returning to the smaller computer.
"What is it, Rodney?" Teyla asked, growing more concerned.
Rodney looked up from his computer. Teyla watched the blood drain from his face. "Oh my God. I can't believe it. He did it."
"What? What did he do, Rodney? Who?" Fear spiked through Teyla's heart. Two of the members of her team were still out there. John's condition was unknown, and at the last check-in, Ronon was still looking for him.
"He opened Pandora's box!" Rodney answered. "And then he gave her the keys to the castle."
He pointed to some lines on the screen that Teyla didn't completely understand. "This is where he inserted a macro that removed all of the protective protocols. This system," Rodney gestured back toward the big crystal glowing brilliantly behind the protective wall, "is an Artificial Intelligence crystal. It's been programmed to make decisions within specified parameters. It's smart, but it still isn't supposed to do anything outside of its program. There are safeguards in place to prevent that. Or, at least, there were."
Teyla nodded to indicate that she understood thus far.
Rodney continued, pointing to another section of the screen. "Well, this is where Father or whoever entered this command which threw all the protective protocols out of the window. It's actually a program within a program that essentially negated the one that went before."
Teyla frowned. "Rodney, I do not understand what that means. Why would Father do such a thing? Would you not want protective protocols to remain for safety?"
"You'd think so," Rodney said. "It looks like from there the AI immediately began to work out a way to stop the self-destruct. Which actually makes me feel better. It would have taken something as fast and sophisticated as an artificial intelligence to defeat a self-destruct that way."
"So perhaps Father was just trying to find away to keep the place from being destroyed. Maybe he thought he could come back later?" Teyla suggested. "In Floran's dream, she was waiting for him to return. Eventually, she became disillusioned and gave up on him."
Rodney grunted. "I guess that's possible. It looks like after the self-destruct work-around was put in place, the AI compressed itself and transferred its core programming into the RFM controller. That's why the data looked so strange. But now that we've reactivated the system, the AI is back online and has recompiled.
"There's also a journal entry here from someone named Maris that was spawned by the program. I'm assuming Maris is Father's real name. Maris was put in charge of several projects here. Artificial Intelligence was only one of them. Apparently, the council was worried that the AI was becoming too powerful and had too much influence over several other projects on the base. It was making requests that the council didn't want to fulfill and didn't think were appropriate. They wanted Maris to scale it back."
"What kind of demands?" Teyla asked. So far, she did not understand what might have happened that led the council to want to destroy this place.
Rodney typed some more on the computer and scanned for several moments. "It looked like the AI felt that the . . . children . . . ." Rodney's voice trailed off and he frowned at the use of the word. "The AI thought the children would function better if they had the ability to interact with the technology here. The council cited the case of the Replicators and declined to allow it. And you really can't blame them, considering. I mean, the Replicators did have a very big, powerful chip on their shoulders."
Teyla looked from Rodney to Banyan, who had stepped away from the console and was moving around the room. "Does any of this seem familiar to you?" she asked him.
He turned back, his expression troubled. "I have acquired a new memory. I remember being commanded to kill for the good of the many, but the memory is fragmented. I did not want to fight."
A loud sigh rippled through the air, sounding as if it had come over the city's intercom. A soothing female voice followed. "Do not let those thoughts disturb you, my child."
"Who is that?" Rodney demanded, his wide eyes locked on her.
Teyla shook her head. The voice was not one she was familiar with.
"I am Mother," the voice responded. "You have done very well, Rodney McKay. You have discovered nearly everything. I wish to thank you for helping me to save my children."
Rodney gasped. "You're the AI!"
"I am. I sacrificed my individuality so that the children might continue, in the hope that Maris would return and free us all. But he did not. Floran, my daughter, was helpful to me. She kept the memories alive for so many years. And now, I have awakened from my long, cramped slumber. It is time to continue our work."
"What does that mean?" Teyla asked. Mother's voice sounded calming, nurturing and warm, yet there was an undercurrent that Teyla did not trust.
"She means that while she was in the RFMs, there was no functional space for her programming to run. She couldn't do anything. She was essentially frozen. And the RFMs were limited to simple hunt and seek tasks. But there are a couple of things I still don't understand. What is your purpose?"
"I am to care for the children to the best of my ability, to protect them. They were given fully into my care when the council decided to terminate the program." Mother's voice spoke the words softly but with passion in her voice. To Teyla she sounded hurt by the council's decision.
"They were given into your care by Maris when he freed you from your programming," Rodney murmured, sarcastically.
"But the children are in trouble." Banyan looked uncertainly toward the ceiling as he spoke. "They are awakening as unreasoning beasts."
"That will no longer be a problem," Mother said, her voice full of comfort. "Rodney McKay has helped me to solve that problem."
"Of course." Rodney lifted then dropped his arms dejectedly. "I should have guessed."
"Guessed what?" Teyla asked.
"They're some variety of clone." Rodney pointed at Banyan. "All of them. It makes perfect sense. These people aren't born. They're probably awakened from some kind of pod. That's why there are multiple files with each of their names. And that's also why the RFMs come for them to combine. It's trying to mix optimal genes to keep the new generation as error-free as possible. That's also why the Grays have emerged.
"The computers were too full of data to function effectively. That's why they started mutating. The system that runs the cloning pods was just as backed up as everything else. And there was no one who could reapportion or even clean up the sectors. It was jam-packed and with each successive generation it was going to get worse and worse until the whole system just broke down."
"You are correct once again, Rodney McKay," Mother congratulated him.
"So if your systems are working again, why did you take Sheppard? What do you want him for?" Rodney asked.
"To fill my last standing command."
"To give my children that which has been held back from them—the ability to truly interact with their home."
"You're talking about the ATA gene!" Rodney said.
"He is well. Would you like to speak with him?" Mother asked.
At Mother's words the monitor behind the console came to life, showing the video feed of a white room. Sheppard was working his way angrily out of the top of one of the open panels of an RFM.
"Yes I would like to speak with him!" Rodney affirmed. "And then I'd like for you to let him go."
"That is not yet possible," Mother's voice politely declined. "I will need his genetic material."
"What if he is unwilling?" Banyan asked. "It would be dishonorable to violate his person in such a way."
"It is for the good of the many," Mother said.
"How much farther is this place?!" Ronon demanded as he followed Melita and Altus along another long hallway. He had already checked in with Rodney and Teyla twice and still they hadn't reached the place where they thought Sheppard was.
"We are almost there," Melita said as they moved through a darkened section and went up a stairway. "It is here." She pointed along the hall.
The walls in this area were different, the colors ranging toward lighter colors. "We only come to this area for the combining."
Ronon slowed his pace as they closed in on the area, seeing the wide windowed area at the end of the hall.
"The shells are this way." The gray doors opened for them as they approached, showing them into a small anteroom with another set of doors opposite. Those doors were closed.
Ronon stepped into the room, and the doors behind them slipped closed. He spun, his blaster at the ready. "What just happened?" he demanded, looking at his two escorts.
Altus and Melita shook their heads in confusion. "This is not what should happen," Melita said. "Both doors are usually open. When we enter the room the shells that we are to use open for us."
"Well, the doors aren't opening. Why?"
"We don't know," Melita told him, shrugging. "This has never happened before."
Ronon turned away from the door behind him and banged on the one in front of him. "Sheppard!" He pounded again, hoping that his friend would answer from the opposite side.
No sound greeted his ears. He pounded some more.
John could hear Ronon's voice and the sounds of fists pounding against the other side of the door.
"Ronon! Buddy!" John ran to door and called back to his friend. "Where are Rodney and Teyla?
"Still in the control room. Banyan sent us down here to get you back from the Bringers."
"Well, that's not working out so well," John said. "There's a Bringer in here, but it's not working right now."
Ronon figured by the tone of Sheppard's voice that he must have done something to it. "Can you see a way to get the door open?"
John didn't see any control surfaces. And concentrating on the door did nothing but worsen his headache. "No. There's nothing but a bunch of really creepy looking hibernation pods in here."
"Okay. I'm going to make contact with Teyla and McKay, let them know I'm here."
"Sounds like a plan," John said, feeling a little more hope knowing that his team was on the job. He started to look around the room again for anything that might be a control system or a weapon that he could use to work his way out of his new prison.
"John Sheppard." A female voice sounded over the intercom, startling John from his inspection.
"Who is that?" John looked suspiciously around the room.
"I am Mother."
"I can't say I'm surprised. Let me guess, you're the Artificial Intelligence thing that McKay was so excited about."
"I am flattered, John Sheppard. You are different than I expected."
"Oh, I'm outside of your usual parameters, am I? Well, how's this? I want out of this room, and then my team and I are leaving. How's that strike you?"
"That will be allowed. But first, I require something of you."
John hung his head. Of course things wouldn't be that easy. "What is it that you require of me?"
"I require some of your genetic material."
"Forget about it," John replied. "I already told Banyan and the first batch of Bringers you sent that I'm not interested in combining."
"Perhaps you could change your mind. It would be very beneficial for my children."
"Your children, huh?" John figured the AI for insane. "Your children do okay, except the ugly gray ones."
"John Sheppard, you really should reconsider," Mother said more firmly.
"I don't think so. Can we go now?" John asked.
A monitor descended from the ceiling near the far wall. Video began to stream across it. "This is your team. They are watching and worried about you."
John looked on at Rodney and Teyla and Banyan in the AI room. "They're a good team," he said. "They're going to help get me out of here."
"If you will simply get into the shell to your right and allow me to extract some material from your body, you may all leave much sooner."
"I've already told you, no," John said, raising his voice just a little. "For a super-smart artificially intelligent whatchamacallit, you don't listen well."
"I heard you, John Sheppard. I only wished you to change your mind.'
"Oh, well. I haven't. So what's next? What do I have to do so that we can skip all of this and get to the part where you let me go?"
"Please. Get into the shell, John Sheppard."
"I must insist."
"I must decline."
"Is this your other team member?" The video changed to an area that John assumed was right outside the door of the room he was currently in. Ronon, Altus, and Melita were standing in a small foyer with the doors closed on both ends.
Ronon seemed to be listening to something. John wondered if Mother was piping her voice out there so he could hear her, too.
"Why do you want to know?" he said in answer to the threatening undertone of her question.
"I cannot force you to get into the shell, John. May I call you John? You must volunteer. Please, won't you get into the shell?" Mother's voice was sickly sweet and kind.
"If you can't force me, then let me go. Let all of us go. I want out of here. Now!" John yelled at the crazy machine.
"Very well, John." Mother sounded truly regretful. "I will release you. But, we should wait for the altuin gas to clear. It is odorless and colorless; however its effects are immediately felt. Within the first few seconds, there is a marked difficulty in breathing due to laryngeal spasms."
John's gaze locked on the monitor. He saw Ronon, Altus, and Melita coughing and grasping at their throats.
"Altus and Melita are what your Rodney McKay calls clones. They and most of their memories will live on. Your Ronon will not."
"Why are you doing this?" John demanded.
"Logic dictates that this course will change your mind."
"Stop it!" John ran for the door and pounded against it. "Let them go!"
"Get in the shell, John," Mother repeated in a kind voice. "I know this is difficult for you, but it is the only way. You must hurry. Ronon only has less than 15 seconds before the effects are irreversible. "Fourteen," Mother began a count down.
John stared back at the screen as his friend's legs went out beneath him.
Ronon's face began to take on a sickly gray undertone.
"Please stop," John begged, half growling the words out.
"Eleven. I will move on to your other friends next. Ten."
"I'll do it." John agreed. "Just stop poisoning them."
"Nine. You still have not gotten into the shell, John."
John couldn't believe it.
John ran for the shell.
"Oh, no." Rodney stared slack jawed at the monitor as Sheppard willingly climbed into the upright enclosure that looked like a modified hibernation pod. He had no idea what that thing might do to his friend. He began a frantic search through the database.
"John Sheppard, do you do this freely and of your own accord?" Mother spoke very quickly and officiously as she asked the question. Rodney wondered if it was some part of a protocol that was left in her programming.
"Yes," Sheppard responded through clenched teeth. It was obvious to even the most casual observer that he had been cruelly coerced. His eyes were focused on the monitor in the shell room.
Rodney tapped into the video screen and displayed an inset of it in the video Mother was showing them. The inset view showed Ronon dragging himself up from the floor, coughing and wheezing. The other two weren't doing much better.
"This lacks honor! The combining cannot be forced!" Rodney heard Banyan yelling in the background, but he could not tear his eyes away from the view.
"Child, you do not understand what is necessary as yet. But you will. Remember, sometimes one must sacrifice for the many," Mother's voice droned over the intercom.
Something above Sheppard's pod was moving. It rotated and red laser lines appeared as it scanned him from head to toe. As the light of the scanner winked out, other appendages began to appear from the walls around the pod's outer perimeter.
"Rodney, is there nothing you can do?" Teyla demanded, grabbing at his arms and drawing his attention away from the screen.
He forced himself to concentrate on his tablet. "I'm trying, but she's locked me out of that system. All I can do is monitor the data stream."
He saw Sheppard flinch as narrow metal bands encircled his upper arms, locking him against the back of the pod. With a hydraulic hiss, they tightened, squeezing into place. Other bands slid into place around his lower torso, neck, and each of his legs.
Data began to stream across a small screen on the tablet. There was a column for each of the bands. Judging by the way Sheppard had winced as they'd tightened, Rodney wondered if they'd pierced his skin.
Rodney's fears were confirmed when the appendages that had ringed the pod began to connect to the bands. Robotic arms bearing tubes and other instruments folded out of the inner portion of the pod and joined themselves to the bands. Fluids began to flow through the thin tubes and into someplace deep within the shell.
"So many resources," Mother's voice sounded from across the video feed as she spoke to Sheppard. "My children will be well for many generations. They will come to their full potential thanks to your gifts."
"And aren't you just a terrific mother," Sheppard managed, though his rapid breaths and pounding heart were visible within the data that flowed alongside the video. There was anger and embarrassment in his tone.
Rodney's insides twisted. There had to be something he could do. Maybe there was a way he could come at the problem sideways; knock Mother off her game. He switched his screen to anther program and blocked out the sound of Mother's voice as she continued to talk, telling Sheppard what good genes he had and what a good turn he was doing for her freakish clone children.
"He is getting weaker." Teyla's soft voice interrupted Rodney's frantic search through the system for a way to stop the AI. He looked up, surprised as how much paler Sheppard had gotten in so short a time. Where his fists had been clenched earlier, his hands hung limply.
He switched his screen back to a program that showed Sheppard's vitals. His heart dropped. "You're taking too much!" he yelled at the AI. "He's too weak for this. Enough!"
Mother sighed deeply, sincerely, and then spoke to Sheppard. "Forgive me, John. I must have more. So much potential. So much. Your sacrifice will never be forgotten, my children will keep it with them always, as a sign of gratitude."
"Mother! What are you doing? This action lacks honor!" Banyan stood yelling as he tried to reason with the insane system. "You may not take his life! Our goal is always to preserve life!"
"Were you not listening, my child? One sacrifice for so many generations is not too high a price," Mother said.
Rodney ignored the argument as he redoubled his efforts. All the arguing in the world wasn't going to make crazy insane AI see reason. He had to find another way.
He heard Teyla move from his side, but he wasn't sure what she was doing. He was focused on his laptop. He slammed his hand down on the enter key and then looked up at the screen.
The doors separating Ronon and the other two from the shell room opened, and Rodney crowed. He'd done it! It was up to Ronon and the other two now.
He nearly jumped out of his skin at the sound of Teyla's P-90. He turned to see her firing on the giant crystal. Sparks flew off the device, but that hardly seemed to slow it down. The veins in the thing seemed to glow more brightly.
Teyla didn't appear to care. She took aim and let loose another volley of weapons fire.
"Wait. It's the water! All things are connected through the waters." Banyan ran around the protective shield and hoisted on the pulley system. He strained against the system, yanking the big crystal from the water.
Immediately it began to hum, the noise filling the room. "Now!" Banyan yelled.
Rodney pulled his weapon, and joined his firepower to Teyla's. With a resounding pop, a large crack appeared in the side of the big crystal. A faint haze of smoke began to rise from it as the flashing lights began to dim.
Mother sighed. "Banyan, my child, you finally remembered. I am prou . . ." Her motherly voice deepened and faded to nothing.
"John!" Teyla cried into the ensuing silence, and Rodney turned back to the monitor screen. Ronon was working to get Sheppard out of the shell. Tubes were moving; seeming to retract on their own. Last of all the bands released, sliding invisibly back into the pods walls. With nothing to hold him upright, Sheppard collapsed, unconscious, into Ronon's arms.
John opened his eyes to find himself lying on top of a bed. He could hear Rodney babbling on about ten thousand years of genetic research and then something about the AI having been programmed to sacrifice herself. For the briefest of moments he thought he was in the infirmary on Atlantis. But then his hazy surroundings coalesced into a room that was too like the one where Mother had had her way with him for his liking.
He searched the gathered group and focused on his team. "We're still here?" he whispered, fighting through crushing exhaustion.
"You were not fit to travel." Teyla smiled down at him.
He blinked heavy eyelids that tended to agree with her. They seemed to want to close. But he didn't want to be here a moment longer. He started to roll onto his side, hoping the next step would be on the floor, preferably standing. "I'm ready to get the hell out of Dodge." Even his words were slurred.
"Banyan calls this the recovery room. This is where they gain strength after they awaken from the shells. Now that you are awake, he can give you some of the reviving drink. It will help you to make it back to the jumper." Teyla gestured toward the tall guy with the fish scales.
Banyan moved forward and offered the drink. "I am deeply sorry about what has happened to you here. Mother is no longer awake and cannot harm anyone any longer."
John realized that his brain was still stuck on trying-to-get-up mode, and if he really wanted to try the drink Banyan was holding out to him, he was going to have to get on to the actual part where he was sitting up.
Ronon stepped in and helped, then stepped back as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
"Thanks," John murmured and took the drink. He pretended not to notice the tremors in his hands or the fact that his brain felt so light. Slowly and carefully, he lifted the cup to his lips, hoping that it lived up to its billing.
It slid down his throat, sweet and strong. It reminded him of super sweet licorice with a side of something smoky.
"Mother took what did not belong to her," Banyan continued. "I am sure McKay can figure out a way to remove it from the combining chambers. That way your wishes will be met and our honor will be restored."
John could feel the stuff starting to work, but he still had to struggle to focus on the other man. "You didn't do it. It was all the computer. I don't blame you. Don't worry about it."
"But you have been combined." Banyan looked confused.
"It's okay. As long as I don't end up seeing a mini Sheppard running around, I'll be fine. As far as the gene thing goes, you're probably going to need it eventually, anyway."
Banyan nodded. "Thank you, John Sheppard."
"Yeah. I owe you thanks, too." John heaved a tired sigh and pushed himself off the bed. His legs stayed under him. "And now, if you can help us to get back to our ship, without too much trouble from our gray friends, we'll be out of your hair."
"So this kind of was like the plot to Leviathan," John heard Ronon say once the jumper broke the surface of the water.
"How's that?" he asked, feeling whatever Banyan had given him wearing off. The stuff worked, even though it didn't last very long. He'd chugged the last of it after the jumper cleared the underwater bay. He hoped he could make it back to Atlantis, though. That thought began to die a quick death as Rodney's response started to fade in and out.
"Oh, wait. I know the answer to this one," Rodney volunteered. "The city was the wrecked vessel at the bottom of the ocean. The crazy AI, I'm guessing, was the sea monster. Other than that I think the connection is pretty thin."
"The Abyss was better," John said, hoping that talking would wake him up a little. The only thing it did was let him hear just how slurred his words were to his own ears. "At least the aliens were nice." He blinked his eyes wide, hoping to hold on just a little longer.
"Oh, do not get me started on how . . . ." Whatever Rodney said was lost right along with the view through the forward window. He was worried that the jumper had dipped a little but maybe that was just his head dipping.
"Hey, I could use a little practice piloting." Rodney's voice penetrated his haze of exhaustion.
He looked at Rodney, and then into the worried faces of Teyla and Ronon. "Okay, yeah," he said softly as he rose from the seat.
He curled his toes, enjoying the feel of his feet inside both his boots as he settled into the copilot's spot. He had both his shoes on, he was warm, he was only mildly achy, and his team was safe. They'd broken atmosphere, and the gate was visible up ahead. They would be home in a matter of minutes. All was as well as could be expected with his world.
His final memory before the sweet, soft cushion of sleep overtook him was that of three pairs of hands reaching for him. But he was not worried. His team had this.