There was nothing suspicious about seeing Colonel Caldwell at one of the Atlantis system interfaces. He routinely accessed and reviewed Colonel Sheppard's and Major Lorne's records of incidents relating to the security of the base. Every time the Daedalus stopped at Atlantis he would at some point pull rank and demand to be kept informed.
Of course Goa'uld Caldwell didn't really have any interest in the security of Atlantis. But making it appear as though he did had made his accessing the systems openly a common-place site.
So, when Goa'uld Caldwell used his password to access the Atlantis systems and upload the program that had been prepared by his Lord, he did so with complete confidence. Ironically, it was a command access code provided to him by McKay himself.
He was so close. If all went as planned Atlantis would soon be destroyed by the end of the week, and the Daedalus presumed destroyed along side it. They'd have McKay. And most importantly, Goa'uld Caldwell would be free of this idiotic charade. There would be no need for him to put up with these lowly humans daring to look him in the eye or speak to him as though addressing an equal.
The plotting Goa'uld logged out of the system and left his office on Atlantis with a satisfied smile. The smile faltered when he noted Lorne's team gathering in full gear.
"Major Lorne." Goa'uld Caldwell barked just loud enough to get the Major's attention.
Lorne's shoulders stiffened at the sound of Caldwell's voice. And it wasn't just because standing at attention was the military protocol. It was no secret that Col. Caldwell and Dr. Weir had been clashing more and more. Nor was it a secret that Caldwell disapproved of Sheppard's position. The latter was enough on it's own for most of the people on Atlantis to dislike him. Lorne was no exception.
"Sir," Lorne schooled his face and answered formally.
Goa'uld Caldwell smiled stiffly at the other man, noting the cold formality in the Majors tone. He was aware of how the people stationed here, even the military officers, felt about his bid for command. "I wasn't aware your team was scheduled for an off-world mission today."
"We're not. We're just on stand-by sir." Lorne kept the answer short and free of details. Caldwell was in command of the Daedalus, not Atlantis.
The lack of detail in the Major's answer didn't surprise Caldwell. "Thank you Major. That will be all."
The meagre confirmation was enough. If a team was in stand-by, then there was a potential problem. Lorne would only be on stand-by if the team off world were in trouble. Sheppard's team was the only team presently off world.
If Sheppard managed to get himself killed trying to make friends with every half-crazed, primitive civilization out there, then all the better. The only problem with that was that McKay was on Sheppard's team.
Goa'uld Caldwell stepped into the nearest transporter and pressed the part of the map that would take him to the gate-room.
Predictably, Dr. Weir was standing on the bridge overlooking the gate. Her arms were crossed and she was wearing a familiar fretful frown.
Without invitation, Goa'uld Caldwell joined her. "Is there a problem, Dr. Weir?"
The annoyed look she threw him was immensely amusing to the Goa'uld. After a moment, she answered him. "Col. Sheppard's team hasn't checked in on schedule."
Goa'uld Caldwell allowed himself to smile openly at that. "Do they ever?"
Dr. Weir stared icily at him, clearly not sharing his amusement. "Was there something I could help you with, Colonel Caldwell?"
"No." Goa'uld Caldwell wiped the smile off his face. Human's really had no sense of humour. "I'm just concerned."
"Well, thank-you for your concern." Weir turned dismissively and returned to watching the gate.
She didn't see the flash of annoyance in Goa'uld Caldwell's eyes. Why did the woman always have to be so difficult? "I assume that Dr. McKay is still off-world as well then. Don't you need him to compress the data for your transmission to earth in not too long? Or can Zelenka handle that?"
When Weir turned around again, her smile was anything about welcoming. Everything her stance seemed to ask why he was still standing there. Had she learned that from McKay? "The rest of the science team haven't quite gotten the hang of the compression program yet. But, we have a few days before that's scheduled to happen. Why the concern?"
The piercing look she gave him at the final question caught Goa'uld Caldwell by surprise. It was rare for her to be so openly suspicious of him. The few times she had been, the woman had proven dangerously insightful. His attempts to usurp Sheppard's position flew to mind. "I only thought that we could relay any pertinent information for you."
Her answering smile had disbelief written all over it, "I don't think that will be necessary. Aren't you leaving this afternoon?"
Those were some pretty strong hints she was dropping now. Weir was nothing if not direct. "I think it would be best if you relayed the coordinates that Sheppard's team is on to the Daedalus, and keep us apprised if you are unable to contact them. I'm sure our science team can find an interesting anomaly or two to scan on our way out."
"Thank-you." Dr. Weir's stance was no longer dismissive. "I'll keep that in mind. I have to say I'm a little surprised you're taking such a keen interest in the safety of Colonel Sheppard's team. Then again, perhaps I shouldn't be. You've been doing that a lot lately."
Goa'uld Caldwell grimaced and sighed. She just wasn't making this easy. "I'm just looking out for our own."
She smiled as though that were the sweetest thing he could have said, but her eyes held a cold anger, "Cut the crap, Colonel. We both know that there is only one member of Colonel Sheppard's team that you're interested in, and that's Rodney McKay."
That was direct even for her. She normally had at least some discretion. He couldn't afford to have his rank and authority openly disrespected. Goa'uld Caldwell glanced around and noted that nobody was close enough to hear. Anyone who looked would think they were just having a friendly conversation. "I see your reputation for directness in diplomacy isn't misplaced, as well as your observational skills."
"Thank-you," Weir held her hands in front of her as she often did when addressing someone with dignity, "But flattery will get you no-where."
Goa'uld Caldwell took her lead and schooled his expression to look as friendly as possible. But his tone of voice now betrayed his expression. "You want me to cut to the chase? Fine. McKay is quite possibly the greatest military asset you have out here. I've never thought it was a good idea to allow him to go out on missions."
"Really?" Weir's eyes widened in mock surprise, "I didn't know you were a fan."
Disrespectful human cow! How dare she? Goa'uld Caldwell took a moment to swallow his anger before answering. "Let's try to be professional here. I'm offering you my help."
The Expedition Leader seemed to consider that for a moment before nodding shrewdly, "Alright. I'll keep you apprised. But Colonel, if I ever find that you've backed Rodney McKay into a corner again, intended or not, I will have you dragged from this city and banned from ever setting foot on it again. Am I clear?"
So that's what this was about. Goa'uld Caldwell clenched his teeth. "Crystal clear." He was getting what he needed. That was enough. If McKay got back in time then everything would proceed as planned – if not then he would relay McKay's coordinates to the Mothership.
"Good," Weir admonished in a way Goa'uld Caldwell could only define as smug. "In that case, it's a long journey back to earth. I imagine you'd like to get started as soon as possible."
Goa'uld Caldwell swallowed his pride and nodded his head submissively to her, "I'll just go make sure that Dr. Kavanagh is packed. I know you wouldn't want us to leave without him." Weir could have her small victory for now. She'd be dead soon anyway.
Elizabeth watched Caldwell curiously as he walked away. Caldwell could be so strange. Sometimes it felt like she was talking to two people.
Her line of thought was interrupted when the Canadian Gate Tech ducked his head out of the control room and called to her, "Dr. Weir, it's now twenty-one hundred hours."
She nodded her thanks. It was time to find out what trouble Sheppard and his team had gotten themselves into this time. "Dial the gate."
- Somewhere in Pegasus -
The wind howled around the flat stone outcropping the team had chosen to make camp on. Somewhere behind him, McKay knew the rest of the team was setting up the tent against the wall of the mountain, where it would have some protection from the wind. He had heard the metal spikes being hammered into the stone. He vaguely entertained the idea of helping, but his muscles protested at even the thought.
"McKay," Sheppard's nudged McKay's shoulder with his foot. The scientist had sprawled out on the stone as soon as they reached the top.
"Please don't make me move." He had no idea so many different and oddly placed muscles took part in the effort of climbing.
"Exercise is good for you." Ronon's voice rumbled from somewhere near where McKay supposed the tent was.
"Sure! In MODERATION maybe!" The normally animated physicist didn't even lift an arm to punctuate his point. The sun was almost down now and the wind becoming biting. So, being the good leader that he was, Sheppard peeled open the hot meal he was holding and walked around McKay until the wind was blowing the scent of the food in his direction.
"I was just going to offer you this MRE." Sheppard waved it around enticingly as he spoke.
As expected, McKay's eyes popped opened and his head lifted. "Oh… Well that was thoughtful."
"It's vegetarian." Sheppard smiled antagonizingly down at McKay. Anger was always a good McKay motivator.
"I take it back." McKay scowled in return, "You're evil, vile, and mean."
"Colonel Sheppard is only teasing you." Teyla's voice came from near where Ronon's had, "I have just finished cooking the beef MRE for you over here."
Reminded of food and hunger, McKay rolled over and climbed painfully to his feet. He was too busy moaning about his aches and pains to notice the look of victory exchanged between Teyla and Sheppard.
The first warm forkful hadn't yet reached McKay's mouth when all four radio's crackled and warbled to life.
'This …lantis…come in pl…'
"Atlantis, this is Sheppard. You're breaking up." Sheppard yelled into the radio, hoping it would help something to get through.
"McKay", Sheppard began to ask McKay if he could clear the signal somehow.
"I'm on it." McKay did already have his equipment out. The laptop he always carried with him was now hooked up to the ancient scanner, which was in turn pointed towards the radio. His hands worked furiously, alternating between typing in the keyboard and tapping commands into the scanner. "The energy readings I was picking up which are affecting the gate are probably affecting communications as well. I've been studying the readings. I think I can program the scanner to emit a low-level pulse that matches the frequency of the portion of the waves affecting communications, cancelling it out at least to a certain point. I wouldn't count on it working as we get closer to the source though."
"How long will it take?" Getting a message to Atlantis was important, but Sheppard didn't want his physicist pulling an all-nighter after climbing a mountain. If it was going to take too long they'd just have to make do with the bad signal.
"Done," McKay pronounced in a tone that practically sung 'Yes, I am a genius.'
Ok. Sheppard had to admit that was pretty fast. He just didn't have to admit it out-loud. "Atlantis?"
'We heard.' Elizabeth's voice came clearly through the radio. 'Good work Rodney. But what was that about the gate being affected?'
"We can't dial out." Sheppard explained before Rodney could get started on a long and complicated explanation, "Rodney says that whatever is doing it is on top of this mountain, where the village is. We're on our way up now. But it's quite a climb."
'A climb?' Elizabeth asked quizzically, 'Didn't the people there have an easier way to get up to their own village?'
"Yes." Rodney piped in before Sheppard could stop him. "They had a series of stairs and bridges, and a primitive elevator on a pulley system, which have unfortunately all been destroyed."
'I don't like the sound of that. Are you sure it's wise to go up there without some back-up?'
Teyla didn't want to consider not reaching and offering help to the people of the village. They had been good friends of her people for a long time. She could understand why Dr. Weir would be reluctant for them to continue, but still Teyla could not help looking to Col. Sheppard in alarm. "I do not believe we have a choice."
There was a moment's hesitation while Dr. Weir considered alternatives, 'Can't Rodney program the scanner to cancel out the effect the pulse is having on the gate?'
"With this little thing?" Rodney's scoffed without thinking, "What are you kidding? It's no where near that powerful. I'm surprised it can do this much."
"Teyla's right," Sheppard cut in before Rodney's mouth got him in trouble. "We should really check on the villagers. You know, do the neighbourly thing and see if we can help."
'I understand,' Weir's voice held a tinge of guilt. But the safety of her people still had to be her priority, 'The Daedalus is on standby. I could have them head towards you, provide backup. The beaming technology could save you the rest of the climb.'
"Ugh," Rodney moaned as he cracked his shoulder, "That would be wonderful, believe me. Except that we're on the opposite side of the Galaxy. It would take the Daedalus over a week to reach us. I think our best bet it to reach the top where I can use my considerable expertise to switch off whatever is generating this energy pulse."
"And," Sheppard added, "I'm sure once we reach the top Rodney will find some way to boost the signal so we can talk to you even with the pulse or whatever still on."
"Oh you're sure, are you?" Rodney's tone made it perfectly clear what he thought of this added expectation.
"Yes," Sheppard challenged back, "I'm sure." His tone allowed no argument.
'Alright then,' Weir agreed, though she still didn't like the situation. 'We'll dial you every twelve hours starting now. If we don't hear from you by the second dial-up, the Daedalus will begin making its way to you.'
The last thing Sheppard wanted was to have to see the smug look on Caldwell's face after being rescued by him, again. "Understood, we'll talk to you soon then. Sheppard out."
Sheppard turned back to his team, fully prepared for the hell Rodney was going to give him for promising that the scientist would find a way to communicate from the top of the mountain. Once the barrage of caustic words wound down, John would explain that his only intention was to keep Elizabeth from worrying. Then Rodney would say, 'oh,' and drop it without apology. It was a comfortable pattern.
John waited. And nothing came. Rodney had turned back to his meal and was pushing it around with his fork. A worry crept into John's mind that he'd really upset Rodney somehow. In context with their argument on the way to the mountain, Sheppard could see how Rodney could feel that way, "I was just trying to keep Elizabeth from worrying. I know you'll do what you can."
"Mmm, what?" Rodney looked dazedly up from his food. Ok, so maybe he hadn't been thinking what John had been thinking.
"I said you're not eating." John lied.
"Oh!" Rodney looked at his already cold meal in surprise. "Y'know. I'm kinda tired. I think I'll just skip supper tonight."
Rodney made to go into the tent but Ronon set him back down on the seat, "Eat. You'll need your strength in the morning."
"So I'll eat more in the morning." Rodney snapped and shook off the Satedan's hand. "I don't need to be mothered."
The other three team members watched in silent surprise as Rodney ducked into the tent.
"Perhaps he is coming down with something," Teyla suggested quietly.
"There's no fever." Ronon rumbled. "I checked."
Sheppard nodded a silent thanks to Ronon, and the three finished their suppers. He decided that he would take Rodney's shift on watch tonight. The scientist obviously needed the rest.
Pain. There was so much pain he wanted to scream. Was he screaming? Or was he hearing screaming? His muscles ached. But it wasn't just that. Or was it? Physical fatigue could inspire strange dreams. Dreams could create strange sensations. This was a nightmare. It must be. His heart twisted in his chest. But it wasn't his chest. The sensations weren't real. The feelings were outside. In the dream. Suddenly, it felt like his soul was being ripped from his body. And he forgot he was only dreaming.
Ronon looked down at the strange creatures moving in the distance, far below at the bottom of the mountain. The night was dark as pitch. Normally even he wouldn't be able to spot the wildlife moving from this distance. Only on this planet the wild-life produced its own light.
He and Sheppard had woken McKay when they first spotted it, thinking he'd be interested. McKay had called it bio-luminescence and then told them to leave him alone. Now Ronon could hear McKay muttering and tossing in his sleep.
Ronon briefly entertained the idea of waking McKay again. But he needed his sleep, even if it was a restless sleep. And Sheppard had left orders not to disturb McKay unless it was a life or death situation, and in that case to wake Sheppard first.
An agonized scream flew Ronon's hand to his blaster and he spun in one swift move. It was McKay! He saw no immediate threat. A heartbeat passed before he caught the feint glow of one of the creatures. It was creeping silently towards the tent. Ronon never would have believed any natural beast could move that silently.
It leapt for the tent, shredding through the fabric. Ronon fired. The creature fell to the ground, stunned and dazed, but not dead. Sheppard insisted that Ronon keep his gun set to stun unless fighting Wraith.
The creature was like nothing he'd never seen. Part of it was a wild-cat. It was large, muscular, and sleek. But the part that produced the light was like a mirror reflection made of lightening, beside the beast rather than surrounding it. It was unnatural. Both halves of the beast lay with their eyes closed.
"What the hell is that thing?!" Sheppard was up with his gun drawn.
"I have never been this close to the valley at night. The village guide would greet us and bring us to the top of the mountain long before dark." Teyla's own voice was shaky, and her weapon trained on the beast.
"McKay?" Sheppard wanted to ask Rodney what he thought of it. Rodney was sitting up and staring at the creature through the shredded hole in the tent, near where his head had been. He seemed too transfixed by the thing to answer.
"McKay?" Sheppard asked again. "You ok?"
John moved to step between McKay and the creature, and to check on him.
"Sheppard! Get back!" Ronon bellowed and fired.
It was close, but John managed to dive out of the way and turn in time to see the energy portion of the creature reaching towards McKay. The eyes of the material body were still closed. But the lightening eyes were open. The blaster shot had no effect.
"Set it to kill!" Sheppard ordered.
If John didn't know better, he'd think that Ronon already had, because his next shot came immediately and blasted a hole through the body of the beast. The energy fizzled and vanished with a violent howl, leaving only a ruined corpse.
McKay woke from whatever daze he had been in and backed away fast. He would have backed off the edge of the cliff if Sheppard hadn't grabbed him and pulled him to his feet. "W-w-w-w-what was that?!"
"It's one of the bioluminescent creatures we asked you about earlier," Teyla supplied helpfully.
Rodney stared between her and what was left of the creature with wide eyes, "Biolumin…? That was NOT bioluminescence. I mean. Yes it produced light and yes it was biological...sort of, but that's not… It's supposed to be a chemically produced gentle glow that does NOT reach out with ether-real claws to zap you. How do we always find these planets? Why never a planet infested with squirrels or fluffy bunnies. Of course, in this galaxy the bunnies would probably shoot deadly lasers out their eyes and the squirrels would spit venom!"
"McKay!" Sheppard barked, hoping it would snap the scientist out of the panicked ramble. When he had Rodney's attention he continued more gently, "What was it doing to you?"
"Nothing! You killed it before it could touch me. Remember?" Rodney shook himself away from Sheppard and forced himself to take deep calming breaths.
"Rodney," Sheppard spoke slowly and sternly now, "I know what nightmares can be like. But nobody screams like that from just an ordinary nightmare. Now tell us what happened."
"Oh, and you wouldn't scream too if you woke up to that thing staring you in the face?!?" Rodney spat defensively.
Ronon circled the camp, watching for any sign of a glow coming too near from any direction. He didn't like that he hadn't heard the thing coming. "You screamed before even I heard the creature. If you hadn't I wouldn't have had my blaster out in time."
"That's not comforting!" Rodney snapped at Ronon.
Ronon's response was short and blunt, "I'm not trying to be."
It was Teyla's duty to scan the perimeter with Ronon, but she couldn't keep herself from glancing from her duties to Rodney. Though his shoulders squared, and his words angry, it was confusion, fear, denial, and so many other quarrelling emotions that passed through Rodney's eyes. With shame Teyla found that she recognized them all. She had been judging Rodney's reluctance unfairly.
Col. Sheppard looked angry and impatient. Rodney's denial must seem as it had to her at first, simple stubbornness and selfish. Teyla lay a hand on John's arm before he could begin dressing down the scientist.
"Rodney", Teyla began carefully, "When I first began to sense the Wraith, as a child, I had no idea what I was feeling. Even a glimpse at the mind and emotions of the Wraith was frightening and confusing. At first I thought it was only in my imagination. I didn't know how to separate the impressions that came from the Wraith from my own thoughts and feelings, or my imagination. Such things are intangible and difficult to define."
The defensiveness eased from Rodney's posture as she spoke, and Sheppard was once again grateful that the diplomatic Athosian had agreed to be on his team. "Listen, McKay. I understand that it's not an exact science like you'd prefer. You don't have to be completely accurate or right. Why don't you just tell us what you were feeling before it happened. It could end up being helpful, or it might not be. What's important is that you communicate with us." Sheppard was the very picture of non-confrontational, if he did say so himself. He glanced at Teyla for confirmation that he'd said the right thing, and she nodded.
"It was in pain," Rodney hugged his own body to keep his hands from shaking as he spoke. "They're all in a lot of pain. I think it was grateful when Ronon blasted a hole through it. I'm not sure, but I don't think they were always like that."
"Ok," Sheppard nodded when Rodney said no more. "That's good to know. It explains why they're so vicious. Now we know to expect the behaviour of a wounded animal. Nice going Rodney."
An angry howl interrupted any response Rodney might have given to the obvious attempt at positive reinforcement. Instead, he jumped back from the direction of the howl, which was followed by another. They were far down the mountain now, but for how long?
"You know what?! I'm feeling really rested. I could climb all night, how about you? Could we go higher now? Please?" Rodney knew he was rambling, but he didn't care.
Sheppard was right there beside him, gun trained at one of the cliff edges, "More climbing sounds good."
It was mid morning when they finally reached the top of the mountain. The sky was a clear blue, and the sun shone brightly. But its warmth didn't seem to warm the air or touch the ground.
The team took a short break before journeying onwards to the village. The mile long path leading to the village was narrow and walled by tall stone. McKay had complained loudly at the prospect of walking another mile after such a long climb. But he had eventually settled down to eat his breakfast. Now they walked at a good pace.
As soon as the sun came up McKay had seemed to stop sensing the creatures below. It was then that he had once again found the energy to complain. Teyla hoped that they were now high enough that the presence of the creatures would not reach Rodney even at night. As tiresome as his complaining could be, it was preferable to his silence. Especially when she knew the cause of his silence was his suffering.
Still, with all of Rodney's complaining Teyla was surprised he hadn't once mentioned how cold it was. Even with the warm Athosian wools she wore underneath the thickly padded materials of the Earth jacket, Teyla was chilled.
"It does not seem right for it to be so cold when the sun shines so brightly." Teyla shivered and tucked the collars of her military issue winter gloves into the sleeves of the military issue winter coat that Sheppard had given her.
"It's actually colder because it's sunny," Rodney answered without looking up from his scanner. "Heat rises. A thick cloud cover acts like a sort of roof, preventing the heat from rising so high that it stops affecting the surface air. It's still cold, but not as cold. You see, heat is produced when molecules are agitated. They bounce together and move at a higher rate. When that effect is countered, the molecules are slowed, creating cold. The effect of the agitated molecules degrades over distance. Without the cloud cover, that distance is increased."
Teyla looked at McKay with blank confusion, trying to follow his words. Her understanding ended at the clouds acting like a roof. "Thank you… Rodney."
Ronon wore a similar expression. "So it's cold, because the sun is out."
"That's what I said." Rodney frowned. He hated repeating himself.
Sheppard shrugged at Teyla, "But Teyla's right. It doesn't seem right that it should be so cold on such a nice day."
"Oh yes. Clearly physics has it all wrong." Rodney ranted sarcastically, "Winter should be warm and snow should be made of cotton candy."
The physicist had a habit of getting more sarcastic and short-fused the more tired he was, and Sheppard had to admit that he'd and a wringer of a night. But even so, that was rude, "McKay!"
"Sorry." McKay replied genuinely. The sarcastic bite was gone. "Yes it's cold. And yes I can see how sun-shine might be equated with hot days and vacations on the beach. And oh look, we're finally here. And the village isn't a pile of burning rubble. Isn't that nice for a change?"
True to McKay's observation, the village was completely unharmed. The only sign of fire here was smoke billowing from chimneys on the pointed rooftops of warm looking wooden homes.
Icicles decorated the roof tops. And children slid about on the frozen street, playing games. Some of the children wore boots with blades attached to the bottoms, exactly like ice-skates. It reminded McKay of home. That wasn't exactly something he enjoyed being reminded of.
"Something isn't right." Ronon stated with an edge in his voice.
"Ronon is correct," Teyla said as she looked over the familiar buildings, "Where are the adults?"
"Oh great," McKay began, "Like we haven't done the whole Lord of the Flies thing before! We are so cursed."
"I thought you didn't believe in that kind of thing." Sheppard teased.
McKay just frowned forlornly at the romping children, "I'm reconsidering."
"These kids look happy, well taken care of. Maybe the adults are just inside, where it's warm." Sheppard suggested optimistically.
The answering sarcastic grimace from McKay suggested he thought the pessimistic possibilities more likely.
"What's that?" A small voice asked. One of the little girls had wandered over to McKay and was pointing at the scanner McKay had just put in his pocket.
"It's a scanner, not that you'd understand," McKay grumped.
"Why do the lights go off on it when you let it go?" She looked up at McKay with big brown eyes, not bothered at all by his grouchiness.
McKay rolled his eyes in a 'why me' way, and looked to his team for help.
"It is activated by his touch," Teyla answered gently and knelt before the little girl. "What is your name?"
The little girl looked at McKay in amazement before turning back to Teyla and answering, "My name's Neira. And you're Teyla Emmagen. Father said you were coming to visit us. He said you were at my naming ceremony and you held me and you're a good friend so we should not let you into any of the houses and tell you to leave right away. He told Brayne more. But he's with father now and I can't remember it all. Would you like me to go get him?"
Teyla smiled reassuringly at the little girl. She remembered holding her. Had it really been so long since her last visit? "Where is your father now, Neira?"
"He's sleeping. He's been sleeping a lot!" She pouted at this proclamation. Some of the other young children were gathering around them now.
"Where are the other adults?" Teyla asked, but she already feared the worst.
"They're sleeping too." A boy close to Neira's age spoke up. "All they do is sleep now and Brayne says we're almost out of food."
"Don't worry Doran." Neira poked his ribs and he giggled, "They'll wake up soon. They can't sleep forever." She turned back to Teyla and the other adult visitors. "Brayne is the eldest that's awake. I'll go get him. Then you must go back to the ancestral ring. Ok?"
The little girl didn't wait for an answer. Long chestnut curls bobbed behind her all the way to the largest of the buildings.
"This does not bode well." McKay predicted dimly.
Sheppard noticed that he was now keeping a wide distance from the children, and had tucked his scarf firmly over his mouth, muffling his voice.
Worry lines creased the scientist's forehead, "Sheppard, until we know more about what's got every adult in this village in bed I suggest we keep our distance from everybody here."
Ronon regarded the scarf muffling the man's voice, "If we do that, how will we learn more about what's causing it."
"By carefully observing from a safe distance, and asking questions. We could be in danger of infection from some sort of deadly plague!" McKay defended with crossed arms.
The big Satedan actually looked amused at that, "Tie that scarf any tighter and you'll be in more danger from suffocation."
A snicker interrupted whatever retort McKay was preparing. First the cave-man, and now Sheppard was laughing? Was he the only one who saw how serious this was?
Apparently Teyla was on McKay's side this time, as she folded her arms and frowned at their snickering leader, "What is so amusing?"
"I'm sorry!" Sheppard tried and failed to keep a straight face and wiped a tear from his eye, "It's just he looks and sounds like Kenny!"
At this Teyla was truly confused, "Kenny?"
"Yes! There's this cartoon about Canadian's called South Park. One of the characters where's a scarf over his mouth." Sheppard finally managed to get himself under control. "I'll find a copy of it when we get to Atlantis and show you."
"Not if I find it first," Rodney glared.
"Welcome! I am Brayne." A teenage boy that couldn't be older than seventeen jogged towards them, with Neira bouncing behind. Though his hair was cut short, it had the same curl and chestnut colour as Neira's. "I'm sorry we could send no-one to greet you. We had hoped that the destruction of the bridges would be enough to discourage you."
"That was you?" Sheppard asked in surprise. He'd been so sure that the village had been attacked.
"Yes. Thank you for that. It was ever so thoughtful. Of course, not nearly so thoughtful as A SIGN!" McKay yelled animatedly. "You know, like WARNING! Do not come to the village?! Or Enter at Your Own Risk! If you can't write then a skull and cross bones would have done!"
"McKay! Calm down!" Sheppard raised his voice over the cacophony that was McKay in full rant. Amazingly the physicist stopped and settled for crossing his arms and scowling. Sheppard turned back to the boy that seemed to be in charge, "He's just a little grumpy from the climb."
Brayne nodded understandingly, "It is a difficult path without the bridges. Why did you come when the way was made so perilous?"
"We didn't have much of a choice. The Gate isn't working. We think that something up here is causing it." Sheppard explained.
"Gate?" Brayne looked to Teyla for a translation.
"The Ancestral Ring," Teyla explained and understanding dawned on Brayne's face.
"I see." Brayne said gravely. "We would not have destroyed the easy paths had we known. You are fortunate to have made it up here before the Morindar Beasts awakened."
"Yes. Aren't we just?!" Rodney spat venomously.
"Rodney!" Teyla scolded.
"What?!" Rodney gestured innocently. "I'm just saying! A simple sign is hardly a technological marvel even for these cavemen."
"Maybe we can help." Sheppard stepped in front of McKay, blocking him from view, and put on his most friendly smile.
"I wish that you could. A sickness has befallen the adults of all the villages. Even the Healers. We realized too late that their travel from village to village was spreading whatever curse is causing this. They simply fall asleep and will not awaken. Those of us who are old enough have been helping the sleeping to eat and drink as best we can. But it has been difficult."
"Even so, it is good to see you again, Teyla. I know my father wanted your new friends to have a warmer welcome than this." Brayne looked at the newcomers meaningfully.
Teyla realized that with all of McKay's ranting she had forgotten to introduce them, "This is Colonel Sheppard, and Ronon, and Dr. McKay."
"You bring a Physician from the Ancestral City?" The boy looked at Dr. McKay with hope.
"Not that kind of Doctor. I'm a Doctor of Physics, among other things." McKay answered quickly. He then pointedly ignored the look Sheppard gave him.
"But, we'll take a look." Sheppard amended, more to McKay than to Brayne. "There might be something we can do to help."
At which McKay folded his arms and turned to Sheppard, "You realize that 'we' is supposed to be a plural word, don't you?" When the other two team members frowned darkly at him he relented, "I'll do what I can. Starting with shutting off whatever is blocking our communications and gate travel. These people will have a much better chance if we can get Beckett and a full medical team in hazmat suits out here."
Brayne grinned at McKay with gratitude, "Perhaps the magic in one of the objects in the Ancestral Temple is causing this. I will take you there."
"Magic? Oh please." McKay began.
"McKay….not now." Sheppard cut him off and motioned for the team to follow the boy.
As he turned to guide them Brayne half turned as an afterthought, "I should warn you that the curse began when one of the artefacts in the Temple was broken."
"Perfect." McKay griped sarcastically. It figured that there only hope of escape was at ground zero. He waved an arm in the direction that Brayne had been about to lead them, "By all means, please."
The journey was cut short when Neira tugged at Brayne's sleeve, "Brayne wait! I'm hungry."
The boy sighed and knelt in front of her, "I know Leira. But we must be careful with our food now. You know it is nearly gone."
Several hours later, Rodney was arm deep in an Ancient console in an abandoned Ancient research facility. He was trying to deactivate the force-field blocking access to both the thing creating the energy source, and of course the Z.P.M that had attracted McKay here in the first place. The Universe was taunting him.
What's worse, he had a bad feeling that the system generating the force-field from within the blocked off chamber was completely independent from the systems outside the field. It was how McKay would have designed a system intended to contain an outbreak. He'd already told Sheppard as much. But Mr. Optimism wanted him to try anyway.
The Ancient facility seemed to be dedicated to biological research. So McKay could only assume that the force-field and the pulse affecting the gate were some sort of quarantine system, like the one on Atlantis but on a larger scale. Unfortunately, the quarantine hadn't extended to protecting the villagers. True to form, even the microbes were hostile. McKay knew that if venom spitting squirrels didn't finish him off, a common Pegasus flu probably would.
A brief search for information on what might have gotten out and any simple cure there might be revealed that the data-base had been completely wiped.
So McKay was focussing his efforts on getting that pulse turned off."What are you doing?" A small voice jolted McKay from his thoughts and caused him to zap himself.
"Ow! I'm working." He shook his hand and looked down at not one, but two young faces. Oh for joy.
"On what?" The little girl that had first greeted him in the village asked. What was her name again?
"On this." McKay supplied unhelpfully as he reached back inside the console.
"What's that?" The other one asked. He was a boy, probably about seven.
McKay reached back into the console and felt for the loose crystal he'd been adjusting, "You wouldn't understand."
"Are you fixing it?" The little girl pressed.
Zap. McKay jumped again but didn't pull back, "Guh. Well. I'm TRYING!"
"Can I help?" The little boy peered around McKay and tried to look into the open console.
"Yes!" McKay answered. He was buried too deeply in the console now to see the happy looks on their faces. "By leaving me alone!"
The two small faces fell. The boy wasn't ready to give up though. "I help my Dad keep the mills running for all the villages. He says I have a knack for it!"
Rodney looked up at the man in the black suit, thrilled to have someone actually interested in all the things he could do, rather than bored or intimidated. "The only really tough part about building the nuclear bomb was getting the parts. I can't believe I didn't win! I'm working on an EM Pulse Generator now… but don't tell my parents, ok?"
McKay pushed the memory again, angry that it had even come up. "Well isn't that special." His hand finally found the loose crystal again.
"But," The little girl piped in excitedly, obviously wanting to outdo the boy, "I'm the best at…"
"I see from your records that you do very well in French class, and Spanish, Rodney."
Rodney shrugged, "Stuff like that is easy. You just gotta look for patterns. I like to pick up in all sorts of languages from garage sales when I can. I can read German, and Mandarin, and…"
"Didn't your parents ever tell you not to talk to strangers?" McKay snapped at the girl before she could finish.
"Yes," She answered quietly.
"Yes, and what am I?" McKay shoved the crystal firmly into place and snatched his hand back to avoid the zap this time.
The girl lifted her head defiantly, "You're a friend of Teyla's so you don't count."
"Lucky me," McKay answered sarcastically. He reached for another crystal and squeaked in alarm when the little boy reached for the console. If the kid had the gene McKay would be fried. "Don't touch that!"
The moment's distraction caused another painful, but smaller zap. "Ow! Alright! That's it! Everybody out! NOW!"
Sheppard chose then to appear from wherever he'd been slacking, "It's ok kids. He's just grumpy because he's hungry."
McKay stopped shaking his hand long enough to glower at Sheppard, "You gave all our food away!"
"Because they were starving! And besides, we're fine. You know I didn't give it all." Sheppard answered and mouthed 'not in front of the kids'.
But McKay was oblivious, "Well, now we're starving!"
"No." Sheppard said with laboured patience, "We're rationing."
"I can't think on an empty stomach." McKay wined as he closed up the console and placed his hands on it to initialize it. The two children's eyes nearly popped out of their sockets when it lit up at his touch. "Can't we get a-hold of some fruit or something sweet? I get hypoglycaemic you know."
The little girl bounced excitedly at that, "Oh! I know!"
And she ran out of the room, with the boy trailing behind her calling, "Wait for me."
John once had an Aunt that was allergic to cats. The funny thing was that cats seemed to love her all the more for it. If ever there was a cat around it would go straight for her and start rubbing up against her leg. John had noticed that McKay and kids were kind of like that… without the rubbing. It was just one of the weird constants in the Pegasus galaxy. Whenever they were in a village with kids around, they'd go straight for McKay. As for McKay, it was character building. "Ease up McKay, they're just kids."
"They're the hell spawn of the primitive bridge burning people who build their villages around ancient bio-warfare research facilities. And what is with that? Was the Pegasus Galaxy all out of premium Earthquake properties?" McKay banged, more than typed at the controls.
"They're kids." Sheppard repeated.
"They keep asking questions, getting in the way, and touching things!" McKay continued to complain.
"They're kids." Sheppard repeated again.
McKay stopped beating the console and threw an annoyed look at Sheppard, "Would you stop saying that?"
"Well what do you want me to say? They are just kids. And asking questions and touching things is part of what kids do. It's how they learn." Sheppard thought it odd that he had to explain this to McKay. "C'mon. You were a kid once."
"Don't remind me." McKay answered a little too seriously and returned to his work.
His hands worked furiously to bring up new data, which he scanned and refreshed at a rate John found impossible to keep up with. So he settled for just watching McKay while he worked. That last comment he'd made had been weird. It was so tough to keep up with what was going on in his head sometimes.
"I've got it!" The little girl came running in with a small box. She held it up to McKay like a great treasure.
McKay looked at the box suspiciously, "What's that?"
"Elna stone." The girl answered like it was the most obvious thing in the world.
"Stones?" McKay repeated.
The girl rolled her eyes, "Don't worry. It's not really stones. It's sweet. Try it."
McKay opened the box and smelled it. It didn't seem to be citrus. He examined the contents. There were lots of little balls, individually wrapped in a wax-coated paper. McKay popped one in his mouth, and smiled at the sugary ball immediately melted over his tongue. "Mmm! These really are sweet. What's it made of?"
The little girl smiled brightly at McKay's positive response, "The Elna bugs make it."
Sheppard grimaced when she held the box up to him, "Would you like some too?"
"Uh… maybe later," Sheppard answered, and took a couple of steps away from the box.
"Then I will leave this here for you, and check on you again later." She smiled especially for McKay.
"Uh… thanks." McKay accepted the box and watched as she skipped away.
Sheppard waited until the girl was gone before making a face at McKay, "And I thought Ronon would eat anything."
"What?" McKay looked at him in confusion and popped another sweet into his mouth.
Sheppard looked away in horror, "Guh, It comes from bugs!"
"Oh," McKay rolled his eyes, "And where does honey come from?"
Sheppard thought for a moment and then folded his arms indignantly, "From a bottle, in a supermarket."
"Oh please," McKay moaned as he turned back to the console.
But, no sooner had he begun to make headway again than did a child no older than five wander in and look up at McKay. It just stood there and watched quietly. And watched… and watched.
He turned a pleading look to Sheppard, his supposed guard, "Please make it stop."
"Stop what?" Sheppard shrugged. As soon as he said it, two boys ducked around the doorway and tossed snowballs at McKay.
McKay straightened, jaw clenched, snow dripping from his shoulder.
"C'mon kids!" Sheppard hollered cheerfully as he picked up the toddler and backed away from McKay, "Uncle Sheppard will tell you a story down in the village, how does that sound?"