Authors: Auburn & Mona aka auburnnotlisa
Timeline: Pre-The Long Goodbye 2x16
Rating: hard R
Characters (in alphabetical order): Ronon Dex, Teyla Emmagan, Rodney McKay, John Sheppard, plus supporting cast
Pairing(s): Something for everyone...no, okay, that's a filthy lie. But something for most of you. At some point. Promise.
Warning: This fic does not contain BDSM, incest, bestiality...or wait, the last one needs a caveat. One of them might end up as a penguin, perhaps. The fic's not done yet, after all.
Gratitude heaped upon: Sara, Zoe Rayne, and Trinityofone
"Tell me, Colonel, did you take a look around and think, hey, it's the Planet of Sex Changes?"
Sheppard is ready to cloak the jumper, go into evasive maneuvers, or start shooting if there are Wraith, but coming through an orbital gate tends to be less hassle than any of their missions on foot. That's why he volunteered his team to take on part of this survey of gates not opening into atmosphere -- the last few missions have involved either getting shot at by disgruntled natives or ending up as field hands in Teyla's trade negotiations and that's just not what he joined the Air Force for. He wants some flight time, damn it.
He's tired of hearing McKay complain about his sore feet, too.
McKay hunches over the controls, muttering to himself as the jumper exits the gate.
Sheppard checks his own display, frowns, then checks the viewport.
Nothing but stars.
"Uh, McKay?" he says.
"McKay? There's no planet."
McKay's head jerks up, and he stares out the viewport, clearly poised to spot an entire planet that Sheppard has missed. Then he blinks and blinks again, his mouth dropping open a little. With a frown he bends back over his instruments.
"No, no, there has to be a planet. The database says there's a planet here."
Sheppard waves at the vacuum in front of the jumper. "Not so much." He glances back at the other two.
Teyla raises an eyebrow. Ronon studies the viewport and then looks over McKay's shoulder at his read-outs.
"That," he says.
"What, that?" McKay snaps. "There is no that."
" - wait, yes, there's gravity." Rodney points triumphantly at something on his laptop's screen. "A gravity well, actually. Pay attention; the jumper is compensating for something."
Sheppard checks a couple of sensor suites himself, the HUD displaying the results in response to his thoughts. He suppresses the impulse to pat the jumper's front console and murmur, "Good girl," if only because he knows McKay would mock him.
McKay is right, of course. The inertial dampeners and artificial internal gravity keep Sheppard from feeling it the way he would have in an F-302.
Not that he isn't going to needle McKay a little anyway. "Compensating, Dr. McKay?"
McKay rolls his eyes. "Grow up, Colonel." With a smug little grin, he adds, "I'm not the one who runs around with a phallic symbol strapped to his thigh all the time, not just for missions."
"Compensating?" Teyla asks.
Sheppard knows she waits for these opportunities. He does. He knows it. "Never mind." He's figured out the best way to not embarrass himself is to not explain.
He stares at the displays.
"Definitely worth checking out," he drawls.
"Of course it is," McKay says. "Yes, look, see, here?" Another HUD materializes before them, pulled up by McKay and his artificial gene as smoothly as Sheppard pilots the jumper. He points at the lines looping around the primary. "These planets are all in orbit. You might notice this very apparent gap between the orbit of the fourth planet and the fifth."
"About where Earth has its asteroid belt," Sheppard comments.
McKay snaps his fingers and points at Sheppard. "Exactly. Except no asteroids, no debris, just an empty space where a planet should be orbiting according to the dynamics of this system."
"So it was destroyed?" Ronon says.
"Ah-ah-ah-ah," McKay replies with a smug grin. "No debris. And —"
Sheppard raises his eyebrow again.
"An analysis of the orbits of the other planets clearly displays the perturbation caused by the presence of a gravity well in orbit between the fourth and the fifth planet."
Ronon leans forward, seems vaguely interested for the first time. Teyla has a pensive look on her face; for a second, it seems as if she wants to open her mouth to say something but — nothing.
Sheppard shrugs. "So, okay. Invisible planet."
McKay groans and covers his face with one hand. Ronon lifts an eyebrow.
Sheppard says, "We're not going to run into it, are we? Because I don't think our insurance covers rear-ending a planet."
"Does the Air Force pay extra for wisecracks, Colonel?" Rodney's attention is drawn back to his laptop, though. "Oh, oh, no, you don't. I am smarter than that, whoever you are." His fingers fly over the tiny keys. "I see through you - well, actually, I don't, but - hah! - I can see around you!"
"McKay?" Sheppard drawls.
A hand wave is all he gets this time.
"Not yet, not yet, I'm close, I'm very, very close, I've got — " He stops and frowns. "Huh. Okay, but there's something. I really, really hate to admit it, but it is an invisible planet."
"Don't smirk," McKay says without looking up.
"I'm not smirking."
"You are so, so smirking, Colonel. Waves and waves of smirk radiation are coming off you at this very instant."
"Smirk...radiation?" Sheppard echoes.
"You know what I mean."
Teyla smiles, and a quick glance at Ronon confirms that he looks at least thirty-three percent less stoic.
McKay looks wide-eyed at the apparently empty space in front of the jumper, excitement morphing into amazement. He looks positively radiant, Sheppard thinks to himself. He concentrates on what McKay is saying: "Even the Ancients didn't have anything that could make a planet disappear. I mean, with the ZPM, we can shield the city for a few hours at most. The kind of power source that would let us do that...."
"Okay, point made." Sheppard frowns, trying to figure out how you land on an invisible planet.
"More powerful than a Zero Point Module?" Teyla asks, looking perhaps a little wide-eyed herself.
Sheppard flashes on the last time they ran into something 'better' than a ZPM... "Uh, McKay?"
"We're not talking about blowing up a solar system again, are we?"
"Though I suppose anything that powerful could be weaponized...."
"And used on the Wraith," Sheppard finishes with a grin, despite himself. He adds, "So, you want to tell me how we get down to the planet, wherever it is, so we can find out why it's invisible?"
"Just, um, okay, let me think."
"You do that."
A blip on his own piloting sensors makes Sheppard blink. The jumper is receiving a radio transmission, in the clear apparently. He switches on the speakers.
*Unidentified Gateship, respond.*
Sheppard turns and looks at McKay, whose mouth has fallen open.
*Unidentified Gateship, this is Hermea Orbital Control, please respond.*
Sheppard activates the jumper's radio, still looking at McKay. "Hermea Orbital Control, this is Jumper One, Lt. Colonel Sheppard in command. We're peaceful traders looking for new partners. Who am I addressing?"
Suddenly, McKay snaps his fingers. "Hah!" he hisses. "Gateship, gateship, gateship."
Sheppard narrows his eyes at him.
*Jumper One, this is Gean.*
"Nice talking to you, Gean."
McKay rolls his eyes, his chin lifting in a patented McKay 'You are too stupid to live, but no one will let me put you out of my misery' posture.
"Say, you wouldn't want to let us in on how you're, you know, not there according to most of our sensors and our eyes, would you?"
He's sure he sees Teyla roll her eyes in the viewport reflection.
*Yet you have deduced our presence.*
*We would consider discussing our technology in exchange for learning of yours, Lt. Col. Sheppard.*
"Yes, absolutely," McKay interrupts.
"That would be our chief scientist, Dr. McKay, speaking, Gean."
*We will provide you with a series of coordinates that will allow your gateship to transit from the stargate orbit to our planet.*
"That'd be swell, Gean." Sheppard switches off the radio and turns to look at Ronon and Teyla. "Okay, they sound friendly enough." Ronon just shrugs. Teyla purses her lips, looking a little surprised. But she says nothing, just inclines her head slightly.
"Why are you asking them?" McKay demands. "You're not even possibly considering not going down to the planet, are you, Colonel? Because this is incredibly, amazingly important. This could be our chance — "
"Yeah, yeah, I get that, McKay. Nobel Prize, save Atlantis, Col. Carter throws herself at your feet in abject adoration."
"Look, just take us down there, Colonel."
"Down where?" Sheppard gestures at the blank sensor read-outs. "I'm waiting for the coordinates."
Just like they were waiting to be remembered, the radio blats and a stream of numbers arrives.
*Lt. Col. Sheppard, this is Gean. Have you received the coordinates?*
"Got them, Gean. Thank you."
*Will your gateship be able to follow the necessary flight path?*
"Oh, yeah, no problem, Gean."
"Gateship," McKay mutters again. "Did you hear that? They call it a gateship. These people may know the Ancients. They could even be Ancients."
"Or they could just lack imagination," Sheppard tells him.
McKay looks indignant and crosses his arms over his chest. "Hmph."
*For your safety, please do not stray from the indicated flight path.*
"Or what?" Ronon rumbles.
McKay replies, "Or they shoot us down with their immensely superior technology."
Ronon leans forward and said, "Fly straight." Teyla gives McKay a little look.
Sheppard ignores all three of them and radios Gean, "Gotcha. Don't want to wander into a no-fly zone."
*You may start your approach at any time, Lt. Col. Sheppard.*
"Beginning suborbital approach now, Gean. See you on the ground," Sheppard tells him. He flips off the radio and adds, "No backseat driving, boys and girls."
Teyla sits up a fraction of an inch straighter. With a smile, Sheppard begins their descent.
It feels weird, yet at the same time like flying by instrument at night or in heavy fog, taking the jumper to set points that don't seem any different than any other part of space — but suddenly they're burning through atmosphere, the jumper's shield interacting with whatever the Hermeans have in a coruscating rainbow halfway between being smack dab in the middle of the aurora borealis and a Fourth of July fireworks extravaganza.
Sheppard ups his speed, taking the jumper through the maneuvers fast just because he can, and because McKay is squeaking beside him.
"Some of us don't have a death-wish, you know, Colonel," McKay manages to say after they drop a few thousand feet more. Suddenly the planet they know is there appears, vast and green, with the sort of blue sky and clear air that never seems to survive industrialization.
Apparently, it impresses McKay, too. "Wow," he says. "It's perfect. Like Paradise."
"You're going to jinx us."
"Look, Colonel, something has to go right sometime. We're due. It's statistically impossible for all of our missions to go wrong."
"It does look serene and peaceful," Teyla comments.
"Most worlds do, from above," Ronon adds.
"Jinx, jinx, jinx," Sheppard sing-songs, then shudders because he knows he picked that up from McKay.
"I'm just saying, this could be very important, so no seducing the high priest-king's nubile but virginal daughter or his lonely wife," McKay says.
"Why are you looking at me?"
"Because statistically, Colonel — "
"I can't believe you are using statistics in an argument, McKay," he interrupts. "As if you were ever a believer in probabilities. You beat probabilities all the time."
Sheppard concentrates on staying exactly on the approach path the Hermeans transmitted. He begins searching for a landing strip or pad. After spotting an open meadow set not far from a small group of buildings, he declares, "Looks like a landing pad to me." The buildings are all airy, with spindly white spires that sparkle in the sun.
"I agree," Teyla says, leaning forward to look over his and McKay's shoulders.
McKay peers out the viewport at the towers. "Mmm. Advanced materials. Composites, probably, maybe reinforced ceramics."
A vehicle that doesn't touch the grass or even disturb it is approaching the meadow. Three people are in it.
"You can ask about it in a minute," Sheppard says.
"Don't think I won't."
Sheppard stands up and begins checking his weapons out of habit. Ronon is doing the same thing. He catches a glimpse of steel disappearing into a dreadlock. As usual, Ronon looks ready for anything. "So do we just wait for someone to show up or get out and take a stroll?"
Ronon points to the approaching vehicle. "Looks like a welcoming committee to me."
"You know," Sheppard remarks, dragging McKay out of his seat and away from the laptop he's using to run scans on their surroundings, all the while making these little, nearly orgasmic noises that distract and annoy Sheppard, "It occurs to me that people with advanced technology never want to share it with us."
"Huh," McKay mutters. "Did you ever notice we never want to give any of our technology away to any of the Neanderthal societies we run into regularly?"
"McKay's right," Ronon states. "Everyone wants to keep their edge."
Teyla nods. "The Wraith destroy anyone who progresses too far for just that reason."
"Well, let's hope these people don't think like the Wraith."
"And what are the odds of that?" McKay says under his voice.
"Smile," Sheppard tells him as the jumper's hatch lowers and they stroll out to meet the three Hermeans waiting outside. McKay bares his teeth. It could, possibly, be interpreted as a smile. If you didn't know him. Sheppard lifts his hand and waves. "Best behavior, kids."
"What?" McKay demands. "Why's everyone looking at me?" There is a fleeting expression of doubt in his eyes.
Teyla looks away quickly, but smiles as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. Sheppard pats McKay on the shoulder. Ronon just snorts.
One of the Hermeans waves back. Sheppard decides that's a very good sign — in his experience, fascistic military fanatics just generally don't wave. It messes with their whole domineering personae. "So, which approach, McKay?" he murmurs. "The classic 'Take us to your leader' or the — always a hit with the natives — 'We come in peace'?"
"You're asking me?"
Sheppard shrugs, watches the congregation's approach. A man and two women, it seems, all three wearing clothes of a soft-looking fabric in all shades of brown and beige.
"Great, they're wearing oatmeal-colored clothing. Kill me now."
Okay, this is going to be another weird one. "Shh", he hisses at Rodney, "Hey," he says, louder, to the closest Hermean. "Lt. Colonel John Sheppard."
Blue eyes meet his, and a light tenor answers him: "Hello, Lt. Col. Sheppard. I am Gean."
"Good to meet you," Sheppard answers, shaking Gean's hand — a gentle but firm hand; none of that brief, tentative sliding of fingers they've experienced on P9X-241, where a solid handshake turned out to be akin to a marriage proposal.
Gean doesn't look like he takes offense, or a fancy to John, thank God. Still, there's something about him, not the clothing but the man himself. Maybe it's the curious tilt of his head, or the lack of the usual posturing: No wide-legged stance with the hint of a hunch, no hands hovering over weapons, not a single, solitary piece of vaguely phallic insignia. He's just...at ease.
After a quick glance around, Sheppard can see that while their welcome committee consists of both genders, it's no wonder that, from a distance, he isn't able to keep them apart — garments and hairstyles are pretty generic, but he's a California boy, at least at heart, and has seen just about everything, even before he stepped through the stargate. No, it's the tempered grace of the man, the quiet confidence of the women that makes it truly hard.
"Welcome to Hermea, then." A subtle but questioning gaze up and down his figure, over to his team. Sheppard has the distinct feeling that the Hermeans, lined up in a loose formation behind Gean, are regarding them with something other than pure curiosity; despite not even knowing the reason, the sensation that washes over him is far too close to embarrassment.
And that before McKay has even opened his mouth. Speaking of...
"Gean, these are Teyla Emmagan, Ronon Dex, and Dr. Rodney McKay."
The woman next to Gean inclines her head to each of them, but brightens visibly when Sheppard introduces McKay by his title. She's tall and robust and not what Sheppard would call pretty, but there's something undeniably compelling about her. She steps forward and shakes his hand, too, but her eyes — animated brown eyes — only flicker over his; her attention is drawn elsewhere. Without the viewport reflection, Sheppard can't tell without turning and looking, but he hopes Rodney isn't picking his nose or busy digging it into the display of his precious energy sensors.
"My name's Jari, and I'm pleased to meet you. Dr. McKay, you're the chief scientist of your expedition?"
"Why, yes." He can hear the thrilled smile in Rodney's voice, sees it out of the corner of his eye when he and Jari exchange greetings. "You already have me wishing I could spend months here, discussing just the technology and buildings I've seen so far." An all-encompassing hand-wave from Rodney.
Jari gives him a look that's roughly two thirds polite caution, one third benign amusement. "You say you'd love to learn about our technology, but can we assume you're first and foremost interested in how we cloak the planet?"
Sheppard turns a little at that, checking his team — Teyla's looking her usual calm and amiable self, but there's a hint of tension in the arc of her shoulders, and Ronon's eyes have narrowed a fraction. McKay, well, McKay just grins and dips his head in a gesture that would be called bashful in anyone but him.
"Oh, believe me, I am completely fascinated by everything you have to offer — which seems to be a level of scientific achievement beyond my wildest dreams in a galaxy where local developments tend to be either hopelessly backwards or destroyed beyond hope — but the rest of my team do indeed have certain priorities that include the ability to defend ourselves against the threat of the Wraith."
Bless Rodney and his technology-loving heart.
"I have to ask — is it just a cloak or a shield? Can it stop the Wraith?" Rodney goes on, sweeping everything before him with his enthusiasm. "The jumpers have a cloak that we've modified, but the energy it takes precludes generating a shield at the same time, and the Wraith know where our planet is, it's just a matter of time until they come back — "
"McKay," Sheppard interrupts quietly, not wanting to discuss the siege.
Jari nods slowly; so does Gean, whose voice has taken a grave tone.
"They are still the scourge of the galaxy, then."
Rodney's snaps his fingers, startling them all. "Of course — you haven't been in contact with the outside world for many centuries." He stops, an indignant look creeping onto his face. "Come on, guys, it's obvious: This sort of technological advancement could only happen over centuries without regular culling. Did you de-activate the stargate after creating the cloaking device?"
The third Hermean has stepped closer, exchanges glances with Jari and Gean. The newcomer is older than the other two, with dark skin and short hair turned silver by the light of the afternoon sun. It's impossible to guess her exact age, but Sheppard would estimate it at sixty, maybe seventy years. She must have been very beautiful once upon a time; he still finds himself transfixed by the perfect slant of her cheekbones, the authority of her eyes.
"No, Dr. McKay. We simply transferred it into orbit."
It's clear from the expression on Rodney's face that he doesn't think there is any 'simply' about it, and Sheppard doesn't have to turn his head to know that Teyla's expression has darkened, Ronon's grip on his holster tightened. An active stargate memorized by other people on other planets who would keep stepping through it even when it was no longer located on the planet's surface —
"You think this cruel, but it was the only way."
Not an excuse. An explanation.
"We could not and would not de-activate the stargate; the primary objective was to make sure the Wraith would not return to Hermea. I'm sure you, of all people, understand."
"We understand." Teyla's voice is soft, so soft that Sheppard braces himself. "Certainly you understand, too, that we find it hard to condone."
He suspects he knows what she sees in her mind's eye — a contingent of Athosian traders, men and women with baskets of produce on their hips and cheerful smiles on their faces, walking into the gate.
Into nothingness, the empty void of space.
Silence falls, and Sheppard is seized by a wild moment of anxiety — this is where it ends, this is where they get chucked off the planet because Teyla, ever-tolerant Teyla, has voiced scruples about a decision made hundreds of fucking years ago.
"Yes, we do." It's Gean who has spoken up again, and if the emotion in his voice isn't regret, he's the best damn actor Sheppard's ever seen. "It was — it wasn't an easy choice for our nations."
"The congregation of all nations was aware of the fact we were sacrificing the lives of some, and leaving others without valuable resources, but the Decision hinged upon complete secrecy."
Jari's light voice, weighed down by the burden of history, and the rest of the committee is wearing similar expressions. If this isn't some gigantic sham to fool the off-worlders — and he doesn't believe that — they really mean it. They really are sorry.
Ronon's breath close to his ear, perfectly pitched to be heard by no one but him. "Sheppard. If we had to? We'd've done the same."
He really doesn't need the reminder, but it's good to know he's not alone in his assessment; one glance at Rodney confirms that Rodney doesn't have any lasting hang-ups about this, either. Mostly, he looks perplexed and a little impatient.
"Fine, fine." Rodney's hand gesture is best described as magnanimous. "We certainly see how you'd come to this solution, which also happened to be decided upon many centuries ago."
Not exactly a poster child for Let the Past Lie, he is, but then there's Teyla, standing right next to Rodney with a light hand on his arm, smiling and composed again. Sheppard realizes he's probably not the only one already won over by the Hermeans' openness and their sincere expression of regret over what they considered a necessity. Teyla doesn't seem the type to forget, but he's pretty sure she can forgive.
"What Dr. McKay means to say is that now we should look forward, into the future, and ask you to consider letting our peoples enter a mutually fruitful exchange of technology and information." Teyla's voice hasn't risen, not even a bit, but it is clear she has no trouble being heard by every person in the meadow. Easy to see what makes her stand out, what made him take note the moment he saw her first in that smoke-filled tent on Athos. "We can assure you that no third party will ever learn of your existence; we ourselves have many safeguards in place — safeguards that prevent the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom of ours that would be devastating in less capable, less careful hands."
The Hermean congregation regards her — thoughtful faces, inquisitive eyes, a few doubts clouding a few expressions, but the common denominator is respect.
No trace of irony in the elder woman's voice, but Sheppard has hardly found that a reliable indicator for the absence of trouble; in fact, it's often the opposite. People are just too damn serious in the Pegasus galaxy. Sheppard knows he's being unfair, but he cannot and doesn't really want to imagine living on an Earth in the constant shadow of the Wraith; evidence to the contrary, he does cherish his sanity.
"Also, I apologize for the lack of an introduction: Selh, Security Adviser to the President. I, too, find myself glad to make your acquaintance, Teyla Emmagan, Dr. McKay, Colonel Sheppard, and Ronon Dex. As you pointed out so correctly, we haven't had any visitors for a long, long time."
Her dark eyes sweep over them, but the earlier feeling — mene, mene tekel epharsim — has evaporated, and Sheppard relaxes just a little. Ronon's behind him, as always, Teyla's done a great job, and McKay never lost the glint of excitement in his eyes; he's positively beaming at Jari again, who doesn't seem to think it a crime to smile back. Sheppard feels an odd twinge in the region of his stomach — worry, that's what it is, and maybe concern — as alien women have made friendly with McKay only to betray them all and dash his hopes before, and maybe Rodney needs a little reminder, just among friends.
A soft whisper passes between Gean, Jari, and Selh, and they nod towards the team. "If you allow us to convene for a moment — we shall be back."
"Oh, of course! We'll wait. Right here!"
Rodney sounds pleased as pie, but it doesn't seem entirely out of place. Kidding aside, it's not entirely true that McKay is oblivious to his surroundings; he's noticed the shift in their favor and is now practically radiating good will to all men. A smile tugs at the corners of Sheppard's mouth and he gives in to it. Rodney's cheer is infectious, irresistible, and when he looks at the others, he can see his expression mirrored on their faces, with an additional dose of relief in Teyla's case and careful acceptance in Ronon's.
"So, what do you think, guys?"
"I think they will at least begin negotiations with us." Teyla is modest, but she knows her skills — all of them do.
"Totally won them over. They quite obviously both harbor and appreciate a thirst for science." Yeah, he wouldn't be Rodney if he weren't just a little smug at this point. Any more enthusiasm, and he'd be bouncing on his heels.
"So, destined to be best friends forever, Rodney?"
"Do I detect a hint of jealousy there, Colonel?"
Still the same light tone of banter that's become an automated response for both of them, but upon hearing that word, Sheppard feels it again — the sensation in his stomach, sinking, rising, a bit like flying, only far more terrifying. He clamps down on it, ruthlessly, and manages to smile, all white teeth and careless flyboy ease.
"Now, McKay, don't make me drag up the Kirk thing. And you know what happened the last time you had a girl all impressed with your science."
Rodney just rolls his eyes, looking decidedly unimpressed himself.
"Oh, please. Allina only changed her plans when she learned we weren't the Ancients she had been waiting for; her love for science and affection for me then had to be tragically sacrificed on the altar of patriotism." McKay doesn't look entirely serious himself, although his eyes clearly telegraph Don't You Dare Call Me on That, Okay?
Gean's waving them back over.
"Please, we would like you to join us in the city, to continue talking with each other. It has been a long time since anyone came to Hermea." He smiles. "We're out of practice."
"Believe me, you're already way ahead on points with us," Rodney tells him, earning a slightly confused look from Gean.
"Let's just say a lot of people we meet are just plain unfriendly," Sheppard explains.
McKay has to stop and interrogate Jari about the car and how much weight it can bear without reverting to surface locomotion, comparing the technology to that of the jumpers use, but after that hitch, they're off to the sparkly city; Selh, Gean and Jari in the front seat and the team jammed in the back. Teyla's perched on Ronon's lap, and Sheppard, stuck between McKay and them, on eye level with Teyla's assets, wishes they'd just walked instead. He swears to himself he'll make Ronon run behind the car on the way back.
Teyla leans over and says in a low voice, "I believe the Hermeans are indeed the people of the Lost Planet."
McKay twists to face her and Ronon turns and Sheppard gets elbows in his ribs on both sides. "Ouch, watch it, guys."
"Wait, let me get this straight," McKay exclaims. "You knew about these people and, what's more important, their...planetary obfuscation device?"
Teyla shakes her head.
"I had heard the stories they tell around each campfire, hearth, or...radiator in the Pegasus galaxy, Colonel – tales of the Lost Planet, impossible to see, impossible to reach despite their Circle of the Ancestors."
Ronon nods. "Sateda had those tales. Thought they were kids' stories."
Sheppard closes his eyes for just the fraction of a heartbeat. Yeah, it'd have been nice to have heard of this when they first came to Atlantis — superior technology and especially a cloaking device might have prevented quite a bit of trouble during the last year — but even then, most likely they wouldn't have listened to it, wouldn't have sifted through Athosian lore in search for clues.
But, he thinks, maybe they should have.
"I see. So you — and all your allies — never traded with them?"
"Legend says our peoples did — a long, long time ago, many centuries by your calculations, and that the civilization they saw was benign and full of wonders. But it disappeared, and their marvelous devices were lost in the sands of time, leaving only the echo of their memory."
"Disappeared? You mean, you just couldn't step through the gates any more." McKay sounds skeptical, disbelief obvious in his voice, and Sheppard doesn't blame him, but Teyla's voice carries a note of annoyance.
"There were civilizations of the Pegasus galaxy able to travel through space, Rodney, and they did not use technology left by the Ancestors but what they had developed themselves before the Wraith came and culled them," Teyla tells him in measured tones. "It is said they manned their starcrafts and journeyed to the place where they had last regarded such riches — but all they could see was an empty void, stars behind it clearly visible, and their machines did not pick up anything. And the Wraith started raging on the planets nearby, angrier than ever, never again finding the rich bounty they'd hoped for."
It comes as a slight shock, but McKay laughs, and all heads turn towards him, even Selh and Jari in the front seat. His eyes widen, and he does the little hand-wave – nearly hitting Sheppard in the head again – he uses to deflect completely unwarranted criticism. "C'mon, guys – Sheppard, anyway: Advanced civilization, great wonders, far ahead of their time certainly, getting lost in some murky depths? It's their Atlantis!"
Sheppard leans back and laughs, while Ronon and Teyla eye both McKay and him the way they do whenever the topic of Earth customs comes up. Like they're batshit crazy, but in an amusing way. He looks back at McKay's frown and laughs harder; because, hey, they live in the Lost City of the Ancients and they're riding in a floating car, whizzing over the green grass of an invisible planet, debating whether it really is Teyla's Lost World.
Rodney's eyes have lit up like a Christmas tree on Times Square. He's talking full tilt to Jari before they're even out of the car, while Sheppard's still getting his breath back after being squeezed in the middle through the whole ride. "Look, I realize you can't just show us how your cloak works right this very instant, but you have to have something you can show me in the mean time, while we go through this whole 'getting to know you' rigmarole." He's doing the side-to-side head nod-bob of impatience as he talks and Gean already looks a little overwhelmed. Jari's smiling again, though; it looks like she's one of McKay's tribe.
"Yes, we have several facilities that are open to the public that we could begin with," Gean says. "If you and Teyla Emmagan would care to accompany Jari and myself? Selh would be happy to show your friends around the city."
"Yes, yes, I am – we would be delighted," McKay agrees before Sheppard has a chance to say anything.
"Hey, McKay," Sheppard calls after him, because he's already following Jari away. McKay half-turns, looking impatient, and still walking. "Try not to give our world away for a handful of magic beans."
Watching Teyla and Rodney being whisked away by Gean and Jari, respectively, is okay – surprisingly so. He finds he trusts the Hermeans, despite the man-woman uniformity thing they have going. Quite possibly because of it.
Sheppard isn't stupid; there's no reason to assume the three Hermeans are as unarmed as they appear to be – hell, for all he knows, there's a pin-point orbital laser directed straight at them right now – but he is confident that the Hermeans have little interest in unprovoked violence. Furthermore, an attack on what looks like sparsely armed explorers? Not likely, and not likely to succeed. Can't outrun a Runner, Ronon had – after a long jog and a short sparring session in a rare moment of aphoristic chattiness – told him, and Sheppard believed it, still believes it.
When he turns, he can see Selh's private little smile, which tells him orthodontia is flourishing on this planet.
"I assure you Teyla Emmagan and Dr. McKay are perfectly safe. It must be very reassuring to have you protect them, though, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for your profession."
Sheppard's a big fan of safe. He'd go as far as to say he vastly prefers it to sorry.
Behind him, Ronon snorts almost inaudibly, and Sheppard is tempted to do the same. He's not a stickler for the rules, or even a big fan of many manifestations of the USAF regime, but the last sentence is the kind he's only ever heard as the preface of an anti-military rant poorly disguised as academic argument.
"Yeah, thanks." He gives her a smile of his own, slow and easy, just the way he's good at, and turns his comm to Rodney and Teyla on, a gesture that could be a half-yawn but most likely isn't even noticed. At the same time, he's flashing back to a nose-dive down a mountain range, the howl of turbines, the stony expression on General Bennett's face and contrasting it with Elizabeth's pushing through his promotion, piloting jumpers and 302s instead of Blackhawks and Ospreys, people who thought he was a hero and not a fuck-up. "I'm really liking it."
Selh gives them the tour guide lecture on Hermean history as they walk. Dismantled their military in 1542, Deran Peace Convention, and Sheppard nods. Ronon asks about trouble and Selh admits there is some, usually settled in court. Sheppard's even willing to believe it. Provisionally. He lets Ronon go on quizzing her, half his attention on the buzz of McKay's voice in his earpiece, nasal, excited, and oddly reassuring.
Sparkly city is really clean and pretty up close too, with lots of flowers and trees and people wearing clothing noticeably more gaudy and revealing – but Sheppard supposes that in comparison to Gean, Selh, and Jari's Earth Mother attire, basically everything would be. A few of the passersby give Sheppard and Ronon wall-eyed looks. He feels like asking Ronon if he has 'Murderous Military Maniac' tattooed anywhere visible, but bites his tongue. Selh seems a little at a loss as to what might interest them since the Hermeans don't have any guns for them to moon over the way McKay is going into transports over their power plant.
Gardens, schools, museums, academies...Selh seems intent on improving their minds with culture. Ronon is obviously getting tired, begins to drag his feet when they pass what their Hermean guide says is a library and what Sheppard mentally categorizes as Bright White Building with Spiraling Pillars #32. His own face is getting tired of smiling. He never thought he'd miss discussing the Wraith threat, but at least it's something everyone else in Pegasus has in common. Except for Proculus, and he's not even thinking about Proculus and Chaya – McKay has some kind of sensors that alert him any time Sheppard's thoughts go there and he's unbearable for a week afterward.
Meanwhile, Selh's gently quizzing him, trying to get a handle on what they're really like, he suspects.
"And your home?" she asks.
"Is beautiful," Sheppard answers before thinking about it. Then he pauses, because he wasn't picturing Earth when he said that. Slower, he continues, "Mostly ocean, untouched, unexplored or exploited. Teyla's people resettled on the mainland. We live in the city, which is...." He stops and shrugs, picturing Atlantis' towers and comparing them to the Hermeans' spires. "It's home."
Selh pauses. "I see."
At least it sounds like McKay's making some progress. "Right, right, I got it. Seriously this time: Fortitude of character, the responsibility to handle the new, the complete openness for new developments. Oh, I can tell you we are totally down with that; our whole expedition was chosen on these merits – yes, absolutely; I've interviewed them myself and can vouch for all of them." Sheppard has to hide a smile. Rodney is so proud of his scientists, hand-picked from the best and brightest; it's true that there is little to fear and a lot to hope for once they get their hands on technology such as this. Another careless swat at a bug that doesn't exist, and he's on Teyla's frequency.
"But surely you would not want to keep us from understanding as well, from reaching the same level of enlightenment?" It sounds like Teyla is working her negotiating magic on Gean.
Sheppard expresses admiration and approval of the Advanced Studies Center – purple tower, the Planetary and Local Judiciary Complex, which includes the North and Main Rethan Houses of Representatives – blue domes that make him think of a clutch of Easter Eggs in one of those baskets of artificial green grass, the Primary Health Center – which has a pastel plaid exterior that makes him blink and look sidelong at Ronon, and then – finally – real civilization: a restaurant and then a beer garden, or at least the local equivalent.Suddenly, Ronon looks interested.
Sheppard shrugs at Selh. "He's still a growing boy."
Selh takes them into one of the restaurants and Sheppard restricts himself to one – excellent – beer, while Ronon devours his meal in typical enthusiastic fashion, though he's slowed down by using a knife and fork these days. The food is enough to make Sheppard want to trade with Hermeans and McKay's going to be outraged he missed it. He asks Selh to get a message to whoever is with McKay not to feed him any citrus. "Believe me, usually McKay lets everyone in hearing distance know, but if he's entranced enough with what you've got for him to see, he might forget."
Selh is looking at him almost warmly, maybe even re-evaluating her ideas of what being military means. It would be nice if they could get back to Atlantis for once with news that they made a good impression. "Food allergies are not unknown here," she mentions. "If you'll excuse me a moment, I'll comm Gean." She leaves them to finish their meal without her.
"Oh, I am not a part of the original expedition," Teyla's telling someone. "I hail from a central planet and am proud to have led my people to a safe land, into an unbreakable alliance with the Colonel and Doctor McKay's people."
He takes advantage of the moment to ask Ronon, "What do you think?"
Sheppard resists the urge to cuff the back of his head the way he would McKay. First, because it probably wouldn't look good to the Hermeans who are watching them, second because all of those dreadlocks would probably keep Ronon from even feeling it, and last, because Ronon would run him into the ground the next time they exercise.
He monitors the other team members while he eats. "They have, indeed. Ronon Dex does also not come from among them, and yet he was accepted into their ranks." Selh's coming back, threading her way through the tables. One group wants to speak with her, but he can see her put them off with a few short words. "I believe in them. No one else in many generations has been willing stand against the Wraith." Okay, from her tone, talks with Gean are still going swimmingly. Time to check on McKay again. "Oh, exactly, exactly. Progress, in the end. Couldn't agree more, yes! What's that? I didn't quite catch what you were saying – that sentence about the – ? Ah, a test? Wait, wait, wait, we're being tested? Before we can truly, er, get the cloak? Completion, what's that? No, never mind, this power coupling you're using – "
Wait a second, Sheppard thinks. What? Test? He's frowning as Selh seats herself again, saying, "When you're ready, we can visit – "
"Let's leave something for the next time we're here," Sheppard suggests. "I'd kind of like to get back with Teyla and McKay." Before McKay creates another interstellar incident . He gives his best self-deprecating grin, even dips his eyes down like he's embarrassed. "They're probably wondering what kind of trouble Ronon and I have gotten into."
"No, no, please! This is fine, just perfect, really, only – is it the painless sort or the Trial by Fire kind? Because the latter just doesn't agree with me ever since the natives on P2H-243 took that concept way too literally –" McKay's babbling. Sheppard doesn't cock his head to listen, but he pays closer attention. P2H-243 was a nightmare involving a single file bridge over a lava-filled chasm, sparks, smoke, and poisonous gases venting from yet another volcano. He really dislikes volcanoes. Not as much as bugs, but they were definitely in his top ten. "Painless, over in about an hour? And afterwards, we're definitely, definitely in for the cloak? Yes. Yes, I certainly give my permission! We – oh, of course, yes, I'll consult with Teyla and tell Sheppard and Dex, but really? No problem. Hah, we're already in there, practically."
And they are; it doesn't take long until their return. Gean, Jari, and Selh give them a moment of privacy on the way to the Med Center, strolling ahead and talking quietly among themselves, but considering that both McKay and, most importantly, Teyla have succeeded in convincing them and have already given their okay for a little round of testing, Sheppard feels no compunction to be contrary for the sake of protocol. Yeah, it stings a little – the Hermeans have little consideration, or maybe no real understanding for the military, not any more – but what's gained if he insists on going over the details again? Especially now that they are already standing in a waiting room diffused with golden light that seems to come from everywhere and nowhere at once.
"I'll go first."
Right, that's Ronon for you, who occasionally has to be told more than once. More than twice, too.
"Hey. No matter what the Hermeans think, I'm the leader; I should go and, you know, test the testing procedure first."
"Hmm." Rodney gives him a little smirk. "I'm sure they will be impressed by your manly bravery. It must be as scary as – oh, say, the utterly fearsome Atlantis health scanner with its blue glow of wrath. This clearly takes a hero like you."
Sometimes, McKay needs, desperately, to be whacked upside the head, and Sheppard happens to have a very giving nature – but Teyla steps forward, touches a finger to his upper arm.
"Ronon and I can go first; Gean told me we can go in by pairs, and he was very impressed by the fact half of our team does not even consist of Atlanteans. That we make such an effort for our newly chosen friends and extended family – I think it will be another beneficial gesture on our part. After we've gone ahead, you and Rodney can follow. It really does not seem to be dangerous; I fail to see any malice in these people."
Oh, for God's sake. "They could not be human, their machines incompatible."
"Colonel. Please. I checked when we first got out of the jumper." Rodney's grin is disturbingly satisfied. "One hundred percent human DNA, no unusual mutations. No Ancients, either, if that's what you were thinking. Just good old homo sapiens stock."
"Fine." A commander must be able to admit defeat. He nods at Ronon and Teyla, who are already turning to follow the Hermeans. "But we'll wait right outside, and you keep your comms."
Teyla smiles in return, and Ronon gives them a brief nod.
"Be right back, Sheppard."