Art by Lily
Betaed by Court
There was something satisfying about stepping into the stargate on one world and stepping out onto Atlantis his Atlantis. John Sheppard didn't consider himself someone who tended to live so much in the past, but the stargate program had given him a healthy respect for the ornery nature of the universe and an appreciation for what passed as normal. Current normal should have been a P.O.ed Richard Woolsey waiting to read him the riot act or at least the fussy bureaucrat version.
But the rush of transit deposited him into an oddly subdued control room. Techs worked quietly at their consoles, glancing up only minutely at his team's arrival. The scattering of security officers at gate level approached as per protocol. Atlantis's balding leader was nowhere in sight.
John shot a glance toward Woolsey's obviously empty office as he approached TSgt Stockton, the nearest SF on duty. "What's up?" he asked with a gesture toward the glass encased office. He noted an additional couple of security officers outside of the closed doors of the conference room.
"Some delegates from the Coalition of Planets showed up, sir. They wanted to speak with Mr. Woolsey your name was mentioned, too. They insisted it was something urgent. They're in the conference room."
Stockton was one of the remaining few who had been a part of the expedition since the beginning. John had once overheard him referring to himself as an Atlantis lifer. He completely understood the sentiment.
"Just him or all of us?" Rodney piped up from John's left, interrupting John's consideration of Stockton's words. The SF's droll delivery suggested that he thought that there was something more to the meeting than their visitors had mentioned at the beginning.
"You weren't mentioned by name, Doctor McKay," Stockton responded.
Rodney looked annoyed. "Wha "
John cut McKay off mid-complaint. "How many? And how long have they been in there?"
He'd been uncomfortable about dealing with the group after they'd captured the team and essentially put them on trial for war crimes against the Pegasus Galaxy.
The group was a good idea in theory, but the heavy handed way they'd handled their business right out of the gate wasn't exactly a sign of completely benevolent intentions on the part of all parties involved. Since Woolsey had committed Atlantis to a larger role in the organization, John had been waiting for the other shoe to drop.
"Four of theirs, six of ours and about two hours," Stockton responded to John's question. "Everett is with them." The murmurs were growing concerning Everett. Not everyone was comfortable with his officially undefined role on Atlantis. Another shoe he was waiting for.
"Thanks, Sarge." John dismissed the man.
He unclipped his P-90 and handed it off before facing the rest of the team. Ronon's bored look was easy to read he had zero interest in dealing with the Coalition. One of Teyla's brows was raised in question, awaiting his lead. Rodney was Rodney. "Why don't you all get out of here and get some rest? We're off the clock for the next forty-eight."
Ronon gave him a quick agreeable pat on the shoulder and made a beeline out of the gate room. It was an effort for John not to look back up at the control center to see if Amelia was at her station. Rumor had it that she and Ronon had plans for most of their downtime. John's money was on a camping trip.
"Very well." Teyla watched Ronon leave with a sly smile, then John remembered that he'd heard the rumor from her. "It has been a most interesting mission. I long for the lesser chaos of dealing with a small child. I will see the both of you later."
John watched her go then turned back to Rodney who was still standing beside him, looking confused. "Got nothing to do, McKay?"
"Is something going on with Ronon?" He pointed a thumb to where the other man had disappeared.
John huffed in amusement at the man's obliviousness and turned and headed up the steps alongside operations.
"Hey, wait. Where are you going?" Rodney followed him.
John didn't look back. "Where does it look like I'm going, Rodney?" He veered to the left at the top of the steps and headed for the open area outside of the conference room.
"Off the top of my head? I'd say you're going to crash the Coalition's party. Which of course I'd have no objection to normally, but politicians and bureaucrats bore me to tears. I'd more than likely run from one of their parties."
"I didnt say you had to come," John reminded him with a significant look. Rodney either didn't notice or ignored it.
"Look," John tried another tack, "I just want to find out what's going on and what we might be getting ourselves into, is all."
"And maybe talk them out of it?"
"Well, we are dealing with bureaucrats from two galaxies plus Homeworld Security." A really bad combination in John's book.
"What do you think is going on?" Rodney asked as they stopped outside of the door.
Before John could respond, the tall red doors rotated open.
* * *
John recognized Myrus, the coalition's errand boy. And he'd obviously gotten a new uniform or a promotion. The plain black long coat that he had worn in times past had a blue patterned band affixed to its lower right sleeve.
The man standing to the side and just behind Myrus was dressed in simple homespun clothing and carrying a rolled parchment he would have easily fit in most of the villages they'd come across in Pegasus. Scraggly blonde hair was cut raggedly around ears that jutted out a little too much. Though he kept his head lowered, he kept glancing about at the city itself.
As Myrus and Awestruck Village Guy moved into the corridor, two other uniformed men became visible. Both were tall and solidly muscled. For a moment, in the shadow of the doorway, John thought he saw Wraith markings on one of them. His hand twitched toward his nine millimeter then he forced himself to relax when he realized that they were simply scars.
"Ah, there you are, Colonel." Woolsey appeared from behind the visitors and made his way out of the conference room followed by Lorne. John did not miss the unspoken 'you're late' in the older man's flat tone. "These gentlemen have come to ask a favor of Atlantis."
"What sort of favor?" John wanted to know. He directed the question toward Myrus, but thought he caught a glimmer of something in Scar's hardened gaze. When he looked at him directly, his expression was one of studied indifference.
"Regretfully we have another appointment, Colonel," Myrus said, looking more annoyed than regretful. "However, I am sure Mr. Woolsey will fill you in on the details." He executed a slight bow before looking expectantly toward Woolsey.
"I'll show them to the gate, sir." Lorne stepped past Scars with a significant look in John's direction then gestured the Coalition group down the stairs toward the gate. The Atlantis security teams from inside and outside of the conference room fell in behind the group.
"What's going on?" John turned on Woolsey as soon as the men were mostly out of earshot. He steered Woolsey back into the conference room just in case.
"What's he doing here?" Rodney demanded with a pointed look toward Zelenka who was still seated at the conference room table beside Everett. A tablet computer was being shared between the two men.
"You were not here, Rodney," Radek fired back.
Rodney didnt seem mollified, but John didn't give him a chance to voice it. He still had questions that needed answering. "What kind of favor is Atlantis doing for the Coalition?"
"What makes you think we've agreed?" Woolsey asked, looking genuinely confused.
John gave him a pointed look.
"Okay, we're doing it. Or rather, you are. They've requested your team by name."
"And you said 'yes'?"
"You don't even know what it is."
"I do know that the last time my team was requested by name, we ended up in a cell. How can you be sure that this isn't another trap? Maybe they have some new charges to levy. Maybe they're mad because we left the galaxy earlier this year without asking? Who knows?"
"I hardly think it's a trap, Colonel. They simply want us to help set some security measures for one of their new member worlds. They are having problems with some of their important artifacts being stolen. They are merely in need of advice and training."
John tilted his head thoughtfully. "Really?" That didn't sound so bad. On the surface, at least. "Why us; why my team?"
"This is the first thing they've asked of us in our new role. It makes sense that Atlantis' flagship team represent the city in this endeavor. They've even produced badges of a sort. They would appreciate your team wearing these when you're acting on behalf of the Coalition." Woolsey reached into a small sack on the table and removed a handful of square patches containing an image that looked like hands connected through an activated stargate. The background colors were reminiscent of the band around Myrus' sleeve.
"You're kidding, right?" John eyed Woolsey long and hard. Surely the IOA and HWS would have something to say about badges. The furor over them joining the Coalition in the first place had been bad enough.
Woolsey shook his head, the faintest glimmer of humor in his gaze. "I told them that we'd take that under consideration. However, we did agree that you'd meet with the Sylans and discuss the problem of their missing painting."
"Wait," Rodney interrupted. "Did you say missing painting? As in, most likely, awful artwork? What are we, Pegasus CSI?"
"This piece of artwork has great significance within Sylan culture. Tobar Mit the gentleman who was here with Myrus - is one of the Sylan artisans and a keeper of a similar painting. He brought it with him and Doctor Zelenka scanned it into our computer systems. I think you'll both find it interesting."
John glanced toward Radek. "Let's see it."
The Czech pushed his glasses up his nose and then spun his tablet, showing them the displayed image.
John stared, wondering if he was seeing Radek's screensaver. When the image didn't change, he took a few steps closer. Surely that wasn't what he thought it was. He blinked and looked toward Rodney.
"Isn't that " Rodney pointed at the picture, his eyes wide.
"Yeah I think it is " John was forced into bemused agreement.
"How'd they get it?" Rodney asked, clearly scanning his memory for any reason that made sense.
"It is one of their most revered icons," Woolsey said. "She is called The Lady in the Woods. She is considered to be the protector of the Sylan people. There were 9 paintings in various places within the village. They believe that her ability to protect is weakened by the absence of one of the paintings. Only the monks in the Sylan monastery know of the thefts these are who you will be helping."
"Monks? We're going to be discussing security and loss prevention with monks who believe paintings which look suspiciously like the Ancient hologram lady are protecting them?" John had to make sure he understood the lunacy of the mission.
"That's right, Colonel. And you leave in 18 hours. The Sylan's would like to take care of the situation as quickly as possible as there is an impending cyclical weather pattern impending. They would like this handled before it arrives. The Sylan's monastery will have a representative waiting for you on their side of the gate in 18 hours."
"Great. I'll let Ronon and Teyla know," John said. So much for downtime.
Rodney followed him out of the conference room. "I'll hit the database."
"We are to go where?" Teyla asked as she double-checked the brake on Torren's high chair. The brightly colored construct, she was assured, had all of the bells and whistles. Though she was uncertain as to why Torren might need either bells or whistles, John, Rodney and Ronon had seemed very happy presenting it to her as a gift.
"M3X whatever," John waved off the full gate designation. "The coalition rep called the place Sylan." He stooped slightly and tugged goofily at Torren's bib. The little boy broke into a happy grin, showing his baby teeth.
Teyla smiled as she settled into the chair nearest her son and began to add food items to the high chair's tray. Its white surface was decorated with tiny red fighter jets, blue astronauts, green daggers and pi to ten digits. Torren began actively smacking at the surface of the tray as he practically choked on giggles. The motion threatened his small sectioned plate and sippy cup.
John, apparently seeing impending disaster, backed off from his game with an apologetic look, but Torren was looking for more. Teyla grabbed at one of his flailing hands, kissed it, and urged him to eat.
Seeing that his playmate was going back to more grown up behavior, he turned contently to his tray and began to pick up the carefully cut squares of boiled tava root.
"That looks appetizing," John drawled unconvincingly as he eyed the grayish white bits that were vanishing into Torren's mouth.
"What matters is that it is healthful," Teyla assured him, then returned to his previous statement. "Are you certain that the world we are to visit is Sylan?" There were a couple of other planets who went by names that were somewhat similar.
"Yeah. Pretty sure." John drew his attention from the tray of toddler food. "We're supposed to help some monks with security."
"Sylan does indeed have monks," Teyla agreed thoughtfully as she sought Kanaan on the other side of the mess hall. He was gathering trays for the two of them and would soon complete the task and return to the table.
John followed her gaze, then turned back toward her. "Everything okay?" he asked, his expression concerned.
"Yes, everything is fine," she rushed to assure him. John and the rest of the team were protective of her in many ways. She did not want to give him the idea that there might be problems with her relationship with Kanaan.
She continued at John's skeptical look. "I merely thought I heard something regarding the Sylan homeworld, but am not sure as I have not been to the markets in many days. Kanaan would know for certain."
"Did it have anything to do with a painting?" John asked.
Teyla gave him a curious smile. That was not a question she had been expecting to hear. "I can assure you that it did not."
"Was worth a try." John shrugged. "I'm not sure why they need the whole team there for a mission like this. You and Ronon could more than handle it. Half the fighting techniques the new recruits learn are based on things you and Ronon taught us. The rest is mostly common sense."
Teyla disagreed. "It is good for the people of this galaxy to see Atlantis working in cooperation with other worlds. You and Rodney are the faces of Atlantis, and by extension Earth, much more so than Ronon and I. The four of us working together as a team sends the message that all our peoples can come together as one."
John's lips curved upward into a smile. He would have spoken, but Kanaan arrived with a tray carrying food for two. John greeted the other man and then stood up from the table.
"You do not have to leave, Colonel Sheppard," Kanaan urged John to stay.
"That's okay. I don't want to interrupt your ." John gestured between her, Kanaan and Torren. "Besides, I've got to go break some news to Ronon."
"Just a moment, John," Teyla stopped him, then spoke to Kanaan. "Has there been any word from Sylan lately."
"There has been," Kanaan confirmed her worries. "It is no longer safe to travel there. The swarms are impending. There was much talk of it at Hollister market three days ago."
"Yeah, they mentioned that they were expecting some kind of a weather thing. That's why they wanted to hurry and do this. Apparently they feel like they need our help, storm season or no."
Teyla looked hesitantly toward Kanaan, then back toward John. "Not storms, swarms. It is called swarm season, as in "
John grimaced, clearly getting the point. "Bugs."
"I am afraid so."
"Great," John grumbled and turned to leave Teyla and her family to their meal.
"There is more, John," Teyla called to him.
He turned back, not entirely sure he wanted to know what might be worse than swarms of bugs.
"There are stories it is said that falling under the influence of the swarm leads to madness."
"You've got to be kidding me," John said, though he knew Teyla wouldn't joke about something like that. It didn't help that Kanaan was wearing a look that suggested he'd just figured out where Teyla was going to be going next. And he wasnt' happy about it.
"It is why the Sylans put out the warnings. Though I have never experienced a swarm, I am told that there are none who have ever been caught in a swarm who had not been warned beforehand."
* * *
John turned away from Ronon's door. He'd tried the gym, the mess and now his quarters no joy. He wanted to try one more place before he broke down and tried him on the radio.
"Colonel Sheppard -- just the man I was looking for."
John turned at the soft sound of a cane tapping along behind him. "I'm on radio." He slowed his steps to accommodate Everett's more leisurely pace.
Everett slowed even further and gestured to a nearby balcony. "I thought something a little more face to face was in order."
John nodded his agreement and followed the other man through the doors that slid open on their approach. The truth was he'd had mixed feelings about Everett since he'd been assigned to Atlantis by Homeworld Security. He wasn't the same take-no-prisoners business-as-usual marine commander that he'd been when he'd come during the Wraith siege that John could deal with; he understood it. But the quiet man who did more watching than talking John didn't get. He figured he was about to get an education.
"Are you planning a mission briefing with your team?" Everett asked. Gone was the relaxed demeanor of just moments before. The military commander was back. It immediately raised all of John's hackles.
He narrowed his gaze. "Should I?" His time in command of Atlantis and dealing with Stargate Command had taught him a thing or two.
"You know your team, Colonel. It's the Coalition that is the unknown. My recommendation would be to keep an eye on them."
"Last I checked, you weren't in the Atlantis chain of command," John reminded him.
Everett genuinely looked amused. "I'm not. And while I might be retired, I'm still a military man through and through. Like you, Colonel, and I'd venture to say that you have some of the same instincts as myself and General O'Neill."
That got John's attention. "Homeworld Security has a greater than usual interest in this mission." He didn't need to make it a question.
"Homeworld Security has an interest in anything that relates to the security of Earth and its possessions, both in our home galaxy or elsewhere."
John gave Everett a humorless chuckle. "So it's the Coalition then. Is that why you're really here?"
Everett stared at him for a long moment. "It's always good to know the lay of the land in case one needs to step in."
"You've already spoken with Woolsey?"
"This is nothing official, Colonel. Just wanted to get your thoughts on the matter at hand."
John studied the other man. "I don't trust them."
"As well you shouldn't."
"I'd also like to know why my team was specifically chosen."
"Yes." Everett nodded.
"The only way I'm going to find out is by going." John made a decision. He needed to go make some arrangements. "Was there anything else?" he asked. At Everett's slight headshake, he turned and headed back into the city just as Ronon's voice sounded over his radio.
You looking for me?
"Yeah. Sorry, buddy, there's been a change of plans. Meet me in Rodney's lab."
* * *
"Come on. Seriously? Is this all you've got?" Rodney demanded as he glanced through the information on Radek's computer screen. Rodney himself could have pulled up more on Google.
"There is not much there, Rodney." Radek made his excuses. "There was a small settlement on M3X-457 at some time before the Ancients left Pegasus, but there is little information about them. We do not even know if the current occupants are descendants of those settlers."
Rodney wasn't impressed. The team would be leaving in the morning and he preferred to be better prepared. "That's what you had two hours ago. There's got to be more to the place than suspicious looking paintings and monks. Maybe you're just not looking hard enough."
"I have been searching non-stop with fine tooth. If you can do better, you are welcome to try." The Czech pushed dramatically away from the table, waving Rodney toward the space.
"I would, but I'm a little busy right now calculating the precise spacing between the Sylan stargate and the surrounding trees based on MALP telemetry only."
Radek's brow rose. "Really? Why would you want to do that?" He seemed far more interested in Rodney's project than his own.
Rodney had no intention of sharing. "That information is need to know."
Radek huffed. "Fine. I need you to know that I am tired and going to bed. Good night, Rodney."
* * *
Teyla stared at the tangle of spiky green leaves that were pressed against the outer window of the hovering jumper. Early morning light filtered green through the occasional spaces between the branches.
"That's close." Ronon's dry comment drifted forward. Teyla, seated in the co-pilot seat, could not disagree with his observation. She had never known a jumper to be flown to a world with such tight quarters near the gate.
"I thought you said it would fit, McKay," John groused back in Rodney's direction. His hand gripped the joystick as if he might have to make an adjustment at any moment.
"It does fit. Those are leaves, not branches."
John did not find Rodney's answer satisfying. "There is still the little problem of we haven't started moving yet. Do you have the course ready?"
"I'm working on it. I need a minute I have to recalculate a couple of things." Rodney bent low over his computer. "Just don't move."
John made a face, but did as he was told.
"How did you convince Mr. Woolsey to allow you to fly a jumper to this world?" Teyla asked. John opened his mouth to speak, but Rodney beat him to it.
"It involved a lot of complicated equations, genius programming and missing sleep." Rodney continued to input commands on his computer as he spoke.
"And lots of arguing," Ronon added.
"But mostly complicated equations," Rodney corrected.
Teyla looked toward John for clarification.
"It's a long story," was all he would say.
Teyla smiled knowingly. "Yes. I am certain." She imagined that John had told Mr. Woolsey that he was going to have to trust him. He rarely resorted to that particular argument only when his instincts seemed to overwhelmingly support a conclusion that he was having trouble explaining to Atlantis' leader. Mr. Woolsey always seemed to acquiesce in those instances.
"Rodney, you done with your complicated equations yet?" John asked.
"Almost. It should appear on the HUD now." The heads up display sprang to life as if on cue when Rodney pointed toward it. A trail of dots showed a path to what looked to be a clearing nearly a mile from the gate.
John did something at the controls and winced as the jumper began to rise slowly upward, brushing against the leaves and other greenery in its path. Teyla tensed at the nearness of some larger branches and trunks. John was going to have to very carefully change the direction of the jumper if they were to maneuver among the thicker greenery above them.
"Wait! Something's wrong!" Rodney's warning sounded in the quiet vessel, startling Teyla. John's grip on the flight control stick jerked and the jumper thudded against something solid before the ship came to halt.
"What is it?" John looked back toward the scientist, leaving them hovering against the thick bark of a tree.
"Huh? What?" Rodney looked up, distracted. He seemed to only just realize that the entire team was watching him expectantly.
"Did you not just see what happened?" John demanded, then gestured toward the front window. "That's gonna leave a mark."
"No, it isnt." Rodney waved the comment off and returned his attention to the tablet computer. "But there is something very weird going on with the jumper's power levels."
"Weird in the sense of I've never seen anything like it before. If I hadn't been working with the navigation controls I might not have noticed it. But the jumper is definitely using power at a much faster rate than normal. The power ratios of the active systems arent adding up."
John scanned the flight controls. "Are you sure? Everything seemed to be okay before. I didnt notice any change. Could some other systems have kicked in some that we might not have used before?"
"Maybe. but based on these consumption ratios, it would have to be a lot of systems or one that uses a lot of power." Rodney frowned as he continued to work. "It almost seems external, but that doesn't make any sense."
"Should we head back?" John asked.
"No." Rodney dismissed the idea. "There's a lot of usage, but we should be okay. Once we land and power down, the consumption will drop to zero. We should still have plenty of power to get back to Atlantis."
"What about the cloak?" John asked.
"The cloak could be a problem."
"No, we need the cloak." John was insistent. "We are not leaving the jumper sitting out in the open without it."
"It uses a lot of power," Rodney argued.
"Based on current consumption, how long can we keep the jumper cloaked and still have enough power to get back to Atlantis?"
Rodney shrugged. "Maybe twelve hours give or take."
"Okay. Within eleven hours, no matter what, we're out of here," John stated.
To Act II