The Seat of Talents (1/2)Author: xparrotPrompt:
Self-sacrifice (Friendship)Word count:
Set late 3rd season, before "Sunday."Summary:
The team gets caught in a trade deal that will have an unexpected cost for one of their four.Notes:
Much thanks to gnine
for telling me where it was going wrong before it got too far along to fix, and to naye
for the diligent beta!
The Sedes Facultatium was solid black wrought iron, a looming artist's interpretation of a giant vulture skeleton. It squatted in an empty, whitewashed chamber crudely carved into the Challidans' stone tunnels.
Dux Yerrith's servants closed the vulture's skeletal wings over John's chest in a loose but solid cage. The metal seat under him was hard and ridged, reclining at just the wrong angle. It hadn't looked this uncomfortable when Ronon had sat in it. The chamber was neither too hot nor too cold, but the iron was chill when he closed his fingers around the bars.
"Be easy, Dux Colonel," Yerrith reassured. "As I promised, the extraction procedure isn't harmful."
Binding and legally accurate, by certain definitions of 'harm.' But he'd brought his team here; he'd agreed on this mission—between Ronon, Teyla, and Rodney, they'd have pretty much anything the Challidans could ask for, that's what he'd told Elizabeth, all confidence. He'd accepted the deal. His own damn fault.
Rodney could pilot the jumper back. It wouldn't be a problem. "Just do it," John said.* * *
Dumb as it was, John's first thought had been of the Dungeons & Dragons game Mitch had dragged him into, the first month of his tour in Afghanistan.
D&D was cheaper than a video game and didn't need batteries, just a pouch of dice you could carry in your pocket and a few folded sheets of paper. They played a few times a week, four or five soldiers gathered around a folding table rolling multi-sided dice, pretending to be dwarves and half-elves, slaying orcs and dragons and collecting gold and experience points. When you leveled up you could expand your skill set, write down new abilities, bear-riding or wall-scaling or lock-picking.
It became a running joke for a while, for the bunch of them to match their listed talents to those accumulated in real life—skill in prostitute-banging (+4 in your saving throw against STDs); skill in scorpion-whispering (roll a d20 to see how many were camped out in your boots). And some nights in Kabul, John would wish learning Farsi were merely a matter of penciling it on a list.
So when Lieutenant Mitsotakis's team came back from M7D-414 talking about skill exchanges, John's first mental image was going through the gate and finding the Challidans waiting with character record sheets in hand, ready to barter Wraith-kill experience points for Level 6 Ancient Tech Expertise. He almost shared the joke with Rodney after the briefing, but decided some thoughts were too geeky even for him.
What garnered the most attention wasn't Mitsotakis's new hand-to-hand ability, or the formerly aqua-phobic Dr. Aubin taking to swimming and diving like a cormorant, or even Dr. Wong's unexpected knowledge of obscure Ancient scripts; but Corporal Flemming's work in the commissary. He'd served chef-shifts before with minimal competency; now, suddenly, he was in demand
. "Small wonder," Rodney said around a mouthful of kind-of-cheese puffs, the formerly much maligned kind-of-milk of M3X-822 now elevated to first choice of every diner. "How'd he make
these? Why couldn't he have invented them two years ago?"
"They'd like us back to trade more," Mitsotakis reported, to Teyla's surprise. The people of Challidas, she explained, were exceptionally picky about who they chose to deal with, and had never traded with the Athosians in her lifetime.
John would have just as soon let it be. All four of Mitsotakis's team had returned to Atlantis with throbbing migraines to supplement their reports of alien technology. The Challidans had sworn that it was safe, claimed they used it all the time—"And you believed
them?" John demanded incredulously.
But the headaches were gone by the next day, brain scans showed no damage, and when Corporal Flemming starting whipping up pseudo-wheat hotcakes even tastier than the kind-of-cheese puffs, Elizabeth okayed a second expedition. John volunteered his team; Ronon was having way too much fun testing Mitsotakis's new martial art, and Rodney was itching for a look at the transfer tech, eminently confident that he could figure it out—better than an anthropologist, a geologist, and a meteorologist masquerading as an Air Force lieutenant, anyway.* * *
Within a minute of arriving on M7D-414, their jumper was met mid-air by two long, narrow crafts with a familiar enough silhouette that John's hands twitched on the controls.
"Are those Wraith darts?" Teyla asked, low and calm.
Rodney shook his head, bringing up the HUD. "By the mass, they're metal, not organic. Man-made. Though they might've been modeled on Wraith-tech, I wouldn't be surprised." He leaned back in his seat, uncaring, and defied Ronon's doubtful look with, "What? It's not like that means they're working with the Wraith. They could've cannibalized a crashed ship."
"They're not Wraith," John supplied. "Wraith fly better than that." The ships wobbled along their trajectories, like their pilots could barely keep them in the air. Recalling his own experiences in a dart's blind cockpit, John sympathized.
Their creepy escort brought them to a clearing some hundred klicks from the gate. On the ground, Challidas was a gloomy world, dreary, stunted trees cowering under a sky of slate clouds. The three who came to greet them were boldly compensating for the lack of color: two tall, bald figures in indigo and orange robes, flanking a woman in a fitted scarlet jerkin over lime green silk. Dux Yerrith was middle-aged by her lead-gray hair and the lines around her mouth, sincerely welcoming in a way that didn't quite set John's teeth on edge. "It's been some time since we've had the opportunity to trade with a people entirely unknown to us, Dux Colonel. Vas Lieutenant attributed a bewildering variety of skills to your people."
"Yeah, we're pretty handy," John said easily. "Though the lieutenant might've exceeded his credit limit—what'd he promise you, exactly?" Because in any galaxy, the laws of nature apply; you can't get something for nothing, and that went double in Pegasus.
"One skill," Yerrith said, "for our archives, and we'll give eight in return, four more besides those already received, of your choosing," and she smiled like this was a bargain, buy one, get one free. "As for what you offer, we'll accept many varieties. While combat skills are highly prized, for obvious reasons, and skills with technology as well, we're always looking to expand our bank of cultural skills. Really, anything original—even what Vas Emmagan can offer may be acceptable; we haven't traded with the Athosians for some time. A new form of bantos stick combat might be satisfactory." At that, Teyla looked inclined to offer a practical exhibition of her particular stick-fighting skills, but Yerrith only kept smiling. "And if this arrangement proves equitable, we'd be most interested in further negotiations."
"Sure, we've got fighting, science, whatever you want," Rodney said.
"I don't know," John said. "Fighting the Wraith—we're kind of in need of all our skilled people at the moment, don't have any to spare."
"Put your mind at ease, Dux Colonel. For one to give a skill takes no more than a couple hours, and then the four of you can return to your world. In this trade, your people lose nothing. Any skill you offer us, we'll willingly return—a skill now unique to one of your people you can have two or three receive, if you wish."
"Sounds more than fair." Rodney was all but rubbing his hands together in anticipation. "Now when can we see how this exchange works?"
For a cynic, McKay could be almost impressively naive. Too good to be true, John thought, and wondered how much junk Rodney might've once bought off of late night infomercials.* * *
The Challidans lived underground, in wide halls lined with richly embroidered tapestries. John caught Rodney eying the high ceilings, wondered if the wariness in his expression was fear of a cave-in or wincing at the violently violet mosaics.
Fifteen minutes of winding corridors brought them to a hexagonal cast-iron portal, black metal painted over in dizzying spirals of blue and chartreuse. "So, Dux Colonel," Yerrith asked, "what skills do you want for your people?"
John wondered what was the polite way to put, 'How you don't get eaten by the Wraith.'
Ronon said, "Tiloctigit knife-play," without hesitation, like he'd been waiting for it.
Dux Yerrith nodded. "Vas Dex names a fine skill indeed. Would the knife-play be appropriate, Dux Colonel? We don't have the skills of a Venerable Adept, but a minor master once gave to our archive."
Ronon shrugged. "I barely rate as a novice, now."
He was holding one of his knives. John could just see the silver flash of the blade between his fingers, a short, wickedly curved dagger he'd noticed on Ronon before. Now Ronon was running his thumb over the edge, concealed within his big hand. Powerful grip, capable fingers—John had seen Ronon kill Wraith with those hands, knew that seven years as a Runner had taught Ronon more than John would probably be able to learn in his lifetime.
There was something wanting in Ronon's face now, bloodthirst, or something else.
Yerrith was looking at John, as if waiting for his approval. "Whatever he wants," John said.
The woman lifted one hand. One of the servants in blue and orange swept silently to her side, ducked to listen to her whispered command, then disappeared behind a crimson hanging curtain. A few minutes later he—she? The loose robes and lack of hair made gender a guessing game, and the silver and gold cosmetics didn't help—returned with a brass tray, holding a small, blue-white crystal.
"Ancient tech?" John murmured to Rodney.
"Maybe," McKay returned, drawing out the word indecisively. He had his detector tucked under his crossed arms, was surreptitiously examining the readings on the little screen.
Yerrith stuck her hand in a little alcove by the portal, made a complicated twisting motion. The heavy iron door rotated to the side with the creaking, grinding noise of a massive mechanism, opening into the small gray chamber with the iron throne.
The Sedes Facultatium didn't look like any Ancient device John was familiar with. More like a medieval torture instrument, its maw spread open and waiting, the crude black bars curving out like a splayed ribcage. The wrought iron frame arched up another eight or ten feet above even Ronon's head, then twisted down again into a single four-fingered claw suspended over the cage.
Teyla glanced at John, shook her head minutely; she'd never seen its like, either. Rodney, eying it, muttered under his breath, "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition," and John choked on an involuntary chuckle and glared at McKay for it.
When Ronon stepped forward, John moved faster, putting himself between his teammate and the black throne. "So what does this thing do, exactly?"
Yerrith blinked at him. "I assure you, Dux Colonel, the procedures of reception and extraction are identical for Ducis and Vasis—I've received four skills myself. There's no danger; the Sedes Facultatium will do your warrior no injury."
Teyla met John's eyes, brow furrowed but undecided. Rodney made a little hurrying gesture, a bloodhound's gleam in his eyes, the full-steam-ahead fascination of a scientist hot on the trail. "This is what we came here for, right?"
In the end, it was Ronon's choice; in the end, John could no more have stopped Ronon than he could have dropkicked the moon out of orbit. "All right," John said, stepped out of Ronon's way and let Ronon find a seat on the twisted metal frame. The Sedes was easily large enough to accommodate him; it might've been built for a man a foot taller.
Yerrith had her servants close the metal cage, had them place the blue crystal in the four-pronged fixture over Ronon's head. They stepped back, and Ronon closed his eyes and rested his head between the spread-wing talons of the chair's back. The crystal flashed.
And that was all. "It is done, Dux Colonel," Yerrith said, and gestured for the servants to open the bars and release Ronon.
"That's it?" Rodney complained, not so sotto voce
"Ronon?" John asked cautiously.
Ronon flexed his big hands, stood from the Sedes. "Don't feel any different."
"It'll take some time to set in mind and muscles," Yerrith said. "A few days before it's completely assimilated, and exercise will be required to perfect it, as the muscles will be unused to the particular activities, but Vas Dex has the Tiloctigit knife-play skill."
"Right," John said; wrong
was what he thought. All wrong, all kinds of wrong, but by then it was too late to get out, even if he didn't know it yet.* * *
(Later, after her servants had hauled his team away, he argued with Yerrith. "This isn't how we work," he tried to explain. "When my people talk about 'cultural exchange', this isn't what we mean. Lieutenant Mitsotakis misunderstood, he wouldn't have made the deal if he'd known."
Only maybe he would have anyway. John didn't know. Ronon might've made it—still was willing to, but they'd have to wait, weeks or months or more, until he could sit on the Sedes again. "Reception of a new skill interferes with the extraction process," Yerrith had explained. "Nor does reception take if it's repeated too quickly. Traditionally we wait five or ten years between uses of the Sedes, and devote ourselves to mastering those few skills we receive."
It didn't matter; John wasn't going to let the Challidans keep Ronon that long; sure as hell wasn't going to let Ronon go through with it anyway, willing or not.
The hell of it was, Yerrith didn't even see the problem. Didn't understand why John had tried to attack her, why she'd had to confiscate his weapons and post a guard on him. To hear her talk, it had all been aboveboard, perfectly rational. She sounded confused when she spoke to him. "It's not uncommon for Vasis to be unreasonably possessive, as if their skills are only their own and not their people's. Choose one of them, and we'll handle the extraction. It may take a few times to extract a complete skill, but as soon as it's finished we'll return your Vas to you. We'll be done by nightfall. And you may bring them back later to receive other skills, if you wish."
She didn't get it when he tried to punch her. Though she blocked fast enough—he should have checked beforehand what those four skills she'd received were. It might've saved him some effort, when he'd tried to pull his Beretta before, and she'd disarmed him so fast she damn near broke his fingers.
"You're not touching any of them," John told her. "You're not putting any of my team in that damn Sedes.")* * *
Rodney had wanted a turn, after Ronon. Actually, he said, "Can we see that again?" and, when John looked at him askance, explained, "It works too fast. I need to take more readings, if I'm going to have a chance of figuring out what the thing really does." He looked at Dux Yerrith. "Crystals are reusable, yes? I didn't notice any change in the matrixes during the process, it still looks intact. So give the Tick-tock knifery to me, too, then."
"Excuse us a second," John said, and let Teyla make polite explanations while he grabbed Rodney's arm and hauled him out of the chamber into the hall. "Are you serious about this?"
"I told you, I have to gather more data."
"But knife-fighting? Not science or math or whatever?"
"Abstruse neurophysiological equipment aside, I doubt they have many science skills that I couldn't learn for myself in about as much time," Rodney said. "And imprinting the same skill on a different brain will tell me more about what specific changes it's making. Besides," and he looked weirdly eager, more than the thirst for knowledge John was used to, "knife-fighting, it's not like I'd ever learn that otherwise."
"You're that excited to have Ancient tech zap your brain? Again
Rodney tapped the detector. "The charge is low-level, and it doesn't resemble the typical signatures of Ancient tech. Though it's hard to believe anything could rewire neurophysiology just like that
," and he snapped his fingers.
"It only took that Ascension machine a second to rewrite your DNA," John hissed back.
Rodney blinked at him. "Is that what's bugging you?"
"No, not that," John said, because it wasn't. He couldn't explain it himself, exactly, just how wrongly this rubbed him. An enzyme that could up your speed and strength like an ultra-steroid, that he got. Even that a machine could change your genes to give you superpowers—and then kill you if you didn't advance all the way on to angelhood—it was out of a comic book, sure, but it made sense, living the kind of sci-fi life they had on Atlantis.
But that you could copy and paste an ability, that you could learn a skill as easily as if you were writing it down on a piece of paper—a minute to learn, and another minute to master; there was something wrong
about that. He thought about learning to fly—natural talent, he'd heard that all along; but it wasn't like he'd known what he was doing the first time he'd sat in the cockpit. Flying had taken him years to learn, over a decade of training and simulators and practice, different teachers and different crafts. He'd screwed up, and he'd hashed out mistakes with other pilots, picked up tips and figured out other tricks by himself. You couldn't just give all that away, couldn't possibly pass on every lesson that mattered with a single flash of a crystal.
It was Rodney's choice, though, and John got it. Ronon, who had plenty of talent with a knife but no chance to master it, needed not education, but a boost in skills he'd already learned. Rodney, though, Rodney had been born a genius, was used to complexities such as esoteric physics principles coming to him as easy as breathing. John had long understood that Rodney's reluctance to practice on the firing range, or learn self-defense, was because he wasn't naturally gifted at such things; he got frustrated with himself, not used to struggling to learn.
So when Yerrith looked at him inquiringly, John nodded. "Give it to him."
Yerrith hesitated, some of the genuineness of her smile fading to disappointment, though the expression itself stayed fixed as a used car salesman's. "So is Vas Emmagan's skill to be offered, then?"
Teyla's own smile had too many teeth, for all her tone was courteous as ever. "If that would be satisfactory, Dux Yerrith. I can offer what bantos stick fighting I have now; perhaps in some years hence I will be able to trade you a full mastery."
Yerrith's eyebrows rose in mild surprise. "Well, of course not you
, Vas Emmagan, but whoever of your people receive the skill, perhaps."
After this long in Pegasus, John could feel
the other shoe dropping, like a hobnailed boot thudding on the base of his spine. "What do you mean, not her?"
"Few who offer a skill ever manage to relearn it," Yerrith said. "It's rare for anyone even to bother trying. And no one can receive back a skill they themselves offered. Those paths in the mind are burned by the extraction process, such that they can never be walked again."
She smiled at John. "But no need to fear, Dux Colonel—as I promised, whatever skill we extract, we'll be able to give to whoever else of your people you choose. It's a wonderful trade, that you lose nothing, and we all gain."
"Yeah," John said, hand dropping to his sidearm, "wonderful," and thought about checking his watch, so that on the mission report he could note precisely when everything went to hell.* * *
Eventually John was shut away in a little room, cramped, but amply furnished with a brilliantly embroidered divan and a gilt-trimmed table. He paced a circuit around the chamber, feeling for drafts indicating passageways behind the painted paneling and elaborate tapestries, but there were only stone walls. The single door was thick wood.
He kicked over the table, was about to try to snap off one of the heavy legs for a club when the door opened once more. "I want to see my people again," John said, before Yerrith got a word out. "Now."
Maybe Yerrith thought it would make him more cooperative. She knew better than to try to argue with him anymore, at least. In turn he knew better than to try to attack her again. Even if she didn't have two of her servants in blue and orange prowling behind her, the woman could hold her own. The woman and her stolen skills.
The guards let John down the dungeon stairs and didn't follow him. The granite walls were carved and painted in blinding cyan and magenta checkerboards. That had to be against the Geneva Convention. Behind the iron bars, Ronon looked sick from it, greenly nauseous. He was holding a wad of bandage to his head, but there wasn't much blood anymore. His glare was probably due to being taken down by only two men, and both of them smaller than him, if unnaturally skilled; Ronon could hold grudges for some time.
"John," Teyla said, coming up to the bars. "Have they decided?"
John wasn't in the mood for her diplomacy. "No, I haven't decided. I'm not going to decide, I don't care what kind of damn bargain these people think we agreed to. None of you are going to sit in that thing."
"According to the entirely too friendly guard we were talking to earlier," Rodney said, "if we resist the extraction, or try to give them some ability they don't want, we stand to get any number of things erased. Not to mention, give one skill and the associated ones tend to get screwed up or lost in the doing—offer snowboarding and you'll never ski or surf again, either. And they'll keep trying until they get a clean print of a skill they consider valuable."
"It's better for one of us to volunteer, then," Teyla said quietly. "John, select me. The Dux already agreed to accept my bantos fighting."
John tried to imagine Teyla in the gym, as clumsy with her polished sticks as he had been the first time he'd picked them up, stumbling and accidentally whacking herself on the knuckles—couldn't do it; his mind whited out on the thought. He'd been practicing for two years; in another decade he might be approaching Teyla's level. With luck and more work than he was really likely to put into it. He shook his head. "Then who would train me?"
"Something else, then," Teyla said. "I have knowledge of many dozens of cultures; they might consider that a skill."
"No," Ronon said. "Me. I know plenty of different ways to fight, and I just got one more. I can lose one or two."
"And what if they don't want the one or two, and end up going through five or six or ten?" Rodney snapped. "What'll we do with you then? Besides, you're exempt for now. They're going to do this soon."
Elizabeth would be sending another team to fetch them if they didn't report within another fourteen hours. Yerrith was aware of the time limit, from Mitsotakis's initial contact. They got too close to the wire, and she probably would just flip a coin, rather than be denied her promised trade.
"I can stay," Ronon said. "Wait here until I'm ready."
"Hm," Rodney considered. "That might work—buy us time to throw together a rescue, spring you before they put you in the Sedes."
"I do not think it would be wise," Teyla said. "If they fear Ronon will not hold to his word, they might try to extract anyway, despite the risk."
"And melt his brain," Rodney sighed, poking at the detector they'd allowed him to keep, going over the one scan he'd gotten of the throne in action. "During extraction, the Sedes probably increases the synaptic activity of whatever skill they're trying to encode, so the pattern can be clearly recorded on the crystal, and that's what burns out the neural pathways. If reception involves rewriting pathways, those new neural connections will be tenuous for a while, until they're adapted into the brain's normal structure. Mess with that process, damage the neurons, and everything gets poached. Like a computer crashes if you try to open too many programs at once, blue-screen of—um, yeah. It'd be bad."
"Great," John said. "And how does knowing this help us get out of here?"
"It doesn't, but if I'm going to be tapped of all my scientific knowledge, I'd at least like to understand the procedure that turns me into a vegetable."
"That's not going to happen," John told him.
"Oh, yes, and how are you going to stop it? If they decide to start sucking out my science, who knows what they'll consider worth trading for? With my luck they'll throw away everything until they reach, I don't know, string theory, or Einsteinian relativity, and that's not even applicable
"Rodney, we will not let that happen," Teyla said firmly. "As you often remind us, Atlantis is in need of your scientific skills. More than my bantos fighting, certainly—"
Rodney's eyes went wide at that. "Bullshit," he said, "that's—"
"True," Teyla countered.
"But—but—" Rodney babbled, "—if they do take science from me, you could always bring Zelenka in to receive it, I guess, so it wouldn't be a total lost—"
"You volunteering, McKay?" Ronon asked.
"Is anyone listening to me?" John demanded. "This isn't happening. We're going to stop talking about it now, because it's not happening to any of you."
"Easy for you to say," Rodney grumbled. "Look what side of the bars you're on, Sheppard. Privilege of leadership—you're the wrong caste to get involuntarily mind-wiped." He snorted. "Don't know what they'd take anyway. You think hair-styling would count as a satisfactory skill?"
If the stairs leading down to the dungeon didn't creak, John wouldn't have heard Yerrith's approach. Abstractedly he wondered if walking silently were another of her four skills. "Have you decided yet, Dux Colonel?"
John looked at his team behind bars, Ronon grim and bruised, Teyla straight and calm and ready, Rodney hunched over on the wooden bench, staring down at his detector and not looking up.
"Yeah," John said, turning away from his team, "I've decided. One skill, right?"
Dux Yerrith nodded.
"Okay, then." He took a breath. "When we came in, your people sent aircraft to meet us. They were based on Wraith darts, right?"
"Darts aren't easy to fly," John said, recalling the crafts' uneven flight paths. "I'm guessing you found a way to extract the skills from the Wraith pilots?"
"We did," Yerrith said, "though imperfectly. And people do not...receive Wraith skills well."
"Yeah, I can imagine." He didn't have to look behind him, to know Ronon would be standing, to hear Teyla say his name as Rodney spluttered protests.
He could see the avarice gleaming in Dux Yerrith's smile. Act now, just five easy payments of nineteen ninety-five...
"Well, you've got a pilot right here. A human pilot. I know how to fly a Wraith dart, and anything else you put me in. I'll sit in your damn Sedes and give you your skill, and then you let my team out and let us all go home. So, we have a deal?"* * *
John's first solo flight had been the day after his sixteenth birthday. Closed in the Sedes Facultatium's iron embrace, he thought of the throb of the Cessna's engines, the jolt of nine knot winds catching the wings, the utter and absolute blue of the sky. He hadn't felt nervous once, his heart pounding with excitement but never nerves, not when taxiing down the runway, not in the air, not for three textbook landings. Twelve hours of flight-time logged, and he'd known what he was doing like he knew how to walk. He was flying, and he never wanted to come down.
He wondered what he'd remember, after this. If it would be better to remember it all, even if he couldn't do it anymore; or easier to lose the memories along with the rest.
Once he had been seated and locked in, Dux Yerrith had left to take care of some business or other, leaving John to meditate in the company of two of the indigo-and-orange clothed servants. They silently fussed with the instrument, adjusting it so the metal bars didn't dig into his thighs and the slant was slightly less uncomfortable. One of them brought him water, putting the cup to his mouth and tilting it. "Thanks," John said when he was done drinking, and the servant wordlessly ducked his—her?—smoothly shaved head.
They installed a crystal in the metal grip above him. John tipped back his head to stare up at it. Unlike the lucent blue stone before, this one was milky white, opaque; a blank slate, waiting to be filled.
Helicopters, John thought. Totally different skill from a fixed-wing aircraft. He'd picked up hovering faster than anyone else in his squadron, but it had still taken time to master, the constant cyclic balancing of yaw and pitch. He'd overcompensated, the first time he'd lifted up in that dart on Ford's planet, thinking he was in a Harrier when it really handled more like a Pave Hawk in the atmosphere. If he could keep choppers, at least...
Helicopters, and the puddlejumpers—anyone could fly a jumper, anyone who had the gene, and they couldn't take that from him; it was written into his DNA, inscribed in every cell. He'd be able to take up the jumpers still, didn't need a pilot's license for those. There were no airman certificates in Pegasus. He'd still have the sky over Atlantis.
John tried not to think about how after three years of flight training, Rodney was getting better in the jumpers, but flying still didn't come naturally to him, nervous sweat always breaking out on his brow when he had to take the controls. For all that Rodney had no particular fear of flying, even enjoyed learning, every steady climb and banked turn was a conscious, calculated effort for him—all that will and genius, but no talent to back it up.
"Haven't you always wanted to be able to fly the jumper in a straight line?" John had told Rodney, down in the dungeon. "Or we can bring someone else in to get it—just have to make sure they have the gene, right, don't want to waste that."
"Are you insane?" Rodney had demanded, loud enough to cut over Ronon and Teyla's outcry. "Sheppard, you're not going to do this, we need—"
"Yeah, we have to make sure someone gets it, if you don't want to," John had said. "At least one of the three slots we've got left. Might need someone who knows how to fly a dart, someday," and then he'd followed Yerrith back up the dungeon stairs.
"So how long will this take?" John asked now, wetting his lips with his tongue. He'd just drunk their water, but the gray chamber was too dry. "Don't have all day. I'm a busy guy, places to be."
He wasn't really expecting an answer, but one of the servants replied, in a light tenor or low alto, carefully not looking into his face, "Not long, Dux Colonel, once the preparations are complete."
John darted another glance at the pale crystal over his head. "So we haven't, uh, started yet?"
"Not yet, Dux Colonel. Once Dux Yerrith returns, we'll begin."
"Great," John said. "Um. I don't suppose either of you have any idea what this is like..."
"I have received two skills and offered one," the same servant replied, eyes still politely averted.
John scrutinized the speaker's features, past the silver dusting her face, sparkling eyeliner and lipstick. A woman, he thought, to tell by the round cheeks, and there might have been the swell of small breasts under her robe, but he wouldn't swear to it. She looked pretty young, not over thirty, and not obviously marked; calm and courteous, but her low voice had more life than a lobotomy patient's, anyway.
He asked her, "It really doesn't hurt?"
"Just as Dux Yerrith told you, the procedure is painless."
"Yeah, and afterwards?"
"A day's aches, no worse than when you overindulge in spirits."
"What about after that?" John said quietly.
The woman's gaze almost met his, then glided away without engaging. "It...can take a little time to adjust. You may forget that you no longer can do what once came easily."
"What'd you give up?" When she hesitated, John said, "Never mind, you don't have to tell me if it's breaking taboo or anything. I don't know the manners around here, I'm just curious."
"No, forgive my rudeness for not answering you, Dux Colonel. There's no taboo. Only..." She glanced at her fellow servant, standing stolidly by, then said, soft and quick, "My mother taught me to dance, when I was young. She came from Oshazyo, and traded much to earn a place on Challidas, but the dancing she kept. I thought I'd keep it for my own self—but then the Wraith came. I'd already received the one skill I was granted as one of Yerrith's Vasis. But the Wraith might come again, and I thought—dancing means nothing, when you don't have the skill to fight, to survive. And now my dance is safe in the archives, and my son or daughter or grandchildren may someday receive it. It was a worthy trade.
"Though some nights yet, I'll wake from dreams believing my body still remembers the rhythms my mother taught me, until I hear the songs and cannot recall the motions. But it doesn't hurt, Dux Colonel."
"Sure," John said. When he closed his eyes he saw blue skies, brighter than the dingy whitewashed stone walls. "Sure."* * *
From the angles of the Sedes' iron bars secured around him, it was impossible for John to see his watch, so he didn't know how long he had been waiting. Under an hour, he thought, but it felt longer, felt interminable. Didn't feel long enough. In a few more hours this would be over—would all be over, and they'd fly the jumper back to the gate, back to Atlantis. Rodney would fly the jumper back, and John felt a hot, sick curling in his belly that he knew would be jealousy, once they were in the air, if not a feeling even more hateful.
They were supposed to be making preparations, but the servants had retreated to stand watch by the chamber's entrance, not facing him. So maybe John was supposed to be preparing himself, however you were meant to do that. He didn't care; no way was he going to be ready for this. Even if he'd made the decision willingly—would make the same decision again, and yet when the iron portal blocking the chamber's entrance grinded aside, he almost called out, almost said he'd changed his mind.
Wanted to renege, like a damn coward; his team was buried in an underground dungeon, with only himself to speak for them, and he almost, almost wanted to say, take one of them
. Could have picked any of them—Rodney with all his science, no one would notice the loss of a theorem or two, there were so many stuffed in that big brain of his. Or Ronon, all those hard-won survival skills he'd only learned because he had to and didn't need now that he was sheltered in Atlantis. Or Teyla, who'd been so willing, who knew how to deal and bargain and understood prices paid. Any of them, John could choose—and they wouldn't blame him for it, either; they'd already volunteered, they'd make the trade for him and wouldn't even ask him to explain himself.
He'd been fed on by alien vampires and mind-probed by renegade robots, and this was all it took to break him—wasn't that pathetic. He'd been trapped in that time dilation field for six months and his feet never left the ground, and it hadn't killed him. He wasn't just a pilot anymore; he'd still have his rank and his job and Atlantis. Hell, Elizabeth would probably argue for disability benefits, injuries incurred on an official mission.
So he bit his tongue when the door opened, almost hard enough to bleed. But it wasn't Yerrith, only another servant, with a silver tray instead of brass, and a painted ceramic plate holding a single lozenge like a hard candy, a small sticky bit of green. "If you would allow this to melt on your tongue, Dux Colonel," the new servant said in an obviously masculine baritone, for all his gold glitter make-up.
"What is it?"
The woman who had spoken to him before turned to answer. "The simulaum opens those paths in the self that will be extracted," she explained. "It will allow you to see and do and practice your skill, in your mind, without your body moving from the Sedes."
"A hallucinogen?" John asked, staring at the lozenge. LSD or PCP; bound to be a bad trip, either way. "Fine, give it here," and he opened his mouth.
." The command halted the servant as he picked up the plate. Obediently he stopped, and Dux Yerrith stepped around him to confront John.
She faced him, but she didn't look at him, her eyes raised to a point left of his head. Her gracious smile was absent, mouth a grooved, flat line. "Remove him from the Sedes," she ordered, flicking her fingers at the two men who had come in behind her, wearing the magenta and cyan of the dungeon.
They complied, unlatching and parting the black iron cage and bodily yanking John up from the ridged seat. "What is this?" he demanded, wrenching his arms out of their grips. "We had a deal—"
"The deal holds, Vas Colonel," Yerrith said, icily. "This misunderstanding can be forgiven, since it was honestly explained in time. Vasis lying about their skills aren't tolerated on Challidas, but you are not Challidan, and for that we'll honor the trade."
"Misunderstanding? What do you mean, lying—"
"Vas McKay told me how you were granted authority to trade, that it was not your choice to do so, but Dux Elizabeth's command."
"Well, yeah, she's my boss, she calls the shots."
"I appreciate your position. And understand, too, the value of our trade to you, such that you felt you had no choice but to misrepresent your skills. So we'll honor the deal as arranged. When the extraction's done, all four of you will be free to leave our world, and the three skills promised we'll give, whenever you wish to claim them. Further trading—that will depend on the final value of the skill offered now." She nodded at her dungeon keepers. "Take him to the others."
"Wait," John protested, as the guards took his arms again, began to pull him towards the portal, "what skill offered, I haven't—"
The servant with the tray was tall enough that John didn't see his teammate behind him, until Rodney stepped forward, towards the Sedes. His head was down, ducked away from John, and his broad shoulders were set under his gray jacket.
"Wait a damn minute!" John dug his heels in. "McKay, what the hell did you tell them?"
"Just the truth, Vas Colonel
." Rodney shrugged, one shoulder lifted up and down, then raised his head, his jaw thrust out belligerently. He still didn't look at John, staring at the Sedes instead like a deer in headlights.
"He's lying!" John snapped. "Whatever he told you—Yerrith—Dux Yerrith, don't listen to him, it's bullshit!" At the beckoning of the servants in orange and blue, Rodney sat down in the black throne, shifting awkwardly to find the proper seating on the ridged metal bars, now set for John.
of that thing, McKay!" John ordered. "You're not—" The servants were closing the cage over Rodney, securing it in place. "You're not doing this—Atlantis needs all your skills, goddamn it—we had a deal!"
The guards had dragged him over the threshold by the time Rodney finally looked up at John. His usual pasty complexion looked sickly against the black metal. "Don't worry about it, Colonel," he said. "I've got this one covered."
Then the hexagonal iron door slammed back over the entrance, sealing Yerrith and his teammate and the hungry vulture of the Sedes Facultatium behind it.* * *
Even when John could see his watch, time still inched by excruciatingly slowly. One hour, two, three—the dungeon guards brought them food, water and crumbly yellow bread sweet enough to pass for genuine Georgia cornbread—four hours, and hadn't they said the process wouldn't take long?
"We do not know exactly what Dr. McKay told Dux Yerrith," Teyla had told him, when they'd first pushed John into the blindingly clashing dungeon cell. "He was quite insistent to speak with her, however, and she soon took him from the cell to hear more."
"He said you weren't a Dux any more than you were actually a pilot," Ronon said. "That you were making up that stuff about flying darts."
"And you didn't tell her he was lying out of his ass?" John demanded.
Teyla and Ronon looked at one another; then Teyla said, "He had no opportunity to explain the details of his plan to us, but Rodney had one. He was quite evidently confident of that."
"Yeah, and did it occur to you that his plan might be to throw himself into that Sedes to get his brain drained?"
"McKay wouldn't do that," Ronon said. He was wan from the messy wound scabbing on his forehead, his face an unhealthy shade of hangover green under the tan, but when John asked, Ronon had just grunted, "Head aches, that's all."
John shot him a glare now. "You know damn well McKay can pick the lousiest times to show off his heroic streak."
"He'd risk his life, easy," Ronon said. "Same as any of us. But his brain's worth more to him."
"Perhaps he realized a way to preserve his mind, such that he can give the Challidans their skill but not lose it himself?" Teyla suggested.
Ronon stretched out on the bench. "Or else he figured out how to break that chair of theirs. Either way, he's got a plan."
But four hours later, that plan hadn't gotten them out of the technicolor Challidan dungeon, and John had just about had it. After searching for nonexistent weaknesses in the cell's solid stone walls, he'd started playing tic-tac-toe games with himself in his head, staring at the magenta and cyan check murals; now whenever he blinked he kept seeing yellow and green afterimages. And the black lines between them, rigid iron twined into an uncanny throne, and if Rodney had been in that hotseat for this long, if what they'd extracted had been so interesting that they'd just kept extracting... Dusting off his hands, John pushed himself to his feet. "Okay, kids, that's it. We're busting the hell out of here."
"Great." Ronon still looked like the fourth day of a three day bender, but the curved dagger had appeared in his fist again, and his grimace showed a bloodthirsty flash of teeth. Itching to try out his new skill, maybe. John was in the mood to give him the chance.
Teyla glanced between them. "I share your feelings, but the guards would be foolish not to expect an escape attempt." But she stood with them.
"Hey!" John hollered, kicking the bars to rattle them, "get down here, we got a bone to pick, you dumb SOBs!" He glanced at Ronon, saw him slide into position, braced with the knife hidden between his fingers.
When the two guards finally appeared on the stairs, John raised his hand behind his back in silent command to Ronon, wait for it
. Once they were close enough, John would lash out and grab the shorter man through the bars while Ronon took out the other one, and Teyla could snatch the key in the first guy's hands—
The key he slid into the lock, swinging wide the barred door. "You can go," he said cheerfully. "Dux Yerrith says the deal's done."
At the top of the stairs, they were presented with their weapons, none the worse for wear; then lead through the bewildering, brilliant-hued passages. It wasn't until the third left turn that Ronon stopped and growled, "No, the Sedes is that way," pointing behind them.
"What are you trying to pull?" John demanded, grip sliding reassuringly around his P-90, bringing up the muzzle. Ronon's knives were great and all, but give him a solid submachine gun any day.
The guards only stared at them, confused. "Our teammate," Teyla said, and her voice was steady, as were her hands on her own P-90. "We were told he would return with us."
"He is here." So saying, Dux Yerrith appeared from an unexpected side passage, with a pair of her ever-present servants, and Rodney between them. His head was down and he was walking with his usual distracted, determined stride, but at half-speed, like a wind-up toy winding down.
"The extraction was successfully completed," Yerrith said, satisfied.
"McKay," John said, ignoring her, and then, "Hey!" as Rodney almost rammed into him mid-stride. He stumbled and John caught his elbow, then hastily shifted his grip as Rodney sagged, half his weight tilting into John.
He blinked, frowning up at John. "Sheppard?"
"Hey, buddy," John said, dropping his tone as he got a good look at Rodney's eyes, pupils blown to black holes even in the bright corridor. Still stoned on whatever drug had been in that candy lozenge. "How you doin'?"
"Oh, fine," Rodney said, sounding disconcertingly normal given the way he was cross-eyed and upright only thanks to John's firm hold on his arm. He blinked again, frowned harder and waved his free hand aimlessly. "You look ridiculous with green hair. Doesn't suit you at all."
"Okay," John said, "I'll have to do something about that." He looked over Rodney's head to glare at Dux Yerrith.
She returned the look with placid directness. "The effects of the simulaum will wear off within a few hours, Vas Colonel. By evening tomorrow he'll be entirely recovered." She didn't sound as obsequious as she had when they'd first arrived, but not as coldly angry, either.
"Recovered," John repeated. Somewhere in these decorated halls, on a shelf or in a box or whatever they did with their archive, there was a crystal with part of Rodney, a piece of what Rodney McKay was, taken from him.
Before coming to Pegasus, John hadn't known you could get this angry, that you could choke on rage until you couldn't breathe from it.
"So the trade," Teyla said, and her voice was so very, frighteningly even. "It is finished?"
"No," Yerrith said, unafraid because she was too ignorant to know she should be. "We still owe you. Three skills. If you wish them now, Vas McKay's, or another—"
"No," John ground out. "No, we're good." Ronon moved to Rodney's other side and slung an arm around his shoulders, easily supporting him despite their difference in height.
"Then, when you wish," Yerrith said. "We'll expect you. And we look forward to trading again."
"Don't count on it," John said, then didn't move fast enough when Yerrith stepped forward.
Ronon did, blaster drawn and aimed at Yerrith's gray-haired head in the blink of an eye, but though her servants twitched, the woman herself paid him no mind. She reached up to clasp Rodney's shoulders, tipped her head in, not quite touching his, in a parody of the Athosian gesture. "Vas McKay," she said, "we thank you for what you gave us. It will be treasured."
The most appalling part was how sincere she sounded. Enough to knock Rodney out of the drugged daze to stare at her and mumble, "Uh. Sure. Whatever," in the inept way he did whenever he was unexpectedly confronted with gratitude. Though John would bet he was too far gone to remember what he was being thanked for.
"What's the fastest way out of here?" John demanded, pulling away from Rodney and letting Ronon take their teammate's unsteady weight. The P-90's polymer grip was sweat-slicked and creaking under his grasp.
Yerrith looked regretful, of all the damned things. "We will show you to your craft immediately, Vas Colonel."* * *
They couldn't get back to the jumper fast enough, as far as John was concerned. And Rodney slowed them down further, aware enough to resist letting Ronon throw him over his shoulder and run, but stumbling to a halt now and again to mention to Teyla how lovely her wings were and how he really did quite like birds, or to make the inane, if reassuringly accurate, observation that Ronon was very, very tall.
John would have been more worried if he hadn't seen Rodney loopy on morphine a couple times before. As far as he could tell, drugs didn't slow down the speeding bullet express that was the McKay train of thought, they just derailed it. The team tolerantly endured his off-track ramblings—fortunately Rodney didn't pause to check if they were following any more than he ever did. And Yerrith's servants, guiding them out of the tunnels, had the smarts not to so much as glance in his direction, much less snicker. Maybe it was respect for someone who'd offered a skill, or maybe they were aware of how close John's finger was to his gun's trigger.
Once in the jumper, Ronon deposited Rodney in one of the passenger seats, and John took a second to breathe, restore his equilibrium. Teyla put her hand on Rodney's arm. "How do you feel?"
"Mm? Oh, okay." Rodney was peering at the trees outside the jumper's windshield. "British Columbia? When'd we get back to Earth?" He sounded disappointed.
"We are not on Earth, Rodney," Teyla answered patiently. "We are returning to Atlantis now."
"Ah, that's why you're here." Rodney thought for a moment. "What about the Replicators?"
"We defeated them."
"So they haven't come back yet?"
"No," Ronon told him.
"Good," Rodney said. He took another moment to consider. "I'm kind of messed up now, huh."
"Just a little confused," John said. "You're going to be fine." The or else
went unspoken. The jumper had a full complement of drones; it wouldn't take all of them to burrow down to where the Sedes was buried, he didn't think. "Rodney," John said, standing over his teammate to get his attention.
For all the black expanse of his pupils, Rodney's eyes looked bluer than ever, vague and unfocused. "Hmm?"
"The trade. What'd you give them?" What'd you give up?
"Um, you know." Rodney waved absently, slumped in the seat. "Something new. To them. That's what they wanted, something they didn't have." His smile to himself was oddly soft. "She said it was a good trade. Wonderful, she said, that woman, Yorick or whatever—she thanked me for it. Since she didn't know..." He shrugged, an uncoordinated roll of his shoulders. "She thought it was good. So that's okay, it all worked out." Something seemed to occur to him, and he worked to sit up. "Are we back on Atlantis yet?"
"Almost," John said. He moved to the pilot's seat, Ronon taking the co-pilot's position beside him.
The moment John touched the controls, the ship responding to his touch with the sensitivity of a living thing, he felt a rush like he had the first time he had sat in a jumper, two decades of flying fulfilled by a craft that answered every demand he might make. That he could have lost this...
That his friend might have lost it instead, or more—the thrill was ashes in his mouth. "Hang in there," John said, and he took them into the sky, took them home.* * *
Continue to Part Two