Title: Ashes to Ashes.
Disclaimer: Stargate: Atlantis isowned by MGM, Gekko, Double Secret Productions and the US Sci-fi channel.
Setting: First season.
A/N Expertly beta-read by Kiky. Thanks Kiky.
"So what you are saying, McKay, is that all of your energy readings could be the result of seismic activity?" Major John Sheppard made no attempt to keep the sarcasm from his voice as he prepared to bring an end to their rest and lead his team back towards the Stargate. It was not often that McKay was wrong about energy readings and he was going to make the most of it.
"Actually, Major...yes I am." Sheppard smiled, awarding himself a point; the barb had got through and McKay was on the defensive. It had been a long, hot, boring day on M3X-925, an uninhabited, rock-strewn planet of cliffs and mountains where even the trees, which seemed so common on other worlds, were reduced to scrawny shrubs scattered throughout the landscape, and it had not been made any more enjoyable by McKay's continual announcements that the source of his readings was just over the next hill. Now that they were finally heading back to Atlantis the prospect of a cool shower, a warm meal and a break from McKay was looking good.
The sweltering heat had even affected the youthful Lt Ford, and Sheppard watched as he removed his baseball cap and squatted down beside a small stream that tumbled through the rocks, to pour a handful of cool water over his head. Wiping sweat and grit from his eyes, Ford scanned their surroundings, the random movement of heat-haze evidently making it impossible for him to fully relax.
Quietly observing the man, Sheppard reflected on the changes in the young Lieutenant since their arrival on Atlantis. No longer the jaunty kid that had leaped, grinning, through the Stargate, Ford had adjusted well to his new role in Sheppard's team. As his confidence had grown, so had the trust that Sheppard placed in him. There were other, more experienced men under his command, but none that Sheppard felt more deserving of his place.
McKay's tired voice broke into Sheppard's thoughts. "Much as I would like to rest here all day, Major, shouldn't we be getting back to Atlantis? As you so scathingly pointed out, there's nothing of interest here."
Sheppard glanced over at the exhausted McKay, who had finally given up all pretence of taking an interest in the energy readings which had kept them there and now lay flat on his back, with his eyes closed and his head resting on a rock. For the last few miles McKay had barely said a word and the weary set of his shoulders had indicated that all of his energy was being spent just putting one foot in front of the other. The Major contemplated another gibe but took pity on the suffering man.
"OK, Rodney, let's go home." Sheppard leaned down and offered his hand to help McKay to his feet. Rodney was right about one thing; if there was nothing here, then there was no reason to stay. M3X-925 could be added to the list of wipe-outs.
Both men stumbled slightly when one of the numerous minor earth tremors that had plagued them all day shook the ground again; dislodging a small avalanche of stones, which fell with a clatter.
Once again, Ford nervously checked their surroundings. "Is there any chance of a quake bringing the gate down, Sir?" He asked, anxiously.
"Relax, Lieutenant. The Ancients built those things to last. The gate's been here thousands of years, it's not about to fall over now." Sheppard replied as he steadied Rodney, who had finally made it to his feet, and prepared to set off for the Stargate.
"Major Sheppard. Dr McKay. I believe I have found something." Teyla Emmagan, the fourth member of Sheppard's team, showed no signs of discomfort in the disagreeable conditions as she stood before a sheer cliff face, her fingers exploring the rough surface of the stone. Scouting ahead of her team-mates, her sharp eyes had spotted an area where a recent rockfall had exposed a faint, regular fissure in the cliff. Too precise to be a natural fault, the shape and size indicated a concealed doorway.
McKay's tired face came back to life at the prospect of finally finding something interesting on the lifeless planet. Stepping up to the cliff face he stared intently at one of his hand-held Ancient devices as he ran it around the edge of the crack.
"I think that...Ah!" He stopped as the readings changed and gently depressed an area of the cliff with the palm of his hand.
P-90s at the ready, Sheppard and Ford stepped cautiously past the scientist as a pair of thick double doors slid back to reveal a large man-made cave cut into the rock. Sunlight flooded in, illuminating the central area of what looked very much like a bomb shelter. Sheppard flicked on his flashlight and made a sweep of the room. Thick, metal girders braced the walls and supported the high vaulted ceiling.
Resigning himself to a few more hours on M3X-925 before getting back to the comforts of Atlantis, Sheppard called back over his shoulder to the impatiently waiting McKay. "Well, Rodney, looks like there was something to find here after all."
From his position near the doorway, Sheppard made a rapid survey of the cave. It was a square room, about twenty feet across, precisely cut into the solid rock. A ten foot diameter solid metal platform, around three feet high, filled the centre of the cave, and, attached to the circumference of the platform at a height of two feet, he could see about half a dozen metallic objects, the size and shape of soccer balls. A steady trickle of water fell from the ceiling, dripping down to form a rusty puddle on the stone floor. At some time in the very recent past, the central section of the ceiling had partially given way, probably the result of an earth tremor, and a thick layer of dust and debris covered the platform, softening its sharp edges.
Stepping into the room, Sheppard could see that the collapse of the ceiling had had a more serious effect; each of the visible silver spheres showed signs of damage from falling rocks, their smashed outer casings exposing the intricate components inside.
Ford followed Sheppard's gaze. "Any idea why the ceiling came down, Sir?" He asked shining his light over the fallen debris. "I'd've said that this place had been built to take pretty much anything the planet could throw at it."
Sheppard shone his flashlight up into the darkness above. "Looks like the water coming in has rusted through one of the ceiling supports, Lieutenant." Repositioning the light on another part of the damaged area, he went on, "You can see where part of it has given way, just enough to let the loose stuff fall." He surveyed the damage to the girder more carefully. "We should be OK in here; there's still plenty of strength left." Sheppard felt another minor tremor through the soles of his boots and a small shower of dust fell. He ran his fingers through his hair, turning it into sweaty spikes. "Enough to give us some warning before it comes down at least." He turned, and was unsurprised to see McKay already inspecting the contents of one of the spheres. "Any idea what those things were, Rodney?"
McKay held up a piece of twisted metal to the sunlight and answered absently. "Looks somehow familiar, Major. I may be able to work out what they were for when I get this back to Atlantis; but I think it's safe to say that whatever they did, they've stopped doing it now."
"Sir, over here!" Ford's cry came from a dark recess at the edge of the room.
"What is it, Lieutenant?" Sheppard followed the beam of Ford's flashlight to where it was pointing and stared directly into the face of a corpse.
Xx oOo xX
"Well, Carson, are they dead?"
"Aye, Major, very dead." Carson Beckett answered Sheppard's sarcastic question in an exasperated tone. Sheppard knew that the medical doctor was never comfortable off-world, but it seemed that his attempts at putting Beckett at his ease were having the opposite effect. The Major had been surprised when Beckett had responded to his radio message informing Atlantis of their discovery by coming to the planet in person, but, evidently, the doctor had let his medical curiosity get the better of him. Now he appeared to be regretting it.
"They've been dead for a matter of two to three weeks I should say." Beckett continued, removing his mask and gloves.
"That's about when the ceiling came down by the looks of it." Sheppard shone his flashlight up at the high vaulted roof and then back down at the nearest body, that of a woman of about 40 years. "But they weren't killed by falling rock." It was a statement rather than a question but Sheppard turned a quizzical eye to the doctor.
"No Major." Beckett rose to his feet and started packing away his equipment. Stretching his back to ease out the stiffness acquired from his careful examinations of the five bodies that had been found lying in a series of dark recesses cut into the perimeter of the room, he continued, "But we won't know exactly why they did die until I've given them full autopsies back on Atlantis."
"OK Doctor, you can send a team back for them." Sheppard glanced around the cave. Ford and Teyla had sensibly positioned themselves outside in the open air, taking advantage of what little breeze the early evening afforded, but the top of McKay's head was just visible as he hunkered down behind the raised area. Sheppard called out to him. "Rodney, we're ready to go."
The head stayed down. "Just a minute, Major, I've found another one of these spheres. It looks intact and I'd like to take it back to Atlantis, if I can just...Oh."
Sheppard had come to recognise a whole range of McKay's 'Ohs', from 'Oh, that was interesting' all the way up to 'Oh, I seem to have triggered the self-destruct'. This one didn't sound too bad, but probably required investigation.
"'Oh' what, Rodney?" Walking around to stand behind McKay, Sheppard peered over his shoulder at the device.
"'Oh' a little blue light has just come on." McKay answered without looking up. "Shows it's still got power at least."
Sheppard waited but McKay showed no signs of continuing. "Couldn't this tinkering wait until you get it back to Atlantis?" Sheppard checked his watch. It would be late morning on Atlantis by now and his plan of shower and food was looking better by the minute.
"I can't get it back until I work out how to detach it, which is what I am trying to do," came the testy reply. "Preferably without damaging it. And it would be a lot easier if..."
A small earth tremor shook the room and a fine shower of grey dust fell from above. Sheppard shifted the weight of his P-90 uneasily. The tremors were starting to make him feel tense and on edge. Out in the open they had been distracting, but, here in the enclosed cave, they were paradoxically leaving him feeling exposed.
"How long is this going to take, McKay?" Shaking dust from his hair, Sheppard squinted up at the ceiling.
"It's OK, Major; I think I've got it now."
As McKay spoke, a second, larger quake almost pitched Sheppard from his feet and he heard an ominous, metallic creaking from above. With a curt "Leave it, Rodney!" Sheppard turned his attention to Dr Beckett who was glancing anxiously towards the doorway. Sheppard hurried over to help the doctor gather together his medical equipment, confident that, given the choice between a piece of fascinating new technology and his own personal safety, Rodney would make the right decision. Sure enough, from the corner of his eye, he saw McKay starting to his feet.
As Rodney stood upright a beam of pure, pale blue light shot from the sphere, striking him between the shoulder blades and enveloping his entire body in an iridescent shimmer. The bright flash brought Sheppard's head around just in time to watch as McKay fell soundlessly, face down to the ground.
Reacting without thought to McKay's collapse, Major Sheppard was at his side in an instant. With a surprising gentleness, Sheppard carefully turned him over onto his back as the creaking from above grew louder and choking grey dust started to fill the air.
"Dr Beckett!" Sheppard's call proved to be unnecessary as he felt the medic manoeuvre him out of the way to gain access to McKay.
Beckett ran expert hands over the fallen man before turning a shocked face to Sheppard.
"He's dead, Major."