The argument had concluded quickly enough, or so he thought. Col. John Sheppard craned his neck, peering through the front window of the crashed . . . uh, hastily landed . . . jumper. "I don't suppose they could be that bad."
"Congratulations, you just earned a spot amongst the heavenly host for your obvious compassion." The annoyed voice came from beneath the control console, at his feet. Rodney McKay grunted and pulled a wire loose from his datapad, squinted at it, and shoved it into the small panel buried within the ship's console.
"Look, I'm just saying . . ."
"Yes, yes, and now you feel a warm glow for humanity. Good for you."
"They're not human, McKay."
"Neither are the people in Washington. Didn't stop them from benefitting from crack decisions, and before you ask, I don't mean witty. Trust me, I've sat in on a few meetings." He didn't bother filling Sheppard in on the details, although he knew the man was burning from curiosity. Rodney freed the tangled wire from the casing and rolled to his side facing another panel that was rapidly falling victim to the imprecise science of jury-rigging. "Come on, you beaut. Get in there." He scowled and concentrated.
Sheppard was getting antsy. "Look, how much longer?"
"Why, got a date?"
"I was thinking more of a time."
"As opposed to a date?"
"Oh, har-har. Gimme a few more minutes."
Sheppard's expression remained apprehensive. "I'm not sure we have a few, Rodney."
"Then why did you ask?"
"I was trying to give you a subtle hint to hurry it up!"
"I don't do subtle!"
"Fine! Then hurry your ass up!"
Blue eyes glared at him from below. "I'M TRYING! Your constant whining is a bit distracting, you know!"
"Whining. . . look, just fix the damn control!"
"I'm working on it!"
"Well, work faster!"
Sheppard leaned back in his chair, listening, trying to block out the muted curses from the floor. He closed his eyes, feeling out as though some sixth sense would tell him where they were, that ship he'd caught a glimpse off just before they went down . . . were shot down? "McKay?"
"What did I just say?"
"No, I mean . . . shit. Too late." He was standing, swinging his P90 to his chest while looking upwards. He stepped over McKay and hurried to the back hatch.
McKay jerked up at the colonel's sudden exit. "Hey, wait! Where the hell are you going?"
"Just fix the damn wire, McKay! And get us the hell out of here!"
"What the . . . Colonel? Colonel!" The rear bay door opened, and the colonel ran out, ducking to the side of the craft, obviously eyeing something in the sky that warranted further scrutiny. "Dammit." Rodney hesitated, then muttered curses at the panel he was desperately trying to repair.
Sheppard had learned one valuable lesson from his military experience, and it was the simple fact that hiding in the open desert was damned near impossible. The small ship that hovered over them like a wasp would most surely return to tell it's big brother, or mama ship, to gloat about the nice new sand toy it had found. Well, Sheppard wasn't planning on that happening. No way in hell he was going to allow a ship that had shot them down return and gloat. Of course they probably already had, he was certain they had some sort of radio communication device on board, but it was the principle of the thing. He was shot down. Thing that shot him down was hovering and darting about. He must stop thing that shot him down. It was that simple.And if his friend were coming, he'd deal with it.
Except it wasn't simple, really. Not physically. The first short burst that was aimed at the ship disappeared totally. The second, to his dismay, managed to ricocheted off the force field that apparently surrounded the craft, and pelted the jumper behind him. This proved little need for a third attempt.
As the wasp ship turned and narrowed its eyes at him, Sheppard made a very important decision.
He gave it the finger, rather sophomoric, granted, and ran back inside.
"You ready yet?" The voice mirrored the aggravated swing of his P90 to his side. It landed on a crate behind his seat. He hopped onto one foot to avoid stepping on Rodney's head as he appeared from beneath the console.
The astrophysicist was caught somewhere between panic and anger. "What the hell did you just do? What was that noise?"
"I got stared at. Come on, McKay, I thought you said you could fix this thing?"
"I said I might. I never committed." He yanked at another wire in frustration.
"Yeah, I heard you have a problem with commitment." He waved away Rodney's glare. "Thought this thing ran on those crystal chips or something?"
"Somewhat, and they're fine, for once. Unfortunately the part that needs the repair is the bit that Radek was trying to make compatible with the new navigation system we were experimenting with."
No wonder she flew a bit reluctantly. "You're monkeying with the navigation?"
Rodney rolled his eyes. "No, not monkeying! Try more like making it more compatible with those who have the ATA gene. For some reason the jumpers seem to give us trouble."
Sheppard blinked. "I see. In other words, you wanted to manually adjust the jumper so that you have less trouble flying it."
He bristled. "It was a trial, okay? I didn't think this particular jumper would go out today!"
Sheppard could hear the small craft hovering overhead. "Didn't you check the roster?" he asked by way of distracting himself.
"I never check the roster."
"Then how the hell do you know when missions are scheduled?"
This time a venomous face appeared, grubby with dirt, reminding Sheppard that they really needed to wipe down the interior of the craft, maybe clean the floor . . ."Oh, I don't know! Usually when you grab me by the balls and tell me it's time to go!"
"I have never, ever, grabbed you by the balls." The hum grew louder. "But I might if you don't get this damned jumper off the ground!"
"Yeah, yeah, look . . . what the. . . okay, I'm done! Try it now!" Rodney squirmed from underneath the console and took his seat. And continued to sit. "Well, what are you waiting for?"
"For something to actually turn on?"
"What?" The console was dark. "Oh, crap." He started to duck down again, but Sheppard put a hand on his arm.
"Wait, wait, wait . . . forget it. It's too late."
Rodney rose from his half crouch, and both men looked silently out of the front view screen.
The wasp ship stared right back.
"Told you you talked too much," Rodney muttered.
"Friendly, he says. Not so bad, he says. You know, you're right. Don't know how I ever could have doubted you, but I think it'll come more easily from now on." Rodney tilted his head downwards, using his shoulder to wipe away the sweat. His joints ached from hours of hiking. Having his hands tied behind him did nothing for his balance on the slippery sands.
"I was going for optimism," Sheppard mumbled.
"Optimism? They shot us down!"
It was Sheppard's turn to glare. "Yeah, about that! Turns out they were sending out a rescue due to our little malfunction."
Rodney winced through the sweat. "Our . . . what?"
"Mal-func-tion. As in when good things suddenly go bad."
"And you inferred this how?"
Sheppard was no longer looking at Rodney, but straight ahead, his concentration refocused on maintaining his own balance. "When you were forced outside, and I was still inside, and they told me they sent out a rescue."
Rodney thought for a moment. "Huh. Malfunction. I remember a jolt, I– I thought we were hit!"
Sheppard glared at Rodney again. He couldn't help himself. "So did I, but apparently when they checked the craft, they found a couple of loose bits that weren't supposed to be loose." His glared intensified. "Not only were they not supposed to be loose, they didn't even belong on a damn jumper! Turns out they belong to a certain prototype navigation simulator that a certain RODNEY McKAY assured me two weeks ago was safe and ready for testing! And it seems these bits were burned out, unable to handle the massive power supply you were feeding it! Turns out this is why we crashed! Now is there anything you'd like to say to that, Doctor McKay?"
"They didn't take the pieces, did they?"
Sheppard lunged at him, and was restrained by the man walking calmly alongside him, who apparently found the whole exchange amusing, though he said nothing.
Rodney relented and changed the subject. "Okay, if they didn't shoot us down, then why are we walking across a desert tied up?"
"Us, Rodney. We're the aliens."
"We wouldn't tie up aliens and walk them across a desert!"
"No, we'd put them in a holding cell and conduct all sorts of outrageous medical experiments on them."
"Wha - Don't give them ideas!" Rodney panicked.
Sheppard sighed and dismissed his companion, leveling a smile at the man walking beside him. "He has a point though. Where are we going?"
The dark man smiled. There was no aggression in the large face, in fact there had been no show of aggression at all, which made Sheppard question the whole being tied up thing. "Tal'Ran," the native replied, and Sheppard could taste the heavy accent in that one word.
"That's a city, I hope."
"It is the trenches."
"Oh, delightful," Rodney moaned, and folded in on himself, which was quite a feat for someone walking upright.
The man pointed at Rodney. "You will dig."
"Look, what I would dig is getting back to our ship and back where we belong."
"I don't think he means that kind of dig, Rodney."
"No? Can I help if he looks like a throwback to 'Hair'? Minus the colorful robes, of course, and maybe the drugs . . ." Sheppard couldn't tell if the expression was a worried or wistful one.
"So we're being sent to dig trenches," he said to the man beside him. "Nice. I've heard of that used as punishment before, so, is this for trespassing, or landing on sacred ground, or what?"
"This is for survival."
The expression was suddenly serious, and turned to the dunes ahead. Sheppard responded with a nod. "Right. Okay, I'll take that. Good answer."
They walked for what had to be another hour at the very least. Sand weighed down their boots, leg muscles ached, arches cramped. Sheppard knew he was dragging, but Rodney was suffering real difficulty, his slightly heavier frame showing extreme strain from the exertion. Sheppard managed to ease over to the man, walking shoulder to shoulder with him, giving him unvoiced support which Rodney answered by simply not falling over. "Would've – been nice – to take a ride in their little ship . . ." he said.
"Apparently either they had somewhere else to go, or there wasn't room."
"Or they're trying to wear us down."
"I'm betting on that one, myself."
Rodney merely nodded as he pulled air into his lungs and winced. He concentrated on the sand below his feet, watching his boots sink as the color lightened with the setting sun, well, suns. It was hot, damned hot, and dry. His shirt was sticking to him, he was certain he smelled somewhere near as bad as Sheppard, and his throat felt caked over. His eyeballs had long since dried out, and threatened to plunk out of the sockets and bury themselves in the sand. He itched everywhere.
He was so taken in by his own misery that he walked into right their lead guide as he stopped; a tall, lean man who said little, and walked like he owed someone money. With one expansive gesture he said deeply, "Satureen."
They stared down from the dune to the settlement below them, and the prairie of sands that stretched flatly to the horizon. And over this horizon was the largest, most spectacular silver moon they had ever seen.