Somehow, between all the updates and edits, I forgot to give credit where proper credit is due! This story was first inspired by Titan5's "The Mind of a Child" and it's sequel "The Mind of Atlantis". If it wasn't for Titan, I never would have written this! Thanks for letting me play with a few of your "toys", I promise I'll put them back where I found them.
Also inspired by "In the Distance" by the Lost Dogs
Stargate Atlantis: Even in the Distance
Chapter One: The Yankee Bullet
"Once again we have wasted another day barking up the wrong proverbial tree when we could have been doing something useful back home in Atlantis," Dr. Rodney McKay moaned, hoisting his backpack a little higher up on his shoulders. His neck ached with the long day of hiking and he yearned to just drop his pack and stretch, but his current circumstances would not allow it, not if they wanted to make it to the gate by nightfall. Begrudgingly, Rodney mentally braced himself and plodded on through the tall-grass prairie land designated M45-895. "Tall-grass" was, perhaps, the proper classification for the landscape, but the planet's rainless summer season had wrought havoc on the plant life. The field grasses, which should have stood at least shoulder high on the stout physicist, barely tickled his kneecaps. Shoots of yellowed grasses crunched beneath his rugged boots. Rodney, careful to avoid anything that even remotely resembled poison ivy, deftly avoided a suspicious clump of leafy plants—or whatever intergalactic variant on which he saw fit to bestow the title.
"Ease up, McKay," replied Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, Air Force flyboy, as he and Teyla Emmagan, leader of the Athosian people, ambled ahead of him. John seemed almost at home in the dry heat, dark glasses shading his eyes from the setting sun, his dark hair mussed in rampant abandon. "We can't expect every first contact to go off without a hitch." He stooped to pluck a long grass and idly slid it between his teeth. Teyla glanced to the horizon as he did so, brown eyes searching for any signs of life. They had seen none in some time—that made the fine hairs on her caramel arms prickle in doubt. Ronon Dex, the giant Satedan runner—a man who had spent nigh the last decade on the run from human-hunters—and the newcomer to their team, strode up beside her, sharing her look of reservation.
Neither liked the open field, a wide expanse of land that offered little camouflage and no protection. While they could see anyone approaching their party long in advance, it was not so much a person on foot they feared. Their threats came from the sky.
The sun had already started its descent when the team started on their journey home—now it neared nightfall. Looking up, Rodney noted the Stargate still loomed above the flat plain at least a half mile away, its bold grey arc standing out against what light lingered in the cloudless sky. Tracing the horizon with his eyes, Rodney half expected to see covered wagons ambling their way across the plain. He intentionally stomped on a cluster of grasses, reveling in the domination of man over plant. Rodney tried to comfort himself in the fact that Atlantis lay just beyond the Ancient arc. It would be roughly breakfast time when they arrived and, after the day he'd had, he could eat the proverbial horse.
"I think we passed 'hitch' and hit 'brick wall', Colonel." He spat back, blue eyes afire with frustration. "If these people had anything worth our time, they definitely aren't going to share." The inhabitants of 895 were cave dwellers. Literally. They had caves. They dwelled. They dwelled in caves. Granted, their caves were artificial—more like overgrown storm cellars rooted beneath the flatland—but that seemed to give them too much credit. Not only had they staunchly denied his team any kind of audience, they'd shooed them out the door before they could even get their names out. Now Rodney wasn't exactly the team anthropologist, that was more Teyla's job, but even the Athosian had become a little frustrated with their reticence. "We've met some shy ones before," he continued. "But these guys are hermits to the core."
John pulled the black aviators away from his eyes, tucking them into a pouch on his vest. With the fading light, he had little need for sunglasses. "We knew they were isolationist before we even stepped through the gate, McKay. We always ran the chance that they wouldn't listen to a word we had to say."
Teyla shifted her hold on the submachine gun that hung from her vest, eyes covering the landscape in practiced sweeps. She often felt something of a sixth sense about danger, and today something just did not sit right. Too many things had fallen into place far too cleanly. "It concerns me that a people so secluded, a people who believe secrecy is their only defense against the Wraith, would let us come and go so freely. Would they not be afraid that we would report their location to others?"
While technologically superior to the rather simple people of 895, their enemy—life-sucking terrors known as the Wraith—still relied heavily on sensor technology. This technology could be fooled by thick bedrock, or so it seemed. Another civilization, the Genii, constructed similar underground structures and, in doing so, saved nearly their entire population from the hands of the Wraith. It was not until John and Rodney stumbled upon an entrance to one of their underground bunkers that anyone knew the true face of the Genii people.
John nodded, pulling the grass from his mouth. "It does feel a little odd. Without a MALP, a life sign detector, and the hybrid Asgard technology aboard the Daedalus, we would never have known anyone was here in the first place."
Rodney overstepped another suspicious-looking patch of vegetation, half wishing he could just float the rest of the way to the gate. "Maybe the P-90's gave them pause for thought," he muttered.
"Yeah, maybe," the colonel whispered, eyeing the field with renewed concern. He had seen no one since they had left the underground village a ways back and he found the absence a little unnerving. They had not been escorted back to the Gate, nor had he seen so much as a single scout sent to witness their departure. No one. Nothing.
Inwardly, Sheppard kicked himself. He'd only agreed to forego the Jumper and its cloaking technology on this mission out of concern for the locals. Their recon intel had revealed a nervous, secretive people—a people likely easily frightened by things beyond their understanding. Jumpers—tubular space faring transports small enough to fit through a Stargate—were definitely far beyond them. In addition, most of the civilizations they had met had never seen a flying vessel that was not piloted by the Wraith. These people, it seemed, didn't care to mark a difference. To them, anything that came through the Stargate was bad news, with or without a ship. Now, amid the featureless landscape of 895, John would have given anything to disappear from sight, though he did not regret his decision.
Until, that is, he caught sight of bright fireballs hurtling through the darkened heavens.
"Get down!" John shouted, motioning his team to the ground. Rodney moved to dash forward into the safety of numbers, but his foot caught in the hidden entrance of a rodent hole. A sharp pain shot through his ankle and, with a stifled cry, Rodney hit the dirt. Waves of intense heat rippled across his back, drawing out sweat at its searing touch. The impacts threw dirt and smoke into the air, making it hard to breathe. Yet no sooner had he felt the alien earth pelt him across the back, Rodney heard John already back on his feet and shouting orders.
"Up! Up!" he commanded, pulling Teyla to her feet. He half flung her toward the Ancient ring. "Dial it up!"
Rodney felt hands pulling him upright, but his ankle could not hold the weight of his person. His leg buckled and the scientist once again hit the ground. He tried to choke back a cry as ripples of pain coursed through his leg. "My ankle," he gasped, leaning up on his elbows, sweat trickling from his brow.
John tugged the looming Satedan to Rodney's side. "Ronon, help him," the colonel barked, slapping a hand on the runner's back. Wordlessly, Ronon shifted to give Rodney his shoulder. Rodney spared a frantic glance to the gate as he leaned on Ronon for support, hooking an arm around the man's thick neck.
"It's still a half mile away!" he blurted.
"McKay, have you ever been in a brush fire?" John harped, pointing toward the two heaps of flame that flickered a scant dozen yards away. Already they could hear the crackling cackle of dry grasses consumed by flames. A scorched smell passed with a gust of wind. "This place hasn't seen rain in weeks. Once those fires catch big time, it'll burn faster than you can run. Now move it!"
Rodney opened his mouth to protest, but it went dry as he spotted two more shooting flames speeding against the night sky—straight from the settlement. Taking velocity and trajectory into account, he arrived at the succinct conclusion that he was utterly screwed. Without a moment's hesitation, Ronon pulled him toward the Gate. They made an odd couple, Rodney hobbling and Ronon charging full tilt. Before long, the Satedan lifted him off the ground entirely, pulling the injured scientist along like a whining child. John followed close behind, and the foursome scrambled through the brambles and dying grasses, avoiding the fiery attacks—sometimes by mere strides. True to the colonel's word, the flames lit up the parched landscape, the fires spreading wildly in the pressing wind. The weather, it seemed, was not in their favor.
Teyla stumbled for the DHD, the alien control console that worked the Gate. She quickly dialed in the address home, away from the raging fires. Ash and sparks drifted through the boiling air. Ronon barely hesitated as the gush of a wormhole event horizon burst out of the gate before him like a huge plume of bubbling water. He knew as well as any that to touch a forming wormhole meant instant death, but he pulled the smaller man along with him none the less. With a loud slurp, the plum snapped back into the ring, leaving a standing pool of glittering bright behind. John paused beside Teyla as she input a code into a device on her arm, his gun readied to defend against any poor soul who might charge through the blaze. If she did not transmit the proper code, the shield protecting the home side of the Stargate would not lower, their de-molecularized bodies would slam into its unforgiving sentry, and none of them would live to see the other side. His eyes panned the skies again, catching two distant sparks in the air.
Instant dissimilation or death by rampaging destruction.
"Incoming!" John shouted.
Rodney caught only a short glimpse behind him as the Satedan giant half-carried him up to the shimmering pool. Teyla scrambled around the Ancient Device, dashing for the Stargate. Blazing balls swept through the night, glowing brighter as they sped toward the frightened team. Sacks of flame roared over the colonel's head. He dove to tackle Teyla out of their path.
Too late. The two dark forms dissolved into a sudden explosion of light and fury.
"No!" Rodney screamed, fighting against Ronon's iron grip, but no matter how hard he lunged or squirmed, he could not break free. The Satedan hauled Rodney the last desperate steps to the event horizon. Rodney glanced back, hoping to catch some sliver of hope, some sign of life amid the smoke and terror, but he saw only rage. Suddenly, flames took his vision, white light surrounded him, and he fell into the waiting void of the wormhole home.
Dr. Carson Beckett, Chief Medical Officer of the Atlantis Expedition, tugged a lab coat over his shoulders as he strode down the Lantean corridor. The hallway, crowded with the morning breakfast rush, funneled most of the traffic back toward the commissary. Carson, however, moved against the flow, working his way toward the Control Center. Captain Crawford's team, sent to meet and negotiate a preliminary trade agreement with one of Teyla's contacts, was due back in less than an hour and Carson had yet to prepare his lab for the routine, post-mission health checks. But first, he needed to see Elizabeth about his supply request. With all the new personnel constantly flowing into the city, not to mention the host of refugees to which he provided medical aid, he had hoped the higher-ups would have recognized the needs of the ever growing Atlantis infirmary. Instead, he had to fight tooth and nail for every drop of vaccine not intended for a military vein.
"Bloody budgets," he huffed to himself. "It's always about the money."
A transport chamber opened just a few feet in front of him. Carson caught sight of dark curls as the familiar slender form of Dr. Elizabeth Weir, diplomat and unquestioned leader of their expedition, stepped out of the Ancient device and turned for the Control Room.
"Dr. Weir!" he called, hastening to catch up with her. His voice caught her attention and Elizabeth paused until the Scotsman came to her side. The two continued down the hall, walking shoulder to shoulder.
"Morning, Carson," she greeted.
"Aye, mornin'," he followed, trying to pick out the right words to bring up his request form. He didn't want to jump right into it this early, but he didn't really have the time to talk. He suspected she didn't either. " Elizabeth, I was wondering if you had a chance to…" he began, but a quick flash in her eyes cut him short. He knew that look all too well—the look that said something important had just broadcast over the city radio. She lifted a hand to politely ask his patience, and then lifted the other to her earpiece headset. Carson fumbled for his own earpiece, which currently hung limply over his shoulder. He hated wearing the litter bugger, it always poked his ear in just the wrong place, but it was times like this when they had to trade comfort for communication. He slid the tiny headset into place just in time to hear two dreaded words.
Wordlessly, the two friends shared a look, and then dashed the rest of the way to the Control Room. Carson pushed all thoughts of budgets and supply requests from his mind. Somehow, he didn't think he'd get around to that lab prep either.
Elizabeth scrambled into the Control Room overlooking the active Stargate just as a small battalion of soldiers crouched into their defensive positions, weapons trained on the standing pool of water that was not water. A white film of energy, the gate shield, stretched across the expanse of the blue wormhole.
"IDC?" she questioned the tech staff attending the gate controls.
"It's Teyla, m'am," replied a short communications officer. Nodding, Elizabeth gave the order to drop the shield. The translucent film fizzled and dissolved not a moment too soon. She hid a gasp as two forms stumbled through the liquid-like transport, just missing the shield by mere milliseconds. Rodney McKay, battered and sweaty, leaned on Ronon like a crutch. His eyes, however, remained intently—even fearfully—glued to the Gate behind them. Panting, Ronon urged him ahead. The scientist obliged, looking back at the gleaming blue. The runner looked tired, sweat soaked, and caked in dirt. He waited until several members of the medical staff pulled the Canadian away before he bent to catch his breath.
"My god, what happened?" Elizabeth asked, bypassing the control deck and scrambling down the lighted stairs, Carson hot on her heels. Rodney struggled away from the prodding hands of the medical techs, even as they guided him toward an arriving gurney.
"I'm fine!" he snipped to the nurses at his side, then limped forward in a vain attempt to close the distance between him and the dark-haired woman. He winced, teetering on his good leg, but Carson caught his arm before Rodney lost all control of his balance. Carson motioned the other nurses away from the scientist. They stepped back obediently, but hovered just out of Rodney's reach, ready to assist should he topple completely.
"Catapults," Rodney mumbled to a confused audience. "They must have hidden catapults underground," his voice turned sharp as he muttered to himself. "Damn it! How could we be so stupid? Of course they wouldn't just let us walk away."
Elizabeth's green eyes flickered with worry and confusion. "What was that, Rodney?" she set a gentle hand on his other shoulder. "Tell us what happened."
Rodney sputtered frantically, words spewing from his lips before he could put them in proper order. "We were there and we were in a field and we were running and then it all caught fire and…"
"Rodney, slow down," Elizabeth calmed, glancing to the weary Runner before returning her eyes back to the physicist. She tried to look him in the eye, but he seemed too far gone. Red, listless eyes stared back at her. "I need you to tell me what happened." She continued, her voice slowing as she pressed her question. "Where are Colonel Sheppard and Teyla?"
"That's what I'm trying to tell you!" Something akin to tears shone in Rodney's eyes. His breaths grew heavy, his own anxiety sapping his strength. "There was a fire and we were running and then…" Rodney's eyes widened wildly. "Oh my god, we have to go back!" He turned as if to run back through the Gate. Carson's staff converged on him, struggling to hold him back. They found the task surprisingly difficult. "We can't just leave them behind, the whole field will burn to ash!"
"Calm down, McKay," Carson replied, doing his best to enforce a reassuring tone while he struggled with the shorter man. "The Gate is still open, they'll make it through if they can."
Rodney whimpered as his struggles grew weaker. "No… No… You don't understand—the last one hit… hit…" he trailed off, not wanting to finish his dismal sentence.
Elizabeth's eyes widened at the unspoken tragedy. "Sergeant!" She called up to the control deck, willing her eyes away from the scientist. She was not going to let the sudden chill in her gut steal her command away. "We still have a MALP out there; get me a reading—now!" Above them, a young airman with short cropped hair nodded and moved to fulfill her orders. Without thinking, Elizabeth pulled a blocky hand radio from Rodney's vest before he consented to the gurney and the henpecking of the medical staff. She caught Carson's bright blue eyes with her own. "Take care of him, Carson," she whispered before clicking the radio to life. The doctor nodded and moved away with his staff as she raised the black box to her lips.
"Colonel Sheppard? Teyla?" she called into its face. "This is Weir, what's your status?"
Elizabeth lifted her finger from the talk button, calmly waiting for a reply, but none came. After a time, she tried again. "Sheppard. Teyla. Come in, please."
Nothing but static met her voice.
"Doctor," the sergeant called back, jarring her attention from the heavy radio. "I have MALP readings coming in now," he looked to the screen before him with a note of hesitation. "We're reading an inferno on the other side."
A sour trickle tightened the back of Elizabeth's throat. Two of her people were stuck Gate-side in a raging fire. She needed options. She needed to take command. She needed to do something—anything to keep her mind off biting flames and roaring destruction. "Keep an eye on it; I want a rescue team ready to head out as soon as the danger dies down. Contact Major Lorne, get his team and a Jumper prepped for escort. Assemble a burn unit and get them whatever supplies they need. If the Colonel and Teyla…" she stopped short, unsure she knew how to continue. She honestly didn't know what she was sending them into, or what she was sending them after. All she knew was that she couldn't admit defeat. Not yet. She cleared her throat. "If the Colonel and Teyla are injured, they're going to need all the help they can get."
A few of the scientists up on the control deck stared solemnly at the Stargate, wincing slightly as the blue-white light suddenly warped, swallowed back into nothingness. Elizabeth shut the device, the doorway, out of her mind. She concentrated on barking order after order. She needed to feel in control of the situation, to feel she could do something to bring her people home. Her crew, selfless as they were, needed leadership—someone who could take the responsibility out of their hands. Elizabeth closed her eyes and breathed away the knots in her stomach, letting the inner cold steel her resolve. The true struggle had only just begun.