The gate released them, not with a glorious whoosh, but with a frightful, unused moan. The moan was echoed by both Rodney McKay and John Sheppard after they hit the ground flat on their faces. Above them, the event horizon gave a final spit and squealed into submission.
Sheppard winced at his surroundings from the floor. The people surrounding them were clothed regally, held back by a red rope that stretched lazily from gold post to gold post. They looked much more impressed than he felt.
Beside him, Rodney groaned and rolled onto his back, and blinked at the sight above him. "Colonel?"
"Is that the Stargate right above us?"
John braced himself on an elbow and looked up. "Yep."
"Oh. Just checking."
It was at that moment that a short, fat man pushed his way through the mumbling crowds and extended his hand. "Well done! I couldn't have planned it better if I had timed it, your punctuality is to be commended. What a show! This will increase the attendance for certain, if you like I will even supply pillows for your landing, though I seriously think it will ruin the impact, sorry for the pun. People seem to expect something from pillows, you know? Better without, but as I'm not the only falling from the other side, I'll leave that decision up to you."
Sheppard released the firm grip, his head spinning like the rings on the gate. "Are you Legit Thrice?"
"Indeed! Now," he leaned in and whispered, "if you don't mind, go ahead and stand up, unless you think you've broken something, in which case I can arrange for a barrow. You're not broken, are you? Good! Then if you don't mind, if you could just stand up, and you're partner there, that's it, now wave to the crowd, good, good, oh sirs you are born naturals! Born naturals!" He leaned across a shell-shocked Sheppard at looked at Rodney. "Would it hurt you to smile, sir? Are you physically unable?"
Rodney's scowl deepened.
Thrice sighed. "A pity to be burdened with such an incapacity. But you," he squeezed Sheppard's upper arm, "you can go far, you have the looks, and that million-quasar smile." He leaned in. "Ditch your partner and I'll cut you in for half."
"Legit, I think there's been a slight misunderstanding." Sheppard kept up the pose, his hand waving like a flap in the wind. "We're not here for. . .what the hell is this?"
Thrice took a step back in astonishment. "You do not know? You aren't from the outer rim?"
Sheppard shook his head minutely, his attention caught by three lovely ladies who giggled as they looked at him. His wave and smile became more genuine.
"Oh, the gods that balance, okayokay look, this is fixable." With a grand gesture of out-swept arms, the legit marched forward as though to embrace the entire crowd. "Ladies and gentlemen! I thank you for your attendance, and hope the museum has been a great pleasure, a great pleasure indeed! Now if you would follow the ropes through the door there, thank you, thank you, you will see the exit down the corridor and through the left. But please don't pet the guard dogs, and leave the Frail alone, they are merely watchmen and would rather not be taunted. Thank you."
The crowd flowed out, leaving Sheppard, McKay, and an increasingly disgruntled Legit Thrice.
The small man spun. "Now what's this about? What do you mean, 'what the hell is this'? Who the hell are you?"
"I'm Alice," Rodney muttered, his hands on his hips as he took in the room around him.
"Fine, Alice, who is your friend?"
Rodney snapped. "Alright, look, I'm not really Alice, my name's Rodney McKay. Alice is a character in a kid's book . . ."
"And I'm not interested." Thrice planted a severe gaze on Sheppard.
John lifted his chin, trying to impose as much height as possible to counter the glare on the small man's face. "Colonel John Sheppard. We received word that you require assistance." He wondered why he was talking so formal. Maybe it was the low hanging chandeliers, or the seemingly imperial dress of the people. "We thought maybe we could help."
"Notification? From whom?"
"I – don't know. There was no name, just this." Sheppard pulled out a transcription. "We received this at 0800 hours, audio only, and managed to get it down. Redialed and sent in a reconnaissance to see what was going on," his voice trailed off as the realization hit him like a truck. He and Rodney were the only ones who had come through the gate. He turned to his friend, who was now looking over his head at the suspended ring floating a good twelve feet overhead. His hands were still attached to his hips defiantly.
Thrice snatched the message away, read over it quickly, and shook his head. "This is meaningless, I can't read this gibberish. Read it to me."
Sheppard took the sheet of paper, and complied. "We request assistance, all hope lost, about to go under. Need a good show of men. Please respond with haste." He snapped the paper down and looked at the small man.
Thrice beamed. "Then you are the ones! You answered our advertisement!"
"Advertisement?" Rodney stormed. "What advertisement?"
"I think he means this." Sheppard waved the paper under the small man's nose. "What is this?"
"Enough, enough, I don't need to smell it to know about it!" Thrice swatted the sheet away in irritation. "You really have no clue?"
Thrice sighed dejectedly, and the weight of the world pressed him into an even smaller man. "Very well," he said, and headed for the ropes. Rather than swinging a leg over, he ducked under. "Follow me."
The room they had fallen into was white and decorated with odds and ends, some displayed in glass cases, others large and strewn about the room in no particular order. Most looked to be made of iron, and very dangerous. Paintings lined the wall, and John swore some of them moved. The larger displays, of which the Stargate was one, was lined off by thick, red ropes, providing a rather hazardous walkway between the huge objects.
They walked through a door into a narrow hall. Ahead of them, the distant chatter of the dispersing crowd could be heard, along with mournful bellows. Rodney, who hadn't said much, merely raised an eyebrow at the noise, a gesture which Thrice caught as he turned to the men. "It's the Frail," he said. "We hire them for security. People tend to think they can get whatever they want, because the Frail are too brittle to stop them. But fast as lightning they are, and with vile tempers. They can snatch any object of any weight from a thief, and to be touch by one is to be slivered. Sharp as tacks, they are." He tapped the wall, and a door appeared. "To my office, gentlemen."
He opened the door and walked in, but before Sheppard could follow, Rodney grabbed his arm. The man looked ready to fall to pieces.
"Rodney? You've been holding out on me, what's up?"
"We have GOT to get out of here," the physicist muttered desperately. "This place makes no sense."
"No, but it is a new world, and they need our help."
"Nonono, it's not that, I . . ."
Sheppard saw Thrice standing before them expectantly, and held up his hand. "Can you just, hold on a minute, maybe?" He gave Thrice his winning smile, which the man melted under, and pulled Rodney aside.
His friend looked at him, clearly scared.
John kept his grip firm on Rodney's arm. "Are you hurt? You hit your head when we landed or something?"
Rodney frowned. "It is wasn't for the fact that I know you generally have my best interests at heart, I'd take offense at that."
"That's more like it. Now what's going on?"
"You tell me!" Rodney pulled John further away from the door, and the legit's hearing. "This place is like some sort of freak show, can't you feel it? Something's not right."
"You mean like stringing up the Stargate? I'd say that's not right. Other than that, it just seems a bit...off."
"Like bad meat. I'm telling you, something's up."
"I'm not disagreeing. But let's talk to Thrice, see what he can tell us. If they need our help and we can help . . ."
"And get what in return? We aren't the intergalactic UN, you know! Hell, we're not even Greenpeace!"
"Let's just talk to the man and see what's going on!" Sheppard disengaged himself and entered the room.
It was white, just like the room they had left, but it was empty except for a heavy, wooden desk. It looked like someone had merely cut the tree down to about four feet in height and smoothed it over. Thrice hopped onto his chair and folded his hands on his desk, and looked quite impressive. Rodney and Sheppard stood before him.
"Now," Thrice started, "there is the question of your contract, of course."
"For the show!" He leaned on his elbows, his hands still clasped, his head cocked inquisitively. "Did you not get the message? I'm sure that's what you just read to me."
"Maybe you'd like to explain it," Sheppard said slowly.
Thrice straightened, considered, and nodded. He swallowed painfully. "This museum," he said sadly, "has been in my family's care for centuries, ever since the discovery of the Taragon Scrolls. In fact it was my great-great-great-great-great-great" he counted on his fingers, "great-great-great grandfather Thrice that found them. Built a stone wall around them and charged a bowl of grain from every person that passed to take a look inside." He patted his bulging belly thoughtfully.
"Hereditary then?" Rodney asked.
Thrice glared. "Over the centuries more curiosities were found. The tusk of an alleged rat-Rhino, the pelt of the green goatherd. And in the last century, the plastic wheel from when you came through." His gaze settled to a relevant point just over Sheppard's head.
"Plastic? It isn't plastic!" Rodney exclaimed.
"I assure you it is."
"How can it form an event horizon if it's plastic?"
Rodney sighed and shoved his hands forward. "The WHOOSH! The damn WHOOSH! Plastic doesn't whoosh!"
"Ours obviously does."
Rodney's head fell back and he turned away in disbelief. Sheppard pressed Thrice, "Please continue."
"Certainly!" An expression of importance settled over his bulbous features. "This museum has been the cornerstone of our civilization, taking us thousands of years into our past. Now, however, the entertainment value has decreased."
"Really? How so?" Rodney asked with fake enthusiasm.
Thrice stood in irritation, and was half hidden by his desk. "Everyone has seen it! This is it! This is the whole of our history, there is nothing left to discover!" His shoulders slumped and he waddled back and forth behind his desk, looking more like a disembodied head, or a bowling bowl rolling on the wood. "The young people don't care. They don't want to look to the past, they want the future. Everything fast and sharp and queer." He pointed a sausage-like finger at them. "Last year I even tried to get the powermill going. Do you know how hard it is to get the powermill going when there are no giants left to turn the crank? Impossible! Twenty men couldn't shift it, and we ran out of room on the handle."
"Giants?" Rodney croaked.
"Extinct," Thrice said sadly.
Sheppard cleared his throat.
Thrice continued. "But then we found the ring. Rather, my family found it, let's see, I think it was my great-great-great-great . . ."
"Legit Thrice . . ."
"Sorry. It looked nice, but didn't really do anything, you know? Then we found a device that went with it."
"A DHD," Rodney muttered.
"A minor was playing with it, pushing all these symbols, and it erupted and swallowed him up. So we locked away in quarantine."
Thrice railed. "Well, we didn't know what germ the beast had, did we? Or if it would lash out and eat someone else!" He gathered himself with an effort. "Much, much later it was labeled dormant. Pressing the symbols didn't work. So we strung it up, and it attracted a bit of attention, but again, it didn't really do anything. And then," He jumped back into his seat and leaned in, and John and Rodney found themselves leaning in with him. Rodney caught himself and straightened in disgust. "Then the ring glowed blue, and burst a hole right through the floor. There were strange beings there, with long stringy hair. They had been blasted right through the tile."
John and Rodney exchanged glances and said nothing.
"We displayed the bodies for a while, but they started to stink. The next time the ring exploded, we threw them back in. It never exploded again."
"Yes. But we found a way to make it look like it exploded." He grinned, his teeth slightly yellowed with misuse.
"I'm scared to ask," Rodney said, and he really sounded pretty darn scared.
Thrice leaned in further, his voice dropping to a stage whisper. "We rigged a device from the rim, you see. A matter transporter that we generally use for mail runs. Only we manipulated it. . ."
"Of course! Matter transference is a tricky thing, you know! You have to know how to talk to the drones, or they just sit and sulk and talk about how their skill is being misused, so you have to convince them that it's for the greater good and not just a mundane task that no one else wants to do. Anyway," his voice dropped again, "we managed to send a whole person through! Right during our Dominant Exhibition! The people went crazy!" He leaned back, his arms stretched in glorious achievement. "We were back in business! Only. . ."
"It busted, didn't it?" Rodney asked.
Thrice's face fell. "Yes."
"And now you're losing money."
"We are on the brink of foreclosure." He sniffed. "We managed to get the initial device working again, but no one came through. We even sent out an advertisement for a position, which you graciously answered. So now I'm here, you're here, we can sign a contract for you to pop through the ring on, say, a bi-weekly basis?" He raised his pen over a sheet of paper.
Both men frowned, and John pulled out his own sheet of paper once again, with Rodney peering over his shoulder. ""We request assistance," he read, "all hope lost, about to go under. Need a good show of men. Please respond with haste." The paper dropped from his fingers, and swayed gently to the floor.
John and Rodney stared at each other.
"I just have a few questions to ask. Well, just one, really." His face turned serious. "Are you for ethical dilemma, or against it?"
The two men stared at Thrice.
"Bi-partisan then. So," Thrice had his pen raised, "shall I put you down for next Thursday?"