RATING: T for language.
SEASON: Second half of second season…sometime
MAJOR CHARACTERS: The boys, of course, (if you don't know who I'm talking about, you're in the wrong fic),along with a smidge of just about everyone else
CATEGORY: a little of this, a little of that.
SUMMARY: Dead kings, culture shock, and an Ancient trash compactor. Sheppard and McKay find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time, yet again. Sheppard-McKay friendship.
SPOILERS: There are a few mentions of things here and there, but nothing gets spoiled.
FEEDBACK: Yes, please. I thrive on it and so do the bunnies.
DISCLAIMER: I don't own them. In fact, I don't even own a trash compactor. But I sure know how they feel sometimes.
NOTES: This story is part of the Dictionary series. It's not necessary that you read the others but things might make a little more sense if you did. The list is on my profile page if you're interested.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Special thanks, as always, to Koschka for the betaing and constant demands for more fic! And thanks to Dr. Dredd for some demented conversations on the best way to hurt the ones we love. I just hope I didn't screw up what she told me too badly, if I did, the fault is all mine.
tomb (toom), noun, 1. A grave or other place of burial. 2. A vault or chamber for burial of the dead. 3. A monument commemorating the dead.
Part 1: If it's not one thing….
How the hell did we end up in these situations?
It was a question I had asked myself on more than one occasion and as I watched the unadorned black wall move even closer to me as I worked, I couldn't stop it from coming yet again.
It wasn't me. Couldn't be me. Why the hell would it be me? I wasn't evil…not in the purely maniacal, power hungry, rule the world way that you would think of say Hitler or Chairman Mao or J. Lo. Not even in the misguided I'm doing it for a higher purpose vein of the Spanish Inquisition or Bin Laden or Tom Cruise. No, I was one of the good guys, fighting for the betterment of the Universe and all mankind. Sure I wasn't that fond of most of those I was fighting for, but that just made my work in support of them all the more noble and giving. A man that can overcome his personal annoyance with an entire species and still strive to improve their quality of life deserves to have the Cosmos cut him a fucking break now and again.
Which brought us back to the original question: how the hell did we end up in these situations? And that left only one answer: it was Sheppard's fault.
The man was cursed. How else do you account for the fact that he nearly ruined his military career trying to save lives? How else do you explain that he woke the entire Wraith population risking his life trying to rescue a CO that didn't even like him? How else could you even attempt to elucidate our current situation? You can't. There is no rationale for why we were watching the room grow increasingly smaller as it pushed us closer to the bier of a dead man behind us, which only left the irrational conclusion that John Sheppard had at some point run across some bad juju and his subsequent damnation had leaked onto me by nothing more than my sheer proximity to him. Like being a passenger on the plane when it was suddenly the pilot's time to travel to the great hereafter. Regardless of if it's your time or not, you're going along for the ride.
Working one of the blades of my Leatherman into a rusty seam on the wall panel, I tried to pry it open. Even my grunt of exertion did little good and I looked over my shoulder into the pale face of my obviously hexed and partially poisoned teammate. "A little help here would be nice, that is if you have nothing better to do than watch the wall move closer to squashing us into human guacamole."
"Just remember you are the one that made the comparison between yourself and an avocado, McKay." He pulled the knife from his belt and joined me, blinking back against the dizziness that threatened him and together we managed to bend the metal hatch back, if not swing it open.
"How're you feeling?" I asked, trying to keep the worry from my voice as he used his arm to wipe sweat from his forehead.
"Just get us out of here, and I'll feel a whole hell of a lot better." Without being asked, he pulled his penlight and shined it into the panel so that I could peer in and try to identify the correct crystal that would not only stop the wall but send it moving in the opposite direction, seeing as the only door out was currently located on the opposite side of the wall.
Sneezing yet again, I tried to block the sound of metal grinding against metal and concentrated instead on the transparent pieces before me. "All I ask is that when I die, skip the flowers at my funeral, okay?" The dead bodies behind us were covered from head to toe with the native equivalent of ragweed and I sniffled again, even as I pulled out a crystal to study it, blinking against the pollen-induced tears that blurred my vision.
"If you don't hurry up, Rodney, I'll be dead right along with you and unable to carry out your last request."
Replacing the crystal I had just pulled and dismissed, I quickly pulled another, as the wall crept within a few centimeters of the panel. It's one thing to feel the walls are closing in on you during a claustrophobic episode; it's another entirely to watch them do it for real. "Your pressure combined with the ones in my sinuses are not helping, Colonel," I sing-songed through clenched teeth as I once again returned the crystal in my hand. It had to be one of the ones on this row, it just had to be. Ah ha! There she was. Now, to just figure out which one to swap it with to reverse the wall…
"Sheppard, you two making any progress?"
Ronon stood on the opposite side of the wall, holding off anyone trying to stop us from leaving the tomb once we found our way out. Given the fact that the wall was still moving, I doubted anyone was putting up much of a challenge to the large man, and pulling yet another crystal I couldn't help but wonder if his question was brought about by worry or boredom.
"McKay's working it now," Sheppard informed him. "Any sign of Teyla?"
"She should be back to the gate by now and back with Zelenka and the others soon."
Not soon enough, though, I thought darkly as I once again failed to identify the correct crystal. Wedging my hand back in the opening we had created in the wall, I slipped the crystal back into place and pulled what I thought was the correct one. Quickly placing the first crystal into the slot of the second, I went to place the second back into that of the first only to have it slip from my fingers. "Crap." My hand dug blindly in the opening for the piece even as Sheppard demanded to know what had happened. "Slight setback," I told him tightly, feeling the purpose of my probing with the tips of my fingers. Placing my face against the wall above the panel so I could reach down further, I could feel the moving wall pressing against my back in return.
"Rodney, get out of there," Sheppard ordered from beside me.
"Almost got it," I assured him as I grasped the smooth surface between thumb and index finger.
"Now, McKay." He was leaning back against the wall himself and digging in his heels in a futile attempt to try to slow its progression even though we both knew it would do no good, the sound of his boots sliding over the dirt on the tile floor was evidence enough.
Pulling the crystal out, I hurriedly slipped it into place…and nothing happened. "What? Oh, no no no no no," I shouted at the wall. "You were supposed to be moving back, you useless piece of shit!" The wall, however, completely disagreed with my assessment and kept steadily moving. With a growl I put my hand back into the opening only to have it and the rest of me pulled away by Sheppard.
"Too late, McKay." With disbelieving eyes, we watched as the wall slid across the panel, sheering off the metal door we had mangled with a grinding noise to set my teeth on edge.
I sneezed again, trying not to let the claustrophobic panic set in and failing miserably. "What…what do we do now? We can't get out. Radek won't get here in time to stop it from the other side. We're going to be squashed into a Sheppard-McKay-dead-king-and-his-equally-dead-family flowery paste. I'm going to die sneezing my genius brain out even as it's squashed like an overripe casaba!"
Hands locked onto my shoulders and Sheppard was right there in my face. "Rodney! Get a fucking grip. We're not dead yet and the panel will be showing up on the other side of the wall in just a minute."
"And what good will that do us if Radek is back on Atlantis engraving a new name plaque with Chief Science Officer under his name?"
"Ronon is out there." He spoke slowly and calmly and if not for the way his eyes couldn't seem to focus on me, it would have been almost believable. "You can talk him through it."
I rolled itchy, watery eyes that he would even suggest something like that and sniffled again. "And if I gave him a typewriter and an infinite amount of time he would eventually type the collected works of Shakespeare."
"He survived the Wraith for years. I think he's smart enough to follow a few directions from you."
"Well, if I needed him to shoot the damn crystals or knife them, he'd be my first thought. But seeing as we need them whole so we can not only stop the wall but reverse it, I'm a little leery of any expertise he might have picked up killing Wraith."
"He's not going to shoot them," he ascertained confidently.
"Hey, Sheppard, the panel just showed up. You want me to shoot it?"
At Ronon's question, we both yelled, "No!" across the radio before I gave the man beside me a told-you-so shake of my head. He simply frowned in irritation that I had been right then went on to tell Ronon, "No, we don't want it damaged. Rodney's going to talk you through what to do to get the wall to reverse."
"Okay, whatever you want."
The disappointment in the Satedan's voice was obvious as was my own annoyance when Sheppard turned back to me with a coaxing motion of his hands to get on with it. Wiping my nose on my jacket sleeve with another sniffle, I couldn't help but wonder yet again, how the hell we ended up in these situations.
And this time, without a doubt, the fault fell completely on Sheppard.
"That guy is seriously old," Sheppard observed under his breath of the man sitting on the ornate throne before us.
I nodded in agreement from where I stood beside him as we waited to be admitted to the royal court. "He probably personally knew some of the Ancients that abandoned Atlantis."
From John's opposite side, Teyla shot us both disapproving looks. "Mynorine suffers a disease that makes him appear older than his actual age. He is actually little more than the age of my own father were he still alive."
"Disease?" I demanded already backing toward the door. I may have left my wunderkind status behind a few years prior but I had no intention of taking on the venerable old sage look for a few decades yet.
"It is not catching," she assured me. "It is passed much like the gene of the Ancestors is passed and it is quite common among the Victavan people."
"Well evidently she didn't inherit the defect, unless she's really twelve." The she Sheppard was referring to, and smiling lazily at as she walked toward us, was a curvaceous young woman with a pile of dark black curls sitting on top of her head. Given the strands of gems that were interwoven with the ringlets and the finely embroidered and low cut dress she was wearing, I had a feeling she was a member of the royal household and I was quickly proven correct.
"Teyla," she greeted with a warm smile. "As always it is good to see you. It has been much too long since your last visit."
"Queba, once again your hospitality has been sorely missed." Queba? Seriously who came up with these names? I had to wonder if they found our Earth names as odd…. John? Rodney? However could a parent do something like that to a child?
Turning her attention to the rest of us, our hostess eyed us curiously. "I am not familiar with your traveling companions."
"Forgive me. May I present Lt. Colonel John Sheppard, Dr. Rodney McKay, and Specialist Ronon Dex."
Evidently size does matter because she let her eyes slip casually over the Colonel and me and concentrated instead on Ronon. "Any friend of Teyla's is most welcome here on Victav."
Sheppard's bedroom smile transmuted into a playground pout and I leaned in conciliatorily. "They obviously have a lot in common. She has a lot of hair; he has a lot of hair. Their names include two of the least utilized letters in the alphabet. She's apparently impressed with a large sword, and he has…"
"Shut up, Rodney," he sulked before returning the easy smile to his face and approaching her. "Teyla has had nothing but good things to say about your people. We certainly hope we can establish a friendship between our people like the mutual one we have with the Athosians."
"I'm sure that in the future we can come to that sort of relationship, however, I am afraid now is not the time to develop diplomatic ties." At Teyla's worried expression she continued. "It is my father," she looked back at the elderly man slumping in the throne. "He is not well. As you are aware, the aging sickness brings death early. In fact, the end could come at any moment."
"Oh, Queba, I am truly sorry," Teyla told her with genuine sympathy. "Mynorine is a good and fair leader of your people. He will be sorely missed when the time does come. We will, of course, respect your wishes and return another time."
Forcing a sad smile, the woman shook her head. "I forget my responsibilities and dishonor my father and his station. You have traveled far, and it is my duty and privilege to receive you properly. Please, partake of some food and drink in celebration of your return and in welcome to your new friends."
Finally, something I could sink my teeth into, literally. Diplomacy was...how could I put it nicely… about as exciting as a pocket calculator with nothing more than the basic add, subtract, multiply, and divide functions. Smile, compliment, evade and keep an eye on your backs, those were the basics of interstellar relations. And if you were lucky you got an occasional snack thrown in for good measure. The buffet Queba showed us was set up at the back of the receiving hall and at her beckoning we filled our plates with a variety of Victav finger foods.
Sniffing curiously at a meatball with an odd crunchy coating that looked suspiciously like spider legs, I asked, "So this building was modeled after the Ancients' architecture… the Ancestors'," I corrected when she gave me a puzzled look.
"Yes, the Ancestors built the entire Leadership Complex that the Supreme Leaders have inhabited for many, many generations. Ever since the Victav left their original homeworld following a particularly vicious culling and came to settle here."
"So the buildings were already here when you came?" I dug in my pocket for my detector without even waiting for her response. I hadn't even brought it out before seeing as this was just supposed to be a make a new friend sort of mission.
"Yes, so the legend goes. The Supreme Leader at the time, one of my own blood relatives, took up residence in the buildings and the village sprung up around them. Of course, that was twenty generations ago. There are many wonders here… closets that move you from one floor to the next, walls that show the language of the Ancestors, doors that open at the touch of your hand."
I zoned out the prattle at that point as I studied the energy detector in my hand. There was a ZedPM here, no doubt in my mind. Sheppard peered over my shoulder to look at the readouts. "Is that…"
"Ohhhhh, yeah," I grinned in answer to his unfinished question.
"Another city like the buried one with the tower?" Ronon asked.
"No, I don't think so," I told them. "I think it's just an outpost, but there's no telling what we could find here."
"Is there a problem?" Queba asked suspiciously.
Teyla stepped in and did her thing at that point, which was cover our asses when he screwed up and forgot about the social proprieties on another planet. "No, of course not. It is just that Dr. McKay is very interested in the Ancestors and their relics. He is just excited to be in one of their former dwellings."
Before she could inquire further, there was a commotion near the throne and she rushed to her father's side. The four of us stood wondering exactly what we should do, when Teyla finally spoke. "Perhaps it would be best if we left and returned at another time."
Ronon crammed three more vegetable cheese puffs in his mouth before taking a final guzzle of wine, indicating he was in agreement with Teyla. I was more hesitant, I mean, there was a ZedPM somewhere in this facility. Not that we would necessarily take it, but knowing a little more about it, perhaps trading our partially drained one for a more fully charged one, couldn't be completely overlooked. Still, the wail of despair from the throne suggested the future wasn't looking too bright for the old guy and emotionally charged situations tended to make me nervous and often break out in a rash.
But it was Sheppard that actually said something. "Now, let's not be too hasty here. Maybe we should stick around, pay our respects, get on the new administration's good side."
Narrowing my eyes in confusion, I eventually rolled them in realization. "Oh my God, you want to play the comfort card."
"I do not," he defended.
"Comfort card?" Teyla's question was met with an amused smirk from Ronon.
"I don't," Sheppard insisted to the Satedan.
Teyla's eyes widened in disapproval when she finally understood what we were talking about. "Colonel Sheppard would never do something so devious as to take advantage of woman in mourning. Would you?"
The Colonel suddenly found the ceiling very interesting which might have had something to do with the way Teyla was looking at him. "Never is such a definitive word." With a sigh he admitted, "Okay, the first girl I ever got to second base with had just come home from her aunt's funeral."
At Teyla's opened mouthed shock I stepped in. "Please, every guy has done it. I used it with the girl I was tutoring in physics my sophomore year when her grandmother died. Ronon?"
The warrior shrugged. "My cousin's best friend when her pet bird was eaten by a burkan."
I had no idea what a burkan was and I was pretty sure neither did Teyla but it didn't stop her from glaring at Ronon. "I'm sure men have tried it on you, too," I told her. "Do you mean to tell me that you didn't have men offering you a shoulder to cry on when Charrin died?" At my question, she just glared harder at Ronon.
If my eyes weren't deceiving me, I would swear the Satedan cringed and tried to cover it by scratching his forehead awkwardly. "So, I'll meet you guys outside," and he hurried from the room.
"I will not stay so that you can take advantage of a woman in an emotionally vulnerable state," Teyla seethed before turning on her heels and storming after Ronon.
"Teyla, wait," Sheppard called after her weakly then whacked me upside the head. "Way to go, McKay."
Rubbing at the sore spot at the base of my skull, I glowered. "I'm not the one trying to bag the space princess at her father's funeral."
"I'm not trying to do that!" When I shook my head in disbelief that he was still trying to keep up the pretense, he crossed his arms and insisted, "Did you ever stop to think that maybe I was trying to stick around because with a funeral going on they may not notice us checking out the facility?"
"Oh, so while you are up sympathizing with the distraught daughter, I'm going to be sneaking around looking for the ZedPM? How very noble and self sacrificing of you, John. Does the Air Force offer a commendation for bravery in the line of nookie?"
His comeback was interrupted by Queba being led from the room, crying and reaching back as she forlornly called for her father. Among the entourage of people leaving the room with her I heard someone tell her. "You must leave now. You are the successor; you must not be in the room when the end comes."
"Hmm, odd custom," I observed, popping another meatball in my mouth as the group of people left.
"Yeah, well, to each his own, I guess. Come on, let's go catch up with Teyla and see if she's ever going to speak to any of us again."
But before we could reach the door, a voice from the front of the room announced loudly. "Mynorine is dead. Rejoice, for we shall all be the companions of these great and noble man even unto death."
The handful of people still present in the room repeated in rote, "Even unto death," and the doors to the hall closed with a reverberating thud.
Sheppard and I looked at each other warily as we heard the distinct sound of something large sliding into place outside the doors. "Another odd custom?" I asked hopefully. "One that doesn't apply to us since we're strangers here?"
The Colonel approached one of the guards standing near the door and flashed his best good ol' boy smile. "Hi there. We don't mean to intrude and if it's okay with you, we'll just slip out here and leave the family to grieve in peace."
The man blinked in surprise. "No one present in the chamber at the time of death may leave. We must all accompany the Supreme Leader on his journey from here."
Stepping in behind Sheppard I raise an inquiring finger. "Just to clarify, what exactly do you mean about accompanying him on his journey from here?"
"We will join him in his tomb," the guard explained.
"For how long?" Sheppard demanded.
At the answer I turned to my teammate. "Well, I guess Ronon gets to comfort all the women on Atlantis now."
"Okay, first thing you need to do is try to open the panel a little more so you can see better," I instructed our Satedan teammate on the other side of the moving wall.
"All right, got it," he responded a few seconds later.
"What, already?" I didn't even attempt to hide my amazement. "You opened it already?"
"Yeah, I just sort of…pulled it off."
My open-mouthed gape at the brute strength of the man who had just 'pulled off' what took both Sheppard and me to pry partially back resulted in John rolling his hands. "Moving wall, Rodney. Impending death. Gawk later," he breathed heavily, leaning with one arm on the same wall that the panel had been on.
"Right." Shaking off my awe and the concern that he was obviously getting worse, I turned my attention back to my instructions, trying to picture as best I could the panel as I had seen it before. "Ronon, you need to concentrate on the crystals on the third row. That's where the control crystals are located."
"The ones with the blue tint?" He confirmed from the other side.
"No, no, those are on the fourth row." Dear God, could the man not even count? "You want the ones with the purple-pink tint."
"But those are the ones on the fourth row," he countered.
What? I distinctly recalled they were on the third row. Then it dawned on me what he was doing. "You're counting from the bottom, not the top. Why would he count from the bottom?" I asked Sheppard with a look of utter amazement again, only this time for the absolute illogical nature of our teammate.
However the channel was still open and Ronon asked in return, "Why would you count from the top?"
"Because… because…" I honestly had no answer as to why I automatically counted from the top down. "Because that's the cultural norm on Earth," I finished testily.
"Hmm. That's strange," was his only observation.
Societal mores, they were going to be the death of me yet, quite literally if I couldn't overcome not only one but two distinct sets of them. Sneezing yet again, I dug out a handkerchief even as we took another step back away from the approaching wall and concentrated on the immediate issues of Satedan traditions. "Okay, so you are now looking at the third row from the top, fourth row from the bottom that is purplish-pink. On that row you need to find the command crystal, which I slipped into the fifth position… from the right," I stressed meaningfully.
"Well, obviously from the right." Ronon made it sound like it was absolutely the dumbest thing in the world to clarify that point and I grit my teeth to control my frustration. "Okay, found it. Now what do I do?"
"Swap it back with the crystal in the third position." Once he had things returned to the original positioning we could try to reverse things. "Now you need to find the crystal that makes the wall move backward and slide it into the control crystal position."
"What does that one look like?"
"If I knew that, I would have been able to do it from this side. You're just going to have to pull them and describe the etchings on each one until we find it."
"Okay. First one has three squiggly lines with a sort of tilted line under it and a swoop."
"No, not that one," I dismissed instantly.
"Next one looks kind of like a dead senlack bug lying on its back."
"I have absolutely no clue what that means."
"A curve with a bunch of lines sticking out at odd angles and a billowy shape over it."
Considering for a moment I dismissed that one, as well. "I don't think so, but remember where that one is just in case."
"Hey, Rodney, where are the remains of the other dead kings?" John asked from where he stood studying the pile of dead bodies in the back.
"Not now, Sheppard." I put his comment out of my mind, concentrating instead on the description Ronon was giving of the next crystal, as if I had any concept of what the spires on the Temple at Dresleon looked like. When he gave me a description that actually meant something to me I smiled happily. "That sounds like the one or at least it will stop the wall and give us a little more time to find the reverse switch. Swap them out." Turning back to Sheppard I asked, "Now what were you saying?"
"If this is the final resting spot for all the former Supreme Leaders, where are their bodies?"
We had decided that the tomb was actually the Ancient equivalent of a trash compactor. Back when the Ancients had inhabited the buildings, refuse from the complex was brought in and the walls compacted it then moved back to allow more trash to come in. Which is why I fervently believed the wall would move backward if we gave it the right command. But Sheppard brought up a good point as there were no other remains in the room, only the flower-draped bodies of the king and the poor souls that had been willing to accompany him in death. They had been neatly stacked around the enormous black, alter-like, elevated platform the king himself rested on and covered with those miserable pale green weeds that were making my imminent death even less of a pleasurable experience than it typically was. The flowers and bodies passed no further than the dark line that evidently separated the black-painted walls of the dead zone from the rest of the grey metal tomb. And something about that made me look back to the wall moving our direction… the black wall.
With eyes widening in understanding I ran a finger down Sheppard's vest that had been leaning back against the wall previously and pulled it away with its own dark smudge. "It's not paint; it's soot."
Looking at the finger, he came to the same conclusion I did. "It's not just a trash compactor; it's an incinerator, too."
"So what triggers the fire?" I asked worriedly as my eyes darted about the room and I could just make out a row of circular openings in the ceiling above the bodies.
I didn't have to wait long as the wall behind us stopped advancing when Ronon had switched the crystals and a roaring sound rumbled above us. "It stopped," Ronon stated the obvious but neither of us paid any attention.
"Move, McKay," Sheppard said quietly even as he grabbed my shirtsleeve and pulled me backward and the roaring escalated. A spray of liquid showered onto the funeral bier that, from the sweet smell of flammable liquid that penetrated even my stuffed nose, I could tell was about to become a pyre. "Move!"
"Ronon, switch them back," I called frantically as we pressed against the now unmoving wall that was little more than five meters from the bodies. Nowhere near far enough away should the fluid dousing the chamber ignite. "Switch them back!"
"Why? What's wrong?"
"Just do it!" John ordered as we cowered back against the far wall even as the liquid continued to fall, quickly soaking the human timbers and starting to flow in our direction. "And hurry the fuck up!" Because we both knew that any second the flames would follow.
The wall started moving again and the spray stopped, the puddle of liquid just reaching our boots and dripping from the flowers and bodies. "Okay, it's moving again. You two all right?"
Breathing quickly I looked to Sheppard who was looking a little winded himself and this time it had little to do with the damn drink. "Yeah, for now," he answered Ronon slowly then addressed me. "So the good news is we won't be squashed."
I whimpered at the prospect of what the alternative was. "I'm starting to the think the poison might have been a good idea after all."
An hour after Mynorine's death we were still locked in the throne room. From the conversations around us we learned that the king's wife, his younger son who also had the aging disease, his oldest advisor and two of his elite guards had also remained in the chamber to accompany him in death.
Sheppard had tried to talk to the son, a man who was probably in his late twenties but looked to be approaching middle age, but to no avail. The problem was that evidently the king could not pass into Victavan heaven unless everyone present at the time of his death went with him. It was an all or nothing deal with them. In addition, the Victav couldn't understand our reluctance to die along with them since they considered it a great honor as we would automatically pass straight into the penthouse suite of the afterlife by being part of the king's entourage. And evidently Teyla was having as much luck as we were trying to talk to Queba.
"I have tried to speak with her and explain, Colonel, but she seems genuinely baffled that you and Dr. McKay do not see this as an honor to join her father and other family members."
At Teyla's update, I keyed my own radio. "Teyla, you and Ronon have guns. Big, powerful guns. Just start shooting and get us the hell out of here." We had left our weapons outside the throne room as was the custom here in Victav, the others keeping one knife visible as was allowable since the Victavan carried what appeared to be ornately decorated ceremonial daggers.
"Rodney, we aren't going to start shooting the place up," Sheppard insisted, "at least not yet. But it might be time to break out the big guns in another sense. Ronon, head back to Atlantis and get Weir. If anyone can reason with these people, she can. In the meantime, Teyla, you keep at it with Queba."
"Sheppard, Teyla should go back to Atlantis. I have a feeling McKay's right and you're going to need me here."
"Thank you, Ronon," I gloated at Sheppard.
"We're not at the point where we need to start shooting people," he insisted.
"I agree with Colonel Sheppard," provided Teyla, "The Victavan people have been friends with the Athosians for a long time. I would hate to ruin those relations because of a social blunder."
"Social blunder? This isn't about using the salad fork for the entrée. Hell, this isn't even about using the salad fork to pin the Natrinian Chancellor's hand to the table when someone thought he was going for a weapon when he was just scratching."
At my recollection of Ronon finally finding a use for a fork he could whole-heartedly support, he grumbled, "He was spending an awful lot of time with his hand in his crotch."
"Well, alien jock itch infestations aside, we are on an entirely new level here. They want us to die and we don't want to die and they can't seem to accept that. And all the talking in the world isn't going to get them to forfeit their religious convictions."
"You don't know that, McKay," Sheppard maintained.
"Oh, right because Earth history has proven my supposition incorrect repeatedly. I'm sorry; did I miss the announcement of the mutual disarmament in the Middle East? It must have been while I was reading that history of the Crusades."
Sheppard just frowned at my sarcasm but finally admitted, "All right, you might have a point, but it won't hurt to try."
With a resigned shake of my head, I sighed. "Fine, go get Elizabeth, but bring Zelenka back, as well. They said the tomb is in the lower levels of the facilities, which might mean it's accessed by Ancient technology. If that's the case, we might need him to get us out if we can't talk our way out."
"Very well," Teyla agreed. "I shall return shortly."
After Teyla's abrupt farewell, I slumped into a chair near the spread of food. "So, for now, I guess we wait."
Sheppard simply nodded and leaned casually against the wall beside my seat. At least he appeared casual to anyone not familiar with him. I could see the way his eyes scanned the room, looking for a potential escape route should the negotiations for our release fail. After a few minutes he stood straighter. "I think we should move toward the throne."
"Why? There's a dead guy up there." It's not that I had anything against dead people in general, it's just… well, they're dead and that's just creepy.
"Yes, I know that. There's also a door behind that curtain." Looking where he indicated with a tilt of his head I could see the large wall hanging move slightly with a weak breeze.
"I thought we were giving Elizabeth a chance at diplomacy?"
At my dry tone he shrugged defensively. "Doesn't hurt to check it out."
Working our way up to the front of the room, we never made it to the door. About halfway there, the Royal Advisor intercepted us with a tray of drinks in small narrow containers that resembled flat-bottomed test tubes and held about the same amount as a shot glass would. "For the final toast to the Supreme Leader Mynorine."
Sniffing at the green iridescent liquid he had given me, I asked Sheppard warily, "I think I smell citrus. Do you think it has citrus in it?"
"I don't know, McKay," he responded irritably as he held his own glass and glanced toward the curtain once again.
"Well, I can't drink it if it does. And the last thing we need is for me to be keeling over with an allergic reaction in the middle of everything else that is going on here."
"No, the last thing we need is to commit another faux pas with these people."
"What are they going to do, kill us twice? I don't care who I insult, I'm not drinking it if it's going to cause my windpipe to close off. Call me crazy but I have a thing about breathing."
"Christ," he snapped before sneaking a sip. "It tastes fine. I don't taste any citrus, okay?"
"Thank you," I shot him a droll smirk then turned my attention to the advisor who had finished distributing the drinks and stood with his tiny cup raised before the dead king.
"In honor of Mynorine, beloved Supreme Leader, father, husband, and friend. With this drink of death we join you on your journey."
"What?" I demanded even as the others tipped their flutes back immediately and drained them. Sheppard's eyes widened in alarm as he looked into the cup, then darted toward the back of the room.
"Drink," the older man encouraged even as he narrowed eyes in the Colonel's direction, "the elixir will ease your crossing."
"How? How will it ease our crossing?" Of course I had a pretty good idea how and so did Sheppard seeing as he was in a corner trying to make himself throw up.
"It will stop our hearts within the half hour," he told me simply.
My eyes slid instantly to Sheppard who was retching behind me. "How much do you have to drink for that to happen?"
"A few drops will kill although it takes longer than a full glass," he explained, the confusion obvious in his voice.
Shoving my own untouched drink back in the man's hand, I moved quickly to Sheppard's side and placed a hand on his back, trying to avoid stepping in the mess at his feet. "We need to get you back to Carson now."
He nodded as he gulped air and I keyed my radio. "Ronon, can you get us out of the throne room?"
"I can," he told us succinctly.
"Without being taken down yourself?" When there was a slight pause before the affirmative answer, Sheppard continued. "Don't shit with me here. I'm not going to be at full operating condition here soon."
"I could do it, but there would be civilian casualties…. a lot of civilian casualties."
"Negative. We don't want innocent people hurt."
Before Ronon or I could argue, the Advisor approached us, pushing two more glasses our way. "You really should drink this. The tomb itself will kill you if you do not and this is a much more… pleasant way to cross over."
With the same insistence, I pushed the poison back. "You people are absolutely nuts, you know that?" With a shake of my head I mumbled to Sheppard, "For God's sake, they're worse than the planet of suicidal kids."
Sheppard straightened and forced a pleasant smile that was ruined by his somewhat green complexion. "What Dr. McKay is trying to convey in his own particularly offensive way is that we don't practice poisoning where we come from. It goes against our beliefs."
"Yes, death by beverage is frowned upon by our people."
"But the tomb…" he started but the Colonel cut him off.
"We'll take our chances. We've respected your customs; we'd ask that you do the same with ours."
The older man swayed where he stood, the poison obviously already taking effect, so that we both put out a hand to steady him. "Very well, it is your choice. We must go to the tomb now, the journey is near and our loved ones will be waiting for us there."
"Loved ones?" Sheppard perked up at that. "You mean people can see us?"
"Yes, they are already there making ready the tomb and will be there to prepare our bodies for the release of our spirits when the time comes."
"And we can have one of our people there, too?" I asked following exactly where my teammate was going with this.
"Yes, that would be appropriate."
"Ronon, have someone show you to the tomb," Sheppard ordered across the radio. "You evidently get to come down and say goodbye."
"On my way."
And after Ronon's dismissal, we were on our way as well. Sheppard had been right, there was a door behind the curtain, and we followed along behind the others as they drunkenly carried the body on a stretcher down the hallway to a transporter that spit us out deep in the bowels of the city. I kept a wary eye on Sheppard, looking for any sign of the same symptoms the others were suffering. He swayed slightly but pulled from my hand when I put it on his arm to stabilize him.
"I'm fine, McKay."
"You're poisoned, that's about as far from fine as I can think of right now."
"We have time," he told me gruffly. But how much time? A few hours, maybe, if that. By the looks of those that had drunk the poison, I thought their half hour diagnosis was probably optimistic. And that brought up a whole different issue that had been nagging at me since the Advisor had brought it up.
"How do you think the tomb will kill us?" I wondered out loud. "Asphyxiation, poison gas, snakes, what?"
"It's not going to kill us, Rodney," he mumbled so that only I could hear, "because you're going to get us out and Ronon's going to make sure we get back to the gate."
The funeral procession stopped in front of a large door similar to the one leading into the Jumper bay on Atlantis. One of the guards activated it open and I smiled to myself. It was controlled by Ancient technology which meant there was a good chance I could override anything that was on the other side or Radek could when he arrived.
Sheppard leaned in and asked quietly, "Are there Jumpers in there?"
God, if only. But as we stepped in and found the room empty except for a large platform near the far wall and a few family members carrying armloads of flowers, including Queba, we both realized that wasn't the case.
"That's the only door," Sheppard pointed out as the dying joined the mourning and we hung back.
I assured him in a low whisper, "There's a control panel in here, I can open it again when everyone is gone."
Ronon jogged in then and stalked over to where we stood. "What's the plan?"
"When everyone else leaves, Rodney's going to open the door and get us out. You need to make sure the coast is clear."
Ronon nodded in understanding and Queba joined us with a confused look on her face. "Saffos says you refused the drink, Dr. McKay, and that you, Colonel Sheppard, did not drink enough to join the others at the same time."
"Drink?" Ronon's eyebrows curved suspiciously. "What drink?"
"Poison," I explained, "to speed thing along because evidently the Victavan spirit world is just such a hoot that they don't want to waste any time getting there."
"We prefer to face our deaths with our eyes open," Sheppard told her with a macabre grin.
"Are you sure? Once the walls begin moving we cannot bring you more."
"Walls? Moving?" I looked around frantically. "What walls are moving?"
She indicated the black wall behind us, her eyes alight with the gleam of a true zealot. "The wall will move and push you into the afterlife."
Why the hell would the walls move? Then I started putting two and two together and realized where we were and what the room was probably used for. My eyes skimmed from the wall, across the door to the access panel beside it. Three meters, tops. Depending on how fast the Ancients liked to smash their trash, that didn't leave a lot of time. Great. Sheppard poisoned, the two of us stuck in a garbage disposal and if that wasn't bad enough, I only had a few minutes to get us out. Could this whole predicament get any worse? Sneezing suddenly, I sniffled.
Evidently it could.
"The next crystal has a circle, two dots in the center and a swoop underneath."
"A smiley face?" I asked after Ronon's description.
"It doesn't look too happy."
"Join the club." After four more crystals, we still hadn't found the one we needed and the wall just kept getting closer. "That's not it. Try the next one."
"Okay, how do we stop the flames, McKay?"
At Sheppard's question I blinked through my irritation that was quickly turning into panic. "What?"
"How do we keep from turning into crispy critters here?"
"Right." I pushed down the fear and frustration and tried to occupy my mind with facts instead, trying to work through the problem. "Okay, fire needs three components: fuel, oxygen, and ignition." Splashing my foot in the puddle of liquid on the floor I observed, "We have the fuel and I don't think we can get rid of that, we have the oxygen and we don't want to get rid of that since we kind of need it to breath, so that means we need to stop the ignition from taking place." Looking around the room I ordered, "See if you can find where that might come from. Anything that might cause a spark or shoot flames or produce excessive heat." We both moved to survey the walls and the ceiling for any source of ignition. "Anything?" I asked Sheppard after going through two more crystals with Ronon.
"Nothing," he answered then hitched his head toward the corpses. "Unless it's under them."
"Oh, God," I mumbled weakly, knowing what was coming next.
"Help me move the bodies." And there it was.
"Oh, this is just wrong," I told him even as I grimaced and helped him roll the body of one of the guards out of the way.
"What's wrong is killing innocent people just because they happened to be in the same room with you when you died." He scanned the floor under the body, running his hand along the surface to make sure he didn't miss anything.
"I know. It just feels like we're desecrating the dead or something, tossing them around like this." I haphazardly flung the flowers that had fallen off back onto the body, wiping yellow-green pollen wet with the fuel on my pants and sneezing once again.
"Rodney, in less than five minutes, that wall is going to stop moving on its own and the incineration sequence is going to begin again. I find being burnt alive a desecration all its own." We moved to the next body and moved it out of the way, as well, even as I rejected yet another crystal that Ronon had described.
"You know the Vikings did this exact same thing." We were heaving the body of the Advisor out of the way and he was a rather large man, giving new meaning to the term dead weight. "Loaded up the deceased king in a boat, drugged the members of his household and tossed them onboard, too, then lit them up like a floating bon fire."
"Don't see you wearing your winged helm today, McKay."
With a grunt, we finally got the big guy moving. "Last time I had feathers on the side of my head was 1984 at the height of the age of hair bands and masculine hair care products."
"Ah, the eighties, when you knew you had reached manhood when you finally found a use for hairspray that didn't involve making homemade flame throwers to melt plastic army men in the driveway."
"Hey, if it was a good enough look for Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, then it was good enough for Rodney McKay."
Sheppard chuckled then put his hand out to steady himself against the altar before wobbling further and dropping from a squat to his butt and slumping into the slab. Both of our grins disappeared as he hung his head and ran a shaky hand through his sweaty hair.
"John?" I asked worriedly, only half hearing Ronon's voice in my ear telling me about the next crystal. "Not that one," I answered the Satedan distractedly before calling Sheppard's name again. I slid my eyes toward the wall still creeping forward, eating steadily away at the uncharred floor between us and it. We needed to get out of here. He didn't have much time. Hell, we didn't have much time. And for a split second, I thought maybe the Victavans had been right when they insisted we kill ourselves before. A part of me secretly wished for the poison myself. Another part wished it would work faster for Sheppard. But another part, the really selfish part, didn't want to do this alone. Reaching out and touching his leg when I still didn't get an answer, he jumped as if he didn't even remember I was there.
"Sorry, just feeling a little woozy." He shook his head sharply to clear the fog before repeating quietly, "Sorry." And this time it had nothing to do with the effects of the poison on his attention span.
"Sheppard, this isn't your fault. Not really. Although somewhere out there, I have no doubt, is a really pissed off voodoo priestess sticking pins in a spiky-haired G.I. Joe doll and that probably does have something to do with you. But past sins aside, this is purely a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. But then again, we never seem to be at the right place at the right time and as soon as we get back to Atlantis we're really rearranging your room to meet the principles of feng shui. Evidently Johnny Cash should be facing north or something."
"Rodney," he cut off my nervous rambling as he lifted his head to reveal a smear of black across his face. "You really suck at the whole comfort thing."
Ignoring his statement of the blatantly obvious, I instead squinted curiously at the smudge on his face. "What is…" I started, before taking his hand and turning it over to see soot staining his palm. With eyes widening in hope, I touched the blackened and evidently scorched altar. "It's survived the fires."
"What are you talking about?"
Tapping the platform with my knuckles, I was rewarded with an echoing reverberation. "It's survived the fires and it's hollow."
Understanding spread with the smile on his face as he clamped a hand on my forearm. "Help me up."
"Sheppard?" Ronon called to his team leader when I didn't answer him.
"Stand by," Sheppard ordered as I hauled him up and gripped his arm to keep him from toppling over. Without having to say a word, we worked together to push Mynorine's remains off the stand. We then tried to lift the top off to no avail.
"Look for a switch or something to open it," I instructed as I slid my own hands under the overhanging top.
"Do you think we could survive the fire inside here?" Sheppard asked as he searched the side opposite from me.
"Probably not. The heat alone will probably kill us depending on how conductive the metal is and if there is any insulation lining the inside. And then the fire will consume most of the oxygen in the room. But we stand a better chance in there as opposed to our here where we know we won't survive."
"Near impossible odds versus no chance in hell," he considered. "Sounds good to me."
"Bingo!" I exclaimed as I found a lever and the lid rose straight up on thin supports located in each corner and came to rest about three quarters of a meter in the air.
We both looked inside the box and what had seemed like a brilliant idea suddenly seemed rather repulsive. I winced at the macabre image inside. Blackened charred bones and ash filled the box over halfway to the top. The fires evidently didn't burn hot enough to completely cremate the bodies, but it was close, so that even though the skeletal remains weren't intact, we could make out distinct bones within the pile.
Sheppard shrugged and forced a weak consolatory grin. "Well, I guess we know what happened to the remains of the other dead kings."