Devotio Moderna

Notes: I finished a rough draft of this story over Christmas. Titan5 read it and made vague threats. Something about nagging me until I posted… Anyway, sorry for the delay in posting anything but I have a bad habit of finishing stories and then I'm kind of over it and can't be bothered with the whole posting thing. Cue more subtle threats from Titan5. Heh, heh. This story is around thirteen chapters long, pretty much completed and that means you should have a new chapter every second or third day, regular as clockwork. Cross fingers.

Summary: When Sheppard and McKay wind up as guests of the local religious order, the last thing they expect is for the monks to be a bigger threat than the local war lord. Especially when Sheppard finds himself the unwilling companion of a malfunctioning Ancient computer.

Chapter One

John Sheppard liked to think that on most occasions he was prone to having a good idea in the middle of a crisis. Well, enough of a good idea to haul everyone's collective ass out of the fire.

This was not one of those occasions.

He and McKay had their backs – literally – up against a wall. Teyla and Ronon couldn't be contacted, having been split off in what Sheppard would later realize was a classic tactic to ensure that the local war lord could concentrate on his primary targets. Sheppard and McKay.

Damn it. He hated it when he got this popular.

"Right about now would be a really good time to have a fantastic idea about how we're going to escape."

That was McKay, standing shoulder to shoulder with him. McKay's sarcasm mode was clearly ramped up to its highest setting.

"I used to like it better when you stood in the background and looked frightened," he shot back.

"There's no 'back' to stand in. And I am frightened, I'm just too angry to show it."

"What, so now you're Rambo McKay?"

"Less with the witty comebacks, more with the killing of the bad guys."

Yeah. Uh huh. Like that was going to happen any time soon. They were surrounded by a dozen men and that made him and his P-90 look measly by comparison. Even the added bonus of Rodney's Glock wasn't going to counter those kind of odds. They could shoot, they'd take down a couple of the local henchmen and then they'd be dead themselves. Simple mathematics. When in doubt, err on the side of discretion.

The lead bad guy, one Altrius Dren, muscled his way past the ring of thugs pointing their primitive but highly effective wide bore rifles at Sheppard and McKay's chest. Rifles at close range were never good. They tended to leave nasty, gaping holes in their targets.

"So, Colonel Sheppard, you've led us on quite the merry chase," said Dren.

Sheppard tried not to roll his eyeballs at the opening line, but failed. "Yeah, well, we're pretty good at the whole running and fighting thing."

"Even your squat companion?"

McKay bristled. "Who're you calling squat? I am not squat. I'm robust."

Sheppard thought it was would probably be a good idea if McKay stopped mimicking the tactical teams so much. He was getting less afraid of the bad guys and more inclined to go for the ever popular 'faced with imminent death' smart ass routine.

"Quit it, Rodney."

McKay promptly shut his mouth, hopefully long enough for Sheppard to try and talk his way out of this particularly inconvenient sequence of events.

"Now, Dren… Somehow we obviously offended you, and if we did, we're very sorry and we won't do it again. Right, McKay?"

"Sure. Cross my heart and hope to die."

"Not helping," said Sheppard and he shot McKay a look. McKay got the hint and once more lapsed into silence.

"Quite the contrary, Colonel. You didn't offend us. In fact, it's more that your skills interest us and we'd like to use those skills for our own cause."

"Which I'm sure is righteous and just," said Sheppard, completely failing to give into his own temptation to make with the one-liners.

Dren cocked an eyebrow, and smiled. Bemused by Sheppard's response in the way that all bad guys bent on planet wide domination tended to be bemused. Mainly because they thought they had the upper hand.

"Colonel, all causes are righteous and just. That's what makes them a cause."

"Okay. Let's say I agree with you. What now?"

"You put down your weapons, and we take you back to our compound and put you to work."

Had to admire a guy who was so straight forward and to the point. So, no choice really and he looked at Rodney, gave a small nod. Rodney sighed, took his finger off the trigger and changed his grip so that the Glock was now flat in his palm. On the of Dren's thugs grabbed it, and neatly tucked it into his belt for safekeeping. Sheppard vaguely wished the safety systems on the Glock were more shoddily designed. Nothing like an accidental shooting with a handgun at close range to really ruin a bad guy's day.

Sheppard reluctantly followed Rodney's lead and took his finger off the trigger, deliberately forgetting to palm the switch back to the safety setting and letting it fall from his hands. He then unclipped it from his vest before Dren attempted to cut it off with a knife.

Dren seemed inordinately pleased with himself. Entirely predictable. Pity the man had some firearms knowledge and made sure he didn't put his finger anywhere near the trigger. And once Dren had the firearms stowed safely away, he had them both searched for any additional weapons, which also removed the possibility of using Sheppard's knife for a quick get away. Finished with that exercise, Dren gestured that Sheppard and McKay should get themselves moving in the direction indicated. Away from the town and back towards Dren's fortified encampment.

Something that didn't bode well for either of them. Sheppard was under no illusions as to their eventual fate. He'd seen Dren in action. Dren was, at heart, a ruthless businessman pure and simple. He'd viewed Sheppard and McKay as a hostage opportunity, a chance to make a quick buck. Or in the case of Atlantis, obtain some more sophisticated weapons. But the inhabitants of Atlantis had learnt their lesson from the Genii and Elizabeth was never going to negotiate. Besides, Sheppard would never let her.

Dren was more than likely to kill them as soon as his demands weren't met and they no longer proved useful. Mind you, Sheppard suspected there were other reasons Dren was so damn interested. A few relics with Ancient technology were scattered around the town and they lit up like Christmas trees as soon as Sheppard and McKay walked past. On the plus side, the technology had been cannibalized for parts and trinkets and therefore didn't actually work beyond the panels lighting up. On the bad side, it did alert everyone within the vicinity that Sheppard and McKay weren't exactly standard issue humans.

Sheppard had learnt that sometimes it just didn't pay to have the Ancient gene. Not when people wanted to gain the upper hands on their enemies.

He put up his hands, and reluctantly started walking in the direction Dren was pointing. McKay followed him, doing an admirable job of continuing to maintain his silence.

It was at that point everything seemed to stop. Approaching Dren and his gang was a figure dressed like a monk. The brown robes reached the stranger's feet, a simple belt of rope was tied around his waist, his face obscured by a hood.

Dren saw the figure, scowled and directed his next threat towards the stranger. "This isn't any of your business, so I advise you to stay well clear."

This didn't stop the mystery monk, who continued to walk through the throng of bad guys, right up to Sheppard, McKay and Dren.

"I am claiming your hostages under the Treaty of Nicolaremis."

"You've got no right. And they're mine. I saw them first," said Dren. With an actual whine in his voice.

"The Treaty is quite specific about what we can and cannot claim. You should count yourself lucky. You know that we rarely invoke our rights under the Treaty and we've seen fit to ignore a large number of treaty violations." The robed figured seemed unfazed by the crowd gathered around them, even though he was unarmed.

Sheppard could see Dren actually starting to sag. The monk was welding a lot of power if the local big Kahuna was backing down without a fight. Dren gave Sheppard a small shove towards the man.

"Fine, he's yours. And the squat one. Tell the Benevolent Father that he would do well not to ask for this privilege again." Dren fairly spat out the words.

"I will tell him," replied the man evenly. "Whether he decides to take your advice is another matter."

The monk changed his attention to Sheppard and McKay. "You are to follow me. Stay close. You are under my protection but if you stray, Dren is within his rights to claim you and I will not be able to invoke the Treaty again."

"Hey, so uh, who are you anyway?" It was McKay, breaking his silence. Sheppard gave him another look but it seemed Rodney was past caring whether his chit chat got them into trouble or not.

"I am Brother Darius. I am a monk at the Abbey of the Seer."

"Oh. I take it that we're going to the Abbey?" Rodney seemed to have opted for asking obvious questions.

"Actually, we are there now. Dren's men had you backed against the East Wall. We're merely moving towards the Grand Entrance."

Darius continued to move at a reasonably quick pace and both Sheppard and McKay had to break into a half trot, just to keep up with him. Sheppard didn't know what to make of this sudden rescue. It seemed a little too good to be true and quite frankly, the SGA teams weren't exactly blessed when it came to good luck, or good timing. At this moment however, Darius was better than whatever Dren had planned, so he continued to follow. Besides, they didn't have weapons, and the planet wasn't exactly made up of a peace loving agrarian society. Instead it seemed to thrive on a ruthless form of capitalism run amok. They would literally sell their grandmothers if it stood to make them any money. War lords controlled the sale of luxury goods, the average peasant tried their best to eek out an existence as tenant farmers. Discovering that this ruthless society had its own religious order didn't surprise Sheppard. Medieval England and most of Europe had seen centuries of violent clashes between the various Popes and rulers of countries and most of the wealth had been controlled by the Church. Military school had taught him one thing while examining the history of the great clashes of the ages. Where piety and money were involved, piety lost.

Darius gestured towards a large, wooden gate with spikes on top and two guards manning what appeared to be the early version of the Gatling gun at the front of the entrance.

"Once we are through those gates you shall be safe from Dren."

Sheppard decided enough was enough, and put his hand on Darius' shoulder to slow him down. Darius stopped, turned to face Sheppard.

"Brother Darius, I don't want to appear ungrateful, but-"

"-How do you know that you can trust me?"

Sheppard nodded. Clearly Darius had been anticipating the question.

"You do not. But I can assure you that once inside the Abbey you will be treated as one of the monks, equally, while you await the arrival of your own people."

"Right, and we can't just go back to the stargate because…?"

"Because Dren's men control access to the Ring of Transport and the Treaty of Nicolaremis does not include travel to the gate. Only sanctuary inside the Abbey grounds. He would be within his right to kill you as soon as he saw you."

"Great," muttered McKay. "We're not going to be overdue for another twelve-hours."

"Can we contact our people from inside the Abbey?" Sheppard asked, not really holding a lot of hope, but he wanted to delay going inside as long as possible. He was beginning to get a really bad feeling about going into the Abbey.

Darius was no slouch on picking up on Sheppard's reluctance. "My friend, you have very little choice. There are three competing war lords in this area alone. There are gangs of mercenaries. There are scavengers who would have no compunction about bashing out your brains and taking whatever you have to sell at a profit. In some cases that would even extend to selling off your corpse. I can't stop you if you decide to run off at this point, but I'd wager you won't make it out of town alive, let alone all the way to the Ring of Transport."

"I like my brains. They're my best feature," said a worried McKay.

"Okay, okay. We'll go with you," replied Sheppard. Even if he didn't like the idea, even if he thought they were just going to land in more trouble because, God forbid, that's how their lives worked. Besides, what kind of Abbey needed guards at the door and a huge gate with spikes on the top?

Darius waited until they were walking towards the Abbey and then fell in behind them. The guards made no moves towards them, except to nod their heads briefly in Darius' direction. One of them reached across to the door, sounded a large bell. There was a brief pause before there were the sounds of chains clanking against wood and the doors began to be winched open.

Sheppard was never going to be comfortable with big doors that needed a winch system to open them. That just translated into a set of doors that needed C4 to get through.

"Damn it," he muttered to himself.

"What's wrong?" It was McKay again. Back to looking frightened and doing his best to dawdle through the entrance.

"Nothing. Don't worry about it."

"I hate it when you say that. It means I should worry."

"Well, don't. Not yet anyway. I'll tell you when you should worry."

"Promise?" McKay's sarcasm was back.

"Yes," said Sheppard.

"Or I could just look for the usual signs of running away and yelling."

"That would work too."

They passed through the entrance, Sheppard reflexively looking upwards at the arch of the gate, high over their heads, before settling back to take in their immediate surroundings. They were in a very small courtyard, barely enough for six or more people, facing towards another set of large doors. Clearly a defensive strategy to ensure a bottle neck if anyone tried to force their way into the Abbey.

Darius pushed on the doors with a considerable amount of force, and they eventually swung open. They then found themselves walking down a long corridor that twisted and turned in a disorienting pattern. The corridor consisted of dark wooden paneling, a few windows here and there, a flagstone floor, and some candles illuminating the way. As far as Sheppard was concerned, the corridor was yet another subtle deterrent. The monks had designed the corridor to disorient any attackers. Anyone charging into the corridor would be caught off guard as their eyes tried to adjust to the sudden change in lighting and the crazy right angles.

It was impressively sophisticated.

They arrived at yet another set of doors. McKay was beginning to look unnerved by all the door opening and corridor walking and Sheppard didn't blame him. Darius didn't bother to stop but kept walking, expecting his guests to follow him.

They entered, and found the lighting even dimmer and that they'd arrived in an antechamber. Presumably designed to inspire equal measures of awe and fear into whoever was forced to wait here.

As his eyes adjusted, Sheppard could make out the various friezes on the walls. Mostly scenes of hell and damnation, featuring a creature with eyes made of burning coal and an abnormally large mouth, full of teeth and a tongue that seemed design for reaching into people's chests and pulling out their souls. In amongst it all, various images of brave monks defeating the creature also featured. The monks looked like they were about to face death and had on their face a wistfully resigned expression as they stared upward, towards the sky, and presumably, God. Hovering in the background, behind the monk, appeared to be a giant sponge, which was kind of odd considering the religious imagery.

"Nice art," said Sheppard for something to say.

"Yes, it shows the martyrs and their fight against the beast to rescue the people." Darius did not move, and seemed to be waiting patiently for whatever was going to happen next.

McKay shifted his weight to his right leg, regarded the various friezes with an expression of disdain and suspicion. McKay had never exactly been the spiritual type, even when he was faced with trying to ascend or die after his run in with the Ancient equipment in Atlantis.

There didn't seem to be a lot of point in talking, so Sheppard kept quiet, and McKay tried following his example but failed within thirty seconds.

"So, these martyrs… Where exactly, do they think they end up once they die?" McKay stabbed a finger in the direction of a frieze of a particularly pious monk – the monk's face turned upwards in an expression of relief as he was disemboweled by a creature that appeared to be a cross between a vulture and a crocodile with an attitude.

"Oh, to the Great City of course. It flies throughout the heavens, and each monk who passes the test and saves souls, goes to the Great City to live with the wise Old Ones."

Wouldn't be the first time tales of the Ancients had become used in local mythology. And it presented a possible opening.

"Sounds a lot like the place where we come from," said Sheppard. He kept his statement neutral, and friendly. He'd been in enough war zones to know that religion was a quirky cultural bed fellow. It was tricky to tell what would cause offense and what would not. The real trick was convincing the person taking offense that the statement had been made in innocence.

It was at that point that Darius finally pulled back his hood to reveal his face. He was young, probably about Ford's age, his brunette hair shaved down to mere stubble. His eyes were blue, the face weathered in a way that showed he'd worked outdoors, long and hard.

"Do you hope that the place where you come from is like the Great City or are you comparing it to the Great City?"

Sheppard knew when he needed to choose his next words with care.

"Based on what you say, the Great City is … well, great. And our city is good too. So I imagine if we were going to aspire to anything it would be to… be like the Great City."

Darius narrowed his eyes at the reply. "Then that is a very correct desire. Of course, nothing can be exactly like the Great City. There is only one. To claim to be as good and as pure, is sacrilegious."

"Right," said Sheppard, not wanting to push it any further.

"What's the punishment for being sacrilegious?" McKay apparently had no such qualms.

"They are numerous and depend on the severity of the deed. Usually it is a penance of some sort."

"McKay, let's not get the nice man all riled up by having him explain penances." Which was a big hint to McKay to try not to upset Darius any further.

"I was just asking out of interest," replied McKay.

Sheppard was about to say something else when another set of doors opened. His eyes once more had to adjust to a change in lighting, this time by squinting. The room was ablaze with sunlight, all being cleverly reflected by an arrangement of polished metals hanging from the ceilings and walls.

An elderly monk, bent over with a permanent stoop, beckoned them inside. "The Benevolent Father will see you now."

Sheppard always got suspicious when he heard titles that featured superlatives. Like Good, and Wise and Grand and Benevolent. Usually because it meant that the person attached to the superlative was just the opposite.

He walked in as casually as he could, back straight, taking in his surroundings but also keeping an eye open for any unusual behavior from Darius. Luckily this didn't seem to involve any more bowing or scraping. McKay also walked in with his head held high. Or at least, he was doing his best to still put on his Rambo McKay act.

The Benevolent Father was sitting in a wooden chair that looked remarkably like a throne. Sheppard guessed that the guy was in his mid-fifties; his face weather lined and beat up from years of hard work. He wore an eye patch, and the one good eye he had, seemed to be in a permanent squint. He wore a far more stylish version of the monk's robes. His robes were white, embroidered with what looked like gold thread. He didn't seem, upon first impression, to be a man who would give anyone an inch, let alone a mile. But then he caught sight of them and brightened considerably at their entrance. The Benevolent Father smiled, stood up stiffly from his seat and shuffled down to greet his guests.

"Come in, come in! My goodness Darius, well done on the rescue."

Darius seemed embarrassed and ducked his head. "I made a promise Benevolent Father. I always like to keep my promises."

"So you do my boy, so you do."

Benevolent Father shuffled his way over to Sheppard and McKay, still smiling. Sheppard, ever suspicious, thought the smile was more like a predatory gleam.

"I'm so glad Darius could get you out of Dren's clutches," continued Benevolent Father. "The man is a pig. Takes everything and gives nothing back to the people. At least Syrus likes to feed the people he enslaves."

Sheppard realized he had no idea what to do with his hands when he didn't have a P-90 to rest them on or a Glock in the holster. He had to opt for letting them hang loosely at his sides, which was the best he could do about sending out a non confrontational body signal. McKay on the other hand had opted for crossing his arms across his chest.

Sheppard figured he would have to be the first one to broach the delicate subject of their repatriation back to Atlantis. "Darius here tells me that we should be able to contact our people."

The Benevolent Father waved a hand in a gesture that said Sheppard should stop talking and also that the words he was about to say were a complete lie. "Yes, yes, you can contact your people but first, I just wanted to confirm if all the rumors I've been hearing are true."

Sheppard didn't like where the conversation was heading and it had only really just begun.


"Yes. I hear several of the Old One devices came alive in your presence."

Okay, lie or tell the truth. Either way they were probably in trouble. "They activated, if that's what you mean."

He heard McKay inhale sharply, because McKay had probably figured out the same thing he had. Interest in what the A.T.A gene could do was never a good sign.

The Benevolent Father's smile got bigger. He shuffled over to a cabinet, took out a flat panel, the size of his palm and shuffled back to them.

"We are always on the lookout for those that bear the mark of the Old Ones. They are rare on our planet and we have not seen a new one in nearly thirty years." He held out his palm, the device flush against it. "If you would do me the honor of shaking my hand, we will see if you truly are descendants of the Old Ones."

Both McKay and Sheppard hesitated. Darius seemed surprised as their hesitation. "The Benevolent Father wouldn't hurt you. He's just curious."

"Then he wouldn't be offended if we chose not to shake his hand," replied Sheppard.

"Uh, what he said," echoed McKay.

The Benevolent Father didn't stop smiling. "You know Colonel Sheppard, I've dealt with more stubborn men than you."

"You know my name."

"Of course I do. And your friend is Dr. Rodney McKay. At the Abbey, we pay close attention to all of the intelligence we gather from the country. My spies know exactly what's going on at any given moment."

"Then why do we have to touch the device? You already know the answer," replied Sheppard.

"Yes, I know the answer but not the true extent of your abilities." He thrust his hand out again. "And really, we both know that I don't need your hand to be attached to your body for this device to work."

Okay, so that was a pretty persuasive argument. McKay seemed to be galvanized into action by the statement. "Fine, okay, I'll volunteer if it will get this over and done with. See, I'm shaking your hand..."

McKay grabbed the hand holding the device, shook it firmly, and then released his grip. The Benevolent Father stared at the device. A series of indicators proceeded to light up, indicating how strongly the gene was expressing itself in McKay's physiology.

The Benevolent Father appeared disappointed with the results. "Hmmm… The device says you are not a natural user."

"What's that supposed to mean?" McKay was insulted, even if it could save his neck.

"It means that the expression of the gene is not strong in you, and you also do not have a strong mental component. Not enough to guide the more sophisticated machines left to us by the Old Ones."

"Oh, " said McKay.

"You next," said the Benevolent Father. He held out his hand, Sheppard realized he didn't have much choice. The manly, soldierly thing to do was to grab the guy, maybe punch him and use him as a hostage, but he could see the elderly monk out of the corner of his eye had somehow acquired a very sharp sword and Darius was also gripping something secreted up the sleeves of his robe. It didn't take a genius to realize Darius was holding another weapon. Clearly these guys were used to fighting their way out of tough situations.

Sighing, he reached out, shook the Benevolent Father's hand and by default, the device. He tried to release it as quickly as possible, vaguely hoping that it didn't get enough time to do whatever it did.

No such luck. The indicator practically went through the roof. He half expected it to let out a ping. The Benevolent Father's one good eye opened wide.

"By the Great City. A Seer! I thought it would be too much to hope for but… " The man seemed overcome and it took him a moment to start speaking again. "John Sheppard, we have been waiting for as man such as yourself for a long time. When I heard you could activate the Old One devices I didn't dare hope but it seems the Old Ones have seen fit to give us a sign and send you to us."

Very bad words to hear when dealing with people from other planets: the words 'seer', 'sent' and 'waiting a long time' used in the same demented speech. Oh crap, he was in so much trouble. He wondered, not for the first time, whether Carson could actually come up with a gene therapy that removed the A.T.A gene. Because right about now, it would be incredibly convenient to just be boringly average on the genetic front.

"I'm sure this Seer is very important to you, but I'm also pretty sure you have the wrong guy. Right, Rodney?"

"Oh, yes. Totally. Colonel Sheppard has been mistaken for a lot of things when we visit planets. I can tell you that in most cases, they've had it completely wrong. We even visited one planet where he was proclaimed the Oracle. Bit of a disaster, let me tell you. Oracle? Couldn't even figure out what he'd just had for breakfast."

Sheppard interrupted as McKay warmed to his task. "I think he gets the idea. Seriously. You can be quiet now."

Of course, as was the way with all strange people dressed in robes, and ideas that were set in stone, Rodney's plea for Sheppard's complete ineptitude at being the local savior fell upon deaf ears. The Benevolent Father was too busy being overjoyed.

The robed figure crossed to a set of wall hangings and with the help of the older man, pulled them back to reveal an Ancient control panel and behind that, even more wall hangings and a big set of curtains. Definitely Ancient, since it featured that church organ look the Ancients seemed so keen on. The panel looked dead. That probably meant it needed to be keyed by an A.T.A gene carrier and then anyone could use it.

The Benevolent Father beckoned at him. "Now, Colonel, if you could just step forward and touch the device, and say 'hello' to Machine."

He didn't like the sounds of that either. "I'd really like to say 'no thanks' at this point in time, if that's okay with you. Maybe later. Or tomorrow. Tomorrow is always good."

Benevolent Father narrowed his one good eye, let out an annoyed sigh, as if he was dealing with a monk who hadn't been saying his prayers properly.

"I can see the Beast has warped your heart and mind. Otherwise you'd realize that it is not up to you to refuse your position. Only Machine can do that."

Okay, he didn't like the fact that they had given the control panel a name, and the name was so damn unimaginative. He stood his ground.

"Um, Colonel..." It was McKay. Who had turned around to look behind them. The door was opening and more monks were entering. Big guys. With what looked like a lot of muscle. Presumably the goon squad of the monks. The thought of monks having a fighting squad was making the entire situation even more surreal than it already was.

The lead bad guy rolled up his robe sleeves in a meaningful way and Sheppard got a good look at a bicep that was twice as thick as his own arm. Even Ronon would wind up having a tough time fighting that much muscle mass.

Funny thing was, though – he really hated being forced into anything. Even if it meant he was going to get beat up for it. Call it a quirk of his adolescence. He never did get over the whole disdain for authority thing. Not a great idiosyncrasy for someone in the military, but he'd never seen the point of carrying out actions that made no sense or resulted in someone's unnecessary death.

The Big Guy came forward, along with a couple of his friends. McKay stepped forward to stand between them. That was Rodney. Impossibly brave at all the wrong times. And yes, he did count Rodney as brave, because as Sheppard had told Elizabeth, "Fighting scary monsters is what I do." It was natural for Sheppard to fight and hold out. It wasn't at all natural for Rodney. For that simple reason, McKay getting between him and a guy who could snap him in two was the biggest act of courage Sheppard thought he'd seen in quite some time.

"Hey, McKay. It's no use both of us getting hurt," said Sheppard.

Rodney nodded once, stepped back, clearly simultaneously relieved and guilty at his capitulation. But at least McKay was safe. Sheppard put up his hands in a gesture of peace.

"Okay, okay. I'm going. Let's get this over with."

He turned on his heel, strode back towards the panel. Hesitated. He didn't like Ancient technology. It had a tendency to blow up, or have some weird purpose that made him think that Mary Shelly was channeling a genetic memory about the Ancients when she cooked up Frankenstein's monster.

He tried to ignore the Benevolent Father's grin of anticipation and braced himself to get hurt in some way. Slowly, he laid his hands on the controls, surprised and relieved when there was no reaction.

"Thank God," he muttered to himself. He was about to remove his hands when the Benevolent Father interrupted him.

"Stay where you are. Machine sometimes takes a while to warm to people."

Of course. He was never going to get off that easy. Apparently this device had a delay attached to it. The panel hesitated, spluttered into life, a display above the panel burst into life. Colors swirled on it with no discernable pattern. Worse, there seemed to be something moving behind the curtains.

A voice, old, female, seemingly verging on death rasped into life.

"Welcome, Seer. I have been waiting for you."

"Crap," he said. Again to himself. He jerked his hands back, vaguely hoping that breaking contact would shut the whole crazy ride down, but no such luck. He jumped off the platform as it began to draw back towards the curtains, the curtains swinging up into the roof and the thing that stood behind the curtain was revealed…


Sheppard would have backed all the way out of the room if he had a chance, but he merely backed up into two of the monks. Who got a firm grip on each of his arms and started hauling him towards – well, God knows what it was.

Machine was an enormous quivering mass. A pulsating, sloshing sac of white skin like material. He didn't understand why they called it Machine since this machine was obviously completely organic.

The two monks began dragging him towards it. He dug his heels in as best he could.

"Machine welcomes you, Seer. Join me."

The voice wasn't that welcoming and he didn't like the use of the word 'join'. He also didn't like the way the two monks were dragging him towards the pulsating whatever-it-was lolling around on some sort of specially made support system.

"Thanks. I think I might turn down that offer. Not offense." Then he decided that getting beaten up was going to be infinitely better than going anywhere near something that resembled a massively infected boil.

He managed to jerk one arm free, managed to punch one of the big monks. Not that it made any difference. The guy didn't even blink. He tried for a few leg sweeps, another couple of punches, and hit a nose with his elbow, but they seemed to be oblivious to pain and made of thick skulls.

Out of the corner of his eye he spotted a panicked McKay rushing over to help. Not that it made any difference. McKay might as well have been a five-year-old kicking someone's knee. Distracted by McKay's presence, he felt a fist connect with his cheek. Yeah, that was going to bruise.

The Benevolent Father watched for a few minutes, then tired of it all.

"Enough! Sheppard, you will join Machine or I'll have your friend executed and his head put on a spike."

Well, it was the kind of threat that was always going to get his attention. He stopped fighting. Ran a tongue across his upper lip, which was now split and bleeding.

"Okay, fine. I'll do it. As long as you guarantee McKay's safety."

Benevolent Father was smiling again. "It does not make any difference whether we guarantee it or not, but since you insist – I guess it would make you more cooperative."

"That's your word?"

"As good as we make it here."

Sheppard felt his shoulders sag, resigned to his fate. McKay moved closer, anxiety and worry etched all over his face.

"I'm going to figure a way out of this," said McKay and he meant it.

"That's what I'm counting on," replied Sheppard. He tried to give McKay a reassuring grin, but failed.

"Machine is waiting," said the voice again. The one that now sounded a little younger and more eager every time it spoke.

So, here he was surrounded, and without a lot of choice. McKay tried to look positive and Sheppard shrugged off the guards, walked towards the outer skin of Machine.

"Step through, it won't hurt," said Benevolent Father.

Not much anyway, thought Sheppard, having been lied to about whether or not something would hurt far too many times to count.

He took a deep breath, put out a hand onto the sac, felt it pulsate under his hand and then it seemed to open, his hand and arm falling into the interior. Taking another step, he found himself half sucked, half pushed through until he was inside, liquid rushing past his feet and out onto the floor.

The inside of Machine was even less pleasant. Goo, thick and slimy, came up to his knees. It was a sickening yellow color. Bolts of light, looking like electrical discharges, flitted around the place. There was the faint smell that spoke of decaying flesh.

The tear in the sac closed instantly. He turned, and tried to push his way back out but the membrane refused to give.

"You are mine now, Seer. I am so pleased. You will help me solve the problem."

"Uh huh. Good. Um, what problem would that be?"

"The problem that has vexed the Benevolent Fathers since the Abbey was built. It will take some time. Lie down, Seer. Let us begin."

Sheppard looked down at the viscous liquid and thought the last thing he wanted to do was lie down in it. Instead he made another attempt at escape by pounding harder on the sac's surface.

"You are frightened, Seer. I understand. There is no need to fear Machine. Machine cares for you."

There wasn't a lot he could say to that statement. He was now totally desperate to be free of this completely psycho piece of Ancient technology.

"Look, just let me the fuck out of here and no one will get hurt."

"You can't hurt Machine. Machine cannot be harmed. The Creators made it so."

Sheppard gave the sac a good couple of kicks with his left leg. To no avail. Nothing like a little panic to get the adrenaline flowing.

"Enough of this, Seer. We should join now."

"No. No, joining. Joining without protection would be bad. Let me out and I'll go and find some condoms."

The Machine stopped speaking for a few moments, seemingly analyzing what he was saying. "The Seer makes a joke?"

"Just a teeny one. To ease the tension." He was trying to make jokes to keep himself from giving into the fear that was creeping its way up his spine and trying to make his stomach go into spasm.

"You amuse me. This bodes well for our time together."

It was right about then that Sheppard noticed his feet were sliding through the liquid without moving themselves. He was being pulled towards the center, and as he tried to resist, he realized he wasn't getting any traction on the 'floor' of Machine. It was hopelessly slippery and in his attempt to turn around, he lost his footing, slipped backwards and went down into the muck butt first anyway.

Only to find himself promptly pushed onto his back and skidding towards a ball of energy hovering in the centre.

"You know, I really don't like to kiss and join on the first date," he said, trying very hard to keep his mind off the alarming sound of crackling that could be heard as bolts of lightening discharged from the energy ball.

"Do not worry. I will not let you come to harm. You are the Seer and I am Machine."

As if that explained it all. He was about to say something else when he found himself in the center. The swirling mass of energy descended, arced around him, gripped him like a hand, pushed him down, sinking him into the liquid until he could feel it leaking into his ears, wetting the back of his hair. The energy churned over him and around him, concentrated on his head, his eyes, his nose, his mouth. And of course, she'd lied. It hurt. It hurt like he was being electrocuted. The energy was everywhere. Over him, inside him.

Machine was inside him.

"Machine loves you."

He started screaming.

End of Chapter One.