Sky's the Limit
Rating – K+
Disclaimer – I don't own Stargate Atlantis. All creatures involved in this fic are mine. Mine! My own, My precious... Forget that last part. There will be John-whump, eventually.
Synopsis – Sheppard and team find a rather unusual way of getting out of another jam, and Sheppard's about to take the kick-butt ride of his life.
A/N: Warning: Dialect spoken by certain characters native to the planet of Calatra may be hard to understand. So here's a little guide.
De or da is 'the' and is interchanged often and without warning.
Dat is 'that'
Ta is 'to' and is often interchanged with 'to'.
Dis is 'this'
Den is 'then'
I probably forgot a few words but I think you get the idea – people on this world talk funny. The final warning is that this story is looooong.
Calatra; the Bermuda/Jamaica/Cancun planet of the Pegasus galaxy. Warm weather, clear azure skies, and great rolling hills buried beneath thick canopies of emerald dark trees. Even the air was paradise to breathe smelling of hibiscus and a little coconut, despite the planet having neither. It was a world of islands and beaches making every continent Hawaii.
John had had to circle three times over the beaches and breakers that got him salivating when they'd first arrived.
Now he had to say good-bye. He never thought a planet had the potential to break his heart.
"I can't believe..." Rodney muttered under his breath. "Of all the stupid, asinine... You know I think I would have actually bought it if they went the religious route. It's a damn tourist attraction. Tourist attraction!"
John wasn't listening. He was still pining over the breakers. He kept his hands folded on the butt of his P-90, and the majority of all expressions hidden behind his sunglasses as he watched Teyla try to reason with Tol Malak the local chief/dignitary/king or whatever of this particular island. All rulers were called Tols, their second in commands Tels, and their advisors Aks. John didn't really give a crap what they were called, he just found the use of monosyllabic titles amusing; something more appropriate for half naked and spear wielding cannibals. Tol Malak and his 'court' John would have filed under as being 'pirates'. They were all dressed in loose shirts and leathers from jackets to pants, with holsters hanging from their hips and weapons of the kind Han Solo usually favored. Hell, one guy even had an eye patch.
These people even had ships, just not of the space faring kind. The transports were like lesser jumpers used to ferry folk from island to island.
That wasn't all these people had. The gate was located on the peak of a tiny, uninhabited island – uninhabited except for a small outpost constantly monitoring the gate for incoming worm holes and the skies for potential hive ship arrivals. The outpost was securely nestled within the mountain where the gate sat. John would have missed it flying in if the ones manning the post hadn't demanded identification.
Some of the little transports were quite capable of kicking ass. John could have easily cloaked, but didn't want to be rude.
The second thing this world boasted of was a perfectly intact Ancient outpost. Not exactly drool worthy in terms of technology, but the still-functioning data base was what gave it its real charm. Altantis' data base spoke of the outpost, Teyla talked of the friendly people and wonderful weather as she had a friend who lived on this world, and Tol Malak had mentioned the functioning data base with a smug smirk and twinkle in his eye.
Then added, politely, still with the smug smile and twinkle, that only those deemed trustworthy allies of Calatra could see the ruins and flip through the database.
"Trusted allies?" Rodney had mumbled. "Or whoever has deep enough pockets."
Tol Malak had offered to trade for a peek at the database. Of course it just had to be weapons he wanted, even a puddle jumper. The data base wasn't worth breaking policy for. Neither were the breakers. Although John was more inclined to get misty eyed over lost surfing time.
Even without the policy of 'don't arm the aliens' John would still have said no. Tol Malak had that whole Jack Sparrow look going for him, just without the ratty hair. Actually, his hair was neatly combed, his beard and mustache neatly trimmed, and his hair was a more reddish-blond than dark. The look of being up to something, and the smug smirk, he had down pat.
"Sorry, Teyla," Malak said with a shrug of his red leather clad shoulders. "Not really my policy."
"No, but I bet the trading part is," Rodney mumbled again. John quietly agreed with him. They were standing out on a veranda of salmon pink stone and intricately carved pillars half-choked by climbing vines and tiny yellow flowers. There was some kind of a bird on a stand with iridescent feathers that shimmered prismatic if the bird so much as twitched. The rest of the massive house was overwhelmingly opulent that John could barely describe it. The midday meal had been taken in a room cloudy with incense and hard to breathe in. Instead of chairs, they sat on pillows, and each got a standing tray made out of a metal that if not silver was just as pricey.
John had shared in Rodney's feelings of claustrophobia.
More was said between Teyla and Malak, but John had stopped listening. More accurately he'd stopped caring. Malak was going to keep bartering for the big stuff no matter how much Teyla haggled. The Pegasus Galaxy pirate had gained too much to the point that he wanted only what was next to impossible to obtain.
In other words, he wanted what he couldn't have.
After two more minutes of trying again, Teyla tossed up her hands and walked back to her companions leaning against the balustrade.
"Let us leave," she said in as close to a huff as Teyla could get. John had let her handle the negotiations since he wasn't an idiot. Teyla was a genius in her own right when it came to trade agreements.
They followed Teyla off the veranda and back into the salmon pink halls with their bright tapestries and rainbow collection of vases.
"I am sorry we could not reach an agreement!" Malak called. His tone matched his smug smile, and John was pretty sure McKay had found someone far more infuriatingly incorrigible than John. In fact, John thought he heard Rodney mutter something along the lines of 'asshole' under his breath. John would have grinned if he wasn't still pining over the waves.
They couldn't leave the mansion fast enough. John breathed in deep when they stepped out into the more tolerably perfumed air as compared to the incense box behind them. They followed the dirt path beneath the green shade of cotton-wood sized trees back to the town.
John liked the town. It was modest, old fashioned in that technology wasn't used all that much, and even amiable. It was located at the top of one of the smaller mountains, extending down into the narrow valley cut by a perfectly blue river that glittered in the distance. There were shops and stands selling food, trinkets, and boating and fishing equipment.
What had really gotten John's fancy since day one, beyond the breakers, was the assortment of massive flying creatures the people liked to ride. Creatures that ranged from the size of Asian elephants to the size of whales. Some were simple, nothing more than giant birds that resembled eagles or vultures. Others were a mismatch of earth-animal likenesses. They passed one now, a thing that was cat-like in build and features, with webbed wings attached to its spindly arms, and a very long, very bushy tail. Rodney scuttled sideways when the creature crept by carrying one rider and several baskets of goods. Most of these flying creatures could only be seen in the sky or tethered to stakes in corrals.
Corrals like the one next to the home of Teyla's friend. The team turned onto a road leading into the habitation district of the town where the buildings were widely dispersed to make room for gardens or stables. Jihenna's modest little three room dwelling was farther down at where the road turned. Her neighbor's corral was only a few yards from her house. The only creature tethered was the smallest of the flyers. It was a mammal, or at least John assumed as much from the thick mane of copper fur extending from the narrow equine like head down the back. Sticking to earth animal parts to form a comparison, John would have to say the thing had a somewhat ferret like body, long, almost monkey-like limbs, and what he could only refer to as a lemur-like tail. He could have compared it to a cat's tail, but it was too prehensile. The bat-wings took up the width of the body from neck to tail's beginning. The length of just one wing, John swore, was twice as long as the body, maybe more. It was copper furred with a copper and green tinted underbelly of ridged scales.
All together, it was a rather graceful looking animal once one got past the whole oddity of it. The eyes were the oddest of all: a red slit pupil surrounded by green ribboned with black. Very weird and yet totally awesome.
The creature craned its long neck at the team's arrival and gave them a grunting chirp. The beast had gone from dangerously wary to incredibly friendly the day John had tossed it a power bar. Crappy food calms the savage beast.
Rodney veered away from the corral, while John wandered in close. The creature John had Christened Lenny on their second day here lightly head butted him in the shoulder. John's attention was a little more preoccupied with the scene unfolding before them. He was only distantly aware of pulling out a power bar, and totally unaware when Lenny ate it whole.
Jihenna was standing on her front porch beneath the thatch awning, talking at the top of her lungs to a man twice her height and several times her weight. Like Jihenna cared. She poked a dark skinned finger into the broad chest then threw her arms out wide in wild gesticulation. She had an exotic beauty with rich dark skin and jet black hair tied in an uncountable number of thin braids – not dreds like Ronon's, but actual little braids. But she wasn't some shy little island girl. That woman could stare down a wraith and possibly win.
After several long minutes of arguing in a foreign tongue (Calatra was known to be home of four different dialects) Jihenna flailed her slender arms at the smirking man with the thick red beard until he finally shook his head and sauntered off. Jihenna smoothed out her white canvas shirt and burnt sienna brush skirt, and lifted her chin in pure stubborn pride. Then she saw Teyla and the gang, and smiled as though the argument had never happened.
"Teyla! How go da tradin'?" Jihenna's accent was even more exotic; sometimes sounding Jamaican, sometimes African, and John was pretty sure he caught a bit of a Cajun twang now and then.
Teyla pursed her lips. "Not well, I fear."
Jihenna moved forward and twined her arm with Teyla's to lead her to the house. "Dat idiot Malak try ta barter wit you. He's always doin' dat. Greedy, dat's him. You do good not to keep tryin'. You know there's dem rumors dat he got where he got 'cause he killed da last Tol. Poison, dat's what folk say. I say Malak did it wid his own two hands but no one cared. You can't trust dat man. He'll gouge you dry if you keep trying. Is seein' de ruins dat important to you?"
"No," Rodney replied curtly, "but it would have been nice to see what they had."
In other words to see what could be seen concerning potential ZPM hideouts.
"I would suggest you go to de high Toledar, but I think he likes Malak. You could try Tol Angek on Briorey Isle, he don't get harsh wid da strangers. Problem is, de Toledar don't like him much."
"We've noticed the universe tends to suck that way," Rodney replied. The Toledar was pretty much the head honcho for the entire planet, making the Tols like governors or mayors for each island. If a Tol was being a pain in the ass, then the best way to handle them was to go over their heads to the Toledar. Unless, as Jihenna had said, the Toledar happened to like that particular Tol.
This is why John tried to avoid politics at all cost.
"Jihenna," Teyla said. "If it is not too forward, may I ask why that man you were speaking to had you so upset? It wasn't another argument over the price of your Kenna fruit being too high? Your prices have always been fair and I do not know why others refuse to see this..."
Jihenna patted Teyla's hand. "You worry too much Teyla. Hin? He just an idiot who can't take no for an answer. We got da big race comin' up and dat moron, Hin, keeps tryin' ta get me ta wager so he can get me fruit stand. My stand is in de best spot in town, Hin just jealous. He does this every year durin' the races."
"Races?" John asked. He wasn't really a racing kind of guy but, hey, sports were sports and John wouldn't mind seeing a few Pegasus Galaxy style competitions.
Jihenna peered over her shoulder at him. "De great Halacori River race. Dats the river winding its way down da valley. Every year we have dis race. Goes back to olden times, it's said, when the Ancestors still walked among us. No machines involved, just de winged beasts. Very excitin' stuff, especially if you make a wager."
They entered the little house of thatch and wood. It was a lot more cozy looking on the inside then the outside. The main room was the largest, acting as both the living room and the kitchen, with an iron stove, wash basin, and cupboards of dishes and food items on one side, shelves of knick-knacks and a ladder to the loft on the other, and a rectangular table of carved and polished wood in the center. Jihenna's father, Joren, was sprawled all over the chair at the head of that table, head tilted back and snoring to shake the house. The old man was pot-bellied, bald, yet heavily bearded, with a metal brace around one leg and a cane resting across his lap. Behind the table were the three doors leading to the three other rooms: Jihenna's, Joren's, and the guest room currently being used by Teyla. The loft was where the rest of the team slept.
Jihenna detached herself from Teyla to hurry over to the stove and toss in more wood. She then pulled a pot from the cupboard that she held out to Ronon.
"Could you see fit to gettin' me some water den?" she said with a few flirtatious flutters of her eyes. Ronon didn't respond – didn't have to the way he was smirking, flashing that smirk in John's direction – and took the pot, heading out and around to the back where the pump was.
Ronon wasn't letting John live it down. Rodney definitely wasn't letting John live it down. For all John's pleasant smiles, Jihenna had been immediately smitten with the bigger Satedan. It wouldn't have been a big deal if Jihenna hadn't felt the need to be so dang 'polite' about everything.
"Ronon has a bit of a mysterious way about him," she'd told Teyla one night over dinner while Ronon was out back filling the water pitcher. Crap but she had him wrapped around her little finger. "I like dat. Strong warrior like him would be de envy of dis town. Not dat I don't think you a warrior, Colonel. I like da willowy fellows as fine as the big ones. But de big ones, dey get da respect. And da jobs 'cause no one's gonna hire you if you don't look like you can handle de heavy loads. Not dat I'm sayin' you can't, Colonel. I'm just sayin' is all."
Ronon had returned just in time to hear everything up to 'willowy'.
Jihenna continued on about the race as she pulled jars of spices from the cupboards, setting them on the table. "Makin' deals of any kind can be a pain in de rump. Witnesses are needed, on both sides. Someone ta notarize final agreements, which can cost a pretty coin. De races, dey make the dealin' easier. Although you be stakin' a lot on de outcomes. De ting is, if ya make a wager and your rider wins, den no one can argue de outcome. You make de wager wid da one you're wagerin' with, draw up de terms of de wager together, den hand it to one of de officials who looks it over and does da notarizin', and it don't cost ya a thing. Plus no one can try and destroy the terms of de wager, which happens when deals are drawn up sometimes. My uncle, who lives in de valley, bartered several of his Yanneck birds for a space at de docks ta park his boat. He had the agreement in his home, den one mornin' it was gone, and de man he did the deal with denied ever seein' it. It's crazy and it's why I stick to verbal agreements wit witnesses."
Rodney leaned in toward John and whispered, "I didn't understand a word she just said."
John narrowed his eyes and crossed his arms. "Placing bets is easier than making deals because people can steal the written agreements and deny they existed, while with making a bet the deals are kept safe and no one can mess with them."
"So you're possibly screwed no matter what you do." Rodney folded his arms and rolled his eyes. "It's a wonder anyone gets any business done around here."
Jihenna yanked on a rope loop attached to the floor, hauling up on the trap door to her cellar. "Dat's why you stick wit verbal agreements, Dr. McKay. Or make de wagers when you want somethin' big. Either dat or make sure ta have plenty of coin in your pocket for a notary. They always make copies of de deals."
"Like I said," McKay said under his breath when Jihenna vanished into the cellar. "It's a wonder that anyone gets any business done around here. Maybe we should have had one of those notaries present during Malak's attempt at gouging us. I'm pretty sure there was some illegal hiccup we could have snagged him for. People were paying with fruit to get into those ruins. Fruit!"
"Then we should have just sent you on ahead with a basket of fruit while Teyla and I kept Malak busy," John replied
"Oh, like it would have been that easy..." McKay's eyes rounded over as he stared at John's scowling demeanor. "Oh my gosh, you're serious! I-I mean you actually thought about doing that at one point?"
John grinned. "Strictly for reconnoitering purposes. If the data base there wasn't worth the price of that fruit then I didn't want Teyla to keep wasting her breath. The only setback was your not-very-Pegasus-Galaxy-appearance and," he clasped Rodney's shoulder, "no offense, buddy, but you really do suck at lying, and I wasn't going to risk seeing the results of your bartering skills."
Now it was McKay's turn to scowl. "Why thank you so much Colonel. Your faith in me is so touching."
"I do have faith in you, McKay, but not when it comes to your social skills."
"Then why not send Ronon, huh?"
John grimaced. "Ronon's bartering skills tend to involve the use of a knife at the throat, or so Teyla warned me."
Ronon returned lugging in the pot of water that he set on the flat, square surface of the squat iron stove. Jihenna also emerged carrying meat wrapped in a cloth, and flashed Ronon a very thankful and heavily coquettish smile.
"Thank you Ronon," she simpered.
John walked casually over to the bigger man to plant an elbow into his ribs. "Better start running Ronon," John whispered, "before she asks you to marry her in the next ten minutes."
Ronon shot a withering glare in John's direction, the kind that promised much pain the next time they sparred. John didn't care. The revenge was worth it.
You know," Jihenna said. She unwrapped the cloth around the meat, and with a butcher knife, began slicing off thick chunks that she tossed into the pot. "All contestants in de race get a free pass into de ruins."
Rodney plopped himself into the nearest chair. "Sort of like a consolation prize, huh?"
Jihenna nodded. "Dat it is. Part of a package, actually. Free Kenna fruit, a haunch of Gerenteret meat, some candies made from de sugar canes of the Janeet isles, and de free pass. Winner gets payment of two hundred geffles: dat be our highest priced coin."
Rodney clapped his hands together and rubbed them. "Great! Where do we sign up."
Jihenna stopped slicing. She rolled her eyes up, looking at Rodney beneath the lids. "You be jokin' me, right Dr. McKay?"
"Oh hell yes." He looked at John scathingly. "Unless someone here has other ideas?"
"Relax, McKay. I've no desire to risk my ass just for a day pass to sift through a library that might not be worth squat."
Rodney slumped back into his chair with arms crossed. "You should have gone with the fruit idea. I know you think it's just another database like any other database, probably containing stuff we've already got, but you never know. Some Ancient mights have casually, off handedly, mentioned the location of a ZedPM in a poem or journal entry on the lovely walk he took on so and so world. That's how we found out this outpost existed, remember?"
John grinned and tried not to start chuckling again. Ronon could have written better poetry than that guy. (Actually, Ronon really could. John caught a glimpse of a half-finished work while the Satedan gathered his stuff for the gym. The man had quite the soul, and a dark one at that, which was why John had never made fun of him for it. Not that he would have other wise, unless the poems had been about flowers, sunshine, and cute fuzzy animals.)
Rodney held up a single finger rigidly. "Once, just once, I'd like to come upon something structurally intact and chalked full of information goodies without it ending in either being kicked off the planet or nearly killed. Just once I'd like a damn free pass."
Since it had been assumed that entrance into the temple wouldn't be a problem, the team still had a week to spend on this planet. Not that they planned on sticking around the entire week. They would have been gone yesterday except Teyla still had some 'shopping' she needed to get done. Calatra plant life was said to have the ability to grow anywhere in any climate, which was a plus for a group of people who'd been transferred from one world to the other.
Teyla went from stall to shop to stall with Sheppard following but hanging back when the bartering got under way. He was distanced enough not to make the stall owners nervous, while close enough to listen in should negotiations go sour. When it came to Teyla, John normally didn't worry about deals going so south they nearly ended in bloodshed. Listening in had been mostly an act of boredom, until the more heated arguments began.
"De price ees fair," the seed vendor huffed.
"The price is ridiculous," Teyla nearly growled. "Only a scraping of Venta root is needed to make the healing salve. This root," she shook the root that was the length of her forearm, "is worth the price of a hundred bags of seed and I am only asking for twenty."
"We've had a poor year. Fewer seeds."
"Bull!" Teyla spat. John cocked an eye at her word choice.
The vendor shrugged his heavy shoulders helplessly. "Dat is de way. One root for five bags. Take eet or leave eet."
Teyla stood there, seething, which wasn't something John saw often and it made him a little nervous. This was the fifth vendor selling the needed seeds she'd visited that day, and the first who offered her more than four bags of seed. So when Teyla slammed down the root onto the counter top and grabbed the bags, John wasn't surprised. He was sympathetic, and hesitant about initiating conversation until they were beyond sight of the vendor.
"Wow," John said when he felt it was safe. "For a minute I thought you were going to lay down some Athosian style whoop ass on him. Maybe you should. Or I will, I could use the practice. Just need to find some sticks first..."
Teyla looked up at him and actually smiled, which made John feel a little easier.
"It is simply not a good day for trade. I should have waited and come back at a later time. But I feared the seeds I was seeking would be gone."
John draped his hands across the butt of his P-90. "You don't normally have this much trouble. Actually you're usually raving about the place when you come back. What's changed? This race thing?"
Teyla shook her head. "No, not the race. In fact prices are usually cheaper before race time. It may be that the people here are angry with my people. I have heard from many of my people that there are those on other worlds who will no longer trade with us because we are no longer on Athos. Some feel that we have made it difficult for them to come trade with us, others feel we are hiding away on a world the wraith cannot find, so have become jealous."
"Sounds a little anal to me," John said. "If they're getting the goods then what does it matter where the trade happens? And Atlantis isn't all that safe, the wraith just don't know you guys are there."
"We have tried to explain that. Some listen, some do not. It does not matter since we eventually find those who are willing to trade, and many do come around in time."
There was a hesitant undertone in Teyla's voice that John wasn't missing no matter how casual Teyla tried to be. There was something she wasn't saying, or more accurately something she was holding back on saying. So she was telling the truth, just not the whole truth.
Too bad for Teyla John had always been good about putting two and two together. He stopped walking when realization hit.
"It's us, isn't it?"
Teyla stopped as well, then turned, slowly, wearing an apologetic expression. "You are strangers," Teyla said, "they know this. Your clothes, weapons, do tend to make many nervous. But given time..."
John shook his head. "No, it's more than that. They know. They know we're the ones who took you from Athos and I'm betting they think we took you under are wing – our protection, I mean. So they're jealous. They see we're from Atlantis so it's 'don't trust the wanna-be Ancestors and their little Athosian buddies', right?"
Just like John had never seen Teyla viciously bitter, neither had he ever seen her so doggedly sheepish. "Some... Do have disdain for your people, for differing reasons. Some feel you are – had, trespassed on the Ancestor's home. Others... feel you – Atlantis!" she added quickly, "brought the wraith down upon them too early."
John stifled a wince. That would forever be a sore subject seeing as how it was true. Teyla meant 'you' as in the entire expedition team, but John always had a hard time not seeing that particular 'you' as something a little more personal. Teyla was painfully aware of this, and her features twisted in a deepening look of regret.
"It is not just with your people, John. Many have lost trust in the Genii. No one will go to Hoff believing that the wraith vaccine is actually a plague. We may have a common enemy but that does not always bring differing factions together. So many have lost what they have to the wraith that they fear more could be lost to those they do not know, or thought they had known."
John smiled tightly. "Bottom line is, as long as we're around, you won't be getting any square deals." Then he softened since he wasn't really mad, just frustrated for Teyla's sake. "Sorry about that."
Teyla shook her head. "No, John, don't be. My people and I are alive because of your people. The occasional greedy merchant is a small price to pay for that. The seeds I seek are for a fruit that is more an indulgence among my people rather than a necessity."
"Necessity or not, you shouldn't be getting raw deals because of me. Come on," John jerked his head over his shoulder. "Let's go back to that vendor guy, I'll scare the hell out of him and you negotiate for a better price."
Teyla smirked and rolled her eyes skyward in mock consideration. "Hmm... It is a most tempting idea, or would be if not for the off chance that we will get arrested for it. The seeds I have will do for now until I can bring more root."
Teyla tucked her purchases into her satchel, and they continued on down the street. On approach to Jihenna's, Lenny stuck his head over the fence and stretched it on his long neck for a whiff at John's pockets. John fished a half-eaten strawberry power bar, shucked the wrapper, and tossed it to the beast.
"Doesn't anyone take this thing for a walk?" John asked.
Teyla smiled and patted Lenny's brow. "The kita are more pleasure animals than beasts of burden. They are ridden mostly by children, or those wishing for a leisure flight. They are not large enough to carry supplies."
"So why aren't any joy riders taking this one out for a spin around the mountains?"
"Jihenna told me once that during the races, sales in kita go down. Gorn is normally a breeder of kita but has turned to breeding other creatures now that race time is approaching."
Gorn was Jihenna's neighbor. Nice guy, but not very talkative unless the conversation centered around how to train kita.
John patted Lenny's head. "Poor guy. Maybe Gorn'll let me take you out for a spin."
Teyla cocked an eye. "Kita are normally considered animals ridden only by women."
John just shrugged. "Didn't say I'd ride in public." He gave Lenny one more pat, then he and Teyla continued on to Jihenna's hut. John entered first, causing Teyla to collide into his back when he abruptly stopped.
Tol Malak was sitting at the table, along with three of his men, all sipping from clay cups like fine china painted blue and gold. Malak looked up at John's entry and beamed as though seeing an old drinking buddy.
"Colonel Sheppard! I was starting to wonder when you'd show up."
John's eyes flickered to and from McKay and Ronon standing by the stove, Ronon leaning against the wall and Rodney with his arms folded. Jihenna was at the stove stirring a pot and looking annoyed. Her father was in his rocking chair on the other side of the stove, whittling a piece of wood.
"Kind of got caught up in all the fun of shopping," John said. He moved forward cautiously, watching Malak in open suspicion. The man was too damn happy, and John had never been one to trust people who smiled too much: clowns especially, everyone else after. "What's up, Malak? Decided you like what we had to offer after all?"
Malak leaned back in his chair, arching in a contented stretch. "No. I decided I was feeling generous."
Rodney perked like a dog hearing a can opener. "You're going to let us see the ruins?"
Malak looked at Rodney, then back at John hooking a thumb in McKay's direction. "I like his enthusiasm. Nope, that's not what I meant."
John eyed the 'blasters' holstered at the waists of Malak's men. "Why do I get the feeling we're going to end up sticking around longer than we intended?"
At that, Ronon pushed away from the wall with his hand straying to his gun. Malak's men did a little straying of their own, eying Ronon warningly. Malak held up a hand before a fire-fight erupted.
"Easy, friends, easy." Malak's grin turned crooked. "You insult me, Colonel. Of course we don't intend to keep you here. You can go back whenever you wish. Although you'll have to rely on one of our transport systems to do so. Your ship's staying with us."
"What!" McKay barked.
John's eyes bulged. "Like hell!"
Malak entwined his hands behind his head, tilting the chair back. "I don't know what this 'hell' is Colonel, but it's not going to change the fact that your ship stays. Call it a good faith payment, one that'll allow Dr. McKay there a free pass into the temple, any time he wants, to search through the information to his hearts content. Or, you can just go. We'll even arrange transportation. But your ship stays, Colonel."
Rodney gaped. "Wha... but... You can't even fly the damn thing!"
John's heart tried to scramble into his throat and out his mouth. He turned stiffly in Rodney's direction. "McKaaay... Shut. Up."
But McKay, thoroughly pissed and mystified, wasn't listening. "Only certain people with a certain genetic makeup can pilot them. Or, to put it so that your Buccaneer brain can handle, you have to have a special something in your blood that I'm pretty sure none of you have."
Malak's finely trimmed eyebrows rose to his finely combed hairline. "Is that so?" Then his eyes returned to pinning John with a wolfishly considerate look. "And Colonel Sheppard has this special something?"
"Yes!" McKay spat, then sputtered at the painful slap of sudden realization. "I mean, um..." He looked from a glowering John to an extremely self-satisfied Malak; panicked at first, then annoyed. "Oh, what, now you're going to want to keep him too? Good luck with that. You'll have our people raining drones down on your heavily coiffed head before you had the chance to take the jumper out for a test drive. And don't think we won't go to the same extremes to get a jumper back. We're kind of fond of them."
McKay had a point, but it apparently didn't bother Malak. He kept smiling, kept staring, the cogs in his head revolving, spitting out schemes that made his smile broaden. John maintained his scowl while his heart pounded faster and faster. Sometimes John's gene was more curse than blessing. He'd barely escaped worlds by the skin of his teeth that had gone to great, almost destructive lengths just to keep him around for his gene.
"Plus," Rodney continued, "one jumper isn't gonna do squat against an entire wraith fleet if a fleet happens to show up. There's no point to any of this."
John begged to differ. One jumper could be quite useful on a semi-technological world; say if one wanted to stage a rebellion, attack a neighboring island he didn't like, hell, even use it in a plot to take over the planet. It was stereotypical and judgmental to think, but Malak seemed the type of guy. He probably had the desire, the plans, just not the means until Sheppard and his invisible ship showed up.
There could be a thousand reasons why Malak wanted the jumper for his lil' old self. So reasons didn't matter, keeping him from getting the jumper (and John if he was so inclined) was what mattered.
Malak shrugged. "I still want one. And if you attempt to slip off in the night, be assured I will have people watching, and they will alert the ring station, who will effectively disengage the ring making it impossible for you to get home. So you have two choices, leave the jumper and go home, or leave the jumper and remain permanent residents. Really a harmless ultimatum if I do say so myself. I'll leave you lot to think it over."
With that said, Malak slapped the table, pushed himself up, and headed to the door. John and Teyla parted to let them pass. Malak slowed, looking John up and down in a way that sent cold creeping up his spine. Then Malak left, taking his goons with him.
"Elizabeth's going to kill us," Rodney whimpered.
Jihenna slammed her spoon on the stove top to plant her hand on her hip. "Ya don't listen ta dat Malak. You go, come back, and blow him out of de water. He deserves it. He's always causin' trouble like dat, and he'll be up ta no good if he get your ship. Dat man always up ta somethin', and I gotta live on dis island. I want no trouble 'cause of him, and he'll cause trouble, I promise ya dat."
"He too ambitious," Joren said with an agitated slice through the wood he was carving. "And too smart for his own good. Whatever he up to, it no good, but he'll do it and bring wraith-like bad down on us."
"Well," Rodney said, looking distinctively uncomfortable. "At least he didn't grab Sheppard and take off."
Jihenna looked over at John, anger giving way to worry. "If what you say is true, and de Colonel is de only one who can fly your ship, den Malak'll find a way ta take him. Like my pa say, Malak is smart, too smart."
John tried not to cringe.
"If worse comes to worse," Rodney said, "we could always offer him the gene inoculation just to get him to back off."
"And just let him win that easy?" Ronon said. "Malak's nothing. Your people can take him easily."
John looked at Teyla, then at an uneasy Jihenna. Malak was the one being an ass, not the people on this island, and these were a people Teyla's people depended on for trade. There had to be an easier, non-violent way out of this.
Okay, maybe not necessarily easy, but he'd definitely settle for non-violent. John glanced around as though the answer might be staring him in the face. His gaze landed on the window to his left, the one that opened up to a distant view of Gorn's farm.
And there it was. John's heart jolted. He bolted from the hut, leaping off the porch and tearing off down the street to where Malak and his body-guards were just now mounting their winged beasts that had been tethered to trees farther up the road in a clearing that allowed for easier landings and take-offs.
"Malak, hold up!" John shouted. He skidded to a stop when the dragon-like and furry head of Malak's creature swung around, snarling at him. Malak leaned forward with his arms draped over the saddle horn.
"Colonel Sheppard?" he said cheerily. "Come to a decision or change your mind about something?"
John held up his hands when the dragon-headed beast prodded its nose into his chest. "Actually, I have something else I want to talk to you about."
"And what would that be?"
John finally shoved the scaled and furred head away. "A wager."
"Are you freakin' nuts!" Rodney shrilled.
"I'd have ta agree with Dr. McKay, Colonel," Jihenna said. "Dis is a dangerous race if you're not experienced with de flying beasts."
Joren lifted his leg encased in the metal brace. "How do ya think I got this, young fella? My last race, dat's how. And you got no beast ta ride."
John paced on the other side of the table since he was now too tense and too soaked with nervous adrenaline to sit. "I talked to Gorn," he said. "He's going to let me use Len... I mean his kita."
Rodney's eyes rounded even wider, if that were possible. "Are – you - nuts!"
"Dat is not normally de kind of beast use ta race," Jihenna said. Her eyes were wide enough to out-round Rodney's. "If you don't mind bein' laughed at ya will mind being knocked from de sky by de bigger beasts."
"No, I won't," John snapped. "I talked to Gorn about the kita. He says their very agile and pretty fast. And though this might have been nothing but a well-rehearsed sales pitch, he agrees that they might actually work better in the races because they're smaller. Look, it's not like I'm out to win. This may be a half-assed plan, but I did think it over. I told Malak that if I come in fourth or higher, he let's us go back, with the puddle jumper. McKay gets his free pass and we can come and go as we please. Tomorrow, we're to get the wager drawn up and notarized after I sign in."
Rodney crossed his arms over his chest. "So what does Malak get if you don't come in fourth or higher?"
John couldn't hold back a small wince and a cringe. "The jumper."
Rodney lifted his chin. "What else?"
"I explained to him about the gene inoculation. Said we'd give it to him or someone of his choosing should I lose."
Jihenna pursed her lips in genuine respect. "Not a bad wager. At least he won't be takin' you, Colonel."
John accidentally winced a second time. Rodney narrowed his eyes.
John stopped pacing, casting his gaze to the floor and bringing his hand to the back of his neck. "Malak doesn't trust the inoculation, because I kind of went all honest in my hurry to make the wager and told him it doesn't work on everyone. So he extended things a little."
"Extended how?" Rodney pressed. Then scowled. "If it doesn't work, he gets you," he said.
John nodded abashedly. Rodney rolled his eyes and tossed his hands into the air. "Great! Just freakin' great! So basically, instead of avoiding the whole peaceful solution bit, you made the non-peaceful solution more complicated!" He shook his head. "You are nuts."
"Hey!" John barked. "We could just contact Atlantis, tell them our problem, and go the non-peaceful route. Maybe get them to send the Daedalus so we can skip town by atmosphere instead of the gate. Easy as that since we don't have any reason to come back here. But Teyla and her people do have a reason to come back, and I'm not going to screw that up."
Teyla moved swiftly but calmly forward to place her hand on his arm. "Colonel, it is all right. You should not have to risk your life for that. Jihenna is right, the races are very, very dangerous, and you are risking much in this wager."
John huffed out a caustic, breathy laugh. "Gee, guys, thanks for the vote of confidence. Look, this isn't just about keeping a puddle-jumper. We don't know what Malak wants that jumper for. Maybe he wants it for a joy ride, but then again maybe he doesn't. We can't take that risk. Neither should we have to resort to blowing his ass out of the sky. And, also neither, should we put up with having to worry about Malak wanting more should, somehow, he get the jumper. Or trying again if he doesn't. Another condition of the wager is to allow us to come and go as we please, Athosians especially, but that's only if I participate. So whatever else happens, even if I lose and we have to get a little more creative about getting the jumper back – and myself if it comes down to that but it shouldn't - at least he won't be able to mess with us. I'm not letting this asshole push us around."
No one could argue with that, though Rodney looked ready to. He even had his mouth open, gathering words for a retort. Then he snapped it shut. Everyone was silent, uncertain, but painfully aware that John wasn't going to change his mind any time soon. They were also painfully aware that he was right. The race was the safest route they had to go that didn't involve losing another potential ally.
Joren tossed down his wood and knife, grabbed his cane, and used it to push himself to his feet. "Jihenna, love, you go get me old saddle. We need ta adjust de straps ta fit that beast. Mr. Sheppard, you come with me. If ya dat willin' ta risk your neck for a ship and our welfare, then we can at least make things less risky for ya."
It took a massive overhaul of the saddle to make it fit Lenny's more slender back. The harness was a back-pack configuration, with two straps that went around the shoulder and a strap between them to hold it in place. Another, longer, strap stretched back looping around the start of the tail. The saddle was interesting, kind of like a western saddle without the horn, and sized somewhere between an English and Western saddle. Instead of stirrups it was straps that would lock John's legs in place and keep him hooked to his seat. Joren, McKay, and Ronon fashioned a separated harness with one end strapped to Lenny's waist and the other harnessed around John's shoulders and across his chest.
"One of de dirtier tactics," Joren said, "is ta cut de saddle straps and send ya flyin' on your own. With dis you'll have a better chance of stayin' on your beast."
When the saddle was ready and strapped and the reins buckled onto Lenny's face, they led the kita out to the clearing further down the road. Gorn had given John a quick lesson on the varied sounds and hand-signals that cued Lenny into what John wanted him to do. John moved around to face Lenny and pointed a fist downward. Lenny chirped and crouched to the ground. John moved to Lenny's side and climbed into the saddle. Ronon and Teyla helped him strap in his legs as he pulled on the safety harness.
"I did say that this was nuts, right?" Rodney called from off the side of the road.
"Yep," John said, buckling the strap across his chest.
Rodney nodded. "Just making sure. Don't die on us as it'll be a little premature."
John gave him a thumbs up. Now strapped in, he took up Lenny's reins, then patted Lenny's neck twice one handed to get him to rise.
"Keep your head and body down," Joren said. "Keeps da wind from tryin' ta rip ya clean off. And your fellow riders. Let da beast do da work. You want him to go down, ya pull de reins down. Want him up, ya pull up. Pull back ta slow him and give him a nudge ta speed him up. Gorn knows how ta train kita so dis one shouldn't be no trouble even for a starter like you."
"Okey-dokey," John said. He pulled the pair of aviator goggles hanging around his neck onto his face, then pulled on the heavy gloves Joren said was a wise thing to have if John wanted to continue using his hands. He took the reins up again, entwining them around his palms. He hunkered close in to Lenny's body and turned his heels into Lenny's flanks.
Lenny made a sound like a gutteral snarl. He reared his head back, bunching onto his haunches. John wasn't prepared for the push off that sent Lenny skyward and his head whipping back.
"Ah crap!" he snarled. Wind ripped over his body like a thousand hands trying to tear him from Lenny's back. Within the lion's roar of wind ripping past his ears was a whistling, heart-beat like thumping that John gradually began to realize was Lenny's wings flapping. The kita pulled itself up and up, out of the trees then high over them into open sky and an endless carpet of emerald far below.
Lenny continued to rise, then leveled off to glide on warm air currents. The wind's strength diminished enough to allow John to straighten.
"Oh wow," he breathed. This was beyond different. It was a flight that was more open, more wild, more free – true flight, with no mechanical limitations and no metal enclosures. It was a step away from having his own wings. Pure, natural flight that man could only mimic through complicated means. John's heart beat in tepid astonishment. Without the usual metal enclosures, John actually experienced a small surge of trepidation hidden within the adrenaline of wonder. Until he looked up, away from the land to the clouds. The trepidation trickled away and John's heart swelled with exhilaration until he was chuckling in manic glee.
"This is beyond awesome."
John hunkered back down, tightened his hold on the reins, and dug his heels into Lenny's flanks. Lenny chirped and flapped hard, pushing back into the roaring wind that whipped John's jacket like a cape. John pulled down on the reins. Lenny folded his wings and dropped into a dive at speeds that made it hard to keep John's face forward. John's heart jackhammered in an onslaught of terror and excitement as the land rushed up to meet them. He pulled upward on the reins, just a tug, and Lenny's wings slowly unfurled to level off five feet over the canopy. Lenny's speed remained at a wind roaring rate as he whipped over the trees that were a solid blur of green below them. John pulled a little harder up on the reins and Lenny veered in a graceful arc toward the clouds.
When Lenny was high enough, John steered him into another roller-coaster dive. Lenny tucked his wings and shot like and arrow toward the trees. John let rip a cry of pure adrenaline-packed joy at the way his heart seemed to suspend in his chest. He pulled back, Lenny leveled out, and John howled out in wild, hysterical laughter. He pulled to steer Lenny right, and angled his own body with that of the kita's creating a smooth, easy turn. By moving with Lenny, the wind didn't try so hard to pull him off, thus creating less drag for the kita.
John steered Lenny back up, then around, back the way they had come. They practiced a few more turns, dives, rises – basic stuff – until John felt he'd gotten the hang of going with Lenny's motions. He didn't know how long they'd been up, but felt it sufficient time enough to head back. He had Lenny circle the clearing before angling him down toward the road. Lenny shot fast in a dive, unfurling his wings when the road rushed up to meet them, catching air, and setting down gently like a parachute.
Lenny flapped once more pushing up a cloud of dirt and debris before touching the ground lightly. John's team, Jihenna and Joren hurried back out onto the road.
"So how was it?" Rodney called up.
John let his body sag against Lenny's neck, patting that neck and trying to catch his breath from all the laughter. "I think I'm gonna ask Elizabeth if I can keep him."
Rodney snorted. "Yeah, she'll be real open to that."
John laughed louder and hugged Lenny's neck. "I love this thing!"
John had to make an appearance in town to register himself and Lenny, as well as take part in drawing up the wager. All three acts took place at one of the sign-up booths set up in a circle around the fountain that marked the town's heart. Malak was so damn smug during the whole affair that John watched him with the deep wariness of one waiting for a weapon to be whipped out of nowhere. John didn't exactly expect that to happen, but did suspect Malak to have something up his sleeve, and John was always at his most alert when he thought that something was a weapon.
When the wager was written up, the details nit-picked, and both men signed on the dotted line, John was handed various race paraphernalia: four reflective red bracelets to be worn by John on the wrists and ankles, adjustable reflective collar and four bracelets for his mount, a number written in Calatra on a skin to be strapped to John's back, and two larger skins to be strapped onto Lenny's flanks. Then the two men shook hands, John hoping his grip was painful, and everything was set.
John's team, Jihenna, and Jorn were waiting off to the side. John hefted the skins with their leather straps onto his shoulder and headed toward them.
"Jihenna!" someone bellowed in a voice so deep it made John's bones vibrate. John turned his head to see the barrel-chested, red-headed man sauntering toward the group. A gestured flippantly toward John. "What's dis Jihenna? You in then?"
Jihenna folded her arms in that warning way only Ronon could pull off. "I'm in nothin', Hin. Just helpin' me friends. You best go on your way. I've no mind ta be wagerin'."
Hin stuffed his meaty hands into his trouser pockets, leaning his hip up against the edge of one of the wagering tables. Biggest blasted hint if there ever was one. The man was silent but in a calculating way that became even more calculating as he sized John up. John pretended not to notice as he joined up with the others, showing them the skins and bracelet.
"Must be to keep any transports from running into you," Rodney commented, turning the bracelets for the light to refract.
"Dat your rider den?" Hin asked. "Dat willowy fellow?"
John snapped his head around in fiery indignation. "What the hell!" He was all ready to show Hin just how 'willowy' he was when Teyla grabbed his arm and Jihenna placed herself between him and Hin, facing Hin.
"Not smart to underestimate, Hin," she spat. "You know better."
"I know he'll get swept off his beast in a dive. Dat boy ain't lastin' past the startin' line."
Joren gimped up to stand behind his daughter. "Dat 'boy' a natural flyer if I ever saw one. He'll be circlin' you like you were a tree Hin. You wait and see."
John couldn't help a sense of pride swelling in his chest. Joren was the real expert flyer, so it said a lot that he had that kind of faith in John.
Hin bellowed out a heavy guffaw. "You tink that, Joren? If you got dat much faith, den why not wager?"
"'Cause I ain't no fool."
John's pride rapidly deflated a little. He wouldn't have asked Joren to put that much faith in him and risk loosing any livelihood, but it still stung a little. Pride cometh before the fall, and when the fall came, even the little stumbles stung.
Hin laughed again. "I won't fault ya dat, Joren. You never did know how ta give in ta a little risk."
Translated – Joren was a wuss. Joren bristled and gimped threateningly toward Hin, only to be held back by his daughter. Hin chuckled in a belly laugh, shaking his head. "Hope ya don't fault me for wagerin' against you're wispy friend there. My Gevalin could swallow him wit-out bitin': like downin' a fish." Hin increased the volume of his laughter as he walked away to go place his bet at the public betting booth. Joren cut his hand through the air as though swatting Hin away, mumbled some expletive about Hin's mother being a creature called a gimfa, and turned to face John with an apologetic look.
"Don't take dat harsh, now, Colonel," he said. "My own pa was a bettin' man and lost much. I've had the same streak and lost much to de point dat I vowed never ta bet again."
John nodded, the original sting gone when it was finally overcome by complete understanding. "It's cool, Joren. I'm not in this race to win."
Jihenna glanced over her shoulder at Hin nervously. "But Hin don't know that." She looked at John, all foreboding which wasn't helping his frame of mind at the moment. "You watch out for dat Hin, Colonel. He'll be flyin' in de races, and when he wagers, he wagers big. He won't just be wantin' to see you lose, but be de first out of de race. Dat's how most of de wagers go. You don't just bet on who'll lose, but when dey'll lose. And since he's in de race, he can make sure you lose at de point he wagered where you'll lose. You get me?"
John nodded, grimacing at the sudden twist of apprehension in his gut. Hin was going to make sure his Gevalin (John assumed that was the name of Hin's mount) downed John whole the moment John hit the leg of the race where Hin wagered John would fall. Hin would be richer, his team would be stranded, and John would be digested.
John's idea to keep the jumper just kept getting better and better.