"Are you sure that goes straight to Dakara?" Sheppard asked as the gate in Atlantis's control room activated after the standard kawoosh.
Elizabeth smiled. "I'm sure. Stevenson modified the control crystal to allow any outgoing connection between galaxies…but you're still going to have to come back through the gate center."
"Right," Sheppard said, glancing at Ford. "You ready?"
"I was waiting on you," he said deadpan.
Sheppard smirked and looked back up off the gateroom floor to where Elizabeth was standing on the landing. "Be back in a few days."
"I hope so," Elizabeth snided. "I wouldn't want to have to bring Atlantis all the way to Earth to bust your ass out of jail."
Sheppard did a double take. "Be careful…I got it," he said, nudging Ford through the event horizon. He gave Elizabeth a small wave then followed him through.
They stepped out of the opposite gate looking into the barrels of half a dozen staff weapons and two fixed turrets.
"As you were," one of the guards said. The rest of the Jaffa lowered their weapons.
The Jaffa that spoke walked out from behind the gate guards and stood before Sheppard and Ford. "I bid you greetings on behalf of Lord Bra'tac."
Sheppard nodded. "Hello to you too."
"Hey," Ford quipped, "no tattoo?"
To his surprise the Jaffa smiled. "None that you may see, but it is there."
"Invisible tattoo..." Ford asked, "what's the point?"
"Excuse my friend," Sheppard said, jumping in, "he doesn't get out much. Now, I assume Bra'tac left word that we were coming?"
"He did, indeed," the Jaffa said. "He awaits you at the shipyard."
"Shipyard…sweet," Sheppard said, raising a hand. "Lead on."
The Jaffa nodded and swept his cape around in a long turn. "Follow me."
When he wasn't looking Sheppard elbowed Ford in the ribs. His friend gave him a 'what's that for' look then let it go. Both of them dropped into step behind the quickly moving Jaffa as he led them along a dirt path through the rubble-strewn landscape. After half a kilometer they came to a set of rings seemingly out of place from any nearby habitation.
The threesome stepped inside and the Jaffa pressed a sequence of buttons on his forearm gauntlet. The rings flashed up around them as usual, then deposited them in the middle of what looked like an Ancient city.
Small, but Ancient-style structures surrounded the three of them as the Jaffa continued his rapid pace away from the rings and along the smooth, almost polished meter-wide tiles that lined the city's streets. Ford and Sheppard had to jog a few steps to catch up.
"Wow," Ford said under his breath. "Kind of reminds me of Atlantis."
Sheppard cringed. "Not quite the Lantean architecture, but close."
"I thought the Alterra built Atlantis," Ford pointed out.
"True, but I imagine the Lanteans did at least some redecorating."
"Makes sense," Ford said as they passed a small contingent of guards being led by another tattoo-less Jaffa. "How long did you say this has been here?"
"Less than two years," Sheppard said, thoroughly impressed. "Ancients build fast."
As they turned a corner Ford's eyes went wide. "No kidding."
"You said it," Sheppard echoed as the buildings ended a few rows down and a vast plateau stretched out before them with six large, half constructed ships cradled in a mess of support struts and what looked like cranes…only they had glowy patches on them.
"Shipyard I guess," Ford said as the Jaffa turned around when he heard their footsteps stop.
"It is an impressive sight, even for those of us that see it every day," he said in agreement with their awe. "None the less, Lord Bra'tac must not be kept waiting. Come."
Sheppard and Ford kept up with him this time as he guided them down onto the plateau. As they came closer, they realized there were several smaller ships under construction alongside the larger ones…and off to the side was a promenade that two complete vessels were parked on.
"Are those our ride?" Ford asked.
The Jaffa nodded. "The first of the new Alket design. Only these two are complete, but as you can see many more are being built."
"And the big ones?" Sheppard asked.
"H'tel," the Jaffa answered. "Similar to the Goa'uld motherships of past days…only far more powerful."
"I'll bet," Sheppard said as they stopped outside a small spire on the edge of the promenade.
"Colonel Sheppard," a voice called out from the shadows of the spire. "Good. You have arrived," Bra'tac said, striding out to meet them.
"That we have," Sheppard said, taken slightly aback by the bold red tunic that the man wore. It stood out in stark contrast to his surroundings and the dress of the other Jaffa. Sheppard also noted the man's forearm jewelry…which was eerily similar to the style Stevenson wore.
"From what I was told, we are retrieving some of Atlantis's former crew, yes?"
Sheppard nodded. "A few more than planned actually. Dr. Weir has been given command of Atlantis and she added a few names to the list."
"How many?" Bra'tac demanded.
"Seven total," Sheppard told him.
Bra'tac nodded. "Do you know the location of said individuals on the planet?"
"Just one, but he should be able to help us find the rest."
"Very well," Bra'tac said, satisfied. "If nothing else, it should be an adequate test of the Alket's stealth abilities."
Sheppard raised an eyebrow. "You haven't tested it yet?"
"Through trials, yes. But this will be the first mission for the prototype."
"Sounds fun," Ford chimed in.
Sheppard glanced at him. "We're ready when you are."
"The crew is already aboard," Bra'tac said, walking forward. "We shall leave immediately."
"Sorry if we kept you waiting," Sheppard said, trying to keep in step with the energetic man.
"You did not," he said forcefully. "There is still much work to be done on the H'tels. Time was not wasted."
"Good to hear," Sheppard offered, struggling slightly to keep up with Bra'tac's pace.
"I hear you recently defeated three ships of the Tau'ri?" the Alterra asked.
Sheppard nodded slowly. "More Stevenson than us, but yeah."
"The Tria is a mighty warship," Bra'tac agreed. "I studied the design with great interest before designing the H'tel. It gives me great comfort to know that a single vessel can outmatch three of the upgraded Human vessels."
"A single Ancient ship?" Ford asked. "Or a single…H'tel?"
Bra'tac smiled. "Both," he said as they finally arrived on the deep paving stones of the promenade. When they did, a small gantry was extended from the side of the nearest Alket.
"Come," Bra'tac said, almost running up the narrow ramp.
Sheppard and Ford followed him inside, albeit a few seconds later.
"Time to arrival?" Nella asked.
Her fellow Aschen in the control chamber lightly tapped three buttons on the workstation before him.
"The bio-pods will arrive in 18 hours, 54 minutes," the second of the two mission commanders stated lethargically. "The command ship and elementals will arrive 23 and 27 minutes later, respectively."
"Any vessels within detection range?" Neela asked.
"None," Jarro reported. "It seems strange for the Earthers not to have at least some detection net set up around their world."
"By all recollection, they are a primitive race," Neela commented.
"A race which succeeded in destroying an entire star system," Jarro argued.
"A heavy price to pay, for sure," Neela countered calmly, "but the knowledge of the gate system unlocked serves as recompense."
"The two million Aschen who died would argue otherwise."
"As would I," Neela agreed, "but the past cannot be undone. Only the future preserved."
"But it can be avenged…"
Neela turned on him. "You have doubts?"
"I believe we are acting in haste. Sufficient thought has not been given to the matter."
"Normally I would agree, but these Earthers have escaped our grasp once. We cannot let them persist. Their continued existence would only serve to poison others."
"Two years is not sufficient time," Jarro continued to argue. "From all indications the Earthers have defeated a powerful enemy in the interim. They could not have done so with the technology they possessed at our last encounter. I fear we may be underestimating them."
"We shall soon see," Neela said, leaving the control chamber.