Bloodfire – Chapter 5: Primum Tempus (Finis) Part 1

Status:
  • Work in Progress
Content Rating:
  • NC-17
Fandom(s):
Stargate Atlantis, Stargate SG-1

Relationship(s):
McKay/Sheppard

Warning(s):
  • Character Bashing
  • Explicit Sex
  • Hate Crimes
  • Racism
  • Violence - Canon-Level
Genre(s):
  • Action Adventure
  • Alternate Universe
  • Drama
  • First Time
  • Pre-Relationship
  • Science Fiction
Word Count:
6537

Author's Note:
Genres and warnings apply to the stroy as a whole, not this chapter in particular.

Summary:
Markham and Alvez debriefing continues, and their story gets more and more darker.


There was a sense of dread in the air when they reconvened in the conference room after lunch. The silence was only broken by the scratch of Caldwell’s pen on his notepad and the clicks of the recorder as Chuck checked it. Sheppard was worried about McKay, who was resting his head over his crossed arms on the table, twitching randomly with barely audible hisses.

Alvez and Markham were the last to arrive. Markham walked stiffly, his face set in a careful formal mask as he sat down, but Sheppard could hear his heart beating faster than normal. Alvez sat closer to his friend than before, his eyes darting quickly to Caldwell before looking at Sheppard with a mixture of determination and dread. It didn’t surprise John after Beckett had informed him that he’d given them Stackhouse’s test results over the break. He gave them a tight smile and a nod, and they seemed to relax infinitesimally.

“Camera’s ready, Sir,” Chuck informed him. McKay raised his head, looked around the table and pushed himself up until he could lean back on his chair.

“Thank you, Sergeant. You may start recording,” Sheppard ordered, trading a very worried look with Beckett.

“Camera recording, Sir.”

“Continuation of the formal debriefing of Staff Sergeant Jason Markham, USMC, and Lance Corporal Alex Alvez, USMC, regarding the First Atlantis Expedition, with same personnel present as before. Sergeant Markham, we left it when the First Expedition made a deal to leave Athos. Can you continue, please?”

“Yes, Sir,” Markham shifted in his chair, and crossed his hands on the table in front of himself. “The planet Teyla sent us to was in the middle of spring and, by the position of the sun, it was around midday. The gate sat in the middle of a wide field with no structures near, but there was a cobblestone-paved road that started at the DHD and seemed to lead to a formation of low hills on the other side. After everyone had come through, Colonel Sumner decided to send a reconnaissance team. Sergeants Bates and Medina, Corporal Parker, Lance Corporal Alvez, myself and Dr. Corrigan.”

Sheppard frowned. “Dr. Corrigan?”

“He said that between my Sentinel senses and Corrigan’s empathy we’d be able to detect anyone near. He refused our objections, but allowed Dr. Corrigan to carry the M9 he’d qualified for,” Markham explained.

Caldwell took some brief notes on his pad. Sheppard still looked displeased, but ordered, “Understood, Sergeant. Continue.”

“About two clicks away from the gate, behind a low hill, we found a small town. It was medieval age or so. The houses were still standing. Cob houses, with thatched roofs, some half rotten, heaps of trash accumulated on the corners. But the thing was that inside the houses, dining tables were still laid out. There were plates with putrefied food and glasses with stale water and some alcoholic drink gone bad. The shops were still open, though their wares were trashed, dirty, molded…” Markham grimaced. “But there was no signs of humans whatsoever, not even human remains, skeletons or anything. Nothing,” he stressed with a cutting hand gesture. “The only lifesigns were rodents and some kind of poultry they later named crazy cocks. ”

“It was a fucking ghost town,” Alvez muttered.

“Yeah, it was,” Markham confirmed. “It gave us the creeps, true. .Some time later, we learnt that the town had been culled by the Wraith two years before,” Markham added, taking a gulp of water before continuing. “Dr. Weir was strongly and vocally unsatisfied with our findings, but the Expedition needed a base and the houses were deemed sturdy enough, so we moved in. We spent the first couple of weeks cleaning, fixing things and generally settling down.

Twelve days after we arrived, a group of three men gated in. They were game hunters. It turned out, in the planet lived a deer or elk-like animal called a laph, whose meat and hide were very appreciated in Pegasus. Dr. Weir traded with them the right to hunt three animals in exchange for a list of gate addresses.”

“They didn’t question your need for them?” Caldwell asked.

“Not really. Dr. Weir told them the gate in our home planet was buried by an avalanche a few centuries ago and that we had only managed to dig it out recently, and that there were only a few addresses in our historical records. In Pegasus, it’s a rare situation but not unheard of, so they bought it without much problem.”

“And they didn’t question your right to the planet?”

“In this galaxy, planets inhabited for more than a year are a question of finders keepers. If you have the people and resources to colonize it, it’s yours. The problem is that most societies don’t have the resources for that.”

“Understood. Continue, please.”

“Well, the laph turned out to be a great resource, and we did well for ourselves on the trade planets. Then Dr. Simpson had the idea of smoking the meat, and it was a hit off world. Someone else also managed to distil a sort of vodka from a local grain we’d traded for, and that was well received too.”

McKay snorted. “I bet I know who he was.”

“And I think you’d be right,” Markham acknowledged with a small smile. “The thing is that, within two months, we were doing well in the resources department. The living conditions had improved too. The technicians and scientists had macgyvered an illumination and battery recharging system, and even a basic Wi-Fi network that didn’t rely on Dr. Grodin’s Transductor Gift. They were also making other improvements, like electric water pumps. There was a general feeling that we could make it until Earth sent for us.” Makrham drank a bit more water. “The morale department, however, was another story.”

“How bad was it?” Sheppard inquired.

“Dr. Weir was… beyond frustrated. I mean, there was a lot of frustration going around. We weren’t doing what we thought we’d be doing. Well, except the social sciences department. We’d found enough alien societies to keep them happy for a decade, at least.” There were some chuckles around the table and another snort from McKay, followed by a wince that made Sheppard frown. “But most people were trying to channel frustration into useful things or side projects. For example, the planet we were on had three moons and I heard there was an ongoing project studying the effects of that. Dr. Weir, however…” he let out a sigh.” Nothing was good enough, everything annoyed her, she had no patience for explanations. She constantly complained about our inability to find ancient tech and she could go from ignoring people to delivering a scathing tongue-lashing in seconds. But the worst was that she played favorites.”

“For example?” Sheppard asked.

“Dr. Zelenka was the CSO, but it was Dr. Kavanaugh who had her ear.”

“She took advice from that halfwit?” McKay interrupted.

“Yes, Sir.”

“He’s that bad?” Sheppard asked McKay.

“He’s a narcissistic, self-absorbed suck-it-up moron who believes himself to be God’s given answer to science. And yes, I know what you’re going to say,” he continued as he saw Caldwell opening his mouth to talk, “but, unlike me, he doesn’t have the intelligence to back it up! Zelenka, Grodin, Kusanagi, hell, even Abrams or Simpson are ten times better scientists than he is! When I was due to be CSO, I removed him thrice from the list! I even told Weir that I wouldn’t go with the Expedition if she kept putting him back!”

“Unfortunately, Dr. Zelenka didn’t have the pull you had, Dr. McKay,” Markham observed, “and Kavanaugh knew it.” McKay crossed his arms, his expression tight.

“Understood, Sergeant,” Sheppard said quickly before McKay could go into a rant. As fun as those were, this was not the place. “Continue, please.”

“Seven weeks after our arrival, Bates, Medina, Dr. Corrigan, Dr. Johnson and myself were in a trading trip on Belkan when we overhead a conversation…”

Belkan, Pegasus galaxy, 11 months ago.

The tavern was packed and boisterous, and smelled strongly of stale alcohol and frying oil. It wasn’t that different from taverns in other trading worlds, except they had good ale, some chicken-like drumsticks in a kind of barbecue sauce that were mouth-watering and spiced potatoes that weren’t half bad either. Their existence was a sort of shared secret among the trading teams. What Dr. Weir didn’t know she couldn’t yell at  them about.

After placing their order, they took a seat in a corner booth that allowed them an unobstructed view of both the entrance and the back door. Bates, Medina and Markham took the outer seats, leaving the ones by the wall for Corrigan and Johnson. Markham kept his senses firmly dialed down and moved closer to Corrigan, so the Pack bond, thin as it was, could provide some buffer for the Empath. Johnson also sat close on his other side. Though Mundane, she was a good friend and that helped him too.

“I’m telling you, they rained fire on them!” The exclamation, audible over the buzz of the tavern, caught the attention of the team. The speaker was a heavily-built bearded man seated two tables over and currently shaking a tankard of ale in the direction of his companion.

“Come on! That’s exaggerating!” His friend replied, biting into a juicy drumstick.

“No, no! I used to think so too, but I’ve seen it with my own two eyes!” He affirmed, gulping down half the tankard and slamming it on the table. “Thousands of bright lights rose up from the ground beneath! They were like, like… sticks of yellow fire! And then they fled directly to the village next to my cousin Petra’s!” He added, using his hands to demonstrate it to his friend. “We ran to it and everything was gone! Scorched, I tell you!!”

His friend looked unconvinced. “I’ve never seen a weapon do that.”

The man looked around and bent closer to his companion, forcing Markham to dial up his hearing. “They say they’re Ancestor weapons! Petra says the Lord Protector says he’s of their blood.”

“Bollocks, I say!” His friend replied, taking a swig of his own ale. “The Ancestors were guardians, teachers. Those jerks sound like those batty Genii, if you ask me.”

Markham related the last part of the conversation to his teammates.

“Ancestors? The Ancients?” Medina asked.

“The Athosians called the Stargate the Ring of the Ancestors,” Johnson said, “and that ‘sticks of yellow fire’ things sound too close to a drone weapon for my liking.”

Bates gave the strangers a calculating look.

“Doctors,” he said, turning back to them. “I think it’s time for some good old diplomacy.”

“Me?” Johnson frowned. “Do I need to remind you I’m an engineer and not a social scientist?”

Bates looked uncomfortable. “Don’t take this the wrong way, please, but you’re also a woman, and these kinds of people usually react better to women.”

“So,  you want me to use my feminine wiles on them?” Johnson smirked.

“If you would be so obliging, milady?” Bates smiled with an exaggerated bow.

Johnson chuckled, taking off her uniform jacket and pulling her long copper hair free of its ponytail. “Let’s charm their socks off, Ross!”

“Sergeant Bates’ intuition proved to be good. With a couple more rounds of ale and a little empathic push, they told us the gate address and everything they knew about the planet.” Markham stopped for a moment to collect his thoughts. “When we returned to the Alpha Base with the information, Dr. Weir was… very interested in our findings.” At his side, Alvez snorted loudly, but refrained from commenting. “Dr. Weir wanted to gate there immediately, but Colonel Summer preferred to send a recon team first. They had some loud words about it but, next morning, the Colonel ordered us to prepare for the mission.”

“She made him sleep on the couch,” Alvez blurted out, to the chuckles of the rest of the table.

“Or so we were told,” Markham continued seamlessly, fighting a smile. “In the end, Weir only agreed to send our only MALP first. It was still night on the other side, and our MALP almost fell victim to a guard with a battle axe.” That information earned him surprised looks and smirks around the table. “After we neutralized the guard, Colonel Sumner ordered me to do a scan for more hostiles and I detected a group of about 50 human heartbeats about three clicks north-northwest, thought the slow heart rate indicated probable sleep, as it turned out to be. There was another group further away, too far for a count. However, alongside them there was a faint buzz that sounded like electricity. Dr. Grodin, our Transductor, confirmed the presence of faint electromagnetic signals. It was enough for Dr. Weir to give the mission a go.”

Markham took a sip of water. “Dawn was breaking when we reached our first destination. It was the poorest village we’d seen so far in Pegasus. In fact, I’d say it was one of the poorest I’ve never seen while at the SGC. Houses were small, rough wood, with coarse linens for doors. There were just very basic farming tools and equipment around. Terrain was dry, dust was everywhere. Everything looked rough, extremely utilitarian, absolutely no frills. Dr. Weir looked disgusted and annoyed.”

“As usual,” Alvez muttered, which earned him a glare from Caldwell.

“A man came out one of the houses then,” Markham continued, hoping to take the heat away from the Corporal. “Around fifty, balding. Clothes were coarse linen and not in a good condition. He was very surprised to see us, but immediately recognized what we were looking for…”

“Oh, you mean the Tower?” The man, who had identified himself as Eldred, asked.

“The Tower?” Dr. Corrigan asked.

“You must come from a distant land indeed if you don’t know of it.”

“Yes, we really do,” Corrigan agreed. “What can you tell us about this… Tower?”

“The Tower protects us, and we give them part of our harvest as tribute in exchange.”

“Protection from what?”

“The Wraith, of course,” Elfred threw them a baffled look.

“Yeah, of course, of course, what else?” Corrigan concurred, emphatically projecting a bit of friendliness at Elfred, who seemed to relax. “But how exactly do the people in the tower protect you from the Wraith?”

“They have a great weapon capable of annihilating the Wraith ships which descend from the sky.”

“With this… weapon we’ve heard of?”

“Yes. The lights from beneath the Tower swarm the ships, and destroy them,” he explained with absolute sureness.

“And you have seen them do so?”

“I have never seen a Wraith ship. They have not come for many generations, but there are times that the Lord Protector sees fit to… demonstrate this power to his people.”

“So we’ve heard,” Corrigan commiserated, throwing some empathic sympathy Eldred’s way. At his right, Weir frowned. Corrigan continued quickly. “Eldred, we’d really like to meet this Lord Protector.”

“That may prove difficult. The Tower is for nobles only.”

“And what makes them noble?”

“Blood.”

“Oh, I’m sure we can convince them to make an exception for us,” Dr. Weir interjected.

Eldred looked from her to Corrigan. He didn’t look very convinced, so Corrigan gave him just a bit of empathic push. “Is this tower close by?”

“I will show you the way,” Eldred finally agreed, though he still looked doubtful. Elred guided them out of the village, though a field of sparse shoulder-high bushes up and green ferns to a low hill, about five minutes away. “There. That’s the Tower.”

Further down the valley, amidst a forest of tall spruces and firs, rose a tall metallic tower half-overgrown by vegetation that couldn’t disguise the clean lines and sharp angles of its construction. Dr. Weir grinned.

“Elizabeth?” Colonel Sumner asked.

“If that’s not Ancient, I’ll eat my vest,” she said. “Dr. Grodin!”

“Dr. Weir?”

“Electromagnetic signals?”

Grodin closed his eyes and tilted his head. “There’s electromagnetic radiation present,” he answered after a few moments, “probably an energy source, but it’s barely registering. Not electromagnetic signals, though.” He opened his eyes. “There are no communications that I can intercept, I’m sorry.”

At their side, Eldred looked surprised.

“Is there a problem, Eldred?” Corrigan asked.

“The Lord Protector can see anything that happens in his domain. He always knows what we’re doing.”

“Grodin?” Dr. Weir frowned.

“Whatever they use, Dr. Weir, it’s not currently active.”

“Then we better move before it is. Colonel Sumner, we go ahead.”

It took them half an hour to reach the Tower, just as the last orange hues of dawn disappeared from the sky. Markham and Alvez neutralized the only two men guarding the door, who wore the same dark uniform with the triband sash as the gate guard, but were only equipped with daggers instead of battle axes. The door slid open as Markham touched it, startling the guards behind it. One was standing just before the door, while the other stood at the bottom of a wide staircase, but none of them were a match for the Earth soldiers, and in a few seconds, they laid unconscious on the floor. Immediately, Markham did a quick scan of the lavishly-decorated circular room, frowning when he took a good look of the staircase and the structural design.

“Is there a problem, Sergeant Markham?” Dr. Weir asked.

“Not exactly, Doctor. It’s just that, except for the decor, this looks a lot like what I could see of Atlantis’ gate room,” Markham informed her before he stopped suddenly in his perusal. In front of the staircase, on a hexagonal dais, stood an Ancient Control Chair. “Well, except for that,” he pointed to the chair. “In Atlantis, the gate was there, if I’m not mistaken.”

Dr. Weir was looking at the Chair with rapt attention, but Colonel Sumner stopped her when she tried to approach it.

“Markham, are there any hostiles?” he asked.

Markham tilted his head and listened for a moment. “All the heartbeats are three or four floors under us, sir. No one else at this level.”

“Good. Secure the room!” He ordered, letting Dr. Weir pass as his soldiers moved to obey his order. She all but ran to the dais, and circled the chair, her fingers lingering on its textured surface, the intricate metalwork and the gel-padded armrests.

“Dr. Grodin!” she called, zeroing on him. “Come and try the Control Chair.”

Peter Grodin threw a concerned look Markham’s way, since the Sergeant was the Acting Alpha of their little Pack. Jason just nodded. Peter walked to the chair under the hard, disapproving look of Dr. Weir.

Grodin sat on the chair, which immediately illuminated with a blue light. He felt a tingle in his head before a holographic display appeared in front of the Control Chair, showing a list of text written in Ancient. Grodin squinted at it.

“Grodin?”

“I’m sorry, Dr. Weir. My Ancient is quite basic…”

“Dr. Burnham!”

A slender woman with long curly hair pushed between two of the soldiers and dashed to the Chair. “Yes, Dr. Weir?”

Weir pointed to the holographic screen. “Dr. Grodin needs help with the translation, Dr. Burnham.”

“Of course, of course…” She looked quickly around the floor, her gaze stopping for a moment on a big ornate chair, but then sighed and crouched down besides the Chair. She and Grodin talked in hushed tones for a couple of minutes before she stood up, pushing her wiry glasses up her nose. “Well, at the top it says, ‘Emergency protocols active.’ The text in red, we think is ‘Master brain inoperative. Neural interface disabled. Access restricted to cathedra’.”

“Master brain? Cathedra?”

“A cathedra in Latin was a chair or a throne, so we think it refers to the Control Chair. The other…” Brunham looked quickly at Grodin, the down to the floor. “We’re not sure what it means, Dr. Weir.”

Weir was scowling, arms crossed tightly in front of her. “What else?”

“Well, then it comes a list of options: Life support, Defense, Shield, Potentia.”

Potentia?” Zelenka perked up. “Show that one.” Grodin highlighted it, and the option list was replaced by a schematic diagram and a series of numbers. “It is ZPM!” Zelenka walked closer to the holographic display, pushing his glasses up his nose.

“How much is left?” Weir asked, relaxing a bit.

“About 37%, I think,” Zelenka looked over to Burnham, who nodded.

“That’s not much,” Colonel Sumner interjected.

“It depends on what we use it for,” Zelenka noted. “What are those?” he asked, pointing to a list of numbers in the upper right corner, one of which was highlighted in red.

Dr. Burnham squinted at the screen. “It says… ‘Usage estimates: Life support accessible areas 192.7 years; Defense, 1744 units; Shield, 12 hours’.” That was the one highlighted in red.

“Defense units? Are those drones?” Sumner asked.

Grodin shifted through the options, showing the defense panel. The scheme of a drone was unmistakable. “Yes, Colonel. 1744 drones ready to be launched.”

“Well, that’s good news.” The Colonel agreed.

“Show the life support screen, Grodin,” Weir ordered with a frown.

The screen changed to the schematics of a sort of city. Most of it was rendered in a dull grey, with only the central tower illuminated in blue, with a label tag attached to it. Weir shot Burnham a glare.

“Emergency accessible area,” she translated, avoiding looked at Weir directly.

“We can only access that part of the city?”

Grodin tried shifting the highlighted area, but a big red label flashed on the screen. “Access denied” Burnham translated without being prompted.

Weir gave a  flinty glare at the screen. “Grodin, try to—”

She was interrupted by the sliding sound of a door opening in the back of the room. Three more of these black-uniformed Guards appeared, in front of a group of people dressed in gaudy garments. The military quickly took defensive positions, pointing their P90 at them, but they didn’t seem to recognize them as weapons, until one of the guards got too close and a marine fired, the bullets shattering the Guard’s knee. They froze on the spot. An aging, portly, red-faced man pushed through the remaining guards.

“How you dare enter my city! This is treason and you’ll pay for it!” he bellowed as he pushed through his guards and climbed the three steps to the main area. “I’m the Lord Protector and I’m the only authority in this land! You don’t have—” He froze mid-sentence when he saw Grodin sitting in the Control Chair. “You… you have…” His eyes moved from the active chair to the weapons the expedition carried, and he started to pale.

“I think you aren’t the only authority anymore, Lord Protector,” Weir smirked.

When Markham interrupted his tale, the screen behind him flared to life, Lania projecting herself into it.

“Praetor, may I ask a question?”

“Ask away,” Sheppard allowed.

“Sergeant Markham, is this the address of the city you are referring to?” One of her virtual fingers pointed to the screen next to her, which displayed a seven-symbol gate address.

Markham looked a bit startled, as he wasn’t still used to the city’s AI, but recovered quickly.

“Yes, it is.”

“Thank you, Sergeant.” The address was replaced by a city schematic and several information screens. “The urbs navis they found is Ker-Ys, Praetor.”

Sheppard straightened in his chair. “Ker-Ys? It’s another city-ship like you?”

“City-ship is an acceptable translation for urbs navis, if you wish to use it.” Sheppard nodded. “As for your question, Ker-Ys was the first city-ship built by my creators after their arrival at  this galaxy. She was built from the same basic matrix as me, but she developed on her own.”

“She’s your younger sister,” Sheppard smirked.

Lania considered the affirmation for a second. “Though we lack any biological relationship, the comparison is essentially correct.”

“But she doesn’t have a… you?”

“She has. Her first Praetor called her Dahut.”

“Then what are these emergence protocols?”

“The emergency protocols were to activate in the case the Artifex was damaged, to provide basic control until it was repaired.”

“Artifex… that’s you, isn’t it?” Sheppard asked, gesturing in the general direction of the screen.

“Yes, Praetor.”

“It’s what Dr. Burnham called ‘Master Brain’?” Alvez guessed.

“Correct, Corporal Alvez.” She looked back at Sheppard. “However, Praetor, the situation described here contradicts the last report filed by Ker-Ys Praetor when the council ordered the city evacuated, and also the council’s orders.”

“In which way?”

“There was no mention of damage to the Artifex in the Praetor’s report, or that the emergency protocols were activated.” Sheppard’s tablet switched on, displaying a document he guessed was the mentioned report. “But even if they had been, the council’s orders were to lock down the city, and Ker-Ys last Praetor reported having done so.”

“Could the emergency protocols had been activated after they left?”

“Negative, Praetor. Once a city-ship is locked down, only a Praetor’s genetic key can unlock it. Ker-Ys should be inaccessible until the arrival of a Praetor.”

“What if someone forced their way in?” McKay asked.

“In this extremely improbable scenario, they would only find a… piece of junk, it’s the correct idiom, I believe.” Several snorts were heard around the table. “Ker-Ys will not react to anyone not of the Praetor bloodline.”

“You did,” Caldwell pointed out.

“I’m Alpha Urbs, Colonel Caldwell. As the only access point from Terra, I could not reject any connection from it. It was my job to evaluate the presence of a Praetor. Subordinate urbs and installations should not activate until I did.”

“But you didn’t know Ker-Ys was still active,” McKay stressed the point.

“I was unable to access the subspace communication relays while underwater, Dr. McKay, and was forbidden to activate the Stargate to conserve power.”

“Subspace communication relays?! Why am I just hearing about those?!”

“You can grill her later, McKay,” Sheppard interrupted him. “This is still a debriefing.” McKay gave him a nasty glare, but settled back on his chair. “So, Lania, if I understand it correctly, the only possible explanation is that the Praetor lied and Ker-Ys was never locked down.”

“Unfortunately, that is the only viable scenario, Praetor.”

“And a potentially troubling one,” Caldwell added, sharing a look with Sheppard, who just nodded.

“So, the First Expedition took control of Ker-Ys. Is that correct, Sergeant?”

“Yes, Sir, but as Lania said,” Markham threw a quick look to the AI on the screen, “it was just a basic control and extremely limited. Survival-only, I’d say. We had access to several floors on the Central Tower, with living and medical facilities, but the city actively prevented us to access any other part of the city. Even the ZPM room was off-limits.”

“Actively?” McKay asked. “How?”

“Force fields, Dr. McKay. They protected everything off-limits.”

“And what about the database?”

“The database provided only basic information, gate addresses, foodstuffs, medicines, weather information and such, but not any technological information. The planetary and deep-space sensors were working,” Sheppard glared at McKay when he tried to interrupt, but McKay harrumphed back into his chair. “and we could shoot drones and activate the shield to defend ourselves, but that was all.”

“That is compliant with the emergency protocols, Praetor.”

“Understood.” Sheppard leaned back on his chair. “I bet Dr. Weir wasn’t happy to hear that.”

“No, Sir, she wasn’t, but she believed that, with time, we’ll be able to hack the city.”

“A naive woman,” Lania added, with something eerily similar to a snort. Sheppard raised an eyebrow to the AI, who returned to her normal neutral expression. Sheppard shook his head.

“Did they achieve it?” Colonel Caldwell asked.

“Not while we lived with them, Sir,” Markham answered. “Afterwards… we mostly have rumors and hearsay. We only know for sure that they can use at least one… I think you called them puddle-jumpers?” Sheppard nodded. “That’s all we can confirm, Sir.”

“Understood,” Sheppard make a mental note on the emergency protocols and subspace communications for later. “OK, what happened afterwards, Sergeant?”

“We found out that, of all the nobles, only the Lord Praetor, his son and his daughter had the ATA gene, thought it was far weaker that our own. Dr. Weir ordered them to be put under house arrest in their rooms. The others were kicked out the city to live in the villages.”

“What about the villagers?” Caldwell questioned. “They didn’t complain about the changes?”

“No, Sir. In fact, they welcomed it.”

“And why was that?” Caldwell frowned.

Markham cleared his throat. “We later discovered that their tributes to the Tower were quite… onerous, as were the demands and restrictions put on them. The villages provided everything under threat of elimination so the nobles on the Tower could live a life of…” Markham stopped for a second. “Debauchery, it’s the word, I believe. In contrast, our necessities were… quite affordable to them. Also, our men didn’t… take liberties with their women, we didn’t go around shooting drones at them just because we could and things like that. Truth be told, they were quite happy with the deal Dr. Weir negotiated with them.” Markham looked down. “Also, she looked the other way as far as the former nobles were concerned and they had… several centuries of mistreatment to make up for.”

“That sounds like a feudal regime to me,” Teldy interjected.

“Basically, it’s what it was, Major.”

“And too close to some Milky Way precedents with stray officers for me,” Caldwell added, sharing a sharp look with Sheppard before writing quickly on his notepad.

“Continue, Sergeant,” Sheppard said.

“After we secured control of the Tower, Dr. Weir ordered the expedition to move in, except for a small rotating contingent which remained in the laph planet.”

“Why?”

“Well, the laph had turned out to be too much profitable as trade item, plus Colonel Sumner wanted to use the planet as Alpha Base.”

“The first reasonable decision I’ve heard so far,” Caldwell muttered.

Markham looked at Sheppard, who just gestured at him to continue.

“For the expedition in general, the change was very positive. For the Pack, however…”

“Speak freely,” Sheppard ordered.

“Dr. Weir put us under guard,” Alvez took up the narrative. “She got the Control Chair guarded around the clock  and she told Sumner to assign a mundane soldier to every Bloodfire on base. For our security, she said. Since we were the only ones who could interface with the city, she said we had to get ‘protected from retaliation’,” Alvez didn’t signal the invisible quotation marks, but his tone made them evident for everyone, “from the expelled nobles and such.”

“But what she really wanted was to control our access to the city’s controls,” Markham finished for him. “Especially Grodin’s. The guard assigned to him had an electromagnetic hand scanner to check up if he used his Transductor Gift without permission.”

“That sounds dangerously close to bloodphobia,” Sheppard said in a clipped tone.

“Yes, Sir, it does, and several people took their cues from her.”

“There where attacks?”

“With Miller, Markham, Corrigan and me, they didn’t dare touch us,” Alvez explained. “We’re Warriors and Corrigan’s empathy spooked them. But Kusanagi being a Thales and Abrams a Seker didn’t… impress them much.”

“Meaning?”

“That I had to intervene several times as Acting Alpha of the Pack to put a stop to some harassments,” Markham explained.

“Where the issues addressed?”

“No, Sir. According to Dr. Weir, they were only ‘normal disagreements between co-workers'”.

“I see. Continue.”

“The other problem was… Dr. Keller.” Markham tensed when mentioning her name, and looked down on the table. Alvez rolled his chair closer to his friend and squeezed his arm. Markham took a deep breath before continuing. “It started after Marcus, Sergeant Stackhouse, Firing. He was having trouble recovering from it. It took a greater than normal toll on him. Two months later, he still had bouts of fever, dizzying spells, occasional seizures, Healing troubles… and haven’t showed any Gift yet. Dr. Cole was trying to help him, without much luck. But one day she warned us that Dr. Keller was… specially interested on his case.”

“Dr. Keller was the CMO. What was the problem with her being interesting in the wellbeing of a member of the expedition?” Caldwell asked.

“She wasn’t Bloodfire-Licensed,” Dr. Beckett explained. “Dr. Cole was th’ only Bloodfire-Licensed doctor on th’ expedition.”

“I’m sorry, Doctor, but I don’t understand the problem,” Caldwell replied.

“Bloodfire-Licensed mundane doctors work under, ‘n’ are bound by, th’ same laws as Healers. Covenant laws,” Beckett added, but Caldwell still looked puzzled.

“It’s a matter of trust, Colonel,” Sheppard intervened. “Trust that it won’t be another Blackburn Falls.”

Caldwell paled a bit. “Understood, Colonel.”

“Why did Dr. Cole suspect Dr. Keller’s interest in Sergeant Stackhouse’s case?” Sheppard asked.

“Dr. Cole felt uncomfortable with her questions, she believed they bordered into invasive, the legal definition of it, she said. But she didn’t have any specific proof. There had been a couple missing blood samples, her tablet with the test results going missing only to reappear later… things like that. Nothing we could really trace back to Dr. Keller, but enough for her to warn us.”

“And that was enough for you?” Caldwell asked.

“Dr. Cole is a Sworn Companion to the Fianna Clan, Colonel. We had no reason to mistrust her.”

“That’s your Clan, isn’t it?” Caldwell asked Beckett.

“Aye, Colonel. Dr. Cole is an old ‘n’ very dear friend.”

“I see,” Caldwell scribbled on his pad. “Continue, Sergeant.”

“Things were tense, but relatively stable, for a little more than a month. It was early October when… when it happened.” He looked directly at Sheppard. “When we came into contact with the Wraith again.”

Bassania, Pegasus Galaxy, about 10 months ago

Markham smiled while he watched his mate play with a group of children. The trip to Bassania had made him feel better. The planet was well-known around the galaxy for their sweet and mouth-watering fruits, whose genetic resemblance to some Earth varieties had the botanists thrilled, and their Spring Festival was an occasion to reunite friends and trade partners. The invitation had arrived two days previously, but the lack of any kind of Ancient technology on the planet was the reason Dr. Weir couldn’t be bothered to come herself. Finally, it had been Sergeant Bates who had led a haphazard team to the feast, including two of their botanists, Burnham as an anthropologist, Parker, Medina, Stackhouse and Markham. The two of them were added just this morning, upon Dr. Cole’s suggestion that a change of air and a good dose of sun would help Stackhouse, especially as their own planet had been suffering from rough weather for two weeks now.

Markham could still feel through their bond the permanent low-level headache that plagued his mate, but this was the most cheerful he’s been since their arrival to Pegasus, and it also lifted his own mood. The Bassanians were friendly people, and the Festival was a fun and pretty casual affair, with only one quite tolerable spiritual ritual at midday.

Medina sat beside him, a tankard of ale in his hand and a plate of grilled meat on the other. “Hey, Jason, look at that!” he smirked while pointing to the head table, where Bates was awkwardly trying to fend off the wandering hands of the head woman, a feisty middle-aged widow, without causing a diplomatic incident. They both laughed, completely ignoring the Sergeant’s accusing glare, as their radios flared to life.

“Heads up! Unscheduled gate activity,” reported Parker, who had volunteered for gate watch duty after meeting the red-headed Bassanian Guardwoman that would be sharing duty with him. “Threat warning red! Tally three bandits, en route to town!” he yelled as the Bassanian alarm started blaring.

“To the refuges!” the Head Woman ordered, while the Guards tried to guide the panicked citizens to safety.

“Cover their retreat!” Bates ordered, pointing his P-90 to the sky. “Markham, position!”

Markham zoomed his Sentinel vision, scanning the sky over the fields of orchards that surrounded the town.

“Bandit 1, one o’clock!” He called. “Bandit 2, 11 o’clock!” He had to zoom in further to find the third dart. Unlike its partners, it was flying in a wide arc around the town, ready to strike from behind. “Bandit 3 is circling the perimeter to attack from 6 o’clock!”

“Shit!” Bates muttered before he started barking orders. “Stackhouse, protect the assets! Medina, Bandit 2! Markham, with me, Bandit 1, but keep an ear on Bandit 3! Light ’em up!”

Four P-90 burst at unison as soon as the Wraith darts were on range. Markham struggled to filter out the racket while keeping his hearing targeted on the high-pitched whirring of the third Dart and vision on the first’s engine. The split awareness affected his aim, and the Dart’s beam culled a group of Bassanians in front of them.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his mate push a young boy he had saved onto Dr. Brown’s arms as he ran to help Dr. Burnham, stuck under an overturned table. On the other side of the clearing, Medina was forced to take cover under the dais as the Dart’s white beam swept through. He and Bates took cover in a narrow alley between two houses. The first dart was making a U-turn to return to them while Markham could hear the third coming closer.

“Bandit 3 incoming, ETA 40 seconds, 6 o’clock!” he informed everyone through the radio.

“Markham, concentrate on Bandit 3! Medina, Bandit 2! I’ll take Bandit 1!” Bates ordered.

“Aye, sir!”

Markham did a quick calculation of Bandit 3’s incoming trajectory and found a better vantage point. He let go of his P90, allowing it to hang off his shoulder, and ran down the alley. Mid-point, he jumped up to the opposite wall, using it as a springboard to jump up with Warrior’s enhanced strength to the flat roof of the two-story house Bates was using as cover. He took position and concentrated both his senses and Warrior’s instincts on the Dart coming fast towards them. As soon as it was in weapon’s range, he unleashed a storm of bullets towards its engines. With nothing to distract him, this time his bullets hit the target squarely and the Dart’s engine exploded, sending it spinning wildly and crashing into a nearby barn, which was immediately engulfed by fire.

He turned quickly towards the others. Bandit 2 swayed in the air, leaking a stream of blue liquid were Medina’s bullets had impacted. Bates darted off his protected position to pick up two stray kids before returning to the protection of the alley. Stackhouse had managed to pull the table off Burnham and was helping her stand. Bandit 1’s white beam was sweeping its way through the fleeing citizens directly towards them as Burnham’s right leg buckled down in pain.

“Marcus!” Markham yelled while pushing a sense of urgency across their bond. Stackhouse turned around just in time to see the white beam that swept them up. As they vanished, the mate bond tore apart and Markham screamed in agony before darkness engulfed him.

Don't be an asshole!

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