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Martha Wells

StarGate: Atlantis


Chapter one

John Sheppard lowered the binoculars. Even now that he had had a few days to get used to it, this view was still incredible.

They were on a moon that orbited a gas giant, and the shape of the huge planet was always visible in the sky, banded with the red-brown clouds of perpetual storms. It made a brilliant backdrop for the Ancient ruined city spread across the plateau.

The city went on for miles, a roofless maze of tumbled walls and pillars of indigo stone, with interconnected rooms, halls, dry fountains and pools, open courts. It stood above a barren desert plain, and the strong cool wind carried sheets of dust that washed up against the city's walls in continual waves. It was alien and exotic and beautiful; everything that made stepping through a Stargate worthwhile. John said wearily, "There's got to be something here besides rocks."

"No. No, there really doesn't." Rodney McKay climbed up the last few steps to join him on the terrace, looking over the acres of rubble-filled ruins with a grimace. "Rather like Charlie Brown at Halloween," he added sourly, folding his arms.

John let his breath out, resigned. "Did you figure out what-"


"Why the readings were-"


"Or the-"


John stared at him, depending on his sunglasses to convey the full depth of the extent to which he really wasn't in the mood. Rodney, impervious to hints, demanded, "What?"

John tucked the binoculars back into the pocket of his tac vest deliberately, and did not push Rodney off the platform. It hadn't been a good day, or a good six days. One of the most promising Ancient sites they had found in the entire time the expedition had been in the Pegasus Galaxy was turning out to be a huge dud. Maybe the biggest dud since that intriguing room on the twentieth level of the southeast tower ofAtlantis had turned out to be for making fruit ripen really fast and not recharging the Zero Point Modules. The only saving grace was that nothing here had tried to kill them yet.

The Stargate address had come out of the Ancient database in Atlantis, and the view of the ruined city on the MALP's fuzzy camera had made the entire science team dizzy with excitement. John's `gate team had done a survey by jumper a week ago, and the extent of the ruins and the energy signatures Rodney had been able to pick up had seemed to confirm that this was a spectacular find. John had thought they had hit the jackpot here, that they were going to turn up more Ancient tech than they knew what to do with and maybe even a second ZPM. The first one that the relief mission from Earth had brought had saved their asses, allowing them to raise the city's shields and defend against a hiveship fleet, but it had to be used sparingly.

Since then, the team's enthusiasm level had dropped drastically. The energy readings that had seemed so encouraging at first just became scattered and erratic the further they got into the ruins. Even bringing in a team of archeologists and more Ancient technology experts from Rodney's lab hadn't helped. The extra personnel had come up with various ways to boost the sensors and made elaborate attempts to triangulate the source of the energy, all with no luck.

Rodney squinted up at the planet filling the sky, the big red swirling cloud of a storm dominating it now. "We're coming up on the eclipse," he pointed out.

John took a last look around at the empty city. "I know." He started down the battered stone steps that wound down through this square tower. Technically it was night right now; this side of the moon had a night phase when its orbit took it between the gas giant and the sun, but due to the reflected light from the planet, it wasn't so much dark as slightly overcast. The only time it actually got dark was when the moon's rotation took it around the far side of the planet, and John needed to finish his check of their security points and patrols before then.

The steps wound down a central column to the ground level, to the walkways between the crumbled structures. A ruined city of this size, with its narrow streets and overhanging structures, should have felt oppressive. But the gas giant provided a constant ever-changing show, and the translucent quality of the blue stone brought light down to even these lowest levels.

They hadn't found any signs of recent human habitation here, which at least meant that the Wraith were unlikely to visit this moon any time soon. That was important right now, and not just in the usual sense of not being eaten; the Wraith currently believed that Atlantis had destroyed itself in a nuclear blast and the expedition had to keep it that way.

In the open court at the bottom of the steps, they met Teyla, who was walking her patrol circuit. "Any trouble?" John asked dutifully.

Teyla tended to take most situations with trademark Athosian equanimity, but from the tired edge to her expression, John could tell she was bored out of her skull, too. She said wearily, "At lunch there was a small altercation over rations among Dr. Chandar's technical assistants."

Rodney snorted. "Spoiled bastards. I did without coffee for six months last year."

John gave him a look. "We know. We were there." He asked Teyla, "What rations?"

"The packages of snack cakes. Apparently there are only a small number left, and Petersen was accused of taking two. They would not stop arguing, so I took the disputed package and ate it myself. I confiscated the remainder from the supplies and concealed them under the emergency medical kit in Jumper One. Dr. Beckett assisted me so I gave him several." She frowned a little. "I fear now that extreme annoyance led me to overreact."

John regarded her solemnly. "Did you punch anybody?" He thought in her position he would possibly have punched somebody.

Teyla shook her head regretfully. "I did not."

"Then you're fine." And Jumper One was full of the confiscated goods, so he figured there wasn't a downside.

Teyla accepted that with a nod. She looked at Rodney, hesitated, and added, "I don't suppose you have found-"

"No, we haven't found a damn thing!" Rodney snarled, teeth gritted. He turned abruptly, heading up the street.

John lifted a brow, watching him stalk away. "I think he's starting to take this personally."

Teyla's mouth quirked. "And we are surprised by that?"

"Not really," John admitted.

Teyla continued her patrol. John didn't have anything better to do for the next few minutes since he had his security check routine timed to the last second by now, so he followed Rodney.

The big building at the end of the street was mostly intact, with a few soaring spires still stretching toward the sky. The entranceway with triple archways and heavy doors still in place had been a tempting distraction, until they discovered that there was nothing inside except dust. Pulling his sunglasses off, John caught up with Rodney at the little archway to one side and the steps that led down.

The stairs were wide and spiraled down around a central column, and were lit by an array of battery lamps. They led to a mostly open room, with empty corridors leading off from each wall. Like everything else here, it was made of the smooth blue stone, glossy and reflective where it wasn't marred by cracks or gouges where Ancient equipment had been removed when the city was abandoned. In the center was pretty much the only thing they had found so far: a circular bank of consoles set into stone pedestals. There were side panels that opened to reveal a confusing mass of crystal and clear conduit, the usual materials that the Ancients used. Right now it was hooked up to half a dozen laptops, and a large collection of portable and not-so-portable monitoring equipment.

On the third day of the mission, when they had tracked the intermittent power signatures to this room, Rodney and the other members of the Ancient Technology team had gone nuts, certain it was a major find. But the three members of the archeology team hadn't been enthusiastic. "It is either very, very dangerous or very, very useless," Dr. Baroukel had said, studying it grimly.