Rating: gen; PG
Word Count: 2000, give or take
Summary: Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Warnings: Character death!
This is a tag for ladyofastolat's story Message in a Bottle, written with her kind permission. Please read that one first! This is not an "authorized" ending to the story, merely a what-if.
*cough* er, and please be warned, I made myself cry writing this, just so you know. I blame Asimov and Bradbury and Sturgeon and all those writers for warping my poor developing brain when I was a child and making me think this sort of thing is a normal way to end a story.
This world was dust to the horizon -- flat and gray, a place of death. Here and there, the skeletons of ancient trees, of crumbling walls, thrust up from the sand, silent testament to the long-forgotten civilization that once thrived here.
Across the dull sand, two people toiled: a boy and a soldier. The boy wore the loose robes of the desert nomads who camped in the ruins; a mask hung around his neck, and he lifted it occasionally to take a quick puff of oxygen, supplementing the thin atmosphere.
The soldier had no such mask, and he paused occasionally, leaning on his knees and coughing. He was not a young man, especially for a trek such as this; silver streaked his long braids, and his broad shoulders were stooped with age. The boy didn't pause, however, except to give a scornful look backwards. In his hard, dry world, those who stopped to help the weak died along with them.
The soldier drew a deep lungful of dry, cold air, and straightened, lengthening his strides to catch up.
"Over that hill," the boy said at last, gesturing at a low ridge that appeared to be the remains of an ancient stone wall. "Been there ever since I can remember. Bad place; no one goes there." He turned a sharp look on the old soldier. "Payment. You promised."
The soldier grunted and tossed him a small bottle. The boy turned it over in his hand, and read the alien hieroglyphics that most people on the trading worlds had come to recognize over the last thirty years: ASPIRIN. A miracle medicine from another star, worth its weight in gold at some of the trading fairs.
The boy offered no thanks, nor any indication whether he wanted the bottle for the wealth it represented, or to ease the pain of a loved one. On this hard world, the soldier thought probably the former, but life had taught him that you never could tell for sure.
"Find your way back okay?" the boy asked, looking over his shoulder as he turned away.
The soldier nodded, and the boy turned his back without another word, slogging back the way they'd come across the shifting, unstable gray sand.
The old soldier climbed to the top of the rock wall with a speed and grace that belied his age, though he knew he'd pay later from the deep ache in his joints. On the other side, the dunes fell away in a long slope, sweeping downwards to the unmistakable shape of a puddlejumper jutting out of the sand. The hull was weathered to the same dull gray as everything else on this world. As the boy had said, it looked as if it had always been there.
Even from here, the soldier could see the gashes in the hull, the places where it had been horribly crushed and torn. Sand spilled out of the gaps.
Aching in ways that had nothing to do with age, the soldier slipped and slid cautiously down the slope. He took his time, having no desire to break a leg in this lonely place. Any need for hurry had been stilled long since.
For all the death that he had seen, his own reluctance to peer through the gap in the hull surprised him. But still, he did so, shining a flashlight across the dark interior, disturbing thirty years of stillness with the too-sharp beam of light.
The jumper was buried nose-first in the sand, though it was impossible to tell if it had crashed that way, or if the wind had buried it over the intervening decades. A torrent of sand spilled through the broken windshield, half-burying the console and seats, and everything was covered with a fine coating of dust. The soldier set a cautious foot inside, ready for a quick retreat if it turned out to be unstable, but the tilting floor was rock-solid under his boot.
By the beam of his flashlight, he made his way to the front of the dead ship. He wasn't sure why; he knew, from talking to the villagers, that there would be no body buried under the spill of sand half-covering the seats. And his touch had never been able to make the Ancestors' machines come to life. But there was something in the console that he wanted -- something he'd learned about, from many years of watching scientists tear them apart, years of listening and remembering more than people thought he did.
Reaching underneath the console, his long, powerful fingers pried off a sandproof cover, revealing a small gap. He reached inside and gently disconnected two wires, detaching the little recording device that all the jumpers carried. Taking it out with exquisite care, he slipped it into a pocket of his long coat, and then stood for a moment in the still and dead jumper, looking around.
Anything of value would have been ruined long ago. It was nothing more than junk now, and any story that it might have once told, of the events that had taken place inside it all those years ago, had been erased by time's heavy hand. Leaving it to the sand and the dead, the soldier crawled back out through the gap in the hull, straightening and looking around.
We buried him at the base of the broken tower, the old woman at the village had said.
He found it eventually, farther from the jumper than he'd expected. Maybe shifting sands had carried the jumper down the hill; maybe the herdpeople had been following some kind of superstition about burying a body too close to its place of death; maybe the wounded pilot had found the strength to drag his shattered body that far. The grave was marked as the soldier had seen elsewhere on this world: a simple cairn of stones with a square rock at its top. Having a passing familiarity with the burial customs of these people, the soldier knew that all such cairns had, at their apex, an object of importance to the deceased. Lifting off the top stone, he suspected what he would find, but it still hurt like a punch in the gut to see the dog tags lying curled in the small space.
He lifted them out gently, wound his fingers through them with exquisite care.
We did not go near the crashed ship for many days, the old woman had said, averting her eyes from his. Wraith or refugees, either one is bad news for us. We have little enough for ourselves.
True or not ... he didn't know. He suspected that the jumper's pilot might have been alive when the herdpeople found him, but it was unlikely they would have made a move to help him -- fearing that he was ill or Wraith-contaminated, unwilling to share their water with an outsider. On some worlds, he might have been taken in, nursed back to health by villagers who would have helped reunite him with his lost people.
This was not such a world.
A sick and weary anger coiled in his stomach, achingly familiar. If we'd been a few hours earlier to that cursed world. If we'd hit upon this gate address, of all the many that we tried. If he'd crashed somewhere else.
But he hadn't. And fate wasn't kind, and Sheppard had died alone of injuries and thirst, only a few miles from people who could have helped him, but wouldn't.
At least he knew the truth at last, and could tell those who were still alive, who would care. Teyla would certainly need to know; she'd named one of her children after John, after all, and now Airman John Emmagan-Radim could finally hear the end of his namesake's story.
Sitting on a barren hillside under a flat gray sky, the old soldier took the recording device out of his pocket and rested it on his knee. He'd thought that maybe you had to have the Ancestors' gene in order to use it, but when he touched the single small button on the underside, a soft whir of static gave way to a voice that made his throat tighten.
"...thing ... on? Hey ... damn ..."
The soldier stilled the urge to turn it off again. Instead, he listened to the sound of rustling and shifting, punctuated by small gasps of pain. Then the voice spoke again, softly, across the years. "I guess this thing's on. Rodney would know, but he's not ... I ..."
More soft sounds, hard to define. When the voice came back again, it was a little stronger.
"I made a rough landing. Really rough. I don't think this old girl, don't think she's going anywhere again. Rodney, you hearing this? I bet even you couldn't fix this."
The recording paused as the speaker panted for breath, and, listening, the soldier swallowed against the ache in his throat. Rodney had been dead for several years, fallen to a fast-spreading cancer that had baffled the medical people on his homeworld.
"I'm not sure what address I dialed. Can't think straight. Drugs ... I don't know what they gave me. Not sure where I am. The one thing I do know is that you guys'll find me."
Another pause, and the soldier's gloved hand tightened around the recorder. We never stopped looking. I hope you knew that.
"Well, gotta go. I thought I saw some people out there ... herding some kind of critter that looks like a cross between a yak and a dinosaur. Wish I had a camera, I'd love to show..." The rasping voice trailed off in a wet, hacking cough. No one could live long if they made a sound like that; something was broken, badly broken. Perhaps it would not have mattered if the herdpeople had brought water, after all.
"... what was I talking about? Ahh, it doesn't matter, I guess. I gotta go. But before I do, I hope ..." There was another pause, this one heavy with uncertainty more than physical weakness. "I hope you know ... I suck at talking about feelings, right? Just ask Teyla. It'd be easier with one of you around to finish ... finish my sentences for me." A soft laugh that turned into a cough halfway through. "I don't know, I could put a message for every one of you on here, but why bother? Ronon ..."
The soldier jumped, hearing his name.
"... understands, I think, and he can explain to the rest of you. Words don't matter. There aren't words, not words for ..." Another pause, a heavy swallowing sound. "Be safe," the voice out of time whispered, and then a soft click ended the message.
The soldier didn't move for a long moment, finally raising his hand to wipe at his eyes. The irony was not lost on him, that Sheppard had died for lack of water, yet he himself had this much water to spare. He tried to remember the last time he'd wept. When McKay had died, maybe.
"We never stopped looking," he said to the whisper of the shifting sands, and putting the recording device very carefully next to the dog tags in his pocket, he heaved himself to his feet to begin the long walk home.
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my works, Ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
-"Ozymandias", by Percy Bysshe Shelley