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Dreams to Remember

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1

John woke to a sharp pain in his left side.

When he tried to move into a more comfortable position, it quickly became apparent why the muscles running up his ribcage had seized up on him. He lay twisted half-on, half-off the white couch in his—no, not his—room, his torso and right arm hanging over the edge, his left leg awkwardly turned into the back of the couch.

Moving set off a wave of spasms in his muscles and caused his breath to hitch sharply in his chest. It was an effort to turn his neck.

He grunted as he levered himself up and off the couch. Faint light streamed through the window blinds and his eyes adjusted slowly. He didn’t recognize anything distinctive until a collection of framed certificates hanging on the wall caught his eye.

A soft snore filtered through his disorientation. He turned his head but didn’t see anyone else in the room with him. A few feet away, the bed, with no one on it, although the sheets were twisted all to hell. John rubbed his aching head. He stumbled toward the door, putting his hand out for balance when he thought he was going to tip over and fall flat on his face.

Two steps later, he almost tripped over McKay lying prone on the floor in nothing but blue plaid boxer shorts, head resting on his forearm and drool pooling on the floor scant inches below his face.

John stepped over McKay and stopped in front of the door. A quick glance around the room left him feeling unsettled, but he couldn’t explain why. A sudden groan and twitch from Rodney ended with Rodney’s cheek slipping off his arm and landing with a wet slap on the floor. Eyes fluttered but didn’t open and another groan followed. He sounded like he was trying to wake up with a hangover. A terrible, achy, what the hell did I just do kind of hangover.

John grimaced and waved his hand in front of the Ancient door control. A hasty retreat seemed like a good idea about right now.

John’s gritty eyes didn’t want to focus as he walked down the halls of Atlantis. By the time he made it to his room, his joints had loosened, and he was sure a shower was all he needed to feel normal again.

In the bathroom, he scrubbed at his chin with the back of his hand and stared down at the mess he’d found under his pants.

He was pretty sure he was going to have to rip out some hair to get his underwear off. He tugged, winced, and then gritted out, “Son of a bitch!”

Where the hell had this mess come from?

Hadn’t he just been in Beckett’s lab? Or...wait. No, no, that wasn’t right. He’d been... Where had he been?

He scraped his hand over the back of his neck. He couldn’t remember.

He needed a hot shower. Hot showers always helped.

*

An uncertain amount of time later, John watched Elizabeth and Dr. Beckett enter her office, followed by two other medical personnel. He didn’t know either of their names, but he didn’t figure it was any big deal. He had the names of his military forces memorized, finally, and about half the science staff. The rest would come to him in time. He’d always been good at remembering faces.

Rodney stopped beside him and pointed to the closing doors. “Hey, shouldn’t we be in there?”

“Elizabeth said she needs to have a private meeting with Beckett and his staff before she meets with us this morning.”

“Really?”

“No. I made it up.”

Rodney’s gaze jerked to John’s face. “Oh. Ha ha.” He waved his hand in the vague direction of the control room. “So, am I the only one who got up with a migraine the size of Atlantis this morning? I was talking to—oh, hell—Zelenka maybe, and he said he woke up locked in one of the labs. And I woke up on the floor, do you believe that?” Rodney waved off the answer John wasn’t even thinking about giving. “Why would I do that? I have a bad back. I sleep on a prescription mattress for a reason and it isn’t because it smells better—which it actually really kind of does incidentally.”

“Yeah, McKay, you know, your back isn’t my main concern right now. You might be surprised what I would believe this morning. I think Elizabeth knows something about all this that the rest of us don’t, and as the top of the military chain of command right now, I should know about it.”

Rodney’s eyes flickered up to meet John’s before darting away. He appeared to take up a sudden interest in a piece of lint on his jacket sleeve. “I...well...something wasn’t right about this morning.” He sounded strangely reticent to John, who had quickly become used to Rodney’s outlandish exaggerations and biting sarcasm since they’d come to Atlantis.

“What do you mean?” John caught Rodney’s furtive look only because he was staring hard at him, waiting for him to say more.

“Hm, I’d love to share, but I’m too busy freaking out right now. I found evidence that seems to say, to say that I—” his voice had risen and he stopped and cleared his throat, “you know, never mind. This is too personal. Really, really too personal.” Rodney’s mouth had that stubborn slant and his lips were mashed together tight. His eyes, however, were wide and blue and confused. John didn’t bother trying to get him to say more, because he’d had his own freak-out worthy discovery this morning and frankly, he wasn’t sure he was over it just yet.

He had bruises and tender spots in places he didn’t want to think about. He even had what looked like a hickey, for god’s sake—okay, more than one, but he’d stopped counting when he found one on the inside of his thigh.

“Come on,” he said, and he grabbed the sleeve of Rodney’s jacket and pulled him along toward the closed doors of Elizabeth’s office. But when they got there, it was to discover that Elizabeth had locked everyone out.

Son of a bitch.

*

“Major Sheppard, I’ve already made my decision. If we were able to contact Earth, I’m positive everyone at the SGC would back me up on this. What happened here poses no ongoing threat and therefore the records are being sealed for the good of the members of this expedition.”

“How can you know there’s no ongoing threat? Why do we have a city full of people who can’t remember anything at all about the past three days?” John leaned forward in the chair across from Elizabeth’s desk, putting his hands on his knees, ready to push himself to his feet. “What the hell happened?”

Instead of answering, Elizabeth folded down the monitor on her computer with a sharp snick. “Major Sheppard, you had no right to barge in here when I was having a closed meeting with my medical staff. Medical conferences are not a military matter and I am in charge of this expedition.” Elizabeth stared at him with that look she seemed to have perfected in their short acquaintance, the one that made him feel like he’d done something very wrong, even when he knew he was in the right.

“I need to know what happened,” he said, surging to his feet. He could see the indecision in her eyes. If he pushed just a little harder...

Her gaze shifted toward the door behind him then returned to his face. “Major..., John,” she said, speaking low, her words measured and precise. “Everyone on this base had a blackout event. My records show the cause was destroyed, but not before the city became contaminated. The city has been purged and Dr. Beckett assures me there should be no lasting effects. If you want to know anything else about this, you will have to wait until we reestablish contact with Earth. My decision is final. The records are sealed.”

John clenched his jaw.

Elizabeth placed her hands carefully on the flat surface of her desk on either side of her computer. “Don’t fight me on this, John,” she said. “I will not back down. We need unity in this expedition. We’re fighting for our lives here and we can’t afford dissension at every turn. We only have each other. It’s important to everyone on this expedition that we work together as smoothly as possible.”

John could agree to that, but he had a feeling she was telling him more than she realized. Only he didn’t get it.

Over the next week, Beckett declared everyone no worse for the wear and gave the go-ahead to schedule missions again, and soon everything was back to normal. Or what passed for normal on Atlantis. John didn’t mind. By the end of the week, he couldn’t really remember why Beckett had chosen now to give everyone a thorough exam anyway.

*

The planet had a near tropical climate and the jungle-like growth between the Stargate and the nearest village made walking mandatory. The dense undergrowth made the trek torturous and slow, but Teyla had assured them all in this morning’s briefing that it would be worth it. Many worlds traded with this one for their abundant supply of fresh fruits year round.

The ants, however, came as a big surprise.

John could hear what sounded like a burbling creek off in the distance, when to his right, Teyla stopped abruptly.

“Major Sheppard—John, do not move,” Teyla said, reaching for the tail of his jacket. “If you kill it, more will come.”

It was just an ant, but John did as she suggested and carefully flicked it off his jacket.

She smiled at him and glanced toward his feet. “We should watch our steps and stay on the path. If we wander from within its boundaries, we could encounter more of these insects.”

Rodney came up behind them. “What’s so special about the ants?” he asked.

“These particular...ants,” she said, waiting for John to acknowledge the name. When he nodded, she continued. “They are not so bad, but if you kill one of them, many more will swarm the area where the insect was killed and—”

“What? Seriously?” Rodney interrupted. “Like killer bees? Are you telling us there are killer ants here that wi—oh, oh—” Rodney’s eyes widened abruptly.

John grabbed for Rodney’s hand, but it was too late. Rodney slapped at his pants in the vicinity of his shin. “No. No, no, no. You have got to be kidding me....” He started reaching back into his pack, chasing it almost like a dog chasing his tail, while still trying to slap at his clothes. “Bug spray, where the hell’s the bug spray?”

John might have growled, or even laughed at Rodney’s antics, but just about then, he felt the first stinging bite, and shit, that hurt. His breathed hissed through his teeth as the first bite turned into the second and then he was feeling them all over his legs and—

“Damn it, they’re crawling up the inside of my pants!” His boots should have stopped them being able to get inside, but obviously hadn’t. With another curse, he grabbed for Rodney’s flailing arms and yanked him closer so he could get into Rodney’s pack. His legs were on fire before he could pull out the spray, but he managed it and immediately started dousing both Rodney and himself in the stuff.

It helped. A little. It didn’t kill the ants already inside his pants and it sure didn’t stop Rodney’s refrain of “Ow, Ow, Ow, hurry, damn it, hurry! Is it really that hard for you to spray a damn bottle?”

Teyla reached for John’s arm. “This way,” she said. She started pulling him along toward the sound of the running water.

“McKay, Ford, follow us.” John didn’t leave it up to chance. He yanked at the back of Rodney’s pack and pulled him along behind him. Ford followed at a distance. Neither he nor Teyla appeared to be in any distress.

When they cut through a tight swath of foliage, a heavy green leaf smacking John in the face, they came out on the other side right in front of a swiftly moving creek. Rounded rocks jutted up through the foaming water, but several spots looked deep enough to sink knee deep in.

Teyla pointed to a spot just downstream and said, “There, that should be deep enough. The insects do not like water and will try to get away or drown. Hurry, before more come.”

John dropped his P-90, threw off his jacket, shucked his belt, yanked off his thigh holster, untied his boots and kicked them off as quickly as humanly possible, and finally with only the briefest hesitation for modesty, shimmied his pants over his hips and waded into the water, taking his pants and jacket with him. He headed straight for the deepest eddy he could find and splashed directly into it. The water was just about the perfect temperature for cooling off, so it wasn’t a hardship to lay back and let it flow over and around him, taking with it the stinging, biting ants. He flicked at a particularly stubborn one that had somehow made it onto his upper arm and it swirled away.

Water splashed beside him and he looked over to see Rodney teetering on a slippery rock but also making his way into one of the deeper pools.

“I am sorry, but you should wash out your clothing,” Teyla called. “If any of the insects survive, you would only have to do this again.”

“Not how I expected to be spending my day,” Rodney muttered just loud enough for John to hear. “Killer ants. Of course. Of course. And, and, and—” But he shut up and looked everywhere but at John, who was looking up at him from his cool spot where he was laid out on his back in the middle of the creek.

John noticed then that Rodney was wearing nothing but his t-shirt and blue plaid boxer shorts, and for a crazy second, something about those shorts brought a furrow to his brow. He’d seen them before. He—

“Ow!” Rodney went down on his backside in a pool of water and a wave splashed up and hit John right in the face.

John raked water off his eyes and sputtered through the burning in the back of his nose where some of the water had gone. “Watch yourself McKay! If you break a leg out here, I’m not carrying you back to the gate.”

“Oh, this feels good,” Rodney said.

John sat up in the water and looked over at Teyla and Ford standing by the low bank. “You sure you guys are okay? No ants?”

“No sir,” Ford answered.

“I am fine,” Teyla said. She smiled at them and watched patiently while Ford walked cautiously around the edge of the creek, his motions making it clear he was watching both above and below for possible threats.

John took a few more minutes to be sure he had all the ants off his body. Then he stood up and started swishing his pants through the cloudy water. When he and Rodney had splashed into the creek, they had stirred up the silt at the bottom, leaving the water muddy brown and gritty, but it was working. The so-called ants were being swept away. Rodney followed his lead and bent over to submerge his own clothing.

“What are we supposed to do about our boots?” Rodney asked.

“Shake them out.”

“But what if—”

“McKay,” John interrupted. “We don’t have a lot of options. Shake them out.”

“Should have had your pants tucked in, Sir,” Ford called.

John could hear the glee in Ford’s voice, and he just said, “Yeah, I know that now. Thanks.” But none of them hardly ever bothered with that these days, and John could now see why such complacency might not have been wise.

Although the sun made only patchy appearances through the thick canopy of trees, the hot, damp air kept John from feeling a chill as he struggled to pull on his wet pants. They wanted to cling in all the wrong places, and it gave him a small measure of satisfaction to notice that McKay was having the same problem.

“Uh, you might want to—” Ford paused as he took several steps backward, moving away from the thickest area of jungle growth and toward the narrow path Teyla had followed to lead them to the small creek. “Teyla...we’ve got a problem.” John could see Ford’s nervous apprehension in the way he held himself taut and ready.

John grabbed his gear and then jogged over to Ford’s location, reaching him at about the same time as Teyla came up on his other side.

A few feet away, the ground swarmed with tiny black insects, all moving dauntlessly in their direction. As the ants closed on them, John could hear a rush of noise coming with them, a trillion tiny feet stalking across the jungle floor, louder than any single large predator would ever be.

“We should leave this place,” Teyla said. “Now.”

“Okay, that’s it. Back to the gate,” John ordered. “This mission is officially being postponed!”

Rodney had just finished tying his second bootlace, while John still had to get his boots on his feet. In the end, he ran barefoot through the jungle, one hand holding his boots, his P-90 thrown across his back, and the other fist wadded up around his belt and the fly of his pants. In his haste to see what had caught Ford’s attention, he hadn’t buttoned them, and crap, what a mistake that had turned out to be.

It might have been funny if he wasn’t the one about to lose his damn pants.

*

“Okay. I take it the mission didn’t go well,” Elizabeth said once she’d taken in John and Rodney’s disheveled appearances. Ford and Teyla looked as put together as always, clean, neat, tidy. Fully clothed.

John gave a disgruntled sigh and rolled his left shoulder and neck. He might have pulled a muscle; he’d have to wait and see. “There was a change of plans after we encountered some of the indigenous insect-life on the planet and they decided they liked the way McKay and I tasted,” he said.

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows.

“We had ants climbing up the inside of our pants,” Rodney said. “The little bastards stung the crap out of my legs. I probably need to go to the infirmary and make sure they didn’t inject me with some kind of deadly alien-ant venom or, or, or toxin.”

Elizabeth’s eyes widened and John could almost see the smile she hid. The guards stepped back as it became clear the unscheduled off-world activation wasn’t a true crisis and that they were no longer needed.

“They hurt,” John said, and if he sounded defensive, he ignored it and continued. “We had to partially strip down and—well, you can see the results.”

Elizabeth’s gaze took in his filthy socks, skipped over his fisted hand, still clutching the front of his pants, and climbed to his flushed face. “You should let Carson check out those bites,” she said smoothly, offering him a way to save the rest of his dignity in front of the others gathered around the gate.

Rodney didn’t seem to care that Elizabeth wasn’t talking directly to him. “Yes, yes. We definitely need medical treatment. I might be dying here and not even know it.” Rodney left them all standing there as he trotted off to the infirmary without a backward glance.

John shook his head at Elizabeth, held onto his boots, his pants, and his dignity, and followed.

*

2

Under other circumstances, the visit to P2E-459 might have been another unremarkable, unmemorable visit to a dead planet, long abandoned by its people.

“There’s definitely a power source down there.”

John looked over at Rodney and raised an eyebrow in question.

“It’s strong,” Rodney said. “Stronger than almost anything we’ve come across lately. You should set us down here.” He pointed to a spot near the center of the Heads Up Display. John studied it for a moment. They would have to walk a few miles each way because there weren’t many good locations nearby to land the jumper.

John nodded anyway. After the siege by the Wraith a few months ago they now had semi-regular contact with Earth through the Daedalus and the ability to dial Earth’s Stargate from Atlantis, but opportunities to get their hands on power sources were still almost always worth pursuing except in the most extreme cases.

So he said, “Sounds like a plan,” and prepared to land the ship.

Rodney turned his attention back to the tablet he carried everywhere these days, already distracted by more readings. The address for this planet had come from the Ancient’s database and Rodney had suggested it for their next mission several weeks ago, but a little problem with an Ancient warship, a couple of stasis pods, and a Wraith had gotten in the way and they hadn’t been able to get to it until now. Neither Teyla nor Ronon had ever visited this world as far as either could remember. John was okay with that. Mixing up the trade missions with more exploratory missions kept things fresh.

He put the jumper down in the first location he had thought might work for a landing because it turned out to be perfectly acceptable. Teyla gathered her gear and strapped on her P-90 while Rodney disconnected his computer and Ronon stood and stretched.

“The light on this planet is strange,” Teyla commented to no one in particular.

“Yeah. Don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it,” Ronon said.

“It’s because of the sun,” Rodney answered with only a brief look in their direction. He shoved his computer into his pack and started to zip it closed. “It’s less luminous than what we’re used to, but it’s still within the parameters that support human life. Oh, there was also some other mention of this planet in the database too, but...well.”

“Yes?” John asked. He wondered if he should admit that he’d pretty much skimmed the details of the report when he’d realized what kind of mission this was going to be.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Rodney said absently. “I didn’t pay much attention when it started waxing poetic about the indigenous flora and fauna.”

Great.

They exited the back of the jumper to walk into thick, tall prairie grass and a wide open field. Two miles later, the grass had disappeared to be replaced by craggy rock and tall, thin trees that were nearly overwhelmed with leaves.

Rodney looked down at the tablet cradled in the crook of his elbow, looked up, and then pointed off to their left. “There. Just over there.”

John adjusted the angle of his P-90 to sit more comfortably against his arm. “That’s what you said five minutes ago.”

“Yes. Yes. I know. But this time I’m positive. It’s not my fault these readings keep jumping around. Let’s see you try to trace it down and do better.”

“I’d offer, but then I’d have no reason to bring you along and I just so love having to listen to you when you get all superior on us. What would we do without you?”

“Die, probably,” Rodney said. “You would have all died several times over by now without me and you know it.”

John shook his head at Rodney and wondered when they’d gone from being friendly team members to actual friends. It had happened sometime last year when he wasn’t paying attention; that’s all he knew for sure.

They crested a craggy outcropping of rock to find the corner of a metal building sticking up out of a pile of stone and grass. The entrance was completely obscured and at first glance it appeared to have been a simple cave-in blocking the door.

John tapped his fingers against his P-90. “That’s not natural,” he said.

Rodney dropped his pack on the ground and left his tablet with it, and then walked around the outside edge of the pile of debris. “No. No, I don’t think it is. Maybe a self-destruct. Or an attack from the air? Somebody didn’t want anyone getting inside this facility.”

The hair on the back of John’s neck bristled. He looked over his shoulder but didn’t see anything in the trees behind him. “These trees wouldn’t have been here when the complex was built, would they?”

“How would I—Oh, no, probably not. This complex is in all likelihood very, very old.”

“Ancient old?”

“Probably not. But possibly.” He pulled out the life signs detector from his jacket pocket and then waved it around, using its scanning abilities, then he studied the screen for a moment. “There seems to be a large subterranean complex underneath the ground here. And when I say large, I mean gigantic.”

“Is there another way—”

“No.” Rodney paced the ground in front of the blocked entrance, rubbed at the back of his neck and kept staring at the device in his hand.

“Are you sure?”

“Probably. I mean, maybe. Well, there could be, but I don’t know where it would be and this—” he raised his hand that held the life signs detector, “—isn’t really capable of telling me if there is. It just shows all the walled off empty spaces underground.”

“Is it really that hard to admit that you don’t know?”

Rodney stilled. “Yes. It really is.”

Ronon spoke up from behind John. “We could blast our way in.”

Rodney twisted around to glare at Ronon. “Oh, that’s brilliant. Why didn’t I think of that one? Oh yeah, because it might destroy whatever it is we’re trying to find!” Rodney turned to John, “We need to at least get the engineers here to see if there’s any way to clear out the debris without damaging whatever might be inside. If that doesn’t work, then we can try blasting our way in, but not before.”

“It’s too late to get them out here tonight. The sun’s already going down.”

“We should visit the village we saw as we flew in before we return to the ship,” Teyla said. “Maybe the former inhabitants left behind something of use.”

Rodney frowned. “Really? My legs are kind of tired and—”

“Sounds like a plan,” John said, and if it felt a little good to spite Rodney, he wasn’t going to admit it.

The village was back the way they had come, but because of its location in the middle of a forested area, the jumper wouldn’t have a place to land, so they left it where it was and hiked through the growing dimness toward the thick collection of dilapidated buildings.

When they got close enough to make out details, John could tell the wood slats of the walls were falling apart and that no one could have lived here for at least a hundred years. Possibly longer if the weather always held as it was today, cool, but no breeze, dry air, and a crisp smell as if spring was coming on. It was really quite nice if you could get used to the lower level of light. John thought he possibly could. He hadn’t even had to get his sunglasses out today despite the lack of clouds in the sky.

The first building they came to had only part of a door blocking the entrance. Hinges held the top half twisted but still hanging in place, while rot had eaten through the lower portion. John glanced inside, saw nothing of interest, and said, “Maybe the next one.”

“This place is nothing but a pile of rotting wood and fungi. We’re not going to find anything here.” Rodney’s exasperated voice cut sharply into the stillness.

Teyla turned her head. “I feel...” but she hesitated to finish her sentence.

“Like somebody’s watching us,” Ronon said. Not a question.

John eyed the empty, silent homes, then the forest surrounding them all. “Yeah. Me too.”

Rodney jerked his gaze around, obviously trying to take in everything at once. “Is it Wraith? It better not be Wraith. There’s no reason—”

“No, you are correct,” Teyla said. “There’s no reason the Wraith should be interested in this place. It is obvious no one has lived here for many years.”

“The life signs detector doesn’t show anyone,” Rodney said. “I checked.”

“Check again.”

“Fine, but—” Rodney turned in a slow circle. “Oh.”

“What?”

“Something strange—I don’t recognize these symbols. I don’t think the life signs detector has ever used these designations before.”

“So there’s somebody else here?”

“No. This doesn’t mean people. There aren’t any dots, per se, just these little pinpricks all clustered together. Here, see.” Rodney thrust the detector under John’s nose.

John reached out and pushed it back. “I can’t see it if you put it right in my face.” But Rodney was right. There were strange clusters of sparkly lights scattered around the screen—surrounding their own life sign signals, closer than he’d like them to be.

“Maybe some kind of animal or plant life?” he asked.

“It’s never shown that kind of detail before. I didn’t think it was capable of recognizing anything smaller than a child—although I’ve always wondered if it could be adapted—”

“So maybe these are large animals,” John cut in. He found himself looking around again, more cautiously than before, uneasy with the idea of being so far from the jumper.

“Maybe we should go back,” Rodney said.

“Yes,” Teyla agreed in her quiet voice.

“I still don’t see anything,” Ronon said. “Maybe it’s just big rats or something.”

“He could be right.” Rodney said, but his expression wasn’t hopeful and John could tell he didn’t actually believe that. But then he said, “Huh. You know, they’re really not moving. Not much anyway.”

Rodney scrunched up his face in an expression of concentration and then his eyes widened. “Maybe it’s some kind of organic energy source and the detector is mistaking it for a life sign. That’s possible, it really is.”

“If you say so,” John said. Then he thought about Rodney and how he hated leaving any planet he’d specifically recommended for a mission without something to show for it. He asked abruptly, “Are you sure that’s not just wishful thinking?”

“Oh, yes. I’m the team optimist.” Rodney pointed in the direction of one of the buildings about thirty feet away. “We should check it out. There’s a cluster in that direction.”

John lowered his weapon and checked that it was ready to fire. “All right. Come on. Ronon, you take our six.” He led the way. If giant rats ended up chasing them out of the village, he would find a way to make Rodney pay, let there be no doubt about that.

*

They entered the home cautiously. Rodney waited until Colonel Sheppard gave the all clear before he walked through the doorway that John had propped open with a loose board of wood. The dimness inside what Rodney could only call a hovel made it hard to tell where he was going, but the light on Sheppard’s gun cut through the shadows. All he could make out was a few thin spider webs, some bits of twig and leaves piled in the corners, lots of dust, and a table and two benches, one on each side. His eyes adjusted after a moment, and he let out a frustrated puff of breath. “According to this, whatever it’s picking up should be right here.” But of course, other than the items he’d already cataloged, there was nothing.

He stomped over to the bench and sat down, tossing his pack onto the spot beside him. He grabbed the edge of the table and shook it, but it seemed sturdy enough.

“What are you doing?” Sheppard asked.

“What does it look like I’m doing?” he asked sharply. He was just pulling out his computer, which he then set on the table. “Besides, I want to check something. And I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten anything in over four hours.”

“So you want a break?”

Rodney crossed his arms over his chest. “Yes, I do.”

“Why didn’t you just say so?”

“I tried to, back at the—the—the subterranean thing!”

“I could also use some refreshment,” Teyla said, giving both Rodney and Sheppard a firm look. Rodney ducked his head down and dug through his pack for food. Sheppard wouldn’t argue with Teyla.

Ten minutes later, Rodney had his blood-sugar levels in much better shape but his mood wasn’t. His computer wasn’t telling him anything new. Teyla was standing at the door looking out and Ronon was sitting beside Rodney on the other side of Rodney’s pack, using his knife to gouge more holes in the already heavily gouged top of the wood table. Sheppard sat on the bench across from him, with his legs propped up.

Rodney tapped through a few more screens, but by this point, he knew he was wasting his time. Soon, it would be dark out and there was really no reason to hang around any longer.

He glanced up and caught the tail end of something Sheppard was saying to Ronon but didn’t catch the words. Instead, he noticed the corner of John’s mouth curl upward as he let out a sharp breath that turned into a laugh. Rodney heard Ronon laugh too, but it was that curve of lips that Rodney couldn’t seem to tear his eyes away from, until Sheppard’s eyelashes raised and his head turned, and those hazel green eyes met his. Rodney jerked his gaze back down to the computer. He shut it down.

“Are we about done here?” Sheppard said while lowering his feet to the floor.

Rodney nodded, and added, “Yes, we’re all done.”

It had been happening a lot lately. He wasn’t even sure what had set it off, but one day, he’d looked up and realized he’d been staring and it had hit him that it wasn’t the first time, although no one had ever said anything to him about it. Of course, once he became aware of his fixation with the corner of Sheppard’s mouth, Rodney had started to notice himself staring every time he turned around. He was also able to put a stop to it. Mostly.

It was just that...it reminded him of something, and he could never quite put his finger on what, but it was there, in the back of his mind in a place he couldn’t touch, and occasionally, he thought the not remembering was going to drive him crazy.

Rodney stuffed his computer into his pack.

When Rodney looked across the table this time, a dark shape hovered over Sheppard’s left shoulder.

Rodney screamed. He jumped to his feet so fast the bench flipped over and scraped across the floor behind him.

Sheppard leaped to his feet; Ronon followed quickly. Teyla dropped into a graceful crouch near the door, ready to defend or attack as the situation warranted. But they were all looking in the wrong direction.

“Up! Up up up,” he screeched, pointing over Sheppard’s shoulder. “What the hell is it?”

Sheppard glanced up and nearly fell over backward jumping out of the way of what looked a hell of a lot like a giant spider. Four times as large as the biggest arachnid Rodney had ever seen—in his life, it dangled at the end of a shiny thin web right over where Sheppard had been sitting, its huge glistening eyes black and menacing, each of its fangs as big as one of Rodney’s fingers.

“What the hell?” Sheppard demanded. “That wasn’t in the briefing!”

Teyla took aim with her P-90, and the light cut across the body of the spider-like creature. It let out a piercing shriek and recoiled up the web. Rodney heard skittering feet but couldn’t see anything on this side of the broad wood beams holding up the ceiling. They each darted their weapons around the room, spotlighting any suspicious shadows and casing the room for more predators.

Rodney had himself under control now, but he was still looking up nervously at the place where the large spider had gone back into hiding. How many more of those things were up there, just waiting for a chance to drop down on his head?

Oh. Oh.

Oh, no.

Sheppard glared over at him. “What was that? You said you read the database entries for this planet and that it was safe!”

“Don’t blame me!” he shouted, digging the life signs detector out of his jacket pocket. Oh, oh shit.

“I have never seen anything like that before,” Teyla said.

Ronon was already backing toward the open door. “I have.”

All eyes turned briefly in his direction before going back to scanning the dingy, badly lit room.

“Well?” Rodney demanded.

“They feed on the Iratus bugs.”

“Seriously?” Rodney said, his interest piqued, even if he was a bit distracted at the moment. Fear was beating through his chest at a rapid-fire pace, possibly a result of the sudden and unexpected surge of adrenaline that had flooded his body when he’d seen the spider dropping toward Sheppard’s head.

Then again, it could have something to do with the growing number of clusters on the life signs detector.

“Yeah,” Ronon said.

Rodney jerked around toward the sound of more skittering in a far corner. “We need to get out of here.”

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Sheppard said. “I hate spiders.”

Sheppard gestured for Ronon to lead the way through the open door and into the swiftly lowering light outside. Rodney followed, with Teyla behind him, and Sheppard bringing up the rear.

*

Outside, the night was closing in fast. The distance of the sun from the planet and the speed of the planet’s rotation brought the daylight to an abrupt end.

Rodney made his second spider sighting about halfway between the village and the jumper while they were passing through a copse of tall trees. Strangely enough, one of the creatures scurried away as Rodney came too close to a jagged gray stone jutting out of the ground. Baleful eyes reflected the light of his flashlight and venom glistened at the end of sharply tapered fangs.

Rodney swallowed roughly and contemplated the distance to the puddle jumper. “We’re screwed,” he muttered to himself.

Sheppard must have heard him. “Keep moving,” he said. “They’re coming out now that it’s almost completely dark. I want to be back at the jumper in fifteen minutes.”

“Oh, like that’s going to happen. We’re still miles away!”

Ronon pushed Rodney between the shoulder blades, but not hard enough to make him stumble, for which Rodney was embarrassingly grateful. As Sheppard had so eloquently put it earlier, Rodney hated spiders too.

“We might have to run. Think you can make it?”

“If I have to,” Rodney said.

He jerked when gunfire ahead startled him. Sheppard’s P-90 flared bright and bullets sprayed in an arc across the path. Something shrieked, the sound eerily familiar.

“For god’s sake, this feels as bad as having Wraith on our tail.” He heard the panic in his voice, but hell, he figured having giant spiders after him gave him the right. He fumbled for his gun, pulling it out of his thigh holster. He really needed more bullets. Forget that. He needed a bigger gun. If they made it back to Atlantis, maybe it was time he demanded one.

Rustling noises to his left brought him around and he swung his flashlight wide, bathing the trees in a swath of illumination. A thousand starry reflections glared back, each darting away at the contact. “Oh my god. Oh my god.”

Sheppard yelled at him, “McKay—Rodney, you’re not losing it on me, are you? Keep it together!”

He was keeping it together. He was—shit—he was not keeping it together. Ronon seemed to instinctively understand and he grabbed Rodney by the collar of his jacket and pulled him along.

Rodney was pathetically grateful. This wasn’t some technological problem he could solve by using his panic-driven energy to hyper focus and bring him brilliant flashes of insight at just the right moment. This was giant spiders and running through the woods and fleeing for their lives.

A protruding tree root tripped him and he stumbled loose from Ronon’s grip and fell to the forest floor. Leaves crunched under him and something skittered away. His own harsh breaths were all he could hear for a second, and then he heard Teyla, “We are almost there, Rodney, but you are going to have to hurry.”

Rodney scrambled to his feet. More gunfire sounded, and then something dropped to the ground directly in front of him, cutting him and Ronon off from Sheppard and Teyla. A blast from Ronon’s gun flashed in the darkness, taking out the threat, but not before Rodney got a good look at the ugliest, scariest spider he’d ever seen this side of a horror film.

“They don’t like the lights,” he yelled to the others, in case any one of them hadn’t noticed that yet. “Shine your light in their eyes and they run away.”

“I’d rather us keep running away. Let’s go people.”

When Rodney put weight on his right leg, he knew immediately he was in trouble. He almost went down again but managed to catch his balance on his other leg just in time. He grunted and hobbled forward, at a much slower pace than the others. Ronon gripped his upper arm and tried to pull him along but Rodney only stumbled again and gasped out in pain.

“What’s wrong?” Ronon demanded.

“It’s my knee. I think I twisted it when I fell. I’m not going to be able to keep up. Oh my god, you’re going to have to leave me behind.”

He couldn’t see Ronon’s face, couldn’t make out his expression, but he had no trouble hearing his snort. “Here,” Ronon said, “Climb up on my back.” He fired off two shots before he turned his back to Rodney and squatted low enough for Rodney to get his arms around Ronon’s neck and his legs around Ronon’s hips.

Rodney hadn’t ridden anyone’s back like this since he was a child, and it was a hell of a lot harder to hold on than he remembered. But Ronon managed to carry him forward, even if strictly speaking Rodney was a few pounds heavier than he should have been, and Rodney tried not to choke Ronon but held on with every ounce of panic he had left in him.

By then, Sheppard and Teyla were firing their weapons with alarming regularity. They must have realized what was going on with him and Ronon, because Teyla had slipped back behind them and Sheppard stayed at point, making it so that Ronon only had to fire his weapon occasionally when something swung out of the trees directly over them, or in front of them, or once, making right for Rodney’s head. He ducked that time, but very nearly toppled him and Ronon both with his gut reaction and quick jerk. Ronon growled, and Rodney stammered, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, won’t happen again.”

Finally, the jumper loomed out of the shadows. The hatch lowered, the lights flared to life, and an uncountable number of spider creatures scurried away as fast as their legs could carry them.

They staggered into the back of the ship and the hatch raised as quickly as Teyla entered.

“Oh my god,” Rodney said one final time and slipped right off Ronon’s back to land in a heap on the floor. “I can’t believe what just happened.”

“Pray like hell that we don’t bring any of them back with us to Atlantis,” Sheppard said.

Rodney dropped his head back against the edge of the bench seat behind him. “I’m going to have nightmares for years because of this.”

Ronon holstered his gun. “You’re not the only one. I hate spiders.”

It was such an incongruous comment to come from Ronon that for a minute Rodney wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly. Then Sheppard dropped down into the pilot’s seat and laughed, and Rodney thought maybe Ronon might not be so scary after all.

Teyla gave them each a look, chest rising and falling in a very interesting way with each fatigued breath she took and simply said, “I am not afraid of spiders.”

*

Further analysis showed P2E-459 aka “the spider planet” as an unacceptable risk, so Rodney had to let go of the idea that he would ever discover what kind of energy source hid in the bowels of the subterranean complex. He gave up without much of a fight and concentrated on digging through the database in search of his next big find while keeping up his work in the labs. Labs took precedence, of course, but he was grounded until his knee healed up, per Carson’s orders, anyway, so he had a little more free time than usual.

He looked at the clock on his computer screen and then tapped his radio. “Colonel Sheppard.”

“Yes, McKay?”

“Are you near the mess?”

A moment of silence followed, then, “Maybe.”

“Oh, good. I’m starving. Grab me a sandwich, would you? I’m not in the mood to hobble down there on my crutches and fall flat on my face for everyone’s entertainment today.” Not that anyone had laughed yesterday, but oh, they’d wanted to. Bastards. Only his glare had stopped them—and the fact that Sheppard and Ronon weren’t there to lead the pack. Sheppard’s sense of humor left a lot to be desired as far as Rodney was concerned, and Ronon’s wasn’t any better.

“Yeah, I heard about that nasty spill yesterday.” Sheppard’s casual tone didn’t fool Rodney.

“It wasn’t funny. It could have set my recovery back by weeks!”

“Elizabeth caught you.” Sheppard might possibly be laughing at him. “Or should I say, cushioned your fall?”

“Oh, hell, no, you don’t. I did not land on her. Zelenka saw the whole thing. He’ll attest to the facts of the matter, just ask him.”

“He’s the one telling everybody you ended up with your face buried in Elizabeth’s boobs.” Sheppard was definitely laughing at him now.

Rodney scowled. “Just bring me a damn sandwich,” he muttered. “Oh, and a pudding, and—and a fruit cup.”

“Yeah. All right. But I’m not your damn gopher, McKay, so quit calling me to run errands for you! This is the last—”

Rodney tapped his radio off.

Ah, that felt good.

*

“I had a very strange dream last night,” Radek said to Rodney over the top of his monitor.

“What the hell does that have to do with the Ancient database?” Rodney asked. “We’re looking for ZPM planets, not talking about dreams.”

Rodney had no intention of talking dreams today, since his had been anything but ordinary after the spider planet. Since then, he’d felt like he was getting closer to revealing whatever it was that he couldn’t remember. He would fall asleep, see Sheppard’s mouth curve and wake up shaky and disturbed. Nothing more ever came of it though and it was getting annoying.

“Nothing, Rodney. I am talking about a dream about you.”

That brought Rodney’s head up. “About me? What, did I suffocate in Elizabeth’s breasts or something?”

“That is not my dream,” Radek said, wide-eyed.

Rodney jabbed at a key. “Elizabeth’s not my type.”

He wasn’t sure what his type was these days. He would have sworn it was Sam and women of her ilk, smart, sexy, annoying, but—no, he wasn’t thinking about that. He’d ignored it for nearly a year and a half now and he was going to keep ignoring it as long as it took to go away.

Far far away.

“Colonel Sheppard dragged you away from the lab, and—”

“That sounds like what happened last week. I had a lot of work to do and he dragged me away to talk about the puddle jumpers.”

“No no no. That is not what I mean. Colonel Sheppard dragged you away on the floor. By your shirt.”

“Okay. Weird, but no whales, right? I dream about whales a lot.”

“No, Rodney.” Radek’s expression took on a stubborn cast. “I say this and you cannot repeat it ever, do you understand?”

Rodney nodded, but from the look on Radek’s face, he wasn’t sure he should have.

“You tried to kiss me. Many times—”

Rodney choked on a too-hastily indrawn breath. He waved his hands frantically at Radek as he coughed.

“But Colonel Sheppard came and took you away. Then I woke up.”

Rodney gasped out, “Oh my god. Why? Why did you tell me this? I don’t want to hear about any sex dreams you’ve had about me!”

“My point is—”

“Thank god you have a point,” Rodney said, still wheezing. “I hope it’s really good.”

Radek continued as if Rodney hadn’t rudely interrupted. “My dream was vague but—how can I say this to make sense? It felt much like a memory and not a dream. I have never had an experience like it before.”

“That’s...disturbing.”

“Yes, exactly,” Radek said, flashing Rodney a smile, as if Rodney finally got it. Which he didn’t.

“Are you secretly in love with me?”

Radek threw his hands up into the air and huffed. “You are—” followed by a barrage of words in Radek’s native tongue of which Rodney understood only one. Imbecile. Because he’d looked it up, sometime last year after Radek had started using it against him regularly.

Rodney twisted in his chair to follow Radek’s stomping exit, but it was marred when Radek nearly bumped into Sheppard, carrying a tray from the mess hall.

“Whoa there.” Sheppard pulled back the blue plastic tray just fast enough to keep Radek from knocking it out of his hands.

“So sorry, Colonel.” He gave Rodney one last glare over his shoulder before he stepped out of Rodney’s line of sight.

“Here you go, McKay.” Sheppard plunked something that was definitely not a sandwich down in front of Rodney, right onto his laptop’s keyboard.

“That’s not—”

“You want me to take it back?”

“Of course not. Leave it.” A pale yellow mash of some kind and a thick stew took up most of the space on the tray, along with a prepackaged blue jello and saltine crackers. Rodney’s stomach grumbled, loudly. Sheppard laughed, while he pulled out a chair from farther along the lab table and dragged it under him. When he sat back, he propped his feet up on the bar beneath Rodney’s own chair.

“What were you and Radek arguing about this time?”

“He had a sex dream about me. That’s what he said anyway.”

“He told you that?”

“Yes. Yes, he did. Oh, don’t worry, you were in it too.”

Sheppard’s eyebrows rose. “Not sure I needed to know that.”

“That’s what I said,” Rodney said just before he raised a spoonful of stew and sniffed. “Smells okay.” He ate it.

“You still looking for planets for us to visit?”

“Yeah, but not just anything will do.”

“No, you want to find the mother lode of ZPMs or Ancient tech so you can lord it over everybody.”

“That’s not true! But we need planets that are worth the resources we expend exploring them. This ‘go to a planet, get run off by indigenous life forms’ isn’t working for me. I keep getting injured. At this rate, I’ll be dead before I make any great discoveries.”

“What about Atlantis? You’ve made plenty of great discoveries here.”

“You’re only as good as your last paper,” Rodney said, mouth full again.

Sheppard rolled his eyes and changed the subject by asking, with a sly grin, “So tell me about Zelenka’s dream.”

Rodney sighed. “Really? This is what you want to talk about while I eat?” He took another bite, this time trying out the yellow mash. Hm. Not half-bad. “He was trying to tell me something about how the dream was some kind of repressed memory—although he didn’t say that in so many words—but I think I’d remember if I started making passes at Zelenka. Not going to happen. He’s obviously suffering from hero worship, probably because I’ve single-handedly saved our collective asses more than a few times since we got here.”

“Single-handedly?” Sheppard’s voice sounded strained, disbelieving.

“I’ll have you know—okay, almost single-handedly a few times. I can give credit where credit’s due.”

“So you made a pass at Zelenka in his dreams. Creepy. Where do I fit in?”

“You grabbed my shirt and dragged me away, or that’s what he said anyway.”

Sheppard tilted his head. “Huh.”

“What?”

“Nothing.” Sheppard pushed his chair back with his foot, and since his foot was on the bar beneath Rodney’s chair, also sent Rodney’s chair rolling.

“Hey, watch it.” Rodney grabbed the edge of his lab table and pulled himself back into place before the jello wobbling on the end of his spoon could plop to the floor. “Where are you going?”

Sheppard slapped the back of Rodney’s chair. “I’ve got to get back to work, but call me if you find anything worth checking out. I want to see the database entries myself this time.” Which was said with a distinct emphasis Rodney was certain was meant to impress upon him not to make the same mistake twice. Sheppard was still aggravated about the giant spiders. The database had, in fact, mentioned the pervasive nature of the local arachnids in a linked footnote Rodney had skimmed right past in his excitement over finding references to a renewable energy source.

“It wasn’t my fault,” Rodney said loudly, not for the first time since their return from P2E-459. “So quit blaming me. Botany and biology were supposed to review that stuff before we actually went on the mission. They’re the ones who didn’t catch it.”

“Yeah but you’re smarter than they are,” Sheppard said on his way out the door. “They missed it, you shouldn’t have.”

*

3

Politics sucked. John hated dealing with bureaucrats and politicians with equal fervor, and today, he’d spent entirely too much time dealing with both.

Coming on top of his recent experiences with Earth politics and bureaucracy after the return of the Ancients to Atlantis and their subsequent demise at the hands of the Asurans, aka replicators, the Nadean political unrest, exacerbated by Atlantis’s first visit less than a week ago, was almost too much for John to deal with. If he had to listen to another sneering councilman blame him and his team for yesterday’s attempted coup, he might have to punch somebody.

Currently, Norval was the councilman of choice, with his close cropped brown hair and thin eyes, gaudy jacket and filigree rings on every finger.

John and his team stood a few feet in front of the Stargate, dead center in the city square, surrounded by stone and brick buildings, some as high as four stories. Sunlight fought the gloomy shadows between the closely spaced structures and had little chance of winning. John hadn’t expected such a large contingent of guards after reading the reports from the team that had made first contact with the Nadeans. The Nadeans had been labeled “eager” and “cooperative” and “excited about the possibilities of trade.”

John had been a little leery when Elizabeth had told him that the timing of the last culling on Nadea coincided with the first wave of Wraith after the arrival of the Atlantis expedition in Pegasus, but the Nadeans hadn’t seemed aware that Atlantis’s newest inhabitants had been the people who had awakened the Wraith decades, possibly centuries, early.

“We didn’t come here to take sides in your civil war,” John said. “We only wanted to talk trade, and possibly offer our help in exchange for information or an alliance. You were all for this three days ago.”

“That was before your people incited an insurrection.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” John said.

Norval stepped forward and raised his hand, palm out, first two fingers pointed up. “Your people came through the ring three days ago and began discussing trade with us, as if you intended to share your superior knowledge and technology with us. Two days ago, a faction of our people intent on rebellion and insurrection conveniently discovered several well-hidden tunnels beneath our city’s council chambers and took several of our most prestigious leaders and dignitaries hostage. Yesterday, these same people killed all those within the chambers when our Governors refused to meet their demands. They tried to escape retribution by using the Ancestors’ technology to disappear into the catacombs—”

“Wait, are you saying there are—”

John yanked Rodney’s arm, hard, and cut him off. He nearly growled the words, “Not now, McKay.”

“But there might be Ancient—” Rodney started, but shut up quickly when John glared at him.

The councilman’s eyes flickered between John and Rodney, his disgust clear in the turn of his mouth, and continued, “Your people either showed them how to use this technology or provided them with the means to use it, and you will be punished for your part in this matter.”

“Now wait a minute,” John said.

“Take them into custody.”

“Don’t you—”

“Let go—”

Guns raised chest level, and John said firmly, “Ronon, no.”

Although Ronon had his weapon aimed and ready and the guns being pointed at them were single shot rifles, Rodney and Teyla were both within point blank range of two guards who had steady hands and cold eyes. John recognized trained killers when he saw them.

“Look,” he said, “There’s been a misunderstanding here.”

“There has been no misunderstanding,” Norval said.

From behind, rough hands gripped John’s arms above the elbows. He allowed his weapon to be taken by a third guard while he watched Ronon hand over his gun to another with a scowl. Rodney had that wide-eyed look he got when things didn’t go the way he expected and Teyla merely stared at their captors, grave and intent.

“Kidnapping us and holding us hostage isn’t going to get you a better deal with our people,” Rodney said. “If you think they’re going to let you get away with this and still trade with you, you don’t know who you’re dealing with.”

“Stop trying to help,” John said while giving Rodney a pointed look.

“We came here in peace,” Teyla said, with a raise of her brow and a tilt of her head. “And yet you treat as us criminals, assuming the worst with no evidence.”

“The evidence speaks for itself,” Norval said. He jerked his head toward the street behind him. “Take them to a holding cell in the city prison. Remove the remainder of their weapons and see that they are brought to the courtyard at dawn tomorrow. They have been sentenced to death.”

“What?” Rodney’s voice went so high it cracked on the end of the word. “Oh, this is just stupid. There’s no way we had anything to do with your pathetic insurgency.” Then one of the guards took hold of the back of Rodney’s neck and squeezed and he pushed Rodney forward. Rodney grunted and stumbled. John scowled, but when Rodney looked his way, he nodded, and Rodney gave up resisting and walked in the direction he was being steered.

Teyla’s captor guided her more gently, while Ronon was prodded forward at the point of a gun. John was the last to be manhandled out of the city square and pushed along the narrow path between two of the shorter buildings until they came to a guarded door.

The hand holding tight to his arm kept up a bruising grip as John was pulled through the door behind Ronon. Inside, no one spoke to them as they were brought to a single small cell and searched at gunpoint. The guards went about it quickly but thoroughly and when they were through, John didn’t even have his watch or sunglasses left on him.

The guards shoved John into the barred room with a heavy hand, and he almost tripped at the threshold. The cell door clanged loudly behind him. When he turned, it was to see the guards who had hauled them in leaving the building. Only two guards remained behind, each wearing an ill-fitting uniform of red and black.

“We need to speak to our people,” John said, reaching out to grab the bars. He jerked back when a sharp electrical charge zinged through his fingers and palms and up into his forearms. “Hey, that’s not fair!” he yelled. “Somebody should have warned us not to touch the bars!”

The guard on the left of the door to the outside turned his head in John’s direction. “Do not touch the bars,” he said. “It will only hurt you.”

“Now you tell me,” John muttered.

*

Guards brought in a meal sometime after sunset. Rodney sniffed at the food, as if he was afraid it had been poisoned. John doubted that was the case, even though they had apparently been sentenced to death. He had a moment where he wondered if the Nadeans might be speaking metaphorically about that death sentence but stopped himself from going any further down that road by looking around at their jail cell. This was not a room that precipitated anything related to metaphor.

“You got a plan yet?” Ronon asked from the floor where he leaned against the back wall of the cell, his left knee pulled up and his right leg stretched out long and straight in front of him. He picked at a string that was sticking out from his pants at his knee.

“I’m working on it,” John said. The reality was, he had no idea how to get them out of here without C-4 and a weapon. Any plan he made would have to take advantage of the fact that the guards had been told to deliver them to the courtyard, wherever that happened to be, tomorrow morning at dawn.

“We’re so screwed,” Rodney said as if he knew exactly what John was thinking.

“We’ll get out of here,” Ronon said, “even if I have to kill the guards with my bare hands.” He looked up and sneered at the guards, who stared straight ahead and wouldn’t meet his eyes.

Teyla rubbed her upper arms. Even John had noticed the chill in the cell but he wore considerably more clothes than Teyla, who had dressed for this mission in her customary Athosian garments instead of in a tac vest and BDUs. “I am concerned. I do not know these people well, but I sense great unrest. We could be in grave danger.”

“The death sentence didn’t clue you in?” Rodney demanded from his spot on the edge of the cot furthest from the barred door. But then his brows drew together and he clenched his fingers around his thighs. “Forget I said that. Sorry.”

John stopped pacing long enough to say, “Funny how when you say crap like that to me, I don’t ever get an apology.”

“Oh, for god’s sake—”

“Me neither,” Ronon said.

Rodney’s head came up from contemplating the plate of food he still hadn’t eaten. “Fine, I’m sorry if I’ve ever said anything that hurt your feelings. Are you happy now?”

“I didn’t say it hurt my feelings.”

“Me neither.”

“You might as well have, because that’s what it means.”

John stared at the cell door and its lock before turning back to Rodney. “What what means?”

“Oh, please. Now you’re just messing with me,” Rodney said. He gave one last longing look at the food and set it in the floor. John could tell he was remembering another time when they’d been locked up and force-fed a drug laced meal. If the Marines hadn’t arrived when they did to save their asses, Rodney would have spilled all their secrets without a moment’s hesitation. Drugs tended to have that affect on him.

John moved over to sit beside Rodney on the cot. It was big enough for two people, if they didn’t mind being squeezed together like sardines in a tin can, but since there were only two cots, it was either going to be that or sleeping on the cold, stone floor.

“I’ll take this one with Rodney,” John told Ronon. “You get lucky. You get the soft one.”

Ronon grinned. He knew John wasn’t talking about the bed.

“Why does he get to sleep with Teyla?” Rodney demanded. Then, “I mean, sleep, not sleep, but—seriously, you know exactly what I mean. She’s smaller—and—and, she is softer, and it’s not fair. I never get to sleep with Teyla.”

“I do not mind sharing with either of you, but John is right to suggest Ronon and I take this cot. Ronon is much larger than you and he will need more space.”

“But—but—” Rodney’s mouth worked but nothing else came out. His eyes, on the other hand, spoke volumes. John tried not to take it personally.

“Still got a problem with it?” John asked instead. He might have mentioned that Rodney was soft enough for both of them, but he was pretty sure Rodney would take it the wrong way. Hell, he wasn’t even sure how he meant it in his head. Things had been messed up in there for a while now, ever since, hell, ever since Zelenka had described part of John’s own oddly recurring dream in his telling of his dream to Rodney. That had been—wow—nearly a year ago.

Rodney crossed his arms over his chest. “You snore, okay? It interferes with my sleep and god knows I need my sleep to keep my brain working in top form. We’re going to have to find a way to get out of here tomorrow before they do any more death sentencing and I might need to be sharp.”

“Well—you drool. You don’t hear me complaining.” John couldn’t believe how plaintive he sounded to his own ears. God, Rodney brought out the worst in him sometimes.

“I’d squash you,” Ronon said.

“Oh, yes, and yet Teyla is perfectly safe. I see how it is.”

Ronon grinned, all teeth and laughter.

Rodney rolled his eyes and turned and flopped back on the thin mattress. “Let’s just hope we don’t wake up with bedbugs or lice tomorrow, that’s all I need to make this disaster complete.”

No one had mentioned the seriousness of their situation yet. No one had asked the big question. Would it be firing squad, hanging, electrocution, death by drowning... all were possibilities in the countless cultures that made up the Pegasus galaxy and each had its own horror.

John was really going to have to come up with a plan.

*

The evening dragged out, until the only light that remained in the cell was from the glow of a couple of dingy wall fixtures and a splash of moonlight from a thin, long window near the ceiling.

Rodney had badgered the guards for hours demanding he be allowed to speak with his people, as had Sheppard. Teyla had appealed to their sense of fairness and compassion. Neither strategy had worked, the guards standing stoic and silent until sundown had brought a shift change and a generous evening meal Rodney had again been afraid to eat. No one else had touched theirs either. The guards hadn’t seemed to care when they had removed the untouched food a while later.

Sheppard and Ronon had spent a lot of time surreptitiously studying their cell, testing the strength of the stone walls and floor. The window was unreachable. The bars zapped anyone who touched them, except when the guards pulled a stout lever sticking out of the wall on the other side of the room and shut down power to the cell. That had happened only when they had been shoved inside and later when the food was slipped through a slot next to the floor.

“I’m getting some rest,” Sheppard said.

After hours of nothing but sitting, pacing, and yelling, Rodney had to admit that was the best idea he’d heard since they’d been jailed.

“I’ll keep watch,” Ronon said.

“That’s a waste of time. Nobody’s coming for us until dawn. Didn’t you hear that Norval guy?”

“Something might change,” Sheppard said, scooting down from where he’d been sitting propped against the wall, legs stretched across the bed. He eased back and sighed loud enough for Rodney to hear it. “Move over.”

Sheppard pushed at Rodney’s hip with his booted foot.

Rodney realized he was going to have to move too, because the narrow cot wouldn’t accommodate both of them unless they lay side by side. He shifted around until he was on his right side, looking at Sheppard’s profile. Neither of them had room to move around and the side of Sheppard’s thigh pressed against Rodney’s and Rodney might as well have rested his head on Sheppard’s shoulder, they were so close. This wasn’t going to work. Rodney grunted, shifted, and tried to turn to his other side to face the wall.

“Ow! Watch your elbow, McKay.”

“Sorry! I’m just trying—”

“Aw crap, that was my knee,” Sheppard groaned out.

Rodney jerked away from Sheppard. “Hey! Stop poking me in the ass!” The silence after that remark brought a flash of heat to Rodney’s face.

“It was the buckle on my belt!” Sheppard finally said, fierce but quiet.

“Uh, huh,” Ronon said from across the room.

“Shut the hell up,” Sheppard said.

“Make me,” Ronon said, but it was hard to take him seriously with the laughter.

Sheppard jostled around until his back was to Rodney. “I just got comfortable, or I would. Trust me.”

“Yeah. Anytime, Sheppard.”

Teyla’s quiet laugh followed.

Rodney closed his eyes and tried not to think about his nose scraping against the rough stone wall—or the man at his back.

The quiet was broken only by the sounds of shuffling feet, rustling fabric—the guards obviously not as still and silent as they appeared, and breathing. Sleep settled in around him and Rodney drifted into an oft-visited dreamscape that had him sliding along a floor, doors whooshing open and closed, pressure holding him up against a wall, giddy relief and heat spreading through his body, and—

He woke to darkness and the sound of his own gasp.

Heavy warmth pushed against his back while chilled air swirled around his face and arms. The cell was cooler than it had been, edging on uncomfortable, and the lights had been turned out. Now only the moonlight filtered in and was hardly enough to see by.

Sheppard grumbled something Rodney couldn’t hear, but Rodney ignored him, closed his eyes and slept miserably until dawn.

Someone banged on the door of the jail. Rodney flailed away from the wall; Sheppard’s weight at his back disappeared.

“What? What is it?” he croaked out.

“Prepare them,” he heard someone outside the cell say. “The people have gathered.”

Rodney rolled over. When he sat up on the edge of the bed, he saw Sheppard stretching out his back. Ronon and Teyla shifted around on their shared cot, each looking mussed but rested.

Rodney rubbed his hands over his face and gave Sheppard a bleary-eyed look of disgust. When he pushed himself to his feet, he groaned. He thought of hot showers and therapeutic mattresses, but it didn’t help the ache in his lower back or the stabbing crick in his neck.

“This day is going to suck,” he said.

He walked over to stand beside Sheppard and watch the door.

“I guess it’s time to get this show on the road,” Sheppard said.

Sheppard had a plan. Of course he did. Rodney breathed deeply and thought of wide open spaces and hot coffee and as many ZPMs as he could ever want. Of course Sheppard had a plan.

“I don’t have a plan,” Sheppard said, and the wide open spaces dissolved right in front of Rodney’s eyes to be replaced with cold iron bars and the guards filing into the room outside their cell. “We’re going to have to take our chances and fight our way out of this. As soon as we get out in the open and figure out what they’re planning to do with us, we’ll have to make our move, and if they try to separate us, we’ll have to do something sooner.”

“Their guns only hold one shot at a time,” Ronon said just loud enough for Rodney, Teyla, and Sheppard to hear. “You load ‘em through the muzzle.”

“What? Black powder rifles?” Rodney asked. “That’s all they’ve got?” He waved his right hand at Ronon’s chest. “I mean, they’ll still kill us, but it seems so—so—pathetic that we have the fancy weapons but we’re the ones about to die here.”

Ronon tapped his hand against his thigh, a staccato beat of flesh on leather. “Yeah, something like that.”

Sheppard stepped forward, putting himself just to the front of the rest of the team. “Not the guns I’m worried about,” Sheppard said out of the corner of his mouth. “They all have knives, and I’d bet they’re good with them.”

“I’m better.”

“Well I’m not,” Rodney muttered. “I’m so screwed.”

No one bothered to reply.

Two guards stepped toward their cell.

“Stand back,” the shortest guard said. Three others aimed long barreled rifles in the direction of the cell. Rodney raised his hands to shoulder height and kept them there. Teyla, Ronon, and Sheppard did not.

The guard opened the cell door. “Come. It’s time to go.”

“Where are we going?” Sheppard asked, leading the way out into the jail, Rodney following, with Teyla and Ronon behind him.

“To your execution,” the guard replied, sounding strangely apologetic even though his impassive features belied any concern.

“Oh no. I’m not ready for this,” Rodney said. He whispered forward to Sheppard, “You have a plan now, right? Please tell me you have a plan.” He hoped no one else heard, but panic could be setting in, and his voice always seemed to get louder when he started to panic. He knew this about himself, but in the moment, it was never easy to control.

“We’d rather talk to your leaders,” Sheppard said. “Not really in the mood to die today.”

The guard standing to Sheppard’s left spared him a look. Something about the man’s eyes, his furtive glances back at the rest of them, over to his own left, caught Rodney’s attention. Rodney looked around, but saw nothing except stiff-necked guards and a tight stone path that cut between two buildings.

Norval stood at the mouth of the alleyway, along with several other men and women, all dressed in the same style of ostentatious jacket as that which Norval had worn yesterday, every shift and shuffle of shoulders and arms flashing silver and gold in the spill of cold morning light.

The guard standing directly beside Sheppard poked him in the hip with the end of his rifle and motioned toward Norval. Sheppard scowled and stepped forward. The man beside Norval watched, his intent gaze giving Rodney the feeling he was more important than he appeared.

“Follow us,” Norval said.

The guards completely surrounded them. Rodney wondered if there was even the vaguest possibility of Sheppard’s not-a-plan plan working. Two guards held guns pointed at Sheppard and Ronon, the barrels pressing right into the spaces between Sheppard’s and Ronon’s shoulder blades. Even the old-style weapons would be highly effective killers at that range. But four other guards, two to the left of Rodney and John and two to the right of Ronon and Teyla, flanked them, and the final guard stayed back, gun pointed in their direction but at no one in particular, for a total of seven. The flanking guards did not carry guns, however, and Sheppard’s earlier warning about knives flashed in Rodney’s memory.

John turned his head to look at Rodney, lifting his brows. If that was supposed to be a sign or something, Rodney wasn’t getting it. What the hell was he supposed to do?

They moved out of the alley and into the glare of sharp morning light.

The mob of Nadean citizenry fell away, opening a swath for the guards herding Rodney, John, Teyla, and Ronon through the crowd. They came out into a central courtyard, and any thought other than “oh my god” stuttered away with the beat of Rodney’s heart.

A guillotine, horrifyingly similar to something one might find on Earth, loomed dead center of the city square. Raw wood and shiny, deadly blade stole every thought from his head and his gulp was an audible thing.

He heard Sheppard’s hiss of breath from beside him and Ronon’s near growl.

He heard Teyla say, “You and your people will regret this.”

He saw no one’s reaction, because he couldn’t take his eyes off the wicked blade, sharp on an angle but less so than the Earth version. He blinked. The blade would have a harder time getting all the way through a person’s neck without that sharp angle to cut through the muscles and tendons before hitting bone... Oh, hell, no. He refused to think—

And then Norval spoke. “We are here to make right your transgressions against the ruling council and Governors of Nadea. You, people from Atlantis, have interfered with the proper and just ruling of Nadea. You have aided insurrectionists in their efforts to destroy the Nadean government. You have aided those who would like nothing better than to see the end of our very way of life.”

Norval stepped back into the shadow of the man to his left. Steady brown eyes swept over each of them. In a voice that carried over the growing rumblings of the crowd, the man said, “I sentence each of you to death by guillotine.”

Rodney jerked out of his stupor. “Oh, for god’s sake, you can’t be serious!” Rodney grabbed Sheppard’s forearm. “Are they serious?”

The guards nearest Rodney seized his arms.

“We are entirely serious.” Norval gestured to the men holding Rodney. “We will do this right, as an example for all to see and remember. This one first. Take him.”

“Are you—no. No, no, no. Really. You might need me. I can do all kinds of things. I’m a great scientist. I can do—I can—I can—I’m brilliant—shit, that hurts!” Rodney felt his feet slide out from under him and his entire body weight pulled at the hands holding him up, bruising his upper arms. He hadn’t even been able to turn his head to look back at Sheppard and Ronon and Teyla when someone shoved him between the shoulder blades and his body stumbled forward. Hard wood rushed up to meet his chest and for a moment, his breath was knocked out of him.

He smelled death on the wood boards holding him up, saw the bloodstains and felt the splinters against his right cheek. He couldn’t see behind him, couldn’t see any of his team, couldn’t see John, couldn’t hear them. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried not to hyperventilate, but it was a lost cause. 

Someone dragged him forward along the foot-wide board and lifted his head by the hair at the back of his neck.

“This is a horrible mistake,” he gasped out. “A horrible, horrible mistake! I’m not ready to die, you can’t do this—oomph...” His throat jammed against wood and he had to cough to breathe. He twisted his neck but all he saw was an unpainted wood board with a half-moon circle cut out of its bottom edge coming toward the back of his head. A sliver of daylight sandwiched between the two boards—not one after all—brought to mind the blade that would slide between them, slicing through his neck, and oh, god, he was going to die today.

Then someone locked him in place and the hands forcing him down quit touching him. Only, he couldn’t move more than a few inches because of the wood boards on each side of his neck. He pulled, he twisted, he just about knocked himself out yanking his head against the wood, and all he could hear was his own frantic breathing, harsh and fast, and himself chanting, “Oh my god, oh my god, I’m so dead, oh my god...”

He could see a hand on a lever, too close to make out anything more, but he heard the whoosh of the blade and—and—and gunfire. Rapid, semi-automatic gunfire and bullets and the reverberating pling of bullets rending through metal and the wood frame shook, vibrating through his neck and head and the blade thunked hard into wood.

He fainted.

*

A guillotine had never figured into his nightmares. It should have. It would from now on. Rodney came to with a gasp and a yelled, “Ow!”

His face stung where he’d been slapped, hard, but Sheppard was standing in front of him, his crotch shoved against Rodney’s face as he struggled with the wood trapping Rodney in place.

Screams and yelling echoed from every direction, and what the hell? He was alive and breathing and his head was still attached to his body and he had no idea, absolutely no idea, how it had happened. But, “Oh, thank god. Thank god. I’m alive. Get me out of here. I need to get out of here—” He bucked wildly against the restraint.

“We’re working on it!” Sheppard leaned forward and the fabric of his pants grazed Rodney’s cheek. “Ronon, pull harder.”

Sheppard grunted; Ronon beat against something over Rodney’s head. The wood pressed down hard into the back of Rodney’s neck for a brief moment, before releasing, fast. Rodney yelped.

Teyla knelt beside him and touched his shoulder. “The blade is warped and torn from the bullets and it is stuck in the wood of the thing holding you down. We are working to free you as quickly as possible.”

Ronon growled a filthy string of words and kicked the base of the guillotine.

“Oh, please, take your time,” Rodney said. “It’s not like this isn’t comfortable. Who wouldn’t want to spend some quality time trapped—” his voice rose sharply, “—in a fucking guillotine! Get me the fuck out of here before I lose my head completely—pun intended!”

“Too late for that,” Ronon said, but his thighs bulged, muscles shifting, and then all the pressure on Rodney’s neck disappeared.

Sheppard’s voice yelled in his ear, “What the hell are you waiting for—an engraved invitation? Get the hell up! We have to go—now!”

Rodney scrambled backward on the thick board, palms and knees thudding against the wood. His head cleared the hole just as Sheppard clenched a hand around his upper arm and yanked him to his feet. They all took off at a dead run, away from the vicious riot in the courtyard.

Rodney had never thought he would love the feel of air burning through his lungs or the fiery pain of oxygen deprived muscles. But in that moment, he did. He loved every second of it.

*

John had no time to come up with an alternative to the good old “run for the gate as fast as humanly possible” plan after freeing Rodney from the guillotine. They had their guns and their radios back, along with their IDCs. He’d left the rest of their things, their packs and the trade samples and everything else, in the interest of getting the hell out alive. Rodney was going to shit himself when he found out how close he’d really been to dying, how close they’d all been, but that was for later.

They skidded around the corner of the fourth building away from their former position and spilled out into another courtyard square, this one the location where the Stargate should have been.

John stopped so fast he nearly tripped over his own feet. “What the hell?” he said.

Rodney bumped into his back. “Oomph— Are we lost? Did you get us lost? Where’s the Stargate? Where’s the DHD?”

Teyla halted more gracefully next to them. “This is the right place.”

“Then where’s the gate?” Ronon asked.

John looked around, baffled. “Hell if I know.”

Rodney scurried around John. “Here! Look,” he said. He pointed at a crease on the ground. Although stone covered much of the square, a lighter, smoother surface made up a large area right in the spot where the Stargate had stood. “It looks like a giant H. These panels probably slide back... “ Rodney gestured with his hands. “It’s retractable. Oh, that’s—They’ve got catacombs beneath the city, tunnels leading to the council chambers, insurrectionists using Ancient tech. There’s something down there. Seriously, this is amazing.”

John smacked his P-90 against his thigh. “Son of a bitch. We can’t get home until we find a way to get to the gate.”

“Maybe I can help.” A woman stepped out of the shadows of the nearest building to their right.

John whipped his weapon up and crouched, ready to fire.

The woman’s simple clothes fit her loosely, and she wore her brown hair twisted up in a knot. She carried no visible weapons and as he watched, she raised her hands palm out in a gesture of surrender. “My name is Meriss. I know a way into the catacombs. All I ask is that you consider reopening trade with our people when we’ve removed the current Governors from power.”

“Why would we want to do that?” John asked. “You people just tried to take our heads off.”

“Because my people helped you. You have your weapons back. You have your strange body ornaments. We returned it all to you in time for you to save your companion.” Here she nodded at Rodney, who stood partway between John and her, but not within his line of fire. “We spent many hours last evening coming up with a plan to stop your slaughter today. Whether you realize it or not, you owe us your lives. And here we are, once again offering you assistance.” She took a step closer.

John straightened but didn’t lower his gun. “That’s far enough.” He heard scudding feet in the alley behind them coming their way.

“We have to go now or the Governors’ men will recapture you. Make a decision.” Her eyes flickered between him, Rodney, Ronon, and Teyla. “Please. We want to help and we ask such a small thing in return. The current government will fall, if not today, then soon. Don’t punish all our people because of the actions of a selfish, tyrannical few.”

Rodney’s attention swiveled between John and Meriss. “Why is this a hard decision?” Rodney asked, chin up, jaw held stubbornly tight. “There’s no Stargate! There’s nowhere else to go.”

“Fine, McKay.” John jerked his weapon down and rocked back on his heels. He caught Meriss’s hopeful gaze. “We’ll see what we can do, but our own leader has the final say.”

“I understand.” She offered them an earnest smile, then, her lips turned in a gentle, soft curve. John finally noticed how attractive she was, and a glance at Rodney showed Rodney had definitely noticed too.

“Then lead on.”

*

“Can you believe that?” Rodney pointed at Ronon’s back. Ronon, who had taken it upon himself with a gruff, “I’ll watch her,” strutted down the tunnel Meriss had led them to through a hidden door in a building on the outer edge of the city.

Getting out of the city had not taken long. Meriss hadn’t hesitated when John had given her the go ahead. She had turned away from them and urged, “Hurry. This way,” and slipped away into the shadows from which she’d appeared. They’d followed and now, twenty minutes later, they were walking down a walled, dimly lit corridor Meriss had said was a direct path into the ancient catacombs beneath the city.

John gave Rodney a look and lifted his brows. “Jealous?”

“No, but—no, I’m not. Don’t look at me like that. Are you telling me you don’t think she’s hot? Because I can tell by the way you were eyeing her assets earlier that you think she’s hot.”

“She’s...attractive,” John said.

“Now you’re just insulting me.”

“What does it matter? I’m not about to step on Ronon’s toes. This is the first time he’s shown an interest in a girl since he joined us.”

“It’s certainly not like she’s going to look at either one of us while he’s giving her that grin.” Rodney pointed again. John understood what he meant when he saw the way Ronon ducked his head and his entire face appeared relaxed and young. Rodney had it right. They wouldn’t stand a chance against Ronon like that.

Not that John had been thinking of that anyway. She was no doubt attractive, but lately...the usual hadn’t appealed to him.

Teyla spoke up for the first time in a while. “She would not suit either of you. She is considerably younger than you or Colonel Sheppard.”

John choked on a laugh but still put up a token defense. “Hey, I wouldn’t say I was old.”

“I’m—That’s—What do you mean?” Rodney’s hands darted between him and John. “I’m younger than him.”

John scoffed at Rodney. “By less than a year.”

“That’s still something.”

“You’re starting to sound kind of pathetic, McKay. You might want to change the subject.”

Teyla laughed lightly, and Rodney stood with his mouth open, stuttering nonsense, while John and Teyla continued on without him. John heard Rodney pick up the pace a moment later and soon he was walking side-by-side with John again and Teyla was back to watching their six.

Light glowed up ahead. They rounded a corner and John found himself on the threshold between old stone walls and smooth tunnels of Ancient design.

“That’s—Wow. These tunnels might be older than Atlantis,” Rodney said. “Look at the way that—Oh.” He rubbed his hand along the slick wall, lit panels inset into the surface. It almost looked like a checkerboard of softly glowing squares interspersed with simple copper-colored tiles. The design felt Ancient, but it wasn’t quite like anything John had seen before.

Meriss glanced over her shoulder at John, Rodney, and Teyla. “We need to go this way.” She pointed ahead to the right, where the tunnel they were about to cross into intersected another at ninety degrees. “Eventually, that one branches off into another, but it does lead to the Great Ring. One could easily become lost in here, but we’ve mapped out almost a third of the catacombs. It’s taken a great many years.”

“Exactly how many?” Rodney asked.

“We first discovered the catacombs several hundred years ago, but after a devastating culling by the Wraith, we lost them again for many years. Then my brother found references to the “city beneath the city” in the ancient writings left by our ancestors. We created a way for some of us to access the tunnels that wouldn’t alert the Governors’ to our presence underground. That was about ten years ago. I was just a girl then but I’ve lived most of the rest of my life here.”

That would make her about, oh, twenty, maybe twenty-three, twenty-four. John raked his hand over his chin, scraping coarse day-old whiskers. Maybe he really was getting old, but he didn’t feel old. He was lonely some days, when he woke to find his bed empty, but marriage hadn’t suited him, and he hadn’t found anyone he could put up with in the way you had to put up with someone you were in a relationship with, with them always in your back pocket, well, except Rodney, but that was something else, and damn, it really was time to change the subject. “So this insurrection everybody keeps talking about—we just had the bad luck to show up when we did?”

“Oh no. Not at all. When your people first came through the Great Ring, the catacombs awoke with a blaze of light and for the first time since we rediscovered them, they’ve been very much alive. Your arrival in Nadea was the sign we had been waiting for.”

“Ah.” Crap.

“Really? I find that hard to believe,” Rodney said, with that twist he sometimes gave words that set John’s teeth on edge. The man sounded insulting and confrontational all in one go, and it was no wonder he had so much trouble getting along with others.

John elbowed him, hoping it would shut him up. Rodney grunted, danced out of John’s reach, and continued, with a sharp gesture of his hand at the wall beside them, “Ancient technology—and that’s what this looks like—usually has to be initialized by someone with the right—” The flat of John’s palm caught Rodney between the shoulders. “Oomph—”

“What he’s saying,” John said and smiled at Meriss, rocking up on the balls of his feet, “is that we don’t know why your tunnels lit up when we got here but that’s not usually how it happens so maybe it was just a coincidence and one of your own guys did something that brought her to life.”

Her brows drew together. She shook her head minutely and her gaze flickered to Ronon, hulking silent and still beside her. “We should keep moving,” she said. She turned and walked on. Ronon trailed her.

Teyla’s voice carried softly forward. “Your words have upset her.”

“I noticed that.”

“I don’t see how she could be right, though,” Rodney said. “Every piece of dormant Ancient tech I’ve come across has had to be initialized by someone with the gene. The—” Rodney stopped talking suddenly, and John jostled Rodney’s shoulder with his own.

“Oh, it’s just, I was thinking, and maybe—you know, she could be right. What if the retractable platform the Stargate is on could tell when someone with the ATA gene has stepped across it, and that in turn remotely activates parts of the city?” Rodney’s face took on that wide-eyed look of discovery and he turned his bright gaze on John. “Wasn’t it Major Lorne’s team that made first contact with these people?”

“Yes, I believe so,” Teyla answered. “And Major Lorne does have the ATA gene.”

“Yeah,” echoed John. “He does.”

“So, so that’s it then.”

“Oh yeah, that’s great,” John said. “We did set off the civil war tearing this place apart now.”

“Oh,” Rodney said.

“I am afraid you might be correct, John.” Despite her quiet reserve, Teyla’s use of his given name told John how much the thought disturbed her.

Ronon stared back at them over his shoulder and gave John his “it’s not our problem” glare. He had a point. They needed to concentrate on contacting Atlantis and getting home.

*

The Great Ring towered over the small crowd gathered around it. When Meriss had mentioned her people, John hadn’t imagined quite so many of them.

“This is my brother, Prentiss.” Meriss bowed her head to a tall, thin man wearing simple trousers and tunic similar to those she wore. “He’s a scholar and he knows the most about the Ancestors’ writings and technology.”

Prentiss had a sharp-eyed gaze that took in each member of John’s team with quick deliberation. Prentiss stood in front of an Ancient console, and John noticed that no one else touched any of the other consoles in the cavernous room now that Prentiss no longer stood behind his.

“I see they’re all present,” Prentiss said. He smiled fleetingly at Meriss and then offered a nod to John. “There was no way to be certain our men would reach you with your weapons in time to stop at least one of your people from being executed. I’m pleased to see they succeeded against such overwhelming odds.”

John clasped his hands together over his weapon and braced his feet apart. “Me too,” John said.

Rodney threw up his hand and added, “I second that.”

The corner of Prentiss’s mouth curved. “I would like us to become allies in the future. The Wraith are a blight that has seemed unstoppable for too many generations to count.”

“Right now, we just want to contact our own people and let them know what’s going on. Has the gate activated any since we got here?”

“You’re referring to the Great Ring? Yes, several times.”

“Then how about we go ahead and dial up my people so we can go home and discuss your situation with our leader?”

“Acceptable.” Prentiss turned to the a young boy standing back and to his right, just out of touching distance, and waved him forward. “Jorval, please show her—Teyla, I believe?”

John acknowledged the question with a nod, even though Prentiss seemed confident of the answer.

Prentiss continued, “To the Great Map so she can input their world’s location.”

Teyla looked between Prentiss and John. John bent his head in acknowledgement of her unspoken question and she rightly took that for his assent. She followed the young boy away from the group, unclipping her radio as she went.

“You must understand. It was a great moment when the tunnels came alive with light and the crystals glowed for us. We’ve been waiting for a sign from the Ancestors for years. After the last culling several years ago, we had almost given up hope. This technology is so far beyond us some of our people believe it to be magic.”

“But not you.” John wondered why Prentiss seemed to be stalling him and the rest of his team. Contacting Atlantis would take only a few minutes, and in all likelihood, Prentiss knew that. Yet he had sent Teyla to make contact and kept the rest of the team here, out of sight of the DHD and far enough away from the gate that they couldn’t easily leave. And yet, they did have their weapons and no one seemed anxious to take them away.

“I’m an expert on this kind of technology,” Rodney said, confident as always. “I should take a look at what you’ve got here and—”

“There will be time for that later, Dr. McKay.” Prentiss didn’t even hesitate over the name this time, his attempt at careful courtesy gone.

“But I probably know more about how this stuff works than the smartest person here—”

“Dr. McKay. Please. Do not interrupt again. For now I would like to tell you why it’s so important that we wrest control of our people away from the Governors.”

In the background, the gate’s chevrons flashed bright, one after another. The forming wormhole whooshed and rushed to fill the empty space at the center of the ring.

Rodney straightened abruptly, as if his very intelligence had been brought into question. “Excuse me, but I’m sure Colonel Sheppard is interested in your history. I could be a lot more useful if I could look at those control panels.”

“McKay—” John’s radio crackled, but he reached down and twisted the volume down. If his host had meant for him to be the one making contact with Atlantis, he would not have chosen Teyla to dial the gate.

Prentiss spared an annoyed look for Rodney before he turned to John and deliberately ignored Rodney’s presence at John’s side. Rodney crossed his arms over his chest and stuck out his chin, stubborn frustration in every line of his body.

“There are caves and many abandoned buildings of the Ancestors to the north of the city that go deep into the mountainside. The Governors and those they deem worthy are allowed to hide there when the Wraith come. Our ordinary citizens, those with little power or wealth, are forced to suffer the cullings unprotected. Most do not even know where the Governors and their families and friends go to hide.”

“That sucks,” Rodney said in a flat, hard tone. “Maybe you should have let them come down here. There must be some kind of shielding, or the Wraith would have already infiltrated the place and destroyed it. But if you knew a fraction of what I do about your Ancestors’ technology, you’d already know that.”

Meriss, who had until then been silent in deference to her brother, gasped. Ronon shuffled on his feet.

Okay, that was enough of that.

“McKay, drop it. These people saved your ass less than an hour ago. Show some gratitude.”

Rodney’s crooked mouth flattened, but his wide blue eyes glimmered with both betrayal and remorse. John ignored the guilt that swept through him. Rodney had asked for it by not knowing when to give it up, and having to call Rodney on it was not John’s fault.

The tight lines that had formed around Prentiss’s mouth eased. “Thank you, Colonel Sheppard, for your understanding.”

John caught sight of Teyla returning. She reached them before Rodney could work himself up to another snide comment.

“Dr. Weir suggests we return to Atlantis to discuss the possibility of future trade with the Nadeans. The political unrest must settle before she can make a decision.” Teyla turned a conciliatory smile to Prentiss. “She regrets to inform you that we cannot take sides in your conflict until we know considerably more than we do now. We will need time.”

Prentiss placed his hand on John’s shoulder. “I’m afraid those terms are not acceptable. Colonel Sheppard and Dr. McKay will have to stay behind while you and your people discuss our proposal with your leader.”

Three, eight, then fourteen hands thrust toward them, a knife clutched in each one. Deceptively small and delicate, wickedly thin and sharp, John recognized knives meant to slip between bone, slice through to the organs beneath and kill quickly.

Ronon shrugged off Meriss’s hand on his forearm, just as she also brought her other hand around, pulling a sleek-bladed knife with a bone handle from beneath her tunic sleeve.

John only had time to raise his P-90 and realize they were seriously outnumbered.

He pressed his lips together and sighed. Damn it. He’d seen this coming. There was always a catch.

*

The face-off had not lasted long. John and Rodney had been asked to surrender their weapons; Teyla and Ronon had been allowed to leave through the gate.

“Come with me,” Prentiss had said. “We will finish this conversation elsewhere.”

Elsewhere turned out to be a room several floors below the gate room into the bowels of the Ancient city, which appeared as deep as Atlantis’s central spire was tall. The breathtaking view took in several open levels down, with balconies and glimmering, shining walls and glowing stained glass as far as the eye could see. The light deceived the eye, and John had a hard time believing they were entirely underground.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Prentiss walked beside John, Rodney to the rear, under guard. “We’ve had only days to get used to the beauty and wonder of it all, but it’s more than we could have ever hoped for. Exploration will be much easier now, and we have you to thank for that.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I’m sorry, Colonel Sheppard, but the needs of our people prohibit us from letting you walk away with only the vaguest assurance that you will consider our request for future trade and alliance. You might do the same if you were in our situation.”

“I can’t say what we would do,” John said. “But I don’t think we’d kidnap anyone.”

“Be that as it may, we’re only doing what we must. Your arrival allowed us to work the dais on which the Great Ring sits, so the Governors will not escape retribution this time.” Prentiss’s voice turned grave and John understood Prentiss meant every word with a deep conviction. “Once their power has been stripped, the Governors and their followers will have no way to flee the wrath of the people.”

Then, they stepped around a corner, and Prentiss waved them into a narrow room, which opened up in the back, in much the same way as many of the private residences in Atlantis.

The furniture consisted of a single bed frame covered in mattress and white blanket, short armless couch, again, white, and octagonal bedside table, also white.

All in all a bland little functional room in a city of remarkable beauty.

“I’m sorry, but we can’t spare the guards to split you into separate quarters. I’m certain you’ll be able to make do. I’ll dine with you shortly.”

Rodney shouldered his way forward, nearly elbowing Prentiss in the process, possibly by mistake. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Rodney was looking around with a look of horror on his face all out of proportion to their circumstances. They were no longer under threat of execution; Teyla and Ronon were back in Atlantis and in all probability talking with Weir at that very moment about their situation; and honestly, John didn’t think Weir would have a problem with the demands these people were making unless they changed their tune now that they had hostages. Although Prentiss made John antsy, John didn’t get the feeling the man was unstable or unreasonable.

Rodney plopped down onto the pristine couch. “You won’t get any weapons from Weir, if that’s what you’re after. She doesn’t negotiate with terrorists. Ask Sheppard. Or the Genii. No way, no how.”

“We know of the Genii. Their crude tactics and little respect for human life and honor made them undesirable allies.”

“Thank God for that. Don’t happen to have any Wraith stashed away here somewhere, do you?”

My god, Rodney was serious. John might strangle him yet.

“Absolutely not!” The outrage burning on Prentiss’s face was the most emotion John had seen from him yet. “We would not suffer to let a Wraith live within these walls.” So he hated the Wraith more than he hated the Governors, but John could tell it was a close race.

“Yes, yes, yes, excellent. Really.” Rodney waved his hands in a vague way, shorthand for whatever. “When’s that food going to be here? I’m starving. It’s hours past my breakfast time.”

“I will return in about an hour,” Prentiss said. He directed a curt nod at John and left.

John and Rodney had been alone only seconds when Rodney looked up at John and cleared his throat. “Um, well.”

John raised his eyebrows. McKay sat in silence, gazing around the room with glassy eyes. Now that things had finally calmed down, the major dangers of the day in the past, McKay could be due for a harsh bout of anxiety. He had almost died today. No one came out of that kind of situation unscathed.

Scraping his hand across the back of his neck, trying to work out the tension, John paced the length of the room, the walls too close for comfort. He didn’t like being at the mercy of a group of people determined to wipe out their government at all cost. He and Rodney were only valuable until Elizabeth made her decision. He didn’t necessarily think things would go sour but he’d known plenty of situations that had turned in the blink of an eye.

Rodney’s eyes locked on the bed, and he leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “Are you going to sleep on the couch?” Rodney asked. “Because I really think I should have the bed tonight. My back is killing me. And my neck—I’ve had a crick in my neck all day. That cot last night wasn’t exactly a therapeutic mattress. Besides, I’m the one who nearly lost his head this morning. I deserve the bed.”

John let out a low groan. Had he thought earlier that he could put up with Rodney? “Fine, take the bed.”

“I wonder if the showers are working in here?” Rodney raised his arm and sniffed at the wet circle under his armpit, almost immediately jerking his head away. “Oh, that’s terrible.”

“We all probably stink about now. We came here yesterday thinking we were only going to be here for a few hours and ended up in jail waiting to be executed. Almost getting your head chopped off would make anybody sweat.”

Rodney put his hands down beside him on the seat like he was getting ready to push himself up.

“Oh no you don’t,” John said. “You got the bed. I get the shower first.”

“Oh, that’s not fair!” Rodney plopped back against the back of the couch and threw his hands up. “I knew today was going to suck when I got up off that cot this morning.”

“If all you have left to complain about is that you don’t get the shower first, I think you can count this day as a winner, McKay. Suck it up.”

Twelve or so minutes later, John was letting hot, steamy, pounding water beat over his head, neck, and shoulders, rinsing away the sweat and grime of the day. He finished a few minutes later, and stepped out to shake off the water. No towels, no soap, no razor, but hell, clean enough to feel like a new man.

He wrangled his still mostly wet body into yesterday’s underwear before he grabbed up his pants and t-shirt, socks and watch. When he stepped into the main room again, Rodney was already waiting at the door. “Crap, McKay, don’t do that! I almost decked you.”

“What?” Rodney gave him a look as he pushed past John into the bathroom, but he didn’t wait for an answer before shutting the door with a swipe of his hand.

John fell back on the couch sideways and stretched his left arm over his head, intending only to let himself dry off a little more before pulling the rest of his clothes back on. Prentiss had said he would be returning to dine with them.

He rested his eyes while he waited on Rodney to finish his shower.

When John heard the door to the bathroom open, he brought his watch to his face and looked at the time. Forty-six minutes since their host had left.

He was rolling off the couch when he saw Rodney crossing from the bathroom to the bed, his skin slick with water that had nowhere to go without a towel to leach it away. Like John, he carried his clothes in his arms, wearing only his boxers—pale blue, soft, striped with another darker blue, and there was something so familiar about those shorts John could almost taste it. He stared, too long, he knew, but maybe it was only a fraction of a second, because John felt himself reach the edge of the couch, realized what was about to happen and stuck his arm out wildly, but it was too late to stop his descent.

John smacked into the floor, hitting his elbow with a loud thud and a sharp burst of tingling pain all the way into his fingers. “Damn it!”

Rodney hopped backward and then gave a startled yelp as his knee twisted out from under him, pitching him forward. He smacked hard to the floor, landing on his stomach, his clothes scattering.

And there it was again, that strange sensation of having seen this before—Rodney laid out, in nothing but his boxers, his thighs slightly spread, his ass covered in nothing but pale blue—

What—the—hell.

John tore his gaze away and struggled to his feet.

He pushed the palm of his hand against his forehead, trying to scrub away the fog. “We’ve got less than fifteen, if that Prentiss guy actually shows up with dinner when he said.”

Rodney groaned and flopped over onto his back. “I don’t know if I can get up. This is all your fault. What the hell were you doing anyway? You scared the shit out of me.”

“I hope you’re not talking literal here.”

“Oh, ha ha.” Rodney raised up on his elbows. “Of course I’m not talking literal.”

“I don’t know what happened. I slipped off the couch.” John rubbed briskly at this still throbbing elbow. “Sometimes...” He shook off the urge to tell Rodney about the strange sensation of déjà vu. “I don’t know. I fell.”

Rodney pulled up his legs and started to turn to push himself to his feet. John didn’t mean to notice, would have turned his head away if he’d realized what was going to happen, but it was too late. Rodney’s boxers gaped open at the front and a pale flash of skin and hair burned its way into John’s head.

John felt his face heat up. “For god’s sake, McKay, watch your fly!”

Rodney’s face reddened even as he yanked his fly together and struggled to his feet. “You know, I’ve had a terrible, terrible day, and I really want to go home and sleep in my own bed and eat something not-half-bad from the mess and not have to worry about being poisoned, drugged, executed, or kidnapped and held against my will in an Ancient—Oh my god, there are probably ZPMs here....”

Huh.

Rodney had a point. John wondered why he hadn’t thought of that.

“If my brain wasn’t half-dead from food and sleep deprivation, I might have realized that a hell of a lot sooner!” In his excitement, Rodney started yanking on his clothes with fitful abandon. He jerked his pants up one leg and hopped around when his foot became wedged in the top half above the knee while his other foot stayed firmly on the bottom of the pant leg. He jerked again and stumbled back onto the bed. “I can’t believe I didn’t think about this earlier. We have to convince this guy to let us look around this place while we wait on Elizabeth.”

Rodney shot John a brief look before bending over to grab his boots. “You know she’s going to agree to trade with these people when Teyla tells her about the Ancient city here. There’s no way she’ll be able to pass that up, not with these guys claiming they’re just trying to get out from under the rule of tyrants.”

“Alleged tyrants,” John said, managing to get it in when Rodney had to take a deep breath before he bent over to tie his boot laces. “Every conflict like this has two sides. We can’t trust either side until we know the whole story.”

“Alleged, shmeged. They put me in a guillotine without a shred of evidence! They were this close to killing us.” Rodney thrust up his hand, pinching his thumb and forefinger together until only a sliver of light made it through.

“I’m just saying we can’t jump to conclusions here. And they were kind of right about us. We might not have meant to but even these guys say it was our arrival that brought this city to life.”

“Doesn’t matter.” Rodney looked up at John again, but quickly returned his gaze to his remaining untied boot lace before saying, “You going to stand there all day in your underwear?”

John cursed under his breath and turned to find his clothes.

*

Just when things weren’t looking so bad for them, it all went to hell. Prentiss didn’t show up with their lunch. In fact, no one showed up at all. Rodney was starving and asked the guards seven times “where’s the damn food?” before the guards quit opening the door and answering him. But he was hungry. He hadn’t eaten anything since before they’d left Atlantis yesterday afternoon and it was now hours and hours after daybreak.

He still wasn’t completely sure what Prentiss had meant when he told Sheppard that the city came alive for them when the Atlantis team had arrived. Obviously something had been initialized, but just as obviously, these guys had been living down here, using some of the Ancient technology even without that initialization. Maybe it was the age factor. This place looked really, really old by Ancient standards, and if the Ancients had built it before they had worked their Ancient gene into all the systems of their cities, that might explain a few things. These guys obviously knew enough about the Ancient city to know how to open and close doors, and keep them locked. The doors required power to work, so the city couldn’t have been powerless if it were being occupied by these people.

Rodney had been working to get the door open from the inside for a good five minutes.

“Must have it locked down from a remote location,” he told Sheppard.

Sheppard stared at him. “Uh, huh.”

Rodney huffed and turned back to the door control. “The damn crystal configuration isn’t the same,” he said. “It’s not my fault.”

He was just about to start cursing the door when the rewiring worked, the swapped crystals bridged the connection, and the door opened, smooth and quiet.

Guards no longer stood in the hall outside. Rodney peered around the door and then stepped into the corridor, Sheppard beside him. Sheppard threw him a questioning look before starting off down the hall at a trot. “Stay with me,” Sheppard said.

Yeah, like he was going to go running off alone.

They passed empty rooms and deserted hallways, vacant stairwells and transporters that wouldn’t work. Because of the latter, the trip back up to the level where the Stargate had last been seen took much longer than the trip down. Rodney’s lungs burned, along with his thighs and calves. He wasn’t breathing any longer; he wheezed and groaned, muttering imprecations at whomever had been responsible for the non-functioning transporters. Three-fourths of the way up, in a connecting hallway, they found Meriss.

“She’s dead.” Sheppard knelt by her body, his fingers moving to her throat and testing her pulse, even though it was obvious from the long line of blood soaking the front of her cream-colored tunic and the great rend in the fabric that she couldn’t possibly still be alive.

Rodney felt a distinct queasiness settle into his stomach and for the moment, he was grateful he hadn’t eaten recently.

He couldn’t help but think about Ronon’s interest in the girl, and he had to turn his head away.

“These people are way too fond of blades,” Rodney said.

“I think we should assume the way into the city’s been discovered by the other side,” Sheppard said, rising to his feet and studying the surrounding hallway, still empty, still eerily quiet. “We need to get out of here.”

“You think?” Rodney shoved his hand into his pocket. “I still have this,” he said, pulling something out with his hand. “They took our weapons, but they left me the life signs detector and a few more of the things you gave back to me after we first met up with Meriss.”

“They returned everything to us out in the courtyard, but we had to leave the packs and some of the other stuff behind. The fighting was getting too close and we had to get out of there.”

“So what do you have?”

“I have my watch, my radio, and my IDC. You have yours?”

“No. It wasn’t in the stuff you gave back to me.”

“Then you better stick close no matter what happens because if we get separated—”

“I get it. No IDC means I don’t let you out of my sight. But—” Rodney twisted and pointed behind him. “We should really check for those ZPMs before we leave.”

“No.”

“What do you mean no?”

“I mean no.” Sheppard grabbed Rodney’s shoulder and started pulling him along. “We need to get back to Atlantis. We’ve already been gone too long and I don’t like the way this situation feels. It’s been a hell of a ride, but it’s time to get off this train.”

“This could be the biggest find we’ve made since—well, ever. And we’re just going to walk away from it?”

“We’re not hurting for power in the city right now. We’re not taking that kind of risk when we don’t know the situation. Deal with it. We’re going for the gate and we’re going to find a way off this planet before these crazy sons of bitches kill us. Are you ready to die for a ZPM?”

Rodney spluttered, then said, “No, no, not really.”

“Didn’t think so.” John gestured at the life signs detector Rodney held. “What are we looking at?”

Rodney looked down. “Nothing.”

“Let’s move then.” Sheppard led the way down the corridor. Rodney followed his lead and stayed near the wall.

As they neared the upper level they discovered more and more dead bodies. Some wore the simple tunic and trousers favored by Meriss, her brother, and their people. Some wore uniforms identical to those worn by the men who had guarded their Nadean jail cell while they awaited execution.

Rodney started paying attention to how many had died of knife wounds—most of them—and how many lay twisted in a heap on the floor, bruised and bleeding from wounds likely gathered in deadly hand-to-hand combat—most of the rest, and those who had been shot—very few. Sheppard removed a knife from one of the slain bodies, that of a blonde-haired young man, not more than twenty years old, and tucked the blade into the empty holster in his boot.

“This blade thing is getting creepy,” Rodney said.

What would lead to the development of a society where knives were the weapon of choice over guns? Or were the guns even still being manufactured? Now that he thought about it, the rifles had all looked older, antique even. Each Wraith culling interfered with the progression of technology, and they already knew these people had gone through a culling shortly after the expedition arrived in Pegasus and woke the Wraith.

He still really didn’t like these people.

Sheppard eyed Rodney over his shoulder and said nothing. He pushed to his feet. He had just started up the corridor when Rodney glanced down at the life signs detector, then jumped forward and yanked on the tail of Sheppard’s t-shirt. Sheppard looked back at him with his eyebrows raised.

“There’s something moving around that corner,” Rodney whispered too loud.

Sheppard glowered at him and slashed his hand across his throat in the universal sign for shut up.

Rodney pointed to the left side of the intersecting hallway ahead.

Sheppard reached down and in one smooth motion pulled the borrowed knife from his boot. He held the blade loosely in his right hand, hefting and twisting until he seemed to have the grip he wanted.

Rodney fought off a surge of light-headedness and wished fervently he’d thought to pick up a knife of his own. Who cared if he didn’t know how to use it to gut someone? He’d feel a hell of a lot better having it.

He could hardly breathe past the tightness in his chest as Sheppard crept toward the intersection. When Sheppard was less than ten feet away, he flattened himself back against the wall and scooted nearer the corner and the glowing dot Rodney was watching in between frantic glances up and down the corridor.

He eased closer to Sheppard’s position.

Cautiously, Sheppard crouched low and leaned out around the corner. When he saw Sheppard relax, Rodney let out a breath he hadn’t even realized he was holding.

“Colonel Sheppard!”

Oh thank god.

Sheppard rose to his feet. “Prentiss.”

Rodney moved to stand beside Sheppard just as Prentiss stepped into the opening to their hallway.

Blood spatter covered Prentiss’s tunic and trousers, and his hand wielded a slim, curved blade, bloody and flecked with colored bits of something Rodney didn’t want to identify.

“You must leave at once,” Prentiss said with a harshness they hadn’t heard from him when they met earlier. “Our hiding place has been discovered and the Governors have no intention of letting any of us escape. We’ve driven them back to the entrance of the tunnels, but I don’t know how long we can keep them out. Some of our younger people are traveling through the Great Ring to escape.” Prentiss glanced around. “Where is Meriss? I sent her to bring you.”

“She never made it,” Sheppard said. “I’m sorry.”

Prentiss flinched at the news.

“Yeah. Her, uh--” Rodney started to gesture to his midsection, caught Sheppard’s glare, and shut up, dropping his hand to his side.

Prentiss closed his eyes briefly. When he opened them, he appeared calmer than Rodney expected. If Jeannie had died like that...

“This way,” Prentiss said. He used the bloody knife to point to an intersecting corridor. “It’s the long way around to the main room where the Great Ring sits now, but we shouldn’t run into any of the Governors’ men.”

“I hope to hell you’re right about that,” Rodney said. “I’ve already almost died once today. Another close call is just overkill.”

Prentiss ignored Rodney and started off at a brisk trot, leading the way. Rodney followed, the pace pushing him to his limits, until finally, halfway up a flight of stairs he was huffing out every breath in an agony of burning lungs and thighs and calves and he had to stop.

Sheppard grabbed Rodney’s shirt and hauled him forward. “No time for a break right now.”

“Unless you want me to die, there is. I can’t take another step until I catch my breath. Just give me a second.” He pulled loose from Sheppard’s one-handed grip and bent over double, hands on his knees.

Sheppard scowled at him.

Rodney waved him on. “I’ll be right behind you. Won’t let you get too far ahead.”

“Doesn’t work that way. You stay here and somebody’s going to come up on you and you’ll have a knife in your belly before you can scream.”

Roughly, Sheppard grabbed Rodney just under the arm and pulled him upright. “You’re only making it worse. Stand up straight. Get some air in your lungs.”

“Okay, okay.” Rodney straightened, but when he did, his head spun and the walls tilted at a swift downward angle. “Oh, oh, I’m gonna—” His knees buckled.

He blinked his eyes open to find Sheppard bent over him, patting his cheek a little rougher than Rodney thought necessary. “McKay? Rodney?”

“Huh.”

“Why didn’t you tell me you were about to faint?”

“Uh, because I didn’t know?” He thought about the missed meals and the running and sitting and climbing stairs and sneaking around and, realized, oh yes, he was definitely overdue. “I have hypoglycemia,” he said, and then he felt stupid. Of course he had hypoglycemia. Sheppard knew that. Everyone on Atlantis knew that.

Prentiss stood on a step behind Sheppard, looming over them. “Is he going to be able to continue? We don’t have much time.”

The stair treads were cutting into the back of Rodney’s legs and shoulders but at least he didn’t feel as if he’d fallen down the flight of stairs. He could move his fingers and toes; he could feel the aches and pains of the last two days. He moved and a sharp stab of pain in his neck freaked him out for the few seconds it took him to remember the crick he’d been fighting all morning. He probably hadn’t broken his neck after all.

“I’m okay,” he said.

Sheppard offered his hand to Rodney, and Rodney used it to pull himself to his feet. His legs felt wobbly and weak but that faded once he took a couple of deep breaths.

“We must go,” Prentiss said. He started up the steps again, knife held with a casualness Rodney found disturbing.

“Not to sound ungrateful, but why are you using valuable time helping us when your people are under attack?” Sheppard asked.

Prentiss paused a few steps from the top of the flight. His impatience came through in a thousand ways, from the shifting of his feet to his pulled-back shoulders and clenching jaw. “We will regroup, and we will try again, and again, for as long as it takes to remove the Governors from power. You must have the blood of the Ancestors or our city would not have awakened at your arrival. You can teach us many things about our Great City. We would like to think we might have an ally in your people in the future.”

Rodney looked around for the life signs detector, saying to Sheppard, “He has a point. We die, no alliance. Elizabeth likes us.”

“One of us anyway,” Sheppard said.

“Ha. You’re too funny today. Elizabeth likes me just fine.” Then, because it just occurred to him to ask, “She does like me, doesn’t she? She hasn’t said anything to--”

Sheppard gave him that look that said he might be taking things too seriously.

“Ah,” Rodney said. “Ha ha ha.” At that moment, he spotted the life signs detector at the bottom of the stairs.

Prentiss reached the top.

A war cry, sharp and loud, came around the corner of the landing.

Rodney threw himself down the last two steps and scrambled for the detector. One glance told him all he needed to know.

Rodney gasped air into his breathless lungs. “Two more coming down the next corridor!”

He glanced up, quickly matched the screen image to the configuration of corridors and intersections ahead, and stabbed his fingers in the general direction the glowing dots appeared on the screen. “That one!”

But Sheppard wasn’t paying attention. The attacker who had let out the battle yell had overtaken their position and Sheppard was slashing his knife around skillfully but still barely holding off the man’s blade as the guy swiped and lunged with a skill that would have rivaled Ronon on his best day.

Prentiss came up behind the man and made a purposeful violent thrust. Blood gurgled out of the man’s mouth and Rodney stood there in shock as he realized Prentiss had stabbed directly into the man’s heart and lungs.

Sheppard danced back out of the way of the dead man’s toppling body. The man hit the floor, sightless eyes open and staring directly at Rodney’s face.

“McKay, come on.”

Rodney rushed up the remaining stairs to catch up with Sheppard.

He heard footsteps pounding down the intersecting hallway.

“We have to go,” he gasped. “We’ve only got seconds to get ahead of these dots.”

Maybe they were some of Prentiss’s men, then again, maybe not. It would be too late when they found out so it was best to assume they were the bad guys.

Prentiss pointed ahead of himself with his bloody knife. “I’ll hold them off if it proves necessary. Go that way. You will arrive just outside the room where it waits.”

They ran around the corner and up another flight of stairs, then down another hallway. Then the Stargate loomed up out of floor ahead, so large, so encompassing, so perfect that Rodney almost missed the sight of the two men and one woman standing beside the DHD, watching the doorway anxiously.

He hesitated, gasping for breath, and he saw Sheppard’s body tense but keep moving forward, as if he was ready to take on all three if he had to, but then the woman leaned forward and started pushing down on the glyphs.

“Thank the Great Ancestors you’re finally here,” she said. “I’m entering the location of your world.”

Rodney groaned--he was exhausted--and ran over to the DHD to confirm she was dialing the correct planet. He wasn’t about to trust his and Sheppard’s life to these people. He didn’t like them; he sure as hell didn’t trust them.

The glyphs for Atlantis’s address glowed. A wormhole swooshed into place inside the ring.

“Sending,” Sheppard hollered at him, all the while punching his code into the IDC. He watched Sheppard wait for the signal, holding his breath for the seconds it took, and when Sheppard yelled, “Go,” he exhaled in a rush.

Sheppard ran for the open gate.

The woman who had dialed the DHD grabbed Rodney’s wrist just as he was rounding the DHD. She pressed a piece of paper into his palm with her other hand. “Here is where we have sent our children. Please help them if we are not able to go after them.”

Rodney stared down at her hands on his, freaking out a little to have been singled out for this. Sheppard disappeared into the event horizon. What could he say? So he nodded. “Yes, yes, we’ll check on them.”

“No, you must agree to take them in if something happens to all of us. They’ll be killed if they come back here and the Governors have reclaimed the Great Ring. Promise me.” Tears ran down her cheeks; her mouth trembled.

“Okay, okay, okay. We’ll take them,” he said. “We won’t let them die.”

He just knew this was going to bite him in the ass later. But how could he say no? It was the best he could do under the circumstances.

“Thank you for accepting this burden of honor,” she said. She released his arm, his hand, and he turned away quickly and rushed through the Stargate.

*

Elizabeth sent a team to check out the address Rodney gave her for the Nadean children. By the time they got there, several hours later, they found only a long abandoned village and no sign that anyone had recently occupied the place. Rodney felt a moment of discomfort at the thought of what might have happened, whether the children had been captured by the other Nadeans or if they’d been reclaimed by their parents.

Either way it was out of their hands now. They couldn’t risk sending a team back to the Nadean world to find out what had happened. They would have to wait until they had news from another source. Maybe one of the Nadeans would contact someone on a world Atlantis had regular contact with. Otherwise, there was nothing else they could do while they waited for the Nadean situation to stabilize, despite the desperate itch Rodney had to get back to that city.

Something had to power the massive complex, so reminiscent of Atlantis, and he’d bet that Nobel he was owed that it was at least one ZPM.

In the meantime, Rodney went to sleep that night and dreamed again of sliding along the floor and curving lips and the whoosh of a door.

*

“Okay, this is just pathetic,” Rodney said, swiping water droplets off the screen of his tablet computer with the sleeve of his jacket. “You’re getting water everywhere. And mud—crap.” He used his foot to scoot his box of tools across the jumper floor away from Sheppard. “Look at your boots. They’re covered in mud.”

Sitting across from him on the bench in the back of the jumper, Sheppard curled his fingers around the edge of the seat. With his dripping wet hair plastered to his head, his clothes no better, and his face speckled with mud, he glared at Rodney through tired, but nonetheless fierce, eyes, and Rodney felt a twinge of misplaced guilt.

“This was not my fault,” Rodney said abruptly.

“If you hadn’t moved it—” Sheppard sluiced water off his forearms with his hands.

Rodney noticed faint tremors in Sheppard’s fingers and interrupted with, “Oh, don’t tell me you were dumb enough to let yourself go into hypothermia out there!”

Sheppard grimaced. “No, I was not. I’m just cold, McKay. You would be too if you’d just spent an hour out in the freezing rain, slogging through the mud, looking for the damn jumper!”

“You’re the one who told me to keep it cloaked,” Rodney said. “You should have taken your little remote thingy so you could uncloak the ship yourself.”

“I did! It didn’t work.”

“Oh, right, damaged crystal,” Rodney said. “It still wasn’t my fault!”

“You could have taken thirty seconds and noticed I hadn’t made it back yet and wondered where the hell I was!”

“I did!” Rodney’s voice cracked and he realized he might be yelling, for no real reason. This wasn’t a life or death situation. No one was going to miss them, because they were supposed to be gone overnight, to keep an eye out for anyone coming through the gate. They were on the planet whose address Rodney had brought back from Nadea, on the off-chance anyone showed up and they were able to garner some news about the status of the Nadean civil war as they were now calling it.

Two days had passed, and Elizabeth hadn’t liked the thought of abandoning hope for the insurrectionists, not after putting all the puzzle-pieces together and concluding that maybe they had a right to feel the way they did and to want to rid themselves of a tyrannical government. Of course, Rodney hadn’t argued that it wasn’t their problem for the simple fact that he really, really wanted to go back there and study their underground city and look for ZPMs, because it didn’t take a genius to know they would never run out of uses for working ZPMs.

Also, children might have had something to do with it. No one seemed to want to be the one to say it wasn’t worth the manpower to find out what had happened to the Nadean children the woman had asked Rodney to take in.

Regardless, Elizabeth had decided to send him and Sheppard on the mission, alone, after Teyla took Ronon with her to visit the Athosians for some kind of tent building festival where they put everyone to work and then celebrated hard later. Rodney wasn’t that disappointed he hadn’t been invited, but Sheppard seemed to have taken it somewhat personally.

Rodney thought it was probably that he and Sheppard had been the ones who had spent the most time with Prentiss and his people and Elizabeth wanted any contact to be with friendly faces. If they got into trouble, they had the jumper this time and they could simply fly away or cloak the ship, so the additional backup from Teyla or Ronon wasn’t really necessary.

They had landed far enough away from the gate to stop anyone from accidentally walking into the cloaked jumper.

Elizabeth probably hadn’t imagined trouble would turn out to be a crappy rainstorm and a shorted-out, hard to replace crystal damaged by a rogue lightning bolt. Although the lightning had only singed the ship, it had struck close enough to send a spike of electricity feeding back into the delicate crystal consoles. Rodney had spent several hours working to fix the problem. Sheppard had gotten bored and walked off to check out the perimeter, going far enough afield to get lost in the tree line.

The rain had started not long after Sheppard had left.

“I tried to radio you, but you never responded. I was just about to come looking when you showed up and started pounding on the bay door.”

“Why the hell did you move it?”

“Something in the ground was drawing the lightning right to us. I had to move quick when I realized what was going on because a static charge was building up remarkably fast. We’d be toast now if I hadn’t moved the ship to a safer spot.” Rodney leaned back into the bench seat and crossed his arms over his chest, defending his choice with a jerk of his chin and a pointed stare.

“In the middle of the biggest mud puddle you could find!”

“I said I moved to the safest spot I could find. You’ll notice I didn’t say it was perfect. There’s no pleasing you! I saved the ship and you chew me out because you have to walk a little further to find it.”

“A little? We can’t even see the gate now.” Sheppard nearly growled the words, but Rodney noticed Sheppard was winding down. It had been a long day, a long week really. They needed a break. Elizabeth must have known that and given them this mission as a way of forcing them to take it easy. Rodney thought it would have been a good plan too, if it weren’t for the lightning.

“Just calm down. You need to get dried off and warmed up. You know as well as I do that the chance of any of the Nadeans showing up here is unbelievably slim. Elizabeth is just making herself feel better with this move and, not that I blame her, but she probably had an ulterior motive for getting us away from the city for an overnight trip to watch the gate.”

“Has it been that bad?”

Yes, it had. Sheppard had been a real bastard over the last few days, probably fighting off misplaced guilt because they’d managed to set off a civil war that had apparently been brewing for decades. “Hey, I didn’t want to see any of those guys die either, but there’s nothing we can do about it. They want to kill themselves in a civil war, they’re welcome to it. We’ve got bigger fish to fry—metaphorically speaking.”

Sheppard grabbed the back of his sopping wet shirt and pulled it over his head. “Like anyone’s going to mistake that for a literal statement.”

“You’d be surprised at how many of the people I work with on a daily basis who can’t tell the difference between the literal and the figurative and they’re supposed to be the smartest people in their fields. It’s disgusting.”

Sheppard raised his brow.

Rodney lowered his head and stared at the tablet perched on his knees. He tapped through a few screens, not really paying attention to what he was looking at, instead listening to the rustle of Sheppard searching through his pack for a clean, dry t-shirt. Pants. Socks. Possibly underwear. Damn it.

Rodney stabbed at another flashing icon and scrolled through the data he found.

“I’ve been having these dreams,” he said, feeling both anxious and determined, but not taking his eyes off the screen.

“Crap, McKay, do I want to hear this?”

“You remember that conversation we had a while back about Radek and his dream?”

Sheppard stilled and Rodney glanced up to catch an odd look of dismay on Sheppard’s face. “What? Radek’s dream about me kissing him freak you out that bad?”

“No. Hell no. Get over yourself.”

“Well, it freaked me out, and now I don’t know what’s happened, but I keep having my own version of it, and it’s the weirdest dream I’ve ever had. Doesn’t feel like a dream. Feels like some kind of repressed memory. I should know. I’ve had my fair share of those pop up over the years and they suck.” His mouth turned down at the corner and he fought the frown forming.

Sheppard just gave him a look and said, “Huh.”

“So, I was thinking, do you think there’s something to them?”

Sheppard hesitated, before saying, “No. I don’t. They’re just dreams. It probably messed with your head when he told you that and now you can’t get it out.”

“Oh that’s just fantastic. Exactly what I needed, more crazy in my dreams.”

“Listen, it’s probably just the stress. We work all the time and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve nearly died and you know you have too. We’re going to be lucky to come out of Pegasus without more than a few loose marbles.”

Rodney stabbed his finger against his temple. “I can not afford to lose any more of my marbles, thank you very much. My genius, and all our lives, depend on them too much for my own comfort these days.”

Sheppard snorted. “Bullshit, McKay. You get off on being needed so much in Atlantis.”

Rodney flattened his mouth, thought about retorting with something appropriately acidic and sharp, but settled for a haughty tilt of his head and a slightly less edgy, “Everyone would be dead—oh, I don’t know, about a hundred times over—without me.”

“You can quit posturing. We all know Atlantis needs you.”

It was then, for no particular reason, that Rodney noticed Sheppard hadn’t put on dry socks. His feet stuck out under the hem of his pants, his toes sharp-boned and covered with a smattering of dark hairs in the same manner as his fingers. Sheppard was leaning over, his forearms propped on his knees, his hands dangling between them. His damp hair stuck up in a crazy array of spikes and cowlicks. The skin of his face and neck had warmed from a pale clammy white to a ruddy pink and his mouth—his mouth was curved just so and Rodney found himself unfolding his arms, reaching up, reaching out, and Sheppard’s eyes widened as Rodney’s finger brushed the corner of his lips.

And then Rodney realized what he’d done, and he sputtered, frantic and apologetic, “Oh my god. I’m sorry, I’m really, really sorry. I didn’t mean to do that. I don’t know why I did. I swear. I do. I mean, I do swear I don’t know why. It was a—”

Sheppard thrust his hand out, palm toward Rodney. “Stop, okay? Forget it.”

Rodney’s heart wouldn’t settle down, the beat loud and harsh in his ears, the throb making it hard to think. Why the hell had he done that?

Sheppard got to his feet and moved to the front of the jumper. Rodney followed.

The HUD popped up, information flowing into place to blend with the rapidly falling rain just outside the jumper’s front window.

“We should scan for life signs again. It’s been awhile.”

“And now we can’t see the gate, I get it, you already mentioned that,” Rodney said, grateful for anything to say that didn’t involve inappropriate and unexplainable touching.

Sheppard scooted into the pilot’s seat while throwing Rodney a look of irritation. “I wasn’t going to say that.”

“Yes, well, it’s better than the alternative,” Rodney said, turning his head away and focusing on the controls he’d been working on earlier. He’d repaired them. There was nothing else to do here, but he couldn’t look at Sheppard right now or he might find himself babbling and begging for forgiveness again. He wasn’t ready to think about losing one of the only real friendships he’d ever had over something as stupid as poking his finger at the man’s lips.

“I said forget it. It’s no big deal.” Sheppard cleared his throat. “Let’s see if anybody’s made an appearance on this rock in the last hour.”

*

John jerked his boots on over his hastily donned socks and prepared to plunge back out into the rain and mud, this time accompanied by Rodney. He stood and shrugged into his jacket.

Twenty-four life signs had appeared suddenly on the HUD, all gathered around the Stargate. They’d have taken the jumper to check it out but something about the area near the gate was drawing the lightning to the jumper and since they didn’t know what it was, he wasn’t willing to risk any more of the jumper’s crystals getting fried.

“Is this really necessary?” Rodney asked. “I mean, if we stay off the ground, the lightning probably won’t be a problem. It’s not like this is some kind of freak storm. It’s actually pretty ordinary.”

“Doesn’t matter. I don’t want to take any chances with the jumper. We’ve lost quite a lot over the last few years and I don’t want to start treating them as if they’re expendable. The only others we’ve found were on, oh what was it called?” When Rodney just looked at him, John blew out an exasperated breath. “Crap. That planet with the tower and the woman who wanted to have my baby?”

“You mean the one where I nearly got trapped underground in a cave in?” Rodney said. He struggled into a rain jacket while he talked. “So nice of you to remind me of that. You know, I really do hate you sometimes. You get the girl while I nearly die. Life is so unfair.”

“Yeah, that one.” John checked his guns for ammunition and then patted down his pockets to make sure everything that was supposed to be there was there. He watched as Rodney did the same, and said, “A little rain isn’t going to kill you and when we finish checking things out, we can return to the jumper and be all safe and sound and cozy and warm. Happy?”

“No, as a matter of fact, I’m not. I’d rather stay in the jumper and be safe and sound and cozy and warm now.”

The jumper bay was opening as Rodney finished his little speech. Rain poured over the upper edge in a curtain of water and ran down the ramp. John spoke into the radio to test it, waited for Rodney’s nod, and then led the way out into the cold, wet afternoon on another alien planet. Despite Rodney’s complaints, he followed John without hesitation. John did hear him muttering under his breath, however, and wasn’t a bit surprised about that. He would’ve been worried if Rodney had kept quiet.

The mud wasn’t thick. John’s earlier description of their location had been wholly accurate though, because they stepped out into a mud puddle that reached the top edge of their boots. Which really sucked, because the water was cold.

“Oh, dear god,” McKay said, his tone just shy of scathing. “This is going to be miserable. I hope those Nadeans realize someday what we’ve gone through to help them out.”

“I’m sure they’ll be suitably grateful if we rescue their children,” John said, the squelching of his boots already annoying and uncomfortable.

“If they’re still alive to be grateful,” Rodney said, sounding almost regretful. Rodney wasn’t a bad guy, John knew, even if he sometimes came across as too brash, too conceited, too self-involved. Sometimes John thought Rodney just hid it better from everyone else, including Rodney himself.

They entered the tree line from the direction opposite the Stargate’s location, Rodney having flown the jumper to the leeward side of the copse of trees, which was one of the main reasons John had almost never found the damn jumper and why they couldn’t now see the Stargate itself.

Branches snapped underfoot as they walked. When they approached the edge of the copse, John waved Rodney to a stop and crouched so he could see through the trees toward the Stargate. He adjusted his P-90, took up position and waited, Rodney squatting beside him.

He could see well enough with his naked eye to tell that no one lingered near the gate any longer. He turned his head to face Rodney, and whispered, “Where are they?”

“They’re on the other side of that hill now.” Rodney lowered the handheld life signs detector and raised his head. He pointed toward the left of the Stargate which was at a right angle to their current location. The hill wasn’t that big, so John guessed it must drop at a steeper angle in the back than it did in the front to be able to hide anything of human height behind it.

“If it’s a bunch of kids from Nadea, I don’t understand why they’d just now be coming through the gate considering how that Nadean woman acted about the whole thing. What if it’s some kind of trap?”

“What kind of trap?”

“Did I not just ask if this was some kind of trap? How would I know what kind of trap it is if I don’t even know if it is a trap? Seriously. Do you even listen to me half the time?”

“What?” John pulled out his binoculars. Using his hand to shield the lenses from the falling rain, he stared out over the distance between them and the Stargate and the hill. Nothing moved as far as the eye could see.

“Oh, yes, that’s so funny. A riot of laughs.”

“Shut up. I need to listen. You hear that?”

“I don’t hear a thing but the damn rain beating me in the head and—oh, wait, maybe.” Rodney twisted around in the direction of the jumper but his feet slipped and his knees landed with a splat in the wet leaves covering the ground. John strained to hear over Rodney’s vicious grumbling, but whatever it was seemed to be just out of range. He couldn’t make out what it was or where it was coming from, until—

“Oh, shit,” Rodney said in a high-pitched panic. “It’s a dart.”

“Crap. That’s what I was afraid of.” John lurched to his feet, Rodney flailing upward nearly as fast. “We might have to make a run for it.” When Rodney started to move in the direction of the jumper, John grabbed his arm and spun him around. “Wrong direction.”

“You’re kidding me.” But he took off after John, running toward the life signs on the detector, John praying all the way that he wasn’t leading them into a trap, because it had become clear over the years that Rodney trusted him to know what to do anytime things got out of control. Those life signs didn’t necessarily have to be friendlies. They could just as easily belong to Wraith or guillotine-happy Nadeans. But the idea that they might indicate children spurred him on. Who the hell could resist the lure of needy, helpless children?

“Wait, wait!” Rodney yelled. “They’re gone. They’re all gone. They just disappeared.”

John skidded to a halt, the wet ground nearly taking his feet out from under him. “Where’d they go?”

“Do I sound like I know? They were there and now they’re not. Where’s the dart?”

“Not here yet. Maybe there’s something—”

“Yes, yes. Shielding!” Rodney flung his arm toward John, as if John had enough time to catch a glimpse of the detector, watch for the dart, and keep an eye on the hill all that the same time. “Something’s shielding them. That would explain why we haven’t seen them before and why we didn’t find them when we came looking earlier. And possibly—”

“What about an energy signature?”

“No, no, no. Nothing. But—but it could be something naturally occurring that’s shielding them.” Rodney talked so fast John had to focus to keep up. “Could be why the Nadeans picked this planet. They’re smart enough to understand that. Remember, according to Prentiss’s story those Governors hid in caves and Ancient buildings that protected them from the Wraith. Whatever it is could be the cause of the lightning strike to the jumper.”

“Okay, then, let’s go. Dart’s closing on us.”

They ran for the hill, Rodney’s head hunched low and his rain jacket flapping, John keeping his eyes on the sky as much as he could and not take a fall on the slippery wet ground.

Cresting the top, John looked down on a precipitously descending ravine and saw footsteps leading into a barely there crevice set back in a rocky crag.

“Oh hell no,” Rodney said beside him. “I can’t climb down there. I didn’t even make it up the practice wall you set up for training at the last alpha site. Pulled a hamstring on my first attempt, remember?”

“Get over it. We can’t make it back to the jumper now. The dart’s almost on top of us.”

The shrill whine of the dart came nearer.

“Okay, I take that back. Anything’s better than becoming a Wraith hors d’oeuvre.” Rodney looked a little wild-eyed as he followed John’s scramble over the edge. He fumbled the life signs detector, trying to shove it into his vest pocket under the edge of his rain jacket but his fingers must have slipped because John watched it careen over a pile of rocks and bounce before tumbling end over end until it smacked into the ground at the bottom of the ravine.

“Okay, that’s not good,” Rodney said, gazing over his shoulder at the detector lying twenty feet below them.

John shook his head. “Move it!”

“I’m trying.”

“Your hands haven’t changed position since you grabbed that rock! Now come on, Rodney, you can do this.” John had tried to sound coaxing but really he just sounded loud and grating to his own ears. Rodney responded anyway, and shifted his grip to another rock a little lower and then clambered down a few more feet.

John breathed a sigh of relief and focused on his own efforts to climb down the side of the ravine.

“We’re almost there,” he said. Then he was, and he had to suck in his breath hard and push and pull himself into the narrow crack, barely wide enough for him and his vest. How was he going to get Rodney through there?

“Here you are,” John said. He grabbed the front of Rodney’s jacket before Rodney could slip and hauled Rodney against the opening. “You’re going to have to take off your jacket and your vest,” he said, “or you’ll never make it through.”

“How the hell am I supposed to do that? If I let go, I’ll fall to my death!”

“I’ve got you. I won’t let go. Promise.” John smiled, thin and hard, hoping it was enough to reassure Rodney. But this was going to be tricky.

“How? Seriously, how? I don’t see it.”

John fumbled with the one arm he could fit easily through the crevice and jerked the flap of Rodney’s rain jacket open. He stuffed his hand down the front of Rodney’s pants, feeling the give of soft warm skin against the back of his fingers as he fisted his hand around Rodney’s belt and fly and yanked forward.

Rodney “Oomphed” as his chest plowed into the rock face, his hands scrambling for purchase.

John heard a sound behind him. “Crap. Get a move on! We’re running out of time.” He tried to turn his head, but he was smashed up against the rocks that came together to make the crevice in the cliff side and if he pulled back to allow his head to move, he’d have to release his grip on Rodney.

Rodney was talking fast now, words John couldn’t make out but he knew they weren’t really directed at him. Rodney fumbled with his jacket, getting it off and out of the way, and then he twisted, his movements yanking hard against John’s hand and wrist, trying to get the vest unfastened and then off his shoulders. “God, maybe I really do need to lose some weight,” he said. “Carson keeps telling me I’m not doing myself any favors with the doughnuts.” And then Rodney was muttering again, and John quit paying attention, because—

Another shuffle behind him, and John knew without a doubt he was no longer alone.

And then someone—a child—said, “You need to come further into the tunnel or you’ll lead the Wraith here.”

And then the relief set in.

Rodney twisted one final time, shoved his vest and jacket at the crack where they fell to the ground at John’s feet, and shimmied his way through the narrow opening and into the dry tunnel.

“Oh thank god. I’m not dead.”

“We’re not alone, either,” John said. He turned around, and there stood a young boy, about twelve or thirteen years old, holding a lit candle, the flame guttering in the flow of fresh air coming from the entrance.

They followed the boy about thirty feet deeper into the tunnel, winding around several corners of jagged rock before the boy turned back to John. “No one has come for us. Did our parents send you? We’re ready to go home.”

The relief faded at the realization of what that probably meant for the Nadeans and their civil war.

*

Twenty-three other children huddled in the cavern the young boy led them to. The air smelled of rain, even though a small fire burned in the center of the cave, just large enough to light the room, so John was pretty sure there was adequate ventilation. He could see another young child—a girl this time—feeding the fire with nothing larger than twigs.

John put his hand on the shoulder of the child they’d followed, to get his attention. “Why did you leave the cave earlier to go to the gate?” At the confusion on the boy’s face, John added, “I think your people call it the Great Ring.”

The boy blinked up at him. “We heard a noise.”

“That would have probably been when I moved the jumper,” Rodney said. Rodney hadn’t moved out from behind John. When several of the kids looked his way, Rodney slunk back a little further behind John. Rodney and kids didn’t get along, at least as far as Rodney was concerned, and he’d made that very well known a few years ago when they’d traveled to a planet populated entirely by people less than twenty-five years old. Since then, he’d tortured many of his scientists by sending them to that planet whenever something came up requiring technical expertise.

John sent a look of disgust over his shoulder at Rodney before turning back to the kid. “So you climbed all the way out of this place to go check it out? All of you?”

“We all want to go home,” the boy answered.

Another boy said, “Someone was supposed to come for us.”

“I miss my mother,” another said, this time a girl, and she sounded like she wanted to cry. John felt a flicker of panic start to claw at the back of his neck. John liked children just fine. Crying? Not so much.

Rodney shuffled his feet. “Um. Well. This is—We’re not—Sheppard?” His question ended on a high-pitched whine.

John studied the group of kids. Only one of them appeared younger than ten; the rest seemed to be between ten and fourteen, maybe fifteen. “We should take them to Elizabeth,” he said.

“Yes!” Relief edged out the sound of Rodney’s own incipient panic. “Yes. Exactly.”

“As soon as we’re sure that Wraith dart is out of the picture.”

“Oh.” Rodney said, disappointment replacing relief.

“Is the jumper safe?”

“Should be. The cloak was still working fine when we left it.”

“Then—”

Rodney interrupted, eyes wide, “Oh, no. The life signs detector. What if a Wraith finds it? We’re dead. We’re so dead.”

“They’re probably not going to just stumble across it. It’s a big planet.”

“They’d have to be looking for it,” Rodney agreed quickly. “In the ravine.”

“Sure.”

“So. We wait?”

John gave Rodney a short nod.

“I have a question,” John said, turning his head away from the staring kids and lowering his voice. “Where’d the dart come from? The Stargate hasn’t been active except when we came through in the jumper.”

Rodney stared back at him, mouth working, eyes wide open. John could almost see Rodney’s brain flitting from one possibility to another as he sought an answer that made sense. Then Rodney breathed a quiet gasp of air and came to the conclusion John had reached a while back. “Oh god. There’s a hive ship somewhere nearby.”

*

“What would a hive ship be doing on this planet?” Rodney asked as soon as they’d left the kids behind in the tunnel and made their way far enough toward the entrance to speak freely. “It’s uninhabited—yes, okay, usually uninhabited, and our scans didn’t indicate anything of real interest.”

John raised his eyebrows and rested his arms across his P-90 which was still clipped to his vest. “Except...?”

“Except what? I got nothing.”

“Except that it seems this planet has a lot of—”

“Natural shielding!” Rodney snapped his fingers rapid-fire, once, twice, three times. “And the Wraith could be using this planet for any number of things and no one would be the wiser because the shielding would protect it from scans and keep whatever they were doing from being discovered by any other Wraith ships! Of course.”

“Keep your voice down. I don’t want them to overhear us.” John rubbed his hand over his chin, noticing as he did that it was already time for a shave again. “Look, we’ve got to get them out of here and back to Atlantis. We can’t leave them.”

“I know that,” Rodney said in a stage whisper, proving once again he couldn’t actually be quiet outside of a life or death situation. “I never even suggested—”

John pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’m just saying.”

“Well I’m just saying too.” Rodney sounded—John had to think about it for a second before he came up with the word he was looking for—hurt.

“We can’t fit twenty-four kids in the jumper, so we’re going to have to go straight for the gate. You lead the kids to the gate after I get a head start for the jumper, and then while you’re dialing the gate and getting them through, I’ll take out any darts or Wraith that might try to get in the way using the ship’s weapons.”

“We’re all going to die,” Rodney said bleakly.

“If we do,” John said, “look on the bright side. You really will be able to say you died saving a bunch of kids.”

“Oh, fantastic. You forgot one essential piece of logic. I’ll be dead. And, no one will ever know what happened!”

*

John didn’t like splitting up and leaving Rodney alone with the task of getting twenty-four kids to the Stargate before they were discovered by the Wraith, but they hadn’t heard the dart for a while and hiding out any longer wasn’t going to gain them any ground, so he squeezed out of the cave, climbed awkwardly in the rain to the top of the ravine, scoped out the area, and then ran flat out for the jumper, splashing through mud puddles and slipping on wet leaves the whole way.

His breath was coming hard by the time he lowered the ramp. He tapped his radio. “McKay, I made it. Get moving.”

“This is never going to work, Sheppard.”

John threw himself into the pilot’s seat and breathed a sigh of relief. The radio worked. They’d had a backup plan in case it didn’t, one that involved Rodney leaving the protection of the shielded cavern with the kids at a specific time, but John was grateful for the voice contact. Rodney should, however, already be as close to the entrance as possible without stepping outside and that could account for the working radios. “Don’t be such a spoilsport. It’ll work.”

“I’ve got twenty-four kids here who can only climb so fast! If that dart comes back, we’re done for. And I haven’t even started up the cliff!”

“It’s not really a cliff. More like a steep rocky hill.” John curled his fingers around the hand grips and the ship came alive for him, rising swiftly into the air. He nudged his right hand over, shifting minutely, and the ship rolled and turned before leveling off and heading in the direction of the Stargate and the hill beyond where Rodney and the kids should be cresting the edge of the ravine at any moment.

“It’s a cliff, damn it, and it’s going to get me killed.”

“Just concentrate on getting those kids up safely.”

He heard Rodney’s breath change from a steady huff to a harsh pant. “They’re not the ones having that problem. They’re like a bunch of monkeys. Really fast monkeys who—won’t—shut—up. Be quiet!” Rodney yelled. “Do you guys want to end up in the belly of a dart, for god’s sake?”

John winced at the ringing in his ear. A little warning would have been nice there.

John thought about life signs and the HUD responded with a display. “Oh, crap,” he muttered.

Rodney picked up on it and said, “What? What? What do you see? What is it?”

“I’m over the trees, McKay. Where are you?”

“I’m still climbing!”

“Don’t look down.”

“Why—Aw, you’ve got to be kidding! What the hell is this, a hundred and one ways to kill Rodney McKay day?”

“Is it Wraith?”

“Yes!” More panting, more cursing, more yelling as something happened on Rodney’s end. “No no, I’ve got you. It’s okay, you’re not dead, we’re not dead. Just—no, not like that! You’ll drag us both down! And I for one do not want to die today!”

John ground his teeth together and concentrated hard, focusing on his flying and listening to Rodney’s frantic chatter in his ear. He needed to be there—now. The trees fell behind him, out of view, and the mostly flat plain on which the Stargate sat sped away—and then he was. The puddle jumper zoomed over the hill, down into the ravine, and swept along the shallow flow of water at the base that was accumulating from the heavy rain, spraying the water up in an arc as the shield just scraped the surface.

At the splash of water, two of the four Wraith soldiers John could see running toward Rodney’s position pulled up short. They fired in the direction of the cloaked jumper with their stunners, but John knew they would have to bring something more effective to bear before he had to worry about swapping to the shield.

John twisted his left hand and focused on where he needed to be to fire at the Wraith who were blasting stunners at the handful of children still scrambling on hands and knees toward the top of the cliff. Rodney followed at the end of the line, and he seemed to be dragging a girl along with him, his hand fisted in the back of her shirt.

As long as Rodney had someone else to worry about, he would be all right.

Most of the other children milled around the crest of the hill, and a few had dropped to their bellies with their arms stretched out over the edge offering hands down to those nearing the top.

The Wraith still ran toward them from too far away to get off an accurate shot at the group of kids and Rodney, but someone was bound to get lucky soon. John thought angles and trajectories before he sent his thoughts out to the ship, locking on his targets, and the jumper responded by sending out a volley of drones.

Four explosions flared bright as debris burst into the air in all directions, leaving behind only scattered Wraith remains. Very little came down near Rodney, who was finally just feet away from cresting the hill himself. He watched through the windscreen as Rodney clambered up onto flat ground and hauled the girl over the edge with him.

A flash on the HUD caught John’s attention.

“McKay, you’re gonna have to get your ass to the gate,” John said on a surge of adrenaline. “I’m picking up darts headed our way.”

Static crackled over the radio and then nothing. Whatever had interfered with their radio signals earlier that day was back in effect.

If he’d thought about it he would have realized before now that Rodney had been strangely silent for the last few minutes.

He couldn’t wait until the darts were on top of them. John dialed the gate and hoped it wasn’t so premature that the wormhole closed down on Rodney before he could reach it and send his IDC through.

John had time for one last look at Rodney and the gaggle of kids running over the flat wet ground toward the gate, before he set the ship on an intercept course for the closest incoming dart.

*

“Quit panicking!” Rodney yelled. “We’re almost there!” His boots splashed through puddles of rainwater and he puffed out his breaths faster than he could take them in—or so his oxygen-starved lungs were telling him. The burn of deprivation would probably send his muscles into spasms later, but if he could just hold them off for now...

The little girl who had almost sent him and herself plummeting to their deaths stumbled along beside him, tripping again, and this time, Rodney grunted and lifted her and tucked her under his arm like he would carry his computer, her little legs wiggling in the air behind him and her hands clutched in a death grip around his forearm. “God, you’re heavy for a kid,” he gasped.

Then, over the sound of his own harsh pants and children crying and feet squelching through rain soaked grass, he heard the first shrill whine of darts, two, three, four at least, and he yelled into his radio with what little breath he could spare, “Sheppard!” No reply. “Sheppard! John! Where the hell are you?”

Still no reply and he had to give up to concentrate on running without falling and making sure he didn’t lose track of a single child.

The gate loomed on the open field ahead, the wormhole’s event horizon already glimmering in the center. Rodney panicked for a moment, his eyes wide, gaze streaking over the sky. Without Sheppard’s voice to tell him if it was Atlantis on the other side, Rodney would be walking through blindly.

“Don’t go through until I give the okay!” he yelled at the kids ahead of him. Sheppard had already drilled them on how important it was that they not run through the Great Ring until Rodney told them it was safe, but Rodney had a flash of sheer terror as he wondered if any of them had even really paid attention. They were kids, after all, still dumb and unruly, just like every other kid he’d ever had the displeasure to know.

Still running, but finally close enough, he stuttered to a halt, the girl he carried nearly tumbling to the ground from under his arm. He patted her head absently in apology and then tapped his code into the IDC device and when he looked up, she was staring at him with stark brown eyes.

He slapped at his ear, trying to jar his radio into working. He heard static, but then—

“Dr. McKay, you’re all clear!” he heard, just as his IDC signaled that the shield was down.

And, “McKay! Rodney! I got a dart coming up on your rear fast! Get through the damn gate!”

“Go!” Rodney shouted, waving his arms frantically toward the gate, “Go go go go go!”

Sheppard’s static-laced voice came through again, “Tell Elizabeth to raise the shield as soon as you’re through....dart heading right for you!”

And nearly as one, the kids ran with their legs pumping, outpacing Rodney and piling through the shimmering blue circle of the event horizon. Rodney didn’t look back as the whining flash of light just missed him, and then he was through.

*

John saw the spike of lightning and recognized its path in the very instant the jumper jolted sideways and he heard the spark and pop of something exploding in one of the panels behind him. 

The ship didn’t fall out of the sky, but John felt a sluggishness creep in. He glared at the HUD, thinking quickly of the landscape and the darts, getting readouts on both in quick succession. The darts had moved away, since he had traded his shield for a cloak the minute the gate had disengaged and he’d pulled away from the dart chasing after Rodney and the kids.

The cloak held, just as it had after the last strike, but if he stayed here, he could end up the recipient of another, so he had no choice but to fly away from the gate. He had to allow enough time for Rodney to get them to clear out the area around the gate before he attempted to fly through, but if the ship couldn’t recover—

“Crap.” John bit his tongue and thought fiercely of soft landings and the safe spot behind the trees. And cloaks that worked. He had nowhere to go if he lost the cloak. The Wraith would be all over the cave by now, and even if they weren’t, he couldn’t risk it.

But luck was with him, and his skill with the jumper didn’t hurt. The ship came down just feet away from the spot Rodney had determined was safest when Rodney had been forced to move the jumper earlier that day.

John pushed out of the pilot’s seat. He blew out a rough breath and shook out his hands. The tension had coiled around him like a vise and he needed to shake it off so he could concentrate on what needed to be done now.

He walked into the back of the jumper and checked the panel from where tendrils of light gray smoke filtered into the air. No fire. Just some blown crystals. Again. Rodney’s earlier fixes were probably done for.

He dropped the bay door to let in some fresh air to help out with ventilation. Deciding to take the moment to manually check the status of the cloak, he shrugged his P-90 and vest off, having had no time to do so earlier, and then walked down the ramp and out into the damn mud puddle that hadn’t done anything but grow in circumference since he’d taken the ship up to cover Rodney.

The cloak was active, which meant he didn’t have to abandon the ship.

Which also meant things weren’t as bad as they could have been. If he couldn’t get the ship back into the air, which realistically, he probably wouldn’t manage without Rodney here—plan A, he could at least run for the gate and get back to Atlantis that way—plan B.

He closed the bay door, walked back to the pilot’s seat, and started checking out the systems.

“Damn it,” he muttered.

Communications were down. He still had his radio, but to use it, he would need to be closer to the gate to get a clear signal through. If it even worked. Something about this planet wasn’t playing well with their technology.

He thought “repair schematics” and the HUD responded by displaying a complicated set of diagrams and Ancient text that he couldn’t really read. He couldn’t even tell if these were for the communications systems or something else. So—no go for that idea.

He brought up the sensor data, even though he now knew the data wasn’t exactly to be trusted because of the strange shielding effect they’d discovered. The darts had gone out of range at some point. He trusted that data, because he hadn’t heard any of their distinctive whining when he’d stepped outside the ship.

But there was a disturbing spike in life signs, converging on the gate. Had some of the darts dropped Wraith soldiers in the area? He had no way of knowing without a visual. The sun on this planet had started to set. Soon it would be full dark.

John rubbed his palms over his thighs and stared at the HUD.

He would hunker down for the night in the ship and see if the Wraith left the area. If that didn’t work—well, he’d worry about that tomorrow. For now, he figured Elizabeth would refuse to send a rescue team while there was a possibility of the rescuers being swept up into a Wraith dart. Elizabeth was smart. She would wait for some kind of signal from John, or send a MALP through at some point to check for trouble.

Through the windscreen, John noticed the rainfall slow. He stood up and stretched, and then headed to the back.

He stretched out on the bench in the back of the jumper, propping himself up against the wall separating the front compartment from the jumper bay. He prowled through his pack and found an MRE, which he prepared and ate in the span of a half-hour.

Then he eyed the computers Rodney had left scattered, noticing that Rodney had brought along the tablet he considered his personal property these days. John leaned over and reached for it, dragging it back up onto the bench with him and laying it across his thighs. There had to be some kind of game on it that would occupy him for a few hours anyway.

John scrolled through the directories, and after not seeing anything that looked promising, muttered, “Come on, Rodney, you have to keep some damn kind of entertainment on here...”

And then he found a password protected directory named dreamlogs. Huh.

Rodney kept a log of his dreams. Weird. John raised his eyebrows and tapped his fingers against the edge of the tablet.

John knew he shouldn’t, but—well, it was Rodney. And he needed something to occupy his mind or the boredom of waiting around was going to eat him alive.

He tried the master password Rodney had once told him and never expected him to remember.

Just like that, he was in.

He felt a flicker of guilt, squashed it, and started skimming. Some good blackmail material might come in handy if he ever wanted Rodney to perform a bit of technical magic for him.

He started opening random files named by date.

Whales were mentioned too many times to count, followed by Samantha Carter, dark spaces, empty rooms, whooshing doors, sliding along a floor, and—

“Holy crap.”

John saw his name, more than once.

“...Sheppard smiles at me and I can’t remember why. Then I wake up suddenly.”

“Sheppard does that thing with his mouth and then I wake up.”

“... and John smiles at me again. I can’t figure out why it bothers me. Of course, I wake up as soon as it happens.”

“Sheppard smirks, as usual, just before I wake up.”

“And again, Sheppard’s mouth. Why the hell do I keep seeing this?”

There were more instances but they all pretty much said the same thing, although the context and repetition of the event in the dream made no real sense. Mixed in with the strange references were plenty of other notes of other, more ordinary dreams. Some definitely had blackmail potential, but now John was pretty sure he would never be able to use it because knowing Rodney knew about John knowing about Rodney’s “Sheppard dream” would just be too weird.

John wondered at the coincidence of Rodney’s recurring dream. John had one of his own, that he had carefully never told anyone about. It involved his hand and the collar of Rodney’s shirt at the back of his neck. It was strange as hell and he’d been having it for a long time now.

But, another glance at the list of dreams answered one question for John. He might have an explanation now for why Rodney had reached out and touched the corner of his mouth today.

Rodney’s finger should have been rough and calloused but John had only felt smooth softness graze his skin. And yeah—this would be a great time to check that those life signs weren’t getting too close to the jumper, because a cloak only worked so well. The Wraith might still stumble right into the ship and then he would have no chance of getting the hell out of here tomorrow.

*

Rodney, Teyla, Ronon, and Major Lorne’s team waited in front of the gate, geared up and ready to go. Elizabeth stood in the operations area on the floor above, staring out over the balcony at them. The MALP had shown no Wraith activity, although the video feed had cut out after only a few minutes.

There’d been no radio contact from Sheppard overnight, but Rodney had explained that Sheppard might have had to pull back to safe ground because of the odd electrical buildup they’d experienced yesterday. After that discussion, they’d all decided that taking a jumper back to the planet wouldn’t be a great idea. So, they were walking.

From Rodney’s vantage point near the gate, Elizabeth seemed to be watching the video feed one last time, before she raised her head and nodded at Rodney and the others. At her signal, Lorne led the way through the gate. Lorne’s team, then Rodney, followed, leaving Teyla and Ronon to bring up the rear.

Coming out the other side of the wormhole and into chill damp air made Rodney groan. “It probably rained all night,” he said, “and now I’m going to get wet again.”

“Sky’s clear,” Ronon said. “You’ll make it.”

Teyla raised her face to the sun. “Yes, I believe the rain is over.”

“It’s still wet,” Rodney mumbled.

Major Lorne was talking to his men, but Rodney didn’t pay attention to what they were saying. He had brought along another life signs detector, and he rapped his fingertips against the screen repeatedly, but it didn’t help. This was bad. He’d been hoping to get some readings right out of the gate. “I’m getting nothing,” he said. “No life signs, no energy readings, nothing.”

Lorne shared a look with his men. Teyla looked to Ronon, who shrugged.

Rodney said what none of the others wanted to say, although he seriously hoped he was wrong, “What if something happened to the ship? What if he’s dead? What if the Wraith got him?”

Teyla sighed and touched Rodney’s forearm. “You yourself said there’s something unusual about this planet, Rodney. If John is not showing up on your device, that does not mean he is not okay and waiting for us to find him.”

Rodney shook his head. “Who are we kidding? We all know he would have returned to Atlantis by now if he could have.”

“We’ll fan out and start searching the area you told us about,” Lorne said. “We’ll also keep trying the radio. We might get a signal through when we get away from the Stargate.”

Rodney nodded and tucked the Ancient device into his vest pocket. Lorne had been filled in on the events of yesterday, and they had all decided in the mission briefing that the first place they’d look for Sheppard would be the location where Rodney had had to move the jumper to protect it from the building electrical charges. If Sheppard had been able to land the ship, that was the most likely place he would have chosen.

This sucked though. Worrying about one of his teammates like this made Rodney’s ulcer hurt—and despite Carson’s adamant denial that Rodney even had an ulcer, Rodney was sure Carson was missing something on the scan.

He tucked his hand around his weapon and began the tromp over wet ground, mud squishing up around the soles of his boots with every step.

They finally reached the copse of trees.

Rodney heard Lorne try Sheppard on the radio, “Colonel Sheppard, do you copy?”

Everyone stayed alert, eyes scanning for signs of Wraith.

Lorne repeated himself, and they all kept moving forward through the trees. Rodney cursed as another spattering of cold water droplets fell on his head from the leaves above. Rodney decided he hated this planet. First inappropriate touching, then kids and Wraith darts, and a missing John Sheppard, and now this.

Lorne shook his head at Rodney. Sheppard hadn’t replied.

They traveled on through the copse without incident and came out on the other side. Rodney looked around for signs of the jumper. He still had his remote device and he decided now was as good a time as any, so he pulled it out and pointed it in the vague direction of where the ship had been parked yesterday and pressed the button.

The ship shimmered into existence.

Everyone stopped in their tracks.

“Okay, that was easier than I expected.” Rodney looked over at Lorne.

Lorne gestured his men forward. “Colonel Sheppard, we’re approaching the puddle jumper, do you copy?”

“The ship looks okay,” Ronon said.

“I do not sense any Wraith presence,” Teyla said, turning her head to look over at Lorne, who was a few feet to her right.

Rodney pointed the device again and thought about lowering the bay door while he clicked the button again. The back of the jumper opened with a small hiss.

Lorne and Ronon eased up to the ship and peered around the edge. Ronon walked inside. Lorne shot a look back to Rodney and the others and shook his head. “He’s not here.”

“Then where is he?” asked one of Lorne’s men, a young sergeant if Rodney remembered correctly.

But Rodney just looked at Lorne and fought back a churning in his stomach. What if he’d been right and the Wraith had gotten Sheppard? What if John was dead?

*

“Way to go, John.” Maybe it said something that he’d started talking to himself, but it wouldn’t be the first time, and if he made it out of this mess, it probably wouldn’t be the last.

Last night his plan had been simple. His team would come through once the Wraith cleared away from the Stargate, Rodney would fix the jumper, or bring back a bunch of scientists who would, and then they’d get the ship back through to Atlantis where it could be more thoroughly repaired and put back into service.

This morning, the Wraith had appeared to be gone. Since John couldn’t fully trust the sensors, he’d decided it was time for that visual. It was still wet, but the rain had finally stopped. The sun was rising, if slowly, and burning off a thin layer of fog.

John had been gearing up after managing a few short naps overnight in between keeping an eye on the life signs and watching for any indications of dangerous energy buildups like those that had put the jumper out of commission, not once but twice, when he’d seen a strange energy reading on the HUD. Not a power build up, but a sharp spike that came and went in a rhythmic pulse. It had appeared to be less than two miles away from the ship, in the direction away from the gate with no nearby life signs showing up on the HUD.

Now here he was, knee deep in a raging river about fifteen feet wide, struggling to keep his feet under him and failing. He’d already be floating downriver if he hadn’t managed to grab onto a thick tree branch sticking out over the ledge he’d slid down when he’d dodged that stunner blast.

This was why he didn’t let his team members go off on recon missions alone when they were on unexplored planets. And yet, here he was.

He had his answer to the question of whether the Wraith were using the planet’s unusual shielding effects to hide their presence on the planet. What he needed now was Rodney to tell him how the hell it was happening.

But first—

He grunted, swinging his legs up, scrabbling, boots slipping along the muddy slope of the river bank. The Wraith soldiers would be coming up on him fast, and he either needed to get back to solid ground quick so he could make a run for it back to the jumper, or he was going to have to let go and take his chances with the roiling waters of the river under him.

The rain had stirred up the river and it flowed swift and hard, swirling around his knees, soaking him up to his thighs in cold, cold water. He’d bet his newest batch of sudoku puzzles this planet was just coming out of winter weather. Although the air temperature couldn’t be lower than sixty or sixty-five degrees, the icy chill of the river was making his teeth chatter and his fingers stiff despite the adrenaline flooding his body.

Suddenly, he could hear the thrashing of heavy bodies through the trees up above where the river cut into the soupy ground. He weighed his options, took a deep breath, and let go.

*

“The ship won’t fly,” Rodney told Lorne. Rodney sat in the pilot’s seat of the jumper. Lorne leaned over him from behind the seat, resting his hand on the console for support and watching Rodney flip through diagnostics screens on his computer.

Rodney continued, “There are several important crystals that have been fried, and some wiring that will have to be replaced. He’s lucky he got it down in one piece.”

“So we can’t fly her back to Atlantis?”

Rodney spared a sharp look for Lorne. “Did I not just say the ship won’t fly? Seriously, you’re asking that question?”

Rodney stared at the screen of the tablet he’d interfaced with the jumper to help him determine just how bad the damage was. “Whatever caused the new damage created a cascade failure that was compounded by the workarounds I’d already put in place because of the lightning strike. Let me put this in simple words. This ship will not fly. That help?”

“Doc,” Lorne said, in a tone that called Rodney out for being a smartass. Rodney huffed and twisted around in the seat. Lorne was hovering too close and Rodney could feel claustrophobia setting in.

Teyla came up beside them and rested her hand on the back of the empty co-pilot’s seat. “I believe John’s gear is missing.”

“He’s probably scouting the area,” Ronon said. He was sitting on the bench in the back, twirling his gun in his hand, around, up, down, around... Driving Rodney absolutely crazy with it because every time he turned to look at another reading on his computer or check a crystal he could see the spinning weapon out of the corner of his eye.

A light flared on the HUD. Rodney dropped his tablet to the console in front of him and stared hard at the display. “Wait, wait, I think I’m finally picking something up again. See this? It appears to be some kind of pulsating energy signature. Maybe it’s shown up before and Sheppard went to check it out.”

“That might explain the colonel’s absence better than your theory that he’s been captured or killed by the Wraith.”

“That could still be the case,” Rodney said. “I’m still not picking up—No, I have no idea what kind of energy signature this is.”

Lorne leaned closer and studied the readout on the HUD. He said something into the radio Rodney didn’t catch, probably giving instructions to his guys standing around outside.

“If everybody would shut up for a minute so I could think, maybe I could figure out where Sheppard is so we won’t be walking around blind, hoping to bump into him. This is a big planet. A little planning might do wonders for the chances of us actually finding—huh. Something just blipped—and again. Oh, oh, wait, I do have something alive out there, about three and a half kilometers—” Rodney swiveled in the seat, got his bearings and then pointed to the right side of the ship. “In that direction and moving away fast. Not that far from the energy reading.”

Lorne narrowed his eyes at the HUD readout, then reached out and adjusted Rodney’s pointing arm a few degrees to the left. “I think that’s a better approximation, Dr. McKay.”

“I wasn’t trying to be exact,” Rodney said. “Really, I was close enough. It might not be him, you know.”

“Well, it’s the best we’ve got,” Lorne said, pushing back and finally, finally getting out of Rodney’s space. “Let’s move out.”

Lorne checked his gun in a move that seemed more habit than anything else. “Stay together. If what Dr. McKay told us yesterday is correct, the radios can’t be counted on and neither can the life signs detector.”

“If?” Rodney asked. “Something is definitely going on with this planet. Mark my words, there’s a disaster waiting at the end of this mission for us and that’s not just my natural pessimism speaking. I’ve got a bad feeling about this whole thing.”

Rodney heard Lorne sigh and caught the look he passed to Teyla. Rodney mashed his lips together. Who knew what could be waiting for them out there? If it weren’t for the fact that it was John who needed them... But that probably wasn’t true either.

They exited the jumper quickly, checked their gear, and then Rodney set the cloak on the ship.

“Keep your guard up,” Lorne said. “We might not like it, but Dr. McKay’s right. We have no way of knowing who or what we’re chasing. Let’s keep the chatter to a minimum.”

*

“I’m getting more than one life sign now,” Rodney said, “and they’re not that far ahead, but they’re moving away at a steady clip.”

They had covered most of the distance between the jumper and the location of the energy reading. So far they hadn’t seen any sign of other people or Wraith, only thickening forest and underbrush. They were nearing a waterway of some kind. Rodney had yet to see anything, but by the sound of things, it was fast moving and loud.

“How many?” Ronon asked.

“Five—no, six. They keep popping up. I think they’re wandering out of a shielded area.”

“We can take ‘em,” Ronon said.

Rodney glanced up from the detector long enough to see Lorne lower his gun and look around, checking everyone’s position.

“See how long that number holds steady,” Lorne said. “We need to know if we’re walking into a trap.” Lorne raised his eyebrows and met Ronon’s fierce gaze. “We can only take on so many.”

Rodney didn’t believe Ronon had a weak bone in his body. Anyone who knew Ronon knew he would take on an entire hive ship alone if given half the chance. Ronon wasn’t that stupid, but Ronon’s hatred of the Wraith knew no bounds.

“I’m aware of that, even if he isn’t,” Rodney said to Lorne. “I’ll let you know. Right now, it’s holding steady at six, and one of them appears to be leading the others around. It might be—”

“Colonel Sheppard?” Lorne cut in.

Rodney clenched his teeth. “Yes, that was what I was about to say. Your deductive reasoning skills boggle even my genius sometimes.”

“Can we circle around to come out on his side and surprise the others?”

“If there was any way to be sure that the one out front is Colonel Sheppard!” Rodney thrust his free hand out, gesturing wildly at the screen of the life signs detector. “A few blinking dots on a device that doesn’t differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys doesn’t tell us that. Also, I need to find out what this energy reading is. It might have something to do with what the Wraith are doing on this planet. If they’re hiding something important and Sheppard got too close—”

“We must find John first, Rodney,” Teyla said.

“Of course we do. I know that,” Rodney said. “I’m just saying.”

“Then let us first find Colonel Sheppard, and then we can decide what to do next.”

Rodney couldn’t counter her logic.

“We’ll circle around,” Lorne said. “Keep me informed about the direction of the lone guy and we’ll try to cut him off. If it’s not Colonel Sheppard, we’ll worry about that when the time comes.”

Lorne gestured forward and he and his guys led the way. Rodney trudged behind the others, Teyla and Ronon flanking him, and tried to stay alert.

Sheppard had better not get himself killed out here today. Rodney would never forgive him for that.

*

John wedged his hand in between two rocks and heaved, pulling his shivering body up the low, rocky river bank and onto mostly dry ground. The earth he scrambled onto was covered in sandy, loose dirt and scrubby brush. Trees grew tall a few feet back from the bank, the undergrowth thick enough to impede his view into most of the forest surrounding the narrow river.

The rough and tumble ride had been a risk but it looked like a banged up shoulder and a throbbing bruise on his hip were going to be the worst of his injuries. The shivers wracking his body told him he wasn’t too close to hypothermia, and the ambient air temperature was actually rising from the heat of the bright sun so he’d be fine once he started to dry out. The Wraith on his tail had fallen behind as the churning waters had propelled him down the river.

The downside was that he was now considerably further from both the gate and the ship he’d left behind. And, oh yeah, the Wraith were still out there somewhere.

But his team should have returned for him by now, and if Elizabeth was acting according to protocol, they’d have backup.

He shook the water off his gun. It should still fire okay for now, but he wasn’t happy about having soaked it in silt-laden river water. He felt for his earpiece and found it still attached. He tapped it on. “This is Sheppard. Anyone copy?”

Static answered, but then a short burst of sound that made him wince.

“I repeat, this is Sheppard. Say again?”

“If you’re who...think you are—”

What? John frowned. The transmission was breaking up, but he got the gist of it and it still didn’t make any sense. Rodney would know who he was from his voice.

“—then you’re...to get some company! You...get out of there!”

Oh.

Oh, crap.

John dashed for the nearest tree. When he reached it, he threw himself against the trunk, feeling the bark scratch at his clothing and skin. Rodney must have brought another life signs detector with him. He would not be able to tell the life signs apart and that meant there must be more than one clustered together.

“What direction?” John whispered. He studied the forest around him, and then carefully peered around the tree. Nothing but brush and woods in any direction.

“Can’t...”

“Direction?” John repeated. “I need to know the direction they’re coming from.”

“...degrees to the left...sun’s current position,” Rodney said. John realized that was the best he could probably do since north, south, east, and west really only meant anything back on Earth.

John tilted his head back to stare up through the canopy of branches covered in orange and gold leaves. He pinpointed the sun’s location easily enough and then followed it down through the trees to establish the direction Rodney had given him.

Son of a bitch. He was on the wrong side of the tree.

John shifted position, and then listened intently for the sounds of pursuit. He heard nothing for a moment, until a loud crack drew his attention to a thick collection of brush, nearer to the river than he’d been expecting.

Suddenly, two Wraith soldiers thrashed their way through the thicket. John twisted out of view to hide behind the wide trunk and jerked his gun up. He breathed deep, counted to three and then yanked himself around and shot off a burst of gunfire at the Wraith who were closing fast. He spun away and ran for a better position, stunner blasts coming close enough to taste in the air around him.

John took cover behind another large tree trunk and shot off another burst of gunfire. This time he hit the Wraith closest to him enough times to drop it to the ground. He immediately switched his focus to the other Wraith, but the stunner caught the edge of his right arm and he lost his grip on the trigger.

“Shit!” He turned and ran, weaving his way through the trees. He struggled to shuffle the gun from his numb hand into his working one, getting a left-handed grip on it before he spun around and let loose with another less well-controlled burst of gunfire. He growled out in frustration, and then shouted into his radio, “How many? How close are you? I could use some backup.”

His right arm was numb from fingers to shoulder. He was barely staying ahead of the Wraith chasing him down, and no one had answered his radio call. He ducked down behind another tree, this one not nearly wide enough to hide him completely. He dodged a searingly close blast from the Wraith’s stunner and then leaned out and fired, using the last of his clip. Getting another in before the Wraith overtook him was going to be too close for comfort.

John worked as quickly as he could with only one hand, but damn it, he was slow. Too slow.

As soon as he had the fresh clip in, he leaned out again, almost expecting to see the Wraith right on top of him. Instead, he saw the Wraith’s fallen body a few feet away. He breathed a sigh of relief, but it was cut short when he spotted another two Wraith flanking him to the left. He spun on the balls of his feet in the direction of the new threat, leaning on the tree for balance, only to hear a sudden flurry of birds taking flight behind him.

Then the world around him dissolved in a spasm of light and the sudden release of tension in every muscle in his body.

*

“Only four life-signs left,” Rodney managed to get out around the breath jolting in and out of his body. He ran through the forest, the life signs detector clutched in his hand, losing ground to Ronon and Lorne, but Teyla was sticking close to him, as if she understood he had the information they needed to best help Sheppard. But that last bit was all he had, and now it was up to them to take out the Wraith before they took out John, and the sudden halt of movement from the dot Rodney had been sure was Sheppard was just as responsible for the sweat running down his temple as any of the rest of the hell he was going through.

John had better appreciate this later, when they dragged his ass back to Atlantis in one piece. Rodney figured he was owed at least a couple passes in the gym—maybe a hell of a lot more. Briars and jutting tree limbs smacked at his arms and face, and the tender crease of his neck once, and hell, that had really hurt. Like the others, he was on a mad sprint through the heavily wooded forest, in full gear, carrying a P-90—which was definitely not his usual style, but which he was thankful to have now that there were Wraith around, and he was about to burst a lung with what he was sure was a bad case of exercise induced asthma, Carson’s medical opinion be damned.

“I got one!” yelled one of Lorne’s guys. Gunfire erupted ahead of Rodney. Rodney jerked his gun up and stumbled to a stop. God, he hoped Sheppard stayed out of the line of fire.

Rodney heard the distinctive blare of Ronon’s gun going off, saw Teyla brace herself and let loose a volley of shots in the direction of a hulking shadow Rodney could see only from the corner of his eye, smelled the crush of wet leaves and the near-ozone scent of electricity. He fumbled the detector where he was trying to hold it over the top of his gun, realized the number of blips had changed, and almost froze when he saw three—six—seven more appear at the edges of the screen, life signs coming out of nowhere.

“Oh god, we’re totally screwed. Ronon! Teyla! Lorne! We have a problem! More Wraith. Or something. Headed our way.”

“How many?” More gunshots, until suddenly, only one last burst of gunfire and then silence and three dead Wraith on the ground.

“I have John,” Teyla called out. “He is alive, but unconscious.”

“Oh, thank god.” Rodney released his weapon and it dropped to dangle from its strap. He wiped his shaky hand over his mouth and jaw, brushing away stinging sweat and smearing blood on the palm of his hand. “Oh.” He reached up and fingered his cheek and discovered several tender scratches.

“How many?” Lorne repeated, louder this time and it jolted Rodney back to the problem heading their way.

“It doesn’t even matter. We’re going to get cut off from the Stargate if we don’t get moving.” Rodney moved closer to Lorne and showed him the newest dots.

Lorne pointed in a direction that cut between the new life signs and the Stargate. “We’re going to have to abandon the jumper for now,” Lorne said. “We’ll go straight for the gate. The jumper should be as safe as it’s going to be for the time being—it’s cloaked. There’s not much else we can do.”

Rodney couldn’t argue with that assessment. Teyla only nodded her head and Ronon looked like he couldn’t care one way or the other.

Ronon leaned down and reached for John’s arm and used it to lever John up and over his shoulder. John groaned but didn’t regain consciousness.

Grimacing, Ronon said, “He’s wet.”

“Again?” Rodney said. When the others just looked at him with blank expressions, he added, “Never mind. I don’t have time to tell you the story and you probably wouldn’t think it was nearly as funny as I do anyway.”

*

“Your plan’s not going to work, McKay,” Ronon said. He pointed with his gun through the trees. “The gate’s crawling with Wraith now.”

Along with a large contingent of Wraith drones, some clearly standing guard before the gate, two Wraith warriors looked out over the plain, none close enough to see the small group Rodney was part of clustered behind some of the thick underbrush of the surrounding forest.

Rodney handed Teyla’s binoculars back to her and twisted his head in Ronon’s direction, away from the view of Wraith milling around. “It wasn’t my plan. I just supplied the information. Lorne came up with the plan.”

Ronon shrugged, bent at the knees, and shifted John’s limp body on his shoulder. “Sheppard needs to wake up.”

Ha. Rodney couldn’t resist a brief smirk. “What? Is he getting too heavy for you?”

“No, he just comes up with better plans than you do.”

Rodney’s smirk turned into a glower. “That’s not true,” he said. Ronon’s steady stare and Teyla’s raised eyebrow encouraged him to amend his statement. “Okay, that’s not always true. But I’ve come up with some awesome plans. And I keep telling you, this wasn’t my plan.”

“No,” Lorne said, coming up beside Rodney and the others, “it was the best plan at the time, but it looks like we’re going to have to circle back around to the jumper. At least we’ll be hid inside the cloak. You’ll have to get it flying again, Dr. McKay—”

“Of course I will. Even if it’s not even a remote possibility—”

“Colonel Sheppard trusts you and that means I trust you. You’ll get it done.”

“Oh, thanks for that. A few pats on the back and everyone expects miracles.”

Lorne shouldered his gun and asked, in all seriousness, “Are you saying the jumper isn’t fixable?”

Rodney waved his hands in a gesture meant to convey “how can I know this without further data?” but from the expression on Lorne’s—and Teyla’s and Ronon’s—face, he wasn’t sure anyone understood. He exhaled a loud sigh. “Look, there’s always a chance even I can’t fix it, but no, I don’t think it’s completely beyond repair at this point. Not from what I saw earlier.”

“Then that’s what we have to do. There’s no way we can take the gate with the odds we have right now. We need that jumper to get off this planet.”

“Then let’s get moving,” Ronon said, “Sheppard’s heavier than he looks.”

“Oh, so now you admit it.”

Ronon’s grunt of acknowledgement wasn’t at all satisfying.

*

Rodney tried to creep quietly through the trees beside Teyla, Ronon just ahead of them, with the still unconscious Sheppard swaying over his shoulder.

“I do not understand why John has not recovered. Are you not concerned?”

“It’s...different,” Rodney said, “but he could have been hit by multiple blasts.”

“And that would cause him to remain unconscious for a longer period of time?” She sounded as if she already suspected the answer and only wanted confirmation.

“I’d say yes.”

She gave a short nod and turned back to watching their surroundings.

Rodney had been keeping an eye on the life signs detector, but as before, all the life signs other than their own appeared to be converged around the Stargate for the time being. They shouldn’t run into anyone on the trek back to the jumper, although Rodney had reminded everyone that the detector still wasn’t to be trusted one-hundred percent.

Sheppard’s arms hung down to the back of Ronon’s thighs, and they swung with every step Ronon took. Sheppard’s hair had given way to gravity and stuck out every which way. Rodney was watching the bounce and jump of Sheppard’s torso against Ronon’s back when he saw Sheppard’s body stiffen suddenly and he realized Sheppard had just come out of his stupor.

Ronon had obviously noticed the difference too, because he stopped and leaned forward, and dropped Sheppard to the ground in front of him.

Sheppard landed hard on his ass, with a thump and the crackle of dead leaves under him.

Rodney breathed a sigh of relief as Sheppard groaned and reached for his head. “What happened? My head’s pounding like a son of a bitch.”

“You got stunned,” Ronon said. He flexed his shoulder and then rubbed the back of his neck. Rodney tried to feel sorry for him, but—No one ever seemed to feel sorry for him when he was working his ass off on repairs or miracles. They each had their place on the team. This was Ronon’s as far as Rodney was concerned.

Rodney was the brains, Ronon the brawn, John the leader, and Teyla, the diplomat—and maybe she carried a bit of the brawn title too.

“We saved you,” Rodney said.

“I got that,” Sheppard said. “What’s going on?”

“We’re trying to get off this damned planet, that’s what,” Rodney said.

“We tried to return to the Stargate, but the Wraith have blocked our escape,” Teyla said. She tapped her radio on. “Major Lorne, Colonel Sheppard has regained consciousness.”

“Copy that. We’ll wait here for you to catch up.”

“So, what? It’s time for plan B?” Sheppard pushed himself up on his elbows and looked around through squinted eyes, giving Rodney a glimpse of how bad Sheppard’s head must be hurting.

“Uh, more like plan D,” Rodney said.

“That doesn’t sound good.”

“It isn’t McKay’s plan,” Ronon said.

Rodney glared at Ronon. He was pretty sure Ronon had just said that to piss him off.

Sheppard raised his eyebrows, looking between Ronon and Rodney. Rodney said, “It’s Lorne’s.”

“Lorne knows what he’s doing.”

Teyla offered her hand to Sheppard. He took it and let her draw him to his feet. Sheppard’s gaze took in the forest around them. “Where is he?”

“Just ahead,” Teyla answered. “Did you not hear his reply on the radio?”

Sheppard’s eyes looked blank, until he reached up and touched his ear piece. “Ah, maybe it shorted out. It got wet—”

“And stunned,” Rodney interrupted.

Sheppard gave Rodney an undeserved look of irritation. “And stunned.” He shrugged and jiggled the radio receiver. “It doesn’t seem to be working anymore.”

“Let me see it.” Rodney held out his hand. “It might be broken.”

“Yes, Rodney, it might be broken.” Sheppard slapped the piece of gear onto Rodney palm.

“We should go,” Sheppard said. He squeezed his forehead between his thumb and fingers and then straightened. “Come on. We shouldn’t waste time. This planet is crawling with Wraith.”

Sheppard led the way toward Lorne’s position and the jumper. Rodney followed and Ronon and Teyla brought up the rear.

*

John found himself eyeballing Rodney’s computer, for the umpteenth time as he sat in the crowded jumper, watching Rodney work on the panel of crystals across from him near the roof.

He would never be able to tease Rodney with any of the blackmail worthy material he’d discovered in Rodney’s log of dreams—Samantha Carter, for god’s sake, in nothing but a pair of boots and what the hell was that about?—because of the weird stuff in there about him. If John mentioned the one, Rodney would know he’d seen the other, and then, things might just get weird between them. John didn’t want to gamble their comfortable, if sometimes antagonistic, friendship just for the chance to have a little fun with Rodney.

His head still hurt and the residual effects of the stun blast might have worn off, but his crack against the tree hadn’t, nor had his wild ride down the river. He ached, all over.

“You guys had great timing,” he said to Teyla, to distract himself from thoughts of dreams and weirdness and Rodney. He leaned back on the bench and stretched out his legs. The movement pulled something in his ribs and he gave an exaggerated groan.

Rodney glanced down from the crystal panel and John noticed Rodney look him over. Rodney’s frown brought out the sharp slant of his mouth, leaving John to wonder what Rodney was thinking. He probably didn’t want to know. In fact, he was supposed to be distracting himself.

“You might want to move your legs,” Rodney said, pointing to where John’s booted feet bracketed Rodney’s. “If I fall and break any of these crystals, we can kiss this ride back to Atlantis goodbye. Not even my genius will get this thing back in the air.”

John kicked lightly at Rodney’s foot. “You’re just messing with me. You know you can fix it.”

“I didn’t say I couldn’t fix it. Your run in with the lightning on top of the workarounds I’d already done mean we don’t have any wiggle room. I need every last crystal I have here.”

“How long’s this going to take?”

“Hours—assuming people quit distracting me with useless chatter and pointless conversation.”

“Rodney...”

“Yes, fine. Two hours. Maybe more.”

“That’s the best you can do?”

“If I could do it faster, I would. I don’t want to be on this planet any longer than anyone else. Less so, if we’re honest. Any time we get stuck somewhere, everything goes to hell and I’d rather not be here when that happens, thank you very much.”

John tapped his fingers against the bench seat. He looked across the space to Ronon, who stood against the open bulkhead door separating the front and back of the jumper. He looked bored as hell.

No one stood outside the jumper, although Lorne’s three guys were at the open ramp, watching the surrounding area as best they could from inside the protection of the cloak.

John glanced to Teyla at his side, and Lorne on her other side, both sitting on the bench, radiating calm. John liked Lorne for that reason. The man could do patience even when he was completely exasperated, as his ability to tolerate Rodney’s brash attitude proved. Most of Atlantis’s personnel had gotten used to Rodney, respected his contributions, and him, but there were still a few who didn’t get Rodney, not like John and the rest of the team did. It was nice to know that some of the people John liked best also understood how he expected them to treat Rodney, despite Rodney’s personality issues.

“Okay,” John said to no one in particular. “This would be a good time to get a look at that power spike we keep reading. If we take the life signs detector, we stand a good chance of staying out of the way of the Wraith, so Teyla, Ronon, you’re with me. Lorne, you stay here with Rodney.”

“What?” Rodney demanded. “I wanted to get a look at that myself.”

“You think anybody else can fix the jumper?”

Rodney’s lips thinned and he turned back to the panel, stabbing at it with the stylus-sized device he used to work with the crystals. “This is so unfair. What makes you think you won’t run right into the Wraith again just like you did this morning?”

“Life signs detector. See? I thought I mentioned that.” John knew he had. Rodney was just looking for an excuse to complain about John getting to run off and do something interesting.

“Yeah. Whatever. I have work to do. Quit bothering me.”

John shrugged off Rodney’s jealousy with a muffled laugh and a shared grin with Ronon and Teyla. He reached for his handheld backup radio from his pack and starting gearing up.

*

The mid-day sun warmed John’s face and neck. The morning chill had disappeared, and if John had been on Earth, he might have thought this was one of the last days of fall, where the temperature fluctuated wildly before the real cold of winter finally set in. At a comfortable walk, the heat wasn’t bad, but all geared up, the rising temperature caused sweat to break out under his t-shirt. It didn’t help that he was still damp in places from his trip downriver.

Teyla and Ronon walked nearby, each staying within sight of the other. John carried the life signs detector, keeping an eye out for unexpected company, and also watching the fluctuations of the pulsing energy signature. Sometimes it would disappear altogether, but it had yet to disappear permanently.

“We’re not that far away, now,” John said. He kept his voice down, because they also weren’t that far away from where he’d run into the Wraith that morning and ended up in the nearby river.

Teyla slowed her pace and fell back to his position. “It is strangely quiet here except for the sound of the river.”

Ronon came up on John’s right. “You’d expect to hear birds or something,” he said. “There ain’t nothing moving in the trees. First time it’s been this quiet.”

“Yeah,” John said. “Noticed that too this morning, but I got distracted when those Wraith started shooting at me.”

Teyla kept her gaze on the trees around them, watching. “Either the Wraith are searching for something on this planet or they are hiding something here.”

John felt a flicker of unease. He glanced at the detector, but nothing new appeared. “That’s what I’ve been thinking,” he said.

He walked forward at a slow, careful pace, keeping an eye on Teyla. She had good instincts and he trusted them. He swept the forest with his senses, watching, listening, much the same as Teyla seemed to be doing, then caught sight of Ronon’s thumb flickering over the handle of his gun with his peripheral vision. “Something making you jittery, Ronon?”

“Maybe. Don’t know.” Ronon’s hand stopped moving, his fingers curled around the hilt of his weapon. “Doesn’t feel right.”

“Same here,” John said, quieter than before. The hush of the forest shrieked warnings at him, but the life signs detector remained clear of anything in their vicinity except for themselves. He eased forward, gun up and ready to shoot at the first provocation.

Teyla shrieked, sudden and sharp, and John spun on his heel in her direction only to see her fall into the earth.

Ronon ran to her position, stopping quickly. “There’s a hole. Watch yourself,” he said, thrusting out his arm and stopping John from coming too close to the treacherous drop into a dark abyss.

John dropped to his knees, then his stomach and looked down over the edge. “Teyla!”

He heard her groan. The sound echoed off what could have been metal, but it hadn’t come from too deep into the ground. He felt an immense surge of relief that at least she wasn’t dead.

“Teyla,” he called again, Ronon leaning right over his shoulder. They both waited for a reply.

“I am...here.” Teyla sounded breathless and she coughed loud and hard for a moment. “The fall...knocked my breath from my body,” she said. “And it is very dusty down here.”

“Are you okay?” John pointed his P-90 into the darkness and flipped the light on. The beam of light scattered through a thousand particles of dust and dirt floating in the air and swept across a dark stone floor, bounced off reflective metallic walls and came to rest on Teyla’s form, sitting upright in the center of what appeared to be a narrow rectangular room.

“My ankle hurts. It does not feel broken, but I cannot be certain. The pain is tolerable.” She leaned over and reached for her gun, and then dragged it to her. She flicked on her own light and moved it around her position.

“See anything?”

John played his light over the walls and heard her shifting around. He swept his light over Teyla again to see her hobbling to her feet, before he returned his light to illuminate the wall opposite her. A wide metal staircase rose toward the ground away from Teyla. He saw her look up, following the lines of the metal supports.

“There is a stairway leading to the surface,” she said. “I believe I see an entrance. The stairs look solid.” She turned back to face John and Ronon. “The ceiling beam beneath the ground where I fell appears to have rotted through.” She looked around, and John thought she must be studying the ceiling of the rest of the room. “The other beams appear whole and undamaged.”

Because of the Wraith, many of the people of the Pegasus galaxy had built below ground in an effort to protect themselves and their civilizations from culling. Not many had succeeded in holding off the destruction of their technologies, sciences, and cultures, but John couldn’t blame them for trying. The number of underground facilities they came across continued to grow with the number of planets they explored.

This could be another dead civilization’s last remaining legacy.

“John, Ronon.” Teyla’s tone of voice had changed. “There is Wraith technology down here.”

Or not.

“We’re going to need Rodney, aren’t we?”

“I am afraid so,” Teyla answered.

“Crap,” John said, with feeling. He wasn’t upset that they needed Rodney’s expertise. But if Rodney were here, then no one would be working to fix the jumper. John pulled his radio out of his vest, clicked it on, and said, “Major Lorne, do you copy?” He got nothing but static back. He tried again, with the same result.

Ronon pushed back from the edge. “I’ll get him.”

John tucked his radio back into his vest. “Hurry back—and be careful.”

Ronon gave him a look that asked why had John even bothered to suggest he wouldn’t. John shrugged. Sometimes he liked being the leader just because he didn’t have to answer those kinds of unspoken questions. He turned back to Teyla, and said, “Hold tight. I’ll see if I can make my way down, while Ronon goes after Rodney.”

He heard Ronon’s grunt before Ronon ran off into the trees.

*

Rodney wasn’t sure what he expected to find at the bottom of the hole in the ground. On the way back to Sheppard’s and Teyla’s position, Ronon had said little about what they’d discovered. Rodney wasn’t sure if it was because Ronon didn’t really know, or if he was just in a foul mood and didn’t want to talk.

The trek went quickly, with Ronon scanning the forest as they walked. Or maybe Rodney should have said trotted, because Ronon barely kept his gait slow enough for Rodney to keep up without breaking into a run. By the time they reached the spot where Teyla had apparently stepped right into their big discovery, Rodney was flushed and out of breath and a little pissed off, because if they’d brought him along to begin with—like he had damn well suggested, he wouldn’t have been rushed along after the fact.

Sheppard poked his head up out of the ground, then stepped up what Rodney quickly realized was a set of stairs.

“What took you guys so long?” Sheppard asked.

Rodney rolled his eyes at Sheppard’s tone and ignored the question entirely. He stepped cautiously over the metal ramp that lay on the ground and put his foot on the first stair tread. It crossed his mind that they had no idea how old this metal was, if it was strong enough to hold more than one man at a time, or if it was even strong enough to hold him.

The low clank of boots on metal accompanied all of them as Sheppard led the way back down.

“Are you sure this is safe?” Rodney asked, trying—and failing—to keep the pitch of his voice from climbing. “Metal doesn’t last forever, you know. This thing could be rusted out or—”

“It’s safe enough, Rodney. Quit whining.”

“That’s not—” Rodney hated it when Sheppard did that. “Okay, fine. I won’t say a word when this thing falls down around us and kills us all.”

Metal creaked and groaned at the combined weight of Sheppard, Rodney, and Ronon, and mid-way down, a loud pop echoed into the fading light of the underground room.

“Whoa whoa whoa,” Rodney muttered. “Don’t you dare.”

“Are you talking to the stairs, Rodney?” John was laughing at him. Bastard.

“Just because you tromped safely up and down this pathetic excuse of a stairway doesn’t mean it’s going to hold up for me. I’m ten pounds—okay, that look was not necessary, Sheppard. I’m maybe, possibly, fifteen pounds heavier than you.”

“Twenty,” John said.

Ronon shrugged and looked over his shoulder at Rodney. “Twenty-five.”

“Oh, ha ha ha.”

A few more steps and they were at the bottom of the staircase where Teyla waited. Thank god the thing hadn’t collapsed, because Rodney was sure if it had, there’s no way in hell he would have been able to keep from saying I told you so.

When the light of Sheppard’s flashlight glanced off Teyla, Rodney noticed her right leg was bent at the knee. Rodney frowned. No one had told him Teyla was injured, but clearly something was wrong.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Yes, Rodney, I will be fine. It is a sprain, nothing more.” She turned, wincing when her right foot scraped the floor.

Sheppard moved close and put his arm around her waist, giving her the support she obviously needed.

She continued, “We have discovered a door that leads to several corridors. There are also several Wraith devices here.”

Rodney pulled his computer out of the pack he’d thrown it into when Ronon had shown up unexpectedly to interrupt his work on the jumper and demanded that Rodney come with him.

“Over there?”

“Yeah,” Sheppard answered. Teyla nodded. Ronon hung back, staying out of the way. Rodney had noticed Ronon was actually quite good at that these days. It was Sheppard who always ended up in the way. This time, though, Sheppard was busy helping Teyla and couldn’t saunter over and hover while Rodney worked.

The device Rodney had noticed first was some kind of organic metallic hybrid. Although Wraith tech always seemed to have the shiny slimy texture, this had a matte white powder coating the long conduits that flowed along the wall and disappeared down into the floor. Rodney coughed, noticed it was getting a little hard to breathe, and realized at about the same time that the white powder coating was actually some kind of mold growth on the conduits.

“Oh, wow. This is more disgusting than usual,” he said. He coughed again. “I might be allergic. Anybody got a bandana or handkerchief? I need something to wrap around my face so I can breathe without worrying about spores taking up residence in my lungs.”

“Here.” Ronon reached down into the front of his pants, hand sliding under his twisted leather belt, and pulled out a long piece of cloth.

“Oh, that is not funny!” Rodney said.

Even Sheppard said, “Aw, buddy, I don’t think McKay’s going to go for that.”

“What? It’s saved my life a bunch of times. Stopped me from bleeding out. I don’t go anywhere without it.”

“Oh, that’s going to make me change my mind. I want to breathe through your bloody tourniquet.”

Sheppard dug around in his upper left vest pocket with the hand that wasn’t wrapped around Teyla’s waist. “Here you go. Try this.”

It was a green bandana. Rodney folded it into a large triangle, wrapped it around his face, covering his nose and mouth, and tied it behind his head.

Then he reached for the conduit. When the white coating flaked off into a powder as fine as chalk dust and floated visibly on the air in the beam of the flashlight, he felt hugely grateful for the mask. 

He studied the thickness of the organic conduit, its temperature, its texture. He said, disgust muffled by the cloth, “I’m pretty sure this is dead. Whatever its purpose at one time, I think it reached the end of its useful life a long time ago—a very, very long time ago. I won’t be able to get anything from this.”

“Then we should check out those corridors,” Sheppard said. “Come on.”

Rodney yanked off the bandana and tucked it into his pants pocket. He put his unused computer back into his pack for the time being and followed Sheppard and Teyla to the other side of the long rectangular room. 

Sheppard pulled the life signs detector out of his pocket and juggled it one-handed against his chest and gun, trying to hold it under the light. “Huh,” Sheppard said. He dropped his hand and leaned into Teyla, allowing her to rest her weight on his shoulder while she stood beside him.

Rodney took the life signs detector from Sheppard. He glanced at it and sighed. Nothing was showing up on it, not even them. Something seemed to be interfering with the ability of the device to locate individual energy signatures, even those close by. The device was worthless to them down here—except, there it was, the strange power spike. It flared bright on the screen, then dissolved as quickly as it had appeared. But Rodney had been watching, and now knew what direction to take.

He put out his hand. “Guys, we’re going the wrong way. Back there—” He pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. “That’s where the energy reading is coming from. Was there a door over there?”

“Yeah, but the exposed metal is rusted over, and the rest of it’s covered with that white stuff.”

Rodney aimed his flashlight in the direction of the energy reading and grimaced at what he saw. Nonetheless, flashlight guiding him, he crossed the room toward the door.

Sheppard and Teyla hobbled after him, with Ronon behind them.

A control panel clung to the wall a meter or so above waist height. Rodney tucked his flashlight under his chin and grasped the edges of the panel. A pop and a groan later, the metal folded down on a bottom hinge, opening to expose a few badly preserved cables and wires. The white dust had also infiltrated the box, and Rodney wished he hadn’t removed the bandana. He coughed into his elbow, not wanting to get his dust-coated hands near his face.

“This sucks,” he said. He let go of the metal lid, and it clanged against the wall, rusty hinges screaking when it bounced. “Also, there’s no power getting to this panel. We’ll have to force the door.”

He heard Ronon’s weapon charge. He jerked his hands up to cover his head. “I didn’t say shoot it!”

Too late. The panel flared bright as Ronon’s gun blasted through it and the layer of metal behind it, leaving a large semi-circular hole in its wake, bleeding smoke.

The door shifted with a hiss, and a strip of pale green light showed between the door and the wall.

Rodney straightened. “There’s no way you could know that would work!” Rodney said.

“Worth trying,” Ronon said. He shrugged and then shouldered by Rodney and stuck his hand in the gap, curled his fingers around the edge of the door, and grunted with effort. The door grated open, and Rodney winced at the loud screech.

Sheppard shifted, catching Rodney’s attention with a wave of his light. “Rodney, you’re going to have to help Teyla. Ronon, watch our back. Make sure no Wraith sneak up on our tail. They figure out we’re down here, we could end up trapped.”

Rodney noticed Sheppard’s grimace when he released Teyla and he remembered that Sheppard had had a much rougher time this morning than the rest of them. “You okay?” he asked.

Sheppard gave him a curt nod. The green light spilling through the doorway wasn’t doing Sheppard’s look any favors though and Rodney thought maybe Sheppard hurt more than he let on.

Rodney moved to Teyla’s side. Teyla hopped on one foot until Rodney was in position to slip under her arm and wrap his own around her waist. She hissed through her teeth when her foot bumped against Rodney’s boot.

“And you’re sure it’s not broken?” he asked.

“I have had broken bones before. The injury is painful, but I don’t believe it is anything more than a serious sprain. I believe the swelling is to blame for most of the pain.”

No matter how badly Rodney wanted to check out that energy source, he wasn’t sure dragging Teyla along with them was a good idea. “Sheppard?”

Sheppard shook his head, seeming to know what Rodney was about to ask. “The life signs detector isn’t working at all down here and Teyla’s the only one of us who can sense the Wraith. We’re not splitting up.”

“John gave me something for the pain while we waited for your arrival. I am sure it will ease soon.” Teyla sounded as if she was trying to reassure herself as much as him. Rodney should have suggested they turn around and go back to the jumper where he could fix it and get them all off this planet—but the Wraith presence here indicated something of value, whether it was technology or just information about the Wraith and their plans. He finally blew out a breath and ignored his misgivings. Teyla could take care of herself; they all knew that. If she had a problem with their plans, she would have said something. He was wasting valuable time worrying.

Rodney, acting as Teyla’s crutch, followed Sheppard into the corridor on the other side of the door. The green glow intensified, with light spilling down the walls from fixtures mounted near the ceiling, giving off just enough light to see by. Rodney assumed it was some kind of emergency lighting system, and he had no real way of knowing if it had been on for years or if it had been triggered when the door had opened.

They walked about twenty feet before they came to a row of doorways, and Sheppard peered cautiously into the first room, then stepped back in the hall. “Looks clear,” he said. “Check it out if you want.”

Rodney’s flashlight illuminated the far corners of the small room, with its tables and wall-mounted glass cabinets. Some were intact, some had shards of glass barely held in by thin metal frames. Glass glinted green on the table tops and across the floor. Bottles rested on their sides on several of the shelves, and much of the room’s surfaces seemed to be coated in the fine white powder.

“Some kind of lab,” he said. “Medical, probably.”

“That’d be my guess,” Ronon said.

“I agree,” Teyla said.

Sheppard continued down the hall and they followed. They passed three more rooms that looked about the same as the first.

“That energy spike wasn’t really that far away,” Rodney said. “We should be right on top of it soon.”

“Good,” Sheppard said, while peering into another doorway. “Hey.” He waved Rodney forward. “Think something like this might be a sign we’re getting close?”

Rodney stuck his neck out to see between the doorway and Sheppard’s shoulder. At the other end of another small room, which also appeared to be nothing more than a medical lab of some kind, a thick collection of organic cables streamed from a junction in the wall to the floor, each appearing slimy and very much alive. Beside them, a big door loomed, a green square at eye level containing a row of markings probably indicating some kind of alien text.

A Wraith console stood on the other side of the cables, hooked in through feeder vines. Now this—this was something Rodney could work with.

He looked at Teyla. “Can you—”

“Yes, Rodney. I will be fine.”

Rodney waited until Teyla had a strong grip on the frame of the doorway for support before he moved away. He squeezed by Sheppard and went straight for the console. He kept the Wraith translation program on all his systems these days, ever since that Wraith virus had attacked the Daedalus about a year and a half ago. Maybe he would finally make some sense out of what was going on with the Wraith and this planet.

Behind him, he heard the rest of the team shuffling into the room, but he concentrated on finding the best way to interface his computer with the Wraith system. He’d done this a time or two before, most recently a few months ago when they’d found the Wraith device that had gone haywire, and where incidentally, Sheppard had shot him. The thought of which still caused his heart to flutter alarmingly. Only dumb luck had saved him that day.

Sheppard still owed him for that, accident or no.

A sudden beep from his computer brought his attention back to his work. He was in. Rodney waved his hand back behind him without turning his attention away from his computer. “Got it,” he muttered. He sorted through the data the computer was pulling out. The soft whisper of feet crisscrossing the dusty floor filled the silence.

Rodney read, skimming as much as he could, until something useful caught his eye. “This is—No...Yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay, I think I’ve got something interesting—” He waved them forward, not bothering to look to see if anyone responded. They always did. “Wow. That wasn’t what I expected to find.”

“What is it?” Sheppard asked, leaning right over his shoulder, his breath tickling the back of Rodney’s ear. The puff of air cooled Rodney’s skin, the faint whish of sound reminding him of something he couldn’t place.

Rodney reached up and rubbed, finally twisting his head around so he could frown at Sheppard. He stared for a second, trying to get his thoughts back on track. “This is a cloning facility.”

“Wraith clones? That’s not good. Doesn’t look like—”

“No, no. The Wraith have obviously appropriated someone else’s cloning technology. They’ve hybridized the whole place to work for them, but the original builders were obviously advanced enough to have been working on cloning technology for a while. I’ve pulled up some research notes of the Wraith scientists working on this project. It’s very, very old. I’d say pre-war technology, belonging to a race well below the level of Ancient technology but also, well beyond Earth’s current tech levels. The war may have wiped them out, whoever they were, but the Wraith then stepped in and took over.”

“And you got all that from a few minutes of skimming through somebody’s research notes?”

“Well, no, some of it. But it’s obvious—”

“Okay, just take what you can. I don’t want to stay down here too long. Let’s find that energy source.”

“Wait. You don’t understand. This isn’t a Wraith cloning facility. They were making human clones. For food.”

Sheppard’s eyebrows rose dramatically. He pulled away from Rodney and rocked back on his heels. “You mean they were making clones and then feeding off of them?”

“Yes. Exactly. Or trying to. From what I’ve skimmed so far, it sounds like something was wrong though and it wasn’t working out so they abandoned it.”

Teyla spoke up from the doorway. “What if the Wraith have come looking for this technology again in an effort to perfect it and create a more abundant food supply?”

“They start feeding on clones, and there’ll be no reason to keep killing each other off,” Ronon added, his grave tone almost angry. “They’ll grow even stronger and we’ll never kill all the damn things.”

Sheppard looked at each of them in turn. “So we plant some C4 before we leave and blow the place to smithereens. Then it won’t matter if they find it.”

Rodney didn’t bother glowering. He went straight for the I’m talking to stupid people look. “Not before we find the source of that energy reading. The amount of power that’s giving off—if we start throwing explosions at it, we could blow up a hell of a lot more than we mean to.”

“What’s it matter? There’s nobody here but Wraith.”

“As far as we can tell with all the damn sensor malfunctions, but that’s not even the point—”

“Give me the damn point then.”

“We won’t want to be here if that goes up is the point! We could blow up the whole damn continent with us still on it!”

“Alright then! What the hell do you want to do, Rodney?”

“I want to find that energy source and then you can come up with whatever crazy plan you want to destroy this place.” Rodney turned to Ronon and let loose the glower. “And you think he always comes up with the better plans? I’ll have you know that was a terrible plan!”

Ronon grinned, all teeth and attitude.

Sheppard started for the big door. “Come on then, we need to move. If they’re really looking for this place, it’s just a matter of time before they find it. We don’t want to be here when they do.”

Rodney disconnected his computer from the Wraith console and then shoved it into his pack. Ronon had Teyla this time, so Rodney shrugged his pack over his shoulder and grabbed his P-90, holding it the way he’d been trained to use it. Fun times, he thought, wincing when he had to shift his shoulder to accommodate the awkwardness of carrying a weapon he didn’t often use. His 9mm sat heavy on his thigh, but he barely noticed it anymore after more than three years of carrying it. The P-90 was different, because although he could use it, he wasn’t used to using it. Frankly, he liked it that way. Whenever it was time to pull out the big guns was when he started getting the palm sweats and the rapid heartbeat and the godawful sick feeling in the pit of his stomach that made him positively certain he was developing another ulcer Carson wouldn’t acknowledge as real.

Sheppard wrapped his hands around the big rusty lever across the front of the door and heaved. The lever jerked higher, turning in a counterclockwise circle.

Rodney hoped like hell there wasn’t anything trapped on the other side—radiation, toxic gas, deadly mold, Wraith. He really hated when missions went bad and this one had already gone that way a good thirty hours ago.

Grinding, scraping, loud and harsh, heralded the opening of the door as it swung away from them. Old didn’t begin to describe the age of this facility from what Rodney had gathered. Why the Wraith had forgotten its existence until now, or if a prior Queen had deliberately kept the information secret and it had been lost over time, didn’t matter. Any Wraith presence on the planet, especially that of a Hive ship, probably meant only one thing. A Queen now knew about the facility and she was ready to try again.

In fact, Rodney would have been more surprised if this was something the Wraith had never tried before. Their feeding grounds were too thin to support the current number of Wraith, even with all the infighting these days. Why not experiment with a cloned food supply?

Of course, the research he’d pulled indicated there was a problem with the feedings, leading to a failure of the project, but that didn’t mean the Wraith couldn’t have kept trying. Rodney found it puzzling that instead they had just given up. He would have to dig into the data he had downloaded from the Wraith console once he was back on Atlantis and try to make sense of it all.

Rodney couldn’t see Sheppard’s face as Sheppard took his first look into the room beyond, but he could see the sudden stiffness in Sheppard’s body before he waved them in after him.

More green light seeped through the opening. When Rodney walked over the threshold, he felt the hairs on his neck and arms stand up. He attributed it to the creepy green lighting and the long row of handles on the wall that reminded him of a morgue, with drawers, only these were enclosed at the end with a transparent material, so he could see the curve of dull gray skulls and tufts of human hair.

On the dusty white floor, Sheppard was leaving behind a set of clearly delineated boot prints in his wake and Rodney followed them down the aisle. Many of the bodies were adult-sized, but there were also smaller, less mature skeletons caged in the drawers. It was as if when the experiment in cloning had been terminated everyone had just walked away, leaving behind the facility and all its work to rot over the millennia to come.

Rodney was surprised there was this much left, but if some energy source had protected the facility... Maybe that energy source was failing or malfunctioning and the decay had started only then, leading to what they had discovered so far.

“There’s another door down here,” Sheppard said, having continued through the lab while Rodney stared at crumbling skeletons.

Rodney lowered his gun to reach into his pocket and pull out the detector. The energy reading flared bright in a rhythmic pulse. “Whatever’s causing the power spike, it’s close,” he said. “We should be just about right on top of it.”

He moved closer to the door Sheppard stood in front of. “Definitely in there,” Rodney said.

“Then let’s get this over with.” Sheppard’s P-90 dropped to hang against his chest and he reached for the same style lever as that on the other door. Sheppard’s arms flexed as he pulled and pushed, but Rodney noticed the lack of rusty squeals when the door swung open.

Orange light strobed across Sheppard’s face, the walls, the floor, Rodney’s arms. A low whine set Rodney’s teeth on edge, the vibration almost painful.

“Okay, this doesn’t sound good,” he said.

“And I thought I had a headache before,” Sheppard said. He scraped his fingers through his hair. “This can’t be good for us.”

“No, probably not,” Rodney said, sparing Sheppard a quick look. He plowed into the room without waiting for anyone else, but he knew power, and he knew something was terribly wrong with whatever was in that room.

Rodney heard Sheppard say, “Teyla, Ronon, keep an eye on things out here.”

Eyeing the huge bank of controls to the left of the entrance, Rodney traced the path of the conduits and workstations around the room, until his gaze came to rest on a single Wraith console tucked into the corner, where it had been grafted into the alien system. That would be his best chance of connecting, simply because he could translate the data from that point. The other alien text around the room, words or symbols, meant nothing to him.

At the center of the room, a pillar rose out of the floor to about chest height. Covered with alien glyphs and glowing stripes that cut around the device, the structure pulsed orange light intermittently and seemed to be the primary source of the micro-vibration Rodney could feel all the way into his bones. Because the pillar was set into the floor and seemed to continue down into a lower level of the facility, Rodney couldn’t guess how large it truly was.

Rodney stared at the device momentarily, before he shook off the sense of impending doom, and forced himself to think instead of feeling his way through this.

He reached behind him and tore his computer free of the pack holding it to his back. With sure and steady fingers, he worked to interface his computer with the Wraith technology as quickly as he could.

He felt Sheppard peering over his shoulder even though he hadn’t turned to look.

His fingers tingled when they came into contact with the cables stretching from the Wraith console to drape along the wall and ceiling and traverse across the room to interconnect with many of the other devices. Whatever the Wraith had done, it seemed apparent this device had been integrated into the heart of the alien tech.

The combination of the green emergency lights and the orange pulse coming from the large round device just behind him created a sickly glow in the room that messed with his stomach. Rodney could feel the slightest swell of what felt like motion sickness shiver through him. He clenched his teeth against the sensation and focused hard on getting his computer to tell him something about this room.

He flicked through a multitude of screens before he found anything he could use. By then, Sheppard paced behind him, circling the room’s central pillar.

“Come on,” Sheppard said, stopping behind Rodney.

“Working, here,” Rodney said, waving Sheppard off. “Don’t distract me.”

“Work faster.”

“I would, but somebody won’t quit pacing. You’re distracting me.”

“God, McKay, this thing is punching holes in my head. We might have to abandon this plan and move straight to the C4.”

“That would—” Rodney interrupted himself when he found a graphical representation of the power output and distribution. He flipped through a few screens that told him nothing and then— “That’s not good.”

“Would that be the punching holes in my head or the plan to blow this joint, both literally and figuratively?”

“Don’t think it matters,” Rodney said, not trying to hide his dismay. Disaster loomed and plans were going to have to change.

“See this?” Rodney pointed at the sharply rising curve at the far end of the graph he’d just found. “Power’s been rising wildly and these random spikes—” He poked his finger at a specific example. “Indicate potential overload events that have just luckily enough not set off an explosion within the power generator. If this thing is interacting with the planet’s EM field that could explain a lot about the lightning strikes on the jumper. This thing is a disaster waiting to happen. And if I had to guess, I’d say soon.”

“How soon?”

Rodney yanked at the cable connecting his computer to the Wraith console. “I suggest strongly that we leave now and don’t look back.”

Rodney knelt and strapped his computer in place, then jerked around and used a hand on the Wraith device to pull himself to his feet. Sheppard hopped back out of the way.

“What about the Wraith?” Sheppard asked.

“The chances of them finding this place and figuring out how to stop the imminent explosion are about as good as you being voted smartest guy in Atlantis.”

Sheppard glared at Rodney. Rodney stared back.

“So, unlikely but not impossible.”

“Funny.” Rodney started for the door. “We need to get Ronon and Teyla.”

Sheppard reached for his vest pocket. “We’ll plant the C4 and then we’ll head back—”

“We’re underground and we’re really not that far from the gate.” Rodney thrust his arm out, forefinger jabbing in the direction of the orange pillar. “When—and I say when, not if, because there’s not a chance in hell this thing isn’t on its way to a massive failure of the worst sort—when this thing explodes, it’s going to take the Stargate with it, and with the naquadah in it—nothing, and I mean nothing, is going to be left standing. If we’re still here when that happens, we can kiss our asses goodbye.”

“Well why didn’t you say so?” Sheppard grabbed Rodney’s arm and hauled him along as Sheppard marched for the door. “We’ll still have to get that jumper fixed. We can’t take on all those Wraith and I don’t think explaining the situation to them is going to help.”

“I did say so!”

They scurried out into the lab beyond, and Teyla and Ronon stood near the far door, watching the corridor, guns at the ready.

“Haven’t seen anything,” Ronon said. “Just got back from checking the hall. Everything’s still clear.”

Teyla tucked her gun against her chest and pushed away from the wall. “I am finding it easier to put weight on my foot now,” she said. “Although I am not certain how far I can walk without assistance.”

“That’s good,” Sheppard said. “Rodney thinks things are about to get nasty here, so we’re heading back now. We can’t set off the C4 without setting off a massive explosion that’ll take us and the gate with it, so that plan’s out.”

It was then that a deep rumble shuddered through the room. Orange light pulsed bright and a wave of vibrating air hit Rodney and knocked him sideways, smacking him into Sheppard’s left side.

“What the—”

“Oh my god,” Rodney said, scrambling to get his balance over the pitching of his stomach. He couldn’t seem to stand up straight and his teeth ached, and his left ear suddenly felt hot and wet inside. “I think it’s started.”

Ronon grabbed at Teyla’s waist, Rodney grabbed Sheppard’s arm, and they all ran. Rodney breathed hard and fast, but he couldn’t seem to run in a straight line. He glanced over to see blood oozing out of Sheppard’s left ear, dripping down his earlobe and the side of his jaw. Rodney rubbed his hand over his own ear, and yes, his was bleeding too.

He weaved to the right, not realizing it until he’d plowed into Sheppard again, running them both into the wall.

“Come on, Rodney. Keep it straight.” Sheppard’s voice sounded funny, but at least Rodney could hear it. Not like a few months ago when the whales seeking shelter from the sun’s coronal mass ejection had perforated their eardrums. This felt different, but—

“I can’t—uh.” Rodney staggered to a stop, letting go of Sheppard’s arm and bent over double, dropping to his hands and knees on the floor, heaving.

“Not—oh, crap, I can’t watch this. Ronon, Teyla, keep going! We’ll catch up.”

Rodney saw Sheppard’s boots turn away just before he emptied his stomach on the ground beside them. He spit a few times, trying to clear his mouth of the taste, but his effort was wasted. He sat back on his heels and rubbed the back of his hand over his mouth and chin. Then a canteen shoved against his chest. “Here, drink this but make it quick.”

“Thanks,” he said. He sounded shaky, but he felt better. He took a sip of the water.

Sheppard thrust his hand out. Rodney took it and let Sheppard pull him to his feet.

Rodney glanced back the way they’d come. If he had to guess, he’d say they’d be lucky if they had hours.

He turned to Sheppard and handed him the water. “That was mortifying enough, but I think I can walk a straight line now.”

“Good. Let’s get out of here.” Sheppard said, tucking his canteen away.

They jogged toward the exit.

*

“Work faster, work harder... You’d think I was just standing here playing with my thumbs.” Rodney jabbed at his computer and then looked up at the crystals over his head. Rodney’s mumbles had gotten louder in the last few minutes, probably in reaction to John’s question of how much longer and Ronon’s continued stalking around the jumper. Or maybe just Rodney’s own incipient panic. Rodney seemed to believe they were lucky that the power source for the cloning facility hadn’t already gone boom on them.

John could feel the tension, could see it in the set of Rodney’s shoulders and jaw, in the tilt of his head. Sitting around sucked, but there wasn’t anything he could do except wait on Rodney. John took it out on Rodney by asking him every few minutes why he couldn’t work faster. John might feel bad about that if he didn’t already know it was the most reliable way to keep Rodney focused on his work and not on his theories of how everything was going to end badly. Rodney seemed able to shed his bleak outlook only when under the strain of imminent disaster. John shifted restlessly. He would feel sorry for Rodney, if he didn’t find Rodney’s behavior oddly...fascinating.

Lorne and his guys watched for Wraith through the open bay door of the ship. Teyla rested in the co-pilot’s seat, to stay out of Rodney’s furious path. She couldn’t jump up and down and get out of his way fast enough in her current condition and John hadn’t wanted to see her frustrated look again.

Rodney closed the panel he’d been working on with a snap of his hand. “If that doesn’t fix it, it can’t be fixed,” Rodney said. “Get it in the air.” Rodney gave John a wide-eyed look and gestured at the panel. “But take it slow, because I can guarantee the inertial dampeners aren’t working right and I don’t want to end up flattened against a bulkhead. And don’t get hit by any more lightning, or we’re completely screwed.”

“Yes sir,” John said, drawling the words out and raising his eyebrows at Rodney.

Rodney stomped past John and took the seat in the forward compartment behind the pilot’s chair.

John told Lorne, “Let’s close her up.”

Ronon followed him into the front to drop heavily into his seat behind Teyla, and John took the pilot’s seat with a sigh of relief. Finally. He curled his fingers around the controls.

John frowned.

“You weren’t exaggerating,” John said over his shoulder to Rodney. The ship was in bad shape and John was going to have to make this flight count.

“And you thought I was?” Rodney crossed his arms over his chest and spun his seat. “Never mind. Of course you did. I did the best I could with what I had and if it had been anyone else here, we wouldn’t be taking off, but you can thank me later. Just get us the hell off this planet before it explodes. I’m too young to die.”

John didn’t bother answering with words. The jumper responded to his mental commands. It rose into the air, up and up, and then shot toward the gate, squeezing the air from his lungs and pushing his eyeballs back in his head.

He heard Rodney squawk behind him, Ronon grunt, Teyla gasped out a short sharp breath. Lorne and his guys were too far away for him to hear anything but the sound of bodies shifting.

Inertial dampeners weren’t sluggish. They were offline completely. John slowed the ship with a frantic thought and the pressure forcing his head back and pushing his body into the seat fell away.

“You could have warned me!” he shouted.

“I did!” Rodney shouted back.

John skimmed the ship up and over the trees. “Telling me the inertial dampeners aren’t working right is not—”

“John,” Teyla’s voice cut into their argument. “What is this?” Her finger pointed to a pinpoint of light surrounded by a flashing circle of red on the HUD. “The Stargate is near here, is it not?”

“Yeah.”

Not good.

Rodney leaned forward, practically squeezing between John and Teyla. “That’s a charge building up. If you get too close to it, it could take out the jumper again.”

“That’s a problem,” John said. “That’s our path to the gate. No way around it. Only other choice is to ditch the jumper and fight it out with the Wraith.”

Rodney’s eyes darted across the HUD readings. “We’re so screwed.”

“I’ve got an idea.”

It was chancy as hell, but if he could just get—

“You’re flying in the wrong direction! What are you doing that for? We don’t have weapons!”

“McKay, sit back and shut up. I have a plan.”

He could hear Rodney in the background, probably talking to Ronon. “I don’t know what the plan is, but this is not good! The Wraith are going to—oh, oh. I get it. Oh my god, that’s brilliant.” And John felt a moment of smug satisfaction followed by the irritating thought that Rodney didn’t have to sound so damn surprised.

The cloak shut down and the shield came on. He flew away from the plain where the Stargate waited, but not getting too far away from the burgeoning electrical charge. The ship’s response time was dragging, only micro-seconds, but he could feel the difference. One, two, then three darts appeared on the HUD.

“Dial the gate. No IDC yet.”

Teyla entered the address, quick and sure.

John circled around and tried to stay ahead of the darts, leading them straight for the gate, until he pulled up sharply, everyone falling back into their seats, pressure too great for even groans to slip out, loose equipment skidding across the floor, bumping into whatever was in the way. John knew how to hold out, he was afraid most of the others, except maybe Lorne wouldn’t be able to hang on. Even he started to see spots in his vision, before the forces relaxed as he pulled back around, and—there, two darts flashed out of existence on the HUD, the third still too close.

Time was up. They had to take their chances with the ship being fried by an electrical charge—one he hoped those missing darts had dissipated—versus being blown to microscopic bits and pieces by the remaining dart.

“The IDC,” he said, his voice a growl of command to whomever was listening.

“It’s in,” he heard Rodney say. “They got it. We’re clear.”

He dived straight for the gate, swept into the event horizon, and came to a sudden stop inside Atlantis, his forehead smacking hard into the controls and something plowing into the back of his seat.

“Ow!” came Rodney’s strident voice from behind him.

*

“So the kids are being sent to stay with the Athosians?” Rodney set his computer aside and opened the packaged cupcake Sheppard had thrown at his chest when Sheppard had entered his quarters.

“It’s temporary until we hear something from the Nadeans or we find them a permanent home, but yeah, they agreed to take them in.”

“Well, that’s good.” Rodney waved Sheppard toward a seat. Usually it was Rodney who headed to Sheppard’s room, not the other way around, but he didn’t mind the company. “Too bad about that planet. We might have found something interesting if we’d had more time to explore.” He took a bite of fluffy white cake. “Um, this is good.”

“You’re welcome.”

“You owed me. I nearly passed out when you took off. And I could have a concussion from being thrown around when you slammed on the brakes.”

“Beckett said you’d be fine. Your ear isn’t even that bad.”

“Carson isn’t infallible.”

Sheppard’s brow furrowed and his tongue moistened his bottom lip. “You’re the one who didn’t fix the inertial dampeners. Why do I get the blame? And yes, you still owe me a thank you.”

“You didn’t thank me for fixing the ship, I don’t know why I should have to thank you for bringing me a cupcake. I didn’t ask for it.”

Sheppard gave him a hard stare. “Fixing the ship is your job.”

“And as the leader, keeping the team in peak working condition is yours. So we’re even.”

Sheppard’s grin gave Rodney fair warning that he wasn’t going to like what Sheppard was about to say. Sheppard reached over and patted Rodney’s knee. “In that case, buddy, I guess it’s my responsibility to set up a workout schedule for you, then, isn’t it? You’re not exactly in peak working efficiency these days.”

Rodney laughed so abruptly he sucked cake into his lungs. He coughed and beat his fist against his chest, but when Sheppard slapped him on the back, he glowered. “Not—helpful,” he managed to gasp out, while twisting to block another attempted pat on the back.

“So you going to thank me?”

“Oh, yeah. Thank you very much,” Rodney choked out. “What are you doing, trying to kill me?”

“As bad as I want to sometimes, Elizabeth would probably kill me if I did.”

“Ha ha. You know you’d miss me.”

Sheppard just grinned, a smooth curve of his lips, and Rodney found himself transfixed by the sight. Rodney watched Sheppard push himself to his feet and turn to leave.

John, Rodney decided, he should start thinking of Sheppard as John. He didn’t think of Sam as Carter, or Carson as Beckett, and John and him had been friendly enough for a long while now.

Sheppard might not say it—and Rodney was perfectly fine with that, because he sure as hell wasn’t about to say it—but Sheppard, Rodney, Teyla, and Ronon were much more than co-workers these days. They all cared. Probably too much, probably enough to do stupid things for each other when they ought to know better. And what was wrong with him? Too much adrenaline over the last week, too many close calls. Now he was getting maudlin and—and—of course. That was why he had been thinking of Sheppard, dreaming, why he had touched him, when that was the stupidest, stupidest thing he could have ever done.

The door slid open and the hall light spilled around John and into Rodney’s dimly lit room. John paused to look back at Rodney and said, “See you in the mess later.”

Rodney nodded, waved John off with his hand, and answered, “Yeah, yeah.”

When the door closed behind John, Rodney looked down at his hands and wondered what he was going to do. He couldn’t keep dreaming about John’s mouth forever. It must be some kind of cosmic joke at his expense.

Maybe he should start seeing more of Katie Brown. She was really very attractive.

Soon. He would make a point of visiting her soon.

*

The next day, the Atlantis Stargate refused to make a connection with the Stargate of the planet John and his team had returned from the day before. The Daedalus finally made a trip out there a few weeks later and discovered that an explosion had taken a chunk out of the planet the size of Texas. John watched the video footage of the destruction, most of the crater hidden behind clouds of debris littering the atmosphere.

“Oh, that’s terrible,” Radek said, standing behind the chair holding Dr. Watts, a geologist. John stood on Watts’s right, leaning toward the monitor, his left hand on the back of Watts’s chair holding him up.

Dr. Watts stared at the screen intently, watching, rewinding, replaying, until finally, he said, “It’ll take years for this planet to recover. It’s highly unlikely there’s anything of use to the Wraith left standing, unless it’s on the other side of the planet, and even then, the atmospheric conditions will continue to be a problem for the entire planet.”

John pushed back from the monitor and said, “Alright then. We’ll consider this problem solved and move on.”

“Sounds entirely appropriate to me,” Radek said.

And that was that.

*