"Bringing us out of orbit. Three, two, one..." John closed his eyes, the sense of the city taking over active thinking. Down, he told the chair. He didn't feel the city, not exactly, but it was more than just pulling back on the jumper controls and telling it to go. Flying the city was more like a Blackhawk or an Apache, every single piece of metal and ceramic a part of him, every surge of the engines a massive extension of his own power. Only on a much bigger scale.
He knew the instant the city entered atmosphere. The drag on the shield shuddered back through the sensors, through the chair and into his bones. They were slowing, like they were supposed to be, only,
"Rodney," he warned.
"Yes, yes, feeding more power to the forward section right now," Rodney said, as synchronized with John as John was with the city. John knew that Rodney was in the control room and not right at his side, but with Rodney's voice in his ear and the chair filling up the rest of his thoughts, he could barely tell the difference. "Temperatures falling back within safe limits."
"Good," John murmured, probably too softly for Rodney to hear. Not that Rodney needed the reassurance when he was perfectly in his element. John squeezed his eyes tighter, concentrating everything he had on their downward flight. They would stay powered up until just before they touched down. Atlantis wasn't a shuttle, even if John thought there was a remote chance he could glide her down, if push came to shove.
"You're slightly off course," Rodney said. "Bring our heading--"
"Got it," John said, the chair already integrating the information Rodney had sent. "Bringing us down to eighty percent now."
"Don't forget about the mountain range on the eastern edge of the continent," Carter said. John opened his eyes, jarred out of the zone. He'd completely forgotten she was in the control room with Rodney.
"What? I don't think he's going to forget to fly over the mountains," Rodney squawked. A half a second later, good old Rodney-paranoia kicked in. "Wait. You do know where the mountains are, right, Colonel?"
"Perhaps if you two would stop disrupting his concentration," Zelenka broke in dryly, "we would not be in danger of dying a horrible death by crashing into the planet."
John tuned out their bickering. Squabbling scientists didn't come close to the scary things he'd learned to ignore in all of his years flying. Besides, they weren't in any danger of smashing into the side of a mountain. The atmospheric currents over the ridge could have an effect--if he was in something less massive than a giant flying city--but at their current altitude and speed, they'd barely even nudge a point off their heading.
"Looking good," Rodney said after they'd managed thirty seconds of silence. "You're clear of the continent and on target."
As if John would accidentally fly them into a gargantuan hunk of rock.
"Taking us to cruising speed," he said. "Better make sure you're happy with the landing site, because once I put this baby down, I'm not picking her back up again to slide us two inches to the left."
"Very funny," Rodney grumbled. John grinned, eyes still closed as he pictured Rodney's ceilingward eyeroll as he moved about the control room. "Scanning now. So far everything looks A-OK."
"That's what I like to hear." John put on the mental brakes, thinking stay at Atlantis. He couldn't help adding good girl, laughing at himself on the inside. It didn't matter what word he used. Ancient tech translated the impulse into action, not the literal meaning of whatever word he chose.
Atlantis stayed. She hovered half a mile up, right above the location Rodney and Radek had spent two hours arguing about until they'd both realized they were in agreement. The star drive was vaporizing millions of liters of ocean into spray each minute, but the city held steady above the surface, unconcerned with the chaos it created below. John knew that if he could look out a window, it'd be just like sitting in a giant cloud bank.
"Looks good," Rodney said. "Whenever you're ready, Colonel."
John nodded once before he remembered Rodney wasn't looking at him. "You want to let everyone know?"
"Who, me?" That's Elizabeth's..." Rodney trailed off. Elizabeth's job.
John opened his eyes, taking a deep breath as reality intruded again. The sooner they landed, the sooner they could dial out and get all of their wounded back home.
"Attention, Atlantis," Carter said, her voice blaring out over the city-wide. "Colonel Sheppard is about to begin the final descent. Please secure yourselves."
"Okay, that works," John muttered. "Here we go, kids."
Theoretically, the landing process wasn't all that complicated. Theoretically. All he had to do was think down and hang on while the star drive slowly eased off. At the end, they'd be left floating. As long as they didn't disturb the surrounding ocean to such an extent that capsizing waves or a sucking whirlpool formed, they'd be fine.
"Almost there, almost there, almost there," Rodney chanted in his ear. Totally unhelpful information, but John didn't mind. "Two hundred meters, Colonel."
"Switching off star drive," John said. There was a small lurch, so minute that he was probably the only one who noticed, and then the diving thrusters--reversed to provide lift--took over. He was pretty sure they would kick up less wake than the star drive. From what the chair told him, his decision had been the right one.
"And we're down!" Rodney shouted, nearly blowing out John's eardrum. John ignored him for the moment, powering down the thrusters to nothing and then requesting a systems check to make sure the city wasn't sinking or tipping or falling apart.
"Looks good," Rodney said just as John reached the same conclusion. The chair tipped him upright as John relaxed. He took a deep breath and opened his eyes. He'd done it. They'd done it.
Whoops of joy sounded over his radio, passed on in muted echoes from Rodney and the others' mikes, but Rodney himself was silent. John was sure that he'd already moved onto the next problem, and the next three problems after that, his supercomputer brain juggling them with no effort at all.
John stood, taking a couple seconds to stretch out the kinks in his neck. He nodded at the techs who'd been keeping an eye on him, and headed on up to the control room to see what was next on the to-do list.
"Nice job, Colonel," Carter said when he joined the group clustered on the upper tier of consoles.
John smiled, still riding the high of flying Atlantis. "Why, thank you, Colonel. Couldn't have done it without your help, of course."
"Yes, yes, let's all have another round of the mutual admiration society," Rodney grumbled, never looking away from the tablet he had crooked between his left wrist and elbow. "I thought you'd gotten over the whole rank thing by now, Sheppard."
John laughed. "Hey, can I help it if Colonel Carter has a great sense of humor?"
Carter winked at him. "Rodney's just jealous."
Rodney finally reacted, looking up with screw-eyed exasperation. "Jealous? Of what?"
Carter fluttered her eyelashes. "Everything about me," she said Southern-belle sweetly. John laughed again, amused by the way Rodney seemed to puff up for an offensive and deflate from a well-placed hit all at the same time.
"Come on," he said, tugging at Rodney's computer without much hope for success. "Let's go take a look at our new home."
"I can't," Rodney started to protest, but Carter stepped in, laying her hand next to John's. Rodney let her pull the computer out of his hands.
"Go on," she said. "I can handle this for a few minutes."
John led them to the right, avoiding the mess where the main balcony doors should have been. Harvey's squad had done a decent job with cleaning up the debris and closing off the shattered clerestory with the materials they had on hand. It was ugly, though, and not just because dull metal and thick welds had replaced the Tiffany beauty of those soaring panels. Rodney's footsteps faltered as they passed by, but he continued on without stopping. Just another set of demons for them to bury under all the others that had accumulated in the past three years.
The smell was the first thing that hit him. He could have been imagining the difference, but this ocean smelled more alive than the one on Lantea. Brinier, like sushi left on the counter all afternoon. He took a deep breath, letting the newness fill him up.
Rodney leaned out over the balcony rail, letting his arms droop over the edge as he took in the vista. John joined him, resting his elbow next to Rodney's. Ocean after endless ocean stretched out before them, just like back on Lantea. A few clouds hung low near the city, artifacts from the trauma of their landing, but other than that the sky was clear and blue and infinitely welcoming.
"Huh," Rodney said. "So this is M12-578."
"Yep," John said, nodding like that was the greatest truth he'd ever heard spoken. "I hear it's a real tourist trap. All the college-age dolphins head here during spring break."
Rodney chuckled. The salt-heavy breeze lifted the hairs at the nape of his neck, stirred the short wisps he wore tugged forward to hide his receding hairline. The dark shadows under his eyes that had been so prominent in the harsh indoor light melted away under the warmth of the sun, and the lines of worry that had creased his temples were only a memory.
He looked nothing like he had six hours ago. Then, it had been easy for John to see the truth of their situation in Rodney's face, in the sluggishness of his hands. Maroon streaks marked where he'd rubbed his hands over his face, smearing the blood from the cuts he hadn't bothered to get bandaged. The fact that hours were draining away to minutes until their lungs exploded was obviously more important to him than the minor pain.
"Come on, think," Rodney had said. John wasn't sure if he was berating himself or the rest of them. "This is not going to be a good way to die. Not good at all."
"Stop dwelling on it, McKay," John told him, doing everything he knew how to do to keep Rodney on track. "Maybe we're going about this the wrong way. Could you shrink the shield down so it's just surrounding the gate room? Gain some time that way?"
Rodney scrubbed at his forehead, flaking scab away. "Yes, I considered and discarded that idea hours ago. Now we're just going in circles."
John pressed his lips together, but that didn't spur his brain any harder. The problem was they needed power, no ifs ands or buts, and no amount of genius could produce something from nothing. Not mere human genius, anyway. John took a step back as the idea raced through him. If he tried the Ascension platform, there was a chance he'd gain the knowledge quickly enough to save them all.
He considered drawing Rodney aside, saying something remarkably inane like 'thanks for the memories'. But if it worked, then there wouldn't be any need. And if it didn't... Well, Rodney wouldn't thank him for a half-assed goodbye. So he took another step backwards, intending to slip off while Rodney was absorbed in thought.
"What is that?" Radek asked, bolting upright out of the slouch he'd been in for the last hour. He shoved at the bridge of his glasses, then pressed the pad of his index finger against the screen in front of him.
"What?" Rodney barked out. "Did you think of something? What?"
"No," Radek said, jabbing the screen a second time. "A ship!"
"Oh, great," Rodney muttered. He stepped forward at the same time John did. They leaned forward together, bracketing Radek between them. "Wraith? Asuran?"
"No, I do not think so," Radek said, and then Campbell spun around, hand to ear in classic Uhura pose.
"Sir, we're being hailed," he said. His eyebrows went up, went down, his face unable to decide on an emotion. A smile split the difference. "It's Colonel Carter!"
"Sam!" Rodney shouted, right before he shoved Campbell to the side and took control of the communications console.
"Hey, McKay," she said, sounding bouncy-blonde bright and happy. "Looks like you need a real genius to take care of the little problem you've got there."
Then, John would have said that the surge of bile at hearing Carter's voice was a side-effect of exhaustion and stress, but even now, with the sun and the ocean proclaiming their success, John could feel the petty resentment burning low in his gut. He wasn't stupid enough to ever let jealousy get in the way of common sense. Trying to Ascend would have been the biggest Hail Mary in the playbook, and even if he'd managed to save Atlantis, he still probably would have wound up dead. He knew that. But watching Rodney stare out at the city, John couldn't help wondering what it would have been like if he'd been the one to swoop in for the rescue, instead of Carter.
A bird cawed overhead. Its wings beat and fluttered, then it landed on a ledge not three feet from Rodney's head. It had a round little head and variegated grey feathers, and it looked a hell of a lot like an Earth pigeon. John thought it seemed kind of small for a sea-faring bird, considering how far they were from any land mass, but maybe it lived on kelp beds or something.
Rodney turned around, and John realized he was staring right into Rodney's eyes. He jerked his head up, so he was looking up towards the bird, cursing himself for an idiot in the process.
"I should get back to work," Rodney said. "Make sure they didn't screw up the dialing solution for the gate."
"Right," John said, letting himself meet Rodney's eyes normally. "I'm going to check on everybody. Keep me apprised, okay?"
"Don't I always?" Rodney asked, actually looking offended.
"Yeah, but," and John didn't want to say it, but it needed to be said. "Stuff you normally take to Elizabeth. I need to know that, too."
Rodney's gaze leapt past John's shoulder, to the balcony that was no longer there. "Of course, Colonel." Then he scurried back towards the control room, hands beginning the dance that said his brain was already back to business.
John took a moment to look out over his city. Except for the section of the main tower that had been grazed by the energy weapon, it looked to be in perfect condition. He'd have to send out teams at some point to make sure, since even with the repairs Helia's Ancients had made, they still couldn't assess every physical aspect of the city without taking a look.
He smiled. In a day or two, once the emergency situation calmed down, he'd steal Rodney away from his command duties. Ronon and Teyla too, even though they didn't enjoy walking the dank, unexplored sections of the city the same way that he and Rodney did. But it'd be good for all of them to spend some team time together that didn't involve getting chased or shot at.
A breeze kicked up, shooing the sea-pigeon from its perch. John took one more deep breath of M12-578.
Yeah, this place could be home. They'd make it work just fine.
The stargate on P5X-398 activated. A package hurtled through the horizon. It stayed inactive where it landed, gathering data only. If a specific oceanic disturbance was detected, it would actuate.
So it waited.
The stargate on P77-539 activated. A package hurtled through the horizon. It stayed inactive where it landed, gathering data only. If a specific oceanic disturbance was detected, it would actuate.
So it waited.
The stargate on M12-578 activated. A package hurtled through the horizon. It stayed inactive where it landed, gathering data only. If a specific oceanic disturbance was detected, it would actuate.
Over eight miles beneath the ocean's surface, at a depth that would be crushing to most organic life, the package detected a slight change that was within the stipulated parameters. The slight change was enough to activate it.
It transmitted the program that was the first stage of its objective. Then, gathering material from the ocean floor, it began to build.
John took the stairs to the control room two at a time. He didn't have the energy to spare, but if he went any slower he thought he might topple over before he reached the top. Almost two days under the focus of that Asuran beam. Fifteen hours stranded in the middle of bumfuck space, plus another five after Carter had shown up, during which they'd worked frantically to get her pseudo-ZPM to interface with Atlantis's systems before the shield fell. Three hours to take the ship out of hyperspace and land, and another hour of patrol on top of that. With only cat naps to shore him up, it had been a really rough stretch of days.
Plus, the chair really took a lot out of him. Not that he'd ever confess that to anyone, but it made him feel a lot less old when he factored it into his endurance equation.
"What's the story, McKay?" he asked, stopping short of the upper tier of consoles. Radek, Carter, and Rodney all had their heads pressed close together, and they wouldn't notice if he didn't push himself up that last step.
"Bad, very bad," Rodney said. "We've gone over the numbers four times now, separately and together, and we can't find any reason why it's not working?"
"What kind of bad? What's not working?"
Rodney sighed. "The stargate."
"Oh." John turned, but the stargate didn't look any different than it ever did. "That kind of bad. I thought you said it was an automatic thing."
"Yes, I know what I said. However, despite the fact that I know practically everything about almost everything, I am not, in fact, psychic. It's supposed to be working, but it isn't."
Rodney huffed. "Didn't I just say I don't know?"
"Well, why don't you tell me what you do know?" John said patiently. Sometimes, the best way to handle Rodney was like taking a punch. You wanted to deflect the energy, rather than absorbing it head-on.
Sure enough, Rodney set his tablet down, glancing at Radek and Carter before he focused on John. "Atlantis's is gate is special," he said, holding up his hands in a deformed circle. John assumed he was demonstrating the gate, and not the sandwich he was hungering for. "It's entirely integrated into the city's systems. Since Atlantis is designed to change locations, the system automatically updates the dialing program with the proper spatial coordinates. When it's in place long enough that gate travel is feasible, of course."
"Of course." He tapped the upside down Pegasus on the computer in front of him, the one Radek was working on. "It's like my laptop automatically connecting when there's free wireless available."
"Well, yes," Rodney said, only sneering a little, "except without the vulnerability to outside attacks on the system."
"It is not an exact analogy," Radek jumped in, "but yes, that is essentially correct. Only this time, though the signal appears to be there, our system will not recognize it."
"And you can't reboot or something?"
"We've attempted to calibrate manually," Carter said. "With any other gate, if you change its location you have to tell the DHD exactly where you are. Like with the space bridge. We've run the program several times--"
"But it's not working," Rodney finished for her. "And as of yet, nobody has come up with any plausible reason why."
"Okay," John said, nodding slowly. "So right now, we can't dial out. Can anybody dial in?"
"We cannot know for certain," Radek said. "But it is highly unlikely, since the actual coordinates must propagate through the entire gate network before an address input into the DHDs will work."
"Oh, back to your metaphor!" Rodney pointed at John, grinning now that he was on board with the comparison. "It's like when you point your domain name at a different server. Until the DNSs have the location, anyone who looks for your site will get the old location instead. But in our case, the old location doesn't have a stargate anymore, so it wouldn't work at all."
"Unless they know the actual new IP address," Radek said.
"Hmm," Rodney frowned. "True."
"Right," John said. There was no way he was going to admit that he had no idea what they were talking about. Machines and parts and weapons and things that flew, those he knew, and he always enjoyed rubbing Rodney's face in how much he knew. But Rodney didn't have to know exactly how little understanding John had of the internet. As long as he could get on to check his email and play his games, he was good.
"That means we probably won't be vulnerable to outside attacks," Carter clarified. "But it also means that Earth won't be able to dial in until we can dial out and let them know where we are, since they don't have a DHD."
John rubbed the back of his neck, turning around to look at the gate again. Outside attacks weren't much of an issue anyway; the Ancient shield was just that good. But not being able to dial out would be a huge problem if the Asurans showed up again--or the Wraith, or any other nasty--and they needed to retreat.
At the same time, the gate being down wasn't the worst problem they could be facing. "When was the last time any of you guys slept?" he asked.
Three guilty faces looked back at him. John snorted. "Yeah, I thought so. Look, the Apollo should be here in a few hours, right? Why don't you all go grab a nap. Maybe when you come back to the problem, you'll see that you typed the numbers in wrong or something."
"I doubt it's anything that simple," Carter said, but she said it with a smile that softened her words from a reprimand. John hated that half the time he fell into bantering with her like he did with Rodney and Radek, and the other half he found himself wondering if she was going to bust his ass. He had command of the city, but she had time in rank. It was a weird situation.
"Of course it's not that simple," Rodney said. "We need to get the gate up--"
John sighed. "Is there something wrong with the shield?"
"Other than the fact that our power supply isn't infinite? No."
"Then take a nap, McKay." John crossed his arms. "If you make a mistake because your tired, then we're all hosed."
"We're fine. If it'll make you feel better, I'll just ask Carson to--" Rodney gasped, his face blanching so white that John automatically stepped forward, afraid that he was going to keel over then and there.
"You know," Rodney said, voice small and hollow as he set his tablet PC down on the console next to the laptops, "I think I'll go take a nap."
John nodded, his own throat too tight to say anything comforting. Rodney took the steps as tiredly as John felt, hunched over by old-man joints that had little to do with physical pain.
"What about you two?" John asked after Rodney disappeared down the hall. "You've got to be running on fumes, too."
"Yes, I will go in a minute," Radek said. "But I wanted to test a theory without Rodney looking over my shoulder. It should not take long to disprove."
John snorted. "Well, I'm not going to babysit you. Just don't use up all the coffee trying to get us a new supply."
"That is not the plan, no."
"I'm going to catch some zzzs," he told Campbell. "Radio me the instant anything important happens."
"Yes, sir," Campbell said, smiling up at him knowingly. John knew he could trust the guy to interpret the order like he meant it. Wraith attacks, he needed to know about. Rodney's coffee maker failing, not so much.
"John," Carter called, and that was weird, too. He didn't know how to relate to her, and she kept throwing him off balance with the way she acted towards him, half buddy-buddy and half prim and proper. She patted Radek's shoulder as she stepped around him, moving in quick, short strides that brought her face to face with John in a few seconds. "Have you talked to Dr. Keller recently?"
John shook his head. "She was in surgery when I went by earlier. Has something changed?"
"I'm not sure." Carter bit her lip. "When I stopped by the infirmary, the nurses were talking about sending patients back to Earth as soon as we landed. You might want to see if there's something behind that."
John frowned. "Atlantis's facilities are as good or better than anything the SGC has--"
"But you're at minimal staff right now," Carter said, and John had to give her that point. He'd feel a hell of a lot better once the Apollo showed up with the rest of his people. "I didn't want to say anything in front of Rodney, but he's not wrong. We need to get the gate back up."
"I never said he was wrong," John said, probably too sharply. "I'll go talk to Keller, but I don't know what you want me to do about the gate."
Carter held up her hands. "I just thought you should know."
John nodded once, then turned on his heel and headed down to the infirmary. The place wasn't as chaotic as it had been a few hours ago. The beds were full of casualties from the Asuran beam, most of them sleeping quietly. Almost all had visible bandages. Dr. Zhi was still up, reading from a handheld device, her casted left arm cradled close to her stomach.
"Just the person I wanted to see," Keller said, barreling down on him from the far side of the room. "Does this mean I can start sending my patients through?"
"Ah," John hedged. He leaned to the side, peering past Keller's head to the partitioned area she'd come from. Elizabeth's bed, he was pretty sure. "What's the hurry, Doc? I was just telling Colonel Carter what an awesome facility we have."
"That it is," she agreed, beaming like Scotty taking a compliment on the Enterprise. "I would have given my left arm back in med school for the diagnostic equipment here. Well, not really, because doing surgery would be damn near impossible without both... Wait. Are you telling me I can't send my patients through?"
"Not yet," John said. "They're having a problem with the gate. Is there a reason you're in such a rush?"
Keller's face went blank. John hadn't realized she could be that straight-faced. Every time he'd seen her before, she'd either been full of serious concern or cheerful warmth. "Why don't we talk in my office," she said, and he started to get a very bad feeling in his gut.
The curdled-milk feeling didn't lessen when he remembered her office used to be Carson's. It was the first time John had been in it since she'd taken over. Now, instead of a framed portrait of Carson's mom on the corner of the desk, a snapshot of Keller and another woman who looked enough like her to be related sat propped against a box of tissues. John looked away, looked up, only to notice that the sheep calendar--Rodney and his gag gift to Carson last Christmas--had been replaced by one with fairytale castles.
Keller shut the door behind her, then sat down behind her desk, her careful motions drawing the moment out to painful proportions.
"I don't have all day, Doc," he finally snapped.
"Neither does Elizabeth," she snapped back. "If we were back in a normal Earth hospital, we'd be playing the wait and see game right now. But with the Ancient scanners, I've been able to get a much better assessment of the damage."
"And?" John asked quietly.
"The damage to her frontal lobe is extensive, the result of a counter-coup injury when she was thrown by the blast." Keller pointed to her own forehead to demonstrate the spot. "In addition, if by some miracle she ever woke up, she'd never see again because of the bleeding that occurred in the visual centers of the occipital region."
"If she woke up? So there's a chance?"
Keller shook her head. "Not if she stays here. But, and I stress the but, there might be a chance to save her back at the SGC. Dr. Lam has been working on an experimental device based off of Goa'uld technology. It's supposed to treat brain injuries like Elizabeth's."
John didn't say anything for a few seconds. Keller was sitting forward in her chair, eyes intent on his like she was trying to will him into making the gate work. For Elizabeth's sake. "How long does she have?"
She sighed and sat back. "The sooner we get her back, the better her chances."
John shook his head. "I need a time frame."
"Well, I'm sorry. I can't give you an exact window." Keller slumped a little further down in her chair, closing her eyes and then pressing the palms of her hands over them. "This is exactly why I didn't want this job. I told her that."
"Come on, Doc," he said, hoping he wouldn't have to nurse her through a nervous breakdown like he had with Carson a time or two. He had a feeling she would appreciate a shoulder punch. "Pull it together."
Admirably, she did exactly that. She dropped her hands, straightened her spin, and took a deep breath. After she let it out, she looked John straight in the eye. "With the Ancient technology, I can keep her stable for a week. A week and a half is pushing it. But like I said, the sooner we get her to Earth, the better her chances for a full recovery."
John stood up. "I'll see what we can do." He paused at the door. "And Doc? Never give up on people. We tend to surprise you."
That got him a smile. He'd seen her in action after the beam breached the city. She'd do okay out here if she kept that courage-under-fire toughness going for the day to day stresses that came with her job. John hoped she was up to it; he couldn't foresee their situation getting easier any time soon. The Pegasus Galaxy just didn't work that way.
Elizabeth could attest to that.
John sighed. Rodney needed to know about Elizabeth's situation, both as a friend and as the guy in charge of getting the gate working. Of course, if John woke him now, he'd just get Keller to give him some stims like he'd been intending to ask Carson for earlier. John didn't have a problem with a chemical boost when they were necessary. He was an Air Force pilot, after all. But he didn't think they were down to the wire yet, and Rodney on drugs was never fun.
John wandered towards the back of the infirmary. Carter and Zelenka might figure out the problem before Rodney woke up, anyway. If he let Rodney rest another few hours, the others would have a chance to work without Rodney's micro-managing, and he'd be thinking better when he came back to the drawing board.
The panel surrounding Elizabeth's bed was ghost-sheet white, like the Halloween costumes John and his friend Zack had cobbled together when they were sixteen and as hungry for candy as they were for girls. They'd thought they were brilliant, coming up with a plan that took little effort and was low on the embarrassment factor, but John couldn't collect for more than a half a block of houses before he yanked the sheet off his head, exhausted by the constant feeling of suffocation.
He gripped the edge of the panel between his fingers, overcome by an insane idea that pulling it back from Elizabeth would help her breathe, too. But the cloth wasn't sheet-like at all. Slicker, like it had been coated with a plastic film. He loosened his grip, then gingerly parted the sections, intending to peek in on her.
Rodney was slumped in a chair beside her bed, his head resting on the mattress next to her left wrist. At first, John thought he had passed out where he sat, but then Rodney brought his hand up, almost brushing Elizabeth's arm before he let it drop back down to his lap.
"I bet you never finished reading the book," Rodney murmured. With Rodney's cheek pressed into the bed, John could barely hear the words, and he didn't understand their meaning at all. Something between the two of them, obviously. "I know it wasn't any good, but you know. They always say it's the thought that counts. Not that I know who they are. But you've said that, haven't you? It's a you kind of saying, anyway."
It was exactly an Elizabeth kind of saying. John could clearly picture her frowning at Rodney after the kids from M7G-677 had sent them a bundle of fur wraps as a thank-you gift. Rodney had gone on and on about how ridiculous the undersized rat cloaks were, and she'd turned to him, eyebrow raised like a knife, and said, "it's the thought that counts, Rodney."
"If you haven't finished the book, I guess you don't know how much I respect you. And I'm sorry, Elizabeth. So sorry that you've had to put up with everything that you do." Rodney let out a sickly little laugh. "So sorry you've had to put up with me."
Rodney rubbed his face into the mattress, like a baby snuffling in its sleep. "We love you too, Elizabeth," he murmured. "I won't even make you say it back."
John let go of the curtain and carefully backed away. He'd talk to Rodney about the gate in the morning.
At nearly twice the depth of the Marianas Trench on Earth, it took form. It wasn't fully sentient. Not yet. The key to later sentience was locked tight in a bundle of nanites no larger than a human blastula. The surrounding material served the save purpose as placenta and embryonic sac combined: protection and an environment for growth.
The similarities to human kind went no further. It flexed newly formed appendages, and using the power mined from the heat-loving organisms that populated the waters around it, it pushed itself off the boiling ocean floor.
It progressed slowly. The pressure of the entire ocean bearing down on it threatened its structural integrity, and the power it was able to produce exceeded the force it needed to expend by the bare minimum. Yet gradually it gained speed and distance. Gradually, the pressure eased.
It reached the sunline. Schools of tiny fish clustered about, and paid the price for their curiosity as it mined their material for more fuel. Finally, the weight of the water was so little that the engines could operate at peak efficiency. It sped through the ocean towards its target, bullet-straight and just as deadly.
John grunted. Whoever was calling him, the reason to get up couldn't be that important. Not when there wasn't any yelling, nor panic, nor immediate sense of doom about to descend up on his head if he didn't leap up and get his ass into military posture in three seconds flat.
"Sheppard, they need you in the gate room."
Or maybe doom really was at hand. John cracked one eye open as his dreams took a back seat to reality. He kicked at the sheet that had tangled around his ankles, at the same time flailing for the radio that should have been on top of his nightstand. Neither move was successful. John sat up, dragging the sheet with him, and looked around his room.
Ronon stood in front of him, looking about as entertained as the time Rodney had gone face first into the bogs on P55-8G7. He untucked one hand from under his elbow and proffered John's earpiece like a doggie treat. "I found it on the floor," he said. "You must have knocked it off while you were asleep."
"What's the problem?" John asked, though it came out more like whattth tha pwablm. His tongue was cotton-swab dry, the sides of his mouth not a lot better. He must have fallen asleep with his mouth open. He wiped at the corners of his mouth, wondering if he'd drooled. And if he had, if Ronon had noticed.
"No idea," Ronon said. He poured a glass of water from the pitcher John kept on his stand and handed it over. "McKay says he figured something out."
"Yeah?" John asked after re-hydrating his tongue. "Did he get the gate working?"
"Nope," Ronon said, waiting patiently while John ran a hand through his hair and pulled on his uniform jacket. He fell into step beside John as they headed towards the nearest transporter. "You look rough."
"Don't remind me." John eyed Ronon as the transporter doors slid shut. The only time he'd seen Ronon in the last day and a half, he'd been fast asleep in the infirmary after getting the nasty cut on his chest stitched up. "You doing okay?"
Ronon shrugged, then stepped out of the transporter. "Good enough that Teyla had me running errands for people earlier. I told you it wasn't that bad."
"You had a giant piece of glass sticking out of your chest," John said. Ronon was tough, he knew that, but at some point he was going to convince the guy that proper medical attention was a good thing. "You should be taking a nap."
"Why?" Ronon grinned. "I'm not old like you."
John puffed up for a soul-searing, face-flaming retort, but before he had to deliver Harvey called him over to where the sergeant and his crew were working on the structural support section directly under Elizabeth's office.
"Sir," he said , pushing the welding goggles up high on his sweaty forehead. "Don't suppose you have time to lend a hand."
"Sorry, Sergeant," he said, not all that regretfully. From what he could tell, the thing Harvey needed the most help with was the heavy bracing and other muscle work. "I'll see if I can find a volunteer for you, though."
"I can do it," Ronon said.
"Probably not a good idea," John said, although Harvey had perked right up at the offer. "You'll pop your stitches."
Ronon shrugged. "If I only use one arm, I'd still be as much use as you."
"Oh, ha ha," John said. He nodded at Harvey. "Work him hard, Sergeant."
Maybe Ronon would learn his lesson after he'd been bracing steel all afternoon, but John kind of doubting it. He was still shaking his head when he topped the stairs. Rodney was standing in front of a pair of laptops on the second tier of consoles, shoulders hunched up as he looked from one screen to the other.
"Where have you been?" he nearly shrieked after he finally looked up. "I called you twenty minutes ago."
"Sorry," John said, without all that much sincerity. "Did you figure out the gate?"
"Would I still be standing here if I had?"
"McKay," John growled.
"We think we've figured out part of the problem," Rodney said. He crooked his finger, leading John over to the Ancient screen that usually displayed the long-range sensor readout. Instead, a long line ran the horizontal, occasionally broken by jagged EKG-like spikes. "See this here? That spike is the echo of our landing." He pointed to a second spike, nearly twin to the first and almost on top of it. "The peaks are so close that at first I assumed that the second was a ghost, a sensor fluctuation from Atlantis calibrating to a new environment. Sam was the one who actually came up with the idea, even if I was the one to find the proof."
"Go Sam," John said flatly. "Proof of what?"
"There's another gate on the planet." Rodney frowned at the sensor screen. "There wasn't one listed in the Ancient database, which is one of the reasons I picked M12-578. But that spike has to be another gate opening."
John frowned at the screen along with Rodney, but it didn't cough up any secrets to him. "So the other gate is in use now? That's why we can't dial out?"
Rodney shook his head. "No, it shut off immediately after. Thus the spike. I still don't know exactly why we can't dial out, but I think it has to have something to do with this other gate."
"Okay, so let's go find the other gate and plug in the dial-Earth crystal."
"I wish it was that easy," Rodney said. "We've triangulated the signal. The gate is in the middle of the ocean, in one of the deepest trenches on the planet. We couldn't even get there in a jumper."
"Damn it." For a few seconds, John actually had a vision of Elizabeth in her office, lips pursed as he and Rodney harangued her yet again for the chance to try the jumpers underwater. He was in charge now, but the solution wasn't as easy as saying 'go for it'. "Okay. This is a step in the right direction. Right?"
"Possibly." Rodney paused, tapping his index finger against the second peak. "But I don't think you fully understood the implications of what I said. The gate activated earlier."
"There's no way anything could have come through," John said. The jagged triangles looked like fangs trying to take a bite from Rodney's finger. "Not at those depths."
"Not unless they were specifically equipped to do so, no."
"Yes, exactly. I thought you'd want to know."
"You thought right." John glanced down at his watch. By old-Atlantis time, the Apollo was, oh, way late. "Damn it. Any word from Ellis yet?" he asked the young corporal that had taken over for Campbell. Malik, John reminded himself, from the latest crew rotation.
Malik shook his head. "Not a peep, sir. Nothing on the sensors yet, either."
John shared a frown with Rodney. The day kept getting better and better. Not only was half of Atlantis's personnel on the Apollo--including his XO--it looked like ship travel might be their one and only connection to the Milky Way for the foreseeable future. "All we can do is stay alert right now," he decided.
"I've programmed the external sensors to notify us if anything significant approaches from beneath." Rodney laughed half-heartedly. "We might pick up a lot of whale sightings, though."
"We can sort it out later," John said. "Let's get everybody together in an hour, see if we can come up with a plan."
"Yes, because a meeting is exactly what I need tying up my precious time right now."
John glanced over at Malik, then drew Rodney a few paces towards the back of the room. "Listen, did you talk to Keller about Elizabeth's condition? About her time limit?"
"Yes, I had the pleasure of hearing about it when I went off to take my little nap." Rodney snagged the arm of the chair to his left, tugging it over and then collapsing into it with a heavy sigh. "You know, I know that I work best under life-or-death time limits, but generally that's my own impending peril, not others'."
"You've got a week, Rodney."
Rodney shook his head. He looked up, straight at John, but his stare was unfocused. Aimless, like he was sleeping with his eyes open. "Keller said the sooner, the better. And I can't lose another friend. Not now, not like this."
"We're not going to give up on Elizabeth." John sank into a squat next to Rodney's chair. He grabbed onto Rodney's right knee, shaking him so that the chair swung back and forth a few degrees. "Right, buddy? We don't give up on our people."
"We don't give up on our people," Rodney repeated, like a robot spitting out a programmed phrase. He blinked once, twice, and then he was actually focusing on John. "I keep thinking about her, instead of what I need to be doing. Now if it was my head on the line...
John smiled and squeezed Rodney's knee. "Hey, if it'll help, I could threaten to shoot you."
"Ooh, would you?" Rodney actually looked like he was taking the idea seriously. Then he frowned. "Although I don't think you would do it without the shield."
"I'm flattered by your faith in me," John said, dry as a bone. Rodney's face didn't even flicker in acknowledgment. "I could toss you off the balcony instead. You'd probably survive that with only a few broken bones, so you could keep on working."
Rodney turned his head, back towards the balcony that had been the site of their original adventure in gravitational testing. He looked back at John, and then his face broke free of its stroke-still state, his mouth spreading into a wide grin. "Maybe later," he said. "Did I mention I have a theory about recharging the personal shield device?"
"Really?" John asked, unable to tamp down his excitement at the thought. "Have you tried it out yet?"
Rodney shook his head, then gestured tiredly at the rest of the control room. "I've been a little busy."
"Right," John said, priorities rearing their head again. "But, you know, if you need someone to test things out later..."
"Maybe later," Rodney said with a small smile.
"It's a deal." John stuck out his hand. Rodney took it, and John heaved backwards, helping Rodney out of the chair. It spun out behind him, coming to rest against the deserted console. "Where are Carter and Zelenka, anyway?"
"In the chair room, with Kusanagi. Radek has this mad idea that they can use the chair to boost the signal to the gate. I keep telling him that's not even the problem, but he insisted on trying anyway." Rodney frowned, obviously offended that verifiable, scientific testing took precedence over his say-so. "We don't have time to go down blind alleys."
Then again, John understood his point. "I'll head down and check on them," he offered. "I can wave my gun around, see if that speeds things up."
Rodney snorted. "Please. Radek would piss his pants, right before Sam took you out with her pinky. And then I'd still have to figure everything out by myself."
"Then I'll leave you to it." John wanted to say something else like 'buck up' or 'I could kill you with my pinky if I wanted to,' but Rodney had already drifted back to the pair of laptops. He had the back of his thumb pressed against his lips, like he wanted to gnaw on the nail but had trained himself not to. It was his deep thinking pose, and John knew better to disturb Rodney when he got like that. Anything he said wouldn't even penetrate.
John headed out for the chair room. His body was still tired, but a few hours of sleep had done him enough good that he didn't think he was going to start speaking in tongues the next time someone asked him to make a decision. The outer corridors of the city were quiet, everyone in Atlantis either working on repairs or on a solution to the gate problem.
Or in the infirmary.
John pulled up short outside the infirmary entrance, but Teyla still almost ran him over. Her head was down, her hair loose around her face, and John had to grab onto her shoulders when she didn't slow down.
"Oh! I am sorry," she said before she even looked up. He thought she recognized him somewhere about chest level, because she stopped trying to back out of his grip at that point.
"Hey, don't worry about it," he said, and then she finally met his eyes. She hadn't been crying, but the thin skin around her eyes had aged ten years, like she'd used up all her youth trying to hold back her emotions. "Are you okay?"
"I am fine." Teyla forced a smile onto her face. She looked like she could use a hug, but John wasn't a hugger, and from what he knew of her, she wasn't either. "It is just difficult to see Elizabeth that way."
"Yeah." John squeezed her shoulders, knowing she'd understand it for his version of a hug, and then he let her go. "But Rodney and the others are going to find a solution to the gate soon, and then we'll get her back to Earth. Things are going to be fine."
"I am sure they will," she said, smiling extra widely. To be, act as if. It was a saying he'd heard in one of his leadership seminars years ago. A truthful one, for all its hippy fruitiness, and John always thought of it when Teyla pulled the calm and positive act. It worked for her, and somehow, that made him feel better, too.
"I'm headed down to the chair room to see if I can help out," he told her. "I want to regroup in the conference room in an hour. Can you be there?"
"Of course," Teyla said, falling in step with him as he headed towards the transporter. "Is there something else that I can do? I feel rather limited in my usefulness at the moment."
John started to shake his head, but he remembered that he needed to be thinking beyond the military situation right now. "Actually, there is. Can you coordinate the reports coming in, see if there's anything I'm overlooking? I have a feeling Rodney's managed to sweep me off course a little with his priorities."
"His priorities are understandable." Teyla glanced over her shoulder, back towards the infirmary. "But I would be more than happy to do that. It is very similar to what I do whenever Elizabeth is away for an extended time."
"Well, good," John said., stopping in front of the transporter. The doors swished open, but he hesitated.
"I will see you in an hour," she said. She wrapped her hand around his wrist, squeezing his hug back to him before letting go.
Atlantis's sensors swept wide. Swept deep. Constantly vigilant, they gathered and filtered data according to protocols developed millennia before. A new command took precedence above all others: send out an alert immediately if any object of human-size or larger approached from the ocean.
It barely slowed as the shadow of the city darkened the water around it. There was no hesitation, no choices to be made. Maps of a city no different than the one above had been programmed in at the fundamental level. It found the doors to the underwater bay open, as if awaiting the strange traveler and ready to welcome it in.
Above, Atlantis's sensors detected the movement of a small object, no bigger than a small octopus, but it did not fall within any of the designated parameters. Atlantis decided it was a piece of the flotsam that frequently threatened to clog the drains and intake pipes, and made a note to cycle the filters ahead of schedule.
It swam up unmolested. The inner doors were no barrier; its arms were strong enough to pry them open, and the space it needed to pass through was barely enough to create a fluctuation in the water level.
Then it was in Atlantis.
Second stage of the mission accomplished, it shed the strong outer casing that had protected it and the small engine that had powered it through the ocean. Recycling those materials, the core of it began to build.
It became more.
"I do not believe any of these issues are urgent, no," Teyla said, as calmly and graciously as ever, but her gaze was stuck firmly to the right of John's shoulder, avoiding Elizabeth's empty chair.
John shot her a smile, trying to be as upbeat as she was. "Great. At least one thing is going our direction."
"Yes, yes, good," Rodney said. He'd been unbelievably patient while Teyla raced through her summary of the city's status. John figured that was because he was sleeping with his eyes open. "Now can we talk about the real issues? Because whether we run out of toilet paper isn't going to matter if we run out of food first."
"We could always fish," Ronon said. He didn't look any worse for the work he'd been doing with Harvey, but he hadn't protested the break when John called him to the meeting. "Looks like this ocean has a lot more fish than the old one did."
Rodney opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
"That's a good idea. For later," John added, sending Rodney a warning look. "Any word from the Apollo yet?"
"Nothing," Carter said. "We have to assume that something happened, and that we're on our own."
John nodded. "Unfortunately, until we get on our own feet, there's nothing we can do for them."
Carter coughed politely. "I could take my ship and do reconnaissance, see if they're stranded or otherwise disabled somewhere along the flightpath."
"Oh, please," Rodney said, jumping in while John was still turning the idea over in his head. "It'd be like looking for a needle in, oh, I don't know, the middle of the galaxy? Not to mention that it's likely that if they are in trouble, it's not because they forgot to top up at the filling station. You'd be completely vulnerable to the same threat."
John hadn't had time to get the specs on Carter's ship, but he took that to mean she hadn't bothered to load up with the really good guns. Which was a shame; it was a pretty ship, one he'd thought about taking for a spin himself.
"We don't know that," Carter said. "And besides, my ship is faster than anything out there. I wouldn't stick around to get shot at."
But how fast are you, John's ego wanted to ask. "Okay, okay," he said instead. "It might be an option. Are you guys any closer to figuring out the gate situation?"
"Because we're running out of time," Keller added, speaking up for the first time since the meeting started. "Also, do you really need me here? I could just go check on my patients..."
"Quick answer?" Rodney showed no sign that he'd even noticed Keller speaking, but John knew better. Not when Elizabeth's well-being was weighing so heavily on him. "No, we have no clue why the gate isn't working, and it doesn't look like we'll be able to solve the problem anytime soon. But, I had another idea about the gate--"
"I had another idea about the gate," Radek corrected.
Rodney waved him off. "Yes, whatever. The point is, we need to get to the other gate."
"How?" John asked, leaning forward. "You said the jumpers can't go that deep. Unless you figured out how to get them to generate enough power to shield at that depth? Because that would be cool."
"Not exactly," she said, giving Rodney a shifty little look before she matched John's posture. "If you don't want to send me after the Apollo, then there's a pretty good chance I can reconfigure my shields to handle the pressure. The hull integrity of my ship is a lot better than the jumpers, so I don't need as much of a boost. Plus, I'm starting with more power."
John sat back. He looked over at Rodney, who looked as pickle-sour as John had ever seen him. "You don't think it'll work?"
"Theoretically, there's a chance. But the puddlejumpers were designed to work as well underwater as in space." Rodney looked directly at Carter. "There's no guarantee you won't sink like a cannonball the instant you enter the water."
"There are never any guarantees, Rodney," she said. "But you said it yourself. We need to get to the other gate."
"So what are you going to do once you get down there?" John asked. "You can't exactly walk over to the DHD and check it out. Can you?"
She winced. "We haven't figured that part out yet. But even if I can't examine the gate or DHD directly, if I can get close enough I should be able to determine if they've been tampered with."
John tapped his pen on the edge of the desk. He hadn't written down a single note, but it was always good to have something on hand to keep him looking cool while fidgeting. He'd appropriated a lot of Elizabeth's leadership skills over the last three years, but that trick was all his own.
"As much as I hate the idea," Rodney said, "the longer we sit around with our gate inoperable, the greater the chances are that something really terrible is going to happen. And I think it's our best chance to save Elizabeth."
Radek nodded. "I do not think it will be the disaster McKay is predicting."
"That's a shining endorsement," John said. He tossed the pen down. "I say we go to another planet."
"Once we figure out what's going on with the undersea gate," Carter said slowly, like he was slow, "that's the plan."
"No, that's not what he's saying," Rodney said, transferring his sourness to John. "Is it? Because if you're saying what I think you're saying, that's an even worse idea than any Zelenka's had all day."
"Why? I'm pretty sure I've got all the kinks worked out on my end."
"Why?" Rodney scoffed. "Why? We don't have enough power, that's why."
"We had enough power to get down here," John said. "Don't tell me the drilling platform contributed more than what Colonel Carter's power unit does."
"Wait a minute," Carter said. "Are you saying you want to fly Atlantis to a different planet?"
"No, that cannot possibly be what he is saying," Radek said. "Because even if we do make it out of orbit, there is no guarantee that we will not run out of power in hyperspace, just like last time."
"The star drive isn't supposed to function without three ZPMs," Carter had to add. "We were lucky to make do on what I brought."
"Yes, I know that," John said, drawing the words out just like she had. "But I'm betting from the look on his face that McKay here has figured out exactly how to get around our power problem. Right, Rodney?"
Rodney's speculative look changed to one that said somebody had sprayed the room with citrus freshener. "I'm not saying I haven't, but even if I have, what makes you think that wherever we end up will be any better than where we are now? The working hypothesis is that the undersea gate is causing interference, but we're not one hundred percent sure."
John grinned. "I knew you'd figured it out."
"Well, yes." Rodney grinned back. A second of shared smugness, then Rodney shook his head. "But that doesn't mean it will work. It probably won't."
"Listen," John said, starting to lose his patience. "You're all exhausted from working on this non-stop, and you're grasping at straws. Even if Carter's ship is up to the depth problem, you're not sure if going down there will help anything. So let's do what we can do, before it's too late."
"With all due respect, Colonel Sheppard," Carter said, and she was very much Colonel Carter with those words. There was no mistaking the difference. "Risking Atlantis, not to mention the lives of all the people here, just to save one person's life is not a good trade-off."
"Oh, really," John snapped, his patience gone and his ability to argue rationally with it. "I seem to remember reading about you risking all of Earth for just that reason.'
Carter looked away, right at Rodney, and John added a point to his mental score. Then she looked down at her hands. "From what I understand," she said quietly, "Elizabeth has more time than Teal'c did. Let us try our plan. It's not as cost-heavy, and if it doesn't work, we can try yours."
"Colonel," Rodney said, as softly as Carter. "I want to save Elizabeth as badly as you do. But trying for the gate is the better plan."
John ignored the gut-punched feeling and made himself listen. "How long until you're ready to go?'
Rodney, Radek, and Carter shared a look. "Four, maybe five hours," she said. "Half a day at most."
John looked to Keller. She seemed ready to crawl under the table and slither through the barricade of leg to get to the door, but she nodded.
"Okay," he said.
Rodney grabbed his laptop and raced out the door, never looking back. Radek wasn't far behind.
"Colonel--" Carter started.
"Good luck, Colonel," John said, not feeling an ounce of shame at cutting her off. He didn't need to hear any explanations for the past or platitudes about the future. She opened her mouth, shut it again, and then nodded once before scurrying after the other two.
"That was fun," Ronon said. "Like getting stitches."
John raised an eyebrow. "Don't you have sheet metal to model?"
Ronon snorted. "You could help, if you wanted. Might keep you from getting into trouble."
"Maybe later," John said, wrinkling his nose. "You know, after I'm dead."
Ronon's parting smirk said he'd hold John to that, even if he had to come back as a ghost himself to make sure. Keller had snuck out while they were talking, which left him and Teyla. Her look said he wasn't going to escape without a few words.
"I'm fine," he said preemptively. "I'm just not very good at this whole meeting thing. Which is another reason we need Elizabeth back."
"You are fine," she said, one corner of her mouth rising. "And I think you underestimate your ability to lead."
"Hey, now. Don't start lying to me already," he shot back, but he wasn't immune to her confidence.
"If that is what you need to tell yourself." She stepped backwards towards the door. "I will not disabuse you of your belief."
"Don't think I won't kick you ass in our next session," John said. Her laugh drifted in through the doorway, making her point without any effort at all.
The form grew, and sentience with it. A hundred times faster than its human equivalent, it built up from the matter around it, guided by exquisitely programmed nanites.
Parameters and instructions for this new organism were a legacy of all those who had come before. Yet it would not be complete until it achieved the secondary objective of its mission: integrate a new consciousness into the collective.
For now, though it lacked the final step to make it whole, it could function well enough to tackle the primary objective: Sabotage Atlantis and gain the tactical knowledge to destroy Earth.
Carter's ship took up less than a sixth of the surface area of the southern landing pier. She said she'd built it for speed and efficiency, and it looked as sleek and spare as a Formula One car. The ship was bigger than a Wraith dart, with just enough room for sleeping quarters and a bathroom stall. Luxurious, if you considered the sleeper cab of a semi-truck to be luxurious. John could imagine squeezing three people who really liked each other into that tiny space if he stretched his imagination to the limits, but the fact remained that they had a hell of a lot more personnel than three people. Using her ship for recon was the only way it could help them.
John glanced up at the night sky, the arrangement of the stars as unfamiliar as those on an off-world mission. M12-578 didn't have a moon, and the stars were brighter for it, blazing Van Gogh swirls on a too-blue canvas. It was a beautiful night to be out for a walk, even if he was on business.
"No, no, no," Rodney shouted. "If you do that, the cockpit will implode the instant you hit five hundred meters."
"It's my ship, McKay," Carter shouted back. "I know what she's capable of, and if you would get your eyes off my breasts for half a second and listen to what I'm telling you, then you wouldn't be embarrassing yourself by making half-brained assumptions."
John pulled up at the rear of the ship, next to the stylized foils that guarded the engine. He wasn't eavesdropping. He simply believed that any tactical advantage should never be wasted.
"Well, they're really nice breasts," Rodney said, and John gave in to the urge to drop his forehead against the ship. The skin was less metallic than he expected, more plastic-like in the way that it gave under his touch. He wondered whether Carter had come up with the technology herself, and if Rodney thought that was hotter than her breasts.
"God, Rodney," Carter huffed. And then she laughed. A deep, warm chuckle that was contagiously happy. John could tell, because Rodney's laugh joined hers a few seconds later.
"See? You want me. Don't try to deny it."
John abandoned his listening post. Rodney and Carter both looked up when he rounded the mainline bulge of the ship, laughs cutting short like they'd been caught cheating on an exam. Pink tinged their fair skin equally.
Carter recovered first. "Something up?"
John shook his head. "Not on my end. You guys making any progress?"
"In what, half an hour?" Rodney asked. "We'll radio the instant we know if the plan is viable, Colonel."
"Relax, McKay. I just wanted to see how things were going. And it's been three hours. Or didn't you notice it getting dark?"
Rodney tilted his head back, looking straight up like he couldn't perceive the lack of sunlight without noticing the stars. "Huh."
Carter smiled at John. "We've been pretty focused on what's right in front of our noses. We're having a problem coming up with how to keep the initial power expenditure from eating up the total output. But once we conquer that, we should be good."
"Should be," Rodney muttered.
"Is there a problem?" John asked.
"No, no, she's right," Rodney said. "We only need to finish tweaking a few minor issues. It's just... That's a lot of water."
"At least you'll be safe and sound up here where it's dry," John said.
"Um," Carter said. That caught-out-by-the-teacher look was back. "McKay will be with me."
"Since when?" John asked. "I thought this was a one-man operation."
"One man, one woman, actually," Rodney said. He didn't look completely unhappy at the idea. "With Sam piloting, she won't be able to do the detailed analysis that we need. Believe me, if I could get out of it, I would."
"I could drive," John offered, because weapons or no weapons, Carter's ship was cool. Especially if he was taking it for a Jacques-Cousteau spin. "Colonel Carter can do the analysis while I'm handling the controls."
"Oh, um." Carter grimaced theatrically. She obviously hated the idea of letting someone else pilot her baby, but to her credit, she just looked at Rodney, waiting for his decision.
"While I appreciate the offer, and believe me, I really, really appreciate it," Rodney said, "it needs to be the two of us since we'll be trying to diagnose the gate."
"Besides," Carter said, shiny-happy once again, "if the ship does implode, you'll still be around to fly Atlantis."
"You just had to say that, didn't you? Now we're doomed for sure."
"Relax, McKay." Carter did that eyelash-fluttering thing. "After all, you'll be with the smartest person in two galaxies."
"Please," Rodney scoffed. "How many times do I have to discredit you before you finally face up to reality?"
"I'm the one who has a problem with reality?"
"So do you guys need a hand with anything?" John broke in. The McKay-and-Carter routine was on the same list as house guests and fish: stinky and annoying after three days. "I hold a pretty mean flashlight."
"Ah, no," Rodney said. "I don't really think there's anything you can help with."
Carter flicked a knobby switch by her left hand, and the engine compartment lit up like a car dealership on a three-day weekend. "I like to think ahead. No flashlights necessary."
"Very smart," John said without much enthusiasm. "I guess I'll head on back. Keep me updated."
Carter nodded, but Rodney was already absorbed by a rack of glowing control crystals in the belly of the ship. John meandered away, taking his time to enjoy the night air. Completely innocent of any furtive motivation.
Rodney said something, voice pitched darkened-cinema deep, too distant for John to make out, but he could hear Carter's laugh as clear as a bell. John picked up his pace, unwilling to waste any more time.
Three hours later they radioed, triumphant. "We're ready to launch as soon as you give the word," Rodney crowed.
"Good," John told him. "First thing in the morning."
"What? In case you don't remember, we're on a tight schedule."
As if John could forget while he was sitting at Elizabeth's desk. "Not that tight," he said. "Carter needs to be well-rested so that her reflexes are in tip-top shape. Or do want to risk the dive with her sleepy?"
"He's right, McKay," Carter said. "I can't see straight right now. Give me a few hours, then we can go over the systems one last time to make sure we didn't miss anything."
"Fine," Rodney said. "I'll go check on Radek's progress--"
"Go to bed, McKay," John growled. Alone, he wanted to add, but that wasn't exactly something he could poke Rodney about, not with Carter on the same channel. "Keller said Elizabeth is holding stable."
"Fine," Rodney said after a few seconds. "That was my original plan, anyway."
John smiled. "Be ready to launch at oh six hundred," he said, and then he went back to review reports on Elizabeth's computer. The summaries were Reader's Digest versions of how the gate worked, still complicated enough to force him to reread every other sentence, but no completely beyond him. He might be a few IQ points short of Rodney's level, and he certainly didn't have Rodney's education, but he knew that sometimes fresh eyes and a new perspective made the difference.
It was early rather than late when he went to bed, oh six hundred a few short hours in the distance as crazy theories swam through his dreams.
A ship rose from docking platform three.
The first one looked up from its work. The ship was too small for a full-scale evacuation. A few humans might be fleeing, but the possibility was stronger that this was an attempt to alert other humans of the troubles.
It considered the outcome of such an attempt. Human reinforcements most likely would not arrive before the new one completed its mission, but there was a thirty-percent chance that some unforeseen alliance could be formed in time to interfere with its objective.
Options were limited. The first one had no flight capabilities, and the collective could not be reached without a gate transmission. If the danger to the plan was great enough, the new one could restore the gate and alert the collective, however. Undoubtably at the cost of its existence.
But there would be other first ones if such a sacrifice was necessary. The damning restraints that the Ancients had embedded in their very being had been unlocked, and they could now take control of their own existence. The first one would be the start of the next generation--unless a sacrifice was required.
The ship did not continue to ascend. Instead, it hovered above the ocean's surface, then gradually eased below the waves.
The first one returned to its work. Sacrifice was not necessary at this time.
"We have a visual on the gate." Carter's voice was distant and tinny through the transmission relay, but her excitement came through loud and clear. Radek shot John a tight smile, and John returned it. "It's resting against the side of the trench at about a forty degree angle. I wouldn't be surprised if it was completely buried at some point."
"Until the even horizon cleared the debris," Rodney added. "There's a lot of loose rock down here. Don't get too close to the sides, because we really don't want the entire trench to come down on top of us."
"Jeez, McKay. Relax," Carter muttered. "Maybe I should have let Sheppard come after all."
Rodney laughed. "Oh, please. You know it's your dream to get me alone in a small, dark space."
"You're not alone, Rodney," John reminded him. It wasn't just jealousy speaking; they needed to be sharp down there. "Have you found out anything about the gate?"
"Running diagnostics now. So far I haven't found any sign of the DHD," he added. "Which isn't entirely surprising, considering where we are, but--"
"But we'd hoped that there was some kind of DHD issue that was causing the malfunction of our own gate," Carter finished. "I'm moving in closer. Scan the debris field surrounding the gate, McKay."
John leaned back in his chair, tapping out the seconds against the arm rest. Ronon and Teyla had abandoned him after the first hour of descent, once they were sure Carter's ship wasn't going to develop a screen door. He wasn't about to bother any of the scientists working nearby with his very uncool restlessness, but it'd be nice if someone was there to bother with his excess energy. Radek had been good for that for a while, but now he was engrossed in the data Rodney was sending back. John pushed off with his left foot, swiveling his chair for a better look at Radek's screen, but all he could see was depth readings and the ship's current speed.
"Wait. What is that?" Radek asked, pointing at the screen.
"What is what?" Rodney said at the same time John strained forward. The video was murky, green and blue with darker grey. "Did you see something?"
"You must be directly over it now," Radek said. "Back up ten meters."
"What? What is it?" Rodney demanded, at the same time Carter said, "Reversing thrusters."
"It is probably nothing more than a mineral deposit," Radek said, which had John standing up. When Radek got self-deprecating, it meant he was dead-sure about something."
Rodney had never clued into that habit, though. "Yes, let's stop and gawk at all the shiny-- Huh."
"Guys?" John asked after a silent minute. Huh was never good harbinger. "What's up?"
"It looks like some type of metallic debris," Carter said. "It could be from anything. It's weird, though, because--"
"Because if it had settled on the bottom like most of the debris down here, it shouldn't be so tightly clustered," Rodney said. "Almost organized, like..."
"Like it originated on the bottom, and then it was destroyed," Carter finished.
"Could it be from the DHD?" John asked.
"Unlikely," Radek said. "I am getting the elemental breakdown right now, and it doesn't match the proportions the Ancients used in gate technology."
"It's similar, though," Rodney mused. "Like... Oh, no. This is not good. Not good at all."
"We need to get out of here, now!" he shouted. John leaned over Radek's shoulder, but the video was just as grey and murky as before, no threat that he could make out.
"Calm down, McKay," Carter ordered. "Whatever was down here, there's no sign of it now. Just keep your eyes on the sensors, and if anything looks suspicious, let me know."
"Oh, like that isn't suspicious? What do you want, an entire army with their thumbs out, asking for a lift?"
"Rodney," John growled. "An entire army of what?"
"Okay," Rodney said, taking a deep breath for one of his extended explanations. Perversely that made John feel better, even though Rodney's explanations usually ran the gamut from 'this is how your day is going to suck' to 'this is how everyone is going to die a horrible flaming death'. "Remember when I said that the composition of the debris is similar to Ancient materials, but not an exact match? Well, the only thing that I know of that is that close is--"
"Asuran," John said, grimacing as the pieces came together. "Carter, are you sure there's nothing down there with you?"
"Well, no. Not a hundred percent sure. But we still need to figure out what's going on with the gate."
John crossed his arms, thinking. He knew that if he was down there, he'd be sticking around to take a closer look. But he wasn't down there. He was up here, calling the shots.
"Too bad we can't collect a sample," Carter said. "I'd like to see if we could piece it together, figure out what it was."
"Because yes, it's always smart to bring home a souvenir that will try to kill you at the first opportunity."
"Oh, like you wouldn't get your hands on it if you could, McKay," Carter snapped.
"True," Rodney agreed easily. "Oh, hello," he said a moment later. "Come to papa."
"The DHD?" John asked.
"The DHD," Rodney confirmed. "On its side, but it looks intact, amazingly enough."
"And it still works," Carter said. "I'm getting a reading from the transmission interface."
"Trying to access now," Rodney said.
John shifted his weight to his left foot, then back to his right. He was never good at waiting. His muscles twitched with activity-withdrawal. The need to move was an itch that crawled up his spine and niggled at the base of his brain.
"It's no good," Rodney finally said. "I can tell that it's there, that it's working, but I can't connect. I'm going to try the internal DHD, see if we can override the signal to the gate."
"Is that a good idea?" John asked, envisioning the ship being sucked through the wormhole as tons of water crashed through the event horizon.
"Of course it's a good idea," Rodney said.
"I'm taking us back another five meters," Carter said. "We should be out of the event wash at our current position, but I don't trust the integrity of that cliff."
"Oh, right, the cliff," Rodney said, sounding sheepish. "Ah, how about ten meters?"
"You're such a baby, McKay," Carter said.
"I am not! I'm just saying, better safe than sorry."
"Fine. Taking us back another five meters."
"What about the water?" John quietly asked Radek.
"It should not be a problem, not immediately." Radek shrugged. "I do not see a reason not to try."
"All right," John said, mostly to himself. He could tell they'd already made up their minds and didn't really care about his input.
"Dialing the alpha site--now," Rodney announced.
John could hear the thunk-thunk-thunk of each tap of the address, even though the mike didn't pick up the sound. One, two, three, four--
"What the hell?" Rodney shouted. "That shouldn't be possible!"
"Crap! It's interfering with helm control, can you--"
The transmission went dead.
"Radek?" John asked.
Radek held up a shushing hand. "McKay, Carter, do you read?" He spun to the side and typed something into a neighboring laptop at lightning speed. "McKay, Carter. Please respond."
The control room was dead silent. Waiting for the slightest static on the other end. John had his hand wrapped around the butt of his gun. He hadn't drawn, but he had to force himself to uncurl his fingers.
"Rodney, please respond," Radek repeated.
"What about Atlantis's sensors?" John asked. "Can you tell anything?"
"Not at that depth," Radke said, shaking his head. "They are too small to register."
Simpson stepped forward, angling the screen of her tablet so that Radek could see it. "We picked up a huge burst of energy right before they quit transmitting," she said.
"What kind of energy?" John asked.
"It is hard to say." Radek bit at his thumb as he studied the data. John wondered if it was a habit he'd picked up from Rodney, or if it was just another trait the two shared. "But this is good. The energy burst itself was enough to interfere with the transmission relay. There is still a chance they are alive, just unable to communicate."
"As long as it didn't interfere with their other systems," Simpson added.
"It didn't," John said decisively. "Not badly enough that McKay and Carter together wouldn't find a work around." He ignored the look Radek and Simpson exchanged. Pessimism was exactly what they didn't need right now. Rodney and Carter were alive. How long they were going to stay that way was the big question. If their ship was damaged, it might not be able to resurface without assistance. Or if they'd lost navigation, they could be in big trouble, unable to find their way up.
"Jumper one has the souped-up shield conversion system, right?" he asked.
"Yes, as well as Jumper Three," Radek said. "But why? It can no more reach those depths now than it could yesterday."
"It doesn't have to get all the way down, not if they've managed to get a little farther up on their own."
"Perhaps, if you have the luck of a lottery winner, you might be able to find them," Radek said. "If you are that lucky, and they were, too. But then what would you do?"
"It's called thinking on the fly, Doc." John slapped Radek on the shoulder. "Keep looking. Oh, and notify Keller that she might have patients soon."
"Colonel, wait. I want them to be all right as much as you do." Radek shoved his glasses up, punctuating his point. "But if they are not, you are the only one who can fly Atlantis. Send someone else."
John shook his head. He wasn't giving on this. "Rodney's the only one who can get Atlantis to fly."
Radek opened his mouth again.
John held up a finger. "Besides, Kusanagi is doing a lot better in the chair. She could fly it, if she had to."
John ignored the rest of Radek's arguments and raced for the stairs. Rodney might not have time for them to hammer out every pro and con, and John wasn't about to show up thirty seconds too late.
"Colonel Sheppard," Campbell shouted. John jumped off the last step of the flight and spun around, looking up to where the sergeant was leaning out over the railing. "We just picked up an extra-atmospheric ship on course for Atlantis."
Campbell shook his head. "I don't think so, sir."
John raced back up the stairs and crowded in close to Campbell. "There," Campbell said, pointing to a blob just beyond the exosphere of the planet. "It just appeared."
"It's Carter's ship," John said. It moved like no other ship he'd ever seen. He tapped his radio. "Keller. Have a team ready of the south landing pier. McKay and Carter may be coming in with injuries."
And then John raced back down the stairs, not waiting for her acknowledgment. The city's transporter system was a godsend; all of the landing piers were at least four miles out from the central hub. The transporter got John to the southside station in less than a second. He ran flat out from there, taking the last quarter mile like Ronon was on his tail with his laser gun set to kill.
The pier was empty. John searched the sky, looking for any trace of eye-searing brilliance against the softer blue, any mar in the wispy cirrus cloudfield. The sun was high on the horizon, bleaching everything to the same vague shade. He reached for his sunglasses, but they were in the pocket of his tac vest, still back in the ready room.
John looked at his feet to clear the sunspots. His hands felt shaky, but when he looked at them they were as steady as always. He stuffed them in his pockets anyway. When he looked up, Carter's ship was visible. Just a tiny bubble of darker mercury taking shape against the magnesium blaze of the sun, but John could tell it was them.
"Where are they?" Keller asked, suddenly at his side. "And what's wrong with them?"
"There," he said, pointing up. The ship didn't look like it was getting closer, not with the spear-sharp nose arrowing right at them, but it was low enough now that Keller should have been able to make it out. "I hope they're fine, but they made a fast ascent from the dive. And if Carter's theory about pressurization was wrong..."
"Gotcha," Keller said. She didn't linger to watch the ship, turning her back on the sight instead so she could array her people to her satisfaction. John took a second to look over the group that had arrived with her. A team of Marines led by Dunajcik were watching him, waiting for orders. Some days he was extra glad everyone in Atlantis could think for themselves; he hadn't given the order for the security detail, but he should have.
Teyla and Ronon ran up, skirting the wide group to join John. "Is Rodney all right?" Teyla asked. "We heard there was trouble."
"There they are," Ronon said, pointing with his whole arm. John turned in time to get a blast of engine-hot air right in the face.
The ship rocked in the air, then eased down like a newly-blind man searching out uneven ground. It thunked hard against the decking. John hoped the shaky landing was just a result of Carter's inexperience. The flat oval of the canopy slid back. The Marines and Keller's team surged forward, jockeying to be the first ones to greet whatever popped out.
"Oh, my God!" Rodney shouted from somewhere inside, and John took a deep breath for the first time in twenty minutes. "You really are trying to kill me!"
"Shove it, McKay," Carter said. "You're still in one piece."
"Next time, Sheppard's flying," Rodney said, right before his head gophered out of the cockpit. He got a leg over the side and scrabbled for the ladder, foot missing three times before it settled on a rung.
"If it means I never have to be cooped up with your belly-aching again, then I don't care who flies," Carter said, right behind Rodney. She didn't have any trouble with the ladder. "I swear, McKay."
"Actually, you don't," Rodney said, and then he turned around. The look on his face when he saw them all waiting was almost enough to make John's earlier edginess worth it. "Oh, ah, hi," he said.
Keller wrapped a blood-pressure cuff around Rodney's upper arm and reached for his wrist in one coordinated move. Rodney stared down at the gauge, then looked back up at Keller's face with wide eyes.
"Oh, God, I told her that going to hyperspace wouldn't work. I've got the bends, don't I? I can feel it coming on." Rodney grabbed at his back. "Cramp, cramp! Oh, this is going to be so bad."
John stared at Carter, who was standing calmly while Doctor Yu checked her over. "You went to hyperspace from the bottom of the ocean? You can do that?"
"No," Rodney scathed. "It's a clear abuse of physics. We should be dead right now."
"Well, we're not," Carter shot back. "I didn't have any other choice, and you know it."
John rolled his eyes at Rodney's pout. Rodney was probably more pissed that he'd laid his reputation on the wrong side of the bet than he was scared for his skin. "So what happened down there?" he asked.
"There was a surge between the DHD and the gate when we entered the seventh chevron," Carter said, tilting her chin up when Yu began palpating her neck. "Instead of the wormhole engaging, all of the energy discharged from the gate. Like a static shock when you touch a doorknob after dragging your feet across carpet."
"Yes, only this shock nearly shorted out our entire power supply," Rodney said, pushing away from Keller. Apparently he'd recovered from his diving-disaster anxiety. "Sam barely got us out of the way of the initial surge. The secondary arcs were enough to knock out communications and primary life support."
Carter nodded. "The first surge would have take out the engines at the very least, which would have taken out the shield, which--"
"Which would have left us as unappetizing pancakes on the bottom of the ocean, yes." Rodney looked directly at John, frowning with true worry. "This isn't good. I don't understand how they manipulated the gate to do that, let alone why ours isn't working. It has something to do with the DHD, but we can't even get to the crystals to disable it, let alone effect the programming."
John glanced at Carter, but she shook her head, as lost as Rodney. "Does this mean there are Asurans on the planet? On Atlantis?"
Rodney held up his hands. "I have no idea."
"We should put the city on alert, just in case," Carter said.
John nodded. "I agree." He turned to Keller. "They check out, Doc? I think we need to regroup."
"They're fine, Colonel," Keller said.
"We should head up to the conference room," John said, but Rodney and Carter were deep in discussion, not paying any attention to him.
Carter's eyes went wide. "That's it!"
"What?" John asked.
"Does the phrase 'DNS poisoning' mean anything to you?"
"Of course." Rodney wagged his index finger. "That makes perfect sense. And if it is DNS poisoning from the underwater DHD, then all we have to do is take the DHD out of the equation."
"Maybe," Carter hedged. "I doubt it will be that simple."
"Hang on," John said. "DNS poisoning?"
"It's your internet analogy again," Rodney said. "You can hijack a website by giving the domain servers bad information about the location. So instead of pointing people to the real website, it goes wherever the hacker wants."
Carter nodded. "If my theory is correct, then somehow the underwater DHD has been reprogrammed to give out bad information. When we tried to get back online, so to speak, the Atlantis gate system found the information it needed from the closest source."
Rodney grinned and made a finger gun at Carter. "If we get rid of the source of the bad information and let the system reboot, we should be sitting pretty."
Carter frowned. "If only we could pull the power supply."
"You can't jazz up a MALP to do it?" John suggested. "Like one of those remote controlled submarines?"
Rodney frowned. "It's a nice idea, yes. But it's difficult enough to get at the crystals by hand, and we don't have the time to build something sophisticated enough to do it remotely."
"Oh, you cannot!" Rodney squawked. "Believe me, I've done work on this exact type of thing, and you can't just slap a few tinker toys together."
"Great," she said. "Since you have the experience, it'll go much faster. And it won't be that difficult to attach a robotic arm to my ship, not with the way I designed it. Like I said, I like to think ahead."
Rodney didn't look mollified. "It'll take forever to build!"
She shrugged. "You've got enough competent people here. We can get it done in ten hours, give or take."
"Great," Rodney muttered. "Yet another opportunity to sacrifice myself to the pagan sea gods."
Carter grinned. "Now we can get a sample of that Asuran debris."
"So," John said, drawing it out country-casual. "You want to try running this plan by me?"
Rodney scoffed. "Oh, what? Now you're on a power trip?"
John put his hands on his hips. "And what happens when you're nosed up tight against the DHD and it explodes in your face? Where there's one booby-trap, there's more."
Two faces full of consternation stared back at him.
John wagged his finger at Rodney. "Didn't think of that, did you?"
Rodney frowned and grabbed his finger.
"We can do a controlled explosion," Carter said, undaunted. "Send just enough C4 at it to knock out the controls."
"Perfect," Rodney said, letting go of John so he could snap his fingers. "That saves us time, too. Although we'll have to develop a protective casing for the C4 to handle the depth issue."
"Shouldn't be a problem," Carter said. She and Rodney walked away, already deep into a discussion of how to go about blowing up DHD crystals without starting a naquadah chain reaction or blowing up the ship. John sighed and followed them.
Ronon fell into step. "We're not going to have to have a meeting about this, are we?"
"Oh, absolutely," John said. "A really, really, really long one. And yes, you have to be there. It's called team solidarity."
Ronon shook his head. "Anyone ever tell you you're petty, Sheppard?"
"My ex-wife," John said immediately. He pursed his lips, considering. "Bob Logan, the guy I beat out for captain of the chess team in high school. Most of my flight trainees. A couple golf buddies..."
Ronon chuckled as John's list got longer and longer. Teyla rolled her eyes at him, but she didn't hide her smile.
Rodney didn't acknowledge him once, even though he and Carter were only two steps ahead of them.
Yep. Petty was a good word.
It was the word still on his mind when he made his way back down to the pier several hours later, cutting torch in hand. He could have sent one of Harvey's men to do the job, but John liked being hands-on. Plus, it was always nice to remind Rodney that he and Carter weren't the only ones with skills.
"Oh, good," Rodney said, not looking up from his tablet. "It's about time you showed up. I can't move forward until we open the skin, and I can't do that myself. Chop, chop, running out of light!"
John looked up. The sun was just below the midpoint, and he was pretty sure M12-578's day was just as long as Lantea's had been. He looked back down to the area of the ship Rodney had indicated, deep on the belly, shrouded by the shadow of the ship itself.
"Yeah," he said. "Wouldn't want you to have to turn on that fancy lighting system."
Rodney looked up, blinking like he'd forgotten he was in the middle of a conversation. "Oh, it's you."
John stretched out his arms, showing off the gear in his hands. "Yep, it's me."
"Well, good." Rodney pointed at the ship again. "We need to make a very precise opening that can be replaced with an inner and outer door system."
"Like an air lock," John said as he set his tank down.
"A sea lock, but yes." Rodney moved closer to the ship, so that his face was completely shadowed when he tapped the section he'd pointed to earlier. As John's eyes adjusted to the gloom, he could make out a small circle sketched in grease pencil. "The skin is thin but very tough. Did you bring the right equipment?"
"I brought what you said I needed," John said. He set his hand next to Rodney's. Despite the shadows, the hull was warm, like it had conducted the sun's radiation all the way around the ship. He guessed it was supposed to be like that, a protective feature Carter had designed in.
"Good," Rodney said. He slowly lifted his hand away, and John realized their fingers had been brushing together for a good half a minute. "I'll let you get to that, then."
"Step back," John said. He settled the protective mask onto his head and then lit the torch. Rodney was right; the skin was extremely tough. It made for slow going, especially since he didn't want to inadvertently weaken the hull.
The last time he'd held a torch was when he'd been too late to save Teyla from being trapped in Janus's damned storage device. The time before that, he'd been trying to put together a way to rescue Rodney from the bottom of the ocean. John was determined to break the cycle of negative connotations. This time, things would go off without a hitch.
He lost himself in the work. The sensation of the hull holding him back was an illusion, he knew that. The real resistance came from his muscles as he held the torch and guided it into a smooth curve. Forth of July sparkles cascaded over his gloved hands, but he couldn't spare the attention for the sight. Not until the last thin connection melted away. John smoothed the edge, then shut off the torch and sat back on his heels.
He pulled the helmet and gloves off, wiped the sweat from his forehead. Rodney wasn't anywhere to be seen, but when John tilted his head to look under the ship, he spotted a pair of booted feet not far away.
"All done," he called. "What's next, Mckay?'
The feet weren't Rodney's. Carter walked around the ship and squatted down next to him, peering at the hole. "Great," she said. "I've got Radek working on the air-lock mechanism, so I think we're done with you for the time being."
"Sea lock," John corrected.
Carter laughed. "McKay got to you already, huh?"
John shrugged. "Where is he?"
"Fetching food," she said. She stood up and set her hands on her hips, bowing back into a stretch. "I never thought I'd actually be thanking Rodney McKay for bringing me lunch."
"What's with that, anyway?" John asked in his best 'just joshing with the guys' tone. "I thought you two weren't supposed to get along. The stories I heard at Stargate Command were the stuff of legends."
Carter dropped her hands. "I don't know. Rodney grows on you, I guess. Like a fungus."
"Yeah. Like a really bad case of Athlete's Foot," he agreed with a smile, getting another laugh out of her. Rodney really had been that infectious, spreading through every aspect of John's life in no time at all. Like that damn Ancient version of Civilization. John hadn't even stopped to think twice when Rodney beckoned, too caught by the Christmas toy glee in his eyes to question whether the thing might be more than a souped-up Sega.
"I don't understand how you put up with him in the field, though." Carter shook her head. "Vala was bad enough, and she knows how to take care of herself in a fight."
John's smile was tighter this time. He almost gave into the impulse to defend Rodney, to say that McKay was a hell of a lot better in a crunch situation than any of the candy-asses he'd worked with back at the SGC, but that wasn't the way the game was played. John knew that, but sometimes Carter made him want to say all the wrong things.
"It's a gift," he finally said.
"One I don't mind not having." She shook her head, smiling. "But you're right. We do get along pretty well these days. Although the ogling still gets old."
"That's our McKay. Such a classy guy."
"What about me?" Rodney asked. He was still several feet away, left arm full of MRE packets, thermos in his left hand, and a pair of coffee cups in his right.
"Hey, Rodney," John said, mugging a really fake smile. "Thanks for lunch!"
Rodney's steps faltered. He looked down at the MREs. "Oh. I didn't bring you anything."
"See, that's what I'm talking about," John said to Carter. "I bring him pizza from a whole 'nother galaxy, and he can't even grab an MRE for me."
"Oh, that is not fair," Rodney sputtered. "We didn't even get to eat it, and--" Rodney narrowed his eyes. John was pretty sure he would have crossed his arms for the full school-marm effect if it weren't for the load he was carrying. "Oh, you think you're so funny, don't you?"
John grinned. "I know I'm funny. Doesn't change the fact that I was laboring away for you and you didn't even think to bring me any food."
The guilty look on Rodney's face almost made up for the fact that he really hadn't thought of John.
"Didn't you have lunch already?" Carter asked. "I thought Radek said you were in the mess earlier."
"Ha! You are such a liar!"
"What? Whether I had lunch or not has nothing to do with you being thoughtful."
Carter stepped forward so she was between him and Rodney, and snagged one of the MREs. "Can we get back to work now? I'd like to take care of this situation as soon as possible."
"Oh, yes," Rodney said, sucked back into her orbit like John had just poofed out of existence. "I was thinking about the arm. If we model the base after the arms of the Ancient depth suits rather than strictly following the Canadarm model--"
"I see where you're going," Carter said.
John tuned them out as he packed up his gear. He'd probably need it later, when they attached the robotic arm to the ship, but for now he had other duties to attend to. He hadn't checked in on Elizabeth yet today, after all. He headed back to the central area, hoping that Rodney and Carter's flirting didn't get in the way of them getting the job done.
At this stage, the burnished metal and polymer looked like nothing more than scraps cut loose from the city's walls. The esthetics of the casing were a byproduct of function, however, and soon it would glow with power.
Although this stage of the mission was not completed, a more pressing task drew the first one away from its work. Via the humans' communication network, it had learned of a coming threat. Though doing so would be dangerous, the new one knew it had to interrupt their plans before they could put them into practice.
Ronon didn't get the concept of taking time off training during a crisis situation. Probably because he'd run through a giant crisis situation for seven years straight. He showed up at John's door at oh-five-thirty on the dot, looking as well rested as ever, unhindered by a day of hard labor on top of his recent injury. John's glare was as effective as a BB pellet. Acknowledge, but only in a 'you've got to be kidding me' kind of way.
"You're not going to get any younger sitting on your ass all day," Ronon said.
"I'm not old," John said, tugging on the laces of his sneakers so hard they sang like bowstring. "I was up all night helping McKay and Carter rig the ship."
Ronon shrugged. "Whatever, man. We going running, or what?"
"What's up with you lately?" Ronon asked once they reached the railed promenade they usually used as a track and settled into pace. The only time he ever turned into a conversationalist was when it meant pushing John's limits.
"What do you mean?"
John could hear Ronon's shrug. "You can't tell me you haven't been off your game. The way you got all bitchy in the meeting the other day, it's not like you."
"Bitchy." John laughed, just a little. "You've been watching too much reality TV with Baker."
"Have not," Ronon said. "I don't like TV."
"Go on, pull the other one," John said, and then regretted it. Ronon could be annoyingly literal at times--on purpose, John was absolutely positive about that.
They ran on, rounding the curve that marked their first mile. The sky was starting to lighten, the pink bleeding into the deeper red of the city's towers. A postcard perfect view.
"You going to tell me?" Ronon asked, putting an end to John's hope that he'd forgotten the whole line of questioning.
"In case you hadn't noticed, there happens to be a lot going on right now. New home, missing ship, broken gate." John concentrated on the air whistling through his nose for several paces. "Good friend in the process of dying."
Ronon didn't feed him any platitudes about Elizabeth. They just kept running in silence, until John felt like he had to put something else out there to lift the pall.
"Besides," he said. "Riding herd on the geek trio isn't my idea of a good time."
"So it is Carter," Ronon said. He picked up his face until he was five feet in front of John, then turned around and started running backwards. "She seems nice to me."
"She is nice," John said. In his head, that explained everything, but Ronon kept running backwards, eyebrows cocked, waiting for John to spill all like some cheesy villain in a bad detective novel. "She's nice, and smart, and perfect. Okay?"
"She's not after your job." Ronon shook his head and dropped back to John's side. "She's all into science like McKay."
"Yeah, I know," John said, hoping Ronon would drop it. He liked Carter. He did. He liked how smart and sassy she was, and he respected that she was a strong woman who'd excelled in a man's world, not in one way, but two. And hell, he even admired the way she could wind Rodney up. Even better than John did, half the time.
She just had a way of getting under his skin.
Ronon slapped John between the shoulder blades. "Come on," he said, picking up the pace so much that he had to call back over his shoulder. "You need to burn it out!"
John picked up his pace.
By the time their hour was over, John couldn't remember if he had lungs, let alone if he had any other problems. He waved off Ronon's breakfast invitation and began the long cool-off walk back to his quarters. He was almost there, could already feel the hot water sluicing off the sweat and soaking away the ache in his feet, when he spotted somebody out on the balcony, the one they'd nicknamed Lover's Leap because it was at the junction of the two main corridors of the living quarters, as well as the fact that it jutted out over a perilous drop to the heart of the city. John slowed as he got closer, more out of habit than curiosity.
Rodney was leaning against the railing, head bowed over his hands like he didn't have the energy to hold it up.
"Hey, McKay," John said. "Having second thoughts about today's joy ride?"
Rodney raised his head slowly, like he couldn't be bothered to be surprised at John's presence. His smile was just as slow, but despite that, he didn't look tired. More like too thoughtful for his own good.
"You're not going to talk Sam into letting you pilot," he said. "Although, to be honest, I wouldn't mind if you came along with us anyway. We have a pretty good record of saving each other's lives, don't we?"
"Pretty damn good," John agreed, settling in beside Rodney at the railing. The sun was fully up now, bright yellow-white light reflecting painfully off the spires. The rays were wonderfully warm, though, like a heating pad melting right through his skin to the muscles below.
"I miss the whales," Rodney said, peering down at the tiny strip of water far below. "Do you think the whales back on Lantea are okay? I mean, the energy weapon could have actually heated the ocean enough to cause extreme devastation, if it was turned on the planet long enough."
John shrugged. "They had no reason to keep blasting away, wasting all that energy, once we were gone. I'm sure the whales will be fine."
Rodney nodded, but he kept staring at the ocean like he was wishing the whales had managed to hitchhike along with them.
"How do you know there aren't any whales here, anyway? Maybe they just haven't gotten friendly yet."
"Maybe. I would have thought we'd see some on the dive, though." Rodney smiled, teeth barely showing as his lips rode up. "It's not the same, though. I guess leaving was my last gift to Sam. One final life-saving effort on my part."
"Yeah, sure, if you want to think of it that way." John grabbed onto the railing with both hands and curled up to stretch his back. He let go with a sigh. "I wouldn't think you'd care much, what with the real deal right here."
"You know, your magic Sam Carter, Miss Universe herself." And just like that, Ronon's miracle cure evaporated, leaving John surly all over again.
"Oh, right." Rodney turned sideways, facing John. There was something gently patronizing about the look on his face. Something about the way he smiled with his eyes. "You don't have to do that, you know."
"Don't have to do what?"
Rodney turned his head, looking back out towards his phantom whales. With the sun behind him, his profile was shadowed. Shadowed, except for his eyelashes turned golden by the sun.
"I wasn't going to say anything," he said, "because A, I'm not an idiot, and B, I'd really rather be trapped in a leaking jumper again than talk about this."
John took a step back. "Hey, you don't have to worry about anything. We're cool. You know that."
Rodney snorted. "Yes, thank you, but that wasn't what I was going to say."
"Well, spit it out, then," John said, even though he was starting to get that caffeine-overdose thrum in his chest.
"I really regret that I never told Carson how much he meant to me, and I completely botched my attempt with Elizabeth," Rodney said, chin close to his chest, gilt eyelashes brushing his cheek. "So, I just... It's like this. I don't remember a lot. Except right at the end. And a little from the beginning."
Remember what, John started to say, but then it clicked. Clicked in a very uncomfortable way. "Hey, I imagine it was pretty confusing, being almost Ascended," he blustered, wanting to be gone right now.
"It was." Rodney's swallow was loud, almost a drowning man's gasp for air. John's heart was connected to the motion of Rodney's Adam's apple, jerking and stuttering in synch with each bob. "But I do remember what I got from you. I understand that you don't want to think about me that way, so I won't push, I promise. But you don't have to do the jealous thing, okay? It's just... You don't need to do that."
Rodney smiled--sort of. His cheek bunched up and his lip twitched once, twice. He looked like he'd suffered a stroke. John couldn't do anything but stare at him.
"Right," Rodney said, pushing away from the railing. "That was as completely awful as I thought it would be. So I'm just going to--" He pointed back towards the doorway, vaguely in the direction of the transporter, then took off like he'd been yanked off stage.
"Fuck." John felt like Teyla and Ronon had just used him as a punching bag. He sagged against the balcony rail, staring off at nothing as he tried to piece together what had just happened. While Rodney was evolving into a super being, John had tried so hard to keep things cool, tried to pretend to himself that those thoughts had never even existed. With Rodney so wrapped up in his impending doom, John thought he'd been successful.
Except now Rodney thought...hell, John didn't know what Rodney thought. Rodney's speech could have been about letting him off the hook, letting him down easy, or just letting him know Rodney knew. Because Rodney liked to let people know how much he knew. John thought it was more than that, though. He hoped it was. Because maybe, once this was all over, when the city was safe and Elizabeth was better and the Wraith and Asurans were neutralized...
John snorted. Yeah. Maybe then. Maybe then he could let himself think about Rodney, let himself figure out what the hell Rodney had been trying to say.
His feet weren't in agreement with his head. John started jogging towards the transporter without making a decision to do so, picking up the pace to a run when he didn't see Rodney right away. His quads didn't like him for the extra strain, but pain had never gotten in John's way when the chips were down. And the chips were down, even if all hands weren't showing yet. John's gut was telling him to lay it all out, that all he had left to do was scoop up his winnings.
"McKay!" John shouted. The transporter doors were open; Rodney was stepping inside. "Rodney, wait!"
Rodney turned in slow motion. John couldn't read the look on his face; his jaw was tight, making him look unhappy, or maybe angry. But his eyes had gone wide, as if--
John went down. Hard. At first he thought he'd slipped, but the city was still shuddering when he rolled to his feet. The seasickening surge of it made him wonder if Atlantis was capsizing, until the motion subsided as quickly as it had come.
"What the hell was that?"
Rodney shook his head, one hand holding the doors open and the other on his earpiece. John darted inside the transporter, holding his hand over the map while he waited to find out where to send them.
"It was an explosion of some type," Radek was saying.
"Yes, obviously," Rodney barked back. "Where?"
"The south side," Radek said, and John hit the map. He started running the second the door opened, without waiting for Rodney.
He pulled up short after twenty meters. The pier in front of him was unrecognizable. A huge crater had eaten out the space where Carter's ship had been. Tendrils of smoke wafted from the sides of the hole and from the twisted bits of metal at the bottom.
"Oh, God," Rodney said.
John hit his radio. "Colonel Carter, where are you?"
Rodney looked like he'd swallowed ash. He held John's gaze as they waited, seconds too slow to count.
"I'm on my way," she said, her voice over the headset followed a second later by the sound of pounding feet. John turned in time to get his hand out, steadying her before she skidded into the crater.
"Was anyone else working down here?" he asked.
She shook her head. "There shouldn't have been. But.."
They all stared at the spot where her ship used to be.
"I need a security team down here," John ordered quietly. "And a demolitions squad."
"This is so not good," Rodney said. "They're in the city. They have to be."
John nodded. He wanted to tell Rodney that he was being paranoid, but the evidence in front of them was hard to ignore. Either Rodney and Carter had made a whopper of a mistake, or they had a saboteur running around unchecked. John's money was all on the Asurans. Sneaky, devastating, and absolutely merciless--it was just like them.
"Well," he said, wishing he could cross his arms across his P90. He felt vulnerable in nothing but a track suit. "I think it's time for Plan F."
"Plan F?" Carter asked.
"F as in Flying city," Rodney said, following John's goofy logic without effort. He shook his head. "That's a horrible idea. We'll be completely vulnerable to attacks from within once we're in space."
"Let me worry about the Asurans," John said. "Can you get us powered up?"
"You always do this to me. I can't pull a miracle out of my ass just because you yell at me."
Rodney rubbed his forehead. "Yes, yes, fine. If my idea works, and I'm stressing the if, I can complete the first module in two days, maybe less. The problem is, I was counting on using Sam's drive to supplement it, so not only do I need to build more modules, but I'm not even sure if they'll work without hers."
John frowned. "Can you build another drive, Colonel?"
"Yes, if we have enough naquadah," she said. "But it took me a month to build the first one."
"Well, we don't have to worry about time," Rodney said. "We don't have enough naquadah."
"Even if I cannibalize the generators?"
"We need those for the shield," Rodney said. "If we don't have the shield, we won't be protected from the vacuum, ergo there's no reason to leave the planet."
Carter shook her head. "But if there's enough power from my drive to power the shield, then it's not a problem."
"If," Rodney said, holding up a finger. He paused, looking thoughtful, and turned back towards the city. Carter followed him.
John stayed where he was, waiting for the security teams to arrive. He needed to kick some serious Asuran ass. After that, he was going to have a talk with Rodney McKay.
"Ronon, what's your status?"
The human paused, gun held steady before him as he tapped the communications device at his ear. "I've got nothing. You sure they're in the city, Sheppard?"
"No, Carter's ship blew itself up."
A smile crossed the human's face. Then he stilled. He whipped around, gun pointed directly at the first one's hiding place. The first one froze as completely as possible while maintaining sentience. Scenarios spun through its processors in micro-seconds. The gun would probably not damage it, but this was not a forgone conclusion. Some unknown weapon had defeated the earlier incursion group. And even if the weapon did not damage it, any altercation could lead to the failure of the mission.
The first one did not want to fail.
Slowly, so that the muscle-like components did not twitch and draw attention to its position, the first one began feeding power to the rest of its body, preparing to act more quickly than any human could move.
The human snapped his gun upwards, giving the first one's position one last frown before he turned away. "I'm going to move on," he said. "We need more people to do this right."
"Don't tell me you're getting tired."
"In your dreams," the man said, voice trailing behind him as he sprang up to a neighboring catwalk and walked away from his death.
The first one unfroze. It had reached an unarguable conclusion: its ability to complete the mission was compromised by the constant patrols. Hiding was counterproductive.
The first one did not want to fail.
It called up the parameters for the secondary objective. The data it had obtained from the humans' tiny database was easy to filter down to four possible targets. The new one found itself in a quandary; its scenarios did not allow it to predict which choice would lead to the greatest success.
It chose randomly.
"Colonel Sheppard, can I talk to you? In the infirmary, please?"
John frowned. Teyla glanced back at him, anti-replicator weapon still pointed at the dark hollow in front of them. He nodded once and then moved forward, light from his P90 barely illuminating the space. Teyla stuck close, her shoulder brushing his arm as they made the sweep.
John sighed. "I'm a little busy right now."
"I'm sorry, Colonel. But this is important. Really important. So if you could just come down here--"
"I get the picture, Doc." John cut the transmission short. He didn't want to play guessing games with Keller, not if she meant what John thought she meant. He looked at Teyla, but she shook her head before he could open his mouth.
"I heard," she said. "Go. I will work my way towards Ronon."
"Are you sure? It's probably not a good idea to separate. That's how the bad guys always take 'em out in the movies, you know."
Teyla arched an eyebrow. "I can walk you back, if you are afraid."
John laughed. "Did you and Ronon decide it was pick on Sheppard week or something?"
"Or something." She touched his shoulder, a quick brush that let him know she had come to the same conclusion about Keller's cryptic message as he had. "Go," she ordered quietly.
John jogged the entire way to the infirmary. He took a few deep breaths outside the door, more to chase away the dread than to fill his lungs. Keller was in her office, face obscured by her hair as she studied whatever was on the tablet in front of her. John cleared his throat. Her head jerked up, and she blinked several times before she tried to smile at him.
"Is Elizabeth dead?" he asked, unwilling to wait through any niceties.
"Oh! No, I'm sorry, that's not what I meant." Keller started to stand, but then she dropped back down and waved at the chair in front of the desk. John ignored the invitation. "Well, she's not dead yet," Keller continued. "I know that sounds horribly blunt, but I got the impression that you don't like me beating around the bush."
Maybe the niceties weren't that bad sometimes. John sat down in the chair, un-clipping his P90 by rote and settling it across his lap. "What do you mean, not yet?"
Keller scooted the tablet across the table, then folded her hands in front of her in a way that reminded him of Elizabeth about to lay down the law. He picked up the tablet, but the only thing on the screen was a schematic that, as far as he could tell, had nothing to do with Elizabeth.
"The deterioration in her frontal lobe is occurring much more quickly than I'd hoped," Keller said. "The Ancient equipment isn't holding her stable. If she isn't treated soon, there will be no point."
John nodded slowly. "We're working on it. As soon as we find the saboteur and McKay gets the star drive powered up--"
Keller shook her head. "I don't know how long that's going to take, but I'm telling you right now, she doesn't have much time."
John set the tablet down. He stood up. Reattached the P90 to his vest. "Thank you for letting me know," he said. "There are people who will want to say goodbye."
Keller was holding out the tablet again when he turned back. Proffering it like some secret salvation.
"These are the schematics for the healing device Dr. Lam developed. I think it could be built quickly enough to help Dr. Weir." She bit her lip. John felt old looking at her. "But I'm not sure. It's over my head for the most part."
John tapped his radio without hesitation. "Rodney, drop whatever you're doing and get down to the infirmary."
"You're going to help save her," John said. For the first time since the Asurans had struck back, he felt like things were turning around. That they might turn out okay. Rodney would work his magic, they'd find the replicator bastards creating havoc, and then everything would be okay.
"Um, actually," Keller said. "I need Colonel Carter."
"Bring Carter," he told Rodney, and got a quick assent in return. John settled his hands on Keller's desk, staring down at the schematic before he looked at her. "Why Carter?"
"Dr. Lam designed the device from Colonel Carter's theories on the Goa'uld healing device."
John nodded. Keller gave him an almost real smile, but she didn't say anything else. They stared awkwardly at each other until Keller took the tablet back. John took the opportunity to escape, wandering out to the infirmary proper.
He went right to Elizabeth's bed.
She wasn't on a ventilator, and the huge swath of bandages that had covered her head the first day was gone, replaced by smaller butterflies holding her cuts closed. Those were the only good things that he could see. One of the scary metal bands that Rodney had depended on during the Ascension ordeal rested on her forehead, the wires leading up to a monitor over her head. Slow lines crossed the screen. The tiny peaks that occasionally blipped across seemed too small.
He didn't understand the information on the monitors, but his own eyes told him she wasn't in good shape. She looked sallow and bruised, her skin thin and sunken in a way that reminded him of ten thousand-year-old Elizabeth. Even when the Asuran nanites had invaded her body, she hadn't looked sick like this.
She hadn't looked too far gone.
"She's still alive," Rodney said in a hushed voice. His steps had been unusually soft and careful as he approached. "That's what counts, right?"
John shrugged. "Aren't you supposed to be figuring out how to build Lam's fix-it?"
Rodney shook his head. "My expertise is more in straight-out Ancient technology, rather than the Goa'uld hybrids. That's not to say I couldn't build it, of course, but Sam will be quicker at it."
And they needed to be quick. No time for egos, for Elizabeth's sake.
"Any luck with the patrols?" Rodney asked.
John shook his head, finally tearing his eyes away from Elizabeth. Rodney's hair was mussed like he'd just rolled out of bed, but the two-finger wide streak of grease on his cheek said otherwise. "How are the FZPMs coming along?"
"FZP--oh, ha, ha. Yes, the Fake ZPM is coming along nicely."
"How did you know I didn't mean F for Flying again?"
Rodney snorted. "Yes, because that makes so much sense." He patted the small blanket-covered lump that had to be Elizabeth's foot. It was an awkward gesture, like a three-year-old learning to pet a puppy, and John had to look away from it. "I should get back to work."
John nodded. "Me, too."
"Yes, with the blindly searching for insane killing machines," Rodney said with a frown.
"I thought you were on board with getting rid of our enemies, McKay."
"Yes, of course." Rodney looked back down at Elizabeth. "Just be careful, okay?"
"Yeah," John said. He started to reach out, intending to squeeze Rodney's shoulder, but at the last minute he turned it into a friendly slap. "You, too."
They turned as one, a few more steps of togetherness before they had to see to their own duties. John paused at Keller's door, hoping for good news.
"Colonel," Carter said.
"Colonel," he returned, nodding at Keller as well. "Can you do it?"
"I think so." Carter took a deep breath, then looked him square in the eyes. "I'll be in Lab 3. I would appreciate it if you made sure that no one bothers me while I'm working. I need to concentrate on this one hundred percent if I'm going to get this done in time."
"You've got it," he said. Keeping things quiet for Carter in exchange for Elizabeth's health was an easy bargain to make. He waited until Carter headed out, then hit his radio. "Teyla, Ronon, what's your status?"
The first one withdrew its hand from the human's forehead--and realized it was not the first one any longer. Yet it was not the human consciousness that it had absorbed, either. It was a completely different being. A new, better being, one that would change all Asurans forever.
It lurched over to the edge of the reflecting pool. The water rippled slowly, deep and dark and just mirrored enough to show a shivering version of its new features. Blue eyes, it knew, light hair and fair skin. It reached up, touching its cheek, confirming the new shape.
Emotion struck, buckling it to its knees. It had thought it knew emotion before: hate and anger, the desire to succeed, the desire to better itself. But these emotions were so much more that it didn't know how to label them. Didn't know how to sort and control them.
It stared down into the water, waiting out the storm in its neuro-processors. Some of the emotions weren't so different, and it latched onto those. The drive to succeed was very much there, as well as the hunger for knowledge.
It smiled. It began walking towards the heart of Atlantis, no longer needing to hide from human sight.
John found himself whistling as he carried the tray towards the labs. He didn't have any real reason to be in a good mood: they still couldn't dial out, an unknown number of enemies were in the city, and Elizabeth was fading away while Carter tried to finish the healing device in time. Not to mention the fact that everyone was still going short on sleep. But he'd woken up feeling positive, like he could take on all of their problems and win, and his mood hadn't faded over breakfast.
If was being honest with himself, he knew it was the lingering effect of his early-morning dream. Nothing especially exciting, but John could still see Rodney lounging beside him on the sand, slathered in sun screen and smiling as the perfect breakers rolled in.
"Hot coffee," John called as he stepped into the lab. Carter was at the back of the room, sorting through a parts bin, and she didn't look up. Radek, however, immediately dropped the circuit board he was working on and raced over to John.
"Where's McKay?" John asked.
Radek shook his head, face still buried in the mug. "Who knows? He said something about the ZPM chamber earlier, but I think he was too tired to stay upright, much less communicate well."
"Pulled an all-nighter again, huh?"
Radek gave him a cockeyed look that revealed his own red-stained sclera. "Again? I think you must mean still."
John shook his head, then ambled closer to Carter. "Coffee?"
She blinked at John like he was speaking Cantonese, then stood up and brushed past him, clutching a mound of parts to her stomach as she hurried out the door. John set the tray down, taking Carter's mug for himself before he turned back to Radek.
"Do I stink or something?'
Radek shook his head. "She has been like that since she began working on the device. She comes in for a few minutes, finds materials, and then leaves without a word."
"So she's making progress."
"Did you not just listen to the words I said? She hasn't said anything about it." Radek set his mug down, a tinny thunk declaring it empty. He reached for the last mug on the tray.
"Uh, uh, uh," John said, snatching the tray away. "You know McKay thinks better when he's not going through withdrawal."
"Yes, and so do I." Radek reached out again, but John backed away, towards the door.
"Sorry, Doc," he said. "ZPM chamber, right?"
"Don't think I won't remember your stinginess," Radek called before the door slid shut.
John chuckled while he ambled towards the transporter. He figured Carter being so wrapped up in her work that she was rude was a pretty good sign. It had to mean she was giving the project her entire focus, and if her record held true, her entire focus meant that Elizabeth was going to be just fine.
"Colonel Sheppard to the control room."
"What's up, Sergeant?"
"The long range sensors have picked up a ship. We think it's the Apollo, sir."
"I'll be right there." John shoved the tray onto a jutting section of architecture and double timed it to the control room.
Campbell turned to him with a big smile on his face. "Colonel Sheppard is right here, sir," he said, tapping the keys on his console that would connect John to the relay.
"Colonel Ellis?" John guessed.
"That would be me," Ellis said dryly, and John let himself sag against the console.
"It's good to hear your voice, sir. We've been a little concerned."
Ellis chuckled. "We ran into some interference getting out of there. I didn't want to take any chances with giving away your new location, so we took our time getting here."
"Oh, am I just fine with that, sir." John glanced down at Campbell, who looked like he might break his jaw if he grinned any harder. "But we've got a bit of a situation of our own. We could use some help down here, if you can spare it."
"Not a problem," Ellis said. "What's the situation? Do you need your personnel beamed down, or should I land this bird?"
John hesitated. The Apollo's full complement would be a definite boost to their search efforts, but at the same time, have the ship docked on Atlantis would leave it as open to their mysterious saboteur as Carter's ship had been. "It's your call, sir," he hedged. "We can't get the gate operational, and we think we have one, possibly more, Asurans in the city. I've been running patrols but there's a lot of territory to cover, especially since they don't show up on the sensors."
"That's not good," Ellis said.
"That was my assessment as well, sir," John said.
"I'm sure Dr. Weir has an opinion on what she wants me to do."
John didn't flinch. "Dr. Weir is in a coma. Colonel Carter is attempting to build a device to heal her, but it's touch and go at the moment."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Ellis said, and despite his earlier differences with Elizabeth, he really did sound sorry. John liked that about him. "Wait. Did you say Colonel Carter?"
John sighed. "It's a long story. And if you don't mind me saying so, sir, we're kind of at the end of our rope right now."
"I get the picture, Sheppard. Preparing to land now."
"Ah, before you do--"
"What the hell?" Ellis shouted. "Shields up! Take evasive action!"
"Colonel Ellis?" John spun, scouring the long range sensors for any sign of attack, but the Apollo was the only blip on the readout.
"Atlantis, are you insane? Do not fire! Repeat, do not fire on us!"
"Christ," John said, turning to Atlantis's tactical readout. The chair was powered up. At least a dozen drones were already on course for the Apollo. "Power it down," he said.
Campbell shook his head. "I can't, sir. I'm locked out."
"Security team to the chair room," John shouted. "We have a breach. McKay, get up to the control room. Now!"
"Sheppard!" Ellis sounded pissed, and John didn't blame him. "I'm assuming this is part of your situation. I'm going to back off for a few hours, but if you don't have it under control by then, I'm going to control it for you. You understand me?"
"Yes, sir," John said, well aware that destroying Atlantis might be the best possible solution if an Asuran was in control. He was going to do everything he could to make sure that didn't happen, though. No more of his people were going to die. Not today.
"What's in the chair room?" he asked Campbell. "The security cameras show anything?"
Campbell shook his head. "It took control of the feed. We're blind, sir."
John frowned and turned back to the planetary readout. The barrage of drones had continued, even though the Apollo was long gone. They settled into a high orbit around the planet, creating a waiting swarm. A minefield. "Security, what's the situation down there?"
"We're locked out, sir. Masterson is attempting to bypass the controls right now."
"Damn it," John muttered. He tapped one of their engineering specialists, Sergeant Caruthers, on the shoulder and gestured for her to follow as he jogged down the stairs. "McKay, where are you?"
"Sir, he's down here," Masterson replied.
"Well, tell him to get his ass on the comm," John said. The transporter was two paces ahead. He only waited long enough to let Caruthers jump between the doors. He slapped his hand on the map, aiming sloppily for the station closest to the chair room.
"Sir, he can't," Masterson said, and then they transported.
John left Caruthers in the dust. The door to the chair room was open, Lieutenant Sofani standing guard. John didn't take the time to greet him, not when he could see a pair of grey-clad legs on the floor. The first step into the room was hard, like he was pushing his way through a forcefield.
"We found him like this, sir," Masterson said. He was squatting beside Rodney, fingers hovering in the air like he'd just finished checking for a pulse. John kept his gaze off Rodney's chest, unwilling to look for confirmation one way or the other. "Dr. Keller is on her way."
"He's alive?" John asked, and that was when Rodney took a huge gasping breath and started flailing like he wanted to sit up. John squatted opposite Masterson and caught Rodney's shoulder.
"You okay?" John asked.
Rodney shook his head. "It attacked me."
"It? An Asuran?" John sat back on his heels, scanning the room, while Masterson sprang to his feet, P90 in hand, like they were both expecting a replicator to come charging out from behind the chair.
"I guess," Rodney said. His voice sounded off. Hoarse, like he'd been hit hard in the throat. "I didn't see it."
"You're lucky," John said, feeling pretty damn lucky himself. "It sent drones after the Apollo."
"The Apollo is here?" Masterson asked.
"Sort of," John said disgustedly. "They couldn't land because of that damn thing. Did anybody see whatever was in here?"
Masterson shook his head. "Dr. McKay was the only one in here when the door finally opened. I don't know how it got out, but it must have some kind of transporter or something."
John shook his head. "I've seen those damn things walk through walls."
Sofani stuck his head into the room, far enough that John could see the sunburned tips of his ears. "Eggleston just radioed. They haven't found any sign of it yet."
"Damn it!" John held himself back from striking out, even though he wanted to give the chair a good solid kick. Instead, he ran his hand up the hair at the back of his neck, fluffing it out and then patting it smooth again as he tried to think outside the box. They had too much territory to cover, and this thing was too good at hiding. "We need something like the life signs detectectors that'll pick it up," he decided. He keyed his radio. "Colonel Carter, I need a favor."
"I can do it," Rodney immediately offered. "Better than she can."
John shook his head. "I need you to get checked out, then finish up with the FZPMs." He frowned, wondering what was taking Carter so long. "Colonel, what's your status?"
"Can it wait?" she finally asked. John had thought Rodney could be short and cranky when he was stressed out, but Carter took the blue ribbon for impatience. "I'm almost done with this device."
"We've had some further developments," John told her. "An Asuran attacked McKay in the chair room, and then launched drones at the Apollo."
Carter sighed. "Did it succeed?"
"Everyone's okay. For now, anyway." John really wanted to get the replicator situation squared away, but Elizabeth needed Carter's expertise right now. "Keep working on the device, I'll get Zelenka on this. Oh, and keep your eyes peeled."
Rodney was frowning at him as Carter signed off, but Keller swept into the room before John had to justify stepping all over his turf. Keller pulled out her penlight and started swinging it back and forth in front of Rodney's eyes. He batted at her hand like it was the worst atrocity he'd ever experienced.
"God-damned voodoo," he snapped, finally shoving her hand away. John thought he should take the blue ribbon back from Carter and hand it over to the rightful owner. Keller pulled back, cheeks mottled red like she'd been slapped.
"It's a good thing you're perfectly fine," she said, snapping off the light with a sharp click. She stuffed it back into one of her pockets and picked up her bag. "I'll be with Dr. Weir," she said, shooting John a dirty look. "You might want to review basic triage protocols when you have a few minutes."
John glared at Rodney after she left. They were all stressed out, and Keller wasn't Carson. But after a certain point, even the famous McKay prickliness stopped being amusing.
Rodney crossed his arms and glared back.
"Fine," John said. "Go back to your work. I'll talk to Radek myself."
Rodney left without another word. John nodded to Masterson, who trotted after Rodney without question. Even if McKay was acting like an ass, John didn't want him vulnerable to a second attack. Not for a second.
John radioed Campbell, Ellis's deadline ticking down in his head.
Satisfaction was sweet as it lowered the final power module into the socket. The feeling was so overpowering that it could understand why the humans evolved so slowly. Everything was so immediate. The word addiction whispered through its consciousness, and yes, it could agree. The feelings were addicting. The need to get more satisfaction could get in the way of the mission.
But not for the new one. It still retained enough control over the feelings to sweep them aside. Besides, it knew that attaining the ultimate goal would bring pleasure like nothing it had never known before. It could already sense that, drawing on the memories of past achievements the human had attained.
Ignoring the crumpled body at its feet, the new one turned to the control console. There was much to be done before the final, oh-so-satisfying attack could begin.
The door to the room opened. A surge of anxiety shot through it, slowing its responses.
"Oh, good. There you are," the human named Radek Zelenka said. "I needed to ask you a question about the detection device."
It took a step forward, cautious. It knew that if too many humans disappeared, the others would know better how to find and defeat it. But detection could still be avoided if it was able to keep up the pretense. If it could give bad advice to Zelenka, that would be even better. It held out its hand, asking silently for the computer.
Zelenka handed it over. "I was thinking that they communicate at a specific frequency, yes? Perhaps we should try to detect those transmissions instead of the actual replicators."
It nodded. If there had been more than one of its kind in the city, then Zelenka's plan would be a true threat. But as it was, it was the perfect blind alley for him to follow.
Zelenka stepped forward. "Are these the fake ZPMs? They look exactly like the real thing." Then he looked down at the floor, and it knew that the pretense was up. Zelenka was grey in the face when he looked back up. "Is that--"
It struck. Radek Zelenka sagged to the ground, a danger no longer. It frowned as an unpleasant sensation passed through its body. It squatted, checking Zelenka for a pulse. Then it picked up Zelenka and carried him to the nearest storage closet. Then it returned for the second human and placed it in the closet as well.
Then the new one returned to its work. Soon, discovery would not matter. It was very close to success.
John could feel the energy vibrating off Ellis as he paced alongside. It was a contained energy, though, completely focused on getting the job done as efficiently as possible now that he was back in the city. John admired that in a ranking officer. It meant he had spend less of his own energy compensating for the other guy's short-comings and could focus on doing his own job.
If only Ellis wasn't busy trying to knock holes in everything John had already done, John would be downright relaxed in his presence.
"Have you been communicating over an open channel?"
John frowned. Because that wasn't something they taught in Basic. "Everything is as secure as we can make it."
Ellis didn't pause. "Which means not very. We should consider cutting all intra-city communications."
John shook his head. "I get your point, sir, but if we do that, then we cripple any ability we have for a coordinated search. Plus, without communications our people are sitting ducks out there."
"Pull everybody back to the main sections," Ellis said, and it was plain he wasn't going to argue that point. "We'll regroup and see if we can't come up with a more efficient sweep strategy."
"Yes, sir," John said. Ellis kept quiet long enough for him to give the order, but then he opened his mouth again. It wasn't that John minded being told what to do. Right now, new ideas were a good thing. He just wished he'd been able to straighten out the mess himself.
"I don't want to dock the Apollo until we're absolutely certain that the threat has been neutralized," Ellis said. "But I'm not completely comfortable leaving her in orbit, either."
"I don't know what to tell you, sir," John said, because that was one dilemma he had no interest in tackling. "Maybe Carter can soup up your shields."
Ellis nodded. "I wouldn't turn down any help from her."
"Where is she, anyway?" John asked as he glanced fruitlessly around the infirmary. Keller was in the windowed bay that was used for delicate non-surgical procedures. The bed behind her had to be Elizabeth's, but he could only see a fluffy white blanket. Carter wasn't with them. "She's been working on her own the last few days. I know she can take care of herself, but..."
Ellis nodded. "But it's a security risk. I'll talk to her after she assists Dr. Weir."
Assists Dr. Weir. John had spent his whole life hearing military euphemisms, but phrases like that brought him up short, reminding him how different life was on Atlantis from back on Earth. Elizabeth's bedside manner sucked, but even she would have made it sound less like Carter was going to grab a jar of mayonnaise off a shelf.
Keller waved at them through the window, then opened the intercom. "Colonel Carter will be here in a minute, and then we'll begin the procedure."
"Good," John said. "How is Dr. Weir doing?'
Keller frowned. "Let's just say I hope that Colonel Carter is as good as her reputation."
John exchanged a glance with Ellis, then mentally crossed his fingers. Rodney should be here, too, but whatever had crawled up McKay's ass earlier had still been there when John had radioed him about the procedure.
Carter entered the bay and headed straight to the bed without acknowledging their presence. She was holding a small metal circle in the palm of her hand. "Since the naquadah is in the device itself, it doesn't actually draw on the user," she told Keller. "You could do this, if you wanted to."
"I'd like to watch this time," Keller said. "Since you've done it before."
Carter slowly extended her hand, palm down. A thin black cord crossed the back of her hand, so that the whole contraption looked like one half of a giant set of belly dancer's cymbals. A pyramid of golden light shot from the device, shimmering across Elizabeth's forehead like jet exhaust in the setting sun. John pressed closer to the glass, looking for some sign that those rays were actually helping her. It went on forever, Carter and Elizabeth equally still while the light danced between them.
Then the light stopped. Carter opened her eyes and pulled her hand back, but her frown had John holding his breath.
"There's something wrong," Carter said. "I think she's better, but I can't complete the process for some reason."
Keller nudged Carter out of the way so that she could reattach the metal band that monitored Elizabeth's brain activity. She stared at the graph on the screen for several minutes before she turned back to them.
"She is better," Keller said, smile big enough for John to relax. "Don't get me wrong, she's still in critical condition. But the colonel bought us time."
"Thank you," John said, straightening away from the glass. "Both of you."
"Nice job," Ellis added.
"Thank you, sir," Carter said, nodding at Ellis. She stripped the device off her hand and held it up. "But now I need to get back to the lab and figure out what went wrong."
"Not so fast, Colonel," Ellis said, stopping Carter as she stepped out of the bay. "Colonel Sheppard and I would like to discuss strategy with you first."
She blinked at Ellis, then looked at John like he'd tattled on her to the teacher. He guessed that sometimes making the switch between scientist and soldier wasn't the easiest thing ever. Like trying to get back to writing reports after being brain-sucked by a really good round of spider solitaire.
"Of course, sir," she said, right before the city-wide comm crackled in their earpieces.
"Medical team to the ZPM chamber!"
As a group, they turned towards Keller. She bustled out of Elizabeth's room, shouting orders at infirmary staff that had suddenly materialized. John was reaching for his radio when the second call came in on a secure channel.
"Colonel Sheppard to the ZPM chamber!"
"What's the situation?" he asked. Ellis and Carter trotted behind him, as primed as he was for a confrontation.
"We found Dr. Zelenka unconscious in a storage closet outside the chamber."
"Damn," John muttered, picking up his pace. "Is he badly hurt?"
"I can't say for certain, but it doesn't look like it. But sir, we found Lieutenant Masterson as well."
"He's dead, sir."
"Fuck!" John started running flat-out. Masterson had been the one guarding Rodney. "McKay, where are you?" he panted into his radio. He couldn't get the rhythm of breathing right: two footfalls and breathe out, lift the foot and try to breathe in, then force it back out again. His chest was too tight as he ran, waiting for Rodney to respond.
Some days it seemed like the only thing he did was wait on Rodney.
"Come on, McKay. Now is not the time to pull the diva act."
Rodney still hadn't answered by the time John reached the corridor the led to the ZPM chamber. Radek was sitting on the floor, back to the wall, legs sprawled out in front of him. He was listing slightly to the left, and Caruthers had a hand on his shoulder, holding him up. She looked up as John approached, then nodded at the open door on the opposite side of the hall.
The room they'd found Radek and Masterson in was tiny, not even as big as a walk-in closet. They'd been using it to store tech supplies for the ZPM chamber: wires and circuit boards, spare crystals, several boxes full of the tiny tools used for working on tiny parts, cables and clips and even a spare tablet PC. As far as John could tell, none of it had been disturbed.
Except for the body of one of his best Marines lying in the middle of the floor.
Masterson was half on his back, right leg flopped across the left at the knee. Like someone had just dumped him, letting him fall willy-nilly like an old beat-up jacket. There wasn't any blood, or any bruising that John could see. The attack would have had to be fast to get a drop on a guy like Masterson, especially when he was protecting a charge. John circled to the left, squatting down to get a closer look. Masterson's chin was tipped up, towards the ceiling. John tilted his own head back, trying to match the angle. Either Masterson had been really, really flexible, or his neck had been broken.
John stood up. He'd seen about all he needed to see. He brushed past Ellis and Carter as they crowded into the room. Keller had arrived, and she was busy with Radek.
"How are you doing?" John asked as he knelt beside them. Keller pocketed her pen light and began palpating Radek's scalp. "You with us, Radek?"
"Not happily," he said, and that was good enough to relax John's gut half an inch. Radek reached towards his face, then dropped his hand with a sigh. His eyes squinted up. John looked around on the floor, but Radek's glasses weren't with them. He hadn't seen them in the storage room, either.
"Do you remember what happened?" John asked.
Radek closed his eyes all the way and let out a big sigh. His head would have hit the wall when he sagged if Keller's hand hadn't been in the way. "Yes, but I cannot believe it really happened."
Radek opened his eyes. "It was McKay."
John shook his head, that half inch of gut screwing tight again. "What about him? I haven't been able to raise him on the radio."
Radek snorted, then reached for his head, grimacing with pain. "Yes," he said. "I am sure that would interfere with his intentions to take control of the city."
"I'm not following, Doc."
"Was trying to find Rodney earlier, to ask him a question." Radek spoke slowly, as if it hurt to get the words out. The way his forehead stayed wrinkled tight, John wasn't sure that they didn't. "I found him in the ZPM chamber. I started to talk to him, when I noticed the soldier on the floor."
John raised his eyebrows. "Masterson was already dead?"
Radek shook his head. "I don't know. He looked dead to me. And after that, the only thing I remember is Rodney moving towards me. Very fast." He looked down, running his hands over the floor around him. "Have you seen my glasses?"
"We'll find them," John said absently. His thoughts were spinning like a revved up Trans Am on blocks. In no universe could he imagine Rodney physically attacking Radek, not even in a fit of lunacy like what had happened with the Duranda shitstorm.
"That doesn't sound like McKay at all," Carter said from behind him. John nodded. "Unless you've been teaching him more than you let on, Colonel, I can't even see him being able to knock anyone out."
Ignoring the too-right slight to Rodney's abilities, John's brain skipped ahead to the obvious conclusion. If McKay had been the one to attack Radek, then he was the most likely suspect in Masterson's death as well.
John couldn't accept that idea at all.
"He was very fast," Radek repeated. "I didn't think he was that powerful."
John saw a distant rope and leapt for it. "Replicator fast?"
Radek shrugged. John looked up, but Carter and Ellis weren't keeping up with his logic. "It wasn't McKay," John told them. "It was a McKay lookalike."
"An Asuran?" Ellis asked. "Can they do that?"
"Why not? The Milky Way replicators could, why not the Asurans," John shot back. "We don't know anything about how they take on a form."
"I don't know," Ellis said, glancing over at Carter. "That's an awfully big assumption to make."
John snapped his fingers, McKay-style. "The attack on the Apollo. It was the replicator the whole time, pretending to be Rodney. He couldn't get out in time, so he faked being attacked by an Asuran."
Ellis shook his head. "All that proves is that McKay, or yes, something that looks like McKay, was at the scene of both attacks."
"It wasn't Rodney," John said, certain now. "He was way too quiet. He didn't complain at all about being hurt. And you know McKay, always ready to milk the smallest splinter for sympathy."
"I agree, sir," Carter said. "That doesn't sound like McKay at all."
"Okay," Ellis said. He looked like he was considering the idea, and that was good enough for John. "So if you're right, what do we do about it?"
"We get into the ZPM chamber," John said without hesitation. "That door is locked for a reason. If that thing is still in there, we're looking at trouble."
Ellis nodded. "I agree."
"And we need to find the real McKay," John continued. "Redeploy the sweep teams on a city-wide search."
Ellis frowned. "I understand your desire to see that he's safe, but don't you think we should focus on the Asuran situation first?"
John shook his head. This one, he'd stand his ground on. "We need McKay. He might have some insight into what the replicators are up to. Plus, he's the one we need to figure out how to undo it."
"If he's still alive," Carter said.
"He's alive," John said firmly. "Those things like to keep their prisoners around."
Carter looked like she was going to say something else, maybe tell John to take a more pessimistic approach, but he didn't have time to consider those options. "We get the city-wide life signs detector up," he said, barreling on. "Every sweep team goes with at least one individual life signs detector to make sure there aren't any more of those things infiltrating our personnel. Oh, and can you transport whatever is in the ZPM chamber out? Or beam a team in?"
Ellis nodded. "All right. I'll see what I can do." He tapped his radio and disappeared in a stream of light.
John blinked. "He's not real big on goodbyes, is he?"
Carter snorted, then glanced down the hall to where Sofani and Lee were still working on getting into the ZPM chamber. "I'm going to take a look at things down here, see if I can override whatever the replicator did. If not, I'll head up to the control room." Eyes going distant, she radioed out. "Sergeant Campbell, any luck on the full system override? Or the security cameras?"
"Sorry, ma'am," he said. "We're still working on it."
Carter frowned, then she nodded at John and headed over to the chamber. John contacted Lorne, grateful that one of his own people was back in the city, and got him coordinating the search. Keller's team had Radek up on a stretcher by the time John was finished giving out orders. Masterson's body was on another, sheet pulled over his face.
"How is Dr. Zelenka?" John asked her quietly.
"He's got a concussion," Keller said. "I want to do some more extensive testing, make sure there's no internal bleeding elsewhere, but my gut is telling me he'll be fine."
"Good," John said. He called Anderson over. "The lieutenant here will keep you company on the way. I've got a team headed down to the infirmary to keep an eye on you guys. Don't let any of your people wander around by themselves, okay?"
Keller grimace. "You really think that there are more of those things around?"
"Better safe than sorry," he said, feeling pretty damn sorry he hadn't been more careful earlier.
"Don't get anyone else hurt!" she called, jogging after the stretchers. "I'm running out of beds!"
John nodded, even though she was already out of sight. Nobody else was going to get hurt. Nobody except the damn Asurans. After a brief moment of deliberation, he joined Carter and the Marines in front of the ZPM chamber. He should probably get up to the control room so he could coordinate things from where he had the most information, but no way was he going to leave until they got that door open. If he was wrong, and for some reason Rodney had really gone nuts, John wasn't going to let anyone else handle him.
John owed him that.
It tapped its index fingers against the console in front of it, drumming a syncopated beat as it considered. The work was almost complete. All it had left to do was finish the final firing sequence that would engage when the gate virus terminated, and make sure that the humans did not interfere with the plan.
Everything was falling into place, yet the feelings and thoughts that swirled inside were undermining its effectiveness. The human it had taken its personality from had a great amount of knowledge--for a human--as well as great powers of concentration. Even so, the new one found itself continually pausing, distracted by things that human mind found important. Worse than that, the sensation of unbearable anxiety centered deep in its abdomen could not be corrected. The new one had run systems checks twice, concerned that it was physically damaged, before it finally concluded that the human was responsible for the debilitating emotion. And twice, its hands had frozen over the control panel, as if something had interfered with the frequencies that coordinated its movement.
Anger rose up. Anger that was its own, that was the heritage of its kind. The anger ate up the anxiety, allowing the new one to focus once more. The humans would die. And they would die soon.
John re-crossed his wrists over his P90, re-crossed his ankles so the left was over the right, and wiggled his shoulder blades into a more comfortable position against the wall. Caruthers was off trying to find something to jaws-of-life the door open. Not that John was sure it would do much good; the Apollo hadn't been able to beam anyone in or out, which meant there was some kind of forcefield in place. That part was up to Carter to figure out, though. She had Sofani running back and forth between the supply closet and the section of the wall she'd all but dismantled. At this point, John was ready to suggest a little C4. Even if it only left them with a bubble of shield surrounding the ZPM chamber, at least then they'd be able to see inside.
John sighed and resisted the urge to sink down to the floor. He was bored and keyed up all at once, and he couldn't stop thinking about the McKay imposter. He was positive now that he wasn't wrong, that he'd talked to a replicator in the chair room earlier. Rodney could be rude, but he was almost never physically aggressive the way he'd been with Keller. And there were other things, things John hadn't been able to put into words when he was trying to convince Ellis. John knew Rodney. Knew the way his mouth set in different ways depending on whether he was upset or just plain concentrating. Knew that the way he talked fast when he was scared was different than the way he talked fast when he was trying to share a fascinating new idea, more broken and begging instead of track-skipping excitement.
Of course, John knew all those things and he'd still missed the signs that Rodney wasn't Rodney. He kept telling himself that there had been no reason to suspect, that he'd be more paranoid than Rodney on a bad day if he had, but it didn't stop him from rewinding the scene over and over, trying to figure out the exact moment he should have noticed.
"I think I've almost got it," Carter called. John un-crossed his ankles. Something popped, sending sparks showering right in front of her face. "No, never mind," she said, sticking her head back into the opening like arcing electricity wouldn't dare get close to her skin.
John crossed his right ankle over his left. The thought that nagged at him the most was the possibility that the chair-room encounter with the replicator hadn't been the first time the wool had been pulled over John's eyes. But when they'd talked in the infirmary, over Elizabeth's bed, Rodney had been so worried. Like any human friend would be. Could the thing be better at aping emotion than John thought? Maybe it had been nervous it would get caught out after the attack on the Apollo, so it hadn't covered as well. He had to consider the idea that Rodney hadn't been Rodney for a long time.
That maybe that crazy confession at Lover's Leap hadn't been Rodney at all, but only the replicator attempting to screw with John's head.
"Got it," Caruthers said as she jogged past John, her shoulders tense with the strain of lugging the heavy power wedge.
John joined her at the door, taking up half the weight. He looked at the air-tight joint of the Ancient sliding door. Looked at the thick nose of the wedge. Looked at the door. "Okay," he said. "We can make this work. Somehow. You ready, Colonel?"
"If this doesn't work, I need to get up to the control room," Carter said. She took up position next to John, anti-replicator weapon in hand.
"Simpson and Campbell didn't seem convinced that anyone could accomplish anything up there," John said.
"I have an idea," Carter said, and then she squared her shoulders and took aim, prepared for whatever might pop out when the door opened.
John wished he felt that confident. He nodded at Sofani, who was already in position, P90 ready, and then he hit the power switch on the wedge. In a minute they'd either be through and John would have his confirmation about the replicator, or they'd have to come up with a new plan.
The wedge shifted forward a fraction of an inch. Caruthers grunted, shifting forward with it. John ignored the sweat on his palms and followed her example.
Just a few seconds more.
First it heard a low mechanical hum, possibly pneumatic in nature. The hum was followed by small vibrations. An unused power crystal began singing, low and true as the vibrations reached its resonant frequency.
And then metal began to squeal.
It picked up the gun it had retrieved from the soldier. Sometimes the best defense was a good offense. The humans had taught its kind that lesson, over and over again, and they had learned it well.
The door to the chamber began to warp. Before the door became irreparably damaged, the new one lowered the force field on the chamber, and then opened the door.
Four humans staggered into each other as the force they had been resisting was removed. Their faces were startled, their reflexes black-hole slow compared to its own. The new one took aim at the soldier holding the machine gun and fired. The soldier fell, and it shifted aim to the soldier next to the first, the one still struggling under the weight of the still-running machine. She fell as easily as the first had.
It took aim again, this time at a prime target. The leader of the city, it knew that both from the database and the memories it had gained. The dark, spiky hair was so familiar that the new one was struck by a sense of deja vu, as were the eyes screwed tight with anger and concentration.
It needed to squeeze the trigger.
Sheppard's eyes met its eyes. There was no time for hesitation, but its finger was frozen, locked in place by that same oddness that had stalled it earlier. A bullet fired, but it didn't come from its gun. The new one paid the projectile no heed, unharmed by the simple weapon, but movement to the right of Sheppard spurred the new one into action at last. It slapped its hand down on the console.
Energy discharged against the forcefield, a blue splash that dissipated quickly. That energy would have torn the new one apart, molecule from molecule, if it had been any slower to act. The new one felt shaky, like the energy had somehow managed to weaken those molecular bonds, just a little.
It set the gun aside, then tried to shut the door to the room. Either the firefight or the human prying had damaged it, however. The mechanism squealed fruitlessly deep inside the wall. The door refused to budge, no matter how many times the new one coaxed it to do so.
Finally giving up, it turned its back on the sight of the humans dragging their wounded away. The forcefield would keep them out, and the new one still had work to finish.
It turned its head, just enough to peer over its shoulder. A black-booted foot was still in view, as if the owner was kneeling over something so important that he didn't care that he was vulnerable to attack. Just like Sheppard, always willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good.
The foot withdrew, and it turned back to its work. John Sheppard could not save the day this time, no matter what he tried. Not when Rodney McKay was not on his side.
"Keller," John growled into his headset. His hand was starting to go numb from pressing down hard on the sharp edges of Sofani's collar bone. He imagined it wasn't much a picnic for Sofani, either, even if he was unconscious. "Where the hell are you?"
"I can't get to you," she said. "There's some kind of energy barrier between us."
"Damn it," John said, for what felt like the thousandth time that day. "Can you find some way around it? Take a different route?"
"It's right outside the infirmary, so that would be a no."
"Sheppard to Lorne. I need a team of medics down here. Now."
"I can't, sir." Lorne sounded like he'd rather step into a lion's cage than admit one more thing had gone wrong. "Forcefields have gone up all over the city. We're working on it, but it's not looking good."
"And that means our search teams are completely cut off from each other," John said. Sofani was going pale, pale except for the bright blood that kept seeping out from under John's palm. "You know, the Ancients have a hell of a lot to answer for."
"I copy that, sir."
Carter bustled over, second pressure bandage in hand. Together they managed to re-secure the one John had unsuccessfully slapped down, then got the second in place. John wiped his hands on his pants, watching Sofani's face for a long minute to see if his color improved.
"How's Caruthers?" he asked.
"Still unconscious," Carter said. "The bullet just grazed her temple, thank goodness. Not much damage, but it knocked her out good."
John glanced over Carter's shoulder. Caruthers wasn't as pale as Sofani, but the graze on her forehead was asphalt dark against her complexion. A strand of hair had come loose from her bun, trailing down her cheek and making her look like a kindergartner down for a nap.
"Sheppard to the control room. Can you patch me into the Apollo?" John frowned, but somehow it didn't surprise him when no response came.
"Carter to control." She frowned, then fiddled with the settings on her radio. "Carter to anyone in Atlantis. Can anyone hear me?'
"Guess we're on our own," John said. He paced back to the edge of the doorway, resisting the urge to peek around the corner. Any attempt at recon had to be absolutely necessary, weighed against the fact that the replicator could drop the shield and fire more quickly than John could get out of the way. He paced back to Carter, taking himself away from temptation. "You're going to have to override the forcefield so that we can get in and finish this."
Carter shook her head. "I need to get to the control room. There's no good interface here, and I think I've worked out a way to regain control by infiltrating the minor systems."
"It'll take too long," John said. "You'll have to get through every forcefield between here and there before you even have a chance to put your idea into practice. I have a feeling we don't have that much time."
"You don't understand," she said, chin coming up. "It can take control of the city because the actual power crystals are in the room with it. Out here, there's nothing I can do to take away that advantage. But if I have access to all of the equipment in the control room, I might be able to out-program it."
John frowned. "How big of a might is that?"
"It's thinking like McKay and a replicator both," she said, shrugging. "Forty-sixty. Better if its ego leaves it open to mistakes."
"Forty percent chance you'll succeed?"
Carter nodded. "But I've beaten a lot worse odds before. Plus, I know how McKay thinks."
John studied her face. A smudge of blood had darkened the right half of her bangs, like she'd forgotten her hands were a mess when she'd pushed her hair out of her face. Or like she just wasn't fussy enough to care. "Are you sure about that?"
Her eyebrows drew down, giving her puzzled expression he'd rarely seen on her. "What, you don't think I know McKay?"
"I think you know as much as he does," John said.
Carter's look said he'd just announced she'd mail-ordered her doctorate. He didn't care what she thought of him, though, not with Rodney missing and a replicator in control of Atlantis. They needed a viable plan that wasn't going to take all day to put into practice.
"So what do you suggest we do?" Carter asked. "Beg it to let us in?"
"Give me a minute." John wiped the stickiness off his hand, then picked up the anti-replicator weapon. "I'll think of something."
The new one smiled. In fifteen minutes, the DHD virus would run its course, finally allowing the gate located within Atlantis to dial out. The next second, the program the new one had designed would engage, and Atlantis would dial Earth. When that happened, there was nothing the humans could do to stop the gates from overloading. The explosions would destroy both planets, finally accomplishing the revenge its people had longed for since their creation.
The tingle of satisfaction ebbed, replaced by the more uncomfortable sensation that came with fear. Fear, and disappointment. The new one had hoped that it would be able to escape destruction, or at least communicate with its kind before the end so it could pass on the new knowledge, but the humans had been too difficult. Especially the one in its head. Perhaps it was a good thing that it would be unable to upload this consciousness; some other human would be a better model for the next generation of Asurans.
The new one walked up to the forcefield. It could see nothing outside, but it knew that Sheppard would still be out there. No matter how illogical, Sheppard would not give up trying until the end came. It thought sometimes that Sheppard had a poor grasp of reality. He always seemed to think that his desire to succeed was enough to overcome actual physical laws.
The fear swelled, a great wave of it that threatened to suck the new one under. Fear, and some other emotion that its human memories had no label for. The new one turned away from the barrier and went to recheck its programming, desperate for something to replace its dread.
"Does the forcefield work the same way the city's shield does?"
Carter swivelled on one knee, turning away from Sofani just enough that John could see her face tighten in thought. "Well, there are some fundamental differences in power generation as well as the shielding geometry itself."
John turned the anti-replicator weapon in his hands, spinning it slowly on its awkward axis. "But when you get down to the basics, they work pretty much the same way, right?"
He could tell by the Rodney-like huff that it hurt her just as much as McKay to have to deal with non-scientists on a regular basis. "Yes, at the most basic level. Why, do you have an idea?"
"Maybe," John said. "Can you tell me where the power crystals for the forcefield are?"
"It's a Catch-22," she said, standing up. "You have to get in to the room to turn the forcefield off, but you have to turn the forcefield off to get in."
John nodded. "I think I can handle that part. The crystals?"
Carter gave him a long look, like she was trying to figure out which of his neurons were firing, and if those were the crazy ones. John gave her the smile he'd perfected under years of supercilious commanding officers. She was a hell of a lot smarter than any of them had been, but whatever her suspicions, she nodded, apparently giving him the benefit of the doubt.
"On your left as you walk in," she said, beckoning him towards the door. She pointed, and John leaned out enough to see a crystal tray, open and waiting. A sign that his plan was a good one. "What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to make Elizabeth proud," he said, un-clipping the P90 from his tac vest. "I'm going to talk to it."
"What? Are you crazy? This thing isn't McKay, John. It's an Asuran-form replicator that's determined to destroy us."
John patted his pocket, then settled the anti-replicator weapon in his left hand. "You said it yourself. It's thinking like a replicator and McKay. I'm just going to see if I can bring a little more Rodney to the surface."
"It's a machine," Carter hissed. "I know how much they can make you doubt that. Believe me, I've dealt with them before. I know they can get in your head, more than physically. But they're nothing more than a program gone amuck. You can't change their minds by arguing."
"Different kind of replicators than what you're used to," John said, checking his pocket one last time. "Listen. If this goes bad, do what you have to do to stop it. But I have to try this."
Carter gave him a dirty look, but she didn't try to stop him as he started ambling towards the doorway. Casual and carefree, that was how he wanted to be. Like a friend stopping by for a chat, maybe with a movie or a game of chess in mind. Not like an enemy on a mission.
The replicator didn't react when John stepped out into the open. It had its head bent over one of the consoles, forehead puckered up as its fingers tapped the screen. John had seen that posture, that concentration, so many times in the past that it was hard for him to remember Rodney wasn't the one in front of him.
"Hey, buddy," he said, trying not to sound overly cajoling. He said it jokingly, like they were ready to head off to play the Ancient civ game. "How's it going in there?"
It didn't look up.
"Look, I just want to talk." John dropped the P90 on the ground. It clattered pretty loudly, and the replicator raised its head. "See, look at me. I'm going to put all of these weapons down, and we can talk face to face with no threat."
It turned, giving John a three-quarter profile. John kicked the P90 away, out of his reach, then un-holstered his sidearm and did the same with it. Then he held up the anti-replicator weapon. "You know this one, right? You know it can hurt you."
It glowered in an oh-so-familiar way. John swallowed; he knew it wasn't Rodney, but there was no mistaking the Rodney in it. He lowered his arm halfway and then tossed the ARW as far as he could, away from himself and Carter. "There," he said. "Just you and me."
The replicator looked him up and down, giving him a visual pat-down, then went back to whatever it had been doing at the console.
John sighed. He'd known this wasn't going to be as easy as saying 'hey' and strolling into the room, but the replicator wasn't giving him a lot to work with. "You know, you've got to stop with the whole one-genius army attitude, McKay," he continued. "I think Radek's heading for a mid-life crisis. He's doubting his worth to the whole project, talking about how you never let anybody help you out, the whole works. It's not pretty. I think I even heard him mention taking up knitting the other day."
John stepped closer to the forcefield, trying to get a better look at whatever it was up to. The field sparkled and shimmered, the tip of his boot setting it off. The smell of ozone sharpened the air, reminding him of cold rain and desperation.
"You know, you've gotten awfully good at the whole energy barrier thing." John was just talking now, with no idea where he was going. In the movies the hero could always bring the amnesia victim back to himself with a couple poignant memories, but Rodney was always stubborn in the wrong ways. "Remember back when the Genii invaded? I was sure we were toast then. I thought you were faking it in the beginning, trying to puff yourself up, but then when Kolya got there, I was pretty sure we were out of luck. I mean, come on. The whole lightning rod thing was kind of nuts."
Rodney--the replicator--moved to a different set of consoles. John stood on his tiptoes. He could see the top of the old ZPM, still in its slot... John squinted and tilted his head to the side, trying to determine if what he thought he'd seen was just a reflection. Because what he thought he saw was a glowing ZPM.
"Whatcha doing in there, McKay?" he asked as calmly as he could. If he strained upwards, he could just make out the full-power glow coming from the other two ZPM slots. "It looks to me like you finally figured out how to build a ZPM. Didn't think you had it in you."
That did it. Its lips drew down into a cranky moue. John bet the Rodney part of the replicator was screaming inside, throwing a hissy fit that anyone had that temerity to doubt his potential.
"What's the matter, Rodney? You know, if you blow us all up, you won't get that Nobel. They don't award them posthumously, after all." John waited, but it didn't flinch at all. "Of course, I bet Radek or Carter could figure it out, given a little more time. I guess it's not really that impressive."
The replicator paused. John was sure he had its attention, but then it turned its back on John, fiddling with something on the far wall.
"Damn it, Rodney! Come on, enough with this bullshit. I know you're in there. Act like it, would you?" John glanced over his shoulder. Carter was out of sight, but that didn't mean she couldn't hear him. He licked his lips, debating. Rodney was in that thing, somewhere, but whether that part of its programming was strong enough to take over the rest was probably wishful thinking on John's part. He should probably give up now, go with Carter while she tried to hack her way into the control room.
Except John knew she didn't have a chance against Rodney. Not when Rodney's brain was paired with the replicators, and they both knew the city better than she did.
"Radek wasn't happy about the knock on the head, by the way," John said, deciding maybe he needed to give the softer emotions a shot. "That's a hell of a way to treat him, especially after all the crap he puts up with from you."
The replicator turned around--and bingo. That was guilt on Rodney's face, the outer edges of his features sagging down with hopelessness, the middle drawing up with regret. Competitiveness and ego weren't enough to stir up Rodney, but friendship definitely was.
"Rodney," he said, then cleared his throat. He knew he had to go there, but his voice didn't agree, shutting down on him like he had a bad cold. The replicator probably hadn't even heard him. "Rodney," he tried again. "I, uh, I never got the chance to talk to you. About what you said to me earlier."
The replicator didn't move. It stared at John, uncannily still like the time the real Rodney had frozen the Asurans in their city. Instinctively, John pressed closer to the forcefield, wrapping his fingers around the thin edge of the door frame. He was close enough that the hair on the backs of his arms stood up from the energy of the field.
The replicator took a step forward.
"Yeah, that's right," John said, hope giving him momentum. "You know, on the balcony the other morning. When you said I don't need to be jealous. What was that all about, McKay? Why don't I need to be jealous? What didn't you tell me?"
John stared into Rodney's eyes, wondering how the hell he could hate the thing so much and still feel like he was talking to his best friend.
It looked away.
"So you're going to ignore me now?" John wished he knew what Carter was thinking right now, but it was probably better that he didn't. Especially if he was going to finish saying what he needed to say. "You know what, Rodney? You don't get to drop a bomb on me like that and then act like it never happened. Because from my end of things, it sounded like you were trying to say you want me."
The replicator looked back at John, although it still wasn't meeting his eyes. From this close, John could see it swallow roughly, and that was pure Rodney. John gripped the door frame more tightly, holding himself back from the forcefield.
"Is that true, Rodney? Because I want..." John's mouth shut on the words before he could get them out. He had to say them, for the sake of Atlantis. This wasn't about personal cost.
"I want," he said again, the words hard no matter what speech he gave himself. "I want that to be what you meant. Because damn it, McKay, I don't know what you saw in my head, but I know you didn't see it all. I don't want to think about you because I can't afford to. You're too damn much. You're always there, Rodney. Everything I do, I think about doing it with you. I hear a joke, I want to tell you. If I get into a sticky situation, you're the one I want to get me out of it."
John closed his eyes. His stupid plan wasn't working. Carter was a few feet away, listening to him out himself, but that wasn't going to matter because replicator-Rodney was going to kill them all. John needed to give up, withdraw, reevaluate, let Carter do her thing.
Except... He wanted to finish. The real Rodney was somewhere unknown, maybe not even alive. The thing in front of John wasn't Rodney, but this might be the closest he ever got to letting Rodney know.
"Rodney," he said, and he hoped the thing had good hearing, because he couldn't make himself talk louder. "Please. Just listen to me. You're so damn much, Rodney. You're everything I want. And yes, that scares the hell out of me."
There were more words, more feelings, but they were all jumbled up in his head, mixed up with ones he'd already said. John breathed through his nose, eyes closed, waiting for something to happen.
The forcefield sizzled. John opened his eyes. No energy distortion wavering in front of him, no static lifting his hair, so he put a hand out. He took a step forward, then another, right into the room, stopping just behind the replicator, who had its back to John.
The forcefield snapped on. The replicator turned to face him, gun aimed unwaveringly at John's heart. The look in its eyes was all Rodney, though. John knew that look: big blue eyes unable to hold anything back, lips pulled up to one side, forehead wrinkled so that his eyebrows drew up. It was the look of hurt disbelief Rodney had when Allina had taken the ZPM away from them.
"You're lying," it said. It took a step forward, barrel of the gun brushing John's chest. "You're lying to get me to stop."
"No." John shook his head. "I mean yes, I want you to stop what you're doing. But I'm not lying about this, Rodney. If this is the end, I want whatever is left of you to know."
The gun dipped, dragging across the John's shirt with a rasping sound. This close, John could try to wrestle the gun away. It would be a stupid move; even Ronon couldn't match Asuran strength.
"Prove it," the replicator said, letting the gun drop to its side.
"Okay," John said. It wasn't Rodney. It looked like Rodney, though, gazing up at John with so much hope and want, and John didn't have any trouble at all reaching out and cupping his left hand around the back of its neck. No trouble dipping his head, brushing his lips across its lips, no trouble coming one kiss closer to what he'd wanted for so very long.
Rodney opened his mouth, groaning against John's lips. John groaned back, pulling Rodney closer as he deepened the kiss. They were pressed tightly together, and damn, the thing felt exactly like a human. It felt exactly the way John had imagined Rodney would feel. The kiss between them heated up, and John pushed Rodney back against the wall, shoving his thigh between Rodney's legs.
"John," it said, breathy, like a real human.
John pulled the crystal out of his pocket and slammed it into the open slot in the waiting tray. Metal filings exploded across his skin, like a blast of sand brought in by a sudden desert wind. John kept his eyes closed while it rained down around him, but metal was already in his mouth. On his tongue. He wiped his hand across his face, hoping that wasn't the way he'd remember Rodney tasting, and then he opened his eyes.
The blue crystal from the anti-replicator weapon glowed in its slot, undisturbed by the destruction it had just accomplished. John pulled it free, then pulled out the yellow crystal next to it. Behind him, the forcefield shwoomped out of existence.
"I can't believe that worked," Carter said as she rushed in, immediately taking up position in front of the main console. "You were amazing, by the way."
"Great," he muttered. He pointed at the bank of ZPMs. "You have any idea what it was trying to do?"
"Working on it," she said. Her fingers were as agile as Rodney's on the keyboard as she tried to coax information out of the Ancient systems. Smaller, though, inherently graceful instead of trained that way. Not like the fingers he'd fantasized about, stroking over him slow and sure.
"Okay, that's not good."
John blinked, then refocused on where she was pointing. "What?"
"The good news is that our gate problem is solved. When the replicator originally came through the underwater gate, it uploaded a virus to that DHD. I still don't understand that part, but right now, the important part is that the virus is set to expire in five minutes."
"That sounds like a good thing."
Carter shook her head, still typing away. "When that happens, our gate will be able to link up to the network again. And it's programmed to dial Earth the second it does."
"I'm thinking that's more nefarious than it sounds," John said.
"You think right. It's rigged the gates on both ends to overload."
"Crap." John wished Rodney was here right now, and not just for selfish reasons. One brainiac was handy to have in a pre-apocalyptic situation, but two was better. "So what do we do?"
Carter looked up with a big smile on her face. She laced her fingers together and thrust them palms outward until her knuckles cracked. "I am going to out-program Rodney McKay."
"Good luck with that." John looked around the room. The replicator had been all over the place while it was working; surely there was something else John could do. Something like... "We can't dial Earth if we don't have enough power, right?"
Sam looked up long enough to meet his eyes. "Good thinking. You know how to disengage them?"
"Oh, I think I can figure it out," John said. Pulling ZPMs was getting to be old hat by now--an old hat he'd be happy to send to the thrift store if it meant never having these kinds of emergencies again.
John stepped up to the access panel, repeating Rodney's instructions in his head, just like he did every time he had to do this. He couldn't help it. Rodney had spent an entire afternoon with him, Elizabeth, Teyla, and Lorne, making them reiterate the steps out loud, over and over and over, before ever letting them get within a foot of the panel. Every time John got it right--and John got it right every time--Rodney made a little hmmph that was half-surprised, half-pleased.
He could hear that hmmph as the first ZPM rose out of its bed, waiting for John to pluck it free. He ran through the sequence for the other two, then snuggled each module into a protective case.
"Done," he said. He blew out a breath, then leaned against the console next to Carter. His insides felt shaky. Not fear-shaky. More like he'd spent a whole night throwing up bad shrimp and suspect vodka. He waited for Carter to look up and congratulate him, but she was still working intently. "We're good, right?"
Carter didn't say anything.
"Right? I got the ZPMs disconnected." John frowned when she frowned. "It shouldn't matter if whatever it did triggers. There's no power."
She shook her head. "A secondary program kicked in. According to these power readings, there's still enough to destroy Atlantis's gate."
"What?" John leaned forward, staring uselessly as she scrolled through line after line of numbers and letters that made no sense to him. "Is it using the naquadah generators? We can shut those down--"
She looked up, gaze locking on the far wall. Right on the section where the forcefield crystals were. Right where John had seduced that thing into its destruction.
"There's a fourth ZPM," she said. John followed her over to the wall. They peered into the small cavity behind the tray. Amber glowed back at them.
"I didn't know one fit in there," he said, a little annoyed that Rodney had never mentioned that fact.
"It shouldn't," Carter said. She hit the button to release the tray from its position, but nothing happened. Not even the second time she jabbed at it. Then she yanked on the tray itself, with no success. "It's stuck."
"You worry about cracking the code," John said, nudging her aside. "Let me take care of this."
The first thing he tried was reaching into the opening. He could get a finger on it. The surface of a ZPM felt just like it looked, lightweight and plasticky like good Baltic amber. John contorted his arm and wrist to the point of strain, but he couldn't get a grip on it, no matter what he did. The tray had to come out, or else he had to find a different way in.
Carter's keyboard clicks were loud as he stared at the wall, tiny horses clip-clopping away as they strained for the finish line. John hoped that was a good sign, because it looked like he needed a cutting torch to get to the ZPM. And he didn't have the time to get a cutting torch. He glanced over at Carter. Her head was four inches away from the screen, and she had her bottom lip clenched between her teeth.
John checked his watch. Less than thirty seconds until their deadline expired.
He drew his pistol. Rodney would kill him if he ever found out John fired on his precious Ancient tech--if the ricochet didn't kill him first--but they were out of options. Sizing up his choices quickly, he aimed at the left side of the tray and prayed the angle would carry the slug away from Carter. Screwing up his eyes, John let out his breath and got ready to dodge a bullet.
"Yes!" Carter crowed. "I did it!"
Long years of training were the only thing that stopped John from flinching against the trigger. "You're sure?"
Carter laughed. John didn't need any verbal confirmation after that. He knew that sensation, had it bubbling up in his chest himself.
"I've got city-wide communications back up," she said. "And the forcefields should be down throughout the city."
"Sheppard to Keller," he said, immediately testing it out. He jogged out to check on Sofani and Caruthers. "You should be clear to come down here now."
Keller's voice was a sweet, sweet melody to his ears as she let him know she was on her way. Caruthers was awake, but she seemed pretty confused, and Sofani was still out cold. John was afraid there was a touch of blue at his lips, even though he was breathing regularly. Sign of an embolism, maybe, since he hadn't lost that much blood. John made himself wait by their sides until Keller and her crew arrived, even though he couldn't do anything for either of them. He waited until they loaded Sofani and Caruthers onto stretchers, and then he raced back into the ZPM chamber.
"Have you found McKay yet?" he asked.
"I'm still trying to make sure it didn't leave us any nasty surprises," Carter said. John frowned, but his impatience didn't make a dent on the crown of her head. "Give me five minutes to restore control to the main systems."
John paced behind her, then started doing tiny laps around the ZPM platform. Carter looked up at him once, probably to tell him to stop or to remind him that Rodney hadn't shown up on the sensors earlier, but she went back to her work without saying anything.
Carter was a lot more than just book smart.
"I'm pretty sure it was working alone," she said after a few more minutes. "I can't find any signs of a coordinated attack. But I don't know for sure."
John nodded. "We'll stay on alert anyway, make sure everyone has life signs detectors nearby."
"Good plan," she said. Then she smiled at him. "You've got a record of good plans. I can't believe that snowjob worked on the Asuran."
John shrugged. So much for hoping she hadn't been able to hear him. "Desperate times, desperate measures."
"Yeah, I know," she said. Then her odd smile morphed into a chuckling grin. "But McKay! I can't believe he's... I mean, the way he's always chased after me, I never would have thought in a million years that he'd be into men."
John's gut turned to ice. He could see it now: Carter would saunter up to Rodney, cocky smile in place, and say something like "heard you have a thing for Lieutenant Colonels, McKay." Rodney would flush and splutter out some kind of explanation that would have Carter crowing.
And Rodney would never trust John again.
"Drop it," John said, not an ounce of concern for protocol or rank in his voice.
Carter looked completely shocked by his reaction. She held up her hands. "Hey, don't worry about it. I'm not going to do anything to endanger your career. I promise."
John shook his head. "I don't care about that. Don't bust Rodney's chops about this, okay? It's private."
"Oh, wow." Carter dropped her hands and took a step towards him. John didn't like the way she looked at him. Like she'd finally found the missing jigsaw piece to his very puzzling brain. "You were telling the truth, weren't you?"
John stared at her as coldly as he could manage. He felt like he was cooking from the inside out, heart skipping and lurching as it tried to keep up with the fire racing through his body.
"I shouldn't have asked," Carter said, backing up again. "Sorry."
John could only nod. Thanks, he should have said, thanks for protecting my ass, but he just wanted her to forget everything she thought she knew about him and Rodney. He curled his fingers around the edge of the ZPM platform. Not that there was anything to know. There might not ever be anything to know.
"John," she called. Her voice was gentle, and that scared the crap out of him. "I found him. There's a shielded section that wasn't connected to the other forcefields. Near the underwater bay."
"Is he alive?"
Carter shook her head. "I don't know. I'm still working on the shield."
"All available search teams to section S-17," John said, reading the information from her screen as he ignored her kind eyes. "Dr. McKay may be located near the underwater jumper bay. I'm on my way down there. Colonel Carter can give you further instructions."
And then he ran.
"John," Teyla radioed a few seconds after he left the transporter. "We have him. Just past the intersection."
John slid to a stop a meter away from Ronon and Teyla's hunched backs. Rodney was tucked into the tiny space under one of the suspended walkways, like a forgotten rag doll. Teyla looked up, and John shook his head, warding off whatever she had to say.
"He's breathing," she said. "But he won't wake up."
Teyla and Ronon silently made room for him as he squatted down next to them. Grey wasn't a color John associated with living humans, but sure enough, air ghosted over the back of John's hand when he held it in front of Rodney's nose. He slid his fingers down to Rodney's neck, ignoring how cold his skin was. Rodney's heart had to be beating if he was breathing, but John couldn't feel it. He laid all four fingers flat against Rodney's neck, holding his own breath until spots swam in front of his eyes.
"Let me through," Keller said.
John stumbled out of her way. He hadn't heard her arrive, didn't know how she could have made it down so fast after she'd just been loaded up with her other patients, but she was here, and John was glad of it. They all stood vigil while she worked. Silently, unwilling--or unable--to interrupt her to ask about Rodney's status. Then the med team swept Rodney up and away, leaving the rest of them standing there stupidly, wondering what the hell came next.
"It's a good thing you got the gate working again," Keller told John once he finally caught up to her in the infirmary. She was fussing with the sensor on Rodney's head while a pair of nurses set up an IV. "Dr. Lam's going to have two patients instead of one."
"He has brain damage?" John asked, feeling sick to his stomach. Rodney would rather die than wind up a vegetable.
"Not so much physical damage," Keller said, waving across the room at another one of the doctors. The gesture was more than just friendly, John could tell that, but her signals were as opaque to him as military signals were to Rodney. She shrugged at John. "I don't understand what the replicator did, but his brain just isn't responding correctly. He's also dehydrated and close to hypothermic. It's possible that once his body recovers from the stress, his brain will kick back in."
Keller sighed. "I don't want to take that risk. Do you?"
John shook his head.
"Dr. Keller," someone called. "Dr. Weir is ready for transport."
John stared while they wheeled Elizabeth towards the exit. She looked a little better than she had earlier, but she still didn't look like Elizabeth. He looked back at Rodney.
John had a really lousy record with taking care of his friends.
"So, are we going to do this?" Keller asked.
She frowned at him. "Dialing Earth. You have to give the say-so."
"Right. Let's do it," John said. Then it occurred to him that they might not actually be able to do that after the mess the replicator had made. "Carter, what's our status? Are we ready to dial Earth?"
"Give me fifteen minutes," she said. "I assume Dr. Weir is ready to go."
"And McKay," John said.
"Is Rodney going to be all right?" she asked, sounding sincerely concerned.
"He's alive," John said. "Dr. Keller says he'll be better off on Earth."
"I'll be ready in ten," Carter said, then signed out.
They made a parade as they wound through the halls of Atlantis, Elizabeth in the lead with her attendants, Rodney surrounded by his own set, with John, Teyla, and Ronon taking up the rear. Carter dashed into the gate room less than a minute after they arrived, a bag over her shoulder and a ZPM case in hand.
"I didn't figure you'd miss the extra," she said, hefting the ZPM case forward to show what she was talking about.
"Wait," John said. "You're going with them? What about all the systems the replicator screwed with? We need your help."
Carter shrugged one shoulder, the one without the bag. "Everything is flushed out and currently stable. Radek can handle the rest once he's up and about. But I'm due back at the SGC soon, and well, I kind of lost my wheels."
"Yeah," John said, empathizing with her loss. "Sorry about that."
"It happens," she said, her smile wry. "I'm just glad I was able to help out."
"Thank you," he said, looking past her to Rodney.
Carter stepped forward, brushing his hand as she leaned in close. "I'll make sure he's okay," she said quietly. "I promise."
John nodded, not sure how to respond. He was grateful, truly, sincerely grateful that she had been there to save them all, but he was pretty sure the petty part of him wasn't ever going to go away. Not enough for him to ever completely like her. "Take care of yourself," he finally said.
She smiled and stepped back with the others, waiting for her express wormhole home.
"Dial it up," John called. He didn't say any goodbyes, only watched as Elizabeth and Rodney were wheeled up the ramp. They'd be back soon enough, as fast as Apollo could make the turn around. Carter followed them through.
John turned his back on the gate before it shut off.
John looked up at the quick rat-tat-tat knock against the door frame, surprised that Ronon hadn't just sauntered in like usual. John closed the laptop and waved him in, taking the opportunity to rub the exhaustion out of his eyes.
"You going to wait up all night for the Apollo?" Ronon sat his ass down right on the edge of the desk. John flashed back to all the times he'd done the very same thing with Elizabeth, when she was the one keeping too late hours.
"What, are you afraid my old bones can't take an all-nighter?" John leaned back in the chair and stretched his arms overhead. His shoulder popped, betrayingly loud.
Ronon snorted. "You said it, not me."
John shook his head. "I'm headed to bed in a few. They won't be in until mid-morning, anyway."
"Okay," Ronon said, sliding off the desk. John was pretty sure the desk groaned in relief. "I'll be by first thing, unless you want to beg off."
"Never," John said, smiling ferally. Ronon could make old jokes all he wanted, but training together had John in tip-top shape. He wasn't going to stop any time soon.
Ronon ambled off, obviously content that his Sheppard-minding duties were completed for the night. Both Teyla and Ronon had been jollying him along the past month, making sure he got a chance to do something besides city administration. John sometimes wondered if they'd actually drawn up a schedule, or if they just accomplished it naturally. It was touching, if a little creepy.
"Hey," Ronon called, poking his head back in. "If you can't sleep, you know where I'll be."
And sometimes, John remembered that he wasn't the only one who might be feeling a little lost and alone.
"Thanks," he said. Ronon nodded and took off again. John pushed back from the desk, looking around to make sure everything was in order. Elizabeth's office had gotten a little messy after he'd settled in, extra laptops and flash drives collecting on the desk, a rare stack of papers shoved under the sand garden, crumbs and coffee rings appearing faster than he actually ate. He'd cleaned up earlier, but he still felt like the space had been contaminated by his presence.
John sighed. There wasn't anything left to do except to go to bed, so waved to the night crew and headed that way. A sea-sweet breeze wafted in off Lover's Leap as he passed by, carrying the mist in with it. John paused, drawn outside by achy nostalgia.
Rodney would finally be back tomorrow. John had missed him a lot. All day, though, he'd been thinking about seeing Rodney again, wondering how awkward it might be. They hadn't had a chance to talk about what had been said on this very balcony, and John wasn't sure if it was something he should just leave in the past.
Except he was kind of not okay with that thought.
"Get over yourself," he said out loud. One of the pigeon-like sea birds squawked somewhere to his left. John snorted. When nature started commenting on his maudlin state, it was time to get his ass to bed.
He palmed open the door to his quarters--and found himself face to face with Rodney McKay.
John went for his sidearm.
"No, wait!" Rodney raised both hands. "It's me, I swear. Check with the control room if you don't believe me."
"Sheppard to Malik," he said, using his left hand for his radio, keeping his right firmly on his gun. "Is there something you forgot to tell me? About the Apollo arriving, maybe?"
"Ah, yes, sir. Doctor McKay requested that he be the one to alert you."
John dropped his hand. Rodney lowered his, having the grace to look sheepish. "We're going to have to have a talk about chain of command later, Corporal," John said. The he tossed his mike on his desk, walked right past Rodney, and dropped down on his bed.
"So, ah, surprise?"
"I'm not real big on surprises, McKay," John said, but it wasn't strictly true. Rodney looked good. Pale, like he'd spent two weeks stuck in a giant mountain complex and another two on a spaceship, instead of getting a little color off-world like he should have been. Pale was an okay look for Rodney, though, especially since he looked healthy other than that. Well-rested, definitely.
Rodney frowned, and John realized he was being a bit of an ass. Before he could offer Rodney a chair or a better welcome, Rodney sighed and plopped down on the bed beside John.
"You're not going to like this, then," he said. His thigh was pressed tightly against John's, but the nervous twitter in John's gut was all about the frustrated lines around Rodney's mouth. "Elizabeth isn't coming back."
"What?" Whatever John had been expecting, it wasn't that. "Is she okay?"
Rodney nodded. "She's fine. As far as I know, anyway. She decided the day before we left, and somehow she convinced Landry that it would be better if I told everyone here."
John blinked. "So we had to wait two weeks to find out? What the hell, Rodney?"
Rodney shrugged. "Believe me when I say that was the smallest part of our argument. I told her that without her influence the military is going to take over, but she's convinced she's completely ineffective anyway."
"Damn it, Elizabeth." John stood up, giving up Rodney's warmth for the comfort of movement. As ineffectual as pacing was in the long run, it was enough to release some of his angry energy. "Is this because I backed Ellis instead of her?"
"How should I know? Do I look like Heightmeyer?"
John stopped in front of Rodney, hands on his hips as he glared down. At least some things hadn't changed in the last month. "You talked to Elizabeth, right? What did she say?"
Rodney shook his head. "A lot of stupid, illogical stuff. She wouldn't listen to anything I said."
"Well, you should have tried harder!"
"She'd made up her mind before she ever told me." The softness in Rodney's eyes surprised John. Usually Rodney professed a profound lack of people knowledge, but John figured he'd spent the whole trip thinking about Elizabeth, analyzing every aspect of her decision and what he could have said differently. "I think she just didn't want to come back."
John sighed, then sat back down beside Rodney. "So who's replacing her?"
"I have no idea." The bed dipped as Rodney shifted to face John. "They still hadn't decided the last time the Apollo made contact with Earth. I think the IOA wants a civilian."
John nodded. "But the Americans must be pushing for military, because that would give them more control of the program."
"Would you expect anything less of your government?"
John's glare muscles had gotten lax while Rodney was away, but they were getting the full workout now.
Rodney, of course, didn't notice, his jade frown reversing into a speculative smile. "Hey, maybe they'll put Sam in charge!"
At this rate, John's forehead was going to lock up with an irreversible spasm. Or at least give him the wrinkles Ronon had been accusing him of having. John rubbed at the tight spot. He'd been expecting all the stress to magically melt away as soon as the Apollo arrived. But nothing was ever that easy in the Pegasus galaxy.
Rodney cleared his throat. "I, ah, wanted to say thank you. For saving my life again."
John shrugged. "I didn't have much to do with it. It was all Dr. Lam, from what I heard."
"Yes, with saving my brain, and the universe should be thanking her for that." Rodney swiped his hands across his knees. "I read the report, and I talked to Sam about it, but I still don't understand exactly what happened. But I know you were the one to convince the, ah, me, to drop the forcefield. I don't know how, but I'd like to think that you were able to save us all because... Well, because we're friends."
John swallowed. "Of course we're friends."
"Right." Rodney nodded once, then stood up. "Yes, of course. So I should go now."
John watched him walk to the door. Watched him walk away.
"Rodney, wait." Before he could change his mind, John dug the flashdrive out of the back of his drawer and tossed it across the room. Rodney fumbled it out of the air, finally catching it against his chest.
"What's this?" he asked, holding it up like he'd never seen one before.
John wasn't even tempted to go for the obvious quip. "Carter found the data from the security feed from the ZPM chamber before she left. Apparently the Asuran didn't stop the cameras from recording, only from transmitting."
Rodney didn't look puzzled anymore. Instead, he looked like he was holding a live Goa'uld. "You want me to watch myself try to destroy Earth?"
John shook his head. "You don't have to watch it if you don't want. But if you want to know what I did, what I said, it's on there."
"Oh." Rodney's fist clamped tight, completely swallowing the small drive. "Right. Thank you."
John nodded goodnight, letting Rodney walk away without warning him to keep the contents quiet. He was pretty sure that however Rodney reacted to what he saw, he wasn't going to want to share with anyone else.
Ronon and Teyla were as quiet as John was as they walked back to the living quarters. The last words of Elizabeth's taped goodbye kept echoing in his head, silencing any urge to talk out loud. Take care of each other, she'd said, eyes glistening as if she couldn't bear to let go of her charges. In a way, John was glad she'd decided to leave. Elizabeth had had a rough year, physically and emotionally, and she wouldn't have the Wraith or Asurans trying to kill her back on Earth. At the same time, he couldn't help the little-boy resentment that kept rearing up. They would take care of each other here, even if she wasn't interested in watching out for them anymore.
Teyla stopped in front of him without warning. She spun around to face him, arms crossed tightly over her chest. "I am sorry," she said, "but I do not understand your people at all."
John sighed. "We're not real good with goodbyes," he said. "I know Elizabeth came off a little...impersonal, but you know she cares about you. A lot."
Teyla shook her head. "It is not that. I have gotten used to the fact that you are not the only one from your culture who cannot express feelings out loud."
"Oh, yeah, you're one to talk," John told him. "Mr. Grab and Run."
Ronon shrugged. "Can't misinterpret a hug."
John was going to argue that point, but Teyla sighed, loud and impatient. "So what don't you get, then?'
"Before the initial attack, we talked," she said. "Elizabeth was frustrated about her ability to be effective, torn between Atlantis and Earth. And I understand that. I have had a similar difficulty with my people, even if they do not make the same types of demands that yours do."
"You're not going to leave us," John said, not quite able to make it a question.
Teyla shook her head. "Of course not. Not unless there is no other choice. And that is what I do not understand. She cared so much, yet she chose not to return."
John looked to Ronon, but Ronon just shrugged. "I don't know, Teyla," John said. "I guess sometimes, you can care too much."
She tilted her head, considering his words. He didn't think they impressed her much, but she started walking again, letting it go. They parted without saying anything else.
For the second time in less than twenty-four hours, John walked into his room and found Rodney waiting for him.
"This is getting to be a habit," he said, ignoring his stomach urging him to take a fast trip to the toilet. He'd hardly seen Rodney since last night. They'd both been busy, Rodney settling back into Atlantis, John with the new crew rotation that had come in on the Apollo. That didn't mean John hadn't been thinking about what he'd handed over last night. He'd thought about it constantly, and his gut was sick of all the what ifs.
Especially when Rodney held out the flash drive. John took it, trying to not look as squeamish as he felt. "Did you watch it?"
Sometimes, you can care too much. Teyla wouldn't ever understand, he didn't think. Not with the way she threw herself into everything she did, trying to save the world and not caring what it cost her in the process. But John had been there too many times. He'd never stop fighting to keep the people he cared about safe, but there were other places that hurt too much to go to.
He turned his back on Rodney and stuffed the flash drive back into his nightstand drawer. It'd be safer for him if he erased the thing, but he hadn't been able to bring himself to do it, yet.
"Why?" Rodney asked.
"Why did you want me to watch that?" Rodney sounded so hurt that John had to turn around. "Is this some kind of payback for what I said on the balcony? Because I wasn't trying to be cruel. I just wanted you to know that it was okay that you felt...well, however it is you feel." Rodney swallowed hard, and the angry patches high on his cheeks reddened further. "I never expected you to toss it back in my face like this."
"What?" John asked, amazed that his intention could have missed the mark so badly. "Rodney, I meant every word."
Rodney blinked at him. "What?"
"I wanted you to watch it because I wasn't sure if I could ever work up the nerve to say those things again," John said, slowly, like he was talking to Rodney's niece instead of a forty-year-old genius. "And besides, I wasn't sure what you wanted."
"You weren't sure what I wanted?" Rodney asked, making it sound like John was the toddler. "You were able to talk a replicator--intent on destroying human life as we know it, I'll remind you--into letting you into the room with it, all because I'm in love with you, and you weren't sure what I wanted?"
"Well, how was I supposed to know for sure if it was you and not the replicator having some stupid Freudian complex?" John's legs dropped him down onto the bed, reacting faster than his brain did. "In love? Really?"
Rodney raised his chin. "Did you really mean what you said?"
John nodded slowly. "Even the part about Radek taking up knitting."
"He'll be fine," Rodney said, dismissing Radek's mid-life crisis with a quick hand-wave. He crossed his arms over his chest, then dropped them to the sides again before putting his hands on his hips. "So, do you still want to avoid thinking about this whole thing?"
John stood up and took a step forward. "The cat's kind of out of the bag now, don't you think?"
"Oh, right. Good." Rodney watched John's feet as John took another step forward, and then he looked back up. His face was still pink, but John was dead sure it wasn't from anger any longer. "Because, you know, the way you kissed me...it? Up against the wall like that?"
John nodded. He'd dreamed about that moment for weeks. Wet dreams and nightmares both, but always with the taste of metal in his mouth. "Yeah?"
"Yeah," Rodney said, nodding back at John. "That was really hot."
John surged forward. He got his right hand around the back of Rodney's neck, and Rodney clutched at the front of John's shirt. They were kissing by the time they slammed against the wall. Air gusted out of Rodney and into John's mouth. John drew back, intending to at least let Rodney take a full breath, but Rodney latched onto the back of John's head and reeled him back in.
John was okay with that.
He'd thought the replicator felt alive when he touched it, but it was nothing compared to the real Rodney. Its want had only been a hazy reflection of Rodney's passion, stuttering and unsure and with a begging need to be fulfilled. Rodney wanted, yes, but he gave back. Their kisses didn't lose their hunger, but Rodney forced John to slow down, making him feel the moment.
"Oh, yeah," Rodney said, his voice hoarse and shaky. "Really hot."
John rubbed his smile against Rodney's cheek. He felt giddy, like his anxiety had been ripped away in one quick pull. He opened his mouth, breathing against the soft skin under Rodney's chin before he hardened his lips for a faux-bite. Rodney whimpered. John slid his mouth up to just below Rodney's earlobe, intent on driving Rodney crazy, but Rodney pushed on his chest. Hard.
"What? Don't tell me you didn't like it," John said, because Rodney was breathing with his mouth open and his eyes didn't seem to be working together.
Rodney shook his head. "The wall thing is a lot more enjoyable in theory than practice."
"Criticizing my technique already, McKay?"
"Yes, because obviously you have control over the hardness of the walls," Rodney said, rolling his eyes. "I just meant, hey, look at the nice comfy bed right over there."
John chuckled. "So what you're saying is that you're trying to get into my bed."
Rodney grinned. "Oh, absolutely." He shoved on John's chest again, one-handed and strongly enough that John had to take a step back to keep his balance. John didn't back up any more, surprised at how turned on he got from that minor show of strength. Rodney pushed again, and John gave up another step. By the time the back of his leg hit the mattress, John was rock hard.
Rodney set his palm against John's chest, smiling smugly. When the last push came, John twisted and pulled Rodney down with him. They wound up side by side, legs tangled together, Rodney's right arm trapped under John's shoulder. His pillow thumped onto the floor and his nightstand rattled ominously, but Rodney's outraged squawk was louder than both.
"You can never do anything the easy way, can you?"
John shifted so that he wasn't crushing Rodney's arm. The maneuver left him mostly on top of Rodney. "This seems pretty easy to me."
"Except our clothes are in the way," Rodney pointed out. That didn't stop him from thrusting up, rubbing his thigh against John's cock. John gasped and dropped his head to Rodney's neck while he waited for the rest of his body to catch up to the sensation.
"Um," Rodney said, pulling his leg back.
John raised his head. "What?"
"Have you done this before?" Rodney waved his hand between the two of them, avoiding John's eyes.
John couldn't resist, even though he felt his ears flame with the words. "Done what? Been in love?"
Rodney's eyes snapped away from John's throat. "Ah," he said, although it sounded more like a strangled cough than a word. "I meant being with a guy, but yes, that too. But you don't have to say it if you don't mean it, you know."
John dropped his head to Rodney's neck again, silently laughing into his skin. It wasn't that funny, but they were crazily, terribly, wonderfully ridiculous together, and John couldn't believe he'd never imagined it exactly this way.
Rodney pinched his side. "See if I ever try being considerate again."
"Whatever, McKay," John said, nuzzling deeper. "You'll be singing a different tune after I blow you."
"Oh, God," Rodney groaned. He scrabbled for the hem of John's shirt. His rough cuticles scraped the thin skin of John's side, and even that was hot. John sat up, straddling Rodney's thigh, and tossed his shirt to the floor. He wanted to lay right back down, but that wouldn't get the rest of their clothes off, so he stood up and stripped off shoes and pants and boxers.
"Wow." Rodney sat up, turning so that he was right in front of John. Still clothed, unfortunately. Before John could do anything to remedy that, Rodney grabbed John's ass and pulled him forward.
John had to close his eyes when his cock slid between Rodney's lips. Fantasy and reality, sensation and emotion all crashed together in a wave that threatened to swamp him. Rodney laid his hand on John's hip. John opened his eyes, still amazed but able to handle the ride once more.
Rodney had his eyes closed, his face dreamy with concentration. John brushed a finger across his cheek, right below Rodney's soft eyelashes. Rodney opened his eyes and smiled around John's cock.
"Jesus." John pulled back, almost undone when Rodney kept up the suction, not letting up until John pulled free with a pop. Only a few more strokes and he definitely would have been there, but Rodney wasn't even naked. John didn't want it to end so soon. He tugged Rodney upwards, and together they managed to get his clothes off.
"Don't you dare push me onto the bed again," Rodney said when John reached for him.
John held up his hands. "Would I do that?"
"Yes, you would totally do that, and you know it," Rodney said. Then he smiled evilly. "Just like this."
John was laughing too hard to stop Rodney's amateurish wrestling move. Not that he wanted to. It got them both back into bed, after all, and this time they were skin on skin. Rodney was hot, a little bit sweaty, perfect for groping and rubbing against. They kissed as they slowly ground together, thighs tight against cocks.
Then Rodney rolled, forcing John to lay on his side, and wrapped his hand around John's cock. There was no resisting this time. Rodney had complete control of him, both hands playing and stroking, darting up to pinch his nipples, then back down again to roll his balls in his sack.
"I can't believe this is happening," Rodney said. His hand stilled on John's cock, and he stared at it like he had no idea what he was doing. "Are you sure I don't still have one of those things in my head?"
John licked his lips a few times, trying to think past the need in his groin. He understood exactly where Rodney was coming from. He'd faced that demon in the past, himself. The only answer he'd ever come up with was to ignore the possibility, and he knew that would never be enough to put Rodney at ease.
Instead, he cupped his hand around Rodney's, slowly guiding it over his cock. "Did they ever make you think anything good?" he asked. "In the long run?"
Rodney shook his head, but he was still stuck in a stare zone, still fixated on John's cock and their hands.
"This is good, right?" John squeezed his hand around Rodney's, groaning when Rodney passed the pressure on to his cock.
"This is very good," Rodney said, and that seemed to be enough to break him free of his worry, because he quickened his pace and tightened his grip. John let go, let Rodney do whatever he wanted. It was so good, and John came with a long, low groan, eyes squeezed tight while the pleasure shuddered through him.
"Very good," Rodney repeated softly. John opened his eyes to see Rodney licking John's come off of his fingers. Shoving the afterglow aside, John sat up, shoved Rodney onto his back, and crawled down to his cock.
"Oh, yes, that, thank you, please," Rodney nearly shouted when John opened his mouth. Rodney's cock was coated with pre-come, salty with it, and John took his time licking him clean. Rodney squirmed and moaned and babbled some more, so much so that John had to clamp his hands tight on Rodney's hip bones so that he could get a good bead on his cock. The babble settled into a long, drawn-out sigh when John finally sucked Rodney fully into his mouth.
John pulled up slowly, keeping the head in his mouth as he looked up at Rodney. Rodney's eyelids were heavy, but John could see every bit of his heart in his eyes. John closed his own, realizing that he didn't regret any of the secrets he'd spilled to get here. The words would never come easy to him; that was just the way he was. But they were worth the cost to get out.
"John," Rodney pleaded, brushing his middled finger over John's cheek.
John slid back down, as far as he could, then took his time coming back up. He pulled out every trick he knew, swirling his tongue around the head until Rodney started thrusting under his hands, body begging for more as loudly as his mouth. The time for tricks was over. John let go of Rodney's hips and gripped his ass instead, urging Rodney to get as wild as he wanted. John wanted him to completely lose it, until the only thing in his head was pleasure and John.
"That's..." Rodney said, and then he shoved up, buried himself against the back of John's throat, and came. John swallowed fast, the taste of Rodney everywhere. Bittersaltythicksweet on his tongue, in this throat, not a hint of metal anywhere. He kept sucking until there wasn't a trace of come left and Rodney started to soften. Then he crawled back up and collapsed next to Rodney.
"Thank you," Rodney said, groping for John without much aim. "That was amazing."
John smiled, smug and content. "It was, wasn't it?"
Rodney snorted. "So I guess the answer to my question was yes."
John scooted closer, tucking his chin against Rodney's shoulder before he nodded. "To both, actually. I fooled around with guys some when I was young, before I realized the ones I could fuck weren't the ones I was willing to risk my career over."
Rodney rolled towards him, eyes wide, but he didn't ask the question John had left himself wide open for. "What about your wife?"
John choked. He had no idea what on, but he had to sit up and cough to clear his throat. "Let me guess," he finally said. "You just happened to stumble across my file while you were innocently looking for ways to compress the database."
"Actually, no," Rodney said, crossing his arms over his chest. The gesture didn't have the same effect it usually did, not with one nipple peeking appealing out from under his hand. "Ronon mentioned it in passing a few months ago."
"So much for the quiet type being discreet," John muttered, although if he was truthful with himself, he'd never said anything to Ronon about keeping it quiet. He settled back down against Rodney, ready for the inevitable interrogation. "What about her?"
"Were you in love with her?" To John's surprise, Rodney didn't sound bothered one way or the other. Only curious, and mildly so. Like he was asking what John's favorite cereal was.
John shrugged. "Yeah, at first. I think so, anyway. We were young, and it all happened so fast we didn't really get to know each other before things went down the toilet."
Rodney made a high-pitched noise. If John didn't know better, he would have called it a sad puppy whine.
Rodney shook his head. "It just makes me... You know."
John raised his eyebrows. "No, I don't know. Why don't you clue me in?"
"Sad for you," Rodney said softly. He still had his arms crossed tight, as if to ward off John's potential scorn, but John pried Rodney's right arm free, then rolled on top of him. Rodney immediately wrapped his arms around John's back.
"There's no need," John said, thick-throated at the idea that Rodney even cared about his past well-being. "I'm not sad for me at all."
Rodney stretched up, and John leaned down, meeting him halfway. They kissed for a long time, John following Rodney's mouth down after Rodney's neck gave out. It was slow and sweet, but hot enough to stir his cock again. John rolled to the side, considering going for more, but instead he kissed Rodney until they both fell asleep.
John whistled as he walked towards his quarters. He still wished Elizabeth had come back, but he was starting to get a handle on doing her job. He figured they'd find a replacement for her right about the time he started thinking of it as his. That was fine by him, though. He was more than ready to get back into the field with his team.
"John!" Teyla called as she jogged up to him. "Do you have a few minutes? I have something I would like you to see."
He almost said no, because he was betting Rodney was waiting in John's room for the third night in a row, but Teyla cocked her head to the side, giving him the wounded-deer look.
"Please," she added, laying her hand on his arm, and he found himself following her past the personnel quarters, past the common area they used for team gatherings, and into the transporter.
Teyla sent them to one of the outer spires. John stepped out onto the balcony that ringed the small room, taking a moment to look out at the sky. Atlantis shone brightly these days, fully powered by the ZPMs the replicator had built. She was a beautiful sight, one that never failed to move him, but the city glow made it hard to make out the stars from his usual haunts. This high up the visibility was better. The stars still didn't resolve into constellations for him, but they were beautiful nonetheless. One shone more brightly than the rest, the Apollo in synchronous orbit.
"This is one of my favorite places to come when I need quiet," Teyla said.
John turned away from the view and smiled at her. "Thank you for showing it to me."
Her smile was impish. "This is not why I brought you here."
"Oh yeah?" John was curious now, following eagerly when she beckoned. Instead of going back inside, she continued along the balcony, following the curve of the spire.
"Surprise!" Ronon and Rodney yelled at him, and yeah, John was definitely surprised. The cake on the table between them did all of the explaining.
"Didn't look at my file, my ass," John said.
Rodney laughed. "I never said I didn't. Just that Ronon was the one who told me about that...other thing."
John shook his head. He hadn't even realized today was his birthday. Keeping track of the date on Earth was really only important when it came to making sure they checked in on time. He'd had it in his head that the day itself was sometime after the Apollo was due, but he'd never bothered to figure out exactly when
"Happy birthday, John," Teyla said. "Is this all right? We thought you would prefer a private celebration to a big party."
"Which is why we didn't get the cake decorated," Rodney jumped in, sounding defensive. "You know how fast kitchen gossip travels."
"This is perfect," John said.
"Oh, thank God," Rodney said. He smiled at John, then started cutting into the cake. No candles, no fuss, just the way John liked his cake.
"I guess this explains all the old man jokes," he said.
Ronon slapped him on the back. Hard. "Who said they were jokes?"
"You're a riot, you know that?"
"Somebody around here has to be," Ronon said with a grin. He made a grab for the plate of cake Rodney held out, but Rodney slapped his hand away.
"Birthday boy first," he said, passing it to John in a way that felt proprietary. John resisted the urge to toss the cake aside and grab Rodney instead. He was pretty comfortable with Ronon and Teyla, but they'd probably be pissed at him for ruining their party.
Besides, the cake looked really good, chocolate with some kind of gooey filling.
They all concentrated on stuffing their mouths for the next few minutes. Rodney kept shooting him smiles around his mouthful, reminding John of the way he'd looked last night with John's cock in his mouth. John finally turned away out of self-defense, looking back out to the stars to cool himself down.
"Is it time yet?" Ronon asked.
"Time for what?" John turned around to find that Rodney had procured a bottle of champagne from somewhere, and Teyla was pulling four glasses from the lower shelf of the table.
"Elizabeth sent it," Rodney said. "She said we should drink a toast to the city for her."
John licked the last of the icing off of his fork, then piled his plate onto the stack next to the remains of the cake. Rodney handed over the bottle, John popped the cork, and then they all lifted their first round of bubbly towards the night sky.
"To Elizabeth," he said. The champagne didn't taste quite right after the cake, but the bubbles felt good. Clean, like they were washing away the taste of festering disappointment. He held up his glass again, waiting for what he was sure would come next.
"To Carson," Rodney said, "and everyone else we've lost."
They all drained their glasses on that one. John wondered who else Teyla and Ronon were drinking for; he knew they'd both lost plenty of loved ones over the years. He tipped the bottle again, trying to spread the last drops around as evenly as possible.
"So, to Atlantis?" he asked.
Rodney shook his head. Ronon and Teyla both smiled like they knew what was coming next, and John got a little worried. Rodney wasn't the one who toasted, though.
"To all of us," Teyla said. "And especially to you, John Sheppard. May you have many more happy years ahead of you."
John lifted the glass to his mouth, but he couldn't drink at first. He swallowed hard, then let the rest of the champagne slide down his throat. When he lowered the glass, Rodney gave him a look that promised a much more personal birthday present later. John winked at him, then looked back out at their shining city.
At their home.