It seemed just plain rude for the sun to be shining when they stepped through the 'gate to Sateda; for bright light to accentuate the jut of fractured stone and shattered glass at their feet – as though any of them needed help being appalled. John glanced at Ronon – a careful, sideways reckoning. His gut told him the guy was solid, trustworthy, dependable in a strange, impassive way, but he was more unknown than known. He'd been military, John reminded himself, noting the comfort with which Ronon's finger rested on the trigger of his gun and the blankness of his shuttered face. Hopefully he could still follow an order if needed. They'd see, he supposed; they'd see.
It was Rodney who tugged at his attention, stumbling to a halt when the ground before him dropped clumsily into a flight of cracked and listing steps, looking up and blanching at the sight laid out before him. "Jesus," he muttered, energy detector loose in his hand as he pivoted to take in the whole panorama of destruction. "It's—"
John wet his lips, adjusted his P-90, and didn't say a word. If Rodney was out of verbiage for this sort of thing, for the scarred concrete and twisted iron thrown left and right below them, well he sure as hell didn't stand a chance.
Rodney spun, gestured, paused. He looked directly in John's direction. "Hiroshima," he said, voice low.
And that was it, that was it exactly, the root of the recognition ghosting up John's spine – a half-forgotten memory from a garish, eighth-grade history textbook; a city burned down to rock and dust; responsibility like a splinter under every kid's skin as they looked at photographs, saw their own school, their own home, their own life, their fear.
"Hiroshima?" Teyla asked, curious.
John blew out a breath and tapped a finger against his gun. "Kinda hard to know where to begin with that one," he said.
"Science," Rodney murmured, mouth a tight line, gaze wandering out to the ruined spine of Sateda's back.
Like all metaphors, the comparison to Hiroshima was imperfect. There was little radiation in Sateda's atmosphere; the weapons and technology deployed against the planet had been of a different ilk. Wraith energy beams had carved deep scars into the landscape, tumbled the towers and pillars of the city, razed what must once have been a beautiful place. John squinted down the length of the major thoroughfare they were scouting, tried to reconstruct it in his mind, build stores and temples, high-rise towers; set keystones back in the center of the arches they'd once held aloft; hang gates and shutters on mended hinges. It was a hopeless task; the skeleton of the city suggested beauty in its ruins, but it was a beauty he couldn't grasp without a memory to build upon. He glanced at Ronon and wondered what he saw.
"There are flowers," Teyla commented, toeing a shock of yellow buds growing from underneath twisted cobblestones.
"Bladith," Ronon answered. "Weeds."
"Life, perhaps," she offered, gently.
Ronon grunted. "We used to pull them."
"You gardened?" Rodney asked, surprised.
"Chore. As a kid," Ronon answered, never relaxing his stance, arms tense, gun in his hands, eyes running restlessly along the street, flickering to what once had been rooftops, glancing right and left.
"Hmpf. I had to pull dandelions," Rodney said, looking back at his energy detector. "Five cents for twenty. Daylight robbery."
"You spent time outdoors?" John asked, baiting him fondly.
"Oh ha, ha," Rodney shot back. "Yes, Colonel, does it surprise you to know that I ventured outside regularly as a child?" He coughed and rolled his shoulders. "When someone paid me."
Teyla hid a smile. "They were flowers?'
"Hmm, yellow things," Rodney said, gesturing with one hand. "Tenacious – roots that went on for miles."
John quirked an eyebrow. "Miles," he said dryly.
"Well it seemed like it," Rodney offered, "but thank you for the reality check, Lieutenant Colonel Horticulture."
Teyla nodded. "And you would pull the flowers because—"
"They were weeds," Rodney clarified. "Ruined my dad's lawn."
"Grass," John put in. "Around the houses to make everything green."
"And the dandelions would—"
"Be – yellow in the green, look, I don't know," Rodney said impatiently, "I was a kid, I just did as I was told, and the moment I could afford a place of my own I chose an apartment surrounded by a sea of concrete and never worried about them again." He tilted his chin. "I suppose they were kind of cheerful."
Ronon came to a sudden halt, body tensed for action.
"What is it, buddy?" John asked, gun raised, watching the street.
"Not sure. Something's changed."
Rodney made a face. "Since the last time you were here? Imagine that."
"Since we started scouting," Ronon said shortly.
"Oh." Rodney colored and pressed a rapid string of commands into his datapad. "I'm not reading anyth – wait . . ."
John raised an eyebrow. "Wait?"
"Energy signal, two o'clock. Fluctuating. It's as if—" He entered more commands. "Hard to say, but it's as though there's some sort of weak shielding system that's—"
In the chaos that followed, his words were lost – the cobbles at Teyla's feet blasting into dust as an energy beam fell short of its mark, a bullet grazing Rodney's arm, dragging a yelp from his throat. "Cover!" John yelled, grabbing Rodney and shoving him bodily behind the tumbled remains of a wall, Ronon slamming down beside them, Teyla following suit. "How bad?" John asked – Rodney's injured arm was away from him.
Rodney blinked. "They shot me." Blood was showing between the fingers that he'd clamped to the wound.
John grimaced and reached into his vest for a field dressing. "Stun only," he growled at Ronon, earning himself a filthy look. "We don't know who they are."
A spray of bullets peppered the other side of the wall. "Don't seem too friendly to me," Ronon observed.
"These are not Wraith weapons," Teyla cautioned. "Whoever they are—"
"Still not friendly," Ronon replied, and let loose a shot over the top of the rubble, then another. There was a sudden quiet, interrupted only by the skittering of grit in the wind.
John gently wrapped the dressing around Rodney's arm. "Flesh wound," he said, matter of fact, trying to head off Rodney's potential to freak out. "You'll be fine."
"They shot me," Rodney protested.
Teyla laid a hand on his shoulder. "And I believe Ronon has nullified the immediate threat. Are you in need of medicine to relieve your pain?"
Rodney opened his mouth but John cut him off. "He's fine," he said firmly before Rodney could protest, working hard to ignore the blood on his fingers, the anger burning low in his stomach. "Right, McKay? If we're going over there to find out what the hell is going on, I need that big old brain of yours online."
"Sadist," Rodney snapped, pale.
"Yep. How to succeed in the Air Force 101," John nodded, clapping him on the other shoulder, trying to exude a nonchalance he didn't feel. "Suck it up."
Teyla pulled a powerbar from her vest, unwrapped it, and pressed it into Rodney's hand with an encouraging smile. "I will make sure you are able," she said reasonably. "If the pain becomes too much—"
Rodney ripped off a hunk of the bar and chewed mutinously. "I'm fine," he said, voice tight and angry.
"Excellent," John murmured. "How's that energy signal?"
Rodney picked up his datapad with his good hand. "Nothing." He punched in some clumsy commands, still chewing, still pale. "Maybe if I recalibrate the – and allow for the differential of the – but – no, no, I'd need to—" He frowned, then his face cleared. "Ha! Trace signatures – whatever it is, it's still working."
"Okay. So be prepared for more of the same," John said, raising his gun. "Ronon, take point – I got your six. Teyla, you're with McKay."
Rodney sighed and stuffed the rest of the powerbar in his mouth. "I just want to point out that I have been shot."
"Yeah," John said, purposefully not letting that fact rise to the forefront of his consciousness. His gut-punch, inexplicable affection for McKay was a goddamn liability at times.
"If I die of blood loss—"
"I will make sure that does not happen, Dr. McKay." Teyla helped him shift into a crouch. "You are much too vital to this mission."
"Yes, well, I suppose that's true," Rodney said, mollified, tucking the datapad into his vest and taking out his gun. He wiped his forehead free of the sweat that was beading there. "Ready when you are."
"Cool," John drawled, and with a swift hand gesture sent Ronon out ahead. The rest of them followed.
It wasn't hard to find what the men now lying unconscious in the street had been defending – a courtyard of mostly tenable houses, screened by ruins, carefully repaired so as not to appear inhabited at all. John crouched behind a mass of rubble, a Genii weapon he'd taken from the one of the men tucked into the back of his pants. "McKay?"
"Shield," Rodney murmured, tapping out commands on his datapad. "It's – almost nothing, pulling energy from . . . god only knows. Frankenstein's defense system."
John narrowed his eyes. "Wraith?"
"Not exactly. Not Genii, not Ancient – it's everything and nothing at all, a patchwork as far as I can tell, it's—" He sighed. "It doesn't make sense. Why would—"
John tensed as Ronon stood up. "Would you get down?"
But Ronon ignored him, walked out into the square, arms spread wide. "Satedans," he called. "We know you're here."
Rodney frowned. "Oh great. Now the caveman's gone and lost his mind—"
"Rodney," Teyla chided.
"Well what? You seriously think anyone survived here? Those guys are probably scavengers, we've seen their type before."
"Satedans," Ronon called again, crouching to lay down his gun.
"All right," John murmured, ticked off. "Teyla – you think you can work around to the doorway to his left?"
Teyla took a moment to gauge the terrain. "I believe so."
"Great. I'll go right – cover him, warning fire only, no—"
"Satedans!" Ronon called again. "I am one of you." And tilting his head to the right, he pulled back his hair, exposed his tattoo for anyone watching to see.
"Told you," Rodney said. "Lost his mind."
John sighed. "Just let me know if anything—"
Rodney grabbed his arm to stop him moving. "Something's happening to the shielding," he hissed.
There was a low hum and a soft whoosh of air, the sound of energy dissipating. John cautiously peered over the top of the rubble protecting them. "Well I'll be damned."
In the doorways and windows of the carefully repaired buildings stood people. They were pale, their faces reflecting hardship, their bodies thin and brittle, their clothes well mended, clean, but threadbare. "Your name," called one woman, walking out into the courtyard.
"You are Satedan."
She looked over him, head to toe. "The Satedans we know of died here, were culled, or ran as traitors."
"I was captured," Ronon said. "Made a runner."
The woman narrowed her eyes. "And you would bring such a device back to your homeworld?"
"It's gone. Removed."
"We've never heard of such a thing."
"I met—" Ronon paused as if to find the right words. "Friends. Allies against the Wraith. They helped me."
"And now you don't run. You're not pursued?"
Ronon nodded. "I'm free." He jerked his chin toward the ruins in the distance. "My friends told me there was no one left." He looked at the faces staring down from windows and doors. "But I asked to see for myself."
The woman tilted her head for a moment in consideration, then with small, quick gestures summoned two men and two women from the building behind her. They were armed with weapons, hefty shotguns with triple barrels. "You carry the marking of a specialist and your story is . . ." She paused. "I'd like to believe you. But given what's passed here—"
Ronon nodded. "That's fair."
"Come. We'll talk."
"I have friends." Ronon turned to look back toward the rubble.
John rolled his eyes. "Goddamit," he sighed. Following Teyla's lead he stood, nudging Rodney's boot to urge him to do the same, smiling as he rose. "Hi," he nodded. "How y'doin'?"
The Satedans trained their weapons on the group.
"These people removed the Wraith device from my back," Ronon said. "These are my allies."
The woman smiled in pity. "Three?"
"Three of many hundreds."
A ripple of whispers passed between the watching Satedans, dying into watchful silence. "Strangers," said the woman at last. "If you give up your weapons, you too may enter," she offered. "If not, we'll—"
"Yeah, I get the idea," John put in, lowering his P-90. "We're all friends here, nothing to worry about, stuff like that?"
The woman raised an eyebrow. "That remains to be seen."
Rodney sighed as the armed Satedans approached with short lengths of rope in their hands. "Oh this never ends well."
John was inclined to agree.
It was overkill, John thought, to be herded into one of the low, repaired buildings with gun muzzles pressed to their backs, but then what did he know – maybe the Satedans had learned all their moves from bad '70s' cop shows, illicitly trafficked between galaxies. He could see a certain Starsky and Hutch quality to their missions, and the Genii would just eat up Hawaii Five-O.
"You know, we're pretty nice people," he said conversationally to one of the guys escorting them to god knew where. He got a shove for his trouble and sighed, shifting his attention to his team. They'd been separated from Ronon, taken to some part of a main building far from the courtyard, Teyla walking ahead with quiet, contained grace, Rodney – John grimaced. "Hey McKay, how's your arm?"
"Throbbing painfully, why do you care?" came the reply.
"Has it bled through the dressing?"
"Not yet. My theory is I was shot by a bullet containing a small rodent that's presently trying to gnaw off my arm."
"This seems unlikely," Teyla said.
"Hello, metaphor?" Rodney shot back, huffing in pain as his guard slammed him down in a chair. "Hurts like you wouldn't believe." His mouth twisted as he tried to get comfortable.
"I have a great capacity for credence," Teyla said kindly, sitting beside him.
John futilely clenched and unclenched his hands as he too was pushed into a seat. "It's not hurting bad enough to shut him up, so I wouldn't worry yet," he murmured, as much to himself as to Teyla.
Teyla gave him a small smile, then turned her attention to their guards. "We are grateful for the forbearance you have shown in the midst of this intrusion," she said softly, deploying the diplomatic serenity that always made John feel like he should wash out his mouth with soap. "We recognize that it cannot have been easy to survive here all these years, and that other strangers may have brought trouble to your door."
One of the huddle of Satedans who'd escorted them stepped forward, a Genii rifle slung over his shoulder. "You think?" he asked, his smile cold. His face bore a long scar, keepsake of a wound imperfectly mended.
"I imagine that after some time passed, once the culling was done, scavengers came through the ancestral ring," Teyla offered sympathetically.
The man laughed harshly. "Mostly too late. By the time it was safe enough to try, we'd already collected most of what was useful."
"This is a large world," Teyla offered. "Surely you could not search everywhere."
"Enough places. No one coming through the ring wants to trek for four days on the off chance they'll find something they can loot."
John offered a wan smile of understanding, but he was more interested in the way the man's fingers twitched near his gun than in the words he had to say. Behind him the other Satedans shifted nervously, communicating discomfort in the scrape of their boots against the concrete floor, the quick, furtive glances they shared.
Teyla inclined her head in deference as if none of it were happening. "I am Teyla Emmagan," she said gently. "A survivor of Athos."
"So they hit Athos too, did they?" The man eyed her thoughtfully. "Dannit Hath. I was a teacher before the war."
Rodney huffed incredulously. "And what did you teach?"
John shot him a look. Rodney's cheeks were bright pink, but his injured arm was away from John again.
"Literature," the man replied, voice sharp. "We were storytellers for generations, before the Wraith." He stared Rodney down as though expecting challenge. "Few books were left after the fire. We salvaged what we could, and I write down what people remember. I teach, in a fashion, still." He let his hand drop to graze a thumb over his gun. "Different lessons."
Rodney hmmmed and fell disturbingly quiet.
"You must have questions for us," Teyla prompted.
A woman stepped forward, tiny, gaunt. "The runner. Where did you find him?"
"P3M-736," John offered, willing his thoughts back on track.
"P3 . . ." She looked confused.
"We do not know the names you use for planets," Teyla offered. "These symbols are the way we catalog such places for ourselves."
"Hotter than hell?" Rodney suggested. "Radiation levels no one should have to deal with, everything vaguely orange, mutant trees?"
"It may be Gatak," came a voice from the still assembled Satedans.
"Or Dinita," said another.
"Whatever," Rodney said. "It was a hunk of junk."
The woman eyed him calmly. "Why would you find yourselves there?"
"Science," John said.
"Oh please," Rodney offered. "The botanists were out making daisy-chains, that's hardly science."
John wet his lips and ignored Rodney completely. "Our mission in this galaxy's to explore, get to know people. We have botanists who examine the vegetation—"
"We know this practice. It was my profession too," said one of the armed guards, stepping out of the shadows. "I traveled, learned what I could of other places, herb-lore and natural cycles of—"
"Simia," growled Dannit.
She met his gaze. "If we can find common ground with these people, where's the harm?"
"The harm is in trusting people we don't know," Dannit bit out.
"They came to us with one of our own."
"And we know nothing about him," Dannit shot back. "What if he was one of Kell's men? What if this talk of being a runner is only talk?"
"You think he's a spy?" Simia asked.
"He's not a spy," John put in.
Dannit threw him a look.
"What the hell is there to spy on?" John asked. "No offense, but it doesn't look like you're exactly thriving out here."
"We have held our ground on Sateda for seven long years," Dannit gritted out. "We have refused to surrender to Wraith attack, to want, to poverty, to need."
John raised an eyebrow. "And you think someone – this Kell guy – would . . . take over if he knew?"
Dannit spat on the floor. "He is undeserving of ever coming back to this place. We will rebuild without him."
There was a murmur of dissent from the last two guards. "Kell is—"
"Enough!" Dannit ordered. "Your patrol is due. Go out to the borders of the shield, observe what you can."
The guards exchanged reluctant glances, but left. "Dannit," Simia murmured gently.
"I don't understand why anyone would help someone who runs from the Wraith," the first woman observed, ignoring Dannit and Simia both.
"Because it is the right thing to do," Teyla said simply.
"And our medical practitioners can remove those devices without hurting anyone," John put in. "Simple surgery. No big deal."
Simia smiled wistfully. "We have not known such medicine in a long time." She glanced at Rodney guiltily.
"I'll bet," John murmured, frustration tugging at his sleeve. "We could help with that. We could bring our med teams here."
Simia swallowed and nodded an acknowledgement that wasn't assent.
"We have food," Teyla said softly, pressing the point. "We would be willing to share our stores."
"And you have to let me talk to whomever's cobbling together the technology you're working with," Rodney put in. "Seriously, it's painful. Did they take classes in a cave? Who the hell pairs Genii tech with shards of a Wraith drive . . . that is what's helping to power your shield, correct? With some sort of exotic native trash thrown in?"
"Listen to them," Simia said gently to Dannit. "They can give us what we need to progress from mere survival to—"
"It's too soon," put in the first woman.
"And how long, Matee, should we wait?" Simia asked.
Dannit was prowling, patience in short supply. "Take them downstairs," he snapped. "Hold them until we're ready."
Rodney sighed. "Oh that can only mean prison cells. Lovely. I don't suppose you have a bathroom around here? No? Any plumbers in your commune? Probably not."
"McKay—" John said pleasantly, trying to catch his eye.
But Rodney didn't turn his head, tried instead to wipe the sweat from his face on the shoulder of his jacket. "Hey, I'm in pain here, I have very little concentration left with which to control my bladder."
Teyla smiled as the guards gestured for them to stand. "It is a comfort to me, Dr. McKay, to know that even wounded, you are able to find your wit."
"Wit?" Rodney asked, being hustled away. "I – what? No seriously, where do you guys take a leak? A bowl? Oh c'mon you've gotta be . . . okay a bowl, fine, I'll . . . take your bowl."
John watched McKay go and accepted help getting to his feet. He felt an undeniable, gut-level sympathy for the Satedans given all they'd endured at the hands of the Wraith, but he had his priorities – he wanted out, and fast. Plumbing was the least of it – beyond Rodney's injury there was a tension among the survivors that set John's teeth on edge, that communicated powder keg to him in letters ten feet high. He stumbled as his guard shoved him forward – for kicks, John imagined, rolling his eyes. "Way to be a cliché," he muttered, and, scoping for exits, followed obligingly where Teyla's guard led.
There were plenty of chances for John to assess the lay of the land as they walked through the building. He purposefully forced himself to relax into the familiar cadence of Rodney's complaints, tried to imagine what the building might have been in a past life – a warehouse perhaps, or a factory; there were iron bolts still lodged in the heavy-planked floors, and the windowpanes were small, intricately leaded, as though to lend strength to their fragility. Rough dividers had been thrown up where walls didn't partition the space efficiently enough – John glimpsed beds, pallets, rolls of matting, a dozen different places a person might find sleep. There were large communal dining spaces with singed tables and mismatched chairs, and here and there art hung on the walls, paintings and sculpture, twists of wire and colored glass that John knew nothing about, couldn't judge, but seemed pretty enough if you liked that sort of thing. Most baffling of all, there were curtains of every color – red and green, blue and purple, transparent to filter light, heavy to shield the sun. "You spent a lot of time foraging for interior decoration," he commented to a guard, and got another shove in the back for his trouble.
Their cell was a lot better than he'd expected – a dry, clean room that wasn't overly cold; pallets on the floor; blankets in a corner. Simia ordered their hands untied, brought them flatbread and water, fruits that looked like grapes as they settled in. "I'm sorry we can't offer more" she apologized, glancing uncomfortably at the way Rodney was cradling his arm.
John nodded. "We're good." Sort of. "Thanks." Simia stepped back over the threshold, shutting the door behind her. "Hey – I was wondering . . . "
Simia paused, looking through the door's makeshift window, a rough-sawn hole someone had added.
"Ronon. He okay?"
Simia smiled sadly. "He's safe here. As for the other marks of his well-being . . ." She shook her head. "It would be hard for any Satedan to come back, I think."
John nodded. "Thanks."
She nodded in return, and the hole was closed with the screech of iron sliding on wood.
"Food, Colonel," Teyla murmured, dividing the portions between them.
"Yeah." He sat down beside her, chewed on the bread. "No citrus, buddy," he offered, glancing at McKay. "Come eat."
Rodney shook his head, propped up against the wall, fumbling one-handed at a blanket. "I'm fine."
John exchanged a look with Teyla. "You need me to look at that dressing?"
John nodded, setting down his share of bread and dusting his hands. "Course it is." He stood up and crossed the room, dropped down gently at Rodney's side. "C'mon, let me see."
Rodney shifted just enough for John to see the blood seeping through.
John looked up to catch Rodney watching him and felt the intensity of it all the way down his spine. "Teyla," he said, voice pitched low. "'Nother dressing?"
She fished in a pocket and threw hers to him.
John caught it and turned his attention back to Rodney's arm, eyes downcast. "It's good bread," he said conversationally, unwinding the first attempt carefully. "Like that stuff on MR7-898."
"That was good stuff," Rodney agreed.
"No honey here, but—"
"I'm not really hungry."
John kept unwinding the bandage. "Doesn't matter. Your blood sugar drops and we're screwed. Eat 'cause I'm telling you to."
"God, you really like ordering people around don't you," Rodney sighed.
"S'why I went into the military."
"And the shiny, shiny planes were no lure at all."
"Well, sure, but I could've flown shiny planes and worked for Delta," John put in, pulling the pad away from Rodney's skin. He peered at the wound, held his hand over the jagged hole in Rodney's jacket – his skin was radiating heat. John grimaced a little. "How about we use some of that water to rinse this a bit?"
"Oh yes, and risk dying of dehydration, brilliant plan," Rodney protested.
"There is plenty to go around," Teyla said, smiling as she brought one of the containers over to where they sat.
"Well don't spill on the blankets," Rodney conceded, sounding miserable. "I'm not sleeping in the wet spot."
John snorted softly, smiling as he rinsed the wound as best he could. "I'll bear that in mind."
"Where's Ronon?" Rodney asked, flinching as John began to pack the wound again.
"No idea," John replied. "Figure if they've got questions for us, they've gotta have a hundred for him." He wound the bandage with a steady hand. "I wonder who this Kell guy is they were arguing over."
Teyla hummed her agreement. "He seems a potentially polarizing figure among them."
"All's not well on the good ship Sateda," John nodded, tying the ends of the dressing, tucking them down. "All done."
"Hmmm." Rodney's head was tipped back against the wall, his eyes closed.
John stretched out, reaching for the food. "Eat."
"You're so annoying," Rodney hissed.
"Yeah, well, I work hard at it." He nudged Rodney's hand with the plate.
Rodney sighed and opened his eyes enough to take a piece of bread. He chewed desultorily. "S'good."
Teyla smiled and wedged herself in on Rodney's other side. "I believe I may need to ask them how they prepare it."
John winced. "And then you'll give that recipe to the cooks at the mess, right?"
Teyla threw a grape in his direction.
"You know," Rodney offered, nibbling at the flatbread. "I'm not gonna be able to sleep."
John ate Teyla's grape. "I wasn't planning on teasing her all night," he clarified.
"Yes, because my world revolves around your juvenile pranks," Rodney replied. "My arm."
John eyed him for a moment. "Okay, here's what we do." He pushed Rodney's shoulder forward, making Rodney hiss, and slipped his own behind it. "Lean on me."
"Please don't sing."
"I'm not going to sing."
"It'd be just like you to know obscure '50s songs."
"It's not obscure."
Teyla tilted her head. "To which song do you refer?"
"There's a song," Rodney said, gesturing. "Called 'Lean on Me.' Old."
"It's not that old," John disagreed. "More like a classic."
"Like the Beethoven you shared, Dr. McKay?"
"What? God no, no, that's classical - he means . . . old."
John snorted. "And classical's not old?"
Teyla blinked. "You are most confusing men."
"Hmmm," Rodney agreed, drowsy. "And we're the best of the bunch."
Teyla smiled at John, openly amused as he chuckled softly. "Get some rest," he murmured. "I'll keep an eye on things."
Rodney's head thunked against his ear.
"I believe in some matters, Dr. McKay needs little ordering," Teyla observed.
John threw a grape back, shifting to take Rodney's weight more comfortably. "Don't make me sing," he warned.
She nodded indulgently. "I am sure that would be best."
The cell grew colder overnight, and when John woke to the touch of Teyla's hand on his shoulder, it was to find himself huddled and sore, shoulders cramped and aching from curling in on himself, trying to keep warm. "Oh god," he mumbled, uncurling.
"We have been invited to breakfast," Teyla coaxed. "And our hands are to remain untied."
John blinked, scrubbing a hand over his face. "Well that's good news," he said, slowly staggering to his feet, nodding politely at Simia. He straightened his shirt and looked across the room at McKay, noticed the two spots of color on Rodney's cheeks, the faint grey of his skin beneath. "You okay?"
Rodney grunted his assent.
Non-verbal. That was never good.
"I apologize that your first night among us was spent this way," Simia said gently. "But we've made good progress during the night."
"Progress?" John asked, following her out into the corridor, idly cupping Rodney's elbow, keeping him steady as they walked.
"Ronon answered many questions," she smiled. "He's known by reputation to some of the men who were away from the settlement yesterday. They've vouched for the truth of those parts of his story centered on Sateda. And we believe we can trust what he says after that."
"Did you think to look at his scars?" Rodney asked, gruffly. "The man's back's the best testimony he has."
"We did, Doctor McKay," Simia said softly, gaze flickering to his arm. "We did." She fell into silence as she led them back upstairs.
The dining area they'd passed through the day before was crowded now, and John blinked at the noise and hubbub. "There's a lot of you," he murmured, trying to make a tally in his head – a hundred or so, give or take a few; men, women, and even children, though none seemed young enough to have been born since the attack.
"There were more of us," Simia said, leading them to an empty table. "We lost many in the first days to sickness and injury. We have an infirmary still, but our capabilities are . . ." She spread her hands, helpless, uncomfortable.
"We can help with that," John said again.
"I know. Hanna has agreed to as much on the condition that—"
"Hanna?" Teyla asked, pulling out a chair. There was a chipped pitcher of water on the table, and she poured some for Rodney, then for herself.
"She spoke yesterday when Ronon came forward."
John thought back to the woman who'd taken command of the situation. "She's your leader?"
"Hard to say," Simia replied, frowning. "Our old ways of organization are—" She shook her head, looking off into middle-distance. "We had a chieftain, in charge of all things; clan mothers who took care of their extended kin. She was clan mother to the Feen, but no Feen survive. She is brave, wise, strong – many things we've looked to in the past. But she is—" She fell silent then shook herself, forcing a smile to her face. "I will bring you food," she nodded, getting up hurriedly and walking away.
Teyla arched an eyebrow. "There is much fear here."
John nodded, glancing steadily around the room. "Not that surprising. You gotta wonder how we'd do under the same circumstances."
"Where's Ronon?" Rodney asked, sipping from his cup of water. "I don't see Ronon."
"I know." John poured water for himself. "But then I don't see Dannit, Matee, or the pro-Kell goons either. Or this Hanna woman."
"Perhaps he is sleeping," Teyla suggested. "Simia did say he had talked through the night."
"Yeah," John said, making careful note of who was talking to whom, which people were paying them no attention, and who was staring without reserve. "Still - we gotta be careful with these guys. There's something brewing here—"
"I agree," Teyla said softly, looking up and smiling as Simia headed back. "Something troubling is at hand."
Breakfast was simple – more flatbread; a ground nut-paste to spread upon it; small purple fruits encased in a spiky shell. "Do you grow such things for yourself?" Teyla asked, splitting the fruit open with a fingernail.
"We . . . trade," Simia said evasively. "When we can."
We steal, John heard loud and clear. He couldn't find it in himself to judge them – he was sure he'd do the same; damn sure if he had people to protect.
Once breakfast was done, they retraced their steps of the day before, came to the room where they'd been questioned. "Ronon," Rodney said with evident relief, seeing him leaning against a wall.
"Hey," Ronon said, nodding, offering something close to a smile.
"You okay?" John asked, wary.
Ronon hitched a shoulder. "Tired."
"But other than that—"
"Fine." Ronon nodded. "McKay looks like shit."
Rodney hmmphed quietly, and John met Ronon's gaze, cocked an eyebrow and pressed his lips together. There was little he could say, especially once he turned around to find Hanna and others drawing close. "Morning."
Hanna inclined her head in greeting. "We have talked among ourselves and with Ronon. We would like to accept your offer of help."
John scanned the expressions on the faces of the Satedans ranged around her, noted everything from excitement to sullen dismay. "Happy to."
"We are still in a somewhat fragile position. I think from what Ronon has told us you will understand our need to—"
"Conditions?" John asked, setting his hands on his hips. Behind him Rodney sighed.
"One of you must stay here while the others return to your homeworld. Protection against any impulse you might have to take what is not yours."
John kept his face blank, privately deciding the Satedans were crazy if they thought anyone wanted their hunk of rock save themselves. "Okay. Who?"
"We leave that to you to decide," Hanna said softly. "Let us know when you have made the decision and we will let down our shield, allow you to leave." She gestured with her hand and the group withdrew – after a moment, she did the same.
"Okay," John said, turning around and facing Teyla, "here's what I need you to tell Elizabeth . . ."
"What?" asked Rodney.
"John, you cannot imagine that—"
"Hey! Team leader, I'm the one who stays."
Rodney spluttered ineffectually. "Oh yes, because that's what we need, to give Mad Maxine here that kind of bargaining chip."
"Who?" asked Ronon, confused.
"Never mind," John said, waving the question away. "It doesn't matter. I'm staying."
Teyla stared at him, unimpressed. "You are far too valuable to the expedition to risk yourself in this way."
"Yeah, well, I happen to think we all are," John replied pleasantly. "They won't consider it to be any kind of exchange if Ronon stays, McKay needs medical attention, and you're the best person to tell Elizabeth what's going on here."
"Your tactical knowledge would be of an advantage should the hostage require rescue."
"They're not like that," Ronon said brusquely.
John threw Ronon a look of disbelief. "Point is, Teyla can communicate what's going on here better than I can, what with being a diplomat and all. Sensitive to – nuance."
Rodney made a face. "There's nuance here?"
"I believe your decision is mistaken," Teyla pressed. "From what I can discern of their social systems, a woman is owed a certain respect which I might use to—"
"Or you could be a threat," Rodney put in. "Especially if they catch a glimpse of what you can do with sticks."
"They're good people," Ronon threw in.
Rodney snorted with disdain.
John blew out a breath. "Look, we just gotta—"
Teyla tilted her head. "I wish to stay."
John growled at the back of his throat. "I swear to god—" He shook his head. "Okay, look, McKay you got a quarter?"
Rodney blinked. "Of course, because I keep spare change in my pockets in case we run across an inter-galactic laundry service that runs on U.S. currency."
John ran a hand through his hair. "Fair enough. We could – rock paper scissors?"
Teyla inclined her head. "The game you and Lieutenant Ford would play by the fire on overnight expeditions?"
"Yeah, exactly, that. Winner gets to stay."
"This seems fair."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "This seems ludicrous."
John ignored him. "Okay, ready?" He balled his hand into a fist and Teyla did the same. "One, two, three—" He held his hand out flat, a sheet of paper to Teyla's rock. "Ha," he grinned. "I win."
"But this is a highly poisonous rock from the Enda region of Athos," Teyla said seriously. "Those who touch it will sicken and may die without medical care."
John blinked. "Yeah?" He shuffled his feet. "Well – this is a magical piece of paper infused with the antidote to that poison."
Teyla regarded him with a solemn expression. "The antidote is only available in liquid form. To spread it onto paper would be impossible – the . . ."
"I said it's magic," John repeated.
"There is no such thing as magic, John," Teyla said, straight-faced. "We have had this conversation before."
John narrowed his eyes. "You're fucking with me, right?"
Teyla's face broke into a wide smile. "You are learning."
Ronon broke into laughter as John swore softly under his breath and turned to yell in the direction Hanna and her counselors had gone. "Hey, Satedans," he yelled. "We've made a decision." He turned back around and said low, "Come save me from these goons."
Rodney rolled his eyes, Ronon kept laughing, and Teyla merely grinned.
From a strategic standpoint, John wanted to watch his team leave – to make sure the shield came down, that no one picked them off as they ducked back out into Sateda's ruined streets, that McKay's steps were steadier than they had been before breakfast. But it wasn't feasible – he could feel Dannit's eyes on him, evaluating, judging; he could sense the whispers of suspicion traveling through the community of survivors. So he clapped Ronon on the arm, nodded at Rodney in a fashion he hoped gave nothing away about the way his guts were twisting, whispered orders to Teyla to keep a particular eye on McKay, then sauntered back to the dining hall, poured a beaker of water, and went to sit in a corner with one foot propped up on a chair. He was half way through calculating the soonest he could expect to see Lanteans again when Dannit approached, pausing at his table as if he had something on his mind. John met his gaze steadily, glanced at the scar bisecting Dannit's face, wondered what had caused its pale, livid twist.
"Come with me," Dannit said at last.
John raised an eyebrow. "Where to?"
"I have orders to show you around."
John sipped from his beaker, thinking it over. So there was still some sort of command structure, social order, ranking system working here. "Hanna?" he guessed.
Dannit's cheek twitched. "Hanna."
John nodded and set his beaker down. "Grand tour. My favorite," he said lightly, standing up. He swore he could hear Dannit growl.
The stairs Dannit led him to were rooted in an alcove behind the kitchens, anchored to the walls by braces of heavy iron. The treads were rough-cut wood planks, four or five inches thick and dark with dirt, worn from the footsteps of Satedans long dead. John tried to imagine trees plentiful enough to supply these stairs; tried to imagine where they grew, how far they were hauled, but his mind supplied only the image of a ruined city, and he kept one hand on the wall as they climbed.
"Here," Dannit said, pushing open a heavy door, ushering John out to what was once an attic, a storeroom, a loft space, but now stood mostly open to the skies, rafters stretching crooked fingers up toward the silt-gray clouds, shattered slates lying broken at his feet.
"Protection," John said, immediately seeing the ruined rooftop for what it was, stretching up to run his fingers along a sloping beam.
Dannit nodded. "We worked quickly in those first days, reinforced the floor below, left this to suggest they had won."
"Smart" John nodded, strolling to look out over the city, imagining the Wraith's reconnaissance, wondering how many ships they sent. "They only came by air?"
Dannit tilted his head, impassive. "They culled whom they needed, then began to destroy. With their energy weapons, the firestorm they created, they had little need to send foot soldiers to finish the job."
"But you survived."
The comment was idle, but Dannit's whole body tensed, his posture poised to answer a challenge John hadn't issued. "We do not speak of it."
John shrugged, cautiously aware of Dannit's fisted hands, the taut line of his jaw. "Okay."
"There is chance and power and cunning in every tale of how one of us came to survive," Dannit said, low but defiant. "We don't squander that in idle remembrance. It does us little good to reflect on the split second choice or flash of fate that separated us from those we—"
"How many'd you lose?" John asked, half out of empathy, half out of a sharp desire to derail Dannit's righteous tirade before it could work its way too deeply beneath his skin, remind him of his own part in other works of destruction.
Dannit narrowed his eyes. "Of my clan, two others survive – a distant cousin and her son."
Dannit laughed bitterly and paced to the middle of the ruined floor. "You nod as if you understand, but you've no experience with such things. Ronon spoke of it. Your people haven't known the Wraith until these past few months."
John scratched at his jaw, feeling the rasp of stubble beneath his fingertips. "Where I'm from . . ." He hitched a shoulder. "We do this to each other."
Dannit narrowed his eyes. "You cull?"
"No, no." John looked back out over the city. "But we – don't get along so well. We fight." It was too easy to see Afghanistan overlaid against Sateda's ruins, to remember Bosnia, to think of schoolbook photos of war. "We've done this to our enemies."
"There was discord on Sateda also," Dannit said quietly. "Before they came."
"Yeah," John said, filing the information away. He pulled a powerbar out of his pocket. "You want some?"
Dannit eyed it. "This is your people's food?"
"Yeah." John broke it in half. " Keeps you going. Keeps McKay going – he gets pretty . . . cranky when he's hungry. It's best to be prepared."
Dannit accepted his share of the food. "I hope his wound will heal."
John tried hard for a noncommittal shrug, as if some portion of his brain hadn't been running over and over the same thought since they'd woken up that morning. "We have good doctors. They'll fix it."
Dannit bit into the powerbar, raising his eyebrows in surprise at the taste. He chewed, seemingly bewildered by the sweetness. "There's more to show you," he said eventually, mouth full. "The library is below."
Calling the room below the attic a library was a something of a stretch. There were shelves, and there were books, but there were four dozen of the latter if anyone was lucky, and everything was filthy, ripped up and torn. A dim memory rose in John's mind, incongruous amid the ruins of another world, his grandmother's rules about showing respect to the written word. He shoved his hands in his pockets, wanting to communicate he understood not to touch.
"All that's left," Dannit said quietly, picking up a slender volume, the binding of which had once been gold – flakes still clung to the battered spine. "Generations of philosophy, history, science, literature – religious texts, star charts, the records of our engineers." He carefully opened the cover of the book in his hand, supporting it with his palm. "The Ancestors' words," he said, providing John a glimpse of a page written in Ancient. "Wisdom beyond the ages and now there are none who—" He set his jaw and closed the book, returned it carefully to the stacks. "There's much we once valued that is lost to us."
John nodded, not trusting himself to say anything remotely appropriate to the gravity of the moment. He shifted his feet, causing Dannit to look up sharply, frowning as if he'd forgotten John was in the room.
"We'll go to the infirmary," he said, finally, "another floor down," and turned on his heel so fast it left John blinking.
The infirmary was better than John had expected – less Civil War stink and severed limbs, more the quiet austerity of a 1920s hospital. "What's wrong with these people?" he asked, counting twenty beds and two pallets on the floor.
"Some of the diseases are new to us," Dannit said. "Some are familiar, but we have no medicine. Some people sicken because we have so little food. Some are merely old."
John nodded, glancing at the whitewashed walls, the well-swept floor; the broad windows were cleaner than any he'd seen in any other part of the settlement. He narrowed his eyes warily as a tall, weathered man approached, reminiscent of Ronon in bulk and height.
"Dannit," the man said gruffly.
"Declan," Dannit nodded. "This is one of the men from—"
"I heard about you," Declan put in, cutting Dannit off.
"Only good things, I hope," John said blithely.
"You've sent for medicine?"
John nodded. "Our teams should be back before the day's out."
"So our esteemed leadership is finally accepting help," Declan bit out. "I felt sure the day would never come."
Dannit squared his shoulders. "You know the reasons behind the decision."
"And I know I've watched sixty people die because you and your—"
" – what would you have had us trade? Who would give up the vaccine if we had anything to—"
John blinked and wished ruefully he hadn't sent Teyla home.
" – and you'll steal Pishnan fruit but not medicine? And you claim to be so proud of being Tiba. Your clan would disown you for such—"
"When you have the courage to leave this hiding place and face the trials of other worlds I'll listen to this—"
" – as if you had courage when your wife was dying," Declan spat.
Dannit swallowed as if trying to consume his own anger. "We are done here," he gritted out from between his teeth, turned and left.
"I look forward to your medicines," Declan said with barely concealed disdain.
"Yeah," John said warily, cataloging the calluses on Declan's hands, the caution in his stance. He'd bet good money the doctor had held enough guns in his life to have earned the defiance in the way he stood, even if he was a medic now. "Me too." And with a nod of his head he jogged out to catch up with Dannit, slotting intel alongside intel in his head, clattering down the stairs, cataloging all the fissures spreading among the community, so lost in thought that he paid little attention where he was going.
John came to an abrupt halt at the bottom of the stairs, just fast enough to save a tragic collision with Simia. "God, hi, sorry – lost Dannit and . . . "
Simia looked back up the staircase uncomfortably. "You were in the infirmary?"
"Yeah. Met some Declan guy who—"
SImia sighed and nodded. "Then you won't find Dannit for a while." She gestured for John to fall in step beside her. "He was showing you around our community, I believe? I could continue where he left off if that suits you. You have seen the upper defenses, the library, the infirmary and . . . "
John glanced around the main floor of the building, at the twos and threes of Satedans huddled in corners, glancing his way. "That's all."
Simia chewed her lip. "Then it's high time you met Caius."
"Our chief scientist," Simia said, and ushered him through door, its peeling paint littering the floor with the incongruent yellow of a brittle sun.
The building next door was built low to the ground and put John in mind of someone hunched over to protect themselves from blows. There were small, round windows set high into the walls, and the plaster was cracked in places, patched in others, painted the peculiar shade of cream only ever used in institutions. The floor was bare concrete, scuffed and stained, with grates embedded a few feet apart. Everywhere there was hulking machinery, dull-metal gray, cannibalized here and there, wires hanging loose, hinges ripped. The place had the air of a disused penitentiary, and it made the hairs at the back of John's neck stand up on end. "What is this place?" he asked, fingers twitching for the sidearm he wasn't carrying, surrounded by too many shadows.
"Our science and research station," Simia explained. "The locus of our shield, the source of Caius' work to reclaim whatever we can in terms of power and resources."
"No, I mean – what was it?" John asked, gesturing.
Simia glanced at the machinery as if for the first time. "A laundry," she replied.
John cocked an eyebrow, amused. If universals were going to rise up and smack him in the teeth, he'd have preferred they be about peace, beer, and the prevalence of football across multiple galaxies, but no, it ended up that humans were obsessive in their pursuit of nice, clean sheets. He cleared his throat. "Not a lot of scientists left?" he offered, marshalling his thoughts back to Caius and the visit at hand.
Simia's expression grew rueful. "The Wraith knew our world, knew exactly where to strike. Our plants and laboratories, the hospitals in which our scientists worked – they were early targets for their weapons."
John side-stepped a scattered pile of bolts and screws, eyeing the fierce, determined line of Simia's shoulders, the way she seemed to share everything she knew at personal cost. "Knew your world . . . "
She inclined her head; polite, unhappy. "Many of us believe the Wraith were aided by Satedans in their quest."
"Why would anyone . . ."
"Worship," Simia said simply. "A hunger for power. Manipulation, idiocy, moral bankruptcy, genuine misunderstanding. There are a thousand explanations."
John blew out a breath, trying to extrapolate from his own people's propensity to pit country against country. It was sickening to imagine someone betraying a whole world. "And you think there was inside help because of where they hit first?"
"But you gotta think—" John waited for Simia to go through a door ahead of him before gesturing in the direction of the listing high-rises that had been the city's downtown. "Even to someone who's never been here before, it's pretty obvious what to hit."
Simia didn't turn her head toward the ruined city. "Much of the military's research was being done in bunkers beyond the town limits," she said as they fell into step again, John shortening his strides to better match hers. "To an untrained eye, the facilities would have looked like homes – new construction for a burgeoning population. They were among the first areas to be attacked."
John frowned, thinking the idea over; scratched the back of his neck. "So you think spies."
"Some of us." She gestured as if to encompass other survivors, and the single ring she wore on her right hand glinted beneath the weak electric lights. (Family heirloom, wondered John; token from a sweetheart, someone who'd died?) "Some believe that it was merely the superior technology of the Wraith that made it possible for them to know where to target – scanning devices, energy sensors, chemical detectors perhaps."
John remembered with repulsion the Wraith technology he'd seen. "Makes sense."
"Such arguments have lost their power of late. There is—"
"A difference of opinion?"
Simia's lips twisted. "I'm sure it's impossible to spend much time among us and not notice the factions."
She paused in front of a heavy iron door marked with letters John didn't recognize. "There are those who believe it was technology itself that called down the Wraith from the skies – that we should shun every attempt to reclaim the knowledge that was lost and instead return to a way of life that is more—"
"Backward?" John asked dryly.
Simia almost smiled, her green eyes flashing. "Primitive, perhaps. At least two women who are the last of their clan—"
"The, uh –" John waved a hand, searching for newly acquired information. "Clan mothers. By default . . . "
She nodded. "They have urged us to give up the shield, our weapons, what medical achievements are still with us, to return to the old ways that none of us recall."
John squinted. "Begin again?"
"Yes." She sighed. "They're wrong – at least I believe so. And Caius does too." She unlocked the door and pulled it open, gesturing for John to step inside. "He's expecting you."
"Well, doesn't that sound ominous," John drawled.
Simia laughed softly, and John was struck by the sound after a day of navigating the rigid solemnity of the survivors. (No one had ever told him 'don't trust a people who can't laugh,' but it struck him as a rule he could stand to live by.) "He's far from threatening," she said, following John into what was immediately identifiable as a lab. "He's 21 and self-taught, and our last best hope for rebuilding here."
John cocked his head. "21."
"And our last scientist since he was 14."
"No pressure, huh?"
Footsteps sounded behind them, and John turned to see a slight young man approaching, his fair, curly hair in disarray. "No pressure at all," the young man said ruefully. "I'm Caius Don."
The shield generator was perhaps the ugliest piece of defense technology John had ever seen, resting precariously at the back of the make-shift lab, listing slightly to the left and propped up against a wooden crate that someone had spray-painted with a series of ominous-looking symbols. John eyed the contraption warily – it was a work of intuition, determination, and probably no small amount of luck. It made his gene itch. "McKay said you had Wraith and Genii tech here, and something he couldn't identify . . ."
"Abathniss," Caius offered, nodding, fingers flying over a keyboard that reminded John of his first Commodore 64. "The small green module and the silver conduits. Some smaller pieces internal to the machine."
"Abathniss." John frowned, circling the machinery. "Where are you getting this stuff?'
"The Wraith technology was harvested from downed fighters during the war," Caius said, frowning at the antiquated Genii computer screen he'd set on top of two silver crates, tapping out commands to adjust the shield's power. "The Genii and Abathniss we've scavenged."
"Stolen?" John suggested lightly.
Caius shrugged. "Sure."
John leaned against a counter, hands in his pockets. "This morning you said you traded for food," he said to Simia. "That was more . . . scavenging?"
Simia colored. "We're not proud of—"
"Oh, please," Caius put in. "What's the alternative? Starve?"
John raised an eyebrow. "I'm just thinking if you can get off-world to scavenge, you can get off-world to leave here and start again."
Simia cleared her throat. "And we've debated that idea. But Colonel, I'm sure if you were in our position, if you were the last of your kind, you'd also want to hold onto the world that is your home. The root of your culture?"
John nodded but still looked at Caius. "So why'd you stay?"
Caius looked back blankly, as if he'd been asked to change the chemical properties of air. "Why would I leave?"
"I dunno, you were fourteen when this happened? I'm sure somewhere else there're schools, jobs, better shelter . . ."
"I am the last of the scientists we had," Caius said firmly. "Declan is a marvel at medicine, as is Tere who works the infirmary at night. But they know the body, not this world—" he waved a hand at the generator. "You'd have had me leave everyone undefended?"
"Undefended," John repeated. "So it's not just the shield. You're the one who repaired the weapons."
Caius colored. "Yes."
"Hey, I'm a fan of weapons myself," John offered nonchalantly, wondering why this was a topic of discomfort for Caius when the shield wasn't. "Nothing to be ashamed of."
Simia sighed as Caius picked up a small screwdriver and twirled it between his fingers. "Abna and Gilestra have been relentless in their suggestion that Caius has—" She gestured helplessly.
"Betrayed them," he put in, looking at John.
"Betrayed," John repeated.
"By turning to the source of our destruction to try and rebuild."
John frowned, not understanding. "The source of – wait, you mean science?
"Jesus," John sighed. "You people really have issues."
Simia huffed a breath of rueful laughter. "Isolation is a breeding ground for such things," she said.
"But you're not isolated," John pointed out. "You're going off-world."
"But not as Satedans," Caius said. "All travel through the Ancestors' ring is diverted to uninhabited locales before and after reaching our destination. We have breathed no word of Sateda's survival to anyone with whom we interact."
John frowned. "And that's because you think—"
"People will want this world for themselves."
"Okay." John started to pace idly back and forth. "I gotta say, you're really great, but – this place is a wasteland. It's a ruin."
"But it's home," Simia replied, spreading her hands. "And for all that we disagree about what our future should look like, we're united in imagining our future here. There are forces beyond this world that would trample any dreams we have of rebuilding Sateda if they knew we survive."
"But why haven't they already come?" John said. It made no sense to him. "If all they want is a shell to renovate – where are they?"
"They fear the Wraith," Caius said simply. "They fear the force of the vengeance unleashed here. No one believes it is possible to survive on Sateda, that the planet is cursed, doomed to be revisited by the Wraith should any try to begin. If they knew we had survived for seven years . . ."
"They'd rethink," John said.
"At least that's what we fear," Simia clarified. She shook her head, twisting her ring. "Everything is guesswork. We can't know for sure."
"But you trusted us," John offered.
Simia's expression softened. "Timing. You arrived when we're sick and hungry. Isolation that guarantees death is no protection." She examined her hands. "And you have no need of our world. You saved one of us from the hands of the Wraith and brought him home. You have defied many fears by your actions."
John shifted, uncomfortable. "Accidentally."
Caius looked rueful. "Isn't that how most things come about?"
John scrubbed a hand over his face. "Maybe." He looked at the wires and crystals, circuit-boards and cables scattered across Caius' workroom, the notes scribbled onto whatever scraps of paper Caius had been able to find. The contrast with Atlantis' labs was tragic – he tried to imagine McKay thriving in such a place, then snatched the thought back before it could take hold. "So tell me what you're working on, what you're using. Maybe some of our scientists can help."
Caius glanced at Simia, then back to John, expression wary but hopeful. "You have many scientists?"
"Dozens," John said, picking up an Ancient crystal. "Every branch of science you can imagine. Engineering, physics, mathematics, chemistry . . ."
Caius smiled. "I would love to meet them. All of them. Talk to them about—"
"All of them?" John asked, eyebrow raised, trying to imagine Kavanagh's abrasive personality in such a confined space; Caius enthusiastically peppering Kusanagi with questions.
"There are problems here I can't solve," Caius said, excited now, "conundrums that seem unmanageable. If I could only talk to people who have new ideas, more learning . . ."
John nodded. "McKay would probably come back. Even though your guys shot him." It was a low blow, but it felt good to say it.
"McKay. He was the man with the . . ." Caius gestured. "Words."
John smiled. "That's Rodney."
"He's a scientist?"
"Physicist. Something to do with mechanical engineering – he's smart. Really smart." He gestured expansively and quelled the urge to look over his shoulder, make sure Rodney wasn't around to hear him being so effusive. "Genius," he finished, weirdly proud.
Caius beamed. "I'd very much like to meet him."
John nodded, putting the crystal down. "Yeah, well, that's probably 'cause you haven't yet," he said, hoping that made him seem a little less adoring. He cleared his throat. "So tell me what I go back and tell him," he suggested.
Caius hurriedly picked up a fractured console and began to explain.
By the time Simia intervened, cutting off Caius' seemingly inexhaustible supply of questions and hypotheses, John's head was threatening to explode. He rubbed his temples as they headed back through the abandoned laundry toward the main settlement building, tried to commit to memory those things Caius had been most anxious to know.
"Your head hurts?" Simia asked.
John threw her a look. "Yours doesn't?"
She smiled. "I'm used to it. He talks to figure things out – I'm happy to be an audience if it helps him. He's very lonely. There are very few other young people here."
John nodded. "I figured." His radio crackled to life in his ear.
"Colonel Sheppard, this is Teyla," came a welcome voice.
John arched an eyebrow. "Came back for a rematch?"
There was a breath of silence that John could read as amusement. "Yes, I have returned to play more games in which my hands represent tools and relics."
"Knew you weren't a chicken," John drawled. "So. Bring anyone else along?"
"Doctor Beckett is here with a medical team, and we have brought a group of engineers, as well two units of Marines as an . . . escort. Perhaps you could arrange for the shield to be turned off?"
"On it," John nodded. "I'll radio as soon as it's done."
"Thank you. Teyla out."
John smiled at Simia. "Think we could ask Caius to turn off the defenses? The gang's all back."
Simia grinned. "Of course. At once." She laughed softly as she and John retraced their steps. "Perhaps your medical team will have something for your headache."
John grinned back. "Timing's everything, like you said," and joined her in jogging back the way they'd come.
Whatever Teyla had said to Elizabeth, it had been effective – the Lanteans arrived with basic medical supplies, a selection of vaccines, countless painkillers and a host of sterile tools. There were MREs, stores of grain and fruit spared from the Lantean share of the Athosian harvest, and basic comforts – blankets and sheets smelling sweetly of everyday laundry soap (something that would surely please a people who'd once owned the washing machines next door). The supplies unleashed benevolent chaos, the Satedans crowding to watch and stare, holding back, not interfering, but hovering, fascinated, as the Lanteans cracked open crates, lifted boxes, and distributed their gifts.
In the infirmary, Declan stared at Carson with outright hostility until Carson patted his arm and called him a wee laddie. His astonishment faded into tight-lipped gratitude as he set medicines on empty shelves, charged volunteers with changing bed linens, and consulted on diagnoses with Carson and his team. Measles was unknown to him, and jingktah to Carson, giving the doctors much to talk about through the long Satedan afternoon. In the interim, the Lantean medics distributed vitamin supplements, gave routine physicals, doled out painkillers, and checked teeth. A carnival atmosphere reigned and John stood back, amused, watching the delight with which people greeted the application of Tylenol to headaches and pains they'd long borne without choice. "Doesn't take much," he murmured to Teyla.
She smiled. "It's good to see such happiness among them."
"I agree." He quirked an eyebrow. "How's McKay?" he asked as casually as he could.
"His wound was infected – dirt from his jacket carried by the bullet, I believe? But he will be fine."
"Good." He felt a cool wash of relief in his chest. "And Ronon?"
"He was quiet on the journey there and back. But then—" She let an eyebrow rise and fall. "When is he not?"
"Good point." He pushed away from the wall he'd been leaning against. "I'm gonna take a look around, see if I can find him," he said. "See what he wants to do."
"You do not think he will wish to stay?"
John hitched a shoulder, uncertain. "I figure I should ask."
"I have been invited to meet with some of the clan mothers. Perhaps I should radio once I am done?"
John nodded. "Good plan." It would be interesting to see what Teyla thought of Hanna, Abna, and Gilestra – if her instincts bore out what Simia had explained.
The medical team had set up business in the dining hall, and John wandered back through the length of the central building, nodding politely at those he passed, alert for Satedans hanging back from the heady festival of blood pressure screenings and antibiotics, assembling in corners, whispering in huddled groups that became suddenly silent as he approached. There were fewer survivors watching him with suspicion now that the Lanteans had come, but he did his best to catalog the faces of all those who avoided the bounty of fruit and grain, who rejected new blankets, who turned away.
Ronon wasn't in the courtyard, the library, the sleeping quarters, or picking the lock on the room where weapons were stored. John climbed to the fourth floor, retraced the path that he'd taken with Dannit that morning, and found Ronon alone among the ruined rafters of the upper defenses, staring down on a city that once had been home.
"Hey," John said, not wanting to startle him despite the fact that his footsteps on the stairs would have alerted anyone to the fact that he was on his way.
Ronon nodded, but didn't turn around.
John sauntered to stand beside him, stuffed his hands in the pockets of his BDU pants. "You see things you recognize?"
Ronon breathed steadily for a long, awkward moment. He lifted his hand to point. "My school."
John remained silent.
"My aunt worked for the government." A high-rise loomed in the distance. "Seventeenth floor."
"Did you live near here?"
Ronon shook his head. "The other side of town. There'll be nothing left. There was nothing left when we still fought."
John pressed his lips together. "So – you wanna stay with these folks?"
Ronon turned his head, but John could read nothing from his expression. "No."
"No," John repeated.
Ronon shook his head, looked back out over the city. "I'm not like them anymore."
Well, that was interesting. John paused, wondering what to ask; how to ask it. "Because you were a runner?"
"Because they've changed. The world's changed." He squinted into the distance. "They're in ruins too. And hiding." He let out a long breath. "I'm done with that."
John scratched the back of his neck. "You can stay in Atlantis. You know that, right?"
Ronon looked at him. "Why would you want me?"
"Well you're kinda scary looking, I like that in a guy on point," John said as if it were no big thing.
Ronon's face remained impassive.
"Look – you hate the Wraith, we hate the Wraith," John continued, as if his stab at humor hadn't fallen flat. "We've got that much in common. We have space for you, you know your way around this galaxy better than any of us, you're great with a weapon." He hesitated for a moment. "You'd be an asset on my team," he said honestly.
"Well, and some other stuff. We explore a lot. Trade for food. Watch movies."
"Yeah, see, buddy, that's something you can't pass up. Trust me."
Ronon looked back at the decimated city. "Could I come back here?"
"Absolutely. You can help them out without being here all the time."
Ronon frowned. "I'll think about it."
"You do that," John said, clapping him on the arm. It was like petting a solid hunk of stone. He stepped back and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "I'll be downstairs."
John turned around at the door.
John nodded and left Ronon to whatever memories the city still held.
By the time they made it back to Atlantis it was night, the city operating on a skeleton staff, the more familiar faces of the daytime personnel replaced by people John knew only a little. It reinforced his sense of displacement; heightened the surreal quality of the past thirty-six hours. But Elizabeth was still awake, coming down the stairs to greet them. "John. Nice to have you back."
"Nice to be back. Be nicer still when I can get a shower."
Elizabeth's lips quirked into the tight smile she wore when she was amused but preoccupied. "Perhaps we can delay that for just a few minutes."
John groaned. "Swear to god, if one more person asks me my opinion on –"
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow.
"I was hired to shoot things," he said wistfully. "All this talking . . ." He waved a hand.
"Truly, a burden to bear," she said, amused. "The conference room, perhaps?"
John sighed. "All right." He turned around. "You, you, and you, you're coming with me," he said to Carson, Teyla, and Ronon. "And someone," he gestured to the Marines, "find me a cup of coffee or I'm demoting you all to lawn-jockeys at Gitmo."
With a chorus of "Sir, yes sir!"s chasing at his heels, John climbed the stairs to the conference room and slumped in a chair. "I hate this part of my job," he whined.
"The talking?" Teyla asked, amused.
"I liked it better when I just chased scary monsters," John sulked. Ronon laughed, and Teyla tried to look serene, but John suspected she was laughing on the inside.
"I'm certain there'll be many more scary monsters," Elizabeth reassured.
"Aye – I bet if I radio my staff they've been dealing with one all afternoon," Carson put in. "Rodney's no doubt been fussing up a storm."
John threw him a look. "He did get shot, you know."
"Gentlemen." Elizabeth folded her hands on the table, calm and in control. "The situation on Sateda, please."
John tuned out most of what Carson and Teyla said for the next ten minutes. It was five before someone brought him coffee, and another five before the caffeine began to penetrate the murky haze clouding his brain.
". . . and there is some resentment among the male members of the community that the clan mothers represent the only governmental structure that survived."
John blinked. "There is?"
"We used to have a chieftain," Ronon said gruffly. "Balance. Male and female."
"So why not just – you know, elect one?" John asked.
"Because the requirements for leadership are complicated, and no man among the survivors fulfills the tenets the Satedans once knew," Teyla explained.
Elizabeth listened with her head cocked to one side. "It sounds as if they need help restructuring their systems of governance. Or coming to see that perhaps they have to adapt and change."
"I think that would be helpful," Teyla nodded. "Even those women who have taken on the mantle of clan mother are younger than they would traditionally have been. It adds to the friction among the survivors, even though their presence has acted as the primary means of stability these past few years."
"There are other problems too," John said, turning his already empty coffee cup around between his fingers. "There's a schism over whether or not they should be using technology. It's served 'em pretty well so far, what tech they have, but they've only got one guy running the show and some of the Satedans . . ."
"They believe science caused their ruin," Teyla summarized.
Elizabeth frowned. "How?"
"By drawing the attention of the Wraith."
"But that's not how the—"
"They're just trying to find something to blame," Ronon put in. "Makes it easier. Makes you think you can stop it happening again."
Elizabeth nodded once. "Alright. We have their permission to keep sending assistance?"
"Yes," Teyla replied. "They have asked for continued medical help, and there is particular interest in us helping them evaluate the structural integrity of other sites."
"Good." Elizabeth tapped the table. "We'll send out engineers in the morning. I'll negotiate to bring in a diplomatic team – I'd like your help with that, Teyla."
"And John – we'll need Rodney if we're to evaluate their scientific work, give us a basis to mediate the standoff there."
"I'll talk to him." No hardship – his palms itched with wanting to check in on him.
"Thank you." She turned to Ronon. "I'm glad you convinced us to take a look with our own eyes, not simply trust the MALP."
Ronon shrugged. "S'the way we do things."
She smiled. "It's been instructive."
John pushed back from the table. "Cool. Great. We're awesome. I can take that shower now?"
"Please do," Teyla said archly. "You are – as I have heard others say – quite ripe."
John stuck out his tongue in a fashion he thought extremely mature and stalked off toward his quarters to clean up.
The halls were quiet by the time John made his way to the infirmary, his hair still damp from the hottest shower Atlantis could provide. His body, tired and fractious, urged him to sit down, but he paused stubbornly at the foot of Rodney's bed to study him in sleep, listen to the cadence of his breath, catalog the color of his skin, watch for any expression that might mean pain. Eventually satisfied that he could let down his guard, he sat in a chair, rummaged in the brown bag he'd brought from the mess and settled in to eat his sandwich – eyes closed, body and mind trying to wind down from two days on high alert.
"Meditating over fake space meat?" Rodney asked hoarsely. "The sandwiches must've gotten a lot better in the last twelve hours."
John opened his eyes, shoving away any flicker of pleasure that rose up when Rodney spoke. "Hey."
"Hey." Rodney coughed, trying to clear his throat. "Can you—" He gestured for the water by the bed and John reached for it, helped him drink. "Thanks."
John set the cup back when Rodney was done, and bit off another mouthful of pseudo-turkey on rye. "How's your arm?"
"Hurts," Rodney mumbled. "But it's the stupid antibiotics that are making me ill." He plucked sulkily at the IV in his arm.
"I know." Rodney yawned, bleary and sick. "And you? Ravish any Satedans? Come back married twice over having fathered six children?"
"Seven," said John, straight-faced. "My boys gotta swim."
The corner of Rodney's mouth twitched. "Feeble attempt to stretch the parameters of my belief."
John balled up his brown bag and threw it into the trash. "I know when I'm beat." He dusted his hands and reluctantly forced his thoughts to switch to business. "Met a kid you should talk to on Sateda."
"Take your alien to work day, huh?"
"He's the source of what technological know-how they have. Been winging it since he was 14."
Rodney frowned. "There aren't any scientists?"
"They have this kid."
"He's all they have, Rodney. And it sounds like he's up against it – at least two of the kinda sorta clan mothers believe they should give up on technology altogether after what happened."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Oh that's right, blame the scientists for the Wraith's appetite for destruction and—"
"Hiroshima?" John said, low. "Your words."
Rodney tightened his jaw. "Okay. But that's hardly a frame of reference they share."
John shrugged. "If you reckon it's just a term that means destruction then—"
"Fine." Rodney rubbed his blanket between the fingers of his right hand. "Fine, I'll talk to him."
"Hey." John stretched out a hand and squeezed Rodney's forearm. "I think he stands to learn something from you."
Rodney looked surprised, even pleased, before tilting his chin and covering up with bluster. "Well of course he does," he retorted without any real vigor. "I've probably forgotten more in my lifetime than he's ever going to know."
John smiled just a little, and caught himself rubbing a thumb gently over Rodney's skin. "So when you're better, we'll head over there," he offered, pulling his hand back. "You and me."
Rodney sighed. "Okay."
"Okay." He shifted restlessly. "I'm tired now."
"You need something to help you sleep?
Rodney shook his head. "'xhausted." He tugged on his blanket. "Are you leaving?"
John wondered if it was his own imagination, but Rodney sounded almost disappointed by the idea. "Nah. Most peace I've had in two days, sitting here."
Rodney's eyelids drooped. "You were the one who wanted to stay."
"Because walking back to the stargate with you would've been a fun time," John observed.
"I was in pain," Rodney yawned.
John smiled and nodded. "I know, buddy. Get some rest."
"Mmmmph," Rodney mumbled, but fell asleep quickly, head sagging on his pillow, face turned toward John.
John meant to sleep, but ended up he had a lot to think about, watching Rodney drool on his pillow and nursing a low ache in his chest.
It was two days before Carson cleared Rodney to go off-world and two more before Rodney felt sure he'd gathered up everything a 21-year-old "prince of science improv" could find useful. In the interim Elizabeth had begun diplomatic negotiations with the survivors, trying to help them craft a series of documents to guide the institutionalization of a new system of government. She came back each evening looking weary and thoughtful, and John gave her a wide berth, preferring to irritate Rodney by picking up all his physics toys and saying "does this vibrate?"
Five days after his return from Sateda, John lowered a 'jumper into the gateroom again, Rodney beside him – a tense, brittle co-pilot – and a team of botanists on the benches in the back.
"Jumper One, you're cleared for departure," came Chuck's voice.
"Try not to get blown up by the Wraith while we're gone," John said cheerfully.
"Why, oh why would you tempt fate like that?" winced Rodney as they skimmed through the 'gate to a deserted planet. John turned the ship around as Rodney dialed Sateda, skimmed through the 'gate once more, and activated the cloak as they flew to the settlement beneath a pale Satedan sun.
"I like living dangerously," John suggested.
"Yes, well, I think I've used up the entire quota of danger I was supposed to make last until I was a hundred and four."
John pouted. "Where's your ambition, Rodney?"
"In a nice safe lab with coffee and all the green-colored white board markers I could possibly need."
"And how many's that?"
"Thirty-seven at last count."
John nodded. "Seems fair. Green's very . . ."
"Green," Rodney suggested.
John maneuvered the jumper to hover above the survivors' courtyard. "Sateda, this is Jumper One. We're ready to land."
There was a distant crackle, then dead air emblematic of a radio being dropped. "Jumper One, this is Sateda," came Caius' voice after a moment. "The shield is down."
"Thanks, Sateda," said John.
Rodney made a face. "Was that him?" he whispered.
"Boy wonder, owner of the magic Satedan duct tape."
"If you mean Caius, then yes, it was. He has the radio because he's the one who controls the shield."
Rodney hmmphed quietly. "Is he twelve?"
John rolled his eyes. "Twenty-one."
"He sounds twelve."
"Well you can interrogate him later, but if he's twelve now, he was a pretty handy science genius at the age of five when the Wraith left."
Rodney lifted his chin. "I suppose you have a point."
"Why are you so bent out of shape about this kid?"
"I'm not bent out of shape!"
John snorted and set the 'jumper down. "Sateda, we've landed. Reactivate the shield."
"Reactivating," said Caius over the radio. "Welcome back."
"Glad to be here," John said, not entirely sure it was true. He deactivated the cloak and lowered the ramp. "Everybody out – and no one leaves without carrying something," he called. He powered down the 'jumper, patting the console when everything was secure. "Give the kid a chance," he said to Rodney. "You never know, you might like him."
Rodney pressed his lips together and checked his equipment cases. "And I might get home to find I have thirty-seven green white board markers on my desk."
John reached to lift one of the cases and grabbed a mess bag full of food. "C'mon, Mary Sunshine. I promise they won't shoot you this time around."
Rodney looked a little mollified. "Well that'll make this visit a good deal better than the last."
"See?" John smiled pleasantly. "You're already having fun."
Rodney elbowed him in the ribs as he tramped out of the 'jumper and into the courtyard beyond.
"Doctor McKay," said Caius, bounding forward the moment Rodney and John made it into his lab. "Doctor Weir gave me some of your work to read, I'm so thrilled you agreed to come, especially considering what happened to your arm, Tren's really sorry about that, he thought you were scavengers, but then you probably heard about that already, Doctor Weir talked to everyone, pretty much, she's great, I was fascinated by what you suggested about the properties of dark matter, I thought perhaps we might . . ."
"Caius?" John put in. "How 'bout you breathe?"
Caius laughed, colored and nodded all at once. "Sorry. Sorry, it's just been a long time since there were scientists around."
Rodney glanced around the laboratory. "I can see that," he said, setting down his tablet and laptop case on a worktop. "Is this the shield generator?"
"Oh – yes, yes." Caius hurried over. "Wraith, Genii and Abathniss technology."
Rodney frowned, poking at a wire. "Did you link the main console power system of a Dart to the crystals from a . . ." He tilted his head. "An energy scanner?"
"Is that what it was?" Caius asked. "It wouldn't work. I pulled it apart."
"It takes a certain gene to make most Ancient tech functional. Unless, of course, you cross-breed it with . . . " Rodney pulled a pencil out of his pocket and poked at the inner workings of the generator. "Low-grade naquadah, probably from the Genii, who probably stole it from God knows who, and . . ." He looked a little sick. "Is that lead? What the hell's the purple stuff?"
"Acronitus," Caius explained. "A conductor."
"Right, because why use wires when you can use rock," Rodney mumbled. "Where did the circuit boards come from?"
"The Abathniss," Caius explained. "Scavengers. We ripped the controls out of their ships after shooting them down."
"Lovely," Rodney commented, sounding bored. He stood up. "Well, from what I can see it's a wonder you're still alive."
"But," Rodney sighed, "you're obviously not completely stupid. I may be able to do something with you." He snapped his fingers and gestured at John. "Bring me the spare laptop."
John raised an eyebrow. "Since you asked so nicely."
"Hey, you're here to make sure I don't get shot by any of the anti-tech witchy wonders and Fleetwood Mac wannabes out there. Make yourself useful."
"Don't worry," Caius said to Rodney. "Abna and Gilestra don't like guns. They think of that as tech too."
"Oh great," Rodney said insincerely. "So they'll probably just burn me at the stake. So much better."
"Probably," John said, handing over the computer.
"Hmmmph," Rodney said, already attaching sensors to the generator. "Very reassuring. Now go away, I'm busy."
"Me," John clarified for a slightly bewildered looking Caius. "You two just go ahead and. . . science at each other."
Caius watched him doubtfully, but turned his attention back to Rodney as soon as the latter began to swear. "Okay, see?" Rodney said, gesturing to the laptop screen. "Your power levels are fluctuating wildly – admittedly within a fairly compact window, but still, anyone with a properly functioning sense of curiosity could detect you if the wind blew the right way. I did. So, here's what we need to do . . ."
John always enjoyed watching McKay rip apart fragments of the universe and reconfigure them to better suit his needs, clever fingers flying over keyboards, data-pads, crystals, and 'jumper controls. It was even better than usual this time around, since Rodney – improbably – seemed to warm to Caius quickly, answering his questions with rapid gestures and torrents of words, once even going so far as to draw on the far wall of the lab with a mechanical pencil, sketching out equations to make the principle he was explaining easier to grasp. Twice he descended into incoherent rage, grabbing at his own hair and turning bright red – for sheer amusement value, one of John's favorite looks – but then he was off again, showing Caius exactly why his presumptions about the way the universe worked were wrong, wrong, so very wrong, and Caius – to his credit – never once reacted with anything but a grin.
They ate when Simia brought them food, but the manic level of energy in the labs (John liked to think he was doing his own part to restore balance in the universe by leaning on counters and generally offering helpful comments like "Is that supposed to be red?") didn't decline.
"They seem to be enjoying themselves," Simia said, nodding at the pair bickering furiously as they bent over a datapad.
John tried the soup someone in the kitchens had made from Lantean supplies – unfamiliar spices, but it wasn't totally inedible. "I think they are. Rodney's usually a lot more abrasive," he smiled.
Simia blinked as Rodney exploded and threatened Caius with a pair of calipers. "Was it actually in our favor to have shot him before?" she asked wonderingly.
John smiled. "McKay's a good guy. Just—" He watched as Rodney crossed to the back wall of the lab again, scrawled more equations, explaining his method to Caius over one shoulder. "Passionate. Gets frustrated when everyone else can't keep up." He spooned up more soup. "How's it going with the botanists?"
"Very well," Simia nodded, smiling. "We've held back on planting, coaxing native species to thrive in any systematic way, for fear the Wraith might see if they returned. But your scientists have suggested numerous ways we could scatter our efforts to look from the sky as though nature were merely reclaiming the city."
"Good," John said, impressed. "So you can start growing food?"
Simia looked uncertain. "Perhaps. We need to test the soil. It's possible the weaponry deployed here left behind poisons. Only Bladith seems to have grown with any real success, and that was always considered a weed." She chewed her lip. "Your botanists suggested, however, that if we can determine the reason the Bladith thrives, we can plant species that have a similar chemistry." She grinned. "It's been a wonderful morning, to talk about nothing but what we might grow. So long since I had that luxury."
"I think Caius feels the same way," John said, gesturing with his spoon.
"It's a good thing, your coming here," Simia said, tugging at the hem of her tunic.
"Yeah?" John asked.
"Yes." She folded her arms. "I know the council deliberations have been going slowly, but—"
John shrugged. "Doctor Weir's used to holding hands, working things out."
"But we are truly grateful for everything you've brought us," Simia finished. "It feels as though, for the first time, we might do more than just survive."
John set down his bowl. "Not unless you get better cooks," he suggested, and Simia laughed.
Caius and Rodney's energy didn't flag all afternoon, and it was dark by the time Rodney blinked, looked up, and managed a ". . . links diffraction spots to . . ." before John thrust a powerbar in his hand, pushed him onto a stool and ordered him to eat. Caius looked a little dazed himself.
"You need one too?" John asked, wondering if all scientists were afflicted with hypoglycemia.
"No," Caius said, blinking. "Just . . . whoa."
John clapped him on the shoulder. "I'll give you a couple of days before I bring him back, how's that?"
"Yeah, that'd be – uh-huh," Caius managed, and sat on the floor.
"I think you broke him," John said to Rodney as they left the lab with the supplies Atlantis couldn't spare for more than an afternoon.
"Hmmm?" Rodney asked, sidling past an enormous washing machine, eyeing it nervously. He jostled John's hip, twitched and ducked his head.
John hoarded away the accidental touch. "Caius," he offered, clearing his throat. "You exhausted him."
Rodney blinked as if he didn't understand. "Well he has lots to catch up on," he offered, rummaging in his pocket for a glucose tab, unwrapping it and sucking on it thoughtfully. "But he's not altogether a waste of time. Who knew?"
John smiled and laid a hand on the back of Rodney's neck as they walked out of the building and into the main courtyard, squeezed the tight muscles there. "C'mon, Rip Van Woozy, time we—"
"Rip Van what?"
"Hey, I needed a W word," John shrugged.
"And that's the best you could come up with?"
"Woozy," John said again. He thought for a second as they walked. "Wistful."
"Wonderful?" Rodney suggested. "Wild?"
"Needs two syllables," John said, lowering the ramp at the back of the 'jumper. "To fit."
"So – wowza," Rodney offered, weaving through the cargo hold and sprawling in his chair.
"You wanna be called Rip Van Wowza?"
Rodney made a face. "Not really." He glanced over his shoulder as John raised the hatch. "We're missing some botanists."
"They're staying overnight," John said, preoccupied with the pre-flight. "Tomorrow, first thing, they're scouting for locations for new planting."
"Huh." Rodney stared at the empty cargo hold, then back out the front window. "Did I get hit by a truck at any point today?"
"Nope," John offered. "You just forgot to eat all the food I kept slipping you. Sateda, this is Jumper One. If you'd be kind enough to lower the shield, we'll get out of your hair."
"Jumper One this is Sateda," said Simia, laughing. "See you soon, John."
Rodney quirked an eyebrow, and gestured at the console. "Floozy," he mouthed.
John rolled his eyes. "Back in a few days, Simia. Reactivate the shield as soon as we're clear."
"Will do. Sateda out."
John activated the cloak. "Floozy?" he asked.
Rodney set his shoulders. "She wears an awful lot of pink for a refugee. Survivor. Thing."
John stared at him fondly. "Ready to go home?"
Rodney rubbed one eye sleepily. "Please."
John smiled at the warm rush of affection that pooled low in his belly at the sight, and guided the 'jumper up into the air. "On our way, McKay. We're on our way."
The survival of the Satedans should perhaps have ranked as some kind of miracle for months, but the community's needs became part of Atlantis' routine in days, not weeks. Elizabeth continued negotiations, considering it a victory to nudge Hanna's fractious council toward any kind of consensus, no matter how slight, while Atlantis' anthropologists, archivists, and historians rotated through the community, gleaning Satedan tradition from stories and myths, collecting folktales, memories and scraps of documentation, trying to help the survivors build a solid foundation upon which a future Sateda might stand. Others worked shifts among the survivors – medical personnel, psychiatrists, engineers, chemists, pharmacists, anyone whose expertise might help the community regain its physical, structural, and cultural health. John saw Sateda less than Rodney – defense was a simple business of schooling Lanteans in the business of remaining unseen – but even he dug in, cleared warehouses, loaned body strength to the act of building and securing new living space. Contact settled into predictability for everyone save Ronon, whose comings and goings between the settlement and Atlantis answered to a call no one else could predict.
"Do you think he has a girlfriend?" Rodney asked one night as Chuck dialed the 'gate and Ronon strode through. "I could ask Caius if he knows."
John frowned. "Girlfriend?"
"What? It's out of the range of possibility?"
John looked back toward the 'gate as the wormhole winked out of existence. "No," he said, discomfited by the question. "But maybe he's just figuring out where he fits."
He'd spent time with Ronon at the shooting range, had him put the Marines through their paces in the weight room and the gym. It was hard to say what portion of his skills were owed to military training, and which were gleaned from seven years on the run, but he dodged every blow John's men aimed at him; out-lifted, out-ran, and out-shot everyone. They'd begun a habit of running together first thing in a morning, pounding through the deathly quiet of the city, up along the gangways and into cleared areas where no one yet slept or worked. Nothing much was said, but John could feel Ronon relaxing by inches, begrudgingly accepting the company John offered. Another week or so, John thought, and he'd take him out with Rodney and Teyla, off-world; a nice, easy cake-walk mission, see how everyone gelled; see if they were a team.
"I still don't understand how something can be an incomplete pass when it doesn't leave the player's hand," Rodney mumbled randomly, typing a rapid string of commands into his 'gate-linked laptop.
John blinked, coming back to himself. "We're still on that?"
"You're the one who felt it was an abomination for me to go through life without understanding the difference between a passing motion and a tucking motion," Rodney said. "Can I help it if my brain turns rat terrier on unsuspecting and wholly unasked for pieces of information?"
"Okay, see," John began, and surrendered to another evening of mental warfare over the parameters of a sport that Rodney was, somehow, making nonsensical even to him.
Senior staff came too early the next morning – John's last memory before he fell asleep, face first, on Rodney's couch, was of trying to find the words that meant 'throw' and 'catch good' just after 2am – and it was far too easy to doze through Carson's plans for the infirmary's reorganization and his update on the Satedans' health. Dr. Wilkins from botany gave a brief presentation on the steps being taken to reclaim small Satedan zones for planting, from which John took away the knowledge that blue flowers unnerved him, and even Rodney's report couldn't rouse him to attention, not when there was spilled sugar on the table to rake into patterns with his nails. He was just about to fall asleep with his eyes open when Rodney cleared his throat in the manner John had come to associate with trouble incoming, twelve-o'lock, fast.
"I'd like to bring Caius to Atlantis," Rodney said, tapping the tabletop to emphasize his words.
John straightened in his chair. "Huh."
"Is that your military assessment of the situation, Colonel?" Rodney asked defensively.
John frowned. "I was kinda shooting for 'poetry' but . . ."
"Gentlemen," Elizabeth said softly, waiting for everyone's attention. "Rodney – this would complicate matters enormously. Our personnel have been under strict orders not to reveal the exact nature of where we are."
"Yes, yes, I understand," Rodney said. "But I've done as much as I can with the equipment he has there. He has tremendous potential, one of the brightest minds I've ever seen. If he could come here, spend some time in the labs, become more familiar with Ancient technology . . ."
"No one there has the gene," John put in. "It's not like they could make stuff work even if they had it."
"Which isn't the point," Rodney said impatiently. "He's soaking up information as quickly as I can give it to him. No matter whether he can apply what he learns directly to Ancient technology or not, it's the next step in his scientific education. He's the only means they have to apply scientific solutions to any of the, oh, thousand intractable problems they're facing, and it would be astoundingly stupid of us to refuse to go this extra step."
Elizabeth shook her head. "It's not that easy. Our security depends upon our allies – and our enemies – believing Atlantis is destroyed. Consider the ramifications if a loose word or a stray phrase got back to the Genii, for example."
"The Wraith," John put in.
"So," Rodney said impatiently. "We're surrendering to Glinda the Not-So-Good Witch and her cronies, are we? Eschewing technology out of some misplaced sense that ignorance is bliss? Or is it more that science is all well and good for us, but not for them?"
"Rodney," said Teyla gently.
"Oh please. What?"
Teyla inclined her head with a small smile. "It is commendable that you have taken Caius under your wing as you have . . ."
Rodney shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "Yes. Well. Whatever."
"But you must see," she continued, "that it is not just our own safety that is at stake in such a situation. He too would be at risk for what he could tell others of this place. And as the last survivor on Sateda in possession of the particular talents you have been grooming, he is too valuable to risk without serious thought."
Rodney set his jaw, but said nothing else.
"We should think about it," John said at last. "Even if we don't do it straight away, at some point the Satedans are gonna want to see where we're from."
"True," Teyla put in. "So far they have been too overwhelmed by the newness of the situation, the support we have offered, the speed at which change has come to ask questions. But we saw factions within their community when we first met; we know there are differences of opinion between them. I cannot judge how long before our willingness to travel to Sateda begins to take on a more sinister cast to those who are the most untrusting – before they begin to wonder what we hide rather than what we share."
Elizabeth nodded and sighed. "Carson?"
"I've no idea about the diplomatic situation," he said. "But it stands to reason there'll come a time when there'll be a medical problem we can't solve there." He half-smiled apologetically. "If it's to be a issue, we should think about it now, not then."
"All right." Elizabeth nodded thoughtfully. "John, I'd like you to begin a rotation of teams to our allied worlds. We need to ask questions – find out if our story's holding. Send only the personnel you think can do the job without giving anything away."
John nodded. "Easily done."
"Rodney, I'd like a report from you on the ramifications of each option we have. Which are the deficiencies in Caius' learning that could have real, negative, long-term consequences for the Satedans? If we train him on Sateda alone, what sort of development will they be able to sustain?"
Rodney nodded, his mouth still a thin line.
"Carson – a medical plan, if you would. Contaminants, epidemics—"
"I know the drill."
Elizabeth nodded. "And Teyla – your advice on the situation within the community would be invaluable. Perhaps Ronon could also help."
Teyla nodded. "I will ask him."
Elizabeth blew out a breath. "Not quite what I was expecting from this morning's briefing," she said with a small smile.
"You know McKay," John said. "Always keeping us on our toes."
Rodney threw him a look.
"I like being on my toes," John clarified.
Rodney winced. "Please don't force me to consider the image of you in ballet tights."
"Ballet tights?" Teyla asked, eyebrow quirked.
"You really don't want to know," Carson put in.
"I agree," Elizabeth said. "Initial reports in 48 hours, please. Dismissed."
The intel gathered by 'gate teams was promising. Most inhabitants of the Pegasus galaxy seemed completely uninterested in the general movements of the Lanteans, welcoming them when they arrived, saying goodbye when they left, but trusting the general and imprecise stories the teams had been repeating for months. John examined the off-world protocols, interviewed each 'gate team, and hammered home the importance of double-gate journeys so that Atlantis' 'gate address could remain unobserved. He busted one team down to KP duty for a month when he judged their attitude too cavalier, a move that had the added bonus of making everyone else tighten up their act a little and providing a seemingly unending supply of ready-peeled Atma buds for the Pegasus version of shepherd's pie. Things felt almost good, safe, predictable – which set John's teeth on edge and had him wandering the halls, wondering exactly what he was missing.
Week two of reconnaissance, Lorne's team came back through the 'gate looking rumpled and sweaty but relatively intact. John eyed them from the command room as they climbed the stairs – no bullet holes, mud on their shoes, tears in their uniforms, visible gashes or scrapes; no one was babbling incomprehensibly, purple, or speaking an entirely new language. He should have felt relief, but instead he raised an eyebrow, headed toward the conference room and waited for Lorne to follow in his wake.
John ordered the doors closed behind them. "What is it?"
John restrained himself from swearing – their run of luck had to come to an end sometime – and settled for slouching against the table's edge instead. "Major?"
"The Genii have been asking questions. Ladon Radim's team in particular from what we can tell."
"What sort of questions?"
"When we last came through, how often we come back. What we do when we're on Katresta."
John folded his arms. "Have people talked?"
Lorne shifted his feet. "They don't really know anything to tell, sir. And it's not as if we've been visiting on a regular basis. It's six months since we were there last."
"Nothing else, no murmurs on any of the other trips?"
Lorne shook his head. "Nothing."
"You're sure people aren't just staying quiet because—"
"As sure as I can be, sir."
John scratched the back of his neck, thinking. "Why'd they choose to start asking questions now?"
"That's what I don't understand, sir. If we'd heard whispers since we faked Atlantis's destruction—"
"But this is the first time."
"Goddamit." John sighed, thinking over their options. "Okay." He looked up. "Go back over the old security reports. Identify the planets we know held interest for the Genii before the siege – strongholds, allies, raw materials, vacation spots, hell I don't know. Anyplace that might provide us a clue as to what they're up to and why they're asking about us."
"Do you think it has something to do with Sateda?" Lorne asked.
John quirked an eyebrow, unsettled. "Well, the timing's right."
"Provided we're not just getting this intel late."
"Well, that's what we gotta find out, Major." John stood up. "Brief me tomorrow. 1400 hours."
Lorne managed a wry half-smile. "Always such a pleasure working for you, sir."
"I bet," John smiled before leaving to find Elizabeth to deliver the news.
Elizabeth sat down, distracted, in the chair behind her desk. "He's a scientist."
John shrugged. "He's also pretty handy with a firearm. Wouldn't have been on Kolya's strike force if he wasn't."
"But still." Elizabeth frowned into middle distance. "Why would the chief scientist of the Genii be responsible for—"
"Figuring out if we're still here?"
John shrugged. "Don't know. I've ordered Lorne to draw up a list of places to revisit, see if we can't gather some intel of our own on our Amish wannabes. But . . ."
Elizabeth arched an eyebrow. "But?"
"But I've got a gut feeling we won't find anything."
"Because you think Radim's acting alone, or because you think they're covering their tracks?"
"Could be either. It's not like we saw it coming on Dagan – Kolya knew everything we'd been up to and exactly when to show. The whole place was hip-deep in Genii spies and we never suspected."
Elizabeth tapped her stylus on the desk. "Wouldn't that suggest it would be dangerous for Radim to act alone? If the Genii have intel sources scattered through the galaxy, surely they'd hear what we did about his questions?"
"It's possible." John leaned across her desk a little. "But isn't it also possible that he can work that whole—" he waggled his fingers " – mad scientist angle, say he's playing a hunch? I mean, McKay could spin me a line about the cosmic properties of Bantha crap and I'd probably nod my head, figure he knew what he was talking about."
Elizabeth tilted her head. "Possibly." She rubbed one temple. "We need to find out which it is."
"I'm on it. I'll take a team out myself soon as Lorne has the list ready."
"Are you sure that's—"
"You already trust him, or you wouldn't let him 'gate back and forth to Sateda twice a day," John said, cutting her off. "You're nervous about bringing Caius back to the city, but you've never once suggested Ronon could be a security risk."
Elizabeth's mouth twitched, a tiny flicker of amusement. "Is that so?"
"Yeah, yeah it is," John said, sitting forward in his chair. "And I'll tell you what else – I'll vouch for him myself. If he screws up, you can have my . . ." He gestured. "Okay this would go a lot more smoothly if I had a badge."
"We could make you one," Elizabeth suggested. "Sheriff's star, perhaps?"
"That'd be nice," John said evenly. "Gold, of course."
"Of course." Elizabeth smiled indulgently. "Okay. Take Ronon. But pick somewhere he can't do too much damage if he decides to—" She wet her lips. "Exercise his considerable personal will."
John quirked an eyebrow. "You learn that talk at diplomat school?"
"Yes." She waved a hand. "Now leave me alone. Ready your team. Let them know the situation."
John got up.
He paused by the door. "Yeah?"
"We need this intel."
He nodded. "We'll get it."
M39-447 was a quiet planet – rural save for scattered market towns, inhabited by people who lacked an appetite for violence, held no bizarre and embarrassing rituals of welcome or diplomacy, and who grew a small bean called Chinka that was so similar to Kona it was all John had been able to do to prevent Rodney from ripping an entire bush up by the roots and trying to take it home on their first visit.
"I love this place," Rodney said, bouncing lightly on the balls of his feet once they were through the 'gate, cheerfully consulting his energy detector.
Teyla smiled indulgently. "The Geise are a pleasant people, indeed."
"Pffft," Rodney scoffed. "Whatever. Chinka beans?" He squinted at his datapad. "I'm not reading anything out of the ordinary."
John nodded as he watched as Ronon warily survey the landscape around them, body tensed for action, hand loose on his holstered gun. "That thing on stun?" he asked.
Ronon nodded once. "Let's go," he offered gruffly, waiting for Rodney to indicate which direction before he loped ahead, watchful and suspicious.
"I would be surprised if the Genii continue to use this planet as a store site," Teyla commented softly to John.
John hitched a shoulder. "Me too. But that doesn't mean they haven't been through the village. They're probably as addicted to Chinka as McKay."
Teyla raised an eyebrow, amused. "And his fondness for the bean provides us with cover."
"Exactly," John said, the butt of his P-90 snug in the crook of his arm. "We ask a few questions, haul back a few beans – nothing out of the ordinary."
"And you gain the opportunity to observe Ronon's demeanor among peaceful people," Teyla observed.
"That too," John said, lowering his weapon a little as they reached the paths that wound toward the village.
The Geise were fastidious, fond of beauty constrained by order; neat flowerbeds, trimmed hedgerows, weeded fields. The wooded areas that edged up to the village, bordering the footpaths, seemed to follow the implied will of the Geise by default, branches arching overhead in sensuous arcs, wildflowers clustering around the base of trees where fungi wouldn't have dared show their heads. It was quiet, peaceful – John enjoyed the place, the dumb, idyllic quality of it all – but the trees visibly unsettled Ronon, caused his shoulders to tense further, had him pull his gun from his holster and hold it between both hands. John exchanged a look with Teyla, got a sympathetic glance in exchange, and forced himself not to say anything, to let Ronon work it out for himself. As a tactic it worked right up until Ronon heard something in the thickets and raised his gun.
"Ronon?" Teyla asked cautiously.
"Something in there."
"It's probably whatever passes for a squirrel," Rodney said dismissively. "Come on, Chinka beans, chop chop."
"Something's in there," Ronon said again, baring his teeth a little.
"Oh fine," Rodney sighed and pulled out his gun too. "Okay, everyone has a gun now, you happy?"
John settled his P-90 into the crook of his arm. "I don't see anything."
Teyla pressed her lips together. "It is likely one of the villagers. They sometimes gather wild foods in these woods."
"Why don't you go see?" John suggested. "We've got your back."
Teyla nodded and gracefully slunk into the woods, showing more care than was strictly necessary, but John appreciated the show she was putting on. Ronon, for his part, held his position – didn't suggest Teyla was incapable of doing the job, didn't push against John's orders. So far, so good.
They didn't have to wait long. "Colonel Sheppard," Teyla called, still too far into the woods to be seen. "I have met a friend from our past. Deesta?"
John dropped his weapon. "Great!" Rodney was already holstering his gun again, but Ronon remained alert. "Gun down," John said low. "We know her."
Ronon's gaze flicked from the woods to John and back again, and John could see the resistance in his eyes. But he lowered his gun, slid it back into the holster at his side, and straightened up, taut with wariness as Teyla and Deesta ambled through the trees.
"Colonel Sheppard!" Deesta smiled guilelessly, her flowered skirts rippling in the breeze. "Doctor McKay! You have returned for more Chinka?"
John smiled politely. "You know how Rodney likes his beans."
Deesta laughed before turning her gaze toward Ronon. "You bring a new friend?"
"Ronon Dex, Deesta Travist," John said, making introductions. "He's new on my team."
"Ronon," Deesta said, bowing her head a fraction. "Welcome. Come, we'll brew Chinka and talk."
Rodney grinned. "Oh I love this place," he said again.
Ronon grunted but fell into step behind him and the young Geisan woman as they headed toward the village, covering Rodney's back.
"He enjoys the Chinka," Deesta observed, tipping her mug toward Ronon, who'd relaxed enough to break a smile as he swapped jokes with her brothers and Rodney on the other side of the vast kitchen. The windows were open, the scent of Deesta's flower garden filling the room, mingling with the earthier, bitter scent of the brew.
"Well, he's smart," John said easily, rocking his chair back on two legs and sipping from his own mug. "I only let the smart ones on my team."
Teyla smiled, swirling her cup of Chinka on the table top. "I am gratified to hear it, Colonel."
John nodded. "Always there with the pep talk when you need it," he said.
Deesta laughed. "It's good to see you all again." She pushed a plate of small, crisp cookies closer to John's hand. "It's been quite the month for visitors."
"Oh?" Teyla asked, politely taking a sweet.
"We had Genii friends here not two weeks ago," Deesta said happily. "They stayed for several nights, like the old times before the Wraith re-awoke."
John munched quietly on a cookie.
"It is always good to see old friends," Teyla said warmly. "I trust they have survived the cullings well?"
"They were in good spirits," Deesta said fondly, smoothing a hand idly over her skirts. "I believe they were hard hit by the culling's last waves, but they are recovering. They are working on . . ." She shook her head, frowning. "A weapon. Some – powerful weapon they believe might help restore balance against the Wraith once more." She smiled ruefully. "We were glad to hear that news."
John settled his chair back onto four legs, old memories of the Genii bunkers hovering at the back of his mind. "That's great news," he said easily. "Be good to have the upper hand."
Deesta nodded. "For all of us." She shook her head in sympathy. "It still pains me to think of your beloved city lost because of the attacks."
John hitched a shoulder, brushing cookie crumbs from his bottom lip. "We survived."
"Which is heartening," Deesta smiled. "Forgive me, I didn't mean to bring up bad memories."
"You didn't," Teyla assured her. "We often talk of the city among ourselves."
Deesta looked relieved. "Good. I should hate for her to be forgotten. And perhaps when the Genii perfect their weapon. . ."
"So they're still working on it?" John asked.
"Yes, though Galfon – the soldier who told me of their plans – said they were forced to search for raw materials destroyed when their homes were attacked."
"Ahhh," Teyla smiled, and leaned toward Deesta as if to share a secret. "You received this news in confidence?"
Deesta blushed. "I'm not sure Galfon was supposed to tell," she confessed. "But he was excited, and has a fondness for our planet that means he can keep few things to himself when they effect our fortunes as well as those of the Genii."
"All your fortunes?" Teyla asked, almost teasing.
Deesta colored even more deeply. "He is a particular friend."
John cleared his throat. "Well then, probably best you don't tell him we know. Avoid an argument."
Deesta looked conflicted. "I'm not sure that would be honest of me."
"We will not mention a word of your news to anyone," Teyla assured her. "We will keep your secret too."
"Well," Deesta smiled weakly. "Yes. In that case we – yes. I should hate for him to think I had broken his trust when in truth I am simply excited to—"
Teyla laid her hand over Deesta's. "I would have done the same in your shoes."
"Me too," John put in. "Well. But with – you know. A girl. Not a guy."
Teyla raised an eyebrow, and Deesta squinted in his direction. "More Chinka, Colonel?" she asked, covering her confusion.
"Don't mind if I do," John said genially, letting her take his cup.
"So they're trying to build more bombs," Elizabeth sighed, tapping her desk with the stylus from her datapad.
"Hello – of course they are!" Rodney said incredulously, pacing the width of her office. "Did you imagine they were just going to test their weapons and then give up? That they'd quit once they knew they could do it? They built them for a reason."
"I'd hoped that the cullings incapacitated them to the point of halting their program for a while," Elizabeth said.
"And it sounds as if it did," said John, arms folded, leaning against the plate glass window that overlooked the 'gateroom. "Deesta said they're searching for raw materials."
"Such as what, I wonder," Elizabeth mused.
"Like – oh – anything?" Rodney said. "We've no idea if they're searching for radioactive materials or scrap metal to build a delivery system."
"Could that be why they're looking for us?" Elizabeth asked John.
"Maybe." John shrugged the shoulder not jammed against the glass. "Know-how, perhaps. Could be Radim just wants to know who survived our blast, numbers, something to judge the power of his bomb. But—"
"There are the rumors Lorne's team turned up – Cowan's on the offensive. Maybe the raw materials aren't for the bombs. Maybe what they're looking for is a way to deploy the bombs off-world some other way than through a 'gate."
Elizabeth leaned back in her chair. "Ships?"
"Jumpers, planes, whatever people have. Our intel says Cowan's not looking to just bomb the Wraith anymore. He's looking to run the whole show."
Rodney made a small noise of disgust. "And it's not as though the Genii haven't shown themselves enthusiastic about the prospect of conquest and control," he said tightly.
Elizabeth rubbed her forehead. "I suppose deployment through 'gates is inefficient. You run the risk of losing personnel."
"And hello?" Rodney put in. "How about the worlds with a 'gate in orbit? The Genii can't get close to those and that's gotta be putting Cowan off his dictatorial Wheaties."
"You'll keep me updated?" Elizabeth asked John. "As our teams check in?"
"Soon as we hear," John nodded.
"Um – excuse me?" Rodney said, half-raising his hand. "Can I just make a point?"
John arched an eyebrow at the fact that Rodney was even asking.
"Of course," Elizabeth said.
"We're leaving the Satedans wide open for attack," Rodney said quickly. "Unless I can bring Caius here, update him on the fields I haven't been able to instruct him in, we—"
"Rodney," Elizabeth said gently. "How much of a target could Sateda possibly be?"
"Perfect place for a nuke test," John put in.
Elizabeth eyed him for a second, then sighed. "Of course." She shook her head and chewed on her bottom lip. "Okay. You can bring him here, but only if you're sure he can be trusted."
Rodney's face lit up. "Trusted? Of course he can be trusted! It's not as though he's a complete idiot!"
"Not complete," John drawled. "Heartening."
"Oh, shut up," Rodney shot back cheerfully. "Can we go tell him now?"
"We?" John asked.
"Well, yes – I mean, 'jumper and all, and I'm not good at maneuvering into small places like the courtyard and besides, you should probably—"
John rolled his eyes and pushed off from the glass. "Fine. C'mon. I wanna get back here before dinner."
"Real chicken?" Rodney asked, perking up even more.
"Real cheese pizza," John said, and whisked Rodney out of Elizabeth's office on the wave of stunned, joyful silence that followed.
John eyed the throng of unfriendly-looking Satedans surrounding him and figured he should've known that things couldn't go smoothly.
"Why does Caius leave?" Hanna asked, her words supported by mumbles of assent from the gathered survivors. John glanced right and saw Dannit ostentatiously cleaning his fingernails with a knife, perched on a stool by the door to the courtyard. To the left, Simia hovered on the bottom tread of the stairs that led to the infirmary, looking helpless.
"Education," Rodney replied at John's elbow, as patient as he was likely capable of being. "There's a great deal of scientific knowledge I can pass on to him if he comes back to my labs rather than—"
"The knowledge you shill has already brought enough destruction to our world," snapped Gilestra, her green eyes flashing with anger. "We need no more of it."
"I beg to differ," Rodney said icily, words pushing past an unfriendly smile. "We have reason to believe—"
"There are some bad guys out there," John offered, trying to be placatory. "We think they're looking for a place to test a bomb."
"What business is it of ours?" Gilestra challenged.
"It's a nuclear bomb," Rodney snipped. "A bomb of a magnitude you cannot imagine, except to multiply the damage already done to your world twice over, and then to generate debilitating sickness for years."
There was a ripple of mocking laughter. "How is that different from what we've already endured?" asked a young man standing by Gilestra's elbow. John eyed him. He could take him in a fight.
"It can get worse, believe me," Rodney said, jaw taut. "And if they believe there is no one on this planet, as you've tried so hard to pretend, then they will have no qualms about unleashing this weapon on your soil. You couldn't withstand it. Your shields won't hold."
Gilestra took a step forward. "So," she said softly, dangerously. "There are others like you out there, fond of science, marshalling it to destructive effect."
Rodney ground his teeth. "A great many people hold science in high regard. Destruction doesn't necessarily follow."
"But once again, technology threatens to bring destruction to our world."
Rodney narrowed his eyes in disbelief. "How, exactly, are you making this our fault? We're here to help you."
Gilestra sneered. "We don't need your help."
A sharp ripple of protest tore through the group. "That's not true," Simia said, pushing through the crowd. "Many of us would have died without their medicines. Our health would have continued to suffer without their food. We have become more undetectable because of Doctor McKay's work with Caius so far."
"Which doesn't yet explain," Dannit drawled from his corner, "why the first of us to be invited to their homeworld is a boy." He slid his knife back into his belt. "You don't trust us," he said, addressing John directly.
"Oh, please," John said pleasantly, showing just a hint of derision. "We're asking Caius because we can help him, and in turn he can help you."
"But Dannit raises a worthy point," Hanna put in, refusing to be distracted. "We have welcomed you here among us and not once have you extended an invitation in return. You know our strengths, our weaknesses, our scientific knowledge, our medical expertise. You have collected our folktales, our history, recorded it, and there has been no opportunity for us to move among you in the same way."
John refused to be baited. "That'll come . . ."
"How do we know," Dannit asked, "that you're not taking Caius away to weaken us further?" There was a general murmur of assent.
"Having Caius come with us for a week or so won't hurt you at all," Rodney said. "Your shield's in working order. Simia's been training several of you in its operation."
"And if it goes wrong?" asked a voice from the back of the crowd.
"And what if you don't bring him back?" asked another.
Gilestra bristled. "We don't need him!"
Things rapidly degenerated into bedlam, neighbors bickering with neighbors, occasional jibes, insults, and threats thrown in John and Rodney's direction. John backed away from the crowd a little, tugging Rodney with him. "Can you dial the 'gate from the 'jumper?" he asked. "Even with the shield in place?"
Rodney looked at him confused. "Um, I think so? A couple of modifications to the sensors, just a minute's work, and—"
"So go," he said, gesturing Simia over with a nod of his head. "Take Simia with you. Tell Elizabeth what's going on and suggest she get a diplomatic team over here straight away."
"What do I need Simia for?" Rodney asked.
"So they don't think you're trying to get away," she smiled apologetically.
"Disable the shield while everyone's distracted," John murmured. "Come back here and—"
Rodney lifted his chin. "Okay. Let's—" He took a step away then turned around. "Please try not to get killed in the next five minutes?"
"Five minutes," John said, trying not to feel pleased by the naked pleading on Rodney's face. "Gotcha."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "I had to be plagued by a literalist," he complained to Simia, following her toward the door.
By the time Teyla arrived with Ronon, Lorne, and Doctor Steele in her wake things had quieted, leaving John and Rodney to watch cautiously as factions of fuming, quiet Satedans gathered in scattered groups around the main hall, eyeing each other with distaste. Teyla arched an eyebrow at John as she approached. "Were you able to say something to mitigate the situation?" she asked, drawing close.
John looked at her as though she was crazy. "What do you think?"
She inclined her head in acknowledgement of his questionable diplomatic skills. "So this truce is—"
"They got tired," Rodney put in, arms folded mutinously over his vest. "Apparently they have no stamina for a good argument, as well as no sense."
Teyla raised both eyebrows at that, and turned to scan the room. "I should talk to Hanna," she said. "We will stay here while you take Caius back through the 'gate."
John narrowed his eyes. "I'm not sure that's—"
"Doctor Weir's orders." Teyla smiled at him supportively. "Your skills are needed back home, John. Let me see what I can do here."
"Am I being managed?" John asked warily.
"Perhaps," Teyla said. "But I would remind you there is cheese pizza in the mess this evening and—"
"Oh now, that's not playing fair," Rodney whined.
"Two cheeses," Teyla said archly. "Cheddar and . . . mozzarella? I am not sure if I remember the names correctly."
Rodney looked at John with bare-naked pleading on his face.
"Okay. Okay – but if you're not back by 23.00, I'm coming to find out why," John said to Teyla with as much menace as he could muster.
Teyla nodded. "And I am grateful for your vigilance. Now – I will make initial overtures to Hanna, and you can escort Caius off-world."
John sighed and glanced at Rodney as Teyla walked away. "I'm still team leader right?"
Rodney snorted softly. "Will it make you feel better if I promise to keep calling you 'sir'?"
John thought about it. "Maybe. Since you never do now."
"Okay." Rodney leaned back against the wall, eyes closed. "Sir."
John hid a smile and elbowed him in the gut.
They left in a rush, and John was too distracted by the practicalities of leaving with as little fuss as possible to think much about Caius. He operated on auto-pilot, lifting Caius' duffel up into the storage nets in the rear of the 'jumper, suggesting he take a seat and buckle in, half-listening to Rodney's diatribe of the hour – Why Gilestra Should Quit the Garlic – and sliding into his seat as thought it were any other flight.
Then Caius made a strangled noise. "Oh," he managed, sitting unsteadily in one of the 'jumper's rear chairs. "Oh – I . . . this is – you . . ."
Rodney sat down in the co-pilot's chair. "Yes, yes, try not to hyperventilate, puke, pass out, any of those things," he ordered as John raised the rear hatch. "We're on something of a tight schedule if we're to miss the latest Satedan re-enactment of a medieval mob scene."
"Don't worry about it," John said genially, powering up the 'jumper's systems. "Rodney's just anxious to show you a bunch of shiny new toys."
"And escape High Noon wannabes," Rodney muttered.
"Teyla's good at this stuff," John replied.
"What stuff?" Caius asked.
John let out a breath. "You kinda missed it. But not everyone's thrilled you're coming back with us."
"Hanna, Gilestra, Dannit . . ." Rodney began, as John coaxed the 'jumper up and out of the courtyard. "That short man with the spiky hair – oh, oh, the guy with the lisp?"
John blinked. "You're such a people person, Rodney."
"I'm terrible at names," Rodney said impatiently. "You know this. I don't know half the people in my labs as anything but 'you, the one who's marginally less stupid than the others.'"
"Are we—" Caius stood up and took a couple of fumbling steps forward. "That's the compound."
"Yep," John observed, angling the 'jumper back toward the 'gate.
"And—" All the air left Caius' lungs in a rush. "Sateda."
Rodney winced and looked over at him, not unsympathetically. "It won't always look like this."
Caius stared at the ruins of his home, spread out below him on a scale that defied comprehension. "We need—"
Rodney frowned, caught somewhere between impatience and concern. "Would you sit down? You're in a moving spacecraft in case you hadn't noticed, and I'm not altogether sure your legs are planning to hold. I am not cleaning blood off the console again."
Caius obediently sat back down, rubbing the palms of his hands against his thighs. "We need what you can teach me," he said weakly.
"Well yes, of course you do," Rodney put in.
"I mean—" Caius shook his head. "Gilestra's wrong."
John frowned. "You're only just figuring that out?"
"I try to listen to what everyone says, to – learn from them. But—"
"Listen, it's okay," John offered as Rodney dialed the 'gate. "We're going someplace safe, and if there's something Rodney and his team can't teach you there – well, it's probably not worth knowing."
Rodney hummed a little note of pleasure at that, but before John could take it back, Caius huffed a breath of surprise. In the distance, the stargate had burst into life. "The Ancestors' ring . . ."
"Never been through one?" John asked.
"Well today's your lucky day," John smiled, as they sailed through to PX7-921. He banked the puddlejumper as Rodney dialed again. "You get to do it twice." Caius barely had a moment to splutter his feelings before they were back through a second wormhole and coasting to a halt in Atlantis' gateroom, light pouring in through the 'jumper's windshield, illuminating John's hands.
"Where are we?" Caius asked, getting up again, moving to better see the activity of the base as John guided the 'jumper up into the hangar.
"Atlantis," Rodney said cheerfully. "Lost City of the Ancestors. Welcome to our home."
Rodney had an odd talent for impressing John at the strangest moments – demonstrating, for example, lightning fast reflexes as Caius' legs began to buckle, dragging him over to a chair, and shoving his head between his knees. "Breathe," he said firmly. "In, out, in, out, you know the drill."
John ushered the 'jumper up through the gateroom hatch to the main hangar, landing the ship gently in its allotted space. "You okay, buddy?"
"Well except for the fact that I sound like a demented Lamaze instructor, sure," Rodney snapped.
John raised an eyebrow. "I was talking to Caius."
"Oh." Rodney patted Caius awkwardly on the back.
"M'okay," Caius managed.
"He's okay," Rodney said triumphantly, as if that fact somehow reflected positively on him.
John nodded. "Cool," he said, lowering the ramp. "Ready to see the rest?"
Caius warily raised his head, his expression hesitant, and he moved with the caution of someone not entirely sure he could move without throwing up. He took a deep breath, and nodded, standing shakily. "Sorry," he said.
"Oh, please," Rodney scoffed. "You'd be an idiot if you weren't at least a little awed."
Caius smiled weakly as John handed him his duffel, slinging it over his shoulder as he followed Rodney out of the 'jumper and into the main bay. A welcoming party stood waiting – Miller, Stackhouse, Hanson and Bains; Zelenka and Elizabeth. "Dr. Weir," Caius said, still a little unsteady, holding out his hand to shake hers.
She took it. "Welcome, Caius."
Caius wet his lips. "Thank you." He looked around the cavernous 'jumper bay. "I never expected . . . "
Elizabeth tilted her head. "Atlantis?"
Elizabeth smiled wryly. "Well, that's good. It means our secret's safe."
He colored a little, but set his shoulders as if bracing for something disagreeable. "I don't mean to cause offense but . . . why would you keep this a secret? The city of the Ancestors – to know that it survived . . . " He lifted his chin a little. "They're right aren't they – Gilestra, Hanna, Dannit? You don't trust us."
Elizabeth shook her head. "There are similarities between your people's situation and ours," she offered. "Groups in this galaxy who believe this city has been destroyed, and – like you with Sateda – we're safer if they continue to believe that."
"But why not tell us that—"
John took half a step forward, ready to lay a cautionary hand on Caius' shoulder if needed.
But Elizabeth had the situation in hand. "How many people from other worlds know that Sateda's culture is not extinct?" she asked gently.
Caius shifted uncomfortably. "Next to none."
"For protection, yes?"
"We're in the same position, Caius. I promise you that our caution is born of a long and troubled history, not a particular distrust of you." She tilted her head, smiling. "And you are Satedan – the second of your people to come here. Your coming here is a sign that we don't mean to keep this secret forever."
Caius let out a long, steady breath. He nodded, not entirely placated, but John took another step forward, elbowed him, and crooked a conspiratorial eyebrow as if to say cool, huh?.
"Let me introduce some people to you," Elizabeth said warmly. "Lieutenant Miller, leader of one of our 'gate teams. Sergeant Stackhouse, Corporal Hanson, Corporal Baines, all members of our military team. For the duration of your stay they'll be your escort, happy to help you if you have any questions or need direction to a specific part of Atlantis."
Caius gave a feeble wave.
"And this is Doctor Radek Zelenka, a colleague of Doctor McKay's," Elizabeth said.
"Nice to meet you," Radek smiled, shaking Caius' hand. "Rodney has been very excited to bring you here."
Caius' smile warmed a little. "Thank you," he said.
"I know you must be eager to see the city," Elizabeth continued, "but it's our protocol to have guests undergo a medical examination . . ."
"To make sure we don't carry unknown pathogens into your city, I understand," Caius nodded. "I'm happy to do whatever you like."
"Thank you," Elizabeth smiled. "Colonel Sheppard, perhaps in this instance you could escort—"
"I'm going with him!" Rodney put in authoritatively.
" – Caius and Doctor McKay to the infirmary," Elizabeth finished, amused.
"Be my pleasure," John drawled, nodding his head toward the main doors. "C'mon McKay. Double time."
"What?" Rodney asked, confused. "Running? I don't think so, I—"
But Caius was already heading toward the hanger doors, leaving Rodney little choice but to jog to catch up.
The moment Beckett pronounced Caius healthy, Rodney disappeared into the labs, Caius close behind, and for five days the only hope John had of seeing either was if he went down there himself. He told himself it was part of his job, to keep an eye on the guest in their midst, but in truth he found it fascinating, even entertaining, to lean in the doorway of laboratory six – commandeered by Rodney for Caius' use – and watch them heckle each other, splash equations across whiteboards, debate the behavior of exotic particles, bend their heads over a single laptop and watch schematics unfold as Atlantis raised her shield. Zelenka, Simpson, Vogel and Kusanagi all took their turn, Rodney begrudgingly surrendering Caius to their expertise, and when Caius grew tired and turned in for the night, Rodney kept working, fueled by powerbars and coffee and pride. John caught him falling asleep over his laptop more than once, urged him up with a gentle hand beneath his elbow and escorted him back to his quarters, ignoring the grumbling complaints heaped on his head in favor of the quiet satisfaction of settling Rodney into his bed. And if on the second night he doubled back once Rodney was sleeping and left thirty-seven green white-board markers on his desk while the lab was deserted, then that was his business, and no one was around to know.
Negotiations continued on Sateda over the survivors' right to travel through the 'gate to a place they didn't yet know was Atlantis, and two 'gate teams came in hot from routine patrols, one marine with spines embedded in her thighs, testing the limits of Beckett's surgical skills when it came to removing quills that came from giant, feral porcupines. It was – the general shortage of tuttle root, Tylenol, caulk, and size 11 boots included – an average run of days in the Pegasus galaxy; deep space sensors searching for Wraith activity, 'gate teams tracking the Genii as best they could, and a fight breaking out on level three between four anthropologists over one stray Snickers bar.
"There's trouble brewing among the survivors," Ronon said during his and John's morning run on day eight of Caius' visit.
John paused and took a drink from his water bottle, gave himself a second to catch his breath. Ronon didn't even seem winded, the bastard. "New trouble?"
Ronon nodded. "Kell has sympathizers. I think they're trying to find him."
"Kell." John drank from his water bottle again. "The commander guy."
"Some of them think so." Ronon grimaced, leaning against the catwalk railing. "He sacrificed enough people to make sure he got to the 'gate. Doesn't surprise me to think he lived."
John nodded. "So they're looking."
"Yeah. Going out in pairs."
"And no one's noticed this?"
"They're going on regular trade missions – scavenging, stuff like that. Combining the two."
"But you've heard them talk."
Ronon smiled wryly. "They forget I'm listening."
"Handy," John said, again. He swallowed and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "So I'm guessing they're less than pleased with the way Hanna and friends are running things."
"Why don't they just . . . "
"It'd be disastrous if he took over. He's—"
"An egomaniac, a criminal, a coward."
"Yeah." Ronon ground his teeth in disgust. "He comes back, he makes Sateda his kingdom."
John thought of the survivors, their adaptations, their allegiance to what fragments of their culture they still carried. "No."
John turned his water bottle around and around in his hand, thoughtful. "What do you want to do?"
Ronon straightened. "Kill him."
John raised an eyebrow. "Not exactly sure we're on a search and destroy mission."
"We can go look for him ourselves. Find out what's going on"
John nodded, thinking it over. "We could do that. But we gotta tell Elizabeth what's brewing. She brings people back here, word gets out that—"
"I know who Kell's people are. They're not coming here."
"I'm more worried that whoever comes, they'll talk. Go back and say that Atlantis exists and—"
Ronon grunted his understanding.
"I'll talk to Lorne," John said. "Get new teams assembled. We can divert some energy from the Genii watch for a while."
"No need for thanks," John said, serious. "This is what we do."
Ronon eyed him speculatively for a moment, then managed a half-smile. "Race you back to the mess."
"Oh you're on," John said sardonically, then feinted and sprinted away, trying to get the head start that was his only hope in the world of winning.
"We can't hold back on our promise to bring the Satedans here," Elizabeth said, mouth tight and thin. "Too much hangs on the understanding we've hammered out."
"I know," John said patiently, leaning forward in his chair just a fraction, hand splayed on her desk. "I just think maybe we could delay—"
"It would be disastrous, Colonel," Teyla put in, shaking her head. "It has taken enormous effort to calm the anger among the survivors, to construct a delegation that both sides feel they can trust." She spread her hands against her thighs. "We are bound to honor the arrangement."
John exchanged a look with Ronon. "Are we ready for the consequences?"
Elizabeth sat back in her chair. "Do we have a choice?"
"This could get bad."
"So I'll expect a plan on my desk before the end of tomorrow," Elizabeth said calmly. "Get your best minds together and plot our options." She laid down her stylus. "We're beyond the point where we can call the shots in a vacuum, John. We can't leave the Satedans at the mercy of the Genii, and we can't afford to lose their trust, especially now we're sure Kell has sympathizers in their midst. Giving that group ammunition to attract more people to their cause?"
"Bad idea," Ronon put in.
Elizabeth nodded. "Caius is learning everything the science team can throw at him," she said. "We're gathering intelligence on the Genii. Bringing a delegation of survivors to Atlantis, even if it risks our discovery by forces we'd rather avoid . . . it's one of the best weapons we have to deploy against the ascendancy of Kell or anyone else who'd try to take advantage of the factionalism on Sateda."
John sighed, plagued by the strangest sense of deja-vu over the entire conversation – a discussion already had, but with every player mouthing different words. "You're right. I just—" He shrugged, offering a half-smile. "I was planning on a vacation. Beach, surf, couple of weeks drinking hooch . . ."
Teyla smirked. "Perhaps after the Wraith are conquered."
"So next Tuesday?" Elizabeth said archly.
Ronon snorted, amused. "You people are strange," he offered.
"That we are," John said, pushing his chair back and standing. "Okay. Contingency plans. Tactics. Strategy. On my way."
Teyla stood to go with him.
"Teyla," Elizabeth said. "Your diplomatic skills are—"
"She's my team, Elizabeth," John cut in.
Elizabeth held his gaze for a second.
"All right," she conceded. "First plans by tomorrow. The delegation comes in four days."
John nodded and left the office, radioing Lorne as Ronon and Teyla followed in his wake.
It was straight-forward, if time-consuming, to set in place a tactical plan to deal with the multiple consequences of the events unfolding around them. John ordered Lorne to review all existing plans for the defense of Atlantis, while the lower ranking Marines conducted a double inventory of munitions and stores. He placed Cadman in charge of coordinating the search for improved tactical defense points in light of the damage done to the city during the siege, and assigned Miller to an inspection of the entire 'jumper fleet. John focused on Kell and the Genii, working with Teyla, Ronon, Stackhouse and Kagan to finalize intel expeditions and rosters for off-world activity.
After two days of preparations, report turned in, eyes burning with fatigue, John stumbled back to his quarters and collapsed onto his bed, fully clothed. He'd barely had chance to close his eyes when the door chimed; Rodney stood in the hallway, agitated within an inch of his life. "He won't take the time to learn the principles of nuclear energy," he babbled. "He says it's too dangerous. Dangerous! Like there's any more danger in nuclear energy than any of the other forms he's encountered."
"Caius?" John asked, drowsy and confused, gesturing Rodney inside.
"Yes, Caius!" Rodney said, blazing a path into John's room. "Who else?!"
John blinked as the door to his quarters slid closed. "What brought this on?"
"He read, that's what!" Rodney snapped, throwing up his hands as though announcing that Caius had murdered six people and boiled their bones to make a fine stew. "And I encouraged him, thought it might help him to learn the history of science on Earth, the science of the Ancients – but oh no! He doesn't learn about progress and development he learns he should fear the atom bomb!"
John blinked, struggling to keep up. "Does anyone not fear atom bombs?" he asked.
"That is so not the point," Rodney pointed out, red in the face. "Who needs an atom bomb? It wasn't nuclear energy that destroyed Sateda! Take some good old-fashioned fire power, more explosives than are good for you, complete disregard for human life and you've got just what it takes to destroy a whole world. He could rig up a two-bit naquadah generator to take out every critical system in this city, knows how to combine chemicals in lethal doses to kill anyone he chooses. And yet here he draws the line. The bomb!"
John took a slow breath, trying to exude all the calm Rodney lacked. "So what did he read?"
The fight left Rodney in an instant and his shoulders slumped, rounded themselves as he rubbed a hand over his face. "Hiroshima," he said bitterly, sitting heavily on the edge of John's bed. "He read about Hiroshima."
"A little too much like home?"
Rodney shook his head. "I think it's—" He looked up, exhaustion writ plain on his face. "It's the fact we did it to each other. It's one thing to face the Wraith, have this terrifying set of Cher-clad vampires roaming your galaxy, targeting you on a whim. But to think the power behind that destruction could be another human – another Satedan?" He shook his head, stared at his shoes. "I think that's it."
John crossed the room and sat down beside him. "Can't really blame him."
"No. No, I don't," Rodney said glumly. "I mean I do – he should . . ." He looked up, smiling wistfully. "The science is beautiful. The equations, the balance? The beauty of finding that basic opposition and harnessing it." He closed his eyes, looking older, tired – showed himself as a man John couldn't help wanting, someone he permitted few people to see. "Such potential power in such small particles – it's incredible really." His hands rose and fell as if trying to encompass the magnitude of the science behind his words. He opened his eyes again. "I don't know how he turns his back on that." He worried his thumb and first two fingers together. "Except I never lived through the destruction of my world. Or watched the only people we had left take sides that—" He shook his head.
"Cold War," John said softly. "Remember?"
Rodney laughed bitterly. "I thought Reagan was going to blow up the world."
"And then we got used to it."
"We didn't have a choice."
"And he does?" Rodney waved a hand as if to dismiss the idea. "Don't humans seem terribly . . . human to you, everywhere we go? Pissing matches and war, territorial to the point of absurdity – and we're not exempt. It's not like we're always at our most rational when it comes to . . ." He skimmed his fingertips down John's bedroom wall.
"Well, she is my girlfriend."
"At least you're dating now, not just using her for sex."
John tried to look offended. "Hey. I'm a good guy."
"Hmmm." Rodney shook his head. "Point is – he's going to have to deal with the in-fighting and the stupidity and the reckless suicidal impulses ingrained in half the human population of the universe no matter what, and he can do it knowing everything, or he can try and cobble together some understanding based on runes and superstition and four things he remembers from an eight grade chem. class. Or whatever passed for that on Sateda."
John tilted his head. "You ever wish you didn't know?"
Rodney blinked. "Know what?"
"How to make stuff happen. You could create another Hiroshima if you wanted, engineer a weapon that could—"
"That could what, Colonel? Wipe out a world? Lovely. Your faith in me is heartening."
John rolled his eyes. "C'mon, Rodney. I'm not saying you would, I'm saying you know how."
"Science is science," Rodney said, each word clipped. "The universal laws that govern the universe are worth knowing because they're just . . . worth knowing. Nothing else comes close to the perfection, the logic, the rationality of—" He set his shoulders. "People do ridiculous things with science all the time, but that doesn't make the underlying study wrong. I saw Ronon rubbing his feet on the rug in Teyla's room the other day just to give off shocks from his hair – does that mean we shouldn't study the properties of electricity, because some free-range caveman's going to make an Athosian woman squeal?"
"Teyla squealed?" John asked, disturbed.
"I know, it was very unsettling, I didn't know she had it in her," Rodney said with a frown.
"Look," John said, resting his hand on the back of Rodney's neck – a comfortable habit now, one he couldn't help, reaching for the tight muscles just below Rodney's hairline, pressing in deep with fingers and a thumb. "Teach him what you can. He gets to choose, and if this is what he's decided . . ."
Rodney winced. "Such a waste."
Rodney leaned into the touch. "Crap."
John squeezed his neck one last time. "I think bed for you, buddy."
Rodney started and colored, his cheeks turning pink. "Oh – yes. Yes, you're right, I should definitely—" He stood up in a hurry, grabbed for his tablet. "So, senior staff at 9am, I'll see you, uh, then?"
John blinked. "Wow."
"You can really move when you want to, McKay."
"What? Well—" Rodney gestured toward the door. "It's late and—"
John smiled lazily. "Whatever." He followed Rodney to the door. "Get some rest. You're kinda scary when you're like this."
"Yes, yes, striking fear into the hearts of men everywhere," Rodney said stiffly. The door opened and he stepped outside. "Good night, Colonel."
"Night." And though Rodney walked away, John stood in his doorway, stupidly paralyzed by the thought that he'd let something slip by, a chance to say or do something meaningful, necessary – something that would soothe the itch in his chest and the strange restlessness he felt whenever Rodney was close these days. It was ridiculous – a stupid crush, not the kind of thing you brought up when your friend was tired and disappointed and acting weird – but John shook his head at the empty corridor regardless, turned and walked back inside, sat down where Rodney had sat. He stared at the wall until he fell asleep, feet still on the floor, blanket twisted uncomfortably in the palm of his hand.
Since diplomacy, not firepower, was a vital skill in smoothing the path for the visiting Satedans, it was Teyla who brought Hanna, Gilestra, Dannit and Kane – a quiet man in his early thirties who'd been a surveyor before the culling – back to Atlantis. John waited in the hangar for Lorne's team to chauffeur everyone back, rocking on his heels and staging a mock battle between his own thumbs.
"Nervous?" Elizabeth asked.
"What? No," John said, frowning, perplexed. "Bored."
Elizabeth smiled ruefully. "I thought you'd welcome the downtime after your efforts to pull together the contingency plans."
"Downtime sucks," Ronon put in, standing behind them both.
"See?" John said, nodding at Elizabeth. "I'm not the only one."
"You'll be off to M52-7ZX tomorrow," Elizabeth said archly. "An entirely new planet, the hope of intel – I'd think that could make up for quite a lot. Besides, we have no guarantee the Satedans will allow things to stay . . . boring."
The bay doors opened and the 'jumper they'd dispatched to Sateda rose into the hangar. "Okay," John said. "You have a point. Just so long as I don't have to play tour guide."
Elizabeth crooked an eyebrow. "And what about the security of the city?"
John smiled blithely. "That's what I have Marines for."
The 'jumper docked and the rear hatch lowered, Teyla leading the Satedans out into the bay. "Doctor Weir, Colonel Sheppard, Ronon," she smiled. "Our delegation has arrived."
John wouldn't have predicted the looks on the Satedans faces in quite the mixture they showed. Dannit looked awestruck, Gilestra close to tears, Hanna seemed furious, and Kane was merely looking around with the air of a hapless tourist; John figured he could probably chalk him up as benign.
Not that things had a chance of staying that way.
"The City of the Ancestors?" Hanna asked, ignoring Elizabeth's proffered hand. "What right have you to this place?"
"Hanna," Gilestra said harshly.
Dannit eyed the welcome party warily. "We believed – we were told, many generations ago, that only the Ancestors could . . . that searching for Atlantis was a waste of time. Ancestors alone could—"
John waved a hand, aiming for nonchalant. "Some of us are—"
"Descendents," Ronon said gruffly. "Their genes carry the power of the Ancestors."
"All of you?" Gilestra asked, looking almost afraid.
"No, no," Elizabeth said gently. "Very few. Lieutenant Miller, Colonel Sheppard – the gene is how they're able to fly craft like the one that brought you here today. Doctor McKay, Doctor Beckett . . . "
"Do you?" Dannit asked, eyes narrowed.
She smiled almost wistfully. "No. But I speak and read Ancient. I have other talents the city can use."
"Ancient?" Kane asked quizzically , breaking his silence.
"Language of the Ancestors," said Ronon.
Hanna shook her head, jaw set. "You kept this secret from us. You led us to believe you were refugees too."
If it wasn't one of them spitting piss and vinegar, it was another, John thought ruefully, shifting just a little.
Teyla smiled kindly. "We are all refugees in a galaxy dominated by the Wraith," she suggested.
Hanna laughed softly, derisively. "Clever words," she scorned. "But they do not—"
"What else is here? What else can we see?" Dannit asked, breaking in, earning a look of fresh anger from Hanna.
"We have a tour planned," Elizabeth said calmly. "Doctor Beckett would like to check over you first, be sure that your journey had no ill effects—"
Hanna huffed her derision.
" – then Teyla, Ronon, and Major Lorne's team will show you around the city. I'm sure you have many questions. And Caius is eager to see you all."
Kane smiled. "Is he well?"
"He's great," John said, jumping in, nodding his reassurance. "Exhausted, maybe, but learning a lot."
"I'd like to see him before anything else," Hanna said sharply.
"Doctor Beckett must see you first," Teyla said gently, "and then I will be glad to take you directly to him. You must have missed his presence these past few days."
Hanna turned her head and looked at Teyla as though searching for exactly the right words – words she couldn't find. "Yes," she settled upon finally.
Elizabeth smiled tightly. "Teyla. Perhaps you could show our guests to the infirmary, and then—"
"It would be my pleasure," Teyla said, inclining her head. "Ronon?"
"This way," Ronon said, hitching a shoulder and taking what amounted to point, the Satedans slowly trailing behind.
"Well that went well," John murmured as they left.
"Give it time," Elizabeth cautioned him, watching the Satedans leave the bay. "Though perhaps you should go to the labs, warn Rodney that they're on their way."
"Take him a cup of coffee."
"Something like it," John said, the corner of his mouth quirking into a smile. "Otherwise . . ."
Elizabeth hummed thoughtfully. "Perhaps I should go with them too."
"I think that'd be a great idea," John said, and fell into step beside her as they made their way back out into the city's main halls.
". . . no, no, no," Rodney yelled, scribbling furiously on the whiteboard above the equation that Caius had penned. "The displacement of energy can't possibly behave like—" He glanced over his shoulder at John and did a double take. "Colonel?"
John waved from his position in the doorway. Caius waved a hand. He had green marker on his cheek.
"Just giving you a ten-minute warning," John said. "They're here."
"Here?" Rodney asked, blinking. "Here who? Here where?"
"The delegation," Caius said, rolling his eyes. "We talked about it not ten minutes ago."
Rodney squinted. "We did?" He glanced at the whiteboard and his expression hardened. "Yes, well, perhaps we did – this kind of stupidity would erase pretty much anything from my brain."
Caius threw John a look of long-suffering patience. John grinned at him. "I brought you coffee," he said, straightening up and crossing the room. He set a small cup down on the lab bench in front of Caius, and a massive mug in front of Rodney.
"Coffee?" Rodney said, eyes wide. He looked up at John. "Oh god, who wants to kill me?"
John sighed. "No one wants to kill you."
"You never bring me coffee unless you want something. Usually for me to bite my tongue around idiots of the first water. Especially if they're from off-world. Especially if they're hot women."
John raised an eyebrow. "You think Hanna and Gilestra are hot?"
"Well, no, but you might," Rodney said.
John's expression settled somewhere between affronted and wary. "Neither's really my type."
"Yes, well, true, neither have Ascended. . . " Rodney mumbled into his mug.
"You've met Ascended women?" Caius asked, curious.
"He's had sex with Ascended women," Rodney clarified.
John gaped. "First," he offered, rallying, "it was one woman. Second, we didn't have sex."
"No, no," Rodney agreed, "you just joined your energy together in a big swirly festival of happiness that in no way shape or form made you feel anything pleasurable. I saw your face afterwards. You were, as much as it pains me to use the word, glowing. Unless you're going to tell me you experienced astral exfoliation, you had sex."
"She was Ascended?" Caius asked, agog.
"Oh, hell," John muttered. "Look, we've really kinda drifted from the point here . . ."
"She was Ascended?" Caius asked again.
"And what was the point?" Rodney asked, eyeing John over his coffee mug.
"The point," John said levelly, refusing to be baited, "is that Gilestra, Hanna, Dannit and Kane are on their way here with a team of Marines, Ronon, Teyla, and Elizabeth. Gilestra's been all teary, Hanna's ready to murder someone, Dannit's freaking out, and Kane's actually talking."
"Talking?" Caius repeated, astonished.
"Yeah, I know."
"Well, great," Rodney said, setting down his half-empty mug. "You managed to swap their personalities as they came through the stargate."
"We did not," John said, rolling his eyes. "Besides, everyone's talking. It's not as though Kane just shoved his usual wide-eyed stares off on someone else."
"No, exactly, there's probably a not-gazelle on P89-21G suddenly finding it impossible to – communicate in the way that not-gazelles do."
"Shut up," Rodney said, and drank more coffee.
By the time the delegation arrived, Caius and Rodney were back in the thick of things, comparing simulations on two different laptops while John sat on an unused bench, swinging his feet and generally doing all he could to irritate Rodney without actually saying a word.
"Colonel," Elizabeth said, raising an eyebrow.
John smiled his very best Stan Laurel smile. "Howdy."
Hanna shot him the look of death. "Caius," she said, stepping forward and studying him intently. "You're well?"
"Hanna," he said, grinning and bowing his head just a little in deference. "I'm – I'm great."
Dannit laughed a little, awe still apparent in his expression, exhilaration showing too. "You're a lucky man," he said, crossing the room to clap Caius on the shoulder. "Living in the City of the Ancestors for . . . "
"Days," Gilestra said tightly.
John raised an eyebrow, straightened his spine, wondered what had crawled under her skin since the 'jumper bay.
Dannit turned to look at her. "Gilestra, please . . . "
"The Ancestors built this place," she said quietly. "This is a city of such meaning, such value to us all. And only the Ancestors could possibly control the power here. They sank this city rather than trust its power to anyone else – it was never meant to be raised, never meant to be turned over to the hands of these—" She waved a hand in John's direction.
John raised his other eyebrow, slid off the bench and folded his arms.
"Gilestra," Teyla said gently. "The Ancestors built fail-safes into this system – ensured that only their descendents might control this place. Colonel Sheppard, Doctor McKay . . . "
Gilestra shook her head, eyes shining. "Chemicals in their blood, nothing more," she said. "What do you know of their culture, their practices—"
"Quite a bit," Elizabeth offered softly. "We read their language – we're slowly working through the vast amount of information in their database; a virtual library of everything they thought important."
"Which can tell you nothing of what it feels to be raised as one of them," Gilestra said forcefully. "You can appreciate their words as beauty, but not as a living thing. This is not yours to control. Your use of the power here – your science," she spat, "has caused imbalance in the galaxy . . ."
Rodney tilted his chin, spoke quietly. "What happened to your world happened before we arrived here," he pointed out. "It had nothing to do with us."
Hanna stepped forward. "But what of the rest of it?" She gestured around her. "We may want to keep Sateda's survival a secret, but that doesn't mean we're isolated from news of what's happening on other worlds. We know that the Wraith have woken; we know that there have been cullings again on a scale that . . . " She shook her head.
"And you believe this is our fault?" Teyla asked.
"Yes," said Gilestra.
Hanna shook her head. "I hardly know what to believe," she said, "but your secrecy, your disdain for us . . . "
"Disdain?" Rodney asked, incredulous. "Hello? Who shot whom?"
"This is a gift!" Dannit snapped. "Surely you can see why they would wish to wait before revealing this to us – can you blame them?"
Kane cleared his throat. "Does it matter?" he asked.
Elizabeth tilted her head. "Kane?"
He spread his hands, the cuffs of his blue tunic showing frayed against his skin. "It's done."
"It can be stopped," Gilestra said. "They can stop what they're doing here, leave, put an end to their interference."
"And who should control the city?" Ronon asked, breaking his silence. "Us?"
The Satedans fell into an uneasy quiet. Hanna glanced at Ronon then away.
Ronon jerked his chin toward Gilestra. "What if this was the Ancestors' plan?"
"Our destruction?" she asked, narrowing her eyes with disbelief.
"An ally," he said simply. "People to help us. People who can fight the Wraith."
"With the same weapons, the same science the Wraith used upon us?" Gilestra said with disgust. "How is that desirable? How does that help us, to encourage a war? You were there, Specialist Dex. How well did your weapons help you when the Wraith came?"
Ronon stared her down impassively. "They helped me live."
"And how many Satedans died?"
Ronon grimaced. "Do you know the Ancestors' will?" he asked.
Gilestra paused, breathing hard. "No," she admitted.
"Then how can you be sure this isn't it?" Ronon asked, leaning back against the wall.
Gilestra fumed quietly, shaking off Kane's hand when he gently touched her arm.
Caius cleared his throat, looking nervous, head held high. "May I speak?"
"Oh for crying out loud, we don't stand on ceremony around here, yell if you want to," Rodney huffed.
John threw Rodney a look. "Go ahead," he said gently.
"I – have learned much . . . about the Ancestors," Caius began. "About their descendents – about their home." He frowned a little, searching for the right words. "I cannot believe the Ancestors would come into the world, make these wonderful things, record their knowledge, and envisage that it was for their betterment alone." He looked at Gilestra. "Would they be worth our admiration and respect if that were so?"
"We can't possibly know what dangers they foresaw," Gilestra said, still angry. "We can't possibly know whether they imagined that—"
"Any civilization who lived with the threat of the Wraith – any thinking civilization, Gilestra . . . would have to take their possible extinction into account," Caius offered.
"We didn't," Hanna observed.
"And we lost almost everything," Caius said. "We were so confident – we didn't protect our books, our music, our greatest works of art. We made no permanent record of our beliefs, our achievements – I've had nothing to turn to to provide us with power, heat, or light save intuition. Imagine if we had left a city like this . . . " He trailed off. "The Ancestors are entirely gone, but they live in everything they left to us here. We survive – and we want nothing to do with this power because we doubt the people who now protect it?"
"You call this protection," Gilestra sneered, picking up a loose piece of circuitry from a workbench, throwing it aside.
"Yes. Protection." Caius held her gaze. "If they're worthy of our adulation, Gilestra, surely we must suppose they foresaw this eventuality, planned for it."
Gilestra shook her head. "They've seduced you."
"Perhaps," Caius murmured.
But as Gilestra geared up for a new assault, John's radio beeped, Chuck breaking in. "Colonel Sheppard to the gateroom immediately."
"On my way," John said. "I'm sorry – I gotta . . . "
Rodney focused on him, hand inches from his own radio. "Me too."
Elizabeth frowned, listening to her earpiece. "We have a problem. Major Lorne, please take care of our guests while we—"
"Right away, ma'am," he said, assembling his marines in the doorway.
"This is an outrage!" Hanna said as it became clear they were being held. "You—"
"Teyla, Ronon, with me," John said briskly, ignoring her, setting off in a jog toward the nearest transporter.
"What is it?" Teyla asked, keeping pace.
"No idea," he said, slamming a hand to the panel, keeping the door open until Rodney and Elizabeth joined them, whisking them to the gateroom the moment the doors closed. He stepped out first, looking to the technicians. "Well?"
"It's Sateda," said Chuck. "A radio transmission." He pressed a random string of keys on his laptop, and a badly distorted voice filled the air.
"Atlantis, this is Stackhouse, we are under attack – I repeat, we are under attack." The transmission fizzled in and out of audibility. ". . . Genii, three units . . . under attack . . . some casualties . . .."
"Genii?" Elizabeth said, horrified.
John touched his earpiece. "Lorne?"
"Bring the delegation to the 'jumper bay. I want you there with four teams of Maines ASAP. The Genii are on Sateda."
"Aw, shit, sir."
"My feelings, exactly, Major. Now move."
"Yessir. Lorne out."
John turned to his team. "Vests, bay, now, we're going back."
"John—" said Elizabeth.
"We'll double 'gate. The Genii know we survived, they don't have to know where we're coming from."
Elizabeth nodded tightly. "Go. Regular radio contact as feasible." She touched her earpiece. "Doctor Beckett, I need a medical team to the bay immediately. Prepare for off-world travel."
John took the stairs to the bay two at a time, thinking through strategy based on what little he knew of the situation on the ground. "McKay – can we 'gate to Sateda cloaked?"
"No," Rodney huffed from behind him. "It would interfere with the process of dematerializing the hull, everything inside – there's research from SGC that suggests we could alter the – well, regardless, it's not as though I have three years and a team of people as brilliant as myself on hand, so no."
"Dammit," John swore, pacing quickly through the bay, thinking out loud. "Even if the fighting's not by the 'gate, they'll have guards stationed who can raise the alarm."
"Send a strike force," Ronon said. "Foot soldiers. Take out the guards before the 'jumpers come through."
"They will know we are approaching once a wormhole is established," Teyla said. "It will be nothing for them to adopt a defensive position and wipe out anyone who goes through the 'gate on foot."
"No way to make it look like we're coming from their homeworld . . . " John mused aloud.
"Since the 'gate shows no external sign of where the wormhole is coming from, no," Rodney said witheringly. "Besides, do we know which Genii we're dealing with? Which world they're from? They could be renegades, or spies, or—"
"He's right," Ronon nodded. "The Genii have units everywhere."
"And a propensity for factionalism," Teyla observed.
"Great," John said, opening up the rear of Jumper One. "Add a Genii civil war to the mix, why don't you."
"We have drones," Teyla put in.
"And if the guards are standing by the 'gate, we run the risk of damaging it permanently," Rodney said.
"Okay." John chewed on his lip as the transporter disgorged Lorne, the Satedans, and another team. He could hear the clatter of more personnel double-timing up the stairs. "Major?"
"Sir." Lorne stood with his P-90 comfortably in his hand.
"We're dialing MX8-434, then doubling around to dial Sateda. Quick formation – there'll be guards by the 'gate. Cloak the moment you're through – same for you Miller."
Miller nodded. "Yes sir."
"I'll try and lure their fire . . . "
Rodney sighed and rolled his eyes.
"Lorne, you head straight to the survivors – air recon to be sure we're not leading them someplace they don't know exists. Relay whatever information you have about their troops, firepower—"
Hanna broke in. "We're under attack?"
"Yes, ma'am," John said gravely, moving on as quickly as he could. "Miller, I want you to find cover as close to the 'gate as you can. Park your 'jumper, swing back to take out the guards by the 'gate. Drones are your last resort."
"Stay by the 'gate to monitor for other Genii traffic – if this isn't some small, random strike force they'll have reinforcements ready to go."
"Reed, you're with Lorne; Cadman, you're with Miller; Satedans, you're with me. Everyone clear?"
A chorus of 'sirs' echoed in the hangar.
"Let's go," John said, grim faced, heading into the 'jumper with his team behind him.
"I don't understand," Hanna said. "Who—"
"The Genii," Ronon said gruffly, herding the Satedan delegation into the 'jumper.
"How did they—"
"No idea," John said with insincere pleasantry. "The sooner we get there and stamp this thing out, the sooner we can figure out what's going on. Everyone in?"
Ronon smacked the door release at the rear of the 'jumper. "Ready."
"Hold on," John said, powering the 'jumper up. "This is gonna get interesting, fast."
They took a hit the moment they flew through the 'gate, John guiding the 'jumper into a series of intricate turns designed to keep them just beyond the further reach of Genii weaponry and give the other 'jumpers time to get through. "Rodney—"
"I'm on it," Rodney snapped, already calling up diagnostics on the HUD. "Okay, they hit the . . . " He swore and got up from his chair in a hurry, pulled down an internal hatch in the rear of the 'jumper. "Caius, I need—"
Caius was already there, the proper tool in his hand.
Rodney glanced at him, managing a tight, weak smile. "Thank you. Check the power flow to the inertial dampeners. We can live without them but—"
"I've got it," Caius said, pulling down another hatch the other Satedans looked on.
"Stackhouse this is Sheppard, come in," John said, still trying to outmaneuver the Genii guards while Miller found cover. "Stackhouse, this is Sheppard . . . "
The radio crackled to life. "This is Stackhouse."
John switched to a group channel. "Situation."
"We're outside the main compound – twenty, twenty-two Genii; two down; Casten and Mastem are injured, three of the Satedan patrol . . . "
"What's their goal?"
"Unknown, sir." There was a sharp boom. "Help'd be good."
"No sir, that was our C4. They're well armed but don't seem to be packing—"
"Understood. Lorne's on his way. We'll be there as soon as Miller has the 'gate."
"Yessir. Stackhouse out."
"We're good – they hit two external panels, but we've rerouted power through different circuits. No critical damage."
With Miller's 'jumper safely down on the planet's surface, John cloaked the jumper and maneuvered to provide cover.
"No drones," Rodney called from the cargo hold. "From this angle there's no way you could avoid taking out the dialing mechanism, even the 'gate itself."
"Yeah, well, if it's the dialing mechanism or my guys, Rodney . . ."
"And what about everyone else? Without a 'gate we're all . . ."
"Rodney, shut up and get back in your seat, I need a life signs reading on where everyone is, and if there's any way to distinguish between us and the Genii I need to know about it. Energy signatures for large weaponry . . ."
"Good thing they can't fly yet," Ronon observed.
"An aerial battle with the Genii is not something I am eager to see," Teyla concurred.
Rodney slammed into his chair and called up the HUD again. "I see . . . 26 – no, 25 life signs outside the shield . . . probably doesn't include Lorne unless – eight new life signs, that's Lorne, they landed . . . "
"Differentiation between us and the Genii?"
"Of course, Colonel, because that's not a trick my entire team has been working on for months. I'm sure it's something we can just whisk out of thin air because it would be useful. Would you like to ask for coffee and a sandwich as well?." Rodney jabbed at the HUD's controls.
Below, Miller's teams took out the last Genii guard, Cadman and Baines securing the injured, Damon binding up what looked like a bullet wound on Wilkes' leg. "Lieutenant, we're out of here. Radio if you need anything."
The radio crackled. "Yessir."
John guided the 'jumper away.
It was clear the Genii had come to Sateda on foot – there were no vehicles in the vicinity, no energy signatures out of the norm – but there were more personnel on Sateda than would have been spared on a regular patrol. John flew above the main thoroughfare they'd traveled only weeks before, finding a place to settle the 'jumper in a spot that provided camouflage to his team. Once on the ground, he released the ramp. "Okay," he said, pulling on his vest, grabbing his P-90 as he crossed to the edge of the cargo bay and faced the Satedans. "You're staying here."
John cut Gilestra off with a glare. "You're my responsibility and you're staying here until we figure out what the hell went on while you were gone, understand?" He gestured at one of the Marines. "You'll stay with them." John looked at Ronon. "We need the Genii alive – gun on stun."
Ronon ground his teeth, but switched his weapon from kill.
"Teyla, you're on point, Ronon you have our six – no heroics, you hear me? We're squashing this, we're finding out the cause, we're going home."
Ronon nodded, while Teyla smiled a small, fierce smile and led the way.
It was a mercifully short fight once all the Atlantis personnel were grouped, Lorne and John's teams coming at the Genii from different directions, Ronon ably slipping into the ruins beside the main thoroughfare and stunning those Genii trying to get away. In half an hour the Genii were subdued, their weapons and radios confiscated, their injured separated from those who'd surrendered, the latter cuffed, the former set aside. John adjusted the frequency on his radio. "Sateda, this is Sheppard." No answer. "Sateda, this is Sheppard, come in." No answer still. He looked at Caius. "Can you lower the shield from outside the compound?"
Caius blinked, mouth working silently. "I—"
"We can try," Rodney said, grabbing him by the elbow and hauling him back toward the 'jumper.
"But what if—"
"What did I tell you about the properties of nadquadah?"
"But even then there's . . . "
John's radio crackled. "Sheppard, this is Sateda, come in?"
John hit his earpiece. "Simia?"
An unsteady breath of relief. "I can lower the shield."
"That'd be great. You okay?"
There was a thoughtful pause. "We have some – injuries."
"Declan handling it?"
"I think he's hurt. Could you—" She cleared her throat. "Is it possible to—"
"I'll radio for Beckett."
"Thank you. The shield's down."
"Be right in." John frowned, waved Ronon and Teyla close. "Take a team into the compound. Sounds like something went down on the inside too." He changed his frequency again. "McKay, come back – Simia has the shield down."
There was a hmmph in his ear. "What is this, exercise your friendly neighborhood scientist day?"
"Yeah, that's exactly it. I figured you could use a couple of laps after we brought down a Genii strike team."
"It'd be just like you," Rodney muttered. "Be right there."
John radioed for the Satedan delegation to be brought in from the 'jumper and contacted Atlantis while he waited for Rodney and Caius to return; something in his gut told him it'd be a bad idea to let either wander alone until they knew more about what had happened. The sharp, slick wariness he felt only grew more powerful once they crossed the courtyard and stepped inside the survivors' main building – there was obvious damage; shattered windows, new bullet holes marring the bricks; the faint acrid scent of a dampened fire. He saw Simia immediately, perched at the bottom of the stairwell, her cheek grazed, pearling with drying blood.
"So you had a fun morning," he said dryly, crouching in front of her
"I don't know what their goal was—" she murmured, dazed. "Is it possible they—"
"What happened?" John asked.
She swallowed, frowning. "Jarn, Rigus, Kayt, Ethan, Liffith—"
Satedans who'd been off-world frequently. "Hurt?" John asked.
She shook her head. "They were – they shouted. I was in the storerooms, ran back to see what was happening, fearing a disturbance. Rigus has been short tempered recently and—" She set her shoulders, wound her fingers together. "They had guns – we all have weapons, this isn't . . . they had their guns trained on us. They shouted commands for compliance, insisting we should ally with the Genii, that they would—"
John raised an eyebrow. "Insiders."
"Yes." She let out a long breath. "I never heard the rest of their reasoning. I ran for the science block, hoping to reach the door, lock it before—"
"Did they catch up?" John asked, gaze flicking to the mark on her cheek.
She colored. "No. I tripped," she confessed sheepishly. "Grace is hardly my gift. But I reached the shield controls, locked out anyone who tried to follow. They were unable to drop the shield if that had been their goal."
John thought of the groups of Genii held outside. "Seems likely."
"What would they want with us?" she asked, confused.
"Better question's what Liffith's gang wanted with the Genii," John said ruefully, standing up as Teyla approached.
"We have teams searching the building," she reported calmly. "The injured are being transported to the infirmary, and those who are unharmed brought to the dining hall so that we might account for everyone."
"Anyone off-world?" John asked Simia.
She blinked. "Um—" She frowned, concentrating. "The delegation who went to see you. Asha and Fievan. Eoin and Tobius."
John nodded. "Sit tight," he suggested, wandering away, Teyla following. He waited until they were a safe distance from anyone who could hear. "Interesting that this happened while Hanna and the gang were in Atlantis."
"That was my thought also," Teyla agreed. She shifted her weight slightly, eyeing the Satedans moving toward the dining hall. "Still, I believe the Satedans who allied themselves with the Genii could not have known where the delegation was going. If the Genii knew the city survived, that we are not merely eking out survival somewhere—"
"They wouldn't have tried it," John agreed. "So – that's good news, I guess."
"But it means we must hold the Genii who came here," Teyla said. "Lest word get back."
"Which means the rest of the Genii'll be out looking for them and—" John swore softly. "There's gotta be a limit on how complicated life can get, don't you think?"
"This has not been my experience," Teyla said ruefully.
"Yeah, mine either. Just an eternal optimist."
"One of the first things those who know you remark upon," Teyla observed archly.
John smirked. "Stealth optimist."
"Ahh." Teyla smiled. "Perhaps you are one of the warriors Rodney has spoken of . . . a Ninja in matters of optimism?"
John laughed. "That's me." He tapped his radio. "Lorne, how's it looking?"
"Second floor cleared, sir. Moving onto the third."
"You have life signs detectors?"
"Rendezvous in the dining hall ASAP. Leave guards stationed at every exit. No more surprises today, I'm over my quota."
"Hear you loud and clear, sir. Lorne out."
John preferred the clinical jail cells of Atlantis to the storeroom-cum-prison block of the Satedans' compound, but there wasn't a chance he was risking transporting Genii detainees to the city. "My gut says they'll give you name, rank, serial number," he said to Lorne, "but try anyway. Nothing rough, you understand? But if you wanted to threaten . . ."
Lorne nodded. "Yessir."
John beckoned toward Stackhouse. "Take Jarn and Rigus. Neither were military – could be they'll break quicker than the others, and should be they'll break before the Genii."
Stackhouse nodded and headed down the corridor to where the Satedan collaborators were held.
"And who do we talk to?" Ronon asked.
"Liffith," John said dangerously. "I hate that son of a bitch."
Ronon grunted his agreement as John opened the door to a cell and dragged a chair inside.
The room had been stripped of its usual comforts – the pallets were gone, the blankets, the food. There was water in a wooden bowl – nothing that could be turned into a weapon – and Liffith glowered from where he'd been tied to a chair.
"Liffith," John smiled, setting down his chair back-to-front and straddling the seat. "Been a while."
Liffith blinked at him lazily.
"So – funny thing – I have these people over, social visit you could say – and while they're over at my place I get this call." John settled his arms on the back of his chair, every loose shift of his body implying a threat. "Seems while I was gone? The kids decided to get outta hand."
"So I come back and do a little clean up, find that someone's been getting it into their head to make friends with the neighborhood bullies."
Liffith snorted. "They are open in their dealings with us," he spat.
John raised an eyebrow. "Right. You mean the way you were to the rest of the settlement about giving up Satedan secrets to the Genii?"
Liffith looked away.
"'Cause see, here's where I'm puzzled. I get the part where you're pissed at us – probably written a couple of dirty limericks about us by now, right? Called us names, cast aspersions on our parents while you're shit-faced over a nice keg of Dapshin beer. Think we're lording it over you, blah, blah. . ."
Liffith's mouth puckered in disdain.
"But what I don't get is why you'd sell out everyone here because you've got a chip on your shoulder about me. Or McKay, or the taste of Athosian oatmeal, or whatever else it has that has your shorts in a bunch."
Liffith looked over at him. "You think you're so superior."
"To a guy who'd sell out his people? Pretty much," John said.
"Because my actions are any different from Hanna's?" Liffith asked. "Our security sold for a barrel of meal and a host of tuttle root?"
"Medicines," Ronon said succinctly. "People were healed."
"A distraction," Liffith growled. "So that you had time to learn how best to conquer us."
John blinked. "Conquer?"
"Our world. Us."
John tilted his head. "I gotta tell you buddy, if you think people generally go around conquering places with sacks of tuttle root . . ."
"A distraction!" Liffith thundered.
"Plus – no offense," John continued, "but like I keep telling anyone who'll listen, this place is hardly my idea of a vacation spot. I like—" he waved a hand, "vegetation. Cabana boys who don't have to hide for fear of the Wraith."
"Cabana . . ." Liffith frowned, confused.
"Yeah, one of those things that doesn't translate. So you were saying . . ."
"I've said enough."
"Aw, and I was just getting settled." John scratched the back of his neck while Ronon prowled around the back of Liffith's chair. "I got other questions. Like – how long you've been working this little alliance. And which Genii have been your special friends."
"I've said enough," Liffith reiterated.
Ronon kicked the chair out from under him.
"Yeah, see, I just don't think you have," John said, and settled his chin in his hand.
It was morning by the time John and his team climbed the stairs to the ruined loft-space above the Satedan compound and radioed Atlantis. "It was just the six of them, I'm sure of it," John said.
Elizabeth hummed. "And no sign of Genii reinforcements?"
"None. Liffith didn't know squat about these guys – structure, leadership, plans. I'd say they were rogue. Regular Genii strike force? This place would've been crawling with troops by now."
"I'm inclined to agree. So what did they promise them?"
"They kept talking about weapons," Ronon put in.
"Nuclear weapons," Rodney interjected. "Not that they ever called them that."
There was a pause on the Atlantis end of things. "You think this rogue team had access to nuclear materials?"
"No," Rodney said shortly. "They told them what amounts to a bunch of fairy stories. If they had bombs that worked the way they told the Satedans, we'd all be eating pixie dust for breakfast and flying between worlds in our amazing giant peach."
"You're sure, Rodney?" Elizabeth asked cautiously.
"Of course I'm sure. Do you imagine I want to run the risk that multiple groups of idiots with a slavish devotion to Chairman Mao's fashion sense are running around the galaxy with atom bombs?" He took a breath. "They told the Satedans that they had a bomb that could make the Wraith drop dead, yet also make it possible to use the still intact Hive ships for interplanetary travel. They argued that the bomb could be constructed from regular everyday trash which, unless Back to the Future has come true and I am living my own personal nightmare, is not actually the basis for any type of fission."
"I believe the Genii's explanation of the weaponry they were willing to share actually hurts Doctor McKay's soul," Teyla put in.
Rodney spluttered, while John just grinned.
"So," Elizabeth said. "Where does this leave us?"
"Well," John began, "it means there's more factionalism among the Genii than we'd anticipated, or than our intel turned up."
"That's the least of our problems," Rodney muttered.
"It means the factionalism here is worse than we thought," John continued. "We knew there were Kell sympathizers – we didn't know about this."
"It means we have two dozen Genii in the make-shift cells here and no immediate prospect of being able to release them," Rodney put in.
"The Satedans think we're trouble," Ronon added.
A pause from Atlantis. "They do?" Elizabeth asked.
"They saw our firepower," Ronon offered. "How quickly we cleaned up. It's unsettling to them."
"Rumors are already sweeping through the camp," Teyla agreed. "They wonder who we are that we are so accomplished at dealing with such a situation."
"You gotta come here," John said. "Talk to people. And I got a bad feeling the game's up."
"Up?" asked Rodney, looking confused.
"We will have to open the doors of Atlantis to the Satedans," Teyla explained. "Or they will conclude we have much to hide – more than the Genii. After these events, their distrust is overwhelming."
"Well that's just great," Rodney said bitterly. "Exactly what we'd hoped to get out of, I don't know, saving their asses?"
Elizabeth sighed. "Leave a team on Sateda, and come back. I'll need to know more before I can talk to Hanna and the other leaders."
"Will do," John said. "Sheppard out."
There was silence on the rooftop as the radios went quiet. "Well," Rodney said. "Exactly how I hoped to spend my middle age – calculating the probability of my death at the hands of several groups of clinically insane psychopaths. Happy, happy day."
Ronon slapped him on the back. "You'll be all right," he said gruffly. "Come on. I need pancakes."
Rodney watched him stalk to the door, and glanced in confusion at John and Teyla. "Did he just say pancakes?" he asked.
John rubbed his forehead. "You know, I think he did."
"Huh," Rodney murmured, and jogged after him.
As John had feared, Elizabeth's only sure fire way to quell the paranoia swelling among the Satedans was to ferry successive groups to Atlantis, offering them the hospitality of the city. It was a time-consuming process, the immediate results of which were uneven, some survivors taking immense joy in the knowledge of the city's existence, others expressing horror at the idea of anyone but the Ancients governing the place, still more growing fearful of the Lanteans' power. By virtue of the deployment of all Elizabeth's diplomatic skills – not to mention Kate Heightmeyer's unobtrusive and somewhat under-the-table counseling – a peace was made that held; yet for three weeks John felt like he didn't get a wink of sleep. It made him cranky. He grew crankier yet to realize he missed bantering with Rodney, missed seeing Rodney, missed regular, run-of-the-mill days in Atlantis where they could drive each other slowly crazy and take pleasure in the ride. With visitors milling through their midst, there was no time for off-world exploration, no time to turn on random Ancient junk in the labs – no time for anything but catching each other at mealtimes and trying to make it enough. The greedy, reckless affection that had taken up residence just beneath John's skin was never remotely satisfied.
"You look like crap," Rodney said over dinner one night, picking desultorily over the day's mystery meat in the mess.
"Thanks, McKay," John drawled. "You look pretty warmed over yourself."
"Yes, well, you try being nice to people for twenty-one days."
Rodney looked up at him. "Yes, well, I mean – try being me and be nice to people for twenty-one days."
"Take your point."
Rodney chewed a hunk of something that might have been a carrot. Then again, this was the Pegasus Galaxy – it might have been beef jerky. "I keep dreaming."
"Hmmm?" John asked vaguely, stirring his pudding cup and trying to find it appetizing.
John blinked and looked up at him. "You're dreaming of bombs."
"Are you making the bombs?"
"What? No!" Rodney waved his fork in irritation. "I keep – the Genii. They show up with a bomb and . . ."
"Yeah—" John said hurriedly, not wanting to hear the end of that sentence. "I . . . yeah."
Rodney poked at a piece of lettuce. "I could build us a bomb."
"I don't exactly think that'd help things," John offered.
"Me either." Rodney set down his fork and looked glumly across the table. "I just – wish I didn't have these dreams."
John reached for some wisecrack to throw back – a nice deflective burst of sarcasm, reassuring in its own, familiar way. But instead he saw Rodney's downcast mouth, felt pressure build behind his ribcage, wanted badly to be able to reassure him and tell him with absolute certainty it'd be okay. "You wanna—" His voice caught on the edge of something he was absolutely not ready to know the name of. "Watch a movie?" he finished after clearing his throat. "Something mindless."
Rodney's expression shifted into something less fearful and tired, more thoughtful. "Huh. Yes. Yes I would."
"Come on." John pushed back his chair and left his tray where it was. His palms were sweating. "I've got popcorn and beer."
The walk to John's quarters was awkward, as if they'd both suddenly become aware of some shared sense of risk, change, maybe even need. John opened his door with an unsteady hand, pulled off his jacket and threw it on a chair. "Couch?" he asked.
"Couch," Rodney nodded firmly, as if he'd been asked to pick out his very own electric chair. He hesitated for a moment, then pulled off his own jacket, folded it and set it on John's desk. "Sitting," he announced, and did so.
John almost smiled, some of the uncertainty in his blood dissipating at Rodney's unease. "Die Hard?"
Rodney pulled a face. "Please," he said witheringly.
"You have Space Camp?"
"It was on the server," John said as if it were no big thing.
"Of course it was," Rodney said lightly, apparently not fooled for a second. "Maybe—" He rubbed his hands on his thighs. "Star Wars?"
"Now you're talking," John said, shifting his laptop to the couch. He unearthed the DVD from beneath a pile of requisition forms, tossed a pre-popped bag of popcorn over to Rodney, and pulled two beers from the chilled storage bin beneath his bed.
Rodney shifted around, getting comfortable. "Haven't done this in a while," he said, popping the cap from his beer.
"Been in my quarters?" John asked archly, sitting down beside him. Their thighs brushed and John felt the contact from the follicles of his hair to the skin between his toes.
Rodney glanced at him sideways, evaluative and silent. "No," he said at last. "Watched a movie? Taken time off?"
"I think we're owed," John said, kicking his feet up on the edge of his bed and sliding the DVD into the drive.
Rodney pulled at his beer, and when he dropped his hand it brushed the back of John's own. Neither moved away. "You can play it anytime you're ready," Rodney offered, filling the silence between them. "You know, before you move so slowly you actually slip into reverse."
John smirked and elbowed him. "Shut up," he said intelligently, impossibly pleased with himself, and settled in to watch.
They fell asleep before the credits rolled, empty beer bottles knocked over on the floor, bodies smushed together in an untidy sprawl of unacknowledged feelings. John woke up in the middle of the night wrapped around Rodney, struck by the blinding realization that he ought to be freaked out and wasn't at all. So next morning he said nothing about it, and neither did Rodney, and denial became the next hesitant step in a relationship neither was having with the other.
There came, of course, a return to normal business in time – off-world teams gathering intel, negotiating trade agreements, and trying not to get gored by the Pegasus equivalent of a rhino on M3Y-787. For John and his team, it meant a vacation among the criminals of Alesia – bound, collared, and left to rely on a furious McKay and his ability to power up a 'jumper before any of them were shot, culled, or blown to smithereens. Back on Atlantis, showering Alesian grime out of his hair and pushing away the sick fear that had risen in his throat at the sight of a Wraith cruiser, John filed the experience securely under 'don't ever do this again.' Rodney functioning on a knife's edge, Ronon testing the limits of every goddamn order he gave . . . he let his forehead thunk against the tile and gingerly brushed a finger over the bruise above his knee. "Caribbean islands. Sunlight. Rum," he muttered to himself, and brought himself off quickly and efficiently before he turned in for bed.
Next morning came news that Alesia had been culled, rumors flying as refugees spread quickly to other planets. Elizabeth organized teams to distribute whatever material help could be spared and – mindful of his team's experience on the planet – ordered John to stay out of the way. For two days, he worked through something like downtime – reviewed the new security rosters for Sateda and Atlantis with Lorne; filed reports; reviewed satellite intel on Genii movements; turned on any number of pieces of Ancient debris. By day three – after sparring, running, putting every available Marine through a grueling training schedule, and arguing with Carson for half an hour about the merits of the caber toss – he was itching to get off-world again and showed up at the morning briefing a full five minutes early. Elizabeth arched a brow. "Feeling okay?" she asked.
"Swell," he replied, easing into a chair as the others filed in.
She slid a manila folder over to him. "Doranda."
He cocked an eyebrow. "I thought we were going to—"
"You were. But Doctor Evans in anthropology found a new database entry that seems promising. I think you'll like what you read."
"That'll be a first," John murmured petulantly, but started skimming the file.
The Dorandans, by all available accounts, were exactly the sort of people Atlantis needed as an ally. Their economy rested heavily on agricultural production, but they were industrialized – accomplished manufacturers and technological innovators for their time. Rodney cooed over the details of a small device he swore would put microwave ovens to shame, causing him to sigh longingly over the concept of leftovers until Ronon started to talk about the way Cafkanin meat would explode if you cooked it two days after a kill. John let Teyla get everyone back on track, made agreeable noises at the status of Dorandan intra-cultural exchange, drifted during the discussion of art and music, and only paid attention again when Rodney mentioned weapons. Sadly, Rodney was bemoaning the lack of information on combat technology at his disposal, so John drifted again until Ronon made noises about lunch and ambled out to find food. Rodney sighed and chewed on his bottom lip. "He'll regret it," he mumbled. "Space puke everywhere . . ." and John and Teyla exchanged a smile.
Doranda turned out to be a bust – a grim replica of Sateda in terms of the ruin that greeted them when they flew to the planet's surface, wholly devoid of life signs but possessed of a tenuous energy reading that gave them all faint hope – for twenty, thirty seconds – that perhaps survivors had hidden here, too. But the energy reading belonged to Ancient weaponry, a massive cannon set on top of a laboratory, and Ancient controls hibernating beneath a thick layer of dust.
They investigated as best they could, flashlights illuminating the grim remains of a handful of Dorandans for whom death had come swiftly, the laboratory no protection against whatever had brought their end. The lab – curiously pristine despite the grime that clouded each console – sprang back to life beneath Rodney's hands, powering up as though it had barely been at rest. The whole place was puzzle, a conundrum resting on a thousand questions, none of which they could answer with a single laptop and a quota of guns. They headed home with their pockets full of tenuous hypotheses, Rodney bubbling over with a heady mix of conjecture and glee, and John couldn't help but find it heart-warming in a strange, half-thought-out fashion, to watch him bounce in his seat and crow at Ronon, riding the giddy edge of unsought for discovery.
It was clear that figuring out what had happened on Doranda was going to be a scientist's wet dream – which meant a lot of doing nothing for anyone else involved in the expedition. John gave Teyla and Ronon leave to stand down – they, after all, didn't have quite the same investment he did in watching McKay grow unspeakably joyful over lines of Ancient code – and ferried the science team back to Doranda himself.
"They didn't want to come?" asked Rodney from the co-pilot's seat, as if this were the most unfathomable mystery of the ages.
"Teyla's got some trade deal she wants to negotiate," John said, adjusting speed for entry into Doranda's atmosphere, "and Ronon's spending a couple of days on Sateda."
"He so has a girlfriend," Rodney mumbled, watching the planet rush up to meet them.
"Or a boyfriend," John threw in.
"Huh." Rodney tilted his head. "Do you think? I haven't really gotten gay from him but – hmm." And he went back to examining the 'jumper's console, yelling insults at Zelenka with every second breath.
For John, the early part of the day was thoroughly satisfying – Rodney and Zelenka bickering as they pored over consoles, providing a familiar background noise as equipment was unpacked and cautious diagnostic programs run. Then came the hypothesis that the cannon on top of the laboratory—"space gun," John offered sagely, earning himself a smack up the back of the head from McKay – was internally powered by the equipment inside the containment chamber. "This is huge, this is huuuuge," Rodney chanted, beaming as he bounced around the laboratory, peering over the shoulders of his science team and taking notes on his datapad.
"Rodney, let the people work—"
Rodney turned around, grinning. "Don't you get it?" he asked John. "Zero point power is a hamster in a wheel compared to this."
"If you're right," John pointed out, but Rodney's joy was infectious – he could feel himself smiling.
"Of course I'm right!" Rodney crowed, bounding over to another console. "We can finish what they began and – oh god, the applications, this is revolutionary, there's nothing we can't—"
"Donut?" asked Radek, holding out a box that they'd brought from the mess.
"Oh, donut, yes, yes," Rodney said, and his babbling ceased for at least as long as it took for him ingest a little more sugar.
By the time they headed back to Atlantis that evening, the laboratory's logs had been decoded and downloaded, the name of the project identified, and a full database scan was underway. The new information wasn't exactly good.
"Rodney – this is disturbing," John said, ambling into the labs late that night with a datapad in his hand. "They got screwed."
"What? No, no, they –"
John raised an eyebrow. "You're looking at the same data I am."
Rodney tilted his chin. "Yes, yes I am, and what I'm seeing is some of the most complex physics anyone's ever theorized, much less attempted, so why on earth you think you can grasp the—"
John rolled his eyes and pointed to a highlighted section of the report. "They couldn't control it."
"They didn't have time."
"We're not under siege from the Wraith," Rodney pointed out. "We're not trying to win a battle with this machinery right this second – we have time to figure out what they couldn't."
"Rodney—" John put down his datapad.
"Look, I know I'm always saying I'm smart – and I am, no question, but . . . on this, trust me, really trust me when I tell you that I am smart, and I can see what they couldn't fix. We can make this work. We can control this."
John scratched his chin. "Zelenka agrees?"
"Of course he agrees," Rodney said disdainfully. "He's almost as smart as I am."
John snorted softly, shaking his head. "Fine. Fine – I'll support you at the briefing tomorrow, but Rodney – this is . . ."
"Sheppard." Rodney waited until John met his gaze. "Believe me."
John blew out a breath, trying not to let the weight of Rodney's plea hit him as hard as it wanted to, right in the gut. He nodded his acquiescence. "Okay." He picked up his datapad and pointed his stylus at Rodney. "You owe me."
Rodney grinned at him and turned back to his notes.
They flew back the next day, the 'jumper groaning with the weight of scientists and equipment, Rodney as happy as John had ever seen him. It was just plain cool to be around him when he wasn't worried – to watch him focus on the structures of simple, scientific beauty as opposed to saving their asses or running for his life or ducking while someone threw flaming axes at their heads. It was intoxicating, and John curled his hands around the 'jumper controls, guiding the craft toward Doranda with a little more care than was strictly needed, focusing his energy upon the flight with the vague hope it would quell his urge to slap Rodney's shoulder, mess up his hair, find some reason to touch.
He was extraneous to the project that day – little more than a grunt who moved equipment around the lab while the scientists worked on a hundred different tasks. It was chance, not planning, that had Rodney standing beside him when Radek announced they were ready to go – chance that Rodney turned to him and said "I wish Caius could see this."
"So we'll bring him," John shrugged. "No biggie."
And Rodney grinned at him, delighted, before he crossed the lab and began the countdown protocols for Project Arcturus' first test.
It soon went to hell – most things did, John thought to himself as he watched the energy readings from the containment chamber spike into the red. The power generated was unstable, the mechanism unresponsive to all their commands, and Collins – Collins was the poor bastard who took the full force of the disaster right to the face.
John took it upon himself to zip up the body bag, took the weight of one end while Abbott took the other, and tried hard not to look at Rodney's stricken expression as they carried the remains back to where the 'jumper was docked. The journey home was somber, a stark contrast to the effervescent tenor of that morning's flight, and John placed a call to the SGC the moment Collin's body was handed over to Carson's care.
"Colonel Sheppard." Sergeant Harriman's voice carried clearly through the gateroom, his pleasant face clear on the Atlantis command center's video screens. "The General isn't available – we weren't expecting a check-in until 2100 hours."
"Yeah." John wet his lips. "We had a situation. Chief – I need to arrange to relay some news to one of our scientist's next of kin."
Walter's face sobered. "Yes sir. If you can hold for one second, I'll have the IOA casualty staffer come down."
John sat down heavily. "No problem." He scrubbed a hand over his face. "I'll be right here."
"Trust me," Rodney said, standing in John's doorway that night, face naked and pleading.
John sighed. It was late, he was tired, Elizabeth had thrown what was, by her own standards, an utter fit about the circumstances leading up to Collins' death. Now Rodney seemed to think it was the perfect time to show up at his door, pleading some fucked up case for a Nobel prize and first place in the 'let's show the Ancients they were wrong' competition. He turned around and ambled back into his room, Rodney following. "I don't know."
"About trusting me?"
"About any of this. Rodney – Collins died . . ."
John turned around again and felt his gut twist at the look on Rodney's face. "I didn't mean—"
"I've said it already, I've taken responsibility – I know it was my fault."
"Hey. It's not like anyone thinks it was malicious—"
"That doesn't make a difference."
"Yeah, it does," John said incredulously. "I meant it in general, not specific to you. None of your simulations showed an energy spike like that taking place – how could you possibly have know that it would happen?"
"Stop it," Rodney said tightly. "Just stop it. He was my staff member, so none of the rest of it matters, and the very idea that I'm going to forget, even for an instant, that he lost his life today because of perfect equations hiding their microfractures behind some mathematical façade . . ."
"Hey – hey . . ." John stepped closer. "Look—"
Rodney started pacing.
John sighed and tipped back his head, closed his eyes. "Do over."
Rodney snorted softly. "Grade school etiquette, of course."
John grimaced a little – the urge to make this right, to smooth things over, to help somehow was an impossible pressure inside his chest. He sighed, the lines between commander and friend, military grunt and man with goddamn, messy, stupid feelings blurring with every minute that passed. He wanted to touch Rodney, wanted to make it right in ways he wasn't at all sure were helpful from Rodney's perspective. Probably just fuck things up more. He willed himself to find safe ground. "I just don't want us to lose anyone else."
"And you think I do?"
John looked over to where Rodney was standing. "No. I'm just explaining why I'm not sure that going back's the right thing to do."
Rodney closed the space between them. "Everything I said about the Manhattan project – I meant it. I meant it. I'm not selfless enough not to care about a Nobel prize, but the idea of making something out of Collins death, that's more important. I can't – he can't . . . this can't be for nothing, do you get that?"
John watched him patiently. "I get it."
Which was when, impulse overriding reason, John leaned in and kissed him, closed his mouth over Rodney's and stole the anxious curl of his words, pressed warmth against the slanted line of his lips. When reason kicked in, he pulled back, watched Rodney blink, felt his own heart hammering wildly. Self-blame and recrimination hovered close, waiting to push in, waiting, waiting . . . He cleared his throat, dying by humiliated inches inside. "So, I . . . "
But Rodney shook his head, curled his hands around John's upper arms. "Oh no," he said, determination giving every word a sharp, unforgiving edge. "You don't think anything, not right this second, you don't think about anything except this." And – oh, shit – he kissed him back, slick and clumsy, enthusiastic, the kind of kiss that John couldn't help but meet halfway.
It seemed inevitable after that, the slide toward sex, the way a kiss became a touch, became hands stealing under clothes and shirts cast aside, became feet caught in boots and socks and pants that wouldn't slide past uncooperative knees. It seemed natural that after all this time they'd tumble into bed, a mess of elbows and ankles and searching fingers; touching, tasting, claiming; pushing doubts aside and reaching for comfort with every roll of their hips, spill of their breath, shiver down their spines. They rubbed against each other without finesse, slick with sweat and pre-come and need, hands grabbing roughly at hip bones, sliding beneath thighs, and when John came it was blinding – a sudden, vicious shock. He surfaced eventually to feel Rodney's lips against his brow, fingers carding through his hair, incongruously gentle.
"I can't believe we just – you just—"
John groaned and reached for the sheet, managing to grab hold after only two tries and wipe come from their skin. "Shhhh," he mumbled, sated and lax.
"I can't believe we –"
John lifted a hand and smacked his fingers clumsily over Rodney's mouth. "Shhhh," he said again, and didn't mind at all that Rodney stayed.
"You didn't argue my case because we had sex, did you?" Rodney asked as they shot through the 'gate above Doranda next day.
John looked at him incredulously. "What do you think?"
"I don't know! Men are, historically, easily persuaded by their dicks!"
"Yeah, well, I don't consult mine on matters of security."
"Paris of Troy, Mark Antony, Henry VIII, Ben Franklin . . ."
John looked pained. "We are so not having this conversation."
"I just want to be sure."
"I did not support you in front of Elizabeth because we had sex!" John said forcefully.
"Good." Rodney tilted his chin. "And the channel to the gateroom's not open, is it?"
John swore and checked, then shot Rodney a murderous look. All he got for his trouble was a grin.
It was unsettling to be back in the Dorandan laboratory, just the two of them turning on consoles and bringing equipment to life. John's creeping sense of uncertainty grew worse when Atlantis checked in, Zelenka articulating concerns with the project, Elizabeth's fatigue and worry crystal clear on the line. Yet Rodney seemed sure of himself – angry that others would doubt him, vicious in his dismissal of Radek's ideas – and John could hardly quibble with Rodney's contention that he knew more about the physics that underlay the Dorandan weapon than anyone else. He acquiesced.
It was a dumb decision, John reflected as they fled for their lives, as the containment field overloaded, as the space gun on the laboratory's roof discharged searing bolts of energy into the sky. John used the debris field above the planet as a shield as best he could, carving an uneven path toward the 'gate, diving and climbing, a corkscrew curl of determined survival. When the Daedalus materialized, took the weapon's fire, he was too relieved to say much in the way of thanks, simply slammed the jumper through the gate and pulled up hard in the gateroom. It was likely just his imagination, but he could feel the sonic boom of Dorandan catastrophe like a fist against his spine, and he flew the 'jumper back to its bay without saying another word.
"John?" Rodney asked.
John released the hatch at the rear of the 'jumper and turned off main power.
"I had – no idea. I—"
He picked up his gun and strode from the 'jumper, out into the bay. There was the sound of Rodney rushing to catch up.
John didn't say a word, and as he headed toward to the stairs that would take him to his quarters, he passed Elizabeth, her face like thunder, her jaw set. He didn't wait to hear what she'd have to say.
The call came over his radio, as he'd expected it would, an hour or two later. "Sheppard?"
John keyed his earpiece. "Not now, McKay."
"Look, I know you don't want to speak to me, but this is—"
"I said not now."
"I may not get another chance to say—"
"McKay?" John could hear the fury in his own voice.
There was a pause. "Okay." Rodney sounded defeated. "I'll – I'll see you around, hmm? McKay out." And the channel went dead.
When the door to his quarters chimed next morning, John considered not answering. It wasn't as though he weren't awake – he'd been playing mindless games of solitaire for an hour and a half, ever since War and Peace had become too much of an effort to endure – but the last thing he wanted was to talk to McKay, and there was no one else he could imagine coming by. But when the chimes persisted he got up, irritated, released the door and blinked when he saw Elizabeth, not Rodney, standing on the other side.
"We should talk about replacements," she said as though picking up a conversation they'd been having for some time.
"For what? Who?" John asked, thoroughly confused.
"Rodney." She stepped inside his room, the door closing behind her.
John frowned, trying to make the pieces of this conversation fit. "Why?"
"Because I fired him," she said defiantly.
John had always supposed it was exaggeration, the idea that bad news could force the air out of a person's lungs, but here he was, not an ounce of oxygen in his body, probably doing a decent impression of some Warner Brothers cartoon character with his eyes out on stalks. He floundered, trying to gain a hold on the news, waiting for feeling to rush in. Satisfaction, anger, maybe regret – nothing came; there was only paralysis, a creeping cold. "Fired him?"
"Is there something else you'd have had me do after he blew up 5/6 of a solar system?" she asked.
And as quickly as it had set in, the paralysis was gone. "You fired him?" he asked incredulously.
"He wasn't remotely apologetic, John. Said—"
"He's – what exactly do you imagine we're going to do without McKay?" John asked, anger coiling tight in the pit of his stomach with something else, some oil-slick sense of loss that made him angrier still.
"I promoted Zelenka."
"Which is great. I hope we don't need any of Rodney's particular genius any time soon."
"The particular genius that blew up Doranda?" Elizabeth asked sarcastically. "I hope so too."
"Seriously, Elizabeth, you—" John tried to find the words to sum up exactly how bad a feeling he had about this, which was when it hit him, Rodney's voice in his ear - I may not get another chance to say – and a new realization hit "He's gone?"
"Gated back to earth two hours ago. I'm here to talk about reorganizing your team."
"My—" John let out a breath and tried to collect his thoughts, quell the nausea deep in his stomach, breeze past how fucking patronizing that felt. "My team is fine."
"Your team is a man short."
"And I'll think about that when I can wrap my head around the fact that you fired McKay!"
John's radio flared to life – he saw Elizabeth tilt her head at the same time. "Colonel Sheppard, Doctor Weir, we have a situation." It was Lorne.
John swore and keyed his earpiece. Could the goddamn galaxy not give him a break? "Major?"
"The Genii – dialed in using Ronon's IDC. We have—" There was a burst of static and then the sound of gunfire. ". . . gateroom, reinforcements and . . ." The line went dead.
"Just . . . fuck," John swore, grabbing for his gun. He keyed his city-wide channel. "Alpha Lima Sierra Zero Nine," he ordered, and almost immediately there was the distant blare of klaxons as the city went into lockdown. He switched his radio to secure channel three. "Baines."
"Genii." The words came easily, command rising up inside him without a second thought. "Work your way to the jumper bay. There are personnel in the gateroom who have the gene. We don't want a situation where they're flying the damn things out of the city at gunpoint."
"Posta, you're with Baines. Ashland, McKenzie, Chubb, Marks – contain the gateroom. They don't get past you, you understand?"
There was an answering chorus of 'sir!'s.
There was a pause, then a breathless voice. "Yes, yes, I am here – there are rumors of—"
"I need you to shut down command room access to main systems. Rodney wrote the backdoor protocol after the last attack, yes?"
"Yes, is quite simple – should I . . ."
"I need them cut of from life support, city schematics, and the star drive," John ordered. "And I need to know how many people were in the gateroom before they arrived. Review the security feed and tell me exactly who else is up there."
"Will do. Zelenka out."
"Cadman, take a team to the chair – no one gets close, you understand?"
"All other teams to the armory, now," he ordered and eyed Elizabeth. "Don't think I'm done with our little conversation. But right now you're coming with me." He pulled her toward the door.
John was asking questions before he'd come to a halt in the armory, command pushing every extraneous thought and impulse from his mind. "Who is it? Kolya? Radim?" He reached for a vest, sliding C4 into his pockets and loading up on ammunition.
"I don't know, sir," Major Wilkinson answered. "I was leaving the gateroom as the wormhole activated – they used Ronon's IDC."
"You're sure about that?" Elizabeth asked, belting on a sidearm.
John eyed her impassively. "You're not seeing action."
She inclined her head coolly. "Defending myself."
"So long as that's all you're thinking," he said, checking the clip on his gun. He looked up at Wilkinson. "Ronon's IDC," he prompted.
"Yessir. Announced clear as day and then the shooting started."
"So we can assume Sateda's been compromised too." John activated his life signs detector.
"Perhaps not," Elizabeth suggested. "Perhaps . . ."
John threw her a vicious look, interrupted only by Radek's voice coming in over the radio. "Zelenka here. Primary power has been diverted from the gateroom. We have changed all radio frequencies and switched to new power sources – gateroom is locked down. Seven civilians and six military personnel were in gateroom at activation."
"Good job," John said.
There was a self-deprecating huff. "Colonel?"
"It is Kolya. Strike force of three dozen Genii."
"Goddamn, I hate that guy," John muttered. "Okay. Stay on top of the security situation. I want to know if they make a move."
There was a thunderous boom that shook the city.
"They have explosives?" Radek offered.
John quirked an eyebrow. "Yeah. I figured. Sheppard out." He gestured at Sergeant Armstrong. "Escort Doctor Weir to safe quarters."
"John . . ."
He quelled Elizabeth with a look. "Not your decision." He looked back at Armstrong. "Take a team – you know the override for the doors between here and the west pier. Radio me when you're out there."
John dispatched the rest of his personnel to key points around the city, building up a second line of defense to hold the Genii where they stood. He wished with every fiber of his being that Teyla were around instead of out building interminable trade networks for the Athosians; spared a thought for what was happening on Sateda and Ronon's role. Nothing about the situation made sense. There wasn't a chance Ronon would give up his IDC without a fight, and it was just plain madness for Kolya to walk into Atlantis when it was fully staffed. He tapped his radio as he jogged toward the gateroom. "Radek."
"Can they dial out?"
"No – we have remote-disabled the circuit which supports the dialing mechanism. We do not want them gating to Earth, yes?"
"Exactly my thought. Can we stop incoming wormholes?"
"Sadly, no. I need access to gate mechanism itself to prevent this."
"So they can send reinforcements."
"I believe so. Damage in the gateroom is so far minimal – they have tried to blast the doors, but have not succeeded. There is much smoke. I believe I see two men down."
"Ours or theirs?"
John swore and doubled his speed. "Sheppard out."
The hallways of Atlantis were eerily silent: the civilian staff had confined themselves to work stations and quarters, while the military personnel had dispersed. John worked his way closer to the gateroom, reviewing strategy, trying to second-guess Kolya's purpose without dwelling too hard on exactly how much he wished he'd killed him the first time. That goal wasn't helped by Kolya suddenly speaking directly into his ear.
"Colonel Sheppard. I suspect you've taken your communications to a safe channel, but I trust this city-wide frequency gets your attention."
John slowed and stopped, breathing hard.
"We have several of your people with us, Colonel – most of whom have proved to be sadly uncooperative. It's such a shame when people make themselves expendable, wouldn't you say?"
John grimaced and didn't reply.
"I suggest you make your way to a security station to review the video link I have for you."
John frowned, but turned and headed down a corridor to his right, sliding to a halt beneath a video screen mounted on the wall.
"As you see, that's Sateda, Colonel. And that is an Alesian ship, liberated after the recent culling of that planet. We've been anxious to obtain a delivery system for our more . . . advanced weaponry, and after securing that system from Alesia, we were delighted to learn from several sources of a place where we might test our bombs."
John stared at the craft hovering above the survivors' settlement. If Kolya was telling the truth – if there was a bomb on board the ship – there was no way the shields around the camp could hold, even if the Genii hadn't infiltrated the settlement and torn them down. He closed his eyes for a second, pushed away the distraction of remembered faces – Ronon, Caius, Simia, the rest.
"So here's what I propose, Colonel. You come to the gateroom – you, Doctor Weir, Doctor McKay. And we'll discuss the possibility of our not destroying your friends on Sateda in exchange for this city." Kolya paused. "Would you really want the deaths of the last survivors of an ancient civilization on your conscience?" And the radio went dead.
John swore viciously and headed back toward the gateroom, keying the secure channel on his radio as he ran. "Radek."
"I need to know the positions of every one of Kolya's troops."
"Can do. They have Major Lorne and his team at gunpoint."
"Of course they do," John said pleasantly – the sort of pleasant that barely masked his rage. "Where?"
"Gateroom floor. I suspect, should anyone try to enter, they will be shot – all entrances provide good view."
John slid to a halt, gesturing to Chubb to be quiet. "Okay so—"
Radek cut him off. "Colonel – the gate is engaging. Incoming wormhole."
"Ah, fuck," John murmured. "Reinforcements?"
"Appears to be Ronon's IDC once again. So yes, I believe . . ."
There was the sound of gunfire from beyond the gateroom doors. "Radek?"
"It is Ronon – Satedans! They are—"
"Release the doors NOW," John yelled to Radek, and there was a satisfying hiss as the doors unlocked.
Inside there was chaos – energy weapons discharging, the rattle of bullets, pained shouts and the rise and fall of Genii commands. John needed to issue no orders – his personnel knew their jobs, fell into position, targeting the Genii one by one. Still, the Genii had the tactical advantage, retreating to the command center where they could use height to secure their position. From below there was little cover, and John wasn't anxious to corner the Genii to the point at which they started using explosives again; the consoles in the command center were too damn valuable for that. With a hand gesture he caught Ronon's eye, communicated they should head to the back stairs, had his own men draw fire and attention away from the secondary route. Chubb was holding the stairs against all comers, but the Genii knew enough to expect a rear attack – John swore and reached into his vest for a flashbang grenade, arming it and throwing it into the stairwell with the hope that his own men in the gateroom wouldn't be too badly disoriented. Once the sound and light had passed, Ronon took the lead, bounding up the stairs and stunning those in his path with barely a flicker of effort, John bringing up the rear, punching two guards just for the hell of it, and slamming Kolya into a wall, gun muzzle under his chin. "Give me a reason," he whispered, as Kolya blinked, trying to clear his vision.
Eventually something like silence fell, the remaining Genii disarmed and breathing hard, weapons kicked to one side, the only noise in the room coming from the injured. John nodded at Ronon, who flashed him a satisfied grin, then disarmed kolya and kneed him – hard – in the balls. As Kolya fell to his knees, wheezing, John beckoned over a Marine to stand guard, moved to the balcony and glanced down at the other Satedans who held the Genii at gunpoint – Simia, Dannit, Hanna; two dozen other faces he knew but couldn't name. John keyed his radio. "Sheppard to Beckett. We need med teams to the gateroom ASAP."
"On my way," Beckett answered, and silence fell again.
It was a rag-tag group of exhausted, shaky, but triumphant Satedans who joined John, Lorne, and Elizabeth in the conference room as soon as damage had been assessed, the seriously injured taken to the infirmary, and everyone's cuts and scrapes cleaned. "So the Alesian ship . . ." John prompted.
"Stuck," Ronon smirked.
"Stuck," Elizabeth repeated.
"Caius generated an EM pulse that disabled all its operations. They lack navigation, propulsion, communication – even basic functions like opening the bay doors," Simia explained, smiling slyly.
Elizabeth looked impressed. "Smart thinking."
"It was Doctor McKay's instruction that made it possible," Hanna said. "I had thought we might see him. Was he injured?"
John shot Elizabeth a look, bitterly aware that Hanna – Hanna of all goddamn people – cared more about McKay's welfare at that moment than Elizabeth did. "He's fine." He set his jaw and looked at Ronon. "The IDC?"
Ronon grimaced. "They drugged me."
"Blowdart. The patrols picked up the Genii coming through the gate – we went out to help."
"So they knew they needed you."
He nodded. "Knew about Atlantis – knew I was their link."
"How?" Elizabeth asked.
"Kell's sympathizers," Dannit put in. "It's Kell who's aboard the Alesian vessel – he provided navigation."
Elizabeth rubbed her forehead. "So Kell and the Genii are in league?"
Hanna nodded. "If his followers are to be believed, he's known of our survival for some time. But he needed greater forces that he had at his disposal to return and claim Sateda – took his information about the survival of Atlantis to the Genii once he'd confirmed our travel between Sateda and the city."
"He had scouts posted on the worlds we commonly use as between stations," Simia put in.
Hanna nodded. "And with the Alesians culled and their ships in Genii possession . . ."
"It seemed the perfect time," John finished dryly.
"Luckily, our factionalism was not so profound as they – as any of us – had thought," Simia smiled. "Faced with the prospect of being conquered by Kell and his allies or striking out to maintain a relationship with you . . . the choice proved easy."
Ronon flat-out grinned.
"So we have clean up," John said, rubbing his face where a cut had opened up again, bleeding slowly. "Foster can take a team up to bring in Kell from the ship. Lorne – go with. You need medical help?" he asked Hanna.
"We have it under control," she said with a nod.
He nodded back. "I'll set up rosters for the prison block, and tomorrow we can start flushing out Kell's support from wherever else it's hiding." He looked at Elizabeth. "We gotta figure what to do with the POWs."
She nodded. "I think we should deal with that now." She pushed back her chair. "If you'll excuse us – Ronon, perhaps you could show our friends to the mess?"
John got up himself as Ronon nodded; threw everyone a casual smile as he followed Elizabeth out of the room. "You're planning to call Cowan?"
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow, offered a mirthless quirk of her lips. "It's always interesting to hear his explanations for things at the very least."
John pulled a wry face. "And if he makes demands we're not willing to meet?"
"We end the communication," Elizabeth said. "Dial the Genii homeworld," she told Chuck. "Video and audio feed." She turned toward the communications screen, waiting for a connection to be made.
It took some minutes to impress upon the Genii the necessity of reaching Cowan himself, but eventually the signal flickered and resolved to show a different room, a wide desk, Cowan wearing an expression of put-upon boredom. "Doctor Weir," he said slowly. "Your city looks considerably more intact than we had been led to believe was the case."
Elizabeth didn't react. "That's not why I'm calling, Cowan."
"We have almost five dozen of your men in our infirmary and our holding cells," Elizabeth said. "I wondered exactly what you wanted me to do with them."
Cowan laughed mirthlessly. "Let me guess – Commander Kolya's forces."
"Doctor Weir – let me apologize for any disruption Kolya has caused you or your people. He is—" He waved a hand. " – a renegade, a fugitive from our own laws for these past several months. If you'd like to turn him over to me, I can . . ."
"I don't think so."
Cowan raised an eyebrow.
"Return the man who's invaded this city twice now, with only your assurance that he did so on his own whim?"
"I had no idea, until moments ago, that Atlantis was whole, Doctor Weir." Cowan tapped a pen against his desk. "It's hard to plan an attack against those you believe are refugees on an unnamed world."
Elizabeth smiled frostily. "I have a different view of things. Since Kolya is not working for you, a renegade, as you put it – surely you won't mind if I detain him and his strike force here. Just until we've ascertained the exact nature of their plans."
Cowan nodded graciously. "Be my guest." He smiled just a fraction. "I'll look forward to talking with you more on some future occasion." And the transmission was cut.
Elizabeth looked over at Chuck, and sagged once she received confirmation that the link was dead. "What the hell do I do with Kolya now?" she mused aloud.
John shrugged. "You could always fire him?"
Elizabeth threw him a look, the corner of her mouth twitching. "I deserved that."
John didn't respond.
"Look – John . . ." Elizabeth's expression settled into steely patience. "I realize he was your teammate and likely I should have given you warning, but given the circumstances . . ."
John cupped a hand beneath her elbow just long enough to get her moving toward her office and away from prying ears. "The circumstances were that he made a mistake."
"He blew up a solar system!" Elizabeth said incredulously.
"And you know as well as I do that he'd have been trying to make up for that within hours of getting home. You had him backed into a corner – of course he didn't apologize to you."
"Backed into a corner? Because I asked that he answer for his actions?" Elizabeth stared at him, agog. "If that's truly the case – if asking him to take responsibility for his mistakes is somehow unfairly stacking things against him, then I'm doubly glad I sent him home. There isn't room for that kind of ego on this mission."
"And you'd know exactly how to handle yourself after blowing up most of a solar system?" John asked.
"I wouldn't have blown it up in the first place," Elizabeth said firmly. "I know when to listen to people who tell me I have it wrong!"
John quirked an eyebrow. "Really," he drawled.
Elizabeth colored and sat behind her desk. "It's done."
"And it can be undone," John said quietly. "You know how much he's contributed to this mission, and how much we stand to lose. And I'm not just talking about the next big crisis – I'm talking about our relationship with the Satedans, for a start. His work just saved their asses."
"Caius saved them," Elizabeth said evenly.
"Because Rodney showed him how," John replied, folding his arms.
They eyed each other for a long moment. "I wouldn't have thought you'd forgive him so easily," Elizabeth said at last, each word clipped.
John swallowed every swift retort that leapt to his lips, schooling himself to stay calm. "Look – he and I have some words we need to say, no doubt about it. But he belongs here."
Elizabeth opened up a file on her computer. "I'll think about it."
"I said I'll think about it." She nodded, dismissing him. "You have a clean-up operation waiting."
John bit his tongue and strode away.
The clean-up operation on Sateda ran smoothly – John's most difficult job was to convince Ronon that Kell should be tried in whatever justice system the survivors wanted to create, rather than shot to death, stabbed, or kicked around the ruins of the planet he'd abandoned. Once the prisoners were rounded up and dispatched back to Atlantis, John tried to find Caius, to pass on the news about Rodney and give him some credit for a job well done, but the kid had disappeared – gone to ground, perhaps, to avoid the attention. John sympathized; he turned down – with what he hoped look like regret – the invitation to stay for dinner and headed back to Jumper One to fly home.
Caius was sitting in the co-pilot's chair. "I need to talk to Doctor Weir," he said simply.
John tilted his head and sat down in his own chair. "Might have a wait on your hands. She's kinda—"
"I'll wait," Caius said, and John nodded his head in acknowledgement before closing the rear hatch and heading toward the 'gate.
Caius, it turned out, was only mild-mannered and polite under certain circumstances – and surviving a Genii assault, immobilizing Kell's ship, and learning Rodney was gone removed every last one. As John jogged after him, through the command center and toward Elizabeth's office, he wondered how he'd never known the kid could move this fast.
But Caius was already inside Elizabeth's door. "Doctor McKay should be allowed to return," he blurted, his ears bright pink.
John blanched and leaned in the doorway, folding his arms and trying not to hope that Caius might succeed where everyone else had failed.
Elizabeth sighed and gestured to a chair before she rubbed her temples. "What have you heard?"
"That he was removed from his position after an accident on . . ." Caius searched for the name. "Doranda," he finished.
Elizabeth nodded. "He blew up 5/6 of a solar system, Caius."
"An uninhabited solar system."
"Yes." Elizabeth inclined her head in acknowledgement. "But where I'm from, we don't take destruction of that magnitude lightly, no matter whether or not there was loss of life involved."
"I know," Caius said tightly.
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow. "You know?"
"Doctor McKay and I . . . " Caius wet his lips and began again. "Doctor McKay had me study the scientific history of your homeworld. I learned about Hiroshima, Nagasaki – the impact that atomic weaponry had upon your planet."
"Ah." Elizabeth folded her hands in her lap.
"He was angry with me at first."
"Angry?" Elizabeth asked, frowning.
"I wouldn't learn more. I refused to learn more about atomic energy after I saw what it had done. It frustrated him."
John grimaced slightly, thinking of the night Rodney had come to his quarters, angry and wistful in turn.
"But then he—" Caius half-gestured with one hand. "We spent a whole day discussing what your people learned from that situation. What they didn't. He was anxious that I understand the possibilities of what I could do as a scientist as well as the pitfalls too."
Elizabeth dropped her gaze to her hands for a moment, then looked back up.
"He told me about Daghlian – the man who died after an accident with plutonium during your Manhattan project. He worked for thirty days to try and prevent the same fate claiming someone else, his body failing all the while." Caius paused. "Science is – we can be careless or cruel or negligent or tired and the result is destruction. But then we can either pick up and try to mend what we broke, or we give into Gilestra's vision of the world and say that science is evil, the cause of everything that's wrong." John could all but hear Rodney saying the words. "And if we'd listened to her – if I'd listened to her instead of Doctor McKay – there would have been no EM pulse to disable Kell's ship; there would have been no shield to protect us from ground fire. We would be gone."
"No." Caius shook his head. "Which do you choose, Doctor Weir? Which world? Doctor McKay's, or Gilestra's?"
John shifted his feet, counted each breath in and out. He couldn't hang a thing on this, shouldn't.
Elizabeth smiled sadly, stayed silent for a long moment, then turned to John. "What's the situation on Sateda?"
He straightened up and willed his thoughts on track. "Good. Everything's secure. We have teams on patrol, and the POWs are here. Lorne's processing them now."
"And you're confident in his ability to handle the situation?"
John frowned. "Of course."
Elizabeth nodded. "Then go get him. You have a week." She pulled her computer toward her. "I'll send a databurst while you're packing a bag."
John stared for a second before understanding sank in, pure astonishment twisting through his chest. "Holy sh- "
He pressed his lips together.
She smiled just a little. "I listen when people tell me I'm wrong. Now go."
John smacked Caius happily on the shoulder and ran out of the room.
John had half expected Rodney to have gone underground – to be holed up in some town outside Portland or Milwaukee, fixing computers as his penance, muttering about the imperfections of Windows technology and staying home on weekends to avoid women who shopped for antiques. Instead, Sam Carter pulled John aside and drew him a map to a cabin on the west side of Colorado Springs, nestled in mountains made inhospitable by February's chill, but still close enough to NORAD that Rodney could get back if he were needed.
"Cell phones don't work up there," she said as John slipped a hard copy of Elizabeth's letter into his pocket. "Though he's rigged up internet access – completely illegally. That's McKay for you."
John hitched a shoulder, managed a half-smile. "Yeah," he nodded, and headed out into a world frigid with the kind of winter he hadn't felt in a good, long time.
The drive was tedious, made more so by the weather, and John had half a mind to be annoyed by the time he parked just off the road, hauled his duffel out of the trunk, and hiked the last two hundred yards to Rodney's door. There were no footsteps in the fresh fallen snow – hopefully that meant Rodney was home, rather than away in the Bahamas, drinking too much beer and applying copious amounts of sunscreen. But no one answered when John hammered on the door, and he peered in the windows after a while, saw a fire burning lazily in the grate and two socked feet poking out from the end of the sofa. "You lazy bastard," he whispered, but couldn't help his grin, and went back to the door to all but beat it down.
"What the hell?" Rodney yelled from inside, sounding grumpy and half-asleep. There was a yelp and the sound of something hitting the floor, then the shuffle of footsteps and a heartfelt curse. "I'm up here for peace and solitude," Rodney said, yanking the door open. He blinked when he saw John, falling absolutely silent, one hand reaching up as if to pat down his own hair, then freezing midway in some parody of a wave. "You—"
John had practiced about a dozen explanations for his trip in the last fifteen minutes alone, but everything died a sharp, quick death when it came down to seeing Rodney's face again – the bags under his eyes, pillow creases running down his cheek, hair in disarray. "Uh—" Brain freezing up – from panic as well as cold – he did the only thing that felt natural; reached out with one hand, curled his fingers around the back of Rodney's neck, and pulled him in to kiss him soundly, murmuring something vague about Rodney being warm. It was a short kiss – a press of lips and a stutter of breath before they pulled apart – and then they stared at each other, John trying to resist the urge to move from foot to foot, Rodney opening and closing his mouth like a fish.
"Well," Rodney managed weakly. "That was unexpected." And then he wrapped himself around John in the most overwhelming, no-holds-barred, shameless hug John had ever received. He felt as though he ought to pat him on the back – something – but his arms were pinned, and when he stopped trying to size up escape routes and just relaxed, he realized it was kinda nice, even good, to be held onto with such abandon. But just as quickly as he'd flung himself forward, Rodney pulled back. "I'll put on coffee," he mumbled, ears bright pink, and hurried off toward the kitchen.
"Um. Okay?" John managed, voice hoarse and not his own, and stepped inside, dropping his bag just inside the door, shrugging off his coat and hanging it on a hook in the wall.
"So, I was just um – working? On some things to send to Radek, so it's good you're here, you can just take them back on a flash drive rather than me send them in the next databurst – I'm not even sure if the SGC will let me submit schematics at the moment, have you been getting email? Well, what am I saying, I haven't actually sent any email, but – cream?"
John agreed with a vague hum, moving around the living room, picking up books and newspapers, putting them down again, trying to familiarize himself with the place through touch. The whole situation was surreal. What the hell were they doing?
"So, anyway, I think I've managed to work out what that hiccup was with the 'jumpers when they went through the gate to PS8-94Y? At least I'm pretty sure, it's hard to be completely certain without access to the rear panels, but if I'm remembering the crystal configuration correctly – and who am I kidding, of course I am – there's a realignment that . . ." He appeared beside John, coffee cups in his hands. "Here."
John swallowed and wet his lips. "Come home," he whispered.
Rodney's eyes grew wide. "I – can't," he said, sounding panicked. "You . . ."
John pulled Elizabeth's letter from his back pocket, took one coffee cup from Rodney's hand and pressed the letter there. "Yeah, you can."
Rodney looked down at the crumpled envelope between his fingers, then back at John's face. "I—"
"She was angry – we were all angry, hell you were angry," John said, gathering steam. "She's had time to think it over." He managed a flicker of a smile at the memory of Rodney's opinion of grade-school jibes. "Do over."
John shook his head, confused. "Me?"
Rodney swallowed. "You wouldn't even say goodbye."
John blinked. "I wouldn't—" The penny dropped. "Jesus." He set his coffee cup down. "I didn't know. She told me after you left—"
Rodney blinked at him. "Well, it wouldn't have been entirely unthinkable for you to – agree with her. If you had. Agreed with her, I mean."
John curved his hands around Rodney's upper arms, leaned in until their foreheads touched. "I didn't know."
"Oh god," Rodney managed, and John felt the splash of coffee against his jeans before he heard the crash of broken crockery, Rodney grabbing for his shoulders, tilting his head and pushing in to claim John's mouth, greedy, desperate; he was shaking. "I thought – I thought . . . I'm so sorry."
"It's okay," John managed between kisses, fingers twining up into Rodney's short hair.
"I've been thinking that you –" Rodney breathed into the broken air between them, "convinced that you –"
"No," John said, covering Rodney's mouth with his own, stealing his breath, the words that encompassed his singular loneliness. With unsteady hands he moved to grab at Rodney's shirt, to pull it from his jeans.
"Oh – can we? Please can we—" Rodney mouthed against John's throat, tongue busy, slick and wet against day-old stubble, teeth grazing to his collarbone, pressing helpless puffs of breath there. "
John slid one hand beneath the waistband of Rodney's jeans, fingers curving below the warm cotton of his boxers to touch his lower back, brush against his ass. "Hell, yes," he said, and laughed, smiling, pushed Rodney backwards until he was pressed up against the wall, chill despite the fire. This was home, he realized happily – this cabin he'd never set foot in before, this corner of Earth he'd never visited; Rodney beneath his hands, trembling and wanting him – this was home. "Bed."
Rodney flailed a hand, pushed off and stumbled, dragging John with him, fingers hooked inside his belt, mouth restless against his face. "It's not made."
"Like I care," John muttered, kicking open the door, hurrying Rodney across the room and pushing him down on the bed, crawling over him. He paused long enough to pull off his own sweater and shirt before reaching to work at Rodney's buttons, fumbling in his haste. "Fuck," he swore. "Did they make them—" his fingers slipped " – small on purpose?"
"I can help." Rodney fumbled two open before he raised his head, pulled John into another kiss, rocking his hips up beneath him.
John groaned. "Stop, stop—" He lifted his hips, pushed himself up on all fours. "Shirt." He breathed hard, trying to get himself under control while Rodney finished the job he hadn't been able to do, muttering "fuck it" and ripping it off. His t-shirt followed, and John bent his head, sucked one round, flat nipple into his mouth and shuddered when Rodney groaned.
"This is so not going to last long," Rodney whined, stomach muscles leaping beneath John's mouth as he nipped his way south.
"There's always round two," John reminded him breathlessly, inching the tip of his tongue beneath the waistband of Rodney's jeans before he popped the fly, pulling away just long enough to drag them off, to reach for Rodney's boxers and cast them aside.
Naked, Rodney wrapped his fingers around the base of his own cock, screwing his eyes shut. "Get undressed," he managed, breathing hard, lying utterly still, his chest beaded with sweat. "Get naked, now, now, now."
John was only too happy to oblige, kicking off his boots, stripping his jeans away, pulling off socks before he climbed back on the bed, nudged Rodney's thighs apart. "Let me," he said. "Let me just—" And he rolled his hips down against Rodney's, lining up their cocks, steadying himself with his hands beside Rodney's shoulders. "Let go," he whispered. "Let go, come on . . ."
Rodney pulled his hand away, transferred his hold to John's shoulder, murmured helpless nonsense as John set the rhythm, thrusting down into the cradle of his hips. John gloried in it, the noises, the sweat, the ungainly spill of arms and legs, the rasp of hair and creak of the bed and god, god, the searing heat that was clawing through his limbs, cruel and sweet, low in his belly, building with every helpless push of Rodney's hips up against his own. Rodney keened softly, body bucking, thighs firm and tight against John's damp sides. "Gonna – can't . . . "
And John kissed him – messy, clumsily, a kiss that lacked every kind of finesse – and Rodney came against him, jerking helplessly beneath his weight, wrecked and beautiful in the second John had to watch him fall before he came too.
They lay together, twisted detritus, spent and hollowed out. John stretched beneath the gentle touch of Rodney's hands, turned his head to press a kiss to Rodney's shoulder, sighed as he slid to the side, giving Rodney enough space to breathe. But it seemed Rodney didn't want it, if the way he followed was any clue, tracking John's body like magnetic north, curling into his warmth and burrowing close.
John raised an eyebrow as he smoothed a hand down Rodney's back. "Hmmm," he said, meaning lots of things, summing none of them up, nosing Rodney's hair when he realized Rodney was still trembling. "Hey," he whispered, kissing his temple. "Hey, it's okay."
Rodney hid his face against John's throat. "I'm going home," he managed.
John smiled, eyes closing, and nodded. "Yeah."
Rodney held on and on until he lifted his head and whispered, "you're shaking too." And John could only nod, press a fraction closer, and when he fell asleep it was with a relief that couldn't be sweeter than Rodney's own.
John slept badly. He wasn't used to sharing a bed, yet couldn't bring himself to pull too far away from Rodney's body heat even when he woke, couldn't stop extending little touches – Rodney's elbow, the jut of his hip, the skin below his shoulder blade. He dozed, waking when Rodney got up to use the bathroom, when his own thoughts caught up with him in his dreams, when morning started to creep around the edges of the blinds and Rodney disappeared to brew coffee. John lay on his back and studied the cracks in the ceiling. This was so far outside any territory he knew.
"Coffee," Rodney murmured, setting a cup on the table at John's side of the bed before he padded back to his own and climbed under the sheets. He sat up, bizarrely formal, clutching at his cup and arranging the covers around his waist.
"You okay?" John asked, stretching languorously, feeling the burn and glide of sore muscles.
"I'm sorry," Rodney blurted over the rip of his mug, knuckles white. "About Doranda. I'm sorry that I asked you to trust me and then I – I'm sorry."
John scrubbed a hand over his face and pushed himself into a sitting position. "Okay."
"I know that – I – I just thought I could fix it. I thought I knew how to correct for . . . I mean – you heard Radek, the laws of physics didn't apply? What sort of explanation was that? The laws of physics always apply, and I followed the rules, I did everything someone ought to do when—"
John reached over and plucked Rodney's coffee cup from his hand, leaned to set it down on the beside table. "I get it."
"I could've killed you."
John quirked an eyebrow. "Could've killed yourself."
"Could've killed god knows how many people if I'd pulled that stunt on some other—"
John leaned in and kissed the corner of his mouth, right where it slanted down. "But you didn't," he said, running his thumb over Rodney's bottom lip.
Rodney blinked at him. "I really am sorry. I – I've been trying to . . . the work I've been doing, it should fix some of the things that've been driving us crazy, the systems freeze that keeps plaguing botany, I've found the cause and—"
John kissed him then, lush and slow, tasting coffee on Rodney's tongue as he eased him back down amid the tumbled sheets, one hand curved around his waist to pull him in close, to fit their bodies together. "It's okay," he whispered.
"I can make it okay," Rodney countered.
John nudged a soft, wet kiss to the angle of Rodney's jaw, felt him shiver in response. "Okay," he agreed, knowing when it was futile to argue otherwise.
Rodney lifted a hand, carded his fingers through John's hair. "How is – everyone?" he asked with difficulty, and John could all but feel the force of missing Atlantis that had curled itself inside Rodney's chest.
"Funny story," John offered, pushing against Rodney's hand. "The Genii attacked."
Rodney froze. "What?" he asked, strangled.
John smoothed a hand down Rodney's spine. "In league with Kell."
"Kell?" Rodney pushed against John's chest, staring, dumbfounded.
"Everyone's okay. Better than. Ends up you taught Caius a thing or two and he disabled the ship Kell's people had flown in – EM pulse."
"Why would they – ship from where?"
"Alesia. They had a bomb. Kell and the Genii."
"To use against the Satedans?"
"Yep." John hitched a shoulder. "Caius disabled it. The Genii had gated into Atlantis using Ronon's IDC—"
"Drugged him. So then Ronon led the Satedans into Atlantis after them, took the city back. We helped some."
Rodney raised an eyebrow. "You helped some."
"You're remarkably sanguine about being invaded by our friends the Homicidal Amish," Rodney grumbled, frowning.
"I'm in bed with you, and I'm naked, and I'm warm, and everyone's safe, so . . . "
Rodney looked a little mollified. "You could've told me this last night."
"I had other things on my mind," John said, shifting to suck over the pulse beating at Rodney's throat.
Rodney jerked, then sighed. "Huh. I suppose you—" He swallowed, and John could feel the motion against his lips. "You did." He tilted his head back, eyes closing.
John kissed Rodney's shoulder, nipped there. "Yeah," he breathed, sinking beneath the scent of them, wrapped up together, coffee and sweat and sleep and come. "Fuck, Rodney . . . " And he shifted again, kissed him slowly, parted Rodney's lips and sank inside, drowning in heat and the slick, languid motion of Rodney's tongue. There was no urgency this time, just the slow build of pleasure that came with the slide of their limbs, the nudge of their hips, and John sighed with satisfaction each time Rodney's fingers learned a new place to touch, pulling shivers from the small of his back, the inside of his elbows, the fragile skin at his wrist, the edges of his calluses and the live skin beside his scars. He let Rodney press him back against the mattress, let him take the lead, nip and skim and lap at his body until he trembled and begged, until Rodney pushed inside with slick fingers and filthy words, until he spread his thighs and canted his hips, drawing Rodney closer, hissing at the burn and the stark, familiar pleasure of being pinned, being taken, breath twisting raggedly as Rodney moved, twined their fingers, thrust to break John apart.
And this time, afterward, John slept.
The next two days were a clumsy dance of negotiation, drifting from the practicalities of preparing to go home to the intimacy of being away. John filled Rodney in on everything he'd missed, emphasized how instrumental Caius had been in changing Elizabeth's mind, and watched, amused, as Rodney swung between bluster and being touched; urgent demands for things they should take back and quiet moments of uncertainty.
When they got back, Caius was waiting on the gateroom floor, beaming at them both, making Rodney prickly with discomfort and gratitude, pink with relief. For one horrible moment, John was half convinced Caius was going to hug them both – but at the last moment Caius stuck out his hand, shook Rodney's firmly, grinned his welcome.
"I, uh—" Rodney twirled a finger. "Brought you a laptop. Well. Two, actually."
Caius' eyes lit up. "Two?"
"Well, you know, you'll probably need more than one eventually and – well, I was right at the store already . . ."
An utter lie, thought John, amused. They'd driven back down the mountain in a snowstorm, fought traffic across town, and gone to three different places before Rodney had made up his mind. It wasn't as if 'two laptops' covered it either – their bags were full of hard drives, external cameras, new software; every electronic prize Rodney had been able to lay his hands on at such short notice.
"Thank you," Caius said, sincerely. "For coming back."
"Oh." Rodney blushed a deeper shade of pink and squirmed, a situation that wasn't helped by Teyla and Ronon's arrival. Ronon took Rodney's bags from his hands and lifted him clean off his feet; Teyla – laughing serenely – pulled him toward her, brought their foreheads together and whispered, "welcome home."
The welcomes didn't end there, and John hung back, heart strangely full (if that was what it was and not some strange case of indigestion – he wasn't much good at knowing where feelings came from) to see Rodney enveloped in the warmth of his chosen family; his back slapped, shoulder punched, hand shaken, hair messed up. Elizabeth was last; waited until after the mess cooks had thrust cupcakes into Rodney's hands and the anthropology team had passed him a CD of their favorite Pegasus folk songs; waited until she could usher him into her office, sit him down, and have a conversation that no one else heard. What exactly passed between them was a secret they kept to themselves.
"It's strange," Rodney said, tucking newly-laundered t-shirts into a drawer in his room. "I think . . . " He looked up. "People seemed glad to have me back?"
John shook his head and crossed the room, wiped a smudge of chocolate frosting from the corner of Rodney's mouth. "Dumbass," he said softly. "Did you really think they wouldn't be?"
Rodney shrugged, guilelessly. "I'm not very nice to most people."
"You save their asses on a regular basis. I bet that makes up."
"Still." Rodney closed the drawer with his hip, glanced around the room. Everything was put away. "I didn't expect . . ."
John stepped in closer and slid his hands beneath Rodney's t-shirt, around to the small of his back. "Hmmm," he murmured, nosing at Rodney's flushed cheek.
"You're trying to distract me," Rodney said tightly.
"Really?" John said, mouth glancing over the hinge of Rodney's jaw, teeth grazing the sensitive skin just below his ear.
"Yes?" Rodney managed, voice unnaturally high.
"How's it working?" John asked.
"Oh," Rodney whispered. "Pretty well."
John smiled and shifted until he could kiss him; kiss the wonder from his lips and astonishment from his tongue, welcome him back in his own particular way.
The High Festival of Dastea marked mid-summer on Sateda, a holiday that had been celebrated in every community, every clan, every family since so deep in the past that its origin had been lost. For seven years, the Satedans who survived the Wraith's culling had marked the day with storytelling and hoarded food, remembering the parades that had curled through city streets; the masks that had been worn; the sweet Intar juice that everyone had drunk, smallest child to the eldest of the clan. In a decimated Sateda, the day had become a memorial, a somber moment to remember everything they'd lost.
But in the eighth year of Sateda's survival, Dastea became a celebration again.
"I really ought to apply more sunscreen," Rodney said nervously, carrying a tray of wooden beakers across the open field to tables that had been arranged facing north.
"I believe you have another hour before you should reapply," Teyla said generously, setting down her own trays. Her skirt whipped around her legs, showing her bare ankles. "I have been keeping track."
"Really?" Rodney asked, setting down his load and wrapping a hand around the back of his own neck. "Only the sun's really quite warm and—"
John set down two trays and slung an arm around Rodney's shoulders. "The first of the Cafkanin's ready," he said blithely. "Maybe you should find Ronon and—"
"Really?" Rodney looked off to the western side of the field where the roasting pits had been dug. "Well then, yes I probably ought to – I mean, he said I should help and you know how he . . . " He smiled brilliantly at John for a second then hurried away, bare feet crushing the sweet-smelling grass as he walked.
Teyla bent to pick a wildflower, laughing warmly. "He seems happy," she said, tucking the flower behind her ear.
"We all do," John offered, marveling at it a little.
She nodded her approval. "We do," she said, looking out over the field. "We do."
Dastea was a festival that belonged to the outdoors, and it was testimony to the hard work of the survivors, the progress they'd made in rebuilding, rethinking, and recreating their community that they milled around the open field without looking to the skies, expecting the Wraith's return. The process of beginning again had been far from smooth, marred by discord, anger, and grief, but slowly, they were learning they could live with their differences. The evidence was everywhere. In the distance, John could see the greenhouses he'd helped Caius and Parrish construct, full of fledgling seedlings Simia hoped to nurse through winter into spring. There were newly repaired fences, roads they'd traveled to get to the field, even a scattering of houses as people moved beyond the compound into the city beyond. Around them there was noise and bustle, groups of survivors setting out trays of food; Meena, Declan and Hardol tuning instruments John couldn't figure out how anyone played. There were no children running around, no small hands to tug at cherry-red skirts and deep blue trousers, but Katra's belly was rounding with the promise of new life even as she chided Kane for the place he'd set down forks and spoons. John smiled to see it, to hear laughter so freely shared, to watch his own chosen family mingle with the Satedans at the fire pits, the drinks table, the elders' tent.
When the musicians began playing, the celebration kicked into gear. John ate Cafkanin with his fingers; beat Lorne at downing a pint of Parrish's home brew; didn't exactly dance with Teyla, but certainly swung her around and tried not to look hopeless while she circled him with her usual grace. He lost four rounds of arm-wrestling to Ronon; won two and lost two against McKay; slunk off behind the elders' tent and made out with Rodney as if they were both seventeen. He didn't-dance with Simia, and then with Dannit; bet Caius he could throw a guftna nut clean across the field; hit Radek in the head with a wildcard guftna pitch; ate pinkporkle spines and didn't throw up.
At twilight, he gathered with everyone else around the bonfire, took one Intar berry from a wooden bowl passed hand to hand. It was the first plant Simia had sown in Sateda's reclaimed earth, an act of hope she'd kept secret until the Intar flowered. A single bush had yielded enough berries to bring the community together; four glasses of juice might have been pressed from the fruit, but more than a hundred could taste the idea of a new beginning if the berries were shared.
After Hanna recited traditional blessings, after Dannit welcomed not just the gathering's living visitors, but their memories of the dead, John placed the berry on his tongue and bit down hard. The tart outer skin of the Intar burst, and bitterness that flooded his tongue was soon replaced by sweetness. He licked the flavor from his lips, the roof of his mouth, and looked across the circle to where Rodney stood.
Rodney smiled at him, his teeth an ungodly shade of purple.
John did a double-take; felt unlooked-for joy surge through his body; laughed out loud. Beside him, Radek burbled cheerfully in Czech; Simia flirted happily with Lorne; Ronon held vigil, shadows as his mask. Above them all stretched a canopy of stars, concealing their enemies, spilling beauty across the sky. John tipped back his head and considered the dangers that hid there – but with firelight washing warm against his skin, Rodney easing into his arms, it wasn't the moment for worry. He brought his gaze back to earth, nosed at a receding hairline. A hand slipped comfortably into his back pocket and John dipped his head, tasted the sweetness of Intar fruit again, accepted a covenant of different kind.