Title
The Qualities of Silk
Prompt
Big Bang 2007.   Atlantis is cut off from Earth. / After season 3.
Summary
With no help from Earth and Atlantis lost, the expedition finds itself trapped at the alpha site. While Elizabeth struggles to hold on to her command, Teyla and Lorne undertake a dangerous mission to negotiate with the Genii, and John, Rodney, and Ronon travel across Pegasus in search of a long-lost Ancient warship, and Rodney fights to hold on to humanity and memory.
Pairing
McKay/Sheppard
Rating
R
Word Count
50897 words
Notes
Mere thanks are insufficient for my two betas, flyakate and dancink, who went above and beyond the call of duty and looked this over at the last minute. Needless to say, all errors, inconsistencies, and incomprehensibilities are entirely my own.

"The Qualities of Silk" is set at some indeterminate point after S4, but I have included references to episodes from the first three seasons ONLY, so there are no pieces of S4-related spoilers/speculations to be found herein.
Companion Artwork
  • Arrival 01 by anna_luna
  • Arrival 02 by anna_luna
  • Sleep by anna_luna
  • the work of memory by beeej

PRELUDE

The spire is as he remembers it, or not-remembers it, synthesis of rock and Ancient polymers. Unlike the weather-beaten cliff from which it was carved long ago, wind and rain have not touched it; only a Wraith weapon has left a scorch mark down the side, a jagged wound that hasn't healed. He stares up at it for a moment.

"You don't have to do this, Rodney," John says. He wears his old mask, but Rodney feels the anxiety running underneath it, not only in the tension of John's body close against his but the flicker of it across his own awareness, an echo in his pulse. "We'll find another way."

"Eventually, maybe, but we don't have eventually." He wishes they did. He really, really wishes they did. The tower pulls, insistent, and for a moment the fear is fresh, acute. "Feel free to talk me out of this at any time."

John only shrugs and offers him his sloping the hell with it grin that says he wouldn't even if he could.

Koan steps up to him and explains the layout of the spire and the room he must look for. Rodney knows already; half-memory has given him a picture of the chamber in his mind: hexagonal, a dais in the middle with a wooden chair. He pretends to listen and pay attention but anchors his thoughts on John, who is as solid, permanent as the tower before him.

More ritual pointlessness follows on the importance of memory to the Archipelagans: "Though memory is meant to be shared among all, the discovery of it must take place in secret, so you must go in alone." Koan firmly but politely gestures for John to step back.

John doesn't move until Rodney turns to give him a Look, the old don't be an idiot look that makes John's mouth twist briefly. He dips his head, mocking and ironic, and steps back enough - and no more than enough - to make Koan happy.

"The work of memory is in the world." Koan's voice is lower now, rumbling in Rodney's ears, "so what you learn of your people and of yourself, you must also use. That is the burden of memory for us and," Koan's gaze sharpens, flickering over the fine metallic lines threading across Rodney's temples, "for you, I suspect."

Koan says nothing more, merely steps aside and gestures for Rodney to go in. Discontented muttering rises behind him, the elders and record-keepers unhappy with having their ritual interrupted by an outsider. Vaguely, he hears John snap back an answer, spares a moment to think don't piss off the natives at him, not that John will listen, and steps into the darkness and the cave-cool air.

The corridor comes to light around him, phosphorescent veins that run through the rock. The immensity of the spire presses down on him: its age, the memories it holds, against which the knowledge of the Ancients is new-learned. Silence swallows up the tentative sound of his bare feet on the floor, which is also rock worn smooth by generations of celebrants, and for the first time in a long time Rodney McKay knows what it is to be insignificant.

Like many other Pegasus cultures, the Archipelagans use the spire for a purpose other than the one for which the Ancients had designed it. Once this had been part of a massive observatory and telemetry station, and the tower had contained the computer core and database; now it is a temple, where only the royal family and the scholars go, the ones with the gene necessary to bring the tower to life.

He finds the room easily, hexagonal, a dais in the middle with a wooden chair. It seems an afterthought, tucked away and not central to the design of the spire in any way, but he can feel the importance of the place, the solemnity and weight of it, working through him. Sacred ground, he supposes, like a cathedral, a serious house on serious earth.

The chair is uncomfortable-looking and roughly carved, and despite the pre-emptive protests of his back, Rodney sits anyway.

A light comes from above as the ceiling of the room retracts.

He looks up into the light and into memory.


CHAPTER ONE

The last leg of the jump to Archipelago was nearly at an end, but Rodney let John sleep a bit longer, though the half-silence of the jumper nearly maddened him. And it wasn't so much out of generosity - even though John really did look exhausted - but because he didn't want to talk. Or not talk, or have what passed for guilt in Sheppard's world directed at him.

And he couldn't hear John in his dreams. Insular, drawn in on himself in the narrow bunk they'd fashioned from the benches in the jumper's rear compartment. The jumper's self-diagnostics filled such silence as there was, a cascade of numbers, translating themselves into the vaguest sensory impressions - digital to analog, he'd explained to John once - but such things like well-being or pain didn't really translate anymore, and the city didn't understand them anyway, or understand them the way Rodney did.

Pain was clear enough, but it was a human pain. For a moment Rodney thought about dropping the jumper out of hyperspace, turning around and heading back to Antora and the silence under its EM shielding. He closed his eyes against the temptation - and when had it happened, exactly, that he'd become so self-sacrificing, and how hadn't he known about it? - and told himself he'd be bored. Nothing to do on Antora except listen to Arazi's lectures on history, nothing to do but live without the cold whispering of machines in his head.

Before he could think too much more about it, he got up and went to the back where John was passed out under the blankets, brow furrowed as though sleep required effort, or the frown there, touching the corners of his lips - bad dreams, the residue of anxiety hovering around him - saying he struggled against it.

Rodney wished for Ronon, who would have known what to do. He'd been clever like that, pragmatic, and would have shaken Sheppard like a kitten, pummeling him into wakefulness. Time to eat, we got things to do, when are we going to be there? And Rodney could ignore the sorrow and anger (and terror) that managed to leech through the nanites and do what he needed to do, and take all of this out on Ronon, who would absorb it like he absorbed everything.

He reached for John's shoulder, poked at him with one finger. The frown deepened. Rodney gripped the shoulder this time, hand molding to the curve of it, and shook emphatically.

"Colonel, c'mon. Wake up."

"I'm not going to kill you, Rodney," John muttered, wincing against the light, and when he looked up at Rodney his eyes were sleep-hazed and confused.

"Not now, at least." Rodney sat back. He remembered that conversation too, four months back, and every detail, when he'd heard the nuances to John's voice for the first time, and maybe when he'd said Get a move on and forced Rodney from his peace he'd been getting some of his own back.

"We're almost to MX1-393," Rodney said.

"Oh." John pushed a hand through his hair and shook his head, as though to shake off sleep. Rodney caught the silver strands there, just at John's temples, and thought he's getting old. Or maybe four months of this, the running, hiding, too many jumps and too little rest, was catching up.

He turned away and headed up to the bow of the jumper before he could think about John and mortality too much longer. John's exhaustion colored the air, weighed it down, and Rodney thought he might suffocate. He listened to John moving around the back compartment, changing out one shirt for another - the less-dirty one, a tear in it that Kalis had mended - and the weirdly domestic, early-morning sounds of teeth-brushing.

The hallucination of hyperspace filled the view out of the front, silver and blue flickering like lights coming down through water.

No Ronon sitting sentry in the  seat behind the pilot's chair, though for a moment Rodney could almost see him there, looking like Ronon had always looked: calm, lion's mane of his hair bristling, all movement coiled into stillness.

"Enjoy your beauty sleep?" Rodney asked as John slid into the pilot's seat. The jumper's hum intensified, the HUD flickering into life, a tumble of data that had the cloud of John's morning incoherence - trailing edges of his dreams, his tiredness - sharpening into focus. Reassuring, in a way it hadn't been before his change, the keen edge of awareness cutting across Rodney's synapses.

"Don't make me change my mind," John said. About killing you, he meant. He examined the display in silence, and Rodney felt the atmosphere shift into awkwardness, their last conversation before hyperspace hovering between them.

"Ten minutes out," Rodney said at last, to say something, stood up and walked aft with John's silence chasing after him. In the striations of hyperspace John was insubstantial, a dark shape flickering in and out of presence. He turned away and rifled through their supplies, not much left of what they'd brought from Atlantis, and pulled out two of their last power bars.

Two days lost on Lystria, their new supplies abandoned in the culling, left behind along with Ronon, then six days to Antora and only one night there. John had forced the issue on Antora, refusing to stay any longer than the hyperspace generators needed to recharge - twenty-four hours and they'd been in the air again, Antora three days back and Lystria ten. Atlantis murmured about the calculation of loss, the benefit of John and Rodney remaining alive weighed against the cost of losing a teammate. Shut up shut up he told it, shut the hell up okay? and Atlantis wondered what it was to grieve.

He stalked back to the consol and tossed John his breakfast.

"Banana?" John inspected the package and turned to glare at Rodney.

"We're almost out," Rodney said, hunching protectively over his own power bar.

"You have the last chocolate one, don't you?" Rodney didn't say anything - of course he had the last chocolate one.

"Okay," John said, very slowly and deliberately, "I want half of yours."

Rodney opened his mouth to protest, but scowled, swallowed the protest down, and opened his power bar. He pried the bar in half - not quite in half, more like a 60-40 split - and offered John the smaller piece.

"Thank you." John took it anyway - forty percent of a victory was still a victory, these days - and handed Rodney his third of the banana. Rodney made a face but accepted it, the bar sticky-crumbly against his skin, and completely unappetizing.

"There's nothing worse than fake banana." Rodney watched in horror as John mashed the two pieces together and took a bite.

"Banana and chocolate sandwiches?" John swallowed  the thick, uncomfortable mouthful. Fake banana. Rodney shuddered. "You never had one?"

"Fake banana, I said." Rodney took a bite of his own banana power bar, grimaced and chased that bite with a chocolate one. "Oh my God."

John smirked but didn't say anything, and it was almost like old times. They ate in silence, Rodney ignoring his lack of appetite - even the chocolate seemed flat, unattractive - until he couldn't eat anymore. Half of each, and he wrapped the rest back up and tucked them in a pocket. John was pretending to run diagnostics while watching him the entire time.

Rodney knew what he would find, but kept silent anyway. Nothing new since they'd gone into jump, the left drive pod too shaky but good for a couple more jumps, everything else in the green, and nothing else to do but pretend that he couldn't feel John and his determination and concern in the corner of his awareness.

Digital to analog. The human part of him wanted to linger over the strong curve of John's shoulders, the capable hands that could play the jumper, play Rodney, like a finely-tuned instrument, the hair that remained, despite everything, sloppy and defiant. Attractive, when Rodney had never found Sheppard particularly attractive before, or at least hadn't until Antora - before, if he was being honest.

The city didn't love him, didn't find him attractive either. It was the gene that spoke to her, strong enough in him to draw an answer from her. She wasn't a she, for that matter, completely sexless, only a she because cities are women who embrace you and keep you safe. A different language, the city's programming, and the only way to understand it was to translate it into something human, to attraction and something else Rodney couldn't examine.

The translation these days was becoming harder, less between him and the city, less between him and John.

What is fear? asked Atlantis.

"You take your drugs?"

"Yes, Florence Nightingale." He had, reluctantly. The hyperizine made him groggy, when it worked. It was starting not to work, and he knew he should tell John, but what could he do, other than turn around and go back to Keller and another useless treatment?

"Before we leave, we need to check you out."

"Whatever." The hated cortical monitor was stashed in one of the overhead bins along with the laptop that kept a complete record of Rodney's synaptic activity and the nanites' infiltration of his nervous system. Somewhere around seventy percent he'd stopped looking, and at the same time John had stopped saying anything, had only folded the laptop shut in grim silence and stowed it away.

"How's the drive holding up?" John asked, and Rodney had the sense of distraction and distress forcibly shaken off.

"We're probably not going to make it one more jump without repairs," Rodney said. "The engines weren't really supposed to - " John glanced over, and Rodney shrugged. "Well, they weren't designed for long-term use like this. That drive pod - "

A low whine started in the back, spiking upward into pain. The jumper shivered, and Rodney felt the echo of it flicker across his awareness, movement in the periphery of consciousness. Knife-like focus from John now as he turned to the controls. Assessment?

"Tell me that's not as bad as it sounds." John said, like he didn't already know, and he didn't need the HUD to tell him, and didn't need Rodney's clipped, 'Left drive pod' to know, either. The jumper shook again, striations of hyperspace light twisting around it, and though Rodney knew he couldn't, he felt the gravity differential anyway, the drop of vertigo.

"Not even going to finish this one," Rodney snapped. "And you know, it would figure - it would fucking figure - that we got all this way just to end up splattered across the hyperspace interface like goddamned bugs on a windshield." The jumper shivered as he stood up. "We can't drop out like this, unless we want to be, you know, completely atomized. And did I mention being splattered like bugs?"

"We can't stay here, either," John said, and well duh, and Rodney felt the strain in John, in the jumper, the controls reluctant to obey. The HUD flashed its warnings, hull integrity and yes, yes, the drive pod is two minutes away from exploding, which means we're two minutes away from dying, and for a moment Rodney couldn't tell if that was him or John.

"Give me a second." Rodney made his way aft, one hand braced on the hull and the other gripping his data tablet. "If I can stabilize - "

"It'd be nice if you could get that done soon, McKay."

"Fly the damn jumper, Colonel," Rodney said from the control panel's guts. Wrapped up in the jumper, threaded through with navigation, the hyperspace adapters, life support, he felt the elusive pressure of John's flight, his hands on the controls refracting back through Rodney's hands on the control crystals, like being the jumper, the shaking, frightened thing - no, not the jumper, John, himself, he didn't know - but John was a brightness, sharp, a fixed point.

"It's like being in a goddamn tin can," John muttered. His voice was odd and human, thick with breath and blood in Rodney's ears, next to the chill of circuitry.

The jumper steadied, a smoothing-out across his cortex, and he distantly felt John relax.

"Any day now, Colonel," Rodney hollered. "Seriously."

"Get strapped in, McKay." Strain underneath the patch Rodney'd put in place, the drive pod too damaged and being held together with the Rodney-equivalent of spit and baling twine.

Rodney got himself back fore in record time, and John's face was pale in the green-blue lights of hyperspace, and for a moment the rush of adrenaline and relief made him dizzy before the city reasserted itself, and he fell back into coolness and calmness again.

John went through the quick deceleration checklist, ignoring the HUD's dire predictions of disaster coming from the drive pod, and thought them out of hyperspace.

The universe stopped, almost like the hiatus of stepping through the gate, a sense of being here and back there, and everywhere and nowhere all at once, seeing all and knowing it before sight and knowledge contracted back to human dimensions.

The jumper shook violently, a dying animal, and spun away starboard.

"Fucked," Rodney said, fingers tight on the armrests. Fear again, for a moment. "We are really, most sincerely fucked."

"Not yet," John said calmly, and that brought Rodney back to calmness too. The cloud-freckled face of PX-1910 hung at their eleven o'clock, ten minutes' flight or fall away.

"We cut it pretty good, huh?" John asked, smile bright and ironical.

"Yeah, well, we'll see about that." Old Rodney again, but the hands unbuckling the restraints were steady. "I have to reroute power from the adapter back to the engines." He paused. "The alternative, instead of being bugs on a windshield, is incinerating in the upper atmosphere."

"Shields, McKay." Come on, come on, John said to the jumper, and it wanted to do what he needed, Rodney wanted to, systems struggling to compensate. He corrected for drift; something sparked in the back and Rodney yelped, shouted that they wouldn't have shields if he couldn't get the power redistributed because he'd been electrocuted.

The jumper picked up speed, falling into the planet's gravity well already. Rodney fell into the jumper's systems, John a quicksilver presence in them, in him, moving elusively around an inner space marked out by crystals and wiring.

Faster, and the jumper was about to quit, no no no Rodney thought, and John, and in another minute the jumper wouldn't be much more than a floating coffin. PX-1910 grew in the viewscreen, blue and so Atlantis-like the pain of it was shocking, sharp even in the struggle.

One last override to get the subspace drive back online, the knowledge of what he needed to do limited by human speed, his hands that were suddenly too slow and inadequate, but one more, one more -

"Got it!" Rodney shouted, and in that instant something unblocked, barely, a flow of energy to the drive pods. The jumper steadied a bit, slowed as it fought the planet's grip. Not good, still not good, but the shields came on a moment later, half-strength, but enough, oh God, enough.

"Seatbelts, children," John said and Rodney was already halfway to his chair, fell into it, click click of the restraints fastening again.

"We aren't quite as fucked as we were three minutes ago," Rodney told him.

"Good to know."

The atmosphere flared gold and red fire around the shield and the jumper shook, friction this time, and not enough power left in the dampeners to compensate. After the suspension of hyperspace, gravity was an alien force, fierce claws around Rodney's body, forcing him back into his chair. He imagined he could feel the friction-heat of reentry, but knew that was ridiculous - if he could have felt it, he and John would have been so much ash a moment later - and then shiver they were through, and the jumper flew steady again in the clear air.

And there it was, the spire, an assertion of stone at the edge of a cliff, its top worn to a point. Mountains marched down the shoreline, and ran away into hills and fields to the north; the sea began again before the horizon, a thin arc of blue.

"Nice. Postcardy." Home. John took the jumper in low and turned on the cloak as they skirted across a cliff face. The striations of rock streaked by, red-rust-brown vertigo. Trees hung on grimly to the cliff, their roots gnarled and dug into the stone. The throat of the gorge swallowed them, narrow, narrow walls that had Rodney whispering promises of doom if John crashed them after all of this, more from habit now than from fear, and then they were up and out into the sky again, still close to the trees.

He landed them a moment later, in a small clearing hidden from the road that led up the hills and into the city. The jumper settled smoothly, and in the silence and stillness Rodney felt John's tension unwind, the heady rush of surviving and surviving together that had him turning to grin at Rodney, the wasn't that fun? grin that years in Pegasus hadn't been able to kill.

"We're alive," Rodney whispered. Atlantis fell back a bit, reluctantly.

"We smell like old socks," John said, and they really did, working on their third change of clothes, their second gone - blood all over them, drying, dried on the jumper's hatch. They hadn't worn their tac vests since Lystria. "You think they have a laundromat?"

Antora and John's last words, and the closeness of survival had distance now. John's willingness to talk opened him up a little.

"I'm hungry," he said, and watched John withdraw a bit.

"You've got your power bar sandwich," John told him.

"Oh, joy." Rodney didn't open the pocket of his vest, not hungry enough to resort to the desperate measure of the banana power bar. He did need to eat later, even if John had to make him - and John would, and there was a supplement drink in his near future - or if it was a choice between banana powerbar and the local delicacy.

He settled for following John out into the sun, warm on his face and gentle where it filtered through the trees.

John went still, not the vigilant stillness but the stillness of their days off, when they'd take Teyla and Ronon and do something other than be shot at. They'd go to the mainland and the air would be warm and lazy, and John was remembering that, he knew, and so was he, lazy summer afternoons in Los Angeles when I was a kid, John said, and I'd go to Malibu or someplace, just to get away from Edwards, and you know, I'd kind of like to stay.

"Now you know how I feel," Rodney said emphatically, voice cracking across the stillness and shattering it. John stared at him, something raw in his eyes before coolness and indifference covered it up. "Let's go."

They crossed a stream and walked up the path, around a sharp curve that bent to avoid a fallen tree.

John had his P-90 out and half-raised, Rodney half-behind him, before they realized what was there: A girl, almost a statue of a girl, standing next to a small cart, dressed in simple white that shone against her skin, looking at them. The only thing that moved was the horse, flicking its tail to chase away flies.

The girl eyed them suspiciously but held her ground. She reminded Rodney of Teyla in some way - not in appearance, because the girl really was almost a girl, and her slender frame didn't possess Teyla's strength, no muscles cloaking the delicate bones. It was in the way she stood, he decided, confident even if she really wasn't.

"Who are you?" she asked. Not much fear in her, though Rodney couldn't see anyone else around, any companions or anyone she might call to for help.

"Travelers," John said, elbowing Rodney into silence. The girl's eyes were on Rodney, though, and didn't move even as John introduced the two of them and launched into the story: lost travelers who come in peace, broken ship, a place to stay for the night and get some food. Rodney fought not to touch his temples, to feel the smoothness of metal there instead of skin.

It was the mention of their broken ship that pulled the girl's attention back to him.

"Ship? The harbor is back west." She pointed into the sunset, a blaze of red and gold behind her.

"Not exactly that kind of ship," Rodney said, ignoring John's silent command to be quiet, Rodney.

"Skyship," the girl said suddenly, decisively.

"You have one like it in the treasury, or should," Rodney said, eeling around John.

The girl's eyes widened a bit and she stepped back, though the horse and cart were directly behind her and nothing else, no one else, until the city gates. He wondered if it was because he was a man, or because of the other things she saw.

"It's been there since the time of Hyperide Athlone," Rodney continued, looking at her intently.

"The Sennai left then," the girl said. "I know my history."

"Well, I know it, too. So, can we go? Sometime today?"

"If we can," John added, striving to be diplomatic, though Rodney'd been anything but.

"If you come with me, I will bring you to my father's house," the girl said with the strange formality that Rodney also associated with Teyla. "You can have food and water there, and shelter if you need it."

"Shelter would be nice," Rodney said. Anything but the jumper, which smelled of blood and John.

"My name is Koanida Nausa," the girl said then, "and you are welcome to my father's island."


Mercifully, it was a quick walk to what Nausa (her given name) called her domat, a large pillared building built along the back of the cliffs, with houses and outbuildings scattered around it. The town lay in the valley beneath, and above them all, the tower rose.

"Ancient-built," Rodney muttered. Like and like, and Atlantis hummed impatiently in him. He'd go to the tower now, but John was there and Nausa looking at him like too many people looked at him these days, and the Archipelagans - which was what they called themselves - didn't allow just anyone in.

Nausa's father, Koan, wasn't really a 'king' so much as the one in charge of Kanatos, only a mid-sized island in the midst of the archipelago that dusted the face of the ocean and gave the planet its name. Not much resemblance between him and Nausa, with his large, solid frame and hands that looked as though they could break Rodney in half. The eyes, though, carried Nausa, warm and genuine, once he was satisfied they weren't Wraith. They had to hold up their hands to show the unbroken flesh of their palms, and while the silver threading at Rodney's temples caused some consternation, Koan allowed them both to pass.

"One-hundred percent, certified human," John muttered. The tension from earlier had vanished, or had gone into hiding, and the city struggled a moment to interpret humor.

"Guests are gifts of the Sennai," Koan said to them. His wife, Malane, brought a broad, shallow-bowled cup filled with wine. Rodney half-expected to be made to drink it, but only Koan did; he then dipped his thumb into the bowl and smeared the wine across their foreheads, intoning something ritual about John and Rodney being welcomed to the protection of his domat. They gave their names but not where they were from - well, they said "Hellona," which was a lie, and which they said only because Rodney lost the coin flip to decide between that and Geldar - and like that they were given food and drink while Nausa attacked them with questions.

"Does your ship really fly? Can you make the skyship in the treasury fly? Are you the Sennai come back?" A little girl again, not the princess they'd met on the road, and John was grinning, flirting with her like she was ten years older, trying to answer her questions without giving them away: yes (sort of), we don't know (Rodney snorts at this), no (but hey, we lost Atlantis like they did).

"The spire," Rodney said abruptly, cutting off Nausa's interrogation

"Yes?" Koan's face was too blank to be anything but a careful mask. "What of it?"

"It's a database for astronomical observations."

"It was once, but now it is an archive," Koan said, and blinked. "How did you know?"

"We're familiar with Ancient technology and history - I mean, Sennai technology." They called the Ancients "Sennai" here, which meant "The Remembered Ones," a bit of cultural trivia that had had Dolan excited and Rodney bored. "This used to be an outpost in the war against the Wraith."

"That is true," Koan admitted. He set his wine cup to the side.

"I need access to it."

Tact, Rodney, said the roll of John's eyes.

"I'm afraid that isn't possible. Only those with the Gift may go in, my family and the scholars and record-keepers."

"Both of us have the gene - I mean, the Gift." Rodney reined in his impatience. Damn local customs. The spire sang and throbbed in the back of his mind and Atlantis strained to answer; he knew John was aware of it as well, a subterranean echo that had Rodney on edge. "We need what's in those archives."

Accessing data sections AXR178-1Z9 to AZM056-387; run retrieval: biotechnology, Wraith; subheading: Aurora intelligence. File corrupt.

Accessing data sections BRK091-8Q8 to BGO025-0P1; run retrieval: biotechnology, Wraith; subheading: Hive ship, primary power. File corrupt.

Accessing -

Rodney shook his head. Shut up, he told the city. The hyperizine was filtering out, or failing altogether, and Koan was asking him something.

"What do you need? Perhaps one of the scholars could retrieve it for you."

"It's not just a database." Rodney drew a breath, though irritation made his throat tight. "There's a - a device there for memory recovery. Human memory."

"Yes," Koan said, glancing at Malane, who made a gesture of resignation.

"I need to remember something," Rodney said, very slowly and carefully. "The only way I can do that is to use this device."

"You're outsiders," Koan said reluctantly, "but..."

"We need what he can remember," John put in, all smooth persuasion but with an intensity to him that had Koan looking at him in some surprise. "Our people are - we're at war with the Wraith, and we need every piece of tactical information we can get, and what's in that tower of yours can help us."

"The Wraith," Koan muttered. He withdrew into himself, hands clasped and head bowed.

"Koan," said Malane, "they are guests."

That, unaccountably, seemed to decide Koan. Very well, he said, and Rodney nodded. John sat back, inclining his head in something like gratitude. "The Wraith are our common enemy, and those who would strike a blow against them... Yes." Koan stood. "I will tell the scholars of my decision, and we will open the chamber to you when the Sennaleth begins tomorrow morning."

"They won't like it," Nausa said. She had been sitting perfectly still, mouse-like, and Rodney had forgotten about her.

"Let them not like it," Koan told her before turning back to John and Rodney. "You have come in time for the festival, when we gather for remembrance. I will see to it personally you are not prevented from finding what you seek. For now, though," he paused and studied them, their dirty clothes, the oddity of Rodney's face, "you must rest and prepare. I will have Malane show you to where rooms have been prepared for you."


The room Koan had given them was close, walls white-washed, austere, and its one window looked out over the sea. The sun set fire to the water, ribbons of gold and crimson over the waves, and its light danced luminescent in Rodney's eyes. He blinked and turned away, and thought of Antora, Lystria before that, and different kinds of loss.

I hate this.

"Nice people," John remarked. He set out his gear for the next day, his gun on the table by the bed.

"They're letting me use the tower," Rodney said absently. At least they'd won something out of all this, a chance to find the Diomede and maybe, maybe, retake Atlantis. He felt John's eyes on him as he shed his gear and dumped it on the floor by his bed: laptop case, tac vest, the nine-millimeter dangling indecisively in his hands; there was no other table in the room.

"Floor," John told him. "By your head."

"Yeah," Rodney said again, "of course," and shook his head. A stand in the corner held towels and a clay pitcher of water, and the clay had been etched in intricate patterns of black, angled and cross-hatched lines that reminded him of gate symbols. They chafed his hands as he poured the water; the towel wasn't much smoother.

Atlantis had fallen back, and all was silence except for his splashing and the rustling of John changing into clothes Malane provided them. Clean clothes, which sounded perilously close to heaven, coming after good food - real food, and the generosity of Koan's people, and the possibility that they would find what they were looking for tomorrow, or at least be one step closer.

Not an end, and that thought made him tired. The beginning of more work.

He dried himself and moved aside so John could take his turn.

Their exhaustion was leeching into each other, John almost falling asleep over the wash basin and then falling over his feet as he stumbled into bed. Rodney made a crack about this over his shoulder - something blurry about John's improbable lack of grace, and his hair throwing off his center of gravity - and John couldn't quite fumble for the answer, but when Rodney walked over to his pile of clothes he stumbled too.

When the silence came again, it landed heavily, settling the cool evening air into stillness. Inevitable, Rodney supposed, all of John's body yearning for sleep.

"I'm beat," Rodney announced, turning around and dropping his towel.

John muttered something in reply -a complaint about the towel and this not being a fucking hotel - and closed his eyes.

Rodney ignored the other bed in the room, though John's was clearly too small for comfort. The mattress gave under Rodney's weight, and no hesitation this time - there had been, not so long ago, but not now, even before Ronon - as he pressed close against John's back. Warmth and more warmth, and John threaded his fingers through Rodney's and pressed hard, his strength familiar and reassuring.

Antora hovered between them for a moment, John's I'd kind of like to stay when they'd arrived on this planet, two separate peaces neither of them could have.

Loss - after Antora, Rodney could remember that, and the necessity of holding on.

He had memorized the contours of John's shoulders in the darkness and silence of Antora and two days of distance, the reassertion of Atlantis's presence that filtered everything down to thought, hadn't dimmed that.

"It's the nanites speaking," Rodney whispered to John as he held on more tightly, though they both know it wasn't, not anymore.


CHAPTER TWO

Koan and the scholars have escorted him back to the plaza outside the spire and closed the doors behind Rodney. The doors are wood clad in something like bronze but is probably far stronger, an Ancient alloy, carved all over with characters that, according to Pen, one of the scholars, pronounce an interdiction on any who seek to enter without the Gift.

"But I keep telling you - "

"The discovery is secret," Koan says again. The scholars bristle, especially Pen, who looks beyond all patience, but Koan silences them with a look, "and it is only because your need is great that Dr. McKay is allowed to enter - anything else would be a violation."

"Even though I have the gene? I mean, the Gift?"

John is careful with his temper, though all he wants to do is let it loose. Rodney is in there, and they haven't gone through all they have - a month of traveling, four months of loss - to have him killed on the edge of finding the Diomede. No ship is worth that, is worth Rodney, though Rodney and John's own calculations say otherwise.

Koan looks at him with pity, but his expression says not even bullets will move him. They certainly won't move those doors. John sits on one of the benches, an excuse to look away. All around him the Archipelagans are preparing for Sennaleth, the Days of Remembrance, which is not so solemn as it sounds - ribbons are bright everywhere, blue and silver, and the girls are lovely in their blue robes and beads. Their laughter washes over him and leaves him cold.

"When Dr. McKay finishes in the tower, I hope you will stay to celebrate with us and tell us your stories." Koan takes a seat further down from him. "Visitors are always welcome to share their tales."

John wonders what he could possibly say. We lost our home? We saw our teammate killed?

"I know a few," is what he says, "but I think we're going to have to get out of here."

They're four days behind, only four days left in the thirty days Elizabeth has given them to do the impossible. Even assuming they find the ship and get to it today, they have no guarantee of fixing it. Even if they find the ship and fix it today, it's a week to get back to the alpha site by hyperspace. They've ignored the deadline. Too important, Rodney says. He hasn't done this to himself to give up halfway, and now Ronon shouldn't have died for them to give up and turn around. John agrees.

That's twenty-nine days and twenty-three hours more than you usually get, John had said to Rodney after they'd managed to wring that out of her. Piece of cake. And Rodney had looked at him with alien eyes and said nothing.

"It is as it must be," Koan says for the thousandth time. It grates worse than ever, because it's a doctrine John can't ever subscribe to, though Pegasus has tried to force it on him.

A woman's voice calls for Koan from somewhere in the portico. This early in the morning the square has long strips of shadow made by columns, and darkness spills down the western face of the tower. They've been up since before the sun, Rodney snapping his way through the ritual meditation, yes yes get on with it I haven't got all day and John trying to keep him from losing what they'd managed to gain at dinner the night before.

To keep him, come to think of it, nothing more than that. Something waits in the tower, beyond it, something John doesn't know but knows enough to fear.

Seventy-six percent synaptic activity when John had forced Rodney into the cortical monitor this morning, up two percent in the three days since leaving Antora. The nanites move more slowly than DNA, their changes more deliberate, more focused, still inexorable despite Keller's drugs. Rodney hadn't even looked at the numbers, had only pulled off the headpiece and said he was going to get ready.

No point in worrying about what we can't change, he'd muttered, never mind that he'd had to go off Keller's drugs for the ritual, that Keller's drugs weren't working anymore - like Rodney thought that was a secret - that whatever was in the tower would probably make things worse rather than better.

John watches Koan vanish into the darkness under the portico and then stands. Pen and Quill, the two scholars - scholars, and John wants to laugh - watch him vigilantly, Pen a Ronon-sized column of black robe and Quill almost painfully thin and short next to him, dark where Pen is fair.

"Just looking around," he says, putting on his best-behavior face, the one Elizabeth and Teyla learned to read through long ago. It still fools most people, and it's a relief to know he hasn't lost that, at least. It's won them food, places to stay while the hyperspace generator recharged, everything except what he, what they really want.

"You're to be escorted at all times," Pen says. He has a fussiness to him that reminds John of Rodney, the just-so-ness that characterizes him in the lab, at least when it comes to making sure people who aren't him are following protocol. "And you're not to go into the tower," he adds.

"Like I said, just looking around." Not that there's much to see that he hasn't seen already, the solid squares and rectangles of Kanatos's architecture, all of it made of something colored like sandstone and much of it carved into the face of the mountainside. The people all blend in together, and in turn they blend in with the locals of almost every other town in Pegasus, as though from Central Casting.

No drunks in the corner on the Festival Day, goddammit, and where are the large-breasted wenches in corsets serving the beer? We need large-breasted wenches, goddammit.

"What amuses you?" Quill this time, tiny and suspicious. He squints behind his spectacles, though whether it's suspicion or a life spent reading, John doesn't know.

"Inside joke." His arms are empty without the P90; they don't allow weapons here. He can't sense Rodney, locked away behind a tower of rock and doors of bronze.

And he'd actually wanted to stay here, his turn for peace now. Beaches with sand and waves and towering cliffs to keep out the rest of the world, his own kind of peace.

Well, now you know how I feel, Rodney had said when they'd stood next to the jumper barely a day ago, raw and bitter.

He hadn't apologized, because they never apologized for these things, even now, and he knew Rodney wouldn't apologize for saying what he had, either. John wasn't sure if it was because there wasn't anything to apologize for, or if this went beyond apology.

Could Rodney cry anymore? He hadn't, when John had dragged him from Antora and its silence, but John didn't know if it was because he couldn't, or if he had refused. And Rodney's silence since, though they'd slept together last night, and when he'd been asleep in the jumper John had sensed Rodney there by his side, watching over.

Memory is a gift. Koan's words, more ritual, something recited from memory: The great palaces of memory, the storehouses of the knowledge of yourself and your people. It is vast, an infinite profundity, greater than the sea. And who can see to the depths of his own memory? For memory is part of us, yet we may only know ourselves in part and cannot grasp the totality of what we are.

Around him the festival is starting, people organizing into circles and beginning to tell stories. Some, Malane has told him, are new tales from the past year, added to the chronicles of family groups or the registers for the guilds. Many are old, very old, from the times before the Archipelagans knew of the Ancients.

Pen and Quill look resentful, clearly wanting to be with the other scholars or their own families. The tumult of a hundred voices fills the great square, more added with every moment. The voices twist up and up and vanish far short of the spire, and the mountain itself seems to absorb those voices and give back silence.

"These stories will be recorded in the mountain," Pen says at length. "There are machines..."

Recording devices, data storage units, Rodney had said this morning, which was why they were here. And a device for memory retrieval, used to decode messages encrypted subliminally in the minds of Ancient couriers.

I need to recover Atlantis' records from the war, and this installation was one of the last standing before Atlantis fell; it'll have the most recent data on the ship.

That had been one of the few things he'd said to John, nothing more about Antora, but the accusation had been there anyway.

Get off your damn ass and get the hell on the jumper. John had said that too, hard bite of command when Rodney had stood at the edge of Antora's shield, rebellious and despairing. Rodney didn't do despair, which had frightened John into anger. Rodney, get on the damn jumper by yourself, or I'll make you.

He'd pulled out everything: Atlantis, Elizabeth, Teyla, Ronon, did you honestly think he died so you could hide here?

I'm not hiding, Rodney had said, but he'd come even as he said that, and in the step through the thin membrane of shield the despair had fallen away.

A low, harmonic hum comes from the tower.

He's past Pen and Quill before they can do so much as turn. Higher and higher the hum spikes, vibrating through the doors and making the metal sing. Without any kind of instrument to translate he doesn't know what this is, only feels the wrongness of it deep in his bones, something genetic or intuitive, or maybe just knowing that this is Pegasus and everything is fated to go wrong sooner or later.

Pen has a formidable hand on his shoulder, you can't go in there, Sheppard, but he's no Ronon, and John eludes him, runs up to the doors and places both hands flat against them where generations of palms have worn the metal smooth.

The doors open and he rushes inside, to Rodney and the turbulent dark.


CHAPTER THREE

She ties three more knots in the calendar: red, white, and green, though what they mean, she can't say. A nonsensical tapestry, though Dolan says it does make sense, this strange, inelegant pattern, that at the end of each year - solar, Dolan said, and Zelenka agreed - someone would unravel the tapestry, and time would begin again.

Elizabeth doesn't know when the calendar had stopped, when a stranger's hands - the owner's hands, maybe, or the hands of the one appointed to the task - fell away, or when her own fingers took up the strands to weave four more of her own months out of them.

Radek is watching her. Patient Radek who unlike Rodney knows when to be quiet, though Rodney, too, had been quieter in the days before he'd left.

She turns to face him.

"How go the repairs?"

"They go," Radek says, waving a hand, gesturing to the valley and the half-ruined Daedalus resting in it. Dirt and sweat streaks tell her he's been up working at least since the sun; the exhaustion in his eyes argues for longer. "We have not yet managed to stabilize the plasma field inside the engines, though. Dr. Novak is assigned to them - she knows more of them than I do."

"Water?" Elizabeth asks to cover her dismay.

Radek nods and politely waits for her to pour. Condensation beads on the clay of the pitcher, running and catching in the grooves and angles of decoration. Early Mediterranean, she thinks, remembering a diplomatic trip to the Middle East, the museums with shards of clay and metal propped up in sterile display cases. Strange, to know those had been touched by a long-dead hand, like the pitcher in her own.

She sets down the pitcher and hands the now-full glass to Radek. A drop spills over the edge, holds for a moment, then falls on Radek's hand.

He licks it thoughtlessly.

"There is good news on the shields," he says after a deep swallow from his cup. "Simpson and I believe the generators are salvageable after all, with the parts we have available to us."

"Good news," Elizabeth echoes. Dust hovers, a near-transparent veil, and the light tangled in it makes an indistinct halo around Radek's head. She sits down, the wooden arms of the chair cradling her, her arms sliding along the rests, along wood smoothed by years of use. She's allergic to dust; the mere thought of it makes her sneeze. "When will we know for sure?"

"When the shields are fixed." This is Radek's usual answer. "If we cannot run the necessary tests..." He trails off, catching the expression on her face. "Rodney would tell you the same thing, Elizabeth; the shields are badly damaged, and if we cannot test them on the ground, we cannot verify our calculations are correct."

"Don't..." What? Don't mention Rodney? What they've done to him is cruel; necessary, as Rodney had insisted, but cruel nonetheless. Don't second-guess me? Caldwell's been doing enough of that, but she's held her ground. No power signatures, nothing to bring the Wraith down on them. "When the hyperdrive is fixed, you can test the shields in space."

"Yes," Radek agrees unhappily. "We can... But that is assuming Novak can fix the drive."

"She will." Elizabeth pauses, tapping a finger against her lips, not entirely sure she wants to ask this next question. "What are the scientists saying?"

"They are all tired," Radek says, very hesitant and diplomatic. "And some are not happy. There is talk... that Caldwell may be right, or that we should fix the Daedalus and try to return to Earth."

"There's been more of that." She's kept her own ear to the ground. Only whispers now, but they'll grow the closer the Daedalus comes to completion. Elizabeth inclines her head, turned back to study the calendar, and that much had stayed the same, her signal that says We're done talking now. "Please send Dr. Keller in?"

Soft shuff of dust on tile as Radek leaves, and a moment later Jennifer Keller comes in, dusty and worn-out as everyone else who made it here. Her laptop is under one arm, and a folder of notes under the other. Old-fashioned manila folder, something Elizabeth had never really expected to see again.

Carson's notes, printed out in hard copy because Keller had - has - a terrible time reading things on-screen. There are two sets, both annotated in Keller's hieroglyphics, one for Elizabeth and one for Rodney, both from times when the two of them had almost died.

"Anything?" she asks, to fill the silence as Keller sets her laptop on Elizabeth's desk and turns it on.

"I've made some progress with Carson's notes." Keller pulls the only other chair in the room closer to the desk. "But I...  my specialty isn't nanobiology, Dr. Weir."

"You've told me this before. Many times." There are old paintings on the stone walls, too, hunting and fishing scenes, native pigments and something that looks like blood coming from the necks or sides of dying animals.

"It bears repeating. Radek has helped me as he can, but he's busy with the Daedalus." Keller pulled up a familiar screen: Rodney's last cortical readings from before he, John, and Ronon had left. A graph comes up next to the EEG.

"The projected rate of nanite infiltration into Rodney's brain by now," Keller says, pointing to an abrupt spike. "We're nearly at five months. Assuming the rate remains steady, he'll be somewhere around seventy percent cortical activity. Assuming," Keller repeats, "the rate remains steady."

"Assuming." Elizabeth clasps her hands together behind her back to keep them from reaching out to touch the paintings. "But they aren't - they aren't causing him pain?"

"They don't work like that - not like the Asuran Replicators," Keller says quickly.  The nanites are only acting to increase synaptic activity in certain parts of the brain," Keller says, indicating the MRI, "and they're co-opting neural pathways, integrating them into their own network - into Atlantis's network, and there was no harm intended in that."

"Like the Asuran Replicators." Elizabeth touches a quick, involuntary hand to her own forehead.

"Carson was looking into modifying the Anti-Replicator Device to treat nanite infection, but he - " Keller breaks off.

"Yes," Elizabeth says. He died. "There are problems with this, I take it."

Keller nods. "As you said, the Atlantis nanites are like the Replicators, but unlike, in some ways. The modified ARD treatment was designed for specifically targeting the Asuran-type Replicator, but the Atlantis nanites are substantially different. They're like the Asurans in that they convert - or replace, if you want - human cells with nanites, and use the body's metabolism to do that. However, they are present only in, as I said, the brain and nervous system, mostly the higher cortical areas, primarily places associated with memory and higher-order thought. These," and a new screen flashes up, some scan of Rodney's nervous system, "these here are peripheral, outposts if you will. The nanites are starting to move into the nerves, but very slowly."

"How long?" It had taken hours, maybe, for the Replicator nanites to drive her into a coma, though Carson had said it had likely been an ongoing process, detectable only when the nanites had invaded her brain. The memory still makes her shudder, sends the phantoms of tiny, insidious machines crawling through nerves and blood.

"After you were infected, Carson and Rodney started to develop protocols to prevent something like what happened to you, but they were - were cut short, when the Ancients returned to the city. And then, Atlantis being Atlantis..."

"One thing after another," Elizabeth mutters.

"We lost the ARDs when we lost the city." Keller looks down at her laptop again, fingers laced together and tight with anxiety. "We don't have access to anything that can generate an EM pulse, and if we did, Rodney's case is the same as yours now - too far advanced."

"But you gave them drugs, when they left." Elizabeth walks to the window and looks out, to the dust and the rocks, anywhere except at Keller's computer and the unintelligible map of Rodney's body.

"Hyperizine to boost the body's immune response, and another drug protocol Carson had developed after your infection to block the nanites from migrating into the nervous system. But that, like the ARD, is Replicator-specific. It's palliative treatment now - it'll only slow down the nanite activity, not stop it."

That brings her back from the dust and the rocks. Elizabeth turns from the window to see Keller's face pale in the light from her screen, thinner and empty of the nervous energy that had always filled it, something like resignation there instead. She hears herself echo Jennifer's last words.

"Rodney's brain isn't evolving, but his cortical functions are increasing. By the time he left there were signs his metabolism wasn't adjusting to compensate for it." Keller shuts her laptop, and her face is in darkness again. "Sheppard knows how to use the cortical monitor, and he's agreed to return home at the first sign of trouble."

"Do you honestly think they'll come back if Rodney gets worse?"

"Probably not," Keller admits, "but it's all I can do."

"It's not enough."

"I know that." Keller stands, suddenly impatient, and collects her laptop and Carson's notes. "Are we done? I have rounds."

"Of course." She should apologize, Elizabeth knows, but by the time she opens her mouth to say the words, Keller is out of the room.

Caldwell will come soon - he always does. For now, Elizabeth walks over to the calendar again. She touches the unwoven strands of thread, the rich red, white, and green that counts off alien days.

Twenty-six days of them gone since John, Rodney, and Ronon had left; seven since Teyla and Lorne, a lifetime since everything ended, or began.


I didn't sign on for this.

Everyone who signs the clearance and confidentiality waivers and steps through the stargate says this at some point, sooner in Pegasus rather than later.

The first time she'd thought this had been after Carson's death, as shocking as those first explosions on a quiet Sunday. The second time had been during the Replicator attack, the third through the millionth when they'd learned there would be no ship from Earth to save them from the Wraith, and more when they had tried to dial the Antarctic gate to evacuate back home a step ahead of the jaws of the Wraith, and there had been no answer.

I'm a doctor, not a safari guide. She wants to laugh, remembering the old Star Trek, watching it with her parents and wanting to be like McCoy, except with more hair and she wouldn't be terrified of the transporter.

Jennifer Keller's found more things to be frightened of. Running the medical department for one, the Wraith for another, and somewhat more terrifying than these, bearding Elizabeth Weir in her den.

They'd been friends once, first of necessity because Elizabeth spent so much time in the infirmary watching SGA-1 in various stages of illness, mutation, or near-death, then because it was easy to like Elizabeth when her guard was down and she wasn't being the diplomat.

Now Jennifer barely knows her, the drawn woman in her dusty uniform, as hard as the stone walls of her room. She barely knows herself. The only familiar thing remaining is the folder of Carson's notes. Sitting in her quarters, poring over them, is like having Carson standing over her shoulder again.

She probably can't afford the familiarity, but it's all she has.

Turning left to go down the hill where her lab and infirmary and few doctors are, she nods to the few technicians, Dolan the anthropologist, a young engineer with her arm in a sling.

Pointless casualty: she'd slipped off a ladder while working on the Daedalus's wiring.

She didn't sign on for pointless casualties, either.


He'd left Dr. Keller behind with a brief nod and Elizabeth's summons and now the hobbled Daedalus lies silent around him, the white noise of its circuitry the merest whisper, muted to conserve power and keep them secret. Novak works beside him in complete silence, bent over a control panel that should - in theory - allow them to reroute power from secondary systems to the engines without overloading them.

In theory. Everything is in theory. The numbers in the computer simulations refuse to cooperate.

"Power output figures," says Vogler, one of the whisperers, as he walks by and hands Radek a data tablet. Yardley, one of his friends - one who has no business in this part of the ship - is with him.

"Can I help you, Mark?" Radek asks. He sees Miko go still beside him, eyes very wide behind her glasses. Even Novak, half-invisible under the control panel, pauses in her work. "I believe you were assigned to the shield repairs - which are not here."

"Jack and I were going for lunch," Yardley says, the words invested with a sigh of exhausted patience. "If that's okay? We've been working since six."

"Of course." Radek gestures vaguely at the hatch and turns back to his work. Yardley and Vogler head off, boots loud on the deck plating.

"That went well," Miko says, and glances over her shoulder as though expecting to see the two men still standing there. She pushes her glasses, which are taped together at the bridge, up her nose.

Radek brushes hair out of his eyes again, frowns at the stickiness of sweat across the back of his hand. One of the first secondary systems to be sacrificed had been temperature regulation. The Daedalus sits in its great, shallow plain and bakes slowly.

"I can't see a thing." Novak says from the depths of the control panel. "Can I have more light over here?"

Miko passes her a flashlight and Novak's hand flails to take it. Radek listens to her soft, half-conscious mutterings, the quiet silvery ring of wires being exchanged. Not Ancient technology, Asgard, which still confuses him, when he finds himself wondering what she had done with the control crystals.

"This should do it," Novak says after a moment, hauling herself out. Her hair is askew, half out of its ponytail. Miko takes her flashlight back. "I'll give you the numbers, and I guess we can try the simulation again."

He doesn't bother agreeing; it had become pointless after the sixteenth time.

Novak reads out the power inputs, her voice rusty. Sick almost, and she is pale in the beam of the flashlight. Her gaunt face has become thinner, and there is an odd wrinkle to her brow where the skin must furrow around a new scar.

"You are feeling okay?" he asks, very carefully not looking at her.

"I'm okay," she says, sounding surprised by the question. "Just, you know, tired."

"Of course." They all are. The air in the Daedalus is stale; he can smell burned wiring and his own sweat, and five hours stand between him and the nearest chance of a shower. Elizabeth, the Wraith, stand between him and a decent sleep; he has managed to avoid stimulants, for exhaustion provides its own fuel, though his body will pay the debt soon enough.

He watches as the simulation runs and runs, power levels spiking up and down, the plasma in the heart of the hyperspace engines pulsating in waves of orange, red, and yellow. They need to test the engines in real time, not guess with the expedition's computers, but those are Elizabeth's orders, reluctantly seconded by Caldwell.

"It will do no good if the engines overload when we go into battle," he mutters.

"You've said that before," Novak snaps, and this is true enough. They've both said it before, many times, to their respective supervisors, though Novak at least has a sympathetic audience.

If he'd been Rodney, Radek thinks, he would have hung on the argument like a mastiff and worn Elizabeth down after a while. A great while, maybe, but Rodney has a way about him, a blunt-force trauma sort of way, that gets things done.

But he is the one who must do this now, with Rodney gone and a dying ship to bring back to life.

As he has always done, Radek Zelenka returns to his work.


CHAPTER FOUR

Teyla kneels in the darkness with a stillness she had learned long ago. Forest sounds, carried on a chill breeze, comes to her, the reassuring chirp of nocturnal insects and the rush of predator wings. No one near, or no one loud enough to disturb the rhythm of night.

Evan Lorne comes close, however, and though he is a member - or, had been, depending how you looked at it, she thought - of a branch of his country's military ("The few and the proud," he'd told her one day), he cannot keep still.

Semper fi, he'd said too, which is short for semper fidelis, which means "always faithful" and has an echo of the Ancestors in it. She has to admit it describes him well. Semper fidelis is Evan Lorne, and poor, lost Ford, and for that matter John and Caldwell and Ronon, though they are not "Marines."

Faithful Lorne, but not so silent, despite his training. She reminds herself he hadn't grown up with the threat of the Wraith, the need to be still as death.

She doesn't even breathe for quiet, only touches Lorne's thigh, which is tense and anxious under her hand. He, like she has, has come only with a knife at his hip and a sidearm inside a boot - or, at least, these are the only weapons the Genii will find. Those had been the agreement at the meeting: no weapons (she, however, is not fool enough to trust the Genii so far that they will comply) and a neutral planet.

"Neutral my ass," Lorne had said. "They'll have been camped there for weeks."

Teyla, too, is not so naïve as to believe the Genii would not scavenge for any advantage.

Twenty other Marines and Athosians wait in rings around them at a near distance, the Marines dug in and the Athosians in the thick cover of the trees. A dangerous drain on the forces protecting the rest of the Atlanteans and her own people, but necessary.

A soft whistle sounds through the trees and she feels Lorne go still and silent beside her.

A human sound, she knows, and she shapes her lips to whistle back.

With the summons the Genii come out of the darkness most like Wraiths, but they wear their old cumbersome uniforms, and the first face she sees is known to her.

"Codre," she says, but keeps her thoughts on the knife at her side.

"Teyla." Codre nods, stiff and formal. The lines on his face are deeper now. She had known him once, when the Genii were simple traders and his family produced a cloth that wore well. Her father would bargain with Codre's older brother while she and Codre would talk.

Those days are gone. Codre takes the knife at her hip, tucking it into his sleeve. The hidden knife in its sheath chafes at her calf. She needs to oil the leather soon, with what time she doesn't know. A young man next to Codre, a stranger, is checking Lorne over, pulling the knife Lorne lets him find.

That she allows this should tell Codre something, but he doesn't try to look beyond her or even demand to know how many men besides Lorne are with her.

"Laden has asked that you meet him in our camp," Codre tells her. It is not an asking, not with the punctuation of a weapon pointed at her by a cold-eyed young man.

"Strike one," Lorne mutters. Codre blinks, clearly not understanding the reference, and Teyla wants to laugh, to think about baseball.

Ronon hits what John calls a 'home run' on his first try, and the ball goes sailing, sailing far out to sea. John blinks and says not bad, and he is trying not to sound impressed. Behind them, Rodney is curled up with his data tablet and endless experiments, and he mutters something bored and incomprehensible - hmm? what? muscles, good for you - and Teyla, so that John can feel in charge again, asks him to explain the infield fly rule.

"We will come," Teyla says at last, "but Laden should know two cloaked puddle jumpers are tracking us. Should anything happen..." Codre and his companion look up, and see nothing but the canopy and such stars as are visible through the screen of leaves. "They will destroy you all, Codre; please believe me when I say this."

Codre hesitates as he reaches out to take her arm but says, mechanically, Nothing will happen to you, Teyla; I will see to it; now I must bring you to Laden. The hour is getting late.

The hour is too late, she fears sometimes. It presses on her, on all of them.

It had been a sunny day, that day out on the balcony with John explaining about first base, and saying "No, it's not kissing - that's an expression" when Ronon had mentioned hearing a Marine talk about making it to first base with a botanist the other night. Rodney had made an odd, strangled sound in his corner, which meant John then had to explain that Rodney and Katie Brown had broken up, and when Teyla had tried to console him, Rodney had brushed her off - yes, yes, broken heart, very sad song, very tiny violin -

Codre's hand is warm through her uniform jacket. She pulls loose.

Lost days, lost behind a veil of smoke and fear, her team scattered to the stars and Rodney likely dying. She doesn't think about that, forces her mind to her footsteps, to Lorne marching beside her and Codre in front.

The camp is small at least, in a scanty clearing a half hour from the gate. Laden's is in the center, large enough to hold the trappings of command: a desk, maps, Codre and the cold-eyed young man who take up positions behind him.

"Laden Radim." Teyla does not do him the honor of a formal greeting, or thank him for agreeing to meet.

"Teyla Emmagen, daughter of Tegan." A smile lengthens his lips, turning him into the boy she remembers from when the Genii were both friends and strangers. He turns to Lorne and the smile fades; he likely recalls the last time the two of them met. "Major Evan Lorne, I believe."

"You know." Lorne remembers too, and Teyla prays for him to be calm. He doesn't have John's restraint, the cool mask of indifference that could pass for the real thing.

"I would have expected to see Colonel Sheppard and Dr. McKay," Laden continues, pleasant smile in place under calculating eyes. "I rarely ever see you without your team, Teyla. Has anything happened to them?"

"You of all people should have reason to be glad Colonel Sheppard is not here, Laden." She leans heavily on his name, the insult of familiarity. "Your past encounters with him have not gone well for you, or for any of the Genii."

Kolya. Cowan. Like ghosts the old men hover. How much do you wish to be like them, Laden?

"Maybe I am glad." Laden drinks from the glass in front of him, a juice pressed from a fruit once grown on the Genii homeworld. She had once traded for that fruit many times. Two full glasses sit in front of Teyla and Lorne, but they do not drink. "But the fact remains, you two are here and Sheppard and McKay are not, and you wouldn't have asked for this meeting unless you and the Lanteans wanted my help." He eyes their glasses. "You certainly aren't interested in trading for cerisa anymore."

"Trade is worth little where there is no trust," Teyla says flatly, "as I believe both of our people have learned."

"True enough," Laden agrees. He empties his glass and sets it aside; one of the young men behind him takes the glass and stows it in a chest. We have been here longer than you have, is the message in that glass, the tent around them, the well-organized camp Teyla had seen beyond. "You haven't denied anything, you know. What kind of help do you want?"

"You want the Wraith destroyed as much as we do." Lorne, breaking orders. Teyla fights to school her expression and not to turn around to silence him. What the ears have heard cannot be unheard; she focuses her attention on Laden, who is nodding.

"You could say the same of most people in Pegasus," the young man at Laden's shoulder says. He looks far too young to be here, but the coldness of his eyes gives away his true age. Like Laden, who seems good-natured and humorous, but that is a surface, painted on like Lorne's camouflage. "Why don't you go to them?"

"Because whether we like it or not, the Genii are the most organized force engaged against the Wraith, other than ourselves." She catches herself in time, feels Lorne go tense beside her. The young man's cold eyes narrow. Other than ourselves.

"That's true, but I hardly want to commit myself or my men to action if we don't know what your plans are, or what we're to receive in return." Laden leans forward a bit, hands resting on the tabletop. Outside a birdcall, a real bird this time, but one she doesn't know. If he has heard her slip, the unsaid you are the most organized force now that Atlantis has been taken, he doesn't say.

"Your men, your nuclear warheads, and in return we will give you access to Lantean technology, and the synthesized gene to operate it." John had protested against the jumpers and Keller against the gene therapy, but Elizabeth had overridden them. Desperate times call for desperate measures, another Earth saying, and one Teyla understands. "You have not met with success with your own therapy, I believe."

"And what would lead you to believe such a thing?" Laden leans back, defensive, and now she has him. She tries to watch the nameless one behind his shoulder.

"Because the only ATA carrier registered within a two-mile radius is me," Lorne says. "Even if your success rate is lower than forty percent, statistically you'd have to have one or two here with you."

"I could have left them all on the Genii homeworld." Laden's hands are laced together, but Teyla can see his fingers tighten. He had always been a soldier more than a trader, good at strategy but not diplomacy.

"When your sister and the other Genii came to Atlantis, Carson Beckett discovered the extent of the radiation exposure they suffered," Lorne tells him, voice low and hard and so much like John's Teyla is surprised. "Unless the therapy you developed can compensate for that kind of cellular degeneration, there's no way it'll take. Our doctors have developed an alternate treatment, one that can compensate for radiation exposure."

She watches as thoughts chase across Laden's face: desire, fear, calculation, the nagging presence of unanswered questions, and tells herself she will win this battle.

"You will have three days to consider our offer; it is not open to negotiation." Teyla rises, along with Lorne. The other Genii in the room reach for their weapons, but are waved down by Laden, who does not rise, but remains sitting, staring up at Teyla as though to decipher her.

Teyla wears her father's face, the mask, the one that gives away nothing. She sees him hunt around her walls, looking for the cracks, the frustration when he fails.

"In three days we will meet you at this address." She places a sheet of paper with a gate address before him. "Another neutral planet, no weapons, and you must come alone with your answer. None of your men," the gaze she rakes over them is scathing, "may come."

"You demand a lot, Teyla Emmagen," Laden mutters, looking away.

"When you deceived the Lanteans, you deceived me, Laden Radim," she tells him, moving to stand over his desk. He stares up at her, much younger suddenly. "You broke faith, and we will never trust you again. Yet you may redeem yourself, and in doing so help destroy the Wraith - but you will," and she is her father's daughter now, the leader, "you will not live to regret breaking faith again, and that I swear on my parents' graves."

He doesn't say anything to that, because there is nothing to say.

"I will have Codre and Orosi escort you to the edge of the camp," he says instead. And the nameless one is named now, cold-eyed Orosi. Nondescript Codre offers her a smile that could be friendly in any place other than this.

They have lost much already, and while they cannot afford to trust Laden they cannot afford not to use him. She thinks back on the tally of their losses over the past two months, but even knowing the bitter numbers, she cannot guess the account of it.

"You think he'll agree?" Lorne asks once they're out of the camp and away from prying Genii eyes.

"He will."

She senses her people moving, keeping to the deepest shadows until the trees swallow them all in darkness.

Trees and trees and trees - they have been the boundaries of her life, or had been until she met the Lanteans. She has not returned to Athos since the culling nearly five years gone, and though the mainland has rich, generous forests, they are not the trees of home. Here, they are hostile; invisible eyes track her and her people, track them down the difficult, root-strewn path - she has to grip Lorne's arm to keep him from overbalancing - to the stargate, until she passes through the event horizon and beyond their sight.


CHAPTER FIVE

They had lost two days on Lystria, though two days were the least of what they couldn't get back.

John was pushing it, though Rodney had said - not that John was listening - there was no way to get to Antora much sooner. They'd pick up maybe a half a day, but might end up spending more if the hyperspace generator broke down; they might, for all they knew, find themselves floating in the void between Antora and Archipelago.

Despite the one-day pause after the first three days of travel between Lystria and Antora, the generator had hovered on the edge of overloading for the past two days, but held itself back from that edge. Rodney listened to the strain on the generator casing, the subaural whine that registered as a ghost-cry in the back of his mind.

-Atlantis shook, the shield edges buckling where they girded the outer piers. He trembled, ancient work of giants, and for a moment he thought the shield would fail, that the Hive ships, hovering vultures, would have him. Fear, and that was human, searching desperately through circuitry to save them; Atlantis, he ran diagnostics, projections on the rate the Wraith weaponry drained the shield, the coldness and primacy of numbers.

Rodney shook himself. Himself, Rodney McKay, here and now. He forced himself to focus on the jumper, the smell of old sweat and blood, the emptiness behind him where Ronon should have been pacing or sitting in silent, coiled impatience. John sat still in the pilot's seat next to him.

"We're almost to Antora," said John. His face was pale in the flickering stream of hyperspace lights. He looked older, felt older than he'd been even a few days ago, and his exhaustion resonated in Rodney's body. The uneventful pause in the six-day flight had not been restful; Rodney had held on to John that night in the jumper - they hadn't stayed in the local village, though they'd been invited - and felt the tension in him, the litany of Ronon, oh God we left him that had itched at Rodney like old regret.

"Is that generator going to hold?"

"Yes," he snapped, because he'd been saying it since three pauses back, but he glanced at the readouts again anyway, needing the confirmation of sight though he didn't need the data tablet anymore. "We're pushing it, though."

"When don't we push it?" John said, voice fake-light and raw. "Run the diagnostics, okay?"

"Running," Rodney said, and didn't move. He studied John's hands, hands still steady on the controls and still with blood etched into the fine seams of skin. Something of John wove through the jumper, a wavering concentration that would fix on a thought for a moment before flickering away again, grief that Rodney knew he should be feeling but couldn't manage through his own exhaustion and the screen of Atlantis, which did not understand such a thing. Like a phantom limb, he thought, knowing Ronon was dead and how he'd died, and when he thought sadness was there, he would reach out for it and it would vanish.

"The diagnostics check out," he said after a moment, though he didn't need to say that, either.

"Disengaging generator, bringing sublight drive online," John said, keying in the commands to bring the generator off-line. The striations of hyperspace resolved themselves into a starfield and the cloud-and-water curve of Antora in the viewscreen. The jumper shuddered delicately, but John ignored it and flew on in grim silence.

- And silence came with the departure of the last evacuees, only Elizabeth left behind for ten thousand years of solitude. In that endless space she was a small, fleeting presence - a few eyeblinks of movement when the stasis tubes released her, and almost the totality of what Atlantis knew in that time was the vast, silent presence of the sea and its indifferent creatures.

Loneliness was a human word, one of the many Rodney hung on to. He stared at John though he knew it bothered him, trying to remember flesh and blood, the familiar patterns of pulse and breath. John, supple and alive and fascinating in too many ways to count, and John let him look, as he always did, though the ironic, self-conscious grin hovered at the corner of his mouth.

The atmosphere parted around them in a circle of light and fire, and then it was blue sky again, and the mountain-studded surface of Antora's main continent - and peace when John landed outside the shield and they both walked under it.

Peace, silence, and they deafened him for a moment so that he nearly fell, only John's hand on his arm to catch him and bring him back to balance. Silence, oh God, his head echoed with it, Atlantis's cold, alien voice muted and he could hear himself again.

His head was still cloudy, the medication not yet worn off, memory still hesitant and uncertain. Relief, though, relief so strong he could taste it, and his balance threatened to go again.

"You okay?" John asked. He didn't draw away when Rodney righted himself, but stayed close and this time didn't seem to mind Rodney looking at him at all. He looked right back, and Rodney wondered what he saw.

"You okay?" John asked again.

"Fine," Rodney said, surprised to realize that he meant it. "Fine."

"Okay." John scrutinized him a moment and they stood there, looking at each other. "I guess I was expecting..." A hand half-raised as though to touch Rodney's cheek, where the tracery of metal was the finest.

"They're dormant," Rodney muttered. Dormant, mercifully asleep, but not gone away. Not dead.

"So this thing really works, huh?" John looked up as though he could see the shield arcing overhead. Rodney had seen it on their approach, shifting specters of ultraviolet light across almost the whole of the main continent. Atlantis had warned against it, and Rodney had felt his body falter, the city shying away, which terrified him more than he could say.

Without waiting for an answer, he started down the path, which was mostly overgrown but still discernible. The nose of his P90 swept the shadows, and behind them was the silence of absence.

It works, Rodney thought as he fell into step next to John, holding on to that, to John, aware of him now only as another man, his thoughts as masked and unknowable as they'd once been before. A soft ache started somewhere under his ribs, and he wondered what it was.

A creaking far up the road, where the leaves made the sunlight shift in nonsensical patterns. John tensed and motioned for Rodney to step off the path.

The Antorae were decent people, though the last decent people they'd visited had gotten Ronon killed. He pushed the thought aside and watched as John went through the take-me-to-your-leader ritual with a brace of merchants, as the leader, Arazi, welcomed them to the walled town which turned out to have been built in the shell of an Ancient city.

The town, nestled in its ancient walls, bustled in a quiet sort of way, a simple energy carried along wooden wheels and drawn by cart animals. Rodney tried for annoyance as he saw a sign for the local merchant fair hung up outside an Ancient laboratory complex, festival ribbons decorating a power hub, twining through faded crystal rods.

"The work of giants," Arazi said over dinner that night. Rodney looked up from his food for a moment - God, real actual food, not MREs or the supplement drink John forced down his throat every day, and his body remembered hunger with a shocking acuteness - as Arazi talked. John had on his mask of polite interest again. "The work of giants," Arazi said again, "but now the giants are gone."

"Giants," Rodney scoffed. He swallowed something foreign and delicious, and almost choked.

"Yes," John said repressively. "Giants."

Arazi stared at them for a moment, but mercifully sarcasm did not translate well and Arazi let it drop. Rodney returned to his food, half-listening as Arazi talked about the great buildings that had fallen in ruin - Wraith cullings - and the mysterious objects that had no use so far as the Antorae could determine. Machinery rendered inert by the shield, like the one on the Planet of the Brats from what seemed like years and years ago.

Rodney shook off the memory and concentrated on his food. The meat, something local and deer-like, roasted and so tender it had fallen off the bone on the serving platter, vegetables, stewed fruit that wasn't citrus, wine that made his head thick and uncertain. Arazi and Kalis served the meal with their own hands, around Arazi's lectures (which Kalis frequently had to interrupt), an Antoran custom for strangers without connections in the capitol. Kalis brought out the last course, something that felt like air and tasted sweet.

Arazi kept going, clearly thrilled to have an attentive audience in John's drowsy nods, a torrent of Antoran history and of the city in particular - "A scholar," his wife, Kalis, said laughingly, to which Arazi shrugged in apology before asking John if he would like to see the battlements.

"There are markings from Wraith weapons, from before the Shield-days," he said impressively, and it was clear from Shield-days how the Antoran dating system worked. "Yet even the Wraith weapons could not break the citadel - you must see it."

"I'm sure Colonel Sheppard and Dr. McKay would prefer to go to bed," Kalis interrupted, a remonstrating hand on her husband's arm. Arazi blinked in confusion, clearly not understanding for a moment, before nodding reluctantly.

"Of course you're tired," he said, as though saying it made it so. "But are you sure - "

"They're sure," Kalis said sternly, but she smiled when she looked at Rodney and John.

Before Arazi could say anything else, she had John and Rodney shepherded away from the table, her hand firm and warm on Rodney's back. She was small and delicate, with brown hair pulled back under a veil like the kind nuns wore, but she had an authority to her that reminded Rodney of Elizabeth, who was also small and delicate and yet was also indomitable in her own space.

Like Teyla, who kept all three of them in line, who was off now with Lorne negotiating with terrorists. Only two of them left now, their team broken up by necessity, and though Rodney understood necessity - had become very closely acquainted with it - and understood the mathematics of it, he still hated it. The strange ache came again, settling now somewhere below his heart. He rubbed at it surreptitiously, but looking across at John saw that John had seen him.

"You okay?"

For the thousandth time, yes he was okay, a sharper edge to the words than he'd thought. John subsided, but clearly only because Kalis was there and he wasn't going to press the issue in front of her. Kalis glanced between the two of them but didn't say anything except that there was a place for bathing in their rooms, and she would see to their comfort with their own hands.

"Please don't tell me that means she's going to give us a bath - that's taking the whole 'honored guest' thing way too far," Rodney muttered as Kalis left to go collect towels. John shrugged. "And please don't tell me you're happy about it. She's married."

"What?" John frowned at him. Rodney rolled his eyes. "What?"

He didn't need the nanites to tell him John was indignant, and didn't need them to decipher the playful, I love annoying you light in his eyes, a light that hadn't been there in far too long. He'd forgotten that, the light and the way he'd once been able to decipher John - Sheppard, then - without the nanites translating him.

Rodney wondered if John resented the intrusion, the Lantean nanites that tied his thoughts, his pulse, to Rodney, or if it was merely one more weight in the collection that had been thrown on him since Ronon, since losing the city, since they'd come to Pegasus.

The ache renewed itself, trying to claw upward to Rodney's throat.

"Ah!" Kalis materialized in the doorway, laden with towels. A wicker basket of something that looked like soap or oil hung from the crook of one arm.

John managed to fend off Kalis's ministrations, explaining that it was taboo in their culture for women or men to see each other naked if they weren't married. Rodney thought briefly of strippers but bit back the qualification. Mercifully, Kalis decided that honoring the guests' mores was more important than observing custom, and left them with a graceful bow and a wish for a good night.

Later that night, when the quiet was too deep and he had chased after sleep and come up empty, he realized what the ache was.

Get a move on, McKay, and the zap from Ronon's weapon punctuates the order. The Lystrians are running for their lives, all of them except for the ones the Wraith have gotten already. Rodney, John, and Ronon are fifty yards from the jumper, which waits invisible under its cloak, they are forty, thirty, and John has Rodney by the scruff, and as he is pulled along he hears the furious shriek of a dart, sees the pale needle nose sweeping low over the grass, sees Ronon turn.

"Ronon," he whispered to the sheets, to John's skin so close beneath his lips. He closed his eyes, and in that private darkness saw the Wraith coming from the forest like ghosts and Ronon turning, Get a move on, McKay ringing sharp with command, and John by his side come on come on, and when Rodney turned again at the edge of the jumper's on-ramp, there had been nothing.

"Yeah," John said, though he didn't need to, and his body was warm and alive as he turned into Rodney, hands on his face to read him in the dark, and Rodney's own body sang with blood and life. Himself again, and the only voice in his head wanted John closer, body pressed hard against him and John's mouth on his.

- The Diomede's last transmission comes from the edge of the sun's gravity well. The captain, Ibykos, had dropped out of hyperspace almost too close, a desperate maneuver to fool the pursuing Hive ship.

The Hive ship comes out of hyperspace a heartbeat too late, and the star's gravity has it before the Wraith can compensate. A desperate volley from the Hive ship's weapons; one destroys the communications array, another shears off part of the starboard bulkhead, and the sublight drive is nearly obliterated.

Alterans still hold out on Archipelago, though the Wraith are closing in here too. Ibykos has the pilot put the Diomede into the closest sustainable orbit around the sun, orders the cloak up and orders his crew to abandon ship; the radiation from the sun will block Wraith sensors, and they will come again for it later.

They are never heard from again -

John licked into Rodney's mouth, soft sigh that was satisfaction and desperation, not enough, not nearly enough for all they'd been through. His hands wore new calluses and Rodney's hands found scars that he couldn't remember seeing before, ribs more prominent now so his fingers could walk up and down them like playing scales.

Three weeks gone: four days since Ronon, four months since Atlantis, since Rodney had looked at John and said Please talk me out of this and John had said, Rodney, don't do this but hadn't meant it, and Rodney had done it anyway.

John's weight settled atop him, one knee between Rodney's, and all around them was the silence of night and the running, passing, the fall of time.

- Year 1691 of the Archipelagan calendar, the Ancient outpost on Kanatos is abandoned.


CHAPTER SIX

Korios has suggested that we must use the Wraiths' numbers against them. They come together in great alliances, as many as ten Hives, and travel in tight convoy with each other - perhaps as much out of suspicion as accord. Perhaps a chain reaction of null-gravity mines, though these have proven unsuccessful in the defense of other planets. A bioweapon, perhaps, though I believe there is no time to develop one.

Personal note: They come for us now. Archipelago was overrun a week ago - we only learned of it yesterday, when survivors arrived, half-dead, by gateship for the Wraith destroyed the gate at Archipelago and two more gateships that attempted escape were lost. Of the Diomede and Ibykos, there is no word.

Charen Ascended three days ago, but Iraklos tried the machine and failed. We gave his body to the sea.

End recording. End database section BRK091-8Q4.

Last night on Atlantis, light show of Wraith weaponry playing across the shields, but deep in the heart of the city he couldn't see them, the splashes of red-white, the afterimages they left on unguarded eyes. He saw them, though, when he concentrated; he could feel parts of the shield buckling, out on the city's farthest edges.

He hit the transporter still running, palm slamming down on the touchscreen. Flicker of disorientation, heartbeat of nonexistence before the doors opened and he was running again, Rodney just behind him and breathing heavily, but not complaining or demanding that he slow down.

Elizabeth's voice over his radio: "We're buying time for the civilians now, John. As soon as the last one is through the gate, I want you and Rodney out of there."

John didn't bother answering - let her sweat, he knew this, knew with every shiver of the city around him. Switching channels brought him the comm chatter between Atlantis and the Daedalus. We've got everyone we can carry, Caldwell was saying. The shields aren't going - " Violent explosion of static.

Elizabeth: Stephen? Colonel Caldwell?

More interference, then static-amputated words, the code for evacuation to the alpha site distorted but still understandable.

"They're getting out of here," he said to Rodney, who was now running almost at his side, red-faced but still with that strange, grim silence that had nothing to do with lack of breath.

Rodney was on his own channel now, shouting for Zelenka to sink the city.

"Just sink the damn city!" Rodney barked in response to some uncertainty on Zelenka's part. "Sheppard and I will be up there when we're up there - yes, in ten minutes, it won't take that long, just go."

"You're sure it's not going to take that long?" The corridors were dark, only emergency lighting along the walls, but he could have found his way to the chair room in his sleep - heart of the city, and its beat became louder as they drew closer.

"Positive," Rodney said, a snap in his voice at being questioned and John found that oddly reassuring.

The chair room lit up, a flare of gold and blue, when they ran into it. Rodney didn't pause, but kept going and nearly threw himself into the chair, which hummed and glowed to life.

"Before I - " Rodney was leaning back, eyes fixed at the display dancing above his head, a hallucination of wires and pathways, the map of the city's nerves, her veins. "I wanted to ask - "

"What?" He didn't like the tone in Rodney's voice, the I'd like you to read my eulogy tone Rodney adopted when faced with certain death.

"I want you to do it," Rodney told him from the control chair, hands silver-traced and pressed into the control pads under his palms, the fingers moving with unconscious twitches that freaked John out if he looked at them for too long.

And worse, worse, were Rodney's eyes, alien and bright, something terrible behind them that didn't belong there, but something John recognized. The light from the control room ceiling caught the thin veins of metal at his temples, like silver rivers.

"You," Rodney snapped, and his impatience broke John out of hypnosis, from the far edges of distraction. "I don't trust anyone else to get it right."

John didn't promise anything, or answer, only stood watch at the door and waited and pretended he didn't hear, and that he didn't know what Rodney was asking of him.

He was so caught up in waiting, watching the shadowed corridors that he didn't hear them - footsteps, one, two, three and then a hand on his shoulder -

"You do not belong in here!" Koan, shouting over the crying of metal and circuitry. John hadn't heard him, his footfalls masked by the pressure of sound and the throb of the Ancient complex making his thoughts follow its erratic, desperate pulse. Rodney, in there somewhere, in the confusion, buried underneath it as though under an avalanche.

Koan shoves him against the corridor wall; the rock presses unevenly against his shoulder blades and jars his spine.

"You came to my people in peace." Even close as he is, Koan shouts to be heard. "In peace, Colonel Sheppard."

"Rodney's in there!"  He wonders why the corridors aren't shaking, why the entire mountain isn't falling down around them; he can hear the strain in the rock, which is growing warm under his hands, the places where his back is forced to it.

"And he must stay in there until this ends."

"It's going to end in the damn thing killing him."

"No one has died in the memory room," Koan shouts. "No one!"

No one isn't Rodney, and he doesn't have time to explain this to a man who isn't going to understand. And so John twists free of Koan's grip, ducking under the arm Koan has used to pin him to the wall. Fist to Koan's ribs and he stumbles backward, gripping them and gasping, but not incapacitated.

"I don't want to hurt you." Everyone says this in the TV shows; it's usually followed by someone ending up dead, and he doesn't want to kill Koan. Doesn't want to hurt him, but he will, because Rodney is in here, is all around him, trapped by the machine that's sucking at him like a vampire, like a Wraith.

Koan stands there, hunched over, unmoving. One hand is pressed to ribs that are probably broken and he watches John from dark and wary eyes.

John backs away down the corridor, looking beyond Koan to the distant doors. Figures hover in there - the scholars probably - but they don't come any closer. Around him the tower and its terrible song, and he asked John to be the one, if the Wraith ever catch them, to kill him before the Wraith could take him, not to be cruel but because he trusted John to do the difficult things, like save his life or read his eulogy, or hold a gun to his head and end it all, and John turns and runs.

- Captain Ibykos set the autopilot on the Diomede to preserve a low orbit around the Archipelagan sun, the engines to minimal power, enough to keep the ship from falling into the star.

For a heartbeat he sees a grizzled old man, a scar on his cheek, standing in one of the huge data access rooms in this very tower. His uniform is stained and torn. And he, John - he thinks - is reaching hesitantly out to the column, not wanting to touch it but needing to, because he's the only one who can, and it won't hurt, in theory, at least until the end and by then he'll be unconscious and it won't matter anymore.

Not him, Rodney. Rodney and that damned interface, when Elizabeth had, under the weight of necessity, given in and let Rodney go ahead.

Rodney's memories. He runs faster, prickle of an uncanny discomfort up his spine despite his desperation.

Footsteps behind him now, far distant; he looks over his shoulder, down the straightaway of the corridor and the footsteps have stopped but he can't see their owners, Pen and Quill maybe, helping Koan, but not coming after him. Good. His blood spikes with the satisfaction of it, anticipation of what he'll do if he has to.

Like the Genii their first year here, the cold awareness of strategy that can pass for ecstasy, like it had been when the plan had unfolded in his head, how to take Atlantis back from the Replicators, that brilliant moment when everything coalesced, the shield, of course, the shield, modified to interface with the ARDs.

He races down the hall, no getting lost - he knows this place, the smooth floor beneath his feet, the hybrid of polymer and stone that has outlasted the Wraith and ten thousand years. The corridor comes to light around him, phosphorescent veins that run through the rock. The immensity of the spire presses down on him, its age, the memories it holds, in which the knowledge of the Archipelagans is new-learned, and all around him its terrible, driving song.

The hexagonal room, the afterthought - it is, he knows now; the tower had been built for deep-space telemetry, had become something else by necessity - materializes ahead and the cry of metal spikes up and up to the edge of inaudibility, echoing hollowly in his marrow. Coming from it is a light that blinds him, and even with his eyes half-shut and his hand raised protectively he can see the blood staining the insides of his lids an incandescent red. Black and orange patterns swim across them.

Dying: a well of infinite blackness and you're floating in it, and there aren't any pearly gates, no white light at the end of the tunnel, not even any stars. It's the place at .1-.3Hz, where you are alone and consciousness of yourself is this tiny thing that will vanish at any second, and all you can think is Oh my God, I don't want to die, how the hell can I not die?

The brightness and how the hell can I not die? disorient him but he forces his eyes open to peer through the curtain of light.

Rodney, limp in the chair, as though he's gone to sleep, except his head is turned loosely to the side and John risks the pain to look directly at him.

His right arm dangles, his long and clever fingers still, and his mouth is open as if in amazement. John stumbles to his knees beside him to take that hand, the wrist, to feel the thin and useless pulse, to tilt Rodney's head up and see his eyes open - or, rather, to see his lids slide back

"Oh God, Rodney." He feels himself speak the words but can't hear them.

Rodney's right eye is filmy silver, the faintest shadow where the pupil is, but his left eye remains blue and human, and there are tears in it.

The light dies when he pulls Rodney off the chair; the tower falls silent, as though to catch its breath, or in expectation.


CHAPTER SEVEN

She knows it was foolish to expect that injury would make Stephen Caldwell any less difficult to manage. It had never worked on Sheppard, or any other member of SGA-1 - not even Rodney, who tends to become even more difficult to manage when he is hurt. She remembers meeting Jack O'Neill once after a disastrous SG-1 mission that had ended in a broken leg and morphine, and he had barked at her, Oh, for - get in here, Elizabeth, I'm not getting any younger and I know there are things you want.

That had been, Elizabeth thinks, when she had first asked that Rodney be assigned to the Atlantis expedition.

Carter'll thank you for that, O'Neill had said, and Carter had. She had come up to Elizabeth during a layover in McMurdo and said thank you and wished her luck. Luck for the expedition or luck for dealing with Rodney, Elizabeth still isn't sure. Maybe some of both.

"Dr. Weir." Pain fails to dull the edge of Caldwell's voice.

"Yes, I'm sorry... I'm tired." She presses a hand to one temple to reinforce the half-truth. She is tired, they all are, but Atlantis drives her, Atlantis and the red, green, and white threads she ties off every day.  She has tied off two more since she and Caldwell had spoken last; Rodney and John are nearly due to arrive, and she must stop herself from looking at the sky every five minutes. "What were you saying?"

"I was saying the subspace communications on Daedalus are up and running. We should call McKay and Sheppard back as soon as possible."

"And we can't risk the Wraith intercepting any transmission we make." The old argument almost effaces the good news. "We have communications at least. That's something."

"And we need McKay back here." Caldwell shifts in his chair, wincing as the movement pulls the muscles across his lower back. "Without Hermiod, Novak is the only scientist I have who knows the Daedalus well, other than McKay."

"We need Rodney out looking for the Diomede." She says this for what felt like, and might be, the thousandth time since they had "discussed" the topic first, when Rodney and John had concocted this insanity between them. "You agreed with him - and me, Colonel."

"We should have McKay back here working," Caldwell says stubbornly, "the faster the Daedalus is up and running, the more secure we'll be. And, if necessary, we can take it out to help look through the damn haystack."

Elizabeth wonders if pain has made Caldwell even more intractable than he already is, but wisely does not ask out loud.

"That would take too long. Zelenka estimated a month for repairs, best case scenario," she says instead. "If Rodney, John, and Ronon can find the Diomede in that month, we'll have a head start on retaking Atlantis, give the Wraith less time to settle in."

"When did you go from negotiating to strategizing?" Before Elizabeth can say negotiation and strategy are very often one and the same, Caldwell continues: "Having McKay out there is too great a risk."

"John and Ronon know what they have to do if they're ever compromised." Elizabeth ignores the twinge of fear at this, the one point she had fought when John and Rodney had presented their plan to her. Caldwell lets her stew in her weakness. "Rodney knows what they have to do, too, and he's accepted that."

"Rodney's their team," Caldwell says. Old turf, familiar for him and dangerous still for Elizabeth, a world of meaning in that simple statement. Team, and more than that, Elizabeth thinks sometimes.

"If the Wraith were in a position to take the Daedalus, and there was no way out, you would initiate the self-destruct," Elizabeth says softly. "It's protocol for all SGC ships. It's also a command decision - you've been faced with making it ever since you sat in that chair. Don't assume John - Colonel Sheppard - is not capable of making that same call, if he needs to."

Caldwell inclines his head. Elizabeth has to fight not to slump in relief at the concession.

"We have no idea where they are." Caldwell tries one last time.

"What could we do, even if we did know? We're in no position to bring them back." Elizabeth rises to her feet, paces over to the calendar to stare at it. The threads tangle together where they have not yet been woven in, a knotted mess of future. She stares at them. "Is there anything else, Colonel?"

She can hear Caldwell standing up behind her, the pained and uncertain shuffle as he finds his balance and then his cane. He moves like an old man now, she thinks, remembering the video of John when the Genii had captured him. Step, click, step, click, foot, cane, foot, cane, and he is standing beside her now.

"I'm sure Radek's been reporting to you on the state of affairs among your personnel," he tells her. She doesn't blink, though she is surprised that Caldwell would have suspected Radek. "You're going to have to start explaining your rationale very soon, Elizabeth, or you're going to have people deserting - or trying to get my people to mutiny. We can't afford that."

"I agree." She searches for more words but can't find any.

"I'm not suggesting we hide here for the rest of our lives - Atlantis does need to be taken back," he tells her. The reminder shushes across her face, and Elizabeth sees his lips moving in the corner of her eye, bent close as if to whisper. Even leaning against his cane, Stephen Caldwell is a tall man. "But there are better ways to do it - ways that might let us live to see the city."

"I know that," Elizabeth whispers. Her shoulders tense despite her efforts to keep them loose.

"Good," Caldwell says, and for a moment seems as though he wants to say something more, but he turns and, foot, click, foot, click, and leaves.

Elizabeth watches him go and this time her body does go loose when he steps through the door.


As far as alpha sites go, PX-197 isn't bad. It isn't good either, but hide and seek has never been one of Stephen Caldwell's favorite sports.

The entire abandoned city has been carved into the mountains and folds of rock, like Anasazi cliff dwellings or - and he'd picked this up from listening to Dolan and the few other anthropologists drone on about it - Petra. Drab tan and brown, reassuringly like almost every barracks he's ever known, but with striations of rusty orange. Its houses crouch under mantles of stone, and overhanging cliffs shelter the main street, which opens up at one end into more houses, and then to a valley where the Daedalus lies.

The people of PX-197 are gone, though. Wraith probably, hungry enough to go on foot into a city that had probably been defended by bows and arrows. Anti-aircraft weapons and heavy machine guns hide on the rock-strewn roof of the city, and there are a few more keeping guard around the stargate.

His limping path takes him by the infirmary. A fourth of his crew is dead; almost as many again have spent a significant amount of time in their makeshift hospital, what used to be the city's necropolis. Large square chambers and connecting hallways, Keller had said when she'd picked the site. Most of the buildings in the city are small, but not the tombs.

The doctors have fixed or buried most of their patients, and Keller has her team concentrating on bioweapons research, such as they can contrive in a place like this. He's heard Keller's protests about not being able to use facilities in the Daedalus; she'd at least have access to some of the equipment, reliable power and water.

Her complaints blend together with everything else he's had to field: the engineers, who swarm over the Daedalus like ants and are trying to do the impossible, his grounded pilots who have been trapped on guard detail, the botanists saddled with keeping them all in green leafy things because Elizabeth refuses to allow gate travel for trade. Only the anthropologists, archaeologists, and linguists seem happy.

And he... He doesn't like living in a fortress, and still less likes Elizabeth chaining them up here.

Not that there's a choice. So far as they know, the Daedalus is the only non-Wraith ship of war in Pegasus. He's stopped hoping for the Odyssey to arrive, for the SGC to lift its silence and send help.

"Goddammit," he growls to himself. He pretends it's the pain of walking, not the bitter knowledge that he'd been there when they'd tried to evacuate and the gate shield on Earth hadn't come down.

There are reasons, he knows. The Ori threat, the Replicators in the Milky Way, disasters or brand new enemies he doesn't know about. But still... They'd held out against the Wraith for a week, transmitted their SOS to a still-deaf SGC, and he can still remember the moment when he'd realized no help would be coming, when he'd turned to Elizabeth to explain this to her, and that the only option left now would be to evacuate and destroy the city.

She'd agreed to the first but not the second, and he's not surprised by that. He can even understand it, although the tactician in him says it's madness.

Like it's madness to jeopardize personnel by looking for a needle in a haystack the size of a galaxy, a lost ship that might never be found, that probably won't work even if they do find it, and sending the expedition's best scientist and pilot off hunting for it.

He limps down the path toward the Daedalus, wincing at the pull of muscles in his lower back, the way it seems the broken bones in his leg are grinding together, but there's no transportation and the cane is bad enough; he's not going to lean on any young whipper-snapper like he's eighty and about to keel over.

Inside the Daedalus is dark and warm, its environmental controls offline. The low-level emergency lights guide him to the bridge, where he collars Novak. Zelenka is nowhere to be seen, and except for Novak, the bridge is empty. The ruined ops station where Hermiod used to sit looks like a shattered jaw.

"I want you to send a message to Sheppard and McKay," he tells Novak, whose eyes go wide and nervous. Does Dr. Weir know about this? is on her lips, but she swallows the question, hiccups, and makes her way over to the comm. station.


Keller watches Caldwell limp by before returning to the small stone prison of her office. Back in Atlantis she could have fixed that, and could have threatened him with removal from duty and ignominious transport back to Earth if he didn't stay off his feet. You don't heal severely torn muscles and a bruised spine overnight. Now she gives him painkillers that he doesn't take, can't take because they're narcotics.

She sits down at her desk, which she's positioned so she can keep an eye on everyone who comes in and out of her domain, and pulls Carson's notes to her again, smiling to think of the time she had teased Carson about all his paperwork.

"I never quite got the hang of it," he tells her, with the sort of good-humored ruefulness she'd always liked about him. "I do well enough for diagnostics, but when I have everything on paper, it's easier to think about."

Two sets of notes before her: Carson's files on Rodney's near-ascension and the mechanics of the device that had nearly killed him, with his notes on Elizabeth's infection attached, and the older, tattered copy of his Wraith retrovirus research. His writing, oddly neat for a doctor - another thing she'd teased him about - fills the margins in ordered columns of red and black ink.

He'd always seen the retrovirus as cruel and unnecessary; now they needed it, or something better. In the margins of his notes on Michael: He doesn't remember what he is, but knows he isn't what we say he is - Links btwn. genetics & memory? Amnesia eff. of retrovirus? Trauma? Look @ LTCS's file.

She doesn't have the file from Sheppard's conversion, and she hadn't been on Atlantis at the time, and even if Sheppard were here, she doesn't know if she'd have the courage to ask him about it. She's heard stories from the medical staff and some of the personnel, but they sound like science fiction and much of it is hearsay - not material on which to hang a diagnosis.

Frustrated, she makes herself think of weapons.

Siegler and Gorham have suggested a retrovirus minefield to encircle Atlantis, or delivering the retrovirus onto the Hive ships by cloaked jumper. Caldwell supports this, but the last time they'd tried the retrovirus it had ended in disaster. So we don't repeat our mistakes, Caldwell had said, and Elizabeth had, for once, agreed with him.

Her own contribution had been to point out that the Wraith knew of the retrovirus, and clearly there were scientists among them. They might have come up with countermeasures in the three years since the first time the retrovirus had been deployed. Michael was evidence that the Wraith possessed geneticists with the skill to perform that kind of fine manipulation.

The Hive queens are immune, Carson had written, but in the absence of a DNA sample from any of them, I don't know what could account for their immunity. Sex-linked trait? Poss. Or parallel development of queens alongside drones - engineered for diff. purposes?

Keller shakes her head and pushed the file to the side. The dim light in the room gives her a headache, and the yellow quality to it makes her sleepy. She shuts her eyes, just a moment, and tries to imagine Carson working over the problem with her.

Now love, we know the retrovirus isn't likely to work - and perhaps it's better that it doesn't. We can keep that as a second option in case - listen to me, Jennifer, I sound like Colonel Sheppard - but perhaps we ought to look at it as a way not to correct a problem, but to make one? Elizabeth wants you to develop a biological weapon. Other than altering Wraith DNA, is there anything else we can do?

"They're immune to all known human diseases," she mutters. "It's not like we can infect them with anthrax. So what do we do? Spray them with DDT?"

They don't mind that either, Jennifer.

"Then what?" She taps her finger on the corner of her data tablet, studying her faint reflection in its surface. Her reflection tells her nothing, only feeds her own frustration back to her.

She pulls over Rodney's notes, ready for a new set of irritations, and begins to read. Much of it she knows by heart, and some of it seen - or, in Rodney's very vocal case, heard first-hand - and the data she runs over now is well-worn. Chapter and verse for Elizabeth she's read it, Elizabeth insisting on endless repetitions as though the cure can be found in that.

Zelenka's notes on the Ascension machine are on her laptop, for all the good they do her. The nanites don't change the body's DNA, they fill in gaps dying cells leave.

Still... She flips back to Carson's chart on the progression of Rodney's genetic alteration and the correlation between it and his cortical functions and metabolism, then pulls up the data she'd been able to collect from Rodney before he'd left.

At seventy percent Rodney's blood sugar had begun to drop; by the time he'd reached ninety, his body was getting almost nothing in the way of ready energy, and his seizure in Sheppard's quarters had, in part, been induced by hypoglycemia that had only made his lower brain function deteriorate more swiftly. Like falling off a cliff, she thinks.

Last set of notes, everything Rodney had pulled together on the nanite-Atlantis interface. Radek and one of the other engineers, a specialist in cybernetics, help her with the more technical stuff - their marginal explanations at least translate some of what she needs to know.

Like the retrovirus, she lacks the basic materials to even think about possible treatments. They know what the machine was meant to do, what the nanites are meant to do, but have very little idea if what has happened to Rodney falls into line with those intentions. Given the Ancients' track record, Jennifer thinks, what was happening was not intended - this was experimental, maybe abandoned when the war grew intense and the Ancients turned to the Ascension machine to escape it.

Ascension? The word throbs, like a heartbeat out of place. She looks at Rodney's synaptic readings again.

Do you have to be evolved to ascend? Either evolved or extremely focused.

Her laptop and collection of memory keys have a hodgepodge of data, medical records for the expedition, the more important of Carson's notes, reports from the SGC on case studies. She looks for those, and searches through them for Daniel Jackson.


CHAPTER EIGHT

Two days of waiting, not three because they're going in early; even if Laden gets his people there first, they will likely catch them unawares, or at least unprepared. Teyla relies on Laden relying on her to keep her word, to show up only when three days have passed and not before. The Genii have long trusted her people for that reason.

In the private dark of their tents at the beta site, Teyla listens to Lorne breathing. In sleep, his breath is like John's, with an odd rasp at the end, but very different. They are different men - an obvious enough statement, but she still finds herself caught out at odd moments by the truth of it.

They have been together since Elizabeth had given them this task, since John, Rodney, and Ronon left to find the Diomede, and she is grateful for Lorne's steadiness. She wonders if he knows what it is to lose a team, how much of his steadiness is for her and how much for himself. It is hard to know from his face, which has always seemed very young to her.

She hears one of the Athosians whistle, the piercing morning call that will have her people out of their beds within moments. All at once, the camp breaks out into sound and activity, though both these things are muffled.

Lorne wakes as well, and glances at his watch, an automatic gesture for many of the Lanteans, though he doesn't follow it with the heartfelt groan she has heard from so many others. Five minutes before local time 0600, with the planet's sun still the faintest suggestion on the horizon. The trees form long columns of shadows across the clearing. She wishes him good morning, and he wishes her the same, wincing a bit as he works a kink out of his neck.

They prepare in silence, the same weapons, the same camouflage, but their service pistols now, in holsters beneath their utility vests and their P90s on their clips. She watches Lorne apply the concealing paint to his face, this strange mask of green and brown and playfully he reaches over to smear black across her cheekbone. He withdraws quickly, though, with an apologetic shrug and smile that is boyish behind the paint that makes him a stranger.

"We have everything?" he asks as he secures his knife.

"We do." They will run a check before walking through the gate to the rendezvous site.

"It's a bad idea," Lorne says.

"Operation Most Likely to End Badly?" And Rodney would say all they had to go with were bad ideas. The lesser of two evils, one of his favorite expressions.

Lorne's smile is a ghost under camouflage, but he nods, and she can see the humor in his eyes.

"I believe the saying is 'desperate times,' Major." She double-checks her own weapon, the metal of the stock and barrel cool under her fingertips. Her bantos sticks lie crossed at her shoulders, and they are more familiar than the P90 will ever be. Her uniform and tactical vest are worn, clean as she can make them, soft with all the starch bled out long ago - but underneath she wears her own clothes, Athosian cloth against the beat of her heart. Superstition, maybe, but she sees Lorne tucking a photo into his boot. Like everything else, it is worn smooth at the edges and tattered, faded so she cannot pick the features out to see if it is a parent, sibling, lover, friend.

"Desperate measures," Lorne sighs as he tightens the laces on his boot. "They're meeting us with the firepower; we've got syringes."

"And if they attack us, we will destroy the cases." Radek had wired the explosives himself, if they should try anything, you press this here, and he had pointed to the small remote device she has seen John carry before, and the charge will go off. I have increased the range - a cascade of engineering terminology - and, yes, it will work. It will do what you need it to do.

He had sounded impatient enough for Rodney. She'd said this, and the confusion on his face had made her laugh.

She smiles now, thinking of him, and tucks the remote into its holder in her sleeve.

Their breakfast is quick, cold, and she senses that the marines and Athosians want this over with, the marines because they want to be back at the alpha site and the Athosians because they find it distasteful that Teyla continues to deal with liars. Halling has told her this many times - it seems all people can do these days, even she herself, is repeat things.

She shakes off her anger, concentrates on the weight of the bantos sticks between her shoulders, Lorne's calm presence by her side and her people at her back. Lorne enters the address into the DHD and the gate springs to life in a wash of liquid fire. Instantly, the marines flanking the gate slip through, the Athosians behind, then Teyla and Lorne and the MALP loaded with syringes containing Laden's gene therapy, a lifesigns detector Zelenka had reluctantly given up, some odds and ends that are more Ancient curiosities than anything else. No weapons.

Laden is there, not fifty feet from the gate, and he is alone, his hands up and the cuffs of his uniform turned back to show he hides nothing. The marines fan out to secure the perimeter; they will find Codre and the others, she knows.

"I thought we agreed no weapons," he calls to her, voice tinged with amusement.

"We agreed you would come without weapons and alone," Teyla tells him. "I said nothing of my own people." She surveys him, the empty grass behind and around him. "Where are the warheads?"

"I could hardly bring them by myself." Laden manages to sound both indignant and entertained; his tone has Lorne training his P90 at him, but Laden shrugs as though Lorne has threatened him with a stick. "If you had come on the third day, I would have had them, and been alone to give them to you."

"Where are the warheads?" Lorne asks for her.

"Codre is bringing them." A nod in the direction of the path that leads up to the three of them, to the stargate at the end of it. "He and three others. I trust you will not shoot them?"

"Maybe." Teyla nods to Lorne, who seizes Laden by a shoulder and pushes him around, shoves him roughly down the path. Laden stumbles but recovers. "You will take us to them."

"Of course," Laden says very calmly.

It is a world of plains, open grass, but still Teyla has the sense of watching eyes. They walk nearly one stade until the path brings them between shallow hills and there is austere Codre with a small cart. Teyla can see the sleek, dull grey metal of the warheads resting incongruously on their beds of straw.

"Codre," Laden says, "as you can see we are ahead of schedule."

"Yes, sir." Codre's eyes flick to Laden, to Teyla, but fix on nothing finally except the space beyond Lorne's left shoulder. Under the severe lines of his uniform, Teyla can read tenseness and expectation - not because of Lantean weapons, because he doesn't seem to be fazed by Lorne's P90 or any of the other marines, but by -

Lorne wheels around abruptly, and the sharp report of his weapon breaks the afternoon stillness like thunder.

The Genii and others, strangers, rise up from the shadows under the hills, their backs bristling with long golden grass so they look like shaggy, two-legged monsters. Cloaks of grass, she should have known, for the Athosians knew this trick as well, and Lorne's face, too, is full of grim disappointment.

The marines and Athosians fall back together. Already Jessin, her friend, has gone down. She can see a black shape in the dust, surrounded by the strange grass-clad people who have fallen around him.

Dust rises up from the path, choking and blinding her. Only the P90, already cradled in her arms, keeps her from the instinctive reach for her sticks, but in the confusion of dust and bodies the Athosians blend in with their attackers, and there is madness all around her, the marines trying to make for the high ground, the cart still in the middle of everything with its deadly cargo.

Laden has vanished.

"Laden!" she shouts, though she knows her voice isn't strong enough to carry.

They are too close now for guns; she lets her P90 fall, dangling from its clip, and reaches for her sticks. The remote to detonate the cases of syringes burns on her right wrist; she spares a moment to wonder if the guards they'd left at the gate are dead, but the moment passes as a Genii soldier breaks through a knot of Athosians and comes for her. She twists and darts, her body folding in on itself before striking out like a serpent, and the force of her blow reverberates up her arms, and the bantos come away with blood and hair and brain streaking them, ornamented with bone.

Lorne is a shadow in shadows, P90 gone, and his knife is bright in his hand. His back is to hers, guarding it the way Ronon would, though she still cannot anticipate his moves, and he is not as graceful - but red arcs from the throat of a Genii soldier who comes in too close. The body falls at his feet and he kicks it aside.

"Laden!" she shouts again, and again she calls his name.

He comes like a spirit summoned, all over blood and a thick stream of it runs freely down his right arm and he is alone.

"I didn't do this!" he shouts to her, and pushes her hard so she stumbles and a Genii bullet smashes into his shoulder. More blood. He staggers; she is there to pull him up and to her. "I swear it," and the pain, the near-dying in his eyes make her believe him.

"Run," she advises him. The grass people are all around, and their ululating cries shiver through her flesh. He nods and stumbles away, and disappears into chaos.

Another and another come at her, Genii, grass person - who are these people? They are not Genii, she thinks, though it is distracted, lost in the rhythm of strike and return, parry, strike. And yet another, and even in the heat of battle the eyes of the one called Orosi are cold.

"Laden stripped our homeworld of its defenses for you." His voice is thick and ugly. A knife glitters in his hand, the metal barely visible through the blood. "He's become another Cowen, willing to destroy - "

Blood blooms from his neck, perfectly red, and at the center of the spreading circle is a knifepoint. His eyes lose their coldness under the force of surprise, and his mouth moves silently.

"Thank you," she says to Lorne. Lorne nods, yanks his knife free, and Orosi's body, supported only by that fine blade, falls.

"Where the hell did Laden go?" He bends to retrieve his P90, and she can see the clip is broken. Suppressive fire behind them, the swift repeat of the bullets unexpectedly clear in the blurred uncertainty of battle.

The marines have gained the hills and secured them; the Athosians are disarming the few Genii survivors. Teyla looks anxiously at the cart and remembers what Rodney had said about atomic weapons.

"Are they armed?" she asks. They appear unscathed from the shower of bullets, but she does not know if it is her perception - knowing what she knows about them now - or if it is part of what they are, but the inert, slender shapes are filled with menace.

"They'd be idiots to," Lorne tells her, "and I don't think even the Genii are that stupid - you don't transport armed bombs in carts." He pushes a Genii body out of the way; she steps over it without looking down. "They're usually armed in the air, right before being dropped; you have someone in the back who hooks up the detonators."

She nods, because that had been what Rodney had said, but that does not make the threat diminish.

The surviving marines and Athosians collect around the two of them, and she blinks, surprised to see so many - and she is surprised, too, to look up and the sky and see that the sun has barely moved. Perhaps fifteen minutes of fighting at the most, according to her watch, and the sun is still the heavy, drowsy gold of late afternoon.

Of their complement of twenty, two are dead: a marine and Jessin. Halling bends low to close their eyes, and one of the soldiers, Niels - who is German, she recalls - takes the dog tags from the marine's neck and gives them to Lorne, who tucks them in a pocket of his vest. Several are wounded and will need help returning to the gate.

The gate.

"The syringes!" she cries, and though it is foolish, it is stupid, she starts to run. Deceit. She hadn't seen Laden among the dead or the wounded, and as she runs her mind fills with images: the guards dead, Laden with the gene therapy, perhaps counting on his soldiers and their allies to take care of Teyla and the others, and she had, foolishly, softly, believed him and spared his life.

Her feet kick up dust as she runs, and she is the wind, though her vest is tight against her breasts so it seems she cannot draw a full breath. The P90 rests calmly in her hand, the stock warm from her flesh and the metal warm from the sun overhead, and she runs and runs.

And the guards are down, though they're moving, limbs shifting aimlessly like those of infants, the bodies of several Genii and grass people spread out around them, and the MALP -

Codre is pushing it - pushing it! and she would laugh if it weren't for lack of breath - toward a small stand of trees. The MALP flounders like an ungainly animal in the grass.

"Codre!" Her voice has gone raw with exertion and blood. A thin trickle of it drips from her nose and pools on her lip; it slips down her throat when she swallows.

He turns, hand going for his weapon, and he dies before he can touch it.

The remote falls into her hand, cradled in the cup of her palm.


CHAPTER NINE

Antora and he woke to silence again, and John, uncomplicated flesh, beside him. Pain throbbed and darted across his body, bruises from Lystria and maybe last night, when John had gripped his hips to hold him still, and something inside him felt bruised and aching too, remembering John's eyes glittering in the darkness of their room.

It'd had been a... a really long time since the last time he'd had sex, a long time since he'd even allowed himself to think about the possibility of John, and the surprise of hands on his body, both strange and familiar, and John's mouth on his, the soft, urgent sounds he made - that had come back with the force of something forgotten but remembered suddenly, and all at once.

All around him were normal sounds: the stirring of birds outside, footsteps in the hall, and he could smell bread baking, something he'd almost forgotten, it had been so long. His stomach rumbled, and hunger... He'd forgotten that, too.

John smirked, all early-morning laziness and satisfaction, stretching against Rodney, warm and supple and still endlessly fascinating even without the gene-sensitive nanites to draw Rodney to him. Under sleep-heavy lids, John's eyes were hazy and nearly unreadable. And he'd seen John waking  up a thousand times before, but it had always been a sharp coming-to, asleep to awake in a heartbeat and nothing in between, not this slow, satisfied drawl into wakefulness.

The sun painted patterns across the bed, across John's skin, shaping itself to the curve of his shoulders. Fine dust motes danced in the air, and the sunlight caught, turned into flame on the surface of the water in the nightstand bowl. Warm, he thought, another word that for once had only sensation attached to it, not thoughts of engine strain or cooling differential.

"Hey," John said, and if he was freaked by this, by what they'd done - and Rodney's chest was sticky, oh God, and with more than sweat - he didn't say anything. One hand played idly with the covers, thumb slipping underneath to rub at Rodney's chest. "You okay?"

"Fine," and was surprised to realize he meant it.

"Good." John stretched again and made Rodney shiver. "We should get a move on - you need to look at that casing."

"Yeah." His entire body went tense at the thought of stepping outside the shield, at the cold reassertion of Atlantis's presence in his mind, his own disappearance. He wondered if he could explain this to John, if he'd have even the remotest idea of what that was like, losing himself to an alien voice.

He got turned into a bug, remember? That had to be worse than having your self devoured by millions of tiny machines. At least he still looked like himself, not the horror that had been Sheppard when he'd nearly been turned beyond being saved. Rodney'd be dead eventually, but at least he'd get to keep his hair.

He tried to tell this to John.

"Maybe we could, you know, wait for another day? The engines need the break and we need to restock, since we - since we had to leave all those supplies on Lystria."

John pulled away and sat up. The light changed its patterns now to follow his ribcage, the strong curve of his chest and the hollow of his belly. "We also lost two days to the culling." And Ronon. He didn't have to say that part. Rodney looked away.

"What's up?" John asked. One hand rose as though to touch him but dropped to John's naked thigh. Under the disordered shelf of hair his eyes were unreadable and strange. "You've never asked for another day."

"I just..." He couldn't meet those eyes, which could read him with or without the nanites that made him as transparent to John as John was to him. "I'm tired, okay?"

"We don't have to leave until tonight, and you'll sleep in the jumper until we get to that next place - the island planet."

"Archipelago," Rodney muttered. "And that's not it."

"Rodney, I'm not going to spend all day debating this." John got to his feet, and even upset Rodney had to watch him, painted in shadow and light and beautiful, as he stalked across the room, collecting clothes and gear. "Come on."

"No." The objection was out of his mouth before he knew it; obviously his brain-mouth filter had vanished along with Atlantis's alien presence. John was staring at him incredulously, as though at a pilot or marine who'd refused to obey orders.

"What?" John should have looked ridiculous, naked and impatient, his shirt gripped in one hand.

"I don't want to go." Rodney straightened, thought about standing so he didn't have to look up, but he was naked. And Sheppard was naked too, but didn't look vulnerable in the least - too angry to be self-conscious.

"You have to." John picked up his boxers and pulled them on, the elastic snapping emphatically. "We don't have any time to spare - we're behind schedule."

"That's not - " What? I'm sorry, you know I'm a selfish bastard and I kind of want to live, okay?

"What?" His own shirt, boxers, and pants land on the bed beside him. John yanks his own pants on, maneuvering them up his hips with one hand and reaching for his gun belt with the other. "Rodney, what the hell is going on?"

"You don't know what it's like," was all he could find to say.

"No, I don't. Why don't you tell me? While you're getting dressed."

"It's - it's quiet, okay? And yeah, I knew what I was getting into when I did this, but it's - I'm not - " And he had a vocabulary for any physical phenomenon under the sun, and any one beyond it, but not for this, this struggling to explain his own mind. "I mean, I knew, sort of, what the consequences would be, but I didn't really understand what it would be like. I mean, having a city in my head, being able to interface directly with technology, every geek's dream come true, but I - "

He gave up, no explaining it, and was afraid to look at John for what he'd see in his face.

"We're close, Rodney," John said at last. "One more jump, we find the ship, and then we're back. Almost over."

"That's the thing - it's almost over." The last time John had forced him into their portable EEG he'd registered seventy percent synaptic activity. Twenty more to go, and that'd be it for him.

"Keller's working on it," John said, sounding far too confident, "and you've got your drugs."

"The ones that knock me out." He only took them on jump, when he didn't have to be alert. It felt like walking through mud, and even though Atlantis's voice came slower, spoke more softly, the drugs didn't do much.

"We're leaving, Rodney. This afternoon." John was fully dressed now, and his tone had gone flint-hard, the command voice Rodney'd only heard him use a handful of times, the kind of voice that took possibility and made it happen.

Now get dressed.

Numb, Rodney reached for his shirt and pulled it on. He tried to think about the fabric, the comforting synthetic feel that he could finally appreciate again. Breakfast. A fresh meal, something that hadn't been vacuum-packed or dehydrated, something he could appreciate without Atlantis's grudging acknowledgment of the continuing need to fuel his body.

A cruel joke, that he needed to eat more - the brain, operating at normal levels, consumed a large amount of energy. A brain at seventy percent synaptic activity was almost always starving, and yet he couldn't eat. You do not need it, Atlantis would say if it could speak now.

Half under the covers still he pulled his boxers on, then his pants, doing this all under John's watchful eye. His entire body hurt, and nothing pleasurable about the pain now -

Oh, God it hurts, is agonizing, it cuts through the barriers the nanites have erected against sensation, and there are strange hands on him - but John stood across the room, arms folded and drawn in on himself - the ship, the ship, it should still be there, remember the coordinates, no please God don't touch me, don't -

John yanked Rodney into the shelter of a shop. Heavy spice scent, boxes and barrels of it everywhere, rich brown and gold. The terrified shopkeeper hid behind the counter. Overhead a dart screamed.

"Stay put," Ronon snapped, and risked his head to leave the shop and look out.

The dart's transport beam hummed down the street. A man and woman vanished in its iridescence.

"Supply ship," Ronon said when he ducked back in.

"Oh my God," Rodney whispered. He'd gone pale, one hand tight on the stock of his P90, but John could see his hands shook. It was strange, hearing terror in Rodney's voice - he hadn't heard it in so long.

"We're going to have to get out of here somehow," Ronon said at last. In the darkness of the store he was almost all shadow; only a faint trace of light caught the corner of his eye. "This is a culling - they'll be here on foot soon, and there'll be no getting out once they're on the ground."

"I was hoping they were just here for a snack." John checked the clip on his side arm, the heavy knife in the hollow of his back. "Any ideas?"

"We get the hell out of here?" Rodney muttered. "Anywhere but here."

"I want you to do it," Rodney said. "If they ever capture us, before they can get to me, I don't care - well, I do care, I care very much - but whatever you need to do, do it. Promise?"

He'd asked so Caldwell wouldn't have to make it an order. Another condition: forty days to find the ship and get back, and if Rodney were ever compromised, if what was in his head had the possibility of falling into Wraith hands -

"There's a way out back," the shopkeeper said, though she refused to move from her uncertain shelter behind the counter. "It leads into an alley where the refuse is, and the roofs are very close together. They might not find you quickly there."

"Meaning they'll find us sooner or later," John said. "Okay, let's go."

He pushed back the fear, down into the small dark place where it belonged. Ronon fell in behind them automatically, a solid presence in the periphery of John's vision. Rodney's fear tugged at him, wanting to make his heart race, and for a moment John thought he'd give in, but then a wave of coolness, dispassion, came, and that was the city replacing the terrified thunder of Rodney's heart.

They made their way down the stinking alley, the screams of the Lystrians muffled and distant, but the shrieking of the darts everywhere, buzzing closer at some moments and further away at others. Where there were spaces between neighboring buildings, sometimes John caught a flash of a person - a man, a woman pulling her children along - rushing by, looking for safety that didn't exist.

Shelter ran out at the end of the alley and it was hide-and-seek to the edge of the town, the burn in his muscles of having to run in a half-crouch a low accent in the rush of adrenaline. A woman leaped out from behind a crumbling column, a flicker of skirts like a pheasant flushed from the grass, and she ran, ran down the street until a dart came and she vanished.

Rodney stuck close at John's back, thoughts a cool stream, unnerving suddenly because John should not be hearing them - or not hearing, but perceiving them somehow, the way he felt a jumper's responses, or more closely, his awareness of the city when he was in the control chair. He pushed away discomfort, paused when they came to the town limits and the field between themselves and the jumper opened up.

They'd landed at the border of field and forest, next to a fallen dolmen that served as a landmark. John saw it, lying like a grey whale in a sea of grass.

He checked over his shoulder. The Wraith were busy with the town, and he could see small groups of drones beginning to move in and out of the buildings. No safety there, but no cover for the two hundred yards between them and the treeline. Rodney and Ronon knelt next to him, both silent.

"We're going to have to run for it," he said. Rodney nodded despairingly; Ronon didn't say anything. No point in staying low, or trying to split up for safety to make smaller targets, and he needed to stick with Rodney. He said this, got no acknowledgment and hadn't expected any, and launched himself from cover and began to run.

Wraith there, closing the perimeter against those trying to escape, the huge hulking drones in their hockey masks. The P90 at close range sent a rain of blood splattering back at him, a fog that drenched John's face and tac vest. Ronon beside him shouting something, gun in one hand and sword in the other, shouting for Rodney to stick close to John, but John couldn't hear Rodney's answer.

The three Wraith finally went down and they were in the clear again - the vast, vast clear between themselves and the jumper.

The two hundred yards stretched out, infinitely long, a light year, Rodney trying desperately to keep pace but falling behind - oh God, don't leave me don't leave me, and Ronon there suddenly, and the dart humming almost overhead.

Ronon shoved Rodney nearly into John's arms and Rodney stumbled, would have fallen except for John's hand fisted in his collar, pulling him up, pulling him on, thirty yards to the jumper and he would not look back even though he heard Ronon firing, and the sound of that firing grew more distant with every step, even though Rodney was twisting in his grip and saying something - Fuck, Ronon, oh fuck - because the jumper was here, he could see the indent in the grass and he jammed a finger down on the remote to lower the hatch, thought please please open and felt the jumper obey, and they were in, vanished, gone, as though they had never been.

Rodney eeled past him, heading for the pilot's seat, fear throttled back and all cold calculation now, hands on the controls to bring up the hatch, and John wanted to shout, because Ronon was still there; the dart had gone because there was a Wraith on the ground and he had one hand on Ronon's throat, the other at his chest.

"We need to leave," Rodney said, very calmly, hands on the controls.

"The hell we are."

"They know we're here, John."  Rodney was looking at him with a steadiness that shocked him, a knife slicing through the cloud of adrenaline, cutting off the incipient ache of loss. "The longer we stay, the more likely they are to find us."

"We are not leaving Ronon behind."

"You saw what I saw," Rodney said, calm, imperturbable, and the light in his eyes was foreign, hard as steel and his voice had steel's coldness, too. "If they took him, he'll be on the Hive ship; if the Wraith fed, he's dead now."

"He died to save your life." He thought, unexpectedly, of Ford, a ghost now alongside Holland, Mitch, and Dex. "And we - "

"We should, but we can't." Rodney entered the command codes to send the jumper into flight. They rose, and whatever shakiness John felt was exhaustion and grief; the jumper flew on smooth as silk. "We can't go back for his body, John. You know that."

Yeah, he knew. Rodney nodded to his silent, bitter agreement.

"We can't gate out of here until the Wraith leave," Rodney said, hands steady on the controls, though the skin was etched deeply with dirt and there was a cut he must have picked up in the alley. "I'll look at it as soon as we find a place to lie low."

"Yeah." John collapsed into the copilot's seat. Sweat and his own blood dried tackily on his skin and he shivered. He thought to strip off his vest and put on a jacket, but the jackets seemed a mile away in a back storage bin. He glanced at Rodney, knowing even his covert inspection wouldn't go unnoticed, felt the chill slide of Atlantis across his skin, and wondered if Rodney was thinking, feeling under that cold blanket.

"I'm fine, John," Rodney said, and his hands stayed steady as a musician's as he piloted the jumper down into a defile near the gate. "We survived."

"Something like that," John muttered, and turned away.

He looked up at the HUD, the phantom flickers of darts slicing overhead, and read what was written over them.

Radek Zelenka, the primary engineer assigned to the project, determined that the Wraith dart's primary systems were wired to a central core, and that the sensor network, operating through a computer interface, is similar - broadly speaking - to a biological sensory or nervous system. See attached file for specifications.

Rodney sighed and pulled the laptop closer. The whole Cadman-in-his-head debacle had distracted him - embarrassed him too, but worse, distracted him—and Zelenka, despite having to work to get the wretched woman out of his head, had made depressingly good progress on a preliminary study of the dart. Much of the data revolved around the transport and storage systems, but directions left unexplored for the sake of time looked promising enough.

Nervous system. Carson would be interested in that. Rodney tapped the edge of his keyboard, a quick run up and down imaginary scales, and paused. Like Ancient tech, but not quite. He thought back to the downed supply ship, the desiccated and tattered membranes, the scent of dust and old, old rotted things.

Before he could chase the thought much further on, his radio clicked in his ear.

Sheppard, reminding him about mission prep.

Rodney? Meredith?

John made Rodney drink his supplement shake, which Rodney did silently and ungraciously, and then forced two of the hyperizine down his throat and made him lie down. He sat on the opposite bench and watched as Rodney relaxed into sleep, and wondered briefly if the hyperizine would work for him as well, if he'd find a place where Ronon turning, dying, being left behind, didn't exist.

Rodney came back to himself a few hours later, or as close to himself as the drugs would let him come, groggy and faltering. Atlantis was a ghost now, an uncertain presence behind Rodney's eyes, which were now human and hazy and blue.

"Ronon?" Rodney asked looking around at the jumper as though he'd never seen it. "Where—"

"He didn't make it, Rodney." Because we left, and John didn't bother to keep the accusation out of the words.

"Oh," Rodney said, looking away.  He drew in on himself a little. "Oh."

"Yeah."

He forced some food down his throat, was too tired to make Rodney eat anything, was too tired to do anything beyond pull off his vest and drop it in the pile of gear in the back. Rodney watched him silently for a while, a listless relaxation in his body and confusion in his eyes, as John made a half-hearted attempt at cleaning up before lying down.

His muscles shivered with adrenaline and exhaustion, at the knife edge of either comatose sleep or hours of wakefulness, Rodney a muted presence in the corner of his mind, Ronon a glaring absence. And that thought would have been enough to bring him fully awake had not Rodney stretched out beside him, fingers twisted in the hem of John's shirt, a desperate holding on.

"Nanites," Rodney whispered, and his breath was warm on John's skin.

"Okay," John said, and accepted the lie.

Two days they would wait; Lystria was a heavily-populated world, with people spread across several continents. A rich harvest for the Wraith, and the jumper closed about John like a tomb.


CHAPTER TEN

Grief, grief for Ronon, and anger for him too, failure, as fresh as it had been when he'd seen the jumper hatch shut behind him.

Not now. He tears himself from memory - that's what it is, memory, nothing more, and he is John Sheppard, and his memories are his, not Rodney's, and Rodney's memories aren't John's either, though they had become so for a time.

"Rodney," he says again, anchoring himself with speech. "Meredith."

Even the much-hated first name doesn't work. Rodney's breathing on his own, John tells himself, and his heart's beating, a weak but steady, determined rhythm underneath his palm. His eyes, though, stare upward at the ceiling, the blue one tear-damp and the grey terrible and inhuman.

"Come the fuck on," he whispers, and he's not terrified, though fear batters at the back of his mind, refusing to stay down in the dark place where he puts it.

Rodney's mouth moves, though his eyes do not, his lips shaping themselves around words John can't make out.

More footsteps, Koan's voice, Quill and Pen's mixed in. They want him and Rodney imprisoned, Koan insists he's given John the chance to collect Rodney and then leave and never come back. The scholars continue to clamor for incarceration.

"Come on, Rodney."

He says it and wills it, and watches with breath gone still as Rodney's left eye focuses behind the tears, the pupil contracting against the light, and his gaze fastens on John's face. The right eye focuses too, though John doesn't know how he knows this. Attention, overwhelming and  complete, and for a moment the tower is reduced to unimportance, and Koan and the scholars fade into nonexistence.

"John," Rodney says, and John is almost surprised to hear Rodney's voice, half-expecting to hear a computer's, or something else. Something different at any rate.

"It isn't here," Rodney mutters. He looks away, at the chair, at the ceiling. "I need the command codes to lower the Diomede's shields - they aren't here."

"Can we find them?" He keeps a tight rein on frustration, but it shades swiftly into despair.

Rodney sits up, stiff and awkward, muscles moving painfully under John's hand. His skin has gone pale, and where John touches his arm to brace him there is the slickness of cold sweat. He turns to look at Koan, who is frozen in the doorway and seems torn between fascination and anger.

"The gateship was the one used to transport Ibykos and his first officer from the Diomede," Rodney says. "The command code to lower the ship's shield remotely is found only in the gateship's data logs; it was never downloaded into the data core. I need access to it."

Koan almost doesn't seem to hear Rodney's words, fascinated with the alien eye, the quietness that is even more alien.

"Gateship?" Koan finally says.

"Skyship," John tells him, remembering Nausa and her barrage of questions from the previous night. "The one that's been there forever?"

"Do I have it or not?" Rodney asks, and though his voice is cold the words are hot with his old impatience.

"You aren't human, are you?"

Aren't human. Sharp, fierce pain at that - his own, or an echo of Rodney's, John doesn't know. He glances at Rodney, but his face, the alien eye, is impassive.

Quill this time, from behind the formidable safety of Koan's shoulder. "Koan, they need to leave now. The sacrilege - " scathing look at John " - was bad enough, but what if he damaged the tower? We do not have the means to repair it."

Rodney seems taken aback by the question; John can feel him processing, turning the question over. Did he turn it into binary now? Base eight?

"I'm human enough, and the tower is fine - get in the chair yourself if you want," Rodney says at last. "Do I have it?"

"The treasury, Koan! You can't - "

"We open the treasury today anyway, for Sennaleth." Koan's voice is iron, and Quill steps back, "so the people can see the objects that have shaped their heritage." He turns to John and Rodney. "Your need is clearly great," this said with a glance at Rodney, who has gone still, "and my people long for the day we might tell stories without the shadow of the Wraith upon them. And you know - even before you entered the tower, you knew of the skyship and the history of our islands."

"Thank you," John says, and means it.

Koan inclines his head, a gesture so oddly reminiscent of Elizabeth that it takes John aback. Flicker of faint amusement from Rodney at that.

The tower hums, close and tight, around him, and awareness of Rodney resonates across his nerves. Like being in the control chair, mind buried in the city's control pathways and subsystems, his body the lightest weight, so easily shed so his mind can fly - an odd mixture of freedom and confinement.

Rodney pulls himself to his feet, wincing at the pull of stiff muscles - a moment of greying-out and John's heart skips, that second of precarious balance when all Rodney's weight hangs on him. He straightens, though, and his face is calm with an un-Rodneylike calm, though when he raises his hand to his temple to soothe away an ache, that is a human gesture.

Flicker, back and forth: Rodney, the city, human, machine, and sometimes the two are one and sometimes they are John.

He pulls himself away from that, but doesn't pull away from Rodney.

They file past Koan and the scholars, Koan who watches them curiously and with some concern, and the scholars with hostility. The light in the hallways is kinder, though the tower still throbs around them with a rhythmic, subterranean thunder. John's feet find the way automatically, though part of him wants to stay.

"For memory," Rodney says next to him, voice unexpectedly human, warm breath by John's ear. "I did it for that - the hyperizine interfered with my ability to access what I needed."

"And that was?"

"The last night in Atlantis, when I ran the program to lock down the city..." Rodney trails off, body loose and heavy suddenly. An arm around him saves him from falling, though John can feel himself being pulled down, down and in, and this close he hears the whisper of the city, of knowledge, threaded through Rodney's pulse, stronger now even than it had been five minutes ago.

"The nanites allow a direct connection to the city database," Rodney continues, "though the human ability to access that memory is limited by the brain's physiological constraints. The nanites store information - that's part of their intended purpose."

"Were they supposed to kill you too?"

Rodney ignores him, caught in the stream of an explanation that lacks his usual enthusiasm. "The hyperizine prevented the nanites from forming the connections they need to function and share data," Rodney says, as though he isn't freaked out by the very thought of that, and it occurs to John that now he isn't, "and as I said, prevented them from fully integrating with me. The chair removed that barrier and I was able to gain access to information I'd been prevented from accessing before."

"The location of the Diomede," John supplies. They come to the last turn, and in the distance the stone pavements in the tower square glow under the sun.

"I knew that." They are out in the sunlight now, and John squints against the fierce splendor, the refraction of light off the quartz particles in the columns, the pavement. "But the Diomede won't be enough to win Atlantis back. We need more weapons."

"Keller's working on improving the retrovirus."

"Not going to work," Rodney says calmly, and without the usual inflection of disdain he reserves for Keller. "In the final months of the war, the scientists in Atlantis were speculating on different types of bioweaponry to deploy. Archemos of Thalis, who worked on the nanite project, left his research journals in the city database - and I needed those, too. We need them."

Excitement skips through John, tempered by anxiety. "I don't suppose he said anything interesting."

Before Rodney can respond, Koan is at their side, directing John to turn left across the plaza. Rodney is walking on his own now, silent because of Koan's presence, the presence of the other islanders who gather close and curious around them. Whispers break out - his eyes, look at his eyes, Varen; mother, look, do you see? - and there is fear, the communal ripple of it across the gathering. John tenses, feels Rodney settle into readiness beside him, but Koan remains unmoved, plowing through the crowd like a great ship.

The treasury, like the tower, is built into the cliff, at the end of a twisting series of stairs of improbable narrowness; he can see it, the faint intrusion of geometry into the natural curve of the cliff face. A wall of red rock rises sheer, up and up to the sky, and falls, down and down to a boneyard of shattered boulders. The rock face is warm under John's fingers, and under his boots pebbles crunch and roll down into the void.

And, like the tower, the air of the treasury is cool and close, cooler the deeper they venture. The same phosphorescent rock lights the way, the same hum of Ancient technology accompanies his steps.

"This is the chamber where we keep the skyship." Koan pauses outside a door and passes his hand over the sensor. The door opens into a great cylindrical room, a dragon's hoard of treasure and artifacts, some of which flare to life as they step inside, but John doesn't see those, only sees the familiar columns, the opening at the roof of the room, closed now, but familiar.

"A jumper bay," John mutters, looking up at the columns of jumper berths, though all of them are empty save one.

"You think she still flies?" he asks Rodney as they make their way over to it. The jumper lies on the deck, surrounded by piles of odds and ends, an oddly-shaped and sleeping dragon.

"One way to find out," Rodney says, and the frission of excitement, of finally, is human.

No time to waste, John thinks as they power up the jumper and Rodney slides into its database, he and the jumper twining about John's awareness like ivy. Not even a week before Elizabeth's deadline.


CHAPTER ELEVEN

Miko Kusanagi knows how to be invisible. The youngest in a family of five children - three of them sons and all of them talented - she has, more or less, become used to it. So she sits quietly in her corner of a table in the commissary, invisible with Radek sitting next to her and pretending to be interested in his vegetables. Like her, he is small, very slight, unassuming, with nervous hair and nervous eyes that make him seem harmless. Like her, he sits very still, and listens.

"Either we die here or we die trying to get Atlantis back," one of the biologists is saying. "Hell of a choice."

"And by 'we' you mean the soldiers, right?" a British marine asks sarcastically.

"Well..." The biologist trails off, face red in embarrassment.

Benson - Miko thinks that may be his name; he seems familiar from offworld missions - smirks and leans back in his chair. "You'll be here cooling your heels while the rest of us are doing the fighting." He gets a murmur of agreement from two more soldiers.

"And if you die trying to get the city back, what the hell's the alpha site supposed to do?" Vogler. Zelenka sighs at this, but very softly.

"Your problem," Benson says. "I'll be dead, so I suppose I won't have to worry about it anymore."

"Are we done with the fighting, and can we get back to work?" Radek asks now, glaring impatiently.

Vogler ignores him. "Aren't you the least bit pissed that you'll be doing this simply because Weir says to?"

"Colonel Caldwell agrees with her," says one of the Daedalus pilots. Miko doesn't know this one, but she's grateful that at least one person seems to be on Elizabeth's side. "So does Colonel Sheppard."

"Sheppard's off with McKay doing God knows what," the biologist says. "And Caldwell isn't too happy about that. Besides, even if they do find that ship, who's to say we can use it? How do you know you aren't going off on a suicide mission?"

"Why not go somewhere else in the Milky Way, if we can't go to Earth?" Vogler asks. "Fix the Daedalus, find a friendly planet, figure out what's going on. Hell, ask the Asgard."

The biologist nods, and even the marine looks thoughtful.

"After we got Hermiod killed?" the pilot asks. "Come on, Kieran." A nudge at the marine's ribs.

Vogler opens his mouth to respond when Radek cuts him off.

Do you not have work to do on the shields? he asks, the words clipped and swift with temper. He's angry; Miko knows he's on the edge of slipping into Czech. Not many people make him so irritated; Dr. McKay usually can be counted on to do this when he is in one of his more stubborn moments, but not many others. Kindly finish and get back to work; I do not want to have to take my afternoon to supervise.

"Of course, Radek," Vogler says.

Miko flushes at the disrespect in his voice and straightens, about to say something when it strikes her she is about to start shouting.

I have listened and listened, she thinks. Listened and listened, ever since Dr. Weir had asked her to "keep an eye on" the scientists. She has been with the expedition from the beginning. The only time she has been back to Earth was when the Ancients had retaken Atlantis, and in the past four years that is the only time she has felt despair. Even dying in Pegasus - which she has almost done, several times - does not seem so bad.

She holds her tongue as Vogler and Yardley leave. Benson and the anonymous pilot fall into conversation together, something about soccer - football, the marine insists, stupid Yank - and the biologist, flustered and without an audience, collects his plate and leaves.

"I must get back to the ship," Radek says.

Miko nods and watches him go, a purposeful figure weaving in and out among the tables. After a moment she picks up her own plate and leaves, trying to compose her next report for Elizabeth Weir.


"I do not think you can wait much longer," Dr. Kusanagi tells her. She sits very properly in the uncomfortable chair, back straight and hands clasped together. Elizabeth thinks abruptly of the decorum manuals in her grandmother's house: spine straight, shoulders back, a lady does not cross her legs. Kusanagi's eyes, though, are huge behind her glasses. "I - many of the scientists are not happy."

"Radek's told me this." She's tied off three more days since they'd last spoken.

"I know, but it... it does bear repeating, Dr. Weir."

"We've gone past the point where these people are going to be satisfied with reassurances," Caldwell says. He has Elizabeth's chair; she stands in front of her calendar, knotting off one more day. "You're going to have to provide hard proof that we do in fact stand a chance of taking the city back."

"Many are concerned that, if the entire military goes, the civilians will be left unprotected," Miko adds. She is a ghost next to Caldwell, so tiny and birdlike, but her desperation gives her substance. "And if the attempt to take the city does fail, that they will be next for the Wraith to take."

"Valid concerns, Elizabeth," Caldwell adds. Miko looks grateful, as though she hadn't expected Caldwell's support.

"I agree." She says this to Caldwell a lot, which is odd because she so rarely agrees with him. "What about a meeting? A sort of... of town hall."

"Are you a presidential candidate now?" Caldwell asks dryly.

"It's the only way people are going to feel their concerns are going to be adequately addressed." Though people almost never feel their concerns will be adequately addressed - that they will be heard and nothing will be done.

"We need to make it clear there are contingency plans in place for the civilians," Caldwell adds. "And possible fallback options if retaking the city doesn't work." He pauses and shifts, uncomfortable with more than the heavy wooden chair. "You may not mind risking your life for the city, Elizabeth, and my people are used to risking theirs - but the civilians... Don't ask them to sacrifice themselves too, or to be left defenseless."

"I don't plan to."

"Then let them know that."

"We have four days until John, Rodney, and Ronon are due back, and Teyla and Lorne should be returning tomorrow, if negotiations with Laden go well." This is a big 'if,' and they all know it.

"You can't let this go that long - they'll need answers soon."

"Then when Teyla returns and we have a better idea of what's going on, how much help we're going to get," Elizabeth tells him. She can't wait, and shouldn't have; she wonders when she lost the ability to know that not everyone's goals were her goals. "I'll lay out our primary plan and our fallbacks, and they'll have to be content with that."

"We need word from Sheppard and McKay." Caldwell stands, impatient with the chair and, likely, her. "I took the liberty of sending a status - "

"You what?" She wheels to face him, coming around so fast she is nearly dizzy. "Stephen!"

"If they're on their way back, they should have received the transmission and responded on a secure channel. Nothing, Elizabeth."

"Because they know I ordered radio silence!" Elizabeth bites back her fury. What's done is done, but still... she had expected insubordination from any of the scientists, the people who had made it clear enough they didn't approve of her actions. Caldwell is watching her, unruffled by her anger. "This could have jeopardized us all, Stephen."

"And I decided the risk was worth it," he said calmly. "Stop hoping for the best, Elizabeth, and start planning for the worst."

As though summoned by his words, the sound of an explosion rolls through the defile of the city. Low, deep, trembling its way up through her bones like nearby thunder. Miko is on her feet in a second, one hand out to steady herself.

"The Daedalus!" she shouts, as though the sound could have come from anywhere else. "Radek is working in the engine room with Dr. Novak."

And she is out the door, tiny, swift-moving, Elizabeth close behind and Caldwell, limping, behind them both. Down and down the city streets, Caldwell at her shoulder though she's running and his breath is tight with pain, down and down until the rock walls open up and the Daedalus is there, lying stricken on the valley floor, smoke rising from its flank.


Automatically she adjusts her hair, pushing it back from her eyes. It usually wants to fall forward, though, shading her eyes like blinkers.

"You need a break," Rachel Lindsay, her immunologist, says, pausing on the edge of walking out. "You look like hell."

"None of us look like heaven," Jennifer says, blithely as she can, though her voice sounds foggy and rough, and not really happy at all.

"Okay," Rachel says, supremely unconvinced, and walks out.

Jennifer relaxes at her desk and pushes at that strand of hair again.

So many notes, piles of them, defying the system she's set up to keep them in place. She finds herself looking not at the retrovirus work Rachel's dropped off for her, but the ill-disciplined stack of data on Rodney and Ascension, and on her laptop screen are the sparse notes she's pulled up on Daniel Jackson's numerous sojourns as an Ascended being. There isn't much - she doesn't know them, but she has the feeling his team has gone to some lengths to keep much of the data off the general record.

Once more she wishes for Carson, who's spent so much longer with this data than she has. He'd been the one to bring her into the program, when she'd finished her fellowship in neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins... She'd meant to go to Atlantis for research, to study the differences between Ancient and human neurology, but had ended up watching the world end instead.

Damn hard to get research done like this, love, but you do the best you can, Carson had said to her one day, after yet another near-disaster.

Sighing, she focuses on Daniel Jackson and the general observations on Ascension she's recorded over her time in the program.

Evolution isn't necessary to Ascension. Though it helps, it's the mind that counts, finding the equilibrium necessary to balance on the fulcrum of this plane and the next. Higher cortical activity means the ability to focus on that balance, to spring from that point up and up into something more than flesh.

Could Rodney do it? She asks herself that, pausing over the question before returning to Carson's notes on the DNA resequencing machine and its effects.

He could have done it once, he could do it again, she tells herself. Weir won't like the answer, no one will; she doesn't like it, because it's the answer failure gives, and Ascension is, for many people - for her - too much like death.

It's the next plane of existence; it isn't here, isn't living in the way she thinks of living.

It isn't failure so much as it is... She struggles for the right word but can't find it. An escape? A stop-gap measure? Worst-case scenario?

She thinks of excuses: the limitations of her equipment, far too little to work with though they'd managed to save more than she'd expected. There's nothing here, though, that can help reverse the changes Rodney's undergone already. Rodney out gallivanting around the galaxy, and though Sheppard knows what to do, he's no neuroscientist. Not having the device that had implanted the nanites in the first place. If she and Radek could look at it, maybe. Maybe, they could figure something out.

Failure tastes even more sour, thinking of the things she could - and won't - say to justify herself.

She sets Rodney's case notes to the side and pulls over the memory key Rachel had left. Data on the updated retrovirus, a Frankenstein stitched together with awkward, primitive thread. Slower to act, but projected to be fatal in twenty percent of cases. Sighing and wondering if this counts as a victory, she writes a translation of the medical jargon into normal English, flags the report for Elizabeth and transfers a copy of the file onto another key. The news on Rodney she'll give to Elizabeth in person.

Speaking of which... She checks her watch and yeah, her turn in the hot seat in ten minutes, enough time to collect her laptop and herself and get to Elizabeth's office, walking up the path that's started to feel like the road to her execution.

They'd lost a lot and stood to lose more, maybe everything, before this ends.

Happy thoughts, Keller.

Laptop under her arm, she walks out of her office - her cave - and starts the walk up the hill to Elizabeth and the breaking of bad news.

Halfway there, she hears the explosion, a heavy throbbing that bounces off the overhanging walls of rock and reverberates across her body. She spins around, gripping her laptop as though it is a weapon, but sees nothing and then there is shouting and running behind her. Wraith is the first thought, followed by run; she turns reflexively to confirm the threat, to see the darts and the drones and the silvery columns of the transporters and her friends dying. People are peering out of doors, the more incautious of them running down the street in the direction of the Daedalus.

Then Elizabeth is whipping by, Caldwell close by her shoulder and Keller follows, follows them down the street and sees what they all see, the downed ship and the smoke.


CHAPTER TWELVE

The smoke and ash from the destroyed MALP settle back into the grass, and the echo of the explosion trails in the air. She'd seen Codre flung back by the explosion, but he has not arisen again, and her heart throbs with savage gladness.

Lorne and the others are coming; she forces back the adrenaline, the exultation of victory and living when such traitors are dead, and her hands are steady as she secures her weapons and tucks the now-useless detonator into a pocket. Still, she thinks, they must see something, some fire in her eyes, maybe the treacherous smile that sneaks at the edge of her lips.

As he comes closer, Teyla can see Lorne is grinning too, his face smeared with paint and blood, his hair thick and spiky with it. He smells of gunpowder and sweat. Behind him the marines and Athosians march in formation, guarding the cart with the warheads and the man with bound hands tied to it.

Laden. He stares at her through eyes puffy with bruises, and his whole face is a mask set in blood. A rough bandage, already soaked, wraps around one arm, and there is a crude patch strapped high on his shoulder - the marines didn't waste first aid gear on him, clearly. Even his hands are covered with grime, dirt under the fingernails. Teyla frowns at him, but he stares blindly past her.

Behind him are three Athosians and a marine bearing crude stretchers. She can see the dark leather of Jessin's hunting jacket beneath one of the blankets. Impatiently, she steps up to him and strips back the blanket so his face is open to the sky.

"Let him see the clouds," she tells the marine, who nods and murmurs an apology she doesn't wait to hear. Instead, she returns to Lorne, who is standing guard over Laden.

"The surviving Genii and their allies have been secured," Lorne tells her, flicking a look at Laden that she can still read despite the camouflage and blood. The two have combined and darkened each other; his eyes, except for the dark brown of his pupil, are startlingly white. "We should go back to base camp before..." Before heading to the alpha site. And they need to figure out what to do with Laden.

"Very well," she says. "Major, if you would oversee transporting the weapons and the wounded? I will dial the gate."

She feels Laden's eyes on her as she turns to dial, and hears him grunt in pain as someone - perhaps Lorne - jostles him. She has interceded on the Genii's behalf before, when John would have killed Kolya despite the possible harm to civilians, but now... She knows how to be pitiless.

The gate springs to life and the first of the marines and Athosians go through. Dorin gives the all-clear and then the wounded go through, followed by the warheads, Laden - she glares at him as he stumbles by - the rest of the soldiers, and Lorne at the rear. She steps through the gate at his side.

She steps through at his side, and into commotion.

"Teyla!" Dorin shouts. "Teyla!"

Her weapon is in her hands as though it is a live thing and has jumped into them. The marines are circled around the warheads, Laden huddled close against the dubious shelter of the cart. She can't see Dorin from where she is.

"Teyla!" Dorin shouts again. "Your tent! Now!"

She runs, Lorne cursing and running to keep up.

The moment she reaches her tent, Dorin materializes from inside it, and incongruously, unexpectedly, he is smiling, the great honest smile she remembers from his boyhood.

"Look," he tells her, pulling the tent flap aside.

She looks in.

And looks.

"Selan and Lieutenant Walters heard the gate activate," Dorin says to her quietly, though his words are indistinct and meaningless. "They thought it was us and let him through - he collapsed not five feet past the gate and they brought him here."

For a moment she believes he is an illusion, one of the hallucinations the Wraith send when they want to dazzle and terrify. Then he is a phantom, a ghost, because he should not be here, or a trick of some kind, from some enemy she does not know.

"Ronon?" She does not recognize her own voice.

"Hey, Teyla."

He is lying on her sleeping roll, one arm wrapped in unconscious protection across his ribs. His hair  is shorter, no longer the thick, ill-disciplined mane she recalls. His sword is gone, and the jacket at his side is filthy and looks beyond repair. Pain haunts the corners of his eyes and his face has gone pale under his tan as though he is ill, but he is here, is alive.

"You - " What should she say?

"You going to stop pointing that thing at me?" he asks, nodding to the P90 she still holds.

Oh, yes, of course, she says, or something similarly ridiculous. She loosens her grip, her fingers aching they had been so tense, and lowers the weapon so it hangs harmless from its clip once more. Ronon smirks at her.

"How did you come here?" Teyla enters her tent, though with Ronon in it the tent seems five sizes smaller now. She arranges herself in the corner next to him, looking her fill, taking in the changes that make her stomach knot in worry, the similarities that make her heart strangely lighter. She touches his wrist, and he is real and solid and does not break apart under her fingers.

"Walked through the gate," Ronon replies, so typically Ronon she has to laugh. He grins at her and her heart twists then; though only twenty-six days have passed since they'd seen each other last, since they'd been a team, it seems much longer.

- team.

She swallows around a sudden knot of fear, and as though from a distance hears herself ask Where are Rodney and John?

"We got separated," Ronon tells her. He pushes himself up a little, though the movement clearly strains his ribs; he shrugs off her assisting hand. "Wraith attack on the planet we'd stopped at when the jumper's engines had to recharge."

"Wraith?" Lorne's voice now; she is still trying to adjust to separated.

Ronon nods. "Culling. But..." And he's looking at her now, eyes dark and serious, "They got out. I made sure they did. Unless something else happened, they should be okay."

Tension loosens inside her, and it is Ronon's hand on hers now. His fingers wrap around her wrist, swallowing it. His calluses are rough and familiar, and she draws a shaky breath, manages to smile around it.

"You are injured," she tells him, as though this were not perfectly obvious.

"My ribs," Ronon says, unconvincingly. Teyla tells him this - for she has seen him with arrows and shards of glass in him, and still he would fight - and he shrugs, but doesn't say anything.

"You said there was a culling on the planet where you'd stopped," she says slowly.

"Yeah," Ronon grunts. He doesn't look at her.

"They fed on you," she whispers.

She pushes the hand on his ribs aside - he moves to block her but effortlessly she evades him - and undoes his vest. And there, there, is a circular bloodstain on the fabric, and when she undoes the laces there is a rough bandage wrapped around his chest. Blood has seeped through that, too.

"Ancestors." The voice is hers, but does not seem to come from her.

"They didn't get much," Ronon says fiercely. "You going to put that back?"

"Of course." She redoes his laces and fastens the toggles on his vest. Even covered up as it is now, the feeding wound draws her eyes back to it.

"A Wraith got me." Ronon manages to sound irritated with himself, instead of frightened of the memory or amazed at his survival or despairing for what he has lost. "He managed to - you know - but I got him." Teyla has the sense of glossing over, but doesn't press. "Used his body for cover until the culling passed, tried to dial the alpha site but didn't have my ICD and didn't feel like getting shot walking through. Remembered the address to here and came here instead."

"Very nicely summarized," Teyla said dryly. Ronon shrugged. "You - I - I have missed you, Ronon Dex."

"I have missed you too, Teyla Emmagen." This said with perfectly echoed seriousness and a twitch of familiar, irreverent humor.

She pushes at his shoulder, gently, for the wound. "I did not, however, miss that."

And Ronon laughs.


Teyla knows how often pleasure must be deferred. Ronon is genuinely exhausted - she's seen his eyelids slipping - and in need of care, though he's insisted on staying with her.

He goes through the gate with the warheads and half their complement of marines and Athosians.

"First good thing to happen in the past four months," Lorne remarks dryly.

"Not wholly good." Half her team is still out there, and although Ronon is confident they made it through, she knows he cannot possibly know that for sure. Nine lives, Ronon had said when she'd pressed him, a reference Rodney had taught him regarding a miraculous property of Earth cats.

She ignores Lorne's reminder that things could have turned out a lot worse and turns to her next task.

Laden Radim is chained in a tent, surrounded by the marines left to them. They wear the expressions of those who are deliberately blind and deaf; their only acknowledgment of her presence is to step outside when she bids them to do so. Lorne stays with her.

Her knife is heavy at her side, its hilt warm under her hand. She sees Laden tracking her knife-hand and she lets her thumb run over the haft, across the braided leather, and he swallows.

"I have broken a promise to you, Laden Radim," she says. She circles around him, and his head twists to follow her movements even as he tries to watch Lorne, who is still as death in the corner.

He blinks at her, his mouth moving to shape the question what promise? but fear has dried his voice into silence.

"I told you when we last met that you would not live to regret breaking faith with the Lanteans again," she tells him. Her circling path takes her closer to him; though the tent - a communal one for the Athosians - is larger than most, the space is still close and tight. He sweats and his eyes dance between her knife, her face, Lorne in the corner. "And you are alive yet, Laden Radim."

"I - I had nothing to do with this," he tells her, voice cracking on the words. "Codre and Orosi are the ones responsible."

"And they're dead," Lorne says from the shadows.

"Because you killed them." Laden coughs, a harsh, unpleasant sound. "There are those among the Genii who believe our warheads should be kept to defend our home planet, not be used to help the Lanteans. I'm not one of them."

"Really?"

Laden's eyes flicker briefly to Lorne before settling on Teyla again. "The last time we thought to work together, I wanted to pursue fighting the Wraith by any means possible, since it seemed the Ancestors weren't willing to do it," he tells her, "and I still feel the same way. My people won't be safe until the Wraith are defeated - and I'm tired of hiding."

She reminds herself that the Genii are masters of playing at honesty.

"These wounds aren't from your soldiers," he says. An awkward nod indicates the bloodstained bandages on his chest and shoulder. "These are Genii weapons."

"You could have had them shoot you deliberately."

"So close to my heart?" Laden laughs. The laughter turns to a cough and leaves his lips touched with red. "I don't trust my people that much."

"Who were those people who attacked us?" Lorne asks. "We thought that world was uninhabited."

"That I don't know." Laden's coolness wavers under a desperation to be believed. The sweat slicking his face makes Teyla want to smile. She pauses, and this seems to unnerve him almost as much as her pacing. "I've never met them, but Orosi and Codre could have - they often led reconnaissance missions for me as part of intelligence work."

"Very believable, Laden Radim." Teyla inclines her head ironically. "The Genii were ever so."

His face pales when he realizes she doesn't mean that for a compliment.

"What are you going to do with me?"

"You..." She pauses, weighing the evidence of his wounds, of her own heart, a past marked out by lies and half-truths. His help - the men, maybe even the warheads - will have a knife hidden in it somewhere, she thinks.

"I swear - "

"There is nothing you could swear by that would make me trust any promise of yours," she breaks in. She turns to Lorne. "Major, if you would stay with him and oversee his guard? I must discuss this with Elizabeth."

Lorne looks like he wants to object, but wisely holds his tongue until he has her outside and the two marines step back in.

"Elizabeth might not be the best person to go to for advice," he says, very softly and very close. "She might decide the risk is worth it if it means we have a better chance of retaking the city."

"Major, we could have a battalion of such men, and if we cannot trust them, they are worse than a knife in the side. No Athosian would wish to fight beside them; do you suppose your men - or Colonel Sheppard - would be willing?" She pauses, her last card: "Laden kidnapped you and your men once, to use you to obtain the gene."

His eyes darken with the memory of that, and he nods.

"Okay," he says. "Go ahead."

"I will return soon, once I have apprised Dr. Weir and Colonel Caldwell of our situation," she says, and he nods agreement. "Please be safe, Evan Lorne."

"Always," he says, and his grin is so much like Ronon's she shakes her head, and laughs, and pushes him aside.


CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Two weeks of uneventful travel had Rodney exhausted, suspicious, and tired of being trapped in the jumper. Tired of the peripheral itch of the nanites and the impression he could feel them settling into his grey matter. Which was what they were doing, precisely that, but it freaked him out.

He choked down another swallow of his supplement drink, wincing at the chalky fake-vanilla taste, and before he could think much more about it, swallowed the tablet Ronon handed him.

"Doctor said so," Ronon told him, unflapped by Rodney's reference to him as Nurse Ratchet. "It's just vitamins this time."

"Wonderful." No hyperizine for the next couple of days, and he didn't know whether to be relieved or worried by that.

They were coming up on the end of the twelfth day of travel, their third day of this jump and the hyperspace generator needed to cool down and be recharged before they could go any further. It still rankled - beyond belief - that he hadn't been able to work the kinks out of the prototype's temperature regulation and power source, but blame the Wraith for that. At least they'd had a working prototype, he'd said to Caldwell, who'd complained about it.

At least we have hyperspace capabilities, and Caldwell had looked kind of offended, but hey, the Daedalus was lying half-dead at the alpha site and they needed the Diomede. The gate system along their projected path had been badly damaged, either by the Wraith, deliberately by the Ancients, by natural disasters and ten thousand years of change. Their final stop, Archipelago and its tower, lay at the edge of their quadrant of Pegasus, the better part of three weeks of travel and no margin for error in any of it.

Three weeks. Rodney vibrated with impatience at the thought and forced himself to finish the milkshake of nastiness. He usually didn't mind synthetic stuff like this, but the particles of unmixed powder grated at his throat like pellets of cement. Unhappily, he tossed the cup into a storage bin and returned to staring vacantly, the only other thing left to do.

Two days, twenty four hours, thirteen minutes. Less than four hours left in the Lantean cycle, two hours until they dropped out of hyperspace at PX-M901 to rest, recharge, and restock.

Two more hours. He looked at his watch reflexively, though he felt he could count seconds in his head, an awareness of time he'd never possessed before.

Ten thousand years and knowing every second of its passage. He shuddered, no way to translate that into any kind of human dimension. He'd been alone a lot, but not like that - abandoned, surrounded by nothing but the indifferent sea.

Trapped at the bottom of that abyss, the crushing weight of water and cold and fear, a hallucination his only companion, and though Sam tried hard to convince him of it, he could not quite find it in himself to believe that Sheppard and the others would come for him - or, if they did come, that they could find him down there in the heart of the dark.

He shifted on the narrow bunk and tried not to think.

"Would you quit it?" Sheppard demanded from the pilot's chair.

"Quit what?"

"Bouncing around like that." Sheppard waved a hand in demonstration. "You're worse than a goddamn five-year-old."

"Sorry." He wasn't, and he ignored the flicker of irritation from Sheppard, the wave of please God shut up before I kill you that was too clear and immediate to be imagination, or knowing from prior experience what kinds of thoughts bounced around under that unruly hair.

"How do you think Teyla's doing?" Rodney asked, because the silence freaked him out, the possibility that he was in fact hearing John's thoughts, or not hearing but feeling, registering in some way, and that was even worse than an unendurable quiet.

"She and Lorne should be leaving to meet with Laden about now," John said, sounding much calmer, though concern and a certain anger rode like ghosts under the words.

"It's a bad idea," Ronon said from his seat by the diagnostic panels.

"It's all bad ideas," Rodney said, and that was true enough. Bad ideas for a bad situation.

"An ally who stabs you in the back is no ally."

"Thank you, Ronon, for stating the obvious."

"Yeah, well, sometimes you Lanteans don't see the obvious."

"Hey!"

"He's kind of got a point, Rodney."

And that was true enough, but at least this time they'd known it was a bad idea going in. Elizabeth had sent Teyla for that reason - she had the most experience with the Genii, and Laden in particular.

Still. She should be with them. Rodney felt it acutely in the restlessness that strained at John's focus, in their only half-joking promises not to annoy the natives of the planets where they stopped. Ronon hadn't said anything - when did he ever? - but the jumper's fourth seat was incongruously empty.

Silence fell again, something permanent this time. Rodney couldn't find a way to break it, and even the sound of his own voice reading out diagnostics failed to soothe him, so he settled into the back bunk and tried, desperately for sleep.

On the edge of it:

No communiqué from the Aurora today. Corios grows anxious - this may be the information he needs for his research. They are due in ten days standard from now but we have received messages from them, relayed through the gate system to Atlantis. Nothing for three days. A weakness in Wraith technology is all we know, and all the Council will say -

The clouds swallowed the jumper and spat it back out again.

PX-M901 was dead, a corpse of a planet. It wore a shroud of thick grey cloud cover, and beneath the shroud rolled desolate plains.

"Nice place," John said. He banked the jumper, looking for some place sheltered, but found nothing. "Wasn't there supposed to be a city somewhere near here?"

"Culled," Ronon said, peering through the viewscreen. "A long time ago, by the looks of it."

"They were still around when the Ancients left the city," Rodney said, with some impatience. Whether it was for John and Ronon or for something else, John couldn't say.

But he felt Rodney there, a flicker of something like Atlantis and something not, over his shoulder. He tried to concentrate on the bleak landscape, studded with the needle-like trunks of trees that had died long since. Wind picked up dust and scattered it over the face of PX-M901.

"There's something to your four o'clock," Rodney said, the instant John realized the same thing. He slid into the copilot's seat and studied the flickering lights of the display "Energy signature."

"Natural?"

"In this place?" Rodney's incredulity washed over him. "Artificial." He paused, and there was that focus, keen as a knife, Ancient installation; the signature matches a ZPM.

"ZPM?" John asked.

Rodney was staring at him, and Atlantis hovered in his eyes, just beneath the blue - faint traces of silver, a presence John had tried to forget about. Yeah, Rodney was saying, a needless confirmation. It's a ZPM.

Which, of course, meant they had to check it out. The plain began a steady rolling, swell of small hills that dipped suddenly down into a valley, unlit by the useless sun.

"There," Rodney said, and John saw it too: what looked like a cave, surrounded by tumble-down rocks. He felt Rodney's nervousness ratchet up. "Do you think a ZPM's worth going in there?"

"The Daedalus could use it," Ronon said, and trust Ronon to keep strategy in mind. "Sheppard and I can go in."

"No, no... No, that's fine." Rodney was staring forward now, a fixity to his gaze that looked beyond the viewscreen, the dark mouth of the cave. "We shouldn't split up."

And he was insane for wanting to go in, because it was dark and probably rat-infested, wet, dangerous, confined, but even as he thought these things he realized that they frightened him only in a distant way, and the clamor of fear diminished, fell to a whimper, vanished altogether.

"There's something in there the ZPM's powering," he said. Beautiful, it was beautiful, a whisper across his cortex. Only it wasn't beautiful, wasn't a whisper, wasn't anything he would recognize, but the names suggested themselves: beauty for the logic of architecture and numbers, whispering because the awareness of these things hovered at the edge of understanding.

Accessing data section GHF-9V1; run retrieval: Urhan Installation. File corrupt.

"No," he said, the moment John asked "Have any idea what it is?"

"Then we go in," and there was strain in John's voice, the way he fought not to look at Rodney.

And the cave was dark and close, forbidding as they stood at the lip of it, the light attached to John's P90 only intensifying it. The flashlight Ronon carried did little more, a small, confined beam that marked out a path that vanished sharply as though cut off by a razor. The roof of the cave was high enough for Ronon to walk upright, graded smoothed and artificial.

No light, though, and that should have freaked Rodney out, but he was calm, calm, not even looking at his lifesigns detector but walking forward confidently.

"Rodney, wait up okay?" Rodney's back was square and resolute in the unsteady beam from Ronon's flashlight.

"Is he okay?" Ronon asked.

"Don't think so."

The lights came up a moment later, the familiar lines of Ancient architecture all around them. Rodney was at one of the consoles, one hand flat on the surface while the other tapped a nervous staccato against his thigh. His data tablet was still in his pack.

"It's a weapons platform," Rodney was saying. "There's a control chair two levels down."

"Weapons?" John asked.

"Do you have to sound so intrigued?"

"Weapons?" Ronon asked.

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Is that not the definition of 'weapons platform'? Yes, there're weapons somewhere, more than likely. Whether we can take them with us is another question altogether, so don't get your hopes up."

"Anything'll help."

"Do you think we can tie drones to the roof?" Rodney demanded. "No, we can't. Now let's go."

He spun on his heel and stalked down the corridor, boots ringing on the metal floor, a black shape in the shadows of the crossbeams. Everything drab here, dead grey and brown as the planet above them, almost too austere to be Ancient, but the entire complex hummed around him, and lights came up when he walked by.

He turned to look at one of the data consoles, his reflection peering out at him from the tangle of Ancient hieroglyphics, almost quizzical as he tried to parse out the text on the screen.

One report has come from Lialis on Urhan. She has destroyed that planet, rather than let the Wraith take it. Perhaps a hundred thousand were lost in the blast; we have received no evacuees. One message from Lialis, but she has not returned to us.

Their victory will come of their superior numbers; we have tried to convince the Council of this, but there is still hope our technology will prevail. Something must be done to neutralize those numbers; they breed prolifically, have the natural strength and immunity we have given them. A bioweapon, Vero has suggested, but of what sort that would be, I am uncertain. They do not succumb to our sicknesses. Their ships, some have said, like our own biomechanical hybrids. Perhaps some weakness there.

Personal note: My Yaris has left for the Terra outpost, the Tria and Aurora have been recalled. Quinil has Ascended, but he leaves behind his wife and two sons -

A weapons installation, no good to them because the weapon was the installation, drawing energy from the magma beneath the planet's crust, but the other two didn't need to know that. Rodney's pace picked up as he wove his way around the catwalks, down and down into the maw of the earth.

It has been lonely here, Lialis sighed. Thousands of years, and only silence.

Alone, Atlantis said, or did not say.

Sheppard and Ronon were distant, Ronon little more than heavy footsteps and Sheppard a closer, more immediate presence. The complex was a gigantic cube sunk in the earth, crisscrossed with by girders and perilously steep stairs, pipes for water and cooling instead of artistic glass and crystal.

And down, down in the center, the powerful, throbbing heart of the place, magma its blood.

John was shouting in his radio now, for him to slow the fuck down, McKay, but Rodney kept going. Stupid he knew, but it didn't matter, or at least didn't matter enough for him to care. He reached the second level down, nearly two hundred feet below the surface, and beyond the concrete walls he could sense the massive silence of the planet.

Tectonic sensors, he thought, and he was understanding what they were saying, that the planet had gone quiet, silent for many millions of years until the Wraith came.

Lialis: So many years, I cannot tell the number of them. The Wraith came, and rather than let them have us I killed them. I died in the chair so that they would die, and two Hive ships exploded in the atmosphere.

How many millions of megatons that would have been, Rodney didn't calculate - Lialis told him, enough to kill the planet and make of it a skeleton, only insects and bacteria left to feast on it.

The nanite interfaces were made after the Replicators, Lialis said. A way to improve our interaction with our technology, and to guarantee memory would be preserved and carried as our people migrated from planet to planet. In turn their memories would become those of the new city, when they installed the new interface and downloaded their memories into the data core. These nanites carry you now, and you can carry so much more - you know, for you have done it.

"Yeah." He stood in front of a darkened door now, pried off the casing over the sensor panel, which had broken. A fractured crystal; he pulled it out, bridged the gap between the other two, and the door opened.

No way to take all of the city's database with them, and they needed all they could get, every last scrap of information that could help them. The nanites did that; they are memory, Lialis said, for the city and its memory are much the same thing.

And take me, Lialis whispered, and Rodney could see her in his mind's eye as though he'd conjured her like a spirit: red hair, brown eyes, tall and slim in her simple uniform and with a sad pride that made her seem all the more lovely, beautiful even, and then there was the interface beyond the ruins of the control chair. He saw the faint ghost-shape of a body in the melted polymers, what looked like the near-disintegrated bones of a hand clutching the control pads.

Take me with you, Lialis sighed. I have been so alone. She stepped toward him, so tall she could look down at him, and the angle at which she inclined her head brought shadows to her eyes. A pretty voice, sweet but rich, and she was smiling now in a way that no woman ever smiled at Rodney McKay, a delicate hand reaching up to cup his cheek.

The interface looked much the same as the one on Atlantis: a column set out from the wall, hollowed in the center to form an alcove much like a stasis chamber. He stared at it a moment, hesitating at the remembered pain, the burn of metal against his temples, the syringes piercing him, the cold burrowing of the nanites into the marrow of his bone.

Help, Lialis said to him. She stepped closer, lithe and sinuous even under the harsh lines of her uniform. If she were real, he could have smelled her, Rodney thought a little hysterically, and her perfume would have been sweet and strange. Take me with you, Lialis said, or stay here with me.

Atlantis was its own persuasion: Your memory is ours, the city's, this installation's. Step in.

He did, tried not to flinch with simple human fear as the syringes lowered into position.

Footsteps now. Lialis whirled around. The door creaked and shook as it attempted to close itself, but was jammed open.

Sheppard burst through.

"Rodney?"

Sharp, piercing pain but then, oh, then.

Power still slumbers here, and you might yet revive it, Rodney McKay. Stay and be with me, and we can remember the great days together. Lialis had turned on him, eyes darkening and her mouth set in a grim line. Sheppard didn't seem to see her.

You must do this, Rodney McKay. For us, and our people, she said, moving so she stood between him and Sheppard, and he nodded and felt the coldness grow.

His body grew thin, weightless as though dispersing, none of its familiar presence anymore, and he felt himself spread out along a thousand pathways, the tingle and race of energy along his awareness like lightning, the enveloping warmth of the earth.

"Rodney!" Sheppard's voice, far away and close at the same time. With something like human sight, Rodney saw him vault over the chair and run up to him, to reach for him and tear him loose.

The needles tore through his skin, and he screamed.

"No!" Lialis howled too, furious. Come back, Rodney McKay! Please, please do not leave.

"Ronon!" Sheppard was shouting in his ear, shouting, Rodney realized, because he was shouting, curses and terrible things, and the most humiliating begging, Please don't take me away, she needs me, oh God, I need to be here with her, please fuck please let me stay.

"Hold him," Sheppard said, and damn him, Ronon was taking him now, pulling him out of the chair room. In the blur of grief and fury he saw Lialis standing there, her beautiful face wrathful.

"No!" Rodney shouted, struggling against Ronon, who, surprised, almost let him go. A flailing elbow in Ronon's ribs, a boot in his knee - he held on, Rodney cursing the entire time, let me go, let me the fuck go! and the idiot wouldn't let him.

"We're getting out of here," Sheppard was saying, other idiot things he was way too pissed to hear and understand. Determination and steely calm, a shadow in the corner of Rodney's tear-blurred vision. Lialis had fallen silent, but he could hear her, trapped like he'd be trapped one day and he tried to explain this to Sheppard despite having to wheeze and gasp for breath in the circle of Ronon's arms, and it wasn't working, Sheppard wasn't fucking listening.

His head swam and there was pain. The syringes? No, Ronon had hit him. Had hit him, and when he opened his mouth to tell Ronon to go to hell, Ronon hit him again, and there was nothing.

Nothing except the enzyme, that was the only way out, and okay so he could die a junkie and destroy every last shred of grey matter and end up drooling into a bib for the rest of his life, but hey, Sheppard and the others were on a Hive ship with a madman and the least he could do for them was try to escape and try to get help.

The needle is gigantic, and surely nothing needs to be this big or painful-looking, but he loads up the dose, no way to tell how much is too much or to little so might as well go all out, and presses the syringe to his arm, where the vein stands out, and pushes down.

"He's fine," Ronon said as they ran from the installation. The lights had gone out the second they'd gotten out of the chair room, and it was up to John to manage the flashlight while Ronon managed Rodney's limp body. "He's heavier when he's asleep."

"Shut up and keep moving." Up and up and up, endlessly, with no sunlight as a reward until what seemed like an hour later, when they stumbled through the cave mouth.

Rodney came to just after Ronon set him down on the jumper deck, wincing and something probably accusing ready to come out of his mouth when he stared at Ronon, at John, turned red, and looked away.

"It's okay, Rodney," John said, and it was. He'd felt it, that terrible focus as it switched its attention from Rodney to him, and something like a woman's voice begging him to stay. Sweet, irresistible, no pain, no aging, here forever, with memory.

"Yeah," Rodney muttered. "Okay."

John nodded and bent to strip off his gear. "We'll have to stop again soon - don't think there's a supermarket on this planet, and we're running low."

"One after the next jump," Rodney said. He was sitting up, pale and shaken, but regaining himself quickly. "Don't hover," he snapped at Ronon, who shrugged and drew back. "Next planet... MX-951, then Lystria, I think." He paused and surveyed the jumper. "Starving," he said at last.

"As long as it has people," John said, and began to look for a power bar.

"And food," Ronon said, so that Rodney snorted and rolled his eyes, oh please, and for a moment it was like old times.


CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Miko bends over her data tablet, rechecking the figures there.

"Well?" Joelle Esposito's dark hair lengthens the shadows over the screen as she bends to read over Miko's shoulder.

"Structural integrity is in the green," Miko says, and sighs with relief. Barely in the green, and Colonel Caldwell would be wise not to allow an engine re-start until they can improve the casing's strength by several more percentage points. The work will go faster, paradoxically, once they are in space; the Daedalus was not meant for landside docking, and the stress of lying in the dirt shows in many small ways.

Esposito exhales a sigh of her own. "I'll go tell Radek."

"No," Miko says quickly as she stands. Blood rushes away from her head and she leans against the repaired casing, feeling for the reassuring strength of the metal under her fingers. "I have other things I need to talk to him about."

"Okay," Esposito says doubtfully, her eyes dark and clearly uncertain. Miko makes herself ignore it, pushes her much-repaired glasses up her nose, and heads for the nearest exit.

The Daedalus lies quiet behind her, its hull repaired so there are no engineers crawling over it like ants over a carcass. A few scientists stand in clusters here and there, and she sees Vogler and Yardley standing with two of the aerospace engineers some distance from the ship. Carefully, she doesn't look at them as she walks by, although she can feel their eyes on her.

She is left alone for the rest of her walk to the city, for which she is relieved. There is a tension now among the expedition - no, there has always been a tension since they found themselves here on this strange planet; this is a deepening, a shift. Suspicion, which saddens her. People have been talking, more or less openly, about the explosion being set on purpose. No one's agreed on what that purpose might be, but they still say it.

Her talk with Radek today will be about that, about what she has found.

"Nothing," she tells him when the nurses and Dr. Keller finally leave. Radek looks at her out of his good eye. The left one, the injured one, has been unbandaged but he still squints painfully and myopically. His glasses sit on his bedside table, repaired as best they can be, but the left lens is badly cracked and gives him a headache to look through.

I have been lucky before now, he'd said not long after he'd woken up, picking them up to peer through the broken lens. Many explosions and they have not broken, but I was forgetful and left my spare pair on Atlantis.

"Nothing," he echoes now, looking at her data tablet. "You are sure?"

"Dr. Zelenka..." Usually it's Dr. McKay who questions her, as he should. Radek has never made a habit of it. "I found no accelerant, no explosives, no sign anything was done to compromise the casing's integrity." Their plans, such as they are, call for her to be on the engineering crew assigned to the Daedalus in the counter-attack; she has her own safety invested in the accuracy of her findings, and she tells him this.

"There is no way to be sure," Radek says at last and sets the data tablet to the side. One hand rises to rub at his temple but falls when he remembers the burns and the bandages over them. He says something soft and fervent and Czech.

"You are well?" she asks automatically.

He sighs, clearly tired of the question, and says he is, and if she is done, Dr. Weir will be here soon.

She nods agreement to the request he doesn't make and stands, collecting her tablet from his loose grasp. He has always been a small man, not much larger than she, but he seems smaller now, pale under the red patches of burns. She tries not to think of that as she wishes him well and departs.

On the way out, she nods respectfully to Dr. Weir, who is coming in, but Dr. Weir walks by without nodding back.


"I am well, I am fine," Radek tells Elizabeth for the hundredth time. He has said this to many people, and they are reluctant to believe him, and Elizabeth is just as reluctant after the hundredth iteration as she had been after the first.

He can understand this because of the bandages on his face, the left eye that is still swollen and painful when Keller shines her penlight in his eyes. But he can sit up and work, though focusing is difficult when his head hurts, and he is alive. He and the three other engineers with him a week ago - they are alive, they are fine.

"What have you found out?" Elizabeth asks him as she slides into the chair next to his bed.

"Miko found that the engine casing had been damaged, perhaps more critically than initial assessments suggested." He has his data tablet, another reason he is fine, and Miko has downloaded all her reports onto it so he can continue to work from the doubtful comfort of his infirmary bed. "The casing buckled, perhaps because of bringing the engines online precipitately."

Elizabeth leans back, hands folded in her lap like a chastened schoolgirl. He doesn't think he'd meant it for a rebuke - she is no engineer - but powering up the Daedalus to test-run the engine initialization sequence, not relying on their computers to guess, could have prevented what had happened.

Then again, he supposes, perhaps not.

"Miko and the Daedalus engineers are completing repairs to the damaged section of the casing, and I have let them know we will run a real-time simulation as soon as they complete a structural analysis of the entire engine housing. We do not want this happening again."

"Of course," Elizabeth says, nodding. The smile she offers him is tentative, an offer of peace. "I - I'm sorry, Radek. So sorry." Her voice lowers when she says this, for the two of them only and not the nurses and doctors who hover over the beds nearby.

"Apology accepted," he tells her, "so long as you in the future defer to my vastly superior engineering expertise, yes?"

A duck of her head for agreement, and a rueful smile before she becomes serious again.

"Radek, is there any chance that the casing could have been compromised in any way other than the damage it took from the Wraith?"

He knows what she's asking. Part of him wants to ask if she means to retract her apology to him, the other part wants to ask if she thinks any one of their people would do what she so obliquely suggests. Miko hasn't said if she suspects anything, and she knows what to look for in the way of sabotage, and he tells Elizabeth this, very quietly.

"All the same," he adds, "it would be best to put the engine room under guard for the time being. I will have Miko look more, and listen."

Elizabeth nods decisively. She sits there for a moment more, looking at Radek's bandaged hands on his data tablet, his laptop, then his face for a long moment before wishing him well and leaving, her back straight and flawless.


It has been a week since the explosion on the Daedalus, and nothing else has happened. No threats, no more explosions, nothing from Miko on any suspects - nothing from her except that the casing could have been sabotaged, but could simply have buckled from the damage already sustained to it. Nothing to indicate deliberate intervention to make the explosion - although Miko does point out that explosives attached to the engine casing would have, when reacting with the plasma field in the engines, taken out the entire ship and not the decks nearest the engine room - and so Elizabeth is stuck with... nothing.

It fails to reassure her as she waits for her people to finish gathering for the promised meeting. John and Rodney are overdue by eight days, nothing from them either. Talk has grown, running wild along the streets, and if Miko came to her with all of it, she would have time to do little else, and Elizabeth would have nothing else to do but listen.

Rumor: Sheppard and McKay have been lost, in any one of a thousand different ways, and Weir and Caldwell know this, but are pretending they don't for a while longer. Why, we don't know.

Rumor: Sheppard and McKay have been compromised, and the Wraith have found out their position and are going to be on them any day now. The warheads Teyla's brought back are useless without a ship to deploy them.

Rumor: The warheads don't work. Keller's retrovirus is useless (this approaches truth more than is comfortable for Elizabeth). Sheppard and McKay are never coming back; Dex knows something that he isn't telling anyone.

It goes on and on like that. Elizabeth tries to shake rumor from her head and concentrate on facts, all of them lined up neatly on her data tablet.

The archaeologists had found a ruined coliseum on the other side of the field from the Daedalus, the only communal space large enough to hold the entire expedition and the Athosians both at once. Elizabeth is looking up at the ramshackle seats, the boxes where a long-vanished aristocracy once sat, and thinks of lions.

Teyla is next to her on her right, Caldwell on her left, Keller and Zelenka slightly behind. Radek still wears his bandages, but his left eye has cleared and he looks steadily into the westering light. In front of her, marines and soldiers of all nationalities, Air Force, scientists of all stripes, historians, hunters, linguists. She sees Lorne in the front row, just returned from the planet where they've left Laden Radim. Ronon is next to him, looming and silent.

She'd scarcely believed her own eyes, seeing Ronon walking alongside Teyla, close with her shoulder brushing against his arm. Her first thought hadn't been for him, though he'd clearly been injured, but in that moment when she'd first allowed herself to believe this was Ronon Dex before her, she'd thought Oh, Rodney. John and felt the first shudder of loss.

He'd either seen it on her face, or perhaps it was the logical conclusion for anyone to leap to, because he'd said I'm pretty sure they managed to get out of there, if they stayed smart, and she'd allowed herself to relax for a heartbeat before realizing that they'd left him, believing he was dead.

"When they make it back they'll find out I'm not," he'd said, shrugging.

Half her flagship team here now, and she wonders if it's acceptable to take this as an omen, or if half is all she'll have. Eight days overdue. She tells herself it's in John and Rodney's collective nature to be late - they'll be late, she suspects, for their own funerals, assuming there comes a time when they can't avoid them - and that traveling across the galaxy is not like going to the corner store, but the doubts prick uncomfortably all the same.

Unstoppable, the pair of them. She begs herself to believe it, but the past week has given her little room for belief.

If you hadn't insisted on no simulations... She shakes the thought from her head, stills as she hears Caldwell's heavy footsteps behind her. He's without his cane now, precipitate and against Keller's orders, and he moves slowly.

"Everyone's here," Caldwell whispers to her and she nods, puts on the face she needs to meet the faces of her challengers.

"Thank you for coming today." She almost starts at the way her voice carries without the radio, borne along by the rising curves of the arena. "I will keep my remarks brief, and leave the floor open for questions."

Teyla's return with the Genii warheads is the first good news on a short list of it, followed by the progressing repairs to the Daedalus, their continuing success at sustaining their food and power resources, for which she thanks them. She glosses over the explosion, other than to note that Miko's team has repaired the engine casing, and believe it won't cause any future problems.

"What about Sheppard and McKay?" someone calls from the audience.

Ronon twists in his chair, looking for the offender. Next to Elizabeth, Teyla straightens in indignation. For her part, Elizabeth ignores the question and continues on: the infirmary empty of all patients except two, Keller's progress - which she has to gloss over slightly - on adapting the retrovirus.

The same voice asks the same question. Elizabeth reads on over random things, discoveries the archaeologists have made, the botany department developing a new kind of faster-growing wheat, and then and only then does she come to John and Rodney.

"As you are probably aware, Colonel Sheppard and Dr. McKay have not yet returned."

"Yeah, but Dex has!"

"He has," Elizabeth agrees, "and I'm sure the rumor mill has also told you that so far as Ronon is aware, they are still alive."

"They were supposed to be back a week ago." Someone standing up now in a faded expedition jacket with blue panels. A scientist, but Elizabeth doesn't know his name. "Do you honestly think we could take back the city with just the Daedalus? It's barely operational. We could maybe achieve a stable orbit, but that's it."

"And we will not make any attempt to retake the city without it," Elizabeth broke in. Her temper, frayed by the sun and loss and this place, threatened to break. "When Dr. Zelenka is assured the ship is operational, we'll think about action then."

"Yeah, one ship? There were six Hives there when we left; there are probably more now."

"Once all the variables are in place, Colonels Caldwell and Sheppard" - she can't leave him out, can't even suggest the possibility he might be dead - "in consultation with the science and medical staff will formulate a strategy, and it will be passed on to you when it's deemed appropriate."

"And what, the civilians stay here to rot while you go off to get yourself killed?" This voice she does know, Vogler, another scientist. She knows him from Miko and Radek's descriptions as one of the more vocal of her critics, but not wholly by sight. The attitude is indicator enough; there's an arrogance to him that reminds her of Rodney, not tempered, though, by Rodney's intelligence. "What the hell do we do when you leave us?"

"Do you think we'll be able to hold them off here any more than we could at Atlantis?" Teyla asks. "No matter where the Daedalus is, unless we defeat them, they will come for us."

This earns murmurs of agreement and dissent both, and it's hard to tell the way the balance tips. The marines and pilots are for Caldwell and whatever he decides, the civilians wavering between acceptance and rebellion. She stamps firmly down on the desire to shout traitors at them, because like her they're tired and frightened and far from home.

She says this, and it seems to help some in the audience, but Vogler and his friend remain unappeased.

"You said Sheppard and McKay should be considered lost if they didn't return after a month," Vogler says, speaking loudly to be heard over the whispers. "Isn't it foolish to count on them at this point?"

Elizabeth searches quickly for something to say, something that a scientist would accept. Her evidence is the evidence of her heart - a stupid thing that no negotiator would ever trust, but it's true enough. They've been imprisoned, lost, trapped in a thousand situations, and her first team has always returned. Broken, dirty, bloody, but they've always come back.

"When haven't you been able to count on them?" Ronon's voice, deep though it is, effortlessly rises over the noise, which subsides a bit at that, and even Vogler looks abashed.

"Then what about the Daedalus?" Yardley - that's his name. "We can't even fix the ship without some kind of disaster. Not to mention the rumors about sabotage."

"And that's what they are," Elizabeth snaps before he can remind the others of any more. "You've all read Dr. Kusanagi's report, Dr. Yardley. Are you suggesting that there's someone among us who wants to see the Daedalus destroyed - or that someone wants us to stay here?"

Yardley falls into doubtful silence; if anyone has reason to want the Daedalus damaged or destroyed, it's someone who doesn't want it going anywhere. She lets him sit in that silence for a moment before saying, "Of course, many of the scientists on the expedition would know how to weaken the engine casing without their interference being detected. You've worked on the Daedalus, haven't you, Dr. Yardley?"

He stays silent, smart enough at least not to say anything. The audience fills the silence for him, suspicion directed not at her for once but against those who have been arguing for inaction.

"We are here," Teyla says into the murmuring sea, "to find a way to take back Atlantis - the city you all came to rediscover." She has put aside her adopted expedition gear and now wears her long leather hunting coat, a shirt and trousers dyed in the deep, rich colors the Athosians favor. Her hair in the past few months has grown longer, but even disheveled she is elegant, imposing. "On Athos, were someone to do such a thing, they would be dealt with less graciously than you have here. There is time for talk - that you Lanteans have taught me - but there is time for action, too, and it grows close."

The audience falls silent, clearly uncertain as to how to respond; some of the soldiers and scientists mutter agreement; others don't like the lecture from Nature-girl. Outside of her team and Elizabeth, and a few others, many of them haven't gotten used to Teyla, who is at once one of them yet irreducibly alien, much as Ronon is.

Something else to say, to take them past this moment, and she's reaching for reassurances when her radio - long unused and worn out of habit - crackles in her ear.

"Weir." She turns aside, listens to Miko's excited tumble of Japanese and English, calls for her to calm down, please, calm down and repeat yourself. Behind her the crowd rumbles and hushes, an unruly ocean.

She hears Miko's deep breath, the silence as she holds it, and when she hears Miko's words, finally comprehensible, she begins to laugh, and if she cries, fingers to her eyes catch her tears.


CHAPTER FIFTEEN

His forehead has a bruise on it that he says he got from falling against a bulkhead when the orbital stabilizers on the Diomede had misfired, but he doesn't wince or draw back when she presses her forehead to his and frames his face with her hands.

"I knew you would return to us," she says, her voice shaking and she is unashamed of that. Her hands tremble too, fingers fluttering across John's cheekbones, her thumbs bracketing the smile that is barely there, the one that says John is truly happy.

"You're just saying that," he says, but his own hands are tight on her shoulders.

"I am not." She hugs him, though the gesture is still strange to her. Her breast presses uncomfortably against his utility vest, and she cannot feel his heart through it; she resists the urge to undo it and press a hand to his chest to feel for certain.

Teyla takes a step back to look at him. Like them all he is tired, worn rough at the edges, and a sorrow that is foreign to him lives in his eyes. There is more grey at his temples, and the lines in his face are deeper now, as much with sadness as joy. Something else: he doesn't seem entirely present, though he is happy to see her and so very plainly real.

The four of us. For a moment the happiness eclipses everything, even when she had seen the two of them materialize in the clearing, transported down from the newly-recovered Diomede, blinking in the abrupt sunlight and to see them there - she'd thought that had been happiness enough, but to see them close and touch them... She is hugging John again, laughing as he picks her up awkwardly and swings her in an abbreviated circle.

He puts her down and she wipes her eyes, and turns away to let Ronon have his turn with John - John already has his hands up, trying to fend off the second bear hug that Ronon will give him no matter the resistance. And she, she turns to Rodney, who is standing there as though lost.

Rodney looks much as Rodney always has, changed as they all are, but his eyes - she must force herself to meet them, to remind herself Rodney still lives behind them. The right one is wholly grey - a Wraith eye she wants to think, dead - but the left remains the same piercing blue, a human color but strange next to the alien grey.

She understands something of what has happened, though the technical details elude her, but she does not need to be a scientist to know what this means for them. Jennifer Keller has said little of what the changes are - because, she'd admitted, she knows little - but that, even if they do retake the city, she doubts she will be able to bring Rodney back from wherever this terrible transformation will take him.

There are options, she'd said the one time they'd spoken of it, but I want to discuss those with him first.

And there will be time for that, and time for the battle that comes, for now Rodney is looking at her, both the grey eye and the blue fixed on her, and though she sees the stranger in him now, the smile he gives her is purely Rodney McKay - crooked with happiness and honesty. Ronon hovers over his shoulder, having finally let John go, and they are four together again.

She gives Rodney the same courtesy she gives to John, her hands on his face and his forehead to her forehead. Her hands frame surprise as he looks at her, clearly not expecting her to do such a thing, but he follows her lead and presses his forehead to hers. His skin is moist with sweat and human warmth, and she wonders what she had expected, that the feeling of familiarity would confuse her.

And she hugs him too, which also startles him.

"Do I get one too?" Ronon asks. You already had one, she tells him and he winces in mock hurt.

"You are here, all of you," she says, looking at the three of them. Her family - her people as much as the Athosians are. You are here, all of you, and thank you for stating the obvious, Rodney says, but without much of his usual snap, and she wonders how such simple words hold so much.

"I guess we can some work done now, huh?" John asks dryly as they begin the walk back to the town. The rest of the soldiers and civilians trail along behind, clearly curious about his and Rodney's adventures - and, she thinks as she moves to position herself behind him, get a look at what has happened to Rodney since they've been away.

"He seems... like himself," she says quietly to John, watching Rodney greet Radek and the small Japanese doctor.

"Sometimes he is," John tells her, head bent close though his eyes remain fixed on Rodney. "Other times..." He trails off, a gesture with one hand she's learned to interpret. Other times he's not.

"He got a lot worse after our last stop," John tells her, voice pitched for her alone. "The drugs stopped working, and the - the device he used..." He shakes his head and again his gaze slides over to Rodney, and there's that distance again, which Teyla can only guess at.

They've both been changed, in some way beyond the changes the last four months have left in the rest of them. Rodney's voice spikes upward in irritation - Zelenka has just delivered the news on the Daedalus, Teyla thinks - but then smoothes out almost immediately, and she's never heard him do that before.

"Keller says she has some ideas," John says after a moment of walking along in silence. She nods but doesn't say anything - Keller has told her this as well. That gesture again, so many shades of meaning to it: Some ideas, but they probably won't work.

As though summoned, Keller materializes by Rodney's side. He looks at her and she takes a quick step back before she can help herself, but if he is offended - and the Rodney McKay Teyla knows would be offended - he doesn't show it, only asks what she wants. Her voice lowers so Teyla cannot pick it out, but she has the sense that Keller wants to talk about those options.

John tenses beside her.

"All will be well, John," she tells him, not to lie and comfort him like a child, but because in the sun, with her friends, she feels it to be true. He doesn't reply, either to accept or deny her words; all of him is focused on Rodney, and the distance between them deepens.

Jennifer is talking in a low, impassioned voice - trying to persuade Rodney into doing something against his will, but Rodney is still Rodney under everything and is refusing.

"Later," he says with so much of his old impatience Teyla wants to cry. "I want - I just want to see Teyla and Ronon for a bit, okay?" Those words would be begging from the mouth of another person; from Rodney, they are a demand to be left alone. Keller struggles with her reply but Rodney's glare increases in intensity, and she acquiesces.

Zelenka and the small Japanese doctor - Kusanagi - leave as well, and it is the four of them again, standing in a loose circle now. No, Teyla amends, studying them. Two and two, very nearly, for John has drifted closer to Rodney. They have always been friends, in their own odd, prickly way, and between two other men she would not have called theirs a friendship at all, but now they are something else, something that writes itself in John's odd silence and Rodney's distance, the way they move together, and yet to her it is an alien script.

But they are here, Teyla Emmagen tells herself, before telling them they must change and eat, and then they will talk.


He'd never really seen John Sheppard surprised before - not the honest, unshielded response when he'd seen Ronon standing there. Like seeing a ghost is the expression the Lanteans have, and Ronon realizes that for John and McKay, they were seeing a ghost when they'd seen Ronon standing there.

As they walk up the slope to the main complex, Ronon keeps one eye on McKay and the other on everyone else. Rodney's talking about something scientific with Radek Zelenka and the tiny birdlike girl; everyone else stays a respectful distance back, either out of their longstanding fear of an exhausted, out-of-sorts Rodney McKay or the changes in him that Ronon's pretty sure everyone's seen by now.

"Good, good," Rodney's saying absently, looking at something on Zelenka's tablet. "What about a test-run of the shields?" Zelenka says no, she won't and Rodney hands the tablet back. "I'll talk to her."

"It is good to have you back, Rodney," Zelenka says, instead of thank you, though Ronon supposes it might mean the same thing.

Rodney nods, mouth crooked with confusion as he watches Zelenka and the birdlike girl turn in the direction of the Daedalus. It's the two of them now, the rest of their entourage remaining well back. Rodney glances at them dismissively, then turns that grey-and-blue gaze on Ronon.

"The nanites have traveled up the optic nerve," he tells Ronon, gesturing vaguely at his right eye which Ronon's been staring at without any attempt to hide the fact he's been staring. "I can still see out of it."

"Good," Ronon says. "Would hate to follow you around, making sure you didn't bump into things."

He expects a huff of indignation, maybe the spluttering that makes McKay so much fun to bait, but instead something dangerously like gratitude looks out at him from those odd eyes.

"Don't hug me," he says.

"Oh, don't worry about that." Rodney looks back over his shoulder, back to where John and Teyla are walking. John is watching them attentively - not them, Ronon emends, McKay. For his part, McKay looks forward again, to Ronon, and seems to be searching for words.

"I - John and I thought you were dead," he says at last. He kicks at a loose stone, which bounces off the path and into the thin grass at the edge of it. "He wanted to go back for you and I - I - " He shakes his head against the next words and Ronon tells him not to worry about it - confessions seriously make him uncomfortable - but Rodney says he has to, and keeps going.

"I shut the hatch behind him." His voice is soft and tight, forced as though pushed past something blocking the words. "I told him we needed to leave, and that you were probably dead. And we left you. You saved me - twice, on that dead planet and in that culling - and I left you to die. I mean, I'd kill me, if I were you."

"Good." Rodney looks up at him in surprise. Ronon shrugs. "If you'd tried to come back for me, you'd both be dead. And if the Wraith didn't kill you, I would have."

Still, Rodney says, and No, Ronon tells him, there's no still about it.

"Don't worry about things you can't change, buddy," he says to Rodney's thin-lipped misery, and grabs him in a chokehold and pulls him close.

Rodney allows it, not that he can do anything else, runs a self-conscious hand through his hair to straighten it when Ronon finally lets him go.

He keeps an eye on the two of them as they return to quarters that have been unused for the past month, two rooms next to Ronon's and Teyla's. Rodney pulls a fresh uniform and towel from his pack and heads, wordless, for John's room and shuts the door behind him.

Teyla watches this, honest confusion in her eyes, and when she turns to look at him for explanation, Ronon shrugs. He's seen these things before, and had watched as Sheppard and McKay had grown closer together, and those things for him don't require words.


Ten days late, and she'd known the news would not be good, had known it even before she'd pried Sheppard away from his team - away from Rodney - long enough to talk to him in private. Not that it had done her much good; Rodney had come in not five minutes later, brushing past Rachel and her objections as though through cobwebs.

Five minutes of bad news hadn't been nearly enough time to prepare. The hyperizine had stopped working, Sheppard had said, at least before their last stop at Archipelago. The EM shield on Antora had only stalled the nanites, but they'd made up for it on the other side and had doubled their pace after Rodney's exposure to the Archipelagan memory machine. She'd looked at the data on his laptop, faithfully collected, and wished it wasn't so useless. Eighty-two percent synaptic activity the morning of their last day on the Diomede, and even with only a cursory exam she'd seen Rodney's body was starting to buckle under the stress.

"Nothing I have here or could have on Atlantis will help you now," she says to Rodney, praying for inspiration to strike, something, anything, please Carson, it happened to you all the time. "The nanite infiltration is too advanced for an EM pulse to be effective, and given the rate of increase in your cortical functions, I won't have enough time to modify the ARD weapon. Even if I did, the results would be the same as the EM pulse."

Rodney doesn't really seem to hear her, but it's hard to tell through the screen of grey. The fingers of his right hand, the one closest to Sheppard, are twitching, as though with the desire to reach out and touch the back of Sheppard's hand. Sheppard glances up at him, shakes his head but with a rueful smile to take the sting out of the rejection. Rodney nods tersely.

"The nanites are ATA-sensitive," she murmurs, meaning it for herself.

"Yeah," Sheppard says, and looks uncomfortable, a discomfort that transfers itself to Rodney, who looks away. "So, no options, huh?"

"There is one," she says, and before her courage fails her, offers it.


CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Ten days later the stargate remained silent. Atlantis shivered under her shield, but held steady.

"Is everyone out?" Elizabeth asked into his ear.

"Last nonessential personnel are leaving right now." Teyla was shepherding them out, a few of the remaining technicians who couldn't do any more now. The city echoed with an odd silence, though all was chaos outside - the first of the Hive ships, dividing their time between Atlantis's shields and the Daedalus, which was drawing fire. "Teyla will be up with them in a couple minutes, Rodney and I..." He shrugged, remembered she couldn't see it. "Twenty minutes, give or take."

"You have fifteen. Weir out."

"'You have fifteen,'" John muttered to himself. "Rodney? We have ten minutes."

"Wonderful. That means you have nine minutes to talk me out of this." Rodney stood in front of the interface alcove, pale, eyes wide. "This is - this is a very, very bad idea Colonel."

"All your ideas are very, very bad."

"No, all my ideas are brilliant." Rodney swallowed. "Except maybe this one."

"Elizabeth told you that you don't need to," John pointed out, and that was true enough. "She doesn't even want you to." And that was true as well. Maybe more true.

"We don't know what this will do, and you remember the last time you used an Ancient device? You nearly died, Rodney."

"Did I, Elizabeth? I completely forgot."

"We need this information, Colonel," Rodney said, though in a way that suggested he was talking to himself. "We don't have the power capabilities at the alpha site to run the big computers. We might be able to run a toaster, if we're lucky."

"Nice pep talk, McKay." John glanced at his watch. Nine minutes.

"Okay, doing this." Another deep breath and he was doing it, stepping forward.

The alcove lit up, a low hum that had Rodney nearly jumping out of it.

"Rodney, it's cool, okay?" No time, they had to get up to the control room for the next stage of their plan, and Rodney hovered on the edge of freaking out, terrified and impossibly brave and caught between the two. "Just stand there, okay? Just stay put, it'll be fine. Okay. Better than fine. Wonderful even, just stay where you are."

Rodney's jaw had gone tight and his entire body shook, sheen of sweat across his forehead and a ring of it as his collar. He gripped the two handlebars set into the alcove, and on his lips was a litany of oh my God oh my God.

And John Sheppard watched as two syringes extruded from their casings, and even being told what would happen it still - Rodney froze, fighting not to turn his head, Rodney, look at me, John was saying, look at me, and Rodney's eyes, wide and terrified, blue gone glassy in the light, fixed on him. He almost lost Rodney as the needles touched his temples, the fine skin there dimpling under the pressure.

A soft cry from Rodney, barely audible over the hum of the interface and John's own thundering heart. He forced himself to calmness, made himself watch as the syringes pressed, pressed, pressed in until he was convinced they'd gone through bone, and Rodney had gone deathly still, looking at John and through him, and seeing either everything or nothing at all.

The syringes pulled back, and twin trickles of blood ran down Rodney's temple. One caught at the curve of his cheekbone, followed it down to his mouth. The other ran along his jaw and joined the sweat at his collar.

"Oh God." Rodney had both hands pressed to his eyes now and was collapsing forward, his body collapsing in on itself, and John was there to catch him.

His hands on Rodney's arms: sweat, bare human skin and mobility of flesh beneath it, but the whisper of something else that wasn't human and didn't belong.

"They're ATA-sensitive," Rodney whispered. He was staring at John's hand. "Of course they'd be."

"We need to get to the control room." He wasn't - couldn't - think about that right now. "Can you run?"

"Maybe." Rodney struggled to his feet, clutching at John's uniform jacket. "I think so."

"You'd better," John told him. "Now come on."

And they did run, last night on Atlantis.


The alpha site was everything Atlantis wasn't: dry, dusty, and hot. Picked for convenience, with the Wraith having been and gone fairly recently. On his more human days, he'd feel like a scavenger, but now... Now it's a safe place, hidden away in walls of rock.

Rodney lay in bed, ignoring the odd, subterranean whispers that had become part of his life in the past several weeks. An odd, flickering awareness of Sheppard - where he was, mostly, but at the edge of sleep Sheppard's presence would blur as if being tugged between wakefulness and dreams. That freaked him out; it made him dizzy and sit up, like those twitches your body has when it falls asleep and thinks it's simply falling.

Sheppard always woke up too, half out of his bed and reaching for his gun. And after that Rodney was terrified to go to sleep, afraid that he'd actually dream John's dreams, though he was becoming convinced that his dreams were different too.

More voices, all strangers, all Ancients, and one colder, less human even than they were, The city, Atlantis. And it wasn't a voice, he knew, any more than it was attraction when he followed Sheppard with his eyes and found himself hypnotized by every movement. Code, that was it, translating itself into human registers of hearing, sense, wanting to have Sheppard's hands on him.

He shook himself away from that thought and turned over. His mattress was terrible, but he'd be damned if he was getting out of bed any time soon. They were leaving late this afternoon, and his bed for the next month was going to be the jumper deck.

"Hey, sleeping beauty, time to get a move on." An impertinent finger poked at his head and he swatted blindly at it.

"Leave."

"We have the mission briefing in thirty minutes, and your appointment with Keller." He sensed John looming over him, voice stretched and exaggerated with the impatience that tried to pass itself off as patience. "That's the only way you're getting to go on this, you know."

"Whatever." Five more minutes, that was all, but John wouldn't let him have it, harassed him out of bed and kept at it until he'd dressed, brushed his teeth, and stalked down the hill to Keller's office.

She greeted him with her usual anxious politeness, inspecting him and making no attempt to hide it as she took him by the arm and led him over to an exam table, metal and incongruous against the rock of the walls and floor. She hooked him up to the cortical monitor - it still gave him chills to look at, remembering - and turned on the laptop screen.

"Fifty percent activity - slow increase for two months, but you've jumped up two percentage points in the past week." Keller extracted some blood and handed it to a nurse, then she was back in front of Rodney, fingers probing the metal tracery at his temples. She frowned. "Have you been on the hyperizine?"

"I can't get work done if I'm on it."

"He needs to be alert in the field," Sheppard added from his side, and Rodney tried to give him a covertly grateful look. Keller caught it anyway.

"You have three days of unbroken hyperspace transit at various points on your flight plan," Keller said. "Stay on it during that time. Don't take it twelve hours before you land, and you'll be fine."

She must have seen the reluctance in his face - and the reluctance, he realized, had gone beyond the muzziness of psychoactive drugs and had become something else, the fear of that barrier between himself and whatever secrets the nanites held. Keller's expression softened, but steel rode underneath it, so utterly like Carson Rodney had to look away.

He wondered if it would sound crazy if he told her they had secrets to tell him, how he could explain that in a way that didn't make him sound insane. A diary, included with the database that the nanites carried with them, by a man he could see sometimes at the edge of dreams. Archemos of Thalis, Atlantis supplied. A weapons engineer whose specialty, of necessity, had become Wraith technology.

"This will help keep you alive, Rodney," she told him, and yeah, he'd be alive for maybe a week longer, but he'd die from this anyway. They didn't have that part in the instruction manual, that the price of carrying the city was dying, or giving yourself back to it and locking it inside forever.

And that happened to Lialis, and he will want it to happen to him, because at least that is life of some kind.

They said goodbye to Teyla in the hatch of the jumper, the Athosian forehead-touching ritual that Rodney had always found corny but now found sad as he watched Sheppard exchange courtesies with Teyla, then Ronon, and then Teyla's forehead was warm and firm against his, and under the slope of her brow he could see her smile. A gentle smile, and he would miss it.

"I wish I could come with you," she said, a hand on Rodney's sleeve as though afraid to let go. "Though I might soon grow to regret it, being trapped with the three of you in a jumper for days on end."

"Hey," Sheppard said reprovingly and she laughed and said she would miss even that.

"Walk in safety," she told them all, making it sound more a command than a blessing, and they said they would if she would, and walked up the ramp and shut the hatch. Rodney looked back and saw her standing there alone, the city a massive red presence in the distance. She waved, or sort of waved, a gesture borrowed from Sheppard: hand raised, palm forward, wave once, and then the hatch closed.

And then they were up, the jumper turning on its axis before arcing into the air, most like a bird.

They broke atmosphere and then the planet's gravity well, and Sheppard brought the hyperdrive generator online.

"Time to see if this baby works, huh?"

"It works," Rodney snapped. John shrugged and engaged the generator.

Came the stillness, the distortion as they came near the threshold of light speed, and in this space Rodney felt his eyes open as though for the first time, all of him spreading out along the jumper, beyond it, across the infinite curve of space-time.

Freedom, was how it translated, slipping free of those chains, the clinging weight of the water and earth, and the touch of Sheppard's mind was smooth, effortless as though he'd been born to it - had he had, the city said, he has the gene, does he not? Freedom, the cold, vast reaches of space.

He shivered, his mind trying to reach out to comprehend that scope, and though his eyes were open he could see stars, endless, endless fields of them.

Memory, the city said as he stared at the striations of hyperspace. This is what I am.


CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

The Diomede shines muted coal-and-silver when the cloak comes down, the distant sunlight playing across its contours. The Orion is her first thought, another one of the Aurora-class vessels, but this one none the worse for its ten thousand years in orbit around the sun.

Damaged, Rodney had said, mostly superficial, but life support had been dicey. Three days of repairs, non-stop, and then a week's journey back to the alpha site. When she stands on the deck it is with a sense of disconnect - she's been on spaceships before, but this still has the ghosts of ten thousand years clinging to it, a silence that reminds her of Atlantis when she had set that first echoing footstep in it.

The silence fills quickly, though, Rodney directing the engineers and other technicians with something like his old snap. Not many are going aboard the Diomede, which is in much better shape than the Daedalus, battle-scarred as it is. John will pilot and Rodney, ignoring Keller's advice, will head the engineering team.

She has the sense of failing in him now, of increasing abstraction. He moves and darts like always, at a thousand miles an hour, but the frenetic activity makes her sad now to watch, the moments when he pauses as though trying to sort out where he is and what he's doing.

John, too, has moved apart. Closer to Rodney in some way she can't interpret, further apart even from Teyla and Ronon, although the four of them still eat together and spend whatever free time they can in each other's company. But John and Rodney sleep together, despite low overtones of Caldwell's disapproval.

She walks around the bridge now, though her presence isn't needed - is, if she's honest (and now she must be), completely superfluous. She isn't a pilot, or an engineer, or anyone who could be remotely useful in such a situation, but she's here because... Because the thought of waiting behind at the alpha site makes her want to climb out of her skin.

"You need to be there," Caldwell says again. He's about to leave for the Daedalus; departure maneuvers begin in three hours, and the final rundowns are due to start. Her heart skips at the thought.

"I need to be here," she says, keeping her voice low.

"For you," he says, and she hates Caldwell for being so perceptive. She needs to be here, to see Atlantis with her own eyes and watch as they try to take their city back. But Caldwell, too, is right; she needs to be at the alpha site for the civilians left behind. She struggles with it, and she knows he knows she struggles, the responsibility and two kinds of need that weave around her.

"Don't abandon them now," Caldwell tells her, and although it's not an order it feels much like one, one she should have given herself a long time ago.


Evan Lorne has never thought much about the ATA gene before. It helps him use technology he otherwise wouldn't be able to, and for that he's always been grateful, but hardly obsessed.

Being around Rodney McKay, now, though... Like tracking the ghost presence of Atlantis, a presence that had, in his few years in the city, become ubiquitous. And now, whenever McKay's nearby, it's like being near the city again, but altered somehow, so that Evan gets a headache whenever he tries to think about it.

He's in the jumper bay now with their scavenged jumpers and the one brought back from Archipelago, the borrowed Genii nuclear warheads stowed in their payloads along with the drones and the other weapons they're carrying with them.

Jennifer Keller had conducted the briefing on them, and he's gone over the information at least a dozen times since.

She and McKay had done it, a revised version of the retrovirus that had given them all hell years ago - but not for the Wraith themselves, Keller had explained, for their ships. McKay had brought that back, along with the Diomede, from the month he and Sheppard had spent kicking around the galaxy.

Wraith technology is, similar to Lantean technology, biologically based. Their ships are constructed on an organic substrate - wetware - overlaid with cybernetics and hardware. The virus is both biological and a mechanical, and is designed to disrupt the interface between the Hive ships' organic and non-organic components.

Most of their waiting has been for that, waiting for their limited production resources to produce enough of the virus to be useful. Zelenka and the other engineers have spent their time modifying standard warheads to deliver the payload, and when they talk about in their high-pitched, geeky voices, Evan thinks their crazy plan might actually work.

Twelve jumpers, hopefully six Hive ships and no more. The cruisers the Diomede and Daedalus will handle. More than that... they'll have to trust to reconnaissance to get right.

"Okay, boys and girls," he says, "let's load up."

The jumper crews move into position, eleven of them. The twelfth is due back in -

Boyer's voice comes over the comm. "Six as hoped and expected, sir."

Around them the Diomede shifts, though Evan knows he can't feel it, inertial dampers being what they are, but he knows, with a clarity almost forgotten by five months landside, they are moving - and then, then, there is the stretch, the distortion, as the Diomede's hyperdrive engines engage.

"Ready?" he asks, looking to his copilot's seat.

"I am," Teyla Emmagen answers.


The Daedalus moves through hyperspace effortlessly, as though it had never been crippled and idle, the familiar pulse of its engines steady and reassuring under his feet.

Stephen Caldwell turns from the viewscreen back to the operations console. Still strange, not to see Hermiod's odd, bilious face glaring accusingly at him for attempting such insanity. Novak's thin, pale face isn't accusatory so much as preoccupied as she keeps a vigilant eye on the engine output and the casing that houses it.

"Status?"

"Engine is performing at optimal, sir," she says. "Casing is holding."

"Good." He doesn't allow himself the breath of relief he wants. For the first time in far too long the plan is going well. So far, he adds, for safety. There's no wood to knock on.

The trip is two days at maximum capacity, slightly more because he refuses to push the engines, and because he and his crew need this time. 'Space legs' do exist; he hasn't spent five months on a planet since being commissioned to captain the Daedalus, and his body - older now than it used to be - struggles to find the rhythms of space again. The artificial gravity still disorients him, and he sees even the younger ones among his crew struggling with the same problem.

Two days to find their legs, and to remember how to work together again.

And those two days pass quickly, the Diomede a ghost-presence in their sensors as it keeps pace to their starboard. Near 1100 hours, it vanishes, falling out of hyperspace to take a different course, one that will bring it around behind Atlantis's sun.

Four hours later he orders them out of hyperspace, all weapons forward, and the endless stretch of time contracts, moves back into normality and there is Atlantis, a jewel, flawless under its cover of clouds, and around it hover six Hive ships, two cruisers, one supply ship.

They haven't shared this kill, at least. Caldwell orders full shields as the Hive ships swing to face them, weapons to fire on his mark, and full thrust, and the Daedalus roars around him and flies on star-shot, most like a bird.


Boyer's reconnaissance had turned up a small installation on the mainland, as expected; his secondary mission, along with Ronon and some of the Athosians, is to neutralize it. The first part, the boring part Ronon has to sit through, is the cloaked approach to the outermost of the Hive ships, and before that, the waiting.

The Daedalus is a distraction and so are the nuclear warheads. They can't commit the jumpers to entering the Hive ships, Sheppard had explained, so next best thing: they'd seed the space with the retrovirus mines, and the "nukes" (as Sheppard calls them) will provide, if not severe damage, surface scarring, enough to make the Wraith think about falling back and back, through the minefield.

He has to wait while this happens, watching the starfield for the cloaked jumpers he can't see, the distant nova-like flares of the Daedalus exchanging fire with the Hives. Three have committed themselves to action against it, enough to be worrying. From here, he can't tell if the Daedalus is holding up.

A line of explosions then. "The nukes," Boyer whispers. Two of them go off along the side of a Hive ship, a series of bright, licking flames he can see even from here. The ship begins to list like a dying animal, drifting into the path of a cruiser, which falls back.

More explosions. "The mines." Boyer again. "Time to go."

Though he doesn't have the gene, Ronon thinks he can feel the uncoiling of power as the jumper surges forward. The two Hives behind the cruiser are falling back into the line of retrovirus mines, and they're close enough now that Ronon can see the pinpricks of fire that are the mines. Boyer takes them in close, skimming over the very top deck of one of the Hives, and the ship now even looks alive, a slickness to its surface Ronon associates with living things.

Boyer delivers the nukes, firing them low amidships, where the dart bays are. Darts are pouring out now, but Boyer pilots them through the mass confidently, and spares a moment to tell Ronon to hit the big red button.

There isn't a big red button, only the remote detonator, but Ronon gets the reference.

He wishes he could turn and see for himself as fire devours the guts of the Hive ship, and wishes he could ask Boyer to turn around, but he can't, and so he waits for Boyer's triumphant whoop and the marines and Athosians cheering.

"Not dead, but they're definitely out of it," Boyer says after delivering the official answer back to the Diomede, which is gone now, Ronon knows, or should be, to back up the Daedalus

His task lies beneath the clouds, drawing nearer, and his heart races in anticipation. He touches his chest, the place where the Wraith had fed, had taken maybe a few years from him at Keller's guess.

That had been the least of what they'd taken.

The mainland materializes beneath them, sere brown - it's winter now, he realizes, forgotten in the nearly endless summer of the alpha site - and Wraith crawl over the surface of it. The installation they've come to destroy looms ahead to the right, a cannibalized Hive ship, dart bay and weapons platform all rolled into one.

And they have nukes for this one, too, but as a last resort - Weir doesn't want radiologicals in the atmosphere. Darts are out scouting and the weapons fire has started up, huge pummeling bursts of energy from the Hive's upper bays. No getting close to it, not through that kind of screen, no matter how good a pilot Boyer is

But they don't need to get through, Boyer reminds him. The virus has atmosphere to work on now, and it's a matter of gaining firing solution on the ship only - any part of it.

"Trick's staying out of the way once they realize we're here," he says tightly, banking the jumper for their approach.

A dart, maybe sensing something, fires. It's a lucky shot and clips the starboard drive pod. The jumper shakes and stumbles badly. The first warheads go wide, landing on the ground around the Hive. Boyer tries again and this time the attempt flies true; the warheads explode in three places against the hull.

"Time to get out of here," Boyer mutters, and for a moment the jumper seems as though it will obey, but the darts know they're there and there's fire all around, and Ronon can feel the jumper shake, and then the shield goes, and the cloak, and then they are going down.


The Daedalus shudders violently under fire, Wraith energy weapons splashing red-yellow off the shield, nearly blinding him.

"Port thrusters are gone, sir."

"Get us the hell out of here," he snaps.

"Yes, sir."

Confirmation comes through on a secure channel; the retrovirus has been delivered, and there's nothing to do now but hold on, hold out, and buy time.

"Message from the Diomede," communications says, but even as the words leave her mouth Sheppard and his ship materialize high at his two o'clock, and then the sky is alight with drones.


CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

The city is a ghost town.

All the scientists with working knowledge of Asgard and Ancient technology have gone, along with half the marines and some of the Athosians for groundside operations and - with luck - to secure the city. Even Keller is gone along with the rest of the medical team, divided among both ships.

Of those who remain, Dolan the anthropologist is the only one she knows. The other social scientists, the botanist, the lone geophysicist, stay, along with a small security force.

Her fingers itch to tie off one more knot in her calendar, but she knows - knows - she's tied off the requisite two since the Diomede and Daedalus left. She has never been good at waiting (understatement of the year, Elizabeth), but she has become even worse at being left behind.

Mostly she keeps to her office, caring in only the most distant way about how this is perceived by those who stay behind. Dolan keeps her company on and off, but his bluff face and endless commentaries on the civilization that had flourished here before grate in a way they never had before. At the edge of patience she endures them, but Dolan is at least perceptive enough to know when he begins to grate, and he leaves after a while.

At times she leaves, to exchange a few words with those staying in the city, but the silence in the streets unnerves her. She doesn't look at the empty place the Daedalus had occupied for so many months. Once she'd looked, and there'd been the ghost-shape of the Daedalus impressed in the dust, an imprint marked out by dead grass and open sores in the earth from the engine casing explosion, and then the thrusters when the great ship had finally, finally shaken free of gravity and flown.

No thanks to you. She pushes aside the recriminating thought, because it leads to other possibilities: the engine casing weakening in flight, in battle. John has enough to do on the Diomede without having to worry about a crippled companion ship.

And she... she has nothing now, only a sky glaringly empty and a city silent, and the task of waiting.


She comes because anything is better than waiting, and because she needs to see her team again. They are together for the first two days of the journey, and it is as if their separation had never been. In the empty spaces between preparations they laugh and joke, even Rodney, who seems more himself when Ronon and Teyla are there to tease him away from whatever secrets hold him to silence these days.

And there are other reasons. Her intuition is good for more than finding Wraith; she senses a waiting in Rodney, as though his mind has moved beyond what they are doing here, to some other place, and he must wait for time to catch up to wherever he has gone. The thought frightens her, but when Ronon and John ask what has her so abruptly silent, she smiles it away and turns the conversation.

Painful and sweet, as so many things in life are. She watches John and Rodney together, the synchronicity of them, the unconscious rhythm of their movements, and is happy and sad for them both at once. And they seem happy in their own way, or as happy as two people like John and Rodney are ever likely to be, and she wonders if John has reckoned the price of the pain that will come on the other side of war, and if he has decided that the pain is worth these two days, the one night she sees them heading to quarters, already wrapped up in each other.

The two days end and she finds herself parted from her team again. She is to go with Lorne in the first wave, to monitor the Wraith, their split-second of advantage, and to make sure no more lie in wait beyond the range of the reconnaissance vessels they've sent out.

"Be careful," John tells her, breath warm on her face as they touch foreheads and exchange embraces. She could get used to this, she thinks as his arms enfold her, this casual intimacy that asks nothing except warmth.

"Kill them all," is Ronon's advice, delivered with a bone-grinding hug.

The same ritual with Rodney. His body is cooler under her fingers and there is a care to his movements. She tries not to think what that might mean, but projects reassurance in her smile, the arms she wraps around his neck.

"Be safe," she whispers into his ear. This close, she can see the fine veining of the nanites around his temples, radiating in sinuous curves from the injection sites. "I will see you after the end, Rodney McKay."

"Of course," he says, and looks shyly pleased and impatient all at once.

They load up and she takes the copilot's seat. She can feel them, even with the interference of hyperspace and then the sun once they drop out, seething, alien, clawing at her awareness.

"They don't suspect anything," she tells Lorne. "They are - frustrated." The city is locked to us, best to destroy it if we cannot use it but the Queen insists.

As though invoked by the stray thought, the Queen appears in her mind's vision, imperious, furious at the delay. Rodney's program worked, she thinks, careful to shield her mind from the Queen's knowledge. The gate is locked down, the city hidden under the sea, as inaccessible today as it was ten thousand years ago.

The temptation to stay and ferret out more of the Queen's secrets is great, but she forces herself to return to the jumper, to Lorne's concerned eyes, and report.

A moment later, they receive confirmation that the Daedalus has come out of hyperspace and has engaged, and Lorne powers up the jumpers, waits for John's order to exit, for the good luck that John manages to make sound superfluous, and then they are out in the dark, with the Wraith.


The Ancients believed in Ascension, not comfort, John thinks.

Their berth in the Diomede is narrow, no way to move bunks around - conveniently built into the walls - and John wonders if a de-Ascended Ancient isn't behind the military's obsession with sadistic discomfort.

Still, they fit on the narrow bunk in the captain's quarters - the good part about being in charge, John thinks - and this close... This close it's hard to complain, or think, or feel anything except the pulse of Rodney's body against his, the clarity of him even in sleep.

Rodney sleeps more these days, which Keller had told him to expect and which still freaks him out when he thinks too much about it. Eighty-six percent cortical activity now, an inevitability to the progression that John wishes would make him angry, but it doesn't anymore.

He translates his anxiety into kisses, into careful fingers at Rodney's temple, the cold tendrils of metal there. Atlantis doesn't understand affection, but it understands touch, the intention of touch, the going deeper, and re-translates itself into Rodney's hands on John's skin, soft breaths that ask for more, for John to roll atop him and press the two of them closer together, close and close, deep and deep and deep until there is only one of them.

John remembers their one night other than the one in Antora, when he'd said I'd kind of like to stay, meaning stay here with you, don't go, and Rodney had read the truth of that in his eyes and said I kind of wish we could, and said no more about it.

During the day Rodney is there, a shifting, reassuring presence, a strange hybrid of John's friend and the city he loves, and he can't decide anymore which of the two of them it is that stares out at him from those odd eyes.

"Coming into solar orbit, sir."

"Yeah." He takes his seat in the command chair and the Diomede, laced through with Rodney, fills him. No need for a pilot, or even for the rest of the people onboard, only the two of them, the two of us, that's all, the ship.

The Daedalus begins its attack run, and a moment later John sends out the jumpers. Five minutes need an eternity to pass, then reports come back in of success: the warheads, both nuclear and biological are away, the jumpers are returning with the darts hot on their sixes, Boyer's jumper heading down to the planet to take out the surface installation there.

A minute later the rest of the jumpers are aboard and he's reaching for hyperspace again, and the Diomede surges forward. The stretch, the eternity, for a moment only and they're back behind the Daedalus now, which is floundering, smoke and fire pouring from a ruptured hull.

"Jumpers and X-302s out now," he snaps. They're barely in position, but the Daedalus needs help now.

The Diomede reads his thoughts and unleashes its drones, and Rodney is there too, working against the Wraith's countermeasures. The drones are bright blurs in the darkness, gold against the cold silver of dart skins, the almost invisible X-302s that arc out to join those sent out from the Daedalus.

"Come on, come on," he mutters.

Give it time, and that's Rodney, echoing through the Diomede's mainframe.

Don't tell me you can fix this with chicken soup and Tylenol.

Rodney's amusement is faint, distracted.

The Diomede shudders under a hail of fire, the darts coming faster and faster now as the other Hives join in, five of them now - one out of commission, drifting erratically - but five too many, and the cruiser.

Beneath them a gout of flame erupts from the Daedalus's port side.

Engine casing, Rodney says.

"Tell them to get the hell out of there," John shouts at Zelenka, who staggers over to the communications panel himself to send the message.

"How fucking long is this supposed to take?"

The jumpers are still cloaked, but the swarm of darts are getting off lucky shots in between firing at the X-302s. Small pinpricks of fire: dart, dart, jumper, dart, X-302, four more darts, and oh fuck, Keller's retrovirus wasn't working, never mind that Rodney had stepped in with the solution, the hell with the simulations and the knowledge in Rodney's head that said it would work.

Wait, and Rodney's almost begging; the urgency races along John's veins, his nerves, and he wants to leave, will have to provide cover for the Daedalus as it limps home with its wounded and its dead, but as he turns to ignore Rodney's plea he hears an excited whoop over the comm.

Lorne, unprofessional to the bitter end, and Teyla.

"Colonel," and even Teyla's precision can't cover her excitement, "I am sensing great consternation from the Wraith - the first Hive ship we attacked is unresponsive, and the second one appears to be unoperational as well."

"Confirm that," he demands.

Lorne gives him the Hive ship's heading and the instruction to fire drones.

"We're reading that shields are down on three of the Hives now, Colonel," Zelenka says from a telemetry station, even as the Diomede whispers to him that yes, the shields are down.

Thought and action are one, and they are harmony, and the drones arc outward into a suddenly-silent starfield, and they are golden, wonderful until they vanish for a moment in the darkness of the Hive ship's hull, and then there is the spreading, spreading light across the viewscreen, beautiful as the dawn, and terrible.


The world fades in and out, important and then not, but John is the constant in all of it.

The city tells him what he expects, that John has the strongest manifestation of the gene among all the people he's interacted with, but there is more that eludes her. More than four years of friendship, and with the perfect vision of hindsight, he can chart the odd road that brought them here, to the months of exile, the forty days of travel, the silence of their journey on the Diomede when it had been the two of them and nothing more, and the distance, the coming closer, their last night, and now, the battle.

Memory has fallen silent in the heat of the moment, the need. It has had its place, his time in the chair on Archipelago - it seems ages ago - unlocked what he needed, the location of the Diomede and what he had thought was there but couldn't get to through the hyperizine, the work of Archemos the engineer, and he'd spent much of the past few weeks remembering the words of another man as he and Keller tried to formulate the retrovirus.

Now, though... Now it's down to it, and he pushes the city aside as best he can, because he needs to be here, to watch his team, to watch John with eyes that don't calculate the way the city does.

The Diomede shudders under Wraith weapons, not quite at its peak after ten thousand years of neglect, but it holds, it holds, and he can feel the millions of adjustments the engineers make to the shields, the weapons, even as he occupies himself with working past the Wraith countermeasures to keep their drones from finding their targets. Beyond, in the void, the jumpers are odd, darting points of awareness.

And John is there, confident, mind laser-like and precise in the chaos, and that confidence anchors him - like it's always done, only different now in so many ways.

"How fucking long is this supposed to take?" The question is nearly lost in the sudden thunder of weaponry against their shields.

It's not the same as waving a goddamned magic wand, Colonel.

And as he thinks this, Lorne comes in over shipwide, and the dizzying relief Rodney thinks he should feel never materializes. Of course it worked, and that's the city, or something translated from the city, which remembers and knows.

The first Hive ship goes up in a flare that makes him turn aside, and the second close behind it is no less bright, and for a moment unfiltered there is a savage satisfaction that is himself and Atlantis both, and John, dark and exhilarating, we have stood against you and won.

Two more are unaffected so far, but its darts seem to be hovering in confusion and the X-302s move in and out of them like spirits. John fires again and again, and the drones are an endless stream of lightning, blow the bastards to hell, and Rodney's carried up past himself on adrenaline, the exaltation of victory and something that tastes like death.

Now the Hives are falling back toward the planet, trying to draw them in closer to the weapons of the installation on the mainland. Boyer's taken care of that, with any luck, but even if he hadn't, John goes anyway, fierce and bright, and they are together, them and the ship, indomitable, and the banks of virus-laden mines take the Hive ships in the stern.

Drones again and again, and the ships turn in retreat. The Daedalus limps behind, spitting fire, get the hell out of here John says again, meaning get back to the alpha site, we've got this and in this moment they are alone, the other scientists and pilots nonexistent, the two of them and victory.

He's calculated fifteen minutes for full effect but John presses them all the way, though both ships fire desperately now and the shields hold at the edge of buckling, the Daedalus escaped to safety, and it's madness, it's beautiful but oh God it's crazy, they're crazy Rodney thinks as he works through ship's systems for the last iota of energy for the shield. It's reckless and perfect and them, him and John, the Diomede carrying them along with mad speed.

The shields hold and hold, though shots get through now at the places where stress has made it thin. Five minutes to go and everything is fire around them, two and he feels the shields fail but John carries him onward, come on come on a little more and he gives it, and gives until he's spent and there's nothing more and the world falls away in fire.


"Did we win?"

And he knows, because he knows where he is, and he wouldn't be here otherwise.

John's hand is tight on his, anchoring him, and John's hand, warm, firm, holds him at the balance point, and the mouth on his keeps him there a short while longer.


CHAPTER NINETEEN

The Diomede's transmission comes through, and when the message arrives it is simple, so simple: she turns and dials the DHD, the address that has been engraved in her memory, the way home.

The gate springs to life in a wash of blue, and she sends through Rodney's command code and IDC. The small device in her hand buzzes to confirm the shield has come down.

Niels and the other marines go through first but she follows close behind, and her reflection rises up in greeting.

Atlantis, scarred and beautiful, closes around her, and John and Rodney are there, a skeleton crew pirated from the Diomede, which is now off with the Daedalus sweeping the rest of their inner space for Wraith ships.

And there is work, so much of it, to bring the city back, more repairs, but this time she has to reacquaint herself.

She loves all of Atlantis - the brilliant glass, the assertion of its towers, its walls, the texture of them, the life that pulses as though underneath skin, and she understands a little of what Rodney and John have felt. Her hallways and corridors both mysterious and known to her intimately.

Her desk is still there, the masks on the wall, the picture of her dog, everything the same though her plants have died. One different thing to add: the small clay water jar from her office, its constellation of patterns rough on her fingertips. She sets it on her desk, next to the picture of her dog.

If she thinks, she can taste the water from it. She makes a note to bring the calendar back as well, to weave new Lantean days into it.

Distantly, she hears Chuck's voice calling for her, calling her back to her duties, but a moment she takes, for the silence.


Lorne and Teyla had picked them up from the crash site in the forest.

She'd hugged him, not waiting for Athosian courtesy, arms chokingly tight around his throat.

"You are well?" she'd asked when she recovered some of her dignity.

"I'm all right." And he was, is still. Shaken from the fall, stunned mostly that the Wraith hadn't been upon them.

The retrovirus had worked, Teyla had told him as they loaded up into Lorne's jumper. The Wraith ships had simply... stopped functioning. The last series of explosions he'd heard had been the Wraith installation being destroyed.

And now... now, he is still all right, and he and Teyla walk through Atlantis together.

When he'd first stepped through the gate to Atlantis it had been, he'd tried to explain to Teyla, like stepping into his grandfather's stories, the very very old ones left over from the days when the Ancestors kept watch over the stars and Sateda was great.

Like all old stories, though, and like many heroes, that glory faded under the weight of uncertainty, his own suspicion and that of the strange new Lanteans who called this city home. Sheppard trying to make him fit in, to fill the hole left by Aiden Ford and knowing that Ronon could not fill it, but could only carve out his own place there.

Then there'd been the rules, regulations, which he'd understood in part but also found foolish in others. Teyla had agreed with him there. Rules create their own space, the ways you can move around in them, and after years of solitude he'd found them and the city confining, no escape from them except by puddle jumper, or through the stargate.

"And now?" Teyla asks him as they stand on the balcony of her quarters. The sun is bright in the west, low and brilliant with the afternoon. On the water, it is like flame.

"Well?" Teyla is close and warm against him, small but he can feel the strength in her body.

Four months away, barely any time at all. He touches the feeding scar on his chest, which he can barely feel through his shirt - you'll always have it, but it will fade Jennifer Keller had said - and tries not to think about years. He thinks about Teyla next to him, seeing her face when she'd come into the tent, her dark eyes wide with surprise and joy.

Team and friendship - he's understood those things for a long time.

"It feels good to come home," Ronon Dex says at last. "What about you?"

Before she can answer, the voice of the gate room technician, what's-his-name, intrudes, calling them away from the sun.


Home.

She can see that in Elizabeth's eyes when they meet each other in the control room, a pool of stillness and content in the organized chaos of technicians and soldiers stepping through the gate. Lorne, who has been by her side for so long, smiles and that smile says home too, until he turns away to start directing traffic.

With her heart and mind she knows they have been gone many months, and that much has changed, death and loss and some loss regained, and she can mark those changes in the faces of the men and women who walk by her, a hardness to them now that they had not possessed before, shadows in Jennifer Keller's eyes. She'd been crying on the Diomede last night, when the last Hive ship had exploded.

Home, all of them, and despite the changes it seems in many ways they have not left: laptops on the control consoles, the purposeful movements, patches back on expedition jackets that have been worn threadbare.

She thinks of them now as the Lanteans - they seem to belong here more than the Ancestors did, when they returned for their ill-fated sojourn in the city.

And she wonders what that makes her. She's left Halling to oversee the settling of the Athosians in their temporary home. Much remains to be done on the mainland, dismantling the Wraith installations and repairing land corrupted by their presence, and so she is here on Lantea with her adopted people.

The material of her laced vest rubs against her skin, a reminder.

She finds Ronon halfway to her own quarters and invites him with her. He accepts silently, as he does most things, but his silence is always a welcome one and filled with his presence.

They talk of little, because at the end of all things there is never much to say. Her quarters are almost as she left them, only a few things taken with her in the evacuation, unchanged except her pillows are covered with dust. She takes a minute to look around, feeling as though she has never left and yet at the same time as though she has been gone for years, that much change has flowed past her.

"You glad to be back?" Ronon asks as they step out onto the balcony.

"To be back home," she clarifies, and nods in reply to his smile.

They talk a little longer, until the voice of the young man, Chuck, summons them away.


There will be, of course, many months of work to do. They have the advantage now of knowing what they're doing, but the problems: flooded sections in the outer piers, the engineers being locked out of various systems, restoring temporary power with the naquadah generators that never want to cooperate with the city.

Better than bringing a half-dead warship back to life, Radek Zelenka thinks to himself. There is air conditioning here, and an absence of doubt.

He tries to ignore being in charge now, overseeing the Atlantis team. In some ways it's easier, for the scientists and engineers have gotten used to reporting to him during their time at the alpha site. Yet, glancing to his left, Rodney's station at the control room is empty.

The mechanical, he knows, is the inevitable. They knew this would happen.

He returns to work, checking Miko's figures for calibrating power from the generators. Her work is solid, as she has always been.

A few laptops down, Chuck has paused in his attempts to reset the communications system, a hand to his radio. It's odd, seeing the Canadian flag patch on his arm again. Zelenka watches, not even pretending not to eavesdrop as Chuck nods, something flickering across his face before he says Yes, Dr. Keller, I'll let them know, disconnects, and then asks for Dr. Weir.


"How are you feeling?" She sits at his bedside, a cold hand clasped between both of hers. The cortical monitor beeps and the numbers tick upward. Rodney mutters something about blue skies and doesn't answer.

"Where's John?" Grey eyes flicker around the room, and she wonders what he sees. Heat patterns? Or does he see her as clearly as she sees him?

"He'll be here soon," she says.

"Good..." The terrible grey eyes close.

"Ascension isn't dying, Rodney," she says like she, Jennifer Keller, knows about these things. And maybe saying this is more for herself than for him.

"They all say that," Rodney mutters crankily, so Rodney she wants to laugh and cry. She doesn't know him well, and never has, but this cantankerousness is what she does know of him.

"I don't - " Jennifer has the sense of struggle now, and the instruments spit out the numbers that say his body's failing, " - could you call everyone? I mean - "

"I know." She radios for Chuck and asks him to call Elizabeth, Ronon, and Teyla. "John isn't here, Rodney."

"He is," Rodney says absently, grey eyes open and looking into some distance Jennifer can't see.

"Okay," she tells him, and radios for Chuck again.


The Diomede circles in orbit, damaged, scarred and cut up like all the rest of them. The transporters work at least, and they've begun beaming personnel down to the surface to gate through to the city.

John's been there once already to secure it, and to feel Atlantis's familiar presence in his mind again.

He hasn't missed it in the way he thought he would, not like the bitter emptiness when the Ancients had taken the city back from them, four months of silence and a loss that still makes him angry if he thinks about it. Not this time, though the moment he stepped through the gate it had been as though something in him relaxed and let go, and was free.

Letting go.

Lorne has taken a lot of the slack, maybe too much, setting up patrols and tentative rotations that John will eventually have to pretend to be interested in. At the moment, John's pretending to have his mind on transporting the marines over from the mainland, but his mind circles around absence instead.

Caldwell and half the Daedalus gone, ten engineers on the Diomede when the shield near the starboard drive collapsed. Three puddle jumpers caught on their return trips from delivering the virus to the Wraith fleet.

Rodney, back in Atlantis, who is almost lost.

Ascension isn't the same as dying. He tells himself this as he lands the jumper in the bay and watches the marines file out. They salute him and he returns the salute absently.

The city again, a warm and pervasive presence, and something of Rodney threaded through it.

He wonders if he can, or should, go to the control chair, what that kind of connection - the city, Rodney, him - would be like. It freaks the hell out of him, and tantalizes all at once.

One night they'd had on Antora, then back at the alpha site, their last the night before the battle, and before all that, weeks of time together. Months and years, if he's honest, and at the end of things, honesty is all that's left. John Sheppard doesn't really do regret - it's a chain, one more thing between himself and sky - but as he walks through familiar halls he wishes they could have played the game one more time, had one more day to be friends before becoming something else.

The control chair pulls him away from regret, but before he can weigh the choice and decide, Chuck's voice breaks into his silence, calling him to the infirmary where, he realizes, his footsteps are already taking him.


Elizabeth has gone with a kiss on his cheek, a hand there to keep the warmth of her lips against his skin.

Ninety-three percent synaptic activity, Keller is saying. Her voice gives space to the darkness, but it is Teyla, her forehead briefly against his and her gentle fingertips on his cheeks, Ronon's hand, John by his side who gives it form.

He opens his eyes, and is relieved that, at least this time around, he doesn't have telepathy. There is the sense of others waiting beyond the doors - Radek, Miko, strangers - but all of them are distant.

What matters is that it's done, all of it, and this is Atlantis around him, and so little of him to tell apart from her. She has fallen silent, or her voice mixes too closely with Rodney's now; in a hiatus between breath he hears the throb of great engines, the pulse of the city all around him, and in the next John looks at him out of serious hazel eyes, saying nothing and everything.

Part of him is half-absent, gone already, but the other part holds, holds to those eyes and wants to stay in them forever. Ninety-four percent, and it is Keller saying that, though it is Carson in his memory who says these words.

Keller's voice fades into meaninglessness, Teyla and Ronon muted next to John, who is solid and warm, and who is part of Atlantis too, whose pulse Rodney can read through the city's, and that pulse is heavy with grief though John's face shows so little of it.

There's something for him to say, some last thing, but it slips away from him, down into the darkness that waits, into the peace he remembers from the first time, the floating.

He is at the end of all exploring, the place where it starts and is known, where φ equals (1 + √5)/2, and where there is his center, his mirror, his dissolution -

- is the knowledge of inquiry and the finding, the incomprehensible silence; is the travel and the remoteness -

And he is not but is them -

is Teyla and Ronon and Elizabeth, and oh, he is John; is the city, sea and sky.


PRELUDE

Rodney had only barely escaped from the lab monkeys and their excuse for a science staff meeting when Colonel Sheppard manifested himself at his side, sloping and casual with his hands in his pockets and a plastic bag looped around one wrist. The bag, irresistibly and like all mysterious things, drew Rodney's attention to it: white, opaque, and anonymous, and the irritation of having to refute Spiegel and Barrett's wilder theories vanished under its influence.

"Hey, McKay," Sheppard said, voice as loping and drawling as his walk, filled with the kind of smug satisfaction that infuriated Rodney so effortlessly. The contents of the bag, whatever they were, banged against Sheppard's thigh.

"Colonel." Rodney peered closely at the bag but Sheppard cunningly twisted himself so most of his leg was between Rodney and figuring out what he was hiding. Rodney scowled.

"Where you off to?" Sheppard asked.

"Are you stalking me?" Rodney tried to maneuver his way around Sheppard, but Sheppard was quick and graceful and eluded him. "If you have to know, Zelenka found something down in the west pier labs and needs me to take a look at it."

"Cool," Sheppard said, bemused expression fixed firmly and maddeningly in place. Rodney's glare failed to wipe it off. "Maybe I'll come with."

"Is there a particular reason you're annoying me at the moment?"

"There is, as a matter of fact. Here." Sheppard thrust the bag at him and Rodney took it automatically. "Happy Birthday."

"You got me a present?" Rodney stared at the bag for a moment, torn between curiosity, disbelief, and suspicion. "Really?"

"Really," Sheppard said dryly. "Open it."

"You mean take it out of the bag."

"Whatever. Oh, wait, hang on - " Sheppard plucked the bag from Rodney's hands, fished what looked like a receipt out of it, and shoved it in a pocket. "Kind of tacky to let you know how much I spent, huh?"

"Oh, give me that." Rodney swiped the bag back and plunged a hand in before Sheppard could interfere again. He pulled out a box and flipped it over, couldn't stop the bemused smile when he read the label. "The Sims 2?"

Sheppard shrugged, and when Rodney looked up from his absorbed examination of the box, that small, funny smirk was flirting with the corner of Sheppard's mouth.

"You know how Elizabeth made us shut down the game?" Sheppard gestured to the air between them, the city beyond. "I thought maybe, since you were tired of getting your ass kicked in chess, we could play this."

"Really?" Rodney asked. He didn't know where to look, at the box or at Sheppard and that slight smile that said more than any words.

"Yeah," Sheppard said and shrugged, no big deal, but there was that grin again and, magnetic, irresistible, it had Rodney answering in kind. "Next best thing."

What follows is where we are now, or where
I am.

(JH Prynne)

The End
Notes
Though there aren't many, I tossed in some quotations/allusions/passing references to things I like and that influenced "Qualities of Silk". For the sake of thoroughness, they are: Philip Larkin, "Church Going"; Augustine, Confessions; Neruda, "Ode to a Watch at Night"; Beowulf; Battlestar Galactica (2nd series); T.S. Eliot, "Little Gidding"; Borges, "In Praise of Shadows"; "The Thunder, Perfect Mind". The equation φ = (1 + √5)/2 is for the Divine Proportion.

The title and closing epigraph come from J.H. Prynne's "A Sketch for a Financial Theory of the Self".