Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
Christina Rossetti, Remember
John's radio was officially the worst alarm clock in the whole world, ever. It was also the most annoying, and as his groping hand closed on it, it took an effort not to just throw the damn thing across the room.
He'd already recognized Rodney's voice, because no one but McKay could achieve that particular combination of irritation and volume, even before John had put the radio in his ear.
"I swear, McKay," John growled, holding the radio somewhere near his mouth and not really caring if Rodney could hear him or not, "if this isn't life-threateningly important-"
"I need you in the chair room." Rodney's voice was tight, but that was nothing unusual.
"We just lost all the power to the South Pier."
"You woke me at-" He blinked his eyes open enough to see the clock. "-four in the morning to tell me that some lights went out?" If there wasn't already a threat to life, then there was going to be soon.
"Oh yes, obviously, I'm just that kind of masochistic idiot to bug you when you've only had two hours sleep. Here's the thing. I've hadnohours sleep, and I am trying to stop a bunch of drones from exploding and taking a fifth of the city with them, so excuse me if I thought you might want to know that."
John had one leg in his pants and his radio in his ear before his brain managed to catch up properly. "What the hell?"
"Do I have your attention now?"
"Rodney." There had been a shirt, hadn't there? He could have sworn he was wearing it two hours ago when he'd eventually managed to get to his quarters and fall into bed. Spotting it, John started to untangle it from his desk chair as Rodney talked.
"It turns out the conduits from the main tower and ZPM room weren't the only ones that were damaged when the Replicator beam hit us. We're only finding the rest of them as we try to bring systems back online, four of which run past the drone storage area under the South Pier. Except they weren't exactly damaged, more like-"
The radio fell out of John's ear as he pulled his shirt on - the buttons had been beyond him at two a.m. and were definitely too complicated right at that moment - and he fumbled for it as Rodney kept on talking, getting it back in just as Rodney said,
"-except not blocked exactly, if you see what I mean."
"I swear, McKay," John said, deciding that sitting down to put his shoes on was better than pitching forward onto his face as he bent over, "if you don't get to the point in the next ten seconds…"
"The conduits could explode. And when I say could, I mean mostly likely they will, unless we can divert power away from them. We're doing our best, but they might be too badly damaged, so I need you in the chair, ready to get the drones in the air to explode harmlessly above us rather than right under our feet if we can't get this done. That clear enough or should I have someone write it down and bring it to you?"
"Funny." John tied off his lace and took half a second to just breathe, blinking the last of the sleep out of his eyes. "I'm on my way."
"Thank you," Rodney said, with exaggerated politeness and clicked his radio off.
With an effort, John got to his feet again, trying not to think about how little sleep he'd been running on for the past three days, and also trying to walk through the door rather than into the doorframe. The corridor lights were far too bright, hurting his eyes as he half-jogged to the nearest transporter. They were still set for Lantea's day and night, yet another thing he should get someone to sort out once he had a moment.
He was still shaking his head as he got in the transporter. The way things were going around here, they were still going to be on the wrong time zone when hell froze over.
"Do you know that places only yield up their secrets, their most profound mysteries, to those who are just passing through?"
Salman Rushdie, The Moor's Last Sigh
It was actually reasonably peaceful sitting in the chair room on his own with his eyes closed, keeping half an ear on Rodney as he yelled at various scientists, and with nothing really for John to do except wait and listen. The science team seemed to be doing a pretty good job of getting the power away from the damaged conduits, but they were still having trouble with one of them, and John wasn't going to move until he was sure they weren't going to lose any part of the city.
"Sheppard, you still there?"
John jerked in the chair, and alright, maybe sitting with his eyes closed hadn't been the best plan ever.
"Yeah." He cleared his throat, trying to make it sound like he hadn't just dozed off. "What?"
"I said you can stand down. We've managed to get everything going again."
"Good job. You gonna turn in now?" There wasn't much time to catch up on sleep before the day shift, but some was better than none, and Rodney sounded like he was running on empty.
For answer, he got a humorless laugh. "Yeah, because there's only about a million other things to do before I can think about sleeping."
"You need to stop at some point, Rodney." John was going to get out of the chair in a minute, as soon as his brain worked out what order to move his limbs in.
"Please. I pulled longer shifts than this in grad school, and back then, nobody died if I didn't finish up."
"Alright." There really wasn't any point nodding when Rodney couldn't see him, but John did so anyway. "Full briefing at eleven hundred."
John nodded again as Rodney cut the connection. He should really go back to bed for a couple hours, catch up a bit on sleep. He should really, really do that. He would. He'd just rest his eyes for another minute, then he'd head back to his quarters.
He'd do that.
He woke up when someone prodded his shoulder.
Having Ronon peering down at him from just a few inches away was not going on John's list of all-time best ways to wake up.
"Wha-" He yawned hugely, then winced as various parts of him told him exactly how bad an idea it was for him to sleep on the hard, cold chair. "Okay, ow." Trying to stretch a little, he swallowed another yawn, and said, "What time is it?"
"'bout half-past eight. You want some breakfast?"
"Sure." What he really wanted was a shower, a shave and about another week's worth of sleep, but breakfast would probably do for now. "There any coffee left in the Mess, do you think?"
"Well, McKay's still in his lab from last night. Could be there any minute, though."
"We'd better hurry then." John took the offered hand, groaning as Ronon yanked him out of the chair. "Damnit, I'm too old for this."
Ronon raised an eyebrow, but said nothing as they started down the corridor towards the mess. John had finished his first cup of coffee and was starting to feel that maybe some food might be manageable, when Ronon finally asked, "How come you slept in the chair?"
"I didn't mean to, although, as usual, it was all McKay's fault." John explained about the South Pier and the drones.
"Sounds like everyone's been working pretty hard." Folding his arms, Ronon shrugged a little. "Teyla didn't get to her people until really late last night."
"Yeah. We lost a few people, gained a few new ones from Earth. I asked her to check everyone was alright, bring the new people up to speed, make sure they were trained properly." He smiled ruefully. "Atlantis can take a bit of getting used to. Once Teyla's hit them round the gym a few times, they settle in pretty quickly."
"Sounds like a good idea. Sounds like what Doctor Weir would have done."
John swirled the dregs of his coffee. "Yeah. I hope so." For a moment, he just stared into the brown-rimmed mug, watching the last few grains move around the bottom. Then he shook himself, glancing up at Ronon. "Once you're all patched up, you can give Teyla a hand."
"I'm fine." That had been Ronon's response pretty much every time, even when he'd had half a window sticking out his shoulder.
Rolling his eyes a little, John said, "Yeah, well, I'll wait for Keller's verdict on that, if you don't mind. How's the control room looking?"
Ronon had made it his job to supervise/terrorize the teams fitting out the new windows and cleaning up the general chaos upstairs. It was amazing how quickly they worked with that kind of motivation.
"Not bad. Should have most of the windows except the main one repaired by the end of the day, and they want to replace some of the consoles that got wrecked."
Surprised, John said, "They can do that?"
"Apparently." Ronon shrugged. "They want to go have a look in the empty parts of the city, maybe salvage some stuff."
"Alright, but make sure they take security teams with them. Just because it looks empty…"
"Yeah, I got it."
Since Ronon was pretty much a security team all by himself, John wasn't too worried.
"Anything else I need to know?" he asked, looking over to where the last of breakfast was being served. Not that the commissary staff would turn him down if he asked for an omelet. Or maybe some waffles. There were definitely advantages to being in command.
When Ronon didn't say anything, John looked back at him, heart sinking. He knew that silence and that look, and this was not a conversation he wanted to have.
"Uh." It didn't look like Ronon wanted to have it either, but he was a braver man than John. "Are we going to do anything? For Doctor Weir?"
"How's that?" Feigning ignorance was never going to work on Ronon, who just looked at John, unimpressed.
"Should we do something? Like a memorial or something like that? I don't know what you guys do when someone-"
"She's not dead." The answer was reflex now, because as long as John believe it, it was true.
Ronon blinked slowly. "Sheppard."
"Look, once we get the city fixed, we'll think of something." John knew he was talking too fast, but he wanted out of this conversation, preferably yesterday. "Right now, we've got other things to worry about."
After a moment's hesitation, Ronon shrugged again. "If you say so." He leaned forwards a little. "But there are a lot of people around here who're missing her just as badly as you. And they weren't there. They didn't see it. They think she's gone."
Ronon didn't need to add maybe they're right, but John heard it anyway. He shook his head, not meeting Ronon's eyes.
"I'm going to get some breakfast, then I'm going to wash up, then I'm going to see what needs fixing today." He got to his feet. "We've all got work to do, and I don't think I can do that on an empty stomach."
He ignored the burning gaze that he could feel on the back of his neck as he walked across the mess, and had a broad smile ready for the kitchen server who knew where the waffle pan was kept. It was all about getting his priorities right, he told himself as she smiled back and disappeared into the depths of the kitchen. Immediate needs, then the city, then Elizabeth. He knew what he was doing. He really did.
True to his word, Rodney had turned up to the senior staff meeting looking for coffee, and made appreciative noises when John jerked his head towards the machine in the corner. He got through half the pot during the meeting, with John, Teyla, Ronon, Lorne and Kate finishing the rest off between them. Shifting a little uncomfortably at the head of the table, John rattled through the agenda as quickly as he could, trying to finish before Rodney could fall asleep into his mug and John would be forced to stage a public intervention.
"Alright," he said when Kate had finished her swift evaluation of the crew's state of mind, which in the privacy of his own head had amounted to 'shaken, not stirred'. "Keep me posted. I know it's going to take a while for everyone to settle again, but it's good to know they're doing okay so far."
"There is one thing," Kate said hesitantly. "Some people have been asking about Doctor Weir, whether we plan to have a service or memorial of any kind."
John shot Ronon a look, getting a probably genuine, innocent shrug in return. "Well, I'll take that under advisement for the moment."
Kate frowned. "Colonel, I understand your reservations, but people require closure." She stopped, as Rodney made a choking noise that eventually resolved itself into words.
"Oh please. Most people around here have more important things to worry about than psychobabble and pointless ceremonies." He was hunched over his coffee mug, looking a whole lot worse than John felt. At least John had found the time to shower and change. Rodney looked as though he'd been wearing the same clothes for a week.
Fortunately, anyone who'd worked with Rodney for longer than a day was pretty much immune to his rudeness. Kate arched an eyebrow at him and said, "Improved psychological well-being can surely only help with the more practical aspects of getting the city up and running again."
"Yeah, well while you're arranging flowers and picking hymns, most of my staff are trying to fix the environmental controls so we don't all freeze to death tonight. I think that's more important to their well-being right now."
"We're going to freeze to death?" John said, wondering if he'd missed the memo.
"Well, probably not tonight," Rodney admitted, tipping his cup upside down, apparently to check if there was any more coffee in it. "But the nights here are a lot colder than they were on Lantea, and we've already had to move people out of the habitation towers on the North and East Piers so they're closer to the center. The main tower seems to be fine, but a lot of the outlying sections suffered severe meteor damage and-"
"I get the picture." John had seen that damage too, up close and way too personal. "How long do you think it'll take?"
The reply came too quickly for John's liking. Rodney only answered that fast when he was sure. "Months."
"Alright. Everyone's just going to have to get used to living a bit closer together for a while." Looking round the room, John said, "Anything else from anyone who's not Rodney?"
There was a general shaking of heads.
"Good. Rodney, put it in an email, okay?" That should slow him down a little, and it was probable that John didn't need to know half of it. He'd learned that from Elizabeth at least. " Same time tomorrow then." As the meeting broke up, John nodded Ronon over, lowering his voice a little. "I don't think McKay's slept in two days, and sooner or later, he's going to run out of steam or make a mistake."
"You want me to baby-sit?" There was a trace of an evil smile on Ronon's face, which John tried not to return.
"More or less. He needs a shower and some sleep. I think he's probably remembering to eat."
"Probably." Ronon's eyebrows rose a little. "You want me to put him in the shower?"
"Fully clothed if necessary."
They both looked over at Rodney, who was gazing forlornly at the coffee jug, which probably had about half a cup left in the bottom. He didn't look as though he had the energy to lift it.
"Alright." Ronon nodded. "I'll drop by the infirmary. See if Keller's got something she can give him, but he's not going to want to take it."
"Good plan and I don't care. Sit on him if you have to, but I don't want to see him for six hours at least. We'll manage."
John watched as Ronon went over and said something to Rodney, who shook his head vaguely, and only put up a token resistance when Ronon dragged him to his feet. Watching them go, John began to run down the list that he'd drawn up in his head during the meeting. He should probably put it on paper, but he had a feeling he could get the first three things on it done in the time it would take him to write it down.
Out in the main control room, people were still swarming around the consoles, replacing crystals and testing systems. It was hard to catch their attention, and John eventually managed it by the simple expedient of standing in Chuck's way as he tried to cross the room.
"Oh, sorry, sir." Coming to an abrupt stop, Chuck finally looked up from his tablet. "Didn't see you there."
"No problem." Tilting his chin at the bustling crew, John asked, "How's it going?"
"Well, we had to take some systems offline to repair them," Chuck said, carefully moving out of the way of someone attacking the console behind him, "and we're still only semi-operational, really. We need to replace at least the long-range sensor display and probably the life-signs detector grid as well."
"Yeah, Ronon said something about that." Not really thinking, John added, "Let me know if there's anything you need from me," and had half-turned to go when Chuck said,
"Actually, sir, if you've got a minute…"
John thought. At the top of his mental 'to do' list was writing the latest status report for the SGC, swiftly followed by personnel assignments and the supply list for next month. He should probably get those done, not to mention the hundred other things that were bound to come up today.
"Sure," he said. "I have some time."
As usual, the science team only wanted John for his gene. The lights and consoles had come on when he'd stepped inside the room Chuck had led him to, making the small group very happy engineers indeed. They puttered around, making notes, comparing readings and occasionally coming together to confer in hushed voices.
For his part, John leaned against the wall, arms folded, waiting to see if they needed him for anything else. He was sort of bored, and he let himself sink into the feeling. No one needed him to do anything, to decide anything, or even to listen to them. Jameson, one of the electrical engineers, brought a small flat panel over at one point, which dutifully glowed when John took hold of it, and went out when Jameson took it back. Other than that, John was left alone, and his mind drifted, going through scenarios and plans, making lists again, until he even ran out of them and found himself going back over the last week, his memory supplying the facts in fuzzy Technicolor detail.
Not wanting to go there, not here, not now, not ever, he started wandering round the room, fairly aimlessly peering at consoles and trying not to get in anyone's way. The room was pretty large, and he couldn't remember what Chuck had said it had been used for. John was fairly sure that not even the Ancients kept a room just for spare consoles, but it was hard to work out their purpose just by looking. His Ancient was nowhere near good enough to read the various display screens, so he continued his slow circuit, running his fingers over the smooth walls and wondering how much longer they were going to need him down here. Goofing off was fun for a while, but he couldn't shake the vague worry at the back of his mind that something was going to go wrong and he wouldn't be there to fix it.
He'd half-turned back to the center of the room, looking for Chuck, when the wall beside him rippled and shifted, something rising outwards from the blank space. John glanced over his shoulder, but everyone else was busy pressing crystals and typing on tablets, and since nothing had actually blown up, it probably wasn't worth bothering them just yet.
The object on the wall was large, about the span of his arms in width, with the center of it at his eye-level. It looked a little like someone had thrown a really big piece of silly putty at the wall, then set it in the material that the Ancients used for building practically everything. The ripples and ridges were smooth and dark blue, and the central hole seemed to be glowing, as though it had drilled through to the outside on a sunny day. And that was not a good thought. Ancient walls were pretty solid, as every crew member who'd tried to put a nail in them had found out, so anything that could cut straight through was definitely dangerous enough to be worth worrying about.
Cautiously, John took a step closer, trying to see into the central circle. No alarms were going off, and no one was yelling at him, both of which were good things, so he risked another step. The light was bright, but from this close, he was fairly sure it was coming from some kind of internal source, rather than outside. Which was both good and bad. He'd rather they didn't find something that could cut through walls like they were made of cardboard, but in his experience, things usually glowed like that right before they went bang. Loudly.
He'd actually opened his mouth to call someone over, when the thing shifted again, rising further from the wall, the ridges suddenly looking for all the world like two enormous hands reaching out towards him. John opened his mouth, but there was no time to shout for anyone before the thing grabbed his head, pulling him closer to the wall and holding him so tightly that he thought his skull was going to be crushed. Through muffling pressure on his ears, he could hear people shouting, then hands were pulling at his arms and shoulders. He tried to shake them off, because the grip on his head was unyielding, and they were more likely to break his neck than get him free.
John started to yell as much, when the light in front of him suddenly doubled, tripled in intensity, and he had to close his eyes against it. Even so, it dazzled him, making him feel as though it had gone straight to the centre of his mind, sharp and bright and cutting. Then, as quickly as it had come, the light faded, leaving him startled and breathless. There was no time to think or recover before the hands over his head released him, and his knees buckled with relief as much as anything else.
Hands held him, lowering him gently to the floor, and laying him on his back. He wanted to tell them that he was alright, that it hadn't really done anything except half-blind him, but he couldn't get the words to his mouth, any more than he could lift his hand to fend off the fingers pressing against his face, checking his eyes and running lightly over the sides of his head. All he could do was stare at the ceiling, feeling the world drift gently around him, as though his mind had become detached from his body and was free to roam by itself.
It was odd, he realized, that he'd never noticed the color of the ceilings before. He stared at the orange-yellow expanse above him, and let the world gradually grow vague and fuzzy and far, far away.
The ceiling was a different color when John came back to himself, dark blue mottled with green and mostly in shadow. He blinked slowly, trying to think through the fog in his head and gradually working out that no, the ceiling hadn't changed, he'd just been moved. To the infirmary, judging by the dimness of the lights and the soft surface underneath him. There was something distinctive about the infirmary beds, the particular bounce of the mattress and scratch of the sheets. Oh yes, sheets.
He moved his hands a little, feeling the odd soft-starchedness that only the infirmary seemed able to achieve. His head felt fine, if a little light, and he blinked again, trying to focus on the ceiling, then gradually shifting his gaze down and squinting at the equipment around the bed. After a moment, the EEG monitor resolved itself out of the white and black blur to his right. He frowned, managing to lift a hand enough to touch his forehead, his temples, and belatedly noticing that someone had clipped another monitor to his finger. It hurt a little, but then so did everything else
Turning his head a fraction, John saw Doctor Keller leaning over him, one hand already reaching for his wrist while the other checked the wires that he'd nearly dislodged from his forehead.
"Colonel Sheppard, can you hear me?"
He started to nod, but was put off by a wave of dizziness, so he cleared his throat instead.
"Yeah." The word came out muffled and scratchy, and he swallowed hard before trying again. "Yeah, I hear you."
"Welcome back." Keller wasn't really looking at him, checking his pulse and the monitor and something behind and above him. "How do you feel?"
"Fine." The answer was automatic, but it was also true, no matter how skeptically Keller looked at him. "Bit dizzy maybe." His throat was still dry and he coughed again, managing to sit up and take the glass of water that Keller gave him.
"You've been catatonic for over ninety minutes," Keller said, her voice low and serious, and John nearly choked on the water.
"Ninety minutes?" He wiped water off his chin and frowned. It hadn't felt that long, he didn't think. It hadn't felt like any time at all. "What happened?"
"We were hoping you could tell us." Standing back a little, Keller folded her arms and looked at him expectantly. "What do you remember?"
Wondering if this was just the compulsory neuro check, John shrugged. "That thing on the wall grabbed me, shined a light in my face then let me go."
"That's it?" She was looking at monitors again, and John was starting to think that there was something she wasn't telling him.
"That's it," he said firmly, putting the glass on the side table and sitting up properly. "What's your verdict?"
Keller looked deeply uncomfortable, at which point John knew she was keeping something back. "Physically, you're fine. I can't see anything worrying on the EEG or the Ancient scanner."
She paused, and John gave her an expectant look. "But?"
Eyes sliding away from his, Keller said, "I think I should bring Major Lorne in on this."
Before John could ask what the hell?, she was gone, and he heard a low conversation on the other side of the room. He took the opportunity to get free of the sheets and start looking for his boots. He'd just spotted them under the bed when Keller brought Lorne over, and really, it was hard to tell which of them looked more uncomfortable.
"Major," John said, getting a slight nod in return.
"Colonel. How are you feeling?"
"I thought I was feeling pretty good." Folding his arms, John tried to glare at Lorne, which rarely worked but was worth a try. "Mind telling me what's going on here?"
"Sir." Lorne took a deep breath and John folded his arms automatically, bracing himself because the look on Lorne's face was telling him just exactly how bad this was. "I had a look at the…er…device on the wall of the lab. I can't be sure until we contact the SGC for confirmation, but it looks to me like an Ancient Repository."
John was silent, waiting for the rest of the explanation. The words rang a distant bell, but he couldn't quite bring the memory to the surface of his mind.
Apparently realizing this, Lorne shifted a little. "SG1 first encountered one on a deserted planet. General O'Neill looked into it and, well. The same thing happened to him as did to you."
"It shined a really bright light in his eyes?"
Lorne didn't so much as suggest that he might smile, which was when John knew he was in deeper than he'd thought. "The Repository took over his brain," Lorne said, and John raised an eyebrow.
"It took over his brain." John repeated the words with the same flat delivery that Lorne had used. Because what the hell did that mean?
As though sensing his question, Keller said, "The information contained in the Repository is all the knowledge of the Ancients. All their language, scientific and cultural knowledge. Everything that's in the database here on Atlantis, the whole lot downloaded into your head. It's too much for the human mind to handle."
"So what's going to happen?" John asked. "I mean, last time I noticed, General O'Neill's still around."
Lorne gave a sort of half-shrug. "The Asgard were able to remove the information from his mind, both times it happened to him."
"Both times?" John already knew that SG1 were as accident-prone as his own team, but to end up frying your brain twice just sounded careless.
"The first time was an accident," Lorne said. "The second, we needed the information to use against Anubis."
"Oh." That made more sense. "So what happens now?"
Lorne looked at Keller, who put on the face that all doctors used when delivering bad news. They probably taught it in med school.
"Your brain can't handle this kind of information. If it follows the pattern that Major Lorne has described, it will gradually start to take over your mind. You'll acquire all the knowledge that they had, and you'll start to speak and read Ancient. Eventually, you may lose the ability to understand us at all. Beyond that, I really can't say." Keller squared her shoulders a little. "Colonel, you have to understand that when this happened to General O'Neill, the Asgard were still around and able to remove the knowledge before it could hurt him. We no longer have that option. I'm sorry."
"Okay." John nodded to himself, staring mostly at the floor, wondering just what the correct term for the Asgard's mass suicide was, and cursing their seriously lousy timing. "Okay," he said again. "How long?" When no answer came, he looked up, not caring at the unhappy looks on Keller and Lorne's faces. "How long before…" he waved a hand vaguely, "…how long do I have?"
"I have no way of knowing," Keller said simply. "I'm sorry, I just don't. It could be hours or it could be days."
"Okay," John said again, still nodding slowly. "So what's the plan?"
"I'm going to go through the database," Keller said. "See if there's anything we can use. Last time, we didn't have access to Atlantis and all the equipment and resources here. Not everything's completely operational again, but I'm going to see what I can find."
"Do that." Hopping off the bed, John fished underneath it for his boots, still talking as he pulled them on. "I'm heading up to my office."
He didn't have to see Lorne and Keller; he could almost hear the look they gave each other over his head. When he straightened up, ready to go, Lorne didn't move out of his way.
"Sir, it might be better if you waited here. Doctor Keller could find-"
"Look, Major, I appreciate the thought." John didn't, but it sounded like the right thing to say. "But I am not sitting around here waiting to go crazy, okay? I'll be in my office if you need me." He deliberately moved closer, half-impressed when Lorne didn't back down. "Major, if I'm going to be incapacitated, the least I can do is make sure the paperwork's up to date."
For a moment, he thought Lorne was going to attempt some kind of relieving you of command, unfit for duty thing. Then the corner of Lorne's mouth twitched, just a little.
"That's very good of you, sir. And in the meantime, I'll radio in to the SGC, let them know that I'll be running things for a while and see what they want us to do. Mind if I send Samuels along with you?"
"I don't know, Major." John lifted his eyes to the ceiling in apparent thought and definite relief. "How's his filing?"
"He can get from A to Z just fine, sir."
Conceding defeat, John nodded and Lorne moved out of the way.
"Check in every half-hour," Keller said, raising an eyebrow when John opened his mouth to protest. "I mean it, Colonel. Or I'll have you confined to the infirmary."
John frowned, but nodded, then leaned towards Lorne, mock-conspiratorially. "We're going to have to watch her. She's mean."
He turned on his heel and was halfway across the infirmary before Keller could reply. Outside in the hall, he jerked his head at Samuels, because although he really didn't need a babysitter, he just about saw the wisdom in having someone there in case his head exploded or something.
Even so, he made the Marine wait outside his office, promising to call him if he started babbling in a language he didn't actually speak. Once safely on the other side of the door, John let himself lean against the wall, putting his head back and taking three deep, not remotely calming breaths. He felt fine, except for a lingering ache in his ears. Wouldn't he know if his head was full of all that stuff? Wouldn't he feel it?
He lifted a hand to his radio automatically, and had actually opened his mouth when he remembered that he'd had Ronon put Rodney to bed, most probably with something to knock him out soundly for a few hours. Damnit.
Rodney was going to kill him.
Sighing, John tapped his radio anyway.
"Sheppard?" Ronon sounded surprised, or at least as close to surprised as he got. "You're awake."
John rolled his eyes. "Obviously. Is Teyla back from New Athos yet?"
"No. She called to say she wouldn't be back until later. Shouldn't be more than an hour, now. You alright?"
"Sort of. Did you get McKay back to his quarters?"
There was a snort of not-quite laughter. "Yeah. He took the tablet Keller gave him just before she radioed me about you. Should put him out for eight hours or so."
Great. John winced. "Alright. Look, could you come up to my office?"
"Alright." After a beat, Ronon added, "You sure you're okay?"
John shook his head. "Yeah. I'll explain when I see you."
"On my way."
Ronon would know something was wrong, but John couldn't have that sort of conversation over the radio. It was going to be ridiculous enough face to face. He really needed to work on how to tell people that yes, he had had a whole database downloaded into his head, but no, he felt fine. For now.
Carefully, John slid down the wall until he was sitting on the floor, arms outstretched and elbows resting on his raised knees. He'd just sit here a while and try to figure it out until Ronon arrived.
The good thing about explaining things to Ronon was that he didn't need telling twice and he didn't ask stupid questions. So they'd been sitting in companionable silence for an hour or so, John filling out forms, Ronon sharpening a knife, when the radio beeped.
"Colonel Sheppard to the control room."
John lifted his head, frowning until Ronon said, "Teyla's due back about now. You asked them to call you," and John remembered. Teyla. New Athos. Right.
Ronon stuck close to his side as they made their way up to the control room, and John wasn't sure whether it was comforting or annoying. No conversation that began there's something wrong with my brain was ever going to end well, even if Ronon had taken it as quietly as John had expected. It also looked like he could dismiss Samuels, because Ronon was giving every impression of sticking with John until something did or (hopefully) didn't happen.
Taking the control room stairs two at a time, John nodded to Chuck. "Is it Teyla?"
"Yes, sir. She's just finishing up, but should be through in a minute."
"Good." John turned on his heel, almost bouncing off Ronon who was still standing right behind him.
"Sorry." It wasn't a particularly apologetic apology, and John resisted the urge to grimace. This could get real old, real fast.
"Come on." He bounded back down the steps and hit the gateroom floor just as Teyla stepped through the Stargate.
She gave him a curious smile. "Good afternoon. I was not expecting you to come and meet me."
"Hi." Sticking his hands in his pockets, John shrugged. "Oh, you know. At a loose end, nothing much going on."
Teyla lifted her eyes to the chaos of the control room around them, from the half-repaired window to the consoles that were variously fitted, unfitted and semi-fitted, to the crews trying to get the last of the glass shards out of the walls. "So I can see," she said dryly, then frowned as Ronon said,
"What?" She glanced from Ronon to John and back again, her eyes sweeping quickly round the control room. "Is it Rodney? Has something-"
"No." Stepping closer, John tried not to wince. "It's…er…" He broke off as two Marines carried an impossibly large box across the middle of the gateroom, for who knew what purpose. "We should find somewhere more private."
It probably didn't do much for Teyla's worries that John waited until they were in the empty conference room to turn to her again. When he did, he almost changed his mind. If he hurried, he could get down to the infirmary, and leave Ronon to do the explaining. But Teyla was watching him expectantly, and John couldn't do that to her. He'd managed to tell her about Elizabeth. He could do this.
Judging by her expression and her stiff stance, she wasn't going to give him the choice. He held his hands up in surrender and perched on the edge of the table.
"Look. It might be nothing to worry about. I accidentally looked into this Ancient thing. Apparently it's messed with my head a bit. I feel fine," he added quickly, holding up a hand, "but according to Keller and Lorne…" He trailed off, searching for the words.
"He could lose his mind." Oh look, there they were. He glared at Ronon, who shrugged. "No point not telling her."
"What does that mean?"
John swallowed, because that was Teyla's business voice, and he usually heard it just before she caused someone seriously bodily injury. "This Repository, the thing, we've seen it before. It puts all the information from the database in a person's head."
"'cept the human brain can't handle it," Ronon supplied. "Eventually the information takes over, and the person's lost."
Teyla had been looking from one of them to the other with a mixture of shock and disbelief. "I do not understand. How could this happen?"
"I didn't do it on purpose!" John folded his arms, feeling his shoulders hunch up around his ears. He was getting really sick of people looking at him as though it was his fault. "How was I supposed to know what it was?"
"You could not, of course." The gentle patience in Teyla's voice made him feel like a sulking child, and he straightened a little as she came closer to him. "I was not blaming you. I am concerned for you."
"I know." He did, somewhere under the part of him that was pretty damn mad at the whole damn universe right about now, and it was hard to keep all of that out of his voice.
As usual, Teyla ignored him when he was being an idiot and stayed soundly practical. "The important thing now is to find a way to remove this information from your mind before it harms you. You said your people have encountered these devices before?"
"Yeah, but last time, there were Asgard around to make everything better again. That's not going to happen now."
"Very well." Teyla nodded to herself. "Does Rodney have any thoughts?"
John exchanged a guilty look with Ronon. "He was kind of cranky this morning, hadn't slept in about forty hours, so we made him go to bed and take a sleeping pill."
"I see." Taking that in her stride, Teyla nodded. "How much longer before we can wake him?"
"Hours. He was pretty wiped out."
"Very well." There was always something reassuring about the way Teyla went about getting out of these situations, and John felt himself unbending, just a little. "What of the people who encountered this before? Would they be able to help?"
"We've called in, but the, er, real experts are unavailable for the moment." Which worked as a translation for SG1 is off-world and General O'Neill's stuck at the Pentagon. "Keller's searching through the database, trying to see if the Ancients had anything to say about this, and Zelenka's looking at the device itself." He shrugged. "We'll have to give it a few hours."
Teyla nodded. "Then there is nothing we can do." She tilted her head a little, frowning. "Did you not say that the device gives you the knowledge of the Ancients?" When he nodded cautiously, she went on, "Then should you not be helping Doctor Keller with her searches? It is possible that you will see something she would have missed."
"I guess." John wasn't feeling very co-operative right at that moment, mostly because he felt fine, his head felt fine and no one seemed to be listening to him when he told them that. "Can't hurt to look," he said, getting to his feet without much enthusiasm.
"John." Teyla hadn't moved, and although John was feeling decidedly cornered by just about everyone today, he had to admit that her version was more comforting than the others. "We will find an answer. I am sure of this."
He'd planned on just nodding, on more or less humoring her, but then she reached up to grasp his shoulders, tugging him down until their foreheads met. He closed his eyes, letting himself lean into her warmth for a moment.
When they parted, Ronon was on his feet next to them, doing his finest mother hen impression again. And that was one good thing, John decided, as they made their way back out into the control room. At least with the two of them hovering around him, he wouldn't have to fend off anyone else.
"Colonel Sheppard to the control room."
John had a weird moment of déjà vu as the call came over the radio, then Lorne's voice came through to add,
"Sir? We have a problem."
It was hard not to feel faintly ridiculous as he jogged through the city, Ronon and Teyla close on his heels and every member of staff that he passed either turning to give him a sympathetic look or carefully not meeting his eye. Word seemed to have gotten around.
John gritted his teeth and picked up speed.
They half-barreled round the corner into the control room, skidding to a stop and startling the technicians nearest the door. But at least they didn't look at John like he was a walking dead man, which was more of a relief than he'd expected.
Lorne was already talking. "We've been trying to dial Midway again to get through to Earth."
"There's a problem at Midway?" John's mind was already running through a hundred possibilities when Lorne shook his head.
"There's a problem here." He nodded to Chuck, who carefully didn't look up as he reached out to press the first symbol on the console.
Nothing happened. At all. There wasn't even the sound of the gate trying to lock onto the chevron, and the DHD stayed dark.
Feeling his jaw clench, John looked at Lorne, whose face was a tight mask then down at Chuck, who was staring at his hands on the surface of the console as though that was where the answer lay. What with roping John into the console hunt earlier, and now this, he looked like a man with the weight of the city on his shoulders.
"Oh boy," John said, not entirely unkindly, "it's really not your day, is it?" He put a hand to his radio. "Zelenka. Get yourself up to the control room, now. Doctor Keller?"
"Colonel, I haven't managed to find-"
"It's not about that." John lifted his eyes to the ceiling, and hey, the one in here was a sort of grey-green. He'd never noticed that before. "I need you to go wake McKay up."
"I know what I said, but we need him awake and working, preferably three hours ago." Next time, John was just going to make sure Rodney got all the coffee he needed and wouldn't interfere.
"Colonel, I can't. It's only been just over three hours since he took the sleeping pill."
It had felt like longer while John had been staring pointlessly at the database screen. He had the eyestrain to prove it.
"I don't care. We need him up here, now. There's a problem with the Stargate."
Keller was beginning to sound desperate, keeping pace with John's irritation. "I'm trying to tell you that even if you do wake him up, he won't be much use unless he sleeps off the full effects of the Ambien, which will be at least another four hours. I could wake him, but he wouldn't be fit to operate a can opener, let alone work on complex machinery."
Damnit. Closing his eyes, John nodded. "Alright. But as soon as you can…"
Keller signed off, and John just stood for a moment.
"Colonel?" Lorne said carefully.
"Are you alright, sir?"
Realizing that his momentary zoning out was probably worrying everyone else, John opened his eyes and gave Lorne a tight smile. "Peachy." He pinched the bridge of his nose. "Where are we on other systems? And how the hell did this happen?"
"Long range sensors are fine," Chuck said quickly. "We've lost the life signs detector inside the city and we won't be able to monitor environmental controls properly until we get the new console installed." He nodded across the room to where three technicians were working quickly and quietly on the undamaged equipment.
"And how exactly did we lose the DHD?" John asked, already able to guess the answer. The console in front of him was suspiciously shiny.
Chuck swallowed. "We…ah…replaced the console. Sir. After Teyla came through."
"Wonderful." Resisting the urge to close his eyes again, John tilted his head just a fraction. "Does anyone else hear that?"
There was silence for a moment, and John wondered if this was the first sign that he really had fried his brain. Fortunately, after another moment, the vague noise resolved itself to a familiar muttering, and if John couldn't understand exactly what was being said, he at least caught the general drift.
He caught more of it when Zelenka actually reached the control room, glaring at Chuck and barely pausing to hear the explanation of what had happened before ducking under the console. John exchanged a knowing smile with Lorne, then tried to take a step backwards to see better, only to find that Ronon was, once again, having serious personal space issues.
"Look," he said, turning to him, and including Teyla with a glance, "I really don't think you need to be right here all the time. I'll call you if anything screwy starts happening, I promise."
Ronon just folded his arms, moving far enough back that John wouldn't actually tread on him but showing no signs of leaving the room in the immediate future. Teyla just raised an eyebrow.
"I believe I will stay as well. There is little for me to do elsewhere for the moment."
From under the console, Zelenka said, in a rather muffled voice, "You could throw bucket of water over Rodney so that he comes to do his job instead of lying in bed like the rest of us would like to be doing."
"Yeah, about that." Bending down so that he could see what Zelenka was doing, John pulled a face. "That one's kind of my fault."
"Oh." Zelenka took his eyes off the console for long enough to glance at John, giving an apologetic half-smile, then turning back to his work. "Well, he probably needed it. I wonder, Colonel, could you…" He gestured vaguely to the console above him.
"Er, sure." Carefully lowering himself onto the floor, John slid under the console next to Zelenka. "What can I do for you?"
"Hold this." Zelenka passed him a scanner, which lit up brighter when John took hold of it. "Since there were no problems before, I am assuming problem is with this console. The wiring is different." He pointed, and John could see what he meant.
"Yeah," he said, "this looks like a sensor console originally, so it's meant for receiving, not sending." He reached up, pulling the wires out and shifting them around. "See? Gonna have to switch the feeds so that it takes input from the DHD, then add some kind of relay so it can talk to the gate. Might just be easier to put the old one back and repair it than try to hotwire this thing into working." He blinked. "Uh…"
"Colonel?" Zelenka was staring at him. "Are you alright?"
"Uh…" John blinked again, aware that despite everything he'd just rattled off, he was feeling really, really dim right about now. "Maybe not." He wriggled out from under the console, letting Ronon help him to his feet. As he brushed the dust from his pants, he saw Lorne watching him carefully. "Yeah, Major, I know. Look, I know you're in charge now, but why don't you use a Jumper to dial the gate, let the SGC know that you were right about the Repository thing, and see if they've managed to come up with anything?" He rubbed at the back of his neck, trying not to think too hard about his sudden expertise in Ancient wiring. "I'll go see Keller."
"That sounds like a plan, sir." Lorne was keeping his voice neutral, but John could feel the worried stares coming from around the control room.
"Right." Forcing himself to bring his hand back down to his sides, John shook his head when Ronon went to follow him. "I can find the infirmary by myself. Thanks." It came out tighter and angrier than he'd meant it, but he wasn't about to apologize. "Radio me if you need me."
He kept his back straight and his hands by his sides as he turned and walked towards the stairs, Samuels falling in behind him. His hands were clenched so tightly that his knuckles hurt, and he didn't look back. Because he didn't need to, and because if he caught one more person giving him a sympathetic look, he didn't know that he'd be able to stop himself from punching them.
The gym was a wreck. The window had blown out here, the same as in countless other places around the city, and it hadn't been on the top priority list for getting cleaned up. Most of the regular users were getting enough exercise running round, keeping the city functioning, and it was going to be a while before anyone had enough downtime for a serious work-out.
After spending a few minutes standing in the doorway, hands on his hips, surveying the damage, John went in search of a broom. He'd just about got the worst of the glass swept up, when he heard footsteps in the corridor. He didn't turn, even when the steps stopped in the doorway behind him.
"What you doing?"
John didn't turn around. "What's it look like?"
He could almost hear Ronon shrug. "You need a hand?"
"Sure." John kept sweeping, gathering up the smaller fragments of glass, the tiny ones that glittered and shone and stuck to the head of the broom like sequins. He could hear Ronon righting some of the equipment, grunting a little with effort as he hauled the weights back to where they should be. The floor was scratched and scuffed from where everything had fallen over, and John thought about fetching a floor polisher. He didn't want it to be slippery, just smooth enough that it didn't look as though the Marines had been practicing drills in here, and maybe they could use those odd-looking things in what Rodney insisted on calling Room 101. It was where they dumped all the tech that they hadn't been able to figure out yet, except he now knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that the weird things which looked like upside-down floor lamps were, in fact, floor polishers. He even knew how to repair them.
"Sheppard?" The sound of the broom handle hitting the floor must have brought Ronon over, and he hesitated as John rubbed at his eyes. "You alright?"
"Yeah. Fine. Just…" He waved a hand vaguely, in a gesture that suggested he was even crazier than he felt.
"What did Keller say?"
John forced himself to stop trying to blind himself, taking a final swipe as he bent to pick up the broom. "Apparently my brain isn't going to melt just yet, although she doesn't know how long it's going to be before it starts."
Recognizing the tone as the one that meant Ronon had no clue what you were talking about but was willing to wait for an explanation, John sighed.
"Look, she really doesn't know what's going to happen. All I can do is keep doing stuff," he waved vaguely at the gym, "until I can't any more."
"Alright." You could say this for Ronon. He didn't offer pointless platitudes. He waited while John carefully finished sweeping the tiny shards of glass into a neat pile, waited some more while John went over the whole area again with a cloth to get up the last of the fragments, then gave him an expectant look. "What you going to do now?"
John opened his mouth to answer, then closed it again, shaking his head. There was no way Lorne was going to let him make any command decisions at the moment. He didn't really want to go round sweeping up all the broken glass in Atlantis, and he certainly didn't want to go and sit in his office and twiddle his thumbs. Teyla was still searching through the database, in the hope of finding something - anything - that could offer hope, but John was sick of just sitting around. At least this way, he was doing something.
After watching him for a moment, Ronon turned and went over the doorway. John hadn't noticed the bag there before, and he definitely hadn't noticed the long stick, which Ronon pulled out and swung a couple of times before looking over at John.
"What about your shoulder?" It was bad enough having to see Keller for his own problems. Having to explain that he broke Ronon was too much for John to handle right now.
Ronon just raised an eyebrow. "I'll go easy on you."
John looked down at the broom, then back up at Ronon, a slow smile on his face. "Sure."
The broom had more reach than the fighting sticks that John usually used, but the balance was off, and he only managed to get one lucky shot in before Ronon swept his feet out from under him.
"I thought I was the one with the broom," he said breathlessly, letting Ronon pull him upright again.
"You're not using it well," Ronon said, eyeing it critically. "And you're hitting yourself more than me."
"I know." Turning the broom so that he could look at the head, John peered at it. "Hang on." He put the head back on the floor, put both feet on it and pulled. For a moment, he thought he was just going to fill his hands with splinters, then the handle came free, giving him something closer to the length and balance of a quarterstaff. "Right."
Ronon raised an eyebrow, but said nothing, backing off and starting to circle again. This time, John managed a decent strike, pushing Ronon's shorter stick out of the way, and nearly managing to trip him up. It didn't entirely work, as Ronon staggered rather than falling, turning quicker than John had expected and bringing the stick up and under John's, which went flying across the room.
"Damn." John kept his hands wide, backing away cautiously as Ronon advanced. If he was quick enough, he could get round Ronon and back to the stick before he got taken out again. Feinting a little to the right, he lunged left, skidding under Ronon's wild swipe and landing on his knees next to his broom handle. With a satisfied grin, he swung it up and round just in time to block the downward blow that Ronon was aiming at him.
"Hah!" John pushed Ronon's stick back, jumping to his feet at the same time. "Gonna have to be quicker than that."
"What?" Ronon stepped away, letting his stick fall to his side, and giving John a puzzled look.
"What?" Still getting his breath back, John frowned. "What?"
But Ronon's face had gone tense and tight, and he lifted a hand to the radio that was still in his ear. "Doctor Keller, I'm bringing Sheppard down again." He paused for a moment, then said, "Yeah, he's starting to talk funny."
"I am?" John reached out to prod Ronon with the end of his broom handle, getting an unimpressed look in return. "Hey, aren't you even going to consult me on this?"
"No." Going over to put his stick in his back again, Ronon waited by the door, arms folded and face still blank and cold. "Come on."
Not willing to just be hustled away like this, John planted the handle on the floor and leaned on in a little. "What did I do?"
"What does celerior mean?"
John looked away quickly. He hadn't remembered saying it, still didn't really, but he trusted Ronon. Damn.
Still not meeting Ronon's eye, John stalked towards the door, leaning the broom handle against the wall on the way out. "You know she's just going to say that my brain's still there and there's nothing she can do."
Ronon harrumphed in a way that managed to convey yeah, right, and whatever in one economical sound, and put a hand on John's shoulder. It was hard to tell whether it was because he thought John might make a run for it, or if he just felt it was the right thing to do. Either way, for once, John didn't try to get away from the warm, heavy weight. His brain wasn't his own right now, it seemed, and who knew what it might do if someone didn't keep an eye on it.
Keller used to the scanner to watch his brain very carefully indeed for the half hour he was in the infirmary this time, and if he had any more electrodes stuck to his forehead, he was going to start losing skin. The Ancient scanner was better in that it didn't involve putting glue on him, but Keller made him lie there while she ran it three times, frowning at the results.
"There a problem?" he asked, folding his hands across his stomach. Damn, he was still tired and if someone didn't talk to him soon, he was going to doze off, melting brain or no melting brain.
"Not exactly." Keller looked from the screen to John and back again. "I've just never seen this kind of reading before."
"Okay," John said slowly, trying not to add 'duh', because wasn't that kind of the point?
Keller seemed to hear the unspoken comment, and shook her head. "I don't mean the levels, I mean I didn't know the scanner could take this kind of reading. I'm not even sure what kind of reading it is."
"What do you mean?" Glancing up for permission, and getting a brief, distracted nod for an answer, John swung his feet off the bed and went to look at the screen.
It was pretty obvious what Keller was talking about. Instead of the normal blue outline, John's scan was rimmed with green, glowing gently against the black background.
"I have no idea what that means," Keller said, folding her arms.
John grimaced. "Yeah, thanks, that's real comforting."
"I'm sorry, but-" She gestured helplessly. "I have no idea if that's a good thing or a bad thing, whether your body's changing to deal with your altered brain chemistry or if the brain chemistry is making other changes to the way your body works. Without some kind of reference point, I just have no way to know."
"Alright." Taking a few deep breaths, because neither yelling nor panicking was going to get him anywhere, John said, "Well, you just keep on looking at it, and let me know if you find anything."
"What are you going to do?" Just about managing to tear her eyes away from the screen, Keller gave him a curious look. It was better than sympathetic, but only just.
He shrugged. "Catch up on some sleep. Eat dinner. The usual."
"Try not to go mad waiting for something to happen." The lopsided smile she gave him made him half-smile as well. "Okay. Every half hour, like before. I haven't given up on this yet."
"I know. Thanks." He nodded, then headed back to the door, where Teyla was waiting for him. Apparently she and Ronon were taking it in turns.
"Well?" she asked as they stepped out into the corridor.
If John kept shrugging like this, he was going to strain something in his shoulder. "Keller's working. She'll find something."
"I am sure she will."
They were walking roughly in the direction of the control room, although John had no particular desire to be worked round again. Lorne was in charge now, and it wasn't fair to him to-
"Colonel Sheppard to the control room."
He looked up, then round at Teyla. "You know," he said, starting to jog, "I seem to remember getting relieved of command at some point today."
They arrived to find the control room in organized chaos. The bottom of the DHD console was still open, with wires trailing from it along the floor. Zelenka had abandoned it in favor of the sensor console, his hair even more wild than usual.
He looked round as John came in. "Please, Colonel, over here."
"What's going on?" Nearly getting knocked over by a technician as he crossed the room, John went to peer over Zelenka's shoulder, Teyla close behind him.
"It is the main power conduits again. The ones that were damaged originally. They are leaking power badly, but they are transferring to systems that cannot handle the output."
"Like out on the South Pier this morning?"
"Exactly. Except, this is not just small conduits. These are much larger and we cannot see which systems can handle the power until it is too late."
A chill ran down John's spine, because he knew what Zelenka was going to ask him next. What if he couldn't do it?
While he was in the middle of his 'deer in the headlights' impression, Zelenka turned back to the console and finally got to the point.
"We need to know where to send the excess power, and there is no time to look it up. Please, Colonel."
"I don't…" John began, but of course he did, and the words were coming out of his mouth even before he could think them. "It depends how much power you're talking about. The gate systems, the hyperdrive and the long range sensors should all be able to handle surges, but even they'll get overloaded eventually. Show me."
Shooting a nervous look at Teyla, Zelenka moved aside, letting John touch the console, his hands moving automatically.
"John? What are you doing?" Teyla came to look over his shoulder.
"I wish I knew," he said, then he was yelling because a dozen alarms started going off at once. "I really don't know! I just-" He didn't take his hands from the crystals, but jerked his chin towards the screen. "I have no idea what this means. Seriously. Radek?"
Zelenka was pushing his glasses up his nose and peering at the readings. "You appear to be shutting down some of the power conduits to more vital systems so that they do not overload, and diverting power to ones that we can afford to lose." He ducked as a shower of sparks came from the back of the room. "Like the lights," he added.
"We can lose the lights?" Teyla asked, and Radek shrugged.
"Rodney has been stockpiling flashlight batteries, just in case."
"Of course," John said dryly, still trying to figure out what he was doing. He was fairly sure that most of it involved codes that he hadn't known before he typed them in, and running systems that he hadn't known existed. Apparently they had a sort of flotation tank chain all around the bottom of the city that could take way more power than it was using. But it still wasn't enough. He could feel it.
Zelenka spotted it before John could put words round it. "There is too much build up in primary systems," he shouted over the still blaring alarms. "If we do not find somewhere for it soon…"
"How badly will the city be damaged?" Teyla asked, using John as a shield as a display screen sparked and went dark beside him.
"The conduits are under the central tower."
"Oh, that can't be good," John said, still unable to take his eyes from the screen.
"Colonel, if there is anything you can do, now would be good time."
Perfect. No pressure, then. "Thanks, Radek. I had worked that out."
There was a lot of yelling in the control room now, a counterpoint to the sirens that were going to leave John with a headache the size of the sun at this rate. But where he was, in this odd place where his hands and brain were working together without John's conscious input, he could almost imagine it was silent, just the single, driving purpose of not letting everyone die pushing him along. The situation was familiar, even if the particular circumstances weren't. He wasn't out there on a ship, or roaming the city, he was right here where Elizabeth normally stood, directing things, channeling them, overseeing them.
He blinked as another console went up in sparks, but didn't look away from what he was doing. From what he could tell, he'd diverted a large chunk of power out to the grounding station on the East Pier, which was just about at overload by now. There was still too much power trying to get through conduits that just couldn't handle it, though, and even he knew that he was running out of ideas.
Something Rodney had once said to him drifted to the top of his mind, and he gritted his teeth as ideas and technical information, most of it new to him, washed through him. It would work, that was for sure, but at what cost?
"We cannot contain the power," Zelenka shouted from across the room. "We should start considering evacuation."
"Will there be time?" Teyla called back, and the silence from Radek was answer enough.
John unclenched his jaw enough to say, "Get everyone out of the gateroom. Now."
"What?" Zelenka looked confused, but Lorne nodded and put a hand to his radio. Pushing through the suddenly very, very full gateroom, Zelenka bumped into John, who braced himself against the console. Zelenka took one look at the screen, then stared up at John, wide-eyed. "You are not serious?"
"What kind of a choice do we have?" John asked, watching people stream out of the gateroom doors into the rest of the city. Once they were gone, he shut all the control room doors, sealing in himself and the few remaining crew, including Lorne and Teyla who were both watching him nervously. It wasn't blast proof, but it was close enough, and John made a few final checks before turning to Zelenka. "If we're lucky, it'll just be a case of replacing a whole lot of wires."
"And if we are unlucky?"
"What are you talking about? John?" Teyla pulled at his arm, her face a mixture of anger and fear. "What are you doing?"
"Astraporta," he said, biting his lip almost at once. Hearing the word come out of his own mouth was even worse than not knowing he'd said it.
Stepping in, Zelenka said, "The Stargate is a superconductor, more than capable of handling the power that we need."
"The astraporta itself can cope," John said, deciding to carry on regardless for the moment. That usually worked. "But the cannae, the things that take the power to it, there's no way of knowing how much power they can take."
"They will explode?" The way Teyla put it, it suddenly sounded a lot more frightening than it had done.
John tilted his head. "Some of them. Probably. But better them than the city, and the grounding station can't take much more. Is everyone salvi?" Oh, this was going to get annoying. "Is everyone out?"
"We're clear," Lorne called, and John nodded.
"You might want to take cover," he said, glancing at the window into the gateroom. "I can't make you any promises." When Teyla didn't move, he turned to her and nodded. "You too. Seriously. This could get messy."
She took a deep breath as if to argue, then pressed her lips together when he shook his head a fraction. Pulling Zelenka with her, she headed for the back of the room, where the remaining personnel were already huddling behind the consoles.
"Alright." John crouched by the console, bracing himself. "Everybody praesti?" He winced. "Never mind." And he diverted the power.
And nothing happened. He'd ducked right under the console as quickly as he could, although a small part of his brain kicked him for that, because the whole point of this was that it took time. From his position near the front of the control room, he could see the Stargate, the lower chevrons lighting up as the power started to flow. As the middle symbols sprang to life, that same small part of John's brain kicked him even harder, and he resisted the urge to bang his forehead against the console.
Instead, he crouched lower, fingers scrambling at the underside of the panel. It took him a minute to get it free, and to find the wiring that he needed. The database in his brain told him that it had enough slack, and he tugged at it, crawling quickly over to the still-open DHD console. From somewhere, he heard Teyla calling his name, but there really was no time to explain. Zelenka had done a good job, and John connected his own console quickly, lifting his head just enough to see the DHD buttons.
The address supplied to his hand was one he recognized as a space gate, although he also knew, somehow, that any blast probably wouldn't make it to the other side. Still, it was as well to be sure. He had his head under the console almost as soon as he pressed the final symbol and activated the gate, hearing it roar into life, and wondering if it was just his imagination that made it sound louder than usual. Risking a quick glance, he saw that that the rim of the gate was glowing, and the lights were flashing in a pattern that did not bode well.
He got his head down just in time, the flash of light incredibly bright even through his closed eyes, and the noise one that he never thought he'd hear outside a combat zone. The room shook, and he heard the glass in front of him shatter. Again. They couldn't keep a window in this city intact for five minutes, it seemed. There was a sort of fizzing, then another, softer bang from the gateroom, then all was quiet, apart from the sound of the fire suppressant systems getting to work.
John stayed where he was for a moment, arms wrapped protectively over his head and body crammed under the console. The Stargate could survive pretty much anything they threw at it, he knew, but who knew what had happened to the control room. As long as he stayed where he was, curled up and safe, he wouldn't have to know.
After another moment, though, his shoulders started to ache, and his knees began to protest at the horrible angle and the hard floor. Sighing just a little, John carefully extricated himself from under the console.
"Everyone there?" he called, although he could already hear coughing from the back of the room. There was quite a lot of smoke in the air. He waited until Teyla's head popped up from behind the console, looking worried but alright, before turning to the nightmare that was going to be the gateroom.
It was…actually not as bad as he'd expected. Sure, everything was covered in dust, a few small fires were still burning, and the floor behind the gate looked like someone had dropped a cluster bomb on it, but the circular platform looked to be more covered in debris than damaged, and the gate itself, by some miracle, was still actually standing, which was more than John had hoped for. The doors to the control room had kept out the worst of the blast, and he opened them automatically, letting some relatively fresh air into the room from the city beyond.
"What the hell?"
Glass crunched under John's heel as he turned, hand already outstretched towards the doorway in the hope of stemming at least some of the tirade that was sure to follow the strangled question.
He needn't have worried. Rodney was standing there, his mouth open and eyes huge, looking from John, to the cluster of technicians and Marines still sheltering at the back of the room, then down into the gateroom at which point, impossibly, his eyes got even wider. Some part of John that was probably becoming more than a little hysterical noted that he'd finally found something that actually rendered Rodney speechless. Who would have thought it?
"You're awake," he said, getting the glare he deserved for stating the obvious. "You, er, feeling okay?"
"I was until the apocalypse happened behind my back." Rodney took a few steps into the room, stopping to look down at the tiny fragments of glass on the floor. "I thought we only just fixed this place?"
"I can exponer," John said, making Rodney's head snap towards him so quickly he must have got whiplash.
"It's complicated." Which it wasn't, but hopefully that would put Rodney off for a moment. It seemed to work, because Rodney's face went almost slack, and he rubbed at his eyes, still surrounded by dark circles and now going red with the smoke.
When he took his hands away from his face, he looked round again, mouth still open and expression still completely disbelieving.
"Fine," he said at last, a faint hysteria in his voice that John had a whole lot of sympathy with right now. "I'm obviously still asleep and dreaming." He pinched his arm. "Ow. Okay." Another pinch had no more effect, and Rodney shook his head. "Okay, not dreaming." The look he gave John was equal parts horrified and murderous. "You'd better have a damn good explanation for this, Sheppard."
John was tired. He still hadn't slept properly, his head was beginning to fill with all kinds of things that he didn't need to know, like the desalinization rate of the tank under the East Pier and the height of the habitation towers above it, and one shard of glass seemed to have caught him on the cheek because something warm and wet was working its way down his neck. Deciding to start with that, he brought a hand up to swipe at the blood, then looked up at Rodney.
"Where do you want me to start?"
"Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind."
Ralph Waldo Emerson
John watched Rodney's expression shift from slightly ticked off to seriously panicked and then into the quiet fury that made his face red and his eyes bulge, just a little. He managed to stay quiet as John explained about the Ancient Repository, although his expression took on an unhappy edge that John pretended not to see, and he folded his arms when Zelenka outlined the problems they'd had with the conduits.
He only lost it when John started on how he'd dealt with the power crisis.
"What were you thinking? You blew up the gateroom!"
"Better that than the tower," Radek muttered.
Rodney glared at him. "Oh please. We have four grounding stations. Two whole piers are empty and already badly damaged by asteroids. You're actually telling me that this," he waved his hand at the control room, the gateroom and the repair crews who were starting to pick their way through the debris, "was a better choice?"
"You were not here!" Radek poked a finger in the air, fiercely enough that John was surprised he didn't take Rodney's eye out. "Colonel Sheppard has direct access to the Ancient database. If it had not been for him-"
"Yes," Rodney interrupted, turning his attention back to John, pressing his lips together for the briefest of moments, before saying, "Yes, if it hadn't been for Colonel Sheppard I might not have been drugged unconscious and could have been here to solve this without cutting us off from the rest of the galaxy."
"The astraporta is fine," Sheppard said, barely flinching at the wrong word this time. It was possible that he was getting used to it, which was probably a bad thing in itself, but fortunately a furious Rodney was a good distraction. "And Radek's right. I didn't do this. It came straight out of the Ancient database."
"Through your brain," Rodney countered. "Who knows what went wrong at that point."
"Rodney." Sheppard folded his arms and gave him a hard look, hard enough that Rodney looked away, swallowing and shifting his attention to the damage again.
"Right. Okay," he said, in an oddly subdued voice, his eyes shifting from point to point, anywhere but at John. "We can probably cannibalize some of the conduits going out to that science lab on the South Pier, the one that got hit by the asteroid. It'll take, what," he glanced at Zelenka, "a day? Maybe two to get all the wiring we need, then say three more to get it all in place, although we'll have to recruit extra help if the feedback ran all the way to the main conduits. We're sure that this isn't going to happen again?" His fingers twitched, but most of the consoles in the control room still had wisps of smoke rising from them so there were no buttons for him to press right now. Instead, he turned his head quickly enough that he couldn't meet John's eyes. "Radek?"
"Hmm?" Zelenka jumped a little, obviously dragging himself out of his own thoughts.
"We need to be sure this isn't going to happen again," Rodney said, with more than his usual patience.
"There is no way to tell from here." Giving the consoles a forlorn look, Zelenka shook his head. "Maybe the chair's systems are online and we might be able to take readings, but from up here?" He gestured helplessly.
Rodney nodded, then finally looked at John, who shifted a little. While he'd been talking, Lorne had been organizing repair crews, talking on his radio and surveying the scene with the air of a man who was at least on his way to having a plan. As much as John knew this was a good thing, that the city was in good hands, it was hard not to feel at least a little left out. And somehow, being Rodney's personal computer for a while wasn't his idea of being included.
Still, John nodded when Rodney raised an eyebrow at him, unfolding his arms and rolling his aching shoulders.
"Alright," he said, waving his hand for Rodney to go first. "Let's get this done."
Teyla caught up with them before they could leave the control room, passing John a small bandage that he pressed to the cut on his face. With her beside him, Rodney striding on ahead, muttering to himself and Ronon silently bringing up the rear, John felt like the condemned man being taken for his last walk. Carefully, he dabbed at his cheek, checking to see if he was still bleeding, and ignoring the way Rodney kept looking back over his shoulder, nearly walking straight into a wall, and twice tripping over his own feet.
"McKay," John said, tucking the bandage away and feeling a whole lot more tired than he'd realized, "I'm fine."
Rodney made a sort of sarcastic, irritated sound, and came to a stop so quickly that John nearly walked into him. "Look, I don't know what they've told you about this Repository thing-"
"Are we really going to have this conversation in the hallway?" It wasn't exactly busy, but there were people coming and going, giving John furtive glances as they passed. One day, he was going to have an embarrassing personal conversation in a private room with a locked door. It appeared that today was not that day.
Completely ignoring him as usual, Rodney kept on going. "-but it's a whole lot more than just saying a few strange words and suddenly knowing how the power distribution system works."
It was impossible to have a quiet argument with Rodney, but that wasn't going to stop John from trying. Ronon and Teyla had already adopted their usual strategy for this type of argument which was to stand back and pick up the casualties afterwards, but John wasn't going down without a fight. Lowering his voice, he said, "I know, McKay, we did this already."
"And you're okay with the fact that eventually this thing is going to take over your mind to the point that you won't even be able to understand us? You won't be you any more? Doesn't that even begin to bother you?"
"No, it's great!" John dropped his voice again, realizing that he was trying to match Rodney in volume which was never a good plan. "Look, are we going to check the urbem isn't going to blow up, or are we going to stand here and disputamus?"
More of his frustration must have gotten into his voice than he'd intended, and the Ancient words weren't helping, because Rodney shut his mouth with a snap, bristling a little before turning and striding away again. Somehow, even the back of his head managed to look annoyed and unhappy. John was fairly sure that the looks Ronon and Teyla were giving him were also something along those lines, but at least they were quiet about it. And, he realized as they trailed after Rodney, even Rodney was quiet now, not looking back and not even talking to himself. Somehow, John was fairly sure that made things worse.
The city stretched out under him, blue-green and shining from its lowest sub-oceanic levels to the very peaks of the towers. John could see it all, feel it as he reached towards it, feel it respond to his touch, reaching back for him, a gentle caress against his mind. It was different from usual, the feedback new and almost overwhelming, intoxicating. He drifted for a moment, letting the city seep into his being.
Rodney's voice cut into his awareness, jolting John enough that some of the warm, enveloping sensations receded, letting him remember what he was supposed to be doing here.
Concentrating, he went in search of the power flow diagnostics, projecting them to the screen where Rodney was working. He'd never felt so linked to the city, so aware of it before. Elizabeth had once asked him what it felt like to control the whole city with his mind, and he'd shrugged and smiled and said something about it mostly being kind of dark, since he had his eyes closed and all. The reply had been too flippant, but then it hadn't been anything like this.
One of the science guys was a cybernetics specialist, who'd spent a disappointing two days interrogating John about the chair, only to find that the words hadn't been invented yet that could encompass the sensations. It was like flying with your eyes closed, but knowing you weren't going to crash. It was feeling a connection to something bigger than yourself without being able to interpret that feeling on any meaningful level. It was instinct merged with intellect, his mind controlling but in a way he couldn't begin to understand, let alone describe.
It was still all of that, but so much more as well, now that he could understand what the city was telling him, fuse its awareness to his. Somewhere behind him, Rodney was feeding information back into the computer, and John kept a small portion of his attention on it while the rest of him wandered, exploring the city in more detail than he'd known was possible. He didn't remember ever being this connected to it before, as though it was singing in his mind, the information falling into place like the notes of a chord, resonating and filling his mind. The chords clashed, tumbling over each other, building to a symphony until all he could hear was the music of the city, losing himself in it completely, one of thousands of data-instruments.
As quickly as it had come, the crescendo of information fell away, its echoes searing into John's mind so that he felt weak and whole all at the same time. It was pleasantly calm here, as though the weight of the city had finally fallen from his shoulders and he could breath properly at last. John kept his eyes closed, drifting and floating in the dark.
"John, you must wake up." That was Teyla, shaking his shoulder a little, and he opened his eyes to find her close to him, face full of concern. "John?"
"Praeso," he said, and the word didn't sound so strange to him any more. "Paenitet."
Teyla glanced away, then back at him, biting her lip. "John, can you understand me?"
"Etiam." Pushing the chair back upright, John tried to give her a reassuring smile. "Intellego te, sed-"
"He can understand you, but he's lost the ability to speak English. It's what happens." Rodney's voice was tight and slightly muffled. When John turned, he saw that Rodney was hunched over a console, the power grid displayed on a screen above him. "Just keep an eye on him, okay? If he starts building anything weird, start up a video camera."
"What?" Ronon was leaning against the end of Rodney's console, eyes narrowed.
Rodney still didn't look up. "When this happened to General O'Neill, he built a power converter that let him dial another galaxy. If Sheppard's actually going to do something useful-"
"Gratia ti, Rodney."
"-then I want to make sure we record it."
"You know a lot about this," Ronon said, and John could hear the unspoken question.
So could Rodney apparently. "I read all the reports," he said shortly, changing the display above him and finally lifting his head to look at it. He didn't turn to face John.
"Keller and Lorne didn't tell us much." John had to hand it to Ronon, who had a remarkable ability to ask questions without actually asking them. He'd even admit to some curiosity himself. Most of the panic had passed now, and although the language thing was still weird, at least he knew what he was saying now. And the city seemed to respond to him even better than before, the chair still glowing although though he wasn't actively connected to it any more. He ran a hand over the ridges on its arm as Rodney sighed and leaned back in his seat.
"Fine. You want to know what happened?"
"We all wish to know," Teyla added, drawing Rodney's attention across to herself and John. If John was honest, Rodney looked a mess. The sleeping pill seemed to be giving him a hell of a hangover, his eyes dark and hooded, and his hand shaking just a little as he rubbed his stubbled jaw.
For a moment, his eyes met John's and he flinched. "Fine," he said, in the manner of a man forced to confess to something he hadn't done. "You really want to know? First of all, O'Neill could read Ancient without knowing what it said, along with speaking it without understanding it. Then he started to build something that turned out to be as powerful as a ZPM, as well as entering a whole new set of gate addresses into the SGC computers and drawing the blueprints for a DHD and saving Sam and the rest of her team's life."
"That doesn't sound so bad," Ronon said, looking over at John. "Sounds like a good thing."
"Oh, sure, except he had no idea what he was doing. In the end, there was nothing left of him, only enough to dial the gate to the Asgard galaxy."
"And they were able to help him?" Teyla asked.
Rodney nodded, folding his arms tightly enough that he looked like he was hugging himself. "They took the knowledge out of his mind, and he was fine. Only guess what, since the Asgard decided to commit self-genocide, we don't have that option any more."
"Sed…" John started to speak, then stopped in annoyance.
"But what?" Rodney said, leaning forwards a little. "Come on. Elizabeth gave me some Ancient lessons. But what?"
If ever there was a moment he needed Elizabeth. John swallowed, then said, "Intellego."
"Intelligence?" Rodney hazarded. "You think it's making you more intelligent? Seriously?"
It was vaguely reassuring that even in the most difficult of circumstances, Rodney could still manage to be insulting. John resisted the urge to roll his eyes and tried again.
"Intellego quod ago."
"Ago, ago." Eyes darting from side to side, Rodney unfolded his arms enough to click his fingers. "Do. What you're doing. You're saying that you understand what you're doing?"
"You know, we're going to be here a long time if you two go on like this." Ronon didn't sound impressed, and Rodney shot him a glare.
"Shut up, I think this is important." He got to his feet, obviously caught up in whatever was going through his mind. "General O'Neill didn't have a clue what he was doing, but Sheppard managed to access the information about the power conduits."
John pulled a face, tilting his hand from side to side.
"Okay." Rodney frowned a little. "So what did you mean?"
"Adhuc. In solim. Dissimilis erat." He thumped the chair arm, forcing himself to stay calm and patient. Ronon wasn't wrong about it taking them a long time.
"You're saying there was something different about the chair?" Rodney hazarded, giving it a suspicious look.
"Non. Me." And hey, that was the same word. "Ego sum dissimilis."
"You are saying there is something different about you?" Teyla asked, and Rodney made an impatient noise.
"We already knew that. I don't-"
Resisting the urge to hit his head against the chair in sheer frustration, John gave in. He turned, sitting back in the chair and activating it, feeling that blue-calmness sweep through his mind as the city drew him in. It took him a moment to work out what he was going to do, then the city answered the question for him. He opened his eyes a fraction, to see screens lighting up all round the chair room, most of which hadn't been there before. A full 3D schematic of the city had popped into existence right above Teyla's head, and Ronon was not-quite gaping at the holographic drone that was making lazy circles around him. More holograms were flying round the room, Jumpers and drones twisting and turning between the towers that had sprouted from the floor. John wasn't entirely sure how he was doing it, but even he was impressed.
Rodney's mouth was open, and he blinked, shaking himself a little before saying, "Well, that's different." He spun on his heel, looking right at John without hesitation for the first time that afternoon. "That's what you were trying to say. You're accessing the chair differently, accessing the city differently."
John nodded, letting the light show fade away and slowly sitting up again. "Non sum idem O'Neill."
"No, you're not." Although he'd replied, it was obvious that Rodney was only giving John half his attention. "You're not the same. This isn't the same." He frowned again, deeper than before, and John knew that look.
So apparently did Teyla, because she came closer to Rodney, tilting her head to see his face better. "Rodney? Why would John's experience be different?"
"I don't…" Rodney trailed off, and John carefully got out of the chair, because that was the way Rodney finished his sentences when he was about to have an idea. Sure enough, John had barely finished pulling his shirt straight when Rodney's eyes widened and he took a huge breath.
"Atlantis," he said, seemingly still holding the breath. "Where did you find the Repository?" Shaking his head when John opened his mouth, he went over to the console and brought up a map of the city. "Show me."
A little confused, but willing to go with it for now, John went over to the console and put his hand on it, centering the picture on the lab. Rodney nodded, obviously noting the location, then he turned on his heel and was out of the room before John could so much as get his mouth open.
Shaking his head, he turned to Ronon and Teyla.
"Post vos," he said, gesturing towards the door.
They didn't need to understand the words, although as they turned into the corridor, Ronon muttered, "If McKay can't fix you, are we all going to have to learn Ancient?"
"Speremus non necessere est."
They didn't catch up with Rodney until they were almost at the lab where everything had started to go horribly wrong. John hesitated on the threshold, letting the others go ahead of him, Rodney waving away Teyla's questions.
Half the consoles had been stripped out, and the room felt odd, uncomfortably incomplete, even with the large blue Repository still on the opposite wall, looking like a huge malevolent eye surveying the room. Rodney was standing just to one side of it, careful not to get in its range while trying to get as close as possible. Slowly, John stepped into the room, frowning a little as his brain supplied him with information that he knew he couldn't know. He could take apart and rewire any of the remaining consoles, possibly with his eyes closed, and if he tried hard enough, he could probably run the whole city, just from this room with half the number of consoles that should be necessary.
And it felt right. It felt like he'd always known these things, as much as he knew he hadn't. There was nothing strange or unfamiliar about the knowledge, and he'd half reached out to the nearest console, intending to just check the power levels, when someone touched his arm.
Looking up into Teyla's worried face, he guessed that she'd been calling him for a while. He gave her an apologetic smile, only glancing at the console before following her to where Rodney was standing, bouncing lightly on the balls of his feet, the way he did when he was waiting to say something. When John gave him an expectant look, he said,
"Alright, I was thinking about this, and why would the Ancients put a Repository in their own city? Hm?" He looked around, as though half-expecting someone to answer. "It doesn't make any sense. They already had the database, and this is their city. Why would they put something here that was meant for other races to use?"
"Perhaps they left it here for their descendents," Teyla suggested. "For those of us who would discover Atlantis after them."
"Maybe," Rodney conceded the point with extreme reluctance, quickly picking up his thread again. "But we have the whole city, we have the database. This just doesn't make any sense."
"So what is it?" Ronon asked, shifting a little and looking from John to Rodney and back again.
"Well, I don't know yet." When Ronon rolled his eyes, Rodney added, "But if it's not an Ancient Repository then there's every chance that whatever Sheppard has in his brain isn't the whole database and won't actually-" He waved a hand vaguely.
"Kill him?" Ronon supplied, and Rodney looked pained.
"Yes. Exactly." He coughed a little, then took a deeper breath, looking at John. "I think you should look into it again."
Both Teyla and Ronon looked horrified, and John just stared at Rodney, who was getting the hunched, defensive look that he got when he had to defend himself without any evidence. As much as John trusted his instinct more than hard facts, even he had to admit Rodney's suggestion sounded insane.
"Oh please, what's going to happen?" Rodney asked, spreading his hands wide. "If I'm wrong, you've got the whole damn thing in your head already. It's not like there's room in there for any more."
John glanced at Ronon, who shrugged and said, "It actually sort of makes sense." He didn't sound totally convinced.
Teyla half-grimaced when John turned to her, shaking her head slowly, the way she did when she wasn't sure what to think. "I do not know," she said slowly. "Is it not possible that this could do more damage?"
"What more damage?" Rodney was in full rant mode now, and nothing short of force would be able to stop him. "His brain is already being taken over. In case neither of you had noticed, he can't actually speak English any more, and he knows more about Ancient tech than Zelenka. And those lights in the chair room? Where did they come from? He's accessing parts of Atlantis we didn't know existed, and right now, he isn't even listening."
With a jolt, John pulled his attention back to Rodney, frowning a little. He'd been mostly thinking about how long it would take to repair the towers on the South Pier, it was true, but that didn't mean he hadn't heard what Rodney was saying. Besides, there was nothing unusual about letting his mind wander when Rodney was talking.
He opened his mouth to say as much, Ancient or no Ancient, when his radio beeped.
"Colonel Sheppard? This is Doctor Keller."
Keller. Infirmary. Right. He went to reply, but Rodney got there first.
"Colonel Sheppard's right here, he's just having a few language issues right now." What? he mouthed when John glared at him.
"I need him to come to the infirmary."
"This isn't really the best-"
Seeming to realize that Rodney was just going to keep objecting, Keller bypassed him, saying, "Colonel, it's been over forty-five minutes. I did ask you to check in every half hour."
"Bonu," John said without thinking, closing his eyes when there was a surprised sound followed by silence on the other end.
Ronon came to the rescue. "I'll bring him up now."
"Non necesse est," John said, trying to glare at Ronon, only to have it bounce right off as usual. He'd got rid of Samuels, but Ronon was probably a permanent attachment.
"Thanks." There was a click as Keller cut her connection, and the four of them were left glaring at each other. Or at least, John and Rodney were glaring. Ronon had his arms folded in his finest immovable object impression, and Teyla looked as though she was hanging onto the end of her patience with her fingernails.
It was she who broke the tension. "John, I think you should go to the infirmary, and that Ronon should go with you. Rodney and I will remain here and see if he can discover more about the device. We will call you if and when we find anything."
There was no arguing with that voice, so John didn't even try. It was frustrating, though, because couldn't they understand that he felt fine? Physically, there was nothing wrong with him, Keller had already said that, and if he lay under the Ancient scanner again, the chances of his falling asleep were a whole lot higher than the chances of Keller finding anything.
Rodney would probably have backed him up, but the two of them stood no chance against Ronon and Teyla, so John just gave an exaggerated sigh and jerked his head towards the door.
"Fine," Rodney said, turning back to the wall and making a show of examining the device, Teyla joining him and laying a gentle hand on his arm.
John turned back towards the door, letting Ronon fall into step beside him. The one good thing, John decided as they reached the doorway, was that at least this way, he might get to catch up on some sleep.
The picture on the screen was life-sized, making the woman's face seem real enough to touch. He resisted the urge, smiling at her instead.
"It's good to see you," she said, and he nodded, taking a deep breath.
"You too. What's your status?" Straight to business, but the connection could go at any point, and this was too important.
Her slim face seemed tight and drawn, dark hair pulled back and emphasizing how thin her face had become, how severe. She pressed her lips together into a tight line as she shook her head. "Better than yours, but not good. We're still being hunted, we think. There's nothing we can do to hide."
She gave him a wry smile. "Thanks. We'll do that. What about you?"
"We're going to have to sink the city."
"Then you're going to have even bigger shield problems than we are." She managed a half-smile that brought some color to her pale cheeks and he tried to return it.
"Probably. When does the Aurora reach you?"
"Is that enough time?"
"It'll have to be." She glanced away and frowned. "I have to go. We need to conserve what power we can."
He nodded, unable to speak for a moment, and when she looked back, he had to swallow hard to keep control of his tongue, letting her do the talking instead. "We'll report in again before the Aurora gets here. Be careful."
"You too." He paused, his eyes holding hers.
With a final small smile, she terminated the connection, leaving him staring at a blank screen. He had a glimpse of his reflection, a pale, slim face, topped with a shock of dark hair, before he turned away and went to attend to his own duties.
Gasping, Sheppard grabbed the hand that Ronon was using to shake his shoulder. "Praeso, praeso," he said, trying to get his breath back. Twice in one day was too often to be woken up like that.
"He's awake," Ronon said to someone out of sight, then John heard footsteps and Keller's face came into the edge of his vision.
"Colonel?" She reached out for his wrist, fingers pressing against his pulse as she asked, "How are you feeling?"
"Does that mean fine?" The odd emphasis she gave the last word suggested she was trying to do an impression of him.
He scowled and nodded. "Quod advenit?" It was really tempting to just close his eyes again, except the dream had felt more like being awake than this did. Only the feel of Keller's fingertips digging into his arm and Ronon's hand, warm on his shoulder, told him that he was here, in an Atlantis that was sitting on the surface of a whole new ocean, not still sunk beneath the waves. It felt wrong, and he shook his head again, trying to straighten out the now from the then.
"Stay with us, Colonel," Keller said, letting go of his wrist and leaning over so that he could see her better. "I have the results of your latest scan. As expected, the Ancient Repository is causing your brain to become far more active than the human mind can cope with. I don't know what happened just then-"
"Dormiebam," John said vaguely. Every time he blinked he saw the woman's face again. Slim, dark eyes and hair, pale and worried-looking, and accompanied by a deep pang of loss. Normally he would have dismissed it – no prize for interpreting that one, Doctor Freud – but it had been so real, so vivid that he wasn't so sure. "Somniebam."
"You were sleeping?" Glancing up at Ronon, Keller asked, "I guess it's been a long couple of days for everyone."
"He was asleep in the control chair this morning," Ronon supplied, talking right across John in a way that he supposed he was going to have to get used to. It wasn't any less annoying though.
With a slight shrug, Keller said, "I suppose it could be a symptom of the increased activity, although I would have expected him to be more awake, not more sleepy."
John gave in, struggling to sit up and brushing their hands aside. Stepping back a little, Keller folded her arms and looked away for a moment before meeting his eyes.
"Colonel, I have to tell you that your brain won't be able to sustain this level of activity forever. And I have no way of knowing what will happen if this continues."
"Do you have a way to get it out of him yet?" Ronon asked, and Keller shook her head.
"I'm sorry. There's nothing in the database on this, and as long as we're cut off from Stargate Command, I can't get any information from there either."
"McKay's working on something."
John looked up, surprised by the confidence in Ronon's voice, and getting the slightest of shrugs in reply.
"Good. I will too." Keller turned her full attention to John, who resisted the urge to lean away from the stern look. "Colonel. Every half hour. I want to pick up the slightest of changes as soon as I can. You never know what might be the answer, and I don't want to miss it. In the meantime, I think you're alright to leave the infirmary. I heard you put something of a dent in the gateroom. In fact," she said, with the slightest of smiles, "I think the whole city heard it."
"Gratia ti," John said, putting as much sarcasm into the words as he could. It didn't work nearly as well in Ancient. Still, he hopped off the bed before she changed her mind and confined him to quarters.
"You want to go up to the gateroom?" Ronon asked once they were out in the hallway. "Don't think there's much you can do to help McKay right now, and they could probably use the extra hands."
"Immo." He added a firm nod when Ronon looked at him. Unless Rodney or Keller came up with an idea, his brain wasn't going to be much use to anyone. At least shifting rubble didn't require him to actually hold a conversation.
But as they walked through the corridors up to the gateroom, John kept bracing himself, not really sure what he was anticipating. He also looked closely at the faces of every woman they passed, although he knew the one he was looking for had just been a dream, as lost and gone now as Elizabeth herself. When he nearly bumped into Ronon for the third time, he forced himself to stop. Hanging onto this was doing no one any good. All he could do now was the task at hand, for as long as he was able. That would have to be enough.
The ingenuity of Atlantis personnel never ceased to amaze John. In the short time he'd been away from the gateroom, a path had been cleared through the rubble on the main floor, and most of the lights in the control room were working again. The explosions had ripped three long trenches where the conduits had been, and there were repair crews in each of them, pulling out yet more rubble and the occasional piece of something that looked like fiber optic cable. He pitched in with the mixture of Marines, Airmen and technicians loading up the Ancient equivalent of trailers and taking a small amount of satisfaction that this, at least, he could do.
He'd just about cleared his patch of floor and was taking a breather, leaning against the trailer and checking his watch. About five minutes before he had to at least check in with Keller, although he had vague hopes that she'd let him out of traipsing all the way up to the infirmary this time. Looking around for the water bottles that he knew someone had supplied, he noticed one of the crew, from Marine Biology he seemed to remember, also taking a break and just staring up at Elizabeth's office. John hadn't done it consciously, but he'd chosen a spot to work on that was right underneath the balcony and office. He wasn't sure if it was so he was closer, or so he couldn't see up into it.
The biologist caught him watching and smiled sadly before turning back to his work. Giving up on his hunt for water, John did the same, carefully pushing aside the thought that maybe Ronon and Kate had had a point after all about the memorial. But it had only been a few days. He wasn't about to give up yet.
He let the work keep his mind busy, and it wasn't until his radio beeped that he remembered Keller again.
"Etiam," he said, cutting into her where do you think you are? speech. "Venio."
With a quick glance up towards Elizabeth's office, John started to make his way towards the door. He got all of three steps before something in his brain exploded. Dimly, he was aware of crying out, of his hands scraping along a sharp edge, but that was happening to someone else. He was-
-looking up at the shield. It would hold for now, but they couldn't live like this forever, especially not if they didn't have to. So far, returning to Earth had only been raised as a last resort, but now it had been mentioned, it was on everyone's minds. However, the thought of leaving the city to the Wraith, of leaving all the outposts and ships and people was not something he thought they should consider yet. He wouldn't surrender the city. Not as long as he could find a way of preventing it. There had to be-
-voices all around him, calling out, talking to each other, to him, but all John could hear was the rush of blood in his ears, and he could feel the city beneath him, around him, in him. He gasped, body arching, because the city hadn't been designed to do this, not like this, but it was doing it any way, and it hurt. So much.
Hands pushed him down, holding him still so he couldn't hurt himself, and John tried to get enough air to his lungs, to push away the sensation of something trying to get into his head. He strained against the grip on his arms, feeling someone hold his head and more voices, louder now. It was too much, he couldn't fight it any more.
So he stopped trying.
As suddenly as it had come, the pain disappeared, and the talons that had sunk into him let go. Despite the relief, John could still feel the holes in his mind, the ghostly impression of where the city had held him, gripped him. He started to struggle again, trying to fight his way back to the surface, to be himself again, instead of being submerged in the all-consuming Atlantis. He fought until his strength ran out, reaching through the darkness towards the light.
When he opened his eyes, he could still feel the pressure against his mind, but it was easier now, gentler. He was lying on the floor, people crouched around him, and he lifted a hand slowly, feeling each muscle and tendon flex and contract, as though it was someone else's hand, and he was just telling it what to do.
He must have stopped thrashing about at some point, because no one was holding him down any more. Ronon was sitting on the floor next to him, within restraining distance but not touching him for the moment, and he was giving John a worried look. And when Ronon looked worried, John knew it was time to panic, since Ronon's normal reaction to problems was to ignore them or shoot them.
"Yeah? Oh." He opened and closed his mouth a few times, then said, "Can you understand me?"
"Yeah." Ronon grinned. "Welcome back."
"I wouldn't go that far." English was probably easier, but John had the distinct impression that having his language skills come and go wasn't necessarily a good thing. "What happened?" He let Ronon help him sit up, and looked round the room.
The engineering crews were still working on the deep conduit trenches, but everyone else was crowded round the doors. The definitely closed doors. Huh.
"Nothing opens," Ronon said, getting to his feet and pulling John after him. "Everything just shut when you starting yelling."
"I was yelling?"
"Kind of screaming, I guess."
Oh, because that was so much better. He gave Ronon a humorless smile, then looked round the room. About thirty people, no officers apart from him, a couple of senior engineers who seemed more concerned with the mess he'd made than anything else, and definitely no one able to get the doors open. "Come on," he said, going towards the nearest door, where a Marine looked as though he was considering shooting his way out if the crewman fiddling with the crystals couldn't make it open. Which John could have told him wouldn't work, and would have done…
…if the door hadn't opened as soon as he came near it.
Everyone turned to look at him. John had gotten used to that kind of look within two days of being on Atlantis, but now, it made him hunch his shoulders and head straight through the crowd for the escape route that had just opened up. This time, he was actually grateful for Ronon at his shoulder, no doubt glaring at the others and just daring them to say something. It was probably less good that the door swung shut behind him, leaving him and Ronon alone in the semi-darkness. At least the emergency lighting seemed to be working.
"Whatever you're doing," Ronon said, overtaking him and turning to block his way, "you need to stop it."
"I'm not doing anything." Was he? John wasn't even sure he was completely in control of his own mind right at that moment, so really, there was no way to know. But trying to find the source of his discomfort, to track down the part of him that was responsible for whatever was happening, just didn't seem to be possible. It was like probing at a sore tooth with his tongue; all it did was make it hurt more, without actually solving the problem. He shook his head. "Seriously, I have no idea-"
Her face was even paler than before, and she looked more tired than he'd ever seen her. She shook her head at his questions.
"The Aurora left us just fine, but there were two Wraith ships. We can't stop them."
"What will you do?"
"Destroy the database. If we can."
He wanted to look away, but he couldn't. "Are you ready?"
"No." There was a grim determination in her face that he couldn't argue with. "You know I'm not. Any more than you are."
"I have to go." She looked past the screen, nodding to whoever had attracted her attention. "I'm sorry."
He shook his head. "Contact us when you can."
The screen went-
It was dark when John opened his eyes, and someone had their arms around him, pinning his own arms to his side. He went limp, trying to breathe against the crushing grip.
"You back?" Ronon asked, and John nodded carefully. If he'd been thrashing around again, Ronon had probably already been headbutted more than once, and he didn't want to make things worse than they already wore. Carefully, Ronon let go of him, shifting out from behind him and letting John lean against the wall of the corridor. "It's getting worse," he said, watching John's face.
John didn't look up, didn't try to say anything because he honestly wasn't sure what was going to come out of his mouth. There was a whole city full of people-
lights, pinprick dots on the display
-out there, held to ransom by his random genetic twist and stupid, stupid luck. Deep breathing wasn't helping, but it was at least an excuse not to talk. For once, Ronon seemed content to do that for him.
"Lorne's been calling you on the radio. McKay too. Said the lab's gone dark and the door won't open." He lifted his eyes to the ceiling. "It's kind of dark here too."
With his hand flat against the wall, John felt a shiver go through him, then the lights were on. He looked up at the grey ceiling and tried to concentrate past his panic. He was about to hold his hand out for the radio, his own apparently having gotten lost at some point, when he realized he didn't have to. Instead, he kept his hand on the wall and imagined speaking into his radio.
"This-" He half-choked, and had to swallow hard before trying again. "This is Colonel Sheppard to all Atlantis personnel. I know this is pretty scary, but I need you all to just stay calm. If you can get your doors open, you're welcome to do so. This is not a quarantine situation, this is-" your commanding officer flaking out didn't sound so good, so he went for, "-a city-wide malfunction that we hope to have sorted out soon. For now, don't panic and don't shoot anything." He switched the comm system off with a thought and raised an eyebrow at Ronon. "How'd I do?"
"Eight out of ten."
"Doctor Weir would have said something about the lights. And she's got a nicer voice."
"Gee, thanks." Pretending that he hadn't noticed the present tense, John switched the comms to the room that Rodney and Teyla were in. It was probably best not to think about how he was doing this. As long as it worked, he would worry about the whys and wherefores later. "McKay, you there?"
"Sheppard? No, I'm not here, I thought I'd take a long vacation in the Bahamas while I waited for the city to stop trying to destroy itself. You're speaking English again, and you're using it to ask stupid questions? How did you…actually, never mind that. What the hell is going on?"
John winced. Even over the radio, Rodney's panic was almost painfully shrill. "Look, I think you were right about that Repository thing."
"I was? Er, that is-"
"I think something got into my head." John looked from the ceiling to the walls to the floor, and then up at Ronon, who was still watching him with his best suspicious expression. "I think it's Atlantis."
There was a long silence, in which John examined the pattern of black flecks in the weird stuff that the Ancients used for flooring. He couldn't work out whether it was a regular, repeating pattern or purely random. Eventually, Rodney gave a sort of surprised cough, and John lifted his eyes to meet Ronon's.
"You mean you're the one locking all the doors and making the lights go loopy?"
You could say this for Rodney. Once he grasped an idea, he really grasped it. "Then tell them to open again! Or we're going to be stuck here for who knows how long while you have your minor panic attack and don't even pretend that you're not, because there is no way you can be a sane human being and not panic at having a city inside your head."
The report came in as he was in the middle of a simulation, and he had to sit down for a moment, trying to remember how to think. Since the only available horizontal surface was the floor, he stared at the undersides of the consoles, his mind blank and his stomach twisting and knotting.
"I'm sorry," the specialist who'd brought the news said, not entirely unsympathetically. "But you must realize that your continuing attachment will hinder your progress towards Ascending."
"Yes, thank you," he snapped automatically, the same way he had countless times before. They didn't understand, they just-
"Sheppard! Damnit, what's going on? Sheppard! You do not just cut me off when I'm-"
"He's coming back, McKay," Ronon said, his hands gripping John's shoulders.
"Where did he go? If he's going anywhere it should be straight down here so that I can-"
"It was Atlantis," John said, nodding to Ronon that he could just about manage to sit up on his own, although he was going to have to wait a while before trusting his legs to hold him. "Some Ancient guy, upset about…something. He mentioned the Aurora."
"I can imagine they'd be cut up about that. When you say 'It was Atlantis'…"
"I was there." Frowning a little, John tried to drag the memory into his conscious mind. "I was right there. In that lab where you are."
"Okay. So maybe the best thing for you to do would be to, oh I don't know, get the door open for us." Somehow, the radio did absolutely nothing to mitigate the annoyance in Rodney's voice.
"Right. Hang on." Aware of Ronon still watching him, John closed his eyes and tried to focus. He wasn't sure what he was focusing on, but he had a feeling that lingering presence at the back of his mind did. Maybe if he just prodded it in the right way, it would get the idea.
When he opened his eyes, Ronon had a hand on his radio, and gave John a brief nod. "That worked. Lorne says everything's opening up again and he said thanks. He's pretty mad, though."
"Tell him to get in line. McKay?"
"What do you mean 'what'? I just opened all the doors."
"Well I'll try not to take it personally, but this one is still locked."
"Although the lights have come on," Teyla supplied, and John winced. Being trapped in a locked, dark room with Rodney for any period of time would be a pretty unforgettable experience.
"Alright," he said, nodding to Ronon. "We're on our way." He switched channels, tapping into the command network. "Lorne?"
Oh boy. Yeah, Ronon wasn't kidding about the pretty mad, judging by the tone of Lorne's voice.
"Look, Major, I'm not doing this on purpose, okay? Ronon's with me and we're heading down to get McKay and Teyla out of the lab they're stuck in."
"Understood. After that, Doctor Keller's waiting for you in the infirmary. Sir."
John didn't sigh, but it was a close-run thing. "Got you." He cut the connection and nodded to Ronon. "Come on."
His pride didn't interfere when Ronon put a hand under his elbow to steady him. It appeared that John's body wasn't quite his own any more, and right now, he'd take all the help he could get.
"Why are we bothering?" Ronon asked, pausing at a corner and holding John up as people moved around them.
"What?" John's head still hurt, and moving too fast made him-
The shield was holding, for now, but even under the water, the Wraith barrage continued. The power drain was enormous, and even Atlantis wouldn't be able to survive like this forever. They could only do what they could to preserve it, in the hope that one day their descendants or one of their precious, protected human-children would come back. For now, all that mattered was keeping it safe from the Wraith, for as long as-
-dizzy. As the images faded again, he put a hand on the wall, trying to steady-
"…mostly panicking, sir."
"Well, tell them to sit tight." Lorne sounded frustrated and angry. "According to Ronon, Colonel Sheppard's trying to get it under control. We've got all kinds of injuries from when the lights went out and two people stuck on a tower balcony twenty stories up. Anyone else can just sit tight until we've dealt with the emergencies. Clear?"
At some point during the overheard radio conversation, John had fallen to his knees, only Ronon's hands on his shoulders stopping him from crashing to the floor. Someone was shouting in his ear, and it took John a moment to recognize Rodney's voice.
"What's happening? Ronon! Tell me what's happening."
"Not now, McKay." Ronon grunted with effort, holding John up then leaning him against the wall as he got control of himself again. "Sheppard's doing that thing again."
"Damned if I know," John said weakly, lifting a shaking hand to run through his hair. "I keep seeing things. Hearing them."
"Like what? Rodney was quite capable of sounding annoyed and curious at the same time.
"All kinds of things. Things all around Atlantis." Scrubbing at his face, John forced himself to concentrate.
"Although apparently not enough to get this door open."
"Hang on, McKay." Gripping John's shoulder, Ronon shifted so that he could see into John's eyes. "Why can't you open their door?"
John opened his mouth to say that he didn't know, when something clicked in his mind and what he actually said was, "Teyla."
He was making very little sense, even to himself, and the amount of surprise, confusion and irritation Rodney could get into single word was truly remarkable. Teyla had sounded puzzled and Ronon seemed to have adopted a permanent expression of 'humor the crazy man'.
"Teyla, I think the city's trying to protect me from you."
There was a brief silence, and then he could actually hear Rodney clicking his fingers. "Of course. You've got the gene, and whatever the hell that thing put into your brain. And Teyla has Wraith DNA. It thinks you're under attack, that there's a Wraith in the city and it has to protect you."
"I find it difficult to believe that Atlantis would make such a mistake," Teyla said, and her tone suggested that unless they figured it out soon, the only attacking going on would be right there in the lab.
Since that one was kind of John's fault, and he knew that this was the right answer he said, "He's right, Teyla. I'm sorry."
"Very well," she said, sounding little comforted. "What can we do?"
This time, the silence went on longer. John closed his eyes, summoning as many images as he could of Teyla and himself, out on missions together, laughing over dinner, sparring in the gym and okay, maybe that one wasn't going to convince the idiot computer that liked his brain so much that Teyla wasn't a threat to him. He opened his eyes and shook his head at Ronon's questioning look. "Sorry."
"Stop being sorry and do something."
"Oh yeah, McKay, I'm sitting out here having a picnic. If you have any suggestions…"
"Sure, I've got one or two."
"Helpful ones." John let his head fall back against the wall with a thump, not sure whether he should be trying to think, or trying not to think. With his eyes closed, the woman's face swam back into focus again, serious and worried, but with an underlying calm that helped steady John's own nerves. He opened his eyes, frowning and saying, "McKay, could you search the database and find out whose lab that was?"
"What? What's the point of that?"
"Just do it, okay?"
"Is this coming from the…you know…"
Even without being able to see him, John could imagine the hand gestures Rodney was making, and although Rodney couldn't see him either, he nodded. "I think so. Humor me."
Rodney's muttered reply was lost as he stomped off.
He was across the city, right there, watching Rodney rattle through files on the database faster than even John could keep track of, and watching Teyla, her face turned towards Rodney, but her hand on the door, as though she could reach through it to touch John.
"Whoa." Shaking his head, John slumped forwards a little, letting Ronon steady him again. "That was weird."
"Everything's weird," Ronon pointed out. "What is it this time?"
"I've got it." John was used to being interrupted by Rodney when they were in the same room. Having him do it over the radio seemed a bit unfair. Obviously oblivious, Rodney went on, "There's not much here, just a name. Martus. Hang on."
"What to?" John muttered, shaking his head a little. The images had been so vivid, clearer than any video camera, as though he'd actually been in the room with them. Weird really didn't begin to cover it.
"You okay?" Ronon asked, and John resisted the urge to laugh. Because seriously, did he look okay?
Instead, he forced his voice lower, forcing back the sheer, blinding terror. "I was just speaking in a language that I don't understand," he ground out, "I'm seeing and hearing things that aren't there, and I just got to see inside a locked room without knowing how. I think Keller's going to say I'm pretty much not alright."
There was a gentle thump as Ronon sat on the floor next to him. "Yeah, I get that," he said, more gently than John had expected. "But there's a lot of people in this city that need you."
This time, John did laugh, a short bark of laughter that hurt his chest. "Lorne can look after them. McKay too if it comes to it."
"And who's going to look after them?" Ronon had leaned his head against the wall as well, and when John looked up at him, surprised, he just shrugged, lifting his dreads. "That's what Doctor Weir used to do. You really think McKay can look after this whole city? By himself?"
John looked away, staring at the wall opposite and trying to breathe. Now was not the time to panic. His mind kept skittering away from him, though, and he could feel that pressure again, the feeling that he had the whole city bearing down on him, surrounding and suffocating him. Atlantis had got under his skin from the first moment he'd stepped through the Stargate, but this was more than that, this was a bone deep connection that he couldn't shake, however much he wanted to. He knew he was just staring into nothing, at the blue-green wall ahead of him, the speckled floor, the ceiling that was feeling a whole lot lower than it had done, but his mind was everywhere.
He was out on the East Pier with a repair crew, fighting a high wind to get the grounding station back into working order; he was in the infirmary with Keller, poring over yet another scan from the database and rubbing at her eyes; he was with Lorne in the control room, still surveying the damage and trying to keep a couple hundred frightened scientists and over-alert soldiers under control; he was with McKay and Teyla, skimming through the database, scanning files and data and-
"Sheppard? I think I've got something." It was remarkable how the particular piercing quality of Rodney's voice could break through the fog in John's mind.
"Give us a minute," Ronon said, putting a hand on John's shoulder. "You still there?"
John nodded, concentrating on the feel of Ronon's hand, the floor under him, the wall at his back, trying to ground himself.
"Will someone tell me what's going on?" The note of Rodney's voice was familiar, a mixture of anger and fear that John knew too well. He forced himself to speak, although it was becoming more of an effort.
"What have you got, McKay?"
"What have you got?" He put enough force into the words that Rodney took the hint.
"Martus, the Ancient whose lab this was? He was an AI specialist and, get this, headed up the team that created the Replicators."
John froze. "Are you saying-"
"What? Oh, no. No. No, no, no, no." If it was possible, Rodney sounded even more panicked than before. "No, not that, you're fine. That way, at least. Keller would have picked nanites up in the scans she's been doing. No, it's important because I think he was the one who created the Repository, but I don't think he put the database into it."
"Then what did he put in there?" Rodney's usual reluctance to get straight to the point wasn't doing much for the cold knot in John's stomach.
Even so, all he could do was keep staring blankly at the wall when Rodney said, "Himself."
It was a good thing Ronon had asked the question, because John was finding it hard to form words right about now.
"Well, not himself literally, obviously, but I think he took the program the Ancients used for the Repository and instead of just putting the database in there, he put in an AI program that mimicked his personality. It's quite remarkable work actually, you should see-"
John found his voice from somewhere. "Rodney."
"Sorry, but I really think we should study this further. Anyway, I've no idea why he did it, but it's like he made himself an executable program within the database, so that when someone looked into the Repository, they'd end up with him inside their heads, as well as all the information."
"Okay." It probably said something about John's state of mind that he was following along and even nodding once or twice. "So how do we get it out again?" When his only answer was a long silence, he gritted his teeth. "Rodney, how do we get it out again?"
"I don't know." Rodney's voice was tight and almost inaudible, which was a lot more worrying than his yelling. "I don't think he cared about that."
"Perfect." Ronon's growl pretty much summed up John's opinion on the subject as well.
"Perhaps-" Teyla began, hesitating for a moment. "Perhaps you should ask him."
John heard rapid footsteps, then Rodney's voice came through. "Of course. He's a sentient program, self-aware, thinking. If you can talk to him, you might be able to get the door open." There was a muffled slap and short yelp, then Rodney added, "And ask him if there's a way to get him out of you head before he…"
"Kills me? Wonderful." John closed his eyes. "Any suggestions more helpful than just 'talk to him'? Come on, Rodney, you had Cadman in your head. How did you talk to her?"
"I tried not to." There was another yelp. "Stop it, I'm trying, alright?" After another moment, Rodney said, "Just try to let go a little. All the problems you're having, the language coming and going, the black outs, might be because you're fighting him."
"Yeah, well, excuse me for not wanting my brain to be taken over by another personality," John said, trying to relax nonetheless. "Been there, done that."
"I get that, really I do," Rodney said, and there was an understanding in his voice that caught John by surprise. "But he's going to win, no matter what. It probably only activated for you because you were the first gene-carrier to come in here, and it might mean that your brain chemistry is compatible with his way of thinking. Even so, you can't fight him forever, and it's probably better to talk while you've actually got the chance to negotiate."
"Negotiating with a gun to your head isn't exactly ideal," John grumbled, but he kept his eyes closed, reaching back towards that buzz at the back of his mind. "Any useful suggestions, anyone?"
"Breathe deeply," Teyla said. "Concentrate."
"She's trying to get you to meditate," Ronon mock-whispered.
"And you are not helping." Apparently, Teyla didn't need to be in the same room to give them all a clip round the ear. John grinned, as she went on, "John, you may find that it allows you to access the part of your mind you need."
"Right now, I'll try anything." Pulling his knees up so he was at least approximately cross-legged, John nodded. "Alright."
"Breath in deeply," Teyla said, her voice low and soothing, even over the radio. "and then slowly exhale, allowing each breath to cleanse you. Feel your mind clearing, opening you to all that surrounds you. Breathe again, and let your awareness drift away. In the silence, listen for another voice, for one calling to you. Focus on it."
The floor was hard and cold, and John was fairly sure he was losing the feeling in his feet. He was also more tired than he'd realized, his head starting to nod and his awareness drifting in a way that he suspected Teyla hadn't intended. But it was easy to let himself go into the darkness, to fall and fall and fall…
Someone was leaning over him, calling something that might have been a name.
He was lost, alone in the dark.
"Teyla," the voice said, "I don't think it worked."
"It did. We are free. Where are you?"
He was home. He was free. He was living again for the first time in so long. Atlantis was his, responding to his touch, part of him as he was part of her. But something was wrong, the connection was tenuous, easily blocked or snapped. It shouldn't be like this. There was too much noise, interference. This wasn't him.
John forced his eyes open, as hands touched his face, his arms, running over his head. It took him a moment to put names to them, to his team, who he knew, who knew him, and who for a brief moment, he hadn't recognized.
"Bonu. Bonu. I'm fine," he said, tongue tripping over the words. His head felt messy, too full and jumbled. "Ego-" He was getting it wrong, they wouldn't understand him like this. There was no point. "Bonu," he whispered again, letting his eyes drift shut.
"Oh no you don't." Someone hit him, a hard slap to the side of his face and John's eyes snapped open as he was jerked back to the present. Rodney started backwards, looking frightened but determined, the way he had after Elizabeth-
John shook his head. "Non illuc age. Don't. I'm-"
"You're not making any sense," Rodney said, leaning closer again, and John just managed to get his hand up in time to prevent another slap.
"Non auxilians," he said, shaking his head. "Non est…it's not…my head…" There were too many words trying to get out at once, and not all of them were his.
"I did not mean for this to happen." Teyla sounded distraught, and John tried to meet her eyes, to tell her that it wasn't her fault, that it was his own fault for looking into that stupid, stupid light, but everything got caught somewhere in his throat and he couldn't get the words out.
"Alright, that's enough." Pushing Rodney aside, Ronon reached down and pulled on John's wrists, getting him to sit up.
John was about to protest that he could manage just fine, but the way he listed to one side, unable to get a hand out to balance himself, suggested that there was no point. His head lolled back as Ronon wrapped a hand around his back, shoving the other under his knees and heaving him up. Rodney, face white and lips pressed into a tight line, came round to support his head, while Teyla lifted his limp arm across his body. Something, someone inside John's head was screaming in frustration, in humiliation, in sheer rage, but no sound came out. He was trapped in his own body, mind not able to latch onto anything long enough to let him move, let him react.
Ronon shifted him again, trying to find a more comfortable grip. "Call Keller," he growled, already halfway down the corridor. "We need help."
"When I discover who I am, I'll be free."
John's eyes were closed, but he wasn't asleep. There was no way his mind could rest like this, his thoughts colliding and bouncing off each other, memories rising to the surface only to disappear again, fading like mist or crumbling as he tried to reach for them. To add to the constantly shifting sand inside his head, people kept talking to him, asking him questions that he couldn't find the coherency to answer, prodding him, sticking needles in him and finally, finally moving away from his bed and leaving him alone in the chaos.
He could still hear them, their voices cutting through the maelstrom and echoing inside his skull, although he couldn't make sense of everything yet.
"What is happening?" That was a woman, her voice low and steady, and he could see her face, passing through his memories, her name trailing behind. Teyla. "He was fine."
"I'm afraid he's very far from fine." Another woman, her voice higher and differently accented, her words coming quicker. Keller. Doctor. He couldn't find her face, struggling for it as she went on, "His brain chemistry has been significantly altered." There was a pause, and John spent it trying to recall what she looked like, bringing face after face to the top of his mind until he no longer knew which ones he recognized and which he didn't. It was a relief when Keller said, "Look, these are the scans I've taken from Colonel Sheppard during today. At first, his brain activity increased massively each time, but the last two scans show only very slight increases. I think whatever this thing is doing, it's done it."
"So why is he like this?" That voice was deep, almost a growl and instantly recognizable. Ronon.
"I don't know. But I think it's to do with his ATA gene." The pause was briefer, and John barely had time to dismiss the images of three redheads – blonde, Keller was blonde – before she was speaking again. "I noticed that the full body scans I was taking were different, but I couldn't find any actual physical changes to explain it. Not until I found something to compare it to, that is."
"What's that?" That voice was practically seared into his consciousness, and John didn't need any time to recognize it. Rodney. "Whose scan is that?"
"I found it in the database. Apparently she called herself Chaya?"
"The Ancient?" Rodney was practically squeaking. "What-"
"So then, I compared Colonel Sheppard's scans to the ones taken of Doctor McKay when he got zapped by that ascension machine. There are similarities, particularly in brain activity, but I'd have to say that the Colonel's are closer to Chaya's."
"So what? We just wait for him to ascend so that he can let us know what's going on, assuming he doesn't die first?" The sarcasm in Rodney's voice helped cut through some of the mess in John's head, and he managed a weak smile. "Am I the only one seeing the flaw in this plan?"
"That's not what I'm saying." Keller's voice grew sharper in response, and suddenly John could see her. Blonde, pretty, with a small mouth and delicate features. He knew her. The only problem was, part of him had never seen her before. Before he could untangle what that meant, her voice reached him again, stronger this time. "I'm saying that this is what might have happened to you if you'd had the same gene as the Colonel. I'm saying that somehow, the scanners are now recognizing him as Ancient, not human. I'm saying that I have no idea how to get the information out of his head. We always knew that Colonel Sheppard had a particularly strong expression of the gene, but this suggests it's even more than that. Of all of us around here, he might be the only one who could survive this kind of experience."
"Go me." He thought he'd only said the words inside his own head, but from the way there were suddenly hands touching his shoulder, his wrist, and from the way the bed shook slightly as someone leaned against it, John supposed they must have come out of his mouth as well. "Hey there."
"Well, that's better than salve, I guess," Rodney muttered.
"What?" That sounded like Ronon, deep and puzzled.
Rodney made an irritated noise. "Never mind. Sheppard?"
"You still in there?"
"I guess." He concentrated as much as he could, and managed to get his eyes open a crack. "Bit crowded."
"We can leave," Teyla said at once, glancing at Rodney, who shook his head. That was good, because John couldn't manage it right now, and he didn't want them to go. Seeing other people, hearing their voices, was an anchor in the storm, a reminder of who he was, or at least who part of him was. He wasn't so sure about the rest.
"I don't think that's what he meant," Rodney said, eyes not leaving John's. "Keller, you said his readings were like Chaya's, right? More Ancient than human? Okay then." He cleared his throat, eyeing John nervously before saying, "Martus? I'm right, aren't I? That's who I'm talking to. You can hear me can't you?."
"Etiam," John said, and that time, he was sure that he hadn't said anything. He shut his mouth so quickly his teeth snapped, and hey, at least he had that much control. Apparently all he needed was to be really, seriously and truly freaked out.
Rodney was looking about the same, his eyes traveling round the group before coming to rest on John's again. He swallowed, and John watched his Adam's Apple bob up and down. John knew that look. That was Rodney's I have some bad news look, his this time we're really going to die look, his there's nothing I can do about it look. It was the look he always gave John right before the shooting started.
This was definitely not good.
John dozed off again somewhere during the hundreds of scans that Keller had insisted on carrying out again, now they had a better idea of what they were looking for. She'd said something about the increased brain activity exhausting him, but he had a feeling ten hours of sleep in three nights would also do that to a person. He woke up slowly, blinking at the now too-familiar ceiling, noticing the peculiar way the green merged into the blue without his being able to see the join.
His head still felt too full, as though if he moved too quickly, his brain might slosh out of his ears, but it didn't hurt so much, and the worst of the disorienting pressure was gone, leaving him worn out and hungry. He sat up very slowly, trying to see if there was anyone around. He didn't hear any worrying splashing noises, so he assumed his brain cells were still where they were meant to be, and he only had a brief wave of dizziness as he managed to get all the way upright.
He risked turning his head, and frowned at all the equipment around him. He recognized and he didn't recognize it, like the strongest déjà vu he'd ever had. Carefully, he reached out a hand to touch the nearest monitor, only to find that his balance really wasn't as restored as he thought, and he was tipping off of the bed, the floor coming up towards him with more speed than he'd expected, the monitors going haywire around him.
The stop was almost as jarring as the fall, slamming him against hard muscle and bone while hands pulled at him, dragging him far enough off Ronon's shoulder that he was able to mutter, "Thank you," and let Keller and Rodney lie him back on the bed.
When John was feeling better, he was going to tell Keller that turning her head like that as she looked down at a patient made her face seem almost upside-down. Although that might just have been him.
"What's happening?" he asked, trying to get his eyes to focus again.
"What do you remember?" Rodney asked, and something in his voice caught John's attention. It was too soft, too gentle and it scared John down to the bone.
"I-" He felt his body jerk, and then someone was saying, "Adiuve me. Egeo auxilium. Cogito extrarius est, sed-"
Like before, the adrenaline rush was enough to let John get control of himself, to force the words and the thoughts back down, so that he was lying still, panting and sweating.
"It's Martus," Rodney said grimly. "He wants something."
"Yeah, my body." But that wasn't it. John knew that as soon as he said it, because he knew Martus, could feel him at the back of his mind. He frowned. "He wants help with something."
"Thank you, we had got that far." That was more like it. John knew where he was with a ticked-off Rodney.
"Then get further," John said. "What does he want? Was there anything in his lab?"
"We, er, haven't been able to find out. He was talking while you were asleep, but nothing coherent."
"He was talking in my sleep?" Just when John had thought this couldn't get weirder. He really needed to stop thinking that. "What did he say?"
Rodney waved a hand irritably. "Like I said, nothing coherent. Stuff about the Wraith coming, how he needed help. Oh, and one word I couldn't work out. Cressa."
The feelings slammed through John like a sledgehammer, all the more powerful because he knew they weren't his.
"Yeah," John gasped, trying to focus on Rodney's voice, which was suddenly a long way away. "Hang on." The sensations were overwhelming, emotions turned to physical reality and making his muscles spasm and stomach clench. He turned on his side, trying to breathe more deeply and not throw up. Looking down, he saw that his hands were gripping the sheets so tightly that his knuckles were white. He focused on them, riding out the end of the pain and trying to push whatever it was down in his mind so he could get some control.
Someone was rubbing his back gently, giving him a rhythm to work to, to breath to, and when he looked up, he wasn't entirely surprised to see Teyla hovering by the bed, her face full of concern.
"Hey," he managed, and she smiled a little.
"John. Are you alright?"
If it had been Rodney asking, John probably would have made some kind of sarcastic comeback, but this was Teyla, and she was really asking.
"I'm fine," he said, carefully turning back over and staring at the ceiling again. His body felt like his again, but still heavy and clumsy. "That was him, not me."
"I think we got that." Rodney was sounding impatient, the way he always did when you knew something he didn't. "Care to share?"
"Hang on, McKay." Rifling in someone's mind which happened to be in your own mind was more than a little disconcerting. He couldn't really 'hear' Martus, or see his thoughts, but the aftershocks of the emotion were still running through John, and he picked up a few disjointed impressions. "It's a name. A woman." The image came to his mind again, dark hair surrounding a pale face. He blinked it away as the answer came to him. "She was lost in the war." Even to his own ears, John's voice was soft, subdued.
"She meant something to him?" Teyla asked, and John nodded.
"She meant everything to him."
"I'm sure that's very romantic," Rodney said, not sounding impressed, "but if she was lost in the war, what does he want?"
"Non perdita. Posso Cressam invenire. Scio ubi. Libero me."
The words tumbled out of John's mouth, pushing him aside and this time, he didn't fight them. He'd been here before, shouting and screaming as another consciousness used his body, but this was nothing like that. The sheer, raw hurt rolling from Martus was overwhelming, and although John knew he could have taken charge again if he wanted to, he couldn't bring himself to do it, letting Martus yell and curse in Ancient at his team and Keller, while John retreated to the furthest corner of his mind. The guy had been stuck in a computer program in a dead city for ten thousand years. He probably deserved the moment of freedom.
There was also the minor detail that John couldn't actually seem to find the energy to fight back this time. He wanted to, wanted to take charge of his own body, but he couldn't manage it, or couldn't bring himself to. Either Martus was getting stronger or John was getting weaker. Neither sounded like the better option.
Since he couldn't do much else, John sat back and waited, trying not to be too disturbed by the way Martus was getting comfortable in his body.
He really, really hated goodbyes. That was obvious by the way her ship had been waiting for her for nearly half an hour while they tried to say everything and nothing all at once.
"I have your work," she said, the corner of her mouth twitching just a little. "It's like having you with me."
"And what about me?"
"You have your work too. This is important, Martus." She took a step towards him, undoing all the progress they'd made in the last ten minutes. "You're going to get there."
"Maybe." He shook his head. "But it's not going to be enough to defeat the Wraith."
"That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. We are more than just opponents of the Wraith. We have to be."
He smiled at her earnest expression, trying to imprint it on his memory. "You should go."
"I know." She took a deep breath, then stepped backwards. One pace. Two paces. She turned, glancing back at him over her shoulder.
She was gone.
John found himself standing in the middle of the infirmary, not entirely sure how he'd got there. There were a lot of people around, from Ronon and Teyla, who'd retreated to the far corner and seemed to be standing guard, to Keller and Lorne, who were watching Rodney. Who was yelling. No change there then.
"This is completely ridiculous!" The target of his frustration seemed to be Lorne, who had his arms folded and chin lifted in his best you can't change my mind pose. It looked like they'd been at it for a while.
"McKay, cool it," Lorne said, not sounding particularly cool himself. "There's nothing I can do."
"We still have the subspace array. You could call the Apollo back, tell them to just turn around and come back and-"
"Good question," John said, trying not to flinch as all heads turned to him. "Er, hi." He gave a little wave. "Yes, it's me," he added, seeing Rodney open his mouth. "What happened?"
"Apparently Martus has somewhere he needs to be." Rodney folded his arms, pointedly not looking at Lorne. "And wants us to take him there. Which we could do."
"The Stargate has no power, no DHD." Lorne was using the voice he saved for idiots and Rodney, slow and over-emphasizing each word. "If you happen to know a way round that…"
"Well, in case you hadn't noticed, we have these remarkable things called 'ships.'" Rodney actually drew the quotes in the air. "And one of them is only a few days away from here. The Apollo left less than fifty hours ago, which means they can be back within fifty hours. Do I need to draw you a diagram?"
"Possibly, if you want to explain to me why, exactly, I'd let an alien consciousness walk off with Colonel Sheppard's body."
"You know, I'm standing right here," John said mildly, although really he was loathe to interrupt Lorne and Rodney when they got going.
Flushing a little, Lorne unfolded his arms and turned to John. "Sorry, sir, but even if I thought this was a good idea, I'd have to pull someone from gate repairs to work on the subspace communications-"
"Actually, there's a secondary control for them in one of the labs at the base of the tower," John said, "but go on."
"Hah!" Rodney waved a triumphant finger at Lorne. "You see? We'll just call the Apollo and get them to come back and then they can take us to wherever it is he wants to go-"
"You see, this is where I start having a problem again."
John would say this for Lorne: when he put his mind to it, he was as stubborn as Rodney. Since Rodney seemed to be looking to set new records for stubbornness today, he decided it was probably time to intervene.
"Look, Major, I think McKay's got a point."
"Besides, the Apollo has got a whole bunch of Asgard gadgets on it. Since Rodney hasn't been able to come up with anything-"
"Exactly. Wait, what?" Turning to him with an indignant expression, Rodney opened his mouth to protest.
John raised his eyebrow, just a fraction. Rodney deflated a little.
"Fine. Good point. Whatever. Yes, I'm sure they'll be a great help." He coughed awkwardly, then jerked his head towards the door. "I'll just be down in the lab. Running some more simulations. Yes."
Once Rodney's back was turned, John met Teyla's eye and nodded, just a fraction. She glanced at Rodney, then back, nodding her understanding and slipping out of the door behind him. An upset Rodney was a careless Rodney, and they'd only just got the city back together again.
Lorne was still watching John, as though he was suddenly remembering the whole 'relieved of duty' thing.
"I swear, Major, this is me."
"Yeah, that's what Doctor Weir said right before she took out the security team."
John had forgotten that, and he suppressed the grin with difficulty. He would have paid good money to see it. "Yes, but I'm not asking you to give me a gun, or trust me with anything. I'm telling you that there's a subspace communications console in the lab on the third level of the central tower, East side. Call the Apollo. Get them here. Then, at least when everything goes to hell, you've got a superior officer to blame."
Looking unhappy, but at least a little more convinced, Lorne unfolded his arms and nodded. "And in the meantime?"
John smiled grimly. "I'm going to spend some quality time with myself."
It turned out that John couldn't communicate directly with Martus, but he could catch edges of thoughts, general impressions that told him as much as words. He felt the relief of the other man, that the city had survived the Wraith. Twice. He felt the mixture of anger and guilt at what the Replicators had done to Atlantis, mingled with a good dose of his own feelings on the subject of the Asurans. It got a bit complicated at that point, and he decided that sitting in the infirmary staring at the wall really wasn't getting him anywhere.
Keller released him into Ronon's custody, although she made it clear that they were to return every half an hour or she was going to find a Wraith stunner and come get John herself.
John wandered the city for a while, feeling Martus' surprise and satisfaction at having the city lived in again. The problem was, he couldn't seem to keep those feelings to himself, and John had to stop every so often, leaning against the wall and trying to untangle himself.
"You okay?" Ronon stopped as well, watching him carefully.
"Yeah. Just…" John waved a hand vaguely, trying not to give way to the sheer frustration of being watched all the time. He had a feeling Lorne had a couple of Marines following them-
-two lifesigns, keeping pace-
-but John didn't really blame him. Slowly, he turned his head so that he could see his hand, pressed against the odd orange-pink of the wall.
"What?" Coming to stand in front of him, Ronon looked at his hand as well. "What is it?"
"When I touch the city, something…I can…" He shook his head. "Something happens."
For once, John was grateful for the way Ronon just waited for an explanation, giving him a chance to pull himself together. It was like having a deep instinct, a gut feeling that he couldn't understand. It was like, he realized, sitting in the control chair while standing up. He was doing it more consciously than before, not just randomly tapping into information and systems, but actually knowing what he was doing. Most of the time.
"Let me try something," he said, pressing both hands flat against the wall and thinking-
Rodney was bent over a console, his back to Teyla, who was watching him, a mixture of sympathy and frustration on her face.
"Perhaps if you were to tell me what you were doing-"
"By the time I explain it, I can do it," Rodney said shortly, looking over to his laptop. "Sorry, this kind of thing isn't much of a spectator sport."
"I do not mind." Obviously trying to think of a different approach, Teyla frowned, then said, "Then maybe you could tell me what you are doing. Talking it through might help you to see a different way of doing it."
"Yeah, I've never really bought into that as an idea." Catching her eye, Rodney sighed. "Fine. Look, the first time SG1 found one of these, they drained the Repository of power. The second time, they were on a hostile planet and couldn't stick around to look at it properly. But we have all the power it needs, and plenty of time. There has to be a way of reversing the effects."
"What?" Rodney turned round, lifting his hands the way he did when he was thinking hard. John was always surprised he didn't poke himself in the eye. "What do you mean?"
"What if there is no way of reversing it? What if we must find a way that does not involve the Repository at all?"
"Like what?" Rodney spread his arms out wide. "The possibilities are endless. We have to start somewhere, and I am not stopping until we're at least sure that there's no chance of using the Repository to cure Sheppard." They were frozen like that for a moment, Rodney looking vulnerable and awkward, Teyla tilting her head in understanding. Then Rodney brought his hands back to his body sharply, and turned back to the console. When he spoke, it was hard to make out the words, and Teyla went closer, leaning in to hear. "Last time, we just had to sit around while Carson did useless things with retroviruses. I am not leaving him to cure himself this time."
"Rodney." Teyla was close enough to put a hand on Rodney's arm, and she did so, making him pause in the middle of typing something into his laptop. He nodded, a short, curt gesture, then shook himself a little.
"Now, watch this screen for me, and tell me if any of the bars turn red. Okay?"
John took his hands from the wall, still facing it as the images faded. He was starting to be grateful that he hadn't eaten, because that cold knot in the pit of his stomach hadn't gone away for hours now, and not throwing up always went on his list of good things to do. Yes, definitely a good thing.
"Sheppard?" Ronon was close enough that John could almost feel his body heat. "You alright?"
It was easier just to nod than to try to talk around the lump in his throat. John carefully didn't kick the wall, although he couldn't quite bring himself to look up at Ronon. Slowly, he turned and started down the corridor again, keeping his arms straight by his sides and his fists clenched. He knew from the vague unease at the back of his mind that this kind of thing wasn't normal for Ancients either, some kind of weird quirk from John's personal genetics and probably the amount of time he'd spent in the chair lately. Whatever was causing it, John definitely wasn't grateful for all the insights he was getting. Going through this himself was as frustrating as hell. Watching others watching him go through it was taking that feeling to a whole new level.
John didn't know if Martus would feel the pain if he were to punch himself in the mouth, but he was seriously considering trying it anyway. This wasn't something he could fight, or that Ronon could shoot, or that Teyla could reason with or Rodney could fix. Not even Elizabeth could have negotiated her way out of this one.
The wave of feeling was his own this time, and he knew that it was Martus taking the brunt of it. That didn't help much when they were sharing his body, and John was suddenly on the floor, hands and knees smarting from the impact and his body shuddering. A warm arm wrapped around his waist, making him realize how cold he was, and he let Ronon help him, the sensations easier to bear this time. This was his grief, the shiver that went through him every time her name came into his thoughts, amplified by whatever Martus was doing to his brain. He'd lived with this grief since flying the Jumper away from Asurus. He'd lived with it when they lost Markham, Ford, Carson. He'd survive it now.
When he stopped shivering, he patted Ronon's arm, reassuring one or the other of them, he wasn't sure who.
"I think we should go back to the infirmary," Ronon said, and he might as well have said I think we should lock you up.
John shook his head. "Not yet." He could feel Martus' own reluctance and this time, John was fairly sure he agreed. He was sick of feeling like a caged animal. "I'm fine now."
Ronon didn't let go as he get to his feet, temporarily leaving John's boots dangling in mid-air. He put John down, then looked at him with an expression of deep distrust. "Yeah, I can tell."
"No, it's just…" Trying to wrap words around what was going on in his head was proving a challenge. "I just need not to think some things, that's all. Stuff that sets him off."
Shaking his head again, John set off slowly down the corridor. "I'm trying not to think it."
Ronon huffed a little, but didn't say anything, just following John as he made his way up to the gateroom. Heads turned as he slowly climbed the stairs, stumbling a little at the top. He was starting to think that the slight disorientation was the result of two of them trying to drive his body at once. Martus needed reminding just who was in charge around here.
Up in the control room, Zelenka turned to him with a worried smiled. "Colonel. How are you feeling?"
"Oh, you know, pretty good, all things considered." John stuck his hands in his pockets and looked round the room. "How's it going?"
"Not too badly." Pushing his glasses up his nose, Zelenka nodded at the various consoles as he spoke. "The DHD should be working by the time the gate is functional, and sensors are already online. We are having trouble still with environmental controls, but they were struggling even before, er…"
"I blew everything up."
"Well, yes." Zelenka gave him another of those nervous smiles, then led the way over to the console. "We are not sure if it is problem with console or with the whole system."
"You want me to take a look?" The question obviously surprised Zelenka, and John shrugged. "I'm not doing anything actually useful right now, and it worked earlier on."
"Well." Not looking at all certain, Zelenka glanced round at Ronon. "If you are sure. Those who are currently living in Siberian conditions would be most grateful, and it would mean I could help Chuck repair the DHD correctly this time."
Five minutes later, John had half the wiring out the bottom of the console, and was letting his instincts guide him as to what needed to be connected where. Ronon stood at the console, peering down occasionally, and pressing buttons as instructed. It was kind of a weird feeling, as John's hands swapped two wires over without his conscious instruction. He didn't know if it was Martus doing the work, or his subconscious pulling the information out of the database, but it seemed to be effective for now. And doing something, relieved or duty or not, felt so good that John really didn't want to think too hard about it.
"Okay," he called up to Ronon. "Try it again."
"Right." There was a slight pause, then Ronon said, "Everything's gone green except the one on the end."
"Got it." John could see the problem now, could see the wiring that had shorted out, a whole inch of it blackened and fraying. Without even thinking, he reached out and took hold of it, planning on yanking it free. The pain was sudden and sharp, and his head hit the floor with a thump as his back arched and his body began to spasm. He had just enough time to think that playing with live wires was a really stupid thing to do, before he passed out.
"You have to wake up."
Someone was shouting at John, breaking into the darkness that surrounded him and where he'd been quite content, thank you so much.
John waved a hand weakly, trying to say that yes, he was trying to wake up, but it really wasn't as easy as it sounded. The blackness was warm and comfortable, so close around him that it was almost smothering. He needed to get out. He couldn't get out.
"Wake up, John Sheppard." The voice was harsh and cold, cutting through the fuzziness and making John gasp. "I still need you."
John was about to make some kind of reply as to just how much he appreciated the voice's concern for his welfare, when the black cloud began to dissolve, and he was taking deep, choking breaths. He felt weak and drained, but his body was breathing again, even if he couldn't actually fight his way back to consciousness. Other voices were talking to him, calling his name, but all he could hear was the one voice echoing inside his head as he drifted in the darkness.
"I need you."
John opened his eyes and looked out at Atlantis. Part of him knew he was still unconscious, but the part of him that was connected to Atlantis was awake, eager to explore with his mind, at least. There was so much to see, so much of Atlantis that was alive and active, along with so much that was damaged and dead.
He stood at the end of the corridor, right at the edge where the floor had fallen away. Looking across the now vast expanse, he could see the hyperdrive controls, could almost see the splashes of blood across the wall and floor from Zelenka's injury. It had been a desperate attempt, ultimately doomed to failure, but it had been worth trying.
A hand on his shoulder pushed at him, forcing him to look down the dizzying distance to the towers below, half the city spread out beneath him. It looked impossibly new and felt achingly familiar, as though he could remember the construction of the city itself, as though he had helped draw the plans for those buildings and spires when they were still fresh ideas. But John knew, deep in his soul, that the city was old, brought out of its hibernation and slowly opening its secrets to new occupiers. They would come and go, but Atlantis would survive, he would survive, that part of him that was the city, that stretched out into the long-dead past and would help send the city into the future. He would always be here.
The hand on his shoulder tightened and pulled, turning him so that he was walking through empty corridors, back to the gateroom. He felt the ripple of surprise at the devastation, the damaged consoles and gaping holes in the floor and walls, but most of all at the shattered window above him. It was the same shock John had felt on seeing it like this for the first time. That window was his Atlantis and the shattered remains made it feel as though the heart had been ripped out of the city.
With an effort, John shook his head, populating the gateroom with repair crews, showing how much they had already done. Marines and technicians swarmed over the ruined floor. Scientists and engineers replaced crystals and reconnected wires. Everywhere people were moving, working. The city was bloody but unbowed, limping forwards with the sure knowledge that one day it would walk again, that it would run onwards into the future.
There were hands on both of John's shoulders now, steering him through the city, pausing to look over someone's shoulder or listen to the work crews conferring and coordinating with each other. He was taken through the botany labs, past marine biology and onto anthropology, linguistics, each of them inspected and examined. His whistle-stop tour ended in the infirmary, peering at the equipment and watching the nurses patch up cuts and grazes. Finally, the hands pushed him towards a bed in the corner, and it took John a moment to recognize himself, and another to decide that this wasn't actually the weirdest thing to happen to him today so there was probably no reason to panic.
Even under the oxygen mask, he could see that he needed a shave, and one of his hands had a bright white bandage wrapped around it. Otherwise, he seemed to be unscathed. Someone had actually tried to comb his hair back down, which was sweet, if ineffectual.
The hands on his shoulders pushed him towards the bed, holding him firm when he tried to turn and see who was there. It wasn't that he didn't want to wake up, and it wasn't that he didn't already know who had to be doing this to him, it was just that he needed to see, needed to know more. He was sick of being pushed around.
"I need you," the voice said again, pushing him hard enough that John stumbled towards the bed, feeling pulled at the same time, the sensation dragging him down, down, down into the dark, then pushing him up again into the light.
With all the rewiring Atlantis needed, Keller was getting a lot of practice treating electrocutions, and she declared John's a minor case, although she obviously had no plans to release him from the infirmary any time soon, particularly since the shock didn't seem to have driven Martus from John's mind.
"If it's distracting you enough that you're electrocuting yourself, I think you're better off somewhere that I can keep an eye on you."
For once, John wasn't going to argue. As soon as she let him take the oxygen mask off, and given him some water for his parched throat, he said, "I think I have an idea."
"That's good." She tilted her head to one side, and John couldn't help but notice that she kept glancing at his hair.
Since the other option was rolling his eyes , John grimaced "Yeah. Maybe. I'm not sure you're going to like it though."
He wasn't wrong. Keller looked at him as though he was insane, and Ronon started pacing like a man at the end of his patience. John was actually glad that Teyla and Ronon had gone back to the lab once they'd been sure John was alright, because at least they weren't there to glare at him as well.
"I know it sounds extreme," he said, holding up a hand to stall Keller's objections, "but while I was out of it, I swear I could actually hear him properly for the first time."
"So you want me to put you in a coma?" Keller's arms were folded and her shoulders were stiff. She looked like she'd learned that one from Rodney.
"I want you to knock me out." Shrugging, John watching Ronon pace from one side of the infirmary to the other. "Coma, asleep, unconscious. Whatever you want to call it. You can wake me up when the Apollo gets here. This is a chance to talk to him, maybe find out more of what he wants." When Keller still looked unconvinced, John added, "Even when I hadn't just shocked myself unconscious, I kept having flashbacks to his memories. There's only so many times Ronon can pick me up off the floor before it starts getting annoying."
That brought Ronon up short, and he shot John a look that was a mixture of annoyance and grudging concession.
"This isn't just a case of giving you a few knock out drops," Keller said, narrowing her eyes. "Fifty hours is a long time, and we're not really set-up for this kind of thing. Not at the moment."
John had already thought through all the implications - dwelling on some more than others - but he wasn't about to change his mind. "I know what you're saying, Doc, but this is my best chance, trust me."
"Okay," Keller said slowly. "I'm going to have to check with Major Lorne."
"I can wait."
As she stepped into the next room to make the call, Ronon let his pacing carry him over to John. "You're serious about this?"
"It's not getting any better." John was keeping his voice low and reasonable. This was a good solution, giving the people on Atlantis a break from having to watch out for him as well as put the city back together, and to give him a break as well. He was doing the right thing. It was going to be easier for everyone, although you wouldn't have thought it from the look on Ronon's face.
After a few minutes, Keller came back, looking unhappy but beaten. "Major Lorne agreed and so did Doctor McKay. Of course, I could just confine you to the infirmary for the duration."
She left the suggestion hanging and John tried to imagine spending fifty conscious hours in the infirmary. He really, really couldn't.
He shook his head. "Look, Doc, quite apart from the fact that I'm likely to go completely nuts if you do that, I think this is the right thing to do."
Taking a fresh set of scrubs from a cupboard, Keller handed them to him, then pulled a privacy screen round the bed. "Get changed. And you really think this will work?"
Silently thanking whoever had decided that sick Atlantis personnel could wear proper scrubs instead of back-opening gowns, John started swapping his clothes. "I think McKay and Teyla may have had a point. They were trying to get me to talk to Martus."
"That didn't go so well," Ronon pointed out.
"Yeah, and it's not going so well now," John countered. "I know he's there, I just can't quite…hear him, if you know what I mean."
"And you think he'll be able to talk to you while you're asleep?" Keller sounded skeptical.
John didn't blame her for her uncertainty, but he was starting to run out of ideas. His voice was slightly muffled as he wrestled his way into the shirt. "Yeah, pretty much," he said. "The guy wants something, and he's not going away until he gets it. Maybe we can negotiate." He pulled the drawstring on the pants tight, then pushed the privacy screen aside. "No offence to McKay, but Martus is probably the only one who knows how to get himself out of here." He tapped the side of his head. "Let's talk to him, see what he wants."
With obvious reluctance, Keller nodded. "Alright. Have a seat." She nodded to the bed in the corner. "I'll be back in a minute. Have you had anything to eat today?"
"Not since breakfast." And damn, was it really that short a time? Sixteen hours ago, his radio had been beeping and McKay had been yelling. He seemed to have spent most of the intervening hours here in the infirmary. At this rate, they were going to give him his own bed.
"Alright," Keller said, "that makes things easier. Get comfortable. I won't be long."
When she'd gone, John hopped back onto the bed, swinging his legs a little and watching Ronon pace again. Reassurances didn't seem to be working, although it didn't stop John from trying. "It's gonna be fine."
"Yeah? You remember the last time you tried to negotiate for something?"
"We only got a bit shot at."
"For a change." Ronon stopped pacing, looking at John with an intensity that made John want to squirm. "You really think you can do this?"
John closed his eyes. He was tired, his head hurt, his hand hurt, his city was in pieces and he really, really just wanted to get back to his job. And people kept asking him stupid questions. "I have no idea," he said honestly, opening his eyes and meeting Ronon's. "But what would you do?"
Ronon's hands opened and closed a few times, then he shook his head. "I can't do anything," he said softly and John had to look away again.
Ronon had stood by and watched as Teyla reached into the mind of a Wraith queen, as Elizabeth had nearly been killed by nanites and as Rodney had nearly ascended his way out of Atlantis, not to mention watching John himself turn into a bug. The role of spectator didn't really suit him and it was starting to show. Hearing the defeat in his voice was even worse than hearing it in Rodney's, because Ronon never, ever gave up.
There was nothing he could say, but John had half-opened his mouth anyway when Keller came back, pushing an IV stand and carrying a tray of what looked to John like extremely suspicious medical equipment. She hesitated, looking from one of them to the other.
"Sorry, I can-"
"No, you're good, Doc," John said, pulling his feet up onto the bed and lying back. "All yours."
Keller fussed for longer than John thought was strictly necessary, explaining everything that she was doing, from the sedative drip to the other IV to the tubes that John could really have done without thinking about. But fifty hours was a long time to go without a bathroom break. Eventually, Keller declared herself content with the medical set-up.
"You're still sure?" she asked, fiddling with the drip one last time. "You don't have to go through with this."
"Yeah, I do." John could feel Martus at the back of his mind, nervous and curious. He had no idea if this was going to work, but it had to be worth the try. "Whenever you're ready."
He had his eyes closed, so had no idea how far through Keller was when there was shouting outside the infirmary, and Rodney's voice gradually became intelligible.
"-so quickly? He's just going to-"
"He's gonna wake up again, McKay." That was possibly Ronon's attempt to be reassuring, but John wouldn't put money on it. When he tried to get his eyes open to see what was going on, they were too heavy to lift, and the words were already growing muffled and distant.
"It's alright, Colonel." Keller put a hand on his shoulder. "Just let go. We got you."
Another hand grazed his, while someone else gave his foot a tentative pat, and John felt his lips curl a little as he gently drifted off to sleep.
The Atlantis around him felt different, and John guessed that he was standing in Martus' version of the city, at a time when they had the people and the resources and the technology to make everything work, or to fix it when it broke. He wandered the hallways for a while, not really looking for anything in particular, just ambling along, letting Martus take his time. He'd be around here somewhere.
He turned out to be in the gateroom, which was looking much shinier than when John had last seen it. The windows were glowing and the floor was smooth and intact. Sticking his hands in his pockets, John looked around.
"Like what you've done with the place," John said. Martus made no reply, and John turned to him, raising an eyebrow. "I thought we should talk."
Martus was a tall man, with at least an inch on John, and his hair was a sandy brown, cut short and neat. His face was broad, with strong features and eyes that already looked disapproving.
This could be hard work. John pulled one hand out of his pocket. "Listen, this was not my idea, ending up with you in my head, so I'm sorry if the accommodations aren't exactly to your liking. But you have to understand that my people are not going to let you do anything that might put them or Atlantis at risk."
"I am not asking them to." Martus' voice was crisp and clipped, and he sounded way more annoyed than John felt he had a right to. "This was unexpected."
"What did you think was going to happen?" John lifted a hand towards the other man. "You put that thing on the wall, you arranged to have yourself downloaded into someone's brain."
"I should have been able to communicate more easily. I should have been able to explain." There was an edge to Martus' voice, and John remembered the wave of emotion that had swept through him earlier. This wasn't about the city. This was personal.
"You can explain it to me," he said, folding his arms.
"I should have been able to explain it to the others," Martus said, looking at John the way Rodney looked at new and interesting technology. "You should not have been able to prevent me."
"Hey, I wasn't doing it on purpose!"
"The Repository would only activate for one with the gene, but I did not expect it to be so strong. Especially after all this time."
"Well, I guess I'm just special." John put all the sarcasm he could into the words, although it seemed to be lost on Martus.
"You are different."
"Lucky me." Letting some of his impatience show, John went on, "Now, are we just going to stand here, or are you going to tell me what you want?"
"You already know."
"What?" But then John did know, the memories slotting into his mind as though they had always been there. He looked away from Martus, reliving each moment and gritting his teeth against the swirling emotions that almost overwhelmed him. This wasn't him, these weren't his thoughts.
"But you understand." Looking less aloof and more desperate, Martus took half a step towards John. "I've seen it in your mind, the loss, the grief. You do not consider her lost."
John blinked, trying to focus. He could feel Martus' frustration and his own confusion, both of them detached from him somehow, as though he was watching himself from somewhere else. "That's because Elizabeth is still out there," he said, choosing each word carefully, "but it's been ten thousand years. You can't possibly think-"
"Cressa had access to my research. She knew what I was planning." More earnest now, Martus lifted his hands as he spoke. "She could have done the same as I have. Neither of us had the detachment necessary for ascension, how could we? This was our only chance."
"So what do you want?" John didn't seem to be handling the dual emotions as well as Martus, and it was taking him a real effort to get the words out.
"Take me to her."
"What?" He hadn't meant to laugh, but Martus seemed so serious, so sincere, as though he wasn't asking John to find a woman dead for ten thousand years. "How?"
"She was stationed on a research outpost. Take me there."
John's reaction to that was pretty much his usual reaction to ridiculous orders. He stuck his hands back in his pockets and tilted his head as though thinking. "In case you hadn't noticed," he said, feeling Martus' irritation and really, really not caring, "I sort of blew up the Stargate. Sorry about that." He didn't even attempt to make it sound like an apology.
"The outpost is beyond the gate network."
"Right." Drawing out the word for as long as he could, John raised an eyebrow. "So how exactly are we meant to get there?"
"You have ships capable of hyperspace travel."
He said it like it was the easiest thing in the galaxy, and John supposed, from his point of view, it was. But trying to explain to Colonel Ellis that the Ancient guy in his head wanted to go find his long-lost lover was going to be tricky.
Of course, Martus picked up on that thought. And smiled. "I believe I can offer you more than that. The outpost was on the edge of Wraith territory, to be in a better position to study their technology. They found something, a weakness in the Wraith ships that we hoped to exploit."
"The Aurora." John's surprise was tinged with Martus' satisfaction, and the hope probably came from both of them. "She was bringing back that communication."
"We didn't dare transmit it through subspace. The Wraith were monitoring everything. Please." He was right in front of John now, the blank mask gone and John could feel the emotions so fiercely, almost too fiercely to let him concentrate. "This could help both of us."
However much the Replicators were doing to keep the Wraith off Atlantis' back, John wasn't about to turn down more ammunition if he could get it.
"Alright," he said carefully. "Tell me where the outpost is and I'll see what I can do when the Apollo gets here."
An impatient look crossed Martus' face. "That should not be necessary. If you would let yourself, you could know everything."
"And maybe if you were a little less cryptic, I'd have some idea of what you were talking about." The emotions were gathering strength between them, and John tried to force himself to stay calm. It was too distracting to think about the mess of feelings that he couldn't disentangle.
"You are us," Martus said simply. "You know this already."
"You seem to be making a lot of assumptions about what I do and don't know," John said, resisting the urge to shake his head to clear it. It probably wouldn't do him much good in here anyway.
"I can tell you everything. All my knowledge of the city, of the Wraith."
There was something wrong with Martus' voice, and John could feel the hope getting stronger, the tug of the feelings at the back of his mind getting more and more powerful.
"What's that gonna cost me?" he asked, trying to force everything back, trying to keep control of his own mind.
"It's just temporary," Martus said, coming within arm's reach.
John couldn't move, his feet stuck to the floor somehow. "What are you-"
"You won't be harmed, I promise." Martus hesitated, then put his hands on either side of John's face. "But I have waited too long for this."
"I already agreed," John protested, unable to pull away, and okay, now was probably a good time to start panicking.
"I know, but only because you could change your mind at any time. I can't take that risk."
"What are you doing?" John's words were slurring now, and he suspected that if Martus let go, his knees wouldn't be able to hold him up.
"You have to do more than just understand. You have to know." Martus closed his eyes. "If it had been another, with less of us in them, this would not have been possible. But you are so much like us."
Then John got it. He could feel Martus' mind not just moving against his, but inside it, around it, saturating every thought and impulse. It was incredible, bright and dazzling, completely overwhelming him. When Thalen had taken over his body, John had just been pushed to the sidelines, helpless to do anything except yell in silent fury. This was different, more like discovery, like the unlocking of part of himself that he'd never known existed. Even as part of him panicked, wrestling and fighting and twisting away in terror, John reached out towards the light, taking hold of it and drawing it into his mind. It was blinding, swamping every sense he had until all his awareness was focused on that single blaze of light. As it settled into him, he felt it filling every last corner of his mind, all the dark and hidden places, absorbing and surrounding him. He was…complete.
He was lost.
"It isn't possible to love and part ... You can transmutate love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you. I know from experience that the poets are right: love is eternal."
E. M. Forester
From the way his mouth felt like the bottom of a bird cage and the sensation that all his limbs were made of lead, John guessed he was awake again. He hadn't felt nearly so terrible while inside his mind, arguing with Martus.
John opened his eyes, or at least tried to. His eyelids seemed to be made of the same stuff as his arms and legs, stiff and heavy, and it took him three goes before he could see the blur of the ceiling above him.
"Colonel? Take it easy." Someone lifted the head of the bed so that he was sitting more upright, which was good because John probably couldn't have managed that for himself. "You'll be woozy for a little while," Keller said, and John managed to drag his eyes over to look at her.
"Hey," he croaked, coughing a little.
She smiled and turned away, coming back with a glass of water and a straw. "Just sip it. You'll feel better in a little while."
It was hard not to gulp at the water, but since John still couldn't quite get his arms to work properly, he couldn't make a grab for the glass when Keller took it away.
"Apollo?" His voice was still raspy, but Keller understood anyway.
"They'll be arriving in a few hours. I thought you'd want to be awake to meet them." Her expression turned serious. "Did it work? Were you able to talk to him?"
"Yeah." Not really ready to go into details yet, John nodded, fighting the wave of dizziness.
Keller smiled a little. "Take it easy. I'll let the others know you're awake, but no visitors until you can actually put a whole sentence together, okay?"
"Gotcha." As she left, John leaned his head back against the pillow and closed his eyes. It felt so much better, not to have that pressure in his mind any more, to feel free and whole and right again. Once his body was working properly, he'd go up to see the Colonel and the others, and tell them what he now knew. Then they'd find the outpost, and find Cressa and everything would be alright again.
He let himself drift gently, his body slowly coming back under his control and his mind unfogged for the first time in what felt like ages. And if there was a tiny part of him that was struggling still, screaming that this wasn't right, that something was wrong wrong wrong, well. It was probably just an aftereffect of the anesthetic. He'd feel better soon. Martus seemed to have done whatever it was he wanted and just left him alone. That had to be a good thing, didn't it?
It actually took two more glasses of water and a meal that he convinced the Mess to deliver to the infirmary before he started feeling more like himself again. Every muscle ached from hours of lying down, and his head was still a bit sore, but two hours after he'd woken up, Keller declared him fit to leave.
He was doing up the last of his shirt buttons as he reached the corridor where his team were waiting for him, Ronon leaning against the wall doing a bad job of looking casual, Teyla and Rodney sitting on chairs with their heads close together, talking about something on the laptop in front of them.
"Hey, kids," John said, smiling. "You miss me?"
"You feeling better?" Ronon looked him up and down.
"Yeah, I think so."
Teyla was also watching him carefully. "Were you able to communicate with Martus?"
"Pretty much." John rolled his shoulders, stretching a little. He was still kind of stiff. "I'm just on my way to talk to Colonel Ellis about it. I think I might have the answer."
He led the way down the corridor, smiling a little to himself at the way Teyla automatically fell in one step behind him, with Ronon bringing up the rear and Rodney tucked in the middle. Rodney, who had looked at John, frowned, and pressed his lips into a tight line. Rodney, who had closed his laptop and gotten to his feet, trotting along with the others as though on autopilot. Rodney, who hadn't said one word. Huh.
John pushed the thought aside. He needed to get Ellis to take the Apollo to the outpost, one way or another. That was the important thing right now, the thing he needed to focus on. He'd worry about the rest later.
The meeting was not going well. Even John's team were giving him concerned looks, and Lorne was fidgeting with his pen. Ellis hadn't been best pleased to come back to Atlantis in the first place, and he really wasn't taking kindly to the suggestion that he run yet another mission in Pegasus.
"I should contact Stargate Command about this," he said, looking around the conference room. "We were supposed to head right on back to Earth. Pegasus isn't the only place with problems, you know."
"I know, Colonel, and I really appreciate your returning." John was trying to put all the sincerity he could into his voice, because he really, really needed Ellis to get on board with this. "And I wouldn't ask if I didn't think it was important enough to take up your time."
"It's not just that. My crew needs some shore leave and we're running low on supplies to get us back to the Milky Way as it is."
"Your people aren't the only ones working hard," Lorne said, a little defensively, "and we can probably top you up from our own supplies. But if Colonel Sheppard is right, this could be a genuine shot at gaining a significant advantage over the Wraith."
"You already have an advantage!" Exasperated, Ellis sat back in his chair, looking round at the rest of Sheppard's team who had invited themselves to the meeting. "You've got the Wraith on the run, or at least the Replicators have. What more do you want?"
"A tactical advantage that we control," John said firmly. "Things go wrong, and I do not want to be caught without a plan b."
Blowing out a breath, Ellis shook his head slowly. "I don't know. Where is this outpost, anyway?"
"It's off the gate network," John said, going over to the screen in the corner. It lit up at his touch, showing a star map. "Alright, so this is Atlantis." A dot in the bottom right hand corner lit up. "And the outpost is all the way over here, about two hundred light years from where we found the Aurora. I know it looks a long way," he said quickly, because the second spot of light was on the far left of the screen, "but that's only a couple hours for the Apollo."
Ellis frowned, getting out of his seat and going over to the map. "Couple hours?"
"Five at the most. Skeleton crew," John said, trying not to sound too much like a used car salesman convincing a reluctant buyer. "We go out there, we download the database, we come back. No fuss, no muss."
"Radek?" Everyone turned to Rodney, who'd swiveled his chair round and had one hand on his radio. "Are you- Yes, I know but- Well, why didn't you just say so? Yes, right now, if it's not too much trouble." He swung back round to face the room.
"Are you going to share with the class, McKay?" Ellis asked, folding his arms.
Because he was Rodney, Rodney responded by crossing his own arms over his chest and completely ignoring the comment. "Sheppard, why don't you bring up the long range sensor display on there as well?"
"What?" But John's hand was still on the screen, and it picked up the thought before he could stop it. The screen lit up with red and yellow dots, with a particularly high concentration of red to the left of the screen, right around the light marking the outpost. "What the-"
"They're Wraith," Rodney said, voice hard and flat. "That quadrant is a staging area for their ships, it was in one of our early threat assessments when we came to Pegasus."
"How do you know stuff like that?" Ronon asked, but Rodney ignored him, still looking at John.
"The yellow ones are Replicator ships. If we take the Apollo anywhere near that territory, we might as well paint a bullseye on her hull."
John swallowed. This was not going according to plan. "Look, it's a bit risky-"
"A bit?" Ellis shook his head, the new information giving him the out that John knew he'd been looking for. "I'm sorry, Sheppard. But as long as we are not under direct threat from the Wraith, there's no way I can justify taking my ship and my people into that kind of danger. Even for you." His expression softened a little. "I'm really sorry about what's happened, but I will not risk the lives of my crew for this. I can't."
Lorne nodded. "Of course not, Colonel." He shot a look at John, then said, "Do you want to send your supply list down to our stores? We'll see if we can help you out a bit."
"That'd be good of you, Major, thanks." Ellis opened his mouth as though to say something else to John, then seemed to think better of it, just giving him a brisk nod before touching a hand to his radio. "Ellis to Apollo. Ready to board."
There was the flash of an Asgard transporter, then Ellis was gone and Lorne got to his feet. "We've still got a lot of work to do. They've cleared most of the rubble out of the gateroom, but it's going to take a while before everything's up and running again. We need to get people back on a regular training cycle, try to get things back to some sort of routine instead of just firefighting all the time."
"I will be happy to help," Teyla said, taking the hint and getting to her feet as well. She gave Ronon a significant look.
"Whatever," he said. "What about Sheppard?"
John hadn't moved from his position next to the screen, unable to take his eyes from the red dots covering over half of it, and the yellow ones tracking them round the starscape. He hadn't even thought of that, hadn't considered it.
"Colonel?" Lorne had raised his voice a little, and John turned, not quite meeting anyone's eyes. "I'm sorry, sir, but until we can get the gate fixed and contact the SGC for help, I'm going to have to ask you not to touch too much, just in case. You're free to roam the city, but I'm assigning you a security escort and you'll need to check in with Doctor Keller as often as she wants." He shrugged helplessly. "I'm sorry, sir," he said again. " I don't have a choice."
John nodded, not looking up, and he waited until Lorne, Ronon and Teyla had filed out to turn enough to see Rodney out of the corner of his eye.
"Don't bother waiting for an apology," Rodney said, as determinedly not looking John as John wasn't looking at him. "You nearly got the whole crew of the Apollo, not to mention yourself, killed by the Wraith. I really don't think I should be sorry for that one."
John clenched his fists. "I need to get out there, Rodney."
"Why?" Rodney finally turned to him, face flushed and eyes wide. "And I'm not asking John Sheppard, because he wouldn't be such an idiot as to think that he could just commandeer a ship and go flying off across the galaxy." He hesitated. "Okay, scrap that, bad example, but he wouldn't risk the lives of hundreds of people to do it."
"Rodney, it's me. It's just me." It was. John knew because his mind felt whole and his again, his feelings back under his own control. This was him, and he needed to get out there. Rodney had to understand. "I need you to find way. Maybe we could cloak the Apollo or-"
"Are you serious?" Rodney got to his feet so quickly that his chair wobbled precariously. "You want to fly halfway across Pegasus just so you can find the lost love of your life?" He lifted a trembling finger, more obviously nervous now that John was glaring right back at him. "I had two days to look through the database while you were in your happy little coma, and I found your girlfriend. Cressa. According to the reports, that outpost was wiped out by the Wraith, the same Wraith ship that went on to nearly destroy the Aurora. She's dead. They're all dead, and I'm sorry, but chasing after her through hostile territory is not going to bring her back."
"She's not dead!" John yelled, startling himself as well as Rodney. Leaning on the table and dropping his head, he forced himself to take a deep breath. "She's not dead," he said, more softly this time. "She could still be there, trapped and waiting. I have to get to her."
"You didn't do this." Rodney's voice matched John's, gentle and steady and shaking just a little. "Alright? I read the reports. I know you recommended her, I know what it meant to her, but it wasn't your fault."
John shook his head. "She's trapped and I can save her. I have to try. I can't just leave her behind."
When Rodney didn't say anything, John lifted his head, looking up into puzzled, sad eyes.
"I'm sorry," Rodney said, in something that was close to his normal tone, "but we are still talking about Cressa, aren't we?"
John dropped his head again. "Are you going to help me, or not?"
"John. Martus." In his peripheral vision, John saw Rodney wave his hands irritably. "Whoever's doing the driving at the moment. You can't fix this. There's nothing you can do. There's nothing I can do. Not this time. I'm…" He swallowed audibly. "I'm sorry, alright?"
There was a clicking that John recognized as Rodney closing his laptop and picking it up. Then his rapid footsteps headed for the door and faded away, leaving John still resting his weight on his hands, mind racing. They didn't understand. This could give them such a huge advantage over the Wraith. This could get her back. He had to think of something.
Slowly, John tilted his head to one side. There was something, he was sure of it. Rodney really was a terrible liar, and John didn't need to see his face to know one way or the other. Something in the way he'd refused to help, something in the apology, had been wrong. John was sure of it. Rodney had an idea. Not much of one, but an idea nonetheless. He just didn't want to tell John about it. And that meant that it might just work.
Standing, John straightened his arms and stretched his back until it clicked, letting himself feel the smallest touch of hope. You could say this for Rodney: he was stubborn as a camel, and if he'd made up his mind, he'd made up his mind.
Until you found a way to change it.
The thing was, John realized as he switched the computer off again, he now had a better working knowledge of Ancient technology than Rodney, and he had much more conscious control over, well, everything now. It was incredible, being able to feel the city around him, not alive exactly, but aware in its own way, through its subroutines and programs and sensors. Somewhere at the back of his mind, he had a sneaking suspicion that being connected to Atlantis on this level wasn't exactly normal, but he was finding it hard to care.
Like the Repository lab, this room hadn't been opened since the Ancients had left it, and there was thick dust on most of the surfaces. It looked unimpressive, which suited John just fine. He'd got what he needed, making the small, necessary alterations using the knowledge from the database. It felt a bit weird, but he was getting used to it, shuffling things around in his mind until he knew what he was doing. Of course, as far as the Marine by the door was concerned, all he was doing was trying something else to get his head emptied before it exploded. John would probably have to do that at some point. This was more important right now.
He checked the room one last time, checked his sidearm, and then headed back out into the corridor. His Marine-shadow attached itself to him as he left, keeping the regulation two steps behind. Which was his first mistake.
No one had thought it through, that was the problem. John could control Atlantis. With his mind. Did they actually think he was just going to sit in his quarters and twiddle his thumbs? Hadn't they noticed how much this meant to him? Lorne and Ellis, and even Rodney seemed to think that he'd just have to live with their refusal. Maybe they didn't know him as well as they thought.
John stood aside as a group of crewman, all in different uniforms, came running past, with Ronon bringing up the rear. He slowed when he saw John, nodding for the others to go on without him, and jogging over to where John was standing.
"Hey." Ronon looked John up and down. "How you doing?"
"Kinda bored. A bit stir crazy. You know." Pushing his hand into his pocket, John wrapped it around the device he'd taken from the lab. It was all going to be over far too quickly if Ronon got suspicious.
"Yeah." Fortunately, Ronon was too busy trying to be sympathetic to notice. "Lorne said that someone on Earth should be able to help you. They got the gate working yet?"
John shrugged. "No idea. It's not like they're going to let me help." He lifted his still-bandaged hand with a rueful smile. "I think they're afraid I'm going to hurt myself or try to steal the city or something." He'd planned to wrap up the conversation quickly, then go find Rodney, but Ronon was frowning thoughtfully, and there was no stopping him once he got an idea.
"You want me to give Zelenka a call, see how it's going?"
It took John a moment to figure out what was wrong with that sentence. "Zelenka? What about McKay?"
"He's still down in that lab, I think. Teyla too." Ronon rubbed the back of his neck. "They're not giving up."
"Right." Shifting awkwardly, John nodded down the hall. "Shouldn't you be catching up with the others?"
Ronon glanced over his shoulder, as though he'd forgotten about the group of runners. "Yeah, I guess. Want to come with?"
It was tempting. He could see out the run with Ronon, maybe watch him pounding some of the new recruits into the floor, get some lunch, just forget the whole thing. Part of him really, really wanted to.
John shook his head, jerking his thumb towards the Marine waiting not-quite-respectfully a few yards away. "Thanks, but they'll think I'm trying to make a run for it."
The look that Ronon gave him clearly said what he thought of John's chances, should he decide to sprint off into the distance. They probably ranged from 'slim' to 'none'. "You sure?"
"Yeah." John ran his fingers over the device again. He had to get moving, had to do this before he had any more second thoughts. "I'll go down and see if I can give Rodney a hand, relieve Teyla for a bit before she's forced to hurt him. That kind of thing."
"Alright." Ronon was already moving away, walking backwards slowly and still watching John as he went. "If you're sure."
"I'll call you when they get the Stargate working."
John lifted his free hand. "Sure. See you, buddy."
He waited until Ronon had run round the corner before he lowered his hand again, sticking it in his pocket to match the other. The device felt heavier than he remembered, and he spent a long moment staring down the corridor, ignoring the people passing by and staring back at him. It made it harder, bumping into Ronon like that, and he was seized with the sudden urge to run after him, to say something, even if it was just goodbye, properly.
Then he gave himself a little shake and turned on his heel, not waiting to see if his escort was keeping up as he strode away. He was going to have to lose his shadow at some point anyway. There was a lot to do if this was going to work.
It was all a question of timing and location, and it took John a few minutes to find just the right place. Up ahead was a busy junction, people coming and going in all directions, all talking and trying to look at datapads or carry supplies from one side of the city to another. Perfect.
Weaving his way through the traffic, John sped up a little, waiting until he was in the middle of the throng to head for one of the small corridors to the right. Behind him, he heard his escort call out, but he'd left it far too late. John was into the hallway, shutting the door and cutting himself off from the guard. He took a moment to orientate himself, then set off, breaking into a run. The sensors were telling him that there were still two lifesigns in the lab where this whole thing had started, and he'd bet his sidearm that one of them was Rodney. Teyla was going to be more of a problem, but John would handle that when he got there. He'd think of something.
There was a transporter at the end of the hall, which saved him a few precious minutes, and as he stepped out again, he was relieved to see no one had thought to put a guard on it. They probably couldn't spare the personnel. He could hear Rodney's voice up ahead, then Teyla's in low counterpoint to the constant tirade. John put one hand in his pocket, checking that he still had what he needed, that it would work, then he stepped into the room, closing the door behind him. The lock slid home with a click.
"John?" Teyla came over, stopping a few feet away. "Is everything alright?"
"Yeah, it's fine." He flashed her a quick smile, looking round for Rodney, who was standing by a console on the far side of the room, his back to John and Teyla. "I just need Rodney for a minute."
"Alright," Teyla said slowly. "What do you need him for?"
The tension was thrumming through him, and John knew he wasn't nearly as nonchalant as he'd intended to be. "Oh, just something I need doing."
Rodney straightened a little, turning so that he could frown at John. "Look, I really don't have time for this."
"Make time," John snapped. And okay, that was a tactical error, because Teyla had taken another step away from him, bracing herself as she did before they started sparring. This could be a problem.
"Did Major Lorne not assign you a Marine?" When he didn't say anything, she tilted her head a little. "John? What are you doing here?"
"I told you," he said, keeping the slight smile on his face and his posture relaxed. "I just need to borrow Rodney. I promise to return him in one piece." He looked past Teyla, catching Rodney's eye and making the other man jump. "Oh come on, you can't seriously think I'm going to hurt him."
"Sheppard might not," Rodney said, his voice squeaking a little, and John tried not to be insulted by the 'might'. "But I'm not sure about you."
Teyla nodded. "I believe you should return to your quarters, John." She lifted a hand to her radio, her eyes flickering away from him for a second.
He moved before she could open a channel, grabbing her wrist and trying to barge her aside. On the far side of the room, Rodney yelped and ducked behind the console. As Teyla pushed back, trying to throw John off-balance, he spared a thought to jam their radio signals, just in case Rodney stopped panicking and started thinking, then he switched his attention back.
In a sparring match with sticks in hand, Teyla had speed and skill on her side, but in close quarters like this, he had a height and weight advantage that gave him the edge he needed. Still with one hand round her wrist, he pulled her in close, her back against his chest, trying to pin her arms to her sides. He shifted backwards as she tried to stamp on his foot, the movement unbalancing them both, and when he realized he was going to fall, John tightened his grip, wrapping an arm round Teyla's waist and pulling her over with him.
They landed in a tangled heap, John on his back and trying not to lose his hold as Teyla squirmed and kicked at him. A little breathless, he managed to get one foot on the floor and rolled them over, pulling the arm he was still holding so that it was twisted behind Teyla's back, then leaning his weight onto her to hold her down.
The movement wasn't much more than a flicker of shadow, but John ducked instinctively, so that the large heavy object passed over his head, and Rodney staggered to one side, looking pale and frightened. Seizing the chance, John let go of Teyla, giving her a final shove before lunging at Rodney. He had the device out of his pocket and onto Rodney's wrist so quickly that Teyla wasn't even on her feet before he was stepping away, holding his hands up in a way that he hoped would stop her going straight for his throat.
"Okay, let's all just stop for a moment." He shook his head at the object on the floor. "Seriously? You were going to take me out with your laptop?"
"Oh, I'm sorry if I'm not carrying a more savage weapon," Rodney said, but he was already looking at the thing John had clipped onto him. "What is this?"
"I'm really sorry," John said, keeping one hand raised to ward off Teyla while he had most of his attention on Rodney. "But you weren't listening to me."
"I'm listening now." Which was an unconvincing statement when Rodney had raised his wrist to his face and was peering at the slim metal band. "I've never seen anything like this."
"You just needed to know where to look." John straightened up a little, still half-watching Teyla, who hadn't stood down yet. "And I really need you to help me."
"What am I supposed to do?" Rodney looked up, puzzled. "Steal the Apollo and fly it to the outpost for you?"
John grinned. "See, I always knew you were smart."
"What?" Teyla gave him a look of pure disbelief. "John-"
"He's not John." Rodney's voice was hoarse and he was staring at John as though he didn't recognize him. "It's Martus."
"It's me." He couldn't seem to get this through to Rodney. "I know you, McKay. You have an idea." When Rodney opened his mouth to argue, John said quickly, "You're still a terrible liar."
Shutting his mouth again, Rodney folded his arms, chin jutting out in his best no, I won't, and you can't make me pose. "Even if I did, do you really think I'm insane enough to help you?"
"Of course not." Relaxing enough to drop his hands, John let his grin take on a sharper edge. "So I thought I'd come convince you."
"With costume jewelry?" Rodney's eyebrows almost reached his hairline. "Hate to break it to you, but silver's not my color."
John shook his head, dropping the smile. "I know you've got an idea on how to get the Apollo. Tell me."
Rodney's expression was of pure disbelief. "What? There is no idea! What part of 'I can't do it' do you not understand?"
It didn't require much concentration to activate the bracelet, and it would stay within safe limits until John switched them off. The effect was instantaneous, and the scream was impressive.
Rodney dropped to his knees, clutching his wrist and howling, his whole body curling protectively over his arm. Teyla was at his side at once, holding him, supporting him, and giving John a glare that probably should have left him as just a smear on the flooring.
She let Rodney lean against her, the aftershocks from the pain making him shake. "John, what are you doing?"
It wasn't easy to push the guilt aside. John hated this, so much. It wasn't right, to do this to Rodney, but he had no choice. The others couldn't see, couldn't understand, didn't know what he knew. This was his only option now.
"I'm sorry," he whispered.
"Sorry! What the hell, Sheppard?" Still almost doubled-over, Rodney lifted his head enough to glare.
"I need you to listen to me," John said, trying to keep his voice gentle and even. "I need to get to the outpost. Rodney."
They looked at each other for a long moment, Rodney cradling his wrist, his shoulders hunched over and his face a mask of misery. John didn't move, just looked into Rodney's eyes, willing, needing him to understand. He didn't want to do this, of course he didn't. Surely that had to tell Rodney how important it was. On the floor next to Rodney, Teyla kept a protective hand round his shoulders as she looked from one to the other of them. Even she didn't seem to want to break the silence.
Rodney's ATA gene meant that John could sense his lifesigns through the city sensors. Teyla was just a warm glow, tinged with something that he recognized as alien, but he could almost feel the slight rise in Rodney's body temperature, the change in his breathing that was making John's own breathing speed up, Rodney's heartbeat, pounding in his ears along with his own. This had to work. It had to. He didn't want to have to hurt Rodney again. But he would if he needed to.
After what felt like a forever (2.46 seconds according to Atlantis' computer), Rodney sagged a little, putting a hand on Teyla's arm and letting her help him to his feet.
"Alright," he said, and his voice was cracked and hoarse. "But I'll need a few minutes."
"Of course." Despite the way his stomach was turning somersaults, John managed to just fold his arms and step out of Rodney's way as he headed for the consoles. The computer would alert him if Rodney did anything stupid, and he would probably just be in the way if he tried to help.
He moved out of the way, folding his arms and watching the back of Rodney's head.
"Where did that bracelet come from?"
John almost jumped when Teyla spoke, glancing at her before turning his attention back to Rodney. "The Ancients used it for captured Wraith. It can give quite a kick."
She raised an eyebrow. "You sound impressed."
"It's great technology." When Teyla didn't reply, John turned to her, wincing at the disapproval on her face. "I'm just doing what I have to. None of you seem to get this. We need this."
"We do not." There was no hesitation or doubt in Teyla's voice, and John had to look away as she said, "And you do not have to do this."
He shook his head. "I have to get there. The tactical advantage over the Wraith-"
"I do not believe you are doing this just for the sake of the war, John." She moved into his line of sight, fear and sadness and more than a touch of anger in her expression. "We have all lost people we would dearly love to see again," she said "but to risk your life and Rodney's for the sake of a reunion is foolish and selfish. I would not have thought you capable of it."
At the console, Rodney made a derisive sound. "You're wasting your time, Teyla. That's not Sheppard."
"Would you stop saying that?" John knew that he wasn't exactly feeling on top form, but Rodney had no idea what he was talking about. "I'm fine."
"Oh yes, the John Sheppard I know always uses threats of torture to get what he wants." Turning on his heel, Rodney faced John, a mixture of fear and defiance on his face.
Not having an answer to that one, John unfolded his arms and glared at Rodney. "Are you done?"
The reply came in the same harsh tone that John had used, and surprised him. "Yes."
"Good." He'd done enough. Time to go. John gave Teyla a sad smile. "I'm really sorry, but you're going to have to wait here a while."
"Please, John." She reached out, fingers wrapping round his wrist, eyes wide and pleading. "Do not do this."
It would have been easy to give in, to nod and accept what she was saying, take the bracelet off Rodney and just go sit in his quarters until they found an answer for him. But he couldn't. There were people depending on him; not just Cressa, but the whole of Pegasus if the Wraith came again. He wouldn't turn aside now.
Gently, he pulled free of her grip and gave Rodney an expectant look. "Well?"
Rodney lifted his chin a fraction. "I need an open channel to the Apollo."
"Done." At the same time, John set the door lock and the radio jammer to lift in an hour's time. No one would be able to follow them anyway, and he didn't want to leave Teyla in here indefinitely.
Tapping his radio, Rodney said, in something close to his normal voice, "McKay to the Apollo."
"Doctor McKay." Ellis sounded surprised and not entirely pleased. "What can I do for you?"
Giving John a nervous glance, Rodney said, "We're running some routine scans down here, and I picked up some problems with your sensor array, nothing serious, but you seem to be expending more power than you need to and it's giving us some glitches down here."
There was a pause, then came back on the line. "Well, I don't know what you're looking at, but we're not seeing any problems up here."
"You wouldn't, would you? I did mention the part where it's the sensor array that's not working, didn't I?" Most of Rodney's normal sarcasm was in the words, and it was only because John could see his eyes that he knew it wasn't real.
"I'll have someone check it out," Ellis said, in what was clearly intended to be a terminal manner.
"That's going to take you hours. Look, just beam me up there and I'll have a look at it. I wanted to get a look at the hyperdrive anyway, to get some ideas for our hyperdrive-capable Jumper."
"I'm sure we can manage, McKay."
"Oh, I'm sure. But you can either have someone spend a couple hours in a space suit trying to find the problem and fix it, or you can let me bring my readings up there and I can have it done in twenty minutes. I won't even need to come to the bridge, just beam me straight to engineering. Your choice."
For someone who sucked at bluffing, Rodney was pretty good at making things up as he went along. John moved to stand next to him, tugging Rodney's sleeve down over the bracelet. Rodney glared at him, breaking off as Ellis came back on the line.
"Alright, Doctor McKay, I'll beam you straight to engineering."
"Perfect. Oh, and Colonel Sheppard's right next to me."
"Sheppard? I'm not sure…"
John glared at Rodney, who gave him a panicked look. "I need him to help operate the Ancient scanner I'll be using."
"Alright, but I'm having a guard put on engineering. No offence."
"None taken," John said, giving Rodney a grateful nod.
John turned a little, giving Teyla what he hoped was an apologetic look. He saw shake her head at him before she disappeared, and he was standing in the cramped confines of the Apollo's engineering room. It was almost as big a relief as when Rodney had said he could do this in the first place. Because who would have thought it? This might actually work.
He hovered as Rodney fussed with the sensor array, fending off the technician who eventually retreated to a corner, sulking just a little. John smiled in what he hoped was a friendly manner at the guard posted on the door, and lurked on the other side of the room, trying to stay patient.
He'd lost his close connection to Atlantis, the city becoming just a vague sensation at the back of his mind. It was there, but he couldn't get a fix on anything, couldn't tell what was going on any more. His mind was oddly empty, and he had to force himself to concentrate and not to worry about it. They were about to have bigger concerns.
It took Rodney most of the twenty minutes to finish whatever it was he was doing, then he turned to the technician, giving her a brief nod.
"Right," he said, hand hovering over a control. "I think we're all set."
"Good." She bristled a little, then seemed to remember that Rodney was supposed to be doing them a favor and subsided. "Er, well, thanks Doctor McKay."
"You're welcome," Rodney said, and pressed a button.
She disappeared in a flash of light, as did the guard by the door. For a second, John was too surprised to move, then he shook himself and turned to Rodney, who was frantically dashing from console to console.
"You wanted the ship, you got the ship." Rodney typed something into the computer, and John heard the sublight engines roar into life. "Let's just hope you meant it when you said you could fly anything."
"You know, I always thought Ancients were bright. Maybe it was just the hype." Rodney glanced at the computer screen, frowning and making a small adjustment.
"I'm not an Ancient, Rodney." This was getting old, but John felt he should still make the point. "What did you do?"
"Transported the entire crew of the Apollo to Atlantis' gateroom. Someone down there is probably yelling, but I cut communications as well so we can't hear them." He said it as though it was nothing, as though they stole spaceships every day of the week, as though this was just another regular day at the office. "You need to get to the bridge, right now. I can mostly fly it from down here, and once we're in hyperspace it'll fly itself, but the final settings have to be programmed in from the command deck. Security or something." When John didn't move, Rodney made a small shooing gesture. "Go on. Or should I just tell Colonel Ellis that he can come on up again."
"I'm going, I'm going."
"I'll tell you what to do when you're there," Rodney called after him, his hands already moving over the controls again.
Shaking his head a little, John set off at a gentle jog, trying to get his bearings. He'd known Rodney could do it, of course, but he'd been expecting dramatics and fuss and to have to prod him every step of the way. Instead, John was starting to wonder who'd kidnapped who.
As promised, once they were in hyperspace, there was nothing for John to do. He and Rodney had taken up residence on the bridge, since John wasn't about to let Rodney out of his sight for any length of time. Anyone who could fly a whole warship on his own was not someone John wanted running loose onboard said warship. That was always the problem with Rodney: he told you what he could do so often that you sometimes forgot that he really could do it.
John sat mostly in the Captain's chair, exploring the various systems and, if he was honest, being seriously impressed with the Apollo. It was incredible, what humans had managed in just a few short years, resourceful bunch that they were. That they are. That we are.
He shook his head, trying to clear it.
"You alright?" Rodney was at the hyperdrive console, keeping an eye on the coordinates. He glanced over his shoulder at John, then quickly turned back to what he was doing.
"Yeah." John closed his eyes. His mind was tired, operating too much and too quickly for him to really handle. He found himself nodding, drifting gratefully for a moment before coming awake with a jerk. Giving himself a little shake, he turned back to the small panel at the side of his seat. "Is the course locked?" he asked, looking over at Rodney, who nodded.
"Everything's set, just as you said." After making a final check, Rodney came over to the seat next John's, where the weapons officer usually sat, sinking into it with a small sigh. "Should be a couple hours."
"Good." Running through the controls one last time, John transferred all of them to his console. "Just sit back and relax."
Rodney snorted. "Oh yes, sound advice for the madman flying us into Wraith territory."
"It's not mad," John said, feeling his eyes getting heavy again. "You'll see." He was going to fall asleep, he knew. Carefully, he put his hand over the control panel by his seat. "Try to take us off course, and the bracelet will knock you out," he said, words slightly slurred as he began to doze off. He was already far enough gone that Rodney's indignant reply was mostly lost on him. All he needed was a nap, just enough that he'd be ready for when they got there. He needed to be ready.
He was running, gun cradled in his arms and Ronon pounding along just behind him. Around them, the Replicators still stood frozen, held in their stasis for now, although there was no way to know how much longer he had.
Turning the corner, he half-skidded to a halt, looking round. Ronon was gone, and there was nothing but an empty hallway behind him. No Replicators either, although he wasn't going to complain about that one. He took a few cautious steps, bringing his gun up and pointing the light into every shadow he saw. Nothing.
"Ronon?" His voice echoed off the walls. "Rodney?"
He spun on his heel, pointing his gun at the figure suddenly in the corridor behind him. It tilted its head, moving out of the shadows into the light, although he already knew who it was.
"Elizabeth." The word wasn't much more than a breath.
"You left me behind, John."
It was like a punch to the stomach, and he lowered his gun, taking half a step towards her. "I had no choice."
"You left me."
"You saved our lives." He had to hang onto that. That was what had happened. "I had to." With the whole of Atlantis on his shoulders, lost and drifting, what other choice could he have made?
"You didn't come for me." Elizabeth walked slowly towards him, the last of the shadows falling from her face. "You just left me there."
Now she was in the light, John could see her face better. It was her, he knew, but there was something wrong about her. It wasn't anything he could name, just a wrong curve to her mouth, her eyes a little too wide, the tilt of her head not quite right.
"How could you leave me?" she asked, stretching out a hand towards him. "You sent me to die."
"No," he whispered, and these words weren't his. "Cressa, no, please, it wasn't my fault."
As much as John wanted to move away, to retreat as she came closer, his feet wouldn't move. For a fleeting moment, he thought of lifting his gun and shooting her down, ridding himself of this specter, this reminder of his guilt. He had a flash of Elizabeth's body, broken and bleeding on the floor of the corridor and the pain was even worse than this overwhelming sense of remorse.
"I'm sorry," he said, flinching away as she reached for him. "Please, I'm sorry."
Elizabeth's - Cressa's face was hard, her eyes lifeless as she put her hand on his cheek. She was cold. "That's not enough."
There was a searing pain, cold and burning, overwhelming John, sweeping through him and making him cry out. He still couldn't break free; her hold was too strong. It hurt like nothing he'd ever felt, like the touch of an icy brand, blazing through him, all the way to his soul. And he was screaming, crying out, begging for her to stop, please, stop, please-
Someone was screaming. Someone who wasn't him. John forced himself to wake up properly, Rodney's yells helping him along the way.
"Sheppard, please, just stop!"
"What?" Sitting up in the Captain's chair, John looked round.
Rodney was curled over his arm, twitching and shaking and still screaming as the bracelet shot bolts of pain through him. With an effort that he hadn't needed on Atlantis, John found the right mental command to switch it off, slumping back in the chair and trying to put himself together again.
Across the bridge, Rodney leaned against the bulkhead, his face red and puffy. "What the hell was that?"
John shook his head. "Sorry."
"You'd better be." Rodney's hands were shaking as he reached out to check something on the hyperspace display. "What happened?"
"Doesn't matter. You alright?"
Rodney rounded on him, pure anger in his eyes. "What do you mean, it doesn't matter? You could have killed me!"
"Rodney, I said I was sorry, alright?"
To John's surprise, Rodney opened his mouth to protest again, then shut it quickly, turning away and shaking his head. "Right, of course. That makes it just fine. Not that there's any point arguing with someone who's already been dead for ten thousand years."
"Geez, Rodney, would you stop already? It's me, okay?" Holding up his hands in what he hoped was a placatory gesture, John went on, "Seriously. I'm just doing what I think's best for Atlantis. Don't you get it?"
"No, surprisingly, I don't." Rodney turned away, rubbing at his wrist again before entering something into the computers. "We'll be at the outpost in twenty-six minutes."
Bringing up the coordinates on his own console, John nodded. He'd only been half-worried that Rodney had tried something while he was asleep, but it was always worth checking "Good," he said, and tried to get himself under control again.
Rodney shot him the occasional nervous look, but kept most of his attention on the computers, constantly making adjustments and corrections. Maybe flying this ship solo wasn't as easy as it looked. Unusually for Rodney, he didn't say a word as he worked, keeping his mouth tightly shut and his back turned. There was a brief moment when he looked up at John, his face alight with something that he obviously wanted to share. Then he caught John's eye, and the light went out again. John wanted to say something, only to find that he couldn't think of anything except 'sorry', and he'd said that too many times today already.
After twenty minutes, the silent tension in the room was even starting to get on John's nerves, and he fidgeted, moving from the Captain's chair to the helm, to the weapons console and back again. If the waiting didn't drive him insane, he thought Rodney's silence might just do it.
He was so on edge, that when Rodney spoke, John actually jumped, almost falling out of his seat. "You need be at the helm to bring us out of hyperspace," Rodney said, not looking at him.
"Right." John blinked, trying to focus, and trying to fight back the anticipation that was rushing through every nerve in his body. They were there. They were actually going to do this. He headed over and sat down, checking the controls and looking over one more time before giving his full attention to the ship. They were going to do this. He was going to get her back.
John stared out of the Apollo's window, hardly able to believe this was real. Ahead of him, a blue-green planet filled most of his view, with a small moon in the foreground, white and shining. That was where the outpost was, hidden from the Wraith until the Aurora made her final, fatal visit.
He kept his hands flat on the arms of the chair to stop them from shaking. "Rodney?"
"Yeah, I know, give me a second." There was a pause, and John got to his feet, trying not to bounce with impatience.
"Come on, Rodney, we're here."
"Oh thanks, I hadn't noticed." Rodney sounded almost his old self. Apparently sarcasm agreed with him. "I'm setting up the transporters so that we can get back up here again, not to mention stabilizing the shields so that the Wraith don't just blow us out of the sky. I trust that's convenient for you?"
Letting the tone wash right over him, John said, "That's fine. Now can we go?"
"Yes, yes, alright. You ready?"
Before John could answer, there was the familiar glow that seemed to fill him from the inside out, and suddenly he was standing in a dark hallway that smelt of dust and stale air. Beside him, Rodney coughed.
"If I'd known, I would have brought air freshener." He coughed again, and John couldn't help grinning. They were here. They were actually here.
As if sensing his mood, the lights in the hallway suddenly came on, bright and full so that John had to squint against them, and Rodney lifted a hand to his face.
"Some warning next time?"
"Sorry." Still unable to stop smiling, John took a step down the hallway, then another. It felt so familiar, so good, and he found he was moving faster almost without thinking about it. "Come on," he called over his shoulder, not waiting for Rodney before breaking into a run. He could feel the outpost around him, not as strong as Atlantis, but definitely there at the back of his mind. It felt good, guiding his steps so that he knew exactly where he was going.
He skidded to a stop outside a closed door that looked just the same as all the others. Rodney came panting over to join him, glancing from him to the door and back again.
"Is this it?" he asked, putting a hand on the wall as he tried to get his breath back. The silver bracelet almost glowed in all the reflected lights, and John looked away quickly. He'd take it off as soon as he could, as soon as he had what he needed.
The door opened at his thought, although the room beyond stayed dark until they stepped inside. Rodney made a surprised noise.
"It's a command chair." He went over to it, running his hands over the back and arms. "A bit dusty."
"So would you be after ten thousand years," John said absently. He walked slowly towards the chair, feeling himself trembling. This was it. At last. The room hummed around him, welcoming and beckoning.
"What happens now?" Rodney was looking from John to the chair and back again. "I mean-"
"I know what you mean." Carefully, John put a hand on the arm of the chair. There was only the slightest delay before it came to life, humming gently in the quiet. "Alright." He looked at Rodney, barely holding himself back. "I'm going to-"
"Yeah." Stepping away, Rodney pulled a small scanner from his pocket. "I've tied this into the Apollo's long range scanners. It should tell us if any Wraith ships are approaching." He fiddled with it for a moment, and John just watched him, waiting. When Rodney looked up, it was with an odd mix of impatience and hope on his face. "Well, what are you waiting for? A fanfare? Get on with it."
"Right." He supposed he had been waiting for a fanfare, in some ways. He'd been waiting for a sign that Rodney approved, for some kind of signal from the outpost, maybe. Something to reassure him that he was doing the right thing. But when he glanced over at Rodney, all he got in return was an expectant look, quickly interrupted as Rodney looked down at his datapad again.
Slowly, John turned, putting a hand on each of the chair's arms and lowering himself into it. More lights came on as he pushed it back, feeling it link to his mind, as bright and sharp as Atlantis herself. He sank into it, letting his conscious self go. Just before he completed the connection, he heard Rodney's voice, soft and almost inaudible and far, far away.
"Good luck, John."
Then the computer let him know it was ready, and he was inside it, lost to the world beyond.
It looked, in many ways, like Atlantis. The outpost had the same kind of walls and floors, the same lighting and even a similarity of layout. Unlike Atlantis, which felt alive and humming, even when it was empty, this place felt dormant. But when he pushed against it with his mind, there was nothing, more like a corpse than a sleeper.
The floor was solid under his feet, though, and the walls warm to his touch. John looked around, wondering what he was meant to do next.
"You release me."
He spun round, seeing Martus standing in the corridor behind him. "What?"
"You brought me here, and now it's time for us to part company."
It took a moment for John to understand, then a ripple of pain passed through his mind, growing in intensity until he had to close his eyes against it, gasping and shuddering as it ripped through him, then released him.
John fell to his knees, dazed and shaking, his mind suddenly so empty and echoing. Then memories slammed back into him, and he dropped to all fours, trying to breathe.
When he'd got himself under control, he sat back carefully, making sure he could balance before getting to his feet. Martus was watching him, his face back to the aloof mask he'd worn when they first met.
"What did you do to me?" John's voice wasn't much more than a growl. He knew this place wasn't real, and that anything he did to Martus here wouldn't matter, but that didn't stop him clenching his hands into fists.
"A joining," Martus said coldly. "Enough that you would help me of your own free will. I'm sorry for it, but you left me no choice."
"What you did…what I did…damnit-" John forced himself to stay calm, his mind racing and breath coming faster. The awareness was like a torrent of water, pouring over him and leaving him breathless. He'd known what he was doing, but it had all made so much sense at the time. If he made it back in one piece, he was going to have a lot to answer for.
"As I said, I had no choice." There was a distant quality in Martus' voice, and John was about to say something, demand at least the courtesy of some attention after he'd borrowed John's body and mind, when something else caught his attention.
They were both inside the computer, and John could access it just as easily as Martus now. Except there was nothing to find. The construct was there, the basic framework of the database that was creating this virtual reality for them, but there was no content. Nothing.
Martus paled. "No," he whispered, and John could sense him ripping through pathways and searching hidden data caches. Nothing. "No, I can't-"
"Sheppard?" Rodney's voice echoed oddly through the hallway, and John looked up, startled. "Not to interrupt you or anything, but we've got company."
The outpost's sensors were still working, and John accessed them, finding what Rodney had seen. Three ships, Wraith cruisers, probably drawn by the energy signals. This was not good.
He turned back to Martus. "I have to go."
"No." At first, John thought the other man was still locked in his state of disbelief. Then he tried to pull himself out of the program.
"What the hell?" However hard he concentrated, John still opened his eyes to the outpost corridor, and Martus, an expression of horror still on his face.
"No." Martus was whispering now, shaking his head. "She's gone. I can't- It's not possible. She had the program. She knew what she was doing. I don't-" He broke off, covering his face with his hands.
"I'm sorry." Moving closer, John shook his head, knowing instinctively what had happened and feeling Martus' pain echoing off his own mind. "I'm sorry," he said again. "They must have wiped the database when the Wraith attacked." He took another step closer, trying to hear what Martus was saying.
"You know," Rodney's voice said again, a real note of urgency in it now, "I really hate to rush you, but there's the little matter of the Wraith? I told Colonel Ellis I'd bring it back in one piece."
"What?" Momentarily wrong-footed, John glared at the ceiling, where Rodney's voice seemed to be coming from. "When did you-"
"And I really don't think Ronon's ever going to speak to me again if I don't bring you back in one piece as well." Rodney was usual oblivious when he was babbling, but John suspected that this time, he really hadn't heard him. Martus' hold was still too strong, and he couldn't form the words anywhere but here.
"Look," he said, keeping the desperation out of his voice as best he could, "I'm really, really sorry for what happened. To you and her. But you have to let me go now. You have to let her go."
Martus still had his hands over his face, and John was about to reach out and grab him, virtual reality be damned, when Martus looked up, hands and body changing, morphing to match his face. John took a step backwards, steadying himself against the wall as Martus completed the transformation.
"Would you feel the same if it were her?" And damn, even the voice was perfect.
Pure, cold fury swept through John, strong enough that the apparition actually took a step backwards.
"That is not the same," John ground out, hardly able to speak for anger.
"Sheppard, whatever you're doing, stop it right now. You look like you're having a fit. Oh, and by the way? Wraith Ships. Right here, right now, so get a damn move on."
"You would not leave her behind," Martus said in Elizabeth's voice, and the expression of cold calculation on her face was far worse than any words. John kept control with an effort, forcing himself to remember that this was Martus, that he was arguing with a half-crazed Ancient, not his lost friend.
"I'm going back for her," John said, his voice barely audible even to him, "but I had no choice."
"Of course." Eyes narrowed, 'Elizabeth' smiled cruelly at him. "I'm sure she understood that." He began to change again, skin darkening and shoulders broadening. John took another step backwards as Aiden Ford stared back at him. "I'm sure he understood it as well. And what about all the others?"
Martus didn't bother changing this time, the names and faces rising into John's mind as though unbidden. He flinched, shaking his head as though he could rid himself of them. So many deaths. So many lost people, lost from his city. Even the city itself, so nearly lost to the no man's land between planets. So much death.
"Tell me, Sheppard, do you really think they understood?" Martus was using his own voice again, cruel and hard, driving out the last of John's sympathy for the man.
"They understood it a lot better than you do." John took half a step forwards, letting his anger drive him. "Because I understand it." Every muscle in his body felt taut, Martus' desperation just touching the edge of his mind. John hesitated for a moment, Rodney's voice echoing through the corridor and around him.
"Okay, so now we have Wraith inside the outpost and trying to get into the Apollo. I swear, if you're not out of there in two minutes-"
With nothing else to offer, John let his hands fall to his sides, closing his eyes and opening his mind to Martus. As before, the contact was bright and blinding, but his time, John was looking into it, not consumed by it. Martus was still holding back, and John reached deeper, to the places he never looked, where he'd shoved everything about Elizabeth, the guilt and the grief, all of it pouring out in a rush and bound up with other names.
Every one of them bright and raw and painful, every one of them locked up so tightly and so securely that their release felt more like a purge, sweeping through John like fire, leaving behind a lingering sense of loss, for all the wasted lives.
Fast behind that though, and with its own light as bright as Martus', was gratitude. For all that the lost had done, for all they'd meant to him. The most recent pain flared into life, the resonance with Martus' grief triggering John's, and he was standing in the hallway of the Replicator city again, hearing her voice, telling him to go, to leave her behind. She'd saved their lives. That was what she'd wanted. That was what she'd done. That was enough for John.
When he opened his eyes again, Martus had returned to his own appearance, shoulders slumped in defeat and tears running down his face. "I loved her," he whispered.
John's face was dry. "I know," he said, not unkindly, "but unless you let me go, then more people are going to die."
"Sheppard!" Rodney's voice was almost a scream.
John didn't look away from Martus. "He's part of my team. He won't leave me behind."
"You can." John didn't like begging, but with Rodney screaming all around him, and the Wraith ships so close on the sensors, he gritted his teeth and asked again. "Please. Let me go."
Rodney yelled his name once more, and John glanced up, around the strange-familiar hallway, its gray walls and blue-speckled ceiling. Then he was looking at the plain white ceiling of the chair room, pushing the command chair upright and blinking against the light. He half-fell forwards, catching himself and just stopping for a moment, elbows braced on his knees and head in his hands. It took him a few seconds to remember how to breathe.
"Sheppard! Whenever you're ready!"
Lifting his head with an effort, John fell the rest of the way out of the chair as he saw Rodney by the door, working on the lock while something pounded on the other side. Hard. John scrambled to his feet just as Rodney lost his lock-battle, and long-nailed hands reached through the crack in the suddenly open doors.
"Rodney, get down!" John had drawn his sidearm without conscious thought, and he fired into the gap, Rodney ducking and scurrying round the room to his side.
"Glad you could join us." Rodney was typing frantically into his datapad, flinching as John fired again. A Wraith fell backwards with a neat hole in its forehead, taking down some of the ones behind it.
"Sorry," John said, taking aim again, "got a bit held up. Can we get out of here?"
"Just a second."
"Any time today." John changed the clip just in time to shoot at the next Wraith venturing through the door, which was getting more open by the second.
"Says the man whose most strenuous activity today has been sitting in a chair with his eyes shut. If you can unlock the security code that I put on the shield and transporters so that the Wraith couldn't pull the secret from our dead and withered bodies, be my guest."
Just as John's gun clicked empty, the room dissolved around them and he was standing on the bridge of the Apollo, pointing the weapon at empty air. He lowered it slowly, then carefully staggered backwards to drop into the Captain's chair.
"Right, fine, get comfortable why don't you?" Rodney snapped, going straight to the hyperdrive console.
"Alright, I will." John shifted on the seat, and turned to the control panel, bringing up the sensor display. "Er, Rodney…"
"I'm sure I mentioned the three Wraith cruisers while you were sitting with your eyes closed and I was, oh yes, trying to save our lives."
Rolling his eyes, John studied the scanner image. The three Wraith ships seemed to be trying to trap them against the moon and presumably stop them jumping into hyperspace. John dragged himself into the helmsman's chair, checking the sublight engines. As they came online, he got up again with an effort, going over to the weapons station and setting coordinates. Then he jammed his finger onto the 'fire' button.
Below them, the Ancient outpost glowed, then went up in an impressive blast, much more impressive than a couple of missiles should have been able to accomplish. It reminded John of the Aurora self-destructing. Some command pathways had been left intact, and it looked like Martus had used them. He spent a moment watching it burn, then turned away.
"Any objections to getting out of here?" John asked, sitting back and down and turning the engines to full power.
"We can't enter hyperspace this close to the moon."
"I know." The engines were fully powered, and John waited a moment, watching the other ships drift gently in the space around them. He had to time this right. "How much distance do you need?"
"Not much, but- What are you doing?"
"Hang onto your hats." John brought the engines to maximum, shooting the Apollo through the gap he'd spotted in the Wraith defensive ring. Almost at once, the whole ship shuddered and something sparked in a console at the back of the bridge. "We're taking fire."
"I just need a minute."
"Make it a short one." The one advantage the Apollo had over the cruisers was its sheer manoeverability. Without a weapons' officer, John couldn't fire even the Earth weapons, let alone the Asgard ones, so he concentrated on getting the hell out of Dodge, spiraling and spinning the ship as much as he dared. It wasn't exactly an F302, but there was more power in John's hands than he'd ever handled before, and he decided he could get used to flying things like this. Once in a while.
"Alright, jumping to hyperspace in three, two, one. Jumping."
The starscape blurred, dots becoming lines becoming a wall of light, and then they were gone. Leaning his head back against the chair, John took a few really deep breaths, hearing Rodney's deep sigh of relief behind him. It was closely followed by a gentle thump, and John turned enough to see Rodney slumped almost under the console, his chin almost on his chest.
"Next time," he said indistinctly, "you can fend off the Wraith, and I'll sit in the command chair."
"Yeah." John swallowed, his mind still feeling raw and fragile. "Next time, I'll let you."
"So," John said, swirling the last of his coffee. "On a scale of one to ten, how court martialed do you think I am?"
Rodney snorted, already pouring himself a third cup. They probably shouldn't have had drinks on the bridge, but Rodney hadn't wanted to leave the ship to fly itself for too long, and John wasn't quite ready to be left alone with his own thoughts yet. Besides, winding Rodney up was much better entertainment than the films in the Apollo's stores.
"I sent Ellis a subspace message on our way out," Rodney said loftily. "There was no chance to warn anyone beforehand, but I told him you were under an alien influence and that you couldn't be held responsible for your actions."
"Oh." That at least had the advantage of being true. "Thanks."
"Yes, well. I did seem to be the only one who knew you weren't yourself." That preening tone was all too familiar, and John leaned back his seat, trying not to grin.
"Apart from Teyla," he said casually.
"Well, yes, but she only figured it out after you grabbed her and wrestled her to the floor. Which I'm sure you'll be hearing about when we get home."
John let himself groan, and finished his drink. That was one thing you could say for Rodney – the man knew how to brew a decent pot of coffee. "I'll just book myself into the infirmary now, shall I?"
"Might be quicker." Rodney took a few long gulps from his cup, then sighed contentedly. They were sitting in the helm and weapons' seats, the cooling jug on the Captain's chair between them. "And I want to get this off at some point, by the way." He held up his wrist, the bracelet catching the light.
"Yeah. Oops." As a side effect of having the database sucked out his mind, John had been unable to work out how to get the device off of Rodney. "But I'm pretty sure I already said I was sorry. Several times."
"Some things just can't be said enough. Especially when I also happened to save our lives as well." The words were right, but there was an edge of gentleness to Rodney's voice, and when John looked over, Rodney was watching him over the rim of his mug, careful and considering.
John gave a huff of laughter, then reached out to pour himself the last of the coffee. He lifted his mug in salute. "I'm sorry, Rodney," he said, with exaggerated emphasis. "And thank you."
"You're welcome." Rodney tilted his own mug, and drank from it. Then he settled back in his seat with a contented murmur. "Not far now."
They watched the stars streak past the window for a while, the coffee cooling and the silence warm and comfortable, heading for home.
Sometimes John thought that when he'd taken on the command of the city, his life had devolved into one endless meeting, interspersed with periods of boredom as he made sure others worked. No wonder Lorne had been so relieved when John been declared fit for duty and allowed back in charge. He hadn't actually seen Lorne for thirty-six hours, and had given orders for him not to be disturbed for forty-eight. The man deserved his rest.
In the gateroom, some Marines were helping the engineers replace the last of the flooring, while Chuck and Zelekna argued over the DHD.
"But if you do that," Chuck said, bending under the console to glare at Zelenka, "every eighteenth symbol is going to switch with the seventeenth."
"So you say, but that is because I have not finished diverting everything yet. It will work, you see?"
"I can see that if you do that, I'm not going to able to press the engage button on account of it not being wired to anything."
Hiding his smile, John turned back to the window, glancing briefly up at Elizabeth's empty office. He'd been immensely grateful to Teyla for taking on the job of clearing it, but now he kind of wished they'd left it for a while. Maybe they needed a memorial after all. He'd talk to Kate about something. He finished turning, catching sight of Teyla in the doorway. She tilted her head in an obvious question and he shrugged, then decided these guys could probably manage without his supervision for a while.
"How you doing?" he asked, getting another shrug in return.
"I am fine, thank you. Most of the bruises have now faded." She took pity when he grimaced, and shook her head, smiling. "I am fine, John. Truly. Although I believe Ronon felt the need to express his disapproval. How are you?"
"All fit, apparently, apart from the bruising." He'd tried explaining to Ronon that it had been Martus, not him who'd been responsible for putting the matching set of bruises on Teyla and nearly getting himself and Rodney killed, but apparently Ronon still had some anger issues he needed to deal with. It had been a good workout for John though. He smiled ruefully. "And Colonel Ellis only yelled at me for ten minutes. I've had longer lectures from McKay. The Air Force isn't what it used to be." He shook his head at the slight reproof in the look she gave him. "I know what you meant. I'm fine. Really."
"It has been hard on all of us."
John snorted. "Yeah. Did you know that Rodney demanded cream from Keller for his wrist?"
Reuturning the smile, Teyla asked, "You were able to remove it?"
"Eventually." It had taken an hour of hunting through the database and a lot of frowning from John, but the thing had come off in the end. "Although the way Rodney tells it, we almost had to amputate his hand."
"I am glad it has done him no permanent damage."
"And now I know where to find it…"
"John." Teyla looked as though she didn't know whether to laugh or scold. She settled for shaking her head. "How long will it be until the Stargate is working again?"
"Couple hours. They got all the power cables back and working again, and it actually gave them a chance to replace all the ones that had been damaged. So really," he said, sticking his hands in his pockets with a satisfied air, "blowing up the gateroom did them a favor."
"I am sure they will thank you later." Teyla glanced past John, then looked back again quickly. He kept his face blank as she asked, "What will your people do about replacing Elizabeth?"
"Apparently they're considering all the options. They're going to let us know once the gatebridge is working and we can get a message through again without having to go through the Apollo."
John shifted, bringing a hand up to rub at the back of his neck. "Actually, Teyla, I was wondering. Could you give me a hand with something?" He felt like a coward for having to ask, but he did it anyway. It was the right thing to do.
At first, John had planned to keep Elizabeth's quarters as they were, for when she came back. But when he walked into the room, the first thing he noticed was the layer of dust on everything. Surfaces that were usually spotless were starting to look grimy, and there was broken glass on the floor from pictures that had fallen during the city's journey to New Lantea. Elizabeth wouldn't have wanted it left like this.
Teyla set her box down by the closet without a word, and started emptying clothes into it. John ambled round the room aimlessly for a while, picking up books and straightening a coffee mug on its coaster. He recognized it as Athosian, probably a gift from someone. Now he looked properly, there were other things he thought he'd seen before, and photographs of moments that he'd almost forgotten had happened. Birthdays from their first year, when flour had been scarce so they'd made do with a birthday muffin. Shots from the few worlds in Pegasus that Elizabeth had been able to visit. Personal photographs of people from the city, smiling for her camera. He smiled back at the pictures, then started to take them off the wall.
He had a neat stack by the time Ronon arrived, carrying more boxes and a roll of bubble wrap that had come from who knew where. He used one of his knives to help John cut lengths of it, each glass frame safely protected before being stowed away. They worked in silence still.
Rodney turned up half an hour late and in a hurry as usual, although he stopped short as he crossed the threshold, still in the middle of his, "Sheppard, I've been looking for you- oh."
"Hi, Rodney. You need something?" John leaned a hand on the table, looking over to Rodney silhouetted in the doorway. After a moment, Rodney shook his head.
"You, er, need a hand?"
Ronon threw an empty cardboard box at him. "Books."
A little surprisingly, Rodney didn't even mutter about ballistic packing materials, just went over and put the box on the bed, starting to gather up books from the nightstand. John went back to his wrapping, and had just settled back into the silence when Rodney made a surprised sound.
"Huh." Seeing the others looking at him, Rodney lifted the book he'd picked up, something about physics although John didn't even understand the title. "I leant this to Elizabeth when she'd finished all the ones she brought with her. She said she needed something to help her sleep."
"Well, I'm sure that worked," John said, and Rodney gave one of his small, genuine smiles.
"Probably." He turned it in his hands for a moment, then put it carefully in the top of the box. They worked in silence until the pile of boxes by the door was three wide and as tall as John.
"Who knew she had so much stuff?" Ronon said, grunting a little when Teyla elbowed him in the ribs.
"We should put it them in one of the storage rooms at the base of the main tower." Rodney glanced at John, who gave him a curious look. "It won't get damp there, and it'll be safe if we have any more mishaps."
John nodded, turning back to the boxes. "We should definitely put them somewhere safe," he said. "Thanks, guys."
He waited until they were all gone, leaving him to turn out the lights. He'd have someone come by for the stuff tomorrow. It would keep until then.
Carefully, he took out a marker pen and wrote on each box "Property of Doctor Elizabeth Weir." As he pushed lid back onto the pen, he was tempted to write the same on the walls, inscribe it onto the city somehow. But then again, maybe he didn't need to.
He waved his hand over the light sensor, leaving the room in darkness, and went to find his team.
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
Christina Rossetti, When I am dead, my dearest